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10th July 2014

5:23pm: Read: Calculated in Death, by J.D. Robb (2014-43)
"J.D. Robb" (Nora Roberts) continues her series of science-fiction police procedurals (which started out as also romance novels, but that aspect has died back to the occasional sex scene) with, by my count, #36.

It's the year 2060, and Eve Dallas, homicide lieutenant in the NYPSD, catches another case. A young mother of two has apparently been the victim of a mugging-gone-wrong, but subtle clues suggest that this isn't the real story. As Dallas and her usual supporting cast unravel the case (and others die), a tale of greed and pride is exposed. In the end, more than one perp must be caught without tipping off the others; as so often in the past, Dallas uses herself as bait to draw out a deadly killer.

The sexual violence that was common in the early books has, thankfully, gone by the wayside and the crimes motivated by other things. Dallas's supporting cast continues to be fascinating, though there are times when it seems as if Robb spends too much effort trying to work as many of them as possible into the novels, as if they were some kind of "Oz party."

But the puzzles remain interesting, the writing spare and open, and the plotting reasonably taut. As long as Robb keeps writing the books, I'll keep reading them.

9th July 2014

9:40am: Still coughing.
Nearly two weeks after first entering Beijing, its smog is still irritating my lungs.

More accurately: that smog started my Perpetual Cough. Something irritates my lungs, which causes me to cough. But when I cough, I don't just "kaff kaff"; I get these heaving spasmodic coughing fits which, yes, irritate my lungs. Which makes me cough. These things can last weeks (the record is a little over two months), during which I am unpleasant to be around. I took off from work yesterday, but can't today or tomorrow - too many meetings. J. is coughing too, but he doesn't have the spasms I do, thank the FSM.

On a more pleasant note, we're just about ready to get a new dog, probably a dachshund or dachshund-mix. We're going to go look at some candidates this weekend.

6th July 2014

9:05pm: China: A RambleCollapse )
8:08pm: Read: The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross (2014-42)
(No, the number isn't an error. I can't talk about #41 yet.)

This is the fourth book (there's a fifth out, in h/c) in Stross's "Laundry Files" series of horror-comedy-spy novels starring bureaucrat-turned-spy Bob Howard.

In this novel, Bob is seconded to the External Affairs department of the Laundry, and sent to oversee two external agents who are trying to infiltrate a suspicious evangelical cult in Colorado. Why is a cult in Colorado the Laundry's business? Because its leader, charismatic preacher Ray Schiller, has shown undue interest in Britain's PM.

Well, the evangelical cult is, of course, a front for people trying to raise Unspeakable Horrors from Other Dimensions ... but even that turns out to be a front of sorts, and who it's a front for could get very very ugly. This is a turning point in Bob's career and fans won't want to miss it.

1st July 2014

9:30pm: Read: The Human Division, by John Scalzi (2014-40)
In previous "Old Man's War" books, Earth has been turned somewhat against the Colonial Union by the realization that the CU has been "farming" earth for soldiers and colonists while deliberately keeping its technological advances from the people of the mother planet.

In this not-exactly-a-novel-but-more-planned-and-organized-than-a-fixup, which was written in "installments" each of which was designed to stand alone, the CU, finding itself suddenly short of soldiers, has been forced to turn to diplomacy, with Earth, with the independent alien worlds and the four-hundred-species Conclave, which is in turn considering wooing Earth to its cause.

This book is _mostly_ the tales of one particular diplomatic team over the course of one year of time.

During this year, they keep drawing, or being drawn to, assignments that show that someone is conspiring to sabotage (violently) the CU's diplomatic efforts.

By the book's end, we still don't know who "someone" is, so there's a definite lack of the closure that would give the whole thing the feeling of a novel. But I say that it's more than a fix-up because the whole was clearly through-planned, with the stories interacting with each other both forward and backward, by the latter of which I mean "a-ha" moments in later stories where you realize what something in an earlier story meant.

The writing is Scalzi's usual breezy style, third person in this case, full of witty observations and smart dialogue. This is spoiled somewhat by what an editor should have fixed: frequent infodumps in later stories that retell (and retell and retell...) things the attentive reader has learned in the earlier stories. This gets dull after a while, especially if you read the book in essentially one sitting on a long airplane ride, as I did.

So: A for effort, but B for execution.
9:16pm: Read: Walden (and other essays) by Henry David Thoreau (2014-39)
KSR's "Science in Washington" trilogy quotes liberally from Emerson and Thoreau, which put me in the mood to check out some of the original stuff, so here I am. I read this mostly in China, which was something of a surreal experience in itself, because Thoreau is very much a Rugged Individualist American Writer, and that is almost exactly what China isn't about. But I digress.

