“The House on Mango Street”

Sandra Cisneros

“I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.”

I think I’ve read this before, many years ago. It feels like the kind of book that was assigned in school, tied up in analysis and the attempt to make a child understand things that they can’t understand until they’ve understood the world a bit more. I’m certain that I didn’t appreciate it then; I’m not sure that I appreciate it now. Not really, not the way it feels like it deserves to be appreciated.

But more of it made sense this time than it did last time. Maybe I’ll come back and read it again in another ten years, and maybe then more of the book will fit into the spaces in my head.



TJ Klune

Starting with an excerpt from the egregious self-insert fanfic that your protagonist is writing sure is a powerful opening. Imagine getting hit by a fully-loaded semi truck, carrying exclusively cringe. A bold statement, which nearly got me to put the book back down again; my high school experience was bad enough on its own, and I’ve never felt the need to relive it while adding extra awkwardness.

That said, I managed to convince myself to power through, and I’m glad I did. I have to give bonus points to whoever picked the tagline on the cover—“Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra.”—because it really explains what the protagonist is like. He’s extra. He’s also the most authentically high school character I’ve read in a while, because oh my god is he an idiot. Most of the plot of the book is “him failing to notice very obvious things, and coming up with incredibly stupid plans.”

What makes the book is his friends. Gibby is positively delightful—she spends most of the book, fully in the know on everyone’s secrets, and mostly using that to laugh at everyone instead of actually helping. A quote:

“Yes,” Gibby breathed. “Yes to this. Yes to all of it. Oh my god, yes. This is so stupid. I can’t wait. White people are freaky.

She’s living her best life.

The other thing that kept me interested in the book was that I couldn’t quite figure out all the secret identities. There’s just enough twisting to keep you wondering up until the book decides it’s time for you to know, and while it was fun to sit there in the knowledge of how well I’d narrowed down the pool of options while Nick—the protagonist—hadn’t actually figured out there was a pool of options, it was also fun to be unsure.

I enjoyed the heck out of this book. It took me a bit to get into it, because wow is the poorly-written fanfic at the start a tough sell, but once it got its hooks in I couldn’t put it down. Give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“The Doors of Perception”

Aldous Huxley

Huxley is the kind of author I’ve tended to shy away from, entirely based on Brave New World. Dystopian science fiction, popular with literature teachers? Nope, not for me. So I was a bit wary of this, going in, but after a few pages I realized that what I was reading was nonfiction, and nonfiction with a very interesting writing style at that.

I actually found myself collecting quotes as I read, along with ideas. I quite liked his semi-utopian vision of a future where we’ve replaced alcohol’s role in society with something like a short-lived mescaline derivative. No hangover, no belligerent drunkenness, just a feeling of being one with the world and experiencing something greater than yourself? Sounds pretty neat! Shame we went all “war on drugs” instead.

Some of the quotes just hit me with a sense of poetry:

In a few minutes we had climbed to a vantage point in the hills, and there was the city spread out beneath us. Rather disappointingly, it looked very like the city I had seen on other occasions. So far as I was concerned, transfiguration was proportional to distance. The nearer, the more divinely other. This vast, dim panorama was hardly different from itself.

Others just made me laugh:

An hour later, with ten more miles and the visit to the World’s Biggest Drug Store safely behind us, we were back at home, and I had returned to that reassuring but profoundly unsatisfactory state known as “being in one’s right mind.”

I also, being the big fan of Snow Crash that I am, liked some of the discussion about words-as-symbols, and the inability of symbols to be the real thing:

This may be explained, at least in part, by the fact that our perceptions of the external world are habitually clouded by the verbal notions in terms of which we do our thinking. We are forever attempting to convert things into signs for the more intelligible abstractions of our own invention. But in doing so, we rob these things of a great deal of their native thinghood.

Another one that felt like a reference, this time to Timeheart in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series:

In other words, precious stones are precious because they bear a faint resemblance to the glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary.

And the discussion of art was just marvelous throughout. I want a museum setting of this book, walking you through his discussion of each piece as you walk by the piece itself.

The past is not something fixed and unalterable. Its facts are rediscovered by every succeeding generation, its values reassessed, its meetings redefined in the context of present tastes and preoccupations. Out of the same documents and monuments and works of art, every epoch invents its own Middle Ages, its private China, its patented and copyrighted Hellas. Today, thanks to recent advances in the technology of lighting, we can go one better than our predecessors. Not only have we reinterpreted the great works of sculpture bequeathed to us by the past, we have actually succeeded in altering the physical appearance of these works. Greek statues, as we see them illuminated by a light that never was on land or sea, and then photographed in a series of fragmentary close-ups from the oddest angles, beat almost no resemblance to the Greek statue seen by art critics and the general public in the dim galleries and decorous engravings of the past.

