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Sunday, May 3, 2015

10:34AM - Affable Reviews


So a classic definition of science fiction is to imagine or extrapolate some technology and then write stories around what happens when people/society mess with it. In that vein The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson really fits the bill.

Every day we see increasing use of algorithms to help define and categorize people. Demographics has been around for years but now it's harnessed to big data to help make better predictions about people's personalities and behavior. We're also using it to help find people we get along with. I'm primarily thinking about OKCupid here. It's a bit pop-quizzy but a lot of people find their matching algorithms helpful if not perfect.

The Affinities turns this up to 11. In the near future, a company called InterAlia develops a battery of tests that gauge your personality. If the test finds conclusive results, it places you in one of 22 Affinities. The people you meet in your Affinity aren't just like you but they are people who you are much more likely to click with.

Adam Fisk is studying to be a graphic designer. Following his artistic muse he fled his fairly strict family in upstate New York, but he hasn't been able to land a job and the funding for his schooling has dried up. On a whim, he takes the Affinity test and gets placed in the Tau group -- one of the largest of the Affinity groups. He goes to the local Tau chapter and finds an intentional family that provides the support and resources to get back on track.

Adam winds up working with Damain, a sort of unofficial Tau leader who is advocating for greater autonomy for the Affinities and more access to InterAlia's proprietary algorithms. But as they get closer, they brush up against other Affinities and the scientist who developed the algorithms winds up dead.

The blurb there may make it sound more action-adventure/thriller than it really is. The book is fairly understated and it builds up a series of small scenes that happen over several years worth of time. It's a much more character focused kind of deal.

So on the one hand, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that like-minded people would band together and become hostile towards other bands of like-minded people. On the other hand, the idea that there is a magical way to find other people who share your outlook and who can work together to effectively improve everyone's situation is an incredibly attractive prospect (see Big Data and OKC above). I don't think the book bothers too much about finding solutions to the first statement but it is an interesting read on the second.


Monday, April 27, 2015

2:54PM - Review Now Now


The other day I finished up Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human. Mr. Human is a short story author who lives and works in South Africa and this is his first novel.

The book focuses on Baxter Zevcenko, a young high school student living in Cape Town. He and his small circle of friends make good money selling porn to the student body. Baxter has a plan to expand his little ring and bring peace to the warring factions in his school when his girlfriend gets kidnapped. Given that there's a weird serial killer going around carving an eye-symbol into their victim's foreheads, this is pretty worrying to Baxter.

Finding a weird glowing tooth in his girlfriend's room starts Baxter on a long trip that finally introduces him to Jackie Ronin and from there it's a tour through the supernatural underbelly of Cape Town. The external weirdness starts to line up with Baxter's internal weirdness as he's seized by odd dreams and visions. Eventually, it all comes to a head as Mantis God fights Octopus God for control of the world.

The book was pretty fast-paced and fun. Mr. Human has a different frame of reference for his fantasy and mythology to draw from and takes advantage of that to introduce some novel features to Cape Town's occult world. Baxter's internal dialogue is generally pretty amusing and there are lots of fun dialogue bits. It's not super-deep and while it sets up for the next book in the sequel it completely stands on it's own so full marks for that.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

3:50PM - The Wolf Review


So I plowed right through The Wolf Age by James Enge. This is the third book in his Morlock Ambrosious series. Although not heavily dependent on the previous books in the series (Blood of Ambrose and This Crooked Way), the books are quite good and the overall flow is nice.

In this book, Morlock heads into the northern wastes to avoid collateral damage when he next confronts his father. Unfortunately, the Strange Gods (former mortals exalted to godhood) have decided that they need him to take on the city of werewolves so that their plans to destroy the werewolves can come to fruition.

Thus Morlock is manipulated into being captured and imprisoned by the werewolves, his magical Sight curtailed by a crystal shard. So Morlock must escape his prison, remove the shard and get his revenge. He does so and in the process turns the tables on the Strange Gods.

The writing is really good, the chapters flow by easily and it's always quite engaging. Morlock's magic is more on the order of making things rather than flashy spells and what you see of his process is always interesting. Morlock happens on the werewolves during their "election cycle" so there's some fun political satire as well.

All in all a fun read and certainly the series is recommended if you've got some plane/beach reading to do this summer.


Monday, April 13, 2015

9:21AM - Floating


So this Friday I finally got to try out Float Boston, the new float-tank place that opened up in Somerville. I'd picked up a two-pack of 90-minute sessions during their funding campaign. I've been curious to spend some time in one of these for years -- even before that Simpson's episode where Homer and Lisa both try it out.

