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Posts Tagged ‘other people’s books’

Books read, September-October 2021

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, Carlos Hernandez. Sequel to Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, and still very fun. My only complaint was that the resolution of the conflict with the antagonist felt a bit too abrupt; it hinged on something that hadn’t really been set up enough for my taste. Still, I’ll forgive a lot for a book that feels as good-hearted as this.

100 Plants That Almost Changed the World, Chris Beardshaw. Got this on vacation in Solvang, as part of my intermittent crusade to make myself more knowledgeable about the natural world. It’s of the same vague genre as things like Around the World in 100 Trees, only less well-researched than that one; I’m fairly sure it indiscriminately reports some folklore as if it were scientific fact. But it’s a breezy little read, and anything that helps me remember that different plants, y’know, exist, is a helpful book for me.

A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, Benjamin A. Elman. So I basically spent almost all of September reading this damn thing. It’s over 600 pages — over 800 if I included the end-notes, which I did not wade through — and frankly, most of those 600 pages were not really about things I needed to know. But parts of it are things I need to know, and I was never quite sure when one of those would pop up, so I waded on. I did give myself permission to skim any paragraph that had at least three numerical percentages in it, though, because “let’s do statistical analysis of civil examination results” appears to be a favorite pastime of the kinds of historians who write about the topic.

Scales and Sensibility, Stephanie Burgis. After making it through that, I needed something lighter. Like this, a Regency romance with dragons in it! I expected it to give me Lady Trent feels; I did not expect it to simultaneously give me Rook and Rose feels, but it did. The main character inadvertently winds up in a situation where she’s having to con everybody, and watching her frantically trying to keep those balls in the air was entertaining.

The Art of Description: World into Word, Mark Doty. I can’t remember where I saw this book mentioned, but I picked it up in the hopes that it would give me useful thoughts about, well, the art of description. Alas, it only intermittently did so, in part because it’s mostly concerned with description in poetry. And while there are some applicable lessons across the border into prose fiction, it’s not quite the same thing.

Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy, Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay. This was about 1/3rd the book I wanted it to be, and since it’s only 85 pages, it felt more like a taster of the topic than a full pour. The other 2/3rds are about the more familiar Greek constellation myths for comparison (with one howler of an error: Hera is not the Roman name for the Greek goddess Cassiopeia), and about modern scientific astronomy. I understand wanting the comparisons, but dangit, I’m here for Navajo astronomy! On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I know why there wasn’t more. Early on in this book it mentions that traditionally, star lore is passed down orally, with the tales only being told during the winter months, roughly October to February. (I started reading this in July, after I picked it up at the Grand Canyon; I hit that line, remembered that detail from my college or grad school days, and put the book down until October.) So basically, there’s a reason not to write more information up in a book that any random person could pick up whenever they like. Still, the taster was enough to make me wish I had more.

The Glass Magician, Caroline Stevermer. A quick-reading historical fantasy, based on the life of Dell O’Dell, a female stage magician in the early twentieth century. The setting was interesting, but I wound up feeling very distanced from the moments of strong emotion, so it never really hooked me.

Spark of Life: David B. Coe on RADIANTS

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts! I got too busy to keep up with coordinating them, I’m afraid. But my friend David Coe has a new book out, so I’m delighted to introduce you all to Radiants, a supernatural thriller with a queer, teenaged protagonist. Sparking this story to life required him to unfollow some earlier, well-meant advice — but I’ll let him tell you that tale himself . . .


David says:

cover art for RADIANTS by David B. CoeA couple of decades ago, while working on my debut fantasy series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, a first-contact story about two societies, one pastoral, one highly technological, I mentioned to my editor an idea I had to market the series as “an ecological fantasy.” He told me, in no uncertain terms, that this was a terrible idea.

“No one,” he said (I’m paraphrasing a little), “wants to read an ecological fantasy. Keep politics and social issues out of your work. Just write your story.”

Over the years I have defied that advice again and again, though I have tried to do so with subtlety and nuance. I didn’t take the ecological themes out of that first trilogy — and, to be fair to my editor, one reviewer writing for a prominent publication strongly objected to the presence of those themes. In several subsequent series, I have dealt with issues ranging from race to mental illness and addiction, but always I have done my best to keep my social content in the background, visible to those who care to look for it, but unobtrusive.

Fast forward to my newest work, Radiants, a supernatural thriller to be released October 15 from Belle Books. When I showed my initial draft of the novel to my agent a couple of years ago, before we began to shop it to publishers, she came back to me with surprising feedback. She told me the book felt a little flat to her. This was not the part that surprised me; I sensed the lack of energy as well, but was at a bit of a loss as to how to fix it.

What I hadn’t expected was her advice. “Publishers these days want books with some social relevance,” she said. “You’re so political, so passionate in your opinions. Let that guide you in your revisions.”

How far we’ve come.

As soon as she said this, my mind began to whir.

Radiants tells the story of a teenaged girl, DeDe Mercer, who has the ability to control the thoughts of others. She can step into someone’s mind, make a decision for them, and then jump back out, leaving her will imprinted on their thoughts. She and other Radiants (who have a variety of abilities) access their talents by drawing upon planetary energy systems — the rotational and orbital energies of the earth and moon. And though DeDe has been warned by her mother not to use her power at all, she is confronted by a situation that leaves her with little choice. DeDe’s abilities come to the attention of government agencies, several of which send operatives after her, all hoping to turn her into a tool. Or a weapon. I loved the set-up from the start, but armed with my agent’s advice, I saw new possibilities.

Those who seek to use her, who seek to create an army of Radiants, don’t care about the consequences of their ambitions. But DeDe soon realizes that her deceased father, who was also a Radiant, saw the danger. Too many Radiants drawing upon those planetary energy systems threaten to destabilize earth’s orbit and rotation, imperiling the very survival of the planet.

