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A brilliantly funny stand-alone sequel that will appeal to all serious book-lovers.


Amy Falls Down

Thomas Dunne Books, 2013, 336 pages




Amy Gallup is an aging novelist and writing instructor living in Escondido, California, with her dog, Alphonse. Since recent unsettling events, she has made some progress. While she still has writer's block, she doesn't suffer from it. She's still a hermit, but she has allowed some of her class members into her life. She is no longer numb, angry, and sardonic: she is merely numb and bemused, which is as close to happy as she plans to get. Amy is calm.

So, when on New Year's morning she shuffles out to her backyard garden to plant a Norfolk pine, she is wholly unprepared for what happens next. Amy falls down. A simple accident, as a result of which something happens, and then something else, and then a number of different things, all as unpredictable as an eight-ball break. At first the changes are small, but as these small events carom off one another, Amy's life changes in ways that range from ridiculous to frightening to profound. This most reluctant of adventurers is dragged and propelled by train, plane, and automobile through an outlandish series of antic media events on her way to becoming - to her horror - a kind of celebrity. And along the way, as the numbness begins to wear off, she comes up against something she has avoided all her life: her future, that "sleeping monster, not to be poked."

Amy Falls Down explores, through the experience of one character, the role that accident plays in all our lives. "You turn a corner and beasts break into arias, gunfire erupts, waking a hundred families, starting a hundred different conversations. You crack your head open and three thousand miles away a stranger with Asperger's jump-starts your career." We are all like Amy. We are all wholly unprepared for what happens next. Also, there is a basset hound.


If you are a 'Bookish' person, you will love this book. )

Verdict: I am convinced Jincy Willett is a quiet and underappreciated genius, and Amy Falls Down, while no more exciting plot-wise than its title indicates, is a true "literary" novel in the sense of being intelligently, unabashedly well-written — but meant to entertain, not to win awards and get praise from all the right people. 10/10.

Also by Jincy Willett: My review of The Writing Class.




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The Minotaur works as a line cook in a North Carolina steakhouse.


The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

Picador, 2000, 313 pages




Five thousand years out of the Labyrinth, the Minotaur finds himself in the American South, living in a trailer park and working as a line cook at a steakhouse. No longer a devourer of human flesh, the Minotaur is a socially inept, lonely creature with very human needs. But over a two-week period, as his life dissolves into chaos, this broken and alienated immortal awakens to the possibility for happiness and to the capacity for love.


Southern litfic by way of Ovid. )

Verdict: Very literary, and not even as strange as it sounds, once you get past the premise. The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is well-written, with deeply human characters (even/especially the monster), but a rather plodding plot if you're hoping for more in the way of story. 8/10.





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An iron-thewed barbarian trucker and a half-naked half-elf navigate the Rules of a fantasy world.


The River of Dancing Gods

Del Rey Fantasy, 1984, 263 pages




Joe and Marge, minutes away from death, are rescued and brought from Earth to the magical world of Husaquahr by the wizard Throckmorton P. Ruddygore to battle the forces of Hell itself!


Jack Chalker is like a slightly less adolescent Piers Anthony. )

Verdict: This book is a product of and a commentary on its time, the 80s boom in extruded epic fantasy product. Jack Chalker is always an entertaining author — he's written two of my favorite SF series: Well World and the Quintara Marathon. But this series was not his best work. The River of Dancing Gods is a fun, light read that takes a self-aware poke at its genre, but much of it felt like Chalker was just kind of filling space by telling us what happened between the scenes he really wanted to write. 6/10.




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Nine short stories from a new horror master: gritty, grotty, grimdark, with words like bloody knives.


The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All

Night Shade Books, 2013, 280 pages




Over the course of two award-winning collections and a critically acclaimed novel, The Croning, Laird Barron has arisen as one of the strongest and most original literary voices in modern horror and the dark fantastic. Melding supernatural horror with hardboiled noir, espionage, and a scientific backbone, Barron's stories have garnered critical acclaim and have been reprinted in numerous year's best anthologies and nominated for multiple awards, including the Crawford, International Horror Guild, Shirley Jackson, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards.

Barron returns with his third collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Collecting interlinking tales of sublime cosmic horror, including "Blackwood's Baby", "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven", and "The Men from Porlock", The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All delivers enough spine-chilling horror to satisfy even the most jaded reader.


