Heaps of Reviews


  More books.  More reviews.

  First up:  The Heap by Sean Adams.  In the near future Los Verticales, was a soaring city in a skyscraper.  Then it all came tumbling down and now a group of Dig Hands works out of a makeshift camp in the desert to clear away the debris and salvage anything they can.  Orville Anders is a long-time dig hand.  He's here because his brother Bernard was a DJ inside of Los Verticales and even though the building has collapsed, Bernard is still doing his radio show trapped under tons of debris.  

  Orville is approached by the owners of the radio station Bernard is broadcasting from.  Bernard has a call-in show and Orville makes regular calls that are the highest rated part of the program.  The studio asks Orville to drop in a few product plugs here and there.  Orville refuses and his access to Bernard is cut off.  But the show keeps going on and Orville suddenly hears his voice on the radio, talking to Bernard and doing the product pitches.  Orville determines to find out just what's going on setting off a spiral of chaos exposing the secrets of Los Verticales and the Heap it's become.

  I rather liked this book.  It's very much in the Thomas Pynchon vein with secret societies and odd conspiracies and your enjoyment of such weirdness is probably going to impact how much you like this book.  The main plot is broken up with little vignettes of life in Los Verticales written by the survivors of the disaster that paint a window into what life was like in the city skyscraper and are a fun complement.  Overall a fun read.

  Next up:  The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez.  Nia is a starship captain piloting her ship on a trading route between major planets and their outlying colony worlds.  Travel between the stars is fast, but not that fast -- Nia spends decades in suspended animation plying her ship.  She's asked to help return a boy found at the site of a starship crash to the main world in hopes that he can be reunited with his people.  Nia and the boy grow close and she's reluctant to turn him over to the authorities at the end of her trip.

  Fumiko Nakajima is the genius who opened the stars to mankind.  Thanks to suspended animation and other advances in medicine, she's kept pace with her expanding civilization but she's not entirely happy with the results of her work.  She's working on another project and thinks the boy might have the keys she needs, but for now, she needs to keep Nia and the boy away from civilized space because a lot of people have a vested interest in the system as it is and the boy could upset that.

  Another pretty good read.  The plot clips along nicely, but it's really a much more character driven book with Nia and Fumiko pondering their decisions in the past and how they might make amends or change direction.  The boy, too, has his own moments of growing into a person.  If you're a fan of Becky Chambers's books, this will be right up your alley.  A warm, humanistic sci-fi story.

 Itinerant lesbian librarian-revolutionaries roaming the American Southwest -- I mean, it's a pretty good hook for a book.  Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey is a fun short story with a neat fusion of old west and post-apocalypse...well, maybe not apocalypse.  The US is still around, just worn down into a tired fascism where most people eke out a miserable living and try to keep the war effort alive.   Esther is a young woman who's just lost her best friend (and illicit lover) and is now slated to marry her dead friend's ex fiance.  So she hides in the book wagon of the Librarians, a group of women delivering the approved books, pamphlets, and literature to the isolated towns and farms of America.

  Esther quickly discovers that the librarians are not exactly the models of a patriotic citizens, but they might offer her a chance to make a better life for herself.  So, it's a fairly short book and clips along, but c'mon, secret agents for an antifascist resistance movement posing as government-sanction librarians?  A delightful read.

  I'm sure at some point everyone has tried to learn a magic trick.  Most of the time, it either takes a lot more work than we have the patience for or the trick is so obviously gimmicky that it's hard to impress anyone above the 4th grade.  Some people have a bit more determination and interest in the art though and the last several years have seen a new generation of magicians bring new ideas to the table.  Delving into modern magicians and how they view their work is the subject of Magic is Dead by Ian Frisch.  Mr. Frisch fell in with one of the more popular internet magicians and through him, discovered a secret society of magicians and magic-adjacent people, and becomes something of a magician himself, even inventing a new trick.  

  The book is just as much about Mr. Frisch's history as well as that of the other major magicians he interacts with and while it shows how magic is often a method of working through personal tragedy, it does break up the narrative a bit, a weird focus on the author and not his subject.  Perhaps influenced by a topic that thrives on deception, the book itself feels a little manipulative -- there's a lot of focus on the business of magic and how many modern magicians are using the internet to hawk their wares.  That Mr. Frisch makes it into the mysterious 52 Society as something of a chronicler of the group comes across as perhaps a bit deceptive, an acceptable way for the magicians to sort of toot their own horn.  I will say it's caused me to watch a few more magic trick videos online and there's always a bit of a subtle hustle for merch going on in all of these.

