2020


Devolution: A Bigfoot horror story

Devolution by Max Brooks

I spent countless hours as a kid rummaging the local libraries and shops for stories about Bigfoot. I was a walking encyclopedia for all things Sasquatch, Yeti, Yowie, Skunk Ape, Hairy Man, and even Harry Henderson. The idea of an 8-foot primate rampaging through the forest terrorizing campers is really my jam.

Although I now may no longer “believe” in the Bigfoot story as an actual thing that exists, I’m still a sucker for a good Sasquatch story. I couldn’t get to the bookstore fast enough when I heard that World War Z author Max Brooks had taken a crack at some Bigfoot horror with his novel Devolution (2020).

The story takes place after the eruption of Mt. Rainier... Read More

A Gift for a Ghost: Four young women express themselves through art

A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez (writing and art)

A Gift for a Ghost is a comic book of two intertwined stories, one from 1856 and the other from 2016. In 1856, a young woman, Teresa, talks with a skeleton, asking him why he is crying. After a short conversation, they go look at the stars. This scene is typical of the visions that Teresa has throughout the book. In 2016, another young woman, Gloria, gets dressed in her room, which is covered in music posters. A butterfly connects the two stories, flying out of 1856 into 2016, landing in Gloria’s room on the lampshade.

Gloria meets up with her two friends, Cristina and Laura. The three of them want to start a high school punk band — The Black Holes. Only they have one problem: None of them can play any instruments, of which Cristina has plenty in her basement, which is set up as a rehearsal room (decorated with rock posters and littered with horro... Read More

The House in the Cerulean Sea: A heartwarming fable of love and acceptance

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune 

You’re a second-class citizen, viewed with suspicion if you have magical powers in TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea (2020). Magical children are confined to orphanages that are overseen by the rigid bureaucracy of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). One of DICOMY’s most diligent, rule-abiding caseworkers is 40-year-old Linus Baker, a pudgy and — though he barely admits it to himself — deeply unhappy gay caseworker who lives in a lonely apartment in a city where it’s always raining and overcast.

One day Linus receives a special, top secret assignment from DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management: travel to an island orphanage for a month to investigate an orphanage of six children who are particularly uncommon in their magical aspects, as well as the orphanage’s master, Arthur Parnassus... Read More

The Original: A short SF thriller

The Original by Brandon Sanderson & Mary Robinette Kowal

Holly wakes up in the hospital. Her last memory is being at a party with Jonathan, her husband. The party was for a potter and she remembers being thrilled to actually be able to touch the clay – something real to feel and even deconstruct. She has no idea how she ended up in the hospital, and it takes a while to get some answers, but finally she learns that she has been cloned as a Provisional Replica because her real self (her Original) murdered her husband. She has four days to find her Original and bring it to justice.

Holly is confused because not only does she not remember killing her husband, but she loves him, they get along great, and the goriness of the murder doesn’t sound like her style. Yet, there is plenty of evidence that she is the culprit. As a provisional clone, Holly’s genes have been edited to give her the kinds of skills she needs to hunt down ... Read More

The Angel of the Crows: Too faithful to the originals

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

For about the first third or perhaps half of Katherine Addison’s newest, The Angel of the Crows (2020), I was thinking I was finally off the schneid, as it had been about two weeks since I’d really thoroughly enjoyed a novel I was reading. And I was definitely enjoying the pastiche of several Sherlock Holmes stories which basically boils down to “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” Which sounds like a lot of fun, and as noted, it was, at least for that first third or so. But then, well, it never really went anywhere beyond “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” and after about the halfway point my enjoyment began to falter, the story began to sag, and by the end I was left feeling that a neat... Read More

Ring Shout: The horrors of racism and hatred made tangible

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

In Ring Shout (2020), P. Djèlí Clark melds two types of horror, Lovecraftian monsters and the bloody rise of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 Georgia, as a group of black resistance fighters take on an enemy with frightening supernatural powers.

As Ku Klux Klan members march down the streets of Macon, Georgia on the Fourth of July, Maryse Boudreaux, who narrates the story, watches from a rooftop with her two companions, sharpshooter Sadie and former soldier Cordelia “Chef” Lawrence, a bomb expert. They’ve baited a trap for the “Ku Kluxes,” who are hellish demons that hide in disguise among the Klan humans, taking over the bodies of the worst of them. The trap works, but the silver pellets and iron slags contained in the bomb aren’t e... 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

Hench: A hilarious debut

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Anna Tromedlov (try reading that backwards) works at a temp agency that supplies minions to evil villains. Her expertise is in data analysis so, typically, her jobs involve spreadsheets and reports and she gets to work from home. This fits her personality nicely, plus it’s the safest way to work for an evil villain.

