Jun 30 2013

Book Reviews: Did Not Finish

I’ve fallen behind on my book reviews, so I think it’s time to clear out some of the ones I abandoned and probably will never get back to. These are the books I’ve given up on:

Eyes Like Leaves

I feel like I’ve been picking on Charles De Lint recently, so let me say up front that I’ve very much enjoyed some of his other books. (The Blue Girl, for instance, is one I’d recommend.) But I could tell by the second chapter this one wasn’t going to work for me. It’s actually a very early novel that wasn’t originally published, and in it de Lint’s style feels clunky and not yet quite professional.

An off-the-cuff heuristic I use for appraising fantasy novels is to skim a random page and see how many words are capitalized. There’s often an inverse correlation between quality and capital letters. In Eyes Like Leaves you get paragraphs like the following:

In his heart he knew the true struggle lay not with the Saramand, but with the Icelord of Damadar whose schemings had made raids such as this possible. Reflexively, his fingers shaped the Sign of Horns. He sighed. Not man nor wizard could stay the Mocker’s cold plans. For that the balancing strength of the Summerlord was needed. But Hafarl was gone and the Green Isles were at the mercy of the Lord of Winter.

See what I mean? Every fifth or sixth word is capitalized. It’s kind of a lazy shortcut towards worldbuilding—those capital letters say This Is Epic, but the work isn’t done to make it feel epic. The Icelord, aka the Lord of Winter, aka the Mocker (how many different titles does the dude need?) is bad, okay, and presumably our protagonist is going to have to fight him. Probably the protagonist will end up becoming the new Summerlord or whatever. The fate of the Green Isles is at stake. People will be throwing around the Sign of Horns like Texans at a football game. It all feels very rote and by-the-numbers. There’s nothing here that gripped me enough to keep reading.

The Affinity Bridge

Okay. Here’s the back-of-the-book synopsis, so you can see why I picked this one up:

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by unfamiliar inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, while ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen, and journalists.

But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side.

Queen Victoria is kept alive by a primitive life-support system, while her agents, Sir Maurice Newbury and his delectable assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes, do battle with enemies of the crown, physical and supernatural. This time Newbury and Hobbes are called to investigate the wreckage of a crashed airship and its missing automaton pilot, while attempting to solve a string of strangulations attributed to a mysterious glowing policeman, and dealing with a zombie plague that is ravaging the slums of the capital.

Awesome, right? Zombies. Airships. Steampunk London. Delectable Miss Veronica Hobbes. This all sounds like the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing—and I do.

Unfortunately, I found this one unworkable on a purely technical level. The writing itself was so clumsy and off-putting that I was unable to engage with the characters or the plot. There’s POV confusion, mixed metaphors all over the place, huge clonking wads of exposition thrust at the reader in the most intrusive way (one conversation between two characters is abruptly halted so that the narration can deliver a half-page summary of the economics of the airship industry in London and its colonies), and pretty much all characterization is accomplished through the tell-don’t-show method.

For example, page 25 gives us this sketch of the protagonist:

Newbury had been an agent of the Queen for nearly four years, and whilst he was typically engaged in some case or other—whether helping Scotland Yard or left to his own devices—he continued to maintain a position at the museum all the same. He was an experienced anthropologist, with a particular speciality in the religion and supernatural practices of prehistoric human cultures, and he often found his academic work had resonance with is work in the field. At present, he was engaged in writing a paper on the ritualistic practices of the druidic tribes of Bronze Age Europe. He’d hardly found time to touch it for a week, however, what with the string of bizarre strangulations occurring around Whitechapel and his desire to aid his old friend, Bainbridge, in the hunt for the killer. Discovering that the culprit may have supernatural origins had only solidified his resolve to see the case through to the end, and what’s more, the revelation put the case firmly and directly into his specific area of expertise.

