Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Around the Web

A book review at Shiny Book Review. No surprises there, but it's very very snarky. Enjoy.

Mariner Valley by James Crawford

A while back I read, enjoyed and reviewed a novel for a new author. When he asked me to review his science fiction novel, it sounded like fun, so I had him ship me a copy, which I read while I was hanging out at my friend's mountain cabin, fishing for a few days.

Mariner Valley is a well-written tale with a classic story line. In fact, I'm fairly certain I've seen it in various incarnations a number of times, as a Western movie. A lawman from a frontier town is getting ready to move back to the big city, but when the daughter of local officials is raped and murdered, he is convince to saddle up one last time to go hunt down the dirty rotten scoundrels who did the deed, then hightailed it for the border. He gathers up a posse and they ride out through the dust and the sandstorms and hostile conditions, encountering various obstacles along the way, until at last they catch up with the crooks and have a shootout.

Am I right?

Ok, so the small frontier town is on the planet Mars, and the lawman, Benjamin O'Ryan, is getting ready to return to Earth, when the powers that be beg him to take on the task of hunting down a gang of vicious criminals led by a man named Lansing. He gathers up a crew of auxiliary police force (deputies?) and a few regulars and they jump in rovers to chase after the gang, who are trying to reach Russian territory, where they believe they will be safe from prosecution.

There is just about the right amount of exposition about Mars, its moons, the environment on the surface so that it never bogs down, delivered by various methods, such as when one of the, er, posse members turns out to be an amateur astronomer and gives a short lecture in the midst of casual conversation, or when we learn all about the criminals in the gang when O'Ryan goes over their dossiers in a briefing with his people. There are a few other instances where the massive data dump is skillfully avoided, while giving us the information we need to believe we're along on this Martian expedition.

Some of Ben's crew have some authority issues, and one of them may be a secret drug addict, which could pose a security risk, and he stumbles into some extra complication when he and one of his deputies, Beth, manage to stumble into a relationship while on their mission. He also has to fight his people's and his own tendencies to take matters of vengeance into their own hands when they finally do catch up to the gang, as both we and they have been treated to further atrocities left behind by Lansing's men. There's even a good barroom brawl scene, just to add to the Western flavor.

A good read, a good first effort. Let's hope Mr. Crawford writes a few more, as I could definitely see a series in the works for Inspector O'Ryan.

Around the Web

A book review on Bookworm Room.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

And Falling, Fly by Skyler White

 Dark dark dark. Those beings that we call vampires are fallen angels, who subsist on the blood and emotions of their victims, Olivia, the Angel of Desire, believes that the only way she can be restored to her former, unfallen, state is if a human actually loves her for herself, rather than being merely infatuated and "in lust" with her. Other vamps seem to revel in their fallen state, and have no need for redemption.

Dominic O'Shaugnessy is a brain chemistry researcher in California who may or may not be victim of a curse which forces him to be reincarnated endlessly, with full "flashback" memories of all of the wives and children he has had to bury over the centuries. The team for which he works is trying to find a way to biochemically remove specific memories for trauma victims, and he has a vested interest in the success of the project, so when a wealthy benefactor is willing to give him millions for his research so that he can remove the "false memories" leading to her goddaughter's obsession with vampirism, he leaps at the chance.

White's prose is at times evocative, novel and creative.

"-but Adam's end-of-day reunion ritual dictates that we confess our grievances using the form of the employee's creed... I elect to berate The Client, the mysterious entity who pays our salaries and thus, in a market economy, is our superior and therefore, in American mythology, our inferior. Adam recites his day in the Idiot Boss variation..."

But....I just didn't quite frankly give a hoot about what happened to anyone in this book.

If you like it dark and twisted, give Skyler White a try.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Witchfinder by Sarah Hoyt

 Once again, I have nothing truly new to report on the subject of Sarah Hoyt's novels. Love the blog, just can't bring myself to like her novels. I try, I really do.

