Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone (Ernest Cunningham, #1)Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this mystery novel, but it’s not for everyone. The purported narrator, Ernest, is part of a family of killers, although most of the killings weren’t intentional. He also writes about how to write crime novels. He talks to the reader (or in my case, listener) throughout the book, breaking the fourth wall. That can be off-putting for many. He also describes the ten “rules” of crime fiction and assures us that he follows them, thus making the mystery “fair.” The final denouement is so convoluted that I can’t say I agree, but it doesn’t matter much. If you’re one of those people who must feel like you have a chance of solving it as you read, you’ll not be happy at the ending.

I enjoyed the book for its witty tone throughout, and its plethora of amusing observations about life and universal foibles. His descriptions and similes are clever and entertaining. There were too many characters for me to keep track of. If you choose to read it, I suggest you do so it one sitting in order not to lose the thread. Or make a diagram of characters and their relationships. I also enjoyed the reader’s Australian accent, which, not surprisingly, is appropriate since the book is set in Australia. The bottom line: it passed the time pleasantly.

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The Iliad by Homer (Jeff Harding reader)

The IliadThe Iliad by Homer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My rating applies only to the audiobook read by Jeff Harding. The idea of the massive classic was daunting, but I read that this new translation is very good and I thought I could enjoy it as oral poetry. The reader, Harding, has good pacing, slowed down for the modern reader who is unfamiliar with the classic language and subject matter. I was able to follow the convolutions for the first twenty minutes, but I did not like Harding’s voice. It had a smarmy quality that reminded me a great deal Johnny Carson’s voice as Art Fern. I knew I couldn’t take twenty hours of it, so I gave up. Maybe I’ll venture to start on the print version.

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How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil

How the World Really Works: A Scientist's Guide to Our Past, Present and FutureHow the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future by Vaclav Smil
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smil sets forth a dizzying array of statistics backed up with extensive citations of sources. These range over many technical and scientific topics. He asserts that they show that human civilization as we know it depends on four “pillars”: steel, ammonia, cement, and plastics. He spends a great deal of time debunking the notion of decarbonization, i.e. the total cessation of using fossil fuels. That seems to me to be something of a straw man since I’ve never heard the term before this book, much less heard of anyone who advocated it. The reader could get the impression Smil opposes the green movement in general, although later in the book, that seems inaccurate. The book is almost written as a reference book rather than an opinion piece or textbook, although it has elements of all three.

Smil is no doubt an extremely well-read and competent scientist and writer, but the book isn’t going to fall into the pleasure reading category for many people. I read it because it was a book club choice. There were many interesting, even fascinating, tidbits of knowledge imparted among the drudgery of plowing through more statistics. I especially liked the chapter on assessing risk. Smil points out the degree to which people discount relatively risky, i.e. likely, dangers (like speeding in cars) while fearing things that are much less likely, e.g. terrorist attack. I knew this already, but it was interesting to see it quantified and exemplified. He concludes by saying, convincingly, that those crying apocalypse and those gushing over a new world order of health and plenty are wrong. He pretty much says everybody is wrong and things are just going to go on as they always have until something we can’t predict changes it. In the end the combination of tedium and the absence of any real useful guidance makes the book a disappointing read.

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This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

This Tender LandThis Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At the risk of sounding like a literature professor, this book is completely derivative. It’s set in the 1930s during the American Great Depression but other than that it is a copycat of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn except that instead of the warmth, wit, and almost plausibility of that classic work, this one substitutes child cruelty beyond imagination. In this way it also copies Dickens. I didn’t realize until I heard the author’s postscript that he actually intended to copy both. Why? Dickens was horrific. I finished this only out of duty to my book club, but by coincidence we had just finished reading Huckleberry Finn. The timing was unfortunate.

