Thursday, September 30, 2010

Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein

Glory Road"I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population Cold War and no H-bombs and no television Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes - no income tax. The climate is the sort that Florida and California claim (and neither have), the land is lovely, the people are friendly and hospitable to strangers, the women are beautiful and amazingly anxious to please - I could go back. I could -"

You gotta love a novel that starts with a claim like this. This is the story of Evelyn Cyril "Easy" Gordon, alias "Flash," aka "Oscar the Hero," veteran of an Un-War in Southeast Asia and just the kind of big lug you want beside you in a barroom brawl.
Discharged from the army after a run-in with a machete-wielding hostile, Gordon is relaxing with his accumulated pay on an isle in the south of France, when he meets the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. She recruits him to rescue the Egg of the Phoenix, an artifact of enormous power, and we're off and running, fighting golems, dragons, bloodsucking fliers, cybernetic constructs and lots of other bad guys.

The story is fast-paced and sometimes cynical, with lots of literary references, biting social commentary and lots of action. This is the closest thing to fantasy that Heinlein ever wrote.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Raising Dragons by Bryan Davis

Raising Dragons (Dragons in Our Midst, Book 1)I don't really read much YA or juvenile stuff these days, for obvious reasons, but someone had recommended Davis' series, and I thought I'd check it out. Sorry, folks, but after about ten pages, I put it down and gave up. It was just way too...juvenile. It began with a boy dreaming that he was a dragon, in a fight with a knight, and just didn't catch my attention.
I wouldn't give it a downcheck for those who like to read stuff written for very young readers, and if one of you has a good slant on it, let me know, and perhaps I can post a rebuttal guest post.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

GameEarth by Kevin Anderson

Gamearth (The Gamearth Trilogy)As a former Dungeons & Dragons player, I enjoy a good D&D ripoff novel as well as the next barbarian...the key word here being "good." I'm afraid that Anderson's GameEarth doesn't really fall into that category. The novel contains two plots - the story of the four kids playing a game of which some have grown tired, and the story of the PCs and NPCs in the world generated by that game.

Anderson does generate an interesting effect, by having the characters in GameEarth acknowledge that their world has grown old, that all the evil monsters have been killed, all the great heroes left to regale their glory days amidst a sea of tavern ale, and that there's nothing much worth living for. I'm afraid, though, that this sort of attitude won't carry a tale past the first fifty pages, and it didn't. The most unbelievable thing about this novel is that he actually wrote a sequel... two of them...and they got published...and reprinted???

Monday, September 27, 2010

The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family by Patrick Lencioni

The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable About Restoring Sanity To The Most Important Organization In Your Life (J-B Lencioni Series)
I can't recall, exactly which of the bloggers I read recommended this book, but I thought it might prove interesting. This was a really quick read, with a lot of simple principles laid out in a "leadership fable". Lencioni tells the story of a family (it could be any of us) which spends most of its time rushing about, trying to get all the things done in a day that it has to, from housekeeping to kids' soccer games, school board meetings, business travel, and so forth. The husband in the family, Jude, says to his wife one night, "If my clients ran their companies the way we run this family, they'd be out of business."

After the fight...

The wife, Theresa, starts talking with her friends, some of whom seem to have it all together, and finds out that despite appearances, most families are struggling. From one of those conversations, "...I wish they'd stop cleaning their house when someone is coming over to visit. Scott always comments on how clean people's houses are, and I tell him that our house is always clean when people come over, too." I can remember when Michele used to go on a house-cleaning spree, and the kids would ask her "Who's coming over?"

After talking with a number of her friends, Theresa asks one of her husband's employees to explain to her what their business consulting firm does for its clients, hoping to find out what principles of a successful business might make their family run more smoothly, as well. What he shows her is a list of six questions:

1. What is the ultimate reason you're in business?
2. What are the essential characteristics that are inherent in your organization and that you could never knowingly violate?
3. What specifically does your company do, and for whom?
4. How do you go about doing what you do in a way that differentiates you from your competitors and gives you an advantage?
5. What is your biggest priority, and what do you need to accomplish to achieve it?
6. Who has to do what to achieve your goals?

One thing that Lencioni says (in the guise of th employee, Rob) I found amusing, as I've observed it at businesses I worked for in the past. "...when you convuse your core values with your aspirational, permission to play, and accidental ones, you end up with a very long list of generic sounding values that only inspire cynicism among employees - who think the executives are in denial about the real culture of the company." So true. Mission statements can be hell.

Another thing in the fable that sounded familiar to me was "...these crazy soccer parents say that if they (the kids) don't play on the all-start team by age eleven, they'll never have a chance to play high school soccer." I remember the parents and kids who were way too serious about sports. Perhaps for some of them it led to a high school or college sports career, but the time commitment was incredible, with no guarantees.

