Saturday, December 31, 2011

Another Year's Useless Energies Spent

In keeping with last year's tradition, here are my Top Ten best reads of 2011, not necessarily in any order:

1. Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson
2. Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
3. On Combat by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
4. Start Late, Finish Rich by David Bach
5. A Desert Called Peace series by Tom Kratman
6. Oath of Fealty and Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon
7. October Daye series by Seanan McGuire
8. Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia
9. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
10. Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews

I'm afraid I couldn't surpass my 2010 reading total of 197 books this year, merely completing 197 again. I have no excuse, other than to mention that I do have a life, contrary to popular belief.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

Lawyer Mickey Haller has fallen on slightly hard times, as criminal defense cases have all but dried up due to the long U.S. recession. Ever adaptable, he has begun taking the cases of people who have had their homes foreclosed on, and it's turned out to be just what the banker ordered. When one of his clients, Lisa Trammel, is accused of murdering the bank vice president who is trying to take her home away, he's back in the saddle again, taking the reins of what may turn out to be a high-profile criminal case.

Lisa has had some hard times too, being abandoned by her husband after he lost his job and the house payments got too far behind, then fighting a losing battle against the foreclosure mill that handled the paperwork (which may be a Mafia front). In the course of her fight, she started an organization, FLAG, that organizes protests against foreclosures, and has gained some national recognition (which didn't do a thing for her finances, evidently). The mortgage company that turned her over for foreclosure has taken out a restraining order against her, and she's no longer allowed to be within 100 yards of the bank.

Mickey has, since we last saw him, taken on an associate, fresh out of law school, the possibly lovely and talented Jennifer Aronson. Connelly does mention that Aronson is talented at legal shenanigans, but it's uncertain whether she's lovely or not, as she never really becomes a fully-fleshed character, serving merely as a foil for Mickey and someone with whom he is able to conduct a dialog that explores the ethical and personal ramifications of, as a criminal lawyer (is that redundant?), defending those whom one suspects or believes may be guilty.
That is really the theme of this story, and Haller, jaded veteran, mostly tries not to think about it too much, though we are evidently expected to, as it is discussed repeatedly throughout the story, and the ending itself reflects Mickey's nascent feelings on the matter.
The whodunnit part of the story is quite good - Haller puts on a Johnny Cochrane OJ defense, arguing that his client was not guilty, and could not have committed the crime, given the physical evidence. There are two clues mentioned very early that turn out to be the crucial bits of information that reveal the true guilty party. I have to admit I missed them at first, and only at the big reveal did I have my "Aha!" moment.

Connelly is always good at weaving a strong story, but is, at least in this case, a bit weak on making his bit players more real.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cast in Fury by Michelle Sagara

Kaylin is tasked with helping the temperamental Imperial playwright, Rennick, produce a play that will lower the tensions between the humans and the Tha'alani, who prevented the tidal wave in Cast in Secret from destroying the city, while the humans have come to believe that the Tha'alani are the ones who caused the wave. Already, some Tha'alani have been attacked, and the Hawks and Swords are watching the situation closely, before a riot develops.

Marcus, leader of the Swords, and one of the Leontines, has been accused of murder, and Kaylin takes it upon herself to investigate the charges, defying the direct orders of his replacement, Sergeant Mallory. She learns a great deal more about the culture of the Leontines, and we learn more about how she was given a home in the Pridlea of Marcus' household.

The Leontines have been vigilant for centuries, killing any members of their race who bear the coloration that indicates that they have mage abilities - at birth. One who has evaded that fate is now working to corrupt other Leontines, and has sired a cub that should also be killed, before it grows into its power. But Kaylin was present at the birth as a midwife, and her protective instincts place her life in jeopardy as she strives to keep the child alive.

As Kaylin and Severn get to know Rennick and his art, he says, "If we don't challenge ourselves, we get stuck in a rut. We do the same things over and over, until they're all faded echoes of the first thing we did."

It's good to see that Sagara is aware of this. Far too many authors simply do the same thing over and over again, stuck in a rut. So far, Sagara hasn't fallen into routine. Each installment of the Chronicles of Elantra reveals something new about Kaylin and about her world.

A particularly evocative bit, when Kaylin is talking with the Dragon Lord Sanabalis:
"His eyes were orange-tinted gold, and they met her gaze, without blinking, for a verly long time. As if she were a story in progress, and he could read her, and he wasn't certain what the ending would be, or if he would like it."

Another thing Rennick says about his plays, and the people who inspire them:
"...people make a story of their lives. Gains, losses, tragedy and triumph - you can tell a lot about someone simply by what they put into each category."

Definitely real-world implications here. We all see ourselves as victors or victims, heroes or villains, either in control of our own destiny, or the pawns of fate.

Sagara has gotten away from taking the easy way out, populating her world with elves, dwarves, vampires and werewolves. Instead, she's created some new races, like the telepathic Tha'alani, the winged Aerians, the Leontines, the immortal Barrani. The Dragons may seem familiar, but she's put her own signature twist on them, as well.

The realm of Elantra is slowly revealed, as bits and pieces of its history and myths show up in each book, and it grows stranger and more intriguing as time goes by.

I'm eagerly awaiting reading the next installment in this series.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Earthbound by Joe Haldeman

Color me surprised! At the end of Starbound, I really thought Haldeman wouldn't publish a sequel. Now, I just think he shouldn't have.

It's a pity when an author gets to the point where he has nothing new to say, yet tries to say something, anyway. Haldeman's early works were wonderful, with The Forever War as a prime example.

The story begins with Carmen and her friends at the NASA space center, where they come under attack by various enraged Earth folk, who may perhaps blame them for the problem with the Others. The Others have destroyed Earth's moon to create an asteroid belt around the planet to discourage space travel, and when that didn't work, they turned off all electricity for the world. Nothing that requires electrical power works, and this results in massive deaths from the obvious causes.

One thing for all my hoplophilic friends to note, Haldeman makes the common error of saying that the spacefarers were attacked by people with "automatic" weapons. I can barely imagine a scenario in the future when fully automatic weapons will be more easily accessible than they are now in the U.S., and Haldeman really hasn't laid the groundwork for that situation, so it's likely he's referring to "assault style" semiautomatics here.

There were a number of little "glitches" in the story, when something functioned that shouldn't have, with electricity turned off completely, that bothered me, as well.
When the Others briefly return the power, the merry band makes their way on a NASA jet to Camp David, where the interim president hopes to recruit them, then to California, where one of their members grew up on a farm commune that might be doing all right without modern conveniences, then takes a trip to Eugene, Oregon to bargain for some resource books, then attempts to return to California, but end up in a plane crash when the Others unexpectedly turn off power again.

At one point in the tale, the governor of California sets off a bunch of "hell bombs", nuclear weapons which make everything within a radius of five miles highly radioactive, along the entire state border, to cut the state off from the rest of the world. Just do the math, people, and divide the amount of miles along CA's border by 10 (2 times the radius), and you'll wonder how even a state as large as this one gets enough fissionable material to create that many bombs.

The story "wanders" about just as aimlessly as Carmen & Co. do, nothing significant happens. Give it a pass.

Friday, December 23, 2011

This Just In by Bob Schieffer

The subtitle of this book is "What I Couldn't Tell You on TV", and you'd think there would be some really juicy tidbits in here about public and political figures, but the book is surprisingly tame and tactful, even so. Ah well.

Schieffer fills the book mostly with anecdotes about some of the big stories from his time in print and television journalism. As a Texas reporter, he was on the scene when JFK was shot in Dallas, and also covered the civil rights movement in the deep South, when the federal government forced integration.

He was sent to Vietnam to report on the war there, with the express purpose of finding out how the local Texas military enlistees were doing. The Star-Telegram ran ads saying, "He won't be talking to many generals, He'll be looking for your sons and daughters." Bob took care of his primary assignment, but he also managed to sneak out where the action was whenever possible.

"The best quote I ever got and could not find a place to use resulted from a conversation I had with a black Marine. When I asked if he ever felt discrimination, he replied, 'Nah, the Marines treat ever'body like niggers.'"

"Walter Clerihew, an Air Force pilot from Jacksboro, Texas...flew low over the rice paddies and canals south of Saigon on the lookout for Viet Cong. 'I figured out the best way to find them is just to fly in low and see if anybody shoots.'"

