3.5

Click on stars to FIND REVIEWS BY RATING:
Recommended:
Not Recommended:

Understanding Genes: Might be tough reading for some, and too easy for others

Understanding Genes by Kostas Kampourakis 

Understanding Genes (2021), by Kostas Kampourakis, sits in a sometimes-awkward position betwixt and between a popular science book and a textbook. As such, lay readers looking for simple, smooth, easy-to-follow explanations may want to look elsewhere or be prepared to struggle and/or skim. Those with some background in biology (beyond their high school/early college courses) will fare better.

The intent of the book is a caution against genetic essentialism or fatalism and against the over-simplification, over-aggrandization, and over-simplification of the role genes play in human development generally, but especially (and mostly) with regard to disease. Here’s where the betwixt and between is a bit awkward, because while those who read about genetics only via the newspaper or online/TV news might be subjected to such ... Read More

The Girl and the Mountain:

The Girl and the Mountain by Mark Lawrence

The Girl and the Mountain (2021) is the second installment in Mark Lawrence’s BOOK OF THE ICE series. It follows The Girl and the Stars, which you need to read first. There will be a few spoilers for that book in this review.

The Girl and the Stars introduced an icy world inhabited by tribes that follow a spiritual leader who, every few years, chooses each tribes’ weakest children and throws them into a hole in the ice where they, presumably, die. But when our hero, Yaz, jumps in after her brother, she discovers a new world below the ice where the children who’ve been disposed of have built their own civilization. When she realizes that ... Read More

Scribe: Come for the bleakness, stay for the poetry

Scribe by Alyson Hagy

Alyson Hagy’s slim 2018 literary novella Scribe mines Appalachian folktales for a bleak, harrowing and poetic story about loss, guilt, love and honor. By deliberately setting the story in a world outside of our time and space, Hagy forces attention onto the characters, which at times gives the book the feel of a stage-play more than a story or a poem.

In spite of an otherworldly setting, this novel isn’t speculative fiction. Hagy isn’t raising questions about how people live in a world like this one. She’s exploring the effects of isolation, guilt and trauma against a folkloric setting, and asking, “In a terrible situation, how do we find the good in each other?”

In order to help set expectations, I will engage in a mild spoiler. In this world, there has been an historic civil war. There have, it seems, been several wars. There have been mi... Read More

The Green Man: Screwball sci-fi

The Green Man by Harold M. Sherman

A short while back, I had some words to say about Festus Pragnell’s 1935 novel The Green Man of Graypec, which had originally appeared in the pages of Wonder Stories magazine and had given us the tale of a green-furred caveman living in a subatomic world. Now I am here to report on another green man, but one of a wholly different nature; one who hails not from the infinitesimally small microverse, but rather from a planet over a trillion miles away. The book in question is fittingly called The Green Man, was released over a decade after Pragnell’s novel and is very much lighter in tone. Most importantly, though, the book has revealed itself to be a delight to... Read More

Along the Saltwise Sea: Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for a week

Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker 

In the 2020 portal fantasy Over the Woodward Wall, by A. Deborah Baker (a pseudonym for the prolific Seanan McGuire), two children, Avery and Zib, climbed a granite wall that had inexplicably appeared in the road and were transported to a magical world, the Up-and-Under. It’s much like the land of Oz but with far sharper teeth, and Avery and Zib are anxious to find their way home to our world. They are told to follow the improbable road to the Impossible City, and there ask the Queen of Wands for help getting home.

Following the im... Read More

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next by Jeanette Winterson

In 12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next (2021), Jeanette Winterson offers up a dozen essays on Artificial Intelligence divided into four sections: “How we got here” (a dip into the history of computing), “What’s Your Superpower” (a philosophical/religious change in vision of matter), “Sex and Other Stories” (AI’s potential impact on love and sex), and “The Future” (what will change and what might not with the advent of AI). The essays are generally interesting and well written; there’s really not a “bad” one in the bunch. They do, however, still range somewhat in impact; in her introduction Winterson notes her “aim is modest,” and some of the essays, admittedly, don’t exceed that relatively humble goal. Read More

Call of Fire: Searching for friends in the shadow of Mount Rainier

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Call of Fire by Beth Cato

Call of Fire (2017) continues the adventures of Ingrid Carmichael, introduced in Breath of Earth as a secretary at a geomancy school with tremendous hidden powers and who, in this second BLOOD OF EARTH novel, is on the run from an ambitious ambassador with deadly secrets. This time, Beth Cato takes Ingrid, Lee Fong, Cy Jennings, and the brilliant engineer Mr. Fenris up the Pacific Northwest coastline to Portland and Seattle, where the Japanese influence of the United Pacific conglomeration is inescapable.

