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.

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Book Review: The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso


The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso

Amalia Cornaro is heir to a great family name, wealth, and untold political influence within the Raverran Empire. However, she has been content to leave most of the political machinations to her brilliant and ruthless mother, and concentrate on her studies of arcane magic. However, when a powerful fire warlock threatens the city of Raverra, Amalia finds herself drafted into containing the warlock’s magic, and in so doing inadvertently becomes a “Falconer”, tethered to the fire warlock and responsible for controlling her powers. Thrown into the middle of a political firestorm (couldn’t help myself), Amalia must use everything her mother ever taught her to prevent a civil war within the empire she loves.

This was an enormously fun fantasy novel, and is the first in the new series. Surprisingly, this is also Melissa Caruso’s debut novel. The story, while ostensibly YA, manages to avoid the pitfalls so common in the genre, and delivers an entertaining and suspenseful read. Caruso has built up an interesting and complex world, and her characters are lovingly crafted and more complex than one usually sees in the Young Adult genre. The book reminded me very much of Dragon Age, the Bioware RPG game (which from me is a huge compliment). I especially enjoyed the way magic is dealt with in Caruso’s world, and the push and pull between Amalia, and her “Falcon”, Zaira.

Fans of YA or the fantasy genre looking for a bright new talent should definitely pick up this book.

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

Book Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne


A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

The Six Kingdoms have existed in tentative harmony for generations, each country kept safe by a “kenning” or magical ability, each one specific to a certain kingdom. The peace is shattered when an invading fleet of pale, nine foot tall warriors, called Bone Giants, run rampant over the coastal cities, slaughtering everyone they come across. The kingdoms, reeling from the attack, must race against time to ensure their survival. But surely the world will never be the same again.

I really enjoyed his book, but I have to say that it probably would have been a dud if written by a different author. This book is, in essence, a 600 page flashback. A novel-length world building tome. Yet it works. It’s crazy, but it works.

When the story opens, the invasion is months in the past. The book follows Dervan, a scholar set the task of writing down the tale of Fintan, a bard. It is the bard’s duty to tell the story of the invasion and the subsequent retaliation by the Six Kingdoms. Every night, Fintan stands on the wall of the refugee city and tells another part of the tale. His bardic gifts let us hear the story from devious politicians, poor hunters, forest dwellers, scholars, and soldiers. Intermixed in all this are the gifted, the lucky (cursed?) few able to control one of the kennings.

The book is huge, the story is epic in scope, and the world beautiful and terrible in all its detail. Hearne has created something incredibly ambitious, and he does it well. As I said, the format of telling the story in a series of flashbacks is odd, and it took me a bit to get into it, but I was hooked soon enough (though I have to say I do hope we get some more direct action in the next book). The plot would tend towards Game of Thrones-level darkness at times if it weren’t for Hearne’s sardonic sense of humor shining through. The brief moments of levity are enough to offset the horror of invasion, betrayal, and mass slaughter.

Any one looking for a new epic fantasy series to dive into (I’m looking to you, Game of Thrones folks!) should invest some time into this book. Fans of Hearne’s Iron Druid series will also likely enjoy this book, though it is certainly a different creature from that fantastic urban fantasy series.

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

Book Review: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

“Heroic medicine” is well named. Prior to the advent of anesthetics, patients were awake and aware for surgical procedures. The pain and horror of feeling a surgeon cutting into your body is something we now associate with a nightmare. Going through asurgery was nearly as likely to kill you as not receiving treatment at all. With the discovery of ether, surgeons no longer had to restrict their operations to procedures which could be completed in minutes. With the field of surgery becoming ever more ambitious, post-surgical infections became the chief danger to patients. In a time before germ theory was accepted, opinions and practices used to treat or prevent infections (laudable pus, anyone?) varied widely, and with little success. In the 1860s, Quaker surgeon Joseph Lister set about trying to determine scientifically the causes of post-surgical infections, and how to best prevent these deadly conditions.

