Stand-Alone

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

The Suffering Tree: Witchcraft in the United States

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The Suffering Tree by Elle Cosimano

When Tori Burns’ family is contacted shortly after her father’s death about a house and some land that was left to them in Chaptico, Maryland, they are suddenly moving into a century home. So begins the uncovering of the mysterious circumstances that lead to Tori’s family owning a small parcel of land on the historic Slaughter farm. The move kicks off many unexplainable happenings that seem to all come back to a witch’s curse from 300 years ago. Elle Cosimano strives to connect the present of the Slaughter land with a darker past, with little success overall.

The Suffering Tree (2017) is one part historical fantasy, one part adolescent romance, and two parts mystery. Tori is a teen navigating a new community, the grief of losing her father, and her personal demons. Often when Tori gets overwhelmed with ... Read More

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari: A somehow funny melding of German Expressionism, WWI, and art therapy

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The Asylum of Dr. Caligari
by James Morrow

Using a cult-class silent horror film (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as the template for a speculative fiction anti-war novel might be a weird idea, but James Morrow has made a career out of weird ideas (including several books on killing God) and that experience mostly pays off in The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, though I would have preferred a shorter version of the tale.

On the eve of WWI, Francis Wyndham, artist-wannabe, makes the European circuit to try and find a mentor. But after getting pushed down a flight of stairs by Picasso and not finding much success otherwise, he’s happy to take on the job of Art Therapist at an insane asylum. Once ensconced in the gothic institution, where he offers up art instruction to a bev... Read More

Bannerless: A thoughtful detective story in a post-apocalyptic world

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Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

In Bannerless (2017), Carrie Vaughn ― perhaps best known for her KITTY NORVILLE urban fantasy series inhabited by werewolves and vampires ― has created a reflective, deliberately paced post-apocalyptic tale with some detective fiction mixed in. It's about a hundred years in our world’s future and after an event simply called the Fall, when civilization collapsed worldwide. The cities are now ruins, abandoned by all but the most desperate people. Climate change has resulted in, among other things, deadly typhoons that periodically hit the California coast, the setting for our story. What's left of humanity is living a far simpler lifestyle than most of their twentieth centur... Read More

Amatka: Defies conventions, with mixed results

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Reposting to include Bill's new review.
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (2017) almost reads as a callback to the experimental and dystopian science fiction of the 1970s: a slim novel, packed with examination of the self as an individual unit within a larger social machine and the cost-benefit analysis thereof, with strange imagery and twisting narrative threads, and no easy answers to be found. Once, generations back, a group of people mysteriously found themselves in a new place, and were unable to ... Read More

Railhead: Imaginative and entertaining from beginning to end

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Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Railhead by Philip Reeve

If the idea of a heist aboard a sentient train traveling at faster-than-light speeds appeals to you; if said heist involves assumed identities, the theft of a very old and valuable artifact, and a criminal thumbing his nose at a family-run corporation/empire; if you like believable romance and honest-to-goodness fun, then Philip Reeve’s latest YA novel, Railhead, is for you. (If none of that appeals to you, read on anyway: I may be able to change your mind.)

In a galaxy filled with novelties like sentient trains who travel at faster-than-light speeds on specially crafted rails through K-gates stationed on nearly a thousand worlds and moons, Zen Starling is a light-fingered teen who l... Read More

The Waking Land: Too many issues

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The Waking Land
by Callie Bates

I’m sure there’s an audience for Callie Bates’ debut novel The Waking Land, but after reaching the halfway point (53% to be precise), I also became sure that I was not it, leading to a DNF review.

The story, which has some clear (at times perhaps too clear) historical referents, is set in a world where hundreds of years ago the nation of Caeris conquered the neighboring nation of Eren, while much more powerful than either of them is the empire of Paladis. More recently, about a decade ago, Elanna Valtai’s noble father tried to lead a rebellion to free Eren and bring back the “king in exile,” but his plans were discovered and while he was clever enough so that Caeris had no rock-hard proof, he was exiled to his estate while then five-year-old Elanna was taken hostage by Caeris’ King Antoine. Fast forwa... Read More

The Prey of Gods: Two takes on this imaginative and compelling story

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The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

The Prey of Gods (2017), by Nicky Drayden, takes a well-worn concept — what if gods walked among regular humans? — and breathes new life into it through her innovative uses of location, technology, mythology, and complex characters in this blend of real-world problems and fantastical situations.

