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Have you ever wondered how to become a supervillain? Jim Bernheimer might be a few steps ahead of you: his new novel, “Origins of a D-List Supervillain,” is a unique and hilarious tale of a budding supervillain.

The main character, Cal Stringel, is a talented engineer who gets blacklisted from the high-tech industry when he tries to switch jobs. His boss, who moonlights as Ultraweapon (think Tony Stark, only more arrogant) in his state-of-the-art powersuit, makes sure Cal’s future is ruined. What’s a guy to do? Become a supervillain, of course!

And so begins one of the most entertaining supervillain stories I’ve ever read. The protagonist, who was based on Randall from Clerks, is in it for all the usual reasons: make some money, get some revenge, make a name for himself. He take the reader along on his journey from a small-timer newbie criminal (robbing jewelry stores in his homemade armor), to a supplier for more successful villains, to finally becoming a bona fide villain himself, all the while plotting vengeance against his former boss.

Along the way, he gets in every sort of trouble you can imagine (and some that you can’t), ends up in quite a few brawls with superheroes (which Bernheimer describes in great, amazing detail), makes some villain friends, meets the girl of his dreams and, of course, engages in random acts of villainy.

This book is the prequel to the bestselling “Confessions of a D-List Supervillain,” which starts exactly where “Origins” ends. The two books blend together perfectly – if you’ve never read either of them, I highly recommend starting with “Origins” and moving on to “Confessions,” which has even more superpowered shenanigans and misadventures of everyone’s favorite underdog supervillain.

The book’s diverse cast features many unusual characters with peculiar superpowers (snot that turns into cement, the ability to make monsters out of plants, etc), which is something a lot of books about superheroes/villains seem to lack. As the plot unfolds, we learn more about these secondary characters, the world they live in and even the romantic lives of several superpowered characters.

If you enjoy superhero movies, if you find yourself occasionally rooting for villains, if you think Joker might be a more interesting character than Batman, or if you just want a fun and entertaining book to read during your flight, you’ll probably love the “Origins of a D-List Supervillain” as well as its sequel.

Score: five stars

Amazon link

My new author photo

Behold!

hoarse

The 27th century is a sausagefest.

Every proper mad scientist needs a cow in his lab.

Bad guys suck at shooting.

Good guys never miss.

The dystopian future will have badass leather jackets.

If at first you don’t succeed, drop some acid and repeat.

Bulletproof vests are for chickens – skintight white shirts and cool-looking coats are obviously more functional. (Except when they’re not.)

If you shoot somebody with a tranquilizer gun, they’ll pass out that very instant.

Ditto for bullets.

And blows to the head.

Your whole world’s timeline got reset and the mentally unstable people with superpowers whom you’ve apprehended in the past are still free? Meh.

When needed, bad guys can knock out good guys and switch clothes with them in less than a minute.

Mentally unstable old people with bad memory may not be the best secret-keepers, especially if the secret is key to saving the world.

No matter what happens, there will always be just enough time for a heartfelt 3-minute discussion about feelings.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. (And bald people in black suits.)

Nobody will ever recognize you if you put on a hoodie.

Facial recognition on omnipresent cameras: 60% of the time, it works every time.

You can’t have a resistance movement without a rugged-looking Irishman.

“a moment of silence” – 43,700,000 search results on Google
“a day of silence” – 1,500,000 results
“a minute of silence” – 527,000 results
“a second of silence” – 366,000 results
“a year of silence” – 344,000 results
“a century of silence” – 334,000 results
“a decade of silence” – 234,000 results
“an hour of silence” – 226,000 results
“a month of silence” – 120,000 results
“an era of silence” – 96 results
“a quarter of silence” – 80 results
“a fortnight of silence” – 70 results
“a millennium of silence” – 57 results
“an eon of silence” – 39 results
“an epoch of silence” – 31 results
“a score of silence” – 23 results
“a Planck time unit of silence” – zero results

For all you stalkers, biographers, NSA operatives and/or assorted bored web denizens. In no particular order:

“Blackout” by Breathe Carolina
“Angel Main Theme – the Sanctuary Extended Remix” by Darling Violetta
“Lights” by Ellie Goulding
“Learn to Fly” by Foo Fighters
“Happy Together” by The Fortunes
“Love Me Again” by John Newman
“I Feel Fantastic” by Jonathan Coulton
“Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5
“Liberi Fatali” by Nobuo Uematsu
“Can’t Stop” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Drops of Jupiter” by Train
“Storm” by Vanessa Mae
“Nymphetamine Fix” by Cradle of Filth
“Carol of the Bells (Acapella Mix)” by BarlowGirl

“Reach for infinity” is yet another interesting anthology of hard (or at the very least mildly squishy) science fiction. Edited by Jonathan Strahan, it features mostly optimistic stories of humanity in space. The sub-genres vary from hard science fiction with sleek metal androids to tales for young adults. All of them are beautifully written, guaranteed to appeal to just about any audience and provide a refreshing humanist perspective on the frequently dark and gloomy tropes of science fiction.

