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Point Blank: Alex Rider is back (in more ways than one!)

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Point Blank by Anthony Horowitz

I read the first book in the ALEX RIDER series (Stormbreaker) several years ago, and since I enjoyed it so much, I've no idea why it's taken me this long to get to its sequel: Point Blank, named for the elite boarding school high in the French Alps. Here the troubled sons of millionaires are sent in order to be tutored in isolation, away from any bad influences, though MI5 is concerned when two of the students' fathers are found dead in unusual circumstances. Surely it can't be a coincidence?

They decide to send in Alex Rider, the nephew of deceased agent Ian Rider, who has previously been used to infiltrate an organization that only a teenager could explore without attracting undue attention. Trained by MI5 and given a ... Read More

Artemis: Andy Weir’s moon phase

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Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Artemis by Andy Weir

Life in Artemis, the only human city on the moon, is rough for Jasmine Bashara, a 26 year old delivery person, smuggler, and would-be tourist guide. She fails her EVA (extravehicular activity) Guild exam in, literally, breathtaking fashion; she’s somewhat estranged from her welder father, to whom she owes a huge personal debt; she’s living alone in a tiny, claustrophobia-inducing capsule room; she barely gets by on her payments as a porter (supplemented by some judicious smuggling activity). But Jazz wouldn’t want to live any other place ― certainly not on Earth ― and she’s determined to make a success of her life, with no help from anyone.

So when Trond Landvik, one of the wealthiest people on the moon and a regular customer for Jazz’s smuggled luxuries, offers her a million “slugs” (m... Read More

Vallista: Vlad gets trapped in a mysterious mansion

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Vallista by Steven Brust

Everyone’s favorite Jhereg assassin is back in Vallista, Steven Brust’s fifteenth VLAD TALTOS novel. If you’re not familiar with this series, don’t start here. Get a copy of Jhereg and read the books in publication order (which is not, by the way, the same as the internal chronological order, but that’s okay). Let me recommend the audio versions produced by Audible Studios and read by Bernard Setaro Clark. He does such a great job capturing Vlad’s sarcastic personality and the amusing dialogue between Vlad and Loiosh, the reptilian familiar who rides around on Vlad’s shoulder.

If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re a fan... Read More

The Crystal Heart: An interesting retelling of a familiar tale

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The Crystal Heart by Sophie Masson

I've always enjoyed Sophie Masson's books, and it would seem she's written something of an unofficial trilogy based on the stories of Rapunzel (The Crystal Heart), Cinderella (Moonlight & Ashes) and Beauty and the Beast (Scarlet in the Snow). All of them are based on old familiar fairy tales, but take the opportunity to flesh out the characters and expand the tales into fully-fledged adventures, till they bear very little resemblance to their original sources.

In this case, it's easy to forget that The Crystal Heart is based on Rapunzel, as after establishing the existence of a youn... Read More

Phule’s Paradise: Silly but fun

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Phule’s Paradise by Robert Asprin

Phule’s Paradise is the second book in Robert Asprin‘s screwball comedy series called PHULE’S COMPANY. These are being released in audiobook format by Tantor Audio with excellent narration by Noah Michael Levine. You’ll want to read the first book, Phule’s Company, before picking up Phule’s Paradise.

In Phule’s Company, we met Willard Phule, a mega-billionaire who, as a punishment, was assigned to captain the Space Legion’s company of “losers and misfits” that was guarding a swamp on a backwater planet. (Don’t ask why a mega-billionaire would want to ... Read More

The Cuckoo’s Calling: Rowling makes a break without forgetting her roots

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Reposting to include Ryan's new review.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Early in 2013, a new murder mystery came out. Written by an author named Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling was set in England and featured an army veteran detective with a prosthetic leg (he was injured saving other soldiers in Afghanistan), a strange family and an unusual name; Cormoran Strike. A few months later, through a series of different sources, it was revealed that “Robert Galbraith” was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, who wanted to publish her first murder mystery without having it connected in any way to her globally-famous, history-making, best-selling series of YA fantasy best-sellers.

