Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove Saga, J.D. Barker

Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker


Fiction Horror: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker


Indie published in 2014, J.D. Barker’s debut novel Forsaken exploded onto the literary stage. Nominated for the Bram Stoker award for best new novelist, Barker was invited by Stoker’s family to cowrite a prequel to Dracula using Stoker’s own notes! Stephen King gave Barker permission to use one of his own characters (from Needful Things) in the novel. Barker has continued writing, moving from his initial foray in the horror genre to less supernatural but equally creepy thrillers in his 4MK series of books, two of which have been published as of 2018.


Forsaken does not read like a debut novel. It is crisp, with well-defined characters and a compelling story line. Thad McAlister lives with his wife Rachael and their daughter Ashley in a home purchased from the proceeds of his best selling novels and the movies they generated. He has just finished his latest book, one which he believes will be his best work yet. His agent has not even seen the book yet, but already the movie rights are in demand and Thad is summoned to New York to meet with his agent and a studio representative to tie things up.


Unknown to Thad, though, dark events are happening within his own home. Rachael is awakened by a mysterious old woman who lays claim to her soon-to-be-born child. Ashley carries on disturbing conversations with her invisible friend Zeke–a friend who has uncanny knowledge of coming events. Just before Thad leaves, they discover that their lawn and trees have died, suddenly, overnight. And along with the mysterious events facing his wife and daughter is a strange thing Thad has not dared to tell anyone: this latest novel of his almost seemed to write itself.


Barker moves the plot along by shifting perspective between Thad, Rachael, and Ashley, occasionally bringing in other characters as well. He also weaves in chapters from Thad’s unpublished novel, revealing the source of the darkness that is connecting his family to events of long ago and an evil that was thought vanquished a quarter of a millennium before. Like his later crime-novels, the technique of moving from character to character and including “written” work from one of the characters is done skillfully and keeps the reader on edge and guessing. Even as the basic core of the plot is revealed, Barker saves some surprises for the end. This is not a horror novel where the good guys clearly win and evil is conquered until next time. Neither, though, is there a clear victory for the forces of darkness. Rather, both sides come away damaged and plenty of room is left for further creepiness to come.


I do not often choose to read horror novels, but I made an exception because the author is visiting my hometown of State College, PA, soon. (November 13th, at Schlow Library.) I have plenty of respect for the genre. Maybe too much respect: they tend to creep me out. If you enjoy horror, you will love Forsaken. It is well-written, full of twists and turns and darkness, and the ending will leave you breathless. Witches and monsters and things that go bump in the night fill this novel. I only hope they don’t fill my dreams tonight!


Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker

Book Review: Orleans, Sherri L. Smith

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Science Fiction: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were only the beginning. Sea levels rose, hurricanes came with increasing force and frequency, and by the mid-2020s New Orleans and most of the south had been abandoned. Then came the plague, Delta Fever, which forced the remainder of the United States to build a wall enforcing the quarantine of the south. Within a generation New Orleans was gone, and what was left, Orleans, was violent, disease-ridden, and divided by gangs of angry, desperate, often bloodthirsty survivors. Into this lost world, a baby is born.


Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans tells the story of Fen de la Guerre, a teenaged survivor who is part of the O-positive tribe. Delta Fever follows different disease arcs based on a person’s blood-type. Type Os are the most resistant to the disease and suffer the least from its ravages. Fen was not born in the tribe but her blood-type has made her welcome, and she repays that generosity by serving as the protector and guard for the tribe’s leader. Lydia is very pregnant, but is still determined to lead her people into a peaceful alliance with the other type O tribe, the O-negatives. When their parlay is interrupted by a violent attack, though, Lydia goes into labor and dies giving birth. Fen is entrusted with guarding Lydia’s baby, and hopefully finding a better place for her to live.


Daniel Weaver is a scientist working on a cure for Delta Fever. He is close, but the engineered virus he has created not only kills the fever but also the host–the person–carrying it. Needing samples and data from affected areas which are still quarantined and off limits to everyone, Daniel dons protective gear (which he can wear for days on end) and sneaks into Orleans.