Ambassador Blum, a mysterious woman who can change her physical form and practices a dark form of reiki, desperately wants to get her hands on Ingrid, which forebodes all kinds of suf... Read More

Nightshifted: Nurse Edie Spence’s first adventure

Nightshifted by Cassie Alexander

Edie Spence has a degree in nursing and a job at the County Hospital, in the Y4 ward. County Hospital, the public hospital that treats everyone, insured or not, is a tough gig at any time — Y4 is both tougher and weirder, being the floor that treats daylight servants of vampires, vampires themselves, shapeshifters, and all sorts of were-folk. Oh, and did I mention zombies? The work is hard and dangerous, the pay is abysmal, but by working here, Edie guarantees protection for her junkie brother.  As Nightshifted opens, Edie is consigning her decision to just one more in a long list of bad life choices.

Then a vampire patient dies, but not before giving Edie a puzzle, or perhaps placing her under a compulsion. When the night shift is over, Edie goes out searching for a person named Anna, the vampire’s dying request. She finds a dark apartment with a wall of pictures of ... Read More

Book of a Thousand Days: Two girls trapped in a tower

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

With Book of a Thousand Days (2007), Shannon Hale offers a delightful retelling of the Grimm fairy tale Maid Maleen.

Dashti is a mucker, a low-born girl who was born on the steppes. When her mother dies, she goes to the city to take a job as a maid to Lady Saren. Right away she is locked into a tower with her lady because, in defiance of her father’s wishes, Saren has refused to marry Lord Khasar. She says she plans to marry Lord Tegan instead. Dashti and Saren must stay in the tower until either Saren repents and agrees to marry Lord Khasar, or seven years have passed.

For Dashti, who narrates the story via diary entries, things aren’t so bad at first. There’s plenty of food, she gets to sleep by the fire, and she h... 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

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

The Steerswoman: The Steerswomen’s code of open information is refreshing

The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

Originally published in 1989, The Steerswoman, by Rosemary Kirstein, was reissued by the author in 2013, along with the rest of the four existing books in the STEERSWOMAN series. This first book introduces the world of steerswoman Rowan, and the order of steerswomen (and some men), who travel the world gathering and sharing information and knowledge. There is only one kind of knowledge steerswomen don’t have — magic.

When the book opens, Rowan has stopped at an inn to question the innkeeper about a strange stone she found years ago, inside the trunk of a tree she cut down. The rules of society are these: a steerswoman will answer any question you ask if she knows the answer, and any person must answer the questions asked by a steerswoman. The w... Read More

Dark Piper: Intense and memorable for young readers

Dark Piper by Andre Norton

A decade-long war is finally over and the people who live on the planet of Beltane are relieved. During the war, Beltane, where many scientists lived, was recruited for the war effort and served, unwillingly, as an experimental lab. After the war, most of the scientists left the planet, creating a brain drain, and the people who remained were pacifists who looked forward to starting a new way of life without interference from the Confederation.

When a disfigured veteran named Griss Lugard is brought back home to Beltane, he warns the citizens that because the Confederacy has fallen, there is no law, and they shouldn’t trust people who want to come to Beltane because they might have bad intentions. While the citizens of Beltane are eager to accept and shelter refugees fleeing war-ravaged worlds, Lugard vehemently objects, arguing that some of the refugees could be pirates looking for government and mili... Read More

Paper & Blood: Al and Buck go Down Under

Paper & Blood by Kevin Hearne

Paper & Blood is the second novel in Kevin Hearne’s INK & SIGIL series which is a spin-off of his very popular IRON DRUID CHRONICLES. In the first INK & SIGIL novel, Ink & Sigil, which you’ll want to read first (though Hearne thankfully gives us a “The Story So Far” summary – thank you!), we met Al MacBharrais, a sigil agent who uses ink and paper to create magic spells. We watched Al and some of his colorful colleagues solve a mystery and stop the trafficking of, and unethical experimentation on, fae creatures such as pixies.

