“A Traitor in the Shadows”

Joseph Lallo
Oh, this book got me. I’ve got a Diana Wynne Jones feeling about it — it took a while to grip me, and then suddenly I caught myself thinking “well, how long will it really take me to finish reading this?” and staying up way later than I should’ve to see where it was going. It’s absolutely a slow start, and (given that I had no memory of buying the book/what it was about) I had no idea where it was going.1
And, as always, what really got me was the worldbuilding. It’s distinctly uncooperative at the start — the character who has the most interesting secrets, who knows the most about what’s going on, starts of being super cagey about it all. So even though Alan, the protagonist, is just as inquisitive as you’d want a protagonist to be, there’s no exposition-dump at any point. What you learn happens in a slow trickle, bits and pieces coming up as the story needs them. It’s a dangerous way to do it — done badly, it feels like the author is making it up as they go along — but, in this case, it worked well. I’m interested to see where the series goes: the main plot wraps up in a surprisingly neat bow at the end, but there’s a couple threads by the wayside that very clearly show this was meant to be a series.
So, hey, I liked the book. Check it out.

  1. And, really, that’s the most fun part of this whole “read all the books I have on my Kindle that I don’t remember buying” project — everything’s a surprise! Everything on here was chosen by someone who’s got a reasonable idea of what I like (by which I mean ‘Past Grey’), but they didn’t tell me anything about any of them, I can just see the title and author. 

“Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets”

I’ve actually read several of the stories in this anthology before, in other anthologies. Which, I suppose, is a statement about my taste in books.
Of the ones that were new, however, a couple of them were sufficient to make a partial repeat purchase worth it.
So, which stood out to me?
Far and away the best was The Lantern Men, which was a mildly interesting take on the Sherlock story (he’s an architect this time around!), but was one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read. It followed The Rich Man’s Hand, which was creepy enough that I thought “oh, I can’t go to bed on that, I’ll read one more,” and that turned out to be a mistake.
A Woman’s Place is a delightful little cyberpunk kind of thing, and my favorite take on Mrs. Hudson that I’ve seen… quite possibly ever. The opening scene, of her delivering tea and sandwiches while Sherlock and Watson interview a client? Oh, I won’t spoil a thing, but within the first page I was enraptured, and by the end, utterly delighted.
The Small World of 221b turned into a different genre than I thought it was, which was a fun twist, and I like the story that it told.
The Final Conjuration, too, was a genre-blending version of the story, and one I quite liked.
Finally, The Innocent Icarus was a great piece of world-building, and I’d quite like to read more in that setting at some point.
And that’s more than half the stories in the anthology; there’s also, as I mentioned, a few that I’d read before and quite liked, so it’s well worth the price. Check it out.



Mary Roach
I spent the entire time reading this book thinking that it was by the same person who wrote Combat-Ready Kitchen. Which was an interesting comparison to have in mind, as I quite liked that one, but “Grunt” was much more fun. While “Combat-Ready Kitchen” felt like it was trying to be ready for use as a textbook in a history class, “Grunt” was unabashedly written by a human being who likes to mention their human responses. I’ve got a great deal of highlights of comedic moments that Roach captured very well.1
As someone with precisely zero interest in joining the military, I think Roach is an excellent writer for this topic. Clearly she’s got a bit more experience in this area than I do — nobody who’s spent a week on a nuclear submarine doing research for a book can really be as clueless as she tries to convey — but she’s removed enough from it that she can be an excellent go-between. The feigned cluelessness doesn’t read as an affectation, it reads as making sure the genuinely clueless folks like me can follow along.
And it’s just an interesting subject matter. The Department of Defense has a spectacular research budget, which they put into doing all sorts of neat things. Nothing in the book focuses on the science of Exciting New Ways To Make People Dead; in fact, it’s almost universally focused on the opposite. I’m okay with my tax dollars going to research on reconstructive surgery and heat-stroke prevention.
I can definitely recommend “Grunt”. It’s a fun read, and the science is neat. Check it out.

  1. And a pent-up rant about just how bad the experience of trying to highlight stuff is in Apple Books. While the location of the highlight has a clear correlation to where your finger is on-screen, they’re not directly related in the way that we’re trained to expect from iOS. And god forbid you want to highlight something that spans across a page break – to date, the only way I’ve found to do this is to change the text size until they’re on the same page. Even Amazon does better than that, and their Kindle app has never not felt like an abandoned project. 

