Review: Murder at the Vicarage

Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1)Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, that was nothing at all like I expected. I’m not entire sure what I expected, having never read anything by Agatha Christie. Mostly I expected it to be stuffy and I expected it to suck. It was written so long ago, I was sure all the tropes would be stale. But I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit with thie book I’d gotten for free during a Barnes and Noble free book Friday many years ago.

First of all, although this is from the Miss Marple series of books, Ms. Marple is not the main character. Not only that, she’s not a lead noir detective. The story takes place in a sleepy English town full of old lady busy-bodies and a few members of the younger generation. Ms. Marple is one of those old ladies, she just happened to be sharp as a tack and good at solving mysteries. At the time this book was published, the reader might not have had a clue (depending on what was on the outside or jacket flap. Instead, the main character is the vicar of this town. It was fun being inside his POV as he is witty and you get to see the sarcastic thoughts he can’t voice on account of being the vicar.

It was full of lots of entertaining side characters, particularly the vicar’s wife. Overall, it was a pretty modern-sounding book. There were just a few little phrase changes that dated the book. Things like “making love” meaning flirting rather than having sex. And some of the things the men said about women – while there might be some who still think that way, are pretty darn outdated. The only trope that has become overused with time (but might have been new when this book was published) is that of a mystery in which nearly everyone has acted suspiciously and so you’re constantly being tossed back and forth at who could possibly have been at fault. While life is rarely ever tidy, this is bang-slap on the other end of the spectrum.

If you’re looking for a pretty quick mystery read, fully of witty characters, I think this would be right up your alley.

View all my reviews

I Fight Dragons and MC Lars Futourama Tour

I hadn’t seen I Fight Dragons on tour since Warped Tour three or four years ago (I missed an opportunity to see them at MagFest a couple years ago), but I really enjoyed that set and I’ve been enjoying their work on their new album. They’ve been sharing the progress of songs from acoustic roughs to rhythm roughs, and so on. It’s been a lot of fun to see how the songs evolve. Tickets were only $15 and it was at the Metro Gallery in Baltimore, so I figured I’d go check it out.

Rare Candy
Rare Candy

For quite some time now I’ve really been enjoying discovering new, local bands by getting there when the show starts and this show did not disappoint. The Baltimore locals in Rare Candy were the opening band. They do rock covers of old video game music. The set opened with Mario castle music and ended with an amazing cover of music from Donkey Kong Country. I ended up nabbing their CD that had the most games I enjoyed from my childhood including Mario Kart, Sonic 2 and 3, Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario World. I’ve got a few different video covers that I’ve bought over the years from bands like Tanuki Suit Riot or The Oneups. Each one brings a slightly different interpretation to the cover. What I enjoyed the most about Rare Candy was their rock sensibility. In fact, this is one of those times where I enjoyed the live set more than the well-mastered CD. The guitars (rhythm and bass) both took center stage at the concert and really just added a deep menace to the Mario castle songs. It was a LOT of fun.

The next group was a rap group that I didn’t enjoy, but part of that was just the mix making it a bit hard to follow all the lyrics. From what I could hear it sounded like they were doing some neat wordplay.

MC Lars
MC Lars

Then it was time for headliner #1: Mc Lars. For the most part, the only exposure I had to his music was Download this Song from a Nerdcore collection I got a few years ago and in the I Fight Dragons concert video where he joined them on stage for The Geeks Will Inherit the Earth. I was impressed and entertained by Mc Lars. Like MC Frontalot (and unlike MC Plus+), his rhymes seemed to celebrate geekiness and spread a general positivity. Sure, to some degree the posturing of Mc Plus+ and SpamTec is more in the spirit of the branch of rap that is about machismo and declaring that you’re awesome and everyone else sucks.

MC Lars
MC Lars

But I find that to be tiresome and I tend to listen more often to more positive tracks. So it was a relief that MC Lars just wanted everyone to have a good time. I didn’t know he had a song about Edgar Allan Poe, but it was pretty appropriate to be in Baltimore for that one. The highlight of his set was when he had a skanking (ska dancing) contest on stage in which no one really lost. He ended up giving everyone at least a CD for participating and the winners (there were four) got t-shirts.