Life is pretty great in futuristic Port Elizabeth, South Africa (so long as you’ve got money); people have access to genetically-engineered pets, personal robots with varying degrees of intelligence and capability, and solar wells that draw both energy and moisture from the air. When a long-forgotten demigoddess currently styling herself as Sydney sees an opportunity to restore her former glory and supremacy, just as a powerful new hallucinogenic hits... Read More

A Gathering of Ravens: If Robert E. Howard and Poul Anderson collaborated on a novel…

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A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden

Grimnir is a monster, literally. The Norse call him skraelingr. To the Irish, he is the fomoraig, and to the English he is an orcneas. Born and raised to do war, for and against the old gods. Immortal, they spend their endless lives, longing for glory in the final battle of Ragnarok.

So Grimnir's disposition is already brutal, but to add to it, he's the very last of his kind. To say he's a pissed-off is a gross understatement. And what's a centuries-old, angry monster, who only finds satisfaction in violence, to do, all by himself, while waiting around for end-of-time? Seek bloody vengeance, of course. Word of the one called Half-Dane has drawn Grimnir out of his lair, for the Half-Dane is who betrayed Grimnir and his kin. Meanwhile, a new religion has usurped t... Read More

The Gauntlet: A celebration of family and culture

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

Karuna Riazi has already made a name for herself on social media; if you’ve seen or used the widely popular Twitter hashtag #yesallwomen, you have Riazi to thank for it, along with her many other meaningful contributions to conversations about diversity, inclusivity, and representation in media. This year, her debut middle-grade novel The Gauntlet (2017) was published, and it is every bit as positive, well-crafted, and insightful as her non-fiction.

Birthdays ought to be a big deal for any child, but twelve-year-old Farah Mirza spends hers playing games with her little brother, Ahmad, rather than spending time with her friends Alex and Essie, or the family members who have also gathered at her Upper East Side home to celebrate. It’s part of being a good big s... Read More

The Refrigerator Monologues: Is your book group adventurous enough for this?

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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 Stacy is treated in one of the rece... Read More

End of the World Blues: Grimwood is a superb stylist

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End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Roger Zelazny, on top of writing a number of immensely popular books and stories, was one of the genre’s great stylists, with noir minimalism utilized in nearly all his works. He was likewise predictable for his main characters, often world-weary men with personal issues who find themselves facing situations they would rather avoid. I have come to think of Jon Courtenay Grimwood, who bases his fiction on these two same elements, as a successor to Zelazny, but significantly upgraded for the (post-) modern world. An exemplary text, his End of the World Blues (2006) possesses a sophisticated sense of noir that does not lack for eye-kicks (to borrow a phrase from Read More

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

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Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a celebrated novelist, but Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a work of non-fiction about the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In five separate locations, cultists simultaneously carried packets of sarin onto a subway. They each pierced their packet with the sharpened end of an umbrella and then left the subway. Twelve people died, and thousands more were harmed by the toxin.

Fans of Murakami’s novels may not be interested in this work, but they should hesitate before dismis... Read More

Lost Stars: Lost interest

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Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Lost Stars (2015) is not in want of a good premise. The story takes place over the course of events in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. It chronicles the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire and the struggles of two star-crossed individuals as they try to find their place within the changing political environment of the galaxy. The aristocratic Thane Kyrell and lowly labourer Ciena Ree both reside on the Outer Rim of planet Jelucan. Whilst their backgrounds couldn't be more different, the childhood friends both have one thing in common: they love to fly. As teenagers they are both accepted into the Imperial Academy and train as TIE fighter pilots and are both (unsurprisingly) star flyers. But thei... Read More

