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Review

Star Trek: Lower Decks

I like the concept of Star Trek a lot — some of my favorite books growing up were optimistic science fiction, and the majority of Star Trek falls into that category. That said, I’ve mostly failed to actually get very much into Star Trek; without the nostalgia of having grown up watching it, I (watching in the ‘golden age of TV’) struggle to get past the date aesthetic of the older series.

All that said, Lower Decks feels like it was specifically targeted at me — I love the “adult animated television series” as a form of media, and it’s nice to have a clear entry point into the greater Star Trek universe.

The concept is pretty simple: instead of following around the bridge crew, what’s life like for the regular folks on a Starfleet ship? It feels more like a space opera: from this perspective you get glances into the crazy sci-fi goings-on, but half the time it’s just background dressing for interpersonal stories. It’s fun watching the characters shrug off a member of the bridge crew returning from the dead because “oh, they always do that. Probably they got Borg’d, or it’s a transporter clone, or something.”

Having it as animation also works quite well. It frees them to do ridiculous scenes without blowing through an entire season’s worth of special effects budget. It’s a lot easier to animate the aforementioned transporter clone scene when you just… draw the person twice and have them record two takes. No compositing shots together, no body-double in a green-screen suit. And, I hope, it will allow the animation to remain much more timeless than the live action shows can manage.

All told, I quite like Lower Decks, and do recommend it. As of this writing, we’re about halfway through the second season, with new episodes coming out every week, so go ahead and check it out. Each episode is around half an hour, and they work well as a palate cleanser between heavier series. Check it out.

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Review

“Fine Structure”

Sam Hughes

I actually read this almost immediately after “Ed”, and it makes for a heck of contrast. Where “Ed” is mostly pretty light and quick, this is all kinds of convoluted in terms of what’s going on with the plot. But it also does that thing that Hughes does really well—it spans a massive amount of time and space, and covers a staggering amount of ground.

The basic concept is truly excellent, though: what if, every time you tried some Cool Science Fiction Thing, it worked—once. And then never again.

It’s a really interesting constraint for a work of science fiction, as well: how can you do enough Cool Science Fiction Things for a full book, when the core concept is that those concepts are consumable? It makes for, as I said, a sprawling world that must be built out—larger than “Ed” or “Ra” had to be, and bringing in some definite “higher-dimensional beings would look a lot like Cthulhu, wouldn’t they?” energy.

The end result is, I can’t recommend this as readily as I did “Ed”, because it’s boggling at times. But it’s a great payoff, and ties together things you wouldn’t at all expect, much better than you’d expect. If that sounds good to you, give it a read.

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Review

“Ed”

Sam Hughes

I’m reading Hughes’ work all out of order, but happily, there’s really no shared universe from story to story, so it’s not an issue. And, having now read all four of his books, I can say that “Ed” would be my recommended starting place, if you want to give it a go.1 It’s the lightest – a very silly beginning, and told by a narrator who’s further outside the story than any of his other works. While it’s not quite to that space opera feel, with the big events happening in the background and the story following regular-sized people just trying to make it through, it’s more human in scale.

It’s also very episodic most of the way through, so it’s easier to pick up and put back down for a while, if that’s your reading style, though there’s enough callbacks that you’ll be rewarded for going right through. (And, because this is a web-first piece of fiction, if you’re reading it online, a great deal of those callbacks are hyperlinks to the correct chapter – an easy way to catch yourself back up without devolving into “as you know, Bob” territory.)

All in all, “Ed” is a fairly short read, and a fun one. It’s got that characteristic “sprawling across space and time” feel that’s characteristic of Sam Hughes, but at no point do you feel like you need to stop and take notes to try to follow what’s going on. I quite enjoyed it. Give it a read, and if it really captures your interest, buy a copy!

