Friday, September 30, 2011

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert A. Heinlein

  The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag is another collection of Heinlein shorts. Heinlein wrote only one fantasy story that I'm aware of, Glory Road, and the title story of this book may be his only attempt at a psychological horror/mystery. A private investigator, Edward Randall, is retained by Mr. Hoag to find out what it is he does during his working day. Hoag seems to have a particularly strange form of amnesia which leaves him with no memories of how he spends his time during the daylight hours (an odd twist on the usual vampire meme), and after discovering a substance he thought was blood under his fingernails at dinner one night, has decided he must know, however horrible it might turn out to be.

Edward and his wife, Cynthia, begin by trailing Mr. Hoag on his way to work one morning. Strange things begin to happen, and the more they pursue the case, the more frightening things get. Edward begins to be visited in his dreams by the "Sons of the Bird", a mystical cabal of powerful beings, and eventually these SOBs threaten him and Cynthia if they continue to investigate Hoag. A rather interesting twist at the end, and a surprising profession for Mr. Hoag.

The Man Who Traveled in Elephants is just a light hearted look at the afterlife, and a rare glimpse of Heinlein's more whimsical side.

All You Zombies is a quirky time travel tale, about a man who, like the old song, was his own grandpa.

They is a solipsistic piece of work. A man is locked up in a mental ward after displaying signs of paranoia, and spends much of his time there trying to prove satisfactorily to himself that he is not at all like other people in the world around him, and that much of the world around him has been created to deceive him into thinking he is just an ordinary human. True to form, no surprises in the way it ends, really.

Our Fair City is a charming little tale about a sentient whirlwind that sweeps a city clean of political corruption.

And He Built a Crooked House is a fun bit about an avant-garde architect who decides to build a four dimensional house in three dimensions. When a Southern California earthquake twists the house into the fourth dimension, he and the owners get stranded for a while.

Not your typical Heinlein collection, but fun for a change of pace.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Compass of Pleasure by David J. Linden

  I think I got referred to this book by a link about online gaming addiction, but as it turned out, the section on gaming was very minimal. False Advertising!!

Despite that, the book was pretty interesting, for the most part, though a bit of a tough slog due to all of the new medical, biological and neurological terms that Linden apologizes for having to include. He's not nearly so adroit as the late Dr. Asimov when it comes to popularizing science.

Linden and others have spent countless hours trying to determine the neurological underpinnings of pleasure. Most of the work has been done with mice, whose biology and brain structure is eerily similar to humans. It would appear that most, if not all, of the things we experience as pleasure, such as eating, drinking, having sex, gambling, taking drugs, and even learning and giving, have some neurochemical basis in the brain, usually stimulating the production or reception of dopamine there, by some extraordinarily complex processes.

"Using a brain scanner, it has now become possible to observe activation of the brain's pleasure circuitry in humans. Not surprisingly, this circuit is activated by 'vice' stimuli: orgasm, sweet and fatty foods, monetary reward, and some psychoactive drugs. What's surprising is that many behaviors that we consider virtuous have similar effects. Voluntary exercise, certain forms of meditation or prayer, receiving social approval, and even donating to charity can all activate the human pleasure circuit."

This all looks like it might lead to some breakthroughs one day for treating addictions of all types, but some of the early attempts have not been too effective.

The nature vs. nurture debate remains alive and well.

"Yes, our genes and our neural circuits predispose us to certain behaviors, but our brains are malleable, and we can alter their neural circuits with experience."

Unfortunately for all of us science fiction fans, the possibility of scanning our entire brains with nanobots and being uploaded into a computer, thus achieving immortality, a la Ray Kurzweil is not going to be reached any time soon.

"Kurzweil's nanobots measure seven microns...the brain is composed of neurons and glial cells packed together so tightly that there's almost no room between them. What's more, the tiny spaces between them are filled not just with salt solution but with structural cables built of prteins and sugars, which have the important function of conveying signals to and from neighboring cells...Even if our intrepid nanobot were jet-powered and equipped with a powerful cutting laser, (Dr. Evil would love them) how would it move through the brain and not leave a trail of destruction in its wake?"

An interesting read, for all you techies out there.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Roadkill by Rob Thurman

  What is it we all love so much about road trips? From the drug-addled craziness of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the inanity of Chevy Chase's Vacation, they seem to strike a chord in all of us. Roadkill is definitely one of those, on steroids.

Cal and Niko are approached by the old Rom witch, Abelia-Roo, with a problem to solve. Long long ago, one of the Rom healers, Suyolak, went over to the dark side, and became a killer, instead. Evidently, he was like Ebola and the Black Plague, all rolled into one horrible package. The Rom at the time were able to subdue him and imprison him within a coffin, sealed for eternity, though they were unable to kill him. Someone has stolen the coffin, unfortunately, and one of the seals on the coffin has been broken, letting him begin to work mischief, and if all the seals are broken and he is released, it could be like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been released on the earth, or at least the one called Plague.