Witchfinder starts out to be a story about a Duke in the world of Avalon who travels between worlds to save the lives of witches in other worlds, who are often persecuted or killed outright. His job used to be an official one in the kingdom, but was outlawed recently, so he must do it in secret.

After that, it becomes a story about a lost princess, all kinds of improbable half breeds of fairies and humans, fairies and dragons, centaurs and humans, and a small group's insane ambition to rape multiple worlds of their magic, gold and power. All of the POV characters seem to do far too much soul-searching, and get teleported about madly while trying to get to the heart of the conspiracy, save the kingdom, and rescue the princess.

Once again, I had to force myself to push through to the end. Life is too short.

Ah well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

 Baseball is not a topic that interests me greatly. I don't play it, nor do I watch it on the Tube, and aside from the superstar celebrities of the sport that one can't help hearing about...on Jeopardy...I couldn't give you the name of a pro ball player if my life depended on it. However, Michael Lewis has a talent for making otherwise uninteresting or impenetrable topics come alive, as he has in several other works I've read, and they (the ubiquitous ones) made this book into a movie a while back, so I figured, "How bad could it be?"

After years of professional scouts determining who would be drafted to play professional ball, out of the hordes of high school and college players available, Oakland As manager Billy Beane finally decided to apply science and statistics to the process, and consistently produced a winning team on one of the lowest budgets in the league.

The way in which Lewis makes his writing more interesting than you'd think the subject would bear is in finding the backstories. He tells us about the baseball fanatics who first began to look at the statistics generated by major league ball and decide that something was missing, and that people who owned and managed teams were making decisions based on faulty assumptions, such as Bill James.

A quote from him I could relate to:
"I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say."

Another fan who wrote about the hidden art of baseball was Pete Palmer:
"Managers tend to pick a strategy that is least likely to fail rather than pick a strategy that is most efficient. The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move."

One of my OMG moments was when I read the following:

"Of course, no one in pro sports ever admits to quitting. But it was perfectly possible to abandon all hope of winning and at the same time show up every day for work to collect a paycheck. Professional sports had a word for this: "rebuilding." That's what half a dozen big league teams did more or less all the time."

Holy frijoles! My Broncos are in a "rebuilding" year.

As always, with a Lewis book, I learned something.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fated by Benedict Jacka

 It was difficult for me, at first glance, to determine whether this is a ripoff of the Harry Dresden books by Butcher, or should be considered a tribute to them. So much of the big picture remains the same. Alex Verus is a diviner who runs a small arcana shop in London, and most of the mundane folks around him don't have any idea that magic exists, and would make fun of him for saying it did. There is a world-spanning magicians' Council, with Dark and Light mages. Verus was the apprentice of a Dark mage, but escaped that life, and is not well regarded by the Council; he's just a bit of a renegade, and his little respect for authority. He has an apprentice, Luna, whom he tries to protect by not telling her much about what's really going on.

Starting to sound familiar?

Diviners, as a branch of magicians, have the ability to find out nearly anything, with the right technique and effort. When a Precursor artifact is discovered, both the Dark and Light want to control it, but it has been locked away with some major defensive spells, and when all the other Diviners make themselves scarce, Verus is the default go-to guy for all the factions. He resists getting involved at first, but eventually he is made an offer he can't refuse, and ends up trying to play both ends against the middle, since he realizes that (as the adage goes) anyone who wants the sort of power that the artifact will grant really shouldn't have that much power in the first place.

Of course, as is de rigeur in urban fantasy these days, he has to undergo some intense personal growth and deal with his memories of past traumas before he can move forward.

Looks like there are several more sequels available, so I'll have to throw them on the virtual TBR pile.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Blessing by Gary Smalley and John Trent

 Something I was reading must have pointed me to this book by Smalley and Trent. I've enjoyed reading Gary Smalley's books ever since I heard him speak at a Promise Keepers conference  a decade or so ago, but unfortunately this one was so dated that I had very few takeaways, and got about five or six chapters in before giving up on it as a waste of time for me at this point in my life.

