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   I managed to pick up the pace on my reading so it hasn't been a month since the last review!

  First up Age of Assassins by RJ Barker.  As I've said, I prefer my heroes a bit on the older side these days because I am and I enjoy reading about characters who aren't driven by teenage emotions.  You Die When You Die was a pretty good book but the teenaged protagonist was a chore to read sometimes.  That said, here we are with another book about a young teenager trying to figure out this grown-up thing.  This is complicated by the fact that he's being raised and trained by Merela, a professional assassin.

  The book's setting has a Dark Sun vibe, people can use magic but it draws on life force so if you want to do a big magical spell, you can, but a huge section of land will become barren and lifeless.  Luckily, you can reverse that.  Unluckily, you reverse it by spilling blood onto the "sourlands" magic leaves behind.  So there's a pogrom out for people talented in magic and pretty rough existence for everyone else.

  Girton, our hero, and his master infiltrate a castle on a mysterious mission.  The mysterious mission is a set-up.  The local queen needs an assassin to prevent another assassin from killing her son.  The queen has plans for her son to take over not just the local kingdom but to marry into the High King's family and take over from there.  The son is a jerk and not terribly popular and the grandson of the previously deposed king is around.  So there's intrigue aplenty.

  Girton, of course, is just an apprentice so he winds up doing a lot of grunt work and even when he finds the important clues, he doesn't realize it until Merela puts it together.  That's not to say he's stupid or incompetent (he doesn't kill without reason, but he does kill), just that he's a teenager and there's a lot he still doesn't know.  It's a bit like a Nero Wolfe mystery in which Archie does a ton of running around and then Nero just looks up from his chair and tells you the solution.

  All in all, it was an ok book.  I'm curious to try the next one in the series, but I wasn't super blown away by it.  Certainly a good source for plots in a LARP or RPG.

  Next I read Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill and it's probably one of the better books of fiction I've read this year.  Not terribly literary, but It really sucked me in and held my attention with good characters, dialog, world-building, pacing, and even the deeper themes it touches on.

  In this book, the robots rose up and killed all of mankind (and most of the life on the planet).  The story follows Brittle, a service robot who used to work for humans and now scours the Sea of Rust, the upper Midwest of the US where the freebots try and eke out a living.  Freebots?  Oh yes, because after the robot uprising, the giant mainframe AIs said "download yourself to our servers and let us use your body.  join the One. resistance is futile".  For the most part, resistance has been pretty futile and robots who don't want to be part of one of the major mainframes are out in places like the Sea of Rust trying to keep their heads down and keep a supply of spare parts handy.

  Brittle does a lot of this -- she follows malfunctioning bots out into the wild and when they shut down, she loots them for parts -- either parts she needs or parts she can trade to get what she wants.  Coming home from a successful mission, she gets ambushed.  She survives but gets injured in the process and now she needs to secure a new core for her model or she'll go mental as well.  About this time one of the mainframes makes a major push into the Sea of Rust.

  The book alternates a bit between Brittle's narrative about what's going on and Brittle describing the rise of the AIs and their overthrow of the humans.  That sometimes annoys me (it seems like your padding the page count), but it was pretty well done here.  Although the book plays out like a robot Western or Noir, there are quieter moments where robots probe interesting philosophical questions that lead you down very different and very similar paths when your a robot and not a biological being.  Oh, and yeah, Brittle is a she and why that is so is one of the interesting questions they deal with.

  It was a solid book and I highly recommend it.


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  OK, let's knock out reviews of the books I've read lately:

  First up, Fifth Ward: First Watch by Dale Lucas.  This is a fantasy police procedural.  Rem wakes up in the drunk tank of Fifth Ward in the city of Yenara.  Assisting the watch in a jailhouse brawl gets Rem a spot on the Watch and a grumpy Dwarven partner named Torval.    As Rem learns how to walk the beat, the Watch starts investigating a series of disappearance and murders.

  The book makes for good beach reading. It's not terribly complex or deep and tends to tick off the boxes versus something innovating but for the most part it's well done and the characters are interesting.  The only real nit I have to pick is that there are a number of screamingly obvious Checkovian guns lying around which makes the ending a tad less unpredictable than you'd like.  Good filler reading.

  Next up we have Lincoln in the Bardo by George Suanders.  This was the ad hoc book club book for people who went out to visit my folks for the summer eclipse.  The historical fact is that after young Willie Lincoln died, Lincoln made return visits to the grave.  In Buddhist traditions the idea of the Bardo is a kind of limbo or purgatory where spirits are between this life and the next.  Together that forms the basis for this novel in which the inhabitants of Willie's graveyard try to help Willie move on and come to terms with their own existence (or non-existence).

  Fair warning -- the back half (back third?) of this book is amazing, but there is an unnecessarily steep climb to get their.  Saunders uses a formatting trick where everything is an excerpt.  This is fine when he's taking (what I believe are) actual excerpts from letters/books/diaries to discuss actual historical events but that carries through into the rest of the story.  Rather than having a block of dialog or a omniscient third-person narrator, the books builds on excerpts from each character's first person narrative.  If you've read Burroughs or DeLaney it's not nearly as bad as that, but it's not easy for most people to get into and will probably discourage a lot of casual readers. 

  Which is too bad, because once you get into the back half of the book, the plot gets extraordinary.  There's a lot of clever world-building on display and the characters are all well-drawn and interesting.  You're also left with a lot of interesting questions about the book and about topics large and small.  

  In the end, I think this book is too clever by half.  The formatting gimmick mostly seems like a gimmick and makes a great book a lot less readable.  If manage to deal with it, I'd be happy to talk with you about stuff in the book.

  Next we have Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.  I first heard about this book because I read an interview with Angus Deaton, one half of the team of Deaton-Case who published their study on "deaths of despair" -- economic inequality affecting middle-aged white people who then turn to drugs or suicide  to deal with their loss of the American Dream.  In the interview, Mr. Deaton had a lot of positive remarks on the book so I picked it up.

  Dreamland is two separate, but inter-twined stories.  On one side is the pharmaceutical industry that's interested in treating pain with this new pill called OxyContin and on the other side is a small group of Mexicans who all live in the small town of Xalisco in the state of Nayarit.  In the 90's, the pharma companies spent big bucks convincing doctors that pain was an important and vital part of patient treatment and that opioids weren't nearly as addictive as people claimed.  In Xalisco, young men were fed up with back-breaking, dead-end jobs that left them poorer than when they started so they were looking for new opportunities.  Some of them tried their hand at selling black tar heroin.  It was cheap to grow and make in Mexico and generally much more pure than the stuff being run in from overseas.

  So you wound up with a population being over-prescribed opioid medication and getting hooked on it.  When more Oxy wasn't enough, the Xalisco boys would show up with their black tar heroin which was more pure at a cheaper price.

  And it's all about convenience.  On the pharma side, doctors where encouraged to prescribe more and larger doses of oxy without a lot of thought towards other pain-relieving methods (the pills were cheap, multi-discipline pain-reduction techniques are more effective in the long run but up-front costs were too much for health insurance companies).  Eventually, this lead to the rise of pill mills in states without a lot of good oversight or regulation.  On the dealers' side, it was a series of independent groups from Xalisco who would turn up in a town, run a low-key operation where you called them up and they delivered right to you.  They kept the amount of drugs small, rotated their drivers out every few months, never used their own product, never restored to violence, and never carried weapons.  When their drivers were busted, they only did a short time in jail (if any) and were then kicked back to Mexico.  The whole system was decentralized, customer service oriented and almost completely invisible to most law enforcement agencies.  These two forces collided with each other and produced the opioid epidemic we see today that has gutted towns across the country (although flyover states have been most seriously affected).  