Theresa takes the questions Rob shares with her home and begins to hammer them into shape as something that her family can use. She ends up narrowing it down into three questions:
1. What makes the (fill in the blank) family unique?
2. What is the most important priority in our lives right now?
3. How will we keep these things alive?

Lencioni suggests being perfectly honest answering the first question, limiting the answer to the second question to something that can be accomplished within 2 to 6  months, and holding family meetings and keeping visual reminders of the priorities established by the first two questions in constant view. He also shows how to create a series of actions that will lead to accomplishing the most important priority, without sacrificing other things which are important to the family.

A quick read, a thought-provoking book. Grab a copy if you get a chance, and you're feeling overwhelmed by a life lived going in multiple directions simultaneously.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Blogger Hop - Sept 24 -27

Book Blogger Hop
The Book Blogger Hop is on again.

The question today is "When you write reviews, do you write them as you are reading or wait until you have read the entire book?"

My answer: I always wait until I've finished reading the book. I'll occasionally put a post-it note on a page where there's a quote I need to refer to later, and I often think of things I want to say in my review while I'm reading (I should take notes on that, as my brain leaks like a sieve), but I try to write the review within 24 hours of finishing the book. Sometimes, my schedule precludes it, and I'll write two or three on a Saturday morning, to be posted on schedule.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Twilight (The Twilight Saga)So, what in the world can I say about Twilight that hasn't been said before. With its immense popularity, this may be one of the most reviewed books on the planet at present. I'm not in the habit of reading young adult fiction very often any more, unless it's to re-read the Narnia chronicles, L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time or Alexander's Prydain books - all huge classics. The whole adolescent angst thing just isn't all that relevant to me any more.

I picked up a copy of Twilight while I was in Portugal, figuring it would make for some light reading, and got about a third of the way through it in a couple of days, so I picked up a copy at the library the other night, just to get closure. I could definitely relate to Bella's klutziness and lack of sporting coordination. I was extremely bad at athletics as a young person. One bit just cracked me up,

"Gym was brutal. We'd moved on to basketball. My team never passed me the ball, so that was good, but I fell down a lot. Sometimes I took people with me."

I personally remember nailing someone on the other side of the net with a tennis ball direct to the breadbasket one day in gym, and there was that incident with Bryan Bateman breaking my nose with the locker room door. Water under the bridge, eh?

I think that Ms. Meyer did a really good job of writing a vampire novel for young adults that is free from the usual blatant sexuality you'll find in most adult vampire novels these days. I'm not sure I'm thrilled with the liberties she's taken with vampire lore...Sparkle??? It also seemed like the confrontation with the vampire tracker from the other coven was a little contrived, and he went down too easily, but I'm accustomed to a perhaps more graphic blow by blow approach to battling bloodsuckers.

A very readable novel. I might even pick up New Moon,  on a slow day.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Flux by Stephen Baxter

I suppose I've lost some of my sense of wonder over the years. There was a time when I believed I might actually get offplanet during my lifetime, but that dream just slides further and further away as NASA underachieves and private industry fails to step up to the plate. That said, you can understand why I find Baxter's account of life on the surface of a neutron star less than thrilling - more of an amusing tale in the tradition of Barsoom or Gor.

Unfortunately, the tale wasn't anywhere near as exciting as Burroughs' or Norman's sagas, so I ended up a couple hundred pages into it, still bored, and had to give up. The story begins with a band of genetically engineered humans who are living under primitive conditions getting devasted by a "glitch" in the star. As they wander in search of food, they encounter more "technologically" advanced groups, and become somewhat involved in their society. There was a bit about surfing on the magnetic currents in the body of the star that could have gone somewhere, but didn't by the time I quit reading.

In that vein, I once read a short story about people kayaking in lava flows on a distant world that was pretty good. Wish I could remember where.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hangman by Faye Kellerman

Hangman: A Decker/Lazarus NovelFaye Kellerman always provides a good read with her Decker/Lazarus novels. A couple of characters from one of Decker's early cases, Chris Donetti, and his wife, Terry, show up in this one. Donetti and Terry are in a troubled marriage. Well, living as the wife of a contract killer can't be all roses, now, can it? Terry asks Decker to be there when she meets with Chris to tell him she wants a separation. Shortly after the meeting, things go awry, and Terry disappears, leaving behind their teenaged son, Gabe.

Right about that time, a woman's body is discovered, hanging naked from the rafters of a house under construction, and Decker gets the case. As he digs into her life to try to find some suspects, the novel turns into the usual methodic investigation, and eventually takes some odd twists, as there turn out to be more than one villain in the piece.

