3.5

Click on stars to FIND REVIEWS BY RATING:
Recommended:
Not Recommended:

Sleep Donation: A strange and thought-provoking tale

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

In the near future, an insomnia epidemic has struck the United States. It’s caused by a dysfunction in orexin and those who acquire it can’t sleep. Eventually, they die. But there is a therapy that can help prolong life and, in some cases, even cure people. Donors can contribute sleep to those afflicted with the disorder. Babies make the best donors because their sleep isn’t contaminated by nightmares.

Trish is the top recruiter for a charity organization that finds sleep donors. Her sister died from the disorder and, when she tearfully tells the story to potential donors, she can get many of them to sign up. When she discovers a baby who turns out to be a rare universal sleep donor, Trish works with the baby’s parents to keep them on... Read More

The Guinevere Deception: King Arthur’s a hot teen. Must be Tuesday.

The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

At this point, I think the teen heartthrob version of King Arthur might be displacing the venerable monarch version. Between that BBC Merlin series, Avalon High, and the seemingly never-ending Mordred in Leather Pants novels that just keep coming and coming like my own personal karmic retribution, people just seem to have a lot of interest in Young Arthur lately. It's probably a symptom of our youth-obsessed culture or something. I tell you, back in the good old days, young Arthur got shamed — shamed! — for his beardless face. Granted, in this case "the good old days" means Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so perhaps a bit of change is to be expected by now.

Grumpy Arthurian fanboy that I am, I sigh over the trend but also can't stop myself from reading anything Arthur-related that comes under my nose. Which brings us to Read More

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It: Entertaining sequel

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K.J. Parker

I wasn’t expecting a sequel to K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, but was delighted to see one because Parker is on my (very short) must-read list. While How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It (2020) is marketed as book #2 of his THE SIEGE series, it takes place several years later and has a different set of characters, so it’s not a requirement that you read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first. I’d recommend that you do read these books in order, though, because the background is a bit helpful and, in my opinion, the first book is better.

Despite the actions of Orha... Read More

The Wizards of Once: A rock-solid premise

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell

What caught my attention with The Wizards of Once (2017) was the opening paragraph, which describes the forests of ancient Britain thusly:

These were forests darker than you would believe possible, darker than inkspots, darker than midnight, darker than space itself, and as twisted and as tangled as a Witch’s heart.

Who wouldn’t want to read a story set in such a place? The hook continues with an introduction to the two main characters: a boy from a wizard tribe with no magic, and a girl from a warrior tribe with a banned magical object. The boy Xar is desperate for magic, and the girl Wish is just as determined to keep hers a secret.

Naturally their paths will cross, and it should come as no surprise to learn that because their respective tribes have been at war for so long, they don’t exactly get off on the righ... Read More

And Go Like This: For readers and writers

And Go Like This by John Crowley

I don’t usually pay attention to the media blurbs on the covers of books, but the Newsday quote on the cover of John Crowley’s And Go Like This (2019) so perfectly describes this story collection that I must share it:

“Transforms the lead of daily life into seriously dazzling artistic gold.”

“The lead of daily life” in these stories comes from mostly average people going about their mostly average lives. In this collection you won’t find many of the plot fixtures we’re used to seeing in speculative fiction. There are no spaceships, battles, dragons, kings, or magic spells. There are a few speculative elements, but what makes Crowley’s fiction most compelling is the way he closely examines the souls of normal folk, portrays them in such a charming wa... Read More

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy: Diez perfecto on the fun scale

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy directed by Rafael Portillo

It was at NYC’s legendary Thalia Theater on W. 95th St. in Manhattan where I first saw the Mexican wonder known as The Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (1964), paired with the Ed Wood-scripted The Bride and the Beast (1958) to make for one truly mind-boggling double feature. Ah, what a great theater that was! OK, time for Tales From My Misspent Youth, chapter 135: The Thalia, back when (I’m talking about the late ‘70s/very early ‘80s here), was a wonderful place to see a double feature of this sort, its rear section (a “balcony” reached by climbing one or two steps, if memory serves) permitting smoking…of all manner of dry goods. As for the first film on the bill, my main recollection of that showing was the stoned-out audience laughing uproariously every time one of the characters therein mentioned the word “codex,” an object that served as the Hitchcockian MacGuffi... Read More

The Beast Within: Born on the bayou

The Beast Within directed by Philippe Mora

In the February 1974 TV movie A Case of Rape, Ronny Cox portrayed a man whose wife, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, is raped and beaten not once, but twice by the same man. The film was an enormous success, and indeed remains the most-watched TV film in NBC history. But few could have foreseen that almost precisely eight years later, Cox would again play the part of a husband whose wife undergoes a violent rape, but this time with far more dire results. The film in question is The Beast Within, which was initially released in February 1982. This film, far from being a hit, was something of a flop at the box office, pulling in a mere $8 million, and has gone on to be critically reviled ever since. Thus, it was with a sense of what I like to call “cinematic masochism” that I sat down to watch this film just the other night for the first time. And after all the bad word of mouth, including the esteeme... Read More

