Review: Angel’s Ink

Angel's Ink (The Asylum's Tales, #1)Angel’s Ink by Jocelynn Drake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While in some ways this is an OK thriller, it makes for a very fun read. Ms Drake has created a very interesting universe which has the relationship between witches/warlocks and humans as the inverse of Harry Potter. In HP the magical world is kept hidden from muggles to prevent persecution. But in this alternate version of our world, humans know that warlocks have god-like powers and are keen to make themselves scarce when warlocks and witches are around.

I like the tone of the book, which reminds me of Joss Whedon or John Scalzi – a sarcastic witty that walks a line between too serious and too funny.

While there are a couple spots where things perhaps worked out a bit too cleanly, I think Ms Drake sets up a good set of conflicts, only one of which is fully solved by the end of this book. (Which I believe is part of a trilogy) I think the characters have a great, believable dynamic and I enjoy her take on the various fantasy tropes and characterizations.

Reader beware (either for good or for bad depending on your morals/personality/etc) there’s a pretty explicit sex scene. I think it did a pretty good job on titillation vs the natural corniness of putting sexual feelings and actions into words.

Ms Drake has created a fun playground and I’ll probably come play in it again.

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Review: Pretties

Pretties (Uglies, #2)Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the middle book of a trilogy (I think….maybe a quadrilogy? Because there’s another book called Extras). Therefore, not much happens narratively. I think it continues to have pretty good metaphors for teen life revealed via this dystopia, but it was slightly disappointing to not really move forward very much compared to the first book. In fact, it takes the entire book to do what they planned at the end of the first book. Like the middle book in a trilogy, there is a lot of fleshing out of the world, and that’s neat.

Some of the SF also goes a bit wonky for narrative reasons. Explaining it to the wife revealed how silly it can sound.

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see where this thing goes.

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Review: Singular Irregularity: Time Travel Gone Terribly Wrong

Singular Irregularity: Time Travel Gone Terribly WrongSingular Irregularity: Time Travel Gone Terribly Wrong by Kimber Grey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I was a Kickstarter backer on this anthology.

As usual for an anthology, here’s what I thought of each story.

“Standing Still – A police psychologist confronts someone that looks liek he’s going to blow people up. The entire short story is their conversation. I think it suffers only slightly from being in a time travel anthology because it takes a while for one of the characters to admit that. I thought I knew what the twist was going to be, but damn you, Donald J Bingle, for screwing with my emotions on that ending.Great job”

“The Hourglass Brigade – Once again involves and agency involved with maintaining a certain timeline, but very different than the previous one. This time it involves agents and who to trust. Could be a great episode in a revived Twilight Zone.”

“The Master of Time: A fantasy story in a world where keeping a clock running is essential to keeping time going. Good world-building, even if I saw the twist coming.”

“The Mistakes of the Past – Very short story. A prince seeks greater glory for his empire and uses time travel to achieve his means. Saw the ending a mile away,but it was still very fun to read.

Alfie’s Choice – Now this one did NOT go the way I thought it would. A young man has to convince a Victorian person to come to the future with full consent. Good story.”

“The Tea-Space Continuum: Cute story about why tea keeps disapearing and someone who tries to figure out why.

Foundering Fathers: Time Travelers visit an important era in US history. A good amount of humor. One of those stories where the assistant is better than the master.”

“Postcards From Home: An archeologist finds letters to her buried in her yard. To say more would ruin the short story. No twists this time, but very emotional.”

“Repeat Performance: Plays with the trope that time travel aways ends up in sex with one’s self.

Fixed Point: A professor invents a time anchor for time travel. GREAT Ending. Love the characters as well. Well done, Liam Hogan.”

“The Light of Tomorrow: Some kids go to an abandoned area to make out and find out it’s a very important place.”

“True Mileage Unknown: A scary urban fantasy that has a very unexpected ending.”

“The Neverending Patch Day: Management, IT department, patches, and a time machine. What could go wrong? Sadly reminds me too much of my reality (minus the time machine)”

“Serendi-Bunny: This was an awesomely fun romp! In a world that’s almost ours, but has werewolves, a scientist is working on a cure for brain cancer when he has to deal with some people that don’t agree with his research. Lots of fun puns and references to pop culture. I’m not sure I agree with the last few paragraphs, but the rest of the story is top notch.”

