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16th May 2019
Octavia Gone, by Jack McDevitt (2019-31)
Another pleasant enough episode in the ongoing adventures of Alex Benedict and his pilot/assistant Chase Kolpath (who narrates all but the first novel). Alex spends a fair amount of time offscreen in this one, as Chase winds up piloting his uncle Gabe Benedict (who was, previously, rescued after 11 years/3 weeks in a spacetime anomaly) around nearly as much as Alex. :
This installment has two Mcguffins. The first is the disappearance of space station Octavia, about eleven years ago. Octavia had been making major breakthroughs in the study of wormholes around a black hole, when transmissions suddenly stopped. Rescue teams found no sign of the station, its four-person crew, or its shuttle.
The second Mcguffin is a possibly-alien artifact that had been in the possession of one of the Octavia's crew. It had been on Benedict's shelves for study when the crewperson' s heir claimed it; it disappeared afterwards, possibly into the trash.
Naturally, the two puzzles intersect, and their joint solution is reasonably satisfying - but creates a new problem; how to explain the loss of the Octavia without betraying confidences and without causing further pain to the bereaved. I'm not so sure that the solution here is satisfactory, but that's the nature of human problems, I suppose.
My problem with the book is in the second word of this review. It's _pleasant_. Our heroes are never in any personal, professional, or any other sort of danger, and fit into this novel like an old glove. Nobody really grows - well, there's a romantic subplot, but nobody grows as a result of the main story. I have been known to say of Agatha Christie that she wrote excellent puzzles but forgot to wrap them in an actual novel. I fear that this is the case, too, with McDevitt's last few books. He's too good a writer to go on cruise like this; I hope his next book is more challenging both to him and to his readership, i.e., me.
11th May 2019
My Adventure in Creative Reading, by M. Todd Gallowglas (2019-30)
I liked this book. It is the chronological record of all the fiction and non-fiction Gallowglas wrote for two semesters of his Masters of Fine Arts degree, with responses from his mentors (apparently at the school he attended you get a different mentor each semester - interesting!).They are, in general, interesting and well-written pieces, with the writing visibly improving along the axis of time. :
I wanted to like it a great deal more. I found it a very _frustrating_ book to read, for two main reasons.
At least one of these reasons is forgivable, as it is inherent to the nature of the book: Each semester, Gallowglas began a new novel. Neither was complete at semester's end. And I *wanted* to read them in their entirety. The first novel is amusing and plays nicely with some fantasy cliches. And the second novel is harrowing, as far as it goes. (Much of the nonfiction is responses to his reading during the semester. Not reviews, but personal responses. I found them fascinating for the books I have read, and tantalizing for some of those I haven't.)
But the other reason is not as forgivable. The book appears not to have been proofread at all. Misspellings, extra or missing words (sometimes both), and other bugbears haunt just about every page. I could accept, perhaps, that he wanted to present the work as his mentors saw it - but it isn't just in the work. There are similar problems with the material he adds from the present of the time of the assembly of the book.
Even the back cover. The blurb gets the book's title wrong - twice! - and has a sentence made nonsensical by a missing noun.
So in the end, I recommend it, at least to students of the craft of writing, but with those two caveats.
8th May 2019
Space Chantey, by R.A. Lafferty (2019-29)
Who knew that there was not one but two Space Odysseys released in 1968? :
This is Lafferty's first published novel, and pretty much his shortest -- at 123 pages, the "short side" of an Ace Double. Lafferty is still a tyro at this novel business here, but it's a fun read, even if the schtick does run thin at times.
Schtick? Well, yes; Lafferty at his best was raucously howlingly funny even while telling you terrible things. Here, he tells the story of Captain Roadstrum (no first names given to spacers here!), who fought for ten years in a war then took ten more years to get home. And, yes, that should sound familiar, because it is a science-fiction-izing (and tall taling) of Odysseus' journey. Roadstrum ("the mighty Road-Storm") and his crew struggle through Lotophagians and Laestrygonians, and clashing rocks and the great vortex, and a planet devoted to gambling (where did that come from?), and many more episodes before Roadstum, all alone, makes it home. But then, the story doesn't end with the killing of the suitors; it goes on past that, and says something essential about space captains who have these adventures. Lafferty did not care for that sort of hero, and this shows in a great deal of his later work.
