SFF Reviews

Our most recent reviews are listed first. Use the tags to search for reviews of similar books.

Night of Masks: A simple story on an infrared planet

Night of Masks by Andre Norton

Nik Colherne lives in the Dipple, a planet-side slum that serves as the opening setting for a few of Andre Norton’s novels. Nik survived a fiery crash that left him orphaned and with a disfigured face that others find abhorrent. Rejected and friendless, Nik is targeted by the Thieves’ Guild who promise him a new (and handsome) face if he’ll impersonate the hero of a young boy that they are trying to find. The boy, Vandy, is the son of a powerful warlord and the thinking is that if Nik poses as the boy’s hero, Vandy will trust him enough to come along with him. Nik is a little suspicious of the mission, but the guild makes everything sound legit, and cooperation is Nik’s only hope for a new face and a new life.

When Nik eventually finds the boy, the two of them end up imprisoned on a planet with a sun that emits only ... Read More

Under the Whispering Door: A warm-hearted meditation on death

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

When I got to the scene in Under the Whispering Door (2021) featuring an opportunistic “medium” being messed with by two ghosts, I started laughing so hard I fell over sideways on the loveseat. My husband kept saying, “What? What?” and I could only gasp, “You’ll… have to read it yourself.”

You’ll have to read it yourselves, too.

2021’s Under the Whispering Door is TJ Klune’s second fantasy book marketed to adults. His first was The House in the Cerulean Sea. Under the Whispering Door is a more personal book for Klune; he says in his afterword that he wrote it as a way of coming to grips with grief and loss. Despite the seriousness of the topic, the book ... Read More

The Two Princesses of Bamarre: An entertaining magical adventure

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

Addie, the 12-year-old Princess of the kingdom of Bamarre, is a sweet but cowardly girl. She comes by it honestly – her father, the king, is also a coward. Addie’s sister Meryl, however, is adventurous and courageous and she wants to save their kingdom from evil magical beasts and a plague they call the Grey Death. Addie adores and admires Meryl and she knows she’ll never be brave like her sister.

When Meryl gets sick, Addie is desperate to save her but, because her father’s efforts are timid and ineffective, eventually she realizes that her only hope is to do it herself. Armed with several fabulous magical gifts, such as a tablecloth that always presents a delicious feast when unfolded, and a pair of boots that lets her cover seven leagues in one step, Addie sets out to save her sister and her kingdom.

During her quest to find a cure, she’ll have to batt... Read More

Dune: Lovely to see, but lacks character depth

Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve

It’s been many a year since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune, so I can’t say with any authority where in the book Denis Villeneuve ends his film version, but I do feel comfortable saying it was too far. Because even at roughly 2 ½ hours, Dune the movie is too short to do justice to Dune the book. In fact, as that became more and more evident, I found myself thinking even more frequently that if Peter Jackson could get three movies out of The Hobbit (ignoring that he really didn’t), then Villeneuve should have been given three movies for Dune, not only a longer work but also a much more densely c... Read More

Grave Reservations: A quirky, engaging protagonist anchors this Seattle mystery

Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

Leda Foley is trying to keep her single-person travel agency afloat. Grady Merritt is a Seattle PD detective away at a conference. When Leda changes his return flight plans without notice or explanation, she saves his life — and outs herself as a psychic. Back home in Seattle, Grady hires her to assist on a baffling cold case he won’t let go of. Abruptly, a psychic episode shows Leda that this case and unsolved murder of her fiancé Tod three years earlier are connected.

2021’s Grave Reservations is a slight departure for Cherie Priest; no airships, no horror and hardly any ghosts. It isn’t exactly her first foray into mystery, because I am Princess X has strong mystery el... Read More

The House in the Cerulean Sea: A heartwarming fable of love and acceptance

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune 

You’re a second-class citizen, viewed with suspicion if you have magical powers in TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea (2020). Magical children are confined to orphanages that are overseen by the rigid bureaucracy of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). One of DICOMY’s most diligent, rule-abiding caseworkers is 40-year-old Linus Baker, a pudgy and — though he barely admits it to himself — deeply unhappy gay caseworker who lives in a lonely apartment in a city where it’s always raining and overcast.

