We Love This!

Here are some things we really love. We hope you’ll love them, too!

A Psalm for the Wild-Built: Tea and empathy

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambersfirst novella in the MONK AND ROBOT series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021), is a lovely and optimistic tale of a tea monk who, while seeking an answer to the question of “What am I looking for?” meets a robot looking for an answer to the question of “What do you need, and how can I help?” More generally, the robot is trying to answer the question of what all people need, but upon the moon of Panga (or anywhere you might find humans, truthfully), that’s not exactly a simple question to answer.

Sibling Dex, the tea monk, is an acolyte of Allalae (God of Small Comforts, represented as a bear), one of the six gods of Panga. Dex has been a tea monk for only a few years, having left Panga’s only City in searc... Read More

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (2020), by Merlin Sheldrake, is an always informative and often fascinating look at the (mostly) hidden world of fungi. There’s a lot more to them than those shitakes you’re adding to your stir-fry and Sheldrake makes for an enthusiastic tour guide to all that lies beyond the edible mushroom (though he touches on those too).

Sheldrake begins with truffles (he goes on a truffle hunt with a couple of dogs and their trainer) and uses this early part to introduce us to the basics of fungal life and their development on Earth. Like the entirety of the book, this section is filled with choice details (a 2 to 8000-yr-old fungus in Oregon taking up ten square k... Read More

The Rock Eaters: Strongest story collection I’ve read in some time

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado

It has been quite a while since I’ve read a collection of short stories that so completely and consistently won me over. I’m typically satisfied if roughly half the stories in a collection work for me and thrilled if three-quarters do. But Brenda Peynado hit it out of the ballpark with The Rock Eaters, with stories that range almost entirely from good (a few) to excellent (most) to wonderfully, lingeringly strange and powerful (many). It’s easily the best story collection I’ve read in years, a must-read mix of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, fabulist fiction, horror, and even a realistic story in there, with all the inherent blurring of genre lines those arbitrary categories convey. Think of a George Saunders or Kelly Link type of story, though Peynado is absolutely her own writer; there is nothing derivative here.

The book’s strengths are both plenti... Read More

Theodore Savage: An absolutely splendid post-apocalyptic work

Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton

By the time WW1 ended in 1918, London-born Cicely Hamilton had already earned a name for herself as an advocate for both women’s rights and marriage equality. As one of Britain’s most vocal suffragettes, she’d campaigned for the right of women to vote; as a renowned playwright, she’d written socially biting works for the stage, and indeed, her suffrage dramas How the Vote Was Won (1909) and A Pageant of Great Women (1910) were both highly successful. But during the Great War, Hamilton also served in France, both in a nursing unit and in a revue for the entertainment of the troops, and her wartime experiences soon resulted in her penning her one and only science fiction novel, entitled Theodore Savage.

A wonderfully well written and emotionally affectin... Read More

The Chosen and the Beautiful: A five-star book I will read again

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

What if Jay Gatsby literally sold his soul to a demon, in order to woo and win the love of Daisy Buchanan? With that one question, Nghi Vo ushers us into a strange, familiar, wonderful and terrifying world with her first full-length novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful (2021).

In a 1920s USA where magic is common and ghosts walk side by side with people, Vo introduces us to Jordan Baker, bosom friend of Daisy Fay Buchanan. Through Jordan’s eyes we see the story of Gatsby, a man doomed to destruction by his love for Daisy, from a different angle. Unlike the expository Jordan Baker character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, this Jordan, while she was raised wealthy and inherited money, is an outsider and always will be. She was adopted by the Bakers, from the country of T... Read More

The Album of Dr. Moreau: I stayed up too late to finish it

The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory

It’s 2001, and Luce Delgado, homicide detective for the Las Vegas PD, has come to a casino on the strip to deal with a celebrity murder. Dead, “Dr. M,” manager of the hottest boy-band act on the planet, the WyldBoyZ. Suspects? There are plenty, but her top five are the brilliantly harmonizing human/other-mammalian hybrid band members, the Boyz themselves. The challenge? A locked room on the fifty-sixth floor of the casino hotel.

Almost equally important to Luce is her attempt to keep from breaking the heart of the WyldBoyZ’s number one fan — Luce’s nine-year-old daughter Melanie.