  The book is well written and moves deftly between these two narrative threads without losing the reader.  It was a fascinating look inside the drug industry (legal and illegal).  Strongly recommended if you want a good overview of how we got here with heroin and just a generally good look at how we do or don't deal with drugs.

  Finally, something a bit lighter in You Die When You Die by Angus Watson.  Imagine North American megafauna didn't all die out.  Imagine that a small group of Vikings showed up in North America, but didn't bring along any Old World diseases.  Finally, imagine that a local tribe put them under a sort of "benevolent quarantine" where they provided food and resources to the Vikings as long as they didn't leave a 10 mile perimeter around their landing site.  That's the basic set-up for this book. 

  Of course, you can't stay in that 10-mile perimeter very long and soon the local empress has a dream that the "mushroom people" will destroy the earth.  She dispatches an army to wipe out the Vikings.  A small band of them gets away and the Empress sends the Owlsa after them -- ten magically-enhanced women who will stop at nothing to destroy them.

  For the most part, I liked this book and there's a lot of neat world-building and a fair amount of actual research into the topics the author borrows from.  The real problem is that the main character, Finn, is a painfully stereotypical teenage boy and gratingly unsympathetic as a character.  Also, it very clearly is the start of a trilogy though it does find a halfway decent stopping point without a lot of dangling plot points.  It's not a bad book and if the premise intrigues, you'll probably like it.


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  I"m way behind on reviews of the stuff I've been reading lately so let's try to fix that up.   

  To start with, I finished off the audiobook of Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome.  This is the last in his Swallows and Amazons series of books about plucky British children having adventures in various English countryside locations.  I've now read/listened to all the books in the series except for Peter Duck and Missy Lee because those books are stories the children made up about wild adventures they'd like to have (so sort of an in-series fan fiction?).  I was more interested in their "real" adventures over their imaginary ones.

  So in this book, the Walkers, the Blacketts, and the Callums are in the North Sea along with Uncle Jim who's borrowed the boat they're sailing around in (and providing a modicum of adult supervision).  Near the end of the trip, they put into a small cove on an island in order to scrub and paint the hull before returning the boat to its owner.  While the older kids work on that, the younger ones go exploring on the island and Dick makes an interesting discovery, a nesting pair of Great Northerns (loons) which aren't supposed to be found in that part of the world.

  That information falls into the hands of a Mr. Jemmeling who collects birds and their eggs and is most interested in acquiring such a rare set of specimens for his collection.  Horrified, Dick and the rest of the kids put a desperate plan into play to allow Dick to get photographic proof of the birds and to throw Mr. Jemmerling off the scent.  Scottish highlanders also make an appearance.

  The book gets a bit of flack because Mr. Jemmerling has a gun and firearms are pretty unusual in these books.  But the gun is for hunting birds and no one is ever threatened by a weapon so I'm not sure how it ranks as a bigger problem than casual English racism that crops up in the books.  Overall, I thought the book was pretty good, but there were far too many adults involved.  These books work best for me, when it's mostly the children deciding what they want to do and then going to do it.  Too many adults (or "natives") tends to disrupt the kids' natural inquisitiveness.

  On balance, I really enjoy the Swallows and Amazon series.  As I mentioned earlier, casual English racism is probably the biggest stumbling block for recommending the series to young readers.  It's not a constant thing, but every so often it really flares up (notably in Secret Waters where smearing yourself with black mud to camouflage people).  It's really too bad because in a lot of other respects, the books are well ahead of their times.  There's almost always an even split between boys and girls and the girls have at least as much agency as the boys.  The interactions between various groups of kids (especially when they first meet) is handled quite well as is the internal life of various characters when they are focused on in the story.

  I really enjoyed the series and had a lot of fun with it.  It's a product of it's times but it's also probably one of the best products of it's time and worth looking into if you want some classic YA.


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  I am still reading books.  Let's get to it.

  First up:The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden.  This book started off really rocky for me, but picked up considerably by the end.  The setting is a near-future South Africa where people have personal robots and advanced genetic engineering to bring back some extinct species.  It also has an ancient African goddess who is looking to get her mojo back via blood and fear.  This mixture of sci-fi and fantasy is always a difficult sell with me.  As the book rolls forward, it leans more heavily into the fantasy side of things which I think is why the book piked up for me in the back half when it finally settled down.

  So yeah, ancient African goddess wants to disrupt humanity to re-ignite the age of the gods.  To do that, she's taking advantage of a genetics program to bring the local dik-dik population under control and the recent introduction of a new designer drug that gives people a glimpse into their divine nature.  Opposing her is a young girl who might be more creation than child, a young teen who can't quite say "I love you" to his boyfriend, and the young man's personal robot whose 1's and 0's are starting to turn into 2's.

  There's a lot of good world-building (both sci-fi and fantasy) and the characters are pretty well fleshed out.  While the book has a fairly serious plot, there's some really fun bits of dialog and humor.  I'm a little cranky about mixing genre's but I did enjoy the book and if you're less snobbish, you'll probably like it start to finish.  There's clearly some openings left for a sequel, but the book stands pretty solidly on it's own.

  Next, Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Empire by Tom Wainwright.  Mr. Wainwright is a journalist for the Economist magazine and he spent a number of months examining the drug trade as a business and what sorts of economic forces bear on it.  From fields of coca in Bolivia, poppies in Mexico, weed in Colorado, and designer drug labs in New Zealand, he looks at how drug cartels create, ship and sell their product.  He runs the numbers to show how the value of drugs increases along each step of the chain from growers to consumers and how the cartels maximize that value, both through violence and basic business management.

  He covers a lot of ground and at the end suggests how we might better spend our money in the fight against drugs.  Not surprisingly, like many people who've investigated drug trafficking, attacking the issue of demand (treating addicts and using public campaigns to prevent new ones) tends to produce a better return on investment than attacking the issue of supply (spraying fields, border security, and the like).  The solutions don't seem terribly new to me, but it was an interesting look at how criminal businesses operate and how they interact with each other.

  I also finished up the last book in the Swallows and Amazons series, but that's a separate post.


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  I'm clearly off my reading feed.  It's been over a month but I've only got two books to talk about.  I'm hoping summer travel plans will give me some downtime to help catch up my pace.

  Anyway, first up we have Off Rock by Kieran Shea.  This was sold to me as a space heist book and I guess it is, but it's a bit more like "the gang that couldn't shoot straight" kind of deal.

  Jimmy Vik works as a miner and while running some clean-up jobs on a planet about to be abandoned by the company he works for, he uncovers a small seam of gold.  He can easily get it out, but smuggling it back to Earth will take some doing.  He'll need the help of the local fixer and he has to keep his ex-girlfriend (and now his boss) off his tail.  Things go delightfully wrong form the beginning.

  The book was fine, but I really wanted "slick heist story" not "fiasco" so I was a little put out.  Also, the action pretty much stays confined to the mining ship/base where Jimmy works.  It was all ok, but nothing terribly special.  Also, I'm a little concerned that Mr. Shea thinks he can write female characters but can't quite.  Bit of an "uncanny valley" that's hard to describe.

  Following this was The Sculpted Shipby K. M. O'Brien.  This is clearly a self-published book and could've used one more professional editing pass.  There aren't any glaring spelling/grammatical errors and it's pretty well put together but there are a few paragraphs that are heavy paraphrases of a preceding one, leading me to think that one of the paragraphs was from a previous revision.

  Despite those few stumbles, the book is pretty decent.  Anailu Xindar is a young starship engineer who strikes out on her own.  She purchases a rare starship for cheap because a number of parts are missing and then goes about setting up her business and discovering more about her ship in the process.

