Stand-Alone

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

A Monster Calls: The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

At seven minutes past midnight, Conor O'Malley is visited by a monster. But it's not the monster he's expecting. This monster is wild and ancient. This monster comes in the form of a yew tree that usually stands atop the hill Conor can see from his bedroom window, in the middle of the graveyard. Except that now it is here, outside his bedroom window, and it wants something from Conor.

Conor O'Malley started getting nightmares after his mother got sick. In them he has terrible visions, visions which not even the monstrous yew can compare too, and it is perhaps for this reason that Conor is able to have a relatively nonplussed conversation with the tree outside his window. The mass of leaves and branches takes the shape of a man, and it seems to think Conor summoned him. The tree tells Conor he will tell him three true stories, after which Conor will have to ... Read More

The Small Hand: I’m giving it a big hand

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The Small Hand by Susan Hill

Susan Hill’s first ghost novel, 1983’s The Woman in Black, had recently surprised this reader by being one of the scariest modern-day horror outings that I’ve run across in years. Thus, I decided to see if lightning could possibly strike twice, and picked up her more-recent The Small Hand (2010). This latter title is the fourth of Ms. Hill’s five ghost novels to date, following The Mist in the Mirror (1992) and The Man in the Picture (2007), and preceding her recent Read More

Boneyard: Fantastical creatures and a few chills

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Boneyard by Seanan McGuire

Fans of the Deadlands tabletop RPG series will be happy to know that Boneyard (2017),  Seanan McGuire’s addition to the two previously published tie-in novels Ghostwalkers (2015) and Thunder Moon Rising (2016), is chock-full of Weird West goodness, steampunk-style mechanical creations, and mighty strange bumps in the night. Fans of McGuire’s fiction will be happy to know that Boneyard’s weirdness is matched by a strong and complicated main character, more fantastical creatures than you can shake a stick at, and... Read More

The Genius Plague: The mycelium strikes back

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The Genius Plague by David Walton

Fungi are fascinating, successful, scary organisms, and in the past several years speculative fiction writers have been making the most of them. David Walton steers away from the brooding, surreal and creepy approach to fungi others have chosen in favor of straight-up science fiction adventure in his 2017 novel The Genius Plague. An outbreak of a fungal infection leaves the survivors smarter, more visionary… and fully loyal to mycelia. Soon a greenhorn NSA codebreaker is fighting to save humanity and his own family.

The Genius Plague wastes no time getting us into the action as Paul Johns, a young mycologist, heads home from a field trip collecting specimens in the Amazon basin. The riverboat he catches back to ... Read More

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket: Poe shines in his only novel

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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

Note: This public domain title is free on Kindle.

In his short story entitled “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833), author Edgar Allan Poe told a tale of shipwreck on the high seas, following the mother of all storms. Along with one other survivor, our narrator drifts helplessly on the surface of the water, later encountering what seems to be a ghost ship, on which he climbs aboard, only to be swept toward the south polar regions and to an unknown fate. Flash forward five years, and Poe has now enlarged on some of this story’s set pieces and themes, and turned them into the long-form work known as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Although Poe would ultimately write 50 poems (Poe-ems?), 68 short stories,... Read More

Dragon Teeth: Palaeontologist wars

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Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

As anyone who reads the dust jacket will realize, Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth (2017) is about dinosaur fossils and the obsessed palaeontologists who traveled into the American frontier during the Gilded Age to gently dig them up. Sadly, it’s not about dinosaurs eating people.

