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.