Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Caine's Mutiny (Tales of the Terran Republic, #4)Caine's Mutiny by Charles E. Gannon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whenever I read a Gannon book, I'm always struck by his command of what he intends to do in a story. It may not always be to my taste and sometimes he seems to write himself in corners that then take a lot of effort -- and talking -- to extricate himself, but in the end, I'm almost always impressed that he pulls off what he does.

It's Space-Opera. But this one is old-school Mil-SF.

Indeed, this is so old-school Mil-SF we've even got WWII and Vietnam non-coms who have been decanted 200 years after they were spirited away, finding themselves fighting a desperate battle of survival on a planet already inhabited by a proudly-idiotic alien species that always tends to find a way into fights under any excuse.

Caine, our supremely capable Commander, gets embroiled in strange alien politics, elaborate subterfuges, space battles fought for unclear purposes, and eventually, he's asked to pick up these out-of-time refugees (who have been fighting for their survival) to return them to Earth Space.

Of course, many things go wrong, but here's the main strength of this book: the military action reads like real military action, all including antique equipment and weapons terminology mixed freely with high-tech warfare and terminology. It's a real mess. And we get to spend a lot of time in the heads of several alien species with all their psychological differences, their war practices, and enough tactics and strategies to awe any fan of this particular genre.

Me? I... kinda like Mil-SF. In small doses. Some are pretty awesome. Some are a lot more realistic than others. This one is one of the realistic ones. It also fills most of the pages.

My complaint? I think it's fine if you want a novel that is filled MOSTLY with characters talking in lieu of action. We get a clear picture, regardless, but it sometimes got on my nerves.

That being said, the BIGGER scope of this novel takes us across many systems, in and out of political negotiations with aliens, be it cease-fires or species wrangling or leverage against our own government. All of this was pretty awesome, in my opinion.

I'm sure others will get more mileage out of this than I did, but by no means was it a bad book. In some ways, it's superior to most. It just didn't appeal to me in a huge way.

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Monday, April 6, 2020

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm coming to this party VERY late. So many people have either loved this or hated it because of the hype, but honestly?

I enjoyed the effortless storytelling, the core ideas, the wonderful characters, and the deep emotion it evoked in me.

I mean, you either believe in the power of words or you don't. That's basically what separates those who love this book from those who don't... And I'm a dog person. My favorite color is green. My Facebook profile is useless for data collection because I filled it with nonsense... but that doesn't mean I'm not susceptible to neurolinguistic programming.

And that's what this SF thriller featuring neurolinguistic wizards is all about: persuasion. Sometimes a persuasion that has godlike levels of power. :) Of course, it's all about language. Words have all the power.

I personally would have loved to see an aspect of the tale move to the realm of how language creates consciousness, but Max Barry merely skirts the edge of that idea here. He DOES, however, remain firmly within the confines of a gloriously and deliciously evil story that not only succeeds in delivering a gut-punch of an ending but a huge body count as well.

What? Isn't this a book on words? Oh, hell yeah.

I can't see a reason why this book should not become a classic SF. It deserves to be read and re-read. Maybe if I read it enough times I can condition myself out of certain mindsets... or condition myself into another. :) I daresay the tower of Babel was never destroyed.




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Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Paper Menagerie and Other StoriesThe Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm filled with shame for not having read these fantastic short stories earlier. Instead, I just focused on reading Ken Liu's translations of Cixin Liu, and Ken Liu's own enormous epic fantasy, ignoring, (wrongly-so) his award-winning short fiction.

*rubs hands together and gets to work*

I was delighted by almost all the short, sometimes strange, fiction that filled the first pages.

The Bookmaking Species of Select Species tickled all my librophile instincts.

State Change made me change tracks HARD and I felt the claustrophobia and intense BELIEF behind the somewhat magical conceit that each of us has our souls trapped in a small, unique object that we must protect at all costs. The twist is in the title.

Perfect Match made me think I had just watched a Black Mirror episode or a pretty common technothriller idea, but it wasn't bad for all that.

Good Hunting was a freaking delight because I recognized it right away as one of my favorite on-screen adaptations in the Netflix show Love, Death, and Robots. Kitsune legend meets steampunk transformation!

The Literomancer was both darkly interesting and pretty disturbing. Cultural Revolution meets interpretive magic.

Simulacrum was okay. I didn't dislike it but it wasn't as poignant as some I've read on the same thing.

The Regular was a much longer tale that was a police procedural, a mystery with a ton of great cyborg elements interwoven in the solving and the causes of the crimes. It was both clever and fast-paced and pure popcorn goodness.

The Paper Menagerie was rather sweet and all about learning about your family and dealing with cross-cultural divides. I can appreciate it and do, but it is not my favorite story in the bunch despite all the awards it was given.

An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition made me oooh and ahhh because I LOVE a good story that doesn't hold back on the science and speculation and rolls all over the carpet with a cool tale.

The Waves was pretty ok. Not the best, but definitely above average.

Mono No Aware felt like a more traditional SF story with space travel. Also okay.

All the Flavors rather surprised me. I didn't realize I would be getting a rather long Western set during the time of the railroad building where many Chinese lost their lives in America in the Company Towns while building the Transcontinental. It was rather great.

A Brief History of The Trans-Pacific Tunnel was written as snippets of news articles about (somewhat) digging a hole to China. I dug this short one.

The Litigation Master and The Monkey King might be my favorite story here. More than anything, it's a legal drama set in classic China that turns a trickster into a hero... on the side of safeguarding history. Great stuff.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary felt like a very different take on the same theme, but this time it had a very cool time-travel trick that caused a LOT of trouble for the creator. What kind of trouble? The usual kind: Political, social, Denialists, national embarrassment. What is it about? Getting proof, some small apology for Japan's role in the atrocities they committed during their occupations of China and other countries during WWII. Many horrible experiments were performed on prisoners. This story is rooted in facts, but the SF portion of the tale just pulls out a new, very believable wrinkle in the ongoing nastiness. Should tragedies that are old be swept under the rug, never acknowledged, or acknowledged and in the same breath denied?

This last one was pretty hard to get through, emotionally. Accordingly, I give it very high marks.


Overall, I loved the entire collection. :)

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Friday, April 3, 2020

Letters from the LightLetters from the Light by Shel Calopa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a book full of underdogs, marginalized characters, and pretty clear-cut bad guys that cross the line back and forth between being allies and antagonists, I still developed a distinct impression that I was reading a pretty standard SF adventure. You know, rebellion against the social machine, disgust with the old order, and the hard-scrabble for survival against stacked odds. That's fine for what it is, but it's not overly unique.

On the other hand, this novel is also jammed-packed with massive amounts of totally awesome worldbuilding and a seriously hardcore SF ethos. From a lush future Australia to spacecraft with failing pods, planetary colonies set up and sadly abandoned to their own worst failure modes, machine life, nanotech, and a very, very cool tech focused on light.

It's the SF ethos that I really appreciated. Oh, and the end sequence was ALL kinds of awesome. :)

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Emperor of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #3)Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While this book might appear to be one of those love/hate things, I have to admit that Jorg, the character I love to hate, is awfully compelling.

