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

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters: Gradually, my suspension of disbelief eroded away

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum

I’m giving this book a lower rating than I expected to. Usually a 2.5-star rating from me means I found serious structural, character or writing problems with the book, and that’s not the case here. My low rating of Amanda Downum’s Dreams of Shreds and Tatters reflects the gap between my expectations and my experience. The writer did do a few things that jarred me out of the book, though, and I am going to discuss those.

First of all, I’d like to talk about what I liked. I loved the idea here, of a group of artists under the sway of a magician, searching for a portal to a mysterious city in another realm. I liked moments in the writing; when she wants to, Downum can unleash a passage of weird, lush prose that is captivating and beautiful. For the most part, I l... Read More

The Lady of Blossholme: A rousing historical novel with traces of the fantastic

The Lady of Blossholme by H. Rider Haggard

The Lady of Blossholme was Henry Rider Haggard's 34th piece of fiction, out of an eventual 58 titles. It is a novel that he wrote (or, to be technically accurate, dictated) in the year 1907, although it would not see publication until the tail end of 1909, and is one of the author's more straightforward historical adventures, with hardly any fantasy elements to speak of.

The story takes place in England during the reign of Henry VIII, in the year 1536. This was the period when King Henry was rebelling against Pope Clement VII, and when many Englishmen in the north, and many clergymen, were consequently rebelling against Henry, in the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace. To raise needed funds for this rebellion against the king, the Spanish abbot Clement Maldon murders Cicely Foterell's father a... Read More

The Crystal World: Time and death are defeated as crystallization takes over

The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard

The Crystal World (1966) is J.G. Ballard’s third apocalyptic work in which he destroys civilization, the other two being The Burning World (1964) and The Drowned World (1962). It seems he likes the elements, having employed floods, draughts, and now crystallization. The process somewhat resembles Ice-9 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963), but there is no ironic humor to be found in this book as far I could tell. In The Drowned World, the flooding of the world was used as a metaphor for diving deep into the collective racial memories of the Triassic-age, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. This time, Ballard posits a ... Read More

A Thousand Nights: An unusual take on the Scheherazade tale

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

When the dust rises over the desert, the villagers know that Lo-Melkhiin is coming with his guards to choose another wife. He always takes one wife from each village, or each district within a city. And she always dies.

E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights is a young adult fantasy retelling of the Scheherazade framing story for One Thousand and One Nights, the famous collection of Persian, Arabic and Middle Eastern folk tales. Lo-Melkhiin is the ruler over a large area in the ancient Middle Eastern world. Those who know him know that he has changed from the caring person he used to be, though he is still a capable ruler. What they do not know is that when he rode out alone too far into the desert one day, his body was possessed by a ruthless creature — let’s call him a demon — who then proceeds to suck the power and life f... Read More

The King in Yellow: Weird stories that inspired H.P. Lovecraft

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

... It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured by even the most advanced of literary anarchists... It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on the words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.

Robert W. Chambers was an American writer who was born in 1865. He studied art in Paris for a time, returning to the U.S. to be an artist and illustrator. He sold some drawings, then switched tracks and began writing. His first novel was called In the Quarter and was a partially biographical story set in Paris’s Latin Quarter, fol... Read More

Edge: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

The Drowned World (1962) is J.G. Ballard’s best apocalyptic work, the other two being The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), but if you are thinking of an action-packed adventure where a plucky group of survivors clings to decency amid the collapse of civilization, this is the wrong book. Ballard was interested in ‘inner space,’ and while he sometimes adopted SF tropes in his books and short stories, his works most often featured natural disasters, the collapse of civilization, lonely astronauts, grim future urban landscapes, and weird obsessions with technology and mechanization. His main intent was to explore the psychology of human beings trapped in modern urban societies (and what happens when these societies collapse), and most of his protagonists are fatalistic, detached, and not particularl... Read More

Tower of Glass: Enough ideas for several novels

Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg

Tower of Glass (1972) is another of Robert Silverberg’s ambitious novels from his most prolific period in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In that time he was churning out several books each year that were intelligent, thematically challenging, beautifully written stories that explored identity, sexuality, telepathy, alien contact, religion and consciousness. At his best, he produced some masterpieces like Downward to the Earth and Dying Inside, as well as some dreadful books like Up the Line, but his unfettered imagination and prolific energy were undeniable.

