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Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon: A charming historical fantasy

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon by Lisa Goldstein

Alice Wood, a recently widowed middle-aged woman, is continuing her husband’s bookselling business in his stall in the courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though Alice is liked by the other vendors in the courtyard, most think that, as a woman, she’s not equipped to run a business by herself. One of her competitors, a man named George, insists that she should sell her stall to him, or at least that she should marry him and let him run their combined businesses. Everyone knows that, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, a woman needs a man around to run things.

But Alice is determined to prove George and her other detractors wrong and she continues to work with publishers to sell books and pamphlets (such as those by Thomas Nashe) to Londoners. Things are going well until her... Read More

Burning Water: Urban fantasy by Mercedes Lackey

Burning Water by Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey is best known for her VALDEMAR series, a multi-volume epic fantasy that is beloved by many fantasy readers. Some of Lackey’s legions of fans may not know that she also published an urban fantasy trilogy back in the late 80s and early 90s. It stars Diana Tregarde, a romance writer and practicing witch who solves magical murders and helps protect the world from evil supernatural beings. She is a Guardian.

In the first DIANA TREGARDE novel, Burning Water (1989), we meet Diana after her friend Mark Valdez, a police detective, asks for her help with a case. It involves the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, a photographer for a travel magazine, a fashion designer, four... Read More

Remember Me: A Christopher Pike classic

Remember Me by Christopher Pike

The idea of a ghost who has to solve their own murder from beyond the grave is a slam-dunk. I'll read or watch any variation of this story, from Patrick Swayze in Ghost to all those early X-Files episodes. So having been a fan of Christopher Pike in my teen years, I'm not sure how Remember Me (1989) managed to slip my notice. But hey, better late than never!

Shari Cooper is dead, thrown from a balcony at a friend's party. Now her ghost is stuck in limbo, able to see her friends and family, but unable to communicate with them in any way. What's worse, everyone thinks she committed suicide, the police officer investigating her case is an alcoholic, and there's a nightmarish monster chasing her through the afterlife.

But at only eighteen years old, Shari knows she didn't kill herself — someone pushed her off that balcony. And... Read More

Grave Importance: Greta gets what she deserves

Grave Importance by Vivian Shaw

Grave Importance (2019) is the third DR GRETA HELSING book by Vivian Shaw, following Strange Practice and Dreadful Company. For the best experience, you should read those books first, though it’s not strictly necessary. Each book’s main plot stands alone, but the characters’ relationships (including a romance) develop over the course of the three novels.

After the events of Dreadful Company, Greta is back in England, helping vampyre Varney take care of the new monsters they’ve brought back from Paris. When a colleague who runs a clinic for ... Read More

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal: A flawed but fun wuxia-fantasy…

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal directed by Peter Pau

I always enjoy a good wuxia-fantasy, and Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal ticks the expected boxes of the genre: noble warriors, beautiful maidens, impressive stunt-work, a twisty-turny plot — but despite its length, it doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it should have.

The city of Hun is ruled by the lesser god Zhang Diaoxian, who protects its people from the demons of Hell by turning a simple scholar called Zhong Kui into a mighty demon-slayer. The two of them have kept Hell’s demons at bay for many years, but now the fifteenth of July approaches, a day in which the Earth is vulnerable from attack.

After the theft of the Dark Crystal from the underworld, and the arrival of Zhong Kui’s former lover – a mysterious maiden called Little Snow – to the city, Diaoxian gives his protégé an elixir that transforms him into a demon warrior, insisting that it’s the... Read More

Dreadful Company: Greta goes to Paris

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company (2018) is the second book in Vivian Shaw’s warm-hearted DR GRETA HELSING series. It follows Strange Practice which, for best results, I’d recommend reading first. The stories are self-contained, but the characters’ relationships with each other evolve a bit throughout the series.

Greta has been asked to present a paper at a medical conference in Paris. She travels to the City of Lights with her vampire friend Lord Ruthven and, on one of the evenings, they plan to attend the opera. As they get ready, Greta notices a little monster in her sink at the hotel and knows that this type must be summoned, meaning that there is a practitioner in Paris.
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Sabbath: It’s strange. It’s interesting.

Sabbath by Nick Mamatas

I don’t always agree with Nick Mamatas or his views on humanity, but I think he is one of the most interesting writers working right now, and Sabbath (2019), while it’s strange, is definitely interesting. The story behind the story is interesting and a little strange too. Sabbath (2019) is a novelization of a graphic novel called Sabbath: All Your Sins Reborn, by Matthew Tomao, which does not seem to be well known or much admired on the internet.