Literally any other way of delivering this information would be more interesting and exciting. Our hero is a really smart guy and a specialist in old tribal religions? Perhaps we can learn that by watching him in action, or by having another character ask for his opinion. There’s a string of bizarre strangulations? Maybe we could learn about this when our protagonist is called to the scene of the grisly crime. What about his steely resolve and his expertise with the supernatural—can we learn about that through action and observation? No, no, we’ll just get a straightforward infodump while Newbury sits around his office thinking about the paper he’s not writing. Okay, that works too, I guess. I mean, maybe it might work for somebody. I was bored stiff.

If you’re in the mood for airships and zombies, I’d recommend Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker instead.

The Thief

I think I read this when I was younger, but re-reading as an adult I found the prose clunky (a common theme with books I abandon) and the characterization too thin to hold my interest. I noticed when I put in my Goodreads rating (one star, “did not like it”) that the consensus of reviews is that this book is only worth slogging through to get to the next in the series, which is supposed to be much better. So maybe I’m missing out.

Jun 27 2013

Hey Ladies


“Do I need a permit for these guns?”


Jun 26 2013

Ding Dong DOMA Is Dead


I can’t really write a coherent post today. I’m just so, so happy.

We’re going to take the boys into San Francisco tonight to join in the celebrations. It’s the first time since moving to Oakland that I’ve really ached to be back in My City. I need to be there tonight—I need to celebrate this with my people—and I want my children to have the chance to form memories of this historic day.

Updated with pictures:



I just kept telling Robin, “Look how happy everyone is! Remember that, when you remember today.”

Jun 19 2013

Before and After: Kids’ Room

Haven’t done one of these in a while! Here’s what the the room that’s now the boys’ bedroom looked like when we bought our house:

house 005

house 004

Here’s what it looks like now:



Sol is still sleeping with us, but in a couple of years we’ll swap out Robin’s bed (by the wall) for a bunk bed, so that all three kids can share the room. I don’t know that it’s a permanent solution, but it’ll do us for a while.

Jun 18 2013

Key Day


Robin graduated from preschool today. There’s actually another month of school left to go, but at the Peter Pan preschool the graduation ceremony is held in mid-June—I think because a lot of folks start leaving for summer vacation. It’s called Key Day, and each graduating child is awarded a big wooden key adorned with lots of sparkly bits, to symbolize that they can always come back to visit. After the kids get their keys they run across a “bridge” set up in the playground, which represents them “crossing over into the wider world of learning.” It’s a nice ceremony, with a generous, individualistic feel—it kind of captures the spirit of the co-op.

And as it happens, yesterday, we got a call from the Oakland Unified School District. After learning that we’d been wait-listed for our top-choice school (Urban Montessori Charter School), we kind of started scrambling around for a back-up plan. One of the things we did was to put in the paperwork for late admissions to various public schools in the city, knowing that Robin would only be offered a place in ones that happened to be under-enrolled. Since competition is fierce for spots in the district’s top-performing schools, I kind of figured that this whole process was a long shot at best. For whatever reason, though, it seems that Kaiser Elementary had a space open, and they’ve offered it to Robin.

A little OUSD inside baseball: There are three Oakland public schools that have test scores rivaling what you see at private schools. Those three are Hillcrest, Montclair, and Thornhill—not coincidentally located in the most prosperous sections of Oakland, up in the hills—and we did not even bother applying to any of these, as neighborhood kids get preference and those schools are considered so desirable that even living in the right zip code isn’t a guarantee of admission. We don’t live in the right zip code, needless to say, and anyway I’m pretty sure that there’s a wonky feedback loop going on involving: 1) the kind of parents who care about test scores more than anything else; 2) the kind of kids who have private tutors and get good scores on standardized tests; and 3) the kind of test scores that kids who go to Hillcrest, Montclair, or Thornhill tend to get. In other words, I am pretty darn sure that the quality of the schools has only a loose relationship to the strength of the test scores.

