Stand-Alone

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

Edge: Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

[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.]

Of Things Gone Astray is Janina Matthewson’s debut novel, and it is charming and heartfelt magical realism. Using short chapters that cycle through different character perspectives, Matthewson tells the story of several people who have lost something of value to them, ranging from piano keys or the front of a house to a girlfriend or a father.  As these characters struggle with their losses, a young boy named Jake begins to find the things that are lost, developing a magical sense for where the items came from and their meaning... Read More

Recalled to Life: Ungrateful dead

Recalled to Life by Robert Silverberg

True to his word, after announcing his retirement from the science fiction field in 1959, future Grand Master Robert Silverberg’s formerly prodigious output fell off precipitously. Although he’d released some 16 sci-fi novels from the period 1954 – ’59, not to mention almost 250 (!) sci-fi short stories, AFTER 1959 and until his major return in 1967, his sci-fi production was sporadic at best. In 1960, Silverberg only released one sci-fi book, Lost Race of Mars (a so-called “juvenile”), and in 1961, not a single full-length affair; only two short stories. In 1962, however, in a slight return to form, Silverberg released Recalled to Life and The Seed of Earth. The year 1962 was hardly an idle one for Silverberg, however; besides those two novels, he also released one sci-fi shor... Read More

Horrible Monday: The Three by Sarah Lotz

The Three by Sarah Lotz

Sarah Lotz’s The Three is a stand-alone horror novel which should, by all rights, have a terrifying plot: Four high-capacity passenger jets crash on the same day, with no warning or clues as to the cause. After three of the crashes, a single child is found alive among the wreckage: one Japanese, one American, and one Briton. Global media coverage focuses on these three children (and the possibility of a fourth in Africa), creating a maelstrom of controversy over what may have happened and whether these children are symbols of hope or something far more sinister. Complicating the issue is the last known communication from an American woman, a voicemail which is appropriated by her pastor for self-aggrandizing purposes.

These events are bookended by a framing device: A journalist, Elspeth Martins, has taken it upon herself to better understand the plane crashes and the effect they ... Read More

Those Who Watch: Compulsively readable and quite touching

Those Who Watch by Robert Silverberg

There is a certain aptness in the fact that I penned this review for Robert Silverberg’s Those Who Watch on January 15, 2015. That day, you see, happened to be Silverberg’s 80th birthday, so my most sincere wishes for many more happy and healthy birthdays must go out to the man who has become, over the years, my favorite sci-fi author.

These days, of course, Silverberg is one of the most honored and respected writers in his chosen genre; a multiple winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, not to mention a Science Fiction Grand Master. Hard to believe then that, back in 1959, Silverberg, facing a diminishing market for his work and chafing under the literary restrictions of the day, announced his retirement from the field. Since 1954, he’d already come out with some 15 sci-fi novels, plus ... Read More

Horrible Monday: A Shrill Keening by Ronald Malfi

A Shrill Keening by Ronald Malfi

A Shrill Keening opens with a first person narrator telling us about the books in his hospital room, and expanding from there to tell us about the hospital’s library and librarian.  It is only when he notes that the list of requested books he hands to the librarian is written in crayon that the reader realizes the nature of the hospital:  it is a mental institution.  But the reader must also wonder:  why is a mental institution catering to a patient’s request for books by and about H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe?

The nature of the narrator’s malady becomes evident when he states that he does not know which part of his life is real and which part he is dreaming. His therapist attempts — poorly — to convince him that his particular form of solipsism, in which he imagines that the therapist blinks out of existence as soon as they part; but the narrator conti... Read More

Her Fearful Symmetry: Needed more substance than the ghosts

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 open with the death of Elspeth Noblin. She and her (substantially younger) boyfriend, Robert, had, until her death, lived in two separate flats next to Highgate cemetery. Shortly before her death, Elspeth wrote to her twin sister Edie, who lives in America,... Read More

Lexicon: You’ll never look at words the same way again

Lexicon by Max Barry

Compare two commonly-used adages: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” versus “The pen is mightier than the sword.” In your own life, which saying have you found to be truer? It's all well and good to claim that an intangible thought, either spoken or written, is less powerful than a physical object, but one can easily come up with several examples to the contrary: Discarded treaties between the United States government and various Native American tribal peoples; Chairman Mao's infamous little red book; documentation in South Africa upholding the so-called legality of apartheid; Stalin's issuance of the Great Purge and subsequent refusal to acknowledge its existence; Adolph Hitler's deranged, inflammatory Mein Kampf. Words are powerful, dangerous things. One might even say that they're magical. In Lexicon, by Max Barry, they are all ... Read More