But this novel isn't as much about detective work as it is about family, really. Decker and Rina take in Donetti's son, Gabe, and give him a home while Decker is trying to find out what became of his mother. It's unclear whether she was murdered by Chris, or whether she took the opportunity to run away from her life, leaving her son behind. He stays in the bedroom that used to belong to Rina's two sons, who are now away at college, with only Hannah still at home. Hannah becomes like a big sister to Gabe, and gets him involved in helping out with her school choir, as he's a quite accomplished pianist.

When the family gets together for Decker's birthday, they include Gabe, and make him feel welcome in all ways, for as long as he needs to stay. Rina and Decker are an example of how good, stable, parents treat their kids, and other people's kids, too. In real life, people like them quietly go about helping others, and tend to acquire quite a few "adoptees", who forever feel like part of the family.

So, the murder eventually gets solved, and all is well, but I think Mrs. Kellerman just needed to add another personality to the Decker/Lazarus mix, and did it in a way that took the edge off of what could have been a brutal and depressing novel.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Travel Guide Follow Up

So, I said I'd have to come back and say whether the travel guides I read before my trip were any good or not. I read Rick Steves' Portugal and viewed a couple of his DVDs, and read Frommer's Lisbon Day by Day, Portugal and Spain (foolishly thinking we had time for a 2nd country). They all contained good information, but I don't think anything can totally prepare you for the first time you hit the ground running in a foreign country.
The best features in any of the books were the "neighborhood walks", I think. When we were able to find our way to a starting point on one of those, it worked out fairly well. Unfortunately, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and little things kept us from getting where we needed to go, like not exactly comprehending the complexities of the commuter train schedules.
The one area where the books were of no use at all was in recommending restaurants. The ones they mention in the guides turn out to be so jam-packed full that they weren't worth the wait for us. We found that if we just picked someplace convenient, when we happened to be hungry, food quality was generally good, and portions generous. We really enjoyed it when we could hit a little restaurant that was frequented by locals, rather than tourists.
Prices quoted in the books can only be used in a general "order of magnitude" way. Attractions were generally more expensive than quoted, and I found that I just had to quell my ordinarily tightwad attitude and just have fun, without thinking about the money. Also, rather than trying to figure out what something in Euros really cost in Dollars (I'm actually good with math, and could do it), I just relaxed and treated a euro as a dollar, and quit thinking about it, even to the extent of calling euros "bucks".
Be prepared to walk...and walk...and walk. We found out eventually that our best tactic was to buy a pass on one of the hop on/hop off tour buses, ride the circuit to get the layout of the city, then ride the circuit a second time, hopping off to explore those things we were interested in. Public transit passes were handy, too, for the trolleys and elevators, tho we never did figure out the city bus schedules. The Lisboa card came highly recommended, and I think we about broke even on the cost of the commuter train by buying ours; the discount on attractions turned out to be not all that wonderful, so I'm not sure that part was worthwhile. There might have been a better pass available for transport.
Local tour companies are extremely helpful, and it's fun to join a small - emphasis SMALL - tour to explore places you might not otherwise get to, and to meet other travelers. My personal recommendation would be to avoid American or British groups, it's really more fun to get to know people from different cultures.
The travel guides, over all, are a good resource for understanding some basic concepts, but you'll find that none of them cover everything you need to know, and you'll feel like you should have been carrying about a dozen along in order to have everything you need.

Death Match by Lincoln Child

Death Match
An old literary friend of mine recommended Lincoln Child as a good thriller writer a while back, and I just happened to pick up his Death Match at the library yesterday. This one's definitely a page-turner. The premise is fairly simple; a company has finally perfected a matchmaking service, using a supercomputer, that will find people's soulmates. Using some pretty thorough physical and psychological testing, it is able to match people very successfully. Evidently, even happily married couples only achieve a 35% match on the compatibility index, and this revolutionary process can achieve matches in the 90% plus range.

And, every so often, the computer produces what the company, Eden, Inc., refers to as a "supercouple," a couple whose indices match 100%. In the two years or so the company has been providing its services, there have been six such couples produced. And now, for the fly in the ointment... One of these supercouples, to all outward appearances deliriously happy, has just committed double suicide.
So, Eden hires an outside consultant, psychologist and former FBI profiler, Christopher Lash, to investigate the deaths and find out how this could happen to a perfect couple. Shortly after he begins his investigation, generating little but dead ends and false starts, a second "supercouple" also commits suicide.