“A Furnace Sealed”

Keith R.A. DeCandido
This is a delightful little bit of urban fantasy, following a man who hunts supernatural creatures for a living. Or rather, deals with supernatural problems — there’s a bit of the ‘hunting’ aspect, but in general he’s got more of a ‘fixer’ vibe, trying to avoid violence where possible. The first chapter sees him fighting a unicorn, along with the delightful revelation that unicorns don’t have any special affinity for virgin maidens, it’s just that they’re infuriated by the scent of men.1 This leads to a slight relationship dispute when it takes offense to one member of a lesbian couple, and Bram, the protagonist, makes a quick escape.
And from there, it’s a fun little journey. Like I said, it’s a delightful bit of urban fantasy: the mental image of someone driving a semi through the streets of the Bronx, hoping nobody notices the unicorn in the back, is a pretty good one. And the actual world being set up strikes a nice balance of depth without feeling overwhelming — there’s a bit of a Buffy vibe at times, some of that “well, there could be a Monster of the Week, but we’ve also established some actual lore” vibe.2
It’s a good book, and I’m lookin forward to the sequel(s) implied by the subtitle. Give it a read.

  1. Having occasionally had to clean the men’s locker room when I was working at the pool, I can relate. 
  2. If I’m going to make Buffy references, I should probably watch the show at some point. Or at least read the Wikipedia summary. 

“Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies”

Nick Bostrom
This was, simultaneously, one of the driest and most terrifying books I have ever read.
Really, the conclusion summarized it well:

“Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb. Such is the mismatch between the power of our plaything and the immaturity of our conduct. Superintelligence is a challenge for which we are not ready now and will not be ready for a long time. We have little idea when the detonation will occur, though if we hold the device to our ear we can hear a faint ticking sound.”

It is what the title says: a list of ways we can achieve superintelligence (including, I’d note, a discussion of the fact that it’s both necessary and inevitable), a harrowing discussion of exactly how many ways it can go wrong, and some things we can start trying to do to keep it from going all Skynet on us. Or, as is more likely, wiping out humanity without really noticing, because we were a convenient source of raw materials.
Like I said: terrifying.
But valuable. I’m also convinced this book should be required reading for any AI course. And, y’know, a good chunk of the population beyond that: I count AI as one of the three most likely existential threats out there.1
So hey, want to somehow be a little bored and scared out of your mind at the same time? Read it.

  1. I’ve got it tied with “Global War, Nuclear” and “Climate Change.” Lower on the list are “A Pandemic With 100% Transmission Rate and 90-Plus Percent Lethality” and “Something From Space.” 


Edith Hamilton
I’ve always had a bit of an interest in Greek mythology. It started with “D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths”, went through the Percy Jackson phase, and since then has mostly consisted of using names from Greek mythology as names for projects. Hey, they’re objectively cool names — they had to be, to stick in people’s minds through centuries of oral retellings.
This book is definitely in a different style then d’Aulaires. The latter was noticeably aimed at children, both in the style of illustration and in the way the content was edited. Hamilton’s audience is clearly more adult, and rereading these stories was interesting in that context. Part of it, I’m sure, is just the context of “I’m an adult now, and know quite a lot more of what the world is like,” but the actual events are different in some of the telling, as well.
Where the book really shines, though, is in the design — it’s gorgeous. It feels like the literary equivalent of a coffee-table book. In the edition I have, at least, the actual paper has a weighty feel to it, and the page design, interspersed with the occasional light-text-on-dark-paper section headings and family trees, is a delight. There’s also the occasional full-page ‘plate’ illustration, which feel right at home with the rest of the design of the book.
The title itself is a little bit misleading, in my opinion — with the full title, “Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes” implying a bit of “this is all the mythologies.” The cover art, however, is very clear that we’re sticking to the Greco-Roman world, which helps. (Admittedly, there is a little section at the end that goes into Norse mythology, but it’s a very small portion of the book, and quite limited in scale. It’s also very interesting to read — again, some of the stories are very different from how I know them.1)
So, if you like mythology and having pretty books you can put out on the coffee table so that your guests know just how cultured you are, I absolutely recommend this one.

  1. … probably related to the fact that my knowledge of Norse mythology comes entirely from its use as cultural context, and never actually directly reading any. Turns out Marvel’s Thor isn’t 100% accurate to the source material, shocking


Sam Hughes
This is one of the most interesting pieces of fantasy/science-fiction I’ve read recently. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, in these book reviews, that I like world-building and systems of magic, and this delivers in spades. Magic, in Ra, is a type of engineering, and involves a great deal of math and rules and planning ahead. It’s a system to be uncovered, and scientists around the world are doing science at it, figuring out the rules. Why isn’t natural mana usable? What’s up with the weird dreams that all mages share? What happens to waste energy — magical friction — and why hasn’t anyone managed to detect it yet?
Basically, this is a book that takes solid aim at the mindset of someone like me, who will sit down and read through a veritable textbook on the workings of a magic system. And then, instead of just being a textbook, it comes with a whole story, that answers some of those questions in a way that makes for a solid story. (It helps that there’s a good amount of in-jokes for computer nerds — I mean, Wheel? That’s a neat touch.)
So, if you’re at all this sort of nerd, go give it a read. (You can also read it for free on the author’s website, but, y’know, pay people for their work.)



Jamie Wyman, Gini Koch, Glen Mehn
I’ve probably mentioned before that I’m a sucker for Sherlock Holmes stories. If not, you may have been able to figure it out, based on the number of books I’ve read in the genre.1 I believe I picked this one up as part of a Humble Bundle (or Storybundle, more likely) based entirely on the fact that there was a book in there titled “alt.sherlock.holmes.”
And for that, it was worth it, because this was quite fine. Three different takes on Sherlock Holmes, all unique and interesting. I’ll say right off that my favorite was the second of the three — almost the inverse of Elementary, in a way, with handsome Dr. Watson being recruited by a still-named-Sherlock, definitely-just-miss-Holmes to investigate some very Hollywood murders. The third take, featuring Sherlock and Watson in 1960s New York, was more traditional in its take—Mycroft, I think, being the biggest difference from my mental image of him, as he’s gone a bit more sinister—although having the two actually sleeping together was a nice touch.2 The first was the furthest-out, with Sherlock not especially being a detective, and the setting—a circus—by far the most unique. Unfortunately, it was also the most predictable; in the larger story told there, I picked out the culprit within the first chapter. Still, it was an interesting read.3
All in all, if you like a good Sherlock Holmes story, give these a read.

  1. And those were just the ones that I could find by searching my archives for “Sherlock Holmes”; I know off the top of my head that there’s at least one more. 
  2. I know a few people have written theses about the queer theory of Sherlock Holmes, and I tend to like those interpretations. Historians have gone to great lengths to erase queer people from history (yep, nothing gay at all about Shakespeare writing a bunch of love sonnets to a man, let’s just… republish those with all the pronouns swapped, shall we?) and I am all in favor of putting some of that queer history back, even if it’s in the form of fiction. 
  3. Admittedly, the 1960s version was also quite predictable, but that’s because I took a history class on the 1960s and picked up a great deal of well-informed cynicism as a result. 

“Redemption’s Blade”

Adrian Tchaikovsky 
This fledgling series, I found out by trawling through Wikipedia a bit, is called “After the War,” and that’s a fitting title if ever I heard one.
The book has extreme Dungeons and Dragons energy. You could use the setting for a game with absolutely no issue, and even the pattern of events in the book feels episodic in the way that a long-running campaign does. What’s really interesting, though, is that the book opens in the aftermath of that long-running campaign. The Big Bad is dead; the gang broke up, and our protagonist already has the endgame-level weapon, an infinitely sharp sword. (Her first side quest, for reference, is trying to find a scabbard that will last for more than a couple hours, so she can walk around without worrying about accidentally cutting off someone’s leg by bumping into them.)
What I really liked about the book is that it’s all about the forgotten bits of world building. Sure, the Big Bad is dead, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’d assembled a massive army, half of which were unnatural abominations created via dark magic. The lands he conquered are still devastated. The nations he crushed don’t magically spring back into being; their scattered (and, largely, dismembered) peoples can’t just reappear back in their homelands, none the worse for the wear. And the grand coalition, all the free nations of the world banding together to fight against the army of darkness? Well, politics kicked back into gear pretty quickly.
“Redemption’s Blade” is one of the best books I’ve read recently, and I can absolutely recommend it to. Give it a read.


