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. 

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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: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

the beekeepers apprentice

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

I’m continuing my Sherlockian trend with the first of this series by Laurie R. King!

Sherlock Holmes has retired from the life of a consulting detective to keep bees and indulge in chemistry experiments in the Sussex Downs. Mary Russell is a teenage orphan, forced to live with her penurious aunt until her majority. When the two chance to meet, Holmes is not expecting to encounter a mind equal to his, and Mary Russell is not expecting to find a mentor. This first book chronicles the first four years of their friendship.

This is the first in a series which now contains fourteen books. I’m definitely late to the party. Like most of the other Sherlock Holmes stuff I’m reading lately, the choice was inspired by From Holmes to Sherlock by Mattias Boström. The book is a series of interconnected vignettes rather than one contiguous story. In The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, we move from Mary and Sherlock’s first meeting, to their strange friendship, and the beginning of Mary’s training in the art of detection.

In Mary Russell, King has given us a heroine who is fiercely intelligent and independent, and more than a match for Holmes himself. I loved that while she shares a lot of Holmes’ personality traits, the two complement one another rather than existing as mirror-image duplicates. As with any new series, there is always the awkward getting-to-know-you period. But this is a great start to a series, and I’m quite looking forward to binging on the rest of the series.

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.