Stand-Alone

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

The Keeper of the Mist: A quietly charming traditional YA fantasy

The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier

Kerianna, the illegitimate daughter of the dissolute, ailing Lord of the country of Nimmira and a former serving girl, is a baker in the town of Glassforge who prides herself on the quality of her wedding cakes and other baked goods. It’s a struggling business, and Keri has to run it by herself since the death of her mother, but it’s modestly successful and Keri has hopes for the future.

Rule over Nimmira passes from parent to child, along with the magical power that enables the Lord or Lady of Nimmira to maintain the magical mists that hide the entire country from the powerful countries around it that would quickly take over Nimmira, if they only knew of its existence. Though Keri has daydreams of being the next ruler and fixing the problems of Nimmira, she, like everyone else in the country, expects leadership to fall to one of her three older half-brothers. So it’s a shock to ever... Read More

The Healer’s War: Harrowing tale of a Vietnam combat nurse

The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

This is another Nebula winner I’ve had on the shelf ever since it was published in 1998, but hadn’t got around to reading. So when I found an audio version on Audible narrated by Robin Miles, one of my favorite female narrators after listening to N.K. Jemisin’s phenomenal The Fifth Season, that was enough to pull it to the top of my TBR list. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is mostly known as a writer of humorous fantasy novels, along with several collaborations with Anne McCaffrey, so it was quite a surprise to discover that she was a combat nurse in Vietnam, and The Healer’s War is a fictional ... Read More

Thirteen: A story with conflicting agendas

Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan

Like drugs for techno-action junkies, Richard K. Morgan did the futuristic, world-weary warrior story well in his TAKESHI KOVACS series. With a Wild West-style of justice continually seeping through the scenes of blood and gore, Morgan also indicated there may be a little more on his mind than just action. The nihilism was left without an explicit voice, so Morgan set out to rectify this in his 2007 Thirteen (Black Man in the UK*). Slowing the plot to allow ideological exposition a place, the novel finds the author highlighting the prevalence of vice in unabashed, overt style. The thematic content does not always match character representation and premise, so the result is a story with conflicting agendas.

Thirteen is the story of... Read More

Troika: Russian cosmonauts explore a BDO

Troika by Alastair Reynolds

Troika is a stand-alone hard science fiction novella that was first published in the 2010 anthology Godlike Machines edited by Jonathan Strahan. In 2011 it was published on its own by Subterranean Press. The story is Alastair Reynolds’ take on the Big Dumb Object trope.

In Reynolds’ future, Russia is the world’s only major superpower and has sent three cosmonauts to examine an alien object, which they call the Matryoshka, which has arrived in Earth’s solar system through a wormhole. The story takes place years after the cosmonauts return and one has escaped the mental institution he’s been imprisoned in to visit the female astronomer who was part of their crew and now lives in poverty. Through their conversation, a... Read More

The Ship: A sinister, watery utopia

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Lalla has never had a real apple before. She’s eaten tinned apple and dried apple and apple preserve, but never a real apple. This is because sixteen-year-old Lalla is born at the end of the world, in a London where Big Ben is underwater and Regents Park is nothing but a tent city of homeless people and the British Museum is shelter to the starving masses of a dying civilisation. But Lalla’s father has a solution to the destitution her family face. The prospect of The Ship has taken on a mythical quality in Lalla’s life, as she’s heard her parents planning and arguing over it for most of her childhood, and as society teeters on the brink of collapse, the time has finally come to board the legendary vessel.

The Ship consists of 500 hundred lucky souls that her father has personally selected for his new society, though his selection process is not initially clear. On board, Lalla is astounded to... Read More

Zero K: I’ll take a second-tier DeLillo any year

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo, I’ve found, is one of those authors that splits readers down the middle. For myself, I definitely and whole-heartedly fall into the fan camp, with White Noise and Underworld being two of my favorite all-time novels, and Mao II and Libra not far behind. His newest, Zero K, doesn’t rise to their level (most novels don’t), but it is still classic DeLillo, filled with great sentences, dialog that sounds less like real people talking and more like a pair of students work-shopping their dissertations (one of the reasons he tends to split readers), cool musings on the intersection of technology and modern culture, and explorations of wealth, violent (almost apocalyptic) events, the modern senses of dislocation and isolation, the impact of media, and (a true DeLillo st... Read More

