Tuesday, June 28, 2022

'I ain't got no body,' Star Trek style

How many times, across all the Star Trek series, have the captain and crew bumped into aliens that didn't have a physical form? Bodiless spectres? Godlike entities? Let me see if I can count 'em. No promises that I won't miss a few. As it is, it makes quite a playlist, if that's the kind of Trek episode that turns you on. Note, TOS = The Original Series; TAS = The Animated Series; TNG = The Next Generation; DS9 = Deep Space Nine; VOY = Voyager; ENT = Enterprise; LD = Lower Decks; SNW = Strange New Worlds. Numbering is in order of first broadcast, except that TOS S1 (season 1) E1 (episode 1) and E2 are the two pilots for that series, and the numbering follows accordingly.

  • TOS S1 E4: "Charlie X" - Youth has trouble readjusting to human society after being brought up by the godlike Thasians. Eventually they take him back, for his own good and everybody else's.
  • TOS S1 E17: "The Squire of Gothos" - Trelane turns out to be an adolescent incorporeal alien.
  • TOS S1 E18: "Arena" - Vastly superior aliens force Kirk to dance with a reptoid alien.
  • TOS S1 E26: "Errand of Mercy" - The Organians aren't as helpless and humanoid as they seem.
  • TOS S2 E9: "Metamorphosis" - The incorporeal alien who loves Zephram Cochrane finds a way for him to love her back.
  • TOS S2 E13: "Obsession" - It's a cloud of sweet-smelling gas, but it's also a blood-sucking predator.
  • TOS S2 E14: "Wolf in the Fold" - Redjac travels from world to world, possessing people and using them to kill.
  • TOS S2 E20: "Return to Tomorrow" - Once freed from the gizmos that have kept their minds on ice, they can't survive without possessing humanoid bodies.
  • TOS S3 E4: "And the Children Shall Lead" - The psycho children's "friendly angel" isn't so friendly, really.
  • TOS S3 E5: "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" - Medusans, don'tcha know.
  • TOS S3 E6: "Spectre of the Gun" - Vastly superior aliens force the crew to reenact the gunfight at the OK Corral.
  • TOS S3 E7: "Day of the Dove" - S**t-stirring entity feeds off conflict and violence.
  • TOS S3 E18: "The Lights of Zetar" - Evil ghosts possess Scotty's girlfriend.
  • TOS Film 5: "The Final Frontier" - What does God need with a starship?
  • TAS S1 E3: "One of Our Planets Is Missing" - A cloud creature feeds off the energy of planets.
  • TAS S2 E3: "The Practical Joker" - An energy being plays pranks on the crew.
  • TNG S1 E1: "Encounter at Farpoint" - Q.
  • TNG S1 E4: "The Last Outpost" - The energy alien took a humanoid form, for display only.
  • TNG S1 E5: "Where No One Has Gone Before" - The Traveler can also travel as pure energy. I think. Maybe he's just good at phasing from one reality to another.
  • TNG S1 E6: "Lonely Among Us" - Energy alien runs amok on the ship, possessing people.
  • TNG S1 E7: "Justice" - Higher-dimensional lifeform reveals itself as "God" to a pleasure planet.
  • TNG S1 E9: "Hide and Q" - Q again.
  • TNG S2 E1: "The Child" - Energy being impregnates Deanna.
  • TNG S2 E2: "Where Silence Has Lease" - Incorporeal being does cruel experiments on the Enterprise.
  • TNG S2 E16: "Q Who?" - Q again. Also, the Calamarain.
  • TNG S3 E3: "The Survivors" - Old guy turns out to be an immortal energy being.
  • TNG S3 E5: "The Bonding" - Energy alien passes itself off as a dead crew member.
  • TNG S3 E13: "Deja Q" - Q again.
  • TNG S3 E26: "Transfigurations" - Guy ascends to a noncorporeal plane of existence.
  • TNG S4 E10: "The Loss" - 2D creatures cause Deanna to lose her empathy.
  • TNG S4 E15: "Power Play" - Evil ghosts possess members of the crew.
  • TNG S4 E23: "Imaginary Friend" - Energy being messes around with a crewman's child.
  • TNG S6 E15: "Tapestry" - Q again.
  • TNG S7 E6: "Phatasms" - Interphasic creatures feed on the crew.
  • TNG S7 E14: "Sub Rosa" - A ghost makes sweet, sweet love to Beverly.
