Category Archives: Amusing Timewasters

What I Read (and loved) So Far In 2016, First Quarter

Back by reader demand…. wait, no, that’s just a lie. Sorry, guys. I hope that people are enjoying my quarterly updates on the books that I’ve loved reading throughout the year, but I haven’t seen anyone expressing more than a tepid appreciation for these posts. Mostly I’m doing this again this year for two important reasons:

  1. It provides bloggable content.
  2. I find it enjoyable.

Writing-wise, I’m working on a lot of things on my end, but unfortunately there’s nothing that I can really talk about yet, since I don’t like discussing projects publicly until there’s a contract involved and some assurance that people will eventually see the end product. I’m pretty optimistic that I’m going to have a good announcement soon about an anthology that I was asked to contribute to, but until that gets a little further, I can’t announce anything.

Bummer, I know. Anyway, fingers crossed!

On to the main topic — what have I been reading so far in 2016? Well, I’ve read 20 books as of March 30th, and here are the ones that blew my mind. You’ll probably notice two trends — I read a lot of non-fiction, and I read a lot of Django Wexler:


 

  1. The Price of Valor (The Shadow Campaigns, #3) by Django Wexler

In the latest Shadow Campaigns novel, Django Wexler continues his “epic fantasy of military might and magical conflict”* following The Shadow Throne and The Thousand Names, as the realm of Vordan faces imminent threats from without and within.

In the wake of the King’s death, war has come to Vordan.

The Deputies-General has precarious control of the city, but it is led by a zealot who sees traitors in every shadow. Executions have become a grim public spectacle. The new queen, The Price of ValorRaesinia Orboan, finds herself nearly powerless as the government tightens its grip and assassins threaten her life. But she did not help free the country from one sort of tyranny to see it fall into another. Placing her trust with the steadfast soldier Marcus D’Ivoire, she sets out to turn the tide of history.

As the hidden hand of the Sworn Church brings all the powers of the continent to war against Vordan, the enigmatic and brilliant general Janus bet Vhalnich offers a path to victory. Winter Ihernglass, newly promoted to command a regiment, has reunited with her lover and her friends, only to face the prospect of leading them into bloody battle.

And the enemy is not just armed with muskets and cannon. Dark priests of an ancient order, wielding forbidden magic, have infiltrated Vordan to stop Janus by whatever means necessary…


You know what I love about this series? I mean, other than the cannons, the battles, the characters, the ever-increasing cast of amazing and diverse female characters, the attention to detail, the brewing stew of magic and religion, and the political undercurrents?

That each book in this series as a distinct tone. Different enough to keep things interesting and exciting, but without losing internal continuity.

Also, did I mention cannons?


 

2. Duel With The Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up To Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins

Duel With The DevilDuel with the Devil is acclaimed historian Paul Collins’ remarkable true account of a  stunning turn-of-the-19th century murder and the trial that ensued – a showdown in which iconic political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr joined forces to make sure justice was done. Still our nation’s longest running “cold case,” the mystery of Elma Sands finally comes to a close with this book, which delivers the first substantial break in the case in over 200 years.
            In the closing days of 1799, the United States was still a young republic.  Waging a fierce battle for its uncertain future were two political parties: the well-moneyed Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the populist Republicans, led by Aaron Burr. The two finest lawyers in New York, Burr and Hamilton were bitter rivals both in and out of the courtroom, and as the next election approached—with Manhattan likely to be the swing district on which the presidency would hinge—their  animosity reached a crescendo. Central to their dispute was the Manhattan water supply, which Burr saw not just as an opportunity to help a city devastated by epidemics but as a chance to heal his battered finances.
             But everything changed when Elma Sands, a beautiful young Quaker woman, was found dead in Burr’s newly constructed Manhattan Well. The horrific crime quickly gripped the nation, and before long accusations settled on one of Elma’s suitors, handsome young carpenter Levi Weeks. As the enraged city demanded a noose be draped around the accused murderer’s neck, the only question seemed to be whether Levi would make it to trial or be lynched first.
             The young man’s only hope was to hire a legal dream team.  And thus it was that New York’s most bitter political rivals and greatest attorneys did the unthinkable—they teamed up.
            At once an absorbing legal thriller and an expertly crafted portrait of the United States in the time of the Founding Fathers, Duel with the Devil is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.


 

3. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wallstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

Romantic OutlawsRomantic Outlaws is the first book to tell the story of the passionate and pioneering lives of Mary Wollstonecraft – English feminist and author of the landmark book, The Vindication of the Rights of Women – and her novelist daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Although mother and daughter, these two brilliant women never knew one another – Wollstonecraft died of an infection in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, a week after giving birth. Nevertheless their lives were so closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other.

Both women became famous writers; fell in love with brilliant but impossible men; and were single mothers who had children out of wedlock; both lived in exile; fought for their position in society; and thought deeply about how we should live. And both women broke almost every rigid convention there was to break: Wollstonecraft chased pirates in Scandinavia. Shelley faced down bandits in Naples. Wollstonecraft sailed to Paris to witness the Revolution. Shelley eloped in a fishing boat with a married man. Wollstonecraft proclaimed that women’s liberty should matter to everyone.

Not only did Wollstonecraft declare the rights of women, her work ignited Romanticism. She inspired Coleridge, Wordsworth and a whole new generation of writers, including her own daughter, who – with her young lover Percy Shelley – read Wollstonecraft’s work aloud by her graveside. At just nineteen years old and a new mother herself, Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein whilst travelling around Italy with Percy and roguish Lord Byron (who promptly fathered a child by Mary’s stepsister). It is a seminal novel, exploring the limitations of human nature and the power of invention at a time of great religious and scientific upheaval. Moreover, Mary Shelley would become the editor of her husband’s poetry after his early death – a feat of scholarship that did nothing less than establish his literary reputation.