  Again, the book is full of people who make a living by tricking you so it's hard to take the book at face value.  I think a lot of the underlying ideas/principles behind modern magic is interesting, but rather than a manifesto for a new kind of magic, it feels a bit more like hagiography.  Not the worst book in the world, but unless you're fairly into magic, probably not a must-read.

  I also struggled through Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade, but teenagers who are somehow more adept at political situations than their elders just doesn't work right and the main antagonist isn't that compelling.  I also skimmed through A Child's Garden of Grass -- Reloaded by Richard Clorfene and Jack Margolis.  This is a reprint of a book from the late 60's talking about, well, weed.  While there is some genuinely interesting information in the book (some of which is only interesting because it's info from the 60's), this is a humor book and...

  Dear reader, the humor is dreadful.  Do yourself a favor and don't bother.  If you're really curious, drop me a line.

Anyway, that's what I've been reading lately


Super Overdue Review


My reading pace has been kinda shot this past year. Not entirely sure why that is. In any event, I have been reading books but have yet to deliver the verdict on them to you. More egregiously, I haven't even done a 2019 round up (which is at least as much for my benefit as yours -- what was that one book I read years ago?).

So, I'm going to try and get caught up. Hopefully in one long post but maybe broken up into a couple of them.

Thus, the final reviews of 2019:

First up: The Meaning of Luff and Other Stories by Matthew Hughes.  Mr. Hughes is an obvious fan of Jack Vance having written a number of stories set in the Aeon just prior to the one of the Dying Earth series.  This book is a collection of stories featuring Luff Imbry -- an art thief, forger, con man, and all around criminal mastermind as he goes after another big score in order to sustain his gastronomic lifestyle.  The prose is, obvoulsy, reminiscent of Jack Vance, but I've been reading Mr. Hughes stuff for several years now and over time, he's made his "just before the Dying Earth" setting his own.  This was particularly notable in his previous novel "A God in Chains".  This collection of stories ranges over his career so you can see him carefully exploring his setting to see what he can make his own without losing that Vancian flavor.

One of the main features Hughes retains is the way in which the plot is just a simple scaffold for exotic description and dialog that volleys back and forth in baroque turns of phrase and surprising amounts of philosophy and introspection where you wouldn't expect it.  Maybe not quite as vocabulary expanding as Mr. Vance's work, but it captures the flavor nicely.  If you're expecting a set of clockwork heist stores, this really isn't it.  If you're looking for some bubbly, fizzy stories that occasionally make you go "huh", this might be for you.

Next, we have Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  This is a short story about a young street urchin Coppelia is just trying to get by in Loretz, a city of wizards and magic users and for those who have the magic, life is pretty sweet and for the rest...well, Coppelia is just trying to get by.  Lifting a few small magic trinkets can bring big bucks selling them on beyond Loretz.  But now, she's got a new angle and a new crew of sorts.  A small colony of magically animated beings.  Made of wood, metal, paper, or even wax, these creatures are seeking out magical items for their own reasons and tryin to keep their heads down.  It's a fun little story and the backstory on the animated people is interesting and well thought out.  If you're looking for something on the short side, this is pretty good.

Earlier this year, I read Edges by Linda Nagata.  It was a high-concept transhuman sci-fi story about a group of humans looking to return to the interior of human space most of which seems to have been silenced by some sort of unknown disaster.  In that book, the humans accidentally freed Lezuri, a post-human way above their tech level and barely survived the encounter.  Now they have to chase down Lezuri before he reaches his home, an artificial system Lezuri built with the help of an interdimensional blade of sorts.  

So obviously, there was going to be a sequel.  What surprised me was that it dropped in the same year the first book came out.  That book is called Silver and it's every bit as good as Edges.  Urban, one of our main protagonists from Edges is hoping to reach Lezuri's system early to prevent Lezuri from accessing his full technological might.  After a rather bumpy landing, Urban meets up with the locals who are just trying to survive the world's haywire technology -- each night a low, silver fog comes up and...changes things.

