Saturday, October 30, 2010

Audiobook Review: The Alchemist and The Executioness

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

The Alchemist and The Excecutioness is two novellas written by two authors---Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell, respectively---that share the same fantastic universe created by the two authors together. In this universe, magic can be practiced by anyone---though some are more adept with it than others---but using magic brings bramble, a virtually indestructible vine that poisons or kills those it touches. Thus, in this world, magic is illegal, except for officially sanctioned government use. The first story follows an alchemist---surprising, I know--working to find a nonmagical method of killing the bramble, while the second follows...well, a female butcher, actually.

What I Liked
  • The universe. These two authors have created a fascinating setting for their stories.
  • The stories. Both plots are interesting, though the second may be better than the first.
  • The characters. Both main characters are believable and relatable, despite the fantastic setting.
  • The voice acting. Both narrators----Jonathan Davis and Katherine Kellgren, respectively---do an excellent job of animating their characters.

What I Disliked
  • I really have no complaints about these stories.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give The Alchemist and The Executioness 8.5 out of 10. I highly recommended it to fans of "relatable fantasy."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review: Clementine

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

Clementine is the second long-form work in Cherie Priest's zombie-infested, alternate-history-Civil-War universe known as the Clockwork Century, coming after Boneshaker but preceding Dreadnought. The story is stand-alone, though its characters and locations overlap with those of the other works. The book is a novella, rather than a novel, because Priest wanted to write a book for Subterranean, but Tor had right of first refusal for any works over 60,000 words. One drawback to this deal is that Subterranean only published a small number of copies of the first printing---a hardcover---which instantly sold out. A paperback will be published next year, but that was too long for me to wait. Thus, I read this novella in Kindle form on my iPhone.

"OK, but what's it about?" I hear you ask. The story follows dirigible pirate Croggon Hainey as he attempts to reclaim his rightfully stolen airship, the Free Crow, from those who wrongfully stole it from him. The plot also follows former Confederate spy and current Pinkerton detective Maria Isabella Boyd in her efforts to ensure that the dirigible, newly re-christened the Clementine, reaches the destination intended by its new owners.

What I Liked
  • Dude, airships. It was gratifying to read a Clockwork Century story focused on the steampunkiest of vehicles, the dirigible.
  • The characters. The two main characters I described above, particularly Ms Boyd, are interesting and compelling.
  • The plot. The story is entertaining. I especially enjoyed the way Hainey's story intertwines with Boyd's.
  • The pacing. The story moves along very quickly. It never drags, as I feel Boneshaker does at a few points. For example, the story wraps up quickly after the resolution of the main plot line, without an extending winding down. I'm guessing this speed is a direct result of the necessity to keep the book under 60,000 words.
  • The crossover. The plot crosses over with another Clockwork Century story in a way I didn't expect but enjoyed.

What I Disliked
  • The duration. As I said, the brevity of the book keeps the story moving, but it also means that there isn't room to follow any side stories or explore the universe of the Clockwork Century as much as I'd like.
The Bottom Line

Overall, I give Clementine 8.0 out of 10. So far, I'd say Dreadnought is my favorite work from the Clockwork Century, but this one is a satisfying read.

Audiobook Review: Kraken

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

Kraken: An Anatomy is the most recent novel from China Miéville. The author has stated that he wants to write a novel in every genre. This book is firmly in the urban fantasy genre, though it is also a dark comedy. Yes, comedy in a Miéville book. Seriously.

The plot is kicked off when the preserved carcass of a giant squid, Architeuthis dux, is stolen from a London museum of natural history. The squid's curator, Billy Harrow, finds himself sucked into a hidden world of exotic religions and magical gangsters.

