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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

And What Can We Offer You Tonight: Dreamlike, angry horror

And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed

Premee Mohamed’s novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight (2021) is set in a drowning city where human life is not cheap — it’s worthless. If starvation, violence or disease doesn’t kill you, probably one of the routine government “culls” will, unless you are one of the uber-wealthy, living elsewhere and treating the city like a personal playground/hunting-ground, or a person who services the very wealthy. This leads us to Jewel, our first-person narrator, a courtesan in an elite, exclusive and very expensive “house,” the House of Bicchieri.

Jewel gets a portion of every client’s payment, and a share of any tips; it seems like she would have enough money to escape the “gilded cage” in which she lives, if she wanted to, but the courtesans ... Read More

Bacchanal: Trapped souls, a dark carnival and a quest for belonging

Bacchanal by Veronica G. Henry

In the northern hemisphere, it’s heading for autumn, when nature slows and sleeps, when days get shorter, and tales get spookier. It’s the time of year for “dark carnival” tales, and Veronica G. Henry provides us with a new one, Bacchanal (2021), her debut novel.

In the late 1930s, The G.B Bacchanal Carnival makes the south-and-southwest circuit of the USA, and along the way they often pick up new acts. Clay, a red-haired white man from Chicago, is the “face” of the carnival, but all the acts are Black performers. Clay and his lieutenant, Jamey, a Black man born in the south, scout for talent. The people they hire are not your average performers; they all have a touch of magic. And Clay, for all his apparent authority, is not the boss of the operation. That position is held by a powerful African demon, Ahiku, who uses the carnival to search for (... Read More

Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution

Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution by Elsa Panciroli

Let’s face it. When it comes to discussion and portrayal of ancient/extinct life in modern culture, dinosaurs rule. They rumble, lumber, sprint, pounce, trumpet, and roar across our screens and pages, across bedspreads and pajamas. Their names trip merrily across the tongues of children as they reel off Latinate terminology and eras like an auctioneer at a livestock sale. The “Rex” in T-rex may as well refer to the King of the Lizard’s place in our collective minds as much to its role as an apex predator of its time.

Pity then the poor early mammals, who can’t help but be overshadowed (literally and figuratively) by their massive cousins. Well, no more. Paleontologist Elsa Panciroli speaks for the mammals! And luckily for us, she does so in fantastic fashion. In sharp, concise, vivid prose, she’s here to tell us to forget everything we... Read More

Eden: The mundane slowly morphs into the horrific

Eden by Cullen Bunn (writer), Dalibor Talajic (artist), Valentina Briski (colorist), and Marshall Dillon (letter)

Eden by Cullen Bunn and Dalibor Talajic is a fun, suspenseful comic book with a surprising, disturbing ending. Bunn quickly introduces the main characters and plot in the first four pages of this one-shot: Niles is a tattooist who has been mourning the loss of his wife and young child for a long time, we are led to believe, because when a beautiful and mysterious woman walks in, Niles’s friends and colleagues immediately start trying to set them up, showing that they believe Niles has been in mourning for too long of a time. The artist adds a serious touch to show Niles’s mourning: The names of Niles’s wife and child are tattooed across his arm.

The premise is that this mysterious woman comes in regularly without any tattoos, gets a new tattoo, and then comes back again without any tattoos. Niles is curious and w... Read More

Star Guard: Exciting and emotional

Star Guard by Andre Norton

Star Soldiers (2001 Baen Books, 2021 Tantor Media) contains the two related stand-alone stories Star Guard (1955) and Star Rangers (1953) which together are known as the CENTRAL CONTROL novels. I’m reviewing them separately since that’s how they were originally published. I’ve read more than 20 Andre Norton novels and these are some of my favorites. Like most of her work, they’ll be enjoyed most by teenagers, especially those new to science fiction.

In Star Guard we discover that the galaxy is policed by an organization called Central Control. Earth is part of the galactic league, but humans, who are uncivilized barbarians, are thought to be fit only for military service. Thus, they’re... Read More

Even and Odd: Fun and thought-provoking

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth Durst

Even and Odd are pre-teen sisters living in Stony Haven, Connecticut, where their parents operate a border shop carrying “supplies for the mundane world, as well as imports from the magic world — anything a magical customer might need for their visit here.” Those imports and magically-inclined customers come from the land of Firoth, where Even and Odd were born, and which is accessible via magic portals. The sisters trade off magical abilities on alternating days, leading to their nicknames, though each girl has different opinions on their access to magic: Even, more than anything in the world, wants to become an Academy of Magic-certified hero, while Odd wants to focus on her volunteer work at the local animal rescue center and pretend that she’s completely mundane (unless the opportunity arises to transform Even into a talking skunk, at which point all bets are off).