Doomstar: Hamilton goes out like a pro

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Doomstar by Edmond Hamilton

As I have mentioned elsewhere, sci-fi pulpmaster Edmond Hamilton, during the early decades of his career, destroyed so many planets in his stories that he managed to acquire for himself the nickname “World Wrecker.” But in his final novel, Doomstar, the destruction of a mere planet seemed to be small potatoes for the Ohio-born author, and nothing less than the death — or, in this case, the poisoning — of a solar body would suffice! Doomstar was initially released as a 50-cent Belmont paperback in January 1966, almost 40 years after Hamilton’s first story had appeared in Weird Tales magazine. (I was fortunate enough to acquire the 1969 Belmont paperback, also with a cover price of 50 cents.) Hamilton was 62 when he... Read More

Spoonbenders: Come for the psychic shenanigans, stay for this eccentric family

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Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

Spoonbenders (2017) by Daryl Gregory, is multi-generational family saga. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a psychic adventure story and a weird conspiracy tale for lovers of shadowy CIA projects like MKULTRA. It’s a gangster story. There’s a heist. There is a long con, and a madcap comedy along the lines of classic Marx Brothers routines. There are a couple of romances, a direct-distribution scheme, a medallion, a cow and a puppy. If we’re talking genre, I don’t know what Spoonbenders is. I know I loved it. I know it was fun and made me laugh, I know it was scary at times and I know I closed the book feeling happy and sad. And I know it’s a five-star book.

The book follows the Chicago-based Telemachus f... Read More

A Bridge of Years: Time travel to 1962

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A Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson

Tom Winter tried to find solace in a bottle when his wife left him. He lost his job and concluded that 1989 was a pretty tough year. Now, Tom is trying to make a go of it in Belltower in the Pacific Northwest. His brother has set him up with a job as a car salesman, and he has bought a house. Life seems pretty mundane, until Tom realizes that the house is a time machine that leads to New York in 1962.

Published in 1991, Robert Charles Wilson’s A Bridge of Years is his first time travel novel, but it’s the third one I’ve read by him. Here, the traveler wanders through a tunnel from one time/location to another. There is no dial for Tom to turn to 11 or to 1924 or to the future. (This is not to say that the tunnels are... Read More

Barsk: A wonderfully thoughtful, imaginative work of science fiction

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

When I put in my ARC request for Lawrence M. Schoen’s new novel Barsk, all I knew about it was that the setting involved a group of worlds inhabited by a variety of anthropomorphic space-faring animal species, with the main focus on elephants (thus its subtitle: The Elephant’s Graveyard). C’mon. El-e-phants in Spaaaaaccce! How could I resist? But Barsk is much more than a funny-but-cool premise; it’s a thoughtful, moving, and provocative exploration of a host of issues, including but not limited to memory, history, free will, and power. Eve... Read More

The Space Between the Stars: A tale of two halves

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The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett

The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Corlett, started out promisingly enough. The story is set in a universe where humanity has colonized the stars, which sounds great, but unfortunately a devastating plague has rampaged through the planets, wiping out over 99% of our species. We learn this via our main character, Jamie, who is one of the very few to survive the virus, a literal handful on the planet Soltaire where she has been working on as a veterinarian. The novel follows her as she, joined by a few other survivors, attempts to get back to her childhood home on Earth.

Her reason for aiming for Earth is that she and her long-time lover Daniel used to always joke about meeting at Northumberland in case of a “zombie apocalypse” or other type of world-ending event, so she hopes beyond hope to find hi... Read More

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: …and all for the want of a slide rule

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Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom by Bradley W. Schenck

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom (2017) is a sleek and shiny illustrated novel from Bradley W. Schenck, one that pays homage to the much-venerated Golden Age of science fiction while slipping a fair amount of modern social commentary beneath the chromed and bubble-helmeted exterior, and imparting the lesson that a well-equipped backpack will get you through most situations. Also, slide rules are important. Get yourself one if you don’t have one already, and if you do have one, maybe get a backup. Apparently, you never know when it’ll come in handy.

