Collected Halloween short stories Rothdas book review RSS
4.0 Stars
10-20-2019

A number of spooky and weird stories for Halloween, with a minor theme of unalterable Fate and free will. They range from the excellent to the serviceable.

Dark Air - A cheerful story of body horror, off the grid hippies, and the dissolution of the nuclear family. Wonderful.

Brenda - Great stuff; a short, physically grounded tale of weirdness, puberty, and the desire for vileness.

The Sandman - One of the neater and more whimsical stories. Structurally interesting, a number of internal callbacks, a complete doofus of a main character, and various fears of clock work, glass, Fate, and shifty Italians.

The Earth and Everything Under - a prologue to the author's new series of Urban Fantasy books. Has hedge witches, law enforcement, and a Sabriel-like underworld. Content warning: occasional beautiful imagery.

Afterward, by Edith Warton - a traditional but well written ghost story. The one part that didn't entirely make sense (aside from the ghosts) was how their friend Alida initially predicted everything? But perhaps that is just dark fate at work again.

The Shadow, by Nesquik - A simple enough and well written ghost story, that is speckled with footnotes through out. And the footnotes are kind of insane? I'm not sure if the footnotes are the result of an overzealous editor pushing their own theories about the story, or whether they are a sort of "meta" part of the art. It seems like the former, but in any case they do enliven the story somewhat and add another layer to it.

The Horla - Shamelessly steals from the backstory of Star Control's Ur-Quan Masters; posits the arrival of a star-race of psychic mesmerizers that dominate and enslave their thralls. I feel like the main characters could have learned from the example of the noble Ur-Quan, and kept trying to find ways to fight back. Would an Excruciator work? What about just wearing a blindfold, or a series of mirrors, to help prevent mesmerization and to actually see the Horla? Could the beast be buried, as in _Brenda_? Arguably he was crowd-controlled at the end and so didn't have the normal faculties to work with, but still it's worth thinking about.

The Treasure of PikatuthA simple Mars adventure story about an abandoned machinery that grants immortal life but takes away the ability to sleep. Pretty spooky! Also has side note has a mind control machine, which is arguably much more interesting and terrifying when examined closely.

What's Expected of Us (Ted Chiang) / Fate (Zenaida Hippius) - A pair of stories about free will, fate, and predestination. The Chiang story was definitely the lesser of the two; it relies on what I think is an incorrect understanding of Free Will. Extended monologue incoming: in Freshman year of college, I had to take an elective course on philosophy/religion, and the subject of Free Will was duly covered, and to me the idea seemed flawed, e.g. you have some brain machinery which evaluates and makes decisions and which is seemingly deterministic (or perhaps there is some quantum chance involved, but nothing you would consider meaningful). So if you have machinery which pumps out decisions, what exactly could be meant by Free Will (in the capitalized sense)? E.g. the machinery gives you a deterministic decision/action, would you then ignore that result and pick something else? If so, by what means if not by more machinery? The only other possible alternative is just random chance out of a set of possibilities, which A) isn't deeply meaningful either and B) could also be understood as just another part of decision-making machinery. As best as I can tell, somewhere in the deeps of history some Christians needed to get out of a logical corner they had painted themselves into (I believe it was to the _Problem of Evil_), and they came up with the ill-founded concept of Free Will in order to hide one fallacy with another. And that conception of Free Will rolled down through the ages, till it reached my Freshman class. At the time of the class I did a minor, minor study of other books on the subject to see if I could find other people who had similar thoughts to mine, but all I came up with was more bafflegab. At least until a few years later when I read Iain Banks' _The Player of Games_, and one of his characters tosses off this line:

"And what is free will anyway? Chance. The random factor. If one is not ultimately predictable, then of course that's all it can be. I get so frustrated with people who can't see this! Even a human should be able to understand it's obvious."

That was one of the moments I fell in love with Banks, that just as a minor aside he has written something more insightful on Free Will than most scholars on the subject ever come up with (assuming Banks' actually believed the line he put in his character's mouth, assuming both he and I aren't missing something entirely). *Anyway*. This is all just to say that Chiang's story is based upon the difficulty and disruption of giving up this received idea of Free Will, when really it's not a big deal since the concept was nonsense to begin with. All the cool kids abandoned the idea years and years ago, and the un-cool kids don't care about such ideological/philosophical issues and will happily ignore a dozen contradictions in their beliefs before breakfast each day.

