The Fireman by Joe Hill

The world ends before our eyes–not in a hazy before time, but as we read. Harper is our viewpoint character, and she’s very engaging. While her love of Mary Poppins may be going a little far, she’s exactly the conscientious neighbor we all want, or person we want to be. She does a good job of being selfless, but not in a fake feeling way.

The disease that’s killing everyone is tragic–and it’s clear that the old world is mostly over. Fortunately, it’s mostly over in a believable way, instead of a YA shortcut to societal dissolution. The limited viewpoint makes what’s obvious (and hidden) not always what an omniscient observer would find obvious, which is nice. Harper finding Harold’s notes is a nice way around their limited perceptions.

It’s also a more rugged tale of survival; the book covers about a year, not a deadly weekend. Old norms fall fast… but after watching our panic over Ebola in the west, it’s not that hard to imagine society failing to overcome the challenges of this much deadlier spore.

I look forward to reading more books by the author, though this story is done enough for me.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The novel is well written, about a group exploring a strange area that doesn’t quite conform o the world’s rules. While their minds aren’t wiped, they are subject to oddness–particularly in their perceptions. It pairs nicely with our strategically unreliable narrator.

Things fall apart very quickly and continue getting worse. The exploration is very well done; it’s not hard to imagine ourselves in the unnamed narrator’s shoes. (That’s one bit of interesting story building: the conscious avoidance of names–of the exploration crew, but also for just about everything. It makes the timelessness and undefined seem strategic…

Anyway, the rest of the trilogy also sounds interesting, so I’ll add them to my library queue.

The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper

After a slow start, The Margarets does a great job of showing a plausible future. It has a strong ecological backbone and a quieter but sometimes obvious resistance to everyone-succeeds initiatives. You can almost see the real world spark that kindled the book.

As the book picks up its pace, its never about running gun battles, but it’s very good at making the many forms of conflict engaging. The Margarets are distinct but kin; the differentiation is handled well and didn’t stumble that I noticed.

While it’s sci-fi in setting, it’s much more like a LeGuin novel–the colonies are different takes, but recognizably close to human. The first chapter feels like a misstep–it elevates a very minor storyline that doesn’t fit the rest of the book for two-thirds of its length.

It does a good job of making unusual heroes interesting; I look forward to reading more of her backlog.

Exo by Fonda Lee

This was a very strong, engaging YA book. Pages flew, time zipped by. The lines are a little less clear than most YA novels–the “bad guys” aren’t twirling their mustaches, and you can understand their resistance.

The heart of the book is being caught between, and our Donovan gets this again and again. His “aw shucks” high status would feel little cheap, but it works well in YA. The tech is fun, the aliens feel alien…it’s quite enjoyable.

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

This is overall my favorite Kameron Hurley book; while it’s wild and weird, there’s a little more handholding–and somewhat more sympathetic characters. (Not that Nyx isn’t awesome.) These characters suffer from caring too much, too irrationally–even through circumstances that would break most of us.

The story builds steadily; Zan’s amnesiac and learning the world at our side–but events don’t pause for a leisurely catch up. Jayd is the schemer, and it’s never quite obvious which setbacks are unforeseen and devastating, and which she can roll with–she’s compelled to roll with them all.

Zan’s story is fun, weird and strange–since we’re learning alongside her, there’s tension and terrible risks taken. Jayd’s life is subject to huge upheavals, but her struggles are mostly on a political plane.

Very enjoyable; I recommend it to anyone who like action, adventure, and science fiction. The world building is alien, but in a more inviting way the Mirrors or Umayma. Though blood and fluids are not spared….

Chasing the Moon by A. Lee Martinez

So far, it’s an okay but not great book. I’m glad that I checked it out from the library; while it’s not great, it’s fun. I suspect that I hopped in at book 2 or 3… but I’m not really inspired to go dig up book one.

It’s a quirky book with a world like ours, but subject to visitations by beings from other dimensions–who sometimes get stuck. It’s lightly humorous not a pun-a-minute, but there’s a lot of slice of life elements… and an answer to what you do when you’re granted great cosmic power. By the end, it was enjoyable–but still not so much that I’m going to seek out more of the series.

Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I was turned onto this book by an online book group; it sounded interesting. I enjoyed the writing–it was very easy to read. Amusingly, given the subject of so much of the book, I found it read easily enough that it was a quick skim rather than sticking deeply to mind. To a certain point, that’s intentional–the author talks about it as getting better at water cooler discussions, and it seems like the overview that sticks (so far) could be very handy for that purpose.

For half of the book, the discussion is about Systems 1 and 2. System 1 is automatic, visual, great at averaging, vigilant for danger, etc. It functions automatically and often has opinions that can feel like considered judgement. System 2 is analytical and detailed, but lazy. It has trouble with any computation trickier than multiplying two two-digit numbers together. The trick is that we all think of our lives as mostly System 2 phenomena… but it’s usually System 1 throwing up an answer, with system two giving it a casual “yup, looks fine” certification.

There are a lot of interesting ideas that get explored at pop-culture length. (Which is probably all I could handle, since that both fields are distant fro my own.) There are a lot of fascinating asides and details, like intensity matching (which gets abused by System 1 for everything from evaluating how much to support a cause, or how long a prison sentence should be), WYSIATI (what you see is all there is), which leads to consistent biases in evaluation depending on “irrelevant” criteria like the order of presentation or adding extraneous, useless information, and more. One of the trickiest things is that S1 hates not having an answer… so, instead of prompting you to think hard, it answers a similar but related question. A trivial example is that “How is your life overall these days?” usually gets reduced to “How do you feel at this moment?”

