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Books I Liked In 2016 Part Two

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Here’s part two of my 2016 “Books I Liked List”. This is the list of books I really, really liked, for the list of books I just liked one “really” worth, head here. All the book titles like to the Kindle edition of the book, so enjoy.

All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I really did like this book quite a bit, though not as much as other people: you’ll find several online lists that have it as the best or one of the two or three best books of the year. (It was also one of three books on both these lists to be nominated for a Nebula Award for best Novel.) (Though now that I think about it, we’ve also got a Novella nominee in here.)

The book features two characters, he’s basically a mad scientist, she’s basically a magician. They meet in middle school, bonding over separate childhoods that are Roald Dahl levels of bad, and come back into each other’s lives as adults trying to prevent the end of the world. So, it’s throwing all kinds of different tropes together and seeing what works. Most of it works, the book is very clever. I think my quibbles were with the first part of the book — the childhoods are really grim. Overall, though, I really liked it.

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

I already wrote a review this one and I don’t know that I can improve on it:

Every year, it seems, there’s one book I read that stands out for the sheer audacity and weirdness of its premise. I usually call that my “if you only read one” book, as in “if you only read one book about anthropomorphic sentient elephants who can talk to the dead and are part of a space empire of other anthropomorphic species, make it Barsk.”

You probably are either all-in or totally out based on that description. (We do eventually learn how all the talking animals came to be, if that helps. Or hurts). The elephants, who have been exiled to a single planet, are the sole creators of the drug that lets some people speak to the dead. The rest of the alliance has basically had enough and are willing to go to great lengths to recover the drug. In addition to being totally bonkers, the book is really clever, the characters are memorable, and the ending lands. So pretty much everything I look for in a book.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

Wow, did I love this book, which is book two in a trilogy of what seem to be loosely connected novels in the same world. The series takes place in a fantasy world where the old gods have been killed, and the empire they supported overrun by the people it formerly ruled. In this book, a general of the new rulers heads to the former stronghold of the god of war, now a source for a very precious metal. The question becomes whether the old god of war is as dead as promised. Or if the god is poised to, you know, destroy the world.

The book winds up being a mystery, a thriller, a very cool fantasy setting, and eventually resolves to a philosophical debate about the nature of soldiers, as the general comes to terms with her past actions. This one is really special.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

This is a sequel to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a book I liked but found a little slight. In this one, Lovelace, the AI that escaped at the end of the first book goes off to live her life, by highly illegally being dowloaded into a physical body. She’s helped by Pepper, an engineer who is paying forward for the way in which an AI saved her life and helped her escape from a terrifying situation.

The book is surprisingly warm, it’s about being human, but not in the kind of flashy way that a lot of SF treats AI, but in a quieter way, with friendships and tea, and worries about the memory capacity of a physical brain. Pepper’s quest to recover the AI that saved her resolves in a tremendously satisfying and kind of sweet way. I read this book at a time when a book about people simply being kind to each other despite differences felt particularly important, and it was just a super helpful world to escape into.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is terrifyingly prolific. In the last eighteen months, unless I’m miscounting, she has published books in 7 different series (Toby Day, InCrypted, Velveteen, Feed, Parasitology, Indexed, Wayward Children), plus a standalone or two. This one could be the best. The only reason I’m okay with the fact that she and John Rogers aren’t collaborating on making this a TV series right this moment is that Rogers is busy working on the far-flung Patrick Rothfuss empire.

This book takes place at a… retreat for children that have gone off and have portal fantasy adventures (think Narnia), and have escaped, left, or otherwise been rejected by their fantasy world. Each child has gone to different world, and there is kind of a taxonomy of fantasy worlds that’s pretty great. The plot itself is a murder mystery, and it’s perfectly good, but the setting, the variety of the cast of characters, the sheer joy with which McGuire showers us with incidental details about fantasy worlds, those are the real star.

Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

Okay, look, I rave about this series pretty much at a drop of a hat. This is because the books are great and I enjoy them tremendously. They was also engineered in a lab to appeal to me. (Industrial or post-industrial tech with magic, theology with gods that interact with people, unusual magic system treated in-world like science, somewhat satirical tone… since you asked. You didn’t ask).

This book is a direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, and incidentally catches up on the characters from Last First Snow and Two Roads Cross. (I think there’s a slight reference to the characters in Full Fathom Five . In this world, magic, law, and finance are all intertwined, and the events at the end of Three Parts Dead have left the god Kos Everlasting in a vulnerable position. Concerns over whether Kos will actually meet his godly/legal obligations lead to the possibility of the what is in essence a credit run, “bankrupting” Kos, who is decidedly too big to fail — reference to Lehman Brothers and that ilk decidedly intentional. Tara, who we last saw saving Kos in Three Parts Dead has to do so again.

If the description above makes the book sound like vegetables, it’s not. It’s funny and clever, and the characters are interesting — Gladstone’s ability to throw in amazing details that are just background is nearly Pratchett-esq. I don’t want to spoil it, but at one point in the book Gladstone has this amazing offhand reference about zombies, which is something I’ve never seen but is cool and perfect for this world. About ten pages later, he follows that up with something equally neat about vampires.

I love these books. As part of the shift to Gladstone being published by Tor.com, all of them are available digitally for $2.99, and there’s a five book e-omnibus coming out soon. You should totally read this.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Okay, this is the umpteenth book in Bujold’s Vokosigan saga, the main span of which covers some 40 years in the lives of her main characters. As much as I love this book, it is decidedly not a great place to start the series, there’s just too much implied backstory. Start with The Warrior’s Apprentice or maybe Shards of Honor, or maybe Brothers In Arms.

This book takes place a short time after the death of Count Aral Vorkosigan, which was basically an epilogue in the most recent book in the series chronologically (which is not the most recent book published, but if I start explaining every little bit we will be here all day). Cordelia, the Countess Vorkosigan, is grieving, surviving, trying to wonder what to do with the rest of her life (she’s about 70 with a 120 year expected life span). It turns out, in a reveal that is part-retcon, part something that the author had discussed widely outside the books, that she and her husband had actually be part of a somewhat secret poly relationship with a shared partner, the title character, Admiral Oliver Jole. (It’s kind of fun to read various synopsis of the book try to delicately walk around the exact nature of the relationship).

And… Jole and Cordelia discover that they still have feelings for each other even without Aral. And that’s the story. I like this book, I love these characters and would happily read them just having pleasant chats about their lives. Which is good because that’s basically what we get here. There’s very little external plot, but its all charming and witty and charismatic as all hell.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

It’s World War One, and it turns out the the turn of the century spiritualists were right. Even more so, the British Army has been able to militarize spiritualism by binding soldiers to have their ghosts report back to trained mediums after death. This proves to be an important source of military intelligence, and therefore becomes a target of the German army.

We seem to be setting up our main characters as a young couple. Ginger, a medium in the spirit corps, and Benjamin, an officer with British intelligence. Very quickly however (maybe this is a spoiler, it happens really early), Benjamin is mysteriously killed. His ghost has no information, but it’s all very suspicious, and Ginger ends up trying to fulfill his mission, solve his murder, and protect the Spirit Corps.

Kowal is very good at this, she’s a very precise sentence-by-sentence writer and plotter, and she’s also very good at writing couples who actually seem to love and respect each other. In this particular case, this skill makes Benjamin and Ginger’s interactions somewhat bittersweet, what with him being dead and a ghost and all. It’s all very well done and satisfying

Necessity by Jo Walton

This series was last years winner of the “If you only read one” award, and honestly if it wasn’t for Barsk it’d still be a strong contender, what with the Greek Gods, alien planets, time travel, AI robots, all bouncing around the same story. At the end of Book Two, Zeus had moved Athene and Apollo’s experiment in good civic management to another planet. As the book opens, they are about to receive their first visiting spaceship from Earth (they’ve already made contact with a couple of alien races), which might lead to some awkward conversation about how the ancient Greeks wound up on another planet.

So this is not a little bit bonkers, in the best way, and Walton’s characters continue to argue about philosophical points of justice and goodness. Once again, we get to see Sokrates debate with robots. It’s pretty great, and a satisfying end to the series. I have no idea what muse made Walton want to write about this combination of things, but I’m glad it did.

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

The middle book of the trilogy that started with The Fifth Season, and which feels like it’s not just good, but historically good. As in, potential to be a cornerstone work that gets read and referenced for decades. The series concerns a planet where extinction-level geological events happen regularly, and people need to survive anyway. Essun, our main character, is an orogene, meaning she has the ability to both cause and prevent earthquakes. In The Fifth Season, we learn how orogenes are both vital and despised. The book is about oppression and fear, and, I guess, survival in the face of both of them.

Without giving too much away, The Obelisk Gate trades the three separate plot threads over time for a somewhat more conventional three character threads at mostly the same time. It’s still beautifully written, and contains the quote “No voting on who gets to be people”, which I cite in my head at least once a week these days. It’s a little middle bookish, and I’m not completely sure I understand how all the supernatural forces are coming together here. It’s still fantastic, and I can’t wait for the final book.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Some of the books on this list I think have very wide appeal. I think nearly everybody reading this will like Every Heart a Doorway or A Close and Common Orbit. Others, while I enjoy them very much, I suspect are probably a bit more narrow.

Which brings us to Too Like The Lightning, which is a dense SF novel that does not wait around for the reader to catch up with what’s going on. Its a deliberate attempt to have a world 400 years in the future that is as disconcerting and strange to us as we would be to somebody from the 1600s. (Most SF futures cheat for good reasons, and persist ideas that the reader is likely to be comfortable with to keep the story moving along).

A summary of the word building and plot defies my ability to summarize, and possibly my memory, no idea what I’m going to do when the second book comes out. Our main character, we come to learn, is a notorious criminal, sentenced to wander the world serving others more or less anonymously. We eventually come to understand that he’s become part of one or more plots to control what passes for the world government, while also hiding a boy whose seemingly supernatural abilities might make the whole society moot anyway.

I’m not even scratching the surface. We have transcontinental driverless cars. A culture that responds to every death by trying to eradicate the cause. Some elaborate and baroque governmental structures. A different view of gender. A strain of classical thought winding through all of it. It’s also structurally inventive going back and forth through characters viewpoints and different kinds of storytelling — this was definitely a book where I regretted the limitations of Kindle formatting.

There’s a lot of book here. I found it fascinating and unique and it compelled me to try and figure out what the hell was up. You should try it if this was at all compelling.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

To stroll past the elephant in the room. Underground Airlines came out at almost the same time as The Underground Railroad, and they are both genre books about slavery. Ben Winters, who wrote Underground Airlines, is white, Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, is black. This got more awkward when an article about Winters made it sound like Winters was the first person to ever use SF to write about slavery, a ridiculous statement that Winters couldn’t back away from fast enough. Anyway, I feel a little bad about liking this book more than Whitehead’s, but this book is much more of a plot-based thriller, and I tend to like those. You should still read them both.

Underground Airlines is an alternate history, still taking place in 2016. We eventually learn that Lincoln was killed en route to Washington in 1861, and a pre-existing compromise proposal was hastily passed to avoid chaos. As a result, no Civil War, but slavery was protected from the federal government in those states that already have it. By 2016, four of those states persist in being slave states, though the preferred term is PBL — persons bound by law.

