Book Review: SECOND SKIN satisfies as a short paranormal/mystery

Second Skin by Christian White is another short story I found through Audible that I gave a shot because it was free.

The story follows Stan, a man still dealing with grief from a family tragedy years ago, Marcy, a young mother trying to hold it together, and Erin, a girl who says she has the memories of a dead woman — Stan’s wife.

This story is effectively a character drama with these three protagonists trying to navigate an inexplicable circumstance that shifts between paranormal fiction and mystery as the narrative proceeds. Laced throughout this is insightful and poignant character development as Stan, through his interactions with Erin, finally begins to process his grief, while Marcy learns to accept herself and her daughter as they both are.

I enjoyed this story overall. The paranormal aspect kept me engaged as the plot morphed into a mystery. This felt like a “softer” mystery than the more suspenseful thrillers I tend to like, but it was well written all the same. I’m not itching to seek out more stories by this author, but this was worth the short listening time of around 4.5 hours.

Steve D

Book Review: DAUGHTER OF BLACK LAKE brings family drama to the Iron Age

I listened to Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan recently and quite enjoyed it.

I was drawn to this story mostly by the setting, the concept of a fiction set in Iron Age Britain. Daughter of Black Lake is not a military story of Romans and druids and seething tribesmen, although these devices make their appearances throughout the story. Instead, this is essentially a family drama that switches point of view between a daughter and her mother as a girl, whose lives and those of the people of their village are intertwined across generations.

This POV switching feels unexpected at first, but you quickly settle into the differing viewpoints between Hobble and her mother, Devout, even though Devout is narrating a decade or more in the past.

They each tell their versions of events impacting their family, with Hobble able to “see” more than most people know. She is gifted as a seer.

The story follows them both as Devout comes to find love and choose her mate, and as Hobble learns the dangers that outside influences can have on her quiet village of bog-dwellers. This back-and-forth narrative is a really interesting way to see characters interact across generations, first as children and adolescents interacting with each other or their elders, and then as adults, trying their best to help their families and their village survive.

The setting is vivid with pre-Roman and pre-Christian rites, prayers, social structures, and behaviors that guide each character’s decisions. These traditions are then thrown into conflict with the encroachment of Roman soldiers into the region, whose very presence, though distant, hangs over the bog-dwellers as an ominous threat to their way of life.

Although I typically don’t get into village drama-style narratives, I enjoyed the story for what it was. The characters were well written and distinguished, and the story was compelling. Mostly, I just wanted to spend time in the boggy village of Black Lake. Buchanan’s description give just enough detail to paint a clear picture, and her world felt entirely accurate, even as an astute reader questions how much we really know about the traditions and beliefs of pre-Roman Britons.

I would definitely pick up another book by Buchanan set in the same era, regardless of the plot, just to be able to step back into this world.

Steve D

Book Review: JURASSIC PARK delivers thrills and layered plot-building

I just finished listening to Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton on Audible, a book I probably should have read years ago, but I’m glad I finally checked it off my list.

Jurassic Park the movie is one of my favorites ever, so I was excited to finally read the original novel that inspired it — and compare how the film adaptation differed from the novel.

I really enjoyed this book and basically couldn’t put it down for a few days. Overall, the characters each had unique voices, and the plot was compelling.

To my surprise and enjoyment, the first part of the novel builds up the background of Ingen, Hammond, and some other key players. There is a fair amount of techno jargon, but Crichton writes it in such a way that is accessible and, just as importantly, believable, at least as far as science fiction can be believed. These sections serve to enliven the story as it progresses, providing the reader with much-needed context to feel the weight of the story.

These early sections are then interspersed with vignettes of doctors or others encountering unidentified “lizards”, but none of the characters are able to piece together the clues. In this way the tension very slowly builds.

