The best books I read in 2013

In 2013 I read a lot of books, thanks to my commute to work and the miracle of audiobooks. Here are some of the great ones I read this year. It was supposed to be a top ten list, but I narrowed it down to thirteen and didn’t want to leave any more out and hey, lucky number. So now you get a top thirteen list for the same low price! The books are listed in some particular order.

The Casson family series by Hilary McKay

These books are funny, heartwarming, and British. They follow the lives of a family with all ages represented, except elderly. Think Beverly Cleary’s Ramona for older readers, only more British and funny. Saffy’s Angel was published first, but I recommend going chronologically, starting with Caddy’s World. I highly recommend reading the audiobook versions Audible has; the narrators do an amazing job with the voices. Because really, you need good British accents to go with the funny British dialogue.

The Once and Future King

This is an odd book. It’s a bit all over the place in tone, as it is in five parts and some are very different. It begins with the part that was made into the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone. Then it gets a little silly, then more serious, and then ends with more of the philosophical stuff that the first part had (which Merlin taught via various transformations into aminals, if you remember the Disney film). I’m not describing it very well, but overall, it’s a really good retelling of the Arthurian legend, with a bunch of 20th century philosophy mixed in.

The Paddington Bear series

Paddington is super classic, so everyone’s probably heard of him, but have you read all the books? You should. They are funny, and enjoyable for adults as well as children.

The Riyria series

This is the best new fantasy series I found last year. It’s got swords, magic, political intrigue, wonderful characters, and masterful pacing. It was originally self-published, because apparently traditional publishers have questionable taste in books, as has been shown by the popularity and critical success of this series. After it did really well, it eventually got picked up by a publisher. It has great characters and each book has its own arc as it tells an overall epic story. Now two additional, prequel books have been released which take place back when the two main characters first met. I read them in publication order, but in the future I’ll read them chronologically; either way works. Although the main series (called the Riyria Revelations) is six novels, you will now find it as a trilogy of two-book omnibuses, so it’s a very good value indeed. I recommend the audiobook, which is available from Audible.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This is the final volume in the largest and most awesome epic fantasy series ever. If you’ve read the Wheel of Time series before, then I don’t need to tell you to read this book. If you haven’t, then you should start with book one, The Eye of the World.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I decided to give Dickens a shot, because he is super famous and I figured I’d see what all the fuss was about. Previously, I’d only read A Christmas Carol. This tells the story of a chap named David Copperfield. It’s Dickens, so all sorts of depressing stuff happens, but there’s humor and inspirational awesome bits too, as well as many great characters, so while it’s not as exhilarating and fun as the Wheel of Time or something like that, it’s great and I can see why it’s a classic.

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

If you read my feature on the best books I read in 2012, then it shouldn’t surprise you that I’ve chosen a Shirley Jackson book. She’s my favorite author (taking the distinction from Robert Jordan, who previously held it and who in turn had taken it from William Sleator). This is not as good as We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House, but’s still fantastic if you like psychological gothic fiction.

The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson

Basically, ditto. I don’t want to get into plot details because I think they are best discovered as you read the book. Kudos to Penguin for getting these back in print.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I like Steinbeck’s books; they remind me of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century books and Michael Sullivan’s Riyria books, even though they are not fantasy or science fiction. I don’t feel qualified to explain why this is a good book, but it is. It’s about people who lived in California back in the day and is pretty epic in scope, covering about a generation while focusing on a couple families.

Hikaru no Go by Yumi Hotta

This is an excellent series, and I’m including it here with the caveat that while it is in fact a series of graphic novels, the animated show is better because the music and voice acting are really good. It’s about a boy who meets the ghost of a go player, who wants him to let him play go (the boy is the only one who can see the ghost, so the ghost needs him to place the stones on the board for him. It’s a great lighthearted drama and coming of age story, and it has a lot of go in it. Go is, in my humble opinion, the best game ever and anyone who disagrees is a dummy head. As opposed to chess, computers cannot beat strong human players yet, so it’s a deeper game. It’s big in Asia where it’s played professionally, but not as well-known in other parts of the world (although the US has now 3 pros with its own new professional system). I play go and study it under one of the strongest players in the US, and you probably will want to give it a try as well if you start watching or reading this series. It has that effect on people; the world go-playing population about tripled when this came out. You can watch the animation on Hulu or read the books on the Kindle (they are black and white so you can use a Paperwhite).

The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

This is a novel that is basically Hikaru no Contract Bridge, only instead of a ghost it’s a blind grandfather. It’s by one of the best children’s authors ever, and I think it’s his best. But I like mind games like go and bridge, so your mileage may vary. One thing he does that is cool is that it provides two explanations of whatever bridge concept is relevant to the story: one is short and just gives the basic understanding you need to understand the scene, and the other is detailed so if you want to take the time, you can learn what is going on in detail. That means if you don’t care about bridge you can just read the short versions, and if you think it’s interesting you can learn more. The story and characters are great, and all the characteristic Sachar-ness that made other books like Holes so good is there in full form.

