Review: Snow Crash

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second time I’ve read this book. This first time was something around 20 years ago and it was definitely a 5-star book to me at the time. I’d never read anything like it. Reading it in 2020 is very interseting. Some of the things have come true and other, like the Metaverse, seem to be on the cusp of actually happening.
Given the way 2020 is going, Stephenson’s neo-liberalistic view of the world with burbclaves (an idea he continues in The Diamond Age) seems realistic and every time I read about for-profit prisons I think back on this book. Yet, for a book “in the future” it’s just so interesting to see the anachronisms – lack of smart phones, in fact stating that very few folks have computers or internet access, the fact that hackers would necessarily be affected due to being able to understand binary. Not so much anymore – there are many hackers like myself who primarily use higher level languages. Even game designers, who used to be the last holdouts of C are using C++ and C# (in Unity) and even Python-like languages (in Godot).

I used to hate Stephenson’s early books (like this one) for the way they abruptly ended. It’s definitely not just me – it’s almost a meme among his fans. But reading this again, it’s actually kind of a perfect ending to this book. The world goes on, mostly unaware and unaffected by the events of Snow Crash. It makes sense for the ending to leave so many loose ends. The world is a messy place, even moreso in the world of Snow Crash. Also, from a meta level, it was originally meant to be a graphic novel – that last line seems like the last line of a comic, movie, or TV show. It also makes sense for Stephenson being a member of The Long Now – a group that looks at time on a much longer scope (see his book Anathem for more on that).

This book, along with The Diamond Age were my entries into cyberpunk and cypherpunk. I still haven’t gone back and read Gibson and the other Godfather and Godmothers of the genre – I’m somewhat afraid they won’t age well. They awakened in me an understanding of how vast SF could be and that it could have something specifically tailored to someone like me. I think it still mostly holds up, especially if you look at it as taking place in an alternate universe (which it has to because characters have parents who were in WWII, it can’t take place in some indefinite future like other SF books). If you’re willing to look past some of the Zeerust, I think it’s definitely worth a read.

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Review: Apex Magazine Promo Issue 2020

Apex Magazine Promo Issue 2020Apex Magazine Promo Issue 2020 by Jason Sizemore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A mini issue to get folks ready for the relaunch of Apex Magazine. I truly enjoyed the stories in here and I can’t wait until the next real issue in January. Below is what I thought of each story:

The Legacy of Alexandria: a dystopia with elements of afro-futurism that seems every so prescient with the moment we’re in right now. The biggest bummer of the author now being an editor in Apex is that the magazine won’t be graced with this work for the foreseeable future.

Small hopes and dreams: a metaphor for being stuck in society that definitely makes sense for having been written 2 years ago when we were all waking up to the rural drug crisis.

Slush editor round table: If you’re a writer submitting to magazines, you should definitely read what these slush readers have to say about the slush pile in order to improve your chances of being selected as well as having a better understanding of why rejections don’t always mean your story isn’t any good.

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Review: The Brisket Chronicles: How to Barbecue, Braise, Smoke, and Cure the World’s Most Versatile Cut of Meat

The Brisket Chronicles: How to Barbecue, Braise, Smoke, and Cure the World's Most Versatile Cut of MeatThe Brisket Chronicles: How to Barbecue, Braise, Smoke, and Cure the World’s Most Versatile Cut of Meat by Steven Raichlen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first heard about this book, I was slightly skeptical. An entire book on brisket? Really? Isn’t it just (maybe) two ways? Dalmation rub and spicy rub. Maybe 4 ways if you count low and slow and Texas Crutch style. But no, Raichlen presents nearly every way to make brisket from around Planet BBQ; from Texas smoked to Jewish braises to sandwiches from all nationalities – it’s all here. The result is a book that takes you from the practical to the impractical (brisket chocolate chip cookies? really?) and gives a little history throughout to explain the history behind various dishes. I put lots of recipes on my list of dishes to try; I’m especially excited to try the German bierfleishe. He’s also got a bunch of recipes to use up leftover brisket including breakfast hashes, ramen, and salads.

Brisket is one of those cuts of meat that requires times to bring out its deliciousness and still remains one of the cheaper cuts (although it has slowly risen in price as more folks have discovered how delicious it could be). You should definitely check out this book to gain some new brisket recipes and discover how versatile it could be.

