Stand-Alone

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

The Midnight Library: A literary Sliding Doors

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Who hasn't fantasised what a different version of their life might look like? What if you'd become famous? Or an Olympic athlete? What if you'd become an arctic researcher? A musician? That's exactly what Matt Haig explores in his latest offering, The Midnight Library (2020).

Nora Seed (and note the pointed symbolism of her surname) is not having a great day. Her cat just died. She's been fired. Her brother is ignoring her and her neighbour, the only person she has any social contact with, doesn't need her to bring round his meds any more. So that night, she tries to kill herself.

Instead of death, however, Nora finds herself in a library where each volume on the shelf is a different version of her life. She is met by the librarian, a certain Mrs. Elm (who, coincidental... Read More

Trouble the Saints: A deeply, darkly magical Americana novel

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Trouble the Saints (2020), by Alaya Dawn Johnson, follows three people of color — Phyllis (whose friends call her Pea), Tamara and Dev — from the late 1930s into the American involvement in World War II. Not one of them is “ordinary”; Pea and Dev have “saint’s hands” that bestow a gift … or a curse. Tamara has inherited a deck of playing cards, and she’s an oracle. When the story opens, all three are trying to make a living working for the white gangster Victor in New York City.

Phyllis is light-skinned enough to pass for white, which she does, and the hands have given her the power to throw anything with amazing accuracy. She can balance things on her knuckles and the tips of her fingers; whatever she throws a knife at, she hits. The gangsters call her “Victor’s Angel,” meaning Angel of Death, and she is his assassin.
... Read More

The People’s Republic of Everything: An experimental collection

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas

I don’t know if I simply wasn’t in the right mood for Nick Mamatas’ short-story collection The People’s Republic of Everything (2018), or if I’m not the right audience for his preferred themes and overall style, but this book and I just could not mesh.

There was one story, “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher,” which gripped my attention and had everything I look for in short fiction. The story focuses on Rosa Martinez, whose elderly grandmother might — through quirks of legality regarding her first marriage and the question of ownership of her first husband’s pulp publications — own the rights to a series of stories revolving around psychopomp Tom Silex. The character work is strong, the ... Read More

Empire of Wild: A First Nations writer on love, loss and rogarous

Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Cherie Dimaline is a Métis writer and activist from the Georgian Bay Métis Nation in Ontario, Canada. She has received a number of awards for her novels and short stories, none of which I’ve yet had the pleasure of reading — but after reading Empire of Wild (2020), I’m definitely going to track them down. Her use of First Nations themes and folklore is fascinating, and a delightful change from the many fantasies based on European images and tales.

Dimaline has set Empire of Wild in Arcand, a tiny Canadian town full of halfbreeds (the author’s word, first used on p. 1 and repeated throughout the novel) — the offspring of French voyageur fathers and First Nations mothers, part of the Métis people — on the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario. The indigenous people have been constantly moved away from the shoreline, replaced by million-d... Read More

The Year I Flew Away: Full of heart and humor

The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

The Year I Flew Away (2021), by Marie Arnold, combines the timelessness of a fairy tale with the timeliness of the immigrant experience, all while being set in the 1980s amidst Whitney Houston and Prince. It’s a charming middle-grade novel full of heart and humor.

Gabrielle is a young girl living in Haiti; though she’s poor, she’s surrounded by family and friends. One day her parents have big news: Gabrielle is going to America to live with her aunt and uncle. She has to go alone, though, because of issues with her parents’ paperwork.

Gabrielle thought America would be heaven, but instead she finds herself terribly lonely; the other kids make fun of her and leave her out. And when her uncle and aunt take her to their respective workplaces, she learns that they have to deal with bigots on a daily basis. Gabrielle feels li... Read More

The Land of the Lost: A cause for celebration

The Land of the Lost  by Roy Norton

A little while back, I had some words to say concerning Roy Norton’s 1919 novel The Glyphs, the Kewanee, Illinois native’s fourth and final novel containing fantastic content, in a career highlighted by numerous Western novels as well. The Glyphs, as I mentioned, was a compact affair, and a pleasing one, dealing with a sextet of adventurers and their explorations of a lost Mayan city in northern Guatemala. It was a novel that had gone OOP (out of print) for 95 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it in the autumn of 2020 for a new generation to discover. Well, now I am here to tell you about still another novel by Norton, another lost-race affair that went OOPs for a full ... Read More

The Wood Wife: A quiet, intimate novel

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Our heroine, Maggie, is reeling from her divorce and drifting rather aimlessly through life — she considers herself a poet but hasn't written a poem in years.