One day Linus receives a special, top secret assignment from DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management: travel to an island orphanage for a month to investigate an orphanage of six children who are particularly uncommon in their magical aspects, as well as the orphanage’s master, Arthur Parnassus... Read More

That Worlds May Live: Let’s get Sirius

That Worlds May Live by Nelson S. Bond

In my recent review of David V. Reed’s Empire of Jegga, I mentioned that this was a Golden Age sci-fi novel in the space-opera mold that featured an excessively recomplicated plot and a wealth of colorful detail. Reed’s novel had come out in the November 1943 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, but the Golden Age being what it was, this was hardly the first such space-opera affair to be released in the magazine that year. Just seven months earlier, actually, another novel was published, complete in one issue, in that selfsame legendary pulp, and in a similar vein as Reed’s book, only minus the complexity of story line and the convincing detail. That novel was the one in question here, and entitled That Worlds Read More

The Lost Steersman: Rowan makes true “first contact”

The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein

In the third book of Rosemary Kirstein’s STEERSWOMAN series, steerswoman Rowan steps off the edge of her known world and risks her life in the process. Originally published in 2003, this book has been reissued. My review may contain spoilers for The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret.

The Lost Steersman begins with a prologue, a letter from Rowan to the Prime of the Steerswomen, recapping events in the first two books and warning the Steerswomen of the serious danger... Read More

Dread Companion: Try the audio edition of this one

Dread Companion by Andre Norton

In the far future, a young woman named Kilda thinks it’s unfortunate that she was born as a woman because she’s expected to do what every woman on her planet does – get married and have children. Kilda wants to travel and learn, so she appeals to her teacher, a mixed-race handicapped person who also lacks opportunity on this world. Her teacher suggests that Kilda take a job as a governess for a woman who is going off planet with her two children. Kilda takes that advice and travels with her employer and the kids, a boy and a girl, to an Earth-like planet called Dylan.

Almost immediately Kilda realizes that her employer’s daughter, Bartare, is strange. She knows about things before others do, she doesn’t act very childlike, she doesn’t seem emotionally attached to her family, she talks as if she’s being guided by someone that Kilda can’t see, and she seems relentlessly driven to some ... Read More

Night of the Living Dummy: Very scary

Night of the Living Dummy by R.L. Stine

R.L. Stine’s GOOSEBUMPS is a series of stand-alone short horror novels for children. I’ve been listening to the audiobook versions with my teenage daughter who loves to read scary stories in the couple of months before Halloween.

The seventh GOOSEBUMPS novel, Night of the Living Dummy (1993), is especially terrifying, but that may be because I’m one of those people who gets a bit freaked out by circus clowns, Chucky dolls, and, in this case, ventriloquists’ dummies. I’m not sure if it’s the Uncanny Valley effect or some repressed traumatic memory from my childhood but, whatever, I don’t like them.

12-year-old twin sisters Kris and Lindy ar... Read More

Earth vs. the Spider: BIG trouble in River Falls

Earth vs. the Spider directed by Bert I. Gordon

As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, there was more than one reason why Wisconsin-born producer/director/special FX wizard Bert Ira Gordon was popularly known as Mr. BIG. Of course, his acronym alone might have ensured him that title for life, but it was rather the series of remarkable cinematic entertainments that Gordon came out with starting in 1955, many of them dealing with oversized monstrosities, that resulted in this loving appellation. And what a string of films it was: King Dinosaur (’55), Beginning of the End (’57, and dealing with giant grasshoppers), The Cyclops (’57), The Amazing Colossal Man (’57), Attack of the Puppet People (’58, and going small for a change), War of the Colossal Beast (’58), Earth vs. the Spider (’58), Village of the Giants (’65), The Food of the Gods (’76) and Empire of the ... Read More

Medusa: A powerful retelling

Medusa by Jessie Burton 

If I told you that I'd killed a man with a glance, would you wait to hear the rest?

This question opens Jessie Burton's latest novel, Medusa (2021), a feminist retelling of the famous Greek myth. Told through the eyes of the snake-headed Medusa herself, the story reframes her tale as Burton uses myth to examine our own culture of victim-blaming, slut-shaming and toxic masculinity, provoking the question: Is Medusa truly a monster?

We meet Medusa as she stands on the edge of a cliff on the island she's been banished to, just as Perseus – the boy down below, on his boat – arrives on her shores. Medusa knows it is safest to remain hidden, but when her dog Argentus greets Perseus' dog Orado, she is forced down to the shore. She remains hidden as she talks ... Read More

The Ship of Monsters: Asombroso!

The Ship of Monsters directed by Rogelio A. Gonzalez

There are certain films that are so outrageous, so bizarre, so very unique or dumbfounding, that the viewer cannot believe what he or she is looking at while watching them. Such motion pictures leave the viewer wondering things like: What were those filmmakers thinking? How can a movie like this possibly exist? Some of those films, such as The Great Gabbo (1929), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Blood Freak (1972) and The Worm Eaters (1977), leave the viewer slack-jawed but with the desire never to see them again; they are unique but either tiresomely boring or unpleasantly repugnant. Others, such as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Gonks Go Beat (1965) and Barbarella (1968), similarly leave the viewer stunned by their outre quality, but with the desire to watch the films again sometime; films that must be placed into that dubious category “s... Read More

Monster Blood: Choose the audiobook for this one

Monster Blood by R.L. Stine

Monster Blood (1992) is the third short children’s horror novel in R.L. Stine’s GOOSEBUMPS series. It’s a stand-alone, so no need to read the previous books.