What I Liked

  • The universe. Once again, Miéville creates a complex and richly detailed world in this novel.
  • The plot. The story is interesting and moves along quickly.
  • The characters. Dane Parnell and Cath Collingswood, in particular, are fun.
  • The cults. The varied and various niche religions, most notably the central Church of God Kraken, are entertaining.
  • The comedy. The jokes in this story are played very dead-pan. Given that the plot centers on the investigation of a mystery, the book reminds me somewhat of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, but the gags are much more subtle and infrequent.
  • The shout-outs. Popular works of science fiction and fantasy are explicitly referenced throughout the book, none more so than, perhaps surprisingly, Star Trek. There's one passage about three quarters of the way through that calls out every major SF&F series, including both Buffy and Angel. It's enough to make a fanboy like me squee aloud.
  • The narrator. John Lee does his usual amazing job of bringing the characters to life. I can't say enough about this man's voice acting.

What I Disliked

  • The universe. The rules by which magic operates in this universe struck me as somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent, what Nick would call Want-'em Mechanics. I realize that magic is, by its nature, mysterious and nonsensical, but the world Miéville created for this book seems somehow less cohesive than the equally magical one he invented for Perdido Street Station.
  • The Londocentrism. Although I enjoy the way the author's affection for London comes through in this book, I can't help but feel that he thinks London is the center of the universe. There are many instances where "London" or "the city" is used as a synonym for "the world."
  • The comedy. Although a number of the gags are quite amusing, many of them are delivered so sparsely and seriously that they either go unnoticed or fall flat.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give Kraken 8.0 out of 10. It's my least favorite Miéville book so far, but it's still an impressive act of creation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Top Gear: What it's All About

Regular have not doubt seen many mentions of the BBC motoring show Top Gear on this blog. Those of you unfamiliar with it may have wondered what appeal it could have to someone who's not as interested in automobiles as I am. Well, American news magazine series 60 Minutes has the answer for you in the form of this story. Enjoy.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Review: Behemoth

(This review contains no significant spoilers for Behemoth but some minor spoilers for Leviathan.)

The Setup

Behemoth is the sequel to Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, which I reviewed, in short form, early this year. As such, it's a young-adult novel that takes place during an alternate-history World War I. On one side of the war are the Clanker powers, lead by Germany. The Clankers have advanced steampunk---or more precisely, Dieselpunk---technology: walkers and other mechs. On the other side are the Darwinists, lead by Britain. The Darwinisth technology is even more alternate than the Clankers'. In this universe, Darwin not only developed a theory of evolution by natural selection, but also discovered the "chains of life" and kicked off a bioengineering revolution leading to "fabricated" life forms far more advanced than the transgenic tomatoes available in our grocery stores in 2010: whale-zeppelins, hydrogen-sniffing dogs, parrot-lizards, krakens, and fléchette-defecating bats.

As is typical of young-adult books, the main characters are teens. One is a Scots girl masquerading as a boy to serve in the Air Service. The other is a prince, and not just any prince, but the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. As you might expect, the prince's parents are killed at the beginning of Leviathan, and the rest of that book, Behemoth, and, presumably, the forthcoming Goliath, follow the repercussion of this murder, as the world hurtles toward and enters the largest war ever sen.

What I Liked

  • As I've mentioned, I enjoy steampunk, and Dieselpunk is just as much fun while being perhaps more believable. And walkers shaped like olifants? How cool is that?
  • The fabricated creatures in the book's universe are arguably more creative and interesting than the mechs.
  • The two main characters are well-developed, though I find myself more interested in and sympathetic toward Deryn, the masquerading Scotsgirl.
  • The adults in the story aren't entirely incompetent or uninteresting, as they are in many teen-targeted fiction. In particular, I'd like to know more about Dr. Barlow, the "lady boffin."
  • The plot is interesting and very fast-paced. The book is a pretty rollicking ride from cover to cover.
  • The illustrations by Keith Thompson. There's approximately one drawing per chapter, and I think they help bring the story to life. They are slightly stylized, which seems appropriate.

