Wednesday, December 9, 2020

SHAPERS OF WORLDS, edited by Edward Willett

Shapers of Worlds is an anthology based on the Worldshapers podcast, a science fiction podcast, by which I mean it is a podcast about science fiction, not a podcast that consists of science fiction. Instead of audio stories, it consists of interviews with SFF authors. This anthology consists of a mix of both new stories  and reprints. 

This collection feels rather uneven to me. Just a look at the contents list shows a vast difference in the types of authors included. Highlights are short pieces by John Scalzi and Seanan McGuire, two of my favorite authors and clearly superstars in the field. Surprising is the inclusion of a work by John C. Wright, a Sad Puppy who I think would be shocked to find himself in the same anthology as Scalzi. Frankly, I have no interest in reading anything of his and skipped his story entirely. Overall, a mixed bag of stories. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Chaos on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer

This book is like a warm hug!!!!

I first encountered Naomi Kritzer’s writing when her short story “Cat Pictures, Please” was nominated (and later won) the Hugo Award. It was just delightful in every way and I cannot recommend it enough. It’s about a benevolent artificial intelligence that just wants to help people and to look at pictures of cats. 

Later, Ms. Kritzer took this premise and turned it into the award winning Catfishing on Catnet, in which the AI hangs out with a bunch of teens in a chat room and helps out when the protagonist is pursued by her stalker of a father.  It is a delight and deserves every award it won. (And more!)

Ms. Kritzer follows it up with this novel, Chaos on Catnet, which follows up on some threads left hanging in the last novel, specifically, is there another AI out there and is it benevolent? 

I was so thrilled when Tor Teen and NetGalley approved me for an eARC in exchange for an honest review!

Steph, the protagonist of the last novel, is back l, and she and her mother are more stable this time around. A new character is also introduced, Nell, who has just left a cult and is having a hard time adjusting. Once again, the author creates a fast paced thriller suitable for a teen audience that celebrates found family and asserting one’s identity. 

I predict this book will be on the Lodestar ballot next year - it’ll certainly be on mine!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020


I’m beginning to think I like anthologies. 

I know Mur Lafferty from Six Wakes, her locked room clone murder mystery inspired by one of my favorite video games. So I was excited to see she had co-edited an anthology. I didn’t realize it was based on Escape Pod, her fiction podcast! This is chock full of excellent stores by many of the biggest names in SFF, from John Scalzi to Mary Robinette Kowal. I especially liked Kameron Hurley’s short story about time travelers trying to fix a future they no longer remember. N. K. Jemisin’s story felt more cute than good to me - I think I prefer her works long form when they have a chance to breathe. But that is the beauty of an anthology like this one - if a story isn’t to your taste, another one will be along in a few pages!

Thanks to NetGalley for an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

The Saints of Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

 I love Peter F. Hamilton’s work. I love the Commonwealth Saga and I especially love the Great North Road. So I was excited a few years ago when the Salvation Sequence began. The first book was fun! It was like a hard sf Canterbury Tales, or reminiscent of Hyperion - a bunch of travelers telling their stories which contained an overarching narrative ending with a dramatic twist. Then, in book 2, it seemed to take an odd turn - a bunch of new characters were introduced and the alien invasion seemed to drag on way too slowly while the preexisting characters got short shrift. It felt like middle book syndrome, where not much could happen or it would rush the conclusion. 

Now we are at book 3, the conclusion. (And thank you to NetGalley for a free eARC in exchange for an honest review.) So how was it? Disappointing. The story of the new characters from book 2, the last survivor of the criminal gang and his love interest, are quickly dispatched from the plot, their narrative purpose spent. The characters from book 1 have lost all of their nuance and individual voice. All except Yirella, a character from the far future time frame who has the most to do but without a huge amount of explanation why she is the only one who can see the problems, let alone the solutions. 

The other disappointing part of the story is that it felt over the first two books that there was something else going on with the alien invaders, the other alien species that opposed them from the shadows, and the mysterious deity at the end of time that the invaders worshipped. I was expecting a final book revelation that the aliens were all related, that humans in the future had sparked the entire alien pilgrimage, something! But no. The alien invaders remain two-dimensional, the mysterious plot threads are left unaddressed. 

I don’t regret reading this, because lesser Peter F. Hamilton novels are still enjoyable space opera, but I cannot say that I was fully satisfied when I finished this book. Til next time, Mr. Hamilton. I look forward to your next series. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

This book was so much fun! Fantastic! Last year, I remember hearing more buzz about Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir than about any other ten books combined. Every sentence about it had at least one exclamation mark at the end.  It was that kind of book. When I finally got a copy of it and read it, I was underwhelmed. I liked the characters and parts of the setting, but I found the language and style detracted from the plot. I also couldn’t keep the giant cast of characters straight. I wish I had read this book first. 

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower is a fantasy novella that is about half fairy tale deconstruction, and half D&D random monster generator delightfulness. A princess, trapped in a tower by a witch, starts getting tired of princes to rescue her and starts to rescue herself. A delightful premise that is wonderfully executed. It is a joy to read and I look forward to more books by Ms. Muir in the future. Thanks to NetGalley for a free eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Take a Look at the Five and Ten by Connie Willis

I love Connie Willis. She is my favorite living author. She may be my favorite of all time. I still remember the first book of hers that I read - I got a copy of Doomsday Book from the science fiction book club when it came out on the 90s. It took my breath away. Her books make me laugh and make me cry and I wish I hadn’t read them all already because reading one off her books. for the first time is a singular treat. 

I have had the pleasure of meeting her twice at conventions and I treasure those moments. 

So I was thrilled when Subterranean Press and NetGalley approved me for an eARC of Take a Look at the Five and Ten, her new holiday novella. I had already preordered a hard copy from Subterranean, but I was happy to read it early! 