Snow Day by Robert Hawks (writing as M. T. Coffin)

Looking at the cover, you wouldn’t expect this book to share a list with the likes of Steinbeck and Dickens. It looks like some Goosebumps rip-off about an evil snowman. To be fair, the Spinetinglers series is a Goosebumps imitation. However, it’s written by several authors, and one of them, Robert Hawks, was far better than a series like this has any business having. Also, take a good look at the evil snowman before opening the book, because you won’t see any more of him inside. It’s got nothing to do with evil snowmen. It is brilliantly written, with weird and awesome chapter titles that double as the first sentence of a new viewpoint or scene, and I think it was my first introduction to non-linear storytelling. I read it when I was a kid and it was weirder than the usual Goosebumps-type material I’d been expecting, and it left an impression. For that reason, I recently tracked down a copy of it and read it again. I was still impressed. I went and found some more books by the author, and I’m looking forward to reading them.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This is another classic that I’ve always wanted to read. A graphic novel called Bone and another novel on this list, The Card Turner, both mention it, which motivated me to give it a try. It’s really good. Some people think it’s slow, and since Melville doesn’t do what Sachar does and let you skip the detailed whaling explanations (Sachar mentioned that he was trying to avoid that pitfall of this book), you better be interesting in whales and whaling, or at least willing to learn about them. There’s a good story and a lot of philosophizing, and even some humor at times, so as long as you are interested in the random tangents, philosophy, and whaling, it has a lot to offer. I can understand why not everyone can get into it though. One thing that really helps keep it interesting is the brilliant performance by William Hootkins that I got from Audible. The guy is an amazing narrator and really brings the story to life, even the bits about whale anatomy.

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The Adventures of John Steinbook, chapter 1

John Steinbook looked at his watch as he waited for his bus. He wondered why it was on that man’s wrist. Then he realized that it was not his watch. But it still told the time. It was time for his egg.

He got his hard-boiled egg out of his pocket. Hard-boiled eggs for hard-boiled detectives, his mum had always said. Those were words to live by. So he lived by them. He gave hard-boiled eggs to every hard-boiled detective he met.

John Steinbook saw his bus arrive. He queued with the other people, including the man who was not wearing his watch, John Steinbook’s that is, it was probably the man’s watch, and got into the bus. But if it wasn’t the man’s watch, then it was stolen. John Steinbook was glad he had an extra egg to give to a detective in case the watch was stolen.

The bus stopped outside John Steinbook’s bookstore. He owned a bookstore. He was also an author. He would write books behind the till whilst no one was making a purchase. He wrote exciting books about adventures. Some were about hard-boiled detectives, and others were about other things. Sometimes people bought his books on accident because they got him confused with John Steinbeck, the famous American author. He tried to soften the blow by writing almost as good, about similar things, only more exciting. The Mice of Wrath was an exciting book about warrior mice who retrieved the stolen grapes and saved Oklahoma. It was popular except for the boy who’d gotten it mixed up with his assigned book and received a bad mark on his English essay.

John Steinbook unlocked his store and went inside. He set up for the day and flipped the “CLOSED” sign around. It was useful. It told people outside the shop that the shop was open, and he hoped they would get confused if they tried to leave his shop because the back of the sign said “CLOSED” and then they would think the outdoors were closed, and would stay and buy more books. He did not realize that this would mean they wouldn’t buy any books because they would have time to read them in the shop.

John Steinbook sat down at the till and got out his writing notebook. He was in the middle of his latest book, East by Northwest, and exciting adventure about Carey Grant in Salinas, California. He had just got to the part where Mr. Flask was chasing a cloned Alexander Hamilton with a crop duster.

The door made a ringing sound as a customer entered. He seemed an ordinary man, but there was one problem. THERE WAS NO BELL ON THE DOOR!

Flash fiction

Someone on IM requested a story while I was busy working, so I wrote this in a minute or two.

Once upon a time in a faraway land there was a king who was married. His wife was the queen. Their daughter was the princess. The princess also had a brother, who was the prince. Their house was a castle. They lived in it.

One day an evil fairy stole the whole land. Since they were an isolationist state, their change in location didn’t affect them, as the evil fairy lived in a similar climate. They all changed their clocks and got on with their lives. The fairy was more of a hands-off kind of evil fairy. They all lived happily ever after.

The End.