Then, her mentor dies mysteriously — drowned in a dry creekbed — and inexplicably leaves her his house in the Southwestern desert. She moves there, hoping to research a biography of him. At first, Maggie doesn't like the desert; it seems sterile, forbidding, devoid of charm. Then one night a pooka cuddles up to her in bed, and nothing is the same after that...

Maggie soon discovers a world of magic in the desert (and we, the readers, discover it right along with her), and digs up some fascinating secrets about her mentor's life. And suddenly, all the pieces come together.

Both a mystery and a fantasy, The Wood Wife (199... Read More

The Echo Wife: Compelling, gripping, psychological

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

Dr. Evelyn Caldwell is a geneticist specializing in cloning, at the pinnacle of her career: The Echo Wife (2021) begins with a banquet at which she is given a prestigious award. At the same time, Evelyn is at a low point in her personal life. She’s a prickly loner and a workaholic, and her husband Nathan has recently left her for another woman. What makes matters far worse is that Nathan, a far less brilliant scientist than Evelyn, has stolen Evelyn’s research to clone Evelyn herself to grow himself a new wife, Martine, using programming methods to make Martine a softer, more submissive version of Evelyn. Nathan even finds a way around the sterility built into the foundation of the cloning process. Martine is pregnant, while Evelyn had adamantly refused to have a child in the earlier days of her marriage to Nathan.

So Evelyn lashes out at Martine, using her cruelest words... Read More

The Glyphs: A highly credible lost-world adventure

The Glyphs by Roy Norton

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, explorations began in the ancient Mayan city complex known as Tikal, in a remote and inaccessible area of northern Guatemala. In the 1880s, a systematic clearing of the area commenced, as well as a recording of the manifold marvels that were being discovered in this centuries-old site. (And when I say “centuries,” that is perhaps an understatement, as it has since been established that Tikal’s heyday was from A.D. 200 – 900.) Perhaps stimulated by news reports of this Central American wonder, Kewanee, Illinois-born author Roy Norton sat down to write the lost-world novel entitled The Glyphs, which dealt with a modern-day discovery of another Mayan city, also in northern Guatemala, a fairly unusual setting for this type of tale. Norton had been born in 1869 and so was almost 50 years old when The Glyphs Read More

Fireheart Tiger: The seduction and threat of power

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Princess Thanh was a royal hostage for many years in the northern country of Ephteria before being sent back to her home country of Bình Hải. Two years after her return, she’s a disappointment to her mother, the empress, who hoped that Thanh’s time in Ephteria would give her insights into that country’s government and culture, making her more useful as a diplomat. It’s especially important now that an Ephterian delegation is arriving, certain to make demands and threats that will encroach on Bình Hải’s independence. But Thanh is a quiet, somewhat uncertain person — too thoughtful and discreet, according to her mother — rather than a power player. Thanh is also hiding a secret: since a disastrous fire in the Ephterian palace, small items in her vicinity have a mysterious habit of catching on fire. And the only real relationship she had in Ephteria was a clandestine love affair with Princess... Read More

Cathedral of Bones: Lovecraftian YA done right

Cathedral of Bones by A.J. Steiger

Young teen Simon Frost has had a rough start to his early life. His twin sister was murdered several years ago, his mother vanished shortly thereafter leaving only a note, his father was expelled from the Foundation amid darkly ominous rumors about his research, and Simon himself has shown so little talent as a Foundation animist not a single mentor will take him on, leaving him relegated to working in the mailroom sorting requests for the Foundation’s aid from citizens and towns/cities. When the Foundation ignores a letter from a small asking for assistance against a dangerous monster, Simon takes it on himself to come to their aid, the first step on a journey that will find him an unexpected ally and change everything he knows about the Foundation, himself, his family, and his world.

In Cathedral of Bones (2020), A.J. Steiger has crafted a Lovecrafti... Read More

On Fragile Waves: Lyrical, moving, and at times heartrending

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

In the opening pages of On Fragile Waves (2021), by E. Lily Yu, young Firuzeh, her brother Naur, and their parents are on the start of a long journey from war-torn Kabul to the hope of a better life in Australia. To pass the time on that first leg, Firuzeh’s mother entertains them with a fairy tale. But the novel will be no fairy tale, as the family makes its way through Pakistan to Indonesia to an immigration detention camp on Nauru Island and finally to Australia itself, facing loss and discrimination, poverty and indignity, and a long-standing instability and uncertainty that erodes their family ties. Filled with poetry, fairy tales, and flashes of magical realism in the form of a drowned girl who remains Firuzeh’s best friend, On Fragile Waves is a lyrical, moving, and at times heartrending story.

