2018


Half-Witch: Wonderfully creative though marred by plotting

Half-Witch by John Schoffstall

Appropriately enough, I’m of mixed mind about John Schoffstall’s Half-Witch (2018), which is itself about a young girl who is part one thing, part another, moving through a world that is also a kind of collage, a strange admixture of building blocks.

For most of her 14 years, Lizbet Lenz has been forced to flee one home after another as her lovable con-artist father finds yet another way to turn the residents against them. But when he accidentally causes a rain of mice, he is imprisoned by the powerful Margrave before they have a chance to flee, leading Lizbet to undertake a seemingly impossible quest to travel with a young witch over the never-crossed Montagnes du Monde in search of a magical talisman desperately sought by the Margrave.

The world Schoffstall creates is wonderfully creative and whimsically eclectic, set in a Holy Roman Emp... Read More

The Gone Away Place: A book that will linger in readers’ minds

The Gone Away Place by Christopher Barzak

Because of a stupid fight with her high school boyfriend, Ellie Frame cut school one day to took sorrowful refuge in a nearby faux lighthouse, where she falls asleep. What wakes her is a series of devastating tornadoes that rip through her small rural Ohio town of Newfoundland, killing nearly a hundred people, including Ellie’s boyfriend Noah and several of her best friends. Not all the dead are gone, however; some remain behind, visible to many of the town’s residents and especially their loved ones as they hover “in the grey place” between life and death. As Ellie tries to come to grips with the deaths of her friends and her own survivor’s guilt, she learns that not all the ghosts are benevolent, and finds out, as well, that she possesses the curious ability to free them from the grey place and send them onward by filming their most meaningful stories. Those stories make up a large chunk of Read More

The Mere Wife: Uncomfortable but impressive

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

“… all my selves together at once, soldier, daughter, wife, victim, mother, monster.”

The Mere Wife (2018), which is up for a Locus Award this year, is billed as a “modern retelling of Beowulf.” Set in an upscale suburban housing development called Herot Hall, it follows two mothers and their sons. One of these is Willa, the wife of a wealthy plastic surgeon whose family built Herot Hall. Willa spends her days vapidly shopping, thinking about how she looks, planning parties, competing with the neighboring housewives, being coached by her own mother, and trying to defend her house and her son Dylan from any malign outside influences.

The other mother is Dana Mills, a soldier with severe PTSD who comes back to the United States pregnant with no memory of how she got that way. When she arrives home, she discovers that Herot Hal... Read More

God Country: A sentient sword comes to Texas

God Country by Donny Cates (author) and Geoff Shaw (artist)

God Country is a graphic novel you have got to check out. It is one of the best works by my favorite new comic book author, Donny Cates, who has written other great comics like Redneck for Image and Thanos Wins for Marvel. In God Country, Cates tells the story of the Quinlan family and the arrival of a powerful sword that enters their lives and changes them radically.

The sword, Valofax, is a giant sentient blade that is the embodiment of all swords and knives throughout the universe. It changes the life of a small family: Grandfather Emmett Quinlan, his son, and his son’s wife and young daughter. The story takes us from Texas to Hell and finally to the far-off home of Valofax, whose creator wants the sword back even as his planet dies all around him.

W... Read More

Red Moon: Character and story fall victim to ideas

Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’m a big fan of most of Kim Stanley Robinson’s output, especially his MARS trilogy, and so when I saw that he was out with a book entitled Red Moon (2018), with its echoes of said trilogy (Red, Green, and Blue Mars), that it had an AI character like Aurora, another favorite work of his, and that it came with a heavy dose of politics, which I’ve enjoyed in all his prior work, I was thinking all I was missing was a Neandertal... Read More

The Oracle Year: An exciting, fast-paced science fiction thriller

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

OCTOBER 8: FOURTEEN BABIES WILL BE BORN AT NORTHSIDE GENERAL HOSPITAL IN HOUSTON. SIX MALE, EIGHT FEMALE.

One morning at about 5:00 am, Will Dando, a struggling young New York musician, abruptly awakes from a vivid dream. In his dream, a voice told Will 108 oddly specific and rather random predictions about the future, which he remembers verbatim when he wakes up. Some are potentially life-changing: warnings of the collapse of a major bridge and other disasters. Others may have a huge financial effect: a football game that will be won by the Jets by four points; a caution about a late freeze of crops in the southeastern United States. Still others are apparently mundane:
APRIL 24 – MRS. LUISA ALVAREZ OF EL PASO, TEXAS, PURCHASES A QUART OF CHOCOLATE MILK, SOMETHING SHE HAS NOT HAD IN TWENTY YEARS, TO SEE IF SHE STILL ... Read More

The Black God’s Drums: We really hope this begins a series

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

In an alternative history, magical steampunk version of New Orleans, in 1884 the city is still influenced by the aftermath of the Civil War, which ended in a division of the Union and Confederate states. New Orleans is a pocket of neutrality, one of the few territories not aligned with either the North or South. The city is run by a council made up of ex-slaves, mulattoes and white businesspeople; British, French and Haitian airships patrol the skies to keep the peace.

