The Lambs by Carole George is a really good memoir

Click here to buy the book on Amazon

I feel a kinship with the writer

In 2014, I took my hens to a farmer to “process” them after I couldn’t take them to the new house.
I drove an hour with my five hens in a big plastic cage in the back seat of my Honda Accord, wiping away tears the whole time.

I couldn’t take the hens to the new property. This new neighborhood wasn’t the kind of place where hens hopping over the back fence to explore was seen as charming.

I remember how the farmer looked at me like I was tender-hearted fool when I said I wanted them to pass on as peacefully and gently as possible. I think I asked if she had any kind of hen spa treatment.

“They ain’t gonna like it, but it will be over quick.”

I had raised those five girls from 48 hours after they had hatched until almost three years later. Now, they were mature, approaching venerable status. I couldn’t provide them an environment where they would be happy. I couldn’t keep them safe from predators and disease and age. I picked what I thought was the best for them.

Her parties sound really fun

I would def make a drinking game based on the sheep. Like any time somebody interrupts a story because they didn’t realize until that moment she was talking about her sheep, and not a human, you gotta take a sip.
Any time somebody says “you’re joking” or laughs when in dead serious terms she explains something she does for her sheep.

There is no such thing as a famous book of ancient Persian poems

Carole George researches her particular breed of sheep, the Karakul, and then becomes interested in the history and the literature of their homeland. There is a funny moment when she describes how her dad is coming to visit and bringing a famous book of ancient Persian poems. I have to disagree with her at this point. There’s no such thing as a famous book of ancient Persian poems.

NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon is famous. Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing is famous. The Kim Kardashian sex tape is famous.
That book ain’t famous!

No mention of life outside her farm

I day dreamed about Carole George at the small town Piggly Wiggly asking the produce manager when he is going to stock more organic frisee lettuce.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons when George H. W. Bush goes to Krusty Burger and tries to order stew… I thought of that episode.

What do the neighbors make of her?

What does she think about them?

I hope she writes about that. I imagine she did write that stuff, but a savvy editor pruned this book down to just the narrative about her life on her farm, walking with her sheep.

My favorite part

After euthanizing one of her last few sheep, her vet said “any relationship is about knowing that at the end there’s a separation. For all the pleasure, you always know that there will be pain at the end. That is where the beauty of it comes from.”
It’s a sad sentiment, but I think it is true.

Why this is such an excellent memoir

Carole George is now in my head as a real person. Hell, I have had whole conversations with her dad, in my head, asking him about his outfits when he is out walking with the sheep. I think I would have liked her dad plenty. He apparently had a brain packed full of poems, at the age of 90, starts taking classes to learn ancient greek.

My notes from reading 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson


I finished 12 Rules of Life book a little while ago, then put it down for a while, so I could think about it.

As simply as possible: I agree with JBP’s rules, but mostly disagree with how he gets to them. Also, these are good rules, but there’s some important stuff missing!

In other words, these 12 rules are not the only rules you need to follow. I think there are more important things out there to pay attention to.

I feel like JBP’s greatest accomplishment is bringing back the message that we need more in our life than just having a good time (aka hedonism).

But I totally disagree that we need to go back to traditional values of the past! That strikes me as too easy of an answer. No. The answer is unknown right now.

Now, on to the details…

His writing style is often needlessly complex

I wonder if his editors encourage him to write that way or if years of academic writing has made it habitual.

Actually, this is only true in some chapters. I love his writing style in the “listen as if they know something you don’t” chapter. The sentences are short and crisp, and he doesn’t go on too many tangents. I think there is the academic JBP and the clinician JBP. He seems like a decent clinician. He knows that he needs to speak clearly and simply so that somebody on the other side, the patient, can easily understand his idea.

But the academic JBP does not speak in those short sentences. He uses words way outside of common day-to-day speech. It’s jarring to read.

I don’t buy the “chaos is feminine” idea

I don’t care if this is one of those things that people that study literature have all already agreed on. It doesn’t sit well with me.

JBP says order is masculine, chaos is feminine. I don’t see it. Watch a group of boys play, and a group of girls play. Boys are chaotic!

He writes about the feminine world as the unknown. This is only true depending on who you are. If you’re a male, and you spend time mostly around males, then sure, the girl world is foreign and seemingly chaotic.

But if you’re a girl, and you grow up around girls and women, then the male world is what seems unknown and chaotic, while the world of women seems seems orderly and predictable.

There’s a part where he talks about how in war time, people discover that they have the capacity to do evil, or commit atrocities, or be sadists. He doesn’t exactly say “this is what causes PTSD” but he implies it strongly. I agree with the idea that it is no fun to discover that we all have a demon within us. But I don’t think that’s the cause of PTSD in general. I think it’s a thing worth exploring, but PTSD occurs in people that survive horrific events like plane crashes too, where they didn’t take any action.

