2021


The Best of Walter Jon Williams: 12 smart stories

The Best of Walter Jon Williams by Walter Jon Williams

The Best of Walter Jon Williams (2021) is a 663-page tome containing, as its name implies, twelve of Walter Jon Williams’ best stories spanning four decades of his writing career. Fans will appreciate Subterranean Press’s beautiful hardcover edition of this collection (there’s also an audio edition). And for readers who aren’t familiar with this prolific writer, The Best of Walter Jon Williams is a good place to start getting to know him.

The book begins with an endearing introduction by fellow author Daniel Abraham who credits Williams with teaching him more about writing than “any other single source” in his career. After describing the breadth of Walter Jon W... Read More

Noor: Okorafor weaves another stunning imaginary world

Noor by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s 2021 Noor is a short, fast-paced science fiction novel. The futuristic energy delivery system called Noor, and the “Red Spot” dust storm are innovative, made plausible by Okorafor’s grounded writing and her fine eye for detail.

Anwuli calls herself AO for Artificial Organism. Considered “wrong” even before birth, AO was seriously injured in a car accident when she was a young adult. An experimental process gave her prosthetic limbs and cerebral implants. She is an outsider, tolerated, barely, because of her useful skills. Her peaceful life in a small Nigerian town ends when, on a trip to the market, a group of men attack her with no provocation. AO’s instinctive reaction leaves dead people in her wake, and her on the run, heading into the desert.

While she is es... Read More

The Ghost Sequences: Moody, thoughtful and disturbing

The Ghost Sequences by A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise’s 2021 story collection The Ghost Sequences delivers a sampler of her short fiction. As the name implies, nearly all are ghostly or eerie. Wise pays homage to North American (Lovecraftian) Gothic with two stories in particular, and examines the serial-killer/slasher genre in others. Despite the disturbing subject matter, Wise’s prose glimmers like a piece of abalone shell. The stories are disturbing and moody in the best way.

The book has sixteen stories; one, “Exhalation #10,” is novelette-length.

“The Way the Trick is Done:” A magician returns from the dead with the help of his girlfriend, but the ghost haunting him has other plans.

“The Stories We Tell About Ghosts:” In spite of the narrator’s promise to his vulnerable younger brother, he continues to use the “ghost finder” phone app the neig... Read More

The Sentence: A haunted bookshop is a window into America

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

“sentence (n)1. A grammatical unit comprising a word or a group of words that is separate from any other grammatical construction, and usually consists of at least one subject with its predicate and contains a finite verb or verb phrase; for example, ‘The door is open’ and ‘Go!’ are sentences.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Louise Erdrich’s metafictional ghost story The Sentence (2021) and she still managed to surprise me. Starting with the title, Erdrich addresses a number of issues in this story, told mostly by Tookie, who works at a bookstore in Minneapolis, owned by a well-known writer named Louise. Tookie is being haunted by Flora, a (dead) customer.

Tookie served ten years of a different kind of sentence, a sixty-year sentence for movin... Read More

Foundation: Season One: A mixed bag, but generally good

Foundation: Season One on Apple TV+

In my first review of Apple TV’s Foundation series, written after the first two shows, I said it wasn’t “great” TV (at least not yet) but ranged consistently between good and very good. Having just finished all ten episodes of season one, I’d broaden that range from “occasionally annoying to occasionally great.” In other words, it’s a mixed bag, which I suppose shouldn’t be much of a surprise for a series that mostly follows three plot strands, has multi-decade time jumps, and is itself based on a series of loosely connected short stories that were later retconned into a larger universal narrative. I’ll send you to my earlier review for the plot summation. Here, I’ll assume you know the basic plot. I will look at the three narrative strands separately, then consider the series as a whole. Some spoilers for various episodes to fo... Read More

Absynthe: Read it with the titular drink in hand for some extra fun

Absynthe by Brendan P. Bellecourt

Absynthe (2021) is the new novel by Brendan P. Bellecourt, the pen name of Bradley Beaulieu, author of the excellent SONG OF THE SHATTERED SANDS series. Talk about a change. Beaulieu leaves the desert far behind to head for the big noisy city in a complex Jazz Age/Psi-powers tale set in an alt-history US.

