Stand-Alone

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

The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare: A fun, diverting read from a solid author

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The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare by Sophie Masson

I've always enjoyed Sophie Masson's books; to put it simply, her stories are imaginative and her prose is elegant. The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare is no exception, (though it's not one of my favourites of hers) inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest and Twelfth Night, and containing all that those titles imply: adventure, romance, mystery, magic, mistaken identity, and of course — a voyage that ends in a shipwreck upon the shores of an exotic island.

According to her author's note, the name of the protagonist derives from her sister-in-law's anecdote about teaching Shakespeare with texts published under the imprint Hopewell Shakespeare. Naturally one of her students assumed t... Read More

Vulcan’s Hammer: Minor Dick, but still very entertaining

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Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick

According to Philip K. Dick authority Lawrence Sutin, in his well-researched biography Divine Invasions, by 1959, although Dick had already had some 85 short stories as well as half a dozen novels published, his interest in creating more sci-fi had reached a low point. The future Hugo winner was at this point hoping to become more of a mainstream author, having by this time already written nine such novels, none of which had been published … yet. Still, with bills to pay, a wife (his third of an eventual five) to support, and his first child on the way, economic necessities did, it seem, perforce drive him back, unenthusiastically, to the sci-fi realm. Tw... Read More

This Year’s Class Picture: A scene from a zombie apocalypse

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This Year’s Class Picture by Dan Simmons

Sci-fi and horror master Dan Simmons has only one real character in this short story: Ms. Geiss, dedicated fourth-grade teacher extraordinaire. She seems to be one of the very few remaining humans following the frequently mentioned, but never-explained, “Tribulations” that had some role in creating an environment where zombies roam the planet.

This Year’s Class Picture opens rather bluntly:
Ms. Geiss watched her new student coming across the first-graders’ playground from her vantage point on the balcony of the school’s belfry. She lowered the barrel of the Remington .30-06 until the child was centered in the crosshairs of the telescopic sight.
But don’t get Ms. Geiss wrong. All of her students are zombies... Read More

Eye in the Sky: Very early PKD

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Reposting to include Sandy's new review.



Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick

Jack Hamilton has just lost his job as an engineer for a government defense contractor because his wife Marsha is a suspected communist sympathizer. Having nothing better to do for the afternoon, he accompanies Marsha to the viewing of a new linear accelerator. An accident at the accelerator beams the Hamiltons and six other unsuspecting citizens into a parallel universe that at first appears to be their world but soon starts to evince subtle differences that become more and more obvious as time goes on. There is some sort of “corny Arab religion” at work — God is all justice and no mercy so, for example, telling a lie brings down an immediate curse such as a bee sting.

There are miracles here that can be taken advantage of, such as a cigarette machine that Jack, a darn ... Read More

Her Fearful Symmetry: Needed more substance than the ghosts

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Two sets of twins, a disillusioned husband, a grieving boyfriend, one ghost. The lives of Her Fearful Symmetry’s characters are as tangled as they sound, in a drama that will play out amongst the tombstones of Highgate Cemetery. A sticker on the front reminds potential readers that Niffenegger is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Yet let that be the first and last time Niffenegger’s debut novel is mentioned. Her Fearful Symmetry is described as a ‘delicious and deadly ghost story,’ and should be judged in and of itself.

We o... Read More

Lagoon: I loved it as soon as I saw the swordfish

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Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I thought I was going to love Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon (2014) when I read the first chapter, from the point of view of a swordfish. She is not just any swordfish; she is an eco-warrior. Through her eyes, we see the arrival of extra-terrestrials into the lagoon of Lagos, the Nigerian capital. And from that point on I was never disappointed.

