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Monday, February 20, 2017

5:41PM - The Skill of Our Reviews


A couple years ago, I read The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White. It was the story of a secret society of people who essentially lived forever by uploading themselves into the Jungian Collective and then downloading themselves into other people (it's not quite a creepy as it sounds). That connection to the Collective means that they are able to persuade an manipulate people with just a bit of research and after some spectacular failures to remake the world in their image, they work more quietly, in small increments to make the world a better place (hence, The Incrementalists). I thought it was an interesting book with a lot of fun concepts that were worth exploring more.

The second book, The Skill of Our Hands, has finally come out and I finished up reading it the other day.

This is a book that I think a lot of people will want to read. Especially if they're feeling overwhelmed by the political situation and wondering if there's anything they can do to help. There's a lot of great moments that touch on the questions around when and how and why we take actions to try and change things. The downside is that if you just jump into this book, there's quite a lot of interesting background/world-building that gets brushed over. They do explain things for new readers, but I remember reading the first book and thinking about all the interesting things their "magic" could do. It's not downplayed or ignored here, but it's not explored in quite the same way as the first book.

Now maybe this is ok, the story isn't about the background or kewl powers, it's about gifted people struggling to use their talents to help people and each other and the ways they get that right or wrong. So it's a bit odd. I think people should read this book, I think they should read The Incrementalists first, and I think that if they're only going to read one book, read this one. It really zeroes in on modern-day issues in a way that people will probably resonate to.

The short version of the plot is that Phil, one of the oldest Incrementalists, has been shot while trying to change immigration enforcement in Arizona. For Phil, that's not the worst thing that could happen, but it sort of throws the rest of the Incrementalists into a bit of a tizzy since no one's sure who killed Phil and they sort of need him around to move their projects forward. Things start fraying from there.

Oh -- the book has one of the most cheerful and positive portrayals of polyamory I've seen in a while.

Anyway, the series is pretty good and this book is the stand-out so far, so check it out.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

7:52PM - Silent Review


So the other day I finished up Silent Hall by N S Dolkart. It's...it's not bad, but it spends a lot of time in the set-up and then leaves everything for the next book. Also, it's the "band of chosen young people save the world" kind of book and that's not a huge draw for me.

Again the writing clips along and it's not bad, but it was mostly filler while waiting for the release of a book I wanted to read more. So...I guess it fulfilled its mission?


6:52PM - Dear Master of Assassins


It's been a while since I last wrote. Part of it was that Assassin's Creed 3 was so bad I didn't want to keep up with the series (although I heard good things about the pirate-assassin installment that followed) and then I just sorta stopped playing video games.

Over Christmas, I picked up a new Xbox One (because I'm a console scrub who has brand loyalty) and I've been playing through a few games.

First up, is Forza Horizon 3, an open-world, arcade driving game like Burnout Paradise City or Burnout: Most Wanted. The game is set in "Australia" and you go bombing around rain forest, beaches, farmland, outback, and urban centers. You unlock new cars and new events and just try to go fast and look good doing it. I really like it. The controls are responsive, and the physics are pretty good. I will say that, being Australia, there's a lot of off-roading so while the Lamborghinis and Ferraris are beautiful, they lose that luster once you get off the road. So my car of choice has been a Subaru WRX 05 rally car that handles highways and dirt roads no sweat. It's a solid game and I've been enjoying it.

Next, I gave Far Cry 4 a try. I really enjoyed Far Cry 3 and I was curious to give it another spin. So, often the series has a bit of the old "white guy saves native people" problem, although it does put twists and spins on it that helps it avoid a lot of this trope's issues. This time, you are Ajay, a refugee from the Nepal-like country of Kyrat. So although a bit of an outsider, you are actually a member of the ethnic group you're trying to save. Of course, you never really see your face and you wear gloves so it's not like your confronted by that visually very often but still.

Anyway, you're here to scatter your mom's ashes but then you get pulled into the civil war that caused you to flee in the first place. So you run around, kill bad guys, get near-supernatural powers to hunt down bad guys, and kill lots of endangered creatures so you make a bigger bag to store your ammo in. You liberate towns, forts, and radio towers. You take on various missions and eventually you reach the end only to realize it was all a huge waste.

See, the rebels have two rival commanders who have different approaches to waging war. You, as the son of the former rebel head, are used as a political football to help one or the other reach the top. So you'll get a mission where each rebel leader wants you to do something different. Despite the fact that you are the long-lost golden child of a fondly remembered rebel leader and despite the fact that you actually get stuff done, you can't become the actual head of the rebellion, nor can you try and work out a compromise between the conflicting things the rebel leaders want you to do. In the end, no matter who you back, you feel like you've just made things worse somehow. Which, actually, is something I kind of like about this series -- interventions may not always produce successful outcomes.