Smalley and Trent begin with the concept of the biblical patriarchal blessing and stretch a point nearly to the point of breaking showing how children and adults are negatively affected by not being "blessed" by their parents and other loved ones.

Meh.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A PSA on Drug Expiration Dates

I've often wondered what, exactly, is supposed to happen to the chemical compounds in your prescription drugs or in those bottles of vitamins people are always telling you that you have to throw away on the expiration date. Unless they're a biological compound, or in a liquid suspension, which could possibly deteriorate, stable compounds don't simply disappear from a sealed plastic bottle, usually.

From a medical journal, I gank the following:

"It turns out that the expiration date on a drug does stand for something, but probably not what you think it does. Since a law was passed in 1979, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.

Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military. With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the study is 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

So the expiration date doesn't really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired years ago. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report on this is controversial among researchers. It's true the effectiveness of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still remains even a decade after the expiration date. Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years."

YMMV.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Revenant by Kat Richardson

 With this, the ninth in the Greywalker series, we suddenly find ourselves a long way afield with Harper Blaine when Quinton's father, James Purliss, turns up in the middle of a plot to gain supernatural power in Portugal. Harper calls upon the vampire, Carlos, for help in getting her out of the country without anyone who might be watching noticing that she's gone, and he has her shipped in a coffin to his family's home in Lisbon, in the heart of the Alfama district.

My surmise is that Richardson has recently enjoyed a trip to Portugal (it turns out in the afterwords that she planned it but had to cancel), and decided to make use of her research in this novel. My wife and I visited Portugal a couple of years ago, and so it's proven vastly entertaining as I read this novel to find myself recognizing and visualizing the places Harper and Quinton go, such as when they get on the train to Cascais, where we have family, and spent a great deal of our time, or talk about the castle of St. George, a lovely place to visit and picnic at the crown of a hill in Lisboa, or she mentions in passing the pilgrims crawling on their knees to the shrine in Fatima.

When Harper arrives, she finds out that Purliss has kidnapped his own granddaughter, Soraia, who has budding supernatural talents, and has given her to his allies, the bone mages, who are building a spell which will have apocalyptic results in Portugal, giving them vast power. Quinton, Harper, and Carlos must rescue the girl from the mages, and find a way to thwart their plans. When Carlos is nearly destroyed by the apprentice of an old enemy, one of the mages, Harper's desperate sacrifice to save his life leaves the two of them changed, perhaps in ways which will affect the path of the plot arc eventually.

A marvelous (hopefully temporary) finale to the Grewalker series.


Monday, October 6, 2014

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann

 Trying to get a handle on this thing they call Steampunk. Most of it seems to run in the Victorian era, with odd technological upgrades, mixed with odd bits of the supernatural. I suppose it beats coming up with a truly new and exciting fantasy realm, just like urban fantasy, which tends to operate by weaving modernity with witches, werewolves and vampires going bump in the night. Not to be confused with Cyberpunk, which I read a lot of back in the day. Now, of course, many of those futures are coming true before our eyes.

In The Affinity Bridge, there seems to be a plague of revenants bent on murder and cannibalism in Queen Victoria's London (which is oddly coincidental as the next book on my TBR pile is called Revenant). In the midst of the plague, Crown Investigator Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes become involved in investigating a series of murders by a glowing policeman in the White Chapel area of London, and the horrific crash of an airship which killed all on board, and which has political implications.

The plot, and the solving of the mysteries, is not really all that exciting, but there are some aspects of the book that might bode well for future plots. Veronica's sister, Amelia, is a psychic who can see visions of the future, but she has been locked in an asylum where they treat her for her seizures. Queen Victoria has been kept alive beyond her natural span of years by the machines created by Dr. Fabian, and he and his assistant, The Fixer, seem to have some interesting medical treatments up their sleeves. Newbury's friend, Scotland Yard detective Charles Bainbridge, demonstrates a nifty sword cane that works like a taser, so there may be some other cool inventions from the Victorian Q Branch, as well.