By the time the main characters arrive at Isla Nublar to tour the park, the reader is nearly overwhelmed with dread over the mystery “lizards” terrorizing the local population, the industrial espionage of a rival bioengineering company, and the shady, or perhaps negligent, designs of Hammond and the creators of Jurassic Park.

The story is incredibly layered with detail about all of the flaws with the park. There is no fatal flaw, but there are many tiny ones that create a perfect storm of a disaster, isolating the characters on this island in a nightmare scenario.

The action was thrilling but not overwhelming, and the plot kept pace as the situation continued to unravel. Ian Malcom’s continuous diatribes about chaos theory could be tiresome for some readers, but I found these more philosophical sections quite engaging.

The narration of the audiobook was great as well.

Regarding the film versus the novel, I find it quite remarkable how well the film adheres to the spirit of the novel, even if several key characters and plot points are either changed or omitted entirely. Those types of changes are to be expected when adapting such a detailed novel to film, but it only makes me enjoy the movie more knowing that it is a worthy reflection of Crichton’s story, even if it looks a little different.

Steve D

Book Review: THE FORT, continues Goldsworthy’s run of compelling Roman military fiction

The Fort, City of Victory Book One is the first in what I assume is a new series of Roman military fiction novels by Adrian Goldsworthy, author of The Vindolanda Saga. I had read and thoroughly enjoyed that trilogy last year, so I jumped at the chance to read Goldsworthy’s newest work, only released in June.

I further hoped that this series would continue the saga of Flavius Ferox, the Roman Centurion and Prince of the Silures of Britannia whose dual-lives are always in conflict as he serves Rome.

The Fort once again follows Ferox, who has just arrived to a new posting in Dacia, a Roman province long troubled by local tribes and in which the Emperor Trajan had only recently established a more permanent foothold.

This continuation of the saga of Flavius Ferox is well written and narrated. The plot beats will feel very familiar to readers of Vindolanda, but I did not find the story as compelling as Goldsworthy’s earlier series. Ferox arrives in his new post in command of a detachment of Brigantes, all sworn to their new Queen Claudia Anica (herself sworn to Rome and now Ferox’s wife), and expecting a battle against the Dacians. The battle comes, of course, and becomes a siege of the fort whose name I can neither spell nor find online. (It’s possible this was fabricated for Goldsworthy’s story, like the titular fortification of Vindolanda of the previous series.)

Aside from mainstays like Vindex, Claudia Anica, and Sulpichia Lepidina, there is a largely new cast of characters. I found the politicking of Roman bureaucrats a bit dull in this story and even difficult to follow. It seemed like several characters were introduced and then discarded before the end of the story, except for Hadrian, tribune sent to Dacia, nephew of Trajan, and (for anyone who knows a bit of Roman history) the future emperor. Without giving away the ending to The Fort, Hadrian’s relationship with Ferox is likely drive much of the personal and political conflict in upcoming stories, and that is something to look forward to.

Other than that, I found myself leaning pretty heavily on Ferox’s interactions with his three close friends to stay attached to this story. I think the best scenes were those between Ferox and Claudia Anica, who lightened the tone of the story while carrying great narrative weight as a character.

The scenes which followed Brassus, a leader among the Dacians, were interesting but only scratched the surface of that people. I don’t feel I really know anything about the Dacians except that they obsess over “ascending” and “purity”, supposedly sacred concepts that are tossed around with no real explanation.

Overall, I enjoyed the story but pretty much knew what to expect from Goldsworthy’s writing and narrative.

The narration in the audiobook version (on Audible) was good, although the pronunciations have all changed. The narrator used softer s sounds in place of the Roman c, which I’m not here to quibble about. It’s just an interesting choice after the strictly Latin pronunciations in the Vindolanda stories.

Steve D

Book Review: BALANCED ON THE BLADE’S EDGE, DRAGON BLOOD Book 1

I was in the mood for a new (to me) fantasy series, and Audible happened to read my mind in that moment and present me with the Dragon Blood series by Lindsay Buroker. This omnibus includes books 1-3 in what is evidently a 7-book series. It was free, so I figured why not? I decided to give book 1 a shot.