“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany
I am disappointed and intrigued.
Let’s start with the disappointment: First, that JK Rowling managed to create a couple characters with truly excellent chemistry, and then aggressively refused to let it actually happen. (And here is where I say that I’m disappointed but not surprised, because she isn’t exactly the most woke about queer representation.)
Secondly, that this is such a weird development for some of the characters. What’s going on with Ron? Ron is a complex and interesting character, who the movies didn’t do justice, and got turned into something barely more than comic relief in Cursed Child.
(And here’s where I throw the spoiler warning; the play-and-book have only been out for three years, and if you’re like me, that’s not enough time to guarantee you know how it goes.)
And thirdly, that this completely breaks some of the rules the original series had established. (Though, admittedly, Fantastic Beasts did that first — apparently magic in the ‘30s was a couple of orders of magnitude more powerful? Why?) In the books, time travel had rules that made sense. Your can’t cause a paradox, because you’ve already time traveled. Here, though, suddenly we care about the grandfather paradox?
And yet, I’m still intrigued. Because Albus and Scorpius are fun together. Because it’s another look into the magical world that was the shared childhood of my generation. Because it’s written as a play, and I cannot fathom how they would stage some of this.
It’s an alright read, doesn’t take too long, so if you’re at all interested, give it a go. And if you’ve got a chance to see the actual play… that’s probably worth the time, just to see the staging.


“Creative Confidence”

Tom Kelley, David Kelley
There something about this genre of book that just doesn’t sit right with me.1 I appreciate the points that they’re making, but it always feels like 80% of the book is one big humblebrag about all the people the author has worked with. How many big-name companies can we name-drop? Why yes, I have worked with Proctor & Gamble, how ever did you notice?
I suppose part of it is that they’re trying to establish why you should listen to them, and demonstrate that the ideas are good, which is a valid thing to do. In execution, though, it always feels excessive. Like a good editor could cut at least half of the book away without actually losing anything of use, but opted not to because the result would be too short and necessitate a lower price.
All of which is to say, this is definitely one of those business/self-help books, and it could be edited down into a pamphlet if you really wanted. But it was still interesting to read—the ideas are good. It’s almost like running one of the most famous design firms in the world and teaching at one of the most prestigious schools of design actually means something! Give it a read, if you’re interested. (And no, being creative isn’t a prerequisite—that’s one of the key points of the book. Spoilers.)

  1. In this case, I think “this genre of book” means “if you told me they gave a TED Talk espousing these ideas, I would be utterly unsurprised.” 
Portfolio Review

Competitive Analysis: Fitness Apps

The second unit in my course on User Experience and Evaluation was on competitive analysis — looking over the competitive landscape in a given marketplace, and using that data to figure out both the low-level design and high-level strategy you should use to effectively compete.

While I considered doing an analysis of the productivity management/to-do-list marketplace (an area on which I have many opinions), I realized that the end result of that analysis would be “the marketplace is saturated, and the ‘table stakes’ level of functionality is prohibitively expensive to achieve.” Not the most exciting result.

Instead, I looked at another area where I’ve gone through a surprising number of apps: fitness tracking. Specifically, workout planning and tracking – I did a previous assignment on how people use the gym, and one of my findings was “hoo boy are there a lot of different systems for planning and tracking a workout.”

After downloading quite a few apps and compiling a rather monstrous spreadsheet, I put together the results into a report, which I’m now posting here.

(Will I be using these findings to develop an app? … No comment.)

For those using screen readers, or who prefer their own reading environment, you can download the full presentation PDF here:


“Children of the Eighth Day,” or, “but at least nobody cares that the prince is gay”

Don Sakers
I mentioned in my last review that I was reading this omnibus; I didn’t review the short story in the middle, as it seemed a bit too short to be worth the effort, but did enjoy it. And it provided a good introduction to the characters here, eased the transition of skipping forward half a millennium or so.
I’ll start off by saying that I enjoyed “Children of the Eighth Day,” but temper that by saying it wasn’t as good as “Dance for the Ivory Madonna.” It’s more removed — it’s a space opera, and I’m much less familiar with the goings-on of an interstellar empire than I am of the modern world.
The overall flow was interesting — the first half of the book wraps up far more than I thought it would, and the second half has an entirely different set of issues for the characters to confront.
In retrospect, I think the short story leading in to this is not just helpful, but perhaps necessary, to be able to at all follow the events of the first few chapters. Things kick off very quickly, and trying to figure out the context of the Empire and the Family would be a bit much in addition to the actual events of the plot.
Final verdict: I do recommend the omnibus as a whole, but it might be worth reading it out of order — there’s a bit of spoiler effect for “Ivory Madonna,” as historical context, but I don’t think it gives away enough to really ruin the book for you, if you do read it in that order.