What I Didn't Like

  • The plot is a little straight-forward. I mean, it's not always obvious what's going to happen next, but I would like there to have been twists and turns.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give Behemoth 8.0 out of 10. It's a well executed sequel to Leviathan, and a successful one, too. Successful how? I'm already excited about reading Goliath.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Short Story Review: Tanglefoot

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

"Tanglefoot" is the first work published in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century universe, which is also the setting for Boneshaker and Dreadnought. The story is either a short story or a novelette, depending on which web page you read.

What I Liked

What I Didn't Like
  • The action's of the story's antagonist don't seem very well justified. OK, that's a rather small nit to pick, given the nature of this story, not to mention its length. But still.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give "Tanglefoot" 8.0 out of 10. It's good fun. And, by the way, a creepy way to spend an hour, in bed, with the lights off, reading on your phone while your wife slumbers.

Audiobook Review: The City & The City

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The City & The City is the second audiobook written by China Miéville that I've read in as many weeks. Below is my review of it.

The Setup

The novel takes place in two small, fictitious European city-states: Besźel and Ul Qoma. These two countries are distinct, with different governments, cultures, and languages, but they share the same geographic space. The citizens of each country are trained from an early age to "unsee" and "unhear" the citizens of the other. The only way to legally travel from one to the other is to pass through the the official border crossing. The greatest taboo in these cities is "breach," the act of overtly ignoring the sovereignty of the two nations.

Miéville has said that he wants to write a novel in every genre. The City & The City is his entry into the mystery genre. Its story follows, in first person, the investigation of the death of a young woman. The crime, as you might expect, is not as simple as it first appears.

Interestingly, unlike, as far as I can tell, the rest of the author's work, this story contains no science-fiction or fantastic elements, beyond the mere existence of such impractically constrained metropolises.

What I Liked
  • I found the concept fascinating, and the author does an amazing job of exploring the premise and following it to its logical conclusion.
  • Although the story takes place in the real world and in contemporary times, the level of worldbuilding is on par with that in Perdido Street Station. The geographies and cultures of the two cities are richly realized.
  • The plot---the investigation of a crime---is quite interesting, though, for me, it takes a backseat to the setting as far as my interest is concerned.
  • The narrator, John Lee, does just as amazing a job with this book as he did with Perdido. each character has his or her own voice and accent. Even his American accent is quite good. His Canadian seemed a little dodgy, though; it sounded almost Scottish to me.

What I Disliked
  • You know, I really can't think of anything I disliked about this story. I was somehow expecting a fantastic element, but, I don't think this story needs one.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give the audiobook of The City & The City 9.5 out of 10. It is an interesting story set in a fascinating world and brought to life by an impressive voice actor. What's not to love?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Deadlift Re-Progress

Today I did my first 300-pound deadlift in quite some time. It's no PR, but I do seem to be making progress again, after dialing the weight down so I could keep my spine correctly arched to prevent injury and then slowly cranking the resistance back up.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I just made up this perfectly cromulent word for my review of Dreadnought:
zombigenic, adjective. Resulting in zombification.

Friday, October 08, 2010

PR*: Fran

Today, I set a PR for Fran, at least as performed at CrossFit Diesel. Why should location matter? Because, at CFD, one has to clean the bar before each round thrusters and, if your thrusters are broken, before each set in each round. Plus, their pull-up bar is about 1.5 inches in diameter, which tires the grip and forearms much quicker than my 1-inch pull-up bar. Anyway, my new PR at CFD is 5 minutes, 43 seconds. That's not incredibly fast, but it's good enough to put me on the record board at the gym. I think this is the fourth (or so) best time on that list.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Audiobook Review: Dreadnought

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

Dreadnought is the fifth and most recently published work from Cherie Priest's steampunk-plus-zombies alternate-history universe known as The Clockwork Century. The stories in the Clockwork Century take place in North America in 1880 or thereabouts. The Civil War is still ongoing, thanks to the support of the Confederate States of America by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Texas. The Republic is a wealthy and technologically innovative country due to the discovery of fossil petroleum many years before the real-world date.

