Book Review: Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims


Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims

So what did science fiction look like when modern science was still in its infancy? Michael Sims has put together a collection of 19th century short science fiction stories that illustrate not only the breadth and the creativity of the field prior to the turn of the 20th century, but also the creepy prescience of some of the writers (if not for strict scientific fact, then for topics that would remain scifi staples into the current day).

In this collection we find mechanical brides made to order, vicious monsters awaiting daring pilots in the upper levels of the atmosphere, superhuman senses, alternate dimensions, strange aliens, time travel, and apocalyptic plagues and disasters. The stories, which include samples from authors like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and Rudyard Kipling, range from chapter excerpts to short stories to stories fashioned so like news items that, War of the Worlds-style, many people accepted them as fact.

My biggest complaint is that for the bigger names in the collection, clearly selected for their name recognition to the larger public, Sims has largely chosen to include only bits of chapters from their most famous works. As someone who looks to these collections to find little known authors or stories, this was a bit frustrating. I would have preferred something a little more off the beaten path. 

Fans of Victorian literature and scifi buffs should check this volume out. In these stories, we can see the seed of inspiration for a number of modern tales.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

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Book Review: The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story by Meredith Meyer Grelli

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The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story by Meredith Meyer Grelli

I remember when I was first presented with the necessity of moving to Pittsburgh. I was a New England girl born and raised, but the possibility of securing a job in my field (probably a bad idea to major in anthropology) was enough to have me seriously considering the move to (in my New England mindframe) the middle of the country. But  . . . Pittsburgh, I said to myself. I pictured post-apocalyptic visions of smokestack-strewn horizons, coal blackened skies and landscapes, the dirty grime of hundreds of years of industry. The reassuring and vague “It’s not like that anymore” from my then-boyfriend (now husband) did little to instill confidence in our new home.

Then we arrived. And all my misgivings and preconceptions faded away. It was a clear, bright midautumn day, the leaves, though not as brilliant as those I’d left behind, marched in colorful ranks up and over the hills. The gleaming US Steel Tower (the locals refuse to call it anything else, no matter who owns it), the castle-like PPG building and the art deco Gulf building dominated the downtown skyline. Bridges of yellow and blue, constructed solidly from (local) steel and concrete sprouted along the rivers like crepe paper. And the hills . . . we were moving to the neighborhood of Mt. Washington (which is extra hilarious for New Englanders) and it seemed that no surface was too vertical to build on. Houses and shops hung from the side of cliffs, streets marched uphill and turned into staircases when the grade became too steep for cars. At night, the city spread out around us both horizontally and vertically, a sight one might associate more with a Rio de Janeiro than a mid-Atlantic American city.

Pittsburgh is a city rooted in its past. Rail lines, old factories, and other evidence of bygone industry haunt the landscape. But Pittsburgh is also one of the fortunate cities in the “Rust Belt” to largely avoid the economic crash so many other places still face. The natural gas and medical industries employ thousands. Google, Uber, and other world-class companies have headquarters here. The city may see itself as a hardhat-wearing, steelmill-working tough guy, but it is also a self-driving-car test ground, a farm-to-table giant, a craft beer haven, and a foodie paradise. These two disparate parts of Pittsburgh coexist, sometimes cordially, sometimes not, and those who have lived their lives here feel the pressure to decide which path the city will ultimately take.

Wigle Whiskey embodies this dichotomy. Started as a family enterprise in 2011, Wigle sought out Pittsburgh’s deep distilling roots (the city was once the rye whiskey capital of the country, before rye was superseded by Kentucky bourbon) while embracing the city’s future (the craft spirits revolution is proceeding quite similarly to the craft beer revolution a few decades ago). The name evokes Pittsburgh’s very beginnings, named after an actor in the Whiskey Rebellion, where local distillers (violently) protested a federal tax placed on whiskey stills.

The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye (I was bound to get to the book eventually) is a love story both to the city of Pittsburgh and the craft of making spirits.  The book begins with a brief overview of The Whiskey Rebellion (for a more in depth look, you can check out William Hogeland’s The Whisky Rebellion), as well as the history of the Overholt family (Old Overholt Whiskey being one of the oldest whiskeys continuously distilled in the United States). The book then gives us an insight into the current state of craft brewing, and the challenges and niches that make distilling both difficult and rewarding. The book finishes with a number of drink recipes (huzzah!) for the dedicated liquor enthusiast.

