Stand-Alone

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

Among Thieves: A fun, light read

Among Thieves by M.J. Kuhn


Among Thieves (2021), by M.J. Kuhn, is a sort of two-tier book for me. On the one hand, it’s a fast-paced heist novel that speeds along amiably, easily, and with some humor. On the other hand, it’s somewhat of a paint-by-number heist novel that doesn’t really add anything new to the genre and skimps a bit on characterization and world-building. If it’s your first experience with this type of story, or you’re a younger reader, and/or someone who prefers plot-driven rather than character-driven stories, then it’s probably in the 3.5-4.0-star range. If you’ve read similar works, though, or look for more substance and originality in your characters, it’s more likely a 3.0 or, if you’re grumpy that day, a 2.5.

Ryia Cautella, aka the Butcher of Carrowwick... Read More

Ace of Spades: Dark academia meets Gossip Girl, and no place is safe

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Ace of Spades (2021) is Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s first novel. It’s a YA thriller and doesn’t have any speculative elements, but if you like good prose, good characterization and high-suspense thrillers this book might be for you. I was not the target audience for this book, but after the first couple of chapters, I could not put it down.

Chiamaka and Devon are students at an upscale private high school called Niveus Academy. It’s senior year, and the two are each selected to be Senior Prefects (the school, while located in the USA, follows certain British school traditions.) For Chiamaka, this simply ticks another box on her personal to-do list, which include being crowned queen of the school ball and accepted into Yale premed. Devon, a scholarship student, is stunned that he’s been made prefect, because he has no friends and k... Read More

Intrigue on the Upper Level: My kind of Hell, Chicago is…

Intrigue on the Upper Level by Thomas Temple Hoyne

Just recently, I had some words to say about Jack Williamson and Dr. Miles J. Breuer’s 1931 novel The Birth of a New Republic, in which a group of citizens (living on the Moon) rises up in rebellion against the despotic corporate forces oppressing them. Well, now I am here to tell you of another sci-fi book of the early ‘30s dealing with still another revolt against the powers that be. The book in question this time is called Intrigue on the Upper Level, by someone named Thomas Temple Hoyne. The chances are very good that you are unfamiliar with both this nove... Read More

Harlem Shuffle: Another twist from a master storyteller

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

One thing we can be sure to expect from Colson Whitehead is the unexpected. The double Pulitzer Prize winner shot to fame with the alternate history (and FanLit favourite) The Underground Railroad. He debuted with speculative fiction, later wrote a zombie novel, and his work now takes another twist: a heist novel, in the form of his latest release, Harlem Shuffle (2021).

The book follows Ray Carney, a furniture salesman in 1950s - 1960s Harlem. His wife, Elizabeth, is expecting their second child, so when Ray's cousin Freddie — ever the liability — comes to him with the proposition to rob the Hotel Theresa, it's easy to understand why Ray is reluctant to get involved.... Read More

In the Watchful City: Some fresh takes, but needed more development

In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu

In the Watchful City (2021) is a novel in story form, a structure I’m usually a big fan of, but the stories rarely felt fully developed and in the end they just didn’t coalesce for me into an entirely effective or cohesive whole, though there is a true originality in style and content here.

The setting is the city-state of Ora, which has managed to escape from under the dominating Skyland empire and, in an attempt to keep its residents free and happy, the city uses upgraded humans as “nodes” in an AI-like surveillance network (“the Gleaming”). Some specialized nodes can leap into the bodies of living creatures (though not human ones) and control them in order to intervene when necessary.

Anima is one such node and æ has been happily enacting ær role for some time. Ær regular, contented life, though, is disturbed by the appearance of a fore... Read More

The Angel of the Crows: Too faithful to the originals

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

For about the first third or perhaps half of Katherine Addison’s newest, The Angel of the Crows (2020), I was thinking I was finally off the schneid, as it had been about two weeks since I’d really thoroughly enjoyed a novel I was reading. And I was definitely enjoying the pastiche of several Sherlock Holmes stories which basically boils down to “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” Which sounds like a lot of fun, and as noted, it was, at least for that first third or so. But then, well, it never really went anywhere beyond “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” and after about the halfway point my enjoyment began to falter, the story began to sag, and by the end I was left feeling that a n... Read More

My Heart is a Chainsaw: Jones nails the slasher-film tone perfectly

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

There is so much to like in Stephen Graham JonesMy Heart is a Chainsaw (2021): a can’t-help-but-root-for-her main character, a prom-worthy bucketload of slasher-film references, a wry and sometimes bitingly funny narrative voice, so many red herrings the reader’s gonna need a bigger boat, deftly handled themes exploring race, gentrification, class, parenting (familial and communal), and trauma, and a climax that contains more blood than you can hold in a bank of elevators. So much to like, in fact, that my only real criticism is that there’s too much here, leading to a book that despite its many positives unfortunately begins to feel it has, like Jason or Michael, overstayed its welcome.