Fen and Daniel meet and soon develop an uneasy alliance with each other. Daniel realizes that he needs help to get the information and samples he needs, and Fen recognizes that Daniel gives the best hope for the baby to have a life outside of Orleans. Dangers mount as their journey progresses. It may no longer be part of a country, it may no longer have as many people as it did, but Orleans has no shortage of ways to kill you.


Orleans is very well written. Fen and Daniel are both compelling characters, and their journey together is revealing. Fen is the daughter of scientists committed to finding a cure for Delta Fever, scientists who gave their lives while seeking that goal. As such, she is a bit cynical of Daniel’s ambitions: seeking the cure killed her own parents, after all. Daniel is sincere in looking for a cure to the disease that killed his little brother, but he has no idea about the conditions in Orleans. Without Fen, he would have been killed soon after crossing the wall.


The world built by Sherri L. Smith is ugly, deadly, and brutal. This is a compliment to her writing. Flood waters have transformed New Orleans to a landscape where people can walk across grassy areas that can collapse under your feet because the grass is actually growing on the rotting roofs of abandoned houses. If you know the pattern, you can walk on water to a statue of Jesus–a statue standing in the middle of a lake where cars have been parked to form a walkway that is still invisible but safe to use during low tide. Orleans has been abandoned to tribalism and violence by the rest of the country, and the pressures of plague, climate, and anarchy make for a dangerous and imaginative world.


Smith is African American, writing about African American characters living in a landscape that is barely recognizable. Her Orleans reflects the impacts of a series of hurricanes, rising ocean levels, and a plague. The good news is that it is speculative fiction. The post-Katrina/Rita hurricanes listed in the book have not happened. Given the recent news from the UN climate report, though, perhaps that good news should be tempered by saying that it has not happened, yet.

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Book Review: Heroine Worship, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Fantasy: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Superheroines of color must represent. And Aveda Jupiter does. Having realized that she was more than a bit of a diva in Heroine Complex, she is determined to be new. Different. She is, after all, super. She can do this! She can be the superheroine that San Francisco needs. She can be the friend that her buddy and superheroine bff Evie Tanaka needs. She can move beyond her diva ways and be the person she wants to be. All she needs is for some demonic attack to come so that the new Aveda Jupiter can display her new character. That, and for her mother to leave her alone!


Sarah Kuhn has written a delightful sequel to her book Heroine Complex. Heroine Worship changes the narrator from Evie Tanaka to her best friend Aveda Jupiter, aka Annie Chang. Annie and Evie became inseparable in kindergarten, where they were the only two Asians in the class. Now superpowered adults, they are trying to figure out their new relationship where they are equals and partners in the business of saving the world. Annie/Aveda had been the center of the superheroine world with Evie as her faithful assistant. When Evie’s powers blossomed, a new relationship was needed–and Aveda needed to chill out. But she can do this. She’s super. She’s Asian. She’s in control.


I am not Asian American, but I married into that culture more than 30 years ago. Kuhn somehow manages to find every single stereotype of Asian Americans and weave them into her books while skewering them, mocking them, and deflating them. Annie/Aveda is a success–but the wrong kind of success. She is not a doctor, like her cousin Sophie, so she is a disappointment to her parents, especially her mother. (Or is she?) She is not quiet or demure or shy or retiring. She is flashy and flamboyant and likes clothes and enjoys the spotlight. I have been told by other white people that Asians were a lot of things–things that I knew from my own experience as the husband of an Asian American were ridiculous. Now, in print, an Asian American author is taking those same stereotypes and demonstrating how hilarious they are.


Good for her!!!!!!


Fortunately for Aveda, if not for San Francisco, there is need for superpowered assistance. And, fortunately for the mission of becoming the best friend possible, Evie gets engaged and asks Aveda to be her maid of honor. How Aveda handles the responsibilities of friendship, leadership, and kicking demonic ass makes for a delightful novel and makes this reviewer eager to see how his new favorite Asian superheroines continue to represent in the third of the series. Heroine Worship is a terrific, funny story that does not take itself too seriously, but for the reader is seriously fun!

