Review: The Greenland Diaries by Patrick W. Marsh

(“A book that scares you” from the Reading Challenge)

This is a review for the first two books of this series, Days 1-100 and Days 101-140.

These were gripping books! Horror is not my usual genre, but I happened to meet the author at a local convention last year, and this story sounded intriguing. It sucked me in right away; in spite of having told myself I wouldn’t read it in the evenings, I did, and ended up finishing the first book in just a few days. Similarly, I read the second book in just a few days as well. They are difficult to put down! I live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, and I think that it makes a story like this more real, and more terrifying, to have it set in an area that you know well, because then you can’t help but picture what is happening to these familiar places, and feel sympathetic to what the main character is going through.

The premise was very different than anything I have read before, and therefore quite interesting. The main character, a bank teller, manages to survive a terrifying night at his bank when strange drums signal the arrival of monsters which kill anyone they encounter out in the open. Being careful and observant, he makes it home, and continues to evade the monsters that appear every night, even as strange green plants begin to slowly grow over everything. The story does a good job of capturing both the hair-raising periods of terror and the in-between tedium that the main character experiences. Both volumes leave off on quite a cliff-hanger, so I’m looking forward to reading the third book. I don’t know how many books the author intends, but it will be satisfying whenever the characters finally learn what has happened to their world and why! I’ll do an update when I’ve read more.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes horror, and particularly horror with a fantasy/fantastical twist to it, or someone who isn’t picky about genre but enjoys stories set in Minnesota.

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Review: The Orc of Many Questions by Shane Michael Murray

(“A book with nonhuman characters” from the Reading Challenge)

I got this book specifically because it seemed like it would have an unorthodox take on orcs, and I was not disappointed.

The story follows a young orc (a “blunc”) who unusually has a fairly sharp mind and a very inquisitive nature; not attributes that are looked on favorably in his tribe. Large, powerful orcs who can be successful in raids against the humans, elves, and dwarves of the world are the ideal, this being the only way that the orcs can procure food, weapons, goods, and “entertainment.” Talking-Wind wants to know why his people are stuck in this life of constant raiding, and even has some hints that life was not always like this for orcs, but he has more questions than answers, and little time to search for them. Talking-Wind’s curiosity draws unwanted attention not only from the other young orcs, who are all too happy to bully someone smaller and weaker, but also from the dragon that demands regular tribute from the orc clan. When the dragon comes for him, Talking-Wind needs all his wits in order to have a hope of surviving long enough to get all of his many questions answered!

This book was a lot grosser than I was expecting, which perhaps should not have surprised me given the subject of the story; there is some gore, but mainly a lot of unpleasant bodily functions! This does not detract from the story, but might be something to be aware of.

It also does a good job with starting to break down the standard fantasy trope of “orcs are evil because they are evil,” which has bothered me more and more in recent years. A certain well-known fantasy series that shall not be named recently doubled-down on this, after spending several books/years looking like they too might be reversing or at least questioning the trope, which annoyed me. Partly for that reason, I’ve been looking for stories that do better and don’t automatically go the route of saying that some races are actually evil by nature. To me, that makes for much less interesting villains/enemies. Easier to kill with a clean conscience, perhaps, but not much else.

There is a sequel which I have not gotten to yet, but do hope to read soon! I would recommend this one to anyone who is interested in a subversion of typical fantasy tropes, anyone who likes a very down-to-earth-complete-with-bodily-fluids type of story, or anyone who happens to be interested in orcs as a fantasy race.

Review: The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

My first thought when I finished this book was “I have died and gone to heaven…or maybe just to Paradise.”

In many ways, this is just another Alternate-Medieval-Europe fantasy (though quite well-written); it has bloody battles, secret (and not so secret) religious fanatics of various flavors, and plenty of political intrigue. I appreciated the author’s way of using languages; the book is written in English, but he uses a blend of English and other languages to give the sense of the different countries, for instance giving titles in both Spanish or French as well as in English. It leaves the reader not needing to guess what unfamiliar words mean, while still getting to see them, learn them, and appreciate the varied vocabulary.

In many ways, it is just another fantasy…but it also has dinosaurs.

Some reviewers have made the point that this story is not a Medieval Jurassic Park. I agree, and would then add that I think it’s much better than that. If you are a Jurassic Park fan and your favorite part is that a bunch of people run around screaming and then get eaten by the dinosaurs, this may not be the book for you (though some people do get killed/eaten by dinosaurs in the story).

I think the best way to describe it is to say that dinosaurs exist in the world of Paradise; they are animals that inhabit the land, and people have learned to exist with them, much as we exist with the many animals around us today. There are some unique challenges to life with dinosaurs, given their often-large size and definite ability to cause harm to humans, but in this world those are challenges that people have undertaken. Some dinosaurs still roam the wild, and are hunted for meat or sport or self-protection by the humans. Many have been tamed or domesticated to one degree or another; they are beasts of burden, war-steeds, pets. The dinosaurs in the world of Paradise feel real, because they are part of the landscape and the ecosystem and the culture; much better than attractions at an amusement park.

To many of the characters, this is all dinosaurs are: part of the landscape, a familiar backdrop to everyday life. But to a couple of the characters (and to the author, I believe), the dinosaurs are more than that: to these characters, dinosaurs are a source of awe. Even as they fully understand and constantly deal with the realities (pleasant and otherwise) of coexisting with dinosaurs, they never lose the lingering edge of breathless wonder at the existence of these great creatures. That, more than anything, was what sold me on this book’s premise and world (and not surprisingly, those two characters are my favorites so far!)

