Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, the First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem
Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, the First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem by Sharan Newman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book cover the period of the crusades that encompasses the reign of Queen Melisende and her father. It’s a fascinating real-life Game of Thrones kind of story, and you will find it surprising just how interwoven the society around the Crusades became. It’s not always about Infidels vs. Islam, there are far more complexities to it, even instances of Europeans and local populations working together. I have not spent a great deal of time reading about this period in history, but I did find myself wanting to understand and learn more once I was done.

The author spends a good deal of time exposing the role women played in this time period, showing how they were not always as subjugated the way modern society thinks. Queen Melisende being a prime example: she was the first woman ruler of Jerusalem, and the first to inherit the role (most Jerusalem kings were elected), as well as showing her prowess at the art holding the throne. She even beat her own husband at the game, not allowing him to rule solely on his own, requiring her to be part of all the decisions made. Throughout the book the author does her best to bring a new perspective to events, even challenging some of the standards taught about the characters on this historic stage. I enjoyed hearing her take on things as it gives an opportunity to reexamine what evidence still exists.

The book is written in an easy prose that is not dry, like so many history books, but flowed well enough to keep my pace moving through the pages. And the book isn’t terrible large, making it something that didn’t drag on forever. I highly recommend this book and the fresh look at this particular period of the 1st Crusade to anyone who has an interest in this moment from our history.

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Anomaly
Anomaly by Skip Brittenham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anomaly is a rather large format book, spanning the width of at least 2 1/2 to 3 hardcover books, which makes it a bit unwieldy while reading it. I couldn’t exactly carry it on the bus with me. But, what’s inside seems to justify the rather oversize nature of this graphic novel.

The story itself is rather straight forward good vs. evil type of thing, and it certainly didn’t do anything ground breaking in the way of science fiction. The only thing that truly makes the book worth taking a look at is the incredible art work. I can’t say enough just how beautiful it really is. But in the end when you’re done drooling over the pictures, the dialog leaves much to be desired and the story doesn’t really inspire.

The end of the book has a big index with history and character biographies, which helps build out the world better and furthers the characters, and just might be more interesting than the story itself. I suspect someone’s fan fiction could build a better story line with this info than the author did. In addition to the art there is a digital aspect to it in the form of augmented reality, but it didn’t really do enough to add to things that the $75 price tag is justified.

For all the years it took to make this I expected more.

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The Phoenix War
The Phoenix War by Richard Sanders

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The fourth book in the Phoenix series, this one continues the story right where it left off in the Phoenix Crisis. As I’ve stated in reviews of previous books in the series, this is not bringing anything novel to the science fiction genre; this is basically Star Trek like military sci-fi, so don’t be expecting to be blown away or to have this address any big philosophical questions.

In general I thought this particular book plodded along a bit slow in the beginning. There was too much description of what was going on inside characters heads instead of doing character development through actual scenes. And some of the continued character development just keeps rehashing the same old stuff we already know about the characters from previous scenes or dialog. The real action in the book doesn’t start until you’re near the end and then leaves you on a cliffhanger just like the last book. Mr. Sanders could do with learning how to space the action better in between non-action scenes.

At some point I would think it’s time for Mr. Sanders to finally wrap this story up and move on to his next project; I’m just not convinced there is much more to do with this story, and it’s not really doing a great job exciting me about the next one. As of now I’m just continuing to read the series for closure; I really hate leaving a story unfinished.

The writing has been improving some from one book to the next, but the author could really do with investing in a real editor. I suspect the series could be polished into a much better read with a good editor/publisher.

For something that is a cheap e-book read it may still be worth following this series if this type of sci-fi is your thing.

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The Crimson Campaign
The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Powder Mage trilogy, following up on the events started in ‘Promise of Blood.’ Mr. McClellan keeps the twists and turns of the story going nicely, with fast paced action that will keep you turning the page. Everything has been ramped up in this book to push the plot to the point of exploding, leaving it ready for things to be resolved and wrapped up in the third book.

With this second book in the series Brian McClellan is clearly showing a gift for bringing some fresh new inventive ideas to the fantasy genre, going far beyond the standard sword and sorcery style. We get more information about the world in which the story takes place, including both political events and how the magic system works; I love good world building that makes me feel like I’m embedded right in the middle of it.

Among the characters I think Taniel seems to be the one that really shines in this part of the story; in the first book it was more about Adamat. I also liked that Bo continues to play a part in this story. Overall, I do love these characters and their development throughout the story is well done.

This was absolutely one of the best new series I came across last year and the only criticism I have is I DON’T WANT TO WAIT FOR THE NEXT BOOK!!!! I WANT IT NOW!!!!!

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One Way Forward: The Outsider's Guide to Fixing the Republic
One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic by Lawrence Lessig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most of us spend our time debating politics from the left, right, or middle, but we all seem to keep missing the real problem that has inexorably lead the United States to become less of a Republic by the people, and more of an Oligarchy. This short book is Lawrence Lessig’s call to arms to address the real problem in our current government – money.

Mr. Lessig makes an impassioned argument that failing to remove corporate money from the equation will mean all people, conservative or liberal, will always play second fiddle to the objectives oligarchic corporations; that we the people will never be able to be heard above the roar of big campaign donations; that we the people should pressure our state representatives to call for a constitutional convention and amend the constitution such that all campaigns must be publicly funded. Included in the appendix is a sample constitutional amendment.

I found Mr. Lessig’s arguments in agreement with my own feelings of the core problem we face in restoring this republic to its full potential. If you care deeply about the current state of politics I highly recommend this small ebook.

