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Strange Monsters: An entrancing musical/literary performance

Strange Monsters by Peter Brewer & Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

I’ve been a fan of Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s short fiction for a few years. She captures a lovely intersection between the mundane and the mythic in her stories, so when she asked if I’d like to review her newest collection, I jumped at the chance. Strange Monsters (2016) is a music-and-words collaboration between Stufflebeam and Peter Brewer, a jazz musician and Stufflebeam’s partner. Over melodies both slow and easy, and chaotic and exciting, a cast of actors reads five short stories and five poems by Stufflebeam. The resulting listening experience is fulfilling, funny, and ultimately haunting.

The first story, “The Stink of Horses,” was inspired by a real-life quote from Chekhov about how dancers stink like horses. It tells the story of Marina Golovina, a mysterious Russian ballerina who inspires obsession, posses... Read More

Song of Kali: A terrific horror novel from a future Hugo Award winner

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

In Jones & Newman's Horror: 100 Best Books, Edward Bryant, writing of his choice for inclusion in that overview volume, Dan Simmons' Song of Kali, mentions that Simmons had spent precisely 2 1/2 days in Calcutta before writing his first book, in which that city plays so central and memorable a role. Despite Simmons' short stay, Bryant reveals that the author filled "voluminous notebooks" with impressions and sketches of the city, and any reader who enters the grim but remarkably detailed horror novel that is Song of Kali will be amazed that its author spent such a short time there. The city is superbly well depicted in this book, and indeed is its most fully fleshed-out "character:" a vile, overcrowded, steaming cesspool of a city that breathes iniq... Read More

Passenger: A perilous voyage through time

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Whilst the concept of time travel itself is nothing groundbreaking, a time-travelling violin virtuoso and a swashbuckling sailor from different centuries is. Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger opens in present-day New York where our protagonist, young violinist Etta Spencer, is on the verge of making her solo debut. But mid-performance she is dragged through a ‘passage’ and finds herself in the midst of a battle between two ships in the Atlantic... in 1776.

Enter Nicholas Carter, an 18th century privateer born as the result of a white man’s rape of an African slave, who is tasked with delivering Etta to his employer. Said employer is the formidable Cyrus Ironwood, head of a powerful time-travelling family who intends to make sure that he has control over all of the historical ... Read More

Roche Limit (Volume 1): Anomalous by Michael Mordeci and Vic Malhotra

Roche Limit (Volume 1): Anomalous by Michael Mordeci and Vic Malhotra

Roche Limit (Volume 1): Anomalous is an excellent science fiction comic book and the first of a projected three volumes, though this first volume really does stand alone as a fully completed storyline: There is no cliffhanger, though future volumes will apparently take us back to the world of Roche Limit. The second volume is already available in trade, and the first issue of the third story arc has already been published. The story takes place in the future in a small colony on a small planet. The colony has been around for about twenty years, and there is already an extreme divide between the wealthy and the working laborers. In addition, tho... Read More

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang: Send in the clones

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Sometimes, a book just has to be given a second chance. Case in point for this reader: Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. When I first started this book around 35 years ago, I could not get past page 20 or so, for some strange reason, and placed it back on my bookshelf unread, where it has remained all this time. Flash forward to last week, when I decided to give the book another chance (what with my supposed adult sophistication and matured patience), and guess what? The novel immediately sucked me right in, and I wound up zipping through the darn thing in record time, reveling in its lovely prose and completely engrossed in its multigenerational narrative. Go figure! Though it was not the author’s first book on the subject of cloning (that would be her debut sci-fi novel from 1965, The Clone), Wilhelm’s 1976 w... Read More

The Visible Man: Spying on Others

The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

Therapist Victoria Vick has taken on a new client, Y___. He has a suit that renders him invisible, though he doesn’t like that term, and he uses the suit to watch people when they think they are alone. He feels guilt, but he also thinks that his guilt is illogical. So, he has come to Vick for therapy.

Why should Y___ feel guilt when his project of observing people is so important? Watching people who do not know they are being watched has become his life’s work, and there is no doubting Y___’s dedication to observing others. He has studied yoga to the point that he can remain still for hours at a time. Though careful to avoid addiction, Y___ takes stimulants so that he can maintain his surveillance for days if necessary. He has also devised numerous ways to get into people’s homes unobserved.

