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Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914

LAST UPDATE 12/22/13

Transcendental by James Gunn, Tor, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3501-2

The first James Gunn novel in far too many years is a kind of interstellar Canterbury Tales but with a much stronger frame story.  Riley is an ex-soldier in the recently ended galactic wars who is coerced into traveling as part of a group seeking a legendary machine that can stimulate transcendental changes in people. The various pilgrim - which include part of the crew - have mixed reasons for going. Some fear that the machine could alter the galactic balance of power, some are personal missions of salvation, and our protagonist is just supposed to find out where the machine is, if it exists, and who the prophet is, if he or she exists and is as suspected aboard the ship, and to assassinate the prophet if it seems helpful. Someone attempts to kill all the pilgrims even before they board the rickety starship aboard which there are attempted murders, a low key mutiny, and various other adventures interspersed with personal stories of the various mostly not human characters. Despite a few details I couldn't accept as plausible - aliens thinking that humans were just test animals aboard the first starships which they encountered, for example - the basic story held my attention. As they get closer, revelations unfold and alliances shift,, and eventually we learn the truth. One of the better novels of the year.12/22/13

Starhawk by Jack McDevitt, Ace, 2013, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-425-26085-2 

This is the latest Priscilla Hutchins novel. Although I prefer the Alex Benedict series, I’ve enjoyed all in this one as well, just not as much. I became a little impatient with this one early on. The story takes too long to develop and a few times we’re told things we already know. It’s also structured anecdotally, which doesn’t generate much momentum. After finding a derelict spaceship and learning of an offstage encounter with aliens, whom we don’t get to see, Hutchins is present for a rescue mission while qualifying as a star pilot. Her captain ends up giving his life to save a group of young students, after which the story starts to lose steam again. The underlying plot is that radicals are – justifiably – opposed to a terraforming project that is wiping out an entire planet’s ecology and they’re resorting to violence and sabotage to get their way. There's another first contact scenario later, but it fizzles out literally and dramatically as well. There are flashes of McDevitt's usual high quality, but the plot never finds any traction and at times it verges on being tedious. Disappointing.  12/20/13

The Stuff of Nightmares by James Lovegrove, Titan, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-1781165416

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson cross paths with a mysterious figure with steam powered armor who apprehends miscreants in the streets of London, only to disappear into the sewers. His advent coincides with the onset of a bombing campaign that spreads chaos through the British Isles. Holmes sets out to investigate both, which he believes to be linked somehow, and does so with cameo appearances by Edward Challenger, Dr. Moriarty, and the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Lovegrove has never written a bad book and this is a nicely balanced mix of adventure and detection, mystery and speculation. It appears to be related to George Mann's The Will of the Dead although it is not really a sequel or prequel. 12/18/13

Peaceable Kingdoms by Dayton Ward, Pocket, 2014, $7,99, ISBN 978-1-4767-1899-6

Dayton Ward has been one of the more reliable authors working in the Star Trek tie-in universe, which has expanded to include old characters in radically new situations. His latest is part of the subset called "The Fall", and involves Riker as commander of his own vessel. After tumultuous events that fractured the old Federation, an alliance between what remains and the Cardassians is also in peril. The decision by the Andorians to rejoin could bring greater stability, but as is always the case, there are factions who would prefer disorder to unity. There is also a political assassination and succession which raises questions about secret power plays and hidden motives. While Captain Picard deals with one aspect of the situation, Riker - who knows more than is healthy for him - must pursue another.  Shorn of its Star Trek overlay, this could be a pretty good mainstream space opera. 12/16/13

The Will of the Dead by George Mann, Titan, 2013, 12.95, ISBN 978-1781160015

This Sherlock Holmes novel involves two separate cases which do not, for a change, converge at the end, one of which is traditional, the other SF. The mundane story, which dominates, concerns a murder designed to look like an accident, a missing will, and a mysterious cousin who threatens to take control of the estate from his four cousins. As Holmes investigates, the mysterious newcomer stays out of sight and one of the other heirs is brutally murdered. The second story involves housebreaks by a group of what appears to be robots, although it is ultimately revealed that they are men in steam powered armor suits. I’m afraid I didn’t find this part particularly plausible and the solution Holmes uses to overcome them sure have occurred to someone far earlier. There are a couple of minor plot problems – Holmes’ fake threat to Watson might be dramatically functional but even when he explains why he did it, the explanation makes no sense. Very readable but perhaps a bit rushed. 12/15/13

Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby, Scholastic, 2014, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-50226-9  

First in a series for younger readers that mixes SF and fantasy tropes. The oddities of quantum mechanics have made it possible to “rationalize” what might otherwise be considered magical events, and that’s the case here in the Quantum League series. The young protagonist is invited to a science camp which turns out to be experimenting with a process that allows one to change reality simply by thinking about those changes. Such a discovery naturally attracts ambitious bad guys, who kidnap the lead scientist. The kids, naturally, have to use their new abilities to rescue her and bring the bad guys to justice. Okay, but a little too simple minded for my taste. 12/13/13

Wikiworld by Paul Di Filippo, Chizine, 2013, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-77148-155-7 

My first reaction to this new collection was to wonder how I could have missed so many recent stories by this author. The answer, of course, is that there are so many traditional and non-traditional markets that it is virtually impossible to follow a writer the way I used to in the past. There are twenty-one stories here covering a range of topics, satire, humor, alternate history, life after humanity as we know it has disappeared. There are apocalypses, spaceships, superhumans, aliens, and marvelous inventions. But most of all there is good writing. Some themes that you would think have been done to death are given new life by twisting them into a new shape and speculations both realistic and whimsical lurk waiting to be discovered. There are nods to Stanislaw Lem and H.P. Lovecraft, with hints of Edward E. Smith and Olaf Stapledon. You're in for a treat with this one. In fact, you're in for twenty-one treats. 12/7/13

The Poisoned Chalice by James Swallow, Pocket, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-2222-1

A Star Trek novel featuring Captain Riker, who has his own command following his stint under Picard. The Federation has a problem - a wave of terrorist attacks whose origin and motive are not clear. Riker returns to Earth where he is present when Starfleet staff are detained and when it seems that civil rights are being sacrificed in the name of security. Where have I heard that before? Riker himself is caught up in a complex and deceptive political struggle and one of his crew members has received secret orders - but from which side and for what purpose? The tendency to portray the Federation as deeply flawed if not outright evil has been increasing in both the recent movies and some of the recent tie-in novels, which is perhaps a reflection of  events taking place in the real world, but they are nevertheless a bit depressing. Otherwise, this is an unusually complex Trek novel, although it falls into familiar patterns. 12/4/13

Tesseracts Seventeen edited by Colleen Anderson & Steve Vernon, Edge, 2013, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-77053-044-7 

Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, & Michael Damian Thomas, Apex, 2013, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-937009-10-0  1232-33 

There are science fiction anthologies and fantasy anthologies, and sometimes mixtures of the two as is the case with both these titles. The first is a series showcasing Canadian writers, with different editors for each volume. The latest is slightly above average for the series, which has been pretty consistently worthwhile, with stories by Eileen Kernaghan, Lisa Smedman, Edward Willett, and a host of less familiar names. Alyxandra Harvey and Catherine Austen have very good entries. The second title is even better, also mixing new and established writers. Familiar names include Jennifer Pelland, Cat Rambo, Tim Pratt, Seanan McGuire, and Diana Rowland. McGuire, Pratt, Pelland, Vylar Kaftan, and Christopher Barzak all have memorable stories and several of the others are better than average. If you enjoy short fiction, these are two very good ways to indulge yourself. 11/24/13

Kaleidocide by Dave Swavely, Thomas Dunne, 2013, $27.99, ISBN 978-1-250-00150-4    

In Silhouette, we were introduced to a post quake San Francisco that is pretty much a private corporate state which, we discover, has developed a form of antigravity that could change the balance of world power. The protagonist is one of their senior employees who learns that he has been targeted by a Chinese warlord who wishes not only the technology, which is understandable, but his death, which is something of a mystery. There are elements of cyberpunk mixed with post-apocalyptic imagery, with both mystery and adventure to move things along. This was every bit as good as its predecessor and the blurb comparing it to Bladerunner – presumably the movie and not the Philip K. Dick novel – is entirely appropriate. 11/22/13

Vicious by V.E. Schwab, Tor, 2013, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3534-0 

I’m not sure whether to call this SF or fantasy, a frequent problem with stories about superheroes. This one is about two friends who experiment with ways to develop super powers, whose experimentation leads them in very different paths and makes them deadly rivals some years later. One of them becomes determined to track down and destroy anyone displaying such abilities while the other wants to foster them for the good humanity in general. This could have been a run of the mill adventure story but it’s more like a Marvel comic written by a literary stylist, with a clever plot and some very serious discussion of what it means to be heroic. This is the first book I’ve read by this author, but I’ll be tracking down his other work. 11/21/13