“Gesundheit: Very sad.

Arbiters: Well, that was a huge mind-screw. LOVE IT! And you will too, if you enjoy seeing how authors get out of time travel paradoxes.”

“Destinations: A catty rivalry between two women who sell time travel destination packages (like travel agents). Fun with just the right amount of seriousness.”

“Equinox: A wizard gets stuck in a time loop. A slightly more magical, condensed version of groundhog’s day. That ending’s a real doozy, too.”

“Martin the Guinea Pig: A guy who doesn’t have it all together ends up signing up for a professor’s experiment. The style was fun. But I REALLY did not get the ending reveal.”

“For the Greater Good of All: A man goes back in time to kill The Enemy. Great world building. A savvier person would have guessed the ending from the date, but I had to read the last sentence twice before I realized the brilliance of it all.”

“<500: A terrifying accidental time travel story. I think you can PROBABLY guess the twist ahead of time, but they did keep me guessing, running through all the tropes in my head.”

“A Time to Change the Present: Very short, but very well done.Too short to say much about it, but it’s a great one.”

“Sunny Days: A diner in the 1960s has a run-in with a time traveler. Loved it.”

“The Long Haul: This one is the most unlike all the others in the collection. There is time travel, but nothing at all like the rest. It is beautiful and poetic, even if it doesn’t meet the subtitle of “Time Travel Gone Terribly Wrong”. I really, really enjoyed it a lot, but to speak of why would ruin the beauty.”

“Time’s Up: Ms Kimber Grey weaves a lovely story involving an acolyte at a priesthood serving the God of Time. While I don’t feel it meets the subtitle of Ms Kimber’s anthology here (I didn’t feel Time Travel had gone wrong), it is a great story that I’m glad I was able to experience. I certainly wouldn’t mind more stories in this Universe.”

“Liminal House: Didn’t like it because it was a bit too coy about how the main premise worked.”

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Grilled Fajitas

Just using the Weber Kettle mom got me last winter to make some AWESOME fajitas!

Using the Weber Grilling Pan for the veggies and flank steak on direct heat.
Done Cooking
Perfectly even temperature
Perfectly even temperature
Some Slices for Tonight
Some Slices for Tonight
Assembled Fajita!

Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with All the GiftsThe Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first added this book to my To-Read list on Goodreads about 3 years ago, I thought it was another take on the Akira concept – some kids being experimented on by the government and it turned out they made the kids too awesome and so the kids murder everyone and escape. It turned out to be much, much worse. I’ve read a lot of dystopias, but this one was the most disturbing one I’ve read. If you want to go in completely ignorant of the rest, go read it now. The rest of this review will contain mild spoilers (as in revealed in the first chapter) and any heavy spoilers will have the spoiler tag.

Although I’d been spoiled about the fact that it was a zombie book by seeing an article in which the author was interviewed about the movie, this would be been guessable by anyone who isn’t a kid the first time they mention “the hungries”. What I started guessing, but was revealed pretty early one – first or second chapter – is that the main kids are some special kind of zombies that mostly retain normal behavior as long as they don’t smell human endocrines. The tragedy comes, of course, from the fact that these children are being educated like normal children, even if their treatment is inhumane. They don’t really understand what’s going on, especially Melanie, our main character, who has a genius-level IQ.

From a meta perspective, what I like about what Carey does here is that he has a rotating POV that allows us to not always be stuck in the mind of a kid who has no idea what’s actually happening. There are certainly stories that are fun to read like that – for example nodding knowingly while reading Uglies while they guess at the purpose of train tracks and roller coasters – but this one is stronger for not doing that. Accordingly, Carey starts us off with the adult characters as caricatures. But as we pass through their POV chapters Grizzled Vet Parks, Newbie recruit Gallagher, evil scientist Caldwell, and almost naively maternal Justineau reveal the depths to their characters and their motivations. It’s a tribute to Carey’s writing that the reveals seem pretty natural. It’s also a great example of how we often ascribe the wrong intentions to people’s actions. On the medium level spoilers.

