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The Last Curtain Call: Fortunately, not the last book

The Last Curtain Call by Juliet Blackwell

It hardly seems necessary to continue to review Juliet Blackwell’s HAUNTED HOME RENOVATION MYSTERIES because fans are going to read them no matter what I say but, since the audiobook publisher keeps providing me with review copies, I’ll keep doing it. I love Tantor Media’s audio editions of Blackwell’s two cozy paranormal mystery series (this one and WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES) because they’re narrated by the fabulous Xe Sands. They are a pleasure to listen to and I recommend them to fans (or future fans) of Blackwell’s books.

The Last Curtain Call (2020) is the eighth novel. Each is a stand-alone mystery, so you could start here, but you’d miss the progression of Mel’s relationships, so it’s best to start at the beginning w... Read More

Under the Moon: An early look at the future Catwoman

Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle & Isaac Goodhart

I’ve been going through these YA graphic novels for a while now, each one in the series focusing on a famous DC heroine (Harley Quinn, Raven, Princess Mera, Selina Kyle) and exploring what her adolescence might have been like. They’re not canon-compliant with any other comic books, television shows or films, but usually have the aesthetic you might expect from the character’s history.

In this case, you can expect Selina Kyle to be involved with cats, living on the streets, and a heist.

Catwoman has always been one of my favourite characters, so I was interested to see how her story would play out here in Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale. It’s about what you’d expect from a future cat-burglar: she doesn’t get on with her mother’s abusive boyfriend, and when he ends up killing her pet kitten (trigger warning f... Read More

Shadow and Bone: Old tropes, new story

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

YA can be more fickle than its literary cousins. It’s notorious for trends. There were wizards, vampires, and what feels like a decade’s worth of dystopias. The result is a glut of books with sassy female protagonists who discover they have a unique power, are fighting to save the world, and struggling to decide which hunky love interest to pick from in their love triangle. Shadow and Bone doesn’t do anything groundbreaking in terms of avoiding these tropes, but what it does do is tell them in a fresh and innovative way.

Alina Starkov was raised in an orphanage alongside her best friend (and future love, obviously), called Mal. They live in Ravka, a fantasy Russia of samovars and Grisha — powerful magical soldiers that work directly for the king. If you don’t have magic, you’re bumped down to th... Read More

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water: A warmhearted wuxia fantasy

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water (2020) is a surprisingly warmhearted fantasy novella set in a war-torn Asian country. It's a queer take on wuxia, a time-honored genre of Chinese fiction based on heroes skilled in the martial arts, frequently in superhuman, fantastical ways (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or even Kung Fu Panda).

One day, in a small coffeehouse, a customer angrily accuses his waitress of using jampi witchcraft on him. The quarrel degenerates, a handsome bandit intervenes,... Read More

Witchy Eye: A creative alternate history

Witchy Eye by D.J. Butler

D.J. Butler’s Witchy Eye (2017), the first book in his WITCHY EYE series, is an alternate history set in a 19th century United States that’s almost unrecognizable.

In Appalachia, a scrawny teenager named Sarah Calhoun is being raised by her grandfather. Her most notable features are her razor-sharp wit, her willingness to stand up for herself and others, and her eye which is swollen shut and looks gross. Sarah’s life is turned upside down when a priest and his minions attempt to kidnap her. She’s saved by a travelling monk who tells Sarah the secret of who she really is. To avoid the bad guys who are trying to capture her, she sets off with the monk and Calvin, her devoted cousin, to claim her destiny.

Butler’s alternate world is creative. Americans a... Read More

Prisoner of Midnight: Vampire mystery at sea

Prisoner of Midnight by Barbara Hambly

Prisoner of Midnight (2019) is the eighth novel in Barbara Hambly’s JAMES ASHER series, which began in 1988 with Those Who Hunt the Night. It has been nominated for the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. I had never tried this series before, but having enjoyed her (non-paranormal) BENJAMIN JANUARY mystery series, I decided to give Prisoner of Midnight a shot.

(And now that I’ve read it, I can say that there are some common themes. Both series feature a fiercely intelligent male/female pair solving crimes, and explore prejudice as both a cause of violence and an impediment to the investigation.)

