Unabashedly unprofessional reviews in fantasy, scifi, and mystery.
Coming to terms with an addiction to bad puns.

4 Stars
"Society is not going to change under your sledgehammer, Cathy."
A Little Knowledge: The Split Worlds - Book Four - Emma Newman

A Little Knowledge

by Emma Newman

I genuinely can't explain what this book did or how it did it, but the day I finished A Little Knowledge, I purchased the first book in the series and promptly started reading it. And when I finished the first book, I bought the second. And then the third. I finished the entire series in sequence, one after the other. For those of you who don't know me, it's hard to explain just how out-of-character this is for me: I basically never buy books, and I have absolutely terrible series staying power. Yet without doubt, Emma Newman has gotten more of my money than any other author this year. And I don't really know why.


Because here's the thing about the Split Worlds series: it's insidious. When I read A Little Knowledge, I thought I felt lukewarm about it. As an inveterate and unashamed out-of-order series reader, when I tell you that this is not a good book to start the series with, please take my word for it. Newman may have a gift for worldbuilding and characters, but she has not yet mastered the gentle art of the recap. The Split Worlds is pretty complex and I had no idea what was going on most of the time. Yet I think that was part of the series' appeal. Basically, a long time ago, a cadre of sorcerers split the magic part of the world from the mundane. The fey were banished to Exilium, but they subvert and steal mortals and bring them into the Nether, an intermediate zone between the two worlds where time does not exist. These fey-touched act as puppets for their faerie lords, and their actions are patrolled by the Arbiters, mortals whose souls were dislocated from their bodies to prevent subversion by the fey. The world of the Nether is frozen in semi-Victorian English state, an endless stream of parties and dances and dinners, with women given no more agency than a pet dog.


Into this grim situation blunders Cathy, a child of the fey-touched who ran away to the mundane world and started going to college before she was dragged back to the Nether. As even she realizes:

"Cathy had the delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box moving backwards to try and escape it, and she knew it."

Cathy may not have chosen her circumstances, but she's determined to make the best of them, and, more importantly, to change them, both for herself and the other women of the Nether. Even as her efforts heighten tensions between herself and everyone she loves, Cathy remains steadfast:

"But how will things ever change if I don't force them to?"

When I first read the book, I found the circumstances unpleasant and in some ways pointlessly unpleasant, much in the manner of YA dystopians: the setup is so extreme that it doesn't correlate with the world that its readers would inhabit. It's about feminism and agency and self-determinism, but the level of inequality the characters experience is so utterly extreme that I see it as rather a waste of the reader's outrage and disgust. The women of the Nether are constantly prey to rape and violence, and if they don't obey their masters, they can be magically "Dolled, cursed, and Charmed into obedience."

I found Will utterly creepy, and was mystified about how they had gotten together. As he thinks himself:

"He wanted to claim her, possess her and take her fire into himself."

The fact that it is a charmed choker is all too appropriate. As she says to him,

"You want me to be someone I'm not. You want me to play the game, don't you? That's what you mean when you say you want me to work with you. You want me to stop being such a pain in the arse. But what you're really saying is that you want me to stop being who I am."
(show spoiler)


Suffice it to say that A Little Knowledge is a difficult read, and much of the moral outrage it generated felt anything but constructive. But perhaps the goal is to use extremes to highlight the problems found in a more nuanced way in our world. Apart from sexism, the book also confronts racism and rampant consumerism. Even leavened with Newman's sly wit, it wasn't precisely an easy or pleasant read, yet I was sucked in all the same. I was so driven to understand how the world worked and how the characters got to where they were that I promptly turned around and binge-read the previous three books. In some sense, A Little Knowledge is also a game-changer for the series, putting events into motion that are sure to have serious impact on the Split Worlds. I may still be perplexed as to why I found these books so compulsively readable, but definitely count me in for the next one.


~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

3 Stars
"Fear of choking on hard-to-swallow knowledge."
Everfair - Nisi Shawl


by Nisi Shawl


The premise of Everfair is utterly fascinating: an alternate history that takes place in the Congo starting under the reign of the tyrannical Belgian King Leopold II and ending several decades later. As Shawl notes in the forward:

"At least half the populace disappeared in the period from 1895 to 1908. The area thus devastated was about a quarter of the size of the current continental United States. Millions of people died."

It's a story not often told, and all the more important for it. The story centers around a colony set up by a mixed bag of colonists, each who come to Africa with different aims from religious freedom to a socialist utopia. The story mixes everything from a few steampunk elements such as the mechanical replacements for the hands chopped off during Leopold's tyrannical reign to mystical elements such as interactions with gods and mind-riding of animals.


While I was captivated by the concept, my feelings about the story itself are unfortunately rather more mixed. Writing a book that spans multiple decades and dozens of characters is a tricky art, and unfortunately, at least for me, Shawl didn't quite manage it. Given that the preface provides a list of "Some Notable Characters," well over a dozen of which turn out to be perspective characters, apparently even Shawl realized her cast was overwhelming. Not only that, but given that the short character descriptions in the preface turn out to be serious plot spoilers, it's clear that Shawl expects confused readers to flip back and refresh their memories with her list. To me, that expectation already indicates a serious problem in execution.


When I got to the story itself, I was even more perplexed. Each short chapter is effectively a vignette told through the perspective of a whole host of third-person-limited narrators and spaced evenly across the four decades that the book encompasses. We are given short glimpses of the characters' lives in turn, but most of the major events of the story--the crises, the character development--happen offpage. The multi-month and multi-year time jumps don't help, either. It seemed to me that the book was stuck in a constant state of exposition, always stuck summarizing all the dramatic events that occurred since the last vignette. My inability to actually experience the events that shaped the characters gave a distant, detached feeling to the story. I heard what the characters of the previous section did, but not how they felt or why. I never felt like I knew or understood any of them, and their choices and described emotions were a perennial surprise. The characters' actions seemed to me to be driven by narrative expediency-- or to put it more generously, by whim.

For example, take Martha, who marries a teenage boy she scorns out of expediency to get him to act for her. She appears to find his love letters embarrassing and tedious. And yet the next time we see her, she's apparently passionately, almost obsessively devoted to him and jealous over every woman he talks to. When did that happen?

Or take Daisy. We only get Daisy's perspective again years after her daughter's death, when she thinks: "In truth, nothing did much matter, since Lily's death." What, not her other kids? Sure, her pain is described, but nothing about her perspective makes me feel her grief. And Jackie and the other son just wander off the page, never to return. Plus, why is Daisy apparently so devoted to a cause she doesn't really believe in, to the point of sacrificing her children? She seems mostly passive, yet she stays in Everfair, despite all of the problems she encounters. Given her own rather extreme racism and deep fear of miscegenation, I really just don't understand what motivates her.

Or what were Lisette's motivations that brought her so far, and why did she suddenly decide to quit, only to be blackmailed back into the fold? What is with these people and these whims? I don't feel like I know any of the characters, if there is indeed anything there to know.

(show spoiler)


What I loved about the book was the way it tackled the clash of cultures and all of the wide-reaching ramifications of colonialization. The Fabian Society, a bunch of well-meaning Westerners with a socialist slant, decide to start a colony in the Congo. They purchase land and provide refuge to escaped slaves from Leopold's brutal reign, but while they speak of equality, it's not something they can really even comprehend. They impose their language, their names, and much of their culture upon the Africans they build their society with, and cannot even understand the insidious racism that colors their actions. They may call the Africans "equals," but they still find miscegenation unthinkable. They may believe they respect the languages and cultures they interact with, but of course English and Western custom must be the standard for the colony. 


