Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Nonfiction: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

According to the foreword of this book, Ryan North did not write it. He found it, encased in preCambrian rock. He merely transcribed it. It looks to be a companion journal to the FC3000™ Time Machine, in the unlikely (and certainly not legally liable) circumstance of its failure, stranding the renter sometime in the deep past. Unfortunately, How to Invent Everything does not actually tell you how to invent the time machine itself–presumably for patent reasons. It does, however, provide a tongue-in-cheek guide to creating civilization from scratch whenever you find yourself. (It does help, though, to have other humans available when trying to create a society.)

 

North’s tone is breezy and conversational. How to Invent Everything is heavily footnoted and endnoted. The footnotes are often quite humorous, and are worth reading. The endnotes provide actual research and additional resources (which are not really useful if you are stuck in a time period before they were written, but they are provided just in case). Don’t let the tone of the book fool you: this is a well-documented and well-researched book that breaks down the pieces of civilization and modernity and gives at least a basic framework for replacing them.

 

The longest chapter by far, essentially a book within the book, is chapter 10: Common Human Complaints that Can Be Solved by Technology. (Reviewer’s interpretation: humans complain a lot which is why the chapter is so long.) In this chapter North gives basic details on inventing a number of technologies that would be extremely useful: water purification, plows, prophylactics, batteries, airplanes, and many, many more. Other chapters give insights into useful plants and animals, farming, basic nutrition, developing language, first aid, music, and art. The chapter on music even contains some public domain music that you can “invent” yourself and take credit for, including that timeless classic that plays during Tetris.

 

The appendices include a number of things that would be very handy for any civilization just starting out–though as he points out, many of these things actually did not develop until hundreds or thousands of years after they could have been discovered or developed. These include the periodic table, useful chemicals and how to make them, trigonometric tables, helpful numbers (e.g. pi), and the pitches of musical notes. The technology tree is fascinating–I never would have suspected that the invention of paper led directly to the stethoscope (he covers this in the book as well).

 

All in all, this is an amusing and quirky look at how the modern world came to be. He constantly pokes fun at the vagaries of invention: buttons, for example, were around for hundreds of years as decorative items before anyone thought of using them as fasteners. Some things were invented or discovered, then lost, then reinvented or rediscovered centuries later. Forceps, used to help reposition babies for birth, were kept secret for 150 years by a family of doctors who wanted to corner the market on them!

 

Somehow, despite everything, we’ve managed to get to this point in technology and communication–and apparently at some future point we will have access to a time machine and arguably could do the whole thing over again and hopefully better. If so, Ryan North’s “find” will be of immeasurable value. Until then, it is a fun and fascinating look at the building blocks of civilization.

 

If, all of a sudden, book reviews on Scintilla end and your milk is “marvinized” instead of “pasteurized,” you’ll know that I brought this book along with me using the FC3000™ Time Machine, and I used it. I hope you also enjoy “Marvin’s” Eine Kleine Nachtmusic. It should be a classic!

Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Book Review: Remember Tomorrow, Amanda Saint

Book Review: Remember Tomorrow, Amanda Saint

Fiction: Remember Tomorrow, Amanda Saint

Britain in 2073 looks much different than it does today. Climate change and its effects, including massive earthquakes and storms, have devastated the land and returned large areas of the country to subsistence agriculture, surviving without contacts in the larger world and relying solely on themselves.

 

Evie is a herbalist, using plants to treat illnesses among the members of her village. Her grandson, Jonah, has taken leadership of the community through his charismatic preaching and fearmongering. Among the ancient fears he warns against: witchcraft. Now, Evie must flee in fear of her life, pursued by her own grandson and his adherents to an older version of Christianity, one where witches can only prove themselves by floating on the ocean.

 

Remember Tomorrow starts with Evie’s present situation, her deteriorating position within the community and flight from Jonah. It then shifts to look at her past, her activism as a teenager, her pregnancy and flight away from the city, and her life in the village before Jonah’s frightening transformation into a cult leader. Author Amanda Saint paints a bleak picture of Britain in this time, showing a country enthralled by materialism and blind to its effects on the environment, on social inequality, and on their own character as a people.

 

Climate fiction is a subgenre of SFF that has been generating more and more titles in recent years. Margaret Atwood may be the most prominent among the authors writing in this genre (we reviewed her MaddAddam trilogy last year), but there are a multitude of titles coming out which warn of the devastating effects climate change may have on our way of life and on the planet itself.