Thirteen-year old-Jacqueline is a bright, quick street girl and pickpocket who goes by the name of Creeper (for her skill at climbing walls). Within Creeper lives part of the spirit of Oya, the orisha or goddess of storms, life and death, lending Creeper power over wind and sharing premonitions and visions with her. And her latest vision is a doozy: an immense, horrific skull moon hanging over New Orleans, snuffing out the... Read More

Queen of No Tomorrows: Atmospheric writing in a story of LA Noir-weird

Queen of No Tomorrows by Matt Maxwell

Matt Maxwell’s 109-page novel (I’d call it a novella), Queen of No Tomorrows (2018), mixes American tentacular-weird with LA Noir, flavoring the story with bits of pot-smoke-fueled punk imagery of the 1980s. It is a story that thrives on shadows.

Cait MacReady works as a book restorer for the Los Angeles Public Library. On the side, she locates rare, exotic occult volumes for discerning customers… or, when the books are unavailable, creates them herself. She is an expert forger, and when Queen of No Tomorrows opens we learn that Cait has created her first original book, which she has named The Smoking Codex. Cait feels as if she practically channeled the book; she wrote the text as if in a dream and doesn’t know where the inspiration for the artwork came from. It is a masterpiece and she is proud of it. Now s... Read More

Unholy Land: A twisty, mentally challenging story

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

I absolutely loved Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (and was not alone in that), and while his newest, Unholy Land (2018), didn’t blow me away quite to the same extent, it kept me on the couch in “don’t talk to me I’m reading” and “uh-huh, uh-huh, ya don’t say, uh-huh” mode all afternoon while my family just rolled their eyes and gave up, as they know to do when all the signs of being engrossed in a great book are manifest (luckily, they live those moments as well, so it’s a fond eyeroll... )

The novel is set in an alternate universe setting where the Jewish homeland of Palestina appears not in the Middle East but ... Read More

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst: Just buy it already

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
(2018), by Robert M. Sapolsky, is, simply put, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in years and, had I finished it last year, would absolutely have gone onto my Best of the Year list. Sadly, because I listened to it on audio over several months of commuting, this review will not do it justice in terms of specific references and examples. But to cut an already-brief review even shorter: if you have any interest in other people, yourself, culture, society, or science, buy this book.

Sapolsky wants to explain just why (and also how) we do the things we do, and he structures the book so as to zoom out from what happens in our brains/bodies milliseconds before an action to minutes before to weeks and months, to years, to centuries and millennia before... Read More

A Voice in the Night: Definitely for established fans

A Voice in the Night by Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt is one of the numerous authors whose work I know because my dad said, “Hey, read this!” In McDevitt’s case, the “this” was The Engines of God. Having thus been introduced to recurring protagonist Priscilla Hutchins, I read several others of McDevitt’s novels and I’ve always enjoyed them. So I was interested to pick up this book of short stories to see how McDevitt does them.

Overall, I think I prefer McDevitt’s work at novel length; I think it’s because he does well with accumulation of detail over the course of a story. But A Voice in the Night (2018) does have several stories that I enjoyed.

The collection doesn’t have one unifying theme, but there are several themes that appear more than once. There are... Read More

Damsel: A disturbing feminist allegory in fairy tale form

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold

Damsel
(2018) has an absolutely gorgeous cover, one of the loveliest I’ve seen, with a glowing title wound about with vines, bleeding hearts and other flowers. But on closer examination there’s something just a little bit off about the cover image. An anatomically correct heart. A golden spur with a myriad of sharp points. A dragon’s pointed tail. It’s a bit disturbing. And it’s an apt metaphor for the contents of Elana K. Arnold’s book, where the fairy-tale details initially mask an allegorical story that is far, far darker.

Prince Emory is on a quest, a traditional rite of passage in his kingdom: He is traveling to the gray lands to conquer a dragon, rescue a beautiful young damsel, and bring her back to his kingdom to be his wife, as his father and forefathers have done before him. The hazards of his journey to the dragon’s lair and his tension-f... Read More

Once Upon a River: A historic tale with a dash of fantasy

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield offers up a great premise and a heaping sense of atmosphere in her newest novel, Once Upon a River (2018), but while the book offers up plenty of satisfying moments, I felt it fell short of its potential and was also somewhat marred by Setterfield’s lack of trust in her readers, though both of those complaints are admittedly more subjective than my typical criticism, so more than usual, one’s mileage may vary here.

