“City of the Saints,” or, “stop what you’re doing and go read this book”

DJ Butler
Alright, who remembers Wild Wild West? It was this weird steampunk western movie that Will Smith was in, came out in the 90s at some point, and was just a strange experience all around. But it was also cool, because steampunk is great and adding it to a western isn’t a twist that you see often enough, so I enjoyed it.
This book? This is what that movie wishes it could’ve been. Not only is it all sorts of steampunk craziness, it’s also set in an alternate history world where the Utah Territory became the Kingdom of Deseret,1 an independent nation led by Brigham Young, the independent Republic of California is issuing their own currency, and after clockwork machinery made slavery irrelevant, Harriet Tubman wound up as the President of the Reunited States of Mexico. A big world with a lot of things going on, for sure.
The story also has a lot going on – the first few chapters gave me a vibe along the lines of Oceans Eleven, somehow – I think it was the “ensemble cast” thing going on. You’re bounced from character to character, but they’re all in the same room together, and trying to get a grasp of their varying motivations and goals is a heady rush. The Civil War is coming up fast, and everybody knows it… but with strong nations sharing an actual border wit the United States, there’s some political maneuvering to be done. Deseret has a military tech lead over everyone else and would be a strong ally on either side, and the favor of Young is not something to be trifled with.
I’m not going to give much more away here, but I’ll say it again: I loved this book, and I couldn’t recommend it more. It was a delight to read, and I’m hoping there’s more by this author that I can dive into later on. Give it a read.


  1. Based on what almost happened – the Mormon settlers wanted to name the state “Deseret” originally. 

“Eternal Voyager,” or, “hedonism is a fairly natural result of a post-scarcity, post-death world”

Conor Kostick
I don’t think I’ve reviewed anything by Kostick before, but I’ve definitely read some of his work – his Epic series was delightful, and shares something in common with this collection of novellas: a lot of playing around with virtual worlds.

“Kudos”

Slightly on-the-nose about it, but as a card-carrying millennial I am contractually obliged to like a story about the evils of capitalism.
The nice thing is that, in the setting of a post-scarcity and apparently post-death virtual utopia, the whole thing becomes aggressively about the service economy, and also makes the whole thing low-stakes enough that it’s just a nice story.

“Aliens”

Again, a very cool concept thanks to the interesting setting. I’m enjoying the little references to Epic, as well – there are both name-drops and references to the actual storyline.

“Revenge Upon the Vampyres”

In a world where people can’t die, thanks to the ability to restore themselves from backups,1 finding a way to make the stakes high can be a bit difficult. It’s played nicely in this one.

“Dancers Beyond the Whorl of Time”

A nice prologue story, answering a few questions I’ve had building up from little references in the other stories.

“The Siege of Mettleburg”

I’m feeling like I should check the publish dates of these stories and Epic, because this one really felt like a precursor to the larger novel.

“The Murder Mystery”

A nice follow-up to the previous story, and a bit of interesting discussion of the relationship between the virtual world in which the stories take place and the physical reality in which it’s anchored.2

All in all, it’s a nice little box set of books, and it’s not too pricey, either. Have a read.


  1. And, I must say, this is one of my most-wanted science fiction technologies. 
  2. You can’t have a digital world without a pile of servers somewhere. 

“The Alchemy of Stone,” or, “I’m fine with clockwork AI but apparently compact videotape is where I draw the line“

Ekaterina Sedia
This was a very… interesting book. And I say this because, beyond that, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I didn’t really enjoy the plot, but I found everything else fascinating – the world in which it takes place has a weird set of rules unlike any I’ve seen before, and it fits well with the unique main character.
And it’s interesting that, despite my interest in this sort of thing, I haven’t actually read many books where the narrator is a machine. That’s the real twist to this book – and no, it’s not a spoiler, because they’re clear about what they are – and it plays remarkably well. It’s done remarkably well, too – the perspective is slightly off of what you’d get with a human narrator, and I think the author did a wonderful job of using that difference to tell the story they wanted to tell.
So I suppose I’m comfortable recommending it – as I said, I didn’t actually like what all happened with the plot, but the storytelling was interesting enough that it held my interest the whole time, and I do think reading it was a good use of my time. Have a read.

“War Hawk,” or, “whoops guess I’ve got ten more new books to read again”

James Rollins and Grant Blackwood
I’m not kidding about that title, by the way; I’ve mentioned that I enjoy this genre of action novel, and Cussler takes a firm second to Rollins in terms of writing quality.1 And apparently Rollins has been writing at a prodigious rate – there’s something like eight new books in his Sigma Force series that I still haven’t read, so that’s all exciting.2
“War Hawk” actually is a Sigma Force novel – or at least, tangentially related. Sticking to my Cussler comparisons, it’s like how the Dirk Pitt and the Oregon Files series take place in a shared universe, and occasionally overlap – the main character in “War Hawk” showed up as a supporting character in some of the earlier Sigma Force books3 and some of the cast of the Sigma Force books are supporting characters in this one. It’s a nice touch, and I think it works well, although the reasons for not involving them more were a bit contrived at times.
Like I said already, Rollins writes higher quality books than Cussler; in the above-linked Cussler review, I make a complaint about a pretty elementary mistake in some of the book’s usage of the Spanish language.4 Meanwhile, in this book, which involves a lot of talk about artificial intelligence (something I know a wee bit about), had only one or two little things for me to pick nits with.5
The moral of the story is, I quite liked the book – more than Piranha, for sure, and enough that I just went downstairs and grabbed one of the other Rollins novels that I own to give it a quick re-read. And hey, how could I not recommend a book where the narration is occasionally from the POV of a dog? Give it a read.6


  1. Now, quantity, it’s hard to beat Cussler on quantity, he’s one of those factory authors like James Patterson. 
  2. Well, exciting until I remember that I have homework and responsibilities to get to, at which point it becomes something between annoying and saddening. 
  3. Ones that I hadn’t read, apparently, so I’m out of order now, which is annoying. 
  4. It’s gotta be pretty elementary if I, with my whopping high school class-level knowledge of Spanish caught it. 
  5. When I get to those moments I try to pay less attention so it doesn’t ruin the rest of the book for me, but with the small amount of attention I was paying, the inaccuracies could still be written off as “an expert on the subject making an inaccurate comparison while explaining to the layperson narrator” so it actually could still work. Nicely done. 
  6. Fun story: this is a different edition of the book than the one I have; I suspect it’s because I’m on American Amazon, and seeing the US edition first; the version I have, I bought at a used-books sale while studying abroad, so it’s still got a €3 price tag on the back. 

“All the Paths of Shadow,” or, “magic that requires an engineering degree is my aesthetic”

Frank Tuttle
This book was so satisfying to read. Like, pretty much everything I predicted was going to happen, I was right about, but it managed to do that in a way that didn’t make me go “ugh this is so predictable” as much as it did “yes I was right!” Things were a wee bit different than I expected in places, which helped, but overall I just had a lot of fun with the book. Probably my favorite of the books I’ve read in the past week or so.
So, your basic summary: it’s in a London-patterned city, which is about to host the Accords, a once-every-five-years meeting of the heads of the various kingdoms that make up the Islands. For a while I was trying to map the Islands to the British Isles, but eventually I realized that it’s more of an amalgamated British Isles and Europe – there’s a very clear Germany in there, and somebody that I think was supposed to be a vaguely Slavic nation? Of course, you’ve got the England that’s the main setting, and the Scots make a great appearance.
The timeline was a bit interesting, too – it was set in the 19th century, I believe, but since the setting is so far off of the real world, it sorta makes sense that their history was also way different. Add in the fact that you’ve got magic everywhere, and it’s pretty dang interesting.
And oh, the magic in this one, it was wonderful. I love magic systems where you can tell there’s a clear sense of the order underlying it, like the author has sat down and worked out how it all works. And this one is done so well, and integrated with the engineering capabilities of that era, to the point that I honestly thought there was going to be a bit of a twist early on that revealed that magic was actually just engineering with some serious flair to it. The first spell that’s worked is basically using an enchanted chain to find the angle between two points… and then the caster goes and does a bunch of trigonometry to figure out exactly where the big spell they’re planning needs to be cast. It’s wonderful.
And my, I’ve gone quite a ways without touching on the characters or the plot at all, which were also both wonderful. The protagonist is a delight, the first female Royal Thaumaturge, and she’s exactly as done with the geopolitics of the Accords as I would be in her place. And man, is the supporting cast fun – Mug, her familiar, is a delight, and her mentors are also off in the corner being the peanut gallery. It’s seriously fun.
I’m hoping I’ve done a good enough job of convincing you you should read this joke. If I have, here’s the link.

“The Somniscient,” or, “how has nobody here ever heard of a union?”