Not one of those "oh my gosh, I can't wait to read the next one", but probably worth following up on when things are slow on the TBR pile.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Islands of Rage and Hope by John Ringo

 Too much of the early going in Islands is devoted to the struggle Faith is having with acting as a Marine Lieutenant, being a 13 year old girl, mind you. Of course, after any marine sees her in battle, their respect for her borders on hero worship, so Ringo could have foregone all of this angst and moved the plot along a little more swiftly. The second flaw for me in this book was that the whole plot feels like a big wargame, "if we had to retake the entire world after a zombie apocalypse, where would be the best place to start, given the resources stipulated, etc." When the strategy gaming overwhelms the zombie killing, then you've really lost most of what holds my interest in this series. Third, for whatever reason, Ringo decided that the results of "what happens in the compartment..." would be a couple thousand pregnancies, and combined that with the statistics on pre-modern medicine mother and infant mortality, and devoted a big chunk of plot time to our heroes figuring out how to minimize the damages - the jury remains out at the end of the book.

That said, once things got rolling in the latter third of the book, there was plenty of whack-a-zombie for everyone. We finally get to find out who "Walker" was in his previous life, which is cool, too. I got to thinking about about Ringo's basic premises here, that there would be no land-based cities still active after a zombie plague, and while I get the idea of limiting the Vs in multi POV, here, I think it likely that there would be far more survivors in some of the rural areas, given their lesser dependency on technology in the first place, the lesser population density, and the fact that a ton of heartlanders have thousands of rounds of ammo for the guns to which they bitterly cling.

Anyway, I was glad I didn't pay over $20 to add this book to the collection, but borrowed it from the local library. I'm interested to see where the story goes next, but I hope it goes there without so much ado about nothing, this time.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele

 This book reads like a pastiche or homage to several of Heinlein's juvenile works, and a couple of his novels for adult readers, too, such as Between Planets, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Thet Menace from Earth, right off the top of my head. Jamie, Melissa and Jan are the children of a scientific bureaucrat within the international space agency who signed a petition to keep the Helium 3 resources out of the greedy claws of the current Vice President of the United States. When the President dies suddenly, allegedly assassinated by PSU (Chinese) agents, and the VP takes power, he realizes that he is in danger, and that his children can be used as leverage against him, so he sends them off - to the Moon - for safety.

This is a heavily disguised blessing for Jamey, who was born on the Moon, but who has lived his life on earth up to the age of sixteen in a powered mobile (read wheelchair) since his bones and muscles are not strong enough to support him on Earth unassisted. So, though it is emotionally traumatic and all very suspenseful, Jamie really blossoms...or perhaps soars is a better term, when he arrives at the lunar colony of Apollo. Jamey's best friend, Logan, is also along for the ride, as are the two children of another family of scientists, , one of whom is developmentally disabled, which turns out to be a brilliant gadget whereby Steele can do some expository work, explaining simple things about the Moon and its colony. At the last minute, before they board their shuttle to the Moon, Jamey's older sister, Jan, is replaced by Hannah "Smith", who arrives suddenly in a limousine, accompanied by Men in Black. It's all very mysterious to Jamie, but not so much to the rest of us.

After that, it's all mostly a coming of age novel, set in lunar orbit, complete with bullies, teenage angst and know-it-all atttitude, and a tale of rebellion against tyranny where boy gets girl in the end.
A good, innocent read. Steele has written so many great books over the years, and this one adds to his legacy.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews

 The action ramps up rapidly in this book. The Beast Lord Curran leaves town to visit with a potential ally out in the deep woods north of Atlanta, while leaving the Consort Kate to deal with the Conclave between The People and The Pack. When Kate, with her complement of badass bodyguards arrives, they are somewhat surprised by the arrival of Hugh D'Ambray, Roland's henchman, at the conference. D'Ambray produces evidence that the Pack is guilty of murder of one of the top Masters of the People, and things go crazy. The Pack delegation is attacked by vampires, and they flee under fire back to their Stronghold, fighting all the way.