It was not as the Simpson's episode depicted.

It was...interesting. I'd like to do it again, but I was expecting something a little more overt (even after adjusting for hyperbole) and this was fairly subtle.

Also, I *may* have cut myself getting into the tank. I'm not 100% certain but I did feel a stinging sensation and later found a small wound on the back of my calf I'm pretty sure I didn't have before getting in so...

The upshot here is that getting into the tank could be better explained/designed. The problem is that the lid is unwieldy so you push it all the way open. Then you get in. Now you have to close the lid behind you but that's difficult because pulling that down pushes you into the water which is eagerly trying to float you so it's hard not to slip but then the lid is out of's a bit of a trial.

Also, they give you earplugs. I found them tricky to install. They're this waxy seal you're supposed to pancake over your ears (but not into them). I did ok but I had to fiddle with it a bit.

Finally, if I just rest in the water with my hands by my sides and totally relax and go limp, my head rolls back (like in a backfloat) and my arms and shoulders are shoved up. I store a lot of tension in my shoulders so this is actually not the most comfortable thing. I had to shift positions around a bit -- but my range was a limited because I'm about the largest person you can fit in that tank.

So I mention a lot of hassles but despite all of this, I really did think it was interesting. Once you get settled and brain didn't turn off exactly but it did seem to slow down. The time passed more quickly than I thought. Certainly when you're out of the tank and sitting in the post-float room you're amazed at how much *stuff* there is in they physical universe. I'd recommend it to people and I do want to give it another shot.

Oh and I should mention that Float Boston offers these membership packs where you pre-pay for a set number of floats per month. The trick here is that a membership can be shared by up to three people so if folks wanted to go in together, they could make the cost per float pretty reasonable.


[EDITED TO ADD: Apparently there are pillows/pool noodles you can use to support your head (I was not informed). Also, the next expansion for Float Boston will put two "float rooms" into the facilities. These will be like large step-in showers that should probably be a lot easier to get into and more likely to work for larger folks like me.]

Friday, April 10, 2015

2:28PM - The Bohemian Review


So I read through The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. The book covers a brief slice of time when four writers converged in San Francisco to produce a new, American style of literature. The four authors are Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Cooolbrith. All of them met with some levels of success, but, obviously, it was Twain who went on to international and historical fame.

In fact, that's the real problem with this book. Twain overshadows everyone and you're curious to know more about him. It's hard for the book not to lean heavily on Twain because he's the one you know about. It's unlikely you've heard of the others.

That said, Bret Harte was, for a time, a brighter star than Twain. Harte is a classic story of early fame setting someone up for a fall. He was a very popular author back in San Francisco and got his stories published in Eastern publications. At the zenith of his career he went East and promptly lost his muse. It was a long downward spiral from there.

Harte is interesting to me because I know him from Twain's Autobiography (oh Vol. 3, when will you arrive???). Harte had provided invaluable editorial help for Twain's early writing, but by the end, Twain was quite hostile towards Harte and in his Autobiography rips into him at length. This book actually is interesting in that it provides a lot of background detail on the men and their friendship and eventual enmity. However, it really becomes mostly about Twain and how you really didn't want to piss him off because he would go to war on you.

So as someone reading his Autobiography, it is nice to see an outside scholar look at formative factors in Twain's life and also the man who was one of Twain's best friends and most hated rivals.

Oh, the other two people. Yes, so Charles Warden Stoddard was a poet and then author who spent a great deal of time in the South Seas because, well, people there were less constrained by sexual hangups -- particularly when it came to homosexuality. Ina Coolbrith was a niece of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism and although a wonderful poet, she was trapped in the role of caretaker and was the only one of the four who could never leave the city to succeed or fail on a grander stage. We just don't get very much information about the two of them -- or rather, their writing didn't make enough of an impact (then or now) for us to be super interested in them. The two of them sort of orbit Harte and Twain and when they leave town, that's really pretty much it.

So it doesn't quite do what it says on the tin. I did appreciate it because of the Autobiography, but I'm not sure it's going to be a real draw for most folks.


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

3:07PM - The Looting Review


It's been awhile since I've used this icon so let's read a depressing book.

I just finished The Looting Machine by Tom Burgis. Mr. Burgis looks at how resource-rich countries in Africa remain locked in poverty despite the riches under their feet.

The answer is pretty straight-forward: governments simply treat their natural resources as a giant piggy bank they can use to enrich themselves and their supporters. Multinational corporations show up and offer vast sums of money for mining/drilling rights. The value of these contracts is usually a fraction of the value of what the mining companies dig up, but it's more than enough money to keep government officials in power and very well off. Additionally, this reliance on resource money means that officials are more interested making deals and enriching themselves rather than responding to the concerns of their constituency.

