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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

3:06PM - Too Like We DIdn't Mean to Review

Hey,

So I read/listened to more books.

First up, I listed to We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome. This is the 7th in the Swallows and Amazons series about British children having outdoors-y holiday adventures. I'm completely in the tank for this series so you can assume I enjoyed it.

This time around, the children are on holiday in Harwich awaiting the return of their father, a naval commander. With a few days to kill they fall in with a young man who agrees to let them help crew his boat on a simple voyage around the harbor and rivers that flow into it. Because they need to stick close in case Father returns home early, the children and their babysitter promise not to leave the safety of the harbor for the open sea.

There's a series of unfortunate events and...yeah, the kids go out to sea on their own.

So I did like this book, but it suffered a bit because usually the kids have some self-directed idea about what they want to do and they go do it. In this case, there's an accident and things are forced on them. As always, they rise to the occasion with pluck and spirit but I'm a little sad it wasn't an imaginative play-adventure for them. Still, we get to see Father for the first time and get to know him a bit better so that's nice.

Fun series, well worth it for kids and adults alike.

Next up is Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. It's a sci-fi book written by Mycroft Canner a Servicer living the 25th Century. A servicer is a convicted criminal who is stripped of all rights and serves at the whim of the public for his sustenance. He is also deeply enamoured of the 18th Century and the Age of Reason and his writing reflects that style. This causes a bit of tension because in the future, gender has been smoothed out and gendered pronouns are Just Not Done. He apologizes to the reader (because of course in the 18th Century style, he addresses himself to the reader), but after defending his choice to use gendered pronouns promptly assigns those pronouns to people based on how he perceives their gender not on what it actually is. Which leads to a few amusing surprises when you realize the "she" has a beard. Shades of Ancillary Justice and well done.

So Mycroft has done some terrible things, but he's too valuable to simply execute and as a result all the major power-players in this future world have need of him. The person who needs him most, however, is Bridger, a young boy who has the power to magically bring any toy or representation to life. He draws pictures of food and makes it real. He's protected by toy soldiers who remember a vivid past fighting their green/yellow foes and are fiercely devoted to Bridger even in this strange new world of giants.

All of this is miraculous and miracles are expressly verboten. After the last War of Religion that re-shaped the world's structure into the form we see in the book, you keep your thoughts on religion (or non-religion) to your own damn self. And if you want to talk to someone, you talk to a sensayer -- a sort of all purpose chaplin/psychiatrist who is trained to debate the divine with you -- in private.

Carlyle has been sent to the home of the Saneer-Weeksbooth family where he accidentally encounters Mycroft, Bridger and Thisbe Sanner-Weeksbooth trying to clean up a magical problem. Things escalate from there.

So this book was written by a history professor who's using sci-fi to re-examine hot issues from the Age of Enlightenment to see how they may apply to our present-day concerns. It's an interesting application of sci-fi and it's a pretty interesting read. The future Ms. Palmer envisions doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, but those aren't the questions she wants you to ask and the world-building is sufficient to stop you from asking them.

Instead, she wants to point you towards great thinkers of the Enlightenment and the things that were important to them. Mycroft's affection for the period is shared by a number of others and that allows these themes to get woven through the story without being too badly lamp-shaded.

Although Mycroft intends to recount a momentous week in Earth's history, the book only covers the first seven days so...sequel. However it does seem clear that the book is driving towards a conclusion in that second book. Overall, I found it an interesting and thought-provoking read and it's worth checking out.

later
Tom

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

3:03PM - [Ad Hoc Bookclub] Review with Shakespeare

Hey,

So May is over and that means if you've been reading the ad hoc book club selection Sex with Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan, now's the time to talk about it. So I'll talk about it.

The book is partially a memoir of Ms. Keenan's short but very full life and how those events were tied into two central facets of her life, kink (in this case a spanking fetish) and Shakespeare. In particular, she uses the latter to help make some sense of the former.

The first thing that strikes you is how much Ms. Keenan has done. She took a gap year in Spain, went to Stanford, went to Oman, and was a Fullbright scholar among other things and most of that before she was 24. It makes you worry about what you've done with your life.

Anyway, since she has two main lenses to view the world, I'm going to tackle each of them in turn starting with Shakespeare.

Her conceit for Shakespeare is that she often has vivid conversations with the various characters in the plays. At times it seems a bit odd, perhaps like she's having a mental breakdown as the line between fantasy and reality blurs, but I wasn't terribly put off by this and it didn't interfere with her story. The good part about all of this is that she's able to offer some interesting new interpretations of Shakespeare's stories. What makes great literature great is that people can come to it again and again and come away with different impressions. Here, Ms. Keenan tries to show a less misogynist side to Taming of the Shrew and a darker shade to King Lear. I find a lot of her interpretations very interesting though not necessarily compelling in a "this is what Shakespeare meant" kind of way. Still, it makes Shrew more palatable and gives Helena a better motivation so it's thought-provoking in that way.

Now for the sex (or in this case spanking). Perhaps I live in too much of a bubble but I was a little surprised at how difficult it was for Ms. Keenan to figure out her kink and to meet like-minded people. Even in the early 2000's the internet was deep enough that you could pretty easily connect with fellow fetishists or look up reference material discussing the stuff that turned you on. It just seemed that she was extremely unhappy about her fetish for the longest time and I couldn't figure out why the internet had failed her so completely (aside from trying to do a search in Oman of all places).

