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Blue Gargantua's Journal

Saturday, July 13, 2019

9:51AM - Oh hey, how about some reviews


  Been a while, but I do have some books to report on:

  First up:  Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle.  As you might guess this is an autobiography of one of the more interesting characters of early space exploration.  John "Jack" Parsons was the scion of a wealthy family who fell on hard times during the Depression.  Parsons read a lot of early sci-fi and got excited about the idea of space exploration and rockets.  Unable to afford collage, he started working for companies producing explosives for mining/construction and on the weekends would make different sorts of chemical rockets.  Although not formally schooled in chemistry, he had a very nimble mind and probably knew more about explosive chemicals than anyone at CalTech, where he managed to cobble together a small rocketry research program (at the time, rockets were considered nothing more than toys). 

  When WWII broke out, he created a rocket fuel formula to help large planes take off on short runways.  These rocket boosters were called JATO units (Jet Assisted Take-Off) -- note that they called them jets not rockets because jets were cool and rockets were dumb.  He formed a company to produce the JATO units called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and you probably know it toady as an integral part of NASA.  Those boosters he produced in WWII became the template for solid fuel rockets such as the boosters for the Space Shuttle.

  All of this is interesting enough but when you add in the fact that he got inspired by Alistair Crowley and set up an OTO temple in his house...well, you'd expect more but honestly there aren't a lot of records and most interviews are with people who were at the fringes of his crowd.  You want to hear about the rituals and the orgies and there's some of that, but there's a lot of stuff that's still quite opaque about the man and what he was doing.

  The general picture that you get from the book is that Jack Parsons was kind of a real life, low-budget Tony Stark, a bit of an asshole genius.  It's not clear if more funding or additional education would've helped, he clearly seemed to be the kind of person with his head in the clouds and a burning desire to achieve his goals.  It's too bad there's not more detail about his life, although I suspect frustration would factor large in it.

  It's a niche subject so I'm not recommending it to you unless you've got a real interest in this kind of stuff.

  So it's back to fiction with:  Edges by Linda Nagata.  Ms. Nagata is an author from Australia who wrote a series of transhuman sci-fi.  This is the start of a new series set in that universe.  I don't usually like dealing with coming into the middle, but this is a pretty good starting point and I never felt too lost so that's a point in it's favor.

  The basic premise is that transhuman society has spread throughout the galaxy.  However, around the fringes, a fleet of ancient war machines search out technically advanced civilizations and then crushes them.  Near a weird machine/neutron star called Deception Well, humans have found a refuge from the machines.  Towards the interior of human space, the oldest settlements eventually created Dyson spheres and other high-tech stellar engineering.  But they've got silent and from Deception Well people can see those megastructures are breaking up and they're not sure why.  It doesn't seem to be the war machine's fault but there's no way they can reach it.

 Until Urban, a human sent out from Deception Well as part of a team trying to beat the war machines returns in control of one of the warships.  He offers his old lover and a few others from Deception Well a chance to upload to his ship and come with him to go exploring into the core to find out what happened.

  They almost immediately run into transhuman trouble.

  I enjoyed the heck out of this book.  The concept of an "inverted frontier" is fun and the book really stares down the barrel of the various ramifications that transhuman technologies would produce.  I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.  Recommended, especially for fans of Ian Banks and the like.

   Let's roll back to a bit of fantasy.  The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey is set in a not-quite-steampunk world trying to recover from a devastating war, in particular, we focus on the city of Lower Proszawa.  Berlin during the Weimar Republic is the obvious analog and the german words for streets and slang really helps orient you.  Largo is, for now, a bicycle messenger with a famous theatrical girlfriend and just a *teensy* morphine hobby.  One day, the chief messenger at the company is hauled away by the secret police and Largo gets a promotion, thanks in large part to his photographic memory of the city and its layout.  From high-class mansions to abandoned factories, Largo delivers packages and takes signatures and then comes back to the office to be quizzed about the day by his boss Herr Branca.

  Largo's deliveries get more and more strange and as rumors of war start to swirl, Largo is going to have to wise up about who he is and what he's doing.

  Another really solid book.  I enjoyed the world-building (and learned a bit of German too).  Largo is head-smackingly naive but once he starts to realize what's going on, well, he's still out of his depth but he knows he has to do something.  Very much a "so now I'm an adult, now what?" kind of journey for him.  I would say this is a slightly better fantasy LeCarr than the Amberlough series touted itself as (though that series really had a different idea in mind vs. it's ad copy).  A fun read.

  Back to space with The Outside by Ada Hoffmann.  When humans hit the Singularity, the Singularity decided that humans just couldn't be trusted with advanced science and technology so...they took it over.  Now AI Gods control and watch over human development.  They allow some level of experimentation but generally keep them firmly sandboxed.  Yasira Shien is a scientist working on an interesting new piece of science and the AIs are letting her have a go at it, but the new tech promptly unravels the space laboratory she's working on and the Gods scoop her up.  Branded a heretic and a murderer, the Gods are giving her a shot at redeeming herself by tracking down her mentor, a woman who has big plans to upend the gods and reality itself.

  A fun book that explores a theme I think is more likely in a transhuman future -- AIs who simply keep humans like...well, not like pets exactly, but more like toddlers who keep grabbing for things they shouldn't.  Banks's Culture novels sometimes touch on this a bit, but it's a theme that's front and center here and I kinda like it.

  I had one minor niggle.  Dr. Shein and her mentor are both described as having autism (it's suggested that this, in part, explains their scientific insights).  I realize that I don't think I've read any book, fiction book certainly, that has an autistic character at its center and really tries to get into their head.  My issue is that....Shien doesn't seem terribly different from a lot of other protagonists.  If she's freaking out about being abducted by AI gods and dragooned into a galaxy-wide hunt for a reality bending mad scientist -- that's an emotional crisis most people would have.  I didn't feel like her autism was something that came through on the page.  If it's deliberate, if it's a "autistic people are like everyone else", that's fine, but it's not like she's being ostracized because she's autistic, she's treated as a slightly eccentric genius and that's it, which seems like it really undercuts whatever sort of message they wanted to go with here.  Again, I can't recall a central autistic character in a book I've read in the past few years so perhaps I'm completely missing the point, but I don't feel like I got a sense of how her autism shapes her compared to any neurotypical character.

  Still, it's a pretty good book and I do recommend it.

  Finally, a new Max Gladstone book.  I've been eagerly devouring Max Gladstone's Craft series books since the first one.  A magic-fantasy take on modern finance that is *way* better than that description sounds.  His latest book, however, is a stand alone sci-fi novel called The Empress of Forever.  Here we have Vivian Liao -- entrepreneurial wunderkind whose made and lost fortunes in a near-future, ecologically failing Earth.  But now the Feds are closing in, ready to break her.  So Viv hatches a last-ditch plan to sneak in to an MIT server farm and...create a benign Skynet?  But in the process a glowing green woman suddenly appears, grabs her, and spirits her away to the far future.  

  With a little help, Viv escapes her prison and learns that here in the future there's The Cloud -- a digital mapping of...everything.  And the Empress (the green woman) basically rules and owns it.  If Viv wants to get home, she has to beat the Empress.  She also has to fend off the Mirrorfaith, techno-priests who try to study the Empress to learn her secrets, the Pride, war-toys of the Empress that she's discarded, and the Bleed, an alien species who show up when a civilization reaches a certain level of sophistication and....eat everything.  To prevent the Bleed, the Empress herself usually does this stunt.