Romantic Outlaws brings together a pair of visionary women who should have shared a life, but who instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy. This is inventive, illuminating, involving biography at its best.


 

4. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In The End by Atul Gawande

Being MortalIn Being Mortal, bestselling author Atul Gawande tackles the hardest challenge of his profession: how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending.

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.

Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession’s ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families. Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person’s last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.

Full of eye-opening research and riveting storytelling, Being Mortal asserts that medicine can comfort and enhance our experience even to the end, providing not only a good life but also a good end.


 

5. The Guns of Empire (The Shadow Campaigns, #4) by Django Wexler

Guns Of EmpireAs the “audacious and subversive”* Shadow Campaigns novels continue, the weather is growing warmer, but the frosty threat of Vordan’s enemies is only growing worse…

As the roar of the guns subsides and the smoke of battle clears, the country of Vordan is offered a fragile peace…

After their shattering defeats at the hands of brilliant General Janus bet Vhalnich, the opposing powers have called all sides to the negotiating table in hopes of securing an end to the war. Queen Raesinia of Vordan is anxious to see the return of peace, but Janus insists that any peace with the implacable Sworn Church of Elysium is doomed to fail. For their Priests of the Black, there can be no truce with heretics and demons they seek to destroy, and the war is to the death.

Soldiers Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass find themselves caught between their general and their queen. Now, each must decide which leader truly commands their loyalty—and what price they might pay for final victory.

And in the depths of Elysium, a malign force is rising—and defeating it might mean making sacrifices beyond anything they have ever imagined.


 

Ha, ha! I got to read this months before the rest of the unwashed masses! Nyeh-nyeh!

Anyway, the release date is August 2016, so put in your pre-orders now, because you’re going to want to read this as soon as it hits bookstores. Motherfucker is gamechanging, ya’ll.


 

6. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of CrowsKetterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.


 

In terms of construction, and the intricacies of the heist, this actually reminds me a lot of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora series, but of course very Bardugo-ized. I’m always a fan of the way that Bardugo constructs characters and relationships, and this book was no exception. Loved it.


 

7. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeOn a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual.

For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions.

 


 

What a delightful historical fiction mindfuck! Imagine Groundhog Day, but if instead of a day, it was the character’s entire LIFE. Really, really good.


 

8. Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill

NightingalesFlorence Nightingale was for a time the most famous woman in Britain–if not the world. We know her today primarily as a saintly character, perhaps as a heroic reformer of Britain’s health-care system. The reality is more involved and far more fascinating. In an utterly beguiling narrative that reads like the best Victorian fiction, acclaimed author Gillian Gill tells the story of this richly complex woman and her extraordinary family.

Born to an adoring wealthy, cultivated father and a mother whose conventional facade concealed a surprisingly unfettered intelligence, Florence was connected by kinship or friendship to the cream of Victorian England’s intellectual aristocracy. Though moving in a world of ease and privilege, the Nightingales came from solidly middle-class stock with deep traditions of hard work, natural curiosity, and moral clarity. So it should have come as no surprise to William Edward and Fanny Nightingale when their younger daughter, Florence, showed an early passion for helping others combined with a precocious bent for power.

Far more problematic was Florence’s inexplicable refusal to marry the well-connected Richard Monckton Milnes. As Gill so brilliantly shows, this matrimonial refusal was at once an act of religious dedication and a cry for her freedom–as a woman and as a leader. Florence’s later insistence on traveling to the Crimea at the height of war to tend to wounded soldiers was all but incendiary–especially for her older sister, Parthenope, whose frustration at being in the shade of her more charismatic sibling often led to illness.

Florence succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. But at the height of her celebrity, at the age of thirty-seven, she retired to her bedroom and remained there for most of the rest of her life, allowing visitors only by appointment.

Combining biography, politics, social history, and consummate storytelling, Nightingales is a dazzling portrait of an amazing woman, her difficult but loving family, and the high Victorian era they so perfectly epitomized. Beautifully written, witty, and irresistible, Nightingales is truly a tour de force.


 

And that was what blew my mind in the year’s first quarter.

Now your turn — what has blown YOUR mind between January and March, in terms of books?

 

What I Read (and loved) So Far In 2015, Second Quarter

In the first three months of the year (January – March), I read 26 books and had 14 that I loved. From April to June I read 22 more books, bringing my total for the first half of the year to 48. It was a big mix – I read some books that absolutely blew my mind, some that were just so-so, and a few others that I really couldn’t stand. I also read a number of books for research, but I’ll save those for a special section at the end of the year. (“Wow, M. L. Brennan’s list of research texts! I can’t wait!” said no one ever)

Anyway, here are the amazing ones, in the order that I read them:

1. The Broken Crown by Michelle West

EPIC. This book is EPIC. In every sense of the word. Even the character names are epic. In fact, there are a few names that I just gave up completely even being able to remember which was which.

EPIC. This book is EPIC. In every sense of the word. Even the character names are epic. In fact, there are a few names that I just gave up completely even being able to remember which was which.

The Dominion, once divided by savage clan wars, has kept an uneasy peace within its border since that long-ago time when the clan Leonne was gifted with the magic of the Sun Sword and was raised up to reign over the five noble clans. But now treachery strikes at the very heart of the Dominion as two never meant to rule–one a highly skilled General, the other a master of the magical arts–seek to seize the crown by slaughtering all of clan Leonne blood.

2. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

I sat down to read a few chapters, and ended up reading the whole thing. That's how good this thing was.

I sat down to read a few chapters, and ended up reading the whole thing. That’s how good this thing was.

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.

3. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip G. Zimbardo

A few years ago, I taught at a small liberal arts college, and I was lucky enough to be able to design my own literature course. I taught dystopian fiction, and in the three times I ran the course, I invariably had a blast. There were always a lot of fantastic conversations about morality, human nature, and situational ethics. One thing that I used to do in the first week of class was show a video about the Milgram experiments that I’d first seen in a social psychology class – it set the tone for discussion, and gave everyone a good set of framework. (I also would pass out a photocopy from a great book called Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat on the subject of puppy hams – that one was also useful because it introduced the subject of how we could arbitrarily create life and death differences – in this case, puppies that were sold as pets and puppies that were sold for dinner were in the same marketplace, but in different colored cages – I think that particular handout served as pretty fair warning for the directions the class took) Anyway, long story. One of my favorite students (yes, I might bitch a lot about my job, but 90% of the students are fine, and about 40% are downright delightful) had read this in a psychology class and suggested it to me. I got a copy through paperbackswap after about two years on a waitlist, and then it sat on my to-read shelf for about another year – but I have now finally read it! Very thoughtful, and very very disturbing. The idea of situational evil, and that we are all capable of atrocities, is one that I think is really disturbing, yet important.

A few years ago, I taught at a small liberal arts college, and I was lucky enough to be able to design my own literature course. I taught dystopian fiction, and in the three times I ran the course, I invariably had a blast. There were always a lot of fantastic conversations about morality, human nature, and situational ethics. One thing that I used to do in the first week of class was show a video about the Milgram experiments that I’d first seen in a social psychology class – it set the tone for discussion, and gave everyone a good set of framework. (I also would pass out a photocopy from a great book called Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat on the subject of puppy hams – that one was also useful because it introduced the subject of how we could arbitrarily create life and death differences – in this case, puppies that were sold as pets and puppies that were sold for dinner were in the same marketplace, but in different colored cages – I think that particular handout served as pretty fair warning for the directions the class took) Anyway, long story. One of my favorite students (yes, I might bitch a lot about my job, but 90% of the students are fine, and about 40% are downright delightful) had read this in a psychology class and suggested it to me. I got a copy through paperbackswap after about two years on a waitlist, and then it sat on my to-read shelf for about another year – but I have now finally read it! Very thoughtful, and very very disturbing. The idea of situational evil, and that we are all capable of atrocities, is one that I think is really disturbing, yet important.

What makes good people do bad things? Renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has an answer, and in the Lucifer Effect he explains how-and why- we are all susceptible to the lure of the “the dark side.” Drawing on examples from history as well as his own trailblazing research, Zimbardo, the creator of the Standford Prison Experiment, details how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women. By illuminating the causes behind this disturbing metamorphosis, and by highlighting the ways in which individuals can resist the temptation to give in to evil, Zimbardo enables us to better understand a variety of phenomena, from corporate malfeasance to the prisoner abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib to organized genocide. This is a book that forces us to reexamine what we are capable of doing, individually, and collectively.

4. All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting by Jennifer Senior

The instant New York Times bestseller that the Christian Science Monitor declared “an important book, much the way The Feminine Mystique was, because it offers parents a common language, an understanding that they’re not alone”

Thousands of books have examined the effects of parents on their children. But almost none have thought to ask: What are the effects of children on their parents?

I heard an interview with the author on NPR (yes, I’m THAT person who I make fun of constantly in my books), and it was interesting enough that I picked up the book. It’s very interesting – it’s not a parenting guide, but instead is an examination on the evolution of our ideas of modern parenting, and the effects that children have on their parents. One very fun tidbit – as children have become ever more economically useless (after all, we don’t have them work the fields anymore), they have been ever more emotionally precious. Very, very interesting.

I heard an interview with the author on NPR (yes, I’m THAT person who I make fun of constantly in my books), and it was interesting enough that I picked up the book. It’s very interesting – it’s not a parenting guide, but instead is an examination on the evolution of our ideas of modern parenting, and the effects that children have on their parents. One very fun tidbit – as children have become ever more economically useless (after all, we don’t have them work the fields anymore), they have been ever more emotionally precious. Very, very interesting.

In All Joy and No Fun, award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior analyzes the many ways children reshape their parents’ lives, whether it’s their marriages, their jobs, their habits, their hobbies, their friendships, or their internal senses of self. She argues that changes in the last half century have radically altered the roles of today’s mothers and fathers, making their mandates at once more complex and far less clear. Recruiting from a wide variety of sources—in history, sociology, economics, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology—she dissects both the timeless strains of parenting and the ones that are brand new, and then brings her research to life in the homes of ordinary parents around the country. The result is an unforgettable series of family portraits, starting with parents of young children and progressing in later chapters to parents of teens. Through lively and accessible storytelling, Senior follows these mothers and fathers as they wrestle with some of parenthood’s deepest vexations—and luxuriate in some of its finest rewards.

Meticulously researched yet imbued with emotional intelligence, All Joy and No Fun makes us reconsider some of our culture’s most basic beliefs about parenthood, all while illuminating the profound ways children deepen and add purpose to our lives. By focusing on parenthood, rather than parenting, the book is original and essential reading for mothers and fathers of today—and tomorrow.

5. The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes

Ocean’s Eleven meets the classic D&D party adventure. A great mix of humor and action. Very, very fun.

Ocean’s Eleven meets the classic D&D party adventure. A great mix of humor and action. Very, very fun.