It is only raucously howlingly funny in places. In others it is amusing. What it never is is _boring_.
5th May 2019
The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch (2019-28)
This is the best of these I've read so far. (There's only one left. for me to read) :
In the first two volumes, the wizards of Unseen University accidentally created a Universe, which fortunately fit inside a manageable container. In this Universe, they found what they called "Roundworld", a fictional(?) version of our Earth; and proceeded to save it, or rather its humans, from a variety of ills (such as an invasion of Elves. Discworld Elves are nasty critters).
As before, the format of this book is chapters of a Discworld novella featuring the wizards, alternating with chapters of science illustrating and illustrated by the fictive chapters.
The fictional part is easily described. Malign forces seek to prevent humanity surviving (by leaving the Earth before it becomes an iceball). They are doing this by sabotaging a key point of the scientific advancement - in particular, they have caused a Reverend Charles Darwin to write _Theology of Species_, which fully supports Paley's watch. So they have to figure out how this is happening, and maybe even who is behind it, and put things right.
The nonfiction chapters are not so easily described. They mostly cover evolutionary science, but also bits of cosmology (a fairly thorough treatment of the multiple universes interpretation of quantum theory wanders in), history, sociology, etc. But they are very readable and entertaining (to the mind interested in such things).
30th April 2019
Year One, by Nora Roberts (2019-27)
OK, so. I have been addicted for some years to her science-fiction-police-procedural-vaguel :
y-romance-ish novels as "J.D. Robb" for some years. I read one of her novels as Nora Roberts (_Montana Sky_) some years ago and decided that it was competent entertainment, but not for me. And now here is SFF under the Roberts name, so I had to give it a try.
The premise is drearily familiar, especially if you've read Kings THE STAND and McCammon's SWAN SONG: in the wake of a devastating worldwide plague, people with uncanny powers and abilities begin to crop up, and everything is headed toward a big conflict between Good and Evil.Only, where King and McCammon took one big novel each to tell this story, Roberts is taking three.
And now I admit that the above paragraph is decidedly unfair. Fantastic postapocalyptic novels go well back before King and McCammon, and the outline is less than what you do with it.
And what, you may justly ask, does Roberts do with it?
Well, frankly, for much of the book she hews to the King formula: Society collapses, and in the aftermath, people of goodwill begin recreating society and decency. But even in this section there are a few left turns: some of the "uncanny" discover that they are Elves and Faeries, and we learn, about half-way through, that the baby one woman is carrying is "the One" (the trilogy is called "Chronicles of the One"), and its destruction is the focus of the evil powers abroad in the world. And near the end of the book, a further left turn is taken which would be decidedly spoily indeed.
I can't honestly recommend this either as sff or as literature; but as a good entertaining thriller, it passes.
25th April 2019
Voyage, Orestes!, by Samuel R. Delany (2019-26)
During his late teen, early 20ish years, in which Samuel R. Delany wrote and published his first few science fiction novels, he also wrote several "mainstream" (mimetic, bourgeois) novels, which have, for better or for worse, been lost to posterity. :
Except for this bit.
The hundred eighty pages of text published here for the first time represent a section from towards the beginning of a massive (_Dhalgren_-sized at 1056 ms pages) novel whose genesis is described in some detail, but in no really full form, in _In Search of Silence_ (the first published volume of Delany's journals) and _The Motion of Light in Water_ (a memoir of those years). Despite the destruction of both the carbon (in a buried file cabinet) and the top copy (in a box lost during the relocation of Delany's agent), this chunk turned up many years later in the posession of a friend-and-mentor of Delany's, Bernard Kay.
Those previously-published notes gave me no real sense of the novel's overall shape. Nor does this fragment, though I suspect that, armed with it I could return to the journals and figure out more than I know now. What we have, then, is an almost pure artifact of words and sentences - always Delany's great strength as a writer - from which emerge some characters, some incidents.
In the fragment, the narrator - Jimmy Calvin - returns from a solo trip to New England he took to escape from the pressures of his family. His father, an undertaker, is dying of lung cancer, and in fact dies shortly after Jimmy's return. Over the course of a few days, Jimmy meets up with some old friends, makes a few new ones, and (off-page) attends his father's funeral.Then, with some of these friends, is just setting out for Harvard, for a "hootenanny", when the fragment comes abruptly to an end,
Well, it _is_ a fragment.
