2019


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

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The harrowing adventures of two brave fox kits

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

One chilly autumn night, seven fox kits beg their mother for a scary story, “[s]o scary our eyes fall out of our heads.” Don’t go to the Bog Cavern, she tells them, because the old storyteller lives there, and the tale she would tell them would be so scary it would put white in their tails. So naturally the seven kits scamper off through the woods to the Bog Cavern as soon as their mother is asleep, and beg the spooky-looking storyteller for a scary story.
“All scary stories have two sides,” the storyteller said. “Like the bright and dark of the moon. If you’re brave enough to listen and wise enough to stay to the end, the stories can shine a light on the good in the world.”
But, she warns, kits who lose heart and don’t stay until the end of the stories may lose all hope and be too frightened to ever leave their den again. Then she embarks on a se... Read More

A Very Scalzi Christmas: The lighter side of Christmas

A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi

I spent part of Christmas Day 2020 reading A Very Scalzi Christmas (2019), a (mostly) humorous collection of short Christmas-themed pieces by, naturally, John Scalzi. As Marion so aptly commented in her review of Scalzi’s highly similar collection Miniatures, “this collection of works does verge on the silly. It jumps the border of silly. It tap-dances and cartwheels through the world of silly, shrieking ‘Wheeeee!’ ” It’s the same in this case, except with a few more serious pieces to offset the absurd and satirical ones.

Of the humorous pieces, I had two favorites: First, there’s “Jangle the Elf Grants Wishes,” in which Jangle’s boss, the head of the Department of Non-Material Ch... Read More

Batman: 100 Greatest Moments: Fun reference with a lot of illustrations

Batman: 100 Greatest Moments by Robert Greenberger

Batman: 100 Greatest Moments (2019), by Robert Greenberger, like his Flash: 100 Greatest Moments which I previously reviewed (and will borrow some of here due to the similarities) is a browser’s reference book that offers up a comic reader’s cornucopia of illustrations, something one always hopes for in this sort of book. As the title says, it’s a look at an (obviously subjective) list of highlights from the near-century the classic character has been around. While some fans might quibble here and there, the list as a whole is most likely going to find general consensus.

As noted, while one can read it cover to cover, it’s more a browsing kind of book. I say that because it doesn’t go in chronological order, nor does it go into a deep dive ... Read More

And Go Like This: For readers and writers

And Go Like This by John Crowley

I don’t usually pay attention to the media blurbs on the covers of books, but the Newsday quote on the cover of John Crowley’s And Go Like This (2019) so perfectly describes this story collection that I must share it:

“Transforms the lead of daily life into seriously dazzling artistic gold.”

“The lead of daily life” in these stories comes from mostly average people going about their mostly average lives. In this collection you won’t find many of the plot fixtures we’re used to seeing in speculative fiction. There are no spaceships, battles, dragons, kings, or magic spells. There are a few speculative elements, but what makes Crowley’s fiction most compelling is the way he closely examines the souls of normal folk, portrays them in such a charming way, ... Read More

A Sick Gray Laugh: A disturbing, metafictional, transgressive tour de force

A Sick Gray Laugh by Nicole Cushing

A Sick Gray Laugh, Nicole Cushing’s 2019 horror novel, is disturbing, at times disgusting. It’s surreal, it’s metafictional and it’s often hilarious. And, really, that’s about all I have to say about it. If you like any of those things, or all of them, you should read it.

Oh, what? I should tell you about the plot? Okay. Noelle Cashman, our first-person narrator, is an award-winning horror novelist. Recently, though, she has started medication for her struggles with anxiety and depression and now, faced with a book to write, discovers she doesn’t want to write another novel. While parts of her life are getting much better — she joined a softball team, lost some weight, is eating more healthily — Noelle is distressed and intrigued by the steady encroachment of the G... Read More

The Starless Sea: Visually spectacular

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Given the success of her debut, it would be impossible to write about Erin Morgenstern's eagerly awaited follow-up without alluding to The Night Circus (2011). The bestseller accrued a mass following of 'Rêveurs' – the self-styled fanbase, named after the followers of the circus in the book. It inspired a formidable amount of tattoos and artwork on Pinterest, as well as being translated into thirty-seven languages, no less. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but can Morgenstern live up to her own success?