Book Review: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts


No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

Fiction: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

Ava wants a child. Desperately. Achingly. Approaching her late 30s, married for many years to Henry, all she can think about is how much she wants to become a mother. Sylvia, Ava’s mother, misses her son Devon. Desperately, Achingly. In her 60s, separated from her children’s father, Don, all she can think about is how much she wants to connect with her absent son. These two women, both focused so intently on the children who are absent from their lives, are the central figures in Stephanie Powell Watts’s novel No One Is Coming to Save Us. And their stories, mother and daughter, inseparably woven together, make for a compelling and beautiful work filled with heartache and longing and compassion and love.


Ava should be happy. At least, that’s what her mother thinks. Married to a beautiful (looking) man, with an excellent job, living in the house where she grew up, she has everything she needs to be happy. But what she wants most is a child. Sylvia should mind her own business. At least, that’s what her daughter thinks. But Sylvia insists on interfering in the lives of other people, still coming to Ava’s house to clean (and meddle) and talking on the phone to Marcus, a young inmate who reminds Sylvia just how much she misses her son Devon. Sylvia manages to see Ava’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain–and Ava manages to see Sylvia’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain. Then, JJ returns.


JJ Ferguson. The boy who made it. JJ had been the orphaned foster child who lived nearby. He knew Devon, befriended (and loved) Ava, and adored Sylvia. He had been gone for years, made some money, and was now coming home. He built a large house on the top of the hill, bigger than the houses of the white folks, nicer than the houses of the white folks, the local boy who did well. And in coming home he is bringing the echoes of a lost past, the mists shrouding paths not taken, and the dreams of a future that may never come.


Watts tells the story of these women and the men in their lives: the beautiful but dissolute Henry, the cad Don, the absent Devon, the once absent and now present JJ. She reveals their sharp edges and their lost dreams, their failures and their ambitions, their longings and their realities. She neither judges nor exonerates. They are who they are, warts and flaws and lusts and longings and fears and joys. And as they rub against each other, often rubbing raw and leaving each other bruised and bloodied, they reveal the painful humanity that unites us all. These characters may be African Americans struggling to make financial ends meet, but their desires and depths are common to people of all ages and races and strata. Watts’s characters are both black and universal, both poor and universal, both coastal Carolinian and reflective of people from any place and any time.


And her language sings! Even in her descriptions of incidental characters, she uses words to paint frescoes. On a single page, two little girls are said to be taking “small bites that might register under a microscope. It was clear to anyone who had ever been a child that they hated everything on their plates.” Weren’t we all those little girls, once? I remember plates like that, and I’m a middle aged man! Later in that same paragraph, those girls’ father and grandmother are described. Their grandmother “spit out” their father “identical to her and slapped a big porn star-approved mustache on. Never have you seen two separate people more alike. Both happiness killers. If they came close to a flicker, a spark of happiness, they’d stamp it out quick before it spread.” I know I’ve met those same people. Most of us have. We just didn’t know the right words to describe them, until Stephanie Powell Watts did it for us.


No One Is Coming to Save Us is beautiful, with memorable characters who are as universal as they are unique, and with language that appeals to all the senses. Read it–and keep a tissue box handy.


No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Book Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Poetry: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

A few years ago I found a courage I did not know I had. I began questioning things I had always assumed were true. I began exploring my assumptions, opening my mind to new approaches and no longer accepting things at face value. It was frightening, even terrifying, and I came out the other side of it a very different person in some ways.


In other ways, though, I remained unchanged. I decided that I had been right about some things and wrong about others. More committed to my wife, more in love with my children, and more true to myself, I found that asking the questions gave me greater confidence in the answers. I did not find all of the answers. Some I never will. But I found that I respected the person asking the questions much more than the person who refused to face the possibility that he had been wrong.