 I  mentioned elsewhere that this is a sub-genre that's almost unique in science fiction -- adventures in small business ownership.  In most cases (as with this one) it's all about owning/operating a small trading vessel, but there are a few other types where the whole story is about the day-to-day operations to keep things running.  There are larger events going on and the book clearly wants to be the start of a series with all the foreshadowing it drops, but for the most part this is the simple story of a small-time cargo hauler.  I can't think of many genres that have this sort of motif.  Obviously private detectives have their business to run, but we don't get into the minute of that, it's just a simple reason for them to get involved in mysteries.  I think there might be a link to Horatio Alger-type stories, but I find it interesting that we don't see this style in other types of writing very often if at all.  I'm now imagining a whole genre of modern-day fiction explicitly about the small business experience which serves as a bit of a blueprint for people getting started in something.

  Anyway, the book is soothing, but never really goes anywhere and there's a lot of prep work for a sequel I'm not sure we'll see.  If there is one, I might pick it up but I'm in no hurry.


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For whatever reason my April reading has been dismal (of books anyway). But here's what I've read lately:

First up: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. Oddly, I've probably read more of Scalzi's blog than I have his fiction. No particular reason, just how it fell out.

Anyway, this book kicks off a new series's really the opening book in a series. You've got an interstellar empire connected via a web of space-time anomalies called The Flow. It's nine month's travel time from Hub (the center of the empire) and End (the furthest planet away from Hub in both time and distance).

The Flow is fairly stable but Earth and one other planet have been lost when the Flow moved. Still, the Flow has been unchanged for several centuries so no one gives it much thought. Certainly not Cardinea who, thanks to an untimely accident, is about to be crowned Empress. A message from her father points her at a research station on End where a local scientist is mapping out the disturbances in the Flow. The numbers aren't good. The Flow will be going away slowly but steadily over the next few years. Humanity needs to get settled before the Flow (and vital interplanetary trade) cuts out. End happens to be one of the only planets in the Empire that easily supports life and will be one of the last to drop off the network so End really needs to ramp up for refugees...too bad End is the Empire's dumping ground and the political situation there is...fraught.

Anyway, that's little more than the back cover blurb and the book basically re-iterates all that, gets the characters introduced and shuttled to where they need to be and then the book is done. The writing was fine and it read well, but not much actually happens. I'm not in any particular hurry to pick up the next book in the series.

Next up is a sequel, Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald. This is a follow up to his book Luna: New Moon about a near future moon ruled by five familial corporations...well, four by the end of that first book, but enough family members survive that they can work on their various plans for survival or revenge.

One of the problems following a series (even a really good one) is that you never remember who half the characters are over a year later when you get the next book (oh Malazan Empire I can't quit you). It doesn't help that the families have a lot of arranged "marriages" (often more legal designation than anything else) so the guy with the Scottish last name is actually from the family originating from China or vice versa.

On the other hand, there's a wonderful kaleidoscope of human cultures on display in the book and mostly from countries that are fairly marginal now. Tons of details from various cultures jammed together in delightful juxtaposition. McDonald does a great job imagining thriving human cultures in a very hostile environment. In general the "moon-building" is wonderful.

This is a bit of a "bridge" novel. The Cortas have to get their act together to rebuild their business, other families have to react to newly formed power vacuums. Stuff happens but some of the most important action happens...not exactly off-screen, but you only see the results not what drove them. At any rate, the book feels like it's sorting things out for the big (and hopefully) final push in the next book.

Anyway, I did really like the book and I will probably pick up the next one in the series.


p.s. If you're reading this on LJ, I am probably going to turn off cross-posting at the end of the month. I may be deleting the LJ account entirely. You can find me on Dreamwidth at this username.
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So the other day I finished up Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer. This is the sequel to last year's Too Like Lightning which I rather enjoyed. So I was really looking forward to this.

Unfortunately, I think the series finally succumbed to the issues I noted in my review on the previous book. The book is a history of seven fateful days that changed the course of a human utopia. It is also, a lengthy mediation and discussion of Enlightenment-era thinking and personalities. The problem, as I noted in the previous book, is that the world-building and technology on display in the book mean that you can't just shoehorn 18th Century thinking as the power-behind-the-throne as it does here. The book's world, it's plot, and it's philosophical discourses all work at cross-purposes to one another and eventually you finally have to start asking questions the book doesn't really want to answer.

Let me be clear -- there is an enormous value to reading and understanding historical patterns of thought. I love history and I love listening to the thinking of people of the past. It's why I really enjoy Lapham's Quarterly for example. No matter what Big Topic you're thinking about, someone in the past has probably already had thoughts similar to yours and articulated it better, just as someone else probably was more articulate in tearing down that idea.

But those thoughts also existed in a certain context and you can't just wholesale dump them into a new context and expect everything to run smoothly (and yet, you can't also just blandly claim that the new context invalidates all the thinking of the past).

Anyway, with this book, people make a number of decisions that just don't quite hold up under scrutiny (outside of their Enlightenment context...maybe) and a couple of them are actively being assholes, but somehow the other major players shrug their shoulders and let them get away with it.

I dunno, there's a lot of really neat stuff in this book, but it's just doesn't fit together. Also, there'll be yet another book in the series. To it's credit, the book does end at a decent(ish) stopping point, but I'm in no hurry to pick up the next book in the sequence.

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Couple more books and here's what I thought.

First up, Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly. The basic description of this book is a Le Carr spy novel written by Oscar Wilde. That's not strictly true, but it gives you a sense.

Amberlough is the capital city of the country that shares its name. Amberlough and three other countries are arranged in a loose confederation of states, but there's a growing right-wing movement to unify the country and impose a more repressive society -- something that corrupt, cosmopolitan, devil-may-care Amberlough isn't really in the mood for. Luckily, it's just a small, fringe group of Unity politicians. Then they start winning elections.

Cyril DePaul is a top agent for Amberlough's in-house spy agency. After a gruelling mission to a war-torn region, he currently has a cozy job keeping tabs on Amberlough's police force and helping them out from time to time. It's especially cozy because one of the most (if the most) notorious smuggler of illicit goods is Aristide Makricosta...who happens to be DePaul's lover.

Cyril gets assigned a field mission to find out how the Unity party is winning their elections. He uncovers some pretty big secrets and soon he's trying to figure out how to get Aristide and himself out of the country and far away from Unity zealots. As his schemes spin up, he recruits Cordelia Lehane, a dancer at the nightclub Aristide frequents. So begins a race against time to get people out of the city before Unity manages to seize power.

So this was a pretty good book. I only had two nits -- 1.) DePaul makes an important decision early on in the book that doesn't seem well motivated. They try and back-fill the rationale a bit later, but still, DePaul is a pretty experienced agent and it doesn't seem like his decision makes a lot of sense in that light. Still, it drives the book forward. 2.) Very clearly angling for a sequel and does a poor job of tying up the important loose ends at the end of the book.

That aside, the writing is good and clips right along and the worldbuilding is excellent. Amberlough is a mix of Steampunk Victorian London and Cabaret Berlin and there are lots of great little details that don't overwhelm. I'm particularly enamored of the slang in Amberlough. There's a lot of clever wordplay.

One example of that wordplay that didn't fully set in until after I read the book was the way in which cigarettes were referred to as "straights". In real life, cigarettes are sometimes called "nails" so I had that connotation in mind. Of course, two days after I read the book, I realized that cigarettes are also called "fags" and calling them "straights" in a book with gay themes was, I thought, pretty clever.

