The Princess in Black has a Party (and Smashes Monsters)!

My daughter so far loves the sequel to the Princess in Black, but I am a little less enthused. A lot of the magic of the first installment is still present, but I can’t help but think the girl power themes are a little diminished.

Princess Magnolia is having a birthday party and has invited twelve princesses from around the kingdom. But just as they are getting ready to open presents the monster alarm rings and the Princess in Black is called to stop monsters from eating goats. And this continues to happen over and over again forcing Princess Magnolia to find different party activities to keep the princesses from discovering why the alarm repeatedly goes off. There are some cute scenes and the last confrontation between the Princess in Black and a monster is endearing.

However, where in the first book there was a tension between the nosy Duchess sneaking around the castle looking for secrets and the Princess in Black trying to defeat the monsters in time, the main conflict here seems to be Princes Magnolia’s desire to open presents being disturbed by her super hero duties to stop monsters. This to me feels like two very different kinds of conflict, and though the Princess in Black never shrinks from her duties, she does get very annoyed. In the first book there was an emphasis on the contrast between what our expectations of princesses were and what they could be, the refrain “Princesses don’t wear black” repeated several times. Here, Princess Magnolia is expecting a perfect princess party.

Of course, I’m an adult looking far too deep into this and my daughter is just enjoying reading about the Princess in Black. What is actually happening, probably, is that Princesses can be what ever they want to be and Princess Magnolia/the Princess in Black moves effortlessly between her identities, the princess who wears pink and the one who wears black.

I was disappointed to see the next book doesn’t come out until next February. It’s about a horde of hungry bunnies. Can’t wait.

The Princess in Black has a Party (and Smashes Monsters)!

We are all Zeroes

Zeroes, by Chuck Wendig, is a fun fast paced novel about hackers and a secret government program. The action comes fast, quick, and violent which keeps the tensions and the stakes high while moving the plot forward at break neck speed.

For the most part, Zeroes was an enjoyable read and seems tailored made for the world we live in at the moment. It is hard to miss the digs at internet privacy and the US government’s spying programs. When the science fiction elements start to kick into high gear towards the latter part of the novel, familiar motifs and themes reveal themselves, though some of these might not be to everyone’s taste if they were expecting a straight up thriller. There isn’t much new here, the characters can seem stereotypical at times, and scenes and plot elements a little contrived, but these don’t do much to detract from a taut thriller. Besides, Wendig’s objective seems to be detailing a world without privacy, and it is indeed a scary place.

Goodreads has this labeled as Book #1 so it looks like it is a series in the making. This is somewhat telegraphed in the book and was actually one of the things that I found frustrating as these scenes, sprinkled through out the book, set up what I thought to be a big plot reveal but turned out to be nothing more than a meaningless red hearing pointing at future adventures. It will be interesting to see where this group of hackers goes next, however.

We are all Zeroes

On the Bus From Tolkuchka

We were crowded in the back of the bus from Tolkuchka, the largest open air market in central Asia and once shopping spot of Marco Polo. It had been an outing planned by our Turkmen tutors to get us out of the class room and into the real world to practice our Turkmen competence. It went swimmingly and I managed to buy a sweater for the up coming winter without forking over all my money. We were now headed back to the village where we were staying during our three month training, but it required a few transfers.

We were hot, tired, and probably a little hungry, so we rode in silence. Buses in Turkmenistan are generally void of conversation and the only noise usually comes from someone listening to music on their phone. I noticed a man staring at us from across the bus and elbowed my friend, Victor.


Staring was nothing new, though we received it a little less in the capital of Ashgabat. Almost no one talked on the bus and given our status as Americans, it could be risky talking to us anyways. However, this guy didn’t look Turkmen. He didn’t look Russian. He had a dark complexion, black hair and wore khaki pants and a shirt. The chances of a random diplomat being on a crowded bus was pretty slim. Not many foreigners visited Turkmenistan as it was a difficult place to travel to, and only being in Turkmenistan a couple of months, I hadn’t met any. Though, over the course of two years I would meet several travelers. Seeing someone so distinctly not Turkmen or Russian staring at us on a bus was a new experience. My paranoia started to take over. Why was this guy staring at us?

