Stand-Alone

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

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster: Best MG book I’ve read in some time

Readers’ average rating:

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (2018), by Jonathan Auxier, is a wonderfully, bittersweetly poignant MG/YA book that I highly recommend for its warmth and gentle eloquence.

Set in Victorian England, Auxier’s Dickensian story focuses on young chimneysweep Nan, who grew up mentored in the field by The Sweep. When he disappears one night though, all Nan has left from him are his hat, her skills, and on odd lump of charcoal. Nan spends the next few years in indentured employment to the cruel, abusive Wilkie Crudd, but a near-fatal flue fire changes her life forever as she finds herself free of Crudd and a mentor herself, albeit to a child-like golem named Charlie rather than another chimneysweep.

There’s so much to love about Sweep, beginning with the main cha... Read More

Sourdough: Celebrates the appreciation of excellent food

Readers’ average rating:

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

I really loved Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (2017), but not everyone will. You probably will if you’re a foodie (I am), an introvert (I am), and a bit geeky (I am). If you love sourdough bread (I do) and magical realism (I do), you’ve just got to read Sourdough. And you must try the audio version. It’s amazing.

Lois is new to San Francisco. She moved from Michigan, where she grew up, and she’s starting a job as a programmer of robotic arms at a tech company where everyone works so hard that they basically have no other life. Most of them just eat a nutritive slurry rather than bothering to plan, shop, and prepare meals.

Most nights Lois orders her dinner from a food delivery se... Read More

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing: It’s not about aliens, it’s about us

Readers’ average rating:

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Disclaimer: As my students know, I’ve had a crush on Hank Green for years. I will try to not let this bias my review.

In the middle of the night when April May, a graphic designer, is on her way home from work in Manhattan, she’s the first person to notice a huge new statue on the sidewalk. It’s totally out of place, but she appreciates its artistry, so she calls her friend Andy and asks him to help her make a video about the statue (which she names Carl). When Andy uploads it to YouTube, it goes viral. When other Carls are discovered in other major world cities, April, the first person to report on the Carls, becomes famous and begins to relish her role as their spokesperson. Her fame opens many doors but also causes problems and, eventually, becomes dangerous. Read More

Free Live Free: No rent, but you’ll have to pay in brain cells

Readers’ average rating:

Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe

First of all, let me lay a few cards on the table: Gene Wolfe is my favorite science-fiction author and might be my favorite author, period. I’d give something like fifteen of his books five-star reviews; the only other author who comes close to that is Jack Vance.

Free Live Free (1984) is one of his two books that I just. Don’t. Get. (Castleview is the other.) I’ve read it at least three times, I’ve puzzled over the explanatory synopsis of one character’s actions at the end (I believe the publisher insisted on its inclusion), I’ve read a couple of essays commenting on it, and I still have no clear idea how most of the story connects to ... Read More

Voyage of the Dogs: A book for dog lovers of all ages

Readers’ average rating:

Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout

Voyage of the Dogs (2018) by Greg van Eekhout is a middle-grade science fiction book. Young readers will certainly enjoy this action-packed book with dog main characters. Adult dog lovers can enjoy it too.

Lopside is part of a team of “Barkonauts,” specially trained uplifted dogs who are part of the first interstellar space voyage. The Laika is aimed at a planet nicknamed Stepping Stone. Along with the human crew, embryos of cattle and sheep, and fertilized chicken eggs, four dogs comprise the manifest of the ship. As he fulfills his other duties, Lopside searches the starship every day for rats, because he is part terrier. He never finds any, but he is diligent. Lopside feels a little uncomfortable among the other thr... Read More

Blackfish City: The cyberpunk novel I didn’t know I was missing

Readers’ average rating:

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller 

“People would say she came to Qaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse. In these stories, which grew astonishingly elaborate in the days and weeks after her arrival, the polar bear paced beside her on flat bloody deck of the boat. Her face was clenched and angry…”

Blackfish City (2018) is the cyberpunk book I’ve been wanting to read for a while now, without really knowing it. With a strange and wonderful setting, augmented humans, powerful AIs, catastrophically tilted wealth-and-power dynamics, an “information disease,” crazy-wild urban sports and vivid visuals, Sam J. Miller’s novel picks up the old baton of William Gibson and carries it into some twisty, complex post... Read More

The Silence of the Girls: Powerful retelling of The Iliad from the female perspective

Readers’ average rating:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Toward the end of Pat Barker’s newest novel, her main character Briseis thinks to herself:

“Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy ... worthy of any number of laments — but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.