Eventually it’s revealed that the book takes place in England. Carey’s descriptions of society as the infection took hold and in its current incarnation give just enough information for us to fill in the blanks. Combine this with the eerie rules he’s setup for his zombies – they remain perfectly still until they receive stimuli – sound, smell, sight – and then they relentlessly pursue their prey and it’s pretty chilling. In the extra materials in the book, he mentions there are lots of differences in the movie, but I think this is one of those things that could potentially translate to incredibly scary on the screen. The junkers are a great addition to the plot as well – survivalists who were indeed able to survive society falling apart around them. Just as historians hypothesized may have happened as humans were first learning to have cities – they have disdain for those who have chosen to live in the walled, protected cities and have their own Mad Max like culture. Now to the big spoilers which will be in the spoiler tag.

(view spoiler)

Speaking of Dr. Caldwell, once you realize that without knowledge that the kids were special and that special lab equipment she was going to kill the kids in vain – it was extra horrible.

Finally – that ending, right? HOLY MOLY talk about Melanie making decisions! After 2 decades, the junkers were toast. And what was going to happen next? And what would the kids end up eating? That’s what kept me up after finishing….
(hide spoiler)]

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Review: The Forever War

The Forever WarThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This version of The Forever War contains an intro by Scalzi. In it he basically talks about how he somehow avoided reading TFW when it first came out and it’s a good thing because he would have done Old Man’s War differently. He mentions that lots of fans and haters assumed he stole from Haldeman. I DON’T see it. At. All. Starship Troopers – that’s different. A case can be made that Scalzi updated Starship Troopers for OMW. (That, of course, is unfair to Scalzi and the creativity that went into OMW….I’m just saying if you’re going to be making “plot stealing” comparisons….that’s a much better one).

Anyway, as I mentioned in my Starship Troopers review, I’d read somewhere that The Forever War was a response to Starship Troopers shaped by the following generation’s war experiences. While Heinlein does a pretty fair job of describing the perils of war – being a named character does not save you from death – it’s still presented as a noble and great endeavor. It’s what makes you worthy of citizenship. For Haldeman, a Vietnam vet, war based on a draft is a pointless drain on society’s best and even worse if it’s all for a stupid reason. Vietnam vets were also the first vets post Civil War that came home to a society that hated and resented them.

Unlike ST in which Juan Rico signs up for the space army, our protagonist is conscripted by a law that drafts those with the highest IQs to join the military. We jump in on an already demoralized group in bootcamp. The characters are smoking joints just to make it through basic. Then they go to the next level of training in which people die in stupid ways as they get used to their new mechs – unlike ST’s mechs where a handful of people die as they are climbing a mountain.

Mr. Haldeman took advantage of something we see most space SF ignore in order to get at the reason that the soldiers had so much trouble re-integrating into society. Because the soldiers were traveling at relativistic speeds, they spent 2 years fighting a war to come back to an Earth that had aged forward 50 or so years. Lots had changed, and not for the better. When Haldeman was writing crime was increasing and it was pretty reasonable for him to create the parody of crime extrapolating out. And as the war goes on, each time our main character makes it back to a human planet so much time has passed that at the end I think a thousand years has passed since he started the mission. His last mission he even had trouble speaking with those under his command as English had changed so much. I also really enjoyed how it messed with the strategy of running a war. I don’t know if this happened in reality in Vietnam because the jungle setting messed with war comms, but it was crazy the troops would be sent on a mission hoping it was still relevant 400 years later when they arrived. (Not to mention not knowing what tech the enemy would have)

The only thing I found odd was the Haldeman’s ever-growing proxy for how much things were changing had to do with homosexuality. I GUESS it’s because people being open about it was just starting in the 60s and 70s? So most of his readers would have identified with our main character being increasingly alienated as it became the norm, then mandated, and so on. To me, reading in 2017 it just seems weird to be so fixated on that. (And it even ends up being a huge plot point in his final mission)

Of course, the biggest FU to the society that had forced him and his generation to Vietnam was the ending of the book. (view spoiler)

Overall, I thought the book was a GREAT read and a much needed difference in tone to the typical space military novel. Sure, they can’t all be like this – sometimes you want to read a “ra ra go humans” novel. But I think something like this is important to read once in a while. SF helps us explore our world through distance in time or place and I think this book remains extremely relevant. In some ways it’s even more relevant. While the lack of a draft means that anyone in the military signed up to be there, the smaller percentage of the population means that they get ignored and treated like crap when they come back physically and mentally damaged. There may be a next gen Haldeman out there waiting to update this sub-genre of the space military SF.

