Stand-Alone

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

Jack: Horror during the London Blitz

Jack by Connie Willis

Subterranean Press is reissuing Connie Willis’s moody and bleak novella Jack (1991), which was a finalist for the Nebula and Hugo awards and has appeared in several anthologies over the years. It’s set during the London Blitz in WWII, one of Willis’ favorite settings for her works, including the time-travel novels Blackout and All Clear and the Nebula and Hugo award-winning novelette Fire Watch. Once again, there’s something peculiar going on during the Blitz … but this time it’s not just time travelers visiting from the future.

Jack Harker is p... Read More

To Be Taught, If Fortunate: The wonder, and the ethical dilemmas, of space

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’s novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019) takes the form of a letter from a space traveler, Ariadne O’Neill, to the people of Earth. Why Ariadne is writing it, we will learn later.

Ariadne is part of a small but diverse crew that has been sent to explore a moon and three planets that it is believed might harbor life. They will sleep in hibernation during the journey to this star system, explore each world, then go into hibernation again for the journey back. All told, they will be gone for eighty years, which means their goodbyes to their loved ones are permanent (which is explored in a poignant scene early in the novella). On each planet, they use a process called somaforming which adapts their bodies to survive in that planet’s particular condi... Read More

The Clockwork Man: Sci-Fi’s first cyborg novel

The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle

Just recently, I had some words to say about an English dystopian novel from 1920, The People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks. This book had been brought back into print in 2012 by HiLo Books as part of its wonderful Radium Age Science Fiction Series, the goal of which was to unearth neglected works from the period 1904 - 1933 for the modern generation. Now, I am here to tell you of another novel from this same series that I have just enjoyed. The book in question is The Clockwork Man, which was the creation of another British author, E.V. (Edwin Vincent) Odle. This novel was or... 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

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City: My kind of war story

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

Anything written by K.J. Parker is a must-read for me. I love his work and recommend it to anyone looking for exciting stories with unique, intelligent, and often unreliable, heroes. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City (2019) is no exception.

Orhan is a master bridge builder who’s slightly corrupt (you have to be if you want to get anything done on time and within budget in this city). He arrived in the city when he was a child after his parents were killed and the enemy enslaved him. Now those enemies are his neighbors, colleagues, employers, and employees. While Orhan acknowledges that he is living among people he should hate, he is also thankful for the opportunities he’s been given in the city he now calls home.

Now that city is besieged by an... Read More

Cog: Many elements gave me pause

Cog by Greg Van Eekhout

Cog (2019), a nominee for the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction, is the story of a robot who was built to learn. Mentally and, by all appearances, the titular character (Cog) is a 12-year-old boy whose function is to be a learning artificial intelligence. When he discovers that the best way to learn is to make mistakes, he resolves to make lots of mistakes — a decision which kicks off the narrative arc of the story.

Cog has an underdog main character, key themes of friendship and found family, and a quick pace. These middle grade/young adult mainstay themes make the more experimental parts of the narrative stand out, but not in a good way. The first plot point that gave me pause occurred early in the story, when Cog was taken to a grocery store for the first time and he has what is essentially an anxiety or panic attack. ... Read More

The People of the Ruins: A simply marvelous dystopian novel

The People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks

The publisher known as HiLo Books had a wonderful thing going back in 2012 with its Radium Age Science Fiction Series, the mission of which was to bring back into print the neglected works from the period 1904 - 1933. This reader had previously enjoyed several of the titles in this series via volumes from other publishers – novels such as Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), Read More

Nevertell: Occasionally rises above its mostly solid nature

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

Nevertell (2020), by Katharine Orton, is an engaging if somewhat limited Middle Grade book set in the wild north of Stalinist Russia and focused on a young girl trying to escape a brutal work camp and make her way south to Moscow and the grandmother she’s been told would be able to take her in.