  • TNG S7 E20: "Journey's End" - Wesley joins the Traveler.
  • TNG S7 E25: "All Good Things..." - Q again.
  • DS9 S1 E1: "Emissary" - The wormhole aliens, a.k.a. Bajor's prophets
  • DS9 S1 E6: "Q-Less" - Q again.
  • DS9 S1 E9: "The Passenger" - A criminal entity hops from body to body.
  • DS9 S1 E13: "The Storyteller" - Really more of a figment of a village's collective imagination
  • DS9 S1 E15: "If Wishes Were Horses" - Entities grant wishes to study humanoids' imagination
  • DS9 S2 E9: "Second Sight" - A lovely woman turns out to be another woman's psychic projection
  • DS9 S2 E24: "The Collaborator" - The Bajoran prophets again.
  • DS9 S3 E16: "Prophet Motive" - The Bajoran prophets again.
  • DS9 S4 E16: "Accession" - The Bajoran prophets again.
  • DS9 S5 E5: "The Assignment" - The pagh-wraiths
  • DS9 S5 E10: "Rapture" - The Bajoran prophets again.
  • DS9 S6 E7: "Sacrifice of Angels" - The Bajoran prophets again.
  • DS9 S6 E21: "The Reckoning" - The Bajoran prophets & pagh-wraiths again.
  • DS9 S6 E26: "Tears of the Prophets" - The Bajoran prophets & pagh-wraiths again.
  • DS9 S7 E1: "Image in the Sand" - The Bajoran prophets & pagh-wraiths again.
  • DS9 S7 E2: "Shadows and Symbols" - The Bajoran prophets & pagh-wraiths again.
  • DS9 S7 E17: "Penumbra" - The Bajoran prophets again.
  • DS9 S7 E18: "'Til Death Do Us Part" - The Bajoran prophets again.
  • DS9 S7 E19: "Strange Bedfellows" - The pagh-wraiths again.
  • DS9 S7 E25: "What You Leave Behind" - The Bajoran prophets & pagh-wraiths again.
  • VOY S1 E1: "Caretaker" - The banjo man is a being made of sporocystian energy.
  • VOY S1 E6: "The Cloud" - There's not only coffee in that nebula; it's a life form.
  • VOY S1 E11: "Heroes and Demons" - Energy aliens accidentally beamed aboard.
  • VOY S1 E12: "Cathexis" - Entity possesses members of the crew.
  • VOY S2 E10: "Cold Fire" - Another sporocystian lifeform.
  • VOY S2 E18: "Death Wish" - Another Q episode.
  • VOY S3 E11: "The Q and the Grey" - Another Q episode.
  • VOY S3 E15: "Coda" - incorporeal alien tries to feed off Janeway's soul.
  • VOY S4 E2: "The Gift" - Kes goes incorporeal
  • VOY S5 E12: "Bride of Chaotica!" - Photonic aliens try first contact via holodeck
  • VOY S5 E18: "The Fight" - Chakotay uses vision quest to communicate with aliens
  • VOY S6 E23: "Fury" - Kes comes back from incorporeality, pissed
  • VOY S6 E25: "The Haunting of Deck Twelve" - entity indvertently brought on board
  • VOY S7 E18: "Q2" - Q and Q Jr.
  • ENT S2 E18: "The Crossing" - Incorporeal aliens take over crew members' bodies.
  • ENT S3 E8: "Twilight" - subspace parasites infect Archer's brain.
  • ENT S4 E11: "Observer Effect" - Those rascally Organians, again
  • Discovery S2 passim: The ship uploads an alien data archive so vast that it's practically sentient.
  • Discovery S4 passim: The Federation is threatened by aliens so incomprehensibly superior that they don't perceive humanoids as a life form.
  • LD S1 E4: "Moist Vessel" - a crewman ascends to the incorporeal plane
  • Prodigy passim: A Medusan serves as a main character
  • Picard S2 E10: "Farewell" - Traveler-Wesley returns.
  • SNW S1 E3: "Ghosts of Illyria" - What are those energy things, anyway?
  • SNW S1 E8: "The Elysian Kingdom" - The incorporeal entity's name is Debra.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Gargoyle in My Yard

The Gargoyle in My Yard
by Philippa Dowding
Recommended Ages: 10+

The gargoyle in Katherine's back yard doesn't fit in well with the other garden statues. They're all obviously sculptures; the gargoyle is alive. Also, it gets into fisticuffs with one of the dwarves, tramples Katherine's mom's award-winning asters, and generally acts rude. At first, Katherine worries about her parents finding out. Then she and her dad learn that her mom already knows, and the family takes steps to get to know the gargoyle better.