Our main character, Victor, is an escaped slave who is being blackmailed by the US Marshall service to help them to recover other escaped slaves. He’s, as you might imagine, somewhat conflicted by the work. On the trail of one of his quarries, he discovers a larger conspiracy that will affect the future of the US and of slavery. (A very disturbing larger conspiracy, as it turns out…)

What Winters does really well in this book is imagine how horrifying slavery would be when joined to the modern day surveillance state. When we finally do get a glimpse of what slave life is like, it’s chilling. He also touches on what the US might be like if it had to adapt to actual slave states alongside modern liberal democracy. Like Whitehead, he does not skimp on the idea that slavery requires a lot of violence to sustain it. In general, none of the other 46 states purchase goods from the four slave states, for example. And then there will be a throwaway reference to whether PBLs can play pro football. It all manages to echo both Civil War-era slavery and modern-day police and racial tension in way that’s very effective.

Books I Liked in 2016, Part 1.

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Books 2016: Part One

This is part one of my “books that made me happy in 2016”. As usual, we’re doing this in two parts. This one is the books I liked, the next post is the books I really liked.

I had a hard time separating the list this year, there were a lot of likable books, so there are kind of a lot here. In alphabetical order by title.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker

I went back and forth about whether to include this in the list, it’s a little “one of these things is not like the others”, but ultimately I decided I did really like it and who cares. Anyway, this is a straight out romance novel, a romantic comedy basically, featuring a cranky London West End leading man and his much nicer co-star. They are asked to pretend to be dating to prevent tabloid gossip. And well, you know where it’s going from there. It’s not surprising, but it is charming and funny.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti won the Hugo and Nebula for best Novella. It’s an extremely well done story about a young girl, the first of the Himba people to study at the galaxy’s premiere university. On the trip there, she’s immediately placed in a unique and horrific situation, which she solves with the help of her wits and her indistinguishable-from-magic technology (not a dig, the far-futuristic tech of the story is a strength). It’s elevated because of Okorafor’s very well-observed description of Binti, and how she struggles with being of her home even when she is not at her home. It’s a wonderful story, and I’m sure we’ll be talking about the sequel here next year.

Borderline by Mishell Baker

Book one in a series called “The Arcadia Project”, Arcadia being the land of the Fae. This is a portal fantasy, where the magical creatures from the other side have soulmates on our side. When they meet, the human gains tremendous creativity, and the, for lack of a better word, fairy, also becomes more powerful and more individually willful.

Our main character, Millie, has Borderline Personality Disorder, and recently lost a leg in a suicide attempt. She’s recruited to the group that manages Arcadians on our world, and naturally immediately gets tangled in a complex and dangerous plot.

Baker does a really great job of explaining Millie’s actions; her BPD often causes her to make seemingly irrational decisions, and and Baker explains why that happens in a way that keeps Millie sympathetic. The magic and portal setup is interesting, and even the soulmate part leads to some interesting character work.

Brute Force by K. B. Spangler

Book four in the Rachel Peng series, mentioned here multiple times in the past. The series concerns a group of people who have been implanted with chips allowing them tremendous mental control over electricity and electronics. This one is a kidnapping case, prominently featuring some extreme anti-government militia groups. It doesn’t have all the intrigue of the others, but it is still a tense, well-told story.

The Dark Forest/Death’s End by Cixin Liu

The final two books of the trilogy originally written in Chinese that started with The Three Body Problem, also recently recommended by no less a personage that Barack Obama. The first book ended with the knowledge that Earth was 400 years away from being invaded by an advanced alien fleet, and that those aliens had been using faster-than-light particles to sabotage advanced physics research. The Dark Forest is largely about solving that problem, focusing on a small group of people called “Wallfacers” who are tasked with creating defenses against the fleet. Death’s End is sort of hard to characterize, but it’s basically what happens next until the heat death of the universe.

In many ways, these books are like the greatest Golden Age SF novels ever written. The physics speculation, and the ideas about how truly advanced star-faring cultures would defend themselves are mind-bending. It also has characters. I think. None of them spring to mind at the moment. Anyway, if you like really neat speculation on the makeup of the universe, and are inclined to cut a little slack on characterization, these books are well worth your time.

The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells

This is the first in a two-book series that Wells says will be her last novels about the Raksura, which the book blurb describes as “shape-shifting creatures of flight that live in large family groups”, and I’m not even going to try to improve on that. Except maybe to mention the claws.

I love this world. It’s huge and ancient and strange and filled will all kinds of amazing and unique creatures, starting with the Raksura themselves. On top of that, the characters that we’ve been following for four books and a bunch of short stories are great. This book is only half the story, it ends in mid-stream.

A Gathering Of Shadows by V. E. Schwab

Book two in Schwab’s “Shades of Magic” series, which is kind of the fantasy equivalent of Stross’ Merchant Prince series, in that it involves people who can walk between several different earths. This book spends a lot of time in “Red London” the Earth that has the healthiest relationship with magic, and at least for most of the time is about a competition to determine the best magical practitioner in the world. Red London is, I think, the best creation of the series, so I’m glad the book mostly takes place there. I don’t enjoy the actual plot of the series quite as much, but I’m still looking forward to book three and whatever Schwab decides to do next.

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

I like superheroes in novels, which is probably a weird thing to like. Anyway, this is a very light, very fun superhero story. This is a world with very few superheroes, and what is generally a specific job they do—fighting against magical demon breaches, rather than punching out random muggers. Our main character, Evie Tanaka, is the personal assistant and childhood friend of San Francisco’s main superhero. Except of course, she has powers that she can’t quite control. And there are plots and betrayal afoot. And a kind of charming romantic plot. This pretty much defines “It’s light but cute. But light. But cute.”

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Okay, there’s a magical library that stands between all the alternate universes and collects variant books and fiction from them. Our heroine is one of the librarians, and she has an assistant who turns out to be — well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s got some fantasy resonance. We head to a kind of a steampunk alternate world with magic, and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and honestly this book seems like it was designed in a lab to appeal to a particular personality type. Since I significantly overlap with that type, I certainly get the appeal.

Lois Lane: Double Down by Gwenda Bond

This series remains a lot of fun. It’s a little bit too bad that the off-stage “Smallville Guy” that Lois continues to correspond with is way more interesting than Lois’ actual on-stage friends. But Bond has a great grasp on Lois as a character, and the bit at the end where Smallville Guy pledges to be the kind of hero Lois deserves feels like the best kind of Lois/Clark dynamic (If I’m remembering correctly, this book also hints that Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor exist in it’s world…) I read a few media tie-in books that I liked this year. This one was the best.

The Liberation by Ian Tregellis

This is book three of the Alchemy Wars trilogy, which we discussed last year. It’s an alternate-history fantasy where the Dutch took over the world with the help of alchemically powered and controlled robots, called Clakkers. At the end of book 2, many Clakkers were freed from their compulsions to serve, which much chaos promised.

The Liberation delivers the chaos. And a pretty satisfying conclusion to the trilogy (though I do wonder what happens to the rest of the world that isn’t Amsterdam). I’ve really enjoyed Tregellis’ last couple of books after being kind of lukewarm on an earlier series. His books have been all over and I’m looking forward to where he goes next.

Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald

This one gets glibly described as “Game of Thrones in Space”. Which is a) glib, and b) a perfectly awesome thing to be, and hey, if somebody was going to write Game of Thrones in space (and somebody was, of course, going to), Ian McDonald is a good choice.

The book is actually more a modern Moon Is A Harsh Mistress with more modern takes on both technology and libertarianism. The moon cultures are interesting and based on a variety of underlying earth cultures, the politics are generally clear enough to follow (though there are a lot of names). Like a lot of intrigue and conflict stories, you don’t really root for any of the characters, but there are definitely some you’ll root against. I’m waiting for the second (and final) book here and hoping that it sticks the landing.

The Nightmare Stacks by Charlie Stross

It’s book seven of “The Laundry Files” series, which is a series where computation is demonic magic, or possibly vice versa. And at long last, this book moves from being a secret history to being an alternate history, as the Lovecraftian horrors that our heroes have been fighting have done something that is too public to cover up. (It’s not Stross’ fault that what probably seemed like a dystopia nightmare when he plotted it is now starting to seem kind of like escapism…) Anyway, Stross has been working on expanding this world for some time, and it all pays off here, as things go gloriously wrong and set up the long-awaited endgame for the series. CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which has been teased since the beginning of the series as the end of the world, finally comes out to play.

Penric’s Demon, Penric and the Shaman, and Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

These three novellas all take place in Bujold’s Chalion universe, one of my favorite fantasy settings. The Chalion novels have a unique and interesting set of gods and demons. These stories start with Penric somewhat accidentally becoming possessed with a demon, which is somewhat more benign in Chalion than you are probably expecting. The demon has been moving from person to person for lifetimes, and has a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience, and a personality that is somewhat strong willed. These stories are charming and have likable characters solving interesting problems.

Stiletto by Daniel O'Malley

Sequel to The Rook, a book I really, loved. This is kind of a sideways sequel, in that it spins out of the direct end of The Rook, but follows a largely different class of characters. The Rook was a) a debut novel, b) with a very unique tone that c) threatened to, but never quite went off the rails. As a result, I was a little nervous about this book, especially since it has taken some time to come out.

I shouldn’t have worried, this one keeps both the silliness and the seriousness of the original. It might not be quite as pitch-perfect, or quite as focused, but it’s still pretty great, and I still like its unique magic and science mix.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Oprah Book Club book and National Book Award winner, so obviously a lot of people liked it even more than I did. As you’ve probably heard, the main conceit of this book is that the Underground Railroad is a real thing, with tracks and engines and stations and everything, and the story is about Cora, who runs out of slavery, and uses the Railroad to travel the country.

The writing is never less than brilliant, and Whitehead does a very powerful job of underscoring that slavery necessitates a huge amount of violence and compliance across an entire society to be viable. The book’s descriptions are often matter-of-fact descriptions of horrific things, where the style underscores how awful the society is.

There’s another bit of genre in the book, in that all of Cora’s various stops are not just fictional, but ahistorical — built from real events, but not from that time or place. For example, there was medical experimentation, but not in South Carolina when Cora goes through it. In other words, the various environments Cora goes through are extremely stylized representations of history. I’m not criticizing — they are interesting, but it does give the book a weird feel of being on the edge of being magic realism without ever quite being magic realism.

It’s a really interesting book, with at least one outstanding moment toward the end.

Not that Anybody Asked Me Again: Anker SoundBuds

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So here’s my thing about headphones. I lose them or damage them quite a bit, your classic run them through the washing machine or such, and I don’t have very well trained ears. So I tend to buy cheap ones with the understanding that I’ll replace them pretty often. For the last few years, my go-to has been whatever The Wirecutter says is the best cheap in-ear bud.

That said, I do like the convenience of bluetooth wireless, especially when I’m commuting and the cable would have to run around bags, jackets and the like. So when The Wirecutter said that these Anker SoundBuds earbuds were the least-bad of the cheap wireless options and they were on a one day sale for $22, I took the deal.

Here’s a more detailed review than they probably deserve:

Pros: price, battery life, comfort (for me)

Cons: sound quality (sometimes), connection consistency.

Interesting: The on-off mechanism.

Physically, these buds are a little unusual, the earbud part is attached to what is a slightly smaller than half-inch plastic cube. My package came with six, yes six, different earbud tips, four sizes of a closed-ear model, and two sizes that block less of the ear, supposedly the closed-ear sound better. Not only that, but they come with three sizes of a rubber square that goes around the cube with a hook designed to keep the bud in the ear better.

