Blue Gargantua's Journal
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
10:11PM - Another slew of book reviews
Again, I've been a bit remiss in keeping up on my book reports. But here's what I've been reading:
First up, Behind the Throne by K. B. Wagers. Hail Bristol was third in line to the throne of the Indranan Empire, but she left it behind to track down her father's killer and in the process sort of became a smuggler, criminal and arms merchant. But you can't hide from one of the larger empires in the galaxy and when all other potential heirs to the throne wind up dead in a few weeks, Hail gets dragged kicking and screaming back home where she has to deal with her mother the queen and the mysterious assailants who took out most of the royal family.
It was a fun read although I'm again struck by how much sci-fi leans on archaic political systems for their star-spanning political entities. Also, Hail slips pretty easily back into court protocol even as her street smarts allow her to wrong-foot her opponents. It's not clear that a rebellious royal is going to make a good smuggler, but it certainly makes for a more gripping story.
So not a deep read, but a fun one.
Next, the much anticipated new installment of the Craft Sequence Series, Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone. This is the fifth book in the series and the first that's a direct sequel a previous book. In this case, it's the follow-on novel to the first book in the series Three Parts Dead.
The series has a modern-day world that runs on magic and magic is basically an analogue for modern day finance and globalized money systems. People pay bits of "souls stuff" in return for goods and services. In the past, gods formed the engine of this economy but they were overthrown by powerful wizards who now serve as the head of magical multi-national corporations. It's all woven together in a very slick way. I like to think of these books as a fantasy version of John Grisham novels.
Anyway, in this book we return to Alt Coulumb, one of the few places where a god Kos Everburning is still in charge (because he stayed out of the God Wars). His former consort, the moon goddess Seril, has come back from the dead (as seen in Three Parts Dead) and now there are plans afoot by various corporate entities to either break her or take advantage of Kos's love for her to get at him as well. Tara Abernathy is the goddess's legal counsel and she's got a lot of work to do if she wants to save her client. Various other characters from the previous book reappear including Tech-Priest Abelard and Police Inspector Cat and Raz her vampire-pirate friend.
This book is fantastic. The writing is ridiculously good. I was reading passages from it ever few pages to everyone around me. The world-building remains superb with lots of wonderful details and nothing that makes you go "wait a second...". This is easily the best of a series that has been firing on all cylinders from book one. It has plenty of different viewpoint characters and a wide range of genders/races/species. Although it runs off a magical version of modern finance, the books peer into both the good and bad aspects of that and, in the end, deal more with intangible human interaction.
I can't recommend this book/series highly enough and if you're looking for something to read do yourself a favor and pick it up.
Since I was vacationing in the Pacific Northwest earlier this month, I decided to read something relevant and picked up Smokejumper by Jason A. Ramos. Smokejumpers are firefighters who parachute into wilderness areas to stop small wildfires from becoming big ones. Ramos discusses his career as a smokejumper and intercuts it with an overall history of the smokejumper program in the US since its inception in the 1930's. I found the book to be pretty informative, although I sort of wish there had been a bit more technical explanation of how they fight a fire along with some diagrams or illustrations of the process. It's a bit hazy in my mind.
Anyway, as you might expect, smokejumpers are pretty gung-ho people. They jump into a fire zone, collect boxes of dropped gear and then work like beavers to set up a fire break to contain a fire and then they have to pack all of it out again. It's a fascinating story. Also, it's not a terribly lucrative one. Smokejumpers are government employees and the government only covers the basic equipment. A lot of useful gear has to be purchased by the smokejumpers themselves. Ramos himself has gone into business creating gear for smokejumper/firefighters and sometimes it feels a bit like an ad for his company but for the most part the book is pretty informative about a job I didn't know much about.
Finally, I picked up another audiobook in the Amazons and Swallows series. This time it's Secret Water by Arthur Ransome. This time, the Walker children are about to go on an exploration to Hamford Water with their folks when their parents are called away to London. But since this is an Arthur Ransome book, the parents just drop their kids off on an island with a vague map of the area telling them to fill it in themselves and be ready for pick-up in a week.
So Hamford Water is a major tidal flat where roads are exposed during low tide and a solid piece of mainland turns into a chain of islands at high tide. The kids set out to explore the area and are soon joined by thier old friends, the Blackett sisters (the Amazon Pirates). Then, they kids meet up with another group of children -- the Eel tribe.
And here we come to the problematic part of the story. The Walkers (and the Blacketts after some prodding) are playing at being explorers and mapping this area they've been dropped off at. The Eels are playing "native" and...it's not a malicious imitation of native peoples, but it's not great either. It's a bit like how in summer camps of the past, you'd be part of a "tribe". Very...appropriate-y.
The thing is, the kids are so earnest and decent and if anyone actually sat down and talked with them about it, they'd probably be awfully sorry and do something else so I tend to acknowledge the issue and move on with the story. And this book, like most of the series, deals with a lot of issues and conflicts that kids have. In one example, Nancy Blackett shows up all ready to be pirates and run around having adventures but John Walker is really keen to play explorer and map out the area. There's a bit of tension over "what game are we going to play" and Nancy (who usually gets her way in these things) realizes that John's really invested in this idea and graciously withdraws her suggestion (although when the Eel "savages" show up, she sees a chance to get rambunctious again). If Ransome suffers from English Empire Racism, he has a keen eye for how children get on and the books offer some useful lessons in that regard.
Problematic issues aside, I thought this was better than the previous two books I read simply because the children are actively choosing what sorts of adventure to have rather than having it thrust on them as in We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea and Big Six. I'm pretty much in the tank for this series but I do think (despite some problematic bits) that it's great reading.
Monday, August 22, 2016
11:12AM - The North Review
Maybe don't let weeks go by without discussing what you've read.
In that vein, I'm going to talk about The North Water by Ian McGuire. This is a short, punchy book where the journey is worth more than the destination.