Suckers for a sad story, as always, Cal and Niko take on the job, and along with their puck friend, Robin, head across country, chasing the truck containing the coffin, which has been stolen by a man who only knows the legends of Suyolak the healer, and is desperate for the Rom to heal his terminally ill wife.

As the saying goes (sort of) "It takes a healer to kill a healer", so Cal and Niko must first locate their old acquaintance, Rafferty, who once brought Cal back from the brink of death. Rafferty has been on his own quest to find a "cure" for his cousin, Catcher, who is slowly descending into the mindlessness of his Wolf side. Rafferty and Catcher are both werewolves, but when Catcher caught leukemia, Rafferty used his powers to cure the disease, but lost Catcher's human side somewhere in the process. This whole situation makes for a great deal of soul-searching internal conflict for both man and wolf, and produces an interesting side plot for the story.

Also, Cal and his Kin lover, Delilah's relationship has been discovered by Cabal, one of the leaders of the Kin, and she has been told to kill him or give him over to the Kin to kill. Cal's not sure exactly which way Delilah will jump, and she's tagging along on the road trip, riding her motorcycle, providing a slight frisson of fear for Cal every time she gets a little amorous. Cal is also having some trouble fighting off his Auphe half, which grows stronger every time he opens a gate. Since opening a gate gives him a rush like cocaine or opium, the temptation to give in is strong.

With all of these factors in play, the chase across country to destroy Suyolak before he destroys the world gets pretty intense. Lots of great dialog and interaction between the characters, some graphic violence, and a couple of good twists near the end. Dang, is book six out yet?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

  There are a small number of Heinlein's novels that seem to fall outside the scope of his Future History, and this is one of them. The political events mentioned, and the technologies used, don't fit with the rest of his stories very well, but despite that, this one remains one of my favorites. This is also another one that doesn't get too preachy about Heinlein's political opinions, and bears only a slight resemblance to some of his other works in that way.

One minor point of congruence is the idea of a course that is required in high school or college, before a person is considered worthy of citizenship, or in this case emigration to the frontier worlds. The class in Tunnel in the Sky is Course 401, Advanced Survival. Rod Walker is about to take his final examination in the class as the story begins. The exam consists of being "gated" to a remote planet with a hostile environment, dangerous animals, with only what you can carry on your person.

Rod's parents are not thrilled that he is going to actually follow through with the final exam; they seem to have allowed (indulged) his taking the class only to avoid a fight. Complicating matters is the fact that Rod's father has a deadly disease, and has recently decided to have himself put in stasis for twenty years until a cure can be found. Rod's sister, however, is a member of the fighting Amazon Corps, and she has been appointed his guardian for the duration. She, of course, has no problem with Rod going off to prove himself on a hostile planet, and Rod lays low until the storm of his parents' disapproval subsides.

You can see the similarities here to the Moral Philosophy class in Starship Troopers, led by the irascible Colonel Dubois, and Advanced Survival, taught by the sarcastic Dr. Matson. The parents in both books have similar attitudes, as well.

Unfortunately for Rod's group of students, as well as some other groups of students from various high schools and colleges around the country, something goes wrong with the pickup, which is supposed to occur several days after the initial drop, and they are not retrieved on time. They are left stranded for a couple of years on a primitive world, with only the technology they brought along, plus what they are able to devise from memory and education.

Filled with Man vs. Wild action, as well as some Man vs. Mankind, this is a pretty good tale about people's ability to survive, and even to thrive, wherever they may be planted. It's a touch short on details one could use to eke out an existence in the woods, but long on attitude. Heinlein does touch on a few themes he's played with before, such as "man is the deadliest animal of all", "your most effective weapon is between your ears", and a Churchillian, "Never give in."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Leap of Faith by Queen Noor

  I remember thinking, when this book was first published, that it might be an interesting read. Lisa Halaby's story seems a lot like that of Princess Grace of Monaco, an American who married into royalty. Her father was an airline executive with strong Middle Eastern family ties, and when she was accompanying him on a visit to Jordan, she caught the eye of the recently widowed King Hussein, and he began to court her. She seemed a little clueless about the whole thing, believing that he was merely being nice to her for her father's sake, perhaps, and spending much of his free time showing her around the country, but eventually he made his feelings known and they were wed.

She certainly provided somewhat of a cross-cultural bridge between the West and Jordan, and has some interesting perspectives on the conflicts in the region. Hussein, according to her account, was always trying to bring peace to the region, often acting as a go-between for warring nations, and who seemed to always maintain strong friendships with his fellow rulers, even when they sometimes turned on him. She also brought a great deal of improvement to the situation of women in Jordan, though it seemed sometimes in the novel that her perception of the value of women in Muslim culture was far more favorable than what we've seen in the media in this country.

