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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

2:16PM - Sellout reviews


So last week I finished up The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I believe it was on a best-of-2015 booklist and it looked interesting so I picked it up. It's...well, it's kind of a difficult book to describe. Actually, it's really easy to describe poorly. So bear with me.

The story concerns "Bonbon" Me (we never get his real first name). Me is a young black man living in the former LA suburb of Dickens where he runs a small urban farm. The town of DIckens is a run-down minority community and through the arcane ways of urban planning and gentrification the city is quietly removed from the maps. Me doesn't like the way his hometown has been neglected and erased, but doesn't feel like there's anything he can do about it. Then he mocks up a few highway exit signs for Dickens. Then he paints the borders of the town on the highway. Then...then he re-introduces segregation.

If that sounds kind of outrageous that's the point. The Sellout is a biting piece of satire that goes after complex issues around America and race. It doesn't dumb things down or smooth over any of the complexities and it skewers just about every target it can find.

And I think it's really, really good. I laughed out loud in a number of places, I highlighted a number of passages out of the book, and I feel like I got a lot of really good perspectives on the issue.

Fair warning -- I don't believe it passes the Bechdel Test and the n-word shows up with a perhaps-not-unsurprising frequency. But the writing is solid from top to bottom and I highly recommend it to folks.


Monday, January 25, 2016

8:28PM - The wise and sagacious Mr. Twain


So the third and final volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain came out in September. I don't know why I didn't know about it sooner, but there you have it. I ordered it and am now working my way through. As before, I'll be doing short excerpts from it. Here, he's talking about his daughter's performing career:

"Clara has been barnstorming on the concert stage in New England the past few weeks, and at last she has learned her trade and is qualified to succeed, and will succeed -- a great event for her, and a great event for me. By learning her trade, I mean that by normal processes her theories, which naturally seemed made of boiler-iron or some other indestructible substance, have been blown to the four winds by experience, that best of all teachers. According to her theories, her first duty was to be faithful to the highest requirements of her art and not move upon any plane but the highest; this meant classical music for all audiences, whether they were qualified to appreciate it and enjoy it or not. Experience has taught her that she and her audiences are in a tacit co-partnership, and that she must consider their share of the business and not arrange her performances to please herself alone. She has found, indeed, that her first duty is really to forget herself and give all her attention to pleasing her house. She has found that in striving to please the house she has accomplished several important things: her heart goes out to the house; by natural law the hearts of the house meet it half way; all hands are pleased; all dread and all anxiety have disappeared from her spirit, and life upon the platform has become to her a delight, and as pretty as a fairy-tale. She takes an undaughterful pleasure in noting that now the newspapers are beginning to concede with heartiness that she does not need the help of my name, but can make her way quite satisfactorily upon her own merits. This is insubordination, and must be crushed."

I'll have a full review once I've finished but the stink of bias will render it moot most likely.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

7:51PM - Barsk, Citrus, Expendable Review


Well, new year, new books. Let's get to it:

First up Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence Schoen. This is a sci-fi tale set in a universe where uplifted mammals are the only sentients. The Fants (elephant-people) live an arboreal life in the jungle islands on the world of Barsk. They want to be left alone and the rest of animal-kind is happy to leave them there. The catch is that the Fant are master apothecaries who make a wide range of pharmaceuticals. One of these, the drug Koph, grants certain people the ability to speak with the dead -- people they know personally or have deeply researched. That monopoly has the other animals concerned.

Jorl, a Fant historian and Speaker to the dead realizes that some recently deceased Fants aren't answering his call. This seems to jibe with an ominous prophecy set down by the First Speaker many centuries ago. Meanwhile, his godson Pizlo is starting to hear a lot of important things from the moons over Barsk. Meanwhile, meanwhile, a telepathic otter girl is forcibly impressed into the military to see if she can pry a few secrets from the Fants about Koph.

It's a fun book. Although the mechanics behind speaking with the dead are a bit sketchy, they are internally consistent and the book never paints itself into a corner. The action is fairly low-key but the animal conceit is fun to play with. Overall, a fun book and worth checking out.

Next up is Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. This is one of the other books I was looking at for ad hoc book club. I think it would've been a bit more palatable than Discreet Hero but it's got it's own issues.

So it's the near future and Luz and Ray are living in the remains of a starlet's home in Hollywood. Drought has devastated the American Southwest and most people have been evacuated out of the area. The ones who stay are known as Mojavs. Ray is a former soldier who found salvation in surfing. Luz was once the poster child for conservation efforts in California, then a model with 12 minutes of fame and now she rolls aimlessly around the abandoned mansion.