As for that wholly engrossing premise, the book opens on the winter solstice in the late 19th century with a man stumbling into The Swan, an inn on the Thames known for its storytelling. In his hands is a young girl, seemingly dead, an assumption confirmed by the local nurse, Rita Sunday. But not much later, the girl miraculously comes back to life, th... Read More

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots: A thoughtful and, cough cough, stimulating read

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots by Kate Devlin

I confess that when I opened up Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots (2018) by Kate Devlin, I wasn’t expecting a tour of classical literature: stories about Laodamia, who had “commissioned a bronze likeness of her [dead] husband — an artificial lover that she took to her bed.” Or the Spartan king Nabis, who had a “lifelike robot designed and dressed up to look like his dead wife, Apega.” But as Devlin cautions us, “This is not a book that’s just about sex. Or robots ... It’s about intimacy and technology ... history and archaeology, love and biology.” Though that’s not to say sex and robots don’t appear. They do.

But before we get to the sex robot “Harmony” and an exploration of teledildonics (use your root words, people), Devlin works her way through that classical literature as well as various historical artifacts, such as anc... Read More

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?: A phenomenal display of imagination and talent

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin continues to delight and amaze with How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (2018), a powerful and thoughtful collection of twenty-two stories. Some stories metaphorically shook me by the collar and demanded whether I’m doing enough to better the world around me, some surprised me with a combination of sweetness and self-assurance, and some just flat-out brought me to tears.

Jemisin’s introduction is particularly useful, as she looks back over her authorial journey (so far) and provides tidbits about which stories collected here are interrelated, or perhaps were written in response to other authors’ works, or are connected to her own work, or are “’proof of concept’ stories,” as she puts it, “to test-drive potential novel worlds.” It’s a br... Read More

Ball Lightning: How does ball lightning work? The answer may shock you…

Ball Lightning by Cuxin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen

Ball Lightning (2018) is a story about, well, ball lightning. It’s also about obsession, the travails of science research, the moral perils of military research, and quantum mechanics. And ghosts — in fact, quantum mechanical ghosts. I’m not sure that’s something for everyone, but it’s a lot.

The narrator, Chen, is obsessed with the phenomenon of ball lightning for a simple and macabre reason: his parents are incinerated by it in front of him in the book’s first chapter. As reasons for obsession go, this is a strong one; it’s not hard to believe that from that time forward understanding ball lightning is really all he cares about. So he becomes a meteorologist — not the kind that tells you what the weather will be like in a week, the kind who makes elaborate mathematical models of ball lightning. He meets a lot of people who are als... Read More

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful: Linked stories exploring humanity’s potential

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Arwen Elys Dayton’s latest novel, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful (2018) is a novel comprised of six linked stories, each taking part in a different point in humanity’s future, beginning “A few years from now,” leapfrogging to various points beyond, and ending when “They have left us far behind.” Dayton doesn’t specify the precise year or time period, letting the pace and scale of scientific advancements inform the reader’s imagination. Her teenaged protagonists each experience some kind of alteration (or lack thereof) and must cope with backlash, acceptance, or rejection of their changing selves and the significance those changes have on the world around them.

“Matched Pair” — An affecting story about twins Evan and Julia Weary, who are quite ill, and whose parents have decided that one surviving child, ... Read More

The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories: The successor to Robert E. Howard

The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories by Clifford Ball

If I were to ask 1,000 people what the words “Clifford Ball” meant to them, those to whom it meant anything, I have a feeling, would reply that the Clifford Ball was the first weekendlong concert bash that the jam band Phish ever held, back in August ’96, in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Fewer, perhaps, would know that the provenance for the name of that shindig was the aviation pioneer Clifford Ball, whose moniker the Phish folks thought would be a cool and punny handle for their event. But it is not of these two Clifford Balls that I would speak here, but rather of another: Clifford Ball the author, whose claim to fame today is his being the first writer to continue on in the sword-and-sorcery tradition after the suicide of Robert E. Howard in 1936. If you have not previously heard of Clifford Ball the writ... Read More

Dispatches from Planet 3: A lucid and concise tour of the universe

Dispatches from Planet 3 by Marcia Bartusiak

Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond
(2018), by Marcia Bartusiak, is a highly readable collection of wonderfully concise explorations of various topics in astronomy/astrophysics. Each essay is only a few pages long, making the science easily digestible while still informative. Topics include black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the Big Bang, inflation, relativity, and the multi-verse, to name just a few.

