Stand-Alone

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

Benighted: Book vs. film

Benighted by J.B. Priestley

While growing up in the 1960s, I used to love whenever one of the local TV channels would show one of British director James Whale’s Big 3 horror movies, all from Universal Studios: Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and, perhaps best of all, the eternal glory that is Bride of Frankenstein (1935). What I was unaware of back then was the fact that there was a fourth Universal horror film directed by Whale, and that bit of youthful ignorance was not entirely my fault. Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) was, for many years, considered a lost film, and it was not until 1968 that Curtis Harrington (himself the director of such horror gems as Queen of Blood, What’s the Matter With Helen? and Read More

The Hollow Places: I read it in one sitting because I was afraid to put it down

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

 … and we watched the willow branches bow outward from the passing, and it was invisible except that invisible was not the right word, because its not-there-ness hung in the air like an afterimage.

The Hollow Places (2020), by T. Kingfisher, reminded me a lot of the other folk-horror novel of hers I read recently, The Twisted Ones. Both take place in or close to small southern towns, both have alternate realities, protagonists coming to town to help a relative, and discovered manuscripts. Both were inspired by earlier works of horror or Weird. (This one was inspired by “The Willows” by Algernon Blackw... Read More

The Bat Woman: A middling horror novel in a sloppy presentation

The Bat Woman by Cromwell Gibbons

As some of you may have discerned, my favorite type of reading matter these days has been the science fiction, fantasy and horror books from the period 1900 - 1950, and so I am always on the lookout for modern-day publishers issuing new editions of these often out-of-print works. Case in point: Bruin Books, from Eugene, Oregon, which, a few years back, made it possible for me to finally obtain a reasonably priced copy of Paul Bailey’s wonderful horror novel Deliver Me From Eva (1946). I was thus happy to read that Bruin has recently released a whole slew of horror works under its new Bruin Asylum label, and choosing at random, I selected the book in question, Cromwell GibbonsThe Bat Woman (193... Read More

The Once and Future Witches: Rage, beauty, and sisterhood

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Our Daddy never taught us shit, except what a fox teaches chickens — how to run, how to tremble, how to outlive the bastard — and our mama died before she could teach us much of anything. But we had Mama Mags, our mother’s mother, and she didn’t fool around with soup-pots and flowers.

Once upon a time there were three sisters, in a world where women’s magic was outlawed and driven underground. They had to battle an evil man and rediscover their own power, but each was filled with so much rage, pain and loss, that seemed impossible.

2020’s The Once and Future Witches is Alix E. Harrow’s sophomore novel. Harrow excels at so much here. The book is angrier than Read More

A Stitch in Time: A time-slip romance with ghosts

A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong

A Stitch in Time (2020), by Kelley Armstrong, is a time-slip romance with ghosts. Bronwyn Dale has just inherited the old family home on the English moors. When she visited the house as a girl, she discovered she could pass back and forth between her own time and the Victorian era, and fell in love with a boy, William, who lived in the past version of the house. But her uncle died tragically, and Bronwyn was institutionalized for talking about William, and she went on with her life thinking she’d imagined him.

Now she’s thirty-eight and widowed, and needs to decide what to do with the house. When she returns to take stock, she finds that the time-slip and William are still there and very real. Meanwhile, she’s also having some eerie encounters with ghosts in her own ti... Read More

The Midnight Bargain: A charming frolic of a book, barbed with social commentary

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 women. Instead of being able to pursue their talents, magical women are... Read More

Verdigris Deep: Be careful what you wish for

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

A glance back at former reviews of Frances Hardinge’s work reveals that I have overused the word “weird.” Hardly the nicest word, and yet I meant it as a compliment. It’s a testament to my struggle to pinpoint what it is that makes Hardinge’s books stand out. Nevertheless, stand out they do.