They had no plans and then Ig showed up. Ig is a toddler in a bad spot and Luz and Ray take her and decide to make their way east. They load up a station wagon and head out in to the dune sea that envelops the Southwest. Among the dunes they run into a weird little band of survivors.

This book was really good for the first third, got a bit weird but interesting in the middle third and then just completely fell apart at the end. The problem is that both Ray and Luz are broken people and Luz in particular just keeps circling her drain for the entire book (and she's the main focus character). On reflection, there's a good reason for this and it's bound up in some of the larger themes and messages of the book, but I kinda want characters to grow and change and it doesn't seem to happen for Luz (and maybe only a bit for Ray).

Still, that's my bias showing. The writing is really good and the description of various locales is handled really well. It's worth taking a peek at, but just be aware there's no active protagonist here.

Finally, I "read" (mostly via audiobook) Expendable by James Allen Gardner. Another sci-fi series where humanity is a member of the League of Peoples. So now humanity has a shiny fleet to go around exploring planets. The redshirts who actually do the exploring are Explorers and you get that job by being fairly smart, resourceful, and having an unpleasant or inconvenient (but not life-threatening) genetic condition. Basically, it's not so bad when an ugly person dies so it's best they do the dangerous work.

Festina Ramos is an Explorer and she's good at her job. Then she and her partner are tasked with escorting a senior and senile Admiral down to Melaquin -- a dumping ground for Admiralty embarrassments that no team has ever returned from. So they go down, things are Not What They Seem and there's adventure.

I wasn't entirely sold on this one. The basic premise (we send ugly people on hazardous missions) seems a bit too pat. I get it's kind of a satire, but that didn't seem to carry through on the rest of the book. Festina is under a lot of stress when she's dirtside, but I feel like psychological fortitude would be something you'd want for an explorer and she's often hopelessly mired in the past. Near the end of the book people make a lot of decisions that are only just rational. The recording itself was really good and the reader did a great job with the voices, but I'm not tempted to pick up any other books in the series any time soon.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

9:46PM - 2015 -- The Year in Books


I know you've all been waiting. So here it is, the list of all the books I read in 2015:

  1. Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe by Simon Winder
  2. Dancing with the Bears: A Darger and Surplus Novel by Michael Swanwick
  3. The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
  4. The Confluence Trilogy by Paul McAuley (collects Child of the River, Ancient of Days and Shrine of Stars)
  5. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
  6. Hard to be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  7. Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley
  8. Capek: Four Plays by Karel Capek
  9. The Wrestler's Cruel Study by Stephen Dobyns (re-read)
  10. The Looting Machine by Tom Burgis
  11. The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff
  12. The Wolf Age by James Enge
  13. Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human
  14. The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson
  15. The Vorrh by Brian Catling
  16. The Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  17. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
  18. Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson
  19. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
  20. Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher
  21. Vineland by Thomas Pynchon
  22. Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
  23. Last First Snow by Max Gladstone
  24. Breed by KT Davies
  25. The Moon King by Neil Williamson
  26. Fifth House of the Heart by Ben Tripp
  27. What Ho, Automaton! (A Reeves and Worcester Steampunk Mystery) by Chris Dolley
  28. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
  29. Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy by Dinty W. Moore
  30. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette Bodard
  31. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  32. Andersonville by Edward M. Erdelac
  33. Windswept by Adam Rakunas
  34. Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide by Eric Bogosian
  35. Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
  36. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
  37. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
  38. Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
  39. Rules for Werewolves by Kirk Lynn
  40. The Sea Hates A Coward by Nate Crowley
  41. King of Shards by Matthew Kressel
  42. Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell*
  43. No God but God by Reza Aslan
  44. Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Plot for Global Revolution by Giles Milton
  45. Half Share by Nathan Lowell*
  46. Full Share by Nathan Lowell*
  47. The Builders by Daniel Polansky
  48. Clandestine Occupations by Diana Blocka
  49. The Pleasure Merchant by Molly Tanzer
  50. The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa
  51. The Crouching Beast by Frank Boccia
  52. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
  53. Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome*

* = audiobook

A little lower than usual. I don't really count the audiobooks as having been "read", but The Confluence Trilogy should obviously count as three. So about a book a week. There were male and female authors (not a 50/50 split, I'll admit). There were also authors of color and foreign authors. I feel like I got a pretty good mix of things in and tried one or two things I might not otherwise have looked at.