. . .

This may be bad art history, but it is certainly enormous fun.

One more block quote, because the final line really reminded me of Saturn by Sleeping At Last:1

A single candle, as Caravaggio and Spaniards had shown, can give rise to the most enormous theatrical effects. But Latour took no interest in theatrical effects. There is nothing dramatic in his pictures, nothing tragic or pathetic or grotesque, no representation of action, no appealed to the sort of emotions, which people go to the theater to have excited and then appeased. His personages are essentially static. They never do anything; they are simply there in the same way in which a granite Pharaoh is there, or a bodhisattva from Khmer, or one of Piero’s flat-footed angels. And the single candles used, and every case, distress this intense but un-excited, impersonal thereness. By exhibiting common things in an uncommon light, its flame makes manifest the living mystery and inexplicable marvel of mere existence.

Rather a long review, courtesy of the many quotes, but at the end I think all I’ve got to say is that I enjoyed it. Get a paperback copy; this is the kind of book that really wants to be perused on the couch on a rainy day, pen and paper available for jotting notes. Give it a go.2

  1. Specifically the line — “how rare and beautiful it is to even exist”
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“In Deeper Waters”

F.T. Lukens

I picked this book up from a Pride shelf at a used bookstore—and yes, that’s a bit of a peek into how much of a book backlog1 I have at any given time, given that this is getting published a month before Pride. And really, I grabbed it because it looked kinda cheesy.

And hey, guess what, it kinda was! But in a way that’s exactly what I wanted from it, exactly what I’d hoped it would be. It’s a cheesy little YA romance novel, with a bunch of high fantasy going on as the backdrop, and I’m so, so glad that things like this exist. Because boy, am I ever tired of the plot of an LGBTQ novel being that They Are LGBTQ. Once or twice, that’s an okay plot, but after that, it’s just repetitive. In this, it’s not at all a thing; from the beginning, Tal’s big brother is absolutely accepting of his bisexuality. The only way it appears at all is that it gives him a broader range of options to embarrass his little brother with by asking if they’re his type.

There’s a post somewhere out there where somebody rips into homophobia in fantasy and science fiction. The gist of it is, ‘you can imagine {insert fantasy trope} but you can’t imagine people not being assholes?’

That’s what this is. Someone said “y’know what, I’m making an entirely fictional setting. Why would I bring that aspect of reality into it? How would that make the story better?”

The cover art is very pastel, and so is the book. For all that there is an actual plot to it, I came to the end feeling like I’d had a hug. This book is kind. I loved it. Go read it.2

  1. A booklog, if you will.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Overcoming Bias”

Tiffany Jana & Matthew Freeman1

This may be the first time I’ve read one of these business books and not had the thought “yeah, this could’ve been a pamphlet.” Whoever edited it did a great job, presumably ruthlessly cutting out all the unnecessary parts, and the result is a lean, clean read.

The backstory of the authors—they’re married and co-own a company that basically consists of the two of them going around running corporate workshops on the topic of overcoming bias—helps it make a lot of sense, actually. This might not be a book that’s been edited down to the right point; it might be the rough script they use for their workshop sessions, expanded out from bullet points on a notecard to a book form. And from that perspective, it’s also done very well; they added just enough storytelling without getting bogged down, and make their points very well.

And, aside from that, it contains one of the best paragraphs I’ve ever read:

But just as we have told countless white people we have worked with, “by the power vested in us (by virtue of Tiffany’s negritude and our combined dedication to racial reconciliation), we hereby absolve you of your white guilt.” Now don’t get all excited and start throwing around slurs and crazy talk. We are just saying that we are fully aware that you did not personally create racism.“

Beautiful. I don’t know that I have ever read anything as hilariously, brutally honest about the concept of white guilt as “by the power vested in us (by virtue of Tiffany’s negritude)”. Just impeccable.

This is the most glowing review I think I’ve ever written of something that’s categorized as a “business book,” and I stand by it. This book feels like it can be useful as an introduction to diversity, as well as a useful reference material as you continue to learn more. Check it out.2

  1. Formatting- and voice-wise, I’d say Matthew was the primary author of this, with editing and interjections by Tiffany, but the fact that her name is alphabetically first is one of those “it is what it is” kinds of things. The fact that it then shows up in places as being written by “Tiffany Jana et al.”, though, that is hilarious.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“The Clean Coder”

Robert Martin

Another book club book from work—and no, we’re not going through them that fast, I just forgot to write up the previous one until a while after the fact.