The plot takes a number of good twists, and really keeps you guessing. When you finally get to the point you figure out the inescapable conclusion, it's like a good forehead slap. I can't really get into it, as I really wouldn't want to spoil the surprise for you. On the characterization side, it's a little weak. Most of the characters remain one-dimensional throughout, except for our intrepid investigator, whom we gradually come to understand pretty thoroughly.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Web of Lies by Jennifer Estep

Web of Lies (Elemental Assassin, Book 2)So, our favorite assassin is retired now. After the death of her surrogate father and handler, Fletcher Lane, she inherited a great deal of his money, as well as his home, and the restaurant he operated, the Pork Pit, so in deference to his wishes and because she really doesn't have to, Gin Blanco is trying to go straight.

Unfortunately, the thugs around town have other ideas. When the son of a local bigshot lawyer tied to the vicious fire elemental Mab Monroe decides to get unruly in her restaurant, she has to put him down, hard, after he threatens to kill her and a couple of her customers. When she presses charges for attempted robbery, his father decides to make her life miserable.

To make it even harder, a damsel in distress (isn't it usually a guy hero supposed to rescue those sorts?) shows up on Gin's doorstep and is the target of a professional assassin, who shoots up the windows in the Pork Pit. Kind of a rough week for the bbq business. Gin decides to investigate, to find out why the girl is under attack, and things get even rougher when she finds out that a dwarf coal mining magnate who has ties to Mab Monroe, also, is after the girl's grandfather's land. When the grandfather in question turns out to be an old friend of Fletcher's, the die is cast, and Gin has to bring back all her old skills, and acquire a few more, to take care of the bad guys and their brute squads.

More complications come from her fire and ice relationship with Donovan Caine, and we get to know some of her allies, the dwarf Deveraux sisters, a little bit better, as well as experiencing with Gin a few flashbacks to when she got involved with Fletcher, and became the assassin's apprentice. Good stuff, I need to pick up Venom soon.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dia Ultima

The Girls at Casa da Guia
So, today was really really lazy. Didn't rush around at all in the morning, just had a couple cafes, a bowl of cereal, some bread and cheese, unpacked everything and re-packed for the trip home, leaving space for gifts to take home. Michele and I walked over to the Neto's market and chatted with them for a little bit, while Manny was still abed. Picked up some backup batteries for the camera, and a few other things. Walked back to the house and rousted Manny, then we all went out to the local mall and wandered around, picking up a few things to take home. Different set of stores, mostly, but nothing I can tell you about malls here is any different from what it's like at home.

Went by a grocery store and picked up some frozen lasagna (that's not Portugese) for lunch, ate with the whole family, except Manny's younger brother. We went down to a little "fair" by the Boca de Inferno and picked up a few more souvenirs to bring home, cheaply. Stopped at a flower shop and bought a beautiful orchidia arrangement for Irene.

Cliffs at Casa da Gaia
Relaxed around the house, reading, for a while. Around 7 pm, we went with Manny and Lucy and her fiancee, David, down to Casa da Guia, a little commercial area down by the cliffs overlooking the sea, walked around for a bit, then settled in for some cafes and the lovely view, had a great conversation about South Africa, Portugal, and America, the differences and similarities.

Went on back to the house at 9, and Irene had fixed some seafood pasta that was delicious. Manny's friend, Ricardo, had brought us some wine from his mother's brokerage, as a gift to take home, so then we decided, at nearly 11, to zoom over to the store and get some cheeses and sausages to bring home, as well, and Manuel got a couple bottles of port from his store, and we went crazy with the bubble wrap and filled up a suitcase to take home in checked luggage. Here's hoping it all arrives safely in SLC. Off to bed way too late now.

The Countdown Begins

Hopping a trolley
We went next door to the hotel and ate dinner in our last night in Porto at a Churrasceria, bbq joint. Michele had the Frango no Churrasco - chicken, while I had the Alheira a Che Madeira, a stuffed sausage. The appetizers included some marinated octopus, which was tasty and tender. Slept in a bit this morning, as there was nothing pressing on the schedule, then had a leisurely breakfast at the buffet downstairs. There are these yellow/green melons here that are the most succulent ones I've ever had. We had some at the Netos' house in Cascais, and they're on the breakfast bar here daily, so I've been savoring them.

Down by the Riverside
Didn't have anything on the schedule for morning, so we slept in just a bit, then went down for breakfast at the hotel buffet. Got all our stuff gathered up and packed, then left it all in the hotel room and went out for a while. Bought a transit pass for a euro each and climbed on the electrocarro (trolley) and rode around town, transferring to another trolley, then getting off down by the electrocarro museum we'd visited the other day to stroll on down to the Ribeira district, which we had blown past on the bus. Walked around there for a while, had a cafe in a place overlooking the Douro River, then took the funicular near the Luiz I bridge back up the hill to about a block from the hotel.