And, of course, she's fairly young as she's recounting these stories so there's a lot of "oh no, don't do that!" Again, a few basic internet searches could've saved her a lot of grief -- although I'm sure many of my problems might get fixed that way too.

However, the real value of her stories is that they give a real emotional weight and clarity to her fetish and having a fetish in general. The idea that it's not just something you do for fun to spice up sex, it's more or less what sex is. Once she sort of gets things straight in her own head (or straight-ish anyway), she's able to convey that core value of her life in an elegant way.

Overall, I think this was a remarkable book. If you're into the kink/fetish scene I think it's a powerful read and if you're just curious, I think this is a great place to find out more (although I'd encourage you to try a second or third text from someone with a bit more confidence in their kinks).

If you're part of ad hoc bookclub, feel free to leave comments!

later
Tom

Thursday, May 26, 2016

1:21PM - Children of Central Review

Hey,

Finished up a few more books. As a reminder, we're reaching the end of May so if you're still reading Sex and Shakespeare you should finish up soon so we can chat about it.

First up was Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gaveriel Kay. Mr. Kay writes a series of fantasy novels which are basically historical novels with the serial numbers filed off and a touch of magic. I've enjoyed other books of his I read although it's been a while since I last checked in with him. I had to pick this one up since it covered the tense period of the 1500's when Venice, the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire fought it out over the Balkans and the seas surrounding them. It's a period of history I find interesting so I was keen to pick it up.

The book follows several characters who are loosely united by Seressa's (Venice's) attempt to gain intelligence about Dubrava (Dubrovnik or Ragusa) and the Asharite (Ottoman) Empire. They send Jacopo and Leonora to spy on Dubrava and Pero is off to Asharias (Istanbul) to paint the Khalif's portrait. Crossing over on Marin's boat, they are attacked by Senjen raiders (including Dancia, a reluctantly accepted woman) and things go rather askew.

Although Mr. Kay takes a few liberties with the history, his aim is to convey a sense and a feeling of what life was like in those times for the people (both high and low) who inhabited it. The short version is that life on the frontier region between the Empires was dangerous and likely to be short. Between the incursions by armies of both sides, groups of people made their living preying on their neighbors. Despite all this, life still moves on as best it can. There are a number of exciting battle sequences, but skirmishes not great wars and they aren't central to the main thrust of the plot. That shows up in how each of the main characters works to adapt to their situation and tries to make the best of it. The book has a rather upbeat tone so most people find some measure of success.

I rather enjoyed the book (but it does hit my biases). There's a lot of great imagery in the book, both descriptive and in the dialog and also the literary bits of world-building (poems, aphorisms, and so on). The elements of fantasy exist but are very muted which was fine since it kept the focus on the people.

Next, I switched gears to the far future and picked up Central Station by Lavie Tidhar. Central Station is a space elevator set in Tel Aviv in a sort of neutral zone between Jewish and Arab sections of Israel. The book focuses on neither of those groups in exchange for following two families, the Chongs and the Joneses, whose families migrated to Central Station to help build it.

The future presented here is a sort of pre-Singularity. There are humans and others (digital consciousnesses). Most people have a built-in internet connection and there are robots and cyborgs but they're sort of an evolutionary dead end. The world-building on display is superb. The info dumps are very subtle and neatly woven into the stories, but the world of Central Station has a real feel, a real texture and it makes for some wonderful reading.

Like I say, the book is really more of a family drama about the Chongs and the Joneses and less about world-shaking events they participate in. I keep wanting to say it's a bit like Chekov -- a smaller, more human scale slice of life in the future. Miriam Jones is protecting Kranki, a boy joined closely to the other. Her ex-boyfriend Boris is back on Earth because his father is drowning in memories. There's forbidden love between a woman and a long-discarded cyborg soldier. A robot priest performs a bris. It's a great example of science fiction not being about the typical science fiction things. Well worth looking into.

later
Tom

Thursday, May 19, 2016

12:38PM - Games I played this weekend

Hi,

This past weekend I played a few games and I wanted to talk about them a bit more.

First up Fall of Magic. This is a story-telling game more than a board game, but it's absolutely amazing. In the game, magic is failing and the last mage is dying and he is going to travel to the land Umbra far to the east to see if he can fix things. You play his compaions who travel along with him and try to save magic.

What sets this game apart is the scroll. The game is played on this scroll map that you slowly unroll to reveal new locatations (and roll up behind you once you've left an area). The mage travels from location to location and then each character has a chance to deploy to a sub-location at that spot and has a narrative moment. Once you and your fellow PCs have spent enough time at the location, one of the players picks up the mage and moves him to a new location (narrating the story from the mage's point of view).

The production levels are through the roof on this game. You get the scroll and your character is represented by metal coin tokens with a nice heft. It looks great, it feels great and it plays really well (assuming you play with people who want to tell an intersting story). We only got a little way into the scroll on our playthrough and it's clear that you could easily mark your last location in order to pick up and play the game later if you wanted.

There's some concern that the game may lack replayability, but there's a fair amount of gaming in just one complete pass through the scroll and the mage's path has branching options. There are also random islands that pop up during an ocean crossing. Aside from that, starting choices and interpetations of the various story prompts suggests that you could get a number of solid, lengthy games before you things felt stale.

It's well worth checking out as a game and a piece of art.