The perspective characters include everyone from a local king and his queen to workers who escape Leopold's vicious regime to an engineer from Macau. Much of the book deals with the rising tensions caused by the Europeans' lack of comprehension, but it also portrays characters who escape this mindset and become shaped by the world they inhabit. Overall, it's a fascinating and thought-provoking look at the inherent problems of colonialisation: even the definition of utopia is shaped by the colonists. As one character thinks:

"That was the problem. The settlers of Everfair had come here naively at best, arrogantly at worst. [...] By their very presence they poisoned what they sought to save. How could they not? Assuming they knew the best about so many things-- not even realizing they had made such assumptions-- they acted without considering other viewpoints and remained in ignorance in spite of the broadest hints."

Daisy's insistence on creating a national holiday for Jackie Owen's death is utterly jaw-clenchingly awful. Even Matty's Wendi-La is still a white man telling the story. His admission that he never even considered the possibility of Fwendi refusing him is wince-inducing. More interesting to me was Thomas, who finds himself the converted rather than the converter.

(show spoiler)

Everfair definitely made me think. I just wish it had also made me feel. For me, the series of vignettes gave the book a stilted, disjointed feeling that in turn hindered my ability to relate to the characters. Most of the big events and character emotions happened offpage and were summarized via exposition. However, if the structure appeals to you more than it did to me, Everfair is well worth a look.


~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

4 Stars
"Comparative cognition, written by the dogs."
Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell - Alexandra Horowitz

Being a Dog

by Alexandra Horowitz


As a fan of Alexandra Horowitz's pop-animal-behavior-science book, Inside of a Dog, the contents of Being a Dog were something of a surprise. More reminiscent of Mary Roach'sGulp than its behavioral-science-heavy predecessor, Being a Dog is at least as much about the author's quest to experience the world through a dog's perceptions as it is about dogs themselves. Horowitz puts it best: just as books on animal comparative cognition tend to focus mostly on how the animals stack up against human perception and intelligence,Being a Dog is effectively a book about "Seeing if we can do what dogs do.... [human] comparative cognition, written by the dogs." As part of Horowitz's quest to experience the world through her nose in order to better understand her dogs, she does everything from taking the dogs on sniff-walks to sniff where they sniff, signing up for descriptive scent studies, visiting schools for detection dogs to see how they learn, and joining excursions to track wildlife by the smells they leave behind. She explores the extent to which humans focus on vision over scent, to the point that our vocabulary is effectively unable to even describe smells past much more than simple good/bad polarities. "Smelly," "odorous," "noisome"... despite their nonjudgemental root words, these adjectives don't just mean a strong smell, but also an unpleasant one.

Dogs, on the other hand, are masters of scent processing. They have hundreds of millions of receptor cells, compared to our six million. If spread out flat, their olfactory epithelia would completely cover their entire bodies. Ours would cover the surface area of a single mole. Their noses actually create tiny wind currents, called "schlieren," that help bring the smells closer to them. As one might expect, the sense of smell guides doggy behavior in the same way that vision guides our own. While dogs fail the standard animal cognition "mirror mark" test--identifying a change to their image-- they do pass an equivalent "sniff mirror" test. Dog owners are vastly familiar with their companions' tendency to sniff at strangers, but I, at least, was unaware that even behaviors such as tail-wagging and pawing may be about spreading the dog's scents to others. Anyone who has ever walked a dog knows all about marking and can easily distinguish it from "real" peeing. But according to studies that Horowitz cites, dog marking and countermarking seems to be informational rather than territorial. When doggy walk behavior is analyzed, it turns out that sniffing far outpaces marking: dogs "read" far more "pee-mail" than they compose.

While the opening of the book discusses the mechanics of dog noses, the latter part of the book describes Horowitz's quest to attempt to smell like a dog: she goes to sensory labs, dog training centers for everything from drug-sniffing dogs to dogs trained to detect hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia to joining a truffle hunt. If dogs experience the world primarily through smell, then the task to see the world through a dog's nose is almost incomprehensible to humans. Our world is ruled by vision-- the very expression to "see the world" expresses our dependency on sight. We have dozens of common color words, yet we pretty much only describe odors only in terms of the things that create them--skunky, flowery-- or by their taste--sweet, salty. And there is a good reason for this: our sense of smell may be nothing close to a dog's, but it's actually not that bad. The major distinction is that our sense of smell focuses on the vomoronasal component, allowing us to experience a much richer taste than is actually available through our tastebuds.

Being a Dog seeks to open the world of smell to our uncomprehending noses. While reading it, I was amazed at how little attention I pay to smell. I started consciously experiencing and trying to describe and categorize the smells I experienced on my daily bike rides and was amazed at how distinctive each location was: the sharp marshiness as I rode particularly close to a slough, the undertones of sunwarmed timber as I rode over a bridge, the tang of exhaust as the wind shifted from the direction of the highway. If you're looking for a guide to doggy behavioral cues, then you're better off checking out Horowitz's earlier book, Inside of a Dog. However, if you're interested in joining Horowitz's quest to experience the world through a dog's nose, then Being a Dog is definitely worth checking out. Through Horowitz's tale of her sensory journey, you may find yourself getting a glimpse of your dog's world.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Scribner, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

4 Stars
"You gotta save the world for the right reasons, Paul."
Fix ('Mancer) - Ferrett Steinmetz

Fix ('Mancer #3)

by Ferrett Steinmetz


I've said it before and I'll say it again: Ferrett Steinmetz's Flex series is one of the most imaginative and unique urban fantasies I've encountered. The trilogy takes place in a world where passionate, obsessive belief actually has the ability to warp reality to match their internal vision. As the book puts it:

"If you believed with a diamond-hard conviction the universe should act in a certain way, sometimes it did. You didn't mean to make it do anything, it just… shuffled out of the way.

Someone with an unhealthy obsession with gaming might become a videogamemancer, causing bullets to bounce off skin or magicking portal guns out of thin air or causing people around them to patrol in repeated loops. An edumancer might actually be able to teach anything to anyone and make them remember every word. But 'mancy comes at a cost. When the universe is bent into an alternate system, it rebounds with flux: concentrated bad luck that targets the 'mancer and causes their greatest fears to come true. And when 'mancy stands off against 'mancy, as happened in Europe, reality can be so horrifically distorted that it can breach, opening a door for creatures from the Lovecraftian Dungeon Dimensions.


If any of this sounds interesting to you, check out Flex, the first book in the trilogy. From here on out, there may be spoilers for the previous books.


In some ways, Fix was a satisfying book. I love series that end, that resolve their plot arcs rather than dragging out character development and conflicts infinitely. As Steinmetz notes in the afterward, Fix is indeed the end of the trilogy, and I appreciated the sense of closure. However, at the same time, Fix was extremely difficult to finish. The previous books may have been dark, but Fix repeatedly verges on utter despondency. I believe that pacing is a delicate feat of acrobatics: if everything's too safe and easy and achievable, there's no suspense. However, when things are too hard and hopeless, where all of the protagonists' moves just make everything worse and worse, then there's nothing to keep the reader engaged and it's all too easy to give up and put the book down. Unfortunately, I think the first 75% of Fix falls neatly into the latter category. The protagonists--the people I've rooted for, admittedly with mixed emotions, for two previous books-- push so far past the moral event horizon that I felt alienated from them and just wanted it all to end. I kept putting down the book, coming up with any excuse to read something else. I had to force myself to take it up again again and again.


