Sam's First Carousel Ride
Sam’s First Carousel Ride

Why do kids enjoy carousel rides so much? Shoot, why do we have so much nostalgia for them as adults? I have no idea. I could probably put together some BS about a cultural memory of horseback riding, but frankly I think it’s just the first amusement park ride a kid is able to go on. This is Disney before your tiny brain can even comprehend the existence of such a place. And, unlike a car, I think it’s pretty evident even to the kids that there is no utilitarian function here – you end up roughly where you started.

Stella's first carousel ride
Stella’s first carousel ride

First Bike Ride

One day in October I wanted to get some exercise and it was just perfect timing with the kids up from their naps. So I took them for their first ride on the bike carriage. I wasn’t sure how they’d take it, given how randomly they seemed to take stroller rides. But they both actually enjoyed it and didn’t cry one tear. We’ll see what happens in the spring when they’re 1.5ish.

Sam's Bike Ride
Sam’s Bike Ride

Review: CBLDF Presents: She Changed Comics

CBLDF Presents: She Changed ComicsCBLDF Presents: She Changed Comics by Betsy Gomez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I backed the Kickstarter on this book

I’d like to start off with my one big criticism of this book – not enough images! I understand why they had to do it. When you’re printing a book, each page is expensive, especially when you’re printing in color. But when you’re covering an industry based on images and we only have 1-2 images per creator, it’s hard to get a good feel for the creator’s body of work. I think it would have been nice to have a supplementary PDF with a few more examples per artist. (Yeah, I know I could Google them, but for a curated product, it’d be nice to do a little less work)

So, this book is a survey of the history of women in the comics industry starting out with newspaper comics at the turn of the century. Additionally, as the subtitle says, it focuses on women who made an impact somehow. I learned a lot, especially on the earlier creators about whom I was completely ignorant. It was interesting to see the early fights woman focused on – like women’s suffrage or even just the right to be taken seriously as a cartoonist. It was also interesting to see how women’s place in the industry evolved. At first there were only a few. Then women formed collectives. But then someone women bristled at having to segregate themselves that way and broke out on their own or eventually joined the major publishers. Given the large influence of manga in the US, it was also nice to see women in Japan starting around the time of the post-war period (more or less the birth of modern manga) covered.

Probably the best thing about the way the book is organized is the “further reading” section after each woman’s article. It helps you find more work by that person as well as helping support them by buying more of their stuff. Perhaps the most annoying thing about the way the book is organized is that it is organized is that it’s alphabetical by time period. So, for example, within the Golden Age all the entries are alphabetical. I would have preferred a more Chronological arrangement to help me better understand the flow of progress.

I was happily surprised that at one point the book shifts to cover publishers and editors. In this day when we are finally paying attention to all the artists on a book, it’s easy to forget the impact publishers and editors have. It was also fun that the book ended on an interview section in which we were able to go a bit deeper with some of the creators.

Overall, a great intro to women creators and a good jumping off point if you’re looking to find some new comics created by women.

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Review: Working for Bigfoot

Both weirder and not as weird as you’d think

Working for Bigfoot (The Dresden Files, #15.5)Working for Bigfoot by Jim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Maybe,” he said in a slow, rural drawl, “you could explain to me why I found you in the middle of an orgy.”
“Well,” I said, “if you’re going to be in an orgy, the middle is the best spot, isn’t it.”

I’ve heard of the Dresden Files before, but I’d never checked it out. I thought it was about World War 2 and I constantly confused it with Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five for some reason. But in a great example of the value of book bundles (like Humble Bundle or Story Bundle), I ended up with this book via a book bundle and when I looking for a new book to read recently, the description stood out. I also recognized Butcher’s name, having spent the last few years listening to Sword and Laser and getting a feel for a bunch of SFF authors I hadn’t been familiar with.

Butcher does not slouch on this collection of 3 short stories, trading on his name or readers’ presumed familiarity with the character. Each contains just enough information for a newbie like me to get caught up and where I feel that vets to the series would be OK. Having spent the better part of the last decade listening to short story poddcasts, I know there’s a very different form when writing a short story vs a novel, but if these stories are an indication of the tone of the books, I think I’m in for a treat. (I’ve already added book 1 to my To Read list) Butcher also plays with PI tropes in each of the stories. The first and third one are the typical first person narrative of the investigation. The second story takes the familiar noir trope of being found in an interrogation room and recounting to the cops what happened to lead to one’s arrest.