Mr. Burgis travels around Africa and highlights the stories of several countries. From oil and diamonds to iron and limestone, everything is up for sale and very little of the money trickles down to the majority of the citizens. One organization that many of these stories have in common is The Queensway Group -- a mosaic of companies whose parent is located in Hong Kong. The group's operational structure is extremely murky. For a long time it was assumed that it was simply a front for the Chinese state, but it may simply be closely allied with them and taking advantage of those connections (in both China and Africa) to enrich its principals.

The Queensway Group forms an obvious focus to hang the narrative around. They represent China's thrust into Africa which has become very aggressive over the past 10 years. In large part this comes from their willingness to deal with absolutely anyone even when major economies in the West refuse to have anything to do with them. If you're an African dictator whose atrocities have made you a pariah -- Chinese firms are more than happy to cut lucrative deals to refill your coffers. As long as you give them access, they won't ask questions.

Still, Queensway is just the latest in a long line of multinational firms that are happy to look the other way in exchange for choice mining concessions. Many of these private endeavors have also received financial assistance from the IMF and World Bank. Despite a mandate to improve the economic well-being of people in impoverished countries, many of these loans have been gobbled up by shadow state apparatuses.

The book doesn't offer a lot of solutions. The scope of the problem is enormous and needs to be tackled on several levels from several different directions. Still, the book is a good overview of what's going on and something to think about next time you fill up your car or make a cell phone call.


Friday, March 27, 2015

11:28AM - Stew in deliciousness


So last night, on a whim, I tried out Muqueca in Cambridge (down a bit from Inman Square). It's a Brazilian place that specializes in seafood. Specifically the titular Muqueca which is a seafood stew poured over rice topped with a sort of fish-based gravy.

It is super-yummy. Lots of great flavors all blended together. Throw in some fried yucca and/or plantains and a fruity drink -- delicious. They also had a pretty wonderful flan as well.

So an interesting option if you're in the neighborhood.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

10:37PM - Wrestler's Cruel Review


With a slight dry spell in new releases and inspired by the "Wrestling Isn't Wrestling" video (which is amazing by the way), I decided to re-read The Wrestler's Cruel Study by Stephen Dobyns. It's sort of about wrestling but really that's just the springboard to a wilder philosophical investigation.

Michael Marmaduke is a big, genteel lug who works as a professional wrestler going by the name Marduk the Magnificent. He's engaged to an incredibly sweet young woman named Rose White. His life is thrown into turmoil when Rose White is kidnapped. Trying to track down his fiancee, Michael gets caught up in a rumble between opposing gangs organized around Gnostic Christian Heresies. This eventually leads him to a sort of modern-day Nicene Council debating the nature of good and evil.

Meanwhile...there are a lot of meanwhile's in this book. A small galaxy of characters and their stories weave back and forth.

Primus Muldoon -- Michael's trainer and Nietzschean adherent.
Wally -- a hapless loser who's life changes with a lucky coin.
Seth -- a young man running for his father's life.
Brodsky and Gapski -- two police detectives who appear alike but hate each other.
Violet White -- Rose's less-innocent sister.
Deep Rat -- well, the name says it all doesn't it?
Beetle -- A homeless man with an important story to tell.

And lots of others. Despite the raft of characters, the plot moves smoothly between them and keeps everyone and their concerns distinct.

I liked the book the first time I read it and enjoyed it a second time. Just a wonderful cross-section of philosophy in a whimsical tale.


Friday, March 20, 2015

11:48AM - Playing Czechers Review


I forgot to metion that I also read through Capek Four Plays by Karel Capek and translated by Peter Major and Cathy Porter.

I got turned on to Capek from the book Danubia I read earlier this year. Although I wasn't super familiar with him, I did know that he'd written R.U.R. and invented the word Robot. So I thought I'd give his works a spin.

The four plays are:

R.U.R. -- Following the trials and tribulations of the owner/managers of the world's first (and only) producer of robots. In this particular case, robots aren't men of metal they're more like quasi-biological beings. More like Replicants from Blade Runner. Then they futz with the secret formula and it all goes to hell.

The Insect Play -- A drunk goes through a series of vignettes where the activities of insects are compared to the activities of humanity. Butterflies flirt, dung beetles covet their balls of shit and ants go to war with one another.