The scent and fur evidence on the murder victim indicates that it was indeed a Pack member who committed the murder, so Kate and her allies must try to find the culprit before war breaks out. They try to sneak into the People's territory to the bordello where the murder took place, and end up fighting a long running battle all the way in and out again, though they do discover the identity of the murderer. When D'Ambray and the People arrive a day or two later to demand the murderer be turned over, he is frustrated when Kate turns the murderer over to an incorruptible county sheriff instead of to Hugh or his pet police force.

Betrayal from within the Pack, however, ends up with Kate teleported to an inescapable prison far away, where D'Ambray intends to keep her until she consents to ally with him in Roland's service. When Curran finally arrives to rescue her, the next several chapters read like the description of one of the best FPS games of all time, and the action continues to get more intense until the last couple chapters, which are curiously anticlimactic, in my opinion. It will be interesting to see where Andrews goes with this new plot twist.

Slam-bang, thank you gang, action!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Children of Possibility by Thomas T. Thomas

 I first encountered the fiction of Thomas T. Thomas several decades ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I bought nearly every novel he published, and then he disappeared, quit being published. In those pre-Amazon years it was difficult to find out what happened, but quite frankly I though he'd passed away, like many of my favorite authors were doing for a while there. When I stumbled upon Mr. Thomas' web site a few weeks ago, and found that he had been writing science fiction, among other things, all along, but just not getting published until the recent wave of Amazon self-published works became available, I was delighted. I rushed out (figuratively) and bought one of his novels, to see if his new stuff is fun to read, too.

The Children of Possibility is all over the map, temporally speaking, from the far future to the Devonian era. There is a corps of time travelers known as the Jongleurs who voyage from the far future into the past to fix problems here and there, and to repair the meddling of other sailors in the stream of time. About this future society:

"Their direct ancestors, who were now the progenitors of most humans alive on Earth, had started by cleaning their children's embryos in vitro of all known disease mutations. Next, they rearranged their chromosomes and eliminated redundancies - or engineered new ones, where having backup copies and variations of a gene made sense...Finally, they redesigned the entire organism for metabolic efficiency and longevity, with the ultimate goal of a human that had no natural life span - people who were potentially immortal."

The main story lines follow Merola, a Jongleur who goes off the reservation, so to speak, in order to save her sister from a financial crisis (whatever happened to the cashless society of Star Trek?) and Rydin, her mentor, who has to track her down when she is ambushed by a coven of renegades, and loses her capability to return to her own time.

The plot weaves to and fro, and Thomas gives us a few new wrinkles on the theory and practice of time travel. I liked Merola and Rydin, and I kept going back to the book to find out how they got out of their messes, but I really liked Rydin's AI the best. Just had that wonderful snarky way of expressing itself that reminded me of the entities in the Culture series by Iain Banks.Glad to see the return of an interesting and thought provoking author.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

 This book came highly recommended by a couple of ladies in my small group. I borrowed a copy from one of them, and spent a couple of weeks reading it. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who, in the 50s, contracted cervical cancer and, while undergoing ultimately futile radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins, had a biopsy taken of the cancer cells. This sample, for some unknown reason, was the first cell culture ever to thrive and survive in laboratory conditions, and it ended up becoming the HeLa cell line, which was distributed to thousands of researchers around the world over the next six decades, and was ultimately responsible for many of the vaccines and cures which are available to us today.

After Henrietta Lacks' death, her family never were told that her cells were still alive, and never participated in the financial profits from their use. The family seemed to assume that it was due to Henrietta's race, but subsequent events and court cases have proved remarkably color blind in denying patients the right to profit from discoveries made with bits and pieces removed from their bodies, even now that researchers are patenting genetic material, which seems like something a person would "own" if anything was.