  So...Viv gets the party together, a god-like space pirate, a techno-monk, a barbarian pilot, and a sentient blob of grey goo.  Together they go on adventures.

  Friends, Max Gladstone is a fantastic writer and this book is flat-out amazing.  Wonderful world-building and grand vistas, you can imagine how lush the movie would be.  Beyond that, the thing that really characterizes Gladstone's books is the human, emotional core a the center and how it addresses the numerous challenges we face here in the real world and how we attack those problems.

  Highly recommended, definitely check it out.

  OK, I think that covers it.  Happy reading everyone.


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

4:14PM - Remembering to Find Amnesty for missed reviews


  Read more books.  Let's see what I thought:

  First up: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. The Teixcalaanli Empire rules a pretty large chunk of the galaxy, but it's not the only player.  In a fairly desolate part of space, Lsel station manages a shaky peace with the Empire (mostly by dint of being too small to bother with).  But now the Empire has come calling to request a new ambassador to replace the man Lsel sent over 15 years ago.  Crucially, they aren't saying what happened to the previous ambassador.

  Lsel has one piece of tech that Teixcalaanli (for cultural reasons) hasn't developed -- the ability to record another person't memory and personality and, upon death, those recorded memories are transferred to a similar device placed in a carefully matched volunteer's head.  These recordings are not considered to be people per se and the volunteers retain control over their own thoughts and memories, but the chip acts as a source of "collective wisdom" the volunteer can call upon.  The main administrators of Lsel have chips containing nearly 15 generations' worth of memory, wisdom, and understanding.

  Mahit has been chosen to be the new ambassador.  Aside from being intensely fascinated by Teixcalaanli language and culture, she's a very good psychological match for the former ambassador, but the former ambassador's only available recording is about 10 years out of date.  And Mahit only had a few months to work on personality integration.  And then something goes wrong with the chip when she discovers that her predecessor has died from some sort of "allergic reaction" and the stored personality has a bit of a meltdown.

  So now she's on her own, in a culture she loves but has never really experienced, without any support to fall back on.  So she'd better figure out who killed the ambassador and why before she's next.

  I had a pretty good time with this book.  Aside from a few interesting discussions around the memory chip, there's a lot of fun ruminating on how hard it is to be really fascinated with a foreign culture even though you can't really be a part of it.  The writing was solid, the plot didn't drag, and the characters were interesting.  Definitely worth checking out if you're looking for some scifi.

  For more adventuresome scifi, you might want to check out Finder by Suzanne Palmer.  You get a scruffy nerf-herder named Fergus Ferguson, professional Finder.  He's been hired to track down and recover a starship Venetia's Sword.  He tracks down the man who took it, Arum Gilger, to a distant mining system called Cernee.  On his way to recover it, he encounters a feisty old woman riding a cable car with him.  Then the car is attacked and Fergus gets tossed into the volatile local politics.  Getting the Sword back is going to take a bit more effort than he expected.

  Yeah, another pretty good book.  Fergus has parental issues he struggles with in the book and...it's probably weakest part of the whole thing to be honest.  The backstory is either too simple or too complex but either way it didn't get onto the page very adroitly.  It's not a huge part of the book though.  For the most part the book is action-packed and a pretty fun romp.  I especially like the little map of Cernee system in the front.  Most times you land on a planet or a space station -- here we've got a lot of asteroids joined together by tethers and it's a great change of pace.  The system and it's quirks are well-described and it's fun to poke around.

  Definitely some lighter, beach-reading sci-fi, but worth picking up all the same.

  Finally, the final book in the Amberlough series:  Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly.  This series has been generally described as LeCarre meets Oscar Wilde and the first book was definitely in that mold.  I was a little less impressed this time around.  The thing about this series is that while it talks a good spy game, there's really almost no espionage and covert operations after the first book.  Even LeCarre has spies doing spy work and in this series it's been pretty conspicuously absent. 

  Case in point -- the first book ends with a fascist dictator taking control of Amberlough.  At the end of the second book, it seemed like we were finally about to jump off with exciting adventures in the third book.  The third book jumps ahead five years and...the rebellion is over.  The dictator was cast out of office and then shot, the ringleader of the rebels is dead off-screen, and now it's mostly the story of a family and a pair of lovers picking up the pieces and trying to move on.  The book wants to focus on people and it does quite a good job at it, but the spy/crime thing is pretty overdone for the most part.  Still, this did wrap up a few things nicely and ends the series on a pretty decent note.

  I think the series is pretty good, but don't let the book blurbs convince you it's something it's not.

 So that's what I've read lately. I'm happy that I seem to be picking up the pace a little bit.


Thursday, April 18, 2019

4:02PM - Lunar Fortress Reviews


  How's about I review the books I read in a more timely manner?

  First up, Luna:  Moon Rising by Ian McDonald.  This is the concluding volume of his Luna series.  The short version is that in the future the moon is run by five corporations and the families that own them.  The series primarily focuses on the Corta family who produce helium-3 for export to an energy-starved Earth.  But then their dome gets blown up in the first book, the Corta patriarch gets banished to Earth, but then returns with terrestrial allies to take over the moon in the second book, and now it's time for a showdown between the people of the moon and the people of Earth.  The story sprawls out over a fair number of Corta family members so you get to see the conflict from a few different angles.

  Overall, this book brought everything to a solid conclusion.  The writing in this series has always been quite good along with most of the hard science.  An easy recommendation if you're looking for intrigue, action and drama in a near-future setting.

  Next up:  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker.  Mr. Parker has written a number of well-received fantasy novels most of which make liberal use of actual history to help flesh out the details.  This is a standalone novel about Orhan, leader of a regiment of Imperial Engineers.  He spends most of his time building bridges and tearing down or building up defensive works.  He returns to the Imperial City to discover unknown enemies have lured the defenders out into an ambush and they'll soon be bearing down on the city itself.  Orhan has to organize his forces and the people remaining in the city to stall the enemy long enough until help arrives.

  I stayed up waaayyy to late finishing this book off, which should probably be all the endorsement you need.  The chapters are short, punchy, and always make you want to "read just one more chapter".  The dialog is good, and Orhan is an active protagonist who is making plans, solving problems, and adapting to the enemy's efforts.  The plot suffers a bit from Orhan's interactions with the enemy commander (in the sense that the enemy deliberately does stupid things sometimes) and the end is a bit unsatisfying (but it's not an unreasonable or illogical ending and it's only the last 10 pages or so).  Still, this is a fun low-magic fantasy book which should make for some nice summer reading.


Saturday, March 23, 2019

8:22PM - Review Quartet


  I've been reading books.  Maybe I should tell you about them.

My books...let me tell you about themCollapse )

  Anyway, that's it for now.  Join us next time when it's POW! To the moon!


Thursday, February 28, 2019

12:00PM - The future's so bright, I need mirrorshades


Next year, in 2020, I'm planning on running a short Cyberpunk 2020 campaign because...why not. Now, comparing the game world to our real one, it would seem like we've got all the dark, corporate dystopia with none of the cool toys.

Well...here's a brand new way to get a bit closer to cyberpsychosis -- and infrared vision.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

4:06PM - Belated Book Reviews


I’m really behind on my book reviews.

Luckily (or not), I don’t have a ton of books to review. Directing a show tends to gobble up all your free time somehow.

