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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen: Exploring unorthodox biology and relationships

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Note: This review discusses a major revelation for readers of this series, disclosed in the first chapter of this book.

Three years after the sudden death of her husband Aral, Cordelia Vorkosigan is still the Vicereine (governor) of the colony planet Sergyar, and is still recovering from the grief of losing Aral. Cordelia is now seventy-six, but still young both at heart and physically, since she enjoys the much longer-than-usual lifespan of a native of Beta Colony. Barrayaran Admiral Oliver Jole, who is nearly fifty, greets Cordelia as she returns to Sergyar, and as they share a lunch and some reminiscing a few days later, it soon becomes clear that Cordelia and Oliver share a deeper history: an extramarital affair by Aral with Oliver, who was his young, stunningly handsome aide many years ago, morphed into what was essentially (though not legally) a three-way marr... Read More

The Star Beast: A great story buried under a lot of politics

The Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein

The Star Beast (1954) is one of Robert A. Heinlein’s “juveniles.” When I was a kid in the late ‘70s / early '80s, I loved these and can still remember where they were located in the library of my elementary school. My dad had some at home, too, and probably still does since I’ve never known him to throw out a book. I can’t say that I love all of Heinlein’s work — in fact, I absolutely loathe some of his novels for adults — but I can give him credit for inspiring my life-long love of science fiction, so I’ve enjoyed listening to the audio versions that Blackstone Audio had recently been producing.

The Star Beast is about a teenage boy named John Thomas Stuart (the eleventh) and his pet named Lummox, a six-ton eight-legged brontosa... Read More

Blood Meridian: Luminous, blood-drenched, profound, and confounding

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian is a book that almost everyone has heard of, read, or intends to read at some point. It’s been called one of the Great American Novels (and Cormac McCarthy one the Great American Writers), and the greatest Western or most ruthless debunking of the Western myth of Manifest Destiny ever written. Many who have read it are probably at a loss to say whether it is a work of genius or depravity, and it is mind-numbingly violent, lyrical, and profound at the same time.

Opinions on its message and philosophy differ so wildly that I wonder if McCarthy deliberately wrote it to confound all the attempts of literary critics to make sense of it. I, myself, was torn between my appreciation for the absolutely stunning passages of poetic brilliance — particularly his descriptions of nature, co... Read More

Truthwitch: A decent series starter, but has its issues

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Truthwitch is a solidly engaging YA fantasy from Susan Dennard that, I’m guessing, will have a lot of fans (even if it isn’t quite my cup of tea) despite its sometimes nagging issues of craft. I’m assuming the first won’t matter because most of the book’s readers are probably far less weary of teen romance in their YA fantasy than I am, and the second reading obstacle — those craft issues — will most likely be outweighed by the fans’ positive response to Dennard’s depiction of the tight bond between the novel’s two strong female characters.

Those two young woman, Iseult and Safiya, are unregistered witches — Safiya is a Truthwitch able to discern lies from truth; Iseult is a Threadwitch, one who can see the emotional ties (“threads”) between people. While Threadwitches are not uncommon, it’s been a long time since a Truthwitch has be... Read More

The Miniaturist: Compelling and mysterious, but ultimately unsatisfying

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, was undoubtedly a hit. I bought it because I was in an airport rush and it was winking at me from its bestseller, front row spot on the shelves. The Miniaturist’s popularity does not surprise me. It is an enjoyable read, packed with intertwining mysteries that tease throughout. I imagine a lot of people have fond memories of doll’s houses and were enticed by this aspect of the story, or at least, I was. But despite its potential, the ingredients of intrigue and magic never fully came together in any satisfying way.

The story is that of Nella, a young lady who arrives in Amsterdam in 1686 to begin life as the wife of a wealthy merchant. Things start badly. Her new husband barely speaks to her and her sister-in-l... Read More

The Time Ships: The Time Machine was just the beginning…

The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships is a sequel to HG Wells' classic The Time Machine. Where Wells was crisp, haunting and poignant, Baxter is deep and broad, and offers his usual blend of hard-core sci-fi philosophy and science.

The Time Ships picks up where The Time Machine left off. The Time Traveler (TTT), after getting nothing more than a tepid response to the story of his first trip to the future, rushes headlong back into the future to find and rescue his Eloi friend Weena. Instead of returning to fix the wrongs of his previous time travel experiences, TTT finds himself in a different future, somehow caused by his initial ... Read More

The Silent Warrior: This story takes an unexpected turn

The Silent Warrior by L.E. Modesitt Jr

Warning: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book, Dawn for a Distant Earth.