The Wirecutter review says that many of their reviewers complained about the fit. I must have weird ears, because I find them a lot more comfortable and stable than most other earbuds that I’ve used, wired or wireless. I think the smallest size of the tip is smaller than other models, and it fits my ear nicely. I found the rubber casing really hard to assemble, but as it happens, I also found the headphones much more comfortable without them. In my experience of about two weeks with them, they are pretty stable in my ears. The control is easy to use.

I find the sound and connection to be a little flakey, but basically consistent with being inexpensive bluetooth earbuds.

The sound is perfectly fine for podcasts, and I find it generally okay for music, though I suspect that somebody with actually trained ears would find it wanting. FWIW, the Wirecutter review describes the sound as “not too bad”, “cheap”, and “inoffensive”. So, you know, high praise indeed. One weird problem I had was that with a very small number of my music files, the sound gets clipped and static-y as though the levels are too high. Not sure why, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to where it happens, and no other sound device I use has this problem.

As for connection and range, I can easily get about 15 to 20 feet. They are spec’ed to 33, I think, but I don’t think I’ve gotten that in the wild. The connection is often solid, but a little inconsistent. I’ve had a few times where it seems connected but doesn’t play audio and I’ve had to unpair and re-pair it, which at least it does quickly. I’ve also had modes where the connection gets quiet every few seconds, or gets really choppy, but usually re-connecting fixes it. Overall the connection is noticeably less consistent than the $55 bluetooth earbuds these are replacing, but not so bad that the usability is really affected.

Anker claims eight hour play time on the battery. I haven’t run the battery totally down, but that seems consistent with my experience, which is that about three hours of use drops the battery to about 60%. The battery life is way better than the $55 ones, which is nice.

The SoundBuds’ most unique feature is the magnet. A problem with many bluetooth headphones is that the UI to turn them on and off is a pain, typically it’s a long press of the play button or something, and it’s often just irritating. The SoundBuds are magnetic, the two cubes for each ear stick to each other back to back. When they are separated, they automatically turn on (and attempt to pair with the most recent device they connected to), and when they are re-attached, they turn themselves off. If they separate and don’t connect for two minutes, they power down.

It’s a very elegant mechanism that works great in many situations. Putting them on, for example. They usually have turned themselves on and connected in the time between when I separate the ears and when I have them in my ear. That’s convenient. Normal shut off is also quick and easy. (The play-pause and volume controls are large and easy to hit, which helps.)

Storage is a little tricky, I often accidentally detach the magnets putting the SoundBuds away in my bag. It’s also hard to charge them without detaching the magnets. They don’t seem to have anything like an airplane mode, so you always turn them on when detaching, and it sometimes seems like they get confused if you turn them on and off too quickly. Overall, though, I think the magnet thing is good for me, if you are frequently going to have them in a place where they will get jostled, though, it might be a problem.

Overall, a nice investment for $22, current price is $34 as I write this, which still isn’t bad. If you are a stickler for sound quality, these will probably be unsatisfying, but as a listen to podcasts on the train device, they are inexpensive and work pretty well.

Not That Anybody Asked: The New MacBook Pro

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Some thoughts about my new laptop about two weeks in, which I gather I’m supposed to hate, but which so far I persist in kind of liking. I think it’s a little bit about expectations and what’s being replaced.

So I got the higher-end 13 inch MacBook Pro, with the touch strip, with a bigger SSD, but without the chip upgrades. It’s replacing a 2012 15 inch MBP that was definitely showing its age, with a screen that ghosts and dwindling battery life.

First Impressions

It’s small. For some reason I was expecting it to be even smaller, but it’s small. As advertised, it’s smaller than the 13 inch air, in terms of looks, that’s mostly via having a smaller bezel. Overall, it feels solid and well put together. The hinge feels nicer than the old one, but my old one was a little beaten up. When I pick it up, the thermal vents on the bottom seem a little sharp. (Aside: as a kid of the 80s, the idea that a whole computer can come in a box smaller than a decent sheet cake is still kind of mind blowing.)

It’s about a pound and a half lighter than the old computer, plus I’m at least temporarily not carrying a charger in my bag all the time (even if I was, the charger is smaller than the old charger). I do feel the difference in my regular commuter bag.

I like the space grey color, but it’s not like it’s super adding to my experience or anything.

The display is really nice, and I’m not just saying that because my old one had a bad ghosting problem and this one doesn’t. The smaller size is going to change the way I work, a bit, but the display seems sharper, and the colors do kind of seem to pop a little more — that could easily be subjective bias.

The keyboard and trackpad

All the reviews told me that I was going to have a big adjustment to the keyboard. I’m finding it a small adjustment and I think I kind of like it? I’m not a big fan of high-travel clicky keyboards — I tend to like low-travel ones (I’m perfectly happy typing on an iPad, for crying out loud), the travel on this keyboard seems fine to me (definitely better than the 12 inch MacBook), and I like that it’s relatively clear about when a key has been hit. The key placement seems to have shifted slightly (especially the arrow keys), so I’m missing keys a tiny little bit, and I think I’m just going to need to get used to the smaller wrist area. Two weeks in, I feel like my typing is maybe a little less accurate, but I’m not sure if that’s actually objectively true, or why that might be, I think possibly I picked up some keyboard-specific habits that are not going away. Something about the hand placement seems less comfortable (maybe trying to keep my palms off the trackpad?), but I’m hoping that I’ll get used to it.

The keyboard is a little bit louder, and has kind of a distinctive sound. I don’t mind it, but it’s clearly noticeable. You aren’t going to be able to get away with quietly typing in a meeting without anybody being able to tell, if that’s the kind of thing you sometimes do. Some of the keys have an intermittent click that is not the normal key sound, which is a little grating when it starts to happen.

It did take me some time to get used to the force-touch trackpad. I like that it’s a really big target. I was having some trouble getting used to dragging objects, I think because I was putting in too much force and it was interpreting it as a force touch. So far, I have yet to use force touch on purpose.

The touch bar

So, a) I really like the touch bar, and I think it will be very useful once apps catch up to it, and b) I’m kind of on the fence as to whether I really want a touch screen.

First, the touch bar. Having Touch ID for login is very nice, works exactly as you’d expect and is very fast. It is a little inconsistent in that some password challenges from the system allow you to use Touch ID to bypass, and some don’t. Having 1Password use it is very nice.

The touch bar itself. So, if this was just a way to put the four or five most common keyboard shortcuts I use in each app and put them on the display with useful labels, that’d be pretty good all by itself. I added “lock screen” to the default bar, and now I have a dedicated key for something that I do probably a dozen times a day, and was using multiple keystrokes to invoke via Alfred. Just being able to see the current status of the volume at a glance is pretty nice (I realize there were other ways to accomplish that part).

One funny thing is that it’s a color display (obviously) in an area that I don’t expect to have color, so the first time I saw color being used there, I did kind of a double take. One thing I haven’t seen in any reviews, is that all the system modal dialogs replicate their buttons in the touch bar. This has some chance to be faster than the trackpad.

That doesn’t even get into non-button usage, like using a slider for brightness or iPhoto editing or the like. Overall, it’s very promising. For the record, the soft-escape key doesn’t bother me a ton yet. (And while I kind of like the Emoji picker, there seems to be a bug that causes it to stop working after a while, pending a restart).

That said, even though I genuinely don’t think a touch screen works in this form factor, and I say this as somebody who uses an iPad to write all the time (I still think that touching a vertical screen is not ergonomically great). I have reached to try to touch the screen at least once when I’ve been dealing with the touch bar.

I have another half-written post about this that you’ll probably see at some point.

Speed and stuff

Battery: Current status, is that I’ve been typing on battery in Ulysses for about 30 minutes, and it’s telling me I’m still at 100% and that I have 8:13 remaining (I started with 10 hours remaining). The first time I was on battery for about an hour with a lot of background wifi activity and I lost 20% of the battery in an hour. Both of which are big advantages over where the 2012 laptop was (battery life was down to about two hours). Update: now I’m at 45 minutes, the battery is at 96% and it tells me I have 6:13 left.

Later: About one hour of watching a video on Flash dropped the battery from 100 to 75 (old computer dropped from 100 to 39), same for about 45 minutes on Skype. Different day, about three hours of normal, non-coding usage, followed by a half hour Google Hangout and the battery was at 50. So, I’m not getting anything like 10 hours, but it’s a vast improvement over what I had.

Speed: So, since I was coming from a 15-inch with four cores to a 13-inch with two, I was expecting the speed change to be minimal. So far, it’s better than that for single-core activities. Running Ruby tests, which is single core, but doesn’t use GPU advantages much, is running about 25% or so faster than before (5 minute test suite now taking 4, a different 8 minute suite, now taking 5:30 or so). I’m not sure I expect that to hold permanently (I still haven’t installed some things, the computer might slow down), but it’s better than I was expecting. Overall the machine feels snappier.

Ports: So far, the adapters are inconvenient, but haven’t stopped me from doing anything. I got an HDMI adapter for my home monitor, and a bunch of USB adapters for various other things. I do miss MagSafe, the ports are a little tight and take more force than I’d like to plug and unplug. It’s not ideal. It’s also weird that all the ports look the same, and have pulled out a hard drive thinking it was the power cord, and also plugged into a monitor overnight thinking it was the power cord. This is clearly going to be a non-trivial pain for a while until and unless all the peripherals get sorted out.

It also runs a lot cooler and runs the fans a lot less than my old 15 inch, meaning that I can actually use it on my lap without risking pain. Overall, this means it runs quieter even though the keyboard is louder.

So…

It’s more expensive than I would have liked, especially given how much extra I’ve put into cables. I suppose I’d be fine with more memory, though I don’t think I’d trade battery life for it.

Still, small and light, feels snappy, really nice screen, genuinely new and useful UI component on the keyboard. I had a little checklist of the things I was hoping to get out of the upgrade, and this hits almost all of them. So far, pretty happy with it.

The Boring Software Manifesto

Noel Rappin2 Comments

I noticed that I didn't have a copy of the Boring Software Manifesto on my own site, so here's the original version from 2007 (yikes!) and a video version from 2013.

Several years ago, I coined the phrase The Boring Software Development Process, in response to a former employer where project management really didn't think anything was happening unless we were trying to solve seven crises simultaneously.

The manifesto goes like this:

Boring software projects favor tacking exciting problems, and focusing our energy on the most interesting and valuable parts by avoiding wasting time on avoidable problems.

Boring software projects favor automated test suites over the excitement doing all your testing at the last minute and finding bugs after the project is "done".

Boring software projects favor frequently integrating work from the whole team as opposed to the excitement of finding out whether you changes work well with the rest of the team after you have been working on them for six weeks.

Boring software projects favor always having a working, if incomplete, system over crossing our fingers and guessing whether the newest build would compile.

Boring software projects favor incremental design rather than spending six months crafting a UML document that is thrown out after one week of development. (I'm not exaggerating on this one, I reviewed a project that happened on)

Boring software projects favor understanding that requirements change over being "surprised" when late change requests come.

Boring software projects favor putting working, if incomplete, systems in customer hands early to get feedback as early in the cycle as possible rather than finding misunderstandings after the project is done.

I love my Mobile Writing Setup

Noel RappinComment

I haven't written about my writing setup, tools, things like that in a while, and I've got some show and tell.

Here's my current mobile writing setup -- really, my preferred writing setup if I'm not coding or otherwise doing something that requires a full operating system.

That's an iPad Air 2, the Logitech Keys-To-Go keyboard, and a Kanex plastic stand that you can only kind of see.

