Stand-Alone

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

Made Things: A whimsical magical fantasy with serious undertones

Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky is an unusually versatile author. I never know what to expect from him — insect and shapeshifter fantasy, Iron Man-inspired science fiction, and Regency/Napoleonic historical fantasy are just a few examples — but I know it's going to be imaginative and intelligently written. The last work I read by him, Walking to Aldebaran, was science fictional horror with an unusual literary streak. In a nearly 180 degree turn, Tchaikovsky now offers up the novella Made Things (2019), a magical gaslamp fantasy involving living puppets and a heist.

Coppelia is a seventeen-year-old puppeteer, with enough magic to make her a g... Read More

Sabbath: It’s strange. It’s interesting.

Sabbath by Nick Mamatas

I don’t always agree with Nick Mamatas or his views on humanity, but I think he is one of the most interesting writers working right now, and Sabbath (2019), while it’s strange, is definitely interesting. The story behind the story is interesting and a little strange too. Sabbath (2019) is a novelization of a graphic novel called Sabbath: All Your Sins Reborn, by Matthew Tomao, which does not seem to be well known or much admired on the internet.

Mamatas writes a book that has some wonderful, hallucinatory prose, gallons of gore, a passel of severed heads, attack poodles, several actiony set-pieces and social observations as astringent as shot of cold gin. To crib a line from the Buffy-spinoff Angel, who doesn’t love... Read More

The Water Dancer: Sharply moving but also oddly distant

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is, of course, supremely well-known, and justifiably so, for his non-fiction, whether that be his essays/columns, or his long-form works such as We Were Eight Years in Power or Between the World and Me. Now he’s out with his first fiction work, The Water Dancer (2019), a blend of realism and the supernatural set in the antebellum period. While Coates’ already-documented strengths as a writer are evident, particularly on a sentence level, the book does suffer from typical debut novel issues, though it still carries an emotional power in many places.

The novel opens in pre-Civil War Virginia, specifically on the dying Walker plantation of Lockless whose master has two sons. One is his white son by marriage, Maynard: a feckless, vulgar, ignorant young man whose many flaws are in star... Read More

Briar Rose: Fairy tales and trauma

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

In the 1980s, Terri Windling created the FAIRY TALE SERIES, a collection of stand-alone retellings for adults, featuring some of the best writers in the field. The series continued into the early 2000s and spans a wide variety of styles, tones, and interpretations of the tales. Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose (1992) was the sixth in the series and combines its fairy tale with an all-too-real historical horror. It won the Mythopoeic Award in 1992, and was nominated for the Nebula.

Becca, the heroine, is a young Jewish woman who grew up being told fairy tales by her grandmother, Gemma. Becca’s favorite was Sleeping Beauty, though Gemma didn’t tell it in the standard way. Now Gemma is dying, and on her de... Read More

The Moon Terror: A wonderfully pulpish double feature

The Moon Terror by A.G. Birch

During my first, recent visit to London, besides doing all the typical touristy things, I also happened to visit several of the very fine bookstores that the great city currently offers. The used-book stores on Charing Cross Road were especially interesting to me, but I also stopped in at Forbidden Planet (so much better than the Forbidden Planet store here in NYC), the mammoth independent bookstore called Foyles, and, of course, the Waterstones on Piccadilly. It was at this gigantic bookstore, supposedly the largest in Europe, where I found the volume in question, The Moon Terror, by A.G. Birch. It was not a hard sell for me; as soon as I read that this short novel originally appeared in the pages of Weird Tales magazine, I purchased it on the spot. As it turns out, this novel made its debut in the May and June 1923 issues of “The Unique Magazine”; th... Read More

The Refrigerator Monologues: A herald of change?

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

In her Afterword, Catherynne M. Valente lays out the inspiration for 2017’s collection of linked short stories The Refrigerator Monologues. Valente was inspired partly by the work of comics writer Gail Simone, who created and popularized the term “Women in Refrigerators” as a way to describe women cape-and-mask heroes, and how they are treated in conventional comics. As for structure, Valente looked toward Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking theatrical work The Vagina Monologues. To no small extent, though, Valente was galvanized into writing this collection because of her anger at how Gwen ... Read More

Winterwood: Atmospheric but glitchy winter tale

Winterwood by Shea Ernshaw

Nora Walker is all alone in the world. Her whole family are rumored to be witches, which sets her apart from other kids her age. Her grandmother is dead, and her mother is something of an absentee parent. And now that winter has set in at Jackjaw Lake, all the tourists are gone, leaving behind only Nora in her cottage and the residents of the nearby camp for delinquent boys. Nora’s isolation increases still further when a storm drops four feet of snow on the area, cutting off the roads and knocking out the phone lines.