But the raw numbers are only half the story. You want to know what you should read in 2016.

Best Science Fiction 2015

  1. The Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  2. Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
  3. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

Best Fantasy 2015

  1. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
  2. Fifth House of the Heart by Ben Tripp
  3. The Moon King by Neil Williamson

Best Non-Fiction 2015

  1. Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe by Simon Winder
  2. Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson
  3. No God but God by Reza Aslan

There were a few more good ones including Beyond Redemption and The Builders that just missed getting on a list. I hope some of these titles/reviews catch your eye and give you something to read in the new year.


8:44PM - Winter Holiday Review


So...I've been listening to the Swallows and Amazon's series of books by Arthur Ransome. They are utterly delightful. Recently, I finished listening to Winter Holiday.

In this particular book, we're introduced to Dorothea and Dick Callum, children from town spending their winter holiday out in the lakes district. On a cold, wintry morning, they see a group of children sailing out to an island in the lake. It is, of course, the Swallows and Amazons, and soon the D's (as they are called) meet up with the Swallows and Amazons and together they plan an expedition to the North Pole.

Then Nancy Blackett comes down with the mumps. This puts all the other children under quarantine so they are forced to stay at their winter holiday lodgings until all danger of infection is passed. Not only does that mean more time to fool around in the snow, but the lake itself is freezing over which means ice boats and sled dogs and all kinds of fun.

This is the first S&A book I've not read but only heard the audiobook for. I don't know what it is about these book about plucky British children and their little adventures, but I'm always utterly charmed. In this particular case, it's nice to see a couple of outsiders. There's a lot of "will these cool kids like me?" that's handled really well and Dick is a classic introverted geek from the 30's.

I heartily recommend this series in both print and audio format.


Monday, December 28, 2015

7:13PM - The Discreet Beast of Wildeeps review


Coming up on the year's end so I better get through some books and tell you about them.

First up, the ad-hoc book club selection The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa. It was on a best-of booklist, beah and I both thought it looked interesting and then we got other folks to read it with us.

The book is set in Peru and follows the stories of two men in two different towns who are facing something of a crisis. Felícito Yanaqué owns a transport company and wakes up one morning to find an extortion note pinned to his door. Meanwhile, Don Rigoberto, a manager in an insurance company finds himself in the middle of a family feud when his boss asks him to mind the store while he spites his two sons who wish he were dead so they can get his money. The book does well switching back and forth between the stories and while it does tie them together, it does so kind of obliquely up until the last few pages.

It was an interesting book, but there's a lot of South American culture on display in that book that really struck me as an American reader. A lot of discussion around honor and blood relations and gender relations that feel more antebellum South than modern day Peru. This does make one or two of the plot points a bit unsatisfying for me. Still, the writing was pretty good and looking into his other works, I've found one or two others I'd be interested in reading. I also think there are some interesting conversations about the book in my future from other readers.

Switching gears, next up was The Crouching Beast by Frank Boccia. Mr. Boccia was an Army Lieutenant in Vietnam in 1969 and this is his account of the battle of Hamburger Hill -- so you know this is going to be some light reading.

Actually, about 2/3rds of the book describes his time as platoon commander in the months before the actual battle itself. You get to know the various men under his command and you get to watch him learn more about being an effective leader. The actual battle itself is a just a bit anti-climactic.

The main reason for this is that Mr. Boccia was one of the few officers on the ground to actually survive in his company. Pretty much every other Lieutenant and the Captain were killed or incapacitated (and sometimes their replacements were as well). Boccia's platoon lost about half its men but actually fared pretty well because they were running security between the command post and the site of the assaults. Since they weren't being sent in, they tended to survive. This isn't a knock on Boccia's leadership or ability -- he was prepared to make an assault before it was called off, and keeping the line between the top of the hill, the command post, and the landing zones secure was an important job (the NVA surrounded them and came close of overrunning them once or twice). Still, it feels like you never really see what's going on.

Of course, what's going on is that small platoons of men are being sent over rugged terrain that funneled the into a killing field they couldn't hope to escape from. Their enemies were very well dug in and well protected from artillery and air strikes (and those air strikes hit Boccia's company twice during the operation). It was a crappy situation where commanding officers tried the same thing over and over expecting different results.

Honestly, sort of an unsatisfying book, but then, that's pretty true to Vietnam as a whole.

Finally, I zipped through Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson. Again, another "best-of" booklist, but this one really hit the nail on the head. It's got a lot of good stuff going for it.