After returning from Vietnam, he returned to the political beat, where he would remain, with one company or another for the rest of his career. There's a great quote from Gene McCarthy about JFK:

"He recalled one day when both had served in the House of Representatives and he came upon Kennedy in a cloakroom, with his feet up. 'You know,' Kennedy told him, 'if you don't want to work, this is as good a place as any to have a job.'"

I'm afraid it's probably still true of our congresspersons today.

While working at the Pentagon, he ran into snags with security classified documents:

"The government ihas legitimate reasons to keep many things secret and the list is obvious: war plans, troop movements, the identities of undercover agents, details on how our sophisticated weapons and our defenses are constructed, and the list goes on and on. But I soon learned there was another reason to put a security classification on information; to cover up mistakes and avoid embarassment."

Really makes you trust our government, doesn't it?

Another good example of government's total irrationality:

"Once the (Supreme) Court ruled that the New York Times and the Washington Post could print the papers, those of us covering the story began hounding the Defense Department to release the entire set. Defense officials refused, saying they were 'classified.' Some days later, I wandered into the Pentagon's undergound shopping mall bookstore and discovered that a commercial publisher had printed the entire four volumes of the Pentagon Papers and had put them on sale. There they were, on sale to the public in the basement of the building where government copies were being kept upstairs in a safe, classified top secret!"

I remember the Watergate scandal, which resulted in President Nixon's resignation, but I never had any inkling that there were some in Washington who thought he'd attempt a military coup. But Schieffer relates that James Schlesinger, Defense Secretary, had "ordered the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to notify him immediately if Nixon tried to give direct military orders to any of the military's theater commanders around the world."

Something that may be relevant to upcoming elections:

"There was just one problem for (Jimmy) Carter. He was exactly what he had advertised himself to be, an outsider with no Washington experience, and he got off to a rough start. Being president, as every president learns, is a lot harder than it looks. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear people who have made a success in business say a good businessman could straighten out the government in no time, an opinion that is totally wrong. No business executive has to work with a board of directors that has 535 members...There is really no training ground for becoming president, and for all his good ideas, by the time Carter's team figure out how to make the government work, it was too late."

A bit of humor from the Carter era, on a European trip:

"...the new president said he was anxious to get to know the Polish people, only to have his speech mangled by a State Department translator who told the crowd the president wished to know them in the biblical sense."

Carter once mentioned that he'd looked with lust on Playboy photos, but he never mentioned his predilection for Poles.

About what constitutes news, Schieffer relates:

"I believed that you also had to cover the stories that didn't lend themselves to pictures. I didn't believe a story had to be entertaining to earn a place on the Evening News."

Would that more reporters today, and more networks, felt that way.

And a cynical bit about political lobbying:

" reason that Congres continues to debate and vote on so many of the same issues over and over - like gun control and abortion - is that such issues bring in money to both sides. Liberals who favor gun control rail at the antics of the well-financed gun lobby, but in truth they welcome the endless debate over guns because it is a proven way to raise money from their supporters, just as the pro-gun lobby is a ready source of campaign cash for pro-gun forces. The debates over the perennials, as insiders call them, have little impact on the country, since they usually bring little or no change in the laws. But they are not really about the country's business; they are about the business of the members themselves and their own survival."

There's a lot of stuff about the behind the scenes jockeying for position in the newsroom, and the various mergers and acquisitions of the networks, which I found a bit tedious. The really good stuff, for me, was getting a little different view on the news I lived through from the sixties until today. Easy to read, and full of a wry sense of humor, this one was worth perusing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Magic Slays by Ilona Andrews

One of the things I like about the Kate Daniels series is that Andrews likes to weave old and forgotten mythologies into the story. In the last book, Magic Bleeds, she used Babylonian references, and in Magic Slays, we encounter some figures from Russian folklore, like Chernebog and Baba Yaga. Just a nice reminder for me of some of the stories I used to read, in Bullfinch's and other sources (For some reason, the title "Albanian Wonder Tales" comes to mind).

Kate's fledgling PI agency is definitely not doing well when she gets a visit from a
member of the Red Guard who offers her a job. Kate can't very well turn it down without having to go to her mate, Curran, for another loan from the Pack to keep things afloat, so against her better judgement - does she have any better judgement? - she takes the case. Her old friend from the Order, Andrea, who disappeared for a long span after she lost control of her were side during the battle with Erra in Magic Bleeds, is back on the scene, and Kate brings her on board the agency to help out. Andrea was thrown out of the Order for not being fully human, broke up with Rafael the bouda, and really has nowhere else constructive to go anyway, so she agrees to help.

It turns out that a squad of the Red Guard were supposed to guard an inventor, Kamen,
while he worked in secret on a device that sucks the magic out of a given geographical
area. The net effect is that all of the humans and other beings that rely on magic to
survive when tech is "down" will die immediately. In a city the size of Atlanta, this would be a major catastrophe, as well as being a bit of inconvenience to Kate and her friends.

Kate discovers some new relatives, and gets back a little bit of her forgotten past. She manages not to do anything too stupid in her relationship with Curran. In the end, an unprecedented gathering of all of the disparate magical groups in Atlanta is required
to solve the issue.

A new group that Kate becomes aware of in this book is a group of "human only" terrorists, The Keepers, whose goal is to rid the world of all magic and magical creatures, thus assuring themselves of power and happiness. Might be some sort of political commentary here about xenophobia or white supremacy, but it's not laid on too thickly. I'm fairly certain we'll see more of this group in the future, as Kate continues to have new adventures.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Crystal Line by Anne McCaffrey

I've noticed a pattern in the Crystal singer series. Killa manages to get herself overwrought about something, storms off planet, and has some wild series of adventures as a result. I much prefer a character who grows and changes over time, and Killashandra seems emotionally frozen as a shrill and emotional wreck, at times. The other thing that seems to happen regularly when she departs in a rage is that she finds a man to attach herself to, and to sleep with. In this third volume of McCaffrey's series, she turns into a total slut. How disappointing.

Crystal Line starts off benignly enough, with Lars Dahl (from Killashandra) and Killa having partnered as crystal singers on Ballybran for a long time, usually quite successfully cutting enough crystal to get off planet and enjoy long sailing adventures together on a seemingly endless list of water worlds. Guild Master Lanzecki sends them off on a mission to investigate a new, possibly sentient, type of mineral or crystal that's been discovered on a barren world, and the first part of the novel is intriguing. I actually thought McCaffrey was going somewhere important with it, at first. This new discovery is totally ignored until very near the end of the book, when it performs a deus ex machina routine and cures Killa of her memory loss, so she and Lars can live happily ever after.

When they return, Lanzecki begins to take Lars under his wing, so to speak, and includes him in some of the day to day business of the Guild. Killa seems oblivious to this, except as it affects her time spent with Lars, and how it inconveniences her schedule. When Lanzecki, who has grown old in the Guild Master job, goes out into the Ranges and essentially commits "suicide by crystal thrall", Lars Dahl is elected as the new GM, and Killa refuses to accept both Lanzecki's death, and Lars' new position.

Lars Dahl has made a habit of recording his experiences dutifully, so he won't forget who he is, what he's done, or who he loves, when singing crystal messes with his memory. But Killashandra has been lazy about doing so, and there are some things that she decided long ago she'd rather forget (any failure on her part, for one thing, which reveals something not so flattering about Killa's character). Her memory is not so good at this point, and she becomes unable to distinguish between Lars and Lanzecki's tenure as Guild Master. There is a new techique for helping Singers to recover their memories, but Killashandra refuses to be treated, and cuts crystal by herself for the first time in decades, then runs away from the situation, ending up on a water world by herself.

Killashandra overstays her slutty welcome, and ends up with severe crystal withdrawal symptoms. She returns to Ballybran considerably weakened, and Lars takes her back out into the Ranges to cut crystal again, letting her symbiont heal. The Guild is in the middle of a crisis, with a decimated force of singers, mainly through attrition and low recruitment, and unfilled orders from the FSP worlds, that competitors are hoping to fill with their crystal substitutes. Together, they must double-handedly save the Guild from extinction, or perhaps merely irrelevance.
This was a series that began well, but faded out with a whimper.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The World: Travels 1950-2000 by Jan Morris

Jan Morris was a reporter, working for the Times of London, who wrote a huge number of travel essays on assignment for that paper and other publications. He began his career as a man, but after a sex change operation in Casablanca (who goes to Casablanca for a sex change?), finished her career as a woman.

