Book Review: The World of LORE: Monstrous Creatures by Aaron Mahnke (2017)

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Review #5


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” H. P. Lovecraft “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Humanity has always had a strange fascination with the supernatural. Think of how many movies are produced every year featuring vampires, werewolves, and other creatures that lurk in the shadows. Even when the vampires sparkle and the werewolves are giant puppies, they remain an important aspect of our culture. Aaron Mahnke’s popular bi-weekly podcast, LORE, delves into the historical context surrounding the myths and legends of the supernatural that have become a part of our collective social consciousness. This book is a collection of roughly thirty transcripts from the LORE podcasts, many of which have been combined with beautiful illustrations.

Mahnke covers a lot of ground in a little under three hundred pages. He explores the folklore surrounding the most popular supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, ghosts, and werewolves, as well as some of the lesser known myths such as the Wendigo, the Jersey Devil, and the Mothman. One of my favorite entries describes the account of Robert the Doll, a  well-documented precursor to the Annabelle legend popularized by The Conjuring movies. Some of these stories take place rather close to home. One account, for example, cites the legend of the Beast of Bray Road that is meant to haunt the woods near Elkhorn, Wisconsin. I’ve driven through that town, though I did not see any monsters in the shadows of the forest.

All of these creatures are contained in short little vignettes that can be read in under ten minutes. This makes The World of LORE the perfect book for busy people, since you can read it in short spats and never feel like you’re missing out on something. The book resembles a series of campfire tales, if campfire tales were meticulously researched and cited. Mahnke is an excellent narrator because he never tries to convince his listeners (or readers) towards the existence or nonexistence of the creatures he describes. He lays out the facts, shines a light into some of the darker corners in history, and leaves it to us to decide what to believe in the end. Mahnke does seem intent on pointing out that a lot of the uproar caused by “monsters” over the years can be attributed to superstition, paranoia, and mob mentality. After all, the ghouls and goblins of the world can’t hold a candle to what people are capable of doing to one another.

Overall, this book should be a delight for horror fans and history fans alike. It’s spooky without being over-the-top or gory. Mahnke has done an admirable job of digging down to the roots of these stories in order to separate truth from legend. And sometimes, the truth can be more frightening than the myth.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The World of LORE here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. You can also find Aaron Mahnke’s podcast here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Traitor’s Wife by Alison Pataki (2014)

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Review #4


The novel can be summed up by using its full title: The Traitor’s Wife: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray America. The primary focus is on Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia debutante who ensnares Benedict Arnold and convinces him to defect to the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The tale is told through the eyes of Clara Bell, Peggy’s personal maid.

This debut novel from writer Alison Pataki follows the growing trend of telling the stories of great historical figures through the eyes of women. Half the historical fiction novels lately seem to be the “somethings wife” or the “somethings daughter”. Here, at least, we are drawn to the woman behind the curtain. This novel attempts to pinpoint the lion’s share of the blame for Arnold’s defection onto Peggy Shippen. She is depicted as a kind of colonial Lady MacBeth, twisting the mind of her previously good and decent husband until he takes action against the country that he supposedly loves.

“If you can’t break the rules, you might as well seduce the man who makes them”

Peggy Shippen is portrayed throughout this novel as a spoiled, selfish brat who doesn’t care about anyone in the world except herself. She manipulates the hearts and minds of the men around her to get her way and seems almost sociopathic in her lack of sympathy for her fellow man. The only problem is that she is utterly two-dimensional. At least with Lady MacBeth we felt her desire for power and her hunger to place MacBeth on the throne of Scotland. Peggy Shippen is given no more motivation for the overthrow of the Revolutionary War than wanting a large house and pretty gowns to wear. She is unsympathetic in every aspect, therefore we as readers don’t particularly care about her. Had Pataki instilled Peggy with even the barest shred of humanity, we might have felt more of a pang when her carefully constructed plans fall about her ears. As it is, I was just happy the novel was nearly over. Benedict Arnold is given a similar lobotomy, depicted here as a weak, vain, and rather vapid man who is too easily besotted by a pretty smile. I expected more from a man whose very name has become synonymous with treason and betrayal.

