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. 

“Red, White, and Royal Blue,” or, “I was wrong about which genre this book was”

Casey McQuiston
I put off reading this one for a while, because it seemed like it was going to be dumb and fluffy, the sort of thing I like to save for when I’m stressed and need something easy and happy. And I’m quite happy to have been wrong about it, in part: while it’s certainly fluffy, it’s less dumb than I was expecting. Sure, the protagonist spends a bit too long not quite grasping what’s going on, but that actually gets turned around pretty well later on. And it’s a surprisingly good political novel, too — the backdrop of “being the son of the President” isn’t left as window-dressing, instead becoming a significant driver of the plot.
The cast is delightful — there’s a good deal of family drama going on, and it feels real, and rough at times.
All in all, I loved this book — stayed up too late reading it, laughed the way through, and would happily read it again. I can heartily recommend it.


“The Plutonium Files,” or, “‘it’s a good thing we’re the good guys and the laws don’t apply to us,’ they said”

Eileen Welsome
I’m not sure what it says about me that all of my nonfiction reading is about the Cold War, but here we are again.
The funny thing about this book — and there isn’t much of that, because it’s a detailed account of some truly horrible things — is what did and didn’t stick in my mind. A lot of the book was about trying to humanize the victims of the experiments, and that aspect didn’t really land for me. The actual experiments, what was done, did stick, to a degree; having just finished my read, the ones I most remember are the prison experiments in Oregon and Washington, the radioactive iron supplements at Vanderbilt, a bit about the total-body irradiation experiments, and, of course, the titular plutonium trials. Some of the accidents also stood out to me — there’s a discussion of a man who took a plutonium criticality to the face, and the summary of how thoroughly screwed you are by that is that, when he threw up on the floor of the hospital an hour or two later, after they’d cleaned the floor, they had to get out a geiger counter to check if it was safe for anyone to walk there. (He didn’t survive; to add insult to horrible injury, his body was then parceled out to labs around the country, without the permission or knowledge of his next of kin.)
There were also a couple figures, dropped in as part of an anecdote in the portion of the book about the pilots who flew planes through mushroom clouds to measure their effects, that lodged in my head pretty effectively.
The first set of tests after WWII ended were called Operation Crossroads. The second of these was an underwater detonation; I’ve heard the story before that, during the explosion, a Japanese battleship was thrown — 30,000 tons of metal, launched out of the water. (I’ve been trying to confirm this story in writing this, but haven’t found any clear evidence either way, so I’m going to call it apocryphal and move on.)
This story, though, was from the Castle series, Castle Bravo, the first thermonuclear weapon test. 15 megatons of TNT; while it wasn’t a useable weapon — the device was the size of a small building, and had to be constructed in-place on the ‘target’ island — it was mind-boggling in scale. Because, 15 megatons of TNT, that’s… a number. But what the book described was a 20-mile-wide column of water and mud, 45,000 feet tall. Again, mind-boggling in scale, but slightly easier to conceptualize; just imagine a mountain, and then… make it taller.
The figure that truly got to me, though, was the statement that it took hours for the water and mud to finish falling back into the ocean. Hours.
These nuclear tests were also so bright that test animals, 350 miles away, got retinal burns from looking directly at it.
It’s a scale of destruction that I can’t fit in my mind. Humans aren’t equipped to think about this sort of thing.
And it’s not the scariest part, is the thing. Sure, you can erase a city in the blink of an eye.
This is where the book shines: it’s about the radiation, and just how scary and insidious it is. I’ve mentioned before that people aren’t afraid enough of nuclear war; at risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say it again. Write your Congresspeople, and advocate for disarmament, everyone.


“The One Device,” or, “I’m amazed this man didn’t get arrested”

Brian Merchant
It’s rather fitting that I’m writing this review on my iPhone. Parts of the book were written on an iPhone, I suspect, and the author mentioned that a good deal of the interview recordings and photos were made on his iPhone.
Structurally, the book is interesting — there are two through lines, and they’ve got the same writing style but different feels. The more story-like one is the historical aspect, going from the beginning of the project through to the keynote where Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. And it’s a story, for sure: there’s a narrative to it, characters being introduced, politics and inventions, failures and triumphs. It’s the best telling of the story I’ve read so far, though admittedly I don’t think I’ve actually sat down to read the full story before.1
The other part is more of the ‘now’ aspect, which explores the impact of the iPhone as a product, focusing on the manufacturing process. The author tells how he… made his way into the Foxconn plant where iPhones are assembled; predictably gets hacked immediately after arriving at a hacker convention; goes on a claustrophobic tour of a tin mine; under-details an agoraphobic tour of the salt flats that produce most of the lithium used in the iPhone’s battery; and a few other stops along the way.
All told, it’s an interesting read. Some of the historical context was new to me—the history of ARM was inspiring, for example—and while I already knew a lot of things—photos of those lithium flats are pretty striking—I’m glad I took the time to read it. If you’re at all interested in the history, I can recommend the book.

