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21st July 2017

3:08pm: Read: A Wizard Alone, by Diane Duane (2017-35)
"Young Wizards" book 6.

Juanita Callahan and her sister Dairine are recovering from the death of their mother, and in the process are slacking off in both their schoolwork and their wizardly duties. But Nita begins to dream of someone trapped in very weird circumstances...

Kit Rodriguez, in the meanwhile, has been assigned to find Darryl McAllister, a young wizard who has been been listed as "on Ordeal" for three months. Enlisting the aid of his dog Pancho (who has somehow picked up the ability to walk the worlds), he learns that Darryl is autistic. Entering Darryl's mind, he finds Darryl locked in a series of puzzle-worlds which trap (an aspect of) the Lone Power in his mind - but at the cost of his own not leaving.

Darryl is a very powerful and special wizard, an "abdal" who is a conduit for power from The One (who rules the Powers That Be) into the world; but he must not be told of this, or he will lose that power and the Lone One will ravage his mind...

20th July 2017

5:09pm: Read: With A Single Step, by Joe Oakes (2017-34)
There is no way I can even pretend to be objective about this book, because the author is my father.

In the early '90s, he began a project which would take him several years, cost him significant money, and give him memories to last his lifetime; in _With A Single Step_ he shares those memories of his non-motorized circumnavigation of the Earth - the Northern Hemisphere, to be precise.

He didn't do it all at once, nor in strict sequence, but he put together the legs that went around the world. Yes, he used motorized transportation to get to the legs, but they joined up (more or less), and he did it.

It began with running across Siberia, during the Soviet era. In the text, Dad refers to it as "the chance of a lifetime," and it does indeed seem to have been just that. A couple of Russian promoters (who turned out to be, shall we say, more than a little shady) had put together an event where runners from a variety of countries would start at Lake Baikal and follow the train right-of-way to Irkutsk. The Soviet government had their own reasons for wanting to expose Siberia a bit more to the outside world at this point.

This caused Dad, who had dreamed of this for years, to begin assembling, in his head, plans to make the around-the-world sort-of-event happen. Over the next four years, he ran, biked, swam, kayaked, skiied, sailed, and mushed in a series of personally-designed events that would, with the Siberian event, amount to the planned circumnavigation. In a few cases, he moved links north or south - for example, having run across the United States, he began his sail across the Atlantic considerably south of the US.

He broke only a few laws along the way, mostly involving questionable or outright illegal entry into Country X for himself, members of his team, or both. The funniest of these, to my mind, was his sneaking a Russian citizen, who only had a visa for the United States, into Canada; the most dangerous was sneaking into militarized Russian territory to swim from Big Diomede Island to Little Diomede Island in the Bering strait.

One of the things that struck me as I read this was how damned lucky he had to be to do this at all. I'm not talking about the successful business career he'd retired from (he was around 60 during the time frame of this book), but things falling into place, people being available, *things* being available, at the right time in the right place. This is not to denigrate his planning; he thought things through carefully with the information available to him. But there is always information *not* available to someone planning such a feat; and things change, sometimes rapidly.

Another thing that struck me, and it's clear that Dad intended it to strike people, is that people around the world are generally decent and friendly if you give them the chance to be. There are bad people, and many of them have power, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Dad writes in a breezy style that suits the anecdotal nature of the story: it's like having someone (the Ancient Mariner, perhaps...?) grab you by the hand and say, "Let me tell you a story."

And that is what Papa Joe does best.
5:03pm: Read: The Wizard's Dilemma, by Diane Duane (2017-33)
Young wizard Nita Callahan has faced death several times. But now she must face it in a new way: Nita's mother has an aggressive, advanced form of cancer, for which the treatment plan is essentially "write your will."

But Nita isn't going to give up that easily. Her wizard's manual gives no answers, so she will find one herself. She travels to strange pocket universes to gain the skills she thinks she needs, meeting fellow wizards and the Transcendent Pig.

But is it enough? If not, she is prepared to deal with the Lone Power...
4:50pm: Read: A Wizard Abroad, by Diane Duane (2017-32)
Book 4 of the "Young Wizards" series.

Nita Callahan, wizard, has a problem. Her parents have decided that she is spending too much time with her best friend and wizarding partner Christopher "Kit" Rodriguez, so they are going to send her to Ireland for the rest of the summer, where she will stay with her father's sister Annie. Worse, she has been forbidden to teleport home to visit Kit.

