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Matt Hill

Matthew Hill has lived his whole life in the Baltimore area, except for all the hours he's spent on other planets, in far off kingdoms, and on top of giant stalks of broccoli. By day he's an Office Assistant in Towson. On weekends he can be found selling beef jerky at the Renaissance Festival or hanging out with sloths and octopuses. He reads science fiction, fantasy, young adult, children's books, and is willing to try most genres at least once.

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Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

posted by:
June 23, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Jurassic ParkThe theatrical release of Jurassic World brings a chance to go back 65 million years to a bygone age when dinosaurs walked the earth. Ever since Sir Richard Owen discovered the first dinosaur in 1828, humans have wondered what it would be like to live alongside these ancient creatures. As science became more widespread, the scenarios that made this possible became more and more far-fetched, from cavemen to entire worlds at the center of the planet. That all changed 25 years ago when Michael Crichton gave us Jurassic Park, backing dinosaur fantasies with hard science and showing us what living with dinosaurs would really be like — terrifying! The book went on to spawn one of the definitive movies of the ’90s, a thriller with unforgettable and horrifying monsters. Almost all of the science was dropped in favor of one of the great Jeff Goldblum roles. Three more sequels were released in the theaters, and one more in book form. So Jurassic Park was huge, but how was it as a book?

 

Every book shifts drastically from page to screen, and Jurassic Park more than most. The book was a morality play on the dangers of unexamined science and karmic retribution, with dinosaurs used as metaphor, the sugar to help the medicine go down.. Characters who expressed scientific views Crichton didn't like were eaten by dinosaurs in very messy ways. A quarter of a century on, many of those views have become outdated. At the time, the warm-blooded vs. cold-blooded debate was barely common knowledge, and the idea that many dinosaurs would have feathers was barely crossing paleontologist desks, much less the public consciousness.

 

Fortunately, the book has dinosaurs, and it has dinosaurs in far greater quantities than any of the movies. In a movie, a Tyrannosaurus Rex costs millions of dollars. In literature, a Tyrannosaurus Rex costs 16 letters. The result is dozens more dinosaur encounters in a wider range of species. Jurassic Park is the definitive adult dinosaur novel.

 

Matt

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The Dragons at Crumbling Castle

The Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry PratchettEarlier this year, we lost one of the greats. Terry Pratchett was a satirist worthy of being commented on in the same breath as Mark Twain. The only British author to outsell him was J.K. Rowling. Pratchett wasn't always huge though, and that's how you arrive full circle at The Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett. It is a collection of the short stories that Sir Terry first published when he was just a starting journalist for the Bucks Free Press.

 

Most of Pratchett's infamy comes from the Discworld, a world carried on the back of four elephants which naturally stand on the back of a massive turtle. The Discworld gave birth to Rincewind, the least magical wizard ever, an orangutan librarian, a kind but often confused Death, witches, watchmen and dozens upon dozens of novels — and wordplay so brilliant that no one can catch every nuance on the first reading. (Fortunately there's enough in every book to make multiple readings an entirely enjoyable venture.) The Discworld exists as a satire of the world we live in, covering everything from holidays, feminism, religion and a million other sacred cows poked with both anger and understanding. Pratchett came to be known for fantasy that hit close to home. The Dragons of Crumbling Castle is far closer to home.

 

Meet corrupt small town politicians cooking the local egg dancing competition. There is a pet tortoise that only wants freedom. The book has wacky races and the enduring question of what Santa Claus would do if he wasn't Santa Claus. (Apparently, nothing well.) Two of the stories here went on to lead to Sir Terry's first novel The Carpet People, about tiny, tiny people who live amongst the strands of the carpet fiber and are forced to move when the Fray gets too close. It turns out that even when he was young, Pratchett understood that the world was more than slightly mad. These are light enough stories that I'd recommend them for parents reading to their children, and the entire book has been enthusiastically illustrated by Mark Beech.

 

We're not done with Pratchett yet. He has at least two more finished books coming out this year.

