#16 Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (2013)

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In January of 1959, nine experienced Russian hikers lead by twenty-three old Igor Dyatlov began a hiking expedition deep into the Ural Mountains. Weeks later, all nine hikers were found dead under mysterious circumstances, scattered throughout the snow without proper clothing, bearing strange injuries, and with traces of radiation on their clothing. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this occurrence has become a popular unsolved mystery. Everything from an avalanche to the KGB to the yeti to UFOs has been suggested to try and figure out what happened to the nine hikers. When documentary maker Donnie Eichar’s imagination is sparked by this story, he delves into the case files, flies to Russia, and even attempts to recreate the Dyatlov group’s journey in order to find a definitive explanation for the incident.

I first learned about the Dyatlov Pass Incident through a 2013 found-footage horror film called Devil’s Pass. The film is actually pretty good if you are a fan of found-footage horror films, and I was immediately intrigued by the unsolved mystery of the Russian hikers. I fell down a Wikipedia hole and tried to learn everything I could about it. I am a junkie for unsolved mysteries, so this was a delightful new find. When I heard about Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain, I immediately put myself on a wait list at my local library for the chance to learn more about this strange occurence.

Eichar’s book reads like a written version of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. He sets roughly half of the chapters in 1959, recreating the last few days of the doomed hikers. He manages to put a human face on the young Russian students, and uses diary entries and photographs to paint a picture of a group of young people who are passionate about nature and enthusiastic about life in general. This easily answers the most obvious question, which is why in the world nine people would go hiking in northern Russia in the middle of winter. Eichar also gives us a broad stroke lesson on the historical context of the time. Stalin has recently died, and while Russia is still under the heavy hand of Communism, the country is slowly healing from the cultural and military wars of the previous decade. These chapters are interspersed with others set in 1959, and told from the perspective of the rescue team workers who are utterly baffled by strange deaths of the nine young hikers.

The rest of the book takes places in 2012. We follow Eichar as he chases down lead after lead. He manages to track down Yuri Kuntsevich, the president of the Dyatlov Foundation. He flies to Russia and somehow secures an interview with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the original Dyatlov team who had to turn back on the first day due to illness and therefore managed to escape the fate of his friends.

Eichar manages to avoid the “conspiracy nut” path that I think could have been very easy to follow. He immediately discredits the idea that the mountain the hikers were found on (Holatchahl) is supposedly cursed by the local native groups and named “The Mountain of the Dead”. He argues that this is a mistranslation, and the mountain is in fact called “Dead Mountain” due to the fact that nothing grows on it. He discounts the theories of aliens and yetis without giving them much thought. Eichar is utterly practical and devoted to legitimate research and citable sources. He devotes a sizable chunk of the book to methodically listing out all of the possible things that could have caused the deaths of the Dyatlov party and systemically ruling them out. Afterwards, he presents his own theory which he believes can finally explain what happened on that February night. Whether or not you choose to believe him is left up to the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because it appealed to the part of me that loves the inexplicable. I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps not on a ski trip.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Dead Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#11 Communion by Whitley Strieber (1988)

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“Mister Mulder, why are those like yourself, who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life on this Earth, not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary?”

“Because, all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive.”

“Precisely”

The X-Files (1993-2002)

Reading Whitley’s Strieber’s Communion, this quote from The X-Files kept flashing into my mind. According to the preface, this book was considered highly controversial when it was released in 1988. However, thirty years of science fiction in the form of the aforementioned TV show, as well as other television programs such as Falling Skies and V, films such as The Fourth Kind and Dark Skies, and even children’s books such as the Animorphs series have all prepped my imagination to accept the idea of alien abduction and invasion with a far more open mind than would have been normal at this time of this book’s publication. I did not find anything particularly “shocking” between the pages of Communion.

Instead, I was left wondering how many of the alien abduction tropes that pop up in so much of pop culture originated, or were at least fueled by Strieber’s memoir. The running theme of anal probing makes an appearance, as does the idea of owls as a screen memory for the alien visitors. The unnaturally thin aliens with huge black eyes that are depicted here are the same ones that people have been describing for decades.

Communion is split into roughly three parts. The first segment details the events that forced Strieber to wonder if he was being taken by “visitors”. (Note: he rarely uses the word “aliens” and instead offers up several theories that these beings aren’t from outer space at all). Strieber is able to give an immense about of detail about the physical appearance of these visitors and everything that was done to him one night in December of 1986. These early chapters are probably the most interesting, but also read the most like fiction.