Poetry asks these brutal, core, fundamental questions in ways that other literature seldom does. That is not to say it never does: a great novel or even a short story can also ask questions. But usually stories try to give answers. Poetry asks questions. Who or what is God? Is there a God/god? What is death? What comes next? Sometimes poems will suggest answers. More often, though, they allow the reader to experience the quest of the questions. Come with me. Look with me. Ask with me. Be exposed with me. Let’s dare to examine what matters together.


There are not many who ask these questions more beautifully than Tracy K. Smith. Her collection of poems Life on Mars asks many of these questions. Some of the poems were written after the death of her father–one is specifically dedicated to him. They ask cosmic questions. Sometimes the topics are literally about the cosmos: dark matter, space, life on other planets. Sometimes the topics are inspired by a curiosity for both science and song–David Bowie makes an appearance in the poems. Sometimes they are about more spiritual matters: God, the afterlife, the spirit. Often, these disparate topics are woven together beautifully and skillfully, bringing both smiles and tears, gasps of recognition and gasps of shock.


Smith compares the connections between people to dark matter: invisible, immeasurable, yet a force that cannot be denied. No one really understands either. They are observable only in the sense that we see their effects. She compares God to the weather in space–is God the force we experience or the power behind that force? Smith concludes that poem with “we go chasing/After all we’re certain to lose, so alive–/Faces radiant with panic.” That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard: “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” Somehow, I think that Smith and Dillard are traveling along similar paths, asking questions of the divine that we should all be asking–questions that we should all be afraid both of asking and of having answered.


Smith’s poem dedicated to her father is wrenching in its poignancy. Wrenching in a very different way, another painful poem is written as a series of letters from murder victims to their murderers. She also writes in reference to Abu Ghraib. Smith is willing to look deeply at the pain that we carry as individuals, as a culture, as a people, and cut into that pain in hopes of excising some of the rotting flesh that causes it. Whether that pain is simply the pain of loss of a loved one, the pain of a culture that accepts murder as a series of acceptable losses, or a culture that excuses torture when it’s done by “us,” Smith writes about it unflinchingly. Although loss will always be part of the human condition, I can only hope she has fewer opportunities to write about the darker aspects of America in the future. Sadly, I don’t think she will.


Life on Mars is beautiful, moving, and compelling. A master work that won the Pulitzer Prize when it was published, Smith has captured the pulse of what makes us human, and captured the longing we have for something greater.

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Book Review: Sun Under Wood, Robert Hass

Book Review: Sun Under WoodRobert Hass

Poetry: Sun Under WoodRobert Hass

“You think you’ve grown up in various ways

and then the elevator door opens and you’re standing inside

reaming out your nose”


I do not know whether any other US Poet Laureate has ever written a poem about being caught in an elevator with a booger on his finger. One may actually be enough, especially when the poem is as good as “Shame: An Aria,” the poet is as good as Robert Hass, and the collection is as good as Sun Under Wood.


Sun Under Wood is a deeply personal and intimate look into the poet’s life. Many of the poems examine what we must assume to be aspects of the writer’s own family and life. Several refer to his alcoholic mother, hospitalized against her will in hopes that treatment could help her overcome her addiction. Later poems seem to indicate that the treatment was never fully successful. Another poem refers to his brother in rehab for a drug addiction. Family secrets are bared, both boldly and timidly. His parents’ marriage in autumn, just before his brother’s birth in the same winter, discovered by the poet getting a copy of their marriage certificate and realizing his parents had lied about the year they were married. His own divorce and the pain of separation. Finding new love. Each of these personal journeys and tragedies finds their way into his poetry.


Reading Robert Hass is like getting to know a new friend. His poems open doors into his own thoughts and fears and discoveries and heartaches and joys. We walk together on the beach or in the mountains or sit in a hospital and he quietly shares his life. Sometimes we cry, seeing his mother taken away. Sometimes we shudder, hearing his lover (wife? ex-wife?) threaten to stab him if he leaves her for a younger woman. Sometimes we laugh, while he wipes the snot from his finger in his pocket, using the pocket lint to hide his embarrassing unhygienic faux pas. Sometimes we blush, listening to him tell of nights with his new love.