Published in 2021, Daryl Gregory’s latest novella, The Album of Dr. Moreau, is a locked room mystery that pokes fun at mysteries, at fans, at boy bands and at Read More

The Crossroads at Midnight: An excellent collection of five horror stories

The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard (words & art)

In this wonderfully disturbing collection of five short horror stories in a 340-page book, Abby Howard takes us on five very different journeys. The Crossroads at Midnight is a near-perfect collection of tales, with flowing artwork that makes the horrific quite surprising when it makes its appearance. In the first story, “The Girl In the Fields,” we meet a teenager — about fifteen-years-old — who is misunderstood by their parents. They call their daughter by their given name — Francine. However, Francine insists on being called Frankie. Her less-than-progressive parents seem to be always ready to pick a fight with Frankie, and they are so intrusive as to read private information off of Frankie’s computer. Frankie does not back down from these fights, but does retreat to the backyard to lean against the fence crying. She is interrupted by a kind voic... Read More

Klara and the Sun: An understated masterpiece

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun (2021) is the newest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the best description I can think of it is that it’s the newest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. In other words, it’s very “Ishiguro”-like in its themes, its voice, its prose style and will call up memories of earlier works such as Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, which I consider high praise indeed.

The setting is a near-future where most children are “lifted” (genetically enhanced for intelligence) and do all of their schooling at home. Their social life, as it exists, consists of “interaction parties” and AF’s, or Artificial Friends. Klara, our narrator, is one such ... Read More

Oddity: In a folkloric USA, a brave girl fights magic with magic

Oddity by Eli Brown

2021’s Oddity is a wonderful middle-grade adventure, with a valiant and compassionate young heroine, a beguiling take on alternate early-USA history, and a plethora of action and magic. Adults who read it with younger readers might discover it sparks a serious conversation about loyalty, values, and how we decide what’s right and what’s not.

Karin Rytter’s illustrations, which look like woodcuts, enhance the reading experience. So does the tone Brown employs, which reminded me a little of some of Philip Pullman’s middle-grade books, like The Ruby in the Smoke and The Tin Princess. Brown captures the nuance of a folktale while still giving us living, breathing people we care about. Some of those people are other than human.

Clover Cons... Read More

The Twilight Zone: One of the finest anthology series of all time

The Twilight Zone created by Rod Serling

Viewers who tuned in to CBS at 10 PM on October 2, 1959, a Friday, to try out the brand-new show with the unusual title The Twilight Zone could have had little idea that the program they were about to watch would soon develop into one of the legendary glories of 1960s television. Today, of course, The Twilight Zone needs no introduction. For most of us — at least, for those of us younger than 65 years old — it is a show that has always been with us, and one that has been in constant rotation on cable TV. The very name of the program has entered into the everyday lexicon of the average man on the street, supplanting the dictionary definition of “twilight zone” as “a narrow zone in which a pilot flying at the edge of the on-course radio beam can detect both the on-course and off-course signals.” For most of us now, thanks to the ageless power of this program, the “twilight zone” re... Read More

Artificial Condition: Murderbot’s search for answers

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

The illicit adventures of Murderbot continue in Artificial Condition (2018), the terrific sequel to Martha Wells’ 2017 Nebula award-winning novella, All Systems Red. Murderbot, a deeply introverted cyborg security unit, or SecUnit, who previously hacked the governor software that forced obedience to human commands, has illegally gone off the grid, eschewing the safety of a mostly-free life with a sympathetic owner in order to travel on its own. Disguising itself as an augmented human, Murderbot takes off for the mining facility space station where, it understands, it once murdered a group of humans that it was charged with protectin... Read More

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves by Arik Kershenbaum

Usually, when one thinks about “universal laws,” the first disciplines that come to mind are mathematics and physics. Pi, or the law of gravity, for instance. But in The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves, Arik Kershenbaum makes the case for “universal laws of biology.” And then further argues that said laws, which we can formulate based on our experiences and observations here on Earth, can be extrapolated to consideration of just what sort of alien life we may encounter out there in the vast reaches of the universe. And methodical and logical as Kershenbaum is in making his case, he never loses touch with the sheer wonder at its core, making for an utterly enjoyable and absorbing read.