Lindsey Fitzharris gives us a great view of Victorian medical practice, and of the scientific and medical theories and traditions that made the prevention of nosocomial (hospital-induced) infections so difficult. The Butchering Art is both a history and a biography. The book earns a place next to The Knife Man by Wendy Moore (about contemporaneous surgeon John Hunter) and The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson (about Dr. John Snow, who helped trace a cholera outbreak in London to a single water pump).

Any history buff interested in the history of medicine will enjoy this book. More casual readers will likely also find this book to be entertaining and accessible. Beware though, Fitzharris provides several very accurate and vivid descriptions of Victorian-era surgeries, so the book is decidedly not for the faint of heart.

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

Book Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson


Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

This is the seventh book in the Josephine Tey mystery series. There’s probably going to be spoilers in this review for the previous books in the series.

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Detective Archie Penrose is called to the scene of a most unusual murder. A man has been found buried alive in a crypt in Hampstead Heath. The look of terror and the ravaged fingers of the dead man speak to hours, if not days, of torment trying to escape the crypt. Tracing a clue about the murder to Cambridge, where writer and friend Josephine Tey has recently taken up residence, Penrose finds the local constabulary overwhelmed trying to stop a series of increasingly violent rapes in the small town. When a second body is discovered, Penrose realizes that he is dealing with an incredibly intelligent, and unspeakably ruthless murderer, and his list of victims is only going to grow.

I have not read the previous books in the series, but fortunately, for the most part the book is able to stand on its own merits. There were a few instances where I felt like a reference was passing me by, or that I had missed some subtle reference, but all in all the back story is well explained without becoming laborious.

This is an interesting (and frankly creepy) mystery. The gothic elements of the main murder series, and the more visceral horror of the serial rapist combine to make the town of Cambridge feel distinctly unsettling. Upson deftly keeps the suspense high with atmospheric writing. Her portrayal of a idyllic small town in the grip of an unknown monster is well done.

The literary aspects of the mystery were especially intriguing. I had never read anything by M.R. James, but after his inclusion in the plot, I found myself a collection of his ghost stories and am looking forward to reading them now that autumn is at hand.

Fans of period mysteries (and, I’m presuming, fans of the series thus far) will find a lot to like in this book. I was surprised that a book in a series featuring a female protagonist is told mostly from the male detective’s point of view, I’m not sure if this is a departure from the regular tone of the series or not. Either way, Upson is able to craft a compelling mystery, one that will keep the reader on his or her toes.

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

Book Review: Blackwing by Ed McDonald


Blackwing by Ed McDonald

Ryhalt Galharrow is just trying to get by. In ages past, the Deep Kings — immortal, evil, god-like beings — marched on the land, wreaking devastation wherever they went. Then, a group of powerful wizards called The Nameless blasted the world apart and created the Misery, a twisted wasteland of renegade magic and grotesque monsters, but their actions kept the Deep Kings at bay. Now, Galharrow makes his money as a mercenary for hire tracking and killing minions of the Deep Kings. Unfortunately, Galharrow has also pledged his sword to Crowfoot, one of the Nameless. When Crowfoot delivers an urgent order to save a mysterious noblewoman, Galharrow is plunged into a far-ranging conspiracy whose roots threaten to destroy civilization itself.

This is the first book in a series by debut author Ed McDonald, and it is something to behold. McDonald tosses the reader right into the Misery on page one, and keeps up a relentless pace throughout the book. Unlike quite a few “first in series,” Blackwing has avoided the awkward “getting to know you” phase that breaks up the flow of so many books. We learn about our hero and our setting in bits and pieces; enough to make sense of the plot, but little enough to leave us wanting more. The tone of the book combines the best elements of dark fantasy, steampunk, post-apocalyptic brutality, and 1930s detective noir.

McDonald has created an interesting and flawed hero in Ryhalt Galharrow, and provides enough secondary characters to allow the series to mature and expand with future books. Likewise, the setting seems like something out of a Robert E. Howard story, all dark recesses and horrifying sorcery. McDonald does a fantastic job of building this world up without sacrificing the pace of the plot, no mean feat. In fact, the only thing I have to complain about in this book is that any romance-related dialogue is awkward. I mean, Attack of Clones, George Lucas awkward. Fortunately, there’s not too much of this, so it doesn’t really impact the quality of the story.