Sure, he's a right bastard and he'll never mince words when the sword of the blade will do the job quicker, but beyond that, he's all about RESULTS. He never takes half-measures. Whether it's about living life, saving people, or murdering ANYONE who gets in his way, be they loyal or antagonistic, he never, ever, takes half-measures.

I admit I love that about him. Sure, it means he'll kill everyone and anyone to get what he wants, but he NEVER goes back on his word. Of course, that is only a promise he makes to himself, and he has enough pride and bloodlust to put satan to shame, but it makes for a very compelling story.

And then there's all the pure awesome going on with the worldbuilding: a broken future world after the bombs drop and something interestingly quantum opens up the door to belief and expectation altering reality, an amassed army of the undead ravaging this future medieval world, and even high-tech simulacra of men's minds trapped in machines.

It's a heady mix and it's totally grimdark, but more than that, it's deliciously fun.

Let's hear it for Jorg! He's a horrible man but damn, at least he never does anything by half-measures.

Apparently, neither does Mark Lawrence.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

King of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #2)King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still a nasty piece of grimdark, but I have to be honest: there are a FEW more redeeming features to our young little psychopath in this book than there were in one that came before.

I probably sound like that's a bad thing... right? Well... yeah. I was USED to loving to hate the little murderous sociopathic little punk. I don't want him humanized. I want him to plow over all his enemies and random bystanders who might have been within spitting distance of him. I want him to burn the world.

Or rather, since he ate the heart of a necromancer on a freaking whim and now he has a lich inside of him as well as a warring freaking incarnation of fire, I fully expected him to raise armies of the dead and have all the bones run around on fire, destroying all the warring kingdoms and his subjects and laugh uproariously about it.

Seriously. I'm not even joking.

But NOOOOOO he's sinned against almost as much as he sins and that little memory trick is really kicking my conception of him around like nobody's business.

Suffice to say, I still love the book. Maybe I'm not quite as thrilled with the sheer, utter darkness of it, but it is definitely full of some really great moments.

Grimdark for the win!

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Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1)Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Minimalist Grimdark.

I came at this from the wrong end of the reading spectrum. I tried out one of his later series then fell in love with his Impossible Times fun SF, and then said to myself... "Hey, why don't you pick up the book that started this wild ride of his career?"

So I did. And after having already gone through an old bout of Grimdark Fantasy reading that basically gives us all a hearty, warm feeling in our guts... just as the guts start sliding out... I jumped into this with a light-hearted laugh and said, "Ah, well, this is one of those uber-anti-hero books where we're supposed to root for the heavy-metal Lucifer character, right?"

Yes. And then some.

We go from a dark past to a dark present and headlong, bloodily, into a dark future. The writing itself is some of the starkest, MINIMALIST pieces of writing I've come across in some time. Simple. Right to the point. Move on quickly. Murder, pillage, more murder, revenge, and above all... a young kid doing it all, NEVER GIVING UP, NEVER BACKING DOWN. He's one scary-ass punk.

His pride is actually pretty appealing, even if... um... MOST of his actions aren't.

That being said, I still had a pretty good time that turned into a GREAT time when the worldbuilding started poking its head out from under the sheets. It felt like a historical right out from the Hundred Year War right until some modern terms poked into the page... and then when we got outright SF elements and the Day of A Thousand Suns came along, I was cackling with glee. What a dark future we've got. :)

Suffice to say, this tickled all the dark places in my psyche. :) If you happen to love the really dark stuff, I highly recommend this.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Thud! (Discworld, #34; City Watch #7)Thud! by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jeeze, every time I read a Discworld novel, it's always like coming back to a very funny home full of angry dwarves and pissed trolls doing their best to get drunk and start a war over some ancient grudge that no one alive actually understands.

In other words, like Thanksgiving Dinner.

Or something like that.

Indeed, it's actually a police procedural with the glorious Vimes as he tries to stop another civil war on the streets of Ankh-Morpork the best way he can... by cutting through all the red tape and bull-heading his way through every single problem.

Or going berserk while yelling a kid's bedtime story, thoroughly destroying the morale of his enemies.

It's the little things.

I love these books. :)

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Baptism of Fire (The Witcher, #3)Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm still entranced by these novels.

It's sometimes hard to see why. I mean, the way the plot flows, it's almost like there's no sense of structure, just things happening, more character development, and the far-off whispers of big things to come. The war? Already started in the last book. This one is more an off-the-scene recuperation and focused side-quest to get Ciri back. Somehow.

And yet.

Jeeze... the 'and yet' is as big as a lake of fire. And yet, from the start to the finish, I'm totally entranced by the tale, loving the characters, enjoying the new characters even more than the old (save Geralt, of course,) and getting INVESTED all over again in the tale.

It's like there is no true beginning, middle, or end... AND I JUST DON'T CARE. My goodness... can I love our new fair surgeon any more than I do? I don't see how it might be possible. He just FITS in the group more than just about anyone. I love his interactions with everyone. And a certain scene that fits perfectly for an AA meeting?

Totally precious.

I remain ensorcelled.

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Sunday, March 29, 2020

American Demon (Return to the Hollows, #1)American Demon by Kim Harrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is proof that a well-beloved UF series with an official "ending" does not have to End.

What am I saying? Nothing much. No ret-cons needed. We just have a new beginning with the same old characters we love.

But wait, isn't our witch (ahem) just a LITTLE TOO OVERPOWERED? Especially with that last book going NUTS with the changes, more changes, and even bigger changes?

Nope. Because the world moves on. Nothing is so impressive and amazing that others can't s**t all over your parade, deny it ever happened, or make your life a living hell just because they're ignorant and/or a jerk.

Huh. That kinda sounds like a slice right out of real life, no?

And THAT is why this book picks up not too long after the events of book 13 of the Hollows and starts back up with Return to the Hollows with nothing more than a shrug. Our Witchy Morgan is never given the credit she deserves and all these new characters showing up gives the series new life.

And YES, Jenks is still his glorious self. Bis, too. And happy time with Trent is quite happy.

The novel gives us good mystery, good action, and plenty of smoldering lust and much more in the way of annoyance for certain jerks. In other words, it's a classic return to what made the series special. I love it.

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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16)Peace Talks by Jim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My dear friends, I just finished reading Peace Talks.

Yes, I finally read a book that I (and approximately 1k other reviewers) have been so vocal about wanting ever since Skin Game.

If I was going to be super precise about the actual waiting time, I'd say it's a TON. For those who like to challenge themselves with a little basic math, the last Dresden novel came out in May of 2014.

And so, when I got an ARC for this, I spit out my soup in surprise and started screaming.

You understand. It's just one of those things.

But now that I've read Peace Talks, I'm afraid to actually SAY that I've read Peace Talks.

Why?

Because you FANS ARE NUTS. I feel like I'm starting a war! I can hear you getting your guns out and your magical weapons and all your supernatural hoards and you're COMING FOR ME because I got it early and read it early and now I feel like my only recourse is to run and hide on Demonreach!

Of course, if you weren't coming for me with hate-filled eyes, I might tell you that the book was AWESOME and Mr. Jim Butcher pulled off something SWEET AS HELL in the new novel. I could tell you that nothing is lost, nothing is ignored, and all things serve a purpose.

You remember the book where the Council and all the other baddies stood to face the wall that kept the Outsiders on the other side, and you read the scene with wonder and a crazy feeling that things were ABSOLUTELY NOT GOING TO GO WELL?