I didn’t just read it - I devoured it! It was so good! It had all the hallmarks of a great Connie Willis story - scientist just trying to get some data, two people falling for each other who don’t realize it, irritating relatives, and people who genuinely love Christmas. 

As a Non-Christian married to a Christian person, I have a very nuanced and off view of Christmas. But I love how Connie Willis loves Christmas unashamedly and how she infused her love and joy into all of her works. 

I cannot recommend this enough. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

 I first discovered Rebecca Roanhorse when her short story "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™”, was nominated for a Hugo Award.  I loved it and her! Her writing style is crisp and It pulls you in right away.  When Trail of Lightning, her first novel, was nominated for awards the next year, I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I felt like it had some “first novel” roughness but was altogether enjoyable.  The sequel, Storm of Locusts, was even better! So I was thrilled when NetGalley and Saga Press gave me an eARC of her new secondary world fantasy novel, Black Sun. It was fantastic! Roanhorse has really come into her full powers as a novelist and storyteller. The characters are well drawn with understandable flaws based on their backgrounds and upbringings. There are four point of view characters in this book, who don’t all get equal attention. One of my only complaints about the book is that one of the point of view characters, the son of the crow tribe, is not introduced until it felt like halfway through the book. He seemed to get short shrift compared to the others. The only other complaints that I had are incredibly minor. I would have preferred that the book had come with a content warning for some body horror and parent-on-child violence in the first chapter. I understand why that occurred from a narrative standpoint, but it made me feel all squick and I could see a lot of people getting a really negative emotional reaction to it. I also had forgotten until about 7/8 of the way through the book that it was the first part of a trilogy so I was upset with the ending was such a cliffhanger! I can’t wait until the next volume comes out. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

 I discovered Yoon Ha Lee, as many people did, with Ninefox Gambit.  That book hit me like a freight train - there was so much happening, and I didn’t know if I understood half of it,  it what I did get, I loved.  I devoured the Machineries of Empire series and have been saving the short stories, reading them slowly, because I don’t want them to end.  Last year, I read his YA novel, Dragon Pearl, which I frankly did not love.  I’m not sure if I just found the plot too haphazard, or if the YA tone didn’t work for me, or if I didn’t enjoy the Space Fantasy aspects, but when I read it, I kept thinking two things: this protagonist is making all of the wrong choices, and the writing style is too simplistic and is turning me off.  

When I found out Yoon Ha Lee had another book coming out, I was excited, but a tad hesitant after Dragon Pearl.  Phoenix Extravagant was billed as a straight fantasy (which it certainly is!) and I usually prefer science fiction, but I was happy to read it when I got an eARC from NetGalley.  I enjoyed it much more than Dragon Pearl, but still not nearly as much as the Machineries of Empire series.

In Phoenix Extravagant, the protagonist is an out of work artist who goes to work for the occupying government without realizing what they are getting into.  Like thr protagonist in dragon pearl, I was irritated at the naïveté of the protagonist in this volume. I just felt like they were far stupider than I thought they should be and that made the book less enjoyable for me to read. I understand that the protagonist needed to learn valuable lessons about the world in which they lived, but that didn’t make it fun for me to have to go on the journey with them. Furthermore, I didn’t feel that the romance in this book was earned. The love interest seems so awful early in the book that I could not get over the initial characterization and therefore could not except the relationship. I might’ve enjoyed it more if I could have gotten the point of you of the love interest, but the book kept the perspective strictly on the protagonist, which I felt was to its detriment. 

On the other hand, there is a fascinating artificial intelligence in this novel. I won’t spoil what it is or how it comes about, but it was far and away my favorite character in the entire book. I realized, while reading this volume, that my favorite part of the author’s previous trilogy was the robot characters. I would love to read more books by Yoon Ha Lee from a robotic character’s perspective. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy this novel; I did like it and would recommend it. I just think it suffers in comparison to the author’s earlier work.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass by ADAN JERREAT-POOLE


This is a beautifully written fantasy book that was not for me. I believe that I requested an e ARC of this book (thanks, NetGalley!) because I saw that Seanan McGuire mentioned liking it on Twitter. I’m usually in synch with her taste but not always. Adam Jerreat-Poole has written a lyrical fantasy about a witch’s assassin whose job it is to travel from the witch’s realm to the human world to kill ghosts. They  have an amazing skill and artistry in word choice and lovingly descriptive sentences. The first chapter was amazing, but once the protagonist Eli left the human world for the witchy one, I had a hard time keeping up and maintaining interest. I couldn’t muster the energy to break down the poetry of the author’s language to really get into the story. I loved the human characters Tav and Cam. The story ends with them all having breakfast in an apartment together, and that’s the book I want to read - the non fantasy where those three interesting people wake up late, have brunch, go to a coffeeshop, and live their lives. I will definitely look for other books by Jerreat-Poole in the future, but maybe not in this series. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Slaughterhouse-Five: The Graphic Novel by Ryan North; Kurt Vonnegut

I will read anything Ryan North writes.  He is a brilliant, funny, insightful author.  I first came to know his work through The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which is the best comic book series ever.  Period.  Full stop.  Subsequently, I sought out his other works, like his brilliant Romeo and/or Juliet and his self published book based off of his tumblr B to the F, where he recaps the bizarre novelization of Back to the Future page by page.  So when I saw that NetGalley had an eARC of his to request I jumped at it before I even realized what it was.  It turned out to be a hauntingly evocative graphic novelization of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I have never read any Vonnegut before - I think I had bounced off of his writing style back in high school.  But this graphic novel perfectly distilled the essence of the original book with perfect visuals. A comic is one of the best ways to tell a story about someone unstuck in time, because each panel is a frozen moment that still manages to convey movement.  Ryan North did a fantastic job here.  You should totally check this out!