A Very Klingon Christmas by Paul Ruditis, Gallery, 2013, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-4680-7

This is a picture book wrapped around a rewriting of the Night Before Christmas story, with Klingons instead of humans. The artwork by Patrick Faricy is well rendered and appropriate and is primarily Klingons in traditional human Yuletide clothing, although the malevolent snowman is cute as well. The poem is relatively short, which is good since it's basically a one punch joke. I'm not sure if you'd call this a children's book or not, given the relatively young age similar - not quite so nasty - that is targeted, but then again, Where The Wild Things Are is no picnic either. A good present for the right child, or the right adult. 11/20/13

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson, Tor, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3261-5  

One of the nicest things about this author’s work is that you never know what to expect. His latest, for example, is set in an alternate present after world peace is established in 1914, leading to a generally prosperous and progressive civilization. But a handful of people know that an alien hive mind has settled in orbit surrounding the Earth and that its minions – humanoids with green innards – are used to periodically eliminate people who know of the alien presence. But something may have changed. When a new wave of attacks  begins, one of the simulacra insists that it is part of a virus inimical to the host organism and thus in some ways sympathetic to humans. But can it be trusted?  And is the author holding something out on us?  I've never read a bad book by Wilson and some of them have been great. This falls into the latter category, an original idea plausibly presented and carried along by interesting and believable characters. The pages just slid by almost with no effort on my part. 11/16/13

In the Company of Thieves by Kage Baker Tachyon, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61696-129-9

Horse of a Different Color by Howard Waldrop, Small Beer, 2013, $24, ISBN 978-1618730732

Two collections by two of my favorite short story writers, each with a very different style and range of subject matter, and each published by a non-mainstream publisher. Tachyon and Small Beer have published several of the best short story collections of recent years, and these are both well up on that list. The six Baker stories here are part of the Company series which dominated most of her work, a time travelling organization that steals treasures from various times without - supposedly - altering the course of history. They are serious in tone, slightly reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Changewar series, and they are destined to be ranked with that classic sequence. The quality here is uniform but "Mother Aegypt" is probably my favorite. Waldrop, on the other hand, is one of the genre's few genuine humorists. Most "funny" SF is actually rather silly, and while silliness has its place, memorable humor requires a bit more. Most of the ten stories here collected are humorous rather than silly, and witty as well. Waldrop also manages to pair unusual devices and make them work, like an American version of King Arthur. There are quests for the Holy Grail, a rather grim version of "Hansel and Gretel", a dying Earth, and a sidebar to the story of King Kong. Every single story is a winner, particularly the title story, "Frogskin Cap," and "The Wolf-Man of Alcatraz." Proof, if you needed it, that the short story is an important part of SF.  11/15/13

Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs edited by Mike Resnick & Robert T. Garcia, Baen, 2013, $15. ISBN 978-1-4516-3935-3

Edgar Rice Burroughs is one of my not quite guilty pleasures. His prose is antiquated and wasn't all that great even for his time, but he did know how to tell a good story. This is a collection of all (except one) original stories set in the various worlds Burroughs created. It opens with Tarzan involved in a World War I spy story in North Africa by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and a rather nice tale of Pellucidar, the world at the center of the Earth, by Mercedes Lackey. Richard Lupoff does an adventurous pastiche of Carson Napier on Venus and editor Resnick contributes the only reprint, his 1965 novelette "The Forgotten Seas of Mars", featuring John Carter. The rest of the stories include characters from Burroughs' Mucker and white Apache series, the Moon Maid novels, and others, including an encounter between Tarzan and Martians - more Wellsian than Burroughsian, ending with the best story in the book, Tarzan's visit to the land that time forgot by Joe R. Lansdale. More fun than I've had in an anthology in a long time. 11/5/13

Super Stories of Heroes & Villains edited by Claude Lalumiere, Tachyon, 2013, 15.95, ISBN 978-1-61696-103-0

Superheroes and supervillains are very much in style thanks to the various Marvel inspired movies these past few years. This is a collection of reprints in which one or both appear, drawn from 1989 through last year, including predictably an excerpt from the Wild Cards series, but with a lot of stories I'd never seen before - although it lacks my absolute favorite, "Night Calls the Green Falcon" by Robert R. McCammon. A lot of these are humorous in part or entirely, but many others are not. There's actually quite a range here and readers looking for Marvel Comics style adventures aren't going to find a lot that suits them. The best stories arguably are those by Paul Di Filippo, Jonathan Lethem, Cory Doctorow, Kelly Link, Carol Emshwiller, and James Patrick Kelly, but the collection is actually so diverse that it feels wrong trying to rank them against one another. Readers not really interested in costumed superheroes might find themselves pleasantly surprised. 11/4/13