This one has a lot less to do with code style and a lot more to do with the career aspects of being a programmer. The subtitle, actually, does a great job of explaining it: “A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers.” Less “write small chunks of code,” more “show up on time—you may think it doesn’t matter, but it does.” Martin does a great job of switching between giving advice and telling stories that explain how, exactly, he learned that painful lesson. It’s an effective technique—gives it a bit more of a storytelling flow, which helps the book maintain interest. Plus, humans are the storytelling ape; we’ve built entire religions around the idea of using stories to convey a message or impart some wisdom. He’s joining a proud tradition.

I found it a quite useful book, and as I’m writing this in advance of the book club discussion instead of weeks later, I’m looking forward to the discussion with my coworkers. Should be interesting. For now, let me put my opinion of the book like so: this should be required reading for every CS undergraduate program. Maybe hand it out with the diploma? It’s a whole lot of useful advice about the parts of the job that school doesn’t cover. If you’re new to the field, or even if you aren’t, I heartily recommend it. Check it out1—and, if you’ve got an O’Reilly membership, it’s available there as well.

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.

“Lessons in Chemistry”

Bonnie Garmus

I’m a little tempted to include a chart of my progress in this book over time; talk about a hockey stick.

The first third of the book or so is just brutal. I remember seeing someone online say that they’d just read the book recently and found it a quick, light read, and thinking to myself what the hell book were you reading? Because the first part of the book is anything but light and quick. It’s a litany of all the micro- and macro-aggressions a woman faced in the 1950s, trying to be a chemist. 1 And there’s something of a Murphy’s Law feel to it, too, because not only is she dealing with the rampant sexism, but everything else that can go wrong, does.

I spent the first month of trying to read the book caught up in that. I could only make it through a chapter or two at a time, and then I needed a break; it was just so disheartening, so crushing.2

But roughly a third of the way through, it finally turns a corner, and that’s where I switched from plodding through out of a sense of obligation from highly it was recommended to me to “oh, shoot, I need to put the book down so I can get some sleep tonight.” The light appears at the end of the tunnel, the tragic backstory is established, and now we can get into her actually doing things the way she wants instead of being entirely overpowered.

And from then on out, the book is amazing. It’s full of little bits of comedy that are just perfectly executed; perspective shifts and timeline hops all over and only once was I even briefly confused by the combination. The world is still the same one that gave her the tragic backstory, but now it’s being changed for the better, and it’s a happier timeline than the one we’re in.3

So now, here I am, recommending this book as highly as it was recommended to me. It’s really tough at first, but the payoff is so very worth it. Give it a read.4

  1. Or rather, trying to do her work as a chemist while everyone around her tried to stop her—she absolutely is a chemist, just one facing far more obstacles than anyone else in the building.
  2. And these aren’t long chapters, either.
  3. I mean, I can’t guarantee that the 2023 of her world would be better than ours, but I can’t help but think that a world where the housewives of the 1950s had a robust education in chemistry and feminism courtesy of daytime TV would wind up in a better place than we are now. At very least we’d probably be a few decades ahead on the “stop consuming weird preservatives” thing.
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby”

Sandi Metz

We’ve got a bit of a book club going at work, and this was the first read. We were inspired to read it by a conference talk she gave, where she went through the Gilded Rose kata and very clearly demonstrated the joys of refactoring well-tested code. Metz is a great communicator, and I highly recommend that talk as an entry point to her work.

This book, referred to as “POODR”, continues in the same style of “here’s some techniques you can use to write better code.” And, for the most part, it’s an excellent resource in that regard! Frankly, my only issues with it come down to Ruby not being my taste in languages, and it’s not as if I went into the book not knowing that it’d be in Ruby.

The largest chapter is on writing tests; compared to the rest, it looks rather intimidating. That said, I wound up skimming a lot of it—despite the assertion, earlier in the book, that type systems just add overhead and slow developers down, the majority of the chapter on testing is devoted to writing tests that… ensure you’ve got a type system. I remain unsold on these untyped/duck-typed languages; over here in Swift, I get all those unit tests for free, and the compiler forces me to run them every time I try to build. The time I spend writing tests is entirely spent writing tests for the business logic, not on making sure that I forgot a required method in a subclass.

Duck-typing also requires more faith in your fellow programmer—or even your future self—than I actually have. There’s a great description in the book of implicit object hierarchies, which struck me as being a beautiful academic concept, but will fall apart the moment the project gets larger than “a single developer, working on it continuously.” Add another developer, and they then have to read through the entire codebase to be sure they’ve got enough information to grasp those implicit types; take a break for a month, and you’ve got to reread it all to get back to the same place. And there’s no guarantee that the reading of everything will get you back to the same mindset that you had earlier, so those implicit types fall part pretty quickly. If you want to communicate an idea like that, you have to write it down—and why bother writing a comment when you can write that mental model into the code itself, and have the compiler check that it’s still being followed?