One of the things I've loved about these books is the protagonist. Paul is a bureaucromancer. He believes in laws and rules and order with so much passion that his faith actually bends reality. Needless to say, he's a bit on the OCD side. As someone who is compelled to turn the doorknob repeatedly in multiples of five when leaving the house to make sure it's really locked (not kidding about multiples of five, sadly), this makes Paul a very empathetic and relatable character for me. An example of why I love him:

Back in the days before Paul had fallen hopelessly in love with Imani, he would find himself seized by shameful urges in his dates' apartments [...] college dorms so cramped they were practically spooning; Paul laced his fingers together to avoid temptation. His dates always smiled when they noticed his discomfort.

"Whatcha thinking?" they'd ask.

"Can I…"

"Yes?" They'd tilt their chins, all but begging to be kissed.

"Can I rearrange your bookshelves? They're out of alphabetical order."

The dates ended shortly after that.

Paul's singlemindedness has always made him something of an antihero; after all, in the initial book, he's willing to sell drugs to gangsters to save his daughter and in the second book, his actions against the villain left me horrified. However, in this book, his descent is so abrupt that it wasn't possible for me to empathize or even comprehend his actions. Instead, I was left feeling disconnected, unable to empathise with Paul or see him as anything other than a villain.


'Mancers were always set up to be antiheroes. Their steadfast certainty means that they see the world in an inherently rigid and inaccurate way; after all, that's how they do magic. In this book, Steinmetz really examines the consequences of this rigidity. In some ways, I loved this introspective aspect and the ways it explored Paul's motivations and the repercussions of his actions, but it was also heartbreaking to watch him do some truly terrible things.

I was already feeling alienated by his lack of concern for the other 'mancers; burning down the home was the last straw. And that left his mass murder spree for me to suffer through. Even apart from the whole Unimancer thing, it really bothered me that he cared only for his daughter's life, not for the scores of 'mancers in his safehouses who were put into danger and subsequently captured by his recklessness. He didn't even spare them a guilty thought.

(show spoiler)


I forced myself again and again to pick up the book, and I'm glad I did. I love how the book continued to develop Imani and Aliyah's characters. I love that we finally get to see breach-torn Europe. I love that we learn more about the Unimancers and their system. And I also love the way Valentine's romance develops through the story. Without any spoilers, I found the ending profoundly satisfying and also sweet.* If you've read the other books in the series, then I don't need to recommend Fix to you--you're going to pick it up anyway. If you haven't, and the idea of an OCD paperwork-loving 'mancer protagonist sounds like fun, you should definitely take a look at Flex. As for me, I'm excited to find out what Steinmetz has in store for his readers next.


~~ I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publishers, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my honest review. (Thank you!) Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.


*If you think that's spoilery, bear in mind that my definition of "completion" is apparently somewhat unusual, so don't necessarily assume a picture-perfect HEA with every plot thread wrapped up.

4 Stars
"There is little in the world that is God's will, but a lot that is the angels'."
The Ghoul King: A Story of the Dreaming Cities - Guy Haley

The Ghoul King

by Guy Haley


For those of you who know me, the TL;DR version is this: I finished The Ghoul King in one sitting, and immediately turned around and purchased The Emperor's Railroad (I almost never buy books.) And now it's at the top of my to-read list.


The Ghoul King is short, but potent. Don't look for character development when reading this: it's pure nonstop action and captivating worldbuilding. The story takes place in a far-future America, after the collapse of society as we know it. The fallen world has become a theocracy, the rule of God pinned together by Dreaming Cities and ruled by the angels. Living dead and ghouls wander the earth, byproducts of a terrible plague that strikes at the whim of the angels. While the reader can recognize the power of the angels as some sort of advanced technology lingering in a fallen world, the characters themselves have no idea, and no way of distinguishing science from magic or from the power of God. As one character puts it:

"There is little in the world that is God's will, but a lot that is the angels'."

There is so much to love about the worldbuilding. While I have a suspicion the setup may be more familiar to gamers, I got a huge kick out of the cross between western and magical theocracy. I loved mentions of "The Monastery of Sainted Electrics" or "Angel Makers" or radiation counters carried as common course.


My biggest issue with the book comes from a few throwaway lines in the book:

"I've been told back in the Gone Before there were many colors of men in the world, and they all fought and warred and ruined everything, so after God's wrath cleansed the Earth he mixed up all those left so there's only a few shades of skin. I have never seen so pale a man, almost white as a fish's belly. I didn't know such men still existed."

So it turns out that our ubermensch protagonist is white, and the only white man the narrator has ever seen, come to save everyone with his incredible mind and talent. Sigh.

Other than a few mentions of our white and blue-eyed protagonist that left a bad taste in my mouth, the rest of the book left racial issues alone, allowing me at least to pretend the whole "white saviour" thing wasn't happening. And as long as I could ignore that, I was utterly engrossed.


I love the idea of the Angels and the Dreaming Cities, and I can't wait to find out what makes them tick and what Quinn's actual mission is. In terms of series ordering, I read Ghoul King without The Emperor's Railroad and found it thoroughly comprehensible: Haley's style is to throw the reader directly into an initially bewildering world, slowly feeding them tiny pieces of backhistory and mechanics. I absolutely loved it. If you're looking for a short, wild ride with plenty of twists and captivating worldbuilding, The Ghoul King is definitely worth a look. Count me in for Knight Quinn's next adventure!


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

4 Stars
“I can wait for the galaxy outside to get a little kinder.”
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is easily one of the most feel-good books I've read in a while. Put it this way: I think if Kaylee decided to rewrite a cross between Firefly and TNG, this book might be the result. There really aren't any bad guys; just people with problems, each of which is bound to find a solution. It may not be so good for general YA--lots of of profanity, and given that one of the species involved is prone to orgies, there's also quite a bit of sexual content-- which is unfortunate, since in all other aspects, I think it would have been good for a younger audience as well.

As in most space-opera-style scifi, there's lots of political and social commentary, mostly in a positive social-uplifting way. Mind you; I think a lot of the scenes and the characters' actions imply a much more problematic perspective, which may be one reason I couldn't totally jump onboard with the story.

[A few examples:
- The whole thing with Corbin. The others despise him and cold-shoulder him throughout the entire story, never giving him benefit of the doubt, going silent when he comes into the room, etc, etc. Chambers clearly intends us to dislike him too. He's the straw intolerant, there to be shut down again and again. To me, he came across as on the spectrum, which made the others' treatment of him simply unkind. Of course he's a loner; the others treat him like crap whenever he's around and pretty much pressure him to leave.
- I find the subplot with Lovey sickening. The equivalent, to my mind, is a woman who is pressured by her man to get breast implants. No, it's not her choice; she's doing it to make him happy. Or to put it a different way, it's the enslaved being seeking to be molded in the shape of her master and to emulate his form and his desires. Which makes all his speechifying utterly disgusting.
- I hated the Ohan subplot. To me, the correct issue was never actually expressed: while killing the virus could save them, it would also stop them from being them. Death or annihilation of identity: what a choice. The analogue here is someone with a mental illness being forced to take meds. Sure, the outside world may find them weird, but if they want to be who they are and they're not harming anyone else, how does anyone have the right to force them to destroy their own identity? It's not saving your life if you have to lose who you are, and Chambers does her reader and her story a disservice by never even really digging into that aspect.]

(show spoiler)

Whatever my feelings about certain subplots, I was extremely impressed by the way Chambers managed to keep everything fluffy and positive without ever drifting into the saccharine. If you want a low-key heartwarming read,The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is definitely worth a look.