I had no expectations going into Balanced on the Blade’s Edge, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a fun fantasy story with an interesting premise and solid protagonists.

The book opens more like a military fantasy, which I was not expecting, complete with all the trappings of a troubled soldier heading into a meeting with a superior officer.

Ridge appears at first glance to be a typical bad-boy cliche of an officer and a pilot, but ends up being more likeable as the story goes on. He’s prideful but tries to do right by those under his command. Sardelle is a little more cunning than her bookish personality would make her out to be, and Jaxi really does sound like a teenager trapped in a soul blade.

I was also not prepared for the more steampunk setting, replete with blimps, open-topped “flyers”, and cannons. This type of technology felt natural for the story, so that I didn’t even realize it was steampunk until I saw the term used in a different review.

There was one particular romance scene that was a bit more than I normally would have looked for, but it also served the plot and the characters.

Overall, I enjoyed this read, and I’ve already decided to give the second book a try.

Steve D

Book Review: Gaiman’s NORSE MYTHOLOGY brings new life

I love reading mythology, and especially the Norse myths. I was first introduced to them as part of a world mythology book I read as a kid. The intricacies of fantasy universes like Redwall and Middle Earth would each serve as a form of mythos for me, providing me with clear moral codes and heroes and beings of immense power to admire and emulate.

A few years ago, I read The Norse Myths, a collection of the mythos collected by Kevin Crossley-Holland, pulling primarily from Snorri Sturluson’s recordings of them in 13th-century Iceland. This annotated compendium exposed me to a much more academic view of mythology, which was just as enthralling as the children’s stories I’d read previously.

This is all to say that Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is not my first pass at these stories, and it will certainly not be my last. Even still, I cannot emphasize how much pleasure I took from this particular telling

I listened to the audiobook version of this, and I don’t know how anyone can read Gaiman any other way. He is a master storyteller as both a writer and a narrator, and his inflection, his voices, and his enthusiasm for the story enliven everything he narrates. Listening to Gaiman tell a story is like someone lighting a candle in pitch black that illuminates the book in your mind for the first time.

Gaiman presents the Norse myths in a style that is remarkably accessible to the modern reader but does not detract in any way from the power, the wonder, and the downright strangeness of these stories. His chapters are renamed as well to appeal to a modern audience. Rather than regaling us in epic-style prose in “The Lay of Thrym”, Gaiman instead recounts a fireside tale of “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants”, which he describes with a nod both to the hilarity and the foreshadowed danger of Thor allowing Loki to dress him as the goddess Freya in order to trick the powerful giant Thrym.

As is expected with any Gaiman story, the dialogue is punchy and entertaining, and his dry sense of humor permeates both the absurdity and the fatalism of the Norse myths.

By the time the reader reaches “The Last Days of Loki” and “Ragnarok”, the weight of the end times lends greater meaning to Gaiman’s words, and to the hopefulness with which he describes what comes after the end times.

I thoroughly enjoyed this listen and will absolutely be listening to it again… perhaps on a road trip with my kids as part of their introduction to the Norse myths.

Steve D

Book Review: EXIT WEST and relatable worlds

Exit West has been in my Audible library for at least over a year — when Audible used to make their Originals content available as part of a monthly selection.

I picked it up and sort of forgot about it, buried at the bottom of my Not Started list. I finally decided to give it a shot.

I ended up enjoying Exit West much more than I had anticipated when I first started. Mohsin Hamid’s narrative starts off slowly, the first couple chapters introducing the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, in terms of their relationships, families, and how they were raised in a predominantly conservative Muslim society.

What’s interesting is that Hamid never names the country in which Saeed and Nadia live, and the particulars of the political conflict that upends their lives is inconsequential. Hamid chooses to focus on how it impacts them to tell a story that could apply to any two people, from any society, at any time in human history.