It's the mid-1800's and Patrick Sumner, disgraced British Army surgeon, has signed on to the Volunteer, a whaling vessel headed for the arctic. Also on board is Henry Drax, harpooner and sociopath. Pretty much everyone else on board has a secret or two and it's going to be a long, cold, voyage.
There's nothing extraordinary about the characters, dialoge, or plot, but the descriptive writing is so damn good. It's fun to read in your head, it's fun to say aloud, it's got mysterious new words to look up, it never slides into purple prose. It's just really good reading. It's not my usual thing, but I'm glad I picked it up. Plus, unlike most whaling novels I can think of, this one clips along and would make for great afternoon reading.
Fair warning, it's just a bunch of guys (mostly white) and there's a fair amount of (exquisitely described) violence, but if that doesn't bug you, it's worth a look.
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
I’ve been slacking off again, but I have still been reading. Let’s see what I think:
First up Outlaw by K. Eason. This is the sequel to Evenmy which I reviewed a while back. I liked the first book so signed up for more.
Sorcerer-Thief Snow, Viking Barbaian Veiko and their Imperial Soldier buddies Dek and Istel have returned to the capital city of Illharek to warn the Republic of the imminent arrival of a former goddess who’s returning with a big bag of payback. But everywhere they go, people seem to have other worries on their mind. Simple greed or something more sinister?
It was a pretty good book. I think I liked the first one a bit better. Character’s seem to have reverted on their arcs a bit from book 1 to 2 so I felt they stagnated a bit. The magic system(s) continue to be a strong, but not overpowering, presence in the book and it continues to be intelligently put together.
I feel the writing was still good enough that I might go for one more round but I’m hoping the third book sticks a landing.
Following up I read through Hell Divers by Nicholas Sandsbury Smith. The brief blurb is that after World War 3, the remains of humanity live aboard these giant war-dirigibles. The surface of the planet is covered with deadly storms and killing radiation. When the airships need supplies from the ground, they send small teams of paratroopers to the ground to get what they need and hoist it (and them) up by balloons.
I’m not gonna lie. I’m a complete sucker for this premise. That’s an RPG and miniatures wargame I want to play right there.
Despite my post-apocalypse paratrooper bias, what did I think? Well….I had a bit of trouble believing that so many people would survive on an airship for the 200-odd years mentioned in the book. I realize this strongly suggests the book was terrible, but it was only because they emphasised that there was only one airship left. If it’d been a fleet of ships it would’ve seemed more plausable.
When you weren’t thinking about that, this was a pretty good little action book. There’s multiple trips to the surface to encounter terrible things and escape with precious equipment. There are several viewpoint characters and we hop between them to keep the tension up with a few different disasters going on at once.
My biggest complaint (aside from having only one airship) is that the book proudly declares itself the start of a trilogy and the first book ends pretty damn conclusively. I don’t know if that’s enough to make me pick up a second book, but seriously, I really love the concept.
Finally, while I didn’t “read” it, I did go through the audiobook of The Big Six by Arthur Ransome. This is another in the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books. I continue to enjoy the heck out of these.
We return to the Norfolk Broads from Coot Club. Tom and the rest of the Coots are joined by Dick and Dorothea again for more fun and games...except that the three youngest Coots (owner/operators of the Death and Glory) are strongly suspected of pushing off boats and causing other mischief all up and down the Broads.
Obviously the plucky children in a Swallows and Amazons book are never evil or malicious, but no one believes them. So they all go in and form their own Scotland Yard to track down the villain and bring them to justice.
So, it’s a fun book like the others but not the strongest. First, the villain is screamingly obvious and the kids are particularly clueless at times. I’m sure this is to help the intended audience feel smart but still. The other issue with this book is that in most books, the kids are proactive -- they want to be pirates or prospectors or polar explorers and they go do that. In this book (as with We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea) the kids have to react to a bad situation. Again, I’m sure this teaches the value of pluck and grit and whatnot, but it’s not as much fun.
Still, I continue to greatly enjoy this series.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Sooo...long time no review. Quite a queue of books to get through.
First up The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz and translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. It's a sort of Middle East dystopia book. In an unnamed country, a revolution has failed and the authorities have set up The Gate, a building where people have to go in order to get various Byzantine paperwork filled out. But the gate to the Gate never opens and so a vast line of people are backed up along it. Among them is Yehia, a former student protester who needs some paperwork filled out so he can get surgery to have a bullet removed. Of course, officially, the government never used any bullets on the protesters so...
The book was intersting but I'm not sure if the writing style appeals or if the translation was a little off. The prose felt a bit stiff and the story circled a bit and never really went anywhere. Perhaps that's a deliberate stylistic choice or perhaps it's a more familiar narrative structure in the region. It could be a little hard to get into the characters as real people when the government's surreal activities kind of draws the eye. Still, there were some neat bits in the story. I particularly liked the idea that people had been in the line so long that social customs had grown up and if you made even a token effort to be nice to the people next to you in line, then you could leave the line and resume your place when you wanted. Standing in line became, in effect, a second job. So characters aren't locked to the queue even though they spend much of their time there. I'm not sure I'd recommend this, but I'm not unhappy I read it.
After that we have Los Nefilim by T. Frohock. This is a collected set of a trilogy of short stories in one convenient book. The novel is set in late 1930's Spain just prior to the Civil War. Diago is a Nephilim, the child of an angel and a demon and desperately trying to avoid getting sucked into their battles. Most Nephilim have an angelic or demonic parent and serve as proxy foot soldiers for them. Diago's lover Miquel works for the angels, but he tries to stay out of it.
That all changes when he discovers that he has a son and that he's being sacrificed to the demon Moloch in exchange for the concept of an atomic bomb. Things kinda escalate from there.
Despite the divine-level powers these guys work for, the magic stays strong but not overpowering. The Nephilim really do deal with most of the day-to-day "real world" stuff while the angels and demons are more abstarcted (though they do take forms on Earth).