The eloquently powerful The Silence of the Girls (2018) is Barker’s attempt to create just that, and she just about nails it.

Barker’s novel is a re-telling of Homer’s The Iliad, told mostly from the point of view of Briseis, the young girl taken by Achilles as a spoil of war and then later taken from him by Agamemnon as compensation for having to give up his own “prize” when her priest-father ... Read More

The Five Sisters: A whimsical adventure from a master storyteller

Readers' average rating:

The Five Sisters by Margaret Mahy

You always know you're in for a magical, whimsical treat when reading something by Margaret Mahy, one of New Zealand's most best-loved children's authors. The Five Sisters (1997) is no exception, recounting the marvellous adventures of five paper dolls with linked hands.

On a hot summer day Sally entreats her Nana for a story, but instead watches as she folds a piece of paper and draws a doll with a crooked smile and strong running shoes called Alpha. But before the rest of the sisters can be coloured in, a kingfisher swoops down and snatches them up while Sally and her Nana are fetching lemonade.

The adventures that follow involve a near run-in with a lawnmower, an evil magician in the guise of a china pig, a playful breeze,... Read More

The Hercules Text: Asks interesting questions in an uninteresting way

Readers’ average rating:

The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt

In the near future, NASA scientists pick up a signal from space that turns out to be a coded message (“The Hercules Text”) from an alien species. It originated a million years ago, so it’s unlikely that the aliens still exist, and even if they do they’re very far away, but the message tells us that (1) We are not (or were not) alone in the universe and (2) A million years ago these aliens were sophisticated enough to send this technologically advanced message.

These facts have profound effects on the scientists and other people involved with the NASA project. They are forced to re-think much of what they thought to be true and they need to work with the US government (and other nations) to decide how much of the information should be made public because some of it is dangerous. As you’d expect, there are differing and strongly-held opinions on ... Read More

Buying Time: Immortals running for their lives

Readers’ average rating:

Buying Time by Joe Haldeman

Dallas Barr is a Stileman — one of the few humans who’ve paid a million pounds and given up all their assets to have their bodies rejuvenated. These folks need the process repeated every decade or so, so they spend that decade earning the money needed for the next treatment. To keep the Stilemen from gaining too much wealth and power, they’re required to give up their assets each time. This leads to the funding of many philanthropic initiatives around the world.

When Dallas and his girlfriend Maria discover a conspiracy affecting the Stileman Process, they are forced to run for their lives. If they can’t shake their pursuers and don’t solve their problem in time, their immortality will run out.

Joe Haldeman’s Buying Time Read More

Dogsbody: Another gem from the mind of Diana Wynne Jones

Readers' average rating:

Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones

My usual response to reading any book by Diana Wynne Jones is: "how does she come up with this stuff?" This is swiftly followed by bewilderment (especially in the wake of Harry Potter) that nobody has ever adapted any of her work, despite the fact her stories would make for excellent on-screen entertainment.

Dogsbody (1975) is no exception. It begins by introducing the immortal Dog Star Sirius, who is in serious trouble with his peers. Accused of murder and theft, Sirius is sentenced to life on Earth as a mortal dog, where he is sentenced to die after his considerably shortened lifespan. He has only one chance at redemption: he can return to his celestial home only if he tracks down the mysterious stolen Zo... Read More

Under the Pendulum Sun: I’m looking forward to Ng’s NEXT book

Readers’ average rating:

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Laon Helstone is a British missionary to Arcadia, the recently discovered land of the fae. Laon hasn’t been heard from for a while, so his sister Catherine sets out to find him, travelling alone (but with the approval of the Catholic church) to Arcadia. When she arrives at the house where Laon has been living, she finds out that he hasn't been seen there in quite a while, but is expected home soon.

As Catherine waits, she befriends a couple of the house’s residents and learns that the fae aren’t too interested in hearing the Gospel. Most don’t see themselves as needing salvation. Catherine also spends time studying the journals of the first (mysteriously deceased) missionary to Arcadia. They may contain important secrets about the nature of the universe and God’s relationship to the fae.

