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Book Review: City of Blades

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades cover

A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions.

Now, the city’s god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.

So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh— foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister—has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten.

At least, it makes the perfect cover story.

The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world–or destroy it.

The trouble is that this old soldier isn’t sure she’s still got what it takes to be the hero.

One of my favorite books of 2014 was City of Stairs, the first installment of The Divine Cities series. At the time, I wasn’t aware there would be a second. I wasn’t even sure I needed one.

The setting is rich enough for a dozen books, to be sure. But the story was complete and satisfying. I’d definitely recommend reading it before this one. However, I’m pleased to report that City of Blades is fully comprehensible on its own.

Three generations ago, the Continent’s centuries old stranglehold on world affairs was broken by upstart colony Saypur. Colony became colonizer when the Saypuri devised a method of deicide. In a blink the landscape literally changed as the miracles sustained by the slain divinities simply ceased to exist.

Turyin Mulaghesh languishes in her beachfront retirement, plagued by a past that won’t let her sleep regardless of how hard she drinks. The protagonist of the first book, now Prime Minister of Saypur, exploits a loophole in the law and perhaps another in the former General and Polis Governor’s heart. She agrees to one last job.

Yes. Really. Dragged from a deserved respite off a remote beach, even. One of the signal joys of City of Stairs was the utter devotion to generic tropes while spinning them delicately in the light to make them appear fresh again. Bennett has recreated that rare please once again.

City of Blades felt like a longer book until I realized I wasn’t reading the same thing with different characters again. Mulaghesh is haunted by the things she’s done and unsure where the meaning of it all lies. And the story itself parallels her search for answers. Set to discover the whereabouts of a missing agent and the truth behind a mysterious mineral, she seems mired in fragments of past wars and present conflicts with no clear way forward.

Mulaghesh must confront both her demons and those of both her people and their former oppressors. She’ll investigate an afterlife that should no longer exist and a future few can comprehend. Ultimately she’ll have to embrace it all in order to save the world.

But it’s the journey, cliched as this sounds, that makes it matter. City of Blades is as much a thoughtful meditation on the contract between soldier and society as it is an epic fantasy. What is the price of making war for the warrior? What are the responsibilities of the individual and the state in the aftermath?

Robert Jackson Bennet has crafted another surprisingly intense and introspective book combining fantasy, noir, military history, and theology. this one will stay with me for awhile. I’m delighted there will be a third.

Recommended for fans of A History of Violence, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Library at Mount Char.

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Children’s Book Review: You Look Yummy!

You Look Yummy! by Tatsuya Miyanishi

You Look Yummy!

…………………….You Look Yummy! at Museyon

This sweet tale about the love between father and son is the first in a tremendously popular Tyrannosaurus series in 12 titles to date, with combined sales in excess of 3 million copies in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and France. A long, long time ago, a baby Ankylosaurus is born on a volcano erupting ground. As the little Ankylosaurus begins wandering around, a big Tyrannosaurus comes along. He is about to pounce when the baby cries out, “Daddy!” and grabs onto his leg. The baby thinks the Tyrannosaurus is his father, so as not to disappoint the little one, he takes on the task of raising a baby Ankylosaur. The two develop ever stronger bonds of love, but soon comes the day when they must part. Highlighting the importance of family, this sweet picture book celebrates the love between father and son.

I held off reviewing this one until I could read it with our preschooler. More and more I’m convinced that the opinion of the target audience is way more important than mine. There are a lot of beautiful children’s books with clever rhymes and interesting thoughtful stories that attract grandparents and critics. We have some of them. Some are great. Others sit on the shelf like symbols, waiting to be recognized by some other parent who read the same best-of list.

What I’m saying is that if it doesn’t resonate with our children, then it scarcely matters how great I think it is. Take Goodnight Moon. It’s mostly nonsense. And everyone loves it from when they were kids. Even me.

So I read You Look Yummy! with ours. I explained that it was a book I wanted to read together and that this was a favor. The digital galley had an issue that crops up with visual material sometimes. Two page spreads don’t parse well when they’re split. I got a few confused questions and even a real “what’s happening.” But, the story was generally clear.

An anklyosaurus hatches amidst a volcanic eruption, separated from his parents. A tyrannosaur comes along intending to eat him and the baby mistakes him for his daddy. The unmitigated love of the little lizard overcomes the larger one and they look out for one another.

