Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

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My fourth book of 2020 was the nonfiction book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. I picked this up after watching HBO’s The Inventor on my flight back to the US after our Tokyo vacation.

I was so struck by the narrative Holmes creates around herself, and the bafflingly flimsy structure of the Silicon Valley startup model. Holmes, a bright woman from a well-connected and well-educated family, dreamed of being a rich and powerful businessperson. But her aspiration for business success outweighed her aspirations for nearly anything else, eschewing college to start a company in which she seemed less interested in the science and more interested in the market need for novel medical devices.

If you somehow missed the bizarre story of Theranos and its wide-eyed CEO and founder, Elizabeth Holmes, it’s essentially the story of a company over-promising and under-delivering so many times that the over-promising became flat-out lies, and the under-delivering became laboratory mismanagement, obfuscation, and fraud to such a scale that people could have died using the “technology” Theranos was creating. 

The device in question: a blood-testing machine that used minuscule amounts of blood to conduct elaborate health tests, and which could allow its users to forego expensive, potentially physically taxing traditional blood draws. The Edison machine was the first prototype of the device, with the 2.0 version dubbed “miniLab” never fully coming into operation.

There was only one problem with the Edison machine. It was criminally inaccurate.

The results varied so greatly, the information it provided put patients at risk. It was so inaccurate, at one stage in its usage by test trials in Walgreens stores, Theranos wasn’t even running the blood through its own technology for every test…it was often using Siemens blood analyzers and acting as though they were using their own proprietary technology.

Holmes modeled herself after Steve Jobs and truly considered herself a revolutionary mind in the field of blood analysis, despite having no medical training or engineering skills to speak of. She hired amazing scientists and engineers to work for her, though, which you’d think would start to legitimize the company. However, she and her boyfriend Sunny, the president of the company, had a lot of opinions about the work, which made progress on the devices impossible. Work that they themselves could not do! I just can’t understand why you would hire NASA-level biochemists and then tell them that their math didn’t match an esoteric idea of what a good invention is. It’s the complete antithesis of imposter syndrome.

And it worked, for a while anyway. Holmes amassed millions of dollars from investors during her time as CEO, and even after the Carreyrou report hit the Wall Street Journal, many of those same investors stuck by the company.

The impossibility of what she was trying to create aside — and the specifics she wanted were exactly that, according to dozens of experts working for her over the course of the company’s life — the business itself was also run very poorly. High security and surveillance, verbal abuse, loyalty pledges, every conversation potentially litigious, and laboratory management below the bare minimum. The reports of former employees working for Theranos are heartbreaking and horrendous, with some employees even being tailed by private investigators.

The book devotes itself to these stories, the employees and investors duped by Holmes’ big promises and glossy marketing. From multiple perspectives, across a decade, the entire ordeal seems doomed from the start.

There was no way to create the technology she pitched without modifications.

There was no way to run multiple kinds of tests on such a small blood sample.

And if somehow these first two issues were overcome, there was absolutely no way to create anything meaningful without substantial dedication to research and development.

But because Holmes refused to listen to any of these people, and because they were forbidden to share information with each other (yes, really), the buried problems mounted privately as Theranos became more profitable publicly.

From the book, it’s obvious that Holmes at least partially believed in her own importance to the world through the creation of the Edison machine, and the miniLab. But she never put anything meaningful behind the practicality of it. She never compromised or deviated from an image she had in her mind when she was very young and very inexperienced in the industry, and she ignored all the regulations that would have guided the company to a more viable product.

It’s also obvious that things might have gone differently for the company if Sunny Balwani had never become involved with Holmes, as he escalated personnel situations far beyond what any reasonable professional would do in a functional workplace. He was a vindictive man who threatened anyone who dared question the god-status of the startup.

Carreyrou weaves together a fascinating story of innovation and fraud, ego and despair, and ultimately the hubris of the tech bubble of late capitalism. He also skillfully creates an unbelievably compelling character study of real people, and the ethics they either choose to abide by or ignore in the face of a complicated moral failing. It was a great read, and a close look at one of the most captivating “rise and fall” stories of the last ten years.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Bay area cocktails while speaking to a confidential informant.