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Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (The Tales of Dunk and Egg, #1-3)A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this short story collection about Maester Aemon’s brother when he was a squire for Sir Duncan the Tall. I think, perhaps, because these short stories didn’t have to do the heavy lifting for the main narrative in A Song of Ice and Fire, they get to be lighter and more fun fare. At the same time, it does fill in a bit of backstory for Westeros and provide the ability for GRRM to give us examples of how history repeats itself.

The latter two stories function almost like mysteries in which the reader is trying, along with Dunk, to figure out why things aren’t quite exactly the way they seem. As that’s one of the genres I enjoy, it was fun to see it in a medieval setting.

It was also amusing that Dunk is constantly threatening to hit Egg and yet we never see it happen. I wonder if the joke is that he never does it or that he would deign to do that to a member of the royal family.

Whether or not you enjoyed the books in A Song of Ice an Fire, if you enjoyed most of A Game of Thrones (who could possible enjoy that last season?), you should check out this short story collection.

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Review: Dawnshard

Dawnshard (The Stormlight Archive, #3.5)Dawnshard by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I was a kickstarter on the campaign that provided an early copy of this novella a reward

This was a great book. It is also fascinating in the sense that, as I was reading it I kept thinking that you could about 80% read this book without having read the preceeding 3 books (and 1 novella) in The Stormlight Archive. You wouldn’t understand ANY of the implications of the final chapter or epilogue, but I think you probably could have enjoyed the story anyway.

And what was the story? In The Stormlight Archive Brandon Sanderson has a series of interludes that break up the greater story. These interludes mostly serve to provide a way for Sanderson to fill in backstory to the Planet Roshare, The Greater Cosmere, or would otherwise break the flow of the main novel. We had been previously introduced to Rysn, an apprentice trader. Through her interludes we gained a greater understanding of various cultures on Roshar. During one of her interludes she ended up losing the function of her legs. So, a great part of Rysn’s personal growth during this novella involves both seeing herself as not broken and gaining the confidence to ensure she is treated the way she wishes to be treated. In the introduction Sanderson mentions speaking with folks in the parapalegic community to make sure Rysn was written well. Her thoughts align with some training I’ve had at work about things that people who have full function of their appendages do (sometimes out of trying to be kind) that ends up making things worse for those riding wheelchairs or other conveyences. She is also dealing with imposter syndrome around the gift her master (in the sense of master/apprentice) gives her in the main books. So her character is on a great personal journey while on an actual journey to an island that has importance in the main books.

Then we have Lopen, a supporting character in the main series. Via the magic systems in The Stormlight Archive, he’s able to fly as well as having X-Men Wolverine’s healing factor powers, so he’s on the mission as protection. He’s a self-deprecating who spent a large chunk of the main series missing one arm. (I don’t remember if he was born that way or had lost it later in life) He’s mostly comic relief, although he does provide some contrasts to Rsyn. Before being healed, he also had to deal with some hardships due to only having one arm. So he’s able to bond with Rysn as well as being a bridge with some of the others.

Finally, a character we meet for like 5 seconds in the main series, Cord. She’s the daughter of a secondary character who comes from a civilization with a very rigid set of norms based on birth order. It’s fascinating and has lots of implications in the main series for her father. However, the best thing she provides in this book is a character who can see impending colonization and is trying to head it off. Her civilization guards a very important Cosmere-Level resource that “no one” on Roshar knows about. It appears knowledge has mostly been lost other than whoever first set her civilization to guard it. She fears that as other, more powerful countries find out about it, they may end up obliterating her culture. So many resonances with issues of historical colonialism and modern neo-colonialism.

This is all on top of an actual, physical journey the characters are on. The reward for the journey (on top of all those characters above growing) is a whole bunch of series-level and Cosmere-level knowledge, the implications of we don’t even truly yet know. (view spoiler)

I loved this novella and stayed up long into the night just to finish it. Chances are huge that if you are considering this book, you’re deep into the Cosmere. If you are, it’s a no-brainer. If not, this isn’t the *best* novella to jump into. You’re probably better off with the short stories that take place in the Cosmere – they’re collected in Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection, but you can also get them individually here an there. I recommend those as a way of seeing if you like Sanderson and the planet-based magics of The Cosmere. Many of them (except Edgedancer which is also a Stormlight novella) stand alone perfectly without any other knowledge of The Cosmere to enjoy. If you want to read a book in the Cosmere I can very strongly recommend Warbreaker, which got me addicted to Sanderson’s writing and The Cosmere. It’s very standalone and some of its events are important later in Stormlight Archive books. Or, one that lots love although it’s *slightly* a bit more YA in tone The Final Empire.