Camouflage: Species meets The Abyss

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman

How did Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage beat Susanna Clarke’s monumental work Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for the Nebula Award in 2005? Granted, I haven’t read that book, but I have read many glowing reviews from my fellow FanLit reviewers and Goodreads friends. It was also made into a major BBC miniseries and received many accolades. Clarke’s book is incredibly long and filled with dense footnotes that show the depth of research and creative energy, perhaps too much for some readers but showing great effort on the author’s part. It is a major literary work of speculative fiction, and won the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, and was even nominated for the Man Booker Prize and... Read More

The Lie Tree: In which curiosity and intellect are definitely not ladylike

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Women, as demonstrated by their smaller skull size, are less intelligent than men. This is the bitter lesson Faith, our plucky protagonist in Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, must learn. In Victorian England, girls must be seen and not heard, as too much intelligence would spoil the female mind "like a rock in a soufflé." But Faith has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a secret desire of one day becoming a scientist. This dark and twisting tale sees how far she'll pursue that knowledge and the lies she'll tell to obtain it.

The novel opens with Faith's family being uprooted to the craggy island of Vale. Her father is a reverend and an avid natural scientist, and Faith is relegated to follow her family in the rain on foot whilst her father's precious plant specimens tak... Read More

Unearthly Neighbors: A hugely satisfying novel of first contact

Unearthly Neighbors by Chad Oliver

The conventional wisdom for aspiring writers has long been “Write what you know,” a piece of advice that Cincinnati-born author Chad Oliver apparently took to heart. Greatly interested in the field of anthropology, Oliver, over the course of seven novels stretching from 1952 - ’76, as well as four collections of short stories, eventually carved out a place for himself as one of the leading lights in that curious subgenre known as anthropological science fiction. And the author was hardly a dabbler in his chosen scholarly field. In 1961, he wrote a doctoral thesis (under his real name, Symmes Chadwick Oliver) entitled Ecology and Cultural Continuity as Contributing Factors in the Social Organization of the Plains Indians (you can purchase it in book form on Amazon, if that title doesn’t intimidate you too much!); his textbook Read More

Central Station: A snapshot of a strangely familiar time

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Central Station is a thoughtful, poignant, human take on a possible future. For the most part Central Station occurs at the titular port on planet earth. This space resides in what we know today as Tel Aviv, but in the distant future it has gone through many names and many people. Everything seems to begin in earnest when Boris Chong arrives in Central Station after spending a great deal of time away — some of which on Mars. Central Station, the place, is a half-thought meeting of a variety of worlds. Central Station the book is more thoughtful than I think I know how to express, but I’ll give it a try.

Central Station occurs in the very spot where humans expanded from our first planet throughout the solar system. Humans, robotniks, children who live and breathe the virtuality known as The Con... Read More

Timescape: Intimate but slow-moving story about scientists

Timescape by Gregory Benford

Timescape (1980) has been on my TBR list for 35+ years, I've long wanted to read physicist Gregory Benford, the book won the Nebula Award, and it deals with time paradoxes, which I find fascinating but invariably unconvincing. First off, most of the book’s considerable length is devoted to a slow-moving and detailed portrait of scientists (mostly physicists, but also some biologists and astronomers) at work in the lab as well as their personal relationships with colleagues and wives/girlfriends. So to describe this as a “techno-thriller” would be inaccurate. At the same time, Benford spends a lot more time on character development than most “hard science fiction.” In the end I had mixed feeling about this book. It was interesting at times but too slow-moving to generate much excitement.

The book is set in two time periods — the first is 1962 in La... Read More

A Plague of Demons: The dogs of war

A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer

Though little discussed today, back in the 1960s, Syracuse, N.Y.-born Keith Laumer was a hugely popular sci-fi author, largely by dint of his series featuring interstellar ambassador/mediator Jaime Retief, a series that began in ’63 and ultimately comprised some 18 novels and books of short stories. Somehow, I managed to miss the entire Retief bandwagon back when, and only recently realized that I still had not read a single Laumer book from any of his major series — the Retief series was just one of many — or even any of his stand-alone books. On a whim, I selected his 1965 offering A Plague of Demons, which was released as the author turned 40; a stand-alone novel that The Science Fiction Encyclopedia deems the best of his “taut, extremely efficient sf thrillers,” and one that Scottish critic David Pringle has called “perhaps Lau... Read More

The Wasp Factory: A flash piece of entertainment

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Perusing bookshops in Poland one finds fiction is categorized along the same genre lines as America or Britain. They have horror, fantastyka, science fiction, kryminalny — all of which are readily recognizable to the English speaker. There is one additional category, however, that I’d never seen before: sensacyjny. Neither ‘sensual’ or ‘sensation,’ the word, in this context, translates to ‘sensational.’ Not in the ‘amazing’ or ‘magnificent’ sense of the word, rather ‘sensationalist’ or ‘suddenness’, and it’s in that section one finds books that have certainly taken readers by storm, but less certainly are in possession of layers beyond outright popularity. It’s here one finds Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Read More