Be that as it may, there’s also a satellite constellation of schools located in neighboring areas—collectively known as the “hills schools”—that get decent test scores but aren’t quite so insanely difficult to get into, and as a result attract a more diverse set of kids. The hills schools include those already mentioned as well as Chabot, Joaquin Miller, and Kaiser. I did not expect to be offered a place at any of them, but we applied to Chabot and Kaiser anyway, because they honestly seemed like they might be good fits for Robin. What I want from a school is, basically, an extension of Peter Pan—a school that recognizes the value of creativity, freedom, and play. I want a school that Robin will love in the same way that he loves going to Peter Pan. I am convinced that kids have an innate drive to learn and that they do best when given the freedom to pursue their own interests along with the materials, support, and structured challenges they need to progress. I think worksheets are the mind-killer and that if school is boring, that means it’s broken. (School can be hard without being boring.)

The bottom line is—I’m pretty skeptical of America’s public school system in general and Oakland’s in particular, but I’ve heard good things about Kaiser and I’m willing to give it a chance. It’s kind of a miracle that we were offered a spot at all. It’s a fair distance from our house so transportation will be an issue, but there’s a number of former Peter Pan families that have kids there now, so we might be able to get a carpool going.

I think if Urban Montessori finds a space for Robin, we’ll probably still take it. But Kaiser is our default plan now.

Jun 15 2013



He’s only two years old for another few weeks!

Jun 14 2013

Forays into Millinery


Ages ago, I bought this cloche. It was on sale because it had lost its trim. I thought it would look sweet with a simple, thin, dark band. This was maybe fifteen years ago.

For some reason the stars aligned and I finally fixed it up. I bought the bunch of cherries from Judith M Millinery Supply House, and the grosgrain ribbon from The Ribbonerie, and I sewed one onto the other and voilà, now I have a fetching hat. Not too bad for a bumbling amateur!

Jun 13 2013

Robin’s Blessings

So, we have a little blessing that we say before eating dinner. We’re not a religious family—Sam and I both tend toward a vague kind of pantheism, a sense that we are all small pieces of something incredibly vast, and that the pattern in its wholeness is sacred and divine. But we reject the notion of a personal God or Hell or any of that jazz. I have more of an urge toward ritual than Sam does: there are plenty of things about the universe that inspire in me a deep sense of awe and wonder, and I like to make whatever small gestures I can toward participating in the holiness I perceive. For a while I thought we might even find a church to go to, like a Unitarian or a Friends group, something very liberal and individualistic. But Sam’s not really a “joiner” and, frankly, it’s nicer to sleep in on Sundays.

Our compromise is that we have some invented rituals we carry out as a family, and one of those is saying “grace.” I had to hunt around for one that was suitably vague, invoking no particular God, and I found it included in a little book called Bless This Food: Ancient and Contemporary Graces from Around the World. It’s a prayer composed by Father John Giuliani, director of the Benedictine Grange in Redding, Connecticut. Our very slightly modified version goes like this:

Bless our hearts
that we may hear
in the breaking of bread
the song of the universe.

We say it all together, holding hands. I do feel that there is something sacred about coming together as a family for the evening meal, and I wanted a small ritual to underscore that, a little moment of mindfulness and gratitude. And it’s worked out really well, it’s become a piece of our family identity. Children are innately ritualistic, I think, and the boys have embraced “saying the blessing” every night—to the point that they will protest if for some reason we try to skip it.

At the same time, though, Robin likes to play around with the words. Sometimes instead of invoking “the song of the universe” it will be “the song of the Power Rangers” or some such. And the other night he gave us:

Bless our hearts
I love you
You can eat noodles
Whenever you want
I love you

Which I thought was so sweet and hilarious that it deserves to be documented for posterity. “You can eat noodles / Whenever you want!”

Jun 9 2013

Book Reviews: Midnight Riot, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Frost Burned

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

I’ve had really good luck with books lately! I found two new series that I enjoy very much, both in genres that are clogged with mediocrity. One’s urban fantasy (set in the modern world) and the other traditional fantasy featuring a medieval-type setting. I really like both of these when done well, but the vast majority of new releases in both genres consist of derivative, formulaic drek, so finding a fun new fantasy series kind of feels like winning the lottery.