The most powerful man in the republic framed her, threw her in prison, and stole a priceless elven manuscript from her family.

With the help of a crack team that includes an illusionist, a unicorn, a death priestess, a talking warhammer, and a lad with a prophetic birthmark, Loch must find a way into the floating fortress of Heaven’s Spire–and get past the magic-hunting golems and infernal sorcerers standing between her and the vault that holds her family’s treasure.

It’d be tricky enough without the military coup and unfolding of an ancient evil prophecy–but now the determined and honourable Justicar Pyvic has been assigned to take her in.

But hey, every plan has a few hitches.

6. The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now. Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

Marie needs to stop being such a damn good writer. Tropic of Serpents was on my first quarter list in 2015. I WON’T LET YOU CONTINUE TO DOMINATE THESE LISTS, MARIE! Side note: Whoever thought it would be a great idea to print The Voyage of the Basilisk entirely in blue ink deserves a stern scolding. My reaction upon realizing that it was the WHOLE book in colored ink was a very heart-felt UH OH.

Marie needs to stop being such a damn good writer. Tropic of Serpents was on my first quarter list in 2015. I WON’T LET YOU CONTINUE TO DOMINATE THESE LISTS, MARIE!
Side note: Whoever thought it would be a great idea to print The Voyage of the Basilisk entirely in blue ink deserves a stern scolding. My reaction upon realizing that it was the WHOLE book in colored ink was a very heart-felt UH OH.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons.

7. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

In his highly acclaimed debut, Scott Lynch took us on an adrenaline-fueled adventure with a band of daring thieves led by con artist extraordinaire Locke Lamora. Now Lynch brings back his outrageous hero for a caper so death-defying, nothing short of a miracle will pull it off.

After a brutal battle with the underworld, Locke and his sidekick, Jean, fled to the exotic shores of Tal Verrar to nurse their wounds. But they are soon back to what they do best–stealing from the rich and pocketing the proceeds. Now, however, they have targeted the grandest prize of all: the Sinspire, the world’s most exclusive, most heavily guarded gambling house. But there is one cardinal rule: it is death to cheat at any game.

Brazenly undeterred, Locke and Jean have orchestrated an elaborate plan to lie, trick, and swindle their way straight to the Sunspire’s teeming vault. But someone knows the duo’s secret–and has every intention of making them pay for their sins.

The first book in the series was included in my first quarter list, so clearly whatever Lynch is cooking, I’m a fan of it. A lot of intricate crafting, glorious worldbuilding, and a lovely sly wit. I’m enjoying where he’s taking the two main characters, though I have to say, being friends with these guys is basically taking your life into your own hands. That lost love of Locke’s might’ve had the right idea when she beat feet out of town. Something I’m really impressed by is the delicate balance Lynch strikes between how much of the Deception A plotline he shows, and how much he keeps back for the final reveal. It’s tricky, and I’m enjoying it.  Bonus points were awarded for the presence of female pirates and naval officers, plus all the nautical cats and kittens.

The first book in the series was included in my first quarter list, so clearly whatever Lynch is cooking, I’m a fan of it. A lot of intricate crafting, glorious worldbuilding, and a lovely sly wit. I’m enjoying where he’s taking the two main characters, though I have to say, being friends with these guys is basically taking your life into your own hands. That lost love of Locke’s might’ve had the right idea when she beat feet out of town. Something I’m really impressed by is the delicate balance Lynch strikes between how much of the Deception A plotline he shows, and how much he keeps back for the final reveal. It’s tricky, and I’m enjoying it.
Bonus points were awarded for the presence of female pirates and naval officers, plus all the nautical cats and kittens.

That Escalated Fast. Like, Really FAST.

This isn't your mother's dinotopia.

This isn’t your mother’s dinotopia.

It’s possible that Stephen Blackmoore and I are bad influences on each other. Poor Justin.

Fun on Friday

Most interesting man in the world django wexler

Look, I found a meme generator site! Solid advice, by the way, Most Interesting Man In The World.

When April Fool’s Day Pranks Partially Deploy

When I was at Vericon two weeks ago, I had the delight of meeting a number of great writers – Greer Gilman made me laugh so hard on a panel that I was covering my face with a program; Max Gladstone taught a group of us Small World, and Saladin Ahmed promptly kicked everyone’s ass; and I got to have lunch with Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Saladin Ahmed, and Max Gladstone. Plus very fun panels to be on, and even better ones to attend, and I’m not even starting in on the delight of a first-night dinner that included Luke Scull and his delightful wife Yesica (both terrorized by what we New Englanders call “spring,” which they were inadequately coated for), plus Pat Rothfuss. Good times!

A few days after the con was over, Max Gladstone posted a fun piece of futuristic dystopian John Deere flash fiction (really, why isn’t this a Hugo category?) on his website. I read it, enjoyed it, and posted it around, as you do. Then I went along with my day, which included teaching my short story class. The class is in one of my favorite sections of the course (the “Professor Brennan has been working hard teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Conrad, and the Bloomsbury group for two months, and deserves a one-week treat goddamnit” section, if you will) – on the previous class we’d discussed Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” along with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” And in the class I was prepping for we were going to get to discuss Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ray Bradbury’s “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” – really, top-notch, great stuff.

Then I remembered that April Fool’s Day was not only coming up, but this class was scheduled to meet on that day.

Then I thought about Max Gladstone’s flash story again.

Then I got a very, very bad idea.