I also got a chance to introduce 7 Wonders to a friend. I've played a few games before but this was the first game with my copy. Seven wonders is a card-drafting civilization-building game. Each round starts with a hand of seven cards. You pick one and pass it the remainders along. Some cards are resource/economic cards that allow you to build the point-scoring cards you really want. You can also burn a card to build up your "wonder". Each step of the Wonder you complete either gives you victory points or some special ability.

The game plays fast, the decision making feels solid without being overwhelming and the best part is that the game is pretty well balanced so that even if you have a crap game and play terribly, you probably won't be dismally behind and may end up in a better position than you expected. I've got one of the expansions (Cities) which I haven't tried yet -- in part because the base game is so good I'm not sure you want to be larding on expansions like that.

After 7 Wonders, I got to try another game of mine that I've been meaning to play but had so far failed to get the plastic wrap off the box. The game was Splendor and it's basically a gem-drafting game as opposed to a card-drafting game. The (very thin) premise is that you're a Renaissance gem merchant trying to put together a gemstone supply chain that secures raw gems, transports them to artisans who make them into finished jewelry that rich nobles want to buy. With the expection of the nobles, alot of this is really abstracted. In short, you take some gems from a central pile (which are these delightful poker-chip tokens) and use them to buy cards. Some cards have victory points on them, but all the cards show one of five gemstones and act as a permanent gem for future purchases. So if you buy a ruby card and you see another card that costs 2 rubies you only need the token (which you have to spend) and the card (which you keep) to get it. Eventually you get enough of these cards, you can buy things for free. Get enough cards of the right colors and you earn noble tiles with victory points on them. When someone hits 15 points, everyone else gets a last turn and most victory points wins.

The game starts off pretty slowly as you have to spend a turn or two collecting the gems you need, then buying stuff, then scrounging for more gem tokens. Eventually, as the cards build up, the turns go faster and then the nobles start going out and the game races to a conclusion. I thought the game was fun but I won pretty handily so I'm biased. I do want to take it out for a couple more spins. I think with some further play the subtleties of scoring will become better understood. My guess is that you want to be a close second so that when the first player over 15 has to stop, you get a chance to scoop up some more points and take the win. In my game, I just gobbled up noble tiles and got so far ahead no one could stop me.

Finally, I played another game of my old arch nemisis Pandemic. I'm pretty sure that while this isn't a bad game like Munchkin or Killer Bunnies, it's probably my least favorite cooperative game. Mostly because the theme (stop global pandemics) clashes with the mechanics. Specfically give/take knowledge. To cure a disease you need 4/5 cards of the disease's color. You can give/take cards from another player but to do that, you and the other player have to be in the same city on the card you want to give/take. So if you need a blue card and I've got a blue card for London, we both have to go to London to make the swap. I know why that rule is there, but all I can think is -- "what? no cell phone?". Map movement is similar. You can move from city to city to city or you can jump to a city if you play a card with that city on it. Of course, now that card is discarded and not available for cures. Again, the movement system makes me think "what? four deadly plagues break out all over the world and we don't have a travel budget?".

I dunno. Just not a game I care for. Defenders of the Realm is more thematic but I suspect Forbidden Desert/Island is a better game.

Anyway, lots of fun stuff this weekend.

later
Tom

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

11:04AM - Filibustered Review

Hey,

So in Battle Cry of Freedom, they mentioned various plans by private US citizens to invade Central American countries and set up US-friendly regimes. This ballooned into a larger idea, championed by Southern and pro-slavery groups of the "Golden Circle" where the US would control all of Central America and the Caribbean and that slavery would be re-introduced in these areas.

Although most of these plans never really got anywhere, the major exception was William Walker who brought a force of 60 men to help aid rebels in Nicaragua but wound up taking over the country. This only lasted for about a year. Walker re-introduced slavery which wasn't received well in much of the US, he seized Vanderbuilt's shipping facilities which angered him, and Britain wasn't too pleased with Walker's activities either. Also, every other country in Central America formed an alliance and (backed up with guns from Vanderbuilt) they kicked out Walker and his troops.

Wanting to know a bit more, I picked up Reminiscences of the "Filibuster" War in Nicaragua by Charles William Doubleday. Doubleday was a young man who had followed the gold into California and then, on a whim, boarded a steamer from San Francisco down to Nicaragua. He was planning to travel overland and back to the East Coast of the US when he arrived in time for the revolution.

Doubleday spoke Spanish and he strongly supported the rebel party, party because he felt it truly represented the will of the people and also because he didn't care much for the power the Catholic Church had in the country. So he took up arms and joined the rebellion.

After a few months of urban fighting in Granada, Doubleday was about to take a leave when Walker shows up. As Walker didn't speak Spanish and didn't have much faith in the local troops, Doubleday agreed to be on his staff. Doubleday gets involved in several military blunders with Walker and doesn't have a very high opinion of him, but there's a weird loyalty to fellow US citizens and an odd "military duty requires" sort of thing.

The book is short and quite poetic in places -- something I find a lot of in writing from this period, but it's just a tad short on details. Doubleday gets wounded a couple of times and is back in the States when Walker finally takes over and starts going on a rampage.

It's an interesting personal recollection, but I may want to find another source for the history of this conflict. Walker himself wrote up a book about his adventures, but I'd rather have a less biased author before I wade into that.

later
Tom

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

5:21PM - The Everything Review

Hey,

So as I'm working through May's Ad Hock Book Club selection (Sex and Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan -- read it sometime this month and we'll chat about it at the end!) I realize I forgot to write up the last book I read.