Through his words we see a life unveiled, no longer wrapped in the shrouds of dignity and mystery which we normally wear to cloak ourselves. He stands before us, naked and unashamed, and invites us to spend time looking through his eyes and listening through his ears and walking in his steps. And when we accept that invitation, we realize that our shared humanity allows us to share burdens and joys alike. Most of us, though, are not that brave.


Sun Under Wood was published in 1996, while Hass was Poet Laureate. It is his fourth collection of poems. Twenty years may have passed, but these poems remain fresh and dynamic and do not seem to have aged a day. I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Book Review: Sun Under Wood, Robert Hass

Book Review: Praise, Robert Hass

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Poetry: PraiseRobert Hass

If you’ll join me in the “wayback” machine, we can travel way back to 1979. Bell bottoms and wide collars. Disco was not yet dead, but was clearly dying. The UN declared it to be the International Year of the Child. Phnom Penh fell and the Pol Pot regime was deposed. So was the Shah of Iran and the President of Nicaragua. The Camp David Accords were signed, and the Iran hostage crisis began. And Robert Hass published a short book of poetry: Praise.


I will freely admit my ignorance when it comes to poetry. Robert Hass is hardly an unknown. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995-1997. He has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He remains one of the preeminent voices in American literature, yet I was completely unfamiliar with him until hearing him speak with current Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, in September, 2018.


I was absolutely entranced. I went because of Dr. Smith. She was amazing. Her stories, her poetry, her passion…she was everything I had hoped for. I am so glad I got to hear her speak, and I hope I will get to hear her again someday. But on the stage with her was Robert Hass. Tall, white-haired, a smile constantly playing on his lips, his eyes kind. And his poetry. I knew nothing about him, had never read a thing of his, and I was blown away. He was completely unexpected (admittedly because of my own shortcomings). I determined that I needed to read more from both of these wonderful voices. I am glad I did.


Praise is earthy and ethereal. Hass sees the real world, warts and snot and sex and dirt and all. He weaves that real world into his poems. He plays with his words, wanting to show the world as it is. Lusty and sweaty and passionate and somehow very California and entirely universal in a magical way that is hard to explain unless you’ve lived both in California and not in California. Then, in the next breath, the next stanza, the next word, he is quoting obscure literary characters or referencing books you know you should have read or dropping in words and phrases from other languages that make me just nod and say, “Obviously,” when I have no idea what he just did to me. Earthy and ethereal. Profane and divine. Hass dances back and forth with grace and delight and brings us along to enjoy the music which he allows us to hear.


In 1979, I thought poetry was stuffy and had to rhyme. I later came to love and appreciate Frost and Wordsworth and Dickinson and Donne and many others, but I did not know about Hass back then. Nor did I encounter him in my later academic years. I wonder whether my view of poetry might have been different had I read him 40 years ago. Who can say–maybe I was not ready for poetry to be something that didn’t rhyme and had no predictable metre and was about life and sex and being. I am certainly glad to have it now.

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw


Nonfiction Science: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw


Unnatural Selection is a beautiful book. Oversized, coffee-table style, Unnatural Selection’s first impression grabs you. Katrina van Grouw has illustrated the text with her own line drawings, and she is an impressive artist. Her degree is in art, she has experience as a curator in the ornithology department of the Royal Museum in London, and she is married to an expert in (among other things) breeding pigeons. (She jokes that sharing information like that on a first date may not be the most romantic gesture a man might use…but since it worked, perhaps breeding fancy pigeons is an underappreciated way to a person’s heart.) Therefore her text is sound and scientific, and her art is informed by both passion and expertise.


Unnatural Selection is almost a book about evolution. Almost. It is a book about selective breeding, human guided breeding of animals to obtain desired characteristics and to minimize unwanted traits. Natural selection, part of the process that shapes evolution, does not “care” whether an animal is pretty or friendly or any one of a number of other traits that human breeders might look for. Therefore, although the results are the same in terms of animals being changed over generations, the changes among domesticated animals tend to happen more quickly and do not necessarily carry any survival advantage to the animal, at least not one outside of captivity.