Everything changes when Nora ventures into the oldest, spookiest part of the woods on the full moon and finds Oliver Huntsman, a boy who went missing two weeks ago from the camp. She helps him recover from hypothermia and takes him back to the camp, but in the process learns that there is more to the story than just one boy getting lost in the woods. Another boy died the same night, and ... Read More

Lost and Found: Looking out for those who are lost

Lost and Found by Orson Scott Card

Fourteen-year-old Ezekiel has a special power. Not a superpower; though, just a small power: he’s drawn to lost items — hair scrunchies, toys, and even bikes — combined with the innate knowledge of who the owners are and where to go to return the items, and a strong compulsion to return them. Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked out so well for Ezekiel: everyone thinks he stole the things and returned them for the attention or a reward. He’s got quite a file with the police by the time he’s a teenager, and that, combined with his mother’s tragic death when he was four, has made Ezekiel an embittered social pariah. Ezekiel’s actual last name is Bliss, but in his own mind he calls himself Ezekiel Blast.

So when Beth, a tiny classmate with proportionate dwarfism, insists on joining him on his lonely walk to and from school, he actively tries to discourage her overtures of friendship. An... Read More

A Song for a New Day: Celebrates the thrill of live rock music

A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

Luce Cannon was a rising rock star, traveling with a new band and doing live shows all over the country, until a rash of deadly terrorist attacks, and the threat of more to come, caused the American government to criminalize large public gatherings.

Now, instead of live concerts, musicians and their fans meet virtually, with the fans wearing hoodies equipped with technology that allows them to safely experience the perception of being with others at a show. But Luce and like-minded artists never bought into this concept and aren’t willing to sell their souls to StageHoloLive, the big corporation that produces these events in “Hoodspace.”

Working out of her parents’ home, Rosemary Laws provides customer service for Superwally, an internet superstore that sells StageHoloLive (SHL) merchandise. Rosemary’s job isn’t bad — it’s secure and appealingly gamified — but ... Read More

The Future of Another Timeline: Interesting, but ultimately didn’t satisfy me

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

The Future of Another Timeline (2019) was a miss for me, which surprised me given how much I enjoy this writer. Many people on Amazon give it high ratings, so, as we say, your mileage may vary.

There are five-time machines embedded in the earth’s crust in Annalee Newitz’s 2019 novel. These objects, growing out of prehistoric rock, may be machines, or sentient entities, or some kind of strange natural occurrence, but they react to certain rhythmic sounds by sending a person back in time … and allowing them to return to their present.

The Machines are awesome.

The book follows two characters, Beth in a 1992 timeline that isn’t quite ours, and Tess from a 2022 that is upstream from Beth. Tess is an approved time traveler, who, usi... Read More

SHORTS: Larson, Carroll, St. George, Yang

SHORTS: The annual Halloween edition. Our horror-themed column this week, reviewing some recent online short fiction works, features demon babies, slasher film heroines, ghosts and more.

“Growing and Growing” by Rich Larson (2019, free at Nightmare Magazine)

Ignacio and Hector are on their way home after a night of drinking when they find a baby crying in the middle of the road. Ignacio decides to bring it home for the night so he can take it to the hospital in the morning. But on the way home, the friends begin to realize that something about this abandoned baby is not quite right…

“Growing and Growing” is a very short (12 minute) creepy tale that works great in the audio format performed by Stefan Rudnicki, one of my f... Read More

Wanderers: A suspenseful and emotional end-of-the-world story

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

A nightmarish disease has attacked a small but growing group of people in rural America. They are walking, zombie-like, across the country together. Nobody knows where they’re going or why. They can’t be communicated with and they can’t be stopped. Some of their family and friends follow behind, trying to keep them safe.

The CDC is investigating, trying to track down the origins of this strange outbreak. Homeland Security is worried that it’s a biological weapon. POTUS can’t decide whether or not she should send in the military. The uncertainty is causing panic across the country.

The stress brings out the best in some people, but the worst in others.

Some of these characters are:

the sister of the first sleepwalker, who has struggled with her relationship with their father after her mother left home
the good-hearted science-fiction loving ... Read More

The Red Magician: A moving story about the Holocaust

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

Winner of the National Book Award, Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician (1982) is such an unusual fantasy novel. I read it because Tantor Audio has just released the first audio edition of the book.

As the story begins, a young girl named Kisci is growing up in a small, isolated Jewish community in Eastern Europe. Her family’s rabbi is visiting Kisci’s home and expressing his displeasure at the way Kisci’s school is teaching Hebrew as if it were a common language. When Kisci’s father refuses to obey the rabbi’s command to remove his children from the school, the rabbi, who has some magical abilities, sets a curse on the school and its students’ families.