That feeling has survived quite nicely in this book.


And you know what? Mr. Jim Butcher is spoiling us.

Look to October this year for BOOK 17! That's right. Battle Ground

The crap is going to hit the fan.


Please don't hurt me, fellow fanboys and fangirls! But even if you do, I think it was worth it. The book was great. :) Peace, friends!



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Friday, March 27, 2020

Brief Cases (The Dresden Files, #15.1)Brief Cases by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just when I thought I would never see another Harry Dresden book, I get an ARC for number 16! So what does that mean?

I've GOTTA PREPARE MYSELF! Wooooooo!

A short story collection featuring Harry and a few of the other personalities? The one I didn't read when it came out a few years ago? Yep. That sounds like just the ticket. :)

And after reading it, it made me realize that I really did miss Harry. A lot.




And now I'm STOKED.

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

UnderlandUnderland by Robert Macfarlane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a strange duck of a book. Especially if it is a spelunking duck with a penchant for science and poetry.

I want to say that it is a pretty interesting and diverse book on the concept of the underground, whether it is exploring deep caverns, crypts, deep dives, or mycelium networks in the forest. And it is! It's very, very interesting. Any kind of deep concept such as ice mining to discover the deep past, ways to put away nuclear waste products, catching rare nuclear particles... all of it is included in the text.

And what's more? This book of exploration is personal, awe-inspiring, creative as hell, and it reads almost like poetry.

Hell. This book IS like poetry. Tons of connections are made between all these diverse elements and the language used is really, really pretty.

So why didn't I give this a five-star rating just for its beauty?


Because while it was pretty damn inspiring at the beginning, it wore me down and tired me out by the end.

I think it would be a very nice book to read over a long stretch of time. A little each night as your mind is relaxing, letting go, getting weird and creative. Read it like poetry. A little at a time. Enjoy the language, the connections, and don't let it turn into a regular non-fiction title. Yes, there's some great science going on in here, but make no mistake...

THIS IS POETRY.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in CrisisUpheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oddly enough, after the introduction, I had a strange, trepidatious feeling that I was going to be reading a psychologically-based analysis of a handful of different countries and how they handled multiple historical crises.

In one way, this might be fine if all we just wanted lite anecdotes, but this particular book is simultaneously more and less than that. Less psychological, more analogical. And more in that it is surprisingly broad-based, detailed, and historically accurate.

Diamond chose seven countries to highlight mostly because he lived in each and spoke most of their languages, which I can't fault him for, because it gives some great immediacy.

I loved the one about Finland nearly as much as I loved the one about Chile. Finland's struggle and clear-eyed resolution with both Germany's invasion and Russia's involvement were all kinds of heroic, scary, and tragic. Chile's challenges (tragedies) with Allende and Pinochet's history is fairly better known in some circles. Diamond focused on both the good and the obviously evil. Less emphasis is put on the Chicago Boys' influence. More on the torture and the willingness to keep Pinochet around despite his more nasty habits, while taking into account some of the obviously positive accounts of the country's growth during that time.

I also loved the one about Indonesia even if I was horrified to learn so much about the mass-killings. On both occasions. The corruption was not as bad as the .5 million to 2 million dead, of course, but hell, both are bad in their ways.

The others about Germany post-war and Austrailia post-British Empire were good and interesting as well, but I think I was a bit more interested in the early Japanese post-Shogunate and post-WWII historical periods.

The final analysis? Diamond goes into some pretty realistic breakdowns of how each country faced its challenges, how resilient each is in the face of tragedy or danger, and how it responds when it is in the wrong. In other words, like spoiled children, embarrassed, or whether they take full responsibility for their actions.

This book is not a full-service political discussion and it ignores quite a few factors but far less than I would have assumed. All in all, I was very happy with the results... even after having read a ton of other history books. :)


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Monday, March 23, 2020

One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-RelianceOne Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance by Christina Hoff Sommers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nothing much new here, but it never hurts to focus some light on the rather glaring, obvious problems of our culture.

I earned a degree in Psychology back in the day and I recognized a very absurd trend going on. It's called being a one-trick-pony. Most of the serious practitioners of psychology realize that no single situation or psychological issue can be solved with a single tool. To do so, or think so, is beyond stupid. Situations change and people differ. Not only do they differ, but any single person might need a wide range of tools used at different times -- or even NO TOOLS AT ALL.

Self-reliance, resiliency, and adaptability must be sought after, brought about on a patient's own terms. It is not something that can be forced on anyone. It's not an externality.

This book, however, highlights the amazing absurdity of the notion that we're all sniveling brats and we're all broken people. If we go by real numbers, real PTSD in the population very small. Having some temporary issues one way or another is NOT PTSD. Just like having clinical depression over years is not the same thing as having a week of the blues.

There's a great analogy in the practice of the Law. It's called leading the witness. If you come at people with an assumption that they MUST have PTSD, you're providing the person with a narrative that they will try to shoehorn themselves into. If left alone, that person may never have ever SEEN themselves as a trauma victim.

And yet, over the years, we see more and more therapy-isms creeping in, everywhere we look. Are you depressed? Are you traumatized? How do you know? Come get therapy! Come on, you KNOW you're all messed up, right? COME GET THERAPY.

Does this sound like a sales pitch to you? Like there are a lot of snake-oil salesmen (and women) masquerading as legitimate therapists trying to convince YOU that you NEED therapy so they can make some money? Justify their own jobs? Justify the huge huge numbers of specialized PTSD therapists that are funded by well-meaning but thoroughly duped government agencies who now believe that the WHOLE FREAKING SOCIETY is on the verge of mental collapse?

Hmmm. Maybe it is just that. A trend not supported by real numbers. Just like the pharmaceutical industry that pumps out and encourages the total drugging-up of our children based on massive overdiagnosis of Hyperactivity or Depression. It boils down to one maxim: follow the money. Who is profiting most? Then look at the people who insist that the problem is pervasive.

Then ask people candidly if they're really having a problem or if they're following a narrative. Most people don't want to dwell on the bad things. A little repression is actually very, very good. That's why we forget about our last flu. Or about the real pain during childbirth. Or that time we passed a stone.

Do you REALLY want to relive that experience? Over and over and over? If you do, then hell... that's sick. It's better to forget.

And yet, enabling this therapism provides us with exactly this same effect. It helps us relive the trauma over and over and over. Some people do need this kind of psychological toolset. I'll never say otherwise. But it is a single tool usually only used ONCE when unconscious effects are preventing someone from functioning in real life. When it comes to light, it should not be dwelled upon. It should be understood and boxed away. Send it to the same place where you sent the memory of your kidney stone.

Otherwise, you'll keep it fresh. Who wants to keep their trauma fresh, anyway?

We are strong. We are all as strong as we want to be. Don't enable weakness if you have a choice. Be resilient. :)

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Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global SuperpowerThe Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower by Michael Pillsbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was not surprised as I read this book.

I've been through my own intellectual crisis, reading many political books, watching the news, freaking out about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and generally trying to get a general drift of China in global politics. Bits and pieces came to light from the time of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, the closing and opening of borders, Nixion, and then the great strategy boiled down to: "When capable, feign incapacity."

This book spells it all out, but let me make an analogy.

