2016 Recommended Books List

2016 has been a pretty full year for me, and I suspect for everyone else, too. We had an election this year, and that was certainly a wild ride from start to finish. A lot happened in the world. We lost some pretty amazing people. A lot happened in my life, too, although I’d hope those events were more positive than what happened in the world and the U.S. at large.

I read quite a few books this year, in between school and writing and spending time with family. A lot of those books were amazing, the type of books that take hold of something in your soul. Looking back at the list, it’s an odd combination of non-fiction and sci-fi/fantasy, with one lone exception. These are all books that deeply appealed to me in some way, whether that was the premise or the characters or the overall theme of the book. I would highly recommend them all.

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1. Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Summary: Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician–not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life.
With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

I read this book way back in February, and I absolutely adored it. In fact, it’s pretty much the book that got me started doing book reviews on this blog. Once I read this book, I felt the need to share it with as many people as I possibly could. I’ve written a much longer review already, but to sum it up: this is a well-written book with amazing characters and an incredibly nuanced view of the Old West. I highly, highly recommend it. 


2. Starflight by Melissa Landers
Summary: Solara Brooks needs a fresh start, someplace where nobody cares about the engine grease beneath her fingernails or the felony tattoos across her knuckles. The outer realm may be lawless, but it’s not like the law has ever been on her side. Still, off-world travel doesn’t come cheap; Solara is left with no choice but to indenture herself in exchange for passage to the outer realm. She just wishes it could have been to anyone besides Doran Spaulding, the rich, pretty-boy quarterback who made her life miserable in school.

The tables suddenly turn when Doran is framed for conspiracy on Earth, and Solara cons him into playing the role of her servant on board the Banshee, a ship manned by an eccentric crew with their own secrets. Given the price on both Doran and Solara’s heads, it may just be the safest place in the universe. But when the Banshee’s dangerous enemies catch up with them, Solara and Doran must come together to protect the ship that has become their home-and the eccentric crew that feels like family.

I read this book in about half a day. It’s a fun, fast-moving little sci-fi story with fun characters and a plot that features plenty of twists and turns. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read; and it’s not deep and thought-provoking like Under a Painted Sky. But it’s a book I greatly enjoyed, and it’s the type of fun, inoffensive sci-fi fluff I like to read when my brain needs a break and I don’t want to have to critique something too hard.


3. Women Heroes of World War II by Kathryn J. Atwood
Summary: Noor Inayat Khan was the first female radio operator sent into occupied France and transferred crucial messages. Johtje Vos, a Dutch housewife, hid Jews in her home and repeatedly outsmarted the Gestapo. Law student Hannie Schaft became involved in the most dangerous resistance work–sabotage, weapons transference, and assassinations. In these pages, young readers will meet these and many other similarly courageous women and girls who risked their lives to help defeat the Nazis.
Twenty-six engaging and suspense-filled stories unfold from across Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, and the United States, providing an inspiring reminder of women and girls’ refusal to sit on the sidelines around the world and throughout history.

I first encountered this book while volunteering at my local library. It seemed like the type of book I would like, so I checked it out and started reading. And just as I’d suspected, I loved it. This book tells the story of a variety of female heroes during World War II, most of whom are rarely taught about elsewhere. It doesn’t restrict itself to any one type of hero, either. Included are women who fought the Nazis nonviolently, like Sophie Scholl and Johtie Vos, and much more literal fighters like Hannie Schaft. Women of color are included in the stories of Noor Inayat Khan and Josephine Baker. The faith and religon that inspired many of these women, such as Corrie ten Boom, isn’t overlooked. Each story is concise yet important. This book really is an important reminder of women who were not afraid to do what they knew was right, even in the face of death.


4. Failures of the Presidents by Thomas J. Craughwell and M. William Phelps
Summary: In an effort to put an end to Britain and France’s policy of seizing American ships and sailors, Thomas Jefferson calls for an embargo. The result: 30,000 soldiers out of work, mercantile families bankrupted, and a nationwide economic depression.

In an effort to install a capitalist government in the Middle East, stabilize the region, and protect America from a possible Iraqi terrorist assault using weapons of mass destruction, George W. Bush orders the invasion of Iraq. The result: More than 4,000 American soldiers and personnel dead; estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead; hundreds of billions of dollars spent; the torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction leave American global credibility in tatters.

What were they thinking?

One of my favorite genres of history, so to speak, is the “American history they didn’t teach you in school” genre. This book appeals very heavily to that interest of mine, as it not only explores little-known anecdotes from history, but calls attention to the flaws of most U.S. presidents. It’s a fairly unbiased book that provides cultural and historical context for the presidents’ various decisions, without absolving them of the consequences. This is the kind of history I very much appreciate.