I Fight Dragons
I Fight Dragons

Then it was finally time for the band I came there to see – I Fight Dragons. They had a killer set – I enjoyed it a lot more than their set at Warped Tour. Part of that was because for Warped Tour they were on the stage where each band gets half an hour. Here they did more like 45 minutes or so. The set was a great mix of their music from their earliest stuff through to a song from the new (as yet unreleased) Patreon album and some B-Sides from The Near Future. The energy was great and it was a tiny club where anywhere in there was a great place to be standing. As I predicted to some Lars fans I met there, MC Lars joined them for The Geeks Will Inherit the Earth. But the best part for me was when they officially ended their set with The End from The Beatles Abbey Road album. It provided a chance for the drummer to have an AWESOME drum solo and it was the perfect song to end the set with. Plus, while the original version is great, it works well with a harder rock set of instruments. Then they did a couple encores which was really great – especially since lead singer Brain Mazzaferri’s vocal cords were giving out since we were the last stop on the tour. It really showed the band giving their all to their fans. I appreciate them even more for it.

Overall, it was a great concert. I recommend the Metro Gallery as a great venue because no matter if you’re at the stage or in the back you’re not very far from the stage at all. (However, because it is so small, you probably want to wear some ear protection – even if you plan to be in the back) I’ll probably end up checking out some more of MC Lars’ stuff and I’ll be keeping an eye on Rare Candy.

Twin 3rd Birthday Portraits

Just as with the farm portraits, this year both kids were enthusiastic about the portraits. I was bracing for Sam to once again hate the idea of portraits, but his urge to do what his sisters were doing was stronger – or maybe he’s just over whatever he hated about it last year. I’m really happy with how the portraits came out this year – particularly for Sam. It helps that the little guy is ALWAYS smiling (unless he’s been told he can’t do something). Here’s my favorite Sam portrait:

Sam third birthday portraits

And here’s a gallery of a few others from that session:

Maybe it’s because, in direct contrast to Sam, Stella always seems so serious, this one is my favorite from the session (the faves are the ones that will be printed out for my office):

Stella third birthday portraits

And here’s a gallery of some others:

It probably helps that they’re not both the same gender, but we try to give them independent identities instead of a strong twin identity. Still, I think it’s important to capture the bond, especially before they get too old to want to take photos together. Here’s my favorite one of the two of them:

Twin third birthday portraits

By the way, part of the reason why that’s my favorite is because it happened spontaneously. I didn’t tell them to do that. I didn’t even tell them to hug. I just told them to be near each other. Here are a few more group portraits:

Frankly, it’s cliche as all get-out, but I cannot believe they’re already three. I feel like I just took them home from the hospital the other day, barely larger than a sack of potatoes. And now they’re talking and asking for things (and sometimes DEMANDING things!) and asking about how things work and why things are happening. Seeing them interact with each other is incredible – and one of the few things I’m getting to do for the first time because Scarlett didn’t have a sibling for me to watch her interact with. They’re very protective of each other and I hope that bond continues.

Twin third birthday portraits

Twin third birthday portraits

2018 Pumpkin Patch Portraits

Another year and the kids grow older. Last year was a disaster – the twins did NOT want their photos taken. We didn’t get any good portraits. This time everyone was game and we got good portraits – at least the first time around. When we reconvened a little later, the kids were over the idea of pumpkin photos, or at least Scarlett was.

This year the kids were actually strong enough to carry pumpkins, so they did enjoy adding to the chunk of pumpkins that were used for the portraits.

Kids hunt for pumpkins
Kids hunt for pumpkins

Stella brings a pumpkin
Stella brings a pumpkin

This year Scarlett felt too old for the hay maze while the twins loved it.

The kids were all finally old enough that everyone loved riding the horses, especially Sam.

Sam rides a horse
Sam rides a horse

Stella's turn on the horse
Stella’s turn on the horse

Stella's turn on the horse
Stella’s turn on the horse

I’m not sure for how many more years we’ll continue the tradition – part of me hopes it can go past the point where they’re ironic portraits of teens or young adults way too old to be taking pumpkin patch photos. Because if we’re doing that, we’ll have successfully taught the kids not to take themselves too seriously.

But, no matter what else, when it’s time to go and someone wants one more picture – at least one kid’s going to be upset about it.

Milk Street’s BBQ Rub #2

Tried Milk Street’s BBQ Rub #2 for the first time today on some chicken cutlets. Just pan fried for a quick meal. The taste ended up being very similar to chicken satay and I definitely found myself wishing I had some peanut sauce to eat with the chicken. The rub’s also recommended for fish and veggies so it’d be interesting to try on those. I’d also like to try it on food from out on the grill. So far it’s a good run, but not not Earth-shattering.

