Stand-Alone

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

Time Is the Simplest Thing: Fast-paced and imaginative, with an important message

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Time Is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak

Written s(i)mack-dab in the middle of the American Civil Rights Movement, Clifford D. Simak’s Time Is the Simplest Thing utilizes the tools of science fiction to make poignant comments on the issues of the day. The novel, the author’s sixth out of an eventual 29, was initially serialized in the May - July 1961 issues of Analog magazine with the equally appropriate title The Fisherman, and went on to be nominated for that year’s Hugo Award. (It lost, to Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land Read More

Central Station: A snapshot of a strangely familiar time

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Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Central Station is a thoughtful, poignant, human take on a possible future. For the most part Central Station occurs at the titular port on planet earth. This space resides in what we know today as Tel Aviv, but in the distant future it has gone through many names and many people. Everything seems to begin in earnest when Boris Chong arrives in Central Station after spending a great deal of time away — some of which on Mars. Central Station, the place, is a half-thought meeting of a variety of worlds. Central Station the book is more thoughtful than I think I know how to express, but I’ll give it a try.

Central Station occurs in the very spot where humans expanded from our first planet th... Read More

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: In search of lost things, including a cat

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

At first glance, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada, a legal assistant who has given up his job in the hope of finding a more fulfilling purpose. Though happily married, his cat, Noboru Wataya, has gone missing. If a missing cat sounds too straightforward for a novel often described as the masterpiece of a man who is often mentioned as a dark horse to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, well, there’s a lot to unpack in this summary. Also, Toru is about to learn that his brother-in-law defiles women and his own marriage with Kumiko is in serious trouble.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle can be interpreted along several lines, but perhaps our struggle to form meaningful rel... Read More

Behind Her Eyes: Twisty thriller with cross-genre appeal

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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Louise is an insecure single mom who, one night, meets and kisses a dashing stranger. She’s mortified the next morning to find that the stranger, David, is now her boss. Her married boss. Then she (literally) bumps into David’s wife, Adele, and the two of them hit it off.

Despite her best friend’s warnings that all of this is a bad idea, Louise falls in deeper: into a full-blown affair with David, and into a close friendship with Adele. In particular, Louise and Adele bond over their shared experience with night terrors.

This triangle is a freight train barreling toward trouble, and Louise soon learns that the stakes might be deadlier, as questions and mysteries lurk beneath the surface of Adele and David’s lives: Who, if anyone, killed Adele’s parents? Who, if an... Read More

Miranda and Caliban: A beautiful melancholy tale

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Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Miranda and Caliban is a twist on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ringing one major change on the play: what if Miranda and Caliban were in love?

Our tale begins years before the events of the play; we first meet Miranda as a child, assisting her father Prospero in the ceremonial magic that will bind the “wild boy,” Caliban, and the spirit Ariel to his will. From there, Jacqueline Carey alternates between Miranda’s point of view and Caliban’s, following them as they grow up together. At first, Miranda helps Caliban learn to speak and read; later, when she is stricken by an illness, Caliban helps her. And then when adolescence strikes, the two begin to have forbidden feelings for each other.

Looming o... Read More

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz

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The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz is one of my favorite “slice of life” comics, and it is one I’ve taught several times in my course on comics. A memoir in three parts, The Infinite Wait and Other Stories is memorable for the reader because of Wertz’s strong voice as presented in two ways: through the drawn character we see — the “Julia” we watch living through the events recounted — and through the voice of the narrator, a future Wertz we “hear” but do not see, as she looks back and comments on the Julia in each panel as she lives ... Read More

The Fisherman: Five-star horror

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The Fisherman
by John Langan

The Fisherman (2016), by John Langan, gets my first five-star review of 2017. The Fisherman is a story about bereavement. It is a story about dead wives and children. And it’s a story about fishing and the things we pull up from beneath the surface. It is horror; it will disturb you while you’re reading it, and sneak up on you for days afterward.