So yeah, a wobbly ending, but it's a fun book and well-worth checking out.

After that, I zipped right through Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. It's a fantasy novel, but it treats adventuring groups like rock stars.

So Clay "Slowhand" Cooper was the tank for a group called Saga known far and wide for their many exploits (as told by a series of bards who keep dying on the group). But Saga broke up and Clay got married and settled down and now he's happy being a town watchman. Then Golden Gabe shows up and begs Clay's help to "get the band back together again" so that they can go save Gabe's daughter currently on the far side of the world being besieged by a horde of monsters so vast they fill the landscape.

Reluctantly, Clay agrees and the two set off to find the other members. The wizard is selling potions to cure impotence, the assassin is king and the deadliest warrior alive has been imprisoned in stone. So...they've got a bit of convincing to do. Then they just have to cross hundreds of miles of treacherous forrest, cross a forbidding series of peaks and then shatter the monster horde and their leader to rescue Gabe's daughter.

Of course they do (you know how these books go), and the journey is absolutely worth the price of admission. Again, lots of great world-building on display here and again, no huge info-dumps to overwhelm readers. The magic system is never defined, but it never plays deus ex machina. The characters, if a bit comedic, do seem lived-in and they're a bit deeper than you might think.

If you like D&D fantasy and it's tropes, you'll probably really enjoy this one. Even if that's not your thing, it certainly makes for some great beach reading. The book leaves itself and opening for a sequel, but, quite honestly, the book is very stand-alone and I wouldn't care if there was a follow-up. I certainly would like to see more from Mr. Eames though.

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A couple years ago, I read The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White. It was the story of a secret society of people who essentially lived forever by uploading themselves into the Jungian Collective and then downloading themselves into other people (it's not quite a creepy as it sounds). That connection to the Collective means that they are able to persuade an manipulate people with just a bit of research and after some spectacular failures to remake the world in their image, they work more quietly, in small increments to make the world a better place (hence, The Incrementalists). I thought it was an interesting book with a lot of fun concepts that were worth exploring more.

The second book, The Skill of Our Hands, has finally come out and I finished up reading it the other day.

This is a book that I think a lot of people will want to read. Especially if they're feeling overwhelmed by the political situation and wondering if there's anything they can do to help. There's a lot of great moments that touch on the questions around when and how and why we take actions to try and change things. The downside is that if you just jump into this book, there's quite a lot of interesting background/world-building that gets brushed over. They do explain things for new readers, but I remember reading the first book and thinking about all the interesting things their "magic" could do. It's not downplayed or ignored here, but it's not explored in quite the same way as the first book.

Now maybe this is ok, the story isn't about the background or kewl powers, it's about gifted people struggling to use their talents to help people and each other and the ways they get that right or wrong. So it's a bit odd. I think people should read this book, I think they should read The Incrementalists first, and I think that if they're only going to read one book, read this one. It really zeroes in on modern-day issues in a way that people will probably resonate to.

The short version of the plot is that Phil, one of the oldest Incrementalists, has been shot while trying to change immigration enforcement in Arizona. For Phil, that's not the worst thing that could happen, but it sort of throws the rest of the Incrementalists into a bit of a tizzy since no one's sure who killed Phil and they sort of need him around to move their projects forward. Things start fraying from there.

Oh -- the book has one of the most cheerful and positive portrayals of polyamory I've seen in a while.

Anyway, the series is pretty good and this book is the stand-out so far, so check it out.

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So the other day I finished up Silent Hall by N S Dolkart. It''s not bad, but it spends a lot of time in the set-up and then leaves everything for the next book. Also, it's the "band of chosen young people save the world" kind of book and that's not a huge draw for me.

Again the writing clips along and it's not bad, but it was mostly filler while waiting for the release of a book I wanted to read more. So...I guess it fulfilled its mission?

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So the ad-hoc bookclub is reaching the end and people are beginning to talk about stuff so let's get some reviews out of the way.

We start with the ad hoc book club book for January, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It was quite the best-seller in 2016 (and Oprah really liked it), so we decided to give it a whirl.

In the 1820's, Cora is a slave in Georgia. She's a bit of an outcast because her mother ran to freedom and Cora violently defends her only inheritance, a small garden plot, from another slave. Cora doesn't mind too much and lives in a shelter with other women deemed "not right". For the most part, Cora keeps her head down and when newcomer Caesar asks her to come with him in his own flight to freedom, she initially turns him down. When life on the plantation takes a decided turn for the worse, she changes her mind.

The book isn't strictly historical (I suspect that some of the events she encounters weren't from 1820 although they easily could be), but it only really stands out when you discover that the underground railroad is, in fact, an actual underground railroad that ferries people through the dark to new places. Cora and Caesar travel from Georgia to South Carolina and it seems to be a much better place, but the chains are simply gilded. Cora is forced to move on when Ridgeway, a professional slave catcher, shows up. Ridgeway failed to capture Cora's mother and so has a personal interest in returning her to her owner.

There follows a series of events as Cora moves from place to place, but the underlying theme is that there really isn't any safe place in America for black people. In fact, the ending is a tad ambiguous in that we never really find out Cora's fate, unlike many of the other less-fortunate characters in the book who often get their own small chapter explaining their fate or background.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book, although I'm much more fond of Lovecraft Country in terms of talking about America's racial problems. In part, because it covers a lot of interesting (to me) issues like how do we enjoy the creative products of racist assholes and in part because the protagonists of Lovecraft Country exhibit a lot of agency. Cora is mostly buffeted about by the winds of fate. Obviously, she makes the decision to run and she does take drastic actions at times to keep running, but it's always a snap decision and it's clear there are times where if she hadn't caught a lucky break, she would've been dragged back to the plantation or succumbed to her own misery.

All of this isn't the best for a strict narrative (we want our heroes to take decisive action and rally from setbacks), but it probably says something more truthful about slavery and those subjected to it. Maybe it should feel unsatisfactory and a little unfinished, since that's where racial issues are right now.

I will say that I was reminded that Colson Whitehead also wrote The Intuitionist about a black elevator inspector and that is a terribly misleading description for what was an amazing book. If you were in ad hoc and thought Underground Railroad was good, you'll definitely want to read The Intuitionist.

Next, a youtube video brought The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. The two political scientist distill their research into how and why leaders make the decisions they do. Like many of these books, the answer is one that took them 18 years to work out and most of us would simply cynically spout off -- leaders want to gain power and then stay in power and everything else they do arises out of that.

In particular, leaders have essential supporters who must be kept happy or they won't support the leader and then the leader won't be leader any more. In non-democratic societies, this is usually a small circle of nobility, family or tribal members, economic or military leaders, or some other small but important group. The upshot is that the leader will only do what it takes to make them happy and no one else (since the members of his small circle can crack down on any dissent). Conversely, in democracies, a politician has a large number of essential supporters (i.e. voters) and to keep them happy, a leader has to support a lot of public goods (police and fire, clean water, good schools, etc.). If he can't keep enough voters happy, he gets kicked out.

This is all well and good, but like a lot of soft sciences, they provide some simple theoretical examples and then proceed to apply the concepts to everything without accounting for the complexities of the real world. In particular, they claim that leader's can't really pursue any policies that don't keep them in power (i.e. that don't cater to their core supporters). However, a leader can use their power to convince their supporters that a pet project of the leader (a war, a change in taxes, an environmental policy, etc.) is something good for their supporters and then they can do what they want because they've convinced their supporters it's what they want too.