Knowledge

Here are some interesting things that you might not know:

  • Have you ever wondered why French people are called frogs? It is because they are amphibians.
  • The first vacuum cleaners were used to remove all the æther between the planets that was mucking up space. That’s how they got their name. Once space was clean, they were repurposed to clean carpets.
  • The original dictionaries were schools run by eagles in their nests, where they taught young eagles to speak clearly. These “diction aeries” were common until a spider monster named Webster destroyed the eagles and made a book version of their learning.
  • There is a common myth that fresh spring water is so named because using a spring to launch a bucket of water into the air faster than the speed of dirt will make the water fresh. This is not true; rather, it merely means that due to their weight, water buckets should be launched into the air with a fresh spring, and not an old rusty one.
  • Ireland was originally a theme park about ire. But after dealing with all the irate customers, they rebranded it as a country instead.
  • Geese are actually ducks with exoskeletons made from feathers. Ducks use these exoskeletons as armor in their eternal war with the swans.
  • Ever wonder why romance novels always have pictures of a guy missing his shirt? Back in Roman times, romance novels were scary stories about ants that lived in Rome. These “Rome ants” would scurry into unsuspecting Roman men’s shirts, and they would remove them to get at the ants.
  • A frequent misconception one often hears is that Icarus had wings held together by wax until he flew too close to the sun and fell. This is actually just a myth.

I am a terrible poet

Haiku, a haiku

First, five syllables

Then use seven syllables

Five more syllables

Haiku, another haiku

This is a haiku

Notice that it has the right

Syllable amount

What is that noise

A random buzzing

Comes in with the summer breeze

Through my room’s window

Lunch

I ate a sandwich

It was all right but not great

I used too much cheese

Haikus

Poetry is hard

But haikus are not so bad

They are pretty short

Darn

I want a castle

But they are too expensive

For a grad student

Conservation

There are seventeen

Syllables in a haiku

So don’t run out of

Sorry

If you’ve read this far

You have read all my haikus

I apologize

Goldilocks and the Forebears

Once upon a time there was a girl named Goldilocks because she was born late on a Friday night and the new shipment of normal names comes in Saturday mornings. Goldilocks was very curious, like another famous character with a name beginning with a ‘G’, albeit a much more normal one. One day she was walking through the woods and came upon a cottage. She knocked on the door but no one answered. There was a sign on the cottage that said “Genealogical Centre”.

Goldilocks decided that waiting for the employees to come back was for chumps. Not considering herself to be of that particular demographic, she used a rock to disengage some annoying glass from the door, reached through, and unlocked it.

Once inside, she flicked on the light. She saw three machines on a table, each with a roll of film loaded on the spools. She sat down to look at the first machine. The display had records from hundreds of years in the past. “This film is too old,” she said.

Goldilocks moved over to the next machine. It was displaying records from hundreds of years in the future. “This film is too new,” she said.

She moved over to the third machine and looked at the display. It was showing the archives relevant to her family history. “This film is just right,” she said.

Goldilocks was looking at her grandparents’ records when the Centre’s director returned from his lunch at El Porridge Loco. She spun around as he entered. He scowled at the broken glass and demanded, “Did you do this breaking in here?”

Goldilocks thought hard. She explained, “I saw aliens breaking in and followed them inside to stop them from marauding! I just chased them off!”

The director raised a skeptical eyebrow. Actually, the rest of him was skeptical as well. But only the eyebrow was raised.

Goldilocks realized that story was too far-fetched. She said, “Did I say aliens? Breaking in? And that I chased them? I meant to say that I broke the glass and unlocked the door to get in.”

The director got angry, “I’ll call the magistrate to report your crime!”

Oops, Goldilocks thought. That story was too near-fetched. She quickly cleared her throat and said, “Sorry, I had something in my throat that may have caused you to misunderstand. I saw that the glass was broken when I walked by, so I came in to see if there was a problem.”

That story was just right. The director was mollified. He let Goldilocks finish doing her genealogical research.

Goldilocks figured it was time to head home. She bade the director farewell and walked towards the door. She looked outside and just barely had time to dodge back before a radioactive alien laser bio-missile shot past, into the Centre. The detonation tore through the cottage, destroying it. Fortunately, the radioactive bio-explosive alien laser blast spliced into Goldilocks’s genes, giving her superpowers before she was obliterated. She flew all around the world, blowing aliens up and saving humanity.

On second thought, that ending was too exciting. Goldilocks actually just left the genealogical Centre and went home, did her homework, ate barley soup for dinner, and went to bed.

Sorry, that one wasn’t exciting enough. What really happened was this: Goldilocks started walking home along the forest path. When she was halfway to her destination, a wolf stepped out in front of her. It growled and prepared to spring for her throat.

Goldilocks looked around for a weapon. She saw three objects to the side of the path: a spoon, an aircraft carrier, and a sword. She began reaching for the spoon, but caught herself. She wondered, why do I always go for the first two suboptimal choices? Why not just go for the third thing every time? Is that even allowed?

Feeling slightly guilty, she ignored the spoon and aircraft carrier, and grabbed the sword. It felt just right in her hand. She swung at the wolf as it leapt at her, and chopped off its head.

