Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland


Author: Justina Ireland
Title: Dread Nation
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This novel is set in an alternate universe where the dead rose from the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War ended because of the zombie apocalypse. Twenty years later, the surviving society has adapted by training Black and indigenous people to become “attendants” who protect the white elites from attacks by the “shamblers.” Among these are this books narrator, Jane McKeene, a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore as the novel begins.

Jane is a highly-skilled but outspoken student often ending up in trouble. A series of events lead her to being exiled to a new model town on the prairies of Kansas with her colleagues Catherine and Jackson. The town of Summerland has its deep secrets, though, and is under the rule of the virulently racist sheriff.  The book works as metaphor for the slavery and Jim Crow periods, and how the ruling caste seeks to perpetuate social divisions even under existential threats to humanity.  But the book also works as a straight up adventure and horror story, with no shortage of humor, especially in Jane’s wry narration.

Recommended books:
Rating:

Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai


Author: Elan Mastai
Title: All Our Wrong Todays
Narrator: Elan Mastai
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

All Our Wrong Todays takes the idea of the dystopian alternate universe and it turns it on its head.  In this novel, OUR universe is the dystopia where the narrator/protagonist Tom Barren ends up after a time travel experiment goes wrong.  In his world, the invention of a machine that provides unlimited clean energy in 1965 has lead to five decades of remarkable technological advancement, peace, and prosperity.

The great twist in this book is that Barren (known as John Barren in our world) is actually much better off in our timeline.  A loser in his world, he’s a successful architect in ours. His father is an aloof genius in his world, but a loving dad in ours.  His mother is dead in his timeline but alive in ours. He even has a younger sister who he’s very close to in our timeline.

Tom is faced with the struggle of knowing that he is responsible for changing history to our timeline with pollution, inequality, and war, and inadvertently making billions of lives nonexistent, but also wanting to cling what he’s gained in our world, especially the love of a woman named Penny.  Be warned that Tom is kind of a terrible person, and an unsympathetic character, but stick with it as his self-awareness is a strength.

This is an enjoyable and creative novel, and honestly I couldn’t stop listening to it once I started the audiobook.

Favorite Passages:

“The problem with knowing people too well is that their words stop meaning anything and their silences start meaning everything.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King


Author: Stephen King
Cover of the book 11/22/63.Title: 11/22/63
Narrator: Craig Wasson
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Stephen King’s time travel adventure focuses on Jake Epping, a recently divorced high school English teacher in Maine, who is drawn into a plan to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His friend Al, owner and cook at a greasy spoon diner, discovered a “rabbit hole” to 1958 and has been using it to try to prevent Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, but he comes down with a fatal cancer and is unable to complete the mission.  So he returns to 2011 and recruits Jake to take over.  Al’s hope is that if Kennedy lives that it will have the knock-on effect of preventing the escalation of the War in Vietnam.

Jake decides that to test the effects of changing history, he will rescue the family of high school janitor and his G.E.D. student, Harry Dunning. On Halloween 1958, Harry’s alcoholic father murdered his mother and siblings and left him with permanent brain damage and a limp. A good portion of the early part of the book takes place in Maine in 1958 as Jake adjusts to living in the past and trying to prevent the Dunning murders.

Later, Jake moves on to Texas and settles in the fictional Dallas suburb of Jodie. With years to go before the Kennedy assassination (or even Lee Harvey Oswald’s return to the United States from the Soviet Union), Jake becomes a substitute high school teacher and director of the school’s theater productions.  He meets and falls in love with the school’s new librarian, Sadie Dunhill and becomes a beloved member of the town community.

I really enjoy the parts in Maine and Jodie as it focuses on the small details of everyday life in the past and Jake’s efforts to fit in.  King does not glamorize the past but demonstrates its strengths and weaknesses.  On Jake’s visit, for instance, he observes that the past smells terrible (because of the mills in Maine) but tastes great (real root beer at a diner).  The mundanity of everyday life becomes a fascinating world to explore for the person from the future. King also builds tension with examples of the “obdurate past” throwing up obstacles to Jake’s efforts to change it and the many coincidences which Jake refers to as “the past harmonizes.”

Unfortunately, when Jake finally focuses on the Kennedy assassination, the narrative becomes less interesting to me.  Especially dreadful are the seemingly endless passages of Jake listening to Oswald’s everyday conversations through an audio surveillance.  King runs up against the challenge that faces all writers of time travel fiction: you can change major events in history in fiction, but they remain the same in real life. And so they have to find some way to justify leaving the past unchanged.