DeDe’s decision to use her ability despite her mother’s objections is prompted by an injustice against her closest friend (and crush), Kyle, who is genderqueer. Kyle is bullied for what feels like the hundredth time, and rather than just taking it, they fight back, bloodying the nose of a much larger student. Though they were defending themself, the principal of the high school decides to suspend them and not the instigator. DeDe refuses to let this decision stand and uses her power to change his mind, setting in motion the events of the novel.

The government agencies pursuing DeDe and her family stop at nothing to have their way, and think nothing of kidnapping DeDe’s mother, splitting the family. DeDe and her brother, Miles, who is about to come into his power, fight back to win their mother’s freedom, a conflict that forms the narrative core of Radiants.

An allegory for global warming. A story about gender identity and bigotry. An indictment of governments using their power to separate children from their parents.

Once I recast the plot in these terms, my passion for the book grew exponentially. I still loved my characters and narrative, but now I also cared deeply about my themes, my underlying message. I didn’t feel the need to disguise these elements of my storytelling. Instead, I reveled in them.

Don’t get me wrong: Radiants is first and foremost a thriller. It might well be the most tightly paced, action-packed book I’ve written. I don’t bludgeon my reader with politics. But neither do I shy from issues that matter to me.

And once I allowed myself to write this way, my novel came to life.

Many thanks to Marie for hosting me on her site!


From the cover copy:

DeDe Mercer is a Radiant who can control other people’s thoughts, make them do what she wants. For years she’s controlled her power, keeping her secret, never using it on anyone—until the day she had no choice.

Now the government is after her, after her brother, too, because he’ll come into his power before long. The Department of Energy, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Homeland Security — they all want her, and they’re willing to do anything, hurt anyone, kill if necessary, to make her their weapon.

But DeDe has had enough. They think she’s a weapon? Fine. They’re about to find out how right they are.

David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. He has written epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins, and is now expanding into supernatural thrillers with Radiants and its sequels. In addition, he has co-edited several anthologies for the Zombies Need Brains imprint.

As D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.


Like me, he has multiple professional identities! You can find him as David B. Coe on his website, Facebook, and Twitter, or as D.B. Jackson on another site, Facebook, and Twitter.

Books read, July-August 2021

I am behind!

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden. Second of the Winternight Trilogy, and hard going in some places. The idea that Vasya’s gifts are viewed with suspicion and fear, that people might not react well to her . . . that isn’t something Arden just pays lip service to and then breezes past to get on with the adventure.

The Hand of the Sun King, J.T. Greathouse. (Disclaimer: the author is a friend.) Epic fantasy, and one that reminded me significantly of Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant and Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant, inasmuch as it involves someone from a conquered/colonized people becoming complicit in the power structure of the colonizers, then eventually turning revolutionary. The latter takes some time, but this is also the first book of a series, so there’s plenty of room for action later on.

The Memory Collectors, Kim Neville. I started out unsure of this book and then got sucked right in. The two main characters share the ability to read emotions and memories off of objects; they are polar opposites in how they deal with the psychological strain that puts on them, and the novel does a lovely job of showing how neither woman’s coping method is healthy — how both of them need to learn something from the other in order to function and survive. Very much more on the literary end of fantasy, and beautifully done.

Each of Us a Desert, Mark Oshiro. Post-apocalyptic fantasy in a setting very reminiscent of the American Southwest, though it’s never explicitly identified as our world. The main character, Xochitl, is a cuentista; she has the magical gift of relieving people’s emotional burdens by taking the stories they tell — literally taking them; the teller doesn’t remember it afterward — and giving it to Sol, the sun they worship. Like the previous book, this is not entirely a functional setup, and pretty soon Xochitl runs away from it, without quite being able to escape. This is a YA novel, though, which means that a lot of the emotional focus is on Xochitl wanting to feel seen. I’ll confess I didn’t entirely follow some of the ending, and also there were places where the text shifted into a one-sentence-per-paragraph mode long enough to feel really choppy, but overall this was engaging.

my own work doesn’t count

Hard in Hightown, Varric Tethras and Mary Kirby. This was sadly disappointing. It’s basically a Dragon Age in-joke — which I’m fine with — around the fact that one of the characters in the game, Varric Tethras, had written a hard-boiled detective novel called Hard in Hightown. Except this turned out to be more like a novelette, maybe a very short novella, than an actual novel, and also it played its concept way too straight. I wanted it to be, like, twelve hundred percent more over the top. Alas.

Over the Woodward Wall, A. Deborah Baker. Yet another pen name for Seanan McGuire, this one invented because her novel Middlegame quotes extensively from a fictional children’s book by A. Deborah Baker, and of course being Seanan, she went and wrote the whole damn book. Tonally this is in the general ballpark of things like The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and while I liked it well enough, I have to admit it felt way more compelling when I was only seeing snippets of it through the epigraphs in Middlegame. I’m likely to give it to my nephew, and I’ll be curious to see what he thinks; I can’t tell how much this will appeal to actual children, as opposed to being sort of a “DVD extra” for Seanan’s adult readers.

Icelandic Magic: Aims, Tools and Techniques of the Icelandic Sorcerers, Christopher Alan Smith. This sits at an odd boundary between academic work that goes into detail about the surviving historical texts which tell us about the making and use of rune-staves, and New Age work that makes suggestions for how to use this magic in your own life. Its focus is early modern Icelandic magic, not the period of the sagas, but it still has some interesting insights into the lines along which the ideas did and did not run: much less importance assigned to the materials used, for example, but a great deal assigned to intent.

Comeuppance Served Cold, Marion Deeds. (Disclaimer: the author is a friend, and this was sent to me for blurbing.) Jazz Age novella in an open urban fantasy version of our history, out in Seattle where a leading politician is cracking down on unlicensed magic users — which tends to include marginalized people of various sorts. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because this is built somewhat around unveiling certain details as it goes, but it was definitely a fun read.

The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China: A Social History of Examinations, John W. Chaffee. Holy crap was this dry, yo (and you’ll see more of that to come, because I’m trying to research the Chinese examination system, and as a friend put it, that entire genre is apparently dry AF). Useful if you need to know the topic for some reason? But not something I’d recommend for casual reading.