Hambly weaves enough backstory into the narrative that a new reader can catch up, and it’s smoothly integrated, so longtime fans of the series won’t ha... Read More

Jade War: An Asian-inspired mob drama

Jade War by Fonda LeeJade War (2019) is the second book in Fonda Lee’s GREEN BONE SAGA series and a finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. It follows Jade City, which won the World Fantasy Award, and which you’ll need to read first (this review will contain some mild spoilers for that novel). Jade War picks up a year after the dramatic events of Jade City. Hilo and Shae are trying to keep the Kaul clan’s empire together on the island of Kekon but ther... Read More

Fleet of Knives: Tense and exciting

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell

Fleet of Knives (2019) is the second book in Gareth L. Powell’s EMBERS OF WAR series and a finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Its predecessor, Embers of War, was also a Locus finalist and won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel of 2018. When I reviewed it last year, I reported that Embers of War was “pleasant but forgettable” and, sure enough, I had to refer to my notes to recall the plot. (I keep notes about the plot on all the series books I read). There will be some spoilers for that first book in this review.

We’ve got some new characters in Fleet of Knives Read More

Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop (Rebirth): A fun range of stories to finish up the series

Batgirl Vol. 4: Strange Loop (Rebirth) by Hope Larson & Scott Godlweski

This is the fourth volume in Hope Larson's Batgirl run, one which has focused not only on crime-fighting, but also community spirit — what I've liked most about Larson's stories is that Barbara Gordon gives just as much to the suburb of Burnside as her civilian self than she does as a vigilante. In this, she's assisted by a group of friends who also contribute to society in meaningful ways, as well as enriching Barbara's day-to-day life. I didn't realize that members of the Batfamily could be this emotionally stable!

Strange Loop isn't my favourite collection, simply because it's made up of seven shorter stories, which inevitably don't have the same level of depth and detail that longer plots can manage. Still, there's some fun... Read More

Tomorrow, the Killing: Another mystery set in Low Town

Tomorrow, the Killing by Daniel Polansky

Tomorrow, the Killing (2012) is the second book in Daniel Polansky’s LOW TOWN series, a noir-flavored fantasy set in the grimy underbelly of a fictional city. Tomorrow, the Killing takes place three years after the events of Low Town (UK: The Straight Razor Cure). You don’t necessarily need to read Low Town first because the stories stand alone, but it will be most enjoyable if you do.

In Low Town, we met a man whose friends and acquaintances call him Warden. Warden is a former soldier and police officer who’s now a crime boss. He sells (and uses) drugs, but... Read More

The Girl and the Stars: The underground icy setting is the best part

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence

The Girl and the Stars (2020) is the first book in Mark Lawrence’s BOOK OF THE ICE series. It’s about a society that lives in an extremely harsh icy climate. They have a spiritual leader called “the regulator” who looks for children who are “broken” — children who are too weak or who have character traits that will not benefit the survival of their tribes when they become adults. Every few years, to cull the herd, the regulator identifies these kids and has them thrown into a hole in the ice where, presumably, they die.

When Yaz’s brother is assessed by the regulator, he is found lacking and pushed into the hole. Distraught, Yaz jumps in after him. She is surprised when she doesn’t fall to her death. Instead, she’s saved by a group of oth... Read More

Batgirl Vol. 2: Son of Penguin (Rebirth): Batgirl versus the Penguin’s son

Batgirl Vol. 2: Son of Penguin (Rebirth) by Hope Larson & Christian Wildgoose

At the end of Volume One of Hope Larson's take on Batgirl, a new face had arrived in Burnside, Gotham, who answered to the name "Cobblepot" at the airport.

Turns out he's Ethan Cobblepot, son of the Penguin, though has never had any kind of close relationship with his father. He's handsome and clever, and wants to improve the world through technology, launching a variety of apps to ensure public safety. Barbara is charmed, and agrees to go on a date with him — though given the spate of tech-related crime happening in the area, she does have an ulterior motive in spending time with him.

The interesting thing about this series is that it doesn't just deal with big, bombastic, supervillain crimes, but issues such as homelessness, gentrification... Read More

Batgirl Vol. 1: Beyond Burnside (Rebirth): Batgirl visits Japan

Batgirl Vol. 1: Beyond Burnside (Rebirth) by Hope Larson & Rafael Albuquerque

Now is the right time to admit that I don't read many DC comics — or many comics, period. I jumped straight into this series without any context of Barbara Gordon's life or background, beyond the general basics of the character. (For instance, I know she's the daughter of Commissioner Gordon and spent some time in a wheelchair, but I have no idea how she regained the use of her legs, or who Frankie is).

So how does this story hold up for someone with just a tenuous understanding of Batgirl? Pretty good.