Not H.P. Lovecraft. Not Stephen King. )

Verdict: Not every story in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All was 5 stars, but I wouldn't rate any of them below 4. Laird Barron has hit my list of "authors to read more of soon." I'm highly recommending this book, though I am scoring it not quite a 10 because I haven't read his other books yet and am not sure yet that this is his best. If you like your horror dark and two-fisted, like a less prissy, less squeamish Lovecraft, or a contemporary Ambrose Bierce, check this Barron guy out. 9/10.




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Supervillains save the world in a novel that almost achieves comic book scale.


Burn Baby Burn

Self-Published, 2011, 212 pages




Sundancer is a militant radical who channels the heat and light of the sun, capable of melting steel and vaporizing anyone who stands in her way. Pit Geek is seemingly immortal, able to survive any injury, but haunted by fragmented memories. Together, these supervillains launch a crime spree bold enough to threaten the world's economy.

To stop them, the government authorizes a new band of superheroes known as the Covenant to hunt down the menaces. Sundancer and Pit must learn to rely on one another as never before if they're to escape the heroes that hound them. When they finally run out of places to hide, can mankind survive the conflagration when Sundancer unleashes the full force of her solar powers?


Robots and Monkeys make everything better. )

Verdict: Burn Baby Burn is a stand-alone sequel that's better than the first book, and highly recommended for all superhero fans. While the writing remains a bit flat at times, and characterization is sometimes narrated rather than displayed, James Maxey has mastered the superhero genre, and is able to deliver a book that has all the best aspects of both novel and comic book. Aliens, robots, monkeys, and apocalyptic showdowns, and somehow it doesn't fall over into silliness. 8/10.

Also by James Maxey: My review of Nobody Gets the Girl.




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Harry Dresden vs. a taxonomy of werewolves.


Fool Moon

Roc, 2000, 401 pages




Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is Chicago's only openly practicing wizard. He is also dead broke. His vast knowledge and magical skills are unfortunately matched by his talent for making powerful enemies and alienating friends. With little more than his integrity left, he accepts an offer of work from Lt. Karin Murphy of Chicago's Special Investigations Unit. He wants to redeem himself in Murphy's eyes and make enough money to quiet his rumbling stomach.

Soon he finds himself pinned between trigger-happy FBI agents, shape-shifiting motorcycle gang members, a threatened mobster boss, and an heir to an ancient curse along with his primal fiance. Throw in environmental activists and a pair of young werewolves in love and you have something of Fool Moon.


The second book is neither better than nor worse than the first. )

Verdict: The Harry Dresden series is basically paranormal romance for guys. Fool Moon, the second book in the series, adds only a little bit to Dresden's world, and rehashes a lot of the plot devices and characterization from the first book. It's entertaining but nothing special; I have yet to understand why this series is so massively popular. 6/10.

Also by Jim Butcher: My review of Storm Front.




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A Heinleinian woman hooks up with a space highwayman, leads a rebellion, looks great in heels.


Darkship Thieves

Baen, 2010, 384 pages




Athena Hera Sinistra never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in finding out the truth about the DarkShips. You always get what you don't ask for. Which must have been why she woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in her father's space cruiser, knowing that there was a stranger in her room. In a short time, after taking out the stranger--who turned out to be one of her father's bodyguards up to no good, she was hurtling away from the ship in a lifeboat to get help. But what she got instead would be the adventure of a lifetime - if she managed to survive.


Heinleinian fanfiction, which is not necessarily a bad thing. )

Verdict: Darkship Thieves is a nice light romantic space opera with a character who very much wants to be in a Heinlein novel. This book isn't quite that, but it's a passable facsimile. 7/10.




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An early satirical "Big House" novel about 18th century Ireland.


Castle Rackrent

Originally published in 1800, approximately 45,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




For the information of the IGNORANT English reader, a few notes have been subjoined by the editor, and he had it once in contemplation to translate the language of Thady into plain English; but Thady's idiom is incapable of translation, and, besides, the authenticity of his story would have been more exposed to doubt if it were not told in his own characteristic manner. Several years ago he related to the editor the history of the Rackrent family, and it was with some difficulty that he was persuaded to have it committed to writing; however, his feelings for 'THE HONOUR OF THE FAMILY,' as he expressed himself, prevailed over his habitual laziness, and he at length completed the narrative which is now laid before the public.


An Hibernian tale taken from facts, and from the manners of the Irish Squires, before the year 1782. )

Verdict: An early historical novel with touches of wry humor, and significant for its view of Anglo-Irish relations, Castle Rackrent is not particularly interesting outside this context; for plotting and characters one would do better with one of Edgeworth's contemporaries. Another one of those books that has earned its place on the 1001 Books list more for its historical place than its literary qualities. 5/10.

