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The Doors of Eden: An intelligent, mind-bending epic

The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Girlfriends Mal and Lee are cryptid hunters. They don’t believe in any of the monsters they hunt, of course, but it’s fun to follow the clues and debunk the myths for their blog. But on their last adventure, they saw some weird stuff and Mal disappeared.

That was four years ago. Now, suddenly, Lee runs into Mal on the street in London and she’s with a man who looks like a Neanderthal. Where has she been and why is she with that guy? And why is a world-renowned physicist and an evil villain suddenly so interested in Lee and Mal?

Other humans are also having strange experiences. These include Julian, an MI5 agent stuck in a deteriorating marriage, his colleague Alison who’s really good with data, a retired soldier named Lucas who works for the evil guy, and Dr. Khan, the eccentric but brilliant transgender physicist mentioned above.

As the story proceeds, ... Read More

Across the Green Grass Fields: A weaker entry in a highly praised series

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

I’ve been hit and miss on Seanan McGuire’s WAYWARD CHILDREN portal series, finding some of the novellas lyrical and emotional and others frustratingly slapdash. Her newest, Across the Green Grass Fields (2021), unfortunately falls closer to the latter end of the spectrum.

As one expects by now, we have a young girl who steps through a doorway into another world. We meet Regan first at seven, part of a best friends trio with Heather Nelson and Laurel Anderson. Quickly, though, she gets drawn into one of those cruel moments of childhood where demarcations are drawn. When queen bee Laurel arbitrarily shuns Heather, deciding she isn’t “girly” enough, Regan, learning quickly “this is what it costs to be different,” goes along with it. Years... Read More

Over the Woodward Wall: Follow the improbable brick road

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Over the Woodward Wall (2020) began its life as an imagined book, existing merely as a set of excerpts “quoted” at the end of certain chapters in Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame. But these excerpts were compelling enough that McGuire decided to use them as the building blocks for an actual fantasy series, using the pseudonym A. Deborah Baker (the alchemist credited with authoring this book in Middlegame).

Avery and Hepzibah (“Zib”) are two “very different, very ordinary” children who live on the same ordinary street but don't know each other at all. They’re as far apart as A and Z in their personalities: Zib is free-spirited and adventurous, ... Read More

The Somebody People: Better than its predecessor

The Somebody People by Bob Proehl

I wasn’t crazy about Bob Proehl’s The Nobody People. While the premise was intriguing (kids with supernatural powers being raised and trained in a boarding school without the public’s knowledge), the novel, for reasons I’ve described in my review, was not compelling. I struggled to finish it but, in the end, I was curious about where Proehl was going with the story. For that reason, I picked up the sequel, The Somebody People, and I’m happy to report that I found this story more entertaining than its predecessor.

Several years have passed since the events of The Nobody People. ... Read More

The Fictional Man: Could have been more

The Fictional Man by Al Ewing

A number of times while reading The Fictional Man, by Al Ewing, I felt like I was on the edge of a great book. Like one of those clichéd oases in any stranded-in-the-desert movie, I could see it glimmering and hazy just at the edge of the horizon. But every time I thought I was nearly there, I was left with just more sand. Though that’s more than a little unfair. The Fictional Man is better than sand, but as tantalizing as it is it never got beyond decent for me.

Ewing sets the story in an LA not too different from our own — still filled with movie stars, sun, diners, loudly rude producers, corrupt agents, etc. What separates this world from our own is the creation of Fictionals in 1977 — clones created by the entertainment industry with the look and pre-programmed personality/mind of characters (already in existence or origin... Read More

The Tower of Fools: Historical fantasy by the author of THE WITCHER

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski

Fans of THE WITCHER will be happy to see that another of Andrzej Sapkowski’s works has been translated into English. The Tower of Fools, the first in his HUSSITE TRILOGY, was published in Polish in 2002 (Polish title: Narrenturm), then other Eastern European languages, and has this year been translated into English by David French (translator of THE WITCHER) and published by Orbit (US) and Gollancz (UK).