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Review: Absolute Power: Tales of Queer Villainy

Absolute Power: Tales of Queer VillainyAbsolute Power: Tales of Queer Villainy by Erica Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

disclaimer: I kickstarted this anthology

Before I get to my usual anthology review in which I collect all my status updates into one place, I wanted to mention a bit about why I kickstarted this book and how I like the overall collection. One day I was trawling through the fiction section of Kickstarter when I came across this book (which had a different title at the time) and it ticked a few boxes for me. First of all, I’ve always found it fun to read a story from the villain’s point of view. So often authors take the easy route and create an anti-hero if they want to tell a story without a goodie-two-shoes protagonist. To make a villain sympathetic takes work. Second, it was clear some of the stories would take an irreverent tone. While good parody and satire are hard to pull off, I’m pretty tolerant about mediocre parody and satire. Finally, while LGBT characters are starting to take off – especially in YA fiction, it’s still somewhat of a relative rarity. Even harder to find is a LGBT character that doesn’t conform to heteronormative tropes: the sexy lesbian, the lispy gay guy, etc. Most aren’t aware of bears and other categories and that LGBT people come in as many shades of the rainbow (no double-entendre intended) as straight people do. So it was fun to read about things like seduction from a woman’s point of view, from a bi point of view, from a transgender point of view and see how they’re the same and how they’re different. And there are stories in which it matters that the characters are gay super heroes and stories in which it matters as much as the super hero being left-handed.

Anyway, I found it supremely enjoyable and if you’re into super hero stories and want to read something a little different, check it out.

Final Grades – the headmistress at a school for villains walks us through the year. Partway through – I have an idea how it might end, but unsure. Appears her superpower is manipulating others into doing what she wants. While I had an idea the plot would revolve around a challenge to someone (given the setup), the end result was a delicious surprise. (note: some graphic sex in that short story)

Date Night: Queer Villainess goes on a date as a civilian. Things go a little pear-shaped. I caught the twist quite a few beats ahead of the protagonist, but still a fun read.

Eden’s Revenge: “The file said this woman’s hacker handle was NrdGrl so she’d expected a pimply faced, nerdy science type. The centerfold for sexy librarians greeted Grey instead.” Someone decides the way to get revenge for being hurt is a tech-reset. Fun to read protagonist/antagonist seduction from a female point of view as well as a queer one and see the similarities and differences compared to usual.

Gentleman Jack: A fine, fine story in which the author takes the metaphorical power women have over others with their sexuality and makes it an actual power that some can control. Very fun read that takes place in 1800s.

Fallen: A villain gets revenge on a super hero. This is the first one so far to be tragic rather than fun. Doesn’t make it a bad story, just a little less into the relishing of the villainy.

The Devil Inside: Back to fun stories. A reporter interviews the Devil. Shenanigans ensue. Great world that would be fun for a novella length story.

Glitter Bomb:
“I fixed my powder blue eye-mask and took a moment to make sure the mandatory cleavage window sat right in the middle of my chest.”

Yup, it’s meta and irreverent and awesome. You know how some crow about the gay agenda to make everyone gay? What if that was actually a super villain plot?

For Want of a Heart: Another serious one, but I enjoyed a bit more than the other serious one. Redemption and free will are big topics and it’s told rather well. Could be a prequel short story to either a utopia or dytopia story.

Absolution: A witch curses a community when she’s burned at the stake. Also, takes place in a future dystopia.

So Many Things Seem Filled With the Intent: Starts off fun, then gets serious, then fun again. Probably #2 favorite in the collection thus far. Superhero and her mad-scientist girlfriend enlist help from a villain mad-scientist.