While his parents are out of town, Evan has to go live with Aunt Katherine. She’s a scary one — a large hulking deaf woman with a deep voice who is often seen carrying her meat cleaver. Evan hates living at Aunt Katherine’s house, especially because she insists that his elderly dog stay chained up outside and there are bullies in Aunt Katherine’s neighborhood.

Things get a little better when Evan meets a girl named Andrea who likes to do the kinds of things that he likes. One day Evan and Andrea are shopping in a shabby toy store where they purchase a can of a slimy substance called Monster Blood. It provide... Read More

Captive Wild Woman: Lions and tigers and Cheela … oh, my!

Captive Wild Woman directed by Edward Dmytryk

1942 had been a very good year for the Universal horror film, with the releases of The Ghost of Frankenstein, Invisible Agent, Night Monster and The Mummy’s Tomb, and as 1943 began, and America entered what was very possibly the bleakest year of the WW2 era, the studio continued to pump out scarifying entertainments for its audiences. In March of that year, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released; June saw the premiere of Captive Wild Woman, the first film in what would eventually be a trilogy; August saw the studio’s rendition of The Phantom of the Opera; October would witness the opening of Son of Dracula; and November would see the studio’s release of The Mad Ghoul. (December ’42, I might add, was also the month in which producer Val Lewton, at rival studio RKO, began to offer the public his own... Read More

The Outskirter’s Secret: An interesting book too long for its story

The Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein

The Outskirter’s Secret, Book Two in the STEERSWOMAN series by Rosemary Kirstein, was originally published in 1992. It was reissued, along with the other two books in the series, in 2014. This review may contain spoilers for The Steerswoman.

At the end of The Steerswoman, Steerswoman Rowan had made an intuitive leap about the nature of the Guidestars, celestial objects that fill the night sky in her world and are a point of amazing stability. Rowan not only figured out the origin of the objects, but conjectured that one had fallen, and that the wizards had something to do with it. As The Outskirter’s Secret opens, she an... Read More

The Screaming Skull: Portrait for Jenni

The Screaming Skull directed by Alex Nicol

It was at NYC’s revival theater extraordinaire Film Forum that I first got the chance to see the 1958 horror wonder known as The Screaming Skull. On that day, back in 1990 or so, the film was shown as part of a double feature, playing with another 1958 doozy, Earth vs. the Spider. And really, this was a most apropos pairing, as these two films, when first released in August ‘58, were indeed shown as a double feature. Somehow, though, the passing of three decades had sufficed to allow me to forget pretty much all the incidents in both films, and recent rewatches of the two have made me wonder how I could possibly have forgotten all the many fine qualities in them. (I really do need to start taking ginkgo biloba to improve my memory capacity!) But while Earth vs. the Spider continues to have many defenders today, despite its being a mere “B picture,” The Screaming Skull... Read More

Stay Out of the Basement: Creepy but annoying

Stay Out of the Basement by R.L. Stine

One of my kids loves Halloween – she starts celebrating in September – and, since she wanted to read some horror for children during October, we listened to a few of R.L. Stine’s GOOSEBUMPS books together. Each is a standalone short novel with a pretty hefty scare factor.

Stay Out of the Basement (1992) is the second novel in the series (which contains dozens of stories) and there’s no reason to read the first one first. It’s 144 pages long in print format and just over 2 ½ hours long in the scholastic audio version we listened to which is narrated by Elizabeth Morton.

Margaret and Casey’s father is a botanist who’s been fired from his university for some reason the kids don’t know. But that has not stopped his research program. Though, now that he ... Read More

The Giallo Films of Edwige Fenech

The Giallo Films of Edwige Fenech

Born on Christmas Eve 1948 in the town that is now known as Annaba, in coastal Algeria, the daughter of a Maltese father and a Sicilian mother, Edwige Fenech is today regarded as something of a cinematic legend in Europe, although she is still hardly a household word here in the United States. But thanks to the advent of the VHS and DVD revolutions, her popularity and fame have managed to spread even to these American shores. Today, Fenech wears no fewer than two impressive crowns, being known not only as The Queen of the Italian Sex Comedy, but also as The Queen of Giallo … that wonderfully distinctive Italian film genre featuring stylish and often grisly stories of murder, serial killings, and assorted violence and mayhem. But even those laurels hardly tell her whole story. During the 1980s, Edwige also became something of an Italian television personality, and later a film producer in her own right. And, of course, she must... Read More