The Makropulos Case -- An inheritance case drags on for almost 100 years. A mysterious woman appears who inflames the passions of everyone around her and tries to gain access to documents possessed by one of the parties.

The White Plague -- A mysterious disease is sweeping through Europe killing off people over 50. One man has a cure but his price may be too high.

The plays are all rather dark in theme (although they have funny bits and The Insect Play is mostly comical). The author lived through WWI and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a lot of that radical upheaval informs the plays.

Of them all, I think The Insect Play would be the easiest to put up on the stage, The White Plague could be most profitably re-envisioned and The Makropulos Case is a fun spooky tale for Halloween. R.U.R. feels most like a curiosity at this point -- the wellspring of an amazing avenue for inquiry but it's hard not to see as a bit crude and heavy-handed. Still, it was an interesting read.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

8:14PM - Hard to be Coming Through Reviews


So I got through two more books and here's my review of them.

First up Hard to be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a classic piece of Russian sci-fi literature from the authors of Roadside Picnic. Hard to be a God has recently been made into a movie and from the trailer I knew that I had to read it. Not surprisingly there's a new Kindle version out that's tied into the movie. So I gave ago

The book concerns one Don Ramata who is a minor noble in the feudal society of Arkanar. In actuality he's a scientist from Earth who has come to this planet to see if theories of historical development actually occur in practice. Arkanar is located on a planet very similar to Earth but a few thousand years behind in history, which allows Ramata to blend in with the locals and provides a vibrant petri dish for historical development. Much like Federation officers, Ramata is not allowed to interfere in the natural course of history. This restriction becomes more and more tedious as Don Reba a high-ranking Noble begins a pogrom against knowledge and intellectualism. Don Ramada tries to save who he can but knows he's only able to save a small handful. He has the power to do more but is torn by indecision — will his actions cause more harm than good.

That’s really the focus of the book — Ramata’s wrestling with his desire to bring these people out of darkness and his fear that he’ll only make things worse. In the end Don Reba pushes things to a head and Ramata must make a choice.

I thought the book was good and I do want to see the movie, but it suffers a bit because the authors had fairly different views on how the book should develop. From their earliest notes there’s a split between the desire for a more swashbuckling adventure story and a more nuanced tale of what we owe other people. The latter won out, but you keep expecting a little more adventure than what you get.

After that, I jumped into Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley. After global warming and limited nuclear conflict has messed up the planet, the Jackaroo showed up and offered alien technology and colony planets to help humanity regain its footing. Despite a lot of concern over what it means to accept the aliens’ gifts, humanity doesn’t have any choice and take the bet. Still, there are a lot of strange interactions between humans and alien technologies, especially things left over from the Elder Races, previous client species of the Jackeroo.

Chloe works in London tracking down outbreaks of these disruptions caused by alien tech. She stumbled across a teenaged boy and his younger sister who are making weird drawings and communicating with someone they call “Ugly Chicken”. Meanwhile, on the colony world of Mangala, Inspector Vic Gayle and his new partner Skip have just been called to the site of a murder where the victim appears to have been killed with alien tech. The parallel story threads weave back and forth until meeting up for the final climax.

I think I’ve decided that while I like a lot of ideas that McAuley puts out, I’m just not that thrilled by him as a writer. I feel this is way more subjective on my part. It’s not I don’t like what he writes, I’m just not liking how he writes it. Basically, it takes *forever* for this book to get off the ground. It was really pretty hard reading. The last quarter of the book is where it really starts to pick up, but it ends with most questions unanswered. It’s really more of a detective novel with some sci-fi trappings thrown on.

I’m really jazzed by the idea of “aliens show up and make us their sidekick/client/charity case”, but I haven’t read any really good executions of that idea for some reason. Ah well.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

10:20PM - Long-delayed Little Dudes


So over the past couple of years I've been painting up boxed fantasy sets by RAFM in their old Shadows and Steel line. It was a lot of fun, but I finally worked through all the sets. It made me interested in trying to put together my own fantasy warband -- not for D&D or anything but just as a little project. Maybe adapt them to Song of Blades or something.

I knew who was going to be the core of the group. For about a year, I played a wizard by the name of Adjo -- who was, to put it mildly, kind of an asshole. He wasn't specifically trying to antagonize the other party members, it's just he was a wizard and a human and that made him better obviously. But part of being the better man is not to be too hard on others who can't help their unfortunate lot in life and these other yahoos were really helping to further his goals so...

Anyway, a super-fun character to play and I had a reaper mini that really captured his look. A co-worker of mine was big on painting minis and his stuff was really good (he liked Napoleonics). I gave him my mini and then it never got painted and then he was laid off and we lost touch and...blah. I never got around to getting another copy of the mini before the game ended.

