BOOK REVIEW: Otherlands

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds
Thomas Halliday
Random House
Copyright 2022 by the author

One of the most underrated works of art is not found in any small gallery or private collection. It is readily available for the public to view, prominently displayed in a well-known museum. It is the “Age of Reptiles” mural by Rudolph Zellinger, in the Peabody Museum at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

An “illustrated timeline” of some 300 million years of Earth’s history, Zallinger depicted not only dinosaurs and reptiles, but plants as well, using the best scientific information that could be had in the early 1940s. It’s one of the first attempts (and undoubtedly one of the most successful) at depicting the creatures of the distant past in as accurate and complete an environment as possible.

Needless to say, since then we’ve learned a lot about the dinosaurs and other living things of the deep past. Halliday, a paleontologist working out of the Natural History Museum in London, has taken all the new findings and has painted not a continuous mural, but rather a set of “dioramas” depicting each of the major geologic eras in Earth’s history. They aren’t collections of “things you might have seen at that time”; rather they are based on fossil evidence at specific locations – locations where, by pure luck, enough was preserved to give a good picture of all the life that inhabited the area.

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Book Review: The Baseball 100

The Baseball 100
Joe Posnanski
Avid Reader Press
Copyright 2021 by the author

It started out as a project on his personal blog. Essays on who longtime baseball writer Joe Posnanski felt were the 100 greatest baseball players of all time. He never got around to finishing it. Then, when he moved over to The Athletic, he started the list again. This time, presumably because he the site was paying for his contributions, he finished it. Along the way, commenter after commenter begged him to collect them all into a book. Many said they’d buy it whatever the price.

A little hesitant, Posnanski wasn’t sure people a book that merely collected his online essays would sell. He gave in, and a publisher was found. Another writer and baseball fan, George F. Will, heard about the book and demanded to write the introduction.

The book was an instant success, rocketing to the top of the charts.

How could a simple collection of biographical essays (with minimal photographs and about as plain a cover as you can imagine) on great baseball players become a best seller? Continue reading

Book Review: Reboots: Undead Can Dance

Reboots: Undead Can Dance
Mercedes Lackey and Cody Martin
CAEZIK Sf & Fantasy
Copyright 2021 by the authors

Vampires, werewolves, and zombies exist. For that matter, so do a lot of other supernatural creatures from folklore, but not in anything near the same numbers. Now after the humans (“Norms” in the common slang) have decisively come out ahead in a global war against the “reboots” (i.e. zombies) and have attained clear domination over the “fangs” and “furs” et al., what do you do with all the millions upon millions of practically immortal beings hanging around?

Put them in cheap spaceships, and send them off to explore and colonize the galaxy, naturally!

That’s the basic premise behind this connected set of four novellas (some of which have been previously published).

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Book Review: Conquistadores

Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest
Fernando Cervantes
Viking Books
Copyright 2020 by the author

There seems to be a trend in the study of history these days to reexamine and reframe the past to highlight the evils that have been painted over in our “standard narrative”. Winston Churchill, for example, was not the brilliant leader who kept Britain fighting throughout World War II; instead he was the brutal colonialist whose policies led to the deaths of millions when famine hit India in the 1940s.

Some will claim they’re just trying to present a more nuanced approach, but to me it seems like they’re just being petty and vindictive, blaming the Past for all the ills of the Present that they feel powerless to deal with. Or perhaps they just enjoy being contrarian.

For if they were truly trying for a more nuanced history, surely they would be willing to accept a reexamination of what the “standard narrative” states was Bad and Evil – right? Would it be acceptable, for example, to show that the Spanish conquest of the Americas wasn’t one huge mess of rape, plunder, and murder by the white European males? Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Checkmate in Berlin

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World
Giles Milton
Henry Holt and Company
Copyright 2021 by the author

In the waning days of the Second World War, the allies – Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union – were all on reasonably good terms when it came to defeating Nazi Germany. Sure, there were a few rough spots, but “the enemy of my enemy” and all that saw to it that any differences were papered over for the common cause.

Four years later, the Soviets tried – and failed – to blockade western Berlin into submission, and NATO had been founded to counter the Communist threat.

How did it all happen?