William Johnson is a student at Yale. The son of a wealthy Philadelphia family, Johnson goes west to win a bet against his rival. He joins Professor Marsh, an eccentric and paranoid man who specializes in the bizarre new science, palaeontology. It turns out that Johnson has entered the “Bone Wars” between Marsh and his nemesis, Edward Cope. Although I spent most of the novel expecting Johnson and his company to end in a gunfight against Sitting... Read More

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld: A supremely entertaining book

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

As one of Patricia McKillip's earlier works, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld provides an interesting comparison to her first publication Riddle-Master, a dense trilogy that made the most of her trademark poetic-prose. On the other hand, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a relatively slim volume with a clear concise style and a straightforward story. Since then, McKillip has managed to successfully merge the aspects of both works in her later works, but The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is by no means an example of a new writer still trying to find her voice. Far from it: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld has a fascinating premise, intriguing character interactions and a rewarding con... Read More

The Begum’s Fortune: Frankville vs. Stahlstadt

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The Begum’s Fortune by Jules Verne

I am by no means a student of world history, but as far as I can make out, the Franco-Prussian War, which began in July 1870 and ended some 10 months later, had some fairly significant and long-lasting aftereffects. As a result of its surrender, France had to cede over to Germany the bulk of the Alsace-Lorraine territory, while Germany emerged a unified empire, effectively altering the balance of European power. For Frenchman Jules Verne, the Germans would never be regarded in the same way again, and his sentiments toward the former enemy would be abundantly displayed in his novel The Begum’s Fortune. This was to be the 18th novel for the so-called “Father of Science Fiction,” out of an eventual 54 to be published during his lifetime; eight more w... Read More

A Secret History of Witches: Mothers and daughters across five generations

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A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

At nearly 500 pages, Louisa Morgan’s A Secret History of Witches (2017) might seem daunting, but it’s partitioned into five sections, individually focusing on a subsequent member of the Orchiére family as they flee persecution in France, set up roots in England, and eventually become involved in World War II. I zipped through this book in an afternoon, and while romance does have its own part to play, the interactions between mothers and their daughters is the most significant aspect of the novel.

Throughout centuries, Orchiére women have cultivated magical gifts, ranging from basic charms or talismans to complex spell-crafting and scrying, assisted by their animal familiars. Naturally, such behavior is poorly received by surrounding townsfolk and their own husbands from time to time, with reacti... Read More

The Cosmic Rape: “Bastits!”

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The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon

In Theodore Sturgeon’s International Fantasy Award-winning novel of 1953, More Than Human, six extraordinary young people with various extrasensory mental abilities blend their powers together to create what the author called a “gestalt consciousness.” And in his next novel, the Staten Island-born Sturgeon amplified on this idea of shared consciousness, but upped the ante quite a bit; instead of a mere half dozen souls forming one hive brain, Sturgeon posited the notion of a mind containing the thoughts and experiences of the life-forms of 2½ galaxies! The book was The Cosmic Rape, which followed More Than Read More

House of Names: Thoughtful and strongly-voiced in spots, but a disappointment in the end

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House of Names by Colm Tóibín

The Ancient Greeks didn’t invent murder, sex, and vengeance, but they did realize the staying power of stories centering on them. As, apparently, does Colm Tóibín, whose newest work, House of Names (2017), is a retelling of the House of Atreus tale involving Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes (spoiler alert — it’s not a happy story). Nor does Tóibín bother to dress it up in contemporary garb, eschewing the usual “updating” into modern times and dress. Though perhaps that’s not wholly accurate.

While Tóibín keeps the classical setting, he strips the story of one of the aspects that made it so Greek — the gods. Whereas Aeschylus and the other Greek dramatists placed the gods at the center of things, as prime movers, as ju... Read More

Like Water for Chocolate: Recipes and romance

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

A bit of classic magical realism today. First published in 1989 in installments, Like Water for Chocolate was a bestseller in Laura Esquivel’s native Mexico and subsequently around the world. A popular film version earned the story a place in yet more hearts (if you are tempted to watch it, don’t watch the version with the English voice-over, stick with the Spanish). The story is a heady combination of love, passion, family drama, food, recipes, and magic, all set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.