Lagoon does not spend too much time with the swordfish, although we do see her again a few times. The main characters are three people who end up at the Bar Beach shortly after the beings from another place have landed, and these three become the spokes-humans for the visitors. They are Adaora, a marine biologist, mother of two and wife to a troubled husband; Agu, a soldier who has recently been in trouble with his command; and Anthony Dey Craze, a successful rapper... Read More

Rosewater: Weird, gritty, gorgeous alien invasion story

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Rosewater by Tade Thompson

In the Nigerian town of Rosewater, Kaaro, the main character of Tade Thompson’s Rosewater (2016), works for Section 45, a sinister government agency. Rosewater is built next to an alien dome, Utopicity, and the arrival of the aliens ten years earlier seems to have unleashed a host of unusual occurrences and abilities within the human population of Rosewater. Kaaro is one of these people — for his job at Section 45, he prevents crime, can read the minds of prisoners, and finds people by entering the ‘xenosphere,’ an ability which makes him a ‘sensitive.’ Unfortunately, sensitives like Kaaro are dying and he may be next. The answer to this problem might lie with Molara, a woman who appears to Kaaro in the xenosphere under the guise of a butterfly, and who keeps contacting him. But as he discovers more about Molara and tries... Read More

Arrowood: Creepy, tragic Gothic mystery

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Arrowood by Laura McHugh

When Arden Arrowood was a little girl, her younger twin sisters vanished without a trace. The last Arden saw of them was a flash of blonde hair, speeding away in the back of a gold car. A local man with a car fitting the description was questioned; nothing could ever be pinned on him, but the whole town thought he was guilty anyway.

The girls were never found, and their loss became a wound that destroyed the Arrowood family and continues to haunt Arden, now in her twenties. Then her father dies, and Arden learns she has inherited the family home, also called Arrowood, in Keokuk, Iowa. Reeling from academic and romantic troubles, Arden decides to go home and regroup. But the old house is full of secrets, and Arden soon learns that there might be more to her sisters’ disappearance than she realized as a child.

Arrowood is a... Read More

Heu-Heu, or The Monster: Another great Quatermain tale

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Heu-Heu, or The Monster by H. Rider Haggard

Heu-Heu, or The Monster is one of the 14 novels that the great H. Rider Haggard wrote that deals with the life of Allan Quatermain, an English hunter in South Africa. This is a stand-alone novel. Unlike the first two novels in the series, King Solomon's Mines and its sequel, Allan Quatermain; the so-called Zulu trilogy (Marie, Child of Storm and Finished); and the loosely linked series of books that I like to call the Taduki quartet (Allan and the Holy Flower, Read More

The Squares of the City: Addresses racism with a chess metaphor

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The Squares of the City by John Brunner

In 1892, Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin squared off in the finals of the World Chess Championship in Havana, Cuba. One of the deciding matches, so original in gamesmanship and rife with strategically interesting play, it has become one of the more well-known matches in history. (The game can be replayed virtually here and with analysis here.) Picking up on its nuances and seeing the potential, John Brunner decided to use the match to structure a novel. 1965’s The Squares of the City tells of a city experiencing a strong racia... Read More

Everfair: A history of a country that could have existed, with problems, power, magic

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Everfair by Nisi Shawl

I admired Nisi Shawl’s alternate history fantasy Everfair (2016) more than I loved it, and I admired it a lot. Shawl creates an African country at the turn of the 20th century, a country that could have existed, and gives it challenges, troubles, and magic.

Everfair starts in 1889. In Europe, the Fabians negotiate with the king of Belgium, Leopold II, to purchase land in Africa adjacent to Leopold’s personal colony, the so-called Congo Free State. While many white Europeans are troubled by the atrocities Leopold commits in his colony, the nations of Europe are hungry for rubber, so no one challenges the mass kidnappings, the enslavement, the mutilations, the wholesale slaughter and the abominable living conditions. Jackie Owen, a Fabian, has raised money and brokered a deal to create a colony w... Read More

Mr. Meeson’s Will: Half adventure novel, half legal thriller

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Mr. Meeson’s Will by H. Rider Haggard

Editor's note: Mr. Meeson’s Will is free in Kindle format

Mr. Meeson’s Will was first printed in book form in October 1888, after having first appeared earlier that year in The Illustrated London News. It was H. Rider Haggard’s 11th novel (out of 58), and one in which his experiences as both a writer and aspiring lawyer were given vent. The novel is at once a tale of adventure, a critique of the publishing industry in late 19th century England, and a satire on the English legal system.