So picking up from...August(!) here’s what I managed to get read:

here be book reviewsCollapse )

Anyway, I guess I’m finally caught up. Here’s hoping I’m a bit more timely and prolific in my 2019 reading.




Monday, October 29, 2018

1:06PM - Come see my show!


Man...I owe you guys some book reviews.  But first...
As many of you may already know, I'm directing a show for Theatre@First in Somerville.  The show is called _She Kills Monsters_ and it's about a young woman named Agnes coming to terms with the loss of her younger sister Tilly by playing a D&D module Tilly left behind.
We've got monsters and fights and magic and romance and laughter and tears and a little family bonding.  The show is a love letter to those of you who played D&D as a teen-ager.  It's also a show that celebrates the people who love this hobby even when they don't fit the typical geek mold.  We have an amazing set of cast and crew who have pulled out all the stops to bring you the greatest theatrical spectacular community theatre can muster.  I could not be more delighted with how it's all coming together and I hope lots of you come to see, enjoy, and appreciate all the hard work that's gone into it.

You can get more information on the show and purchase tickets on the show web page here.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

2:32PM - Summer Reading Reviews



OK, so I’ve done a poor job of keeping up on my book reviews.  I was sorta waiting on one to discuss it with other people and then we never quite got around to it so…

Over the past few months I’ve been slowly re-watching Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in on Amazon video.  It’s hard to describe why I’ve been so fascinated with it. Probably because there’s this weird juxtaposition of problematic humor that wouldn’t fly today and some incredibly smart, sly material that’s quite good.  There’s also a fair amount of risque humor that I’m surprised made it onto the air back then let alone now. Plus, the women on the show are almost all excellent (and Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn had their first big breaks on the show, but I’m especially fond of Judy Carne, Ruth Buzzi, and Jo Ann Worley).

Interested in getting a behind the scenes look, I picked up From Beautiful Downtown Burbank”: A Critical History of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, 1968–1973 by Hal Erickson.  Obviously not casual beach reading but not quite as densely academic as the title might suggest.  The book talks about the history of the various cast and crew members, public reaction to the show, and the struggle for ownership of the show that complicated the show’s survival.

Among the various factoids the book discusses is the fact that one of the reasons why the show made such a splash was the heavy use of video editing to produce a ton of short, punchy skits.  This kind of technology was still quite new and, in fact, often relied on hand-splicing the video together. For the first season or two this was all done by one guy who cut down several hours of material into the final hour you’d see on TV.  It was also interesting to read that in Season Three they hired Mark Warren, a black man from Canada, to act as the show’s director. In 1971 he won an Emmy and would be the only black director to win an emmy for nearly 20 years.

The show eventually collapsed partially over legal wrangling between the producer and Martin and Rowan, but mostly because they invented a flashy new formula and then stuck relentlessly to it when other programs started imitating and innovating off that formula.  I’m not terribly looking forward to watching the last two seasons, the book suggests they get kind of dire.

I’ve been reading a few books about long-distance hikers and the Appalachian Trail so I picked up a more general book on the topic: On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor.  The book talks about trails in a general sense starting with the trails animals like ants and elephants make and then expands to human trails and how and why they spring up.  The book discusses how Native American trails were so prevalent, settlers had to have guides because it was easy to get lost in the maze of criss-crossing trails. It also covers the formation of the International Appalachian Trail -- thanks to plate tectonics what we think of as the Appalachian mountains actually extend in a loose ring from North America, over Greenland, down through Europe and into Africa.  Members of the IAT are trying to build as much continuous trail along this route as they can. Obviously much of it is notional and you’ll need a GPS to “hike the trail” but it’s a fascinating project.

Next up was an ad hoc book club suggestion:  The Overstory by Richard Powers.  This is a lyrical book that’s a paean to trees.  It talks about all kinds of trees and considers them from scientific and artistic and spiritual perspectives.  The trees weave their way in and out of the ensemble cast of characters that all find something meaningful in trees and make big changes in their lives to support and preserve them.  In terms of its big ideas and grand writing style you just want to run outside and start planting. The human characters are also well drawn and we spend a fair amount of time getting to know each of them.

The book suffers in its ending -- because it just kinda ends and you never get some closure on a few fairly important plotlines.  This might well be deliberate -- the timescale and concerns of trees don’t match our own, but I and the other person in the group who finished it were a little underwhelmed.

Last year I read a book called Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelley.  It was pitched as “Oscar Wilde meets LeCarre” and that was pretty accurate -- a morally ambiguous, queer-slanted spy story that I rather enjoyed although I had a bit of a problem with a major plot point.  Still, it was good enough that I picked up the second book in the series Armistice.

In this book, we leave behind the newly-fascist Gedda and travel to sun-soaked Porachis.  Where Ari has turned movie director and Cordelia has just arrived from Gedda to escape state police (from her first act of arson in <I>Amberlough</I> Cordelia has become the heart of the Geddan resistance).  Also swirling into the mix is Lilian DePaul, the Geddan’s press secretary in Porachis who’s being asked by her boss to put the moves on a deputy station head who might be turning double-agent.

There’s a lot going on but it comes on a very slow simmer.  Eventually everything collides, but it mostly gets sorted out over supper -- and that may sound like a terribly boring plot development, but for this novel it works out pretty well.  I think I may have enjoyed this one just a touch more than the first book and the ending suggests that the third book in the series should have some serious fireworks. This is turning out to be a pretty nice little series and I do recommend it if you don’t mind a fairly relaxed spy story.

I also took some time out to re-read Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell.  I remember really enjoying it the first time out and it’s just as fun on re-reading.  If you like fantasy novels and like rooting for the bad guys once in a while, this is your book.

Finally, on a long flight home, I got through Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers.  This is the third book in her Wayfayers series which started with A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  Ms. Chambers’s books are best described as sci-fi slice of life stories. There might be an odd emergency or two, but most characters go about their lives, interact with one another, and just generally be themselves.  This particular book focuses on the Exodus Fleet. When the Earth was finally done for, the last humans living there built dozens of generational arc ships and sent them out into space to find a new home. They eventually ran into aliens which changed the plans quite a bit, but essentially the Fleet has continued to wander through space and the humans there live a fairly comfortable life although they have to carefully manage their resources.  Many humans have left the Fleet to settle elsewhere but many have stayed and sometimes people return.

Anyway, the book covers a couple of months on-board the Fleet with a few “years later” chapters at the end to show where everyone ended up.  The most dramatic part of the book, the loss of an entire ship due to an accident happens “off-screen” and at the very beginning. Most of the book is just characters interacting with each other and making various life choices.  It’s all very...calming. It’s does grapple with some Big Ideas, but in a decidedly low-tech and low-drama sort of way. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but certainly worth checking out if you want something a bit different in your SF.

OK.  All caught up now. Hopefully I’ll be a little more punctual on future posts, although I am about to start in on a directing gig for Theatre@First that will probably prevent me from reading a ton.



Monday, May 14, 2018

10:11AM - Another Three-View


Rattled through a few more books and they weren't too bad.

First up: The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes. I'd seen this when it first came out about...five(!) years ago. Looked at the sample, wasn't blown away, but recently it was on offer for cheap so I took a flyer and decided to give it a whirl. Turned out to be quite a bit better than I remembered. You've got Loch, ex-Republic Scout and current thief looking to assemble a crew to sneak onto the flying capital of the Republic to reclaim her birthright. Things get a little complicated when she and her partner get captured and are forced to work on the underside of the capital cleaning the gems that keep it aloft. Loch engineers a break-out in short order and starts assembling a new crew to take another crack at the capital and the most secure vault modern magic can make.