Soon after, a visitor named Voros appears in the village and Kisci’s family extends their hospital... Read More

Street Freaks: A new genre for a well-known author

Street Freaks by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks is best known for his fantasy novels (particularly the SHANNARA series) but with Street Freaks (2018) he tries his hand at science fiction for the first time. The results are ... fine. This is hardly a game-changing or genre-bending novel, but a fast-paced, reasonably interesting story that belongs as much in the dystopian genre as it does science fiction. Brooks's distinctive prose (clear but liable to repeat itself) is matched well with a collection of interesting characters and some fun world-building.

The story begins when teenager Ash Collins receives a warning from his father through his vidview, telling him "Go into the Red Zone. Go to Street Freaks. Don't wait ... "The connection ends before the message is complete, and minutes later Ash's apartmen... Read More

The Last Conversation: Somber and disturbing

The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay

A person — whose name and gender are never specified, because that person is "you" — wakes up, alone in a room. You’re blind and in intense pain, and at first you remember nothing at all of your past. You only hear one person, Dr. Anne Kuhn, who instructs you through a speaker: testing you mentally, badgering you to exercise, and, little by little, giving you bits of information about your past life and about why you are where you are now. Gradually it becomes clear that something disastrous has happened.

The Last Conversation (2019) is an odd but compelling and ominous science fiction novella from Paul Tremblay. It’s reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode: strange, somber and slightly horrific in a slow-burn way, with a surprising reveal at the end (or perha... Read More

Green Mansions: Book vs. film

Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson

In my recent review of Frank Aubrey’s lost-race novel The King of the Dead (1903), which transpires in the jungle depths of Brazil, I mentioned that the author, in an attempt to add realism to his descriptions of the terrain, had quoted liberally from works by the famed Argentinian writer William Henry Hudson. And well he might! Hudson at that point was 62 years old, and well known for being both a naturalist and ornithologist, his specialty being the birds of his native South America; he’d already written any number of books on the subject, as well as his first piece of fiction, a dystopian novel entitled A Crystal Age (1887). One could hardly do better than quoting from... Read More

Last Ones Left Alive: Bleak and painful

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

Orpen is a young woman who lives with her mother and Maeve, her mother’s partner, on an island off the coast of Ireland. As she is growing up, as far as Orpen knows, they are the only humans left alive. Orpen wants to go to the mainland to see if she can find any other people, and to search for the legendary female paramilitary force that is rumored to be fighting the skrake, vicious zombie-like creatures that hunt and kill humans. Her mother and Maeve warn her against this, but finally Orpen finds the opportunity to set out on her quest. She will need all of the survival and fighting skills that her two mothers taught her.

As Orpen journeys through a bleak and desolate (but sometimes beautiful) landscape, she uses flashbacks to very gradually enlighten us about the world and why she began her quest. We also gradually become aware of the horrible origins of the skrake. We witness Orpen’... Read More

The Little Broomstick: A strange and mysterious little story

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

Having recently watched Mary and the Witch's Flower, I was curious about how it measured up to its source material, particularly since I usually read the book before watching its filmic adaptation.

And The Little Broomstick (1971) is a strange little book in so many ways: beautifully written, with plenty of haunting passages, but with a story and setting that would have been served well with a lot more detail and background. Imagine Hogwarts School without any sense of its history — though Endor College predates Harry Potter by over two decades, there are so many unanswered questions about why it exists and who attends.

Mary Smith is a ten year old girl who's thoroughly unhappy with her current situation: bundled off to the Shropshire countryside, sep... Read More

Summer Frost: An intelligent exploration of concerns about AI

Summer Frost by Blake Crouch

A woman steals a Maserati and takes off for a mansion north of San Francisco, on a remote stretch of Highway 1 on the coast of California. Another person, Riley, follows her into the home and up to a bathroom, where a man in the tub is dying of knife wounds. As Riley pursues the woman, the tension is offset somewhat by feeling that something about the scene is off. A smell is described as “almost right.” The woman that Riley is chasing, Maxine or “Max,” speaks in toddler-like language.

Riley, the VP of Non-Player Character (NPC) Development for a video game developer, realizes that Max, a minor video character in a virtual reality game, isn’t accepting the role of murder victim to her occult-obsessed husband within the game. Instead, after being murdered 2,039 times by her husband during the development of the Lost Coast game, Max has decided to resist her fate and is trying... Read More

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Gothic horror at its best

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Despite being a slim novel of only ten chapters, this novel packs a punch. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is an unsettling, nerve-inducing exploration of what it is to give into your base desires, and the inability to escape them once you have succumbed.