By the way -- the title immediately brought to mind the old Nephilim role-playing game from the 90's and while I enjoyed it the back-story was so arcane (in reality the Nephilim are basically dinosaur energy farts or somesuch) that it was hard to formulate adventure plots. Now I'd be completely ready to run a game so long as I used this book's setting wholesale. Putting the PCs to work under an angel or demon and then layer on their own hopes and ideal would be a fun story soup to stir.
Back to the book. I liked it. The story moved along briskly, the characters were interesting and the plot was solid. It's cheap on the Kindle and worth picking up for some supernatural/historical fiction.
There was a bit of a gap until the next Kindle book I wanted so I decided to tackle some non-fiction I'd picked up in dead tree format back in May. You may remember me reading about the American Civil War last year and this year I wanted to focus on a particular campaign so I was pleased to see a nice used copy of Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign by Peter Cozzens. Basically in the spring of 1862, Jackson's small army tied up several larger units of Federal troopers in the Shenandoah Valley and scored decisive victories in several engagements. The book discusses the campaign and tries to show how and why Jackson succeeded.
The short answer is that while Jackson was a pretty competent (if fanatically secretive) commander, he won mostly because he had full discretion to give whatever orders he wanted whereas his opponents were often hobbled by order from up the chain of command (sometimes as high as the White House). Jackson also seemed to be ready to put up a fight at any time though he also knew when to pick that fight, while his opponents often lost their nerve.
The big takeaway from this book is that life as a Civil War soldier sucked hard. The men are constantly away from their baggage trains so they don't have tents or camping gear. They were often barefoot or without coats during late spring storms. Having enough beans and bullets was a real issue and whole battalions would quit battle simply because they didn't have any more bullets to shoot. There are plenty of letters, journals and diaries where each side gets to grouse about the conditions.
Clearly it's a bit of a specialist subject, but I did enjoy the book and it's a solid source of info on one of the more celebrated campaigns of the Civil War.
Finally, this morning I finished up White Elephants by Katie Haegele. It's mostly a memoir about a young woman going to various yard sales/garage aales over several summers with her mother and what the various objects mean to her. It was...charming but a bit flat. I suppose I'm old so a lot of her navel gazing doesn't seem particularly interesting to me, but it had it's moments.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
1:20PM - Come see my show!
So it's not all book reviews around here. Tomorrow night is Opening Night for Hellancholy, one half of the double bill that is Ultimate Things going up at the Boston Playwright's Theatre in Boston (right near BU).
I'm playing God. So if you've ever wanted to see someone struck down by lightning, here's your big chance!
It's running July 1st - 9th and you can find out more here.
It's a fun couple of shows and I hope to see a lot of you there!
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
So long flights and tech week hell means you get a lot of reading done. So let's get to it.
First up: Enemy by K Easton. It's a fantasy novel where the Illhari Republic used magic human and divine to conquer their enemies. Then the followers of the gods got a little out-of-hand and now there's no more religion, just magic.
Snow is a mage and were it not for her mixed-blood ancestry, she might have risen a lot higher in the Republic. As it is, she works for an ex-lover doing various smuggling jobs. After a deal went sour, she's out with a green recruit to meet a contact at a nearby village. Said village has been burned to a crisp and the local legion thinks she probably did it.
On the run, Snow runs into Veiko, a hunter from the far north who was kicked out of his land. The two of them form a working partnership and start to unravel the mystery of who burnt the village and why god symbols are starting to appear.
Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book. The magic was handled well and never got anyone painted into a corner, the pace was good, the characters were interesting and bounced off each other pretty well. Most of the characters are POC and it passes the Bechdel Test pretty handily. It does claim to be the first in a series, but the book stands on its own pretty well. I'll probably poke at the next book in the series when it comes out.
Next up: Dark Run by Mike Brooks. A sci-fi tale almost as old as time. You've got a rag-tag group of legally-shady folks who take on One Big Score that turns out to be a complete set-up. So they make a plan and take the fight back to the guy who screwed them over.
The book is pretty frothy and breezes along the way you'd expect a book like this to do. No sentient aliens, it's an international group of misfits, but it does use the Alcubierre drive as it's FTL mechanism. I'll be curious to see if that gains more traction in SF as we go along. One neat fall-out from that is that the description of the ship is perfectly matched by the cover illustration so that's nice.
I liked the book. Nothing too deep but perfect when your flight's delayed by three hours.
Finally, I blazed through the short novel Making the Rounds by Allan Weiss. Eliezer ben-Avraham, Kabbalist wizard quested after forbidden knowledge and as a result is cursed to wander the Earth. He must offer magical assistance to anyone who asks in exchange for bread and board aided only by his trusty telepathic horse Melech.
So this is less a single story than a bunch of loosely connected short stories where Eliezer arrives at the behest of some calling or strange occurrence and then has to sort out some weird magical problem. Often the horse helps. Again, another fun, breezy book with a Jewish mysticism slant on it. The mysteries didn't play completely fair (the solutions relied on information you the reader didn't know), but they were entertaining.
Overall, a nice set of books. They weren't stand-out but they made for some decent reading and are recommended if you've got some downtime to fill up.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
So I read/listened to more books.
First up, I listed to We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome. This is the 7th in the Swallows and Amazons series about British children having outdoors-y holiday adventures. I'm completely in the tank for this series so you can assume I enjoyed it.
This time around, the children are on holiday in Harwich awaiting the return of their father, a naval commander. With a few days to kill they fall in with a young man who agrees to let them help crew his boat on a simple voyage around the harbor and rivers that flow into it. Because they need to stick close in case Father returns home early, the children and their babysitter promise not to leave the safety of the harbor for the open sea.
There's a series of unfortunate events and...yeah, the kids go out to sea on their own.
So I did like this book, but it suffered a bit because usually the kids have some self-directed idea about what they want to do and they go do it. In this case, there's an accident and things are forced on them. As always, they rise to the occasion with pluck and spirit but I'm a little sad it wasn't an imaginative play-adventure for them. Still, we get to see Father for the first time and get to know him a bit better so that's nice.