Langan structures The Fisherman as a series of nested stories. The story of Abe, a widower who works for IBM in 1990s New York, brackets the book, but Abe’s story is about Abe and Dan, and their story is about the story they hear from Howard. Howard’s story is really Lottie’s s... Read More

Swamplandia!: Wonderfully surreal

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

It's not often a book manages to maintain the balancing act between reality and fantasy, but Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011) treads the line perfectly. The story opens with Hilola Bigtree, matriarch of the Bigtree family who own Swamplandia!, an alligator-wrestling theme park in the Ten Thousand Islands of the coast of Florida. She performs her nightly stunt of jumping into a lake full of alligators, but it is not this which kills her; she falls victim to the more mundane and arguably tragic battle with cancer. This leaves the Bigtree family — Hilola's three children and husband — to come to terms with their loss and the uncertain fate of Swamplandia!.

Narrating the family's story is our thirteen-year-old protagonist, Ava Bigtree, youngest of the Bigtree clan. At thirteen, Ava should have enough problems to... Read More

All Our Wrong Todays: Struggling to get back to my future

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All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

Tom Barren lives in a near-utopian version of our world in 2016, the world that Disney and science fiction optimistically imagined in the 1950s that we would one day have, complete with flying cars, ray guns, space vacations, and other Amazing Stories and Jetson-like technology. There’s a single compelling reason for this: in 1965, a man named Lionel Goettreider invented an engine that produced unlimited clean energy, in the process giving himself a fatal dose of radiation, but also becoming a historic figure on the level of Albert Einstein or Sir Isaac Newton.

Tom is a disappointment to his father, unsuccessful in life, his career, and love. But his father, a genius who has invented a method of time travel, gives Tom a job in his lab after his wife and Tom’s mother dies, not expecting him to amount to anything. Tom is assigned to... Read More

American Gods: Mixed opinions

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is a bad land for Gods... The old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing. Either you've been forgotten, or you're scared you're going to be rendered obsolete, or maybe you're just getting tired of existing on the whims of people.

Shadow, just out of prison and with nothing to go home to, is hired to be Mr. Wednesday's bodyguard as he travels around America to warn all the other incarnations of gods, legends, and myths, that “a storm is coming.” There's going to be a battle between the old gods who were brought to melting pot America by their faithful followers generations ago, and the new gods of technology, convenience, and individuality.

That's the premise of Read More

Six Wakes: A labyrinthine whodunit

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

It may be obvious from reading some of my previous reviews that I really enjoy books in which authors successfully blend elements of detective fiction into their speculative fiction. Six Wakes (2017), by Mur Lafferty, folds the concept of a locked-room mystery into a generation-ship tale, much to my delight.

Six Wakes begins when Maria Arena, a clone, comes to consciousness in the cloning bay of the Dormire and discovers that the exterior of her clone-vat is smeared with blood. All of the six-person crew — including her previous iteration — have been viciously attacked, leaving grisly remains and destroyed equipment from stem to stern. The... Read More

Dr. Futurity: An underrated Dick outing

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Dr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick

As I mentioned in my review of Philip K. Dick’s 1960 novel Vulcan’s Hammer, by 1959, the future Hugo winner was feeling decidedly disenchanted with science fiction in general, despite having had published some 85 short stories and half a dozen novels in that genre. The author, it seems, was still pinning his hopes on becoming a more “respectable,” mainstream writer, and had indeed already completed nine such novels: Return to Lilliput, Pilgrim on the Hill and A Time for George Stavros are considered lost, probably never to see the light of day, whereas Gather Yoursel... Read More

Lud-in-the-Mist: Unconventional and terribly lovely

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

I find myself in something of an awkward position with Lud-in-the-Mist, which is in part why it’s difficult to review. The fact of the matter is that while Lud-in-the-Mist is unequivocally an excellent novel, it is not always an enjoyable novel, and there is a large population of readers out there who may find it close to nauseating.