Friday, August 28, 2020

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

This is the best superhero novel that I’ve read in years!!! I follow Seanan McGuire’s twitter feed, and I pay special attention to her book reviews, because I know she reads a lot of ARCs and I know she only writes about things she loved. So I knew that when Hench showed up on NetGalley I needed to request it. Thankfully, I got an eARC because it meant I got to read it early!!! Hench is a book told from the point of view of Anna, a woman with a talent for spreadsheets and data analysis who works as hired help for supervillains. This is a world where villains can be Evil when they try to extort the mayor and equally evil when they fail to provide medical benefits. Anna has a fascinating journey exposing all of the flaws of the Good vs Evil tropes that make up this subgenre. This book compares quite favorably to The Velveteen Vs. series by Seanan McGuire and to Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, and I can’t wait to read the next book by Natalie Zina Walschots. This is a must buy!!

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

I don’t like horror. I never wanted to watch scary movies as a kid. I got nightmares from E.T. I never saw anything with Freddy or Jason. So I would never ordinarily have been on the lookout for a book like The Holllow Places by T. Kingfisher, except for the fact that T. Kingfisher is also Ursula Vernon. Ms. Vernon is the author of the Hamster Princess books, which my daughter enjoys, and is a delight on Twitter (I highly recommend her thread explaining what happens when she tried the Ancient Greek method of using pottery shards in place of toilet paper). Furthermore, I recall Seanan McGuire effusively praising last year’s Kingfisher horror novel, The Twisted Ones so much that I just had to buy it ( but have not read yet). In addition, her novella Minor Mage was absolutely delightful and I cannot recommend it enough. So I decided to be brave and request an eARC of The Hollow Places. And I am SO glad that I did. The Hollow Places was fantastic. The protagonist is a recent divorcée who moves in with her uncle into a room in his tiny small town museum of taxidermy and oddities. There she and the barista next door find a portal to another world, a terrifying place of willows that are not quite willows. The characters are amazingly detailed and feel so real and the fantastical elements impinge on the story so gradually that you never lose your suspension of misbelief. The mysteries are meaty and satisfying, though the final reveal felt a little out of left field. Only a little though - the wackiness of the museum of oddities setting did help sell it. It worked in the context mostly, but it was the only  weak point in an otherwise excellent novel. I’m so glad I read this book! Much thanks to NetGalley and the publisher!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

A Killing Frost by Seanan McGuire


Short version of review: excellent book but don’t start here! It’s worth it to read this series from the beginning!

Longer version: I love Seanan McGuire. She has quickly become my favorite living writer and I feel very lucky that she is so prolific. I was first introduced to her work when her book Parasite , written as Mira Grant, was nominated for a Hugo Award. I loved it and quickly devoured the Newsflesh series before I realized that Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire were the same person. 

I started reading her works under her own name, starting with Sparrow Hill Road, which is amazing, but I picked it because I was intimidated by her long running October Daye series. I had read some Urban Fantasy before, and I fondly remember Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde books, but my tastes run more to science fiction and then secondary world fantasy, so I was hesitant to dive into such a long series. I picked up the first book, Rosemary and Rue, when it was on sale as a kindle daily deal, and I found it disappointing compared to her other work. I reminded myself that it was her first published novel, so I cut it some slack. Then Incryptid was nominated for the Best Series Hugo in 2018 and I dove into that instead. I loved it! So I vowed to give Toby another chance. And I was so glad that I did! It is no one of my favorite series. 

I was overjoyed when The publisher and NetGalley awarded me an eARC of A Killing Frost, book fourteen of this series. It is fantastic, but you should NOT dive into this unprepared. You need to read the previous volumes to really appreciate how much a master of her craft Ms. McGuire truly is. 

As the author herself has commented more than once, writing a fulfilling well planned out series is a different challenge than just writing one good standalone book. Each book in the series has to be rewarding and stand alone, while building on what came before in a way that feels fair and giving clues and hints for the future. It is no small task, and there is a reason that Seanan McGuire has been on the Hugo ballot every year the Best Series Award has existed. 

Based on A Killing Frost, I plan on nominating the October Daye series for Best Series Hugo once again and this time I bet it wins!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Seven Devils by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May

I had never heard of Laura Lam until earlier this year when I read her book Goldilocks. It was quite enjoyable, and I made sure to note her down on my list of “authors I want to read more of.”  So when I saw that she and Elizabeth May had a new space opera book coming out, I quickly requested an eARC from NetGalley. I’m glad I did! 

Although this book is far less “hard sf” than Goldilocks was, it shares that book’s careful exploration of character. It’s also a rollicking adventure with lots of twists and excitement. Totally recommend it!

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Year's Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 Edited by Jonathan Strahan

As I have said before, I am wary of anthologies - I worry about changes in quality and tonal whiplash between stories in themed multi-author collections.  However, when I saw that Saga Press was launching a new series of the year’s best science fiction anthologies called The Year’s Best Science Fiction vol 1 edited by Jonathan Strahan with the best of 2019’s short fiction, I figured it would be a good bet and requested an eARC from NetGalley.  I wasn’t wrong! This collection is full of excellent stories.   Are they necessarily what I would have picked personally? No, but I can’t argue that there is a dud in the bunch.  It contains many of this year’s Hugo nominees, like “As the Last I May Know” by S. L. Huang and “A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde. (Fun fact - I met Fran Wilde at NYCC a few years ago and she made my day by complimenting me on the Wonder Twins tshirt I was wearing.) Among my favorites are Hugo nominee “Emergency Skin” by N. K. Jemisin.  This story was a fascinating, surprising take on a post-Apocalyptic earth with a very unreliable second person narrator.  So much fun! I also loved “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders, which was full of warmth and heart and really made me miss going to bookstores during this pandemic.  Probably my favorite story from the entire collection is “I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now 000 my parents think we’re getting married” by Fonda Lee.  Written in an incredibly realistic style of a series of internet posts, it is a cheeky yet introspective look at technology and relationships in the digital age.   A great anthology all round.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Annihilation Aria, by Michael R. Underwood