Why do I like this setup:

It's really small and light. The keyboard is six ounces, and is smaller than the iPad,and about the thickness of a binder cover. The stand folds flat. All told, including the iPad and its cover, the whole thing is well under two pounds, and easily fits in the pocket of my ScottEVest Nerd Jacket With Big Pockets.

Battery life of the iPad is about 4 times the battery life of my laptop (admittedly, the laptop is old). Nothing in this setup is hot to the touch, decidedly unlike the laptop. The keyboard's battery life is quite long.

These accessories are not super-expensive. The Logitech keyboard is about $45 on Amazon. The Kanex stand is $13 for a pack of two, and honestly, if you have an iPad, you should get one, it's a very well-spent $13.

I like the ergonomics. The Logitech keyboard has surprisingly good key feel for all that it looks like a chicklet keyboard. (I think it feels better than, say, the Mac Book 12" keyboard). Because the two pieces aren't connected, I can use the iPad in portrait or landscape, and I can put the screen farther away from the keyboard so I can hold my neck straighter. (The only downside to the Logitech is that it is slippery on some surfaces, but putting it on top of the iPad case solves the problem.

The apps have caught up. My preferred app for most things is Ulysses. Ulysses is a great writing tool that is less minimal than iaWriter, but still not quite MS Word or Scrivener. The iPad and iPhone versions are almost completely feature compatible with the Mac version. (And in a couple of places, better, for example, it's easier to see a word count as you type on iOS). It syncs nearly seamlessly across devices. Also, it's become a lot more common for apps to support keyboard shortcuts on external keyboard. (Tweetbot added arrow keys to navigate and it made me very happy.)

Ulysses is a little weird for text that has a lot of markup in it (it tries to be smart about escaping things that you don't want escaped). When I do write with a lot of markup (for example, writing for Pragmatic), I use Editorial or iaWriter. Editorial is a really fully-featured text editor that I wish would get ported to Mac, because in some ways I like it more than Sublime or Atom.

It's not perfect. I still can't really code on it. I tried to use a combination of a Digital Ocean droplet and Coda, but it wound up being a lot of work keeping the droplet functional. Multitasking on the iPad has gotten a lot better (split screen is very nice), but there are still a few tasks coordinating things that are a little awkward. For example, I need to bring in a bunch of product URL's as I finish this post, and that's still kind of a pain relative to how it would go in the Mac.

Editing existing writing has gotten a lot better, but the precision of a mouse is still missed when I'm moving text around. The fact that it's three pieces is occasionally awkward. It doesn't work on my lap, then I have to use the software keyboard, which is actually not that bad.

It can get even smaller and lighter. The whole thing would work just fine with my iPhone in the stand (all the apps I use work in both), which would bring the total weight to about a pound. Eventually, I'll (fingers crossed), be able to swap the keyboard out for a WayTools TextBlade, which means I'd be able to carry keyboard, phone, and stand in normal pants pockets.

That's kind of a big deal, it gives me the same kind of portability for writing that the iPod gave for music or the Kindle does for reading. I definitely noticed that I was reading more once I started using eBooks, clearly because the fact that the Kindle (or Kindle app) was basically always on me allowed me to read in times and places without the logistics of having to carry around the book I'm reading.

This Week In Stuff I Really Want You To Look At: May 16, 2016

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The Week of Me

A couple of quick things.

  • The Web Payment book is out for 50% review, which means that the draft is about half complete, and about a dozen or so people, including the publisher, will be the first readers (well, I guess it got an editorial review at the ⅓ mark). This is a little terrifying.
  • I did a quick breakfast talk this week on trust and projects. It wasn't recorded, but pretty much everything I said is in my Trust-Driven Development book, which you should read. Yes, you. It's good.
  • One medium post this week, public speaking tips for technical talks.

Onto Some Things

Thing One: Sports Stories

Two really good sports-related stories in non-sports podcasts. I'd say from this week, but I'm a little behind on my podcasts, so really from a couple of weeks ago.

Radio Lab did a story on Surya Bonaly, to this day, the only figure skater to land a backflip one-footed in competition. Which is way illegal, which should not take away from the fact that it's a flat-out crazy thing to do. You can see the flip itself at about 3:40 of the video, also notable for how quickly the commentator (who is, I think, Scott Hamilton), goes to a cynical place.

The Memory Palace did a story on Charles "Victory" Faust, one of the early baseball's more unique characters. The story takes a very empathic and sweet look at hard and unusual life.

Thing Two: Samantha Bee

I've become a big fan of Samantha Bee's late night show. Here's a transcript of an interview she did for Recode. I think it's particularly interesting and relevant for tech the kinds of things she's doing to hire more women writers, including improved sourcing and trying out kinds of mentorship. (Trevor Noah said similar things in this interview with Linda Holmes of NPR.

Thing Three: Reading and Spilers

Speaking of Linda Holmes, her Monkee See pop culture blog included this cute post about reading and sharing famous spoilers with young children from NPR’s Barrie Hardymon

Thing Four: Open Source

As I’ve said for years, I think there’s a great nonfiction book/political science thesis in the history of open source. Nadia Eghbal has been writing really interesting stuff about the current state of open source for the past few months. (Spoiler alert, she thinks it’s in some trouble…). This week, she explained why she hates the term “open source” (basically, because it’s lost all meaning). Also check out this response about how Open Source has become and identity rather than a technical definition.

Thing Five: Between Incompetence and Malice

You may have seen a WWII era OSS manual about how to sabotage industry though, basically, deliberate management incompetence. Charlie Stross, one of my favorite SF writers, has updated it to modern day organizations, with suggestions that are frighteningly close to practices that you all might be familiar with.

RailsConf 2016 and other things to look at this week

Noel RappinComment

This week's things are a little late because of thing one.

Quick me update: I did post one item to Medium this week, about how I learned to love Rubocop. Read it, won't you?

Thing One: RailsConf

RailsConf was this week, and despite what I might have said last week, it really does feel different in 2016 than 2008.

I'll post some specific talk recommendations when the videos are posted. Well, there's one talk up already Justin Searls posted his own recording, and what was ostensibly a talk about Rails 5 and RSpec becomes something more interesting about maturity in tools and where we go from there.

This was a common theme in 2016, and one way in which RailsConf felt different than 2008. Consider, for example the somewhat snarky write up of the TIOBE programming language popularity index, where Ruby has come back up for the first time in a few years.

Anyway, more in this over the next week or so, as I process.

Thing Two: Michael Feathers

On a related note, here's Michael Feathers on Agile, saying something that I think is true about Agile methods -- they don't really scale to large teams, and that's OK.

Thing Three: The Earth from the Air

On a totally different note, a cool piece from Vox from a pilot about what he's learned in the air. It's sort of what you think it's going to be, but not quite.

Thing Four: Ted Cruz (But Really Dahlia Lithwick)

I haven't written about politics here (though I do occasionally vent on an anonymous blog and Twitter account). I'm not sad to see that Ted Cruz isn't going to be president, but this account of Cruz as a debater and as a lawyer is probably the most interesting portrait of what he's like in person that you are likely to read. The author of the piece, Dahlia Lithwick) has been writing very entertainingly about the Supreme Court for a long time, and recently started a well-done podcast if the idea of a podcast about the Supreme Court interests you.

Thing Five: Martha Wells

You are all reading Martha Wells like I said to the other week, right? Here's
an interview with Wells specifically about her world-building. Worth checking out.

Thing Six: Books

I mentioned Gwenda Bond's Lois Lane series last year as one of my favorite books of the year. Double Down, the second book of the series, came out last week, and it's also really fun. Bond does a great job of writing something that works both as a YA story and as a Lois Lane story. (Lois is online friends with somebody who goes by the monicker "Smallville Guy", and if you don't think it's great when SG -- who is not public yet -- says he wants to be the kind of person Lois deserves, we'll you are wrong, it is objectively great)

Five Things: April 29, 2016

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Five For 4/29

Okay, I really am doing this for a second week in a row, even though it’s a bit late.

The week in me:

The web payments book is continuing slowly. Currently, I’m writing about how to set up administrative users, which I’m convinced that most people are penny-wise and pound-foolish about. (“It’s the admin users, we can train them”, yeah, I’ve said it too).

I also did a medium post about agile, communication, and the like, which doesn’t seem to have gotten out there much, but you should probably read it anyway.

I also somehow got people to say some nice things about Rails 4 Test Prescriptions on Twitter. You should read that too.

Thing One: A book!

Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen. Every year, it seems, there’s one book I read that stands out for the sheer audacity and weirdness of its premise. I usually call that my “if you only read one” book, as in “if you only read one book about anthropomorphic sentient elephants who can talk to the dead and are part of a space empire of other anthropomorphic species, make it Barsk.

You probably are either all-in or totally out based on that description. (We do eventually learn how all the talking animals came to be, if that helps. Or hurts). The elephants, who have been exiled to a single planet, are the sole creators of the drug that lets some people speak to the dead. The rest of the alliance has basically had enough and are willing to go to great lengths to recover the drug. In addition to being totally bonkers, the book is really clever, the characters are memorable, and the ending lands. So pretty much everything I look for in a book.

Thing Two: Hamilstuff

You are just going to have to deal with a lot of Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda stuff, sorry. In addition to writing a song about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis for John Oliver’s show, he also performed what I guess you’d call a mash up of Hamilton and Sweeney Todd for a charity event this week. It’s the tune of the opening to Hamilton to the story of the opening to Sweeney Todd. If you are me, which none of you are, that’s just about the greatest thing ever.

Thing Three: Old Developers

A couple of interesting blog posts this week on different sides of the age spectrum. Adrian Kosmaczewski posted a transcript of a talk about being a developer after 40, a topic that has been of keen interest to me for about five years. Adrian and I started our professional careers about a year apart (I started later). Anyway, I agree with most of this (though I don’t hate open spaces as virulently…)

Thing Four: Young Developers

On the other side, Ryan Bigg on hiring juniors, a topic that’s also been of keen interest to me for some time. I agree with pretty much all of this, too.

Thing Five: SF Is For Everybody

The founding editor of one of my favorite sites, Charlie Jane Anders of io9 is stepping down to work on her fiction full time. (Consider this a recommendation of her last novel, All The Birds In The Sky). She ended her time by recounting the founding principles of io9, including science fiction belongs to everyone. Please read.

Five Things From: The Week of April 22, 2016

five thingsNoel RappinComment

Let's try something new this week. At least new for me. If, by new, you mean, "haven't done it in few years".

Five Things From, listened to, or encountered that I want to pass along. The "five" is more of a guideline than a rule.

We'll see how long this keeps up:

First, A Word From Our Sponsor

That's me, I'm the sponsor. This week's Medium post is a comparison between my first RailsConf in 2008 and this years' through the simple expedient of making you guess which talk titles come from which year. (Spoiler: I deliberately chose ambiguous ones).

As you probably don't know, I'm working on a new book for Pragmatic. Title's not set yet, but it's about handling payments on the web and all the variously logistics and aggravations that entails. The initial draft is 50% done, which means it goes for technical review. I'm hoping it will go into beta toward the end of the summer.

Onto the things:

Thing One: A Book!

Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. The setup for this book is, frankly, brilliant. It takes place at a boarding school populated by children who have had portal fantasy adventures (think Narnia) and have been rejected by the other world and are trying to cope. There are a lot of discussions of belonging and being an outsider. It's a heartbreakingly beautiful premise in a heartbreakingly beautiful book. There's a plot, yeah, but the characters and tone are everything here.

Thing Two: Another Book!