Master of Life and Death: Early Silverberg

Master of Life and Death by Robert Silverberg

Future Grand Master Robert Silverberg’s fifth sci-fi novel, Master of Life and Death, was originally released as one-half of one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (D-237, for all you collectors out there), back to back with James White’s The Secret Visitors. Published in 1957, this was one of “only” three novels that Silverberg would release that year (the others were The Dawning Light and The Shrouded Planet), a fairly paltry number, one might think, for this remarkably prolific author… until one realizes that he also came out with no fewer than 82 (!) short stories and novellas that year in the sci-fi vein, plus 19 “adult” stories. On average, that comes to around a story every three or four days, PL... Read More

Codex: A must-read for Grossman fans

Codex by Lev Grossman

There are disadvantages to finding a trilogy you really love, and they usually surface somewhere between the second and final book. I discovered this whilst waiting for The Magician’s Land to be released, after devouring the first two novels of Grossman’s Magicians series. It was at this point I turned my attention to the rest of Grossman’s literary corpus and discovered a stand-alone novel published five years previously to The Magicians: Codex.

Codex centres around the twenty-something, highly paid investment banker, Edward Wozny. Wozny is a disillusioned, slightly listless New Yorker (sound familiar?) who’s got two weeks off between his high-flying job in New York and his high-flying job in London. He’s spent his entire life working, and now that he actually ha... Read More

Horrible Monday: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

When I read Terry Weyna’s review of Broken Monsters last year, I knew I had to get this book. Lauren Beukes’s earlier horror novel, The Shining Girls, was compelling and original, and Broken Monsters does not disappoint. More than a terrifying horror novel, it’s a study of ... Read More

Dwellers in the Mirage: A marvelous fantasy

Dwellers in the Mirage by Abraham Merritt

After taking a brief respite — in the hardboiled yet outre crime thriller Seven Footprints to Satan — from the tales of adventurous fantasy at which he so excelled, Abraham Merritt returned in fine form with Dwellers in the Mirage (1932). In this terrific novel, Merritt revisits many of the themes and uses many of the ingredients that made his first novel, The Moon Pool, such an impressive success. Like that early work, Dwellers features a lost civilization (of the type grandfathered by the great H. Rider Haggard), battling priestesses, civil wars, and otherdimensional creatures (in the earlier book, a light creat... Read More

Edge: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

[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.]

I don’t usually include photos of a book I’m reviewing, except for the cover, but part of the charm of Murakami’s odd little novella, The Strange Library, is its exquisite packaging. The book is published by Borzoi Books, an imprint of Knopf well known for unusual packaging, and they had a lot of fun with this one.

The Strange Library opens like a stenographer’s pad, at first. And then you turn the first page and you’re reading a conventional western book. Well, kind... Read More

Station Eleven: Possibly 2014’s strongest post-apocalyptic novel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Arthur Leander is one of the finest actors of his generation — certainly one of the most famous — and his life’s relationships form the hub of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven. The story begins with Arthur’s death: he’s on stage in Toronto, playing Shakespeare’s Lear, when he collapses from a heart attack.

Station Eleven shifts through multiple perspectives and it’s, to say the least, non-linear, so it’s probably easiest to map the novel’s characters by how they relate to Arthur at the time of his death. Kirsten is a child actor in the play. Jeevan is a paramedic in training who rushes to the stage to save Arthur (there’s nothing he can do). Miranda was Arthur’s first wife, and though she remains a target for the paparazzi when she returns to Toronto to visit her ex-husband, she has other... Read More

Rooms: A lovely ghost story about compassion and self-knowledge

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Rooms by Lauren Oliver is a beautiful, and beautifully-told, story about a house and the generations of people who have inhabited it. As the story opens, the Walker family converges upon the house after the death of Richard Walker, ex-husband to Caroline and father to Minna and Trenton. What the living do not realize — at least at first — is that the house also harbors ghosts: Sandra and Alice, two women who lived in the house at different times in the past.

I was nervous to read this book because I do not like being scared, and I especially do not like ghost stories. But the evocative cover — a red expanse with black tree branches reaching in from all sides — piqued my interest. And Lev Grossman blurbed it, so I felt like I had to give it a shot.