Twelve-year-old Lina was born in the camp (her father is rumored to be the cruel commandant Zima) that her grandfather, mother, and uncle had been brought to years earlier. Only she and her mother Katya have survived, and when a trio of prisoners come up with a desperate escape plan, Katya provides the distraction that allows them, along with Lina’s best friend Bogdan, to get beyond the fence and into the frozen Siberian woodland. The weather is deadly enough, but the forest is also home to a powerful sorceress known as the “Manhunter.” And Lina and Bogdan’s fellow prisoners may not b... Read More

Providence: Feels meaningless and hopeless

Providence by Max Barry

Seven years ago, previously unknown aliens attacked and destroyed the crew of a human spaceship. The brutal event was recorded, so all of humanity has seen it. Ever since, Earth has been at war with these “Salamanders.”

The latest war ship to be developed and deployed against the salamanders is the Providence. It’s equipped with artificial intelligence that takes care of most of the shipboard tasks but is crewed by four humans who’ve been appointed after an arduous selection process. To keep the public support, the crew maintains active social media profiles. This is an important part of their jobs. The crew members of the Providence are:

Gilly, the computer programmer, is the youngest of the crew and the only one with no military background.
Talia, the Life Officer, is responsible for the mental health of the crew. She is constantly role-playing and branding herse... Read More

Minor Mage: Questing with an armadillo sidekick

Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher

Oliver is a minor mage in two senses: he’s only twelve years old, and he only has three magical spells, and the one to control his allergy against armadillo dander doesn’t count for much. The aged and increasingly absent-minded village mage wasn’t able to teach Oliver much before he died. But he’s all the magic his village has, so when a severe drought strikes, Oliver is ordered by the frightened villagers to go to the distant Rainblade Mountains to somehow “bring back rain.” No one, including Oliver, is at all clear on exactly how this is to be done, but they are clear on the concept that it’s a mage’s job. The villagers conveniently wait to gang up on Oliver until his mother, a retired mercenary, is out of town.

Oliver is frightened but willing; he was planning to do it anyway, though he resents being forced. (At least, he thinks, now his mother will be mad at the villagers and not him... Read More

The Last Human: I want to read Zack Jordan’s next book

The Last Human by Zack Jordan

This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s almost soul-crushing. I adored the first 25% of Zack Jordan’s The Last Human. It was on its way to being my favorite book so far this year. It was imaginative, clever, exciting, funny, and warm. I loved it. Then, it took a turn, and I struggled to finish it.

The Last Human (2020) is about a girl named Sarya who is being raised by a huge sentient black widow spider. Sarya is a human, but she and her mother hide this fact from others. This is easy to do because nobody knows what a human looks like anymore. The race is supposedly extinct, which is a good thing. The rest of the universe (over 1.4 million different species in more than 1 billion star systems) is afraid of humans — they’re immature, uncivilized, and not very smart. If they knew Sarya was one, she’d be in a ... Read More

The Kingdom of Back: Nannerl Mozart will not be forgotten

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

Marie Lu’s The Kingdom of Back (2020) is a historical fantasy based on the lives of Wolfgang Mozart and his beloved sister Marie Anna whose pet name was Nannerl. Nannerl was four years older than Wolfgang and a musical prodigy when she was a child. Tutored by her father, Leopold, she was much admired and praised as “the rare woman with a good ear” according to one of the characters in Lu’s novel.

As a child, Nannerl was sought after as a performer, even playing for royalty. Nannerl began teaching Wolfgang’s to play before her father realized he was ready. Wolfgang was obviously gifted — a musical genius — and soon he joined his sister’s concert tours.

Unfortunately for Nannerl, however, music composition was a man’s world and she was discouraged and even ... Read More

The Way Past Winter: A simple but evocative fairy tale

The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The first thing about this book that caught my eye was just how beautiful it was: the green binding, the interior pattern, the embossed cover-art — I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it really is a lovely object to behold.

The story itself rides the current popular wave of Scandinavian-based fairy tales, and reads a little like Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”. Winter has lasted for five years in Eldbjørn Forest, and siblings Oskar, Sanna, Mila and Pipa are barely hanging on. After their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, the four of them live all alone in the woods, seeing nothing in their futures but more of the bitter cold.