Yummy this is ramming

Our preschooler was engaged by some familiar beats: the worried dad, the kid who wants to help, the desire to imitate and emulate, and the sort of strangeness a parent’s real skill set can have for the young. Empathetic kids will swell and shrink with the story.

The book ends with the tyrannosaur sending the kid to the full grown anklyosauruses, presumably his parents, after sharing everything he knows. This is done through trickery and it’s kind of sad. This is the part where  the digital pagination probably interrupted the narrative the most. after some rapid back and forth the action was obvious. And disappointing.

Our preschooler asked for two more books as a mental palate cleanser. I think the message conflicted with the one in Dinosaur Train. In that show, Buddy, a tyrannosaur adopted by a family of pteranodons chooses to stay with him when given the opportunity to live with other apex predators.

I reckon the print copy would soften the blow, but the book isn’t a bedtime story. It’s a discussion prompt. Why did he do that? Where is he going? Our preschooler loves drilling down into these questions even when they’re challenging and we’re not mendacious enough to be sly. If yours is the same, this is the book for you.

Recommended for fans of Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, and The Monster at the End of this Book.


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Graphic Novel Review – Jem and the Holograms: Showtime

Jem and the Holograms: Showtime by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell

Jem and the Holograms Showtime

Meet Jerrica Benton – a girl with a secret. She and her sister Kimber team with two friends to become… JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS! But what does it mean to be JEM today? Fashion, art, action, and style collide in Jem and the Holograms: Showtime!

So, if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you won’t be surprised to learn that we wholeheartedly recommend Jem and the Holograms. We’ve devoted increasing attention to comics this year and Erin’s even doing some external writing for larger readerships. What you need to understand is that it’s all due to this masterpiece from Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell.

It’s not that we didn’t read comics. In my youth, I was guilty of encouraging the multiple cover foil embossed special card limited edition kind of thing that shook the industry. These days, we’re the folks with two shelves full of trades.

And we’ll get this one even though we own every issue. We’ll probably get a couple extra to give to friends and family during the coming holidays. The old theme song declaring Jem excitement and adventure, fashion and fame could not be more appropriate.

Collecting the first six-issue arc of this beautiful, heartrending comic, Showtime is basically the coolest thing to hit the racks since, um, probably superheroes. As a former fan of the cartoon, I feel confident saying the creators have as much or more love for the source material as anyone. And the characters are compelling enough to draw unfamiliar readers in.

The story’s simple enough. Struggling musicians Jem and the Holograms put their futures on the line by entering a battle of the bands contest hosted by established industry juggernauts The Misfits. With the help of a sentient holographic artificial intelligence, they overcome their lead singer’s stage fright and capture the public consciousness. Along the way they face danger, romance, and food fights.

Everything in Jem is full of high intensity bathos. A coffee house conversation has the same stakes as the collapse of a career. And while the writing, and especially the dialog propel the drama, it’s indelible largely due to the artwork.

Sophie Campbell depicts emotion like no other artist I’m familiar with. The comic could be silent and still provoke fiero or sorrow, cheers or tears. If that weren’t enough, each character is a distinct individual person with his or her, mostly her, own expressions and, more importantly, body type. In a medium where basically everyone tends to look the same, this is incredibly refreshing.

Jem Broadsheet

You’re more likely to see yourself in this title than pretty much any other. Strong, confident lines and an incredible eye for design make each encounter with a character an experience to look forward to. And when they come together, there’s no mistaking them.

Not only that, Campell uses a clever, fluid layout for musical scenes that combines text and music video montage along with abstract streamers to evoke the energy and tone of an experience that’s difficult to express in static pictures. So a poppy love song comes with rounded edges and almost bubbly shapes while a pop-punk anthem comes with sharp lightning.

Do yourself a favor and check this one out. Even if it seems silly. Especially if it seems silly. You’ll be surprised.

Recommended for fans of truth, beauty, and transcendence.


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Book Review – Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Mysterious Destinations

Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Mysterious Destinations by Olivier Le Carrer

Atlas of Cursed Places

Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in a handsome volume.

This alluring read includes 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death. The locations gathered here include the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ll admit, the description of this book tickled the same part of me that reveled in references like The Guinness Book of World Records or better yet The Book of Lists in my youth. Stuff that’s interesting for its novelty, obscurity, or rarity. Any touch of the grotesque, the forbidden, only increased my interest.