Maybe I was a little burned out on fantasy caper novels when this first came out, but this is a really nice little take on the genre. In particular, Loch and her partners are active in their schemes instead of reactive and while there's a bit of "Loch is always one step ahead of you", it's doesn't entirely go her way and it never quite reaches Batman-levels of implausibility. The book sets a brisk, breezy pace and has fun with the various characters recruited to the cause. If you're looking for some easy beach reading this summer, you might want to check this out.

Next up, I read that book about walking the Keystone Pipeline last month and that prompted Amazon to suggest other long-hike books, including AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller. In 2003, Mr. Miller quit his job, left his family at home, and went on a walk from Georgia to Maine. The book talks about his experiences and includes photos of people and places he encountered on the way.

It's a pretty basic travel narrative and nothing especially stood out for me, but that's sort of the nature of thru-hiking in general, day after day of walking and sometimes you get a chance to stop and reflect or take in the wilderness around you. Still, it was interesting to read about the experiences of someone who's actually walked the trail end-to-end. The book was a perfectly good read, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it unless the subject matter really interested you as well.

Finally, I stumbled onto a real winner. Looking over the new releases this month, I came across Medusa Uploaded by Emily Davenport and the blurb grabbed me.  Oichi is a worm, a non-Executive member of the generation-ship Olympia who had been a servant to one of the Executive Clans, but then got tossed out an airlock for not putting out on demand.  Then she gets rescued and things get interesting.  Her savior is Medusa, an octopus-shaped AI companion designed to help humans collaborate with one another.  An important resource when colonizing an alien world but Medusa and her sisters were all presumed destroyed when Olympia's sister ship Titania blew up.  That explosion was no accident and Oichi and Medusa set about to break the Clan's stranglehold on the ship's population.  Part of that involves a plan to get the specialized implants needed to interface with Medusa-units into the heads of citizens and the other part involves quietly murdering Executives who stand in the way of that plan.

I enjoyed the hell out of this novel.  The characters are interesting, the dialog is pretty good, and the plot clips along and drags you along with it.  It is the first part in a duology? trilogy? but it ends at a pretty decent stopping point.  As you might expect, a fairly straight-forward plan is constantly being complicated with mysteries and surprises.  So there's lots to chew on as you read.  Well worth checking out and it name-drops a lot of classical music pieces which sent me to youtube for clips.  Always nice when a novel's enthusiasm's are catchy.  


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

3:04PM - Freebooters, Crows, and Hikers -- a Three-view


  Long time no blog.  Let's talk about what I've been reading:

  First up:  Bayou of Pigs  by Stewart Bell.  Back before the Civil War, there were a number of filibusters who traveled from the US to invade various Central American countries to take them over.  Most of these failed before they even left the states and the most successful of these filibusters, William Walker, only managed to seize control of Nicaragua for a few months before a coalition of Central American states (plus money from Vanderbilt) kicked him out.  After the Civil War this sort of thing died out...

  ...unitl 1981 when a guy named Mike Perdue decided that there was a lot of money to be made by invading Dominica and helping the recently deposed Prime Minister Patrick John get back into power.  There was also a lot of talk about restoring democracy to the island and using it as a base to launch further attacks against Grenada's newly formed pro-communist government, but what it really came down to was the opportunity to take over an island and make it into your own criminal haven.

  Perdue gathered together an extremely unlikely band of mercenaries and co-conspirators (including Canadian neo-nazis and Dominican Rastafarians), haggled around for money and supplies and then got his little invasion force on it's way.  As you might imagine, law enforcement stepped in and stopped the invasion before it started, but it was kind of a near-thing that anyone was paying attention to these guys.

  Although there's not much in the way of dramatic firefights or combat, the logistics of putting together an invasion (even the fairly inept logistical efforts of Mike and his crew) makes for a fascinating read.  If you've ever had an impossible dream...well, here are a few guys really going for it.  Their dream is crap and luckily they're not very good at realizing it, but there's some amazing chutzpah on display.

  Next up:  Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley.  Mr. Crowley has written a number of magical realist books over the years (Little, Big probably being the most famous) so I was interested to pick this up.  Here an unnamed narrator takes in a sickly crow and discovers that he and the crow are able to converse with each other -- not exactly telepathy but a combination of sound, gesture, and a bit of intuition.  This crow is named Dar Oakley and he's an Immortal Crow -- well, he dies quite a bit but he always re-incarnates and eventually remembers that he's Dar Oakley.

  The book is mostly stories Dar Oakley tells about his many adventures throughout history.  Mercifully, Dar isn't a Forrest Gump-like character who is always present at major historical events.  Dar has regular interactions with humans, some of whom understand him, some who don't.  Dar also has a number of encounters with other animals.  In a neat twist, crows can talk to other crows and have a limited ability to talk to ravens, but other birds/animals are generally incomprehensible to them.  Dar, being a Special Crow, can sometimes get around these limitations.

  The reason why Dar is a Special Crow is because he keeps getting involved in Ymr -- the world of humans which includes the afterlife (however it looks to the person Dar interacts with).  In Dar's first life, he befriends a young shaman and must help her reach the land of the dead to steal the secret of immortality.  He does so imperfectly and is left with this imperfect immortality.  Through his various incarnations, he keeps having interactions with humans seeking to pierce the veil and adventures beyond the veil.  This is a bit frustrating to him since a.) to crows and other animals Dead is Dead and this afterlife stuff is so much human nonsense and b.) getting tangled up in the human sphere has changed him (beyond the obvious immortality) and he's not sure if he likes it.

  The book was ok, but it didn't really grab me.  Like any biography, it doesn't follow a neat set of plot points to form a coherent narrative arc.  Obviously a bit of that happens here because it is a work of fiction, but it does sort of ramble a bit and hangs a little loose.  I really enjoyed a number of world-building bits around Crows and crow culture (like how crows define directions and other fictional bits like that), but overall it was a bit of a slow read for me.  

  Finally, I finished up:  Trespassing Across America:  One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland by Ken Ilgunas.

  A few years ago I started reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson where he was going to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail.  About a third (maybe even a quarter) of the way into the book, he decides to bail on hiking the trail and just drives to different points.  At that point I put the book down because if you're going to hike the Trail...hike the damn trail.

  In 2012, Ken Ilgunas got the idea to hike along the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta all the way down to Texas -- a distance of almost 2000 miles.  Although he'd done a little planning/training, he essentially decided to go for it, grabbed his stuff, taped down a broken toe, hitchhiked to Canada and then, cheeky bastard that he is, he walked the entire distance.  If for no other reason, that makes this book better than Bryson's.

 Luckily, Ilguans is a pretty good story teller.  In particular, he gets up close and personal with the Great Plains in a way that most people never will.  Because the pipeline cuts over private property almost the whole way, Ken jumps fences and crosses vast, rolling pastures.  His descriptions of the natural environment are spot on and I was instantly transported back to the wandering rambles of my youth.  He discusses the ranchers, preachers, cops, cows, dogs and other encounters along the way and tries to get at what the pipeline means to them.