Naturally, she quickly finds herself in a wizardly muddle. The locals have secrets, her aunt has a secret, and Ireland itself has a _big_ secret ... one which may allow the Lone Power to tear the island apart. Nita must not only hobnob with her fellow wizards, but join them in a desparate battle to save Ireland and, possibly, the world...
4:36pm: Read: High Wizardry, by Diane Duane (2017-31)
Book 3 of the "Young Wizards" series.

To recap: In books 1 and 2 of this series, Juanita Callahan and Christopher Rodriguez, junior-high-school students, acquired manuals that teach wizardry, became wizards, underwent an Ordeal, and saved the world twice (both times at great cost) from the "Lone Power," the Being that gave the multiverse entropy and death. Along the way, they gave the Lone Power an option that It has not had before - the option to repent and rejoin the other Powers that Be. In book 2, Nita's family learned about her wizardry; her sister Dairine was, to put it mildly, jealous.

In this volume, Dari acquires a manual of her own - in the form of a laptop computer. The first thing she does with it is go to Mars, followed by a trip across the Local Cluster, pursued by the Lone Power's agents and wreaking havoc as she goes, and playing godmother to a new species of silicon-based life. Nita and Kit must follow her and bring her home ... but this is _her_Ordeal, and they can't really interfere...even when the Lone Power _does_.

As before, Duane writes cleanly and creates fascinating characters. Where the first two volumes were entirely from Nita's point of view, here she spreads it to Darine, who is very different and sees the world differently. There is humor and seriousness, and an unexpected, but logical and satisfying, denouement.

18th July 2017

4:50pm: Read: Deep Wizardry, by Diane Duane (2017-30)
Second in the "Young Wizards" series.

Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez, junior high school wizards, are vacationing with Nita's parents (and sister Dairine) on (if I recall correctly) the Connecticut shore. They befriend S'reee, a humpback whale wizard, who tells them of an upcoming ritual: the Song of the Twelve, which keeps the Lone Power from ruling the seas of Earth.

The Song is a reenactment of an ancient story: The Twelve are the Lone Power Itself, the Master Shark, and ten whales. The Lone Power tempts the whales to choose death over life, and the tenth whale, the Silent Lord, makes a choice of self-sacrifice to keep It at bay. This must be performed periodically or the Lone Power will be unbound in the seas, beginning with a huge volcanic eruption.

And It nearly is now; things are getting very bad in the seas, for reasons not unrelated to pollution, overfishing, etc. Nita and Kit become whales to learn more; Nita winds up volunteering to play the Silent Lord in the Song of the Twelve, not knowing the consequences (which involve Ed'Rashekaresket, the Master Shark, whom Nita more-or-less befriends)...

I don't think this was quite as good as the first, but it has its definite moments, and some fine humor in places.
4:36pm: Read: So You Want To Be A Wizard, by Diane Duane (2017-29)
This is not a Harry Potter clone of any kind. For one thing, it ain't much like Harry Potter despite being about young wizards. More importantly, it came out originally in 1983. (It was revised in 2012, to bring some references up to date and straighten out the timeline of what is now a ten book or so series.)

Juanita Callahan, a junior high school student and book nerd, is hiding from her school bully nemesis in the library, when her hand comes upon a book she hasn't seen before - a book that appears to be one of a "so you want to be" series, but is about wizardry. Perusing it she quickly learns that it is serious, but that to become a wizard you must take a very serious oath to stand for life and light.

On a whim, Nita takes the oath, and strange things begin to happen to her. Soon she meets Christopher "Kit" Rodriguez, another student at her school, who has also found a wizard's manual. They become close friends with each other and a sentient white hole named Fred.

Fred brings some alarming news. A book he calls _The Naming of the Lights_ has gone missing.

The three of them, for reasons too complex to go into, wind up in an alternate-universe Manhattan, a dark and evil place with vicious, sentient cars, elevators, and more. Here they must face the Lone Power, the being who created entropy and death and introduced them into the multiverse.

The ending, while positive, is not what I would call "happy;" a heavy price is paid for a victory that is in some ways ambiguous. The writing is simple enough, as you would expect from a YA book, but clean and pleasant. Nita and Kit are enjoyable characters, which is a good thing if you're going to write a long series.