Verdigris Deep (2008) is a weird book and, once again, that’s meant as a compliment. Ryan, Josh and Chelle get stranded in a forbidden village when they miss their bus home. Finding they have no money for the next bus they resort to pinching coins from an old wishing well hidden in the wood. What they don’t know is that the well is inhabited by an angry well spirit who doesn't react well to h... Read More

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue: A memorable book about what’s-her-name

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020) is a charming, thoughtful, sometimes-dark, sometimes moving, story about memory, love, rash decisions, female agency, stubborn defiance, mortality, resilience, and the power of art. In this time of Covid, a novel focused so much on the desire for human contact and fear of dying without leaving “a mark” is especially timely, though The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue would have been a highly recommended book in any other year.

Addie LaRue is a young woman in 18th Century France who yearns to be her own person, like the old woman outside town, Estele, “who belongs to everyone, and no one, and herself” and who is sai... Read More

Sea Change: Thought-provoking and compelling

Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Ever read a book and immediately wish that you’d been able to read it in school, rather than [insert inaccessible book of choice]? For me, Nancy Kress’s 2020 novella Sea Change, with its gutsy-yet-conflicted heroine and all-too-real near-future global catastrophes, is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d been handed way back when.

Renata Black is a lawyer, handling cases for citizens of the Quinault Nation in the Pacific Northwest. She’s cultivated friendships among them, especially in the wake of the Catastrophe of 2022, in which a biopharmed drug caused agricultural collapse across the planet, destroyed the global economy, and brought personal devastation to Renata’s family. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were banned in the aftermath of the Catastrophe, but there are under... Read More

The Only Good Indians: Read it with all the lights on

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

When I was a kid growing up in Montana, hunting was a steadfast part of my family’s life. Elk, deer (mulies and white-tails), antelope, pheasant — if you wanted to eat it, you had to go out into the snow-covered woods before the break of dawn and hope that you would find something early enough that you wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day dragging the cleaned carcass back to your truck. There were rules, of course: respect nature to the point of veneration; don’t shoot what you don’t have a permit for; don’t shoot anything you don’t intend to kill; don’t kill more than you need. The cardinal rule, the one impressed the hardest into my mind, was that you don’t set foot anywhere that you don’t have permission to go, not for any reason.

That particular decree, in myriad permutations, is at the hear... Read More

Master of Poisons: A challenging book

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Master of Poisons (2020) by Andrea Hairston is an epic fantasy set in an African-inspired world that is facing environmental devastation. Fertile land is turning into poison desert, and void-storms are a constant threat.

Djola is called Master of Poisons because, when both men were young, he saved the Arkhysian Emperor with his knowledge of antidotes. He was rewarded with the title and a place on the Emperor’s council. Now, he thinks he might be able to save the land with a legendary spell, but he needs to find it first — and in the meantime, he recommends that everyone live more simply, to put less strain on the environment.

Human nature being what it is, this goes about as well as you might e... Read More

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

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. Jaques, who sweeps Susan out of Frank’s house, just ahead of a hor... Read More

Yellow Jessamine: A paranoid antiheroine in a dissolving city

Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Having thoroughly enjoyed Caitlin Starling’s 2019 novel The Luminous Dead, I was very happy to learn that I wouldn’t have to wait long to read more of her work.

Yellow Jessamine (2020), Starling’s new novella, is completely different from The Luminous Dead but similarly features creepy atmosphere, a background of family trauma, and relationships filled with dysfunctional tension and longing.

Evelyn Perdanu is a wealthy woman in the city of Delphinium, a city that is slowly dying now that its surrounding empire has fallen to a coup. Evelyn is involved in shipping, and is also an herbalist specializing in “fixes to unfixable probl... Read More

Before Adam: The Folk, meet the Folk, they’re a mid-Pleistocene Era family…

Before Adam by Jack London

Today, more than a century after Jack London’s passing in 1916, most people probably remember the San Francisco-born author for his books of rugged adventure, such as his third novel, The Call of the Wild (1903), his fifth, The Sea-Wolf (1904), and his seventh, White Fang (1906). Fewer will recall that amongst London’s 23 novels, 21 short story collections, three memoirs, three plays, 22 books of nonfiction and 45 poems – all written during a life span of only 40 years – this most superhumanly prolific of authors also produced four books that must be classified as either fantasy or sci-fi. I have already written here of London’s 13th novel, The Scarlet Plague... Read More