4 Stars
"As long as there are different classes of people, there will be different classes of dogs."
Pit Bull - Bronwen Dickey

Pit Bull: Battle over an American Icon

by Bronwen Dickey


Pit bulls have to be the most demonized dog breed of all time.

Oh, wait:
"Pit bull" is not actually a breed of dog. It's a type of dog which includes a bevy of different breeds-- American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), Staffordshire Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Bull Terrier, American Bully... well, you get the point.

I've been volunteering in animal shelters since high school. In most shelters in the US, pit bull mixes make up a majority of shelter dogs, so I've met (and loved) quite a few. The first pitt I met was named Punkin the Three Legged Pittie. While fighting dogs are rare--more on that later-- by his scars and injuries, he showed every sign of having been used in a fighting ring. His leg had been also chopped off with some sort of blade, apparently without anaesthetics. He hatedhumans with an undying and quite understandable passion. Every time anyone walked anywhere near his enclosure, he would throw himself again and again at the fence, growling, teeth bared, often biting at the fence. Then he'd back off and glare as he chewed meaningfully on a bone. In the years since, I occasionally looked him up on the shelter site; no one ever adopted him. Punkin gave me a healthy fear of pitt bulls that it took me a while to get over. (I'll admit to a few Punkin-fueled nightmares.) This wasn't helped by the inaccurate statistics about pits that I heard at every turn.

Over time, and as I spent more time at different shelters, I grew to love pit bulls and pit mixes. I love their open expressions and eager smiles and the way their lips actually turn up at the corners just like a human's. I love their boundless energy and their general derpy joie-de-vivre. I was trying to decide on my favourite pit and I realized I can't. I still love Ginger, a beautiful, happy girl who loved long walks and sprawling on my lap, and who had been so badly abused by a man that she went catatonic if any male came near her. Or Maui, who so loved the sun that she lay down like a sack whenever her walk was over and volunteers had to pick her up and carry all 70 pounds of passively protesting dead-weight dog back into her room. And then there was Jitterbug, who, like many shelter pits, ended up with a bad case of Happy Tail, where she so furiously wagged her tail at passerby that she gave herself huge bloody scrapes. (Once her tail was bandaged, I was the one with whip marks and bruises from being battered by her tail.) And so many more. I'm going to visit one of my current favourites, a year-old happy-go-lucky puppy, this weekend.

One ubiquitous "fact" about pits is that while they make up only 2% of the US dog population, they are responsible for about 70% of the deaths. As Dickey explains, this is a problematic factoid on two counts: first, the 2% comes from people who have registered their pits with the American Kennel Club and similar, so it doesn't account for mixes, breeds not acknowledged by the AKC, or dogs owned by people who don't care about purebred registries. Second, we also have to deal with cognitive biases: people believe that pits are monstrous Un-Dogs, so when dog-on-human violence happens, other breeds are routinely misidentified as pits. It's a vicious cycle: pit stories make good press; people believe pits are killer dogs; people misidentify a killer dog as a pit bull.

So where did all the maligning start? After all, at one point, the pit was the All-American Dog. Dickey makes a good case that the hatred of pits actually stems from racism, and that's one aspect that continues to fuel the stigma to this day. Pits are seen as vicious and thus their owners must be equally vicious; pits are also seen as "thug" or "gangster" dogs. As Dickey puts it, people are able to express racist views about the owners of pits by "using the dogs as proxies." Now add in the cities yanking dogs away from families, sticking them in shelters, and either euthanizing them or adopting them out to white suburban families and it puts even shelter work in a whole new light.

Dickey explores a wide range of viewpoints and current uses of pits. If you're looking for an utterly unbiased examination of bully breeds and their history, this is not the book for you. Dickey absolutely is on the side of pits and against breed-specific legislation (BSL), and she pushes her viewpoint via her characterization of her interview subjects and her impassioned rhetoric. Personally, I'm in full agreement that pits are maligned and BSL is awful. BSL is incredibly arbitrary, we have plenty of statistics that show it doesn't work. The people who are really affected by it are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, who aren't allowed to keep their dog because someone somewhere thinks it might be a pit mix.

However, I also believe that Dickey is doing her book and the pit a disservice. To me, she seemed to insist throughout that dogs are dogs are dogs, and that pits are effectively the same as golden retrievers or poodles. I just don't think that's true-- bully breeds, like guardian breeds, are wonderful dogs, but they have their own special needs. Pits have a strong prey drive, they often have lots of energy, and they need to learn socialization, as they have a tendency to be a bit clueless and in-your-face with other dogs. Pits are very powerful dogs, and they learn to take special care in "handicapping" themselves when playing with tiny dogs and weakling humans. (Personally, I avoid tug-of-war-style games because I don't want an overexcited dog to forget that I'm comparatively fragile.) With guardian breeds, sometimes you need to work on the dog's territorial or protection instinct as well. Personally, I'm more wary of mastiffs, rottweilers, and dobermans than I am of german shepherds, huskies, or pits because I can read the latter better, but I do believe all of those breeds have characteristics that should be considered when matching to a home.

Dickey is passionate about her subject and has plenty of interesting and novel material. Not only did I learn a lot about pit history; I also found a new charity to support: The Coalition to Unchain Dogs, Inc, a fascinating organization that improves the welfare of dogs while empowering owners instead of taking their dogs from them. All in all, if you're interested in US history over the last few centuries viewed through the lens of a notorious dog, Pit Bull is well worth a look.

4 Stars
"A fate four point two degrees worse than death."
The Nightmare Stacks (A Laundry Files Novel) - Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks (Laundry Files #7)


by Charles Stross


When Alex Schwartz took a lucrative job developing high frequency trading algorithms, he had no idea how literal his transformation into a bloodsucking vampire was going to be. In the world that Stross creates, higher mathematics open a gateway to Other Dimensions haunted by Lovecraftian beasties, including the V-symbiotes that invaded Alex's brain and gave him PHANG Syndrome (Person of Hemophagic Autocombusting Nocturnal Glamour), which, sadly, isn't yet covered by the Equality Act.

Acclimatizing to his new job in the Laundry, the super-secret magical equivalent to MI5, is never easy, but Alex entered the trade at a particularly difficult time: as the number of humans and computers increases, intrusions into the Dungeon Dimensions become increasingly common. As Alex learns,

"Training for the end of the world is an ongoing part of the job."

Right now, most of the Laundry is focused on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the apocalyptic eventuality where magical saturation causes Cthulhu and Azathoth and all their friends to converge upon Planet Earth. However, The Nightmare Stacks takes a break from the looming threat of GREEN to focus on a NIGHTMARE of quite a different colour. While the previous book took on superheroes, this one combines James-Bond-style shenanigans with yet another geeky fandom. I can't tell you which--spoilers--but I can say that the results are vastly entertaining.

The Nightmare Stacks is a bit of a departure from the other books in the series because it has barely a mention of Bob Howard, arcane sysadmin and protagonist of most of the rest of the books. Personally, I was thrilled to get a new protagonist. Alex is a bit of a passive nebbish nonentity, but I found him rather more likeable than the Bob of recent books. The protagonist-- and NIGHTMARE-- switch makes this an ideal starting book for anyone interested in the series. (Apparently it depends heavily on The Rhesus Chart, but as I've not read it--it's the only Laundry book I skipped--and I got along fine, I think this would be entirely readable without the context of the rest of the series.) I did find the narrative style a bit odd, however; we're told this is Alex's journal, yet most of the story, including the Alex-POV sections, are told in third person. I admit to being a bit mystified by that.