A Heart Divided, Jin Yong, trans. Gigi Chang and Shelly Bryant. Fourth and final of the Legends of the Condor Heroes; full review here.

Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley. This is the translation that famously takes the opening word, Hwaet — often translated with words like “Lo!” or “Listen!” or “Hark!” — and renders it as “Bro!” Headley is very interested in unpacking the belligerent masculinity of this poem, though she doesn’t neglect to also pay attention to the women: as she points out, an influential glossary of Old English translates aglaec-wif as “wretch, or monster, of a woman,” while the masculine form aglaeca is “monster, demon, fiend” when talking about Grendel, but “hero” when talking about Beowulf, and hmmm, maybe there’s a different meaning underlying that which could be more coherent and also more charitable to Grendel’s mother. (She suggests “formidable.”) Anyway, the whole way through this, my subconscious kept wondering when Lin-Manuel Miranda was going to make a musical of it, which gives you a pretty good sense of its general mood.

The Class of 1761: Examinations, State, and Elites in Eighteenth-Century China, Iona D. Man-Cheong. More incredibly dry research reading on the Chinese examination system! This time in the Qing Dynasty instead! Basically, same as above, except this time with pinyin instead of Wade-Giles. (I think I’m going to get linguistic whiplash from the way the books I’m reading flip-flop between the two systems of romanization.)

Books read, June 2021

Li Yu’s Twelve Towers, retold by Nathan Mao. Seventeenth-century Chinese collection, picked up for research. This book is on the old side (printed in 1975), and I have to admit I side-eye some of Mao’s choices. You might have noticed this says “retold by Nathan Mao” rather than “translated by;” he is very free with the text in places. Example: he gives each story his own title, thus obscuring the fact that it’s Twelve Towers because each title mentions a lou (a tower/pavilion/pagoda/etc). Example: he leaves the ending off the first story because it’s “anticlimactic.” He does at least include endnotes that alert you to these decisions . . . but still. As for the stories themselves, although Li Yu is generally praised for the “realism” of his observations of human behavior, the story Mao calls “Father and Son” (actual title something more like “The Tower of My Birth”) contains series of coincidences that would make a Shakespearean comedy blush — but hey, I find that kind of thing amusing!

Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale, Judith T. Zeitlin. Also picked up for research. This gave me a lot of great context not only about Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiyi, but about broader Ming/Qing ideas around topics like obsessive collecting.

People and the Sky: Our Ancestors and the Cosmos, Anthony Aveni. I can’t recall who recommended this to me, but it came up in the context of me asking for a book that would give me comparative astronomy/astrology. This isn’t quite what I was looking for — I want something that focuses more specifically on different cultural systems for the constellations and their meaning — but it’s very interesting in its own right, organizing itself around the different uses we’ve gotten out of the sky and its astronomical bodies, and within that being admirably multicultural in its survey of examples.

Sengoku Jidai: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan, Danny Chaplin. Also picked up for research, albeit for different reasons. This appears to be self-published, which explains why it was so badly in need of a copy-editor — not just typos and errors of punctuation but “that is not the word you meant there, sir” and (least forgivably, in my mind) the decision to not mark long vowels on any of the Japanese words and names, of which there are an abundance. Having said that, it did what I needed it to do, and my impression from reviews is that most of its errors are more of “you contradicted yourself” sort rather than a “you just don’t even know your facts” sort. It’s a massive brick (I’m glad I read it in ebook) and for my purposes I could have stopped halfway through, but I went ahead and read the rest, giant wads of “I will now name every daimyō who participated in this battle” notwithstanding. Dear heavens was this period just bloody and insane.

Rashōmon and Other Stories, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, trans. Takashi Kojima. Not research, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so! I just happened to be at Kinokuniya and picked this up, along with a folklore collection and a copy of the Kojiki that may take me forever to tackle, given that it’s the kind of volume where the top quarter of the page is text and the remaining three quarters is footnotes. But this book is quite slender, collecting both “Rashōmon” and “In a Grove” (the story that actually provides the plot of the film Rashōmon), along with several others. None of the stories were my particular cuppa, as they ooze a kind of cynicism about human nature that I don’t particularly enjoy, but it was good to read for general cultural broadening.

Easy Field Guide to Indian Art & Legends of the Southwest, James Cunkle. This doesn’t really count as a book, being a tiny pamphlet I snagged at the Grand Canyon. It’s specifically about artistic motifs in Mimbres bowls, and I like that the sketches of each bowl include (where relevant) the “kill hole” chipped in the bottom before it was placed over the face of a buried individual.

The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers, Jim Kristofic with illustrations by Nolan Karras James. Illustrated, bilingual retelling of the Hero Twins story, also acquired at the Grand Canyon. My main complaint is that the art wasn’t as well-planned for binding as it could have been; often there’s a key segment of the painting in the gutter where the pages come together, making it harder to see.

Books read, May 2021


Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan, Usman T. Malik. I met the author at, hmmmm, I think ICFA? The book is quite literally from Pakistan; at least when I placed my order, it wasn’t available in the U.S. Some of these verged in more horror-ish directions than is my cuppa, but I liked the collection overall. And I found it particularly interesting to see where the text doesn’t bother explaining stuff: a statue from Mohenjo-daro gets referenced as if the reader is assumed to be extremely familiar with its appearance, and one story hinges on the idea of stoves being a source of fear, without saying outright why. (In the former case, I searched online for the image; in the latter, I had a vague recollection which I then confirmed, which is that men who want to get rid of their current wives will burn them alive and then blame it on an explosion from a kerosene stove.)

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden. An absolutely lovely historical fantasy novel set in Russia, the first of the Winternight Trilogy. It managed to make me feel sympathy for the “evil stepmother,” and I like the ambiguity around the romance — I’ll be interested to see how the tension of the latter plays out in the rest of the series.