Morris had a couple of tendencies that show up in this book. First, she used a ton of obscure vocabulary. Quick! Define, without googling the terms, "gallimaufry", "prolixity", and "quiddity." This book will challenge you, certainly, even if you consider yourself well-versed in word lore. Second, she tended to long, flowery descriptions of the places she visited, with very little concrete information about realities "on the ground", and lots of talk about the atmosphere and attitude of those far-off lands.

A humorous aside:
"...long after Ernesto (Guevara) had matured into Che and had become a world-celebrated icon of the youth culture, I gave a lift in England to a hitch-hiker whose T-shirt bore a familiar picture of him - by then one of the best-known photographs on earth. 'I bet I'm the onlhy person you've ever got a lift from who actually met Che Guevara.' 'Oh yeah,' was the reply. 'Who was Che Guevara?'"

On the dreariness of the Soviet Union:

"Moscow in winter is hardly a dream, and not exactly a nightmare, but has more the quality of a hangover: blurred, dry-mouthed and baleful, but pierced by moments of almost painful clarity, in which words, ideas, or recollections roll about in the mind metallically, like balls on a pin-table."

On the job of travel writing/reporting:

"In Khartoum...I was interviewing the Minister of National Guidance (later executed for misguiding the nation) and he told me that my duties should be to report 'thrilling, attractive and good news, coinciding where possible with the truth.' I have followed his advice ever since."

Some things never change, and Morris remarks on Kashmir in the 70s:

"Kashmir is one of those places, deposited here and there in awkward corners of the earth, that never seem quite settled; a bazaar rumour kind of place, a UN resolution place, a plae that nags the lesser headlines down the years, like a family argument never finally resolved."

When I worked in the semiconductor industry a while back, Singapore was well on its way to world dominance in the field. Morris seems to anticipate this, also written in the 70s:

"Lee Kuan Yew (a Chinese politician) believes that the whole state must be resolutely directed towards a kind of communal expertise. There is no time for argument. There is no room for dilettantism, nostalgia or party politics. Prosperity is the single aim of the state, and it can be retained only by rigorous discipline and specialization, under the unchallenged authority of an intelligent despotism. Political stability, reasons Lee Kuan Yew, equals foreign confidence, equals investment, equals money for all, which is all the average citizen wants of life and statesmanship."

Might be some words for our own politicians to heed, there.

Morris seemed also to enjoy the big cities of the U.S.:

"New a city of dedicated poets, earnest actors and endlessly rehearsing musicians. Draft after draft its writers are rejecting, and there are more good pianists playing in New York every evening than in the whole of Europe - smouldering jazz pianists in the downtown clubs, crazy punk pianists on Bleecker Street, stuff-shirt romantic pianists in the Midtown tourist spots, smashing student pianists practising for next year's Tchaikovsky competition, jolly young pianists accompnaying off Broadway musicals, drop-out pianists, drunk ruined pianists, mendicant pianists with instruments on trolley wheels, Steinway pianists flown by Concorde that afternoon for their concerti at Lincoln Center."

Armchair travelers should really have fun with Morris' book.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scholar by L. E. Modesitt

It's occasionally frustrating for me when I'm following a series that I truly enjoy, such as Modesitt's Imager Portfolio, and the author suddenly shifts focus to tell stories about an entirely different protagonist, perhaps in an entirely different time period, still within the arc of the world created by that author. I don't know if Modesitt has simply said all he has to say about Rhenn, about whom the latest installment was Imager's Intrigue, but the new hero of these tales is Quaeryt, a young scholar from what appears to be hundreds of years earlier in the Portfolio timeline.

Quaeryt, orphaned early and raised by scholars, has somehow risen to the position of semi-trusted advisor to the ruler of Telaryn, Bhayar. When Bhayar asks Quaeryt's advice on what to do about the restive province of Tilbor, he admits he doesn't know enough about the area to offer a course of action (rare quality in a political advisor), and so Lord Bhayar sends him off to Tilbor with credentials allowing him to investigate matters.

Quaeryt also has some talent at imaging, which he conceals from others at all times, as imagers have always been suspect and persecuted for their abilities. As the story progresses, he tries to figure out ways to use his imaging inconspicuously in combat situations, just to stay alive. Scholars are also not highly respected in most lands, and Quaeryt encounters some authorities in one of the ports where he is stranded briefly who have driven the scholars out of town after one of them taught the mayor's wife how to read, write, and do figures. With such dangerous knowledge, she discovered her husband was cooking the books, and trouble followed. Knowledge is a dangerous thing.

On the next leg of his voyage, Quaeryt is shipwrecked, attacked by reavers, and falls seriously ill for a time (shades of Paul the apostle), then is nursed back to health by a kindly older couple. He eventually arrives in Tilbor, where he first stays with the local scholars and finds that something is not quite kosher about their organization, the Ecoliae, and suspects that they may be closely linked to the northern rebels, providing them with intelligence and support.

After some adventures there, he travels to the Telaryn Palace and joins the staff of the princeps, Straesyr, and the military governor of the province, Rescalyn. He is put on a long leash, and begins to work to find out what is really going on with the area. He accompanies some of the officers and rankers on their patrols, and becomes respected among them for his quick thinking and bravery during ambushes and other attacks.

Eventually, he (and we) figure out what's at the bottom of the troubles in Tilbor, and enacts a sneaky, underhanded solution to the problem.

Quaeryt should be a fun new protagonist in the Imager Portfolio, though I still miss Rhenn. Hopefully, Modesitt will shed some light on the origins of the Collegium (where Imagers study in the earlier books), and some of the other sociopolitical aspects of his world along the way.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Killashandra by Anne McCaffrey

Killashandra is the sequel to crystal Singer, and I had eagerly awaited its appearance back in 1985, but it turned out to have a few flaws.

First, at the end of Crystal Singer, Killashandra has just returned to Ballybran from her assignment in the Trundimoux system, and we experience a huge time lag at the beginning of this book. Killa's claim has been destroyed by the Passover storms, and she's scrambling to replace it. Perhaps McCaffrey published a short story detailing this disaster in one of the pulp mags, but it's disturbing to take up a story when events have occurred "off camera". Also, Keborgen had the claim for years before his death, and Killa's re-discovery of the black crystal site. Why did these particular storms destroy the claim, all of a sudden, aside from being a good plot device to make sure that Killashandra was broke when she really needed to get off planet.

Second, Killa gets an assignment to install white crystal which she has just finished cutting, but it requires her to be off Ballybran for up to a year. Lanzecki's assistant, Trag, convinces her she must take the job, for a reason which was not readily apparent to her earlier. Some of this situation is set up well in Crystal Singer, where we learn that Singers lose their memories over time, as a result of singing crystal. Antona, the head of the medical department on Ballybran, is constantly nagging Killa to dictate any memories she wants to hang on to into her personal recording.

In the first book, Killa and Lanzecki become lovers. Trag lets Killashandra know that Lanzecki has to get out in the ranges and sing crystal soon, or suffer withdrawal, and he's been delaying because he has fallen for her, so if she gets off planet, he'll have no excuse not to go into the ranges. So Killa once again plays the tragic heroine and departs the planet in a hurry, without even saying goodbye to Lanzecki.

Why couldn't she have dictated all of her memories of her love affair into her personal file, and made sure that Lanzecki did the same thing, then leave the planet in an orderly fashion, secure in the knowledge that her lover would remember her. Almost as dumb a stunt as what Romeo and Juliet pulled, back in the literary day.

Third, I'm not sure I understand why and how she decides she should travel to Optheria incognito. She decides to pretend to be merely a student on her way to study there, rather than the Heptite Guild representative, with all its attendant privileges and comforts. The only thing that makes sense here is that it sets up a plot device where a secret agent of the FSP on board doesn't know who she really is at first. It seems improbable to me that when her tickets were booked by the Heptite Guild in the first place, they would fail to mention she's a Guild member, and the passenger manifests for the various ships would certainly mention that little detail. At least the steward and captain would know who she was, even if she requested a low profile. Niggling little bits.

