Stand-Alone

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

Gingerbread: So lovely, so inventive, so bizarre

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

When we first meet Harriet Lee and her daughter Perdita, they seem fairly normal. Perdita is a London teenager who attends an upperclass school while her mother awkwardly tries to fit in with the other mothers on the parents’ advisory committee by bringing them tins of her famous gingerbread.

But those mothers do not properly appreciate the gingerbread gifts, perhaps because they are unaware of the existence of the country that Harriet Lee and her gingerbread came from. It’s called Druhástrana. It’s not on our maps and it’s not easy to get in or out of that country. But Harriet knows how and when her daughter Perdita tries to visit her mother’s homeland, she nearly dies. As she recovers, Harriet finally takes the time to tell Perdita all about her strange childhood in Druhástrana and how she finally arrived in London.

There are a few things I absolutely adored about Read More

The Municipalists: Has its moments

The Municipalists by Seth Fried

I loved the opening chapter of Seth Fried’s debut The Municipalists, writing “nice” several times in the margins just in the first few pages, as when the narrator, recalling his parents’ death when he was young, notes how the old grocery “seems to have forgotten him. The flat, glass storefront stares straight ahead without so much as a glimmer of recognition.” Unfortunately, that was the high point for me and the book, while it had its moments, eventually devolved into a bit of a slog.

In a world gone all in on urban living, Henry Thompson, an agent of the United States Municipal Survey organization and highly disliked by his peers, is forced to go into the field with a holographic AI partner to prevent a major terrorist attack in Metropolis, one seemingly being planned and carried out by a Municipal Survey chief gone rogue. Unfortunately, the AI (Owen) is more ... Read More

The Bedlam Stacks: A charming historical fantasy

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

After her enchanting debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley returns with another multicultural Victorian adventure, this time in the form of a quinine expedition to the deepest, darkest corners of Peru.

The Bedlam Stacks (2017) follows the escapades of Merrick Tremayne, whom we initially meet in the bucolic backwaters of Cornwall. He is living under the good grace of his brother, Charles, after sustaining a leg injury working as an agent-cum-smuggler for the East India company. His mother has been committed to the madhouse (society being a little less politically correct in 1859 than today). Both Merrick's brother and mother are keen for him not ... Read More

Unholy Land: A twisty, mentally challenging story

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

I absolutely loved Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (and was not alone in that), and while his newest, Unholy Land (2018), didn’t blow me away quite to the same extent, it kept me on the couch in “don’t talk to me I’m reading” and “uh-huh, uh-huh, ya don’t say, uh-huh” mode all afternoon while my family just rolled their eyes and gave up, as they know to do when all the signs of being engrossed in a great book are manifest (luckily, they live those moments as well, so it’s a fond eyeroll... )

The novel is set in an alternate universe setting where the Jewish homeland of Palestina appears not in the Middle Eas... Read More

A Brother’s Price: An amusing “what-if” story

A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer

In a frontier land on some other world, a close-knit family of outlaws lives in the same sort of manner that you’d expect such a family to live in the American Wild West. They’re tough, they wear cowboy hats and ride horses, they speak coarsely, they curse and brawl, they shoot and hunt, they drink whiskey and smoke cigars, they protect their spouses... Oh, and I’m talking about how the women behave.

In A Brother’s Price (2005), Wen Spencer twists this classic Wild West tale by switching the genders. Because, in this world, male babies are rarely born alive, there is a gender role reversal. Women have the power, they rule, they do the dangerous jobs, and they compete for men (a limited resource). They choose, own, shelter and protect their men. Men are kept in the ... Read More

The City in the Middle of the Night: On my “Best of 2019” list

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

The second novel by Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night (2019), surprised me. Having read her fantastical debut novel All the Birds in the Sky, and her sociological science fiction novella Rock Manning Goes for Broke, I was not expecting a story set on an exo-planet and a society vastly distant from Earth in time and space. While the story has the modern sensibility Anders personifies, the challenges the human settlers face hark back in some ways to the golden age of SF. It’s a thoughtful, heartful take o... Read More

Sourdough: Celebrates the appreciation of excellent food

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

I really loved Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (2017), but not everyone will. You probably will if you’re a foodie (I am), an introvert (I am), and a bit geeky (I am). If you love sourdough bread (I do) and magical realism (I do), you’ve just got to read Sourdough. And you must try the audio version. It’s amazing.

