Stand-Alone

These are stand alone novels (not part of a series).

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang: Send in the clones

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

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 f... Read More

The Rithian Terror: A pleasing blend of hard SF and hard-boiled espionage

The Rithian Terror by Damon Knight

A pleasing blend of futuristic science fiction and hard-boiled espionage caper, The Rithian Terror, by Damon Knight, first saw the light of day in the January 1953 issue of Startling Stories, under the title Double Meaning. For 25 cents, readers also got, in that same issue, a Murray Leinster novelette entitled “Overdrive,” as well as five short stories, including Isaac Asimov’s “Button, Button” and Jack Vance’s “Three-Legged Joe;” that’s what I call value for money! Anyway, the Knight novel later appeared in one of those cute little “Ace doubles,” and, later still, in a 1965 paperback... 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

It: Stephen King’s best

It by Stephen King

Stephen King's It is a wonderfully sweeping tale of what it means to be a child and what it means to leave your childhood behind, inevitably and mostly forgotten, when transforming into an adult. This very evocative tale of childhood orbits and surrounds a tale of exquisite horror, and is my favorite of the 25 or so King books I’ve read.

It story takes place in King’s old fictional haunt of Derry, Maine, and focuses on two time periods — 1957 and 1984 — where a group of friends, as children and then as adults, form a magnificent bond to battle foes both natural and supernatural. One member of this group frames the story well:

My whole pleasant life has been nothing but the eye of some storm I don't understand.

An eye ... Read More

Snakewood: Interesting premise that needs more work

Snakewood by Adrian Selby

I picked up Adrian Selby’s debut novel, Snakewood, after hearing a lot of good things about the book. Promising a dark world of realpolitik in the tradition of Glen Cook, Snakewood tells the story of the company once known as Kailen’s Twenty. While the company is long disbanded, many of its members still live and thrive in various occupations, until they turn up with throats slit and a black, stone coin on their bodies — the mark of a traitor. Spooked by these occurrences, former company leader Kailen begins calling his soldiers back to his side both to protect them and to discover the truth behind the murders. It’s a fascinating story, but the execution in Snakewood leaves a lot to be desired.

Sticking to that subgenre and choosing ... Read More

The Bridge: Lucid dreams with a Scottish flair

The Bridge by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks is a versatile Scottish writer, equally skilled in far-future space opera (the CULTURE series), dark contemporary novels (The Crow Road, The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass), and a host of novels in between. The Bridge is one of his earlier books, and the late author’s personal favorite according to an interview. It was also selected by David Pringle in his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. I’ve had it on the TBR list for about two decades, and finally got around to listening to it on audio.

The Bridge (1986) is narrated by Peter Kenny, the highly talented narrator of most of Banks’ novels, who is a master of British and Sc... Read More

The Last Theorem: Arthur C. Clarke’s last novel

The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl

In March 2008 one of the titans of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke died at the age of 90. At the time he was working on The Last Theorem, a collaboration with another big name in science fiction, the slightly younger Frederik Pohl who died in 2013. Clarke's health would not permit him to do the writing himself so much of the novel was written by Pohl based on an outline and notes by Clarke. Just a few days before he died, Clarke finished reviewing the manuscript and gave it his blessing. Clarke's last novel got quite a bit of attention when it was released. It also got mixed reviews.

The Last Theorem is the story of the life of Ranjit Subramanian. We follow his life, most... Read More

Eifelheim: Magnificent SF combining science, history, and historical fiction

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

Eifelheim is one of those transcendent science fiction stories where an author is able to treat very human and Earth-bound issues with a well-reasoned and fascinating gloss of aliens and science. Author Michael Flynn's alien mythos and capabilities are believable and seamlessly integrated into the very real history of plague-era Germany.

I picked up Eifelheim because I love a good story of first contact. I find myself continually drawn to the classics in this science fiction genre, but also the classic tales of first contact of the very terrestrial kind: human exploration and discovery. Both Hernán Cortés and his first Aztec meetings as well as Pizarro and the Incas hold special fascination for me, as do much of that era’s tribal first contact with “civilizatio... 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

Feersum Endjinn: An eclectic far-future science fantasy

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

Sometimes a book has so many incredible elements that it defies easy summary. Compound that with the fact that it shares themes with some of your favorite genre classics, and that it is written by the incredibly-talented Iain M. Banks, and you have the recipe for a very unique reading experience. As I read the story, I was forcibly reminded of some classic books in the genre, particularly Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, 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

Against the Fall of Night: Historically interesting, difficult to read

Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke

Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke, originally appeared as a novella in 1948, in Startling Stories. Clarke expanded the story and published it as a novel with Gnome Press in 1953. Still later he wrote The City and the Stars which expands some of the themes posited in Against the Fall of Night.

Against the Fall of Night would be considered a novella by today’s standards; it’s probably about 40,000 words in length. Other aspects of the work contribute to a “novella” feel; the story is not fleshed out and large sections are told to us via indirect narrative. The things that are shown, though, are imaginative and gorgeous.

Alvin lives in the city of Di... Read More

Doctor Therne: A terrific medical novel by a great adventure fantasist

Doctor Therne by H. Rider Haggard

Free Kindle version.

Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time in English history when the populace vigorously refused to be protected against the smallpox scourge that so often ravaged the countryside. Indeed, to this day in the 21st century, there are still many people around the world who view vaccination against disease an unsafe practice, and refuse to partake of its proven benefits. Back in 1796, when English doctor Edward Jenner first demonstrated the usefulness of introducing cowpox into an individual to prevent smallpox, his discovery was viewed as a great advancement. By the early 1800s, vaccination of this type was widespread, despite the possible dangers of infection. But when Britain passed Vaccination Acts from 1840 - 1853 that made these vaccinations compulsory, well, that's when the trouble started. The Anti-Vaccination Leag... Read More

The Penelopiad: Turns The Odyssey on its head

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

It is Alicia Ostriker, in her wonderful collection of essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, who writes “the true poet is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire, and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reasons, laws and institutions.” Daring to deconstruct one of the most dearly held myths of the Western world, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 The Penelopiad is certainly a tango step or two with the one with the pitchfork tail. Taking The Odyssey and turning it on its head, from comedy to tragedy, Atwood gives readers Penelope’s side of the story.

Narrated from Hades, The Penelopiad is a recounting of Penelope’s life from beyond the grave. Atwood utilizes not only The Odysse... Read More

Can’t Get No by Rick Veitch

Can’t Get No by Rick Veitch

Rick Veitch is one of the best comic book artists and writers most people have never heard of. I’ve already reviewed one of my favorite books of his, Shiny Beasts, a collection of short stories. He also worked with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, and he’s sort of what Alan Moore would be if he were primarily an artist, I believe. Consider this little plug for Rick Veitch’s Can’t Get No: “. . . supremely, magnificently strange, and like nothing else I’ve read.” And that’s from Neil Gaiman, author of Sandman and ma... Read More

Masks and Shadows: A grand, glorious opera of a fantasy novel

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

A selfish prince, a bitter royal wife, a frivolous royal mistress; a lonely widow, a plucky servant girl, a cynical singer; a dastardly plot, a dangerous elemental, a spy, an alchemist (or maybe two); royal banquets, fraught performance rehearsals, and even a bit of cross-dressing at a masquerade ball. Stephanie Burgis’s Masks and Shadows packs in all that and more; there’s Hadyn and the Enlightenment as well.

Carlo Morelli is a castrato, famed throughout Europe for his ethereal voice. Morelli does not seem to mourn the loss of his physical “manhood;” instead he thinks that his peasant parents probably saved his life, rescuing him from starvation. He has prospered from his performances, but his sympathies still lie with the peasant class. On his way to the Esterhaza... Read More

Railhead: Imaginative and entertaining from beginning to end

Railhead by Philip Reeve
If the idea of a heist aboard a sentient train traveling at faster-than-light speeds appeals to you; if said heist involves assumed identities, the theft of a very old and valuable artifact, and a criminal thumbing his nose at a family-run corporation/empire; if you like believable romance and honest-to-goodness fun, then Philip Reeve’s latest YA novel, Railhead, is for you. (If none of that appeals to you, read on anyway: I may be able to change your mind.)

In a galaxy filled with novelties like sentient trains who travel at faster-than-light speeds on specially crafted rails through K-gates stationed on nearly a thousand worlds and moons, Zen Starling is a light-fingered teen who lives with his mother and older sister Myka; their mother suffers from paranoid delusions, and every time her fears ... 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

YOU: For the nostalgia of the burgeoning game industry only

YOU by Austin Grossman

Russell was a nerd in high school, running with a crowd of computer geeks before anyone knew what computers could do. Unlike his childhood friends, he didn’t stay a computer geek. He went on to try to have a ‘normal’ life. His friends went on to release a hugely popular video game, and founded a game label in its own right. Years later and after many changes in plans Russell comes back and applies to work for the people he left behind. Austin Grossman’s YOU is the story of a guy who isn’t quite anything but finds a place where maybe he can create something.

Characters are a huge part of any story for me. I can forgive most trope-filled plots if I can really dig into the characters. I had no such luck with YOU. I wanted to like Russell, ... Read More

The Secret of Platform 13: Delightful, fantastical fun

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson is a well-loved children’s author, and it is books like The Secret of Platform 13 that make me glad that I have no qualms about reading beyond the confines of suggested age groups. In fact, I find the experience particularly indulgent.

As a quick prologue, I note that some people have made much of the similarity between Ibbotson’s Platform 13 at Kings Cross Station and the one used by J.K. Rowling, Platform 9 3/4. I don’t have much to say on the subject, only that the books are very different in most other ways and honestly, it’s not worth getting excited about.

With that said, I can get on to the important things.

Once every nine years a secret door c... 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

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

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

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls: Deserves more attention

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Lindskold

Originally released in 1994, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is Jane Lindskold's first published novel. She is perhaps better known for her Firekeeper books and her collaboration with Roger Zelazny, and her more recent work is considered (urban) fantasy, but this book strikes me as more of a near future science fiction novel. As in a lot of her novels, there is a strong connection between animals and people, although not quite in the way the title seems to suggest. The utter strangeness of the main character and the first person narrative make the novel a very interesting read.

At the opening of Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, Sarah is staying i... Read More