2014


Sleep Donation: A strange and thought-provoking tale

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

In the near future, an insomnia epidemic has struck the United States. It’s caused by a dysfunction in orexin and those who acquire it can’t sleep. Eventually, they die. But there is a therapy that can help prolong life and, in some cases, even cure people. Donors can contribute sleep to those afflicted with the disorder. Babies make the best donors because their sleep isn’t contaminated by nightmares.

Trish is the top recruiter for a charity organization that finds sleep donors. Her sister died from the disorder and, when she tearfully tells the story to potential donors, she can get many of them to sign up. When she discovers a baby who turns out to be a rare universal sleep donor, Trish works with the baby’s parents to keep them on... Read More

Watermark: Mythic fiction with lush prose

Watermark by E. Catherine Tobler

Watermark (2014), by E. Catherine Tobler, is the story of Pip, a kelpie who is cast out of the Otherworld of the fae and into the human realm. Before that, she was being held in a tower in iron chains. She remembers very little before that; she doesn’t know what she was being punished for, or why she now finds herself in the town of Peak, Colorado, or why there was a dead girl lying next to her when she got there.

I first tried to read Watermark a few years ago and had trouble getting into it. I recently decided to give it another shot and … yet again had trouble getting into it. The early chapters of the book are confusing and sometimes frustrating, as Pip doesn’t know what’s going on and no one else will tell her either. The story moves quickly ... Read More

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club: Twelve dancing princesses meet the Roaring Twenties

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

As far as fairy tale retellings go, mingling the tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses with the 1920's New York speakeasies makes a lovely kind of sense. The prohibition, the dance halls, the high society – it all fits perfectly with the story of twelve princesses who sneak out of their rooms every night, much to the bewilderment of their father when he sees their worn-out shoes every morning.

Genevieve Valentine transports the familiar beats of the story to a Fifth Avenue townhouse in the Roaring Twenties, in which the daughters of wealthy magnate Joseph Hamilton are kept in captivity, seen by no one but themselves. He was eager for a son of course, but his wife died after twelve girls (including two sets of twins).

This leaves Josephine, the firstborn, a... Read More

The Woods (Volumes 1-9): A wonderfully bizarre tale

The Woods (Volumes 1-9) by James Tynion IV is a science fiction coming-of-age story that tells a wonderfully bizarre tale across thirty-six issues (four issues per volume). A school in our world gets transported to another planet or dimension, we’re not sure which. We also do not know who is behind this event or what their reasons are. This comic book series is as much an adventure story as it is coming-of-age, and even though adults — teachers and administration — get transported along with the kids, it is a group of high school students who take the lead, venturing away from the seeming safety of the school out into the unknown of The Woods.

At first, the adults try to take charge, and the initial conflict is between adults and students, but as our main group heads out into the woods, escaping from adult supervision, we get to watch over a period of a few years as these teenagers grow into young men and women, battling both real monsters... Read More

Marcher: Possesses bite and purpose

Marcher by Chris Beckett

In 2008, Chris Beckett published the novel Marcher to little acclaim. A later release, Dark Eden (2012) met a much better response (it was nominated for the BSFA and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award), and Beckett decided to thoroughly revise his earlier novel and re-release it. Using his five additional years of experience, he honed in on the story he had wanted to tell and republished Marcher in 2014. With the original version checking in at roughly 300 pages and the revised version 200 pages, it would seem Beckett did more paring-down than anything. Marcher is a dense but brisk read with its finger on the pulse of subject matter rarely seen in SFF.

Social work is perhaps far from ... Read More

Revival: King channels Lovecraft

Revival by Stephen King

Revival is a very modern Stephen King novel that channels H.P. Lovecraft at his cyclopean best. His key characters are bold, if not as colorful as some of his best work, and his themes are of familiar and well-trodden King territory. Often hammered by critics (professional and amateur alike) for his weak endings, King builds up to a conclusion that is strong and memorable. It’s monstrous, dark and creepy as hell. It’s pure Lovecraft and beautiful in its austerity.