The Starless Sea (2019) follows the tale of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortu... Read More

The Bird King: Magic is woven throughout the book

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

G. Willow Wilson’s 2019 YA Novel The Bird King is a wonderful read: an exciting adventure with a complicated female protagonist, set in a time and place that may be unfamiliar to many of us. Magic is woven throughout the book, as young Fatima wrestles with the concepts of faith, freedom and leadership.

Fatima is the Sultan’s concubine in the last Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. She holds a precarious place in the palace hierarchy. As a slave she’s powerless; as the Sultan’s concubine she wields, or could wield, great influence, especially if she bears him a son. Fatima, born into enslavement, dreams of freedom, but the closest she gets to it is the magical maps drawn by her friend, the royal mapmaker, Hassan. Hassan can map a place that exists only in his imaginati... Read More

Teen Titans: Raven: A Teen Titan discovers New Orlean’s voodoo

Teen Titans: Raven by Kami Garcia & Gabriel Picolo

This recent line of graphic novels showcasing some of DC’s younger heroines seem designed to draw more girls into the world of comic books (not that there weren’t plenty before) with more emphasis not only on female characters, but their experiences as teenagers. Other additions to this series have focused on Mera, Selina Kyle and Harley Quinn, though each one is a standalone story.

As such, the writers assume that readers have no foreknowledge of DC comic books, and each one treats the characters as a “clean slate”, regardless of how well-known or popular they are.

In this case, Raven Roth is a seventeen-year old foster child about to be legally adopted when a car accident claims the life of her would-be mother. Suffering from memory loss, she is taken in by her deceased mother’s family in New Orleans.

Yes, it’s the tried-and-true cli... Read More

Mera: Tidebreaker: A fresh look at an oft-sidelined DC heroine

Mera: Tidebreaker by Danielle Paige & Stephen Byrne

This is one in a series of graphic novels starring DC heroines in their teenage years, not compliant with any comic-book continuity, but which are aimed at slightly younger readers who might be interested in some of the female characters to have appeared in the recent influx of superhero movies (other titles in the series include Catwoman, Raven and Harley Quinn).

Having enjoyed Aquaman starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, I picked Mera: Tidebreaker up on a whim to learn more about the character of Mera, since in the film she's mostly a supporting character. Here Mera is the teenage princess of the underwater city of Xebel, betrothed to a boy she doesn't fully love, and fighting against Atlantean rule.

When she discovers that her betrothed will inherit the Xebellian throne if he kills the current heir to Atlantis, Mera decide... Read More

Under the Moon: An early look at the future Catwoman

Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle & Isaac Goodhart

I’ve been going through these YA graphic novels for a while now, each one in the series focusing on a famous DC heroine (Harley Quinn, Raven, Princess Mera, Selina Kyle) and exploring what her adolescence might have been like. They’re not canon-compliant with any other comic books, television shows or films, but usually have the aesthetic you might expect from the character’s history.

In this case, you can expect Selina Kyle to be involved with cats, living on the streets, and a heist.

Catwoman has always been one of my favourite characters, so I was interested to see how her story would play out here in Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale. It’s about what you’d expect from a future cat-burglar: she doesn’t get on with her mother’s abusive boyfriend, and when he ends up killing her pet kitten (trigger warning f... Read More

The Light Brigade: A bearer of light in the darkness of war

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman famously said in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade (2019), a Hugo and Locus award nominated novel, drives that point home. The brutality of a soldier’s life combines with dystopia and hellish corporate behavior, but it’s lightened by the gritty determination of the main character, Dietz, and a handful of others to find the right path out of the nightmarish war, and by a hopefulness that refuses to be beaten down.

In a near-future day, six huge corporations, called the Big Six, control most of Earth’s society, doling out vital services only to people who are citizens. Dietz, a non-citizen of São Paulo, has suffered the loss of family and friends in “The Blink,” a mysterious event ... Read More

Permafrost: A time-twisty thriller

Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair ReynoldsPermafrost (2019), a finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Novella, is billed as “a time-traveling climate fiction adventure.” It takes place in two timelines.

In 2080, humanity seems to be coming to an end, mostly due to a lack of food. Valentina Lidova, an elderly Russian math teacher, attempts to continue teaching her malnourished students, knowing all the while that it’s futile.

Then she’s visited by someone from an institution called Permafrost who offers a crazy-sounding solution. They claim to have invented time travel and want Valentina to be the first person who travels back in time. They’ve chosen her because it was her mathematician mother, now dead, whose widely-mocked theories they used to invent the technolog... Read More

Infinite Detail: A powerful warning about the way we use the internet

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan

“It’s time for a reboot…. see you on the other side.”