A Sick Gray Laugh: A disturbing, metafictional, transgressive tour de force

A Sick Gray Laugh by Nicole Cushing

A Sick Gray Laugh, Nicole Cushing’s 2019 horror novel, is disturbing, at times disgusting. It’s surreal, it’s metafictional and it’s often hilarious. And, really, that’s about all I have to say about it. If you like any of those things, or all of them, you should read it.

Oh, what? I should tell you about the plot? Okay. Noelle Cashman, our first-person narrator, is an award-winning horror novelist. Recently, though, she has started medication for her struggles with anxiety and depression and now, faced with a book to write, discovers she doesn’t want to write another novel. While parts of her life are getting much better — she joined a softball team, lost some weight, is eating more healthily — Noelle is distressed and intrigued by the steady encroachment of th... Read More

Piranesi: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable” indeed

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was going to start this review of Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke by stating that I was of two minds on the novel and then noting that this was both appropriate and also strong praise. Appropriate because the book is in many ways of the mind, and is as well of two worlds. Strong praise because my two minds were “I loved it” followed by “I liked it.” But then I thought more about it, and I decided my minds were really “I loved it,” “I liked it,” then “I loved it” again. But I could work with that, because really, the book functions on more than two levels. But then I thought about my reading some more, and I decided that my mind now was simply, singularly, “it’s brilliant.” Which is still, granted, strong praise, but no longer neatly appropriate. Worse, it’s also dully predictable. Becau... Read More

The Starless Sea: Visually spectacular

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Given the success of her debut, it would be impossible to write about Erin Morgenstern's eagerly awaited follow-up without alluding to The Night Circus (2011). The bestseller accrued a mass following of 'Rêveurs' – the self-styled fanbase, named after the followers of the circus in the book. It inspired a formidable amount of tattoos and artwork on Pinterest, as well as being translated into thirty-seven languages, no less. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but can Morgenstern live up to her own success?

The Starless Sea (2019) follows the tale of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a... Read More

Space Station Down: Would make a great movie

Space Station Down by Ben Bova & Doug Beason

Kimberly Hasid-Robinson, a physicist, is overseeing her projects on the International Space Station as a Kazakhstani astronaut and a wealthy Russian tourist arrive. As they are boarding, she can’t leave her experiment, which is why she doesn’t get murdered by the Kazakhstani astronaut, who turns out to be a terrorist. Now Kimberly will spend the rest of her time on the ISS trying to neutralize the terrorist and prevent him from crashing the ISS into Manhattan while spilling plutonium across the country on its way down.

Time is short because Americans are panicking and the President of the United States knows that the best way to stop the rioting and looting is to shoot down the space station, especially since nobody knows if Kimberly is dead or alive. The Chinese government, which has its own motivations, is threatening to shoot down the ISS, too.

Fortunately, Kim... Read More

Lovecraft Country: Here there be monsters

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

If the recent television adaptation of Lovecraft Country (2017) is anything like the source material, I think I’m going to enjoy it immensely. Matt Ruff’s novel of interconnected tales is well-written, compelling, horrifying (all the more so because the Lovecraftian horrors experienced by the novel’s African-American characters are not that much worse than the everyday evil of Jim Crow-era America), insightful, and, at times, even funny.

Korean War veteran Atticus Turner, a fan of pulpy sci-fi and horror novels written by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Read More

In the Shadows of Men: The ghosts are the least horrific element here

In the Shadows of Men by Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett has become one of my must-read authors, a view arising from his brilliant DIVINE CITIES trilogy and only confirmed by his nearly as brilliant THE FOUNDERS TRILOGY. Both are fantasy works, but Bennett also turns his craft toward horror as well, and that craft is indeed evident in his newest novella, In the Shadows of Men (2020), a taut, concise work that unnerves in more ways than one.