5. On Basilisk Station by David Weber
Summary: Having made him look a fool, she’s been exiled to Basilisk Station in disgrace and set up for ruin by a superior who hates her. Her demoralized crew blames her for their ship’s humiliating posting to an out-of-the-way picket station. The aborigines of the system’s only habitable planet are smoking homicide-inducing hallucinogens. Parliament isn’t sure it wants to keep the place; the major local industry is smuggling; the merchant cartels want her head; the star-conquering, so-called “Republic” of Haven is Up To Something; and Honor Harrington has a single, over-age light cruiser with an armament that doesn’t work to police the entire star system. 

But the people out to get her have made one mistake. They’ve made her mad. 

This is another book I’ve already done a full review for, back when I read a bunch of SF novels over the summer. I enjoyed it pretty thoroughly, since it takes the story of the “misunderstood military genius” and gives it to a female protagonist. It’s well-written and the story moves just fast enough. I’ve heard that this series (the Honor Harrington series) is based off of the Horatio Hornblower books, and it does seem that way, but the books are different enough, in genre and in writing, that they don’t come off as too similar. I look forward to reading the next book, whenever I can find it. 


6. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Summary: How far would you go for revenge if someone killed your father? If someone destroyed your city? If everything you ever loved was taken from you?

David Charleston will go to any lengths to stop Steelheart. But to exact revenge in Steelheart’s world, David will need the Reckoners—a shadowy group of rebels bent on maintaining justice. 

And it turns out that the Reckoners might just need David too.

This is yet another book that I’ve previously reviewed on this blog. Again, see that post for my complete thoughts. To make a long(ish) review short, well… This is a book with a very unique perspective on superheroes. It turns genre conventions upside down and tells a heartfelt, enthralling story, and the whole thing is very well-written. As a side note, the sequels are just as good. I’d recommend the whole Reckoners trilogy, which stems from this book; but even as a standalone, Steelheart is awesome, and comes highly recommended by me.



7. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Summary: After Martians invade Earthspecifically, England—a philosophically-inclined writer is set on a journey across the ravaged English countryside as he attempts to find his wife and, with luck, avoid death. 

This is this year’s obligatory really old, yet surprisingly good novel (last year’s was Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days). First published in 1898, War of the Worlds is thought to be the first mainstream alien invasion story, and besides being groundbreaking science fiction, it also carries some scintillating social commentary. It isn’t as exciting or fast-moving as modern sci-fi, but it still carries its fair share of action. The best part of the novel, though—at least in my opinion—is the atmosphere Wells creates with words alone. The scenarios presented in the novel, the hopelessness and fear, were mildly terrifying even to me. They’re even sharper when you think of how nineteenth- and twentieth-century readers must have perceived the story. All of Wells’s fiction was based on real science of his day, after all.

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So there you have it: seven books I read this year and loved. I’d recommend all of them, especially if you’re a fan of science fiction or history. Even if you’re not, these are still, in my opinion, valuable books. If you’ve read any of these or end up reading them in the coming year, I’d love to discuss them. Until then, Feliz Navidad, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year
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Book Recommendation: Steelheart

Summary: How far would you go for revenge if someone killed your father?

If someone destroyed your city?

If everything you ever loved was taken from you?

David Charleston will go to any lengths to stop Steelheart. But to exact revenge in Steelheart’s world, David will need the Reckoners—a shadowy group of rebels bent on maintaining justice. 

And it turns out that the Reckoners might just need David too.



Recently, I’ve been getting more and more into the superhero genre. It’s fun to think about people with awesome skills or superpowers–and often, the narrative of a vigilante with a hidden identity raises interesting moral questions. The superhero genre, when handled right, contains a wealth of storytelling possibilities. This book–and its sequels–explores one of the lesser-seen possibilities, and boy is it enthralling.

The premise of Steelheart is that at some point twelve or so years in the past, a weird astronomical event called Calamity occurred–and people all over the world started gaining superpowers, bending and breaking the laws of physics. And then all of these superpowered people (called “Epics”) decided that what they really wanted to do with these powers was take as much power as they could for themselves, and subjugate anyone too weak to fight back.

That’s the setup for the novel’s main story. This certainly isn’t the first book to feature a story where people with superpowers go bad instead of good and try to take over the world. But this book takes the idea further than most. In a sense, this is an anti-superhero story: here, the people with powers are the villains, the monsters, the evil ones. The only heroes here are the ordinary people with the courage and cunning to fight back.

In fact, the more I think about it, this story is the antithesis to stories like X-Men, where people with powers are oppressed solely because they have powers. In this story, author Brandon Sanderson takes the idea of “superpowers” to its logical extreme. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If ordinary people really did start gaining superpowers out of nowhere, who’s to say they wouldn’t all become tyrants?