I regularly read Seanan McGuire’s twitter. She often tweets about ARCs that she has read and enjoyed.  I usually request those books from NetGalley, and I usually enjoy them.  So when I saw Annihilation Aria, by Michael R. Underwood available, I requested an eARC of it.  Sadly, Annihilation Aria did not work for me.  Billed as a space opera, it felt more like space fantasy.  It was long I’m tired tropes and short on new ideas and characterization.  This book was all tell and no show.  Two of the three main characters are supposed to be a married couple in love, but nothing they do ever makes me believe that they’re going steady, let alone married.  The aliens have no distinguishing characteristics to differentiate them from each other.  I was shocked when I found out that this was not the work of a first time author.  In the acknowledgements, Mr. Underwood explains that he was trying to write a novel that recaptured the feel of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy (which to me feels much more cosmic comic than space opera, but I can see that that is a minor distinction).  That made sense, since many of the story beats were lifted directly from that movie.  The author also pats himself on the back for having his male protagonist be a black man from Baltimore, but absolutely nothing about the text made him seem any more than just a cipher, like all of the other characters.  Furthermore, the third main character, not a member of the couple, a character named Wheel (get it? She’s a third wheel!), repeatedly betrays the couple’s trust by keeping massive secrets and nothing ever comes of it! The book is not all bad.  It was mildly diverting but, overall, not worth your time.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

This book is gosh darned delightful. 

I was tempted to leave my review at that but I guess I should say more. 

Like many people, I first encountered Katherine Addison when I found the Goblin Emperor on a bunch of awards ballots. I was immediately enchanted. Within six months of reading it, I doubled back and listened to the audiobook. Goblin Emperor is charming and delightful and wonderful and even deeper than I realized the first time though. 

So I was thrilled beyond belief when Tor and NetGalley gave me an eARC for her new book, the Angel of the Crows. (I must’ve spent 15 minutes trying to explain to my bemused wife why I was so excited.) 

I have a shameful secret I must confess: when I start a new book, I often skip to the end to read the acknowledgments. I don’t exactly know why. I’ve been doing it for at least the last thirty years. I think it comes from reading single-author short story collections that have forwards and afterwards and really enjoying the authorial insight. I don’t want to have to wait until the end of a novel to get that insight, so I skip ahead. 

And am I glad I did! 

<spoiler alert> 

Ms. Addison explains at the end of the novel that this books genesis was in fanfic. Specifically, something called wingfic (which I have never heard of before, but is fanfic where a character has wings). She explained that the story began as wingfic from the BBC show Sherlock, the one with Benedict Cumberbatch. Understanding the DNA of the story really made me appreciate it more. 

The Sherlock analog is Crow, the angel of London, and the Watson analog is Dr. Doyle, and they become roommates and solve mysteries together in a world where werewolves and vampires are commonplace and it’s just wonderful! Sorry to gush. But as I said at the beginning, this book delights me to no end. The only possible complaint I could have with this book is that it feels a little episodic and the overarching plot seems thin, except that the overarching plot isn’t the heart of this novel, but instead it is the characters and relationships. 

I cannot enthuse enough about this book. Go buy it right now!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Planetfall was amazing.  I didn’t know what to expect going into this book, but I stayed up every night of my summer vacation last year to finish it.  Fully realized characters, a fascinating world, and an excellent mystery.  I felt the hoarder’s point of view was so reasonable, it took me by surprise when I realized the extent of her problem.  I can’t wait to read more by this author.

Spy, Spy Again by Mercedes Lackey

I have loved Mercedes Lackey’s books for thirty years. I still have the SFBC omnibus of the Last Herald Mage trilogy on my shelf. I can’t tell you how many times I read it. It was probably my first reading experience with gay characters and it probably helped me to be open and welcoming to my friends who came out a few years after I read it. 

I haven’t read many of her Valdemar books in the last few years. I read the Collegium Chronicles series, which was fun, but I felt it dragged on too long, with too many kidnappings, and Mags’s accent drove me bananas. I lost touch with the series when my library stopped buying the ebooks of the Herald Spy series after Closer to Home, so I was very excited to see what happened to Mags and his kids when NetGalley and the publisher gave me an eARC of Spy, Spy Again, the third volume in the series focusing on Mags’s kids. 

Sadly, I found this tale disappointing. Instead of the interesting coming of age tale the blurb was promising, this book was a boring slog with paper-thin characters. Perhaps I missed something by not reading the preceding volumes? Mags’s cipher of a son and a boring Valdemarian prince are enlisted to help one of Mags’s assassin cousins to rescue another assassin cousin who has been captured. Lackey does nothing here to make me like the assassin family or culture. They kill for money and nothing in the text explains why these characters should be likable. Yet every other chapter is spent with Sira, assassin who is kidnapped by Karsites. Why was she kidnapped? What was the Karsites plans? The book doesn’t bother to go into these things. The book really lost me here when the Karsite guards come to rape Sira. Why? Why is rape necessary as a motivating factor? It seems so unnecessary. Sira fights off the rapists and eventually she is rescued and she and the prince immediately fall in love in a way that feels particularly unrealistic. 

I hope Mercedes Lackey keeps writing Valdemar books. I look forward to when she decides to move away from Mags and his family. And enough with the rape! It’s the 21st century! Haven’t we moved beyond that awful trope? In the meantime, I may go back to my copy of the Last Herald Mage. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker

The cover made me hope for some “cooking is magic” action, so I felt a bit betrayed by it when that didn’t happen.  Mooncakes had no impact on the plot! But otherwise a cute story.  Some coming of age stuff, some excellent representation, but most of the beats felt a bit trite. This didn’t feel like it tread any new ground, which is fine, but disappointing after all of the good stuff I had heard about this.  I also wasn’t a huge fan of the art.  Most of the characters looked so similar to each other that I had a hard time some times remembering who was whom, and I also found the omnipresent warm color palette monotonous.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Devolution by Max Brooks

I’d been thinking a lot about Max Brooks lately. This pandemic has made me looking for my copy of his Zombie Survival Guide.  When I requested an eARC from NetGalley months ago, I never imagined that the world would start to resemble something from one of his novels.