In Paper & Blood, Al gets some bad news: some of his fellow sigil agents are ... Read More

The Monster of Piedras Blancas: A truly memorable monstrosity

The Monster of Piedras Blancas directed by Irvin Berwick

It is truly remarkable how a cinematic image can make a lasting imprint on a young and impressionable mind. Take, for example, the 3-year-old me, who witnessed, in a movie theatre, the image of a man falling on a dynamite plunger and causing a bridge to blow up, resulting in a devastating train wreck. It is an image that I have never forgotten, despite all these intervening decades; one of the final scenes, of course, from the great David Lean film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which I have since verified my folks did take me to see, although why my parents deemed a 2 ½-hour war movie appropriate fare for such a young child is another matter. Flash forward five years or so, and we have another lasting cinematic image from my childhood, this one of a bit more grisly nature: a hideous monster advancing toward the camera, clutching in its mitt the dangling head of its latest... Read More

The Original: A short SF thriller

The Original by Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal

Holly wakes up in the hospital. Her last memory is being at a party with Jonathan, her husband. The party was for a potter and she remembers being thrilled to actually be able to touch the clay – something real to feel and even deconstruct. She has no idea how she ended up in the hospital, and it takes a while to get some answers, but finally she learns that she has been cloned as a Provisional Replica because her real self (her Original) murdered her husband. She has four days to find her Original and bring it to justice.

Holly is confused because not only does she not remember killing her husband, but she loves him, they get along great, and the goriness of the murder doesn’t sound like her style. Yet, there is plenty of evidence that she is the culprit. As a provisional clone, Holly’s genes have been edited to give her the kinds of skills she needs to hunt down ... Read More

The Beast Under the Wizard’s Bridge: Lewis learns about H.P. Lovecraft

The Beast Under the Wizard's Bridge by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The Beast Under the Wizard's Bridge (2000) is the eighth novel in the LEWIS BARNAVELT series for middle graders which was started by John Bellairs in 1973 and finished up by Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ death in 1991. I’m listening, with my daughter, to the excellent audio editions by Recorded Books which are narrated by George Guidall.

Remember that scary car chase scene, I think it was in the first book The House with a Clock in its Walls, where Lewis, Rose Rita, Uncle Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman, were saved when they crossed a bridge tha... Read More

The Green Man of Graypec: Kastrove convertible

The Green Man of Graypec by Festus Pragnell

In his famous short story of 1858 entitled “The Diamond Lens,” Irish-American author Fitz-James O’Brien gave his readers a tale of a scientist who invents a new type of microscope and with it discovers a woman living in a droplet of water. This fascinating premise of humanoid life existing in a microscopic realm was later amplified by NYC-born author Ray Cummings, whose 1919 novella “The Girl in the Golden Atom” told of a chemist who’d discovered a beautiful female living in the subatomic world of his mother’s wedding ring (!), and later invented a miniaturization drug that enabled him to pay this woman a visit. Cummings’ novella was such a success that he came out with a sequel the following year, “People of the Golden Atom”; the two novellas would later be fixed up and combined to form the 1922 novel The Girl in the Golden Atom, which, like O’Brien’s ... Read More

Among Thieves: A fun, light read

Among Thieves by M.J. Kuhn


Among Thieves (2021), by M.J. Kuhn, is a sort of two-tier book for me. On the one hand, it’s a fast-paced heist novel that speeds along amiably, easily, and with some humor. On the other hand, it’s somewhat of a paint-by-number heist novel that doesn’t really add anything new to the genre and skimps a bit on characterization and world-building. If it’s your first experience with this type of story, or you’re a younger reader, and/or someone who prefers plot-driven rather than character-driven stories, then it’s probably in the 3.5-4.0-star range. If you’ve read similar works, though, or look for more substance and originality in your characters, it’s more likely a 3.0 or, if you’re grumpy that day, a 2.5.

