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Blue Gargantua's Journal

Monday, May 14, 2018

10:11AM - Another Three-View


Hi,

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.  

later
Tom

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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


Hey,

  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.

later
Tom


 


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).

later
Tom

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


Hi,

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.

later
Tom


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

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

 
Hi,

  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.

later
Tom


  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

10:14AM - Final books of 2017


Hey,

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
Tom

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

6:18PM - The Nomadic Running Review


Hi,

  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.

later
Tom

Monday, September 18, 2017

7:37PM - Age of Rusty Reviews


Hey,

   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.

later
Tom

Sunday, September 3, 2017

5:16PM - Four Reviews


Hey,

  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.

later
Tom

4:51PM - Great Northern Review?


Hey,

  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.

later
Tom


  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

12:42PM - The Narconomic Prey of Reviews


Hey,

  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.

later
Tom


Monday, June 12, 2017

11:45AM - Reviews in Spaaace


Hey,

  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.

later
Tom

Thursday, May 4, 2017

2:10PM - The Collapsing Luna Review

Hey,

For whatever reason my April reading has been dismal (of books anyway). But here's what I've read lately:

First up: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. Oddly, I've probably read more of Scalzi's blog than I have his fiction. No particular reason, just how it fell out.

Anyway, this book kicks off a new series and...it's really the opening book in a series. You've got an interstellar empire connected via a web of space-time anomalies called The Flow. It's nine month's travel time from Hub (the center of the empire) and End (the furthest planet away from Hub in both time and distance).

The Flow is fairly stable but Earth and one other planet have been lost when the Flow moved. Still, the Flow has been unchanged for several centuries so no one gives it much thought. Certainly not Cardinea who, thanks to an untimely accident, is about to be crowned Empress. A message from her father points her at a research station on End where a local scientist is mapping out the disturbances in the Flow. The numbers aren't good. The Flow will be going away slowly but steadily over the next few years. Humanity needs to get settled before the Flow (and vital interplanetary trade) cuts out. End happens to be one of the only planets in the Empire that easily supports life and will be one of the last to drop off the network so End really needs to ramp up for refugees...too bad End is the Empire's dumping ground and the political situation there is...fraught.

Anyway, that's little more than the back cover blurb and the book basically re-iterates all that, gets the characters introduced and shuttled to where they need to be and then the book is done. The writing was fine and it read well, but not much actually happens. I'm not in any particular hurry to pick up the next book in the series.

Next up is a sequel, Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald. This is a follow up to his book Luna: New Moon about a near future moon ruled by five familial corporations...well, four by the end of that first book, but enough family members survive that they can work on their various plans for survival or revenge.

One of the problems following a series (even a really good one) is that you never remember who half the characters are over a year later when you get the next book (oh Malazan Empire I can't quit you). It doesn't help that the families have a lot of arranged "marriages" (often more legal designation than anything else) so the guy with the Scottish last name is actually from the family originating from China or vice versa.

On the other hand, there's a wonderful kaleidoscope of human cultures on display in the book and mostly from countries that are fairly marginal now. Tons of details from various cultures jammed together in delightful juxtaposition. McDonald does a great job imagining thriving human cultures in a very hostile environment. In general the "moon-building" is wonderful.

This is a bit of a "bridge" novel. The Cortas have to get their act together to rebuild their business, other families have to react to newly formed power vacuums. Stuff happens but some of the most important action happens...not exactly off-screen, but you only see the results not what drove them. At any rate, the book feels like it's sorting things out for the big (and hopefully) final push in the next book.

Anyway, I did really like the book and I will probably pick up the next one in the series.

later
Tom

p.s. If you're reading this on LJ, I am probably going to turn off cross-posting at the end of the month. I may be deleting the LJ account entirely. You can find me on Dreamwidth at this username.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

9:50AM - Movie Nights

Hey,

I saw three pretty good movies last week so I want to mention them here:

First up Your Name which is a very popular anime movie in Japan which has finally gotten a wide release here in the States. I enjoy anime a fair amount although it gets a bit same-y to me (and yes, I know about Yuri on Ice and Silver Spoon). The trailers for this said "teen body swaps followed by gendered hilarity" and I wasn't terribly impressed, but every review I saw raved about it so I decided to take the plunge.

