This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2022.
Set in 1899 New York, The Spirit Phone is a cosmic-horror, murder-mystery detective yarn in which Nikola Tesla, famed inventor, and Aleister Crowley, famed occultist, team up to save the world. Along the way, they encounter a cult, people who appear to be clones, and spiritual beings bent on destroying Earth, all centered on a new invention from Thomas Edison which aims to let people speak to the dead. Teleportation, astral projection, Edgar Cayce, a zeppelin, and Devils Tower all make an appearance. O’Keefe’s debut novel certainly serves up a unique blend of elements. He takes some anachronistic liberties, but all in service of the story. The entertainment factor alone alleviates anything that strains credulity, and the action is well paced. Perhaps most rewarding is his evocation of this time and place: new innovations were radically altering the fabric of everyday life, with modern technology like cars and electric lights commingled with horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps. It was a world made magical and strange, an ideal setting for such a strange tale.
This review was first published by Booklist on October 15, 2022.
The question of whether we’re alone in the universe is one of the most profound, and one which struggles to be taken seriously in scientific circles. It’s a question that extends beyond science into the realms of religion and philosophy. Evidence of intelligent life elsewhere would upend our understanding of our place in the universe. In his latest, Whitehouse summarizes the efforts we’ve made to search for other life in the universe, from SETI to UFO sightings, and the limitations such efforts must overcome. He assesses what we actually know about the likelihood that anyone else is out there. He also explores possibilities for what alien life might be like, an impossible question to answer, as we only have ourselves as an example, whereas life on other planets could be radically different. Finally, he examines what’s in store for the future of the universe with an eye toward whether or not life might survive. In the end, without definitive contact with extraterrestrials, any searches we make tell us more about ourselves than about life elsewhere.
This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2022.
This time, it starts with an alien bug eating a man’s brain. Then there’s a specter that manifests inside of John’s wall and gets sliced up. So begins an ouroboros of a tale involving cults, alternate time lines, the end of the world, and a possessed plastic toy. This fourth entry in Pargin’s John Dies at the End series is less frenetic than its predecessor, What the Hell Did I Just Read (2017, as David Wong). Within the snarky humor is an incisive commentary on social media and the state of our connected world, and a story about trauma and how people lash out when they’re hurt. It’s a story about love and how people can be better. It’s rewarding to witness how Pargin has grown as a writer. He’s less interested in the gimmick and more focused on his characters. His compassion runs deep. This isn’t just a funny tale of inept supernatural investigators; it’s a story of people struggling through pain to find a better path. Pargin offers us a welcome note of hope.
This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2022.
As a rule, we try not to think too much about our poop. It’s one of the most taboo topics in our society, and our sewer systems are designed to keep it out of sight as much as possible. And yet, poop is a treasure trove of resources that we can use to make the world better. Scat can cure diseases and protect us against several major health concerns, aid in forensic and medical investigations, replenish our soils, and even become a source of energy, precious metals, and clean drinking water. New methods to make better use of our sewage can also help reduce pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Poop can help heal our planet. Nelson dives into the science of scat and profiles several examples of how people are using poop in new and innovative ways. Wide ranging and deeply informed, with a wry sense of humor, this is a solid recommendation for fans of Mary Roach, as well as anyone interested in out-of-the-box ideas to help fix some of our most pressing problems.
This review was first published by Booklist on August 5, 2022.
People have a long history of trying to predict the future, especially with the rise of modern science and science fiction. Several futuristic tropes have become common, such as cyborgs, brain-machine interfaces, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, immortality, space exploration and settlement, energy weapons, faster-than-light travel, flying cars, and more. Novella turns his skeptical eye on futurism, assessing whether any of these predictions are possible, from the likely to the probably impossible. He identifies several common fallacies which plague our attempts at futurism, most notably the tendency to overestimate short term advancement while underestimating long term change, and our insistence on picturing people in the future as just like us. Old technology persists for surprisingly long times, and new disruptive technology can radically alter who we are and our relationship to the world. Predicting the future isn’t an exact science, but skeptical scientific inquiry can help assess the likelihood of our various visions for it. A fun overview of both the current state of modern science and a general survey of the history of futurism.
This review was first published by Booklist on July 29, 2022.