  1. I’ve previous reviewed “Ra”, and will at some point write up my thoughts on “Fine Structure”, but my stance on “There Is No Antimemetics Division” is the simple “if you like SCP, you’ll like this; if you don’t know what that means, this isn’t a good starting point.”
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Review

Circle of Magic

Tamora Pierce

I suspect I have mentioned in the past that Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series is one of my favorite things to read. As a general rule, I reread most of her bibliography at least once a year – quite often when I’m stressed. Tamora Pierce is my comfort reading.1

I’ve recently stumbled my way into a lovely group of people, and among many of the projects we created for ourselves was something of a book club. And we started with the Circle of Magic.2

And here’s where I begin to struggle in writing this, nominally a review of the first quartet. I’ve been reading and rereading these books for so long that it’s impossible for me to come at them with fresh eyes. I can’t even begin to put myself in the mind of someone who hasn’t read them, to try to figure out what about them I should mention to convince someone they’re worth the time to read. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without their influence.

Instead, I’m just going to list some thoughts about the different books, in no particular order.

Tris’s Book is, I think, my favorite of the four. I identified the most with Tris, growing up – a total bookworm, and too quick a temper. It is, unsurprisingly, in Tris’s Book that we get to see what Tris is thinking, and what made her that person – and, conversely, that we see her start to grow, and learn to trust.

Briar’s Book scares me to this day. I’d say “even more so, considering,” but, having just reread it last week, I don’t think the amount it scares me has changed, even in light of living through a pandemic. It’s still terrifying – and it turns out to have been pretty accurate about just how scary, and lonely, and crushing it all is.

“Most disasters are fast, and big. You can see everyone else’s life got overturned when yours did. Houses are smashed, livestock’s dead. But plagues isolate people. They shut themselves inside while disease takes a life at a time, day after day. It adds up. Whole cities break under the load of what was lost. People stop trusting each other, because you don’t know who’s sick.”

Daja’s Book is all about the important of family, and how family doesn’t always match what you grew up thinking it would. You can find more people who love you, and who you love, and they can be just as much family as the one you were born into.

Daja’s Book is also… a big spoiler, in how I’m going to phrase this, so I’ll tuck it into a footnote. You’ve been warned!3

Sandry’s Book… is coming home.

I cannot, cannot express how much I love these books. Please, please give them a try.4 And, because I adore Tamora Pierce, also check out her patreon – the next goal is an admirable one.5

  1. In fact, many times the thing that makes me realize quite how stressed I am is the realization that I’ve picked up one of her novels. It’s automatic!
  2. The book club may have come about as a result of my strongly urging everyone to read these books. As far as the #influencer life goes, “encouraging people to read Tamora Pierce” is probably the best possible outcome.
  3. Daja’s Book is a beautiful example of a happy ending in a book, with everything getting tied together beautifully. It’s not just that every thread gets wrapped up nicely, it’s that half of them are solved by being the solution to another problem. To borrow a phrase that I first heard as a descriptor of another favorite piece of media of mine, it’s competence porn.
  4. I’m breaking my usual ‘use Bookshop links instead of Amazon’ pattern here, but Sandry’s Book isn’t available on Bookshop at all, and based on the paperback prices on Amazon, is thoroughly out of print. The Kindle edition is available, though!
  5. I’m of the opinion that she (or her staff) haven’t done a good enough job of advertising this, because I’ve had her public blog in my RSS reader for years, and just found out about the Patreon a few days ago. So now I’m doing my part by telling you, dear reader. Go support her! She’s great!
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Review

“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”

Bill Gates

I just have to begin by expressing my admiration for Bill Gates. Which still feels strange – I grew up on “Micro$oft” jokes and the image of Gates as the corporate Big Brother, a la Apple’s 1984 ad. Watching him go from icon of capitalism to the world’s foremost philanthropist has been interesting, to say the least. As a relevant aside, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary on his life, it’s fascinating, and works well to provide context on where he’s coming from in writing this book.