So the game is fun, but it gets a bit tedious and given your complete inability to actually affect any positive change, I mostly just pushed through to the end of the story and then dumped it.

What replaced it is why I'm writing to the Master of Assassins. I didn't pick up a new Assassin's Creed game, instead I picked up Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Um...this game is awesome.

So you play Talion, a ranger who works at the Black Gate protecting Gondor and watching over Mordor lest evil returns. Then...evil returns and kills everyone, including your wife and son. You, however, are fused with the spirit of an ancient elf and return to get revenge on the forces of Sauron.

You start off with a sneak attack and that's about it. Even two or three orcs will quickly overwhelm you. But as time goes on you gain more skills, your weapons (sword, bow and dagger) get runes that you can use to swap in and out various bonuses or powers. Eventually, you just wade into dozens of orcs and just straight-up wreck them. Even better, you eventually gain the power magically brand the orcs and put them under your control. So you sneak around, brand a bunch of mooks and then turn them against their boss.

The coolest part of this game, however, is the orcish chain of command. You've got your mooks and then your captains, verterans, chiefs and warchiefs. All of these guys have special powers and weaknesses and you don't know what they are until you track down and interrogate special "informant orcs". You can pick them off without researching them, but it helps to know more about them.

All well and good, but the brilliant bit comes when you kill one of these ranking orcs. See, when you do that, there's now this hole in the chain of command. Eventually, some lower-ranking orc will be promoted to fill his place. On top of that, if you get killed by some random mook (and it will happen), that mook will get promoted to captain and gain a name and special powers. And if a ranking guy kills you they often get stronger gaining new powers.

So you get killed by a mook and they become a captain. You go after him, but he kills you a second time, getting stronger. Let me tell you, you get real invested in killing this guy after a while. On top of that, ranking orcs have power struggles so the chain of command can change without you doing anything. On top of that if you mind-control an orc, you can help him rise through the ranks. To take out some of the later high-ranking warchiefs, I mind-controlled his lower-ranking bodyguard and had them turn against him. The overall effect is to create this dynamic environment of targets to go after and you feel like your actions are really making a difference.

Just a really solid game and I highly recommend it.

So no Templars, no business dealings, no bevy of beauties to strike down targets, but probably the best assassin's creed game I've played in a while.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

1:55PM - The Underground Handbook Review


So the ad-hoc bookclub is reaching the end and people are beginning to talk about stuff so let's get some reviews out of the way.

We start with the ad hoc book club book for January, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It was quite the best-seller in 2016 (and Oprah really liked it), so we decided to give it a whirl.

In the 1820's, Cora is a slave in Georgia. She's a bit of an outcast because her mother ran to freedom and Cora violently defends her only inheritance, a small garden plot, from another slave. Cora doesn't mind too much and lives in a shelter with other women deemed "not right". For the most part, Cora keeps her head down and when newcomer Caesar asks her to come with him in his own flight to freedom, she initially turns him down. When life on the plantation takes a decided turn for the worse, she changes her mind.

The book isn't strictly historical (I suspect that some of the events she encounters weren't from 1820 although they easily could be), but it only really stands out when you discover that the underground railroad is, in fact, an actual underground railroad that ferries people through the dark to new places. Cora and Caesar travel from Georgia to South Carolina and it seems to be a much better place, but the chains are simply gilded. Cora is forced to move on when Ridgeway, a professional slave catcher, shows up. Ridgeway failed to capture Cora's mother and so has a personal interest in returning her to her owner.

There follows a series of events as Cora moves from place to place, but the underlying theme is that there really isn't any safe place in America for black people. In fact, the ending is a tad ambiguous in that we never really find out Cora's fate, unlike many of the other less-fortunate characters in the book who often get their own small chapter explaining their fate or background.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book, although I'm much more fond of Lovecraft Country in terms of talking about America's racial problems. In part, because it covers a lot of interesting (to me) issues like how do we enjoy the creative products of racist assholes and in part because the protagonists of Lovecraft Country exhibit a lot of agency. Cora is mostly buffeted about by the winds of fate. Obviously, she makes the decision to run and she does take drastic actions at times to keep running, but it's always a snap decision and it's clear there are times where if she hadn't caught a lucky break, she would've been dragged back to the plantation or succumbed to her own misery.