There are some fairly serious themes, including the necessity to make good (as opposed to evil) choices, the importance of choice in general, and sympathy for others - even, if necessary, the Devil (so to speak).
3:07pm: Baltic Cruise Part II
Click only if ye dare.Collapse )

17th July 2017

3:24pm: Where We Were & What We Did, sort of
6/28
----
KLM flight to Amsterdam Schipole. The "enhanced economy" seating was well worth its price, especially for 6'3" Jamie. The quality of the seats has improved since 2015 and Sheila's "upholstered rocks."

If you want to read the rest, click here.Collapse )

25th June 2017

5:17pm: Read: Zone to Win, by Geoffrey A. Moore (2017-28)
A business book - a _good_ business book - consists (primarily; there are some with additional ingredients) of three things: common sense, data, and a framework that provides a new focus on the first to and proposes a plan of action.

Moore is a bit short on the data, except in the final chapter, but his common sense is so sensible, and the framework sufficiently compelling, that this is in fact a good business book.

This is not a book for every business. Rather it is specific to businesses whose industry is being, or has a real potential to be, disrupted. Being the big dog in such a business has advantages and disadvantages: the advantages are clear: name recognition, business relationships, and inertia; the disadvantages are also clear: you are a target for the other dogs ... and inertia. Inertia is good because it will carry you for a while while someone else disrupts your industry; it is bad because it makes it hard to do the disrupting, or to respond properly when disruption comes from outside.

Moore suggests dividing your business priorities into four "zones."

The first zone, the "performance zone," is where - except for a complete start-up - most of your money comes from. It is your existing products, relationships, and distribution channels.

In the "productivity zone" are the programs and systems which, while they don't directly produce revenue, support the performance zone and make the revenue it produces profitable. Moore suggests that the activities of the productivity zone should be considered largely as _programs_ and _systems_. Systems are continuous and should be funded by corporate; programs should be funded by the entities in the performance zone which expect to use and benefit from them. The productivity zone covers regulatory compliance, efficiency ("doing things right"), and effectiveness ("doing the right things").

The "incubation zone" is the most interesting zone, to me. It is the development area for new products and services. Significantly, these products and services should not be owned by the performance zone; rather, they should be owned by "independent operating units," each with one initiative, and the goal of each IOU is to prove that its initiative is, first, doable, secondly, potentially profitable, and thirdly, scalable to be a major revenue stream for the larger company. Incubation zone initiatives may be cut off sharp if they fail in any of these things.

Finally, there is the "transformation zone," where disruption really happens. To be the disruptor, you take one - only one! - of the incubating initiatives and fund it fully, with the intention of scaling it quickly so that it becomes a major revenue stream (at least 10% of corporate revenue). This should not happen more than once in a decade or so, and when it does, it becomes the company's #1, make-or-break, priority.

When the transformation zone is activated, the rest of the incubation zone gets shortchanged. Initiatives may be spun off as separate companies, sold to other companies, or simply stopped.

What if your company is not the disruptor but the disruptee? This can happen, and then you have to play defense. The incubation zone may be the key here, as one or more initiatives may be grafted onto an existing product/service line to neutralize at least some of the disruptor's advantage. The goal is not to be "best in class," but to be "good enough" to compete, with the expectation that your existing customers will prefer to stay with the known entity. Having neutralized, you optimize your products/services and their positioning. Finally, you seek to differentiate your product as something special, not a me-too to the disruptor.

The final chapter of the book is in some ways the most interesting, a pair of case studies of how Salesforce and Microsoft have used some of these principles, strategies, and tactics - Salesforce on offense and Microsoft on defense. Salesforce's Marc Benioff called Moore in to consult twice; it is not clear whether Microsoft did or not, but the principles seem valid in each case.

23rd June 2017

2:14pm: Read: Bill Bruford, the Autobiography (2017-27)
This is, quite possibly, the best autobio I have read by a popular musician. The only one that competes with it is the _Real Frank Zappa Book_. Like FZ's book, Bruford's focusses less on the details of his life and recordings and more on the things that interest and occupy him: which are _quite_ different from those that occupied the late Zappa's peculiar mind.