The Funicular
 Checked out of the hotel at that point, around noon, and left our bags behind the reception desk while we killed the three hours we had before we figured we ought to be at the train station. Decided to walk the entire length of Rua Santa Catarina, the shopping capitol, and had a good time poking our heads inside the shops for a bit. Crossed over eventually to the Avenida Alliados area, and found the nearby open air market, which was fascinating to behold. Fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, cheeses, flowers, plants, nuts, and gallons upon gallons of wonderful olives. The fish market ambience was a little intense for fine dining, so we went on over to the avenue, found a little sidewalk cafe, and I had a franceshina sandwich, while Michele had a cachorro, or hot dog, prepared with the same type of sauce, mildly spicy.

Open Air Fish Market
Back to the hotel, picked up our bags, went to the Sao Bento station, and took the commuter train to Campanha, then waited there for our train. It all went way quicker than we'd allowed time for, so we had a long wait in the train station, reading our books, doing Sudoku, and so forth. The train ride back was more amusing than the ride up. A band of gypsies joined the train just south of Porto, carrying all their worldly belongings in some gigantic blanket bags. Their luggage ended up blocking the doorway out of the car, forcing some people who needed to get off at that point to miss their exit when the train pulled out. The men were all quite drunk when they boarded, and they spent the entire three hours yelling at each other, and walking back and forth to the train car bathroom - I think they continued to drink out of flasks or something the entire trip.

The Melons in the foreground are delicious!
 We made a mad dash for the exit as soon as the train pulled into Lisbon, along with a number of other passengers on our end of the car, hoping to avoid their mess getting their luggage off the train. Turned out, their luggage was still completely blocking the door of that car from opening, so we had to push on through the connecting doors to the next car to get out. The girl behind us was screaming (in English and Portugese) "Go, Go!, quickly!". The gypsies had banged on the door to the bathroom in the train, because they wanted to use it, when the poor thing was in there using it, herself. She was quite panicked. Anyway, it was a different experience.
Manny came down to the train station and picked us up, brought us back to Cascais. He'd had a good first week back at school, and we got ourselves all caught up again. Manuel and Irene had gotten some marinated flank steak and South African sausage on the grill by the time we got home, so we all enjoyed a really nice meal together, then stumbled off to bed.

Why We Buy by Paco Underhills

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping--Updated and Revised for the Internet, the Global Consumer, and BeyondPaco Underhill is the owner of Envirosell, a company which studies the way that people interact with the goods and fixtures in retail environments, and he's written a book that is filled with his musings on retailers, shoppers, and merchandising. The admin at work was going to throw a pile of books away, if no one took them, so, like a hapless child in an animal shelter, I had to rescue one or two. Within a couple of pages, I ran across a spontaneous personal connection; Underhill worked with an architect who was responsible for the design of the international airport in Newark, NJ - I was reading those pages as I sat in that very airport.

Did you know that people instinctively slow down as they approach reflective surfaces? Seems to happen all over the world. I guess we're all a bunch of narcissists at heart.

The majority of us also have a rightward bias. When we enter a store, we automatically head to the right hand side of the store. We also will find it easiest to remove the item from a shelf that is to the right of where we're looking directly.

I had thought it was only me who had a problem with where (especially) grocery stores place their shopping baskets. I find myself halfway through my "just a couple things" list when I realize I should have gotten a basket, and have to make the trip back to the front of the store to get one, so I can finish shopping. Paco suggests that stores distribute them to multiple points within the store. Shoppers actually are proven to buy more items if they pick up a basket. If they have to juggle items, they'll just give up.

He talks about the "butt brush" efffect. If shoppers are in an aisle where there is a lot of traffic, and they receive some sort of physical contact from other shoppers passing by, they'll usually endure the first "brush" or two, but if it occurs more than twice, again, they'll give up on what they're looking at and move on.

Signage is quite important in the retail industry, but most of it turns out to be poorly designed, just because of the way we read and the natural limits on the time we spend doing so.

Most of the "mistakes" he talks about, I've seen happening, as I reflect on it. This isn't a buyer beware sort of book, nor is it a textbook for retailers, but it is an interesting series of vignettes about how we shop, and what makes us more likely to buy from a particular retailer, other than price, quality, or brand loyalty. An amusing and un-assuming read.

