Non-fiction


The Mermaid Handbook: An Alluring Treasury of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects

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The Mermaid Handbook by Carolyn Turgeon

Carolyn Turgeon has followed up 2017’s The Faerie Handbook with The Mermaid Handbook: An Alluring Treasury of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects (2018), a similarly-themed and -structured guide to mermaid folklore throughout history and around the world, along with stunningly-photographed examples of modern mermaid couture, particularly the bespoke mermaid tails available in a range of colors and styles. And if readers are interested in mermaid-themed cocktails, snacks, or tablescapes for parties, this beautifully-crafted book provides tips and recipes to get anyone started down the right path.

This collection is more about the half-woman, half-fish mermaid concept than anything else, so there’s little about m... Read More

Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life

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Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by Oné R. Pagán

Oné R. Pagán is a university biology professor and a blogger, and both sides come out in this entertainingly informative look at the various ways life tries to, well, stay alive (i.e. not get eaten). As he says in the introduction to Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life (2018), he “wrote this book with the semi-mythical ‘interested layperson’ in mind ... [so] I will not be excessively technical, but neither will I be patronizing ... I’ve tried to write as if we were having a conversation over coffee.” Thus, like most writers of popular science, Pagán is aiming at that sweet spot where he doesn’t lose his reader to jargon or overly-abstruse concepts or talk to his readers as if they struggled to complete elementary school. And... Read More

How The Universe Works: An Illustrated Guide to the Cosmos and All We Know About It

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How the Universe Works by Chartwell Books

Though not without some issues, How the Universe Works is generally an excellent reference work for a decently wide range of readers young to old (I’d guess it’s targeted at older teens and adults). Elementary school children will feel a little overwhelmed by some of the text, but the wonderful graphics: cut-away diagrams, timelines, etc., will provide them some clear and manageable info. Older young readers will follow the textual information better and the illustrations will serve as enhancement and clarification, while older readers who know some of this information will find the illustrations allow for better visualization while the text will serve as concise reminders.

Chapter One deals with cosmography, opening with a good visual “zoom out” to give a sense of our place in the universe, moving from the solar ... Read More

Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero: Essays on Gender, Trauma, and Addiction in the Netflix Series

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Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero: Essays on Gender, Trauma, and Addiction in the Netflix Series ed. Tim Rayborn & Abigail Keyes

It’s hard to fault an anthology for doing exactly what its title says it’s going to do, and so I won’t. I’m just going to note that Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero mostly focuses like a laser on its three sub-topics, particularly the latter two — trauma and addiction — and so if you are looking for a wide-ranging look at the character/series, one that might have essays dealing with class, gender, race, film techniques etc., this is not going to be that anthology. Personally, I found the sharp focus began to feel a bit constricting and certainly added to some slight repetitiveness/redundancy in the collection, but I’m not pointing to those as flaws, merely as warnings. If you desire a look at how addiction and trauma a... Read More

Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural, and Geopolitical Domains

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Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural, and Geopolitical Domains (ed: Julian C. Chambliss, William L. Svitavsk, Daniel Fandion)

Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural, and Geopolitical Domains (2018) edited by Julian C. Chambliss, William L. Svitavsk, and Daniel Fandion is a collection of 15 essays examining the Marvel films, in particular how they “represent, construct, and distort American culture.” The essays vary in the level of “academese” employed, and also for me varied in how far they stretched their given premises, but taken as a whole this is an intellectually stimulating and rewarding anthology.

The editors have divided the book into three sections, the titles and descriptions given below:

Section I: The Cultural Context of the Transme... Read More

Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War: Excellent examination of how realistic Martin’s world is

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Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War by Ken Mondschein

Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War
(2017), by Ken Mondschein, is just what he himself labels it: “an entire book on the rather nerdy and troublesome subject of how medieval warfare is reflected in a fantasy book series.” It’s also an extremely informative and often entertaining one, and in addition does the service of “rebut [ting] the pop-culture Middle Ages as a Jurassic World of resurrected straight white male barbarians out of a Frazetta painting.” Whether you’re a fan of the TV series or of medieval-era fantasy, an aspiring writer of said fantasy, or someone interested in delving into the actual history, Mondschein offers up an erudite and well-written book to meet your needs, one that hits a welcome sweet spot on the spectrum from academia to popular writing.