For an audience that doesn’t regularly read in this area, Dispatches from Planet 3 is a great introduction to the field thanks to the brevity and clarity of each piece, and the overall breadth of the collection as Bartusiak moves across time from, for instance, centuries-old discoveries to Lowell’s Mars canals to the most recent discoveries of exo-pl... Read More

The Sapphire Goddess: A very fine and long overdue collection

The Sapphire Goddess: The Fantasies of Nictzin Dyalhis by Nictzin Dyalhis

Unless you have perused the pages of the dozen or so Weird Tales anthologies that have been released over the past 50-plus years, odds are that you have not come across the name “Nictzin Dyalhis.” But during the 15-year period 1925 - 1940, Dyalhis was extraordinarily popular with the readers of that legendary pulp magazine, despite the fact that he only had eight stories published therein during that decade and a half. And of those eight, four were voted by the readers as the most popular of the issues in which they appeared, and five of them copped the front-cover illustration. This reader had previously encountered three of those tales in various anthologies, had loved them all, and was curious to read more. The only problem was, an anthology of Dyalhis’ work had never been compiled, until the fine folks at DMR released, this past summer, ... Read More

Thin Air: An intense, foul-mouthed, high-octane thriller

Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan’s stand-alone novel Thin Air (2018) is set on Mars in the universe of his novel Thirteen. His protagonist, Hakan Veil, is a disgraced “enforcer” who’s just been dumped on Mars by the corporation to whom he had been indentured since childhood. They recently fired him. Hakan would love to get back to Earth, but that’s nearly impossible these days because it costs too much to get there and Earth lets very few people in. Mars is a hostile and decadent world with a populace made up of many criminal elements.

Fortunately, Hakan still retains some of the genetic enhancements his company supplied before cutting ties with him. This makes him a total badass. Corporate enforcers spe... Read More

The Echo Room: Begins better than it ends (or middles)

The Echo Room by Parker Peevyhouse

In The Echo Room (2018), which is sort of a Groundhog Day meets The Maze Runner, Parker Peevyhouse takes on one of the most difficult narratives for an author — the time loop story. Unfortunately, while Peevyhouse has her moments, the time loop comes out victorious.

The story opens up intriguingly enough, when Rett Ward wakes up in a strange and seemingly abandoned building with no memory of how he got there, blood on his clothes, and a scar across his head. Equally disconcerting is that someone else, a girl named Brynn, is trapped in there with him, also with no memories and also with a scar. The two explore the place warily, neither sure if they can trust the other (Brynn, seeing the blood on Rett’s clothes, has good reason to be suspicious), but... Read More

Never Home Alone: A fascinating look at the creatures who share our homes

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live (2018) is a mouthful of a title. Which is only appropriate as abundance is one of the major themes Rob Dunn highlights in this utterly fascinating book. The rich, fecund abundance of life not of the world “out there” (though that, too) but the world “in here,” where we live — our homes. How rich and fecund? How about 80, 000 species of bacteria and archaea, tens of thousands of fungi species, and thousands of species of arthropods, along with a number of rodents. All found in a biological survey of a thousand Raleigh homes. And those are our uninvited guests. Dunn doesn’t ignore the ones we bring in willingly — our dogs and cats (who themselves bring in a host of hitchhikers). ... Read More

Fire & Heist: An easy contender for Best YA of 2018

Fire & Heist by Sarah Beth Durst

I’d only previously read Sarah Beth Dursts QUEENS OF RENTHIA series, so I was excited to have the chance to read Fire & Heist (2018), her latest YA novel. I never know whether an author whose adult work is enjoyable will write well for a young adult audience — or vice versa — but I’m pleased to be able to report that Durst is clearly adept at writing for any age group, and particularly so for nerdy readers.

Sky Hawkins is the kind of leading character many readers would love to hate. She comes from a family who “owned at one time a fleet of Aston Martins and [gave] the gardener his own Tesla,” and readily acknowledges that she might seem like just another “poor little rich girl” in Aspen, Colorado who deserves “the world’s smallest vio... Read More

The Overstory: The secret life of trees

The Overstory by Richard Powers

… when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.

The Overstory (2018) is a powerful, literary novel, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It sings, in part, a paean to the wonders of trees and the multitude of wonders that old-growth forests and a variety of trees brings to our world. It also mourns a tragedy: how humans relentlessly annihilate these priceless resources, and what drives some people to eco-terrorism.

The Overstory is brilliantly organized in a form that reflects an actual tree. It begins with a section aptly titled "Roots,” a set of eight apparently unconnected stories in which we meet nine disparate characters: An artist whose family home in Iowa boasts one of the last healthy American chestnut trees. The engineer daughter of a Chinese immigra... Read More