The stories revolve around a “bigfoot” hiring Harry Dresden to deal help out his son. I’ll make a minor spoiler here and say that his son is half-bigfoot and that’s the simple reason for needing to hire Harry. The first story involves a young bigfoot Jr who’s being bullied in school. The second story jumps to college, where bigfoot Jr has a run-in with another fantastical species. The last story takes place between the two when he’s in high school. In all 3 stories Butcher presents a pretty diverse cast of mythical creatures and has a lot of fun with the noir tropes. On the lewdness scale, the humor reminded me quite a bit of Terry Pratchett. In his Disworld books there were definitely adults there with adult feelings and desires, but he usually found a pretty entertaining way to communicate that stuff. Yes, there is indeed an orgy and a sex scene in the second story. But overall, it’s more about playing around with words and double-entendres than it is about being explicit.

I really enjoyed this story as you can tell from the rating. If you like noir and/or fantasy, give this short story collection a shot. It shouldn’t take you more than a bit of an afternoon to finish it. If you don’t like it, no big deal. And if you do, it’s a great sampler for what’s yet to come.

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Review: The Razor’s Edge

Steampunk in a modern world

The Razor's Edge (Zelda Pryce, #1)The Razor’s Edge by Joss Llewelyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. All the important characters are women and the guy who would be a love interest in any other telling of this story only appears sporadically and only gets a couple kisses near the end. Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but it seems if you want good genre fiction led by women characters, look no further than steampunk. Although, this book is like steampunk’s weird cousin.

The Razor’s Edge posits a strange world that took me a little bit of time to get used to. It’s our world – there are mentions of Mythbusters and computers and cell phones, but there are also Arcana. In Mr Llewelyn’s world, Arcana are essentially Thursday Next-level puns that describe items in the world. For example, Occam’s Razor is the strongest razor in the world – there’s nothing it can’t cut. Lorenz’s Butterfly is an actual butterfly that can shape events across the world (you know that saying – a Butterfly flaps its wings and there’s a hurricane on the other side of the world). Our main character is Ms Zelda Pryce, a woman who’s an arcana prodigy and has built herself a number of arcana and a business as a security consultant breaking into various museums to help them improve their security. During one such job she meets an actual thief. In another novel they’d be a slap slap kiss couple, but instead they tussle and leave on amiable terms. Meanwhile, the plot thickens in semi-predictable ways.

Other characters – Zelda’s sister who places a somewhat Oracle role (as in what Barbara Gordon did until the 2011 reboot gave her use of her legs again). They have what seems like a pretty realistic sisterly relationship – looking out for each other and also sometimes annoying each other. Inspector Yasmin Demir who ends up being a primary character along with Zelda for most of the novel. A badass woman who rose up the ranks of the DCRI (or something like that) in France despite being a woman and (based on a couple throwaway lines) I’m pretty sure also a lesbian. The main villain Ophelia Martel who is impressive in her own right – an activist who has been jailed many times for her principled stance. Although, true to antagonist form, she chooses an anti-social way of dealing with her disappointment.

This book is part of a series, so it’s no surprise or spoiler that Ms Pryce does not die at the end of this book. In fact, the book ends with her having Chinese food in her apartment with her sister.

If you’re a reader you’ll be able to guess most of the plot or at least not be terribly surprised by what’s going on. Ms Pryce is also a little less introspective than I’d prefer, but not too bad. I was waffling between a 3 and 4 star rating, but given all the great stuff I’ve mentioned above, I went with the higher rating.

Who would I recommend this to? It has a bit of a YA vibe or, at least, it’s not as surprising or introspective as it could be. That said, I’m a guy in my mid-30s and I found it pretty entertaining. I would say if you have a kid or teen who’s really geeky they’d really enjoy it because a lot of the fun was associating the puns with the real-life people or terminology (like Laplace’s Demons) that I know from philosophy class and rhetoric. (That said there’s a glossary in the back) Again, the guy and girl don’t sleep together and the “dirtiest” thing is an obscure reference to a dick joke that if you understand it, are probably old enough to get it. So definitely good for any girls in your life who need or want a female protagonist who doesn’t need a man to save her (although it doesn’t hurt to team up with one on your own terms) or any boys for whom you want to model that it’s great for women to be independent and awesome.