I did enjoy the story itself, and am interested to see where it goes in the next two books of this (I believe) trilogy. This is a very adult book – plenty of gore, sex, violence, and foul language. If you don’t mind those things, then I would recommend it to fans of dinosaurs (the author seems to have done his research fairly well), fans of epic medieval fantasy, and fans of stories with battles and political intrigue.

Review: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

(“A nonfiction book” from the Reading Challenge)

I am switching my non-fiction book because I read this one more recently and feel that I can write a decent review. (I did read My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek, which was my original choice, and I definitely liked it a lot and would recommend it! But I didn’t get to writing a review as soon as I should have, so I’ll do this one instead.)

This book was a Christmas present from a family member, who rightly guessed that I would enjoy it. It was very good!

The author is a paleontologist and professor of anatomy, and he has a clear, engaging writing style that was very easy to read. The book is (as you might guess from the title) talking about evolution as it relates to the biology and anatomy of the human body.

I really loved the way he talks about science! He talks about his lab (which is half fossils and half genetics/DNA, apparently), and he talked about looking for fossils in ways that I hadn’t thought about before. He points out that while yes, there is a certain amount of luck involved in actually finding the fossils you’re looking for, you have to start by doing the right prep work identifying where your chances will be greatest.

He uses the example of wanting to find an intermediate stage between finned fish and amphibians with true limbs, a transition which happened between 385 and 365 million years ago. So, he had to identify rocks in that age range, of the right type to preserve fossils at all (meaning, sedimentary rocks), and that were somewhere exposed/accessible to people. In this case, Ellesmere Island in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle, turned out to be the best place, and so that is where he and his team have gone summer after summer. And, after many seasons, they did in fact find the kind of fossil they were looking for; Tiktaalik was a fish that had fins…but they were fins with bones in them, and bones in the same basic number/arrangement that we see in all limbed animals today.

He does a really good job of working the reader through a somewhat abstract idea (that we can trace our bodies/body parts/body construction back in time through evolution, as evidenced by both fossils and genetics), by providing several concrete examples that show this, and going through the process each time. Looking at our bodies this way helps to make sense of some things about us that seem confusing when you think about them by themselves. Hiccups, for example. Why do we get hiccups? Well, probably because our bodies are descended from amphibious creatures that needed to be able to switch back and forth between breathing with lungs in air and breathing with gills in water. The muscle/nerve combination that causes hiccups originally worked as a pausing mechanism that allowed for that switch…only we don’t need it anymore, so for us it’s just a leftover thing our bodies do that can be a nuisance.

All of his examples are really interesting like that. Going back to limbs, he points out that every vertebrate creature that has limbs has limb bones in the exact same combination: one upper bone, two lower bones, blobby bones in the “wrist,” and then rod-like bones that radiate from those (fingers/toes, for us). The exact shapes, lengths and configurations of these bones are very different in an alligator, a bat, and a human, but the same basic combination is there in all three animals. In another example, he talks about nerves in the human head, some of which are very complex and kind of confusing, because they do lots of different-seeming things. But when you look at them from a developmental view, they make perfect sense, because one nerve is connected to all the various parts of the head that form from one “gill arch” on the human embryo, and another nerve is connected to all the parts that form from another “gill arch,” and so on. (Those “gill arches” are so called because, in fish like sharks, they do actually form into gills. In humans, they are present when we are an embryo, but then develop into various parts of our face, jaw, neck, and throat.)

So it was a very interesting book! It falls into the category of “I sort of knew the basics of this (evolution and how it works),” but this book lays it out so much more specifically and with such fantastic examples that it just becomes much, much clearer in my head. Books like that are the best ones, for me. I definitely recommend this one to anyone interested in paleontology, science, evolution, or the history of life on earth. A fantastic read!

Review: The Martian

(“A book a friend recommended” from the Reading Challenge)

I put this on my Reading Challenge list on the recommendation of a friend, and then ended up reading it for a book club that I’m part of with a few other friends – we definitely did not regret it. I’m probably a little late to the party on this particular book, but in case you haven’t heard about it or given it a try yet, The Martian is excellent. (Spoilers below.)

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Review: Princess Retribution by Elaine Tipping

(“A graphic novel” from the Reading Challenge)

I have enjoyed Elaine Tipping’s art and comics for quite some time, and her latest graphic novel, Princess Retribution, was a very welcome addition! As usual, the art was great, and I especially enjoy her character and clothing designs. Add to that the fact that there is a fun story to go with it, and I’m very glad I was able to contribute to her Kickstarter to support this book! (I’ll cut for minor spoilers.)

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Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

(“A book published this year” from the Reading Challenge)

So, this is technically a review of Shadow Scale, but out of necessity it will also talk about the preceding book Seraphina. Expect spoilers for both books!

I loved both Seraphina and Shadow Scale! Seraphina was one of my “grabbed it randomly off the library shelf because it looked interesting” finds that worked out well – I was hooked about ten pages in. They are set in a fantasy world in which two sentient species – humans and dragons – are struggling to coexist. The first book is set entirely in the country of Goredd, where forty years of uneasy peace between the humans and the dragons is teetering. Seraphina herself is a musician in Goredd’s court…and secretly a half-dragon. Continue reading