 

I liked Remembering Tomorrow. Evie is an interesting and sympathetic main character who is not without her faults. She can be naive and get herself into unfortunate situations. She sometimes neglects her family when she becomes fixated upon a cause. But she has a good heart and strives to do the right thing, both for the planet and for her family. Evie is not the greatest mother, but probably does not deserve the anger her daughter gives her and certainly does not deserve the persecution from her grandson.

 

Britain is almost unrecognizable in this book. Electricity, transportation, machinery, computers, and almost every other modern convenience are gone. People live off what they grow and gather and hunt. Small villages govern themselves, sometimes wisely and prudently, and sometimes by fanaticism and demagoguery. News from the outside world is unobtainable. This is possibly an extreme view of the devastation possible from climate change, but hardly unique. The timeline is quite abrupt, being set roughly 54 years in the future, but saying this is unrealistic is more a statement of hope than of certainty.

 

My only critique is that sometimes in climate fiction the story falls victim to the message. I fear that happens in some of the chapters in this book. It is a good book and a good story, but there are a few chapters that are somewhat strident in their tone. I understand the temptation–I myself am terrified of the future that seems to be unfolding with no one in power willing to take action. But it can be a challenge to “show” the effects in the story when it is easier to “tell” the effects through speaking or dialog. This is not the worst thing that a story could do, though, and Evie is a compelling enough character that these minor flaws do not prevent her story from unfolding.

 

Remembering Tomorrow is a good book from a passionate author. Amanda Saint is a good storyteller, and Evie is a character with a good story to tell. I am glad I had the chance to read it.

Amanda Saint
Amanda Saint

Remember Tomorrow Blog Tour Sites

I want to thank both Amanda Saint, the author and Anne Cater, Blogger and Tour coordinator, for inviting us to participate in a “blog tour” for the launch of Remembering Tomorrow on March 21, 2019. I had the pleasure of receiving an ARC in exchange for an honest review, and I appreciate the opportunity. Use the poster to check out the other stops on this blog tour!

Book Review: Remember Tomorrow, Amanda Saint

Book Review: The Kingdom of Copper, S.A. Chakraborty

Book Review: The Kingdom of Copper, The Daevebad Trilogy Book 2, S.A. Chakraborty

Fantasy: The Kingdom of Copper, The Daevebad Trilogy, Book 2, S.A. Chakraborty

 

S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel, The City of Brass, was one of the most highly honored fantasy novels of 2017. Her 2019 sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, continues the epic story of the healer Nahri, the djinn Dara, and the prince Ali.

 

Set five years after the events of the first novel, Nahri is enduring her forced marriage to Ali’s brother and continuing to learn the healing arts. Her magical abilities are growing, allowing her to heal more complex problems, but her political acumen still is lacking when it comes to dealing with challenges in the court. Still, she is the Banu Nahida, a title which not only reflects her healing ability but also carries religious and political leadership within her tribe. This makes her both a potential ally and a potential threat to the king.

 

Ali escaped assassination and is living quietly in an oasis in the desert with the people who rescued him. He has recovered from his physical injuries but is coming to terms with new powers he did not have before: the ability to find water and the ability to breathe underwater. This connection to water is extremely helpful to the desert tribe that saved him, but would be very challenging to the city where his father rules. He has reconciled himself to never returning home. Others, though, have made different plans for him.

 

And Dara. Dara was killed by Ali during their final battle in the first book. But djinn can be hard to kill permanently–after all, Dara had killed Ali first during that battle and Ali refused to stay dead. Dara is brought back to life to serve the Banu Nahida…but not Nahri. There is another Banu Nahida with a claim in Daevebad, and this one is no potential ally to the king.

 

Chakraborty’s novels are rich and deep and sweeping. She creates a beautifully layered Arabian world, one where the human world and the world of the djinn occasionally intersect but are typically separated, almost like an overlay on a map. Her characters are schemers and dreamers and scholars and warriors. Religion is both crucial and ignored, with some characters motivated by zealotry while others acknowledge divinity only for public show.

 

Although the books are set in the Islamic world of about 120 years ago, they are set in the djinn version of it with little (in this book virtually no) contact between the two. Only descendants of the magical tribes can enter this world. Some of these are partially human, but no fully human person can see or enter the world. This gives the author great freedom to imagine a world that is more like the world of Aladdin than the world of European colonialism. She uses that imaginative license fully, giving us extraordinary palaces built on the abject poverty and misery of slums. Poor and oppressed people living in squalor often face harsh punishments for the decisions of the rich, even decisions that are meant to help those poor and oppressed people. Powerful people enjoy the status quo and are committed to maintaining it at any cost.

 

Chakraborty is giving fantasy readers a rich and epic series. Although it is described as a trilogy, I would be sorry to see it end with the next book. I am developing one of those strange relationships with this series: I am excited for the next book to come out, but I am dreading it because it is supposed to be the last one of the series. Still, I am a richer person for having walked through the streets of Daevebad for however long the series lasts.