So the book is set in North America -- well, it's clearly set in the New World, but the map might be different because there was a bit of a cataclysm when the post-singularity humans became light-beam space gods and zipped off to the stars. Now you've got a pre-industrial technology level with weird stuff left over from "the gods". This includes a few people/beings who are gifted with talents beyond mortal ability.

Demane is one of those children of the gods. He tries to keep it subtle, but the other men in his group of caravan workers know he's somehow different and nickname him Sorcerer. Demane is doing this back-breaking labor because at the end of this trip, far south to the City of Olorum, he and his lover can finally be together.

The trip will take them through the Wildeeps, a sort of wound in the fabric of spacetime where multiple realities and times overlap. Luckily, there is a magic road that can be safely followed to get through the Wildeeps. Unfortunately, there is a monster stalking the road who isn't contained by it's magic. So Demane and the Captain (another child of the gods) must venture out and stop it.

There's a lot of great stuff going on here. I don't want to spoil it too much by talking about the neat little conceits in the book. I will say that while it doesn't begin to pass the Bechdel Test, pretty much every single character is a POC and there are a couple of well-done gay relationships. It very neatly subverts a lot of standard Sword and Sorcery tropes and is just a great deal of fun to read.

The only small knock I have on the book is that Wilson will just drop in a flashback with no warning so sometimes you have to back up a bit. It's not terrible (and clearly shows his love of Samuel Delaney's work), but it does irritate a bit. Still, in the grand scheme of things, this is something you should definitely check out.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

2:21PM - The Discreet Reminder


For those of you playing along with the ad hoc book club thing, I just finished up _The Discreet Hero_ this morning. I'd be happy to talk with you about it when you finish up. I'll actually post a review a bit later on.

Again, I read a bit faster than average so if you're still wading through, no worries.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

10:44AM - Game on!


If you're interested in being part of the ad hoc reading group beah and I are doing. Today is the official start day. We're reading The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa. Feel free to grab a copy and read along. Again, this is pretty loose, if you finish up by the new year, that's fine, but hopefully it'll be a fun read and you'll have something literary to chat about at holiday parties.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

1:33PM - The Pleasure Review


Do you ever wish Jane Austen and Charles Dickens got together and churned out some sexy fiction together? You might be interested in The Pleasure Merchant by Molly Tanzer.

The book mostly follows young Tom Dawne, an apprentice wig-maker in Victorian London. One day, while working on an expensive commission, Tom receives an unusual customer. Shortly thereafter, there's a bit of a wig scandal and Tom loses his job. But then he's rescued by the very man he believes set him up in the first place. And then there's the man's very odd cousin and his wife. Then other complications arise.

Although Tom is sort of the character we follow around, he's not necessarily the protagonist. That honor probably belongs to the narrator who we don't meet until at least halfway through, but even then it's a bit of a toss-up.

The book is a bit scattered. It mostly follows Tom for half the book then hares off to follow the narrator for a third and then back to Tom. Also, Tom doesn't have the best of character arcs. Not heroic, not tragic, mostly just a wallowing in his own issues. Maybe if he wasn't called Tom I wouldn't have noticed/minded. So there's a bit of a bias on my part, but I do think the book will be a fun read for the aforementioned Austen/Dickens fans who like a bit of risque fun in their tales.


9:20AM - The DIscreet Book Club

Hey there!

So beah and I are going to read The Discreet Hero by Mario Varaas Llosa as a sort of ad hoc book club. No regular meetings or anything, but we just think it'd be fun to read a book and then turn around and talk to someone else about it who has also read the book (and recently to boot).

So if you want to play along, feel free to snag a copy (I've linked to Amazon below, but you can probably get it at your favorite local bookshop as well). Leah expects her copy to arrive on the 8th or thereabouts so that's when we'll get started. Again, the timeframe is pretty loose. If you finish up by New Year's that's probably more than fine.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

7:18PM - Covert Builder Reviews


Finished up another couple of books. Both very different from each other.

First up, The Builders by Daniel Polansky. This is a talking animal book loosely based around Westerns and the Mexican Civil War. The Captain is a mouse who backed the losing faction in the kingdom's civil war. He'd almost won when he was betrayed by one of his own, turned by the Captain's arch-rivel Mephetic, a skunk. Several years later, the Captain pulls together the ragged remains of his closest fighters and they set off to get revenge and claw their way to the top of the pile -- all the while knowing that the traitor is still likely among them.

I rather liked this book. Short, punchy chapters with solid writing, good character work and touches of humor both light and dark. The animal natures inform but don't override all other character considerations. It was a lot of fun and should make for some diverting, light reading.