Ryia Cautella, aka the Butcher of Carrowwick... Read More

My Heart is a Chainsaw: Jones nails the slasher-film tone perfectly

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

There is so much to like in Stephen Graham JonesMy Heart is a Chainsaw (2021): a can’t-help-but-root-for-her main character, a prom-worthy bucketload of slasher-film references, a wry and sometimes bitingly funny narrative voice, so many red herrings the reader’s gonna need a bigger boat, deftly handled themes exploring race, gentrification, class, parenting (familial and communal), and trauma, and a climax that contains more blood than you can hold in a bank of elevators. So much to like, in fact, that my only real criticism is that there’s too much here, leading to a book that despite its many positives unfortunately begins to feel it has, like Jason or Michael, overstayed its welcome.

Jade (real name Jennifer, but don’t ever call her that... Read More

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring: Rose Rita in the spotlight

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring (1976) is the third novel in John BellairsLEWIS BARNAVELT series for kids. Each is a stand-alone horror mystery. It’s not necessary to read them in order but it’d be ideal, if you can, to start with the first book, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, because that’s the one in which we watch Lewis, recently orphaned, come to live in the house of his uncle, a jovial man who’s a bit of a magician. In the second book, The Figure in the Shadows, you’ll meet Rose Rita, a tomboy who’s Lewis’... Read More

The Desert Prince: The next generation of THE DEMON CYCLE

The Desert Prince by Peter V. Brett

The Desert Prince is the newest installment in Peter V. Brett’s fantasy universe where humans have been battling demons for ages. The prior series (THE DEMON CYCLE) ended mostly in seeming victory for the good guys (the humans), but as is often the case in these sorts of stories, victory only lasts until the next trilogy. This new series picks up about fifteen years later, and while some characters return from the prior series, the focus here is on their children as they battle with an old demonic evil risen anew, humans who can be just as monstrous, the strictures of a too-rigid society, and their own inner conflicts.

The two first-person POV protagonists are Olive Jardir and Darin Bales, children respectively of Ahman Jardir and Arlen Bales (“The Deliverer”), the two larg... Read More

Fury of a Demon: Enjoyable, engaging, and entertaining (but…)

Fury of a Demon by Brian Naslund

I admitted back when I reviewed Brian Naslund’s Blood of an Exile that I had resisted the book sitting on my shelf and picked it up somewhat grudgingly, expecting yet “another fantasy about a roguish-yet-likable gritty swordsman and his band of gritty companions battling the odds to save their gritty world.” Which, as I noted then, wasn’t so far off in terms of plot, but which in more important ways didn’t come near being accurate, thanks to Naslund’s sharply executed characterization and world-building, an ecological theme that added appreciated depth, and a wonderfully cheeky style, traits that all continued on into the sequel S... Read More

Sea Siege: An unusual story for Norton

Sea Siege by Andre Norton

In the mid-20th century, Griffith lives in the West Indies with his father, a famous scientist who studies marine biology. Griffith, who helps his father with his research, thinks the work is pretty boring. He hopes to go back to America soon to attend the Air Force Academy.

Griff suddenly becomes more interested in his father’s work when something in the sea starts attacking ships near the island he lives on. Some people think it’s a dupee, others think it’s a Russian submarine. When a large radioactive sea creature washes up on shore, the octopi begin acting weird, and the American Navy arrives to build a facility they aren’t allowed to talk about, the islanders become worried. Not only are they concerned about the environmental effects on the reef, but they are also nervous about their island being caught in the middle of a Cold War that seems t... Read More

The House with a Clock in Its Walls: Lewis is an appealing hero

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

Lewis Barnavelt is a chubby middle schooler whose parents recently died in a car accident. He has just arrived in a new town at the house (mansion, actually) of an uncle he hardly knows. Uncle Jonathan is eccentric, as is his neighbor and best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, a middle-aged widow who loves the color purple.

As Lewis begins to adjust to a new living situation, new school, and new neighborhood kids, he gradually becomes aware that there’s something weird about Uncle Jonathan and his house. It turns out that Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman aren’t just eccentric – they are magicians. Uncle Jonathan’s main skill is to create benign entertaining illusions. Mrs. Zimmerman might be more powerful, but it’s not yet clear what exactly these powers might be.

The mansion used to be inhabited by an evil magician. That guy’s now dead, but he left a clock tic... Read More