Categories
Review

“Openly Straight,” or, “just let this idiot be happy”

Bill Konigsberg
I was genuinely surprised to find this book on my Kindle; I knew it was one I’d been wanting for a while, but I didn’t remember actually buying it. Still, I’m on vacation, trying to work my way through the backlog of books a bit, so I shrugged and started to read.
Here’s the concept, containing no more spoilers than the Amazon blurb: Rafe is an openly gay young man living in Boulder, Colorado. And by ‘openly gay,’ I mean very; he came out in middle school, his parents threw a coming out party, his mom became president of the local PFLAG chapter, and he’s got, like, an internship kind of thing being a speaker at other high schools in the area. Not bad for a sophomore in high school.
That’s where the book starts, and it quickly leaves that point, because Rafe isn’t happy with this life. Sure, everyone accepts him as The Gay Kid, but that’s all he is. He scores the winning goal in a soccer game, and the local newspaper runs a story: “Gay Student Wins Game!” And who really likes being boiled down to one aspect of their personality?
So he leaves; gets himself accepted to an Ivy-prep boarding high school over on the East Coast somewhere. Not mentioned to the very-supporting parents and friends? The fact that he’s not going to be gay there; he’s going to let the ‘straight until proven gay’ aspect of heterosexism1 take over and get to experience life from the other side.2
Which is, honestly, a very interesting concept, but in execution, I didn’t enjoy it all that much. It felt, to me, like the book was trying to be two different things at once, and as a result, failing at both. The beginning and end are in a more literary bent, exploring some of the stuff I’d mentioned earlier. Which is a valid topic to be explored, and the way it’s handled is sufficient that, at the end of this point, I’m still going to recommend the book. Where it falls apart is in the middle; the book gets a bit distracted from that literary style and turns into a bit of a teenage romance fluff pile.
Again, not a bad thing, but the two aspects don’t work well together; the conflict of the book should be either the literary ‘man versus society’ kind of thing, or the romance ‘man versus his own idiotic self being mad at romance’ deal. Instead it’s ‘literary aspirations versus the plot arc of a romance novel,’ and both portions lose out for it. The romance novel falls apart because that’s what the literary aspect demands, and the meaning of the literary component feels cheapened by the collapsing romance.
I wish I could’ve liked this book more, but oh well. Still, it does have some valuable things to say, and I’m going to go ahead and recommend it.3 Give it a read, and maybe do a slightly better job than I did at engaging with the more thought-provoking portions.4


  1. If you don’t know what the word means, read the book, it does a better job explaining it than I can. 
  2. The first few chapters of this are actually very anxiety-inducing; minority stress is a real thing, and imagining going through it without a support network is a stressful concept. 
  3. Because, y’know, this has been such a glowing review. 
  4. Part of the issue for me, I suppose, is that all the thoughts it’s trying to provoke are conclusions I arrived at a while ago; I’m not really the target audience, I suppose. 
Categories
Review

“Smoketown,” or, “post-eco-apocalypse, but weirdly uplifting”

Tenea D. Johnson
I’m normally not a fan of post-apocalyptic stuff, because, y’know, if I want to be depressed about the world I’ll just turn on the news. This, though, wasn’t as depressing as things usually are — things have fallen apart as compared to what we’re used to, but people aren’t letting it stop them. Life goes on, even if that means city-states throughout the remnants of the US cooperating on carbon sequestration projects to try to keep Idaho from sinking.1
This was also one of those books that does an excellent job of setting up a fascinating setting without dropping into mountains of exposition. There’s never an explicit reference to what’s happened, but you can pick things out from background details pretty well; it’s tantalizing, to see little hints of things but not get a full explanation.
The story, too, is interesting, because it doesn’t treat the overall ‘apocalypse’ as the Big Problem. It’s hinted at that the various governments of the world are continuing to adapt to and prevent further problems, but the story focuses on two levels: a personal dilemma, and one enveloping just the city where the story takes place.
The personal is weird and convoluted and makes sense, eventually; the city-level is more neatly tied together. It’s quite satisfying, all told; as I was getting towards the end of the book, keeping an eye on how much of it was left, I wasn’t expecting everything to tie up as well as it did.
And I think I’ll stop there; I don’t like giving away spoilers, and this book did a better job of keeping me from guessing the ending than I usually do. Give it a read.