They advocate democracies because having a large group of essential supporters forces leaders to help out as many people as they can, but they also acknowledge that leaders want to reduce that group of essential supporters. In fact, the very first real-world case study they open the book with is about how a democratically elected group of town directors reduced their essential supporters to a small block of voters and proceeded to write themselves huge, fat, legal checks. When they talk about ways to increase essential supporter sizes, they don't really talk about how to incentivize leaders to keep increasing that group of essential supporters. Though they do talk about gerrymandering and abolishing the Electoral Collage -- there's not a lot of discussion on how to convince the people who got where they are thanks to those things to give up their winning ticket.

Likewise, they discuss how corporate governance could be improved by using the internet to connect small shareholders and organize them in to a large voting block. The problem is that many corporations are set up so that the essential supporters hold a majority share. The other problem is that most people don't own stocks to run a business, they own it as an asset they hope to see grow over time. There are activist investors who rail against overpaid CEOs and bad business practices and the like, but can they reach and organize every small investor to build a commanding block? I'm not saying they can't, but again, it doesn't seem likely. Mostly it just seems like they're short on answers.

The book is, however, an intriguing lens in which to view the recent elections. Sanders didn't rely on big donors and Trump self-funded a fair chunk (and wasn't terribly beholden to traditional political backers in the first place). Both platforms also directly told voters to ask establishment politicians "what have you done for me lately?" and if they didn't like the answers....

I hope someone else reads this book so I can discuss/argue about it with them. I seem to have a lot of criticisms, but I think that just means they present an interesting case that deserves reading and discussion.

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Not an outstanding, but a pretty good year for books. Here's everything I read:


Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence Schoen

Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Expendable by James Allen Gardner (Audiobook)

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The House of War and Witness by Mark, Linda and Louise Carey (didn’t finish)

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Inca Civilization in Cuzco by R. Tom Zuidema

Railroad Semantics 1 and 2 by Aaron Dactyl

Unsinkable: How to Build Plywood Pontoons & Longtail Boat Motors Out of Scrap by Robnoxious

Brotherhood of the Wheel by R. S. Belcher

Dream Whip #15 The Pedal Powered Movie Tour by Bill Brown

Shantyboat: A River Way of Life by Harlan Hubbard.

Low Town by Daniel Polansky

Coot Club by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Railhead by Philip Reeve

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 by Samuel Clemens

Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm

The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey

Reminiscences of the "Filibuster" War in Nicaragua by Charles William Doubleday

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gaveriel Kay

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Sex with Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Enemy by K Easton

Dark Run by Mike Brooks

Making the Rounds by Allan Weiss

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Los Nefilim by T. Frohock

Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign by Peter Cozzens

White Elephants by Katie Haegele

Outlaw by K. Eason

Hell Divers by Nicholas Sandsbury Smith

The Big Six by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Behind the Throne by K. B. Wagers

Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

Smokejumper by Jason A. Ramos

Secret Water by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

The War at the End of the World by Mario Vegas Llosa

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky

A Long Spoon by Jonathan L. Howard

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

Slaughtermatic by Steve Aylett

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante

What to Do When I Get Stupid by Lewis Mandell

Roll Call to Destiny: The Soldier's Eye View of Civil War Battles by Brent Nosworthy

The Uskoks of Senj by Catherine Wendy Bracewell

The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens

The Burning Isle by Will Panzo

Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert F Capon

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky

After the Crown by K B Wagers

So that's around 56 books read/listened to. But you want to know what to add to your reading list.

Top Fiction books:

 Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
2.)  Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone
3.)  The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard
4.)  A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante

Top Non-fiction Books:
1.)  Supper of the Lamb by Robert F Capon
2.)  The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 3 by Samuel Clemens
3.)  The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens

Looking forward to some interesting books in 2017.

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Unless I get real ambitious these are probably the final reviews of the year.

First up: Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Mr. Tchaikovsky is best known for this "Shadows of the Apt" series, a fantasy novel in which various groups of humans gain special powers related to their insect totems. It was a fun series, but I kinda lost interest and stopped after a few. Spiderlight is a stand-alone fantasy novel that mostly plays with the tropes.

Nth is a giant spider, one of the multitudes that infest the Mirkwood forest. As the book opens the forest is being invaded by a small band of humans. No trouble except whoops, these are adventurers and they've got a pyromaniac wizard to boot. The spiders rally to defend their Mother, but can't stand against the Forces of Light. But they stop short. They're on a quest, there's a prophecy what needs fulfilling and a spider's tooth and a spider's knowledge are what's required.

To save her children, Mother gives up a venom-filled fang and offers to let them have Nth, into whom, she's implanted the memories the group needs. So now, Nth is an eight-legged member of the party. Hrm...a bit conspicuous that. Luckily, the wizard has an Idea.

The book is fun. It skewers stereotypes and has a bit of fun with the black and white morality of fantasy worlds. If you've read any fantasy at all, you'll probably catch various bits and gags. Luckily, there's still an actual story going on so it doesn't slide into that "forced funny" that a number of parody books suffer from.

Next up: After the Crown by K B Wagers. This is the second in her Indranan War series (the first being Behind the Throne I reviewed a few months ago). The story follows Hail Bristol, former princess, ex-gunrunner, and current Indranan Empress. She inherited a lot of problems when she gained the throne and one of them is a shadow war by a neighboring empire. Hail leads a negotiation team to try and work things out, but, surprise it's a trap and there's a coup on.

The book was fine, but it follows very closely on the events of the first book and since (spoiler alert) a few people die in that book, you've got new staff and half-remembered pre-existing dudes was a little tough to follow in spots. Still, we get to see Hail be a bit more proactive in this book so that's nice. Unlike the first book, there is definitely no real resolution in this book (wait for book three!) so that knocks it back a bit. I'm not 100$ sure I'll buy into the final book of the series, but it continues to be some light, fast reading.

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OK, let's try and keep up-to-date. I plowed through two more books so let's see what we've got:

First up: The Burning Isle by Will Panzo. Pretty much a straight-up fantasy novel that rips off the plot of Yojimbo, but does interesting things with it.

OK, so the Isle in question is Scipio, far-flung outpost of Empire and wretched hive of scum and villainy. The town is split between two gang lords and they both live in fear of the general who sits in his jungle fort outside the city. Into this mix comes Cassius, a young wizard who hopes to shake things up a bit.

I really like the way magic works here. There are numerous types of magic, but Runic Magic (as perfected and practiced by the Empire) has come to the fore. Other types of magic get broken down into their essential elements and then rendered as a run. If you have facility with runes, you can channel power through them to get the same effect, but without the dancing, sacrifices, weird material components, or whatever else the original spell required. Just focus on the rune, shove some energy through it and boom -- instant effect. Runes are generally inscribed onto gemstones that are then inset into metal gauntlets. Not only does this let you cast a spell over and over again, but if you take another wizard's gauntlets, you can now start casting all their spells as well.

So with the gauntlets at their hips, and a big payout for taking out your opponent, wizards essentially act as Wild West Gunmen and there's a number of well-detailed wizard duels.

The book is fast, breezy and fun. It's well-written even if the basic plot and tropes are screamingly obvious. The only major issue is that the book just ends with half a dozen threads dangling. It's not entirely clear if they're setting up a sequel or if the author is just trying to be mysterious but either way the ending is rubbish. But, honestly, that's the last page. It's pretty good reading up until then and worth checking out.

Next up: Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert F Capon. So, at the front of this book, it talks about how you'll make a lamb supper for eight people four times. He lays out the ingredients and then...and then he goes off on these amazing and wonderful tangents about food and people, the microscopic and the cosmic, the physical and the spiritual in this wonderful soup of topics.