The second segment deals with Strieber trying to figure out if he is losing his mind. He visits hypnotherapists and discovers repressed memories of these visitors from his early childhood. There are full transcripts offered from these hypnosis session, which are stream-of-consciousness in style and incredibly difficult to follow. (Note: We also know now that hypnotherapy is an incredibly imprecise branch of psychiatry, and can often result in the placing of false memories inside the mind of the patient). Strieber then wonders if he has epilepsy, and explores that route through a variety of medical professionals. Strieber adamantly wants his readers to believe that he explored every viable medical and scientific option to explain away his memories before he was forced to admit that he truly was being taken against his will by visitors. (Note: The now popular explanation of sleep paralysis is never explored, possibly because it was not fully understood in the late 1980’s).

The third section of Communion is the gathering of witnesses. Strieber convinces his wife to undergo hypnosis, and her transcripts seem to corroborate his account. We are then presented with transcripts from group sessions, wherein Strieber and other self-proclaimed abductees compare and contrast their various stories. This part was actually very interesting, and the strange similarities between the stories are worth a second look.

The last twenty pages go completely off the rails. This was the only part of the book where I thought that Strieber may have been under the influence of a great deal of marijuana. He uses obscure Aztec, Hindu, and Sumerian poetry to discuss the importance of the duality and trinity of life. He uses the mystery of the Sphinx to talk about the idea of ascending to a higher state of consciousness. He throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and then tosses the kitchen sink in for good measure. While reading the final section of Communion, I found myself wishing that I too were under the influence of a great deal of marijuana.

It is completely impossible when reading Communion to leave your preconceptions at the door. If you are a hardcore skeptic, than the memoir will read as the ramblings of an attention-seeking man spouting nonsense. The fact that Whitley Strieber was a moderately successful horror writer before the publication of this book is a pretty damning black mark in favor of the skeptics. If you are an affirmed believer in UFOs and abduction theories, than this book will only confirm and intensify your previously held beliefs. Personally, I’ve always tried to maintain an open mind when it comes to the unexplained things experienced on the Earth. It is impossible to prove a negative, therefore I cannot state with any certainty that Earth hasn’t been visited by creatures from another world. Therefore, I left Communion with very much the same opinions that I entered with. Alien abduction is a possibility, but not a likely one.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Communion here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#8 The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)

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Jeannette Walls is born to parents Rex and Rose Mary Walls somewhere in the desert in 1960. At the age of three, she is hospitalized for severe burns acquired from boiling water for hot dogs after her mother refused to make her lunch. Before she has had time to heal properly, her father snatches her out of the hospital, claiming that doctors cannot be trusted. Her family flees in the night. It is not the first nor the last time they will do a “skedaddle”.

So begins The Glass Castle, a powerful memoir of a nomadic childhood spent in the type of crushing poverty most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Jeannette is raised as the ultimate “free range” child, whose sporadic education and lack of stability are touted as a wonderful adventure by her parents. Rex Walls is a manipulative alcoholic who steals from his family while at the same time drawing them dreams of a “glass castle” that they will all live in once he’s struck gold. Literally. His plan is to strike gold in the deserts of Arizona. Rose Mary Walls is a monster of selfishness who feels smothered by the needs of motherhood and would rather watch her four children go for days without food than lift a finger from her “artistic ambitions” to help them.

The only thing I can say in support of Jeannette’s parents is that they ensured she was educated. Not in the conventional sense, but all of the Walls children are well read and are taught to think and understand science, history, and mathematics at an advanced level. Rex Walls, for all of his faults, seems to have been an extraordinarily intelligent man. Which begs the question, what’s more dangerous, a dumb drunk or a smart one?

“When the electricity was on, we ate a lot of beans. A big bag of pinto beans cost under a dollar and would feed us for days. They tasted especially good if you added a spoonful of mayonnaise. We also ate a lot of rice mixed with jack mackerel, which Mom said was excellent brain food. Jack mackerel was not as good as tuna, but was better than cat food, which we ate from time to time when things got really tight.”