When I went into class that afternoon, here is what I handed out to my thirty-three students:


April Fool’s Day Extra Assignment
Due: April 1, 2014, before midnight

Biographical Background

Max Gladstone’s first novel, THREE PARTS DEAD, was named a Massachusetts Must Read Book of 2012. He was shortlisted for the 2013 John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award, and longlisted for the 2008 Writers of the Future award. TWO SERPENTS RISE, the second book in the series, was published in October 2013, and a third, FULL FATHOM FIVE, is forthcoming in July 2014.

Max graduated from Yale, where he majored in East Asian Studies with a special focus on Chan poetry and late Ming dynasty fantasy; he lived and taught for two years in rural Anhui province, and has traveled throughout Asia and Europe. He’s been a researcher for the Berkman Center for Internet and Policy Law, a tour guide for the Swiss Embassy, a go-between for a suspicious Chinese auto magazine, a translator for visiting Chinese schoolteachers, a Chinese philosophy TA, a tech industry analyst, and an editor. He has wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia.

Max is also the personal friend of the professor. HIS MISTAKE.

Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It

In addition to his excellent, genre-bending novels, Gladstone recently wrote an excellent piece of dystopian flash-fiction, “Sam Ogilvy’s Lament,” and posted it to his website at http://www.maxgladstone.com. This story fits in very nicely with the work we’ve been reading in class by Le Guin, Vonnegut, Jackson, and (particularly) Bradbury.

If you choose to participate (which is absolutely voluntary) the guidelines are as follows:

• At any time from 12:01am to 11:59pm on April 1st, you will go to the entry on Max Gladstone’s website that features “Sam Ogilvy’s Lament” (“The Tractor Story from ICFA. Also, Vericon fun!”) and post a literary analysis of the story.
• The analysis is a minimum of one paragraph in length, and should follow formal rules.
• The direction you take is up to you. You may draw parallels between Gladstone’s work and the stories that we have been reading in class. You may analyze the symbolism in the story (the emphasis on the tractor being “apple candy green”). You may analyze the moral implications of Sam Ogilvy’s decision at the conclusion of the story. You may follow whatever path your heart desires.

If you choose to participate, please make certain that there is some identifying mark on your reply text. First name and last initial are fine. If you can make it clear that Max Gladstone’s story is the subject of a class assignment – all the better.

• Those who participate will have their lowest quiz grade dropped.

 


 

We also read through Max’s flash fiction in class and discussed it a little.

April 1 rolled around yesterday, and I eagerly awaited the beginning of the swarm on Max’s website.

And waited.

And waited.

By 6pm, one student had posted an analysis. Clearly I had not properly calibrated the heart-breaking lethargy of students. There was a brief flurry of activity late at night, as their natural active hours appeared, and their ingrained last-minute assignment completion instincts kicked in. All told, seven participated, and I’d say that they do a good job with it – there are thoughtful comments, but it’s also clear that they’re having fun with it.

Max did eventually realize that something was going on, and he posted this tweet at 4:50pm –

@maxgladstone
A few folks are academically engaging with my tractor romance flash fiction in the comments section of my blog. How delightful.

That was a bit before the minor swarm began – really, I am pleased with the students who participated (they’ll be getting a bit of extra extra credit), but let’s all just take a moment and imagine the awesomeness of the prank that could’ve been – thirty-three students suddenly inundating Max’s website.

sigh

I guess there’s always next year.

Whippets In Spaaaace, Week 3

The puppies continue to grow. With their mother as a convenient size reference, observe their terrifying growth rate. There’s starting to be a concern that these puppies are the whippet versions of Babe the Blue Ox. And we all know how that ended – in tragedy and a year’s worth of steak.

The puppies continue to grow. With their mother as a convenient size reference, observe their terrifying growth rate. There’s starting to be a concern that these puppies are the whippet versions of Babe the Blue Ox. And we all know how that ended – in tragedy and a year’s worth of steak.

Tepper the puppy recommends that you read Grass. Clearly this puppy is wise beyond her weeks.

Tepper the puppy recommends that you read Grass. Clearly this puppy is wise beyond her weeks.

It’s been a week, which means it’s time for another installment of Whippets In Spaaaaaace, the continuing mission of four puppies named after some of the greatest sci-fi authors of our day: to seek out new food and OM NOM NOM NOM. (sorry, that’s about as far as the puppies can go before they get distracted by eating)

Asaro disagrees with Tepper, because Asaro prefers space sagas, ship battles, and quantum physics. It is hard to argue with those points, Asaro.

Asaro disagrees with Tepper, because Asaro prefers space sagas, ship battles, and quantum physics. It is hard to argue with those points, Asaro.

There are actually some big changes going on, and not just in their size. The puppies are definitely more interested in the world around them. The plastic tub can still mostly contain them – well, except for Tepper when she’s feeling particularly motivated. This motivation often kicks in when someone is holding any other puppy than her, because Tepper has decided that she is the rightful owner of ALL THE CUDDLES. And as the largest puppy, she’s got an edge over the others. (and, let’s face it, she’s also the cutest. Her big brown eyes pierce my soul!)

Scalzi disagrees with both of his sisters, because he prefers his sci-fi with Star Trek jokes! And if Internet rumors are to be believed, there’s a network that agrees with him!

Scalzi disagrees with both of his sisters, because he prefers his sci-fi with Star Trek jokes!

Another interesting development is that now all of the puppies are showing an interest in human cuddling. They were fine with being picked up last week, but mostly it seemed to confuse them. They would kind of lie on your lap with little thought-bubbles like, “Wait, what’s going on? Why is my head being rubbed? Is there something to eat around here?” The whole situation seemed confusing to them. That’s changing – now when they see a human approaching, their activity level picks up and they scamper over to sniff hands and get head-rubs. Also a new development – they can scamper. During the last week some of that tricky giant belly/stubby legs issue got ironed out, and you’ll notice in the pictures that their legs seem a bit more in line with their general body size. It’s not a great scamper, mind you (there’s a lot of scamper-scamper-PLOP going on), but it’s impressive.
Brin, stretching, feeling grateful that I didn’t try to pose him with books.