Alex, our hapless protagonist, has more on his mind than PHANG Syndrome. His new employers are sending him to the last place on earth he wants to be: Leeds, his childhood home, where he's

Doomed to be dragged back into the infantilizing maw of his family's expectations."

Alex's interactions with his family are so utterly cringingly awkward that they induced sympathetic winces from me, as did his amusing attempts to flirt with his love interest, who takes the MPDG thing to a whole new level.

"Alex's experience of dating is similar to his experience of string theory: abstract, intense, and entirely theoretical due to the absence of time and opportunities for probing such high-energy phenomena."

I thoroughly enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on the amusing mundanities of Alex's life, but like many of Stross's book, at some point, the content switched over to extremely graphic and disturbing scenes of battle and slaughter. I've never quite figured out if all the gore was intended to be funny. I certainly don't find them so, but the scenes are liberally swathed in dramatic irony and Stross is peculiarly detached from the slaughter. I suspect the familial scenes and war scenes will appeal to vastly different audiences, and that plenty of other reviews will be complaining about the aspects of the book that I adored.

I find Stross reliably hilarious and The Nightmare Stacks was no exception. I adore urban fantasy and the way it mashes together the banalities of life with a genre-savvy take on traditional fantasy. Along with explaining how a salt circle traps mages and describing the intricacies of governmental PLAN PURPLE PEOPLE EATER, this book involves perhaps the most unique usage of a selfie stick I've come across. If you find Stross's unique combination of magic, maths geekery, Rube-Goldbergian bureaucracy, and bumbling spycraft as entertaining as I do, The Nightmare Stacks is definitely worth checking out.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. (Thanks!) Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

4.5 Stars
"I am the monster in your tale."
The Devourers - Indra Das

The Devourers

by Indra Das


The Devourers is an utterly unique story, a lyrical, dreamlike, all-consuming experience. It's a story within a story, interwoven with metaphor and symbolism. On the most mundane level, it's a story of monsters, of shapeshifters, a story of rape, of what happens after, of how a woman victimized by a monster seeks to regain empowerment. The Devourers spans many eras, but the backbone of the story takes place in modern-day Kolkata, where a jaded historian meets a fascinating stranger with an enthralling tale. The historian undertakes the task of transcribing some ancient manuscripts the mysterious stranger gives him, and these in turn give us the stories of a band of monstrous shapeshifter and the human woman Cyrah. Through the historian's transcriptions, the story of the devourers is told in the voices of maidens and monsters, all set against the lush backdrop of Kolkata:

"A king of wolves in a land of tigers."

The book is lavish with symbolism and imagery. Devouring and shapeshifting take many forms throughout the novel, with meaning layered upon meaning and intertwined with symbolism. It's an examination of rape and victimization and agency, and also a fascinating exploration of gender fluidity. It's hard to read the story without drawing parallels between the werewolves and imperialism in India. As Cyrah says of the (white, European) shapeshifter,

"He took what he wanted, with no regard for my opinion on the matter."

As becomes clear when we learn that Fenrir was originally female, it's no coincidence that the werewolves appeared as (white) men. Yet in this story of a woman trying to regain her agency, I found myself frustrated by the predetermined outcome, that Cyrah would keep the child. It still feels bitter to me, as though she lost her agency through that forced choice. I took a certain amount of solace in the son devouring the father.

(show spoiler)

If you're looking for a gorgeous, multilayered story, a folkloric quest interwoven with existential journeys, then The Devourers is well worth a look.


~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Random House Publishing Group-Ballantine, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

3 Stars
Where women can't ask for directions
An Accident of Stars - Foz Meadows

An Accident of Stars

by Foz Meadows


Until the death of Google Reader, I was a regular subscriber to Foz Meadows' blog, so I was absolutely delighted to have the chance to read her book. I think I would have been absolutely captivated by Accident of Stars when I was younger. Thematically, it's a coming-of-age story in a creative high fantasy world, and not only are the majority of protagonists teenagers, but the story is also blissfully devoid of love triangles, self-image issues, and school-related angst. Sadly, I've since become rather more jaded. The story is an homage to traditional high fantasy, but with a strongly feminist slant. As an almost exact contrast to standard epic fantasy, almost all of the characters of importance--protagonists, villains, and everything in between-- are female. Pure gender swapping was observable in everything from the matriarchal societies to the female role as warrior to the fact that in this world, it's women who can't ask for directions because

"Women were gifted by Sahu with the knowledge of orientation: admitting failure in that respect would open her up to mockery."

The message of the story, too, are equally blatant. Possibly because I was so cognizant of Meadows' role as social commentator, the feminism and seemed rather self-conscious to me. It's all fun, but felt so very self-aware that it prevented me from really getting into the flow of the story.

Accident of Stars follows something of a good-evil dichotomy of traditional epic fantasy. Our usurping villains are apparently Evil Incorporated™, even though we see very little of their dastardly plans, possibly because they're so much an afterthought to the meat of the tale. At least one of the villains appears to be evil for the sake of evil; the other has a motivation right out of an 1890s morality tale.

Seriously, what is with all these women and their obsession with childbirth? It's almost like they feel that a woman's life isn't complete without it, yeah? 

(show spoiler)

The characters themselves never quite came alive to me, perhaps because so much of their personalities and interactions are driven by the plot. I saw Gwen as the clearest example of this: although born on earth, Gwen creates a life for herself on the other world, including two partners and a child. Yet while she thinks about them often, it's in a plot-driven way: her lovers remain utter nonentities, their entire characters limited to their names and genders. I felt that the characters were shaped by the plot and message, not the other way around. The character I found most intriguing--and, not coincidentally, the only one I felt escaped the good-evil dichotomy-- was Yasha, a dictatorial outcast matriarch whose motives are murky for much of the story.


Even though I loved how Meadows eschewed a white default, I was somewhat troubled by the treatment of race and ethnicity. One of my major irritations is when authors reflect an oversimplification of the ethnicities of our world into theirs. In this case, apparently being black means you're Uyun. That's right; apparently your skin tone dictates your nationality, ethnicity, and culture, all in one go. Even though Uyuns live in other cities, their skin color defines them. No matter how self-consciously Meadows tries to explore racial issues, everything in the world she creates seems to depend on skincolor--nationality, culture, religion. Is there no intermixing, no sharing of cultures here? Why does everyone assume the black person from Earth is Uyun and thus apparently from that country rather than the area she lives in? I admit I'm disappointed. I would have expected her to have picked up on how problematic and limiting a skin-color-equals-nationality-equals-culture setup can be.


I'm not sure what genre is targeted, but personally I feel that this fits comfortably into the YA framework. Sure, parents may be a little uncomfortable at the idea of polyamory, but nothing is graphic, and the general themes-- empowerment, coming of age, etc-- seem to fit the genre rather well. I think this is the type of book I would have utterly adored as a high-schooler. It creates a world of acceptance and feminism, a sharp contrast to the rigid gender roles so often seen in high fantasy. If you're looking for a modern take on Narnia-style worlds-through-portals, Accident of Stars is worth a look.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~

4 Stars
"I hope I have three celebrations coming--when we whip Hitler and Hirohito and when we kill that damn coyote."
Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History - Dan Flores

Coyote America

by Dan Flores


If you weren't aware that the American War On Coyotes has been going on for longer than Vietnam, had more casualties than the Civil War, and was even more futile than the War On Drugs, you're in for a surprise.