In all, fans of darker fantasy will probably love this book. Fans of Lovecraftian stories, or the Conan and Solomon Kane stories by Howard should also check out this series. If Blackwing is the author’s debut work, then I can’t wait to read the next in the series!

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

Book Review: White Bodies by Jane Robins

White Bodies by Jane Robins

Callie and Tilda are twins, though they couldn’t be more different. Tilda is beautiful, outgoing, and a successful actress. Callie is quiet and introverted, and worships the ground her sister walks on. When Tilda becomes involved with successful stockbroker Felix, Callie is at first happy that her sister has found someone so perfect. But after Tilda starts behaving oddly, and displaying mysterious bruises, Callie begins to worry that Felix is dangerous. Getting drawn into an internet site for abused women, Callie becomes more and more obsessed with revealing the truth about Felix. But as the foundations of Callie’s concern begin to shift and crumble, can her perceptions be trusted?

I am now in full-fledged psychological thriller burnout. I have to admit that I feel a bit more justified in my feelings on the subject after reading Emily Martin’s article on Bookriot entitled “Why We Should Stop Searching for the Next Gone Girl” (warning: spoilers for Gone Girls, The Couple Next Door, and The Girl on the Train). Martin makes the point that in the rush to achieve to runaway success Gillian Flynn did with Gone Girl, folks have been cranking out similar stories, each trying on their own brand of mental illness to up the suspense. However, as much as Amy Dunne was a psychopathic bitch, her flaws and intelligence made her a complex and compelling (if horrible) character. As Emily Martin points out in her article, Flynn was able to give us a leading female character who was pretty much unlikeable in every way.

The inevitable consequence of Flynn’s success, according to Martin

. . . is a new and equally problematic female character archetype – the unwieldy off-the-rails woman. This woman is not any more complicated than the “strong female character.” Her craziness is not a personality, and her bouts of insanity that not even she can control allow for absolutely any twist possible that the writer wants to imagine.

And with this, I can finally put my finger on what has been bugging me about this genre recently. None of the recent protagonists of these books have been more complex than their mental illness. And while our current protagonist, Callie, is probably the weirdest I’ve seen yet, simply being crazy does not a compelling character make.

The books also by necessity rely heavily on inevitable plot twist(s), and this one is no exception. The problem is, that while reading these books (much like watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie) we are looking into every crevice and casually uttered word for said twist. With that amount of scrutiny, any surprises the plot might hold are going to be guessed long before the climax; if not from the evidence at hand, then simply by trying to think of ways to make the ending more shocking.

I apologize that this review is less about White Bodies specifically and more about the genre as a whole, but the field is crowded at the moment, and it takes a truly remarkable talent to separate oneself from the pack. White Bodies, unfortunately, does not do this. Callie is simply one more protagonist who’s mental illness is used to facilitate contortions of the plot.

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

Book Review: The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Robin McCarthy

On June 9th, 1912, eight people, a family of six and two children visiting for the night, were murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The murder of eight people, six of them children under 12 years of age, rocked the small farming town of Vilisca, Iowa. But the Moore family were simply the latest victims of this violent perpetrator. Someone with an axe to grind (sorry, I really, truly couldn’t help myself) was traveling across the breadth of the country at the turn of the twentieth century, and leaving piles of corpses in his wake . . .

Bill James is a baseball guy. Specifically he is a baseball statistician, and he approaches this topic with a mathematical mindset. After all, the Vilisca murders, considered to be one of the most infamous unsolved mass murders in US history, are tentatively considered to be part of a series of serial killings at the turn of the twentieth century, but James expands on the widely accepted dimensions of the serial killer’s crimes. Rather than the several crimes most ascribe to the killer, James posits that the man from the train began his cross-country murder spree as early as 1898, and may be responsible for over one hundred murders.