All of this isn't the best for a strict narrative (we want our heroes to take decisive action and rally from setbacks), but it probably says something more truthful about slavery and those subjected to it. Maybe it should feel unsatisfactory and a little unfinished, since that's where racial issues are right now.

I will say that I was reminded that Colson Whitehead also wrote The Intuitionist about a black elevator inspector and that is a terribly misleading description for what was an amazing book. If you were in ad hoc and thought Underground Railroad was good, you'll definitely want to read The Intuitionist.

Next, a youtube video brought The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. The two political scientist distill their research into how and why leaders make the decisions they do. Like many of these books, the answer is one that took them 18 years to work out and most of us would simply cynically spout off -- leaders want to gain power and then stay in power and everything else they do arises out of that.

In particular, leaders have essential supporters who must be kept happy or they won't support the leader and then the leader won't be leader any more. In non-democratic societies, this is usually a small circle of nobility, family or tribal members, economic or military leaders, or some other small but important group. The upshot is that the leader will only do what it takes to make them happy and no one else (since the members of his small circle can crack down on any dissent). Conversely, in democracies, a politician has a large number of essential supporters (i.e. voters) and to keep them happy, a leader has to support a lot of public goods (police and fire, clean water, good schools, etc.). If he can't keep enough voters happy, he gets kicked out.

This is all well and good, but like a lot of soft sciences, they provide some simple theoretical examples and then proceed to apply the concepts to everything without accounting for the complexities of the real world. In particular, they claim that leader's can't really pursue any policies that don't keep them in power (i.e. that don't cater to their core supporters). However, a leader can use their power to convince their supporters that a pet project of the leader (a war, a change in taxes, an environmental policy, etc.) is something good for their supporters and then they can do what they want because they've convinced their supporters it's what they want too.

They advocate democracies because having a large group of essential supporters forces leaders to help out as many people as they can, but they also acknowledge that leaders want to reduce that group of essential supporters. In fact, the very first real-world case study they open the book with is about how a democratically elected group of town directors reduced their essential supporters to a small block of voters and proceeded to write themselves huge, fat, legal checks. When they talk about ways to increase essential supporter sizes, they don't really talk about how to incentivize leaders to keep increasing that group of essential supporters. Though they do talk about gerrymandering and abolishing the Electoral Collage -- there's not a lot of discussion on how to convince the people who got where they are thanks to those things to give up their winning ticket.

Likewise, they discuss how corporate governance could be improved by using the internet to connect small shareholders and organize them in to a large voting block. The problem is that many corporations are set up so that the essential supporters hold a majority share. The other problem is that most people don't own stocks to run a business, they own it as an asset they hope to see grow over time. There are activist investors who rail against overpaid CEOs and bad business practices and the like, but can they reach and organize every small investor to build a commanding block? I'm not saying they can't, but again, it doesn't seem likely. Mostly it just seems like they're short on answers.

The book is, however, an intriguing lens in which to view the recent elections. Sanders didn't rely on big donors and Trump self-funded a fair chunk (and wasn't terribly beholden to traditional political backers in the first place). Both platforms also directly told voters to ask establishment politicians "what have you done for me lately?" and if they didn't like the answers....

I hope someone else reads this book so I can discuss/argue about it with them. I seem to have a lot of criticisms, but I think that just means they present an interesting case that deserves reading and discussion.


Monday, January 23, 2017

6:19PM - FInal Eclipse Reminder


So August 21st, 2017, my hometown of Ravenna, Nebraska will be under the line of totality and will experience a total eclipse of the sun. I'm going home to watch it and there's crash space available at my parent's place. If you're interested in checking it out, please let me know.

This is my last reminder, I need to get a solid head count early so that we can start planning for the trip. Securing plane tickets and rental cars may be a bit tricky so better to get that stuff locked down earlier rather than later.

I know a few of you have expressed actual or tentative interest. This is basically Last Call. If you really want to go please email me. Don't reply to this post or PM me or whatever -- email me -- even if I know you want to go. I need to build up a contact list and I don't want to miss anyone because I forgot to check the comments to a post. Also, I want to set up a short meeting in mid-February so everyone who wants to go can meet up and we can cover the basics of scheduling for the event. I don't think this will take too long. Probably an hour, maybe two if there's a lot of discussion -- I'll try and keep things moving along. So when you email me, let me know dates that are good for you to have this meeting. I'm thinking this will probably happen on a weeknight rather than weekend. Hopefully I won't have to resort to a doodle poll.