I must admit to a certain fondness for coyotes. When I lived in Texas, I loved hearing their howls at dusk, their shapes framed against stark treeless hills and tall houses. I think they're gorgeous creatures, as far removed from the Looney Toons Coyote as a bean sprout from a redwood. While wolves are perhaps dearer to my heart, a coyote loping along a grassy trail is a rare and wonderful sight. So I have to admit that I was utterly shocked to discover that the US has been waging constant war on coyotes for well over a century.

Flores takes us from the dawn of coyote history and their tumultuous relationship with wolves to their first interactions with people. Coyotes were a semi-divine figure, both trickster and the butt of every joke, to an impressive number of Native American groups. For the Yanas and Navajos, Coyote was even bringer of death. Coyotes, or "coyotl," to give them the original Aztec name, have always been a cosmopolitan species, and they've apparently been living in urban environments for millennia: even the center of Tenochtitlan has an alley named "Coyoacan" ("place of the coyote"). Flores starts with the original myths ("The only thing smarter than coyote is God"), then takes us from Lewis and Clarke's "prairie wolves" to Twain's diatribe of them as "spiritless and cowardly" to the 1920 Scientific American article that proclaimed them as the "ORIGINAL BOLSHEVIK."

Flores estimates that we're still killing about half a million coyotes per year--that's about one per minute. Early Americans believed that their new country suffered from a "predator problem," and that wolves-- and to a lesser degree, coyotes-- needed to be extinguished to "save" both farmers and wildlife. (Apparently they never stopped to wonder how the deer managed before their arrival.) Settlers tried everything from lacing carcasses with strychnine powder to introducing sarcoptic mange into the wild canid populations. In the early 1900s, bounties for coyote "scalps" took about ⅔ of Montana's annual budget. Wolf populations collapsed, but coyotes, now viewed as "the archpredator of our time," remained constant. The Division of Biological Survey, created in the late 1800s, used only about 3% of its budget for scientific study. It saw its mission as solving the "predator problem," and it did so with gusto: by the mid-1920s, they had set out over 3.5M poison bait stations across the US. Hoover's "Animal Damage Control Act" earmarked $1M/year of federal funds for the eradication of coyote and other pests. The Biological Survey and Forest Service would eventually carpetbomb massive tracts of land with a series of poisons, including sodium cyanide, thallium sulfate, and Compound 1080--one which is still used today. As one member of the bureau put it during WW2:

"I hope I have three celebrations coming--when we whip Hitler and Hirohito and when we kill that damn coyote."


So how did coyotes survive? Flores postulates that their resilience is unique: they have fission-fusion societal structures, long childhoods where they can learn caution from their parents, and an impressive ability to increase litter size under environmental pressure from 5.7 pups to as many as 19. As secondary predators to wolves and later dogs, they learned vigilance and flexibility, even in diet: they're omnivorous, primarily eating small creatures such as mice, gophers, grasshoppers, and crickets, but they'll also happily scavenge for berries and plants as well as carrion. Their survivability in cities--sheltered from the aerial gunning of the country--is as high as that of national parks.

Flores takes us through all this and much else besides, from the effects of "The Great Dog War" of the mid-1800s to Disney's pivotal role in changing America's perspective on the coyote to the eventual political embrace of biocentrism to the repercussions of the first recorded death by coyote in 1980s LA. The book is utterly fascinating. My only caveat is that it's difficult to take the book without a grain of salt or two, and I ended up spending a lot of time fact-checking various statements. For example, he credulously repeats the old chestnut about canids only seeing in black and white, and his own political beliefs--in particular, a surprisingly virulent hatred of Reagan-- strongly color his narrative. His portrayal of red wolves, too, seemed to me to be incomplete, containing only the facts that support the narrative he wants. (I do, however, agree with Flores about the insanity of killing and sterilizing coyotes and wolf-coyote hybrids in the effort to preserve the "purity" of the red wolves.)

But what I simply couldn't wrap my head around was the American government's dogged determination to exterminate the coyote. The predator-killing bureau is still around-- since 1997, it's been euphemistically known as the Division of Wildlife Services, and it killed about 4M animals in 2013, a good proportion of them coyotes. These days, they mostly shoot them out of planes, but they've also experimented with sterilization. If you're interested in coyotes and America's fraught relationship with environmentalism and predators, Coyote America is definitely worth a look.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Basic Books, in exchange for my honest review.~~

5 Stars
"War is all about taking the future away from people."
Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit

by Yoon Ha Lee


This book is awesome. And I mean that in the formal sense of the word: my mind is officially blown.

There is so much to Ninefox Gambit that it's hard to figure out where to start. The story takes place in a world governed by calendrical systems: in effect, the beliefs, calendar, and observances of society create topologies that in turn affect the laws of physics and allow the use of "exotic effects," which are almost always utilized as weapons. Cheris lives within the hexarchate, which is run by six groups, each with their own distinct characteristics and symbol, from the burning suicide hawk of the Kel to the crafty Shuos ninefox. Cheris, a member of the straightforwardly warlike Kel, finds herself paired with the most infamous Shuos of all, on a mission to save the supposedly impregnable Fortress of Scattered Needles from calendrical heresy. All too quickly, she finds herself in a constant battle of wits with a formidable ally, constantly struggling to determine her true enemies.

One of the most brilliant aspect of the book is the way in which it places the reader within a world and a culture and a mindset so alien from our own. The hexarchate is not a pleasant place, constantly at war with all of its neighbors, ruthlessly destroying the cultures of all those it conquers, and scrupulously performing bloody "remembrance rights" to keep the calendrical systems strong. The Kel may be innately loyal, but to better fulfill their role as the hexarchate's disposable army, they are brainwashed and programmed with "formation instinct" so that they are effectively incapable of disobeying orders. Given the structure of the world, it's not surprising that the book is both dark and intense. From the perspective of the hexarchate's stultifying culture, the story tackles issues of gender and rape. Death is a constant throughout the story, and it is portrayed as grim rather than valiant and heroic. As one character thinks:

"War is all about taking the future away from people."

Despite the dark themes, I couldn't help but find the calendrical system just plain awesome. As one character puts it:

"In a sense, all calendrical war is a game between competing sets of rules, fueled by the coherence of our beliefs. To win a calendrical war, you have to understand how game systems work."

The concept of a sufficiently large population's faith, belief, and rituals actually warping the physical laws of the universe is just the coolest thing ever. Full disclosure: I have to admit that I suffer from Math Envy: while I don't think I'm really capable of understanding higher mathematics, I'm utterly fascinated by the core ideas, at least in the abstract. I dropped out of topology in the first few weeks because my brain felt like silly putty. I survived first-semester real analysis by the skin of my teeth and even so, I wandered around in a daze for weeks because now I knew what real numbers actually were. This book is so fascinating that it has given me a newfound desire to try to learn topology again.

But even apart from the mathematical aspects, the worldbuilding is fascinatingly deep and infinitely creative: disregarded self-aware artificial intelligences who act as servitors for the hexarchate, immortality devices and the black cradle, battle formation geometries, deadly threshold winnowers, human composite technologies, much else besides. And throughout the story is a constant theme of games, and games within games. As one opponent tells Cheris,

"You lost the moment you agreed to play the game on my terms, without negotiating."

Ninefox Gambit is an impressively creative story brimming over with metaphor and symbolism and and analysis. If you're a fan of mathematics and mindgames, you really need to check out this book. I can't wait for the sequel.

~~I received this ebook from the publisher, Solaris/Rebellion, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

5 Stars
"We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny."
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party - Joshua Bloom, Waldo E. Martin Jr.

Black Against Empire


by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin, Jr.