I have enjoyed Max Brooks’s work for years.  I still remember picking up the Zombie Survival Guide at the Borders bookstore in Columbus Circle from the new paperback table.  I knew nothing about it and was instantly hooked.  Later, I devoured World War Z - it was so creative and well thought out.  It felt very realistic.  Too realistic.  

I saw Max Brooks at New York Comic Con a few years ago, talking about some of his comic work.  He didn’t want to talk about the execrable World War Z movie, and neither do I (but I expected better from a script by J. Michael Straczynski). Brooks was cool, and funny, and thoughtful, and kind.  I love it when authors I like turn out to be cool people in real life!

I was stoked when I got this book, hoping I would enjoy it as I did World War Z.  It did not disappoint.  Devolution is about. Bigfoot attack that wipes out a small enclave of about a dozen homes.  It is presented as the diary/journal kept by a woman for her therapist, annotated by a researcher and supplemented with a few interviews.  Max Brooks has an incredibly readable style and this is quite the page turner.  Sometimes the conceit of the structure of the novel worked against it - there were times where I just stopped and said to myself “no one would actually write a journal like this” or “ if these events were happening, this woman would’ve quit journaling by now.” That being said, it was a super fun book.  The monster biology was interesting and the human dynamics felt very real.  

But a lot of this novel hits home a little too hard during this pandemic.  I’m sure that Max Brooks didn’t know when he wrote it how jarring it would be to reference the hospital ship Comfort heading to a major metropolitan area to help out during a disaster, or how raw it would feel to read about some isolated lonely people desperate for the world they once thought was safe.  

I saw the video Max Brooks posted with his dad about social distancing.  I read his piece in the New York Times in March.  I think he might agree that while this is a great book,  it not necessarily a great book for right now.  

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Big Nate: the Gerbil Ate My Homework by Lincoln Pierce

With schools closed for the pandemic, I’ve been getting more and more ebooks for my 7-year-old to read. She was talking over the fence with her 8-year-old neighbor about books and he recommended the Big Nate series. She’s been enjoying them, and when I saw this new book on NetGalley, she said she’d write an review if I got it for her. Here it is:

“The Big Nate book series is about a boy name Nate who gets in a bunch of trouble and doesn’t have the best grades and doesn’t really like his teachers and he goes to beaches and he goes to school and sometimes in the panels he is just sitting with a water bottle. 

There are almost 50 Big Nate books and I don’t think that they get any worse throughout the whole series if anything they get really good because it has Big Nate doing mischief with his teachers or playing pranks on his friends but it’s always interesting. 

The one other thing that I don’t really like is that Big Nate isn’t very nice to his friends and family or his teachers people he gets bullied a lot but he also is mean to other people.”

From what I’ve read, it seems a little less crass than the Captain Underpants books, but it hits the same vibe. I will note that I didn’t love all of the language. On one page, a character called something “lame”, which is an ableist word that I would rather my children not be exposed to. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Virtual Unicorn Experience by Dana Simpson

This is the 12th volume of the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series, and, once again, it was a delight. I love this series, and so does my seven-year-old daughter. She wanted to write this review, so here she goes:

“Phoebe and her Unicorn is a great book series.  The book Virtual Unicorn Experience is one of the best ones. I thought at the beginning it was very interesting that Marigold had to say bad things about herself to keep herself from floating away every day! I thought that it was very amazing that it that she could float up high and make it a lot easier for nail polish, but I did wonder why they didn’t use that in the other books because they have had a lot of makeovers! 

I think that they should’ve had more Dakota in it because she is a very interesting character with her magical hair and her goblins which is why it confused me that she was only in like three panels. 

I think that is impressive that the author manages to take her daily strips and make them into a book. I think that it makes it more interesting and a lot funner to read!!”

Thanks to NetGalley for an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

’ve never read anything before by Laura Lam, but Goldilocks had shown up on several “upcoming 2020 SF releases to look out for” lists at the end of 2019.  I’m often a sucker for “Earth is failing, lets get off planet now” stories, so I thought this would be right up my alley.  I didn’t realize until I started reading it just how many things this book was going to try to do at once.  The prologue asks more questions than it answers, setting the reader up for the idea that there will be some surprising revelations and all is not as it seems.  I didn’t realize at first exactly what the prologue wa# trying to accomplish; halfway through the novel I skipped back and reread it, and I appreciated what the author was trying to accomplish more at that point.  Chapter one begins 30 years before the prologue, starting out in an imminent climate apocalypse near future, which quickly reveals itself to also be an all too possible super misogynistic America, as if All of Mike Pence’s dream came true.  5 women heist Earth’s only interstellar-capable spacecraft to try to colonize a habitable planet.  The narrator is a scientist whose adoptive mother designed and bankrolled the spacecraft project. Sadly, the book sometimes feels like a bit of a bait-and -switch, because the characters never do get to the planet in the so-called Goldilocks zone.  The book tries to achieve a Martian-like feel of “science people sciencing in space” but it never quite achieves it - the scientific problems are solved a little too easily and don’t really further the plot very much.  Instead the book pivots into mystery and intrigue.  The mother-figure starts out as an Elon Musk type, but eventually reveals herself to be a full on Lex Luthor type.  Maybe I’m just more cynical than the average reader, but her villainy was not too big of a surprise for me - it felt very telegraphed.  What was a surprise was the extent of her villainous plot - not just trying to seize control of a new world, but mass murder through an engineered viral pandemic back on Earth was unexpected.  When written, the book was not meant to be tone-deaf, but as I am sequestered at home in the midst of the Covid19 crisis as I read the book and write this review, the virus plot probably came off much differently than it might have if I had read this a few months ago.  That was also the weakest link plot wise in the book - it is just glossed over that of course the Mother-figure has a virologist on staff who was perfectly happy to engineer a virus she knew would murder 90% of humanity.  That felt a tad too cartoonish.