The stories, both published and forthcoming, from this universe are as follows:

  • "Tanglefoot", a short story published in 2008. It's available online and in an anthology called Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. I encourage you to read it.
  • Boneshaker, a novel published in 2009. This book tells of the accidental release of zombigenic gas in Seattle, in the Washington Territory, and the ramifications for members of one family that happens to be central to the bigger story. Boneshaker seems to have been Priest's breakthrough work, taking her from modest success to the vanguard of steampunk. I gave this book a 7.5 out 10, but, given how it has stuck with me, I've since cranked that rating up to 8.0.
  • Clementine, a novella published in 2010. This book relates the piratical theft, re-theft, and attempted re-re-theft of one example of that quintessential steampunk conveyance, the airship. Clementine was published by Subterranean Press, unlike Boneshaker and Dreadnought, which were published by Tor. Subterranean seems to have printed too small a number of these books, and it is sold out everywhere. It's certainly not available in my new favorite format, audiobook. See the Clockwork Century FAQ for a full explanation. Thus, I have been unable to get my own copy of this book to read. However, it's just been released in Kindle form, so I'll be tackling it as soon as I finish my current book.
  • "Reluctance," a short story published in the zombie anthology The Living Dead 2 in September 2010. This is the story that Priest read for us at Dragon*Con. I found it quite enjoyable, and having the author read it to me was a nice bonus.
  • Dreadnought, a novel published in 2010 and the subject of this review. This book tells the story of nurse in a Confederate army hospital and the transcontinental journey she undertakes.
  • Ganymede, a novel due to Tor on November 1 and is expected to be published in 2011. This story follows the interactions of airship captain, a female Union spy, and a...wait for it...submarine. Priest has been reporting on her progress with the book, and it looks like she may be late. You can hardly blame her. As you can tell by the above list, she's been quite busy over the last couple of years writing stories in the Clockwork Century, and she has also written some other stories as well.
  • Inexplicable, a novel scheduled to be published by Tor in 2012. This book will be set in Seattle and involve both zombies---fairly expected by now---and at least one sasquatch---not so expected. If we're lucky, we'll see a zombie sasquatch by the end.
I should point out that the stories in this universe are essentially stand-alone. They have overlapping characters, but one can read them in any order with no significant loss of understanding or enjoyment.


After seeing Cherie Priest at close range during her panel* and reading at Dragon*Con, I find that I like her and want her books to do well. My personal affection for her might lead me to be enthusiastic about her work and to give this novel a better review than I otherwise would.

What I Liked
  • Dreadnought gives readers of the Clockwork Century their first glimpse of the war at the center of this universe. The scenes in the Confederate hospital are grim, as you might expect, but also gripping.
  • The plot is fast-paced. One of my not-favorite aspects of Boneshaker was that if seemed to drag just a bit at times. Dreadnought barely stops for breath after it gets going.
  • The central character, Vinita "Mercy" Swackhammer Lynch is an almost inhumanly strong character but is somehow still believable and relatable.
  • Airships, walkers, train engines equipped with heavy weaponry, and zombies. What's not to love?
  • The narrator of this story, Kate Reading, brings the text to life. She does not match John Lee's ability to produce seemingly limitless voices and accents, but she does a solid job. In particular, the voice she uses for the protagonist seems just about perfect to my ear. My only complaint related to her is that she tends to draw out the word at the end of a sentence or clause in a way that sounds almost like a whine to me.