Star Eater, Kerstin Hall. Disclosure: the author is a friend. The worldbuilding here strikes a balance where on the one hand, the things people are doing are deeply messed up, but on the other hand, you see why just deciding not to do those things isn’t a solution. (Example: if you stop your rituals, the floating island everybody lives on will literally fall out of the sky. Into a demon-haunted wilderness, for bonus points.) As a result, it comes with trigger warnings for things like cannibalism and a really twisted sexual scene. This book is a stand-alone — I don’t know if Hall intends more in this setting or with these characters, but the plot doesn’t demand it — but I’d be interested in more about the history behind everything we see here. You get bits of it in the last segment of this book, but my nerdy heart wanted more!

A Snake Lies Waiting, Jin Yong, trans. Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang. Third of the ongoing English translation of the book usually called Legends of the Condor Heroes. I distinctly enjoyed the portion of this that had to be more about problem-solving than just fighting your enemies — first with setting up a trap; then with getting someone out of it — and chef’s kiss to the bit where one of the bad guys screws up his attempted takeover of the Beggar Clan by trying to be too dignified. On the other hand, it’s deeply grating when one of the two strongest female martial artists in the whole story is described as being no match for a third-tier dude who’s literally had the entire lower half of his body crushed with a boulder.

A Radical Act of Free Magic, H.G. Parry. Second half of the duology that began with A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. Robespierre is dead; Napoleon is on the rise; Haiti is in the process of becoming a free country; England is having problems. The pacing that results from a duology structure means I spent the first chunk of this book having a sad that Pitt and Wilberforce basically weren’t talking to each other, but fortunately that didn’t last. The ending is also interesting because of how closely this hews to the shape of real history, while providing different reasons for events: the invented threat gets thoroughly taken out, but other bits are left somewhat dangling because history says they won’t be dealt with for another few years or decades. I didn’t find it unsatisfying, but it definitely isn’t as tidy as we usually expect from novels.

The Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer, ed. Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans. I swear to god that someone whose blog I read regularly had a review of this book, but I’ve checked all the usual suspects and not found it, so either I missed it in my search or I’m imagining things. And yet, if I didn’t see a review, then where did I find out about it? Anyway, this runs the full gamut from the basics of craft to some philosophical things about life as a writer. Unsurprisingly, I found the latter more useful than the former, but this could still be a good book to recommend to a newer writer.

City of Blades, Robert Jackson Bennett. Second of the Divine Cities trilogy, and it’s been years since I read the first one, but that didn’t materially hamper my enjoyment. I continue to be be fascinated by the type of worldbuilding I see here and in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, where it’s a secondary world with magic but the general feel is modern rather than historical. (Who else does that?)

Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, Henry Lien. Second of a middle-grade series about martial arts figure skating. For much of this book I was enjoying it but also a little frustrated with Peasprout’s blind spots, because I keep wanting her to be more diplomatic and aware of others (while fully recognizing that the whole point is that failure to do so is a flaw she’s having to grow past; this is more about me not being the target audience than anything else). Then I got to the end of the book and OMGWTFBBQ PLEASE TELL ME THERE WILL BE A THIRD BOOK BECAUSE I NEED ANSWERS. O_O

The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner. This is a series I’ve heard recommended many times over the years, and I finally got around to picking up the first book. Having done so, I’ve gotta ask . . . does it get better? Because I was seriously not impressed. Something like a fifth of the book is the characters traveling while having the same repetitive interactions and facing no particular challenges. Then they’re still traveling, but at least there are some challenges and the interactions have gotten less repetitive. I semi-guessed where the story was going, but when I found out I was right, my main reaction was to be irritated by how unreliable the narration had to be in order to pull that off — not least because it left Gen a fairly colorless character along the way. I’ll keep reading if people tell me the later books are stronger, but if this is one of those cases where a person’s reaction to the first installment is diagnostic of the whole, I may not bother.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Revised & Expanded), Jeff Vandermeer. So, I feel like how you react to this book will depend greatly on how well you vibe with Vandermeer’s preferred aesthetic, which very much tilts toward the surreal and grotesque. I . . . don’t, so from my perspective, the illustrations that pack this book mostly just make it longer and heavier. Even the ones that are diagrams intended to demonstrate some point or another about narrative add basically nothing for me. The text was mostly fine, but for me the greatest value by far comes from the mini-essays sprinkled throughout from other writers, just because I think it’s good for one’s writing advice to come from multiple sources. I have a harder time imagining when I might recommend this book than I do with The Pocket Workshop, unless I knew the recommendee really digs the aesthetic.

Books read, March 2021

The Cloud Roads, Martha Wells. First of the Raksura books, and I was a little bit ambivalent about it. I love the worldbuilding and all the stuff built around the Raksura being a different species, but it’s challenging to write a book about a loner main character who spends much of the novel with one foot out the door, wanting to get away from the people around him. But the setting was interesting enough to keep me engaged, and the first volume ends on a note that probably means Moon won’t be acting quite so much like a cat that doesn’t want to be held.

Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World, Patricia Crone. Recommended on A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, this is an overview of the commonalities found in pre-industrial states, just by dint of their technological constraints. It definitely has its shortcomings (it’s moderately good at looking at parts of Eurasia that aren’t Europe, but less good with Africa, much less the New World), and most of what it discusses is stuff I’ve picked up by osmosis through reading about the societies themselves, but it works well as an overview you could hand to someone who hasn’t spent decades osmosing that stuff. (Also, the shade Crone throws on Europe at the end is a truly astonishing thing to behold. Her thesis is that Europe industrialized because it so comprehensively failed at finding stable solutions to the problems of a pre-industrial society, and her summation of that failure gets vivid.)

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke. What a peculiar book! Five pages in, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish, partly because of the random Capitals the narrator scatters throughout his Text. Fifty pages in, I wanted to hoover the entire thing up, and I couldn’t even tell you why. I acquired it because I have an idea for a “weird house” story, and it turns out what I’ve got in mind is absolutely nothing like this, but I’m not sorry I read it. (Also, kudos to whoever designed the case for the hardcover: if you take off the slip jacket, the front and back covers and the spine have a marching series of columns of varying heights that spell out PIRANESI. It’s really pretty.)

