Category Archives: Books

Books and book type things

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The Tragedy of Not Learning: The Burton & Swinburne Series

Steampunk is the kind of thing I want to like, and feel I should like, but every time I give it a chance, it falls short. It doesn’t really do for me what future sci fi, or fantasy, ultimately does do for me, and so I usually avoid it (unless written by Brandon Sanderson).

However, a few months ago I was stuck with a small number of Audible credits and wanted to listen to something new.  Audible suggested I try The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder.  After reading the reviews and the premise, I decided to give it a try. I’m so very glad I did, because the trilogy grabbed me by the seat of my pants and I’m still not sure if its done with me, though I finished the books a month ago.

You know how you read a book, and weeks later, you’re still thinking about the characters? Or better yet, you turn around and reread it as soon as its done? The minute I was done with Spring Heeled Jack, I went and bought The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, and when I finished that I bought the third (and final?) book in the series. I listened to them all twice. That’s how much these books stuck with me.

There’s not a lot of the premise I can talk about without giving away one of the major spoilers of the first book.  In this version of history, Richard Francis Burton – see his Wikipedia entry – a famous Victorian Explorer becomes an agent for the government who investigates mysterious goings on. He is joined by the red-haired poet Algernon Swinburne, making them a drunken version of Mulder and Scully.

The plot of the first book sets up what I think is the best excuse/reason for a steampunk setting that I’ve experienced, and is one of the reasons I totally enjoyed the books. I highly recommend them for anyone who gets a kick out of English detective novels, and a double kick out of historical fiction, because the trilogy is both and more.

Unfortunately, the trilogy is also a tragedy. If you read the reviews on Amazon, a number of people who read the whole thing felt cheated and disappointed by the end of the final book. While I don’t want to give anything away, and it made me sad at the end, the utter destructiveness of the whole thing had a flavor of old-school Greek tragedy. In the last book, several of the characters make the same mistakes they’ve chastised others for making, not recognizing how wrong their actions are. I thought it was brilliant. However, if sunshine and puppies is what you want, then this series is probably not your best bet.

There has been speculation than the third book isn’t the end, and I would welcome another volume, but if it isn’t, and tragedy is where the story ends, its such a fitting one.

The-Alloy-of-Law-large

Alloy of Law Review

I wonder if half the books I like and stick with me do so because I read them at a particularly happy time.  I got Brandon Sanderson’s new book, Alloy of Law, the day it came out on Audible, but couldn’t find time to sit down and listen to it until the holiday break. When I think on it, a lot of how I feel about it is mixed in with how I felt about our winter holiday*, and I wonder if that made me predisposed to like it more than I should.

Or it’s my relentless Sanderson cheerleading that makes me like it. I first heard an interview with him on The Dragon Page in 2005 when he was doing the tour for his first book, Elantris.  It sounded up my alley, so I got it and loved it. Brandon was part of a quintet of writers who came out roughly around the same time, including Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch and Daniel Abraham, who were incredibly stellar and talented.**When he put out the Mistborn trilogy, I was delighted and when he was then tapped to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, I felt that he was the one person who might do it right. So I love him.

On the surface, Alloy of Law is a hard sell.  While the book is set roughly 300 years after the events in the final Mistborn book, its designed to have a low barrier of entry for new readers.  The events might color everything in the setting, but if you don’t know anything about the Mistborn trilogy, it should just look like regular genre novel setup. The time period roughly equates with the Wild West, and there are definite Steampunk elements to the whole thing.

I like Steampunk as a look, what with the Victoriana and the gears and the clocks and stuff, but I’ve never been able to get into Steampunk fiction. Put it in a video game or some artwork, and I’m all over it, but books? Not so much.  However, I was a little leery of “Mistborn with trains and guns,” which is why I dragged my feet on listening to it.***

However, I really enjoyed it.  It was a little more Holmsian than I thought it would be, as this is a mystery book at its heart – similar to how the first Mistborn book had the heist movie at its center. It was a nice change too – no end of the world stuff here, just a mystery, guns, and acrobatics.  Without spoilers, I’ll just say that for the most part, I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying that someone I liked would die at the end of the book. There wasn’t a gripping sense of doom that permeates a lot of really good fantasy right now.  There’s something to be said for a book that’s just a lot of fun.