Once on Optheria, she encounters a very parochial culture, which doesn't allow its citizens to leave the planet, and which uses a form of subliminal conditioning so that most of them never even think about doing so. The Optherian organ which she has come to repair is used at an annual concert, which all citizens attend, to influence their emotions, in violation of Federated Sentient Planets regulations. Unfortunately, FSP agents who have been sent here are also not allowed to leave with any evidence of the manipulation.

I sense a bit of a theme here with McCaffrey in these first two novels - Killa seems to encounter very insular and nationalist cultures in her two excursions away from Ballybran. I wonder if McCaffrey, who lived in Ireland, encountered a lot of this narrow thinking in various villages around her homeland, and was making some subtle political comments about them in her writing.

In this adventure, Killa is assaulted, kidnapped and left on a desert island, makes her escape and joins up with her kidnapper - whom she is once more able to deceive concerning her identity (due to her hair bleaching out and complexion tanning on her little island) - seems unlikely, but... and ends up falling in love with him. At least, as much as Killashandra is ever in love with anyone except herself.

These novels are billed on wikipedia as Young Adult, but it seems that for the 80s, there's certainly far more casual sex included than would have been approved for publishing for the YA market. Nothing graphic, just footloose and fancy free. I found it entertaining, though the plot has a lot of holes.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Left Illusions by David Horowitz

Left Illusions is a collection of a number of articles and opinion pieces Horowitz has written (up to the time of publishing in 2003). As such, it predates the columns on his website, but obviously, there's nothing really new to see here. Indeed, he seems to have excerpted a portion from his earlier work, Radical Son, so if you've read that other tome, feel free to skip ahead when appropriate.

Near the end of the book, Horowitz provides a fairly succinct and pointed history of the Palestinian vs. Israeli conflict which still plagues world affairs. Many of the other pieces in here, however, seem to be either attack or self-defense editorials, written in response to some Leftist's article painting him as deluded or traitorous to the cause. I found them tedious and dry, by the time I read through all of the background wranglings.

However, scattered throughout the book, I did find a few gems of Horowitz' thoughts:

"Liberals begin by taking a stand that feels morally right; but the true appeal of liberalism lies in its making believers feel good about themselves. Because liberalism begins and ends in a moral posture, it doesn't require the difficult assessment of facts on the ground to validate its conclusion."

"For the left, the agenda of politics is ultimately not about practical options concerning which reasonable people may reasonably differ. It is about moral choices that define one as human."

Just as reformed smokers are more vituperative about the nasty habit of smoking, a reformed leftist like Horowitz can get really wound up about his former allies' beliefs and behavior.

He identifies the Green movement with historical Marxism:

"Thus radical ecology leads to the familiar threat. The virtuous state must control and restrict social wealth and redistribute it according to the radical creed...As Porritt (of Britains Ecology Party) argues: 'We in the West have the standard of living we do only because we are so good at stripping the Earth of its resources and oppressing the rest of the world's people in order to maintain that wealth.' To achieve ecological balance means 'progressively narrowing the gap to reduce the differences between the Earth's wealthiest and poorest inhabitants until there are  more or less equal shares for all people.'"

On the historic failure of Marxist states:

"But once in power, marxism - like fascism - exploited, oppressed, and ruined the very masses it claimed ot liberate. Having soared to power on dreams of transcendence, the radical enterprise succumbed to the gravitational pull of human nature, which even massive doses of terror and repression could not undo."

On the true, rather than the progressive, modernizing nature of socialism:

"Socialism belongs to a social stage based on the simple economy of small groups, a stage that had to be overcome in order to realize the great wealth-making potential of the market system. Far from being a progressive conception, the socialist ethic is atavistic and represents the primitive morality of preindustrial formations: the clan and the tribe. This is why its current incarnation takes the form of  'identity politics'..."

A bit about electoral politics from eleven years ago still rings true today:

"There is nothing wrong with instituting good policies and running things efficiently. But while Republicans are performing htese Gold Star tasks, Democrats are busy attacking Republicans as servants of the rich, oppressors of the weak, and defenders of the strong."

Another timely tidbit:

"What a tax cut really affects is the investment capital of the rich - their ability to create jobs and wealth for other Americans. (Or did you think it was government that created those?) As Republicans know - but seldom say - the Democrats' progressive tax code actually works against poor and working Americans. Unfortunately, to appreciate this fact requires an understanding of the economic system that most Americans (and apparently all Democrats) lack."

Reading this book probably isn't going to change any political mindsets, but it may provide some insight into how the other side thinks.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Better to Beg Forgiveness by Michael Z. Williamson

Loosely tied to the Freehold stories, Better to Beg Forgiveness is the tale of a band of mercenaries tasked with protecting the president of a backward, "third world" planet. The leader of the executive protection detail is Alex Marlowe, a former captain in the USMC. Rounding out the group, we have Aramis, a young, brash, and slightly insecure Army vet, Elke, the lone female on the team, an explosives expert - who seems to get almost an orgasmic pleasure from blowing things up, Jason Vaughn, Marlowe's deputy and sidekick, Horace "Shaman" Mbuto, the team medic, and Bart, their heavy weapons thug and German wet Navy vet.

One of the things that keeps this novel interesting is the interplay between these characters as they get to know each other - their employer, RippleCreek, has formed the team ad hoc for this assignment, and only a few of them have worked together before. Aside from a little bit of maturing on the part of Aramis, the youngster, there's really no change in their basic natures throughout the novel, however.

When they begin to guard Balaji Bishwanath, in the nation of Celadon on the planet Salin, they find a situation that is definitely fubar. The scenario is eerily similar to that obtaining in many sub Saharan nations, where the UN forces, the military and the State Department are allegedly working towards the same goal, a stable nation, but where their actual goals are widely divergent.

The detail soon comes to respect Balaji for his integrity, intelligence and honor, and when he is inevitably abandoned by the multinational forces, they undertake a quest to get him off planet to safety, and to a place where he can also communicate to the galaxy at large the truth about what's happening on Salin. The journey is long and fraught with difficulty, and the group fights a series of engagements along the way.

Unfortunately, I didn't find this book as entertaining as Freehold, Contact with Chaos and The Weapon, and it seemed to end rather abruptly, as if Williamson had simply stopped when he fulfilled his contractual page count obligation.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey

In honor of Anne McCaffrey's passing this month, and because "coincidentally" my daughter just returned my copy of Crystal Singer, I'll be doing a review of classic McCaffrey weekly for a while. She was a grand old dame of science fiction, and her presence will be sorely missed.

Published in 1982, this novel was a breakaway from her Pern series and early "Ship Who..." novels, and it definitely ranks highly in my favorites list.

Killashandra Ree has been studying vocal performance at Fuerte's Academy for ten years, expecting to launch a career as one of the premier Singers on her planet, when at the final examination, she is informed that she has an unpleasant "burr" in the upper registers, and her voice will never be suitable for such a career. Simultaneously crushed and enraged, she storms out of the audition, grabs her belongings from her student quarters, and impulsively descends on the spaceport, in a bit of misplaced wanderjahr, searching for a new career and life.

At the spaceport, she hears a shuttle craft which has its crystals (part of the propulsion unit) badly out of tune. Another bystander who hears the crystals' dissonance, however, is Carrick, a member of the Heptite Guild, a Crystal Singer. He holds the authority to tell the local authorities about the problem and demand that they have the crystals tuned before a disaster occurs. In gratitude, the spaceport authorities "comp" his expenses, and he invites Killashandra to join him in his recreations.

The Crystal Singers are a very exclusive group, responsible for the discovery and mining of various crystals on the planet Ballybran, and they command exorbitant salaries, which they spend in hedonistic abandon whenever they're able to get off planet. Killashandra is charmed and taken in by his easy manner, and enjoys herself for some time in his company at various resorts around Fuerte. When another spaceport mishap incapacitates Carrick, Killa accompanies him back to Ballybran, home of the Heptite Guild, where he will receive medical treatment.

Killa is intrigued by the possibility of becoming a Crystal Singer, which requires perfect pitch (which she has), but doesn't seem to stop someone with a burr in her voice from pursuing (never really mentioned in the story), and she insists on being allowed to apply for the job, despite repeated warnings from her old Maestro on Fuerte, various members of the Federated Planets bureaucracy, and even representatives of the Heptite Guild itself.