I read this book for the [livejournal.com profile] books1001 challenge.




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Maxim Gorky's pioneering (boring) novel of (boring) "Socialist Realism" about a (boring) mother of the Russian revolution.


Mother

Originally published in 1906, 324 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




Maxim Gorky, pseudonym of Alexei Maksimovich Peshkov, Soviet novelist, playwright and essayist, was a founder of social realism. Although known principally as a writer, he was closely associated with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. The Mother, one of his best-known works, is the story of the radicalization of an uneducated woman that was later taken as a model for the Socialist Realist novel, and his autobiographical masterpiece.


The road to hell is paved with well-intentioned revolutions. )

Verdict: Is this a book you must read before you die? I'd say as a sample of a particular period of history and the literature it produced, it has its value. This isn't a post-revolutionary Soviet novel, so it's a vivid if biased view into the time in which it was written. But as a work of literature, I would not inflict this on anyone who isn't perversely fascinated with the Bolshevik revolution. 3/10.

I read this book as part of the [livejournal.com profile] books1001 challenge.




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The Time Traveler's Wife, if Henry was a serial killer.


The Shining Girls

Mulholland Books, 2012, 375 pages




"The future is not as loud as war, but it is relentless. It has a terrible fury all its own."

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times.

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He's the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable - until one of his victims survives.

Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth....

The Shining Girls is a masterful twist on the serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing heroine in pursuit of a deadly criminal.


A time-traveling serial killer stalks the one who got away. )

Verdict: The Shining Girls successfully blends several genres under the guise of story about a time-traveling serial killer. Very human characters, a somewhat arbitrary plot as characters are largely pulled in the direction indicated by an inanimate MacGuffin, but an interesting, bloody, well-researched historical thriller. 8/10.

Also by Lauren Beukes: My review of Zoo City.




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A low magic, epic fantasy, political potboiler - Game of Thrones without the gore and rape and incest.


The Dragon's Path

Orbit, 2011, 555 pages




All paths lead to war...

Marcus' hero days are behind him. He knows too well that even the smallest war still means somebody's death. When his men are impressed into a doomed army, staying out of a battle he wants no part of requires some unorthodox steps.

Cithrin is an orphan, ward of a banking house. Her job is to smuggle a nation's wealth across a war zone, hiding the gold from both sides. She knows the secret life of commerce like a second language, but the strategies of trade will not defend her from swords.

Geder, sole scion of a noble house, has more interest in philosophy than in swordplay. A poor excuse for a soldier, he is a pawn in these games. No one can predict what he will become.

Falling pebbles can start a landslide. A spat between the Free Cities and the Severed Throne is spiraling out of control. A new player rises from the depths of history, fanning the flames that will sweep the entire region onto The Dragon's Path-the path to war.


A banking whiz kid, a tragically brooding soldier, and a nerdy nobleman who is really, really going to make you regret giving him a wedgie. )

Verdict: Good, solid writing, engaging characters (some more than others, but every multiple-POV novel will produce some characters who are more interesting than others), and a plot that takes a while to build up, but when it does, takes off with a bang. The Dragon's Path is a slowly developing epic in which the author seems to be taking his time laying the groundwork, but if a relatively slow-paced 550-page first volume can make me want to read book two, it's doing something right. The only reason I'm not giving it a highly recommended tag is that it is clearly a derivative genre work that doesn't really do anything different per se — it's just really good at being what it is. 9/10.

Also by Daniel Abraham (writing as James S.A. Corey): My review of Leviathan Wakes.




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Never trust a professor who wants you to stay in a haunted house, and watch out for the quiet ones.


The Haunting of Hill House

Penguin Books, 1959, 246 pages




Past the rusted gates and untrimmed hedges, Hill House broods and waits.

Four seekers have come to the ugly, abandoned old mansion: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of the psychic phenomenon called haunting; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a lonely, homeless girl well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the adventurous future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable noises and self-closing doors, but Hill House is gathering its powers and will soon choose one of them to make its own.


Inspiration for every haunted house story since. Investigate this, Scoobies! )

Verdict: A bit dated, not the first and maybe not the best haunted house story ever, The Haunting of Hill House remains a creepy tale perfect for Halloween from an American master of understated horror. 9/10

Also by Shirley Jackson: My review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.