Brief (and spoiler-free!) story synopses:
“Break My Fall” by Greg Egan – running a space shuttle from Earth to Mars isn’t the safest job. A tale of a space-faring captain.

“The Dust Queen” by Aliette de Bodard – if you could numb your brain and block certain memories forever, would you? And how much would you be willing to sacrifice to recover those memories later on?

“The Fifth Dragon” by Ian Mcdonald – a tale of two women working on the moon. Love, friendship, money and grandiose plans combine in this bittersweet story.

“Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder – yet another short story featuring Gennady Malianov, a Ukrainian contractor who specializes in cleaning up other people’s messes (even if involves shooting radioactive camels in the Gobi desert). In this story, a seemingly innocuous launch of a giant CO2-filtering tower in Siberia is only a prelude to something much bigger…

“Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” by Pat Cadigan – a highly detailed and fleshed-out human interest story about human settlements on Mars and how they’d develop after decades spent away from Earth. A very light read that ends up covering a subject one doesn’t see a lot in science fiction.

“Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” by Karen Lord – no matter how hard you try, once you leave Earth, sooner or later you’ll get hiraeth (space psychosis). The only viable option is to make yourself less human and more cyborg… A rather sad story about a prototype cyborg and his journey.

“Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages – when you’re about to embark on a centuries-long journey to another planet, how do you say goodbye to Earth or to your best friend? A touching young adult story.

“Trademark Bugs: A Legal History” by Adam Robers – probably the most unusual story in the entire anthology. If you don’t mind the somewhat dry style, you’ll enjoy this tale of pharmaceutical companies who make their money by infecting (and curing! eventually…) people on regular basis. The story itself is a summary of legal cases for and against this development. Dark, clever and entirely plausible in this strange new world of ours.

“Attitude” by Linda Nagata – a young adult-ish story about an immensely popular brand new sport that’s played in zero gravity on a giant orbital platform. The profits are used to expand the platform, but what happens when the organizers of the game that prides itself on ethics and integrity have to choose between profits and fairness? This story would have made a great novella – it feels like the author had to chop off a few parts due to its length.

“Invisible Planets” by Hannu Rajaniemi – inspired by Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities,” this story is about a spaceship talking to a part of its programming about all the strange and different planets they’ve visited.

“Wilder Still, the Stars” by Kathleen Ann Goonan – a tale of replicant-like artifically altered humans who have incredible talents but no rights, no egos, no self-awareness. A 130-year-old woman who dreams of stars makes it her goal to help her new friends.

“The Entire Immense Superstructure: An Installation” by Ken MacLeod – in a futuristic world where one can’t get by without cybernetic lenses, where the rich live in orbital hotels and the poor survive in self-regulating nanotechnological WikiThing compounds, an artist who suffered a nervous meltdown after an expedition to Antarctica decides to go off the grid and make a statement.

“In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds – a beautifully written and increasingly creepy story about a space-faring android tasked with exploring the Solar System.

“Hotshot” by Peter Watts – in a world where the existence of free will has been disproven and Earth is becoming uninhabitable, thousands of kids are conditioned to take part in a (very) long-term space diaspora project.

Score: 5 stars

Pre-order on Amazon (release date: May 27)

Garry Abbott’s “Dimension Scales and Other Stories” is a quirky collection of short sci-fi stories. Perhaps I’m too used to “hard” science fiction with aliens, robots and lasers, or maybe science fiction in the UK is really that much different from its American counterpart, but I found most stories to be an unusual diversion from usual tropes. A lot of them feature regular people in regular situations with some science fiction thrown in for flavor. The only two issues I have with the anthology are the author’s occasional political biases (all rich people are bad; large news organizations are evil) and the fact that some stories don’t work well on their own. Most stories in the collection are tied together and work best if you read them all. (For example, the time traveler’s story is split into two.) That could be a bit confusing if you like to take time with your stories and read them one at a time. Overall, however, this is a creative compilation that deserves a solid 4-star rating.