The tale is largely narrated by Mr Utterson, a lawyer. His good friend Dr Jekyll has been acting strangely of late, and our story opens with Mr Utterson and his cousin Mr Enfield discussing the matter of their mutual acquaintance.

It transpires that a certain Mr Hyde has been terrorising the streets of London. Mr Enfield tells of how he saw the man trample a girl's head and has been seen causing mischief around the area of Dr Jekyll's residence. He later beats a man to death. Mr Utterson is horrified to discover that his friend, Dr Jeykll, has named Mr Hyd... Read More

Randomize: Dazzling science doesn’t make up for a mundane plot

Randomize by Andy Weir

Nick Chen is an IT guy on a mission: when quantum computers become available to consumers, he tries to convince the managers at the Babylon Hotel and Casino where he works to shut down their keno lounge, knowing that quantum computers can quickly crack the random-number generators of the keno game system. When he fails to persuade them, he uses his override passwords to shut down the keno game, which quickly gets the attention of Edwin Rutledge, the head of the casino. Eventually convinced by Chen’s arguments, Rutledge authorizes Chen to buy the casino its own quantum computer for $300,000 (“We fight quantum with quantum”).

A couple of days later, a new QuanaTech quantum computer is delivered and installed by a salesman, Chen sets up airtight security systems around it, and all is now well with the Babylon keno game … or, perhaps not. It turns out that the QuanaTech salesman is married to a brilliant... Read More

Emergency Skin: A fun story with a serious message

Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin

A single spaceman arrives on Earth (which he calls "Tellus," a Latin word similar to Terra) on an important mission from a far-off planet that was colonized by a group of rich white men who left Earth centuries ago. The spaceman, as well as the collective AI that was implanted in his brain and constantly speaks to him in his mind, expected to find a world completely barren of life, decimated by climate change and toxic pollution. What they actually find is far different, and both the man and his chatty AI have huge problems adjusting to this new reality.

But can the man still fulfill his mission? If he succeeds, he’s been promised a beautiful pale (read: Aryan) skin when he returns home. On his planet, everyone except those in the highest class of society wears a featureless, high-tech artificial skin called a composite. But this man’s composite has the ability, in an emergency, to turn into huma... Read More

The Last: The end of the world. Again.

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Jon Keller is having breakfast in a Swiss hotel when the world ends. Another guest at the hotel receives a notification on her Twitter: Washington has been destroyed by a nuclear weapon. New York follows. Then Scotland, China, Germany. Now only twenty people remain at the hotel whilst the state of the outside world remains a mystery.

On day fifty, Jon and some of the other hotel guests find the body of a murdered girl. A historian by profession (Jon had been visiting Switzerland for an academic conference), our protagonist takes it upon himself to both document his time at the hotel and try and solve the mystery of the murdered girl. What ensues is a heady blend of post-apocalyptic story, murder mystery and psychological thriller.

The Last (2019) is another addition to an already bloated genre. How many times have we seen the world end? What Hanna Jameson Read More

The Toll: Priest breathes creepy, swampy, glimmering life into Southern Gothic

The Toll by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest’s 2019 Southern Gothic novel The Toll delivers the creeping terror, the strangeness and the surprises I’ve come to expect from her, since she is the queen of this subgenre. From the weird, dying little town of Staywater, Georgia, to a house haunted by dolls, to “granny women” and ghosts, to that thing in the swamp, The Toll builds and delivers on a mood that progresses from shivery to biting-your-fingernails suspenseful.

As a character in the book (and the back cover blurb) points out:
State Road 177 runs along the Suwannee Rover, between Fargo, Georgia and the Okefenokee Swamp. Drive that road from east to west, and you’ll cross six bridges. Take it from west to east, and you might find seven. But you’d better hope not. Read More

All the Bad Apples: The power of storytelling

All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle

On her seventeenth birthday, Dublin teenager Deena Rys accidentally comes out as gay to her father; he doesn’t react well. Later that day, she confides in her older sister, Mandy, who is also appalled — not because she’s gay, per se, but because she’s been researching the family history and has come to a frightening conclusion. Mandy believes there’s a curse on all the Rys women who don’t fit in, and that something terrible happens to all of these “bad apples” at the age of seventeen.

The next morning Mandy is seen jumping from a cliff on the far side of the country.

No body is found, but the note Mandy left for Deena sure looks like a suicide note, and the family presumes her dead. Everyone except Deena, that is, who steadfastly believes her sister is still alive, a belief that is bolstered when she finds another note from Mandy. In the envelope wit... Read More