You know that A-Type next-door neighbor of yours that is totally driven, at all costs, to succeed? The one who was really rude to you until you got your own really excellent job? The one who didn't give you the time of day until you brought home your Mercedes?

Yeah, that one. The one who suddenly became all smiles and showed appreciation for all your wonderful accomplishments, but you later, (much later,) discovered that he was talking massive amounts of shit about you to his family, his extended family, and harshly shut down any lines of communication between his children and yours? Or the fact that for the last 20 (or is it 30, now?) years, he's been borrowing all your tools in your garage and never giving them back, has been using your accountant, has been making copies of all your entire movie collection, and during that entire time, he has always made that class of major justifications: "I'm not lucky, I just never got the breaks I needed, I'm physically unable to do the work, my boss hates me..." and you, like the chump you are, loaned him money, taught him everything you knew about how to make it big, and your wife and children STILL give the family charitable donations.

Take that analogy and apply it to China and USA. Not only is the censorship rampant over there, but all their schools teach total BS about how America has been pushing down China for the last 150 years. Anyone sent over in official capacities will look shamefaced about this and so many other facts, say it's just a small minority in their government and smile. Officials have been doing nothing but reassure and make all the right noises to the West, making promises and yet always breaking them.

This isn't about rogue elements in China, you know. They are autocratic. The Hawks established a plan to pretend weakness, get others to do all the heavy lifting for them, and get so strong, economically, that they will replace the West as the most dominant power in the world. They're actions speak powerfully and clearly. They have a long-term plan. Say whatever they need in order to get to the top, make sure they indoctrinate each generation to massively distrust other systems (first Russia, then America) and take the slow path to total dominance.

Again, this shouldn't come as any surprise. Any country with designs on power will go about things in a similar way.

But here's the thing: this book is written by someone who has been deep in the policy-and-analysis end of things in America. He had his own disillusionment, first believing that the best road was through peace and mutual aid. When the weight of such proof of duplicity in united fronts became too obvious, he spoke out. More and more proof is everywhere. 70% of all electronic intrusions come from China. There is near-total disdain for ecological problems including the cancer rates in their own population caused by industrial pollution. Free speech is nearly nonexistent. There has been a near-total eradication of the very IDEA of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China. Those dissidents who DID want to have an honest partnership with the world were subsequently murdered or imprisoned.

And all the while, official faces try to disarm and downplay all this and say all the right things to get more money, aid, and technology. (Although, I'm sure by now, technology isn't all that required. They send tons of students abroad every year to get as much as they want.)

And the poor-me scenario? Their GNP tripled between 1997 and 2007. And yet, they're still playing the same card. Coal power is blanketing the skies in neighboring countries.

I'm not being alarmist. Anyone who keeps up with the news can piece together a much larger picture than I can in a short review. I find it very telling that both Russia and China are united in painting America as devils, however, and not in some piecemeal way. I'm talking systematic, state-sponsored propaganda.

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Saturday, March 21, 2020

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life InsuranceSuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Microeconomics.

Ever since I read the first Freakonomics book years ago, I became a super freak and LOVED the real-world expose on things we always seem to take for granted.

Incentives work. Period. They work more to control our behavior than anything else.

Prostitution was huge, years ago, because it paid very well compared to any other kind of work that a woman could do. Often ten times the going rate of anything. Cops turned a blind eye because they could partake of the services. Those other really moral people who tried to stop it found they couldn't because they didn't understand the full circumstances. So what reduced prostitution? Higher wages for women in general. Choice. It was never a matter of morality. It was a matter of going where the money is.

If we compare a geophysical engineering event such as setting off a volcano to combat global warming, it would cost a lot LESS than Al Gore's whole PR campaign that tried to browbeat everyone into altruism. And it would be more effective.

The threat of terrorism is often much more effective than actual terrorism. So put away your bomb and just do some more talking about it.

Microeconomics uses real data, is only as effective as the questions being posed, but is still extremely interesting. And enlightening.

Car seats for kids? No statistical difference in saving kids' lives versus seat belts. The seat belts are the real saviors. So instead of having this huge weird industry with mismatching standards for car seats, why don't we have cars with easily adjustable seatbelts?

HELLO?

The numbers don't lie. But human psychology is FULL of blind spots.

Like doctors and washing hands. To find out that one hospital's doctors only washed their hands 9% of the time they OUGHT to have been washing their hands, proven by swabs and analysis of their hands, versus their self-reporting of 60% or so? Or the other many excuses such as time and effort? No incentive fixed that situation better than putting screensavers up on all the computers that showed a magnification of a single caught doctor's hand.


What kind of truly effective incentives do we need to roll out now, with the Coronavirus? Will washing hands truly make the grade? Maybe we should all get a picture of the virus for our screensavers.

But will that take care of all the people who don't WANT to take it seriously? Those people who will prolong the problem for everyone else by spreading it to their friends and neighbors and to their own family members... all of whom might be trying, very carefully, to quarantine themselves?

Maybe we need a shame bell. The same shame bell that was so ... yeah ... in Game of Thrones.

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Naked in Death (In Death #1)Naked in Death by J.D. Robb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is pretty much entirely these two things:

A stereotypical boilerplate mystery featuring the now cliché female detective solving murders.
A romance with a rich, sensitive, perfectly loyal billionaire who is a person of interest.

Nothing much more than that, except... it's grounded in a near-future world with social advances, altered nation-states, and advanced computers, robots, etc.

Hmm. It kinda sounds like it's kinda... tame... right?

But that's just it. It IS extremely comfortable. A popcorn read. Fast-paced, pushing all the right buttons including those of dark histories and working through the issues, vicarious hot sex scenes, and the requisite near-holy homage to coffee.

I had a delightfully good time with this. Like sitting down to an old favorite meal I've had two thousand times already. But it just TASTES SO GOOD. I'm very likely to continue this. It's absolutely a fun piece of fluff.

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Friday, March 20, 2020

TiganaTigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a lot to love about Tigana and for Guy Gavriel Kay in general. His writing is often prose-poetical, smooth and impressionistic, and also, at times, lush. His core strengths always revolve around vast worldbuilding, complex and detailed characterizations, and fantasy worlds that are often close, if not perfectly like, real historical settings in our world.

That's not to say there aren't magic or dual moons, because there is.

This particular book is all about memory. Magic stole away the very name of a city when a grieving magician/lord plowed through the offending kingdom of Tigana and then cursed it (and its people) to forget the very NAME of Tigana.

Of course, the family name of Tigana, as well as the members of this family, are affected. They remember their own name, but no one else in the kingdom can. This is is both their tragic story and how they deal with this loss after 20 years and it is a story of a whole culture forced underground.

We have plenty of examples of this in our own world.

Maybe not to the same extreme as magically erasing whole cultures, but there are many methods that can do this as completely and tragically right here.

I was struck by such unutterable sadness as I read this. So many scenes were memorable, emotional, and deeply ironic. More were simply introspective and a matter of living each day, taking that next step.

I admit, for all the things that I loved about this book, I also grew somewhat *bored*. The characters, while often holding my attention, sometimes... didn't. A lot of the time, I really had to struggle to want to keep reading or do something else. It was more like my appreciation was pretty much the only thing keeping my eyes glued to the page during certain long passages, and that's... not great.