A few things fascinate this longtime follower of Delany's work.
1) The near-autobiographical similarity of Jimmy Calvin to the young Chip Delany. There are major differences, but this is definitely a case of "write what you know best."
2) What I can only call _sideshadowing_ of Delany's simultaneously-written (and more commercially-successful) science fiction works. The source of the title "The Fall of the Towers" is rehearsed here, as the inspiration for a poem-cycle by Jimmy's friend Geo Keller. Names like Geo and Jimmy (= Iimmi) and especially Snake, a young man whose tongue has been cut out, resonate from _The Jewels of Aptor_. And many smaller details surface that resonate with details from those early books.
3) One thing I _did_ successfully gather from the journals, which this fragment reinforces, is how heavily architected the novel would have been had it survived, in the manner of _Fall of the Towers_ (and, to a lesser extent, of _Dhalgren_). Characters come and go in patterns, incidents reflect one another both synchronically and diachronically, words pick up charges of "meaning" ("significance") and then lend those charges to their later reappearances.
In a way we have, here, a glimpse of an "alternate" Delany.
At the end of _Motion_, Delany ponders on the question of where his life is taking him. Is he going to pursue writing (perforce science fiction, since that's where he's finding success)? Commit full time to folk music (where he had had some moderate success in the Village coffeehouses)?
In an only slightly alternate world, _Voyage, Orestes!_ would have been published by a major house in 1964 or so, and our hypothetical Delany would have had a third career direction to consider seriously. That third choice followed would have led to a very different Delany of today indeed; one whose early SF novels would be considered juvenilia, and _Voyage_ would be considered his first "serious" work. Such a Delany might have produced some mighty fine novels - but even in the realm of mimesis, I doubt very much that we would have anything to match _Dark Reflections_ or _Atlantis: Three Tales_.
None of which matters, of course. What happened, happened, and the world, whatever other books we may be poorer by, is richer by the few dozen books the real Delany really wrote and published.
And, yes, by this fragment.
23rd April 2019
Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okoraror (2019-23,24,25)
Three books and a short story in one volume: :
_Binti: Sacred Fire_
_Binti: Home__Binti: The Night Masquerade_
Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka s a young girl - about 18? - of the Himba people, on the edge of the Namibian desert. The Himba are looked-down-on by the more powerful neighboring Khoush people; the Himba in turn look down on the "Desert People." Because of her skill at the mathematical techniques called "treeing" and "harmonizing", Binti has been invited to join the prestigious Galactic Oomza University.
This is an interesting future world, where the only humans ever mentioned are those from the Namibian area of Africa. The Khoush have recently reached a truce, of sorts, with the Meduse, a violent and honor-bound alien race. Many Khoush travel to the stars; Binti is the first Himba to do so, and she is violating a dozen tribal norms by doing so.
The ship to Oomza is attacked by Meduse, and Binti, the only survivor (apparently due to her possession of an ancient artifact), finds herself drawn to "harmonize" a peace between the Meduse and the University. But to make her plausible, to them, as their representative, the Meduse sting her, causing her hair to be replaced by _okuowo_, tentacles that are inherent to the Meduse physiology. This is the first in a series of events which lead Binti to question her nature, her identity, and whether she really belongs anywhere in the Universe.
And that's about half of book 1. The story convolutes, contracts in on itself and spins outward, and Okorafor takes the trouble to invite her readers to genuinely ask the hard questions that many SF writers seem to think they have answered, usually in some smug aphorism. The Binti books offer no smug easy answers, only harder strictures on what an answer might look like.
It's all too frequently done to posit writer X as the successor to writer Z. I think that a good case can be made that Okorafor is, at least, _a_ successor to Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer more interested in questions than answers, in human implications than kewl gadgets, and in personal than universal significances,
19th April 2019
Captain Marvel (2019)
"Uh oh," someone shouted over in puppyland, "this new Marvel movie has GURL COOTIES all over it!" And it did, and it does, and, well, whatever. If Sgt. Pupper's Lonely Neuron Club Band really can't handle this it's their problem. :
Is it as good as WONDER WOMAN?
No, it is not as good as WONDER WOMAN.
Is it worth seeing anyway?