Inspired by whistleblowers, leakers, hacktivists, computer viruses, Big Data, fake news, and civil movements such as Black Lives Matter, journalist Tim Maughan paints a frightening vision of the future in his first novel, Infinite Detail.

The plot is set in two timelines labelled simply “Before” and “After.” In “Before” we meet Rushdi (“Rush”) Mannan, a software engineer who lives in the Croft, a two-mile section of Bristol, England that has decided to go off the grid. The Croft is cut off from the Big Data surveillance that the rest of the world has so eagerly submitted to for the sake of convenience. Citizens of the Croft are not luddites, they even create their own brilliant apps and software, they just don’t want big companies controlling the data they... Read More

Destroy All Monsters: Aims high but doesn’t quite hit

Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller

It’s interesting reading Sam J. Miller’s Destroy All Monsters (2019) with Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet still fresh in my mind. Both novels deal with child abuse and the question of what a “monster” is. Clearly, these themes are out there in the zeitgeist, and they’re resonating with readers; both books have been named Locus finalists in the Young Adult category.

Destroy All Monsters alternates between two points of view: high school best friends Ash and Solomon. Ash is an aspiring photographer on the trail of a group that’s been committing hateful acts of vandalism around town. Solomon is struggling with a mental illness and sees the world through a fant... Read More

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass: A beautifully illustrated spin on a famous anti-hero

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki & Steve Pugh

There are currently four of these similarly-themed graphic novels in publication, which seemingly exist in a bid to attract a new generation of readers to DC comics. Each one takes a famous DC heroine (or anti-heroine) and explores what life might have been like when they were still just teenagers. So far we’ve had Princess Mera, Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn and Raven (who granted, has always been depicted as a teenager).

None of the books have any narrative links to later depictions of these characters; they’re all standalone stories which don’t seem to be compliant with any other continuities — and that’s especially true here in Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. Fifteen-year-old Harleen Quinzel is sent by her mother to live in Gotham City with her grandmother, but the by the time Harleen gets the... Read More

The Luminous Dead: A gripping thriller

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Some time ago, I read a novel that promised to combine a man-vs.-nature survival narrative with a ghost story. It disappointed me, not delivering enough of either. When reading Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead, I couldn’t help thinking that this book was what I wanted that one to be. The Luminous Dead succeeds at both the (wo)man-vs.-nature stuff and the eerie goings-on — not to mention a character study of two complicated, damaged people — and it all adds up to a truly gripping thriller.

Gyre is a caver, setting out on what might be the job of a lifetime. The pay is good enough to get her off her backwater planet so she can find her long-lost mother — but only if she survives. See, Gyre … embellished … her credentials a bit to get the job. OK, maybe more than a bit.

Gyre’s... Read More

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All: Overcomes a slow start

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

I loved Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap so much that I was almost afraid to read Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All (2019). How could it possibly live up to my expectations of it? After having read it, I can report that I do still think I liked Bone Gap better, but that Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is also a good read. I’m not alone in thinking that, either; it was a finalist for the National Book Award and was chosen for the 2019 Locus Recommended Reading list.

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is set in Chicago in the years leading up to, and then during, World War II. Its first... Read More

Pet: The human meets the divine, and both are changed

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

“There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille.” The city of Lucille is a utopia. A generation ago, a resistance toppled all the monsters — monsters in this case meaning people: unjust politicians, bigots, predators. The leaders of the revolution are now called “angels” and are revered as elders. Jam is a teenage girl growing up in Lucille, and she appreciates the better world the angels built; as a black trans girl, she knows the world that came before would not have been as welcoming to her. But she still has questions that her teachers are hesitant to answer.

Jam’s life changes when she accidentally brings to life a strange, feathered creature from one of her mother’s paintings. The creature tells Jam to call it Pet, and that it is here to hunt a monster. The monster, Pet says, lives in the home of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. Jam’s parents insist that Pet must be mistaken, because t... Read More

Deeplight: A new take on the Cthulhu mythos

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

They say that the Undersea was the dwelling place of the gods. They say many things of the Myriad, and all of them are true. The gods were as real as the coastlines and currents and as merciless as the winds and whirlpools.