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Review: Bait

Bait (Angler, #1)Bait by Annie Nicholas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’m not a huge romance person. This is my second romance, and coincidentally, also my second paranormal romance. But I’ve got acquired some romance books via giveaways, Humble Bundle, Story Bundle, and Amazon’s Kindle First giveaways. I am trying to read “all” my books rather than constantly spending money on the next new thing. So I ended up getting to Bait.

Despite the cover, I was pleasantly surprised with the story. Were there romance tropes? Of course! Characters falling in love ridiculously quickly, slap-slap-kiss, non-consensual things (although not noncon sex – so depending on how specific your triggers are…maybe OK?), hot bods, etc. But I thought the story was pretty decent, even if it’s a “step backwards” for women compared to, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Essentially, our main character is bait to attract vampires so the hunters can slay them. She’s been working this for a while, but THIS TIME she’s in over her head – both in terms of controlling her sexual attraction and in her job role. I thought Ms Nicholas created a good mythology around the vamps and the battle for power she ended up in the middle of. I also appreciated that, although part of a trilogy, it has a satisfying ending. Also, even though Goodreads has this book listed under Erotica (as well as Romance and other categories), I thought that the sex made sense within the context of the story and wasn’t the entire point of the book. In fact, there’s just two sex scenes in the entire book and they each last just a few paragraphs. In other words, this isn’t sex with a story glued to it. This is a story that happens to have sex.

I think if you like vampires and you like romances, it’s an easy recommendation and a relatively easy read.

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Review: Little Women

Little WomenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading this book was very interesting. I don’t know what edition I happened to pick here, but the edition I read was a Barnes and Noble giveaway from years ago when I first got my Nook. As such, it had a nice, long intro into Louisa May Alcott’s live, the story, and some modern interpretations of the story. As to Ms. Alcott’s story, I was already familiar with it from an episode of The History Chicks – it was bonkers and she knew most of the literary geniuses of the time as family friends. The book also had tons of footnotes to explain slang and other terms that have fallen out of disuse.

What made it most interesting was the fact that parts 1 and 2 (originally published as two books) were such a different experience for me. I had nightly debates with my wife as to the reason part 1 did not gel with me. Was it because I was male? Because I’m near 40? Because life has so irrevocably changed between the 1800s and 2020? It’s probably a combination of all of those. And, if you think about it, for large chunks of the USA life was mostly unchanged for kids until maybe the 1960s. You mostly played outside and mostly entertained yourself. Even growing up in the 80s – video games were so hard you’d eventually stop playing and go do something else and for TV you only had Saturday morning and the 3-5pm block of The Disney Afternoon. And while my childhood wasn’t like this – I think most 80s movies and TV shows (or modern shows taking place in the 80s – like Stranger things) are right in that lots of 80s kids were latchkey kids. So you could read Little Women and understand what the kids were going through. But nowadays…I doubt kids will enjoy it. What can you see of yourself in the March girls? Not to mention, lots of the prospects for girls nowadays were closed to the Marches. It’s a big deal for Jo to write for the paper, nowadays there isn’t much off limits to females. Also that first part is santimonious AF. Very protestant work ethic.

The second part, however, I found a joy. It’s what saved this from being a 2-star book. As a married parent, I really enjoyed reading about John and Meg’s marriage woes and issues with the twins (I also have fraternal twins). Same with Teddy and Amy (spoilers for a > 100 year old book?). Interestingly enough, because humans are humans I found that MOST of the advice from the mom still applies to modern marriages. Only a little bit was retrograde, stemming from the inability for most women back then to work outside the home (or at least do much outside the home).