Lois is new to San Francisco. She moved from Michigan, where she grew up, and she’s starting a job as a programmer of robotic arms at a tech company where everyone works so hard that they basically have no other life. Most of them just eat a nutritive slurry rather than bothering to plan, shop, and prepare meals.

Most nights Lois orders her dinner ... Read More

Midworld: Interesting biological science fiction

Midworld by Alan Dean Foster

On a faraway planet with a dense jungle ecosystem, a human colony ship accidentally landed generations ago. The planet killed all but a few hardy survivors and their offspring evolved, along with the jungle, into a symbiotic pseudo-human race.

A man named Born is one of the descendants of those few humans. In his early manhood, he is eager to prove himself a mighty hunter and a desirable mate for a girl he has a crush on. Among his people, who live in the trees, he’s somewhat of an oddity, unconventional and curious, daring to traverse areas of the jungle that are higher or lower than his people are usually willing to go.

On one of his risky excursions, Born discovers an alien (human) spaceship inhabited by people who have recently landed on the newly discovered planet, strayed from their base, and become lost in the hostile jungle. Being adventurous and brave, and wanting to impress t... Read More

The Jane Austen Project: A realistic immersion in a Regency world

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

I’m an enthusiastic Jane Austen fan (Pride and Prejudice is my desert island book of choice) but I had never heard of her unfinished novel The Watsons until reading The Jane Austen Project (2017), a compelling time travel novel by Jane Austen devotee Kathleen A. Flynn. In this novel, an old Austen family letter has recently surfaced, indicating that Jane Austen actually did finish The Watsons but then destroyed most of it.

The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics ― a fancy title for a British government research center that has mastered the practical ability to send people back in time ― has now sent Rachel Katzman (a doctor and our narrator) and Liam Finucane (a scholar with a background in acting... Read More

Dragon Pearl: A young girl, chasing adventure, finds herself

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

The Rick Riordan Presents imprint’s mission statement is, in part, “to publish great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage,” leading to the publication of novels like Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time and J.C. CervantesThe Storm Runner, and most recently joined by Yoon Ha Lees Dragon Pearl Read More

Damsel: A disturbing feminist allegory in fairy tale form

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold

Damsel
(2018) has an absolutely gorgeous cover, one of the loveliest I’ve seen, with a glowing title wound about with vines, bleeding hearts and other flowers. But on closer examination there’s something just a little bit off about the cover image. An anatomically correct heart. A golden spur with a myriad of sharp points. A dragon’s pointed tail. It’s a bit disturbing. And it’s an apt metaphor for the contents of Elana K. Arnold’s book, where the fairy-tale details initially mask an allegorical story that is far, far darker.

Prince Emory is on a quest, a traditional rite of passage in his kingdom: He is traveling to the gray lands to conquer a dragon, rescue a beautiful young damsel, and bring her back to his kingdom to be his wife, as his father and forefathers have done before him. The hazards of his journey to the dragon’s lair and his tension-f... Read More

Early Riser: Solid enough but has pacing issues

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde offers up his trademark sardonic wit in his new novel Early Riser (2019), though it’s more chuckle-worthy than laugh out loud and has several issues that relegate it to the category of a lesser Fforde. I was, to be honest, a bit disappointed, at least partly because I so love much of his earlier work, but despite that disappointment, the book still manages to (just) tip on the side of being a worthy read.

Early Riser is set in a world (limited to Wales for the novel’s plot) where the human race hibernates through each brutal winter, save for a stalwart group who does all the necessary work to keep the world working and the sleepers alive. This isn’t some recent apocalypse; in this universe, winters have always been far worse than our own, i... Read More

Companions on the Road: One is good, one is great

Companions on the Road by Tanith Lee

I'm a big fan of Tanith Lee. Like many great fantasy writers, Lee understood that to truly transport a reader, it's not enough to talk about dragons or swords or magic systems. Readers are transported just as much or more by the way these things are talked about. Lee's work has that eerie, otherworldly feel that characterizes the best works of this genre. She could make a story about a squirrel looking for nuts feel like something dredged from a forgotten and more romantic epoch. And sometimes, that's… well, more or less what she did. Lee's writing has sparked life into many prosaic ideas. But where she really showed her mettle was when she settled onto an idea worthy of her.