  1. I believe that’s an incorrect reference, technically — Idaho was mentioned as having become entirely desert, I think, and somewhere else (Louisiana, presumably) had effectively sunk into the ocean. 
Categories
Review

“The Control of Nature,” or, “there’s nothing like finding out 100,000 tons of concrete has no foundation left whatsoever”

John McPhee

I’ve actually had this book for quite a while; one of the essays in it was required reading for a class I took, oh, two years ago or so? Something like that. I quite enjoyed the read at the time, but somehow never thought to read the other essays in the book. I found it again in the whole mess of moving out of campus housing after graduation and decided to toss it into the to-read pile, and I finally got around to it.1

And I’m glad I did; while “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” wasn’t quite as fun to reread as it was to read the first time around, the other two essays were both just as enjoyable on first read as I’d hoped. McPhee’s writing style is beautiful; very visually descriptive, deeply informative, and with well-timed flashes of humor throughout.

I’m going to split this review up a bit and include some excerpts from each of the essays, to try to give you a sense of not only McPhee’s voice, but also the content of the essays.

“Atchafalaya”

The first essay, “Atchafalaya,” follows the US Army Corps of Engineers and their work on the Mississippi River; it’s far more involved than I’d ever thought, and the project is fascinating.

On the outflow side—where the water fell to the level of the Atchafalaya—a hole had developed that was larger and deeper than a football stadium, and with much the same shape. it was hidden, of course, far beneath the chop of wild water. The Corps had long since been compelled to leave all eleven gates wide open, in order to reduce to the greatest extent possible the force that was shaking the structure, and so there was no alternative to aggravating the effects on the bed of the channel. In addition to the structure’s weight, what was holding it in place was a millipede of stilts—steel H-beams that reached down at various angles, as pilings, ninety feet through sands and silts, through clayey peats and organic mucks. There never was a question of anchoring such a fortress in rock. The shallowest rock was seven thousand feet straight down. In three places below the structure, sheet steel went into the substrate like fins; but the integrity of the structure depended essentially on the H-beams, and vehicular traffic continued to cross it en route to San Luis Rey.

Then, as now, LeRoy Dugas was the person whose hand controlled Old River Control—a thought that makes him smile. “We couldn’t afford to close any of the gates,” he remarked to me one day at Old River. “Too much water was passing through the structure. Water picked up riprap off the bottom in front, and rammed it through to the tail bed.” The riprap included derrick stones, and each stone weighed seven tons. On the level of the road deck, the vibrations increased. The operator of a moving crane let the crane move without him and waited for it at the end of the structure. Dugie continued, “You could get on the structure with your automobile and open the door and it would close the door.” The crisis recalled the magnitude of “the ’27 high water,” when Dugie was a baby. Up the alley somewhere, during the ’27 high water, was a railroad bridge with a train sitting on it loaded with coal. The train had been put there because its weight might help keep the bridge in place, but the bridge, vibrating in the floodwater, produced so much friction that the coal in the gondolas caught fire. Soon the bridge, the train, and the glowing coal fell into the water.

One April evening in 1973—at the height of the flood—a fisherman walked onto the structure. There is, after all, order in the universe, and some things take precedence over impending disasters. On the inflow side, facing the Mississippi, the structure was bracketed by a pair of guide walls that reached out like curving arms to bring in the water. Close by the guide wall at the south end was the swirling eddy, which by now had become a whirlpool. There was other motion as well—or so it seemed. The fisherman went to find Dugas, in his command post at the north end of the structure, and told him the guide wall had moved. Dugie told the fisherman he was seeing things. The fisherman nodded affirmatively.

When Dugie himself went to look at the guide wall, he looked at it for the last time. “It was slipping into the river, into the inflow channel.” Slowly it dipped, sank, broke. Its foundations were gone. There was nothing below it but water. Professor Kazmann likes to say that this was when the Corps became “scared green.” Whatever the engineers may have felt, as soon as the water began to recede they set about learning the dimensions of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish. (28-30)

“Cooling the Lava”

The next essay is set in a very different clime: a volcanic eruption in Iceland, with occasional detours to a similar eruption in Hawaii. The way he describes these immense forces is amazing; it feels as if he’s trying to make sure you feel the same sense of awe that he does.

The university installed [the seismometer] on Einar’s farm about a year before the Heimaey eruption, its primary purpose being to sense the threats of Katla, an unusually dangerous volcano only fifteen miles away. Hekla is in the area as well—the stratovolcano that appears in early literature as one of the two mouths of Hell. Groans from dead sinners have been heard in the crater. But Hekla is out in the open, observable under the sky. The baleful Katla is covered with ice It lies under Myrdalsjokull—a glacier field of two hundred and seventy square miles. When Katla erupts, as it has about twice a century, it creates a vast chamber of water under the ice. When the water reaches a critical volume, it lifts the ice cap, and one or two cubic miles bursts out as a violent flood—a blurt of water twenty times the discharge of the Amazon River. The outwash plains these floods have left behind are as desolate as the maria of the moon. A town, villages, and farms lie between Katla and the sea. (113-114)