Another thing I didn’t like was the author’s need to insert 21st Century social issues into a 1930s story (e.g. LGBTQ). The anachronism was jarring and eye-rolling; it appeared the author was just trying to check all the liberal boxes. He must have been afraid to be as authentic as Twain. It resembled a fairy tale in that the children are pure and kind and generous, as are nearly all the poor people, while all the authorities and rich people are greedy and cruel. Real life doesn’t work that way. As if that wasn’t enough to spoil the read, towards the end one character appears to have supernatural powers. Gag me with a spoon. Still, it was readable to the end, so I’ll give it a second star.

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What3Words in the News – Netanyahu, Hunter Biden, Dr. Pepper

All right, I’ve discovered a few more W3W addresses that are remarkably appropriate.

blasted.rocket.shots land on the Beit Aghion, Benjamin Netanyahu’s current residence.

doctor.pepper.soda turns out to be in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The inspiration for the name of the actual drink is supposed to have been a Dr. Charles T. Pepper of Virginia, although he lived farther west.

never.prosecuted.hunter leads to Washington Court House, Ohio. That’s not a court house; it’s the name of a real town. The real Hunter Biden is being prosecuted in an actual court house in Washington, D.C.

Our Ignorant Newsmakers – under a Petri dish

I often post malapropisms that I hear news reporters or announcers make, but today it comes from a woman interviewed on the radio. She was talking about the tensions between Arabs and Jews over the Hamas-Israeli conflict. I don’t know her ethnicity or which side she was “on” but was apparently identifiable as being aligned with one or the other. She said she felt uncomfortable, like everyone was looking at her. She said she felt she was constantly “under a Petri dish.”

The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer

The Inner Circle (Culper Ring, #1)The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This schlocky potboiler is exactly what I expected it to be: full of conspiracy theories up to the highest levels of government, an unlikely hero, murder, contrived sexual tension, and writing dumbed down to the 8th grade level. I listened to the audiobook, which I hadn’t realized was read by Scott Brick, so you can add gross overacting. Brick can make the ingredients listed on a toothpaste tube sound like we’re all on the brink of an apocalypse. If this doesn’t sound like much praise, it isn’t, but I just wanted something droning in the background while I worked on my computer. I knew what Meltzer’s writing was like. Of course he also left the plot hanging which was telegraphed by the subtitle. This is the first in a series so he couldn’t resolve anything. I can’t recommend it, but I’m giving it three stars because it’s honest; it’s exactly as advertised. Think of it as a Hallmark movie equivalent in the mystery novel genre.

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Whalefall by Daniel Kraus

WhalefallWhalefall by Daniel Kraus
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The cover of the book tells you all you need to know: a fictional diver gets swallowed by a sperm whale. The writer somehow got a publisher to accept a 300-page [more on that in a bit] book about it. I originally requested the audiobook from the library, but that was taking a while to come in, so I then requested the print book. Both came in at the same time. I started listening to the audiobook, but gave up on that because the reader had a wimpy teen-like voice. To be fair, the book’s narrator is a wimpy teen.

So how do you make an entire book about being swallowed by a whale? You don’t; and the author didn’t. There are many pages with a single word on them, others with just one short sentence. That’s why the 300 pages is misleading, presumably stretched with mucho white space for commercial purposes. Much of the “dialogue” consists of whale noises. The whole concept is preposterous and the writing pedestrian at best. If I had any other book to read, I wouldn’t have finished this, but with plenty of skimming, it was easy to complete in a few hours, although I did spread those out over a few days since I still didn’t have another book in at the library. Since I did at least read to the end, I’ll give it two stars, but I don’t recommend this to anyone.

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The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda

The Last House GuestThe Last House Guest by Megan Miranda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was slow to get hooked into this book, but in the end, I enjoyed it. The author is good at setting the scene and making the reader feel he is there. In this case, the scene is the coast of Maine in a tiny town appropriately called Littleport. The undisputed ruler of the town, Grant Loman, owns a vast real estate empire. In addition to his own monstrous house he rents out the many surrounding cabins, cottages and other properties to summer vacationers. His two children, Parker and Sadie, rich and beautiful, were raised in private schools in Boston but are now the heirs apparent to the empire. Our protagonist, however, is Sadie’s best friend, Avery, an orphaned teenager at one time, but now employed by the Lomans to manage the Littleport rentals. Despite the loss of her parents in a car accident, the death of her grandmother, and a rebellious period, she has made her way in life and become Sadie’s bestie.