The Many Deaths of Laila Starr: Contemplative comic on death and memory

The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V (writer) and Filipe Andrade (art)

I really like this comic book by Ram V and Filipe Andrade: It tells the story of a man who has to meet with the former Goddess of Death once every decade or so. When a baby, prophesized to one day create immortality, was born, Laila Starr lost her job as Goddess of Death. She is returned to earth in a mortal body of a woman who just died and seeks out the baby to kill it. But with the baby in her hands in the hospital nursery, she is unable to do the unspeakable. Pursued by police at the hospital, she makes her escape. At the end of issue one (of five), Laila dies for the first time.

The multiple lives of Laila and the baby—Darius—are intertwined in this story. We get the story of Darius as a twenty-year-old in issue three enjoying, first, being in love and then, suffering his first breakup. With issues four and five, we see him get older by many years, ... Read More

The House Where Nobody Lived: The kids learn some Hawaiian mythology

The House Where Nobody Lived by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The House Where Nobody Lived is the eleventh (and penultimate) novel in John Bellairs & Brad Strickland’s LEWIS BARNAVELT series. These are stand-alone horror mysteries for kids. I’ve been listening to Recorded Books’ audio versions with my daughter. We love George Guidall’s performance.

This story starts with a flashback to the beginning of the series when Lewis is 11 years old and it’s been just over a year since his parents died and he moved in with Uncle Jonathan. Lewis and his best friend, Rose Rita, are exploring New Zebedee, their hometown which is still new to Lewis, when they discover an odd-looking house that nobody lives in. They get scared off w... Read More

The Vampire: A novel kind of bloodsucker

The Vampire directed by Paul Landres

Fairly recently, I had some words to say about the excellent Mexican horror film The Vampire (or, as it was known upon release, El Vampiro), which came out in 1957 and starred Spanish actor German Robles as the Count Lavud, a bloodsucker in the very traditional, uh, vein. This South-of-the-border neck nosher, thus, could turn into a bat, cast no reflection in a mirror, could hypnotize his victims from afar, suffered from crucifixaphobia, spent the day sleeping in a coffin, and could only be killed by a stake through the heart. But that same year, in the U.S., another film entitled The Vampire would be released, telling of a very UNtraditional blood feeder with not a single one of the above-mentioned attributes. It is a film that I had long wanted to see, and a recent viewing has served to demonstrate to me what a really fine pi... Read More

Harlem Shuffle: Another twist from a master storyteller

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

One thing we can be sure to expect from Colson Whitehead is the unexpected. The double Pulitzer Prize winner shot to fame with the alternate history (and FanLit favourite) The Underground Railroad. He debuted with speculative fiction, later wrote a zombie novel, and his work now takes another twist: a heist novel, in the form of his latest release, Harlem Shuffle (2021).

The book follows Ray Carney, a furniture salesman in 1950s - 1960s Harlem. His wife, Elizabeth, is expecting their second child, so when Ray's cousin Freddie — ever the liability — comes to him with the proposition to rob the Hotel Theres... Read More

Gorgo: Mother and child reunion?

Gorgo directed by Eugene Lourie

Although the Russian-born French filmmaker Eugene Lourie has dozens and dozens of credits to his name as a production designer and art director, it is for the three “giant monster” films that he directed in the early ‘50s to early ‘60s that he is probably best remembered today. I have already written here about the first of that trio, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which, thanks largely to the incredible stop-motion special effects provided by Ray Harryhausen, remains to this day my favorite monster movie of all time, and one that I have watched on dozens of occasions. I have also written here of Lourie’s second dinosaur extravaganza, The Giant Behemoth (1959), which, even as a kid, I found to be second rate as compared to The Beast, featuri... Read More

The Whistle, the Grave, and the Ghost: Very scary but too similar to previous books

The Whistle, the Grave, and the Ghost by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

In the tenth installment in John Bellairs & Brad Strickland’s LEWIS BARNAVELT series, Lewis is camping with his fellow Scouts (who are bullying him, of course) when he finds an old whistle near a grave and puts it in his pocket. The whistle has a Latin encryption on it and, when he asks the priest at his church to help him with the translation, the priest (who Lewis isn’t particularly fond of), becomes suspicious and strangely interested in the whistle.

Lewis’s best friend Rose Rita is also interested, of course, so the two kids hit the library for some research. Their investigation takes them to the ghost stories of Read More