Again, the book deftly balances amazing technological ideas and genuine human interactions.  It was a fun read and I'm hoping for some more books in the setting.  Again, if you like Ian Banks and the like, you'll get a real kick out of this.

After that, I decided to tackle some stuff on the periphery of my wheelhouse.  In this case, I'd read an article about Daniil Kharms -- a Russian author of the 30's and 40's who mostly wrote nonsense poetry and prose.  You might think of him as a Soviet Ogden Nash or Shel Silverstein.  I was curious to see more of his work so I finally picked up, Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms translated by Matvei Yankelevich.  I mean...yeah a bunch of poem and stories that carefully go nowhere.  A collection of shaggy dog stories that turn out to be shaggy kitchen blenders.  There wasn't anything in there that really blew me away, but I do enjoy some high-literary weirdness from time to time and this really fit the bill.  You can find a few of his works on-line if you want to get a sample before diving into the book.  It's clearly not to everyone's taste, but I thought it was interesting.

As long as I'm getting some poetry, let's go all in.  I also picked up Fire to Fire a collection of poems by Mark Doty.  

Oh.  Oh man.

I'd first noticed his work in a physical copy of the book I perused in a bookstore.  I turned to the poem Tiara and I was blown away.  When I finally got my own copy and read through the rest -- amazing.  

How good is this book?  I got a copy on my Kindle because that's how I read books now, but this book, this book was good enough that I decided I needed a physical copy.  That's pretty much the only literary award I hand out -- "so good I wanted the dead tree version".

I feel like poetry is even more subject to personal taste than prose, but if Tiara up there speaks to you, go grab this one.

Finally(!) there was another short story: In the Stacks by Scott Lynch.  Between this and "A Year and a Day in Old Theradane", I think he's better off in short stories vs. long novels.  Not that his novels are bad, far from it, but he seems to be a more prolific in shorter stories and I really like his stuff.

So for this book, a group of wizard students at the University of Hazar are about to undertake their one and only fifth-year exam -- literally the only thing they have to do to pass fifth year.

Return a book to the library.

But it's a wizard university so the library is an Escher-like space full of not-quite-sentient books gathered together just short of critical mass.  The books don't mind being borrowed, but they need to be returned or there will be Trouble.  Normally, the brave librarians venture into the stacks to return the books, but to impress upon students the effort that goes into retrieving and returning the books, fifth-year students have to return one book to see what's involved.

Anyway, it's Lynch so you've got tight, snappy dialog and a bunch of neat world building ideas on display.  A short, fun ride.

Annnd....that's it.  I'm caught up with the 2019 books.  I'll have a round up here soon, promise.




She's not just a sidekick


The new Harley Quinn cartoon show on the DC channel is, hands down, absolutely worth the $7/month to get it. Or wait a couple of months until it all drops (13 episodes, 1 per week like real tv used to do).

This might be the best animated thing DC has done since Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Because it's super-villains, nothing is off-limits and so far, this show has been knocking it out of the park. They dig deep into the DC back-catalog of villains and everyone gets a pretty well-rounded personality. It's funny and goofy but its central idea: Harely doesn't need the Joker and can be a major super-villain in her own right is a deep and compelling premise that carries a lot of other stuff along with it in delightful ways.

Well worth checking out

Bucket List -- See the Inca in DC


So last week, I took a very short trip down to DC to cross off a long-standing bucket list item -- taking in the Inca Road exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC (it's part of the Smithsonian).

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And that was pretty much it -- I went back to the hotel, got some supper and prepped to fly home the next morning. It was a short trip but a lot of fun. I'm glad I went.

Programmer for hire


  So last Wednesday, my company laid off a huge swath of its employees.  I was one of them.
  It was a bit sudden but the company had been having trouble over the past year so I wasn't surprised that it happened, just the timing.

  I'm still trying to right the ship a bit and get on the job hunt.

  If you're curious, I do software programming, mostly on the Microsoft stack, with a couple of different Java frameworks under my belt.  We can certainly talk if you think there's a position I might be a good fit for.



A few new reviews


I was on vacation recently and long plane rides are a great way to knock off a few books. So let's take a look:

Pre-vacation, I wanted a bit of palate cleanser from the fantasy coming up so I blew through Galaxy's Edge: Legionnaire by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole. It's the opener to a military sci-fi universe that ranges from deep space fleets to boots on the ground. As you might suspect, this one focuses on the ground pounders. Sergeant Chhun is stationed with the members of his squad on some dirt water planet at the ass-end of the universe. His commander is some idiot political appointee, the natives are restless, and there's nothing to do. Then everything goes to hell.