The Prado By Chance: A nice change in that the protagonist is not the super-villain. Instead she’s an investigator for an INTERPOL that has nothing to do since the rise of super humans. A fun world I’d like to spend more time in.

Jaguar Light: A villain decides to use magic to depower all the super heroes.

Chrome Crash: A very serious story on which to end things. A story worthy of Alan Moore or Jonathan Hickman or anyone else who has ever considered the grey morality of heroes in the real world as opposed to the fantasies we normally see in the Caped Comics.

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Review: Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersStarship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never saw the movie that came out in the 90s (or was it 2000s) and it seems like that’s a good thing. From everything I’ve heard from others it has about as much to do with this book as World War Z has to do with its namsake. I added it to my To-Read list ages ago because I read somewhere – Wikipedia or TV Tropes that The Forever War was at least partially a response to Starship Troopers by someone who viewed war differently because of the Vietnam war. Both are often cited as seminal to the genre of military space science fiction. So as I continue to read the classics of both literary and genre fiction, I figured I’d check this one out. Boy am I glad I did.

What’s most interesting about Starship Troopers is that in its near lack of technology it’s both timeless and dated. Scalzi has mentioned that Old Man’s War is already dated as the characters refer to their data tablets as PDAs, a relic of when it was written. The only real tech in ST is the combat suit and there’s really not much about it that seems dated. Some of the terminology would be different – the goggles would be referred to as Augmented Reality, but really barely anything needs to be changed there. Interestingly, the only other thing that really stood out to me was, again, both something that makes it seem dated and forward thinking: gender.

Heinlein, writing in the late 1950s, does imbue his characters a bit of a sexism and boys-will-be-boys attitude towards girls. At least in the way the main character talks about women and the fact that men guard the women’s quarters. But then he’s so progressive in having an integrated navy – women are considered the best space pilots and have found their niche there. So while assholes like Newt Gingrich were worrying about women having their periods during war in the 1990s, here’s Heinlein in the 50s imagining them playing a crucial part in the war to save humanity from its space-enemies.

What’s interesting is that going in I thought it was going to be a jigoistic book, since TFW is a Vietnam-era response to it. But Heinlein a verteran writing in a time in which a large proportion of the male population (and some women) were veterans of World Wars One and Two as well as the Korean War. So while there is a lot of talk about esprit de corps and how much military changes a man, he couldn’t stray too far from realism. Everyone reading ST had been to boot camp – they’d lost friends and family in the war. They knew what it was like to be a captain or sergeant. I haven’t served, but I work in a very military place and so I have a feeling it’s pretty accurate.

I think it’s interesting that Heinlein imagines a world in which the franchise (or voting citizenship) only goes to those who have served in the military and not been dishonorably discharged. He posits that those who have been in the military have proven they can put society before themselves. I must say that it does seem like a pretty sweet way to go given the way things have been going the last few decades with all of us reaping the benefits on the backs of a small portion of the population.

Finally, I wanted to mention that this book sets the template for the books that come later. It is more about the main character and how he adapts to military life than anything else. There are only really two battles depicted in the book. The rest is about his training and how he grows as a person. I recognize that immediately in both Ender’s Game and Old Man’s War. Shoot, Ender’s Game even borrows the bad guy: bugs.

If you saw the movie, put that out of your mind. If you want to see the origins of all the Military Space SF – it’s an enjoyable romp and you’ll only be reminded it’s old when the characters use books instead of ebooks. (and of course the language a little different – but not Shakespearean or something)

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Review: Tampa: A Novel

Tampa: A NovelTampa: A Novel by Alissa Nutting
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am too young to have experienced it first-hand, but for a minute there in the 70s pornography went mainstream. Everyone was talking about it. It was “in” to see it. Regular theaters (as opposed to shady sex theaters) were showing movies like Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas. It was being discussed out loud rather than in hushed tones. To me, that’s what the buzz around Tampa about three years ago was like – everyone was talking about this book. While I do follow some smut fans on here who write VERY entertaining reviews, this was more like EVERYONE talking about it. So, after reading a portion of the first chapter and seeing the hyperbolic inner monologue of our main character, Celeste, I put it on my To-Read list. Also, it takes place in my home state of FL – where all the nutjobs live. There it sat for quite some time.

