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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.

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Review

“Wayward Son”

Rainbow Rowell

I enjoyed “Carry On” so much that I immediately picked up the sequel and read through it. “Wayward Son” is also a fun read, but not nearly as strong as “Carry On” was; “Carry On” is a conclusion and a beginning, while “Wayward Son” is… the middle book.1 It feels like it’s trying to progress the arc of the story, while still leaving enough un-finished for there to be a properly conclusive sequel — to the degree that the “ending on a cliffhanger” doesn’t actually add much more “well, guess I need to read the next one to see how this ends” than the book already had.

Still, there’s a lot of fun worldbuilding going on — an actual proper treatment of what the United States is like in this magical world, unlike Rowling’s utter disregard for… our entire culture, really.2 It honestly leaves me wanting to see other countries in this world, as well. Anglocentrism fits something that started as a Harry Potter parody, but now that we’ve established that Magical Britain is Britain and Magical America is “America, but more libertarian”, I’d love to see, like, Magical Brazil. Magical China. Fill out the world a bit more — what sort of international laws are there governing magic? How does the rest of the world deal with the fact that the Magical United States has no government, and the only thing keeping magic from going viral is that all the magic-users are secretive by nature? Lord knows that won’t last.

I’ll wrap up my rambling here, though. It’s an alright book; I think my main issue with it is timing. If I’d been able to go through all three in the series in a row, I suspect I would’ve enjoyed it a bit more — there’s a lot of set-up for the next book, but now, instead of getting to carry right on to the pay-off, I’m just stuck waiting. So, y’know, maybe wait until next year, but then read it.

  1. Literally so: there’s a third book in the series, scheduled to be released next year, which is explicitly billed as “the third and final book in the Simon Snow series.”
  2. The Fantastic Beasts film actually did an alright job of portraying my country, it feels like, but every aspect of the magical school she tried to describe as our equivalent to Hogwarts is extremely “I don’t get America.” We don’t do school houses, and you really think we’d have a single school? (I must admit, I really love watching Europeans be utterly unable to grasp just how big the US is.)
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Review

“Carry On”

Rainbow Rowell

I keep going back and forth on whether or not I think this book is a parody of the Harry Potter series. On the one hand, it really obviously is – magic school in Britain, Chosen One, mysterious villain, rival from Old Money.1 But it’s doing so much more than just poking fun at these things that have become tropes; it has its own story to tell, and a system of magic that honestly makes more sense than anything Rowling ever accomplished.2

But a good part of my enjoyment of the book is also in the contrast with Harry Potter. What if Harry and Draco had been roommates? (And yes, it’s magic, so we do get to say “they can’t just strangle each other, the school has magically-enforced rules about that.”) What was Draco thinking when Harry was doing the “I have to keep an eye on him at all times” thing in their whichever-th year?3

The opening couple chapters are a delight to read. It’s the start of the school year, which makes for a very clear narrative beginning point… except it’s the start of Simon’s final school year, and he’s been a Protagonist all along, so we’re coming in very much in medias res. The amount of “as you know, Bob” is kept very low, which makes it a fun puzzle of “what all Insane Bullshit has he survived so far?”, and I’ve always enjoyed a game of “what’s the setting.”

Suffice it to say, I heartily recommend this – I’ve been trying to reduce the number of books in my to-read pile, but the moment I finished the book I immediately ordered the sequel, so here we are. If you at all like Harry Potter, and want something without the… tainted association of Rowling, please do read this delightful book.

  1. For reference, the titular character, and all the adventures that he went through prior to “Carry On,” made their original appearance in a novel centered around someone’s enjoyment of We Can’t Call It Harry Potter Because Rowling Has Lawyers For That, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of clear similarities.
  2. There’s rules! Actual rules, explicitly stated, about how spells are created! And they aren’t “yeah there’s an insane AI somewhere running things, it thinks making us make those noises are funny and rewards us with making stuff happen.” It’s all I ever wanted.
  3. For reference, here’s how I summarized that to my friend, while I was reading: “Harry is over there like ‘he’s gotta be up to something!’ Draco, meanwhile, is like ‘please, I am a fifteen year old boy, I need five minutes of Alone Time to deal with a… personal matter.’”
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Review

“The Hollow History of Professor Perfectus”

Ginn Hale

I remain a complete sucker for good worldbuilding, and this is a very fun world that Hale has built. Gilded Age America, but with magic around, things went a bit differently – not least of which being that a magical war cracked the continent in half, leaving California an ocean away. In the meantime, magic has been severely regulated, and oh, don’t forget the automatons everywhere. It’s an interesting place.

And that’s without touching on the protagonists, who have an astonishing amount of backstory for such a short book.

It’s a short read – took me less than an hour, once I’d gotten invested – and I heartily recommend it. Give it a read.

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Review

“Not So Stories”

ed. David Thomas Moore

I haven’t actually read very much Kipling, so reading a collection of stories inspired by — or, possibly, “in reaction to” — his work has me feeling like I’m almost certainly missing some context.

In reading, though, I didn’t find these stories at all lacking. They’re well able to stand on their own, and I’ve picked up enough from cultural osmosis to at least feel the shape of some of the references.

It’s also interesting to see the various storytelling methods and traditions being referenced here. Sometimes it’s a story you’re reading, and other times, you’re being told a story, spoken to directly. In a few of the stories in the book, it switches back and forth between these two approaches, telling two stories at once, one nesting inside the other. Reminiscent of Cloud Atlas, in a way.

The thing that most surprised me, as I read this, was how wrong my expectations were. “Based on Kipling’s Just So Stories” had me expecting everything to be in following the Platonic Ideal of a children’s book, very little conflict, everything easily resolved. Instead, in many of these stories, I found myself enraged and saddened at the injustice of it all. Many of them don’t have a happy ending; many of them don’t have much by way of happiness at all. In that, they feel more real than what I was expecting would’ve, although I so much hate to say it.

But my hatred for saying that is a response to media where that sadness feels like it’s there for sadness’ sake. Looking at you, DC film universe — the whole “grim and gritty” thing is just depressing, and the world is depressing enough already.

But in Not So Stories, for the most part, the unhappiness isn’t there just to be unhappy. It’s there to highlight that things aren’t fair, that the world doesn’t always go right — and to make you mad at that. To make you want to change it.

It is, in retrospect, an enjoyable reading experience, though at times I didn’t feel that way. Go read the book, and get mad at injustice.

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Review

“Cannonbridge”

Jonathan Barnes

I realized, somewhere around a third of the way into this book, that I don’t actually like anyone in it. The protagonist is an astonishingly boring man, for someone living through this upsetting a series of events, and the other main character is a rather good example of what’s wrong with acting like a proper Victorian.

All that said, I did enjoy the book. It was the kind of mystery that I enjoy, less about figuring out who did the thing than it as about what, precisely, they did. That mystery is what carried me through – I had theories, thoughts about what might have been going on with that second main character, and I had a great deal of fun trying to figure out which of them were right, which were wrong, and why. (And, it turns out, I was wrong on all counts – the end was stranger than I expected, and all the more creepy as a result.)

All told, I quite enjoyed this book, and I can recommend it to anyone who likes a creepy mystery. (Bonus points if you like Victorian literature — you’ll probably catch more of the references than I did.) If that’s you, give it a read.