She continued home, amazed at what she had done. Life would be so much simpler if she just went for the third item every time! She lived happily ever after except for one unpleasant day when, on her lunch break on her first day as a subway engineer, she chose a rail to sit on while she ate.

The Magical Kingdom

Once upon a time there was a magical kingdom. Everyone in the kingdom was magical, but their powers were all mundane. For example, Mr. Brown had the magical ability to fish. This did not mean he was any good at it, or even that he liked it. He just had the power to hold a fishing rod dangling over a body of water. Although this ability was magical, in fact it was identical in efficaciousness to an ordinary person’s ability to hold a fishing rod over a body of water. Likewise, everyone in the kingdom had a special magical ability to do something just as well as everyone else could do it without magic.

One day, the captain of the King’s Gourd decided to do something about that. He was in actuality the captain of the king’s guard, but the king made a spelling mistake and tried to pass it off as deliberate, saying that the guard was, in point of fact, primarily in charge of protecting his gourd (he rapped his head with a knuckle at this point to indicate what figurative gourd he meant), although not to the exclusion of the rest of his person. The Gourd captain’s name was Sir Pethinor, and his magical ability was to breathe through his nose. He was glad of the ability, but thought that magical powers ought to be a bit more powerful. He began to study the dark arts during his lunch breaks. He had some limited success, learning how to breathe through his nose evilly, but it still left a bit to be desired. He decided a quest was in order. He put on his magical armor (which magically protected him from blows up to but not exceeding the force required to puncture or dent the metal) and took up his magical sword (which could only be removed from stones by the One True King, or anyone else) and set out on his quest.

He began by visiting the village of Tumpledon, which was where witches lived. He asked for Madame Grizoul, the most magical witch in the kingdom. A helpful lad helped him gladly and directed him to a large house on a hill near the center of town. Sir Pethinor tied up his magical horse and walked up the walk and knocked on the door.

“Enter!” came a voice from inside the house. He entered.

There was an old woman there, stirring a large pot. “Is that a magic cauldron?” asked the knight.

“Yes, it is! It magically holds liquids while they are heated!” she cackled.

The knight was disappointed. It didn’t sound like her magic was any better than his. He decided to ask anyway, since he was there already.

“I am looking for magic that is more powerful than the lack of magic,” he said.

The witch looked up from the cauldron. “I might know the secret to that, but if I did I couldn’t tell you. But I might say that your magic works very hard to stay ordinary. It wouldn’t do for it to make you worse at breathing through your nose than normal people, would it?”

“How did you know that was my power?” cried the knight, impressed.

“Silly fool, everyone can tell what others’ powers are just from looking at them!”

“What? No—”

“—thing’s easier, I know. Now, I’ve told you I can’t tell you, but I’ve told you enough anyway. Be off with you!”

The knight left her house, confused. She hadn’t made a lot of sense. But she did seem to be able to tell what others’ powers were, and that was definitely real, proper magic that actually did something extraordinary. Why did she think everyone could do it though? Maybe she was just crazy. He wondered if being crazy were the key.

He shook his head and begin riding home. Something still bothered him about what she had said. He was lost in thought trying to figure out what it was when he realized the bridge he was crossing was blocked. Two rough-looking men with halberds stood in the way, and he noticed that others were moving to surround him.

“What’s this? Out of my way! I am a royal knight of—”

“That’s enough talking. We ain’t here for talk, just your money. And your sword,” said one of the bandits.

Sir Pethinor said “Oh, you want my sword, do you? Well, I’m all too happy to oblige! Ha!” He drew his sword and began to lay about him with it. Unfortunately, the halberds gave the bandits better range and he soon felt himself yanked from the saddle by a hook. He yelped as he hit the ground and struggled to get up, but he was quickly disarmed. The bandits searched him and his packs as he indignantly protested. Finally, the bandit who had spoken before came and demanded that he remove his armor. It was the most valuable thing he had, and his father had given it to him. It was magical, but that particular feature didn’t increase its value.

“Never!” cried Sir Pethinor.

“We’ll throw you in the river in a minute, so it’s really just to save you from drowning. We’re not such bad types,” the bandit said with a smile. “And it is easier to remove knight armor if the wearer is cooperative, so let’s help each other out, eh?”

This isn’t good, thought Sir Pethinor. It’s drown or lose my most prized possession. If only my magical ability to breathe through my nose worked underwater. Why must magic be so useless?

He remembered the witch who had been able to see his ability. What had she done? She hadn’t seemed to know she couldn’t do it? Would that work? Maybe if he thought it would work, it would? He began trying to convince himself that his ability would work underwater.

“Well, it’s no skin off my nose!” said the bandit. “We’ll tie a rope around you and haul your armor back up when you’re done with it!” If you won’t let us remove it while you live, then we’ll see how recalcitrant your corpse will be!”

Sir Pethinor was briefly surprised that a ruffian knew such a big word, but then went back to thinking about how well his ability would work underwater. He began to believe it actually would, and so he smiled at the bandits as they tied a rope under his arms and began to push him off the bridge.