This book was both a very easy read (thanks to Celeste’s inner monologue) and a hard book to read (thanks to the subject matter). I don’t know what the author had in mind, but it ended up making me think A LOT about the particular situation depicted in the book. Basically, Celeste is a pedophile focused on early-teen boys. We’ve seen this a bit on the news and South Park even took it to the extreme with Kyle’s little brother (who’s, what?, three years old?) having sex with a teacher. Ms Nutting posits that this is essentially an addiction and writes Celeste as being so desperate for young adolescents that before becoming a teacher, she got her needs met by walking around the mall and looking at kids. In fact, it’s so bad that, like most addictions, she’s driven to more and more reckless behavior as not getting caught makes her bolder and bolder. Even at the end (view spoiler) So on the one hand you end up feeling sorry (not empathizing, but feeling sorry) for this woman who we’re constantly told is the epitome of attractiveness who can ONLY get her sexual needs met via illicit means. Near the end she mentions being jealous that normal people can find anyone anywhere and hook up and get their needs met. In fact, contact with peers leaves her disgusted. I also don’t know if this is someone Ms Nutting researched or just threw in as another character trait for Celeste, but she is also OBSESSED with not growing old or showing signs of aging. Not the usual “20th/21st Century is BS because it requires women to never age, but salivates over men with signs of greying hair”, but full on psychological need to be young.

But then you see how she manipulates the children to get them complicit in the acts, and you realize why we call these people sexual predators. Celeste is taking advantage of the last time that women have societal power over males as well as the sexual confusion that comes with being a teen. Every time in her head as she plots out how to make things seem as though they came from him or were his idea is just so gross. And, according to a number of accounts I’ve heard on various podcasts – it’s entirely accurate. Pretty much no one just rapes a minor. They exploit the power dynamic until the point that it seems normal to the kid and they use shame and other factors to keep the kid quiet. It’s discomfiting to read.

It’s this unexpected complexity that caused me to boost it up to 3 stars from 2. Because there’s just something unnerving (and maybe this was Ms Nutting’s intention) about very sexual descriptions (belonging to any smut-book) involving an adult and a minor (as in, it would have been WAAAY less uncomfortable if it had been 2 kids exploring sex for the first time) and the story is somewhat basic. I was prepared to give it 2 stars. But as I thought about the complexity of the dueling themes – why is society more OK with an adult woman seducing a young male even if it’s just as predatory and ruinous for the kid (potentially – I’m sure there are people who’ve had something similar happen and are fine) and I figured Ms Nutting had earned that extra star.

Anyway, the description on Goodreads is pretty accurate. This is a sexually explicit book and while Celeste’s thoughts are a fun romp, definitely trigger warnings for anyone who’s been a victim or is close to someone who’s been a victim. Although, (and I’m no psychologist) there’s perhaps some therapeutic benefit in being in Celeste’s head and knowing how much you were manipulated that it wasn’t actually your fault – adults are able to be more cunning because they have more life experiences, power, etc.

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Review: Hanzai Japan: Fantastical, Futuristic Stories of Crime From and About Japan

Hanzai Japan: Fantastical, Futuristic Stories of Crime From and About JapanHanzai Japan: Fantastical, Futuristic Stories of Crime From and About Japan by Nick Mamatas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Got this as part of a bundle at Storybundle.com and I have to say that it was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Frankly, some of the stories are scary in that the crime depicted is horrific and yet it’s told in such an engaging way. Also, this is a book in which reading the introduction is a good idea.

As per usual with an anthology, my per-story status updates:

“(dis) – A woman photographer who loves to take photos of abandoned places finds a dead body at one of them. The story goes back and forth in time while you learn about her obsession.”

“Sky Spider: A musician finds himself on a ghost plane with an important decision to make. Very beautifully written, even if it takes a bit too understand what’s happening.”

“Rough night in little toke: a tattoo in little Tokyo allows the guy to get people’s thoughts. Leads to a murder revelation.”