Mamatas writes a book that has some wonderful, hallucinatory prose, gallons of gore, a passel of severed heads, attack poodles, several actiony set-pieces and social observations as astringent as shot of cold gin. To crib a line from the Buffy-spinoff Angel, who doesn’t love... Read More

Strange Practice: Great premise, bland plot

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Greta Helsing, a 34 year old doctor, has a discreet medical practice in modern London. Her life’s mission is to study, help, and heal all of the supernatural creatures that most of the world is unaware of and would view as monsters if they did learn about them. As you might expect, this gets her into all sorts of weird situations that have been documented in Vivian Shaw’s DR GRETA HELSING series.

In this opening volume, we meet a couple of Greta’s best friends: Lord Ruthven, an ancient vampire who lives in a large gracious mansion in London, and Fastitocalon, a math-loving accountant’s assistant with COPD who can read minds and happens to be a demon.

When a brooding guilt-ridden vampyre named Sir Francis Varney (of the penny-dreadful called Varney the Vampyre) s... Read More

The Line Between: Apocalyptic thrills and doomsday cult chills

The Line Between by Tosca Lee

The Line Between (2019) is a chilling and believable take on what happens when a long-extinct disease emerges from the frozen tundra in Alaska. Apparently free-range hogs will eat almost anything, including a disease-infested caribou carcass exposed by the melting permafrost (nod to global warming here). The prion-based disease promptly teams up with a modern flu virus. Invariably fatal cases of rapid early-onset dementia ensue.

These sobering events are seen through the eyes of twenty-two-year-old Wynter Roth, who, as the story begins, is escaping/being kicked out of her apocalyptic cult in rural Iowa. It's a combination of both: she did want out, but the method and timing were taken out of her hands, and she’s deeply torn because her older sister Jaclyn and her four-year-old niece Truly are still locked into the New Earth cult's life. Plus, Wynter has spent fifteen years ... Read More

Winterwood: Atmospheric but glitchy winter tale

Winterwood by Shea Ernshaw

Nora Walker is all alone in the world. Her whole family are rumored to be witches, which sets her apart from other kids her age. Her grandmother is dead, and her mother is something of an absentee parent. And now that winter has set in at Jackjaw Lake, all the tourists are gone, leaving behind only Nora in her cottage and the residents of the nearby camp for delinquent boys. Nora’s isolation increases still further when a storm drops four feet of snow on the area, cutting off the roads and knocking out the phone lines.

Everything changes when Nora ventures into the oldest, spookiest part of the woods on the full moon and finds Oliver Huntsman, a boy who went missing two weeks ago from the camp. She helps him recover from hypothermia and takes him back to the camp, but in the process learns that there is more to the story than just one boy getting lost in the woods. Another boy died the same night, and ... Read More

Street Freaks: A new genre for a well-known author

Street Freaks by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks is best known for his fantasy novels (particularly the SHANNARA series) but with Street Freaks (2018) he tries his hand at science fiction for the first time. The results are ... fine. This is hardly a game-changing or genre-bending novel, but a fast-paced, reasonably interesting story that belongs as much in the dystopian genre as it does science fiction. Brooks's distinctive prose (clear but liable to repeat itself) is matched well with a collection of interesting characters and some fun world-building.

The story begins when teenager Ash Collins receives a warning from his father through his vidview, telling him "Go into the Red Zone. Go to Street Freaks. Don't wait ... "The connection ends before the message is complete, and minutes later Ash's apartmen... Read More

The Last Town: … or this could be hell

The Last Town by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch wraps up the WAYWARD PINES trilogy in The Last Town (2014). If you haven’t read the prior two books, Pines and Wayward, be warned that here there be spoilers, as well as monsters and a bloodbath.

David Pilcher was a visionary man, convinced that the town of Wayward Pines, Idaho would be a new Eden, a place where people could start over again. The sign outside of town even proclaims “WELCOME TO WAYWARD PINES — WHERE PARADISE IS HOME”! Though Pilcher was right in many ways, life there was far more difficult and dangerous than he foresaw. Between that and Pilcher’s mania for control, Wayward Pines has been more of a prison for its inhabi... Read More

The Queen’s Advantage: Another jaunty space opera

The Queen's Advantage by Jessie Mihalik

The Queen's Advantage (2019) is the second story in Jessie Mihalik’s ROGUE QUEEN series. These are short and entertaining science fiction novellas. I enjoyed the first one, The Queen's Gambit, because it’s fast-paced, has a strong female protagonist, an appealing love interest, and a nice sense of humor. You’ll want to read it before picking up The Queen's Advantage.