Barbara is on holiday in Japan, catching up with her old friend Kai, enjoying the sights, and hoping to interview Chiyo Yamashiro, a one hundred and four year old superhero known as Fruit Bat.

But of course, events transpire that disrupt her holiday groove. Criminals adept in a range of martial arts are in pursuit of so... Read More

Deeplight: A new take on the Cthulhu mythos

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

They say that the Undersea was the dwelling place of the gods. They say many things of the Myriad, and all of them are true. The gods were as real as the coastlines and currents and as merciless as the winds and whirlpools.

No one knows who or what the gods were, the giant creatures who lived in the sea and then, mysteriously, all died. But everyone knows that a piece of a dead god can make your fortune. Hark is still a child himself, all of 14 years old, but he knows it, too. That’s why he’s in the crowd when a submarine brings back parts of the Hidden Lady, the god that used to live in the waters around the archipelago on which he lives. His friend, Jelt, knows it too, and he has plans that call for Hark to do some hazardous things to make them both rich. Hark pays the price for Jelt’s foolishness, sold into indentured servitude.

Hark is lucky that he has a golden tongu... Read More

Sweep with Me: Battling space chickens and other troublesome guests at the inn

Sweep with Me by Ilona Andrews

Sweep with Me (2020), the fifth book in Ilona Andrews’s INNKEEPER CHRONICLES series, finds Dina DeMille fretting with her boyfriend Sean about an upcoming official review of Dina and the Gertrude Hunt, her magical inn for interstellar travelers. The innkeepers’ Assembly is concerned about some of the goings-on at the Gertrude Hunt and whether Dina and Sean have been keeping their rules, including not letting anyone on Earth know that their inn isn’t an ordinary one.

In the meantime, though, it’s the annual Treaty Stay holiday for earth’s galactic inns, and the tradition is that no innkeeper may turn away a guest during Treaty Stay. So, naturally, Dina and her inn are asked to host a set of particularly troublesome guests: the Drífan liege lord of Green Mou... Read More

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 3: The Shu-Torun War: Vader has a go at political intrigue

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 3: The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillen & Salvador Larroca

The fourth volume in Kieron Gillen’s DARTH VADER series focuses more on political strategy and warfare than the earlier volumes (which were more to do with espionage). In the wake of the first Death Star’s destruction, the Empire is desperate to regain a foothold on the galaxy and reverse the morale acquired by the Rebellion through the loss of their great weapon.

Vader is sent to the planet of Shu-Torun, a place rich in natural resources that help fuel the Empire, where Ore Barons are fighting against their new ruler. Queen Trios was crowned by Vader himself after he assassinated her father, and in what feels like a deliberate reflection of Padme Amidala, she’s beginning to flex the boundaries of her power. To keep Shu-Torun under the control of the Emperor, Vader goes to support her rule.

... Read More

The Court of Miracles: A quick-paced series-opener with a few issues

The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant

There’s a scene in Kester Grant’s The Court of Miracles (2020) where an entire room of nobles is hypnotized by the head of the assassin’s guild into doing something horrific, but which they are wholly oblivious to. It’s an apt scene to note, because while this first book in the COURT OF MIRACLES trilogy is far from horrific (really, far from it), Grant is such a fluid writer that she lulls you into a sort of readerly trance, a smoothly flowing journey that carries you effortlessly along, leaving you if not oblivious at least uncaring with regard to the story’s several flaws. As such, it’s one of those occasional odd novels where I’m going to say there are lots of places it isn’t very good, but you still may find yourself enjoying it anyway.

The blurbs label it a retelling (of sorts) of Les Misérables,... Read More

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe: A wacky MG SF story

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Readers who enjoyed Carlos Hernandez’s Nebula-nominated Sal and Gabi Break the Universe are likely to also enjoy the sequel, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe (2020). The story picks up where the previous one left off. Sal’s “magical” abilities have left holes in the universe and his father (Papi) is building a machine (in the living room) that he hopes will fix the holes. But Sal notices that the machine makes him feel sad when he’s around it… and it might be developing consciousness.

Other weird things are happening, too. Sal meets a Gabby from another universe who has come to warn him about Papi’s machine. The new toilet at school wants ... Read More

Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows: A look at Vader through unexpected eyes

Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows by Tim Siedell, Gabriel Guzman, Michael Atiyeh, Felipe Massafera

From the same author that released Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin, Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows is a graphic novel set a few months after The Revenge of the Sith, in which the Empire is consolidating its power across the galaxy.