Thankless in Death by J.D. Robb, Putnam, 2013, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-399-16442-2

A spoiled young man murders his parents on impulse and discovers that he enjoys the sense of power. The following day he kills his ex-girlfriend and takes a retired teacher captive. Meanwhile, Eve Dallas and her crew are on his tail, although there are so many potential targets that they can't cover everyone. Although this series is written to a formula, it's a good formula and they're actually very good police procedurals. The SF element is minimal; this one takes place in 2060 and the killer makes use of a robot servitor, but otherwise it could be contemporary New York City. The villain is less ambitious and competent than Dallas' recent opponents, but the very simplicity of his campaign of murder means that it is difficult to stop him in the short run, although it's very obvious that he can't be successful for very long. There's less byplay with the other regular characters as usual. Overall it's about average for the series.

Fiendish Schemes by K.W. Jeter, Tor, 2013, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3094-9

This is the sequel to Infernal Devices and it's one of those steampunk novels that straddles the division between SF and fantasy. The protagonist is the son of a brilliant inventor whose steam powered machines have helped transform the world. But it's not really the world as we know it. The oceans are alive and conscious and have a habit of shifting their borders unexpectedly. To deal with this, corporations have been giant lighthouses that can walk across the countryside and relocate themselves. A large gambling industry has arisen which places bets on which companies will most quickly adjust to the new sea shores and our hero is coerced into helping a syndicate of cheats find a device that will enable them to speak to whales and the oceans themselves and get advance information about their movements. All of this is rendered in an artificially erudite prose style. The story is intriguing but it's obvious that the author is putting the reader on. Our hero almost gets raped by a steam powered orangutan, and there are other rather silly events sprinkled through the narrative. Jeter simultaneously has given us an interesting addition to the subgenre, and an amusing parody of the form. 10/27/13

Zero Point by Neal Asher, Night Shade, 2013, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-470-7

Middle volume of the Owner trilogy. Asher is probably the most important SF author whom I have barely read. I think this is the fourth or fifth of fifteen novels that I've even seen a copy of, including the first in this series, The Departure. Even without having read the opening volume I was able to pick up the threads pretty quickly. An overpopulated Earth has become a ruthless dystopia whose rulers plan to dispense with surplus population. Their main weapon - orbiting military satellites - was neutralized in the first book, but despite significant degradation of their assets, the dominant class is determined to hold onto power. Elsewhere, the human colony on Mars has been abandoned and is likely to fail completely within a few years, which threatens to give rise toan equally squalid and repressive administration there. One of our protagonists is hoping to maintain order there while another has merged his consciousness with an orbiting computer only to discover some frightening, but promising, secrets. All of this presumably comes to a conclusion in The Jupiter War, which naturally I have never seen a copy of. 10/25/13

Steampunk Trails Issue 1 edited by J.A. Campbell, SF Trails, 2013

First issue of an obviously themed magazine. Steampunk, which can be science fiction or fantasy, and sometimes both, has been rising slowly but steadily as a subset of both genres in recent years. Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age won a Hugo in 1996 and others have made the ballot. This is a collection of short adventures set against variations of that theme by some unfamiliar names which opens with a nice essay on the subject by Carrie Vaughn. I don't think steampunk works well at this length because there's not enough room to build the background, which is important element, and that makes otherwise good stories seem superficial. Even so, the stories here by Lyn McConchie and Mike Cervantes work pretty well. Attractively laid out and with some above average artwork. Planned as an annual. 10/22/13

Contagion by Tim Lebbon, Pyr, 2013, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-61614-822-5   

Third in the Toxic City series, set in a London which was the scene of a terrorist attack that somehow set off a series of weird mutations so that selected survivors develop strange powers. This is vaguely reminiscent of the Wild Cards series by George R.R. Martin and others, but Lebbon has a distinctive take that is considerably darker. The authorities have isolated London and planted a nuclear bomb which can be destroyed if deemed desirable to control the mutants. The mutants themselves have learned of the bomb’s existence and are determined to neutralize it to protect themselves. Fast moving, tense, and as always with Lebbon’s work, intelligently plotted. 10/21/13