So. Eclipse Viewing Trip to Nebraska in August 2017. If you're set on going, send me an email and let me know some dates you'd be ok with sitting down for about an hour to discuss the trip and get organized.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

12:09PM - Fingersmith


I went to see Fingermith at the A.R.T.

It was...amazing. The basic story is great, the acting was good and the theatre tech was jaw dropping.

It's only playing for a few more days but if you can get tickets you should try and go.


Monday, January 2, 2017

4:25PM - Eclipse Reminder


  Just a reminder that there will be a total eclipse of the sun on August 21st this year and my hometown of Ravenna, Nebraska will be right under the line of totality (i.e. the eclipse will be fully visible, the moon eats the sun, yadda-yadda).  If you'd like to see it, my folks are offering crash space for anyone who'd like to join me.  I've got a couple of people who've confirmed they'd like to go, but there's still some room.  If you're interested in actually going, let me know.  In February, I'll organize a planning meeting for people who want to go.  If you just want to be in and out to see the eclipse, that's great, if you'd like to plan out a vacation that includes the eclipse viewing, I can help you find an itinerary that will suit your needs. 


4:13PM - The Review of Reviews -- books read in 2016


Not an outstanding, but a pretty good year for books. Here's everything I read:


Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence Schoen

Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Expendable by James Allen Gardner (Audiobook)

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The House of War and Witness by Mark, Linda and Louise Carey (didn’t finish)

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Inca Civilization in Cuzco by R. Tom Zuidema

Railroad Semantics 1 and 2 by Aaron Dactyl

Unsinkable: How to Build Plywood Pontoons & Longtail Boat Motors Out of Scrap by Robnoxious

Brotherhood of the Wheel by R. S. Belcher

Dream Whip #15 The Pedal Powered Movie Tour by Bill Brown

Shantyboat: A River Way of Life by Harlan Hubbard.

Low Town by Daniel Polansky

Coot Club by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Railhead by Philip Reeve

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 by Samuel Clemens

Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm

The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey

Reminiscences of the "Filibuster" War in Nicaragua by Charles William Doubleday

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gaveriel Kay

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Sex with Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Enemy by K Easton

Dark Run by Mike Brooks

Making the Rounds by Allan Weiss

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Los Nefilim by T. Frohock

Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign by Peter Cozzens

White Elephants by Katie Haegele

Outlaw by K. Eason

Hell Divers by Nicholas Sandsbury Smith

The Big Six by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Behind the Throne by K. B. Wagers

Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

Smokejumper by Jason A. Ramos

Secret Water by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

The War at the End of the World by Mario Vegas Llosa

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky

A Long Spoon by Jonathan L. Howard

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

Slaughtermatic by Steve Aylett

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante

What to Do When I Get Stupid by Lewis Mandell

Roll Call to Destiny: The Soldier's Eye View of Civil War Battles by Brent Nosworthy

The Uskoks of Senj by Catherine Wendy Bracewell

The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens

The Burning Isle by Will Panzo

Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert F Capon

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky

After the Crown by K B Wagers

So that's around 56 books read/listened to. But you want to know what to add to your reading list.

Top Fiction books:

 Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
2.)  Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone
3.)  The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard
4.)  A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante

Top Non-fiction Books:
1.)  Supper of the Lamb by Robert F Capon
2.)  The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 3 by Samuel Clemens
3.)  The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens

Looking forward to some interesting books in 2017.


3:36PM - Ad Hoc Book Club is Go!


Technically it started yesterday but I was busy. It's time once again for an Ad Hoc Book Club reading. This time around, we're going to be reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I'm already starting in on it and it's an interesting read, I think people will really enjoy it.

As always, it's a casual book club so you can read at your own pace. On Jan. 31st, we can start talking about it.


Friday, December 30, 2016

3:08PM - Attendants prepare for cross check


3:07PM - It's like when your favorite pub closes down and all the regulars go to different places


I've had a Dreamwidth account for a couple years now and I regularly import the content from here over there.

But while it imports my content, what it doesn't import is my friend's list. Which is mostly what keeps me from using DW exclusively.

I'm not super concerned about Russians controlling LJ, but I am concerned that the service might die unexpectedly and I do appreciate DW's ethos. I have no idea if this is still a relevant blog site (or if blogging is still a thing). I've actually let G+ take care of most of the day-to-day hot take posts that used to go here (and G+ is terrible for reviewing past posts.

Still. I want to write up my book reviews and post my painted up little dude photos and maybe a few other things. So I keep using LJ, but I'm thinking that it might be time to convert to DW.