Fair warning: Mr. Capon is (was) an Episcopalian minister so there's quite a bit of god-talk but it's never all that irritating (compared to religious stuff I've read in the past) and it's not trying to proselytize you. In particular, Capon delights in the goodness of God's creation and his delight is absolutely infectious. He doesn't need to guide you to God, he just figures if he helps you appreciate creation more, you'll find your own way to God. Your faith doesn't matter to him nearly as much as whether or not you use margarine.

There are actual recipes and techniques described in the book, advice on throwing dinner parties and it all just makes you want to try and make puff pastry. The writing is outstanding and this will probably be one of my books for the year.

Put it this way: the chapter about onions alone is worth the price of the book. It comes with my highest recommendation and I encourage folks to check it out.

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Cripes, I've been falling behind on this.

So I christened the month Non-fiction November and that's been pretty much all I read this month. So let's talk about them.

First up is: What to Do When I Get Stupid by Lewis Mandell. This is a book focusing on retirement finances. Basically, Mandell's argument is that our cognitive abilities are going to start slipping when we get older and that opens us up to making bad financial decisions and/or getting swindled by crooks. Therefore, we should try and figure out a good way to protect our retirement savings mostly from ourselves.

His basic recommendations are two-fold -- a fully paid-off, age-in-place home and the use of annuities to provide a steady income stream that can't easily be undone. An annuity is essentially a pension. You give the annuity company a large lump sum and it starts paying out monthly returns. When you die, the company gets to keep the rest of the money. Obviously some of this depends on your family history, but I have some fairly long-lived family members so it's not too much of a stretch to think that I might need something like that. The big upside here is that once you buy the annuity, that large lump some of retirement cash is, effectively, gone. You can't be swindled out of that money, you spent it. You could still get scammed on the income stream, but the prize won't be as big and Mandell even includes some suggestions for how you can enlist the aid of others to track your mental acuity and raise a flag if necessary.

I liked the book, it was well laid-out and Mandell describes how annuities work and the kinds you want and the kinds you want to avoid. My only complaint is that this advice is most useful just as you're about to retire. When you call in that 401(k) or whatever and have a huge some of money, you'll want to channel it into annuities. What I was hoping for was more advice on things to do now in the 40s-60s so that retirement fund is as large as possible (get a higher-paying job, don't spend any money, I know, I know). Still, I think there's a lot of good advice here and well worth looking into. Especially if you have loved ones approaching retirement.

Next up: Roll Call to Destiny: The Soldier's Eye View of Civil War Battles by Brent Nosworthy. Yup, my slide into Civil War buff-ism continues apace. Here, Mr. Nosworthy looks at the technology and tactics of the Civil War and marries it to first-hand accounts of various battles to show how all of it evolved during the course of the conflict. By way of example: it's true that by the Civil War many units started receiving rifled muskets and given their increased range and accuracy, you'd expect increased casualties. Indeed, there was a line of thought that suggested warfare would move towards more of a fire-team situation like you see in modern warfare vs. the old standard of massed firing lines. The catch is that the early rifles were pretty fidgety and to get that increased accuracy and range you had to be well trained and you lost a lot of time. In the dense terrain of Civil War battlefields, an enemy was likely to appear on the run at very close range so mostly the untrained recruits just fired as fast as you could -- which brings you back to massed lines of volley fire. What this meant is that casualties from weapons fire was often surprisingly low during the Civil War.

So the book tries to show how theory and practice met in the crucible of war and in the process you get some great stories from battles both large and small. The other thing that really stands out when you read the book is just how blind field commanders were. You had no communications other than messengers on foot or horseback. You couldn't get a sense of how the battle was going unless you had a high vantage point to overlook the field. A great number of battles could have gone the other way had one of half a dozen small things happened -- a message arriving in time, an accurate assessment of enemy strength or position, or even knowing where friendly units were. It also underscored how miserable soldering was at that time. Lots of night marches in freezing weather get mentioned.

I enjoyed it but clearly it's a specialist subject.

Next, I finished up: The Uskoks of Senj by Catherine Wendy Bracewell. The Uskoks were sort of an ad hoc anti-Ottoman force retained by the Holy Roman Empire. Using banditry and piracy, the Uskoks fanned out along the Adriatic and into the Balkans and stuck it to the Turk...and the Venetians who traded with the Ottomans and who's agreements with them made the Venetians responsible for the Uskok's actions.

This particular book appears to be one of those academic papers repurposed for publication. The Uskoks are an interesting group of people, they (or their fictional analogs) appeared in Children of Sea and Sky which I rather enjoyed. While this book offers quite a lot of factual detail regarding the Uskoks and where they came from and how they evolved over time, there was a lot missing here. There were major raids and military actions that get a clinical or abbreviated description. I was expecting a bit more of "this is what a typical raid looked like" or "here's the story of one of the bandit chiefs" but it was a bit more anodyne than that. Not a disappointment, but a very dry read.

Finally, I just finished up The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens. The book covers the period from late 1860's to the mid 1880's when western expansion pretty much drove the Native Americans onto reservations. It's a sad and fascinating book and quite relevant given the protests at Standing Rock. What's especially heart-breaking is that there are plenty of people, many of them military officers, who are fully cognizant of the various injustices heaped upon the Native Americans who really try to improve things and they constantly get steam-rolled by corrupt government officials and/or business concerns. Divisions between and within Native American tribes meant that even those who tried to work with the government in good faith often got lumped in with "bad actors" and suffered for the atrocities of others.

The book is well-illustrated with maps showing the various campaigns. It ends just a tad abruptly, I think it could've used a bit of an epilogue but overall, it was an interesting, if somewhat depressing read.

So that was non-fiction November
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Because I was working a show the last couple of weeks, I've mostly been reading small pieces of fiction. I've also not been writing up my reviews so...get ready for a bunch.

First up: Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky and translated by Alfred MacAdam. I've read a number of Jadorowsky's books before and their always a bit of a fever dream. This book was probably a bit more focused than some of his works but it's still pretty trippy.

A young woman named Crabby saves an unusual woman from a group of fighting monks. Crabby names the woman Albina (because her skin/hair are milk-white). There follows a series of adventures where they try to set up shop, then get chased out of town and then wander into the desert to a hidden village where Death never comes. Then Albina causes the men of the town to turn into dogs and they have to set off on a quest to find a magical cure and there's a stone sailing ship crewed by statues of St. Peter and...yeah, it's par for the course for Jodorowsky.

It's hard to judge his stuff, but I did like it. The book certainly has a pared down plot structure compared to his usual books that made it easier to follow along, but as you can tell it runs on dream-logic and allegory more than anything else. It's an acquired taste, but if you're still on the fence, we can talk about it.

Next we have A Long Spoon by Jonathan L. Howard. I recently read the most recent Johannes Cabal book and mentioned that there are reference to various Cabal short stories that have appeared over the years. A Long Spoon is one of those stories that I haven't read and since a character from there appeared in the book, I was keen to read it. Let me be clear, my enjoyment of the book wasn't lessened in the slightest by not having read this short story first, but I really like the Cabal series and was eager for a bit more reading.

So in this short, Johannes Cabal, persnickety Necromancer discovers that someone is trying to kill him. Granted, this is the usual state of affairs, but this assassin has managed to breach his wards and turn his bathwater to hot acid so in this instance he has to do something. Johannes believes his mysterious nemesis is hiding out in Pandemonium so he needs to make a pact with a demon to guide him down there and help him out. As with most things in the Cabal universe, the demon he manages to summon is a bit out of the ordinary and together they descend into Pandemonium to try and put an end to the attacks.

A short, punchy book with all the great writing you expect from the series. I wouldn't start from here, but if you like the novels, the shorts are just as good.