  That communication between Ken and people living along the pipeline is pretty interesting.  It's often difficult to have a conversation with someone on the opposite side of a polarizing topic.  Ken himself often has trouble meeting people where they are, but he does recognize that even beyond partisan politics, some people see the pipeline as something good for them or their town.  For landowners along the route, there are direct cash payments and for many people on the Plains, that's probably enough to justify its existence and given the poverty in the region that's not an easily dismissed argument.  Because Ken depends a great deal on the people he encounters on his hike, he can't easily ignore their viewpoints and I think it really helps flesh out the nuances of the issue for people on the pipeline.

  I really enjoyed this book, mostly for the adventure and not the environmentalism, but to help understand what the pipeline means, you may want to use Google Maps to find Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.  Switch to the Satellite View and look a few miles north of the city.  The tar sands operations are easily visible and stretch for over 30 miles.  You can easily imagine that if/when the pipeline is built, the operation will continue to spread outwards and more and more of the deep green forest will turn into tan pits and black pools of wastewater and tailings. Seems a bit of a waste.

 Anyway, I liked the book and I think folks might find it interesting.



Thursday, February 1, 2018

10:04AM - Venting my spleen

A little over a month ago I got an MRI to figure out what was wrong with my back.  Turns out it was a slipped disc but also...

"...when we were reading the results of your MRI, we noticed that your spleen was bigger than normal" 

To which I thought, "Lady, have you seen me?  Everything is bigger than normal on me."

"This usually isn't a big deal, but we'd like you to get an ultrasound of your abdomen to confirm what the MRI is showing."

I looked it up and it's true, an enlarged spleen isn't usually a sign of anything bad, certainly not on its own.  Since the back was the more pressing issue, I put off the ultrasound until yesterday.

"Well, your spleen has this little extra lump of tissue but that's not a problem, some people have that and some don't and it's not a big deal.  Your spleen is a bit larger than normal, but given how tall you are that's probably fine too."

So all that rigmarole to tell me what I already knew and they couldn't even tell me it's gender.  (I mean, I'm assuming male, but it'd be nice to have confirmation).


ETA:  Although I was pretty sure everything was fine, I absolutely wanted to get the ultrasound to confirm that fact.  I deferred it about a month because the back pain was more important and nothing I was told/read suggested I'd die if I didn't get the ultrasound immediately, but I absolutely got things scheduled as soon as I could.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

11:44AM - Review Gnomon-clature


The first book I read in 2018 might very well be the best book I'll read in 2018.

That book is Gnomon by Nick Harkaway. I'm a bit of a fan of Mr. Harkaway ever since reading his first, amazing, book The Gone Away World, though I always considered his first book to be his best.  Well, that's no longer true.

Gnomon takes place in a near-future Britain where the government has been replaced by The System -- a massive neural network hooked up to a massive surveillance system.  Everything you do is watched, recorded, and analyzed by the System.  When decisions need to be made, the System selects an ad-hoc jury of citizens (sometimes with specialist members to answer questions) and they vote on the outcome.  When someone seems to be tending toward criminal behavior, or is suspected of having done so, they are interrogated -- their minds simply scanned and processed to determine guilt or innocence.  While all of this may seem a little creepy, to the citizens of Britain, the System is marvelous -- a perfectly transparent system that's always there keeping them safe and happy.

Meilikki Neith is a Witness Inspector, a police detective the System uses to do the legwork it can't and to investigate any odd crimes that require more than review of the CCTV footage.  She's called in to investigate the death of Diana Hunter -- a pleasantly crotchety old woman who willingly underwent interrogation and died on the table -- the first time that's ever happened.  When she goes to inspect Diana's house (with built in Faraday Cage to prevent System snooping), she's attacked by a strange person who was never seen entering or leaving the house -- which also shouldn't happen.

Neith tracks down suspects and questions them, but she also has access to Diana's mind, when Neith sleeps, she reviews/relives the interrogation as Diana.  Neith quickly discovers that Diana's memories aren't a simple auto-biography but contain the detailed histories of several other people:  a Greek financial whiz, an alchemist from antiquity, and an Ethiopian artist who regains his talent working on a project with his grand-daughter.  There's also a transhuman creature called Gnomon who should just be a memory but seems quite present in the real world as well.

Neith has a lot of questions and as she sifts through Diana's memories she arrives at the answer in the strangest way.

I don't want to get too much into this -- in part because the books is just loaded with delightful bits of prose and dialogue.  It's a book that encourages you to refer to a dictionary or wikipedia as it covers a range of interesting topics from technology to alchemy.  Obviously, it has a lot to say about the modern surveillance state, and touches on Britain's current nationalism fever, but it ranges far afield and all quite pleasantly too.

LIke most of Harkaway's novels, he leaves out a bunch of intriguing bits and pieces and then brings them all together in a fiery display of literary pyrotechnics.  The last quarter of the novel was a delight to read.

What more can I say?  Go out and give this book a spin, I think you'll really like it.


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

4:50PM - The Review of Reviews -- books read in 2017


  I haven't even compiled the list yet and I already know my reading rate was terrible this year.  I probably didn't even average out to a book a week.  Anyway, here's what I read:

  1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  2. The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith
  3. Silent Hall by N S Dolkart
  4. The Skill of Our Hands by Steven Brust and Skyler White
  5. Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
  6. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
  7. Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer
  8. The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
  9. Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald
  10. Off Rock by Kieran Shea
  11. The Sculpted Ship by K. M. O'Brien
  12. The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden
  13. Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Empire by Tom Wainwright
  14. Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome (audiobook)
  15. Fifth Ward: First Watch by Dale Lucas
  16. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  17. Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
  18. You Die When You Die by Angus Watson
  19. Age of Assassins by RJ Barker
  20. Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
  21. Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
  22. The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker
  23. Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone
  24. Barbary Station by R. E. Stearns
  Yeesh.  Not quite a book every two weeks.  Some of the slowdown is increased outdoor activities this year (cycling and hiking).  And some of it has been recent health issues (with a slipped disc it's hard to focus on sitting still and reading).  I'm hoping to get a better balance and get more read this year.  I have to say I was also largely disappointed by my selections this year.  There wasn't much that was terrible but only one or two items really stood out for me which is a bit unusual.  Usually when I go through these year-end lists, I'm reminded of titles I really enjoyed, but that wasn't the case here.  However, it wasn't a total loos.  Great books I read this year include:

  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders -- I'll be honest, it's not an easy read because of some stylistic choices the author made and that will turn a lot of folks off, but if you can wade through it, there's some amazing stuff going on in this book and it really sticks with you.

  Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill -- A wild West adventure in a post-apocalyptic world where robots have killed off just about everything.  The story grabs you from page one, has some deeper themes it addresses really well, and all in a self-contained package.  Great stuff.

  Angels of Ruin by Max Gladstone -- I mean, all of his books are great so it almost doesn't count.

  The Skill of Our Hands by Steven Brust and Skyler White -- a significant book in a year where lots of people are wondering what they can do to make a better world.

The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith -- An outstanding primer on political power and how it works or doesn't.

  On the plus side, I'm starting off the year with a new Nick Harkaway book and that's almost certainly a sign of good things to come.  Here's hoping I get it read before March.



Thursday, January 4, 2018

10:14AM - Final books of 2017


A little late, but here are the last two books I read through for 2017. The second one I mostly finished in 2018 but I started it in 2017 so it still counts.