The second story in the pair, _Fate_, was much better despite being written 100 years earlier. This story involves a lady who was mystically gifted/cursed with knowledge of all the future moments of her life, so that she remembers the future events of her life in the same way she remembers the past events of her life. Essentially, she has already received spoilers for *everything*. It's actually a bit better than that; if she would have lived a life N, and then would have lived a life N+1 given the perfect foreknowledge of life N, she is *actually* given the knowledge of life N+1 and she never got to experience/have foreknowledge of life N. If you want to get technical, you could say that well, life N+1 would in turn spawn a life N+2, and so on, with the sequence never settling down. E.g. if your foreknowledge/Fate told you that you were going to get a muffin at the bakery today, why not just fuck with it and get an apple-fritter instead? And if that in turn led to a life N+3 where you have foreknowledge of getting an apple-fritter, why not get a muffin instead in life N+4? Perhaps the Countess in the story did not have the same intrinsic desire to poke Fate that I do. In any case, this was a more engaging and well thought out take on the same idea of the lack of Free Will, and one that actually makes it into a curse since the foreknowledge would ruin all of the delight of surprise in life.




The Changeling, LaValle
2.0 Stars
10-10-2019

A modern fairy tale that warns of the dangers of the sunk cost fallacy. When the protagonist's baby is stolen by goblins, the smart play would be to just take the L and move on, maybe pop out another one in a bit. Instead the protagonist begins a quest to get back his kid, launching him into a dangerous world of witches, magic, trolls, and Norwegians. Hmmm, I might be making this sound more exciting than it actually is. The book is very baby focused, and very into parenting and fatherhood and such. So if you think it is compelling to read about childbirth, raising a 6 month year old, the relation of child raising to social media, or the napping of a kid, you might like this. If on the other hand you have broken free of the chains of traditional values, attachment, and meaning, you might find the book an extended exercise in silliness. It's also slightly heavy-handed with its wokeness. And at the same time it leans into the wokeness, the book promotes another prejudice, the prejudice against people who don't have correct/sufficient furniture and interior design. This is a bias I have struggled against my entire adult life, that some large part of the American population immediately goes from "does not have correct furniture/tchotchkes" ---> "must be a serial killer". Which is just hurtful and usually untrue. Other quibbles: There is no way that an urban park is that empty. No way at all. I'm a connoisseur of urban and near urban parks, and you will either have A) tons of cops or B) tons of homeless people. Out of all the magic and monsters in the book, this was the part that really broke my suspension of disbelief. Also, while I'm quibbling with the story, I'm really not sure why it was the guy who needed to apologize to his wife for not believing that their child was a changeling and needed to be killed. Like, that's a pretty big ask. Also, I feel like maybe she should have apologized for chaining him up, beating his head in with a hammer, and leaving him to die in a fire. That seems like it should have been mentioned at some point.

One the plus side, the writing itself was fine, and occasionally quite good. I liked the bit about the Tab, and I liked several bits and pieces of the world and characters that rang true to life. Also, this book caused me to look up the author's other work, and several of them look quite good, in that the premise of them is immediately interesting. So maybe this so-so book is a spur to finding other works by LaValle that I would like?

Anddddd, back to down sides again. We now enter the part of the review which is informed by GoodReads, where an astute reader commented that it seemed like the author had 3 novellas and tried to jam them together into a single novel. Which seems correct; you have the family history and baby raising novella, then the disaster and baby loss novella, and finally the tour through magical New York novella. And the different elements did not really blend well. Sometimes a novel can do great work with an abrupt tonal shift, and make it feel like the metaphorical floor just fell out from under the reader (e.g. Fritz Leiber's _Lady of Darkness_, Iris Murdoch's _The Time of the Angels_). In this case though the book just seemed muddled. In addition to the different novellas, it mixes themes of classic Greek Myth, Nordic Myth, modern parenting, the relation of technology to parenting, the downsides and invasiveness of social media/technology, as well as changing gender relations for good measure. It's just a bit too much and it never seemed to cohere into an artistic whole.




Vicious
1.5 Stars
10-5-2019

Damned monkey paw. A few years ago I made a comment about the mainstreaming of fantasy and super-hero elements, and how this was a good trend since they were moderately enlivening what would otherwise be very boring, staid, and uninteresting novels. Well, this trend came back to bite me. I was browsing at the book store and saw Vicious as one of the staff picks, and on the strength of their recommendation and the subject matter and the cover art I threw the book into the cart. Mistake! Tricked! This book is what happens when you take the crime novels my parents listen to and try to jazz it up with super-hero elements. Some of its sins include: the super-hero bits were uninspired, added nothing to the genre, and seemed unaware of any of the neat things the genre has done over the last 20+ years. A girlfriend gets refrigerated. The world building made no sense (1); super-powers are reliably triggered by near death experiences, and it seems like if that was the case you would have tens of thousands of junkies coming back from Narcan treatment with unusual gifts. The world building made no sense (2); somehow everything super hero related happens in this one college town, when really the whole world should be going topsy-turvy from the profusion of super-heroes. Worst of all though was that the story telling was weirdly inert, like trying to eat food with the wrong chirality. The best way I can describe it is again to reference these crime novels for old people, which combine lots of murder with shallow character portraits and dull plotting. It's sort of dumb and bloody and reductive. The TV versions of these things are shows like SVU: Miami, which just churn out episodes week after week where someone is horribly raped and murdered, and law people do pretend gritty law things, and blah. Or to put it a third way, there's a quote about how a book should be a ball of light in your hands, while this was just wet mulch and leaves and dead slugs.