In the book’s first half, Augusta Smithers — our heroine and a successful author, who has unwittingly entered into an unfair contract with Meeson’s pub... Read More

The Prefect: Complex detective procedural set among orbitals

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The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect is the fifth Alastair Reynolds book I’ve read in his REVELATION SPACE series, though it is a stand-alone and set earlier in chronology than the other books. By the time of the main trilogy Revelation Space (2000), Redemption Ark (2002), and Absolution Gap (2003), the Glitter Band of 10,000 orbitals has already been destroyed by the corrosive Melding Plague, so we see only its wrecked aftermath. With such tantalizing hints, it is ... Read More

Last Year: Time travel tourism

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Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Jesse Cullum works security at the City of Futurity – in fact, he just saved President Ulysses S. Grant from an assassination attempt, though he lost his Oakleys in the process.

The science fiction premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s Last Year (2016), is outlined in its opening scene. Oakleys are sunglasses that come from our time, but Ulysses S. Grant was one of the most important generals in the American Civil War. How can both exist in the same place? Well, in this novel, a “mirror” allows people to travel back in time, but to a specific point in the past — and it will produce a different a future. The people who travel back are tourists, and the City of Futurity, run by August Kemp, makes money from the past’s weal... Read More

A Wrinkle in the Skin: A gritty, post-apocalyptic winner

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A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher

Although most of us probably deem earthquakes to be relatively infrequent phenomena, the truth is that, as of this writing in late November, almost 150 such seismic events, ranging from relatively minor to completely devastating, have transpired somewhere in the world in 2016 alone. That’s an average of one earthquake every two or three days! But although these events are not only, uh, earth-shattering for those in the areas directly affected, few would deem them a possible concern for long-term, apocalyptic scenarios, as might be the case with, say, an asteroid collision ... except, that is, British author John Christopher, in his 1965 novel A Wrinkle in the Skin. Christopher, who was born in Lancashire in 1922, had already pleased this rea... Read More

Last Song Before Night: A debut from an author with tremendous potential

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Reposting to include Kevin's new review.

Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer

Last Song Before Night (2015) is the debut novel from Ilana C. Myer, and while many aspects of the work shine — detailed world-building combined with protagonist backstory and development — they come at the expense of antagonist development, prose ranging from lovely to overly ornate, and, most importantly, the plot of the novel itself.

The novel ranges far and wide, but at its crux, there is a woman named Lin who seeks to achieve the impossible by becoming a female poet, forbidden in the land of Eivar for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained. It comes across as nothing more than a deliberate authorial obstacle intended to make Lin’s against-the-odds journey that much more difficult and her successes that much sweeter. Acade... Read More

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

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

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, bot... Read More

American Gods: Great premise that (we think) doesn’t quite deliver

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is a bad land for Gods... The old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing. Either you've been forgotten, or you're scared you're going to be rendered obsolete, or maybe you're just getting tired of existing on the whims of people.

Shadow, just out of prison and with nothing to go home to, is hired to be Mr. Wednesday's bodyguard as he travels around America to warn all the other incarnations of gods, legends, and myths, that “a storm is coming.” There's going to be a battle between the old gods who were brought to melting pot America by their faithful followers generations ago, and the new gods of technology, convenience, and individuality.

That's the premise of Read More

The Family Plot: You’ll think twice about a nice hot shower after this

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Family Plot by Cherie Priest

With The Family Plot, Cherie Priest takes a break from steampunk and Lovecraftiana to tackle a tried-and-true convention, the haunted-house story. The book, filled with atmospherics, family feuds and long-buried secrets, is a spooky read that will leave you side-eyeing bathrooms and showers for days after you’ve finished.