This book could have done with a more careful editor. At times I wondered if it was self-published due to the blatant errors that kept popping up. Champagne the drink is a common noun, however here it is always capitalized. A horse is referred to as “mare” and a “he” in the same sentence. The last forty pages are repeated almost completely verbatim from flash-forwards that take place in earlier chapters.

Overall, I found this novel to be interesting in concept but a bit of a mess in execution. Pataki has several other novels out, and I plan to pick up one of her later works to see if her writing style has improved.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Traitor’s Wife here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (2017)

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Review #3


Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a novel set in the city of Milan during the final year of World War II. Pino Lella begins as an ordinary teenager, obsessed with girls and excited about learning to drive. When he is evacuated to a seminary school high in the Alps to escape the Allied bombings , Pino finds himself risking his life to escort Italian Jews over the precipitous heights of the mountains to sanctuary in Switzerland. This sets him on a course of danger and espionage that will echo throughout his life and the lives of his family.

It is very important to read both the foreword and the afterword that Sullivan uses to bookend his novel. Pino Lella is a real person, who is still alive as of the publication of this review. In the foreword, Sullivan details how he stumbled across the story of this unsung hero and how he managed to track Lella down and record his memories of Italy in 1944. Sullivan is also very clear that Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a work of historical fiction.  Some of the events and characters seem a little too contrived, and this has led some people to claim that the all of the events detailed within the pages of the book are therefore falsehoods. Since we only have Sullivan’s word to go on, it is left to the reader to determine what is true and what is false.

I chose to believe the story of Lella’s life. The story is told in too straightforward a manner to have been fabricated in any large part. One of the things that makes Sullivan’s novel so magnetic is that he largely avoids any subplots. He focuses on Pino Lella’s specific story with utter precision. There are few extraneous descriptions of people or scenery. We view this story through Lella’s eyes entirely, and therefore his becomes the only voice that matters. We feel his desperation as he leads terrified refugees over the dangerous alpine cliffs into safety. We are there with him as he fears for the lives of his brother, his uncle, his parents. The reader is given only as much information as Lella has. Since most of the education I was given on WWII focused on the German and Japanese fronts, this was a very informative look into what Sullivan describes as the “Forgotten Front”.

My favorite aspect of this novel is that it was utterly unpredictable. Most literature follows a relatively straightforward arc. Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. But real life rarely follows such simple lines, and I often felt wrong-footed while reading this novel. Characters I thought would live did not. Characters I expected to die did not. No one’s story wraps up neatly in a bow, instead it all just kind of ends. Not all heroes are remembered and not all villains get their comeuppance. Throughout the dozens if not hundreds of historical fiction written on WWII, I found this novel, with its infinite number of unanswered questions, to be one of the most haunting.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel. I was immediately drawn into the story of Pino Lella’s life, and finished the book eager to research and learn more. Unfortunately, his story remains largely unacknowledged outside of Sullivan’s pages.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Beneath A Scarlet Sky here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


Book Review: I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan (1973/2010)

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Review #2


I found this book on a Buzzfeed list and my immediate reaction was “What! That’s a book!?” The slasher film of the same name was one of my favorites when I was a teenager. I immediately wait-listed it at my local library and it came in just in time to be my second book of the new year.

Before I can even begin reviewing, I have to explain something about this novel. It was originally published in 1973. The movie came out in 1999. Then, the book was re-edited and re-released in 2010. This was apparently to update the novel for modern audiences. because it would seem that modern teens just cannot envision a world without their precious technology. So there are now references to texting, Google, and web-chats. I was so incredibly confused when I started reading this book, because I knew the film came out in ’99 when the internet was in its infancy and texting was most definitely not a thing. I had to stop and dig around just to prove to myself that I wasn’t crazy.

The novel focuses on four high-school aged teenagers who try to cover up a terrible crime, only to find it haunting their steps a year later. When threatening messages begin turning up at their houses, they realize that their past has returned to take revenge. Sound familiar? That’s the basic plot of the film. However, that’s where the similarities end. The ice-pick wielding fisherman is nowhere to be seen. The person killed in the opening scene is not a young man named Ben. Spoilers? Not really. The movie is twenty-years old. Come on.

I really wish I had managed to obtain the original copy of this book. It is glaringly evident that random changes have been wedged in wherever the publishers and Lois Duncan thought they could fit. We have vague descriptions of texting and webcasts, but it’s then followed by a conversation about whether or not it’s okay for a married woman to work. It’s 2010 technology squished together with the dumb machismo of the early 1970s. One character keeps mentioning that he is a veteran from Iraq when it’s almost painfully obvious that he is describing the Vietnam War.

I don’t know why the publishers thought it would be a good idea to “update” this novel. It seems like a mixture of a cash-grab and a “those young folks will never understand a world without iPhones!” Heads up, young people are way smarter than you think. They are perfectly capable of putting their imaginations into an historical context. It’s a little condescending that anyone would feel the need to shoehorn in a Google reference here and there just to make their book feel “relevant”

My rating: 2/5 for the 2010 revision. I’ll update if I ever get my hands on the original version.

You can find I Know What You Did Last Summer here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.


Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir (2017)

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Review #1

Jazz Bashara is the premier smuggler working on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon. When she is offered bigger money for a more dangerous job, Jazz finds herself in way over her head.

I read Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, during a camping trip last year, and I remember wishing for an internet connection while I was reading. It would have helped me to understand the complex descriptions of mathematics and physics that were completely outside my field of knowledge. As it was, I enjoyed the book but it was a rare instance where I thought that the movie was superior, partially just for its fantastic disco soundtrack.

I approached Weir’s second novel, Artemis, with a certain amount of trepidation. And, as expected, it helps if you have a basic working knowledge of physics and engineering while reading this book. However, Weir did seem to rein himself a bit. I never got the feeling that I was reading a textbook, as I sometimes felt with The Martian. Some of the action sequences can be a bit hard to follow if you don’t understand the finer points of welding or robotics, but this is first and foremost a “caper” novel, and it unravels with gleeful abandon once it gets off its feet.

The first two-thirds of the novel are fast-paced and fun. We are introduced to Jazz Bashara, a girl who has grown up on the world’s first lunar colony. The descriptions of the city of Artemis allow us to draw a concrete visual of an area that exists in the vertical as much as it does the horizontal. Each “bubble” consists of at least as many stories below ground as it does above ground. The passages that outline how the residents of Artemis deal with the constant influx of extraordinarily rich tourists are a treat. Even on the moon, the almighty dollar reigns supreme.

Jazz knows this better than most. Confined to a “coffin” apartment underground (picture the capsule hotels of Tokyo) Jazz dreams of earning enough money for her own bathroom. When she is approached by one of the extraordinarily rich billionaires with the potential for a million dollar job, how can she refuse?

Jazz is a very fun character. She is sarcastic and self-reliant. She is, however; a  bit of an asshole. I couldn’t figure out why there were so many people willing to stick their necks out to help her. The sarcastic assholes of the world do not generally inspire such loyalty. I also became annoyed by her “witty” interjections towards the end of the novel. For instance, take this quote:

“Dale handed me my jumpsuit. I put it on faster than I’d ever put on clothes before. Well…second fastest (my high school boyfriend’s parent’s came home earlier than expected one day).”

In a life-and-death situation, this kind of sarcastic quip comes off as inappropriate. It’s almost as if Weir was trying to emulate the kind of irreverence popularized by the Avenger films. The world’s in danger! Time for jokes! It works for awhile, but wears thin towards the end.

Overall, I found Artemis far easier to follow than The Martian. The idea of Jason Bourne running around on a lunar colony is a fun one, and Weir manages to sell us on all the enjoyable possibilities of a heist on the moon.

My Rating: 3.5/5

You can find Artemis here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy Reading Everyone!