The Silent Warrior is the second book in L.E. Modesitt Jr’s FOREVER HERO trilogy. Published in the late 1980s, this series is about a man named Gerswin who grew up in the harsh environment of the ruined Earth. He was picked up by the galactic empire, educated, and enlisted in their military. He has been a successful leader for the empire, but his real dream is to restore Earth to her former glory. At the end of the first book, Dawn for a Distant Earth (which you really must read to appreciate The Silent Warrior), we saw that Gerswin is even willing to break the law to force the empire to co... Read More

Dawn for a Distant Earth: Has aged well

Dawn for a Distant Earth by L.E. Modesitt Jr

In the far future, after humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, Old Earth is an abandoned ruin. Nuclear waste and bad environmental policies have killed the ecology and changed the climate. Now Earth is a frozen and desolate wasteland with dangerous sheer winds. Only the toughest people manage to survive in such a harsh climate.

Most of Earth’s sparse population huddles behind the walls of dilapidated shambletowns. Those who don’t have friends and family, or who don’t fit in for some other reason, remain outside. One of these misfits is a nameless “devil kid” who becomes the protagonist of L.E. Modesitt Jr’s FOREVER HERO trilogy after getting captured by the galactic empire. The empire takes him in, sends him to school, and enlists him in their military. Smart, s... Read More

Galileo’s Dream: A decent story with uneven execution

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

I'm a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, which is a terrific blend of pseudo science fictional philosophy and religion, and fun and entertaining alternative history. It's deep and touching and provides a strong sense of activity (if not specifically action and adventure). So the concept behind Galileo's Dream drew me to the book the instant I read the description: the astronomer Galileo is taken from Earth to the moons of Jupiter (which he discovered) in an attempt to modify the past to make for a better future — a future in which science rises up over religion. Unfortunately, while it's a fun concept, Robinson provides an uneven impl... Read More

The Gracekeepers: Sea and circuses

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

In Kirsty Logan’s watery debut, the world as we know it still exists, only it is entirely underwater. Eerie and poetic, The Gracekeepers has been dubbed a dystopia, but it actually reads much more like a regular fantasy. Small scraps of land are all that remain of earth’s continents after rising water levels, leaving humanity in two groups: “clams,” the lucky few who cling to the land and “damplings,” those that must live out on the sea. The two groups have an uneasy relationship: half-mistrustful, half-fascinated by one another.

Our story opens with North, a dampling who is part of the Excalibur, a floating circus that performs across the islands and archipelagos for the clams who live on land. There are sinister clowns, horse riders, acrobats and a ringmaster that seems to have m... Read More

Hell House: A short, enjoyable read

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson’s short novel Hell House (1971) follows a group of four experts with various supernatural-related backgrounds who seek to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts in a super-creepy home that’s become known as Hell House. And a hellish house it is indeed.

The roots of the story are built on a foundation of gothic horror, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of H.P. Lovecraft’s very heavy and mythic language throughout Matheson’s story.
They all stared through the windows at the curling fog. It was as though they rode inside a submarine, slowly navigating downward through a sea of curdled milk.
The following exposition describes what the group sees as they approach the house f... Read More

A Lovely Way to Burn: Lukewarm post-apocalyptic lit

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

Post-apocalyptic literature is having a bit of a moment. This is probably because you can’t call anything dystopia anymore without someone rolling their eyes, but still. Louise Welsh’s contribution to the genre is A Lovely Way to Burn, in which a flu pandemic (kind of grossly nicknamed “the sweats”) is wreaking havoc on the human race. Welsh’s tale is set in contemporary London and it’s all her heroine, Stevie Flint, can do to try and survive the descent into chaos.

The novel opens (in truly British fashion) with the Tory MP for Hove sunning himself in a deckchair in the back garden of his residence on the river Thames. He then proceeds to load up his gun and open fire on the tourists, ploughing down six holidaymakers. The scene then cuts to a hedge-fund manager for a bank, who opens fire in a crowded tube carriage on the Undergrou... Read More

The Chaplain’s War: Interesting ideas, likeable hero keep this story moving

The Chaplain’s War by Brad R. Torgersen

Harrison Barlow was a chaplain’s assistant in the first of humanity’s wars against a technologically advanced conqueror race. Harrison and thousands of other soldiers were rounded up by the insect-like enemy, who humans call the mantis race (mantes is the plural) and held in a prison camp on a planet called Purgatory. Harrison, carrying out a promise to the chaplain who died, built a chapel that was open to everyone. That action intrigued the scholar class of the mantes and led to a cease-fire. As The Chaplain’s War, Brad Torgersen’s novel based on his original novella, progresses, that cease-fire breaks down. The book questions whether humans and mantes can ever co-exist.

