Category: book reviews

I know, a reading list about scary books in time for Halloween has nothing to do with quantum physics’ spooky action at a distance, but I couldn’t help using it for a post title. Indulge me.

I’m a cruelly picky reader, so putting together a list of recommended reads is always a difficult task for me – especially books with a theme. The following is a selection of novels that fulfilled my threefold hardcore criteria: 1) Couldn’t put it down (or hated pressing pause on the audiobook so I could do necessary self-maintenance like sleeping and showering); 2) Gave me major chills or laughs or both 3) I wanted to be friends with the heroines and heroes of the book.

The Quick There’s all this stupid whingeing scattered over the internets about the “twist” of this book – there’s no twist. It’s a book about vampires. I’m not ruining anything by telling you this. And I insist that it’s one of the best vampire books I’ve read. And you get two poignant love stories, two resourceful, sharpwitted female characters, and some seriously creepy monsters – human and otherwise.

 

 

 

Mayhem – Stephen Crossley’s narration is audiobook listening at its most sublime. He simply is Dr. Bond, and that’s that. A brief digression: Stephen King wrote a fantastic review of the audiobook version of James Ellroy’s novel Blood’s A Rover, telling how he listened to Craig Wasson’s narration while driving and it was soooo damn good it was a privilege to be in a car. That’s how I felt listening to Mayhem – I never wanted to hit the pause button and return to real life. There are plenty of books out there riffing on Jack the Ripper, but this is one of the best – for me, probably due to the supernatural element. A synopsis can’t do justice to the nuances of Mayhem‘s story and cast (yes! there’s a sequel with these wonderful characters). Read it.

London Falling  A cop caper with gritty, snarky dark magic on the streets of modern-day London. A quartet of constables gains some magic mojo enabling them to see ghosts and various other nasties, including an ancient witch obsessed with football (you know, soccer) and murder. Somehow it really rocks, and these coppers are great company.

 

 

 

Midnight Riot aka Rivers of London This is another urban fantasy (of the gore and ghosts and angry Old Gods variety, not fluffy unicorns and fairies) that has humor, horror and heart (most still beating) and a delightful protagonist, PC Peter Grant.  Apparently there’s some controversy about the American version of the book, which I wish I’d known before reading – grab the UK edition if you can. Heck, grab the UK edition of almost anything, as far as I’m concerned.

 

 

 

Murder as a Fine Art  I wasn’t sure about a book that twists history into fiction by using Thomas De Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium Eater) as a revamped fictional hero and would-be Sherlock, but this absolutely worked, and the character of De Quincey’s daugher and protegé Emily is worth the entire read. And say WHAT – the author is David Morrell, who wrote First Blood. Yes, Rambo.

 

Even more suggestions (some I can endorse, some I haven’t read yet) can be found on my goodreads Gaslight list – including the wonderful Lyndsay Faye, Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January books, and Stephen Gallagher’s Sebastien Becker series.

I guess I can include spooky watching herein as well, since Hulu finally got Season 4 of Whitechapel, definitely the strangest and most ghosty of the series, and oh my wailing and lamenting that this show was cancelled. You might also enjoy Copper, Ripper Street, and Elementary. Also my guilty pleasure of late: Witches of East End.

 

“1790-church-gravestones-autumn-leaves – West Virginia – ForestWander” by http://www.ForestWander.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 us via Wikimedia Commons

book reviews

Did you ever watch that show Connections with James Burke? I saw a lot of random episodes with my Dad when I was growing up.  I knew I wanted to be a writer but had no idea I might ever want to be a scientist – or if I was smart enough. But I loved that show. You can watch a few episodes from Series 3 on youtube but I remember the first series best – those grainy pre-Instagram images, Burke in his bellbottoms, science history from alternative perspectives – well, all that’s still relevant, yeah? Anyway – I’m reading the books of Sam Kean right now. Devouring them, I should say. I got them all through my library’s ebook borrowing system, Overdrive. Easy and free – I’m sure your library has Overdrive too. I wonder if there’s anything about digital lending libraries of the future in one of those old Connections episodes? Kean’s way of coming at science from anecdotal and often erratically nonlinear angles reminds me a bit of Connections.