Stray thoughts:
This book has been made into a movie a bunch of times. The end of the edition I read makes mention of 3 of them and there’s the one from the last year or so. As I read through the book, it didn’t really seem to have much of a plot per-se and seemed to mostly be very episodic. I think, given the modern trend towards prestige TV, this would probably make a rather nice TV show on Netflix or Amazon. It would give room for the characters to grow, to use both younger and older actors, and to build a genuine empathy for the characters rather than leaning on familiarity with the book as a crutch.

The introduction mentions there have been queer readings of Little Women, especially considering it was meant to end at part 1 with Jo declaring an intention to spinsterhood. At the time thie edition was made, that was in the form of examining Jo as lesbian and, since Jo is more or less a self-insert for Alcott, some exploration of potentially gay relationships Alcott had in real life. Reading this book in 2020, I thought of Jo less as a lesbian and more on the trans spectrum. After all, she doesn’t really make any mention of affection towards the ladies, but simply wishes to be a boy and do boy things. This carries over into part 2 in which she marries Professor B. The way it works within the book and from what we’re allowed to see into her head by the narrator, it reads less like Prof B being a beard and more like she likes boys (sexually) but is still a bit on the trans spectrum. THAT SAID, I had many discussions about this with my wife and struggled to nail down where the line is between being a tomboy and being trans. And maybe that’s because there is no hard line. Maybe it’s because I’m ignorant of trans issues. I don’t know or pretend to have answers, but I thought it was a very interesting conversation.

Anyway, this is a hard to recommend book – I almost hated the first part (hate is a strong word) and really enjoyed the second part. It’s potentially hard to relate to the characters and their goody-two-shoes life, but it contines to be a huge classic.

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Review: Thrilling Adventure Yarns

Thrilling Adventure YarnsThrilling Adventure Yarns by Robert Greenberger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I participated in the Kickstarter for this anthology because of meeting Crazy 8 author Mary Fan at Farpoint. I’m quite glad I did because nearly all of these knocked it out of the park! And those that didn’t were still good stories that I enjoyed reading.

I’ve been into pulp fiction ever since picking up the Big Pulp series at Baltimore Comic-Con nearly a decade ago. There’s something really fun that can come from allowing a story to go whereever it goes – even if that ends up being a prurient place. Additionally, the tropes behind these stories have been done to death – so in 2020 you know that authors are going to be playing with reader expectations to provide new kinds of twists. Or they will bring to the surface what was only coded before – like LGBT characters (for which you could actually go to jail for having in your stories back in the day).

As I always do with anthologies here are my per story reviews/ideas:

The Crazy Complicated Cat Caper – A delightfully pulp detective story. Our detective is genre-savvy, but not so much that it removes the stakes. The author set up a pretty good red herring – I was CERTAIN I knew what the jig was, but it turned out I was mostly wrong. I wonder if this is a character the author writers other short stories about, because I’d certainly enjoy reading them.

Opium Dreams: A short detective story during yellow-peril period in San Francisco, CA. I thought the conclusion was a cool inversion of what I expected. Unfortunately, the story needed a tiny bit more copy-editing.

The Legend of Hammer Jack Curry: Of three stories I’ve read thus far, this one is my favorite. It takes the tropes the anthology is based around: Penny Dreadfuls/Pulp Fiction/etc and plays with them in new and fun ways. That a plot twist is coming is pretty evident about 1/4 of the way in, but the author leans into the tropes so hard in order to subvert them that it left me a little unsure. But this is using tropes in the best way – taken a well-established genre and then using tropes against the reader (in a good way)

The Juggernauts of El Dorado: An alternate fantasy history where El Dorado is not the city of Gold, but of machines. Europe’s advantage is not guns, but alchemy. It leads to a very interesting story that may or may not go in the same direction as our true history did. Plus it’s a fun adventure story with a relatable narrator.

Professor Ironheart and the Furherbunker: Because this is a pulp collection, this story kept me guessing about what the twist would be. Afterall, we all know that Hitler and Eva Braun died in the bunker. So would this be an alternate history? A time travel story? Cloning? Turned out there were two twists and each one was wild.

Masks: Wonder if this is real speech Hoover gave. The main character seems to be a female Batman or Green Arrow. Probably more the latter since she doesn’t have any gadgets. It seemed like a great intro story into a universe of masked vigilantes in the 1920s. I wouldn’t mind a series of short stories or novellas with this character, especially during that time period in America.