There was a lot to like in this book, and there were definite weaknesses that affected my enjoyment. Ultimately, Harrison, the likeable main character, kept me reading, ... Read More

Supreme Power: High Command by J. Michael Straczynski

Supreme Power (Vol. 3): High Command by J. Michael Straczynski

In this volume, the government ups its game against Hyperion, attempting to discredit him in the eyes of the public and attack him where they feel he is weak. They also seem not to have learned anything from the fiasco that has been their involvement in metahuman affairs up to this point, and still think they can play god with inhumanly powerful pawns. Not too bright, but I’m afraid the estimate may not be too off the mark for how governments would respond to the possibility of controlling the ‘easy’ power that superheroes (and villains) present.

All in all I have to say that I was a little disappointed with the lack of pay-off in this concluding volume of what I think is the first story arc of Supreme Power. So we have Hyperion coming to some important decisions about who he is and how he will relate to his adopted world at the same ti... Read More

Give Up the Ghost: A welcome little twist at the end

Give Up the Ghost by Juliet Blackwell

Fans of Juliet Blackwell’s HAUNTED HOME RENOVATION MYSTERIES will be happy to hear that Give Up the Ghost, the new sixth book in the series (released today) again delivers exactly what’s expected: a low-stress cozy paranormal murder mystery with a cute premise, a marvelous setting, and a great cast of characters.

For most of the novel there’s nothing unique or unexpected with Blackwell’s formula which, I assume, will please readers who’ve made it this far in the series. This time Mel Turner is renovating the historic mansion of Andrew Stirling, a millionaire living in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. Stirling, whose taste is rather tacky, has had the house modernized, but this has upset its resident ghost, so Mel has been called in ... Read More

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer: Explores madness, suicide, faith, the occult

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick

Philip K Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth (1985) and VALIS (1981) were strange but moving attempts to make sense of his bizarre religious experiences in 1974 when a hyper-rational alien mind contacted him via a pink laser from space. He then wrote The Divine Invasion (1981) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), both loosely connected titles in the VALIS TRILOGY, although the latter was posthumously substituted for the unfinished The Owl in Daylight. Sadly, these were the final novels that PDK wrote before his death in 1982. The Divine Invasion is a complex retelling of the second coming of Christ to an Earth dominated by the fallen angel Bel... Read More

Babel-17: A dazzling new-wave SF space opera from the 1960s

Reposting to include Kat's review of the new audio version.

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 won the 1966 Nebula award for best novel, tying with Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon. Samuel Delany’s space opera novel is dated in many ways, but still holds up.

In the future, humans have colonized many star systems. Currently, the Alliance is engaged in a war with the Invaders, who, despite the name, are also human. The Alliance has intercepted many dispatches in a code they can’t break. They’ve labeled it Babel-17. Desperate, they turn to the inter-galactically renowned poet Rydra Wong to help them decipher it.

Wong is in her late twenties, a linguistic, semantic and telepathic genius, a starship captain, and so compelling that the general who meets with her falls in love with her almost instantly. There is more than a bit of fan... Read More

Keeper of the Castle: Mel reconstructs an ancient Scottish Monastery

Keeper of the Castle by Juliet Blackwell

In Keeper of the Castle, the fifth book in Juliet Blackwell’s HAUNTED HOME RENOVATION series, a famous inspirational speaker has hired Mel Turner to oversee the reconstruction of a medieval Scottish monastery on his property outside San Francisco.

There are a couple of problems with this. One is that there are protestors outside the gates. One vocal protestor, a guy who wears a kilt, objects to the “theft” of a Scottish national landmark. Another problem is that the monastery seems haunted by two ghosts. One is a sad hungry woman who wears a red dress. The other is a sword-wielding Highlander who attacks any man who comes close. These ghosts are spooking Mel’s construction workers. The last problem is that there’s been an accident at the constr... Read More

The Shards of Heaven: Successful debut of Roman-Era historical fantasy mash-up

The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston

The Shards of Heaven is not author Michael Livingston’s first work. In fact, he’s already a prolific award-winning writer, though mostly focused in his world of academia. Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel in South Carolina. The Shards of Heaven is his first novel and he taps into his significant historical knowledge. He liberally expands his knowledge base with strong fantasy elements, though, not unlike George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, it’s heavy on history-laden fiction and lighter on the fantasy… at least in this first offering of what’s expected to be a trilogy.