The HUSSITE TRILOGY is a historical fantasy set in the time of the Hussite Revolution (the Bohemian Reformation) of the early 15th century. For those not as familiar with these h... Read More

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media (2020), by Valerie Estelle Frankel, pretty much lays it all out in the title. Starting in the earliest days of comic books and progressing through the decades to the present, Frankel explores a boatload of characters, the famous and expected (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Black Widow, Storm, Catwoman) and the lesser known and unexpected (Rulah Jungle Goddess, Pow-Girl, Veda the Cobra Woman). The breadth is a definite strength of the book, though I found myself wanting more depth, especially as when it was there it was insightful.

After a brief introduction, Frankel first moves chronologically through “The Classic Super Eras,” discussing Sheena, The Wasp, the Powerpuff Girls, and Captain Marvel, amongst others. Then the sections ar... Read More

Elatsoe: A strong story exploring complex societal issues

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Elatsoe (2020), a YA debut by Darcie Little Badger, creates a richly woven world of folklore, myth, story, friendship, and family, all set in “a slightly stranger America,” one “very similar to our own … [but] shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and not.” As a debut, it shows some of the typical first-book characteristics (issues with pacing, transitions, etc.), but it’s overall a warmly rewarding and enjoyable read.

Elatsoe — “Ellie” for nearly all the book — is a 17-year-old Lipan Apache girl with the ability to raise ghosts, a skill passed down through generations of her family. Ellie used her gift most recently to raise the ghost of her dead springer spaniel, Kirby, who is now always by her side as companion and protector. While Ellie and her ancestors can raise human ghosts, it is stric... Read More

Involution Ocean: Bruce Sterling’s first novel, now on audio

Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling

John Newhouse is a middle-aged man addicted to a drug called Flare which is synthesized from the oil of a whale that lives in a large sea of dust on a hostile planet. John lives with several other drug addicts. When Flare is declared illegal and their stash runs dry, John and one of his roommates decide to join a whaling ship’s crew so they can get access to the oil they’ll need to manufacture the drug for themselves. John is hired as the ship’s cook while his friend comes aboard as a deckhand.

The crew of the ship is odd. John is attracted to the woman who has wings like a bat and can fly, but she’s allergic to human touch. The captain of the ship, who is obsessed with the strange creatures that live in the dust sea, might be crazy. John wonders why he’s hiding a propeller and other odd things in a secret storehouse.

When John and his friend manage to get hold of some wh... Read More

Anya and the Nightingale: Into the woods

Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack

Last year, Anya and her friends Ivan and Håkon defeated a bloodthirsty Viking named Sigurd, who wanted to murder Håkon for his river dragon magic. Since then, Anya’s been bat mitzvahed, Ivan’s family has settled into their lives in Zmeyreka, and the local magistrate has been expelled, with the result that Anya’s family has been openly welcomed among the other villagers, but her papa still hasn’t returned from war. When Anya learns that there’s been a miscommunication and her papa has been sent to Rûm rather than home, she embarks upon a secret journey to bring him back, accompanied by Ivan and Håkon — who, thanks to a friendly forest spirit named Lena, has been transformed into a human boy. Additionally, Lena magically transports the trio to Kiev, saving them from what would certainly be quick deaths along an arduous journey, but is nowhere near Anya’s papa.

As fate w... Read More

Anya and the Dragon: The magical adventures of a plucky young heroine

Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

With just a month before her bat mitzvah, Anya’s life is mostly preoccupied with keeping her family’s goats out of the garden, her worries over being unable to see the hidden threads of magic connecting everything in the world, and staying out of trouble both at home and in the neighboring village of Zmeyreka, since the local magistrate is actively working to throw Anya’s family out of their home. If only her beloved papa would come home from the Tsar’s faraway war against Sultan Suleiman! But then she stumbles across a bright-red river dragon named Håkon, a brand-new family of fools (literally; they utilize fool’s magic, and the seven sons are all named Ivan) moves into town, and dangerous men in the tsar’s employ arrive in pursuit of the dragon. Eventually, Anya is forced into a terrible position: help her family by not involving herself in the sudden swirl of activity, or help her newfound... Read More

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