The one nice thing I will say about the novel is that I liked parts of the ending, even if they didn't make a ton of sense on consideration. If the author had pared the 350 page novel down to a 40 page story and kept the good ending parts I would probably have recommended it.




Socialism 101
2.0 Stars
10-1-2019

A mostly acceptable but very dry and uninspired history of socialism over the last few hundred years. The most interesting bits:

- A lot of the history of socialism is of people asking for more rights and a fairer deal, and then being massacred. :(
- I knew about the Romans and their Fabian strategy, and I knew about modern Fabian societies, but I hadn't really made the connection between them. Anyway, the idea behind the more modern Fabian societies is to take the military Fabian strategy and apply it to the realm of society and politics, that is to say to avoid outright conflict and instead convert the area of thought and culture and law that is not the immediate area of conflict. Neat.
- Why are the Communists the Reds? The color was picked early on to A) indicate that everyone's got blood. Good point and B) commemorate the people who died in one of the various revolts of Paris.




Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
4.0 Stars
9-19-2019

A neat beer and pretzels and necromancers and lesbians and spaceships story that is great fun but doesn't quite rise to the level of greatness. The story is FanFiction++; it can be tropey and fan-servicey but does so with a quality that puts it above what you might find on some random fan fiction site. So, some more details. The protagonist (Gideon) is a Korra type character; jockish, kind of a doof, enjoys fighting. She's the unhappy ward of the Ninth House, one of the nine houses of Necromancers in the Empire. Her companion/antagonist is Harrowhark, the scion of the decaying Ninth House, an ultra-goth and ultra-skilled necromancer, sort of a female Raistlin character. Together they've been summoned by the !Necrolord Supreme! to a special conclave, where the scions of all nine Houses and their cavaliers will be meeting. The meeting turns into an ambiguous escape room/murder mystery, where the different groups need to figure out why they have really been brought to this island complex, what lessons or secrets they are supposed to learn, whether they should be competing or cooperating on these mysteries, and how the place they have been brought to plays into the history and metaphysics of their empire. It's a great dynamic; each of the House's has its own outlook and specialized skills, and you end up with a cast of ~20 characters who are all distinct and memorable and interacting and problem solving in different ways.

So, overall the book was great fun. It did have a few issues though, which keeps me from putting this at the level of something like _Nine Fox Gambit_. One is that due to the number of characters, the primary characters didn't receive quite the level of development that I would have liked. E.g. I would have loved to see more of the interactions between Gideon and the Thirds, or Gideon and the Seventh. Instead these things are given a paragraph or three, but you don't get the fully developed and elongated and realized relationships like you would in something like _Persuasion_, where the majority of the book is focused on just one pairing. Similarly, Harrowhark's character gets short shrift. At the start of the book Harrowhark is a force of nature, and it is only near the end of the book where she starts talking more and we start peeking into her PoV. However, once you start learning more about her, she doesn't seem to have the sort of personality which would produce the actions from the first half of the book. I feel like Harrowhark should have been something like the protagonist of _The Wasp Factory_, but her actual personality once you get to know her isn't nearly fucked up enough. Finally and most nigglingly, it wasn't entirely clear how some of the magic/necromancy aspects of the story functioned. E.g. 90% of the way through the story, someone gets a Hold Person spell cast on them, but it was not clear like on what basis the spell is working. And I feel like I should have understood that, as well as some of the larger metaphysical aspects of the story, better. I'm not sure if that's a failure to comprehend on my part or a failure to explain/design things on the author's part.




Northanger Abbey, Austen
3.0 Stars
9-16-2019

Northfear leads to Northanger. Northanger leads to Bath.