A decade ago America fought the Great War with the St. Lawrence Pact made up of Great Britain, Canada, France, and Germany. Liam Mulcahey is a veteran of that war, now working as a mechanic in Chicago, hanging out with his best friend and employer’s son Morgan, and taking care of his grandmother Nana. When he and Morgan attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new train and overseen by the current President, Leland De Pere (Liam’s former commander), violence ... Read More

The Annual Migration of Clouds: Hope gleams through a dark future

The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamad

Whether it’s writing weird horror, fantasy, science fiction or science horror fiction — a subgenre I think I just made up — Premee Mohamad is one of the best around right now, and she does great work in the novella length. Her latest example is 2021’s The Annual Migration of Clouds, a short, harrowing work set in a tight-knit community surviving after catastrophic climate change and a loss of arable topsoil.

Reid is a teenaged girl in a small, successful community. This group is egalitarian, with each person doing their part to keep things running, even though they have no farmland, no electricity, and little in the way of medicine. Reid is one of the miraculously lucky few who just got an invitation to Howse University, an enclave of pre-disaster learning and... Read More

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth by Henry Gee

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters (2021), by Henry Gee is a, stay with me here, concisely told history of life on Earth. Really, it’s all in the title there. So you pretty much know upfront what you’re going to get. A broad, but not deep, fast-paced glide through the major elements of how life evolved from its earliest bacteria days to the more complex (if not “better”) days of, well, us. So put the goggles on and tie down any loose items, because billions and millions of years are going to fly by in a matter of a few pages.

The first chapter, after dispensing with the formation of the solar system and our planet in about five pages, covers the first few billion years on the planet: its atmosphere and geology, and the surprisingly early appearance of life in the form of cyanobacteria followed by eukaryotes an... Read More

The Wheel of Time: The wheel spins a little too slowly

The Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime

Let’s face it, this is a Big One for sci-fi/fantasy fans. The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time dropped on Amazon Prime, and I promptly watched all three. In the spirit of full transparency, let me say that while I quite enjoyed Robert Jordan’s first three books, I felt the series started to decline at that point and kept going south, such that my final word on the series (which I did finish in masochistic fashion) was that I wouldn’t recommend the time investment to anyone thinking about starting it. So why watch the show? My hope is that it greatly streamlines a heavily bloated series, cleans up the many gender issues, and gets rid of all the writerly tics (if I never see a braid get “tugged” I’ll nominate the show for an Emmy). I can’t tell yet if that’ll be the case, but here are my thoughts so far.

I’ll... Read More

Comfort Me With Apples: All happy families are (not) alike

Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente

Sophia’s life is perfect. She adores her husband, her company is much sought-after in the luxurious gated community she and her various neighbors share, she has endless tasks and joys to fill the long days while she waits for her husband to return from his various freelancing jobs. So why does everyone keep asking if she’s happy? Why has her husband forbidden her from breaching their home’s basement? Everything is perfect … right?

It would be easy to call Comfort Me With Apples (2021) a retelling of the “Bluebeard” folktale, and that’s part of what Catherynne M. Valente is doing in this slim novella, but that’s not where the story ends — Valente’s also drawing from other, older, darker source... Read More

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next by Jeanette Winterson

In 12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next (2021), Jeanette Winterson offers up a dozen essays on Artificial Intelligence divided into four sections: “How we got here” (a dip into the history of computing), “What’s Your Superpower” (a philosophical/religious change in vision of matter), “Sex and Other Stories” (AI’s potential impact on love and sex), and “The Future” (what will change and what might not with the advent of AI). The essays are generally interesting and well written; there’s really not a “bad” one in the bunch. They do, however, still range somewhat in impact; in her introduction Winterson notes her “aim is modest,” and some of the essays, admittedly, don’t exceed that relatively humble goal.
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Foundation: First two episodes: Stunningly Gorgeous

Foundation created by David S. Goyer & Josh Friedman

What you need to know first about Apple TV’s Foundation is that it is stunningly gorgeous to look at. Seriously. Gorgeous. Do not watch it on your phone. Do not, if you can avoid it, watch it on your laptop. This deserves, no, it cries out for, as large a TV with as good a screen as you can see it on. Honestly, if Apple released it to a theater I’d happily watch it there. Too many TV shows seem to forget or not care that TV is a visual medium, whether due to expense or lack of necessity or other reasons. Take away sitcoms, cop shows, and medical shows, which, with very few exceptions, rarely even try to mine the cinematic potential of television, and we’re left with very little in the way of visual delight on TV. Foundation doesn’t just mine the medium, it hits the motherlode. Not just eye-candy spectacle, but rich splendor. Now, does that make ... Read More

Lights of Prague: I wasn’t the audience for this one

The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis

The Lights of Prague (2021) is Nicole Jarvis’s first novel. It’s set in 1868 Prague, filled with pijavica* — vampires — and other magical creatures. Fighting the pijavica are the lamplighters, whose cover job is to go around lighting the new gas streetlamps in the city. Domek Myska is a lamplighter, apprenticed to an irascible alchemist. Lady Ora Fischerova is a widowed noblewoman with a secret, who has started up a flirtation with Domek. A bold and terrible plan hatched by an upstart nest of vampires threatens them and the entire city.