In fact, many of the changes would certainly lead to death in the wild. White plumage may be appreciated by bird fanciers, but it would also be appreciated by predators outside of snow country. When I kneel down and tell my little smush-faced dog, “You used to be a wolf,” she does not actually appear very wolf-like. (She does try to lick my face, though, maybe in a vicious carnivorous attempt to soften it prior to eating?) Pigeons that can’t fly, cattle with double-muscled bodies (great for meat, poor for mobility), and many other domesticated species show the results of being bred to our desires and not to the demands of “survival of the fittest.”


Selective breeding, though, relies on the same genetic basis that governs evolution in the wild. Dominant and recessive genes show themselves according to the same laws whether an animal is born in the jungle or in the barn. The difference is instead of a predator looking for a weak animal to eat, a breeder or farmer is looking for specific traits to perpetuate. Although we may not like to think about this aspect of animal husbandry in our era where meat comes from supermarkets, the culling of animals that do not show those desired traits is just as efficient as predation in guiding the direction of a species.


Van Grouw is a terrific writer with great passion and insight into her subject. Her drawings add beauty to the text and show the reader actual examples of the structures she is writing about. Whether the drawing is of a rare pigeon, a series of dog skulls, a detailed comparison of feathers, or a transitional drawing of a single animal showing hindquarters covered with skin, midsection with musculature, and the skeletal shoulders and skull, van Grouw’s drawings are exquisite and tell the story as eloquently as do her words. Her text is factual and informative, but also delightful and affectionate. I love how she simply refers to her spouse as “Husband.” She does not shy away from the realities of animal breeding: successful breeders cull. But she also fairly points out that the results are not inherently cruel or unfair, any more than disease or predation are cruel or unfair. The “goal” of life is to continue, and domestication is a form of symbiosis that has allowed dogs and chickens and cows and many other species to thrive around the world as they accompany humans.


Unnatural Selection is a book that delights on multiple levels. It is well written, expertly researched, and beautifully illustrated. Any student of science, including younger readers, will appreciate it.



Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw


Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Chris Stringer

Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer


Nonfiction Science: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer


Chris Stringer’s book Lone Survivors (outside the USA this book is titled The Origin of Our Species) takes a long look at the theories behind human origins. One thing I learned from this book is how unusual a species humans are. Despite the obvious differences in skin color, hair texture and color, facial shape and contours, etc., human DNA is shockingly consistent. There are more differences between groups of chimpanzees in Africa than there are between any two humans. Another difference is that there are no other living human species. Neanderthals and Denisovans and other members of genus homo have been extinct for millennia. There are multiple species of gorilla, chimpanzee, and virtually any other type of organism you could name, but only one species of human. Speaking scientifically, this is highly unusual, and well worth evaluation.


Stringer was one of the first scientists to strongly espouse the ROA theory of human origins. ROA stands for Recently Out of Africa, and alludes to homo sapiens having their beginnings in Africa then spreading around the world from there. Other homo species appear to have developed from a common ancestor in other parts of the world. Neanderthals may have been the most successful other types of humans, both in terms of population size and area, but the fossil record is a challenge for definitive conclusions in this regard. Nor is it certain why the Neanderthals and other human species died out. It is possible they were killed by advancing bands of homo sapiens. Fossil evidence does suggest some died through violence, possibly even cannibalism, and that violence may have come from contemporary modern humans. But it is also possible they were victims of climate change, dietary challenges, or disease. What is now almost indisputable is that sometimes the two groups of humans were not fighters but instead were lovers. Enough Neanderthal (and Denisovan) DNA has been recovered from fossils to determine that modern humans are partially descended from hybrid ancestors. We are not Neanderthal or Denisovan, but some of our genes definitely are.


