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Saturday, September 30, 2023

YellowfaceYellowface by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a good time with this, but there is one thing I need to be very clear on. As a writer, I love writers writing on writing and writers, of the publishing industry, of the madness of jealousy and bad decisions, of the whole ball of wax.

If you hate that kind of thing, avoid this book. If you get a kick out of popular up-and-coming authors revealing a quagmire of imposter-syndrome fiction and insecurity dressed up in a very topical and pretty hard-hitting focus on #ownvoices topics, this is also a pretty great book.

I rolled with it and loved every second, but that's me.

Yes, we've got ourselves a pretty great anti-hero, unreliable narrator, but there are a ton of great looks at appropriation and check-marks on a publisher's list -- not to mention some very real questions about censorship-by-cancellation, sensitivity readers, the whole question of whether a writer can/should write only what they know, etc.

I feel like I got to know Kuang pretty well even IF this is a fictionalized account of a fictional writer stealing another fictional writer's work and re-working it as her own. The subject matter is still real.

If this is up your alley, I totally recommend it.

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Friday, September 29, 2023

Lessons in ChemistryLessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well now, this isn't your average romance novel. Indeed, it's more a women's study novel, focusing on sexism, cultural crappiness, and the supremacy of the intellectual drive.

I wholeheartedly approve. I've always believed that no one should be left behind if they have the talent and drive. Indeed, I went through a ton of absolute rage against the asshole men in this book and wanted to destroy them. This kind of heavy-handed crappiness has always made me nuts. Fortunately, Clive isn't a bad sort and that kind of beauty isn't forgotten. Not all men are complete assholes here.

As for the rest, I loved the chemistry angle, the cooking angle, and the take-no-prisoners intellectual honesty no matter what kind of firestorm it created in cultural norms. Indeed, that was my favorite part.

Good book. Really hard to stomach when it came to the no-help, no-care bits when it all came crashing down, but I appreciated the results.

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Thursday, September 28, 2023

What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World's Most Enigmatic BirdsWhat an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World's Most Enigmatic Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This isn't only a book for owl lovers. It gives us some of the history of the scientists, the frankly amazing discoveries about owl's abilities and native intelligence, and their place in ecosystems.

It's not JUST about why we ought to love owls. It's about educating us and showing us just how social, creative, and loving... even with fosterlings, adoption. Some of the things I've learned in this book just solidified my assumption that they're some of the most intelligent species on the planet, and they're quite adaptable.

They're also amazingly stealthy, with really amazing hearing and specialized sight.

But by the end of this nonfiction, I'm frankly anxious that their populations falling. I know it's a common problem these days, but here we are. We're slowly being reduced to trying to make desperate cases for certain classes of animals, trying to make it a popularity contest to rake in conservation support, when the core problems are making it all the worse for EVERY species. But that's my issue, I guess.

This book still makes a very compelling, if heartbreaking, case for the superiority of owls.

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The Quiet Room (Rabbits, #2)The Quiet Room by Terry Miles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one is certainly living up to the high standards of the first. It's also as difficult to describe without giving away so much of what makes either novel special.

SO. I'll throw some names out there for all you rabbit hole junkies and if you get it, you'll know exactly what makes Rabbits so cool. Just imagine you lump a treasure hunt/escape room scenario with The OA and give it Fight Club rules. Now add quirky and culture-specific oddity nuance and nostalgia that REALLY clicks with me, super-powering the Mandala effect, and you've got THIS.

It's fun as hell. I love smart fiction. I especially love high-stakes game-that-is-hardly-a-game fiction.

Note, I haven't spoiled anything about the plot or characters. Almost everything is a guessing game. The journey is everything. So get going! You've got your first clue!

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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Thousand EarthsThe Thousand Earths by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been reading Baxter for many years.

In almost every single case, I pick up the book for one thing more than any other: Big Scope SF. This is Hard SF that touches on Olaf Stapledon territory, deep time with deep changes and vast imagination.

This particular book is no exception. The only other book of his that I think comes close to Thousand Earths is Baxter's Ring. This is NOT a Xeelee novel, however. It is a standalone that starts with near future slower-than-light exploration and ends at the deepest recesses of time, with all the interesting stuff that might occur in-between.