So if we're friends here on LJ, or we're not friends but you do like reading my posts and you want me to see you on DW, feel free to send a friend request to me. As you'll be unsurprised to learn. I'm at bluegargantua.livejournal.com. I will also be cross posting here from DW so if you can't be arsed, you'll still see my ramblings.


Monday, December 26, 2016

4:36PM - Ad Hoc Book Club! Assemble!


beah and I are doing another ad hoc book club for January 2017. This time around, we're going to be reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It won a National Book Award and Oprah seemed to like it so...let's give it a go.

As usual, the "official" start date is Jan. 1st, but you can begin whenever and we'll all avoid discussing it too much until the 31st.


4:33PM - Booking Day


Unless I get real ambitious these are probably the final reviews of the year.

First up: Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Mr. Tchaikovsky is best known for this "Shadows of the Apt" series, a fantasy novel in which various groups of humans gain special powers related to their insect totems. It was a fun series, but I kinda lost interest and stopped after a few. Spiderlight is a stand-alone fantasy novel that mostly plays with the tropes.

Nth is a giant spider, one of the multitudes that infest the Mirkwood forest. As the book opens the forest is being invaded by a small band of humans. No trouble except whoops, these are adventurers and they've got a pyromaniac wizard to boot. The spiders rally to defend their Mother, but can't stand against the Forces of Light. But they stop short. They're on a quest, there's a prophecy what needs fulfilling and a spider's tooth and a spider's knowledge are what's required.

To save her children, Mother gives up a venom-filled fang and offers to let them have Nth, into whom, she's implanted the memories the group needs. So now, Nth is an eight-legged member of the party. Hrm...a bit conspicuous that. Luckily, the wizard has an Idea.

The book is fun. It skewers stereotypes and has a bit of fun with the black and white morality of fantasy worlds. If you've read any fantasy at all, you'll probably catch various bits and gags. Luckily, there's still an actual story going on so it doesn't slide into that "forced funny" that a number of parody books suffer from.

Next up: After the Crown by K B Wagers. This is the second in her Indranan War series (the first being Behind the Throne I reviewed a few months ago). The story follows Hail Bristol, former princess, ex-gunrunner, and current Indranan Empress. She inherited a lot of problems when she gained the throne and one of them is a shadow war by a neighboring empire. Hail leads a negotiation team to try and work things out, but, surprise it's a trap and there's a coup on.

The book was fine, but it follows very closely on the events of the first book and since (spoiler alert) a few people die in that book, you've got new staff and half-remembered pre-existing dudes so...it was a little tough to follow in spots. Still, we get to see Hail be a bit more proactive in this book so that's nice. Unlike the first book, there is definitely no real resolution in this book (wait for book three!) so that knocks it back a bit. I'm not 100$ sure I'll buy into the final book of the series, but it continues to be some light, fast reading.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

8:01PM - Read a bit, review a bit


OK, let's try and keep up-to-date. I plowed through two more books so let's see what we've got:

First up: The Burning Isle by Will Panzo. Pretty much a straight-up fantasy novel that rips off the plot of Yojimbo, but does interesting things with it.

OK, so the Isle in question is Scipio, far-flung outpost of Empire and wretched hive of scum and villainy. The town is split between two gang lords and they both live in fear of the general who sits in his jungle fort outside the city. Into this mix comes Cassius, a young wizard who hopes to shake things up a bit.

I really like the way magic works here. There are numerous types of magic, but Runic Magic (as perfected and practiced by the Empire) has come to the fore. Other types of magic get broken down into their essential elements and then rendered as a run. If you have facility with runes, you can channel power through them to get the same effect, but without the dancing, sacrifices, weird material components, or whatever else the original spell required. Just focus on the rune, shove some energy through it and boom -- instant effect. Runes are generally inscribed onto gemstones that are then inset into metal gauntlets. Not only does this let you cast a spell over and over again, but if you take another wizard's gauntlets, you can now start casting all their spells as well.

So with the gauntlets at their hips, and a big payout for taking out your opponent, wizards essentially act as Wild West Gunmen and there's a number of well-detailed wizard duels.

The book is fast, breezy and fun. It's well-written even if the basic plot and tropes are screamingly obvious. The only major issue is that the book just ends with half a dozen threads dangling. It's not entirely clear if they're setting up a sequel or if the author is just trying to be mysterious but either way the ending is rubbish. But, honestly, that's the last page. It's pretty good reading up until then and worth checking out.

Next up: Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert F Capon. So, at the front of this book, it talks about how you'll make a lamb supper for eight people four times. He lays out the ingredients and then...and then he goes off on these amazing and wonderful tangents about food and people, the microscopic and the cosmic, the physical and the spiritual in this wonderful soup of topics.

