I’ve been writing Stack Overflow columns for a few years now, mostly when I was falling behind on book reviews and felt that I had a set of books that would work well together thematically. At the beginning of this year, I decided to make a concerted effort to make Stack Overflow a regular column, once per week. The idea was to make it an expected part of the GeekDad week, but also that it would help reduce the number of books I have literally overflowing my shelves.
Well, the experiment has halfway succeeded. Once I got going (near the end of January), there has been a Stack Overflow column every week this year, usually on Monday. I’ve had a few of my fellow GeekDads step in from time to time, and there were even a few weeks where we had multiple Stack Overflows in a single week. I’ve really enjoyed having it become a regular column.
As far as reducing my overflow, though, I’d say it’s a resounding failure.
What I didn’t take into account is that the more books I write about, the faster new books arrive. I guess publishers are keen to get their books into the hands of somebody who is actively reviewing things, but the review copies are far outpacing my capacity to read and review them (or even store them, as you can see from the photos). I know, it’s a great problem to have–books showing up in the mail on a daily basis. But I’m seriously overwhelmed, too. I know there are a whole lot of books out there that I haven’t gotten to yet–not because they’re not fantastic, but because they’re buried underneath other books in the den.
So, if you’re following along with Stack Overflow, thanks! I’m glad to have you along for the ride, and I hope you’ve gotten to enjoy some of the books we’ve shared with you over the years. We’ll continue telling you about the books we’ve been reading in the new year!
And if you’re one of the publicists who has sent me review copies, thank you! I love reading and I can’t wait to get to them. And I’m sorry if I haven’t reviewed everything you sent, or I reviewed it a long time after it was published.
For now, the last Stack Overflow of 2015, I’m clearing off the rest of my review shelf. Here’s a grab bag of comics, fiction, kids’ books, and a few odds and ends. (The big boxes of picture books will have to wait for 2016.)
A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias (adult science fiction)
In this sci-fi book, humans have already made contact with an alien race, the Sholen, with whom they have a tense understanding. The humans are exploring Ilmatar, a sea-covered planet populated by an underwater alien race–but the Sholen want to keep Ilmatar free from human influence. However, when media personality Henri Kerlerec gets himself killed by some curious Ilmatarans, things come to a head.
What I really liked about A Darkling Sea is the way the Ilmatarans are so different from typical fictional aliens. They’re a bit like giant lobsters, blind and relying on sonar and shell-tapping to communicate. The Sholen are sort of big bug-like creatures who use sex like conversation, but they’re ultimately not as fascinating as the Ilmatarans.
The book (Cambias’ first novel) ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, so I’m curious whether Cambias has more stories planned for this universe. I’d definitely want to see what happens next.
Supervillains Anonymous by Lexie Dunne (adult fiction)
The first book in this series, Superheroes Anonymous, introduced us to Gail Godwin, aka “Hostage Girl” for the number of times she was kidnapped by supervillains and then rescued by Blaze. I wrote about it in a previous Stack Overflow column. In the second book, Gail finds herself thrown into the world of supervillains. She’s been implicated in the death of a superhero and is put into Davenport Industries’ supervillain prison–along with many of the bad guys who’d kidnapped her in the past.
There’s also a conspiracy in the superhero world, something big. The questions are: how will Gail survive (or escape) prison, and can she get to the bottom of this plot before it’s too late? Well, okay, it’s no spoiler to say that she survives … but how it happens is still a very fun ride. This book also ends on a cliffhanger, so expect more to come.
The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson (adult fiction)
The Affinities is a book that really fascinated me when I first read it this summer, and the only reason I haven’t written it up already was because I’m still thinking about it and processing it. It’s speculative fiction somewhat based on social media, though that’s simplifying it too much. Social media helps us connect to people who are like us in some way–they share affinities. In this book, there’s a process that uses genetics, brain-mapping, and behavioral analytics to see if you match one of twenty-two Affinities.
The Affinities are more than just shared interest groups, and they aren’t built around geography or age or occupations. Rather, these are people that you just click with, people you trust instinctively, the ones that are easiest to cooperate with. When Adam Fisk joins the Tau Affinity, he finally feels at home, and quickly receives many side benefits from his fellow Taus: a place to stay, a job offer, and more.
Robert Charles Wilson paints a picture of what the world could be like if there were global communities of people who are interested primarily in helping each other. They gain influence rapidly and avoid interacting with other Affinities. And not everyone matches one of the groups, so the NOTAs (None of the Above) try to fight the growth of the Affinities as well. Eventually, it’s all-out war.
While I don’t think there will be anything as effective as the Affinities in the real world for quite some time, I do think that there are bits of Wilson’s speculative future that are already true now. Social media makes it so easy to surround ourselves with people who are like us and to completely block out those who aren’t. That makes it hard to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, or to empathize with opinions that don’t match our own. Obviously our politics have become more and more polarized, yet people on both sides assume that they’re the norm and the other is the extreme.
