Stand-Alone

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

Forest of Memory: Engaging if somewhat bewildering

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Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

A story set in the future about an ‘authenticities’ dealer, Forest of Memory is set in a culture where everyone is connected by an omnipresent internet. The main character has a personal AI who is always listening and also recording and broadcasting the life of the protagonist. Mary Robinette Kowal then thrusts the main character into a situation where none of her technology works.

The premise of the tale interested me. In few words, Kowal has built a culture that is both rooted in today and wholly futuristic. It is believable and engaging, asking and answering: what if the internet connects us all, all the time? Its dream-like atmosphere and descriptions lend to the uniqueness of the tale, and made it a gripping setting.... Read More

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire: Darkly poetic WWI story

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Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden

On a cold autumn night, under a black sky leached of starlight and absent the moon, Captain Henry Baltimore clutches his rifle and stares across the dark abyss of the battlefield, and knows in his heart that these are the torture fields of Hell, and damnation awaits mere steps ahead. 

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire (2008) is a darkly poetic story of supernatural horrors unleashed during World War One. Lord Baltimore is our broken hero, chasing a plague-spreading vampire across the blooded lands of Europe. This is no graphic novel, but author/artist Mike Mignola, who is most known for his work on the HELLBOY Read More

The Wanderers: A wonderfully intimate, character-driven story

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The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

The Wanderers
(2017), by Meg Howrey, focuses on a simulated mission (code name: Eidolon) to Mars more realistic than anything ever attempted before. Prime Space has chosen three exemplary, experienced astronauts (American Helen, Japanese Yoshi, and Russian Sergei) for a 17-month, fully immersive simulation in the Utah desert in preparation for the real thing two years later. We join the “journey” via their 3rd-person POVs, but are also given a broader view thanks to their family members (one might consider them “satellites” orbiting the main characters — always tied to them): Helen’s actress daughter Mireille, Yoshi’s robot-salesperson wife Madoka, and Sergei’s sexually-uncertain 15-year-old son Dmitri. We also get a POV from Luke, one of the “Obbers” — the Prime Space employees tasked with observing the crew an... Read More

The Evil Wizard Smallbone: Young readers will love this funny, exciting fantasy

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The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman

What is it about Maine? Stephen King and John Connolly both write terrifying horror stories set there, and Delia Sherman places The Evil Wizard Smallbone, a middle-grade fantasy published in 2016, in Maine in the winter. That state must have a lot of magical juice.

The Evil Wizard Smallbone not only shares the horror of a Maine winter, it’s got an evil wizard, shape-shifting coyote-bikers, a small and somewhat magical town called Smallbone Cove whose residents have forgotten their own strange history to their peril, and a scrappy boy named Nick who stumb... Read More

Mr. Adam: The last fertile man on Earth

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Mr. Adam
by Pat Frank

Pat Frank’s Mr. Adam (1946) is billed as “[o]ne of literature’s first responses to the atomic bomb,” and the uncertainty of the freshly-minted Atomic Age is palpable within the novel’s pages. With the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in his mind, and within the minds of his readers, Frank crafted a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of nuclear power and its invisible, unstoppable effects on the future of mankind.

Steve Smith, intrepid journalist and recent veteran of the European theatre in WWII, quite literally stumbles through winter snow into the biggest story of his life: there are absolutely no maternity ward reservations booked in New York City after June 21. In fact, there are no reservations for maternity wards anywhere... Read More

Passing Strange: Simply irresistible

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Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages’ short novel Passing Strange (2017) is a beautiful, fantastical melding of history, romance, magic and revenge, set against a meticulously researched San Francisco of 1940. At just over 200 hundred pages, the story follows six women in the city, each one in some way an outcast. Add a present-day story frame that includes secret passages in Chinatown, pulp magazine covers of the 1940s, and an elaborate scam, and for many of us you have something irresistible.

I loved Passing Strange from the cover by Gregory Manchess. That wistful moonlit scene is central to the story in more than one way. Take a moment to study that cover before you open the book, and then, when you’ve finished, feel free to go back and savor it some more.

In the present day, Helen Young, a ... Read More

All Flesh Is Grass: Flower power

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All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

In the 1966 3-D movie The Bubble, later rereleased as Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth, an impenetrable and transparent dome of unknown origin encases a small American town, trapping its residents inside. Forty-three years later, in Stephen King’s doorstop best seller of 2009, Under the Dome, another American town, Chester’s Mill, is similarly and mysteriously ensnared. Beating both these projects to the punch, however, and a possible inspiration for both of them, was Clifford D. Simak’s 10th novel, All Flesh Is Grass. The book... Read More

This River Awakens: Beautifully dark and very challenging

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This River Awakens by Steven Erikson

Pretty much all you have to do is say Steven Erikson and I’m there. This River Awakens (2012) is far different from anything most people will think of when they hear the author’s name. It’s not set in a secondary world. It’s not epic fantasy. There isn’t a huge war or expanding empire in the core of the book. From what I understand, This River Awakens was Erikson’s first book and it’s more fiction and urban fantasy than anything else. While it is far different than typical Erikson, it is still glorious.