I finished the book so it wasn't awful, but it was the most paint-by-numbers military fiction I've seen in ages. Yeah, they're on a different world with alien locals and the warship that got them here orbits overhead, but with almost no effort at all, this would read like modern day military fiction set in the Middle East. I realize that perhaps war never changes, perhaps there will always be idiot COs, and grumpy natives, and bad food, and sand in your shorts, and the bond of battle that forges strangers into family, etc., etc., but even the most hard sci-fi settings would have profound effects on the way war is waged. Even the idea that it'll come down to boots on the ground might not be true. C'mon guys, spark my sense of wonder *and* my thirst for bloodshed in one literary package!

Also...I am almost 100% positive there weren't any women in Sergeant Chhun's platoon. There were references to higher level female officers back at base, and I'm pretty sure no one is saying women can't fight, but I don't recall a single female trooper. Again, maybe I've just forgotten, but if I go back through to check, I'll either fall asleep or be mad that I didn't do something better with my time (like sleeping).

Next up: The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick. I keep remembering how much I've enjoyed other Swanwick stories in the past and then I go searching around for more of his stuff. This time around, I came up with a dense, rich, prosaic, slice of fantastic reality that it took a bit to work my way through.

Imagine the Fae realms of Celtic lore, a world that's a fun-house mirror of our own. Now imagine that the alchemical-industrial revolution came along and turned the fields and forests into a dense urban sprawl. At the edge of the sprawl is a massive factory where dragons are made -- jet-powered, cybernetic, air combat dragons. Working in this factory is a young mortal girl named Jane. The book follows Jane and her attempts to grow up and grow out of Faerie.

I don't really want to talk about the plot because the plot is sort of a distraction -- the underlying metaphors are where the story is really at and as you read through it, don't be afraid to take in your surroundings, there's a lot to look at and see in new ways as Jane grows up and tries to get out of Faerie. It's not as thinky as some more "serious" pieces of literature, but it's not as obtuse, or perhaps it's poetically obtuse and that oddly helps you see it better. Anyway, it's a good book, give it a try.

On the flight back home from my recent vacation, I poured through Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. The blurb that grabbed my attention was: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!”. The palace was actually on the Imperial Capital, but otherwise that quote is 100% accurate and if that seems like your jam, rest assured it is totally your jam.

So you've got a far future empire that runs on Necromancy. It's suggested that a lot of high-tech hardware like starships are mostly well-maintained relics rather than something in steady production. Below the Immortal Emperor there are nine great houses, one for each planet in the Imperial Capital's solar system. Gideon is an orphan ward of the Ninth house. The Ninth is a near-forgotten house charged with maintaining the tomb of the Emperor's greatest foe. Run like a massive monastery its an endless round of prayer and ritual. Gideon wants out. Partially because she wants to be a warrior in the Second House (essentially the Imperial Military) and because she's the personal whipping girl of Harrowhawk, daughter of the rulers of the Ninth House and in no way are those two attracted to each other.

Just before Gideon is finally about to escape the Ninth House an Imperial summons arrives -- each house is to present their chosen successor and their Cavalier. Harrowhawk has no Cavalier and despite being trained as a soldier and not a noble bodyguard, Gideon is the only person available. These house scions have been called to the Imperial Capital, a world dedicated solely to the Emperor's abandoned palace where they will undergo a series of tests to determine who will go on to become a Lyctor -- a sort of undead lich-saint who serves the Emperor. The first Lyctors were created shortly after the Emperor's rise and no new ones have been created for thousands of years since then. It's a golden opportunity everyone is anxious to seize.

So the bickering pair travel to the homeworld, meet their rival teams and their enigmatic hosts, and start trying to work out what the test is and how to pass it. Then people start dying.

It's a fun book. It does have that YA "young people are somehow much more capable and experience than their age would suggest" issue, but the sci-fi necromancy is a lot of fun and the plot clips right along. It does set up an obvious sequel, but at least it doesn't end on a cliffhanger while still teasing something interesting enough to go back for the next book when it comes out.