I don't say this type of thing much, but here goes: I believe that if you live in the US, this is one of those books you should read.

"The issues are not complex. The objective is seizure of power. Until we seize power, not visible power where a black man looks like he's running things--but real, actual power; everything else is bullshit [...] Peace and order are bullshit; they are meaningless without justice."
--Leroy Goodwin

I believe we have entered another Civil Rights era, and I have a perhaps naive hope that this one will finally complete the mission that was left incomplete during the time of MLK and Malcom X and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense: full, meaningful equality. Equality that is reflected in housing, in the police force, in education, in integration of society, in self-determination for all.

The Black Panthers believed that such a world could only come through true revolution.

I believe that we must share a common context for what hashappened before we can shape what should happen. We must understand the past in order to shape the future.

And here's the problem: mainstream America still has a woefully inaccurate view of the BPP, even though at this point, it's widely acknowledged that the Black Panther Party was the target of an insidious, targeted, widespread, often illegal onslaught by the U.S. government, including a concerted policy of propaganda and isolation and infiltration and misinformation. And yet despite continuing revelations about the extent of COINTELPRO-BLACK-HATE, Operation CHAOS, and all the rest, the Black Panther Party remains an uncomfortable and often misunderstood political movement. Independent of whether you agree with the stances taken by the BPP in its many iterations, it's crucial to understand their contexts.

It's easy to laud a nonviolent movement, at least once the movement is over. It's safe. Putting nonviolent figures on a pedestal is comfortable. It's probably why my childhood education repeatedly ignored all other aspects of the Civil Rights movement to focus on MLK. Maybe that's why we remember, say, Harriet Tubman as a kindly figure of the Underground Railroad rather than an active supporter of John Brown's raid and a vocal supporter of war against the South. It's even harder to go back and look at revolutions where violence was a relevant factor, particularly when those revolutions were lost. But this battle will be fought again and again until it is won, and I believe that a crucial aspect is for all Americans to try to understand the history and context of the unrest of today.

Black Against Empire is a fact-driven, unemotional examination of the social history and context of the Black Panther Party. Although a little dry at times, the sense of impartiality is one of the most impressive aspects of the book. It's a massive tome because the BPP has a long and fascinating history.

Often, as the rhetoric on each side mounts, it's difficult to read. But it illuminates on aspect that I, at least, was missing before reading this book: the BPP saw itself as a revolutionary force representing a disenfranchised nation occupied by a hostile invading force. The BPP's Ten Point Program even paraphrased the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [...] But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.

This aspect alone goes far in explaining the rationale behind armed defense. As George Mason Murray put it in 1968:

The Black Panther Party recognizes the critical position of black people in the United States. We recognize that we are a colony within the imperialist domains of North America and that it is the historic duty of black people in the United States to bring about the complete, absolute and unconditional end of racism and neocolonialism by smashing, shattering, and destroying the imperialist domains of North America.

Wondering if this book is relevant? As the news is awash with warnings of another "Bloody Summer" in Chicago and elsewhere, consider Bobby Seale's words in 1967:

“If one would look closely, and check this three year history, he will find that in damn near every rebellion a racist cop was involved in the starting of that rebellion [...] by inflicting brutality or murdering some black person within the confines of one of our black communities. Black people will defend themselves at all costs. They will learn the correct tactics to use in dealing with the racist cops […] The racist military police force occupies our community just like the foreign American troops in Vietnam. But to inform you dog racists controlling this rotten government and for you to let your pig cops know you ain’t just causing a ‘long hot summer,’ you’re causing a Black Revolution."

TL;DR: if you live in the US, and maybe even if you don't, this is a book worth reading.

4 Stars
“What are the odds that people will make smart decisions [...] if they can get rich making dumb decisions?"
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine - Michael Lewis

The Big Short

by Michael Lewis


Achievement unlocked: I finally understand what the term "shorting" actually means.

Lewis provides a thorough and interesting take on the financial crisis, and now I think I finally begin to understand what caused the world economy to tank. As Lewis notes, there was plenty of greed to go around, but it was the criminal irresponsibility of the bankers, the investors, the bond traders, that really created the opportunity for such large-scale corruption.

I found this book particularly difficult because of my own fears of debt. My personality tends towards "control freak" and I find the idea of being in debt utterly terrifying. I have lived in suburbia for over five years without owning a car, commuting everywhere by bicycle, partly because the amount of money involved in buying a car simply scares me. Just thinking about the national debt makes my heart race. As a kid, I remember hearing my parents talk about variable-rate mortgages and the way that banks were using them to trick credulous and innocent buyers, but it was hard to see what banks could get out of selling homes to people who couldn't afford them. Now I understand: the homes were secondary to the CDOs that could be constructed from the loans. I find the story of the shadow banking system playing with peoples' lives and hopes this way, tempting them into a lifestyle beyond their means, utterly disgusting. Sure, you could say people should know better, but that's not sufficient and it's not fair. As Lewis notes, the incentives for everyone involved, from the homeowners to the bonds salesmen to the regulators, were simply all wrong. And they're still all wrong.

The one issue I'm left with is Lewis's take on his protagonists, a group of men who all "shorted" the sub-prime market industry. He treats them as heroes, as isolated voices of sanity in an increasingly insane world. But if they hadn't acted as buyers for sub-prime market insurance, there couldn't have been sellers, either. They ended up earning billions of dollars, and this type of finance is a zero-sum game. Their gains meant the losses of the sellers, and, ultimately, the American taxpayers. Sure, they didn't do anything strictly unethical, and sure, several of them apparently attempted to shut down the industry. But in the end, when they couldn't get anyone to listen, they settled for exploitation. And because they didn't turn around and, say, donate all that money to the ultimate victims of the sharks of Wall Street, I find it hard to see that choice as heroic.

If you, like me, are a financial dunce but still want to understand what on earth caused our economy to fail, I heartily recommend The Big Short. It may leave you disgusted with every person even tangentially involved with Wall Street and the shadow banking system, but at least you'll have a clue about how they took down our economy, and how they're probably going to do it all over again.


By the way: the smartest guy in the book, Dr. Michael Burry, believes we're in for another bust. And I believe him.

4 Stars
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Vol 10
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Ten (Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year) - Jonathan Strahan

I've been a fan of Strahan's "Year's Best" collections for years. He has a great eye for memorable stories, and the tenth volume is no exception. So what was last year in SFF like? As one might expect, Strahan's introduction included a few mentions of the "Sad Puppies" Hugo controversy, but despite the push for "traditional" SFF of adventurous derring-do, Strahan's collection contains a satisfying variety of thoughtful examinations of social issues as well as a few pure chilling tales and rip-roaring adventures.

My favourite variety of short story is the one where the twist is like a punch in the gut, and where the story haunts you long after you close the book. "Little Sisters" by Vonda N. Mcintyre is easily one of the most chilling, eerie stories in the entire collection. It is [trigger warning] about rape, and defilement, and child custody, but all in an utterly alien context, and all told from the perspective of a gender and sexuality utterly foreign to our own. Yet the sheer alienness also makes it distressingly, effectively visceral.


Equally unique was "Kaiju Maximus: 'So Various, So Beautiful, So New'" by Kai Ashante Williams. It takes place in a future where superhuman Heroes fight endlessly against alien forces, told from the perspective of a camp follower. It's an interesting vision of the superhero dynamic and the ways in which someone with superhuman abilities can all too quickly become inhuman, and it's all the more fascinating because of the underlying gender dynamics: the great Hero is female and the camp follower is male. Alyssa Wong's "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" is one of the most thoroughly creepy short stories I've encountered for a while. It involves vampirelike creatures--possibly Jiangshi, but I'm not sure-- who thrive on the consumption of evil thoughts. They also keep the spares in jars. Totally creepy, but it's also a coming-of-age story about sexuality and mother-daughter relationships.