When her best friend June encourages her to take an on-site job, Anna agrees that it might be good for her. She is just beginning to add new skills to her resume when there’s a conflict between her boss and a superhero and she gets badly injured by the hero. Irate, she begins calculating the actual cost of superhero encounters. This is a life-changing event that sparks a whole new career for Anna.

I loved Hench (2020), the Locus-nominated debut novel of Natalie Zina Walschots, from the first paragraph. This fast-moving story is amusing, witty,... Read More

War of the Maps: A straightforward story in a fascinating world

War of the Maps by Paul McAuley

On an artificially created planet made up of numerous islands, a middle-aged man called the lucidor is stalking his prey. At first, we don’t know much about Remfrey He, the man the lucidor hunts, except that he’s an arrogant and corrupt man who, thanks to the lucidor’s detective work, was convicted and imprisoned years ago. But now he’s been set free because his skills will be helpful in fighting “the invasion,” a war with an unknown enemy which has brought genetically engineered monsters to the realm. These creatures are scary and deadly and Remfrey He says he can help the army defeat them.

But the lucidor believes that Remfrey He is the more terrible monster so, in protest, he has resigned from the department and set out to recapture his enemy. The lucidor’s former colleagues, though, have been ordered to stop the lucidor from interfering. Consequently, the lucidor is both hunter Read More

Beowulf: He was the man!

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

A couple of years ago I read Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (2018) which was a finalist for the Locus Award in 2019. Set in a wealthy suburb, the story was a promoted as a “modern retelling of Beowulf” and told from the perspectives of the mothers. I admired this novel and was therefore eager to read Headley’s new translation of Beowulf which also happens to be a Locus Award finalist in the Horror category this year.

While The Mere Wife was billed as a “retelling,” Beowulf: A New Translation is, as promised, a new modern translation of the epic poem. In the introduction to the piece, Headley explains her love of the poem (she’s been obsessed with it since seeing an illustration of Grendel’... Read More

Race to the Sun: An exciting and educational family story

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Nizhoni Begay wants to be a star, or at least popular. She’s hoping to make the game-winning score at her middle school basketball game but, instead, she’s humiliated when she gets distracted and gets hit in the face by the ball. The reason she was distracted was that she saw a man in the stands watching her. She could tell he was a monster. When that same man shows up at her house for dinner because he’s her dad’s new boss, Nizhoni tries to warn her father that he’s a monster but her father doesn’t believe her and seems very eager to please the monster.

When the new boss tells Nizhoni that she and her little brother Mac have powers he’s interested in, and then kidnaps their dad, it’s up to Nizhoni, Mac, and Nizhoni’s best friend Davery to rescue him.

This sets them on a quest in which they will need to find a map, solve riddles, pass tests, procure special weap... Read More

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires: Hilarious and horrifying

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Patricia Campbell and her neighbors are housewives in Charleston, South Carolina. Looking for friendship and something to talk about other than their husbands, children, housekeeping, and other neighbors, they form a book club. True Crime is their genre of choice.

After the ladies read Helter Skelter, Patricia laments that nothing exciting ever happens in their neighborhood:
“But don’t you wish that something exciting would happen around here?” Patricia asked. “Just once?”

Grace raised her eyebrows at Patricia.

“You wish that a gang of unwashed hippies would break into your house and murder your family and write ‘death to pigs’ in human blood on your walls because you don’t want to pack lunches anymore?”

“Well, not when you put it like ... Read More

The Ghost Tree: A well-rendered 1980s slasher that could have gone farther

The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

After I read Christina Henry’s 2020 horror novel The Ghost Tree, I did a bit of research on the writer. It seems like she is well-known for retelling fairy tales, usually with a dark (or darker) twist than the original. The Ghost Tree is not a fairy tale, as far as I can tell, although it has some fairy-tale elements. It’s a 1980s-style slasher horror novel. By the way, that’s what I thought I was getting when I bought it, so there is no mislabeling going on here.