The chapters inc... Read More

I See By My Outfit: From New York to San Francisco by Scooter

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I See By My Outfit by Peter S. Beagle

Published in 1965, Peter S. Beagle’s I See By My Outfit is an American motorscooter travelogue. Beagle and his friend, Phil, ride from New York to St. Louis and then head west to San Francisco.

I was often struck by how different the world was in the 1960s. In many ways, the absence of mass media and the Internet makes America seem smaller, like you truly could find people who would wonder about the mysteries of New York City. Beagle more than once mentions that cops especially monitor them because they look like two bearded menaces. To be honest, I often wondered if he was exaggerating these claims, but perhaps my view of people who ride scooters cross country has been unduly influenced by the movie Read More

Our Senses: An Immersive Experience

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Our Senses: An Immersive Experience by Rob DeSalle

Our Senses: An Immersive Experience (2018) is, perhaps appropriately given its topic, a dense and at times perhaps overwhelming exploration of how our minds take in information and make sense of it. While I found much of it utterly fascinating, and would recommend it, I have to confess there were times I was tempted to skim and felt the book became either a bit unfocused or, on the flip side, hyperfocused.  It didn’t help — and this is clearly no fault of author Rob DeSalle — that the formatting on the Kindle got confused by insets, so that it took a moment to track just where a sentence was going. Here’s hoping that gets fixed soon.

You might have expected DeSalle to have organized the book by the six basic senses: taste, touch, smell, ... Read More

Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation

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Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn Cocca

In Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, Carolyn Cocca turns a sharp eye on gender (along with race and class) in the world of superheroes, looking through the lens of several female heroes in particular. These are, in order:

Wonder Woman
Batgirl
The women of Star Wars: Padem Amidala, Leia Organa, Jaina Solo
The X-Women (especially Jean Grey and Storm)
Buffy
Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel

The structure allows a sort of best of both worlds exploration. Since Cocca moves chronologically, we get a sense of the grand sweep of change (or sadly, either the lack thereof or its glacial pace). But we also get to bore in on details thanks to the chapter-by-chapter focus on a single character, an aspect often lost in ... Read More

No Time to Spare: More LeGuin is always a pleasure

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No Time to Spare by Ursula K. LeGuin

I’ve said for, well, what seems like forever now, that Ursula K. LeGuin is a national treasure. And so when she comes out with a collection drawn from her blog, I’m all in, even though normally I’d run like crazy from any such compendium. In fact, I’ve used the “sounds like a blog” line as criticism (the negative sort) of other collections of essays. And yes, there are several pieces about cats in No Time to Spare (2017), seemingly a required subject for anyone posting online. But I’ll accept the occasional cat essay if it comes stringing a bunch of other LeGuin essays along behind it.

LeGuin was inspired to begin her blog by reading Jose Saramago’s own, written when he was 85/86 and published as The Noteboo... Read More

The Year of the Geek: 365 Adventures from the Sci-Fi Universe

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The Year of the Geek by James Clarke

The Year of the Geek is a fact-a-day (sometimes more) calendar book filled with all types of sci-fi related information, frequently enhanced by or presented via a host of illustrations, charts, pictograms, and other sorts of infographics. What sort of facts? Birthdays (authors, directors, actors, fictional characters), death dates, release dates (films, books, TV shows), landmark moments, such as when The Doctor first met himself, and more. Many of the facts lead off into brief moments of exploration, either textually or graphically: which Spider-Man characters are heroes, villains or allies; which body parts were bionic on the Bionic Woman; how many King Kong movies there were, when they were released, and how they fared at the box office (the top grossing one sits atop the Empire State Building naturally), how the “kills” on Buffy the ... Read More

Doctor Who: The Book of Whoniversal Records: Official Timey-Wimey Edition

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Doctor Who: The Book of Whoniversal Records: Official Timey-Wimey Edition by Simon Guerrier

It’s impossible to deny the appeal of acquiring trivia relevant to one’s interests or chosen fandom; whether slinging obscure Star Wars minutiae across a family dining table or competing against teams at a local bar’s Harry Potter-themed trivia contest, it’s always fun to discover what fan is truly the most committed. To that end, I present Simon Guerrier’s Doctor Who: The Book of Whoniversal Records: Official Timey-Wimey Edition (2018).

