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 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.



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'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.



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.


I'm Helping!  Hooray for Zoidberg!

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:

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




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.



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.




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.  



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.