This is reinforced in the structure of the story. Hamid uses a methodical narrative style to capture vignettes of the lives of his characters. He then extends this to nameless characters we meet only once, snapshots of people’s lives who on the surface have no relation to the protagonists but whose shared experiences enliven the story.

Hamid presents a fictional future that likely already exists in some countries and will be more widespread over the coming decades. As the political conflict quickly turns to civil war around them, Saeed and Nadia are forced to hide out in their own homes before making the heart-wrenching decision to escape through one of the many doors that transports people from one life to another.

This is a world in which human societies are more divided but also more interconnected, where large groups of migrants have to eke out their existence in new places, fundamentally reshaping the identity of the places they come to inhabit, as well as themselves.

Saeed and Nadia try to hold their fraying relationship together among this emotional tumult, and their bond becomes the strongest force holding the narrative itself together.

Speaking of the audiobook version, Hamid’s narration is steady, and emotional notes come not in his inflection, but in the meaning and rhythm of his words.

I’m pleased to find two other stories by Hamid available on Audible, and regret not listening to him sooner.

Steve D

Book Review: SUPER BLACK and the cultural imprint of black superheroes

I picked up Super Black: American Pop CUlture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama on Audible recently, and really enjoyed the information and lessons Nama presented.

Nama’s central theme is that black superheroes are more than tokenism brought to the comics page, which is how they are often talked about or analyzed. Instead, Nama explores how black superheroes have engaged in or even shaped the narrative of race and racial identity in American culture.

I was immediately impressed with Nama’s academic approach to this effort. He spends the first chapter laying out his thesis, his methodology, and refuting the arguments of previous analyses. He also is shy in criticisms of specific comics or stories for their over-reliance on stereotypes and insincere storytelling. It is not difficult to tell that he is a fan of comics, and he even mentions the effect that comics had on him as a boy, but he also wants to provide a considered analysis, and he does.

Nama looks at each of the most prominent black superheroes, as well as a few who made a particular mark on the discussion of racial issues.

He takes this a step further by examining other genres of media to discuss how black superheroes, at their best, have presented an encouraging image of Afro-Futurism, and often led the way in bringing those themes to the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Even for someone without a deep knowledge of comics lore or history, this book is an engaging review of the most prominent Black superheroes and their depictions over the decades. Analyses of Black Panther, John Stewart’s Green Lantern, Power Man / Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Brother Voodoo, the Falcon, and Storm jumped out to me. Nama also discusses a run of Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern and the Green Arrow, which managed to touch on social justice issues in America in the 70s, not long before John Stewart debuted as the Green Lantern.

Nama then spends some time examining the superhero status that Barack Obama attained in the American psyche in the run-up to his election in 2008.

I really enjoyed this book and will definitely be looking for some of the comic arcs that Nama discusses to better understand these stories.

Looking Forward

Super Black was originally published in 2011, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting started — really before “MCU” became a widely understood pop culture term. I am curious how Nama would examine the growing on-screen prevalence of black superheroes since then.

Black Panther became one of the MCU’s most iconic characters almost overnight when that movie debuted in 2018. Before that, both Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie had supporting character roles in various films, as War Machine and the Falcon, respectively.

And now Marvel presents us with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a limited series that earnestly shines a light on racial injustice in America and wrestles with the notion of a man being both black and Captain America in 21st-century America.

I think it’s easy to be cynical about a huge corporation owned by an even huger corporation trying to convince viewers that they care about social justice, but the fact is that Black Panther (and it’s upcoming sequel) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are stories about black superheroes with strong themes of Afro-Futurism (especially in Black Panther) told by black directors and writers. That’s not nothing, at least in my view.

I’d still like to hear what Nama thinks about those stories of significant black superhero figures though.

Steve D

Book Review: CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT, and middle-book syndrome

I just finished reading Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve already mentioned this book a couple times in recent posts, mostly because it took me longer than I expected to get through it. And not in a good way.