A rather silly Austen novel where the author allows herself to be more whimsical than usual. She lightly satirizes romances and moderately satirizes gothic novels, and at the end of the novel she encourages the reader to fill in for themselves the standard endings for these types of stories. The protagonist is a good hearted and good breasted seventeen year old imbecile, her antagonists are a solipsisticly self-centered sister-brother pair, and her true love is a charming 26 year old book reader. The true love really was too charming though, his flirting induced feelings of panic in me like "oh shit am I supposed to be being that clever?". Overall the story is light and lightly likeable. I enjoyed that Austen moved at least a little farther away from 1800's aristocratic social mores, and into more meta territory where her wit and intelligence could shine more clearly through. The downside of course of these more abstracted stories is that you don't care quite as deeply for the characters, since there more remove between you and them. Anyway, _Northanger Abbey_ is tied with _Persuasion_ as my favorite (of the three) Austen novels that I've read. This one was lighter and cleverer, but had lesser emotional high points. And as always after reading Austen, I promise that this one is going to be my last one. Really, I can quit any time. I've quit already. One day at a time, Rothda.

Edit 1: Oh, and one more neat thing, they use the word "pinery" in the book. Which I had to think about; the word was used in the context of greenhouses, which meant it probably wasn't a place where they grew actual pines, or pine nuts, or such. I was thinking "is this a place where they grow pineapples?" and that was indeed the answer. Anyway, neat word.




The New Space Opera 2
3.0 Stars
9-10-2019

A collection of decent, but not great sci-fi short stories that did not have too many surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise on opening it up was the thought that "wait, haven't I read these before?" And after going through a couple of the stories and examining my memories, I'm pretty sure that at one point in the past I read several of the initial stories before getting distracted/bored and moving on to something else. That's ok though; the mediocre stories I had forgotten and got to experience again, while the better stories I remembered but also liked enough that I wanted to read them again.

So, a quick run down of the contents, from best to worst:

To Raise a Mutiny: best story; has lesbians and lasers if not dragons. Also prompted the realization that wait; AI ships are basically the sci-fi equivalent of dragons, so it kind of has dragons too. Also neat connections between FTL travel and emotional bonds, as well as an invention packed universe and a pleasantly gothic/ambiguous ending.

Lost Princess Game: fast, interesting, and fundamentally accurate about oligarchs.

Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz: a wonderfully dumb 10 page shaggy dog story.

From the Heart: A nice plot shift mid-way through the story

The Tenth Muse, Defect, Punctuality, Crackle Grackle, Helvetican Renaissance, Join the Navy, Space Pirates: OK!

Shell Game: It's Neal Asher! Highly violent short stories that are kind of smart but not really that smart. In particular there's this Chekhov's gun of "tiny worm parasites that can infect and modify people" that never actually goes off (as far as I can tell, I was expecting it go off but can't find but the merest smidgen of textual support for that). It's like introducing _The Thing_ but never having it take someone's face.

The Island: It's Peter Watts! Intelligent writing but super focused on his own ideology to the detriment of narrative/enjoyability.

To Go Boldly: It's Cory Doctorow! It has this Sid Byrd affect where it communicates semi, kind of, intelligent ideas in a weirdly aggressive and toxic and self important manner. I blame Doctorow for setting out a poor model for impressionable youths.

Tale of the Wicked: It's Scalzi (TM)! He always seems to be drawing with crayons compared to other authors. His story was at least short.

Chameleons: It's Elizabeth Moon-Moon! It prompted another interesting connection, between this story and MetaFilter's analysis of Tom Clancy as the ultimate Boomer-Dad author. To wit:

The books are obsessed with the logistics of getting from place to place. If an airport can be name-dropped, it will be, as well as the airlines involved and the models of planes being flown. Trips by car will always have their route discussed, with attention paid to traffic, efficiency, and how the driver knows a special shortcut. Spend five minutes talking to a Boomer dad, especially a Midwestern one, and this will all become immediately familiar.

And a lot of these characteristic Clancyisms are in Moon-Moons stories, just this constant focus on the most boring and mundane details of transportation in this future universe. Anyway, the story was simple and unenlightening, kind of a space Hardy Boys.