While I’d probably call “they saw fish” my favorite line of the whole book, probably the best example of his sense of humor comes from this description of a golf course:

In 1801, it came down off Hualalai, a lesser volcano eight thousand feet high, and poured into the sea. There on the leeward side of the island, where rainfall is ten inches a year, the lava has remained essentially unchanged. Resorts have sculpted it like movie sets, landscaped wit imported soils. The bunkers of designer golf courses are not concave and full of sand but—lovely in the green surrounding turf—solid black islands of undisturbed basalt. Use your wedge on that. Your hands sting for a year. If a long approach shot lands on one of those, it bounces to Tahiti. (152)

Finally, from a portion of the book where I could feel myself mentally adding a few things to my bucket list:

The rock, being essentially glass, was very sharp. It was also hot, particularly where a tube lay below and molten lava was running there. We came to a skylight and inched toward it. Steam swirled above it but did not close off the view—of the racing orange currents of an incandescent river. By an order of magnitude, this was the most arresting sight I had ever seen in nature. The time spent gazing into it could not be measured.

Gradually, I began to think. Out of curiosity, I asked Christina if we were looking down into the near side of the tube or were standing over the middle and looking at the far side of the tube.

“The far side,” she said.

If my legs still had knees in them, I was unaware of it. (155)

“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”

The last essay of the book is the first one I read. It was interesting; at the time, I found it fascinating, and since that first reading I’ve come back to it again and again in my mind.

Los Angeles is overmatched on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by very high mountains. With respect to these principal boundaries, Los Angeles is done sprawling. The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city. Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world. The phalanxed communities of Los Angeles have pushed themselves hard against these mountains, an act of aggression that requires a deep defense budget to contend with the results. (184)

It follows the Los Angeles Flood Control District, or, as the locals call it, Flood. Now, controlling floods seems like it’d be easy in Los Angeles, the city of perpetual doubt, but that’s far from the truth; not only is there the occasional bit of torrential rainfall, but also something much more difficult: rockfall.

Many people regard the debris basins less as defenses than as assaults on nature. They are aesthetic disasters. To impose them on residential neighborhoods has been tantamount to creating a Greenwich full of gravel pits, rock quarries at either end of Sutton Place. The residents below Hook East were bitter when the basin was put in. Months later, the bulldozer tracks were still visible, they said, meaning that nothing had happened—no debris had come, and not even enough rain to obliterate the tracks. So why had the county used taxpayers’ money to build something so obviously unnecessary? A form of answer came when the basin overfilled in one night. Afterward, people criticized the county for not building basins of adequate size. (246)

What was most interesting to me, though, wasn’t just the concept of trying to fight against these rockfalls; it was the interrelationships between everything.

When fire comes, it puts the nutrients back in the ground. It clears the terrain for fresh growth. When chaparral has not been burned for thirty years, about half the thicket will be dry dead stuff—twenty-five thousand tons of it in one square mile. The living plants are no less flammable. The chamise, the manzanita—in fact, most chaparral plants—are full of solvent extractives that burn intensely and ignite easily. Their leaves are glossy with oils and resins that seal in moisture during hot dry periods and serve the dual purpose of responding explosively to flame. (209)

It burns as if it were soaked with gasoline. Chaparral plants typically have multiple stems emerging from a single root crown, and this contributes not only to the density of the thickets but, ultimately, to the surface area of combustible material that stands prepared for flame. Hundreds of acres can be burned clean in minutes. In thick black smoke there is wild orange flame, rising through the canyons like explosion crowns. The canyons serve as chimneys, and in minutes whole mountains are aflame, resembling volcanoes, emitting high columns of fire and smoke. The smoke can rise twenty thousand feet. (210)

If you walk in a rainstorm on a freshly burned chaparral slope, you notice as you step on the wet ground that the tracks you are making are prints of dry dust. In the course of a conflagration, chaparral soil, which is not much for soaking up water in the first place, experiences a chemical change and, a little below its surface, becomes waterproof. In a Forest Service building at the foot of the mountains Wade Wells keeps some petri dishes and soil samples in order to demonstrate this phenomenon to passing unbelievers. In one dish he puts unburned chaparral soil. It is golden brown. He drips water on it from an eyedropper. The water beads up, stands there for a while, then collapses and spreads into the soil. Why the water hesitates is not well understood but is a great deal more credible than what happens next. Wells fills a dish with a dark soil from burned chaparral. He fills the eyedropper and empties it onto the soil. The water stands up in one large dome. Five minutes later, the dome is still there. Ten minutes later, the dome is still there. Sparkling, tumescent, mycophane, the big bead of water just stands there indefinitely, on top of the impermeable soil. Further demonstrating how waterproof this burned soil really is, Wells pours half a pound of it, like loose brown sugar, into a beaker of water. The soil instantly forms a homunculus blob—integral, immiscible—suspended in the water.