After that: Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling. Before I get to the book let's do a quick history lesson on Fiume (modern-day Rijeka).

So Fiume used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI, Italy and Hungary both claimed it as theirs. Before negotiations could work out who got what, the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio and a bunch of Italian nationalists took the place over and eventually declared it an independent Free City. Eventually Italy conquered the city and that was that until after WWII when it went to Yugoslavia and is today part of Croatia.

But that brief period, when Fiume was a Free City and among the wild political experiments, the city also had to deal with the Italian blockade and turned to piracy to steal whatever it needed to keep the city-state going.

Mr. Sterling's book is a fictionalized "what-if?" where the pirate utopia wasn't crushed so quickly.

I am amazed at how such a juicy piece of history turned into this incoherent mess.

Look, it's a short book. But easily a third of the book is made up of the introduction, an interview with Mr. Sterling and some other disjoint bits and pieces. The actual story itself is interesting but has no real plot and ends where most books would just be getting started. As far as I can tell, this looks like the first draft of the first quarter/third of an actual novel. It made me very curious to know more about The Free State of Fiume but I can't really recommend this to anyone.

You get a much better gonzo-society story if you pick up Slaughtermatic by Steve Aylett. This is the third in his Beerlight series of novels. The first The Crime Studio is one of my favorite books, a collection of short-stories written in the form of Damon Runyon (who I didn't know existed until after I read that book), about the town of Beerlight and the outrageous criminal activities therein. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson writing a bunch of crime noir stories and you've got the gist.

In Slaughtermatic, Dante Cubit holds up a bank to uncover a lost piece of criminal literature. In the process, he uses a bit of time travel to make the heist work, but doesn't manage to kill his past self. So the one Cubit goes on a philosophical journey while the other dashes about town being pursued by Police Chief Blince (who looked "like the kind of cop a kid would draw") and Brute Parker (ex-gun dealer and now ultraviolent assassin). That only kind of scratches the surface.

Every character is larger-than-life and the prose tumbles all over itself, but it never feels like a mess, more like a river rapid that inexorably sweeps you along. There's tons of world building in every tossed-off word or phrase, but it doesn't always explain itself and you don't really care all that much. Just go with the flow and it's a fun read. I would recommend staring with The Crime Studio because it might be a bit much to just jump into.

Finally, last year I read The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante. It was a fantastic story. He's just released a new short story set in the same universe called A Taste of Honey's amazing.

Ashante's world mostly feels like a pretty standard fantasy milieu except that there are gods and wizards who use advanced science and psionics to accomplish their feats. We only deal with them on the fringes though, the stories tend to ground themselves in the relationships of regular people.

So for this story, we focus on Aqib, a distant Royal Cousin who works in the Menagerie. The city is hosting a delegation from Daluca. Out walking a lion, Aqib runs into a Dalucan soldier named Lucrio and the two of them quickly form a brief, intense, and very secret liaison. Lucrio sails home, Aqib marries a royal princess. We skip ahead through Aqib's life -- the birth of his daughter, his wife being called away to help the gods, his daughter and grandson's increasing telekinetic power and his own beast-speaking ability, and always his wondering what would've happened if he's stayed with Lucrio.

The story switches back and forth between Aqib's week with Lurcio and the rest of his life and the last few pages tie everything together with a gut-punch of an ending.

Highly highly recommended. Obviously the story touches on queer themes but it goes a lot deeper than that. Make a bit of space in your reading list for this. It won't take long and you won't be disappointed.

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Some books take a while to read and somme you burn right through.

First up The War at the End of the World by Mario Vegas Llosa. We read this book Discreet Heroes a while back and looking through his other works I came across this. It's a fictional account of a very real event in Brazilian history -- The War of Canudos. A wandering mystic gathers a small band of followers and eventually they take over a small town. Soon the poor and desperate are flocking to the settlement and building it out. Local authorities try to drive them out but the villagers hang on leading to repeated/larger attempts until finally the central government sends out an army to starve out the villagers and then raze the settlement to the ground.

Llosa's book is a fictionalized account of that battle although we do see a number of the main historical persons involved and the events in main are generally historically accurate. The book switches between multiple viewpoints showing how various people came to live at Canudos or the people opposed to them. The story kind of sprawls a bit, but there's a lot to cover. Also, I'm not convinced Llosa has a good handle on female characters, but there's possibly a cultural lens I'm not using.

I don't know if this is a great book, but I'm not unhappy I read it (though I did struggle to get through it).

Next up, a shorter book that I blew through much faster, but mostly because I've been a big fan of the series. The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard is the fifth book in the Johannes Cabal series of books. Johannes Cabal is a gentleman and a necromancer and he's been applying the scientific method to the black arts in an attempt to revive a lost loved one. This book doesn't exactly end the series, but does ties off a number of loose ends from previous books and short stories. You could try to just jump in with this book, but you'd lose a lot of enjoyment. The series as a whole has been pretty great so if you haven't been following this series, grab Johannes Cabal: Necromancer and get started.

Once you work your way up to this book you'll know what to expect: lots of great dialog and humor and one of the more interesting characters in magical steampunk literature (and just a great character in general). Following up on a clue from the previous book, Johannes and his vampire brother Horst must assemble a team to plumb the depths of metaphorical realms in a bid to achieve their heart's desire. There follows a number of adventures in which our heroes face uncomfortable truths about themselves and kill Satan (well, the new Satan not the one you're thinking of).

I've always loved this series and the writing continues to be strong. I can't get enough of Johannes so I hope a new cycle starts up soon.

and that's what I've read lately
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Again, I've been a bit remiss in keeping up on my book reports. But here's what I've been reading:

First up, Behind the Throne by K. B. Wagers. Hail Bristol was third in line to the throne of the Indranan Empire, but she left it behind to track down her father's killer and in the process sort of became a smuggler, criminal and arms merchant. But you can't hide from one of the larger empires in the galaxy and when all other potential heirs to the throne wind up dead in a few weeks, Hail gets dragged kicking and screaming back home where she has to deal with her mother the queen and the mysterious assailants who took out most of the royal family.

It was a fun read although I'm again struck by how much sci-fi leans on archaic political systems for their star-spanning political entities. Also, Hail slips pretty easily back into court protocol even as her street smarts allow her to wrong-foot her opponents. It's not clear that a rebellious royal is going to make a good smuggler, but it certainly makes for a more gripping story.

So not a deep read, but a fun one.

Next, the much anticipated new installment of the Craft Sequence Series, Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone. This is the fifth book in the series and the first that's a direct sequel a previous book. In this case, it's the follow-on novel to the first book in the series Three Parts Dead.

The series has a modern-day world that runs on magic and magic is basically an analogue for modern day finance and globalized money systems. People pay bits of "souls stuff" in return for goods and services. In the past, gods formed the engine of this economy but they were overthrown by powerful wizards who now serve as the head of magical multi-national corporations. It's all woven together in a very slick way. I like to think of these books as a fantasy version of John Grisham novels.

Anyway, in this book we return to Alt Coulumb, one of the few places where a god Kos Everburning is still in charge (because he stayed out of the God Wars). His former consort, the moon goddess Seril, has come back from the dead (as seen in Three Parts Dead) and now there are plans afoot by various corporate entities to either break her or take advantage of Kos's love for her to get at him as well. Tara Abernathy is the goddess's legal counsel and she's got a lot of work to do if she wants to save her client. Various other characters from the previous book reappear including Tech-Priest Abelard and Police Inspector Cat and Raz her vampire-pirate friend.