Meredith Meyer Grelli, who is one of the founders of Wigle Whiskey, is a person enthusiastically in love with her work and her home city, and this loves shines throughout the book. Anyone who has heard her speak at one of the distillery tours knows the level of enthusiasm she brings to the craft, and she carries that enthusiasm over into the written word. Anybody interested in a quick, readable history of the Pittsburgh region and craft distilling should find this book entertaining and informative. And if you’re in the area, be sure to stop by the distillery for a cocktail, a flight, and a tour. The rich history of this city deserves to be celebrated.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir


Artemis by Andy Weir

Life isn’t easy on the moon. Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara has lived in Artemis, the only lunar city, since she was six years old. The daughter of a respected welder, poor life choices have led Jazz down a path of near poverty and petty crime. When one of Artemis’ most wealthy citizens offers her a ridiculous amount of money to commit a serious crime, Jazz can’t say no. But getting the job done is only the start of her problems. Big, shadowy players are operating behind the scenes, and this caper could put Artemis itself in grave danger.

I loved Andy Weir’s previous novel, The Martian. Weir’s mix of science, outer space, and sarcastic humor made his modern day Robinson Crusoe story ridiculously fun. Artemis is more of the same, but now Weir had given us a heist novel . . . In Space! 

Jazz Bashara is five and a half feet of sarcastic supergenius, a young woman who blew her considerable potential in poorly-managed teenage rebellion. Using her considerable intellect to skirt along the edges of lawful lunar society, her goal is to get away from the day to day scrape of bottom-rung existence. Bring on the “one last big job” from a ridiculously wealthy client, and the heist begins.

Weir has again based his world in (what seems to my non-sciencey self) wonderfully realistic detail. As the ins and outs of Artemis are explained, we begin to see how the first human settlement on the moon might operate (I’m sure Neil deGrasse Tyson will rip the science apart, but hey). Jazz is a very similar character to The Martian’s Mark Watney, but sarcastic, smart characters really appeal to me, so I don’t mind,

Fans of The Martian or smart science fiction will probably really enjoy this book. We’re heading into new and uncharted territory in real-life space exploration, so I for one want to read all the realistic sci-fi in can get my mitts on.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: After the End of the World by Jonathan L. Howard

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After the End of the World by Jonathan L. Howard

This is the second book in the Carter & Lovecraft Series, and so there are going to be massive, earth-shattering spoilers for the first book in this review. Go ahead and read the first book, then . This review will still be here when you’re ready.

 

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I’m a huge fan of Jonathan L. Howard’s books. In his Johannes Cabal series, you found yourself cheering on a cold, calculating sociopathic necromancer (you can read my review of The Fall of the House of Cabal here). The Carter & Lovecraft series introduces us to Emily Lovecraft (descendant of H.P. Lovecraft) and Daniel Carter (descendant of Randolph Carter). After the events of the last book, Carter and Lovecraft have found themselves in the “unfolded” world, where H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t so much a writer of weird fiction as a historian. Rather than Providence, Rhode Island, they now live in Arkham, Massachusetts, and Innsmouth, Kingsport, and Dunwich are right down the road.

Weird deaths and disappearances, machinations of the elder gods, and fraught archaeology are the leas of their problems however. It seems in this world, the Third Reich developed nuclear weapons in 1941, wiped out Russia in a single blow, and ended the second world war before it had really begun. As a result, the United States finds itself an ally of the Nazis, Britain is an inconsequential former power, France is in ruins, and much of Europe and Asia are ruled by Axis powers. Oh, and there are Nazis. No matter how picturesque Arkham may be compared to Providence, Lovecraft and Carter are determined to “fold” reality back into proper place and ensure that the Nazis don’t rise to become a modern global power.

The first book in the series was a bit long an meandering, but it did have a wonderfully brilliant character in Emily Lovecraft. Most books that use H.P. Lovecraft’s writings as inspiration tend to overlook the author’s racism and his discomfort with women. I’m a fan of Lovecraft’s work, but he is certainly problematic as a person. Yes, yes, he was writing in the ’20s and ’30s when racism was the norm, but he did express admiration for parts of the Nazi agenda prior to his death. And there’s more than one of his stories that reveals his dread of thinking of the “pure” white race being diluted and corrupted with “lesser” races/species.

Howard takes a full on look at this aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. He doesn’t dismiss or excuse it, and through the character of Emily Lovecraft, he points out these issues, and brings them front and center into the plot.

This is on full display in After the End of the World, where Emily (who is black) finds herself in a world where calling someone a Nazi is unconscionably rude (they prefer to call it the N-word), but where calling her a very degrading world for a black person, which I will not write in this blog, is completely acceptable. More than once, she makes a comment about finding a way back to the real world, so she no longer has “to be nice to Nazis.” If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past year, I’m sure a great many of you share that sentiment.