Matt

 
 

A Twist That Goes Bump in the Night

A Plague of BoglesVictorian London was a nasty place to be if you had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the economic divide. It gets worse, however, if you're stuck in a part of town where there's a bogle – nebulous, unpredictable monsters who eat children left alone. Get stuck while sweeping a chimney? There might be a bogle there ready to eat you. Go down to fetch something from the cellar? Better hope that if you're alone, you're really alone. There is only one way to hunt bogles, and that's to bait a trap with a child who must sing with their back to the bogle until the bogle is exposed enough to be killed by a poisoned weapon. As bogles descend upon London, Catherine Jinks has woven a light but effective bit of period horror in A Plague of Bogles.

 

Jem Barbary has his sights set on the prestigious job, at least by the level of unlucky London, job of bogler's boy. He wants to be the bait for Alfred Bunce, London's only remaining bogler, semi-retired. After the events of How to Catch a Bogle, Jem has decided to give up crime. He used to be a pickpocket in a Fagin ring, but he hasn't given up playing whatever angle he can think of. Unfortunately, that seems to involve a whole lot of lying and leading publicity back to people who'd rather keep their heads down. He's also out for revenge against his former mistress, Sarah Pickles.

 

Like a good ghost story, A Plague of Bogles is both scary and fun. London is full of colorful characters trying to survive on a few cents a day. Street patter is used so fluidly that there's a large glossary at the end of the book just to make the dialogue clear. Jem Barbary and all the supporting cast are great characters, wildly flawed but determined. The standout passages, though, go to the bogle hunting. Every single time is a slow boil, impending, but certain, doom creeping up until just the last moment when everything snaps like a mousetrap.

Matt

 
 

What If

What If

posted by:
May 4, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for What If?There is a certain kind of mad science that takes great joy in things exploding, imploding, melting, burning and otherwise flying around violently. If that sounds exciting, Randall Munroe's What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is for you. The answers are fast, easily understood and amusingly illustrated.

 

A former NASA engineer, Munroe has made his name as the creator of xkcd, one of the most successful webcomics. Three times a week he releases a strip, or something like a strip, (there have been some really wild experiments on the artform that will never be printable in any meaningful way). He covers science, mathematics, engineering, computer programming, romance, language, pop culture and velociraptors. As a public figure who is recognized as being good at science, he gets a lot of questions on scientific ideas, and has compiled quite a few of those questions into a book.

 

Questions answered here include:

  •  Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?
  •  If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
  •  From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked by the time it hit the ground?

 

Munroe then proceeds to answer most of these questions with three to five pages of information, full of gleefully horrifying explosions, scientific laws, formulas and an explanation of how he got the answer based on experiments people have done before. Also included are the surprisingly complex stick figure drawings he uses to illustrate his webcomic. The result is quick, smart and guaranteed to make you the life of the party.

 

And for a palette cleanser, also included are several of the questions that didn't make it into the book, such as:

  •  Would it be possible to stop a volcanic eruption by placing a bomb (thermobaric or nuclear) underneath the surface?

  •  What if everyone in Great Britain went to one of the coasts and started paddling? Could they move the island at all?

 

Apparently, there are questions so ridiculous that they don't need answers.

Matt

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Locked Out of a Good Book

Unbound: Magic ex Libris: Book Three by Jim C. HinesThe central conceit of Jim C. Hines' Magic ex Libris series is that practitioners of magic can pull tools out of books, creating arsenals of the wildest ideas that authors have ever come up with. Consider the benefit of Lucy's magic cordial from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a potion that can heal all wounds and sickness with just a drop, or the devastating power of Robert Jordan's balefire, a fire so strong that it doesn't just destroy its target, but erases it and all its works from existence. For years, Isaac Vainio was a Porter, a magical librarian tasked with keeping the public from knowing that magic even exists. In Unbound, book three in the Magic ex Libris series, the lid gets blown off so far that there's no chance magic will ever be secret again.

 

The value of the secret of magic is small compared to the incoming threat. An ancient queen has re-awoken, possessed the body of the only libriomancer who has so far figured out how to tap into e-books and started a rampage that should eventually result in a collapse of mortality and a whole lot of destruction. In her path: a former mage, the most kick-butt dryad to ever grace the pages of literature, a cranky psychiatrist not sure any of her extended family has any business in the field and the rapidly collapsing network of the Porters.

