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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

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human by Jeremy DeSilva

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human (2021), by Jeremy DeSilva, is an eminently readable non-fiction work. I read through it in as single sitting, propelled forward by DeSilva’s prose and enthusiasm, and I was captivated throughout, as well as ending up much better informed about our species’ evolution and bipedalism (along with learning why I’ve ended up with so many sprained ankles, inflamed Achilles, bad knees, and a bad back).

DeSilva is a paleoanthropologist, but more than that, he’s an expert in the foot. More than that, he’s an expert on the ankle. If that sounds an absurdly narrow focus, I’ll let him explain it:
We are trained this way [hyper specialization] because paleoanthropology is a science of fragments. In six weeks at a fossil site, we may find a couple of hominin teeth, and if we are lucky, a hom... Read More

B.P.R.D.: 1948: A Great Follow-Up to 1947

B.P.R.D.: 1948 by Mike Mignola (writer), John Arcudi (writer), Max Fiumara (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), and Clem Robins (letterer)

This is another early B.P.R.D. story, this one taking place in 1948. The B.P.R.D. headquarters have been moved from New Mexico to New England. The professor is still magically visited in his office by Varvara, the little Russian girl who oversees the supernatural branch of the Russian government. She is always written well by Mignola, who is accompanied by Arcudi on writing duties this time. And I particularly like it when she tells the professor that he is a “strange little moth. . . . You can’t find enough flames to burn your wings on, so you light your own.” This line captures well the uncanny insight of the young girl who is wise beyond her apparent years.

The professor and the B.P.R.D. are called to a science facility in Utah when scientists start getting killed by a giant bird-like cr... 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

Hilda and the Black Hound: A slightly scarier adventure for our Hilda

Hilda and the Black Hound by Luke Pearson

The fourth book in the HILDA series by Luke Pearson sees our little blue-haired adventurer grappling with two brand new mysteries. Taking place in a Scandinavian-inspired setting filled with all sorts of mythological creatures, Hilda and her mother have recently moved to the city after their log-cabin was destroyed — and Hilda is finding it a bit difficult to adjust.

Her mother suggests she join the Sparrow Scouts, something she was involved with as a little girl, which will give Hilda the opportunity to once again enjoy the outdoors. Immediately struck by the idea of collecting badges, Hilda embraces the club and its motto: to be a friend to all people, animals and spirits.

It’s for this reason she’s confused when her mother refuses to let he... Read More

Hilda and the Bird Parade: Hilda’s adventures continue

Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson

The third book in the HILDA series by Luke Pearson sees our blue-haired adventurer in quite different surroundings. After the events of Hilda and the Midnight Giant, Hilda and her mother have moved to the city, far away from the open spaces of the countryside and the multitude of magical creatures that live there.

Still, Hilda is trying to make the best of it, even if her mother is far more nervous about her roaming the city by herself than she was the country. But when some friends from school unexpectedly turn up at her door, Hilda is allowed to accompany them as they show her the sights of the neighbourhood.

Pearson writes with nuance: y... Read More

Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe

Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe by Paul Sen

At some point in your schooling you learned the Laws of Thermodynamics. And then, at some point shortly thereafter (or at least, shortly after the test on them), you promptly forgot them. And even if you later in life you kept up with reading about science, well, there was always something sexier to read about: black holes, new particles, rovers zipping around on Mars. But in Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe (2021), Paul Sen is here to argue thermodynamics deserves both your attention and your respect, seeing as how it lies at the foundation of just about all our technological advancement. And darn if he doesn’t make the case.