“Outside the circle: American journalist wants a big break story, but it lands him in huge trouble in Japan.”

“Monologue … – a very strange urban fantasy start which turns very dark. My favorite so far.”

“Best Interest: Yakuza and Godzilla – what more could you ask for?”

“Vampiric: Solving a mystery involving vampires in future Japan”

“Jigoku : A murderer looks back on the causes of his murders”

“The girl who loved shonen knife: Apocalyptic background to a girl in high school who just wants her band to win the audition. Second favorite story.”

“Run! : A crazy guy explaining why he HAS to kill – with a great twist at the end”

“Hanami: Kitsune legends and modern business plus a bit of noir detective work. Very fun read.”

“The Electric Palace: Reminds me a bit of Shoshana in Inglorious Bastards – theater owner, Yakuza, and world war 2”

“The long-rumored food crisis: terrifying tale of how evil people life become in a food shortage”

“Three cups of tea: Not sure I understand the ending, but the journey was neat”

“Out of balance: a man walks from his life to become a killer for hire. Great ending”

“The Saitama Chainsaw massacre: Although my knowledge of tropes meant I could predict the ending, it was still a heck of a ride to get there.”

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Review: The Emperor’s Agent

The Emperor's Agent (Numinous World, #5)The Emperor’s Agent by Jo Graham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And so my first book of 2017 is done, although it’s a bit of a cheat as I started it at the end of 2016.

I purchased this book as part of a book bundle – I think it was on StoryBundle.com. The relevance of that is that I didn’t buy the bundle for this book and I hadn’t realized until starting it that it was the fifth book in a series. As far as that goes, I think the book functions quite well as a standalone book. Taking a quick look at the descriptions of other books in the series – it appears that only book 4 (the one preceding this one) is directly related to the characters here. So other than not knowing the conceit of the way the world works in the Numinous World series, you’re not out of luck starting here.

Quick plot summary: It’s France shortly after Napoleon assumes power. Our main character is a courtesan and if I understood the various hints in the text, her job is more about being an actress and arm candy than sex, although she may need to sell that aspect of herself in the off season. One thing leads to another and she quickly ends up becoming a spy for Napoleon.

I am a history geek/nerd, but most of my area of expertise is either the ancient world (Biblical times to Roman times) or from America’s founding until now – mostly focused on America with a few bits of knowledge about Europe (like how they spent forever trying to prevent Germany from becoming a unified country) I know next to nothing about France or this time period in France. A huge chunk of the book revolves around an invasion that Napoleon wants to conduct and I kept thinking that if I knew a bit more about French history I’d either know whether it succeeded, failed, or even happened. It would be interesting to see how someone with better knowledge of history would view the plot twist on the penultimate page.

Speaking of which, a quick note about the plot and pacing of the novel. It worked well enough, I gave it 3 stars and, in order not to succumb to “grade inflation” I go by what it says when you hover over the rating. According to Goodreads, 3 stars is “I liked it”. That said, I was expecting the novel to involve maybe a couple spy missions followed by a big one or a couple that led to a greater understanding of the big one. Instead we had one mission that is resolved in the last 10 pages of the book.

Given the book’s cover and, my perhaps misunderstood, mention of her being a courtesan, I thought perhaps the book would involve her using her sexual “abilities” to get info out of people. Nope. It happens once early on and then not again. Frankly, it’s not a big deal – if I wanted a “dirty book”, I’d look for one explicitly, but it was definitely surprising.

That said, the few sex scenes within the book are pretty explicit. What was fun for me, as a guy, was to get that all-too-rare experience (at least outside the romance genre) of sex from a woman’s perspective. Ms Jo Graham did a pretty good job, I feel, of showing how sexuality can function differently for a woman as well as places in which we actually aren’t quite so different after all. Particularly amusing, I thought, was one scene where our heroine was masquerading as a man at a gay bar and handled a sexual situation there without giving away that she was a woman.

Speaking of which, this book also deal quite a bit with gender and sexual fluidity. For our main character, someone happened in her childhood that caused her to be able to fluidly switch between identifying as a man or a woman. Complete with the (so I hear from others and podcasts) accurate fact that she behaves very differently depending on how she’s presenting at the moment. There are also a bunch of flashbacks with her and another character who has to deal with the fact that while he doesn’t consider himself gay, he does enjoy her as the man persona sometimes. For a historical fiction book, it does quite a bit to make one understand the complexity of identity.