There’s a lot to like in Jea... Read More

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

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

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 in... Read More

Starless: A sensitive portrayal of diverse characters

Readers’ average rating:

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

For all of his life, young Khai has been training to be the “Shadow” protector of Zariya, the youngest daughter of his nation’s king. Nobody knows why the gods have decreed that Zariya, a politically unimportant princess, needs a protector, but the role as her shadow should be relatively easy. Nevertheless, Khai has trained hard and hopes he is ready for the role. When he arrives at the palace to finally meet his charge, Khai is surprised to discover that Zariya is not the kind of princess he envisioned and this is not going to be an easy assignment after all. Khai will be tested beyond what he thought was possible.

In many ways, Starless (2018) feels like so many other epic fantasies I’ve read, except that it’s written in Jacqueline Carey... Read More

Blindness: Nobel Prize-winning post-apocalyptic fiction

Readers’ average rating:

Blindness by José Saramago

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, José Saramago’s Blindness is a post-apocalyptic novel about pandemic blindness and the consequent dissolution of a society. Both the novel and the author have received acclaim, and Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. I liked Blindness, but I found it overrated.

Many readers will find this novel thoughtful and complex. The hero is a woman who does not lose her sight but nevertheless accompanies her suddenly blind husband when he is sent into quarantine. She is just a regular person, and yet she selflessly cares not only for her husband but also for the strangers in her ward. There is a temptation to simply read her as a straightforward Christ-like figure, until one reads Saramago’s Read More

Mem: A beautiful story that I didn’t believe in

Readers’ average rating:

MEM by Bethany C. Morrow

Set in an alternate 1920s world, MEM (2018) is a short novel about a woman who is the physical manifestation of a memory extraction process. If someone has a traumatic memory they want to get rid of, Professor Toutant can remove it. The memory then becomes a physical person who lives in the “vault” below the health center at a university in Montreal. (The vault is very similar to a mental or convalescent care ward.) Most of these “mems,” whose brains carry not much beyond the extracted memory, sit around being cared for in the vault until they eventually pass away. Some of them are able to interact in the world better than others. Some even visit with the person whose memory they’re from.

Our protagonist, a mem who was the first extracted memory ever created by Professor Toutant, seems to somehow have retained a copy of the brai... Read More

The Snail on the Slope: “Entirely inaccessible to the general reader”

Readers’ average rating:

The Snail on the Slope by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Chicago Review Press and Blackstone Audio have been translating and reprinting some of the Strugatsky brothers’ works and they’ve sent me review copies. I read Monday Starts on Saturday several months ago but never managed to write a review, which I feel terrible about because I really liked that book. I will try to review it soon.

Being familiar with their style -- which is bizarre, ironic, visually arresting, and funny -- I figured I’d like The Snail on the Slope (1968), too. Not so, but it was a close thing. I loved each individual sentence that the Strugatskys composed, and even some complete scenes, but when everything was put together, I could make no sense of it. The Snail o... Read More

Bellewether: A cozy but slow-paced historical novel

Readers’ average rating: 

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

Susanna Kearsley is a popular Canadian novelist who writes historical fiction, favoring the dual-timeline model with a current plotline and a historical one that intersect in one way or another. Her novels are generally spiced with a mystery, a romance (or perhaps two, one in each of the timelines) … and a paranormal element, such as time travel, ghostly spirits, or a character with psychic abilities.

Bellewether (2018), Kearsley’s first novel in three years, is of the dual-timeline model. The historical plotline, set in about 1760, alternates between the points of view of Lydia Wilde and Jean-Philippe de Sabran, a French Canadian lieutenant who was captured during the French and Indian War (part of the Seven Years’ War) and is n... Read More

Nightflyers: Mystery and horror aboard a haunted spaceship

Readers’ average rating:

Nightflyers by George R.R. Martin

Nightflyers was first published in 1980, won the Locus Award for best novella, and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It was made into an unsuccessful film in 1987. It’s recently been on people’s radars due to the upcoming SYFY series based on the novella. You can purchase it in several new (2018) formats including an illustrated edition, a story collection, and an audio version. I listened to the audio version, which was narrated by actress Adenrele Ojo.