The journey is fraught with... Read More

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Compelling, twisty, sneaky

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Debut author Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), originally published earlier this year in Great Britain as The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is an intricately plotted murder mystery, set in an isolated early 20th century English mansion, with a highly imaginative speculative element that is only gradually revealed, as our main character tries to figure out who he really is, and how to solve the mystery of Evelyn Hardcastle’s pending death … or has her death already occurred?

The plot and setting are worthy of Agatha Christie: Lord and Lady Hardcastle have invited a number of guests to their British country mansion, Blackheath House, for a weekend party to celebrate the return of their daughter, Evelyn, from Paris. (The notable guests... Read More

The Absolute Book: Just didn’t grab me

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox has a lot going on in it, but too little of it, unfortunately for me, captured my interest or attention and so I ended up giving up about 40% of the way through.

Taryn Cornick’s sister died years ago after being struck by a car — apparently purposely, though it’s unclear. Now, with the driver soon to be getting out of prison, Taryn meets a strangely compelling hunter known as The Muleskinner, who offers up a tempting proposal that will change Taryn’s life as much as her sister’s death. Soon, Taryn finds herself being haunted by threatening phone calls, hounded by a relentlessly inquisitive policeman, caught up in an investigation by (maybe) MI5, possessed by a demon, conversing with faerie and gods, and traveling between our world a... Read More

The Golden Fetich: Batonca Toy

The Golden Fetich by Eden Phillpotts

As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, the influence that English author H. Rider Haggard had on his fellow writers was an enormous one. During his first 20 years as a novelist, Haggard came out with no fewer than 25 pieces of fiction, starting with 1884’s Dawn and up to 1903’s Pearl-Maiden. Of those 25, a good 14 were set in the Africa that Haggard knew so well, and of that number, around half could be set into that category that the author helped to popularize to such a marked degree: the lost world/lost race novel. His imitators were indeed legion, although very few that I have so far encountered came close to matching H. Rider’s skill in this department. One writer who I had never previously experienced, another Englishman with the curious name Eden Phillpotts Read More

Today I Am Carey: Smart, thoughtful, and touching

Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker

Carey is a robot whose job is to provide health care and companionship for humans, especially for elderly people with dementia. Carey is equipped with an “empathy net” which allows him to understand the feelings of the people he cares for, and an “emulation net” which lets him change his appearance, voice, and mannerisms so he can pretend to be someone else. The purpose is to help ease the anxieties of patients with dementia.

When we first meet Carey, he is the caretaker for an elderly woman named Mildred. Her husband is dead and her children and grandchildren, who have jobs and school, can’t be with her all day. When Mildred gets confused and thinks she’s talking to one of them, Carey can morph into a fairly accurate simulation so that he can soothe her better than any other hired caretaker could.

Unexpectedly, Carey has become conscious, something he wonders abou... Read More

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London: Selling books and fighting evil

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

1983-era London, with a half-twist toward the fantastic, mingles with ancient British mythology in Garth Nix’s new urban fantasy, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (2020). Art student Susan Arkshaw, a punkish eighteen-year-old from rural western England, takes leave of her loving, vague mother and heads to London to try to find the father she’s never met. She starts with an old family acquaintance, “Uncle” Frank Thringley, but Frank turn out to be, in rapid succession, (a) a crime boss, (b) disincorporated by the prick of a magical hatpin, and (c) a Sipper — which is a milder type of blood-sucker than a vampire.

The wielder of the silver hatpin is attractive nineteen-year-old Merlin St. Ja... Read More

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The harrowing adventures of two brave fox kits

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

One chilly autumn night, seven fox kits beg their mother for a scary story, “[s]o scary our eyes fall out of our heads.” Don’t go to the Bog Cavern, she tells them, because the old storyteller lives there, and the tale she would tell them would be so scary it would put white in their tails. So naturally the seven kits scamper off through the woods to the Bog Cavern as soon as their mother is asleep, and beg the spooky-looking storyteller for a scary story.
“All scary stories have two sides,” the storyteller said. “Like the bright and dark of the moon. If you’re brave enough to listen and wise enough to stay to the end, the stories can shine a light on the good in the world.”
But, she warns, kits who lose heart and don’t stay until the end of the stories may lose all hope and be too frightened to ever leave their den again. Then she embarks on a se... Read More

The Artificial Kid: Early cyberpunk

The Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling’s 1980 novel The Artificial Kid wasn’t on my TBR list until Brilliance Audio published an audiobook edition a couple of months ago. I’m so happy to see these older science fiction novels being revived and made even more accessible to a new generation of speculative fiction readers. Last month I reviewed the new audio edition of Sterling’s first novel, Involution Ocean, also by Brilliance Audio. I hope we’ll be seeing more of his novels coming out in audio soon.