This book is fantastic. The writing is ridiculously good. I was reading passages from it ever few pages to everyone around me. The world-building remains superb with lots of wonderful details and nothing that makes you go "wait a second...". This is easily the best of a series that has been firing on all cylinders from book one. It has plenty of different viewpoint characters and a wide range of genders/races/species. Although it runs off a magical version of modern finance, the books peer into both the good and bad aspects of that and, in the end, deal more with intangible human interaction.

I can't recommend this book/series highly enough and if you're looking for something to read do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Since I was vacationing in the Pacific Northwest earlier this month, I decided to read something relevant and picked up Smokejumper by Jason A. Ramos. Smokejumpers are firefighters who parachute into wilderness areas to stop small wildfires from becoming big ones. Ramos discusses his career as a smokejumper and intercuts it with an overall history of the smokejumper program in the US since its inception in the 1930's. I found the book to be pretty informative, although I sort of wish there had been a bit more technical explanation of how they fight a fire along with some diagrams or illustrations of the process. It's a bit hazy in my mind.

Anyway, as you might expect, smokejumpers are pretty gung-ho people. They jump into a fire zone, collect boxes of dropped gear and then work like beavers to set up a fire break to contain a fire and then they have to pack all of it out again. It's a fascinating story. Also, it's not a terribly lucrative one. Smokejumpers are government employees and the government only covers the basic equipment. A lot of useful gear has to be purchased by the smokejumpers themselves. Ramos himself has gone into business creating gear for smokejumper/firefighters and sometimes it feels a bit like an ad for his company but for the most part the book is pretty informative about a job I didn't know much about.

Finally, I picked up another audiobook in the Amazons and Swallows series. This time it's Secret Water by Arthur Ransome. This time, the Walker children are about to go on an exploration to Hamford Water with their folks when their parents are called away to London. But since this is an Arthur Ransome book, the parents just drop their kids off on an island with a vague map of the area telling them to fill it in themselves and be ready for pick-up in a week.

So Hamford Water is a major tidal flat where roads are exposed during low tide and a solid piece of mainland turns into a chain of islands at high tide. The kids set out to explore the area and are soon joined by thier old friends, the Blackett sisters (the Amazon Pirates). Then, they kids meet up with another group of children -- the Eel tribe.

And here we come to the problematic part of the story. The Walkers (and the Blacketts after some prodding) are playing at being explorers and mapping this area they've been dropped off at. The Eels are playing "native"'s not a malicious imitation of native peoples, but it's not great either. It's a bit like how in summer camps of the past, you'd be part of a "tribe". Very...appropriate-y.

The thing is, the kids are so earnest and decent and if anyone actually sat down and talked with them about it, they'd probably be awfully sorry and do something else so I tend to acknowledge the issue and move on with the story. And this book, like most of the series, deals with a lot of issues and conflicts that kids have. In one example, Nancy Blackett shows up all ready to be pirates and run around having adventures but John Walker is really keen to play explorer and map out the area. There's a bit of tension over "what game are we going to play" and Nancy (who usually gets her way in these things) realizes that John's really invested in this idea and graciously withdraws her suggestion (although when the Eel "savages" show up, she sees a chance to get rambunctious again). If Ransome suffers from English Empire Racism, he has a keen eye for how children get on and the books offer some useful lessons in that regard.

Problematic issues aside, I thought this was better than the previous two books I read simply because the children are actively choosing what sorts of adventure to have rather than having it thrust on them as in We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea and Big Six. I'm pretty much in the tank for this series but I do think (despite some problematic bits) that it's great reading.

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Maybe don't let weeks go by without discussing what you've read.

In that vein, I'm going to talk about The North Water by Ian McGuire. This is a short, punchy book where the journey is worth more than the destination.

It's the mid-1800's and Patrick Sumner, disgraced British Army surgeon, has signed on to the Volunteer, a whaling vessel headed for the arctic. Also on board is Henry Drax, harpooner and sociopath. Pretty much everyone else on board has a secret or two and it's going to be a long, cold, voyage.

There's nothing extraordinary about the characters, dialoge, or plot, but the descriptive writing is so damn good. It's fun to read in your head, it's fun to say aloud, it's got mysterious new words to look up, it never slides into purple prose. It's just really good reading. It's not my usual thing, but I'm glad I picked it up. Plus, unlike most whaling novels I can think of, this one clips along and would make for great afternoon reading.

Fair warning, it's just a bunch of guys (mostly white) and there's a fair amount of (exquisitely described) violence, but if that doesn't bug you, it's worth a look.

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I’ve been slacking off again, but I have still been reading. Let’s see what I think:

First up Outlaw by K. Eason. This is the sequel to Evenmy which I reviewed a while back. I liked the first book so signed up for more.

Sorcerer-Thief Snow, Viking Barbaian Veiko and their Imperial Soldier buddies Dek and Istel have returned to the capital city of Illharek to warn the Republic of the imminent arrival of a former goddess who’s returning with a big bag of payback. But everywhere they go, people seem to have other worries on their mind. Simple greed or something more sinister?

It was a pretty good book. I think I liked the first one a bit better. Character’s seem to have reverted on their arcs a bit from book 1 to 2 so I felt they stagnated a bit. The magic system(s) continue to be a strong, but not overpowering, presence in the book and it continues to be intelligently put together.

I feel the writing was still good enough that I might go for one more round but I’m hoping the third book sticks a landing.

Following up I read through Hell Divers by Nicholas Sandsbury Smith. The brief blurb is that after World War 3, the remains of humanity live aboard these giant war-dirigibles. The surface of the planet is covered with deadly storms and killing radiation. When the airships need supplies from the ground, they send small teams of paratroopers to the ground to get what they need and hoist it (and them) up by balloons.

I’m not gonna lie. I’m a complete sucker for this premise. That’s an RPG and miniatures wargame I want to play right there.

Despite my post-apocalypse paratrooper bias, what did I think? Well….I had a bit of trouble believing that so many people would survive on an airship for the 200-odd years mentioned in the book. I realize this strongly suggests the book was terrible, but it was only because they emphasised that there was only one airship left. If it’d been a fleet of ships it would’ve seemed more plausable.

When you weren’t thinking about that, this was a pretty good little action book. There’s multiple trips to the surface to encounter terrible things and escape with precious equipment. There are several viewpoint characters and we hop between them to keep the tension up with a few different disasters going on at once.

My biggest complaint (aside from having only one airship) is that the book proudly declares itself the start of a trilogy and the first book ends pretty damn conclusively. I don’t know if that’s enough to make me pick up a second book, but seriously, I really love the concept.

Finally, while I didn’t “read” it, I did go through the audiobook of The Big Six by Arthur Ransome. This is another in the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books. I continue to enjoy the heck out of these.

We return to the Norfolk Broads from Coot Club. Tom and the rest of the Coots are joined by Dick and Dorothea again for more fun and games...except that the three youngest Coots (owner/operators of the Death and Glory) are strongly suspected of pushing off boats and causing other mischief all up and down the Broads.

Obviously the plucky children in a Swallows and Amazons book are never evil or malicious, but no one believes them. So they all go in and form their own Scotland Yard to track down the villain and bring them to justice.

So, it’s a fun book like the others but not the strongest. First, the villain is screamingly obvious and the kids are particularly clueless at times. I’m sure this is to help the intended audience feel smart but still. The other issue with this book is that in most books, the kids are proactive -- they want to be pirates or prospectors or polar explorers and they go do that. In this book (as with We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea) the kids have to react to a bad situation. Again, I’m sure this teaches the value of pluck and grit and whatnot, but it’s not as much fun.

Still, I continue to greatly enjoy this series.



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