Lots of interesting issues raised and discussed in this book about medical ethics, some fascinating history of the exploitation of American blacks in medical research, and a portrait of a horribly dysfunctional family, to boot. Great stuff, though it dragged on a bit past the point of satiation.

Friday, September 19, 2014

In the House of the Wicked by Thomas Sniegoski

 This is possibly the darkest book in the series yet. On the surface, things are going well. Remy has gotten past the grief for his ex-wife enough to begin dating a nice woman, Linda, finally, and he has nearly integrated his dual nature as a seraphim once more, accepting the power when it is needed to right wrongs, but not letting the vengeful, warrior nature overcome his human niceness.

The group of fallen angels called the Grigori, whom we've encountered before, have joined forces with the most powerful individual in a cabal of sorcerers in a plot which endangers millions of people around the world, and another powerful sorcerer kidnaps Remy's neighbor girl, Ashley, who watches Marley when he has to go out of town. When Remy journeys to the shadowland where Ashley is being held captive, the magician and his golem minions drain the angel of nearly all of his seraphic powers, and leave him weakened to nearly the level of a normal human. Despite this handicap, Remy presses on trying to save the girl and the world.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Green Letters by Miles J. Stanford

 While flying to Omaha last Spring, I fulfilled a divine appointment with a gentleman on the plane who is deeply involved in ministry to veterans all around the country. Our conversation led him to send me a couple of interesting devotional books to read, and this one fell through the cracks for a while. Stanford evidently carried on a lively minsterial correspondence for about five decades with a large following, and this is one collection of his studies on spiritual growth. I read it slowly and carefully; it's jam packed with key concepts about our walk as Christians, and made note of a few things that leaped off the page at me.

Being one of those people who can be extremely self-critical when my performance isn't up to my exacting standards, this tidbit was particularly stinging.

"To be disappointed with yourself is to have believed in yourself."

As Christians, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, our strength, power and true accomplishment comes from God, and God alone, not from our own skills and abilities. Anything we do in the flesh is vanity, and allowing God to work through us, despite our weakness, is the only thing in which we should glory.

Even in evangelical circles, where we know, at least in our heads, if not in our hearts, that our salvation comes through faith and not by works, we often work like crazy to be good enough for God to love us.

"Let us cease laying down to the saints long lists of 'conditions' of entering into the blessed life in Christ; and instead, as the primal preparation for leading them into the experience of this life, show them what their position, possessions, and privileges in Christ already are. Thus shall we truly work with the Holy Spirit, and thus shall we have more, and much more abiding fruit of our labors among the people of God."

Positionally, once we are saved, we have been given by God the full inheritance of Christ's position at his side, and gifted with everything necessary to fulfill His purpose in us. But we often forget this, and spend our lives chasing proficiency in "being godly."

For those of us constantly struggling with sin,

"You believe the Lord Jesus died for your sins because God said so. Now take the next step. Accept by faith the further fact that you died with Him, i.e., that your 'old man was crucified with Him'"

Our bondage to sin was broken, and its body buried with Christ, we are risen new and free.

"Sin need have no more power over the believer than he grants it through unbelief. If he is alive unto sin it will be due largely to the fact that he has failed to reckon himself dead unto sin."

I've had, for a number of years, an aversion to the addiction some churches have to the "altar call".

"How often the average congregation is put through this routine. How often the individual believer is maneuvered down front to consecrate and reconsecrate, surrender and re-surrender, commit and recommit himself to Christ! Why is it that after awhile the believer comes to dread such meetings and messages?"

I'm hoping to find some more of Standish's correspondences in my wanderings amid the stacks at used book stores. I think he'll join C.S. Lewis on my shelves as worthy of keeping and re-reading.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Off Kilter

Sorry for the lack of reviews here lately. Between travel and home and garden chores to catch up with upon each return, I simply haven't finished reading anything lately. This, too, shall pass.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White

 I think I have purchased and read nearly everything that Steven Brust has written in the last couple of decades, beginning with Jhereg, and including Cowboy Feng's Space Bar & Grill, Brokedown Palace, and To Reign in Hell. I ran across this collaboration with Skyler White at the library and decided I'd better read it. Not a fatal error, but not exactly up to Brust's usual standards, either.