His name is Gargoth, and he's lived for over 400 years. Somehow, he arrived in Toronto in a crate with another living gargoyle, but the two were separated in a candle shop and he's desperate to find her again. Katherine agrees to help him in his search. But first, she and her family must adjust to having a little, winged creature in their garden that eats, drinks, talks and feels obligated to protect the family – even from trick-or-treaters. Keeping him secret puts a strain on the family, but it also has heartwarming rewards as Gargoth becomes almost part of the family.

Katherine, her parents, their cat Milly and the gargoyle in their garden share almost a year's worth of experiences in this brief, quickly read chapter book – experiences ranging from humorous to alarming, with stops at magical, mysterious and touching. How do you take a gargoyle to a piano lesson? What do you give a gargoyle for Christmas? How do you get rid of one, and what if you're not sure you want to? For all these questions and more, inquire within.

Philippa Dowding is the award-winning Canadian author of Firefly, Oculum and its upcoming sequel Oculum Echo, the "Nightflyers Handbook" series (The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden and Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me), and the "Weird Stories Gone Wrong" stories (Jake and the Giant Hand and at least five more). This book also has at least a couple sequels: The Gargyole Overhead and The Gargoyle at the Gates. Maybe because it's from Canada, I had my best luck finding this book via online used booksellers; also, I'm afraid, well organized information about its author and her works is hard to find, even on her own website. Fantastic Fiction hasn't heard of her, and her Wiki page doesn't mention this series. Try Thriftbooks and/or Abebooks dot com.

Friday, June 17, 2022

A Properly Unhaunted Place

A Properly Unhaunted Place
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 11+

Rosa and her mother are appeasement specialists – a type of librarian skilled at calming ghosts down. Everywhere in their world is haunted, but libraries are especially so. Everywhere, that is, except a town called Ingot, accessible only by a highway that passes through a tunnel at each end of a small mountain valley. For some unknown reason, it's the only known ghost-free town. Yet curiously, that's where Athena, Rosa's mother, moves them after the mishap that turns Rosa's dad into a ghost. Athena seems to want a break from settling poltergeists, but Rosa misses the spirit presences. Something about the town doesn't feel right to her.

Jasper, who's the first kid Rosa meets in Ingot, has kind of the opposite problem. With no real history animating the valley, the townsfolk have created a fake one, building an entire economy around an elaborate Renaissance festival. Jasper's parents are into it, with his mother acting the part of the queen and his father strutting around in armor, giving rousing speeches in a fake British accent. The kid is embarrassed by it, but he plays along anyway. The two kids size each other up, Jasper trying to imagine what it's like to see ghosts and Rosa wondering how anyone can live without seeing them. But before they have much time to get to know each other, paranormal craziness breaks out at the fair and Rosa is on the case.

Athena could be a lot of help, if she were up to it. But in her first dust-up with a giant, angry spirit, her voice is stolen from her. That leaves it up to Rosa and her new friend to find out why Ingot seems so very unhaunted when it clearly isn't. The answer proves surprisingly chilling, given the story's starting state in which ghostly hauntings are no big deal. Apparently there is more than one way to deal with ghosts – appeasement and banishment – and the one that has kept Ingot ghost-free for so many years is really the more dangerous of the two. Unless the kids can relieve the pressure holding back the haints from the town's borders and appease the town's angry ghosts, every living thing in the valley will soon join them.

This book introduces a novel attitude toward ghosts, or rather a number of interesting attitudes that play off each other in ways that create dramatic conflict. The forces acting against Rosa and Jasper reveal frailties of human nature that readers may recognize in themselves. Grief, depression, prejudice, vigilantism, guilt and even historical revisionism are woven into the texture, with two young heroes modeling the combination of courage and compassion that can heal where fear-driven force only divides. It's a spooky, suspenseful, weird and touching story that gives you quite a bit to think about.