Despite Vader’s name being in the title, it’s really the story of a clone soldier who is left for dead by his Jedi general during the Clone Wars.

Defecting from the army he hides away for years on a backwater planet, only to become intrigued by rumours of the terrifying Darth Vader. He signs up to become a Stormtrooper, and once again finds meaning on the battlefield – though it isn’t the same as when he fought under Jedi lead... Read More

Nevertell: Occasionally rises above its mostly solid nature

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

Nevertell (2020), by Katharine Orton, is an engaging if somewhat limited Middle Grade book set in the wild north of Stalinist Russia and focused on a young girl trying to escape a brutal work camp and make her way south to Moscow and the grandmother she’s been told would be able to take her in.

Twelve-year-old Lina was born in the camp (her father is rumored to be the cruel commandant Zima) that her grandfather, mother, and uncle had been brought to years earlier. Only she and her mother Katya have survived, and when a trio of prisoners come up with a desperate escape plan, Katya provides the distraction that allows them, along with Lina’s best friend Bogdan, to get beyond the fence and into the frozen Siberian woodland. The weather is deadly enough, but the forest is also home to a powerful sorceress known as the “Manhunter.” And Lina and Bogdan’s fellow prisoners may not b... Read More

Bloom: A scary plant pandemic that now seems possible

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel

Three kids battle an invasive plant in Kenneth Oppel’s latest middle grade fantasy. Bloom (2020) is mysterious and thrilling all the way through. Our heroes are:

Anaya, who’s allergic to almost everything.

Petra, who’s allergic to water. She used to be Anaya’s best friend until Anaya betrayed her.

Seth, the new kid in town who’s being fostered by farmers.

When black weeds appear suddenly and grow tall overnight, nobody knows what they are, even Anaya’s botanist father. The townsfolk pull out and chop down the weeds but they just come back the next day. Nothing kills them.

It’s soon discovered that these weeds are growing all over the planet and causing severe allergic reactions. People are wearing face masks to protect... Read More

Baba Yaga’s Assistant: A compelling tale by a gifted collaboration

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Baba Yaga's Assistant by Marika McCoola (author) & Emily Carroll (illustrator)

Baba Yaga's Assistant, by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carroll, is a MG graphic novel that tries to work the frightening richness of the Baba Yaga folktales into the press of modern family life, but despite the great source material, the attempt falls short, though it has its moments.

The protagonist is Masha, a young girl whose father has just proposed to a woman sometime after her mother's death. Her father had relegated most of Masha’s upbringing to her grandmo... Read More

Semiosis: Oh, give me a home where the fippokats roam…

Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis, Sue Burke’s 2018 debut novel, is a fascinating examination of culture, intelligence, and co-operation in the face of extreme hardship. A small group of high-minded and free-thinking colonists have left Earth for a planet they’ve named Pax, in honor of their Utopic dream of what the planet represents, though they quickly discover that peace is not easily achieved — especially when they discover that you can never go home again, but neither can you completely leave it behind.

Pax has breathable air and potable water, a higher gravity than Earth, and a terrifying menagerie of plants and animals offering constant reminders that expectations about how things will work can be deadly. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the new residents of Pax, something they butt their heads against time and time again, is their assumed sense of superior sapient intelligence; just beca... Read More

The Way Past Winter: A simple but evocative fairy tale

The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The first thing about this book that caught my eye was just how beautiful it was: the green binding, the interior pattern, the embossed cover-art — I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it really is a lovely object to behold.

The story itself rides the current popular wave of Scandinavian-based fairy tales, and reads a little like Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”. Winter has lasted for five years in Eldbjørn Forest, and siblings Oskar, Sanna, Mila and Pipa are barely hanging on. After their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, the four of them live all alone in the woods, seeing nothing in their futures but more of the bitter cold.

But after a strange encounter in the forest with a huge, bear-like man and his silent entourage, Mila wakes up to find her brother has disappeared. She insists he wouldn’t abandon ... Read More

The Illustrated World of MORTAL ENGINES: A great companion piece

The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

The film adaptation of Mortal Engines may have been a disappointment, but at least its release led to more material from Philip Reeve — not only this book, but a series of short stories starring Anna Fang, and new reprints of the original MORTAL ENGINES quartet. So it all works out well!

The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines (2018) is a standard tie-in volume that comes with many a book franchise, in which the world of Mortal Engines is explored in more detail, complete with maps, time-lines, illustrations, profiles of characters, and other little tidbits that adds depth and flavour to the world-building.

Here the presen... Read More