The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow

I recently started requesting galleys at Net Galley. It’s a site where you can download and read books before they are published in return for giving an honest review. It helps publishers to build reviews for books before they come out. I am a big fan of Cory Doctorow and requested to read The Lost Cause, due to be published on November 14. I finished it today, so here is my brief review.

The story takes place about thirty years in our future. Climate change has continued to wreak havoc on the world. A new generation has grown up knowing nothing of a time before climate change. There has been a two-term president who signed into law a Green New Deal that has started to address the issues of climate change for real. This is followed by a less effective president of the same party and then a new president after who starts to turn things back. This is where the story begins

The protagonist is a young man named Brooks just graduating high school whose idealist parents died in pandemic when he was eight. He shares their ideals. His grandfather does not. He belongs to a Maga Club whose members are opposed to all the changes and love the new president. When internally displaced migrants from another city come to Brooks’ hometown of Burbank, Brooks and his friends clash with the Maga Club folks.

I really enjoyed this book. It had some cheesy romance, a little bit of political polemics, a whole lot of liberal ideals, and even some food descriptions that made my mouth water. It shows a view of how we might overcome climate change in the near future despite people who deny it happening and clinging to old ways. Both fun and political. One of the author’s better books.

My rating: 4/5

Apex Magazine Issue 140

Apex magazine tends toward the dark side of fiction, so it is appropriate that I finished reading the latest issue just before Halloween. It was definitely more of treat than a trick.

The issue starts with a dystopian story in a world experiencing climate change called “Whisper Songs” by Lyndsie Manusos. A woman experiencing post-partum depression witnesses three birds die in her yard. As required by law, she calls the authorities so they can come collect the birds’ songs. They come but things get off track. A close examination of one of these collectors and the mom. Unique and interesting. (My rating: 4/5)

A new writer with the name Zohair gives on odd story called “Quietus“. A man is condemned to death and put alive into a coffin and floated down the river. As the coffin travels, people seem to see what they want to see and have very different experiences, including seeing an empty coffin. It doesn’t seem to have much to say, at least not to me. (My rating: 2/5)

A game of mahjong centers “Life Wager” by Lucy Zhang. A woman who is the child of a god and a human returns to heaven and plays a series of games with the emperor. But that’s about all that happens. Just kind of meh for me. (My rating: 3/5)

Kɛrozin Lamp Kurfi” by Victor Forna is an experimental story that I really wanted to like much more than I did. It tells of a mother who chases her son into a story to save him and struggles to get out with her mind intact. I liked the idea of going into the story but the telling was a little disjointed and confusing for me. (My rating: 3/5)

Apex excels at stories with atmosphere that provoke emotions. “Junebug” by Sarah Hollowell is an excellent example. Three friends are traveling to visit their dying friend when they get stuck in traffic on the highway. The emotions build and overflow, leading to unusual experiences. (My rating: 5/5)

Spitting Image” by Rich Larson is the kind of creepy story that is perfect for Halloween. A boy’s friend leads him to a well in the forest that returns things dropped into it, changed. I shiver just remembering this story. Makes your skin crawl, just like it is supposed to. (My rating: 4/5)

After her grandmother dies, a woman wears the hat she did and starts to experience the same thinning of skin and hair. In “Brainpink Umber“, Chelsea Sutton explores questions like: What makes us who we are? And what happens when that starts to fade? This story feels like a metaphor for dementia running in a family. (My rating: 4/5)

Talk about metaphors that work! “From This Beating Heart, From This Fractured Mind” by Elisabeth Ring tells of a man with a wooden ticking heart and a woman with a glass mind living together and supporting one another. He is a bit cold and disconnected. She can’t seem to wrap her mind around things like she should. It is a tale of mental health and isolation. Well done. (My rating: 4/5)

In a future with sentient biorobots, a young man lives with his male partner while his mother from the old country begs him to get married and have children. At the same time, he struggles with what to do with one of his under performing charges. “Memories of the Old Sun” by Eugen Bacon addresses two tropes but never really brings them together. Disappointing with great writing. (My rating: 3/5)

The issue ends with the beautiful “Through Dreams She Moves” by Tonya Liburd. A woman who can enter other people’s dreams enters those of a man in a coma in an effort to wake him up. What makes this especially poignant and evocative is the clever use of the second person. The story addresses several people as it goes: her mom, then boss, the client’s father, the client, and her great grandfather in the past. It works beautifully. (My rating: 5/5)

My average rating for this issue is 3.7 out of five. Be sure to at least spend the time to read the two best stories in the issue.