Tabloid Dreams, Owen Butler
4.0 Stars
8-1-2019

Well written and creative short stories that take lurid tabloid headlines and ground them in interesting characters with nuance and detail and various thoughtful elaborations on the writing prompt. That's the good part! The bad part is that much of the story matter is somewhat bland to me; it's hyper-focused on sex, and in particular it has this sort of Updikian mind space of "middle-aged, middle-American sex lives are super super fascinating and worth obsessing over". So, some examples. The starting story is about the ghost of a man who died during the Titanic sinking, and there are neat bits in there about the seat of consciousness being water, and his ghost moving through oceans and clouds and rivers and tea, and his last moments as the ship went down, and the various stages of the sinking. But the intended kicker of the story is that he meets this lady during the sinking, and that he regrets not boning her, and that in a sort of a "The Remains of the Day" fashion wasn't he always a ghost for not boning more people? And it's like eh, not really. Something you realize by the time you hit the triple digits of partners, and hopefully well before that, is that sex really does not need to be that big of a deal, and is certainly not worth the time and attention it takes away from your Starcraft practice. This first short story forms a pair with the final short story in the book, which is an account by the lady Titanic traveler after she is found in the Bermuda Triangle a century later. And again, there are neat bits in the story as she reacts to the new time period, but so much of the story is about similar sexual regrets (I wish I had boned more people before getting on the Titanic) or the paired regret (I wish I had boned that guy before he drowned to death). And ok, those aren't middle American, but they give you an idea of what I am talking about. Back to the good parts now! Some stand outs were _Alien Space Lover_ (nice detail and I liked both of the main characters), _Doomsday Meteor_ (dumb and spacey but very sweet lovers), and _Nymphomaniac_ (clever take on the condition, one of the sharpest endings). For the stories that didn't work as well, it was mostly because of the above mentioned factors, and because the Owen-Butler-Short-Story-Pattern becomes more predictable with repetition, and you start to expect the sorts of endings he shoves in there. Still, even if I didn't always connect with the subject matter, I did have a lot of respect for the writing and intelligence and creativity he puts out there. He's a genuinely talented writer, just not one that always has the same interests as me.




The Stormlight Archives, Book 1, Sanderson
2.0 Stars
7-25-2019

The quality is terrible, but at least the portions are enormous. This book killed any further interest I had in Sanderson; it's a ton of extruded dreck that re-uses many of his ideas and themes from the MistBorn series. I got about 80% of the way through this audio-book before putting it aside due to terminal slowness and shallowness.




A Specter is Haunting Texas, Fritz Leiber
4.0 Stars
7-5-2019

I picked this Leiber book to read next because, well, Texas. And I was rewarded for my faith!

One way to describe the novel is that it is Fritz Leiber does Fall Out. The story is set ~100 years after a massive Atomic war, as a traveler from the Lunar orbital visits the new nations of the mostly interdicted Earth. There is satirizing of existing tendencies (the Texans are basically Banks' Affronters, conquering and enslaving other peoples, using super-serums to grow themselves and their horses to enormous heights). There are speeches and battles and sword fights, as the main character, a skeletal, 8 foot tall Lunar 'Thin' that can only move about in gravity due to a powered-suit, joins and is used by the Mexes' revolution against the Tall Texans. The protagonist is something of a Grey Mouser character, vain-glorious, aesthetic, self interested, skilled in speeches and trickery and retreat, but also partly comical in the indignities that happen to him and with a bit of a soft heart. One element of the lunar protagonist that I particularly liked was the repeated attention paid to how strange a planet would be to someone who has spent their entire life in zero-G. This crops up in a lot of ways; attention to the lunar musculature, how flame and water behave differently on planet, differences in fighting and stagecraft and movement. None of it is scientific at all, but there is thought and creativity that went into it and this aspect provides several neat conceits and scenarios for the story. And in general this tale is more creative, crunchy, comical, and fast moving, closer to the Lankhmar adventures than to Our Lady of Darkness.

And now for the caveats and self-criticism session. As with the last book, every female character is evaluated primarily on their attractiveness to the main character. Everyone is age-appropriate this time around, which is great, and there are really only two female characters so the trend is less noticeable. As with the last book, things that Leiber does in a fantasy setting work less and less well the closer they get to reality. Farhred and the Grey Mouser talking about buxom wenches in a bar, fine. Less fine in a modern office setting. Sexy were-rats? Sure. Sexy 13 year olds? Yikes, too Republican for me. In this story the gender/sexual aspect mostly works, simply because it's a future badland and more of an adventure story than a realistic one set in a modern city.

The other element that crops up here is race, simply because there are a ton of gleefully racist characters in the story. And it's not that Leiber himself is some huge racist, the story argues for exactly the opposite, it's just something to be aware of going in that Leiber's going to be satirizing a bunch of current day terrible tendencies. As with the sexism, I think it works better the farther away it is from our real world. E.g. in Banks' _Excession_, the Affronter's interactions with their thrall races is treated somewhat, queasily, humorously, but if you bring that same treatment into the real world it becomes a lot less tasteful.

Which brings us to the final third of the self criticism session, Texas. I have to admit I'm something of a Texas parochialist, and it's unclear how well that sits with my other views. Like, just now I wanted to write that I was born here and I've done everything I can to avoid leaving the state. I didn't write that, but it was my first impulse. So some elements of the story I find enjoyable/funny, e.g. the date in the story being the 27th of Alamo, conquered Vancouver being renamed North Amarillo, etc. etc. But should I? Is that really appropriate or is that something I should try to change about myself?