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Review: Piranha Frenzy

A look into the world of video games journalism that isn’t quite as fictional as you’d think

Piranha FrenzyPiranha Frenzy by Colin F. Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that either anticipates or was written in reaction to gamer-gate. I think wherever you fall on that is probably the biggest predictor of whether you are capable of liking this book. I’m not saying if you were on the side of the journalist that you will automatically think this was a good book, but if you weren’t I find it hard to believe you’d like this book at all. A quick primer if you pay no attention to video games journalism or think pieces about the harassment of women online. A woman, Zoe Quinn was (still is?) working on a video game. Her ex wrote a blog post saying she slept with some guys for positive coverage for her game. Then, out of proportion to the fact that whether or not she did this, it’s just video games (for CTHULHU’S SAKE) people started harassing her and sending her death threats and all kinds of stuff. Google it if you care.

This book switches things around from reality and has the main character be a women in games journalism who is dating a man working for the publisher of the year’s biggest game – Satanic Realms 5. This rather short book (almost novella-sized) explores what she has to deal with in that world. I think it gets its point across without being preachy and while still telling an entertaining story rather than a morality tale. Via the characters (who are given short bios at the beginning of the book like a Victorian novel) the author also explores the different generations of gamers. I think the main character is supposed to be an older millenial or younger Gen X given her gaming touchtones. The guy in charge of the whole operation (A video games Website called Piranha Frenzy) is someone who was in college when the original Playstation came out and the other characters fall in between there and one or two are younger than our main character.

Touching on podcasts, Youtube celebs, and even referencing the founding of Giant Bomb – whether this book ends up being a classic or a relic of its time will probably depend on how much things change and how much things stay the same. I do appreciate the novel as there aren’t many fiction books that occupy this aspect of my life/personality. There are plenty of books with gamers at the center (I’ve bought quite a few via StoryBundle bundles), but not as many about the dev side. Although I have appreciated it in Cory Doctorow’s For the Win and the gamedev sections in Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Mogworld.

As I said up top, your mileage may vary based on whether you consider SJW to be a dirty word, but I enjoyed my brief time in that world.

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Review: Lovecraft’s Monsters

Start off 2017 with some of your worst nightmares

Lovecraft's MonstersLovecraft’s Monsters by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual for an anthology I will post my status updates per story. Before I get to that, I wanted to note that this is the first time I’ve read anything Lovecraftian. (There were Eldritch horrors in the first couple Discworld books, but I had no idea what that was at the time) I think these authors did a great job creating stories based on or inspired by his creatures. If, like me, you’re a Lovecraft neophyte, be sure to read the introduction as it helps explain some of the concepts. And now the stories:

“Only the End of the World Again” : A werewolf vs people who want to bring back the Old Gods. Not too hard to pick up on the plot even though I’ve never read Lovecraft. Well-paced and delivers just the right information. Luckily, the forward explained the significance of Innsmouth.

“Bulldozer: “I cared about securing a whiskey, a bath, and a lay. Not in any particular order.”

This Wild West story involves a Pinkerton investigation that starts in media res with the first chapter in stream of consciousness. I enjoyed the story more than the first one, but apparently it’s a theme of these stories that there are some parts where the reader doesn’t really understand what’s going on.

“Red Goat Black Goat: A terrifying story involving a Lovecraftian goat that has terrorized generations of a family. Could have been an episode of Masters of Horror.

“The Same Deep Waters as You – Lovecraft as a metaphor for the war on terror, gitmo, considering others as less than human, etc. Also, what a horrific ending. HOLY MOLY!

“A Quarter to Three : Fun, more unpredictable on its own. But at this point in the anthology I have a good feel for what Innsamouth means.

“The Dappled Thing – I think this is my favorite story so far. A steampunk journey into the jungle to find the daughter of some important Lord. Mostly written in a great Victorian manner as they trek through the jungle. The Lovecraftian element is almost absent until the end when it makes for a chilling ending.