 

The greatest brilliance of Unbound may take place between the chapters, in one or two page stories that perfectly capture the fear and excitement of a world waking up to magic in its midst. As YouTubers fight over the special effects used in videos, wizards sneak into cancer wards and family members berate people for not doing enough when they had the power. It's exhilarating, heart-breaking and hopefully a promise of a fourth book set in the completely shattered status quo.

Matt

 
 

The Zoo at the Edge of the World

The Zoo at the Edge of the World

posted by:
April 16, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Zoo at the End of the WorldMarlin Rackham comes from a proud lineage. His father is one of the great explorers, the conqueror and defender of the jungle of South America. Ronan Rackham owns The Zoo at the Edge of the World, a collection of jungle animals built on a temple in British Guiana. Unfortunately for Marlin, he has a severe stutter and can only clearly speak to the animals around him. When his father brings a jaguar out of the jungle, suddenly the animals are able to talk back. Author Eric Kahn Gale asks big questions while crafting a story that is more Heart of Darkness than Doctor Dolittle.

 

Marlin's life isn't easy. His brother is an unmitigated bully. His father is a legend. Everyone thinks he's an idiot because he can't speak. When a powerful duke brings his family to the zoo and a man-eating jaguar is captured for exhibition, Marlin gets caught in the middle of British colonial politics. What is a boy to do when he can't speak, but understands entire sides to the conflicts that no one else is even aware of?

 

The tour program is interspersed regularly, providing a counterpoint to what actually happens in the story at any time. As the zoo goes farther and farther off schedule, the attempt to write puff pieces becomes ludicrous. This is a delightfully dark children’s book recommended for readers of Kipling's The Jungle Book. It's frightening and realistic, and follows the implications of its magic through. In a world where animals can talk across species lines, they still need to eat each other.

Matt

 
 

Irish Piracy

Irish Piracy

posted by:
April 7, 2015 - 7:00am

1636: Commander Cantrell in the West IndiesThe United States of Europe needs oil, so it’s off to the New World for Eddie Cantrell, his wife Anne Catherine, a company of Irish mercenaries and the local Dutch fleet. Welcome to the Ring of Fire Universe, where a small West Virginian town was dropped into the middle of the Germanies in the Thirty Years’ War, founding the United States over a hundred years early. It is a massive shared universe in 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies by Eric Flint and Chuck Gannon.

 

When Eric Flint wrote 1632, it was a simple lark — throwing modern machinery and freedom of religion in Europe, hitting blend and seeing what amusing anachronisms popped out. The universe runs off of three main rules.  First, modern technology runs into Arthur C. Clarke’s Superiority paradox. It may be superior, but if it can’t be repaired or replaced easily, it’s no good in the long term. Second, history books have given all the major players an idea of who’s going to matter over the next few decades, and they can alter their plans accordingly. Third, small people can change the course of empires too, especially as Europe struggles with the ideas of democracy and freedom of religion. To add the kind of depth this premise is capable of, Flint threw open the doors, allowing other authors to first write short stories and collaborative novels. The universe got even bigger, and now there are over 20 novels focused on a wide variety of plot threads, and anthologies of meticulously researched fan stories. Quite a few authors got their starts writing for the Ring of Fire universe. It is living history.

 

1636 takes place around the Tar Lake of Trinidad, one of the more easily accessible oil fields of the world. Real politik leads the Wild Geese of Ireland, late of Spain, to found a new Irish Kingdom. Expect lengthy explanations of technology and politics, often more than plot or forward momentum. But that’s a big part of the reason the universe exists: to watch things being built in different directions.

Matt

 
 

Monster Mash

Monster Mash

posted by:
April 1, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Monster Hunter: NemesisAgent Franks has been a part of the Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia since the beginning. When Owen Pitt killed his first werewolf, Agent Franks was the bad cop sent in to try and make him play nice. When the things that go bump in the night try to bump the United States, Agent Franks is the bloodiest line of defense. When demons need punching, when eldritch horrors try to sneak into our reality, Agent Franks lays down the firepower. He’s the sort of character who gets respect, not out of any charisma, but because he’s the hardest man in the fight. Monster Hunter: Nemesis is Franks’ time in the spotlight.