If you do go in having read the original trilogy first, its a lot of fun to see how characters you know and love in that trilogy became legends in this story. It was the book equivalent of the “Here’s what happened to _____” you see at the end of movies. I only have two gripes:

1 – I know this is supposed to be a standalone, but the epilogue kind of kills it. Brandon’s dedication to his overarching Cosmere story sometimes makes him include items that extend the story beyond the scope of that one book.  That’s fine – in Elantris, Warbreaker, and the first two Mistborn books, it was very subtle and the fact that you needed (or wanted) more information didn’t hit you in the face.  In Alloy of Law, it did. The parts at the end could have easily been left out for a sequel, but as they were, they kept the narrative going after the ends had been tied up. Once I got there I got grumpy that I’d invested a bunch of listening hours into a book….and will probably have to wait until my kid is in junior high to get another installment.

2 – This isn’t a book thing, but more an Audible thing, but when you get an audio book, the “encyclopedia” at the end is often left off.  The Wheel of Time books never have the “encyclopedia” at the end, and Alloy is missing the “Ars Arcanum” at the end.  As a genre fan, this is the kind of stuff I love, so I hate missing it, and is usually why I get both an audio copy and a regular copy.

Despite this, Alloy made me happy. It’s actually gone on a list of books that I plan to listen to again, which doesn’t happy very often. If you’ve read Mistborn, and weren’t sure of Alloy, I say get it.  If you haven’t read Mistborn, but you like what I tend to like, just go ahead and read them already and then read Alloy.  If you read Alloy first, you’ll be fine, but you’ll miss out on half the fun.

*Which was fabulous, but came to an end, which was rotten. You’ll see how that applies by reading on.

**One of the most promising, Scott Lynch, appears to have burned out but Rothfuss and Abraham are going strongly, if not as prolifically, as Sanderson.

***However, I can’t wait for “Mistborn in space” which is the third of three planned trilogies.

The Truth is Out There: Among the Truthers, by Jonathan Kay

First, let me say this: I love me a good conspiracy theory, and I picked up Among the Truthers, by Jonathan Kay because I love them.

I don’t often (read: never) believe in conspiracy theories, good or otherwise, but there’s something incredibly fascinating about learning about them, mostly thanks to the internet.  More times than I can say I’ve found myself, at 2 in the morning, reading through conspiracy theory websites.  Time and time again, I find myself down peculiar rabbit holes (warrens, more like) on various subjects.  I find though, that instead of considering that any of the theories I read about are true, I tend to view them as some form of fiction – an alternative universe like Narnia or Middle Earth where these things are true, but not in the real world where I inhabit. It’s fun to read and visit, but you turn the website off, put the book away, and you’re back in the real world.

I realize that many people who are exposed to consipracy theories have that tug on them that what they’re reading might just be true. That’s why we have Birthers and Truthers and people who think the Xfiles is a real story. In a world where we have the Internet, and where anyone can be an expert, it can be hard to develop or even deploy critical thinking skills in relation to what we see and who is presenting it. This is why I think Among the Truthers by Jonathan Kay is important.  In it, he looks at a number of conspiracy theories – most notably “Trutherism,” the idea that the story we are told about 9/11 is not the true story – and pulls out what exactly it is that makes people susceptible to conspiracy theories, and why some perpetuate despite reason.

I won’t lie that this is an easy book to get through. Unlike The Poisoner’s Handbook, which I recently wrote about, I didn’t stay up late reading. In fact, I couldd only take the crazy that Kay writes about in chunks, and had to put it down many times.  This isn’t because its a badly written book – in fact, if anything, Kay’s writing and description make you glad HE took the journey through modern conspiracy theory instead of someone else. It’s that there is a lot to take in – even for someone who knows a LOT about the conspiracies presented in the book – and some of what he calls conspiracism (particularly in the latter chapters) I simply thought of as politics, so it took a lot of mulling over too.