What I Disliked
  • The last chapter and a half felt somewhat tacked-on. In my opinion, those who have read Boneshaker will find this epilogue-like segment of the book almost entirely superfluous, and those who haven't will find it hurried and too expository. There's a point a little before the end of the penultimate chapter that I feel would make a better end to the story. That being said, I did enjoy the particular two quotations on which the story ends.
The Bottom Line

Overall, I give Dreadnought 8.5 out of 10. By following Boneshaker with an even better novel, Priest has solidified her grip on the tittle of "high priestess of steampunk," as given to her by The Seattle Times. Perhaps the most succinct way to express my feelings about this book is this: I'm excited to read Clementine. If you like steampunk or zombies or Civil War fiction, you should look into this novel.

Update: OMG pwnies! Cherie Priest tweeted about this review and about why our blog's address had her worried. My carefully considered response to this devlopement is this: Squee!

* I don't think that a single person can hold a panel, but that's what the event was called.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Audiobook Review: Perdido Street Station

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

Perdido Street Station, China Miéville's second novel, is probably his most famous, and it is the one that introduces the fantastic world of Bas-Lag, where humans are just one of many sapient species and where magic---called thaumaturgy---and steampunk technology exist side-by-side. Bas-Lag is also the setting for The Scar and Iron Council. Perdido Street is set specifically in the city-state of New Crobuzon, which is ruled by a corrupt government and inhabited by a mostly miserable populace.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, but I will say that numerous seemingly unrelated threads are followed throughout the novel, and they all come together in the end. On the whole, I'd describe the story as a horror thriller.

What I Liked

  • One of the hallmarks of good science fiction or fantasy is rich worldbuilding, and this book has that in spades. The world of Bas-Lag and the city of New Crobuzon are excellently realized, with awe-inspiring variety and equally impressive detail.
  • Miéville's writing style is almost poetic in its imagery.
  • The plot is exciting, and the characters are varied and interesting.
  • The audiobook's narrator, John Lee, does a spectacular job bringing the setting, story, and characters to life. He uses a distinct voice and accent for essentially every speaking part in the book. There are a handful of one-scene characters who all have essentially the same working-class British accent, but the twenty or more recurring characters are all very distinct. Amazing.

What I Disliked

  • The plot takes a little while to really take off. Once it does, though, it doesn't slow down until the end.


  • This book is grim. The story starts out depressing and just goes downhill from there. That feature is not a deal-breaker for me, but if you are in the mood for a light-hearted romp, look elsewhere.

The Bottom Line

I'd give this audiobook a 9.5 out of 10. Miéville's worldbuilding and imagery are unassailable, and Lee's voice-acting only enhances the experience. I can't believe I waited this long, after Nick's and Alison's recommendations, to "read" this novel.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

PR: Randy

Today I set a new personal record for the workout called Randy: 7:44, more than a minute faster than my previous best (and only) attempt at this workout.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Primer: Autocross

(I've recently had call to describe autocross to a few people, so I'm placing this introduction here to have something to point to in the future.)

The Setup

Autocross is perhaps the most accessible form of motorsport. In auto-X, a course it set up, using traffic cones, on an open expanse of tarmac or concrete, usually a parking lot, but sometimes an airfield. A new course is used at each event. Each driver runs the course, effectively alone, attempting to minimize his or her time while not hitting any cones. A penalty, usually 2 seconds, is added to the driver's raw time for each displaced cone. The driver's best net time, after several attempts, is compared against the best times of drivers of other similarly capable cars. The courses are designed to be very challenging for the car and driver. Typical autocross runs have more turns per minute than a lap of a Formula One race. When not driving or preparing to drive, each competitor must work the event, either reseting downed cones, recording times, directing drivers, safety-inspecting cars, or doing whatever else is needed.