There are multiple authors named William Alexander. The one who wrote this one is also the author of the National Book Award winning Goblin Secrets, its companion Ghoulish Song and the young adult novels Ambassador and Nomad. This book also has a sequel, A Festival of Ghosts. Meanwhile, just for kicks, there's also a children's author named William Alexander who wrote four "Clues Kids" books, such as The Case of the Gumball Bandits, and a humorist named William Alexander whose books include Flirting with French and Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World. The W.A. who wrote this book is a professor of liberal arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and is the son of a Latino immigrant to the U.S.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Wednesdays in the Tower

Wednesdays in the Tower
by Jessica Day George
Recommended Ages: 10+

Celie is the youngest of four royal children who live in Castle Glower, where new rooms appear out of nowhere most Tuesdays and old ones sometimes disappear. Lately, however, the castle has gone into overdrive, adding room after room but not taking any away. It seems to be changing its entire configuration, putting a strain on the apron wall and worrying the king and his advisors. It's personal for Celie, who is racing to complete her atlas of the castle before it goes completely out of date. Even more personal is the castle's gift to her: a giant, orange egg that's hot to the touch. Is it a dragon? A roc? No! It's a griffin – half eagle, half lion – and in its own, magical way, the castle seems to be telling Celie that it wants her to raise it without anyone else in the castle knowing, except her oldest brother Bran (who's also the royal wizard) and a journeyman blacksmith from the village, named Pogue.

The three of them are well-matched with one strong-willed, fast-growing baby griffin, which Celie names Rufus after a toy lion she used to have. But Bran and Pogue have so much more to worry about. A roomful of strange and dangerous weapons has appeared. Instead of the wizard Bran sent for, to help them study the arms, they are visited by a strange wizard named Arkwright, who seems to be up to something mysterious. Celie finds it harder to harder keeping Rufus a secret, all while the castle becomes increasingly unstable in ways that lead her to question where rooms go when they disappear, and whether somebody is there, and what's going on to make them send more and more of the castle over to Celie's world. She enlists the aid of her other brother, Rolf, to study the castle's history, and especially the almost forgotten lore about griffins connected with it.

What they find out proves to be spookier and more tragic than you'd expect, based on the whimsical tone of a story about a magic castle. Their adventure is full of fun and surprises and thrills, with a slow-simmering historical mystery, intriguing cultural details, and believable characters reacting in a believable way to unbelievable situations. More and more, an element of dread and suspense enters in. And just as all the answers are coming into focus, everything – including Arkwright's involvement – reaches a crisis that leaves Celie, Rufus, Pogue, Rolf and a couple others stranded in world beyond the mythical, where they will face who-knows-what in the book to come.

This is the second "Castle Glower" book, following Tuesdays at the Castle. The series continues in Thursdays with the Crown, Fridays with the Wizards and Saturdays at Sea. Jessica Day George's other titles include Dragon Slippers, Princess of the Midnight Ball and The Rose Legacy, each with two sequels, Silver in the Blood and Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Tuesdays at the Castle

Tuesdays at the Castle
by Jessica Day George
Recommended Ages: 10+

Celie is the youngest child of Glower the Seventy-Ninth, king of Sleyne and caretaker of Castle Glower. In Sleyne, the castle chooses the king, which is why the elder prince has been packed off to the College of Wizardry and the younger, Rolf, is set to inherit. Basically, the Castle acts like a living thing, magically sprouting new rooms every week, rearranging corridors and sometimes making old ones disappear. It "chose" Rolf by putting his bedchamber close to the throne room and making it big and luxurious, while filling Bran's with books. No one understands the castle better than Celie, who is working on an atlas of its ever-changing towers and secret passageways. One day, the king and queen depart on a trip to see Prince Bran graduate. Then the awful news comes for Celie, Rolf and their older sister Lilah. You can guess what he's going to say next when the sole surviving royal guard stumbles, wounded, out of the royal carriage, faces Prince Rolf and says, "Your Highness – I mean, Your Majesty."

Rolf and the princesses aren't ready to write their parents and Bran off as dead until they see the bodies. Unfortunately, the Royal Council has other ideas, forcing Rolf to be crowned as King Glower the Eightieth while the search secretly goes on. Worse, the council has forced Rolf to accept themselves as regents until he reaches his majority. Even worse, two foreign princes and their retinues have moved into the castle indefinitely, and the viler of the two has somehow gotten himself named to the Council of Regents. Worst of all, Prince Khelsh is plotting to be named as Rolf's heir, after which the young king's life won't be worth a boiled egg.