Sorry that whole anonymous thing didn’t work out for you, Ms. Rowling. Read More

Owlknight: A satisfactory ending to Darian’s Tale

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Owlknight by Mercedes Lackey

Owlknight (1999) is the final story in Mercedes Lackey’s DARIAN’S TALE. This trilogy is part of her huge VALDEMAR series, but it can stand alone just fine. However, don’t start here. The first book is Owlflight and the second is Owlsight. Expect a few spoilers for those books in this review.

As Owlknight begins, a couple of years after the events of the previous novel, all is going well for Darian and Keisha. Thanks to their actions, their people have befriended the barbarians who appeared to be a... Read More

A Skinful of Shadows: Weird but not weird enough

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Here in the UK, Frances Hardinge is everywhere. Her new book, A Skinful of Shadows (2017), was plastered all over the London underground in the run-up to its publication, thrusting Hardinge into the mainstream.

I heard Hardinge talk about A Skinful of Shadows at a local bookshop and she admitted that she’d felt some pressure when writing. I can’t help wonder if this pressure somehow seeped into the novel as she wrote.

Like all of her books, A Skinful of Shadows is an adventure. There’s a plucky heroine, plenty of ghastly enemies and best of all, murderous ghosts. But the story lacked the orig... Read More

Owlsight: Adds a new protagonist to Darian’s story

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Owlsight by Mercedes Lackey

Owlsight (1998) is the second novel in Mercedes Lackey’s DARIAN’S TALE, a trilogy set within her VALDEMAR universe. DARIAN’S TALE is a fine place for newcomers to begin reading the VALDEMAR books, but you should start with the first book about Darian, Owlflight. If you do start with DARIAN’S TALE instead of the first VALDEMAR book, Arrows of the Queen, there are a few passing references to people, places, and events from previous books that you won’t unders... Read More

After Atlas: CSI: Future World

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

After Atlas by Emma Newman

Emma Newman’s After Atlas (2016) is the pseudo-sequel to her first sci-fi offering, Planetfall (2015). As Kat explained in her review, Planetfall is about a colony of humans who left Earth to follow Suh, an alleged prophet who received a supernatural message giving her the coordinates of an unknown distant planet where she was supposed to travel to receive instructions about God’s plans for humanity. After Atlas takes place on Earth, almost 40 years after the ship left. No word has come from the colonists, but the world awaits the opening of a time caps... Read More

The Prey of Gods: Three takes on this imaginative story

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

The Prey of Gods (2017), by Nicky Drayden, takes a well-worn concept — what if gods walked among regular humans? — and breathes new life into it through her innovative uses of location, technology, mythology, and complex characters in this blend of real-world problems and fantastical situations.

Life is pretty great in futuristic Port Elizabeth, South Africa (so long as you’ve got money); people have access to genetically-engineered pets, personal robots with varying degrees of intelligence and capability, and solar wells that draw both energy and moisture from the air. When a long-forgotten demigoddess currently styling herself as Sydney sees an opportunity to restore her former glory and supremacy, just as a powerful new hallucinogenic hits... Read More

Planet of Exile: Enjoyable, but not the best place to start with Le Guin

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

Planet of Exile by Ursula K. Le Guin

Planet of Exile is a novel in Ursula Le Guin’s HAINISH CYCLE and one of the author’s first published books. In this story, a colony of humans has been stranded for many years on the planet Werel, which has such a long orbit around its sun that one year is like 60 Earth years. These humans, gently led by Jakob Agat, live in a city surrounded by a stone wall. Because of the conditions on Werel, especially the effect of its sun’s radiation on human genes, their colony is dwindling. The humans share the planet with two other humanoid species. They have no contact with the Gaal, a nomadic tribe, and they have a tense but sometimes cooperative relationship with the Tevarans.

The planet is moving into its harsh winter phase, which will last abou... Read More

The Piper’s Apprentice: A fast-moving MG fantasy

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The Piper’s Apprentice by Matthew Cody

The Piper’s Apprentice concludes Matthew Cody’s THE SECRETS OF THE PIED PIPER series, which began with The Peddler’s Road, followed by The Magician’s Key. I haven’t read book one, but I found the second book to be an enjoyable enough story aimed squarely, and successfully I’d imagine, at its middle grade audience. Book three has its issues, but is mostly a solid and satisfying conclusion. Warning: there will be spoilers for the first two books, which I’ll assume one has read (and thus I won’t bother explaining characters or prior plots).