“Excuse me, are you Americans?” He had an accent, but otherwise it was perfect English. Now alarm bells went off and I started to think about all the security training we had up until then. Don’t give out information. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t be out after curfew. At least, I remembered them as very serious protocols. Probably, it was less paranoid dictates and more common sense advice.

“Yes, we are,” said Victor. I gave him a look but this man spoke English so I couldn’t say something like, “Why are you talking to this man, clearly he is a spy!?”

“Why are you here?”

“We’re Peace Corps volunteers. You?”

“I’m an Iranian truck driver.” Ironically, that should have put me at ease. Why would a spy tell us he was Iranian? But then, that’s what they want you to think, right?

To give a little context for my distrust and suspicion, at this time, then President Bush had put Iran on the list of Axis of Evil and had been making rather provocative statements. We were a little worried that war would break out and that we would be sent home, as Iran and Turkmenistan are neighbors, and Ashgabat lay very close to the border. On a different outing, we had climbed some of the foothills to the south of Ashgabat and could actually see Iran across a double fence line. It wasn’t that I thought Iran was evil, I didn’t. It was just that in my state of mind at the time I could have been talking to the Pope and probably thought he was spy.

My friend nodded. “Between Iran and Turkmenistan?”

The man sort of shrugged his shoulder and nodded his head. “Up to Kazakhstan.”

My friend nodded. Like it was no big deal. Like we all knew that Irainina truck drivers do runs from Iran to Kazakhstan all the time. In my mind the guy was practically telling us he was smuggling weapons and drugs. Russia is next to Kazakhstan, right? Nevermind the guy was in one of the most paranoid countries in the world. Our mail and packages didn’t make it to us without being opened and a few snacks stolen. It was doubtful that a truck made it across the entire country of Turkmenistan without being searched several times. None of this crossed my mind.

“What’s your name?”


My eyes grew wide. I had visions of this man finding us in our tiny village, as part of some strike force. No, worse. The Peace Corps Country director would call us into his office and sit us down.

“Boys. We lost the war. They knew exactly where to hit us and they hit us hard.” He’d shake his head in remorse. Then slide a picture across the desk. “Do you know this man?” We’d nod; tell him about the bus. “He gained valuable intelligence from that conversation and was able to get across the border before we could stop him. It helped Iran win the war. Why didn’t you follow the security protocol?” Then we’d be sent home with guilt hanging over our heads.

All this was going through my mind when the man turned to me.

“And you?”

I was startled but said the first name that popped into my head.

“Bob.” Victor rolled his eyes. The man chuckled.

“Nice to meet you…Bob. I’m Ahmed.”

Then he got off at the next stop. Perhaps I’d seen too many movies where the shady man asks too many questions and ends up knocking on our heroes door the next day. I might have also been in the middle of reading The Great Game, detailing how Russia and the British Empire fought over Central Asia in a high stakes game of espionage, war, and exploitation. Also, a little of the paranoia displayed by the government may have crept into my psyche and I saw duplicity everywhere. Culture shock? Homesickness? Who knows. We never saw the man again. And no one came knocking on our doors. We made it back to our host village and continued our training and eventually I stopped seeing everyone as nefarious.

On the Bus From Tolkuchka

The Princess in Black Smashes Monsters!

My life is filled with princesses. Seriously. The great thing is that my daughter oscillates between domestic affairs of princesses raising babies and princesses kicking butt. About half the time I hear, “You’re a bad guy and you’re going to jail!” followed by swishes, whooshes, and the sounds of plastic being slammed together. So, I was over joyed when a children’s librarian colleague of mine suggested The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale. This a fantastic book and my daughter instantly fell in love with it.

Princess Magnolia is the traditional princess in pink except that she has a secret identity as the Princess in Black who fights monsters that pop out of holes in the ground to eat goats. She is visited by a nosy Duchess that believes princesses don’t wear black and threatens to uncover the Princess in Black’s secret. Can the Princess in Black defeat the monsters? Can she keep her secret from being discovered?

This is a delightfully illustrated tale filled with humor and action. It is a bit of a mash up of chapter book, picture book, and comic book and this works surprisingly well to keep the interest of my four year old who is used to shorter works.

