Book Review: The Mecca Mystery

Townsend, Peter. The Mecca Mystery: Probing the Black Hole at the Heart of Muslim History. (2018) Kindle Edition

Everyone knows that Mecca is the holiest city of Islam, and that it was there that Muhammad began his years as the last prophet of G-d. What everyone knows might not be correct, at least not if you apply the rules of historical research and inquiry. Continue reading

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Book Review: Making the Monster

Harkup, Kathryn. Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (New York: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018)

We all know Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster: or The Modern Prometheus as 1) a Romantic argument against the Enlightenment, 2) proof that women invented science-fiction, 3) a feminist parable of the evils of men ignoring the need for emotion and love, 4)a powerful argument against overly-rational science, 5) the origins of several monster and mad-scientist tropes, 6) the origins of various movies and TV shows, 7) all of the above.

It is also a study in what science at the time thought was possible, and how it might have been achieved. Continue reading

The American Story

On Sunday I posted a list of books over at Mad Genius Club that I think tell parts of the American story. Now, these are not what professors and professional book critics seem to consider “the Great American Novel,” (G.A.N.) a creature more elusive—or should that be allusive?—than Bigfoot in the Bronx, or a unicorn in Washington D.C. No, these are stories that catch part of what it means to be an American, and the things that make Americans so different from other peoples. Continue reading

Book Review: Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas

Kurlansky, Mark. Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (NY: Bloomsbury, 2018) Kindle Edition.

Ah, dairy products, a blessing from the gods or an overrated tool of Euro-normitive dietitians who should have known better? Is milk a healthy food or the scourge of the environment? Depends on who you ask, which milk it is, and where you happen to live. Mark Kurlansky provides a detailed, thematic history of dairy products, including the controversies about milk, cheese, ice cream and other milk-based foods. Alas, his political asides drag the tale down from five stars to four, in my opinion. Continue reading

But do the Young Readers Want to Read It?

One the way back from LibertyCon, Dorothy Grant read a review of a new book. Said review filled my buzzword-bingo card in the first paragraph, and the three of us laughed and groaned.

On a whim, a few days later I went to the publisher’s website to see what their take on the book was. Rather less entertaining than the earlier review, but the “Colonizer’s Comeuppance” headline is what I consider fair warning, as is the first paragraph of the blurb. Other on-line reviews… let’s just say that the half-unicorn sounds waaaaaayyyyy too passive and accepting of torment than I care to read about. If I want martyrs I’ll go through the beautiful art-book I got about saints’ lives.

I went looking at the site’s YA book reviews, out of curiosity more than anything, and with a little fear that they might not be what I’d have wanted to read when I was YA age. After all, this is Tor.com, and they’ve been pretty clear about encouraging diversity in authors and characters without always focusing on story. Continue reading

Book Review: Seventh Son and Red Prophet

Card, Orson Scott. Seventh Son and Red Prophet: Tales of Alvin Maker Books 1 and 2. (Tor, 1987, 1988) Paperback.

Seventh Son and Red Prophet are the first two books in a five book (possibly six book) series of alternate history novels set in the early 1800s, centering on the seventh son of a seventh son, Alvin. He is a maker, someone with the ability to shape things. He also becomes a healer of sorts. These novels tell about his world, his first eleven years of life, and the tensions between whites and Indians in Card’s alternate world.
Continue reading

Book Review: The Environmental History of Medieval Europe

Hoffman, Richard. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2014) Kindle Edition

Hoffman’s work is an overview of western Europe’s environmental history from the Fall of Rome until roughly 1500. He points out that the simple “everyone knows” stories of decline from a pristine Nature before Rome and Christianity don’t always apply. The story of humans and their environment is long and complicated, and Hoffman does a very good job of relating that story as well as pointing out problems in the accepted theories in the literature.

What will interest the general reader the most are Hoffman’s case studies. He describes the problem, gives an overview (farming, water use, mining, the “tragedy of the commons”, natural disasters) and then provides a few specific examples from different locations in Europe and Britain. He has picked very good examples and uses them well to tell the story of people and landscape. Continue reading