Finally, I finished up another short story. This time a piece called To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. Ms. Chambers writes, hands-down, some of the most human and humanistic science fiction I've ever read and this is another fantastic example. The Lawki 6 Exoplanet expedition has just completed its basic mission and now has a question for the people back home on Earth. The book is their account of the mission, but not in a dry, factual way or even an exciting, thrill-a-minute kind of way. This is a story of small moments and daily lives. Those lives may be in a habitat module on a planet light-years away from Earth, but you really get into the hearts and minds of the four-person crew of the mission.

It's short, it'll handily fit into whatever spare reading time you have, but there will come a point where you know you're getting close, so you'll just rush through the end and when the book ends your heart is both full and content and the daily wonder of our world is more apparent. What more can you ask of a story? Go read it.



Where's the beef?


  Today I learned that Wendy's (yes, the hamburger chain) has released an RPG.  It's short, but fairly complete.

  Is it good?  Who knows? (probably not)  Do I want to play a one-shot?  Dear reader, you know I do.

  Check it out here.


Bucket List Items


  I've set up a bucket list of things I'd like to try and get done in the next year to 2 years.  The items on the list run the gamut of prosaic to logistically arduous, but all of them seem do-able within the time frame so I'm really making an effort to get things knocked off the list.

  And the purpose of this post (and hopefully others in the future) is simply to note/recount doing the thing I said I'd do because it's nice to remember that sometimes you accomplish the goals you have in life.

  So here are the first two items:

  Play a game of Root:  I said some of these would be prosaic.  I backed Root after having backed and played the amazing Vast: The Crystal Caverns -- an asymmetric board game that was incredibly fun but quite difficult to teach as each player in Vast take on a role that has different play rules and win conditions.  Aside from some very simple rules on movement, everyone acts completely differently from everyone else.  The upside is that the game has a lot of useful player aids and once you've played through two turns you know how to play your role, though learning how to play it *well* and learning what the other roles are up to is a different story. 

  Root was pitched as an asymmetrical wargame that feels like cute woodland animals having a tussle.  There are four factions, each plays slightly differently than the others, but everyone is trying to get the most victory points and the basic mechanics of movement and combat are the same for everyone (and the exceptions are all pretty straight forward).  So this seemed like a much more approachable/teachable game. 

I backed the base game and the expansion set.  It arrived over a year ago.  It sat there unplayed.  A number of bucket list goals are simply to play new games that I have but haven't played or replay games I haven't played enough.  Root was at the top of the list so a couple weeks ago we all sat down to play.  Along with the generous play aids and rule reminders, the game also has a pre-planned "teaching scenario" that walks all players through their first two turns.  You could stop then and restart, but we were fine playing out the game from there.

  The walkthrough was great.  The sheet has each person explicitly announce what they are doing for each part of their turn.  Obviously that helps you understand how your faction works, but it also gives players insight into how the other factions work.  But the game also has you take some actions that will really guide your strategy for the rest of the game.  The biggest example here is the Vagabond -- a lone adventurer who travels the forest looking for action, adventure, and better gear to keep doing the first two things.  The Vagabond has a relationship chart that tracks how the other factions view her.  You can ally yourself with a faction, or you can earn their hatred and both states offer benefits and challenges.  It's also pretty easy to get a faction to hate you -- just kill one of their dudes.

  The upshot is that you want to think carefully before you get someone ticked off at you, but the walkthrough doesn't care what you think.  Turn two the Vagabond kills a bird warrior and now the birds all hate her.  Remember, this is the very first time the Vagabond player has played the game and turn two she's made an enemy.  It's that kind of bold decision making (taken out of your hands) that really gets you stuck in to the game.  I suspect the other factions also made some very committal moves, but it wasn't as obvious as the Vagabond's.

  The game itself was a lot of fun.  I played the Woodland Alliance (i.e. the rebels caught between the cats and the birds).  So I'm slowly infiltrating spaces on the board with my supporters and forcing the others to pay me cards as they moved through those clearings.  I get an actual rebel base set up but the Alliance has a handful of troops and some of them need to be trained up as officers to help get those troops to do anything useful.  Meanwhile, the Marquis de Cat was fighting fires all over the board while trying to get enough troops together to blunt the advance of the birds of the Eyrie.  The Vagabond mostly did her own thing and stopped by the Alliance from time to time to get more gear.