After Mop and crew’s discoveries on Earth, the Prodryans are massed to attack, and the Alliance is falling apart. Mop’s next mission: Tuxatl, the only planet in the galaxy the Prodryans fear, seeking a weapon that can win the war. As usual, what she finds isn’t what she expected: a legendary lost warrior and the Jynx, an intelligent race hiding dark secrets. There is a weapon—but what do you do if using it makes you just as bad as your enemy? While there’s plenty of humor in this installment of Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse (after Terminal Uprising, 2019), it’s not a funny book. Characters face deep personal threats and challenges to their status quo and struggle with significant ethical quandaries; the book achieves impressive emotional depth and moral weight. Hines has a talent for creating interesting aliens, and the Jynx are one of his best yet, with a fascinating culture and backstory. The newest members of Mop’s crew lend some fresh perspectives, and the ending—unexpected as it is—rings true. Hines serves up a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to the series.
This review was first published by Booklist on July 15, 2022.
Wilkinson was never very good at math. Deep into middle age, he decides to relearn algebra, geometry, and calculus to return to the subject that defeated him and conquer it anew. The project doesn’t exactly go as planned. The difficulty he encounters challenges many of his core beliefs about himself. Maybe a lifetime of experience isn’t enough to do better the second time around; maybe mathematics isn’t what he assumed it is. In a unique combination of memoir and intellectual spelunking, Wilkinson takes readers into the heart of math’s complex mysteries and the biggest questions that arise. What unfolds is a wide-ranging exploration of identity, philosophy, faith, the history of mathematics, and the nature of the divine. Mathematics has always been a subject pointing its practitioners toward a sense of the unknown, and Wilkinson’s quest becomes something akin to a spiritual pursuit. This is a deeply insightful, lyrical, and erudite work, filled with gems of wisdom and fascinating digressions, all characterized by Wilkinson’s delightfully dry, self-deprecating humor. He proves it’s never too late to learn something new, even if what you learn isn’t what you expected, and even high-school math can blossom into surprising vistas of metaphysical and psychological significance.
This review was first published by Booklist on June 30, 2022.
This is an accessible, comprehensive history of the Russian space program from the end of WWII to the present day. Soviet missions were long shrouded in secrecy, the facts obscured by active disinformation tactics. It’s only been in the past several years that primary-source records have been declassified and released to the public, providing insight into everything from initial dominance in the 1950s and ’60s, through multiple failures in the 1970s, to the spirit of East-West cooperation in the 1990s, to the defining success of MIR and the Russians’ present-day role as mainstays on the International Space Station. It’s remarkable how much information Burgess fits into a fairly short volume; in around 200 pages, he covers just about every known mission and crew member, along with the politics and larger context surrounding the space race, without the reader feeling like anything important is missing. It’s a quick read and a useful overview of our best up-to-date understanding of the reality of the Russian space program.
YA/S – special interest: This is an excellent beginning for young people wanting to explore the history of the Space Race.
This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2022.
Our understanding of Mars has grown immensely over the past few decades, to the point that we can meaningfully speculate about its past and how this unique planet came to be. Morden, a science-fiction author and trained geologist, serves up a natural history of Mars, from its formation over 4.5 billion years ago to the present. He summarizes what we know about its physical features and the geological history behind them. Mars is unique in several ways, and there are several different possible paths it could have taken to become like it is today. We don’t currently have enough information to know which possibility is the truth. Morden embraces this uncertainty and paints a multifaceted picture of what might have been. Morden’s writing style is friendly and accessible, and his excitement for the subject shines through. It’s impressive how much information he packs into a narrative that flows so easily. The Red Planet is an excellent overview and an easy recommendation for space buffs, geologists, or anyone with a general interest in science.
YA/S – special interest: Science-inclined teen readers will enjoy this overview of Martian geology.
This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2022.
A science mission to explore Jupiter discovers something unexpected on the moon Europa and disappears. A chauffeur in Arizona who believes his wife was abducted by aliens gets wrapped up in a covert rescue mission. This sounds like a setup for a standard alien-encounter story; instead, Johnson (Pym, 2011) uses the premise to examine many of the immediate problems facing our society today: intolerance, unearned privilege, religious fundamentalism, corrupt politics, and mass obliviousness. There’s nothing subtle about this work, and some might find it too on the nose, but there is power in addressing these issues so unflinchingly. His writing style is fairly cerebral, which mutes some of the emotional impact, and that’s the point: Johnson has an argument to make, and the story humanizes it enough for it to really hit home. His characters are vivid and compelling, and even the villains retain their full measure of humanity, with motivations that make sense. The ending veers unexpectedly into the fantastical while offering a welcome measure of hope.