Don’t get me wrong, as I sit here writing only the things I didn’t like about the book. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed it, and found it full of useful ideas! It’s simply the way of human brains to engage more when we disagree than when we agree.

So, if you’re someone who spends time writing code, I do highly recommend this book. Just, y’know, keep in mind that it says Ruby on the cover, and Ruby has opinions about a few things that you may not agree with. You can get the book from its website, or if you (or your employer) have an O’Reilly subscription, it should be available in that library.


“The Stories” [2/2]

A continuation of my previous post, where I started but didn’t finish reviewing a massive, 5,000-page anthology of short stories collected by the science fiction publisher Tor. There’s a longer explanation in that previous one; here, I’m finishing my list of stories that caught my interest, with links to where you can read them (free!) online.

  • Fire Above, Fire Below by Garth Nix. Garth Nix’s writing always reminds me of his Seventh Tower series, which I absolutely loved as a kid.1 Which has nothing to do with this story, but it’s still what came to mind.
  • Four Horsemen, at Their Leasure by Richard Parks. At this point, I think Terry Pratchett pretty definitively owns the idea of Death as an anthropomorphized entity. And this fits right into that style—theologically very different from the Discworld mythos, and a great deal emptier, but the idea of Death arguing with God? That’s still very Pratchett.
  • Silver Linings by Tim Pratt. This can’t not be an allegory about nuclear proliferation. Given that nuclear proliferation is one of my biggest worries, how could I not enjoy the story?
  • Clockwork Fairies by Cat Rambo. Rambo did a great job of writing this, because the protagonist is, very deliberately, the single most unlikeable person I’ve ever had to share a perspective with. He’s got that same “terrible in an entirely believable way” thing going on that made Umbridge such an iconic villain.
  • The Cairn in Slater Woods by Gina Rosati. I wasn’t actually expecting this story to go the way it did—I was really thinking it was gonna go, like, “the other school in the neighborhood is for the local vampires” or something silly.
  • Loco by Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker. This feels like a weird cross between Girl Genius and Livewires and I’m… kinda here for it?2
  • Firstborn by Brandon Sanderson. There’s a definite Ender’s Game thing going on here, with the whole “managing a war, lots of training simulations, one sibling is preternaturally good at it” aspect. But the way it’s turned and twisted is quite fun.
  • After the Coup by John Scalzi. I’m a frequent reader of the “humanity, fuck yeah!” type of story, and this feels like that genre at its absolute best. It isn’t about how great humanity is, unstoppable war machine or whatever; it’s about what people are really like. It’s comical in the best of ways.
  • The President’s Brain is Missing by John Scalzi. It was at this point that I decided I should probably put Scalzi on my “get some of his full books and read them” list, because this was just as much fun to read as the previous one.
  • Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City: Prologue by John Scalzi. Another entry for the “Terry Pratchett would be proud” category. This feels like a slightly darker take on Guards, Guards!3
  • A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon by Ken Scholes. I’ve just now realized what this makes me think of—the Septimus Heap series. An old-fashioned world, with a bit of real magic… that just so happens to be the things built back when magic was just science.
  • Do Not Touch by Prudence Shen. I really like the idea that paintings have those “Do Not Touch” signs not because it’ll damage the ink, but because the curators are tired of diving into the paintings after the kids there on field trips.
  • Overtime by Charles Stross. After the amount of Doctor Who they’ve all seen, nobody should be surprised that the British continue to produce time-travel paradoxes.
  • Down on the Farm by Charles Stross. That said, I’m actually really enjoying this “Laundry” setting, and may need to go read one of the bigger books. It feels like it’s partially addressing one of my issues with Warehouse 13—namely, that any government organization dealing with Weird Crap like that should have a much bigger bureaucracy.45
  • A Tall Tail by Charles Stross. You could maybe write a story that’s more precisely up my alley, but to do so you’d have to take one of those AI models and train it exclusively on my interests for a few years. This sent me off on multiple searches to find out if historical things mentioned actually existed and I’d just missed them, or they were made up for the story.6
  • The Dala Horse by Michael Swanwick. Very much in the style of a northern European folk tale, but with a setting where the magic is a result of having built and then forgotten how to build a whole lot of very big, very powerful technologies.
  • The Mongolian Wizard by Michael Swanwick. The starter of a whole series—which, as I found out when grabbing the link, continued on after what’s in the ebook, so I’ve got some further reading for myself—of a very magical take on something of a World War.
  • What Doctor Gottlieb Saw by Ian Tregillis. Recommended reading prior to this: “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies”. Because this is, for sure, a story about what happens when you create a superintelligence without thinking in advance about what and how.
  • The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For A Little While by Catherynne M. Valente. A less young-adult version of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which I’ve mentioned before as one of my favorite series.
  • The Last Son of Tomorrow by Greg van Eekhout. A lot of similarity to the ending of Superman: Red Son, what with the examination of “hang on, what does Superman do when he notices that he’s immune to aging?”
  • A Stroke of Dumb Luck by Shiloh Walker. Another entry in the “vampires and werewolves are just kinda fun” category, with bonus points for a good balance between “actual consequences” and “oh god you’re such a teen about how to deal with this situation.”
  • Super Bass by Kai Ashante Wilson. The moment in the book (here, thousands of pages in, yes) where I realize how overwhelmingly white/european everything else in the book has been. A reminder that I want to get further out of my comfort zone with what I read, because a lot of the stuff out there, like this, is really good. Very, very different from what I’m used to, and I feel like I’m missing a whole lot of cultural context, but I can muddle my way through and still enjoy it.
  • The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree by Michael Swanwick. I’m very slowly working my way through Lessons in Chemistry at the moment, and this very much reminded me of that at the beginning, to the point that I spent the whole story bracing myself for the betrayal that never came. Instead, this was a bittersweet, paradoxical work that I found myself really loving.
  • The Sigma Structure Symphony by Gregory Benford. Between the wonderful description of a Lunar colony developed around archiving SETI transmissions from a busy, busy galaxy and the exploration of music as mathematics (and mathematics as music), there’s no way this wasn’t making it onto my list.
  1. And, honestly, still enjoyed rereading a couple years ago—it’s great fodder for a “this is a work of fantasy, but how can I turn it into far-future science fiction?” thought experiment. Hint: it involves a globe-spanning swarm of nanobots running a virtual world.
  2. > “Not much like Patel,” mused Becka. > “I can’t say,” replied Gordo. “Remember, I only joined your team after the Patel incident.”