It definitely started out with the teen body swapping and hi-jinks, but at the halfway point it becomes a very different movie and it really starts earning its accolades. It handles one of the trickier elements of magical/sci-fi movies pretty well and the ending has this delightful tension right up to the last frame.

It's really one of the better RomComs you'll see this year, in part because it has a deeper bite than RomCom would suggest.

Next I saw Free Fire. It's a 90-minute movie of which 85 minutes are a gunfight in a warehouse. It's big, dumb, stupid, and a great deal of fun. The movie takes place in Boston in the 70's. Some IRA members are here to buy a bunch of guns from a South African hustler and his crew. They meet up in an abandoned warehouse to make the switch. Both sides are snarky and insulting to each other and then a couple of low-level mooks on both sides try to settle some personal business and everything goes south in a hurry.

The movie keeps adding complications to prolong the gun fight. Plot-driven ammo counts, people keep getting shot but only badly enough to hobble their movement leaving them free to keep spouting quotes, that suitcase full of money, a working phone ringing in an upper floor office (did we mention everyone's been crippled by gunfire?), and a few other surprises keep things in the mix. Although there are times where the fight gets a little muddy, I think those are deliberate choices to mimic the confusion at that moment. In general, they do a good job of laying out the space and showing where folks are in relation to each other and goodies they want to get.

Again, it's just a gunfight movie and that's about it. Don't ask about the plot because it doesn't want to answer those questions (or at least, it never wants to explain it's answers). But it's violent, mindless fun and I rather liked it.

Finally, we have Colossal which...here's the exchange I had afterwards:

Me: "It's the best giant-monster movie America has ever made."
Her: "What about Pacific Rim?"
Me: "OK, fine, Colossal is the thinking man's Pacific Rim."

I think that's pretty accurate. Gloria is a young writer with a drinking problem who gets kicked out of her boyfriend's swanky New York apartment, so she goes back upstate to her hometown and moves into a house her family owns. She still does a lot of drinking and shuffles home with an early morning hangover. Meanwhile, Seoul, South Korea, a giant monster appears out of nowhere, smashes up some buildings and then disappears into thin air.

These things seem unconnected, until Gloria realizes that the monster only appears when she walks through a playground on her morning trudge back to her place. A little more experimentation reveals that not only does it appear when she walks through the playground, it copies her movements exactly. So...she is the monster.

The trailer makes the movie look like a comedy and it is funny in a lot of places, but this movie gets pretty dark in a hurry. Nothing overtly violent, just a lot of toxic relationship stuff slowly bubbling up and making things more and more uncomfortable. Luckily, the protagonist is a protagonist and even when things are dark, you can see her fighting. The movie touches on a lot of big themes and even though giant monsters are some of the least subtle metaphors you can use in a movie, this one adds some great nuanced touches to it all.

In short, not a fun, entertaining romp, but an entertaining, thoughtful film. Well worth checking out.

later
Tom

Saturday, March 25, 2017

3:59PM - Far Future Little Dudes

Hey,

So a year ago I got really interested in Gates of Antares by Warlord Games. I liked the figures. I basically liked the games system it was built on (Bolt Action) so I picked up the starter box.

Then I read through it and I was reminded why sci-fi rulesets are so problematic for me. Each race uses a different technology (or a different application of the same technology) to do stuff. But in the crucible of war, especially between two forces of relatively equal technical sophistication, either one type of technology would turn out to be better (a laser gun is always better than an automatic rifle) forcing both sides to use the same tech or there'd be no functional difference between them (so both laser gun and automatic rifle would be the same stats-wise from the game's perspective). This means there are potential balance issues and, of course, you're locked into a particular manufacturer's minis (unless you proxy them). I dunno...I got it and then kinda lost interest.

But I had a pile of plastic and felt like the minis were interesting enough to paint up so over the past couple of months, I have been. Let's look at what I've done.

First up, we have the forces of the Ghar, vicious little goblin-like creatures that wrap themselves in powerful, slightly unstable battle suits and wade in for the kill. You get six the in the starter kit:


Ghar Battlesuits


These battle suits come in two configuration. You have the Scourer Cannon:


Ghar Battlesuit -- Scourer Cannon

\

Ghar Battlesuit -- Scourer Cannon 2


For close-in work, you've also got a group equipped with a plasma claw:


Ghar Battlesuit -- Plasma Claw


The fact that a power claw is a viable choice for a military force, kind of underscores my point about wonky sci-fi rulesets. I'm not saying that close combat won't be a feature of combat in the future, but no one's going to have major formations of guys equipped with a can opener. Maybe if you're fighting in a space unfriendly to projectiles such as a ship in space. But then, assuming the suit fits in the hallways, you're not likely to think a plasma-powered claw is a good idea either. Still...they look pretty cool, I do admit.