The brothers Pugh — one our unnamed narrator, the other his older brother Bear — are near the end of their line. For the youngest, it’s been “thirty-nine days since my wife left and she packed our little girl into her car and said she couldn’t stand it anymore, she just wanted to go someplace where everything was... Read More

Driftwood: A strong story collection with a great setting

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan

Driftwood (2020) is a charming, meditative, and often poignant collection of linked stories by Marie Brennan that mostly succeeds both in its individual tales and as a whole, though I had a few issues. But given that one of those is it was too short, it’s still an easy book to recommend.

The book’s general setting is the titular Driftwood. Think of it as a beach whose tide, instead of washing up the pebbles and the sea’s detritus, washes up instead dying worlds. Except instead of piling up on a sandy strand, the worlds just edge farther and farther inward, getting ever smaller before eventually disappearing forever. Or as one character explains to another whose world has just started the process:
Bits [of a world] just vanish. People die... Read More

Quantum Shadows: Unpleasant

Quantum Shadows by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

What would life be like if you were living through a seemingly never-ending series of holocaust-style planetary collapses? Corvyn is a cynic. He questions everything and tries to hold himself above the mundane ideals that normal people struggle with. He’s been there, done that, is powerful enough in the world order that exists to resist almost anyone, but he refuses to take a leadership role himself.

In Quantum Shadows (2020) we follow Corvyn as he attempts to track down an apparent attempt to seize power by entities unknown. Over the next several hundred pages, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. drags us through a broad-ranging review of various religious/moral viewpoints that populate Heaven, the planet Corvyn lives on. As with almost all Modesitt books, there are plenty of semi-tongue in... Read More

The Time Stream: Will It Go Round In Circles?

The Time Stream by John Taine

After eight novels dealing with such venerable science fiction themes as lost races, weapons of superscience, the transmutation of elements, dinosaurs, devolution, crystalline life-forms and the creation of a superman, Scottish-American author John Taine finally tackled one of the most revered sci-fi tropes of them all, namely time travel, in his ninth novel, The Time Stream. Today, this book comes freighted with a double-edged reputation, as it is said to be the author’s strangest novel of the 16 he wrote between 1924 and ’54, as well as his finest; an irresistible combination for those who are game. The novel was released just two months after Taine’s Seeds of Life had appeared complete in the October... Read More

By Force Alone: King Arthur makes an offer we can’t refuse

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar has been on quite the roll, earning rave 5 out of 5 reviews from me his last three books. Unfortunately, his newest, By Force Alone (2020), didn’t rise to the same level. No, I’m sorry to say I could only see my way to giving it 4.5 stars thanks to being merely “excellent” as opposed to “great.” Slacker.

By Force Alone is an Arthurian tale, though that is a bit deceptive. Camelot this ain’t (though the musical makes an appearance or two). Think of Malory filtered through a mash-up of John Boorman’s Excalibur co-directed/written by Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. And with a whole lotta cameos and Easter eggs. It’s dark, vulgar, gritty, funny, thoughtful, profane, biting, densely referential, bloody, and makes... Read More

The Hereafter Bytes: A funny book, a fun read

The Hereafter Bytes by Vincent Scott

I believe that humorous science fiction is hard to write. I’m not talking about humorous banter or moments within a book — many writers excel at that — but books that are conceived as comical stories from the start. Humor requires the balance of many elements and crucial timing. Even if those things are present, a sense of humor is hard to quantify, and a technically funny book may fail to entertain for some ephemeral reason.

Vincent Scott, however, is unafraid, and tackles humor in his 2020 comic cyberpunk novel The Hereafter Bytes. Right on the cover, it says, “A Funny Sci Fi Novel,” allowing you to judge it by that metric. And for me, it succeeded.

I read an ARC of this book and blurbed it. I usually raise my eyebrows at comic SF, but I enjoyed this book both times I read it. It’s funny. Sometimes the humor is labored, but... Read More