Fun series, well worth it for kids and adults alike.
Next up is Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. It's a sci-fi book written by Mycroft Canner a Servicer living the 25th Century. A servicer is a convicted criminal who is stripped of all rights and serves at the whim of the public for his sustenance. He is also deeply enamoured of the 18th Century and the Age of Reason and his writing reflects that style. This causes a bit of tension because in the future, gender has been smoothed out and gendered pronouns are Just Not Done. He apologizes to the reader (because of course in the 18th Century style, he addresses himself to the reader), but after defending his choice to use gendered pronouns promptly assigns those pronouns to people based on how he perceives their gender not on what it actually is. Which leads to a few amusing surprises when you realize the "she" has a beard. Shades of Ancillary Justice and well done.
So Mycroft has done some terrible things, but he's too valuable to simply execute and as a result all the major power-players in this future world have need of him. The person who needs him most, however, is Bridger, a young boy who has the power to magically bring any toy or representation to life. He draws pictures of food and makes it real. He's protected by toy soldiers who remember a vivid past fighting their green/yellow foes and are fiercely devoted to Bridger even in this strange new world of giants.
All of this is miraculous and miracles are expressly verboten. After the last War of Religion that re-shaped the world's structure into the form we see in the book, you keep your thoughts on religion (or non-religion) to your own damn self. And if you want to talk to someone, you talk to a sensayer -- a sort of all purpose chaplin/psychiatrist who is trained to debate the divine with you -- in private.
Carlyle has been sent to the home of the Saneer-Weeksbooth family where he accidentally encounters Mycroft, Bridger and Thisbe Sanner-Weeksbooth trying to clean up a magical problem. Things escalate from there.
So this book was written by a history professor who's using sci-fi to re-examine hot issues from the Age of Enlightenment to see how they may apply to our present-day concerns. It's an interesting application of sci-fi and it's a pretty interesting read. The future Ms. Palmer envisions doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, but those aren't the questions she wants you to ask and the world-building is sufficient to stop you from asking them.
Instead, she wants to point you towards great thinkers of the Enlightenment and the things that were important to them. Mycroft's affection for the period is shared by a number of others and that allows these themes to get woven through the story without being too badly lamp-shaded.
Although Mycroft intends to recount a momentous week in Earth's history, the book only covers the first seven days so...sequel. However it does seem clear that the book is driving towards a conclusion in that second book. Overall, I found it an interesting and thought-provoking read and it's worth checking out.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
So May is over and that means if you've been reading the ad hoc book club selection Sex with Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan, now's the time to talk about it. So I'll talk about it.
The book is partially a memoir of Ms. Keenan's short but very full life and how those events were tied into two central facets of her life, kink (in this case a spanking fetish) and Shakespeare. In particular, she uses the latter to help make some sense of the former.
The first thing that strikes you is how much Ms. Keenan has done. She took a gap year in Spain, went to Stanford, went to Oman, and was a Fullbright scholar among other things and most of that before she was 24. It makes you worry about what you've done with your life.
Anyway, since she has two main lenses to view the world, I'm going to tackle each of them in turn starting with Shakespeare.
Her conceit for Shakespeare is that she often has vivid conversations with the various characters in the plays. At times it seems a bit odd, perhaps like she's having a mental breakdown as the line between fantasy and reality blurs, but I wasn't terribly put off by this and it didn't interfere with her story. The good part about all of this is that she's able to offer some interesting new interpretations of Shakespeare's stories. What makes great literature great is that people can come to it again and again and come away with different impressions. Here, Ms. Keenan tries to show a less misogynist side to Taming of the Shrew and a darker shade to King Lear. I find a lot of her interpretations very interesting though not necessarily compelling in a "this is what Shakespeare meant" kind of way. Still, it makes Shrew more palatable and gives Helena a better motivation so it's thought-provoking in that way.
Now for the sex (or in this case spanking). Perhaps I live in too much of a bubble but I was a little surprised at how difficult it was for Ms. Keenan to figure out her kink and to meet like-minded people. Even in the early 2000's the internet was deep enough that you could pretty easily connect with fellow fetishists or look up reference material discussing the stuff that turned you on. It just seemed that she was extremely unhappy about her fetish for the longest time and I couldn't figure out why the internet had failed her so completely (aside from trying to do a search in Oman of all places).
And, of course, she's fairly young as she's recounting these stories so there's a lot of "oh no, don't do that!" Again, a few basic internet searches could've saved her a lot of grief -- although I'm sure many of my problems might get fixed that way too.
However, the real value of her stories is that they give a real emotional weight and clarity to her fetish and having a fetish in general. The idea that it's not just something you do for fun to spice up sex, it's more or less what sex is. Once she sort of gets things straight in her own head (or straight-ish anyway), she's able to convey that core value of her life in an elegant way.
Overall, I think this was a remarkable book. If you're into the kink/fetish scene I think it's a powerful read and if you're just curious, I think this is a great place to find out more (although I'd encourage you to try a second or third text from someone with a bit more confidence in their kinks).
If you're part of ad hoc bookclub, feel free to leave comments!
Thursday, May 26, 2016
1:21PM - Children of Central Review
Finished up a few more books. As a reminder, we're reaching the end of May so if you're still reading Sex and Shakespeare you should finish up soon so we can chat about it.
First up was Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gaveriel Kay. Mr. Kay writes a series of fantasy novels which are basically historical novels with the serial numbers filed off and a touch of magic. I've enjoyed other books of his I read although it's been a while since I last checked in with him. I had to pick this one up since it covered the tense period of the 1500's when Venice, the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire fought it out over the Balkans and the seas surrounding them. It's a period of history I find interesting so I was keen to pick it up.
