Book Review: The Buried Symbol by Jeffery L. Kohanek

The Buried Symbol by Jeffery L. Kohanek

At birth, every child in the empire is branded with a rune, which determines the path their life will take. The chosen follow their assigned path and thrive in their life’s calling. Then there are the unchosen, those who, at birth, are not favored by the gods. These are the equivalent of an untouchable caste, occupying the lowest rungs of society. They have no prospects, and no hope to improve their lot in life. Brock is one of these unfortunates, but he is determined to be more than his birthright dictates. Obtaining a counterfeit rune, he sets off to become one of the Empire’s ruling class. At the academy, he uncovers a lost form of magic, and secrets that could bring the Empire itself to its knees.

This book has a lot of potential. As a debut offering, there are fantastic bones to this story. The magic and caste systems are original and nicely developed, the protagonist is interesting and sympathetic, and the world is fleshed out and full of wonder and danger. The writing and pacing are a bit rough, but the underlying talent is there. With a book or two more of experience under his belt, Kohanek could make quite a name for himself in the fantasy genre.

The book is certainly designed to appeal more to young adult audiences, but older readers enthusiastic about fantasy will probably enjoy themselves as well.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena

Carlos Magdalena is a botanist at Kew Botanical Gardens in London with an eye towards resurrecting endangered and extinct plants. This book is a memoir of Magdalena’s life and a look at the plants he holds most dear. From tiny islands off the coast of Madagascar, to the Australian outback, to the jungles and arid mountain deserts of South America, Magdalena introduces us to plants, endangered or outright extinct in their natural habitats, some only still surviving through one or two specimens kept in institutions like Kew.

This is a fascinating book. Magdalena’s passion for his subject shines through in every line. And he doesn’t limit himself to environmental concerns, either. The thorny questions about ownership and repatriation in a post-colonial world are also addressed, and highlight just how difficult it can be to save and propagate some of these species. How do you balance local concerns with scientific study? If a native plant is found to have medicinal or commercial uses, who owns the rights to said plant? What about those plants which were “collected” by naturalists during the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of colonialism, do they still belong to their native people?

Any one with interest in botany, plant life, conservation, and/or environmentalism will enjoy this book. In The Plant Messiah, Carlos Magdalena reminds us multiple times that our very existence is dependent on the health of the flora around us. It behooves us to treat them as essential parts of life on Earth.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

This is a love story to a once-great city, told by a native son. Maraniss here chooses to focus his attention to 1962-1963, banner years for auto capital Detroit. Ford was on top of its game and looking to revolutionize the American sports car with the Mustang; Motown was hot and setting off a string of number one hits by artists who would become legends; the struggles of the civil rights movement were bolstered by a forward-looking local government and strong black community. Everything seemed poised to keep Detroit on top for decades to come.

Of course, today we know the realities of its current incarnation. But Maraniss here delivers us a loving, lingering look at a city that was a beacon for many across the country. Maraniss’ tales weaves in and out of politics, industry, music, religion, civil rights, law and order, and crime, we see how the biggest and smallest players of Detroit lived their intermingled lives, how small connections and deep alliances helped to shape the city of Detroit. This book is all the more fascinating considering the depth of the city’s fall from grace. Seeing such a vivid portrait of the city in its heyday makes it all the more obvious what has been lost.

This book is great for both history buffs and for those interested in current events. There is quite a bit in this book which echoes modern day issues and struggles. This book makes you want to root for Detroit, to hope that it’s future could hold even a fraction of the vivacity of its past.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove


The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove

At some unknown point in time, The Great Disruption fractured the world, sending different areas into different time periods. In the hundred years since, explorers have traveled the globe, trying to map the new world and make sense of this new reality. This story brings us to the New Occident, which roughly corresponds (geographically) to the original thirteen American colonies, in 1891. The government is run in a parliamentary system, where the right to speak can be purchased by the second. Our protagonist, Sophia Tims, comes from a long, distinguished line of explorers and mapmakers. Her uncle, Shadrack, is the preeminent cartologer in the world. When he is kidnapped, Sophia finds herself torn from her comfortable life in Boston as she sets off to rescue her uncle, travelling across countries and across times. But her uncle’s kidnappers are after something legendary, a map that can change the face–and fate–of the world.

This was, simply put, a fantastic YA adventure. It’s one of those stories at crosses age boundaries and can be enjoyed by just about anyone. Sophia is a great character, one who is able to grow and evolve as her world changes around her. Grove also provides us with a number of wonderful supporting characters and villains to flesh out the story. 