Richard Levesque
This book was a wild ride, and it was awesome. There were twists and turns everywhere, but at the end I was like “okay, yeah, that all made sense” – it never hit the “what is even happening” level, y’know?1
It’s set a bit less than 200 years in the future, and I do quite enjoy the way that changes in technology are integrated. Basically, someone went ahead and finished up Elon Musk’s Neuralink technology. It’s a mix of augmented reality interfaces for doing things and the ability to record and replay dreams, with direct control of the body’s sleep cycle built in. Which sounds handy, except it was made in a realistic world, which means it was funded by venture capitalists, which means it was turned into the most horrifyingly capitalist version of the technology possible. After the technology made it possible for people to cheaply entertain themselves, the world’s economy started slowing way down… so the company, with some backing by the government,2 set it up so it costs money to sleep.3
And, as I pointed out in the title of this post, apparently nobody has ever heard of forming a union, because the workplace environment is pretty abusive. The main character starts off in his Cube, which is roughly a dorm room with the aesthetics if a cubicle, where he pays extortionate rates in order to… not die. As a fun bonus, the Cube is owned by, and in the headquarters of, the company he works for – the same company that controls the technology that’s in everybody’s heads. It’s basically straight out of the nightmares of the people who pushed through the first worker’s rights laws.
And… I’m going to leave it there, actually. That’s a good amount of background, and anything else I can say would spoil some of the fascinating plot. I definitely recommend giving it a read, though – I’ve read a couple short stories that Levesque wrote, and I think I liked this one better than either of those, to be honest. Either way, though, go have a read.


  1. that was a terrible sentence, Grey, why are you trying to write a book review after having gotten up at 3 am, Grey 
  2. The book only ever specifies that the US government was involved, but I assume the rest of the world would’ve done something similar, otherwise the geopolitics of the situation would be different. 
  3. The relationship is a bit different, of course – after a while the company realized they could cut out the middleman and wound up replacing all the currencies with ‘Z’s, their own currency that’s just a measure of how many hours of sleep you can get. 

“Wonder City Stories,” or, “it’s like Oprah ran around handing out queerness to everyone”

Jude McLaughlin
I’m going to start off with a quote from the teaser for the sequel that’s in the end of the book:

“How did your mom keep hold of a device like that anyway?” Megan said, tossing the end of her rainbow-patterned scarf – knotted for her by her gay vampire landlord Zoltan – over her shoulder. He told her that vampires have a lot of free time at night, and knitting was one way he used it. I’m not sure I believe that.

This book was delightful. I read it in one day, and I’m genuinely sad that I finished it because I want there to keep being more.1 It’s basically my entire aesthetic rolled into one thing, and I can summarize it with two words: queer superheroes!
Expanding a bit, though, because it’s actually mostly about people other than superheroes. The cast of main characters includes the vehemently-not-a-superhero daughter of an infamous heroine, a retired WWII-era superhero, the (unpowered and) almost-divorced-wife of a comatose current hero, and quite a few other folks around the edges. It’s a delightfully diverse cast, and it does a really fun job of playing around with some of the ways that superheroes interact with a society that isn’t too unlike our own.2
Plus, y’know, it’s Hella Gay. And, as a nice bonus that takes it away from the annoying majority of LGBTQ-inclusive media, the LGBTQ characters get to do things other than be in the background or die!3
So yes, I absolutely recommend it, go have a read.4


  1. There’s some good news, though – evidently it’s the first volume of an ongoing web serial, so I’ll just go ahead and keep reading once I’m done with this review. 
  2. Really, those sorts of interactions are what I want from my superhero media; it’s unrealistic to expect things to be entirely the same, with a layer of cool battle scenes on top, because there’s so many implications in all that- just think of the economics of car insurance in a world where “yeah a villain threw my car at a hero” is a normal occurrence
  3. No, I’m not bitter at all, why do you ask? 
  4. A final note, here because I can’t attach footnotes to the actual title: having a whole group of queer people like this isn’t ‘unrealistic, considering the percentage of the population that’s queer,’ Twitter Rando: we group together. Safety in numbers, and all that – to be honest, the ‘token gay friend’ thing is more unrealistic, especially in a metropolitan area. 

“Bartleby and James,” or, “is… is the Queen a zombie?“

Michael Coorlim

“I may be able to calibrate my Forensic Viewers and attune them to his particular N-Ray signature.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“My science goggles can track him.”
“Brilliant!”

I own a lot of books that are basically riffs on the concept of Sherlock Holmes, and this is another one. But it’s also one of the most fun that I’ve read – the characters interact well with one another, and I rather identify with the narrator-protagonist.

“All we are is meat, Bartleby. Flesh and bone.”
“What of the soul?” Bartleby poured his own cup.
“Oh, do grow up.”
“I’m serious. There’s something indefinable that separates man from the animals.”
I spoke with a slight singsong while pouring a dollop of cream into my cup. “A sense of pretension about it, perhaps. Delusions of gods, of spirits, of magic, and other humbug.”

Beyond that, the story is pretty interesting – it’s written in a sort of anthology style, so it’s more a collection of short stories than anything else, but they’re put together in chronological order, and good lord do they have some fun stuff going on with the background. I spent the whole second story entirely wrong about who did it, muttering “realpolitik” to myself.1
In looking up the link to put here, I see that it’s an ongoing series, and boy am I ever tempted to get the rest of them. I’ll wait until I’ve finished the rest of my bits of reading that I need to do, but oh, these are going on the wish list. I definitely recommend this one.


  1. To be fair, I wasn’t too far off the mark, but still, I was wrong. 

Playlist of the Month: June 2017

I’m posting this a bit later in the day than usual, but I had to get up at 4:30 to drive people to the airport, so I went back to bed when I got home and I’m just now getting up and being functional again.
Smoke Filled Room (Acoustic) – Mako1
Killer Queen – FIL BO RIVA
22 (OVER S∞∞N) – Bon Iver
Real – Majik
Technicolour Beat – Oh Wonder
Haze – Amber Run
Alps – Novo Amor & Ed Tullett
Wastelands – Amber Run2
Go (feat. Ed Droste) – Woodkid
Young – The Chainsmokers
Cruise (Feat. Andrew Jackson) – Kygo
Big Jet Plane – Angus & Julia Stone
Ultralife (Acoustic) – Oh Wonder
Battle Symphony – Linkin Park3
Heavy – Oh Wonder
Changed – JP Saxe
Float – Will Morgan
One More Light – Linkin Park4
Dreams – Sunday5
Invisible – Linkin Park
Talking to Myself – Linkin Park
Only You – YOKE LORE6
Hope For Something – Panama
Hold Up, Rewind – Close Talker7
48 Hours – Triangle Park
Seasonal Friends – Close Talker
Heavy (feat. Kiiara) – Linkin Park
Talk – Kodaline8
High On Humans – Oh Wonder9
Parties – Jake Miller
Goodpain – YOKE LORE
slooow down – Mac Ayres
U – Slowes
VPN ft Palmistry – Mr. Mitch10
I’m Just Snacking – Gus Dapperton
All We Need – Fyfe11
Take Five – Patrik Almkvisth12
Relax – Fyfe
Cold Air – Fyfe
Better Man (Feat. Peter Gregson & Iskra String Quartet) – Fyfe13
Rise Up – Imagine Dragons
Rosa – Fyfe
Closing Time – Fyfe14
I Don’t Know Why – Imagine Dragons
Twin Peaks – Flyinglotus
Back to the Start – Jake Miller
Zero Summer – Dirty Nice15
Whatever It Takes – Imagine Dragons
Make a Move – St. Humain
The Endless Summer – Los Porcos
Animals – Tamu Massif16
Halfway – Jake Miller
The Roman Call – Beshken
Thunder – Imagine Dragons


  1. I sent this as a song recommendation to someone on Instagram the other day and they wound up doing a quick guitar version on their Story, so that was cool. 
  2. Again, probably my favorite song of the year. 
  3. My mom and I sing this one together in the car and it’s a great Family Experience 
  4. Probably my favorite song off the new album, and it’s one of those songs that makes me want to know what happened in the songwriter’s life that inspired the song. 
  5. Apparently this is a cover of a song? I didn’t actually know and my mind was slightly blown 
  6. Hey, remember Yoke Lore? They were in some of my earlier playlists 
  7. The chorus on this is so catchy, you’ve been warned 
  8. It’s back! This song is on my list of songs that makes me think of home – probably because it first showed up in my playlists right as we were moving to the new house. 
  9. There’s some good robo-voice in this, I appreciate it 
  10. I’m going to call this my favorite new addition that I got as a single song and not part of an album, it just sounds good, and the computer nerd in me enjoys the lyrics. 
  11. Best song off the new album, so far; I wound up throwing it in here for the “gloria in excelsis” bit, because I’m a big ol’ music nerd. 
  12. I’m ashamed to admit that this is actually a youtube rip in my iTunes library, I couldn’t find somewhere to legitimately buy this song. 
  13. The new album made me want to bring back the first Fyfe song I’d heard. It’s still great. 
  14. I’m gonna be honest I was kinda disappointed that this wasn’t a cover of the “Closing Time” that you’re thinking of. 
  15. This kinda reminds of Binaerpilot? Weird mental connection to make, I guess, but still. 
  16. Another really catchy chorus song. 