After that, I read through Clandestine Occupations by Diana Block. Ms. Block was part of a radical group promoting Puerto Rican independence and was forced to live underground for a number of years. The book is a fictionalized account of that experience centering around Luba Gold. Although the book sort of centers around her, it's mostly narrated by other people -- people who met her in her clandestine identity, those who knew her before, during or after her life in the shadows. And from Luba it spirals out to other people who were part of her organization or those who were caught up in its wake.

The book touches on a lot of topics, but mostly centers around the price people are willing or forced to pay in order to see their vision of the future realized -- and around the frustration of ideals clashing with realities. It also offers up a slew of voices not normally well represented in fiction and it's all handled with a great deal of humanity and compassion. A through-provoking book and recommended if you're in the mood for some heavier fiction.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

1:00PM - No Review but Russian Review


So a few weeks ago I read Zealot by Reza Aslan where he attempts to shed more light on the historical Jesus of Nazareth. It was an interesting read, but Aslan himself is a Muslim and I was curious what he had to say about his own faith. I was also interested in a brief overview of Islam. I can give the basic gist of the Jesus story as told in the gospels, but I’ve never been able to say very much about Mohammed and his life and I’ve always felt that was a bit of a gap I should cover. Mr. Aslan happily obliged my wishes and so I read through No God but God. The book covers more than just the Prophet’s life, it also runs down a high-level overview of the spread of Islam.

As with Zealot, Mr. Aslan’s writing is pretty clear and he provides historical context for the time and place the Prophet was born into and how that shaped his message. Additionally, as the faith spread out from Arabia into the wider world, time and place influenced how his message was interpreted and there’s plenty of discussion around that as well.

I think what comes across in the book is that while there are branches and schools of Islamic faith, Islam has always been a bit decentralized (and in the modern internet-era even more so). In part that goes back to Mohammed’s core message that faith is largely a matter between God and the worshipper. Obviously, people want to consult with imams and religious scholars to help better understand their religion and communal prayer is a visible display that worshippers are part of a larger, worldwide community, but Mohammed was railing against the idea that there were any intercessory beings that stood between you and God. It all starts with a simple declaration of faith.

Overall, I feel like I have a better handle on the subject than I did before. Certainly I can do a short run-down of the life of the Prophet. Actually, I’d hoped there’d be a bit more focus on that. The space devoted to it was OK, but I was hoping for a bit more detail. Still, you get a better feel for how diverse Islam is/can be. Worth checking out if, like me, you’d like a cliff notes guide.

After that, another book suggested by the (sadly canceled) Lapham’s Quarterly Podcast. In this case it was Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Plot for Global Revolution by Giles Milton. The extended title should give you a clue as to the contents. With the fall of the Tzar and the rise of the Bolsheviks, Britain needed to get a picture of what was going on inside Russia. The book details efforts by the Secret Intelligence Service (later MI6) and the India Bureau to uncover Lenin’s plans.

I’ve read quite a few books discussing the Soviet Union’s skill at espionage during the Cold War, but in the early days, spying wasn’t exactly their forte. Aside from former loyalists worming their way into the new regime to break it from within, British agents managed to operate despite the increasing scrutiny of the secret police. In particular, Arthur Ransome (one of my favorite children’s authors), openly attended high-level meetings with Lenin and other Soviet leaders. The chaos of the revolution provided plenty of gaps for agents to slip through and provide detailed intelligence to British policymakers.

The book is a bit light on some details, especially operations in Central Asia to stop Islamic revolutionaries from sparking rebellion in India, but overall it makes for a fascinating read about the early days of the Soviet Union and the lengths people went to in order to bring back information. Worth checking out for spy buffs.

Finally, although I didn’t read it, I did listen through Half Share and Full Share by Nathan Lowell. We continue to follow Ishmael Wong as he climbs the ranks of enlisted spacer aboard the Lois McKendrick and his eventual decision to enroll in the Academy. Again, the plot sort of bumps along. It’s not even so much a picaresque tale despite the fact that the ship travels from place to place because they’re only ever at the orbital stations which are all sort of the same. Still, the author has a nice reading voice and the chapters slip away easily while driving around. I think I’m going to take a break for a while, but it’s fun stuff while you’re out driving around.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

5:05PM - Review of Shards


So being laid up in the hospital does mean you can get some reading done. In particular, I whipped through King of Shards by Matthew Kressel. It's the start of a fantasy trilogy that leans on kabbalistic underpinnings vs. European ones. I should mention that is just starts from there, but doesn't sort of fall down a Hermetic magic-hole.