Lauren DeMucci, nearly fifteen, has weighty problems on her shoulders. The year before, her father was murdered in the woods near their house, his heart torn out. The town police haven’t made any progress on solving the murder. Lauren’s best friend since the second grade, Miran... Read More

Cemetery Boys: A heart-warming coming-of-age tale

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Yadriel’s Latinx community in East Los Angeles practices brujería. The men are brujos who escort ghosts to their final resting place and the women are brujas who have healing powers. But Yadriel’s large close family has not supported his desire to be a brujo because he is transgender. Their community has strict gender roles, they don’t see him as a boy, and they don’t think the brujo magic will work for him (though the women’s bruja magic definitely doesn’t work for Yadriel).

Yadriel is determined to prove not only that he is a boy, but that he can be a brujo, too. Only his cousin Maritza believes in him and is willing to help Yadriel become a brujo so, together, without the rest of their family, they perform the ceremony. When they accidentally summon the ghost of a handsome boy named Julian, and when another cousin, Miguel, dies unexpectedly, the teens, though grieved, finally ... Read More

Upright Women Wanted: Subversive roaming librarians in a near-future U.S.A.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

After being betrothed to a man she doesn’t love and watching her secret lover, Beatriz, get hanged for aberrant behavior and possession of unapproved reading materials, Esther decides to run away. So she hides herself in the wagon of the traveling Librarians, the distributors of all approved reading materials, who are passing through her town.

When the stowaway is discovered, Esther attempts to convince the librarians that she always wanted to be one of them but, in reality, she is hoping their good morals and upright behavior will rub off on her so she will no longer feel deviant.

But that’s not going to happen, as Esther soon learns, because there’s a good reason why these women have chosen to remove themselves from regular society and become itinerant librarians. They don’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal social order endorsed by the approved reading materials t... Read More

Riot Baby: A short, intense, emotionally draining novel

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (2020), a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Novella, is a mind-expanding story about growing up Black in America. Kevin, the titular “riot baby,” was born in South Central Los Angeles during the riots of 1992 which were sparked by the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King after a traffic stop turned into a high-speed chase.

Before Kevin is born, Onyebuchi sets the scene by introducing Ella, Kev’s big sister. As a child, before the family moves to Harlem, we see Ella witnessing gang activity as she rides the school bus through South Central Los Angeles. On a day when it’s too hot to be inside, we see her watching a woman she calls her grandmother sweep bullet casin... Read More

The Crossroads at Midnight: An excellent collection of five horror stories

The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard (words & art)

In this wonderfully disturbing collection of five short horror stories in a 340-page book, Abby Howard takes us on five very different journeys. The Crossroads at Midnight is a near-perfect collection of tales, with flowing artwork that makes the horrific quite surprising when it makes its appearance. In the first story, “The Girl In the Fields,” we meet a teenager — about fifteen-years-old — who is misunderstood by their parents. They call their daughter by their given name — Francine. However, Francine insists on being called Frankie. Her less-than-progressive parents seem to be always ready to pick a fight with Frankie, and they are so intrusive as to read private information off of Frankie’s computer. Frankie does not back down from these fights, but does retreat to the backyard to lean against the fence crying. She is interrupted by a kind voic... Read More

Star Daughter: A fairly strong debut

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar

16-year-old Sheetal seems like any other normal Indian-American teenager. She’s close to her large family, has a best friend and a boyfriend, and she’s looking forward to going to college. What most people don’t know, though, is that her father, a famous astrophysicist, married a star.

Sheetal’s mother left years ago to ascend to her celestial court, and she told Sheetal never to let anybody suspect that she’s half star. To hide this fact, Sheetal dyes her silver hair black, but lately the hair dye has not been taking. Also, recently, as Sheetal approaches her 17th birthday, she has started to hear her mother’s starsong and doesn’t know what that means.

When Sheetal begins to realize she has some special powers and then accidentally causes her father to have a heart attack, she realizes she must visit her mother’s court to find a cure for him. When she arrives in the c... 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

Tower of Mud and Straw: A poignant tale of love and loss

Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov

Lord Shea Ashcroft, a government minister, faced with a rioting crowd of protestors in the capital city, makes the call to have the military fall back rather than killing the protestors — and innocent bystanders —with poisonous gas. Some people praise his mercy, but half the city now lies in ruins from the mob’s violence, and the queen is not so appreciative of his decision. Shea is shipped off to the border city of Owenbeg as punishment, charged with overseeing the finishing of construction of a colossal tower to protect the border against enemy airships. The tower is already a thousand feet high, with plans to add another thousand feet on top.