He splashed down into the water and sank like a stone. He hoped the armor wouldn’t rust. He’d have to give it a good oiling when he got back, since he could totally breathe through his nose magically and would, in fact, get back. He decided to give it a try.

Water rushed into his nose as he began to inhale, and he snorted it back out with the remaining air in his lungs. It wasn’t working! He hadn’t been able to fool himself. Did he need to be more convinced? But the witch had seemed like she knew she was fooling herself. She’d even interrupted him when he’d tried to correct her. She must have known what he was going to say.

Sir Pethinor suddenly realized the answer. The witch hadn’t been trying to fool herself into thinking it was normal to be able to see others’ abilities. She’d been fooling her magic! He needed to make sure his magic thought that breathing through the nose underwater worked for everyone and was normal. Except he was underwater and couldn’t talk. Oops, too late, thought Sir Pethinor as he began to lose the struggle not to pull more water into his lungs.

Then he felt himself moving upward, tugged by the rope under his arms. He gasped as he breached the surface, sucking in huge gulps of air. He heard laughter above him. “We decided to give you one more chance to give up your armor willingly! We won’t stab you when we get it off, we promise!”

“What care I for a dip in the river?” scoffed Sir Pethinor, only gasping a little now. “Everyone knows you can just breathe through your nose when you need air underwater! It was fun to hold my breath just now, but if you leave me under any longer I shall go ahead and breathe air through my nose down there, as anyone could!”

The bandits looked confused. “You think you can breathe underwater?” asked their leader incredulously. “Are you crazy? Don’t think we’ll let you go by pretending to be nuts. That’s the magistrate’s court you’re thinking of, not bandits. We just want money.”

“I’m perfectly sane,” declared Sir Pethinor. “Haven’t you ever tried it? You just breathe through your nose!”

“Ha! Then why do people drown then?”

“I supposed they must have been trying to breathe through their mouths at the time. Too bad they didn’t think to use their nose.”

The bandit leader gave him a strange look and then said, “Well, good luck with that!”

Sir Pethinor felt the rope go slack and he sunk back to the bottom of the river. OK, he thought. Let’s hope my magic doesn’t realize I was bluffing. He tentatively breathed in through his nose, and he found that he was inhaling air! I can’t believe it! It worked! He quickly wiped away his grin so his magic wouldn’t see his delight and get suspicious. He continued to breathe in and out through his nose as he wriggled out of the rope and began walking away. He walked down the riverbed until the shore was out of sight of the bridge and then walked up the bank.

“That was a bracing walk! I should do that more often. I have no idea why I haven’t done that before!” he said for his magic’s benefit, although he realized that he meant it. Walking underwater was pretty cool. He couldn’t tell anyone about it though; he had to keep his special ability secret so his magic wouldn’t catch on that it was a special ability. Oh well, he thought, at least I got away. And my mission was a success even if I’m the only one who knows. He began to walk home.

Night fell as he walked, and he began to make out a flickering light ahead. A campfire? He crept closer and saw that it was a campfire, with laughing people sitting around it. As he approached, they began to look familiar.

The bandits! He quickly dropped to his belly so they wouldn’t see him. He could see his horse tethered to a nearby tree. He thought about pretending to be his ghost, but decided that would be too risky. Better to wait until they go to sleep, he thought. But what then? He couldn’t leave them to be a scourge to travelers, but he didn’t want to sneak around slitting their throats either. That didn’t seem very nice. They had had the decency to give him a chance before drowning him, hadn’t they? If only the rest of the King’s Gourd were here to arrest them! Then he had an idea. He began to mumble to himself, too softly to be heard over the laughter around the fire.

The bandits were surprised when Sir Pethinor suddenly walked up to the circle. “A ghost!” cried one, scrambling away from the knight.

“Don’t be stupid” said the one who had spoken on the bridge, making Sir Pethinor glad he had decided not to try that gambit. “He must have made it to shore somehow. But he’d definitely a loony, to deliver himself to us again!”

“That’s not why I’m here,” said Sir Pethinor. “I’m here to arrest you in the name of the King’s Gourd!”

After a brief silence, the bandits laughed. “You ought to make sure you’re not off your own before you worry about the king’s!” cried one of them.

“I’m perfectly sane,” said Sir Pethinor. “I am not just any knight; I’m the captain of the Gourd! And judging from the moon’s position, right about now the rest of the Gourd is armed and in formation, ready for nightly inspection at the castle.”

The bandits looked a little lost. “Does he have a point or can we rob him again?” said one of the bandits.

Sir Pethinor smirked and said, “Not this time. Now it’s my turn to rob you! Only legally, so it’s actually confiscation of property, not robbery.” And with that he reached up to his face, covered his right nostril, and sniffed. Instantly, he was surrounded by his legion of guards. Sir Pethinor knew they were at least as surprised as the bandits, but through their armor visors it wouldn’t show if their expressions were anything near as humorous as those on the bandits’ faces.