Belle of the Ball: Takes the pirate with a secret life trope (not super common, but I *have* seen it before) and has some fun with it. I found the ending to be a bit of a suprise compared to where I expected the tropes to take it.

Girl Running from House: A music teacher ends up in the middle of a sisterly argument that turns treacherous. Good use of ominous tropes to keep the reveal more surprising.

Trouble Came walking Through My Door: I’d heard the word gams before, but looked it up because of this story. (basically means “good looking legs”) Pretty good pulp detective story that hit a lot of the key beats. Very interesting set of characters that I’d like to see again in a future short story.

Hate Hop: I believe it’s a World War I narrative in which a life-long rivalry leads two men to act irrationally rather than working together as they should since they’re in a gosh-darned WAR! Full of a bunch of jargon that often left me guessing about just what exactly was going on. But if you’re a WWI geek, it probably sounds awesome to you.

The Last Gunslinger: (by Mary Fan – the whole reason I backed this Kickstarter) Somehow this works out to be a story that both hews to pulp western tropes while at the same time proving so relevant for this time. “The law sides people like them, not people like us” hit especially hard. It also acknowledges (without being preachy) what most westerns leave out – that a large majority of those in the cowboy west were non-whites. That’s what makes Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles even more subversive. Nice to see that Ms. Fan is as good at short stories as she is with a novel.

the invasion from planet ex: bizarre and i wonder if they just made up speech bubbles to go with drawings that already existed.

alien invasion of earth!: A fun story for anyone who’s ever been a grad student – you do all the work and the professor gets all the credit.

The Third Law: A detective story that takes a lot of neat twists and turns. I’m not sure I 100% get the last paragraph because it implies something crazy happened “off-stage”, but otherwise pretty neat.

Not just an Intern: A romance story that has a good mix of following romance tropes and avoiding them as well. A cute read.

the Green Lady and the Rogue: much more of a classic romance, including NSFW parts. Surprisingly takes place during the American Revolution. Works quite well in this collection and I wouldn’t mind more stories (with or without romance elements) with this character.

Outsider: a ghost story that combines newer tropes from the ghost hunters ‘reality’ tv shows. Perfect to read in October.

chaos at feast: starts off with some purple prose that reminds me of Lovecraft or Poe. Turns out to be salient, because this story is apparently, what if Indiana Jones went up against Eldritch horrors? Definitely dreams of a Shogoth.

Dreams of Kingdom: My FAVORITE story. I love how fun it is. The tone. The amusement of our main character. I want MORE. A warrior walks into a giant bit of intrigue and boy is the ending so great.

Aftermath: An incredible story to close out this anthology. A short story that kind of reminds me of the first chapter of the Powder Mage Trilogy. And evil, magic-wielding kingdom is overthrown. Then the true horrors show themselves: politicking and backstabbing. A great narrative with great twists and turns.

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Review: Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family

Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American FamilyIndian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family by Priya Krishna
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s not quite as Indian as I’d hoped, but that’s not what it claimed to be. It actually is exactly as promised: an American-Indian fusion collection of recipes consisting mostly of recipes from the author’s mother. I did write down a few recipes to try.

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Review: Ruby Wizardry: An Introduction to Programming for Kids

Ruby Wizardry: An Introduction to Programming for KidsRuby Wizardry: An Introduction to Programming for Kids by Eric Weinstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This year one of my goals was to learn a new programming language. Ruby is supposed to be pretty easy for beginners so I figured it’d probably end up being a snap for someone like me who’s been programming for a while. The only book I happened to already own was this kids’ book that I had bought for my kids. They haven’t yet wanted to use it (although they’ve gotten into Scratch)k but it worked fine for me. Indeed it was, and I couldn’t help making comparisons between Ruby and Python the whole time. The two languages are incredibly similar. Ruby clearly seems to be inspired by Perl, but is still a lot more readable as almost plain English. (Although some of the shortcut refactorings can be pretty hard to get if you’re not a Ruby person)

So what about the book? I’ve come away convinced that for nearly any kids’ programming book, a story format is a wonderful way to teach programming. It’s doesn’t feel like a textbook and it gives the student some useful (if fanciful) problems that can be solved by the code. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind an adult programming book with a story as a framing device. I wonder if there’s a way to do it without being tongue-in-cheek, though. The only other type of programming book that I really love for a first-timer is a project-based book. That shows you real code. It’s the difference between the new “conversational” approaches to learning human languages vs the phrase-book learning from when I was a kid (eg “┬┐Donde esta la biblioteca?” Great for all those times you go to another country to go to the library….)