While I don’t agree with every conclusion Kay makes in the Among the Truthers, particularly in the latter chapters of the book where he discusses some modern trends that he labels (somewhat) conspiracism, I do agree with this: That teaching critical thinking and media literacy to young people is a great way to inoculate against perpetuating a climate of conspiracy theories.  It really got me thinking about how I’d love to teach others to critically examine what they read and see online, and how to teach my son how to examine what he reads or is presented critically.

The Poisoner’s Handbook Makes Chemistry Fun

It’s 11:02 on a Thursday night. I’m without childcare tomorrow, and my son wakes up promptly at 7 am, without fail, every single day.

So what am I doing staying up to read a book about chemistry?

While I love reading about science, I am not a chemistry person – I had a very spotty track record in chem class in high school, and the chemistry didn’t hold a candle to physics, astronomy and biology. When I’ve tried to read books set in the chemistry lab, I typically peter out about halfway through.

Not so with the book in question,  The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum*.  It details the history of forensic medicine in New York during Prohibition. Blum details the struggles and the triumphs of New York City’s chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler as they work to identify (in the bodies of dead people) popular poisons of the day like arsenic, cloroform and cyanide. It was an era where murder by poison routinely didn’t see the murderer in jail because there was no set procedure (or process) for identifying poison in the body.

Throughout the course of the book, Blum walks the reader through popular poisons, cases involving them and details the process that Norris and Gettler went through to bring the murderer(s) to justice or to exonerate the innocent. The struggle isn’t just scientific – Norris, as the chief medical examiner of New York City had to deal with corruption, a coroners system that was rife with drunks and graft, and  the mistrust of the public and the police in the ability of science to prove (or disprove) a case. This isn’t the forensic medicine of CSI – its the wild west of an emerging science,with the guesswork and fly by the seat of your pants approach that one often finds in a new field.  Gettler often ran tests to identify poisons by first grinding flesh down into a “slurry” – called “wet” chemistry – and is a far cry from the computer analytics we have today.** While real world forensic medicine isn’t pretty, forensic medicine in the past was even less pretty, and one has to admire Gettler and Norris for their tenacity.

Even more interesting than the chapters detailing murders and detective work was the fledgling consumer protection work done by Norris and Gettler.  As much of the book was set during Prohibition, Blum spends several chapters on wood (methyl) alcohol, which was rampant in bootleg liquor during Prohibition.  I was surprised, as I’d spent many years reading about the 1920s and had never realized that much of the speakeasy liquor (particularly that consumed by the lower classes), was often made from wood alcohol – which acts much, much different than the standard ethyl alcohol.  Both Norris and Gettler campaigned for the repeal of Prohibition as they saw the damage done to the lower classes by bootleg liquor.  They also did work to help prove that radium was dangerous at a time when radium was used in health drinks purporting to cure a host of ills.  Their work – and the work of others like them at the time – was influential to bring regulation to the food and drug industry at a time when corporations could get away with a lot (at least, in terms of what they served up to consumers).

The book presents the work, cases and chemical information in a way that is incredibly fast moving.  As I said earlier, and I’m pretty sure in the hands of someone not dedicated to explaining the facts clearly I might have either given up or run to the internet for explanations, but the way the book is set up – and the stories she presents – really help in making it not only a book that you want to read, but one that keeps you up until 1 am on a school night.

*Do check out her blog, as I just discovered it and it is excellent.

**Readers with slightly gentle stomachs, do beware. Some of the descriptions? Not pretty.

 

Small pockets of enthusiam: my 90s zine obsession

Do you remember zines? Small (or not) handmade (and sometimes, handwritten), they were little pockets of youthful (or adult) and topical enthusiasm.  Written, assembled, advertised and mailed mostly by armies of writers around the world, the zine is something that appeared to have died when the personal website took hold.

Or at least, that’s what I thought before I did any research into the subject. I was absolutely delighted to find that Etsy has a huge zine category, which is now mine to explore!*

In high school and early college, I lived for zines. I was obsessed with getting them, reading them and making them.  My first, Origami Zoo, is largely forgettable (mostly because I actually forgot about it until I starting thinking about what zines I did). I don’t even remember what I wrote about, but I do remember that it was small – 1/4 the size of a sheet of paper, as I was obsessed with tiny little zines packed with content.** My second was Linus Hates Me, and that’s the one that stuck for the next several years. I wrote about everything that was possibly of interest to a teenage girl with an unhealthy interest in looking slightly cooler than she actually was: Louise Brooks, old movie stars, sending postcards, reviews of other zines and interviews.***

Bad Drawing

Nearly all of my zines had illustrations like the ones above. Sadly, the style has not evolved over the years.

