Monday, February 18, 2019

Empty Planet (Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson)

The United Nations estimates that the world could have around 11 billion inhabitants by the year 2100, an increase of over three billion from our current tally. In Empty Planet, authors Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson argue a much lower peak in population and predict a decline in the world’s population occurring sooner rather than later.

In a globetrotting book that takes readers from Africa to America to Asia to Atlantic Canada, the authors argue that those who reside in greater numbers in cities often yield fewer children compared to those who live in rural areas. Add to our increasing urbanization a better educated and more affluent world (two other factors that often yield fewer children per family), and the authors theorize that our world will likely not reach the aggressive population predictions that the UN has pegged for the coming decades.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, such a scenario offers several distinct positives and risks for various parts of the world. The book breezily brushes through some potential impacts without delivering any distinct predictions, simply listing a few scenarios that could come to pass over the next hundred or so years in areas ranging from the climate to military to food.

The theory the authors put forth is certainly interesting and has factual backing. However, adding “what may happen if” scenarios without any substantive discussion or simply breezing through a few scenarios hurt what is a relatively interesting demographic book.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Writer's Map (Huw Lewis-Jones)

The power of maps and places has captivated us for centuries. From Ptolemy’s ancient work Geographia to the realm of fantasy and science fiction, we not only need to see where we are in the real world but also see where an author takes us in a fantasy domain. Huw Lewis-Jones edited a collection of short essays into The Writer’s Map, a large book that takes readers on a journey through Narnia, Medieval Europe, and everywhere in between.

Lewis-Jones collects short essays from over a dozen authors and illustrators to discuss the magic of maps, the importance they play in shaping a story, and how they themselves were captivated by the role maps played in literature as they grew up. Each essay tackles the connection differently, but all center around the common theme that maps are critical, necessary tools in storytelling.

Full of wonderful illustrations and reproductions of maps through history, The Writer’s Map is well worth the time of anyone who enjoys geography and literature.


Friday, February 8, 2019

Circe (Madeline Miller)

Before I read Madeline Miller, I had about as much interest in mythology as I did in sweet potatoes -- that is, none. Last year, a friend of mine told me that I simply "must" read Miller's Orange Prize-winning The Song of Achilles, so reluctantly, I did. I have to say I was shocked by how much I liked it, and most of that is because of Miller's writing style. You can obviously tell she is passionate about this field (and her impressive credentials show this), and she makes what could be a jarring topic totally accessible to her readers. While I did not like Circe quite as much as The Song of Achilles, I still appreciate what this author does very much.

Circe is the goddess daughter of Helios, and let's just say, she is completely misunderstood by her family. She uses her witch powers in a way that is not allowed by Zeus, and so is banished to a deserted island. Everyone thinks this is a punishment, but they don't quite know Circe. Legends and monsters of mythology come in and out of her immortal life: Athena, Odysseus, Hermes, Scylla, the Minotaur, and the like. Miller provides a thorough glossary at the end for those of us who are less than knowledgable on this topic.

Circe is unputdownable until she gets to her island, and then for me, it gets quite dry. But that should certainly not take away from Miller's prowess in making mythology something that everyone can relate to. For who among us hasn't felt like an outsider at some point in our lives?


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Presidents of War (Michael Beschloss)

In case you forgot your Constitutional history, the power to officially declare war resides within Congress. In Presidents of War, author Michael Beschloss has chronicled the history of war and the US Presidency. This book focuses on the increasing source of power within the Presidency to execute war (or actions of war) while Congress has steadily become less and less engaged over the course of American history.

Beschloss starts with the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, which occurred in 1807, and featured Thomas Jefferson’s reaction as a precursor to the first declared war since independence in the War of 1812. The two events set the stage for a gradual evolution in the power of the Presidency from merely executing war upon approval of Congress to actively engaging in it as we did in Vietnam, even without the official declaration. All throughout the book, the reader will see the evolution of power...and the conniving, scheming and occasional dishonesty and civil liberties infringements that went along for the ride. Beschloss relates that one can appreciate the thought that if the Founding Fathers were to appear today they’d be surprised at how far the Presidency has come in its scope of power.