The Edge of Worlds, by Martha Wells, which is, I think the fourth novel in the Raksura/Three Worlds series. Wells is one of the best at describing a particular kind of weird world, with unusual species (the main characters are all shape-shifting lizard-people who live in a colony that is somewhat bee-like). She delights in creating bizarre and uncanny parts of the world for them to explore, and in creating interesting characters to stay with. You should read this. Well, you should probably start at the beginning, but eventually, you should read this.

Thing Three: Big Ben!

The NPR Podcast How To Do Everything had a brief chat with the person in charge of maintaining the clocks of the UK Parliament, including Big Ben, and now I know exactly how much you can adjust the speed of the clock by adding a single penny to the weight of the pendulum.

Thing Four: Hamilton!

If you are me, one of the interesting things about the musical Hamilton aside from how amazing the music and lyrics are (I’ve become a big fan, okay?) is that it presents Hamilton as kind of the progressive hero of the Revolution. If you are about my age, and took a Revolutionary War class in college from, say, Pulitzer Prize winner David Hackett Fischer, then that idea seems, weird? This article from Vox explains a bit about how interpretation of the Revolution, and especially Hamilton and Jefferson, has changed over time.

Thing Five: Tech Things!

If you liked my video about floating point numbers you might be amused by this quick bit about rounding and Apple’s environmental initiatives by John Graham-Cumming

This medium article by Tom Whitwell about media pricing was interesting. The big recent flap for me was TextExpander moving to a very expensive subscription model, though I think they are grandfathering in existing users with enough of a discount that I’ll be able to justify continuing use. Pricing is hard. Ask me about ebook pricing someday. Then run.

The End Result Is Not The Cost

txi-mediumNoel RappinComment

For a variety of reasons that are not actuallya all that interesting, I started blogging for Table XI on a more-or-less official, more-or-less weekly basis.

You can see all those posts at Table XI's Medium Page.

If any of you are still following this blog via an RSS reader, first off, thank you for your patience in the hope that I would put something here worth reading. Second off, I'll cross post the links here, starting wtih last week's The End Result Is Not The Cost, which, I suppose could be read as a full-throated defense of bloated consulting fees, but which I prefer to see as a comment on the hiidden work that goes into producing any kind of useful production software. Enjoy!

2015 Books That I Liked, Part 2

BooksNoel RappinComment

I really did want to get this done sooner, but I didn’t.

See part one for the other books I liked in 2015. Consider this the books I really liked. You could call it a top ten, but there’s more than 10. But still, my absolute favorite books of 2015, alphabetically by title.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

In trilogies, first books get to have all the fun. The first book is where you get the full thrill of discovery, of learning about a new thing. The third book has to actually finish a story, which sometimes, feels a lot more like work. I was happy that Ancillary Mercy, the third book of maybe the most decorated SF trilogy in the last five years, really does stick the landing.

But… it might not be the landing you expect. I think it’s fair to say in the end, a lot of the flash and bang was a misdirection from the idea that this was, from the very beginning, a small-scale story about an interesting person that eventually got caught up in a galactic civil war. And not, say, a galactic war story that sort of has a personal component. (If you see a review that calls the ending “muted”, this what they mean—it doesn’t end in fire, it ends in personal change). I thought it was really satisfying, (in addition to being technically impeccable) and it was one of my favorite books of the year.

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I can’t decide whether this is the most pessimistic SF book ever written or if it winds up being weirdly optimistic despite everything. Aurora is the story of a generational ship. At the beginning of the book, the ship is near its destination after a couple of hundred years. Just in time, too, because the colonists are starting to run out of stuff, like oxygen. And then they get to the planet, and it’s not exactly the end of their problems.

Robinson winds up being deeply pessimistic about the practicality of generation ships and colonizing other planets in a way that is directly (almost gleefully) in conflict with decades of science fiction. And while that makes a great essay, Aurora is also a great story, with interesting characters making hard choices. The narrator for most of the book is the ship’s AI, which lets Robinson play with narrative structure a bit. I’ve run hot and cold on Robinson in the past, this is my favorite book of his in years, even if it does end with a very-Robinson sort of mini-essay on how great it is to be outside.

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennet

A few things I generally like, in fantasy novels:

  • Post-medieval or industrial technology.
  • Living gods, or some kind of really powerful supernatural being that shapes the way the world works.
  • A story that takes place in the aftermath of the cataclysmic struggle, rather than being the struggle itself.

And so, City of Stairs, which is all these things. It takes place a generation or so after a conquering empire was itself conquered, because the other side figured out how to kill its gods. It takes place in the former capital of that city, now home to a resentful conquered population. A place where the gods have supposedly been outlawed but where their magical artifacts still can cause havoc. It's a murder mystery against a fraught diplomatic backdrop, and with a couple of main characters that have a history together.

It’s weird, and the characters are interesting, and the magic is cool, and the mystery and politics all holds together. It’s really something. If you like Gladwell and Mièville, you will like this. (Late note, watch for the 2016 version of this list, because the sequel is, if anything, better.)

Fallout, by Gwenda Bond

One of the books that I most flat out enjoyed reading this year was a YA novel about Lois Lane. Not a sentence I expected to write, but here we are. I expected this book to be a decent novel in a media property that I like. It’s way better than that. It’s got a great take on teenage Lois, Girl Reporter, and her mysterious pen-pal SmallvilleGuy (who has not revealed his existence to the public). It’s got just the right amount of Superman and DC mythology, and it’s just really, really fun. Very happy that it sold well enough to justify a sequel in 2016.

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

So, there are certain kinds of subtle things that you rarely see in a fantasy novel because it takes tremendous skill to make them apparent and its often not worth the effort. For example, your human characters will usually sleep about eight hours in a 24-hour day, have five senses, live on geology similar to Earth’s, be mostly right-handed. You get the idea. There are a lot of powerful defaults that we assume even in a world with magic, or elves.

I’m not giving much away to say that The Fifth Season takes place with characters who have a sixth sense, often have hair that is not quite like what you’d expect, and live in a world where civilization shattering earthquakes take place reasonably regularly.

So the technical bar is high. And I haven't even gotten to the fact that Jemisin uses multiple points of view that relate in an unusual way, and that the book is also very much about the consequences of systematically oppressing a certain group of people.

And she just nails it. It's just staggeringly good, the world-building is rich, unique, and interesting. The characters are complex, the story is deeply engrossing. The only thing keeping it from being a slam-dunk choice as my favorite book of the year, is that it's book one of a trilogy. But at that, it also has one of the best last lines ever. It's just an amazing accomplishment, and I can't wait for the next one. With any luck, it’s going to win a boatload of awards and you should read it.

Last First Snow, by Max Gladstone

This is the fourth annual Max Gladstone Craft Sequence visit to these lists. It might be clear that I kind of like these books. This one, which is a direct prequel to Two Serpents Rise and kind of a prequel to Three Parts Dead, has as its not-very-subtle subtext gentrification, as the rich business interests (who happen to be powerful magicians and animated skeletons) try to knock down the land belonging largely to the poor and marginalized (who happen to often be members of a discredited cult that gains power from human sacrifice). Also, there are dragons.

This book is great, but I rave about this series all the damn time, and it’s a prequel so you kind of know how it ends, which takes a little bit of the edge. This is a fantasy series that uses a lot of SF DNA in its world building — it seems that I see a lot more SF that uses its background to comment on the world than fantasy. Did I mention that I really love this series? I made a flip comment this year that I was looking forward to the next ten years of Max Gladstone books more than any other author. (Which I might now amend to be Gladstone and Jemisin…)

The Mechanical / The Rising, By Ian Tregillis

You know, just another alternate-history book where the Dutch develop “alchemical” mechanical robots in the 1600s and proceed to conquer the world. As the book starts, it's something like 1920, and Dutch control of the world is only moderately bothered by a French government-in-exile based in Quebec.

The Dutch control their “clakkers” through elaborate programming with alchemical symbols called “geasa” — think Asimov’s laws if Asimov had been even more into the metaphorical implications of mechanical creatures who are forced to do anything you ask. As you might imagine, the details are top secret, and even the merest hint that a clakker has broken their programming produces a harsh response.

So, pretty much in chapter 1 we get a clakker who goes rogue. Our other viewpoint characters are the leader of the French government’s spy network, and one of those spies who is, I think I can say, spectacularly compromised early on.

Tregillis does a great job of making the clakkers seem implacable and dangerous, not just to the French who are fighting for survival against them, but also to the Dutch, who owe their world domination to their fragile ability to keep them under control. The details of the world and where technology is different from our time are really nicely done (to give one example, the French fight the clakkers with, basically, weaponized glue that immobilizes them). This is a really well done and engaging series. Supposedly book 3, The Liberation, is coming in 2016.

Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal

This may be the only five-book series I’ve ever read that improved from book to book. (I think I said that last year). The series started as a kind of Jane Austin pastiche with glamour, which is magic that allows for the illusion of light and sound, and which fit very nicely with the Austin world. Over the course of the series, Kowal has investigated the implications of the glamour and also broadened the world, we’ve been to Napoleonic France, Venice, and now the West Indies. She’s also written one of the best married couples I’ve ever read in fantasy.

In this novel, Jane and Vincent are dispatched to oversee one of his father’s holdings in the West Indies, and they essentially find a total mess. As usual, Kowal does a great job showing the world, in this case, including the appalling conditions of a slave society, and the story is intense. Jane and Vincent remain a pleasure, and earn their — spoiler alert — happy ending.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson

I think Neal Stephenson might be on to something. Rather than ship a book a year, he ships an entire trilogy all at once every three years. Seveneves is even more clearly a trilogy than most of Stevenson’s other huge-mungo works (and yes, this theory means the Baroque Cycle is a nine-logy). In book one, the moon breaks up and we quickly learn that this will doom the entire world. A plan is set up to get enough people and resources into space to survive. In book two, the survivors… survive. Well, (spoiler alert), many of them don’t. Book three takes place 5000 years later after Earth starts to become habitable again.

How much you like this is going to be somewhat dependent on how much pure Neal Stephensonness you like in your Neal Stephenson novels. The first two thirds contain a lot of orbital mechanics and the kind of science you’d need to quickly get a bunch of people into space. It’s exactly rocket science. And if your eyes are already glazing over, this may not be the book for you. I also found the political maneuvering in the middle third to be, well, depressing.

The final third is something we haven’t gotten a lot of from Stephenson, which is a genuinely far-future SF environment. It’s a little… weird from a story standpoint, though I actually kind of liked it.

This is starting to sound kind of ambivalent for a book on my “books I liked a whole bunch” list. I did like it, but I’m a super huge Stephenson fan.

The Traitor Beru Comorant, Seth Dickenson

I started hearing buzz about this book several months before its release from other authors who read advance copies. And it's another one that more than lived up to its advance reputation.

Beru Comorant is a small girl when her peaceful island nation is absorbed by a large empire. She's very smart, and is soon schooled by the empire with an eye toward becoming one of its leaders. But Beru has decided to try to bring the empire down from within. Her first major assignment is to suppress rebellion on a different island nation, which has ongoing strife from multiple noble houses with different agendas. Her methods for managing them, as you might imagine, put her various loyalties in question in complex ways.

One of the best things I can say about this book is this: I often feel that authors under-explain complex political motivations in books... This book has some of the most complicated cross-currents of goals and betrayal that you'll ever see, and yet there wasn't a moment where I wasn't pretty sure I understood who was doing what and why. It’s dark without feeling totally cynical, smart, features the dramatic use of monetary policy, and will probably break your heart.