Much to everyone’s ... Read More

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space by Martin Elvis

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space (2021), by Martin Elvis, is a thorough and wonderfully detailed exploration not of asteroids as objects (which he does do to some extent), but of the possibility of our interacting with them in order to a) prevent them from killing us off as one did (maybe) to the dinosaurs, b) exploit them for resources, and c) use them as a stepping stone for further exploitation of space. If you thought the idea of asteroid mining belongs only in the realm of science fiction, Elvis will (probably) convince you otherwise.

Elvis opens up with the required concise overview of just what asteroids are: what their composition is, the different types, where they are found, etc. He then divides the book into three sections: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. Each broad cat... Read More

The Second Deluge: Rain, rain, go away….

The Second Deluge by Garrett P. Serviss

It is the Indian state of Meghalaya, just north of Bangladesh, the holds the record for being “The Wettest Spot on Earth,” getting, on average, a whopping total of 467” of rain a year. (Do bring an umbrella if you’re planning a visit!) But while this 38-foot tally, 13 times what Seattle might expect annually, is certainly impressive, it pales to insignificance compared to what descends from the heavens in Garrett P. Serviss’ 1911 novel The Second Deluge, in which, due to a cosmic mischance, no fewer than 30,000 feet of rain fall upon our fair planet in under one year … enough to effectively drown the entire world, past the tippy top of Mt. Everest itself! A wonderfully written novel that is fairly epic in scope, it is a sadly neglected apocalyptic work that is surely ripe for rediscovery in our modern-day era... Read More

The Midnight Bargain: A charming frolic of a book

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk 

By the bottom of the second full page of text, when the protagonist of The Midnight Bargain (2020) walked into Harriman’s Bookshop, I was hooked. When Beatrice Clayborn entered the second-hand shop and I saw it through her eyes, the book claimed me, not unlike the way a spirit might claim a sorceress in Beatrice’s magical world.

It’s bargaining season, or marriage season in Beatrice’s world, and young women of the upper classes, like Beatrice, jostle and compete for the hand of a suitable husband. Suitability is decided by their fathers, of course, and usually determined based on wealth, status and influence.

Beatrice loathes the bargaining season. She wants to study magic and become a full-blown Mage, a path closed to women, especially upper-class wome... Read More

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Vol. 2): Gods and Monsters: Abe confronts a teenager with second sight

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth (Vol. 2): Gods and Monsters by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (artist), Tyler Crook (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), Clem Robins (letterer).

This volume consists of two stories: “Gods” and “Monsters”. “Gods,” the primary story in this volume, introduces us to a great new character: Fenix, a sixteen-year-old girl who seems to be able to sense things before they happen. She is on the road as a runaway, but she befriends other teenagers on their own for various reasons. Given that she got them out of town before the last catastrophe hit, they trust her for her intuition to keep them ahead of impending doom, particularly in Houston, which was destroyed by a volcano. Fenix got her friends out of town at the last possible second.

Back at the base of operations for the B.P.R.D., Kate forces a sit-down conversation between Devon and Abe. Abe wants Devon fired because Devon has a... Read More

Project Hail Mary: Mixed opinions

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

It’s alarming to wake up from a coma in completely unfamiliar surroundings, tethered to a bed by tubes and electrodes, with a computer voice quizzing you and robotic arms controlling your movements. It’s even more disturbing when you realize that you have no recollection of your name or your past life, and that there are two long-dead bodies in the room with you.

But gradually, through a series of flashback memories, Ryland Grace remembers that Earth is facing an extinction event: a Russian scientist discovered that a strange line has developed between the sun and Venus, and it’s causing the sun to lose energy at a rate that’s high enough to cause a worldwide ice age in the next few decades. Grace, a disgraced molecular biologist who abandoned academia to teach middle school science, was one of the scientists investigating the un... Read More

Seven of Infinities: The intricate plot is the star of this tale

Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard

Vân opens the front door to her room to see that the avatar for the mindship The Wild Orchid in Sunless Woods is in the common access area used by Vân and her student, Uyên. Sunless Woods is there to tell Vân that the poetry club in which they are both members is considering ousting Vân on the grounds that she is “commonplace” and “vulgar,” limited by her birth into poverty rather than as a privileged member of the scholarly and wealthy class. It’s a judgment with which Sunless Woods does not agree, so she’s come to warn Vân.