The book itself does what it says on the tin: it ends with plans of action for preventing the sort of global climate disaster that we, as a species, have been gleefully sprinting towards ever since we realized those funky rocks we dug up would burn longer than the trees we were chopping down. And the plans aren’t just “buy an electric car and vote for green energy;” not only are there more action items than just that, there are plans for people depending on which hat they’re wearing. Sure, you the consumer can buy an electric car… but you the citizen can write your legislators, and you the employer can invest in R&D, and you the local government official can tweak building codes to allow for more efficient materials.

The first half, or more, of the book is an accounting of what’s driving climate change, and it’s a fascinating overview. Your first guess about the largest culprit, in broad categories, is probably wrong.

And in the middle, there’s a great deal of discussion of the technologies we’re going to need to get through this transition. As a life-long nerd, that was the part I enjoyed the most; as someone who’s very sold on the importance and utility of nuclear power, my absolute favorite moment was a throwaway reference to “we should be building nuclear-powered container ships.”1

Here at the end, where I usually say “I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it,” I’m still going to do that.2 But beyond enjoying the book, it feels like the single most important thing I’ve read… possibly ever. The pandemic is the definitive crisis of the last couple years; climate change is the definite crisis of this generation. Go read the book. Buy a copy, read it, and pass it along to someone else to read. Take notes, and follow the plans of action that’re applicable to you. Let’s go save the world.

  1. I may have set some kind of land-speed record going from “what the hell” to “that makes perfect sense.”
  2. It’s not that I like every book I read, it’s that, as a general rule, I don’t write reviews of the ones I don’t like. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
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Review

“The Last Thing He Wanted”

Joan Didion

This book took a while to really capture my attention, in terms of time. In terms of how far into the book it took, I suspect it was about the usual amount of time it takes a book to grab me. The distinction being, usually I read books like I’ve got a grudge, like I’m trying to see how fast I can cram all these words into my brain. Not so, with this one — I’d read a chapter or two, and put it down. Sometimes for a couple minutes, so I could sit and process a bit, and then pick it up and continue; other times, it’d be a day or two before I tried again.

All in all, this isn’t the kind of book I tend to go for. It feels much more Literary than my default — which is largely the writing style, but something about the paper and the typesetting makes it feel like the kind of book I’d read for English class in high school, filling it with notes and highlights and a ridiculous amount of sticky notes.

By the end, it feels… semi-coherent. Which, by then, you’ve grown used to, because at the beginning it’s entirely incoherent. The writing style is “first draft of a book by somebody who got a doctorate on a specific week of history and has no grasp of the concept of expert blind spot.”

At the end, though, I liked the book. Apparently it’s been developed into a Netflix film, the cover tells me; I may watch it, because I can’t imagine the film adaptation at all feeling like the book.

In writing this, I can also tell just how much Didion’s writing style has influenced mine, at least at the moment. Consider this a cheap knock-off of a demo. And then go read the real thing, instead.

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Review

“The Counterfeit Viscount”

Ginn Hale

I don’t think I read the word ‘viscount’ a single time in this book without thinking of Enola Holmes, but that was a fun movie, and this was a fun book, so it all worked out okay.

Like the last book of Hale’s that I read, there’s a great deal of fun worldbuilding going on in a short read. Another alternate history thing, in an entirely different direction, and once again it provides a fun backdrop for a simple enough story.

Admittedly, the mystery itself is a bit convoluted, but it feels like a backdrop for the romance angle, so it can get away with it.

It’s a short read, so I think this short review will suffice. It’s a fun little story, with a silly little romantic plot, and sometimes that’s what you need. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, give it a read.

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Review

“Floodtide”

Heather Rose Jones

The introduction to this book was familiar enough that I did a quick search and found out I’ve read another book in this universe.1 I may go back and reread that one now, in fact, because I think that “Floodtide” did a better job of introducing the system of magic in a way that makes sense to my brain.