Well, that depends. They seem to have sandwiched it up such that it's a necessary excuse/explanation for stuff that (will )happen(s) in AVENGERS: ENDGAME, so if you are trying to keep the franchise even slightly straight in your cranium, you need to see this before you see that. It certainly establishes a character who has the presence and power to handle a minor nuisance like Thanos.
That was evasive. Is it worth seeing _for itself_?
If you enjoy this kind of movie (fastpaced superheroics), you will undoubtedly enjoy this movie. If you don't, then there really isn't a lot to think about in the fairly-predictable plot and off-the-shelf characters.
Oh, and the rumor are true. You do find out how Nick Fury lost an eye.
Bruce Almighty (2003)
I was in hospital on the Good Drugs and I wanted something that wouldn't tax my brain too much. :
It did, however, tax my patience, even on the Good Drugs.
It wasn't the premise. I can swallow six premises like this before breakfast, on a good day. I am your ideal audient; I *want* to suspend my disbelief.
It wasn't the acting. Morgan Freeman was impeccable, Jennifer Anniston was up to the job,and even Jim Carrey kept it in reasonable limits most of the time.
It wasn't the cinematography, or the pacing, or the costumes ...
... it was the half-assed attempts at theodicy. If you're going to justify the ways of God to man, you had better have something better than, "See what I have to put up with every day?" as God's side of the argument. By attacking one of the supreme philosophical problems of the universe with such utter lack of finesse or intelligence, the screenwriters get the "You must be some special kind of stupid" award. It makes me long for the intellectual clarity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.
There's a lot of hoo-hah about this being the "National Epic of Finland." Well, it ain't, because there's no epic: there's a collection of folksongs and wisdom-sayings that were pounded, late in the game,into the vague shape of an epic by an amateur folklorist. There are actually several of these folklorists, but the one who did the pounding and forming was a Dr. Elias Lonnrot, who published the result of his work in 1835, and in a much-expanded version in 1849. :
What Amazon actually provided me is the 1888 translation into English by Charles Martin Crawford. This edition is so poorly edited and proofread as to be occasionally illisible.
So what's it actually _about_...?
In some vague prehistoric Age of Heroes, three Suomi wizard-heroes arise at roughly the same time: rash Lemminkainen, the youngest of the three; the dark smith Ilmarinen; and the wise old Wainamoinen. Their characters are displayed in the first several "Runes" (there are fifty of these Runes, roughly equivalent to a Book of Homer), in which:
- Wainamoinen fights off an upstart challenger by singing him into the quicksand;
- Ilmarinen forges the mysterious Sampo; and
- Lemminkainen's rashness and ego get him into a heap of trouble.
As you might expect from an "epic" thus roughly forged (in fact, a fix-up epic), it's very episodic by nature -- _almost_ as much so as the _Odyssey_. But there is just enough flow through the episodes, each to next, to keep even a reader on opiates (as I was when I read it) interested. The overarching story, if it may be called that, is the conflict between the Suomi (Finns) and the Lapps to their north. The Suomi are pictured as constantly stealing from the Lapps, and being pursued with black hatred. The "Hostess" of the Lapps seems to delight in coming up with impossible tasks for the Finnish wizard-heroes to perform before they are permitted to, for example, woo a Lapp maiden.
So about that Sampo. What it actually _is_, is never explained. We know it has a beautifully-colored lid, and that it produces massive amounts of flour without, apparently, neediing any wheat or labor to do so. But with no further description, "Sampo" seems to translate as "Maguffin".
The climax of the story is double: First the three Suomi wizard-heroes steal the Sampo, destroying it in the process; then the Lappish "Hostess" arranges for the sun and moon to vanish from the sky. How it all resolves is actually a great deal of fun, so I'll leave it at that.
I literally cannot judge the quality of the verse translation. In the "Hiawatha" meter of the original it can't help but feel a bit singsongish to a modern English-reader, but never awfully so, and occasionally rises to the high end of my poetry-meter, particuarly when parties are cursing one another.
15th April 2019
Fire Ant, by Jonathan P. Brazee (2019-21)
OK, so military space adventure, but it so does not start that way. The first half of this book is about how Beth Dalisay (a nearly-down-and-out explorer for a huge megacorp) accidentally makes first contact with an alien race, barely escapes with her life, and gets the shaft from her employers for it. :
The second half is the military space adventure. Dalisay is offered a position in a Wasp Squadron (Wasps are little one-person fighting ships) and grabs it like the brass ring on a carousel. Before this first book of a promised series is over, she will barely escape with her life again - and some folks won't
Li'l Harlan and His Pal Carl the Comet in Dangerland, by Harlan Ellison (2019-20)
Basically a longish anecdote about an evening spent by Ellison and Carl Sagan in Philadelphia, it's funny, it's a dual character sketch, and it's a real quick read. I almost feel guilty counting it as "a book," but it is so published.