I just tackled The Disappearing Spoon. It’s subtitled And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the Periodic Table. Yes – the periodic table of the elements, that boring old thing. I got a C in high school Chemistry. It was the worst grade I ever received in school until the nightmare that was college PreCalculus. C!!! Devastating (Back then; now, who cares? I should have partied more.) but I know why I got a C. Because that class was excruciatingly difficult and equally as dull. The only enjoyable part of Chemistry class was mocking the way our teacher demonstrated how to pour liquids into a beaker.

The Disappearing Spoon is far from boring. Believe me when I say that the periodic table of the elements – the history of its design; the elements themselves; the humans who discovered and studied these building blocks of the universe – is thrilling, strange, and shocking! I found myself forgoing social activities in order to stay home and read this book! It’s like taking a virtual tour of reality and experiencing how freaky-weird reality is, without drugs. I appreciated Kean’s inclusion of etymology, urban myths, humorously conversational tone, and FOOTNOTES. I adore footnotes, and Kean’s do not disappoint – so frequently does he provide those extra little crunchy nuggets to chew on. (Although in the Kindle app on my iPad it’s aggravatingly difficult to tap the teensy weensy asterisk link that takes you to the footnotes page; I felt like I was playing a game every time – and losing – but I liked it!).

My favorite anecdotes range from poor dear poet Robert Lowell’s lithium “cure” to the ruthenium nibs of the world’s best pen to the Bartlett Mountain molybdenum mine in Colorado – there’s so many I need to read the book again. My brain is a sieve…a fun sieve…but still made of holes… or bubbles? Man, the section on bubble science alone in this book was worth buying it instead of borrowing – we go from Donald Glaser’s atomic beer gun to the calcium coves of the English coast to culinary meringues and a scientist who liked taste-testing his own foamy pee! Oh hell yes, bring the crazy, Sam Kean. And that doesn’t even include Ernest Rutherford, zirconium, fluid dynamics, sonar, the calculation of the age of planet Earth, and perhaps most importantly, Mentos and Diet Coke froth-geysers.

Here’s my own (not really Burke-y) connection: just as I finished reading The Disappearing Spoon, I watched Einstein and Eddington. It’s a lovely, poignant film starring two of my favorite actors, Andy Serkis and David Tennant, as the titular scientists. I didn’t realize how much I’d learned from Sam Kean’s book until I began to recognize certain individuals I’d just read about – like Fritz Haber and his deadly legacy of poison gas and explosives, all stemming from his work on nitrogen fertilizers. And of course Sir Arthur Eddington himself, the Quaker who was the first to experimentally prove Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity during the solar eclipse of 1919. Never has a cinematic eclipse been so captivating to me. There’s also a most exciting dinner table demonstration of spacetime curvature! (Though I do believe the script has John Wheeler’s words coming out of Eddington’s mouth in this scene.) Anyway, I highly recommend the movie (it’s on HBOnow right…now).

You might think I’ve abandoned My Darwin Project, but in truth it’s just expanding – as I hoped it would. Sam Kean’s books were a great find for me – I am stumbling across all kinds of books and articles and films along this path. And even returning to some long ago abandoned trails – I swear I’m going to finish The Song of the Dodo before the end of the year. After I read two more Sam Kean books.

 

“Myspace-rück” by h.muller – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

book reviews

Last Autumn I reviewed Rebecca Alexander’s book The Secrets of Life and Deathloved it. This sequel is just as good, maybe even better. I don’t how it’s possible to describe an urban fantasy tale of revenants, werewolves and dark family secrets as “cozy” but oops – I did anyway. Both of Alexander’s books share the same earthy, cuppa-tea, toast-on-the-hearth, wool-shawled goodness – with a vampire and a warding sigil or two tossed in for suspense. There’s even a magic garden this time!