First up, Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone. This is the sixth novel in his Craft Sequence of fantasy novels and, as usual, it was a great read.  Generally, each of the stories in the Craft Sequence is stand-alone (much appreciated) but this book pulls in a couple of major characters from previous novels.

The city of Alikand is a city sitting on a magical battle site that makes reality a bit fluid.  Currently, the Iskari have moved in and are enforcing a specific reality to keep people from going mental.  To Alikand comes Kai Pohala (the offshore god creator from Full Fathom Five) searching for her sister who has sent a cryptic message suggesting she's in trouble.  Kai meets with her sister Ley, but she's fishing for a huge infusion of cash for some secret art project of hers.  Kai rebuffs her and then things go sideways.  In the process, Kai meets up with Tara Abernathy who's working for the Iskari but not necessarily with them.  Together they have to unravel a complex mystery while Ley goes off to rob a train traveling in a god-wracked wasteland.

I mean, it's a Craft Sequence book.  I love this series and the writing remains top-notch.  Great characters, quote-worthy dialogue, and a crisp plot, what can I say?  Go read this guy's work.

Next up, Barbary Station by R. E. Stearns.  Iridian is an ex-military mechanical engineer.  Adda is a computer programmer with a specialization in Systems Operations.  Together they have student debt they'll never be able to pay off -- legally.  So they decide to turn to piracy.  The most infamous pirate in the Solar System is Captain Sloane operating out of Barbary Station.  To join his crew, the two hijack a colony ship and deliver it to the station.  But instead of being hailed as competent new crew members, they discover that the pirates are trapped on the station.  The station's AI has classified them as threats and is slowly hunting them down one by one.  If they want to get off the station (never mind join the crew), Iridian and Adda will have to figure out a way to shut down the station's security system.

This was a pretty good book, though it had a bit of difficulty establishing a few of the ground-rules of the setting early on.  It didn't do anything inconsistent with the setting, there were just some statements by characters that weren't entirely clear about how the world works.  These got cleared up later, but they broke up the flow of the narrative a bit.  I realize you don't (and shouldn't) dump all the world-info whenever it gets introduced for the first time, but I feel like it could've been smoother.  

Once you get past that, things start picking up.  In particular, Adda's efforts to try and carefully poke the AI to gain an understanding of its decision processes was pretty neat.  When Iridian is given a chance to be kick-ass, you get some nice action sequences.  The book is quite well self-contained and if there is a follow-on book, I think it'll be interesting to see them tackle an actual piracy job.

And that wraps up 2017.  Next up, the traditional year-end review

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

6:18PM - The Nomadic Running Review


  Got through a couple more books.

  First up, Nomadland by Jessica Bruder.  Ms. Bruder spins a journalistic investigation into a full-length book about how people (many of them older) are taking to the road and living in RVs, Campers, even modified Priuses.  You may have an image of happy retirees rolling about in their RV, but these folks are rolling around looking for work.  They host campsites on federal land, harvest sugar beets, do seasonal work at Amazon fulfillment centers and whatever other odd jobs need doing.  If you think it's odd that you have people in their 50's-60's-70's doing hard work like that and living out on the road...that's kinda the point of the book.  The Great Recession crushed the finances of a lot of baby boomers and their only way out was to radically downsize, get mobile and start hustling for work.

  It's not like these people weren't trying to save up for a retirement.  Many of them have a pretty solid resume.  A former executive at McDonald's is now working NASCAR concession stands. But age-ism is a thing and the social safety net that used to provide for retirement keeps getting chipped away.  The people Ms. Bruder interviews are all pretty positive, upbeat people, they have to be, but it still seems like an incredibly raw deal even if they do get to wander all over America.  Ms. Bruder plays a pretty even hand here -- she clearly admires the independence and ingenuity of these "houseless" folks, but she does dig into the reasons why people take to the road and the kinds of jobs they can get and that's not such a pretty picture.

  The book makes me fear for my own retirement.  So...I recommend it, but it's quietly alarming.

  Back to the safe embrace of fiction for me!

  Since I'm feeling apocalyptic, this seemed right up my alley:  The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker.  The basic premise is that the UK (and much of the northern hemisphere) catches a hail of asteroids and gets upended.  Our hero, Edgar, tries to save his family, but he's out when they're evacuated to the coast.  Now he and a few other odd survivors have to run from Edinburgh to Bristol, over 300 miles in a few weeks.  The ultimate couch to 5k.

  This book.  Man, I was sold on the premise, but Ed is such a complete neurotic misery.  If it'd just been "running, especially when you haven't done a lot of it, really takes it out of you", then fine.  I could've gone with pages and pages of trying to find another step in you, but on top of that, Ed continually bemoans his failure as a husband, father, man, and human being.  Ed doesn't like himself that much and there's not much growth in that direction either until near the very end after a long "runner's high" segment that didn't come off as well as I bet the author hoped.

  There's another weird thread in here a, "none more zealous than converts" kind of deal.  You know how this kind of book (usually nonfiction) goes -- the author's life is a mess and then a magic something gives them focus and turns their life around.  Obviously, it's all about the running here.  Again, it's a little weird that Ed doesn't have his life turned around by the magic of running much sooner, but he felt a bit like a Reverse Mary Sue, not an idealized version of the author, but more like his least-idealized version -- so that the Magic of Running changing this loser's life seems all the more impressive.

  The writing is pretty good which is why I struggled through to the end, but man, I'd have a hard time recommending it to other people.

  So...yeah.  Luckily, I've got the new Max Gladstone on deck so I'm hoping the next review has some more uplifting stuff.


Monday, September 18, 2017

7:37PM - Age of Rusty Reviews


   I managed to pick up the pace on my reading so it hasn't been a month since the last review!

  First up Age of Assassins by RJ Barker.  As I've said, I prefer my heroes a bit on the older side these days because I am and I enjoy reading about characters who aren't driven by teenage emotions.  You Die When You Die was a pretty good book but the teenaged protagonist was a chore to read sometimes.  That said, here we are with another book about a young teenager trying to figure out this grown-up thing.  This is complicated by the fact that he's being raised and trained by Merela, a professional assassin.

  The book's setting has a Dark Sun vibe, people can use magic but it draws on life force so if you want to do a big magical spell, you can, but a huge section of land will become barren and lifeless.  Luckily, you can reverse that.  Unluckily, you reverse it by spilling blood onto the "sourlands" magic leaves behind.  So there's a pogrom out for people talented in magic and pretty rough existence for everyone else.

  Girton, our hero, and his master infiltrate a castle on a mysterious mission.  The mysterious mission is a set-up.  The local queen needs an assassin to prevent another assassin from killing her son.  The queen has plans for her son to take over not just the local kingdom but to marry into the High King's family and take over from there.  The son is a jerk and not terribly popular and the grandson of the previously deposed king is around.  So there's intrigue aplenty.

  Girton, of course, is just an apprentice so he winds up doing a lot of grunt work and even when he finds the important clues, he doesn't realize it until Merela puts it together.  That's not to say he's stupid or incompetent (he doesn't kill without reason, but he does kill), just that he's a teenager and there's a lot he still doesn't know.  It's a bit like a Nero Wolfe mystery in which Archie does a ton of running around and then Nero just looks up from his chair and tells you the solution.

  All in all, it was an ok book.  I'm curious to try the next one in the series, but I wasn't super blown away by it.  Certainly a good source for plots in a LARP or RPG.