It's hard to say more without spoiling some really great plot and pacing and reveals, but suffice it to say, we've got two separate stories going on here. Hackett's story is one of pure curiosity and wonder. The hints about him and his future quest through deep-time is tantalizing. Mela's story is quite different. Grounded. Fascinating in equal degrees, what, with her beginning at age 12 looking up at a thousand Earths in her night sky, with no star to be seen.

While Hackett gets an amazing adventure, Mela, on the other hand, is destined for a lot of grief, desperation, and yes, also dogged perseverance. The worldbuilding is great, but the reveals are something rather special. I often raged and grew very fearful, but this is what survival is all about. Thirty years until the end. It was so... tragic, truly terrifying.

But that's the thing. Survival and hope. As long as you keep breathing, there's hope.

I'll put it out there right now: this is one of my favorite SFs. It got me good. Huge scope, yes, great science, speculation, future history, curiosity, hell, WONDER. And thanks to the dual nature of this novel, there's even such hope -- even in the worst of times.

I rarely ever get to read such SF like this. Its focus is equally on both the Ideas and the Human Spirit. I loved the story and it makes me sad that we don't see this kind of serious Big Idea SF anymore.

I'm even sadder that we don't get such SF devoted to pure WONDER, either.

So, yeah, I'm propping this book up, hoping that people see it for the breathtaking beauty it displays.

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Monday, September 25, 2023

Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight PlaguesPathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues by Jonathan Kennedy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well-structured, informative, and delightfully approached in a systemic way, we get a pretty thorough overview of plagues. No, this isn't a play-by-play namebook of plagues, but a great setup of actual HISTORY and how it was very likely shaped, heavily, by the plagues that ravaged it.

This is very much up my alley. I was ALWAYS fascinated by the way Europe was shaped, economically, by the effects of so much death. It's also worth noting that a great deal of what caused the Roman Empire to fall was based on this fact as well. But let's get serious. Every aspect of our lives, be it ancient history (or pre-history) or the wide-reaching transformations of economic or political systems, let alone plunder, as in the case of the Aztecs or the rest of the Americas, can be laid at the feet of disease.

A lot of people would love to blame others (Jewish, blacks, or otherwise,) or announce superiority of race (for having accomplished long years of immunity) for their failures or successes. The amount of actual history trying to convince us of one thing or another is quite astounding, when Occam's Razor is so clear. Overwhelming advantage, or in the case of the Slave Trade, a natural immunity to disease that ravaged the whites, made it economically feasible to create the horrorshow we've recorded.

A lot of these ideas aren't new, of course. I grew up learning how Native Americans were ravaged by the plague that earlier settlers brought, leaving countless crop fields untended for many decades, ripe for new settlers to profit from.

Fortunately, this book not only spells out the conditions for opportunism or eventual demise. It also gives us an extremely cogent reason why any country ought to focus on increasing the health of its people. Yes, I'm looking at you, America, Canada.

Let's not forget: Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it.

I'll be clearer: Let's stop being f***ing morons. Get our act together. Invest in everyone's longevity or be forced to deal with exponentially tragic outcomes that no-one in that environment will profit from.

Or rather, we can't ruin a bunch of people's lives and expect them to be happy and willing to support those who shat on them. When everyone's lives are improved, then the basic fruit, let alone pursuit, of life, liberty, and happiness is actually feasible. Public health is one of those no-brainers, and yet, we keep seeing the fruits of no-brains.

Welcome to history, people.

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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Starter VillainStarter Villain by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Scalzi did it again. Humor, smart SF commentary, and a classic "I can't believe my enemies are this stupid" storyline.

It starts out deceptively normal, but when news of his rich uncle's death evolves into one increasingly crazy situation after the next, we wind up with a great bond-villain smorgasbord that includes a great unionization of non-human assets, a realization that most billionaires are NOT all that smart, and a home run for anyone wanting some wholesome humor in their lives.

And, of course, there are the cats.

I loved this book. Easy, fun as hell, and delightful through and through.

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Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Jinn-Bot of ShantiportThe Jinn-Bot of Shantiport by Samit Basu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book eventually shaped up into a truly fascinating hi-tech story that straddles an interesting line between Aladdin and classic Monkey King tropes. It revels in so many robot dynamics, poor port town underworld stuff, and the even more classic "be careful what you wish for".