Of course, the sequels muddy this philosophical bent quite a bit. But the books still have a very interesting and thus far underused premise. In addition, the characters are all sympathetic and complex, and the plotting of the books is a thing to behold. Seriously, Brandon Sanderson has a knack for weaving an action-packed mystery and revealing a plot twist at the very end that changes everything. He’s also good at coming up with intriguing settings; each book takes place in a different city that’s been transformed since the coming of the Epics. Each place is unique and drives the action in its own way.

In short, the Reckoners Trilogy–of which Steelheart is the first book–is an amazing series, and I’m glad I had the chance to read it. I would highly recommend it to others looking for a short series to get into, especially if superheroes are your thing.

I give Steelheart four stars out of five (though the Reckoners Trilogy as a whole is more of a 4.5/5).

Book Review: Fate of Flames

Summary: Four girls with the power to control the elements and save the world from a terrible evil must come together in the first epic novel in a brand-new series.

When Phantoms—massive beasts made from nightmares and darkness—suddenly appeared and began terrorizing the world, four girls, the Effigies, each gained a unique power to control one of the classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Since then, four girls across the world have continually fought against the Phantoms, fulfilling their cosmic duty. And when one Effigy dies, another girl gains her power as a replacement.

But now, with technologies in place to protect the world’s major cities from Phantom attacks, the Effigies have stopped defending humanity and, instead, have become international celebrities, with their heroic feats ranked, televised, and talked about in online fandoms.

Until the day that New York City’s protection against the Phantoms fails, a man seems to be able to control them by sheer force of will, and Maia, a high school student, unexpectedly becomes the Fire Effigy.

Now Maia has been thrown into battle with three girls who want nothing to do with one another. But with the first human villain that the girls have ever faced, and an army of Phantoms preparing for attack, there isn’t much time for the Effigies to learn how to work together.

Can the girls take control of their destinies before the world is destroyed forever?



First off, a disclaimer: Fate of Flames is scheduled to be released this November. The copy of it that I read is an ARC, which I obtained at Barnes & Noble’s Book-Fest. Legally, I am not allowed to quote this book, only review it in my own words. That’s what I always do, but I felt I should note this somewhere in the post.

Now, onto the review.

Fate of Flames is sort of a weird book for me. First, it’s a contemporary fantasy about a girl who gains special powers. There are certain tropes and clichés associated with such a story, and Fate of Flames plays right into some of those. There are others that it plays with or subverts, which makes the book as a whole both conventional and inventive at the same time.

On the conventional side, it’s a coming-of-age story about a high school girl–Maia Finley–who gains the ability to control fire. As the Fire Effigy, she’s thrown into a world where she’s expected to team up with three other Effigies–her personal heroes–and fight the monsters that have been attacking the world since the 1800’s. But there’s a twist–Maia is terrified of fire, ever since a house fire killed her parents and twin sister. And there’s something suspicious about the death of her predecessor…

The story itself, at least for three fourths of the book, is pretty conventional. Coming of age story–check. Relatable teenage protagonist–check. Mysterious hot love interest man–check. Shadowy governmental organization–check. Monsters the world must be defended from–check.

But that’s not all there is to the book, and that’s the part that makes it unique. Yes, it’s a coming of age story–but it’s one that doesn’t shy away from the psychological effect constant fighting has on teenaged soldiers. The relatable teen girl protagonist has many weaknesses and genuinely doesn’t know what’s going on a lot of the time–there’s no way she could’ve made it through the plot of the book without the help of the other three Effigies (Belle, Chae Rin, and Lake). All three of these other girls also have their own flaws and weaknesses, yet none of them are demonized or set up as one-dimensional rivals for Maia. In the end, they find strength by working together. The mysterious love interest guy is a member of the shadowy governmental organization–and as it turns out, both of them were probably lying to Maia all along. There are only three prominent male characters in the book, and one of them is a government agent with nasty secrets, one of them is a government agent with zero morals, and one is a villain with multiple personalities in his head. He’s able to control the monsters that have been attacking the world for over a century.

So there’s a lot going on in this book. The plot and characters are a smooth blend of the cliché and the atypical. That sort of threw me in the first half of the book–I never knew what to expect, even when I thought I did. But by the second half, I got to liking it. Fate of Flames is a well-written book with good characters and a lot of interesting concepts. And it’s the first in a series, so I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where the story goes.

So that’s my opinion of the book. I’ve still got one more thing to add: back by popular demand, it’s the star rating system that I used to use for movies. I’ll be using it to rate this book, and presumably a few more books after it; if like it or think I could use a better system, please let me know!

I’m giving Fate of Flames three and a half stars.