Postscript: fires 6-shooters wildly into air, puts on cowboy hat and goes to the backyard to tend my oil well.




Our Lady of Darkness, Fritz Leiber
2.0 Stars
6-30-2019

I was reminded of this book ~5 years ago, when the pre-production hype for _True Detective, Season 2_ mentioned that the show would explore the occult history of the Los Angeles highway network. Which both seemed awesome and made me want to go back and re-read OLoD. OLoD has a similar concept, that the design and emplacement of mass infrastructure was being used as the ritual component for enormous magics. Highways and movement along highways rather than pentagrams, weights of steel and fuel rather than goat's blood. _True Detective Season 2_ of course turned out to be a complete and hilarious failure, but I still wanted to go back at some point and re-read OLoD to see how it stood up and if there were any interesting ideas that could be gleaned from it.

Unfortunately, OLoD hasn't aged well since high school. The novel is overly long for the story that it tells and the writing isn't interesting enough to make up the difference. The story is "Lovecraftian" and it name drops a ton of authors from that literary set, but I feel like the original Dr. L would have told the story in 1/2 or 1/4 the number of pages and been better for it. Also, there wasn't any real meat to the idea of Megalopolisomancy, it's just sort of an idea that is pointed at but not elaborated on. So there wasn't much to steal there except for the basic concept. And finally in the list of complaints, there's a sort of 1950's sexism in the writing, where female characters boobily breasted down the stairs. It's not so much that Leiber explicitly thinks that women are inferior, it's more that they primarily exist in his stories as sex objects. Even the monstrous, mouthless, and extra-dimensional (but female coded) entity gets this treatment. Wait, actually, there's not 1 but 2 thirteen year old girls who also get that treatment. Oh Leiber. You should have stuck to the were-rats.

There are a few bright spots to the story: the monster design, the _Annihilation_ type dream that the protagonist has at the end, and the unsettling and jarring tonal shifts that the story takes at several points. These are all quality; it's just that they are not enough to sustain a 220 page novel.




The I Ching: A Biography
3.0 Stars
6-25-2019

While not as helpful as I would have liked, this book did at least do a good job of explaining the I Ching in a readable way to the layman audience. I picked up this book because, inspired by PKD and the like, I've been mulling over ways in which the I Ching could be used as a decision mechanic/source of randomness in games, and to do that I thought I should have a basic understanding of the thing. Which I never have had, despite bumping into it repeatedly over the years. And after reading this 250 page book on the I Ching, I can confidently say that I still don't understand it. :D The best I can say is that the I Ching can act like an extremely complex Rorschach test. It's not something that contains an answer, rather it's a prompt or spur to your own thought and meditation. Another description would be to say that it is the SE Asian version of the WarHammer franchise, a giant ball of ideas and fanfiction that has accreted over time while spreading and adapting to many different cultures and purposes. There were a few interesting tidbits here, but for the most part the political usage and cultural adaptations to the I Ching were unsurprising. One helpful thing I did learn was that a common way to use the I Ching was to take 2 readings, and then make the prediction based on the changes between the two readings. Which seems much more sensible to me. The single reading method that I'd always seen before this seemed like it ran into the newspaper-horoscope problem, where 12 or 64 possible answers just aren't enough to begin to cover every possible situation. 2^12 potential answers is much more plausible.




Citizen of Earth, Kassabian
2.0 Stars
6-15-2019

An unfortunate mil-sci-fi adventure novel. I really wanted to like this book, since I like its author and it is his first published fiction and I'd like him to succeed. However, while some of the ideas in the book are neat, the book doesn't really work as a story/entertaining piece of fiction. The main problem is (sorry) that the writer just isn't very good at his craft. There's a skill to writing evocative, entertaining stories that flow and draw the reader along and create a world inside the reader's head. I certainly don't have that skill, but I can at least broadly recognize it in writers who have developed that skill through talent/time/dedication. In this case the basic fundamentals of the story just don't function well, since much of the writing is just too bare bones and simplistic. It feels more like a rough draft or bullet point summary of what the story should be, rather than the actual story. Viewed from a certain angle it might *almost* make it to an Isaac Babel type sere style, except that the story matter/profundity just isn't there. All of the above isn't helped by the fact that I read this in e-book form (thanks a lot, Amazon discount) rather than in paper back form, and this always makes me undervalue a novel somewhat. The small silver lining to all of this is that the story does at least read quickly.