 

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The Threshold Series by Peter Clines

Happy New Year, sweet book bbs. I have just finished Patricia Lockwood’s delightful memoir Priestdaddy, my first book completed for 2020. It’s lyrical when it’s funny as well as when it goes deep into her fiercest recollections, and so many moments are simultaneously both. Her audiobook reading has the added benefit of Patricia’s impassioned impersonations of each of the members of her family, so fascinating and stark that I hear her version of her younger sister in my head when I reread the first line of this post.

Sweet book bay-ya-baaaays.

I highly recommend it, but today I am actually going to talk a bit about a series of books that my husband and I have come to love, Peter Clines’ trilogy (as of this writing…could there be more!?) referred to as The Threshold Series.

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The series consists of three books: 14The Fold, and Dead Moon. It’s a loose series, and one you could conceivably even read out of order! Each book takes place in the same narrative universe, with different characters and scenarios in each one. My personal favorite is the first one, 14. It’s about an apartment building that’s just strange enough that all the tenants are a little confused, though not frightened, by its structural oddities. Light fixtures that only emit black light. Randomly locked doors. Floor plans that don’t meet at the correct angles. The most suspicious aspect is the rent: well below the standard for the outskirts of Los Angeles. Did they get a good deal on a rickety old building, or are they part of something profoundly weird? This book has an extremely likable cast of characters, as the tenants gradually form a group of apartment explorers. They meet on the weekends to look at the sunset, have a beer, and follow clues about the building’s history. The more they discover, the more questions they seem to have.

In the second book of the series, The Fold, the weirdness is front and center. A man with some unusual intellectual abilities is called to investigate a research team that believes they have, more or less, invented a teleportation device. The facility is deeply protective of its information, but rumors are starting to get out in the infosec community. Erratic behavior, secret meetings, and promises of the impossible. Science fiction is no longer fiction at their R&D center, so how is it that the wildest part of the operation…is the scientists themselves?

The third book in the series is called Dead Moon. It is about the colonization of the moon. And it contains many zombies. I think that is all I can properly tell you about this one, lest I give away too many good bits.

I know what you’re thinking: “How are these books related in a series?” But friends, they definitely are! It’s up to you to read the books and figure out the common theme. These slow-burn science fiction stories have excellent action, horror, and humor. The audiobook narrator, Ray Porter, lends a lot of heart to every voice and fills out the world in a remarkable way.

What were your favorite science fiction stories of 2019? What are you looking forward to reading in 2020?

Rating: 5 out of 5 Heinekens on a Southern California rooftop…that might be humming? Slightly?

 

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A Ranking of Tokyo Coffee Shop Chains

This fall, I went to Tokyo with Joe and our friend Jeremy, and we met up with another old friend once there. It was one of the best vacations I’ve ever been on, and while I did not read on the plane as I had planned (thank you, melatonin tabs and free in-flight HBO) I do still have some content for this blog: we had coffee every single day of our trip!

So, here’s my personal ranking of the coffee shops we visited while in Tokyo. (While Tully’s and Starbucks are also available in America, there are some key differences in their marketing and products for Japanese consumers.)

1.) Tully’s Coffee

This one tops the list by quality and proximity. There was one located downstairs from our AirBNB, plus they opened early and closed late. The Royal Milk Tea, Honey Milk Latte, and Green Tea Swirkle are all excellent. Bonus points because, as mentioned, the proximity is king. There is a Tully’s on nearly every major city block, and at every train station. We also consistently managed to get Wi-Fi here to check our maps and iMessage our local friend.

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2.) Starbucks

Not as prominently spotted as Tully’s, Veloce, or some other shops we didn’t get a chance to try like Dotour, but one I wanted to try since I could make such a clear comparison to its sister stores back home. We stopped at a very nice one in Ginza and watched the sunset over Nihonbashi Bridge. Their distinctive Japan-only holiday flavor is strawberry cake rather than peppermint, and I am 100% won over.