Fate of Flames hasn’t been released yet, so I guess there aren’t a lot of people out there to discuss it with me. But suffice to say, it’s a good book and I’m looking forward to enjoying the rest of the series. In my opinion, any author who can blend cliché and originality with this amount of skill is someone whose books I’ll be keeping up with. 

Movie Fights: Civil War vs. Dawn of Justice

Alright, I understand that technically, this post should be called Movie Fights: Captain America: Civil War vs. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but I didn’t name it that because, well, first of all: that’s a really long title. Too long. Secondly, there are way too many colons in there. And finally, I for one have had enough of these ridiculous movie subtitles. Call it Batman vs. Superman OR call it Dawn of Justice, but don’t do both! That’s just confusing! It’s like cramming two movies’ worth of material into one rushed, confusing theatrical cut… wait a second.

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start again: This is the much-awaited (maybe) comparison of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, and DC’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Now, on the surface, these two movies seem to have a lot in common. They’re both big-budget summer action films where superheroes who should be working together fight instead, because of a relatively petty issue that they could easily resolve by communicating if they really tried. However, these movies have a lot of sizable differences, which add up to make them into two very different films.

I’ll tackle Batman v. Superman first.
To start, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is long. It’s a long movie, and I swear not a minute of it is wasted. It’s stuffed to the gills with plot. There are at least two and half different plotlines in the theatrical cut alone; I hear there are even more in the director’s cut. Most of the plot is setup for Batman and Superman fighting; and boy is there a lot of setup. I don’t want to spoil any of it, but let me just say: there are more villainous machinations and philosophy-rationality discussions in Batman v. Superman than there are actual brawls between Batman and Superman. In addition to all the philosophical rhetoric and plot twists, there’s also a generous amount of setup for future DC movie-universe films. I’m not a hardcore DC fan, so I didn’t catch all of the hints while I was watching the movie, but I got at least some of them. And then, of course, there’s a subplot meant to set up the DC’s incoming Justice League movie.
All this adds up to a film so full of things happening that it’s hard to follow everything at once. Batman v. Superman is so dense, so stuffed with important plot pieces that my only impression walking out of the theater was “sensory overload”. It took me the better part of two weeks to really work through everything I vicariously experienced in the movie. For a movie called Batman v. Superman, there’s a lot of expositing, a lot of storytelling twists and turns, and not a lot of fight scenes. (In fact, 90% of the fighting is relegated to the last half hour of the movie. The rest of the movie only has a Superman rescue montage and like one scene of Batman doing Cool Stuff.)
So Batman v. Superman is too much material crammed into not enough space, with a much darker tone than you would think given the subject matter. Let’s look at Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War.
Unlike DC, Marvel has already established a strong movie brand and found their niche as far as storytelling goes. They’ve got a handle on the tone of their movies, and though I think the actual writing in their films has been going downhill of late, they know what works for them.
So Captain America: Civil War is, in essence, more of the same. It’s got all of the characters you know and love from the previous movies. It’s got peppy, fun-to-watch action scenes sprinkled throughout, along with snappy, humorous dialogue. It’s got a smattering of thought-out character moments, and a plot that makes sense if you don’t think about it too much. In short, it’s got everything we’ve come to expect from Marvel over the past few years.
To be honest, I enjoyed Civil War a lot more than Batman v. Superman. Civil War was a lot less complicated, easier to follow, and didn’t require as much active thought from me. It also had a more light-hearted tone. Batman v. Superman is dark and gritty and believes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Civil War believes that power corrupts, but ultimately justice can be served if we try hard and commit to it. That’s a big difference in tone right there, but that’s not the end of it. Batman v. Superman is almost entirely consumed with its philosophy—that power is a corrupting influence with no moral compass, no matter a person’s intentions. By contrast, Civil War doesn’t touch on its own philosophy hardly at all, and even contradicts itself at points. What it comes down to is that Civil War doesn’t take itself half as seriously as Batman v. Superman, so it’s more fun to watch.
The thing is, though, I don’t think either of these movies is really the best it could have been, and ultimately neither of them are a completely enjoyable presentation of what they promised. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: any movie that promises me Batman and Superman fighting each other has a heck of a premise to live up to. The same goes for Civil War: the filmmakers had a lot to set up if they were going to get me to believe that the Avengers would really split apart and fight each other. Both movies tried to live up to their premises, but neither of them accomplished it really well. Batman v. Supermanspent too much time on the buildup. It’s so dark and complicated that by the time it gets to the actual fight, you hardly even care anymore. Civil War didn’t spend enough time building things up; it presented a philosophy of sorts for both sides of the conflict, but then had the characters contradict themselves multiple times. Essentially, Civil Warseesawed back and forth between a dark, serious plotline and the upbeat, enjoyable action sequences we’ve come to expect from Marvel. It couldn’t pick a tone, and I think that was its major flaw.
I do think both of these movies are worth watching. Civil War certainly isn’t the worst movie Marvel’s ever made, and it did have its share of worthwhile moments. Batman v. Supermanis… an experience. I actually did enjoy it, but not all of it. If you watch it for anything, watch for Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. They were definitely the highlights.
Both these movies are worth watching, but I think they both represent missed potential on the parts of their studios. To quote the Honest Trailer, Batman v. Superman “burned through like six movies’ worth of good material”, and suffered for it. It was too rushed, trying to get us to care about too much in too short a time span. By contrast, it was obvious that Civil War was, at least in part, riding the wave of popularity Marvel has accrued with its past movies. It’s my personal opinion that the writing in Marvel movies is starting to go downhill, simply because Marvel knows that any movie they slap their name on will sell like hotcakes. Essentially, they’re getting lazy, instead of using that branding potential to break new ground and explore new territory film-wise.
In closing: both of these movies represent their respective studios’ shortcomings. Captain America: Civil War rides a wave of previous successes, not bothering with internal consistency because the writers know people won’t care; it’s Marvel, and Marvel movies are good. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice tries desperately to build up everything in the DC universe at once, hoping that something will stick and get people to come back for the next DC film. So both of these movies have their good points, but neither reached their full potential. Neither of them could decide exactly what they were trying to do. Maybe they’re more similar than I thought. 