I'll admit that I enjoyed it much more after the wishes start coming in. The build-up was necessary but to me, it felt a little slow. It's great for those of us who love robot characters, however, and when things get spicy, I'm loving the mythology and SF mix. Later on, everything takes off in interesting directions.

It's definitely an interesting SF adventure that pulls in a lot of great old myths and stories. I'm a sucker for this kind of thing.

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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Defiance (Foreigner #22)Defiance by C.J. Cherryh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a pretty straightforward review for this new book in the Foreigner series. It's basically consolidation and worrying ramifications of the shadow guild throughout the various areas of the mainland.

If you know the series at all, you'll know it's great in the details, the nearly overwhelming worldbuilding that feels like parts of late feudal Japan, alien culture, and technological espionage.

This particular book isn't breaking a lot of new ground, but it is still fascinating and entertaining. Just remembering everything that came before is almost as fun as the new developments.

Would I recommend it?

Of course. It's very much more of the same, but that's usually a double-edged sword. If you've come this far, you're basically wondering if there's any dip in quality. There isn't. My only complaint is how much of the first part of the novel is devoted to recap and exposition. In this case, I can't quite fault it. So much HAS happened.

Welcome back to the series!

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Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The Circumference of the WorldThe Circumference of the World by Lavie Tidhar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a great novel that should have been titled The Lodestar. I mean, void, man, sure, it would have sounded like a pulpy SF novel, but it's YOU, Mr. Tidhar, writing it, so it's not only f***ing self-aware and erudite, it's a commentary and it glories in the subject matter while pulling off one hell of a hat-trick of an ACTUAL SF novel all at the same time.

What the hell am I talking about?

The Circumference of the World starts out as one great Noir-type investigation novel featuring the murder of a book seller and the questionable reality of a novel named The Lodestar written by a certain Eugene Charles Hartley who used to bump shoulders with all the late great SF writers like the big three and all the old SF greats. This fictional SF writer seems to be a mash-up between PKD and L. Ron Hubbard, and the missing, even apocryphal book in question seems to have a mathematical equation hidden within it that prevents the Eaters from nibbling away at our holographic universe that is lodged in the great eye of a final black hole at the end of time.

We get sections in this novel from unbelievers, true believers, and the creator, himself. I can't tell you which I love the most. The mystery is absolutely hard-boiled and perfection. The hard SF is fascinating and hard-core, feeling right out of Pohl's best, and the Golden Age SF retrospective brought tears to my eyes, being a huge fan of all these authors and having read them all.

Mr. Tidhar's love of SF is real, ya'll, and the total shift in styles and tone and voice just makes me want to clap with joy. Again, he shows me what a world-class talent he is.

No spoilers, but this novel is truly delicious. Even if the title lacks... um... everything. :)

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Monday, September 18, 2023

The Spear Cuts Through WaterThe Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully written fantasy with a great core. As it is written, it is a love story between the moon and the water, but really, we get a god-ridden spear and its protectors on a long, beautiful quest.

It has a very mythic Chinese feel, full of Empire, backstabbing, great fantasy elements including telepathy, mythic beasts, and the restless dead. It is also a LGBTQ tale, but more than anything it's a pretty great fantasy. I loved the journey, the gods, the whole worldbuilding of the royals, but it is the descriptions, the details, that shine the most.

Well worth the read. Perfect for epic fantasy enthusiasts and myth-lovers.

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Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Dungeon Anarchist's Cookbook (Dungeon Crawler Carl, #3)The Dungeon Anarchist's Cookbook by Matt Dinniman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm 100% on-board this train.

The scenarios are honestly surprising and pretty damn wild. LitRPGs are mostly candy-literature anyway, but this is doing a very fine job of keeping me (and our heroes) on their toes.

I mean, we get midnight meat train vibes here, plus great backstabbing, character development, multiple enormous twists, and even subtle motivations. It's hard to do subtle motivations among enormous f***ing explosions, but here we are.

I AM surprised at how good this has gotten. I, in particular, am fully prepared to love just how much this crazy alien society that completely ruins civilizations is gonna meet its eventual end. Anyone who pulls kind of LitRPG crap on whole species is ripe for a real takedown. Eventually. Seriously.

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Saturday, September 16, 2023

Carl's Doomsday Scenario (Dungeon Crawler Carl, #2)Carl's Doomsday Scenario by Matt Dinniman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, it's official. The series is even stronger in the second book. I think my favorite parts are not the quips but the strange-ass story mini-quest elements.

