Thursday, September 29, 2016

Repulse: Europe at War 2062-2064 - Chris James

Historians, futurists, and sci-fi fans alike should like Chris James's new book, Repulse: Europe at War 2062-2064.

The novel opens with a bit of a sketchy tale about how this manuscript purportedly fell into the author's hands. Then it goes full-out into history mode, recounting -- from a vantage point nearly 80 years into the future -- the details of a European war that hasn't happened to us yet.

James has done a crackerjack job of world-building, imagining a future where technology is far advanced: medical nanobots make short work of battlefield injuries, brain scans of captured soldiers reveal the enemy's plans, and cities destroyed in battle are rebuilt in a matter of months. The bad guys in this world are a secretive Third Caliphate that intends to destroy the Christian infidels in a reverse Crusade. It's up to a scant few military geniuses to develop the tech necessary to beat back the threat.

The tone is dry, as befits a "history," but those who like reading about military strategy and gee-whiz technology should enjoy this book.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Newark Earthworks: Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings - Lindsay Jones and Richard D. Shiels, eds.

Those of you who read my posts at my regular blog, hearth/myth, know that I've become a teensy bit obsessed with the Newark Earthworks. This complex of earthen mounds and ditches in central Ohio was built by Native Americans 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists today call the builders the Hopewell culture, and suspect they died out after contracting diseases brought to North America by Europeans without ever having come in direct contact with a white man.

The Newark Earthworks, together with other Hopewell culture earthworks nearby, have been added to the short list for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The editors of this volume, Jones and Shiels, were among a group of archaeologists, historians, cartographers, experts on Native American cultures, and other scholars who gathered in 2006 for the founding of the Newark Earthworks Center at Ohio State University. The members of this group realized that no one had produced a comprehensive book explaining why these earthworks needed the World Heritage designation. This collection of fifteen essays, published this past spring, is meant to be that book.

Some of the essays are kind of dry, as scholarly works can be. But in all, they paint a picture of a remarkable achievement by a supposedly primitive culture. The complex includes two large circles, each nearly 1,200 feet in diameter, and a square and an octagon of similar size -- all joined by wide "roads" delineated by earthen banks. Each structure was placed deliberately to provide sight lines for various celestial events, including a moonrise position that happens only every 18.6 years.

What is also remarkable is how the structures have been preserved over the centuries, even through public use of the land for everything from a county fairgrounds to a military encampment. (Today, the Octagon is part of a country club's golf course.) And the site, which was built as a ceremonial center, is experiencing a resurgence in interest -- not just from scholars, but also from today's Native Americans, including the Shawnee, who called the area home after the Hopewell culture had died out and before their own tribe was force-marched to Oklahoma in the 1800s.

I learned a lot from reading The Newark Earthworks, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Hopewell culture, ancient structures, or World Heritage sites.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Return to Crutcher Mountain (Cedar Hollow Book 2) - Melinda Clayton

In Return to Crutcher Mountain, Melinda Clayton travels back to Cedar Hollow, West Virginia, to further the tale of Jessie, the troubled, abused girl who was adopted by Billie May Platte in Appalachian Justice. Jessie is an adult now, and has created a successful career in Hollywood as a movie producer. But she still has problems with trusting people -- including the man she's currently seeing.

After Billie May died, Jessie inherited her mountain land. There, she has founded a center for children with developmental disabilities. And now she's called back to Cedar Hollow because of some problems at the center -- problems serious enough that the center might have to close. In rescuing the facility, Jessie may find healing once again, this time with the help of a little boy named Robby who's staying at the center.

Clayton tells her story with a sure hand. Robby's first-person sections are cute, but not overly so. I spent a good chunk of the book rooting for him and hoping he would eventually be able to tell Jessie what he knew about her past. Jessie is properly worldly and self-assured, yet vulnerable. There's a plot twist toward the end that was totally plausible, and the ending seemed to hold promise for everyone.

I'm highly recommending the whole four-book Cedar Hollow series, which Clayton recently released as a box set. You don't have to read them in order -- I didn't -- but read Appalachian Justice first. It explains Billie May's back story, which is key to a full appreciation of the rest of the books.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Alchemists' Council - Cynthea Masson

The Alchemists' Council is the first book in a fantasy trilogy (a fantasy trilogy -- imagine that!) where the people-in-charge make up a sort of magical Trilateral Commission.

Our main character is Jaden, a young woman who was half-invited, half-dragged to a parallel realm where alchemists regulate the events that happen on earth. Their job is to maintain the world's elemental balance by keeping the Flaw in the Lapis, an infusion of red in an otherwise blue crystal, from getting any bigger. The Flaw allows those who live in the outside world to have free will -- but too much free will, the alchemists believe, and chaos would result. So they seek to limit its size, with the goal of someday eradicating it entirely.

But there's a Rebel Branch of alchemists that's fighting to expand the Flaw, and the rebels want Jaden to join them. Jaden has been taught to fear the rebels, but soon she finds herself wondering who to believe.

Masson has created a complex yet logical system of magic for her world; one of the most charming, yet horrifying, scenes in the book is the one in which Jaden realizes where the crystals in the Amber Garden come from. The political intrigue, both between Council and the rebels and within the council itself, rings true.

This is not a fast-paced book by any means, and yet the plot doesn't meander. I enjoyed The Alchemists' Council and would be very interested in reading the next book in the series.

I should add that I received an ARC of this book from the publisher.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Mr. Pish's National Park Centennial Celebration - K.S. Brooks

Last week was the National Park Service's 100th anniversary. In honor of that -- and as this month's Indies Unlimited Reading Challenge book -- I'm reviewing Mr. Pish's National Park Centennial Celebration: A Mr. Pish All Ages Activity Book.

I'm supposed to be reading a children's book for the IU challenge this month, and this book qualifies as that. But some of the puzzles, and even some of the detailed coloring pages, may be a challenge for the smallest readers. No matter, for the traveling terrier does his part, as usual, to encourage everybody to get outdoors and learn about the world around us. I've been visiting national parks since I was four years old, and even I learned some things from this book.

Mr. Pish's National Park Centennial Celebration is available only in paperback. Highly recommended for preparing for your next visit to a national park -- even if you only dream about it.