Star Trek: Beyond

I went to see Star Trek: Beyond with my dad! And I have to say, in my opinion, Beyond is the best Star Trek reboot movie so far. It seems to have captured the charm of the original Star Trek episodes. It seems to understand what made those episodes so magical, and it replicates those traits–but with more detail and better special effects. Overall, Star Trek: Beyond is a fun, optimistic sci-fi movie that feels sort of like a breath of fresh air.

A lot of the science fiction movies coming out these days feel dark and dismal. There are a lot of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories going around just now, which seems to say something about our society’s current attitude. But Star Trek: Beyond doesn’t go that route. It’s not about the end of the world, or a world; it’s about a group of people banding together to stop an undeserved attack on a group of innocent people. It’s an optimistic movie with a message about the power of unity between people. It’s a feel-good summer movie, with hefty doses of fun and action mixed in.

I feel like this movie is something of an interesting case. It’s not a terribly original film. It more or less stuck to the script of what works for Star Trek. It didn’t have a particularly original plot, and the couple of original characters that appeared weren’t groundbreaking. But it all worked. The plot was tight, with a twist toward the end that I, at least, didn’t see coming. (My dad did. It’s a thing with him.) The characterization was all excellent, and there were some really great character interactions. The movie focused on everybody in the bridge crew in some way: Kirk, Spock, and Bones were the main characters, as usual, but we got scenes and interactions with everyone, and the movie really did its best to highlight what a group of people can accomplish when working together. (Hasn’t that always been a theme in Star Trek? No man is an island?) There was some good humor, too, and I thought all of the characterizations were well done.

The visuals of the movie were all very appealing as well. I sort of associate Star Trek with old-timey, retro special effects that are obviously fake but still appealing, because it’s a window into how science fiction was done before the real advent of CGI. So it’s strange to watch a Star Trek movie and see all the sleek, hyper-realistic effects of modern film. But the effects are good, and it is cool to have that version of Star Trek now–a version with all the shiny, lifelike effects today’s computers can create. In particular, I liked the designs for Yorktown station and the base belonging to Krall (the villain). Yorktown station, especially, was beautifully designed, and the initial shots of it were just gorgeous.

Besides having great characterization and writing, Beyond had a few great shout-outs–to Leonard Nimoy, who famously died this last year; to Anton Yelchin, who died more recently in an accident; and to all the main actors from the Original Series. These references are poignant and touching, especially those that subtly honor Anton Yelchin; his death was sudden and unexpected, and all the more tragic. These, coupled with the writing and the themes and the general Star Trek feel of the movie, make Beyond, in my opinion, the best reboot movie so far. It’s fun and optimistic, and I would certainly recommend it.

Book Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Summary: Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.

Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by quotes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox–the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and totally out-to-lunch president of the galaxy; Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot; Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years. 

Where are these pens? Why are we born? Why do we die? Why do we spend so much time between wearing digital watches? For all the answers stick your thumb to the stars. And don’t forget to bring a towel!


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is without a doubt one of the most bizarre books I’ve ever read. It’s almost–but not quite–seems like a parody of the space opera genre. It takes advantage of the imagination and suspension of disbelief inherent in science fiction, and runs wild with outlandish concepts and absurd plots. I sometimes think fiction could use more absurd stories, suspension of disbelief being what it is, so Hitchhiker is sort of a breath of fresh air in that respect.