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BOOK REVIEW: Head On

Head On: A Novel of the Near Future
John Scalzi
Tor Books
Copyright 2018 by the author

FBI Agent Chris Shane had something of a front-row seat to the death of hilketa player Duane Chapman during an exhibition game. Because the league was trying to persuade his father to invest in their expansion, he was in the luxury box for the game. Well, not really there in person. Shane is one of the millions who is a “Haden” – he suffers from a neurological condition where (as described in the “prequel” Lock In) his mind cannot control his body. Thanks to a neural interface, he can operate an android body to get around.

The same tech is used in hilketa – a superviolent sport that involves knocking the head off a player on the other team, and using it to score. Can’t do that with real people, obviously.

Agent Shane finds himself on the case, with two big questions. How did Chapman die, and why does it look like the league is desperate to cover it up?

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BOOK REVIEW: Firebreak

Firebreak
Nicole Kornher-Stace
Saga Press
Copyright 2021 by the author

Mal (short for Mallory) is your typical young adult. She shares a room in a converted hotel with a handful of other young adults, works at assorted jobs like dog-walking, and spends a lot of her free time playing in a “first person shooter” MMORPG where she makes a little income on the side by streaming her sessions.

Mal lives in New Liberty City, a sort of “free city” nominally controlled by Stellaxis Corporation, which is defending the area from attacks by the rival Greenleaf Industries. Stellaxis runs the place as a strict company town, controlling everything – including access to water.

So when Mal gets a strange “sponsorship” offer from a strange woman that will pay her in gallons of water per week, and all she has to do is play the MMORPG well enough to get in-game access to the “avatar” of one of Stellaxis’ supersoldiers, well, it’s hard for her to say no.

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Book Review: God’s Shadow

God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World
Alan Mikhail
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 2020 by the author

Mikhail opens with a note of curiosity. On the Mexican side of the mouth of the Rio Grande, there’s a town called Matamoros. In Spanish, that means “Slayer of Moors”. What is this reference to the Reconquista doing in the New World?

He goes on to explain that Spain’s system of colonizing the Americas involved land grants to that war’s veterans, and that encomendia system was a direct carryover from how Moslem lands were distributed back in Spain. He also notes that the major driver for Spain’s exploration was to find a way to outflank Moslem domination of the eastern Mediterranean, which had monopolized control of the trade routes to the Orient.

That’s his launching point for a look at the rise of the Ottoman Empire – and the sultan responsible.

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Book Review: Then Everything Changed

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan
Jeff Greenfield
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Copyright 2011 by the author

Greenfield, author and political analyst, adds his considerable knowledge and experience to the “alternate history” field with this surprising and insightful trio of lengthy essays. He takes great care to avoid creating words for historical personages, instead taking what they actually said (albeit in different contexts) and using that to bring his hypotheses to life.

His first essay deals with the prospects of a John Kennedy administration. The early 1960s are fertile ground for counterfactual history. Given the constitutional crisis resulting from Richard Pavlick’s assassination of Jack Kennedy before he had been confirmed as president by the Electoral College, it’s no wonder. We all know how Lyndon Johnson took the reins of power through the sheer force of his personality and guided us through that crisis. But without it, Greenfield suggests that the charisma of Kennedy would have blinded us to his utter lack of political experience and the many scandals waiting to happen just below the surface.

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Book Review – Columbus: The Four Voyages

Columbus: The Four Voyages
Laurence Bergreen
Viking Penguin Press
Copyright 2011 by the author

What with theongoing hubbub over Columbus popping up again in the news this summer as his statues were defaced and knocked down and there were calls to rename the things we’ve named in his honor, I thought it would be a good time to read another biography of him, and perhaps cut through both the hagiography and the demonization to get to know him a bit better. And perhaps be able to counter the arguments used for and against him. In any case, it ought to be a fascinating read for a history buff like me.

Bergreen is a historian and biographer whose previous works followed Magellan (Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, 2003) and Marco Polo (Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, 2007). This work is (presumably) in the same mode; more of a chronicle of Columbus’ voyages rather than a complete biography. He uses Columbus’ own journals, logs, and letters, along with the many personal journals and letters of those who accompanied him on his voyages, to assemble as good an account of those trips as you are likely to get.

Along the way, he shows that pretty much everything you knew about Columbus is, well, complicated.

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