“All These Shiny Worlds II”

I’ve read the first anthology in this now-series, and I’m finally getting around to the second one. As I usually do with anthologies, I’ll be splitting it up so that each short story gets its own short review. And, before we launch into that, I’ll give a quick review here: it’s worth getting. Here’s your link.

Out in the Dark

Meryl Stenhouse
Oh, I’m already enjoying the focus on science fiction in this anthology. And these days, I’m also a big fan of stuff being realistically concerned about the impact of climate change – like the ever-increasing importance of naval superiority as the seas rise, and the sorts of defenses you’d need to keep a city from drowning.

Alter Ego

Russ Linton
See, I kinda get where the whole “fourth person perspective” thing was going… but I’m not sure if it worked for me. I mean, superheroes, so a plus in my book, but still, told a bit oddly.

The Silk of Yesterday’s Gown

Misha Burnett
Oh, that was darker than I was expecting, and the opening paragraph makes it pretty clear that it’s going to be fairly dark. Yikes.

A Rough Spirit

Dave Higgins
For a bit of a ghost story, I do enjoy that I had to stop to laugh at the main character’s obliviousness at one point:

“If it pleases Hiroto-sama, I am called Anew. I have some skill in massage if the noble lord has woken with any stiffness?”
He tried to keep his gaze on the small bowl and not the scrubbed skin beyond it. “A little rice and a sip of water will suffice.”
“My brother has strong fingers if-“
She’d noticed something was wrong too. He needed to distract her. He slid the tray closer. “Tell me of Hayabiro while I eat.”

Other than that, I’ve gotta say, this whole thing is “stuff happens to this guy and he overthinks it,” but it was surprisingly entertaining the whole way through.

The Apprentice Appears

Bryce Anderson

Elsie pressed the trigger, sending a taxidermied squirrel flying through the air.

Need I say more? It’s hilarious, as is everything of Anderson’s that I’ve read. On this one alone, it’s worth reading the entire book.

Merge

Simon Cantan
This is the short story version of this comic, and I think it works even better than the actual comic did. To be fair, it’s a bit more hopeful than the comic – there’s robots outside the simulation, so things are still getting done, but still.

Without a Care in the World

Richard Levesque

Then he cleared his throat and said, “I am now officially invoking the Asimov Act – uh, I mean the Sentient Technology Emancipation Act, under the conditions of which you are obligated to release this independent being from servitude immediately.”

The Lancer

David Kristoph
Okay, remember when I said Merge was dark? This was darker. Yikes.

Bodies of Evidence

Jefferson Smith

“Okay Lou, I can squeeze you in. And how will you be paying?”
“On account. Maladein Industries.”
“One moment, please.” She was gone for over a minute. “Hello, Lou? I’m not showing any accounts under that name. The closest match I have is for SKULL International Consortium of Evil, Local Rep: Sheldon Maladein.”
“Damn, I forgot about the merger. That’s us. Sorry.”

I’m a big fan of “daily life in a world with superheroes” kind of things, and this definitely delivered on that.

Borrowed Lives

I.A. Watson
The editor’s note did a good job of covering it: it’s an exploration of how a new technology would fit into everyday lives. (The actual plot contains a bit more intrigue than that, but still.)

“The law hasn’t caught up with this, Mik. Why would there be a law against something nobody knows is possible?”

The Earth Ship

Graham Storrs
Imperialism is always the same, isn’t it?

Digital Commander

J.S. Morin
Oh, I liked this. It’s a pretty possible future, and the way the world-changing advances in technology were being handled as they were being developed? Downright responsible.

The Traveller

Christopher Ruz
Oh, this is not what they should’ve ended on, my heart can’t take it.

“Piranha,” or, “that’s not actually how the Spanish language works”

I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Clive Cussler for a long time. I started reading his books pretty young – distinctly younger than you’re really supposed to be reading his books, I’m sure, but oh well. It’s not like waiting until I was an actual adult was going to make me find the stilted romance subplots less awkward.1 Of his series, the Oregon Files have always been my favorite – at first it was just because it mentioned my home state, and I like when things do that, but after that it’s just because I enjoy the concept more.23
Piranha delivers on what I want from a book in the series; a touch of history, a baddie with a high-tech schtick, and a whole lot of cool fight scenes. Plot-wise, I didn’t really have any problems with it; everything tied together pretty well, I thought, and I had fun trying to figure out what the aforementioned high-tech schtick was before the book revealed it.4
To be honest, I don’t really have a whole lot to say; Cussler books are somewhat formulaic. But so is, say, cooking; it’s the little variations that make it interesting. I enjoyed reading it, and I’m comfortable recommending it to people if you want an airport-bookstore novel.5 Go have a read.6


  1. Seriously why does there have to be a heterosexual romance in everything, it’s ridiculous 
  2. I still occasionally devote some time to mapping out how I’d build it if I were to create my own version of the Oregon
  3. There’s also a good bit of devotion to the series just because it’s how I found one of my favorite authors. ANECDOTE TIME: when the Kindle first came out, I was in the middle of reading Cussler’s Dark Watch. A family friend had a Kindle and offered to let me try it out; rather than dig around in their books, I pulled up the Kindle Store and tried to download the sample of the book I was reading at the time. I misremembered the name, though, and wound up downloading the sample of Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. I read the whole sample and, the next time I went to the library, checked out the book so I could finish reading it. Since then, I’ve read almost every novel Pratchett ever wrote. (I also wound up buying one of those original Kindles; I’m still sad that it broke, the PaperWhite is nice but just isn’t as good as the original was.) 
  4. I also really appreciated the lack of a stilted romance subplot; the book thought about doing it, at one point, but only made it as far as “he thought she looked good in her outfit” and then dropped that whole thing, which was nice. 
  5. That’s not intended as an insult; I think it’s a pretty valid description of the category of books that Cussler writes. 
  6. I just realized I didn’t actually explain the title of this post; long story short, there’s a scene in the book where the difference between “he said” and “she said” is used to move the plot along… except the characters are speaking Spanish, a gendered language, so that kind of slip-up wouldn’t actually happen. It irritated me disproportionately. 

“Oath Keeper,” or, “I was very wrong about where this book was going”

I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t actually intend to finish this book so soon after I read the last one, but it sorta just happened. Whoops.1
So, first things first: this is the second book in an ongoing series, and I kinda doubt I can get through a review of it without at least slightly spoiling the first one, so if you, like me, hate having things spoiled, and you haven’t read the first book, go do that.
Now, on to the second: much like the first, it’s got a lot of different plot lines going on at once. One or two got dropped entirely, which I thought would make things a bit easier to follow, but they got replaced with different new ones. Seriously, the cast of this series is spreading like nobody’s business. Which kinda works, I guess – it makes the whole thing feel bigger, but manageably so, to have so many different angles on the same underlying plot.
And that plot, I must say, got more interesting than I was expecting: most of the way through the first book, and a good bit of the way through this one, I thought I had a good grasp of where the series was going. It felt a bit like a Star Wars arc: you get some success in the first book, everything goes to hell in the second, and in the third you’ll pull it all back together, good guys win, fireworks and a party in a forest with a bunch of weird small creatures.2
And boy, was I wrong about that. I still think it’s possible for the arc of the series to be wrapped up in the third book,3 but what actually needs to be wrapped up is very different from what I was expecting to need to be wrapped up.4
It was a very solid addition to the series, though; the first book took a bit to get going, but this one has done a much better job of capturing that Septimus Heap-style “I have no idea what’s going on, so many questions, I can’t stop reading” feeling.5 I definitely recommend it – though, as I said before, read the first one, and then the second one.


  1. I’ve also realized how well I’m doing for reading Jefferson Smith’s books; with this one done, I think there’s only one non-children’s book he’s got published that I haven’t done a review of, and it’s in my To-Read pile. 
  2. There’s definitely a few analogues between the two series, you’ve gotta admit. 
  3. Which, I should note, doesn’t actually exist yet. Not that I’m mad about this or anything. 
  4. But seriously, I really hope there’s going to be a third one, because the ending of the second is such that I could see that being the end of the series, but the sheer amount of unanswered questions would drive me insane. 
  5. I’m referring to it as a ‘Septimus Heap’ thing because that’s the first series I can remember reading that really did that; media-wise, I think it might have been the Atlantis animated film that Disney did as a direct-to-VHS/DVD thing when I was a kid?
    Tangent off this tangent: that was a good movie, and I’m disappointed that the spin-off TV series turned out to be so meh and only got three episodes. What an under-appreciated movie. 