Jade (real name Jennifer, but don’t ever call her that... Read More

You Brought Me the Ocean: A sweet romance with beautiful artwork

You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, drawn by Julie Maroh

Jake Hyde dreams of the ocean and has secretly applied to the marine biology program at the University of Miami, but in waking life, the ocean is limited to the aquarium in his room. His father drowned, and since then his mother has resolutely kept him away from water (hence the secrecy about University of Miami). She even moved them to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to keep her son away from water.

A yearning for the ocean’s not the only secret Jake is keeping. He likes guys, a fact he hasn’t shared with his best-friend-since-forever, Maria, whose feelings for him are clearly changing. Meanwhile, Jake is attracted to Kenny Liu, the school swim team captain, who is out and proud.

You Brought Me the Ocean (2020) is a graphic novel, a coming-out romance set in the world of DC Comics. Jake is a reimagining of a 1960s Aquama... Read More

Sea Siege: An unusual story for Norton

Sea Siege by Andre Norton

In the mid-20th century, Griffith lives in the West Indies with his father, a famous scientist who studies marine biology. Griffith, who helps his father with his research, thinks the work is pretty boring. He hopes to go back to America soon to attend the Air Force Academy.

Griff suddenly becomes more interested in his father’s work when something in the sea starts attacking ships near the island he lives on. Some people think it’s a dupee, others think it’s a Russian submarine. When a large radioactive sea creature washes up on shore, the octopi begin acting weird, and the American Navy arrives to build a facility they aren’t allowed to talk about, the islanders become worried. Not only are they concerned about the environmental effects on the reef, but they are also nervous about their island being caught in the middle of a Cold War that seems t... Read More

The Birth of a New Republic: Of Lunarian bats and atomic vortexes

The Birth of a New Republic by Jack Williamson & Miles J. Breuer

In his 1966 novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, author Robert A. Heinlein gave his readers a tale of a penal colony on the Moon that rebels and declares its independence from Earth. The book went on to win the coveted Hugo Award and probably didn’t hurt Heinlein’s chances of being named sci-fi’s very first Grand Master, in 1974. But, as it turns out, this was not the first time that a writer had presented his fans with such a literally revolutionary scenario. A full 35 years earlier, sci-fi’s second-named Grand Master, Jack Williamson, in collaboration with Dr. Miles J. Breuer, had come out with a novel entitled The Birth of a New Republic Read More

Revelator: A high-proof distillation of horror

Revelator by Daryl Gregory

Stella Birch sees her family’s god when she is nine years old, in 1933. Her father has dropped her off in a sheltered valley, the cove, in the Smoky Mountains. He says he’s leaving her with Motty, her grandmother, while he looks for work, but he’s never coming back.

Daryl Gregory’s 2021 southern gothic horror novel Revelator trades in bone-deep horror, stunning beauty, strangeness, and acid-etched banter. Moving between two timelines, Stella’s time with Motty in the cove and her present life as a moonshiner in 1948, the novel reveals the secret of the Birch women and the god in the mountain, and includes interesting bits of history, like the creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park, which will inclu... Read More

Da Vinci’s Cat: Solidly charming, but has its issues

Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock offers up a solidly charming Middle Grade portal story involving travel through time and space, the painting of the Sistine Chapel, shifting timelines, feuding Renaissance artists, and of course, a cat. With a quick pace, high stakes, and two comically mismatched young protagonists, Da Vinci’s Cat (2021) will probably satisfy most young readers, despite some issues.

In 1511 Rome, 11-year-old Federico Gonzaga is a “guest-hostage” to Pope Julius II, ensconced in the Pope’s sumptuous villa to ensure the loyalty of his aristocratic family, particularly his father, who leads the Pope’s army. It’s a lavish, pampered existence for sure, but also constraining (he’s not allowed to leave the admittedly huge complex/grounds) and more than a little lonely. That loneliness is eventually abated by a strange trio who s... Read More

Venus Liberated: When Tinus met Coris

Venus Liberated by Harl Vincent

Have you ever thought to yourself, while reading a particularly good book, “What a fantastic movie this novel would make!”? Of course you have … it’s a practically inevitable occurrence. And it is one that has just happened to me again, while reading Harl Vincent’s 1929 offering Venus Liberated. Indeed, featuring as it does space travel, a visit to two nearby worlds, weapons and assorted gadgets of superscience, romance, warfare, and some truly hissable and hideous aliens, the book would have been a natural, it seems to me, as the source of a 1950s sci-fi film … or, given the requisite $200 million budget, a blockbuster summer movie today. Some kind of ultimate pulp epic of the most colorful kind, this is a book that practically screams for the big-screen treatment.