One of the main themes of the books–Hitchhiker is the first book in the a series–is insignificance. It comes back to that a lot, in both explicit and implicit ways. “Everything is meaningless,” it seems to say at points. “The Universe is so infinitely huge that nothing matters, because what can one insignificant being with a  lifespan of maybe ninety years do in a universe so big?” It’s a solidly atheistic viewpoint–although I wouldn’t say it’s more atheistic than most sci-fi, like say Star Trek or Starship Troopers. It’s just more honest about it.

That being said, Hitchhiker isn’t a philosophical work of fiction in the same way Starship Troopers is. It’s a story first and foremost, punctuated by interludes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself. These interludes always tie into the story, and describe the larger galaxy in an oft-familiar way. Douglas Adams’s galaxy is a lot like Earth in a lot of ways, albeit with much greater scale. And the titular Guide takes hardly any of it seriously–it often doesn’t even take itself seriously, thanks to a collection of frustrated, underpaid, and self-serving editors. So we’re left with a book–a fictional book and an actual book–that’s absurd and irreverent and hilarious. It’s not to everyone’s taste, certainly. It’s a wild ride, even when you know what’s coming. But, well–it’s fun. It’s got elements of depth and shallowness at the same time. It’s an almost dizzying spectacle, but it’s fun, and since that’s its primary aim, it’s enjoyable. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, because it’s definitely not to everyone’s taste. But if you like some of the weirder aspects of sci-fi, well, it just might be worth checking out.

Book Review: On Basilisk Station

Summary: Having made him look a fool, she’s been exiled to Basilisk Station in disgrace and set up for ruin by a superior who hates her. 

Her demoralized crew blames her for their ship’s humiliating posting to an out-of-the-way picket station. 

The aborigines of the system’s only habitable planet are smoking homicide-inducing hallucinogens. 

Parliament isn’t sure it wants to keep the place; the major local industry is smuggling; the merchant cartels want her head; the star-conquering, so-called “Republic” of Haven is Up To Something; and Honor Harrington has a single, over-age light cruiser with an armament that doesn’t work to police the entire star system. 

But the people out to get her have made one mistake. They’ve made her mad. 


My SF reading streak continues with On Basilisk Station, the first book in the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. This book had some similarities to the last book on my reading list (Starship: Mutiny, which I reviewed here.) It’s a military SF, set in the Navy, and it starts with the protagonist with stationed on the fringes of the galaxy, in what’s clearly a attempt at banishment. The difference is that Starship: Mutiny builds up the main character’s disillusionment with the Navy and culminates in his desertion. On Basilisk Station builds up the main character’s determination and stubbornness in the face of adversity, and culminates with her triumph and promotion. It’s easy to see that these two series are heading in very different directions.

I probably enjoyed reading this book a little more than I did Starship: Mutiny. To begin with, this book’s protagonist is a woman who’s coded as being mixed race, and if you’ve spent any amount of time on my blog you know that that’s my jam. And more than that, Honor Harrington is just a great main character: she’s fearless, smart, ingenuitive, and stubborn. Once she realizes what needs to be done in a certain situation, she’ll go to any lengths to do it, and that’s both her biggest strength and weakness. She never lacks the determination to get the job done, but sometimes that determination tips over into stubbornness: she will do whatever it takes to complete her mission, no matter the cost or strain.

I mentioned in my previous review that the main character of Starship: Mutiny reminded me a little of Horatio Hornblower. I’m getting that feeling again here, the protagonists of these last two books are so similar, personality-wise. However, I think that the Honor Harrington series is more likely to follow the Hornblower series in terms of overall plot and structure. The Starship series probably isn’t, since the first book ends with the main character becoming a pirate.

Overall, I really enjoyed On Basilisk Station and I would recommend it, but it had some quirks that might keep it from being unilaterally enjoyable. For one thing, there’s a fair amount of politics interwoven with the plot here. I didn’t mind that, because I actually love sci-fi politics. (I blame the Star Wars prequels for that.) But it could be considered distracting from the main story. There’s also a few places where the author breaks off in the middle of, say, a spaceship chase scene to talk about how faster-than-light travel works in this universe. There’s context for those types of tangents, and they only happen a couple of times, and only go on for a couple of pages, so I was okay with it. But it is a little jarring and, again, could very easily be considered distracting.

I also feel the need to give a couple of content warnings. There are instances of strong language throughout the story, and a few fairly detailed descriptions of battlefield gore in the last third of the book. There’s also mention of and rumination upon an (unsuccessful) attempted rape in a character’s backstory. (That’s actually one of my only major pet peeves with this book. I wish the author had found some other way to set up conflict between a male character and a female character, because the whole “attempted rape” backstory felt kinda forced and really unnecessary.)