With bigger and stronger people leaning on Rolf to sign the proclamation making Khelsh his heir, the prince and his sisters have very few resources on their side. They have the loyalty of the castle's servants and guards. They have the support of the handsomest youth in the kingdom, a blacksmith's son who has been wooing Princess Lilah. They have, perhaps, a few other allies. But most importantly, the have Castle Glower, which wants Rolf to rule after his father. Such pranks as spreading manure on the Councillors' shoes and slitting the seams of their robes of state will only get the young prince and princesses so far. As the kids find themselves increasingly backed into a corner, it's the castle's willingness to do wondrous things, especially for Celie, on which everything depends.

The concept of a magic castle, along with this book's cover art, prompts would-be readers to imagine a whimsical, light-hearted story with plenty of humor – and it's all that. But at the same time, it goes deeper and darker than you'd expect, putting the young heroes and heroines in greater danger, and their kingdom besides. It strikes tender emotional chords, brings the castle children to the brink of despair, and rises to an intense climax with a big payoff. I've seen Castle Glower described as a cross between Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and Hogwarts, but it's really in a class by itself. When its stairways move, there's a reason or a meaning behind it, even if it doesn't become immediately apparent; it becomes almost a speaking character, with peccadilloes and vulnerabilities all its own. You'll come away from this book sensing that there's still more to explore in its sentient halls.

This is the first book in the "Castle Glower" series, which continues in Wednesdays in the Tower, Thursdays with the Crown, Fridays with the Wizards and Saturdays at Sea. Jessica Day George is a Young Adult novelist who specializes in retelling fairy tales in such titles as the "Dragon Slippers" trilogy, the "Princess of the Midnight Ball" trilogy, the "Rose Legacy Trilogy," Silver in the Blood and Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Jinx's Magic

Jinx's Magic
by Sage Blackwood
Recommended Ages: 11+

Jinx is a 13-year-old wizard's apprentice whose magic defies pigeon-holing. He has a little bit of wizardly power, but it seems incomplete and slow to develop, to the great exasperation of his master, Simon Magus. He also seems to be something called a Listener, that hasn't existed for over 100 years, able to hear what the trees of the Urwald have to say and to feel what they feel – although they're a bit frustrated with him, too. He doesn't listen very well, does he? And there are odds and ends of other kinds of power in him, too: like being able to sense the color and shape of other people's thoughts (which he tries to keep to himself), and drawing power from the lifeforce of the forest, and learning languages lickety-split. And that's even before he travels to another dimension and studies magic at a school of magic where magic is forbidden, on pain of death – a whole different kind of magic, known as KnIP (for "Knowledge Is Power") – though he's mostly there to search for a book called the Eldritch Tome that's written in a stupidly incomprehensible language and that represents yet another form of magic. And finally, he seems to be able to talk to werewolves and trolls, which everyone knows can't talk.

Despite all these angles on magic, Jinx still struggles to pull enough power together to save Simon from the evil Bonemaster, a wizard specializing in death magic, and to rescue Simon's fiancee Sophie from prison in the parallel-dimension, magic-averse city of Samara. He has to navigate a community of scholars who mean to keep all the power for themselves, and who always seem to mean the opposite of what they say; rely on allies whose allegiance is iffy; and do the impossible based on little more than blind belief – or rather, knowing things that ain't so. Back on the Urwald side of the transdimensional doorway, he faces an enemy whose power he doesn't dare touch, a frenemy who plans to bring war and destruction to the Urwald, a friend who has crossed over to the dark side (somewhat), and countrymen who don't even know they're a country and if they don't realize it soon, it may be too late.

This is a fascinating, complex, world-building story featuring a hero who is clever yet confused, powerful yet frail. His adventures are mixed up with those of a girl cursed to answer any question truthfully, a boy-king cursed so that he can't say who he is, a young scholar whose forthrightness is the ruin of his career, and a resistance cell that refuses to rescue its own. Then there are witches, wizards, werewolves, elves, and still more strange and wondrous beings, some of whom do terrible things. It's a book that thrives on wit, sarcasm and wry humor, blended with suspense and thrills in a tight weave of original fantasy concepts. It gives you more than you expect and leaves you wanting even more.

This is the second book in the "Wizard's Apprentice" trilogy, between Jinx and Jinx's Fire. Sage Blackwood is also the author of Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded.