A Reminder

Just in case you're stopping by for the first time, I ordinarily publish a review each day. I've been traveling in Portugal for two weeks, though, so A) I did miss one day of posting a book review, due to internet availability issues, on the 15th, and B) I've been additionally posting a bit of a travelblog each day, so you might have to hunt a bit to find the book reviews in between. We will return to our normal programming next week, when I'm back in the States.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Douro Run

Kids, stay in school, go to college
Today we set off on an excursion touring the Douro valley, the premier wine producing region of Portugal. The van picked us up in front of our hotel, and it was just us and an older Dutch couple, Harri and Lucille, on the tour. We thought we were going on a river cruise up the Douro, but after a long drive inland, we began to realize that perhaps our expectations were incorrect.

Monastery of Santo Goncarlo
 Our first stop was at the town of Amarente, where we got to walk through the monastery of Santo Goncalo. Goncalo was a pilgrim who left his town for many years, and when he returned the townspeople no longer recognized him, he had changed so much. There is a bridge across the Rio Tamega next to the monastery that is the scene of a famous battle against Napoleon's troops where the villagers stopped the soldiers from crossing the bridge. There was also a street fair going on. We didn't have enough time there to look at the goods for sale closely, but it appeared that everything from clothes to melons were on sale.

The gardens and statuary of the sanctuary
Next we stopped in Lamego at the Santuario Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, where there is a nice little church and some lovely gardens. There is a series of stairs and little landings that goes all the way down the hill a couple of kilometers to the city below. It was pretty quiet there, but it looked like a great spot for a weekend picnic.

 We paused for lunch near Regua, on the Douro river, finally, at the Douro IN. We shared a table with our new Dutch friends, who spoke English quite well, and had a great time comparing our cultures and talking about traveling. They've been all over the world over the twenty years, and are in their eighties, hoping to keep going a bit longer. They both had the stroganoff do peru (turkey), and Michele and I had the pescada frita con salada hosa (fried whitefish, I believe, with a mixed vegetable salad). I decided to get adventurous after the meal with a new desert - I thought - and ordered the ananas, which turned out to be a slice of pineapple, very sweet. After cafes, we got back on the road once more.

At the Port Winery
 We went up the Douro river to Pinhao, and up a long winding stone paved road to the Quinta do Panascal, where they grow the grapes to make the Fonseca lable of Port Wine. We took an audio tour of the vineyards, then returned to the winery office for a sample of both the white and red ports, which I found much better than the last port I tried several years ago.

The way back would have passed uneventfully save for a blowout of the rear tire about 30 km from Porto. We had to wait in the van until a repair truck arrived to change out the tire, but fortunately it didn't take too long and we were only about an hour late getting back to our hotel.

Porto, or Bust

This is an attempted reconstruction of a post I lost when the wifi connection at the hotel in Porto gave me problems. Don't get me started on the ripoff that is wifi in Porto.

We woke Manny at o'dark thirty this morning and had him take us to the Oriente train station in Lisbon. Got there with plenty of time to spare and figured out what platform our train was leaving from, so we had a couple of cafes and relaxed beforehand. People in Idaho who have no public transportation options do not fare all that well with the myriad of these things in Europe. Up to a point, you can figure things out, but there's just so much that's left unsaid, assumed.

Kids cooling off in a fountain

Our train turned out to be about tweny minutes late after all, but we climbed on and a few hours later we were in Porto. (coolkids) We arrived at the Campanha station in Porto, and needed to get to the Sao Bento station there, so as to be within walking distance of our hotel, so we checked with the ticket office lady and she told us our ticket was valid all the way to that station, and which platform to stand on. When we got to Sao Bento, we found an information office across the street and got a complimentary map of the city and orientation and directions to our hotel. Walked to the hotel in very warm weather, and arrived sweating and ready for showers. Got checked in and cleaned up, then headed out for a walk around town.

Beatiful women
Our hotel was on the Praca de Batalha. Nearby is the Igreja Santo Ildefonso, covered in blue tiles - we can pretty much see it from our window. turned out to be right around the corner from the busiest shopping street in town Rua Santa Catarina, so we strolled down there first, weaving amongst the crowds and avoiding the beggars. We walked up there several blocks before we turned west and headed a couple of blocks over to the Avenida des Alliados.
(smalliados)There are many amazing buildings on the avenue, and the City council building is at the top of the area. There's a statue out in front of a famous poet of Portugal, who tried over and over and over to be elected to the council. After he died, they still kept him outside. At the bottom of the square, of course, is the mandatory "guy on a horse" statue, commemorating a hero of battle.

A man and his horse
We wandered the city most of the afternoon, and relaxed in the hotel room in the evening, after a meal of fresh fruit and cheeses.