There is an end-of-season party and a death. Was it a suicide? A murder? Avery is both a suspect and a self-appointed, obsessed investigator. The suspense builds slowly as more and more information is revealed to the reader. This is done in a way that is trendy but which I find irritating: a constant barrage of time switches from the current day to an earlier time, usually the day of the party, but sometimes even earlier as Avery relates bits of history she is remembering. Whatever happened to telling a story in chronological order? In any event, the reader is not told important events and facts until near the very end making it impossible to make a logical guess to solve the mystery until then. The denouement is a little too pat and predictable; at least, it’s predictable once you are told all the necessary stuff in the final chapters. The storytelling maintains a slightly creepy noirish feel throughout while conveying the isolation and grandeur of the Maine coast (which I can imagine but have never seen). Enjoy it more for the atmosphere and the characters than the plot.

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A Tribute to Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve

I want to take this opportunity to pay my own tribute to Rancho San Antonio County Park and Open Space Preserve (RSA). RSA is both a county park (one part) and the rest an open space preserve owned and managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), a separate governmental entity that spans San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The whole thing is administered by MROSD. It has been a favorite place of mine since I moved back to the valley in 1980 and today was a somewhat special day.

I went on my regular out and back run today from Lot 1 (formerly called the horse trailer lot) to the far western point on the Rogue Valley Trail (N37 19.772 W122 05.139 to N37 20.332 W122 07.638 for you geocachers) and three unusual things happened. On the road to the farm next to the Lower Meadow Trail I saw a buck with an impressive set of antlers just to the left of the trail. The deer there are used to people, although they will usually avoid us and the bucks are shyer than the does. This one stayed put and eyed me, then as I got close it lowered its antlers and started toward me. This startled me for a second, but it immediately became clear he was heading to cross the road behind me. He trotted briskly across the road  and I turned to watch as he leapt over the wire fence (at approximately N37 19.913 W122 5.848). The fence isn’t very high, but it was a magnificent display nonetheless. There was only one other person who saw this, a man coming the opposite way. He stopped in his tracks and said “Wow! Amazing!” I told him we got to see a nature show.

That was on the way up. On the way back I was nearing the parking areas and two old men (by that, I mean about my age) were walking ahead of me when we all saw a dust devil whirl up some dirt from the trail directly ahead of us, It formed a violent funnel for a few seconds then disappeared just as quickly as it had formed. As I passed, one man said to the other, laughing, “I guess we can tell people we saw a tornado today.” It was no tornado, but it was unusual.

Finally, on the very last leg, on the Permanente Creek Trail I saw a lone coyote standing right in the middle of the trail about a hundred yards ahead of me. It didn’t seem to notice me as it was facing the other way. I kept running, expecting it to run off. Instead, it started trotting slowly away from me, toward the PG&E Trailhead. I wasn’t gaining on it at first, but after twenty yards or so it spotted some hikers on that trail where it crosses the trail we were on and it slowed, then stopped. I kept going and got to about fifty yards away when it turned and noticed me. It then dodged into the bushes to my left. I never saw it after that. Behind me was another jogger gaining on me (almost everyone is faster than me now) so I turned to him and asked if he’d seen it, too. He confirmed he had and gave me a big grin.

Where else in a busy high-tech hub like Silicon Valley can you see such a fun nature display? I’m not even including the everyday attractions of the place like the cute baby goats at Deer Hollow Farm, flocks of wild turkeys and quail, bunnies, and the hikers talking a myriad of foreign languages. I hear Mandarin and Spanish nearly every time I go there and have often heard German, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, and various Indian or other Asian subcontinent languages I don’t know. If I want the place all to myself I can go early on a cold, rainy winter morning. The nature show is often great those days. So RSA, my hat (or running cap) is off to you. Thank you for the many years of enjoyment.

