Giveaway: The Second Lives of Honest Men by John R. Cameron (INTERNATIONAL)

April 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A pencil drawing of Abraham Lincoln sitting in front of a bookcase.It’s time for the third giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  Lots of the indie authors whose books I accepted for review in 2014 also were interested in me hosting a giveaway at the time of my review, so there will be plenty more coming up in the future too.

There is ONE ebook version of The Second Lives of Honest Men (review) available courtesy of the author, John R. Cameron!

What You’ll Win:  One ebook copy of The Second Lives of Honest Men by John R. Cameron

How to Enter:  Leave a comment on this post stating what historical person you would bring up to the present, if you could.

Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL

Contest Ends: May 3rd.  Two weeks from today!

Disclaimer: The winner will have their ebook sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.

Book Review: The Second Lives of Honest Men by John R. Cameron

April 19, 2014 1 comment

A pencil drawing of Abraham Lincoln sitting in front of a bookcase.Summary:
Professor Jacob Wentworth is the last of his kind, the only humanities professor at the university.  With his retirement at the end of the year, the humanities department will officially be closed.  But when the university’s star genius student, Bryce, takes a liking for Jacob and what he can teach him, Jacob stays on indefinitely.  Jacob has refused to ever use the Interface directly.  He won’t put in the contacts or earbuds that open up a whole virtual world.  He doesn’t want to give the Company that much control over his life.  In spite of his tutelage, years later Bryce is working on improving the Interface, making it into a brain implant instead of contacts.  But Bryce’s connection with Jacob has done something to him, and he finds himself distracted by building a time machine and not wanting to help the Company anymore.  Together they decide to bring Abraham Lincoln to the present, replacing him with a double just moments before his death.  Maybe it will take a man out of time to save the future.

Review:
When this book was submitted to me during my annual review copy open submissions, I was immediately intrigued by the combination of a dystopian future with time-travel and history.  Cameron’s story didn’t disappoint.  The book gives a unique flair to the concept of fighting an overpowering dystopian government with the addition of time-travel and a historical figure that makes it engaging and highly readable.

The futuristic setting is both well-imagined and evoked in a non-intrusive, showing not telling way.  It is easy to relate to Jacob immediately on his walk to work, and the futuristic elements are introduced gradually.  It helps that Jacob is a bit of a luddite, as it gives him a bit of an outsider’s perspective to describe things to the reader.  The futuristic tech described in the book is well-imagined.  High tech contact lenses are definitely the wave of the future, and jumping from that to a neural interface makes total sense.  Cameron also takes into account other elements of the future beyond the science, such as climate, politics, and trends.    It’s a fun world to visit in spite of it being a dystopia.

Jacob and Bryce start out a bit two-dimensional but grow to be three-dimensional over the course of the story.  The addition of the female biologist who assists them manages to add both diversity and a romance, which is nice.  She also much more quickly takes on a three-dimensional quality.  Having her and the romance around really kick the whole story up a notch.  Abraham Lincoln was probably the most difficult character to handle, since he is obviously based on a real person.  He is presented respectfully, yet still as a flawed human being.  When he speaks, his words are accessible yet sound just different enough to provide the reader with the consistent cue that he is a man out of time.

The plot mostly works well, moving in a logical, well thought-out manner.  The end has a bit of a deus ex machina that is rather disappointing.

*spoiler*
A main character is saved from death via time travel, thus making all of the main character “good guys” survive the battle with the Company.  Stories about battles of one ideal against another are generally better if at least some casualties are had.  I do not count a minor secondary character who dies, since that is akin to killing off a red shirt in Star Trek.
*end spoiler*

Some readers may be bothered by the level of anti-tech found in the book.  The Interface isn’t just bad because the new neural version will give the Company control over people.  It also is bad because it supposedly inhibits the development of the users’ brains, rendering them to an elementary level of intelligence.  The book also strongly argues the idea that friends in virtual reality aren’t real friends, and that old tech, such as print books, are better.  Even television is lauded as better than any virtual reality activity.  I’m fine with not agreeing 100% with the protagonists in a story.  It’s not necessary for me to enjoy it, and I appreciate seeing their perspective and the freedom fight that follows.  However, this perspective may bother some readers, so they should be aware it exists within the story.

Overall, this is a well-written, original take on the idea of fighting a dystopian future with an advisor ripped out of time.  The book is weakened a bit by a deus ex machina ending.  Some readers may not like or enjoy the anti-tech position of the protagonists.  It is still a fun frolic through a richly imagined possible future.  Recommended to fans of dystopian scifi and US History.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

April 16, 2014 2 comments

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain rangeSummary:
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana.  The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  However, that belief is full of inaccuracies.  Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana.  Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.

Review:
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink.  In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain.  I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review).  When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.

Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts.  Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen.  Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals.  The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in.  The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones.  The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes.  They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies.  Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction.  Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas.  And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.

There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable.  Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god.  When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in.  Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members.  He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of  the People’s Temple.  He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it.  He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it.  The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs.  Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave.  And many wanted to.  Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide.  Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison.  Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid.  It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.

Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction.  Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment.  A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over.  Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Golden Torc by Julian May (Series, #2)

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Image of a silver torc against a gold and black backgroundSummary:
The group of people who traveled from the future to the Pliocene past for a willful exile were split into two by the alien race, the Tanu, who, surprisingly, inhabits Earth.  Half were sent to slave labor, while the others were deemed talented at mind powers, given necklace-like torcs to enhance those powers, and sent to the capital city of Muriah.  In the first book, we followed the daring escape of the group sent into slavery.  They then discovered that the Tanu share the Earth with the Firvulag–an alien race from their home planet that has many similarities to their own.  They also organized an attack on the industrial city of Finiah.  This book at first follows the adventures of the other group, the one sent to the capital city of Muriah.  Through them we discover the inner workings of the Tanu, the intersections of humans and aliens, and the impact of the human/Firvulag attack on Finiah.  When the time for the Great Combat between the Tanu/human subjects and the Firvulag arrives, the survivors of the escaped slave group end up coming back into contact with the group of humans in Muriah. With dire consequences.

Review:
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, finding it to be a delightful mash-up of scifi and fantasy.  When I discovered my library had the next book in the series, I picked it up as quickly as possible.  This entry feels more fantastical than the first, although science definitely still factors in.  It is richer in action and intrigue and perhaps a bit less focused on character development.

This is a difficult book to sum up, since so very much happens.  It’s an action-packed chunkster, providing the reader with information and new settings without ever feeling like an info-dump.  The medieval-like flare of the Tanu and the goblin/fairie/shapeshifter qualities of the Firvulag are stronger in this entry, and it is delightful.  Creating a medieval world of aliens on ancient Earth is probably the most brilliant part of the book, followed closely by the idea of torcs enhancing the brain’s abilities.  May has created and weaved a complex, fascinating world that manages to also be easy enough to follow and understand.  The sense of the medieval-style court is strong from the clothing, buildings, and organization of society.  She doesn’t feel the need to willy-nilly invent lots of new words, which I really appreciated.

The intrigue is so complex that it is almost impossible to summarize, and yet it was easy to follow while reading it.  Surprises lurk around every corner, and May is definitely not afraid to kill her darlings, following both William Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s writing advice.  A lot happens in the book, the characters are tested, and enough change happens that I am excited there are still two more books, as opposed to wondering how the author could possibly tell more story.  In spite of the action, sometimes the book did feel overly long, with long descriptions of vegetation and scenery far away from where most of the action was taking place.

The book is full of characters but every single one of them manages to come across as a unique person, even the ones who are not on-screen long enough to be fully three-dimensional.  The cast continues to be diverse, similarly to the first book, with a variety of races, ages, and sexual preferences represented.  I was surprised by the addition of a transwoman character.  She is treated with a mix of acceptance and transphobia.  I think, certainly for the 1980s when this was published, it is overall a progressive presentation of her.  She is a doctor who is well-respected in Tanu society.  However, she also is presented as a bit crazy (not because of being trans but in addition to being trans), and it is stated by one character that she runs the fertility clinic because it is the one part of being a woman that will always be out of her grasp.  I am glad at her inclusion in the story but readers should be aware that some aspects of the writing of her and how other characters interact with her could be considered problematic or triggering.  I would be interested to hear a transperson’s analysis of her character.

Overall, this entry in the series ramps up the action and more thoroughly investigates the world of the Pliocene Exile.  Readers disappointed by the lack of information on the half of the group heading to the capital city in the first book will be pleased that their story is told in this one.  Characters are added, including a transwoman doctor, and all continue to feel completely individual and easily decipherable, in spite of the growing cast list.  The fast action pace sometimes is interrupted by lengthy descriptions of settings far away from the action, but overall the chunkster of the book moves along at a good pace and remains engaging.  Recommended to fans of fantasy who want a touch of science in their stories and who are interested in the idea of medieval aliens.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Many-Colored Land, review

Cross-Stitch #13: Rhubarb

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Since I finished the Miffy / Nijnjte line for my shop, it was time to think of a new one! I knew I wanted to do something to pay homage to New England, both where I grew up and my current home.  It’s a truly beautiful place.  The spring weather and planting my (incredibly tiny) container gardening got me to thinking about plants.  Then it struck me.  I could make a line about the plants you can forage for in New England!  Foraging is the act of gathering plants that grow wild to eat, as opposed to gardening.  My grandmother on my father’s side was incredibly knowledgeable about foraging.  She passed her knowledge on to my dad, who passed it on down to me.  Of course, my father knows more about it than I do! I consulted him some on the new line on everything from which plants to choose (there are so many edible wild plants in New England!) to getting the look of each plant just right.  I decided that I would include with the plant itself the common name and the scientific name.  The line is intended both to decorate and educate.

The plant I chose to stitch up first for the new line is: rhubarb!

Cross-stitch of a rhubarb leaf. The word "rhubarb" is above it while the words "rheum rhabarbarum" are below it.Rhubarb features in my favorite pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie!  It can also be used in everything from breads to jams to drinks.  It has a savory, bitter flavor, so it generally is combined with something sweet to bring out its underlying sweetness.  The pattern is stitched on oatmeal aida with the common name (rhubarb) above the plant, and the scientific name (Rheum rhabarbarum) below it.  This is done to reflect older hand-drawn plant guidebooks.

