Book Review: Only Human, by Sylvain Neuvel

The conclusion of the giant alien robots trilogy.

Only Human

Del Rey Books, 2018, 336 pages

Brilliant scientist Rose Franklin has devoted her adult life to solving the mystery she accidentally stumbled upon as a child: a huge metal hand buried beneath the ground outside Deadwood, South Dakota. The discovery set in motion a cataclysmic chain of events with geopolitical ramifications. Rose and the Earth Defense Corps raced to master the enigmatic technology, as giant robots suddenly descended on Earth’s most populous cities, killing one hundred million people in the process. Though Rose and her team were able to fend off the attack, their victory was short-lived. The mysterious invaders retreated, disappearing from the shattered planet...but they took the scientist and her crew with them.

Now, after nearly 10 years on another world, Rose returns to find a devastating new war - this time between humans. America and Russia are locked in combat, fighting to fill the power vacuum left behind after the invasion. Families are torn apart, friends become bitter enemies, and countries collapse in the wake of the battling superpowers. It appears the aliens left behind their titanic death machines so humankind will obliterate itself. Rose is determined to find a solution, whatever it takes. But will she become a pawn in a doomsday game no one can win?

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Also by Sylvain Neuvel: My reviews of Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: The Stand-In, by Lily Chu

A look-alike for a hot Chinese actress gets to pretend to be her and fall in love with her hot co-star.

The Stand-In

Audible Originals


  • Get fired by gross, handsy boss

  • Fail to do laundry (again)

  • Be mistaken for famous Chinese actress

  • Fall headfirst into glitzy new world

Gracie Reed is doing just fine. Sure, she was fired by her overly "friendly" boss, and, yes, she still hasn’t gotten her mother into the nursing home of their dreams, but she’s healthy, she’s (somewhat) happy, and she’s (mostly) holding it all together.

But when a mysterious SUV pulls up beside her, revealing Chinese cinema's golden couple Wei Fangli and Sam Yao, Gracie’s world is turned on its head. The famous actress has a proposition: due to their uncanny resemblance, Fangli wants Gracie to be her stand-in. The catch? Gracie will have to be escorted by Sam, the most attractive—and infuriating—man Gracie’s ever met.

If it means getting the money she needs for her mother, Gracie’s in. Soon Gracie moves into a world of luxury she never knew existed. But resisting Sam, and playing the role of an elegant movie star, proves more difficult than she ever imagined—especially when she learns the real reason Fangli so desperately needs her help. In the end, all the lists in the world won’t be able to help Gracie keep up this elaborate ruse without losing herself...and her heart.

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My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham

POTUS #7 was a magnificent, bloody bastard.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Random House, 2008, 483 pages

Andrew Jackson, his intimate circle of friends, and his tumultuous times are at the heart of this remarkable book about the man who rose from nothing to create the modern presidency.

Beloved and hated, venerated and reviled, Andrew Jackson was an orphan who fought his way to the pinnacle of power, bending the nation to his will in the cause of democracy. Jackson's election in 1828 ushered in a new and lasting era in which the people, not distant elites, were the guiding force in American politics. Democracy made its stand in the Jackson years, and he gave voice to the hopes and the fears of a restless, changing nation facing challenging times at home and threats abroad.

One of our most significant yet dimly recalled presidents, Jackson was a battle-hardened warrior, the founder of the Democratic Party, and the architect of the presidency as we know it. His story is one of violence, sex, courage, and tragedy. With his powerful persona, his evident bravery, and his mystical connection to the people, Jackson moved the White House from the periphery of government to the center of national action, articulating a vision of change that challenged entrenched interests to heed the popular will or face his formidable wrath. The greatest of the presidents who have followed Jackson in the White House have found inspiration in his example, and virtue in his vision.

Jackson was the most contradictory of men. The architect of the removal of Indians from their native lands, he was warmly sentimental and risked everything to give more power to ordinary citizens. He was, in short, a lot like his country: alternately kind and vicious, brilliant and blind; and a man who fought a lifelong war to keep the republic safe, no matter what it took.

Jon Meacham, in American Lion, has delivered the definitive human portrait of a pivotal president who forever changed the American presidency and America itself.

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Also by Jon Meacham: My review of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Crimson Lake Road, by Victor Methos

The serial killer's ex-wife keeps running into serial killers.

Crimson Lake Road

Thomas & Mercer, 2021, 375 pages

Bestselling author Victor Methos’s acclaimed series continues as prosecutor Jessica Yardley races to catch an art-obsessed serial killer before she becomes his next masterpiece.

Retiring prosecutor Jessica Yardley can’t turn down one last investigation. This time, it’s a set of murders inspired by a series of grisly paintings called The Night Things. She’s the only one who can catch the killer, who’s left a trail of bodies in a rural community outside of Las Vegas.