Of course, losing your pants is a bonus, but I'm impressed that the quests can be quite this messed up and yet potent and emotional. Big booms aren't unwelcome, either.

If you know, you know.

This LitRPG is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. I'm looking forward to Carl's internal ratings in the interviews to come.

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Thursday, September 14, 2023

The Cassini DivisionThe Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the third book in The Fall Revolution was a bit more interesting than the first two, but maybe that's because it builds so NICELY on all the crazy, ranting, political thought of the previous. The obvious ones being capitalism, socialism, and several dozen others mesh like nuts in this post-mortality, post-singularity civilizations.

In this particular book, we're seeing through the eyes of communist anarchist hawks that protect their own but treat EVERYONE else with an iron fist, including the Jupiter post-singularity mass of super-intelligence. Add a re-opening of dialogue, reopening of wormhole tech and renewed contact with a long lost capitalist post-singularity civilization, and the conflict gets rather sweet.

This IS hard-SF with a particular bent in satirizing political and economic models, since these same people from our near future were the ones to become immortal, and this is just a natural progression of what would happen to us if we just... kept going. It's pretty cool and unexpectedly complex.

This kind of SF isn't that common anymore, and I'm really enjoying it.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2023

The Immortality Thief (The Kystrom Chronicles, #1)The Immortality Thief by Taran Hunt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was honestly surprised how much fun I had with this new SF. The characters make it shine, but that's not to say the whole ancient murderous abandoned (and booby-trapped) space station wasn't a fantastic location.

Seriously, it's great to have a little serious forgiveness party while getting eaten by babies, or learning all the secrets of your enemy's culture while honing your linguistic skills, or discovering just how much trust you've now put into your deadliest, most hateful enemies.

It starts like a heist, but becomes a pretty fantastic survival horror in space. And, I should mention, I am now quite invested in the characters. I would love to see where this goes from here. FRIENDS. Muahahahahahaha.

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Sunday, September 10, 2023

Dungeon Crawler Carl (Dungeon Crawler Carl, #1)Dungeon Crawler Carl by Matt Dinniman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's true, this is one of the better LitRPGs I've read. Clever and creative and vivid, Carl the Crawler is outshone only by his cat, Doughnut.

Okay, so here's the setup. Humanity has mostly been nixed in a moment and the remaining millions have a chance to survive by fighting and leveling up in an increasingly difficult dungeon crawl. Add that to an enormous viewing audience in the galaxy, complete with sponsors and interviews, and this is just a sick setup. But... oh so fun.

The good bits are great. Creative challenges, funny nods, crazy convos. Everything else is the massive crush of a time-limit and a massive weeding-out of the rest of humanity. Only the strong survive.

Good stuff, solid on every level.

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Saturday, September 9, 2023

Isolate (The Grand Illusion, #1)Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this one. I mean, it's steampunk with a few interesting magical elements (empaths with varying degrees of potency and others that can't be probed at all) and it's L.E. Modesitt Jr. That means I should have found a potentially kindhearted and wholesome novel with a ton of otherwise necessary and sometimes heartbreaking fantasy battles.

Here's what we get in Isolate: a long, long political treatise about the failings and considerations of our modern society in the particulars, mostly sociopolitical and conservative-leaning, with an occasional nod to workers' rights and the issue of poverty, while slowly becoming more powerful, himself, in politics.

The worldbuilding is still steampunk and the magic happens as well as a handful of action sequences that boil down to small-scale body-guarding, but the rest of the time it's either about showcasing the author's many, many takes on political issues, or a love of sweets on food.

The romance is wholesome, however, but it's a massive slow burn and totally reserved. I thought it was the best part.

If the rest of the series is like this, I just can't find all that much interest in it. The political stuff is detailed but it leaves out little story elements borrowed from reality like people being jerks just because they can. Everyone's too reasonable. I found myself rather bored. Alas.

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Friday, September 8, 2023

The Mountain in the SeaThe Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Title aside, I was mightily impressed by this idea-and-character driven SF. It's sometimes quite hard to find serious SF that tries to push the boundaries of the unknown, of human and alien (other) intelligence, of understanding.

There have been a good handful of novels that push it, of course, but it's rare to find and more than delightful to experience.