Revival is a story about religion and anti-religion; a story about belief and the loss of belief … and an inability to believe. Jamie Morton and Pastor Charles Jacobs orbit around each other their entire lives. Jacobs opens Morton... Read More

The Crystal Heart: An interesting retelling of a familiar tale

The Crystal Heart by Sophie Masson

I've always enjoyed Sophie Masson's books, and it would seem she's written something of an unofficial trilogy based on the stories of Rapunzel (The Crystal Heart), Cinderella (Moonlight & Ashes) and Beauty and the Beast (Scarlet in the Snow). All of them are based on old familiar fairy tales, but take the opportunity to flesh out the characters and expand the tales into fully-fledged adventures, till they bear very little resemblance to their original sources.

In this case, it's easy to forget that The Crystal Heart is based on Rapunzel, as after establishing the existence of a young girl trapped in a tower, the story goes in a dr... Read More

Servants of the Storm: Hurricanes and demons in Savannah

Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson

I spent a few months on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. The disaster I saw was staggering, and the soul of the area was absolutely clear. There were a lot of frayed and frazzled, dark emotions, but there was also a lot of hope.

Because of that experience, Servants of the Storm (2014) has been on my radar for a while. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was interested in seeing how a talented author could take a natural disaster and turn it into a young adult novel. That’s a true challenge, and Delilah S. Dawson handled it quite well.

Servants of the Storm is a young adult book, but don’t let that push you away. I sometimes struggle with the YA genre, but I have learned that I enjoy young adult books that t... Read More

Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go by Tim Lane

Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go by Tim Lane: The Myths of America(ns) in Comics (an essay review)

Tim Lane’s two books — Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go — are near perfect in their look into an America filled with wanderers, hobos, misfits, and your average guy struggling to make it in a country that seems to withhold the promises it is famous for making. These are the stories of dreamers who lost their way, or more often than not, were pushed off the main path onto some side trail of disaster that many of us pretend does not exist, or at least we pretend it will ... Read More

Heirs of Grace: Surprisingly satisfying and refreshing

Heirs of Grace by Tim Pratt

Independent, modern young woman narrates, in First Person Smartass, how she was just an ordinary person with an ordinary life who didn't believe in the supernatural, but then it turned out that the supernatural believed in her, and around about the same time she met this guy...

There are hundreds of authors writing that exact book at the moment, many of them very badly; and when I see an instance of it, I usually move on, sometimes with an eye roll, to the next book in the hope of something I haven't seen dozens of times before. But I was vaguely aware of the name "Tim Pratt" — I think I've read one or two of his short stories — and paused long enough on Heirs of Grace to get the sample and see if he wrote it well.

He wrote it very well indeed.

I was surprised,... Read More

Lagoon: I loved it as soon as I saw the swordfish

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I thought I was going to love Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon (2014) when I read the first chapter, from the point of view of a swordfish. She is not just any swordfish; she is an eco-warrior. Through her eyes, we see the arrival of extra-terrestrials into the lagoon of Lagos, the Nigerian capital. And from that point on I was never disappointed.

Lagoon does not spend too much time with the swordfish, although we do see her again a few times. The main characters are three people who end up at the Bar Beach shortly after the beings from another place have landed, and these three become the spokes-humans for the visitors. They are Adaora, a marine biologist, mother of two and wife to a troubled husband; Agu, a soldier who has recently been in trouble with his command; and Anthony Dey Craze, a successful rapper from Ghana who is playing a series of conc... Read More

Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M. Will

Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M. Will

Over the years, I’ve found that more and more I seek out unique black-and-white comics that, most often, are written and drawn by female creators. And I have a particular interest in any books dealing with mental illness. For example, one of my favorite graphic novels is Ellen Forney’s Marbles, a memoir focusing on her learning to live with bipolar. I was pleased to find recently another book that addresses the topic of bipolar — Elaine M. Will’s Look Straight Ahead.

Writing a review f... Read More

Hidden Universe Travel Guides: The Complete Marvel Cosmos by Marc Sumerak

 

Hidden Universe Travel Guides: The Complete Marvel Cosmos by Marc Sumerak

Imagine a mash-up of Lonely Planet and Fodors written by a group of snarky been-there-done-that travelers and you’ve pretty much got Hidden Universe Travel Guides: The Complete Marvel Cosmos. As the title says, it’s a travel guide to the many settings of the Marvel Universe (sometimes the settings are a universe), with a jaunty-voiced narrator whose more formal guidebook descriptions are constantly interrupted by the less-formal commentary of the Guardians of the Galaxy. It all makes for a fast-paced, mildly informative, and often funny trip through the many, many worlds, islands, moons, dim... Read More