But after a strange encounter in the forest with a huge, bear-like man and his silent entourage, Mila wakes up to find her brother has disappeared. She insists he wouldn’t abandon ... Read More

Forgotten Worlds: A fantastic adventure

Forgotten Worlds by Howard Browne

I’ve always thought that if I were ever fortunate enough to get a novel written, and then even more fortunate to actually get it published, then that hard-created piece of work would most certainly – and proudly – appear under my own name. But there are any number of reasons why authors today choose to use pseudonyms for their work, and more reasons still for the creators of pulp fiction material 70 to 100 years ago. For example, an author might have used a pen name for fiction and reserved his given name for his main occupation (such as mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who wrote sci-fi under the name John Taine). In another case, a publication’s collective/house name was used when multiple writers contributed novels about one long-running character (such as the house name Kenneth Robeson, used by Read More

Catfish Lullaby: Song of the swamp meets cosmic horror

Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

Catfish Lullaby (2019), a Nebula Award-nominated novella, might be described as Louisiana swamp monster folklore colliding with eldritch Lovecraftian horror. Author A.C. Wise (who also has a second Nebula nomination this year, for her short story “How the Trick is Done”) visits Caleb, the biracial, queer son of the local sheriff, at three key points in his life. We follow Caleb from childhood to adulthood as he navigates his friendship with Cere Royce, the daughter of a once-prominent and depraved local family, and they try to conquer the black magic that haunts her and has destroyed her family.

When Caleb is about twelve, the Royce home mysteriously burns to the ground, killing Cere’s father and two older brothers. Caleb’s single father takes Cere into their home. Cere manages to freak out the schoolboys who have been bullying Caleb for years (“Sometimes you have to... Read More

Curious Toys: Dark, scary and twisty, like a good dark ride should be

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

Pin Maffucci wanders the midway and aisles of Chicago’s Riverview Amusement Park, running errands and delivering dope for Max, the carnival’s She-Male performer. At nearly fourteen, Pin is considered small for his age. That’s partly because Pin, with his trousers, cropped curls and cap, is really a girl in disguise. When a young woman from the nearby Essenay Film Studio is found murdered in one of the dark rides, Pin investigates, putting her own life at risk, and she has no idea who to trust.

Elizabeth Hand’s 2019 novel Curious Toys is an historical mystery set in 1915. There is no directly fantastical element, but the phantasms created by the human minds in this story shift it nearly into horror on more than one occasion. And while it’s not fantasy, the fantasies of an h... Read More

Inland Deep: Tooker times two

Inland Deep by Richard Tooker

Of the nine books that I have read over the last year or so from Armchair Fiction’s current Lost World/Lost Race series, which runs to 24 volumes, no fewer than three of them have involved the discoveries of hitherto unknown civilizations far beneath the Earth’s surface. In Rex Stout’s truly thrilling Under the Andes (1914), three unfortunate Americans go through a hellacious experience at the hands of a lost race of Incas beneath the mountains of Peru. In S. P. Meek’s The Drums of Tapajos (1930), a quartet of American adventurers discovers the descendants of both the 10 Lost... Read More

Riverland: A sad but sweet tale of resilience

Riverland by Fran Wilde

Sisters Eleanor and Mike have come to rely on each other for comfort and love. The space beneath Eleanor’s bed is a favorite hiding place where they can retreat from real life when their parents begin to fight almost every night.

One night, after their abusive father breaks the family heirloom they call the “witch ball,” the girls find a river running under Eleanor’s bed. After falling in, they discover that the river leads to a land of dreams and nightmares and that, according to strange creatures who live there, Eleanor and Mike’s mother’s family members are the gatekeepers of this world. They are supposed to maintain the boundary that keeps the worlds separate, but they haven’t been doing the job and now the nightmare world is starting to leak into the real world. This means that people will experience more nightmares, but the leaking is also literal — the houses in their neighborhood are... Read More

Leia: A fascinating look at a teenaged Princess Leia

Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

The thing about STAR WARS tie-in books is that they can never contradict what happens in the films, which means they also can't have stakes that are particularly high. The big galaxy-shaping events have to be saved for the big screen.

So it makes sense that a lot of them come across as "filler" or "prequel" stories, which add details and background to things we already know have happened. In the case of Leia: Princess of Alderaan, we learn a bit more about Princess Leia in the year she turned sixteen: the trials she must pass to become future queen, her induction into the Rebellion, and her first love. None of it is hugely crucial, but it's always nice to spend a little more time with your favourite characters.