But the more Jessica finds out, the less clear her case becomes. Out of options, she’s forced to consult her serial killer ex-husband - to gain additional insight into the crimes and the killer’s motivations.

By the time Jessica realizes that pursuing this case is a deadly mistake, it’s too late to turn back. Can she catch the killer, or will she be the final addition to a killer’s masterpiece?

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Also by Victor Methos: My reviews of The Neon Lawyer and A Killer's Wife.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Ship of Smoke and Steel, by Django Wexler

A YA heroine does a science-fantasy dungeoncrawl and gets her gay on.

Ship of Smoke and Steel

Tor Teen, 2019, 352 pages

Ship of Smoke and Steel is the launch of Django Wexler's cinematic, action-packed epic fantasy Wells of Sorcery trilogy.

In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, 18-year-old ward boss Isoka enforces the will of her criminal masters with the power of Melos, the Well of Combat. The money she collects goes to keep her little sister living in comfort, far from the bloody streets they grew up on. When Isoka's magic is discovered by the government, she's arrested and brought to the Emperor's spymaster, who sends her on an impossible mission: Steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship - a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.

On board Soliton, nothing is as simple as it seems. Isoka tries to get close to the ship's mysterious captain, but to do it, she must become part of the brutal crew and join their endless battles against twisted creatures. She doesn't expect to have to contend with feelings for a charismatic fighter who shares her combat magic, or for a fearless princess who wields an even darker power.

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My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Orders of Battle, by Marko Kloos

The seventh book in Kloos's long-running Mil-SF series adds a twist to milk it for a while yet.

Orders of Battle

47North, 2020, 269 pages

The battle against the Lankies has been won. Earth seems safe. Peacetime military? Not on your life.

It’s been four years since Earth threw its full military prowess against the Lanky incursion. Humanity has been yanked back from the abyss of extinction. The solar system is at peace. For now.

The future for Major Andrew Grayson of the Commonwealth Defense Corps and his wife, Halley? Flying desk duty on the front. No more nightmares of monstrous things. No more traumas to the mind and body. But when an offer comes down from above, Andrew has to make a choice: continue pushing papers into retirement, or jump right back into the fight? What’s a podhead to do?

The remaining Lankies may have retreated in fear, but the threat isn’t over. They need to be wiped out for good before they strike again. That’ll take a new offensive deployment. Aboard an Avenger warship, Andrew and the special tactics team under his command embark on the ultimate search-and-destroy mission. This time, it’ll be on Lanky turf.

No big heroics. No unnecessary risks. Just a swift hit-and-run raid in the hostile Capella system. Blow the alien seed ships into oblivion and get the hell back to Earth. At least, that’s the objective. But when does anything in war go according to plan?

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Also by Marko Kloos: My reviews of Terms of Enlistment, Lines of Departure, Angles of Attack, Chains of Command, Fields of Fire, Points of Impact, and Aftershocks.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation, by Harlow Giles Unger

The man who made the Supreme Court.

John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation

Da Capo Press, 2014, 384 pages

A soul-stirring biography of John Marshall, the young Republic's great chief justice who led the Supreme Court to power and brought law and order to the nation.

In the political turmoil that convulsed America after George Washington's death, the surviving Founding Fathers went mad - literally pummeling each other in Congress and challenging one another to deadly duels in their quest for power. Out of the political intrigue, one man emerged to restore calm and dignity to the government: John Marshall. The longest-serving chief justice in American history, Marshall transformed the Supreme Court from an irrelevant appeals court into the powerful and controversial branch of government that Americans today either revere or despise.

Drawing on rare documents, Harlow Giles Unger shows how, with nine key decisions, Marshall rewrote the Constitution, reshaped government, and prevented Thomas Jefferson from turning tyrant. John Adams called his appointment of Marshall to chief justice his greatest gift to the nation and "the pride of my life".

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Also by Harlow Giles Unger: My reviews of John Quincy Adams, Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, and Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman.

My complete list of book reviews.
Alexandra Quick

AQATWW: Mid-Year Progress Report

I thought Alexandra Quick and the World Away was a little bloated. There were definitely readers who thought that some sections could have been trimmed.

AQATWA was a weird book to write, weird in part because it took me seven years to write it. All the previous AQ books got shorter after revision. Usually the final manuscript ends up 3% to 8% smaller than the first draft.

AQATWA got longer.

ChaptersWord CountWords/ChapterPages
AQATSA392523136469.6934 (est.)
AQATWA592896684909.61073 (est.)

I expanded some sections. I added a few new ones. And of course, rewrote others. Much of this was due to beta reader input (they didn't tell me to write more!), but I ended up with more material that I just didn't want to cut. AQATWA was my longest book yet, and I promised myself I would not let each book become more bloated. AQATWW would be leaner and...