  Next I read Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill and it's probably one of the better books of fiction I've read this year.  Not terribly literary, but It really sucked me in and held my attention with good characters, dialog, world-building, pacing, and even the deeper themes it touches on.

  In this book, the robots rose up and killed all of mankind (and most of the life on the planet).  The story follows Brittle, a service robot who used to work for humans and now scours the Sea of Rust, the upper Midwest of the US where the freebots try and eke out a living.  Freebots?  Oh yes, because after the robot uprising, the giant mainframe AIs said "download yourself to our servers and let us use your body.  join the One. resistance is futile".  For the most part, resistance has been pretty futile and robots who don't want to be part of one of the major mainframes are out in places like the Sea of Rust trying to keep their heads down and keep a supply of spare parts handy.

  Brittle does a lot of this -- she follows malfunctioning bots out into the wild and when they shut down, she loots them for parts -- either parts she needs or parts she can trade to get what she wants.  Coming home from a successful mission, she gets ambushed.  She survives but gets injured in the process and now she needs to secure a new core for her model or she'll go mental as well.  About this time one of the mainframes makes a major push into the Sea of Rust.

  The book alternates a bit between Brittle's narrative about what's going on and Brittle describing the rise of the AIs and their overthrow of the humans.  That sometimes annoys me (it seems like your padding the page count), but it was pretty well done here.  Although the book plays out like a robot Western or Noir, there are quieter moments where robots probe interesting philosophical questions that lead you down very different and very similar paths when your a robot and not a biological being.  Oh, and yeah, Brittle is a she and why that is so is one of the interesting questions they deal with.

  It was a solid book and I highly recommend it.


Sunday, September 3, 2017

5:16PM - Four Reviews


  OK, let's knock out reviews of the books I've read lately:

  First up, Fifth Ward: First Watch by Dale Lucas.  This is a fantasy police procedural.  Rem wakes up in the drunk tank of Fifth Ward in the city of Yenara.  Assisting the watch in a jailhouse brawl gets Rem a spot on the Watch and a grumpy Dwarven partner named Torval.    As Rem learns how to walk the beat, the Watch starts investigating a series of disappearance and murders.

  The book makes for good beach reading. It's not terribly complex or deep and tends to tick off the boxes versus something innovating but for the most part it's well done and the characters are interesting.  The only real nit I have to pick is that there are a number of screamingly obvious Checkovian guns lying around which makes the ending a tad less unpredictable than you'd like.  Good filler reading.

  Next up we have Lincoln in the Bardo by George Suanders.  This was the ad hoc book club book for people who went out to visit my folks for the summer eclipse.  The historical fact is that after young Willie Lincoln died, Lincoln made return visits to the grave.  In Buddhist traditions the idea of the Bardo is a kind of limbo or purgatory where spirits are between this life and the next.  Together that forms the basis for this novel in which the inhabitants of Willie's graveyard try to help Willie move on and come to terms with their own existence (or non-existence).

  Fair warning -- the back half (back third?) of this book is amazing, but there is an unnecessarily steep climb to get their.  Saunders uses a formatting trick where everything is an excerpt.  This is fine when he's taking (what I believe are) actual excerpts from letters/books/diaries to discuss actual historical events but that carries through into the rest of the story.  Rather than having a block of dialog or a omniscient third-person narrator, the books builds on excerpts from each character's first person narrative.  If you've read Burroughs or DeLaney it's not nearly as bad as that, but it's not easy for most people to get into and will probably discourage a lot of casual readers. 

  Which is too bad, because once you get into the back half of the book, the plot gets extraordinary.  There's a lot of clever world-building on display and the characters are all well-drawn and interesting.  You're also left with a lot of interesting questions about the book and about topics large and small.  

  In the end, I think this book is too clever by half.  The formatting gimmick mostly seems like a gimmick and makes a great book a lot less readable.  If manage to deal with it, I'd be happy to talk with you about stuff in the book.

  Next we have Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.  I first heard about this book because I read an interview with Angus Deaton, one half of the team of Deaton-Case who published their study on "deaths of despair" -- economic inequality affecting middle-aged white people who then turn to drugs or suicide  to deal with their loss of the American Dream.  In the interview, Mr. Deaton had a lot of positive remarks on the book so I picked it up.

  Dreamland is two separate, but inter-twined stories.  On one side is the pharmaceutical industry that's interested in treating pain with this new pill called OxyContin and on the other side is a small group of Mexicans who all live in the small town of Xalisco in the state of Nayarit.  In the 90's, the pharma companies spent big bucks convincing doctors that pain was an important and vital part of patient treatment and that opioids weren't nearly as addictive as people claimed.  In Xalisco, young men were fed up with back-breaking, dead-end jobs that left them poorer than when they started so they were looking for new opportunities.  Some of them tried their hand at selling black tar heroin.  It was cheap to grow and make in Mexico and generally much more pure than the stuff being run in from overseas.

  So you wound up with a population being over-prescribed opioid medication and getting hooked on it.  When more Oxy wasn't enough, the Xalisco boys would show up with their black tar heroin which was more pure at a cheaper price.

  And it's all about convenience.  On the pharma side, doctors where encouraged to prescribe more and larger doses of oxy without a lot of thought towards other pain-relieving methods (the pills were cheap, multi-discipline pain-reduction techniques are more effective in the long run but up-front costs were too much for health insurance companies).  Eventually, this lead to the rise of pill mills in states without a lot of good oversight or regulation.  On the dealers' side, it was a series of independent groups from Xalisco who would turn up in a town, run a low-key operation where you called them up and they delivered right to you.  They kept the amount of drugs small, rotated their drivers out every few months, never used their own product, never restored to violence, and never carried weapons.  When their drivers were busted, they only did a short time in jail (if any) and were then kicked back to Mexico.  The whole system was decentralized, customer service oriented and almost completely invisible to most law enforcement agencies.  These two forces collided with each other and produced the opioid epidemic we see today that has gutted towns across the country (although flyover states have been most seriously affected).  

  The book is well written and moves deftly between these two narrative threads without losing the reader.  It was a fascinating look inside the drug industry (legal and illegal).  Strongly recommended if you want a good overview of how we got here with heroin and just a generally good look at how we do or don't deal with drugs.

  Finally, something a bit lighter in You Die When You Die by Angus Watson.  Imagine North American megafauna didn't all die out.  Imagine that a small group of Vikings showed up in North America, but didn't bring along any Old World diseases.  Finally, imagine that a local tribe put them under a sort of "benevolent quarantine" where they provided food and resources to the Vikings as long as they didn't leave a 10 mile perimeter around their landing site.  That's the basic set-up for this book. 

  Of course, you can't stay in that 10-mile perimeter very long and soon the local empress has a dream that the "mushroom people" will destroy the earth.  She dispatches an army to wipe out the Vikings.  A small band of them gets away and the Empress sends the Owlsa after them -- ten magically-enhanced women who will stop at nothing to destroy them.

  For the most part, I liked this book and there's a lot of neat world-building and a fair amount of actual research into the topics the author borrows from.  The real problem is that the main character, Finn, is a painfully stereotypical teenage boy and gratingly unsympathetic as a character.  Also, it very clearly is the start of a trilogy though it does find a halfway decent stopping point without a lot of dangling plot points.  It's not a bad book and if the premise intrigues, you'll probably like it.


4:51PM - Great Northern Review?