The book follows several characters who are loosely united by Seressa's (Venice's) attempt to gain intelligence about Dubrava (Dubrovnik or Ragusa) and the Asharite (Ottoman) Empire. They send Jacopo and Leonora to spy on Dubrava and Pero is off to Asharias (Istanbul) to paint the Khalif's portrait. Crossing over on Marin's boat, they are attacked by Senjen raiders (including Dancia, a reluctantly accepted woman) and things go rather askew.
Although Mr. Kay takes a few liberties with the history, his aim is to convey a sense and a feeling of what life was like in those times for the people (both high and low) who inhabited it. The short version is that life on the frontier region between the Empires was dangerous and likely to be short. Between the incursions by armies of both sides, groups of people made their living preying on their neighbors. Despite all this, life still moves on as best it can. There are a number of exciting battle sequences, but skirmishes not great wars and they aren't central to the main thrust of the plot. That shows up in how each of the main characters works to adapt to their situation and tries to make the best of it. The book has a rather upbeat tone so most people find some measure of success.
I rather enjoyed the book (but it does hit my biases). There's a lot of great imagery in the book, both descriptive and in the dialog and also the literary bits of world-building (poems, aphorisms, and so on). The elements of fantasy exist but are very muted which was fine since it kept the focus on the people.
Next, I switched gears to the far future and picked up Central Station by Lavie Tidhar. Central Station is a space elevator set in Tel Aviv in a sort of neutral zone between Jewish and Arab sections of Israel. The book focuses on neither of those groups in exchange for following two families, the Chongs and the Joneses, whose families migrated to Central Station to help build it.
The future presented here is a sort of pre-Singularity. There are humans and others (digital consciousnesses). Most people have a built-in internet connection and there are robots and cyborgs but they're sort of an evolutionary dead end. The world-building on display is superb. The info dumps are very subtle and neatly woven into the stories, but the world of Central Station has a real feel, a real texture and it makes for some wonderful reading.
Like I say, the book is really more of a family drama about the Chongs and the Joneses and less about world-shaking events they participate in. I keep wanting to say it's a bit like Chekov -- a smaller, more human scale slice of life in the future. Miriam Jones is protecting Kranki, a boy joined closely to the other. Her ex-boyfriend Boris is back on Earth because his father is drowning in memories. There's forbidden love between a woman and a long-discarded cyborg soldier. A robot priest performs a bris. It's a great example of science fiction not being about the typical science fiction things. Well worth looking into.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
12:38PM - Games I played this weekend
This past weekend I played a few games and I wanted to talk about them a bit more.
First up Fall of Magic. This is a story-telling game more than a board game, but it's absolutely amazing. In the game, magic is failing and the last mage is dying and he is going to travel to the land Umbra far to the east to see if he can fix things. You play his compaions who travel along with him and try to save magic.
What sets this game apart is the scroll. The game is played on this scroll map that you slowly unroll to reveal new locatations (and roll up behind you once you've left an area). The mage travels from location to location and then each character has a chance to deploy to a sub-location at that spot and has a narrative moment. Once you and your fellow PCs have spent enough time at the location, one of the players picks up the mage and moves him to a new location (narrating the story from the mage's point of view).
The production levels are through the roof on this game. You get the scroll and your character is represented by metal coin tokens with a nice heft. It looks great, it feels great and it plays really well (assuming you play with people who want to tell an intersting story). We only got a little way into the scroll on our playthrough and it's clear that you could easily mark your last location in order to pick up and play the game later if you wanted.
There's some concern that the game may lack replayability, but there's a fair amount of gaming in just one complete pass through the scroll and the mage's path has branching options. There are also random islands that pop up during an ocean crossing. Aside from that, starting choices and interpetations of the various story prompts suggests that you could get a number of solid, lengthy games before you things felt stale.
It's well worth checking out as a game and a piece of art.
I also got a chance to introduce 7 Wonders to a friend. I've played a few games before but this was the first game with my copy. Seven wonders is a card-drafting civilization-building game. Each round starts with a hand of seven cards. You pick one and pass it the remainders along. Some cards are resource/economic cards that allow you to build the point-scoring cards you really want. You can also burn a card to build up your "wonder". Each step of the Wonder you complete either gives you victory points or some special ability.
The game plays fast, the decision making feels solid without being overwhelming and the best part is that the game is pretty well balanced so that even if you have a crap game and play terribly, you probably won't be dismally behind and may end up in a better position than you expected. I've got one of the expansions (Cities) which I haven't tried yet -- in part because the base game is so good I'm not sure you want to be larding on expansions like that.
After 7 Wonders, I got to try another game of mine that I've been meaning to play but had so far failed to get the plastic wrap off the box. The game was Splendor and it's basically a gem-drafting game as opposed to a card-drafting game. The (very thin) premise is that you're a Renaissance gem merchant trying to put together a gemstone supply chain that secures raw gems, transports them to artisans who make them into finished jewelry that rich nobles want to buy. With the expection of the nobles, alot of this is really abstracted. In short, you take some gems from a central pile (which are these delightful poker-chip tokens) and use them to buy cards. Some cards have victory points on them, but all the cards show one of five gemstones and act as a permanent gem for future purchases. So if you buy a ruby card and you see another card that costs 2 rubies you only need the token (which you have to spend) and the card (which you keep) to get it. Eventually you get enough of these cards, you can buy things for free. Get enough cards of the right colors and you earn noble tiles with victory points on them. When someone hits 15 points, everyone else gets a last turn and most victory points wins.
The game starts off pretty slowly as you have to spend a turn or two collecting the gems you need, then buying stuff, then scrounging for more gem tokens. Eventually, as the cards build up, the turns go faster and then the nobles start going out and the game races to a conclusion. I thought the game was fun but I won pretty handily so I'm biased. I do want to take it out for a couple more spins. I think with some further play the subtleties of scoring will become better understood. My guess is that you want to be a close second so that when the first player over 15 has to stop, you get a chance to scoop up some more points and take the win. In my game, I just gobbled up noble tiles and got so far ahead no one could stop me.