This is a very sound, well-researched book that shows the story of leadership and human nature through the eyes of several Presidents and their supporting cast. It is essential reading, regardless of which party or whoever is in the office.


Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Club (Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg)

The most popular sports league in the world isn’t the NFL; it’s the Premier League in England. This group of 20 soccer (football to most of the world) clubs is viewed weekly in nearly every corner of the world to large audiences, making large sums of money for its member clubs. Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s The Club chronicles the rise of the Premier League over the past quarter of a century.

Prior to the Premier League’s start, English soccer was tied to a four-division setup, with the best teams in each division getting promoted and the worst getting relegated at the end of each season. With 92 different clubs and an array of disparity between historical powers and the local town’s side that wasn’t much more talented than the beer leaguers, English football was losing its competitiveness domestically and globally. The top clubs in England broke away from the others in the early 1990s to form their own league, where they could control TV rights and generate more revenue for themselves. Robinson and Clegg artfully describe the league’s evolution to global force, talking about the international invasion of money and talent that has fueled the league’s rise and also brought about a host of challenges to go with it.

For newly minted fans of soccer who want to learn more about the history of the sport, as well as those who are interested in learning the business side of global soccer, The Club strikes the target effectively. It’s an informative, smart, and witty look at a league that many Americans sort of know about but may not realize just how powerful it truly is in global sport. Just visit a random bar in some far-flung part of the world or a restaurant in the Caribbean on a weekend, and you’ll see just how popular it is. If you can’t do that, read this book and you’ll get that view.


Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Invited (Jennifer McMahon)

I have been reviewing for almost ten years now, and when people ask me who my favorite authors are, Jennifer McMahon is always at the top of my list. Her Island of Lost Girls was one of the very first books I featured here, and what I always say about it is this: don't make the mistake of taking it on vacation with you because you won't want to do anything else but read! With The Invited, McMahon continues with that creepy, haunting vibe she does so well in her books.

Helen and Nate decide to chuck it all and move from the comforts of their Connecticut home to rural Vermont. At first, everything is exciting to them: they buy a piece of land and begin building their beautiful new house. As the days pass, however, they discover the dark history of their land, which includes the hanging of a supposed witch, Hattie Breckinridge. Helen becomes consumed with learning everything there is to know about Hattie and her descendants. In her quest to use salvaged materials with history to design her new home, Helen also inadvertently builds her own haunted house.

McMahon's use of short chapters makes The Invited positively addicting. Readers will be caught between a rock and a hard place: you won't want to know what happens next but you won't be able to stop reading. As far as I'm concerned, McMahon is the queen of the dark, creepy book.


Saturday, January 26, 2019

Someone Like Me (M.R. Carey)

M.R. Carey is perhaps best known for the blockbuster The Girl With All the Gifts, to which he received a ton of rightfully deserved praise. As I said in my review, "Carey energizes the zombie novel with a fresh new approach." Unfortunately, I can't garner the same enthusiasm for his latest, Someone Like Me.

It definitely starts off originally enough. Liz Kendall is a kind woman just trying to bring up her two children away from her abusive ex-husband. That is, until the other side of Liz emerges -- a woman named Beth, who is violent to the extreme. At the same time, we meet Fran, a young girl trying to recover from a traumatic experience with the help of Jinx, a fox only she can see. How Liz, Beth, Fran, and Jinx relate to each other is the essence of Someone Like Me, a book not without its own problems.

To me, this was a slog to get through. I just couldn't get myself invested in the characters to care much one way or the other, even at the book's way-too-long length: 500 pages. There were moments I enjoyed it, but then the ridiculous ending put me right back to my original feelings about it. I can't recommend this one.