The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey (of Sandman Slim fame) is a comedy fantasy story involving a thief named Coop who makes a living stealing magical doo-dads. Coop is no wizard, but he is immune to direct magic so spells and curses fizzle off of him -- he is not immune to the dragon summoned by a spell or a gun wished into existence, so there are limits.

After a short stint in jail for a job gone wrong, Coop is back out on the streets and receiving a mysterious offer to break into a heavily warded building and steal a small, innocuous box. Meanwhile, two cults, a chaos-spreading stranger, and the Angel of Office Supplies are also trying to get ahold of this box to bring about their particular End of the World.

I don't recall ever laughing out loud at any point, which is usually a bad sign in a comedy story, but it's not badly written. It suffers a bit from the "oh, no one knows magic exists, except there's a whole world of magical creatures who somehow get by without being discovered and the government has a task force devoted to them and if you pay attention you can find out about it" deal that always irks me a bit.

But as a crime caper, the book really fires on all cylinders. Coop makes logical use of the magical tools at his disposal and tracks down magical specialists to handle things that he can't (much like a normal crook might be a safecracker or driver or second-story man, there are various magical specialties like Marilyn's who can cloud people's minds). The magic follows its own internal logic and there's never a point where it paints itself into a corner and has to break the rules to get out.

The plot moves briskly along and you're always interested to see new complications get piled on. Although maybe not a masterpiece of comedy, it would certainly make for some good beach/travel reading this summer.

later
Tom

Monday, May 2, 2016

9:59PM - Ticklish Subject

Hey,

So I just got done watching Tickled, a documentary by two New Zealanders about competitive endurance tickling.

Does the idea of young, muscular guys tickling each other seem like someone's fetish? Well sure, of course it does, and frankly, as far as fetishes go it's relatively harmless and kind of adorable. Perhaps a bit embarrassing but nothing too dreadful, right?

The deal here is that a NZ journalist stumbles on one of these sites and is like "tickling...huh" and posts about it and it goes a bit viral and then the journalist starts getting threatening, harassing letters from the company that runs the tickling website telling him to back off.

So of course, he does a documentary. Turns out that when young men want to stop doing the videos, those videos start appearing all over the internet and harassing letters go out to the performer, his family, potential employers...everyone. The stick is pretty harsh, but the carrot is pretty good too -- there's serious money for these performers, but you've got the boss from hell breathing down your neck.

I'm not going to say much more about this, it's opening June 17th and I'm hoping one of the local art houses will pick it up for a few screenings. It's well worth your time to check out. But until you get to see it, you should just know that all across the country, all across the world, there are "tickling cells" where young men are filmed being tickled in exchange for cash and prizes. That's a thing happening right now and when you see how it all works, you'll be dumbfounded.

later
Tom

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

1:09PM - Ad Hoc Book Club Assemble!

Hey,

beah and I are doing another ad hoc book club for May. This month, we're going to check out Sex with Shakespeare by JIllian Keenan. The author discusses her fascination with Shakespeare and being spanked. It's gotten pretty good advance reviews and a quick skim through the kindle sample seems promising.

If you want to play along, just snag a copy of the book either at Amazon or your favorite local bookseller and read it over the month of May. At the end, we can talk about it.

later
Tom

Sunday, April 24, 2016

5:07PM - Pigeon Agents of Review

Hey,

So I heard/read a couple more books:

First up Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome. Another in the Amazons and Swallows series. And since most of the back half of the series is only available on audio, that's the format I had to take.

If you've been following me, you know the drill -- British schoolchildren have delightful outdoor adventures. This time around, there's pretty much no sailing. The kids are off to go prospecting out among the fells for gold. But there's a serious drought and their ability to camp beyond the watchful eyes of the grownups is in doubt until a source of water can be found. Also, there's a mysterious man in a squashy hat who seems to be spying on them -- perhaps to jump their gold claim!

As always, it's a wonderful read. There were a couple of points on this one that struck me as a bit dodgy to modern readers:

1.) The kids explore old mine workings! The older children do make a point of telling the younger ones not to go into any caves on their own but of course... Still, it's hard to believe that even the older kids could evaluate how safe/dangerous an old mine shaft might be. In general, the children are presented as extremely competent beyond their years, but this business with the mines is a bit of a stretch.

2.) There's a small dollop of...magic? weird phenomena? The book is usually quite precise in its dividing line between the practical real and the imagination of the kids, and the kids themselves know when to let reality intrude, but here things bleed over a bit and it seems like a departure from the usual format of the books.

Overall, it's still a lot of fun reading, but I'll be happier when the books shift back to the water.

Next up, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm. To elaborate a bit on the title, it's a history covering the interactions between the Ottoman Empire, the Western European powers and the Balkan states they fought over/through.

Mr. Malcolm tells the story by following two families from Albania, the Bruni and Bruti families. Some of them fought for Christendom at the Battle of Lepanto and became Knights of Malta, a number of them worked as interpreters between the Ottomans and Venice, Rome or other powers and a most of them traded goods and information back and forth across the lines. I have a bit of a fondness for this place and time and in watching how various members of the family dealt with the shifting fortunes of their many employers, you can get a better sense of what was going on.