Juniper Time: A 1970s “problem story” novel with an iconic feminist protagonist

Juniper Time by Kate Wilhelm

Juniper Time, by Kate Wilhelm, was published in 1979, her first novel after her Hugo-Award winning book Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Once again, Wilhelm was interested in ecological collapse. This time, the disaster is a growing drought and the desertification of large parts of world, specifically the US, throwing the country into economic depression and political chaos. Against this backdrop, two people who share a common past struggle to change the present, with surprising results.

Jean Brighton’s father was a famous astronaut and the “face” of the first international space station, Alpha. Sadly, when Jean was still a child, cost-overruns and accidents — or perhaps sabotage — brought the project to a halt before it was completed. Arthur Cluny’... Read More

Children of Earth and Sky: Another masterwork from Guy Gavriel Kay

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

A new Guy Gavriel Kay novel is cause for great celebration and anticipation in our household, as he has authored some of our most beloved novels over the decades (by “our” I mean my wife, my fifteen-year-old son, and myself). A consummate storyteller and stylist (the two don’t always go hand in hand), his long-term consistency is remarkable, and his newest work, Children of Earth and Sky, finds him still at the top of his form.

One way to describe a Guy Gavriel Kay novel is that it’s a bit like peering at history as it unfolds at the bottom of a pool of water (think of the water as Kay’s artistic imagination) — you mostly recognize what you’re looking at, but thanks to the effects of refraction and distortion, it’s just a little off, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The same holds true here, with mostly clear analogues to time peri... Read More

The Fireman: Baby King delivers his own incendiary apocalypse

The Fireman by Joe Hill

First of all, Joe Hill‘s The Fireman is no horror story. It's apocalypse-lit through and through but without the hackneyed zombies and vampires. Second of all, The Fireman is thoroughly infected with the 'King' family genetics. If there were any doubt about a connection between Joe and his old man, Stephen King, put those doubts aside. Actually, put them in the way-back storage room in the furthest, darkest corner of your basement.

Fires run rampant across the world. It started in the far north of the Arctic Circle, but only hit the public American radar when Seattle’s Space Needle toppled over in flames, bodies falling in a replay of 9-11. This was not a terrorism-fueled horror... Read More

Quarantine: Cool quantum mechanics, pedestrian plot

Quarantine by Greg Egan

Greg Egan is an Australian writer of hard science fiction who specializes in mathematics, epistemology, quantum theory, posthumanism, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, etc. When you pick up one of his books, you know you will be getting a fairly dense crash course in some pretty outlandish scientific and mathematical ideas, with the plot and characters coming second.

The cover blurb advertises Quarantine as “A Novel of Quantum Catastrophe,” and the back describes “an impenetrable gray shield that slid into place around the solar system on the night of November 15, 2034” causing riots and chaos. However, the book mainly takes place in Perth and New Hong Kong, which was relocated to Australia after the Chinese took over. So don’t expect too much galaxy-spanning space travel or c... Read More

The Antelope Wife: Dark, sad, beautiful and funny

The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich

In 1999, Louise Erdrich’s book The Antelope Wife won the World Fantasy Award. Erdrich is not a genre writer; she is firmly planted in literary territory, even if she and her husband did write romance novels under a pseudonym to pay the bills early in their marriage. The Antelope Wife is not a fantasy book. It is a beautiful, dark, sad, funny story, filled with magic and mythology, weaving Plains Indian and Ojibwa myths into a modern-day tale about a large and complicated family in 1990s Minnesota.

From the two cosmic twins who open the book, beading with dark and light, with milky white beads, the indigo beads and the dark red beads with white hearts, and whose threads and sinews comprise the lives of humans in the world, twins loom large in The Antelope Wife. We have several sets throughout the stor... Read More

The Stand: The biggest, baddest tale of the apocalypse

The Stand by Stephen King

Stephen King's The Stand is an awesomely epic creation. It's good versus evil writ large across the American landscape. It's heavy, detailed, and extremely rich in the characterizations of its people and themes. The story is familiar — an apocalyptic virus is accidentally (and inevitably) released from a government lab. Over 99% of all human life is wiped out by what becomes known as Captain Trips. This story is about those who survived.