Importantly, the world these characters inhabit feels fully formed. The concept of different continents existing in different times is very fun, and Grove makes it work, to ing us insight into the relations between times, their politics, and their religions. 

The Glass Sentence is an adventure story along the lines of The Golden Compass. Anyone looking for a new YA series to try should add this book to their TBR.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: The Man Upon the Stair by Gary Inbinder

The Man Upon the Stair by Gary Inbinder

This is the third book in Inbinder’s Inspector Lefebvre series. There’s probably going to be spoilers for the first two books here. The good news is that while it is definitely better to read the books as a series, you could probably read this book as a standalone without too much trouble.


Achille Lefebvre has just been promoted to Chief Inspector following his successful foiling of an anarchist plot to assassinate a high ranking foreign offical with a new type of bomb. When the bomber meets his fate at the guillotine, Lefebvre is told that his compatriots have targeted him for revenge. In the midst of this, a high ranking member of the aristocracy, Baron de Livet has gone missing. Trying to uncover the Baron’s fate, Lefebvre uncovers easy connections between his missing person and the Russian government. As the conspiracy grows deeper, Lefebvre must use all his considerable intelligence and skills to safeguard himself and his family, and to prevent an international incident.

I received all three Inspector Lefebvre books as a bundle, and powered through the series in a matter of days. These books are entertaining historical mysteries, featuring an intelligent, forward-looking detective, intelligent women (good and evil), fascinating historical detail, and cameos by famous (real) historical figures. Inbinder provides us with enticing mysteries, and a cast of characters to root for and against. I loved how carefully Inbinder used historical details to firmly plant his stories in realistic ground.

The Man Upon the Stair combines historical mystery with political thriller. International intrigue and good old fashioned murder combine to set teetering a nation (and continent) already on the brink of war. The story is richly detailed and beautifully woven. Inbinder is clearly passionate about his subject and that enthusiasm shows through in his stories.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer

The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer

At the turn of the twentieth century, Kitty O’Kane grows up poor in the slums of Dublin, Ireland, enduring beatings from her drunken father and dreaming of a better life. She gets herself out of her old life and into service with the prestigious White Star line. She is able to secure a position as a stewardess on the line’s newest and largest ship: the Titanic. And so starts the saga of the Unkillable Kitty O’Kane. After becoming romantically involved with a firebrand journalist, Kitty dives into the fight for the poor, the disenfranchised, and for women’s sufferage. She bears witness to the some of the most calamitous and tumultuos events of the early twentieth century. Through Kitty’s eyes we experience the sinking of the Lusitania, the Russian Revolution, and the start of The Troubles in Ireland.

Kitty spends much of the book lamending her past. She ties herself early on to the increasingly erratic reporter, and pines for Tom Doyle, a young boy from her childhood in Dublin who has since grown into a handsome young doctor in London. And this is the crux of the problem for the book. Romance and love triangles are all well and good, but Kitty’s relationship with the men in her life completely takes over any true agency she might have had.

Yes, she witnesses the October Revolution in Russia, but she is only there because the journalist, Lincoln, has dragged her there. She wants to be a journalist herself, but lacks the courage to write in her own words, and rather follows Lincoln’s lead in all her writing. She eschews becoming a wife and mother in favor of adventure and activist (a decision I applaud) yet will not picture a life with her “true love” Tom Doyle that does not adhere to traditional relationships. She may be The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane, survivor of two shipwrecks, Russian snipers, and British armaments, but she is only that by accident, or by someone else’s agency. She is on a quest to better the lives of women in the world, but the author doesn’t let her make an attempt except by the side of a man.

So, the historical aspects of this book were lovely, and Kitty’s insertion into actual historical events, and her meeting with real historical people is well done. But I found Kitty’s lack of agency, and her dependence on an increasingly erratic Lincoln to be frustrating, and runs counter to the plot of a book that emphasized the personal strength and growth of a woman born with nothing who makes something of herself.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Life and Death in the Andes by Kim McQuarrie

Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim McQuarrie
The Andes mountain range in South America runs down the west coast of the continent. The stories and histories of the place are as varied as the peaks themselves. In Life and Death in the Andes, Kim McQuarrie gives us a travelogue and a history book, a sweeping epic and an intimate portrait. 