So we’re back with Jack, Sadie and Maggie, holed up –  after Book One’s harrowing battle with the bloodthirsty Countess Elizabeth Báthory – at a burned-out Cottage in England’s Lake District. Cheers to Alexander for a sequel that doesn’t waste time “reviewing events” of the previous novel or info-dumping to catch up the reader (not needed – at least not for me – or perhaps deftly not obvious?). We’re dropped into the twisty mystery right off: someone has killed the previous owner of Bee Cottage, probably because she was a hedge witch in possession of a spell book that holds the secrets of an immortality elixir. No doubt the killer’s part of the ominous Dannick family next door, whose youngest member Callum is dying.

Meanwhile! Felix is off in New Orleans (spurned by Jack, who’s afraid of her love for him and her potential to become a vampire) investigating creepy blood drinking cults to find a cure for Jack’s increasing – well, is it vitality or demonic possession? And – like the first book, this one also follows the 16th century adventures (misadventures?) of the God-fearing Edward Kelley, who’s in Venice investigating a wolfish human family, the ancestors of the Dannicks. And later, he winds up hunting his nemesis Báthory, while in present day, Jack begins to understand her own horrible fate.

There’s much more – a pet raven, masked balls, wild wolf packs, Sadie’s mystical and physical connection to the garden. Things get a bit convoluted with muddled theories of magical genetic inheritance (I couldn’t quite reconcile myself to that – it’s either magic or it’s science and I’m a tough bird to convince the two can be literally or fictionally combined unless everybody’s mistaking one for the other, which isn’t the deal here…I don’t think), and I wish Felix and Maggie’s characters were more developed, but none of this derailed the story or the suspense.

I didn’t realize, until almost near the end of The Secrets of Blood and Bone, that what I appreciate most about Alexander’s books is this: they’re about resourceful women who look out for each other. Women who are imperfect, kindhearted, often fragile, stubborn, bound to the natural world, and quietly (or sometimes loudly) heroic. Where are more novels like this? I’m waiting for Book Three…

I received a copy of this book as a free ARC from Netgalley.

book reviews

I dig fossils.

I mean, not literally. I have never been on a fossil dig; I’m no paleontologist right? But I dig fossils, man. I didn’t realize this until a recent trip to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon. And of course, I have been gettin’ my Darwin on – lots of fossil talk. I listened to the audiobook of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True on my Oregon road trip. Pretty good overview of evolution with detailed examples, but I cracked up every time the narrator adopted a limply terrible British accent to read the Darwin quotes.

I didn’t plan on going to John Day Fossil Beds. Driving back to Wyoming from Bend on Oregon 26 (oooh, so gorgeous), I didn’t want to show up at my motel early, so I stopped at the Sheep Rock Unit of the monument.  The monument is actually three separate areas – a total of 20,000 square miles – spread out along the John Day River valley. I showed up at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center – ten minutes before closing. Bummed! I speed-wandered through the exhibit (40 million years in 8 minutes) and grabbed some pamphlets before the Ranger chased me out. Then I ambled across the road to the Historic Cant Ranch, a restored old sheep ranch and house, just as a big dark thunderstorm started to brew.

IMG_2963When’s the last time you really thought about fossils? High School science class? That museum somebody dragged you into on your last family vacation? Me too. But now I’m starting to become more interested in the fossil record. I’ve found a good overview website from the American Geological Institute about evolution and the fossil record that also has a handy concise summary of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. And there’s this web page from Nature – the most detailed, image-rich resource I’ve found that explains how scientists can determine the age of rocks and fossils.

The John Day monument’s landscape is beautiful – colorful striated cliffs, rolling meadows, the gentle river. And it’s extremely important to paleontologists; they are still actively digging, researching, and compiling within this important repository for the big mammals of the Cenozoic. The fossil assemblages are remarkable for their sheer quantity of specimens as well as the intactness of the communities preserved in the rock layers. As the Oregon roadsigns told me, it’s a Journey Through Time.