The kicker is that there's a symbiont on Ballybran which binds a person permanently to the planet - they can leave for short periods - but which gives long life and special abilities to those people who successfully adapt to the symbiont - sometimes the adjustment is fatal. But Killa goes ahead with her plans, and the rest of the book describes her recruitment, training and early career as a Crystal Singer.

McCaffrey creates an interesting bit of future technology here. The crystals are essential to nearly every bit of tech in the Federated Planets empire, governing communications, propulsion, information storage and retrieval, entertainment - she almost anticipates the important integrated circuit technology we have today. Each color of crystal has a different application, with the most important and expensive crystal being the "black" crystal (of course Killa is able to sing and cut black crystal, or the story wouldn't be as wonderful), which is used in interplanetary and interstellar communication, providing FTL messaging when properly linked. Seems to be a bit of the old magical "law of contagion" involved, as the pieces of black crystal must have been mined from the same vein, then when properly activated (by magical mystical ritual known only to the Heptite Guild), they act as if "once together, always together" to send instantaneous comminications.

All in all, a fun and interesting novel, which begins an unfortunately short series.

Friday, December 2, 2011

One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire

Fifth in the October Daye series, One Salt Sea leaves me with a taste of salty tears. When someone kidnaps the rulers of Saltmist, Dianda and Patrick's children, the Sea Witch recruits Toby to recover them before it starts a war between the Sea Fae and the land. The situation becomes personal, suddenly, when Toby's daughter Gilly is also stolen, presumably by the same culprits.

It's a race against time as she struggles to find the kidnappers and their victims. We get an nice glimpse into the imagination of McGuire when Toby visits the Sea kingdom and gets to know the rulers and some of the denizens of the deep, with octopus-form fae and cetacean types, as well. Toby, having once been imprisoned in the form of a fish in a pond for over a decade, has to overcome her fear of the water in addition to exercising diplomacy between the potentially warring kingdoms while she is there.

However, her manner somehow charms the sea dwellers, with a dose of honesty and personal integrity that seems uncommon in the world of fae. In the final battle to save the children, Toby suffers an intense and moving personal loss which changes her, and the story arc, forever.

I love the passage where Toby uses a cell phone that's been manufactured to work in faerie:

"Getting through the mortal phone system and into the limited fae exchange requires a unique approach to dialing. I hit al the keys in a clockwise spiral, then repeated the pattern in the opposite direction. I hit the 'five' three more times for good measure."

In some ways the plot of this novel is almost like classic French Farce - you know, 
where a group of people keep going in and out of doors on a corridor,trying to find each 
other? - in that Toby continues to try to be a lone wolf, and the "universe" 
keeps conspiring to make her dependent on and responsible for other people in her world.

Having had nothing to do with her daughter, Gilly, since Toby spent fourteen years as a 
fish in a koi pond, she has managed to lock away most of her feelings about Gilly. When 
the girl is kidnapped by the same people who took the princes of Saltmist, Toby has to 
confront those feelings and face the prospect of losing her daughter all over again, one 
way or another. 

Duke Sylvester, who obviously regards Toby as the daughter he should have had, rather 
than the one he ended up with, the venomous and lunatic Rayseline, isn't about to let her 
skate on her responsibilities, and forces her to see herself as a mentor figure, 
assigning her Quentin as a squire.

Toby figures out that she's going to have to delegate responsibility for the running of 
her new lands,Goldengreen, so she assigns Marcia as her seneschal. When that realm is 
threatened, she has to allow Tybalt the King of Cats' people to help her defend it, and 
all of its refugee population. Toby does, in the end, find a way to absolve herself of 
responsibility for the realm she really doesn't want, in a rather sneaky yet effective 

We get some interesting revelations here about Toby's fetch, May, and some deeper ones 
about the Luidaeg and her relationship to the roan, which may form the basis of the plot 
in a future October Daye adventure, unless I miss my guess.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Firebird by Jack McDevitt

Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath are back in another adventure, with a challenging mystery at its heart. The sister of the widow of a somewhat famous physicist, Chris Robin, shows up with a trove of Robin's possessions that she wishes Benedict to market for her. As Alex is well aware of the value of "buzz" in generating handsome returns for artifacts, antiques and memorabilia, he sets out to find out as much as he can about Robin's disappearance, and arranges to be interviewed in the media about the man's odd disappearance.

Robin had been investigating ghost ship sightings and starship disappearances for some time before he, himself, went missing. In fact, the night of his disappearance, he and his pilot friend, Cermak, had just returned from space, where they had been performing the fourth in a series of experiments with dilapidated space yachts, trying to recreate the conditions whereby the craft would disappear from normal space time and re-appear periodically.

An interesting side plot develops after Chase and Alex visit the planet of Villanueva, which was the site of a horrible disaster thousands of years before when the planet entered a dust cloud and most of its population perished, leaving behind only its AIs to run things. Some of the AIs have gone insane and are hostile to human beings now, attacking anyone who lands on the planet. But the duo discover an AI, who calls himself Charlie, that is not hostile - he only wants to escape his millenial prison - and spirit him away with them.

Charlie tells them that there are other AIs, or Betas, still left on the planet that are also not insanely hostile, and enlists them in his crusade, quickly conceived, to recruit humans to rescue the Betas from Villanueva. Alex takes this show on the road, too, and there's some interesting philosophical and societal debate about what makes a being "human", possessing a "soul" and deserving of rescue.

The rescue theme continues through the end of the book when Alex figures out what happened when Chris Robin disappeared, and mounts a mission to find his ship, the Firebird, when it enters our universe for a brief sojourn. McDevitt poses some good questions about what a life is really worth, in terms of financial, societal, and political costs. I'm really enjoying these little scifi-cloaked mysteries.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Prince of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

This is the final chapter in the saga of Amber, if you don't count several later books written by other authors, probably by permission of Zelazny's estate. Merlin learns that Swayvill has finally passed, and journeys back to the Courts of Chaos to join in the funeral proceedings. He finally gets the chance to interrogate his mother, Dara, and elder brother, Mandor, about some of the mysterious events surrounding him through the pentalogy.

It appears that Dara and Mandor may have been behind a number of the assassinations that have taken place in the Courts, all aimed at placing Merlin in the position of heir to the throne. They believe that both through their close connection to him, and through the use of some enchantments they've placed on a magical artifact left for him to find and wear, they will be able to control his actions and be the puppet masters in the realm.

In the meantime, the Logrus and the Pattern are both trying to get Merlin to choose sides in their eternal struggle. Merlin goes on some literal journeys as well as those of the more metaphoric type, trying to find out what's been going on, discover the whereabouts of his father, Corwin, and determine where he will stand and for what.

I've long whined about authors who, as they age, run out of new stories to tell, rehashing old characters and storylines without really telling a good tale. I'm afraid that this was penned at this point for Zelazny. A few puzzles are solved, but nothing of import is really resolved. Read it for completeness sake, but that's all.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hard Magic by Larry Correia

I've really enjoyed Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series, and so I checked out the first book in his latest series, the Grimnoir Chronicles, at my local library. Correia's writing is still quite good, but I didn't enjoy this quite as much.

The action takes place, apparently, in an alternate history after the first World War. Sometime in the nineteenth century, people began to turn up with magical powers, allowing them to influence their environments, or their own bodies through an act of will. There are people who can influence the pull of gravity, call wind and fire, move objects through telekinesis, read minds, teleport, or influence others to do what they want through their "voice".

The protagonist of the book is Jake Sullivan, an ex-soldier who can alter gravity. After returning home from the war, he got into trouble by interfering with a sheriff who was abusing a young boy who also had shown some magic powers, crushing the sheriff into a bloody paste when Jake lost his temper. He ended up serving time in a federal penitentiary, but was released early for (mostly) good behavior and by agreeing to work for J. Edgar Hoover's Feds in capturing others who have used their powers to murder.