At the center of Kershenbaum’s c... Read More

Transgressions of Power: The stakes are higher than ever

Transgressions of Power by Juliette Wade

With the second book of THE BROKEN TRUST series, Juliette Wade widens her world for the readers, and manages to place her characters in even greater danger than they were at the end of Mazes of Power, the first one. This review of Transgressions of Power (2021) may contain mild spoilers for book one. In any event, you must read Mazes of Power first if you really want to understand what’s happening here.

Transgressions of Power starts about thirteen years after the end of book one. Adon is the last child of First Family heads Garr and Tamalera (although Garr died shortly before Adon was born.) Adon, at thirtee... Read More

Soulstar: The culmination is chilling and triumphant

Soulstar by C.L. Polk 

“The knock came an hour after we had put up the stormboards and battened down to wait it out.”

With her opening sentence, C.L. Polk starts the action of Soulstar (2021), book three in her KINGSTON CYCLE. And the action rolls on through the first chapter at a breathless pace, with changes that push Robin Thorpe of the Clan of the Peaceful Waters into the spotlight, as she becomes a leader for societal change, and the target of both character assassination and actual attempts on her life.

This review may contain spoilers for Witchmark and Stormsong. I strongly urge... Read More

The Planetbreaker’s Son: Excellent introduction to this multi-faceted writer

The Planetbreaker’s Son by Nick Mamatas

PM Press’s Outspoken Authors imprint published The Planetbreaker’s Son (2021) by Nick Mamatas. The slim book includes the titular novella, the SF story “Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring,” a personal essay called “The Term Paper Artist,” and an interview with Mamatas hosted by Terry Bisson.

Honestly, the quirky interview with these two guys was worth the price of the book for me.

In a brief statement at the beginning of “Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring,” Mamatas thanks Jeffrey Thomas for an invitation to write in Thomas’s shared-world “Punktown” setting. (The story was originally published in 2018, in the anthology Transmissions from Punktown.) Punktown is a science-fictional megalopolis, filled ... Read More

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Compelling, twisty, sneaky

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Debut author Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), originally published earlier this year in Great Britain as The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is an intricately plotted murder mystery, set in an isolated early 20th century English mansion, with a highly imaginative speculative element that is only gradually revealed, as our main character tries to figure out who he really is, and how to solve the mystery of Evelyn Hardcastle’s pending death … or has her death already occurred?

The plot and setting are worthy of Agatha Christie: Lord and Lady Hardcastle have invited a number of guests to their British country mansion, Blackheath House, for a weekend party to celebrate the return of their daughter, Evelyn, from Paris. (The notable guests... Read More

Today I Am Carey: Smart, thoughtful, and touching

Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker

Carey is a robot whose job is to provide health care and companionship for humans, especially for elderly people with dementia. Carey is equipped with an “empathy net” which allows him to understand the feelings of the people he cares for, and an “emulation net” which lets him change his appearance, voice, and mannerisms so he can pretend to be someone else. The purpose is to help ease the anxieties of patients with dementia.

When we first meet Carey, he is the caretaker for an elderly woman named Mildred. Her husband is dead and her children and grandchildren, who have jobs and school, can’t be with her all day. When Mildred gets confused and thinks she’s talking to one of them, Carey can morph into a fairly accurate simulation so that he can soothe her better than any other hired caretaker could.

Unexpectedly, Carey has become conscious, something he wonders abou... Read More

The Fugitive: One of the finest dramas of all time

The Fugitive

Viewers who tuned in to ABC at 10 PM on Sept. 17, 1963, a Tuesday, to try out the brand-new show entitled The Fugitive could have no idea that the program they were about to watch would soon develop into one of the true glories of 1960s television. Today, of course, The Fugitive needs no introduction, and you hardly need me to tell you of what a quality and timeless entertainment it remains to this day. Its story line has since become something of a classic, and you would need to have been living in a cave for the past half century not to be familiar with it. The program has since been transformed into a megahit 1993 film starring Harrison Ford, been reimagined into several more television programs, and been the subject of at least a half a dozen books, several conventions, and a lively Facebook fan page. Even those who have never seen or read any of the above probably know, merely by cultural osmosis, that the original TV program,... Read More

The Mask of Mirrors: Does just what you want a first novel in a series to do

The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick

As a reader, it’s rare for me to find a book that has nearly every trope I love. The Mask of Mirrors (2021), Book One of M.A. Carrick’s ROOK AND ROSE series, manages just that. Reading the Advance Reader Copy of this book was like nibbling my way through a box of gourmet chocolates curated just for Reader Me. A large box of gourmet chocolates.