The story is a... Read More

Northwest Smith: Some of the sturdiest pillars of Golden Age science fiction

Readers’ average rating:

Northwest Smith by C.L. Moore

The original readers of the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales could have had little idea of what a landmark release the November ’33 issue would turn out to be. Kicking off the magazine that month, and preceding stories by such already established veterans as Edmond Hamilton, E. Hoffman Price, Clark Ashton Smith and Mary Elizabeth Counselman, was a story with the unusual title “Shambleau,” written by an author who nobody had ever heard of … for the simple reason that “Shambleau” was the very first sale by the 22-year-old writer C.L. Moore Read More

Metamorphica: The myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses reimagined

Readers’ average rating:  

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Metamorphica by Zachary Mason

Zachary Mason, who retold Homer’s story of the wanderings of Odysseus in his well-received 2007 debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, takes on Ovid's epic narrative poem Metamorphoses in his latest work, Metamorphica (2018). Mason distills Metamorphoses’ over 250 Greek myths i... Read More

Spinning Silver: One of the best books of the year

Readers’ average rating:

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Let’s get this out of the way early. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver (2018) is not perfect. It’s a little overlong, with a bit of a pacing issue about two-thirds of the way through. Beyond that, other problems include ... no, wait. I forgot. There are no other problems. And I lifted up each and every page to check under them. Zip. Nada. Nothing. So yeah, the biggest problem with Spinning Silver is kind of like the problem you have when the waiter brings out your chocolate cake dessert, and it’s a little bit bigger than you were planning on. Oh, the humanity.

My marketing info calls this a “retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale,” and sure, it’s that. But such a narrowly focused pitch does a real disser... Read More

Hullmetal Girls: A fast, generally fun read

Readers’ average rating:

Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie

Hundreds of years into the future, humanity abandoned Earth and embarked upon an interstellar mission aboard a cluster of ships which eventually became the Fleet. Fleet ships are policed and protected by an elite squad of mechanically-augmented super-soldiers known as Scela, who serve the whims of the Chancellor and enforce her laws (along with a rigid social caste system). Aisha Un-Haad is desperate to provide a good life for her younger siblings, but her deck janitor’s salary isn’t enough to cover her plague-infected brother’s medical bills, so the only option left is to join the Scela. Key Tanaka is a mystery, a near-perfectly blank slate with no idea of who she used to be or why she volunteered for Scela service, but fragments of memory pop up in times of extreme stress, and they seem to indicate that her current identity can’t be trusted. Can these two unl... Read More

Earth to Dad: A sweet story about loss, grief, and friendship

Readers’ average rating:

Earth to Dad by Krista Van Dolzer

Eleven-year-old Jameson O’Malley lives with his mother, Mina, at Base Ripley, in a version of Minnesota that would be unrecognizable to current-day residents: there are regular monsoons, category six tornadoes are commonplace, and spending more than a few moments outside without a protective solar-resistant jacket will lead directly to sun poisoning. A deeply introspective and solitary child, Jameson’s passion is his JICC (Jameson’s Interplanetary Communication Console), a device his astronaut father helped to build before embarking on the long voyage to Mars, and which they use to send short videos to one another on a regular basis.

As Earth to Dad (2018) begins, a new family has just moved into Jameson’s neighborhood, and he’s immediately drawn to the daughter, Astra Primm, who’s his age and is quite the little spit... Read More

No Enemy But Time: Reveals new layers with each fresh realization

Readers’ average rating:

No Enemy But Time by Michael Bishop

Mankind is a creature which occupies itself predominantly in the present. Smoking, murder, alcohol abuse, poor diet, resource wastage — all of these habits and behaviors alleviate the moment but do nothing to bolster the idea a human is aware of, or concerned with, the long term existence of itself or the species. Moreover, it’s fair to say that when one does bring in the long view, “recent” history and near future remain the focus. Our primitive roots are left to esoteric niches of science (archeology, anthropology, and the like) available almost exclusively in museum corners and textbooks. Dinosaurs seem to get more attention than Cro-Magnons. But yet our slumped, hairy forbears are an essential part of the evolutionary formula that has brought homo sapiens to its current point of existence, for better and worse, and will always be, no matter what h... Read More