The writing wasn’t always great–in particular, Adam Fisk isn’t a very sympathetic character and I personally felt like he was a bit of a jerk. But the overall premise captivated me and still has me thinking about how I interact with other people–and which people I choose to interact with.
Containment by Christian Cantrell (adult science fiction)
This one’s a re-read–I wrote a full review of Containment a few years ago, but when I got a review copy of the follow-up, Equinox, I realized that I had forgotten a lot of the details. (That’s what I get for writing spoiler-free reviews, I suppose.) So I read it again. The info-dumps are still a bit heavy-handed, but I did enjoy the premise, the first human colony on Venus. I’ve just started Equinox and it’s a hefty book, so expect that to pop up in a Stack Overflow sometime in 2016.
I wrote about the first four books in the Young Sherlock Holmes series a few years ago, and then shortly after received copies of the final two books. I’ll confess: it’s been a while since I read these (I was going to review them with some other Sherlock books, which then got postponed, and then…) so I don’t remember them as clearly. However, Snake Bite finds Sherlock in China–abducted, actually–where he solves another mystery about three men killed by the same poisonous snake. Andrew Lane used this series to fill in Sherlock’s backstory based on what we know of him in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, giving Sherlock opportunities to learn things like martial arts, boxing, and the violin.
Knife Edge finds him returning to Europe, this time to Galway, Ireland. His brother Mycroft is investigating a psychic who claims to communicate with dead spies, and Sherlock is enlisted to see whether he’s a risk to government secrets. Doyle himself became fascinated with spiritualism near the end of his life, and this story depicts some of the tricks used by mediums of his time. Sherlock himself remains skeptical, as you would expect.
If you can’t get enough of Sherlock Holmes, you may enjoy this series as much as I did. They’re written for young adults so they’re fairly heavy on the action, but it’s fun to see this well-known character as he’s still learning the ropes and becoming the Sherlock that you know and love.
Book: My Autobiography by John Agard, illustrated by Neil Packer (kids non-fiction)
I like books about books, and this one definitely falls into that category. It’s the story of reading and writing–on tablets, scrolls, in codex form, and even electronic books–as told by the Book itself. It’s written for middle grade readers, so it’s somewhat brief, but it hits a lot of highlights in the history of the book. It’s also a nice-looking book itself: a slim hardcover with a red ribbon bookmark, and sprinkled with illustrations and quotations about books throughout.
I really liked this book, which explains why money was invented and the different forms it can take. It’s a large thin hardcover so it looks like a picture book, though there’s a lot more text in it. It explains bartering, counting, interest, coinage, and how money is one of the reasons we started writing. The illustrations by Kitamura are excellent and funny–lots of little cartoons that illuminate the text. I read this one out loud together with my kids, and it was a fun way to learn a bit about economics, disguised as a bedtime story.
Our friendly neighbors to the north haven’t always been friendly neighbors. This book describes various skirmishes that have occurred between the United States and Canada, culminating in each country’s grand plan to invade the other. It’s an amusing account filled with obscure battles, like the Pork and Beans War, which ended without a shot and is the only war between an American state (Maine) and a foreign nation. In fact, there seem to be many of these conflicts that ended without shots being fired, though in some instances some American soldiers surrendered.
The book is entertaining and enlightening, but pretty short–only about 150 pages, half of which is appendices reproducing “War Plan Red” and excerpts of “Defense Scheme No. 1,” the two invasion plans.
This book retells many familiar fairy tales in verse, sometimes with a modern twist. The little match girl sells CDs to stoners. Hansel and Gretel are more than just brother and sister. These aren’t fairy tales for little kids–there’s a little bit of strong language and a lot of innuendo, probably more like the originals than the Disneyfied versions we’re accustomed to. The cut-paper art by Dezsö is striking and fits these dark tales for a chilly night.
The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis (young adult comics)
Last week I mentioned a few surreal comics for adults. This one’s okay for teens but still very surreal. In this world, mothers and fathers are odd machines built by the human kids. It rains knives. People don’t know their birthdays–instead they know their deathdays, and Scarper Lee knows his time is almost up. That’s when Vera Pike shows up at his school. She’s fearless and forward and nobody can quite figure her out. And then there’s Castro, a boy with Inference Syndrome who knows how to fix things but seems to hear and see things that aren’t there.
When Scarper’s dad (who’s normally chained up in the shed) goes missing, the three of them go searching. It’s a really bizarre story that I’m completely failing to summarize, but despite all the weirdness it’s a serious story, a bit unnerving, and the artwork is fantastic.
This title, unfortunately, appears to be out of print, but there are used copies available. It reminds me a little bit of the movie Pi, in which a mathematician is looking for patterns in the world, using number theory to understand and predict real-world events. In the movie, Max Cohen snaps and goes mad.
At the beginning of Strange Attractors, a university TA goes mad and throws himself out a window. And then we cut to Heller Wilson, a math student working on his thesis, who feels like he’s on the verge of something big. He tracks down Dr. Spencer Brownfield, a brilliant ex-professor who left Columbia in disgrace, spouting off wild theories about controlling reality with mathematics. He uses the Butterfly Effect, small actions that result in large changes, to fix and repair New York City, keeping things on track … or so he says. Brownfield tells Heller that something big is on the horizon, and that he needs somebody to take his place when he’s gone. But Heller still feels that this is just a bit insane.