Back to the Future seems to be the only time travel story to ever consider that changing the past would make the future better.  King rather obviously makes the future where Kennedy survives a (ridiculously) worse place.  This is an unsatisfying payoff after a lengthy book.  It’s still worth reading though, as again, at least the first two thirds of the book are very engagingly written.  And the characters of Jake, Sadies, Harry, and others are sympathetic enough that my interest in seeing how they turn out carried me through the final act.  I also highly recommend Craig Wasson’s audiobook narration because he is able to perform believable accents for both Mainers and Texans.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand


Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Title: My Lady Jane
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This work of historical fiction flat-out revels in the fact that it is completely made up.  This version of the story of Lady Jane Grey, a.k.a. the Nine Day Queen, has the boy King Edward being manipulated and slowly poisoned by his adviser Lord Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward designates his favorite cousin Jane to be his heir and has her married to Dudley’s son Guildford.

So far, similar to reality, but sillier.  In this alternate history, some people are Effians, that is having the ability to change into an animal.  Swiftly, Jane inherits the throne when Edward is declared dead, and then she and Guildford are forced to flee when Mary in turn claims the throne.  Jane, Guildford, and Edward (spoiler: he’s not dead) all have adventures, discover new powers, and meet interesting people along the way to a happier ending than reality.  The book is riotously funny both in the dialogue and the authors asides.  The audio book is excellently performed by Katherine Kellgren.

Recommended booksThe Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
Rating: ****

Book Review: Upon Further Review by Mike Pesca


AuthorMike Pesca
TitleUpon Further Review
Publication Info: Twelve (2018)
Summary/Review:

This collection of essays posits many “what-ifs” from American sports history, focusing less on “what if this team won the game instead of the other team” and more on general trends in sports history that changed on split decision or error.

Some of the essays are just really silly and played for laughs.

“What if the Olympics Had Never Dropped Tug-of-War?” – Nate Dimeo.  Honestly, a world in which the world’s top athletes fought for the gold in tug-o-war would be a good place.

“What if Basketball Rims Were Smaller Than Basketballs?” – Jon Bois keeps the one-note gag going for EIGHT PAGES.

“What if Game 7 of the 2016 World Series Had Turned Into Every Sports Movie Ever Made?” – Josh Levin. If that final game of the Cleveland Indians-Chicago Cubs World Series wasn’t absurd enough, imagine if it had ghosts, a dog, and an ape joining in?

Some posit that the long term outcome wouldn’t change much.

“What if the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Had Lost the World Cup?” – Louisa Thomas recounts everything that actually happened after the USWNT won the 1999 World Cup with the idea that the attention the team drew was a bigger motivator in what did (and didn’t) happen in in the aftermath.

“What if Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991”.- Ben Lindbergh.  Turns out that the 1990s/early 2000s would still have been an era of great offensive output but with fewer outliers, so Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens would not have been quite so great, and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire probably wouldn’t have been all that remarkable at all. Even the popular idea that the McGwire/Sosa home run race “saved baseball” is challenged by evidence that baseball was already rebounding, and whatever gains it gave were lost to fans who stopped watching after the PED crisis was exposed.

Some decide that on the whole, things would have ended up a whole lot better.

“What if Jerry Tarkanian Had Beaten the NCAA and Liberated College Basketball?” – Jonathon Hock.  College basketball should pay it’s players and in this world they create a successful league.

“What if the Dodgers Had Left Brooklyn?” – Robert Seigel writes from an alternate reality where the Dodgers stayed in Brooklyn and became a dynasty and Brooklyn became a prosperous independent city.  Somehow in this reality, New York still gets the Mets, but the Giants and the Cubs move to California.

“What if Bucky Dent Hadn’t Homered Over the Green Monster in 1978?” – Stefan Fatsis. Technically, Fatsis’ story is from the perspective of his younger self skipping school to cheer for the Yankees at Fenway, so it’s supposed to be disappointing when it results in the Red Sox starting a dynasty and the Yankees wallow in mediocrity, but I definitely think that’s an improvement.

Some see a world where things end up much worse.

“What if Baseball Teams Played Only Once a Week?” – Will Leitch.  Baseball becomes a weekly EVENT like football & Leitch tracks the changes which are all awful.

Some imagine a world where niche sports are much more popular.