Psychological Warfare, by Paul M.A. Linebarger (2019-19)
I should confess right up front that I probably would never have read this book if its author were not the same person who, as "Cordwainer Smith," wrote some of the best, most elegant science fiction of the middle bit of the 20th Century. He also wrote novels under two other names which I do intend to eventually track down. :
But this one turned up inexpensive on the Kindle store, so I grabbed it. (His ATOMSK, written as Carmichael Smith, is also available and I will grab it soonish.)
Linebarger was an expert in this field, and taught it at the War College. This book was a standard in its field for decades - for all I know it still is - and has been translated into a dozen or so languages.
What then is Psychological Warfare? Linebarger gives several definitions, which almost add up to "information war," but ultimately what he's talking about is the use of propaganda to assist in the accomplishment of military and political goals. Most of his examples (and they are many) are from the Second World War, where PsyWar first became a real art, but he goes back to WWI and (in this, the Second Edtition) forward to the Korea and the early years of the Cold War.
One of the things that makes PsyWar so interesting is that you can't really directly measure the success of your work. You aren't going to capture a city or anything. But you may convince some (military and civilian both) on the other side of the lines to slack, malinger, and even sabotage; and you might convince enemy soldiers to surrender rather than die for a lost cause. Cultural sensitivity is a must: Japanese soldiers who would never "surrender" might well respond to an appeal to "cease honorable resistance."
The book is full of that kind of information that I would never have thought of.
It's well-written, though not in the light and spritely style of "Cordwainer Smith," and quite readable despite its density.
11th April 2019
See you on the flip side
Off to surgery. :
To quote Dr. Asimov,Doctor, in your long white coat,
Doctor, Doctor,cut my throat.
And when your finished, Doctor, then,
Won't you sew it up again?
6th April 2019
The Gophers of High Charity, by Kimberly Unger (2019-18)
This is a cute little book. At 121 pages (including the forematter and a couple of blank pages) it is little in the most obvious sense. :
It's cute because the main novella (it's a novella and an unrelated short story) is about children.
Brickbat, knife, and prybar-wielding children in a street gang, but children.
The Gophers are a gang in the city of High Charity (thus the title), and Annie is one of them. As the story opens, she hurls a brickbat to stop a baker's wagon, which the gang then raids, passing bread out to the people of their turf.
No, this is NOT a Robin Hood type gang. They just know the value of public relations.
Anyway: Annie and her friend Mary get sent on a mission to the territory of an enemy gang, to steal a magic sigil from the wallet of the gang's leader. They succeed, but the victim turns up later with his head bashed in and everybody blames Mary.
The story ends rather abruptly, and in a not entirely satisfying manner, but is nonetheless entertaining.
The short story is called "Wishes Folded into Fancy Paper," and is more-or-less science fiction. On a planet where humans cohabit with two other races, Della's family has made its place as premiere folders of Fancies, paper and string-webbing objects that are given as gifts as and "tokens" on significant occasions, such as "matriculation", which is a significant coming-of-age event in the lives of the Gira.
Della's sister Mix is in love with a Gira, who is about to matriculate. Matriculation involves being disowned by your family and thrown onto your own resources for several years, to prove your worth; and Mix's lover wants Mix to join her.
Della weaves a special paper flower for Gira;s matriculation ...
... but then Gira commits suicide, and the problems begin.
Though this story is less hard-edged than "Gophers", it's a much more satisfying read.
Worlds Of Wonder by David Gerrold (2019-17)
I enjoy books on writing, because I enjoy writing. (No, really.) A lot of how I judge a book of writing is whether the book has something to say to me that I can incorporate into my own practice. :
Smoothly written, this is as much a book about how Gerrold thinks about writing as it is about writing-as-such; but after a reasonably long and reasonably successful career (the book was first published in 2001, so the career is seventeen or eighteen years longer now), how he thinks about writing is reasonably interesting .... and (to me) useful.