    > “I wish you’d stop bitching about ‘the Patel incident.’”

    > “Look,” said Gordo, “you can’t just morph a federal scientist into a giant invertebrate that catches fire. That’s not an acceptable protocol.”

  3. > It is said that earthquakes are what happens when two night dragons love each other very much.
  4. > Call me impetuous (not to mention a little bored) but I’m not stupid. And while I’m far enough down the management ladder that I have to squint to see daylight, I’m an SSO 3, which means I can sign off on petty cash authorizations up to the price of a pencil and get to sit in on interminable meetings, when I’m not tackling supernatural incursions or grappling with the eerie, eldritch horrors in Human Resources.
  5. Although, that said, Warehouse 13 did feature an org chart that consisted of a handful of agents, a manager, the CEO, her personal driver, a contractor of a doctor, and then a board of directors that outnumbered the entire rest of the organization, so maybe they do have a healthy amount of bureaucracy…
  6. I shouldn’t have doubted myself; all the things that I went “wait, is that real? How have I never heard of that?” were, in fact, fictional. Or, I guess, are still classified.

“The Stories” [1/2]

This is a massive read. My e-reader, which paginates things fairly well, counted it out to precisely 5,000 pages—I actually spent some time wondering if it was so perfectly 5,000, or if that’s just a hard-coded limit at which it throws its hands up in the air and says “I dunno, man, it’s a long document.” As it turns out, it’s just a perfectly even 5,000 pages! I’ll have to try harder if I want to stump the pagination algorithm.

As to what the actual content is, Tor (the publisher, not the service you use if you want to avoid government censorship and/or commit some kind of crime) frequently hires writers to write short stories, which they publish on their website. And, at some point, they bundled up five years’ worth of those stories into this gargantuan ebook. It’ll make for an interesting review, because everything contained in the book is also online, so I can link directly to individual stories. (Which is for the best, because I now can’t figure out where I got this ebook or if it’s still for sale.)

So, here goes: the stories that I bookmarked, and some thoughts about each of them.

