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: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

vengeance road

 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: The House at Bishopsgate by Katie Hickman

The House at Bishopsgate by Katie Hickman

This is the third book in The Aviary Gate series, so there’s going to be spoilers in here for the first two books in the series.

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Merchant Paul Pindar and his wife, Celia (recently rescued from slavery in a Turkish harem) are moving back to England from Aleppo. Thrust suddenly into English high society (foaming at the mouth due to rumors of Celia’s past and a huge fortune in gemstones owned by Paul), Celia finds old traumas and anxieties reemerging, and finds herself relying on the widowed Lady Frances Sydenham to help her manage the household and reintegrate into society. As the woman becomes more and more indispensable to the household, her power over both Celia and Paul grows. What game is she playing, and what are her plans for the household and its inhabitants?

I was unaware when I started this book that there were others in the series, and let me tell you now, this is not a book you can really read on it’s own merits. There is a lot of backstory here, and as you read further and further you become aware that you have missed out on more and more.

Hickman does a great job with period detail, working in the tiny things that make a scene complete. Her descriptions of 17th century Aleppo and England, and the people who inhabit them, are well crafted and historically accurate. The story builds off of several threads, which weave together into a slow burning suspense.

So, if you’ve read the previous two books and enjoyed them, then The House at Bishopsgate is for you. If you’ve not yet started the series, then you should really go back and start from the beginning on order to get the full experience of this book.

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

Book Review: Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock

The Revolutionary War is the origin story of the United States. Like every origin story, it carries certain expectations: a plucky underdog comes into power, or comes into the realization of their own inner power, and proceeds to upend the established order of things. The origin story reaches its climax when said plucky underdog is able to defeat the villain, who is the representative of the power of the old order.

That is certainly the popular narrative that winds through most histories of the Revolutionary War. But is this all there is? Hoock’s Scars of Independence seeks to add to the Revolutionary narrative, to complicate and humanize the feel-good legend most of us learn in school. Hoock has little time for the “immaculate conception” origin of the United States, which features a noble and forward-looking young colony rebelling and separating nearly bloodlessly from the stodgy and declining Britain. Rather, Hoock shows us the bloody underside of the fight for independence, a violent and cruel conflict regarded in its time not as a fight for independence, but as a civil war.

In Scars of Independence, Hoock takes us through the escalating violence on both sides of the conflict. We learn about tarring and feathering, prison ships, rapes, whippings, hangings and lynchings. We learn about petty grievances between neighbors turned into war crimes. About prison camps in mines, about the impossible position of Native Americans and of slaves, caught between two feuding (largely white) armies.

This is a fantastic, thoroughly researched history. A must read for any history buffs or Revolutionary War enthusiasts. Hoock has presented an aspect of the Revolutionary War that is seldom dealt with in popular literature. Though this is first and foremost a history book, Hoock’s writing style is accessible and clear, and Scars of Independence is highly readable, even for the more casual reader.

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

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

 Three years ago, sisters Emma and Cass disappeared. Now Cass has returned, but what happened to Emma? As Cass begins telling her family and the FBI about what happened to her and her sister, it becomes clear that there are many hidden depths to Cass’s story, and that multiple people are playing for their own ends. The more Cass reveals, the more questions arise. And it is impossible to tell who, if anyone, can be trusted to tell the truth about Emma.

God, I have read a lot of psychological thrillers in this vein recently. With the success of titles like The Girl on the Train and In a Dark, Dark Wood, these types of books are definitely in vogue. And I do generally enjoy this genre; but even I’m starting to feel worn down by plot twist after plot twist. I’m going to try very hard not to make Emma in the Night suffer for my over-saturation.

This book is a fine example of the genre. Walker keeps us guessing for most of the book about who can be trusted and who cannot. The character of Cass is definitely front and center, and those surrounding her, especially her mother, sister, and the FBI psychologist interviewing her are left a bit flat by comparison. I did enjoy the slow pulling back the layers of the months and years preceding Cass and Emma’s disappearance. Walker’s portrayal of the facade of a typical upper-middle-class home hiding dark secrets was well done.