Finally, I played another game of my old arch nemisis Pandemic. I'm pretty sure that while this isn't a bad game like Munchkin or Killer Bunnies, it's probably my least favorite cooperative game. Mostly because the theme (stop global pandemics) clashes with the mechanics. Specfically give/take knowledge. To cure a disease you need 4/5 cards of the disease's color. You can give/take cards from another player but to do that, you and the other player have to be in the same city on the card you want to give/take. So if you need a blue card and I've got a blue card for London, we both have to go to London to make the swap. I know why that rule is there, but all I can think is -- "what? no cell phone?". Map movement is similar. You can move from city to city to city or you can jump to a city if you play a card with that city on it. Of course, now that card is discarded and not available for cures. Again, the movement system makes me think "what? four deadly plagues break out all over the world and we don't have a travel budget?".
I dunno. Just not a game I care for. Defenders of the Realm is more thematic but I suspect Forbidden Desert/Island is a better game.
Anyway, lots of fun stuff this weekend.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
11:04AM - Filibustered Review
So in Battle Cry of Freedom, they mentioned various plans by private US citizens to invade Central American countries and set up US-friendly regimes. This ballooned into a larger idea, championed by Southern and pro-slavery groups of the "Golden Circle" where the US would control all of Central America and the Caribbean and that slavery would be re-introduced in these areas.
Although most of these plans never really got anywhere, the major exception was William Walker who brought a force of 60 men to help aid rebels in Nicaragua but wound up taking over the country. This only lasted for about a year. Walker re-introduced slavery which wasn't received well in much of the US, he seized Vanderbuilt's shipping facilities which angered him, and Britain wasn't too pleased with Walker's activities either. Also, every other country in Central America formed an alliance and (backed up with guns from Vanderbuilt) they kicked out Walker and his troops.
Wanting to know a bit more, I picked up Reminiscences of the "Filibuster" War in Nicaragua by Charles William Doubleday. Doubleday was a young man who had followed the gold into California and then, on a whim, boarded a steamer from San Francisco down to Nicaragua. He was planning to travel overland and back to the East Coast of the US when he arrived in time for the revolution.
Doubleday spoke Spanish and he strongly supported the rebel party, party because he felt it truly represented the will of the people and also because he didn't care much for the power the Catholic Church had in the country. So he took up arms and joined the rebellion.
After a few months of urban fighting in Granada, Doubleday was about to take a leave when Walker shows up. As Walker didn't speak Spanish and didn't have much faith in the local troops, Doubleday agreed to be on his staff. Doubleday gets involved in several military blunders with Walker and doesn't have a very high opinion of him, but there's a weird loyalty to fellow US citizens and an odd "military duty requires" sort of thing.
The book is short and quite poetic in places -- something I find a lot of in writing from this period, but it's just a tad short on details. Doubleday gets wounded a couple of times and is back in the States when Walker finally takes over and starts going on a rampage.
It's an interesting personal recollection, but I may want to find another source for the history of this conflict. Walker himself wrote up a book about his adventures, but I'd rather have a less biased author before I wade into that.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
5:21PM - The Everything Review
So as I'm working through May's Ad Hock Book Club selection (Sex and Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan -- read it sometime this month and we'll chat about it at the end!) I realize I forgot to write up the last book I read.
The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey (of Sandman Slim fame) is a comedy fantasy story involving a thief named Coop who makes a living stealing magical doo-dads. Coop is no wizard, but he is immune to direct magic so spells and curses fizzle off of him -- he is not immune to the dragon summoned by a spell or a gun wished into existence, so there are limits.
After a short stint in jail for a job gone wrong, Coop is back out on the streets and receiving a mysterious offer to break into a heavily warded building and steal a small, innocuous box. Meanwhile, two cults, a chaos-spreading stranger, and the Angel of Office Supplies are also trying to get ahold of this box to bring about their particular End of the World.
I don't recall ever laughing out loud at any point, which is usually a bad sign in a comedy story, but it's not badly written. It suffers a bit from the "oh, no one knows magic exists, except there's a whole world of magical creatures who somehow get by without being discovered and the government has a task force devoted to them and if you pay attention you can find out about it" deal that always irks me a bit.
But as a crime caper, the book really fires on all cylinders. Coop makes logical use of the magical tools at his disposal and tracks down magical specialists to handle things that he can't (much like a normal crook might be a safecracker or driver or second-story man, there are various magical specialties like Marilyn's who can cloud people's minds). The magic follows its own internal logic and there's never a point where it paints itself into a corner and has to break the rules to get out.
The plot moves briskly along and you're always interested to see new complications get piled on. Although maybe not a masterpiece of comedy, it would certainly make for some good beach/travel reading this summer.
Monday, May 2, 2016
9:59PM - Ticklish Subject
So I just got done watching Tickled, a documentary by two New Zealanders about competitive endurance tickling.
Does the idea of young, muscular guys tickling each other seem like someone's fetish? Well sure, of course it does, and frankly, as far as fetishes go it's relatively harmless and kind of adorable. Perhaps a bit embarrassing but nothing too dreadful, right?
The deal here is that a NZ journalist stumbles on one of these sites and is like "tickling...huh" and posts about it and it goes a bit viral and then the journalist starts getting threatening, harassing letters from the company that runs the tickling website telling him to back off.
So of course, he does a documentary. Turns out that when young men want to stop doing the videos, those videos start appearing all over the internet and harassing letters go out to the performer, his family, potential employers...everyone. The stick is pretty harsh, but the carrot is pretty good too -- there's serious money for these performers, but you've got the boss from hell breathing down your neck.
I'm not going to say much more about this, it's opening June 17th and I'm hoping one of the local art houses will pick it up for a few screenings. It's well worth your time to check out. But until you get to see it, you should just know that all across the country, all across the world, there are "tickling cells" where young men are filmed being tickled in exchange for cash and prizes. That's a thing happening right now and when you see how it all works, you'll be dumbfounded.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
1:09PM - Ad Hoc Book Club Assemble!
beah and I are doing another ad hoc book club for May. This month, we're going to check out Sex with Shakespeare by JIllian Keenan. The author discusses her fascination with Shakespeare and being spanked. It's gotten pretty good advance reviews and a quick skim through the kindle sample seems promising.