Bruford meanders back and forth along a vaguely-chronological path from his first public appearance at 14 to his retirement from public performance at 59, with stops at Yes and King Crimson, Genesis and Earthworks, a path that led from solo practice to rock to progressive rock to electric rock to jazz - with, again, meanders back and forth between them (as when the not-quite-newly-minted jazz drummer returned to play with the "double-trio" version of King Crimson in the mid-'90s). He comments a little on the personalities he's worked with, but this is no dish-o-rama; his colleagues are treated, each and all, with respect. Perhaps the closest thing to a snark in the book is this comment on guitarist Robert Fripp: "On a good night, the seated man appeared unhappy about something, and on a bad night unhappy about everything."

What the book is chock full of is discourses on the musical industry; on the meaning of music in itself, in commerce, in society, and to individuals; on the contrasted working lives of rock and jazz musicians; and on what rhythm is, where it comes from, and how it works.

Even if you have no interest in Bruford's music, either in rock or in jazz, this is a fascinating read.

21st June 2017

9:06am: And, yes, get off my lawn.
Kids don't realize how easy they got it these days with all this free internet porn. In my day, we had to go out and find someone to fuck.

15th June 2017

5:18pm: Reread: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (2017-26)
I'm not doing a lot of rereading lately, but when the office book club picked this one I had no hesitation about pulling it out for a third or fourth time through. It is not only a comic masterpiece; it is a book of notable pith and wisdom.

The basic concept is simple enough. The Antichrist is born and, in an Omen-like switcheroo, manages to be substituted not once but twice, leaving the Powers of Darkness thinking that a perfectly ordinary baby being raised by the American Cultural Attaché in Britain is the Son of Satan, while the actual Antichrist has a happy, normal childhood in the little town of Lower Tadfield.

The main viewpoint characters are an angel with the flaming sword, and a serpent demon, both from the beginning bit of Genesis. They've spent the last six thousand years or so on Earth and gone rather native.

Lesser viewpoint characters include Witchfinder-Private Newton Pulsifer, modern witch Anathema Device, and the star of our show, Adam Young, the misplaced Antichrist.

They are all, even the demon Crowley, rather nice people trying to do their jobs and get by.

But there is another character, not actually present in the story, whose long shadow covers all the action: Agnes Nutter, a witch and psychic of the 1600s, was not at all a nice person, and indeed, when burnt at the stake by one of Newton Pulsifer's ancestors, managed to take the entire village with her. She foresaw all that was to happen, and wrote it down in The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, prophecies which, while true, require a bit of deciphering. Her descendants right down to Anathema have been doing this ever since, and done all right by it, for it turns out to be a book of good advice specifically for them.

There are also some other unpleasant characters, like the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse and their hangers-on, but listing characters will get us nowhere.

The story proper, after some preluding, begins eleven years after the abovementioned switcheroo, when the Antichrist is expected to come into his power and bring about Armageddon. Crowley and Aziraphale - the angel - are at the Cultural Attaché's son's birthday party, where they witness the failure of anything untoward (or, from Crowley's point of view, toward) to happen. Meanwhile, a hellhound comes to serve Adam Young, who has been dreaming of a dog; because he must serve the Antichrist, the hellhound becomes that dog, a small purebred mongrel named Dog.

And so on. It is very much a comedy of errors, but also a comedy of joy, one celebrating the basic human-ness of humanity, by two authors whose separate works have made it clear that they both do, indeed, love people as they are. Gaiman's odd erudition blends wonderfully with Pratchett's wonky humor to produce something that is, at least, the sum of their massive talents if not, indeed, greater than that.

11th June 2017

9:47am: Read: Assassin's Fate, by Robin Hobb (2017-25)
I'm not sure it's possible to convey how much I enjoyed this book without giving the wrong impression. It isn't a work of Hie Arte or anything; it's just a really good adventure story, and the end of a really long adventure story, with the satisfaction of things that began volumes ago coming to a neat and logical conclusion.

And when I say "volumes ago" I don't just mean this trilogy. This is the third trilogy about FitzChivalry Farseer, which together comprise his entire life, but there are other series set in this world, and they all receive their final working-out in this long (837 pg) volume. We get here not only the fates of Fitz and the Fool, but also those of the Liveships, the dragons, the Bingtown Traders, and the people of the Rain Wilds - plus the fate of Clerres, the fortress whose Servants started this whole mess.

There are, in this world, White Prophets, who see in dreams the path the world should take. Left free, they will, through another person called their Catalyst, influence the world into that path. The Fool is the White Prophet of his generation, and Fitz is his Catalyst...