With that said, Companions on the Road (at least as it presently exists) is a compilation work ... Read More

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump: Very punny

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove

David Fisher is an inspector for the Environmental Perfection Agency (EPA), a bureaucracy in charge of regulating the industrial by-products (pollution) caused by using magical spells in an alternate America where most of the technology is based on magic or the actions of any deities or demons that people believe in. For example, the telephones work because there are imps that relay messages back and forth, salamanders produce heat, and vehicles are actually flying carpets.

One night, David gets a frantic call from a superior who tells him that there’s some unusual activity at a spell dump north of this world’s version of Los Angeles. A spell dump is where companies and other entities guard the spells they devise so they can keep them secret, and so any dangerous by-products of the magic are contained.

When David visits the spell dump, he notices some oddities... Read More

Once Upon a River: A historic tale with a dash of fantasy

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield offers up a great premise and a heaping sense of atmosphere in her newest novel, Once Upon a River (2018), but while the book offers up plenty of satisfying moments, I felt it fell short of its potential and was also somewhat marred by Setterfield’s lack of trust in her readers, though both of those complaints are admittedly more subjective than my typical criticism, so more than usual, one’s mileage may vary here.

As for that wholly engrossing premise, the book opens on the winter solstice in the late 19th century with a man stumbling into The Swan, an inn on the Thames known for its storytelling. In his hands is a young girl, seemingly dead, an assumption confirmed by the local nurse, Rita Sunday. But not much later, the girl miraculously comes back to life, th... Read More

A Different Flesh: Thoughtful stories about humanity

A Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove

A Different Flesh (1988), by Harry Turtledove, is a thoughtful collection of linked stories set in an alternate America which was inhabited by a hairy upright-walking sub-human species (homo erectus) when European settlers arrived. The settlers call them “sims.” The earliest story is set in 1610 and the last one in 1988 and, as the stories progress through time, we see the sims become more and more advanced, but it is clear that they will never reach the level of cognition that homo sapiens has achieved.

The relationship between sims and humans also progresses. In the first story, new European settlers are trying to wipe out the sims, who they view as animals. They do not succeed. By the final story, there is a much different relationship between the t... Read More

Vigilance: A fierce satire that didn’t quite hit the mark for us

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett’s newest work, 2019’s Vigilance, is a slim (under 200 pages) but densely satirical take-down of modern American society. Set in 2030, Bennett details an America well into its decline:
There’d been a mass migration of the younger generations and immigrants out of America throughout the 2020s, leaving the nation saddled with an older generation that couldn’t work but was entitled to steadily advancing medical technology that kept them all alive for far longer than any economist had ever predicted. The elderly population ate up whatever national budgets remained like locusts devouring corn ... America stopped doing everything. Except television.
And the most popular show on television? Vigilance — a reality game show born after the ... Read More

Ball Lightning: How does ball lightning work? The answer may shock you…

Ball Lightning by Cuxin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen

Ball Lightning (2018) is a story about, well, ball lightning. It’s also about obsession, the travails of science research, the moral perils of military research, and quantum mechanics. And ghosts — in fact, quantum mechanical ghosts. I’m not sure that’s something for everyone, but it’s a lot.

The narrator, Chen, is obsessed with the phenomenon of ball lightning for a simple and macabre reason: his parents are incinerated by it in front of him in the book’s first chapter. As reasons for obsession go, this is a strong one; it’s not hard to believe that from that time forward understanding ball lightning is really all he cares about. So he becomes a meteorologist — not the kind that tells you what the weather will be like in a week, the kind who makes elaborate mathematical models of ball lightning. He meets a lot of people who are als... Read More

The Dreamers: Not enough pay-off

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

At a small California college, a strange illness has broken out on one floor of a co-ed dorm. Some of the students have fallen asleep and can’t be woken. Doctors and psychiatrists are baffled. All they know is that these students are dreaming and their brain activity is off the charts.

As the unknown disease keeps spreading, the dorm is quarantined, then the hospital, and eventually the entire college town.

Citizens are panicked as they worry about themselves and their families. It seems like just a matter of time before the whole town is asleep. Some of the quarantined people are visitors and they can’t get out, while family members of the sleeping students and townspeople can’t get in to see their loved ones.