Several years back, my insurance agent inexplicably hired an office assistant who was horribly incompetent. Her sins were far too many to list here, but they led me to state on more than one occasion that she had to be either related to him or having an affair with him. I'm afraid that I'm left wondering the same thing about Brust's relationship to Skyler White, as there seems to be no other reason to screw up a perfectly good writing process which has produced masterpieces of fantasy fiction for many years. I will, however, give White the benefit of the doubt at this point and will try reading something else by her to verify my theory. You'll be the first to know, gentle readers.

The novel is just way too long on talk and too short on action. The premise is that there is a group of effective immortals who make "incremental" changes by influencing people towards or away from some course of action, making the world a slightly better place, one bite at a time, so to speak. They never try to make major changes, just little ones.

The narrative is split between the viewpoints of Phil, an incrementalist who has been on the job for over two thousand years, and Ren, the woman he has selected to replace a member who has died, who was (it seems at first) incidentally also his lover for the last two hundred years, in various incarnations. These folks don't possess physical immortality, but their memories and personalities can be passed on to new bodies, integrating the old with the new, more or less, depending on how dominant each personality is.

Phil is a professional poker player, participating in the WSOP, so everything happens in Vegas, and stays in Vegas. It turns out that his dead lover, Celeste, was far more skilled at the whole business of subtle influence and change than anyone realized, as it develops that she influenced Phil to pick her successor, and to fall in love with Ren, even when Celeste's personality doesn't appear in her new host as expected. Celeste is playing some sort of long game, which may be detrimental to the long term plans of the Incrementalists as a whole, and they spend endless chapters debating what to do about it, while Ren and Phil work out their various emotional issues.

It could be that this is the first book in the series, and after a couple hundred pages of setup, we'll be graced with some actual plot movement in the next one. Keep your fingers crossed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Life of Pi by Yann Martel


Embarking on another trip, I found myself searching for an audio book to keep us entertained. Life of Pi, a story about  Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry, and his shipwreck with a Bengal tiger, recently made into a movie, seemed like a safe bet.

To be a good long distance travel audio book requires a couple of things, for me. First, the narrator must be upbeat and entertaining, rather than droning in such a way as to put you to sleep. This book succeeded on that front. Second, the book itself must catch my attention and have a swiftly moving plot. I'm afraid it fails on that score.

The narrator, as Pi, goes off on long digressions about zoos and the animals in them, comparative religion - erroneously, I might add - and even historical swimming pools in Paris. We listed for several hours and never got to a point where we felt engaged, so we gave up and listened to XM Satellite Radio instead.

If you like long flowery descriptions and pointless pontification, go ahead and read - or listen to - this one.

Monday, September 8, 2014

War: What is it Good For? by Ian Morris

 This began as an interesting read, detailing the benefits of the art of War as it pertains to the building of civilizations, such as the Roman, Han and Mauryan Empires. However, it fairly rapidly just got far too detailed for me to keep my interest up, so I stalled out about 125 pages in, and never got my momentum back again.

Some interesting excerpts:

"War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. Ten thousand years ago, there were only about six million people on earth. On average they lived about thirty years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day."

"The good new is that we humans have proved remarkably good at adapting to our changing environment. We fought countless wars in the past because fighting paid off, but in the twentieth century, as the returns to violence declined, we found ways to solve our problems without bringing on Armageddon."

"Governments and laws bring their own problems, of course. "Formerly we suffered from crimes," Tacitus had one of his characters joke. "Now we suffer from laws." A government strong enough to stamp out wrongdoing...was also a government strong enough to do even greater wrong."