“Strange Places,” or, “I don’t know if it’s the *places* that are the strange part”

In the “books I don’t know how I wound up with” category, we have Strange Places. I actually wound up starting the second book in this series before the first, which was a bit annoying – I’m not a big fan of spoilers, y’know, and accidentally spoiling the ending of the first one wasn’t the best thing that could’ve happened.
Still, I did enjoy the book; the way it begins is definitely interesting, and I think I enjoyed that part the most. About a quarter of the way in1 it jumps off the rails, though, and even a bit of fourth-wall-breaking “this is so weird” from the narrator/protagonist didn’t work to keep me from calling the book out on the suddenness of it all.
Still, the story is interesting, and I’m invested enough that I’m going to go back to the second book and continue reading. From the first book I’ve figured out a bit more about how everything works in the setting, but plot-wise it’s all loose threads still hanging there.2
Which is where I’ll leave this review – fairly short, but I’m supposed to be on vacation right now, and this is ostensibly work,3 so I’m going to cut it off here and go back to getting sunburned on the beaches of southern California. If you’re interested in the book, here’s the link.


  1. Pushing the limit of my ‘no spoilers’ rule here, I know. 
  2. I think there’s three books, but I only have two, so… I’m going to be sad when I finish the second one, aren’t I? 
  3. At least, according to the organizational systems in my task- and time-tracking software it is. 

Idealized Love in Music

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the spring of 2017 titled “Art Song.” Since I’ve now got a bit of a tradition of posting my essays once the courses are over, I figured I may as well.
Love is an integral part of the human experience and a source of inspiration for a vast portion of all the music created by mankind. Love is almost always treated with positivity, but at times this positivity goes too far, and the loved one becomes less a person than an ideal, a concept that cannot exist in reality. The exact nature of this idealization, however, has changed over time, from the Renaissance poetry of Petrarch in which the beloved is perfect and untouchable to the Romantic poems of Heine and Hugo, when that perfection is acknowledged as fragile, ready to break with the lightest touch, and beyond that to a point when the idealized love has broken and twisted, as in Viardot’s “Hai Luli.”
Our examination begins in the 1300s, with Francesco Petrarca (anglicized as “Petrarch”), the most famous poet of the Italian Renaissance. A priest, Petrarch became famous, basically, for seeing a woman – Laura – attending church and falling deeply in love. His was a courtly love, a distant affair: she was married, and he was ordained to remain celibate. The poems that resulted from his infatuation have been set to music many times, but the most famous setting of them is Liszt’s song cycle, “Tre sonetti di Petrarca.” The poetry around which the first song is based describes the pain of separation that Petrarch felt;1 the second and third, however, focus on the positive side of that love.
In the second – “Benedetto sia ‘l giorno” (“Blessed be the day”) – Petrarch devoted the entirety of the first stanza to a gushing thankfulness, asking blessings for the ‘day, month, year, season, time, hour, and moment’ when he first saw his love, and beyond that, ‘the beautiful country and place where I first saw her eyes’ (paraphrasing from the Kline translation of the text). In keeping with this gushing feel, Liszt’s setting of the text moves through this portion quickly, leaving the singer only eighth-note-rest in which to take a fittingly quick breath. The third stanza, however, comes only after a long pause in the vocal line, and moves slower than the earlier portions of the song; Petrarch remembering once again that his love is a distant one, a saddened recall of “the sighs, and the tears.” In the fourth and final stanza, though, the pace picks up once again, sad thoughts replaced once more by adoration.
The third song in the cycle, however, is the most characteristic of this period of courtly love. The poetry sets the stage: “I saw angelic virtue on earth/ and heavenly beauty on terrestrial soil,” it begins, and continues to describe “two lovely eyes that . . . made the sun a thousand times jealous.” Petrarch describes his love not as a woman but as an angel, a work of art delivered from Heaven. She is no more real to him than a beautiful sunset is to any of us: something that can be seen from afar, but never reached, never touched.
As time went on, however, this ideal changed: the Renaissance ended, and, eventually, the Romantics rose to prominence. Some of this idea remained: the objects of their love were still just that – objects – but the distance, once insurmountable, had closed to something in a way too small. Take, for example, Liszt’s setting of Heine’s poem, “Du bist wie eine Blume” (“Thou art like a flower”).2 The text begins in a manner similar to the Petrarchian style, describing the unnamed beloved as ‘pure, fair, and kind.’3 The twist is quick to begin, with the ‘sorrow in my heart,’ but the true point of interest is in what form that sorrow takes: ‘I must then pray that God may preserve thee/ as pure and fair as now,’ the poem ends. In Liszt’s setting of the text, the instrumentation serves to emphasize this moment: as the singer says “Gott erhalte” (“God keep/preserve (thee)”) the piano, for the first time in the piece, falls silent. That earlier perfection of the beloved, though still there, is no longer held as an immutable fact; it is something that must be protected, by both the beholder and by God himself.
And yet, we are not done. The Romantics had changed this idea further still, evidenced in Hugo’s “Oh, quand je doers, viens auprés de ma..” (“Oh! when I sleep”).4 Of interest to us here is the third stanza, in which the text reads “Then on my lips . . . place a kiss, and transform from angel into woman” (Ezust). This idea is a French addition to the concept of the distant romantic love, and would go on to define ‘courtly love’ as a new subcategory of that concept. In the transformation from angel to women, triggered by the kiss, we see the true twist of the concept of courtly love: not only is the beloved’s heavenly status fragile, it is the deed of acting upon the love that does the damage.
Again, Liszt’s setting follows the poem well: the first stanza is underlaid by a calm, rolling piano line, portraying the dreaming state of the speaker. In the second stanza, however, the music accelerates, the piano and vocal lines both bringing more excitement to match the dream as it “become[s] radiant”. For the third stanza, the peaceful quality of the first stanza is brought back, but the chords are arpeggiated more clearly, granting a purity of sound to match the “flash of love” that the poet describes as “pure”. Once again, Liszt makes use of a silence in the piano line to highlight the words of the poem: as the vocalist goes through the phrase “et d’ange de viens femme” – “from angel into woman” they are, for that moment, alone: Liszt’s recognition of the importance of this single moment. It is the kiss, the moment of contact between the love and the lover, that marks that most important change.
To truly love their distant ideal,5 then, is to deliberately maintain that distance; to protect the perfection by refusing to sully it with their own mortality.
There is, however, an interesting twist on this concept, made quite visible in Xavier de Maistre’s untitled poem, set to music by Pauline Viardot as Hai Luli: the ‘heavenly perfection’ is expected, required, only of the female love. Rather than an aspect of heaven, the (male) love in the text has failed the speaker, “Perhaps he betrays his oath to me/ Beside a new lover” (Bamberger). Though, of course, the lover has not, in actuality, betrayed the speaker: instead, the poem is more of a plan for “If one day he should abandon me” than it is a response to actual events. Nonetheless, the fact that the love is treated as even capable of such horrible deeds is a sharp contrast to the (feminine) descended angels of the other poetry.
The concept of the idealized love was so integral to the Romantic era of art that the term ‘romance’ has come, in colloquial usage, to refer to a moment of ideal love. That we need a specific term for that sort of love then implies that such an idea has fallen out of popular use; and, as the current state of popular music can attest, it has.6
The manner in which humanity has idealized their distant loves has changed over time. At the beginning, there was an innocence to it: the beloved is something pure and holy, a stand-in for the most holy of women, the Virgin Mary. As time went on, though, the idealism shifted, and the perfection became something fragile, an eggshell-thin veneer of holiness which would be tarnished and broken by the slightest contact from the beholder. And then, finally, the concept broke entirely, and a poem that boils down to “he might leave me for another, and if he does, everybody burns” was penned: the love is utterly human, utterly fallible.

Sources

Anonymous translation of “Du bist wie eine Blume”
Bamberger
Ezust
Kline
Paton


  1. “I feed on sadness, laughing weep:/ death and life displease me equally:/ and I am in this state, lady, because of you.” (Kline) 
  2. In my discussion of this poem, I’m using both an unattributed translation and my own knowledge of the German language as reference. 
  3. And, of course, this is done at an implied distance: “I gaze on thee,” states the text. 
  4. There’s a nice bit of self-reference in this poem thanks to the presence, in the first stanza, of the line “approach my bed,/ as Laura appeared to Petrarch.” (Ezust) 
  5. And of course, there is a self-awareness to this concept: Errico’s “Ideale” (“Ideal”), set to music by Tosti, has the poet, in a waking dream, speak directly to the imagined version of the beloved. In the poem, she is referred to as the titular “dear ideal.” (Paton) 
  6. For my citation, I’m going to point out the fact that a song whose chorus consisted of “my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun” spent eight weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard “Hot 100” list. 