“Drop your weapons, foul bandits!” he cried. The bandits were mostly still holding their dinners, but they dropped what they held and raised their hands in surrender. Sir Pethinor ordered his men to seize the bandits and their loot.

As they obeyed, the bandit leader looked around in disbelief. “What just happened?” he said to no one in particular.

“You don’t know?” Sir Pethinor smirked. “Don’t tell me you don’t know about how any Gourd captain can instantly summon all the other guards by inhaling sharply through his left nostril! Or, come to think of it, how he can also return to the castle with them, along with any confiscated goods and prisoners as they may have acquired, by repeating the process with the other nostril!” And before the incredulous bandit could argue, he covered his left nostril and brought them all back to the castle with a sniff. The bandit leader looked at Sir Pethinor’s nose with wonder.

He ordered the prisons readied for the prisoners, and said to the bandits, “Well, you are in a lot of trouble. But if you cooperate you may be given another chance at life by working off your debt to the kingdom.”

As a groom led his horse past, toward the stables, some dust from its flank tickled his nose. He felt for his handkerchief, but realized his armor was on over his pockets. He tried to hold back the sneeze, going “Aaaah, aaaaah—”. He looked around hurriedly to see if there was something nearby to use for a handkerchief, distracted from the bandit leader’s words. “…so if you think I’ll bow and scrape for you nobles—” The bandit broke off his words midsentence, his eyes widening in horror. “Wait! I was just kidding! I meant to say we surrender! We’ll work off our sentence! We’ll do what you want, just whatever you do, don’t sneeze!”

The Bering Strait Bears and Too Much Ice

Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Cub, and Other Cub After the First One lived in a tree house in Siberia. One day, it was the ice age so it was too cold for trees in Siberia, so their house died. They decided to move to America, Land of Opportunity™. They didn’t know what opportunities is was a land of, but they decided that it probably had the opportunity to not live in a frozen dead tree in Siberia.

Papa Bear made a sled and Mama Bear packed their things. The cubs had a learning experience about responsibility or health or something like that. Then they were ready to go. Most of their possessions were loaded on the sled, although there wasn’t room for all their cheese.

They set out, heading northeast towards the Bering Strait, which was the most convenient way to travel from Russia to America, although there were signs warning of closures due to being underwater. Papa Bear sighed, mumbling something about how sea levels weren’t what they used to be. They continued on, crossing the land bridge and arriving in Alaska. Then they kept going until they got to California.

In California, they settled in the Salinas Valley, because that’s where great Californian novels are written and they wanted this to be a good book. They had a farm and found a new tree and it was all very meaningful and thematic. They named their new home “Pulitzer” with this book in mind, and began to till the soil. They decided to give their cubs real names and called them Aang and Cable. They chose these names because one was the avatar, and the other set up high-speed internet in their tree house.

They lived there in California, until they died, and then stopped.

The End

The best books I read in 2012

I am very busy, but I have a lot of audiobook listening time. I have a long commute and I always listen to books while I exercise (even while swimming, thanks to my waterproof armband and headphones). So I figured I could get through a lot of books this year, and in Goodreads’s reading goal thingummy I chose 100 books. By the end of the year, I had read 128. I liked most of what I read. On a scale of 1-5 stars, I only gave one book a 2, and the rest were 3-5. A book I think is decent gets a 3, a book I really like gets a 4, and a book I try to make everyone I know read because it’s so awesome gets a 5. The average for the year was 3.96, with one 2, seventeen 3’s, ninety-six 4’s, and fourteen 5’s.

Anyway, since I read a ton of books, I thought I would make some recommendations from some of the books I gave fives to:

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I was browsing Audible for audiobooks and saw this book recommended to me. The cover looked creepy but it was the weird title that really got my attention. The reviews were very positive, so I downloaded it and listened to it on part of my drive to Seattle last June. It was much better than I could have hoped. It turns out that Shirley Jackson is a classic author who gets read in schools (except my school dropped the ball and we never read her short story The Lottery). There is even an award named after her, and several of her books are published as Penguin Classics. This books really is a classic. It is told in the first person by an unreliable narrator who is an unsettling yet very likeable character. She is one of my favorite characters in any book, and it’s the way she sees the world that make the book so unique. She is hard to describe, so I’ll just give you a sample. The book begins with this paragraph:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

After reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I had to read the other book Audible had by Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House was also narrated by Bernadette Dunne, who is brilliant with both books. I recommend both audiobooks, but this one should especially be listened to so that you can read it with all the lights off. It is a very scary haunted house story. Like the other book, it has a great unreliable narrator. It’s not a gorefest like modern horror movies; the horror is more psychological in nature, creating a sense of mounting dread in parts and just creepy weirdness in others, with some moments where you and the character come to a sudden horrible realization. It’s great. The Wall Street Journal said it was “now widely regarded as the greatest haunted-house story ever written.” Read it in the dark.