If you thought the book was already full of themes and ideas, well, you’re in for one more. Partway through the book, it turns out to contain some spiritual elements – like people fighting on the astral plane Charles Xavier type of stuff. It seems to come out of nowhere, but after reading the descriptions of the other books, this is one thing I can’t fault Ms Jo Graham for – it’s my fault jumping into book 5 of a series about spiritual battle.

In the end my only quandary is who to recommend this book to. It’s not quite smutty enough for my smut-reading friends on Goodreads. It’s not quite romance enough for the romancers. It’s pretty good on historical fiction, but I don’t have enough experience with those to know if the sexual content is to be expected or out of the ordinary. And it’s definitely not enough of a spy novel for the spy novel nerds. I guess it’s best for those who like one of those categories and would like to sample (tappas-style) some other categories they aren’t used to.

View all my reviews

Using Docker Now!

With modern technology, here’s the pattern I’ve noticed since college. New tech comes out and I can see that it’s neat, but not how I can make use of it. A few years later, I finally come across the right article and it all makes sense to me. I first noticed this with VMs. I couldn’t see a reason to want to use it outside of a server context. Then I used it to review Linux distros. Then I used it to run my network’s services. The same happened with tablets, smart phones, and Docker.

When everyone kept hyping up Docker I couldn’t figure out why it’d be useful to me. It seemed overly complex compared to VMs. And if I wanted to have lots of isolated services running, Linux Containers (LXC) seemed a lot easier and closer to what I was used to. In fact in a Linux on Linux (host:hypervisor) situation, containers seem superior to VMs in every way.

But Red Hat supports Docker. Maybe it’s because Ubuntu was championing LXC and they seem to abandon stuff all the time like Google. (Unity being the latest casualty) And I was having some issues with the version of LXC on CentOS 7 having some issues – like freezing up while running yum or not running Apache. So I decided to explore Docker again.

Since the last time I came across Docker, I got into Flatpack and AppImage and suddenly Docker made sense again for someone outside of DevOps (where it always made sense to me). Using containers means I can run an app with a consistent set of libraries independent of what’s on the system or being used by other apps. So I used Docker to run phpIPAM and while it’s still a little more complicated than I’d like, but not too bad now that I have my head around the concept.

Of course, because things always change when I join them, apparently Docker is Moby now? Here are some less cynical takes: From Docker themselves and from InfoWorld

Ball Pit

One day, I wanted to enjoy time with the kids a little differently and since my love for photography is once again peaking, I took photos of the kids playing in the ball pit.

First Trip to the Zoo

The weather was finally improving and so we figured it was a good time to take the twins to the zoo for the first time. When Scarlett was around the same age she didn’t care for the animals as much. She was much more interested in the kids around her. So we weren’t sure if the kids would enjoy it. The National Zoo seemed like a wise choice since it was free to enter.

On the twins’ first trip to the zoo, viewing the petting zoo animals.

We started at the petting zoo area as that’s near where we parked. The kids enjoyed seeing the cows and other animals they usually only see as toys. I think it was also good acclimatizing for the birthday party they’d attend the following month. (They’d been to a petting zoo around Halloween, but they were nowhere near as enthusiastic as they were this time around)

What animal is next?
Sister Time as they wait for Sam to have his diaper changed

We got pretty lucky with the animals. Usually around lunch time they’re all sleeping. But we were able to see the pandas frolicking (which Sam went crazy over) and the elephants lumbering around. I was surprised at how long the elephants held their attention. We were there for a good 15-20 minutes while they pointed at the elephants.

First time ever seeing elephants live.
First time ever seeing elephants live.
First time ever seeing elephants live.

If only we didn’t go from winter temperatures straight into summer. We went from highs in the 50s to highs in the 70s and 80s with only a week of transition in between. It can be pretty unbearable in the summer in DC, so we’ll have to see if we get to the zoo again this spring or wait until the fall.