At the end of the war, the Japanese formed an Imperium, ruled nominally by the emperor, but actually controlled by a magic user of immense powers, known as the Chairman. A group of westerners, also ex-military, headed by Blackjack Pershing, formed a secret society to oppose the Imperium, called The Grimnoir. Also at the end of the war, the Grimnoir made off with a highly destructive device invented by Nikolai Tesla (analogous to an atom bomb), and disassembled it, scattering the pieces around the world, kept safe by various members of their society. However, the Chairman's minions have finally uncovered the keepers of the pieces, and are methodically killing them and seizing the parts of the device, to be reassembled and used to destroy the West.

When Sullivan discovers that Hoover has been lying to him, and does not intend to honor their agreement to let him go free after a certain number of assignments, he "defects" to the Grimnoir. He and the other members try to keep the Imperium from getting control  of the device, and fight for truth, justice and the American Way.

This book contains a lot of action, some very interesting ideas about the use of magic powers, and a few good twisty plot bits. It has rather a comic book feel, however, and I never really got sucked in to caring about the characters. Fans of action heroes from the comic books might really like it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Magic Bleeds by Ilona Andrews

Interesting, though not particularly surprising, that the three books I've most recently been reading have "Magic" in the title; Magic on the Line, Magic Bleeds, and Hard Magic. Magic Bleeds is the fourth in the Kate Daniels series.

The "romance" between Curran and Kate has hit a rocky patch, due to a misunderstanding about their last "date", when Kate believes Curran stood her up, while Curran thinks Kate ran away. He was late due to having been injured, and she was gone when he arrived. Of course, they snipe back and forth over the phone for several days in this novel before actually getting together and talking it out, while we readers are thinking, "For Pete's sake, just get over it!" Well, when they do, fireworks result, and Andrews finally succumbs to the need for a fairly graphic sex scene, after admirable restraint through the first three books on Kate's part. We'll see if it comes to permeate the series over time, or not.

Someone or some thing has attacked various high visibility targets in the Pack, the People and the mercenary Guild, leaving behind virulently infected bodies. As a probationary worker for the Order, Kate is tasked with investigating the situation. She comes to discover that a long-forgotten deity from Babylonian times, Erra, is the culprit. Erra is accompanied by seven demigod types: Tremor, Darkness, Deluge, Beast, Torch, Gale and Venom, who are undead controlled by Erra, each with very specific magic powers. Kate and her allies must face each of them in turn and destroy them in order to destroy Erra.

It turns out that there's a family connection here for Kate, which precipitates and interesting scene where Erra, who turns out to be Roland's (Kate's biological father) sister, sits down to a tense tea in Kate's apartment. Near immortal, amazingly arrogant, and horrendously powerful, Kate's auntie will be a major challenge.

The theme continues of Kate slowly learning to trust her lover, Curran, and the rest of her friends, and revealing the secret of her origin to some of them. It may be her downfall in the end, or it may be her salvation.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Knight of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Merlin confers with Jasra and Mandor after the assault on the Keep and finds out quite a bit more about what's been going on behind the scenes all these years. A rather fun scene takes place when Mandor is revealed to be a specialist in the sorcery of haute cuisine - he conjures up a wonderful meal on a veranda overlooking one of the realms at the Keep. It turns out that Jasra was responsible for training Merlin's ex, Julia, in the art of sorcery, and that Julia's natural talent caught her by surprise, leaving her as a coat rack.

Julia has allied with Merlin's brother, Jurt, who has had homicidal intentions towards Merlin for a long time, but which have gotten more intense recently as the struggle for succession in the Courts of Chaos has heated up due to the frailty of Sawall, Duke of Chaos. Julia and Jurt have performed a ritual which gives him amazing powers, that Brand (Jasra's husband of sorts) underwent long ago, explaining his near invincibility in the first Amber series at last.

We got set up by Zelazny in the previous book for a shaggy dog type of pun or two here. The chaos demon that serially possesses people near Merlin, the ty'iga, turns out to be named for a specific purpose - so that Merlin can shout, "Hold that ty'iga" at one point and then shortly later, to have to choose between the lady or ty'iga. Groan.

So, as we learned in the previous book that the Pattern is actually sentient, we might surmise that the Logrus (Chaos' version of the Pattern) is also sentient. It appears that they have been in a large scale conflict for ages, and they force Merlin to participate in one of their battles for dominance. He is spirited away to a place or state of being where none of his magic works, the Trumps are dead, and he can't manipulate shadows. There he faces a number of challenges and opponents. Some of these creatures are Pattern-ghosts or Logrus-ghosts.

Whenever a person walks the Pattern (or Logrus) they are "recorded", and can later be reproduced by the Pattern or Logrus, in the same state they were the day they finished walking. So, Merlin is visited by Deirdre, slain by Brand in The Courts of Chaos, Oberon, dead in the same book, an earlier copy of his brother Jurt, his father Corwin (who may not actually be a ghost), Dworkin (thought to be dead) and several others on his quest. Merlin refuses steadfastly to take sides in the conflict, but is tricked into mostly championing the cause of the Pattern.

This one gets pretty surreal for a while before dropping back into a more "normal" narrative. Eventually we get back to the main story, find out what Luke and Dalt have been up to, and solve a few more mysteries.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Magic on the Line by Devon Monk

The seventh in the Allie Beckstrom series, Magic on the Line seems like a transitional novel, part of a longer volume marking the change in leadership of the Authority from the old guard to the young turks, perhaps. After the battle with Leander and Isabelle and their minions at the Life Well, Allie's convalescence is cut short by her interview with Bartholomew Wray, the outsider who has been placed in charge of the Authority after the crisis. Wray and his cronies rub Allie the wrong way from the beginning, seeming to be more interested in a political coverup than actually getting to the bottom of the problem and protecting the public from the evildoers.

At the end of Wray's "investigation", his hand-picked team is primarily put in charge in Portland, and the former leaders are Closed (have their magical memories and abilities wiped), including Shamus' mother, Maeve, plus most of the magic users from Seattle who had come to help out the Portland Authority during the recent magic storm and resulting crises. Zayvion, of course, was forced to Close them, and he goes into a guilt-ridden funk for a time, which Allie has to work through with him.

The Veiled are now infected with a magical plague, and when one is able to escape from the wells where they have been confined, they infect the living with the disease, causing a horrible death among magic users, and merely flu-like symptoms among normals. Allie's friend and fellow Hound, Davy Silvers is bitten and infected by one, and a great deal of the time in this story is spent dealing with his illness, while trying to understand how it is spreading and how it may be stopped.

Allie is still possessed by her dad's ghost, but they seem to have worked their way to an uneasy yet handy alliance - he always seems to come up with some magical tidbit or contact she needs when the going gets rough. Allie, herself, becomes violently ill whenever she works any significant magic, though for some reason she really doesn't do a lot of investigation into why that might be. Stone, the gargoyle, also seems to be stricken with an odd malady, but Allie isn't all that curious about that situation, either. I think Monk was just overwhelmed with all the necessary plot elements to move the story in the direction it's going, and didn't have enough room in the paperback format to deal with all of it in Magic on the Line. The way the book winds things up makes it obvious that resolution on these and other issues will take some time.

Allie and her friends must rebel against the authority of the new Authority in order to save the city from the plague and malicious magic. We've seen this coming for a while now, as the old ways of doing business were getting a bit raveled around the edges. For the preternatural branch of the police to deal with some of the new threats, they're going to need to know more about magic than they've been allowed, and for Allie's Hounds to help her avoid getting killed, she's going to have to clue them in on reality, plus she's going to have to stop keeping secrets from her best friend, Nola, or lose that relationship. Change is in the wind.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Steelhead Drift Fishing by Bill Luch

This book turned up in a box of books my mother gave me a while back. I'm getting ready to go steelhead fishing this weekend, so I thought I'd read it and pick up a few tips. The book is slightly dated, having been penned in 1976, but still contains some useful information for the intrepid fisherman. One example of how old it is is that Luch talks about carbon fiber graphite rods as being the next big thing.

Luch includes a number of diagrams showing how each area of a "drift" where steelhead and salmon may be caught should be fished, and how the fish use those areas to hide and rest on their journey back to their spawning grounds. He also describes the behavioral differences between summer and winter runs of fish, and share some tips on recognizing a bite in a drift that I think might make me a bit better at landing more fish.