The central conflict in Chuck Klosterman’s The Vis... Read More

The Dark World: Another great fantasy from Kuttner & Moore

The Dark World by Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore

1946 was a very good year indeed for sci-fi's foremost husband-and-wife writing team, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Besides placing a full dozen stories (including the acknowledged classic "Vintage Season") into various magazines of the day, the pair also succeeded in having published three short novels in those same pulps. The first, The Fairy Chessmen, which was released in the January and February issues of Astounding Science-Fiction, was a remarkable combination of hardheaded modernist sci-fi and almost hallucinatory reality twists. Valley of the Flame, from the March issue of Startling Stories, was an exciting meld of jungle adventure, Haggardian l... Read More

Sexing the Cherry: The power of the imagination

Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

Those who have read Jeanette Winterson before may not be surprised by Sexing the Cherry. Those who haven’t, or who have only read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (as I had) may wonder what on earth they have got themselves into. It is a weird story, a surreal experience, and it is meant to be so.

In Sexing the Cherry Winterson celebrates the power of the imagination. Much of the book is the extended flight of fancy of the hero Jordan. He takes the reader to the magical places he visits and introduces us to the characters he meets. These passages read like short stories and are reminiscent of the darkest, most dangerous fairy tales. Winterson also explores the nature of time and asks complex questions about the meaning... Read More

Rebel of the Sands: Gun-slinging Wild West meets Arabian Nights

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

You’ll find no meek or modest brides, no princesses in distress in this Arabian tale. Amani Al’Hiza is our gun-toting, liquor-swigging heroine in this debut from Alwyn Hamilton, who needs to escape from her deadbeat hometown of Dustwalk, or end up wed or dead.

We first meet our sixteen-year-old heroine Amani dressed as a boy, entering a shoot-out to try and win the prize money that’ll get her out of Dustwalk. She is an ace shot, maybe the best in her town, so the competition should be in the bag. That is, until she meets a dark-eyed foreigner called Jin that seems to have as much to hide as she does. When the shoot-out goes awry, Amani and Jin only just manage to escape, but Amani winds up having to return home, a little poorer and a little more bruised than she set out.

Things go from bad to worse. Not only does home consist of a cramped room shared with h... Read More

Black Dog: Not just a bow-wow — a big wow

Black Dog by Caitlin Kittredge

Wow. Please fasten your seat belts and do not attempt to stand up until the book has come to a full and complete stop, because you are about to embark on the fast-paced, twisty-curvy, snarky-poignant thrill ride of Caitlin Kittredge’s Black Dog, Book One in THE HELLHOUND CHRONICLES.

Ava is a hellhound, indentured to a reaper, a demon who makes deals for people’s souls. When the time is right, Gary (yes, her reaper’s name is Gary) sends Ava to collect. While she can do this in human form, Ava can change to a hellish canine if necessary — and often does.

Ava is little more than a slave, and in the rigid hierarchy of hell, hellhounds are near the bottom. When a human necromancer persuades her to steal Gary’s Scythe, Ava reluctantly seizes a ... Read More

Fire Sea: THE DEATHGATE CYCLE finds its footing

Fire Sea by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

In Fire Sea, the third novel of the seven-book DEATHGATE CYCLE, authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman finally seem to find their footing. Where the plots of the first two novels often felt haphazard and clunky, Fire Sea has a relatively streamlined sequence of events that not only makes sense but takes care to involve its setting and characters. What's more, the clichéd fantasy archetypes from the first two are largely set by the wayside. In fact, there aren't any elves or dwarves at all in this one, and Haplo — the only truly interesting character from the first two books — at long last takes over as formal protagonist.

What's... Read More

Sin City (Vol. 4): That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller

Sin City (Vol. 4): That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller

This is the fourth volume in Frank Miller’s SIN CITY series, about a grizzled old detective named John Hartigan who decides that on his final day before retirement (due to severe angina) that he will take down the evil son of the most powerful man in Sin City, Senator Roark. Roark Junior, knowing he is protected by his father, rapes and kills young girls with impunity, and Hartigan decides that someone finally has to do something about it. When he hears that Roark has another victim, 11-year old Nancy Callahan, he tracks him down to a warehouse guarded by several goons. He manages to save Nancy at the expense of his own body and does great harm to Roark Junior as well, setting the stage for the main story 8 years later.