Lud-in-the-Mist is Hope Mirrlees’s only fantasy novel, and indeed the only one of her three novels for which she is remembered (and that, for the most part in recent years, because Neil Gaiman has put in a goo... Read More

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day: A brief, but tender, ghost story

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Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s novella Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day (2017) is a sensitive tale of love, loss, and regret — the kind that haunts people, turns them into ghosts, makes them flee thousands of miles from their homes, makes them linger somewhere long after it’s time for them to leave.

In 1972, Jenna Pace’s older sister Patty committed suicide in New York City, far away from her family home in Mill Hollow, Kentucky. Jenna, wracked with grief, ran out into a freak thunderstorm and tumbled into a ravine, where she died. Because her life ended before it was supposed to, though, Jenna remains in the living world as a ghost, able to make her body corporeal or insubstantial at will. She moved to NYC shortly after her death and (... Read More

Martians Abroad: Fun from the first page to the last

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Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn

In Martians Abroad (2017), Carrie Vaughn re-envisions aspects of the “juvenile” novel Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein, turning his classic spacefaring story into something refreshing and new while retaining the sense of limitless adventure. Kat has mentioned in her reviews of Heinlein’s juveniles that they were instrumental in forming her love of science fiction, and the same is true for me: books like Have Space Suit — Will Travel and Read More

The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare: A fun, diverting read from a solid author

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The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare by Sophie Masson

I've always enjoyed Sophie Masson's books; to put it simply, her stories are imaginative and her prose is elegant. The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare is no exception, (though it's not one of my favourites of hers) inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest and Twelfth Night, and containing all that those titles imply: adventure, romance, mystery, magic, mistaken identity, and of course — a voyage that ends in a shipwreck upon the shores of an exotic island.

According to her author's note, the name of the protagonist derives from her sister-in-law's anecdote about teaching Shakespeare with texts published under the imp... Read More

Vulcan’s Hammer: Minor Dick, but still very entertaining

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Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick

According to Philip K. Dick authority Lawrence Sutin, in his well-researched biography Divine Invasions, by 1959, although Dick had already had some 85 short stories as well as half a dozen novels published, his interest in creating more sci-fi had reached a low point. The future Hugo winner was at this point hoping to become more of a mainstream author, having by this time already written nine such novels, none of which had been published … yet. Still, with bills to pay, a wife (his third of an eventual five) to support, and his first child on the way, economic necessities did, it seem, perforce drive him back, unenthusiastically, to the sci-fi realm. Tw... Read More

This Year’s Class Picture: A scene from a zombie apocalypse

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This Year’s Class Picture by Dan Simmons

Sci-fi and horror master Dan Simmons has only one real character in this short story: Ms. Geiss, dedicated fourth-grade teacher extraordinaire. She seems to be one of the very few remaining humans following the frequently mentioned, but never-explained, “Tribulations” that had some role in creating an environment where zombies roam the planet.

This Year’s Class Picture opens rather bluntly:
Ms. Geiss watched her new student coming across the first-graders’ playground from her vantage point on the balcony of the school’s belfry. She lowered the barrel of the Remington .30-06 until the child was centered in the crosshairs of the telescopic sight.
But don’t get Ms. Geiss wrong. All of her students are zombies... Read More

Eye in the Sky: Very early PKD

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Reposting to include Sandy's new review.



Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick

Jack Hamilton has just lost his job as an engineer for a government defense contractor because his wife Marsha is a suspected communist sympathizer. Having nothing better to do for the afternoon, he accompanies Marsha to the viewing of a new linear accelerator. An accident at the accelerator beams the Hamiltons and six other unsuspecting citizens into a parallel universe that at first appears to be their world but soon starts to evince subtle differences that become more and more obvious as time goes on. There is some sort of “corny Arab religion” at work — God is all justice and no mercy so, for example, telling a lie brings down an immediate curse such as a bee sting.