I don’t want it to come off that I didn’t like this book.  I did! It was well written and enjoyable and I would seek out another book by this author In the future.  I guess I just took the virus plot end a little hard and I am still miffed that this was not the planetary exploration book I had envisioned it being from the cover and blurb.  Which is not the author’s fault at all.  

Monday, May 4, 2020

Adventures of a Dwergish Girl by Daniel Pinkwater

I have been enjoying the books of Daniel Pinkwater for probably 35 years. I still remember my favorite book of his fondly: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. It was a book about an unpopular outcast and I felt very seen. I loved the fact that he got to find a friend and have adventures and smoke cigars and travel to another plane of reality. I enjoyed all of his books that I read, including Young Adult Novel and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Didn’t he have fantastic titles? And I’ll never forget listening to Car Talk with my dad and realizing that it was Daniel Pinkwater calling in. If memory serves, they decided to use a new method of measuring car seat size for ample rumps “the “Pinkwater”. Recently, I’ve been finding some of his books geared for younger kids for my own children. My eldest really enjoyed the Hoboken Chicken Emergency. 

So I was very excited to get an eARC of Adventures of a Dwergish Girl from NetGalley. It envisions a community of Dwergs, people resembling fairy tale dwarves, living in update New York. But, like many a Pinkwater book, it doesn’t dawdle. It quickly sets our protagonist, a Dwerg who goes by Molly, off on a series of wacky adventures, which include the most loving description of a papaya-based New York hot dog eatery you have ever or will ever read. It really made me nostalgic for when I lived on the Upper East Side. 

Like many Pinkwater books, this one is filled with zany characters that seem so unrealistic that you know they must be based on real people. Also, like many Pinkwater books, the plot zigs and zags with many unexpected turns that could easily give you whiplash, they are so abrupt. 

Is this book perfect? No. But it captures that classic Pinkwater vibe. And that’s good enough for me!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

This was an enjoyable conclusion to an enjoyable trilogy. There were some twists and fakeouts, one of which I totally fell for, and I am very angry about the deaths of one of my favorite characters. 

John Scalzi is an excellent author - he really has an ear for dialog and a flair for creating notable characters that feel real. Other than his Christmas themed short story collection, I have thoroughly enjoyed every book of his that he has ever published. He is on my short list of books I will happily reread and I’ve listened to Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation, and Agent to the Stars multiple times in audio. 

I am also a regular reader of Mr. Scalzi’s longrunning blog, at whatever dot com, where he shares, among other things, details about his creative process. He has been quite forthcoming about the fact that he turned each book in this trilogy into his editors at the last possible minute, and book two he wrote in two weeks after 18 months of mentally plotting but procrastinating.

Sad to say, it shows when you read the trilogy. Don’t get me wrong! I love these books and will reread (or relisten) to them again. I like the characters and the overall story. But, even for a Scalzi book, it seems overly dialog heavy and light on the description. There is a very tight focus on the main characters, which is fun because they’re enjoyable to the extreme, but the promise of this entire universe created in the first book makes the narrowing of focus in this volume to feel unfulfilling. 

Basically, my complaint boils down to: I want more. I would read an entire trilogy about the events on the planet End that paralleled this narrative and are given short shrift here. I would love a follow up to these character’s stories a few years on. The author indicated that, although the trilogy is done, he might revisit this world if he is inspired to one day. So I will reread and hope for more. 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Something is Killing the Children vol 1 by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera

I was not a Comics reader growing up. My love of superheroes came from Superfriends and Spider-man and His Amazing Friends.  It wasn’t until I got to college that I was handed Watchmen and Batman Year One and the Dark Knight Returns.  So I learned from the beginning of my comics reading some of the wonderful things the medium could do, even though I don’t hav an instinctual sense of of how to read a page developed from childhood.  Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m supposed to go right or go down a page.  I am not a very visual person - I will often go through a comic focusing solely on the speech bubbles and almost ignoring the art, which means that I can miss things and have to go back.  I usually notice the art if it is bad, or confusing, or hilarious, but that’s about it.

I first remember encountering James Tynion IV in the backup stories he did in Batman in the new 52 era.  I enjoyed what he did, and then I got the joy of listening to him on panels at New York Comic Con and on a Flame Con soda special episode of Jay and Miles Xplain the X-men.  I quickly realized that this was a writer I wanted to seek out and read more of.  I really enjoyed his time on Detective Comics - I loved that he used the opportunity to turn it into a real team book for members of the Bat family that don't always get the spotlight, especially Spoiler, who is a personal favorite of mine.  His character development of Clayface was also excellent.

Thanks to my local library system, I dived into his creator owned work.  I adore Backstagers - it has the right amount of whimsy in its depiction of horror, and the characters are so lovingly crafted that they almost step off the page.  I enjoyed his The Woods far more than I would’ve imagined - I am not usually a horror comic type of person, but the interpersonal drama kept me coming back even when the monstrous situations terrified me. 

Something is Killing the Children has that same feel as The Woods.  The simple plot summary I could give does it a disservice.  “Children are going missing and turning up dead, and mysterious girl shows up in town to fight the monster” sounds like it could be cookie cutter or paint by numbers, but it feels like so much more than that.In a few strokes, Tynion creates characters who feel alive and real and plunks them down in a horrible situation. 

The story feels to me in the same family as a merging of some of the best elements of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Stranger Things - not to say that it feels derivative, but just that my personal frame of reference for comparison is probably rather limited.  The monster is appropriately terrifying and the overarching mysteries are set up well.  It reminds me a lot also of Clean Room by Gail Simone, another comic I had to read with the lights on.  