Uprooted Naomi Novik

These things are both true: I liked this book a lot, and it is also not hard to find online reviews from people who liked it even more. Uprooted starts with a simple, very fairy tale, kind of setup. A village, Eastern European in affect, and The Dragon, an evil wizard in a castle who takes one girl from the village every ten years. Why, the villagers don't know, but they have some imagination.

To the surprise of basically nobody who has ever read books, our narrator, a girl named Agnieszka, is selected by the Dragon, somewhat to her shock, as she imagined a more popular friend of hers would be chosen. Once in the Dragon's company, she learns... well, I don't want to give too much away. She learns that he's not evil (though is is kind of a jerk, at least at first), and that there are much scarier things in the world than The Dragon).

I picked this book up after hearing a lot of great things about it -- I had kind of let Novik's more famous series (the one with the literal dragon) slide after a few books. I'm really glad I did, the book is really well structured, with a very creepy villain, and a plot that never quite goes where you expect it. I kind of wish one of the side plots didn't really get as much emphasis as it does (even hinting is probably a spoiler), and that kind of dulled my enthusiasm for it a bit when all was said and done. But that's more a minor quibble, overall, the book is really great and you should read it.

Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor

Night Vale is a weird place where time doesn’t work and all the conspiracy theories are true. I’m a big fan of the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, so I was anticipating this book for some time, although my expectations were on the order of “nice book that’s basically a media tie-in”. Which was lowballing it — this book is really spectacular. You don’t need to be a fan of the podcast to read the book, though if you are, you’ll perhaps have a little more background on some of the Night Vale weirdness alluded to in the background.

Fink and Cranor have a unique command of language, results in some amazing, frankly kind of dazzling turns, of phrase in the book. (The podcast generally works best at the level of the individual joke, and at the level of multi-episode plots, individual episode plots are often relatively less interesting.) On top of which, the book hits themes of family with the same off-center but genuine tone as the podcast. It’s a lot of weird fun.

2015 Books That I Liked, Part 1

BooksNoel RappinComment

Thanks to the literally one person who encouraged this list last year, I’m presenting the 2015 list of books I liked. Last year, I split between Fantasy Books I Liked and SF Books I Liked. This year, the split didn’t work out evenly, so I have “Books I Liked”, and “Books I Liked Even More”. Here’s the first batch: “Books I Liked in 2015”.

First, the Books I Liked. Well, not all of them, but especially the ones I thought I could write an interesting paragraph about.

The books are alphabetical by title…

Bookburners, Season 1

I think there's a lot of potential in prose fiction that's structured like a television season, meaning a series of novella-length stories that build to tell a connected story, with a common set of characters, and anyway, you don't need me to tell you what a season of television is like.

Bookburners is the first offering from Serial Box, a publishing house that is going to be doing a lot of these kinds of stories. This one, conceived by Max Gladstone and featuring other authors I like, including Mur Lafferty, is the story of a group of investigators working for the Vatican to remove magic from the world.

If I have one quibble about this structure as it develops, is that it has a strong tendency to be about a ragtag group working in secret against some kind of supernatural force. (Including Shadow Unit, which is, I think the first that self-consciously modeled itself on a TV season, and also some single-author serials like Seanan McGuire's Indexing.)

Anyway, Bookburners does a lot of things well. Interesting main team characters, including some who are Not What They Seem. An overarching story that doesn't go quite where you think, and a solid season-ending moment. It's worth your time, and I'm looking forward to future Serial Box work.

Career of Evil, by Robert Galbreath

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Galbreath is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling, right?

Anyway, I’ve always thought that all the things that have been written about Rowling have tended to overlook the fact that she’s really good at constructing a plot. It delights me that she’s turned out to write these nice, relatively low key private-investigator mysteries, of which Career of Evil is the 3rd.

This book is a serial killer mystery, which, granted, I do kind of feel I’m close to my lifetime allotment of. Rowing does a legitimately great job of splitting the plot among three suspects, all of which seem both plausible and impossible as the murderer. The final twist was, of course, there in plain sight, and the chapters from the killer’s point of view are genuinely creepy. If you like this kind of mystery, it’s a well-done example.

Cibola Burn / Nemesis Games, by James S. A. Corey

Book four and book five of the Expanse series, which has been rewarded with what I keep hearing is a quite good TV show on SyFy. Hoping to catch up on that sometime soon.

The two books are quite different. In Cibola Burn, James Holden and his intrepid crew are called upon to mediate a dispute on one of the thousands of planets opened up to colonization in the wake of the first three books. A group of squatters and a group of “legitimate” colonizers are both claiming the same platen, and Holden is asked to solve the problem in the full understanding, and maybe even the hope, that he’ll screw up. Making matters more complicated is that the planet itself appears to be fighting back.

In Nemesis Games, the action returns to the solar system as a group of outer-planet militants drop a large asteroid on the Earth, killing billions and basically upending the entire political status quo. My main problem with this book was a feeling that the series didn’t need to drop a big rock on the Earth to keep things interesting, and that the plot dynamics that would come out of the action seemed to lead to less interesting areas. I can’t say that the book completely mitigates my concern, but I’m still waiting for book six, coming out in June.

Fangirl / Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Deep breath: Fangirl is a YA novel about a pair of twins who are entering their first year in college, and share a love for the fictional story of Simon Snow, boy wizard, including writing a lot of fanfic. In college, one twin basically abandons the fan world, and the other finds refuge in it. After finishing Fangirl, Rowell decided she liked Simon Snow so much, she wanted to write an entire novel about him. To be clear, Carry On is not supposed to be the fictional novel in Fangirl or its fanfic, it’s Rowell’s separate take on the “Chosen boy wizard” story.

For all that metafictional baggage, and all that it obviously owes to Harry Potter, Carry On is actually kind of great. If it has a flaw, it that it’s sometimes unsubtle about the way it addresses common issues in Potter, such as minority representation, or the morality of placing children in harms way to defeat the evil thing. To be fair, those are issues worth addressing, and Rowell deals with the issues interestingly, and it’s a lot of fun. I particularly like the way magic spells work in the book — based on common phrases and idioms.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

An ambitious book. It's an epic fantasy story using Chinese history and literary techniques as inspiration. More specifically, it's the story of a long revolt against a powerful empire, and the two heroes who lead the revolt, only to find themselves with vastly different views of what should replace it.

The world building is stunning here, the history of the empire, the magic systems, and especially the depth of plans and counter-plans through a plot that covers decades. My main quibble with the book is that the narrative voice is unusual, which I don't mind, but is sometime kind of distancing, which I kind of did mind. There's a lot of stuff that would feel like telling not showing in other books, it works better than you might expect here, because the whole structure of the story is built for it, but again, there's still some distance here. That said, this is apparently book one of a trilogy, and I'm looking forward to it.

I am Princess X, Cherie Priest

What seems like a straightforward younger YA story is elevated by some cool text and graphic novel interplay, and also just by being impeccably well done. Our teenage heroine, May, is mourning the death of her best friend in a car accident, when she happens to see signs and stickers about Princess X, a character the two of them had created together and kept secret. Turns out Princess X is a webcomic with a secret author, and May is convinced it is her friend, somehow alive.

You probably have a good idea where the story is going from here, so I'll just say it's a really satisfying adventure story about smart plucky kids defeating evil grown ups. I resisted reading this for a long time, despite many online recommendations. And then I initially resisted putting it in this list. But it kept creeping up the list, because I just feel so warmly toward it.

The Just City / The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

The annual winner of my “if you only read one” award, as in “if you only read one book where Socrates is pulled out of time to have conversations with sentient worker robots before being turned into a literal gadfly by the Goddess Athena, make it this one". Walton is one of my favorite authors, and this book, where Athena and Apollo pull people out of time to create a literal Plato’s republic, is really, really loopy in the best way.

As you might have gathered by that synopsis this book is kind of bonkers. It’s also a book about big ideas of how to manage a society, when violence is appropriate, and the nature of intelligence. Walton has never written two series that are anything like each other, and yet this book is so clearly a result of her passion for the arguments of Greek philosophy that it’s hard not to get swept up.

Lost Stars, by Claudia Grey

This was the somewhat less-hyped Star Wars tie-in novel of the fall. (I didn’t read the other one, Aftermath, until 2016, so it doesn’t qualify for this list). This one is shelved as YA, and concerns two kids born on a small, insignificant planet in the same year that the Empire forms. He, born to wealth, she born to poverty. Both go to the Empire Academy, and become pilots and commanders. He washes out, joins the rebellion, she becomes the Empire’s up-and-coming star, while still doubting. Oh, they’re in love. Did I even need to mention that?

Together, they wind in and out of each other’s lives and around the events of the original three movies — they are both stationed on the Death Star when it blows up Alderaan, the both wind up on Hoth and at the battle of Endor, and then again at the battle of Jakku, which provides the debris in The Force Awakens. They briefly meet several characters we know, just enough to keep us in the world and not enough to feel crazy contrived. And somehow it works. It works because Grey makes the characters motivations over time work, converting the original trilogy to the character arc of her two characters (both characters are deeply affected by seeing Alderaan destroyed, for example). It’s particularly good at showing how the Empire works, and why one might support it anyway. It’s a good book, deeper and more fun than it needed to be. I read this in a rush right before I saw The Force Awakens, and it was a great table-setter.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho

This book takes place in a fantasy version of what is invariably described as Regency England, and with it's emphasis on English magic, it's more than a little reminiscent of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Zacharias is the new Sorcerer Royal, having come to the position suddenly on the death of his mentor, he's unprepared, and he's also an orphan from Africa, who most of the other sorcerers look down on because of his race and station.

English magic is disappearing, and nobody knows why. Zacharias is suspect because the decline effectively started on his watch, and because his race and station are, shall we say, not appreciated by English sorcery as a group. Eventually, he meets a woman named Prunella, who is being trained not to use magic, as is the local custom regarding women, and together they… save the day? Well, not quite, because there are more books in the series.

State Machine / Greek Key, by K. B. Spangler

I’ve recommended Spangler’s books here before. She’s the author of the webcomic A Girl And Her Fed, and these novels tie into the continuity of the comic. Among a few other things, the comic is about a group of people who have a brain implant that allows them to manipulate EMP signals along with other super-powers.

State Machine is an SF mystery, staring Rachel Peng, whose implant allows her to read people's emotional state and involving the theft of an artifact from the White House, It's very similar in tone to the previous two Rachel Peng books, maybe to a fault. That said, I like the tone of the other Peng books, and I liked this one, too.

Greek Key is kind of a spinoff novel, starring Hope Blackwell, who is actually the main character of the webcomic. Where State Machine is kind of a mainstream SF thriller, Greek Key brings in some more... esoteric aspects of the comic. By which I mean it has ghosts of famous figures in history, a super-intelligent sentient koala, and time-travel. I mention that because its useful to go into the book realizing that it's less Law and Order: 2025 and more Raiders of the Lost Ark with a hyper–intelligent koala.

And when I put it that way, who wouldn't want to read Raiders of the Lost Ark with a hyper–intelligent koala?

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu Tr. by Ken Liu

This is the book that won the Hugo award for Best Novel, and while I'm pretty sure nobody wants me to chime in on that entire mess, I was basically okay with it. It wasn't my first choice, or my second choice, but I can see what people liked about it, and I even liked a great deal of it myself. (As was observed multiple times, even though it was translated from Chinese, the book has a lot more in common with golden age American SF than most of the other nominees...)