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Anita the Teenage British Witch: Georgy Girl meets Granny Weatherwax.


Anita

Ace Books, 1970, 221 pages




Meet Anita Thompson: she's young, she's lovely, she's clever ... and she's a witch. A real one.

Anita lives in two worlds: the modern world of supermarkets and sports cars, radio and rock & roll, where she is a thoroughly modern girl with a thoroughly modern interest in boys and fast living and her own independence. But the ancient and rustic world of traditions, cauldrons, and familiars , where she and her Granny (a witch of the Old School, broom and all) invoke elemental spirits in the service of Him Wot's Down Under. She has senses no ordinary mortal can imagine (at least nine); with them, she can hear the voices of every creature of the night. She can changer her shape, call a drowned corpse from a lake, reverse the flow of time, and ride the Sea Serpent (there's only the one, you know; always has been -- always will be) deep into the ocean in the company of a mermaid, even though the modern world is trying to crowd aside -- and even change -- that world of witchcraft and magic. Yet, complicated as a young witch's life may become, Anita never loses her sense of fun, or her essential innocence.


Anita was a teenager when Samantha was a housewife. )

Verdict: These stories are a trip, a dated trip back to 60s Britain. Anita is a precursor to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, Buffy, and the entire contemporary urban fantasy genre. I would love to see someone write Harry Potter fan fiction with Anita appearing at Hogwarts. 7/10.




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Mars attacks! The granddaddy of all alien invasion stories.


The War of the Worlds

Originally published in 1898. Approximately 60,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




First published by H. G. Wells in 1898, The War of the Worlds is the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories. The novel begins ominously, as the lone voice of a narrator intones, "No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's."

Things then progress from a series of seemingly mundane reports about odd atmospheric disturbances taking place on Mars to the arrival of Martians just outside of London. At first, the Martians seem laughable, hardly able to move in Earth's comparatively heavy gravity, even enough to raise themselves out of the pit created when their spaceship landed. But soon the Martians reveal their true nature as death machines 100 feet tall rise up from the pit and begin laying waste to the surrounding land. Wells quickly moves the story from the countryside to the evacuation of London itself and the loss of all hope as England's military suffers defeat after defeat.

With horror, the narrator describes how the Martians suck the blood from living humans for sustenance and how it's clear that man is not being conquered so much as corralled.


The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, he said... )

Verdict: Truly the granddaddy of alien invasion stories; The War of the Worlds is still a frightening and entertaining classic. The plot is slow in places, and the characters don't really do much, but Wells describes a near-end-of-the-world in words that could be applied to any civilization that's been crushed, bombed, or genocided. 8/10.




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Genre-savvy teens who know what kind of movie they're in try to survive a slasher.


The Last Final Girl

Lazy Fascist Press, 2012, 160 pages




Life in a slasher film is easy. You just have to know when to die.

Aerial View: A suburban town in Texas. Everyone's got an automatic garage door opener. All the kids jump off a perilous cliff into a shallow river as a rite of passage. The sheriff is a local celebrity. You know this town. You're from this town.

Zoom In: Homecoming princess, Lindsay. She's just barely escaped death at the hands of a brutal, sadistic murderer in a Michael Jackson mask. Up on the cliff, she was rescued by a horse and bravely defeated the killer, alone, bra-less. Her story is already a legend. She's this town's heroic final girl, their virgin angel.

Monster Vision: Halloween masks floating down that same river the kids jump into. But just as one slaughter is not enough for Billie Jean, our masked killer, one victory is not enough for Lindsay. Her high school is full of final girls, and she's not the only one who knows the rules of the game.

When Lindsay chooses a host of virgins, misfits, and former final girls to replace the slaughtered members of her original homecoming court, it's not just a fight for survival—it's a fight to become The Last Final Girl.


For everyone who ever watched way too many Jamie Lee Curtis films. )

Verdict: A clever, funny, genre-savvy bloodbath written in an annoying screenplay format. The characters are quirky and expendable, the story is a rollercoaster, the plot is ridiculous but intentionally so. 6/10.




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A foul-mouthed fucking road tramp with a fucking psychic gift tries to fucking cheat fate fuckity fuck.


Blackbirds

Angry Robot, 2012, 384 pages




Miriam Black knows when you will die.
Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days he will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.

Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. No matter what she does, she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.


Yeah, she kind of does talk like that. )

Verdict: Strong voice, clever writing, if relying a bit too much on violence and profanity . The characters are vivid and the dialog is snappy, but also leaning heavily on the ability to disturb the reader. The plot moves along, and gets to an end that isn't too much of a cheat. 7/10.