One point that Luch stresses several times is how silly it is to spend a lot of time dealing with snags - when your gear hooks into an obstruction on the bottom of the stream. I have to admit I'm guilty of perhaps spending a bit too much time trying to salvage fifty cents worth of hook and sinker, or even a three dollar lure, when my time on the river productively fishing is worth far more than that. I've never been guilty, however, of one sin he describes - splashing through the water and scaring off all the fish to retrieve a snagged lure.

Most of the focus in this book is on fishing from the bank, or with waders on. I've done most of my fishing from drift boats, and Luch only briefly talks about that subject, mostly from the point of view of safe boat handling tactics. I think some of the information still will apply, however.

A quick, informative read.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

 Merlin manages to escape from the hallucinogenic world created by Luke, using the Vorpal Blade to get by the Jabberwock (yes, Zelazny steals from Carrol here), though it helps when a Fire Angel (chaos creature) shows up on his trail and the two beasts fight one another. He contacts his aunt Fiona and his older brother, Mandor, and Trumps away from it all. 

Returning to Amber, Merlin works out a way to free Luke's mother, Jasra, from the coat rack curse, and makes plans to use her freedom as a bargaining chip when Luke finally recovers from his far-out trip. A delegate from the kingdom of Begma arrives in town with his daughters, and he is importuned into entertaining one of them, Coral, showing her around town at first. She expresses a desire to see the famous Pattern of Amber, and surprises Merlin by stepping onto the Pattern and walking it successfully. It turns out that Oberon had an affair with her mother, and she (like so many others) bears the bastard blood of Amber in her veins. She uses the Pattern to transport herself elsewhere, leaving Merlin in a bit of a quandry as to what to tell her father.

Zelazny begins to play around with the question here, "What if the Pattern is actually sentient, not just an artifact as we thought in the first five books in the series?" This, of course, leads to some very strange happenings as we progress.

Later, Coral's sister Nayda approaches Merlin, ostensibly to find out what's become of her sister, but it becomes apparent quite soon that she has some other motives, far deeper. When Mandor meets Nayda, he recognizes her as being possessed by a ti'yiga, a chaos demon which can take over human's bodies for a time, and we finally get to know what's been going on with Merlin's odd encounters with people who know far more about his business than they should, and who seem to have a strong urge to protect him from danger. When he checks up on them later, they've usually suffered a form of amnesia covering the time of the encounter. Someone has placed a geas on the ti'yiga to watch over Merlin, and it's been tracking him through Shadow ever since.

The mercenary Dalt appears on the scene and demands that Luke and Jasra be surrendered to him. To avoid a battle between Benedict's forces and Dalt's, Luke challenges Dalt to hand-to-hand combat, with the loser to become the prisoner of the winner. Dalt wins, and disappears with Luke for parts unknown. After that, Merlin frees Jasra and works out an alliance with her to assault the Keep of Four Worlds, freeing it from Mask's domination - at the end learning the identity of Mask and also of another source of some clumsy attacks on his person.

Good fun, still twisty.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Wise Man's Fear is like some great heavy beast, black and furry, that comes and sits on your chest to wake you in the middle of a moonless night. And it is literally heavy; at nearly one thousand pages the hardback copy is hard to hold in one hand while you're up way past your bedtime trying to finish it. Rothfuss has definitely written a worthy sequel to his first book in the Kingkiller Chronicles, Name of the Wind.

The subtitle is "The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two", and Rothfuss plays an interesting game with the reader of spending one day in the life of the innkeeper, Kote, as he relates the story of many days in the life of Kvothe, the young arcanist. Troubles are brewing in the world, and we get the sense that understanding Kvothe's story and his quest to learn of the Chandrian and the Amyr may bring the story to a point of resolution, with a great evil destroyed.

Kvothe is finally allowed to study Naming with Master Elodin, along with some other students. Knowing the name of a thing allows control over it for an arcanist, similar to Naming as found in LeGuin's Earthsea books. Kvothe has been occasionally successful in naming the Wind, but he finds that study with Elodin is still more elusive a practice.

Kvothe's enmity with the young noble, Ambrose, continues, and eventually his allies recommend that he take a term off from his studies and make himself scarce, so as to avoid having things come to a head and destroy his career completely, after he and his friends set fire to and burgle Ambrose's rooms at an inn. His sole friend in the nobility introduces him to a powerful nobleman, The Maer, in a city far from the University. The Maer has a task well suited for Kvothe to accomplish, he needs a poet and musician to help him woo the woman he wants to marry. When Kvothe arrives, though, he finds the situation far more complex, and is able to solve more than one problem for his patron.

Kvothe also finds his relationship with the girl he's been enthralled with for some time, Denna, elusive. She pops in and out of the story, as she often pops in and out of town, and takes up with a series of foolish young men, while maintaining what is probably an abusive relationship with her mysterious patron. I have a feeling that the patron, as well, will be key to the overall story, when Kvothe is able to find out who or what he is.

This book is just chock full of adventure, intrigue, and romance. I highly recommend you read this series.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

I was a little irritated when I picked up Troubled Waters. I've been so looking forward to something new in the Twelve Houses series by her, and instead of taking me back there, she heads out to a whole new world.
On the positive side, Shinn's writing and imagination are so wonderful that she took me to a place full of enjoyment and wonder, as always.

Zoe Ardelay has lived in a small, remote village ever since her father was disgraced and exiled from his position in the king's court a decade ago. When her father dies, Zoe is surprised when an emissary from the capitol, Darien Serlast, arrives with a mission to return her to the king's court in Chialto, there to become his fifth bride. Griefstricken, Zoe makes no objection, and travels with Darien in the king's elaymotive, a recent mechanical innovation, much like a land train.

When their elaymotive pauses in the heart of Chialto, however, Zoe takes the opportunity to escape Darien's gentle and solicitive clutches, going into hiding with naught but her wits (and some gold pieces she had sewn into her scarf) and her memories of life in the city. She ends up with the rest of the homeless, vagrant population, on the banks of the river, Marisi, in a large semi-permanent encampment.

The population of Shinn's latest world is divided up into five main families, more or less corresponding with traditional elements, who each have their hereditary virtues and vices and sources of power. Zoe's dominating genes are coru - water/blood, while others have the character of elay - air/soul, hunti - wood/bone, sweela - fire/mind, and torz - earth/flesh. Each of the five families have a Prime, who is the embodiment of their powers, head of the family, and important member of the king's council.

Zoe, being coru, thrives in the riverside encampment, making friends, finding a job with a local cobbler's shop, and spending time in the local marketplace getting her bearings amidst the gossip and political maneuvering in Chialto. But the city is not always safe, and Zoe is chased by a group of young thugs one day, robbery and rape on their minds. When she is trapped against the edge of a canal, she leaps into the water, and the water embraces and protects her, whisking her under its surface to safety far down the banks. Curiously, she feels no need to breath while underwater, and when she finally surfaces she knows something unique has happened.

She visits the blind seer sisters in the marketplace, and - how surprising! - we learn that Zoe may just be the missing heir to the Lalindar family, who has been chosen from birth to be the Prime. Zoe first travels with friends to her grandmother's estate in the country, and is there recognized as the heir and Prime. Next she must enter the political arena, full of plots and conflict, in the capitol of Chialto - this time not as a penniless waif, but as a power in her own right.

Fun stuff, sympathetic characters, and we're left with a burning curiousity to see where else Shinn's imagination might take us next.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Blood of Amber by Roger Zelazny

In Blood of Amber, Merlin begins to acquire bits and pieces of the puzzle he's been assembling regarding who has been responsible for the attempts on his life on April 30 of each year, and probably more importantly, who is trying to kill him now. Flora is able to fill in a few details for him regarding Jasra and the kingdome of Kashfa.

Merlin returns to Julia's apartment to investigate more thoroughly and discovers a hidden portal that leads...somewhere. When he takes that path, he's challenged by a guardian who claims to be "torn from the pure primal Chaos", and both he and we are somewhat surprised when Merlin reveals that he is, himself, a Lord of Chaos. Once past the guardian, he finds his way to the Keep of Four Worlds, where the elemental realms of earth, air, fire and ice meet, and where sorcerors have battled for control of a fountain which contains the power of these four forces for centuries.