The Dutton family business is salvage, and Music City Salvage has just purchased a bonanza of a job — a full Southern estate, built in the 1800s, which includes a mansion, a barn and a carriage house. The barn is made of American chestnut, a tree which is extinct; the lumber alone is a goldmine. The owner of the estate plans to have all the buildings raze... Read More

The Chemist: The torturous path of revenge and love

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The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

Stephenie Meyer changes it up fairly dramatically in The Chemist (2016), her second adult novel, where there is nary a vampire, werewolf or space alien to be found. It’s a rather pulpy but absorbing thriller in the vein of a Jason Bourne novel (to whom she’s dedicated this novel, among others). There’s no real speculative element here, other than perhaps some new developments in chemical-based torture and some startlingly smart dogs.

The narrator, a bright, rather repressed molecular biologist, was originally hired by a nameless government agency to do cutting-edge medical research, but ended up being pressured to use her medical skills to create biological compounds that cause severe pain without permanent physical damage, and then... Read More

The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less): A master class in concision

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The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) by David Bercovici

The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) by David Bercovici, in his own words, “covers the Universe’s greatest hits, recounting when and most importantly how its various pieces emerged.” That’s a tall order for any book, let alone one that is so short, but Bercovici tempers the readers’ expectations early on, letting us know that:

"There are other excellent books, far more comprehensive than this one, on the history of the Universe and life ...The goal of this book is not to be deep and comprehensive but instead to be boldly (or baldly) shallow and superficial in the best sense of these words ... My aim is to give a quick and hopefully readable overview that provides a taste of our Universe’s story (and to some extent hu... Read More

A Taste for Monsters: Strong characterization and premise but plotting a bit pale

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A Taste for Monsters by Matthew Kirby

Matthew Kirby’s first two books, The Clockwork Three and Icefall are, I think, two of the best constructed and ambitious YA books out there. I haven’t been equally impressed with the ones since, though they still show marks of a fine craftsman in various aspects. Where then does his latest, A Taste for Monsters, fall? I’d say somewhere in between — better than the last few thanks to more vivid characters, a fine sense of the macabre, and deft handling of suspense; but not rising to the level of the first ones due to so... Read More

The Weaver: An enchantingly dream-like novel

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The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta

The Weaver (2016),  Emmi Itäranta’s second novel, is a powerful story that occupies a space between the fantastical and the allegorical. Filled with its own symbols and mythology, and set in a world with eerie similarities to our own, Itäranta’s tale of an isolated island community’s struggle to maintain order is worth several re-reads — not just for the pleasure of her prose or for the compelling plot and characters, but for the secondary text woven like a bright thread within the primary body of the novel.

Our narrator and guide is Eliana, a young woman who works in the House of Webs, a respected institution where talented weavers create blankets, tapestries, and more. What could be an idyllic li... Read More

Neverwhere: Wonderfully fantastical setting

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Richard Mayhew has a life that most men would envy: He’s got a good job, a nice apartment in London, and he’s about to be married to a beautiful wealthy woman. But when he stops to help a girl (named Door) in the street, Richard soon finds that he’s slipped through the cracks into Neverwhere: a magical and frightening underground London that people like Richard never knew existed. How could he have known that his Random Act of Kindness would ruin everything? And, most importantly, how can he get his old life back?

Neil Gaiman rarely fails to amuse me with his creative concepts, quirky humor, and over-the-top villains, and Neverwhere (1997), the novelization of his BBC television program of the same name, has all that. What it doesn’t have is a tight and gripping p... Read More

Congress of Secrets: Fast-paced fantasy romance swirling with political intrigue

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Congress of Secrets by Stephanie Burgis

In 1814, the four countries that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte held a congress in Vienna, determined to establish a new balance of power among the European nations. It was a contentious congress filled with intrigue and realpolitik, but at least those real-life diplomats and leaders weren’t contending with shadowy magic, the way Stephanie Burgis’ characters are in her alternate history fantasy Congress of Secrets (2016).

Lady Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy British widow, has come to Vienna, merely to observe the historical undertaking... and perhaps, she’s hinted, offer a little money to the Austrian treasury. In reality, Caroline’s mission is very different; it’s deeply personal and very dangerous. Caroline isn’t even h... Read More