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Boys' Life meets Stephen King.


The Troop

Gallery Books, 2013, 358 pages




Once every year, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a weekend camping trip - a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story around a roaring bonfire. The boys are a tight-knit crew. There's Kent, one of the most popular kids in school; Ephraim and Max, also well-liked and easygoing; then there's Newt the nerd and Shelley the odd duck. For the most part, they all get along and are happy to be there - which makes Scoutmaster Tim's job a little easier. But for some reason, he can't shake the feeling that something strange is in the air this year. Something waiting in the darkness. Something wicked...

It comes to them in the night. An unexpected intruder, stumbling upon their campsite like a wild animal. He is shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry - a man in unspeakable torment who exposes Tim and the boys to something far more frightening than any ghost story. Within his body is a bioengineered nightmare, a horror that spreads faster than fear. One by one, the boys will do things no person could ever imagine.

And so it begins. An agonizing weekend in the wilderness. A harrowing struggle for survival. No possible escape from the elements, the infected...or one another.


This is a writer who knows what Stephen King did best and does it almost as well. )

Verdict: A little scary, and very disturbing, The Troop is an almost perfect horror novel. The plot never slows down, the extras like interviews and news articles all add to the story, and the writing is polished, detailed, and descriptive without ever going off-course. Characters are real and engaging, and they act like real people. While the content may not be to everyone's taste, it gets my highly recommended tag.




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A rippin', bloody bottom-of-the-sea thriller, for fans of monster movies of indifferent quality.


Deep Black Sea

Permuted Press, 2014, 284 pages



It's October, and time to read a few of the horror novels that have been sitting on my shelf!

A gory monster movie in a book - cheap, dump, and entertaining. )

Verdict: Page-turning story with monsters who are freaky and gross, buckets of blood, and an atmospheric, scary, and isolating setting. Unfortunately marred by very mediocre writing, cardboard characters who are too dumb to live, and some suspensions of disbelief that are harder to swallow in a book than a movie. 5/10.




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The sailor she rejected when he was poor is now rich, and she's unmarried at 27.


Persuasion

Originally published in 1817, 236 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.




Anne Elliot has grieved for seven years over the loss of her first love, Captain Frederick Wentworth. But events conspire to unravel the knots of deceit and misunderstanding in this beguiling and gently comic story of love and fidelity.


Perhaps the most outright romantic of Austen's novels, with torches carried for seven years, and an Austenian heroine married off more happily than the author. )

Verdict: Not my favorite Austen, but not my least favorite either. Austen's prose is as flawless as usual, and Persuasion is finely plotted. It loses points for missing the humor and poignancy I found more abundantly in Austen's other novels. 7/10.

Also by Jane Austen: My reviews of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma.




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This futuristic story of haves and have-nots was a post-apocalyptic let-down.


Osiris

Night Shade Books, 2012, 400 pages




Nobody leaves Osiris. Osiris is a lost city. She has lost the world and world has lost her...

Rising high above the frigid waters, the ocean city of Osiris has been cut off from the land since the Great Storm fifty years ago. Most believe that Osiris is the last city on Earth, while others cling to the idea that life still survives somewhere beyond the merciless seas. But for all its inhabitants, Citizens and refugees alike, Osiris is the entire world--and it is a world divided.

Adelaide is the black-sheep granddaughter of the city's Architect. A jaded socialite and family miscreant, she wants little to do with her powerful relatives--until her troubled twin brother disappears mysteriously. Convinced that he is still alive, she will stop at nothing to find him, even if it means uncovering long-buried secrets.

Vikram, a third-generation storm refugee quarantined with thousands of others in the city's impoverished western sector, sees his own people dying of cold and starvation while the elite of Osiris ignore their plight. Determined to change things, he hopes to use Adelaide to bring about much-needed reforms--but who is using who?

As another brutal winter brings Osiris closer to riot and revolution, two very different people, each with their own agendas, will attempt to bridge the gap dividing the city, only to find a future far more complicated than either of them ever imagined.

Osiris is the beginning of an ambitious new science fiction trilogy exploring a near-future world radically transformed by rising seas and melting poles.


400 pages about a sea-themed city of the future and a rich socialite's parties. )

Verdict: Well-written but melodramatic characterization more suitable for a romance novel than a dystopian drama. Nice worldbuilding and evocative writing, but too much of the latter and too little actual plot. 5/10.




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