“Phänomen”

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the spring of 2017 titled “Art Song.” Since I’ve now got a bit of a tradition of posting my essays once the courses are over, I figured I may as well.
“Phänomen” was written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and published in 1819 in the first book of his West-Östlicher Divan, Buch des Sängers. The Divan as a whole was inspired both by Goethe’s written conversations with Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) and Joseph von Hammer’s (1774-1856) translations of the works of Hafez, a 14th-century Persian poet. The title of the book, and its contents, are inspired by the combination of Western and Eastern philosophies, the coming together of Germany and the Middle East. This was more than just two regions meeting, though: it was also the meeting of two faiths, Islam and Christianity, and of two very different imperial histories – the Roman and Persian empires. The text of “Phänomen” opens with a description of a rainbow appearing from the rain, establishing the idea of hope through what was overwhelming shadow. This appearance of hope is replicated and passed on to the “cheerful old man,” reassuring him that, in spite of his age, he will “still love,” or “love again.” The poem was set to music by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) in 1874, and then by Hugo Wolf (1860 – 1903) in 1888-9, being published in 1891. Though the two settings share the same text, overall they are very different pieces.
The two settings are incredibly different, vividly demonstrating the difference in writing style between the two composers. The melody in Brahms’ setting is fairly constrained; the voices throughout move in a stepwise pattern, occasionally leaping – but only to outline the underlying chord. The use of a second voice is an interesting addition, but in terms of melodic contour it doesn’t add all too much: the second voice is, throughout the piece, either echoing or harmonizing with the first; in moments where the lower line moves ahead of the higher, the higher then takes the role of echoing the lower.
Contrary to Brahms’ constraint, Wolf – a member of the Wagnerian school of music – made liberal use of chromaticism in his melodies. His setting of the text has the singer performing acrobatics, making use of frequent leaps from high to low notes in the first half of the song, and then switching to leaps from low to high towards the end. Measures 12-14 utilize these upwards leaps, F#-D, F#-C#, E-C#, both rhythmically and melodically highlighting certain words. The first rise ascends to the word “nicht” before descending again on “betrüben”; a descending line for the verb in ‘do not sadden yourself,’ with the high point on ‘not,’ an excellent use of text paining. The second rise is a mimic of the first, with the high point on “gleich” – ‘similarly.’ The third of these leaps is the most notable, emphasizing as “doch wirst du lieben” – ‘but you will (again) love.’ It is the only one of the three ascending patterns to continue upwards after, a movement that is echoed by the piano moments later, emphasizing the overall sense of happiness in the text.
Some of the most interesting moments in Brahms’ settings are in his use of rhythmic contrast between the two voices. This motive first appears in measure 7: as the higher voice moves in even quarter notes from “Phö-bus” to “sich,” the lower line pauses on “Phö-” holding it out for a full two beats before moving quickly through the “bus sich” as if trying to catch up. The moment lasts only that single measure, but appears again elsewhere: both voices simultaneously use the hold-then-catch-up rhythm in measure 14; the tension between the two is brought back in measure 41, and the rhythm makes a final appearance in measure 48. The version in 48 is different, however: the text is used differently, with only two words across the measure, (“wirst du”) thus leaving the measure lacking in the slight tension created by the need to ‘catch up’ with the beat that the other instances use.
Rhythmically speaking, however, there is only one other point of interest in the piece: measures 19-33, where the voices play an extended game of catch-up. The higher voice starts two full bars ahead of the lower, pauses in mm.22-23 to allow a bit of catch-up, takes off again in m.24, and the two finally meet in m.27 after another pause on the part of the higher. Then it’s the lower voice’s turn to start ahead, though not by as much, and the two finally come together again for good in measure 32 as the lower, rather than pausing, repeats the words “der Bogen.” This is, however, the only place of rhythmic interest in the vocal line; the rest is either even quarter notes, a half note and a quarter note, or the occasional dotted-quarter-eighth-quarter measure. The piano plays a near-constant stream of eighth notes throughout, pausing only in measures 21 and 23 when the job of filling the space with eighth notes is taken up by higher and the lower voice, respectively.
Wolf’s setting does a better job of varying the rhythm throughout, taking advantage of the “sehr langsam” pace he wrote for and giving it an almost recitative feeling at times. There are two rhythmic ideas that he uses multiple times throughout the piece to great effect: the dotted-eighth-sixteenth pattern used at the end of every duplet, and the shifting of certain points off the expected beats by a half-beat. The repetition of the dotted-quarter-eighth rhythm is a subtle way of drawing the entire piece together; in certain spots, such as measure 9 or measures 14-15, its presence is masked by the repetition of a note or the carrying over of a longer note into the idea. The second of these ideas is less obvious: the two best examples are the stretching of the word “farbig” from measure 3 into measure 4, and the right-hand lines of the piano in measures 5 and 10. Rather than allow the melody to move on the strong beat, Wolf gives them a slight twist, making the motion occur on the off-beats.
The two composers have differing ideas about how the structure of the poem should be used: Brahms’ version follows a rounded binary structure, with the division between the different portions of the song being the stanza breaks in the original poem. Wolf acknowledges the stanzas with a bar of rest in the voice at the end of each stanza, but doesn’t return to his original material, instead opting for a through-composed structure that allows for his soaring portrayal of a rainbow in the final measures.
In Brahms’ setting, the piano has two basic ideas the entire time: ascending eighth notes in the left hand with chords in the right, or chords in the left hand with rocking high-low eighth notes in the right; the second of these two is also sometimes modified with chords above the eight-note pattern. Contrast this to he final two measures of Wolf’s setting of the poem: an excellent use of the piano, a piece of text painting that fits the piece while being an entirely new idea. The other moments of solo piano, in measures 5 and 10, also make great use of the instrument’s capabilities, mimicking the effect of a continuing upper voice while continuing the existing piano line. In the moments when the piano is supporting the voice, it still does so in an interesting manner: only rarely is the rhythm in the piano the same as that of the vocal line. In both settings, the piano is subordinate to the singer or singers, but Wolf’s piano solo moments are more musically interesting than Brahms’, indicating that the piano receives higher billing in his version than in Brahms.
The tonal scheme of the two settings is where their differences are most visible. Brahms begins fairly calmly, in the stated key of B, and largely remains in that key for the entirety of the ‘A’ section of the rounded binary structure of the piece. The ‘B’ section, however, is far more interesting: it’s a gleeful exploration of the harmonic spaces around that original key of B major that begins by transforming B major into the V of e minor, returns to b minor instead of B major, makes a pit stop in G (as VI of b minor) and finally, through an extended V7-I cadence in measures 34-38, returns to B major just in time for the returning ‘A’ section to sound at home once again. Wolf, ever the Wagnerian, makes no such concessions to a home key: he begins, briefly, in the stated key of A major, and the piece ends in E major, but in between is a land of glorious uncertainty. As if predicting the atonal music that would arise in the next century, the piece makes a gleeful game of avoiding any true tonal center, instead opting to move almost constantly from place to place. The result is fiendishly difficult to analyze, but, as a true show of his skill as a composer, never sounds out of place.
Brahms’ setting of “Phänomen” is a wonderful piece: the harmonic playfulness in the central portion of the song, as well as the subtle rhythmic variations, give it a distinctive, and enjoyable, feel. Wolf’s, however, feels more closely fit to the actual text: the slower tempo feels more fitting for a conversation with a ‘white-haired’ man, and the ending piano line is a beautiful bit of text painting, a gentle ascension that feels like the sound a rainbow would make as it appears. Though a close match, I must conclude that Wolf’s setting of the poem is the more successful of the two.