Less of the book is devoted to two further persistent, consistent flaws. In the field of economics, there are a lot of assumptions about rational agents (ie, everyone) and how they act. Humans fail against that baseline in consistent ways. For example, reading contracts thoroughly is unusual–and while an Econ doesn’t care about the font size, Humans do. A huge effect is anchoring–we care more about how things are relative to our current status than absolutely. Which means that you can twist things, just by presenting something as a gain followed by a wager for a degree of loss, or just presenting it as a wager from current standings. (People are risk and loss averse.)

It’s a book that I’m glad I read, and I hope that some of it sticks, despite how easy it went down.

Shadowed Souls by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes

A collection of short stories, mostly Urban Fantasy. A few stories were written to stand alone and a few were from series I already appreciate. (Like Jim Butcher’s Cold Case, about Molly.) In general, I enjoyed them, though most weren’t a huge impact–they almost all seem to have been written as easy to skip side adventures that don’t affect the main book series.

The vignettes of established characters from series that I don’t read had a much taller climb. Impossible Monsters was a good stand alone. Hunter Healer was new to me and intriguing. Impossible Monsters was much darker than the rest–it stood out, positively–though I doubt that I’d enjoy whole novels about the character. (The character also has an obnoxious feel of having leveled up that I dislike in non-game world fiction… and even there, usually.) Peacock in Hell also stuck with me.

Hitchers by Will McIntosh

The world goes weird. There’s terrorism, possession, widespread death, family, and memories. The end of the world is all about relationships, and guilt that can’t be put aside.

I enjoyed it and don’t want to spoil it too much.

A Meet Missed

Stannis Stadium is an immense, red marble Coliseum, packed with roaring crowds. Overhead, immense 40′ high holograms replicate the gladiatorial duel going on below. The 1st Hounds squad anchors their line in the marsh, probing the advancing 3rd Light Horse…

In a luxury box above, we see Arcon 005, Jack Turner, and Leon Iococa enjoying the spacious box… but their attention wanders frequently from the action.

Leon spends a lot of time studying cameras that he placed along their entry route, keeping an eye out for disaster. Similarly, Arc stands outside the door to the box, on alert for interruption. Only Jack is in the games’ spirit; he places small bets while waiting for “Mr Johnson” to arrive.

He’s late; several matches pass uneventfully. Animals from Mumun are savaging Tacituar, when the situation changes. Leon and Arc’s preparation is for good cause; at the stair base, several members of the Praetorian Guard gather and move in a coordinated group towards the stairs leading to the team’s luxury box.

Fortunately, Jack switched the electronic signature of their luxury box with the adjacent box. Arc ducked in, stepping behind the door in the box’s bathroom doorway, so his presence outside wouldn’t give away their location.

The guard stormed up the stairs, peeling off guards to block the business level intersection, while the remaining guards continued up the stairs. Confused by the altered electronic signatures, the guard struck a more respectful pose and knocked on the adjacent luxury suite. While the Praetorian Guard spoke with the VP next door, Jack identified the service trapdoor in the floor. Leon placed a camera in the box and they fled down the maintenance ladder.

It wasn’t many rungs down the ladder before Leon heard the click of the door override through the camera relay, and watched the guards spread through the chamber, seeking the fleeing team. Eventually Leon spoke through the camera relay, asking them what was going on. They demanded to know where the senator was–they knew that whoever this was had snatched him, or was part of the distraction that led him to elude his guards. Since they’d done no such thing, the team decided to put some space between them and the pursuing Praetorians…

Arc’s trade-craft got him through the perimeter security without breaking a sweat. Leon and Jack, however, carefully worked their way through the crushing parts of the crowd, exploiting every advantage to remain unseen.

The team gathered back together in the preset subway station. Leon relayed the story of how an “Irene” had come to the office two weeks ago with “an invitation from her boss” and passed tickets to a box at today’s Gladiatorial Bouts. Obviously things hadn’t gone to plan… or it was a setup.

Jack commed Lux and had him pass along a message to the Praetorian Guard who had stormed the box where their aborted meet had taken place. They passed along Irene’s photo (from her ticket drop) and had Lux run down her home address. Leon rented a ground car that Arc drove toward her apartment, where they set up surveillance.

Sometime later, a pair of Praetorian Guards showed up to investigate Irene’s. Leon called Irene’s phone, then a second time when she didn’t answer the first time. She answered… and Leon let her know that he knew the guards were present, that they were watching. She put him on speaker, where Leon explained that they’d gone to the meet that Irene had set–and that the team had no idea who she’d represented until the guards showed up. Despite some reserve on the guards’ part, Leon pointing out that they had no need to expose themselves with the call was persuasive.

The team watched them lead Irene away for further investigation and gathered to plot their next step. Jack started calling his network of ex-military contacts; after a few “heard nothing” calls, he got through to Cosma. She’d heard some things he might be interested in…

They set a meet for an hour, then drove to arrive 45 minutes early. Leon dropped off Arc and Jack, then parked the car in a garage a few blocks away, ready to respond if called. Arc took a seat at a separate shadowed table and worked his way through a club sandwich methodically, while Jack fiddled with the camera he’d placed in the hall, keeping an eye out for Cosma.

Her information was pricier than expected, but she had a time and place for them to investigate. In the background, Lux sorted through camera feeds, finally catching a pair of men approaching… someone, probably the senator, and firing a concealed dart into the senator’s back. He stiffened; they walked him to a nearby alley where a distorted blue flash-perhaps of a taser-could just be made out.