And yet, the fact that it has not been given any cinematic consideratio... Read More

The Kingdoms: Beautiful prose, complex characterization, some plotting issues

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

If Natasha Pulley’s latest novel, The Kingdoms (2021), were a movie script, the elevator pitch might have been “Master and Commander meets The Final Countdown” (look it up, kids). Part time-travel story, part love story (several actually), part Patrick O’Brian story, it curves and recurves through beauty and brutality (more of the latter than the former), time and space, trauma, and rescue (more of the former than the latter), as it delights, horrifies, and frustrates. I loved the first half to two-thirds, felt it went off the rails a bit for some time, then was happy to see it get back on track in time to nail the ending. Which is why I’m recommending it, despite its issues.

The book opens, appropriately enough, with a sentence about memory followed by a... Read More

The Stars are Ours: A fine SF adventure

The Stars are Ours by Andre Norton

Tantor Media has been publishing the omnibus editions of Andre Norton’s science-fiction adventures in audiobook format. The omnibus (originally published by Baen) called Star Flight contains the novels The Stars are Ours and Star Born (the PAX/ASTRA duology). Both novels are set in the same universe (ours, actually) but they stand alone.

The prologue of The Stars are Ours, originally published in 1954, is a big infodump which details a frightening future history of the world in which we basically destroy ourselves with extreme nationalism, a nuclear war, a Cold War, terrorism, a propaganda-spewing anti-science demagogue, and racism. This leads to the destruction of... Read More

Even and Odd: Fun and thought-provoking

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth Durst

Even and Odd are pre-teen sisters living in Stony Haven, Connecticut, where their parents operate a border shop carrying “supplies for the mundane world, as well as imports from the magic world — anything a magical customer might need for their visit here.” Those imports and magically-inclined customers come from the land of Firoth, where Even and Odd were born, and which is accessible via magic portals. The sisters trade off magical abilities on alternating days, leading to their nicknames, though each girl has different opinions on their access to magic: Even, more than anything in the world, wants to become an Academy of Magic-certified hero, while Odd wants to focus on her volunteer work at the local animal rescue center and pretend that she’s completely mundane (unless the opportunity arises to transform Even into a talking skunk, at which point all bets are off).

Much to everyone’s ... Read More

Thus Far: Like it! Orr not.

Thus Far by J.C. Snaith

Once again, I find myself indebted to the fine folks at the publisher Armchair Fiction, for alerting me about a book whose existence I probably would never have learned of without their assistance; hardly the first time that this has happened. The novel in question in this instance bears the curious title Thus Far, which was initially released in 1925 by both the British publisher Hodder & Stoughton and the American publisher D. Appleton & Co., and then sank into virtual oblivion for a full 96 years, until Armchair chose to revive it for a new generation just a few months back. Thus Far is the product of English author J.C. (John Collis) Snaith, who’d been born in Nottingham in 1876 and was thus pushing 50 at the time of this book’s release. Almost as well known as a cricket player as for his writing... Read More

Machine: Should have been more exciting

Machine by Elizabeth Bear

Dr. Jens and her alien colleagues rescue spaceships that are in trouble. After answering a distress call, they discover an old ship in which all of the human crewmembers are in cryogenic storage. Their only caretaker is an oddly sexy robot who was given instructions to build the cryogenic storage containers for the crew long ago.

When Dr. Jens and her colleagues get back to their own ship and get ready to thaw out some of the frozen humans, they discover that their own trusty shipmind, Sally, is starting to forget things. They begin to suspect a rogue artificial intelligence might be responsible for what’s been happening on both of the ships.

When Dr. Jens is asked to figure out what’s going on, she begins to unravel a strange mystery and discovers that the benevolent organization she works with, and some of her beloved colleagues, may not be quite as wonderful as she thought. As we tag... Read More

The Second Deluge: Rain, rain, go away….