The book starts, more or less, with a number of inexplicable phenomena happening against the backdrop of recent Chinese history. The title refers to the physics problem of solving the chaotic attraction of three objects in mutual gravitational attraction, and also a mysterious computer game that simulates and alien civilization that is under the influence of three unpredictable suns and must continually rebuild.

Eventually, we find out the source of the game and the phenomena, along with a couple of different Earthly responses. The book has some really neat SF ideas, there's a simulated computer made up of people (well people inside the game) that's really neat, and the ultimate source of the game and related activities is neat. The translator helpfully footnotes cultural references that might slip by American readers.

An Annoyed Rant About Writing Tools

writingNoel Rappin3 Comments

I will grant that I am very much not the market here, but if I’m being super nitpicky, there are five things I want from a writing tool for my technical writing:

  1. It is okay with proportional fonts. I don’t like my prose to look like code, which I realize is irrational.
  2. It should syntax color Markdown, including the backtick for code literals.
  3. It doesn’t go berserk when HTML or other symbols are inserted into the Markdown. I often have to do this for code samples or layout instructions.
  4. It seamlessly syncs using Dropbox. For the build process, the files need to be in a specific location, and making iCloud work with it would be a pain.

It’s surprising to me how many of my favorite writing tools fail one of these requirements.

Sublime and Atom fail on the first point. I’ve used code editors for writing, but I don’t like it.

Most of the Markdown editors for Mac, your iA Writer, your Byword, fail on point 2 by not coloring the backtick. Which I can put up with, but is nice to have. iA Writer also fails the Dropbox sync, in that if a file is open, but Dropbox changes the file on disk, most editors update the file on screen, iA Writer does not, which has actually caused sync failures and loss of data in practice.

Ulysses — which I love, and which I’m typing this on right now — fails the third point. It tries to be smart about markup, and when I drop HTML in, it tries to escape it and adds stuff to the underlying text in unpredictable ways. Dropbox support is shaky too, Ulysses really wants to store all your text in its own file.

The only app that I know about that does all these things is Editorial. On the iPad. Which is actually a great writing tool with a Bluetooth keyboard, though I find editing a little tricky. And of course it’s hard to write on the iPad in conjunction with coding (though I’m experimenting with Nitrous IO a little).

MultiMarkdown Composer for Mac is close, but I’ve had stability problems with it in the past. It also has a 3.0 version that the website claims will be ready in April. 2015. (And the 3.0 beta doesn’t syntax color backtick).

End of rant. Am I missing something? Is there a Mac editor that manages all of these ridiculous requirements? Or am I doomed to be vaguely annoyed?

Back to Mastering Ember

Self PublishingNoel Rappin2 Comments

Welcome back

This week I sort of broke ground on the book that will probably be called Master Space and Time with Ember. Here are some things I know or am reasonably sure about.

  • It's going to be pretty much a complete rewrite. I mean, some of the cranky rants might still be there, but all the technical content will be new. A new example application, too, though I'm still trying to figure out what that might be. (I've been using the time travel agency for years, it might be time to branch out. Later update: yep, it's going to be a different example, but obliquely inspired by the time travel idea.)
  • By complete rewrite, I mean: Ember 2.0 (eventually), Ember data 1.0. Ember CLI, ES 6, pod app structure, Mocha as a test library (probably). We will talk about creating a back end server.
  • In case it's not clear, this is going to be somewhat ambitious. It's going to be longer than the current book.
  • I'm also hoping for some clever design, both layout and structurally.
  • Beyond the basic Ember-y things, I want to include some bigger topics, definitely authentication, maybe integrating with d3. I'm open to suggestions.
  • I definitely want to focus on thinking Ember style, beyond just the mechanics of the objects and such.

Which brings us to pricing. I haven't worked out all the details, so subject to change. But it'll be something like this.

  • If you own the current Ember book, either on its own or as part of the entire MSTWJS bundle, you will get the version 2 book free for nothing. Mostly because I feel like I promised the update to all of you.
  • This means that buying the current ember book at $10 is going to be a hell of a bargain, because the base price will definitely be higher.
  • given my traditional bent toward underpricing, I doubt it will be as high as some of the other self-published books in this space.
  • if DPD implements it in time, I'd seriously consider variable pricing. I'm also considering something like Avdi's thing of just offering the book at two prices.
  • I'm also considering extra content, probably screencasts, either as a separate add on or possibly via Patreon.

And, timing. I'm hoping to start distributing early versions of the book, at least to current owners by the announced Ember 2.0 date of June 12. But I have no idea what state it'll be on by then.

Any questions?

SF Books that Make Me Happy in 2014

BooksNoel RappinComment

After last week’s Fantasy novels that made me happy, here’s part two. These are the Science Fiction books that I read in 2014 that made me happy. Again, alphabetical order by title.

Also, I’m noticing that my writing-about-books skills are rusty, though I always found it hard to write anything decent about a novel without spoilers.

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie

This is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which one all the awards last year. It’s also the middle book of a trilogy, and like many middle books, leaves some plot unsettled. While Ancillary Sword continues the somewhat ambiguous gender roles of the first book, the tone is much different. The first book was more of a quest, but in this book Breq now has command of a her own ship (it'd be spoilery to explain why), and a mission to protect a planet from the events triggered by the end of the first book (is that vague enough?).

So this book is more, well, anthropological, and more of a mystery (Breq uncovers some corruption). The descriptions of the Radch culture remind me of Jack Vance and a little bit of Urusla K. Le Guin. What's interesting about Breq's viewpoint here is not so much the gender thing (which fades into the background), but the way Breq is able to integrate information from all different inputs--Leckie does a great job of handling Breq's somewhat alien point of view.

While this book may not have the technical splash of the first, I think I enjoyed it more, and I'm looking forward to the third book this year.

Digtal Divide and Maker Space, K. B. Spangler

I think these are the the books on this list that you are least likely to have heard of. Technically these books are a spinoff from Spangler's webcomic: A Girl and Her Fed. Don't go away -- you don't need to have read the webcomic to enjoy these books. I can prove it, I've never read the webcomic, and I love these books.

In the very near future, a government program identifies elite young go-getters and implants them with a computer chip. After some various travails in the back story, the implanted go public. The chip has given them various special abilities, including brain-to-brain communication, and the ability to interact directly with machines. Our lead character, Rachel Peng, has been attached to the Washington DC police department to use her considerable special abilities. (She has a very neat ability to see people’s emotional state as a color overlay, but is still trying to figure out what the colors mean.)

The two books are mysteries, against the SF backdrop of the existence of the cyborgs and what their abilities suggest for, say, digital privacy. The mysteries are well done, the characters are unique and interesting, and I like the world.

Lock In, John Scalzi

A very classic SF kind of structure: create a radical change and use the story to explore the consequences from as many angles as possible. Lock In takes place about twenty years after a new epidemic leads to a significant number of people losing the ability to control their voluntary nervous system. They are alive but, shall we say, locked in to their bodies, unable to move. A whole industry has sprung up to manage these victims including neural implants that allow them to control artificial bodies, affectionately known as "threeps".

Our main character, Chris, is a disease victim, but has become an FBI agent via threep. (I need to be careful here, Scalzi deliberately never reveals Chris' gender, going so far as to have are two audio books, one voiced by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson.) Is there a murder? Yep. Does it play out against the backdrop of political machinations over who pays for the treatment of disease victims? Yep. Does Scalzi pretty much run through every possible cool way of dealing with handling a threep or what it'd be like to be a victim or live among them. You bet. Good mystery, interesting characters, great world building.

The Martian, Andy Weir

Possibly the book on this list that I've recommended most often. The story is very simple: the first manned Mars mission leaves suddenly following an accident and inadvertently leaves behind a crew member, who must then try to stay alive until somebody can come and rescue him.

There's kind of an old-school SF tone here, with a lot of engineering -- it's been described as the most exciting novel ever written about potato farming. The voice of the main character is great (I'd imagine it makes a really good audiobook, though it's a prime candidate for having the upcoming movie adaptation totally miss what's great about the book). The pace is fast, it's almost impossible to stop reading in the middle.

My Real Children, Jo Walton

This book is a little hard to characterize. It's more alternate history than science fiction, at least right until the very end. Our main character is an elderly woman in the last phase of Alzheimer's, who seems to remember two completely different versions of her past.

The book than goes back and forth between the two versions, in one, she chooses to marry a suitor, and in the other she doesn't. Both worlds proceed down very different paths, which is probably not directly related to her choices. (Neither path is our time line, which I appreciated). To radically oversimplify, in one she is more personally happy and fulfilled and in the other the world as a whole proceeds down a more peaceful path.

Walton is a longtime favorite author, and both lives and both worlds are beautifully detailed. The ending is also really lovely.

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

Another book that's sort of lightly science fiction, in that it's literally fiction about science. The main character grew up as part of a psychological experiment administered by her parents, the exact details of which you are better off going into the book not knowing. Now, she's a grown-up and has to come to grips with what her parents did to her and what we will generously call her siblings.

It's hard to describe what happens here without spoiling things, if possible go into this book without reading reviews, most of which do give away the key detail. (I'm not normally a huge spoilerphobe, but in this case I think it will make a difference.) Even though this is perhaps not technically science fiction, it concerns itself with the kind of questions -- what makes somebody human, what connects people to each other -- that science fiction often asks.

What If? Randall Munroe

I can call a book of hypothetical science questions science fiction, right? (I'd bet a significant amount of money that Munroe is at least nominated for a Hugo Award for this one...) Odds are that if you are reading this you don't need me to tell you about XKCD or his What if site. This book collects a bunch of questions from What If?, plus some new ones, plus some disturbing unanswered questions. It's really fun, and a good companion to the Last Policeman books in that pretty much all of the questions wind up with the end of the world one way or another.

World of Trouble, Ben Winters

This is the third and final book in The Last Policeman trilogy. These would almost be straight-up detective novels if they didn't take place against the backdrop of this meteor, which is 100% going to hit the earth with extinction-level force. When the trilogy starts, the impact is about eight months away and society is starting to crumble. When this book starts, the impact is only days away and society is down to crumbs.

All of which makes for an odd kind of pre-apocalypse novel. Unlike, say, your typical zombie story, in this series it would have been completely possible for everything to have continued perfectly as normal right up until impact. Except of course there's no way that happens. It's impossible to read this series and not wonder what you would do under the circumstances--what's so important to you that you would continue to pursue it right to the literal end of the world.

In this book, mysteries are solved, loose ends are tied, and it closes on a scene that I swear I have thought about at least twice a week since I finished the book. It's stunning. Depressing, but stunning.

Things That Make Me Happy: Fantasy Novels, 2014

happy, BooksNoel Rappin2 Comments

Every year, I'm determined to write a post about my favorite books of the previous year. Every year, I fail at it, in part, because of my tendency to want to write a 2000 word essay on each one.

This year, I'm doing it as part of my new "things that make me happy" blog posts. And I'm splitting it into two parts: fantasy novels this week, and SF novels next week. This isn't every book I liked in 2014 (a great year for new books), but it's a list of the books I liked the most. This is also not a place for quibbles and complaints, this is about books I loved and what I loved about them.

Books are alphabetical by title.

Afterworlds, Scott Westerfeld

This is a split book, half the chapters are about Darcy, an 18-year-old who is skipping college and has moved to Manhattan to finish a novel for which she has already received a sizable advance. The other half is Darcy's novel, a YA paranormal romance.

Just on a technical or structural level, the book is impeccably put together. We see Darcy having experiences that bleed into the novel, we see her talking about old versions prior to the one we are reading, and we see her obsessing about getting the ending written even before we read it. The Darcy sections are really fun, there's a lot of great scenes about writing and the YA publishing scene, and the novel-within-the-novel is a perfectly publishable YA novel that doesn't feel like Westerfeld's normal style. That's all really hard to do.