This book left me drained. By the time I finished the last page and closed its covers, I felt like I had run an emotional marathon from anger to despair to wild hope and back to fury again. You could group this memoir into chapters labeled by the five stages of grief. We begin with a young Jeannette who loves her Daddy more than anything in the world and is his stalwart supporter even after he throws the family cat out of a moving car. We move with her through anger as she lashes out as her parents for their lack of support, to bargaining as she desperately tries to get her father to stop drinking. We then sink into depression when she realizes that her parents love themselves more than they could ever love any of their children. We finally reach acceptance, where Jeannette realizes that she needs to cut ties with her family if she is ever going to have any semblance of a normal life.

I don’t have children, but most of my peers do and I’ve heard countless stories about the amount of sacrifice required to become a parent. It is taken as a matter of course that a parent will have to put their own needs and ambitions on hold to ensure that the tiny humans they have created are well provided for. The Glass Castle is an example of two people who refuse to do that, and instead seem to view their children as small humans who just happen to live with them. It’s also the story of how Jeannette and her siblings refused to succumb to the cycle of poverty. The Glass Castle was equal parts depressing and uplifting. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can The Glass Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2017, it was also attempted into a film starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

#5 The World of LORE: Monstrous Creatures by Aaron Mahnke (2017)

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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” H. P. Lovecraft “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Humanity has always had a strange fascination with the supernatural. Think of how many movies are produced every year featuring vampires, werewolves, and other creatures that lurk in the shadows. Even when the vampires sparkle and the werewolves are giant puppies, they remain an important aspect of our culture. Aaron Mahnke’s popular bi-weekly podcast, LORE, delves into the historical context surrounding the myths and legends of the supernatural that have become a part of our collective social consciousness. This book is a collection of roughly thirty transcripts from the LORE podcasts, many of which have been combined with beautiful illustrations.

Mahnke covers a lot of ground in a little under three hundred pages. He explores the folklore surrounding the most popular supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, ghosts, and werewolves, as well as some of the lesser known myths such as the Wendigo, the Jersey Devil, and the Mothman. One of my favorite entries describes the account of Robert the Doll, a  well-documented precursor to the Annabelle legend popularized by The Conjuring movies. Some of these stories take place rather close to home. One account, for example, cites the legend of the Beast of Bray Road that is meant to haunt the woods near Elkhorn, Wisconsin. I’ve driven through that town, though I did not see any monsters in the shadows of the forest.

All of these creatures are contained in short little vignettes that can be read in under ten minutes. This makes The World of LORE the perfect book for busy people, since you can read it in short spats and never feel like you’re missing out on something. The book resembles a series of campfire tales, if campfire tales were meticulously researched and cited. Mahnke is an excellent narrator because he never tries to convince his listeners (or readers) towards the existence or nonexistence of the creatures he describes. He lays out the facts, shines a light into some of the darker corners in history, and leaves it to us to decide what to believe in the end. Mahnke does seem intent on pointing out that a lot of the uproar caused by “monsters” over the years can be attributed to superstition, paranoia, and mob mentality. After all, the ghouls and goblins of the world can’t hold a candle to what people are capable of doing to one another.

Overall, this book should be a delight for horror fans and history fans alike. It’s spooky without being over-the-top or gory. Mahnke has done an admirable job of digging down to the roots of these stories in order to separate truth from legend. And sometimes, the truth can be more frightening than the myth.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The World of LORE here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. You can also find Aaron Mahnke’s podcast here.

Happy reading everyone!

My Ten Favorite Books of 2017

Welcome everyone! I am officially kicking off my oneyearonehundred books project! The actual countdown won’t begin until January 1st, but I wanted to get in some practice before beginning this year long enterprise. What better way to do that than to look all my favorite books that I read this year!

I love end of the year lists! They are such a lovely wrap-up of all the experiences that I’ve had over the course of twelve months. It’s also so much fun to think back to where I was at this time last year compared to where I am now.

Last January, I was living with my in-laws while working on collecting an exhaustive amount of background checks for my Canadian residency application. You guys, they needed a background check from every country I’d ever lived in. And that was just the tip of the paperwork iceberg. The entire process took a really long time and resulted in more than one bout of ugly crying while hiding in the bathroom.

Now I look around at my little apartment and I am so happy with everything that has been accomplished this year. I have explored the city a little more. I got to introduce my parents to Toronto. I went camping and kayaking and tried hard to be more active.

And I read a lot of really good books.