There are miracles here that can be taken advantage of, such as a cigarette machine that Jack, a darn ... Read More

Her Fearful Symmetry: Needed more substance than the ghosts

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Two sets of twins, a disillusioned husband, a grieving boyfriend, one ghost. The lives of Her Fearful Symmetry’s characters are as tangled as they sound, in a drama that will play out amongst the tombstones of Highgate Cemetery. A sticker on the front reminds potential readers that Niffenegger is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Yet let that be the first and last time Niffenegger’s debut novel is mentioned. Her Fearful Symmetry is described as a ‘delicious and deadly ghost story,’ and should be judged in and of itself.

We o... Read More

Lagoon: I loved it as soon as I saw the swordfish

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Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I thought I was going to love Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon (2014) when I read the first chapter, from the point of view of a swordfish. She is not just any swordfish; she is an eco-warrior. Through her eyes, we see the arrival of extra-terrestrials into the lagoon of Lagos, the Nigerian capital. And from that point on I was never disappointed.

Lagoon does not spend too much time with the swordfish, although we do see her again a few times. The main characters are three people who end up at the Bar Beach shortly after the beings from another place have landed, and these three become the spokes-humans for the visitors. They are Adaora, a marine biologist, mother of two and wife to a troubled husband; Agu, a soldier who has recently been in trouble with his command; and Anthony Dey Craze, a successful rapper... Read More

Rosewater: Weird, gritty, gorgeous alien invasion story

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Rosewater by Tade Thompson

In the Nigerian town of Rosewater, Kaaro, the main character of Tade Thompson’s Rosewater (2016), works for Section 45, a sinister government agency. Rosewater is built next to an alien dome, Utopicity, and the arrival of the aliens ten years earlier seems to have unleashed a host of unusual occurrences and abilities within the human population of Rosewater. Kaaro is one of these people — for his job at Section 45, he prevents crime, can read the minds of prisoners, and finds people by entering the ‘xenosphere,’ an ability which makes him a ‘sensitive.’ Unfortunately, sensitives like Kaaro are dying and he may be next. The answer to this problem might lie with Molara, a woman who appears to Kaaro in the xenosphere under the guise of a butterfly, and who keeps contacting him. But as he discovers more about Molara and tries... Read More

Arrowood: Creepy, tragic Gothic mystery

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Arrowood by Laura McHugh

When Arden Arrowood was a little girl, her younger twin sisters vanished without a trace. The last Arden saw of them was a flash of blonde hair, speeding away in the back of a gold car. A local man with a car fitting the description was questioned; nothing could ever be pinned on him, but the whole town thought he was guilty anyway.

The girls were never found, and their loss became a wound that destroyed the Arrowood family and continues to haunt Arden, now in her twenties. Then her father dies, and Arden learns she has inherited the family home, also called Arrowood, in Keokuk, Iowa. Reeling from academic and romantic troubles, Arden decides to go home and regroup. But the old house is full of secrets, and Arden soon learns that there might be more to her sisters’ disappearance than she realized as a child.

Arrowood is a... Read More

Heu-Heu, or The Monster: Another great Quatermain tale

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Heu-Heu, or The Monster by H. Rider Haggard

Heu-Heu, or The Monster is one of the 14 novels that the great H. Rider Haggard wrote that deals with the life of Allan Quatermain, an English hunter in South Africa. This is a stand-alone novel. Unlike the first two novels in the series, King Solomon's Mines and its sequel, Allan Quatermain; the so-called Zulu trilogy (Marie, Child of Storm and Finished); and the loosely linked series of books that I like to call the Taduki quartet (Allan and the Holy Flower, Read More

The Squares of the City: Addresses racism with a chess metaphor

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The Squares of the City by John Brunner

In 1892, Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin squared off in the finals of the World Chess Championship in Havana, Cuba. One of the deciding matches, so original in gamesmanship and rife with strategically interesting play, it has become one of the more well-known matches in history. (The game can be replayed virtually here and with analysis here.) Picking up on its nuances and seeing the potential, John Brunner decided to use the match to structure a novel. 1965’s The Squares of the City tells of a city experiencing a strong racia... Read More