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?: Psycho biddy, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? directed by Curtis Harrington

Ever since the Brothers Grimm recorded the fairy tale forever known afterward as “Hansel and Gretel,” way back in 1812, its story has been well known to successive generations. We have heard the story since childhood: how the two poor children are lured into the witch’s gingerbread house and trapped therein, only to be fed all kinds of goodies by the evil witch to fatten them up, and of how the two kids ultimately turn the tables on the evil crone, stealing her treasure and burning her alive in her own oven. Flash forward around 160 years, and the world was given what is in essence a modern-day retelling of this classic tale, in the British film Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? A horror story that manages to keep a fairly light tone throughout, never really rising to the level of shocks that one might hope for and expect, the film yet manages to please, largely by dint of its talented players and a co... Read More

Demons and Demons 2: Show me Demoni!

Demons and Demons 2 directed by Lamberto Bava

Originally released in October 1985 under the Italian title Demoni, Lamberto Bava’s fifth film enjoyed a marginal success in the director’s native Italy, and the following year was released in the U.S. under the title Demons. The film was popular enough to spawn a sequel, 1986’s Demoni 2, which was very much in keeping with its predecessor; a perfect follow-up, really. Here are some brief thoughts on both of these cult items, for your one-stop Demons shopping … just in case you are thinking to yourself now “Show me Demoni!”

DEMONS

Old-fashioned horror fans who still esteem such cinematic virtues as characterization, logic and explanations may come away from director Lamberto (son of Mario) Bava's first film, Demons (1985), a trifle disappointed, as this film contains ... well, none of those attributes. This loud, ... Read More

The It’s Alive Trilogy: Mama’s little bundle of Hell

It’s Alive Trilogy directed by Larry Cohen

The birth of a child is usually the high point of any parent’s life; one of the most blessed moments that he or she could ever imagine. The blessed newborn is a little adorable bundle from heaven, one that is showered with instant and eternal love by the doting mother and father. But what if that newborn is not all that one could have hoped for … is, in fact, a killer mutant monstrosity, with a very nasty and homicidal temper, to boot? That was the premise of Larry Cohen’s ingenious 1974 offering It’s Alive!, a film that turned out to be so popular that it resulted in no fewer than two sequels. Here, for your one-stop, monster-baby shopping needs, are some brief thoughts on each of the films in this three-part affair. And no, you will NOT be needing formula or talcum powder as we proceed…

IT’S ALIVE!

Lots of parents call their children “little monsters,” but few o... Read More

Bug: Not a job for Terminix

Bug directed by William Friedkin

As I sat down to watch a movie in my living room last night, my hometown of NYC — not to mention the rest of America and around 180 countries around the globe — was in the middle of the Great COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020. As of yesterday evening, there were around 67,000 cases in my city, over 1 million worldwide, and almost 60,000 deaths internationally. The peak has not yet been reached here, and fear and uncertainty reign, with no end to the scourge in sight. And, of course, the inevitable paranoia and conspiracy theories are beginning to emerge, with all kinds of crackpots coming out and declaring the virus to be some kind of foreign plot, and with NIAID head Dr. Anthony Fauci even requiring a security detail to guard against various wackadoodle threats. This, then, was the backdrop in which I sat down to watch some escapist entertainment last night. And what a film I chose for my evening’s leisure: Bug, in which ... Read More

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London: Selling books and fighting magical evils

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

1983-era London, with a half-twist toward the fantastic, mingles with ancient British mythology in Garth Nix’s new urban fantasy, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (2020). Art student Susan Arkshaw, a punkish eighteen-year-old from rural western England, takes leave of her loving, vague mother and heads to London to try to find the father she’s never met. She starts with an old family acquaintance, “Uncle” Frank Thringley, but Frank turn out to be, in rapid succession, (a) a crime boss, (b) disincorporated by the prick of a magical hatpin, and (c) a Sipper — which is a milder type of blood-sucker than a vampire.