And what are those favorite tropes? Well, con artists, secret identities, false identities, masked outlaws who fight for the common people, dangerously suave criminals, sword fights, dramas of manners, verbal duels, physical duels, intriguing magic, family secrets, cool clothes, masks of course, and, yes, chocolate. I was going to say, “there were no magic books,” but I’m revising that — there are divination cards that function much the way a good magical book does.
Read More

Piranesi: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable” indeed

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was going to start this review of Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke by stating that I was of two minds on the novel and then noting that this was both appropriate and also strong praise. Appropriate because the book is in many ways of the mind, and is as well of two worlds. Strong praise because my two minds were “I loved it” followed by “I liked it.” But then I thought more about it, and I decided my minds were really “I loved it,” “I liked it,” then “I loved it” again. But I could work with that, because really, the book functions on more than two levels. But then I thought about my reading some more, and I decided that my mind now was simply, singularly, “it’s brilliant.” Which is still, granted, strong praise, but no long... Read More

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

If your view of a Neanderthal is a sloped-head, grunting, not-so-bright guy hunched against blowing snow while he tracks a mammoth, unaware of his impending extinction and eventual supplantation by his far-smarter and much smugger cousins (that would be us), it’s time to update that image. And archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has just the method of doing so: her fascinating, detailed, and vivid recreation of our ancestor: Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art (2020).

For the longest time Neanderthals were seen as a failed species: brutish, dull, dumb, mute, violent creatures just a step above gorillas. That view started to change somewhat about twenty years thanks to new discoveries and some new methodology. But as Sykes does an excellent job showing, newer technologies have exploded our concepts of just who Neanderthals w... Read More

The Hollow Places: I read it in one sitting because I was afraid to put it down

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

 … and we watched the willow branches bow outward from the passing, and it was invisible except that invisible was not the right word, because its not-there-ness hung in the air like an afterimage.

The Hollow Places (2020), by T. Kingfisher, reminded me a lot of the other folk-horror novel of hers I read recently, The Twisted Ones. Both take place in or close to small southern towns, both have alternate realities, protagonists coming to town to help a relative, and discovered manuscripts. Both were inspired by earlier works of horror or Weird. (This one was inspired by “The Willows” by Algernon Blackw... Read More

Network Effect: Complex connections

Network Effect by Martha Wells

Martha Wells’ Murderbot has been gathering enthusiastic fans (which would be certain to have Murderbot hiding behind its opaque armored faceplate), along with multiple Nebula, Hugo and other awards and nominations, as each of the first four novellas in the MURDERBOT DIARIES series has been published over the last three years. In Network Effect (2020), the first full-length novel in this series, Wells is able to explore a more complex plot and to more fully develop Murderbot’s character and its relationships with others.

Murderbot is now with Dr. Mensah and the other Preservation Station characters who Murderbot was protecting in the first book, All Systems Red, and the fourth, Read More

The Trouble With Peace: A fabulous sequel

The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie

To my surprise and delight, Joe Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred, the first book in his THE AGE OF MADNESS series, was one of the best books I read last year. As I said in my review, “it’s got everything I’m looking for in a fantasy novel,” including a large cast of interesting and multi-faceted characters, a fascinating setting (a world on the brink of an industrial revolution), and an exciting, often brutal, plot. This review will have spoilers for A Little Hatred.

I’m happy to report that the sequel, The Trouble With Peace (2020), is another winner. ... Read More

The Once and Future Witches: Rage, beauty, and sisterhood

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Our Daddy never taught us shit, except what a fox teaches chickens — how to run, how to tremble, how to outlive the bastard — and our mama died before she could teach us much of anything. But we had Mama Mags, our mother’s mother, and she didn’t fool around with soup-pots and flowers.

Once upon a time there were three sisters, in a world where women’s magic was outlawed and driven underground. They had to battle an evil man and rediscover their own power, but each was filled with so much rage, pain and loss, that seemed impossible.

2020’s The Once and Future Witches is Alix E. Harrow’s sophomore novel. Harrow excels at so much here. The book is angrier than Read More