Ten books into this series, I’ve run into more than a couple of stretches where there doesn’t seem to be any real narrative movement, and the characters’ insistence on running in place when there’s a path laid out for them has been frustrating.

This book, however, was the hardest installment of this series for me to get through. Rather than running in place, or even building up to something, the characters in this book just did nothing.

There were a lot of conversations, a lot of plans being made without any details as to what they were, or even what they were aiming to achieve, and a lot of schemes.

Always with the schemes in these books.

Schemes within schemes that are so convoluted, so tepidly hinted at by the POV character of the moment, that the reader can’t possibly have any real clue of what’s really happening. There are so many characters now in this series, and they all have their perfect little plans laid out and ready to spring, except the reader has no idea what any of them are, and there are 200 of them!

Ugh.

So, yeah, this book took me some time to get through. I was simply not interested in most of what was happening. I read the last third of this book in fits and starts just trying to get to the end.

The structure of the chapters was at first intriguing to me. The book is structured in such a way that you follow one particular character or set of characters for several chapters in a row before abruptly pivoting to another character. I think this would have been an effective mechanism to develop specific character arcs if most of the chapters didn’t feel like filler content.

Without getting into details, I was particularly interested in both Elayne’s and Mat’s narratives in this book, but I haven’t heard from Elayne since the first third, and Mat’s story took an unexpected if interesting turn at the end.

All of this is to say that I’m happy to be done with this book, and I’m taking a break before getting into book 11.

Jordan has always toed the line between being just vague enough while building suspense. This story did not build anything. The last few chapters are interesting and definitely set up for book 11, but they do not make up for the 700+ pages of what felt like filler content.

Steve D

Book Review: THOR: GOD OF THUNDER, VOLUMES 1 and 2

With Thor: Love and Thunder due to hit theaters (or streaming services?) in 2022, I felt compelled to follow the comic arc that inspired this particular film, as well as Taika Waititi’s previous installment in this MCU franchise, Thor: Ragnarok.

I first looked to the early 2010s Thor comics, The Mighty Thor, in which Jane Foster takes up the mantle hammer of the God of Thunder. After doing a bit more research, though, I realized that Jason Aaron, the writer of The Mighty Thor, also wrote the Thor comics leading up to Jane Foster’s transformation.

Thor: God of Thunder, Volume 1: The God Butcher, book review, comics

So I decided to read Aaron’s entire run. That’s where Thor: God of Thunder comes in. Volume 1 of this series, The God Butcher, is a bit of an introduction to Thor, as well as to Gorr the God Butcher, who is to be the villain in Love and Thunder.

I found this to be a really exciting narrative with interesting jumps between past, present, and future Thor as he battles the God Butcher across the millennia.

We see the brash young God of Thunder, not yet worthy to wield Mjolnir, juxtaposed with Thor the Avenger, who bears the weight of centuries of responsibility on his shoulders, against Thor the King of Asgard, a grizzled aging god. I really enjoyed how closely this character evolution is mimicked by the MCU films.

The second volume of this series, Godbomb, continues the story of Thor(s) fighting Gorr the God Butcher across time, a thrilling and surprisingly uplifting ending to the God Butcher saga. I’m usually not into time travel plots, but seeing the three Thors battle together was pretty awesome.

I’m glad I read these two volumes together, because volume 2 is a direct sequel to volume 1. Across both volumes, the artwork is vivid and dynamic. I found myself flipping back and forth to catch details in the illustrations I may have missed on first reading.

Following on this time-jumping quest, I’m looking forward to seeing where Thor the Avenger, the proper Thor of this arc, goes next. This being my first read of any Thor comic, I don’t really know what to expect. I’m just pleased to see that Aaron has contributed more than a dozen volumes of comics to Thor’s lore in recent years. They should keep me occupied until Love and Thunder comes out.

Steve D