If you have anyone young (or young at heart) in your life who is old enough to read and type on the computer, I think this is a GREAT first programming book. And, since my entire career has been programming and managing programmers, let me assure you that if you learn programming principles in any language – it’s transferable to any other.

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Review: The Jungle Book

The Jungle BookThe Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like, I imagine, most Americans (or at least most Americans 40 and under – ie Millenials and Younger) my only exposure was to Disney’s The Jungle Book. I had no idea the original was a collection of short stories. I’d heard it was “Old School British Racist”TM. But I’m on a Project Gutenberg quest to read the classics that I never got to (school never assigned it). This was one of them. As I write this, I’m also reading Little Women for the first time. Overall, I liked The Jungle Book. Seems like it was meant to be an asiatic Aesop’s Fables. It’s cute and I’d probably share it with my kids. I didn’t really care for all the songs/poems, but it’s a neat bit of flavor. Yes, it does have some attitudes against Indians that are racist, but it doesn’t permeate the stories. I think, depending on your ability to read those things, it’s fine. And since it’s free on Project Gutenberg, it’s not like you’re enriching someone for these attitutes.

I had to cut a LOT from the per-story status updates, below is what I would have put for each story if I had no character limit.

Mowgli’s Brothers: Mowgli is able to walk, not Moses-like as in the Disney movie. And Shere Khan is a bit less clever and cool. Unlike Disney movie, the wolves specifically want to keep him so he will grow to a man and hunt Shere Khan because the tiger is such a menace (whose hunting risks bringing the ire of man to the jungle). Baloo is there at the beginning and he and Bagheera both speak for Mowgli. Baloo to teach (and he apparently teaches all the cubs) and Bagheera just to deny Shere Khan. Bagheera was born into a menagerie.

Hunting-Song of the Seeonee Pack: A poem. It’s meh.

Kaa’s Hunting: Jumps back in time to before the ending of Mowgli’s brothers. I wonder why Kipling did it this way rather than as a novella or novel. In a reversal from the Disney movie – Bagheera wants to spoil Mowgli and Baloo wants to be serious about his lessons. This short story contains the essense of the Kaa and King Louis sections in the Disney movie. Differences: Kaa is an ally to Baloo and Bagheera (mostly). Kaa IS able to hypnotize, but not from his eyes. There is no King Louis in this version. Instead it’s only the monkeys that kidnap him and they’re all constantly distracted. I actually liked this version of Kaa a lot more as it was a lot scarier in the resolution of the story.

Road-Song of the Bandar-Log: encapsulates what we’ve learned about the Bandar-Log so far.

“Tiger! Tiger!”: Mowgli joins a village. MAYBE is reunited with his parents. Or it may be another couple who lost their kid to Shere Khan. He does not fit in at first, naturally. And he bristles at made-up stories about the jungle. Looks like Disney stole Shere Khan’s death for killing Mufasa in The Lion King. Interestingly, although Kipling sure had no such intentions, the story functions as a relatively good metaphor of how hard it can be to have feet in two camps – such as bi/multi-racial kids.

Perhaps problematic line: “Herding in India is one of the laziest things in the world.”

Mowgli’s Song: A song about killing Shere Khan

The White Seal: A modern telling of this story most likely would have gone the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer route. This, being a MUCH older story, does not have the white seal suffering any consequences for being white. He’s proud and some seals ask him about it, but it’s never a thing. The story ends up being a tale about perseverence and not succombing to your fate. Overall, not a bad fable.

Lukannon: Seal song.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi: I remember seeing a cartoon of this from some series that my parents used to rent from the library. I think it was some PBS or PBS-like series that animated kids’ short stories. I didn’t know it came from The Jungle Book. I didn’t remember the story involving humans; interesting. Basic, but fun adventure story in which Rikki-Tikki and the cobras wage war.