Fair warning: Mr. Capon is (was) an Episcopalian minister so there's quite a bit of god-talk but it's never all that irritating (compared to religious stuff I've read in the past) and it's not trying to proselytize you. In particular, Capon delights in the goodness of God's creation and his delight is absolutely infectious. He doesn't need to guide you to God, he just figures if he helps you appreciate creation more, you'll find your own way to God. Your faith doesn't matter to him nearly as much as whether or not you use margarine.

There are actual recipes and techniques described in the book, advice on throwing dinner parties and it all just makes you want to try and make puff pastry. The writing is outstanding and this will probably be one of my books for the year.

Put it this way: the chapter about onions alone is worth the price of the book. It comes with my highest recommendation and I encourage folks to check it out.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

12:08PM - November Reviews


Cripes, I've been falling behind on this.

So I christened the month Non-fiction November and that's been pretty much all I read this month. So let's talk about them.

First up is: What to Do When I Get Stupid by Lewis Mandell. This is a book focusing on retirement finances. Basically, Mandell's argument is that our cognitive abilities are going to start slipping when we get older and that opens us up to making bad financial decisions and/or getting swindled by crooks. Therefore, we should try and figure out a good way to protect our retirement savings mostly from ourselves.

His basic recommendations are two-fold -- a fully paid-off, age-in-place home and the use of annuities to provide a steady income stream that can't easily be undone. An annuity is essentially a pension. You give the annuity company a large lump sum and it starts paying out monthly returns. When you die, the company gets to keep the rest of the money. Obviously some of this depends on your family history, but I have some fairly long-lived family members so it's not too much of a stretch to think that I might need something like that. The big upside here is that once you buy the annuity, that large lump some of retirement cash is, effectively, gone. You can't be swindled out of that money, you spent it. You could still get scammed on the income stream, but the prize won't be as big and Mandell even includes some suggestions for how you can enlist the aid of others to track your mental acuity and raise a flag if necessary.

I liked the book, it was well laid-out and Mandell describes how annuities work and the kinds you want and the kinds you want to avoid. My only complaint is that this advice is most useful just as you're about to retire. When you call in that 401(k) or whatever and have a huge some of money, you'll want to channel it into annuities. What I was hoping for was more advice on things to do now in the 40s-60s so that retirement fund is as large as possible (get a higher-paying job, don't spend any money, I know, I know). Still, I think there's a lot of good advice here and well worth looking into. Especially if you have loved ones approaching retirement.

Next up: Roll Call to Destiny: The Soldier's Eye View of Civil War Battles by Brent Nosworthy. Yup, my slide into Civil War buff-ism continues apace. Here, Mr. Nosworthy looks at the technology and tactics of the Civil War and marries it to first-hand accounts of various battles to show how all of it evolved during the course of the conflict. By way of example: it's true that by the Civil War many units started receiving rifled muskets and given their increased range and accuracy, you'd expect increased casualties. Indeed, there was a line of thought that suggested warfare would move towards more of a fire-team situation like you see in modern warfare vs. the old standard of massed firing lines. The catch is that the early rifles were pretty fidgety and to get that increased accuracy and range you had to be well trained and you lost a lot of time. In the dense terrain of Civil War battlefields, an enemy was likely to appear on the run at very close range so mostly the untrained recruits just fired as fast as you could -- which brings you back to massed lines of volley fire. What this meant is that casualties from weapons fire was often surprisingly low during the Civil War.

So the book tries to show how theory and practice met in the crucible of war and in the process you get some great stories from battles both large and small. The other thing that really stands out when you read the book is just how blind field commanders were. You had no communications other than messengers on foot or horseback. You couldn't get a sense of how the battle was going unless you had a high vantage point to overlook the field. A great number of battles could have gone the other way had one of half a dozen small things happened -- a message arriving in time, an accurate assessment of enemy strength or position, or even knowing where friendly units were. It also underscored how miserable soldering was at that time. Lots of night marches in freezing weather get mentioned.

I enjoyed it but clearly it's a specialist subject.

Next, I finished up: The Uskoks of Senj by Catherine Wendy Bracewell. The Uskoks were sort of an ad hoc anti-Ottoman force retained by the Holy Roman Empire. Using banditry and piracy, the Uskoks fanned out along the Adriatic and into the Balkans and stuck it to the Turk...and the Venetians who traded with the Ottomans and who's agreements with them made the Venetians responsible for the Uskok's actions.