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3.) Caffe Veloce

The service is very fast and the drinks are quite good. I had the Matcha Float a few times but was *shattered* to learn that acquiring their promoted holiday cat-cup-hanger was a very involved process. To console myself, I bought a bear keychain. At Tully’s.

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Honorable Mentions:

Suntory Vending Machines

Many bottles of green tea, milky coffee, and sodas were the benevolent result of Japan’s expansive vending machine system. You can buy drinks with coins or by tapping your train card. The USA needs to get on this level.

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Tower Records Cafe

We stopped here after walking from Harajuku to the epicenter of Shibuya — about eight miles. We were very tired and the drinks were some of the most expensive we bought while in the city. My companions tell me the coffee was good. I bought a really elaborate cotton candy Ramune drink and retied my shoelaces several times, trying to improve the circulation. It makes the list for being highly photogenic.

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When it Feels Like the End, Keep Going

christmas tree

Season’s greetings, book lovers. It’s been a while. I am prone to long hiatuses on this blog, but this one’s been a little different. I noticed that my last review was in the late summer of 2017. This shouldn’t have surprised me, and yet it sort of did.

I started school full-time that semester, picking up a second major in graphic design. I started a new job, a part-time contract position that has now become my full-time career in a place I love.

It was also the last season I would have with my mother. She passed away on December 29, 2017. She began exhibiting symptoms of her decline in late September, the colon cancer she had courageously fought for eight years finally migrating and finding root in her brain.

My mom was an incredible person, and part of the inspiration for my vow to read 25 books a year. My dad is also a lifelong bookworm. We even had a competition that year to see who in the house could read the most; I think Mom would have caught up to Dad and Joe if she hadn’t been so ill. My mom loved to read, and I have vivid memories of her throughout my entire life sitting on the sofa with a cup of coffee (black, preferably Gevalia, never ever artificially flavored) and a hardcover book, a Danielle Steele novel or a devotional or just something she saw at a book sale that looked “neat.”

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Part of the way I processed my grief during that time was to stay busy. I added a certificate in web development to my degree track and started interim/winter break classes just a few days after her funeral. My husband and I moved into a new house. Admittedly, I made myself busy in ways that didn’t involve the most emotional and artistic bandwidth. I took up coding in Python. I watched the same three or four TV shows over and over. I stopped drawing for a while, except for school assignments. (I still haven’t quite gotten back into it as much as I did when I was drawing at my parent’s dining room table, chatting with them while I worked on charcoal homework and doodled forest animals.)

I did keep reading, though. In fact, in the year after losing her, I read almost 30 books. I read nearly nonstop. It was the thing I did to get back into my head while sorting through my strange new life without her, and I will forever be grateful to John Darnielle, Jeff Vandermeer, Aaron Mahnke, and many more for reminding me that sometimes, it will feel like the end of everything. The worst thing happens. The world becomes incomprehensible to you, and you have no idea what is next. But you just have to keep going. The story won’t finish itself. 

I have updated The Books section to reflect the last few years of books. My favorites, in no particular order, have been Foe by Iain Reid, 14 by Peter Clines, The Terror by Dan Simmons, The Institute by Stephen King, Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, Mindhunter by John Douglas, Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix, the Lore collection by Aaron Mahnke, the Area X trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, and I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara.

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I wrote an essay about my mom’s tiny superstitions in early 2018 if you’d like to know a little more about her, or really me, too, I guess.

If you have lost someone close to you, I am so, so sorry for what you have experienced. Griefshare and other support groups exist in many communities at no cost and can be an amazing source of comfort and motivation. Additionally, The Order of the Good Death is a death-positive online resource that provides a lot of information about death, grief, funerals, and society’s understanding of mortality. There is a blend of light-hearted and deeply insightful content, and its founder has several books out on the subject. These are some of the things that have helped my family.