Here we have an anti-travelogue featuring places you might not actually want to visit. Maybe you’d even want to actively avoid them. But I can see some for of extreme high risk vacationing growing up around this kind of thing,

Atlas of Cursed Places is definitely for the collector of esoteric knowledge. The most densely populated place on Earth makes an appearance along with some of the most polluted, radioactive, and dangerous locales in existence. Humans tend to play lead roles in the dramas that make these cursed places what they are.

This is a great book for the casual reader. The selections are brief and concise, written with a hint of imposing authority and sly mystery. Unknowns are toyed with for effect but not exaggerated and facts are presented with disaffected urbanity. The result is vaguely ominous yet compulsively readable.

I was surprised by the lack of pictures. That’s my fault. The description is clear. Vintage maps. Check. Perdiod illustrations. Okay, check. But somehow I’d convinced myself that each entry was going to be accompanied by an image of the place being described.

They’re not. Take the example pages available of the Black Dog & Leventhal page for the book. This is the entry for Jharia in India.

 

 

Atlas of Cursed Places Jharia

It’s lovely. I could stare at the maps for a long time. Still, what does Jharia look like? I’m imagining Mordor as I read it. That’s actually not far from the truth, but I reckon I won’t be the only person reading with a search engine open or taking a wiki walk afterward.

In the city of Jharia and surroundings, an underground fire has been burning since 1916 - or even longer according to the locals. The fire probably started when abandon coalmines was not properly closed. The fire evolved in to more than 70 underground fires. The inhabitants use the fire to warm themselves on cold winter nights, to dry clothes and sometimes even cook food.

Atlas of Cursed Places is an armchair traveler’s most exciting journey around the world. A collection of hellscapes marked on maps. Here there be dragons. It’s also a great resource for writers. Hundred year subterranean fires or an annual plague of birds battering themselves to death in a remote village rival some of most unusual fantasies I’ve read this year.

Recommended for fans of vintage cartography, The Golden Bough, and Atlas Obscura.


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Book Review – Stress-Free Potty Training: A Commonsense Guide to Finding the Right Approach for Your Child

Stress-Free Potty Training: A Commonsense Guide to Finding the Right Approach for Your Child by Sara Au and Peter L. Stavinoha

Stress Free Potty Training

No two children experience the toilet-training process in exactly the same way. While some kids might be afraid to even go near the bathroom, others may master the actual act right away. “Stress-Free Potty Training” takes the anxiety out of this challenging rite of passage. The book differentiates the common childhood personality types, providing easy techniques to suit kids who are: goal-oriented, sensory-oriented, internalising, impulsive and strong-willed. Parents will find much needed advice to help them identify what ideas will work for their child’s temperament. This straight-talking guide enables readers to help any child make this important life transition free of worry, and in the way that’s right for them.

Filled with straight talk and practical advice, the second edition of Stress-Free Potty Training takes the anxiety out of this important life transition, helping you identify what approach will be most compatible with your child’s temperament. Starting with a simple quiz, the book provides easy techniques tailor-fit for all kinds of kids, whether they’re stubborn or willful, clinging to diapers, afraid to move on, or just late bloomers. The book shows you how to:

• Determine your child’s readiness to begin potty training
• Build on each success by gradually moving your child past his or her existing comfort zone (without adding undue pressure)
• Be a positive potty role model
• Handle accidents and temporary setbacks
• And more

Fully revised, the second edition includes brand new “Universal Strategies” . . . updated techniques for overcoming the common challenges and obstacles you’re likely to face with your child . . . ways to utilize the latest apps and websites that can be helpful during training . . . pitfalls to avoid on social media . . . and up-to-the-minute guidance on how to deal with interruptions and problems throughout the process.

This encouraging and practical guide helps you design a path around your own child’s needs, allowing you to say goodbye to diapers . . . with as little stress as possible.

So, if you’re reading this review, or any review, you’re probably wondering three things. Is it worth reading? Does it help? And does it free you from stress?

Stress-Free Potty Training makes good on its claim up there in the ad copy. Read at the right time, before your child starts potty training, this’ll reduce your anxiety about the process.

Is it worth reading? I think so. Again it’s probably a matter of timing. We went into potty training with what might generously be termed a smattering of book learnin’, anecdotal testimony, and assurances from every quarter that each child is different. We wouldn’t know our challenges, in other words, until we faced them.

That’s where Stress Free Potty Training comes in handy. First child? No experience? It’s got you. The information’s thoughtfully organized. What is potty training? What kind of child are you dealing with? What works for everyone? What works for your child? What are some common obstacles and how do you overcome them? Every child might be different, but you can enter into situation armed with good information and advice.