This is not a list of my favorite books that were released this year. Just the books that I happened to read that stuck with me, opened my mind to new ideas, or that I had a lot of fun reading.

Enjoy!

 

 

10. Parasite (Parasitology #1) by Mira Grant (2013)

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Parasite takes place in the near future, where most of mankind has willingly swallowed designer tapeworms that have been genetically engineered to prevent disease and increase lifespan. Sal Mitchell’s life is saved by her tapeworm after a traumatic motor accident. As she struggles to return to normalcy, she notices people exhibiting unusual and violent behavior. The tapeworms are beginning to find out just how much control they have over their hosts.

A few years ago I stumbled across a little trilogy called Newsflesh which I devoured within a week. I fell in love with Mira Grant while reading those three books, and when I found out she had another trilogy called Parasitology I pounced on it like a kitten on a ball of yarn.

Mira Grant’s writing pulls you in from page one. Her characters are well-formed and behave in a believable manner. Parasite is a great example of true science fiction, a well-blended mix of academic science and fiction. I came away from this novel feeling as if I had actually learned something interesting about the field of bio-engineering. And in a more entertaining way than a textbook!

 

9. Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox #1) by Rachel Bach (2013)

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Fortune’s Pawn is adventure/science fiction, set in the distant future where mankind has spread out to live on a multitude of planets. Devi Morris is an ambitious, no-nonsense space mercenary who takes a job as a security officer on board a small trade ship with a reputation for getting into trouble. This is the first installment in Bach’s Paradox trilogy and offers an exciting jumping-off point for the adventures of the crew of the Glorious Fool.

A good friend and fellow book-lover bought me this for Christmas and I read it in less than two days.

The setting is very reminiscent of Firefly, with a ragtag group of space explorers who just want to make an honest living and somehow keep getting sidetracked. As the heroine, Devi is fun and relatable. It was hilarious that her solution to every problem seems to lie either in a whiskey bottle, her fists, or under the sheets. And the descriptions of her suit of armor border on love poetry.

 

8. The Ritual by Adam Nevill (2011)

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A group of friends hiking in wilderness near the Arctic Circle encounter more than they bargained for when they go off trail. Exhausted and out of shape, their supposed shortcut quickly becomes a maddening descent into horror. The moral of this story – when you see a dilapidated cabin in the middle of the woods decorated with animal skulls – KEEP HIKING.

Some readers unwind with murder-mysteries. Others relax by reading travelogues. Other readers prefer the unflatteringly labeled “chick lit”. For this girl, it’s always been horror novels. And this one is a doozy.

The Ritual freaked me out you guys. I love the whole “lost in the woods” vibe. Nevill’s prose creates a creepy feeling of suspense that doesn’t let you go for a second. Also, the characters aren’t completely moronic! They behave in a more or less rational manner. Which is a rarity in the horror genre.

Suspenseful, surprising, and genuinely spooky, The Ritual was a lovely bit of fun. I would not recommend bringing it on a camping trip.

 

7. The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad #6) by Tana French (2016)

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The Trespasser follows Detective Antoinette Conway as she investigates the murder of a woman who is found dead in her home. It also deals with the everyday sexism that a woman deals with in a male-dominated field. The general armor of toughness that women in these fields feel the need in order to succeed, and the far-reaching consequences of that armor.

If you haven’t read any of the Dublin Murder Squad series, stop reading this and go find In the Woods. I’ll wait.

I generally can’t stand detective novels. They tend to be perfectly predictable, starring the “chain-smoking male that doesn’t play by the rules”. Tana French breaks all of those stereotypes and dances on their ashes. She never tries to trick the reader. Everything that happens in The Trespasser makes logical sense. She also stays away from the oh-so tedious “invincible villain” plot device. And at the end of the day, it’s just a really well written mystery.

 

6. A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Thorns and Roses #2) by Sarah J. Maas (2016)

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The series follows Feyre, a human girl who lives near the physical boundary between the mortal realm and the immortal lands of the Fae. After killing a wolf on one winter day, she is visited by one of the Fae and her life changes forever.

I dove into Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses earlier this year and…meh. Honestly the first installment fell a little flat. As if the author had cherry-picked their favorite aspects of The Hunger Games and squished it together with the melodramatic romance of Twilight. I found it to be wildly okay.