Review: The Emperor’s Soul

The Emperor's SoulThe Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book without knowing anything about it other than the fact that it takes place on the same planet as Elantris, Part 1 of 3. I didn’t have the book description as I got it from the Sanderson Humble Bundle and often their ebooks are missing metadata. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about it, because that made the plot, as it unfurled, even more amazing. I was expecting the book to revolve around the magic of the Dor or something related to Elantris, but it was completely separate outside of mentioning a couple cities/regions from Elantris (the book, not the place). In fact, the most recent reading order from the Cosmere subreddit has this book taking place before Elantris. If you want to have as much fun as I did, stop reading this review now and go read the novella.

The postscript has Sanderson explaining where he came up with the idea for SoulStamps – a trip to a Taiwanese museum. But the entire book seemed to me to read as a metaphor for his work as an author. The crafting of the Emperor’s soul and the mechanics behind the magic of the soulstamps seemed to be a commentary on the creation of characters and worlds. The novels I enjoy best have characters that seem real and worlds that seem lived in. This can only happen if the author creates entire histories and backstories that we never know or see, but that influence all the actions and decisions of the characters we’re reading and the world they live in. The conversation between Shai and Gaotana about whether the artist who hired her had a right to have his art destroyed (assuming Shai was being truthful), serves as a great metaphor about the relationship between an author, his artwork, and the audience. Once art is released, who does it belong to? This is the source of the tension between both sides of the Star Wars special release edits and Spielberg’s ET edits – do they have a right to do that? Or do we have a right to the originals? The ones that changed our culture through their consumption by the audience.

I haven’t 100% figured out what this was meant to communicate, but I did love how Shai slowly, slowly made her room into one of the best rooms in the palace.

Additionally, it was a very fun book and I really enjoy cerebral books where characters have to reason their way through the plot. In this case, Shai trying to figure her way out of captivity before her death.

View all my reviews

Review: The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories

The Kissing Booth Girl and Other StoriesThe Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories by A.C. Wise
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book in Storybundle’s LGBT+ Bundle and the title and description of this book are what got me to pick up the entire bundle. I didn’t even realize I already knew A.C. Wise’s work from its appearance in Clarkesworld Magazine. As I mentioned during a couple of the status updates, Wise seems to be a thematic protege of Philip K Dick. A lot of her short stories involve unreliable narrators who often aren’t sure if they’re dreaming or remembering things correctly or even being honest with themselves. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve come across unreliable narrators, but with how intimately Ms. Wise writes her characters it’s even more jarring not to know how much of the story is “real” and how much is not even real to the narrator. It really does put the reader into the position of TRULY being in someone’s head, with all its messiness; a strong contrast to other books that are written from a 1st Person POV but are very clear-headed.

As usual with anthologies, here’s the status update I wrote for each story:

“The Poet’s Child” – While it’s not the kind of story I like (it’s like 100% metaphor), it is still pretty powerful and could stand in for the power of naming things, alzheimer’s, or simply refusing to speak about the tension between two people.

“Juliet & Juliet (te)” – A fantastical journey through a relationship kindled in an unlikely place.

“And if the body…” – A neat SF story that did more for my understanding of body dismorphism than any non-fiction account I’ve ever read

“The Pornographer’s Assistant” – A steampunk story about how important fiction can be if you don’t fit in.

“For the removal…” – My absolute favorite story so far. Sorry Quirky and great although I’m not sure what it has to do with the theme of the anthology

“Evidence of things…” – A steampunk WWII story. Very emotional.

“Evidence of things unseen” – reads like erotic fiction written by Philip K Dick

“Sisters of the…” – a clever story, one I might share with my oldest when she’s maybe 8 or 9.

“The kissing booth girl” – the titular story, the one that convinced me to buy the bundle. It was worth it. A bit of steampunk and a world that begs more exploration. I’d like to see the further adventures of Beni.

“Final girl theory” – I didn’t like this one, but it is neat seeing the narrator change through the story

“The astronaut…” – another dream logic like story where the rest isn’t sure if there’s magic at play, an unreliable narrator or both. This anthology is definitely get PKD with less drugs

“The last survivor of the great sexbot revolution” – I first came across this story in a 2013 episode of the Clarkesworld podcast. Enjoyed it then and now. Fits in well with the other themes of this anthology about unreliable memories.

“After Midnight…” – I thought I’d seen every retelling, but Cinderella as noir, incorporating the crazy stuff from the original version is a great read.

“It’s the end of the world…” – this captures the way the end of high school better than anything else I’ve ever read or seen on film. Really transported me. Also great fun. I’d love an anthology season of all these short stories on a TV show.

View all my reviews

Review: The Final Empire

The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, that felt like reading a JRPG – in fact there are some (very, very loose) alignments with the plot of Final Fantasy VI. But what I really mean by that is the fact that Sanderson’s Allomancy ends up reading like the mana draws one has to undertake in those games. Although the different metals vice just one mana source can also draw parallels to the magic system in The Witcher (game, not books – I haven’t read the books). There are three things that made me love this book and push it into 5-star territory: tight plotting, a comprehensive magic system, and a great heist plot with memorable characters.