  In the end, I pulled out the victory.  I'd like to say it was deep strategy on my part, but I think it mostly came down to me not looking like a threat.  I had lots of tokens everywhere but only a few actual troop meeples on the board.  The Cat was everywhere at the start of the game and Eyrie got real big, real fast.  The Vagabond probably needed to be more aggressive -- hey the Eyrie hates you, go kill some birds.  Still, the game has a lot of potential, plays in a reasonable amount of time, and it left us thinking about taking a second go at it.
  Special shout-out to the Eyrie player.  The Eyrie faction plays a bit like Robo-Rally for those who remember that game.  Each turn, the Eyrie lays down a couple of cards on their Decree track and then they have to do all the things in their Decree track, in order.  If they can follow their "program" great, next turn add some more cards and try again.  The problem is that eventually, you won't be able to do all the things on your Decree Track and when that happens, the Eyrie's government is overthrown, they lose troops, spaces, and victory points, and finally the Decree Track is cleared and a new leader is chosen.  We were all waiting to see the Eyrie's government fall, but the player managed to keep the same leader the entire game and never failed to carry out the Decree.  He was a very close 2nd and only a last-minute propaganda drive got me over the finish line.  One of the things we need to learn as we play this game in the future is how to make it hard for the Eyrie player to maintain their Decree.  Another is that Alliance bases need to be *ahem* rooted out.  It's costly, the Alliance is very strong on defense, but if you don't do it, the Alliance just slowly get better and if you do destroy a base, that triggers a bunch of bad stuff for the Alliance player which will set them back a bit.

  Overall, this game is a lot of fun.  It's easier to teach than Vast and the cutesy woodland theme disguises some serious gameplay.  

  Take a bike maintenance class:  I've been doing a bit more cycling over the past few years.  For a while I've been meaning to take a bike maintenance class, mostly just to get a better understanding of how my bike works and general stuff you can do to keep it in good condition.  This summer, I took the basic bike class at Broadway Bicycle School.  It was a six week course that met on Wednesdays.

  The class covered a lot of ground.  Fixing flats, adjusting hubs, wheels, and brakes, chain sizing and replacement, and working with the shifter -- it's a pretty comprehensive course.  This didn't turn me into a wrench monkey.  If anything, I'm more likely to take the bike to the shop and have them deal with it because man, it can be fiddly.  That said, I have a *much* better understanding of how everything works and I'm much more likely to correctly identify problems before they get worse.  Also, truing a bicycle wheel is quite...meditative.  I also picked up a few basic maintenance tips that I can do for myself (a little bit of chain lube makes it all better).

  Anyway, the course was fun, our instructor was great and I feel like I learned a lot of useful stuff.



A slew of reviews


  Got some more reading done so let's discuss:

  First up:  Priest of Lies by Peter McLean.  This is the follow-up to last year's excellent Priest of Bones.  You've got Tomas Piety and his fellow veterans, back from the war and restoring the his family's criminal empire in their hometown.  Along the way, Tomas got married to a royal spy to establish him as "respectable" and give him another set of tools to help thwart foreign agents from taking over the place.

  In this book, newly en-nobled Tomas is called away to the royal capital to make a splash on society and get the once over from his wife's boss.  Of course, if he's at the capital, he's not minding the store and when he finally gets back home, his criminal empire is only just hanging on and the city government is shot through with foreign agents and perhaps it's time to get back to some skull-cracking.

  The book is pretty good.  It's definitely a "bridge" book for what is at least a trilogy.  My biggest nit with the whole book is that Tomas complains about putting on airs like a noble.  Which is fine, but one thing that adds to his misery is any number of small social faux pas he commits because he doesn't know any better.  The problem is that his wife, Ailsa, is an accomplished field agent and a minor noble to boot -- but she never sits Tomas down and walks him through what he needs to know to get through various social situations.  Teaching your streetwise gang leader some high society manners and graces before thowing him the wolves seems like a no-brainer.

  Even so, the book motors along well, the dialog is crisp, there's some nice world-building, and it's generally an absorbing read.  Definitely going to get the next book in the series.

