Review: Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths by Ryan Britt

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Essayist Ryan Britt got a sex education from dirty pictures of dinosaurs, made out with Jar-Jar Binks at midnight, and figured out how to kick depression with a Doctor Who Netflix-binge. Alternating between personal anecdote, hilarious insight, and smart analysis, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read contends that Barbarella is good for you, that monster movies are just romantic comedies with commitment issues, that Dracula and Sherlock Holmes are total hipsters, and, most shockingly, shows how virtually everyone in the Star Wars universe is functionally illiterate.
Proud fandom aficionado Ryan Britt makes a case for sci-fi and fantasy fandoms as he takes a humorous, but well thought out look at everything from Marty McFly to Star Wars. Britt is affectionate in his love for all things geeky, but he’s also willing to point out flaws and absurdities that sometimes plague much beloved standards of the fandom realms. From the argument that the Star Wars galaxy is doomed to tyranny, rinse, repeat because of their lack of journalism and the written word, to his insight about the nature of regeneration in the fans of Doctor Who, to his valid observation that George Lucas just sort of makes up mythology as he goes, Britt takes his subjects seriously. Why is everyone okay with five thousand remakes of Hamlet, but gets up in arms about remakes of superhero movies? (Britt argues the creation of modern mythology may one day have our superheroes evolve to the level of seriousness people imbue in  Shakespeare). What was the problem with J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek? (The lack of ties to literature is a plausible argument). For anyone who ever wondered why fandom favorites are the way they are and what impact they may have, these essays shed light on the deeper truth of some of the most famous sci-fi and fantasy.

4 out of 5

Review: Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

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Although mother and daughter, these two brilliant women never knew one another – Wollstonecraft died of an infection in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, a week after giving birth. Nevertheless their lives were so closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other.
Both women became famous writers; fell in love with brilliant but impossible men; and were single mothers who had children out of wedlock; both lived in exile; fought for their position in society; and thought deeply about how we should live. And both women broke almost every rigid convention there was to break: Wollstonecraft chased pirates in Scandinavia. Shelley faced down bandits in Naples. Wollstonecraft sailed to Paris to witness the Revolution. Shelley eloped in a fishing boat with a married man. Wollstonecraft proclaimed that women’s liberty should matter to everyone.

Not only did Wollstonecraft declare the rights of women, her work ignited Romanticism. She inspired Coleridge, Wordsworth and a whole new generation of writers, including her own daughter, who – with her young lover Percy Shelley – read Wollstonecraft’s work aloud by her graveside. At just nineteen years old and a new mother herself, Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein whilst travelling around Italy with Percy and roguish Lord Byron (who promptly fathered a child by Mary’s stepsister). It is a seminal novel, exploring the limitations of human nature and the power of invention at a time of great religious and scientific upheaval. Moreover, Mary Shelley would become the editor of her husband’s poetry after his early death – a feat of scholarship that did nothing less than establish his literary reputation.

This was the nonfiction I chose to go along with reading The Determined Heart as it appeared to be one of the most recent biographies of Mary Shelley (whom The Determined Heart was about). I have read several books over Mary Shelley, but I would have to point out this one as the biography I’d send people to if asked to choose one about the author of Frankenstein. Alternating chapters between Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, the book is honest about their flaws as well as their genius. And both women were nearly forgotten for their genius based strictly on their gender and scandalous lifestyles, a situation compounded in Wollstonecraft’s situation by an ill-advised biography courtesy of her husband. Both women defied their time period in their beliefs and lifestyles and both women were given to bouts of depression, a malady that was not recognized or understood at the time, leading Wollstonecraft to garner a reputation as being irrational (and leading to two suicide attempts) and Shelley to come across as “cold” (her last years with Percy Shelley were plagued with conflict between the two and contempt from his friends towards her as she understandably failed to shake the depression of losing two children).

It is a tragedy that these two women never knew each other because their brilliance has changed literary and philosophical history. Shelley is almost entirely responsible for the rehabilitation of her husband’s posthumous career, being careful to paint him in a light that appealed to Victorian sensibilities (and excising his flaws, of which he had a LOT). Wollstonecraft was one of the foremost feminists and an accomplished author herself who is just recently being recognized for her literary innovations. They were complicated, intelligent, little understood women who paid for being ahead of their time. Tangled family situations, complicated love lives, and betrayal followed both women, but neither one ever left their positions as being champions of women throughout their lives.

5 out of 5

Review: The Awesome by Eva Darrows

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Seventeen-year-old Maggie Cunningham is tough, smart, and sassy. She’s also not like other girls her age, but then, who would be when the family business is monster hunting? Combat boots, ratty hooded sweatshirts, and hair worn short so nothing with claws can get a grip, Maggie’s concerns in life slant more toward survival than fashion or boys. Which presents a problem when Maggie’s mother informs Maggie that she can’t get her journeyman’s license for hunting until she loses her virginity.