Imagine if, whenever you wanted to look at a website on your computer or hand-held device, an actual person had to move a cable from one switchboard-port to another, as had to be done for telephone calls in the first half of the twentieth cen... Read More

City At World’s End: Going Vegan

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City At World’s End by Edmond Hamilton

Written near the dawn of the Cold War era and soon after mankind first became aware of the fearful possibilities of the atom bomb, City at World’s End yet remains both highly readable and grippingly entertaining today, more than 65 years after its initial appearance. Edmond Hamilton’s book initially as a “complete novel” in the July 1950 issue of the pulp magazine Starling Stories, was released in hardcover the following year, and, in ’53, appeared again in the pages of Galaxy. (Personally, I just finished reading the 35-cent Crest Giant paperback from 1957.) Hamilton, who was already 46 when he wrote this tale, had been a published author since 1926, and already had countless hundreds of short stories, novellas and n... Read More

Fata Morgana: A vintage-type tale of a WWII bomber lost in time and space

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Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett & Ken Mitchroney

It’s 1943, at the height of the air war during World War II. US Air Force Captain Joseph Farley and his crew of nine men fly a B-17 bomber on missions out of England, bombing German factories and other military targets. On their last mission their bomber Voice of America, a never-ending source of problems (“fixing this one’s like taking a gator to the vet. You’re just making it better so it can try to kill you again”) finally bit the dust permanently, and the crew is assigned a brand new B-17F bomber, which they christen Fata Morgana after an unusual type of mirage, along with a new ball turret gunner, Sergeant Martin Proud Horse, a Native American of the Lakota tribe. One of the men, Shorty, is a gifted artist who paints a sorceress type of woman on the nose of the Fata Morgana, following Captain Farley’s deta... Read More

Bios: A rare miss from RCW

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Bios: A Novel of Planetary Exploration by Robert Charles Wilson

Isis is not the M class planet we have been looking for, and upon landing the humans discover that it’s extraordinarily toxic to them. It’s not cheap traveling through space to distant planets, so the scientists will just have to do their best. This is the premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios: A Novel of Planetary Exploration. The scientists initially try to solve this problem with nifty machines and suits, but eventually one of them tries to change people at a genetic level to make them fit the planet, rather than conquering it.

Zoe carries the modified “bloodware,” and she wants to make life work on the new planet. On Earth, she was sexually abused, and though her emotions were “smooth... Read More

Beren and Lúthien: For the diehard Tolkien fan

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Beren and Lúthien ed. by Christopher Tolkien

In the very early pages of Christopher Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien, his exploration of how his father’s grand love story of the two star-crossed lovers developed, he notes that, “This book does not offer a single page of original and unpublished work. What then is the need, now, for such a book?”

It’s a fair question, and one that I’m not sure all readers will find a ready answer for. The last half-dozen or so posthumous Tolkien books (from now on I will refer to J.R.R. Tolkien as simply “Tolkien” and his son/editor as “Christopher”) run a spectrum from those, such as The Story of Kullervo, probably only enjoyed by the most diehard of Tolkien fans/completists and those such... Read More

A Taste of Honey: A love story with a very particular style

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A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Another 2016 Nebula nominee today, this time for best Novella. A Taste of Honey (2016) is set in the same world as a previous work by Kai Ashante Wilson, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which I confess I have not read (it’s not necessary for the understanding of this story, though it may provide some useful background to the setting and its institutions).

At its heart, A Taste of Honey is a love story between two men from different lands — wealthy nobleman, Aqib, from Olorum (where the story is set), and battle-hardened warrior, Lucrio, from Dalucan. The story moves through time, alternating ... Read More

The Regional Office is Under Attack: Lots to like but overall frustrating

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The Regional Office is Under Attack
by Manuel Gonzales

As I kept reading The Regional Office is Under Attack (2016) by Manuel Gonzales, whipsawing back and forth between being impressed and being annoyed, I found myself pulling for Gonzales to pull it off, and it was a near thing. In the end, I think I come down on the side of the novel frustrating somewhat more than it delights, though it leaves me intrigued to see what Gonzales comes up with next.

The titular office is an agency that, according to their own sign (written in light-blue calligraphy), is:
Uniquely positioned to Empower and Strengthen otherwise troubled or at-risk Young Women to act as a Barrier of last resort between the survival of the Planet and the amassing Forces of Darkness that Threaten, at nearly every turn, to Destroy it.
Employed to that end are a trio of Or... Read More