In The Magician’s Key Read More

Tales from a Talking Board: Is anyone here? Read along and see.

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Tales from a Talking Board edited by Ross Lockhart

Tales From a Talking Board (2017) delivers fourteen shivery stories that involve spirit boards. In the US, we think of them as Ouija Boards, but that was actually a brand name; spirit boards, which involve a surface with the alphabet and an object that glides over it, stopping at letters, have been around quite a while.

This anthology has plenty to please people who like the creepy, and lends itself to a dark autumn night pretty well. Some stories are more gory than others. At least one is flat-out funny. A few tales strain to wrap themselves around the spirit board and at least one has no divinatory prop at all.

I’ll talk about the stories I liked best or found noteworthy. Here is the complete Table of Contents from Tales from a Talking Board:

“YesNoGoo... Read More

The Unconquered Mage: The struggle toward unification

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The Unconquered Mage by Melissa McShane

The CONVERGENCE fantasy trilogy wraps up in The Unconquered Mage (2017), as Melissa McShane continues to explore the repercussions of the magical merging of two different worlds, with different language and cultures. Balaen and Castavir were split apart centuries ago by a complex magical spell that went awry. Now the two countries are reunited physically, as are our main characters, the Balean mage Sesskia, who narrates the story through her diary entries, and her husband Cederic, head of the Castavir mages. But there’s disunity of the countries from a political standpoint, and that’s echoed in Sesskia and Cederic’s relationship to some extent as well, as t... Read More

The Privilege of the Sword: Enjoy another visit to Riverside

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

“Whatever the duke means to do with her, it can’t be anything decent.”

The Privilege of the Sword is Ellen Kushner’s sequel to her novel Swordspoint which was about the doings of the high and low societies in her fictional town of Riverside. The main characters of that novel were the nobleman Alec Tremontaine, a student, and his lover, the famous swordsman Richard St. Vier. You don’t need to read Swordspoint before reading The Privilege of the Sword, but it will probably be more enjoyable if you do because you’ll have some background on most of the characters.

Now Alec is known as the Mad Duke Tremontaine. He spends some of his time in his mansion outside the city, but he really prefers to reside in hi... Read More

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young: Selected graduation speeches

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If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young by Kurt Vonnegut

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young collects nine graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. Published in 2013, this posthumous collection is introduced by the writer Dan Wakefield. The earliest speech was delivered in 1978, while the latest was given in 2004.

These speeches are almost exactly what Vonnegut’s fans would expect of him — so much so that I wish I’d attempted to write a speech from the point of view of Kurt Vonnegut before beginning this book. The speeches feature his darkly humorous assessment of the human condition, as well as his deeply felt esteem for mercy, compassion, and contributing in spite of it all to make the world a slightly better place. He is also ha... Read More

Updraft: A debut novel that succeeds more than not

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Updraft by Fran Wilde

I’m of mixed feelings on Fran Wilde’s 2015 debut novel Updraft, which left me at various times enthralled, captivated, curious, and eager to continue. All of which would be great if it hadn’t at other times had me thinking it was too predictable, too familiar, too plodding, and too vague. Thus the mixed feelings, though the balance tipped me over far enough to move on to book two in the series, Cloudbound (I’ll amend this review once I’ve decided whether the sequel and/or the third book, Horizon, justify that perseverance).

Wilde sets her series in a world of bone towers grown ever upward by their inhabitants after a time of tu... Read More

The Courier: Nice action sequences but unconvincing world building

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The Courier by Gerald Brandt

The Courier (2016) was recommended to me by a bookseller. She hadn’t read it herself yet. It was recommended to her by a friend, she said, who said it was YA and “kind of like William Gibson.” My first impulse in rating this book was to base my rating on the gap between the “William Gibson” statement and my experience of the book. If I had done that, this would be a 2-star review. That would not be fair. Nothing on the cover or interior review snippets compares this book to Gibson.