One of the more amusing parts was when the goat herder in distress, Duff, starts to ponder the similarities between the Princess in Black and Princess Magnolia while the Princess in Black tangles with a monster. Could it be true? Either way, he is inspired by the Princess in Black which is a pleasant twist on more traditional super hero story arcs.

The sequel comes out soon and I’m sure my daughter can’t wait.

The Princess in Black Smashes Monsters!

Review: Consider Phlebas

Consider PhlebasAfter reading Ian Banks amazing novel The Algebraist, I thought I might follow that up with one of his earlier works and picked up Consider Phlebas. I really wanted to like this book and at times it showed promise. However, it seemed to wander from adventure to adventure, straying far from the original conflict (upon reflection, I realize The Algebraist also wanders quite a bit, but its seems its myriad of scenes connected back to the main conflict in a way that the scenes in Consider Phlebas do not). And I did not like the ending.

This novel is also the first part of the Culture series of books. It follows Horza, a changer, and agent of the Idirans who are at war with the Culture. At the beginning, Horza is tasked with locating a lost AI of the Culture. It then follows Horza as he runs into space pirates and cannibals, and escapes a large spacecraft. Horza’s hate for the culture comes through loud and clear and he is willing to put up with the Idirans’ religious zeal in order to stop the unnatural Culture.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the book were the many supporting characters. In particular, Horza’s love interest, while showing signs of agency early on, quickly falls into a cardboard cutout seemingly there to give Horza purpose and motivation. I won’t go into details but the story arc of this character began to telegraph itself late in the book and I groaned a little when my predication came true.

Banks is dealing with big ideas here, mainly the clash of cultures and futility of war, and it could be that the plot and characters took a back seat to the exploration and consequences of those ideas. In that respect, the novel is a success. However, the somewhat cynical ending was a little much for me. It won’t put me off from reading more from Banks, however.

Review: Consider Phlebas

Privacy vs Efficiency

library-488670_1280My library recently changed it’s procedure for users to pick up their items on hold. In the old system, a label with the user’s name was adhered to the spine of the book. The books were then placed on a shelf for users to come and find the books themselves. The general trend in libraries is for as much self service as possible and this set up (along with self check out) allows for a pretty streamlined user experience. Put the book on hold at home, wait for the email notification that it has arrived and then pop in to the library, grab the book, and checkout. Pretty quick. A user can spend three minutes in the library, tops, and avoid the judgmental stare of us librarians.

However, giving even a little thought to this set up reveals privacy red flags. Your name is right there! Want to know which of your neighbors are reading Fifty Shades? Whose checking out parenting books but hasn’t told you they’re expecting? Whose checking out divorce books shortly after the Ashley Madison scandal? Just browse the holds shelf.

The new setup fixes this by taking the names off and using a combination of initials and abbreviated card numbers. This is great for user privacy and maintains the ease of self service. This is a good example of a library taking proactive steps to protect user privacy.

Yet, despite all the warnings about privacy we’ve received lately, users seem rather ambivalent. They want the old system back. After I explain we did it for privacy reasons, they scoff. The old way was better. This was a mistake. It’s too difficult. They have to remember to bring their library card with the number on it. What?!

The Internet and the world really try hard to take a person’s privacy away and make it difficult to get it back. One can’t function in the world without having an online presence on numerous websites that always seem to want to know everything about you. Add to the that the burden of having an unlimited number of hard passwords stored in your long term memory and maintaining privacy becomes a chore akin to mowing the lawn with a push mower when its ninety degrees outside.The library was making it easy; doing all the work.

Here are a few more examples of what most libraries do to protect user privacy: by default, check out history is not kept, public PCs delete everything after a user session, to reveal what is on an account a library card or photo ID is required, and requiring warrant before any user information is released to the police or law enforcement.

I imagine this is a case of “I don’t have anything to hide so why should I care? I just want to check out my book.” I can understand that sentiment. But our users could be LGBT kids, students researching a controversial topics, or someone with a health condition. It’s a good policy and is a rare example of an institution taking user privacy seriously.