The current ruler of the keep is likely to be Merlin's nemesis. Merlin observes an attempted invasion of the keep, in the company of a hermit named Dave (cue all manner of limericks here, and yes he lives in a cave). Dave is full of good gossip and Merlin finally learns about the tie between Jasra and Luke.

When Merlin returns to Amber, he gets a full debriefing from Random, who dispatches some emissaries to Kashfa and its surrounding kingdom. Merlin decides to go down into town from the castle to have a bite to eat, and when leaving the "fine dining" establishment, he is attacked by a group of thugs. He's succored by the armsment of Vinta Bayle, his uncle Caine's former paramour, and she whisks him away to her family estates to lie hidden for a while.

The tale in this tome continues twisty and entertaining. One thing that I didn't particularly like when I first read it was the section at the end of the book where Merlin gets caught up in a hallucenogenic world, complete with Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter, via a trump contact with Luke, who has been doped up with some mind-bending concoction. It just didn't seem to fit all that well with the rest of the story. Upon further reflection, I decided that Zelazny was actually exploring the ramifications of the concept of Shadow. If Amberites (and Chaos Lords) have, as mentioned by Corwin in an earlier volume, the power to create shadows of their own imagining, what happens when their minds are altered? I still think, however, he could have come up with an original imagining, rather than borrowing from Carroll, but I suppose it was a familiar fantasy that we'd all recognize.

Friday, November 4, 2011

In Fire Forged by David Weber

In Fire Forged is the fifth in the shared world Honorverse anthologies subtitled Worlds of Honor. This one contains three substantial stories and one compendium of "factual" information about space armor.

The first story, Ruthless, by Jane Lindskold, tells the story of an attempt by some political enemies of the Winton royals to disgrace Crown Prince Michael. They arrange to have his friend, Judith's daughter, Ruth, kidnapped and then threaten to return her to her father on Masada. Judith was one of his wives who was rescued by Honor and her crew in one of the earlier novels dealing with the Grayson alliance, The Honor of the Queen.

In a manner eerily reminiscent of Harrington's usual tactics, Michael decides to head directly into danger with only his personal Armsmen to rescue the child. The chase is interesting, the final crisis short and not terribly bloody, and the end of the story is just flat anticlimactic. Perhaps Weber is reserving the writing of Judith and Michael's tale to himself, so that Lindskold couldn't do it justice.

Timothy Zahn of Cobra fame pens a story, An Act of War, that is as twisty as a snake. An apparent arms smuggler, Charles Dozewah, is captured by State Security on Haven, and has to improvise a plan to avoid being tortured and put to death by them for an earlier swindle in Peep territory. He proposes a plan to Oscar Saint Juste that will use a captured and rebuilt Manticoran battleship to convince the Andermani Empire to side with Haven rather than the Star Kingdom.

The plan begins to go astray when the captain of the false-flagged ship has some plans of his own, and tries to turn it from a suicide mission into one that he and his crew will survive. In the end, the plots of Saint Juste are foiled, by a bit of legerdemain of Charles' engineering, and his former allies - and the reader - are left wondering just what happened.

Weber contributes Let's Dance to this collection. The terrorist forces of the Audubon Ballroom, anti-Mesa and anti-slavery fanatics, are heavily involved here, thus the title, their battle cry. The story takes place prior to the first Honor novel, when she is captain of a patrol vessel in Silesian space, hunting for pirates and slavers. When Honor is made aware of a space station that is being used as a waypoint for the slave trade, she must decide between obeying orders and saving her career and doing the right thing by capturing the installation, freeing the slaves and prosecuting the slave traders.

Well, if you've read any of the Honor novels, you know what her answer is going to be, don't you? Her creative solution, allying with a large force of Audubon Ballroom soldiers, leaves us cheering for the underdog (Is Honor ever really the underdog, though? I'm betting with a proven winner).

A couple of good quotes:

"That's the true measure of an officer - of a human being. Right or wrong, popular or unpopular, he has to know where duty, moral responsibility, and legal accountability meet the honor of his uniform and the oath he swore to his monarch and his kingdom. When that time comes, an officer worthy of that uniform and that oath and that monarch makes the hard decision, in full awareness of its consequences, because if he doesn't make it, he fails all of them...and himself."

"When that happens, when there's no choice but to kill evil, then kill it. It's your responsibility, your duty, and if you flinch, you fail - not just yourself, but everything important in your life. But if it must be done, if there truly is no choice, then do it because hou must, not because you want to, and never, ever exult in the doing. That's the price of your soul, Honor - the ability to do what has to be done without turning yourself int the very thing it is that you're fighting against."

This collection is worth reading for Weber alone.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fed Up! by Rick Perry

I don't know exactly when the custom of presidential candidates writing books about their lives or political philosophy began, but it seems to have grown rapidly. I decided to pick up Rick Perry's book after watching one of the debates, and I'll try to check out those of the other serious contenders in the primaries before the time to vote comes around. These things at least give you an idea of what the candidates believe in - whether that survives first contact with the politics of Washington have yet to be determined.

On the whole, Perry's political philosophy appears to be orthodox Conservative, with a heavy emphasis on the limited powers of the federal government as defined by the Constitution, and the importance of state's rights as granted in the Tenth Amendment. He quotes Madison from Federalist 45:

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governmentes are numerous and indefinite...The operations of the Federal Governmnet will be most extensive and important  in times of war and danger; those of the state governments, in times of peace and security."

He laments the out of control taxation levied by the federal government:

"This leads me to the great milestone on the road to serfdom: the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. It gave Congress the authority to levy an income tax on American citizens and absolved the federal government from a previous requirement that any such taxes be returned to the states proportionally to their collection. This was the birth of wealth redistribution in the United States."

I've thought for some time that this is the crux of politically corrupting compromise between the states and Washington. Even when, recently, the governor and representatives of Idaho opposed and lamented the massive government spending in the Stimulus bills, they ended up fighting at the trough over the spoils, in order to make sure that some of the tax moneys collected ended up coming back to the citizens of Idaho, rather than ending up elsewhere. The same temptation exists for the private citizen as well. No matter how much you philosophically oppose the massive expansion of entitlement programs, when the time comes, you are pretty much forced by economics to sign up for Social Security and Medicare, and accept the largess of unemployment "insurance" when you lose your job. If the government offers amnesty for your student loan, or forces the bank to adjust your mortgage, you'd be a fool to refuse, even if you don't agree with the policy. The Feds have got us by the short hairs, folks.

Once the power to tax was firmly established, it rapidly got out of control.

"What was promised to be a tax that would affect only the wealthiest 3 to 5 percent of Americans is now paid by roughly half of the population. And while marginal tax rates ranged from 1 to 7 percent right after the amendment was ratified, today rates range from 10 to 35 percent and have been as high as 70 to 90 percent of income over the years. This is on top of entitlement taxes of more than 12 percent."

He attacks the constitutionality of the Obama Health Care plan from several angles.

Obama's appointment to head Medicare and Medicaid, Donald Berwick, has stated frankly,
"Any health care funding plan that is just, equitable, civilized, and humane must, must redistribute wealth from the richer among us to the poorer and the less fortunate. Excellent health care is by definition redistributional."
It seems to me that the model of health care that we've had in this country for a while was also redistributional, though it moved dollars from the more healthy, NOT wealthy, of us to the less healthy by standard actuarial methods. Any group of citizens approximately in the same economic boat (employer) could pool their resources through insurance premiums to alleviate risk for all.

Not to mention that insurance's true purpose is to cushion us in the case of catastrophic loss, not to cover every routine doctor visit or elective procedure. Expanding those portions of employees' health care plans over the years is one of the factors that has driven up costs significantly, as well as the administration of unnecessary diagnostic tests just to cover the doctors' and hospitals' rears in the event of medical malpractice suits.

On a totally different topic, that seems almost Kafka-esque, Perrry mentions that "President Obama's Quadrennial Defense Review, the periodic strategic plan for our national defense, devoted a full three pages to climate change, mentioning it more times than China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran." What's wrong with this picture?

Nothing surprising from Perry's book. It was pretty much what I'd expect to see from a professed Conservative governor. Given his coherence and eloquence in the book, however, I've been surprised to see how poorly he has been performing in the debates. If he could focus on conveying the same message to the public, he'd come off far better than he does by engaging in pointless personal attacks, or defending against same.