On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more of the series. If you like science fiction that has action, politics, economical intrigue, and well-thought-out scientific explanations for faster-than-light travel, then this just might be the book for you.

Book Review: Starship: Mutiny

Summary: The starship Theodore Roosevelt is fighting on the far outskirts of a galactic war, its crew made up of retreads and raw recruits. A new first officer reports, Wilson Cole, a man with a reputation for exceeding his orders (but getting results). He’s been banished to the Teddy R. for his actions, but once there he again ignores his orders. …

This is the first of five novels about the starship Theodore Roosevelt. The next four will be, in order, Pirate, Mercenary, Rebel, and Flagship.


So, this is the first book in a series, and as far as I can tell, it’s more of an origin story than anything else. Exterior conflict, generated by the enemy Federation, is present, but it’s minimal and not the focus of the story. Most of the book’s movement is focused on developing and showing Wilson Cole’s disillusionment with the Navy he serves.

That’s not to say it’s a boring book. There isn’t one big overarching conflict with the enemy, but there are enough battles and skirmishes to keep things interesting and advance the plot. (Come to think of it, that’s probably a more realistic structure for a novel set during a war, anyway.) There’s some good worldbuilding, though as far as I can tell it’s pretty standard for a science fiction novel. But what really drives this book are the characters.

This book tells the story of Commander Wilson Cole, and his disillusionment with, and eventual desertion of, the Republic Navy. In a similar vein to Horatio Hornblower, Cole is an extremely smart, intuitive man whose commitment to the Navy is outweighed only by his pragmatism in battle. I liked Cole well enough as a character; he’s sympathetic enough to root for and it’s fun to watch him in action. I do have a bit of a problem with how he’s written, though. Nearly all of Cole’s deductions are correct, and even when they aren’t Cole is always able to turn the situation in his favor somehow. And he doesn’t really have any personality flaws—just good traits that sometimes get him into bad situations. So I think he could have been somewhat better written.

However, on the upside, the author declined to give an in-depth description of Cole’s physical appearance, which means that I was able to imagine him as being played by Idris Elba with no authorial interference whatsoever. That was great.

The secondary characters—other crew members on Cole’s ship—were, on the whole, also enjoyable to read about. My personal favorites where Commander Podok and Christine Mboya. Christine Mboya is the best, and also wasn’t described; in the movie adaptation I’ve already constructed in my head, she would be played by Nicole Beharie. I also loved Podok’s character despite her being an antagonist; I do feel that her actions towards the end of the book were out of character and, without giving out spoilers here, let me just say that I don’t think she would have done what she did. But, well, mischaracterization happens. I’m not super bitter about it. I just think Podok was out of character and I hope she’s better written if she shows up in the sequels.

There are sequels. Four of them, to be exact. Remember how I said this is basically an origin story? Well, to be more specific, it’s a space pirate origin story. That’s my jam, and you can bet that I am going to be reading this entire series and reviewing. Whether it gets better, gets worse, or stays at the same quality level, I’m in.

As for Starship: Mutiny itself, it’s a good book. It’s not the most original thing I’ve ever read, but it’s a solid story with likable characters and a nice backdrop. There’s a solid feel to the story, and I really am looking forward to reading the sequels. I’d say that if you like old-style or classic science fiction, or the military SF sub-genre, then you’ll probably enjoy this book.

My Family Wouldn’t Have Existed In Any Other Century

I am biracial. I have never made any bones about this fact, because I’m proud of it. My father is a Puerto-Rican Latino and my mother is white, of Dutch and Czech descent. I’m biracial, and I’m happy about it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I also have an interest in history. This may be because my mother taught me to read pretty early on and homeschooled me from there. I grew up reading a lot, and a lot of the reading material provided to me was history or historical fiction. Not all of it was age-appropriate. But most of it appealed to me enough to foster an interest in stories of the historical persuasion.

I remember the first time I realized just how ahistorical my family is.

I was watching North and South with my mother and sister. For anyone who hasn’t read or seen North and South, it’s a romance set during the Industrial Revolution in England. There’s a plot point toward the middle of the story involving the main character’s brother, who fled to Spain to escape an unjust mutiny charge. The brother ends up marrying a Spanish woman.
           
So I’m watching this movie-mini-series with my mother and sister, right? And when this part comes up, my mom remarks, sort of off-handedly, “That’s the only way people from different countries really met back then. That’s how me and your dad would have met.”
           
I had never considered this before. For the first time I was confronted by the fact that in another century, my parents would likely never have met. I would not have been born to my parents in any other century, barring a few unlikely turns of events.