In the slow progression of normal decay, chaparral litter seems to give up to the soil what have been vaguely described as “waxlike complexes of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons.” These waxy substances are what make unburned chaparral soil somewhat resistant to water, or “slightly nonwettable,” as Wells and his colleagues are won’t to describe it. The the wildfires burn, and temperatures at the surface of the ground are six or seven hundred centigrade degrees, the soil is so effective as an insulator that the temperature one centimetre below the surface may not be hot enough to boil water. The heavy waxlike substances vaporize at the surface and reconvenes in the cooler temperatures below. Acting like oil, they coat soil particles and establish the hydrophobic layer—one to six centimetres down. Above that layer, where the waxlike substances are gone ,the veneer of burned soil is “wettable.” When Wells drips water on a dishful of that, the water soaks in as if the dish were full of Kleenex. When rain falls on burned and denuded ground, it soaks the very thing upper layer but can penetrate no further. Hiking boots strike hard enough to break through into the dust, but the rain is repelled and goes down the slope. Of all the assembling factors that eventually send debris flows rumbling down the canyons, none is more detonative than the waterproof soil.

In the first rains after a fire, water quickly saturates the thin permeable layer, and liquefied soil drips downhill like runs of excess paint. These miniature debris flows stripe the mountainsides with miniature streambeds—countless scarlike rills that are soon the predominant characteristic of the burned terrain. As more rain comes, each rill is going to deliver a little more debris to the accumulating load in the canyon below. But, more to the point, each rill—its naturally levees framing its impermeable bed—will increase the speed of the surface water. As rain sheds off a mountainside like water off a tin roof, the rill network, as it is called, may actually triple the peed, and therefore greatly enhance the power of the runoff. The transport capacity of the watershed—how much bulk it can move—may increase a thousandfold. The rill network is prepared to deliver water with enough force and volume to mobilize the deposits lying in the canyons below. With the appearance of the rills, almost all prerequisites have no sequential occurred. The muzzle-loader is charged. For a full-scale flat-out debris flow to burst forth from the mountains, the final requirement is a special-intensity storm. (212-214)

And, again, there’s always that sense of awe, for nature and all the forces involved. But he tempers it well with human stories:

The Harkness house projected from the hillside and had a carport beneath the master bedroom. The debris tore off the master bedroom with Sara and the baby inside. The bedroom fell on the family station wagon. With the bedroom on top of it, the station wagon went down the driveway and on down the street. In what remained of the house, the twins and their sister Claudine were unhurt. Sara and the baby came to the end of their ride unhurt. The station wagon suffered considerably. When the bedroom was taken off it, the car was twenty-six inches high. (263)

At this point, if you’re still reading, I think it’s safe to say you’re as interested by these clips of the essays as I was by the whole things. I can absolutely recommend that you give it a read.

  1. Technically it was the second item on the pile, behind Baldwin’s “Collected Essays”, but that’s a rather dense book that I’ve been working on for a while, and I needed a bit of a break.
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Review

“The Big Meow,” or, “a better ending than I even bothered to hope for”

Diane Duane
I don’t think I’ve done a review of one of Diane Duane’s books on here before, but that’s not for lack of reading them — it’s just that I’ve been reading them since significantly before I had a habit of writing book reviews, or even a blog at all. The Young Wizards series is something I’ve read and reread and reread again; I’ll pick up one of the books for a reread almost as often as I reread Tamora Pierce.
A quick bit of context, then: the Young Wizards series is set in a universe1 where wizardry is real, and has a very distinctive purpose: slowing down entropy. Wizardry is based on language; wizards learn a special language, the Speech, that was used by the gods to create the universe. With those abilities, they fight the good fight, acknowledging that, yes, one day entropy will win, the universe will die… but they’re not going to let that happen any earlier than it absolutely has to.
The Big Meow is the third in a spin-off trilogy of sorts, following the team of feline wizards that maintain the worldgates at Grand Central Station.2 As in the second book, though, they don’t spend much time on their home turf; most of the book is set in Los Angeles, and there’s some fun to be had as they try to get used to the West Coast style.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the book, though, is how well it handled a certain issue: representation. The protagonist is a cat, and Duane does an excellent job of guiding the reader through that mindspace, through the different perspective given by an interspecies difference. The part that stood out to me, though, was how this, as a side effect, made for a surprising bit of queer representation. Rhiow, the protagonist, was fixed; as a result, this book, written before the word ‘asexual’ had even begun to enter into the public sphere with ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ and everything else under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, has an asexual protagonist. The first two books did too, and it feels entirely natural; Rhiow just has a different perspective on certain things, and cracks a few jokes about it with her coworkers. It’s not treated as a big deal at all.
In this book, it becomes a bit more of a focus, as we get a bit of a love interest subplot. And it’s handled quite well: there’s a bit of angst about the whole “I’m fixed and that makes me broken” thing, but her friends are quick to give her a loving whack upside the head, and help her stop seeing that difference as a negative and instead as just a difference. It is, possibly, the best bit of asexual representation I’ve ever read, and it’s quite touching.
Plot-wise, I think I enjoyed this one more than either of the others in the trilogy; the first goes a bit weird in places, and the second has a very cool setting that gets a bit confusing. This, though, doesn’t get lost at all, and the storyline is fun and beautifully creepy. It’s a bit fitting that this book, the one set in and around Hollywood, feels absolutely the most cinematic of the three. I’d totally recommend giving it a read.3
(And, while you’re at it, go read the rest of the series — the Young Wizards books are amazing. Pick up the New Millenium Edition box set, it’s totally worth it.)