It's broken up into short, punchy chapters that follow one member of the family and there's obviously a bit of overlap, but they mostly stand on their own. It's not the easiest of reading, but it's mostly dense with people and places named in languages not congruent to English so it was sometimes a bit of a hassle to straighten things out. Still, the work is pretty good and worth checking out. I think there's a lot of material for an RPG campaign.

later
Tom

Thursday, April 21, 2016

9:36AM - The Ninth Wonder of the World

So, Chyna (aka Joanie Laurer) was found dead yesterday. She was 45.

First off, holy shit that's way too young. When I saw her on TV, I figured she was at least 10 years older than me.

Chyna was a pro wrestler in the mid-90s and she was always one of my favorites. Mostly because at the time, women's wrestling was something of a joke. It almost never got airtime and it was really more of a T&A show than anything else.

Chyna was ripped and absolutely ready to wrestle -- and she wasn't afraid to go after men in the ring. I don't believe she ever got a proper match with a guy (because *that's* too unbelievable for wrestling) and don't think she went after the women's title because, as mentioned above, it wasn't given any real consideration. She wanted to wrestle -- seriously wrestle and when she got some time in the ring she proved she had skills as a brawler.

I always thought she was wonderful and amazing (and tall!) and I always had a tremendous amount of respect for her and what she was trying to do. Alas, she was born too soon -- over the past couple of years women's wrestling has really stepped up its game and thanks to the efforts of female wrestlers (and a huge groundswell of support from the fans), it's gotten a lot more airtime on the main shows. If she had been up and coming she would've been the Andre the Giant of women's wrestling and it would have been awesome.

Sadly, her personal life was pretty rough. One of the reasons why I don't follow pro wrestling more closely is that it chews people up physically and mentally. There were no signs of foul play and her death hasn't been ruled a suicide, but she went through a hell that would've crushed most people long before 45.

Chyna will always be my ninth wonder of the world and I'm sad that she's gone.

later
Tom

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

5:32PM - I've been watching a lot of chess videos lately...

Traitor! A chess variant:

Set up pieces as normal. Each player is randomly assigned a number from 1 - 8 which they write down and keep secret.

That number identifies a pawn of the opponent that is secretly a traitor working for the player.

1 = Queen's Rook Pawn
2 = Queen's Knight Pawn
3 = Queen's Bishop Pawn
etc. etc.

The traitor is used in one of three ways:

1.) On your move, you can reveal your number and the appropriate pawn of your opponent is replaced with a pawn of your color. It's now a pawn under you control and moves and acts like any other pawn you have.

2) When your opponent is about to use a pawn to capture one of your pawns/pieces, and it's your traitor pawn, you can reveal your number proving that pawn to be a traitor. Replace the traitor pawn with a pawn of your color. The pawn now moves and acts like a normal pawn of yours. The intended capture never takes place.

3.) Should your opponent advance the traitor pawn to the back rank, you must reveal it to be a traitor. The pawn is replaced with one of your color as above.

I had the idea that you could also reveal the traitor and then immediately capture an opponent's piece, but I think that would cause games to grind down -- you'd be trying to make space for your pieces to avoid getting traitor'd. Plus, you'd mostly want to use it on turn 1 to wipe out a piece.

Obviously, it's going to suck if you get a flank pawn for a traitor while you opponent has one of your central pawns, but I think it would be fun for the uncertainty factor.

Friday, April 8, 2016

3:14PM - Mark Twain's Reviewhead

Hey,

Finished up a couple of books this week:

First up Railhead by Philip Reeve. This is a YA book which I normally skip, but it involves AI trains who travel hyper-dimensional railways to connect distant planets so...yeah, I'm in for it.

Our story revolves around Zen Starling who enjoys riding the rails and who helps support his mentally ill mother by stealing stuff. Then a mysterious girl with a red trench coat and drone starts following him. Then Railforce, the military charged with protecting the rails takes and interest in him and finally he's introduced to Raven. Raven wants Zen to steal a small box from a train...the train of the current Emperor of human space. With not a lot of options, Zen decides to take the job.

The book had a couple of inventive ideas and I liked the way it handled human/AI interactions. Events moved along at a good clip and the characters were fairly well developed. My favorite part is that the trains all chose names for themselves and those names are reminiscent of ship names in the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks. My favorite in this line is a train calling itself Gentlemen Take Polaroids.

Anyway, a fun breezy book and while I sense sequels in the offing, the story stand very well on its own.

And finally, last night I came to the end of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 by Samuel Clemens. The book was dense and not quite as lively as the previous two volumes, but still there were lots of delightful prose on display. In particular, Twain's thoughts about Teddy Roosevelt are pretty scorching. Although Twain is remembered as a humorist he had a mean streak and if you got on his bad side, he'd lay into you. As he got older, he was less publicly vindictive but in private he kept a keen edge on his grudges.

Of course, the book ends rather tragically. Twain was writing this autobiography to provide additional income for his daughters Jean and Clara. Clara married and was doing pretty well with her husband, but Jean suffered from epilepsy and Twain wanted to make sure she had something to live on well into her old age. Alas, on Christmas Eve 1909, Jean suffered a fit in the bathtub and drowned before anyone knew what happened. The last few pages are pretty raw in their grief and a rather sad end to the series.

Still, all three volumes make for some fascinating reading. Twain's idea to seal the papers until 100 years had passed and anyone he talked about was well past concerned about what he said means that he's fearless in expounding on whatever topic comes to mind. You do get a good sense of what his life and times were like, not just Twain's but the lives of people around him.