First the plotting, of all the books I’ve read recently, only GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire books seem to have this level of tight plotting where everything is on the page for a reason, even if you don’t kow it yet. And my younger brother, who’s finished the first trilogy, says that the series as a whole is an even greater accomplishment of plotting. (SO EXCITED to continue!) Pretty much everything in this book is foreshadowing, even if you don’t know it. The chapter-opening quotes, the magic system, and the little tidbits you learn about the different characters all add up in a way that shows to you that Sanderson didn’t cheat anywhere. There isn’t anything that crops up out of nowhere. That’s a delight and also one of the things I enjoyed in Sanderson’s Warbreaker.

Second, sometimes I can get lost in a popcorn-fantasy book. The magic system is loosey-goosey and sometimes acts as a deux ex machina. We all have fun and we don’t think about it too much. But more often than not, a magic system that isn’t well thought out can really pull me out of a story. Similar to how a lot of plots don’t work in a world with cell phones (leading movie writers to come up with contrived reasons for them not to work), it can be frustrating to have magic without limits and yet not a perfect world. But Sanderson gives you magic with limits. In the Mistborn world it involves ingesting of metals and an entire economy revolving around this (including a key bunch of plot points). Not only do the metals run out as they’re used, but using too much at once has consequences to the user. This means that we can enjoy our characters’ superhuman feats, but also recognize there’s a timer – like running out of Mario’s star ability right as you run straight into a goomba. Yes, there are some elements of a chosen one, but that’s also a trope that Sanderson is playing with quite a bit in this story so it’s not as bothersome as it has been in other narratives. Additionally, the magic in this book is mostly based around physics and that leads to the need for characters to THINK about how they use their powers, again, making it a more fun romp than a traditional magic story.

Finally, there are the characters. There can be good stories without great characters as was often the case in Golden Age science fiction. But great characters can take a story over the edge – especially when you’re doing a heist plot. The main chunk of this book is like Ocean’s Eleven in a fantasy, early industrial setting. What makes those kinds of plots fun is the characterizations of all the experts that have to come together to pull off the heist. Vin is the story’s main character, but there are others who are also fleshed out as the story goes on, even getting POV chapters or paragraphs. Sanderson both makes use of archetypes and also deconstructs and reconstructs some tropes around these archetypes to good use for the story, suspense, and plot twists. Vin and (view spoiler) see the most character growth and while I’m sure a cynical reader could poke holes in their characterizations, they grow pretty realistically based on what happens in the story and their growth is rewarding.

Very highly recommend, even if you are not the typical fantasy person. This is much more of an urban fantasy that might take place in a Victorian England-type setting and the people with powers move around the world the same way you do when playing Assassin’s Creed. It really is a lot of fun.

View all my reviews

Review: Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

Superman: The Unauthorized BiographySuperman: The Unauthorized Biography by Glen Weldon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I already knew almost all of this; well, the outline, anyway. I’ve been reading comics on and off for three decades and ever since discovering sites like Comic Vine and reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods, it’s been easy to learn about plots and trends that took place when I wasn’t reading. (Or even before I was born) In fact, it’s almost requesite when reading Grant Morrison’s comic work if you want to understand all the references. And for the way that I and my infrequent collaborators on www.comicpow.com write, it’s important to understand the history of the characters or writers. But what Waldon provides is a great sense of context for all the trends in Superman’s history. He provides a through-line that shows how the trends that have buffeted Superman have swung pendulously. He also emphasizes the true essence of Superman and that any deviations from that essence are when changes go too far and end up rejected for they leave us with a hero that is Superman in name only.

My personal history with comics was definitely more in the Marvel pool. When I first started while in Elementary school, Marvel was just more appealing to me. I had seen reruns of the old Fleisher Superman cartoons and I was an avid fan of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animate Series. But I didn’t get into DC comics until just before the New 52 via Gotham City Sirens and Scott Snyder’s Detectic Comics run. (During this time I also discovered and became a HUGE fan of Image Comics via Saga, Chew, and others) Then it was New52 which eventually grew stale with me. (I will credit Dr Chrisy Blanch’s MOOC with introducing me to the original Seigel and Schuster conception of Superman and contrasting it with Mark Waid’s Birthright origin story) So Waldon’s book definitely provided me with lots of details I wasn’t familiar with and really made me appreciate the persistence of the hero often derided as the Blue Boyscout.