If you’ve ever wondered what the “greatest potential threat to Gallifrey” was, when the very first Dalek appeared on screen, or which of the various Companions appeared in the most episodes, that information and much, much more will be found within these pages. Perhaps you want to know which of the Doctors was the longest-l... Read More

Raw Spirit: The search for Scotch

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Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

In Raw Spirit (2003), Iain Banks (Iain M. Banks to science fiction readers) and his friends journey in search of the perfect dram.

It would not be wise to approach this book for an overview of Scotch, how it’s made, and how to drink it. One part stunt memoir, one part travelogue, and one part wide ranging digressions, Raw Spirit is really held together by Banks’ love of Scotch and of hanging around with his buddies. In essence, this means that they tour around Scotland in fast cars, they travel to midge-infested islands to look at distilleries, and, generally speaking, eat until they’re stuffed and drink until they’re loaded. There’s a section of recommended books for further reading, the table of contents is quite... Read More

The Telescope in the Ice: Engineers, physicists, and bureaucrats, oh my

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The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole by Mark Bowen

The Telescope in the Ice
(2017) by Mark Bowen doesn’t quite delve as much into the science as I was hoping, but it is still a solidly informative and highly engaging work that tells the story of how the Icecube Neutrino Observatory (set at the South Pole) was conceived and built and how it was immediately successful. The strong personalities (often outlandish ones) make for interesting reading, but it’s the incredibly difficult conditions and engineering problems that create a compelling story.

Unfortunately, my usually trustworthy Kindle lost all my notes, so I’m working solely from memory here and won’t be quoting any passages. The Telescope in the Ice opens with an introduction into basic particle physics with an appropriate fo... Read More

Middle-Earth: From Script to Screen: Building the World of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

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Middle-Earth: From Script to Screen by Daniel Falconer

Getting a glimpse behind the scenes of a favorite film is always exciting — it’s rather like pulling the curtain back and, rather than seeing a humdrum old snake oil salesman, actually discovering a great and powerful wizard. David Falconer’s Middle-Earth: From Script to Screen gives credit to the several hundred wizards hard at work re-creating and re-inventing J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS novels and The Hobbit into two sets of visual feasts.

Everything from aerial photography, to miniaturized or life-size sets and props, to CGI artistry went into those six films, and each page of this guide pays ... Read More

The Faerie Handbook: Lots of information and art, and a few crafts

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The Faerie Handbook by Carolyn Turgeon & the editors of Faerie Magazine

The editors of Faerie Magazine have compiled The Faerie Handbook: An Enchanting Compendium of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects (2017), and its eye-catching lavender-and-silver binding and satin ribbon bookmark certainly seem appealing, but do the contents match the cover?

Faerie appreciation is nothing new — there was a big craze in the middle of England’s Victorian era, justified thusly:
Real life was stark and challenging for most Victorians, who faced a rapidly changing and increasingly less romantic world due to urbanization and industrialization, and many felt like the world of old — and all the magic that went with it — was gone for good.
With that frame of reference in mind, it’s easy to see why certain periods and social groups... Read More

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places: Why we need haunted places

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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

If ghosts exist, we don’t know why, but ghost stories exist because the living make them up; and the living make them up because we need them. Colin Dickey’s book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016) explores the US’s social conflicts and hidden histories as they play out in places that are publicly advertised as “haunted.” In the first chapter, Dickey says, “If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses. Look for the darkened graveyards, the derelict hotels, the empty and decaying old hospitals.”

That passage is also something of a roadmap to the book, which comprises a collection of Dickey’s essays. The chapters are divided by category: haunted houses; haunted offices; haunte... Read More

Superhero Comics: A detailed and insightful semi-academic work

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Superhero Comics by Chris Gavaler

Superhero Comics
(2017) is my second Chris Gavaler book looking at the genre (I read On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1), and considering how impressed I was with both of them, I will gladly pick up a third if there is one.