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Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon
Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon by James Benford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Starship Century is a collection of science and science fiction focused on both what it would take to reach the stars and what it might be to journey on such voyages. It’s writers include all-stars in both the and science fiction community. The articles are well thought out explorations of technologies, ranging from what we could achieve within decades, to more exotic technologies that, if possible, are potentially much further in our future. Most of the science discussed here is not new though; I have seen most of it in other online articles and magazines. The science fiction stories included between the non-fiction portions of the book expand on the ideas and put a human perspective on the concepts. Overall this is an inspiring collection that should make you walk out at night and long to reach for the stars.

All proceeds from this book go towards interstellar exploration research. More information can be found online at http://www.starshipcentury.com/ and http://2014.symposium.100yss.org/

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Permanence
Permanence by Karl Schroeder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a top notch sci-fi read, blending new ideas with a classic feel, and has immediately catapulted Karl Schroeder into my favorite authors list. This book falls into the category of hard sci-fi, but with interesting characters, a well thought out story, and some philosophy thrown in for good measure.

The scientific concepts that are integrated into the setting offer a look at some of the more recent ideas about what exists between solar systems, from Kuiper Belt objects to Brown Dwarfs and their possible planetary systems, referred to in the book as the Halo worlds. The setting implies the frequency of these objects is higher than what we know of today, making these dark worlds reachable with a pre-Faster-Than-Light technology. Humans have discovered FTL drives as well, but they seem to require the deep gravity wells of normal stars to work.

The aliens of this universe are few and far between as well, and none of them are anything like humans, so much so that humanity still feels very alone in the universe. I love authors who pull off unique aliens as that is what I expect such an alternative evolutionary track would do, and it helps to make it feel like it could be real.

The book includes some philosophical & religious exploration as well, centered mostly on what it takes to build a sustainable galactic type civilization that could encompass many different intelligent species. The religion of many people in the current universe is called Permanence. This religion is based on the methodology and technology required for maintaining the current human civilization and also on expanding it. The religion still maintains it’s following among the Halo worlds, but is repressed on the worlds around stars, where FTL can be used. From a philosophical side, the book explores the implications of FTL vs. non-FTL travel between worlds, and it’s affects on the sustainability of a civilization spread across the stars.

There’s plenty of politics here as well, with the repressive like Right Economy which nano tags everything with a value and ownership, allowing the enforcement of payment on all uses of information and items owned by others. Ultimately this appears as a libertarian dystopia, exposing the flaws in extreme economic libertarianism. There’s also some repression of freedom of religion as well, but there is not much else discussed to expose what other types of rights might also be repressed.

As my initial introduction to Karl Schroeder, I found the book highly enjoyable and look forward to reading many more novels by him. In fact, I think he has managed to claim a spot in my short list of all-time favorite authors.

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine what it would be like if your brain suddenly stopped letting you be who you’ve always been, started causing you to have strange and erratic behavior. This is exactly what Susannah Cahalan experienced when her brain was attacked by her own immune system, an autoimmune disease called
NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis. This is a rare disease that is often misdiagnosed as mental illness.

Between these pages Ms. Cahalan dives deep to expose the time she spent in the hospital, much of which she has no memory of. She has filled the gaps by using the notes of her parents and by interviewing many of the people involved in her diagnoses and recovery. What she discovers is a personality change that is extremely drastic, and exposes just how much of who we are depends on the condition of our brain. This type of finding really exposes the mind-body issue and indirectly points to mind being created by the brain. It also shows how this physical disease has so often been confused with psychiatric issues, leaving many patients without a proper diagnoses or care. The good news is that Susannah Cahalan’s case, as well as the writing of this book afterwards, has done much to expose this disease and help others get the proper care they need.

If you enjoy a good medical mystery, or are simply fascinated by the brain and its functionality, then this is a solid read. It’s well written, can be read quickly, and is very hard to put down.

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Terminal World
Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alastair Reynolds is most popular for his hard sci-fi opera type books, but with this one he takes a slight deviation and brings some new elements to the story. Here you’ll find a mix of steampunk, mystery, angels, airships, cyborgs, and a strange tower, all wrapped at it’s heart with exotic physics that is just barely hinted at as the story unfolds. But in the end, the writing stands out clearly as Alastair Reynolds.

I didn’t consider this among the best of the Reynolds books, but I still felt like it deserved four stars (most of his get five stars from me, especially anything ‘Revelation Space’ related); I admit, I’m partial to the real hard science stuff he typically does. But the characters felt real enough, with a reasonable amount of character development. There could have been a bit more detail in the airship battles, but that’s probably just me. The plot moved along at a good pace balancing action with discussions.

In the end there isn’t a full and complete explanation for how and why things exist in their current state (no one knows who built the tower or why), but there is enough to close the story and leave you with something to ponder. I suppose it leaves enough open ended question to allow for the possibility of a sequel if the author ever chose to return to this world. I found this to be a nice twist on the steampunk theme and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys that genre.

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Mortality
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is difficult not to be moved by the words of a dying man, but it’s even harder when those words come from a man who is so eloquent in his writing. These are the final writings of the late Christopher Hitchens and they hold very little back when describing exactly what it is to go through the attempt at fighting the cancer killing you from the inside. The words bring home the feeling of what it really means to face your own mortality, and I’m not sure anyone else could have put the open face on it the way only Christopher Hitchens did. While not always as uplifting and positive in the way Randy Pausch’s ‘The Last Lecture’ was, it is extremely honest.

This should be a must read for anyone who cares about the human condition while facing our mortality. It is a short read and does not require a large amount of time to complete. Included at the end are notes and snippets left behind that had not yet been turned into full writings and a final chapter from Chrostopher Hitchens wife. As she admits, in the end, Christopher Hitchens always had the last word, and does so again with this book.

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