If you want to play along, just snag a copy of the book either at Amazon or your favorite local bookseller and read it over the month of May. At the end, we can talk about it.
Sunday, April 24, 2016
5:07PM - Pigeon Agents of Review
So I heard/read a couple more books:
First up Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome. Another in the Amazons and Swallows series. And since most of the back half of the series is only available on audio, that's the format I had to take.
If you've been following me, you know the drill -- British schoolchildren have delightful outdoor adventures. This time around, there's pretty much no sailing. The kids are off to go prospecting out among the fells for gold. But there's a serious drought and their ability to camp beyond the watchful eyes of the grownups is in doubt until a source of water can be found. Also, there's a mysterious man in a squashy hat who seems to be spying on them -- perhaps to jump their gold claim!
As always, it's a wonderful read. There were a couple of points on this one that struck me as a bit dodgy to modern readers:
1.) The kids explore old mine workings! The older children do make a point of telling the younger ones not to go into any caves on their own but of course... Still, it's hard to believe that even the older kids could evaluate how safe/dangerous an old mine shaft might be. In general, the children are presented as extremely competent beyond their years, but this business with the mines is a bit of a stretch.
2.) There's a small dollop of...magic? weird phenomena? The book is usually quite precise in its dividing line between the practical real and the imagination of the kids, and the kids themselves know when to let reality intrude, but here things bleed over a bit and it seems like a departure from the usual format of the books.
Overall, it's still a lot of fun reading, but I'll be happier when the books shift back to the water.
Next up, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm. To elaborate a bit on the title, it's a history covering the interactions between the Ottoman Empire, the Western European powers and the Balkan states they fought over/through.
Mr. Malcolm tells the story by following two families from Albania, the Bruni and Bruti families. Some of them fought for Christendom at the Battle of Lepanto and became Knights of Malta, a number of them worked as interpreters between the Ottomans and Venice, Rome or other powers and a most of them traded goods and information back and forth across the lines. I have a bit of a fondness for this place and time and in watching how various members of the family dealt with the shifting fortunes of their many employers, you can get a better sense of what was going on.
It's broken up into short, punchy chapters that follow one member of the family and there's obviously a bit of overlap, but they mostly stand on their own. It's not the easiest of reading, but it's mostly dense with people and places named in languages not congruent to English so it was sometimes a bit of a hassle to straighten things out. Still, the work is pretty good and worth checking out. I think there's a lot of material for an RPG campaign.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
So, Chyna (aka Joanie Laurer) was found dead yesterday. She was 45.
First off, holy shit that's way too young. When I saw her on TV, I figured she was at least 10 years older than me.
Chyna was a pro wrestler in the mid-90s and she was always one of my favorites. Mostly because at the time, women's wrestling was something of a joke. It almost never got airtime and it was really more of a T&A show than anything else.
Chyna was ripped and absolutely ready to wrestle -- and she wasn't afraid to go after men in the ring. I don't believe she ever got a proper match with a guy (because *that's* too unbelievable for wrestling) and don't think she went after the women's title because, as mentioned above, it wasn't given any real consideration. She wanted to wrestle -- seriously wrestle and when she got some time in the ring she proved she had skills as a brawler.
I always thought she was wonderful and amazing (and tall!) and I always had a tremendous amount of respect for her and what she was trying to do. Alas, she was born too soon -- over the past couple of years women's wrestling has really stepped up its game and thanks to the efforts of female wrestlers (and a huge groundswell of support from the fans), it's gotten a lot more airtime on the main shows. If she had been up and coming she would've been the Andre the Giant of women's wrestling and it would have been awesome.
Sadly, her personal life was pretty rough. One of the reasons why I don't follow pro wrestling more closely is that it chews people up physically and mentally. There were no signs of foul play and her death hasn't been ruled a suicide, but she went through a hell that would've crushed most people long before 45.
Chyna will always be my ninth wonder of the world and I'm sad that she's gone.
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Traitor! A chess variant:
Set up pieces as normal. Each player is randomly assigned a number from 1 - 8 which they write down and keep secret.
That number identifies a pawn of the opponent that is secretly a traitor working for the player.
1 = Queen's Rook Pawn
2 = Queen's Knight Pawn
3 = Queen's Bishop Pawn
The traitor is used in one of three ways:
1.) On your move, you can reveal your number and the appropriate pawn of your opponent is replaced with a pawn of your color. It's now a pawn under you control and moves and acts like any other pawn you have.
2) When your opponent is about to use a pawn to capture one of your pawns/pieces, and it's your traitor pawn, you can reveal your number proving that pawn to be a traitor. Replace the traitor pawn with a pawn of your color. The pawn now moves and acts like a normal pawn of yours. The intended capture never takes place.
3.) Should your opponent advance the traitor pawn to the back rank, you must reveal it to be a traitor. The pawn is replaced with one of your color as above.
I had the idea that you could also reveal the traitor and then immediately capture an opponent's piece, but I think that would cause games to grind down -- you'd be trying to make space for your pieces to avoid getting traitor'd. Plus, you'd mostly want to use it on turn 1 to wipe out a piece.
Obviously, it's going to suck if you get a flank pawn for a traitor while you opponent has one of your central pawns, but I think it would be fun for the uncertainty factor.
Friday, April 8, 2016
3:14PM - Mark Twain's Reviewhead
Finished up a couple of books this week:
First up Railhead by Philip Reeve. This is a YA book which I normally skip, but it involves AI trains who travel hyper-dimensional railways to connect distant planets so...yeah, I'm in for it.