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The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Serious philosophy camouflaged as comedy

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

The HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY series can be enjoyed on many levels, so it’s tough to decide how to review it. On the surface, it’s just a zany series of dry British humorous skits ala Monty Python, but when you dig deeper, Douglas Adams has a lot to say about life, the universe, and everything. Taken as a whole, he presents a consistent philosophy that our universe is impossibly huge beyond our comprehension, and our attempts to understand it are woefully inadequate. But we shouldn’t get too upset about it, because it’s much better not to take things overly seriously. Just sit back and enjoy the show, folks. It’s an amazing place.

I could try to describe the plot in a linear fashion, but there just isn’t much point. Read More

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

To understand Kingdom Come, you have to understand a few things about superhero comics. Now, if you have any sort of interest in the genre at all, I'm sure that sentence opens up nightmarish recollections of previous rabbit-holes down which you've ventured to try to understand some seemingly simple que... Read More

Shifting Shadows: An appealing smorgasbord of stories for MERCY fans

Shifting Shadows by Patricia Briggs

Shifting Shadows is a collection of urban fantasy stories from Patricia Briggs’s MERCY THOMPSON universe, along with a couple of outtakes or brief scenes from recent novels in the series. Several different characters, who will already be familiar to readers of this series as secondary and minor characters, are given the protagonist role in these short stories, along with at least one new character that I believe is completely new to the series, Elyna in “Gray.” Like the novels in these series, these stories alternate between werewolves, vampires, fae, ghosts and witches as the basis for the plot, so there’s quite a bit of variety in these tales, even though they’re all from the same universe.

The stories in Shifting Shadows ... Read More

Magic Rises: Kate is still as much fun as ever

Magic Rises by Ilona Andrews

I’ve been a fan of Ilona AndrewsKATE DANIELS series from the get-go, but didn’t really click with the spinoff Gunmetal Magic, right around the same time as I was getting burned out on paranormal urban fantasy in general. Then, the other day, I was looking for something to read, and thought, “Hey! My backlog!” I saw that I had Magic Rises on my Kindle and settled in for some magic and swashbuckling. Happily, Kate is still as much fun as ever.

In this installment, the sixth in the series, Kate and Curran are hired to protect a werewolf princess in Colchis. This princess, Desandra, is pregnant by two different men from rival shapeshifter families, and the family whose heir is born first will inherit Desandra’s father’s lands. Both... Read More

Dominion: An exciting, satisfying conclusion to the trilogy

Dominion by John Connolly & Jennifer Ridyard

The CHRONICLES OF THE INVADERS by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard comes to a satisfying conclusion with Dominion, the final book of the trilogy. We get a post-apocalyptic survival story on earth, an off-planet prison break, space battles, and political skullduggery and espionage in the halls of the Nairene Sisterhood. Each character faces multiple layers of jeopardy as the story comes to a close, and it’s not certain that everyone we like will live.

In the past, the Illyri invaded and conquered Earth. The conquest was uneasy because the human resistance movement kept fighting. Illyri girls Syl Hellais and her friend Ani Cienda met Paul and Steven, human members of that resistance. Syl and Paul fell in love, and soon discovered... Read More

The Lost Boys Symphony: If destiny exists, can it be overturned?

The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson

Henry, formerly a music student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has run away from home in search of his former girlfriend, Val. Henry’s always been different — listening to music no one else can hear, fixating on certain objects, and exhibiting odd behavior — but since their break-up, his mental and physical health has been on a rapid decline. One night, he sets off on foot for Manhattan, convinced that he’ll find her among the thousands of other NYU students, and that her presence will calm the turmoil in his mind. As he crosses the George Washington Bridge, however, he is overcome by a fugue state, and awakens in the presence of two men who claim to be able to help him put his life back together. Meanwhile, Henry’s disappearance causes Val to reconnect with Henry’s childhood friend, Gabe, and their initial emotional support for one another blossoms into a deeper con... Read More

Imago: Finally, we see the Ooloi perspective

Imago by Octavia Butler

Imago (1988) is the third book in Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy. It concludes the story begun with the human woman Lilith in Dawn (1987) and continued with her Oankali-human ‘construct’ son Akin in Adulthood Rites (1988). Imago takes the bold but logical next step by shifting the perspective to Jodahs, an Ooloi-human construct. The Ooloi are the third, gender-less sex of the Oankali, the alien race of ‘gene traders’ that saved the remnants of humanity on the condition that humanity share its DNA with them and be forever transformed in the process.