The common theme that stood out most to me was that of emergent consciousness. While the idea certainly has appeared before, this year, it felt almost omnipresent, taking the place of the previous year's focus on surveillance societies. I couldn't help but wonder if AlphaGo and similar breakthroughs influenced the writers or Strahan himself. Apart from the previously-mentioned "Little Sisters," quite a few stories played with the theme of a post-AI-ascended future, including Kelly Link's "The Game of Smash and Recovery", Geoff Ryman's "Capitalism in the 22nd Century or AIR", and Gwyneth Jones' "Emergence". Several explored themes of slavery, agency, and free will in such a future. Most memorably, Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl's "Jamaica Ginger" is a poignant steampunk story of an alternate nineteenth-century New Orleans. It uses the replacement of Pullman porters with AI robots to draw parallels to racism and slavery, and as I'd recently read a book that dealt with this history, I found the story particularly memorable.

Strahan's SFF collections tend to define the genre quite broadly, and quite a few of the stories here could fit quite neatly into the horror genre. Tamsyn Muir's "The Deepwater Bride" is an entertaining take on the coming of a thonic Lovecraftian monster told from a teenage perspective. It boasts one of the best opening lines I've ever encountered:

"In the time of our crawling Night Lord's ascendancy, foretold by exodus of starlight into his sucking astral wounds, I turned sixteen and received Barbie's Dream Car."

"The Lily and the Horn" by Catherynn M. Valente is perhaps the first Valente story that I thoroughly enjoyed and wins the award as one of the creepiest love stories I've ever read. Lush, lyrical writing introduces us to a world where wars are fought with poison and treachery over the dinner tables. "A Murmuration" by Alastair Reynolds is a brilliant work of psychological horror and a perfect portrait of academic insanity. My favourite quotable quote:

"I squeeze our data until it bleeds science."

Neil Gaiman's "Black Dog," which opens the collection, combines American Gods-style worldbuilding with an atmospheric and foreboding take on the traditional village ghost story. Not all these horror-type stories worked for me, however: honestly, I wasn't sure what to make of Jeffrey Ford's "The Winter Wraith". A pseudo-horror story about a Christmas tree feels too ridiculous to be intended as anything but silly, but I didn't find it particularly funny, either.

Several stories took current political concerns to a possible conclusion. "Oral Argument" by Kim Stanley Robinson is easily my favourite KSR story I've read. Told as excerpts from a court case by an extremely snarky witness, it's short, sweet, and with a vastly entertaining punchline. Paolo Bacigalupi's "City of Ash" is a vignette that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world of extreme water scarcity, possibly the same world as The Water Knife. Sam J. Miller's "Calved"is a poignant story of a father and his estranged son trying to come to terms in an ever-changing, post-US-collapsed world, but it's also about race and acceptance and prejudice and, most of all, entitlement. As the protagonist puts it:

"Shielded by willful blindness and complex interlocking institutions of privilege, we mistook our uniqueness for universality."

Sam J. Miller's other story in the collection, "The Ghosts of Home," is an imaginative take on the bank foreclosing catastrophe. While I didn't care much for the story's romance, several quotes were satisfyingly memorable:

"Agnes had made mistakes before. [...] One thing was always true, though: She knew they were mistakes before she made them. She decided to make a mistake and that's what she did. The hard part was figuring out the right mistake to make."

"Another Word for World" by Ann Leckie is a brilliant and amusing examination of language and the way it shapes our preconceptions. Thematically, it reminded me tremendously of C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner. Ian Mcdonald's "Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan" is a very direct transference of the late nineteenth century imperialistic mentality to Venus, complete with teeth-grinding jingoism and grating "Great White Hunter"-type adventures. It's fun, but has the sort of jarring disconnect one gets when reading Kipling.

A few of the stories didn't fall under any unifying theme."The Heart's Filthy Lesson" by Elizabeth Bear is a thoroughly enjoyable gem that takes us to a distant planet where a scientist named Dharthi, preoccupied by a one-sided rivalry with her all-too-perfect lover, sets off on a dangerous scientific quest. Not only did the story show off Bear's lushly creative worldbuilding, but it also featured swamp tigers--definitely a win. Genevieve Valentine's "Blood, Ash, Brains" paints a vivid picture of the "Nachthexen" (Night Witches), with a little real witchcraft thrown in for good measure. Greg Bear's "The Machine Starts" is a trippy, brain-bending multiverse jaunt. "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" by Usman T Malik is one of the longer stories in the collection and fuses ancient myth with a man's relationship with his cultural history.

As always, there were a few stories that didn't quite hit me.Caitlyn R. Kiernan's "Dancy vs. the Pterosaur" centers primarily around the main character's interaction with a rigid evangelical in a post-apocalyptic world. It feels rather like a glimpse into a larger saga, and while I found the worldbuilding interesting, the religious discussion isn't what I'd call thought-provoking or illuminating. While I think I"Drones" by Simon Ings was a bit too weird for me. In Ings' future, a random disease manages to kill off most of the women and all of the bees, leaving a future world where a very few men have harems and the rest are the titular drones. I found it all too illogical and too much like a fifties throwback to be able to get into the story. While I generally love Robert Reed, his "The Empress in her Glory", which tells the story of a blogger who gains power because her predictions are made true by conquering aliens, just didn't quite grab me. Kelly Robson's "The Waters of Versailles," a magic-and-manners alternate history of Roi-Solei France, is one of the longest stories in the book, but I found the protagonist so utterly unsympathetic that it was hard to be interested in his story. "The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club" by Nike Sulway earns the prize as my least favourite story in the book. It mixes real people (e.g. Karen Joy Fowler) with utterly un-thought-out anthropomorphic rhinoceri who make tea (with what arms?), shop on ebay (with what fingers?), garden, build houses, read and write books, drive up driveways, and make bread (how?); their actual rhinocerosness is apparently restricted only to the word and to their grey skin. Personally I can't even picture a rhinoceros gardening or typing on a computer, and I don't think the author even thought far enough into her utterly superficial worldbuilding to consider it. Such slipshod thinking infuriated me far too much to allow me to enjoy whatever the story was supposed to be about.

Despite a few stories that didn't grab me, Strahan continues to demonstrate his gift for creating eclectic, interesting collections that capture the spirit of the year. His collections tend to include many familiar names, but usually include a few new authors as well. If you're looking to widen your SFF perspective, I highly recommend picking up one of Strahan's Year's Best.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

3.5 Stars
You had one job!
You Had One Job! - Beverly L. Jenkins

You know, I think the best way to summarize this book is with an example:

Sure, it's not highbrow or anything, but a couple of the images struck me as funny enough that I couldn't help audibly sniggering. In public. Which I find extremely embarrassing.

It's a short book--about 150 pages-- and you can flip through the whole thing in less than half an hour. Each image is accompanied with a short comment. Some of the pictures were funnier than others, but in general, I found the images amusing rather than the comments, which struck me as a bit over the top. In retrospect, the fact that the author writes for isn't a surprise. Most of the images are just misspellings or mis-shelvings or mass production gone wrong, but they're amusing nonetheless, and I can think of worse ways to spend a few minutes.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publishers, Andrews McMeel Publishing, in exchange for my honest review~~


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