The survivors are polarized around two god-like characters that magnetize individuals through their dreams. Mother Abigail Freemantle, a 108-year-old woman from Hemingford, Nebraska draws those with inherent goodness. Randall Flagg, from nowhere and everywhere, draws those with a slightly more dubious nature.

The story of Read More

Replay: Imagine reliving your prime years over and over

Replay by Ken Grimwood

Replay is a story that every reader can empathize with. Who wouldn’t want to relive their best years over again, with all their memories intact? Fixing all the mistakes, seizing all the missed opportunities. It’s an irresistible thought, a fantasy of “what ifs.” Ken Grimwood’s Replay (1986) predates Groundhog Day (1993) by 7 years, and explores the concept in far more depth, taking it to the extreme to examine what gives our lives meaning. It’s a very appealing story, and delivers some powerful moments in the latter half.

Replay is about 43-year-old Jeff Winston, who dies of a heart attack and finds himself back as an 18-year-old student at Emory University with all his memories intact, reliving this 25 year period over and over. This could easily be simple wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it star... Read More

The Songs of Distant Earth: A slightly fantastic SF tale

The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs of Distant Earth is one of Clarke's later novels, based on a shorter piece of the same name that he wrote in the 1950s. In the foreword Clarke states it is something of a response to the rise of what he calls "space opera" on television and the silver screen (he specifically mentions Star Trek, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas), which according to him are fantasy. I suppose one could see them as such if you stick to the narrow interpretation of science fiction. Personally I never saw the point of trying to define genres and sub-genres, it's pretty obvious it is almost impossible to come up with a definition that would satisfy everyone. To Clarke apparently it matters. He sets himself the task of writing a science fiction novel that portrays interstellar travel realistically. So get rid of your Heisenberg compensators, Warp drives and Hyperspace, time to ... Read More

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang: Send in the clones

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Sometimes, a book just has to be given a second chance. Case in point for this reader: Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. When I first started this book around 35 years ago, I could not get past page 20 or so, for some strange reason, and placed it back on my bookshelf unread, where it has remained all this time. Flash forward to last week, when I decided to give the book another chance (what with my supposed adult sophistication and matured patience), and guess what? The novel immediately sucked me right in, and I wound up zipping through the darn thing in record time, reveling in its lovely prose and completely engrossed in its multigenerational narrative. Go figure! Though it was not the author’s first book on the subject of cloning (that would be her debut sci-fi novel f... Read More

The Rithian Terror: A pleasing blend of hard SF and hard-boiled espionage

The Rithian Terror by Damon Knight

A pleasing blend of futuristic science fiction and hard-boiled espionage caper, The Rithian Terror, by Damon Knight, first saw the light of day in the January 1953 issue of Startling Stories, under the title Double Meaning. For 25 cents, readers also got, in that same issue, a Murray Leinster novelette entitled “Overdrive,” as well as five short stories, including Isaac Asimov’s “Button, Button” and Jack Vance’s “Three-Legged Joe;” that’s what I call value for money! Anyway, the Knight novel later appeared in one of those cute little “Ace doubles,” and, later still, in a 1965 paperback... Read More

Song of Kali: A terrific horror novel from a future Hugo Award winner

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

In Jones & Newman's Horror: 100 Best Books, Edward Bryant, writing of his choice for inclusion in that overview volume, Dan Simmons' Song of Kali, mentions that Simmons had spent precisely 2 1/2 days in Calcutta before writing his first book, in which that city plays so central and memorable a role. Despite Simmons' short stay, Bryant reveals that the author filled "voluminous notebooks" with impressions and sketches of the city, and any reader who enters the grim but remarkably detailed horror novel that is Song of Kali will be amazed that its author spent such a short time there. The city is superbly well depicted in this book, and indeed is its most fully fleshed-out "character:" a vile, overcrowded, steaming cesspool of a city that breathes iniq... Read More

It: Stephen King’s best

It by Stephen King

Stephen King's It is a wonderfully sweeping tale of what it means to be a child and what it means to leave your childhood behind, inevitably and mostly forgotten, when transforming into an adult. This very evocative tale of childhood orbits and surrounds a tale of exquisite horror, and is my favorite of the 25 or so King books I’ve read.

It story takes place in King’s old fictional haunt of Derry, Maine, and focuses on two time periods — 1957 and 1984 — where a group of friends, as children and then as adults, form a magnificent bond to battle foes both natural and supernatural. One member of this group frames the story well:

My whole pleasant life has been nothing but the eye of some storm I don't understand.

An eye ... Read More