Review: Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will

Book: Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will

Author: Judith Schalansky

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys history, especially maritime history or anything niche. Also recommended for anyone who enjoys travel, spooky stories and learning about cultures and environments of far off islands.

I am in the middle of two novels when my roommate comes home and I see this book on the table. It turns out it is for their world building class and I am instantly intrigued. I tell them to let me know when they finish it thinking I have a week or so, but then they hand it to me the next day. Pushing the other two books aside, I devour this one in less than 24 hours. Few books allow you to travel to remote places on Earth so easily. Few books have tried in this way. The illustrations captivated me and the stories transported me to the shores of fifty different islands in Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky.

First off, the book itself is beautiful. I love the material they used to bind it and cover it – it feels textured like rubber which adds a feeling that you are holding some king of outing manual. The color is bright orange and other than the title and author there sits two small islands amidst that sea of orange. The cover itself imbues one with a feeling of isolation that will only grow with each story as you dive into the pages.

The stories are split up by the oceans the islands are found in – Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, Antarctic, Pacific – and each new ocean spread comes with an intro page showing the entire ocean and surrounding region, along with the locations of all of the islands you are about to read about. I found this useful as I flipped back and forth to get a rough idea of where in the world each island was. The stories themselves are all framed the same way. Each island had 4 pages, the first of which shows the islands size, number of inhabitants, and a timeline of important island history. The second page is a detailed map of the entire island and then the last two pages are the stories themselves. The entire piece is a little over 200 pages, but because half of the pages are ones you will only glance at the read is pretty quick. I can see some people taking longer as they put the island’s geography to memory before readying the stories, but that wasn’t me so it was a short read.

The stories themselves were so intriguing to dig into. Most of them have a sinister side to them, whether it be exploitation, environmental destruction, loss of life or just sad tales of people trying to survive on small patches of land in an immense ocean. Some others certainly left me with a feeling of isolation and other were really heartwarming. The manner of storytelling is interesting in that the author used a pile of research material to learn as much as she could on each island and then told an important story to that island’s history through small connected snippets or a journal entry. As she states in her introduction, the facts everything is based on are real, but the stories are one person’s interpretations of how events may have unfolded. It is actually pretty cool how little goes into a lot of these stories, yet I left most of them feeling something and I often whipped out my phone to do a little additional research of my own.

In all, I had a blast reading Pocket Atlas. If you enjoy spooky stories, maritime history or just niche history in general I think this is a really cool little novel. Give it a read and let me know what your thoughts are!

Review: First and Only

Book: First and Only (Gaunt’s Ghosts #1)

Author: Dan Abnett

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys gritty military science fiction, warhammer 40K fiction, fast paced battle scenes and dark, magical settings with demons and war.

I was introduced to the gritty world of Warhammer 40K about ten years ago when I was given the opportunity to watch a good friend play through a match with the tabletop figurines. This inspired me to purchase some models for myself, but I quickly dropped the hobby due to the price tag on the figurines. What I didn’t drop, though, was a genuine enjoyment of the novels and video games set in the same universe. Throughout college I devoured all of the video games and as many of the novels as I could. In adulthood I still dabble in some of the video games, but the writing that comes out of the Black Library doesn’t usually stack up to what I typically read these days. One of the exceptions to that rule is the Gaunt’s Ghosts series written by Dan Abnett, a diamond in the rough of Warhammer 40K fiction. As the final book in the series comes out I have decided to reread the entire series to prime myself for the ending.

First and Only begins the saga of Gaunt’s Ghosts, a regiment of Imperial Guard who lost their home world and all of their loved ones to the forces of Chaos. They are the last of their people, the only regiment to survive the founding; they are the Tanith First and Only. Their commander, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt is a man looking to make a name for himself and his small regiment as they fight their way through Chaos held worlds during the Sabbat World’s Crusade. Specializing in stealth combat, the Ghosts are often put on the front lines to find a way to infiltrate and crack open dug in enemy positions. This allows Abnett ample opportunities to showcase his exceptional combat writing that is both faced past and descriptive. The setting is gritty and dark; you can almost smell the smoke from artillery rounds, taste the static discharge from energy weapons and feel the fear as dark magic corrupts the very landscape you are fighting towards.  For those not familiar with the 40K universe, this novel provides enough background to allow a non-fan to jump in, which is likely why these novels are so well received by a broad range of audiences. While reading this book is certainly nostalgic for me, I think anyone remotely interested in military sci-fi will find a lot to love here and it goes without saying that any 40K fan will enjoy it as well.

This pilot novel tells a story that sees the Ghosts on multiple battlefronts, fighting for their lives against the forces of Chaos and sometimes their own imperial guard allies. Gaunt gets swept up in a game of spy craft which forces him and his regiment into a deadly race to find a powerful weapon as multiple factions within the Crusade’s leadership vie against each other for the position of Warmaster. The plot is engaging, often jumping back in time for short blurbs about Gaunt’s past which provides insight into his motivations.  The reader is introduced to a large range of characters, some who die within a couple paragraphs of being introduced and some who will go on to be core characters of the series. My one gripe here is that Gaunt often describes his force as being roughly 2000 soldiers strong, but they then go on to lose dozens if not hundreds of men in each battle, only to have roughly the same number of soldier at the onset of the next campaign. With no supply of bodies, how do these numbers make sense? In general, though, this is a small complaint and one I can forgive in the grander scheme of the work. Overall, this novel does a phenomenal job introducing everything that will go on to make the Ghosts one of the most famous regiments within the Emperor’s legions.  

I am already having a blast digging into these books for a second time so be prepared to see these reviews come fast. Pour yourself a glass of sacra, light up a smoke and get ready to dive headfirst into this brutal world where being a frontline soldier is as terrible as you could imagine.

In the words of Gaunt himself – “Men of Tanith, do you want to live forever?!”