This book is quite a bit more fun than the previous one. In addition, the parallels to the current political climate in the US and abroad (which I do believe to be intentional on Mr. Howard’s part) make for grim, but fascinating reading. What would it look like if the Nazi’s had remained a world power? If Hitler hadn’t killed himself in his bunker but had lived on to shape the future of the Third Reich? Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think it may look similar to America under the Trump administration.

Jonathan L. Howard fans, especially those who read Carter & Lovecraft, should absolutely read this book. Even if you weren’t the biggest fan of the first book, I find this one to be much more entertaining, and the series deserves anther try. If this book sounds intriguing to you and you haven’t read the previous one, I really do encourage you to read that first, to get to know the main characters a bit better.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

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 Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

Kate Thompson returns home in time to find her father dead, hanging from a mesquite tree, and the family homestead burned to the ground. The celebratory yells of the gunman who killed him still echoing off the dry Arizona land. Swearing vengeance, and vowing to recover her father’s stolen journal, Kate sets off after the gang with rifle in hand. As her questions for revenge becomes entangled with a legendary gold mine, revelations about Kate’s family force her to question everything she has known.

Usually when you hear a book described as “gritty”, you think of a detective novel with a high functioning alcoholic detective and a female lead who resembles a poisonous spider. However, when I say that Vengeance Road is gritty, I mean it in the most literal sense. Bowman paints the thinnest coat of romanticism over her descriptions of life on the frontier. For the most part, she invites us to look closely at the dirt, the stench, the whores, the casual violence, the racism, and the cheapness of life past the edge of “civilization.” I love it. 

Her descriptions of the desert, the mountains, and the canyons on Kate’s journey are clearly written by someone in love with the harsh beauty of the American Southwest. Bowman also weaves local legends into her story, rooting it even more firmly into the red Arizona soil.

So yes, this is a YA book, but I found it very enjoyable for even those beyond the YA years (except for bits of the obligatory will they/won’t they love story, sigh . . . Though Bowman does handle that as darkly as the rest of the story). Finding a good western is hard these days, the genre has gone out of fashion of late. For YA lovers, this is a great way to introduce yourself to a new (old) genre.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben

Welcome to Vermont in the winter of 2017. Donald Trump has been elected president, the winters are more midatlantic mudfest than snowy paradise, and the strange, unique state of Vermont seems more and more in danger of becoming just another bland American state. Enter Vern Barclay, 70 year old radio show host and current leader of a quiet underground movement seeking a free, independent republic of Vermont. Vern comes into his activism more by accident than by malicious intent, but before he knows it, he has become the leader of a movement dedicated to keeping Vermont small, fair, weird, beautiful, and free.

As a University of Vermont alumna and as a former resident of the state, I always enjoy reading stories focused on my former home. McKibben has created a small, odd tale of resistance that mirrors the small, odd state of its setting. Even when I lived in Vermont (which is about a decade ago, now), you could walk into a restaurant and know exactly where the food you were eating came from. Vermont was a localvore haven long before the word was invented. The state is home to way more microbreweries and distilleries than you think you may need. The funky, friendly, live-and-let-live attitude of the majority of the state means that you can have your hippy-dippy Subaru and co-op grocery, and your handguns too. Add to all this the fact that Vermont, being small yet mighty, has made overtures of independence and succession in the past. In fact, one area of the state, called the Northeast Kingdom gets its name from an unsuccessful attempt at sovereignty when the country was young.

What we have in Radio Free Vermont is an uplifting (though very, very white) story of resistance Vermont style, involving calm discussion, reasoned arguments, lots of local beer, minor property damage, cross country skiers, and no violence. This is a resistance with an undercurrent of subtle Yankee humor. This is a resistance of the intimately local, and of neighborly cooperation. It is not loud, or violent, but it is the spark of something beautiful and funny that helps light the darkness of our current times.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Death at the Emerald by R.J. Koreto


Death at the Emerald by R.J. Koreto

 This is the third book in the Lady Frances Ffolkes series. Expect spoilers for the first two books in the review below!

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Lady Frances is still turning heads. Having returned to London after the events of the last book, she seeks a way to turn her experience solving mysteries into something of a detective role. Gossip having arrived before she did, Lady Frances soon finds herself helping an elderly dowager find her daughter, missing for over thirty years. Taking to the case with enthusiasm, Lady Frances and her loyal maid, June Mallow dive into the world of theatre, moving pictures, secret pacts, and mysterious stalkers. Determined to prove that she is capable of becoming a real-life “Lady Sherlock,” Lady Frances refuses to give up the hunt, even as her own safety is threatened.

