Stand-Alone

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

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) completely reinvented Batman as angry and bitter older man coming out of retirement to stem a rising tide of crime in Gotham City alongside Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. This was a dark vision of a complex and troubled soul driven to fight crime to avenge his parent’s senseless death, and it resonated with a new generation of readers and gained comics greater credibility among mainstream readers. Just one year later Miller produced a four-part story arc called Batman: Year One (1987). Thoug... Read More

Kindred: A complex exploration of the slave/slaver relationship

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred
(1979) is Octavia Butler’s earliest stand-alone novel, and though it features time travel, it’s not really science fiction or fantasy. It’s an exploration of American slavery and its painful legacy from the eyes of a contemporary (well, circa 1976) young black woman named Dana. So don’t expect to learn why she keeps being pulled back in time to a pre-Civil War slave plantation in Maryland every time her ancestor, a white slave owner named Rufus Weylin, finds his life in danger. It’s a plot device that allows the reader to experience all the horrors of being a powerless black female slave in 1815 while retaining a modern perspective. So this book is firmly in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple Read More

A Criminal Magic: An early contender for our Best of 2016

A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly

In A Criminal Magic, Lee Kelly creates a world in which the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1919, banned sorcery rather than alcohol. Kelly combines remarkable creativity, imagination, and insight into the human condition, blending fantasy with history and ending up with a complex, entertaining, compelling novel.

Naturally, the passage of A Criminal Magic’s fictional amendment results in the same response as its historical analogue: sorcerers are thrust into the criminal underworld, brewing an illegal ruby-red elixir. This “shine,” as it’s known, is smuggled by gangsters into “shining rooms” across the country, fronted by legal liquor bars and raided by members of the Federal Prohibition Unit who can’t be bribed into looking the other way. Drinking shine gives reality a surreal glow, causes a wide ran... Read More

Podkayne of Mars: Heinlein gives us a smart feministic mixed-race heroine

Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein

Podkayne (“Poddy”) Fries is a pretty, mixed-race teenager who lives with her parents and her younger brother (Clark) on Mars. We learn about her family and her adventures via the diary entries she writes. Poddy tell us that her family was planning to take a vacation to visit Old Earth, but when there is a mix-up with some frozen embryos, they had to cancel the trip so Poddy’s mother can take care of the unexpected new babies. Poddy is devastated until her Uncle Tom, a man who is a respected politician on Mars, arranges to escort Poddy and Clark to earth on a luxury spaceship.

Poddy is not White.

On the spaceship Poddy and Clark make a friend and get to enjoy extravagant dinners and dances. Poddy learns a lot about how to fly a spaceship and, along the way, readers will learn quite a bit about space travel, including... Read More

Bitter Greens: Gorgeous historical novel blended with fairytale

Reposting to include Kelly's new review:

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is a marvelous re-telling of Rapunzel, woven together with historical fiction that gives the reader a glimpse into the life of Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force, the French noblewoman who first published the fairy tale. Forsyth, pursuing her doctorate in fairy-tale retellings in Sydney, originally published in this novel in her native Australia. It has just been released in the US.

Bitter Greens begins with the story of Charlotte, exiled from the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and locked in a nunnery. Through her narrative, we learn that she was a vivacious courtier whose passion and wit would not be contained. Early in the novel, her mother tells the young Charlotte that she could have been a troubadour; instead, as an adult, she h... Read More

Kingfisher: Enchanting to the last word

Kingfisher by Patricia A. McKillip

Knights dress in black and ride motorcycles, sorcerers and sorceresses run restaurants, and maybe your grandpa isn’t actually crazy. Such is the world in which Patricia A. McKillip’s Kingfisher takes place. Though it may begin with a deceivingly simple quest of a young man looking for his long-lost father, Kingfisher becomes much more than that very quickly. It ends up following the stories of four young people as they navigate their changing worlds and values as well as deftly interweaving their lives in surprisingly satisfying ways. I was leery (and a bit confused) at first, but Kingfisher delivers an enchanting tale of ancient-feeling magic in the modern day.