Aru Shah and the Song of Death, Roshani Chokshi. Second in the Pandavas series from Rick Riordan Presents, this introduces a third Pandava sibling (along with, of course, new threats to deal with). I don’t find this series as congenial as some of the others from that imprint; the narrative voice just doesn’t work as well for me. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with it — but as I’m not the ideal reader, and I’ve established there are other series I like better, I may not continue on.

Never Have I Ever, Isabel Yap. A collection of short stories that range in tone all the way from a really sweet romance that’s the most San Franciscan thing I’ve read in a while (it’s about a queer guy who works in tech and also has a part-time job at an occult store on Valencia) to some outright horror. A few of the stories end on a bit more of an unresolved, literary-style note than is my preference, but I liked the collection overall. The author is Filipina, and several of the stories involve that setting and/or elements from that folklore; the latter sent me down some excellent new rabbit holes on Wikipedia. (If anybody has recs for English-language books on Filipino folklore, please share them! It’s not an area I know much about at all.)

Sins of Regret
Winter’s Embrace
Wheel of Judgment
Mask of the Oni Four short adventures written for Legend of the Five Rings. I’ve read very few adventure modules overall, and the ones I’ve looked at in the past were all for Pathfinder, so it’s interesting to see how a totally different game approaches the medium.

Daily Life in the Inca Empire, Michael A. Malpass. I have a vague idea for a short story set in Incan history, so this is the first of several books I’ve acquired on the culture, and also the oldest, being from 1996. (Which really doesn’t feel like it’s twenty-five years ago. O_O ) It’s from the same series as the Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia that I read back at the start of 2020, and while it isn’t quite as much of a slog as that one was, it’s still pretty dry going. I hope some of the others will be more flavorful? But I got useful information out of it regardless.

From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities, Xueting Christine Ni. This got recommended during one of my Flights of Foundry panels. It goes through sixty some-odd deities in a little over two hundred pages, so none of them get more than a few pages apiece — but in that time, Ni manages to pack in details on the historical and/or mythological origins of each deity, how they’re worshipped now and/or in the past, where major temples can be found, what kinds of offerings you can make to them, which novels/TV shows/movies/video games they show up in, and sometimes even how to cosplay as them. And yes, Mao is genuinely included in the list of deities; he isn’t in the title just for rhetorical value.

Books read, March 2021

Reading comic books makes it feel like I have read All the Things this month!

Lost in the Taiga, Vasily Peskov, trans. Marian Schwartz. Nonfiction about the Lykov family, who spent about fifty years living completely isolated in the Russian wilderness (having fled religious persecution in the 1930s). On the one hand this book was a little frustrating, because I wanted it to dig deeper into the psychological aspects — things like internal conflicts (the family patriarch was apparently worried about the prospect of his older son being in charge after his death) and the culture shock of coming into contact with the outside world. On the other hand, that would have required Peskov to study the family rather than just being their friend, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that he chose the latter. It becomes apparent toward the end just how much effort he put into the friendship, including organizing the donations that funded all his trips to the taiga and the supplies he brought with him, the airlift for Agafia Lykov when she got sick, etc. I haven’t yet looked to see what became of Agafia in the long run, after the rest of her family had died; this book leaves off with her still choosing to live alone in the wilderness, but the life she has at that point is no longer self-sufficient, and it’s unclear how she’ll fare when circumstances mean she can’t get support from the outside. Given that it’s been nearly thirty years since then, I have to imagine the answer is “she died out there” — but if so, it’s a death she very much chose for herself, on her own terms.

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Zelda Knight and Epeki Oghenechovwe Donald. The tone of this ranges all over the place, from horror to a kind of magical-science-fictional story that felt sort of Zelaznian. Not all of the pieces worked for me, but that’s to be expected in something with this kind of range, and it’s a good showcase for its topic.

The Last Smile in Sunder City, Luke Arnold. Secondary world urban fantasy of the noir detective variety — but with a very interesting setting premise: up until recently, there was a source of magic that supported a world full of different kinds of supernatural creatures. Then Humans, the one non-magical species, wrecked it for everybody else. The immediate mystery wound up being less interesting to me than the longer-term story of people coping (or not) in this new environment, but the latter is engaging, the narrative voice is vivid, and I really like that while the Human protagonist Fetch Phillips is clearly carrying around a big ol’ whack of pain, the story is Very Very Clear that his pain is nothing next to that of all the people who lost the magic that made them what they are.

Digger, Volume 3, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 4, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 5, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 6, Ursula Vernon. When I picked up Volume 4, I had a moment where I thought, “Oh no! I am already halfway through Digger — soon there will be no more of it for me to read!” Which didn’t stop me from inhaling Volumes 4-6 in a single evening. Everybody who told me this is good was right, and while there is no more Digger for me to read, the good news is that I have the books on my shelf and can revisit them whenever I want. (It’s also online, of course, but I pefer curling up with a book.) It probably says something about the type of person I am that I was delighted by the funerary cannibalism, but that’s because I honestly can’t think of another instance of that in fiction — cannibalism where it’s a respectful rite of mourning, not a cheap way of depicting savagery.

Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 3, Wendy and Richard Pini.
Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 4, Wendy and Richard Pini. I didn’t realize, until I read the various afterwords on the final volume, that this really had been the planned ending for a very long time — that it was not, as I’d assumed, a story which went on for a while and eventually they decided to wrap it up. I think I should re-read the series as a whole, because this definitely suffered unfairly from me constantly trying to remember who some of the newer characters were. Some parts are deliberately not 100% resolved (because it being the end of one story doesn’t mean all other stories end with it); a few others felt to me like a resolution happened, but I didn’t feel it the way I wanted to. And fundamentally there’s the problem that I have never cared about all the Djun conflict that kept recurring in the later volumes, and which forms the big climax here. But on the other hand, it brings in some really cool stuff (the Rootless Ones!), and I don’t regret reading through to the end.

Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield. Nonfiction in one of my favorite genres, which is a look at daily life in some place and time. This one’s unusual because it covers a big swath of the Silk Road over a period of 250 years; since that’s obviously a huge topic, it breaks it up by having each chapter follow a particular individual in a particular place and time (some of them fictional, others based on real figures supplemented by general evidence). Four of the ten are women, too, which I appreciated. Given ten characters and a not very large book, it’s all still pretty brief, but it does a great job of looking at Eurasia from a point in the middle instead of one side or another, which is a thing I could use more of.

Elfquest: Stargazer’s Hunt, Volume 1, Wendy and Richard Pini and Sonny Strait. Speaking of not all the stories being resolved! The Pinis are still narratively involved at this point, but the art here is all done by Wendy’s long-time colorist Sonny Strait. I’m glad to have this story (with the second half coming out next year, I think), because yeah, this is a corner of the narrative that needs its own resolution still.

The Gilded Ones, Namina Forna. I wasn’t super-engaged at the start of this novel, because I’ve read enough YA fantasies of this type that I thought I could see where it was going. Then it didn’t do what I expected, and I got interested. I think parts of it could be stronger (the entire conduct of the war seems not well thought-out), and I honestly recommend not even looking at the map because nothing about the geography depicted there makes sense vis-a-vis what the text says — but I liked it overall. And it also seems to be a stand-alone, which I was not expecting and was glad to see.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez. Another from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, but this one gets much further away than most from the general mission statement of “world mythology” — Sal’s ability to poke holes through into other universes and bring things through for a while is talked about in terms of calamity physics, not Cuban folklore. (I seem to have a preference for the books from this imprint that don’t follow the Riordan model of “protagonist discovers they are the child of a god.”) I really enjoyed it! Sal and Gabi are both great characters, mature for their age without seeming like they’re teenagers or adults in kids’ bodies, and the whole mood of this one is very good-hearted.

Books read, February 2021

Son of a Trickster, Eden Robinson. I can’t remember where I saw this recommended, but it’s got an excellent strapline in its cover copy: “A compelling coming-of-age novel in which everyday teen existence crashes up against indigenous beliefs, crazy family dynamics and cannibalistic river otters . . .” Having said that, man did it take its time getting to the cannibalistic river otters. For a very large percentage of this book, it’s just about the main character trying to stay afloat amid a giant pile of incredibly dysfunctional people, struggling with his own alcoholism, and so forth, while a lot of those dysfunctional people take advantage of him. Once the magic stuff really came to the fore, though, I enjoyed it enough that the sequel is on its way to me.

Digger, Volume 1, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 2, Ursula Vernon. (Not actually read back-to-back, but I might as well write them up that way.) Wow am I late to this particular party — but it is so worth showing up for. I also understand why, although multiple people I know had raved about Digger, it’s hard to pitch in a way that explains why you ought to read it; anything with starts that “so the main character is a wombat” is already in eyebrow-raising territory. But the wombat is awesome! So is the hyena! And the shadowling thingy that might or might not be a demon! I have confirmed that not only am I not the first person to think Digger is a lot like a friend of mine, said friend has decided that’s one of the nicest compliments she’s ever received. Digger’s pragmatism and face-palming (face-pawing?) are great. I read the first volume, liked it enough to order the second, read the second, and promptly ordered the remainder of the series. Expect that to show up in a future booklog, and not very long from now, either.

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn. Third of an urban fantasy series about Asian-American superheroines in San Francisco. I have to take these in smallish doses, because part of the brand here involves the characters screwing up for a long time before they sort themselves out, which can be frustrating to me even if I know they will sort it out eventually. And I was particularly uninclined to be patient with Bea’s kind of screwing up, which features her trying to prove how mature she is in some pretty immature ways. But I am glad to report that the story, in the long run, does not agree with her opinion that the ways she’s using her mind-control powers are totally fine — my tolerance for that sort of thing has declined sharply over time. It also made me tear up with some of the stuff about grief and the ways Bea and her sister Evie have or have not been dealing with the loss of their mother. (Not a spoiler; their mother is gone before the series begins.)

Stepsister, Jennifer Donnelly. I’ve read enough fairy-tale-based things now that I’m rather jaded about them; it takes something significant to make me invest in a new one now. This? Succeeds in spades. Partly because Donnelly clearly knows that it isn’t enough to say “I’ve got a new spin on this story” — because honey, at this point I’m not sure there are new spins. You’ve got to bring something else. In this case, that’s a contest between the personification of Chance and the eldest personification of Fate, about whether he’ll manage to change the fate of one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, post-tale. That plus a somewhat creepy faerie queen breathes some much-needed life into a story I’ve seen done dozens of ways, and makes good room for some meditations on what one’s “heart” might be (hint: it isn’t always charity, kindness, and goodness). And the narration is strong, too. If you like fairy-tale stories but seem to be tired of all of them these days, this one might jar you out of that rut.

The Never-Tilting World, Rin Chupeco. Does anybody remember a . . . miniseries, I think it was, or maybe just a special, on TV something like twenty-plus years ago, about a world where it was always daylight on one side and always night on the other? I remember nothing else about it beyond that, but the memory made me interested in this book, which has a similar premise. Do not look for solid worldbuilding here, not of the practical sort: there’s a nod toward it being hard to survive in the seventeen years since a mysterious cataclysm caused the world to stop turning, whether you’re on the day side or the night side, but somehow there are still cities (two of them, one per side) that manage to stay fed and produce things like books even though the world outside their walls seems to consist entirely of monster-haunted wilderness and some nomads straight out of Mad Max. On the other hand, I really liked the Avatar-esque spin on magic, where you get different variants depending on what element you channel and what type of gate you channel it through (so that a Starmaker, for example, channels air patterns through a fire gate to make light). And there’s some intriguing mythological worldbuilding verrrrrry vaguely based on Inanna’s descent into the underworld, with twin goddesses and some kind of ritual whose failure caused that cataclysm. I wound up feeling odd about the pacing and characterization, which somehow seemed to spend a lot of words without developing the things I wanted to see developed, but I’m also still intrigued by the unanswered questions about what went wrong. There’s a sequel (and I think this is intended to be a duology), which I . . . may read? We’ll see if this sticks with me well enough to prompt that. The book also has a central f/f relationship, for those of you looking for that kind of thing.

Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 1, Wendy and Richard Pini.
Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 2, Wendy and Richard Pini. I’m finally catching up on this arc, very late. I’ve read Volume 1 before — possibly twice — and I couldn’t remember anything about it; re-reading it now, I can see part of the reason why. A big focus of this part of the story is on how there are so many different groups of elves in so many different places, and the question of how (if at all) their various ways can be reconciled . . . but the result is that the first half of Volume 1 hops around a lot, making it feel rather unfocused. Even once it starts to gain more momentum, I think it’s choppier than Pini’s storytelling of yore — though admittedly my ability to follow through isn’t helped by the fact that I never knew the later material as well, so I’m constantly going “whose kid is that? Where did they find that guy? How did they get over there, again?”

The story finds its footing much better in Volume 2, where it starts to focus on that big question of ways of life. I’m honestly interested to see how the story addresses that, since as presented, it’s kind of unanswerable: it’s fine to say that people can choose Way A or Way B as they please, but that starts to unravel when, say, two people who have been married for centuries are leaning in different directions, and it’s pulling them apart. You can’t just say, well, he should accept that she’s changed, when what she wants is making him miserable, what he wants is making her miserable, and they both love each other too much to just shake hands and go their separate ways. I don’t know how that’s going to be resolved.

I also don’t know what’s going to happen with the odd strand that started to crop up toward the end of the second volume, with some characters expressing views that I . . . suspect I’m meant to find sketchy. There was a particular bit with one character revealing something big to another, in a context where I was sitting there thinking, “I assume I’m supposed to find this cool, but it’s actually, uh, kind of weird, and I’m not sure I’m very on board with it.” Then I got to the end of that scene, and the character getting that revelation responded by running screaming into the hills. Like, literally. So now I’m pretty sure I am in fact meant to be dubious of some of the stuff going on here. As with Digger, the remaining volumes are on their way to me!

Books read, January 2021

Transgressions of Power, Juliette Wade. Second in the Broken Trust series, and not that I expect anybody to notice this, but the first book (Mazes of Power) has not appeared in my logs. There’s a story there, heh.

Juliette is a friend, and the only reason I hadn’t read Mazes of Power immediately after acquiring it last year was that I had zero cope for a dystopian story like this one in 2020. But then I was asked to blurb the second book, so I thought, self, let’s just go ahead and read them both. Except I started running out of time, and I didn’t want to let that hurdle mean I let Juliette down, so . . . I just dove in and started reading Transgressions. Which I do not generally recommend! The setting is beautifully complex, and if you skip the introduction as I did, you will be madly dog-paddling in an attempt to stay afloat! But as I said to Juliet, the fact that the story sucked me right in even though I had no idea who any of these people were and was busy doing the aforementioned dog-paddling is a testament to how good it is. The plot is a slow build, but boy is it satisfying when it lands (and I have never seen the signing of a bureaucratic form look as heroic as it does in this book). The caste-structured society of this world has some impressively creepy aspects — the people who serve as bodyguards are always referred to as a possession of their masters, e.g. “Nekantor’s Dexelin” or “my Dexelin” — and also some very cool cultural differences in the various layers.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Christopher Paolini. Paolini is, of course, the guy known for the Inheritance Cycle, beginning with Eragon. This? Is a very different type of book, being interstellar science fiction that starts out wearing its homage to Alien on its sleeve, then takes that opening in entirely new directions. Directions I liked quite a lot, once I got past the body horror of the beginning (a horror which includes being a woman dealing with a doctor who refuses to listen to anything you have to say or respect your bodily autonomy — that got me so much harder than the alien stuff because it happens all the time). I read it in ebook, so I can’t quite measure how massive of a brick the book is, but let’s just say it’s huge and that didn’t stop me from hoovering it up in the space of a few days. It’s also a stand-alone volume, though with a setting that’s open to telling lots of other stories.

Tangleroot Palace, Marjorie Liu. Read for blurbing purposes (this has been a lot of my reading lately, you might notice). A small short story collection from Tachyon, ranging through fairy tales to superheroes to a post-apocalyptic setting, often with queer content. I saw the twist coming a mile off in the title story, but not in a way that wrecked its appeal; I think most kinds of story can survive that, as long as they’re well-written.

Wench, Maxine Kaplan. MG or YA book (I’m not quite sure of its categorization), read for review. Full reaction here; short form is that I found it disappointing. Its tone never quite settled, and the most interesting bits got tossed in at the end, when there was no time left to develop them.

Witherward, Hannah Mathewson. Also read for blurbing purposes. The obvious comparison here is to V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, with an alternate London existing alongside the real (Victorian-era) one. That London, the Witherward, is divided up among factions of magical people all existing in a peace so tenuous it barely deserves the name. The main character, Ilsa, has been living in Victorian London using her magic to get by, without realizing she’s originally from the Witherward; when she gets pulled across the boundary, she finds herself eyeball-deep in the politics there, with a great many people around her having secrets and conflicting agendas.

The Four Profound Weaves, R.B. Lemberg. Another Tachyon publication, but one that came out a while ago. This is either a novella or a short novel (not sure which) set in Lemberg’s Birdverse. It is intensely queer — both protagonists are trans, one from a culture where it’s entirely normal to use magic to adjust your body to fit your identity, one from a culture where that is not the case — and it’s very poetically written. There’s a lot of suffering here, a lot of loving people who maybe don’t love you back the way they should, because they’re afraid of change (a recurrent theme) or focused on the wrong things, but ultimately it’s a hopeful story, not a bleak one.