So that's the evil aliens. How about the humans?


Concord Strike Force


These are the basic Strike Troopers for the Concord (human) force. Each squad is composed of five guys that includes a leader and a heavy weapons trooper with plasma lance:

Concord Leader and Heavy Weapons Trooper

And three Strike Troopers:

Concord Strike Troopers

But because this is the far future, these squads get some robotic assistants (and this, by the way, is one of the things that really drew me to the game initially, most forces have or can have various helper drones). These primarily consist of Spotter Drones helping to find enemies and direct fire:

Concord Spotter Drones


Your squad can also pick up some heavier Combat Drones with a plasma cannon for a little more support:


Concord C3D1 Support Drones


Oh and the second one on the left has a subverter matrix to hijack enemy drones (and again, this cyber-war component was another draw to this game for me).

Anyway, a typical strike squad will have the troopers and their spotter drone along with a combat drone and its personal spotter drone:


Concord Strike Squad


A rather nice looking group even if I do say so myself.

I took this opportunity to try and practice a couple of different painting techniques. In particular, I normally use a dip shader to shade/shellac the mini with maybe a hint of highlighting after. Here, I used some colored shades (black and green) and then tried harder to do more highlighting afterwards. I need to work with this technique a bit more, but I am pleased at the way all these guys came out. 

The Ghar probably could've used a bit more highlighting to brighten them up a bit, but again, it all came out pretty well.

This was also the first time I tried painting figures on flight stands. Honestly, I should've white glued the drones to a stick, painted them on that and then transferred them to the clear flight stands, but I was feeling lazy and masking the flight stand worked out pretty well.

The biggest experiment was detailing the lenses. The Ghar suits in particular have those glowing blue plasma cores and a face full of lenses. Usually, I paint those kinds of things black (or one other color) and let it go at that. I still can't paint eyes to save my life. But this time, I wanted to give the lenses a shot and I'm really happy with the way it all turned out. I'm hoping to keep working on these detail bits and improving those a bit. It doesn't take much and it really makes the model pop.

Anyway, these guys are unlikely to hit the table (at least not in a game of Gate of Antares) but I'm glad I got them painted. I got to practice a few different techniques and I really do enjoy painting these little dudes even if I'm not a Golden Demon.

Next up: a blast from the past.

later
Tom


2:06PM - Surrendered Review

Hey,

So the other day I finished up Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer. This is the sequel to last year's Too Like Lightning which I rather enjoyed. So I was really looking forward to this.

Unfortunately, I think the series finally succumbed to the issues I noted in my review on the previous book. The book is a history of seven fateful days that changed the course of a human utopia. It is also, a lengthy mediation and discussion of Enlightenment-era thinking and personalities. The problem, as I noted in the previous book, is that the world-building and technology on display in the book mean that you can't just shoehorn 18th Century thinking as the power-behind-the-throne as it does here. The book's world, it's plot, and it's philosophical discourses all work at cross-purposes to one another and eventually you finally have to start asking questions the book doesn't really want to answer.

Let me be clear -- there is an enormous value to reading and understanding historical patterns of thought. I love history and I love listening to the thinking of people of the past. It's why I really enjoy Lapham's Quarterly for example. No matter what Big Topic you're thinking about, someone in the past has probably already had thoughts similar to yours and articulated it better, just as someone else probably was more articulate in tearing down that idea.

But those thoughts also existed in a certain context and you can't just wholesale dump them into a new context and expect everything to run smoothly (and yet, you can't also just blandly claim that the new context invalidates all the thinking of the past).

Anyway, with this book, people make a number of decisions that just don't quite hold up under scrutiny (outside of their Enlightenment context...maybe) and a couple of them are actively being assholes, but somehow the other major players shrug their shoulders and let them get away with it.