Oh, and just for completeness: the actual story is that North Korea invades the Star Wars universe. Humans almost entirely live in the Sol system, and they are ruled over by an oppressive Chairman who has successfully conquered and indoctrinated the Earth, the Moon, and Mars. The earthlings then get involved in an already ongoing war with the various other races that are out there in the galaxy. The main character is a kid who is drafted into the military, gets separated during battle, falls in with aliens, and starts to see the wider universe. He and his girlfriend meet aliens at bars, help out freedom fighters, assault the ground stations for various planet destroying super weapons, and board/crash various starships. In the hands of a Jim Butcher this might all work very well, but as above it just fell down due to the lack-luster writing. Oh, and since I ding the right-wing mil fiction for this, I will also do it to the left wing mil fiction. There is not that much thought about how technology would change warfare, rather things are just updated so that you have lasers instead of bullets and plasma instead of high explosives and blah blah blah. The combat isn't pure idiocy and it has a few neat ideas (the way weapons from different tech trees interact, the alien versions of Colonial Britain), but on the whole it is still closer in quality to Star Wars than to the Culture.




The Eleventh Son
4.0 Stars
5-30-2019

A fast paced and well translated Wuxia adventure. It follows Xiao, a drifter with a heart of gold and a hand of steel, as he is wrapped up in the machinations of corrupt lords and evil kung fu masters. There's also a romance woven in, between Xiao and the noble lady Shen that he rescues at various points. The action parts were generally clever and quick, the romance parts were generally slow and silly. I particularly liked the Doll House bit near the end where they are shrunk down to minuscule size; it was both very dumb and very smart and much better than I expected at first.




Flavia De Luce 01 - The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie
4.0 Stars
5-30-2019

A mystery novel set in rural, post war Britain: there is an unsettling stranger, a late night argument, a dead body in the morning. It's now up to 12 year old Flavia De Luce to conduct a shadow investigation in order to clear the family name or at least pin the murder on someone else. To do so, she will need to use every skill at her disposal; lying, deceiving, breaking, entering, sneaking, stealing, rifling, lock picking, threats, blackmail, deducting, and some light poisoning. She also has to contend with her older sisters, an inattentive father, bicycle impoundment, and the general melancholy and ruin of Britain after WWII.

In general I'm not a fan of mystery novels, but I thought this one was decently done. Two things make it stand out. One is that the author has an unusually good hand at descriptive turns of phrase and mixing historical, artistic, and literary bits into the work. The other is that the main character, Flavia De Luce, is an unusually good choice. She is what Seanan McGuire's mad scientist character should have been, someone who can look at a stained glass window and name the chemical compound used for each pane of glass, someone with a top 40's list of favorite poisons, someone who knows the modern and ancient names and descriptions of a thousand different chemical compounds. She's a delightfully selfish and self centered and gifted investigator, and a great foundation for the story. Her whole family is in fact good, each of them being monomaniacal in their own way, and sort of jointly but separately inhabiting the ruins of the family estate.




The Reckoners, Books 1-3, by Sanderson
3.0 Stars
4-30-2019

An adventure series that benefits from its great premise and good world building, but is otherwise mostly at a "serviceable" level of story telling. First off, the idea behind the series is a personal favorite: super-powers have entered the world in standard comic book fashion, but the people who exhibit powers all become criminally insane. The main characters exist in the aftermath of that event, and are baseline humans who use careful planning, guile, cunning, and technology to fight against the super-powered villains that dominate the world. I really like the idea; it's a theme that's been knocking around in my head ever since the original X-Com, and it's something that's popped into my head basically every time I see an X-Man movie. I've always thought that the humans and defense contractors dealing with the X-men were in a much more interesting situation than the X-men themselves. It's also a power structure that's produced some of my favorite games, e.g. Sang-Froid (where you are a flimsy, easily tired lumberjack fighting against were-wolves in the Canadian forest) and any number of other mystical monster hunter settings where baseline humans have to fight, research, and exploit the weaknesses of creatures that are inherently more powerful than them. So, if nothing else I love the premise.