Walden is pretty much what you expect it to be: a bunch of ruminations and reminiscences by a guy living in a cabin by a lake in the woods in the 1840s. It's gorgeously written, and I see where a lot of turns of phrase I've seen before come from, but ... it didn't thrill me. This may be one of those things like Hesse's _Siddhartha_ that would've changed my life if I'd read it in my twenties, but not in midlife.

The volume I have has a varied selection of "other writings." Of these I chose to read the classic "Civil Disobedience," "Slavery in Massachusetts," and "A Plea for Captain John Brown."

The first of these shows how deep the roots of the Tea Party movement do go in American history, but also how deeply the modern Tea Party movement has distorted and poisoned those roots. It also contains the story of Thoreau's one night in jail - though not the famous line about "What are you doing out there, Waldo?"

The second is a vituperative screed on the cowardice of his fellow Massachusetts citizens for knuckling under to the Fugitive Slave Law, and contains the subtle but interesting suggestion that the Southern threat of "nullification" could have been used here.

The third was written while Brown was in jail awaiting execution for his leadership of the attack at Harper's Ferry. While the famous song would not be written for a little while, the burden of Thoreau's passionate argument is that Brown's truth does, indeed, go marching on, that his deeds would in the end do more to bring about the end of slavery in America than all the pamphleteering societies who took no personal risk; indeed, Thoreau draws some very pointed and specific parallels between Brown and Christ which are hard to ignore.

15th June 2014

9:27pm: Read: Overweight Sensation, by Mark Cohen (2014-38)
Subtitled, "The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman," that's exactly what it's about.

As for the life, it's less upbeat than Sherman's (apparently ghost-written) autobiography, _A Gift of Laughter_. It tells the life of a self-destructive man who could never be happy with what he had, and whose ill self-care ultimately led to his early demise (before his 49th birthday). It's well written and full of insights into what made Sherman who he was.

As for the comedy, there's a great deal of interesting analysis of why it worked, and the historical moment in which it worked, and what (especially later stuff) didn't work and why.

As a bonus, there is an appendix of lyrics to Sherman's parodies, many of which are completely new to me.
8:06am: Seen: Maleficent (2014)
No, it is not the tale of Sleeping Beauty, as told from the evil fairy's point of view. That is what the ads would have you believe, but it isn't.

Rather, it's a riff on the story of Sleeping Beauty, with large liberties taken for a good purpose.

It's the story of the fairy Maleficent. That much is true. As the story begins, Maleficent is decidedly ill-named (and no explanation is given): she's the most powerful of the fairies, the guardian of "the moors" from the hostile kingdom of human King Henry. But she is betrayed by her human love, and seeks revenge.

Maleficent in this film is a surprisingly complex and nuanced character. I can't tell you much about that without giving away major plot surprises, but Angelina Jolie handles it really well. I wish as much could be said for Elle Fanning, who plays Princess Aurora. She's a little better than adequate, but not much.

The other surprisingly good bit of acting comes from Sam Riley as Maleficent's crow, Diaval. No, he doesn't play the crow; there's a lot of transforming going on.

The special effects are just spectacular. The Moors really looks like a fairyland, and is done with the kind of joyous and occasionally silly explosion of creativity I associate with Labyrinth.

The first fifteen or twenty minutes and the last fifteen or twenty minutes are stunningly good. The rest of the movie is pretty good at making the transition from the one to the other.

If you can't tell, yes, I liked it.

12th June 2014

8:09pm: Read: Skin Game, by Jim Butcher (2014-37)
Wizard Harry Dresden, under pressure of events, "volunteered" to be the Winter Knight, which puts him at the service of Queen Mab. She in turn owes a favor to Nicodemus, easily the most evil person Dresden has ever encountered, and orders Dresden to work with Nicodemus ... to steal the Holy Grail from the vault of Hades himself.

Much treachery ensues. Skins of teeth are escaped by. Good guys get hurt. So do bad guys. And there is witty repartee. (There's always witty repartee in these things.)

I'd like to think I was getting tired of this series but, by gosh, this may be the best one he's done yet.

8th June 2014

8:19pm: Seen: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Okay, so in a terrible near-future dystopia ruled by the Sentinels (mutant-hunting robots), a group of mutants are making their last stand. They send Wolverine(Hugh Jackman)'s mind back into his body of 1973, hoping he can change history and prevent the mutant-human war.

The key point is a scientist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) who has invented the original, primitive Sentinels. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) attempted to assassinate him, got caught, and her DNA made the Sentinels powerhouses that can adapt to any mutant power.

Wolverine must get young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to unite to stop Mystique. It's a crazy story he's telling, but Professor X can verify it by reading his mind ... only he doesn't have his powers. And Magneto is in a beyond-maximum-security prison.

It's a race through and against time, and the only thing Wolverine has going for him is hope...