So if you (unlike me) are not burned out on a genre turned into the literary equivalent of an IPA, this book has a lot to offer. Fans of Paula Hawkins and Ruth Ware will like this book.

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

Book Review: A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

A Good Country

A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

Reza “Rez” Courdee is the son of Iranian immigrants living the good life in Laguna Beach, California. Rez considers himself a typical American teenager, partying, dating girls, smoking pot, and surfing with his friends. When most of his American friends stop talking with him after a misunderstanding while on a surfing trip, he finds himself befriending other local Muslim kids. After several high-profile terrorist attacks on American soil, Rez feels isolated by the quiet suspicion of his schoolmates and neighbors. Feeling rejected by the country of his birth, he begins to withdraw deeper into his Muslim identity. The shift from revisiting his roots towards radicalization is subtle, but Rez soon finds himself walking the path of an extremist.

This was an amazing book. I am still working through everything in it. Khadivi brings us into the life of a typical teenager, and then slowly unravels everything he formerly valued about himself to turn him into something darker. Perhaps the most startling thing for me was the illustration of the knife-edge existence of being “other.” When he is the typical American teen, he is accepted by his peers and neighbors to greater or lesser degrees. Neither he nor his parents are particularly religious, and he lives the life of a first generation American — strict parents who want to see him excel in his studies so he can grow up to fully realize the American Dream.

With the loss of his American friends, he finds himself teased by his new Muslim friends. He is called a poser and a fake; someone who wanted to be American so badly he rejected his Muslim heritage. With the terrorist attacks making every Muslim seem suspect, the path of least resistance becomes sheltering in the one community that doesn’t look at him like he may have a bomb strapped to his chest. This then is the razor’s edge. Is he American or is he Muslim? With his country and community reeling from terror attacks and falling deeper into islamophobia, it appears more and more to Rez that he cannot be both.

With this comes the impossible choice: does he cut himself off entirely from his past, his family’s history, and a large portion of his identity, or does he reject the country of his birth? In this story, Khadivi shows us that it is not necessarily hatred that drives the fall into extremism, sometimes it is hope: hope for a community that will not and cannot reject the seeker. And in trying to find this community, Rez falls afoul of evil men, men who are more than willing to prey on the uncertainty and vulnerability of teenagers to convince them that their hopes and dreams can be found at the end of a gun’s sights.

The book is incredibly moving. We like Rez, we want so much for him to find his place in the world. We practically shout at the page for him not to listen to these people leading him down this dark path. We also see just how difficult it is to fight this kind of radicalization. One character talks of dominoes falling; a terrorist attack breeds new fear, which gives rise to more islamophobia, which pushes more people towards violent extremism. The cycle seems self-sustaining, and the governments of the world have been stymied in finding an effective method of ending it.

This is an incredibly relevant book to read, especially now. In many ways, the book reminded me of Human Acts by Han Kang. The topics it deals with are difficult to face, but it is vital that we tackle this head-on, and try to break this cycle of violence. Perhaps one must ascend the hill traveled down on the path to extremism, and perhaps the climb becomes a bit easier with hope as your vehicle, rather than hatred.

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

Book Review: The Wrath of a Shipless Pirate by Aaron Pogue

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The Wrath of a Shipless Pirate by Aaron Pogue

This book is the second in the Godlander Series by Aaron Pogue. If I have to tell you by now that there are spoilers ahead, I’ll be very disappointed. (My review of the first book in the series, The Dreams of a Dying God, was written pre-blog, but you can read it here, if you like.)

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I read the first book in the series several years ago, started this book, and promptly became distracted by something shiny. The poor thing has been sitting on my shelf ever since, and as I’m trying to be good about getting through long-timers on my TBR, I thought it was high time to give the book another try.