The Second Deluge by Garrett P. Serviss

It is the Indian state of Meghalaya, just north of Bangladesh, the holds the record for being “The Wettest Spot on Earth,” getting, on average, a whopping total of 467” of rain a year. (Do bring an umbrella if you’re planning a visit!) But while this 38-foot tally, 13 times what Seattle might expect annually, is certainly impressive, it pales to insignificance compared to what descends from the heavens in Garrett P. Serviss’ 1911 novel The Second Deluge, in which, due to a cosmic mischance, no fewer than 30,000 feet of rain fall upon our fair planet in under one year … enough to effectively drown the entire world, past the tippy top of Mt. Everest itself! A wonderfully written novel that is fairly epic in scope, it is a sadly neglected apocalyptic work that is surely ripe for rediscovery in our modern-day era... Read More

The Midnight Bargain: A charming frolic of a book

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk 

By the bottom of the second full page of text, when the protagonist of The Midnight Bargain (2020) walked into Harriman’s Bookshop, I was hooked. When Beatrice Clayborn entered the second-hand shop and I saw it through her eyes, the book claimed me, not unlike the way a spirit might claim a sorceress in Beatrice’s magical world.

It’s bargaining season, or marriage season in Beatrice’s world, and young women of the upper classes, like Beatrice, jostle and compete for the hand of a suitable husband. Suitability is decided by their fathers, of course, and usually determined based on wealth, status and influence.

Beatrice loathes the bargaining season. She wants to study magic and become a full-blown Mage, a path closed to women, especially upper-class wome... Read More

Theodore Savage: An absolutely splendid post-apocalyptic work

Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton

By the time WW1 ended in 1918, London-born Cicely Hamilton had already earned a name for herself as an advocate for both women’s rights and marriage equality. As one of Britain’s most vocal suffragettes, she’d campaigned for the right of women to vote; as a renowned playwright, she’d written socially biting works for the stage, and indeed, her suffrage dramas How the Vote Was Won (1909) and A Pageant of Great Women (1910) were both highly successful. But during the Great War, Hamilton also served in France, both in a nursing unit and in a revue for the entertainment of the troops, and her wartime experiences soon resulted in her penning her one and only science fiction novel, entitled Theodore Savage.

A wonderfully well written and emotionally affectin... Read More

We Are Satellites: A science fiction novel that will stay in your head

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

Often in magical realism, a writer takes one little bit of magic and plunks it into an otherwise entirely realistic story, like adding a single drop of blue food dye into a glass of water that remains water, but water newly, wholly colored by that one tiny drop. In Sarah Pinsker’s novel, We Are Satellites (2021), we have what one might class science-fictional realism; she eschews building the usual futuristic world full of advances and instead offers up a single drop in the form of the Pilot, a brain implant that allows the wearers to multitask without loss of focus, making them incredibly efficient.

Pinsker further narrows the story by focusing like a laser on a single family and the varying impact the introduction of the Pilot into society has on each member, crafting a quiet, character-drive... Read More

The Golem and the Jinni: A magical mural of the immigrant experience

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

A Genie. A golem. Nineteenth-century New York City. Boy, did I want to love this book. Drawn by its come-hither characters, its promise of poetry, and by its dark side in the form of a truly nasty character, I really, really wanted to love it. And truth is, I liked The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. But in the well-trod words of middle school, I didn’t “like like” it. Oh, it was fun, it made me smile sometimes and think sometimes and feel a bit sad at other times. I enjoyed hanging out with it for the length of its near-500 pages. But, despite that fire-genie at its heart, there just wasn’t that spark. I just wanted to be friends.

We meet our two fantastical characters early on via two different storylines. The Golem, Chava, travels to 1899 New York on a steamer and finds herself ashore in... Read More

This Virtual Night: An entertaining SF thriller

This Virtual Night by C.S. Friedman

C.S. Friedman’s This Virtual Night (2020) is billed as book two in her OUTWORLDS/ALIEN SHORES series but these novels are, so far, stand-alone stories set in the same universe. Thus, you don’t need to have read the first book, This Alien Shore (1998), though I’d recommend doing so anyway because it was fabulous. All you need to know about Friedman’s world is that, long ago, the humans who left Earth to colonize other galaxies evolved in ways that their fellow humans who remained on Earth find repulsive. There is little communication or cooperation between Earth and the outworld “Variants,” though some people on earth are trying to reconcile the two groups.

... Read More

Project Hail Mary: Mixed opinions

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

It’s alarming to wake up from a coma in completely unfamiliar surroundings, tethered to a bed by tubes and electrodes, with a computer voice quizzing you and robotic arms controlling your movements. It’s even more disturbing when you realize that you have no recollection of your name or your past life, and that there are two long-dead bodies in the room with you.

But gradually, through a series of flashback memories, Ryland Grace remembers that Earth is facing an extinction event: a Russian scientist discovered that a strange line has developed between the sun and Venus, and it’s causing the sun to lose energy at a rate that’s high enough to cause a worldwide ice age in the next few decades. Grace, a disgraced molecular biologist who abandoned academia to teach middle school science, was one of the scientists investigating the un... Read More