Something about virgin blood turning vampires into pointy rage monsters. Blood and gore and insides being on the outside and all that.

Maggie’s battled ghosts and goblins and her fair share of house brownies, but finding herself a boy – fitting in with her peers – proves a much more daunting task than any monster hunt. Did you know normal girls don’t stuff their bras with holy water balloons? Nor do they carry wooden stakes in their waistbands. And they care about things like “matching” and “footwear.” Of course, they also can’t clean a gun blindfolded, shoot a crossbow, or exorcise ghosts from a house. Which means they’re lame and Maggie’s not. Because Maggie’s awesome. The Awesome, in fact. Just ask her. She’d be more than happy to tell you.

After she finds herself a date.

Some writers you can just feel the potential with. Eva Darrows is one such writer. Her strength is her witty writing and the truly believable voice she gives her main heroine Maggie. Maggie is witty and has tons of self confidence, but she’s also socially awkward and insecure in the way all teenagers are. She has a weird life of monster hunting with a weird mother and something of a weird personality on her own, but she finds a nice dude willing to put up with her strange life almost in spite of herself. Darrows’ writing sparkles with sarcasm and pop culture references that feel natural unlike some YA writers who try to add pop culture references and betray that they’re really not all that “hip to the young people”. Maggie is nothing if not honest about herself, part “The Awesome” and part insecure that her boyfriend thinks she’s a freak. Add to that her and her mother pissing off a vampire prince and suddenly Maggie’s life is thoroughly complicated.

The main complaint is that Maggie’s love life and her hunting life don’t really mesh all that well. Her boyfriend is nice, but he isn’t involved with the hunting life and gets sidelined, making him rather flavorless. It almost felt like the plot was jumping between two different story lines, one a romance and one an action/adventure. The action/adventure was better, but when most of the point of the book is the main character being “deflowered” so she can continue hunting, that makes neglecting the romance hard. And that part of the plot, in and of itself, makes this book fall in an odd category of YA, but WAY too adult to really be considered typical YA fare for a school library. If she’d just tweaked the ages a little this would have fallen right into the category of typical urban paranormal fantasy, but Maggie isn’t quite old enough to really firmly be considered for that genre yet the plot is too adult to really be considered YA. So the book straddles its own weird line somewhere in the middle. That being said, it’s worth a read just for the good voice of the heroine.

4 out of 5

Review: All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani

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The movie business is booming in 1935 when twenty-one-year-old Loretta Young meets thirty-four-year-old Clark Gable on the set of The Call of the Wild. Though he’s already married, Gable falls for the stunning and vivacious young actress instantly.

Far from the glittering lights of Hollywood, Sister Alda Ducci has been forced to leave her convent and begin a new journey that leads her to Loretta. Becoming Miss Young’s assistant, the innocent and pious young Alda must navigate the wild terrain of Hollywood with fierce determination and a moral code that derives from her Italian roots. Over the course of decades, she and Loretta encounter scandal and adventure, choose love and passion, and forge an enduring bond of love and loyalty that will be put to the test when they eventually face the greatest obstacle of their lives.

It’s a bit hard to objectively judge fictional books about recent well known people for me. There is a certain level of closeness to the subject of the fiction that puts the plot in an area that is a little hard to judge. For example, Loretta Young, the subject of this novel, hasn’t been deceased all that long and we almost know an over abundance about her. That makes reading a fictional take on her slightly harder to differentiate from what we know about her factually. And Loretta and her turbulent love affair with Clark Gable is the whole focus of this book. Loretta herself is portrayed as hard working and charming and trying her best to stay true to her Catholic faith while negotiating Hollywood and claiming her illegitimate child with Gable without tipping anyone off that Judy was actually her biological daughter. Any person at this time would tell you that refusing to enlighten Judy Lewis about her parentage would be an understandable place for conflict to build between the two women, especially when Young chose to marry a man who clearly resented her daughter and when Young herself seemed to consider her daughter’s existence as partially a “punishment” for her actions with Gable. The book tends to gloss over this part though and only skims Lewis and Young’s turbulent relationship.