Book Review: The Kingdom of Copper, The Daevebad Trilogy, Book 2, S.A. Chakraborty

Book Review: The Mortal Word, Genevieve Cogman

Book Review: The Mortal Word, Genevieve Cogman

The Mortal Word (The Invisible Library Novel Book 5) by [Cogman, Genevieve]

Fantasy Series: The Mortal Word, Genevieve Cogman

 

The Invisible Library has become one of my favorite series, and a new book by Genevieve Cogman is a delight I look forward to enjoying as often as it comes. The Mortal Word, the fifth book in the series, is possibly my favorite one so far.

 

Irene has just returned to London and is visiting her friend, renowned detective Peregrine Vale, when another librarian summons her and Vale to investigate a murder. A secret peace conference is going on between mortal and historic enemies, the dragons and the fae, and the librarians are mediating the conference. However, the entire conference may fail now that one of the senior assistants to the dragons has been murdered. Is this an untimely random crime? Is a rogue outside element trying to disrupt the peace conference? Or is something darker at play?

 

Irene, Vale, and her former assistant Kai are caught up into the intrigue surrounding the conference. All the players have their own agendas, and being magical beings sometimes their agendas become reality by the strength of their desires. Add in the beauty of Paris, the chaos of some anarchists, a fae witch who likes to bathe in the blood of virgins, and a librarian with bold plans for a new library mission, and you have a whirlwind adventure that spins from attempted kidnapping to attempted murder to a final confrontation between the powers of order and the powers of chaos.

 

Irene is the powerful center of this story, as she is in all the novels of the series. In this book, though, she seems to be more comfortable with her own power. She recognizes that although the investigation is to be led by Vale, she must be the driving force behind it. She realizes that the fate of her parents and the library itself rely upon her judgment and actions. She handles herself with deportment when faced by the powers of dragons and fae. And she works to save the conference and the attendees even in the face of opposition from fellow librarians. In short, the heroine we’ve seen developing through books 1-4 is beginning to not only act like the kickass leader she is, she is beginning to believe in herself as well.

 

All in all, The Invisible Library series is getting better as it ages, and The Mortal Word takes the story and the characters in some very good directions. Irene gains confidence in herself, is acknowledged for her gifts and leadership by others, and Cogman succeeds in crafting another exciting story in a series filled with them.

The Mortal Word (The Invisible Library Novel Book 5) by [Cogman, Genevieve]

Book Review: The Mortal Word, Genevieve Cogman

 

Book Review: American War, Omar El Akkad

Book Review: American War, Omar El Akkad

American War

When a prize-winning journalist turns his skills toward writing a war novel, the result is likely to make multiple lists of “best books of the year.” American War has done just that in 2018. Omar El Akkad was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, and then moved to Canada. He worked as a journalist, covering news about terrorism, Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring, and the Black Lives Movement among many others. This experience shows in his novel.

 

Late in the 21st century, climate change has ravaged the southern US. The country has fractured. The south is in rebellion, large portions of the southwest and west have been reclaimed by Mexico, and South Carolina has been quarantined to prevent the spread of a man-made virus. In this stew of violent weather and more violent humanity, one family tries to survive.

 

The Chestnuts live in a repurposed shipping container along a river in Louisiana. Benjamin and Martina have three children. In 2075 when the book starts, older brother Simon and twins Dana and Sara T.–who prefers to bind the name and initial together in a single word, “Sarat”–are living at home with their parents when their father learns of an opportunity to move the family to the north. North, away from the war, away from the ravages of climate change, a place where his children can go to school and grow up and have a better life. Tragically, a suicide bomber attacks the office where he is applying for the job, and he is killed.

 

Martina tries initially to stay in their home, but as the war and rumors of attack get closer to them, she finally decides to flee with her children to a refugee camp. Her hope that this will be a temporary situation and that her family will soon move on, either to the north or to Atlanta, the capital city of the south, or to the Mexican-controlled areas of Texas, fade as the family is stuck in the camp for years. During that time, Sarat falls under the tutelage of an older man, a recruiter, someone who finds vulnerable persons and turns them into weapons for the South. Some of his recruits wear suicide vests and die performing their one act of patriotism/terrorism. He has much bigger plans for Sarat, though.