  1. Creative Selection is on my list to read, so I’ll get there eventually. 

“Meddling Kids,” or, “alright, who gave Shaggy a gun”

Edgar Cantero
I am a big fan of Scooby-Doo. It’s got something of that James Bond aesthetic to it — every few years, there’s a new one, and we get to see a new take on the tropes. The recent series have been pretty good — What’s New was, basically, a straight modernized version of the original; Mystery Incorporated did some interesting things with the characters; Be Cool is one of the funniest shows I’ve ever watched; and Guess Who is a love letter to the people who watched the original series.12 The movies are a bit more hit-or-miss, but growing up in the 90s meant I had Zombie Island, Witch’s Ghost, Alien Invaders, and Cyber Chase; Alien Invaders is a hilarious concept, Zombie Island is, I’d argue, the best Scooby-Doo media to date, and Witch’s Ghost is part of why I was so excited to visit New England.3
In short, I love the different takes on the same story; there’s nothing new on Earth, but the different ways people combine ingredients are still creative and interesting. So when I saw that somebody had written a Scooby-Doo book with Lovecraftian influence? Alright, I’m interested.4
The writing style is interesting — Cantero switches back and forth between a more conventional novel style and something inspired by a movie script, with labelled dialogue and annotations for Scooby.5 Where it really shines is the occasional action scene; the sentences get longer, flow together, and it feels like a choreographed fight in a movie.
It’s also definitely creepier than anything in my usual reading; the book is set roughly a decade after the gang broke up, and Fred having died in the interim doesn’t stop him from showing up when Shaggy forgets his meds. The interactions between Shaggy and his hallucination of Fred range from hilarious, through bittersweet, and occasionally into the grotesque.
Plot-wise, the book is enjoyable; it gets a bit weird in places, but eventually pulls itself back together, while leaving room for Cantero to come back and write more if he wants.
Which leads me into something that I felt he did excellently: tie-ins. Because, yes, it’s a Scooby-Doo book that can’t say “Scooby-Doo,” or “Fred,” “Daphne,” “Velma,” or “Shaggy.”6 It’s also a Lovecraft book, though — the Necronomicon is explicitly mentioned, and there’s a passing reference to Miskatonic University, as well as several scenes in Arkham. And other bits and pieces makes appearances — Cantero has certainly read more Lovecraftian horror than I have, but based on what I could pick out as references, there were quite a few that I missed. And it’s tied together to give the book the feeling of being part of a larger universe — you could pick up one of Lovecraft’s books, read it, and mentally slot it in to this same continuity without an issue.
So hey, if you want a creepy, fun little romp in the Pacific Northwest, watching Shaggy, Daphne, and Velma try to deal with PTSD and the results of living in a world that has both “some guy dressed up in a costume to scare people away” and the Necronomicon, I can heartily recommend Meddling Kids.

  1. Seriously, it’s artistically gorgeous, and whoever is doing the soundtrack? Give them a raise, it’s excellent. 
  2. Yes, I know I left one out; we don’t talk about Get a Clue
  3. Zombie Island also made my time in Louisiana more enjoyable, and Cyber Chase is set in an amalgamation of MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley, two of which I’ve visited. The moral of the story is, I need to go to Roswell to finish my Scooby-Doo Tour of the United States. 
  4. Admittedly, it’s not an official Scooby-Doo book, so everybody has different names, but it’s also clearly meant to tie in to the same “hey, recognize this trope?” pattern, and gains a lot by then subverting them. 
  5. As mentioned in the previous footnote, the dog isn’t named Scooby, but I don’t feel like writing a conversion chart for what’s meant to be a short review, so I’m just going to do the name-swapping myself. 
  6. It’s possible they could get away with “Scrappy,” but didn’t try. 