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

The Johnstown FloodThe Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m no history buff. I only read this because my book club chose it. But I loved it. From page 1 it’s a thriller. You know in general what happened. The title tells you that if you didn’t already know anything about it. But you don’t know exactly why or how it happened and you certainly don’t know who will survive and who won’t. The author personalizes the victims and the parties who may or may not have been responsible for this tragedy.

I learned a great deal about dams and spillways. There’s a lot more to them than I thought. In our valley there are some reservoirs that aren’t allowed to fill up even during heavy rains. I’ve always thought that was a near-criminal waste of capacity in this drought-prone region. Now I understand why engineers take the cautious approach they do. The author sneaked in lessons in history and engineering while foolish me thought it was just an exciting suspense story. He also taught us valuable lessons in human nature, like how people become inured to warnings and pretty much anything they don’t want to believe. Everyone knew the dam was dangerous, but nobody did anything about it. It’s always someone else’s responsibility. It’s the chicken little or the boy who cried wolf. Only after the worst happens did people accept it was real this time.

I listened to the audiobook and I can affirm that the reader did a perfect job – not too maudlin, not too casual. There was just enough drama in his voice without undue histrionics. I highly recommend this book.

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A Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates

A Flaw in the DesignA Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this umpteenth take on the unreliable narrator shtick we hear the voice of Gil, a professor of creative writing at a not-so-prestigious Vermont college. Gil and his wife Molly are struggling financially and his writing career is going nowhere. Suddenly Gil’s obscenely rich sister and her husband are killed in a car crash and the will names Gil as the guardian of their son Matthew, at that point 17 years old and finishing his senior year at a prep school. Gil despises Matthew for reasons hinted at but not immediately revealed, but he feels a duty to his sister and the job comes with a healthy stipend for expenses, so he and Molly agree.

Matthew was, when Gil last knew him, a foul-mouthed, spoiled, selfish little brat. There was a dark incident that is finally explained about page 50. Note to author: why wait? Either tell it right up front or save as a big reveal at the end. Why hint at something you’re about to reveal in a few pages? But I digress. When we learn of it, it is not clear whether Matthew did something evil or was otherwise at fault. Gil may even have been more responsible, especially since the story is told from his viewpoint with his assumptions and conclusions about what happened.

Now, years after that incident, Matthew settles in with Gil and Molly and Gil becomes increasingly paranoid about having him in the house. Every time Matthew smiles, Gil sees an evil smirk. Every time Matthew helps Gil’s daughters, his cousins, Gil sees it as an attempt to weasel his way into their confidence in order to set up some nefarious deed later. Molly and the girls think Matthew is nice and Gil is overreacting, judging him based on a childhood incident. The money he brings is certainly welcome. Then there’s a police investigation into the fatal crash, but we’re not told much about it. Matthew also manages to gain entrance to Gil’s creative writing class. The stories he writes Gil finds disturbing, taunting, while other students and Molly think they’re harmless fiction. Gil becomes increasingly unhinged. The story becomes a psychological mystery. Is Gil going crazy and persecuting his innocent nephew? Is Matthew secretly building a plot against Gil?

I like the basic plot setup to this point, although I’m tired of the unreliable narrator hook. I did keep reading to the end and enjoyed it enough to give it the three stars, but I found Gil to be too unreliable through the latter pages. In plain language, the author overdid it. Gil just seemed wacko, even though Matthew clearly showed himself to still be a foul-mouthed entitled brat at times. Neither garners our sympathy, which means it’s easy to lose interest in the outcome. Still, it was cleverly written with enough suspense building after the slow beginning. I did foresee the twist at the very end, which usually gives me triumphant satisfaction with the ending, but in this case I did not find it fulfilling.