Vân fears this action for several reasons: she’ll lose her job as a private teacher for the wealthy Uyên; but more than that, she risks exposure. For Vân has a mem-implant that is not only unconventional but illegal: a conglomeration of sharp minds and not an ancestor at all. But that problem quickly takes second place ... Read More

A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe

A Short History of Humanity by Johannesburg Krause & Thomas Trappe, translated by Caroline Waight

A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe (2021) is, as one might expect from the title, a surprisingly concise volume covering a lot of ground. It is also, thanks to the combined efforts of its co-authors — Johannesburg Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology; and Thomas Trappe, a science journalist — an authoritative, informative, accessible, and engaging work of non-fiction.

The focus of the book is archaeogenetics, a recent field that uses newly created technology and new discoveries to “decode ancient genomes, some of which are hundreds of thousands of years old … uncovering not only the genetic profiles of the dead, but also how their genes spread across Europe … [and] sift[ing] out DNA from bacteria that cause deadly disease.”

... Read More

The Fall of Koli: Plenty of surprises in this finale

The Fall of Koli by M.R. Carey

The Fall of Koli (2021) is the third and final novel in M.R. Carey’s RAMPART trilogy. The first book, The Book of Koli, was one of my favorite books of 2020. In my review I said it has “pretty much everything I want in a novel” – lovable characters, intriguing setting, captivating storytelling, and a great sense of humor.

The second book, The Trials of Koli, was entertaining but definitely felt like a middle book, so I was hoping for a return to form in the final book, The Fall of Koli... Read More

A Game of Fox & Squirrels: A moving allegory

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

11-year-old Samantha and her big sister have just arrived at their Aunt Vicky’s farm in Oregon. Samantha is not happy that the girls have been taken away from their parents and she wants to go home, even though her dad sometimes has a pretty bad temper. Aunt Vicky and her wife are clearly not prepared to take the girls in, but they do their best to make the sisters feel at home.

Aunt Vicky gives Samantha a game called The Game of Fox & Squirrels and one night, when Samantha is playing with it, the fox from the game visits her room. He’s charming and offers to give Samantha anything she wants if she can find the Golden Acorn. Samantha, who just wants to be back with her family in Los Angeles, is nervous about the challenge, but decides it’s the only way to get out of her current situation.

As Samantha attempts to complete her quest, various dangers arise ... Read More

Raybearer: Deserves its accolades

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Tarisai, who has the magical gift of being able to perceive the memories of objects and people, has always lived a sheltered life in her mother’s large house. She rarely sees her mysterious mother and is taken care of by unfriendly servants and tutors who are rigorously educating her for some unknown task. Lonely, Tarisai longs for companionship, travel, freedom, and a sense of purpose.

When she is 11 years old, without any explanation, Tarisai’s mother sends her to the capital to compete to be one of the crown prince’s 11 counselors. If she is chosen, she will live with the other young counselors and the Prince for the rest of her life, as they rule their country together through a magical bond called the Ray. However, Tarisai’s mother, who wants revenge for something the royal family did to her years ago, has placed a geas on Tarisai -- as soon as Tarisai is sworn in as one of the counselors, s... Read More

The Sunken World: An exciting first novel with some interesting points to make

The Sunken World by Stanton A. Coblentz

Ever since reading the truly beautiful and unforgettable fantasy When the Birds Fly South (1945) around 3 ½ years back, I have wanted to experience another book from the San Francisco-born novelist and poet Stanton A. Coblentz. Unfortunately, just as “Coblentz” is not exactly a household name these days, his books are hardly to be found at your local modern-day bookstores. Coming to my rescue once again, however, were the fine folks at Armchair Fiction, who currently have no fewer than five of the author’s titles in their very impressive catalog. Choosing at random, I opted for Coblentz’s very first piece of fiction, The Sunken World … and a very fortuitous choice it has ... Read More

A Deadly Education: Fantastic originality

Reposting to include John's new review.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I honestly had a very hard time with the beginning of Naomi Novik’s newest novel, A Deadly Education (2020). But based on my experience with her prior work, I kept going and though I don’t think this novel nears the strength of ones like Spinning Silver or Uprooted, I was happy I did.

