Review: -100 by Jonathan Maas

Just finished this book this weekend: -100: A Time-travel Horror Romance.

All in all, I really enjoyed this story, and I’ll likely explore other stuff that Jonathan Maas writes. I found three tiny possible typos, so if the author stumbles on this review, email me ([email protected]) and I’ll send them over.

What I liked

  • The story is written cleverly. The first section starts on day 50 and centers on Kela’s point of view, and then each subsequent chapter covers a day before the previous chapter. So the reader reads in reverse order. Then the second section, which is much more detailed, starts at the beginning, on day 1, and then goes forward, and centers on Adam’s point of view.

  • Science fiction authors have spent a ton of words on the logistics of time travel. This book doesn’t spend too much time laying out the rules of how it works in this scenario, and I was grateful for that. I really enjoyed how this book had an idea I hadn’t heard about before: they figure out how to send your own thoughts back in time, so you get a message from your future self.

  • I really liked how sparse the whole story was. Nearly the entire story happens in Adam’s apartment, when he and Kela are alone. There are a few scenes elsewhere, but they also only have two or three people.

    I read that the writer, Jonathan Maas, is working on making this into a film, and I think the small number of locations would help with that. A team could film almost the whole story in one or two locations.

  • Related to how sparse and minimal and stripped down the whole story is, I love how there were no pyrotechnics in the story. Like, in the time travel scenes, there was never any blue flame, lightning bolts, ear-splitting roars, etc. Instead, when Kela describes to Adam the cosmic horrors waiting for us all at the end of time, it works better, because the reader fills in with their own imagination. I love it when science fiction focuses more on drama and less on spectacle.

What I wasn’t thrilled about

  • Kela’s character is a “once in a lifetime genius” according to her colleague Raj. And, of course, she is also completely aloof and oblivious to social graces. This is such a god damn science fiction cliche! It reminds me of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, that blonde chick from those awful “Species” movies, Valentine Michael Smith (the guy from Mars) in Stranger in a Strange Land, etc, etc, etc.

  • The plot line set up several mysteries, and then drops hints and clues along the way, but ultimately, the hints and clues don’t really resolve the mysteries. For example, I’m not really satisfied with the explanations of what forces drive Kela to such unearthly rage. Also, throughout the plot lines, when Kela enters these fugue states, she ofte carves bizarre glyphs. Adam studies them, and meets a few times with a symbols expert. But in the end, they don’t turn out to resolve anything. Other than setting a mood, they could have been cut out of the plot entirely.

Random thoughts

  • The title of this is literally “-100: A Time Travel Horror Romance”. I suspect this is some kind of way of describing / tagging / encoding what this book is about, so that people that see the title online in a long list of titles might be drawn to it more. Is an interesting way that art and commerce intersect and affect each other.

  • Ultimately, after finishing the story, I really wanted a ton more. Kela apparently discovers some existential horror out there in the cosmos so terrifying she decides that existence is a terrible idea. And then she backs away from this state of mind, and uses her technology to help Adam’s dad.

    This all feels like the end of the first act, rather than a story in itself. I wonder if there is more coming.

Book report: Winter’s Gambit by Dana McSwain

This is the book that I’m reviewing.

That link has my referral code in it, so I’ll get a few pennies if you buy it after clicking that link.
And you really should buy it, because Dana McSwain is brilliant.


I’ve read a bunch of Dana McSwain’s stuff over the last few years. Generally speaking, I go through her stuff in the same way as I go through a big tube of Sour Cream and Onion Pringles. There’s no stopping until it’s all gone and then I feel bad. But in this case, it’s because I envy how she writes such clever twisty plotlines and beautiful characters, rather than because of carbohydrate poisoning.

You know how hard it is to find an album where every song is really good? Even your favorite bands rarely crank out albums like that. This books is like those cherished albums.

The Alex and Frank Mythos

This is the fourth book Dana McSwain has published about characters named Alex and Frank and all four books vaguely exist in the same cosmos (kinda / sorta, anyway). Alex, Frank, Alexei, the pizza story, and many other things, places, and people are recurring icons in her books.

Incidentally, the books don’t build on each other and you can read them in any order.

Nothing about her style or subject matter reminds me at all of H. P. Lovecraft, but he also wrote a whole bunch of stories about different people running around in the same setting.

You won’t find any purple prose or eldritch horror here; instead, you’ll find music preference mockery and truck stop food poisoning and skeeball anecdotes. That’s not my point with this comparison. My point is that for both writers, us readers build up in our own heads a composite sketch of this universe from all these partial hints of unseen actors.

Trope synthesis

Don’t get me wrong — they’re characters beyond this overly glib description, but Frank drips with 1980s action movie imagery. And of course, he is tortured by his brutal past doing shady stuff for the government.

