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: 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 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: The Grip of It by Jac Jemc

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The Grip of It by Jac Jemc

I got this book as part of the Nocturnal Reader’s Box August haul, and I was so excited to read it. I love me a good haunted house book, and this one promised to deliver something original.

Julie and James are your typical couple, who decide to move from the city to the suburbs after some personal troubles. They come across the perfect house at a too-good-to-be-believed price (I’m sure you can guess where we’re headed from here). The house comes complete with mysterious hidden passages and rooms, a creepy neighbor, strange children playing in the woods, trees that slowly creep up on the house, an unmarked grave, and a rotten spot in the basement that seems to be growing in size. As events spiral out of control, it becomes less clear if it is the house or the people living in it who are haunted.

This book was so so so much fun! I started reading it at night while home alone (a terrible, terrible idea). I had to stop the book, sleep with the lights on, and then finish it the next morning sitting in a pool of sunshine. There are some truly creepy moments in this book, especially for those of us (like me) who recently bought an older house.

The book is told in alternating first-person chapters from both Julie and James’ points of view. Sometimes events overlap, and sometimes what happens seems to be at odds with what the other is experiencing. The tone of the book begins in a fairly straightforward manner, but both Julie and James’ narratives begin breaking down as the story moves along. All in all, the book reminds me of House of Leaves by MarK Z. Danielewski, but without all the superfluous bits that distracted from the story. The Grip of It is a bare bones, scary as hell story.

 

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: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

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My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Abby has been friends with Gretchen since they were ten years old. Now high school students, they have traded in their ET posters and roller skates for the mall and parties in the woods. After one such escapade, however, Gretchen begins to act strangely. Very, very strangely. With the peculiarities mounting and the weirdness surrounding Gretchen becoming more and more disturbing, Abby must face the truth: Her friend is possessed, and Abby is the only one who can help her.

Grady Hendrix is certainly one of the bright lights (if that phrase is appropriate) in modern horror fiction. His previous book, Horrorstör, was an intelligent, hilarious, and creepy haunted house tale. In My Best Friend’s Exorcism, we find out what would happen if The Heathers also featured demonic possession. Here, Hendrix has again left his unique imprint on the genre, taking us into a friendship sundered by satan and adolescence, which really are much the same thing.

If you’re a horror genre fan, but have been looking for something a bit off the beaten path, something campy and fun while still maintaining creep factor, Grady Hendrix should definitely top your TBR.

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.