“Things 3”, or, “it’s like they brought the best of Material Design to iOS”

So, in my last post about what apps I use I gave a fairly glowing review of Things 2, my to-do list app of choice. The third version of the app has finally been released, and now that I’ve been using it for a few weeks I figured I’d give it a bit of a review.1
Things is a suite of apps: it’s available on macOS and separately on iPhone and iPad. They’re linked together by Things Cloud, a free account for a service that works incredibly well.
The main paradigm hasn’t changed all that much since Things 2: it’s still (roughly) a Getting Things Done style, with the centerpiece being the ‘Today’ list and the various Areas of Responsibility. The biggest change, aside from the UI, is how Projects are handled: you can now create subheadings within projects, to keep everything a bit more organized, and each individual task can now have a ‘checklist’, so you’ve got another layer of hierarchical organization to take advantage of.2
Where Things 3 really shines is the UI, and it’s pretty clear why it took Cultured Code so long to release a new version: a ton of work went into it. To be honest, my main guess about what happened is “they started work on an Android version, then quit on that to go back to working in the Apple ecosystem, and stole all the best ideas from Material Design along the way.”3 Adding a task is as simple as the plus button that now lives in the very reachable bottom-right corner; if you want to put it somewhere specific, you drag the plus button over the area you’d like the to-do to go, and it gets smoothly inserted there. Drag an item to the right to schedule it for a later date – or to set a reminder at a certain time of a day, another new (and much-awaited) feature – and to the left to send it to an Area or delete it. Projects are even easier to work with, thanks to a filling-circle motif for their completion status.4
Getting somewhere is easier, as well – on macOS, you can just start typing, and as long as you didn’t begin with the spacebar5 it starts searching in your Areas and Projects for whatever list you’re typing. iOS includes the same mechanic, with the added step of pulling down6 to open the keyboard.
Beyond that, it’s just little touches that make everything nicer: the UI as a whole is brighter and more open; setting the ‘when’ for an item on macOS accepts natural language input, so I can just start typing ‘tomorrow’ and it’ll know what I mean; you can close the sidebar, or pull it open wider, on macOS. The biggest win for me is the ‘Upcoming’ view – it links in with your calendar7 to show events as scheduled8 alongside all of your Scheduled items and anything with a due date. OmniFocus has had a feature like this for a while, and it was one of the biggest things that almost got me to switch, so seeing that come to Things is delightful; it’s nice being able to see the whole week (or as far as you’d like) in advance.
All told, I consider Things 3 a great update to a great app, and I can happily continue to recommend it. If you don’t have any sort of to-do list manager, pick it up on your iPhone and Mac; if you’re all-in on it, like me, or are just one of those people who can actually get all of their work done on an iPad, get it there too.


  1. This blog used to be for stuff other than reviews, but I’ve run out of fun travels and I don’t do much else so… here we are, I guess. 
  2. It’s nice for, say, a grocery list: going grocery shopping is only one Thing To Do, so it makes sense to keep it as a single item, but you still want to be able to check off the various items you’ve got to buy. 
  3. And yes, that’s where I got the title of the post from: roll credits. 
  4. It’s reminiscent of the way Things 2 handled Projects in the ‘Projects’ view of the macOS app, with a progress bar filling the space behind the name, but now consistent across all of the apps. 
  5. Which remains the ‘add new’ shortcut, so you won’t even need to rewrite any muscle memory. 
  6. Think ‘pull to refresh,’ it’s a pretty standard pattern in iOS. 
  7. Very easily, too; macOS and iOS include some very nice calendar APIs 
  8. That link also makes an appearance in the Today view, where you get a quick overview of your schedule for the day; if I didn’t add calendar events as often as I do, I could actually stop having Calendar.app open on all of my devices all of the time, and let Things handle that as well. 

Playlist of the Month: May 2017

This one’s a bit shorter than usual, to be honest, because I didn’t have time to do anything with it while I was busy dying of finals. I’ve got a backlog of music to listen to, though, so I’m expecting next month’s to be a good deal longer.
Smoke Filled Room (Acoustic) – Mako
Killer Queen – FIL BO RIVA
22 (OVER S∞∞N) – Bon Iver
Real – Majik
Technicolour Beat – Oh Wonder
Haze – Amber Run
Alps – Novo Amor & Ed Tullett
Machine – Amber Run
Wastelands – Amber Run
Dante’s Creek – THEY.
Beauty – Down Time
Wasted My Love – Axel Mansoor
Don’t Say (feat. Emily Warren) – The Chainsmokers
Go (feat. Ed Droste) – Woodkid
Lies In The Dark – Tove Lo
Petals – Truitt
It Won’t Kill Ya (feat. Louane) – The Chainsmokers
Young – The Chainsmokers
On His Knees – Danny Elfman
Paris – The Chainsmokers
Cruise (Feat. Andrew Jackson) – Kygo
Ultralife – Oh Wonder1
Carry You – Novo Amor
Ramada – Kidepo
My Friends – Oh Wonder
Big Jet Plane – Angus & Julia Stone
Hold Me Down – YOKE LORE2
Ultralife (Acoustic) – Oh Wonder
Kill V. Maim – Grimes


  1. Having this one and the acoustic version on this playlist is fun, because it demonstrates really well that Apple’s shuffling algorithm isn’t the best at seeming random to humans. I’ve heard those two songs playing in a row something like 40 times over the course of the month? 
  2. This and Kill V. Maim are throwbacks to last summer; it happens sometimes. 

“Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Have A Nemesis,” or, “seriously just read the series it’s delightful”

First, a disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book (prior to the release) provided I’d write a review of it.1 That said, I was planning to buy the book and write a review of it when it came out, so I’m fairly sure my opinion of it is safe from being affected by the Free Stuff, but still, it’s good to make these things clear.
I’ve reviewed at least one of Roberts’ books before, and a short story or two, but I think my love for this series actually predates my hobby of writing book reviews for everything I read. So, first things first: if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series, go do that. Like, right now. Because, seriously, they’re fun. It’s exactly my aesthetic in what I want from media: young people with superpowers, and some fun exploration of how that world works. This one is one of my favorite: the superhuman community has a self-policing thing going on, with a core rule of “don’t get personal.”2 Which is fascinating, really; I love that sort of stuff, just explorations of how the world would have to be different to not be super different from a bunch of people having superpowers.
This one deals with some leftover plot stuff from earlier in the series, and it was really nice to see those things get wrapped up in a good way.3 And it provides some solid lead-up to the next book in the series, which I’m quite excited for. I think that’s my biggest problem with this one, actually: the rest of the series has had a solid “monster of the week” feel to it – not exactly a ‘monster of the week,’ but that same idea of being a self-contained thing. This one is clearly working to tie together the whole series, instead – the end is really leading into the next book, and the first half is, plot-wise, devoted to wrapping up stuff from earlier in the series.4
Which isn’t precisely a bad thing; the overarching plot has been very slowly working towards something. I guess I’m slightly irritated that the whole “time to tell the parents” plot that the book felt like it was building up to is getting pushed to the next book, at the earliest, but at very least it means I’m guaranteed at least one more book in the series, so I’ll call it a win.
End result: it wasn’t perfect, but it gave me a whole lot of what I love about the series, so I’m quite happy, and I’m quite happy to recommend the book to you, dear reader.


  1. Don’t be too excited for me, this isn’t a ‘you’re a Real Book Reviewer’ moment; I follow the author’s blog, and I’ve read one or two advanced chapters from this book and a couple of the others that get posted there. The publisher wanted a few early reviews, which resulted in a “comment your email address if you’d like an advanced review copy!” post, and I commented my email address. Still, it’s cool! 
  2. As a fun bonus, one of the books in the series covers how this system was created, and while it follows a different group of characters than the rest of the series, it’s just as much fun. 
  3. It’s difficult to do these reviews without giving away spoilers, sometimes, and a lot of the time I feel like I wind up being too vague, but I have a deep hatred for spoilers so I’m fairly okay with that result. 
  4. That said, I specified ‘plot-wise’ because, by volume, most of the first half of the book is devoted to the sort of “this is what superheroes do when they’re not being superheroes” stuff that I love

Playlist of the Month: April 2017

April is wrapping up, which means I’m going to spend the next month being super-stressed, and then I’ll finish finals, and the sudden cessation of stress will probably make me melt. It’s a system, it’s fine.
Your Hand In Mine – Explosions In the Sky
Smoke Filled Room (Acoustic) – Mako
Killer Queen – FIL BO RIVA
22 (OVER S∞∞N) – Bon Iver
Real – Majik
Technicolour Beat – Oh Wonder
Haze – Amber Run
Friends (under the influence) – Majik
Hands Held High – LINKIN PARK
Performance – The xx
Alps – Novo Amor & Ed Tullett1
A Violent Noise – The xx
Are You Home? – Amber Run
Machine – Amber Run
In The Morning (Mura Masa Edit) – NAO
Something Just Like This – The Chainsmokers & Coldplay
Hypnotised – Coldplay
Wastelands – Amber Run2
Wild (feat. Khai) – Kidswaste
Visions (ft. Leu Leu Land) – Danrell & Alec King
Dante’s Creek – THEY.
Words – School of X
Beauty – Down Time
My Type (feat. Emily Warren) – The Chainsmokers
Break Up Every Night – The Chainsmokers3
Wasted My Love – Axel Mansoor
Don’t Say (feat. Emily Warren) – The Chainsmokers
Not Afraid Anymore – Halsey
The One – The Chainsmokers
Go (feat. Ed Droste) – Woodkid4
Bloodstream – The Chainsmokers
Lies In The Dark – Tove Lo5
Something Just Like This – The Chainsmokers
Petals – Truitt
Helium – Sia
Oh Wonder – Lose It (Jerry Folk Remix) – Jerry Folk6
It Won’t Kill Ya (feat. Louane) – The Chainsmokers
Young – The Chainsmokers
On His Knees – Danny Elfman7
Paris – The Chainsmokers
The Scientist – Corrine Bailey Rae
Last Day Alive (feat. Florida Georgia Line) – The Chainsmokers
Cruise (Feat. Andrew Jackson) – Kygo8
Ultralife – Oh Wonder9
Lifetimes – Oh Wonder
Carry You – Novo Amor
Zombie (Acoustic Version) – The Cranberries
Ramada – Kidepo
Anchor – Novo Amor
My Friends – Oh Wonder
Big Jet Plane – Angus & Julia Stone10
Touch – Haux
Vulnerable – Midnight Pool Party
Rupture – The Cranberries