As always, the book as a prodigious section for footnotes and the team of scholars who put these books together deserve a great deal of respect for all their efforts. The footnotes provide invaluable context and insight into the things Twain talks about.

I'm a fan of Mark Twain, but I will say this is some fine writing and I encourage people to check it out.

later
Tom

Monday, March 28, 2016

12:02PM - Low Coot Review

Hey,

So I finished up two books, one I read, the other I heard.

The one I read was Low Town by Daniel Polansky. Rigus is the capitol of the empire of the same name and Low Town is its infamous slum. Among the poor and desperate of Low Town is Warden, a former street orphan who became a war veteran, then a member of the secret police, and now he's making a meager living as a drug pusher working a small slice of territory.

He finds the body of a missing girl and, being the primary suspect, he has to track down her killer. Warden finds his man only to have him killed by a horrifying monster from beyond reality. Then another child goes missing. So it's a race against time to figure out who's behind the kidnappings before Warden takes the fall.

This was Polansky's first novel and for the most part, it's very well written. Good dialog, well-drawn characters and settings and the plot moves along pretty briskly. The only real problem is that the killer's identity is easily sussed out by the reader long before the protagonist. Still, I'm interested in reading some of the other books in this series (and the books appear to be self-contained so full marks there). Certainly worth a look if you liked The Gentlemen Bastards books.

Although I didn't read it, I did finish the audio book version of Coot Club by Arthur Ransome. More delightful water-borne adventures with English children. This time, we move from the Lakes Districts to the Norfolk Broads in eastern England. Dick and Dorothea are spending spring break with Mrs. Barrable who's living on a small yacht and who they hope will take them sailing. But Mrs. Barrable isn't much of a sailor and things seem grim, until the two meet up with Tom, leader of the Coot Club and the twins Port and Starboard. The Coots range over the waterways of the Broads and check up on bird nests and have other general adventures and they're more than capable of teaching Dick and Dorothea the basics of sailing. So begins a charming adventure on the rivers and canals of the Broads.

As always, Ransome writes some delightful children's adventure stories. The only small complaint about the book is that Mrs. Barrable is constantly feeding chocolate to William, her pug. Obviously, chocolate isn't that good for dogs, so it always sounded off, but for the most part, it's another great story. I'm in the tank for this series, but I do recommend it to folks and I think a lot of pre-teen kids would get a kick out of it.

later
Tom

Saturday, March 19, 2016

11:09AM - Shantyview

Hey,

So a few weeks ago I read Unsinkable about a group of punks who build a shantyboat and float it down the Mississippi. In the process, I discovered Shantyboat: A River Way of Life by Harlan Hubbard. It seemed interesting so I grabbed a copy and finished it this morning.

The elevator pitch is that Shantyboat is basically Walden afloat. In 1944, Harlan Hubbard and his new wife Anna built a boat along the Ohio River just north of Cincinnati. After a breaking-in period of two years, they cast off and drifted down the Ohio, onto the Mississippi and from there down to New Orleans.

Like a lot of the travelogues I've been reading, there's not a lot of real narrative here. The Hubbards drift along in the winter and find a place to tie up for the rest of the year to grow a garden and replenish their supplies. They don't meet with any real serious issues except maybe a bout of appendicitis, but that only keeps Harlan down for a couple of weeks.

Harlan was a painter and artist and there are lots of great sketches and woodblock prints illustrating the book. It also gives him a keen eye for description and he's able to evoke some vivid imagery.

The only thing that bugged me was that it was all very much Harlan doing the writing and you don't get a good sense of Anna's participation. That's not entirely true -- Harlan repeatedly discusses how the trip would be a lot less civilized without Anna around. She puts in a lot of hard work and helps to steer/row the shantyboat. She and Harlan read and play string duos together but...you never really hear much about her activities beyond housekeeping. It would've been nice to hear from her about the trip. She seemed a pretty capable and intelligent person and I feel like she was more than just housewife, but you don't get a sense of that from the book. There is, apparently, an autobiography about her that I might check out at some point.

Still, the book is generally focused on the world outside the boat rather than in it and it makes for some fascinating reading. Although 60-odd years have passed, I was constantly referring to google maps to try and trace their path.

later
Tom

Friday, March 18, 2016

9:31PM - The Review Turns

Hey,

Read through a couple of items in the past few weeks.

First up Brotherhood of the Wheel by R. S. Belcher (a moment of silence for that last name, please). I was interested in this story because it's similar to an idea I had and I was curious to see a treatment of it.

The basic gist is that the Tmeplars (it's always the Templars) have survived into the modern day by breaking into three groups. The group we follow here is the titular Brotherhood of the Wheel. It's made up of truckers, bikers, highway police and road crews. Their job is to keep the roads safe from psycho killers and evil occult forces.

Jimmie Aussapile is a long-haul trucker and a member of the Brotherhood. After a busy night chasing down a killer, he's on his way home when a ghostly hitchhiker puts out her thumb. Jimmie drives her home only to discover that before she was killed, she left a tape recording that specifically mentions that Jimmie needs to help track down something monstrous that killed her and her friends and is after children.