  Next up, another book of dystopian fiction, but this one is...on a more positive bent?  The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele is a book in the vein of Station Eleven where the world has fallen apart, but life goes on and happiness can be found even here.  In this book, climate change, super-bugs, technological failures, and general political paralysis has more or less put everyone on their butts.  Carson, a former school principal living in the failing husk of New York decides to pack up his stuff and walk across the country to Seattle where he hopes to find Beatrix, a woman he'd started a long-distance romance with back before things fell apart.  Handing a letter for Beatrix to the local bike messenger, he sets off, following road and rails across the country.  Beatrix, meanwhile, has returned to Seattle after the whole concept of fair trade goods no longer matters.  Beatrix is torn between heading north and finding her housemates who've moved to a farm, or sticking around and seeing what she can do for the people living in the area.

  This is a pretty low-key book.  You hear a lot about this cult whose leader is offering a better life if people make the trek to Wyoming and join him.  And they do run into this preacher, but it's a thread that doesn't really go anywhere.  More interesting are the people Carson meets along the way and Beatrix's efforts to rebuild her local community.  I feel like it's avoiding a *lot* of potentially ugly scenarios, but it's still nice to read dystopian fiction that has a bit of hope and optimism.  Definitely worth checking out.

  For some reason, I've been doing a few short story/novella length books this month.  This kicked off with The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall.  Vasethe is a man looking for someone who's gone missing.  To find her, he travels to the ends of the Earth and meets with the Border Keeper, an old woman who monitors the boundary between the world and the 999 demon realms of Mkalis.  With a little time and effort, Vasethe wins her over and the two enter the demon realms to track down Vasethe's missing person.

  This is fantastic and I hope it's up for an award later this year.  It's just a silk-smooth piece of storytelling.  The plot moves forward but has a surprising amount of subtlety.  I really liked it.  Well worth checking out for an evening's entertainment.

  After that, a little fantasy in the Jack Vance vein.  A God in Chains by Matthew Hughes isn't set in Mr. Vance's Dying Earth, but perhaps an eon earlier.  The world is old and run down and garrulous characters wander the land getting into scrapes and having adventures.  Farouche, comes to on a vast plain, unable to recall his name or his past.  He joins up with a passing caravan as a guard.  He handily fends off an ambush and impresses his boss.  At their next destination, Farouche takes on other jobs and tries to work out who he used to be.  

  The writing is very stylistically similar to Vance's Dying Earth stories (though the protagonists are usually a bit more heroic).  So if that's something you've enjoyed in the past, you might enjoy Hughes's stuff as well.  If you haven't read any of the Dying Earth books -- go do that first, then look into these.

  A couple more shorts.  First up:  A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch.  So if you know Mr. Lynch's other books, you've probably got a good idea of what to expect.  Amarelle Parathis, the Duchess Unseen and her crew have landed in Theradane, a city state run by a parliament of wizards who are...mostly fighting each other.  The Duchess and her crew are here because if you give the wizards a big bag of gold and promise to be very good, they'll grant you citizenship and you're safe from whatever crimes you're wanted for elsewhere.  So they're taking it easy when a wiz-war interrupts their card game and the Duchess makes some unwise comments to one of the feuding wizards.  Now, she and her crew of rogues have to steal a city street to make one wizard happy and another one cry.

  It's a quick, zippy read with all of the Lynchian goodness you expect.  Fun characters, snappy patter, and a slick criminal caper all in a neat little package.

  Finally we round out with The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain.  In the near future, a powerful Djinn named Melek is freed from his mountain tomb and he sets out to pick up where he left off.  On his way down he encounters an angry old man who suggests that if Melek is looking for a challenge, he should come to Kathmandu and face off against Karma, the AI that runs the city and keeps it alive.

  Now, Karma is no evil AI, it just works to keep people safe and happy.  It offers social credits to people who do good/valuable work for the community and even if you do nothing (you're a "zero") you still get your basic needs more than adequately met.  So how do you rebel against the ultimate benevolent dictator? 

  Meanwhile, Hamilcar Pande is a sort of unofficial Sheriff for Karma.  Not that there's any crime per se, but Karma may have blind spots and to guard against that they have Hamilcar.  The Sheriff has noticed that two people, who are invisible to Karma's sensors and have none of the cybernetic augmentations that (literally) make life possible.  As he starts investigating he turns up something more serious and far less magical than a egotistical Djinn.

  Again, another fun short story.  I do really like the idea of a benevolent AI.  It's pretty easy to write stories with a Skynet, but I think the more interesting ones come from societies where AI really does take care of you.

  Anyway, that's what's crossed my kindle lately.