Darzee’s Chant: another poem/song.

Toomai of the Elephants: The first story told from the point of view of humans – we hear none of the animals speak. I thought it was a fun story full of adventure that would be fun for a child to imagine, although it did have a couple problamatic sentences here and there. I think I prefer the animial-centric stories in this collection.

Shiv and the Grasshopper: another song/poem.

Her Majesty’s Servants: This is a fun one that takes a hybrid approach. It’s about, and features, talking animals, but the main character is a human who happens to understand them. The fun comes from the fact that the different animals all play different parts in the military and eac thinks they are the most important part of the military. You could easily redo it with Army, Navy, Marines, and Airforce in place of the different animals. This one’s also got the most of the racist/imperialist ideas, but still nothing as bad as what I was expecting with the way people talk about this book. Interestingly, at least in the 1800s (or whenever it was written), Indians were considered “black” by the Brits.

Parade Song of the Animals: another song/poem

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Review: The Gospel Reloaded

The Gospel ReloadedThe Gospel Reloaded by Seay Garrett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my second time reading this book. I got it back when I was getting a bunch of similar books – I have Gospel According to the Simpsons and Philosophy of Seinfeld books as well. For this particular one, I didn’t enjoy the format as much as I remembered enjoying it the first time around. At first the chapters just follow one another, building up on the previous chapters. Then they become somewhat more self-sufficient. What I enjoyed most was remembering about the Gnostic Gospels and how much the Wachowskis really put into these movies.

I know nothing about the authors of this book, but if they still believe what they believed back when they wrot ethe book, boy does it make me nostalgic for a more rational Christian rather than the Culture Wars version that seems to more often make the news, talk shows, etc. The author talks of climate change, of class imbalances, and so many other things that are so much more Christ-like than what you hear spouted all the time on TV. I think if more Christians were like him, I’d probably still go to church. But I just can’t stand how much it’s all become an us vs them situation that discourages using your God-given powers of thinking.

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Review: Hippopotamister

HippopotamisterHippopotamister by John Patrick Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I interviewed John Patrick Green at Baltimore Comic-Con 3 years ago.

You can watch it here!

Although I liked the concept behind Hippopotamister, my oldest (the right age for it at the time) didn’t care for it. But now, one of my twins is really into his other series – InvestiGators. Since the second book still isn’t out (I think it comes out at the end of this month), I got them Hippopotamister. It was a huge hit tonight.

What I loved is how Green takes what seems like a silly premise (and some good repetition to get the kids laughing) and actually creates a compelling story that builds up in a way that most kids’ books neglect to do. There are lots of jokes in the pictures for the kids to laugh at as they get older.

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Review: The Mongoliad: Book Three

The Mongoliad: Book Three (Foreworld, #3)The Mongoliad: Book Three by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a great cap to the long trilogy (although – put together I think it’s not longer than a Brandon Sanderson Stormlight Archive book). While the first third of the book continues to build things up, we’ve met just about everyone by the time we’ve arrived here and so the last 2/3 of the book is a wild ride. It feels like the tension just keeps building until you’re on a giant roller coaster ride to the bottom once the climax proper begins. I can’t really talk about too many specifics in the third book in a trilogy without getting into spoilres, so instead I’ll talk about what I thought was best about this book.

– The book acknowledges that, even for the knights and mongol warriors, taking another human’s life is not easy. There are often lingering effects, up to and including PTSD. It brings a much more grounded reality and complexity to the characters and I really loved that. This trilogy seemed to have the best of both worlds – incredible fight scenes followed by consequences.

– Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II is one of my favorite characters of all time. (Behind Hoid of The Cosmere) His realpolitik made any scene with him a real joy. I think he was used just the right amount because it left me wanting even more.

– The mystical elements of the trilogy were well-handled here. It’s always fun to be in a world where most people don’t believe in the mystical, but we readers know it’s real.

– Realistic-ish consequences for our protagonists. They weren’t all protected by plot armor and that made it more exciting to see who would live and who would die.