“Radicalized,” or, “this just keeps getting more upsetting”

Cory Doctorow
One of my favorite concepts in science fiction is making one change and extrapolating it forward. What if Tesla and Edison’s war of the currents had resulted in most of the world outlawing electricity and doubling down on steam power? What if Superman had landed in Soviet Russia? What if somebody invented a machine that let you step between parallel worlds?
What Doctorow has done here is that, but instead of making one change, he doesn’t make a change, and extrapolates. What if we never fix copy right law? What if Juicero hadn’t collapsed? What if we never sort out healthcare?
The result is terrifying, because it feels… so very possible. It’s not the first time he’s done it, either — Little Brother was my first introduction to Doctorow, and it remains a poster child for the concept.
Reading both Little Brother and Radicalized, I didn’t feel like I was reading a novel; I felt like I was reading a warning. “We’re on a path that leads to this, or something just like it,” he’s saying. “I’m worried, and you should be too.”
Worry with me; it’s a good read, and well worth the time.1

  1. It also contains a great take on Superman, and a strangely uplifting story about the apocalypse; seriously, read it. 

“Post-Capitalist Society,” or, “hindsight is fun”

Peter F. Drucker
This book was published in the early 1990s, and it’s kinda gained something by being dated. Drucker has quite a few “by the 2010s” lines in there, which are about half “wow, how did he know?” and half “oooh that’s not how that went.” To me, at least, there’s a good amount of comedy in that sort of thing, and I rather enjoyed the read.
Beyond that, I don’t have a lot to say about it, so I’ll throw out a couple quotes I pulled while I was reading it.
“Power must always be balanced by responsibility; otherwise it becomes tyranny.”
“The future may we ‘post-Western’; it may be ‘anti-Western.’ It cannot be ‘non-Western.’”
Like I said, a good deal of what he talks about has come to pass, but a good deal hasn’t, and some of what hasn’t is the sort of thing that I wish had. It’s a fun read, give it a go.


James Baldwin’s Collected Essays

James Baldwin
This is ostensibly supposed to be a book review in the way I normally do them, but that doesn’t feel like the right way to go about it. For a variety of reasons, really: firstly, because most of what I review is fiction, and this was only partially that, if at all; and secondly, because it’s just a different sort of book than I usually do.1
James Baldwin was, I’ve learned, a Figure in the civil rights campaigns. To be honest, before I started the project of reading this book, I hadn’t really heard of him. The first references I got to his work were as quotes in essays I proofread for a friend of mine; it took me a while to catch on to the fact that I was seeing the same name come up over and over. (That friend went on to write a thesis about Baldwin; I believe it’s available online, and I’d recommend reading it, if only so you get a better look at Baldwin’s work than I’ll be able to give here.)
The Essays cover a variety of things, but the core component is the relationship between Black and White in America. Which I’m hardly qualified to talk about; again, I’ll point you to that thesis, or just directly to Baldwin’s writings, because both are far better takes than anything I can come up with.
Content aside, Baldwin is a great writer, and a powerful speaker; if you get a chance, check out some of his speeches, they’re certainly on YouTube by now.
The one caveat I’ll give this book is that you shouldn’t plan on finishing it in one sitting, or even a handful; it’s a book that demands effort. Even just from the physical standpoint — it’s 800-plus pages, in the edition I have, fine print on the Bible-like thin paper. It demands endurance, and you can’t really power through it like I tend to with books; after, at most, 100 pages, I had to put it down and give my brain time to process through things, because after a while you start to feel like a river is pouring through your head, in one ear and out the other.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, because you absolutely should. I’m glad I put the time into it, and I suspect I’ll be budgeting time for another run at it again sometime in the future.2

  1. I’ve reviewed one other collection of essays, that I can remember: “The Control of Nature”, which I adored. But that was also different; the essays were about Man’s relationship to Nature, and not Man against Man and Society, or whatnot. I dunno, I’m trying to remember terminology from the last literature class I took, which was either three or four years ago, depending on how you count things. 
  2. And, tacked on here as a footnote because I couldn’t leave it out, but I also couldn’t work it in anywhere else: a couple people who’d read his work before had lead me to believe that he was queer in the way that Shakespeare was — rumored or hinted at, but never really confirmed one way or the other. I can only assume, from that stance, that they hadn’t read the last two essays in the collection, because the final essay includes a description of a young man that begins with “We were never lovers: for what it’s worth, I think I wish we had been.”
    The essay before is even more explicit, I’d say, in that it devotes several pages to talking about Baldwin’s experiences in what are, today, equivalent to gay bars and bathhouses; perhaps my favorite part is the little editorial note at the end that consists of the year it was published and the fact that it was first published in Playboy