At first glance, a story like this should be right up my street. Lovely prose, detailed history and descriptions of Prague helped, but ultimately, flattened characters and a predictable plot made this book a disappointment.

The most beguiling character of the book is Kaja, an imprisoned will o’... Read More

Under the Whispering Door: A warm-hearted meditation on death

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

When I got to the scene in Under the Whispering Door (2021) featuring an opportunistic “medium” being messed with by two ghosts, I started laughing so hard I fell over sideways on the loveseat. My husband kept saying, “What? What?” and I could only gasp, “You’ll… have to read it yourself.”

You’ll have to read it yourselves, too.

2021’s Under the Whispering Door is TJ Klune’s second fantasy book marketed to adults. His first was The House in the Cerulean Sea. Under the Whispering Door is a more personal book for Klune; he says in his afterword that he wrote it as a way of coming to grips with grief and loss. Despite the seriousness of the topic, the book is ... Read More

Dune: Lovely to see, but lacks character depth

Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve

It’s been many a year since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune, so I can’t say with any authority where in the book Denis Villeneuve ends his film version, but I do feel comfortable saying it was too far. Because even at roughly 2 ½ hours, Dune the movie is too short to do justice to Dune the book. In fact, as that became more and more evident, I found myself thinking even more frequently that if Peter Jackson could get three movies out of The Hobbit (ignoring that he really didn’t), then Villeneuve should have been given three movies for Dune, not only a longer work but also a much more densely complex one. ... Read More

Medusa: A powerful retelling

Medusa by Jessie Burton 

If I told you that I'd killed a man with a glance, would you wait to hear the rest?

This question opens Jessie Burton's latest novel, Medusa (2021), a feminist retelling of the famous Greek myth. Told through the eyes of the snake-headed Medusa herself, the story reframes her tale as Burton uses myth to examine our own culture of victim-blaming, slut-shaming and toxic masculinity, provoking the question: Is Medusa truly a monster?

We meet Medusa as she stands on the edge of a cliff on the island she's been banished to, just as Perseus – the boy down below, on his boat – arrives on her shores. Medusa knows it is safest to remain hidden, but when her dog Argentus greets Perseus' dog Orado, she is forced down to the shore. She remains hidden as she talks to ... Read More

The Many Deaths of Laila Starr: Contemplative comic on death and memory

The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V (writer) and Filipe Andrade (art)

I really like this comic book by Ram V and Filipe Andrade: It tells the story of a man who has to meet with the former Goddess of Death once every decade or so. When a baby, prophesized to one day create immortality, was born, Laila Starr lost her job as Goddess of Death. She is returned to earth in a mortal body of a woman who just died and seeks out the baby to kill it. But with the baby in her hands in the hospital nursery, she is unable to do the unspeakable. Pursued by police at the hospital, she makes her escape. At the end of issue one (of five), Laila dies for the first time.

The multiple lives of Laila and the baby—Darius—are intertwined in this story. We get the story of Darius as a twenty-year-old in issue three enjoying, first, being in love and then, suffering his first breakup. With issues four and five, we see him get older by many years, ... Read More

Harlem Shuffle: Another twist from a master storyteller

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

One thing we can be sure to expect from Colson Whitehead is the unexpected. The double Pulitzer Prize winner shot to fame with the alternate history (and FanLit favourite) The Underground Railroad. He debuted with speculative fiction, later wrote a zombie novel, and his work now takes another twist: a heist novel, in the form of his latest release, Harlem Shuffle (2021).

The book follows Ray Carney, a furniture salesman in 1950s - 1960s Harlem. His wife, Elizabeth, is expecting their second child, so when Ray's cousin Freddie — ever the liability — comes to him with the proposition to rob the Hotel Theresa, it's easy to understand why Ray is reluctant to get involved.
... Read More

Cloud Cuckoo Land: Transcends the sum of its parts

Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

What do a pair of young kids on the opposite sides of the fall of Constantinople, the protagonist of an ancient Greek tale, an eco-terrorist, a Korean war vet and former prisoner-of-war, and a young girl on a generation ship have in common? Well, besides all being major characters in Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021). To find out what else ties them all together, you’ll have to read the book, which I do recommend despite some issues.