Our story revolves around Zen Starling who enjoys riding the rails and who helps support his mentally ill mother by stealing stuff. Then a mysterious girl with a red trench coat and drone starts following him. Then Railforce, the military charged with protecting the rails takes and interest in him and finally he's introduced to Raven. Raven wants Zen to steal a small box from a train...the train of the current Emperor of human space. With not a lot of options, Zen decides to take the job.
The book had a couple of inventive ideas and I liked the way it handled human/AI interactions. Events moved along at a good clip and the characters were fairly well developed. My favorite part is that the trains all chose names for themselves and those names are reminiscent of ship names in the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks. My favorite in this line is a train calling itself Gentlemen Take Polaroids.
Anyway, a fun breezy book and while I sense sequels in the offing, the story stand very well on its own.
And finally, last night I came to the end of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 by Samuel Clemens. The book was dense and not quite as lively as the previous two volumes, but still there were lots of delightful prose on display. In particular, Twain's thoughts about Teddy Roosevelt are pretty scorching. Although Twain is remembered as a humorist he had a mean streak and if you got on his bad side, he'd lay into you. As he got older, he was less publicly vindictive but in private he kept a keen edge on his grudges.
Of course, the book ends rather tragically. Twain was writing this autobiography to provide additional income for his daughters Jean and Clara. Clara married and was doing pretty well with her husband, but Jean suffered from epilepsy and Twain wanted to make sure she had something to live on well into her old age. Alas, on Christmas Eve 1909, Jean suffered a fit in the bathtub and drowned before anyone knew what happened. The last few pages are pretty raw in their grief and a rather sad end to the series.
Still, all three volumes make for some fascinating reading. Twain's idea to seal the papers until 100 years had passed and anyone he talked about was well past concerned about what he said means that he's fearless in expounding on whatever topic comes to mind. You do get a good sense of what his life and times were like, not just Twain's but the lives of people around him.
As always, the book as a prodigious section for footnotes and the team of scholars who put these books together deserve a great deal of respect for all their efforts. The footnotes provide invaluable context and insight into the things Twain talks about.
I'm a fan of Mark Twain, but I will say this is some fine writing and I encourage people to check it out.
Monday, March 28, 2016
12:02PM - Low Coot Review
So I finished up two books, one I read, the other I heard.
The one I read was Low Town by Daniel Polansky. Rigus is the capitol of the empire of the same name and Low Town is its infamous slum. Among the poor and desperate of Low Town is Warden, a former street orphan who became a war veteran, then a member of the secret police, and now he's making a meager living as a drug pusher working a small slice of territory.
He finds the body of a missing girl and, being the primary suspect, he has to track down her killer. Warden finds his man only to have him killed by a horrifying monster from beyond reality. Then another child goes missing. So it's a race against time to figure out who's behind the kidnappings before Warden takes the fall.
This was Polansky's first novel and for the most part, it's very well written. Good dialog, well-drawn characters and settings and the plot moves along pretty briskly. The only real problem is that the killer's identity is easily sussed out by the reader long before the protagonist. Still, I'm interested in reading some of the other books in this series (and the books appear to be self-contained so full marks there). Certainly worth a look if you liked The Gentlemen Bastards books.
Although I didn't read it, I did finish the audio book version of Coot Club by Arthur Ransome. More delightful water-borne adventures with English children. This time, we move from the Lakes Districts to the Norfolk Broads in eastern England. Dick and Dorothea are spending spring break with Mrs. Barrable who's living on a small yacht and who they hope will take them sailing. But Mrs. Barrable isn't much of a sailor and things seem grim, until the two meet up with Tom, leader of the Coot Club and the twins Port and Starboard. The Coots range over the waterways of the Broads and check up on bird nests and have other general adventures and they're more than capable of teaching Dick and Dorothea the basics of sailing. So begins a charming adventure on the rivers and canals of the Broads.
As always, Ransome writes some delightful children's adventure stories. The only small complaint about the book is that Mrs. Barrable is constantly feeding chocolate to William, her pug. Obviously, chocolate isn't that good for dogs, so it always sounded off, but for the most part, it's another great story. I'm in the tank for this series, but I do recommend it to folks and I think a lot of pre-teen kids would get a kick out of it.
Saturday, March 19, 2016
11:09AM - Shantyview
So a few weeks ago I read Unsinkable about a group of punks who build a shantyboat and float it down the Mississippi. In the process, I discovered Shantyboat: A River Way of Life by Harlan Hubbard. It seemed interesting so I grabbed a copy and finished it this morning.
The elevator pitch is that Shantyboat is basically Walden afloat. In 1944, Harlan Hubbard and his new wife Anna built a boat along the Ohio River just north of Cincinnati. After a breaking-in period of two years, they cast off and drifted down the Ohio, onto the Mississippi and from there down to New Orleans.
Like a lot of the travelogues I've been reading, there's not a lot of real narrative here. The Hubbards drift along in the winter and find a place to tie up for the rest of the year to grow a garden and replenish their supplies. They don't meet with any real serious issues except maybe a bout of appendicitis, but that only keeps Harlan down for a couple of weeks.
Harlan was a painter and artist and there are lots of great sketches and woodblock prints illustrating the book. It also gives him a keen eye for description and he's able to evoke some vivid imagery.
The only thing that bugged me was that it was all very much Harlan doing the writing and you don't get a good sense of Anna's participation. That's not entirely true -- Harlan repeatedly discusses how the trip would be a lot less civilized without Anna around. She puts in a lot of hard work and helps to steer/row the shantyboat. She and Harlan read and play string duos together but...you never really hear much about her activities beyond housekeeping. It would've been nice to hear from her about the trip. She seemed a pretty capable and intelligent person and I feel like she was more than just housewife, but you don't get a sense of that from the book. There is, apparently, an autobiography about her that I might check out at some point.
Still, the book is generally focused on the world outside the boat rather than in it and it makes for some fascinating reading. Although 60-odd years have passed, I was constantly referring to google maps to try and trace their path.
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