The Heavens Rise by Christopher Rice, Gallery, 2013, $26, ISBN 978-1-4767-1608-4

This is a blend of SF and horror, which when done well can be very effective because of its plausibility. Although the tone feels like it's about the supernatural, everything is rationalized as the consequence of toxic pollution affected people in the New Orleans area. The protagonist acquired some potent psychic powers when she was younger after being infected by a parasite released during an underwater drilling operation. And she's not the only one with these powers, which potentially could be introduced to many other people, leading to the usual assumed chaos. The plot isn't bad and the first half of the novel is fairly suspenseful, but I started to lose interest after that. The characters just did not ring true to me, and the situation seemed increasingly implausible. I found the ending disappointing as well. 10/20/13

The Daedalus Incident by Michael J. Martinez, Night Shade, 2013, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-472-1

I'm putting this steampunk novel under SF because it fits there in tone and most of the subject matter, but there are elements of fantasy as well. Bibliographers are going to hate this trend. Earthquake activity on Earth takes a bizarre turn when the debris seems to be directed by some unknown force, perhaps connected to similar constructions on the planet Mars. The protagonist is a soldier who crosses oceans of water and of space in his efforts to thwart the plans of a deranged magician who wants to remake the solar system according to his twisted plans. Although I found a lot of this enjoyable, the mix of magic and science never quite meshes for me and I was intermittently unable to stay inside the frame of the story. The author writes well, though, and I'd like to see more by him. 10/17/13

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett, Tor, 2013, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3424-4

Another new steampunk novel. I enjoy steampunk and hope that the recent rise in popularity doesn't flood the market with inferior examples, which inevitably results in a backlash. This one certainly doesn't fall into that category. I'm putting it in SF but it's arguably fantasy as well, set in a mechanized 19th Century England that still rules much of the world, including the eastern part of North America. Our hero is a young man who dreams of the kind of adventures that he reads about in novels, but when his father disappears at sea, he has an adventure of his own, starting with his meeting with a mechanical girl on his way to enlisting the aid of a famous sea captain. He's looking for a hero, but eventually discovers that if he wants one, he'll have to fill the bill himself. Great fun from beginning to end. 10/13/13

Gunsight by John Shirley, Gallery, 2013, $16, ISBN 978-1-4391-9849-0

This is a Borderlands game tie-in novel and it is essentially an other worlds adventure with a hint of military SF. The male protagonist is trying to rescue the female protagonist, who has been taken captive by one of the various warlords on the planet Pandora. The first warlord agrees to release her if our hero can sneak into the stronghold of one of his rivals and find out what plot he's hatching, since the conflict between the two has been escalating and rumor has it something big is in the works. Most tie-in novels tend to be bland, probably in large part because the author is playing in someone else's sandbox and has to contend with limitations imposed from without. Shirley always tells a good story and this isn't the first tie-in I've read by him that rises above its limitations. I prefer his original work, but in its absence I'll take anything this well written. 10/12/13

Ender's Game audiobook by Orson Scott Card, Oddlot, 2013, $29.99, ISBN 978-1-4272-3530-8

Given that the movie version of this novel is about to appear, it's not surprising that there's a new audiobook edition. This was published before the author gained his present reputation as a political extremist and there's nothing particularly offensive in the book, although a few people have tried to retroactively find bad stuff in it. It was the first in the popular series, it won a Hugo, and while I always thought its reputation was somewhat inflated, I also found it entertaining when I first read it. While I always try to separate an author's personal opinions from his or her work - which isn't always easy - I'm not likely to ever read anything new by Card, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't write well enough to please a large number of readers. This set of nine dvds runs about ten hours. 10/12/13

Inhuman by Kat Falls, Scholastic, 2013, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-37099-8

Following an ecological catastrophe, the eastern part of North America has been virtually abandoned by the civilized world and is now home to people affected by a virus that turns them into homicidal creatures. Yes, this is a zombie novel crossed with The Hunger Games but it's not bad actually. The protagonist lives outside the wall separating the two regions but predictably circumstances force her to cross into the forbidden zone. Equally predictably, she discovers that what she has been told about the east is not the truth. It's not going to dethrone Suzanne Collins. The author's previous two books were for adults and I liked them. This one seems written down a little and it didn't work as well for me. 10/11/13

The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke, Tor, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-1908-1