  • The Witch of Duva by Leigh Bardugo. So perfectly creepy, and not at all in the way you’d expect it to be—an inverted folk tale. The first story in the book where I went “aw, crap” because I was reading before bed and it was about to ruin my ability to sleep. Also the first one that I went and found online to send to someone to read.
  • The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere by John Chu. Heartbreaking and heartfelt, and all the complexity of family and expectations. I absolutely adore the use of a science fiction concept as perfectly normal—it reminds me of a(n apparently misremembered) Steven King quote. “Science fiction is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances; literature is about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.”1
  • The Commonplace Book by Jacob Clifton. I liked the familiar-but-not-quite feel of Ada Lovelace and her dealing with the complete nonsense that is societal expectations.2
  • The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday by G.D. Falksen. Wonderfully irreverent, with some of that Sherlock Holmes styling that I enjoy, though wrapped up as an actual police officer instead of entirely an outsider to the system. The setting feels very big though, like, there’s a whole lot of steampunk world to explore… but we’re here, in the big city, safe from all the things that go bump in the night. Well, mostly.
  • A Clean Sweep With All the Trimmings by James Alan Gardner. The writing style took a little bit to get used to, but by the end I was a little bit in love with it.3
  • Shade by Steven Gould. I had to look up the author afterwards, and realized that while I hadn’t read any of his other works, some of what’s going on here feels familiar because it’s set in the same universe as one of those other works… that was adapted into a movie that I’ve seen. And I like things like this, seeing people use their extraordinary circumstances to help ordinary people.
  • Ghost Hedgehog by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Once again, this feels like a connection to an existing work, although I don’t think Hoffman wrote The Sixth Sense.
  • The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles by Kij Johnson. What can I say? I’m a cat person. And this story has that nice “old legend” feel to it—it isn’t polished to within an inch of its life, it has little side journeys along the way.
  • First Flight by Mary Robinette Kowal. Doing a bit of rereading for this review, and I don’t know that I’d realized quite how good a mic drop “he understood the historical context” is at the end.
  • The Speed of Time by Jay Lake. It’s a little disjointed, but I think that actually worked quite well. It reminds me of Fine Structure—something huge and not nearly so complex as it seems, expressed in many different ways.
  • The Starship Mechanic by Jay Lake and Ken Scholes. Something about Penauch stuck with me. An infinite multi-tool of a creature, wanting nothing more than a little vacation, and only able to get it by some fairly ridiculous means.
  • Earth Hour by Ken Macleod. Every other future in the book feels a little bit dated—that general feeling of old science fiction where they assumed we’d be running around on Mars but had no idea that cell phones would exist, though not to nearly that degree—except this one. It still feels very modern in how it imagines the future. I still can’t decide if it’s an optimistic take on the future or not, but I enjoyed it either way.
  • Though Smoke Shall Hide the Sun by Brit Mandelo. Here’s a piece of fiction that feels particularly of a time—vampires and werewolves, oh my! But, hey, that was a big trend for a while for a reason. It’s fun!
  • Heads Will Roll by Lish McBride. This feels like the concept for a YA TV series. I’d watch the heck out of it, honestly. Percy Jackson vibes, too.

And here, I’m splitting the post, because a 5,000-page book deserves more than one post worth of review. (And, frankly, I feel like I should get more than one week’s worth of blog post out of that much reading!)

  1. After a great deal of googling, I managed to find the actual quote, which is similar but not quite what I was thinking:> Pop culture writing is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Literature is about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
  2. I also pulled out a great quote:> “At the end of things, which comes closer every minute, you will look back and you will see the path of your life. Do you want that girl to be a cringing swot, a spinster who loved and lost; or do you want to be strong enough to design your life to your own specifications? I assure you, I shall hate you either way. But you shouldn’t hate yourself.
  3. > Carl says a delivery came for me and it is waiting behind the candy counter. When I look, I see two wooden crates. One is stuffed with feather pillows and one is not. The one without pillows holds twenty sticks of dynamite. The other holds four bottles of nitro, which are put to bed on nice soft pillows because nitro gets sore if someone wakes it accidentally.

“The Last Dance”

Martin L. Shoemaker

This book completely surprised me; as with a great deal of the reading I’ve been doing lately, I went in with absolutely no expectations, no memory of what the book was about or where and when I’d bought it. And so it was a wonderful surprise to be totally enraptured; I read the book in one day. (And overslept the next morning, because I stayed up late to finish reading it, but happily, I’m on vacation as of this writing, so it’s not an issue!)

The book takes place on an Aldrin cycler, a ship taking advantage of orbital mechanics to shuttle between Earth and Mars at a fuel cost of nearly zero.1 That gives some really interesting context for the plot—“orbital mechanics waits for no man.” So, rather than someone senior handling this big deal investigation, it’s whoever was close enough to catch the ship before the orbit took it back out of reach. And thus, we get an idealistic young investigator wielding the full power of the Inspector General’s office, rather than the admiral at the head of the office. And, courtesy of light-speed delay, said admiral can’t run the show via telepresence, they’re stuck back on Earth, trusting the investigator to do their job. In a way, it reminds me of Ascension, but handled better: you’ve got a ship, cut off from the world by distance. A closed system. And a whole lot of political complexity contained within it, some big inciting incident that happened before we joined the story.