The basic gist is that there are thousands of shards, previous attempts at Creation that have been scattered hither and yon. Earth and it's universe represents the Creator getting it right. The Earth is full of the waters of life which overflow and splash down to the various shards and provide them with the energy to keep them going, but life is pretty brutal in most of the shards.

Further, the Earth is supported by The Pillars of Earth, the Lamed Vav, thirty-six righteous people whose goodness keeps the Earth intact and stable. If you can remove enough of those pillars, the Earth will crack open and the Shards will all be flooded away.

Daniel Fisher is one of the Lamed Vav, although, like most, he doesn't know it. He's about to get married when a giant dog-man bursts into his ceremony and shoves him through to the shard world of Gehinnon. The dog man is a demon who goes by several names, but Caleb is pretty much what most people know him as. Caleb, as a demon is fighting off Mashit, his former lover, who's on a tear to try and yank the Pillars out and destroy the Earth.

Meanwhile, on Gehinnon, Rana works as a mason building grand architecture for the city of Azru on the edge of the rolling sea of sand. She discovers a giant white dog and a strange man in her workshop and it's off to the races for the trio. They need to find a powerful witch, find a way back to Earth and stop Mashit's plan.

Well...Caleb has a few other ideas.

Anyway, I thought this was a pretty good book with a lot of fresh, interesting ideas, but Daniel, the Pillar of the Earth, was pretty much a token. True, he didn't know who/what he was and in some respects he's sort of the princess to be saved (so a nice gender reversal there), but except for one bit near the end, he doesn't exhibit a lot of agency or decision-making. Frankly, the demon was a lot more interesting (and to be fair, aren't most bad guys?).

I'm not sure if I'll be following up on this one. It works best when people are outside Earth, but Daniel needs to sort of stay put by the end of this first book. We'll see.

I have also been listening to a couple of audio books. I worked my way through Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell. Imagine an age of sail book about a young crewman on a clipper ship but set in the far future. That's pretty much what you get. Ishmael Horatio Wong (yeah...that's his name) lives on a corporation planet when his mom is killed in an accident. Through various legal chicaneries, Wong is going to be penniless and deported. So he signs up for a menial job on a trading vessel.

What follows is not rollicking adventure, but really...just him doing his job, getting to know his crew and finding his place. Maybe a bit like Dickens or Horatio Alger, but with less moralizing and more slice-of-life. I'm pretty sure I'd never actually plunk down cash and read this book, but it is very soothing to listen too and quite pleasant while out driving. In particular, if you're a fan of the Traveller RPG, then this is completely up your alley.

So yeah, his books are all in free podcast format and you can look it up on iTunes or whatever.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

9:46AM - Things

Worst thing about coming home from the hospital: Peeling the various sensor stickers off my man-pelt.

2nd best thing about coming home from the hospital: Taking a shower.

The actual best thing about coming home from the hospital: Sleeping for 14 glorious hours in dark and quiet without anyone taking a blood sample from me at any point.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

6:29PM - Well, this time it's not almost Christmas...

So, first off, while I'm not technically fine, I feel fine and things are getting better.

And now here's why I'm in the hospital.

You may remember a few years ago I went to the hospital because I had a pulmonary embolism. This morning I went down to the basement and when I came upstairs I felt like I'd just run a marathon. So I packed my bags, hopped in the car and checked myself in to the ER. One CAT scan later and yeah....another pulmonary embolism.

So I'm in the hospital for a few days. Very likely I'm going to be on some sort of anti-coagulant for the rest of my life. So I made it to 43 before I need daily medication. Not too bad.

Damn mutant healing factor.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

6:39PM - Reviews for Werewolves Hates A Cowards


Cleaned up two books this week so let's get to the reviews.

First up Rules for Werewolves by Kirk Lynn. Much like the previous book I reviewed, this book leans pretty heavily on literary affect. In particular, there's almost no descriptive text. Everything is dialog or soliloquy and none of it is marked by "Bob said" or "Susan said" and if there's multiple characters in a scene...good luck.

The book follows a group of squatters from teenagers to 20-somethings who break into houses, liver there as long as they can and then move on. There are some intergroup squabbles and one of the members is sent home for a while.

Oh yes, they're all werewolves. That means something a bit different than what you're thinking but there is a physical change and a wildness that can be difficult to control and leads to trouble and is greatly yearned for.