I believe this is the first of Jeschke's novels to be translated from the German into English. Parts of Europe have been rendered uninhabitable following a nuclear accident and the rest of the world is showing increasing signs of serious, perhaps irreversible ecological disaster from this and other causes. Species are going extinct, or mutating, and the mood around the globe is of gloom and anger. A woman obsessed with the Middle Ages and a secret project which is developing time travel open a range of possibilities, not all of them pleasant. In fact, there are links between times past and future and possibly with alternate realities as well. This is likely to be very difficult reading for people used to straightforward plotting. The story jumps around in time and space and it is quite easy to get lost for a while. At other points it is hard to tell just exactly what is going on, although these moments are cleared up later. Rewarding if you're flexible enough, but don't expect a traditional narrative style. 10/9/13

A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron, Scholastic, 2013, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-32813-5

This young adult book, sequel to The Dark Unwinding, is only marginally SF, but it's a pretty good adventure story. The protagonist is the niece of an eccentric inventor whose contrivances provide the SF element. Someone has tried to kidnap him, an effort that fails only through mischance, and it's obvious that they will have to go into hiding in the Paris of Napoleon III. There our young heroine searches for an old friend who might be able to help, if he's still alive. She's determined that neither the British nor French government will acquire her uncle's inventions and use them for military purposes. The prose is a little more dense than I usually see in YA targeted fiction, which is not a bad thing as it makes it more interesting for more sophisticated readers. It's a pretty good historical adventure, if no more than marginally SF. 10/7/13

The Crimson Shadow by Una McCormack, Pocket, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-2220-7

A Star Trek novel that involves Captain Picard, from the second iteration of the original program. Cardassia and the Federation have achieved a peaceful if uneasy accommodation, thanks largely to Cardassia's near destruction at the hands of a common enemy. A major delegation arrives from the Federation, but there are dissident elements among their hosts who would like things to go back to their earlier animosity. Picard, Worf, and others soon find themselves involved in a simmering conspiracy that could have far reaching consequences, but of course since we know the rules of the Trek universe, we also know that they will derail the plot after a series of discoveries and setbacks. Although predictably, it's smoothly written if a bit lightweight. 10/6/13

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Avon, 1961  

This is probably Heinlein’s most famous novel, though far from his best. The opening chapters about the reintegration of Valentine Michael Smith, raised by Martians, into human society are frequently amusing but usually implausible. A nurse avoids the guarded door simply by entering through another that no one is bothering to watch?  In fact most of the first third of the novel is downright silly with ridiculously inept security failing to prevent the nurse from helping Smith escape captivity. The sprinkle of sexism doesn’t help. The government is afraid of his considerable legal rights including, nonsensically, title to the entire planet Mars. Their flight is helped by the fact that he can make people disappear with a gesture but hindered by his complete inability to understand human society. It improves a bit when they reach the enclave of Jubal Harshaw, though it’s very talky and still sprinkled with chauvinism, some of which is surprisingly offensive even for its time. The witty repartee (which is sometimes just childish) wears after a while and nothing much happens for a long time. An already leaden story gets worse after Smith visits a nutty religious group and the last 150 pages are almost painful to read. I have never understood this book’s popularity. 10/5/13

Chupacabra by Roland Smith, Scholastic, 2013, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-53908-1  

Fourth in the Cryptid Hunters series for young adults, each of which deals with another legendary creature, in this case the elusive chupacabra. This involves another search, a suspicious group of scientists who might be willing to genetically engineer what they cannot actually find in the wild. Smith doesn’t pull many punches and this is possibly the most intensely suspenseful novel in the series so far. Perhaps not surprisingly the human villains turn out to be more dangerous than their inhuman quarry. Not quite up to the quality of the previous book, Tentacles, but pretty close. 10/3/13

If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes, Fairwood, 2013, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-40-8 

Richard Bowes is a writer who moves back and forth among genres with ease, so some of these stories are SF, some fantasy, and some involve the supernatural. The only thing they have in common is that they are all quite good. The title story is probably the best, although not by a wide margin. Close contenders are “On the Slide,” “The Ferryman’s Wife,” and “Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow.”  Most of the stories have urban settings, often specifically New York City, but that doesn’t mean that the themes or plots are narrowly circumscribed or even similar. Bowes is one of those writers whose impact is diffused somewhat because time passes between encounters with one short story and the next, and it’s only when you read them in close proximity as in a collection that one realizes how good he is. This is, parenthetically, one of the reasons I lament the dramatic drop in single author collections from major publishers. But imprints like Fairwood are here to help.