The world building is also good, and as with the Mistborn series, Sanderson creates a world that poses interesting questions. In the Mistborn series the problem was that the answers to those questions were dumb, but here the answers are better. Besides the great premise, this quality world building is the other main strength and focus of the novels. These stories (again like the Mistborn's) can be thought of as world-detective stories, where the main concern of the novel is discovering how different facets of the world work. Characters, plot, dialog, etc. are all secondary to this process. So, typical questions in the Reckoners would be things like "what power explains the effect this super is exhibiting?", "what is this super's weakness?", "where does this new power combination or expression come from and how does it inter-relate with the super's psychology?". There are other and more involved questions that come later, but that would be spoiling things. :D The story spends much of its time on these questions and on fitting together various pieces as characters try to deduce how the powers of their world work. And the climax of the story is usually the Reckoners resolving these world mysteries rather than resolving more typical questions of plot or character. The plot does move along, but it always moves in tandem with discoveries about how the world works. I mostly enjoyed these mysteries and thinking about them; I felt like the author gave the reader enough information that they could usually resolve things ahead of time, which I like. Hmmm, what else. The first book is the most straightforward and compelling, the second book partially loses its way as it moves to a new setting and newer characters and less immediate plots, and the third book makes a comeback and has a surprisingly good ending. Along the way they hit any number of super hero tropes, and visit a city of steel, of water, and of salt. Oh, and they even made a mediocre board game out of series! As so often happens, though the books ruin the other media. In the board game the artwork for the characters is all wrong, which basically makes the game unplayable.




The Thief
4.0 Stars
3-30-2019

Another extremely fast reading book. In this case, the adventure is about a group making an overland hike through enemy territory to recover a politically priceless heirloom locked away in an ancient and hidden temple. The setting is somewhat as if the power structure of ancient Greece had managed to last till the 1500's, with city states, occasional guns, and some fantastic elements that have the same general shape as the Greek gods and spirits. Now that I write this, it sounds a great deal like _The Barrow_, but the tone is considerably more upbeat.

There are a couple of elements that make the story more interesting than your average adventure. For one, the protagonist is a master thief, allowed out of jail to help with this one task. He's as lowborn as possible and not entirely there of his own free will, while the other four members of the group are either nobility or nobility adjacent. So there is a class/educational/wealth tension between him and the rest of the group, and also mystery as he tries to figure out the position and motivations of the other members of the group. Another enjoyable element is that as an immensely skilled thief, he can basically steal anything from anyone that comes within reach. The book usually doesn't mention these thievings though, so most items/bits of gear exist in a cloud of possibilities, where if they've ever come close to the protagonist they might or might not be on him at any given time. So in addition to the narrative uncertainties, there's uncertainties about who is actually carrying what. These elements carry the book through it's first ~150 pages, after which we reach the wonderful water temple, where the author did a genuinely good job of designing a dungeon that is A) thematic B) interesting to explore C) could plausibly have been killing off entire groups of adventurers for centuries without needing any significant maintenance. The remainder of the novel isn't bad, but after the strong start it ends as somewhat of a letdown as the reveals become too much, and the strong central stream of the plot starts to divert into different and less compelling channels.




The Murderbot Diaries, 1-4
4.0 Stars
3-25-2019

Short sci-fi adventure books about a security bot that has hacked its governor modules and is now free. While not great literature, they are fast literature, and it's easy to read (and difficult not to read) each of these books in a single sitting. The main character is acerbic, the fights and situations are fast paced, the supporting characters are sympathetic, and the ShadowRun type corps and their plots make decent villains. The stories are consistently well done and fast paced and you like the characters and enjoy the time. I could list a few flaws (sci-fi hacking isn't the greatest mechanic given how much of the story it occupies), but overall these are quality entertainment.




Salvation's Reach, by Dan Abnett (Gaunt's Ghosts, like #27)
4.0 Stars
3-20-2019

Finally, some realistic mil-sci-fi! This book was a great palate cleanser after the terrible, boring, dumb, paint-by-numbers Markos Cloos books. This also the first Abnett book that I've read, and I can see why he's regarded as one of the best WarHammer writers. His story lines plus the great job of the audio-book reader made this my favorite(?) WarHammer book out of the many that I've read. While theoretically military fiction about armies and large scale battles and such, the book is really closer to a heist storyline, not exactly either Reservoir Dogs or Oceans's 7 but with some elements of both. There's a risky mission into enemy territory, a precise plan unveiled step by step, skilled experts using their expertise to overcome difficulty checks, traitors and saboteurs from within, misdirections, surprise difficulties during the mission, and plans within plans within plans. There's also some more standard military elements: a fleet battle that hews delightfully close to something you would see in Battle Fleet Gothic, and surprisingly decent personal storylines about courage, lack thereof, criminality, family, mortality, and marriage. Finally, let me add one more shout out to the reader for this novel. He had a ton of fun with the different voices, and really captured the turn-it-up-to-11 drama and extraness of the WarHammer universe.




Swordheart
2.0 Stars
3-20-2019

Possibly good, but with a very unappealing opening. The main character's weak-tea humor is a very poor thematic match for her suicidal thoughts and actions. It might get better, but the start of the book seemed very clumsy.




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