To be formally named heir to the throne of Alderaan, Leia must prove herself in the areas of body, mind and heart, which m... Read More

Vagabonds: Complex ideas, but not enough other development

Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu

I really tried to give Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds (2020; translated by Ken Liu) a fair shake, pressing on even though I’d had problems with the book relatively early. And I think, given that I just about reached the halfway point (48% according to by Kindle), I did give the book a decent enough chance to win me over. But I just couldn’t push myself past that 50%, despite some intriguing ideas.

In the world of Vagabonds, Mars and Earth are in that awkward quasi-peace period after Mars decided they wanted to be independent some time back, sparking a destructive war whose repercussions are still being felt. The novel stars with the return of some young Martians who had been sent as a delegation to Earth a few years earlier as part of the reconci... Read More

The Twisted Ones: A modern twist on an old horror classic

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

The Twisted Ones (2019) begins with mild consternation: Melissa, who goes by “Mouse,” has the thankless task of taking a trip to backwoods North Carolina, with her loyal redbone coonhound Bongo for company, to clean out her late grandmother’s home. “It’ll be a mess,” her father says, in a massive understatement. Consternation shifts to deep dismay: Grandma was a hoarder. It’s even worse than normal, since her grandmother was a cruel and vicious person, and something of her evil still infuses her house, like the room full of baby dolls that looks like a “monument to infanticide.” Luckily, Mouse finds one bedroom that is clear of clutter, the bedroom of her step-grandfather Cotgrave, who died many years earlier. (If you’ve read Arthu... Read More

Spindle’s End: A light, sweet, unhurried fantasy

Reposting to include Tadiana's review.

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Spindle’s End (2000) is Robin McKinley’s delightful and very loose retelling of the Sleeping Beauty (Little Briar Rose) fairy tale.

On the princess’s naming day, a bad fairy declares a curse, stating that, on her 21st birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. In an attempt to thwart the curse, a good fairy named Katriona takes the princess to live with her aunt in a swampy region called Foggy Bottom. There, without any knowledge of her true heritage, Rosie grows up happily with human and animal companions while her mother, the Queen, pines for her lost daughter.

After the opening scenes in which the princess is cursed, Spindles’ End Read More

Two Thousand Miles Below: The Gor hole and the blowhole

Two Thousand Miles Below by Charles W. Diffin

In November 1951, the first feature film based on a DC Comics superhero was released. That film, Superman and the Mole Men, is fondly remembered today, especially since it was later transformed into the two-part episode that aired near the end of the first season of TV’s Adventures of Superman, and shown on television under the title “The Unknown People.” In this film, Clark Kent and Lois Lane travel to the small town of Silsby, TX, to cover a story about the world’s deepest oil rig … a story that becomes even more interesting when denizens from deep below the Earth emerge from that borehole and cause panic among the populace. However, if a certain novel from almost 20 years earlier is to be believed, this was not the first time that such an operation had disturbed our underground neighbors. The novel in question is Two Thousand Miles Below, which... Read More

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen: Miracle or hoax?

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer

Dexter Palmer has been one of my must-read authors since I read Version Control. It was my favorite book of 2016 and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next novel.

Here it is. It’s called Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen (2019) and it’s based on the real Mary Toft, an early 18th century English woman who claimed to keep giving birth to rabbits. Flummoxed, her small town’s doctor, John Howard, wrote to colleagues in London asking for insight. One London doctor, a gullible and self-aggrandizing man named Nathaniel St Andre, visited the woman and was similarly perplexed. He planned to use Mary’s case to promote himself.

Eventually, King George I asks for Mary Toft to be brou... Read More

A Pocketful of Crows: A short but evocative offering

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but how could I resist the artwork of Joanne Harris’ 2017 novel A Pocketful of Crows? The black background, the gold embossing, the stylized crow... I immediately snatched it up.

It's a story based heavily on the traditions and holidays of medieval England, with chapters divided into months and snippets of various ballads and proverbs added throughout, both of which help lay the foundation of the story.

A shapeshifting wild girl of the forest meets by chance a highborn noble, and soon becomes infatuated by him. The feeling seems mutual, but after a whirlwind romance, reality sets back in and the girl is asked to leave the castle.

Naturally, a creature of the wild doesn't take rejection very we... Read More