Congo by Michael Crichton

I saw all of the previews for the movie on television, watched the movie and thought that it would make good reading, though not strictly SF. I've read and enjoyed most of his stuff over the years, from The Andromeda Strain to Disclosure. Congo was actually written back 1980, and resurrected due to his recent commercial success. Better it had been left for dead.

This is a tired old story about the journey to a fabled lost city, with the lure of vast riches in diamonds to be had. Our travelers, corporate sharpshooter Karen Ross, wimpy primatologist Peter Elliot, lovable gorilla Amy, and the rest of their motley crew, encounter armed rebels in the Congo, earthquakes, hippopotami, volcanos, and teenage mutant ninja gorillas. These encounters might play pretty well on the silver screen, where the tension can be built skillfully with cutaways and background music, but they all fell flat in the novel.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Porto, or Bus

Cute sculpture in Porto

This morning we bought a couple of RedLine Hop on/Hop off tour bus tickets. The bus makes a huge loop around the city of Porto, stopping at over 30 places, and you just get on and off with your pass when it comes by every half hour. We rode the entire circuit at first, just to get an idea of what was out there to see, so all of my pictures either have the top rail of the double decker bus in the shot, or some other tourtist's hat. Not the best photo venue, but you cover a lot of ground quickly, and there are sound tracks in all different languages, English is channel 2.

Boats in the bay

We saw the Praca De Joao I, the Avenida dos Alliados, Torre dos Clerigos, where there is a 250 foot tower you can climb to view the entire city. We passed by the Monumento a Guerra Peninsular, where there is a huge tower with the Lion of Portugal on top, the performing arts center at Casa de Musica, the Museu de Arte Contemporanea in the Casa de Serralves, and the enormous Parque da Cidade, a nature preserve. Arriving at the coast, we saw the Forte de Sao Francisco Xavier, known as the "cheese" fort, as it looks much like a huge wheel of cheese. We proceded down a lovely coastal area towards the Douro River, past the Castelo de Sao Joao da Foz, and along the river into the touristy Ribeira area, then across the Douro into the Vila Nova de Gaia, where all the riverboats moor and the port wine cellars are located.

Lady Justice
Turning around, we headed back across the Ponte de Luis I again, through downtown Porto, up past the Se Cathedral and looped back to where we started at the hotel. We then rode the first part of the route again, and went all the way out to the fort on the coast, where we hopped off the bus for the first time and took a very cheap tour of the fort, which is now a memorial for the Commandos of the Portugese military. Cheapest WC in town, by the way. After leaving the fort, we walked along the waterfront on a nice boardwalk, looking at all the bathers and folks wading in the tidepools, until we got to an area where there were a bunch of little cafes, where we stopped for a light lunch. Michele had Salada de Atum (tuna) and I had a Baguette da Delicious do Mar (seafood sandwich), which was a little light on the seafood, but wonderfully crunchy with a nice flavor. When we were done, we continued our stroll all the way down to the Foz, where we waited for a long time for the bus to come by again. I think they go to hourly service in the middle of the day rather than every thirty minutes.

At the Cheese Fort
Stayed on the bus long enough to reach the stop for the Museu de Electrocarros, the tram museum, where we paid 7 euros to go inside and look at their very interesting collection of antique trams from the 1800s and early 20th century. There was also a small area where they obviously entertain kids, with a rather elaborate toy train setup. If we had known it, the ticket we bought at the museum would have allowed us to ride the trams in town for four hours, but we'd already planned to jump back on the bus and head to the south side of the river again, to look at all the boats down there, so we skipped the tram ride, alas.

Mule Drawn Trolley
Hopped on the bus again, rode to the Vila Nova and wandered around there for a while, having an ice cream cone and ice cream bar whilst strolling. Got back on the bus again in a little while and rode the loop back to our hotel, where we are resting up for our night on the town in Porto. I ran across the street the the Fruitaria and picked up some plums and apricots rather cheap, and we snacked on those and some cheese I brought from Cascais. Internet access requires extra payment here at the hotel, so blogging has been sparse, though I may break down and get a few posts up all at once.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

FireDance by Steven Barnes

Having recently finished reading Firedance by Steven Barnes, I'm unsure of exactly what to say about it. When you can barely remember having read it after only a week or so, it does seem to indicate that this was not one of the all-time great novels.

Firedance continues the story begun in Streetlethal and continued in Gorgon Child of Aubry Knight, a martial artist turned political leader in a near-future US. As the book opens, we experience the assassination of one of Aubry's oldest friends, Mira. Aubry decides that vengeance is his, and sets off to kill the man behind the killing, Pan-African leader Phillipe Swarna.