Meanwhile Alex projects a caustic exterior protecting an sweetness underneath, which reminded me so much of female roles in 90s movies like Reality Bites and Singles and Before Sunrise. Same thing with how she dresses.

The title

A gambit in chess is when you make a risky move that could put you in a much better position or a much worse position depending on how it plays out.

A gambit strategy is the opposite of building up a fortress and staying inside it. It requires optimism and vulnerability.

The text is breezy and you might fly right past all these poignant struggles between hope and fear, but this is so much more than just an exciting adventure story.

So is this book kind of like an exploration of what would happen if Die Hard and Winona Rider from Heathers took a cross-country road trip to a meeting with a Hollywood movie producer while pursued by Russian mobsters?

Yes. And it works. You’ll probably read it one setting.

Book Report: The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Executive summary: Read this if you enjoy self-aggrandizing stories about how to be successful when you start with $20 million in investment.

Buy it through this link and I’ll get a few pennies!

What I liked

There’s a story about how Horowitz was trying to sell his business and one buyer backed out. The second interested buyer heard the news about the first buyer backing out, and then revised their offer downward.

Horowitz didn’t accept the lower offer. He said the buyer had to stick with their initial offer. There was a standoff, but eventually the buyer went with the original price.

Also, there’s some good advice and analysis on what makes software sales effective.

What I disliked

This is a much bigger list.

First off

Ben Horowitz uses “she” and “her” when talking about hypothetical CEOs. It is jarring to read a sentence where obviously, Ben Horowitz is talking about himself in the abstract, but he uses “she” and “her” for pronouns.

You might think using “she” and “her” as default pronouns makes sense if you call yourself a feminist. And Ben Horowitz tells you right at the beginning how he’s donating profits from this book to a charity focusing on women.

But if you read between the lines of the book, Ben Horowitz is no feminist. Here’s a few examples:

  • As far as I can tell, there are literally no quotes from any women at all in the book.
  • Ben Horowitz is all about making his employees work lots of overtime. This is maybe not the top offender, but every survey I’ve read mentions this expectation as being unfriendly to women.
  • His own personal life follows an old-school pattern: his wife stays home with his children, while he works all the time. This is how he expects his employees to operate as well.
  • Take a look at who his investment firm writes checks to, and count the boy names and girl names. The ratio is at least 20 to 1.
  • Go spend a few minutes reading articles like this one, showing how so few women have any of the top positions.

In short, every time I read him use “her” and “she, I got pulled out of the narrative, and started arguing with him in my head.

For the record, not that anyone cares, I don’t call myself a feminist. Mostly because it’s a term that applies to such a broad group of ideas that it has become useless.

The next thing

He starts every chapter with some hip hop lyrics. Mostly irrelevant lyrics, too. There’s no tie back to the lyrics in the text.

This all reminded of that brilliant scene in Office Space, where the guy blasts Geto Boys on the way to his tech job, but when he’s stuck at a red light, he turns the music way down as a black guy walks by selling flowers.

That’s how I see Ben Horowitz every time he tries to say that he and Jay Z or he and Kanye have stuff in common.

Side note: I don’t understand how this guy listens to DMX and then also acts like he cares about womens issues. You’re gonna start your book with a DMX Lyric, right after you tell us how you’re donating all the profits to women’s causes? Really?

Third and last point

Ben Horowitz calls himself a wartime CEO. This really bugs me. We’re living in a time when real combat vets are having a terrible time re-integrating in society.

Horowitz doesn’t know the first thing about their struggles. He’s just playing GI Joe.

Business and war are different. Business involves negotiations and contracts and agreements.

War involves napalm falling on children, or laying siege to cities, or raping and pillaging innocents. That’s war. Ben Horowitz may be good at the game he plays, but he’s not a warrior.

Ben Horowitz is not a feminist, not black, and not a Navy SEAL, but he sure likes to think he’s all three. In my view, he is a typical “drink champagne for charity”, limousine liberal, massive hypocrite. He grabs phrases and images from other people to make himself look more enlightened, less a member of the elite, and more macho than he really is.

And if he wants to get in the ring with me any time, I’m game.

Review of Sora’s Quest by T. L. Shreffler

Wow. This is a good one.

Here’s a link to the book:

I download several free ebooks every week. I start a lot and bail once I get bored or get angry that the writer is going with some tired-out cliche.

So I started Sora’s Quest in that frame of mind — looking for an excuse to delete this book.

And this book is a fantasy book, which is a genre filled with the worst crap. Especially at the free tier. Honestly, once self-published ebooks became a thing, petabytes of beastmaster erotic fan fiction burst out on the internet.

So, like I said, I wasn’t optimistic.