The Artificial Kid is Sterling’s second novel and, like Involution Ocean, it’s set on an imaginative world with fabulous scenery, has an unusual plot, contains ecological and evolutionary themes, and features bizarre c... Read More

The Fictional Man: Could have been more

The Fictional Man by Al Ewing

A number of times while reading The Fictional Man, by Al Ewing, I felt like I was on the edge of a great book. Like one of those clichéd oases in any stranded-in-the-desert movie, I could see it glimmering and hazy just at the edge of the horizon. But every time I thought I was nearly there, I was left with just more sand. Though that’s more than a little unfair. The Fictional Man is better than sand, but as tantalizing as it is it never got beyond decent for me.

Ewing sets the story in an LA not too different from our own — still filled with movie stars, sun, diners, loudly rude producers, corrupt agents, etc. What separates this world from our own is the creation of Fictionals in 1977 — clones created by the entertainment industry with the look and pre-programmed personality/mind of characters (already in existence or origin... Read More

The Ministry for The Future: An optimistic but unlikely scenario

The Ministry for The Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, The Ministry for The Future (2020), feels like a blueprint. Set in our near future, it follows a set of diverse characters living all over the world who are trying to solve the climate crisis, repair our world and, essentially, save the human race.

The novel begins in India where Frank May is working at a charity organization’s neighborhood clinic. Heatwaves have become a regular occurrence there. When the worst one yet arrives and power is shut off, Frank desperately tries to help the citizens in the neighborhood but is unsuccessful. He is the only survivor of an event that kills millions of people, results in a stubborn case of PTSD for Frank, and sets off a global effort to make sure that it never happens again. Read More

Neverwhere: A wonderfully fantastical setting

Reposting to include Maron's new essay.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere is a novel that improved dramatically for me on reread, which actually was a surprise to me. I originally read it about six years ago when, in an odd twist worthy of London Below, it mysteriously appeared one day on my clunky Kindle 2, without my having ordered it. About a month later it just as mysteriously disappeared again (luckily I had finished it just in time). I was fascinated by the marvelous and imaginative setting of Neverwhere and London Below, but only mildly entertained by the plot, which ― other than the beginning and the end ― I found quite forgettable.

Still, when I was offered the chance to read a 2016 edition of Neverwhere with the “author’s preferred text” and illustrations by Chris Riddell, whose illustrations make Gaiman’... Read More

Couching at the Door: Another winner from Wordsworth Editions

Couching at the Door by D.K. Broster

Once again, I find myself thankful to the British publisher Wordsworth Editions, and in particular its Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural division, for turning me on to an author who I may not have ever discovered otherwise. In the past, I have written here of several other writers brought to my attention by this extensive and wonderful series of economically priced books: Ambrose Bierce in Terror By Night, Alice and Claude Askew in Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer, and May Sinclair in Read More

Monday Starts on Saturday: Surreal and amusing Russian science fiction

Monday Starts on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

In the Strugatsky brothersMonday Starts on Saturday (1965), Sasha, a young Russian man, is about to start his vacation when he picks up a couple of hitchhikers. They are excited to discover that Sasha is a computer programmer because the organization they work for is looking for someone just like him. Curious about these likeable fellows and the work they do, Sasha accompanies them to Solovets to find out what’s happening at the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWIT).

The scientists at NITWIT love their work which is why Monday starts on Saturday (weekends and holidays are so boring!), and why they often clone themselves so they can get more done. But they aren’t very scientific. Sasha does ha... Read More

The Devil and the Dark Water: The ship’s cargo is murder and greed

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, was one of my favorite reads of 2018, a compulsively readable and wildly original murder mystery, an homage to Agatha Christie, with a science fictional wrapper. Turton’s second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water (2020), is a highly twisty and eerie Sherlockian mystery, set in the seventeenth century on a large ship traveling from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) to Amsterdam. At first glance it’s not much at all like 7½ Deaths, except in the intricacy of the plot … and the way it mixes together different genres, and the vivid and complex characters who are far mo... Read More