I listened to Tantor Audio’s edition which is narrated by Rachel Dulude. The cover art of the audiobook is horrendous, and Dulude could use a bit of coaching for her prosody, but don’t let this scare you away. It’s a good format for this story.

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The Last Conversation: Somber and disturbing

The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay

A person — whose name and gender are never specified, because that person is "you" — wakes up, alone in a room. You’re blind and in intense pain, and at first you remember nothing at all of your past. You only hear one person, Dr. Anne Kuhn, who instructs you through a speaker: testing you mentally, badgering you to exercise, and, little by little, giving you bits of information about your past life and about why you are where you are now. Gradually it becomes clear that something disastrous has happened.

The Last Conversation (2019) is an odd but compelling and ominous science fiction novella from Paul Tremblay. It’s reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode: strange, somber and slightly horrific in a slow-burn way, with a surprising reveal at the end (or perha... Read More

Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit

Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit by Helene Saucedo

October is here, Halloween parties are incipient, and that means group activities will be in order — spooky card games, spine-chilling board games, and, yes, palmistry kits. Helene Saucedo’s Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit (2019) declares itself to be “everything you need to read and create a print of the hand,” and I was curious to see how well the kit actually met that challenge.

The guidebook is slim, covering the major steps of palm-reading and touching lightly on the history of palmistry, or chiromancy, as it was once known. While the lines on a person’s palm were once thought to contain such portentous information as the number of successful romances or the limit of a person’s life span, current palmistry seems to be more of a self-reflection or self-assessment t... Read More

The Little Broomstick: A strange and mysterious little story

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

Having recently watched Mary and the Witch's Flower, I was curious about how it measured up to its source material, particularly since I usually read the book before watching its filmic adaptation.

And The Little Broomstick (1971) is a strange little book in so many ways: beautifully written, with plenty of haunting passages, but with a story and setting that would have been served well with a lot more detail and background. Imagine Hogwarts School without any sense of its history — though Endor College predates Harry Potter by over two decades, there are so many unanswered questions about why it exists and who attends.

Mary Smith is a ten year old girl who's thoroughly unhappy with her current situation: bundled off to the Shropshire countryside, sep... Read More

Give the Dark My Love: A dark story for young adults

Give the Dark My Love by Beth Revis

Nedra Brysstain is a new scholarship student at the Yugen academy in her country’s capital city. She comes from one of the rural villages in the north that have been suffering from the plague. She plans to study medicinal alchemy so she can learn how to heal people who’ve been infected with the plague.

Though most of the school’s wealthy students either ignore or attempt to ostracize Nedra, her talents and kind heart win her two important allies. One is the professor who takes her under his wing after he recognizes her potential. The other is a rich handsome student named Grey who is willing to look past Nedra’s low status.

As the plague continues to sweep the country, Nedra trains hard while she worries for her hometown, especially her parents and twin sister. As Nedra starts to become aware of her country’s political situation, and as the plague gets closer and closer ... Read More

The Nobody People: Interesting concept, but not a page-turner

The Nobody People by Bob Proehl

Avi Hirsch is an investigative journalist whose specialty is reporting on bombings. He’s obsessed with bombs and the people who make them. This preoccupation has led to the loss of a leg, but that doesn’t slow Avi down too much.

Avi’s latest obsession is with a video recording of a church bomber. There’s a couple of things that seem strange about it. One is that Avi has seen this same guy on two videotaped bombings and he should have died in each. The other weird thing is that matter seems to act strangely when this bomber is present. It’s almost as if the guy can nullify matter.

As Avi is on the bomber’s trail, some people come to visit him and tell him they’ve caught the bomber. These odd folks are faculty members at a school for kids with supernatural abilities. They call themselves Resonants and they want Avi to visit the school and write a news art... Read More

City of Ghosts: A genial enough middle grade story

City of Ghosts by V.E. Schwab

City of Ghosts (2018) by V.E. Schwab is a Middle Grade book that, well, reads like a Middle Grade book.

In other words, it’s entertaining and engaging enough for that age group, but doesn’t have the depth or complexity in plot or characters to expand beyond that audience, which I’m clearly well, well outside of.

Ever since she almost drowned, young Cassidy Blake has been able to see ghosts, to “pull aside the veil” and step for a brief time into their world.