Unfortunately, a wealth of ideas can sometimes overwhelm even the best books, and I think Tower of Glass Read More

Station Eleven: A literary post-apocalyptic novel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

When most people think of post-apocalyptic stories, they imagine big clunky action plots, zombies and barren wastelands. Maybe a ripped action hero in the calibre of Will Smith. That’s why Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven came as such a surprise. It is complex, poetic, beautifully imagined and intricately plotted.

The novel opens with a death, but not one caused by the flu pandemic that is about to wipe out 99% of humanity. Arthur Leander is performing King Lear on stage when he has a heart attack. Arthur’s final performance is the event that ties together the lives of the cast of characters in the wake of the pandemic. First there is Jeevan, one of the more memorable side characters, a paramedic in training who is in the audience at the theatre. On stage is Kirsten Raymonde, an eight year old actress with a minor part in the pl... Read More

The Crack in Space: Off the mark by 72 years

The Crack in Space by Philip K. Dick

Although he displayed remarkable prescience in many of his books, cult author Philip K. Dick was a good 72 years off the mark in his 18th sci-fi novel, The Crack in Space. Originally released as a 40-cent Ace paperback in 1966 (F-377, for all you collectors out there), the novel takes place against the backdrop of the 2080 U.S. presidential election, in which a black man, Jim Briskin, of the Republican-Liberal party, is poised to become the country's first black president. (Dick must have liked the name "Jim Briskin"; in his then-unpublished, non-sci-fi, mainstream novel from the mid-'50s, The Broken Bubble, Jim Briskin is the name of a DJ in San Francisco!) Unlike Barack Obama, whose campaigning centered around the issues of war, economic crisis and h... Read More

Horrible Monday: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Everyone on the same page? Okay… Hill has delivered a deeply satisfying and literate novel in NOS4A2. He is absolutely his own man, and he’s very good. But he’s also picked up some tricks from his father. He writes children well, especially those that have some unique ability. In this case, Victoria McQueen has a special gift: she can find lost things. And this skill tends to transport her to wherever those lost things happen to be.

The book is most successful in its character development. Many a page is dedicated to the growth and transformation of Vic McQueen’s personality, as we see her grow from a young girl overwhelmed by her unique capabilities, to a mother equally as overwhelmed by her life, by those she loves, and by the maniacal plottings of Char... Read More

Anthem: Inferior to Big Three Dystopias: We, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four

Anthem by Ayn Rand

It’s incredible, the number of thematic similarities between Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). While there’s no direct evidence that Ayn Rand plagiarized those earlier works, she owes an undeniable debt to their dystopian future societies where the individual has been completely sublimated to the needs of the state. Moreover, I believe that We and Brave New World are superior works, both as literature and as novels of ideas. Finally, if we are discussing the greatest dystopian novels of the 20th century, we cannot ignore the most powerful condemn... Read More

Sunset Mantle: Great things do come in small packages

Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss

One of the discoveries I made this year about my reading preferences was that I really enjoy shorter reads. It may have been because the behemoth volumes typical of fantasy series made me sceptical that you could, gasp, actually tell a good story that would leave me satisfied in fewer pages, but I am glad now that I am actively looking for stories that I would have otherwise neglected to take into consideration. Alter S. ReissSunset Mantle is one of those stories which I would have missed were I to only read doorstoppers, and it reinforces my love for shorter works because Sunset Mantle is a fantastic book.

Cete is a veteran with decades of experience in the art of warmaking. Pragmatic and honest to a fault, he was exiled from his home for having slain his leader after he was taken by the madding, a sort of war lust that clouds... Read More

Starship Troopers: A 250-page lecture on the ethics and morals of war, violence and race

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

As part of my reading routine, I like to go to the way-back machine and catch up on genre classics. Within sci-fi, a few years ago I reread Frank Herbert's Dune, which is as heavy and awesome as I’d remembered. I discovered and loved Walter M. Miller's wonderful Canticle for Leibowitz.