I love this series. R.J. Koreto, who also writes the Alice and the Assassin series, does a great female lead. Lady Frances is forward and clever, but her intellect is human, and does not ascend the remote and reptilian heights employed by a Sherlock Holmes. Lady Frances makes mistakes, and overlooks clues, but her tenacity and quick mind generally lead her aright. As a result, the character is very relatable. Rather than feeling like the protagonist is so far beyond you as to be a separate species all together, Lady Frances is like the clever friend you always like spending time with.

June Mallow is also a lovely character. Where Lady Frances holds her strength in her boldness and willingness to write her own rulebook, Mallow finds her strength in quiet determination and an unflagging loyalty to those she loves. The relationship between both characters is the best kind of friendship, where each character’s strengths are offset by the other’s weaknesses, and vice versa. The two women may exasperate one another on occasion, but by and large they function much better together.

Fans of female-fronted mystery series will love this book. Fans of Victoria Thompson and Deanna Raybourn should definitely add this book to their TBR lists!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: the End We Start From by Megan Hunter

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Catastrophic environmental change has brought biblical floods to London. As the city succumbs to the water,  a woman gives birth to a baby boy, who she and her husband name Z. As the flood waters continue to rise, the woman and her husband must flee the city with a days old baby in search of safety and higher ground. As Z grows from baby to toddler, the family is forced to find new refuge again and again.

Okay. This was not my type of book. The writing is excellent, Hunter has a minimalist style that is somewhere between a steam of consciousness narrative and a poem. The cataclysmic destruction of the English landscape fades into background noise against the interaction of the woman and her son. But as someone who is not exactly baby-friendly, there are waaaaaaay too many descriptions of baby bowel movements for my peace of mind. Honestly, the whole “children are the future” thing seems a little overly optimistic when the planet is literally falling apart around you.

But, I’m absolutely willing to admit that most of the problems I had with this book stem from my own anti-baby tendencies. The book is truly beautifully written, and showcases a legitimate debut talent. The steam of consciousness reminds me a bit of The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida. While this book was not up my alley, I would be excited to read Hunter’s future works.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Maladies and Medicine by Jennifer Evans and Sara Read

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Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 by Jennifer Evans and Sara Reed

Europe in the 1600s was a strange place to be. Science and empirical data were beginning to subsume old superstition. The invention of the microscope opened up a whole new world to human sight. Discoveries in physics, medicine, and other fields slowly brought Europe into the modern age. But for a time, superstition and science existed as awkward bedfellows. Doctors tried to balance the ancient medical theories of Galen and Hippocrates with new, scientifically gathered data. It is this awkward stage that is front and center in Maladies and Medicine.

This is a straight-up history book. While the authors certainly inject frivolity and humor into the book, this is meant more for the dedicated history buff, and not for the casual reader. Evans and Reed, while admitting to the books limitations in scope (it’s a big topic), include a vast amount of information, conveniently divvied up by disease. The authors also delve into the differences between medical doctors, surgeons, midwives and other practicing women, and the unofficial medical practitioners. Each has their own origin and medical views, and it is curious to see when they agree, disagree, and borrow from one another.

History buffs will find a lot of great information (and a lot of cringe-worthy knowledge) in this book. If you’re interested in medieval history or medical history, this book is a great addition to your TBR. However, if you’re looking for a similar book for a more casual reader, you should check out Quackery by Lydia Kang.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Wicked by James Newman


The Wicked by James Newman

David and Kate Little are looking for a fresh start after encountering violence in their hometown of New York City. Moving themselves and their small daughter to Morganville, North Carolina, David and the pregnant Kate hope to put the demons of the past behind them. Unfortunately, Morganville is a small town with something rotten growing within it. As bizarre deaths and behavior sweep across the small town, David and Kate find themselves at the epicenter of a demonic force which seeks to destroy everything they hold dear.

The Wicked is pure, delightful camp. Newman has confessed to being a big fan of the cult horror books of the ’70s and ’80s, and this book is a fun, gruesome ode to the very best examples of the genre. Newman largely leaves tongue outside of cheek, letting the plot develop in all its disgusting, violent glory. But every now and again, a blazing light of self-awareness winks through the story, letting the reader know that Newman knows exactly what he is doing, and he is loving every minute of it.

Fans of cult horror (think Robert McCammon, or early Stephen King) will love this book. Horror fans as well should rejoice that a generally derided genre is getting such a strong new entry. With the rabid popularity of the It movie, and the delightfully funny rise of Grady Hendrix (my review of his delightful Horrorstor can be found here), it seems like the horror genre might well be on the cusp of a renaissance. I, for one, cannot wait to see how all this plays out.