This isn’t a book in which you’re going to find in-dept... Read More

The Secret of Sinharat & People of the Talisman: A wonderful double feature

The Secret of Sinharat & People of the Talisman by Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett, the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” would have turned 100 years old on 12/7/2015, and to celebrate her recent centennial in my own way, I have resolved to read five novels featuring her most well-known character: Eric John Stark. Brackett, of course, was already something of a well-known commodity before her first Stark story appeared in 1949; she had already placed no fewer than 32 short stories and novelettes, beginning in 1940, in the various pulp publications of the day, thereby establishing herself as the most important female sci-fi author of the Golden Age (other than C.L. Moore, of course). Her Stark tales, all three of them, originally appeared in the pages of ... Read More

Blood Meridian: Luminous, blood-drenched, profound, and confounding

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian is a book that almost everyone has heard of, read, or intends to read at some point. It’s been called one of the Great American Novels (and Cormac McCarthy one the Great American Writers), and the greatest Western or most ruthless debunking of the Western myth of Manifest Destiny ever written. Many who have read it are probably at a loss to say whether it is a work of genius or depravity, and it is mind-numbingly violent, lyrical, and profound at the same time.

Opinions on its message and philosophy differ so wildly that I wonder if McCarthy deliberately wrote it to confound all the attempts of literary critics to make sense of it. I, myself, was torn between my appreciation for the absolutely stunning passages of poetic brilliance — particularly his descriptions of nature, co... Read More

This Census Taker: Miéville explores Wolfe country

This Census Taker by China Miéville

This Census Taker is a short novel by China Miéville. It’s almost a novella. The story could be psychological horror, but it’s stranger than that. I just finished rereading some Gene Wolfe, so I may be forgiven for interpreting This Census Taker as “China Miéville does Gene Wolfe.” Even the front flap describes the book as a “poignant and riveting exploration of memory and identity.” Buckle up, people, and keep your head and arms inside the vehicle at all times. This is Miéville exploring Wolfe country, and you never know what might bite.

The book opens with a little boy fleeing down a mountain to the village below. From the opening pages, the tone of the narrative... Read More

Between Two Fires: Epic, emotional, cross-genre fantasy

Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman

Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman is a hybrid fairy tale / fantasy / horror / historical fiction. These individual parts blend to create a fulfilling whole in a Canterbury Tales-style story of a fallen knight and spiritually lost priest who journey across France during the plague-ridden middle ages with an orphaned girl who's either an exceptionally special individual, a weird witch, or a gift (literally) from the heavens.

The emotionally driven backdrop is a beautifully diverse French countryside, absolutely decimated, both mentally and physically, by the Black Death. Humanity has been abused and tortured so completely and without relief that the very reasonable question of "is there a god, and if so, why is this allowed to happen?" rests on the lips of all but a f... Read More

The Girl with All the Gifts: Even a worn-out meme can have power

Reposting to include Rachael's new review:

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Melanie is ten years old, with skin as white as snow, just like in the fairy tale. But she doesn’t live in a tower; she lives in a cell, and is taken from there through the corridor to the classroom, and the shower room, where she is fed grubs once a week before a chemical spray falls from the ceiling. She knows that the place she lives in is called the block, and that the block is on the base, which is called Hotel Echo. They’re close to London and part of Region 6, which is mostly clear because the burn patrols kill the hungries. Her favorite teacher is Miss Justineau, who makes school days interesting and full of fun.

We quickly learn that the hungries are zombies — and at that point, I groaned; not another zombie novel! Haven’t we worn out this meme yet? But Read More

The Humans: How alien the human race can seem

The Humans by Matt Haig

Andrew Martin is a distinguished mathematics professor at Cambridge University who has just discovered the solution to the Riemann hypothesis, thereby solving the secret of prime numbers and unlocking the secrets of the universe. That is, at least, until he is assassinated by an alien race and his body is taken over by a Vonnedorian agent intent on wiping out all traces of his mathematical discovery so that the puny human race will never hold the secret of the primes.

So begins The Humans, Matt Haig’s wry and satirical examination of the human race. Andrew Martin (more specifically, the alien who now inhabits his body) has woken up on planet earth. He is naked and he is in the middle of a motorway somewhere on the outskirts of Cambridge. When drivers in passing cars hurl abuse and spit on him, Andrew assumes this is the traditional form of human greeting and proc... Read More

The Miniaturist: Compelling and mysterious, but ultimately unsatisfying

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, was undoubtedly a hit. I bought it because I was in an airport rush and it was winking at me from its bestseller, front row spot on the shelves. The Miniaturist’s popularity does not surprise me. It is an enjoyable read, packed with intertwining mysteries that tease throughout. I imagine a lot of people have fond memories of doll’s houses and were enticed by this aspect of the story, or at least, I was. But despite its potential, the ingredients of intrigue and magic never fully came together in any satisfying way.