She’s also picked up a best friend — Jacob — a ghost of roughly her own age.

Cass is looking forward to a nice easy summer at the beach, but instead her author parents, who write about the paranormal (dad’s the skeptic, mom the believer), have been picked up for a TV... Read More

Lies of Descent: Solidly written but too familiar

Lies of Descent by Troy Carrol Bucher

Troy Carrol Bucher’s Lies of Descent (2019) is the first book in a new trilogy, FALLEN GOD’S WAR, set in a world of magic, fallen gods, clashing cultures, and internal conflict within cultures. While the writing is solid enough, and Bucher offers up a few unexpected turns, the book suffers from overly familiar elements.

Ages ago the gods of light (led by Parron) and darkness (led by Tomu) warred with each other and to prevent that war from wiping out all life, the gods of light sacrificed themselves to drag their foes down with them to mortal lands where their power, though still strong, could not destroy the world. Those mortal descendants with the blood of Parron can wield magic, and the two warring militaristic cultures of the world, the Esharii and Draegorans, both test their youth and then train them (though the Esharii do so... Read More

The Lost Sisters: Answers questions, provides depth

The Lost Sisters by Holly Black

Twin sisters Jude and Taryn were taken to live in the Court of Elfhame after their parents were murdered by Madoc, a general in the land of faerie who is now their step-father and guardian. We witnessed how these mortal girls struggled as they came of age in the land of faerie in the first novel in Holly Black’s THE FOLK OF THE AIR series, The Cruel Prince, which was written from Jude’s perspective. Jude tells us how she was bullied, all the ways she fought back, and how her twin sister Taryn eventually betrayed her.

Now we get to hear Taryn’s side of the story.

The novella The Lost Sisters (2018) re-tells the most important events of The... Read More

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter: A Lovecraftian Sherlock Holmes pastiche

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

Captain John Wyndham has returned to Khelathra-Ven after being away with the army for several years. Rents are high, so he decides to answer an ad for a housemate. When he moves in, he discovers that his new companion is Shaharazad Haas, a renowned and powerful sorceress who’s addicted to opium. When Ms. Haas is asked to find out who is blackmailing her ex-girlfriend, Captain Wyndham tags along and starts getting involved in a case which turns into a weird and wacky adventure.

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter (2019) is a gender-bending Lovecraftian Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Shaharazad Haas is Sherlock Holmes and Captain Wyndham, who was female when he was young, is Watson. The plot, which is quirky... Read More

The Gossamer Mage: A mixed bag

The Gossamer Mage by Julie E. Czerneda

I really wanted to like The Gossamer Mage (2019) by Julie E. Czerneda, because there is so much to like in it: the premise, the themes, the character cores. But more than usual, I felt the book was fighting me the whole way, so that while it always was in the realm of wholly enjoyable, something always got in the way of it reaching its full potential.

The story is set in the relatively small, isolated land of Tananen, apparently the only place in this world that still has magic, though it’s a particularly costly form. The magic is a “gift” from the Deathless Goddess, who bestows her magic words in different fashion to men and women. Men with the “gift” can be mage scribes, people who can write the Goddess’ words with “intention” and thus create made creatures such as unfailing oxen, powerful bodyguards, illuminating insects, etc. (Som... Read More

The Unbound: Not your typical high school drama

The Unbound by Victoria Schwab

The Unbound is the sequel to Victoria Schwab’s The Archived, which you should read before starting this book. There will be some spoilers for The Archived in this review, so beware.

Summer is over for Mackenzie Bishop, the Keeper whose secret job is to escort the “Histories” of dead people back to their resting place in the Archive. When we met Mac in The Archived, she had just moved into an old hotel in a new town and solved some murders that had occurred there decades ago. Also, she met Wesley, a spiky-haired eyeliner-wearing boy who turned out to have a lot more in common with her than she ever could have guessed.

... Read More

Reticence: Percy finally falls in love

Reticence by Gail Carriger

I adore Gail Carriger’s FINISHING SCHOOL series, but I’m not a big fan of her related series (THE PARASOL PROTECTORATE and THE CUSTARD PROTOCOL). They’re just too silly for me, with their focus on fashion and frivolity. I can see why others like them, though. They are unique, creative, and well written with some great characters. They’re just not my thing.

However, I did want to read the final CUSTARD PROTOCOL book, Reticence, because it stars Percy, one of my favorite Carriger characters. Percy is the bookish navigator of the airship The Spotted Custard, which is captained by Prudence, whose sexual awakening we witne... Read More