The Servants of Clerres hoard White Prophets and force them to reveal their dreams. Over thousands of years they have built up a library of possible futures - and they use it for their own benefit. They are cruel and selfish. In the first volume of this trilogy, they send an emissary who reunites Fitz with a tortured and broken (by them) Fool, and kidnaps Fitz's daughter, Bee, whom they believe to be a special character of prophecy called the Unexpected Son. (Yeah...) Fitz starts a desperate mission to rescue her; the Fool wants Clerres destroyed.

That first volume was a little slow. The second volume picked up the pace noticeably. This is appropriate, as Hobbes's "trilogies" are each really one monstrously long novel. Read that way, it's a slow build to a huge climax, plus a denouement in which nobody has a _really_ happy ending. Bittersweet's the word here.

The primary characters - Fitz, the Fool, and Fitz's (or, by some largely-unexplained mechanism, _their_) daughter Bee - are well delineated, engaging, and fun to be around. The villains are villainous, in different ways. The spear-carriers are sufficiently developed to carry their spears in appropriately differentiated ways.

But, as always, it's the style - particularly the voice of the narrators (Fitz and Bee) - that really carries this book. Fitz's voice is slightly altered here for reasons that make story sense. Bee's is perhaps a bit mature for her years, but given who she is and what she has gone through, this is not inappropriate.

What can I say in the way of recommendation? If you've read the predecessors, by all means read this. If not, don't start here.

4th June 2017

7:52pm: Seen: Deadpool (2016)
Put forth as a film of mirth, mayhem, and bad language, _Deadpool_ is all that and more, the "more" being a great bit part for Leslie Uggams. A sequel became inevitable when it made more than double its budget on its opening weekend and doubled that again in the weeks that followed.

Oddly, this does not seem to me to be a bad thing.

_Deadpool_ is clearly _not_ a movie to take kids to. It is raunchy, violent, and, yes, full of foul language. It's also difficult to summarize, not because the plot is terribly complex, but because it's told in such a weirdly asequential and meta way that almost any summary will include spoilers.

So, spoilers ahead.

Wade Williams (Ryan Reynolds), an ex-Special Forces soldier now working as a mercenary, falls in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). They agree to marry ... then Wade discovers that he has late-stage lymphatic cancer and is doooooomed.

Wanting to save Vanessa from dealing with him in the dying stages, Wade volunteers for a secret program that promises not only to cure him, but to make a superhero of him. The program turns out to be the sadistic program of Ajax/Francis (Ed Skrein), who is making supermercenaries with control devices.

Ajax makes a mistake and Wade, now mutated, escapes, at the cost of great personal pain. The mutation has had two effects: it has hideously scarred his entire body, including his face, and given him effective immortality as he can regenerate quickly from any illness or wound - though they are still as painful for him as for anyone else. It isn't as fast as, say, Wolverine's healing: at one point he cuts off his hand to escape, and it takes him several hours to grow it back.

Wade, now the supermercenary Deadpool, sets out to avenge himself on Ajax and force him to give him a normal face again. Which is where we come in, and as good a point as any to stop summarizing.

Deadpool is ruthless, with a morbid sense of humor about what he does. He is also apparently aware of us, the audience, and directly addresses us repeatedly throughout the movie.

It's a weirdly romantic love story, a rather gruesome horror story, and definitely *not* a superhero movie (though two superheroes do appear in it): rather, a super-anti-hero movie. I enjoyed it and will doubtless enjoy the sequel when it appears.
7:31pm: Seen: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
No, it's not quite as good as the first one. And a little more offensive in its use of language, etc. But it is a rollicking good fun time.

The opening sequence is one of the funniest things I've seen in quite a while: the Guardians take on a monster in the background, while in the foreground baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dances and runs around, constantly in danger but almost never noticing. It's also the funniest thing in the whole movie...not that the movie is otherwise UN-funny, but it never quite catches that vibe again.

The writers do a surprisingly good job of weaving several different plot threads into something resembling coherency; indeed the only thing that's incoherent, to my mind, is the climactic battle. And even that is coherent in the sense that you can follow it: it's only incoherent in that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The theme of the movie is family. Peter "Starlord" Quill (Chris Pratt) has some serious daddy issues, and they are in the forefront of the plot as his father, Ego (Kurt Russell - and for the Marvel fans, yes, it's *that* Ego) comes to get him. They bond as Ego tells his son why he left Peter's mother Meredith (Laura Haddock).