Privacy vs Efficiency

Carrying Buckets of Water

BucketsMy wife and I are from Texas, so when we heard that Turkmenistan, the country where we’d serve our Peace Corps mission, was a desert we thought we’d feel perfectly at home.

“Your shirt is frozen.”


Our room was small and situated along the wall next to the garden of our host family’s home. My wife stood at the door, holding the clothes we had left out to dry that morning. We had only been on site for a couple of days, having come from Ashgabat in a van, an eight hour drive across the desert. She had closed the door but held up a shirt that looked more like a white plank of plastic than a cotton pull over.

“How’d that happen?”

“It’s really cold outside. And its snowing.”

I jumped out of bed and looked outside. Indeed, I could see the big heavy flakes falling in the compound lights. The sun had only gone down an hour or so before, so the fact that my shirt was frozen was extraordinary.

“Good thing we got here when we did.”



We awoke to our host mother calling. She was a widowed doctor and ran the house like a determined matriarch. Her grandson and daughter, lived with her, while her other two sons lived out of town.


We stumbled out of bed and got our clothes on. We hadn’t expected to be awoken so early. Neither one of us needed to be at work for quite a while. When we opened the door we were greeted by half a foot of snow blanketing the garden. Off on the other side, beneath the car port, our host mother stood, holding buckets. As soon as she saw us she started talking in Charjoski, the regional dialect that was a wild mix of Turkmen, Uzbek, and Russian. Our training was in Turkmen, so we had no idea what she was saying.

“I think,” said my wife, “she’s saying something about water.”

We walked over to her and then she went to the spigot that faced the garden and turned the knob. Nothing came out. She then looked at us and spread her hands wide, as if we could some how will water to pour forth. She walked us outside and to the street where another spigot appeared to be working. The concrete around the spigot had been broken apart and dug up and a small fire roared, presumably to keep the pipes warm. Another neighbor was already carrying a bucket away. I was very relieved that water was close at hand. We carried several buckets into bathhouse and filled large drums.

“This will probably be thawed by tomorrow,” I said. We lived in a desert after all.


It was not thawed the next day and we soon found out that the temperature had fallen to -20° F. We bucketed more water in, but by that evening the spigot outside our house was frozen. We now had to walk to the end of the street. A couple days later that one had frozen and it dawned on us that the pipes were not buried far enough underground. Why would they? They lived in a desert! It would be up to 120° F in the summer.

Finding water became a sort of expedition, liking searching for oil, wandering around the neighborhood to find a working spigot. The joy of finding flowing water would be short lived as by the next day it would be frozen. We started following the wandering crowds with buckets. By the end of the week, the only spigot left was several blocks from our house, at the edges of the neighborhood. A sign was posted above the spigot in Turkmen demanding that no one turn it off. Beneath it was a frozen pond, the water flowing in drips over it. We filled our buckets and by the time we reached our house the top layer of water was frozen.

The water was frozen for over a month and we developed a sort of routine of waking in the morning and getting water, going to work, returning home, and getting more water. It was the worst winter in Turkmenistan in twenty years. We had arrived at site just a couple of days before the storm hit and had not had contact with any volunteers since arriving. Part of this was mandated by Peace Corps as they wanted us to acclimate to our new homes before seeing Americans again. However, the roads had become inaccessible. There was no way for volunteers to get to the city if they had wanted to. Slowly, though, the process reversed itself, and the pipes began to thaw. Just a day before my wife’s birthday, when we were expecting a group of volunteers from the village, our host mother screamed that the water was back on. We were relieved.

When the volunteers came, we heard stories of how they had survived. Cows had died during the winter. There were rumors that a volunteer in another region had eaten pigeon. They spoke about how they couldn’t get water to boil because there wasn’t enough gas in the distant villages. The gas lines first ran through the city where we lived, the large population sucking most of it for themselves. The villages at the end of the line barely had a whisper of gas coming out. Suddenly, carrying buckets of water didn’t seem so bad. We had food, gas, and a warm room.

We drank vodka and toasted to the beginning of our adventures. We had just survived the worst winter to hit Turkmenistan in twenty years. We could take anything.

More Tales From Turkmenistan

Carrying Buckets of Water