El (short for Galadriel) Higgins is a student at the Scholomance, a sort of sentient, no-professors-here, boarding school for sorcerers. Students have various tracks of magic, the school presents them with lessons, supplies,... Read More

Fugitive Telemetry: Murder on the Preservation Express

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Martha Wells continues her popular and highly-acclaimed MURDERBOT DIARIES series with another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (2021), which actually takes place before the only novel in the series so far, Network Effect. (So you could read this one before that novel, but you do need to read books 1-4 first.) At this point in time Murderbot, the introverted and snarky cyborg who is the narrator and the heart of this series, is a fairly new resident on Preservation, a planet outside of the callously capitalistic Corporate Rim. Murderbot is a companion to and protector of Dr. Mensah, one of the few humans Murderbot has gradually learned to trust. Although Preservation society isn’t entirely accepting of s... Read More

The Forbidden Garden: Lucky 13

The Forbidden Garden by John Taine

Once again, it has been impressed upon me how very unfair the modern-day world of publishing has been to the Scottish-born author John Taine. Taine, whose career as a novelist extended from 1924 - ’54 – while at the same time that he plied his “day job” as a mathematician and professor under his given name, Eric Temple Bell – produced 14 works of fiction during that time, the bulk of which have been OOPs (out of prints) for many years. Some cases in point: His 1934 novel Before the Dawn, which I recently wrote of here, has not been reissued since 1975. His next two novels, Twelve Eighty-Seven (1935) and Tomorrow (1939), have never been reprinted since their initial pu... Read More

Rogue Protocol: Can humans and bots be friends?

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Martha Wells’ endearingly grumpy cyborg Security Unit Murderbot returns with a vengeance in Rogue Protocol (2018), the third novella in the MURDERBOT DIARIES series. In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot heads off to Milu, a deserted terraforming facility in space, to investigate the past of a murky group called GrayCris, which we originally met in the first book in this series, the Nebula award-winning All Systems Red. GrayCris appears to be intent on illegally collecting the extremely valuable remnants of alien civilizations. To all appearances Milu is an abandoned project of GrayCris, but Murderbot sus... Read More

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 14): King of Fear: The End of a Hellboy Universe Trilogy

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 14): King of Fear by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Guy Davis (art), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 14): King of Fear continues the story started in volumes 10: The Warning and 11: The Black Goddess, and since it is deep into the history of the Hellboy universe, this is not the place to start reading Hellboy or B.P.R.D. Instead, start with Hellboy volume one. These volumes do not read well out-of-order.

In King of Fear, the surprising return of Lobster Johnson at the end of volume 11 is explained: He has somehow taken over Johann’s form, and Johann seems to have vanished in his being replaced by the Lobster. Kate returns to Munich with Lobster Johnson in tow, and she meets up with her romantic interest, Bruno. Bruno and Kate go on a journey together in hopes that Lo... Read More

Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive

Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive by Carl Zimmer

In the past year alone, humans have landed multiple devices on Mars, retrieved samples from the Moon and not one but two asteroids, delved ever deeper into the Earth, and shattered records for the recovery of DNA from ever-older specimens. Meanwhile, plans are being hatched to zip a helicopter around Titan to examine its pools of liquid hydrocarbons, fly a probe through the geysers of Enceladus to collect samples, scoop surface ice off Europa, and use the next generation of space telescope to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets light-years away. All in the search for life.

Given all that time, effort, and money, one could be forgiven for assuming that we know what we’re looking for. But, as Carl Zimmer makes explicitly clear in his newest popular science work, Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive (2021), that’s ... Read More

One Day All This Will Be Yours: How I learned to love the time travel bomb

One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky

What’s a grumpy, misanthropic time traveling warrior to do? Governments and factions have misused time travel machines, each using their time machines to remake the past in the way they want it to be, over and over again. Time travel machines really are the ultimate weapon: if you go back far enough you can change history enough that your enemy never has a chance. Except that your enemy’s time traveling agents are cut off from those changes, so they’re still around to try to change history in a different way that favors them. And then there are Causality Bombs, “[f]or when regular time travel just can’t mess up continuity enough.” Now the past is irretrievably broken into shards and splinters.

So our surly main character, the last survivor of the time soldiers, has set himself up as a gatekeeper in a distant future to make sure it never happens again past hi... Read More