So, with that framework set up, it’s time for the actual story. I found the storytelling absolutely sublime—the protagonist is that idealistic young investigator, trying to see justice done. But, up until the end, we don’t actually get told what happened, it’s just The Incident, and we’re seeing the aftermath. Tempers have cooled somewhat, but everyone is still on edge. The admiralty is one side, with the captain as the other—but the crew is absolutely loyal to the captain. And we’re following the investigator as they’re trying to do their fact-finding, trying to arrive at an unbiased conclusion.

In pursuit of this, we get bits and pieces of their story. And the main thing their story consists of is getting other people’s stories—short interstitial chapters with them, and then longer pieces where some member of the crew tells a story of when the captain earned their trust and loyalty.

It’s a fascinating character study. We barely interact with the captain directly, but the whole thing is about the captain; it’s all about his relationships with the rest of the crew, and the ship, and the admiralty. And, the space industry being the size it is, the relationships of these various characters with each other; there’s no infinite supply of new faces and names, it’s the same characters, seeing one another, and showing us different angles on each of them. With that in mind, I suspect it’d be just as fun to reread, even already knowing what the big mystery is, and the conclusion it’s all leading to.

I absolutely adored this book, and cannot recommend it highly enough. Check it out.2

  1. My understanding is that this is an entirely feasible concept, which genuinely was proposed by Buzz Aldrin. In point of fact, this book seems to fall within the realm of ‘hard science fiction’ — everything is genuinely physically possible.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“The Vine Witch”

Luanne G. Smith

I feel like I should write an individual recommendation of this book to some of my friends that work in the wine industry. To me, having absorbed a minimum of knowledge of the field via osmosis, it feels like the author knows what she’s talking about.

Something about the scale of this book felt really nice. There’s never a “for the sake of the world!” moment; the biggest thing that can go wrong is a crime goes unpunished and a historic vineyard goes out of business. It’s very personal. And the magic feels the same way—the biggest bit of magic anyone has, even historically, seen was a plague that nearly wiped out all the grapes in the valley. No apocalypse, just a local disaster. Small scale; personal. And it’s neat to see magic used not for magic’s sake, but for the sake of craft—not only the titular vine witch, someone who uses magic to help the vintage, but also bakers and brewers. I like seeing things like this, magic not as a “everything is the same but also magic is there!” but magic properly integrated into the world.

The biggest quibble I have with the book is where that integration broke down. Magic is so much a part of this world that having a character who denies its existence just feels… silly. There’s a whole set of laws! Nobody here is even remotely bothering to deny the existence of magic! It’s not a secret by any stretch, so why is it that the “man of science” must categorically deny magic exists? Really, there should be a whole thaumaturgy department at the university in the big city, studies of how magic integrates with natural law…

But that quibble fades over the course of the story, and I found myself quite enraptured by the end. I suspect this is one of many books I received as a “free with Prime” deal, which is almost certainly no longer on offer, but it’s still worth a read. Check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Scarlet Odyssey”

C T Rwizi

Pretty much any piece of fantasy I read that has magic in it, I wind up trying to figure out the rules of the magic. Because, sure, it’s magic, but it has to have a system underlying it—otherwise nobody would be able to actually use it for stuff! A lot of the time, for the sake of the story, the rules basically boil down to “magic does whatever the plot needs it to do,” which admittedly isn’t not the case in “Scarlet Odyssey,” but there’s also very clearly a set of rules for how it works.1

But what I really loved about this set of rules, what really captivated me, is that it isn’t magic. It’s a sufficiently advanced technology. And it’s masterfully done. Ra featured a magic system that just is programming, including very clear connections to how *nix works. “Scarlet Odyssey” has hints of how it works that make it feel distantly related—more of the “this is how the abstract concept of computation works” than “this is how most computers on Earth work.” That makes it a lot easier to buy this as not a completely alternate-world history, but actually a far, far distant-future bit of science fiction. (Personally, my theory is that the reason they all worship the moon and regard it as the source of the magic is that it is—a moon is a handy place to put some machinery a couple ticks up the Kardeshev scale that you’re gonna use to customize the laws of physics for a planet.)

So, a couple hundred words in to this review, I’m clearly enamored of the world building. And, wow, I’ve barely scratched the surface; there’s a whole rich history, multiple civilizations, the actual details of how the system of magic works… it feels big and storied. Historic.

Worldbuilding aside, I also really enjoyed the story.2 Salo makes for an interesting protagonist, and the jumping between different characters’ perspectives is well-done, providing their different views of how the journey is going, as well as their own stories. Frankly, by the end of the book, it feels a bit like a D&D campaign group—each of the characters is totally unique, and a fight between them and a big group of Generic Evil Minions Plus One Big Bad feels like it fell right out of the Dungeon Master’s Guidebook. They’ve each got their own story, and while Salo is clearly the main protagonist, the story they’re writing together isn’t just about him.