“Inelastic Collisions – A neat story about some fallen “angels” who hate being in human bodies. I saw the twist coming, but it was still well done.

“Remnants – Still working my way through this story, but has interesting elements. Old Ones have created dystopia on Earth. Then perspective shift to a civ that’s against the old ones and is trying to save some Earthlings before they’re all exterminated. The story was great and a really good setup. Some Lovecraft monsters are trying to destroy the universe. Another group is trying to keep the universe safe and is rescuing beings under attack. To raise the stakes, they can only communicate with autistic people. So it’s hard and a tension-filled story as you don’t know if they’ll be able to get the austic to communicate w/ the other survivors.”

“Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl – I thought this was going to be longer. It is like the beginning of a novella I would enjoy reading.

“The Sect of the Idiot – The opening image definitely has both vaginal and arachnid overtones. The story is a clever horror story. I didn’t like the style at first, but it grew on me. Quite horrific.”

“Jar of Salts – a quick poem.

“Black as the Pit” – Frankenstein x The Lost World fan-fiction? I’m partway through the story. Frankenstein finds ever more exotic lost worlds before finding the Lovecraftian horror world. Great ending. Probably best Frakenstein fan fiction I’ve ever read.

“Waiting at the Crossroads Motel” – Not my favorite. A sociopath awaits an enlightenment of sorts….

“I’ve Come to Talk with You Again” – A guy who made a deal with the Cthulhu-Devil

“The Bleeding Shadow” – “gave the hotel the gander. It was nice looking if you were blind in one eye and couldn’t see out the other.” – I love phrasing like that.

A noir Private Eye with Lovecraftian elements. Also, dunno if I’ve just been living under a rock, but never read a noir private eye story with an African American as the PI in the 50s. It was a neat change from the usual while still keeping lots of the tropes.”

“That of Which we Speak when We Speak of the Unspeakable” – Well, I did not expect that at all. A couple kids sitting around talking about the end of the world in vagueries.

“Haruspicy” – a poem

“Children of the Fang” – A little confused at the ending, but my favorite story in the anthology. Kids deal with the possibility that their grandfather discovered something out in the dessert. Also a history of their family. Very neat the way it jumps back and forth through time.

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Review: The Magician’s Land

Beautiful ending to a great trilogy

The Magician's Land (The Magicians, #3)The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like a beautiful fractal, this book is doing the same thing on the individual story level and on the series level: joining together all the threads. This book starts off with Quentin trying to get money on by participating in a magical mission impossible after having been kicked out of Fillory in book 2. It then pivots to Janet, Eliott, Josh, and Poppy in Fillory where things are going a bit screwy. By the end of the book the two plots have not only joined, but have revealed themselves to be workings towards the same goal from different ends. In the same way, this book ties together all the plot threads from books 1 and 2 and has characters and plot points from all of those joining together. I’ll get back to this below in the spoiler section. Before I get to the spoilers, I do want to say that Grossman also does a great job with the fact that our characters have grown over the seven years we’ve known them.

OK, so spoiler time. To me the best parts of this book are the payoffs for all the setups and world-building Grossman has put together over the series. Throughout the heist plotline in book 3, one of the characters just seems a BIT too enthusiastic about the heist and is ready to kill anyone who wants to put it off. The reveal that it’s Asmodeus who was intent on getting the god-killing knife as payback against Reynard’s treachery in book 2 was amazing. Alice’s niffin storyline had echos of Buffy’s resurrection in Season 6, so I wasn’t surprised at the outcome. But the way Grossman uses her time travel abilities as a niffin to allow Quentin to learn how to restart Fillory makes it all worth it. I also love that he respects us enough to keep things complicated between Alice and Quentin, so that we get a happy ending, but not a sappy ending. After the rush of the heist storyline ended, it was nice to get the Chatwin book to fill in the background that we’d had hints of here and there since the first book. The return of Mayakovsky was amazing. It was also a great callback to Alice’s brother’s storyline as well as an understanding of why he was the way he was. And getting there in the head of an animal was once again pure joy.

As I read the first book, I was really worried at how much I hated the main characters. But they really grew and matured. Alice’s return after 7 years is a great reminder of how far Quentin had come. But even Janet, who I loathed in the first book, had a heel face turn and really made me love her character by the time the book was ending.