Such a claim often precedes eye rolling and offers of tin-foil hats, but in this book, James provides the reader with carefully researched and sourced data to back up his assertions. Using newspaper records from across the country, combined with modern profiling techniques, James has unearthed a truly startling number of mass murders like the one in Vilisca. Like any good historian, James is careful to use primary sources where possible, and to document where the data available clash with his hypothesis. While several similar crimes are dismissed out of hand as being tied to our suspect, James makes quite a strong argument for adding several more murders to the ones traditionally ascribed.

Fans of history and true crime (lovers of Devil in the White City take note) should enjoy this book. But the casual reader need not despair. James’ writing style is accessible and engaging, and replete with dark humor and some truly monstrous puns.

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

Book Review: That Last Weekend by Laura DiSilverio

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That Last Weekend: A Novel of Suspense by Laura DiSilverio

Five college friends stayed at the same castle-like bed and breakfast every year, until tragedy struck. Pushed away by suspicion and fear, and drifting further apart due to distance and time, they now barely speak to one another. Until, ten years after that fateful night, each receives an invitation to return to the Chateau du Cygne Noir for one last weekend. The demons of the past and the present join forces, and death stalks the chateau. The five friends must confront their past and rip open old wounds to finally uncover the truth.

If all this sounds like a Christopher Pike novel to you, you are not far off (old person question: do people still read Christopher Pike books? Or are you looking up his Wikipedia page right now?). I’m not sure if I’m just burned out on the psychological thriller genre, but I just couldn’t get into this book. I tried, but ultimately, I couldn’t get behind any of the main characters, and reading the book felt a bit like my middle school reads attempted an Agatha Christie radio drama.

But, maybe I’m being overly harsh. I’ve certainly been hitting the psychological thrillers harder than the whiskey recently, and I have to say, they’ve all started to look alike to me. I think too many plot twists may have turned my head. If you’re generally a fan of the genre, or you’re old enough to look back at The Midnight Club with something like nostalgia, then give this book a whirl. I’d like to know if quiet, self-conscious, jogging female protagonists have turned me into a bitter old hag.

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

Book Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas


A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

This is the second Lady Sherlock book by Sherry Thomas. You should naturally expect spoilers for the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women in this review. If you haven’t yet read the first book, stop what you’re doing and read it now. I’ll wait.

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I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first book featuring Charlotte Holmes. Rather than the trite gender-swapped rehashing of the well-trod Sherlock Holmes stories, I found a smart, witty, and wonderfully realized mystery featuring not Sherlock Holmes, but a woman whose brilliant deductive mind is trapped in the body of a Victorian society lady,mwith all the attendant limitations and societal entrapment.

The second book in the series does not disappoint. Taking place shortly after the first book leaves off, we find Charlotte settling into the life of a social pariah, and enjoying the freedom that comes with being “Sherlock Holmes.” Things go a bit sideways when she is approached by the wife of Lord Ingram, her childhood friend, who is trying to track down her first love. Beyond the obvious conflicts of investigating the case without the knowledge of Lord Ingram, the further Charlotte digs into the identity and history of Lady Ingram’s former paramour, the more strangely complicated matters become. Soon Charlotte finds herself embroiled in hidden ciphers, codes within codes, blackmail plots, poisoning, and espionage. Weaving these disparate threads into a resolution will tax even her brilliant mind.

Charlotte Holmes is simply a great character. She is by no means a female stand-in for the great detective, rather it’s as if Thomas grew her from scratch; a brilliant and analytical mind on par with Sherlock Holmes, but within a person who has had to grow up adhering (to a greater or lesser degree) the societal expectations for a nineteenth-century lady of breeding. Thomas also continues to develop the characters of Mrs. Watson, Lord Ingram, Inspector Treadle, and Charlotte’s older sister, Livia. Though the supporting characters don’t get as much attention as Charlotte, there were several excellent subplots throughout the book. I was especially impressed with the characterization of Inspector Treadle, an honorable and forthright man, trying to come to grips with the existence of women who seek a measure of independence. This could easily have turned into some cliche or overdone condemnation of weak-minded men, but instead we see Treadles honestly wrestling with himself and his preconceptions.

Fans of historical mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and the like should check out this series. If you enjoyed A Study in Scarlet Women you will likely enjoy this book as well. I cannot wait to see what Thomas does in future books in this series.

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