Things get complicated for Shea in Owenbeg, on both a personal and a political level. The duke of Owenbeg, his military commander, and the chief engineer of the tower all resent Shea, especially when Shea makes it clear that he won’t just... Read More

In the Palace of Shadow and Joy: Two more loveable rogues

In the Palace of Shadow and Joy by D.J. Butler

D.J. Butler tries his hand at the two-loveable-rogues-for-hire story and mostly succeeds.

Our two loveable rogues are Indrajit Twang and Fix. Indrajit is the poet of his very small clan of people. He has come to the great city of Kish to find (he hopes) an apprentice who can learn the epic poem of his race so it can be passed down to the next generation. If he does not succeed, all of the history and culture of these few hundred people will be lost.

But meanwhile, he’s in debt and needs to earn some money. When he hires on with a risk insurance merchant, he meets his new partner Fix, a curious and educated orphan who grew up in Kish. Indrajit and Fix’s job is to keep an eye on a famous opera star named Ilsa Without Peer. There’s been an insurance policy taken out on her and the risk merchant thin... Read More

A Beginning at the End: Personal struggles in a post-apocalyptic world

A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen

A Beginning at the End (2020) is set in a near-future world where, in 2019, a deadly worldwide pandemic kills some five billion people, including seventy percent of the U.S. population. Johanna Moira Hatfield, a teenage pop music star known as Mojo, tired of being browbeaten by her stage father, Evan, uses the sudden panic at her Madison Square Garden concert to disappear into the crowd in search of a new life.

Six years later, in San Francisco in 2025, MoJo has a new name, Moira Gorman, a job, and a fiancé who she’s not really in love with, but he represents stability in a society that’s still fragile and unstable, as well as safety from her father, who’s still looking for his MoJo. Moira’s wedding planner, Krista Deal, has a somewhat similar backstory: Krista faked her own death years ago to escape her drug-addicted, dysfunctional mother. Wedding planning isn... Read More

The Glass Hotel: A modern-day ghost story

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel rose to prominence with the extraordinary Station Eleven (which, given the current state of the world, is enjoying a resurgence on the best-seller lists), but her latest novel, The Glass Hotel (2020), is a very different kind of book.

The story begins with a young woman named Vincent disappearing from a ship, the Neptune Cumberland. In what has become Mandel's signature style, the story eschews chronology to skip backwards and forwards in time, piecing together the events of Vincent's life that lead her to those final moments aboard the Neptune Cumberland.

Skip backwards a few years and Vincent is a bartender at the prestigious Hotel Caiette o... Read More

The Midnight Library: A literary Sliding Doors

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Who hasn't fantasised what a different version of their life might look like? What if you'd become famous? Or an Olympic athlete? What if you'd become an arctic researcher? A musician? That's exactly what Matt Haig explores in his latest offering, The Midnight Library (2020).

Nora Seed (and note the pointed symbolism of her surname) is not having a great day. Her cat just died. She's been fired. Her brother is ignoring her and her neighbour, the only person she has any social contact with, doesn't need her to bring round his meds any more. So that night, she tries to kill herself.

Instead of death, however, Nora finds herself in a library where each volume on the shelf is a different version of her life. She is met by the librarian, a certain Mrs. Elm (who, coincidentally,... Read More

Trouble the Saints: A deeply, darkly magical Americana novel

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Trouble the Saints (2020), by Alaya Dawn Johnson, follows three people of color — Phyllis (whose friends call her Pea), Tamara and Dev — from the late 1930s into the American involvement in World War II. Not one of them is “ordinary”; Pea and Dev have “saint’s hands” that bestow a gift … or a curse. Tamara has inherited a deck of playing cards, and she’s an oracle. When the story opens, all three are trying to make a living working for the white gangster Victor in New York City.

Phyllis is light-skinned enough to pass for white, which she does, and the hands have given her the power to throw anything with amazing accuracy. She can balance things on her knuckles and the tips of her fingers; whatever she throws a knife at, she hits. The gangsters call her “Victor’s Angel,” meaning Angel of Death, and she is his assassin.
... Read More