I’d forgotten about the interviews. I interviewed poor Mark Robinson**** of Teenbeat Records fame in ’93 or ’94 using my parents answering machine as a recording device. I interviewed Pam from Chickfactor - a zine that I’m happy to say is still running as a website – in an interview where I was starstruck by how cool she was. I also recall interviewing comic Ron Rege via mail. I’m almost positive there were others, mostly other people with zines. The thing that amazes me about the interviews that I did is not only how fearless I apparently was in asking people I did not know to talk to me or fill out a questionnaire for me, but that its something I continue to do to this day. I’ve talked to fiber artists for a fiber arts website, I run a podcast called Life’s Work for a client where I interview people who do interesting things, and I’m already plotting how to land some interviews here. I’ve spent some time thinking about my past and how it contributes to what I do now, and my tendancy to get people to talk to me about stuff that they do? Was something I never realized had always been there.

My own zine, and the voice I created, were pretty much rooted in the indie rock/pop scene in DC that focused on record labels like Simple Machines, Teenbeat, Slumberland, K and the smaller labels that popped up like weeds in the mid-90s. But aside from that specific area, the thing that strikes me most about the zines I got into was what a cross section of subcultures they were – and how open I was to dive into a new one if it sounded interesting.  If you wanted to learn about, say, gutterpunks or the Christian punk scene in Illinois, you found a zine about it and read it. Actually, that typically went the other way around.  I was relatively ruthless in finding zines I wanted to get, and I can remember getting Factsheet Five, Maximum Rock and Roll and, later, Punk Planet and barely reading the articles – I spent most of my time sorting through the zine reviews, picking the ones that I wanted to order. Through those sources – and reviews of zines in other zines I read – I dived into hundreds of little pockets of culture that I probably would never have come into contact with had I not been exposed to them via the zines they put out.  I was particularly fond of some California zines – Three, Reality Check, and others – that were centered on the Berkeley of the world that I wasn’t remotely interested in joining.  But I loved reading about them.

When I think about it, the world of zines in the mid-90s really primed me for the internet. I got online via Compuserv in 1992, and was already actively contributing to newsgroups and  fan sites  by 1995. In the early days, the internet really was a quicker version of zine culture, because nearly everyone was into something that you were probably into – I like to think that one of the reasons I never delved into sci fi zines was because I was getting a steady stream of sci fi and fantasy chat online by 1994.  I moved away from zines as my life transitioned more and more online – by 1999 I was too busy with my online life and work to pay much attention to small paper zines. But every once in a while, I’d come across one and remember what fun they were.

Just in doing some research for this post, I’m starting to realize how much its still going on, and how many resources there are out there to what people did and are still doing. Want to learn more?  Take a look at:

*At least, until my husband starts asking me why I keep having $1-$3 payments via Paypal.

**This wasn’t entirely because of style concerns either. As a 16 year old with just babysitting money, there wasn’t a lot to go on. Kickstarter wasn’t around then, folks.

***Things I did not write about: Watching Star Trek with my parents, My church youth group, The fact that I still slept with three stuffed animals.

***Poor only in that he had to sit through an interview with  me.

On (Coming Back to) the Cosmos

I’ve been watching the Cosmos miniseries on Hulu. Had it not been for the Bad Astronomer, I probably would never have given Cosmos a second look, but after Phil posted that it was available, I started watching.  It’s not that I dislike Carl Sagan (actually, every single thing I see or hear or read, by or about him makes me like him more and more), its just that I didn’t realize how incredibly relevant the series still is, almost 30 years later.  If you haven’t seen Cosmos, I highly recommend it.

The funniest part is that in sitting down to watch an entire miniseries devoted to science, I’m learning more about something that I pretended to not be interested in for a very long time – science. When I was a kid, I liked science pretty ok — though I was much more interested in the technology side of it – like trying to teach myself BASIC – than I was in the sciencey sciences. My parents were very much into educating me about science, but it backfired a little bit because I tended to see science as the antithesis of everything else I was interested in – history and writing and art, etc.