We’ve also got a really great villain in The Handmaid, though I’ll admit I did spend a bit of time being very confused because I hadn’t realized that The Handmaid and The Enchantress were two different characters. Pay attention to the chapter titles, kids, they’re meaningful!

Overall, I absolutely loved this book. I feel as if, here at the end, I should be doing some kind of caveat, but it really directly hit everything I want from a book! It’s not even failing the Russo Test!3 I recommend the heck out of “Scarlet Odyssey,” give it a read.4

  1. Said rules aren’t particularly clear, as there’s at least six kinds of magic, but also maybe a seventh, and also that’s only the ones practiced on this continent, and there’s a whole other family of magic in the other continents? There’s a lot going on.
  2. I could’ve done with more than around 1/2 of a plot thread being tied up by the end of the book, but they’ve gotta get me hooked for the remainder of the trilogy somehow. And, to be fair, if things had been cut down enough to fit the whole trilogy’s plot into one book, it would’ve either been a terrifyingly large book, or lost a lot of the detail that I enjoyed.
  3. In point of fact, it passes it with flying colors. Identifiably gay characters? Salo’s subtle, but his uncle and uncle’s husband, less so. Not defined by that character trait? The uncle is a fierce warrior, and Salo’s own queerness is honestly easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention to how he interacts with the guy he’s trying to hide his crush on/from. Integral to the story? Yeah, I’d say the main character is pretty integral to the story!
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“The Simple Art of Business Etiquette”

Jeffrey L. Seglin

I’ve actually read several books in this genre since my last book review. In general, they all contain the same advice, just phrased slightly differently. This is the one I’m actually choosing to review, though, simply because it was the best-written out of the variety I’ve now sampled.

It’s a hallmark of this genre of productivity/business/self-help books that they’re basically a bulleted list of tips. Given that editors tend to frown upon a manuscript being ten pages of bullet points, though, they all get padded out. Generally, that padding is some mix of anecdotes about the dos-and-don’ts espoused in the bullet points, and some form of interactivity—quizzes, “write your own response”, that kind of thing. Seglin did a great job of balancing those three types of things; each short chapter is a brief intro to the point, an anecdote on the subject, and then a multiple-choice question, followed by an explanation of the answer. It ends with the actual bulleted list, which feels like a nice mix of review and expansion of the already-given points.

The book, like the chapters, is short and easily digestible. My jotted notes from before I started writing this review end with the following: “No eureka moments, but nice gathering together of points.” I stand by that; there’s nothing huge, exciting, or new in this, but it’s useful to have all this disparate advice gathered into one easy-to-read unit. Check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Capricious: Gender Diverse Pronouns”

ed. A.C. Buchanan

Like I mentioned in my most recent read of an anthology, I’m used to them being centered around a specific theme. In this case, the theme is pretty easy to see, and also pretty vague, overall—I think the core concept was “at least one person in the story uses pronouns other than he/him/his or she/her/hers.”

Which gave the authors a lot of room to play around, and it wound up being a really cool variety of stories! From distant-future sci-fi to swords and sorcery, there’s some interesting things that happened in here.

The one that stands out the most, that I feel I’m going to have to go back and reread once or twice more to really wrap my mind around it, is the story of someone moving to a new country and learning the new language. At first, the pronoun bit is easy to miss, until it becomes important to the story: their home country—and, more importantly, their native language—doesn’t have gender as a concept. The character mentions a total of 9 pronouns in their language, which I believe are I/me/mine, you/you(?)/yours, and they/them/theirs. Which is, itself, already an interesting concept, but to make it even more so, the new country they’ve come to has at least three genders, and a gendered language to boot, bringing them to a total of 45 pronouns. (I didn’t count all of them, but think of things like, several different versions of the second person!)

It’s a really effective story; none of the three genders aligns with the masculine/feminine that we’re used to, and so, as the reader, I wound up latching on to the protagonist’s genderless way of speaking, because it’s more familiar. And we get to be confused and frustrated with them, because what the hell are these three genders? Why are there so many pronouns? Why does this language gender the word “you,” for crying out loud, obviously the second-person pronoun refers to the person you are speaking to… and, hey, actually, now that we’re thinking about this… why do we apply gender to things it doesn’t need to be applied to? Why is it so important to us?

That’s what made that story, to me, the best out of the anthology. It gave me a new way to look at an issue that, frankly, I thought I already had a reasonable grasp on. There’s absolutely value to that.

And hey, there’s a bunch of other stories in there too! Some of them thought-provoking, some of them fun, some of them heartwarming; as I said, a very impressive variety. I heartily recommend it. Check it out.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.