  I"m way behind on reviews of the stuff I've been reading lately so let's try to fix that up.   

  To start with, I finished off the audiobook of Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome.  This is the last in his Swallows and Amazons series of books about plucky British children having adventures in various English countryside locations.  I've now read/listened to all the books in the series except for Peter Duck and Missy Lee because those books are stories the children made up about wild adventures they'd like to have (so sort of an in-series fan fiction?).  I was more interested in their "real" adventures over their imaginary ones.

  So in this book, the Walkers, the Blacketts, and the Callums are in the North Sea along with Uncle Jim who's borrowed the boat they're sailing around in (and providing a modicum of adult supervision).  Near the end of the trip, they put into a small cove on an island in order to scrub and paint the hull before returning the boat to its owner.  While the older kids work on that, the younger ones go exploring on the island and Dick makes an interesting discovery, a nesting pair of Great Northerns (loons) which aren't supposed to be found in that part of the world.

  That information falls into the hands of a Mr. Jemmeling who collects birds and their eggs and is most interested in acquiring such a rare set of specimens for his collection.  Horrified, Dick and the rest of the kids put a desperate plan into play to allow Dick to get photographic proof of the birds and to throw Mr. Jemmerling off the scent.  Scottish highlanders also make an appearance.

  The book gets a bit of flack because Mr. Jemmerling has a gun and firearms are pretty unusual in these books.  But the gun is for hunting birds and no one is ever threatened by a weapon so I'm not sure how it ranks as a bigger problem than casual English racism that crops up in the books.  Overall, I thought the book was pretty good, but there were far too many adults involved.  These books work best for me, when it's mostly the children deciding what they want to do and then going to do it.  Too many adults (or "natives") tends to disrupt the kids' natural inquisitiveness.

  On balance, I really enjoy the Swallows and Amazon series.  As I mentioned earlier, casual English racism is probably the biggest stumbling block for recommending the series to young readers.  It's not a constant thing, but every so often it really flares up (notably in Secret Waters where smearing yourself with black mud to camouflage people).  It's really too bad because in a lot of other respects, the books are well ahead of their times.  There's almost always an even split between boys and girls and the girls have at least as much agency as the boys.  The interactions between various groups of kids (especially when they first meet) is handled quite well as is the internal life of various characters when they are focused on in the story.

  I really enjoyed the series and had a lot of fun with it.  It's a product of it's times but it's also probably one of the best products of it's time and worth looking into if you want some classic YA.



Tuesday, July 25, 2017

12:42PM - The Narconomic Prey of Reviews


  I am still reading books.  Let's get to it.

  First up:The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden.  This book started off really rocky for me, but picked up considerably by the end.  The setting is a near-future South Africa where people have personal robots and advanced genetic engineering to bring back some extinct species.  It also has an ancient African goddess who is looking to get her mojo back via blood and fear.  This mixture of sci-fi and fantasy is always a difficult sell with me.  As the book rolls forward, it leans more heavily into the fantasy side of things which I think is why the book piked up for me in the back half when it finally settled down.

  So yeah, ancient African goddess wants to disrupt humanity to re-ignite the age of the gods.  To do that, she's taking advantage of a genetics program to bring the local dik-dik population under control and the recent introduction of a new designer drug that gives people a glimpse into their divine nature.  Opposing her is a young girl who might be more creation than child, a young teen who can't quite say "I love you" to his boyfriend, and the young man's personal robot whose 1's and 0's are starting to turn into 2's.

  There's a lot of good world-building (both sci-fi and fantasy) and the characters are pretty well fleshed out.  While the book has a fairly serious plot, there's some really fun bits of dialog and humor.  I'm a little cranky about mixing genre's but I did enjoy the book and if you're less snobbish, you'll probably like it start to finish.  There's clearly some openings left for a sequel, but the book stands pretty solidly on it's own.

  Next, Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Empire by Tom Wainwright.  Mr. Wainwright is a journalist for the Economist magazine and he spent a number of months examining the drug trade as a business and what sorts of economic forces bear on it.  From fields of coca in Bolivia, poppies in Mexico, weed in Colorado, and designer drug labs in New Zealand, he looks at how drug cartels create, ship and sell their product.  He runs the numbers to show how the value of drugs increases along each step of the chain from growers to consumers and how the cartels maximize that value, both through violence and basic business management.

  He covers a lot of ground and at the end suggests how we might better spend our money in the fight against drugs.  Not surprisingly, like many people who've investigated drug trafficking, attacking the issue of demand (treating addicts and using public campaigns to prevent new ones) tends to produce a better return on investment than attacking the issue of supply (spraying fields, border security, and the like).  The solutions don't seem terribly new to me, but it was an interesting look at how criminal businesses operate and how they interact with each other.

  I also finished up the last book in the Swallows and Amazons series, but that's a separate post.


Monday, June 12, 2017

11:45AM - Reviews in Spaaace


  I'm clearly off my reading feed.  It's been over a month but I've only got two books to talk about.  I'm hoping summer travel plans will give me some downtime to help catch up my pace.

  Anyway, first up we have Off Rock by Kieran Shea.  This was sold to me as a space heist book and I guess it is, but it's a bit more like "the gang that couldn't shoot straight" kind of deal.

  Jimmy Vik works as a miner and while running some clean-up jobs on a planet about to be abandoned by the company he works for, he uncovers a small seam of gold.  He can easily get it out, but smuggling it back to Earth will take some doing.  He'll need the help of the local fixer and he has to keep his ex-girlfriend (and now his boss) off his tail.  Things go delightfully wrong form the beginning.

  The book was fine, but I really wanted "slick heist story" not "fiasco" so I was a little put out.  Also, the action pretty much stays confined to the mining ship/base where Jimmy works.  It was all ok, but nothing terribly special.  Also, I'm a little concerned that Mr. Shea thinks he can write female characters but can't quite.  Bit of an "uncanny valley" that's hard to describe.

  Following this was The Sculpted Ship by K. M. O'Brien.  This is clearly a self-published book and could've used one more professional editing pass.  There aren't any glaring spelling/grammatical errors and it's pretty well put together but there are a few paragraphs that are heavy paraphrases of a preceding one, leading me to think that one of the paragraphs was from a previous revision.

  Despite those few stumbles, the book is pretty decent.  Anailu Xindar is a young starship engineer who strikes out on her own.  She purchases a rare starship for cheap because a number of parts are missing and then goes about setting up her business and discovering more about her ship in the process.

 I  mentioned elsewhere that this is a sub-genre that's almost unique in science fiction -- adventures in small business ownership.  In most cases (as with this one) it's all about owning/operating a small trading vessel, but there are a few other types where the whole story is about the day-to-day operations to keep things running.  There are larger events going on and the book clearly wants to be the start of a series with all the foreshadowing it drops, but for the most part this is the simple story of a small-time cargo hauler.  I can't think of many genres that have this sort of motif.  Obviously private detectives have their business to run, but we don't get into the minute of that, it's just a simple reason for them to get involved in mysteries.  I think there might be a link to Horatio Alger-type stories, but I find it interesting that we don't see this style in other types of writing very often if at all.  I'm now imagining a whole genre of modern-day fiction explicitly about the small business experience which serves as a bit of a blueprint for people getting started in something.

  Anyway, the book is soothing, but never really goes anywhere and there's a lot of prep work for a sequel I'm not sure we'll see.  If there is one, I might pick it up but I'm in no hurry.


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