On the subject of the idyllic and peaceful existence of North American tribes before the scourge of the white man arrived on its shores,

"Excavations began at Crow Creek in 1978, and since then evidence for Native American massacres has come thick and fast. The most recent example (as I write) is at Sacred Ridge in Colorado, where a village was burned down around A.D. 800 and at least thirty-five men, women, and children were tortured and killed."

The effects of climate on civilization's rise are also discussed by Morris. He talks about the "Lucky Latitudes" where warmth, water and fertile soil allowed agriculture to develop on a large scale, leading to the rise of cities and societies larger than the nomadic tribes which had gone before. It's also interesting to note that the rise of civilization took place after Earth emerged from a series of Ice Ages, when the climate was conducive to agriculture, and that the Dark Ages took place during a cooling period when crop failures and famines made resources scarce.

There's the process dubbed "caging" by a pair of rival sociologists - when people are trapped by their lifestyle of farming and cannot merely flee to other hunting grounds, as hunter/gatherer societies of the past could. "Caged" people "find themselves forced - regardless of what they may think about the matter - to build larger and more organized societies. Unable to run away from enemies, thei either create a more effective organization so they can fight back or are absorbed into the enemy's more effective organization."

In the "some things never change" department,

"Excavators at Xuanquan, a Han military post office, have found twenty-three thousand undelivered letters, painted on bamboo strips between 111 B.C. and A.D. 107 (many of them complaints about how unreliable the mail was)."

A Personal Demon by David Bischoff

 On my little demon kick still...the stories collected here, which are more novella length than short shorts, were originally published in Fantastic magazine, edited by Bischoff. They chronicle the travails of Professor Willis Baxter at Powhattan University, the "old P.U.", beginning when he summons up a naked and nubile she demon, Anathae, at a fundraising event. The target of the fundraiser, Norman Rockhurst, thinks that the demon is a stripper, part of Willis' magic act, and invites (or perhaps summons is a better term) him to a political rally taking place at his home several nights later. When Willis' dowdy girlfriend, Gertrude Twill, discovers Anathae the next morning, still a bit underclothed for the weather, at his apartment, she storms out and resolves in her heart to destroy him. His rival and fellow professor, Larry Hawthorne, wants control of the demon for himself, and covets the same promotion to head of the Literature Department that Baxter does, so the stage is set for conflict through several humorous episodes.

This book has the flavor of some of the Incomplete Enchanter series as written by DeCamp and Pratt at their prime (I may have to re-read and review that series one of these days). Light reading for an enjoyable weekend.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Azazel by Isaac Asimov

 Most of the stories in Azazel first appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine a few decades ago, and were all collected in this volume for the first time in 1988. I don't know who came up with the idea first, but it dates back to the story of the Monkey's Paw, at least, that one should beware of any wish fulfillment method, especially demons, and even sitcom genies' wish granting can have dubious results.

Asimov's friend, a 'Freddy the Freeloader" sort, George, has somehow or other summoned a very small demon, two centimeters tall, but far larger in the scope of his mischief. Against his better judgement - he has no better nature - George keeps trying to help his acquaintances to be smarter, stronger, wealthier, or more famous, as the demon is restricted from directly benefitting George with his wishes, and George keeps hoping that success will one day rub off on him, at least to the extent of the victims beneficiaries paying for drinks and meals.

The banter between George and Asimov's fictional self is bitingly satirical and quite amusing - I wish I could be so insulting without being crude - and the inevitable collapse of the demon's "improvements" is always quite innovative. I'm not sure whether it was more amusing to wait for these stories of Azazel to appear as long anticipated treats in the monthly magazine, or to gobble them up all at once in one long sitting.

Filled with bits like,

"His ex-mistress sang cantatas at the local church...I thought at the time that her morals didn't quite suit the surroundings, but Morrison said they made allowances for sopranos."

and,

"I am, by nature, a courteous man, so I greeted him with a grunt and a glare, which he accepted in a calm way."

More fun than a barrel of...well, demons.