Still, a lot more than not, I really liked this book and I have nothing bad to say about his prose. Indeed, he's a lot better than most. :)

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to ComeCrisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come by Richard Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came into this book with both curiosity and some slight trepidation that it might not quite mesh with my current active interest in the Coronavirus. Different kinds of sickness, speed, and symptoms. Ebola is much more deadly, while Coronavirus had the potential to spread across the world and kill even more.

Even so, I dove in and quickly fell into a story that was almost pure horror. It was worse because everything in it was true.

Do you want descriptions that would turn the stomachs of even the most hardcore horror fan? Look no further.

The late 70's started the outbreak but it wasn't until 2014 when a confluence of new strains and the lack of real support for the people attempting to contain it turned Ebola a nightmare scenario completely out of control.

The story ... is shocking. Tragic. Tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. And this was just a few years ago. Most of the crap could have been prevented with knowledge and actual physical and monetary support, but governments, incompatible ethical concerns, and fear made the entire event into a completely non-hollywood-ending story.

There are possible treatments possible, but they are still caught in red-tape.

Currently, the only thing that has worked is turning whole populations into cold, mercenary triage mentalities. Let the sick die. Avoid them. Avoid everyone. Cut all social ties. No longer touch other people.

This is the kind of thing that worked in Medieval times.

For better or worse, I got a better understanding of the possibilities that are open to us. And they aren't pretty.

The biggest tragedy is that there ARE options, but red-tape is clamping down on them.

The biggest lesson is that we must prepare to self-quarantine. Prepare for large outbreaks. Isolate yourself.

Are there obvious crossovers here? Yes. Unfortunately.

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Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I guess I will be liking this comic for some of the non-standard reasons. It's not overly pretty. I'm not a huge fan of the artwork but it isn't bad. The story is autobiographical, extremely personal, and wonderfully honest.

The honesty, the unflinching clear-eye about what she is and what her father is, and how the full discovery of both finally came to light? This is probably my favorite bit.

Of course, without the extra flavors, pure honesty is never quite as amusing.

A close second is the beautiful intellectualism.

Come on. I admit I have a soft spot in my heart for the plethora of neologisms, the cantankerous quotidian quotations, the naked showers of Proust, Faulkner, and Joyce.

Intellectualism isn't for everyone, I know, but sometimes I love to roll myself on it like a labrador on a big bear rug. Can you see the charge it makes? All that static electricity making my hair stand on end?

It's FUN! :)

Mixing all that fantastic honesty with a riot of words did it for me. :)

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In Sheep's SkinIn Sheep's Skin by Scott Hale
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*** Pre-Release Review ***

It is my total pleasure to say that Scott Hale has done it again. In a field that has provided so many variations on a werewolf theme, he has, in full awareness of all the conventions, out-done the lot of them.

No cute, loveable werewolves here.

Only complicated human dynamics, fantastic use of Liminal Space (look it up if you're curious), and some of the most gut-wrenching transformations (psychological or meat-grinding) I've ever read.

And I've read a lot of great horrors. I'm no slouch. But when I say this hits my originality radar, I ask you to pay attention. There are several layers of mirroring going on in the story. There are many instances of true surprise. But do you know what the most impressive feature is?

The inevitability. The sick, twisted feel of inevitability.

And this is extra impressive because these two kids are not stupid. They're fully aware of themselves and the danger and their own shortcomings. They do what they can.

But I've got to be honest... I've never seen a more twisted co-dependency relationship in fiction. I mean, there are a LOT of those in fiction, movies, REAL LIFE... but this one pretty much takes the cake.

The full-moon cake. :)

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought ThemGet Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few plague and pandemic books I can rank up there as my absolute favorites, but this one comes awfully close.

Honestly, her clever and quippy and generally knowledgeable demeanor only enhanced the core facts of these "great" diseases that caused so much damage throughout history and closer to home.

And there are lots of heroes:

People who start using logic and common sense when so little of it is going around. (Cleanliness)
People who have more decency in them than practically everyone else. (Kindness)
People who buck convention to DO THE RIGHT THING. (Courage)

Let's not forget intelligence. But often there is a lot of that going around without the other three and without the other three, YOU'RE STILL DEAD. Or much, much worse off.

I totally recommend this book for anyone who's interested in plagues and pandemics. For we who are currently IN ONE, I can't recommend it enough. It's not fearmongering. It's history. The good stuff and the bad.

I recommend the chapter on the Spanish Flu in particular.

While many of the symptoms and the range are not all that similar to the Coronavirus, people's reactions to it during 1918 IS. Misinformation abounded everywhere. And while today's world isn't quite saddled with 20 years in prison for yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater, and journalists aren't locked up for saying a single thing that criticizes the government, we are still dealing with a ton of idiots.

Putting your head in the sand and quoting economic reasons to go into work while everyone ought to be in lockdown is not helping anyone. If everyone stayed put there would be no new vectors. But as it is now, a ton of people ARE staying put while another whole segment of society is freaking out about their jobs, passing the coronavirus along AGAIN and spreading out the length of the danger even longer for those who are already in self-quarantine.

Can you see a psychology problem here? It's not YOUR job at risk. It's EVERYONE'S LIVES at risk. Ignore the death rate for a moment. Focus on who is most at risk. Children, old people, and anyone with compromised immune systems. If you keep rolling the dice for yourself, you are not the only one you're hurting.

The total ignorance of the Spanish Flu, the over-insistence that EVERYTHING IS ALL FINE made it spread like crazy. WWI killed roughly 20 million people. In 1918 the Spanish Flu killed roughly 20 million people.

We really need to stop being stupid.

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Sunday, March 15, 2020

Creeping Jenny (John Nyquist, #3)Creeping Jenny by Jeff Noon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, along with the two other standalone John Nyquist books, make up some of the most unflinchingly creative and original fiction I've ever read.

I say this without guile. If you want originality, uncompromisingly strange storytelling, and mysteries that only "feel" like traditional gumshoe Noirs until they get you firmly in its grip and twist you into psychedelic pieces, then do not pass this up.

I want to warn readers that they will get more than they bargain if they pick up one of these books, but a warning isn't fair. In fact, I think everyone should be forced to read them and discover these mysteries for themselves. It's like being welcomed into a Micky Spillane novel only to be Vandermeered or China Mievilled.

The first book was deeply disturbing with a city that was split up between an only day-side and an only night-side with a very dangerous dusk side. The second book, in a different, equally strange city, characters from books had real lives and libraries were becoming morgues with murdered people in books.

In this one, Nyquist becomes deeply enmeshed in a third, much smaller bucolic town where he tries to discover where his 20-year-missing-father had gone. Each day is like a brand new mystery, where seemingly mild small-town customs heralded by a different saint for every day, and everyone living there is compelled -- sometimes mercilessly -- to perform that story's function. Taboos, rituals, oddities... the culture here is a crazy character all on its own, and Nyquist investigates his own mystery alongside some very strange murders.

My description cannot do it justice. Nor would I want to give anything away. But this book honestly freaked me out. I could not see where it was going or where I was going to be taken. But between 1000-year-old mysteries, a dark green-man myth, stories of devils, tons of local saints (very strange ones), and one of the twistiest plots I've ever read, I can honestly say that I glowed with amazement.



