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.

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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

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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.

Book Review: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4321 by Paul Auster

I’m still working out this book. It took me an insanely long time to get through (almost three months!) And while I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure whether or not I liked it.

The book centers around Archibald (Archie) Isaac Ferguson. Well, technically four different Archie Fergusons. While each Archie is genetically identical, each takes a slightly different path in life, and as he grows from boy to teenager to young man, those paths diverge (and yet, still converge) all the more. Archie is born in 1947, enjoys a sometimes more, sometimes less (depending on the Archie) bucolic childhood in the fifties, and comes of age during the tumultuous sixties. The stories follow each Archie as he grows, one chapter for each period of each Archie’s life. Throughout the story, we see how each Archie is separate and distinct, yet at the same time, similarities and sameness abound.

As I said before, I’m still not sure whether I like the book or not. The writing is phenomenal. Archie (in all his iterations) is brought to life as a fully-realized human being. The boy seems to live and breathe within the pages. So too, is the setting he finds himself in. You can almost feel yourself immersed in the 1960s as Archie grows older, taste the tang of revolution and change in the air, the frustration of the United States’ useless war in Vietnam, and the longing of the younger generation to enact broad social reform. This book is real, and Auster is certainly a master of his craft.

So what the hell is my problem? Honestly, it may be more of a formatting and grammatical issue than anything else. This book was a slog. At 800+ pages, it’s physically imposing. But more than that: the chapters are generally forty to fifty pages long, sentences run on for the length of a (very long) paragraph. And while you find yourself immersed in the story, at the same time, you just want it to end; for the sentence to finish, for the chapter to be over.I really had to push myself to finish the book, and took to reading one chapter at a time, in between books. While I’m fully aware that all this is likely just my ADD throwing itself at the walls, be warned: this book is great, but this book is a commitment (which I may or may not mean in the sense of being incarcerated).

So in sum, this is a good book, a very good book, and one written by a very talented author. But I have to say that the more casual reader may want to pass this one by. But if you’re looking for a literary challenge, this is the book for you.

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

Book Review: The Sisters of Blue Mountain by Karen Katchur

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The Sisters of Blue Mountain by Karen Katchur

One morning in Mountain Springs, Pennsylvania, B&B owner Linnet sees a snow goose fall out of the sky, dead. Soon hundreds of geese are dead, putting Linnet’s B&B, and the tourism-dependent town in jeopardy. When a dead body shows up on the lawn of the B&B soon after, things quickly go from bad to worse. With her estranged sister, Myna, and her ornithologist father falling further into dementia, Linnet will have to face the demons in her past before those of the present consume her and her family.

This was a slow-burning mystery. The characters of Linnet and Myna are well crafted as sisters estranged as a result of a secret pact made when they were teenagers. Linnet and Myna’s relationship with their father, who suffers from dementia and is growing increasingly erratic, feels very real, as does their relationship with their deceased mother. The mystery of the dead man and the geese builds slowly, offering a long look at a family in crisis.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but I did find that the slow pace of the plot took away from the sense of danger that comes with a really good mystery. A sense of menace is missing from the book. However, the mystery of the sisters’ past unfolding was very well done, and the author’s portrayal of small town life and social isolation is quite vivid. Those who don’t mind slow-burn mysteries will likely enjoy this book.

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

Book Review: The Visionary Mayan Queen by Leonide Martin

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The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque by Leonide Martin

This is a historical fiction novel about Yohl Ik’nal, a Maya queen who ascended to the throne of Palenque in 583CE. The book is the first in a trilogy detailing the early years of Yohl Ik’nal and her reign.

I didn’t finish the book. I had my doubts when it began with Yohl Ik’nal meditating in the jungle, then abruptly mind traveling to speak with a young (Scottish? Scandinavian?) girl who also visited the “realm of faeries.” While I’m not opposed to fantasy, I generally expect historical fictions to trend more towards history than outright fiction.

I also found the dialogue to be stilted and lacking in subtlety. Characters simply state their feelings to one another, or allow the omniscient narrator to tell us exactly what so-and-so was thinking. While Maya culture is formal and regimented, I feel there are better ways to demonstrate this than through awkward dialogue. Along these lines, Martin also gives the reader explanations and translations for various aspects of Maya life, often in parentheses within the paragraph. While this isn’t entirely a bid idea, this approach is more appropriate for an academic work; within a fictional setting the effect is jarring and tend to take the reader out of the story.

Leonide Martin is a scholar of Maya history, and there is no debating her knowledge. However, her strengths do not seem to lie in the fictional realm. A less fictional, more historical/anthropological work might be better suited to showcase her attention to detail and intimate knowledge of  the subject matter. Something along the lines of The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney, which stays mostly within the verifiable history but adds in conjecture by the author would have worked well here.

In all, I feel like the fictional aspects of this book are not as engaging as they could be, and the historical aspects are not well integrated with the fictional portions of the book. Yohl Ik’nal is a fascinating figure, and one certainly deserving of wider attention. Maya history enthusiasts may still want to investigate this book, but this may not be the best for the more casual reader.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. The Visionary Mayan Queen is currently available for purchase.

 

Book Review: The Night Bird by Brian Freeman


The Night Bird by Brian Freeman

Sitting in traffic on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, a young woman has a sudden, violent mental breakdown. Tearing the flesh of her arms, torso, and face, she appears to be running from some invisible horror when she throws herself off the bridge.

And she is not the first. Detective Frost Easton is heading the investigation of similar deaths in the city, all with one common thread: Psychiatrist Dr. Francesca Stein. Dr. Stein’s controversial methods of helping highly phobic patients seem to be falling apart, unless someone is out there, targeting her former patients in a twisted attack. When Dr. Stein begins to receive taunting messages signed by “The Night Bird,” the clock is ticking for her and Easton to find the psychopath before more people die . . .

This is an enjoyable and fast-paced mystery. I greatly enjoyed the use the author made of the fragility of memory and the power of suggestion. The beginning (after the fantastic first casualty) was a bit awkward and stilted, but Freeman quickly finds his voice. Some aspects of the plot and the characters are a bit out there, but that may well be attributable to the story being set in proudly weird San Francisco.

In all, I enjoyed this book, some parts were genuinely creepy, and the requisite plot twists included several I didn’t see coming. Fans of darker mysteries will probably enjoy this novel, it’s not quite as violent or as twisted as a Jefferey Deaver book, but feels similar.

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