The wielder of the silver hatpin is attractive nineteen-year-old Merlin St. Jaques, who sweeps Susan out of Frank’s house, just ahead of a hor... Read More

Anaconda: Hard to swallow

Anaconda directed by Luis Llosa

The unvarnished facts regarding the anaconda, the world’s largest and heaviest snake, are disconcerting enough … particularly the one species of the four known as the giant, or green, anaconda, aka Eunectes murinus. These monsters can grow to a length of nearly 30 feet and weigh in excess of over a quarter of a ton. They live for around 10 - 12 years in the wild, mainly in the watery regions near the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers in South America, and subsist on a diet of fish, turtles, pigs, jaguars, deer and other wildlife … up to 40 lbs. of small wildlife a day, one solid meal satisfying them for weeks. Of course, for most people, the most salient and scarifying feature concerning these beasts is their ability to constrict the life out of their victims, after which they consume their dainties whole. Truly, a creature to be feared and avoided, despite their nonpoisonous nature. And, to be sure, an animal that would ma... Read More

The Amityville Horror: An ubercreepy mixed bag

It's Shocktober! As is our custom, Sandy will be providing a horror review every weekday morning.

The Amityville Horror directed by Stuart Rosenberg

I pass through it every time I take the Long Island Railroad to visit friends in Lindenhurst … the town of Amityville, which lies between the stops for Massapequa Park and Copiague, 66 minutes from Manhattan’s Penn Station. It is a charming little suburban town of some 10,000 people, with beautiful private homes and much greenery. But ever since 1974, the word “Amityville” has also been synonymous with one thing: horror. In November of that year, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo took a rifle and murdered six members of his family. Thirteen months later, the house in which this tragedy occurred was finally resold to George and Kathy Lutz, who moved in with their three kids, fully aware of what had transpired there previously. ... Read More

The Starless Sea: Visually spectacular

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Given the success of her debut, it would be impossible to write about Erin Morgenstern's eagerly awaited follow-up without alluding to The Night Circus (2011). The bestseller accrued a mass following of 'Rêveurs' – the self-styled fanbase, named after the followers of the circus in the book. It inspired a formidable amount of tattoos and artwork on Pinterest, as well as being translated into thirty-seven languages, no less. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but can Morgenstern live up to her own success?

The Starless Sea (2019) follows the tale of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a... Read More

Space Station Down: Would make a great movie

Space Station Down by Ben Bova & Doug Beason

Kimberly Hasid-Robinson, a physicist, is overseeing her projects on the International Space Station as a Kazakhstani astronaut and a wealthy Russian tourist arrive. As they are boarding, she can’t leave her experiment, which is why she doesn’t get murdered by the Kazakhstani astronaut, who turns out to be a terrorist. Now Kimberly will spend the rest of her time on the ISS trying to neutralize the terrorist and prevent him from crashing the ISS into Manhattan while spilling plutonium across the country on its way down.

Time is short because Americans are panicking and the President of the United States knows that the best way to stop the rioting and looting is to shoot down the space station, especially since nobody knows if Kimberly is dead or alive. The Chinese government, which has its own motivations, is threatening to shoot down the ISS, too.

Fortunately, Kim... Read More

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars: Read it for the art

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars by Alex Alice

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars
 (2020) is the fourth book in the graphic novel series by Alex Alice that follows a steampunk journey first to the moon and then to Mars. Like the others, it’s a bit of a mixed bag in its art-text balance. I’ll let you read the reviews of the first two here and here rather than recapitulate the plot, focusing here instead on the artwork and the words. The few plot points that are vitally important is that one character is searching for his lost father, another for her lost king, all while an imperialistic Prussia is readying for war not just against nations on Earth but perhaps against other worlds as well. Read More

The Hereafter Bytes: A funny book, a fun read

The Hereafter Bytes by Vincent Scott

I believe that humorous science fiction is hard to write. I’m not talking about humorous banter or moments within a book — many writers excel at that — but books that are conceived as comical stories from the start. Humor requires the balance of many elements and crucial timing. Even if those things are present, a sense of humor is hard to quantify, and a technically funny book may fail to entertain for some ephemeral reason.

Vincent Scott, however, is unafraid, and tackles humor in his 2020 comic cyberpunk novel The Hereafter Bytes. Right on the cover, it says, “A Funny Sci Fi Novel,” allowing you to judge it by that metric. And for me, it succeeded.

I read an ARC of this book and blurbed it. I usually raise my eyebrows at comic SF, but I enjoyed this book both times I read it. It’s funny. Sometimes the humor is labored, but... Read More

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene

In 2013, science journalist Kate Greene, along with five others, spent four months on Mars. Well, OK, it was four months on the side of Mauna Loa in Hawaii as part of NASA’s Hi-SEAS, a Mars simulation designed to test various aspects of an actual Mars mission: the effects of long-term isolation on a small group, how interpersonal relations can be maintained, the role of food on morale, sleep habits, etc. In Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth (2020), Greene conveys her experiences during the simulation via a series of essays, all of which range well beyond her small geodesic dome.