Brin, stretching, feeling grateful that I didn’t try to pose him with books.

If they don’t get attention from humans, they’ve also discovered that crying can get them what they want. This is especially practiced by Scalzi, who, according to my mother, is the biggest crier of them all.

If they don’t get attention from humans, they’ve also discovered that crying can get them what they want. This is especially practiced by Scalzi, who, according to my mother, is the biggest crier of them all.

The last big development this week was that they are now actively playing with each other. Previously they would sometimes sit on each other, but it was hard to say exactly how deliberate that was. Things have moved into the realm of hopping onto each other, nipping, and kind of rolling around in a puppy pile. It’s pretty fun to watch.

And that’s pretty much it for this week of whippet development! In non-puppy news, there’s a giveaway for three copies of Iron Night, so you can enter to win one of those. I’ll also be signing the copies, so that’s kind of fun. Iron Night was also reviewed recently at Fantasy Book Café and All Things Urban Fantasy, and there’s also a fantastic review of Generation V over at Bibliotropic that I strongly recommend checking out. Finally, for those puppy-philes in the Rhode Island area – I’ll be doing a signing and reception at Books On The Square on February 28th. Since I’ve been told very specifically that they are “taking a chance on [me]”, spread the word if you live in Rhode Island and let’s see if we can change this bookstore’s mind about out-of-state speculative fiction authors!

The first rule about puppy fight club appears to be: lick everything in sight as much as possible.

The first rule about puppy fight club appears to be: lick everything in sight as much as possible.

Whippets In Spaaaaace, Week 2

Here are the puppies pictured with their mother for size reference. Quite a difference from a week ago!

Here are the puppies pictured with their mother for size reference. Quite a difference from a week ago!

Back at the end of January, my mother’s whippet, Jessie, had her litter of puppies. Mom made the fatal error of letting me name the puppies, resulting in a litter named after some of my favorite living sci-fi authors. Since whippets usually have large litters, and Jessie’s first litter consisted of eight puppies, I had originally expected to honor (if you call having a puppy named after you an honor – which, really, shouldn’t you?) several more authors. Bad luck, to Alastair Reynolds, who didn’t make the cut. (honestly thought there was one more puppy in that womb – oh, well. a whippet’s uterus is apparently a harsh mistress)

That’s Tepper – look at those inquisitive eyes! She’s the biggest puppy.

That’s Tepper – look at those inquisitive eyes! She’s the biggest puppy.

I also learned from that blog post that apparently adorable puppies + the names of famous sci-fi authors is blog hit gold. Who knew? (okay, apparently everyone knew except me) So here is an update!

This is Asaro. Her coloring is a bit lighter than Tepper’s. She’s easy to pick out when you’re looking at the litter from above, since she has a white diamond on her butt.

This is Asaro. Her coloring is a bit lighter than Tepper’s. She’s easy to pick out when you’re looking at the litter from above, since she has a white diamond on her butt.

Since the litter is half the size of a usual whippet whelping (say that ten times fast), the puppies don’t have to fight too hard for their meals, so they seem to be growing like a science experiment gone awry. I first saw them when they were two days old, and at that time they could lie in one hand. Now they are about the size of guinea pigs, and they require two hands to cuddle, due to all the puppy fat. Seriously, these puppies are so fat that they can barely lift themselves up. The only one who can maneuver with any kind of real agility (and even that is really being graded on a curve) is Scalzi, because Scalzi is the smallest puppy right now. By smallest I mostly mean “least fat.”

Brin has the darkest fur pattern -- it's a dark brown brindle. Here he is attempting jump the side of the tub.  (unsuccessfully -- no Uplift for you, puppy!)

Brin has the darkest fur pattern — it’s a dark brown brindle. Here he is attempting jump the side of the tub. (unsuccessfully — no Uplift for you, puppy!)

Seriously, these puppies are pretty much fat bellies, superfluous legs, and mouths.

That’s Tepper sitting on Asaro – the puppies are starting to play a little bit in those rare moments between eating or sleeping. Mostly this involves sitting on each other, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere. You can get a partial view of Asaro’s butt diamond in this picture.

That’s Tepper sitting on Asaro – the puppies are starting to play a little bit in those rare moments between eating or sleeping. Mostly this involves sitting on each other, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere. You can get a partial view of Asaro’s butt diamond in this picture.

You’ll notice from the photos that their faces are changing a bit. They don’t have the long nose of their mother yet, but they definitely have more of a snout than before. I’m sure in a few more weeks they’ll have long and inquisitive noses, the better to counter-cruise like mommy. Fun fact – their noses have the most incredibly soft and velvety fur.

They have also matured a little from when they were a week old, and existed solely for the purpose of eating, then napping to get the energy to eat some more. They’re still very focused on eating, but after they fill their bellies there will be about a five second period where they will look around inquisitively before taking a nap. Their eyes are open now, and they seem to recognize people. If they see a person and their mother isn’t around, they will now start making little puppy whimpers until you pick them up and cuddle them – I think this is a heat thing, though my mother has the heat in her house pretty cranked right now, and their little tub is full of blankets and a few heating pads. Once you pick the whimpering puppy up, they kind of snuggle against you for a second, then begin exploring any exposed skin for the possibility of a nipple. You know, just checking about dinner.