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Beyond WeirdBeyond Weird by Philip Ball
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always try to get alternate viewpoints from as many scientists as I can. I also enjoy sorting out my understanding of quantum physics, searching for better stories, better analogies, and just... BETTER. This book is one of the BETTER. It may not be as charming as some and I don't mind how it skimps on biographies and jumps right into the SCIENCE, but it does fall short in outright describing the math. (That may be a good thing for some. Especially if you're not in the mood to crunch math.)

To be certain, this text goes beyond the everyday norm and focuses on the science. The ideas. The concerns. And it's all in the service of demystifying it all.

Quantum Physics is one of those subjects that agrees on fundamental maths but invites wildly divergent theories that make a coherent STORY of our reality. You know: Copenhagen (don't go nuts on us,) Everett (multiple-worlds), String, and more.

What we have in this book is not a biography of the physicists but an admirable attempt to make the famously weird (thank you Feynman!) as commonplace and normal as can be.

I mean, we're human, and humans are most famous for turning all things truly fantastic into the stunningly banal. :)

And this is exactly what this book tries to accomplish. Step by step, it demystifies the very small particles, removes the term spooky action, and naturalizes all things entangled.

It gives time to the various big-action theories that align the quantum with the macro, and all of this is pretty good if not as good as some other books that cover these topics, but what this book does best is describe the current technology of quantum computers. It doesn't shirk the shortcomings of our descriptions or the limitations of the process. This isn't a PR job by prospective companies trying to sell you a 100k computer.

BTW quantum computers ARE on the market now. Some developers are working on cheaper versions. What are they really good at? Factoring prime numbers.

Thank goodness! That's great for all you hackers out there! PGP MAY need a booster soon. :)

While this one doesn't always come close to the charm I'm used to in popularized physics books, I really have nothing bad to say about the contents.

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Saturday, March 14, 2020

Queen of Storms (The Firemane Saga, Book 2)Queen of Storms by Raymond E. Feist
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thanks to a very welcome ARC for this upcoming publication, I can now come forth and pretty fairly gush about how much I love the Firemane Saga. Mind you... this is book two, so that means you fans of Feist are comfortable with big stories that build up and complete naturally over a cycle.

The first book ended with Hatu and Hava finally resting comfortably in an out-of-the-way town with their new friend Declan and his soon-to-be bride, Gwen. Hatu and Hava, having trained all their lives as assassins, find themselves VERY comfortable with the idea of being married, as innkeepers.

Of course, that bucolic scene was never going to last. This is Feist. Tragedies come as easily as the brushfire of war. We spent the last novel enjoying small trials and tribulations, growth as characters, small skirmishes, much greater secrets, and plans within plans... but now, all plans have gone to hell. Indeed, the whole nation goes to hell.

Reading this so soon after the first novel, I felt very emotional about many of the things that happened. It affected me pretty hard. No spoilers. But... yeah. All the best-laid plans...

As for all you folks who like to know a little taste of the thing to come... prepare yourself for life on the sea. The Queen of Storms, indeed. Tons of action, tons of upsets, and be prepared for a novel as dark and desperate as the first was genuinely hopeful.

Feist is a master storyteller. I've read most of his books and he always pulls off a great tale. :) He's at the top of his game with these, too.



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Friday, March 13, 2020

King of Ashes (The Firemane Saga #1)King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having read the far majority of all of Feist's works before now, and even doing so recently, I was pretty astounded to learn that he had a NEW fantasy series. One that requires no previous knowledge or the need to rely on vast previous worldbuilding.

In other words, this is a perfect book to jump into, assuming you want an absolutely gorgeous and detailed kingdom, some rather fully-fleshed out political entities, and two ideal YA character-candidates reminiscent of some of Feist's much earlier (and excellent) work involving two rather precocious princelings. Or their sons.

This is also Feist at the top of his game. He's learned many hard lessons over the years and he has honed all his best strengths into building this book into one hell of a grand Epic Fantasy intro. War hasn't come, but the trap has been laid.

It's unfortunate how much I love these two main characters.

A brilliant young Smith on the rise, kin to the Barony but unknown to any but the Baron and his bastard brother.

And another orphan who is the last son of a king of the Firemanes, red-headed people betrayed and wiped out... who also happens to be the source of magic in the land. He is saved on a whim by the Baron who betrayed his father to death, was allowed to be raised in secret by a clan of assassins.

This couldn't bite anyone in the butt. I'm sure of it.

And yet, with this rather traditional High-Fantasy treatment, I must stress that the devil is truly in the details. It rises and falls with how good the writing is, how invested we get, and how much fun we have.

This book not only holds up well against any modern standard but goes quite a bit farther in that it has deep, wide-reaching roots and a fantastically enjoyable tone.

In other words, ya'll be fools to pass this up if you're into good modern fantasy written by a master of the field with all the heart of the classics (some of which, HE WROTE).

:)

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Thursday, March 12, 2020

Glorious (Bowl of Heaven #3)Glorious by Gregory Benford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Remember reading adventures where a full team goes in to explore a strange new world and only a handful come out alive? Where very strange creatures with even stranger motives tease and tempt you into situations you know you shouldn't be in, but you're just TOO CURIOUS to resist?

Yeah, I love those adventures, too. A believed that they were becoming a lost art form. And maybe they are... at least in SF where they used to be so abundant. New Worlds, New Aliens! (as opposed to the much more common: New worlds, New Aliens to kill!)

Well, I'm happy to say that the old art form is back, at least for these three Bowl of Heaven novels by Gregory Binford and Larry Niven. More, I think this third book does it even better than the first two.

In the afterward, I should point out that they are not adapting the old Big Dumb Objects clause to their immense technological marvels, but Big Smart Objects. This is an adventure where we newcomer humans encounter vastly long-lived civilizations who maintain their enormous structures intelligently.

In Glorious, the system where both the Bowl and the Humans had been traveling to when they got entangled in each other's stories is now in sight. Humans make first contact (for various reasons I won't spoil) and are embroiled in both a physically awesome structure and a wildly complicated social structure featuring TONS of intelligent aliens. If I thought the amount of livable surface area in Bowl was amazing, the one in Glorious is even more amazing (and MORE interesting).

And these aliens don't deign to talk to anyone else in the universe unless they use gravimetric waves. As in, communication through a series of herded black holes, manipulated in such a way as to transmit vast distances without ever breaking the current laws of physics. This is the old-style SF, after all, where real science rules. :) :)

No spoilers, but I was glued to my page. I was just as curious as the characters on the page and I might have made all the same mistakes, too. It's always a free lunch for SOMEBODY there. Of course, that usually means that you're the meal. :)

Good stuff! Big ideas all over the place and fun all the way through!

=

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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Shipstar (Bowl of Heaven, #2)Shipstar by Gregory Benford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was just wondering to myself the other day... "Just where has all the regular adventure in unique/impressive/mindblowing SF environments gone?"

I mean, it used to be around all over the place. Often it was a rush to see who would out-do the other, throwing out mind-blowing concepts and super huge technological artifacts that must be figured out and/or survived.

Remember Rendezvous with Rama? Eon? Ringworld? The Integral Trees? Revelation Space? Startide Rising? Ring?

Quick note: two of these great classics were written by Larry Niven, co-author to this book. Respect!