Brief reviews of the stories:
“The Diary of Derek Froggat, The Accidental Time-Traveller” – a pretty good take on what would happen if a typical person from the 21st century ended up in 1670
“Black Swarm” – in Soviet Russia (and/or England), the ants exterminate you!
“Love in the Shell” – what would it be like to fall in love with a sketchy artificial intelligence?
“Cry Again Army” – what do you give to somebody who already has everything? The future, of course! A story about the mega-rich and their plan to time-travel through cryogenics
“The Drawing Room” – a very short story about a medical check-up gone horribly wrong.
“The Dimension Scales” – a misunderstood mad genius tries to get some attention.
“Alex, Boudicca and Benny the Bear” – probably my favorite story. The scene in the Museum of War, where a hologram of Alexander the Great chats with a cybernetic teddy bear, was pure gold.
“Animals Attack: Parts I to IV” – when all the animals turn on all the humans, a few survivors barricade a stadium and create their own society.
“The Next Level” – more of a thriller than a sci-fi story, about the nature of power and the morality of politicians.
“Newsbot Serial One” – what happens if you overthrow the news media and try to make the news perfectly objective by outsourcing it to robots?
“The Beep Next Door” – have you ever been bothered by incessant beeping coming from your neighbor’s apartment? You may not want to investigate it after reading this story.
“Scalp” – a highly unorthodox approach to growing pineapples in England. (For science!)
“The Day the Stars Moved” – I’m not sure this qualifies as science fiction per se… A story about an ordinary girl with an ordinary life who glimpses something extraordinary.
“The Voice of Strad” – the accidental time traveler time-travels again and pays Antonio Stradivari a visit.

Score: 4 stars

Buy it on Amazon

The contents of ARV-3 by Cameo Renae are as dull and unimaginative as its title. It’s a strange mix of the Young Adult and science fiction genres – a clone of Twilight novels that borrowed much of its plot from Fallout video games and whose protagonist is a cheap knock-off of Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games.

The plot is fairly simple: a giant solar flare destroys the planet’s electric grid and causes every nuclear power plant to overheat and blow up. The government doesn’t have enough time to produce a stable anti-radiation vaccine and gives several million people the untested version, which turns them into bloodthirsty cannibals (a la “28 Days Later”) obsessed with revenge. They roam the dead planet’s surface, waiting for their chance to kill the few survivors that hid in underground vaults – or hives, as the author calls them.

The plot, with all its radiation and monsters and underground vaults, appears to have been “borrowed” from old Fallout games, though there’s still the outside chance the author might have come up with it herself. The protagonist is Abigail “Abi” Parks, a 17-year-old girl whose obsession with a 19-year-old boy from her hive is surpassed only by her phenomenal sharpshooting skills. The book follows the misadventures of her hive’s 15 members as they get back to the surface after 13 years and try to get to another, bigger hive.

I had to force myself to finish this book and despite all my efforts, I didn’t find a single creative thought or a witty line of dialogue – not even a memorable quote. The Young Adult angle is hard to believe. (Abi and her boyfriend are in their late teens and never even thought of kissing.) The science aspect (the novel claims to be science fiction, after all) is laughable: the deadly radiation that killed everything on the planet apparently goes away after just 13 years. (Great news, y’all! Chernobyl should be safe to live in again!)

The book is plagued with an overabundance of typos, spelling errors, terrible punctuation, etc. The characters are dull, one-dimensional and even speak the same way.

The plot itself is riddled with holes and features some mighty inconsistent writing: even though all the plants and animals in the world died, three buff cowboys appear out of nowhere at some point in the middle of the book. (They must have been living off photosynthesis!) At one point, an army captain starts taking orders from a sergeant. Later on, we find out that the government has been training survivors and fighting irradiated mutants for 13 years, even though they discovered the mutants’ existence only 3 weeks ago. (Let’s do the time warp again!) At one point, 15 survivors pack up a month’s worth of food and water (about 450 gallons of water 1,350 meals?) and manage to fit it on a cart that they lug behind them. The protagonist’s father is a former NASA scientist and an expert on living off the grid, but he somehow forgets that there’s a large city only miles away from his bunker. (“Gee, where did that come from? Guess we’ll have to go through it now.” – I’m paraphrasing, but the gist is the same.)

Oddly enough, ARV-3 has 75 reviews on Amazon, and almost all of them give the book 4 or 5 stars. I suppose that just goes to show you that if you have enough fans, you can get away with writing just about anything.