On the one hand, the Laws (Sen really focuses mainly on the first two), are pretty simple to formulate: energy can neve... 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

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 13): 1947: Vampires in the early B.P.R.D. days

B.P.R.D. (Vol. 13): 1947 by Mike Mignola (writer), Joshua Dysart (writer), Gabriel Ba (artist), Fabio Moon (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), and Clem Robins (letterer)

In B.P.R.D. (Vol. 13): 1947, at an air force base in New Mexico, the Russian Varvara, a little girl, is able to mysteriously appear to the professor late at night in his study. She questions why he has not revealed to Hellboy the larger mysteries surrounding him, but the professor says it is too early. And at that moment, Hellboy comes in, Varvara disappears, and we realize just how young Helloby really is: He certainly is too young to understand the enormous forces that want to use him for their own purposes. The professor then walks the young Hellboy off to get a glass of milk before going back to sleep. It’s 1947, and Hellboy is not old enough to go into the field. This story, after all, is about early B.P.R.D. days.

The professor is ... 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

Head Lopper (Vol. 1): The Island or a Plague of Beasts: Don’t miss this adventure series!

Head Lopper (Vol. 1): The Island or a Plague of Beasts by Andrew MacLean



Head Lopper (2016) by Andrew MacLean is about a master swordsman and his journeys. By his side is his trusty sword and his less trusty head in a sack. The head belongs to Agatha, the Blue Witch, and though we know the Head Lopper, Norgal, is the one responsible for cutting off her head, we do not know for what purpose he carries her head with him wherever he goes. But a lot of the fun and humor of the comic comes from the dialogue between Norgal and Agatha. Norgal is reticent to speak most the time, and Agatha just won’t keep quiet, so it is an interesting dynamic that exists between the two.

When the comic opens, we are witness to Norgal in action: Coming into Castlebay by boat, Norgal comes aboard just as the boat comes into the bay and is attacked by a giant monster, which Head Lopper dispatches in a fairly grote... 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

Abe Sapien (Vol. 1): The Drowning: Abe Sapien disturbs a shipwreck

Abe Sapien (Vol. 1): The Drowning by Mike Mignola (writer), Jason Shawn Alexander (artist), Dave Stewart (colors), and Clem Robins (letters)

The Abe Sapien series is nine volumes long, and it is an essential part of the Hellboy canon. The series is as good as the Hellboy series and should not be missed by any fans of Mignola’s Hellboy universe. Abe Sapien: The Drowning starts off mysteriously in 1884 as a man boards a ship from a Victorian steampunk-like blimp and begins shooting men with writing on their chests. The action is accompanied only by the words of “You Gentlemen of England” by Martin Parks. It is a fantastic, haunting, opening sequence. The man, we soon find out, is Sir Edward Grey, British occult detective and special agent to Queen Victoria (Mignola has written a series about Sir Edward Grey). Grey, unfortunately, goes down with t... 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

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

Sea Change: Thought-provoking and compelling

Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Ever read a book and immediately wish that you’d been able to read it in school, rather than [insert inaccessible book of choice]? For me, Nancy Kress’s 2020 novella Sea Change, with its gutsy-yet-conflicted heroine and all-too-real near-future global catastrophes, is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d been handed way back when.

Renata Black is a lawyer, handling cases for citizens of the Quinault Nation in the Pacific Northwest. She’s cultivated friendships among them, especially in the wake of the Catastrophe of 2022, in which a biopharmed drug caused agricultural collapse across the planet, destroyed the global economy, and brought personal devastation to Renata’s family. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were banned in the aftermath of the Catastrophe, but there are under... Read More

Troubled Blood: The best addition to the series yet

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

There are two ways this review could go: either the controversy surrounding Troubled Blood (2020) and the internet backlash against J.K. Rowling for casting one of the main suspects as a cross-dresser could be ignored, or the entire review could be hinged upon it. It would be disingenuous to do the former and reductive to do the latter, so let's leave it at this: if readers want the down-low on the dispute, Google it (and there's plenty of content out there). The rest of this review will centre solely on the merits of the story, of which there are ample.

Detective Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacot are back, and not without a little personal baggage. Strike's aunt is dying, and he finds himself increasingly needed in Cornwall where she lives, putting pressu... Read More