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Playlist update again

I just updated the playlists I have on my phone, which I listen to in my car via Bluetooth. I’ll list the ones I’ve removed from my playlists separately, then the ones I’ve added. Bear in mind that the ones I’m deleting aren’t necessarily things I don’t like or no longer listen to. They’re all good enough for me to have put them on my playlists in the first place. Sometimes I just get tired of them. Sometimes I hear them on Pandora or listen to them on my computer at home through my stereo system. Some later get put back into my playlists after having been removed, like Adele’s Rolling in the Deep today.

Removed List

Song Artist/composer
409 Beach Boys
42nd street Andrews Sisters
Blue Champagne Manhattan Transfer
cactus rag Trebor Tichenor
chinese blues George Gershwin
cow cow boogie Ella May Morse
early in the morning Buddy Holly
Fast Boogie Preacher Jack
good luck charm OC Times
Heart of Glass Blondie
Hickory Smoked Rag Trebor Tichenor
I’m saved Uppity Blues Women
Jambalaya Hank Williams
Let’s Dance Chris Montez
Mule Skinner Blues The Fendermen
New Orleans Gary US Bonds
Occapella Manhattan Transfer
Pratt City Blues Ethan Leinwand
Proud Mary Creedence
Scandal Walk George Gershwin
School Day Chuck Berry
shuffle boogie Albert Ammons
So Fine The Fiestas
The great crush collision march Scott Joplin
Think It Over Buddy Holly
Three in one boogie Memphis Slim
TS Eliot rag Trebor Tichenor
Why don’t we just dance OC Times
yes, you done it ??

Added List

Down the road apiece Carl Sonny Leyland
Everlasting arms Dr. John et al.
From Four Until Late Splinter group
Hot House Rag Ragtime Jitterbug Band
Jungle Time Rag Ragtime Jitterbug Band
Modern Major General Gilbert & Sullivan
Pink Panther theme Circus Band
Rolling in the Deep  Adele
Virginia Bound  Mary Flower
Walk Right In  Rooftop singers
William Tell Overture  Circus Band
Yes Sir, That’s my Baby  Mary Flower

Judas 62 by Charles Cumming

Judas 62 (BOX 88, #2)Judas 62 by Charles Cumming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This spy novel is divided into two main parts. It begins in the modern day (pandemic) and we are informed that “Lockie” Kite, a British spy, is on a Russian hit list, but under an alias he once used. Quickly the story switches to that time many years earlier when as a young man he was involved in an exfiltration operation of a Russian scientist. This all takes place early on, so this is no spoiler. The next 170 pages (of 494) are rather boring. They portray Kite as a hard-drinking, smoking, drug-taking, cheating roue. This may have had some cachet in the days of 007, but doesn’t make him an attractive character by today’s standards. I found him quite dislikeable. Starting around that page, the earlier operation action is laid out. It is fairly credible, exciting, and well-written for the next 120 pages. I enjoyed it, although there’s little suspense since we already know Kite is alive and still doing spy work decades later.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of it. The scene switches back to the modern day and as you might expect, Kite is bound and determined to get the Russian bad guy who is after him before he can get to Kite. An absolutely preposterous, laughable, and needlessly dangerous British operation is then undertaken starting with Chapter 33. Don’t bother to read it after that point. The book is way too long anyway.

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What3Words in the news

It’s been a while since I posted a W3W post. If you’re not familiar with the website/app, it’s a clever system to identify any spot on the surface of the Earth using only three words. You can read more about it on the website or in my prior post here: What3Words.

Every now and then it’s sobering to see how these random word combinations are so appropriate to the location, even newsworthy. Here are some examples.

wildfires.outdated.afraid = near the center of Lahaina, Hawaii

rockets.rockets.rockets = a suburb of Volgograd, Russia where earlier this month that area was attacked by Ukrainian drones for the first time.

duck.worth.plan = in Quincy, Illinois. U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth represents Illinois. She was instrumental in getting a Veterans’ center built there.