 

Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter has always been a series about taking down horrors through superior firepower. It’s a red-blooded fantasy where the guns are described in loving detail, the gore splatters all over the page and combat is frequently about punching until there’s only one thing left standing. Franks has always been one of the most interesting parts of that, a die-hard take on Frankenstein’s monster, but he’s spent most of his time in the series as a spectacularly awesome roadblock and sometimes ally.

 

There has always been one line that couldn’t be crossed with Franks. Actually, there have been a lot of lines, because he’s pretty unpleasant to everyone around him, but only one hard line that allows Franks to go rogue. No others like Franks are allowed to be created. Naturally, that is also a line that is charged over with abandon. So what does a six-foot-something, 300-pound wall of muscle and regeneration do when faced with a frame job and betrayal? If your hope was blow it up and punch it out, not necessarily in that order, you’re in for a treat.

 

Matt

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Shape Shift and Trick the Past Again

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'MalleyKatie’s having a rough time in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds. Her restaurant just keeps getting farther and farther behind, her ex-boyfriend has started showing up at her job and, in one phenomenally disastrous evening, one of her waitresses gets burned — and it’s her fault. She gets lucky, though. In a small box in the back of her dresser, she finds a mushroom and a notepad that allow her to rewrite a day that went wrong. Things improve so much that she ignores the rule about only making one wish. That’s when things start to get weird.

 

O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series was one of the biggest comics of the past decade, a rampaging tour-de-force that fused relationships, video game mechanics, a Toronto setting and indie music. Seconds is a quieter story, more focused on the tail end of one’s 20s. Reality may warp, but this is a story about homes, families and making a place in the world, not just falling into one. When Katie uses a mushroom to undo all the time apart from her boyfriend, she winds up in a relationship that doesn’t work because she hasn’t been present for it. Homes need to be built, not cheated into.

 

When O’Malley created Scott Pilgrim, he published in black and white, creating art that went for dynamism over nuance. Seconds is a full-color print in soft reds and pinks, navy blues and ochres. Even though Seconds is set during a Canadian winter, this is a warm book. Scott Pilgrim made fighting a metaphor for personal history. Seconds toys more with security and running away, using that soft palette to shade in the nuances of what it means to both screw up a home and grow up enough to fix your mistakes.

Matt

 
 

Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land

posted by:
March 10, 2015 - 8:00am

Ambassador by Gabe FuentesIn William Alexander's Ambassador, Gabe Fuentes is an illegal alien. The Envoy is an extraterrestrial alien. Together, they might just have a chance at saving Earth.

 

Gabe is a quiet, competent boy, used to juggling his family, school and friends in such a way that he causes the minimal amount of trouble. He thinks things through before he acts in the most efficient manner. These traits, and the fact that he’s still “neotenous,” young enough to be open-minded, land him the almost completely powerless but absolutely necessary position of “Ambassador of Earth.” When he sleeps, his entangled mind is transported to a dreamscape populated by the children of every sentient culture in the galaxy, and sculpted to make sense to the mind of the viewer. Gabe sees his ambassadorship as a large playground, and so long as he doesn’t look at them sideways and break the illusion, all of the other ambassadors look like Earth children.

 

He’s going to need to figure out this interstellar diplomacy stuff fast. Space pirates are trying to kill him. A hostile alien force is marching across his stellar neighborhood on a campaign of purification. The cops just pulled his father over on a routine traffic violation and are going to deport his parents. His house just blew up. He’s not alone. His family are survivors. His best friend’s family has had back-up plans for him for years. Gabe also has the Envoy, a morphing blob who speaks in his mother’s voice, both helping him negotiate and throwing him into the path of pirates and genocidal conquerors.

 

William Alexander throws out invention after wild glorious invention, but grounds them in the normal family life of people outside the law. Gabe is a kid like a thousand other kids, marginalized by the laws of a country that doesn’t want to accept he even exists. He may save the day, but that might create even bigger problems. Expect the sequel in September of 2015.

Matt

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