But the first chapter was pretty good. A guy discovers his brother has just been assassinated moments before. He uses some magic to track down the assassin that is making his escape.

Magic is to fantasy what time travel is to science fiction. It’s hard to pull off well! Skilled fantasy writers bring something novel to the mechanics of magic works. And they explain it just enough so I understand why people do what they do. But they keep the plot moving.

Unskilled writers forget that they’re on borrowed time. They shift from the story line to an exposition of their made-up metaphysics, and it just kills the momentum.

Or even worse, they use something blatantly yanked from elsewhere. That’s usually a sign I’m reading something like a book version of those horrible bar bands that cover currently popular songs.

But this author introduced magic in this world cleverly and succinctly. Blood magic requires sacrificing living things.

The magician catches up with the assassin, but the assassin turns out to be way more difficult to kill than expected, and the magician gets wounded in the fight while the assassin gets away. And the chapter ends with the magician swearing to avenge his brother’s murder.

The story hops in perspective to follow Sora, a 17-year-old noble lady, preparing for something like a society debut. Her mother disappeared when she was an infant and her dad is an aloof jerk, mostly interested in getting her to marry into a family that will improve his status.

Lily is Sora’s maid, and their relationship reminds me of the dynamics between the maids and the ladies in Downton Abbey.

Anyhow, the coming out ball begins, and then Sora performs her “blooming” dance, and then accidentally falls down, which is just an awfully embarrassing thing.

But then the skylight above the ballroom shatters, and her father is gravely injured. Sora realizes that this was no accident when she runs into an assassin in the hallway who is about to kill her, but then decides to take her with him as a hostage.

And that’s the end of the second chapter. I was hooked. And I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Every chapter after that pulled me in more. The story bounces between the magician tracking down his brother’s murderer, and Sora who has been kidnapped by that same assassin. The story starts off following the magician, and we sympathize with him wanting to avenge his brother. But then by switching to the perspective of the people he is hunting down, and by coloring them in enough, the reader ends up empathizing with that crew as well. It becomes clear that they have their own sense of morality that’s not so different after all, especially given their situation.

So it’s not clear who are the heroes and the villains. Everyone is just trying to survive.

And there’s a gorgeous twist at the 80% mark that I really enjoyed.

Here’s the thing I’ve noticed too often about female characters in the fantasy genre. They’re usually damsels in distress or basically Xena Warrior Princess ice cold commando types. They’re paper-thin characters that are completely predictable and unrelatable.

But Sora comes off (to me, at least) as real. And she evolves and adapts plausibly. She’s not a brat and she’s not a robot.

Last thing — the author clearly spent a ton of time daydreaming and constructing this world’s history. There are all sorts of little hints about it all. Humanity won some “war of the five races” thanks to using anti-magic devices, and the other races are now almostly extinct. I really liked how she described the old civilizations (spoiler: author is a girl).

I just bought the sequel to this one. It seems to follow the assassin and for the first time we get to see into his thoughts. He’s an opaque dead-eyed killer for most of Sora’s Quest, and I hoped we’d find out his back story.

Honestly, this is an exciting story in a fantasy world that’s different from the usual Tolkien-inspired elves and dwarves tropes we’ve all read a million bazillion times. And an interesting female character!

Review of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Harper Fiction)

I started out loving everything about this book. Elphaba’s (the wicked witch) childhood and youth and adolescence are a beautiful coming-of-age story about a girl coming to terms with being obviously different than everyone else (she’s bright green). Then Elphaba goes off to college, where the story just keeps getting better and better, until Elphaba and her friends go to the weird trippy night club where a bunch of really far-out stuff goes down. Then in the next chapter, we skip forward a few months, the tight clique has disintegrated, and all the characters have been permanently changed and disconnected from each other.

I spent the rest of the book hoping we’d get some explanation for what happened, but we never go back. We never get any details about that night, only a few cryptic elliptical references. Instead, the story follows a monotonic downward trajectory towards an end everyone already knows is inevitable. This is a major bummer. By the end of the book, I was just glad the story was finished.

Finally, almost all the interesting plot and action and characters have nothing to do with the Dorothy plot line. By the time Dorothy and the Wizard show up in any meaningful way, the book is almost finished. I suspect McGuire is a closeted fantasy writer, but ashamed of it because of his “real literature” aspirations. McGuire only transplanted his story into the Oz universe as a marketing gimmick and/or post-modern commentary.

In the end, this book has a lot of the traits that make Harry Potter appealing: it reclaims the fantasy genre from the Dungeons and Dragons geek domain and the characters deal with problems that are at once alien and also very human.

Here’s a pretty Amazon link that includes my referrer ID:

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Summary: a good book about the downfall of civilization written by an author that doesn’t normally write science fiction.