Score: 1 star

Buy it on Amazon (if you dare)

(This is a spoiler-free review of an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)

Joe Abercrombie’s “Half a King” is a mutant love child of Hamlet and Oliver Twist. It’s what you’d get if Joss Whedon decided to write a fantasy novel. It’s delicious.

The protagonist, Yarvi, is the ugly duckling of his royal family: born with a deformed hand, his only path in life is to become a minister and advise his older brother, who is obviously going to become the king. At least that was the plan, until both Yarvi’s brother and his father were killed in battle. What happens when a painfully shy teenager with serious self-esteem issues and no leadership skills becomes a king? Nothing good, that’s what.

Yarvi’s misadventures make for a highly addictive rollercoaster narrative as he goes from one worst-case scenario to another, getting an occasional bit of good luck that never lasts long enough. Abercrombie skillfully shows the protagonist’s growth and development as he’s forced to make hard choices and determine who his true friends are, and what he would (or wouldn’t) do for them. The story goes to some mighty dark places, but always stops just short of hopeless despair, keeping the reader engaged, enthralled and entertained.

By far my favorite thing about the book was an overabundance of medieval-style aphorisms. (Think Benjamin Franklin in the 1100s.) Inconspicuously scattered throughout the book, they help make the barbaric “might is right” atmosphere that much more believable. There are several interesting plot twists that can easily be missed and that provide “a-ha!” moments toward the end. The most attentive readers might be able to notice a couple of clues and put together a very unusual science fiction Easter egg that has no bearing on the plot but makes me wish for a sequel that would shed some light on the mystery.

The only gripe I have with “Half a King” is its use of the Rambo trope: warriors that spent several years in chains turn into mean, lean killing machines the moment they break free. Then again, I suppose it was either that or several dozen pages of medieval swordplay montage and physical therapy (also featuring swordplay because, you know, fantasy and stuff). Aside from that minor blight, “Half a King” was probably one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Score: 5 stars

Release date: July 15, 2014

Amazon pre-order link

Book review: X-Men Noir

“X-Men Noir” is a comic book (or a graphic novel, as all the cool kids call them these days) with an intriguing concept: what if everyone’s favorite X-Men lived in the gritty noir world of the 1920s? And what if they didn’t have superpowers?

The book’s creators (writer Fred Van Lente and artist Dennis Calero) made a good effort at exploring the concept, but the end result isn’t as user-friendly as it might have been. The art in the book is digital and not hand-drawn (think “Ex Machina” comics) and, while that’s not a big issue in and of itself, it’s difficult to tell apart the book’s many characters who talk, dress and look very much alike. The overabundance of dark colors in the book doesn’t help differentiate the characters and makes for some very confusing action scenes on several occasions.

As for the writing… Van Lente put together an interesting world where goodie-two-shoes X-Men are sociopaths, not mutants. Professor Xavier is a rogue psychiatrist who thought sociopaths were the next stage of human evolution. Thus, instead of the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters we have the Xavier’s School for Exceptionally Wayward Youth, where he helped his feral teenagers become better criminals. A lot of characters from the X-Men universe are featured in the book as main characters as well as cameos, but mostly under their regular, non-superhero names, which might confuse some casual comics readers. 

Personally, I know more about X-Men than most people, and even I had to turn to the almighty Google to look up just who the main character was supposed to be. (For some bizarre reason, he’s not even from the X-Men but from a comic book released some 30 years before the franchise was even created.) The book’s narrative seems too rushed and compressed – it may have worked better if it were stretched across 6-8 issues, instead of just 4. As it is, the ending, which combines just about every noir element out there, will probably leave you confused…

However, there are some good parts as well. X-Men are occasionally made fun of: Iceman insists on being called by his moniker and makes puns about “icing” his victims with an icepick; Professor X’s file on Beast notes that he likes to use big words he doesn’t always understand. There’s this gem of a quote: “They stole everything that wasn’t nailed down! And the they took the nails out of the rest of it and stole it, too!” After each of the book’s 4 chapters, there’s an installment of a short pulp story written by none other than Bolivar Trask, in which he talks about Sentinels and sewers-dwelling mutants. That makes for some interesting reading, especially if you like meta narratives.

Overall, the book left me confused and a little disappointed. Although it’s clear that a lot of people put a lot of work into it, no book should ever leave its readers scratching their heads and going online to figure out what on earth actually happened in the final scene.

Score: 2 out of 5 stars

Buy it on Amazon

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