Midnight Riot

The Peter Grant books are directly comparable to the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher (another urban fantasy series that I quite like). Except that where Harry Dresden is a wizard P.I. in Chicago, Peter Grant is a wizard cop in London. I really enjoyed the British flavor in these books, and I found the main characters (Peter, his partner Lesley, and his wizardly mentor Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale) all compelling and well-rounded. The writing is workmanlike, nothing fancy, but perfectly serviceable. I plowed through Midnight Riot (which was originally published in the U.K. under the title Rivers of London) and its two sequels, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Under Ground, and I’m impatiently awaiting the next installment.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first in what looks to be a trilogy, though only the first two books are out so far. It follows the adventures of a master thief (the titular Locke Lamora) through a gritty medieval world. Author Scott Lynch made a little bit of a splash when he responded to a reader who accused him of “political correctness” for writing a female, non-white pirate captain into the series as a supporting character:

You know what? Yeah, Zamira Drakasha, middle-aged pirate mother of two, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. I realized this as she was evolving on the page, and you know what? I fucking embrace it.

Why shouldn’t middle-aged mothers get a wish-fulfillment character, you sad little bigot? Everyone else does. H.L. Mencken once wrote that “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” I can’t think of anyone to whom that applies more than my own mom, and the mothers on my friends list, with the incredible demands on time and spirit they face in their efforts to raise their kids, preserve their families, and save their own identity/sanity into the bargain.

Shit yes, Zamira Drakasha, leaping across the gap between burning ships with twin sabers in hand to kick in some fucking heads and sail off into the sunset with her toddlers in her arms and a hold full of plundered goods, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy from hell. I offer her up on a silver platter with a fucking bow on top; I hope she amuses and delights.

I read that, and in the minute that followed I went to Amazon and I bought The Lies of Locke Lamora. And if I have a criticism, it’s that Zamira doesn’t show up until halfway through the second book in the series (Red Seas Under Red Skies). But, you know, she’s worth the wait. I am grateful for Zamira Drakasha. I was, in fact, amused and delighted.

Frost Burned

On the other hand, I was disappointed by the latest entry in a different series I’ve been following. The Mercy Thompson books follow the adventures of a woman who can take the shape of a coyote, and the pack of werewolves that she runs with. It’s a wildly successful series and one that has (unfortunately) spawned a vast number of imitators. This is because the books are great fun.

Frost Burned, though, is the seventh entry in the series, and this one feels like treading water. It could’ve used better editing, too. Dialogue is clunky and characters do really stupid things just to push the plot along. I still like Mercy, but it felt like she wasn’t really there in this one. I half suspect Briggs of relying on an uncredited co-writer. Or maybe it’s just that she’s lost her passion for this series, but keeps writing Mercy Thompson books because they sell so well.

I think Briggs should branch out a bit, and come back to Mercy when she’s feeling inspired. Surely at this point they’ve both earned a break.

Jun 6 2013

Salmon with Lavender-Fennel Salt

It’s my birthday! In honor of the occasion my bff Nina has gotten me the bestest present—she’s flown across the country for a visit! I have planned out a meticulous itinerary of feasting, spa-tripping, and sitting around in loose-fitting clothes admiring our pedicured toes and talking about all the delicious food we have just eaten.

To kick things off, last night I made a dinner of raw oysters in mignonette sauce as a first course, a main dish of salmon with lavender-fennel salt and pan-seared asparagus with shaved parmesan, and a fruit and cheese course consisting of fresh peaches, blueberries, and a wedge of St. Pat cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

Nina said she wanted the salmon recipe so here it is!

salmon fillets

You start with four wild salmon fillets, skin-on, about six ounces each. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Check your salmon for little bones and pull them all out. Then combine a teaspoon of black peppercorns, a teaspoon of coarse sea salt, a teaspoon of fennel seeds, and a teaspoon of fresh lavender blossoms. Grind it all up using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. (Keep grinding until the peppercorns have all been turned into pepper.)

Brush your salmon fillets with olive oil on both sides and lay them, flesh side up, on the baking sheet. Season them evenly with the lavender-fennel salt, pressing it firmly into the salmon. Bake for about thirty minutes or until a food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the salmon reads 140 degrees.

(Recipe adapted from The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market Cookbook.)