_Worlds of Wonder_ offered me a number of new tools and insights.Perhaps the most important, to me, is this: Some years ago I read a piece by Ursula K. Le Guin in which she said that one of the signs of a good paragraph is that it propels you forward, makes you want to read the next one. Gerrold offers some advice, which I can usefully apply, on how a paragraph can do this.
Gerrold is an enthusiastic and experienced (he teaches writing at Pepperdine) teacher, and this is a good addition to my library of writing books.
3rd April 2019
I decided to do a count of the countries I've actually been to. As with states, I don't count ones where I've only been in the airport. :
- Czech Republic*
- Eire (Ireland)
- The Netherlands
- United States
- The Vatican
In fairness, these two were only on a train passing through. This is sufficiently different from an airplane traveling above that I count them; saw some scenery, after all, and interacted with customs people.
Also: some might call it cheating to count England and Scotland as two when both are part of the UK. I said countries, not nations.
1st April 2019
In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire (2019-16)
In this, the fourth book in McGuire's "Wayward Children" series, we are given the story of Katherine Victoria Lundy, a girl who loves books and follows rules for the excellent reason that, if you do, people mostly leave you alone. One fine day she is walking through the woods, and finds a peculiar, twisty tree that was definitely _not_ in the middle of the path the last time she walked this way. On the tree is a door, and graven on the door the words "Be sure." :
Katherine (never Kate or Katy) walks through it and finds herself in a long corridor. The door behind her is gone, so she follows the corridor to a place where some Rules are posted.
1. Ask for nothing.
2. Names have power.
3. Always give fair value.
4. Take what is offered and be grateful.
5. Remember the curfew.
These turn out to bet the rules of the Goblin Market, where the corridor leads her. Here, Katherine (who finds she prefers to be called simply "Lundy" - mustn't give your real name!) makes friends, which has never happened before, has adventures, and, in a few days, returns home dissheveled but happy.
Over the course of the 1960s and early '70s, Lundy repeatedly returns to the Goblin Market, knowing that, before she turns 18, she must renounce one world or the other - this is the "curfew" - while her father tries to keep her from doing so. You see, he made his choice and will not have her making any other.
When she returns from one trip with feathers growing on the back of her neck, he sends her to a private school where there is no privacy, and no chance to find a door...
Enough of the summary. This is a story that has to have an unhappy ending no matter how it turns out, and the authorial voice (which comments frequently on the goings-on) warns of this early on, with hints veiled and un.
As always, the words are just right and in the right places. The pictures (yes, this book has both pictures *and* conversations), which are too few and quite uncredited, capture the mood of the story brilliantly.
I happily await the fifth book in this series.
30th March 2019
Holes, by Louis Sachar (2019-15)
It's refreshing to read a YA book that isn't about dystopias or people with strange powers. :
This book was hugely popular with my kids' generation, and was made into a movie with Sigourney Weaver and Shia Lebeouf (which I've not seen), and I'd always meant to read it, so I finally did.
It's got a fairly linear plot which is complicated by a lot of things being told out of order.
Basically: Stanley Yelnats IV, a young teen, is sent to the penitentiary Camp Green Lake for the theft of a pair of sneakers (which he didn't, actually, steal; that's a plot point). Camp Green Lake is a hellhole on a dried-up lake in the hot Texas sun, where each boy is required, each day, to dig a hole five feet across and five feet deep. If a boy finds something "interesting" in his hole, he has to report it, and if the Warden finds it interesting (fossils, apparently, are not interesting), the boy is rewarded with the rest of the day off and eight minutes, instead of four, in the shower.
It is pretty obvious that the Warden is looking for something, and the astute reader will quickly deduce, from the out-of-sequence scenes, what it is.
Stanley, a fat and bullied kid, finds himself accepted by the other boys at the Camp, and the digging builds muscle and drains fat. Eventually...
...but enough plot summary before it becomes too spoilery.
The writing and the plotting are solidly into Pinkwater territory: a little more Jill than Daniel, but definitely reminiscent of both. Characters are well and efficiently drawn, and good is rewarded, and evil punished.
Leverage in Death, by JD Robb (2019-14)
...and here we are with Lt. Eve Dallas, Roarke, and their supporting cast again. I swear, these books are like potato chips: absolutely no nutrition, high bloat factor, and completely impossible to resist the next one. :
The basic plot here is particularly diabolical: someone is using the following modus operandi...