Sunday, June 5, 2022


by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 16+

I'm not a big follower of pure science fiction, so take this for what it's worth, but I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to write a brief synopsis for this book. Most of the feats of world-building I've witnessed have been on the fantasy side of the sci-fi/fantasy divide, and maybe those are a little easier to reduce to a few bullet points. This book's vision of a possible future for mankind is so far-out and overwhelming in its conception that I almost don't know where to begin. But here's a try: suppose that mankind, sometime around 2040, develops a technology akin to the transporters on Star Trek, and that leads to what historians, many centuries farther along, will call the Acceleration. Those historians will also refer to the 90-year period that we're in the middle of as the First Dark Age; the second, on the far side of a great galactic civilization, will be associated with something called the Censorship War. And this story takes places in the aftermath of that.

So, transporters. Basically, they chew you up into your component molecules, store your mental and physical pattern in a computer file, and ideally, reconstitute you at the appropriate time and place, such as after a long interstellar trip or at the far end of a long-range transmission. But they can do oh, so much more than just disintegrate you and reconstitute you. They can also back you up and resurrect your last restore point if you get killed; they can repair injuries, reverse aging and cure diseases, making you virtually immortal. You can live thousands of lifetimes, changing your body type, your sex, your species, even putting your mind into a machine or a sort of sentient armor known as a Tank. You can have multiple instances of yourself running at the same time, and merge them back into one you. And apparently (lesson learned from the Censorship War), you can tamper with people's memories, their personalities, their beliefs, their identity. If you conceal it well, you can even infect the assembly gate network with a virus that will erase entire chapters of history (hence the dark ages) and create something for which you never realized there might ever be a name: a Cognitive Dictatorship.

I know, it's a mind-blowing concept; I mean, literally, it's about blowing people's minds. Falling victim to it is worse than death; inflicting it on people is worse than murder; and that's even true in a galaxy where death isn't necessarily the end. And the fight to end it is a brutal thing that requires certain people, like Robin, to commit certain acts, the likes of which one might not want to remember doing, later.

So. Robin (great name, right?) is recovering from memory surgery, in which he apparently rid himself of an entire lifetime of experiences that his old self could no longer live with. Having difficulty adjusting to a world in which he doesn't understand his place, he volunteers for a psycho-archeological experiment in which people like him, with nothing to lose, immerse themselves in a role-play scenario based on the pre-Acceleration dark age that you and I would call, more or less, now – or as close to it as the test designers can get. He wakes up a she, and is quickly established as the "weaker" half of a married couple in a dystopian past where women play an exaggeratedly passive role in home and social life. Even worse than that, the experiment uses a point system to establish a system of peer pressure that, at first, forces participants to conform to the designers' notion of 20th and 21st century social mores, but that quickly deteriorates into a fascist horror complete with informants and lynch mobs.

In the midst of it all, Robin – now Reeve – and her husband-by-chance, Sam, struggle to understand each other and their developing relationship. But at the same time, she is having flashbacks to her life before memory surgery, memories that her former self hid deep in her mind. She gradually realizes that she's a sleeper agent who has been planted in the experimental community to ... well, a synopsis is one thing; spoilers are another. You'll just have to read it. Let me rephrase: You just have to read it. It takes the future history of mankind in the weirdest direction I have ever seen it taken, which might not be saying much for the reasons I stated above; but it takes it there, and keeps going, beyond anything you would ever have expected or dreamed up. It thoroughly explores the possibilities of a world where transporter technology created a paradise, and that paradise was lost, falling as hard as the Garden of Eden; where our present day is a murky, prehistoric enigma; and where one couple's love story is tangled up in a crisis that threatens the future of humanity throughout the galaxy. It's also a book to which I am obliged to apply a bright red, pulsating Adult Content Advisory. For what it's worth.

This review is based on the audiobook read by Kevin R. Free, a voice actor who can audibly disappear into a wide variety of characters, including members of both sexes. There were times during this book when I frankly couldn't believe I was listening to just one person. Anyway, this is one of a small handful of standalone novels by Charles Stross, who is best known for his 12 "Laundry Files" novels and associated stories, his six-book "Merchant Princes" series, his "Singularity Sky" and "Empire Games" trilogies, the "Halting State" and "Freyaverse" duologies, and the short story collections Toast and Wireless.