The second novel is great. It’s darker, more mature, and stays away from the ewey-gooey teenage romance feeling of the first novel. The heroine, Feyre, grows from a dependent girl who is desperate to be protected into a capable woman who finds her inner strength. Her feelings and intentions are no longer tied solely to her relationships, and she is made to understand the consequences of her decisions. The descriptions of the Seven Fae Courts are gorgeously written and the overall plot moves forward at an exciting pace. And ultimately it is a YA novel, so reading it felt like an uncomplicated escape after a stressful day.

5. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)

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The novel centers around Patroclus, a young boy in ancient Greece who is sent to live and train with another youth by the name of Achilles. Achilles is a natural warrior, the son of a water goddess who is destined for greatness. What Patroclus lacks in fighting ability he makes up for in honesty and altruism. As Patroclous grows to love Achilles from afar, the events leading up to the Trojan War with have lasting effects on both their lives.

Historical fiction is fun. Greek mythology is fun. Historical fiction based on a few lines of Homer’s Iliad? So much fun.

I had never expected a historical fiction novel set in ancient Greece to deal so sweetly with LGBT characters. Patroclus’ tender love and devotion for his friend is the best part of this book. And the descriptions of early warfare are stunning in their brutality. And I’ve always loved adaptations of Homer that continue to treat the Greek pantheon as living beings who affect the world around them on a whim. And even if you hate Homer or haven’t read The Iliad, The Song of Achilles will make you hungry to learn more.

 

4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

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Ifemelu is a young Nigerian woman who moves to the United States to complete her university degree. Obinze is her boyfriend who stays behind. What follows is the story of two people trying to balance their perceptions of themselves and the perceptions of the world around them. My absolute favorite part was Ifemelu’s reaction when she is instructed that she needs to have “white” hair if she ever wants to find a job in America.

This is a fictional novel, but for me it almost reads as a series of essays on race in America. On the interactions between African immigrants and African-Americans. The idea that a person never thought of themselves as “black” until coming to America. On white privilege and class privilege and the privilege of being born in a first-world nation. And on top of everything else, it’s also a love story.

 

3. Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove (2015)

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The only nonfiction book on my favorites list is here for a reason. I watched the documentary Blackfish when it aired in 2013. When I found out that John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer and one of the primary forces behind Blackfish had written a book, I read it as soon as I could.

This book broke my heart. Hargrove never really apologizes for his years of working as an orca trainer at SeaWorld. Instead, he writes with a fond nostalgia,  and the love he feels for the whales shines out of every sentence. We follow him through the early love and hero-worship of SeaWorld, to his work as an international orca trainer as he comes to realize the harm that the company is doing to the orcas. He earned the love and respect of these magnificent animals and learned that in order to help them, he had to stay away. The descriptions of the pain that the killer whales were enforced to endure were very difficult to read. Especially as you realize that this isn’t ancient history; the whales described by Hargrove are still alive and in pain and performing at SeaWorld.

I would love to see an orca whale. I will never go to SeaWorld. And if you read this book, neither will you.

 

2. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

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Rosemary’s Baby follows a young woman and her husband who buy a highly sought after apartment in New York City. Rosemary becomes pregnant until mysterious circumstances and the novel details her experiences as she comes to realizes that her unborn child may not be the blessing she had anticipated.

How did it take me so long to read this? I borrowed it on a whim from my local library, went home, and did nothing else that day. I ate my dinner one-handed so I could continue reading. I was completely exhausted for work the next morning because I had to stay up until 2:00 am so I could finish this book. That’s how amazing it was.

 

1. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (2016)

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*drumroll please* My favorite book of the year. Similar to the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby, this was a book that I devoured in a day. And then I was sad that I had finished it because it meant that I could never enjoy it again for the first time.

Jason Dessen leaves his wife and son at home and goes for a seemingly normal drink at his local pub. On his way home, his life changes in ways he could never have anticipated. That’s all I’m going to give you because to give anything away would be a crime.

This book was so much fun. A thoroughly engaging read with relatable characters and a very poignant romantic element that is a rarity in the science fiction genre. I was turning the pages with shaking hands because I needed to get to the end. Definitely recommend for lovers of science fiction and any reader in general.

 

Well that’s it. My top ten favorite reads of 2017. What did you think? Feel free to post your favorite books of the year in the comment section!

Coming up next, my most disappointing reads of 2017. See you then and happy reading everybody!