I know from reading all of the Woods that Tynion knows how to plan for the long game.  This volume contains issues 1-5, which is enough to set up a much larger world than the small town with missing kids that it starts out as.  I look forward to learning more of the creepy telepathic stuffed animal monster hunting organization.  Can’t wait for volume 2! Thanks to NetGalley for the eARC!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Repo Virtual by Corey J. White

I don’t know much about Corey J. White. Based on the back covers of his books, I can tell he lives in Australia and has good taste in hats. I first learned of his writing when he wrote a novella published by tor dot com publishing, Killing Gravity. I borrowed it from the library and thoroughly enjoyed the story of Mariam Xi, Voidwitch. The “space opera starring a mysterious woman with telekinesis” who didn’t know much of her past plot seemed like a 21st century remix stitched together from old comic books and Star Wars. It has a sense of fun an some interesting world building. I enjoyed it so much that I bought the two sequel novellas as ebooks so I could finish reading the tale. The story took a odd left turn in the second book but overall all three novellas were a fun read. 

So when I found out that he has a debut novel, Repo Virtual, coming out, I quickly requested it from NetGalley. The blurb describes as a cyberpunk heist of the first sentient AI by an online repoman. And it certainly does include all of that and so much more, but not in a good way. While I enjoyed this book, I did not enjoy it as much as I enjoyed those three prior novellas. I think the best way to explain it is that Repo Virtual is five pounds of book ideas crammed into a one pound bag. 

The main protagonist is JD, who spends his time doing digital repossessions in a giant online multiplayer space opera video game that is reminiscent of the Oasis in Ready Player One. This idea alone, of a society where online repossession of purely digital assets is a viable career option, could sustain a story by itself. But not this story - White barely spends any time on this aspect of the story. 

Then this book pivots into heist - JD’s sibling hires him for one last job. (One nice thing in this book is the representation - JD is gay, his sibling uses “they” as their pronoun, another minor character is casually noted to be transgender - and it is all treated as normal, commonplace, and entirely unremarkable - as it should be! Well done.) But before we get to the heist, we take a detour into a weird quasi-religious cult that JD’s sibling has fallen into. The cult’s existence and role as villain is a complete unnecessary diversion and detracts from the story. 

Then we finally get to the heist. For a book billed as a heist novel, the heist itself is neither central to the plot or interesting in and of itself. Seriously, if the entire heist had happened off-stage before page one it would not have detracted from the plot. This is supposed to be a near-future with more advanced technology then on the present day, but the characters act like they have never heard of forensic evidence like DNA or fingerprints. JD and his sibling brutally kidnap multiple people during the course of this heist, utterly eviscerating any good feelings I had for the protagonist. Their plan was so foolhardy that I was rooting for them to get caught. 

And then, for reasons left unexplained, JD decides to plug the stolen computer chip (which we learn contains the world’s first real generally smart AI) into his phone to see what happens instead of giving it to his sibling as he promised. Why does he do this? The plot requires it but there is no satisfactory explanation. 

Also unexplained is why JD’s exboyfriend, a philosophy professor, ever dated or respected him in the first place or why he takes him back at times throughout the story. I would expect a philosophy professor who is so concerned about ethics that he can teach an AI to behave well to be more concerned about his romantic partner’s violent felonious activities. 

After the first third of the book, we take a hard pivot to Enda, a private investigator with a mysterious past who is a much more interesting protagonist, even if she is a walking collections of tropes. She is hired by the company JD stole from to retrieve the AI. Of course, she and JD and the AI eventually all meet up and become friends, because although she is a killer, she also has a heart of gold and is willing to sacrifice profit and her own safety for a computer program and a man she just met. 

I know the last several paragraphs may seem snarky and critical. I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy this book. I did! The writing style is clever and sophisticated- it is a book clearly in conversation with its cyberpunk predecessors, going all the way back to Neuromancer. But it’s just trying to do too much. Emergence of the first smart general AI could be a book by itself. Enda’s story could fill a book on its own. And, as the title suggests, a virtual repoman is a great concept for a story. This book is just trying to cram too much in and it ends up feeling overstuffed and unbalanced. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Made To Order: Robots and Revolution, Edited by Jonathan Strahan

As I’ve explained before, I’m not usually a fan of anthologies. The quality and tones of the stories can be highly variable, which I find personally jarring, and one story not to my taste can make me stop reading the whole volume. When I read short stories, I always prefer single authors collections. 


So why did I request a eARC of Made To Order:Robots and Revolution from NetGalley? 

Well, for starters, I love robots. Always have. Who doesn’t? Remember that part in the beginning of Futurama, when Fry was so excited to have a robot for a best friend because it had always been his dream? I could totally relate. As a kid I remember getting My Robot Buddy by Alfred Slote from the library and I loved the Norby books by Janet and  Isaac Asimov. I wanted to BE C-3P0. Bottom line: I heart robots. 

On top of that, I saw the list of contributors to the collection and I decided to take a chance. There are new stories here by authors I love, including Sarah Pinsker, Peter F. Hamilton, Brooke Bolander, and Annalee Newitz. 

Peter F. Hamilton is most well known for his tomes and doorstops, not his short fiction. But that didn’t make this story, Sonnie’s Union, any less enjoyable. It was a return to his Confederation universe and was excellent, but it really stretched the idea of what is a “robot” beyond what I personally feel is the limit. The story is centered on a woman whose consciousness inhabited a body that was sort of a golem or chimera. To me, once it gets too biological, it stops feeling like a robot. Otherwise, very fun story. 

Sarah Pinsker is one of my new favorite authors. I loved her debut novel, A Song For A New Day, whose near future world of social distancing following a plague and terrorist attacks doesn’t seem so implausible anymore. She wrote Bigger Fish, a detective story that, like Hamilton’s story, is excellent in spite of the lack of traditional SF robots. Instead, the robotic characters are the AIs running a smart home. This story is not to be missed. 