Lastly: Read. Talk to people whose company you enjoy. Cook fun things. Stay healthy. Say their name. Say it as often as you’d like, and remember them with joy.

And always, always drink good coffee.

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Six Months Later, Part I

It’s been almost six months to the day since my last entry, when I completed The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. You might be pleased (surprised?) to learn I have enjoyed so many books since then. So many! I have finished fourteen books in the last six months, which — if you have followed this blog for any length of time — is a lot for me.

Audiobooks are pretty much my main jam these days, what with busy, painty, charcoal-smudged fingers and lots of driving being fairly big components of my life, but it’s all good. (Did you know that your brain recognizes content gathered via listening comprehension and reading comprehension the same way?)

Since I have so many books to review, and since I have Certain Feelings about so many of them, I am going to break this up into several entries, for my sake and yours.

Let’s get to the books!

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#3. The Fireman by Joe Hill

I received a signed copy of this in hardback novel form from my husband, Joe. It is proudly displayed on a bookshelf in my office, but I was nervous to carry it around town, so I downloaded the audiobook version of this on Overdrive and occasionally read some passages out of the book. It’s a doozy of a story: a wild epidemic sweeps across the United States, perhaps the whole world, which causes people to break out into “Dragonscale” markings all over their body. When agitated or panicked, the sufferer bursts into flame.

We see this epidemic through the eyes of Harper Grayson, a school nurse obsessed with Mary Poppins and expecting her first child in the midst of what looks like the apocalypse. The first third of the book is riveting and epic, as we see how people are reacting to Dragonscale as it spreads. Apartment buildings burn to ash every other day, the Internet goes deep underground, and rabid radio hosts declare Dragonscale a biblical act of world-cleansing. Harper tries to stave off her own terror by caring for the infected as a nurse and humming cheerful songs to herself while her husband becomes unhinged with paranoia and dread. One night during a shift at the overwhelmed local hospital, Harper meets a man dressed as a fireman caring for a shy young boy. He seems to know more about the deadly spore causing the spontaneous combustion than he lets on, but nobody can survive its blaze…right?

This story then pivots pretty sharply into what I will describe here as an unusual refugee camp for Dragonscale sufferers who have not yet burst into flame. There is A LOT more to it than that, but as the story of Dragonscale tightens in geographical proximity, it sprawls out with conspiracy and good old-fashioned “People Are the Real Apocalypse” character arcs very reminiscent of Hill’s father. It remains compelling but for different reasons than the threat of self-immolation. Which…says a lot.

Rating: 4 out of 5 cartons of summer camp apple juice.

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#4. Fellside by M.R. Carey

Joe and I listened to this audiobook on a road trip to a college friend’s wedding in Iowa. It is an incredibly even-paced story about memory, redemption, and ghosts. Yes, ghosts. (It’s M.R. Carey, it’s going to be good-weird.) Sent to the infamously cruel women’s prison, Fellside, for her potential role in a child’s murder, Jess Moulson is a heroin addict trying to remember the last days of her life before she woke up in a hospital as an arson suspect. Her dark feelings and fragmented memories lead her to a strange, dream-like place where she meets a lonely spirit who doesn’t remember who they are. Could this be the young boy for whose murder she’s being charged? Can he help her remember the events of his death?

In the midst of all of this, can she survive Fellside itself? It’s an ominous place led by the ruthless inmate Harriet Grace and her numerous cronies, with several people in positions of power also caught in her web of violence. There are a lot of things working against Jess, most of all her own sense of guilt and confusion.

I really loved this book, it felt like a fairy tale hidden inside a mystery/crime novel. It is very different than The Girl with All the Gifts, so I am sure some fans of that probably didn’t connect to this one in the same way. But I thought it was wonderfully written, and it’s a must-read for the adventurous genre-surfer.

Rating: 5 out of 5 mugs of black coffee.