Impending war bubbles across the Roman Empire as Livingston’s story starts. Julius Caesar has been assass... Read More

Immortal Beloved: A light but promising new start to a supernatural trilogy

Immortal Beloved by Cate Tiernan

Nastasya is a burned-out immortal who has spent hundreds of years trying to avoid any sort of real emotion. With her equally jaded friends, she spends all her time in endless, meaningless carousing. She’s not very likable at first, but that’s the whole point. When her friend Incy’s casual cruelty gives Nastasya a wake-up call about what her life has become, she doesn’t like herself much either.

Horrified with herself, afraid of Incy, Nastasya does the only thing she can think of. She turns to River, a woman who offered her help many decades ago. River runs River’s Edge, a halfway house for immortals that serves as part rehab, part magic school. Troubled immortals go there to relearn an appreciation for life and to study positive spellcraft. Nastasya doesn’t quite fit in at first but eventually comes to enjoy her stay at River’s Edge, though her attraction to standoffish “Viking god... Read More

Home for the Haunting: Delivers what fans expect

Home for the Haunting by Juliet Blackwell

Home for the Haunting is the fourth book in Juliet Blackwell’s HAUNTED HOME RENOVATION series. Each of these book is a short cozy paranormal mystery. Each story is self-contained, so the books can stand alone, but there’s an overarching plot involving Mel Turner’s personal relationships and each installment adds new characters, so most readers would probably prefer to start at the beginning and read the novels in order. The first three are If Walls Could Talk, Dead Bolt, and Murder on the House. After the fourth book, Home of the Haunting, comes Keeper of the Castle and the sixth book, Give Up the Ghost, will appear on shelves... Read More

The Aeronaut’s Windlass: Begins a new series by Jim Butcher

The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

(Reposting to include Tadiana's review.)

Fans of Jim Butcher (including myself) were thrilled to see that he’s started a new series called THE CINDER SPIRES. This one is quite different than his previous works. THE DRESDEN FILES, for which Butcher is best known, is a modern-day urban fantasy with a first-person narrator and a hardboiled feel. THE CODEX ALERA is an epic fantasy with a typical medieval setting and plot.

THE CINDER SPIRES is set in a more imaginative world. With its airships and steam power, it has a steampunk feel. The story takes place on a mist-covered planet (possibly a future Earth?) whose surface is so dangerous that humans have built their habitats in tall spires miles above the planet’... Read More

Broken Homes: An unbelievable ending. As in, seriously, that’s not believable.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant, mediocre policeman and inferior wizard, is back. Broken Homes is the fourth instalment of Ben Aaronvitch’s PETER GRANT series, and the detective returns with his love of acronyms and Red Stripe. Once more under the supervision of DCI Thomas Nightingale, Peter, Lesley and (the newly initiated) thirteen-year-old Abigail, must police the supernatural elements of London’s crime scene.

The story opens with a series of seemingly unconnected crimes: a car accident, a body half-buried in some scrubland, a suicide and the theft of a magic book from a home of a famous architect. And the missing link? The Faceless Man, of course, the other recurring character and super-baddy of the series.

London’s ugliest estate, Sky Garde... Read More

Murder on the House: Mel takes on a haunted B&B

Murder on the House by Juliet Blackwell

In Murder on the House, the third book in Juliet Blackwell’s HAUNTED HOME RENOVATION MYSTERIES, Melanie “Mel” Turner is starting to acquire a reputation as a successful general contractor and ghostbuster. Homeowners around San Francisco are asking for her special services and she’s got some new projects going on while she’s still finishing up some of the historic renovations we got to see in the first two books, If Walls Could Talk and Dead Bolt. This time she’s got a unique case. The homeowners whose historic house she hopes to renovate want the ghosts of the children that haunt the upstairs nursery to stay. They plan to convert the house into a haunted bed & breakfast and think the ghosts will attract customers looking for a unique San Francisco experience.

But Mel doesn... Read More

Dead Bolt: Inspired by a San Francisco legend

Dead Bolt by Juliet Blackwell

Dead Bolt is the second book in Juliet Blackwell’s HAUNTED HOME RENOVATION MYSTERIES. I liked the first book, If Walls Could Talk, well enough, but felt like it was too similar to Blackwell’s other paranormal cozy mystery series, WITCHCRAFT MYSTERIES. The best thing about both series is that the audiobook versions are read by the amazing Xe Sands and, I swear, I would probably be happy listening to Xe read the tax code. (Fortunately, Blackwell’s books are a lot more entertaining than that!) These books are short — each is just over 7 hours long in audio format.

In Dead Bolt, Mel Turner has been asked to renovate the historic San Francisco home of a young couple with a baby. The house, whic... Read More