This particular book appears to be one of those academic papers repurposed for publication. The Uskoks are an interesting group of people, they (or their fictional analogs) appeared in Children of Sea and Sky which I rather enjoyed. While this book offers quite a lot of factual detail regarding the Uskoks and where they came from and how they evolved over time, there was a lot missing here. There were major raids and military actions that get a clinical or abbreviated description. I was expecting a bit more of "this is what a typical raid looked like" or "here's the story of one of the bandit chiefs" but it was a bit more anodyne than that. Not a disappointment, but a very dry read.

Finally, I just finished up The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens. The book covers the period from late 1860's to the mid 1880's when western expansion pretty much drove the Native Americans onto reservations. It's a sad and fascinating book and quite relevant given the protests at Standing Rock. What's especially heart-breaking is that there are plenty of people, many of them military officers, who are fully cognizant of the various injustices heaped upon the Native Americans who really try to improve things and they constantly get steam-rolled by corrupt government officials and/or business concerns. Divisions between and within Native American tribes meant that even those who tried to work with the government in good faith often got lumped in with "bad actors" and suffered for the atrocities of others.

The book is well-illustrated with maps showing the various campaigns. It ends just a tad abruptly, I think it could've used a bit of an epilogue but overall, it was an interesting, if somewhat depressing read.

So that was non-fiction November

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

12:29PM - Lots of little reviews


Because I was working a show the last couple of weeks, I've mostly been reading small pieces of fiction. I've also not been writing up my reviews so...get ready for a bunch.

First up: Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky and translated by Alfred MacAdam. I've read a number of Jadorowsky's books before and their always a bit of a fever dream. This book was probably a bit more focused than some of his works but it's still pretty trippy.

A young woman named Crabby saves an unusual woman from a group of fighting monks. Crabby names the woman Albina (because her skin/hair are milk-white). There follows a series of adventures where they try to set up shop, then get chased out of town and then wander into the desert to a hidden village where Death never comes. Then Albina causes the men of the town to turn into dogs and they have to set off on a quest to find a magical cure and there's a stone sailing ship crewed by statues of St. Peter and...yeah, it's par for the course for Jodorowsky.

It's hard to judge his stuff, but I did like it. The book certainly has a pared down plot structure compared to his usual books that made it easier to follow along, but as you can tell it runs on dream-logic and allegory more than anything else. It's an acquired taste, but if you're still on the fence, we can talk about it.

Next we have A Long Spoon by Jonathan L. Howard. I recently read the most recent Johannes Cabal book and mentioned that there are reference to various Cabal short stories that have appeared over the years. A Long Spoon is one of those stories that I haven't read and since a character from there appeared in the book, I was keen to read it. Let me be clear, my enjoyment of the book wasn't lessened in the slightest by not having read this short story first, but I really like the Cabal series and was eager for a bit more reading.

So in this short, Johannes Cabal, persnickety Necromancer discovers that someone is trying to kill him. Granted, this is the usual state of affairs, but this assassin has managed to breach his wards and turn his bathwater to hot acid so in this instance he has to do something. Johannes believes his mysterious nemesis is hiding out in Pandemonium so he needs to make a pact with a demon to guide him down there and help him out. As with most things in the Cabal universe, the demon he manages to summon is a bit out of the ordinary and together they descend into Pandemonium to try and put an end to the attacks.

A short, punchy book with all the great writing you expect from the series. I wouldn't start from here, but if you like the novels, the shorts are just as good.

After that: Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling. Before I get to the book let's do a quick history lesson on Fiume (modern-day Rijeka).

So Fiume used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI, Italy and Hungary both claimed it as theirs. Before negotiations could work out who got what, the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio and a bunch of Italian nationalists took the place over and eventually declared it an independent Free City. Eventually Italy conquered the city and that was that until after WWII when it went to Yugoslavia and is today part of Croatia.

But that brief period, when Fiume was a Free City and among the wild political experiments, the city also had to deal with the Italian blockade and turned to piracy to steal whatever it needed to keep the city-state going.

Mr. Sterling's book is a fictionalized "what-if?" where the pirate utopia wasn't crushed so quickly.

I am amazed at how such a juicy piece of history turned into this incoherent mess.

Look, it's a short book. But easily a third of the book is made up of the introduction, an interview with Mr. Sterling and some other disjoint bits and pieces. The actual story itself is interesting but has no real plot and ends where most books would just be getting started. As far as I can tell, this looks like the first draft of the first quarter/third of an actual novel. It made me very curious to know more about The Free State of Fiume but I can't really recommend this to anyone.