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#5. The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber

This one was recommended by a friend of mine, and it was a great rec indeed! First and foremost, the absolute avalanche of research and investigation in this book is so impressive. It’s a true crime story that encompasses so many different players over such a a long period of time: hospital staff, family members, detectives, whistle-blowers, etc. This book does its homework and then goes back for extra credit, and it never feels dry or unnecessary.

Charlie Cullen, later dubbed “The Angel of Death,” was a nurse who worked for sixteen years across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It is almost impossible to estimate how many people he killed by intentional overdose and excessive medical intervention. His motives have always been equally hard to nail down: he was delivering neither mercy nor vengeance in his action, and all of his victims appear to be random. While the questions surrounding Cullen are disturbing, perhaps more disturbing is that many hospital staff members suspected Cullen of foul play over the years, but little more was done than transfer him on to other hospitals. Graeber goes in depth to explore not just how Cullen committed his crimes, but why he was allowed so much continued access to patients in spite of red flag after red flag.

Rating: 5 out of 5 cups of ice chips brought in by an overly helpful night nurse. Actually, um, can maybe someone else bring me something?

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#6. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This book was…fine. It reminded me a lot of Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood, which I read last year and didn’t love. We have an unreliable narrator in Rachel, a troubled woman who spends lots of time riding trains. She enjoys seeing a young couple in one of the neighborhoods she passes going about their life — a happy-looking wife out in the garden during the day, the wife and her husband eating dinner together in the evening. One night, she sees something incredibly out of the ordinary and shortly thereafter, the young woman goes missing. Rachel immediately dives into investigating her disappearance, as it seems the only thing driving her forward in a life that has been marked by recent misery.

This story is told by three different women in an overlapping timeline: Rachel, our train-riding sleuth; her ex-husband’s new(ish) wife Anna, who lives near the couple; and Megan, the woman who goes missing. I liked this device, that it focused on the women’s perspectives and revealed the mystery in parts through each of them.

What I did not care for immensely was Rachel’s part in everything. Though we are given a reason why Rachel feels so fiercely connected to everything going on, her motivation still feels very flimsy. Rachel explains fairly early on that she has become an alcoholic, and that she is a profoundly unhappy person following a heartbreaking divorce. She also used to live in the same neighborhood as the couple. So looking into Megan’s disappearance gives her something to do, and to feel useful…but she goes SO FAR into this, you guys. SO FAR. And I just didn’t entirely understand it, except that Hawkins wanted to give us an, “A-HA!” moment at some point where her story bumped up against the other women, who seemed so put-together in comparison but had secrets all their own.

Something nice that came out of this was that I spent an afternoon in the park eating tacos and listening to a large portion of this, which was fun. But that has less to do with the novel and more to do with the sunshine…and tacos.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 gin & tonics.

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#7. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

This was a paperback book that I read, for real and for true. I bought it toward the end of 2016 and actually started it around Christmastime, but got sidetracked and read the bulk of it in April. Some of it during a very chill beach house weekend:

I really loved this book. It was a departure from all the…you know, terrifying and gruesome stuff I read most of the time. It’s a story about Lotto and Mathilde during the course of their marriage. The title, Fates and Furies, describes not only the deep belief Otto holds that the gods and the stars have brought them to one another, but also the ebb and flow of joy and despair during their time together. The structure is impressive, moving through the time and space of the characters but also their deep emotional states and their personal histories. There are parts that take on the dramatic, operatic style of Lotto and the quieter, keenly aware style of Mathilde. It paints a beautiful, strange portrait of a life shared and of two lives individually experienced. This one is a must-read.

Rating: 5 out of 5 glasses of wine at yet another dinner party with old friends.


Keep an eye out for Part II (and maybe Part III). I may actually hit my target of 25 books in 2017, that would be pretty great! Happy reading and/or listening!

What books have you been reading? Do you prefer audiobooks, ebooks, or traditional books?