The Clue in the Trees

The Clue in the Trees
by Margi Preus
Recommended Ages: 12+

Francie Frye, the sometime child star of a TV show about a girl detective, has transferred to a small-town high school in norther Minnesota for her senior year after helping solve a murder mystery on the remote lake where her two great-aunts live. She brings with her a reputation for meddling in local mysteries, which is the last thing she needs when she's just trying to fit in at a new school, earn good grades and try out for the school play. But before the school year even gets started, her long-absent older brother Theo turns up and drags her into a mysterious, cloak-and-dagger chase scene involving a figure actually wearing a trench coat and fedora.

To make things even more mysterious, the lead arecheologist in a mastodon bone dig at the lake turns up dead – and Francie has reason to suspect Theo of the murder. The more she digs, trying to prove his innocence, the worse it looks for Theo. Pretty soon the sheriff suspects him, and Francie, too. Meanwhile, Miss "I'm Not a Girl Detective But I Played One On TV" also can't resist digging, or rather, diving, for a silver box that she saw at a neighbor's house last summer, and that triggers one of her few early memories of her vanished mother. For some reason, somebody is willing to go to great lengths to keep her from finding it. But Francie is willing to go to great depths – even beneath the ice of a frozen lake. If that doesn't kill her, maybe the murderer will, as her search for answers to one mystery leads her dangerously close to the solution of the other.

This book plays with one's expectations in a fun way. You expect the sheriff, and everyone else, to tell Francie to steer clear of the mystery. What you don't expect is for the sheriff, her grandfather, her aunts and a teacher at the school to encourage her (more or less) in her inevitable investigation. Despite her protests of "I'm just here to live a normal life," they all know she's the one who's going to figure it all out. And a lot of people care about her – a couple of them, maybe, in a romantic way – which subtly influences you to care, too. So her danger makes your breath catch, and her need to know more about her mom is a feeling you share. Finally, the setting comes with its own colorful history and its own set of environmental, cultural and political concerns, which may interest you as well; the book concludes with an author's note that provides a sketch of these real-world components.

This is the second book in the "Enchantment Lake Mystery" trilogy, which hits me as if it was set in a thinly disguised version of the area where I live in northern Minnesota. The other installments in it are Enchantment Lake and The Silver Box. Margi Preus is also the author of the Newbery Honor book Heart of a Samurai as well as the young adult novels Shadow on the Mountain, West of the Moon, The Bamboo Sword, Village of Scoundrels, The Littlest Voyageur and, coming in September 2022, Windswept. Her children's picture books include the recent (May 2022) release Lily Leads the Way, and her nonfiction titles include Celebritrees: Historic and Famous Trees of the World.

A Witch Alone

A Witch Alone
by James Nicol
Recommended Ages: 12+

Arianwyn has completed her apprenticeship and is now the official witch of the village of Lull, on the edge of the Great Wood where spirit creatures frolic – and from which attacks by their dark cousins are on the increase. The Four Kingdoms are at war, and evil magic is somehow involved, and Arianwyn may be the only witch who can get to the bottom of it – thanks to her unique ability to see the Shadow Glyph, which she used to think was a curse. Apparently, there is a whole book of unknown glyphs like it, somewhere on the other side of the Great Wood ‐ if only she can find it. But her expedition to locate the Book of Quiet Glyphs ends in disaster when she and her colleagues encounter a plague of hex, a deadly sort of magical fungus.

Back at home in Lull, Arianwyn goes through a period in which the title of a book her grandmother gave her, A Witch Alone, seems oddly thematic. She has to put up with the mayor's snooty daughter, who is repeating her apprenticeship year, and a hostile government witch who has been assigned to her working group, and a heavy case load of magical pests that need to be put down. She has a falling out with her best friend, and another falling out with her young man. And the feyling friend she's been counting on to bring her the Book of Quiet Glyphs turns up badly hurt, needing more help than he can provide. It's a lonely time to be a young witch, but when the village's danger comes to a head, it's Arianwyn's heart to care for one even more lonely and hurting that turns the tide.

This is the type of magical adventure that proves the surprising power of compassion and understanding, rather than a swift comeuppance or a brisk telling-off. It shows that even magical talent doesn't put one above responsibility or stress or strain. And although I felt my progress through the book running alarmingly fast – sensing that it was going to be over too soon, with too little resolved – it does a good job of setting the hook for the next installment.

This is the second book of the "Apprentice Witch" trilogy, between The Apprentice Witch and A Witch Come True. James Nicol's novels for young adults also include The Spell Tailors, which apparently becomes available on Aug. 29, 2022.