But after the Shadows and Steel stuff, I decided to put together a warband centered around Adjo. Reaper minis has a wide range of interesting figures so I picked out a bunch and put them together.

Adjo"s and CompanyCollapse )
A bit about my processCollapse )
bonus figures!Collapse )

I'm planning on moving house so these will probably be the last minis I paint for awhile. I really need to start bulking up my terrain collection. I want to start using those 15mm WWII figures I've got but they need something to fight on.


Monday, March 2, 2015

7:36PM - Overdue Reviews


Sooo...between the snow shoveling and rehearsals it’s been a while since I wrote anything. But I’ve seen and read a bunch of stuff so let’s talk about that!


Inherent Vice -- an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel about a hippie detective in the late 60’s who tries to find out what’s happened to the millionaire boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend. It’s a Pynchon novel so there’s a lot of low-level weirdness running around.

I thought the movie was pretty good. It was rather like what would happen if Hunter S. Thompson wrote a crime noir novel. I liked how the movie conveyed a sense of being stoned without resorting to any goofy special effects or being over the top. Confronted with the underlying reality of a Pynchon universe is rattling enough before you toss in regular dope smoking.

The movie has good acting, dialog, cinematography and music. The plot is more than happy to leave threads dangling all over the place, but you should’ve expected that going in.

What We Do In The Shadows: A mock-umentary from New Zealand about four vampires who live together in a run-down apartment in Wellington. It’s yet another Vampire LARP I’d love to play. After 300+ years the guys are rather out-of-touch and not well suited to living together. Then one of the vampires turns a bar-crawling dude bro who introduces them to modern living...although he himself can’t resist telling people he’s a vampire.

It’s a lot of fun. There’s also a side plot involving a group of werewolves. Imagine a sort of redneck AA group only it’s lycanthropy they’re trying to control and you’ll get the idea. It’s all a lot of fun and if none of it is terribly original, it’s put together well and the actors all relish their parts. I’m kind of hoping Vampire movies like this and Only Lovers Left Alive start to edge out zombie flicks.

Song of the Sea: An animated feature by the folks who did The Book of Kells so the artwork is very celtic and very distinctive. On an island lighthouse, a young boy, his father, sister and dog are living out their lives under the cloud of having lost their mom (yeah, it’s a “My Mom Is Dead” kinda picture). Turns out that Mom was a selkie and young Socha is just starting to come into her mystical inheritance.

Ben is mostly annoyed that his younger sister is weird and resentful that she causes his grandmother to come in and sweep the kids back to her stuffy place in the city. So Ben and Socha work to find their way home -- a task that takes on more importance as Socha is identified by the fey as a selkie and because she’s away from her magical coat.

It’s a sweet, charming movie every bit as much fun as its predecessor. The ending is clearly engineered to pull on your heartstrings, but I remained stony faced and impassionate.


Most of my reading in February was taken up with The Confluence Trilogy by Paul McAuley. Technically I read three books since this omnibus collects Child of the River, Ancient of Days and Shrine of Stars.

The setting is Confluence, a giant, artificial world sitting between the Milky Way and the Eye of the Preservers. The Preservers were the supremely advanced descendants of humanity who reshaped the galaxy into a configuration they prefered, built Confluence and seeded it with uplifted humanoid versions of tens of thousands of animal species from across the galaxy and then built the Eye, an artificial black hole, and plunged down into it never to be heard from again.

So, in the intervening millennia, Confluence has been rocked with various wars and troubles and much of its technology has been lost to the people who live on it. Then a baby boy is found floating down the Great River on a mysterious boat. A local magistrate takes him in and calls him Yama. Yama is from an unknown bloodline and he has a talent for making machines listen to him. Eventually Yama sets off to discover more about himself and his powers.

There’s a lot of interesting ideas and good description, but I was a little underwhelmed by the series as a whole. The pacing was very uneven with one book covering only a couple of weeks and the last book covering years. The last book also seemed rather rushed and the conclusion didn’t really work out for me. It tried to tack on an interesting theme, but just really shoehorned it in.

I probably should’ve dropped this one sooner, but I can be stubborn on these things and the ending could’ve had a better pay-off. Sadly, it didn’t so maybe skip this one.

After seeing the movie, I decided I wanted to read the book, so I whipped through Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. Pretty much everything I said above about the movie applies here and I can now say that the movie was a very good adaptation of the book. I say that because the movie has to make choices about what to keep and what to chuck. The book winds it’s way all over the place and the movie has a schedule to keep. Still, the movie stuck to the themes of the book even when it had to stray from it.