If you have any interest in fiction writing or fiction writer's process, I really recommend this book.


Full Fathom Five, Max Gladstone

Full Fathom Five is basically distilled essence of almost everything I want in a fantasy novel. It's got a cool modern-feeling setting, the magic is unusual and resonates on kind of an emotional logic level, there's more than a hint of satire or social commentary. Plus the characters are interesting, the plot is intricate and well-structured.

In this world, magic is somewhat analogous to law and finance (Gladwell started the series in 2008 after deciding that the news items about bringing Lehman Bros. back to life sounded more than a little like necromancy...). Pieces of soulstuff are used as currency. This novel takes place on an island whose primary industry is the creation of idols where people store excess soulstuff so they don't need to spend it in tribute to various gods as they travel. Yes, it's anonymous offshore prayer. Anyway, the idols start to come to life, which is somewhat disruptive.

If I haven't hooked you by this point, I'm probably not going to. If I've even close to hooked you, you should read this.


The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

If you want to talk about books I loved, possibly beyond reason, possibly in a "don't tell me if you didn't like it" kind of way, this is the book. I have a weak spot for books about characters who are basically decent, who are placed in tough situations, and who survive by being basically decent.

Maia is the unloved, exiled, half-goblin fourth son of, well, the Emperor. On about page 2, the Emperor and his three other sons are killed in a mysterious accident. Maia moves from his country, somewhat shabby life to becoming the Emperor overnight. He finds his new role bewildering, and the existing nobility indifferent or hostile.

You may think you already know how this story goes, and you are somewhat correct. But Maia is so well drawn, and his instincts are so different from what you might be imagining, that the book works spectacularly well. It's the kind of book where there's a brief, confusing flurry of violence, and then chapters of aftermath, including Maia's second guessing. It's a book where Maia receives a demand that he abdicate, and takes it much more seriously than you might think. And honestly, I'm doing a horrible job of expressing why I loved this book. Please try it, it's really something special.


The Golem and The Jinni, Helene Wecker

This book -- truth in advertising alert -- is about a Golem. And a Jinni. Both of whom find themselves separately among the immigrant communities in 1899 in New York City. They meet while each is trying to adjust to a life that is not what they originally intended. What happens next is -- well, it's a lot of stuff. Each of them has a villain of sorts to overcome, and the various people around their lives have their own stories. It's not quite a paranormal romance, not quite a mystery, not quite epic fantasy, and not quite historical fiction, but it draws on all of them.

I recommend this book a lot, in part because the historical fiction part of it is so strong that it's a good recommendation for people who don't read much fantasy. It's also really evocative of a historical time and place that I'm really interested in.


The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

This the third and final book in a series. I describe this series to people. I say "Harry Potter. But in America. With college-age students. And they go to Narnia." People usually make a face, because honestly, that sounds potentially ghastly. So, this is one of my two or three favorite fantasy series of the past few years, even though it sounds like a weird mashup.

First off, Grossman knows the Narnia stuff cold, and he's pretty great on the wizard stuff too. (For one thing, his books have an underground magic society, which is one thing Rowling generally avoided.)

It's hard to talk much about this book without spoiling the first two in the series. So, I'll just say, this is a really great fantasy series, and it's a worthy conclusion.


The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross

This series, I describe as "Lovecraftian horror, where the evil creatures are summoned via computer programs." There's a good chance I've already hooked you. The main character, Bob Howard, starts the series as a low-level IT Tech at the Laundry, the super-secret British agency that handles supernatural horrors.

The first few books of the series parodied various spy book and movie tropes. Having run out of those, Stross is now going after urban fantasy, and in this book, as the title might imply, we get vampires. Except, as many people in the novel mention, everybody knows that vampires don't exist.

Stross is really good at imagining logically consistent versions of fantasy creatures (see his novella Equoid for a terrifying alien unicorn.) He also knows his programming stuff, and the series is littered with offhand jokes that developers will get (like the suppressed 4th volume of Knuth that contains all the demon summoning programs). This is maybe my favorite book in a series that I really like.


Something More Than Night, Ian Tregillis

How can I describe this? The main character is an angel. Who, for some reason, likes to talk in a 40s detective-noir style. He's investigating the death of the angel Gabriel. Oh, and the book takes place partly in a near-future sort-of-dystopia, and in the metaworld where the angels live. And there's more quantum physics than you'd typically expect in a fantasy novel. It's weird, and I liked it much more than I expected to.


Valour and Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal

This is a rare multi-book series where the books keep getting better. The initial book was very much "Jane Austin, but with magic". Subsequent books (this is book 4) have taken the main characters around the world. In this book, they find themselves in Vienna, where they are promptly conned out of all their money and effectively forced to stay in the city.

What's next? Naturally, run their own con/heist to get their money back, expose the evildoers, and save the day. Kowal is fantastically good at having the magic (which the characters call "glamour") act as a seamless part of the world. The two main characters are one of the more interesting fictional couples going, and the whole thing is just really fun to read.

Hey, I have a blog

Rails Test Prescriptions, self promotionNoel RappinComment

Making me happy

One of the things I want to do in 2015 is write more. This, like all New Year's type resolutions, is invariably doomed, but we'll take it as it comes. I also want to write more about things that aren't programming, because, well, there are a lot of things that aren't programming but are still interesting to write about.

Combining these ideas, I'm going to try (and probably fail) to do a weeklyish "What's making me happy this week" blog post based loosely on the similar feature at the end of the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast. That’s, of course, not this post. But the first one is coming.

But first, a word from our sponsor

It's been a while since I did a flat-out update post. So here is one.

The book, by which I mean Rails 4 Test Prescriptions is out. In print, in an actual physical object that has been read by stuffed monkeys across this great planet of ours. And also a few people.

Couple things:

The book is, of course, available from Pragmatic. You can also get it from Amazon. And, unlike the previous version, you can buy the Kindle edition directly from Amazon, if, for some reason that's the only ebook version you want.

As part of what might, if you squinted at it hard enough, be called a marketing push, I was a guest on both the Ruby Rogues and Code Newbie podcasts. Happily enough, I repeat myself almost zero times between the two of them because the discussions went off in completely different directions. Also, the Code Newbie podcast is worth listening to even if you aren't a Code Newbie, and Saron is amazingly organized and putting together something really neat.

I also was lucky enough to be a guest chef for two episodes of Ruby Tapas. This isn't really part of any marketing push except coincidentally. Avdi was looking for a number of guests to help with his schedule as his family was gaining a new baby. They were fun to do, and I'm thinking about ways to distribute other screencasts if I can find the time to do some.

Oh, and according to the PragPub magazine, Rails 4 Test Prescriptions was the top selling book at Pragmatic in December, which I am putting here because someday I'll read this and it will make me happy. I will say a) this is a little bit less impressive than you might think, since Pragmatic only put out a couple of new titles in December, b) it's probably less books than you think, and c) I'm still a little too happy about this -- the first version of the book never got higher than 4th, and I wasn't really expecting any better this time around.

The relative sales between the two versions are actually kind of interesting. The comparison dates aren't quite exact (version one went on sale as a beta in April, and I think they started taking orders at the end of the following February, version two hit beta this June and shipped in December).

So, we're talking about April-Dec 2009 for the first book and June-Dec 2014 for the second. Although this is an extra couple of months for the first book, some of the first book's biggest moths were Feb/Mar 2010 and aren't counted here. So it's not really an apples to apples comparison.

Ebook sales for the two versions are almost identical (the first book is a hair higher). The physical book sales are a lot less this time around -- even though all the physical book sales being counted for the first book would have been pre-orders. For the first version, Ebooks outsold physical books about 6 to 1, this time around it's more like 17 to 1. (Though I expect that ratio to drop back down once Amazon and other bookstore sales get counted). Overall, sales are about 90% ish of the first version through December.

Coming up

I have a few conference and meetup talks coming up.

I'll be doing a talk entitled "What we talk about when we talk about testing" at both a Chicago Ruby North Shore meetup on February 7, and then again at Groupon Geekfest March 3.

I'll be at Ancient City Ruby March 25-27, doing two things. On March 25, I'll be doing what is, I think, iteration 4 of the "How to do Fancy Object Things in Rails Without Losing Your Mind" full-day work shop (not it's actual title). And then sometime during the conference itself I'll be giving a talk on estimation, and Trust-Driven development. Really looking forward to this one.

Oh, and the books

There are two things that you might have given me money for and still be expecting some content. Let's take them one at a time.

Trust-Driven Development

Status: was about 30-40 percent done when I abandoned it to start Rails 4 Test Prescriptions.

I've picked this back up. I was really hoping this would be done by the time Ancient City Ruby comes around. I think it's got a fair shot of getting there.

In retrospect, I may have overestimated the audience for people reading my rants about projects. However, I really like writing it, and I think it's got good advice. So you should read it.

Ember

Status: First edition finished. I promised I'd take another swing once HTMLBars came in and Ember Data hit 1.0, which I was hoping would be roughly August 2014.

Well, HTMLBars will officially be in Ember as of a week or two from now, Ember Data may well actually hit 1.0 some day, plus we've got a whole new suite of tools in Ember CLI, which also now brings in EC6 language features.

My probably ambitious goal is a redo of the whole book, top to bottom, using Ember CLI, EC6, and other cool new stuff to build an application. So it'll be almost 100% new, and probably under the more direct title Master Space and Time With Ember.

Existing owners will get it for free. I'm not sure what will happen to the other MSTWJS books or how I might bundle them.

I'm also not sure when I will start, though it probably will wait until Trust-Driven Dev finishes.

Rails 4 Test Prescriptions Beta Day!

Rails Test PrescriptionsNoel RappinComment

It’s book day! Rails 4 Test Prescriptions is available for Beta purchase today. Tell your friends, tell your enemies, tell random strangers on the street.

I realize this is way more exiting for me than for you, but still… Here are some things that you might want to know:

How do I buy it?

Right now, the only place to buy the book is at the pragmatic website, http://pragprog.com/book/nrtest2/rails-4-test-prescriptions. You can buy it in electronic format, for $25 you get the current book and all future updates in ePub, Mobi (Kindle), and PDF formats. You can bundle the ebook with a pre-order of the physical book for $48, which is a $15 discount over buying them separately.

The print version will be available on Amazon and other outlets when it ships. There is a slight possibility that the Kindle version will also be available at Amazon. Other electronic formats will only be available via the Pragmatic website.

What happens next?

The initial beta of the book is about 2/3 of the final text. (If you look at the Table of Contents on the Pragmatic Site, it’s everything up to and including Integration Testing.

According to the current schedule, I’m due to submit the final draft of the book toward the end of July. I’d expect there to be probably three more betas during that time period. After that, the book goes to a final technical review, then copy edit and production. I think the normal practice, there’s a beta after the technical review, and another one after production.

Then it goes to an actual printer, with a current shipping date, according to the Pragmatic website, of October 10.

What’s in the book?

You can see the full table of contents and read a few excerpts at the web site. Almost all of the book has been rethought and re-written for the new edition. We’ve got Minitest 5, we’ve got up to the minute RSpec 3 changes. We’ve got Capybara, we’ve got Cucumber. We’ve got mocks, and models, and SWIFT tests, and all kinds of great stuff.

The next beta will add security testing, and either JavaScript or external service testing.

I really hope you like this. Tell everybody!