I dunno, there's a lot of really neat stuff in this book, but it's just doesn't fit together. Also, there'll be yet another book in the series. To it's credit, the book does end at a decent(ish) stopping point, but I'm in no hurry to pick up the next book in the sequence.

later
Tom

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

4:44PM - We'll have a gay old time getting the review back together...

Hey,

Couple more books and here's what I thought.

First up, Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly. The basic description of this book is a Le Carr spy novel written by Oscar Wilde. That's not strictly true, but it gives you a sense.

Amberlough is the capital city of the country that shares its name. Amberlough and three other countries are arranged in a loose confederation of states, but there's a growing right-wing movement to unify the country and impose a more repressive society -- something that corrupt, cosmopolitan, devil-may-care Amberlough isn't really in the mood for. Luckily, it's just a small, fringe group of Unity politicians. Then they start winning elections.

Cyril DePaul is a top agent for Amberlough's in-house spy agency. After a gruelling mission to a war-torn region, he currently has a cozy job keeping tabs on Amberlough's police force and helping them out from time to time. It's especially cozy because one of the most (if the most) notorious smuggler of illicit goods is Aristide Makricosta...who happens to be DePaul's lover.

Cyril gets assigned a field mission to find out how the Unity party is winning their elections. He uncovers some pretty big secrets and soon he's trying to figure out how to get Aristide and himself out of the country and far away from Unity zealots. As his schemes spin up, he recruits Cordelia Lehane, a dancer at the nightclub Aristide frequents. So begins a race against time to get people out of the city before Unity manages to seize power.

So this was a pretty good book. I only had two nits -- 1.) DePaul makes an important decision early on in the book that doesn't seem well motivated. They try and back-fill the rationale a bit later, but still, DePaul is a pretty experienced agent and it doesn't seem like his decision makes a lot of sense in that light. Still, it drives the book forward. 2.) Very clearly angling for a sequel and does a poor job of tying up the important loose ends at the end of the book.

That aside, the writing is good and clips right along and the worldbuilding is excellent. Amberlough is a mix of Steampunk Victorian London and Cabaret Berlin and there are lots of great little details that don't overwhelm. I'm particularly enamored of the slang in Amberlough. There's a lot of clever wordplay.

One example of that wordplay that didn't fully set in until after I read the book was the way in which cigarettes were referred to as "straights". In real life, cigarettes are sometimes called "nails" so I had that connotation in mind. Of course, two days after I read the book, I realized that cigarettes are also called "fags" and calling them "straights" in a book with gay themes was, I thought, pretty clever.

So yeah, a wobbly ending, but it's a fun book and well-worth checking out.

After that, I zipped right through Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. It's a fantasy novel, but it treats adventuring groups like rock stars.

So Clay "Slowhand" Cooper was the tank for a group called Saga known far and wide for their many exploits (as told by a series of bards who keep dying on the group). But Saga broke up and Clay got married and settled down and now he's happy being a town watchman. Then Golden Gabe shows up and begs Clay's help to "get the band back together again" so that they can go save Gabe's daughter currently on the far side of the world being besieged by a horde of monsters so vast they fill the landscape.

Reluctantly, Clay agrees and the two set off to find the other members. The wizard is selling potions to cure impotence, the assassin is king and the deadliest warrior alive has been imprisoned in stone. So...they've got a bit of convincing to do. Then they just have to cross hundreds of miles of treacherous forrest, cross a forbidding series of peaks and then shatter the monster horde and their leader to rescue Gabe's daughter.

Of course they do (you know how these books go), and the journey is absolutely worth the price of admission. Again, lots of great world-building on display here and again, no huge info-dumps to overwhelm readers. The magic system is never defined, but it never plays deus ex machina. The characters, if a bit comedic, do seem lived-in and they're a bit deeper than you might think.

If you like D&D fantasy and it's tropes, you'll probably really enjoy this one. Even if that's not your thing, it certainly makes for some great beach reading. The book leaves itself and opening for a sequel, but, quite honestly, the book is very stand-alone and I wouldn't care if there was a follow-up. I certainly would like to see more from Mr. Eames though.

later
Tom

Monday, February 20, 2017

5:41PM - The Skill of Our Reviews

Hey,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

later
Tom

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

7:52PM - Silent Review

Hey,

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

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

later
Tom

6:52PM - Dear Master of Assassins

Hey,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um...this game is awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

Just a really solid game and I highly recommend it.

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

later
Tom

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