The writing is top-notch. Everything just flows and it reads real smooth and easy. It’s been mentioned that this is sort of Pynchon-lite, a more accessible piece of his writing, but I am reminded that I want to delve a little deeper so I’ll probably be reading a couple more of his novels over the coming year.


Monday, February 23, 2015

11:18AM - Mousetrap

My show opens this weekend! Agatha Christie's Mousetrap. It runs the 27-28th and March. 4-7th!

I grew a beard for this show! We've struggled through terrible New England winter weather to put on this classic murder mystery set in a snowbound Old England house! It's going to be great!

Come check it out!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

2:10PM - 5th Ed. D&D -- Let me tell you about my character


So this past weekend we started up a new game. This time we're doing 5th Ed. D&D and apparently the plot is based off an old CRPG game the DM enjoyed. This session we made up characters and kinda got the ball rolling.

so let me tell you about my guyCollapse )
In which our heroes get sent up the river...Collapse )

So this is my first outing with the new edition of D&D. We didn't really do much combat so we didn't put the system through its paces. I'm actually most interested in the way that spell casting is set up in 5th ed. Rather than memorize a specific spell for each spell slot you have available, you've got a sort of "mini-library" of memorized spells. Pay the appropriate spell slot and you can cast it as many times as you have that spell slot. This provides and interesting level of flexibility. I'd be curious to see how wizards run in this system, but our particular setting has an anti-arcane magic deal going on so it wasn't really in the cards.

Besides, I don't often play fighter types and haven't done a paladin before so this should be fun.


GM: "You find the best part of town to get a great meal."
Garret: "Yes, you looked it up on Jauntadvisor"
Pinja: "And cross checked the reviews for it on Shout"

Garret: "What's your character's name?"
Eric: "Eric"
Garret: "...Eric the Cleric?"
GM: "Ask her how she spells that?"
Garret: "Uh, how do you spell that?"
Eric: "With an 'E'"

NPC: "So how old are your parents?"
Asa: "Oh, you know, six-seven hundred years old?"
GM: "You just stop counting after the first three hundred"
Pinja: "You kinda have to cut them open and count the rings"
Eric: "You should see the birthday cakes. Now we know why they need all those forests"

Elves are very Continental. Insert conversation about Legolas on a Moped. Ciao!

Asa: "So how long has this wine been aged?"
Joffrey: "20 years!"
Asa: "Ah. For children then"

Pinja: "She probably gets more blood on her sword shaving"
GM: "Shaving her...legs?"
Eric: "You know how badly leg hair catches on chainmail?"
Pinja: "You know how can tell a master two-handed swordsman?"
Group: "...?"
Pinja: "Smooth ball sack"


1:13PM - Freedom's Ring -- Session 7


So we had our wrap-up session of Apocalypse World a couple weeks ago so I should tell folks how it turned out.

A Pirate"s Life For MeCollapse )

That pretty much was it. The pirates were defeated, Doc was gone (for good it seems) and Skel has some new playmates. It was quite a bit of fun. There are a number of tweaks I'd make when running an Apocalypse-powered game in the future, but for a first-time with the system, I think I did ok.


12:39PM - I'm hunting Weviews


So I breezed through The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and translated by Lola M. Rogers. As you might guess, Mr. Jääskeläinen is Finnish and so the reviews are filtereed through the lens of the translator as much as anything. Luckily, Ms. Rogers does a very nice job. The book had a good flow and nothing seemed terribly clunky or out-of-place.

Anyway, Rabbit Back (which I kept reading as Rabbit Black or Black Rabbit or Back Rabbit for some reason) is a small Finnish town. Its main claim to fame is that it's the home of famed children's author Laura White. Shortly after she became famous she began picking a select number of local school children to join her Rabbit Back Literature Society. She chose nine students in all and groomed them to become writers -- all of whom have gone on to a fair amount of success.

Ella is an academic researcher working as a teacher in her hometown of Rabbit Back. One of her short story pieces appears in the local paper and Ms. White takes notice. After many years, Ella is to be the newest, and tenth member of the Society. There's a gala party to celebrate, but in the midst of it, Ms. White disappears in a sudden blizzard.

So Ella is left on her own to meet up with the reclusive members of the Society and in trying to work out what happened to Ms. White, she stumbles upon other mysteries. Odd, unusual things start cropping up, Ella learns about a mysterious Game played by the other Society members, and things take a turn for the weird.