 

American War is about the destruction of a country, largely through self-inflicted wounds. The plague which isolated South Carolina was a genetically engineered virus. The climate change was caused by overuse of fossil fuels. The second war between the states started because one group of states refused to stop using fossil fuels when the federal government demanded they stop. It is also about the destruction of a family, mostly from wounds inflicted by a damaged country. Sarat becomes a killer, but not until death is brought to her own door. Simon, Dana, Martina, all suffer profoundly because of the climate and the war. Even the book’s narrator, who is not revealed until near the end, is a victim of these forces even though much of the book’s narrative takes place before the narrator is born.

 

El Akkad’s story is far too familiar to anyone who has followed news around the world. The refugee camp he describes, set in Mississippi, sounds like camps that have been in the news for decades in places like Lebanon and Syria and Ethiopia and many other places. The recruiting of vulnerable and hopeless people in those camps is not a secret. The cruel irony, of course, is that the recruitment preys on hopelessness, telling people they will never get out, while racist politicians use that same recruitment as a reason to bar entry of refugees into their countries, thereby assuring that they will never get out. The casual cruelty of people toward each other, the manipulation of story to sway opinion, these are things that we see constantly. The power in El Akkad’s work is seeing these things set in the US, seeing foreign spies and provocateurs operating within our shores, reading about people who look like us and talk like us becoming no different in our desperation than those in other countries in their desperation.

 

American War is a powerful, beautiful, tragic, deeply moving novel. Hopefully it is one of speculative fiction, and not one of prescient insight. Given some of the divisions within the US and the possible consequences of increasing global warming, it’s hard at this time to be sure.

American War

Book Review: American War, Omar El Akkad

Book Review: Tom Clancy Oath of Office, Marc Cameron

Book Review: Tom Clancy Oath of Office, Marc Cameron

Book Review: Tom Clancy Oath of Office, Marc Cameron

I have to admit, Tom Clancy novels have been a guilty pleasure of mine for about 30 years. Recent years have seen the stories picked up by new authors, including Marc Cameron, a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal with more than 30 years law enforcement experience and the author of the Jericho Quinn thriller series. His latest, Oath of Office, carries the hallmarks of the traditional Tom Clancy Jack Ryan books: formidable enemies at home and abroad, daring intelligence and military personnel ready to give their lives in service to America, and timely fortune favoring the bold actions of one President Jack Ryan.

 

Cameron takes full advantage of the Clancy company of stars: President Jack Ryan; Jack Ryan, Jr.; John Clark; Ding Chavez; Mary Pat Kelly; Arnie Van Damm; Dom Caruso; etc. He also brings back an old character, Ysabel Kashani, a former girlfriend of Jack Ryan, Jr.’s, who is not very happy with the way their relationship ended. And he introduces us to new characters, some who do not survive the novel and others who may be heard from again later.

 

Enemies include old foes Russia and Iran, new challenges from Cameroon and unknown cyber criminals, and an angry senator on the domestic front. Balancing these multiple foes is a challenge for President Ryan and his team. It is also a challenge for author Cameron, but one he handles adroitly. The action shifts quickly from chapter to chapter, from Washington to Tehran to Moscow to Portugal and other places, shifting perspective from the president to his son to the bad guys to other characters. With less care this could become confusing, but Cameron clearly introduces each chapter without being clunky.

 

Cameron can be criticized for the role women play in the novel. It is definitely a book where the men are men and the women are injured or rescued. The female with the most agency is an enemy assassin. This is typical of the Clancy novels, and indeed probably the majority of novels in the thriller genre. Still, Oath of Office is an improvement over some in the genre (and even some in the Clancy canon) where women are little more than sexual objects. Given that the heroes of the series will always be Jack Ryan and Jack Ryan, Jr., women will probably always be secondary characters. Cameron does include numerous minor characters of color, and should be commended for giving us Iranian and Russian characters with some complexity and not universally opposed to the US. Still, there is much room for improvement in the use of both female characters and characters of color.

 

Still, this is a fun book. For Clancy fans it brings back the usual team, returns an old ally, and introduces new characters who may see future action. Cameron is a good writer and creates a complex and engaging plot. Thriller fans will not be disappointed.

Book Review: Tom Clancy Oath of Office, Marc Cameron

Book Review: Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant

Book Review: Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant

Fantasy/Horror: Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant

A few years ago I read the novella Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant. It was one of the most frightening books I have ever read. I seldom read horror. My imagination tends to feed nightmares when I do. Rolling in the Deep, though, was a true science fiction horror, along the lines of the movie Alien: mermaids (more accurately, sirens) attack and literally everyone dies. Every. Single. Character.

 

So, obviously, a sequel was needed. And, admittedly less obviously, I had to read it.