It might not be perfect. Our child is a textbook example of three of the types with some of the rest thrown in for good measure. But it’s possible to sort of triangulate even such a complex character and address specific concerns, even form a comprehensive strategy.

So, yes, it does help. I received a review copy well into our process and was able to apply some more effective techniques right away. I rather wish I’d picked it up sooner.

The most valuable part of the book might have been the skills acquisition chart. We learned that our child had mastered some simple and some advanced skills and sort of skipped over or entirely ignored others. It was both heartening and also maybe a little embarrassing. Needless to say we filled in the gaps and things began to run much more smoothly.

Obviously I haven’t read every potty training book, but I liked and benefited from another Au/Stavinoha book: Stress-Free Discipline. So this was a good fit. It didn’t eliminate our stress, but it’s helped reduce it. And instead of offering pithy advice, I’d recommend it and the time required to read it for parents with questions or concerns.

Recommended for parents who were only children, parents with the toddler/infant combo, and those motivated to be ready for challenges.

 


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Book Review: The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economic and social collapse. Job loss has forced them to live in their car, leaving them vulnerable to roving gangs. They desperately need to turn their situation around—and fast. The Positron Project in the town of Consilience seems to be the answer to their prayers. No one is unemployed and everyone gets a comfortable, clean house to live in . . . for six months out of the year. On alternating months, residents of Consilience must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system. Once their month of service in the prison is completed, they can return to their “civilian” homes.
At first, this doesn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice to make in order to have a roof over one’s head and food to eat. But when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in their house during the months when she and Stan are in the prison, a series of troubling events unfolds, putting Stan’s life in danger. With each passing day, Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.

The Heart Goes Last began as an ebook serial with 2012’s “I’m Starved For You” and continuing in installments through 2013. These original releases are no longer available now that the novelization has come out. The story has been rewritten and expanded including introductory chapters.

That seems to have been scrubbed from the marketing and I think it’s a shame. Knowing that story of Stan and Charmaine and Positron was originally episodic contextualizes some of the eccentricities of the narrative. While one expects Atwood to be devilishly clever and darkly humorous, we tend to expect strong threads throughout her novels.

The Heart Goes Last lacks the latter. It’s a fast, fun read, but it rather distinctly fades to black and returns again in medias res like a stage drama or a television show. It’s neither abrupt nor disjointed, but it is episodic. So, I guess, know that going in. Don’t expect slow elaborate reveals and great mysteries. Expect pulp excess and jump cuts.

But is it good? Yes. Atwood has been imagining the end of the world for decades and she’s incredibly good at it. The financial collapse is as old as Marx and Engels. That it became tangible in the early years of yet another century has made it a staple of contemporary science, sorry, speculative fiction. Here an enterprising organization subverts another New Deal by dialing the for profit prison up to eleven.

Citizens in dire straights are enticed by advertising to essentially volunteer for permanent incarceration. The month in prison, month in postwar nostalgia town conceit makes a point about the formal freedom and practical compulsion of labor under capitalism. It’s a ridiculous plot device that is nonetheless somewhat easier to swallow than existing in a militarized police state or being rounded up en masse into work camps. The American Dream bought with madatory labor at the company store.

This would read as heavy handed if Stan and Charmaine weren’t despicable people. They don’t have it coming, of course. No one deserves this. But they are difficult to route for. Luckily for them, they’re out point of view characters, so we can’t help it. Their disobedience and rebellion exemplifies and reflects the corruption of the system and becomes part of it. Their collapse perfectly presages the inevitable breakdown of a sinister conspiracy and their attempts to escape mirror a concurrent cover up.

The Heart Goes Last could read as a precursor to the MaddAddam Trilogy or an update of The Handmaid’s Tale. Both previous stories are more intricate and better realized, but this one is more nihilistic. Some of the truths of Atwood’s fiction come out more starkly. The system tends toward misogyny, objectification, and compulsion. The body is commodified and free will is subverted via force.

Atwood takes privatization to its logical conclusions, explodes the wealth gap, and perhaps even implicates the consumer of fiction. And yet it reads like a science fiction paperback, full of action and amusement. If you’ve found some of her other work impenetrable or are just looking for a place to start, The Heart Goes Last might be for you.

Recommended for fans of Michel Foucault, The Truman Show, and Charles Dickens.


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Book Review – The Anunnaki Chronicles: A Zecharia Sitchin Reader

The Anunnaki Chronicles: A Zecharia Sitchin Reader – Janet Sitchin (ed.)