7th June 2014

1:01pm: Read: Jorkens Remembers Africa, by Lord Dunsany (2014-36)
Sometime ago NightShade Press collected all six books of Dunsany's "Jorkens" stories into three lovely hardbound volumes. I am reading the stories in between full-length books, as I did with the "Father Brown" stories. This is the second part of Volume I.

Mr. Joseph Jorkens, for those who don't know him, is a slightly-mysterious character who belongs to the Billiards Club, as does the unnamed narrator. Whatever the topic, Jorkens has a tale to tell, usually of his travels; and he will tell it if someone keeps him supplied with whiskey. Some (particularly his nemesis Terbut) doubt his veracity at times, but he has never been caught in a proven whopper.

Some of these tales include ancient curses, the stars and planets, revenge, and cannibals in full dinner dress. Perhaps my favorite, though, is "How Ryan Got Out of Russia," which is not even narrated by Jorkens, but by Ryan himself, as Jorkens's proof that his own tales are not THAT outlandish.

Droll and witty, Jorkens is probably not for everyone, and certainly I wouldn't advise anyone to read all three volumes at a go: they would become cloying. But at the steady pace I'm following, they are a delight.

6th June 2014

7:48am: Anniversaries...
75 years ago today, Judge Joseph Force Crater was declared legally dead.

70 years ago today, Operation Overlord landed at Normandy Beach.

And today would have been Jay Lake's fiftieth birthday. RIP.

5th June 2014

7:41am: A happy...
75th birthday to Bill Moyers and 70th birthday to Margaret Drabble.

(Now I feel like I should try to stretch this post out to exactly 100 words. But I won't.)

4th June 2014

8:02pm: Read: Sparrow Hill Road, by Seanan McGuire (2014-35)
Seanan McGuire is a local favorite, author of two series of urban fantasy books that (apparently) sell like mad (as well as some horror novels under the name Mira Grant). This is not part of either of those series, though it is loosely related to one of them.

In 1952, Rose Marshall was run off Sparrow Hill Road by a demon (not quite literally) driver named Bobby Cross, who feeds his own eternal youth with the souls of those he kills on the road. Somehow she escaped, and became a "hitcher" - a road ghost who wanders the road, hitching rides and occasionally acting as psychopomp for those freshly dead on the road. This book tells of her adventures on the road, not all of which involve her quest to repay Bobby Cross for the "favor."

It's actually not quite a novel, but a linked series of stories - something a bit more than a fix-up. I kept thinking it was Stephen King and Bruce Springsteen's love child.

The writing is clear and transparent, though a bit flat at times. Some of Rose's wisecracks (the tales are told in the first person) don't quite work. But she's an engaging character, an eternal sixteen-year-old, always on her way to the prom. If Ms. McGuire writes more stand-alone books, I shall certainly be interested, but I'm not interested enough to make a commitment to a series based on this.
7:46am: Anniversaries of Shame
75 years ago today, the M.S. St Louis, a ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from the Nazi regime, was turned away by the American government in Florida. Finding nowhere else to land, the ship was ultimately forced to return to Europe, where over two hundred of its passengers died in the Holocaust.

And 25 years ago, the Chinese government butchered over two hundred of its own people at Tiananmen Square.

2nd June 2014

8:53am: A note.
36 years ago today, Sheila committed to spending her life with me.

I remain amazed by and grateful for this.

31st May 2014

9:23am: Read: Beowulf, by J.R.R. Tolkien (2014-34)
As the posthumous publication of everything publishable by JRRT continues, we come to what - in another world - would have cemented or destroyed his professional reputation had it been published by him, within his lifetime. He was reputed to be "the" Beowulf scholar of his generation, but never published an "edition" (though he wrote ancillary matter for others').

This is not an "edition." It is a prose translation, with commentary, and, well, ancillary matter. Even so, it is likely to have some (perhaps significant) effect on Tolkien's (posthumous) professional reputation. At that level, I am unqualified to judge it.

As a reader...

I found the translation quite readable. It maintains a great deal of the syntax and poetic effects of the original (so far as I can tell), but avoids unnecessary use of obscure words, seeking the plain modern-English sense of the poetry.

The commentary is humongous, several times the size of the translation. It concentrates primarily on two things: (1) how certain words or passages should be construed, and (2) how to understand the poem in context of the culture in which it was written. Both present serious problems, and Tolkien's thought processes as he unravels them are occasionally fascinating. But it got to be a bit of a glut for me after a hundred-fifty pages or so, and I admit to occasional skimming after that.

The "ancillary matter" I referred to is several other tellings of parts of the Beowulf tale by JRRT. The first, "Sellic Spell," is a telling of the first part of Beowulf as it might be a fairy-story, and is quite amusing. The second consists of two versions of a "Lay" of Beowulf, which are good enough but not Tolkien's best poetry.