The Stepfamily by Bonnie Traymore

The Stepfamily (Silicon Valley Series #1)The Stepfamily by Bonnie L. Traymore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Laura is the stepmother to two children from her husband Peter’s first marriage. His first wife died by suicide more than ten years ago. Or was it suicide? That’s the first big mystery. Then there are tensions at work for both Laura and Peter with a financial crime lurking in the past. Then it looks like someone cut the brake line on Laura’s car. Is someone out to kill her? This doesn’t even touch on the possible frictions and resentment a stepmom can face from children still loyal to their mother.

The author does a good job of ramping up the suspense. It is properly subtitled “A psychological thriller.” I enjoyed the book enough to recommend it. Having said that, it suffers from some self-published book flaws like poor proofreading. I also didn’t like the chick lit vibe, e.g. the constant descriptions of female characters’ outfits and even toenail color (plum). I did like the local references as I live in the area. Chef Chu’s is the best Chinese restaurant around.

The author shows a good deal of knowledge about tech startups and Silicon Valley culture and business, but she is clearly not up to speed on police procedure or investigative matters. That’s why I say it’s a psychological thriller, not a detective novel. She refers to the the Santa Clara County Police as investigating the case. Sorry, no, there is no such agency. If a crime took place outside a city, it would be investigated by the county sheriff, otherwise by the police agency for that city. Los Altos Hills, Laura’s location, uses Los Altos Police for most detective work although the sheriff’s office might assist on a possible homicide. Worse, though, is the private eye she conjures up who seems to have magical powers to find out anything. As a retired FBI agent and attorney, I can tell you it doesn’t work that way. For example the P.I. searches for someone using facial recognition. How? That requires a network of hundreds or even thousands of cameras, very sophisticated software and hardware, and a series of good photos of the person sought. He had none of that and neither does any law enforcement agency in the county. He also found out about an affair from years ago with no indication that either of the lovers told him about it, or for that matter, any explanation at all of how he did. Admittedly, I’m a bit picky about that stuff because of my background, but these eye-rolling mistakes have the effect of taking the reader out of the credibility of the story. There’s also a major timeline error at the very end. Even so, I found myself engaged with the story and continually wanting to read the next chapter. At least she stuck to the old rule, “write about what you know.”

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Trends – Soccer vs. Tennis

Soccer is generally more poplar in the United States than tennis. Google searches on the two words usually favors soccer by a big margin. However, with Coco Gauff winning the U.S. Open recently, tennis has stepped into the spotlight. It’s interesting to see where tennis has broken through to Americans. Oops! I labeled it 8/6-13, but it should be 9/6-13/23.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and TomorrowTomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book about people, not plot. The main characters, Sadie Green and Sam Masur, are young brilliant people with a fascination for games. They grow up and found a successful video games company. They love each other, but are not partners, not of the romantic sort, at least they don’t seem to be in the early going. The author leaves that unanswered until the end. They fight; they reconcile. There are moments of triumph and joy and many tragedies and mistakes. Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, takes on the role of Sam’s protector and big brother and later game producer. He is as much a main character as Sam and Sadie. Many others, mostly from the game company, fill out the roster. The backstories on all the characters and their parents are fleshed out as separate short stories with the overarching novel. In a way this can be considered a high concept book. It is about story-telling, about life and love and grief.

Much as I enjoyed the book, it left me just a little disappointed, or perhaps more accurately, unfulfilled. I’m used to murder mysteries and spy novels and science fiction. I miss the plot. I like the idea of a goal being set and worked toward, whether it’s solving the murder, escaping a peril, or successfully creating a post-apocalyptic social order. The author writes beautifully and the characters are interesting. I think the author is a frustrated game designer herself. She certainly invents a number of them throughout the book and they’re fun diversions. But the book is more like taking a bus tour through lovely landscape just to enjoy the leisurely pace and all the visual treats, but ending up at the beginning, rather than running a marathon through that same countryside with a clear goal in mind. I had to fight off snatches of boredom here and there to reach the end, but I’m very glad I read the book.

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