Meanwhile, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) gets the whole group in trouble by stealing some *very* valuable batteries; and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still out to kill Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and then Thanos (not actually in this picture).

A major villain is destroyed; Peter's daddy issues are, if not resolved, at least definitely processed; at least one new member joins the family that is the Guardians; and hints of things to come show up in the several post-movie scenes that dot the end credits. A good time was had by all, except maybe Yondu (Michael Rooker), the Ravager who raised Peter...

22nd May 2017

7:33pm: Read: Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer (2017-24)
"The world is broken and I don't know how to fix it." - from Borne's journal.

****

Jeff VanderMeer is America's closest answer to China Mieville, a crafter of weird new stuff (I won't hang the "New Weird" label on him, but his work is certainly weird in new ways). His previous work, the "Southern Reach" trilogy, has been translated into more languages than J.R.R. Tolkien invented, and is being filmed (or at least the first book, _Annihilation_, is). His newest novel is _Borne_.

_Borne_ is currently something of a nine-days' wonder, appearing on many "recommended summer reading" lists, some of them quite unlikely. Yet this is completely appropriate, and I add my own small recommendation. Read it.

What it's about is quite complicated. Rachel (the only name given for her) was born on an island nation that, due to rising seas, no longer exists. She ekes out a life in a post-disaster city as a scavenger. The city (also no name) is ruled, if that's the word, by a giant (many stories tall), vicious flying bear named Mord.

One day Rachel scavenges among the fur of the sleeping Mord and finds a ... thing. Sort of like a plant; sort of like a squid: she names it Borne and keeps it against the advisement of her lover and sort-of partner Wick, himself a biotech craftsman of some repute. Before everything fell apart, Wick worked for the Company (which also made Mord and then lost control of him).

Oh dear. I've not gotten past page fifteen or so, and a lot of what I've just said is backstory that *isn't* known that early. But it's the only way I know to even begin to explain what a tangled, glorious mess _Borne_ is. Plotlines include simple survival; a siege by Mord's proxies; Wick and Rachel struggling for trust; a struggle for control of the city between the forces of Mord and of the Magician; and Borne himself, who grows and grows. All this and much, much more, in little more than 300 pages.

Borne seems to take food in but not to excrete in any way. He learns to talk, to change shape, and to (maybe?) love. He wants to fix the broken world. (There may be an allegory there, but probably not.)

Rachel has a voice of her own, and VanderMeer hews to it faithfully. More to the point, she has a _soul_ of her own, as do Wick and Borne - not so much the other "characters," who are by-and-large only there, at least as we see them, for Rachel to respond/react to. She narrates the novel's many eyeball kicks exactly as she perceives and receives them. Even mediated through her voice, they are strange indeed.

This is a book that will take time and rereadings for me to truly grok. It isn't difficult in the sense of "what is going on here?" but in the sense of "what does what is going on here *mean*?" Surely it must mean something, for all the work VanderMeer put into crafting this dense text ... Or must it? Consider the Voynich Manuscript; consider _A Humument_. Sometimes a work of art simply _is_. And whatever else _Borne_ may do to its readers, it certainly _is_, complete and whole and self-contained.

15th May 2017

12:37pm: Read: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood (2017-23)
Ah, where to begin?

In a decade full of (often whiny) dystopian novels for teens, it's good to read a real, serious, and well thought out dystopian novel, that isn't part of a series or Just Made To Be Filmed (though there is that).

Offred is the Handmaid assigned to Fred, thus the cognomen. Fred is a Commander in the Republic of Gilead, a harsh theocracy in what used to be the United States of America. (It's never quite clear which "Christian" sect has taken over, but they execute both Baptists and Catholics, so those two candidates are out...)

Infodump: "Handmaid" means "walking womb." In an age when fertility has dropped radically, women with working ovaries are highly valued resources, but not well treated. They are trained in the Red School by Aunts, who make sure they have no hopes for themselves but pregnancy. Then they are given to Commanders, and are fucked (there is no other word for it) in the laps of those Commanders' Wives, so the baby will be the Wife's, not theirs; and if they don't get pregnant soon enough they are cycled to another Commander. Three failures and they are sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste, where they will die in about three years. This kind of intense infodump does *not* occur in the book; as in any good modern SF novel, we are meant to learn it from context and dropped hints.