Annalee Newitz also wrote about an AI and not a more traditional robot in The Translator. After the masterful job she did creating the robot protagonist Paladin in her debut novel Autonomous, I was very excited to see what she would do her. I was not disappointed (except for the lack of a traditional clanking robot). Her story is rich and full of heart. 

I could go on about all of the other stories in the anthology, but those three were my favorites. This book is definitely worth checking out!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Beneath The Rising by Premee Mohamed

After reading this book, I will definitely pick up the next book by Premee Mohamed.  This author has a great deal of potential and I look forward to seeing what else she writes.

I wanted to start out with that because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was being too negative about this novel, because there were a number of things I didn’t like.  To be honest, there were times when it felt like a slog and I was tempted to not finish it.  But one thing kept coming back - the raw truth of the central relationship.

 It I’m getting ahead of myself.  This book is in a genre that is not particularly my jam.  I don’t often go for Lovecraftian horrors.  I’m mostly a science fiction fan who also loves fantasy.  I wouldn’t have ever requested an eARC from Netgalley until I read about the book and author on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog’s My Favorite Bit feature.  Reading what the author wrote about herself and her book made me immediately request an eARC, so thanks to both Mary Robinette and Netgalley for getting me this book.

This novel is the author’s first traditionally published book, and it feels a lot like a first novel.  A lot of the descriptions are lyrical and poetic, which makes it very jarring when the book switches into vernacular.  Apparently, it WAS a first novel, one the author wrote in 2002, which might explain the choice of the alternate history setting where the September 11th attacks did not succeed.  I later read Ms. Mohamed’s Big Idea guest post on John Scaliz’s Whatever blog and I thought to myself, this person seems awesome.  She wrote this book originally when in school working on a genetics degree and it totally brought me back to my own Drosophila lab days.

A lot of the writing feels rough.  The Eldridge monsters start out scary,  but quickly begin to feel repetitive and boring.  The globetrotting quest feels as pro forma as a game of 80’s Carmen Sandiego.

So why do I think this is an author worth following? Simple.  She totally captured the feeling of being the needier person in an unbalanced friendship.  Have you ever had a friendship where you constantly thought to yourself “why is this person even friends with me?” Where your depth of feeling far outpaced the other person’s? Where you constantly felt that you weren’t pulling your weight and you kept waiting for the other person to drift away? This author totally captured all of those raw, visceral feelings and put them down on the page.  That’s why I’ll be watching it for what she does next.  

Sunday, March 15, 2020

My 2020 Hugo nominating ballot

The world is falling apart and I feel like I’m a minor character in Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book or Sarah Pinsker’s A Song For A New Day, or possibly Mira Grant’s Feed. I’m working on some more reviews, but until then, I thought I might as well post my nominations for the Hugo Awards. Let’s hope we’re all around this summer to see who wins.

Best Novel
  • The City in the Middle of the Night ; Charlie Jane Anders; Tor
  • The Light Brigade; Kameron Hurley ; Saga
  • Middlegame ; Seanan McGuire ;
  • A Song for a New Day; Sarah Pinsker; Berkeley 
  • The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl; Theodora Goss; Saga
Best Novella
  • In an Absent Dream; Seanan McGuire ; publishing 
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate; Becky Chambers ; Harper Voyager 
  • The Haunting of Tram Car 015; Clark, P. Djeli; publishing 
  • In the Shadow of Spindrift House; Mira Grant; Subterranean Press
  • Minor Mage; T. Kingfisher; Red Wombat Studio
Best Novelette
  • The Narwhal ; Sarah Pinsker; Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea
  • Emergency Skin; N K Jemisin; Forward by Amazon
Best Short Story
  • Any Way the Wind Blows; Seanan McGuire ;
  • Articulated Restraint ; Mary Robinette Kowal ;
  • The Bookstore at the End of America; Charlie Jane Anders; A People’s Future of the United States
  • Old Media; Annalee Newitz;
Best Series
  • Expanse; James S.A. Corey ; Tiamat’s Wrath
  • Incryptid ; Seanan McGuire ; That Ain’t Witchcraft
  • Athena Club; Theodora Goss; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl
  • Valdemar; Mercedes Lackey; Eye Spy
  • Axiom; Tim Pratt; Forbidden Stars
Best Related Work
  • Becoming Superman ; J. Michael Straczynski; Harper Collins 
  • Transformers: A Visual History; Jim Sorenson; Viz publishing 
  • Hugosauriad: a dinography of the Hugo Awards; Camestros Felapton;
Best Graphic Story or Comic
  • Amazing Nightcrawler; Seanan McGuire ; Marvel
  • Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 9; Ryan North; Marvel
  • Spider-Gwen: Ghost Spider vol 2; Seanan McGuire ; Marvel
  • Wonder Twins vol 1; Mark Russel; DC
  • Sunny rolls the Dice; Jennifer L Holm; Scholastic 
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
  • Star Trek:Discovery season 2; CBS All Access
  • Avengers Endgame; Disney 
  • Spider-man Far From Home; Sony
  • Good Omens; Amazon
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
  • Steven Universe The Movie; Steven Universe ; Cartoon Network
Best Editor, Long Form
  • Lee Harris
  • Navah Wolfe
Best Fanzine
  • Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together
  • Disciples of Boltax
Best Fancast
  • Jay and Miles Xplain the X-men 
  • The Greatest Generation
  • The Greatest Discovery 
  • Our Opinions Are Correct
  • Wow in the World
Best Fan Writer
Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book (not a Hugo)
  • Alien: Echo; Mira Grant; Imprint
  • Sunny Rolls the Dice; Jennifer Holm; Scholastic 
  • Dragon Pearl; Yoon Ha Lee; Disney Hyperion
  • Catfishing on Catnet; Naomi Kritzer; Tor Teen
Astounding Award for the best new science fiction writer, sponsored by Dell Magazines (not a Hugo)
  • RF Kuang; Dragon Republic