I’m going to leave the plot summary such as it is to the introduction, as part of the pleasure of Cloud Cuckoo Land is sorting through the pieces and seeing how they all fit together. Structurally, as you might guess, the novel’s a bit l... Read More

And What Can We Offer You Tonight: Dreamlike, angry horror

And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed

Premee Mohamed’s novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight (2021) is set in a drowning city where human life is not cheap — it’s worthless. If starvation, violence or disease doesn’t kill you, probably one of the routine government “culls” will, unless you are one of the uber-wealthy, living elsewhere and treating the city like a personal playground/hunting-ground, or a person who services the very wealthy. This leads us to Jewel, our first-person narrator, a courtesan in an elite, exclusive and very expensive “house,” the House of Bicchieri.

Jewel gets a portion of every client’s payment, and a share of any tips; it seems like she would have enough money to escape the “gilded cage” in which she lives, if she wanted to, but the courtesans must... Read More

The Icepick Surgeon: An intriguing rogue’s gallery of scientific criminals

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam Kean 

Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.

~ Albert Einstein

Sam Kean is my favorite pop science author, ever since I read Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us in 2017. Kean has an engaging voice, a solid understanding of science, and a talent for telling stories, making complex subjects both intelligible and interesting to non-scientific readers (tellingly, he studied both physics and English literature). In his latest book, The Icepick Surgeon (2021), Kean turns his attention to the many ways in which science has been twisted to sinis... Read More

The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars

The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden

Simon Morden’s The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars (2021) is a detailed look at the history of Mars’ geology, and there lies both its appeal and, for some, perhaps, its lack of appeal. As fascinating as much of the book is, I confess it sometimes got a little too deep into the weeds (or the rock formations) for my own preferences, though having “too much information” is hardly a major indictment for a non-fiction work. And certainly the questions about how much water Mars had and when/for how long are fascinating, as is their connection to the possibility of life on the supposedly “dead” planet.

Morden begins, well, at the beginning. Or technically, if we’re talking about Mars, before the beginning, starting instead with the formation of the solar system and then explaining how the various planets, including Mar... Read More

The Escapement: Brilliantly weird (or possibly weirdly brilliant)

The Escapement by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar’s The Escapement (2021)is a fantastic and fantastical fever dream of a novel, a Weird Western via Lewis Carroll, Gilgamesh if had been translated and illustrated by Norton Juster and scored by Ennio Morricone, The Searchers if it had starred Buster Keaton, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had it been directed by David Lynch from a screenplay co-written by Steven King, Raymond Carver, and Italo Calvino and storyboarded by Salvador Dali. It’s a wondrous riot of imagination that veers back and forth from horrific to heartbreaking to laugh-out-loud funny to macabre to absurdist. Defying genre, defying ... Read More

Bacchanal: Trapped souls, a dark carnival and a quest for belonging

Bacchanal by Veronica G. Henry

In the northern hemisphere, it’s heading for autumn, when nature slows and sleeps, when days get shorter, and tales get spookier. It’s the time of year for “dark carnival” tales, and Veronica G. Henry provides us with a new one, Bacchanal (2021), her debut novel.

In the late 1930s, The G.B Bacchanal Carnival makes the south-and-southwest circuit of the USA, and along the way they often pick up new acts. Clay, a red-haired white man from Chicago, is the “face” of the carnival, but all the acts are Black performers. Clay and his lieutenant, Jamey, a Black man born in the south, scout for talent. The people they hire are not your average performers; they all have a touch of magic. And Clay, for all his apparent authority, is not the boss of the operation. That position is held by a powerful African demon, Ahiku, who uses the carnival to search for (... Read More

Among Thieves: A fun, light read

Among Thieves by M.J. Kuhn

Among Thieves (2021), by M.J. Kuhn, is a sort of two-tier book for me. On the one hand, it’s a fast-paced heist novel that speeds along amiably, easily, and with some humor. On the other hand, it’s somewhat of a paint-by-number heist novel that doesn’t really add anything new to the genre and skimps a bit on characterization and world-building. If it’s your first experience with this type of story, or you’re a younger reader, and/or someone who prefers plot-driven rather than character-driven stories, then it’s probably in the 3.5-4.0-star range. If you’ve read similar works, though, or look for more substance and originality in your characters, it’s more likely a 3.0 or, if you’re grumpy that day, a 2.5.

Ryia Cautella, aka the Butcher of Carrowwick, is the deadly, merciless, ax... Read More