Railsea by China Miéville

This book is strange and awesome. It feels like an old literature kind of book, but takes place in a science fiction world where people live on mountains amid huge expanses of train tracks. The tracks are so thick that trains can go anywhere just by remotely controlling switches ahead of the train. Thus, this is a sea adventure, only with trains and no water. And instead of fish and whales, there are dangerous and huge creatures that burrow underground, so falling overboard is at least as dangerous as falling into the ocean would be. The book is inspired by Moby Dick, but different (it’s not the story of Moby Dick in another setting). While Captain Ahab was notable for his obsession with the white whale, in this strange world it is typical for captains to have an animal they chase obsessively. The story begins with a boy who works on a train with people who hunt for giant moles with harpoons. The story is good, but it’s the imaginativeness of everything, the brilliant writing, and fascinating world and characters that made this book stand out for me.

The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg

The Soul Mirror is actually the second book of the Collegia Magica, a fantasy trilogy. They are about magic users in the upper levels of the society, with the royal magician and family and friends of the king. I gave books 1 and 3 each four stars, but the second one had a particularly great story arc, so it made this list. The main strength of the trilogy is the characters. They are so believable and interesting. They have hidden depths that feel genuine as you discover them, so as you get to know them better they feel increasingly real. You learn where you had wrongly pigeonholed them as additional layers of their character are revealed, just as with real people. There is a mystery at the heart of the story, but it’s much more than just a mystery story. Read The Spirit Lens first. You must not read these out of order!

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

This is the first of a series of American steampunk books called The Clockwork Century. If you like steampunk, then you’ve probably already read them. If you think brass goggles and all the steampunk aesthetic are stupid, give this a try anyway. It’s really just a historical fiction novel with airships (whose existence is justified) about an alternate history of the later 1800’s. In this version of America, the civil war has gone on for a long time, so it makes sense for technology to have kept going (hence airships and other steampunkish machines). Some of the devices in the books are actually based on real historical attempts at making new machines. I picked up Boneshaker for two reasons: I liked the audiobook narrator, Kate Reading, and the book takes place in Seattle, my favorite city outside of Europe. The book was much better than I’d hoped. As the introduction explains, in this alternate frontier Seattle, a drill unearthed a poison gas that made the city uninhabitable, and turned the people who didn’t get out in time to “rotters” (i.e., zombies). The survivors built a wall around the city to keep the gas and rotters inside and live on the outskirts. Boneshaker takes place mostly inside Seattle, and has great characters and some awesome scary moments. Cherie Priest is brilliant at scary and suspenseful scenes, and she creates a wonderfully creepy sense of atmosphere. I like all of her books that I’ve read, but for now I’ll recommend this one and its sequels, which take place all around the country (or countries, since the confederacy and Texas are separate).

My Favorite Movies of 2012

I saw eleven movies this year, so I thought I’d make a top ten list, but include the eleventh film so none of the movies will feel left out. I liked all of them, so I don’t mind having all eleven in the top ten.

11. Mirror, Mirror

This was a fun melodrama. It reminded me of The Great Race. It wasn’t as good, but the prince was a funny Great Leslie sort of person, and the queen was funny.

10. The Avengers

This was a good superhero movie, although I’m not crazy about it. It’s not even in the same league as The Dark Knight movies. Maybe I’m getting too old for summer blockbusters or I’m just not that into comics, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with it. It was well done and fun to watch, and that was it. But special mention goes to Loki, who is the coolest, so I was sad when (SPOILER ALERT) he got defeated. Hopefully he is in the next Thor movie a lot. In fact, they should just make Loki and How He Outsmarted Everyone. I liked him better in Thor, when he was mentally a step ahead the whole time as a trickster god should be.

9. Brave

This is my favorite Pixar movie, mostly because it has the most archery and Scotland. The story is all right and the visuals are amazing, but the accents! And the archery! And the Scotland! It was awesome. If you don’t have Scottishness as an important criterion on your list of things a movie should have lots of, then I can see why you might not like it as much as I did. But either way, it’s fun. See it in 3D if you can; the visuals deserve it.

8. The Amazing Spider-Man

This was a good origin story. I enjoyed it even more than the one that came out last decade. But the 3D spiders in the opening title gave me the willlies.

7. Skyfall

This was a good spy film in the tradition of the post-Bourne era. Less cheesy fun, more realism. The ending part of the movie was gorgeous. I love old architecture and it features a lot of that. This film also made me realize that Christopher Nolan could do a Bond film. Before I thought Bond wasn’t right for him, much like how Nolan isn’t who you’d get to helm an Adam West Batman movie. But James Bond has matured like Nolan’s Batman did, so at this point a Nolan Bond movie makes sense, and would be really awesome.