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Review: God’s War

God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha, #1)God’s War by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

““I’d rather find a call box,” Nyx said.
“God does not answer the phone.”

There isn’t one person among us heavy users of Goodreads who doesn’t know the truth behind taking the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” literally. Now I have found incredible books by being attracted to their covers, but sometimes you miss out if that’s all you depend on. Take this book, for example. I don’t remember when or how I got it. It might have been back when I was religiously (no pun intended) making sure I took advantage of Barnes & Noble giving away a book every Friday or it might be from a Humble Bundle or something. Either way, I’d skipped over it because the cover and description made it look like it was going to end up being a Romeo and Juliet story. She’s from country X and he’s from country Y and they have to learn there’s something more important out there!

Instead what I ended up with was a crazy urban fantasy/thriller/sci fi mashup. Imagine a world out there in space somewhere founded by Muslims. Throw in 2 suns – causing those who DON’T cover up to end up with lots of skin cancer, something about the planet causing bugs to grow to giant sizes, some genetic engineering resulting in people who can shift into animal forms, and some almost Flintstones-like dependence on bugs to do almost all of what we do with technology nowadays. Then like all religious fanatic societies, it turns out that these dudes believe in this thing and those dudes believe in something ever so slightly differently and they have to go to war. (BTW – not saying all Muslim societies are fanatical, but this one IS founded by fanaticals and happens to be Muslim)

When the book starts, the two main countries Nasheen and Chenja have been fighting for hundreds of years in a never ending war. This has pretty drastic consequences for society. If you’ve studied history you know how part of the legacies of the world wars was Europe losing entire generations of men (particularly in WWI) to war. In America it was the catalyst that led to women having near-parity with men. Sure, some women had always worked in the past, but most didn’t because they had their husbands for that. Ms Hurley does an incredible job of world-building and showing how the constant lack of men has affected the two main countries very differently. In one, it leads to a society that essentially rejects everything you know about women in Muslim societies because there aren’t any men around to enforce things. They even end up with a matriarchy. The other country ends up doubling their efforts to keep women more stereotypically Muslim. Additionally, there ends up being a lot more lesbianism because that’s all there is if you don’t want to be masturbating all the time.

Into this interesting world, Ms Hurley has placed Nyxnissa. She is a contract killer and a smuggler who has a large support team to help her in her tasks. Eventually she’s given a contract to find someone important to the government who is alleged to be selling secrets that might cause the end of the war. Thus begins the thriller portion of the book as Nyx and her team try to get to her while avoiding and clashing with rival teams.

Just as in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the best part of this book is that you never know who’s going to make it out alive. It starts off in James Bond mode with some major characters surviving battles they shouldn’t be able to survive, and I think that’s just Ms Hurley messing with our heads so we won’t later expect the perma-deaths. Nyx is told by one of the characters that there are no happy endings and that’s definitely true here. In a way, that makes this one of the most realistic depictions of both the after-effects and PTSD of unending war and black, underground work despite the fantastical elements. I feel as though everyone makes decisions that make sense given what we know about them and doesn’t just act with heroics because they’ll get out unscraped.

Also, awesomely, given my current track record – no rape. Maybe it’s because the book’s written by a woman, but she finds plenty of ways to mess with Nyx that don’t involve sexual assault. Refreshing after having read a few books in a row that saw that as the ultimate punishment for a woman. (Also, it wouldn’t really have made sense in the context of the story since it’s a world almost devoid of men) (Spoiler: Also, in a reversal of the trope, Nyx cuts off this guy’s penis since he cut off her ear to show her that she was just an object to him)

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November Video Games Report

Took advantage of MIL’s presence to get some gaming done before I would be too busy to game for a while.

Civilization VI (18 hours):

This time around I play as Greece and try for a cultural victory while also getting more involved in the religion part of the game.

Vertical Drop Heroes HD (1 hour 25 minutes):

On Extra Life game day I end up further than I’ve ever been in the game.

Contraption Maker (30 min):

I haven’t uploaded the video to Youtube yet.

Civilization V (15 min):

Haven’t uploaded the video yet. But I continue to work on the multiplayer game with Dan and Dave.