It’s also, largely, a much more human-scale story. The protagonist isn’t changing the world, she’s just trying to get through life, finding a little bit of happiness along the way. Sure, she has friends changing the world, living a grand, romantic life, and she’s determined to help them do that as best she can, but she’s still… a regular person. Sometimes, it’s nice to read things like that — it’s what got me watching Agents of SHIELD back when it first aired, after all.2

It reminds me, a little, of the idea of a space opera. There’s all sorts of large-scale things happening in the backdrop, but the actual core of the story is about the characters and how they’re doing, why they make the choices they do, that sort of thing.

I’m not certain how well I’m selling this book, but I did quite like it. Give it a go.

  1. That was more than three years ago, now? Somehow, in my head, none of my ongoing projects have actually been ongoing that long, and yet, here I am, several years into writing little book reviews.
  2. And, y’know, once Agents started being about saving the whole world instead of just, y’know, regular people trying to exist in a world with superheroes, I gave up on it.
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Review

“The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter”

Theodora Goss

This book reminded me of the 2017 remake of The Mummy. Which, I must admit, sounds like an insult, but hear me out: this book is what that movie wanted to be.

The premise is fairly simple: what happened to Dr. Jekyll’s family? (And, further, what happened to any of the background characters in any of the popular novels of the time?)

And from that question, Goss made a marvelously interesting story. She’s establishing a shared universe for a lot of these stories, pulling together the literary zeitgeist of the whole period into a single interlinked whole, in a delightful way.

Beyond that, the actual writing style is very well done. There’s a main protagonist, and the story is mostly told from her viewpoint, but there are interjections from the other characters, and you learn fairly quickly on that, though she’s the protagonist, she’s not actually the one wring — just giving the occasional editorial comment. It reads like the, oh, third draft of a book, where you can still see all the margin notes thrown in by the various people reading through and remarking on their own perspective of the events in the book.

Very early on, this disorganized style is used for what I think is the most interesting piece of foreshadowing I’ve read in quite a while — one of the more impatient characters leads in with “no, no, you should start in medias res, like this” and suddenly we’ve skipped forward several chapters, to a very exciting scene, for something like half a paragraph, before we’re pulled back to where we were with “now hold on, they won’t know what’s going on if we jump right to there!” It is, frankly, delightful.

I very much enjoyed this book — as evidenced by my reading it in a single sitting — and highly recommend it. Give it a go, and, if you need me, I’ll be adding the sequels to my wish list.

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Review

“The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper”

AJ Fitzwater

I very nearly gave up on this book halfway through, the point of putting it down and not picking it back up again until a couple months had passed. I’m glad I gave it that second chance, though, because once I was over that hump, I quite enjoyed it.

That midpoint was where the amount of ‘fantasy’ in this fantasy novel jumped up by a lot. Because, yes, it’s a book about a capybara pirate, so of course the whole thing is a fantasy novel.1 But where it nearly lost me was in changing from “here’s a bunch of tropes that I’m using to make some characters I like” to setting up a whole new mythology unlike any I’ve seen before. And if I’d given up, that would’ve been a shame, because this new mythos is downright beautiful. I can’t honestly say that I follow every part of what’s going on, but I also can’t really say that I mind, because, again: beautiful.

I’m trying very hard not to spoil anything, because it all ties together so well. Suffice it to say that if you aren’t invested by the end of the story where Agnes makes her first appearance, you have my permission to give up on the remainder of the book.

Hopefully that won’t happen, though. Give it a try.

  1. You could also make it science fiction, assuming that there’s been an uplift and possibly some sort of apocalypse in the interim, but that’s pushing so close to the “sufficiently advanced technology” line that it may as well be a fantasy novel at that point.
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Review

“What If?”

Randall Munroe

A magnitude 15 earthquake would involve the release of almost 1032 joules of energy, which is roughly the gravitational binding energy of the Earth. To put it another way, the Death Star caused a magnitude 15 earthquake on Alderaan.