Offred had a name of her own, once. She was married to a man named Luke, and had a daughter. They tried to escape and were caught. Offred does not know what happened to Luke, or her daughter.

She lives in a spartan, or puritanical, room in the upstairs of the Commander's house. She is not permitted to read or write, to have any entertainment, or to go outside except for prescribed marketing trips, taken paired with another Handmaid who may be an "Eye" of the secret service. On these trips she sees, on the Wall, the bodies of those recently executed for various blasphemies.

There *is* a plot, but it's hard to tell any of it without giving a great deal away. A review like this had best avoid that. Besides, the plot isn't exactly the point; the point is Offred's attempts to stay sane in an insane situation, to have something, anything, that is *hers*, even in her head. This is a document of courage and hope and despair, heavy on the despair, and an exploration of what is left that is you when everything is taken away from you.

It is also very depressing, as it should be.

Atwood borrows some techniques from Orwell's _Nineteen Eighty-Four_, from the way details are given to us, to a historical note at the back of the book that tells us that Gilead did not last very long. In this note, an attempt is made (the note is in the form of a scholarly lecture on a found text) to determine who "Offred" really was. But it cannot be done; her original identity has been completely erased.

And yet...she persisted.

10th May 2017

6:13pm: Read: Rhetorics of Fantasy, by Farah Mendlesohn (2017-22)
I must begin by admitting a not-very-deep acquaintance, and somewhat deeper admiration for, Farah Mendlesohn, by way of the Intartoobz.

The thesis of this - I guess you'd call it a monograph? - is that fantasy can be usefully (if not monosemically) characterized by the way the fantastic enters the text; or, alternatively, the way the fantastic is introduced to the (hypothetical/ideal) reader. Using this rubric, Mendlesohn identifies four major groups of fantasies:

1) The portal-quest fantasy. This is the story where a protagonist is taken from her familiar surroundings and put into the fantasy world. A good type case for this is C.S. Lewis's _Chronicles of Narnia_, where children from our world are constantly traversing to Narnia to take part in adventures. But the case is made that Tolkien's _Hobbit_ and _The Lord of the Rings_ also qualify, in that the hobbits are taken from their comfortable/familiar lives in the Shire and placed in the Big World Outside.

2) The immersive fantasy. A type case here might be Tolkien's _Silmarillion_; a story set in a fantasy world with no meaningful connection to ours. (Arguments that _The Silmarillion_ is set in "our past" will be cheerfully ignored.) Other good examples are Alexander's _Chronicles of Prydain_ and most of Pratchett's Discworld novels.

3) The intrusive fantasy. A story in which something from "outside" enters the "normal" world. A type case here is Hodgson's _The House on the Borderlands_. Charles Williams's novels are largely of this nature, as is most fantastic horror. Some Discworld novels, such as _Lords and Ladies_ and _Moving Pictures_, fit here also, as the received world of the Disc is invaded by forces from "outside."

4) The liminal fantasy. This is the hardest to define; it is, strictly speaking, a story on the borderlines of the fantastic. It's hard to set a type case for such a category, but Lindholm's _Wizard of the Pigeons_ fits. Williams's _All Hallows' Eve_ seems to fit pretty well here, as does Christopher Priest's _The Separation_; but also Peake's _Gormenghast_ books.

There is a fifth grouping, of fantastic stories that don't fit comfortably into any of these categories. If there is a type case for this, it might be Roderick Townley's _The Great Good Thing_ (which I shall have to find and read). Some of them combine strategies of multiple types; others don't even fit that comfortably.

The thing is, that "thesis" isn't really what the book is _about_. What it's really about is the rhetorical (textual) strategies fantasists use in creating these stories, ranging from point of view to various forms of irony and equipose, and everything in between. Mendlesohn illustrates her points with (occasionally lengthy) excerpts from a variety of texts.

I began with an admission; I will end with another. Following Mendlesohn's arguments takes effort, and occasionally reached the edges of my qualification to read such things. But I got a great deal of pleasure from following them, and will return to some of these texts - and approach new ones - with a new set of tools for understanding what the writer is doing.

21st April 2017

2:25pm: Read: Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie (2017-21)
I've been struggling all along with what to call these books, because they lack the, well, the _feeling_ I associate with space opera.