1) Locate an opportunity to manipulate a market.
2) Find a family man who will do anything for his family.
3) Capture the man and family in their own home.
4) Explain to him, with some violence, that he has to do what you say or his family will die screaming.
5) Give him a suicide vest and have him blow it up to create market havoc...
That's all revealed pretty quickly, so I don't consider it spoily. Anything more would be.
Like I said, potato chips. Salty and greasy and delicious.
23rd March 2019
The Story of Kullervo, by JRR Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger (2019-13)
In this edition of what noted Tolkien scholar David Bratman once called "Tolkien's laundry lists," we have something fairly precious: in both senses of the word. "The Story of Kullervo" is (as far as can be told) Tolkien's first serious attempt at telling a story with serious mythic intent. That it is not an original story with Tolkien (but see below) scarcely matters; what does matter is that this tale shows, in several ways, that the Matter of Middle-earth did not spring fully formed from Tolkien's cranium, but had (at least one) predecessor. :
(Your reviewer humbly observes that he has not -yet! - read the "Sigurd & Gudrun" or "Aotrou and Itroun" volulmes of the TLL.)
The volume contains the nearly-complete "Tale", with Tolkien's notes for the ending. Next, we have two drafts of a talk on the Kalevala Tolkien gave at least once, possibly as many as three times. All of these have detailed Notes by Flieger.
Finally, there is an essay by Flieger, which helps to establish how deeply "Kullervo" affected at least two of Tolkien's "Great Tales", that of Beren and Lúthien, and, more profoundly, that of Túrin Turambar (a/k/a the Children of Húrin). The most blatant example of this would be Kullervo/Túrin's unknowing incest with his sister; her suicide at a waterfall when she realizes what has happened; and Kullervo/Túrin's finally asking his sword to slay him, which it does after a swordly speech.
The essay also shows in some detail how Tolkien made the "Tale" his own even at this early date (this was before the World War, while Tolkien was an undergraduate). Tolkien, showing the instinct that would haunt his Middle-earth writings to his dying day, sought to rationalize and explain inconsistent and/or mysterious details in the original: an instinct that, in the end, made it impossible for Tolkien to ever complete a satisfactory (to him) draft of the Quenta Silmarillion.
Recommended, to people who like this sort of thing.
22nd March 2019
Notes from a commencement ceremony
Horseshoe waves of warm brown :
tumble to an arc of beige.
Below, a sea of flesh murmurs, waiting...
Red flowers trimmed to a sphere
on the uncomfortable dais slowly wilt
in the spots' yellow glare.
Three excellent musicians make unfortunate jazz
not for listening but to fill space
in the sounds of the bored audients.
We are too many
for even an illusion of intimacy.
Two screens will show us the speakers.
Most of us will watch the screens
because they are realer to us.
Cameras and camcorders of varying sizes
are trained on the empty stage to discern light levels
that will change when the ceremony starts.
The red eyes and green scales
of the demented mixing board
vary only slightly
as the trio plays an unending succession
of tunes that sound exactly alike.San Francisco, 5/1/2004
16th March 2019
Circe, by Madeline Miller (2019-12)
Madeline Miller has, clearly, drunk thrice the waters of Hippocrene. Her tale of the witch Circe - narrated by Circe itself - is the true quill, Story in its purest form. One could make an argument that there are some small axes ground - for example, the axe of the Empowered Woman - but the noise of their grinding is faint and does not disturb the Story. :
I wound up repeatedly going to references in reading it, asking, "Is this in the myths, or did Miller make it up?" And the answer was, often enough, that it was indeed in the myths, enough so that where she veers from the myths it isn't out of disrespect for them but out of respect for the Story she has to tell.
It begins with the story of Circe's parents, the titan Helios and the nymph Perse. Circe is their first child and the only one with the voice and appearance of a mortal. She is rebellious, and learns all unwitting the beginnings of witchcraft. She turns a mortal into a god and the nymph Scylla into a six-headed monster. When it turns out that her sister and two brothers are also witches, Zeus commands that Helios father no more children on Perse, and that Circe (the only one of the four not already married off) be exiled to the island of Aiaia.
Here she hones her witchcraft. After being raped by a passing sailor (she kills him and his whole crew) she begins preemptively turning them into oinkers when they show up.