Jimmie is joined by Heck, a biker who needs to be initiated into the Brotherhood to claim his place as club president, and Lovina, a police investigator from New Orleans who is also on the trail of some missing children. Meanwhile, Ava and her friends were in a car accident and they've been towed to a strange, mysterious town called Four Houses that's not on any map and has terrible shadow people who come out at night.

It's a pretty good book. Lots of POV switches and each character is pretty well defined -- the author notes what they've got playing in their vehicles which is a nice touch. The magic "makes sense" and the action sequences are all well handled.

The only small nit is that there's lots of references to real-world things, which is appropriate and does a lot to help root the time and place, but I suspect the book won't age terribly well. Still, if you want a bit more Convoy in your urban fantasy this is the book for you.

Next up, more light reading from Microcosm Publishing. This time it's Dream Whip #15 The Pedal Powered Movie Tour by Bill Brown. Pretty much does what it says on the tin. Bill Brown made a small indie movie about the US/Mexico border. He wanted to take the film cross-country and have screenings here and there. So he got together with a couple of friends, they got their bikes in order and set off from Washington D.C. to ride across the country. They get as far as the Kansas/Colorado border before switching back to cars -- but in fairness, they started the trip really late in the year and although they were pretty sensible riders, they were still quite new and probably couldn't have crossed the Rockies in winter.

Anyway, the book is really a very thick zine written in a stream-of-consciousness style in a "handwriting" font (which is quite legible, thankfully). Brown discusses the various places he bikes through and the people he meets along the way. It's a charming story and since he never really encounters anything too terrible other than wind and rain it's pretty sedate. I'm not sure I'm really up for a cross-country bike trip, but it seems a bit more reasonable after reading Brown's account.

And yes, I'm still slowly working my way through the Mark Twain Autobiography. The book is just a bit too unwieldy to carry around with me so I may have to break down and buy the kindle or audio book version.

later
Tom

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

12:33PM - The Name Game

Hey,

So I'm running a game for a friend and her kids. I'm using Numenera because that's what I'm running for my regular gaming group and I can recycle stuff (also I only have to remember one ruleset).

Anyway, both grown-ups and kids are playing -- mostly so that the party isn't made up entirely of pre-teen boys who have a war crime for every occasion. Wisely, the mom has taken the "Who Leads Others" focus which means she can have a civil discussion and can sort of corral the rest of the PCs.

This also makes her the person "who knows a guy" so last weekend I said "Oh yeah, Uolis knows who you are, he calls you over and says..."

"Wait," I say, "what's your character's name again?"
"I didn't write one down," she says.
"Well you should really have one, that's sort of a key bit about the PC."
[pause while we think up a name]
"Oh, just call me Mom", she says.
"Huh...like m-a-w-m, Mawm? I can go with that."
"No I was thinking more m-a-u-g-h-m, Maughm."

And thus it was.

As an aside, Numenera (or any member of the Cypher System it works off of) is a pretty good game system for pre-teens and up. It's a little complicated for younger kids, and it's easy to get lost in the choices when setting up your character, but in actual play it move along briskly and offers a fair amount of choice for players without being too overwhelming.

later
Tom

Saturday, March 5, 2016

11:44AM - A slew of Reviews

Hey,

So I finished up an actual book and a few pseudo-books so let's review:

First up: Inca Civilization in Cuzco by R. Tom Zuidema, translated by Jean-Jacques Decoster. So this this talks about the social organization of the Inca, focusing on the complex system that assigned you to a particular clan-group. It's...very technical and very dry. I'm interested in this topic but I can't imagine it's something most of you would pick up. Frankly, I'm only just keeping up with his discussion but that's because I've read some of his other stuff.

I've got a gripe about this book, well, the eBook in any event. It was a very rushed scan job of the print version of the text. So you'll see things like [page xx] in the middle of text. Some of the numbers didn't scan well so you get i0 or S0 instead of 10 or 50. Most of this I can deal with, but the bad scan also applies to the various diagrams and some of them are very hard to make out.

I get it. It's a specialized text so how many potential buyers are there. Even if the book cost twice what it did that probably wouldn't offset the cost of a decent editing pass, but still. if you're going to be half-ass about it, then maybe charge a half-ass price.

Recently, I backed a kickstarter for Microcosm Publishing. I got a huge raft of box for $50. It was a grab bag but there were a number of titles I thought looked interesting so...I got it. A number of these are short booklet things that make for excellent bathroom reading. I've gone through a couple of them now.

Railroad Semantics 1 and 2 by Aaron Dactyl follows Dactyl as he hops freights and rides the rails around the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. I've got a soft spot for hobo stories so I had high hopes but man...Dactyl really takes the fun out of an illegal and dangerous mode of transportation. He just has this disdain for pretty much everyone he runs into. Sure, he sneers at people trapped in a settled, modern lifestyle, but he's pretty contemptuous of other hobos, bums and drifters like himself. Tell me about the romance and hardships of riding the rails, don't take potshots at everyone you meet. At least you don't grouse about anyone who genuinely helps you along the way, but it doesn't feel like you're far form that.

A much better book in almost every respect is, Unsinkable: How to Build Plywood Pontoons & Longtail Boat Motors Out of Scrap by (I kid you not) Robnoxious. So Rob and his friends get together and decide to build a shanty boat and sail down the Missouri from Kansas City to St. Louis and down the Mississippi until they run out of money/inclination/time.