Gable is portrayed as the love of Young’s life. How much truth there is to that is questionable. As is the claim that Young was the love of Spencer Tracey’s life (most would probably consider Katherine Hepburn to be his soulmate). The men in Hollywood’s golden age are shown to be cads who are hardly even expected to be faithful to anyone and even the fictional characters are allowed to have this mentality (Alda’s husband isn’t faithful and she is shown as the “bigger person” by never letting him confess to her of his infidelity). It’s all a bit jarring, but even the characters admit that this is the way their world works and that it’s not necessarily real or good. Taking away the foreknowledge of anything about Young, the novel itself is an enjoyable read that tries to be candid about the tight grip studios had on their stars and the double standard in play between actors and actresses. The characters aren’t angels, but one has the feeling that they’ve been cleaned up a bit from their actual selves (I know for a fact that Gable made little effort to financially help his daughter and most of what I’ve read about him make Young seem like a footnote in his romantic career rather than a true love). The ending seems a little choppy for the very reason that the author is trying to rush through several characters’ lives while spending a great deal of time discussing what was really a small time period between the two main characters.

That all being said, the book is a good read if one that the reader has to take from a more objective standpoint.

4 out of 5

Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

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All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Written as a fictional memoir, this novel reads delightfully as a natural history rather than as a typical fantasy. Consider it magical fantasy masquerading as magical realism. Isabella is an entirely relatable heroine as she navigates the field of dragon study, a truly unsuitable job for a woman by the standards of society. Her passion is not to be thwarted though as she marries a man quite willing to put up with her “eccentricities”. Perhaps the charm of the novel comes from Isabella’s candidness about her struggles as well as her fascination with knowledge. Her marriage to her husband is of the standard of the time, not really a grade passion, but a happy partnership. Her true love is dragons and she is plunged directly into not only studying them, but solving a mystery of their erratic behavior on her expedition. Willing to admit her mistakes as well as her triumphs, Isabella is genuinely interesting and I look forward to more of her adventures.

4 out of 5

Review: Blood and Salt by Kim Liggett

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“When you fall in love, you will carve out your heart and throw it into the deepest ocean. You will be all in—blood and salt.”

These are the last words Ash Larkin hears before her mother returns to the spiritual commune she escaped long ago. But when Ash follows her to Quivira, Kansas, something sinister and ancient waits among the rustling cornstalks of this village lost to time.

Ash is plagued by memories of her ancestor, Katia, which harken back to the town’s history of unrequited love and murder, alchemy and immortality. Charming traditions soon give way to a string of gruesome deaths, and Ash feels drawn to Dane, a forbidden boy with secrets of his own.

As the community prepares for a ceremony five hundred years in the making, Ash must fight not only to save her mother, but herself—and discover the truth about Quivira before it’s too late. Before she’s all in—blood and salt.

Remember that episode of the Twilight Zone with the kid who could wish people into the cornfield? Well imagine if he wrote a book. I hope y’all like cornfields, because there are a lot of them here. The major issues the book has is that the author tries to explain a lot without actually explaining anything. There were several points that I was deeply confused as to who was doing what in what vision and what was going on. The book starts out giving every impression that it’s going to be an intense horror novel, but then it forgets the horror and starts hitting all the general YA romance novel cliches with the heroine falling for the one boy she’s forbidden from and being the Chosen One, etc.

Oddly, the ending is the book’s saving grace. I’d say about the last fifth of it is really good. Fast paced, some unexpected twists, confusing vaguely explained things suddenly coming into focus as to why the author only vaguely explained them, and the love story actually having some meaning. Unfortunately the first 4/5 of the book is a real slog through the corn. I only wish the first part was as good as the ending turned out to be.

3 out of 5

Review: The Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

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Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age.
At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.

In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.

Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan—and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager’s conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs—one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.

Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a crucial period in China’s—and the world’s—history. Packed with drama, fast paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world’s population, and as a unique stateswoman.

The majority of sources I’ve found on Cixi have tended to paint her as the villain in history, a woman who bullied the wards she was put in charge of to keep power. The problem with identifying her as that is that many of the references to her reign are biased either because she was a woman, because they were written with a racist Western eye, or because of Communist influence on how history is documented. Cixi was a complex woman who made mistakes as a ruler, but who also was forward thinking for her time, highly intelligent, and extremely capable as a leader. The smear campaign to paint her as some sort of monster has been most unfair when many male rulers who have done far worse than she ever did have been shown more favorably by history. This particular book has tried to present Cixi in a more fair light and the author has rigorously backed up her claims with primary sources. Cixi is shown as a leader whose country was at a crossroads and who had to deal with unscrupulous European and American powers trying to take control in addition to traditions in her own country that made her rule a complicated balance of the old ways and modern technology.

4 out of 5

 

Review: The Determined Heart by Antoinette May

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The Determined Heart reveals the life of Mary Shelley in a story of love and obsession, betrayal and redemption.