Three Twins at the Crater School, Chaz Brenchley. Also read for blurbing purposes! Chaz is also a friend, and he’s been writing the Crater School stories through his Patreon for a while now, but they’re going to be coming out from Wizard’s Tower, hence looking for blurbs. I have never read the Chalet School series this is openly inspired by (classic British girls’ boarding school stories); what I know of that genre comes via the descriptions of the Lowood House novels Millie reads in The Lives of Christopher Chant. I am given to understand they do not usually take place on Mars? 🙂 This is a delightful little book, and very unlike most of what I read these days. Although there are a couple of plots centering on the new arrivals to the school, they aren’t the kind of plots that drive the whole book. Nor are there any real villains apart from some offstage parents — no cruel teachers that make the students’ lives a misery. Mostly you’re spending time with the girls of the Crater School as they deal with each other and their prefects and the teachers and the weird aliens in the lake, and then every so often there’s a problem with the Russian spies up on Phobos or whatever. If you need a story where generally people are good-hearted despite their flaws, where strictness from authority is happening for understandable reasons even if the recipient doesn’t appreciate that fact, where somebody can invoke the importance of upholding the image of “a Crater School girl” and that’s a meaningful force on the characters, this is a very good place to find that.

Machinehood, S.B. Divya. Outside my usual reading, being near-future SF focused on AI and body modification and so forth, but Divya is a friend from the Codex Writers’ Group, and I’m making a significant effort to focus on new and upcoming releases right now (this one’s hitting the shelves March 2nd) due to concerns about books being lost in the pandemic chaos. And like Paolini’s book, this made for a diverting change of pace! It is definitely hella dystopian, with weak AI and bots having supplanted enough of the human workforce that the latter subsists on a lot of meaningless crappy gig jobs, constantly scrabbling for enough work to stay afloat — and downing all manner of pills to help them do those jobs, which in some cases has some pretty bad effects — though the most dystopian part of it for me might have been the sort of influencer/up-vote side of things, where even being a bodyguard is a performance art for the ubiquitous cameras, and at one point a woman about to have sex with her partner thinks about how they didn’t put on makeup or dress up for foreplay and so they won’t get a lot of tips. But what I really liked here is that most chapters begin with a quote from the manifesto of the Machinehood, the group attacking everybody . . . and that manifesto makes a lot of good points. Divya does a very good job of counterpoising their ideology against their actions, so that it doesn’t sort into a clear-cut situation of “these people are bad, the end.”

Books read, December 2020

I am behind again! But at least I’m posting about December before January is over.

Kingdom of Copper, S.A. Chakraborty. Second of the Daevabad trilogy. I’m enjoying these well enough, but there was a moment in here that made me realize what’s generally lacking: a sense of humor. It’s got a scene where some characters wind up shoved together with all the awful conflicts between them coming out with teeth bared, and then in the middle of that one of them says they need to get out of there before somebody realizes they’re plotting conspiracy in a janitorial closet, and I thought, yes. I want more of that. It doesn’t negate the pain they’re all feeling and inflicting; in fact, that kind of thing usually makes the dramatic stuff hit harder for me. When it’s nothing but tension and bleakness and bad things happening without anybody managing to find a note of levity, I just don’t engage as deeply.

RWBY: Fairy Tales of Remnant, E.C. Myers, illus. Violet Tobacco. I know nothing about RWBY, but I saw this mentioned and the folklorist in me was intrigued. It’s a pretty little book, and the material in it ranges across a couple of folkloric genres, some more successfully than others; it can actually be very hard to write realistic folklore, because that stuff just doesn’t operate like modern fiction. (It’s entirely possible that “realistic folklore” is neither the target Myers was trying to hit, nor a desirable target to aim for in the first place.) It didn’t quite scratch that itch for me, though, and since I know nothing about RWBY, I’m not inclined to hold onto this.

These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong. This reminds me of Angel of the Crows in one specific respect: I think I would have liked it even better if it had let go of its source material and just focused on the original stuff it was doing. In this case the source material is Romeo and Juliet, but only very distantly; Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai met years ago, had a relationship and fell out and now consider themselves bitter enemies, and so their names and Benedikt and Marshall Seo and Rosalind Lang and Juliette having a nurse who died years ago were mostly just distractions in a story about a weird monster and a war between Chinese and Russian gangs in 1920s Shanghai. The one place where it felt like the Shakespeare plot really played a role, I got pulled out of the story by thinking “ah, here we have a piece of actual Shakespeare plot!” Without that . . . I liked the historical setting, the complex politics of a city being carved up by various European interests and the rise of Chinese Communism and the ambiguous role of gangs, and I cared a lot more about that than I did about the minor Shakespearean elements. I could have done with more meaningful progress on the plot, which involves a strange magical effect causing people to tear their own throats out, as that felt like it was treading water for long stretches of the book. And Juliette was a little too persistently angry at everybody around her and determined to prove she was hard and heartless; more dynamics there would have been welcome. So overall, a mixed bag.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes (with Joe Layden). This was a Christmas present that’s been on my list for years, and having finally received it, I found myself apprehensive to open it. This movie was so formative for me and I love it so much, any “behind the scenes” account risked poking my heart in some very vulnerable spots. But the book is an utter delight, y’all. For starters, the people involved genuinely loved what they were doing and got along amazingly well: although the bulk of this is written from Elwes’ perspective (who knows how much of it is his words, vs. being ghostwritten by Layden), there are sidebars from a bunch of other people, and they consistently praise each other and talk about what a great experience filming this movie was. Not that nothing ever went wrong — Wallace Shawn was so convinced that Rob Reiner regretted casting him and was about to fire him that he apparently fretted himself into hives, and Elwes is 100% frank about how he was a twenty-three-year-old idiot who broke his toe goofing around on set and nearly screwed over the entire production — but the love truly shines through. And my household can attest that various bits had me cracking up throughout.

The Light of the Midnight Stars, Rena Rossner. Sent to me for blurbing purposes. Gorgeous and melancholy historical fantasy about three Jewish sisters in fourteenth-century Eastern Europe, blending some historical personages with folktales. This is not a cheerful story in any respect, but it’s beautifully written and notably queer, both of which I know are aspects that would be of interest to several people who read my blog.