My attitude got worse in middle school, when a) I had a string of really atrocious teachers and b) my mom got a job as a science teacher at another school – and she was DARN good at it. So I? Tried really hard not to be.

Before you ask why, let me just ask anyone in our reading audience who has ever been an 11-14 year old girl that did not immediatly try to do the opposite of what her parents did – especially her mom – did, please raise your hand. Not only did I not benefit from my mom’s in-class enthusiasm for the subject, but I gave a ton of pushback when I did get that benefit at home.

Things changed a bit when I was homeschooled for part of my senior year thanks to a bad bout of mono – my tutor was very enthusiastic and did all sorts of fun experiments. However, the minute I got to college and found out I only had to take 2 science classes for my major (art history) and I ignored all that fun I had. I backslid. Read art and poetry and took all the humanities classes I could, and pretended like science didn’t exist. (Because science is not ABOUT AHHHHHT and LIIIIIFFFEEEEE and EXISTING!)*

Over the last ten years, I started to read more and more science related books, in part because I’m a huge SF nerd, and sometimes, science books seem almost science fictiony, and in part because nonfiction is one of my favorite types of reading and two of the most appealing types of nonfiction (espcially as I hate biographies) are either science or history. I then started listening to podcasts like Skeptoid and the Skeptics Guide to the Universe as I heard about them on SF podcasts and wanted to become more science literate.

Now I find myself at home, on a Sunday evening, choosing to sit down and watch a few episodes of Cosmos.  It feels like I’m picking up where I left off around middle school and started on a trajectory.  I feel a little behind the curve when I talk about science topics, because I really am playing “catch up” from the 15(ish) years I pretended science was passe, but I figure the more I talk about it, the less stupid I’ll feel.

*I was 18. Let’s try not to chortle too much at my pretentiousness.

Words to Knit By, Part 2

(Note to all: I’ve been cleaning out my “to post” files today….hopefully I can get more regular about getting rid of stuff that needs to be edited)

I’ve been on a history kick lately, and so my podcast listening has reflected that. If you’re a history buff, these are the perfect podcasts to knit or spin to:

 The History of Rome podcast - “A weekly podcast tracing the history of the Roman Empire, beginning with Aeneas’s arrival in Italy and ending (someday) with the exile of Romulus Augustulus, last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire.“  Mike does a great podcast – interesting, in depth (he has so many episodes and takes his time with things – sometimes splitting up an event into 2 or 3 podcasts in order to ensure he gets all the details in. The only downside is that he records somewhat low – so you might have to turn it up or tell everyone to shut up if you’re listening.

 12 Byzantine Rulers – The first history podcast I listened to, and its wonderful. Essentially a podcast of lectures, but really well done. I enjoyed them – even though I knew nothing about Byzantium and my only exposure has been bits and piece from fiction and college classes way back. Rumor has it he’s doing a book, and has plans to create another podcast series soon.

Books and Presents You Need

Few things that didn’t fit into my “2007″ in review post, so I figured I’d list them out here.

You need to read Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman if you like comic books, superheroes, or just a fun send up on the genre. Told in dual perspective by Evil Genius, Doctor Impossible, and mysterious (to her ownself) new Superhero Fatale, its got enough “dole out the big information in pieces” storytelling, fun prose and random mentions of events that you and I know never happened (a government sponsored superhero program in the 50s?) to make it seem both realistic and totally fantastic at the same time. Also, I read it in two days.

Jason got me The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for Christmas, and since I fired it up on the 26th during our drive home, I’ve been inseparable to this game.  At first, I didn’t like the “stylus” only controls, but now I’m finding it clever and fun (though its hard to play if and when your hand starts hurting). I’ve only had to check on the walkthrough at Gamespot three five times but most of the puzzles are easy enough for even yours truely to figure them out (its hard to rely on Gamespot when you’re stuck on the Jersey Turnpike). I actually plan to restart Twilight Princess when I’m done, and give Wind Waker one more try in terms of actually getting out of the darn wind temple.