Several strands run through the collection. One, obviously, is her time preparing for and then living through her simulation experience. Several other highly personal ones are the life and... Read More

Harrow the Ninth: The haunted palace is Harrow’s mind

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Last year’s Gideon the Ninth was a delightfully over-the-top space fantasy that ended with a gut punch that had readers shouting “Damn you, Tamsyn Muir!” and clamoring for the sequel. The sequel, Harrow the Ninth (2020) is here, and I enjoyed it a lot, though there are a few things you’ll want to know going in.

One is that there is a lot going on, much of it cryptic, some of which ties back into details from the first book that might be hazy by now. I would recommend rereading Gideon the Ninth first, or at least keeping it close at hand, so you can refer back to it if you have que... Read More

The Year of the Witching: A creepy religious dystopia

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

The Year of the Witching (2020) is the story of a young woman, Immanuelle, growing up in the religious dystopia of Bethel. (It’s never stated, but I interpreted the setting as a post-apocalyptic America.) The dominant religion, the faith of the Father, contains some elements of Christianity, but in a twisted form; for example, a real lamb is slaughtered during services. The threat of burning at the stake is used to keep people in line. Bethel is patriarchal in the extreme; it’s common for older men to take multiple younger wives. It’s also racist. Immanuelle’s late father was one of the darker-skinned Outskirters, which — along with the rumors that her mother was a witch — means she has lived under a cloud of suspicion all her life.

When Immanuelle chases one of her sheep into the mysterious Darkwood at the edge of the village, she meets a frighteni... Read More

The Rightful Queen: An improvement over the first book

The Rightful Queen by Isabelle Steiger

The Rightful Queen (2020) is the sequel to 2017’s The Empire’s Ghost and the second in Isabelle Steiger’s PATHS OF LANTISTYNE series. It continues the story of the many aristocrats and commoners who oppose Imperator Elgar, who is trying to reunite the old Elesthene empire under his own rule.

The Empire’s Ghost was solid, smoothly written, and intriguing, but the characters were a bit thin and I didn’t feel compelled to devour the book quickly.

Some of these issues remain in the sequel. We learn more about the characters, but I can’t say they felt deeper or more wholly realized. The revelations are more straightforward and often a bit more bluntly revealed than I prefer, and also can be predictable, w... Read More

How to Survive in Ancient Greece: Good for casual history readers

How to Survive in Ancient Greece by Robert Garland

How to Survive in Ancient Greece (2020), by Robert Garland, is a lightly casual tour of the day to day existence in Classical Athens, specifically in the year 420 B.C. in the midst of what most consider the Golden Age of Classical Greece, a time when Athens and Sparta are at relative peace, Sophocles and Euripides are competing for the dramatic competitions, and Socrates is stirring up trouble. Were it not for the threat of plague, cholera, typhus; the constant odor of human waste, slavery, patriarchy, and class division, it’d be a wonderful time to be alive ...

Garland opens up with a concise timeline of major events before and afterward, an explanation of why discussions of Classical “Greece” typically means Classical Athens, a brief dip into pertinent history (particularly the wars with Persia and Sparta), a description of the physicality of the city itse... Read More

The Radio Planet: Boomalayla, you’ve got me on my knees

The Radio Planet by Ralph Milne Farley

THE RADIO MAN trilogy, by Massachusetts-born author Ralph Milne Farley, was a series that I discovered quite by accident. I had heard of neither the three novels nor their author before finding the first book, The Radio Man (1924), in a highly collectible 1950 Avon paperback edition, at the Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair a few years back. This first novel introduced readers to radio engineer Myles Cabot, who had accidentally transported himself to the planet Venus and helped the winged and antenna-sporting Cupian humanoids there to overthrow their antlike Formian oppressors. I’d enjoyed this first installment so much that I later expressed a desire to read Book 2, a wish that was gran... Read More

Winter Lord: Old-school faeries with teeth

Winter Lord by Jean Brooks-Janowiak

Winter Lord (1983) was an impulse Alibris buy for me. Under a different name, Jean Brooks-Janowiak wrote a Tudor romance that’s been one of my comfort reads since I first read it in high school. That book had an eerie little vein of the supernatural running through it, so when I learned that Brooks-Janowiak had also written a fantasy novel, I decided to check it out. What with it being an earlier book, in a different genre, and sporting a rather uninformative cover, I went in with no idea of what to expect. As it turns out, I enjoyed it quite a bit, though with some caveats.

Jane O’Neill travels to the remote town of Winterburn, with her brother Brian and their friend Audrey, to attend the funeral of her ex-husband, Rob, who has drowned there under mysterious circumstances. Found with him were his ruined camera and a note with a cryptic quote from Read More