Tita is the youngest member of the De La Garza family, destined never to marry but to serve her domineering mother, Mama Elena, until the end of her days. In the face of her mother’s tyranny Tita seeks solace in the family’s cook, the kind and supremely talented Nacha, who passes on her re... Read More

The Emperor and the Maula: Laylah, you’ve got me on my knees

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The Emperor and the Maula by Robert Silverberg

As of this writing, in September 2017, Grand Master Robert Silverberg has come out with no fewer than 78 sci-fi novels, almost 450 short stories and novellas, around 70 books of nonfiction, and around 185 novels of, um, “adult fiction,” in addition to having edited over 130 anthologies. He has garnered for himself four Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards in the process. The man’s prolific work pace is understandably legendary. Thus, it might strike some that his fans’ clamoring for more, yet more, is wholly unreasonable. After all, the man is currently 82; doesn’t he deserve a break, and a restful retirement? (The author, to his loyal readers’ chagrin, has not released a full-length novel since 2003’s Roma Eterna, wh... Read More

Tales of Falling and Flying: Not my cup of spacefaring squid

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Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

Ben Loory’s collection Tales of Falling and Flying (2017) falls into that category of “just not for me” books, meaning this will be a relatively brief take on the collection. It’s the sort of writing where I can see where some people would enjoy it, can note the author’s talent, can acknowledge the wit and bright originality, but overall it just doesn’t do it for me. In this case, it begins with my being a tough audience for short stories, as I tend to prefer full, rich immersion in story and character — aspects too often lacking in most stories I’ve found. Loory’s tales double-down on this as they’re all pretty short, not quite Lydia Davis short but nearly: almost 40 stories in just over 200 pages. So it’s basically in and out and on to the next.

That’s not to say some of ... Read More

The Chimes: Immerse yourself in a dark, beautiful world filled with music

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The Chimes by Anna Smaill

Anna Smaill’s debut fantasy novel The Chimes won the World Fantasy Award in 2016. It became available in the USA in 2017. The Chimes is a dark and beautiful fantasy that is filled with music.

After the death of his parents, Sebastian leaves his home and travels to London. His mother has sent him, with her dying words, to find a woman named Molly. Sebastian has the clothes on his back and a knapsack filled with objectmemories. These objectmemories are important, because in Sebastian’s world, each day is just like the last, and every night when they sleep, people leave behind their memories. Every morning, the melody rings that through the world, Onestory, returns certain memories to people, and at vespers the Chimes plays, a majestic piece of music that seems to remove the memories of the day... Read More

Tinder: A twisted, terrifying fairy tale

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Tinder by Sally Gardner

Death first comes to Otto Hundebiss on the battlefield. Surrounded by Otto's friends and comrades, he offers to take Otto with him as well. Otto declines, and Death and his ghostly army vanish. So begins Sally Gardner's twisted take on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the tinderbox. And it doesn't get any more light-hearted after that...

Otto staggers through the woods in which the battle took place, a bullet in his side and a sword wound in his shoulder, and eventually passes out. When he comes round, he isn't sure whether or not he's dreaming: all around him hang boots and shoes. A beast is stoking a fire next to him, and Otto realises it is not a beast at all, but a horned animal mask on the head of a man. Otto asks about the shoes, and the half-man (as Otto calls him) explains... Read More

The Tourist: Twisty-wisty, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff

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The Tourist by Robert Dickinson

The good news is that, in terms of time-travel novels, Robert Dickinson does quite a lot of interesting things with The Tourist (2016): dual narratives — one straightforward and one circuitous, commentary on human nature, and the mechanics of time-travel itself, along with its social and economic effects on the 21st-century. The bad news is that the novel stumbles in the third act and never regains its footing, sacrificing clarity and plot in favor of poetic imagery.

The Tourist begins by describing the prison “you” reside in, an arrangement which has been going on for seemingly quite some time. Eventually, it is revealed that “you” are Karia, and the terms and reasons for this captivity are complex. Karia is released into the custody of a young man, Riemann, a man she recognizes... Read More

The Hike: A surreal and often humorous journey

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The Hike by Drew Magary

I’m of two minds on Drew Magary’s The Hike (2016). On the one hand, it’s a fast, energetic, often funny and sometimes moving work. On the other hand, its plotting feels wholly capricious and arbitrary and some of the territory it wanders is well-worn or less profound than it seems like it wants to be taken. I mostly like my books with a bit more structured depth, and if you do as well, then I think you’ll zip through and enjoy The Hike while also being a bit annoyed. But if you’re looking for is a fun video game kind of ride with a smattering of emotionality, you’ll just enjoy.