Rooms alternat... Read More

The Martian: Being abandoned on Mars is more fun than you thought

The Martian by Andy Weir

Impaled by a communications antenna and blown into a sandstorm, Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars. By chance, he lives, but his crew has already left. Though he has no way to communicate with or return to Earth, Watney tries to survive anyway. Back on Earth, however, NASA learns from its satellites that Watney is alive and they try to rescue him. Unfortunately, even in the near future, space travel remains complicated and dangerous.

Well, that’s the plot.

The Martian is a hard sci-fi survival tale. Weir puts his protagonist in an impossible situation, comes up with schemes to help him survive, and then complicates those schemes with unforeseen obstacles (at one point, for example, the soil is too loose). Fortunately, Watney has a knack for improvising. While the plot may seem thin, it’s pretty fun watching Watney come up with ways to survive, even when surviv... Read More

Horrible Monday: The Broken Road by T. Frohock

The Broken Road by T. Frohock

T. Frohock” is Teresa Frohock, the author of the well-regarded fantasy debut Miserere: An Autumn Tale. The Broken Road is a novella that belongs to the “grimdark” genre: it is dark and gritty and there is no happily ever after. Frohock herself calls it “gothic horror,” and that description works, too. It’s good.

Travys du Valois is the younger of Queen Heloise’s twin sons. He is mute, and therefore unable to work the magic inherent in the nobles of his land except by using the voice of another or the sounds surrounding him. His... Read More

More Than This: Original and refreshing YA

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness casts his line with five words, and we are hooked: “Here is the boy, drowning.” Seth is sixteen years old when we meet him, and about to die. He is out at sea with the icy tide dragging him out further and further in a terrifying opening for Ness’s Young Adult novel, More Than This. And then his shoulder blade “snaps in two so loudly he can hear the crack.” Seth drowns.

But impossibly, he wakes up. He finds himself in his childhood home in England, in a kind of twisted post-apocalyptic version of his past. It is completely abandoned, devoid of other humans, choked by overgrown weeds and everything covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt. The reader is as intrigued and lost as Seth is, and it is through his eyes that we must discover how and why Seth came to be here.

Ness paints Seth with utmost compassion and ... Read More

Judgment Night: Colorful, emotional, thrilling

Judgment Night by C.L. Moore

Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, the foremost husband-and-wife writing team in sci-fi history, produced their novels and short stories under a plethora of pen names, as well as their own, and for the past half century it has been a sort of literary game to puzzle out which author was the primary contributor to any particular work. This has apparently been far from a simple task, as either writer was perfectly capable of picking up the other's thoughts in mid-paragraph and carrying on. Catherine Moore has said publicly that many stories for which she was the primary author were published under Kuttner's name for the simple reason that his word rate was higher than hers; this, despite the fact that Moore was a longer-established writer. (I suppose that unequal pay for equal work ... Read More

Defenders: It will make you think long after you’ve read it

Defenders by Will McIntosh

How do you fight an enemy that can read your every thought, and another that has been designed and bred for war? In 2029, according to Will McIntosh’s novel Defenders, that’s the most impending question humanity needs to answer if it wants to survive.

Having achieved critical acclaim in 2013 with Love Minus Eighty, McIntosh’s newest novel is a fast-paced and visceral exploration of morality and war. Earth has been invaded by the Luyten, a race of enormous starfish-like aliens that can read your mind. They can know what you are going to do before you do it, and know where you are, despite your best efforts to hide yourself. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that humanity’s war efforts against the invasion have been nullified and three billion people have perished from the war. Even when hope has been all but lost, a daring military projec... Read More

The Well of the Worlds: Kuttner & Moore went out with a doozy!

The Well of the Worlds by Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore

Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore's final science fiction novel, Mutant, was released in 1953. There would be sporadic short stories from the famous husband-and-wife writing team throughout the '50s, as well as a mystery series from Kuttner featuring psychoanalyst/detective Dr. Michael Gray, not to mention a superior sci-fi novel from Moore herself, Doomsday Morning, in 1957, but Mutant was, essentially, the last word, sci-fiwise, from the team. But Mutant is what's known as a "fix-up" novel, comprised of five short stories (in this case, mainly dating back to 1945) cobbled together to make a whole, so I suppose that we must call the team's Read More

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