Night by Elie Wiesel

On my recent drive home from attending a reenactment weekend with my father, I listened to the audiobook of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. It is his telling of his experience as a teenage Jew in eastern Europe before and during the Holocaust of World War II.

He grew up in a small town in Hungary where he studied the Talmud and aspired to study Kabbalah. He had planned to dedicate his life to this study. While he was working toward this, an adult who left the town returned with what the residents thought of as tall tales of what Hitler’s Germany was doing to Jews. No one believed him. Even when the Germans arrived in their town and moved them to ghettos. Finally, they were all marched off to concentration camps.

The descriptions of life there are harrowing. He and his father are separated from his mother and sister. He spends the rest of his teens in multiple concentration camps, on forced marches, trying to keep his father and himself alive. This book should be required reading for high school graduation so that we never forget how horribly human beings are capable of treating one another.

My rating: 5/5

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Two decades ago, my father was just getting into Civil War reenacting. When he invited me to join him at one back then I said yes. It was a great time of father/son bonding. Fast forward to earlier this month, he invited me back to the same event. It was a six-and-a-half-hour drive from my home. One of the books I listened while driving was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

The Lincoln of the title is actually Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie. The bardo is a sort of purgatory on earth of souls who are not ready to move on yet. After Willie dies, he isn’t ready to move on and teams up with other souls who also don’t realize they are dead in an effort to stay and try to get back to his father. Those other souls, throughout the story, do their best to support and help Willie. The story is very moving and sad. It explores death in a unique way. And it is an incredible portrait of a father’s love for his son.

It uses an unusual storytelling method. Many different character help tell the story from their perspectives. Also, may chapters start with quotes from nonfiction that describe the historical events that lay the foundation for the story. I struggled with the format at first, but I really think it works, especially as an audiobook. I highly recommend that format.

My rating: 4/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 54

A read-headed young woman has her hand in a bear's mouth as it roars in her face

When I finally picked up the September/October issue of Uncanny Magazine, I was excited. I had been looking forward to reading since early September. Right away I was rewarded with a spectacular story.

Advertising has become so much a part of our culture. In “Can You Hear Me Now?“, Catherynne M. Valente uses that fact to amazing effect. Imagine if a woman in the ads you see was suddenly a real person, aware that they played different roles in each commercial? How would she deal with that? This masterpiece explores that idea while touching on all the real troubles and desires that consumerism covers up. (My rating: 5/5)

I was initially intrigued by the indigenous setting of “We Do Not Eat Much Fish” by Grace P. Fong. A woman called a witch by her father and husband, encounters a fisherman and brings him home to her son with dire results. The story is a bit gruesome for me and doesn’t explore as much as I wanted about the context of a woman taken to strange home by her husband. (My rating: 3/5)

Remember being a kid and peeling Elmer’s glue off your hand in sheets? In Kristina Ten’s “The Curing“, the outcast immigrant kids go a bit further. They cover their whole bodies and peel them off, and the glue copies come “alive”! Now, just one wouldn’t do, right? These kids make multiple copies and absorb all the memories that their copies make. It is a great story with lots of metaphor, subtle, and not too much in your face. (My rating: 5/5)

The longest story in the issue is “The Kingdom of Darkness” by Sarah Monette. In an alternative past, a man protects a demoniac after his witch finder is murdered. I am sorry to say that I could not finish this story. I found myself forcing myself to read it. I didn’t care what was going on. And it seemed a bit all over the place. (My rating: 1/5)

I found “The Girl with a City Inside of Her” by Jeannette Ng to be a little confusing. A girl with a city inside her sits on a stool in the sideshow of a carnival talking to the visitors about her city. The author seems to switch back and forth between the girl literally having a city inside her to it being simply a metaphor. I didn’t really care for it. (My rating: 2/5)

On a doomed mission to look for a replacement planet, a reluctant outfitter does her best to keep the surveyors alive after a deadly pandemic at home. This is “The Coffin Maker” by AnaMaria Curtis, and she really creates a palpable atmosphere. I could feel what was going on in this story. The desperation, the frustration. (My rating: 4/5)

Four Words Written on My Skin” by Jenn Reese is a kind of a romance with a trope I don’t care much for. A woman follows her wife into the woods where the Fae have stolen her in an attempt to get her back. Their relationship was rocky but once her wife is taken, the main character realizes how important she is to her. That said, it is a good story well-written. (My rating: 3/5)

My excitement at the start of the issue had pretty much petered out by the end. The issue comes to a disappointing average rating of 3.25 out of five. Issue 55 is likely to be the last in my subscription.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

A young redheaded girl dressed all in black with white paint on her face to look like a skull is holding a sword in her right hand.