IMG_3007The word fossil comes from the Latin fodere (dig) and fossilis (dug up). I spent last weekend digging in my garden. Actually, it’s a plot in my town’s community garden that I share with two friends. I pitchforked the heck out of one corner (I cannot take credit for the rest), and yanked out a wheelbarrow-load of quack grass by the roots. I’m calling it quack grass, but I’m not 100% sure that’s what it is. I am 100% certain it’s annoying, pervasive and hard to remove. But it’s gone (for now), and I replanted some strawberries in a wee corner patch. The rest of our plot is ready for peas, lettuce, kale and even quinoa. Seeds shall be sowed over Memorial Day weekend.

The goal this summer is to start seed saving. I’ve never done that before, but it dovetails nicely with the first chapter of The Origin of Species – Variations Under Domestication. I’m rereading that this weekend. Also, I always find myself thinking of Punnett Squares and Gregor Mendel’s pea plants whenever I’m trying to grow food. Maybe a post about that later. Right now I just keep adding to my Seeds reading list.

I love multi-tasking, so I listened to The Reluctant Mr. Darwin while gardening in a soft spring rain. David Quammen is my favorite science writer, though this book reads more like a mini-biography. So far, Quammen focuses on Darwin’s deep relationship with his devoutly Christian wife, Emma, and on his relationships with his scientific contemporaries, all of which contributed to his intense internal struggles over how and if he should share with the world his discovery of descent with modification by means of natural selection. Thus far, it’s a wonderful portrait of the man. Grover Gardner narrates the audiobook, and I always enjoy his voice; I’ve listened to him narrate the excellent Miles Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold.

More gardening and Darwinning adventures to follow!

 

Photos of Sheep Rock, leaf fossil and strawberry patch by me!

book reviews field notes my darwin project

I’m reading Rebecca Stott’s highly enjoyable book Darwin’s Ghosts, a lively and accessible review of the philosophers, scientists, pundits, and artists who preceded Darwin in the contemplation of evolution. Each chapter discusses a particular group or individual, so I’m getting to know a lot of historical figures in finer detail than I ever have.

Take Aristotle for instance. What do you know about him? Probably more than me. I knew he was a philosopher, but I could never remember if Plato was Aristotle’s teacher or student (ahem, Plato was the teacher). Also I mistakenly thought he was a Greek. Nope. He was from Macedonia, and in 344 BC, that meant he was often treated like an interloper, a metic – an immigrant. He spent a lot of time island-hopping around Greece, teaching, studying, and observing the natural world. He wanted to understand and explain everything, and did not accept myths and supernatural stories in place of the natural laws he sought. He didn’t support the theory of species transmutation over time (Darwin mistakenly thought he did), but he was an intellectual badass who engaged in hands-on scientific study whenever he could.

As is probably the case with most people, it’s the unexpected anecdotes that stay with me when I read biographies. I learned about sponge diving this time. Aristotle was way into sponges – the soft ones that were historically used for everything from bathing to water filters to contraception. Sponges baffled and delighted Aristotle. He couldn’t decide whether to put them into the Animal or Plant category. So he started hanging out with the sponge divers of Lesbos (and yeah I know that sounds like the punchline to a bad joke).

1024px-Spongia_officinalis_001Sponge diving is an ancient form of underwater diving, a rare combination of grace and brutal fortitude that’s both sport and commercial skill. Because Aristotle couldn’t dive (most of the men who did were deaf or deformed from years of enduring the underwater pressure), he had to investigate by asking questions. He interrogated the divers about everything involved in gathering sponges from the sea floor, and about the sponges themselves. Turns out Spongia officinalis belongs to the kingdom Animalia.

There’s a recent New Yorker article about sponges by the wonderful Ed Yong (if you haven’t subscribed to his weekly The Ed’s Up emails, you are missing out). Go check it out.

And that’s all for now – I’ve gotta go hang out with Darwin’s Ghosts.