I really loved the visualizations in this book–Brownfield has notebooks with maps and diagrams, and Heller uses computer visualizations, and there are paths overlaid on the images of the world, reminiscent of how John Forbes Nash looked at things in A Beautiful Mind.
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel by Stephen Weiner (non-fiction)
This history of the graphic novel is a nice introduction for people who still think that comics are just for kids (yes, there are still people like that) and also serves as a source of significant comics to read. While not as entertaining as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, it’s a solid academic approach to the subject, with sample images from a wide variety of comics genres. This is the book to give to your friend who doesn’t get why comics are a big deal to you.
Bird and Squirrel on the Edge! by James Burks (kid comics)
Bird and Squirrel are back–they’re headed home on the way through some forests and past mountains. But when Bird gets conked on the head, he comes to without his memory, and a fear of pretty much everything. So it’s up to Squirrel (the scaredy cat) to lead the way, along with a young bear who’s decided to follow them. Of course, there’s that pack of wolves on their trail, and Bird has inconveniently forgotten how to fly… The Bird and Squirrel books are quite silly, but fun, and my kids love them.
Peyo’s best-known creation was the Smurfs, but he also had another very funny comics character: Benny Breakiron. Benny is a little kid who is incredibly strong–he can leap long distances and smashes things accidentally, though he loses his powers when he’s sick. In this first story, the Red Taxis company is edging out the old cabs, including Benny’s friend Monsieur Dussiflard. When Dussiflard finds his old cab smashed up, he decides to confront the Red Taxis president.
Benny follows along, and discovers that the Red Taxis are really a front for a criminal organization and they’ve got something dastardly planned … but what is it? Will he be able to stop them, or will he be crippled by a common cold?
There’s a lot of very silly slapstick humor, plus the ongoing joke that when Benny finally reveals his secret of strength to Monsieur Dussiflard, he has a cold and can’t do a thing, so Dussiflard just writes it off as an overactive imagination. There are several more Benny Breakiron books that have been published by Papercutz since this one, though I don’t have any of the others yet.
I honestly don’t know much about lowriders or the culture that surrounds them, but this comic book celebrates the artistry and inventiveness that goes into modifying and customizing cars … in space! Lupe Impala is the best mechanic around. Flapjack Octopus is a whiz at washing cars. Elirio Malaria (a mosquito) is an expert at detailing, using his beak as a pinstriping brush. Together, they work at a car dealership during the week, but they dream of having their own garage. When they hear about the Universal Car Competition, they strive to turn an old junker into a winner, low and slow.
Most of the book is just about the trio tricking out their vehicle (with the help of some outer space travel). The book has Spanish sprinkled throughout (with translations in footnotes), and has fun with some over-the-top detailing. The illustrations are done in red, blue, and black ballpoint pen and the paper is parchment-colored, echoing Raúl’s childhood artwork on paper bags.
Diva is a small dog who lives at 11 avenue Le Play in Paris, and she has never set foot outside of the courtyard of her grand apartment building. Flea is a cat and a flâneur: somebody who wanders the streets and alleys just to see what there is to see. When Flea wanders past Diva’s courtyard one day, the two (eventually) become friends, and each helps to widen the other’s horizons.
The story was inspired by Mo Willems’ own time living in Paris, and it has something of the flavor of The Lady and the Tramp in it, although it’s a friendship instead of a romance. The illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi are wonderfully paired with Willems’ fun text. It’s either a long picture book or a short chapter book; I read it aloud to my girls in two nights, and we all really enjoyed it.
The “Best American” series, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt each year, covers a variety of genres: short stories, sports writing, sci-fi, and so on, but the comics are some of my favorites. Each year a guest editor presents a selection of the best comics published in North America in the previous year (from September to August). The selections are wide and varied, and it’s a great way to get a small taste of the range of awesome things being created in the comics medium.
The 2014 edition, edited by Scott McCloud, isn’t your usual anthology. He says at the beginning that this volume is meant to be read, not browsed. That is, unlike some collections which can be picked up and read in any order, this one has been meticulously planned, with the excerpts intended to appear in this particular order. McCloud introduces each section with a small essay.
2015 marks some significant anniversaries. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Best American series (which began with short stories), and the 10th anniversary of Best American Comics. This volume, edited by Jonathan Lethem, tries to steer the reader toward some of the comics that are a bit further from the mainstream, the ones that you may have missed. There’s some more experimental stuff, things that blur the line between traditional fine arts and traditional comics.
Well, we made it!
Here’s my “read but not yet reviewed” shelf now:
(The Glorkian Warrior book you see there isn’t out until March, so I figured I’d save it for now.) I still have a couple boxes of picture books that have been read but not yet reviewed, but those will have to wait for the new year. Since I have a toddler, we go through picture books at an alarming rate.
Here’s looking forward to another great year of reading!
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books in this column.