The story is that of Nella, a young lady who arrives in Amsterdam in 1686 to begin life as the wife of a wealthy merchant. Things start badly. Her new husband barely speaks to her and her sister-in-l... Read More

The Seventh Bride: The miller’s daughter meets Bluebeard

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

One of the less well-known folk tales, Bluebeard, the tale of the aristocrat who has married several wives who have ominously disappeared, is dusted off and adapted by T. Kingfisher in The Seventh Bride, a middle grade/young adult fantasy. Note: Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon, the Nebula award-winning author of the short story "Jackalope Wives"). Rhea, a fifteen year old miller's daughter, is unhappily and unwillingly engaged to Lord Crevan, a nobleman whom she doesn’t even know. Her parents urged her to accept Lord Crevan’s offer: their family is having trouble making ends meet and Lord Crevan is a friend of the local marquis. And you don’t turn down lords. But Rhea, who keenly feels her l... Read More

The Stargazer’s Sister: A quietly intimate portrait, strongly recommended

The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown

The Stargazer’s Sister, by Carrie Brown, is a wonderfully realized tale of Caroline Herschel, sister and essential assistant to her famed astronomer brother William. The highly fictionalized account (Brown cops in an afterword to making up events, characters, and shifting chronology) takes us deep into Caroline’s fears and desires throughout her long life, making for a quiet and moving character study.

The first chapter opens with Caroline and Herschel’s departure from Germany for England, where the two would spend most of their adult lives. It’s a nicely concise scene, introducing many of the story’s elements/themes in just a few pages. The stars, astronomy, the unbreakable bond between Caroline and William, as well as William’s primacy in that relationship all make an early appearance:
Around them, the night sky: resplendent, r... Read More

Salem’s Lot: Old school vampires, King-style

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Starting in 2012/2013 I started obsessing on Stephen King. I'm slowly working my way through his catalog, which means I should have a pretty full life of King left to me, right? I'm a huge fan of It, The Stand, The Shining, and I actually really enjoyed Under the Dome. I wanted more, and so I’ve gone old school with Salem's Lot.

I'm over the whole vampire thing, trust me, but I've found that King is so much more than monsters and things that go bump in the night. He is at his artistic best when turning the mundane into the profane, or peeling back the layers of what's public and private, and then igniting even the smallest evil int... Read More

Barsk: A wonderfully thoughtful, imaginative work of science fiction

Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

When I put in my ARC request for Lawrence M. Schoen’s new novel Barsk, all I knew about it was that the setting involved a group of worlds inhabited by a variety of anthropomorphic space-faring animal species, with the main focus on elephants (thus its subtitle: The Elephant’s Graveyard). C’mon. El-e-phants in Spaaaaaccce! How could I resist? But Barsk is much more than a funny-but-cool premise; it’s a thoughtful, moving, and provocative exploration of a host of issues, including but not limited to memory, history, free will, and power. Even better, Schoen doesn’t forget to ground his issues in characters we can care about, preventing the novel from devolving into mere abstraction.

As mentioned,... Read More

The Game-Players of Titan: A highly entertaining but bewildering Dickian jaunt

Reposting to include Sandy's new review:

The Game-Players of Titan by Philip K. Dick

After a devastating atomic world war, the humans of Earth have mostly killed each other off. Only about a million remain and most are sterile due to the radiation weapons developed by the Germans and used by the “Red Chinese.” Some humans now have telepathic abilities, too.