I am going to review The Courier based on the story I think Gerald Brandt was trying to tell. Although it has a youthful protagonist, the book is marketed as cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic fiction. YA or not, I think this... Read More

Rocannon’s World: Ursula K. Le Guin’s debut

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin

Rocannon’s World, published in 1966, is Ursula Le Guin’s debut novel and the first in her HAINISH CYCLE. The story describes how Rocannon, an ethnographer, became stranded on the planet he was charting when a spaceship from Faraday, a rogue planet that is an enemy to the League of All Worlds, blew up his spaceship and the rest of his crew. Rocannon thinks he’s trapped forever until he sees a helicopter and realizes that Faraday must have a secret base on the planet. If he can find it, he can use its ansible to communicate with the League, not only letting them know that he lives, but also the location of the secret enemy base. (Fun Fact: This is the book that one of Orson Scott... Read More

Wytchfire: Old-school epic fantasy

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Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhofer

Wytchfire, the first book in Michael Meyerhofer’s DRAGONKIN TRILOGY, is the image of a classic-style epic fantasy of the sort that hasn't seemed to show up as often since George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb largely took over for Tolkien as guiding lights of the genre. It's a fun and lively story, but the reader's enjoyment may depend on how much s/he enjoys old-school epic fantasy and its associated tropes.

I happen to like old-school epic fantasy, so for me Wytchfire was a fun read (even slightly nostalgic, like revisiting the old neighborhood and f... Read More

Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield

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Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield by Falynn Christine Koch

Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield (2017) by Falynn Christine Koch is part of the SCIENCE COMICS series, a graphic series of books each of which explores a single scientific topic. In this case, as the title might indicate, it’s plague, but more broadly it’s an examination of how pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, parasites) infect and damage the human body, how the body (sometimes with medical help) tries to fight them off, and, to a lesser degree, how such illnesses have affected human history.

Plagues begins a bit roughly. The frame story is an unnecessarily confusing bit involving conversations inside a virtual body (that somehow still gets sick from virtual germs?) between the scientist whose virtual body it is, a T-cell, and two plagues — yell... Read More

Tinder: A twisted, terrifying fairy tale

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Tinder by Sally Gardner

Death first comes to Otto Hundebiss on the battlefield. Surrounded by Otto's friends and comrades, he offers to take Otto with him as well. Otto declines, and Death and his ghostly army vanish. So begins Sally Gardner's twisted take on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the tinderbox. And it doesn't get any more light-hearted after that...

Otto staggers through the woods in which the battle took place, a bullet in his side and a sword wound in his shoulder, and eventually passes out. When he comes round, he isn't sure whether or not he's dreaming: all around him hang boots and shoes. A beast is stoking a fire next to him, and Otto realises it is not a beast at all, but a horned animal mask on the head of a man. Otto asks about the shoes, and the half-man (as Otto calls him) explains... Read More

Owlflight: Heroic fantasy for less-experienced fantasy readers

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Owlflight by Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

Owlflight (1997) is the first book in DARIAN’S TALE, one of the many trilogies/series that make up Mercedes Lackey’s VALDEMAR saga. Though DARIAN’S TALE was first published twenty years ago, according to the series’ internal chronologically it takes place late in the overall story. I had only read four of the VALDEMAR books before picking up Owlflight. I read it because Tantor Audio has just released it in audio format and will release its sequels, Owlsight and Owlknight, in the coming months. I’m hoping this means that the other trilogies in the series that haven’t been published in... Read More

Wicked Like a Wildfire: Edgy YA heroine, unique setting, extravagant imagery

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Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popović

In Wicked Like a Wildfire (2017), magic and secrecy swirl around Iris and Malina, a pair of seventeen year old fraternal twins who live in current-day Montenegro with their single mother, Jasmina. Jasmina confides to them that all of the women in their family have a distinct gleam, a magical way to create and enhance beauty. Jasmina bakes marvelous foods that call particular visual scenes to the minds of those who eat them. Malina can sense moods and reflect them back with an amazing voice that creates layers of harmony. And Iris can make flowers (and sometimes other objects) expand and fractal into spiral blazes and fireworks of color.

Their joyful, though private, practicing of their magic together comes to an abrupt end when the twins are seven and a neighbor nearly discovers their secret. Jasmina, pa... Read More