This River Awakens was re-released in 2012 after initially being published in 1998 under Erikson’s pen name of Steve Lundin. I love reading author’s works that are t... Read More

Hold Back the Night: Not for the faint of heart

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Hold Back the Night by Pat Frank

Hold Back the Night (1951; 2017) is the third of Pat Frank’s classic Cold War-era novels receiving a re-issue from Harper Perennial, after Mr. Adam (1946; 2016) and Forbidden Area (1956; 2016). Originally published during the Korean War, Hold Back the Night finds inspiration from the very real events which occurred during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and tells the story of a single group of U.S. Marines. Frank’s intimate descriptions of military life during wartime, especially the differences separating enlisted men and their commanding... Read More

Never Let Me Go: A quiet exploration of the human condition

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about clones, but don’t get your hopes up. This is an unconventional clone story.

That’s right. There aren’t any mad scientists, nor are there any daring escapes. There isn’t even a sterile cloning facility run by a ruthless villain. So forget about a daring infiltration scene in which the sterile cloning facility is shut down from within.

Ther... Read More

Wintersong: Fervour and fairytale

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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Once upon a time fairytale retellings were a rare thing, but nowadays, everyone seems to be doing it. S. Jae-Jones' debut, Wintersong (2017), promises a tale of the Goblin King fused with Germanic folklore. So how does Jae-Jones' contribution to this over-saturated genre fare?

Wintersong centres around Elisabeth — or Liesl, as she's known — the unremarkable and “unlovely” eldest daughter of a musician. Like her father, music is the true love of her life, but it is her younger brother, the boy in the family, who gets to live out her dreams of becoming a musician, because of course, girls should be seen and not heard. Her sister, the beautiful Käthe, is too busy flouncing about town, flirting with anything that has a pulse, to see how much Liesl is suffering.
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A Criminal Magic: Suspenseful plot, great descriptions of magic

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly

In A Criminal Magic, Lee Kelly creates a world in which the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1919, banned sorcery rather than alcohol. Kelly combines remarkable creativity, imagination, and insight into the human condition, blending fantasy with history and ending up with a complex, entertaining, compelling novel.

Naturally, the passage of A Criminal Magic’s fictional amendment results in the same response as its historical analogue: sorcerers are thrust into the criminal underworld, brewing an illegal ruby-red elixir. This “shine,” as it’s known, is smuggled by gangsters into “shining rooms” across the country, fronted by legal liquor bars and raided by members of the Federal Prohibition Unit who... Read More

The Last Harvest: Darkness lurking within a cheery Midwestern town

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The Last Harvest by Kim Liggett

YA horror novel The Last Harvest (2017) focuses on hidden secrets within a small town and the unreliability of one’s senses. Taking a page or two from Ira Levin’s classic novel Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and clearly inspired by instances of “Satanism-related moral panic,” Kim Liggett serves up a tale of teenagers inheriting a dark legacy — and whether that legacy is mental illness or something more sinister is at the core of her story.

One year ago, Clay Tate’s father died in the process of trying to destroy the entirety of the breeding stock at a local cattle ranch ... using a crucifix. Mr. Tate had been acting erratically for a whil... Read More

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

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Reposting to include Jason's new review.

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 Read More

The Lathe of Heaven: Dreaming of Utopia

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

When George Orr sleeps, he sometimes has “effective” dreams that alter reality. Believing that he has no right to effect such changes, George begins taking drugs to suppress the dreams. As the drugs lose their efficacy, George ups the dosage, exceeding legal limits. George is caught and ordered to choose between therapy and asylum. He chooses therapy and is sent to Dr. William Haber. When Haber realizes that George is not crazy and that these “effective” dreams indeed change reality, the psychiatrist decides to make the world a better place.

And why not? Overpopulated, polluted, radioactive, and starving – humanity’s near future is an age of terrible consequences. The world could use a dreamer, figures Haber, so he hypnotizes George to shape the future.

By t... Read More

They Walked Like Men: Simak bowls a strike

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They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak

In the history of the science fiction novel, there have been any number of depictions of invaders from other worlds trying to conquer good ol’ Mother Earth, be it with brute force and death rays (as in H.G. Wells’ seminal novel of 1898, The War of the Worlds) or more insidiously (as in Jack Finney’s 1955 masterpiece of paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). But nowhere, I suspect, has the reader ever been presented with a takeover attempt akin to the one in Read More

Forbidden Area: As chilling now as when it was first published

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Forbidden Area by Pat Frank

Foreign espionage and sabotage undermining the credibility of American armed forces. A counter-intelligence group mocked and silenced for its theories. Shadowy plans, decades in the making. The fate of the world caught in the balance between devastation and salvation. Pat Frank describes all of these in Forbidden Area, which was first published in 1956 and is still terrifying sixty-one years later.