I suppose the book most easily falls under magical realism. There are a lot of loose, dangling plot threads that never really get resolved and the book has no interest in explaining them. It answers enough of the more mundane mysteries that you can let the more mystical ones alone. Overall it was a fairly quiet, low-key kind of book, but certainly enjoyable reading.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

8:26PM - Blue Danube Reviews


Finished my first couple of books for the year so let's talk about 'em.

First up Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe by Simon Winder. I've developed a bit of affection for the spectacularly inept Austro-Hungarian Empire (and it's Holy Roman Empire predecessor) and this book provides an excellent overview of the whole thing. It's an eclectic history, focusing not just on the interesting Habsburg rulers but also the people and places they were responsible for and the various pressures both internal and external that eventually tore the whole thing down.

Winder is a delightful read. He tramps all over the former lands of the Empire and finds fascinating pieces of history everywhere he goes. He also brings front and center the artistic and culture contributions of Imperial subjects. I've already ordered a book of plays by Karel Capek (R.U.R among others), listed to music by Bartok and Janacek and looked up numerous piece of artwork. I learned that Haydn was buried with two heads and the Catholic church did landstock business distributing the bodies of "authentic" saints to churches as part of the counter-Reformation. Oh, and a lion escaped into the Budapest subway during WWII and a soviet platoon had to go in and root it out.

The book has a great deal of affection for its subject even as it acknowledges that the whole thing was based on playing racial and nationalistic tensions against one another. It was enlightening and I am seriously considering picking up the book in a physical format which is about the highest recommendation I can give. It's well worth checking out.

Following that, I went down to the library and picked up Dancing with the Bears: A Darger and Surplus Novel by Michael Swanwick. Darger and Surplus are the con-men heroes of a set of short stories written by Mr. Swanwick. This novel follows their attempts to con the wealthy elite of Moscow out of their riches.

The book is set in a post-utopia. Mankind created AI and the AI decided they didn't like being self-aware or their creators and the world broke as people had to shut everything down to avoid being wiped out. However, bits and pieces of technology still exists, mostly in the form of advanced genetics which is why Surplus is an upright, sentient, talking dog. Darger is just an unforgettable face.

This fall from grace resets much of the political landscape as well. The story opens with the two grifters escorting a diplomatic mission from the Ottoman Empire to the Russian. The two are helping deliver The Seven Pearls, genetically engineered escorts to the Duke of Muscovy. Just as they arrive to put their plan into motion, other schemes by rouge AIs, righteous holy men and secret police all come together to form a perfect storm of unexpected consequences.

The world has an interesting conceit and it's a fun mish-mash of high- and low-tech. My only real issue is that the book jumps around several points of view which is fine and keeps the chapters punchy, but it never seems to spend enough time on the two people the book is supposed to be about. Darger and Surplus's plan never really gets any traction because everything else is happening all around them. It's a staple of the genre for things to go wrong, but here the con-men are mostly improvising to stay out of trouble and are inadvertent witnesses to all the other plots going off around them.

So not quite what I was expecting but it did have its moments.


Thursday, January 1, 2015



So with a new year it’s time to look back on what I read in the past year:

  1. The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 2 -- by Mark Twain
  2. Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day -- by Jonathan L Howard
  3. Exunt Demon King -- by Jonathan L Howard
  4. Death of Me -- by Jonathan L Howard
  5. Tales of Neveryon -- by Samuel R Delany
  6. Excession by Iain M Banks
  7. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  8. Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
  9. Tales from the Radiation Age by James Sheehan
  10. Ouroboros of Ouzo by Jonathan L Howard
  11. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
  12. The Barrow by Mark Smylie
  13. The Unwilling Warlord by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  14. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  15. The Revolutions by Felix Gilman
  16. A Rose-Red City by Dave Duncan
  17. The Complete Uncle by J P Martin
  18. Sworn in Steel by Douglis Hulick
  19. Starship Grifters by Robert Kroese
  20. The Ghosts of Watt O'Hugh by Steven S. Drachman
  21. Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
  22. Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness by Susan L. Smalley, and Diana Winston
  23. You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself by David McRaney
  24. The Hunter by Richard Stark
  25. The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag
  26. The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark
  27. The Tempest by William “The Bard” Shakespeare
  28. Don't Make Me Think (3rd Edition) by Steve Krug
  29. Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu
  30. Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea
  31. Shield and Crocus by Michael R Underwood
  32. Godwhale by TJ Bass
  33. The Big Tiny: A Built-It Myself Memoir by Dee Williams
  34. Lockstep by Karl Schroeder
  35. Ventus by Karl Schroeder
  36. Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
  37. The Homesellers Kit by Edit Lank and Dena Amoruso
  38. Pastrix, The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
  39. Inversions by Iain M. Banks
  40. Tigerman by Nick Harkaway
  41. The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs
  42. One Night in Sixes by Arianne Thompson
  43. On the Run : Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman
  44. Echopraxia by Peter Watts
  45. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
  46. Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok
  47. The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard
  48. S. conceived by J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst
  49. The City of Palaces by Michael Nava
  50. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  51. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  52. Blood of Ambrose by James Enge
  53. We Are Not Good People by Jeff Somers
  54. A Sacred Landscape: The Search for Ancient Peru by Hugh Thomson
  55. A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
  56. Small Unit Action in Vietnam Summer 1966 by Capt. Francis J. West
  57. This Crooked Way by James Enge
  58. The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
  59. Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser
  60. Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Some of those were short stories/novellas, but considering I didn’t include all the comics/graphic novels and other assorted reading, I feel like I did a pretty good job this year.