“What if Horse Racing Was Still the Most Popular Sport in America?” – Peter Thomas Forntale.  Horse racing maintains it’s mid-20th century popularity by consolidating under one organization, linking tv broadcasts with college football games, and making state lotteries based on horses rather than ping pong balls.  The result is the opening of a luxury track in Brooklyn by Jay-Z and Beyonce.

“What if a Blimp Full of Money Had Exploded over World Track Headquarters in 1952?” – Paul Snyder. A somewhat more ludicrous premise leads to a similar outcome as the horse racing essay, where track & field ends up attracting the nation’s top professional athletes.

Some focus on broader social issues.

“What if Muhammad Ali Had Gotten His Draft Deferment?” – Leigh Montville.  In this essay, Ali regains his prime years as a boxer, but loses his place as a heroic icon.

“What if the United States Had Boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?” – Shira Springer.  It would’ve been the right thing to do, and according to Springer it was both an opportunity to stand up to Nazism and nip the IOC sportocracy in the bud.

“What if Nixon Had Been Good at Football?” – Julian E. Zelizer.  Apparently Richard Nixon loved to play football but wasn’t very good at it.  Zelizer hypothesizes that youthful success on the gridiron could’ve made Nixon less bitter and paranoid, and thus a better leader and President.

These are some fun what-if’s.  Perhaps someday I’ll write my own.  Here are the topics I have in mind if you want to take a stab at them.

  • What if the Mets fully renovated and rebuilt the Polo Grounds and played there for decades instead of moving to Shea Stadium?
  • What if the NASL survived?  Or even, what if the American Soccer League of the 1920s-1930s survived?
  • What if Major League Baseball brought in 2 to 4 complete teams from the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, instead of just signing the best players?
  • What if VAR existed in 2002 and after review, Torsten Frings of Germany was called for a handball in the World Cup Quarterfinal, giving the USA men’s team a chance to score?
  • What if kickball became a professional sport?
  • The New York Knicks have only won championships in seasons when my mother was pregnant.  What if she had a third child?

Favorite Passages:

A better argument can be made in the other direction. What if he hadn’t lost that time? Those missing years were what defined his career, what made his life so different from all the other boxers who came along before or have come along since. How could he have been the Greatest of All Time, the icon of icons, an important figure in politics and art and everyday life if he had plugged along on a normal athletic arc? How could he have been Muhammad Ali if he simply… boxed? Blessed with speed, strength, and charisma, Ali worked to achieve great mastery of the skills of his sport. But it was this ordeal, these troubles, that made him everything he became. – Leigh Montville

Without football, we’d have a lot less to argue about on sports radio, which would possibly mean a lot less sports radio. I admit that does make the demise of football sound like the polio vaccine. – Jason Gay

t should be noted that while gambling adds to racing’s appeal, it is one part of the mosaic. No sane person would lecture you on the history, pageantry, strategy, or majesty of pulling the arm of a slot machine. Racing is built on all of those things. But the lottery, table games, and slot machines do offer a steady dopamine gambling rush that racing can’t hope to compete with. Consider racing a sip of single-vineyard Barolo from a hand-blown crystal glass, whereas a scratch-off ticket is like taking a deep pull off a bottle of Mad Dog. – Peter Thomas Fornatale

In other words, there’s solid statistical backing for the intuitive sense that with earlier testing, we wouldn’t have seen the standout seasons that define that era in modern fans’ minds—particularly those by Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa. Those players probably would have aged out of the game earlier or failed to post stats that defied credibility. Which likely means that the home run records of Roger Maris and Hank Aaron would still stand, instead of Bonds’s single-season and career marks looming over the sport like the now-regarded-as-unbreakable women’s track times that suspected steroid users Florence Griffith Joyner, Jarmila Kratochvílová, and Marita Koch recorded in the 1980s (although that trio was tested). While other factors might have made the mid-to-late nineties and early-to-mid aughts a high-offense era regardless, testing could have compressed the range of individual stat lines such that the sport would have looked more like 2016, when the league as a whole hit tons of home runs but only seven players topped 40 (and the leader hit 47). Without the disillusionment caused by those instinctively asterisked 60-and 70-homer seasons, more recent outlier years wouldn’t have prompted as much skepticism from fans and writers. It’s also possible that fewer players would have sought out PEDs, not only because testing could have functioned as a partial deterrent, but also because clean players would have felt less pressure to keep up with their blatantly performance-enhanced peers, as Bonds reportedly did after seeing the fanfare that greeted McGwire’s and Sosa’s home run heroics. – Ben Lindbergh