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#2. The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

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The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey is a fascinating take on the zombie/end-of-the-world story. It is a science-fiction infusion of survival, drama, terror, and melancholy that works on many different levels as it is experienced at points by very different people: soldiers, scientists, teachers…and Melanie.

Melanie is a very special student in a classroom located at a secure military encampment far outside of London. Restrained each morning at gunpoint and wheeled to class, Melanie learns advanced calculus, Greek mythology, and the geography of a world which she is starting to suspect no longer exists. She’s glad to be safe at the base, away from a horrible plague that wiped out most of society, but unsettling questions are creeping into her mind. Is this how every child goes to school? What happened to her parents, the parents of her classmates? And why does her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, look so very sad whenever Melanie talks to her about these things?

This is a thrilling, emotional book. I would recommend it to anyone; you’ll probably find yourself somewhere in one (or several) of the people as they scramble to survive in a world that may very well have hit its carrying capacity for life as we know it.

Rating: 5 out of 5 canteens of filtered water from a hidden supply cache. 

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#1. Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

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Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories (with some poems and fairy tales lurking within, Gaiman warns), most of which “end badly for at least one person in them.”

Before I review the collection – which is very good — I feel I must say something about the title, and his explanation for the title in the introduction. Boiling it all down, Gaiman puts forth the idea that ideas can, and often should, be dangerous, and therefore trigger warnings blunt the edges of our own worldview. He’s saying that the whole book could “trigger” you because large portions of it are sinister and spooky, but it’s okay because being scared teaches you things about yourself.

It’s a great ponderance on the importance of uncomfortable fiction, but I disagree with this argument because I believe it is misguided at its foundation. It’s misguided because he’s not really talking about trigger warnings as I know them, and as a majority of Internet-savvy people of a certain age know them. He’s talking about a much broader, watered-down aversion to discomfort, which has made the term the butt of so many jokes and the cause for certain university officials to absolutely lose their chill.

The first time I encountered a trigger warning at the head of an entry was on LiveJournal, and its intention was singular: prevent self-harm. I would see it particularly on blog posts that might trigger survivors of sexual abuse or eating disorders. The warnings were not to prevent bad feelings, but self-destruction. This is a far cry from the way it is currently talked about, over a decade later. But I still see the importance of trigger warnings, and I see the inherent compassion in their existence. Gaiman pokes a little fun at the term to talk about horror stories, and it’s a fairly innocent example, but it falls into a larger trend of people dismissing the term because they themselves have not benefitted from it.

It’s a minor blip, but a blip nonetheless, and  I still think he could have come up with a less tongue-in-cheek title.


Moving on to the stories themselves, they’re incredibly fun to read (or listen to, if you download the audiobook that Gaiman himself narrates)! I love short stories full stop, and his earlier collection Fragile Things stands out as one of my favorite things I read in 2014. (I still often think of “A Study in Emerald.”) This collection is actually pretty light, in spite of the aforementioned provocative title and a few well-timed character deaths. Loving tributes to Dr. Who, Sherlock Holmes, Ray Bradbury, and others fill the pages of this book. Even the scariest stories still have an “A-ha!” factor to them, campfire tales to make your friends shriek then break into recovering giggles.

One breathtaking exception is the novelette entitled, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…,” a quasi-fantasy journey story about the dark magic found in a cave far from our hero’s home. Darker than even the legends surrounding it. I found myself very absorbed in the suspicious circumstances of this quest, and it is sure to stay with me for a long time.

I also enjoyed “Black Dog,” a story that reunites us with Shadow Moon from American Gods. Other great stories include “Orange” and “A Calendar of Tales,” among many other microfictions that read like village myths and lyrical fables.

I enjoy Neil Gaiman’s writing. He weaves cleverness and earnestness together in his stories that make them feel so large and real. (As real as a world of fairies, immortality, ghosts, robots, magical caves, and spectral visions can be; though much like the beloved sci-fi writers of his own childhood, Gaimain is light on the science and focuses instead on the people.)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 cups of fine English tea, served with unusual honey.

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