This was the first time I thought about this, but it would not be the last. My father has an interest in the origin of names. It turns out “Gonzalez” roughly translated means “son of a battle elf”, which is massively cool. It also turns out that it is completely legal to buy and ship an old-style forged sword. And it turns out that the family name and family legacy (and the cool sword that my family now owns) historically are passed down to the oldest son (my younger brother), not the oldest child (me).
           
It’s very cool and fun, if a tad bit frustrating, to have this family name and family sword and family legacy that gets passed down. But then again, historically, would my parents have had the opportunity to meet in Middle Ages Europe, where all this comes from? Would my siblings and I have existed in that time?
           
Fast forward. I’m out at a restaurant with my family, and we’re discussing media representation. My sister is saying that things are better than they ever were, that there are more women and people of color producing things now than there ever have been. I reply that yeah, things are better, but white people and white men especially still dominate the industry.
           
“Wow, I’m so glad you were born now and not in the 1920’s,” my mom says.
           
“Would I have been born in the 20’s? Would you guys have even met?” I gesture to my parents.
           
That’s the final word of that conversation.
           
This isn’t something that bothers me all the time. I read about history quite often and it’s fun and informative and I like doing it. I like reading about the early history of America, or the life and times of Shakespeare, or the many dynasties of ancient China. But whenever I begin to insert myself into those stories—whenever I think, Wow, what must have it been like to live then?—the knowledge is always present: I couldn’t have been there.
           
It’s fun to think about being alive during the American Revolution, but it’s not fun to know that I and my siblings would not have been safe or accepted then, assuming we were born at all. Incidentally, this has also affected my love of the time travel sub-genre. Yeah, I would love to travel back to 1885, except no I wouldn’t, because no matter how white-passing I am I know I would never feel safe. I would constantly be looking back over my shoulder because heck, do you know how long interracial marriages were illegal in the United States?

I love history. I know how important it is to study history, and more often than not I love doing it, because history contains a wealth of instructive, inspiring, hilarious, exciting and downright bizarre stories. But I don’t idealize or romanticize history. A great deal of history is sad and cruel and ugly. A lot of American history is off-putting and unwelcoming for women and people of color. I know you sometimes have to take the bad with the good, and I still see myself as an American despite all of this. But I refuse to look at history with rose-colored glasses. I don’t want to “take America back” or “make America great again” or any other variation of that sentiment, because nearly every other period of American history would have been unsafe, if not downright hostile, for my family. America has always been flawed. I want to keep moving forward, because an interracial family like mine couldn’t really have existed in any other century. I don’t want to go back to that! I want to learn as much as I can from history and, God willing, create a better world for my children and nieces and nephews.

Our Friendly Neighborhood Wildfire Experience

So, we had a wildfire today! We didn’t get a lot of snow last winter, and we haven’t had a lot of rain recently, and in Alaska that’s all prime conditions for a wildfire. And sure enough, one broke out just outside of my neighborhood today. Fortunately, there was a river between us and the flames, so no homes were endangered, and no one had to evacuate. But man, if it wasn’t the most exciting thing that happened in our neighborhood in a long time.

So here’s what we know:

  • I’m not sure when the fire started, but I do know that smoke became visible on our street around 5:00-5:20 p.m. 
  • The smoke got more profuse and more worrying. Cars started slowing down to look. My siblings and I were walking home from a friend’s house; we hurried home at this point and alerted our parents. 
  • We originally assumed it was a controlled fire to burn out dry brush, as we hadn’t been alerted or heard any fire warnings. 
  • A friend called 911. Turns out that close-looking fire wasn’t controlled, and firefighters were working hard just to contain it. 
  • We started packing in case of evacuation. 
  • My dad and I went out to check on people we know who lived a little closer to the fire’s location. As we went we gathered information about the situation from neighbors and friends.
  • We learned that the fire was started by some campers. Also, there’s a river between us and where it was, so there wasn’t any immediate danger. 
  • The wind continued blowing the fire away from our neighborhood, so no evacuation/emergency measures were necessary. 
  • Smoke and flames continued to be visible from our neighborhood, but again, the fire never got within a dangerous distance of us. 
  • The fire has now, as I write this, been contained and the emergency/excitement is over. 
Like I said, this is the most exciting thing that’s happened in this neighborhood in a while. It’s definitely given everyone a lot to think about. And it’s possible that, if we don’t get rain, this will happen again in June, July, or August. So the upside of all this is that we’ve had a test run and now have an idea of what to do if we do ever have to evacuate. 
My dad and I took videos and pictures as everything was going down, and I’m going to be compiling those into a sort of mini-documentary, which will be up on YouTube shortly. This really has been a unique experience. I thank God we weren’t hurt and our friends and neighbors are safe. And now, in case a real wildfire emergency happens, we know what to do.