This is a fun book to recommend, because unlike most books, there’s a demo available online. Go read that, and if you like it, the book contains more. It also has a very literal subtitle: “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions.”

Munroe has had a fascinating career to date, and I remain an avid fan of his webcomic. It was definitely a formative influence on the nerdier side of my sense of humor,1 and continues to make me laugh an average of slightly more than three times a week.2

This is a fairly good book for reading in small chunks – each ‘chapter’ is only a few pages long, and there’s no need to read them in any specific order.

All in all, it’s a fun read, and I definitely recommend it.

  1. And, in writing that, I’m having fun imagining his reaction to reading that.
  2. Three new comics a week, and the average is above that because sometimes I wind up hitting the ‘random’ button a few times and laughing again.
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Review

“You Suck at Cooking”

(Unknown Author)1

Seafood is a marketing term that was invented to convince people that ocean creatures are edible, rather than the stuff nightmares are made of.

This is, I think, the best cookbook I’ve ever read. Which, admittedly, doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but I’ve read a frankly alarming number of cookbooks.2 So trust me when I say that this one is well worth the read. And, indeed, is worth actually reading straight through — though, aside from the introductory chapter, you can use it in the more conventional cookbook manner, and flip through the section you’re interested in at any moment.

Because, here’s the thing: not only is it funny — and of course it was going to be funny, it’s by You Suck at Cooking — it’s also smart. Smart, and clever, and… honest. It’s a masterwork of Being A Millennial, is what it is.

It is also, genuinely, an excellent introduction to cooking. I grew up cooking, so the kitchen holds no fear for me.3 In that regard, I’m not the target demographic of this book. The core audience here are the people who didn’t grow up being taught to cook, the people who might want to figure it out but are facing down a pile of unknown unknowns.4

So, if you’re looking for something lighthearted and fun, or if you don’t know anything about cooking and want a good starting point that’ll remind you you can do this, or you’re looking for some interesting new recipes to try — because there are some of those in there, too! — then I highly recommend this book. Check it out.

  1. I mean, there’s probably enough information about the guy online now that you could figure out who he is, but hey. Don’t be creepy.
  2. Listen, my family has a cookbook-buying problem, and at a certain point we needed to downsize the collection. But we couldn’t just give them away, we had to read them first, and maybe copy down our favorite recipes…
  3. Well, unless you own a mandolin, in which case, I fear the mandolin, as should you.
  4. To take a bit of a tangent, it reminds me of the general reaction to Antoni on the first season of Netflix’s Queer Eye. “Some professional chef, all he taught them was to make guacamole? He’s just there to be eye candy.”
    Well, no, Internet Strawman. What, is he gonna take somebody from “only thing in their fridge is a bottle of ketchup” to making a five-course meal in a week? No. He’s going to start with something basic to take away the “oh god I don’t know what I’m doing,” and (I assume) give them some tips on how to continue learning.
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Review

“What Einstein Told His Cook”

Robert L Wolke

In my mind, the term for this genre is “popular science.” Or, possibly, “pop science.” (In this case, that’s also a pun on the subject.) Either way, it feels like a fun piece of beach reading – worth the time to read, which differentiates it from an airplane read,1 but not so heavy that you feel like you should be taking notes or pausing to take time to process.

For the most part, this book stands up pretty well, and the cover is minimal enough that the whole thing feels quite modern. Admittedly, it loses some of this with the occasional dated pop culture reference, and the final chapter, discussing the latest technologies, noticeably lags as a result of being, dear lord, almost two decades out of date.2

Still, though, it’s not like chemistry changes all that rapidly, and a lot of the explanations of how things work were quite neat. Give it a read.