I was rather reminded of Orange Eats Creeps although the kids here were vampires not werewolves. It also had a much more poetic and lyrical development while Rules stays relatively grounded in it's firehose of dialog.

Overall, I didn't feel this one really did a great job. A few high points, but nothing that really grabbed me.

Next up is a short novella piece called The Sea Hates A Coward by Nate Crowley. This is a much more straight-forward kind of book centered on a zombie uprising from the zombie's point of view.

Schneider Wrack wakes up from a pleasant dream to find himself in a living nightmare. He's a zombie on board a massive fishing/processing ship called the Tuvato. This ship supplies the millions of tons of meat required by the inhabitants of a city under an endless siege. With no land to farm and backed up against the sea, the City relies on the Tuvato and the steady stream of supply boats that return laden down with food.

And there's plenty of fish in Ocean. Not the ocean that washes up against the city but Ocean, a watery world connected to the ocean of the city by a portal. There's clearly a sort of "high tech society fallen on hard times" vibe to everything.

Anyway, the City needs food, Ocean has it and the workforce consists mostly of zombies. Enemy soldiers, criminals, political dissidents, anyone who gets in the City's way gets killed, reanimated and sent to work on Tuvato.

Wrack isn't terribly happy with this state of affairs, and he learns that it's possible to wake up other zombies and return them to a state of sentience (which can vary depending on the zombie). But the zombies are watched by Overseers, powerfully enhanced humans, and their various sea-monster/cyborg watchdogs. Wrack needs to get enough awakened zombies together and figure out a plan to take over the ship and end their exploitation.

Like I said, a novella more than a novel, but it really clips along and it's a fun little read. The descriptions of the ship, the meat, the terrible sea life of Ocean and the various zombies s well done. Not a ton of dialog but Wrack's inner monolog is good. While the author clearly intends to do more stories, it ends at a pretty good place and feels relatively complete in itself.

A fun little off-kilter zombie story for Halloween and well-worth checking out.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

7:51PM - Review 83


So I recently finished up Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translated by Roland Glasser. Mr. Mujila was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now resides in Austria. He's done a lot of various writing about the Congo and Tram 83 is his first novel.

And it's a very literary novel. This isn't an artifact of translation, the book reads more like a prose-poem than an actual piece of prose. There is a basic plot. Lucien is returning to the City-State after a stay in Europe trying to get his writing going again. He's met by his old friend Requiem who has stayed in the City-State and gets by doing various dodgy things. Everyone and everything in the City-State revolves around the mines and Tram 83, a nightclub-bar where everyone goes to see and be seen, conduct some business and some pleasure as well.

But beyond this basic skeleton, the book is really about the chaotic atmosphere. The book often spirals off into long lists of people, of sensations, of sounds. The dialogue isn't clearly demarcated so it can be hard to tell who is speaking to whom and it's often intercut with other conversations, usually prostitutes trying to attract customers or waitresses demanding tips.

You're interested in the contrast between upright Lucien who wants to do the right thing and Requiem who's always working an angle, and the book merely sets up little situations one after the other to contrast them even if there's not a lot of larger plot. The prose, however, shows a great deal of deft construction and I wound up highlighting a number of passages from the book.

Overall, it's an interesting book and I think there's a lot to pick through, but it's not a straight read so pick it up if you enjoy the journey more than the destination.


Monday, October 19, 2015

12:38PM - A Zealous review


After hearing his interview on a podcast recently, I decided to pick up a copy of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Three guesses as to what it's about.

Mr. Aslan attempts to paint a picture of Jesus and his life rooted on as much historical scholarship as possible. While he doesn't entirely dismiss the New Testament writings, he does try to lean on non-biblical sources. Since there is almost no historical record of Jesus outside the gospels, what follows is more of a general portrait on Jesus based on the times he lived in.

The short version is that Jesus was basically a wandering Jewish rebel who resented Rome's control of Judea and the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem who were supported by the Romans and were unlikely to upset the apple cart. Jesus's message was aimed at the Jews who got the short end of the stick in this deal -- mostly the poor and uneducated. This sort of agitation against Rome was common in the period and there were several self-proclaimed messiahs hoping to free Jews from Roman occupation.

The question is what happened that caused Jesus to become the foundation of a 2000 year-old religion while the others all disappeared. Mr. Aslan points to two major factors. First, after the Jewish Revolt and brutal re-conquest by Rome, it was decidedly dangerous to be associated with Jewish radicals and second, the apostle Paul re-envisioned Jesus and his message and made it decidedly non-Jewish and more spiritual and less about rebellion against Rome.