The book is part of the Bloomsbury Comics Study Series, which aims for the sweet spot between the academic and the lay reader in creating a text that can especially be used in the college classroom, one that can “satisfy the needs of novices and experts alike.” The end may push the boundaries of that “novice” more than a little, but until that point Gavaler does a nice job of keeping to that directive; Superhero ... Read More

Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC

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Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker

Once upon a time, Reed Tucker reminds us in Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC, comic book fans might come to blows over the great dividing question of their time: Are you Marvel or DC? This may seem a strange debate for those who are now living through what could easily be called the Age of Marvel, as their ubiquitous heroes dominate our screens both large or small. It’s nearly impossible, after all, to go to the theater or turn on a network/cable/streaming TV channel and not come across some Marvel character flying, tromping, or speeding across the screen. Nor was Marvel-DC much of a debate in my own youth, as I grew up reading comics in the late 60s/early 70s, when upstart Marvel had beaten the staid DC almost to its knees. I didn’t know anybody wh... Read More

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young: Selected graduation speeches

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If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young by Kurt Vonnegut

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young collects nine graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. Published in 2013, this posthumous collection is introduced by the writer Dan Wakefield. The earliest speech was delivered in 1978, while the latest was given in 2004.

These speeches are almost exactly what Vonnegut’s fans would expect of him — so much so that I wish I’d attempted to write a speech from the point of view of Kurt Vonnegut before beginning this book. The speeches feature his darkly humorous assessment of the human condition, as well as his deeply felt esteem for mercy, compassion, and contributing in spite of it all to make the world a slightly better place. He is also ha... Read More

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: An excellent exploration of the human genome

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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (UK 2016, US 2017), by Adam Rutherford, is a nicely measured work of popular science that, unlike far too many popular science books/articles, doesn’t overhype its subject matter — advances in deciphering the human genome and how such advances can be applied. Always seeking to inform rather than sell, Rutherford makes for a trustworthy guide whose down-to-earth, realistic perspective doesn’t at all detract from the inherent wonder of science.

He divides the work into two large segments: “the rewriting of the past using genetics, from a time when there were at least four human species on Earth right up to the kings of Europe in the eighteenth century” and an exploration of “who we are today, and what the study of DNA in the 21st century says about families, ... Read More

Robot Universe: A quick and fun tour through the world of robots real and imagined

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Robot Universe: Legendary Automatons and Androids from the Ancient World to the Distant Future by Ana Matronic

Ana Matronic is a huge fan of robots: “I love robots ... The reflection off highly polished metal, the red glow of a light-emitting diode, the sound of a vocoder: these are a few of my favorite things ... doesn’t everybody love robots?” Just in case some don’t, or aren’t sure if they do, she’s gathered together over a hundred of her personal favorites in a lavishly illustrated compendium titled Robot Universe: Legendary Automatons and Androids from the Ancient World to the Distant Future. It’s a pretty thorough gathering even if, as she readily admits, some might disagree with a few of her omissions.

Matronic divides the book into two sections — fictional and real-world robots. The fictional she further divides into the followin... Read More

Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield

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Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield by Falynn Christine Koch

Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield (2017) by Falynn Christine Koch is part of the SCIENCE COMICS series, a graphic series of books each of which explores a single scientific topic. In this case, as the title might indicate, it’s plague, but more broadly it’s an examination of how pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, parasites) infect and damage the human body, how the body (sometimes with medical help) tries to fight them off, and, to a lesser degree, how such illnesses have affected human history.

Plagues begins a bit roughly. The frame story is an unnecessarily confusing bit involving conversations inside a virtual body (that somehow still gets sick from virtual germs?) between the scientist whose virtual body it is, a T-cell, and two plagues — yell... Read More

Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light

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Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light by Bob Berman

Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light is a wonderfully smooth and lucid tour of the electromagnetic spectrum by Bob Berman, whose engagingly accessible prose makes this an excellent introduction to the topic for non-scientists.

Berman divides his exploration into two basic parts: how were the various types of light waves discovered and how do they impact our daily lives. Why light? Because, as Berman says, “photons constitute 99.9999999 percent of everything. The universe is literally made of light.” Seems kind of important then, and it’s hard to imagine a better guide to its ins and outs than Berman here.

Zapped opens with a general overview of optics — how we perceive light — and light’s form (both wave and particle)... Read More

The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day

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The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day by James Kakalios

James Kakalios structures his popular science book, The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day (2017), around following a person through a typical day and stopping periodically to explain the science (particularly obviously, the physics) behind the technology the person uses and/or engages with, such as a hotel keycard, a toaster, an LED TV, a copier machine and so forth. Both the explanations and the structure succeed to a mixed degree, and while I found at the end the book to be informative and generally rewarding, its style and structure seemed to work against its task of popularizing science/tech for the masses.

The structure’s issues tend to be that following a person progressively throug... Read More