His Garden of Eden analysis doesn’t work for me

He talks about how Adam and Eve gain self-consciousness, and points out how women have been making men self-conscious forever. That rings true to me.

Here’s what he doesn’t talk about: the creator wanted his creations to stay in the role he created for them! This is the same reason why he expelled Lucifer, at least according to all the Sunday classes I ever attended. Lucifer wasn’t content to exist within a hierarchy. He’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.

This is a recurring pattern in the old testament. YHWH gets jealous when the Israelites don’t give him his props.

Perhaps JBP might say that God wants only the best for his creation, and the rules are set out to help them reach their potential, if only they stay on the straight and narrow.

But that’s not the only explanation! Imagine God just wants to keep us in a state of childlike innocence and awe, because he can’t handle facing an equal!

Take the Tower of Babel myth, located just a few pages after creation myth. God sees all the humans getting along peacefully, doing their own thing, and he watches them all get together and work on building a tower up to heaven. God sees this as a threat, and ruins the project.

Dick move!

Over and over, JBP and I read different meanings into the same text. He sees God wanting to keep us on the straight and narrow path. I see a bitter parent fearful that his children will outshine him.

What you get for reading the whole book instead of just the 12 rules

The rules are good rules! They’re easy to understand. They don’t demand huge changes right away.

So what do you get extra when you read all the hundreds of pages? You get lots of anecdotes around each rule. For example, the second rule is something like “treat yourself like a friend you care about”. There’s a neat story in the chapter about how people often don’t follow doctors orders after they go to the doctor, and so they don’t always take their pills. But if those same people go to the vet with their dog, they are more likely to make sure their dog takes their pills!

That is a really interesting story!

Then JBP spins an interesting idea for why people do that — why do they take care of other people (or dogs) better than they take care of themselves. It seems like according to JBP, people get really freaked out about the monster that lives within us all, and so somehow we don’t believe we deserve the help. Because we’re rotten people on the inside.

I think that’s plausible. I think that there are also other plausible explanations too. Like, for example, most of us deep down think we’re so special that the rules don’t really apply to us.

Going backwards verses going forwards

I had an economics professor that said something like “The first wave of economists wrote math formulas to describe how the world works. Then the next wave came in and said those formulas were trash. Then the third wave came in and saw how the formulas weren’t perfect, but they weren’t trash either, so they improved the models, based on the criticisms from the second wave.”

This is what I keep hoping JBP will do: combine the wisdom of the ancients with the valid critiques of the ancient world. But he doesn’t! Over and over, he suggests that our problems stem from abandoning tradition. But he doesn’t explore why it is we tossed out traditions.

He talks about this epidemic of nihilism. I want him to figure out where that came from.

The answer cannot be “well, people stopped doing what they were supposed to.”

My view is that technology has made it possible for people who used to have no voice to get more attention, and now, the garden of eden doesn’t look so great any more.

People lost faith in “the standard model” for valid reasons!

We can’t go backward, even if we tried. The toothpaste is out of the tube.

JBP doesn’t seem to think of atheism and nihilism as different things

This particularly bugs me. This is something atheists hear all the time.

I don’t buy the notion that Christianity was so great, and the 20th century tyrannies came because we abandoned it. Go read any book about the Spanish conquest of South America and you’ll be on my side.

I don’t buy the argument that deceit caused tyranny either.

I’m willing to bet a dollar that most atheists would not describe themselves as nihilists. And it’s certainly hard to argue that self-professed atheists live and act like nihilists. They don’t! They get up, go to work, pay taxes, raise families, etc.
I’m guessing, but I bet JBP believes any belief in human rights / objective truth or even just human decency is ultimately the same as believing in God. In other words, if you’re not a school shooter, you’re a Christian.

He sees Christianity as the champion of a grand battle between all the great ideas of history

I wish I could state his idea more shortly. JBP suggests that the bible survived where other holy texts disappeared because it has better messages.

I don’t see it that way. The way I see it, Christianity had as much effect on the dominance of the west as the mascot does on which team wins the Super Bowl.

In other words, our texts were largely along for the ride, rather than being the forces behind the dominance of the west. I don’t agree that Christianity sponsored the age of reason. I prefer the “guns, germs, and steel” explanation.

Consider that white supremacists read the about the Mark of Cain and see that as proof that black people are cursed.

Consider the stuff that Martin Luther inferred about Jews from Paul’s writing.

Now consider how the liberation theology movement comes to radically different points of view.

I see the bible (or nearly any big book) as kind of like Rorschach test (those inkblot cards where the doctor asks you what you see).

His Cain and Abel analysis also doesn’t work for me

I have my own theory on Cain and Abel. I have to give a lot of credit to Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael, Franz Kafka’s cryptic notes about the pit of Babel, and my own research with magic mushrooms.

Cain was a farmer, Abel was a hunter. Farming is arguably the beginning of civilization. For the same reason why God wanted Adam and Eve to stay as perpetual children in the garden of Eden, he resents Cain for learning to grow his own food, and change the nature of his existence.