As with most of the posthumous Tolkien, this is decidedly not for everyone. But I enjoyed it, by and large.

27th May 2014

8:25am: A very happy 80th birthday...
...to Harlan Ellison.

24th May 2014

3:37pm: Read: The Atlantis Gene, by A.G. Riddle (2014-33)
This showed up on my recommendations from Amazon, but I didn't buy it - my wife did, because it showed up on hers too. And she read it and passed it on to me.

So.

It appears to be self-published, which by me is rarely a good sign. Amazon lists the publisher as "Modern Mythology," but there's no sign of such a publisher on the book itself - not on the cover or the copyright page - or on the Web.

But you know what? It ain't a bad book at all. There are some sloppinesses about it which I think a good editor could have fixed, but that's the worst of it.

It's a thriller, as indeed the title page proudly proclaims. The protagonists are more likeable (if not much more rounded) than those of many thrillers I've read (I'm looking at you, Dan Brown), and the prose is workmanlike and doesn't get in the way.

Kate Warner is a doctor researching a cure for autism in Jakarta. Her research station is raided by people who take two of her children. She is out to get them back.

David Vale is the chief at the Jakarta station of "The Clocktower," an international anti-terrorist organization. He's approached by a mysterious source who wants to give him some inside information about the Immari organization - which, it turns out, is who funds Kate's research.

The Jakarta station falls to the Immari, and David and Kate are thrown together in a series of adventures. Much is revealed about the Immari, who turn out to be, or claim to be, a millenia-old conspiracy to protect the human race even if it means killing most of us.

Protect us from what? From Atlanteans, of course. In 1917, the Immari discovered an Atlantean base in the water between the Pillars of Hercules. It was abandoned (or was it?) but what they learned scared them badly ... and there's another, much larger base in Antarctica (which, by the way, is where the book begins).

Oh, and the Immari were behind the Nazi regime, and the Holocaust was, at least partly, created to give them experimental subjects. Just thought you should know that. The Immari are definitely the bad guys in this.

All this, stated so baldly, sounds silly, or like a Robert Anton Wilson romp. It isn't; it's quite serious and it holds together. Somehow. The part about the Immari being millenia old doesn't seem, to me, to add much to the story; perhaps that will come clearer in the two sequels. I'll certainly read at least the first of these.

23rd May 2014

7:47am: Tolkien's Rotterdam Speech
A speech Tolkien made at a Rotterdam "Hobbit dinner" in 1958 (my natal year!) was recorded and will be released soon.
7:30am: Don't buy the liverwurst
For today is the twenty-third of May.

22nd May 2014

7:42am: Science Fiction in Real Life
Today is the 100th birthday of Sun Ra.

18th May 2014

6:57pm: Read: Who I Am, by Pete Townshend (2014-32)
Those who come to this book expecting lurid tales of sex, drugs, and the rock'n'roll life will be disappointed. Not because those things are not present - they are - but because they are not what the book is _about_. Rather, it is a memoir of a life Townshend has spent in conflict with the world, his friends, and especially himself, while yearning to be better than he is.

Townshend begins with his birth, and goes up to the time when the book was published - and, in the paperback edition, slightly beyond, in an afterword. What _I_ would have liked is more insight into some of the songs he's written (he does shed some serious light on a number of songs). I might also have enjoyed a deeper look into his creative processes.

But the book, again, isn't about those things. It's about Townshend's strings of successes and failures, how they (and he) destroyed his first marriage, and how he came to peace with who and what he is. There is no sugarcoating and very little self-justification.

Quite the best rock memoir I've read.

14th May 2014

7:33am: George Lucas is 70 today. Mark Zuckerberg is 30.
Both created something great and then f***ed it up.

13th May 2014

6:26pm: Read: Fury of the Seventh Son by Joseph Delaney (2014-31)
And so we come to an end.

Sort of.

This is the thirteenth and last book of the "Spooks/Last Apprentice" series. The servants of the Fiend have recaptured his head, and Tom Ward, last apprentice of Chippenden Spook John Gregory, must face the army of witches from far and nigh who wish to reunite it with his body. Tom has many powerful allies of his own, but he is lacking his dearest and most important ally - Alice Deane has, finally, gone over to the dark.

There is much action, many things promised in earlier books are paid off, and the question of the Fiend comes to a (more or less) satisfactory conclusion...but it ain't the end. Not really. Because, two books back, in "Slither," Delaney introduced a new threat which the Fiend's ending touches off. And so there will be a new series.

I honestly don't know if I want to follow that path. This one was long enough.

But the series, for what it is, is good, and ends on a high note (though one with warnings in it). For a YA series, it's pretty dark and full of complex themes of love, friendship, and betrayal. I do not regret this long path.
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