The story focuses on several students, faculty, and residents:

Rebecca, a freshman from a very religious homeschooling family who is... Read More

Thin Air: An intense, foul-mouthed, high-octane thriller

Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan’s stand-alone novel Thin Air (2018) is set on Mars in the universe of his novel Thirteen. His protagonist, Hakan Veil, is a disgraced “enforcer” who’s just been dumped on Mars by the corporation to whom he had been indentured since childhood. They recently fired him. Hakan would love to get back to Earth, but that’s nearly impossible these days because it costs too much to get there and Earth lets very few people in. Mars is a hostile and decadent world with a populace made up of many criminal elements.

Fortunately, Hakan still retains some of the genetic enhancements his company supplied before cutting ties with him. This makes him a total badass. Corporate enforce... Read More

Norwegian Wood: Murakami’s breakthrough novel

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Toru Watanabe is just another kid studying drama at university when he falls for his friend Naoko, who is in a relationship with another of Toru’s friends, Kizuki — until Kizuki commits suicide. Emotionally confused because she feels “split in two and playing tag with myself,” Naoko escapes to a mountain retreat, though not before sleeping with Toru. Watanabe pines for Naoko as he passes time in Tokyo with his friend Nagasawa. Nagasawa likes The Great Gatsby, and he has no trouble finding women to sleep with him — and with Toru, who feels disgusted with himself after these one-night stands. (Nagasawa, by the way, is in a relationship with Hatsumi, who is devoted to Nagasawa even though she seems too nice for him.) In the midst of these split loyalties and the emotional turbulence they cause, Watanabe meets Midori. Though she also has a boyfriend, Midori and Toru hit it off bec... Read More

Nightflyers: Mystery and horror aboard a haunted spaceship

Reposting to include Marion's review of the new SYFY channel adaptation of Nightflyers. You can find it below our reviews of the novella.

Nightflyers by George R.R. Martin

Nightflyers was first published in 1980, won the Locus Award for best novella, and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It was made into an unsuccessful film in 1987. It’s recently been on people’s radars due to the upcoming SYFY series based on the novella. You can purchase it in several new (2018) formats including an illustrated edition, a story collection, and an audio version. I listened to the audio version, which was narrated by a... Read More

Deliver Me From Eva: A flabbergasting thrill ride

Deliver Me From Eva by Paul Bailey

Once again, I am indebted to Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books for alerting me to the existence of a great read that I probably would never have run across without their assistance. In this case, the novel in question is Paul Bailey’s Deliver Me From Eva, which was chosen for inclusion in that volume by no less a figure than Forrest J. Ackerman — former editor of the beloved magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, renowned literary agent, and legendary collector of horror and sci-fi movie memorabilia — himself. The book, Ackerman tells us, was one that he first read upon its initial publication in 1946, but had never forgotten, and any reader of this absolutely flabbergasting thrill ride will surely understand why.

Paul Bailey, I should perhap... Read More

Fire & Heist: An easy contender for Best YA of 2018

Fire & Heist by Sarah Beth Durst

I’d only previously read Sarah Beth Dursts QUEENS OF RENTHIA series, so I was excited to have the chance to read Fire & Heist (2018), her latest YA novel. I never know whether an author whose adult work is enjoyable will write well for a young adult audience — or vice versa — but I’m pleased to be able to report that Durst is clearly adept at writing for any age group, and particularly so for nerdy readers.

Sky Hawkins is the kind of leading character many readers would love to hate. She comes from a family who “owned at one time a fleet of Aston Martins and [gave] the gardener his own Tesla,” and readily acknowledges that she might seem like just another “poor little rich girl” in Aspen, Colorado who deserves “the world’s smallest ... Read More

Fear: Hubbard’s classic horror thriller demands to be read at a breakneck pace

Fear by L. Ron Hubbard

The professional reputation of Nebraska-born writer L. Ron Hubbard, it seems to me, has taken a double hit since his heyday in the 1940s. Hubbard, of course, was the founder of the cultish sect known as Scientology, and ever since the release of his initial article on Dianetics in the May 1950 issue of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction, and the founding of the group two years later, his name has been unavoidably linked to this oft-maligned pseudoreligion. And then there was the notorious film version of Hubbard’s 1982 doorstop of a novel Battlefield Earth, featuring Scientologist John Travolta in a picture that most viewers seem to have found dreadful, if not laughable. (Full confession: I have never read the... Read More