So then, when I come around to reading these two books in preparation for my ARC of Glorious, the third book in the series, I'm struck by just how much I've MISSED this particular genre. I either have to slog through Mil-SF books to get a feeling for it or I have to go back in time to another day when ADVENTURE used to mean something.

But here it is. Adventure, discovery, a wide swath of weird and diverse aliens both biological, silicate, and ELECTROMAGNETIC, all surfing a mobile STAR with a bowl that happens to be HALF of a DYSON SPHERE. For those who may not get the concept, it's enough landmass to fill millions of Earths with perfectly livable climates. It's BIGGER than the star. Sound a bit like Ringworld? Well, this is bigger. And no Pak. I love how these two authors manage all the idea-wrangling, the concepts, and the complicated (if flawed) adventure. I won't say I loved the characters, but I didn't hate any of them and besides, the wildlife is INTENSE. Orbital bombardment from pufferfish? Time-like lances? Nutty elephant-sized birds who think they're all that because they've somehow been left in charge of the zoo?

Well, they have another think coming. :)

The strength of this novel, and the one before it, is that it doesn't rest on the ideas already presented. It keeps coming up with interesting events and peoples and SF objects.

I MISS this.

I remember loving how much better characterization has gotten over the years with newer SF, too, but I didn't mean we ought to give up on the BIG CONCEPT pieces! :)

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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Perfume: The Story of a MurdererPerfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one hell of a strange inversion of a Jesus Allegory.

It's absolutely obsessed with the idea of innocence and scents, but more than that, it's a veritable encyclopedia of tons of smells. Borne of effluvia, the brilliance of his nose and his analytical ability sends him to the forefront of the perfumery business in Paris, nearly 300 years ago. Still steeped in effluvia, he discovers a dark secret about himself... he has no scent.

Of evil impulse and indefatigable drive, he recreates all kinds of scents and eventually creates the ultimate essence of innocence... and he, this empty, scentless creature of effluvia becomes, at least in the noses of everyone around him, the ultimate expression of love.

This was very, very fun. I particularly love inversions of old tropes. The ending fits so nicely. :)

A simple tale, a cornucopia of smells and description, and a fitting tale of justice.


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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It may sound like science fiction, but let me assure you... it's not.

Indeed, Pollan writes very well about the history and effects of four plants that have a huge impact on our lives... even if we may never have had two of them. His tone and his command of the various histories managed to make his writing both personal and wildly interesting.

I'm speaking of Apples, Tulips, Cannabis, and Potatoes, however.

I'll assume that everyone has had apples and potatoes, but I can also assume that everyone is at least AWARE of cannabis. As for tulips, they once caused rather fascinating Dionysian meltdown among the Dutch. Toppled a kingdom. That's pretty heavy. :)

The real history of Johnny Appleseed might very well have been about apple alcohol. Cider. But once upon a time, and thanks to the wildly diverse possibilities within the apple seed, the whole nation had thousands of different kinds of apples. People selected and bred the best and all of a sudden this nearly unique source of sweetness (sugar being either rare or distasteful thanks to the slave trade) made apples more than a huge market. Sweetness was the key, but when other foods replaced the apple's kingship of sweetness, by that time, the amazing variety had been reduced to a mere handful.

It was our desire for the apples that caused this domestication, but beyond that, the apple trees themselves found themselves in a paradise of genetic dispersion, so helped it along. Selective breeding programs have been a real thing for a long time.

Tulips, for their beauty and a sometimes erratic explosion of color (thanks to a virus that made it weaker) became a craze of economic speculation, driving the prices up until it bankrupted a kingdom.

Cannabis, also a victim or a happy co-author of selective breeding, has undergone massive changes as well. Maybe it was the prohibition against it that made it so coveted, but this is almost as crazy as the Tulip economic bubble.

Potatoes, the last chapter, is all about control. Monsanto. If you like to be freaked out and get the skinny on that debate (as of 2001, when this was published) I can promise you that it will do the job nicely. The kinds of things that are done today with pesticides, GMOs, and the forced termination of genes in order to force farmers to come back, repeatedly, to Monsanto, is a tragedy of epic proportions. And then there's the comparison of this mono-gene-culture to the one that starved a million people in the Potato Famine in Ireland, driving away half the population because they could no longer feed themselves.

Can something like that happen to us?

It's the big question. We're doing it to ourselves. Our need for perfect french fries may undo us all.

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Monday, March 9, 2020

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldRange: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a lot of ways, this book is a vindication of everything I hold dear.

Why? Well, granted, it IS a vindication of a mindset that rebels against going down any single rabbit hole to the exclusion of everything else in this life, which is basically another way of saying that specialists are generally unable to see beyond their own field. Being widely read, having wide experiences, and knowing a ton of different fields lends the person in question a much greater chance to make creative connections that most others will miss.

The benefit of being a generalist is not lost on me. The more I learn across many fields, the easier I understand ANY field, even unrelated ones like cross-stitching and covariant loop analysis. Or the tensile strength of a willow tree to cognitive plasticity.

It's not about knowing any one thing. It's about being able to see the forest for the trees. About seeing and correctly intuiting the bigger picture. It's about sussing out trends. Tossing out bad ideas... including a wide variety of tools in your toolbox and knowing which ones to throw away as the situation demands.

It's about being adaptable. Being able to be creative. Using analogies. It's about cutting to the heart of the issue because you're able to SEE a problem that might cross many different fields and affect them all.

In a specialist world, generalists still tend to outperform, across their entire lifetime, any specialist. Being able to cite everyone in your field does not predict how you would perform when encountering anything novel.

So, who's in charge of hiring well-read people with strong critical thinking skills and temperaments conducive to thinking outside the box?

Anyone?

Hello? I'm right here!

lol

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Bowl of Heaven (Bowl of Heaven, #1)Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just when I was thinking that I had been really missing some Big Dumb Objects in my life... this book comes to save me!

Yay!

It's a riff on Niven's old theme of Ringworld, true, but with a rather huge twist. This is a stir-fry bowl of unimaginable proportions.

No. Actually, it's just a bowl driven by a star. A hemisphere of a Dyson Sphere. With hundreds of thousands of Earth-size landmasses, a locked sunlight schedule, and many, many types of aliens.

Can you say adventure? I can say adventure! Bird aliens, a much bigger cast of aliens compared to Niven's other series, and a particularly interesting reliance on a conscious/unconscious theme.

I'm not going to say that the characters in this book are all that special, but when you're dealing with exploring spacecraft and an exploring STAR, tons of hi-tech, adopted aliens, and people doing what people always seem to do, it's not really meant to be a character study.

It's an adventure with a huge scope.

Just what the doctor ordered.

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Sunday, March 8, 2020

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard FeynmanGenius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For those who know of Richard Feynman, I salute you.

This biography by Gleik, the writer that made Chaos: Making a New Science a household name, tries, mostly successfully, to give us the same treatment about Feynman.

I was fascinated throughout. I've only heard a few funny anecdotes about the man and everyone seems to concur that he's one hell of a genius, but it's better to get into ALL the aspects. Humor, the heartwarming bits, the slightly frustrating but mostly amazing rise of his career as a physicist... all of these things pop out on the page.