The book club that I am a member of reads a different genre of book each month. In October, our genre is Fantasy/Horror in keeping with Halloween at the end of the month. Currently we are reading Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, the first book of The Locked Tomb series. This is a popular book that I was familiar with but had decided not to read before it became club’s selection. My instinct was right.

The story centers around an orphan on a planet of necromancers protecting their empire from some great danger buried there. She was raised with the princess of the planet who treated her with contempt despite the fact that they were the only two children on the planet. Shortly after the novel begins, they are both called to the First planet (theirs is the Ninth planet, referring to their house rather than the planet’s distance from its sun) at the call of the emperor. Once there, they and everyone else called embark on a quest to become an immortal guardian who helps defend the empire at the side of the emperor. But things go sideways as they compete for this honor. The bulk of the story describes this quest and the mysteries surrounding it.

The world is very dark. It is also incredibly violent and graphic. It revolves around necromancy and the power one gets from the dead and dying. I found the mystery mildly interesting. The world, not so much. The main character is poorly developed from my perspective. She is a bit snarky. This could have worked but felt more lame than clever. And it was just enough for her to be irritating rather than charming. She is no Han Solo. Overall, I found the world building weak. There was barely enough there to hold the story together but not enough to hold my interest. If I had not been reading this for my book club, I would not have finished it. Turns out my first impression before I read it was accurate—it’s not for me. Naturally, I won’t be reading any more of the series.

My rating: 2/5

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 160

An armored magician with long hair and a tattooed face hold their hands close together with bright light between them.

I always look forward to the wide variety of stories in Lightspeed Magazine, and the September issue was no exception.

The issue starts with an odd adventure written by John Kessel and Bruce Sterling entitled “Money in the Bank“. A veteran using a false identity to sell his services as a body guard gets what seems to be a run-of-the-mill assignment. He is sent to guard a cryptocurrency genius. He succeeds but learns that there is much more going on behind the scenes. Madcap humor and an out-there plot that turns out to be a fun combination. (My rating: 3/5)

Eve’s Prayer” by Victor Forna is an actual prayer. A woman on a habitable planet prays for guidance on whether to send a beacon to let humanity know they can safely come. The planet is safe for humans, but she is concerned about what they will do to it. (My rating: 4/5)

The next entry is a bedtime story, literally. In “The Hole in the Garden” by Gene Doucette, a hard-working man comes home late to find his seven-year-old daughter still up waiting for him to tell her a story. Tired, he searches his memory for one that won’t take too long. He comes up with one about a quantum singularity in a man’s garden. But the ending has a surprise twist. This story really pops. (My rating: 5/5)

Many science fiction writers experiment with the way they tell stories. Maria Haskins does this in “Death by Water“, and it doesn’t work for me. The result is a trippy, psychedelic, confusing story about a woman who sails away from Vancouver in a ship as her body slowly falls apart. I didn’t really understand what she was trying to say with this. (My rating: 2/5)

Have you ever wondered how to get over a broken heart? Jordan Kurella gives step-by-step guidance in “Instructions for the Broken Hearted“. This story takes the idea of someone ripping your heart out and stomping on it literally, teaching the reader what to do to get it back in your chest. It is bittersweet and really evokes all the feelings you would expect. (My rating: 4/5)

Dragon tales. Typical fantasy fare, right? Not exactly in “Simmered in Their Wealth Like the Richest of Sauces” by Jo Miles. In our modern world, a dragon is awakened by a rich man seeking the gold that the dragon sleeps on. But the dragon can smell and taste greed. And the aroma of our modern world is making the dragon salivate. (My rating: 5/5)

Remains” by N.R. Lambert is another experimental story. It seems to be the story of a person (“you”) trying to survive as the world around them breaks down. The language is flowery and evokes feeling but I couldn’t tell what was going on. This seems to be a modern trend in writing. I don’t care for it. (My rating: 2/5)

In “His Thing” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu, an African woman is essentially purchased by a man returning to his hometown. He imprisons her in a sentient house that he controls. She seeks to find a way to control her own life. It includes a lot of words from southern Africa that are not defined though there is context to understand their purpose. I would have preferred having them fully defined. (My rating: 4/5)

Altogether, this issue comes in for a rating of 3.63 out of five. The issue was better than that rating for me, the two stories rated at two bringing the average down.

The Great Mental Models, Vol. 3: Systems and Mathematics by Rhiannon Beaubien and Rosie Leizrowice

A lone person stands on a grid with a set of mountains in the background.