Oryx and Crake is highbrow science-fiction. It’s not hard science fiction, like something written by Clarke or Sagan, where you’ll learn plenty of physics along the way. I mean it’s written by an author with literary credentials. Mainstream critics tend to all say the same thing about this book: “It’s sci-fi, but it’s good,” which is more than a little insulting to the rest of us. That put aside, this is a good book.

Most of the book reads sort of like what you would expect from everything else Atwood writes, despite the futuristic setting: children lose their innocence and discover their parents aren’t saints; love turns to jealousy; admiration turns to hate and fear and people do things they previously never could have imagined. In the end, which is usually where the book starts, the characters try to piece together some meaning out of it all, and grieve their loss.

If I didn’t like this book, I would say it’s sort of like A Separate Peace meets The Omega Man. But I did like this book. However, it’s still some seriously emotional stuff.

Margaret Atwood’s style by this point is well established: her characters change names when their situations change. The book starts off at the end, and the reader discovers what happened when the characters reflect on their lives in thoughts and conversations. Margaret Atwood loves writing about male-female and parent-child dynamics, and the subconscious forces that drive us, and Oryx and Crake is no exception.

I’m not going to run through the entire plot, but the book begins with somebody named Snowman picking through the detritus of western civilization. The plot unwinds while Snowman reflects on his life from childhood until the present. Along the way, we get the story of how the little boy named Jimmy grows up in a world that looks sort of like our near future, and becomes Snowman right after that civilization comes crashing down around him.

In Jimmy/Snowman’s childhood, the world looks vaguely like a more privatized, slightly more technically advanced version of today. As an adult, civilization has collapsed, Snowman is all alone, and he spends his time picking through the wreckage looking for snacks.

I’d wager that at least half of the books on the shelves in the sci-fi section in any bookstore revolve around some sort end-of-the-world scenario, leaving one or a few survivors to make sense out of it all. Atwood dodges the rookie mistake of trying to make her scenario seem plausible, or even worse, mentioning certain years, or real-life politicians. Instead, she goes in the opposite direction. We piece together a picture of the world in the future from snippets of conversation, consumer products, and advertising. We don’t get a detailed roadmap of how we got to a world where corporations run most everything, and their employees live in combination housing developments/office parks/shopping malls.

Crake is Jimmy’s childhood friend; they grow up together in the same private compound where their parents work. They play computer games together, they get high, they watch inordinate amounts of porn (no word on whether Atwood lurked on slashdot to research).

Like a lot of the little aspects of life in this future world, the computer games that Jimmy and Crake play are fleshed out almost to the point that it’s hard to believe these aren’t real games. “War of the Roses” is one game; it seems sort of like Magic The Gathering, or Pokemon, except the mythical monsters are replaced with the highs and lows of humanity. One player can play the Holocaust card, and another player can play the Sistine Chapel card” to negate it. Crake actually gets his name from another game, “Extinctathon”, where the players take turns wiping out species.

The boys grow apart. While Jimmy becomes more aware that he has none of his parents’ aptitude for science, Crake takes off in school. Jimmy goes to a crappy art school and Crake goes to a top science university where student research is sponsored by corporations.

Later, they come back together when Crake hires Jimmy to write marketing copy for the Crake’s corporation. Jimmy becomes possessive of Oryx, a woman who previously worked as a not entirely consensual prostitute in some unknown third-world region. Now, Crake employs her at his company, and they have some nebulous relationship that drives Jimmy away from Crake.

I liked this book because Atwood made the characters seem real. She really captures the alienated teenage boy vibe in Jimmy. The highlights of the book are Jimmy’s adolescence. Besides that, Atwood creates a fascinating view of a possible future, with pigs that are genetically engineered to provide compatible organs to humans, chickens that are refactored without sense organs, brains, or anything extraneous to the purpose of getting fat enough to harvest as quickly as possible, and popular revolts battling with corporatization. Inside all that clever scenery, there’s some pretty good characterization of children abandoned by their mothers that grow into alienated adults.

The next paragraphs could be construed as spoilers, so stop reading if that sort of thing bothers you.

Besides all the good things I mentioned above, I gotta say that the ending of Oryx and Crake left me dissapointed. We never get an explanation for why Crake wiped out humanity. We spend the whole book wondering about how civilization gets destroyed, and we eventually find out how, but we never get to the more important issue of why Crake destroyed it. Crake has been a cypher throughout the plot, so it’s not out-of-character, but, like I said above, the ending is a little dissapointing.

Maybe Atwood is trying to make some point about humanity in general: people do crazy stuff and the rest of us are stuck trying to pick up the pieces and figure out why; but, to borrow a line from Marge,

“That’s a pretty lousy lesson.”