 

I don’t mean to sound snarky. A sequel was needed, because the first book was that good. That’s also why I had to read it. Mira Grant, a pen name for author Seanan McGuire, is a brilliant writer under either name. Under her own name she usually writes urban fantasy. Mira Grant is more of the science fiction/horror genre. Under either name, though, you can expect excellent writing, gripping plots, fantastic character development, and someone dying. Often, a lot of someones.

 

Into the Drowning Deep tells the tale of the follow up mission to that ill-fated voyage. The company that funded the first is a television network that wants to prove the existence of sirens. They have pulled together a team of marine biologists, oceanographers, cryptozoologists, and various other disciplines. They have also brought some big-game hunters and armed security guards, and obviously some on-air talent and videographers. Among the scientists is Victoria “Tory” Stewart, the sister of Anne Stewart, a victim of the first mission.

 

Tory is hoping to gain some understanding as to how and why her sister died. Part of what Grant does so well is explore the motivations behind different characters. Some are straightforward: a Ph.D., tenure, fame, recognition, wealth. Others are more complex: validation, understanding, purpose. By the end, though, they all have one common motivation: survival. Because the sirens are coming, and they like the taste of human flesh.

 

Into the Drowning Deep may do a better job than any fiction book I have ever read at giving voice and empowerment to characters with different abilities. Two of the scientists are deaf. The on-air talent is on the autism spectrum. The man representing the network has a severe back and leg injury. Every one of these characters brings talent, intelligence, and courage to the fight against the sirens. That is not to say their challenges make things easy: one of the deaf scientists is killed, and another is left alone in a room because she cannot hear the alarms. The injured representative is stuck in a chair when he cannot access his medicine, and only timely access to THC-laced chocolates keeps him from incapacitation. But these characters are on the ship because of their talents and abilities, and those talents and abilities become more valuable as the ship is under siege.

 

If you are easily freaked out, do not read this book. If you cannot stand blood and gore, don’t get it. But if you are fascinated by the thought of encountering a different intelligence, one that has been part of human mythology worldwide, one that has neither love nor hatred toward us but rather one that thinks we are rather tasty, the Mira Grant has the perfect novel for you. Creative, bold, creepy, and really, really good.

 

I’m sure I’ll be able to sleep again. Someday.

Book Review: Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant

Book Review: Out of the Dark, Gregg Hurwitz

Book Review: Out of the Dark, Orphan X series, Book 4, Gregg Hurwitz

Thriller: Out of the Dark, Orphan X series, Book 4, Gregg Hurwitz

Some thrillers are an adrenaline rush fueled by espresso. Those tame tomes blink in awe at the Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz. Out of the Dark demands to be read in one sitting, all 385 pages of it, and frankly if lead character Evan Smoak demands something I do not have the courage to argue the point. After reading it, I dare not take my blood pressure. I don’t want to know.

 

Orphan X has become one of those series that I will drop everything to read as soon as I can. The latest, Out of the Dark, was published on January 29, 2019, and I hate that it took me almost a month to get to it. Whether I had grabbed it in January, though, or waited until now (late February), the book was well worth it.

 

If you have followed the series, you know that Evan Smoak was taken from his foster home at age 12 and placed into a beyond top secret program to train black operatives. He eventually broke with his handlers and became the Nowhere Man, committed to helping people who could not help themselves. Now, the president of the United States, the man who used to run the Orphan program, has decided that all of the remaining Orphans must die. His sights are set first on Orphan X, Evan Smoak, primarily because of Smoak’s participation in a 1997 assassination. Smoak does not know why that particular mission is so meaningful to the president. He only knows this: he must kill the president before the president can have him killed.

 

Being an Orphan X thriller, though, Evan must also deal with his increasingly complicated feelings for his beautiful neighbor Mia and her young son Peter. And with a Nowhere Man plea for help from a mentally challenged young man whose family is murdered. And with the reappearance of Orphan V, Candy, who has tried to kill him many times. And a side trip to Switzerland to visit the young girl he is protecting, another former orphan program member who is a world class computer hacker.

 

It’s enough to make anyone thirst for some vodka. The expensive stuff. Which is the only kind that Evan drinks.

 

Average thrillers rely on plot twists and fast-paced action to take you through the story. Excellent thrillers have those as well, but add in sympathetic and complex characters that act in very human ways. Evan, Mia, Candy, and new character Naomi provide all of these variables. Even Orphan A, brought in specifically to kill Evan, has a backstory that lends substance to his anger.

 

Hurwitz has written many books, but with his Orphan X series Hurwitz has stepped into the top echelon of thriller writers. If you are not reading this series, start with Orphan X and catch up. Each one is better than the last, and this is a series that seems to have the legs to go for a long time.

Book Review: Out of the Dark, Orphan X series, Book 4, Gregg Hurwitz