And now, the envelope please:

Best Fiction for 2014 (in no particular order):
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The City of Palaces by Michael Nava
The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard
Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
Ventus by Karl Schroeder

Best Non-Fiction for 2014 (in no particular order):
The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 2 -- by Mark Twain
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
A Sacred Landscape: The Search for Ancient Peru by Hugh Thomson
On the Run : Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman
Pastrix, The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Best Reading Experience of 2014:
S. conceived by J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst

Anyway, it was an interesting year of reading and I'm looking forward to 2015. If there was anything amazing you read this year, tell me about it!


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

10:04AM - Where the Book Reviews Best


So, I finished up the last two books of the year (and one is a re-read).

Earlier this year I saw The Dance of Reality by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky has a knack for making odd, arty films and this was no exception. It was supposed to be an autobiography of his childhood in Chile, but the whole thing was shot through with surreal symbolism and a sort of fairy-tale lens.

Jodorowsky apparently has a long interest in psychopomp and shamanism and it influences a lot of the stuff he does. He's even written a book about mythologizing your family tree.

In Where the Bird Sings Best Jodorowsky applies genealogical myth-making to his own family tree. The result is something beautiful and strange. Both sides of Jodorsky's family were Jews living in Russia (or soon to be part of Russia) and both of them migrated to South America where eventually his parents met and had him. The book recounts the triumphs and failures of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents that led to his being born.

The book is crammed full of the strange and wonderful. Ghost Rabbis, magic bees, magic lions, epic quests, circus people, inspiring revolutionaries, and on and on and on. It's not an overly long book, but it is very dense with people riding up and down on the wheel of fortune at a breakneck pace.

I'm sure the book makes a lot more sense to Jodorowsky since he knows exactly what the symbolic references are, anyone looking for an actual accounting is wasting their time, but people willing to be swept up by the story might find it as fun and thought-provoking as I did.

The book was translated into English by Alfred MacAdam and while I can't compare the original to the translation, I felt pulled into the book and it seemed to capture the spirit of Dance of Reality in print so I'd have to say it's a pretty successful translation.

Anyway, a good read.

I've been meaning to go back and re-read some books that I enjoyed in the past -- I don't do as much of that with the firehose of new material I have thanks to e-books, a larger inter-loan library system and a steady paycheck. But books that resonate with you probably should be re-read.

So I went back and re-read Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury. I read this back in 2009 and the story of a family living on the harsh world of Geta really stuck with me. Geta is a harsh world where the native life is largely poisonous without a lot of preparation and only a few crops from Earth are grown there. Drought conditions cause crop failures and famine and at that time, people are rated for their survivability and those who don't rate high are killed to feed those who do. There's a lot of interesting world-building going on and it actually includes a pretty interesting look at polyamory (group marriages are fairly common and forms a plot point in the book).

I did notice this time around that the book has a real hate-on for Lenin (the heroes find a "magic crystal" that tells them all about violent conflict back on long-forgotten Earth and decide Lenin is History's Greatest Monster). Kingsbury is apparently something of a Libertarian and some of that comes out when characters discuss how to best administer their growing empire. However, I'm pretty sure on my first read-through it came across as some sort of Anarchist utopia and I didn't give it too much thought.

Despite being a bit more sensitive to political screeds, the book remains an interesting read and is well worth checking out.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

9:27PM - Freedom's Ring -- Session 5&6


I've been bad about keeping up so here's a short synopsis.

I"m sad I didn"t keep better notesCollapse )

Next session will be our last and then it's on to D&D5. I'm playing a Paladin!


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