And that’s Scalzi, taking a snooze. It’s tough work to double your size in a week!

And that’s Scalzi, taking a snooze. It’s tough work to double your size in a week!

Every time my mother or I walk into the room, their poor mother hops out of the tub (it’s one of those plastic swimmy tubs – it helps contain both wiggly puppies and their urine) and runs into the corner where her big fluffy cushion is. She’ll give the most hysterical, “Oh, thank god you’re here. YOU deal with them for a while,” expression.

So concludes another thrilling adventure of whippets..... in spaaaace!

So concludes another thrilling adventure of whippets….. in spaaaace!

Whippets…… In Spaaaaaaaaace!

Whippet puppies!

Whippet puppies!

Congratulations to my mother’s dog Jessie Bell, who over the course of a very long day has had four puppies! (we’re not entirely sure if she’s done — there might be one still left in there, but since Jessie is now taking a break to eat dinner, it’s kind of a Shrodinger’s Puppy kind of situation)

My mother has agreed to let me name them (always the first mistake), so I have chosen to name these puppies in honor of some of the best living writers of sci-fi. (how did I choose this genre? well, in the interests of not being a total puppy naming hog, I chose the speculative genre that my brother and I both have the most overlap of interest in)

At the far left, and the first puppy born (and the one who looks most like Jessie in her coat pattern) is Asaro (named of course for Catherine Asaro, physicist and author of the amazing Saga of the Skolian Empire series). At the far right with the really funny spot pattern is Scalzi (named for John Scalzi, whose Old Man’s War series my brother and I both really love).

In the middle are Tepper (named for the amazing and prolific Sheri S. Tepper, whose books I discovered in graduate school and which utterly blew my mind) and Brin (named for Davin Brin, whose Uplift fantasy series is so beloved by my brother that he very seriously tried to get me to shlep all the books in the series down to WorldCon to get them signed). All puppy genders match their namesakes.

If there does end up being a Puppy #5, then it will be named (regardless of gender!) Reynolds — not for Mal of Firefly, but for Alastair Reynolds, because in my brother’s words about his book Pushing Ice, “Long journeys are the best journeys.” Let’s hope so, Possible Puppy #5! (I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Alastair Reynolds at Worldcon, and he is such an amazingly nice guy that I really hope he will not be INCREDIBLY CREEPED OUT by having Possible Puppy #5 named in his honor. I feel like Scalzi can accept this canine naming tribute in the spirit to which it is offered, and I have no basis to make a guess regarding Asaro, Tepper, and Brin, so I’m going to figure that what they won’t know certainly won’t hurt them).

There will be more photos to come over the next few weeks, but I hope that everyone enjoyed meeting Whippets…… in Spaaaaaace!

January 22 Update: Potential Puppy #5 turns out to be… not. Sorry, Alastair Reynolds! If she ever has another litter, you’ll be Definite Puppy #1!

Here’s a picture of Jessie and her 1-day-old puppies!

Scalzi is having breakfast, Asaro is snuggled in Jessie's front paws, and I'm honestly still having trouble telling Tepper and Brin apart, but they're the puppies bookending everything.

Scalzi is having breakfast, Asaro is snuggled in Jessie’s front paws, and I’m honestly still having trouble telling Tepper and Brin apart, but they’re the puppies bookending everything.

Whippets…… in spaaaaaace!

The Mako Mori Test

Mako Mori -- kicking ass

Mako Mori — kicking ass

There was a lot of discussion today over social media about the article from The Daily Dot about how a lot of people have problems with the limitations of the Bechdel test based on the fact that a film like Pacific Rim, with its incredible female character Mako Mori, fails it. Due to this, there are a lot of voices now calling for the creation of what has been dubbed “The Mako Mori Test.”

As a bit of background for anyone who didn’t read the article:

The Bechdel test is rather elegant. In this test, your movie must have:

1) Two named female characters

2) who talk to each other

3) about something other than a man.

If it doesn’t have all three items, then it fails. A shocking number of films fail this test, including Pacific Rim.

The Mako Mori Test was proposed by Twitter user @chaila, and is this:

The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story. I think this is about as indicative of “feminism” (that is, minimally indicative, a pretty low bar) as the Bechdel test. It is a pretty basic test for the representation of women, as is the Bechdel test. It does not make a movie automatically feminist.

Now, as @chaila (as reported by The Daily Dot) has proposed the test, it seems like a useful idea to be used in conjunction with the Bechdel test. Where my concern comes in is the way I felt a lot of people were talking about this on social media, which was essentially that The Mako Mori test could be a *replacement* for the Bechdel test. And that’s where I think things get pretty problematic.

For what it’s worth, I thought Pacific Rim was hugely fun, I’ve recommended it to a lot of people, and I freaking *loved* the strong representations of POC.

*However* — I think the Bechdel test remains a valid tool. Does Pacific Rim failing the Bechdel test mean that I’m not going to watch it? No. But it raises valid points, and ones that I don’t think we should start trying to argue away with the specific creation of a new test that the movie can pass.

Why? Look at that number at the beginning of the article — 56 actors in the end credits. 3 of them women.

Was one of them an awesome woman of color who kicked ten types of ass? Absolutely. Does that offer a complete pass to the fact that 94.6% of the cast was male? Fuck no.

Here’s why — you can keep the same casting for Yancy, Stacker Pentecost, Mako Mori, and even that father-son Jaeger team. There’s your primary cast, and you don’t have to make any changes.