You know the rest - or, at least, I thought I did. I did not know that Circe had borne Odysseus children: three in the myths, but Miller makes this into one, whom Odysseus does not know about. Circe names her son Telegonos, "far-born", and raises him until...
Well, enough summary. What matters here is, as I say, Miller has a Story to tell; and tells it. The Story is all.
12th March 2019
Space Opera, by Catherynne Valente (2019-11)
(I have to keep checking to make sure I spelled that name right...) :
This is seriously funny. It has obvious (and acknowledged by the author) resonances with Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker
books, but it isn't as cold as Adams - it has a Terry Pratchett-like heart, and is about something more than the absurdity of life.
Don't get me wrong. Valente repeatedly repeats the motto, "Life is beautiful and life is stupid." Absurdity abounds.
What's it about?
Well, a played-out glam-funk rocker named Decibel Jones, and the remainder of his band, are called upon by aliens to sing not only for their lives, but those of the entire human race. There are a hundred or so acknowledged sapient species out among the stars, and to be accepted as one (and thus to not be killed and our resources plundered), the representative of humanity must place better than last in what amounts to (and again, Valente acknowledges this) an intergalactic Eurovision Song Contest.
Humanity does not get to choose its representative. The first-contact alien (a cross between the Roadrunner, Big Bird, and a fish) has a list of people who might do well, and Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes are the only living people on that list. Well, except for the drummer, who's dead. That leaves Decibel, who doesn't play any instruments, and Oort St. Ultraviolet, who plays almost all of them, to create a new song that will wow a very ... heterogeneous ... set of alien jurors.
And then things start to get weird.
I rarely laugh out loud at a book. I only laughed out loud three times the first time I read Donald Westlake's masterpiece, Dancing Aztecs
. I laughed out loud twice at this one.
Well done, that writer!
6th March 2019
Addiction by Design, by Natasha Dow Schull (2019-10)
Though the main text is only 309 pages long, it took me nearly three weeks to read this volume on "Machine Gambling in Las Vegas". It is dense, and there are another 79 pages of feetnote, many of which sent me skittering to the bibliography. :
Dense (in this case) does not translate as "boring" or "hard to read." It translates, rather, as "stop and think a lot", and "give your brain frequent rests."
So what is it about? It makes the following case, more or less:
1) Gaming machines encourage problematic (addictive) behavior. (Duh.)
2) Casinos are designed to magnify this effect. (Double duh.)
3) Each new generation of slots, especially since the advent of electronic slots, is more finely tuned to take advantage of problematic (addictive) behavior:
- They conceal the real odds against the player; indeed, these odds are adjustable.
- They give enough wins and near-wins to keep a player hoping.
- And blahblahblah, because
4) It turns out that problematic (addictive) behavior isn't about the desire to win after all: it's about getting in "the zone" and continuing to play.
5) It also turns out that addiction to machine gambling is not "in" the individual, nor in the machine, but in the interface and relationship between the two.
The "zone" is not about winning and losing. It's about shutting off outside stimuli and narrowing your awareness, your entire reality, to _this_ bet, _this_ pull of the handle or push of the button. It's like a self-destructive satori, if you will.
This is exhaustively, and exhaustingly (see above re: feetnote and bibliography), researched, documented, and verified by interviews with gamblers, ex-gamblers, and a host of people in "the industry," from casino owners to machine designers. A whole chapter is devoted to attempts (by government, researchers, medical professionals, people in the industry) to "fix" the "problem" of addictive gambling. Another is dedicated to attempts by addicts to "cure" themselves.
Oh, and: there is a bunch of discussion of how those in the industry justify their business model, ranging from "it's our responsibility (to shareholders) to make as much money as legally possible," to "the problem isn't with our business model, it's with the addicts." (The latter of which I would have replied to, though the author does not, thus: "So you admit you knowingly prey on the weak.")
Possibly the most interesting section, to me, is the first, where the author talks about the design of machines and casinos to maximize profit. Machine gaming is much more profitable for casino owners than live gaming - so profitable that there is hardly a shop or gas station in Las Vegas that doesn't have its bank of electronic poker machines or straight slots. (Locals tend to prefer video poker to straight slots; tourists tend to prefer the slots.)
Anyway, an interesting book, at least for those at least vaguely interested in such things.