Robert Heinlein, of course, is one of the heavyweights of the genre, but I'd never read anything of his and my only previous exposure to Starship Troopers (1959) was from the 1997 sci-fi film of the same title. Now keep in mind, the book has only the barest Read More

Up the Line: Fornicating in ancient Byzantium — shameless time travel porn

Up the Line by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg was clearly a big fan of sex back in the late 1960s, and I’m sure he wasn’t the only one. But in Up the Line, he absolutely revels in it. He doesn’t miss a chance for his (all male) characters to fornicate with women at every possible opportunity both in the future and the past, in dozens of exotic time periods in Byzantium, Constantinople, Rome, etc. The act may be as old as time, but that doesn’t stop Time Courier Judd Elliot from trying to bed his great-great-great grandmother Pulcharia with a lusty enthusiasm and complete disregard for all social taboos that have existed for millennia. Sure, it’s generally a serious no-no in society to screw your ancestors, but when she is as saucy a sex-kitten as Pulcharia, well who can blame Judd? At least that is the irrever... Read More

The Heads of Cerberus: Philadelphia freedom… NOT!

The Heads of Cerberus by Francis Stevens

Though little read and seldom discussed today, in the late teens and early 1920s, Minneapolis-born Francis Stevens was something of a cause célèbre among discriminating readers. “Francis Stevens” was the pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who published her first story in 1917 at the age of 33. Her career as a writer only lasted six years, during which time she produced six novels and three short stories, and she only took to writing in the first place after becoming a widow, as a means of supporting her young daughter and invalid mother. Her work initially appeared in pulp periodicals such as All-Story Weekly and The Argosy, readers of which believed the name “Francis Stevens” to be a pseudonym for the great Abraham Merritt, who indeed was a fan of hers. And Merritt wasn’t the onl... Read More

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Impressive and intriguing

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Having your reputation precede you isn’t always a good thing. I’d never picked up a David Mitchell novel before. His list of accolades is ridiculous: he was selected as one of Granta’s best young British novelists, has graced the Most Influential People lists, been nominated for Bookers, yada yada yada. All I’d really heard is that he is deliberately difficult, with Stephen King making the rather sassy assertion that Cloud Atlas was a literary stunt. And then I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and, just like every other FanLit reviewer, I’ve been charmed.

So, from what I’ve read, it appears that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob... Read More

The Weight of Feathers: Star-crossed love takes wing

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Romeo and Juliet story is updated with a few twists in Anna-Marie McLemore’s debut young adult fantasy novel, The Weight of Feathers, published September 15, 2015. Two rival families travel between small towns in California in a nostalgic setting that seems to be approximately the 1960s, performing their Cirque du Soleil-type acts for the townspeople. The French Romani Corbeaus (“Ravens”) attach wings made of wire and feathers to their bodies and perform acrobatics in the treetops; the young women in the Latino Paloma family (“Doves”) dress up as mermaids and do mystic underwater dance routines. What outsiders do not know is that the Corbeaus actually grow feathers in their hair, and the Palomas have escalas, small scattered birthmarks that look like fish scales.

For the last twenty years, the Corbeau/Paloma feud has tak... Read More

The Wild Girl: A moving novel about the literary history of fairy-tales

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth’s book, The Wild Girl, was published in Australia in 2013 but has recently been released in the United States in both hardback, Kindle, and audio versions. It tells the story of an unsung hero of the history of fairy-tales: Dortchen Wild, the sweetheart and eventual wife of Wilhelm Grimm and the origin of many of the Grimm’s tales.

Dortchen grows up with six sisters and an invalid mother under the authoritarian rule of her apothecary father, Herr Wild, near Hesse-Kassel (part of what is known today as Germany). Their next-door neighbors, the Grimms, fascinate Dortchen, who befriends the youngest Grimm, Lotte. At a very young age, Dortchen develops a crush on Lotte’s older brother, Wilhelm, who has returned from university. She assists Wilhelm and his brother, Jacob, ... Read More

The Left Hand of Darkness: An important thought experiment

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), part of THE HAINISH CYCLE, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best SF Novel, and is well known as one of the first books in the genre to intelligently explore the nature of gender and identity. Ursula K. LeGuin is a highly respected writer known for her anthropological and humanistic approach to SF, and her presence has attracted many mainstream readers and forced literary critics to take the genre more seriously. For that alone we owe her a great debt, and she has also written a series of critical essays entitled The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979). Her other masterpieces include The Dispossessed (1974), which won the... Read More