  1. Well, technically, a collection of universes, but I digress. 
  2. Public transit: also useful for wizards. 
  3. Normally this would be an Amazon link, but Diane Duane runs her own ebook store, which I’m quite in favor of as it means the majority of the sale goes to her instead of to Amazon. 
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Review

“Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives,” or, “less existentially upsetting than you’d think”

David Eagleman
I believe I added this book to my wish list back when CGP Grey talked about it, either on Hello Internet or Cortex. It’s an interesting concept, explained succinctly in the title: a collection of (very) short stories about what happens after you die. I’d actually read one before, way back when it was published as the one-page science fiction short in the back of Science magazine.
To be honest, the book was an enjoyable read, but a very quick one; for the price, I think I’d recommend checking it out from your local library.1


  1. Also, y’know, I recommend supporting your local library in general. They’re a wonderful resource. 
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Review

“Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality,” or, “you could make a drinking game of watching people change the world with these essays”

Edited by Randall Packer & Ken Jordan, with a foreword by William Gibson
As a well-documented computer nerd, I’m honestly kinda amazed I’d never stumbled across this book before. It’s an impressive collection of titans of the field — Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, Vannevar Bush, Tim Berners-Lee, and so on.1 Other than the foreword, there’s nothing truly new in this book,2 but the essays are downright formative. Bush’s essay, written in the wake of the Second World War, describes what is recognizably a smartphone; Berners-Lee’s describes the foundation of what would become the internet. Looking back, it’s a fascinating read — hindsight is 20/20, and all that. It’s a cool book, give it a read.


  1. It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to call Bush a titan of the field of computer science, but he did invent the military-industrial complex, which led to a lot of computer tech, so… I’ll let it stand. 
  2. Well, the introductions of each author probably are, but I digress. 
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Review

“An American Princess,” or, “how is this woman not a gay icon”

Annejet van der Zijl
I’m not a big history person; if you haven’t noticed from the sort of things I tend to review, I like my books distinctly fiction. This one was a bit of an accident — as a Prime subscriber, I get a free Kindle book a month, and this seemed the most interesting of the available choices. Which, to put it lightly, was pretty accurate.
Since it’s a biography, it’s a bit weird to try to summarize at all, because anything interesting feels like it’d be spoiling a surprise. Rather than doing that, I think I’ll just leave you with the title of this post, the title of the book, and a note that I can happily recommend it, because it was a heck of a read. She had a wild life.

Categories
Review

“Automate This,” or, “Wall Street is slightly more terrifying than I thought”

Christopher Steiner
At some point, I’ve probably mentioned that I’m a computer guy. If not, hopefully you’ve been able to figure it out just by reading along; it’s probably a safe bet that only a computer nerd would make an app.1
Fairly often, this means I get to explain things to people in a less incensing way than they’d first heard about it.2 This book… did not do that. It was intended to be calming, but as a person who lives in a capitalist society, it’s a bit unnerving to see how quickly things that used to be jobs are being eaten by computers.3
That said, it was a fascinating read — I’d never heard of some of the things being talked about, not because they failed and disappeared, but because they succeeded but are borderline invisible.4
And, of course, it’s an interesting history of how the finance industry made themselves entirely redundant, all while arguably slowing the pace of human progress. Ah, banks.
Anyways, go read the book.