I’ve been listening to the Knowledge Project podcast for a number of years now. It is put out by an organization called Farnam Street. As part of their mission they have published a series of books called The Great Mental Models. I’ve most recently read the third volume in the series. Each volume covers a few areas that it focuses on. For volume 3, these are systems and mathematics.

The book is divided into two section (systems and mathematics, naturally). Each chapter delves into a particular aspect with examples for how it is applied as a model. These are written in clear, easy-to-understand prose.

While I liked this volume, I feel like I didn’t really learn much new. As a result, I don’t rated as highly. But I highly recommend this volume and the previous two for building up a set of models for how to look at and interact with the world. These might be particularly helpful to teenagers.

My rating: 3/5

The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider

A large floating balloon in the shape of a lit light bulb is carrying away a cartoon man clinging to the string hanging off of it

The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration is a graphic novel despite the fact that its subject matter is factual. Can’t we come up with a better name for a non-fiction book published in the style of a graphic novel? Anyway, Grant Snider uses artistic panels drawn like a comic book to explore the concept of creativity.

The book is divided up into ten sections:

  • Inspiration
  • Perspiration
  • Improvisation
  • Aspiration
  • Contemplation
  • Exploration
  • Daily Frustration
  • Imitation
  • Desperation
  • Pure Elation

I had seen lots of praise for this book, so my expectations were high going in. I have to admit I was let down, mostly because it didn’t deliver on what I thought it would. And that’s on me. For what it is, it is wonderful. Rather than showing you what creativity is or how it works, it delivers more of what it feels like to create. The up and downs, the highs and lows, the exhilaration, the frustration. The art is very creative and evocative and, as a result, very effective.

However, I am still not a big fan of this book. I just don’t see a higher purpose in this book. Sure, it tells me what it feels like to be creative. But what if I want more? What if I want to know how to create? For that, I would recommend The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. But if you are looking for a quick, evocative read about creativity, this book might be for you.

My rating: 3/5

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 204

Two astronauts on an EVA on a green background filled with floating rocks.

Issue 204 is the September edition of Clarkesworld Magazine. Below are my brief reviews of the included fiction.

The issue starts strong with “Stones” by Nnedi Okorafor. A creature “born” on a comet explores the universe for millennia before encountering humans. A tale of alien life learning and exploring and finding out that humans are fearful creatures who respond with violence. And finding one who responds with kindness and care. (My rating: 4/5)

Next up is “The Queen of Calligraphic Susurrations” by D.A. Xiaoline Spires. A calligrapher uses an AI-driven digital brush to write a story for submission that is refused for using AI despite the AI only assisting. Interesting in the way it approaches the dilemma of where AI-written is different from AI-assisted. I didn’t care for the writing style. It felt flowery and poetic in a way that didn’t add to the story but instead bogged it down. (My rating: 3/5)

In “A Guide to Matchmaking on Station 9“, an empathic Jewish matchmaker with synesthesia living on a space station consults her ex-lover while making a few final matches before joining her daughter and newborn granddaughter on another space station. Nika Murphy’s story is rich with so many layers for its brevity. Subtle. Much is explored without coming right out and saying it. This story really sank into me. (My rating: 5/5)

The longest story in the issue is “Axiom of Dreams” by Arula Ratnakar. A young woman explores her dreams in an attempt to solve a complex math problem to get into a PhD program. Very math-y in a way that may not be for everyone. A fascinating exploration of the nature of reality. (My rating: 4/5)

The most disappointing story for me was “The People from the Dead Whale” by Djuna, translated from Korean by Jihyun Park and Gord Seller. It takes place on a tidally locked planet that humans have colonized. They live on “whales” in the ocean between the scorching hot Day and freezing cold Night sides of the planet. A tribe of refugees from a dead “whale” seeks a new home. It’s a very interesting world. This story is more of a tease or an introduction to even more. I’d be interested in more stories in this setting. (My rating: 3/5)

In “The Five Remembrance, According to STE-319” by R.L. Meza, a dying robot built to kill rescues a small girl on a battlefield. The remembrances are essentially statements that would only apply to humans, but yet are demonstrated by the robot. A critique of war, it is told from the perspective of the robot. (My rating: 4/5)

The issue concludes with an emotional bang with “Upgrade Day” by RJ Taylor. A person who sold their after life for a successful first life struggles as a post-human robot that is slowly growing obsolete. His owners can’t afford to keep upgrading him. They offer to do the unthinkable while he stays on to care for the girl as she grows up. A poignant tale of sacrifice and dedication and learning the costs of our decisions. (My rating: 5/5)

Overall, my rating for this issue is 4 our of five stars. Clarkesworld seems to have consistently excellent stories. I always look forward to each issue.