Magary begins pretty mundanely, with the main character Ben on a business trip in a mountaintop motel in Pennsylvania. He sets off on a t... Read More

The Power: It’s electrifying

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

One thing’s for sure, The Power (2016 in the UK, Oct 2017 in the US) demands attention. Margaret Atwood has given it her blessing and I’ll eat my hat if The Power doesn’t have its own Netflix series sometime soon. Naomi Alderman could well be the next big name in subversive, feminist fiction.

The Power asks — what would happen if all women could physically dominate men? Over five years, Alderman answers that question and the answer is explosive, bloody, wild and thought-provoking.

One day, across the globe, fifteen-year-old girls realise they have electrical power in their fingertips. For some of them it’s strong enough to kill a man with one blow, or rather, one jol... Read More

The Greatest Adventure: Dinosaurs and dynamite

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The Greatest Adventure by John Taine

In the 1957 Universal film The Land Unknown, a quartet of men and one woman discover a tropical wonderhell 3,000 feet below sea level in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, replete with killer plants and savage dinosaurs. But, as it turns out, this was not the first time that four men and one woman had battled prehistoric monsters and inimical flora in a surprisingly balmy valley on the frozen continent. That honor, it would seem, goes to a book called, fittingly enough, The Greatest Adventure, written by John Taine. In actuality, “John Taine” was the pen name of Scottish mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who used his own name only when he authored books on science and math, reserving the pseudonym for when he wrote works of science fiction, of ... Read More

The Changeling: A rich dark fairy tale for the Information Age

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

“How do we protect our children?" Cal said quietly.
Apollo watched the soft little shape in his hand. "Obviously I don’t know."


Victor LaValle’s novel The Changeling (2017) is a five-star book, one of the year’s best. I predict this thoughtful modern dark fantasy novel — or it might be horror — will be shortlisted on several awards and Best Of lists.

LaValle takes the tropes of traditional middle European fairy tales and blends them perfectly with a view of modern living, specifically modern living in New York City. He uses this blend to explore the terrifying state of ... Read More

Dragon’s Island: Part noir, part jungle adventure, all great fun

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Dragon’s Island by Jack Williamson

The five-year period from 1948 – ’52 was one of superlative productivity for future sci-fi Grand Master Jack Williamson. Although he’d already written some 75 short stories since his first sale at age 20, in 1928 (“The Metal Men,” in the December issue of editor Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine), that five-year stretch saw him produce some of his most fondly remembered longer pieces: the novels Darker Than You Think (1948), The Humanoids (1949), T... Read More

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

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

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 i... Read More

Starman’s Quest: Silverberg doesn’t want you to read it

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Starman’s Quest by Robert Silverberg

Editor’s Note: Being in the public domain, Starman’s Quest (1958) is available free in Kindle format. You can add audio narration for $2.99.

There’s an author’s note attached to various versions of Starman’s Quest at Amazon that goes like this: “This book is a very early and not very good work of the author, who has tried to prevent the issue of a new edition of it. Unfortunately, since it is no longer protected by copyright, he can't prevent its distribution, but he recommends that you choose some other book of his to read.” The audio version I listened to has a less dire warning: “This was my second novel which I wrote when I was 19, in my junior year at Columbia. I’ve written better ones since. But readers interested in the archaeology of a ... Read More

Strange Alchemy: Working out the kinks

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Strange Alchemy by Gwenda Bond

Strange Alchemy (2017) has the unusual distinction of being Gwenda Bond’s first and latest published novel — originally released in 2012 as Blackwood by Strange Chemistry, indie publisher Angry Robot’s YA imprint, this novel is one of many to find new life elsewhere after Strange Chemistry’s brief tenure. For readers who, like myself, are reading Strange Alchemy after already becoming familiar with Bond’s style, this novel is an interesting look at where her career started, with glimpses of the characterizations and themes she’s frequently implemented in subsequent books like Girl in the Shadows... Read More