  1. Yes, I am still in shameless self-promotion mode, thank you for asking 
  2. Looking at you, “Apple is making your iPhone slower” thing 
  3. And yes, I say this as somebody whose entire career path is basically going to be “helping the computers eat more jobs, faster.” 
  4. Call center software that picks which agent to route you to based on your personality type so that you’ll be a happier customer at the end? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t just read its origin story. 
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Review

“What Dreams Shadows Cast”, or, “the cave isn’t haunted, but it does hate you”

Barbara J. Webb
So, a year and a half ago, I read the first book in what I assume is an ongoing series. At the time, I was quite clear on the fact that I loved the setting of the book. If you want all the explanation, hit up that link; for now I’ll just say it’s a new take on post-apocalyptic, where the apocalypse was being abandoned by the gods who’d previously been quite happy to intervene on people’s behalf.
That gap between reading the first and the second wasn’t the greatest thing for my enjoyment of the second — I spent a bit too long trying to remember where we’d left off, and some of the references back to the first I gave up on trying to remember. Things are in a slightly better place than they were in the first, though in order to avoid spoilers I’m not going to explain how, but you still get the sense that the world is deeply broken. Which, true, it sorta is; they’d based their entire economy and governmental system around an external force, which one day decided to up and leave. Maybe not the best way to have done things.
Honestly, I’m a bit annoyed with the handling of business in Miroc, the city where the first book took place; in the aftermath of that one, it’s set up to begin recovering from the Abandonment. In this book, we’ve skipped forward six months, and aside from a couple references to tentative recovery, nothing much seems to have changed. Sure, it’s only six months, but it’s also a metropolis that just finished making itself entirely self-sufficient, there should be more happening.
Which is rather the crux of my opinion on the book: “there should be more happening.” There’s background details — mentions of an influx of immigrants, as well as an increase in emigration — that aren’t explored very well.1 Instead, there’s a digression, ignoring the leftover villains from the first book to go have an Indiana Jones adventure in the desert.
This book feels like it was supposed to be either the second of two books, or possibly the second of a trilogy, but halfway through someone decided they wanted it to be an ongoing series. And to match the expansion in scale, they tried to expand the setting — the already compelling villains from the first book are almost entirely ignored, despite having been clearly set up to be the main antagonist throughout the series, and what was set up as the background for the whole setting got awkwardly retconned.
It just didn’t work as well as the first book. Which is a shame, because that first one was amazing, and this, while still captivating, left me disappointed at the end. Nonetheless, here’s the link; that said, if you haven’t yet read the first one, go do that instead.


  1. That specific example is actually a huge plot thread that’s just… entirely dropped partway through. Everyone is all secretive about where they’re emigrating to, and then something new comes up and the characters decide to leave that Chekhov’s Gun just sitting on the table, ignored. 
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Review

“Not Your Sidekick,” or, “if you dropped hints any harder it’d cause an earthquake”

C.B. Lee
My obsession with superhero books continues, and I’m ranking this one second place out of the superhero books I’ve read for interesting worldbuilding. Set in Andover in what used to be the California-Nevada area, it takes place something like 100 years after a massive solar flare kicked off a low-key apocalypse. Between the Cosmic Radiation and the simultaneous failure of the safety systems in every nuclear power plant around the world, the radiation bath triggered a latent gene in the human population, giving some fraction of a percent of the population superpowers.1 World War III cropped up, apparently in a non-nuclear manner, and the various governments of the world ceased to exist.2 New ones sprung up – there’s a South East Asian something-or-other pulling together after a couple decades of civil war, a Global Federation that sounds like “the UN, but better at covering things up,” and NAFTA merged together into the North American Collective.
It gets interesting pretty quick, though, with a few references3 to old fashioned media being banned – presumably, collecting old TVs, books, DVD players, and so on is about conserving resources in a still fairly resource-starved world.4 But the government has done a great job of removing references to those old things at all. There’s just a whiff of fascism, and once you catch that it’s a hard thread to let go of. As background materials go, it’s utterly fascinating.
The story proper is also pretty hilarious – the protagonist is the daughter of Andover’s superhero power couple, which gives her an inside view into their normal lives. They’ve got cover jobs – real estate, the both of them – that they’re varying degrees of terrible at pretending to take part in. Their primary villains, Mr and Mrs Mischief, are more about pranking the population than causing any actual havoc, so even when they have to go in to work, such as it is, it’s not exactly a life-or-death situation.
Without superpowers of her own, though, their daughter Jess is at a bit of a loss about what to do with herself. After her precocious little brother5 makes one too many references to her underachievement in school and lack of powers, she decides to go do something with herself and applies for an internship at Monroe Industries, the high-tech firm that’s apparently Andover’s staple business. After getting the job, she’s a bit shocked to find out that the ‘experimental research’ division she’s working in is a cover for how the Mischiefs are getting their resources – her bosses are her parents’ arch-nemeses.
Hilarity ensues, and I’m quite happy to recommend the book to you. Give it a read.