The book is fairly short. It's some 400 pages but easily half of that length is footnotes. The book itself is written in a fairly accessible manner but for those more eager to engage the author more deeply, he cites his sources.

I don't think I was blown away by any of the book's major points, but it was well-written and presented. I did enjoy the chapters about the early history of the church as it struggles to find its identity. I think it's incredibly telling that from very early on in its existence, there were always arguments and debates about Jesus and what he meant.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

10:55AM - Review of Crows


I just finished up Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. It had pretty much everything I want in these kinds of stories, but it really clunked out in the end.

This is fantasy heist novel which takes its cues from The Lies of Locke Lamora and then promptly does its own thing. The novel starts off in Ketterdam an island city-state mostly interested in making money any way it can. Among the criminally-minded businessmen there's no one more infamous than Kaz "Dirtyhands" Brekker. He's the power behind the throne of the street gang known as the Dregs.

He's made an offer he can't refuse. The world contains people with magic/psychic abilities called Grisha. There are several types and each focuses on a different power -- some control an element, some can harm or heal and others can make stuff. They are powerful, but are limited in their fine control. A scientist has developed a drug that greatly amplifies the power of Grisha allowing them to do far more than they normally could. The only problem is that a.) they become hopelessly addicted and b.) continued use kills them. Still, anyone who has the formula for the drug will wield enormous power so capturing the scientist is of vital interest to Ketterdam.

The only problem is that the scientist is currently being held in an impregnable fortress in the Kingdom of Fjerdan where they hate Grisha with a passion. So Kaz and his team won't have long to get there, find the man and spirit him away. So there follows a daring break-in and escape.

Like I say, there's a lot here to like. The world-building is solid even if the political entities are mostly historical analogs, but the magic seems pretty well thought-through. The crew Kaz assembles is a diverse mix of people and I believe it passes the Bechdel test. The actual caper itself is pretty much a mix of cunning plans, unexpected surprises, and brilliant improvisations. Everyone on the crew gets a solid does of spotlight time and their interactions are fun.

But there are some pieces that really undercut the book for me. First off, Kaz is the oldest person in the crew and he's only eighteen. It's possible this is a YA book and if that's the case I get it, but that's why I don't read much YA fiction. Could there be an 18 year-old criminal genius who can assemble a team and infiltrate a royal fortress? Sure, but everyone on this team is a young teen-ager and all of them are pretty skilled specialists of one kind or another. It's just a huge stretch to think these are the best people to send on this mission.

The larger problem is that the ending is built to support a sequel and it's terribly constructed. There's this huge bait-and-switch at the end which is kind of to be expected but it's incredibly unsatisfying.

Like I say, there's a lot of good stuff here and if you're into YA or fantasy crime fiction you might really like this, but it really fell flat for me at the end so I'm unlikely to carry on with the series.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

2:39PM - Lunar Review


So Ian McDonald is one of my favorite sci-fi authors (he wrote a book about trains on Mars). His latest book came out and I finished plowing through it. The book is called Luna: New Moon and, as you might guess, it's a near-future novel set on the moon.

The moon is a libertarian wet-dream. There are no police, no laws, no crime, just contracts and negotiation. When you arrive on the moon you're outfitted with an implant that tracks your consumption of the four elements -- air, water, carbon and data. Everything you consume comes at a cost so if you don't have some cash coming in you're going to die and your body will be reclaimed by roving recycle bots trying to help settle your accounts.

Of course, not everyone is scraping for cash. At the top of the heap sits the Five Dragons, five families who own the major corporations that drive the lunar economy. Above them sits the Eagle of the Moon, the head of the Lunar Development Corporation who tries to keep things moving smoothly along.

The book mostly focuses on the youngest of the Five Dragons, the Cortas family who provide the Helium-3 that keeps the lights on down on Earth. The book opens with a celebration and an assassination attempt and then spirals out from there.

The writing is top-notch. The cast of characters are all well drawn and the world-building (moon-building?) is fantastic. The moon is settled by people from all over the world so a lot of cultures blend and meld and the book happily sets forth various cultural ideas and words and sends you scrambling to google to look stuff up. It also takes all this and builds a lunar culture that really comes alive and seems real.

So yeah, a fun book if you like dynastic family squabbles on the moon (and there's more than just that). The only downside is that this is the first of two books and there's not even a token attempt to find a good stopping point. It's just a big cliffhanger and it's over. So if that irks you, maybe wait until the second one comes out. I'll be looking forward to it eagerly.


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