The risk of car damage or injury is very low for three reasons:
  • The course is defined by cones, so, as long as you don't go too far afield, there's nothing to hit but orange rubber pylons. The courses are designed to keep cars away from light poles, curbs, and other fixed obstacles.
  • The coursees are kept very tight, which keeps speeds in check. For many cars, most courses can be run without shifting beyond second gear, though some vehicles will need third for short periods. Indeed, one figure of merit for an autocross car is its top speed in second gear.
  • Cars are released onto the course at intervals of 20 or 30 seconds. As a result, the odds of a two-vehicle collision are low.
All the organizations that I've run with require each vehicle to pass a technical inspection. To pass, the car must have all loose parts removed from the interior or exterior, and the car must be in good mechanical condition. I've worked as a tech inspector at numerous events, and the most common cause for rejecting a car is a loose battery; that's a problem that can usually be fixed in a few moments, allowing the car to be reinspected and passed.

All the orgs I've competed with also require the driver to wear a Snell-rated helmet, ether M (motorcycle) or SA (special applications, meaning auto racing). Most orgs seem to accept the current rating (currently 2010) and the two previous ones (2005 and 2000).


Depending on the organization, location, course design, car, and driver, each run takes from 30 to 80 seconds, though most of the events I contest have 40- to 60-second runs. The number of runs each driver gets depends on the organization, the duration of the event, and importantly, the number of drivers that must be fit into the event. Bigger events, with 150 or 200 people, usually offer 4 runs, while smaller events, with 20 or 30 people, might give each driver 20. Numbers like 4 and 5 are most common.

And you might be there for 3 or 5 hours. So, for the events I go to most, the ratio of waiting to driving is about 60:1. This fact is my least favorite aspect of the sport, but I've made peace with it. I try to find a work assignment that keeps me busy rather than bored, and I focus on the non-driving activities that I enjoy most: the car preparation, the socializing, the "bench racing," and so on.


Numerous organizations host autocrosses. In any given metropolitan area, there are likely a handful of such clubs to be found.
  • The club that organizes the largest number of autocrosses is probably the Sports Car Club of America. SCCA calls their version of autocross "Solo," and they also offer a version called "ProSolo," which features two cars running head-to-head and a drag-race start. You can read more about ProSolo and see an annotated video of my last Pro event here. In the area around the nation's capital, the local chapter of SCCA is the Washington DC Region. You can sign up for the WDCR Solo mailing list here.
  • The National Auto Sport Association is another national organization that runs autocross envents, which they call NASA-X, pronounced NASA-cross, races.
  • There are a number of smaller motorsports clubs around the country. In the DC area, the most popular are the Capital Driving Club and Autocrossers, Inc., which is an affiliate of the SCCA's Washington DC Region and uses SCCA rules. You can sign up for the AI mailing list here.
  • A number of marque clubs also host these events. At least in my area, the BMW Car Club of America, the Porsche Club of America, and the Mazda Sportscar Club of Washington all put on races.


Each club has its own system for classing cars.

  • SCCA, being the most popular group, has the most byzantine ruleset. It's a two-dimensional system; one axis is based on the stock performance of the car in question, while the other is how modified the car is. I don't have the room to discuss the SCCA classes here, but I hope to add a post about that in the future.
  • NASA uses a points system, where each car is awarded a certain number of points based on its stock performance capability and accrues more points for each modification. Each class spans a range of points values.
  • The CDC uses a simple indexing scheme based on power delivered to the wheels, weight, and treadwear rating.
  • The BMW CCA, at least the National Capital Chapter, uses a matrix approach, like a streamlined version of SCCA's, for BMWs. For non-BMWs, it applies a very simple, four-class structure based on engine displacement, engine type (piston or rotary), induction type (natural or forced), and, of course, treadware.
  • The MSCW, which puts on very relaxed, casual events, imposes no classes at all.


Several clubs offer schools that teach you everything you need to know to compete in and work during an autocross. In my area, the Washington DC Region of the SCCA offers several Level 1 and Level 2 schools throughout the season.


The cost varies form org to org, but, for single-day events, 25 to 35 dollars is normal, at least in the DC area. It's very affordable as motorsports go.


This video, a class project of someone in the San Diego Region of the SCCA, covers some of what I discussed in this post. Keep an eye out for the lime-green, rotary-powered Bugeye Sprite.