The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley had an unconventional childhood populated with the most talented and eccentric personalities of the time. After losing her mother at an early age, she finds herself in constant conflict with a resentful stepmother and a jealous stepsister. When she meets the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she falls deeply in love, and they elope with disastrous consequences. Soon she finds herself destitute and embroiled in a torturous love triangle as Percy takes Mary’s stepsister as a lover. Over the next several years, Mary struggles to write while she and Percy face ostracism, constant debt, and the heartbreaking deaths of three children. Ultimately, she achieves great acclaim for Frankenstein, but at what cost?

I’ve read a bit about Mary Shelley, mainly because her life tends to need little embellishment to make it interesting. She herself was a brilliant woman, but tied to men who were self centered and ultimately hypocritical in many ways. The intellectual group she ran with tended to plow rough shod over those who stood in the way of their wants with little empathy. Into this complicated relationship structure it is easy to understand how someone like Shelley could truly understand loneliness and rejection present in her masterpiece. Constantly surrounded by high emotion and much death, Mary’s work is a product of her life.

The novel itself is an enjoyable read, if a bit heavy handed about painting who are the villains and heroes of the story. Mary Shelley’s life and relationships have never impressed me as quite so cut and dry. Claire, who here is pretty unequivocally shown as a callous evil step sister, has always seemed a bit more sympathetic than this book paints her. And Mary too had her own flaws. Harriet Shelley was treated horrifically by her husband, and Mary by extension. Her ultimate suicide is placed squarely on both Bysshe and Mary’s responsibility. Mary left just as much a wake of destruction in some ways as her husband. But it’s hard to make a readable popular novel that is able to take in all the complexities of Mary Shelley’s life and is still enjoyable. And this book is enjoyable. It’s a fast read that doesn’t bog itself down in the deep psychology of the Romantics, but presents their lives as the fascinating story they were.

Four out of five.

Review: Whispers in the Reading Room by Shelley Gray

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Lydia’s job at the library is her world—until a mysterious patron catches her eye . . . and perhaps her heart.

Just months after the closure of the Chicago World’s Fair, librarian Lydia Bancroft finds herself fascinated by a mysterious dark-haired and dark-eyed patron. He has never given her his name; he actually never speaks to a single person. All she knows about him is that he loves books as much as she does.

Only when he rescues her in the lobby of the Hartman Hotel does she discover that his name is Sebastian Marks. She also discovers that he lives at the top of the prestigious hotel and that most everyone in Chicago is intrigued by him.

Lydia and Sebastian form a fragile friendship, but when she discovers that Mr. Marks isn’t merely a very wealthy gentleman, but also the proprietor of an infamous saloon and gambling club, she is shocked.

Lydia insists on visiting the club one fateful night and suddenly is a suspect to a murder. She must determine who she can trust, who is innocent, and if Sebastian Marks—the man so many people fear—is actually everything her heart believes him to be.

I enjoyed this book even if it felt a bit rushed in some of the important places. I tend to get bored with romance novels pretty quickly, so the addition of a murder mystery into the “opposites attract” formula of a romance was a welcome one. The strength of the novel actually was the historical aspect and the preliminary addressing of the murder. The romance itself felt rushed as the book set up a good amount of time dealing with who these people were by themselves, but not so much time addressing why they’d be attracted so strongly to each other with so little interaction. The mystery also promises to be a good catalyst to the romance, but it is so quickly resolved in about two pages at the end that it seemed like the author was just trying to get some sort of ending for it so she could finish the book. On the whole the book was a nice read, but left you wanting just a bit more in some areas.

3 out of 5

Review: Monster Hunters by Tea Krulos

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Do ghosts exist? What about Bigfoot or Skinwalkers? And how will we ever know? Journalist Tea Krulos spent more than a year traveling nationwide to meet individuals who have made it their life’s passion to hunt down evidence of entities that they believe exist but that others might shrug off as nothing more than myths, fairy tales, or the products of overactive imaginations. Without taking sides in the debate, Krulos joins these believers in the field, exploring haunted houses, trekking through creepy forests, and scanning skies and lakes as they collect data on the unknown poltergeists, chupacabras, Skunk Apes (Bigfoot’s stinky cousins), and West Virginia’s Mothman. Along the way, he meets a diverse cast of characters—true believers, skeptics, and hoaxers—from the credible to the quirky, and has a couple of hair-raising encounters that make him second-guess his own beliefs.

Not your normal book about cryptids as Krulos focuses not so much on the monsters as the people hunting them. More a fascinating study in psychology than anything else, a variety of personalities and motivations pop up among the various groups Krulos involved himself with. Heroes, villains, believers and skeptics all throw in their two cents to form a patchwork of people involved in debunking, proving and just having fun with the supernatural. Probably the most fascinating is the infighting even among different groups dedicated to proving the same thing. Very readable, the only complaint maybe being that the author focused quite a bit on the PIM group, it becomes highly entertaining to see the variety of people searching for monsters.

4 out of 5