Toad Words and Other Stories: Enchanting folk and fairy tale retellings

Toad Words and Other Stories by T. Kingfisher

T. Kingfisher is the name used by author Ursula Vernon for her adult fiction, although some of her T. Kingfisher works fall into the young adult category, like The Seventh Bride, and some of her Ursula Vernon works are adult works, like her wonderful Nebula award-winning short story “Jackalope Wives.” Regardless of the name she uses, I’ve been searching out her fiction ever since reading “Jackalope Wives.” T. Kingfisher writes lovely fairy tale retellings and other folk and fairy tale-flavored fantasies, usually with a twist, sometimes dark and disturbing, always thoughtful.

I... Read More

A Slip of the Keyboard: Too comprehensive, or not comprehensive enough

A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

A Slip of the Keyboard collects much of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction. In speeches, articles, and letters, Pratchett holds forth on a variety of subjects, ranging from book tours to hats to policies relating to Alzheimer’s and assisted dying. He also discusses Australia, conventions, and his development as a writer.

The book is divided into three sections, and I found the third section, entitled “Days of Rage,” the most powerful. Most of these texts touch on either Alzheimer’s or assisted dying. Eager to move past any taboo related to his disease, Pratchett concisely and generously shares what he experiences before urging his audience to take action. Though many lines stand out in this section, here is one that struck me: “It occurred to me that at one point it ... Read More

Cuckoo Song: Weird, scary and utterly unexpected

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

As usual, I am late to the party. Published in 2014, Cuckoo Song is Frances Hardinge’s sixth novel. Her debut novel, Fly by Night, won the Branford Boase First Novel Award and her 2015 novel The Lie Tree won the Costa Book Award, (the first children's book to do so since Philip Pullman's Read More

Teaching the Dog to Read: A surreal trip

Teaching the Dog to Read by Jonathan Carroll

Anthony Areal, a forgettable, average man, trending toward wet noodle, is astonished one day to receive an anonymous gift in the mail containing the watch of his dreams: a gorgeous $9,000 Lichtenberg ‘Figure’ wristwatch. For a few minutes he’s afraid it is a dream: the watch will probably disappear or turn into a pumpkin when he touches it. But the watch stays on Tony’s arm when he puts it there, and it’s followed a week later by his fantasy car, an $80,000 gray Porsche Cayman GTS, registered in his name. Tony is delighted. His co-workers are astounded. Lena Schabort, the office temptress, suddenly reevaluates Tony’s worth, personal as well as net.

When Tony meets his benefactor, it is the “night shift” version of Tony himself, who lives in Tony's dreams and can in some measure actually direct and control those dreams, making them become reality. Tony Ni... Read More

YOU: For the nostalgia of the burgeoning game industry only

YOU by Austin Grossman

Russell was a nerd in high school, running with a crowd of computer geeks before anyone knew what computers could do. Unlike his childhood friends, he didn’t stay a computer geek. He went on to try to have a ‘normal’ life. His friends went on to release a hugely popular video game, and founded a game label in its own right. Years later and after many changes in plans Russell comes back and applies to work for the people he left behind. Austin Grossman’s YOU is the story of a guy who isn’t quite anything but finds a place where maybe he can create something.

Characters are a huge part of any story for me. I can forgive most trope-filled plots if I can really dig into the characters. I had no such luck with YOU. I wanted to like Russell, and... Read More

Unexpected Stories: Challenging science fiction

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler

The late Octavia Butler wrote brilliant, challenging science fiction along more or less the same lines as Ursula K. Le Guin: the speculations are often anthropological, and she's fascinated by how people interact. I read one of her XENOGENESIS novels years ago and found it the kind of powerful, disturbing book that I can only read occasionally. I was excited to hear that a couple of her unpublished stories had been found and published under the title Unexpected Stories.

They're very fine stories. They're beautifully written, with an easy competence that I see all too rarely, and the speculations themselves — particularly in the first story — are out of the ordinary way. I don't love them so much as to give them five stars, but that last half-star is nothing to do with the qual... Read More

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August: Unexpected and enjoyable

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

I’m not sure what’s been in the air lately, but it seems I’ve been reading a lot of books this past year dealing with reincarnation/being reborn. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is yet another of those, and while it isn’t my favorite of the ones I’ve read with similar ideas (that would be either Life After Life by Kate Atkinson or The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell), I thoroughly enjoyed Claire North’s novel, though the first half was better than its second half.