Aubry is trained, inserted into Pan Africa, and put in position to kill Swarna by an elite squad of US government funded counterterrorists. Unbeknownst to him: a) He's been set up to take the fall for the killing. b) His wife and daughter (one of the genetically altered killer Gorgons) are also gunning for Swarna, and present to back Aubry up in his attempt.

The team of killers that Swarna has put on Aubry's trail are also Aubry's clones (and something more that would spoil the ending if I told you), and so he faces opponents who are genetically as fast and tough as he is and who have been trained by a renegade half-breed Yakuza warrior.

In the course of his quest, he discovers a number of things about his murky past, and finally confronts the secret of his childhood. Barnes brings in a lot of eastern mysticism throughout the book, the prime conflict in this story is actually internal - Aubry must reconcile the way of the warrior with the way of peace, the man with the child, his male aspect with his female, yin and yang, etc. The whole thing seems to be somewhat of a lead in for a plug at the end of the novel for Barnes' martial arts? group RoninArts.

Many authors have used their novels to promote their personal beliefs and/or causes, so there's nothing wrong with that, but I was expecting an action packed novel instead of a philosophical treatise, so I was a bit disappointed. Other than that, the novel was well-written, coherent, and had some interesting plot twists, so if you've been keeping up with Aubry Knight's career, you'll probably enjoy it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt 1)
I'm sorry to say that I just couldn't get into this book. It's a debut novel that came highly recommended, but it just didn't grab me, and I only made it a few chapters in before I gave up. It had a sort of interesting concept that I'd never seen before.

The races in the novel were somehow bound up with different types of insects, such as ants, beetles, mantises, wasps, flies and moths. Either through some sort of genetic meddling or via meditation each race obtained some of the abilities of their related insects. The ants had a group mind, the flies could fly and were used as couriers, the mantises were great warriors, and so forth.

Unfortunately, the novel started in a way that made me feel like I was missing a lot of back story, and then jumped to another place and time right away. There were references to bits of mythology that I had no background on, as well. In the author's bio, it mentions that he's an avid role-player. Maybe that sort of thing adds color in an RPG, but it just didn't do it for me.

The Pilgrimage to Fatima

In the square at Fatima
In 1917, three children were tending their sheep by a tree, when they were visited by the Virgin Mary, who gave them three secret messages. From this beginning has sprung an entire Catholic organization, worldwide, and Fatima is its heart. This town is constantly busy with people making a pilgrimage to attend mass, pay homage to the shrine, perform penances, sacrifice burnt offerings, and be separated from their dollars by the tourist industry there. There is a huge cathedral, and a religious center surrounding an enormous square, and today it was full of folks devoted to the holy city.
Manuel and John, the Baptist
We went into the religious center and looked at the mementos of the shepherd children, the displays of churches under the umbrella of Fatima worldwide, and the worship facility very similar to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. There is room after room devoted to prayer and confession and contemplation of the sacred artwork depicting the life of Christ. There's an entire area where people go to buy candles of all imaginable sizes to light or to throw upon the fire, all run upon the honor system; you just pick out the candles you want, drop your money in a slot nearby, and head for the burning area to light them. On one side of the square, there's a chunk of the Berlin wall to commemorate the new unity of Berlin.

The Tomb of Henry the Navigator
We ate lunch at a very nice little Madeiran place called the Restaurante Santa Rita, I had the linguica and Michele had the coelho na fatima, or rabbit. Everything was delicious, and the place was packed. After lunch we went to the new Museu de Viha Christo, which is a series of tableaus of scenes from the life of Christ, from Mary's angelic visitation all the way to his ascension. Quite nicely done, but very sparsely attended; entry was 7 euros apiece. It did have lovely WCs.

Onward from Fatima to Batalha, where the Portugese fought a decisive battle agains the Spaniards, we visited the Monastery of Santa Maria, where a number of the Portugese kings are entombed, including Henry the Navigator. There's a section of the Monastery that was intended to be a series of seven chapels, on which construction was suspended after Vasco de Gama returned from India, that remains unfinished to this day, which is quite interesting, architecturaly. There was also a huge antique sale going on in the village square near the monastery that had plenty of good old junk.

The overlook at Nazare
We next visited Nazare, a seacoast town with spectacular views and beaches, for a brief break to get out of the car and walk around. This town was just archtypal Europe, to me, with it's picturesque square, narrow streets, peasant garb, and roving bands of musicians. Really would like to go back sometime to explore it further.
Onwards from there to the Lago de Obidos, an immense tidal lagoon near the town of Obidos, where we enjoyed a beautiful sunset, and a quartet of cafes in a restaurant overlooking the water. We made a brief stop after dark to climb up the castle walls in town, before heading back south to Cascais. A great day, just needed more daylight hours to get it all done.