After writing this I’m going to do a little research into how much Stephenson, et al were playing with history here. From Hardcore History and other podcasts, I know the Mongols almost conquered Europe. Then Ogedai died and they never found a way to get back. And a HUGE shame that I NEVER learned this in world history. (More like European history! ugh!) It wasn’t until my late 20s or maybe even early 30s that I learned about the vastness of the Mongol Empire. So we know that much is true, even if it’s 99.99% certain some Militaristic Christian order didn’t kill him. But was The Mongoliad real? If so, that’s bananas. Did the Mongols really collect fighters from around Asia? Even if the details of Father Rodrigo were fabricated for this story – was there really a vede sacante? (Or whatever where they couldn’t pick a pope) and was it really in part caused by Frederick’s interventions? And finally, did something like The Binders really exist? It does make sense as a sort of Eurasian spy-for-hire network since most people in either continent wouldn’t be likely to travel much. (Crusaders being an exception)

If you read the first two books and weren’t sure about the pacing – it gets better. If you haven’t read the first two and are somehow reading this review – if you like historical fiction and would like to see a part of the history in a part of the world that almost no one ever talks about – this trilogy from the Foreworld Saga is DEFINITELY highly recommended.

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Review: Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man

Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked ManDon’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man by Tim Allen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading this book.

I first read this book in middle school because I really liked Home Improvement. Kind of reminds me of the joke Eddie Murphy tells in Delirious when he sees a young kid in the audience. “You thought I’d be up here at Buckwheat saying ‘o-tay’ and all that”. I read above my age, but it didn’t mean I was ready to understand everything in the book, particularly the more adult stuff like married life or being a parent. It did leave an impression on me because I was able to completely remember the first chapter.

One thing I didn’t appreciate when I read this as a kid is how the book combines Tim Allen the performer with Tim Allen the human. (Although his next book – I’m Not Really Here – does a much better job of that) He mentions overtly that he’s a big reader. Could be a joke based on his persona on Home Improvement and his on-stage persona. But based on the things he keeps mentioning – you see it’s true while also not invalidating his performance persona. Of course, knowing that many comedians’ books are ghost-written, I do wonder how much is Tim with someone helping him wrangle it vs someone writing in his voice. Since it’s auto-biographical, I imagine he’s got a higher level of input than average.

Overall, reading this book in 2020 was trippy. There are some things that were ahead of their time like when he called out “The War on Drugs” for the silliness that it is. (At least in execution it’s very clumsy and doesn’t seem to have policies that actually lead to its goals) In other ways this is a 90s-ass book. As John Scalzi recently mentioned in a blog post about his newspaper work from the 90s, there was a definite “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus” thing going on in the 90s that leads to a kind of sexism that isn’t quite as accepted nowadays. Of course, there is a point in the book where Tim Allen points out that the humor in the book is just humor and not meant to be taken seriously – he knows he’s goofing on women, he doesn’t actually think it’s true. But it was also the basis of his 1980s/1990s persona. (And the man/woman thing was so prevalant that it gets a mention in an early Futurama episode featuring the Omecron Persei aliens who want to watch an episode of Ally McBeal – Single Female Lawyer in the show) It’s also got a bit of that 1990s gay panic (if that’s the right word) where it’s not homophobia, it’s more of a “hey, I’m not gay because I’m showing my soft side” type of thing beause the ideaof ‘metrosexual’ hadn’t quite hit the scene yet.

Overall, the book comes off as kind of timeless and kind of dated. Timeless in that no matter how enlightened we get as a culture, I think there will always be some differences between men and women that can be mined for humor. Dated in the WAY that it’s expressed in the book can be 2020s-sexist as well as dated in the fact that he uses the phrase “color TV” as if there’s any other kind. And his upbringing is becoming less of the norm as more kids stay indoors to play video games or have more supervised outdoor time. It’s kind of like Little Women, which I’m currently reading for the first time, in that way. For something like the last 100 years children have had roughly the same upbringing beause even when there was TV, it used to cut out at night when my mom was a kid. Our kids (or depending how old you are – grandkids) have a completely different life in which outdoors is the most boring part of their lives. Even my kids, who have spent at least 2 hours outside every day during quarantine and make up all kinds of games out there, can’t wait to have Animal Crossing time. Meanwhile, when I was a kid, video games were so hard that you’d eventually give up in frustration and go play with toys or play outside. So I think that aspect of the book may be slowly fading away (unless the next generation swings back in the other direction).

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