  1. For my own ‘pop science’ injection: despite their pressurized interiors, the amount of oxygen in the cabin of a plane is lower than what your brain is used to, so as the flight goes on, you get a little oxygen-deprived, leaving your thoughts nice and fuzzy. There’s a reason Clive Cussler books are the ideal airplane books – they’re incredibly formulaic, so there’s less cognitive load.
  2. There’s a very serious discussion of the differences between mechanical and digital cooking thermometers, which is downright comical in the age of RFID-tagged disposable cups.
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Review

“Becoming Steve Jobs”

Brent Schlender, Rick Tetzeli

Moving backwards, there were three things about this book that really captured my attention.

Lastly, the discussion of what Steve Jobs was like when he wasn’t being… what everyone thinks of when they think of Steve Jobs. The authors reiterate, many times, that the image of Jobs as alternating between ‘a genius’ and ‘an asshole’ was formed when he was very young, skyrocketing to fame at the helm of Apple. Later in life, he’d softened, become better able to have constructive discussions with people instead of just tearing into them – but, to the detriment of his public image, he’d also gotten very good at keeping out of the public eye when he wasn’t being Steve Jobs On Stage. Nobody was really afforded the chance to publicize that newer version of Steve Jobs.

Secondly, I’d never realized how integral to Pixar he was. At most, I knew he’d been involved in the company, led it for a while at some point; I hadn’t realized that he was the owner, one of the original people who built the company out of an immense talent pool bought wholesale from LucasArts. My mental timeline of Steve Jobs, betraying my tech industry bias, went Apple-NeXT-Apple. Pixar was an immense thing to miss out on, and realizing how much he’d shaped both Pixar and, eventually, Disney has me even more respecting the impact Jobs has had on our society.

And firstly, I found myself, over and over, contemplating the scale of technological change that happened within the lifetime of the company he and Wozniak founded. I think about these comparisons a lot, so here’s some of my favorites:

  • A single AirPod has more onboard processing power than any given Apollo launch.
  • Every Apple Watch, even the glacially slow Series 0, has had more processing power than a Cray-2.1
  • You can fit the entirety of the original version of MS-DOS in the L1 cache of a single core of a modern i9.2
  • I’d have to do a lot more math than I feel like doing to confirm this, but it’s not unreasonable to say that the iPad Pro I’m writing this on probably packs more computing power than every Apple II ever sold, combined.

And, even more than all those “ooh, it can do lots of math even faster” comparisons, the thing that kept striking me – reading this, as I was, on an iPad Pro – was just the staggering technological capacity of everything I do with this device. It’s a multitouch touch screen, with a battery of onboard radios, enough storage space for every book ever written; it’s got a lovely keyboard and stylus, both of which attach using only magnets. This device is a miracle of modern technology, and I’ve gotten very used to it. Reading about the Altair 8800, with its toggle switches and LEDs, gave me just enough decontextualization to look at this magical slab of glass and think, wow. Wow.

After reading this book, I think that sort of moment is something Steve Jobs would’ve loved to see.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book, and I highly recommend it. It was nice to see a more balanced look into Jobs’ life, a more human side of the man who so indelibly shaped the modern world. Give it a read.

  1. Surprisingly difficult to validate this comparison to my own satisfaction – the Cray-2 was in the era of “here’s how many FLOPS this baby can do,” but these days it’s just “what’s the GeekBench score?” and there’s no direct comparison between the two.
  2. I couldn’t find the actual size-on-disk of the original MS-DOS release, but based on the limitations of the file system, I can reasonably assume it’d fit.
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Review

“Catfish Lullaby”

AC Wise

About 2/3 of the way through this book, I wound up texting a friend, “I didn’t want t get invested in this book, because it’s creepy, but here I am, queueing up the nightmares.”

And, really, that’s a great summary of the book. It’s definitely creepy, but it’s also enrapturing. Think of… a swamp. It’s a place of decay, and death – but also, full of so much life. Beautiful, and terrible; ancient, but always changing. That’s how the story feels, all the way through.

In short, it’s excellent. Not too long a read, so not too long a review, but I quite liked it. Check it out.