The Old Testament god YHWH is like the antithesis of the Greek myth of Prometheus. Both are our creators. But after Prometheus made people, he felt sad because we were all cold and living in the dark, so he brought fire down from Olympus and gave it to us.

That’s cool. He wanted us to thrive. Then Prometheus got punished pretty bad for it — chained to a rock and an eagle swoops down and eats liver every day, and then it grows back overnight — but he was glad that we had fire!

More generally, there’s a whole bunch of Greek poems and plays and myths where Prometheus helps / encourages us as we use technology to grow more powerful, more free, etc.

Like I said, that’s like the antithesis of YHWH.

My favorite rules

  • stand up straight (or whatever he says)
  • treat yourself like somebody you’re supposed to take care of
  • be friends with people that want what is best for you
  • listen as if the other person knows something you don’t

My least favorite rules

I don’t think any of JBP’s rules are wrong. They’re just imperfect. Of course any simple rule will have these problems.

Here’s a simple example that explains what I mean: “always wash your hands after using the bathroom” is a good rule to follow. But if you had to, you could imagine some weird scenario where you should break this rule. Like maybe you hear somebody screaming “HELP I AM BEING ABDUCTED BY A UFO” in the next room. Or maybe there’s an earthquake. Or maybe there’s a drought and you want to save every drop of water for an emergency.

In other words, there are instances when people should not follow these rules. If these instances are really uncommon, like earthquakes and droughts and alien abductions, then the rule is great. But as the frequency of these instances increase, the rule stops being such a good rule to follow in general.

I took a paragraph to state the obvious, but that is the nature of what I dislike about JBP’s pronouncements. They’re generally pretty good. But there are real-life examples where they are just not good guidelines.

Not a favorite rule: Be precise in your speech

Consider that some people repress their own thoughts and feelings so much. You ever met somebody so withdrawn that they only express themselves through quoting song lyrics or lines from movies?

You ever met somebody that’s trapped in a miserable job or relationship and they’ve been stuck there so long that they’ve lost the ability to imagine what they personally would like? They’re out there. In large numbers.

So many people have said they had to leave their relationship because they reached some point where they’ve forgotten who they are.

For these folks, just getting them to blurt out anything is critical. If they worry about speaking precisely, they won’t speak.

They’ve lost their internal voice.

Everything else held equal, being precise in speech is great. But it is a secondary goal, only after somebody overcomes not speaking whatever.

Not favorite: The skateboarding rule

Again, I don’t think the rule is bad from JBP’s explanation. It’s good! Skateboarding is a little dangerous, but boys need a way to prove themselves.

But that can’t be the end of the conversation on the topic.

Instead of letting them ride skateboards in the park, which isn’t awful, but is generally just a fun hobby, they really need role models that can direct the adolescent desire to master a skill into something socially useful.

Otherwise, you end up with drunks at the bar, talking about how high school sports were the greatest time of their lives.

And, also, you don’t have to buy into toxic masculinity to acknowledge that bored adolescent boys can be very destructive. Let a bunch of boys be bored and maybe they’ll skateboard. Maybe they’ll take up graffiti. Maybe they’ll see who can be the biggest badass at the bar.

They probably won’t learn how to restore old engines or learn to program computers or study hard enough to get into medical school unless somebody helps them get started.

Really good civilizations / cultures give everyone a chance to contribute meaningfully. But that doesn’t happen without hard work.

I would have preferred that the rule was more about how the older generation has a responsibility to mentor the youth, rather than see the youth as a threat to peace and quiet.


It is an OK book. But would it have helped somebody out, in the darkest period of their life?

I don’t think this book would helped me out in times like that. I think it would have made it worse. You can do all the stuff he says to do, and you’re still going to feel like garbage. I might have read that book, followed it desperately, then gotten really bitter when I felt no relief. I would have thought that I must have been a hopeless case.

I felt better later, years later, when I got out of the toxic relationships I had, got out of a miserable living situation, found friends that actually liked what made me special, found work that lined up with what I was good at so I could prove myself.

Incidentally, in that dark time of my own life, I read a ton of books.

I read The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. After I read that book, I saw my desire to belong somewhere as something that could really get me in trouble.

I saw everybody around me just looking for a chance to fit in somewhere, to lose themselves in something greater.

Man’s Search for Meaning was another great book I read during that time. I remember feeling like we all need a purpose. A mission, so to speak, and if we have that, and we really believe that, then we can overcome hardship. It can’t just be hedonism. That’s a dead end. Hedonism won’t inspire anybody to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

Hedonism is just a fancy word that means that you value pleasure above anything else. Read the wikipedia page if you want lots of details.

I read Siddhartha and Damien and Narcissus and Goldmund and The Glass Bead Game and a bunch more books by Hermann Hesse during that time too. And a bunch of stuff by Camus, and a bunch of science fiction from the 1960s.

You know what I learned from all those authors? People feel really fuggin lonely.

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.”