Lies, Inc.: Take two Excedrin

Lies, Inc by Philip K. Dick

Of all the sci-fi novels by cult author Philip K. Dick, The Unteleported Man — in its later, expanded version known as Lies, Inc. — has the most complicated publishing history. Those who are interested in the minutiae of this nearly 40-year saga are advised to seek out Paul Williams' afterword in the currently available Vintage edition. In a nutshell, let's just say that The Unteleported Man first saw the light of day in the December '64 issue of Fantastic magazine and then in one of those cute little "Ace doubles" in 1966. It wasn't until 1983 that the expanded edition appeared, incorporating 100 pages (around 30,000 words) of Dick's manuscript that had been previously rejected by Ace editor Don Wollheim, but with some missing sections st... Read More

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: Stuart discusses the book and film

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner was arguably the most brilliant, though-provoking, and intelligent SF film ever made, with a uniquely dark vision of a deteriorated future Earth society and a morally ambiguous tale of a bounty hunter Rick Deckard hunting down and ‘retiring’ a series of very intelligent Nexus-6 type replicants (androids) that want very much to live. The movie changed the way moviegoers looked at SF films, and brought great credibility to its director and the genre for a much wider audience, although it was a box-office failure and Philip K Dick never lived to see the completed film. It raised questions of morality and humanity that are basically unanswerable, but presented this vision in a visually stunning, emotionally compelling and visceral story with complex characters and no ea... Read More

The Eye of the Heron: A short but complex novel suitable for all ages

The Eye of the Heron by Ursula K. Le Guin

Starscape (Tom Doherty’s YA imprint) presents The Eye of the Heron as a book for ages 10 and above. While the story is straightforward enough, the philosophical ideas that underpin the story are quite complex, so The Eye of the Heron is quite an interesting read for the more mature reader as well. Le Guin does not waste any words in telling the story, she delivers a to-the-point but surprisingly complex novel. If you read it at age 10, you’ll probably see it in a different light now.

The Eye of the Heron is set on a planet that was fairly recently colonized. Le Guin doesn’t mention a year but sometime in the 22nd century seems reasonable. Two waves of colonists have settled a small area of the planet. One group consists of criminals from a nation that covers South America, sent on a one way trip to dispose ... Read More

Persona: A novel with many strengths and virtually no weaknesses

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Persona by Genevieve Valentine is an excellent novel. This probably will come as no surprise to those of you who have read the author’s two previous, critically acclaimed novels, Mechanique and The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, but as a newcomer to Valentine’s works I was quite blown away. (I should probably add that, based on feedback from friends and on those two books’ blurbs, Persona appears to be very different from her earlier work.)

Persona starts off in near-future Paris, where Suyana Sapaki is about to cast a vote in the International Assembly (IA). Suyana is the “Face” representing her country in the IA, which means she has virtually zero decision-making power: she is a figurehead, a glorified spokesperson who says what she is told to say and votes the wa... Read More

Fourth Mansions: Thanks, Jen!

Fourth Mansions by R.A. Lafferty

Despite it having been given pride of place in Scottish critic David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, and despite the fact that it has been sitting on my bookshelf for many years, it was only last week that I finally got around to reading R.A. Lafferty’s 1969 cult item Fourth Mansions. The author’s reputation for eccentricity, both in terms of subject matter as well as writing style, had long intimidated me, I suppose. But just recently, Jen, one of the managers of NYC sci-fi bookstore extraordinaire Singularity, was enthusing to me about her recent acquisition of a first edition of Lafferty’s 1970 short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers for only $40, and I suppose that her enthusiasm proved contagious in my case, as I manfully dove into Fourth Mansions Read More

Ready Player One: *tries to insert obscure 80s reference and fails miserably*

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My childhood consisted largely of wizarding duels and Pokemon battles (sometimes both at once), so I was a little dubious about picking up Ready Player One, a nostalgia fest about pop-culture in the 1980s. What’s more, gaming culture is at the heart of the novel. The closest I got to videogames was playing Solitaire on my dad’s computer, and I’m not even sure that counts. I was more than a little bit ambivalent about the book…

Wade Watts (alliteratively named in the hope he’ll turn out like a superhero) has a dreary life. He lives in the stacks — Ernest Cline’s futuristic interpretation of a trailer park, in which trailers are stacked on top of each other in towers — with his aunt and her knucklehead boyfriend. He spends his days plugged into the OASIS, a virtual rea... Read More