Whether, like me, you’re a comic fan or you just know Superman via his presence in American (and, probably, world) culture – Waldon’s decade-by-decade history of Superman will provide you with insights into why he has survived so long.

PS Thanks to my younger brother, Daniel, for gifting me this book for my birthday a couple year ago.

View all my reviews

Review: Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein: Or the Modern PrometheusFrankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finally read Frankenstein. Coupled with Dracula a few years ago, I’ve now read both famous monster books. Even moreso than with Dracula, the book was a far cry from the popular conception of Frankenstein.

Things that are completely different:
-the monster is not created in a castle in a town of villagers -> it’s done in a college dorm
-therefore no pitchforks and no Frankenstein defending his monster -> he regrets bringing him to life immediately after doing so
-there is no Igor -> Frankenstein keeps the secret of the monster to himself for the entire book
-the monster doesn’t roar or speak in caveman-speak -> he speaks more eloquently than anyone you know today

And probably some other things I forgot.

You know how you hear that books are a product of their times? That’s why Holden Caufield just seems like a spoiled brat or why Huck Finn’s always using the n-word. Well, boy-howdy is Frankenstein a product of its time.

Ways in which it’s super Victorian:
-the language among fellows rings to my modern ears as if Shelley is writing Yaoi fiction.
-Frankenstein gets super sick every time he’s stress -to the point where he spends 3 or 4 chunks of the book unconscious
-Frankenstein creates the monster and then perceives him to be such a hideous monstrosity that he just wishes for him to go away
-Seriously, though – even as the monster murders people and people die being accused of murders the monster committed, Frankenstein just keeps wishing the monster will go away and leave him alone
-Everyone’s cool and encouraging about Frankenstein marrying his cousin who he grew up with as if she were his sister
-Everyone’s always writing letters to each other – in fact, the entire book is technically a letter from someone (not-Frankenstein) to his sister

Should you read it? I don’t know. There are many, including GR friends who’s literary opinions I respect who couldn’t get through the book. It’s paced VERY differently from what you’re expecting both because of how big Frankenstein is in pop culture and because of how Victorian the book is. It IS the first modern science fiction book, which is neat. And it was written by a woman — an untested author at that — which is also neat. I enjoyed it, but I’m not insisting that everyone should read it. So, there you go, a bit lukewarm, but that’s the book in a nutshell. (And I’m glad I read it as part of the Sword and Laser’s January pick)

View all my reviews

Review: Mad Tinker’s Daughter

Mad Tinker's Daughter (Mad Tinker Chronicles, #1)Mad Tinker’s Daughter by J.S. Morin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book I got via a bundle (either Humble Bundle or, more likely Story Bundle), not because I’m a pre-existing fan of Mr. Morin. This book continues in a universe Mr. Morin created, but starts a new series that that does not seem to require any knowledge of the prior one. He takes great advantage of the world of technology and has links at the beginning of the book to a web page that explains the key tenets of his universe.

This universe has people called “twinborn” who essentially share one consciousness in two bodies. Each of those bodies is in another dimension of the same planet. At least in this book, both versions of the planet have the exact same geography, but have different histories. In this book, one world seems like a steampunk version of an Earth-like planet. The other world is steampunk plus something akin to magic and the humans are slaves to a race of alien-human hybrids. (If those who relate the history are not unreliable narrators) We mostly follow Rynn/Madlin, the titular Mad Tinker’s Daughter. The interesting thing, given the title, is that we spend more time with the Rynn body and then Madlin one and Madline is the Mad Tinker’s Daughter.

Morin does a good job telling the story with the twinborn concept. The twinborn can remember things from one body to the other and can use that as a method of passing messages – as one example of how he uses this. He creates compelling characters and anyone looking for a strong female character will not be disappointed; Rynn/Madlin is a real hoot who doesn’t take crap from anyone. He also wonderfully fills in the details of the human slave world and it feels like a lived-in universe.

If you’re looking for steampunk that isn’t just in Europe or a European-like world, this one definitely pushes the boundaries of the genre in good ways.

View all my reviews

eBook Metadata

Clarkesworld Magazine has wonderful metadata for their issues and anthologies that requires little work from me:

Clarkesworld Magazine - great metadata
Clarkesworld Magazine – great metadata

Tor books had an awesome DRM-free policy that I love and that allows me to go to the ebook vendor of my choice. And they give away a free book every month as long as you agree to get some marketing emails from them. But their metadata is not so great:

Bad Metadata from Tor
Bad Metadata from Tor

Come on, Tor! You publish Science Fiction! Let’s get some better metadata on those ebook files!