“Dance for the Ivory Madonna,” or, “actually, some of this might work”

Don Sakers
This is… the most fun piece of cyberpunk I’ve read. I was going to add a qualifier to that, but in trying to come up with one, I realized it doesn’t need one; it’s just the best one.
Unlike most cyberpunk, it doesn’t feel dated by the technology. Sure, it’s set in the future, which helps, but it’s set in a future that feels like a reasonable future based on our current technology, not based on the 1980s.
The setting is fascinating: the world map has been severely redrawn, most noticeably by the USA splitting into several pieces, and by the fledgling African Union actually taking off and becoming a (if not the) world power. At the same time, however, those national divides have become less important, with the UN finally taking over global police actions, aided by a technocratic NGO, the Nexus.
The protagonist is a Nexus operative, and as the story goes on you find out he’s veritable royalty — his father a founding member of Umoji, the African economic union, his grandmother the person whose ideas gave birth to the Nexus, and a few other fun surprised along the way. (I won’t spoil any more than that, it truly was fun finding things out as I went.)
Throw in the global economy being run by AIs, a well-explained split between AR and VR, and a space program based on a mix of ion thrusters and orbital velocity cannons paired with gigawatt-laser-pumped-solar-sails, and I am sold on this setting.
I’m interested to read more of this — I’m reading the Worlds Afire omnibus, which includes three books in the series, if I’m remembering correctly. However, the series isn’t just in this one era, it’s apparently operating on a truly enormous scale, so it’s very possible that the events of the next book will be more than a billion years removed from what I just read.
As long as the next is further into the future, though, I can reasonably expect to see at least historical references to the characters here — the results of the plot certainly feel big enough that they’d carry a long ways throughout human history.
If I’ve sold you on this book now, which I rather hope I have, because it’s a delight, you can go grab the omnibus.


“Please Don’t Tell My Parents You Believe Her,” or, “a much better end than I was expecting”

Richard Roberts
This is another book that I put off reading for a while. I knew going in that it was the last in the series — Roberts’ blog made that pretty clear — and then, shortly after I bought it, his publisher went under (or something? I’m unclear) and seemed to pretty effectively tank any hope for future works in the amazing world he’s built here.1
And that’s what always shines to me about his books: the world-building. Roberts has a gift for showing without telling, and manages to perfect balance explaining a little bit and leaving a bit to the imagination. One of my favorite scenes in “… You Believe Her” was Penny, sitting on a train, watching a couple boys study. It’s just that one of them was using his telekinesis to levitate the book instead of holding it with his hands. And she goes off on a little tangent, thinking about the statistics of superpowers, and we find out that the superheroes and supervillains are the statistical outliers, while there are also sorts of normal people who use their powers to… not wear spandex and beat each other up. To study. To do their jobs. To make music, or build cool computers.
That’s what I love about the series. It’s a great big world, and Roberts wants to follow the same “but what about-“ trail of implications that I always do.
It’s also hilarious, if my gushing over the world building hasn’t sold you. This book introduces Gerty the Animatronic Goat, who I described to my friend as “the single best comic-relief character I’ve ever read.” It’s silly, and wholesome, and my jaw is a little sore from how much I smiled while I was reading the book.
And the thing is, Gerty is present throughout the book, and it’s necessary. She’s comic relief, because what’s actually happening in the plot is heavy. It’s probably a requirement to read the previous book first, to be able to follow what’s going on, as it starts off pretty in the middle of things.
It’s dark and sad, and happy and silly. It’s an excellent read. Check it out.2

  1. Happy follow-up, though: I believe he’s since got the rights sorted out enough that he can resume his plans to write more in this world. 
  2. And join me in reading Roberts’ new book, in a totally different setting. I had the chance to read an early-release version of the first couple chapters a while back, and I’ve been looking forward to the full novel ever since. Hopefully I don’t take quite as long to get around to reading it as I did this one.