Right now it's at 220,000 words with 41 chapters written, and 60 chapters outlined. It keeps getting bigger!

It may be trimmed with some ruthless editing. My beta readers might convince me to cut the Buffy the Vampire Slayer cross-over in the middle (...that's a joke). But right now, book six is looking like it will be even bigger than book five.

Some professional authors develop a tendency to become "too big to edit." J.K. Rowling is a chief offender, and I don't just mean Harry Potter -- the latest Cormoran Strike book was almost a thousand pages, for a mystery novel! And fan fiction or web serial authors can write as much as we darn well please. We don't even have editors or publishers to set limits.

(Why do I mention web serials? I've tried reading a couple, including Worm. Most would be greatly improved with leaner writing and tighter editing.)

Some fans love every bit of extraneous detail and subplot. For every reader who thought the Ozark sequence went on too long, there seems to be another who'd like me to write much more about Ozarkers. (Though there seemed uniform agreement that the Pruett School sequence was boring and no one cared about all those new Day School students. Which is a shame because I have detailed background stories about all of them, but like a good GMauthor I didn't try to dump it all in the story.)

However, I don't want my last two books to become bloated and self-indulgent, so hopefully I'll be able to identify parts that can be cut.

F-bombs per book.png
Keeping a PG rating will cut at least four words.

I've got at least one side trip that, while I like very much, is probably a candidate for the chopping block. But right now I feel like the storyline is even less linear than usual, even though, ironically, I have done more outlining with this book than any of the previous ones.

I've never been a devotee of dramatic devices like the Three Act Structure or Freytag's Pyramid, though I think my plotting is generally pretty conventional. But right now I feel like AQATWW is missing some structure. It's an episodic collection of Alexandra's adventures rather than a rising narrative. This is a deficiency I'll have to correct, along with the bloat. And of course I still have a bunch of fuzzy resolutions and plot holes to fix.

Notwithstanding my self-criticism, I think the book overall is good. Events build on one another, things that have been developing for a long time blow up, and there is enough angst, drama, and magical WMDs being unleashed to satisfy shippers and epic fantasy fans alike. ("Satisfy" meaning you'll get plenty of it. I make no promises that any shippers are going to be happy…)

And I'm getting to the hard part. Start your dead pools now.

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Book Review: Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman, by Harlow Giles Unger

The man who would be President but never was.

Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman

Da Capo Press, 2015, 320 pages

A compelling new biography of America's most powerful speaker of the House, who held the divided nation together for three decades and who was Lincoln's guiding light.

In a little-known chapter of early American history, a fearless Kentucky lawyer rids Congress of corruption and violence in an era when congressmen debated with bullets as well as ballots. Harlow Giles Unger reveals how Henry Clay, the youngest congressman ever elected speaker of the House, rewrote congressional rules and established the speaker as the most powerful elected official after the president.

During five decades of public service - as congressman, senator, secretary of state, and four-time presidential candidate - Clay produced historic compromises that postponed civil war for 50 years. Lincoln called Clay "the man for whom I fought all my life".

An action-packed narrative history, Henry Clay is the story of one of the most courageous congressmen in American history.

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Also by Harlow Giles Unger: My reviews of John Quincy Adams and Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry, by Harlow Giles Unger

One of the most famous Founding Fathers who never became President.

Lion of Liberty: The Life and Times of Patrick Henry

Da Capo Press, 2010, 322 pages

Known to generations of Americans for his stirring call to arms, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry is all but forgotten today as the first of the Founding Fathers to call for independence, the first to call for revolution, and the first to call for a bill of rights. If Washington was the “Sword of the Revolution” and Jefferson, “the Pen”, Patrick Henry more than earned his epithet as “the Trumpet” of the Revolution for rousing Americans to arms in the Revolutionary War. Henry was one of the towering figures of the nation’s formative years and perhaps the greatest orator in American history.

To this day, many Americans misunderstand what Patrick Henry’s cry for “liberty or death” meant to him and to his tens of thousands of devoted followers in Virginia. A prototype of the 18th- and 19th-century American frontiersman, Henry claimed individual liberties as a “natural right” to live free of “the tyranny of rulers”—American, as well as British. Henry believed that individual rights were more secure in small republics than in large republics, which many of the other Founding Fathers hoped to create after the Revolution.

Henry was one of the most important and colorful of our Founding Fathers—a driving force behind three of the most important events in American history: the War of Independence, the enactment of the Bill of Rights, and, tragically, as America’s first important proponent of states’ rights, the Civil War.

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Also by Harlow Giles Unger: My review of John Quincy Adams.

My complete list of book reviews.