Lone Survivors often raises more questions than it answers. How did modern humans become so smart? There are proposed possible answers: social living, genetic mutation, dietary changes among them. No one really knows the answer, though. Why did homo sapiens survive when other human species did not? Varied diet, warlike behavior, social cooperation, adaptability, high intelligence? Perhaps, but again, no single answer or group of answers seems to be persuasive. This is not a weakness of the book, though. Stringer is willing to hear out opinions that contradict his own. He gives them fair treatment in the book, and is willing to point out the weaknesses in his own opinions on these and other questions. The reader is left wanting more answers, just as Stringer and other paleoanthropologists are left wanting those same answers. We will all have to wait together while more evidence is compiled and more discoveries are made.


Like many newer science books, Lone Survivors also tells us about some of the scientists involved in this research. Stringer talks about his days as a graduate student traveling through Europe and studying skulls firsthand. He lived out of his vehicle for many months, and later ruefully confesses that modern DNA techniques proved that he left his own DNA on many of these fossils. Another scientist is a member of a band. These personal anecdotes may or may not enhance the research being done, but they help humanize the researchers and add interest to topics that can occasionally challenge with dry jargon and statistical data overload.


Lone Survivors is a thorough, deep book. Written for a general audience, it is not written down to its readers. The author assumes a willingness to challenge assumptions and a desire to learn new information, so he doesn’t shy away from technical data. This means the book is not for every reader, but it definitely is for anyone interested in the scientific questions surrounding human origins and the disappearance of our closest biological relatives.


Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer



Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire


Urban Fantasy: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

October Daye is part human and part fae. A “changeling,” she constantly lives with one foot in the mortal world and one foot in the fae kingdoms. After years of trying to balance between these worlds, she finally sees hope. Her love, Tybalt, King of the Cats, plans to marry her. Her friends are near and safe. She even gets to attend her own bachelorette party. Everything looks amazing, until her oldest and possibly deadliest enemy resurfaces: her mother.


The request itself is not unusual for a private detective: find a missing daughter. But August has been missing for more than 100 years. And Amandine does not simply ask. She demands. And to make sure October follows through, Amandine kidnaps Tybalt and Jazz, another friend of October. What follows is a dangerous journey through fae and mortal lands looking for someone who may not be alive, relying on an old enemy to provide assistance, and facing challenges that force October to confront questions about who and what she is, and just where she belongs.


Seanan McGuire is one of the hottest writers in science fiction and fantasy. She is a 2018 Hugo finalist for another series she writes, Incryptid. She also writes under the name of Mira Grant, and has had multiple works nominated for the major awards in science fiction and fantasy under that name as well. She won the John W. Campbell award for best new author in 2010, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2013 for her novella Every Heart a Doorway, and also in 2013 became the first person ever to appear 5 times on the same Hugo ballot. Despite her amazing output–or maybe because of it–her writing is crisp, exciting, and full of characters that are deep and surprising.


McGuire’s characters leap fully-formed off the page. They are passionate, infuriating, terrifying, tender, brave and cowardly. They are gay and lesbian and straight. They are human and inhuman. They are like anyone you might meet and unlike anyone you will ever know. October Daye is probably her best known character at this point, and in every book she grows and matures and becomes something new and something more. Some writers might lose their edge after 11 books. If possible, McGuire seems to be just hitting her stride.


McGuire’s plots also challenge. No one escapes a Seanan McGuire novel unharmed–especially her protagonists. She demands a lot from her characters, and she is not afraid to kill even major characters to tell the story.  (Fortunately, she usually doesn’t kill all of them. Well, except in Rolling in the Deep. Spoiler alert: it gets ugly.) The Brightest Fell has sacrifice and redemption, and in a major twist on an ageless theme, in this case one precludes the other. Normally sacrifice consecrates redemption. Seanan McGuire just doesn’t do normal.


You might be able to jump into the series with The Brightest Fell. McGuire is able to backfill the story without getting pedantic. But you will be rewarded by going back to the beginning and catching up. October Daye grows as a character throughout the series. And it is fair to say that Seanan McGuire grows as a writer through the series. Reading as a character matures and as a writer hones her craft can be a very rewarding experience, and the October Daye series is a delightful way to watch both happen.


Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire