Non-fiction


The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Hard as it may be to fathom, once upon a time (the early 1900s), radium was thought of as a miracle substance, enhancing all it touched. And so companies flooded the market with products like radium makeup, radium water, radium butter, radium toothpaste, and radium paint. The last was used by the young women who painted luminescent numerals on watch dials (a tool that became all-important to the war effort), though they also snuck some paint now and then to paint their nails, their dresses, even sometimes in sillier moments their teeth and faces. They had no idea, of course, that they were poisoning themselves, and the story of the devastation that poison wreaked on their bodies, and their subsequent fight for compensation from the companies who knew of the substance’s danger makes for compelling, infuriating, heartbreaking re... Read More

Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew

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Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew by John Pickrell

I don’t know if I’d call the creatures detailed in John Pickrell’s Weird Dinosaurs all that “weird,” to be honest. One gets the sense that the main title is more marketing than description. But the subtitle — The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew — is nearer to the mark with regard to the book’s contents, even allowing for perhaps a bit of hyperbole.

Really, what we have here is a mostly excellent up-to-date rundown of new discoveries in the field and how those new discoveries confirm current theories or, just as often, either overturn them or, at the least, force some careful reconsideration/modification. This should come as no surprise, given how rare fossilization is and thus ... Read More

The British Superhero: More heroes than you can shake a cape at!

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The British Superhero
by Chris Murray

One certainly cannot fault Chris Murray on his research for The British Superhero (2017), and one’s reaction to it will probably depend on just how exhaustive a look at the topic one desires. I’ll confess that at times my eyes glazed a bit at some of the summaries of the more obscure storylines, especially those that lasted only a single issue or two, but despite those occasional moments, the book is an informative exploration of an often over-looked realm of superhero comics.

Murray moves in chronological order for the most part, beginning not with superheroes but with their precursors in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, after a quick little skim of the usual basic introductory sort of material every comic non-fiction work is oblig... Read More

I Am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

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I Am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère

Anyone familiar with the SF novels of Philip K. Dick and the many films inspired by his works knows that he was one strange and visionary guy. Certainly the SF genre is filled with works of bizarre worlds, aliens, characters, and slippery reality. But it’s generally accepted by authors and readers alike that these fictional creations are just that — works of the imagination by writers who are generally considered sane and share the consensus view of reality. In the case of PKD, however, the line between reality and fiction, sanity and madness, redemption and damnation, revelation and delusion is very blurred indeed. In fact, the pers... Read More

David Rowe chats PROVERBS OF MIDDLE-EARTH. Win an autographed copy!

David Rowe is the Director of Contemporary Music, Social Media and Communications at St. John's Parish in Johns Island, South Carolina. From Sheffield, England David has a degree in Biblical Studies and cultivates his passion for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien on his popular Twitter feed: @TolkienProverbs. The Proverbs of Middle-earth is his first book.

One random U.S. commenter will receive an autographed copy of The Proverbs of Middle-earth. See below for details.

Jason Golomb: In addition to your job at St. John's, you've worked internationally for Christian missions. Religion is clearly integral to your life. J.R.R. Tolkien was a deeply Christian person and religion is embedded within his writings (though one could argue he handles it r... Read More

The Proverbs of Middle-Earth: The wise speak only of what they know

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The Proverbs of Middle-Earth by David Rowe

The Proverbs of Middle-Earth is a smart, readable literary analysis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s use of proverbs in his worlds of Middle-Earth, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and (less so) The Silmarillion. If you’re a passionate fan of Tolkien, you’ll absolutely adore this book. Period. If you love the Peter Jackson films, this book will provide an enjoyable ... Read More

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz

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The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz is one of my favorite “slice of life” comics, and it is one I’ve taught several times in my course on comics. A memoir in three parts, The Infinite Wait and Other Stories is memorable for the reader because of Wertz’s strong voice as presented in two ways: through the drawn character we see — the “Julia” we watch living through the events recounted — and through the voice of the narrator, a future Wertz we “hear” but do not see, as she looks back and comments on the Julia in each panel as she lives ... Read More

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

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Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (2016) is an edited transcript of several conversations between Haruki Murakami, the novelist, and Seiji Ozawa, the conductor.

I came to this book as a fan of Murakami’s writing, as many of this site’s readers would. SFF readers may be disappointed to read that these conversations rarely touch on writing, let alone the imagined mirror worlds that give a haunting quality to his novels. Instead, they focus on Ozawa’s memories about his peers like fellow conductor Robert Mann or famous performers like Glenn Gould, of composers like Beethoven and Mahler, and of the day-to-day challenges of m... Read More

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time: A companion book from the series’ halfway point

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The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan & Teresa Patterson

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a companion for readers of Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME novels. Although I enjoyed the ~14 (15, if New Spring is included or fewer if the final three novels are counted as one, the way Jordan intended) WOT novels, I don’t recommend this companion. Here’s why.

The book is written from the point of view of fictional historians from within Randland, but the device doesn’t work. It seems odd that many characters of little renown are mentioned in a history of Randland. Prominent characters from the se... Read More

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18

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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte

During a stressful stretch at work, and the persistently weighty negativity tied to the 2016 U.S. election campaign season, I found myself turning to ‘comfort reading.’ The negative vibes, for me, carried through Election Day and I looked toward J.R.R. Tolkien for relief. I knew I wouldn’t have time to return to the warm depths of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so instead I read something I’d downloaded a few months earlier: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friends, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, by Joseph Loconte.

The unique relationship betwee... Read More

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel has long done great work in giving major events and people in science a compelling and engaging narrative, whether it be Nicolaus Copernicus in A More Perfect Heaven, Galileo and his daughter Suor Maria Celeste in Galileo’s Daughter, or John Harrison in Longitude. In her newest work, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, her focus shifts slightly from the singular to the plural, telling the story of the group of women who worked as “human computers” at Harvard analyzing the Observatory’s glass plates — a massive photographic record of the stars’ movements in the skies. Their work led to some of the most ... Read More

Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins: Sometimes convoluted, thoroughly informative

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Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins by Charles R. Ault, Jr

In Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins (2016), Charles R. Ault, Jr. takes a unique path to explaining the complexities of evolution, using children’s books such as Morris the Moose, Treasure Island, Diary of a Worm and others as springboards to discussing Charles Darwin’s path to discovery, from his time as an insatiably curious child to his adventure-filled twenties to the twilight years he spent focused on the lowly (though not to him) earthworm.

The focus is, as the title notes, on origins, and so we learn about the early ancestors and evolutionary route to those elephants (yes, by the way, they do have knees), whales, tetrapods, and p... Read More

The Witch of Lime Street: It’s society wife vs Houdini in this riveting nonfiction spiritualist duel

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The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

Harry Houdini is still famous as a magician and an escape artist. The last few years of his life, though, he devoted large chunks of time to exposing and debunking fake “spiritualist mediums.” In The Witch of Lime Street, David Jaher takes a look at Houdini’s most famous spiritualist case: his two-year battle with the “Boston Back Bay Medium” who used the alias Margery.

Most people date the spiritualist movement in the USA from the 1840s, with the Fox sisters of Palmyra, New York. When the sisters were present, spectral rappings were heard, for which no source could be discovered until decades later when one of the sister ‘fessed up; (she could crack her toes the way some people crack their knuckles). In the interwar period of the twentieth century, spiritualism enjoyed a resurgence, and a power... Read More

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick: A revealing biography of PKD

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Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin

Philip K. Dick is certainly one of the most iconic, unusual, and hard-luck SF writers ever to grace the field. His books subvert our everyday reality, question what is human, and explore paranoia and madness, all with a uniquely unadorned and often blackly-humorous style. In classic starving artist fashion, he only gained recognition and cult-status late in life, and much of his fame came after passing away at age 53.

In his prolific career he published 44 novels and 121 short stories, and in 2014-2015 I read 10 of his novels, 7 audiobooks, and 3 short story collections. There’s something so enticing about his paranoid, darkly-comic tales of everyday working-class heroes, troubled psychics, bizarre aliens, sini... Read More

The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less): A master class in concision

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The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) by David Bercovici

The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) by David Bercovici, in his own words, “covers the Universe’s greatest hits, recounting when and most importantly how its various pieces emerged.” That’s a tall order for any book, let alone one that is so short, but Bercovici tempers the readers’ expectations early on, letting us know that:

"There are other excellent books, far more comprehensive than this one, on the history of the Universe and life ...The goal of this book is not to be deep and comprehensive but instead to be boldly (or baldly) shallow and superficial in the best sense of these words ... My aim is to give a quick and hopefully readable overview that provides a taste of our Universe’s story (and to some extent hu... Read More

A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts: A well-written and illustrated introduction

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A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts by Olento Salaperäinen

A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts, by Olento Salaperäinen, is a nice if basic introduction to 50 mythological/supernatural creatures, one suitable more for younger readers than older ones (say, high school or up) due to its relatively brief entries and often familiar subject matter.

The guide is encyclopedic in form, dividing the creatures into six basic groups: Fairies and Little People, Demons and the Undead, Water Creatures, Hybrid Beasts, Humanoid Creatures, and The Sacred and the Divine. The groups themselves are organized alphabetically, with each having between 7-10 creatures and 2-4 pages of description devoted to each creature. Each section also has a small sidebar that usually offers up a modern day (and often modern media) use of the creatures, such as how zombies were used in Shaun of the Dead Read More

Wonder Women: Perfect for young (and not-so-young) historians or scientists

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Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs

If you know a young woman who’s interested in the contributions of women to various STEM/STEAM fields, or perhaps were one of those young women at one point in your life, you’ll be pleased to learn that Sam Maggs’ latest non-fiction work, Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History, is an entertaining and surprisingly thorough look at the ways in which women have positively changed the world. The women featured in this book succeeded despite opposition from society as a whole, ruling theocracies, or discouragement from family members; very few of them began with the support one might expect for their potential, but all of them persevered through difficulty to make their marks on the world.