You get a much better gonzo-society story if you pick up Slaughtermatic by Steve Aylett. This is the third in his Beerlight series of novels. The first The Crime Studio is one of my favorite books, a collection of short-stories written in the form of Damon Runyon (who I didn't know existed until after I read that book), about the town of Beerlight and the outrageous criminal activities therein. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson writing a bunch of crime noir stories and you've got the gist.

In Slaughtermatic, Dante Cubit holds up a bank to uncover a lost piece of criminal literature. In the process, he uses a bit of time travel to make the heist work, but doesn't manage to kill his past self. So the one Cubit goes on a philosophical journey while the other dashes about town being pursued by Police Chief Blince (who looked "like the kind of cop a kid would draw") and Brute Parker (ex-gun dealer and now ultraviolent assassin). That only kind of scratches the surface.

Every character is larger-than-life and the prose tumbles all over itself, but it never feels like a mess, more like a river rapid that inexorably sweeps you along. There's tons of world building in every tossed-off word or phrase, but it doesn't always explain itself and you don't really care all that much. Just go with the flow and it's a fun read. I would recommend staring with The Crime Studio because it might be a bit much to just jump into.

Finally, last year I read The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante. It was a fantastic story. He's just released a new short story set in the same universe called A Taste of Honey and...it's amazing.

Ashante's world mostly feels like a pretty standard fantasy milieu except that there are gods and wizards who use advanced science and psionics to accomplish their feats. We only deal with them on the fringes though, the stories tend to ground themselves in the relationships of regular people.

So for this story, we focus on Aqib, a distant Royal Cousin who works in the Menagerie. The city is hosting a delegation from Daluca. Out walking a lion, Aqib runs into a Dalucan soldier named Lucrio and the two of them quickly form a brief, intense, and very secret liaison. Lucrio sails home, Aqib marries a royal princess. We skip ahead through Aqib's life -- the birth of his daughter, his wife being called away to help the gods, his daughter and grandson's increasing telekinetic power and his own beast-speaking ability, and always his wondering what would've happened if he's stayed with Lucrio.

The story switches back and forth between Aqib's week with Lurcio and the rest of his life and the last few pages tie everything together with a gut-punch of an ending.

Highly highly recommended. Obviously the story touches on queer themes but it goes a lot deeper than that. Make a bit of space in your reading list for this. It won't take long and you won't be disappointed.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

11:30AM - The War at the Fall of the House of Reviews


Some books take a while to read and somme you burn right through.

First up The War at the End of the World by Mario Vegas Llosa. We read this book Discreet Heroes a while back and looking through his other works I came across this. It's a fictional account of a very real event in Brazilian history -- The War of Canudos. A wandering mystic gathers a small band of followers and eventually they take over a small town. Soon the poor and desperate are flocking to the settlement and building it out. Local authorities try to drive them out but the villagers hang on leading to repeated/larger attempts until finally the central government sends out an army to starve out the villagers and then raze the settlement to the ground.

Llosa's book is a fictionalized account of that battle although we do see a number of the main historical persons involved and the events in main are generally historically accurate. The book switches between multiple viewpoints showing how various people came to live at Canudos or the people opposed to them. The story kind of sprawls a bit, but there's a lot to cover. Also, I'm not convinced Llosa has a good handle on female characters, but there's possibly a cultural lens I'm not using.

I don't know if this is a great book, but I'm not unhappy I read it (though I did struggle to get through it).

Next up, a shorter book that I blew through much faster, but mostly because I've been a big fan of the series. The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard is the fifth book in the Johannes Cabal series of books. Johannes Cabal is a gentleman and a necromancer and he's been applying the scientific method to the black arts in an attempt to revive a lost loved one. This book doesn't exactly end the series, but does ties off a number of loose ends from previous books and short stories. You could try to just jump in with this book, but you'd lose a lot of enjoyment. The series as a whole has been pretty great so if you haven't been following this series, grab Johannes Cabal: Necromancer and get started.

Once you work your way up to this book you'll know what to expect: lots of great dialog and humor and one of the more interesting characters in magical steampunk literature (and just a great character in general). Following up on a clue from the previous book, Johannes and his vampire brother Horst must assemble a team to plumb the depths of metaphorical realms in a bid to achieve their heart's desire. There follows a number of adventures in which our heroes face uncomfortable truths about themselves and kill Satan (well, the new Satan not the one you're thinking of).

I've always loved this series and the writing continues to be strong. I can't get enough of Johannes so I hope a new cycle starts up soon.

and that's what I've read lately

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

2:23PM - Outlaw Helldiver Six Reviews


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.


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