Once again Butler doesn’t hesitate to plunge us into the unknown, this time exploring the strangest aspect of the Oankali, the psychically-powerful Ooloi who can manipulate the DNA of living creatures directly... Read More

The Builders: A delightfully unexpected mash-up

The Builders by Daniel Polansky

I'm a huge fan of Daniel Polansky's LOW TOWN series, so I might have claimed that I wouldn't have bought The Builders if he hadn't written it, but that's not completely honest because there is something appealing about a story that features personified animals. I’m sure I’m not the only adult man who hasn’t outgrown them.

As it turned out, this novella is one the wildest stories I've ever read. I can't explain it any better than to quote what other authors and reviewers have already said:

The Wild Bunch meets Watership Down.” ~ Read More

Saga, Volume 5, Issues 25-30 by Brian K. Vaughan

Saga, Volume 5, Issues 25-30 by Brian K. Vaughan

Saga Vol 5 represents a noticeable shift in tone in the ever-evolving series. Until this point the story has managed to wonderfully balance the tribulations of Alana, Marko, Klara and Hazel; The Will, Lying Cat, Gwendolyn and Sophia in pursuit, Prince Robot IV, and the renegade terrorist Dengo. Some of my absolute favorite moments of Vol 4 involved Alana’s acting career and the hardships and temptations faced by Marko as a stay-at-home dad. I also found the story of Dengo incredibly relevant to today’s world in depicting the mentality of a terrorist who believes that murder of innocents is justified in pursuit of a larger goal.

Al... Read More

The Ballad of Black Tom: A powerful reimagining of a weak Lovecraft tale

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

In the late 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft went to visit New York City. He was appalled — appalled! — to discover that the city, especially certain neighborhoods, was crowded with immigrants and people with dark skin. Don’t take my word for it; here are his own in a letter to his friend Clark Ashton Smith, and from a Lovecraft story:

… young loafers and herds of evil-looking foreigners that one sees everywhere in New York.
(Letter to Clark Ashton Smith)

From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of a hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down ... Read More

Mossflower: Woodland creatures rebel against a cruel tyrant

Mossflower by Brian Jacques

Martin, a traveling warrior mouse, is accidentally caught up in a war between the wildcat Tsarmina, who rules over Mossflower Wood, and the gentle woodland creatures starving under her rule. The creatures have formed a resistance group, but most of them are farmers or weavers who lack the experience needed to fight Tsarmina's army of stoats, weasels, and other assorted nasties. Once Martin joins the resistance, they may finally have a chance to win their freedom and drive Tsarmina out.

I loved Brian JacquesREDWALL series as a child, and re-reading Mossflower as an adult was a very nostalgic experience for me. It's been long enough since I last read the first few books of the series that I don't remember exactly which characters make it to the end of the novels and ... Read More

Foundation: Psychohistory is a brilliant sci-fi concept

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Hari Seldon is remembered for combining principles from psychology and history into “psychohistory,” a discipline that projects humanity’s course for thousands of years into the future. Psychohistory cannot very accurately predict the actions of individuals, but large groups are less random in their behavior. Unfortunately, Seldon’s calculations predict that the Galactic Empire will soon fall—and its dissolution will give way to thousands of years of barbarism.

Seldon is not cynical: he turns his attention to manipulating a course of events that will condense the coming Dark Ages and give rise to a reborn empire. Seldon sets up a Foundation on Terminus, and dies hoping that he’s done enough to save the galaxy. Will his gambit succeed?

Foundation is usually classified as a novel, but it was originally published as a series of short stories in the 1940s. They were c... Read More

Golden Reflections: Stories that boldly blend sci-fi and alternate history

Golden Reflections (Mask of the Sun & stories) edited by Joan Spicci Saberhagen & Robert E. Vardeman

Golden Reflections is an anthology of stories based on Fred Saberhagen’s Mask of the Sun, the premise of which is the existence of certain goggles that allow the wearer to see events in the future. But it only works sometimes, and it's unclear what it chooses to show the wearer and why. Golden Reflections includes Saberhagen’s original Mask of the Sun while bringing together several well-known sci-fi/alternate history writers who build on his original concept and its world.

Mask of the Sun is classic sci-fi time-travel, strong alternate history, and richly woven historical fiction. After his brother discovers a mys... Read More