Harper Perennial’s 2016 re-issue of Forbidden Area only clocks in at just over 200 pages and contains four interlocking plotlines, each of which is essential to the overarching story. First there’s the introductory tale of Henry and Nina, two teenagers who happen to be necking in the Florida surf on what, in hindsight, will be an extremely momentous night. They see something that should be impos... Read More

Dracula vs. Hitler: Lively war story pits the undead vs. the inhumane

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Dracula vs. Hitler by Patrick Sheane Duncan

Dracula vs. Hitler?! Yes, yes, I know — the title is beyond hokey and there’s no way that this could be a good book. A graphic novel? Maybe. But not a full-sized, 500-page novel. I love horror and I love Dracula, the Dracula as he was originally … gothically evil, not gothically high school. And World War II lit is cool. But the combination? It sounds like a comic book, or maybe the next generation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s classic-lit/horror mash-ups.

Do you want the honest truth? Dracula vs. Hitler is a very fun book. The title was a warning, but the evil v. evil angle drew me in and Dracula’s placement on the side of the allies in the middl... Read More

Coco Butternut: A brisk “Texas Weird” adventure by the master

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Coco Butternut by Joe R. Lansdale

Coco Butternut, which came out in January 2017, is a short HAP AND LEONARD novella written by the inimitable Joe R. Lansdale. You may already have read some of these East-Texas, sort-of-detective stories, or seen episodes of the television show on Sundance. While Coco Butternut has no supernatural elements at all that I can spot, it is a fast-paced, enjoyable read with perfectly timed banter, strange and wonderful characters, and perfect, quirky descriptions of the landscape and countryside.

I don’t believe there is a sub-genre called “Texas Weird,” but if there were, Lansdale would own it. He owns it here with a story that kicks off in bizarre-mode from the first sentence. A man who runs a... Read More

Time Is the Simplest Thing: Fast-paced and imaginative, with an important message

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Time Is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak

Written s(i)mack-dab in the middle of the American Civil Rights Movement, Clifford D. Simak’s Time Is the Simplest Thing utilizes the tools of science fiction to make poignant comments on the issues of the day. The novel, the author’s sixth out of an eventual 29, was initially serialized in the May - July 1961 issues of Analog magazine with the equally appropriate title The Fisherman, and went on to be nominated for that year’s Hugo Award. (It lost, to Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land Read More

Central Station: A snapshot of a strangely familiar time

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Reposting to include Bill's new review.

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 th... Read More

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: In search of lost things, including a cat

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

At first glance, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada, a legal assistant who has given up his job in the hope of finding a more fulfilling purpose. Though happily married, his cat, Noboru Wataya, has gone missing. If a missing cat sounds too straightforward for a novel often described as the masterpiece of a man who is often mentioned as a dark horse to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, well, there’s a lot to unpack in this summary. Also, Toru is about to learn that his brother-in-law defiles women and his own marriage with Kumiko is in serious trouble.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle can be interpreted along several lines, but perhaps our struggle to form meaningful rel... Read More

Behind Her Eyes: Twisty thriller with cross-genre appeal

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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Louise is an insecure single mom who, one night, meets and kisses a dashing stranger. She’s mortified the next morning to find that the stranger, David, is now her boss. Her married boss. Then she (literally) bumps into David’s wife, Adele, and the two of them hit it off.

Despite her best friend’s warnings that all of this is a bad idea, Louise falls in deeper: into a full-blown affair with David, and into a close friendship with Adele. In particular, Louise and Adele bond over their shared experience with night terrors.

This triangle is a freight train barreling toward trouble, and Louise soon learns that the stakes might be deadlier, as questions and mysteries lurk beneath the surface of Adele and David’s lives: Who, if anyone, killed Adele’s parents? Who, if an... Read More

Miranda and Caliban: A beautiful melancholy tale

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Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Miranda and Caliban is a twist on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ringing one major change on the play: what if Miranda and Caliban were in love?

Our tale begins years before the events of the play; we first meet Miranda as a child, assisting her father Prospero in the ceremonial magic that will bind the “wild boy,” Caliban, and the spirit Ariel to his will. From there, Jacqueline Carey alternates between Miranda’s point of view and Caliban’s, following them as they grow up together. At first, Miranda helps Caliban learn to speak and read; later, when she is stricken by an illness, Caliban helps her. And then when adolescence strikes, the two begin to have forbidden feelings for each other.

Looming o... Read More

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz

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The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz is one of my favorite “slice of life” comics, and it is one I’ve taught several times in my course on comics. A memoir in three parts, The Infinite Wait and Other Stories is memorable for the reader because of Wertz’s strong voice as presented in two ways: through the drawn character we see — the “Julia” we watch living through the events recounted — and through the voice of the narrator, a future Wertz we “hear” but do not see, as she looks back and comments on the Julia in each panel as she lives ... Read More