Maggs has made a name for hers... Read More

Between Light and Shadow: A prodigious study of SFF’s most elusive writer

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Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 by Marc Aramini

Last year I tried twice (unsuccessfully) to finish The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction, giving up in defeat. Gene Wolfe is frequently described as one of the most brilliant SFF writers in the genre by critics, authors, and readers alike. Some fans prize his books above all others, and there is a WolfeWiki page dedicated to discussing his work. But there are also many SFF readers that are baffled and frustrated by his stories because they are packed with metaphors, literary references, and hidden themes, and require extremely close reading to understand and appreciate. So I didn’t expect to make any more attempts in the near future.

However, when the 2016 Hugo Awards... Read More

All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life

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All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life by Jon Willis

All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life (2016), by Jon Willis, is structured around a simple proposition: if you had four billion dollars to spend (Willis explains why that number late in the book) to seek out non-terrestrial life, where would it make the most sense to spend it? Willis gives his readers a head start by narrowing their choices at the outset to five "plausible scenarios:"

Mars (of course)
Europa
Enceladus
Titan
An exoplanet

Willis begins by offering up a relatively quick but sufficiently detailed overview of the conditions that apparently were necessary for life on Earth (liquid water, magnetic field, atmosphere... Read More

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: All you ever wanted to know about tyrannosaurs (plus maybe a little more)

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The Tyrannosaur Chronicles by David Hone

I've been on a bit of a dinosaur run lately. Not because I suddenly grew interested in the great creatures; that interest began at around age two or three and hasn't waned a bit. No, it's just simply that for whatever reason, a good number of new books have been released recently, including this review's subject, The Tyrannosaur Chronicles (2016) by David Hone

As the title implies, Hone is working within a tightly constrained focus here rather than dealing with dinosaurs in general. His focus on tyrannosaurs (the group, not simply the singular Tyrannosaurus Rex) is laser sharp, allowing him to delve into what we think we know about the creature in great and all-encompassing detail. Some, particularly casual fans of dinosaurs, may very well find the book too detailed — it really does drill down into the ... Read More

Some Remarks: The glory of infodumps separated from narrative

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Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Some Remarks compiles eighteen short texts by Neal Stephenson. Aside from a couple short stories, this is a book of essays, interviews, and speeches. These short texts should please most Stephenson fans because they combine humor, insight, and exposition — in other words, these are infodumps gloriously freed from narrative.

Hesitant readers would do well to test this book by reading its opening essay, “Arsebestos.” Stephenson points out that although sitting all day is unhealthy, much of corporate America requires its office drones to sit in cubicles. People would be better off doing their work while ambling along on a treadmill, as Stephenson does, but managers are too cowardly to risk changing the status quo. After all, what if w... Read More

Articulating Dinosaurs: A dense academic book, but rewarding even for a lay fan

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Articulating Dinosaurs by Brian Noble

I have to confess that Articulating Dinosaurs (2016) by Brian Noble wasn’t quite what I’d expected, though that was certainly more my fault for not reading the description closely and in its entirety. Basically, any author/publisher has me at “dinosaurs,” so everything after that is just so much superfluous verbiage. So yes, I can’t say I was at all fully prepared for the academic/critical theory nature of the work, though it didn’t take too many early references to Lacan or Foucault before I figured out my misperception and readjusted my expectations. It’s been a few years (OK, decades) since my crit days, and I can’t say that even when I was reading critical theory that I was wholly enjoying or comprehending it (I do recall doing a lot of back-and-forth page-flipping re-reading with Lacan, for instance. ... Read More

A Slip of the Keyboard: Too comprehensive, or not comprehensive enough

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A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

A Slip of the Keyboard collects much of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction. In speeches, articles, and letters, Pratchett holds forth on a variety of subjects, ranging from book tours to hats to policies relating to Alzheimer’s and assisted dying. He also discusses Australia, conventions, and his development as a writer.

The book is divided into three sections, and I found the third section, entitled “Days of Rage,” the most powerful. Most of these texts touch on either Alzheimer’s or assisted dying. Eager to move past any taboo related to his disease, Pratchett concisely and generously shares what he experiences before urging his audience to take action. Though many lines stand out in this section, here is one that struck... Read More

Bandersnatch: The Inklings as writers group

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Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Diana Pavlac Glyer abridged her academic book The Company They Keep and published the abridgement as Bandersnatch. In it, she studies the Oxford circle of writers and thinkers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams through the lens of a creative community. Glyer chose the title Bandersnatch from of a quote by C.S. Lewis about Tolkien, that “No-one ever influenced Tolkien — you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.” In fact, the book goes on to explore in depth just how deeply and broadly Tolkien was influenced by the Inklings and by the creative currents that swirled around the group. T... Read More

A Man Without a Country: Essays from the GWB Years

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A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country collects essays about living in George W. Bush’s America. Published in 2005, these essays were written after America invaded Iraq in order to defeat terrorism, to find and neutralize weapons of mass destruction, and to spread freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East.

Briefly summarized, Vonnegut is critical of the state of America, which has been hijacked by psychopaths, and let’s not forget the state of the world, which has been destroyed by a century of fossil fuel emissions that produced nothing more than transportation. He’s not especially glad that so many nuclear weapons remain, either. He defends the arts, humanism, and, generally speaking, compassion and mercy. He regu... Read More