The Anunaki ChroniclesAn insider’s look into the decades of research behind Zecharia Sitchin’s books as well as an in-depth overview of his theories and discoveries

• Includes carefully selected chapters from the Earth Chronicles series as well as never-before-published letters, articles, and lectures

• Each piece includes an introduction, offering context and insight into Sitchin’s passionate work and revealing the man behind the theories

• Explains the genesis of The 12th Planet, the Anunnaki influences on the Sumerian civilization, the orbit of Nibiru, the prehistory of the Americas, the extraterrestrial origins of modern man, and much more

What if the tales from the Old Testament and other ancient writings, such as those from Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, and Greece, were not myths or allegory but accounts of actual historical events? Known for his ability to read and interpret ancient Sumerian and Akkadian clay tablets, Zecharia Sitchin (1920-2010) took the words of our most ancient ancestors as fact and, through decades of meticulous research, showed that they revealed a coherent narrative about the true origins of humanity and civilization. Drawing both widespread interest and criticism, his Earth Chronicles series of books, beginning with The 12th Planet, detailed how humanity arose after the arrival of the Anunnaki (“those who from Heaven to Earth came”), alien “gods” who created modern man in their own image and imparted gifts of civilizing knowledge.

Providing an insider’s look into the decades of research behind Zecharia Sitchin’s complete works as well as an in-depth overview of his theories, this collection includes carefully selected chapters from the Earth Chronicles series as well as never-before-published letters, articles, and lectures. We learn about the genesis of The 12th Planet in “The Book as a Story,” the Sumerians and their Anunnaki influences in “The Sudden Civilization,” the orbit of Nibiru in “UFOs, Pyramids, and the 12th Planet,” the prehistory of the Americas in “Cities Lost and Found,” the extraterrestrial origins of modern man in “The Cosmic Connection–DNA,” and much more. We get to read never-before-published lectures, culled from Sitchin’s decades of presentations, as well as the article that spurred the writing of There Were Giants Upon the Earth.

Each piece includes an introduction by Sitchin’s niece, offering context and insight into Sitchin’s passionate work. These introductions reveal the man behind the theories, a world traveler known for his scholarship, dry humor, and precisely chosen words. If his theories are true, as Sitchin wholeheartedly believed, then this collection presents some of the most important knowledge we have of our origins and future.

I can’t even remember what lead me to read my first Sitchin book, Genesis Revisited. But I can remember how amazing it seemed at the time. I can’t say I believed every word of it. Or any word. But I’ll certainly admit to entertaining everything presented with youthful enthusiasm.

Genesis Revisited at the longer more meticulous Earth Chronicles chart a path through the emergence of civilization via one man’s interpretation of our earliest languages, oldest inscribed artifacts, and broadly corroborated accounts. Sitchin’s interpretation then proceeds to fold in apparently reasonable modern equivalencies. So millennia old impressions depict Inanna wearing a spacesuit, radiation therapy, and genetic engineering.

At some point, every person reading this will have heard the suggestion that Earth was visited by aliens in our ancient past. That we were created or taught or enslaved by technologically advanced beings responsible for our great wonders, alluded to in myths and stories, and entirely absent for thousands of years. Sitchin’s work is ground zero for a lot of that; selling millions of copies in more than two dozen languages.

It is, itself, one of the major myths of the twentieth century. An origin story folks can get behind. Sitchin’s probably as much a part of popular consciousness as Joseph Campbell and something like the celebrity. As such, anyone interested in the idea should probably check this book out just to see for herself how the ideas and narrative evolved and how through he was in selecting his examples.

This isn’t an endorsement, though. Sitchin’s critics have been just as thorough. And as time passes his position as a rare expert becomes more and more precarious. Searchable Sumerian lexicons even exist on the web nowadays, and there are plenty of credentialed individuals who agree in their disagreement.

However, there’s probably no other book that’ll teach the controversy as it were in a better or more readable fashion. Nor will any other book pull so many ideas together or explore so many subjects on such a scale. Most readers will learn something about the folks that handed down agriculture and animal husbandry and masonry that surprises them.

Ultimately, this book should delight longtime fans with it’s private, rare, and unreleased material. It should infuriate critics and provide further evidence of irresponsible chicanery. And it should provide an adequate and detailed summary of Sitchin’s life’s work to the uninitiated. One really couldn’t ask for more.

Recommended for fans of Stargate: SG-1, The Theia Impact, and The History Channel.