Both the completed item and the pattern are available in my shop!  Completed items ship to the US and the European Union.  Patterns ship worldwide.

Use the coupon code INSTARHU1ST today or tomorrow to get 10% off either item!

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Carolyn McCormick)

April 5, 2014 2 comments

A viney green plant with a flower and a dragonfly wrap themselves around the title of the book.Summary:
Nobody quite knows what is wrong with Area X, but everyone has their speculations.  It’s been cut off from the rest of the world for decades, and the government has kept precisely what is going on rather hush-hush.  The government periodically sends teams in to investigate it.  The narrator, a biologist, is part of Team 12.  The team is entirely made up of women, based on a supposition that women are less badly effected in Area X than men.  The biologist’s husband was part of Team 11.  She is curious to know what happened to him but also entirely intrigued by the tunnel her team finds.  She insists on calling it a tower.  Through her mandatory journal, we slowly discover what may or may not be in Area X.

Review:
I picked this book up since it sounded like it would be a mix of scifi and Lovecraft style fantasy, plus it features an entirely female investigative group.  Although it is an extremely interesting premise, the actual book does drag a bit.

The biologist narrates in a highly analytical way that is true to her character but also doesn’t lend itself to the building of very much tension.  Since the biologist calmly narrates everything, the reader stays calm.  She also, frankly, isn’t an interesting person due to this same tendency to view everything through an analytical lens.  Imagine if Star Trek was 100% written by a Vulcan, and you can begin to imagine the level of ho-hum.

This narration style could have really worked if the language used was stunningly beautiful.  While I think that’s probably what the author was going for, it largely missed for me.  While the language was good, there was also nothing particularly special about it.  I marked three passages that I enjoyed throughout the whole book.  Looking back, two were extremely similar.  The passage I found to be the most beautiful is:

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you. From the outside in. Forcing you to live in its reality. (time 3:15:47)

While pretty, it’s not pretty enough to make up for the rather dull narrator.

Since the story has four women to work with, it probably would have worked better to bounce around between their four narratives.  This also would have given the bonus of seeing the mysteries of Area X through multiple sets of eyes, enhancing the tension the mystery, while also giving the opportunity for a variety of narration styles.

The mystery of Area X is definitely intriguing and different from other Lovecraft style fantasies.  In particular, the passage describing the terror of seeing the thing that cannot be described was particularly well-written.  However, the passages describing the horror in Area X are mostly toward the end of the book and are not as well spaced-out as they could have been to help build the tension.  The end of the book is definitely the most interesting and managed to heighten my interest enough that I was curious about the next book in the series.

Overall, this is a unique take on the idea of a scientific investigation of an area invaded by Lovecraft style, fantastical creatures.  It features an entirely female investigative crew but unfortunately limits itself to only the narration of one overly analytical and dull biologist.  Recommended to big fans of Lovecraft/fantastical invasion style fantasies.  To those newly interested in the genre, I recommend checking out Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp first (review), as it is a more universally appealing take on the genre.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Friday Fun! (March: Ostara and Concert)

March 29, 2014 1 comment
A swan swimming on the edge of a river.

A swan on the Charles. It let me get this close to it!

Hello my lovely readers!

It’s my pleasure to be able to wish you all a happy spring!  I am so excited for the lighter days and warmer weather, although we definitely are still having a few cold ones here and there.  My partner and I celebrated Ostara (spring equinox) with an after-work walk on the Charles River, a special dinner, and presents of course.  We were surprised to spot three swans on the Charles during our walk.  It’s not common to see swans on the Charles, so it was a nice surprise.  Plus, they let us get very close to them!  For Ostara dinner, we made deviled eggs, salad with pickled turnips and homemade honey mustard dressing, and homemade handcut fries.  I had a pina colada with it, and my partner had hard cider.  Delicious!

Even though we’ve been together for over a year and a half, my partner and I had never been to a concert together.  We finally changed that this month when we went to see The Dum Dum Girls live.  They’re a band my bf is a fan of, so I hadn’t listened to them prior to the night.  They put on a great show, though.  Kind of surfer/rocker chick style music.  Plus their outfits were really fun.  I left the concert wanting one of their albums, which I think marks it a success on their part.  We had a blast going to a concert together, and I’m pumped to go to more!

In shop news, this month I released a new line (Miffy / Nijntje an adorable little bunny from children’s lit), and I made my first sale (my Sriracha pattern)!

I posted six book reviews this month and read five books.  I unfortunately got a bit bogged down in a stroke of bad luck of three mediocre reads in a row, so I didn’t end up with time to read a Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge book or an accepted review copy 2014 book this month.  I plan to make up for it next month so I can stay on track!

I’ve been dialing back in my fitness along with the gradually lengthening days.  I’m doing more yoga and calisthenics, and aiming to lift heavy once a week.  Hopefully next month I can ramp it all up a bit more.

I hope you all are enjoying your springs! Happy reading!

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