“Busto di Aristotele conservato a Palazzo Altaemps, Roma. Foto di Giovanni Dall’Orto” by Giovanni Dall’Orto March 2005. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons

“Spongia officinalis 001” by H. Zell – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

book reviews my darwin project

Hello audiobook lovers, it’s time to announce my 3rd review for Luna Station Quarterly!  This one was truly rewarding.  Moon Called is the first book book in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series: urban fantasy centered around werewolves, shapeshifters, fae and vampires.  It’s adventurous, suspenseful and funny and as always, great to see a female character in the lead role.  AND – Lorelei King, who narrates all the books in the series, is fabulous.  Polished voice, vibrant personality, and she took time from her busy life to give me some wonderful answers to my interview questions.  Please go check out the review at Luna Station, and then go out and find yourself a great listen!

 

Read my other Broadcasts From the Far Side posts!

Photo “Moon” by OldakQuill – Self-photographed. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

book reviews

My audiobook review of NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is up over at Luna Station Quarterly!  If you’re looking for a new audiobook, Casaundra Freeman is an amazing narrator for this first volume in NK Jemisin’s fantasy trilogy.

My column, Broadcasts From the Far Side, is dedicated to reviewing audiobooks written and narrated by women.  Everyone could use a good audiobook – during your workout, your commute, even your chores.  Check out my list.  If you’ve listened to something spectacular recently, I would love to hear about it – let me know in the comments or friend me on goodreads.

Photo from Unsplash

book reviews

My review of Leanna Renee Hieber’s steampunk immortality caper is up over at Worlds Without End.  It’s my first completed book in the 2015 WWE Roll Your Own Reading Challenge.  Woo-eee!

RYO_ClearTheShelvesI picked the Clear the Shelves challenge because I’m slightly addicted to buying 99 cent and $1.99 ebooks on Amazon and I’ve got a few free Netgalley ARCs rolling around too (The Eterna Files is one of those ARCs).

Eleven more ebooks to go, to include the Lovecraftian horror of Tim Curran’s Dead Sea and my long-delayed (I hope I can handle it) foray into Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep.

book reviews

Today is a landmark day! My first blog post is up at Luna Station Quarterly, a volunteer-run speculative fiction magazine.  I’m going to be doing a monthly showcase of amazing audiobooks written and narrated by women.  For my inaugural post, I review Arielle DeLisle’s narration of Melissa Scott’s novel Five-Twelfths of Heaven.  You can read the post here.  And then please take some time to explore all the wonderful work by the writers and bloggers at Luna Station!  Thanks to Unsplash for the stars photo.

book reviews read me

Happy New Year’s Eve, people!  

It’s that time when every website on the internets is banging out a “Best Of” list and yammering at you to make resolutions.  So while I’m still trying to wrap up my 2014 To Do list and write something coherent about my recent trip to New Orleans, I thought I would share some of my own favorite fun bits of the past year.  Have a safe and happy night!

Noon Pacific’s Space Jams  By far my favorite weekly treat is the music playlist that Clark Dinnison publishes every Monday at – yep – noon Pacific Standard Time.  Here’s a compilation of his picks for 2014’s best spaced out jams.

Jay Sizemore  Absolutely my new favorite poet.  I discovered his work after Rattle published his poem ‘how to remove a hazmat suit.’   It blew my mind.  Just go read it.

io9  Great gobs of geekiness, I am so glad I found this website.  Always something interesting for me here, and frequent contributor Charlie Jane Anders is now one of my favorite bloggers.

The Leftovers  I admit I haven’t watched the final episodes because I don’t have cable TV, but this HBO series about life in a small town post-Rapture was freakin’ badass.  So many unexpected twists and turns, so much to ponder, and also Carrie Coon.  I can’t wait to watch the finale.  Don’t tell me what happens.

Luna Station Quarterly  So happy to be part of this wonderful women’s speculative fiction website.  My first audiobook review comes out January 6th!

Maplecroft  My one-night stand read of the year!  Couldn’t put down this Cherie Priest novel, so I didn’t!  Read it in one day.

Why do I study Physics?  I love this short animated documentary by Xiangjun Shi – I re-watch it constantly, like a daily affirmation.

book reviews get reel grab bag mixtapes