From the cities of Columbia to southernmost Chile and Argentina, McQuarrie brings us stories of druglords and mummies, weavers and bandits, natives and revolutionaries. Mixing history seamlessly with his own travels, Life and Death in the Andes gives us a unique perspective of life in the Andes mountains. 

History buffs, world travelers, and the curious will find a lot to like in McQuarrie’s easy conversational style. Anyone who wants to go a bit off the beaten trail will enjoy the stories McQuarrie has to tell us.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: This Side of Murder by Anna Lee Huber

this side of murder

This Side of Murder by Anna Lee Huber

After the end of World War I, Verity Kent is on her way to a house party celebrating the engagement of one of her late husband’s friends. Normally Verity prefers to be alone in her grief, but a mysterious message arrives, alleging that her husband, who died in battle on the fields of France, was actually a traitor to Great Britain. The letter hints that answers will be found at the party, and so Verity, who worked for the Secret Service during the war, sets off to find out the truth of her husband’s death. Once on isolated Umbersea Island, however, Verity finds that most of the party guests are potential suspects. When several guests are die mysteriously, it seems that someone will go to any lengths to keep the facts secret, and Verity must race against time to uncover the murderer’s identity before she is targeted next.

This was a great little period mystery. Verity Kent is an intelligent, determined, traumatized woman, who despite her losses in the war, is determined to continue to live her own life and defend the reputation of her dead husband. The isolated island provides a nice little “locked room” aspect to the mystery, ensuring that those on the island are unable to get help, and are indeed trapped with a murderer. Huber does a wonderful job with Verity, and the interactions between her characters are top notch. There are the requisite twists, turns, and red herrings, but I have to say that I did not anticipate how the book would end.

Fans of period mysteries, such as the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Windspear, and classical mysteries like Agatha Christie‘s novels should find a lot to love in this new mystery series. Huber has delivered up a classically intriguing story, and a fantastic new heroine.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims


Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael Sims

So what did science fiction look like when modern science was still in its infancy? Michael Sims has put together a collection of 19th century short science fiction stories that illustrate not only the breadth and the creativity of the field prior to the turn of the 20th century, but also the creepy prescience of some of the writers (if not for strict scientific fact, then for topics that would remain scifi staples into the current day).

In this collection we find mechanical brides made to order, vicious monsters awaiting daring pilots in the upper levels of the atmosphere, superhuman senses, alternate dimensions, strange aliens, time travel, and apocalyptic plagues and disasters. The stories, which include samples from authors like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and Rudyard Kipling, range from chapter excerpts to short stories to stories fashioned so like news items that, War of the Worlds-style, many people accepted them as fact.

My biggest complaint is that for the bigger names in the collection, clearly selected for their name recognition to the larger public, Sims has largely chosen to include only bits of chapters from their most famous works. As someone who looks to these collections to find little known authors or stories, this was a bit frustrating. I would have preferred something a little more off the beaten path. 

Fans of Victorian literature and scifi buffs should check this volume out. In these stories, we can see the seed of inspiration for a number of modern tales.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

vengeance road

 Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

Kate Thompson returns home in time to find her father dead, hanging from a mesquite tree, and the family homestead burned to the ground. The celebratory yells of the gunman who killed him still echoing off the dry Arizona land. Swearing vengeance, and vowing to recover her father’s stolen journal, Kate sets off after the gang with rifle in hand. As her questions for revenge becomes entangled with a legendary gold mine, revelations about Kate’s family force her to question everything she has known.

Usually when you hear a book described as “gritty”, you think of a detective novel with a high functioning alcoholic detective and a female lead who resembles a poisonous spider. However, when I say that Vengeance Road is gritty, I mean it in the most literal sense. Bowman paints the thinnest coat of romanticism over her descriptions of life on the frontier. For the most part, she invites us to look closely at the dirt, the stench, the whores, the casual violence, the racism, and the cheapness of life past the edge of “civilization.” I love it. 

Her descriptions of the desert, the mountains, and the canyons on Kate’s journey are clearly written by someone in love with the harsh beauty of the American Southwest. Bowman also weaves local legends into her story, rooting it even more firmly into the red Arizona soil.

So yes, this is a YA book, but I found it very enjoyable for even those beyond the YA years (except for bits of the obligatory will they/won’t they love story, sigh . . . Though Bowman does handle that as darkly as the rest of the story). Finding a good western is hard these days, the genre has gone out of fashion of late. For YA lovers, this is a great way to introduce yourself to a new (old) genre.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.