In this case, we have a truly excellent exploration of human alienation, true android (AI intelligence), and octopus. The intersections are hard-hitting and serious and absolutely worth our time.

Now, for those of you who aren't convinced of Octopus or Squid intelligence, this may or may not be a great entry point, but it IS an entry point. An octopus's intelligence is spread throughout its body, it has a social structure among its own kind that is just about as alien as any we can dream up, but there is no doubt as to their inherent intelligence and problem-solving capabilities.

This novel doesn't attempt to convince us of it. It directly moves on to careful mysteries and basic inhumanities (even among ourselves) that underscore a basic INDIFFERENCE between species. This is where all the true aliennesses comes to light and tries to make us give it the careful thought that it deserves.

And it definitely deserves it. We have geniuses in our back yard and yet we pay them no mind. Of course, they may be paying us no mind, either. Perhaps we all need to start paying attention to our neighbors.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #5)The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit when I'm wrong. I fully expected this one to take the full formula route as the previous four, but it didn't quite go all that way. Indeed, a full war with the full prophesy and the full resolution with Luke and Chronos was rather more refreshing than I thought it was going to be.

That being said, I do feel like it ended on a good note and I'll emphasize *end*.

As a YA fantasy, rather geared more to an even younger crowd, I think it did exactly what it was intended to do. Stick with the rather wholesome, get the mythological aspects on the page, and have a pretty decent adventure AND resolution.

It won't ever be my top fantasy series, but I didn't have very huge expectations so I didn't have any great disappointments.

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Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #4)The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this one more than I did. It's not much different in quality to the previous volumes, mind you, but when you get a formula going and there's hardly any difference in the setup or execution between the books, it makes me wonder whether I ought to be continuing.

It started pretty strong, light-hearted, and very much a fun road-trip kind of tale, with an awkward love interest and an inconveniencing rival. Enter the second book, which followed the same story. Enter the third book, which followed the same story, even down to the same time to join camp, get roped into a new Quest, and being told not to go, but going anyway. Enter the fourth book. Guess what happened.

Mind you, it's still the same thing, still pretty light-hearted, almost identical characterizations, as if no one is growing up in the slightest, and the only thing I'm looking forward to is the gods and their foibles.

I'll continue on to the fifth book, but honestly, it's amazingly predictable.

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Sunday, September 3, 2023

Pax RomanaPax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very good non-fiction on the Roman Peace. The golden age of the Roman Empire.

Of course, I feel like it borrows so much from Gibbons, with all proper references to the classics where we can draw full conclusions, but here's the real hook of this shorter work: It's about the peace, itself.

Was the Roman Empire just good at PR, being the victors of history and therefore able to write whatever it wanted about itself? Or was it truly better than that which was the norm?

Fortunately, we get many, many great examples and a pretty comprehensive, if not over-dwelling, look at life from the start through the beginning of the true decline of the Empire. To me, this was a bit like coming home and enjoying a different take on a classic subject.

But what about the conclusion? Was the Roman Peace good, on the whole? Or was it cruel and capricious and brutal, on the whole?

The answer, of course, is: It Depends. Muahahahaha

Welcome to history. :)

This IS a very readable and enjoyable text. And it IS a bit more accessible than reading the full volumes of Gibbons. Take that as you will.

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Friday, September 1, 2023

All the Seas of the WorldAll the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You should read A Brightness Long Ago and Children of Earth and Sky before reading All the Seas of the World, if only to fully appreciate all the character arcs and superb worldbuilding in this nominal fantasy that borrows beautifully from our rich past. A student of history will see the plight of Jews, the Muslim nations, and the Christians on both sides of the Mediterranean in the Early Renaissance and/or Crusades.

But best of all, Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at prose, of careful and gorgeous characters set upon a long, beautiful story. This third book, even though it isn't billed as the third book in a trilogy and CAN be read alone, is naturally so much better with the others. The characters -- oh, the wonderful characters -- have come so very far.

This particular book is one of good fortunes and a culmination of freedom and ambition... and also the constraints of one's desire.

War is its own cage. Making war for one's people, for one's sense of justice, old rage, and for security, is simple to say, but truly wonderful to experience. And this novel delivers on every single level. I really can't recommend these books enough. It so reads like lush historical fiction, so fully fleshed out and epic. Every second was great enjoyment.

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