In the world of Harry August, a small group of people (called Kalachakra or ouroborans, after the worm that eats its own tail) are born, live their lives, die, and t... Read More

Bitter Greens: Gorgeous historical novel blended with fairytale

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is a marvelous re-telling of Rapunzel, woven together with historical fiction that gives the reader a glimpse into the life of Charlotte Rose de Caumont de La Force, the French noblewoman who first published the fairy tale. Forsyth, pursuing her doctorate in fairy-tale retellings in Sydney, originally published in this novel in her native Australia. It has just been released in the US.

Bitter Greens begins with the story of Charlotte, exiled from the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and locked in a nunnery. Through her narrative, we learn that she was a vivacious courtier whose passion and wit would not be contained. Early in the novel, her mother tells the young Charlotte that she could have been a troubadour; instead, as an adult, she has left scandal in her wake and written some saucy stories that h... Read More

The Miniaturist: Compelling and mysterious, but ultimately unsatisfying

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, was undoubtedly a hit. I bought it because I was in an airport rush and it was winking at me from its bestseller, front row spot on the shelves. The Miniaturist’s popularity does not surprise me. It is an enjoyable read, packed with intertwining mysteries that tease throughout. I imagine a lot of people have fond memories of doll’s houses and were enticed by this aspect of the story, or at least, I was. But despite its potential, the ingredients of intrigue and magic never fully came together in any satisfying way.

The story is that of Nella, a young lady who arrives in Amsterdam in 1686 to begin life as the wife of a wealthy merchant. Things start badly. Her new husband barely speaks to her and her sister-in-law treats her with pious disdain. Her husband's one act of affectio... Read More

The Seventh Bride: The miller’s daughter meets Bluebeard

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

One of the less well-known folk tales, Bluebeard, the tale of the aristocrat who has married several wives who have ominously disappeared, is dusted off and adapted by T. Kingfisher in The Seventh Bride, a middle grade/young adult fantasy. Note: Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon, the Nebula award-winning author of the short story "Jackalope Wives"). Rhea, a fifteen year old miller's daughter, is unhappily and unwillingly engaged to Lord Crevan, a nobleman whom she doesn’t even know. Her parents urged her to accept Lord Crevan’s offer: their family is having trouble making ends meet and Lord Crevan is a friend of the local marquis. And you don’t turn down lords. But Rhea, who keenly feels her lack... Read More

The Martian: Being abandoned on Mars is more fun than you’d think

The Martian by Andy Weir

Mars has long had a somewhat cursed reputation in space exploration. Launch failures, midair explosions, crash landings. Probes that missed the planet completely. Probes we’ve never heard from again and still don’t know what happened. By the time of Andy Weir’s The Martian, though, things have been on a better trajectory for some time and humanity has successfully landed several expeditions on Mars. Mark Watney is the engineer/botanist on the third such expedition, Ares 3, which is just coming up on the end of their first week of a month-long stay. Unfortunately, this is where Mars’ checkered past comes roaring back in the form of a sudden huge sandstorm that forces an abort of the mission and a quick exit from the planet. Or, a quick exit for all of the crew but Watney, who through a freak occurrence is presumed dead and thus abandoned, leading to the novel’s classic opening line: “I’m pretty much... Read More

Station Eleven: A quiet and lovely post-apocalyptic novel

Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel

“Quiet” and “lovely” are not usually words one reaches for when describing a post-apocalyptic novel. Not with the reverted-back-to-savagery cannibals; the road-raging-mohawk-sporting highway warriors; the gleeful told-you-so rat-a-tat of survivalist gunfire, or the annoying mumblespeak “braiiinnnnss” from the shambling zombies. But quiet and lovely are exactly the words I’d use to describe Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic novel from Emily St. John Mandel that is happily missing all the above and shows the modern world ending with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a gentle murmur.

Mandel’s chosen method of ending the world is the Georgia Flu, an incredibly virulent bug that wipes out 95+ percent of its victims within a span of 48 hours. In true form for the eventual tone and shape of the novel, though, Mandel opens not with a ma... Read More