An iconoclast? Possibly. But I see him more like a man who, from near-first principles, derived a new way of looking at the universe without bothering to read the majority of the works that came before. He was always shaking things up, keeping his mind agile, and never letting himself succumb to that most horrible of states: rigidity. He was well aware of the tendency of scientists with their pet theories to become ossified the longer they protected their positions.

Feynman always rode the high wave of creativity and originality. He may not have always been successful, but he never took himself too seriously despite being an integral part of quantum physics. Strong, Weak, and EM forces? Oh, yeah.

This book truly humanizes him but also rises above normal biographies in that it postulates, rightly so, a wide and specific theory of what makes Genius. It also comes to some conclusions that shed a bit of light on our own world, too.

For one: where are all the geniuses? :) The answer? They're all around us. And it's often hard to pick certain creative geniuses out of a crowd because the market might be saturated with tons of people who stand on the backs of giants.

One could argue that Richard Feynman was very lucky to have come around at exactly the right time, work on the first atomic bomb, and be surrounded by so many other brilliant minds. His bouts of isolation and creativity were bolstered by others.

Who knows? Without biographies like this, he might have disappeared into footnotes, too.

No one ever really sees the worth of the people around them while they're living. ; ;


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Saturday, March 7, 2020

Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #2)Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm pleased to say that this sequel to Gideon the Ninth not only answers a few questions, but breaks the mold established by the first and plows through the fields of the dead to create (or destroy) all of creation.

I mean, what else can you expect when you're dealing not only with necromantic gods in a supremely hi-tech post-humanity universe?

Them to make soup?

Oh, wait... yeah.

Honestly, I was slightly bemused and slightly weirded out by the kind of pacing and style in the first part of the novel, and it didn't have anything to do with the 2nd person storytelling. It even felt like a mystery novel, or rather, a gothic mansion mystery including ghosts, more than a full-out preparation for a battle against hungry resurrection monsters and surviving a river of mad souls.

And even in my strange feelings, Muir pulls through and turns the tale into something ELSE entirely.

And I'm happy to say she also goes ahead and fulfills all my other expectations. Big payoffs. I'm quite happy. :)

Of course, now... WHERE THE HELL IS MY NEXT BOOK? (Pretty please?)

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Friday, March 6, 2020

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass ExtinctionScatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up in heavy anticipation because I've already read two of her SF novels. I thought to myself, HEY! We're going to get some cool speculation and have it backed up by science... right?

Ah, well, a bit. At the end.

Instead, we mainly focus on well-established extinction events from the past, a slightly optimistic, slightly rose-tinted outlook at life on geological scales, and the basic insistence that extinction happens over a great scale of time. Colony collapses are recoverable, mostly, over the long-run. Roger. That's pretty much standard science, but it has been used to argue both sides of the pessimistic fence in many different venues. I simplify, but let me be honest: these subjects are handled with more detail and slightly better writing in places such as The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Yuval Noah Harari's of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari: An Unofficial Summary and Analysis and Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow. There are quite a few books that have a slightly more comprehensive optimistic outlook to offset the more alarmist (such as Sixth Extinction.)

I can understand why so much of this particular book needed to ground itself in past collapses in order to set the stage for coping strategies, but how it worked out here was kinda strange. Most were background stuff with old-hat science and the rest was just a small taste of the truly juicy bits.

If I was a little more cussed about it, I'd recommend reading Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, starting with The Three-Body Problem for some really juicy survival mechanisms. :)

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ProvidenceProvidence by Max Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've never read Max Barry before, but after reading Providence, I have become an absolute fan that will be hunting high and low for the rest of his works.

The book is just that good. Fantastic characters, disturbing situations, a slow boil into a fully cooked crew, and layer upon layer of commentary that many of us can take away something new on the same read.

Let's get some specifics in here because while some of the initial setups are somewhat old-hat, the full execution of the tale is extremely effective.

It like sliding down a mountain, slowly picking up speed and rocks and debris until the angle drops suddenly and you find yourself off the ground entirely in a free fall that lasts for the rest of your life.

A vast, impressive ship maintained by an AI runs just about every aspect of a war of annihilation against an alien species nicknamed the Salamanders. The four-person crew on board it is there to give facetime to all of the war-machine back home, sound-and-picture bites and reality-tv post-production values, while on the ship, this AI-picked crew ---pretends--- to be in charge.

Meanwhile, the Providence, the ship itself, goes on through enemy territory, cutting huge swaths through them all, very reminiscent of Ender's Game, but the twist goes in a different direction.

None of this would be a tenth as good as it is without a very firm hand on the writing. We get all four PoVs their personal problems guide most of the novel, but it's really fascinating how THEY ... inevitably... chart the final course... :)

I TOTALLY recommend this book to anyone. It's easily the first, best book to beat this year.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Robinson's DreamRobinson's Dream by Mark Lages
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a novel about fathers and sons, a question of ethics, and a long, mild ride through a man's dream throughout one long night as he works through his feelings.

One thing this novel has going for it is its insistence on keeping everything down-to-earth even though the basic structure could very well have been wild. I mean, there's a new dream chapter-by-chapter, with cameos from God and Satan and Plato among a fairly wide cast of characters, but it never gets particularly *weird*. And it even avoided the old "It was all a dream" trope so maligned in pulp novels. :)

I definitely recommend this for anyone who wants a comfortable, feel-good tale full of stories within stories, a number of fables, and a good couple of handfuls of jokes. The ethics may not be all that surprising, but the point is to follow the PROCESS. :)

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The Time of Contempt (The Witcher, #2)The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know, when I come right down to this series, like any other epic fantasy I've read, it all hangs on how much I get into the characters.

No matter what kind of action sequences come around or how much cool magic gets thrown in our faces or what kind of war blows up, I'm still tied up in my love of Geralt, Yennifer, and Ciri. When things get dark and the contempt surrounds everyone, I'm rooting for them. And the bard, too. :) And little miss unrequited. :)

After that point, I'm honestly amazed at how well I received this novel inside my head. Its structure and the way it flits from several different storytelling styles, its truly surprising (and awesome) jabs in the plot, and the wicked turns that come about later make me rather want to scream. But that's only because this book DOES NOT FOLLOW NORMAL STRUCTURE. Then again, neither did Blood of Elves. Or the two story collections. The way the tale comes out always keeps me on my toes, keeps everything feeling fresh, and there's no way I can't compare this against so many other epic fantasies, but one thing I CAN say is that it tells stories around corners. You may KNOW something is coming, but Sapkowski truly lulls you into believing that THIS cool scene here is the pinnacle of THIS section, and then he comes right around and slams your head against the table and you're either stunned or you get really pissed or it jerks tears out of you because the SCENE IS JUST TOO FREAKING GORGEOUS.

I'm sure some of you know what I mean. Yennifer and Ciri? As a mirror to a certain queen? OMG that just cut through all my defenses. And then the hits just kept coming and coming.

And coming.

Yes, this series has a hard world to live in. It's not just hard for the elves, but it's hard for women. But damn, if there aren't a lot of hard women in here hitting back!

The love story. I'm sorry, but I started blubbering like a little baby. I thought it was great in The Last Wish, but this just made me an ugly little mess.

I can't not give a book that affects me the way anything less than a full five stars. It not only holds up well against all these modern epic fantasies, but I see precisely where it blows the previous generation of fantasies out of the water, ushering in everything we now know and love. :)

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