The alien Vugs of Titan, taking the opportunity to extend their domains, are now the Earth’s rulers. They seem like benevolent conquerors and overseers. For their amusement, they allow human landowners (“Bindmen”) to play a game called Bluff, which is much like Monopoly where the stakes are real pieces of property on the ruined Earth. The Vugs, who seem (but may not be) intent on not allowing the human race to die out, also use the game to mix up couples, hoping to serendipitously find viable breeding pairs. Any Bindman can play in the district where they ... Read More

Planetfall: An SF exploration of mental illness

Reposting to include Jason's new review:

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Planetfall, the first science fiction offering from Emma Newman, is about a colony of humans who left Earth to follow Suh, an alleged prophet who received a supernatural message giving her the coordinates of an unknown distant planet where she was supposed to travel to receive instructions about God’s plans for humanity. Suh and her best friend Ren, a brilliant geneticist and engineer, gathered a team of like-minded believers and they landed on the planet 22 years ago. After “Planetfall,” Suh disappeared into “God’s City,” where she continues to live and send yearly messages and instructions to the rest of the colonists. All is going well until a visitor arrives and claims to be Suh’s grandson. His presence threatens the colony... Read More

The Martian: Being abandoned on Mars is more fun than you’d think

Reposting to include Kat's new review:

The Martian by Andy Weir

Mars has long had a somewhat cursed reputation in space exploration. Launch failures, midair explosions, crash landings. Probes that missed the planet completely. Probes we’ve never heard from again and still don’t know what happened. By the time of Andy Weir’s The Martian, though, things have been on a better trajectory for some time and humanity has successfully landed several expeditions on Mars. Mark Watney is the engineer/botanist on the third such expedition, Ares 3, which is just coming up on the end of their first week of a month-long stay. Unfortunately, this is where Mars’ checkered past comes roaring back in the form of a sudden huge sandstorm that forces an abort of the mission and a quick exit from the planet. Or, a quick exit for all of the crew but Watney, who through a freak occurrence is presumed dead and thus abandoned, lead... Read More

Galileo’s Dream: A decent story with uneven execution

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

I'm a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, which is a terrific blend of pseudo science fictional philosophy and religion, and fun and entertaining alternative history. It's deep and touching and provides a strong sense of activity (if not specifically action and adventure). So the concept behind Galileo's Dream drew me to the book the instant I read the description: the astronomer Galileo is taken from Earth to the moons of Jupiter (which he discovered) in an attempt to modify the past to make for a better future — a future in which science rises up over religion. Unfortunately, while it's a fun concept, Robinson provides an uneven impl... Read More

The Gracekeepers: Sea and circuses

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

In Kirsty Logan’s watery debut, the world as we know it still exists, only it is entirely underwater. Eerie and poetic, The Gracekeepers has been dubbed a dystopia, but it actually reads much more like a regular fantasy. Small scraps of land are all that remain of earth’s continents after rising water levels, leaving humanity in two groups: “clams,” the lucky few who cling to the land and “damplings,” those that must live out on the sea. The two groups have an uneasy relationship: half-mistrustful, half-fascinated by one another.

Our story opens with North, a dampling who is part of the Excalibur, a floating circus that performs across the islands and archipelagos for the clams who live on land. There are sinister clowns, horse riders, acrobats and a ringmaster that seems to have m... Read More

Hell House: A short, enjoyable read

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson’s short novel Hell House (1971) follows a group of four experts with various supernatural-related backgrounds who seek to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts in a super-creepy home that’s become known as Hell House. And a hellish house it is indeed.

The roots of the story are built on a foundation of gothic horror, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of H.P. Lovecraft’s very heavy and mythic language throughout Matheson’s story.
They all stared through the windows at the curling fog. It was as though they rode inside a submarine, slowly navigating downward through a sea of curdled milk.
The following exposition describes what the group sees as they approach the house f... Read More

Station Eleven: A quiet and lovely post-apocalyptic novel

Reposting to include Stuart's new review.


Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel

“Quiet” and “lovely” are not usually words one reaches for when describing a post-apocalyptic novel. Not with the reverted-back-to-savagery cannibals; the road-raging-mohawk-sporting highway warriors; the gleeful told-you-so rat-a-tat of survivalist gunfire, or the annoying mumblespeak “braiiinnnnss” from the shambling zombies. But quiet and lovely are exactly the words I’d use to describe Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic novel from Emily St. John Mandel that is happily missing all the above and shows the modern world ending with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a gentle murmur.

Mandel’s chosen method of ending the world is the Georgia Flu, an incredibly virulent bug that wipes out 95+ percent of its victims within a span of 48 hours.... Read More

The Handmaid’s Tale: Just as chilling as 1984, Brave New World, and We

Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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.

Margaret Atwood was once, via a review of her work, once taken a bit publicly to task by Ursula K. LeGuin for not wanting her books (specifically The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and Read More