The book actually delivers on its title and has diagrams for the pontoon base of the boat as well as the longtail motors to propel it. It also includes a number of "We should've done this" notes which I appreciate. The majority of the book are notes from their logbook and various anecdotes as they ride down the river. My only gripe here is that it's all short snatches of little anecdotes that skip along. I get it, this kind of boating is likely to be lazy and "bursty" in terms of activity, but it was all so short. So maybe the real complaint it that I wanted more.

Because despite the name, Robnoxious and company seem must more friendly and engaged than Aaron Dactyl does and they aren't running down anyone, even the one or two people that hassle them a bit. There was a massive flood the year they went down the river so it wasn't the easiest of trips, but there's a general positivity that's fun to read.

I note there are some other books about shanty boating and now I'm keen to check them out.

later
Tom

Saturday, February 27, 2016

10:34AM - What a Difference a Week Makes

Hey,

From here:

"At a [Feb. 19th] meeting of Republican governors the next morning, Paul R. LePage of Maine called for action. Seated at a long boardroom table at the Willard Hotel, he erupted in frustration over the state of the 2016 race, saying Mr. Trump’s nomination would deeply wound the Republican Party. Mr. LePage urged the governors to draft an open letter “to the people,” disavowing Mr. Trump and his divisive brand of politics."

[...]

"On Friday [Feb. 26th], a few hours after Mr. Christie endorsed him, Mr. Trump collected support from a second governor, who in a radio interview said Mr. Trump could be 'one of the greatest presidents.'

That governor was Paul LePage."

Sure, I'm awash in schadenfreude, but man, I still feel bit bad for the party leadership because how agonizing must it be for them to have a solid shot at regaining the presidency, lose control to Trump like this, and then watch rank-and-file members do the calculus and decide to double down on him.

Clearly, lots of Republicans will avoid Trump like the plague, but many of them rode a populist wave to power similar to Trump and they'll feel a strong pull to get behind him and retain their cred.

The article discusses how if/when Trump becomes the nominee, Republicans may simply write-off the presidency and run attack ads against Trump to keep Republican Senators/Representatives electable. How awful is it when you'd rather have Hilary Clinton -- a Republican punching bag for over two decades -- over your own party's nomination for president?

Although, actually, I'm hoping that it's Trump vs. Sanders because I feel like Democratic Party has it's own fossilized leadership that also needs a hard slap in the face.

later
Tom

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

10:23PM - Review and a Half

Hey,

Generally, when I start a book, I read on to the bitter end. The number of books I actually stop reading is pretty low. I can't remember the last time I gave up on a book -- especially a book I was really looking forward to.

Alas, breaking my streak is The House of War and Witness by Mark, Linda and Louise Carey (a family collaboration!). The trio wrote the excellent Steel Seraglio a few years ago and I was excited to see this story about a company of Austro-Hungarian soldiers up in the northern wilds of the Empire protecting the frontier from Frederick the Great while holed up in a haunted house.

This really should've been right up my alley and yet my pace really bogged down and I just couldn't bring myself to read it. It's not that the writing is bad it's just that the foreshadowing practically stands in front of the regular narrative but no one seems to notice, least of all the one character who should be able to notice. I dunno, maybe there's a twist at the end, but it looks so bad, I'm not encouraged to go further. So...I didn't.

This isn't really a fair review, I didn't finish the book, but apparently it does the things that just set me off and make me not finish books.

Luckily, the book I picked up next is fantastically good. I just tore through the last half or so of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff and it's so, so good. This will be in contention for my personal "best of the year" list in December.

As you might guess from the title, this is a Mythos book. Unlike a lot of Mythos books, it doesn't go for sanity-blasting horrors, but more subtle incidents of the weird and the strange. More importantly, the book's protagonists are an extended black family living in the early 50's when Jim Crow was in full swing.

Atticus Turner returns home to Chicago to find that his father, Montrose, has gone off to Ardham, Massachussetts. Following after him, Atticus finds that he's one of the last living descendants of an ancient family of wizards called the Braithwhites and that he, Atticus, is an incredibly useful tool in various rituals they want to conduct. There follows a series of stories focusing on different members of the Turner family and their encounters with the Braithwhites, their friends, foes and various occult forces...oh yeah, and the entrenched racism of the 50's as well.

Everything about this book just works. The book is really a series of connected short stories which provide a nice range of viewpoints that help move the overall plot along. All the characters are nicely detailed. The dialog and descriptions read well and sound natural. Lovecraft's own racism is explicitly called out in the book and there's a lot of neat callbacks to pulp fiction, sci-fi, and comic books. It handily passes the Bechdel Test.

Overall, this is a fantastic book and I think a lot of you would like it even if Lovecraft isn't your thing -- possibly you'd like it especially if Lovecraft isn't your thing. Lovecraft was a racist jerk (even by the standards of his day), but he opened up his marvelous creation for other people to participate in and reconfigure. Lovecraft Country is a brilliant re-interpretation of Lovecraft but in a way, a return to his essential thesis -- Cthulhu and his ilk aren't evil, they're just beyond your concerns like a force of nature. Humans, on the other hand, are very aware of you and your concerns and that's where evil creeps in.

So yeah, run and pick this up. If you're still on the fence, here's one of the better quotes:

"Nor did they seem especially alien to her, the main difference between them and other rich, self-important white people she had encountered being their willingness to converse with her. About necromancy."

later
Tom

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

2:16PM - Sellout reviews

Hey,

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.

later
Tom

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