  1. The degree to which it’s generic feels more tongue-in-cheek than anything else, so it works. 
  2. Except the European Union; apparently all it’ll take to resolve the Brexit mess is the end of the world? 
  3. These aren’t the heavily-dropped hints I’m referring to in the title; the romantic subplot is possibly the single most obvious thing to have happened in the history of ever. Subtlety, thy name is not Jessica Tran. 
  4. There’s some nice references to the fact that meat is a very rare luxury item, and the majority of the population lives on an economical vegetarian diet. 
  5. Now, we’re not going to say ‘super-genius,’ but we’re going to heavily imply it. 
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Review

“The Mystic Marriage,” or, “this book changed genre like four times”

Heather Rose Jones
School has begun in earnest, and I’ve suddenly gone from reading a book a day to taking a couple weeks to finish one. I’d call it depressing, but considering that I’m down to only a couple more books that I haven’t yet read, it’s actually working in my favor, keeping me from running out of new material quite so quickly.
“The Mystic Marriage” is set in the fictional European country of Alpennia, a small country that, were I to guess, is somewhere bordering France and, perhaps, Spain? It’s hard to say, as it’s never explicitly explained, but the recent collapse of the French Empire feels more personal than do the interferences from the Austrian Empire.1
There’s two twists that make the book really interesting.
The first is the presence of magic. It’s a different system than I’ve seen before, though – works of thaumaturgy are referred to as ‘mysteries’ and rely on the intervention of the saints. It’s all very Catholic, with some interesting utilitarian aspects. It’s reminiscent of the ways that science would have to be fit into the Catholic canon – tweak the wording a little bit, make sure to express some wonder about the great things God does, and you’re good as long as you don’t get too scandalous.
The other is more scandalous, and where it gets really fun. The core of the cast is, basically, the Lesbian Noblewomen’s Society. There’s a lot of mention of the fact that, as Noted Eccentrics, they’re allowed more strangeness by the high society of Rotenek, which is how they can get away, for example, a pair of unrelated women living together despite both being wealthy enough for their own households. It’s the scandalous nature of it that makes it feel realistic – there’s no “oh, yes, in this fictional country, unlike the rest of the Continent, everyone is totally fine with this!” It’s a “we’re powerful people, and as long as we’re not blatant we can get away with it.” Sort of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” applied to the upper crust of society.
And really, it’s a very enjoyable book. The genre changes were interesting, and allowed it to explore a lot of ground without being predictable, which I quite liked. So I’m quite happy to give it a recommendation – go give it a read.


  1. I think it’s the Austrian Empire; they’re referred to as ‘Austrians’ throughout, and only in glancing references, so it could just as well be the Holy Roman Empire. 
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Review

“Ambassador 1: Seeing Red,” or, “the title turns out to be an extremely satisfying pun”

Patty Jansen
I honestly had no idea what this book was about going in, and I think it worked well that way. As it turns out, it was a political thriller: the protagonist is a negotiator between Nations of Earth and gamra. It’s roughly equivalent to, say, being Turkey’s negotiator to the EU for the membership talks. Only Turkey is a stronger version of the UN with full executive powers over the entire planet, and the EU is a trade coalition that regulates FTL interstellar travel.
Where it gets really interesting is the various non-humans involved. The rough layout of the galaxy features something like 95% of the entire population being various humanoids; there are some references to the fact that one of the member races of gamra is far more ancient than the rest and not only developed the FTL technology but used it to seed the galaxy with the various humanities. But each version of humanity had tens of thousands of years to diverge from one another, and you wind up with some really interesting cultural and even biological variations. The Coldi, the majority group within gamra, have some serious differences in how they treat one another and think about the world in general.
And that’s what makes the book so interesting – you’ve got a Eurosceptic-analog President of Nations of Earth, a novice diplomat without his cultural exchange attaché, and a negotiating culture based on a completely different style of interpersonal relationships and loyalty than anyone from Earth is used to. It’s fascinating looking at all the interactions, and the author has done an incredible job of taking one or two differences and seeing what happens when you let those differences influence things for a few hundred years. It’s an excellent read, and I couldn’t put the book down, so if you at all enjoy good science fiction or the occasional political thriller, give it a read.

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Review

“Death by Silver,” or, “the landlady has a point, the plant DID try to bite the help”

Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold
I’ll start off by saying that this is definitely within the Sherlock Holmes archetype of stories,1 but it’s got enough differing it from the rest to be interesting.
The first big difference is in the setting: it’s the same Victorianesque time period as the average Sherlock Holmes book, but this is a world with magic of a sort – or, as the locals refer to it, metaphysics. It’s a bit of a complex system, based upon written language and a fairly complex grammar, utilizing a variety of different written squares. I don’t have a great grasp of how it all works, which is okay, because the way it’s written it has a good mix of detail and lack thereof. It’s a good balance, and the way its integrated into the rest of the world is quite nice.
That leads into the second difference: while there’s a clear Sherlock figure, I got the feeling that he’s the secondary of the two narrative main characters.2 While the Sherlock is still the normal Sherlock, albeit using magic instead of opium, the Watson is a metaphysician for hire, rather than a doctor. The story begins with him, in fact: a customer comes to him to remove a curse from the family silver. Finding a lack of a curse, he does a cleansing… and is rather surprised a few days later when he’s hired again to sort out the murder of his previous client, his skull having been bashed in with some of the recently-cleansed silver. It’s at this point that he brings in the Sherlock, as that’s more his area of expertise.
The relationship between the two of them is the third major difference.3 They went to school together, had a bit of a schoolboy dalliance, broke it off in college, and then resumed it in their adulthood. It’s a weird interaction – one of those rom-com style things, where both parties involved want the same thing, but are both convinced the other doesn’t want it. It makes the switching viewpoints mechanic pretty hilarious, to be honest; I spent a lot of time gleefully muttering “you idiot” at the both of them.
It’s the taboo quality of that relationship that I enjoyed the most, I think: the book doesn’t go in for the gloss-over-it style that some take, wherein the Victorian “don’t ask, don’t tell” style4 is stretched to cover openly gay men. Instead, it’s a matter of only being shown or spoken of behind closed doors. Secretive clubs that one must be vouched for by an existing member to get into. Careful remarks that can be said to have been misheard if the wrong response is given. It makes the whole thing realistic – take away the magical aspect of the book, and I could absolutely believe it was someone’s autobiography, hidden away and recently rediscovered and published by a descendant.
All in all, it made for an interesting read, and I’m quite happy to recommend it to you.


  1. I should have a tag for ‘Holmesian books’ by now, I read enough of them. 
  2. Two protagonists, working together; the viewpoint switches off between the two of them throughout. Nonetheless, the Sherlock has the helm slightly less than the Watson. 
  3. Well, insofar as it’s explicitly stated; there’s a lot of queer theory talk about the canonical Holmes/Watson relationship. 
  4. See “a bared ankle is improper, but I’ll meet you at the brothel for some opium later.” 
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Review

“Interim Errantry 2: On Ordeal,” or, “origin stories are actually interesting when they’re new”

Diane Duane
And really, that’s the long and short of it: the origin stories for three characters in Diane Duane’s marvelous Young Wizardsseries. And they were very interesting origins – the third, there were hints about in the rest of the series, but the first two were entirely new. The second was very unexpected, as well – more vicious, and sadder, than I’d thought.
But rather than talk about this book specifically, I think I’d be happier talking up the series as a whole. I haven’t really had a chance to write about it here before, but it’s been one of my favorites for ages. I received the first book in the series as a birthday present years and years ago,1 and promptly fell in love.
It’s been mentioned in both college and graduate school application essays. It drifts through the way I look at the world. I can name chunks of my value system that clearly come from these books, and I can trace my interests – up to and including my major and planned career path – back to the way these books taught me to look at the world.
Before I ever read Peter Parker’s thoughts on responsibility, these books were teaching me that having power meant you should use it to help others.
And they taught me that names, and really all words, are very powerful things.
They’ve been hugely influential to my life, and I happily recommend them to everyone. Start at the beginning: the first book, the delightfully-titled So You Want to Be A Wizard, should be in your local library. If not, I’d recommend picking it up directly from the author: she certainly deserves your patronage. Regardless, go start reading.


  1. I don’t remember exactly how many years it was, but I can tell it was sometime that in elementary school, based on where the birthday party was and who I can recall being there. 
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Review

“Blood Ties,” or, “nobody will ever convince me these two aren’t married”

Quincy J. Allen
I’m standing by that title, and it makes a good follow-up to my review of the short story prequel to this that was in one of the anthologies I read recently.
It’s still a wonderful take on post-civil-war America, and I quite enjoyed the read; although, being as I’m without internet as I’m writing this, I’m rather annoyed that I don’t have the sequel, because there’s a whole lot left to happen in the plot. Like, to the degree that I’d argue this shouldn’t have been the end of the book, just the end of Part One of the book.
Still, it’s a fun read – the main characters are a delightful pair of cowboys that are basically married with a child,1 and if I want to utterly misrepresent the book I’d call it the story of their vacation to San Francisco. Although, considering how much they enjoy themselves, it sorta is, if a bit more lethal than the average vacation. Hey, the six destroyed buildings won’t cost that much to fix, right?
Basically it’s a fun romp of a book, and I’m quite happy to recommend it. Give it a read.


  1. Canonically this isn’t true, but all of the places where the book makes it clear it isn’t feel a little bit forced in. A word of advice to the author: when your characters are trying this hard to make something happen, just let it happen.