What they remind me of, most of all, is the Culture stories of Iain M. Banks. Not in a derivative way, but in that they provide a similar sense of alienation, of a kind of posthumanity not involving any real "singularity" and of interstellar civilizations where the AI is clearly superior to the human mind but lets us play our games. In fact, the end of this trilogy might almost be the ancestral point of something like the Culture.

Breq, the former _Sword of Toren_, began the trilogy searching for revenge on the many-bodied ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. Along the way, she has picked up a number of strays, including someone who was supposed to be an Anaander but from whom she removed the tyrant's identity-technology. In the trilogy's second book, she came to the Athoek system, befriended the AI that ran the system's Station, and generally wreaked benevolent havok among the populace.

Now an Anaander Mianaai has come to Athoek. So has a diplomat/"Translator" of the extremely alien and dangerous Presger, whose previous emissary was accidentally killed in Book 2. (These Translators are among the books best features, by the way: something really *not* human in human-seeming bodies.) And there is a ship nearby (relatively speaking) who predates the Tyrant and regards her as the "Usurper" and who wants nothing more than the end of the Mianaai tyranny.

Much politicking goes on; and there is, at last, a space battle ... of sorts: fought with one pistol (sort of) ... to justify the space opera label.

The thing that sets the Imperial Radch trilogy apart is its delightful characters. It's characters and its unique cultural background. Oh, and its technologies. Amongst the things that set it apart are its delightful characters, its unique cultural background, the technologies on which everything depends, and the simultaneous cozy-vast sense of scale.

I'll try that again, shall I? Nobody expects the Imperial Radch trilogy.

16th April 2017

4:35pm: Read: Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie (2017-20)
Breq, whom we met in _Ancillary Justice_, is an ex-ship. She (gender unknown: "she" is used for everyone in this future) tried to kill the Emperor of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, and wound up working for her. Or for some of her. Except that she doesn't.

You see, Anaander Mianaai has, at any moment, thousands of bodies, and they've got somewhat out of synch. As a result, there is war in the Radchaai empire, and taking sides - any side! - is probably treasonous.

Breq herself used to be the troop carrier _Justice of Toren_, but some Anaander Mianaais sabotaged her, leaving her with only one "ancillary" human body of the hundreds that had been part of her.

Well, Breq, now Fleet Captain Breq Mianaai, has come to Athoek Station, and uncovered a mare's-nest of spying, smuggling, and "company town" style slavery. And she's doing something about it.

And in the meanwhile, an emissary of the powerful alien Presger manages to get herself murdered.

This *is* the middle book of a trilogy, and many things begun in it are setup for book three, and go at least partially unresolved. But, unlike many "middle books," there are at least two major plots begun and resolved in the course of the novel - though they will no doubt resonate into _Ancillary Mercy_ - and it's quite a satisfying read on its own.

Breq is a fascinating character in a world of fascinating characters. Indeed, though the Imperial Radch trilogy is promoted as "space opera," it is so only by courtesy; there are, in the first two books at least, no great big space battles à la the Edwards, Hamilton and Smith. But there is a great deal of politicking, intrigue, and even some derring-do.

5th April 2017

5:50pm: Read: Managing for Dummies, by Bob Nelson and Peter Economy (2017-19)
So this is why I've been reading a lot of lighter stuff. Not that it's particularly heavy, but it's pretty dull reading. It purports to give an overview of the skills needed for a new manager, and I suppose it does that, but most of what it says is pretty obvious to anyone with three functioning neurons and any experience of the business world.

There are some amusing anecdotes along the way, a bit of good legal advice, and a lot of fluff.

I can't honestly recommend it.
5:35pm: Read: Apprentice In Death, by J.D. Robb (2017-18)
43rd book in the continuing series, so it's an odd number and I'll not explain the background.

NYPSD Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her partner Delia Peabody catch a multiple murder case. Someone has, from a great distance, shot three people at the ice rink at Central Park. Three shots, three dead. Is it a joy killer? A simple murder using extra bodies to cover motive? The start of a serial killer's spree? Or something else?

(Because Robb often gives us PoV of her villains, we know that there are a "teacher" and an "apprentice" at work, and that the apprentice did the actual shooting. Thus, the title.)

As the killers strike again, Dallas and the NYPSD, plus Dallas's husband Roarke, move into full gear, doing the police work and trying to stop them before they kill again.

Very much a police procedural, _Apprentice_ is one of the more satisfying of these books. It hits all the notes, including the "Oz party" at the end that brings together most of the series's continuing characters.
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