Corin Hugh has returned from the ancient city of Jezeeli and emerged in the present day with the favor of a God. Tasked by Oberon himself to kill usurper god Epithel, Corin first sets his sight on some satisfying revenge. Corin sets his sights on killing Ethan Blake, his mutinous first mate who left him to die in the ashes of the great city’s ruins. Unfortunately, it seems that Blake may actually be one of the Vestossis, powerful politicians and rulers who enjoy the favor of Ephithel himself. With the help of a druid ally, Corin must learn to use the magics given to him by Oberon to exact his revenge.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: time travel makes for messy book keeping. While an interesting concept, Corin’s traveling 1000 years in the past in the first book can only complicate the plot from here on out. Fortunately, Pogue seems to sidestep most of those issues by placing Corin’s first adventures in something analogous to a dream, as envisioned by the God Oberon (kind of a literal deus ex machina).

The story itself is engaging. However, it does take about 70-ish pages before you start to feel like you’re having fun. Once the book settles into its rhythm though, it becomes a rather entertaining swashbuckling, monster-fighting, ship-exploding, revenge-seeking, pirate-killing extravaganza. I would recommend reading the first book prior to this one, but, as I didn’t reread it prior to reading this book, you may be able to get by reading this book as a stand alone.

I would recommend this book to fans of straight-up fantasy. It does take some work, but once you muddle through the first few chapters, it really does become quite a bit of fun.

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

Book Review: The Seeds of Life by Edward Dolnick

Seeds of Life

The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Shark’s Teeth to Frog’s Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From by Edward Dolnick

For the entirety of our existence, we have wondered “where do babies come from?” Yet this question proved to be so incredibly complicated and intricate, that only in the last century and a half have we been able to discover answers with any sort of surety. Seeds of Life examines the scientific pursuit of the origin and continuation of life from the 16th century through the 19th. Scientific giants such as da Vinci, Leeuwenhoek, and Harvey would find themselves stymied by this question. In an age of scientific enlightenment and accomplishment, the inability to answer such a seemingly basic question was frustrating to the extreme. The pursuit of this answer led to bitter feuds and rivalries, and at times split the scientific community asunder.

Dominick does a great job of bringing this story to life in an engaging and easy to follow way. It is no mean feat to cover such a topic over such a broad time frame, but Dolnick sets the story as a form of detective novel, with various players entering the fray, only to crash on the shoals of an unanswerable question. Dolnick makes the story easy to follow, and adds welcome (and some would say, inevitable) humor to the topic.

Folks who enjoy their nonfiction with a dash of humor will enjoy this book. If you’re a fan of Mary Roach (indeed, Bonk is a great follow up to this book), or were entertained by Unmentionable by Therese Oneill, this is a great book for you. Even if you aren’t usually a nonfiction person, this is the perfect book for dipping a toe into the genre. It may not be an explosion-laced extravaganza, but it is an entertaining and fast reading true story. You’re bound to have fun with this book.

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

Book Review: Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks

Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks

Hundreds of years in the future, the Earth has been rendered nearly unlivable by centuries of warfare. Some fortunate souls remain safe in their underground bunkers, enjoying the comforts their decaying technology has to offer, but the majority of the human race is forced to scrape out a living on the radioactive sands. Star and her sister, Nene, are part of a caravan that travels the wastes between villages. Their already dangerous lives are torn asunder when a flaming light shoots across the sky. The relic “angel” satellite is a harbinger of something much worse, something that has lain dormant for centuries, and is only now waking up . . .

The world building in this novel is crazy good. Sparks has built up a horrifying, sci-fi (but no too out there) future Earth. The use of artificial intelligence, chemical and biological warfare, and weather manipulation as an offensive weapon has stripped the planet of anything green, and poisoned the sky and the land. The devastation is so complete that no one remembers the world as it used to be, and though technology is everywhere, the decaying, almost feral mechs are beyond their comprehension. This is a world that, while horrible, is easy to get lost in.

This is only slightly problematic in that next to such a complex and vividly realized world, the characters that populate it seem small and flat by comparison. Star, Nene, and the others who populate Spark’s world are interesting, and decently developed for (what I assume is) a first book in a series. Yet, throughout the book, the setting is definitely the star of the show.

This is a great book for any lover of sci-fi, post-apocalyptic and/or and speculative fiction. Cat Sparks has created a brilliant world, and I dearly hope she is planning on writing more in this setting.

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