No one knows who or what the gods were, the giant creatures who lived in the sea and then, mysteriously, all died. But everyone knows that a piece of a dead god can make your fortune. Hark is still a child himself, all of 14 years old, but he knows it, too. That’s why he’s in the crowd when a submarine brings back parts of the Hidden Lady, the god that used to live in the waters around the archipelago on which he lives. His friend, Jelt, knows it too, and he has plans that call for Hark to do some hazardous things to make them both rich. Hark pays the price for Jelt’s foolishness, sold into indentured servitude.

Hark is lucky that he has a golden tongu... Read More

To Be Taught, If Fortunate: The wonder, and the ethical dilemmas, of space

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’s novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019) takes the form of a letter from a space traveler, Ariadne O’Neill, to the people of Earth. Why Ariadne is writing it, we will learn later.

Ariadne is part of a small but diverse crew that has been sent to explore a moon and three planets that it is believed might harbor life. They will sleep in hibernation during the journey to this star system, explore each world, then go into hibernation again for the journey back. All told, they will be gone for eighty years, which means their goodbyes to their loved ones are permanent (which is explored in a poignant scene early in the novella). On each planet, they use a process called somaforming which adapts their bodies to survive in that planet’s particular conditio... Read More

A Song for a New Day: Celebrates the thrill of live rock music

A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

Luce Cannon was a rising rock star, traveling with a new band and doing live shows all over the country, until a rash of deadly terrorist attacks, and the threat of more to come, caused the American government to criminalize large public gatherings.

Now, instead of live concerts, musicians and their fans meet virtually, with the fans wearing hoodies equipped with technology that allows them to safely experience the perception of being with others at a show. But Luce and like-minded artists never bought into this concept and aren’t willing to sell their souls to StageHoloLive, the big corporation that produces these events in “Hoodspace.”

Working out of her parents’ home, Rosemary Laws provides customer service for Superwally, an internet superstore that sells StageHoloLive (SHL) merchandise. Rosemary’s job isn’t bad — it’s secure and appealingly gamified — but ... Read More

Cog: Many elements gave me pause

Cog by Greg Van Eekhout

Cog (2019), a nominee for the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction, is the story of a robot who was built to learn. Mentally and, by all appearances, the titular character (Cog) is a 12-year-old boy whose function is to be a learning artificial intelligence. When he discovers that the best way to learn is to make mistakes, he resolves to make lots of mistakes — a decision which kicks off the narrative arc of the story.

Cog has an underdog main character, key themes of friendship and found family, and a quick pace. These middle grade/young adult mainstay themes make the more experimental parts of the narrative stand out, but not in a good way. The first plot point that gave me pause occurred early in the story, when Cog was taken to a grocery store for the first time and he has what is essentially an anxiety or panic attack. ... Read More

Minor Mage: Questing with an armadillo sidekick

Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher

Oliver is a minor mage in two senses: he’s only twelve years old, and he only has three magical spells, and the one to control his allergy against armadillo dander doesn’t count for much. The aged and increasingly absent-minded village mage wasn’t able to teach Oliver much before he died. But he’s all the magic his village has, so when a severe drought strikes, Oliver is ordered by the frightened villagers to go to the distant Rainblade Mountains to somehow “bring back rain.” No one, including Oliver, is at all clear on exactly how this is to be done, but they are clear on the concept that it’s a mage’s job. The villagers conveniently wait to gang up on Oliver until his mother, a retired mercenary, is out of town.

Oliver is frightened but willing; he was planning to do it anyway, though he resents being forced. (At least, he thinks, now his mother will be mad at the villagers and not him... Read More

Catfish Lullaby: Song of the swamp meets cosmic horror

Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

Catfish Lullaby (2019), a Nebula Award-nominated novella, might be described as Louisiana swamp monster folklore colliding with eldritch Lovecraftian horror. Author A.C. Wise (who also has a second Nebula nomination this year, for her short story “How the Trick is Done”) visits Caleb, the biracial, queer son of the local sheriff, at three key points in his life. We follow Caleb from childhood to adulthood as he navigates his friendship with Cere Royce, the daughter of a once-prominent and depraved local family, and they try to conquer the black magic that haunts her and has destroyed her family.

When Caleb is about twelve, the Royce home mysteriously burns to the ground, killing Cere’s father and two older brothers. Caleb’s single father takes Cere into their home. Cere manages to freak out the schoolboys who have been bullying Caleb for years (“Sometimes you have to... Read More