  1. This works surprisingly well as a vocal warm-up. 
  2. But seriously, this is probably going to wind up as my Favorite Song of The Year, I just love the lyrics so much. 
  3. “This isn’t a healthy relationship you’re in,” I mutter to myself every time I listen to this song. 
  4. “This song is two guys singing to each other; the chorus is them, like, trying to break up, and the verses are basically just them sexting. And it’s backed by a youth choir. It’s so twisted and I love it and I want to be Woodkid when I grow up” – me, describing this song to a friend 
  5. Warning: will get stuck in your head. 
  6. I’m going to bet this song won’t survive into next month’s playlist, and there’s a single reason for that: I recognize one of the synthesizers the artist used, and it kicks me out of being able to listen to the song every time I hear it. 
  7. I’m gonna be honest, at least half of the reason this song is in here is because I’m a twelve-year-old and laughed at the title. 
  8. I blame Chase playing this song for the reason that I have this entire album. 
  9. New Oh Wonder! I am excited. 
  10. It’s just a classic, okay? 

The United States and the European Union

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the fall of 2016 titled “Austrian Politics and Society in a European Context.” I’ve decided to publish it here because… why not?
In the wake of the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world was left massively changed. The era of two superpowers had ended; for a while, the world lived under the hegemony of the United States of America. That era, too, has come to an end, though a much quieter one: new superpowers have begun to develop. China is coming into its own as a world power; India has high aspirations that have yet to be realized; the Russian Federation has, under the control of Vladimir Putin, used the legacy of the Soviet Union to re-emerge as a military superpower, if not an economic one. The most interesting emergent superpower, however, is the European Union: rebuilt in the wake of the Second World War by the United States as a colony-esque bulwark against the spread of Communism, it has become an economic powerhouse to rival the United States. The European Union, thanks to its history of US-backed construction, has the most in common with the reigning hegemon; it does, however, have some key differences. It is these similarities and differences that will be examined in this paper.
The core institutions of the European Union (E.U.) are, in writing at least, more complex a structure than those of the United States (U.S.A.): while the E.U. has seven key institutions, the government of the U.S.A. is split into three.12 What is, in the U.S.A., the Executive Branch of the government is in the E.U. distributed across several institutions: the European Council, combining the heads of state of all the member nations into a President-by-committee; the European Commission, to handle the day-to-day functionality of the E.U. in all its aspects; the European Central Bank, coordinating the monetary policy of the E.U.; and the Court of Auditors, ensuring that the monetary policy and budgetary strictures of the E.U. are actually being followed. The Legislative Branch is, similarly to the U.S.A., a bicameral structure, though split into the Council of the European Union and the Parliament, rather than into a Senate and House as in the United States. The Judicial Branch in the U.S.A. is closely matched in structure by the European Court of Justice in the E.U.: the Court of Justice itself at the top, in answer to the Supreme Court of the U.S.A., with a network of lower courts beneath it.
Within these structures are further differences. One of the most visible differences is in the party systems of the two unions. In the U.S.A., two parties have nigh-on absolute control of the political system: the liberal Democrats and the conservative Republicans. Smaller parties exist, but none are large enough even to have ballot access in every state, making them largely irrelevant on the national playing field.3 In the E.U., the political system allows for representation of more parties: in the current European Parliament, seven different parties are represented amongst the 762 Members of the European Parliament (M.E.P.s), and 31 M.E.P.s are listed as “unattached” – generally referring to an affiliation with a party that exists only within their member state, and not across the E.U. as a whole.4 A point of similarity across both, however, is the existence of partisan politics – the vitriolic nature of the recent election in the U.S.A. demonstrates the prevalence of blind party loyalty. The E.U., as well, is to some degree guilty: take, for example, the actions of the European People’s Party to shield Hungary’s Orban government from criticisms in the European Parliament.5
The varying parties are not the only way in which the two superpowers differ. The U.S.A. has always had a common foreign policy; it is one of the rights granted to the President and the Congress by the Constitution. In the E.U., this is not so – though the Treaty of Lisbon created the office of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the powers of that seat are still limited largely to defense and security policy.6 The other core difference between the two is in their sources of revenue: the U.S.A. is able to levy taxes directly, while the E.U. income is a mix of direct contributions from member nations, a very small percentage of the E.U.-wide Value Added Tax, and import duties on non-E.U. goods.7 This creates a sharp difference between the amount of monetary force the organizations are able to throw behind their various initiatives. For example, the United States federal research and development budget for 2017 is almost the same as the entirety of the E.U. budget for the same time period.89 The budgetary differences alone are enough to guarantee that the federal government of the U.S.A. is much more powerful, relatively, than the E.U. is in relation to its member states.
Economic differences, however, are not the only reason that the federal government of the U.S.A. holds more power than the institutions of the E.U.: the largest part of this difference is due to the set of powers given directly to the organizations. In the E.U., this list of powers (or rather, competences, as they are termed by the organization) is fairly concise: the creation of a customs union, the ability to create competition rules to maintain the internal market, Eurozone monetary policy, the common commercial policy, a limited ability to conclude international agreements, and the common fisheries policy for the conservation of marine biological resources.10 In the United States, that same list of fiscal powers is given to the national government, but has several additions on top of that. These additions include the full spectrum of foreign policy, notably the declaration of war; the creation of the armed forces, as an extension of foreign policy; the creation of post offices; and the ability to create any law that is “necessary and proper” to carry out those other powers.11 And, of course, the fact remains that the E.U. does not have the capability to levy taxes, while the federal government of the U.S.A. shares that ability with the states. At their root, the two superpowers have a very different stance on the centralization of power; as a result of this, the governance of the U.S.A. is much more cohesive than that of the E.U.
Economically, the two have quite a bit in common: they are the two most powerful economies in the world, and sit comfortably at the top of the “developed” economies list.12 The top ten companies worldwide, by revenue, includes three U.S. corporations and three E.U. corporations, in a mixed order.13 The picture changes a bit when sorted by profitability: the three Chinese state-owned and the Japanese contender all vanish… as do the three E.U. corporations. Instead, the list becomes entirely U.S. companies, mostly financial services firms but made incredibly top-heavy by the presence of Apple.14 In both finance and information technology, the U.S.A. has a strong lead over the E.U., a gap that may grow larger with the pending Brexit talks: not only will Britain take BP (the 10th-largest company in the world) with her when she goes, but with her goes London, the “financial capital of the world.”15
At the governmental level, more similarities and differences are evident: the U.S. Dollar remains one of the world’s strongest currencies, and serves as the official currency of the entirety of the U.S.A., as well as a remarkably long list of other countries. The Euro, though nearly as strong, lacks the historical backing of the dollar, and theoretically only applies to those member states that meet the requirements to join the Eurozone – though, one should note, that a few non-Eurozone member states use it as their official or de facto currency, and the membership requirements for the Eurozone have not always been met by its members.16 The central banks of the two superpowers have similar levels of power, though their response to the global financial slump in the 2000s was quite different: the European Central Bank focused on containing inflation, while the Federal Reserve System in the U.S.A. was much more active in restoring the U.S. economy.17 There is also a notable weakness in the European banking system, thanks in no small part to the different division of power: the lack of a strong pan-European banking union.18 In the U.S.A., the Federal Deposit Insurance Company provides deposit insurance to member banks, providing a strong signal of trustworthiness for member banks to show to their customers; the E.U. does not yet have anything of a similar scale.19
By far the largest difference between the two powers, however, is defense spending. The U.S.A. famously spends more than $500 billion per year on defense, while the E.U. as a whole spends less than half what the U.S.A. does. Per capita, the difference is even larger: the U.S.A. comes in as the third-largest per-capita spender at just under $2,000 per person per year, while across the E.U. the spending averages just under $350 per person per year.20 This disparity likely arises from the history between the two: during the Cold War, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union seemed poised, at all times, to turn Europe into a battlefield once more. As a result, the U.S.-backed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) poured more and more military resources into Europe. When the Soviet Union fell, NATO did not, and has left Europe with a strong military defense that is, by and large, funded by the U.S. taxpayer. The continued presence of U.S. personnel and matériel in Europe, then, helps to reduce the need for either European states or the European Union as a whole to seriously invest in their own military.
The ongoing presence of NATO is not the sole reason for less military spending in Europe than in the U.S.A.: another significant contributing factor is the cultural differences between the two. Taken as a whole, the U.S.A. is significantly more in favor of violence than the E.U., in a variety of ways. The most visible, of course, is their policies on guns: the Second Amendment has ensconced the right to ownership of weapons in U.S. law for centuries; the E.U. makes no such constitutional provision, and, in fact, has been working to limit gun access across the entire E.U.21 As a people, Europeans like guns less than Americans: there are three guns in private hands for every ten Europeans, while the figure in the U.S.A. is nine guns to every ten people.22 Even their response to gun violence differs massively, with a requirement for E.U. membership being a ban on the death penalty; compare this to the U.S.A., where in the 2016 election three states passed ballot measures that implemented or re-implemented capital punishment.2324 On punishment in general, the U.S.A. is harsher than the E.U., with nearly six times as many prisoners per 100,000 people. Even the most punishment-happy E.U. country – Lithuania, with 254 of every 100,000 people incarcerated – only imprisons people at a third of the rate of the U.S.A.25
This stands out as an area of heavy government involvement for a nation that generally prefers their leadership to have a light touch. As a whole, the people of the U.S.A. tend to be very individualistic, and regard their own work ethic and abilities as the primary, if not only, driving force behind their success or lack thereof in life.26 This stands in contrast to the peoples of the E.U., who generally see success in life as being determined by forces outside their control; in Germany, the strongest economy within the E.U., less than a third of the population agreed with the individualistic mindset of the U.S.A.27 In a similar vein, the origins of the European welfare state are fairly visible in the ideals of the E.U. population – Americans largely want to be left to achieve their goals alone, while Europeans would rather their governments “guarantee that no one is in need.”28
This is not to say that Americans and Europeans disagree on everything – the U.S.A. and the E.U. form the core of what is regarded as “the West,” pitted against the forces of the East – the former Soviet Union, and now, the growing power of China. For the people of the West, democracy is a core ideal, and the freedoms that come with it and help to ensure it are of great importance to the peoples of the U.S.A. and the E.U. both.29 Religious freedom is fairly important to both superpowers, but they differ significantly in where they come from that stance: Europe, long the bulwark of Christianity, has fallen from that position as their increasing wealth brings decreasing belief in god.30 The U.S.A., meanwhile, is considered “the great exception” – a country that is both wealthy and deeply religious; the bastion of Christianity, maintaining belief when the original stronghold fell.31
The U.S.A. is unified by more than just belief in the Bible. Perhaps the most important unifying factor for the country is the fact that the entire population shares a single language – only seven percent of the population does not speak English to some degree or another.32 Within the E.U., no such universal language exists – English is the most broadly-spoken language within the E.U., and only a third of the population can speak it.33 This, obviously, can make communication difficult across the E.U.: Europeans regard translation as an important part of life, if not an every-day component of it.34 For the average U.S. citizen, though, such a thought is unlikely to enter their mind – there are a variety of jokes told that riff on the concept of U.S. citizens telling tourists or immigrants to “speak American” when they hear a language other than English being used. Jingoism aside, having a single common language allows for other commonalities – like the existence of a single news network to cover the entire country. Though the U.S.A. does not have a single news network covering the country, it does have networks that provide nationwide coverage – CNN, ABC, and Fox all jockeying for ratings across the entire country. There is no pan-European news network, however; the closest analogue would be broadcast news that cycles through coverage in multiple languages.
The E.U. has more problems with unity than just the lack of a common language across the E.U.: it also lacks a cohesive culture. Within the U.S.A. there are different subcultures: each state has their own identity, and different regions also have theirs. But some things are universal: the nation comes together to watch the Super Bowl, to light off fireworks on the 4th of July, and to never forget 9/11.35 Europe has an answer to the first in the World Cup, but there is no European Independence Day, and no shared day of mourning.36 The U.S.A. has their share of heroes – Abraham Lincoln may be a bit controversial in the South, and Stonewall Jackson similarly so in the North, but George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Hamilton are fairly universal in their appeal. Though the Commission has tried to create a list of founding fathers of the E.U., for one reason or another they have not picked up the same amount of dramatic flair.37 Looking further back into history, each country has their own heroes, from Empress Maria Theresia for the Austrians to Napoleon for the French. But each of these heroes is a villain in another place: Maria Theresia was a religiously oppressive empress, and Napoleon did so much damage to Europe in his wars that he was sent to exile multiple times. There are no universal European heroes, as of yet, and with neither heroes nor language in common, the citizens of the E.U. can find it difficult, at times, to see anything truly keeping them together. This lack of a coherent identity is an ongoing problem faced by the leadership of the E.U., though hopefully they will find a way to address it before it pulls the E.U. apart at the seams.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world has gone through a series of major changes. Fortunately, the age of unilateral rule by the U.S.A. was a short one, and new superpowers rose to counterbalance U.S. power. The E.U., as one of these counterbalancing powers, has the most in common with the U.S.A., but they are certainly not the same. Politically, the two have strong structural differences, from the further division of high-level power present in the E.U. to the relatively lesser powers of the states within the U.S.A.. The relationship between the two is interesting due to the split in power present in the E.U. – some foreign relations are handled at the E.U. level and others at the per-state level. Nonetheless, both are democratic organizations and are unified by their devotion to those ideals.
The U.S.A. has remained the dominant world superpower thanks to having a blend of both hard and soft power – the U.S. military is second to none, and the country remains the most powerful single economies in the world. The E.U., though lacking in any real amount of hard power, is a strong contender for the coveted spot of top global economy. The development of the Euro has brought the countries of the Eurozone closer together, though not without some bumps along the way.
Finally, the two superpowers are culturally very similar – both are, almost by definition, Western civilizations. Both value democracy highly, though the manners in which they do this vary – the people of the United States tend to be more individualistic than their counterparts in the European Union. More than just that divides them – the United States has a strong identity as a country, while the European Union is still struggling to establish such a concept of itself as a coherent whole. This is not expressed solely in the opinions of the people that make up the two superpowers: it is also eminently visible in the different degrees to which the two have centralized power. In sum, though the European Union and the United States of America have some key differences, they also have a great deal in common.