6. Life of Pi

This isn’t the type of movie I usually see, but I’m glad I did. It’s a great movie as a movie, and also an amazing visual experience. Like Hugo and Avatar, it shows what 3D can do in a skilled filmmaker’s hands. Do not watch this in 2D. Find a friend with a 3D TV and watch it at their house. With their permission of course. I am not advocating trespassing, just to be clear. To summarize: Life of Pi is good, and watching it in 2D is bad (and so is trespassing).

5. John Carter

This movie was a fantastic adaptation of a science fiction classic. The problem for many critics was that it was a little too classic. Like, it was so classic that every fantasy and science fiction adventure story after was built on the foundation it created. So when the hundred-year-old story finally came out as its own movie, it felt derivative because people had already seen what it inspired a hundred times. But remember that it came first, and enjoy it as a fun adventure movie in the old style, and you will like it too.

4. The Secret World of Arrietty

This film is ridiculously pretty. It’s got an old house, a beautiful garden, and Studio Ghibli made it so the animation is gorgeous. And the sound is even more fantastic, with household sounds magnified from the small people’s perspective to make the house seem huge and cavernous (which it is to them). The story and characters are great, and better than the books (it’s based on the Borrowers series). And last but not least, the soundtrack was done by Cécile Corbel, a French Celtic musician who is amazing. Buy all her CDs now. I don’t mean to judge, but if you don’t like her music, then you are probably a bad person who hates kittens and Christmas too.

3. The Hunger Games

I had read the book, and the movie did a fantastic job of adapting it. It had to entertain the audience with a violent movie about how violent entertainment is bad. It relied on suspense, not action, and did the opposite of glamorizing violence. It made the horror of being selected for the games, or entering the arena from the safe, festive pre-game area feel much more real than the book did.

2. The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan is my favorite filmmaker. He is awesome. His movies are always smart, exciting, and just really good. Inception is my favorite movie ever, and I love his Batman movies as well. This one was a brilliant finish to the trilogy. Hans Zimmer outdid himself again with the soundtrack.

  1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Hypothetically, suppose there was a movie that was boring, but watching it would cure you of cancer. Well, I guess first suppose you had cancer, and then make the previous supposition. Surely the film would be your favorite movie of the year. Giving The Hobbit the number one spot is for analogous reasons. The Hobbit was great as a movie, but it was not the best movie of the year. However, as an adaptation of an epic fantasy classic, it was brilliant. Epic fantasy fans love worlds full of backstory, so it feels like a real place and not just a backdrop for a plotline and some characters. The Hobbit doesn’t relentlessly follow the plotline, and in another movie I’d just call it plodding pacing. But for those who grew up reading about the mythology of middle earth, it’s a delight to spend some quality time there without a constant race to tick off the plot points until the finish. The Dark Knight Rises was a better film, but The Hobbit is special as a new way to experience Middle Earth, and for me that transcends the value of being a better movie.

Thank you for reading my blog! Stop now if you wish to avoid the anti-Luddite ranting part and have a nice day! Especially if you are a Luddite who doesn’t want the error of your ways pointed out to you.

Speaking of The Hobbit, there have been a lot of complaints about the high frame rate (HFR) in The Hobbit. Peter Jackson film the movie in 48 frames per second, which made the movie look much smoother than the 24 fps pretty much every other movie has been in. The camera could pan and move faster without annoying judder and jerkiness, and everything just looked a lot more real, like you were watching a play where the stage moved around and could zoom. It was unlike the 24 fps movies we have all gotten used to. According to polls, most people like the smoother video once they got used to it, and enjoyed how it was no longer the jerky slideshow that we have come to associate with cinema. But a vocal minority have complained that it ruins the magic since it doesn’t feel like a movie. It does take some getting used to, and no, it doesn’t feel like a 24 fps movie. Oh no, change! There are two ways we can go from here:

  1. We can get used to movies being smooth instead of jerky and have headache-free 3D and a new era of cinematography as filmmakers learn to do new things with the new capabilities of 48 fps.
  2. We can whine about taking the few hours total it will require us to become accustomed to the new format and thus condemn cinema to the jerky, blurry format we were stuck with until recently due to technical (i.e., not artistic) reasons.

I would select the first, but a depressing number of people select the second, so I had to drive 30 miles to see The Hobbit properly the second time since theaters decided not to bother if people would complain anyway. Does film need HFR? No, no more than it needed HD or color. But as with color and HD, people like to create false dichotomies in an effort to discourage progress, because it means change when the status quo is easier. For example, people have said things like, “I prefer a good storyline to ____,” where ____ is the latest technical advance in film, such as HFR, 3D, color, sound, etc. But it’s not one or the other. Did being 24fps and 2D do anything to improve the latest Adam Sandler movie? Change for change’s sake is not necessarily good, but it is foolish to resist change for status quo’s sake. HFR takes getting used to, but it’s worth it.