it’s such a difficult game to play, is the constant churn of games. In Barry Svrluga’s The Grind, a book chronicling the toll a 162-game Major League Baseball season takes on everyone who’s a part of it, most players say that the hard part of baseball isn’t baseball; it’s that there is always baseball. This is why baseball is sneakily as physically taxing as any other sport, if not more so. Sure, in one individual baseball game, players move less than in the other sports. But over a season, one game almost every day for six months is grueling. It is an endurance test in a way no other sport is. The baseball season today begins at the beginning of March for Spring Training and extends into October—late October if you’re lucky. NFL teams play sixteen games a year; the NBA and NHL play eighty-two. Baseball doubles that and occasionally throws in two games in one day. It leads to a numbing, often disorienting march that affects the lives of everyone connected to the game. – Will Leitch

Once-a-week-baseball does up the hype, the excitement, and the drama. It imbues the once pastoral sport with a football-esque insistence. It strips away nuances that can be observed only after repeated viewing. It accelerates the sport’s resting heart rate and obviates the languorous tobacco spitting and sunflower seed expectoration that characterizes optimal dugout bonding. I wonder if the words clubhouse or ballpark would be applied to a pursuit with such crisis-level stakes. I cannot see an organist leading a swaying crowd in a sing-along of a song written in 1908 in a sport with so much on the line; there is nothing languid when baseball is played at this pace. I cannot see the administration of a hot foot being countenanced given the seriousness of every moment. I cannot see a chicken becoming a beloved team mascot. In short, though I am the author of this alternative supposition, I have to say I believe it would be horrible and would ruin everything I love about baseball. Which means, of course, it would be incredibly popular and remunerative. – Will Leitch

Recommended books: The Curious Case of Sidd Finch by George Plimpton, Almost America: From the Colonists to Clinton : A “What If” History of the U.S. by Steve Tally, and It’s Game Time Somewhere by Tim Forbes
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer


AuthorAndrea Cremer
TitleThe Inventor’s Secret
NarratorLeslie Bellair
Publication Info: Listening Library (2014)
Summary/Review:

This is the first in a series of an alternate universe dystopia in which Great Britain suppressed the revolution in the American colonies and have created a deeply stratified industrial tyranny.  I actually thought it was supposed to be set sometime in the far future, but since its  in the steampunk genre, it’s supposed to be in the 19th century despite the advanced technology.  The protagonist is Charlotte, a 16-year-old member of the resistance living with other children in camp hidden away from the empire.  When a mysterious newcomer arrives, it moves forward a plot for Charlotte, her brother and other companions to infiltrate the imperial society in New York.  It’s an interesting concept, but the story didn’t engage me .  I could see it’s appeal for younger readers interested in a mix of fantasy, alternate history, and romance.

Rating: **

Book Review: Boilerplate : history’s mechanical marvel by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennet


Author: Paul Guinan and Anina Bennet
Title: Boilerplate : history’s mechanical marvel
Publication Info: New York : Abrams Image, 2009.
ISBN: 9780810989504
Summary/Review:

Boilerplate reads like a textbook or maybe one of those Time-Life history books from the 1980’s covering the period 1893-1918 when Professor Archie Campion’s Mechanical Marvel walked the Earth.  In hopes of eliminating the loss of life in war, Campion invented the automaton Boilerplate to be a robot soldier.  This book covers the life and times of Professor Campion, his remarkable sister Lily, and the mechanical marvel itself, Boilerplate.  A noble automaton, Boilerplate served in the Spanish-American War in Cuba and the Phillipines, is on hand for the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War, and finally serves as a doughboy in The Great War where he vanishes while searching for the Lost Battalion.  Along thew way he becomes acquainted with Theodore Roosevelt, Nikola Tesla, Jack London, Mark Twain, Frank Reade, Alice Roosevelt, Jack Johnson, Lewis Hine, T.E. Lawrence, Jeanette Rankin, Pancho Villa, and Black Jack Pershing.  It shouldn’t be too big a spoiler to reveal that this robot never existed.  The beauty of this book is in its historical detail.  Sidebars cover historical events in accurate detail without mentioning the fictional centerpiece of this book.  I could see this could be an interesting teaching tool for children, because there’s so much history here as long as you keep in mind that the robot is fake.  This is a unique and entertaining take on alternate history.

Recommended books: The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Erez Yakin and Five Fists Of Science by Matt Fraction.
Rating: ****