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  1. Strasbourg l’européene: Detailed explanations about the Institutions of the European Union 
  2. USA.gov: Branches of Government 
  3. Ballotpedia: List of Political Parties in the United States 
  4. It’s Your Parliament .eu: Groups 
  5. Matthjis and Kelemen, page 107 
  6. Dyson and Konstadinides, “Understanding the Limitations of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy” 
  7. Europa: How is the E.U. funded? 
  8. White House Office of Management and Budget: “The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017” 
  9. Europa: “Budget” 
  10. EUR-Lex: Division of competences within the European Union 
  11. infoplease: Powers of the Government 
  12. International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook: Statistical Appendix 
  13. Fortune: Global 500 
  14. Fortune: Top 10 Most Profitable Fortune 500 Companies in 2015 
  15. KennedyPearce Consulting: London vs New York: Which is the world’s financial capital? 
  16. BBC News: Greece admits fudging euro entry 
  17. Kang, Ligthart, and Mody: “The ECB and the Fed: A comparative narrative” 
  18. Matthjis and Kelemen, page 104 
  19. EUR-Lex: Directive 94/19/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 1994 on deposit-guarantee schemes 
  20. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: SIPRI Military Expenditure Database 
  21. CNN Money: Europe’s gun laws are about to get even tougher 
  22. Ash, page 74 
  23. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union 
  24. Reuters: Death penalty gains new support from voters in several U.S. states 
  25. BBC News In Depth: World Prison Populations 
  26. Pew Research: 5 ways Americans and Europeans are different 
  27. Ibid. 
  28. Ash, page 74 
  29. Pew Research: Support for Democratic Principles 
  30. Pew Research: Generally, poorer nations tend to be religious; wealthy less so, except for U.S. 
  31. Ash, page 74 
  32. U.S. Census Bureau: Language Use in the United States: 2011 
  33. European Commission: Special Eurobarometer 386: Europeans and Their Languages, 19 
  34. Ibid., 9 
  35. Statistica: TV viewership of the Super Bowl in the United States from 1990 to 2016 (in millions) 
  36. FIFA: 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Television Audience Report 
  37. Europa: The Founding Fathers of the EU