Why not make that duo of scientists female? Why not make a few of those politicians who cut the funding for the Jaeger project female? Why not have a few of the technicians with speaking roles female? Instead of having the pilots of Crimson Typhoon be a set of male triplets, why not a set of female triplets? Or instead of having the Russians be husband and wife, why not have them be sisters? When the scientist ends up in the smugglers den, why weren’t some of those smugglers female? Why not have the smuggler kingpin be a woman? You know that scene where Yancy is totally kicking the ass of everyone in that long line of possible co-pilots? They’re all men. Why wasn’t it a mixed-gender selection of possible co-pilots? In that entire scene of the possible co-pilots, there is only one woman in the room — Mako Mori.

When you look at Pacific Rim, you see a world of men, with only the barest sprinkling of women. Look at the crowd scenes in this movie — the only time I saw an even mix of men and women was in the public shelter (where speaking female actor #3 appears, by the way). In every other part of this movie, it’s men.

Mako Mori is a fantastic character. But by being unusual by the fact of her gender, it also perpetuates the underlying suggestion that a woman being a part of this world is unusual, that somehow she is special — not just because of her abilities as a pilot or her ambitions to avenge her family or her relationship with her adoptive father — but because she has *overcome* her gender and is now under consideration to be a pilot. It perpetuates that notion that if there are places for women, they are few and tokenish, so women need to fight as hard as they can so that they’ll be considered for those one or two spots.

This is actually a pretty decent visual representation of the female cast in Pacific Rim.

This is actually a pretty decent visual representation of the female cast in Pacific Rim.

Also, I’m just going to say it — we see a grand total of two female Jaeger pilots. One is the wife of another Jaeger pilot (the Russians), and the other is the adoptive daughter of the guy who is in charge of the whole damn program. I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that the film doesn’t seem to just be saying that the male-female pilot ratio here is insanely off-kilter, but also that it’s going to take a big fucking bag of nepotism to make this thing happen.

The Avengers is another movie that I love, and it fails the Bechdel test. But I don’t think its fail is as absolute as Pacific Rim’s. Watch the scenes on the SHIELD airship bridge and count the number of female background actors who make up the crew. Now compare that to similar “bridge” scenes in the Jaeger headquarters.

Here’s a comic movie that passes the Bechdel test — Thor. Jane Foster talks with her assistant Darcy throughout the film, and Siv has a brief chat with Freya. Instead of talking about how the Bechdel test is useless and should be thrown away, maybe we should be asking why a test with such simple requirements was failed so utterly epicly by Pacific Rim when it would’ve been so extremely easy to pass it?

So what do you think about the Bechdel test, the Mako Mori test, or about Pacific Rim in general?

**NOTE: A chunk of this post was originally posted on Facebook, in response to Abhinav Jain’s posting of the Daily Dot article.

Ten Authors Who You Should Read

Sometimes you see something and you're like, "HOW did I not know about this thing before?" I hope that this list (like whatever the hell this critter is) shows you something that you hadn't known was out there, or hadn't tried yet.

Sometimes you see something and you’re like, “HOW did I not know about this thing before?” I hope that this list (like whatever the hell this critter is) shows you something that you hadn’t known was out there, or hadn’t tried yet.

On Tuesday, one of my favorite bloggers, Danielle over at Coffee and Characters posted a Top Ten Tuesday slot on the topic of ten authors who deserve more recognition. This is a fun idea, because it’s not just asking the usual impossible question, which is “Who Are Your Top Ten Favorite Authors,” or, worse, “Who Are The Top Ten SF/F Authors.” I can’t imagine writing those lists without defaulting to who is huge and established in speculative fiction. I think this prompt is fun because it spurs you to think of either who you’ve just been exposed to (even if they only have one book out) or who just doesn’t get the kind of credit and monstrous fame that they deserve. So here are my picks!

1. Django WexlerThe Thousand Names is an amazing debut – I think the trend toward flintlock fantasy is a really fun one (but I’m a history nerd, so I would), but I really think that Wexler’s is the standout among the recent releases.
2. Will McIntoshLove Minus Eighty was so wonderful and beautiful, I read it in a day. Incredible exploration of the intersection between technology and humanity, but also amazing characterization.
3. Sheri S. Tepper – Amazing, amazing ecofeminist sci-fi. Start with either Singer From The Sea, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, or Grass. She’s written many incredible books, but I still often run into SF enthusiasts who have never even heard of her.
4. Teresa Frohock – Have you read her book Miserere: An Autumn Tale? YOU MUST READ IT NOW. It’s okay, I’ll wait.
5. Cassie Alexander – Her third Edie Spence book just came out — this is great urban fantasy about a human nurse who gets sucked into a shadowy underworld of supernaturals.
6. Nick Sagan – His Idlewild series completely blew my mind. The first book is just okay, but it’s necessary set-up for the following two, which are such a fascinating examination of character and human nature. Also, I’ve never seen a *less* idealized presentation of teenagers.
7. M. J. Scott – The trilogy starts with Shadow Kin, which I liked, but right now my very favorite is Blood Kin — fantastic romantic fantasy.
8. Margaret KilljoyWhat Lies Beneath The Clock Tower is an extremely fun variation on those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. He also works on Steampunk Magazine.
9. Emma BullWar For The Oaks was the first urban fantasy I ever read, and it has very fundamentally set the way I view the genre. It’s amazing, everyone should read it.
10. Sharon Shinn – Okay, so she’s crazy well-established, but I really love her stuff. I’m in love with her new Elemental Blessings series, and I just read an older book of hers called Jenna Starborn that was the BEST Jane Eyre remaster I’ve ever seen. She really focused on the themes, rather than just surface plating.

So that’s my list — who are some other good authors who YOU think should be getting more attention?