"I admired Islam's emphasis on a believer's direct relationship with God, the fundamental equality of the rights of all men and women..."

Certainly the western-educated rulers of the area treated their wives and daughters well, but I suspect that down in the real world where the lower and middle class live, things were far more dire.

An interesting passage revealed to me something I hadn't known before about the lands around Palestine, and the origin of the refugees.
"In 1901 the well-funded World Zionist Organization, set up in Basel, established the Jewish National Fund, which immediately began buying up large tracts of land in Arab Palestine, mostly from absentee landlords in Syria and Lebanon. I would meet Palestinians in Jordan who had farmed for many years in Palestine, only to be evicted from their land and their homes. And so the pattern of Palestinian displacement began."

Queen Noor (and I'm certain most Arabs) see this as some sort of horrible injustice, but I fail to see what was wrong with this practice. If I were to buy a piece of property with tenants, and wished to live there myself, I'd evict them without any qualms. What's wrong with that?

Heh. One little amusing anecdote from Hussein's courtship.

"Sometimes Hussein would sing to me. Though I was not as drawn to Abba as he was, to say the least, I was quite charmed when he would croon, 'Take a Chance on Me.' My heart was melting."

I just can't quite picture it.

On the war between Iran and Iraq:

"It had begun as a border dispute and a preemptive effort by Saddam Hussein to prevent the new Revolutionary Republic of Iran from exporting their revolution into the region. It had escalated into a bloody war that would last eight years, claim more than a million lives, and bring the economies of both countries to a standstill...Most leaders in the Arab world and the West saw the war as essential to stopping Khomenei from exporting his brand of revolutionary, politicized Islam to other countries, which was why Saddam was supported by so many in the international community."

In agreement with something I have long felt to be a problem:

"For all its considerable merits and inspirational principles, the American system is based upon a continuous uninterrupted process of election campaigns, stretching out year after year. Lost in the perpetual scramble is any long-term vision capable of addressing the complex tangle of causes at the root of human suffering, especially in the Middle East."

She nails it. Our constantly changing leadership is unable to be consistent in pursuit of any foreign policy - especially Middle Eastern peace.

Regarding the invasion of Kuwait that sparked the first Gulf War:

"My  husband...told them (the British and Americans)...emphatically, 'you must encourage the Kuwaitis to sit down with the Iraqis and Saudis to resolve the border problems, and the oil overproduction, and any other problems that require negotiation.' He knew that the issues at hand were not just fabrications by Iraq, but legitimate problems...Inexplicably, neither the American President nor the British ambassador seemed particularly interested."

We didn't really get interested until Saddam's forces invaded Kuwait. What's that about 'an ounce of prevention?'

This book was an interesting read from a person with a novel perspective on Jordan, the Middle East, and international relations.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

This novel is the first in a series of ten chronicles of Amber, written by Zelazny. A group of authors tried to work within the shared world many years later, but didn't produce anything that even came close to matching Zelazny's brilliance.

The story begins in Greenwood Sanitarium, where a man awakens, both legs in casts and with no memory of how he arrived there. It has a bit of a Bourne Identity flavor at first, as he comes to believe he has been kept sedated in order to keep him out of the way of...something. He refuses his meds, and assaults a guard who comes to force him to take them, taking the man's clothes, then intimidates the head of the facility into giving him some information - his name is Carl Corey and his "sister" Evelyn Flaumel has committed him - and some money from the safe. Carl beats feet out of town and heads for upstate New York, where his sister lives.

Still clueless about who he is, Corey manages to trick Evelyn into revealing bits and pieces of crucial information without letting her know about his amnesia. It appears that someone named Eric will not be pleased to hear that Corey has escaped. Evelyn, whose real name, Flora, comes to Corey in a moment of insight, has been sent to the area to keep an eye on him and report if he seems to be regaining his memory. She also calls him by his real name, Corwin. Flora gives him a meal and a place to stay for a while, but while she is off on business during the day, Corwin does some snooping around the house and discovers an odd deck of playing cards hidden in a secret drawer. The Trumps of this deck are painted pictures of a large family, in medieval, court dress, and he is on one of the cards, as is Flora and others whose names he slowly begins to recall.

His sneaking about is interrupted by a phone call from a man called Random, who is one of his brothers, and who is fleeing from some shadowy characters. When he arrives at Flora's house, Corwin discovers that he and his siblings are extraordinarily strong and well-versed in the arts martial, when the three of them dispatch a half dozen thugs with little trouble. Corwin dupes Random into taking him away, and they begin a road trip that rapidly gets strange, as the lands through which they travel rapidly come to resemble no place known on Earth.

It turns out that Corwin is one of nine princes of the realm of Amber.

"Amber was the greatest city which had ever existed or ever would exist. Amber had always been and always would be, and every other city, everywhere, every other city that existed was but a reflection of a shadow of some phase of Amber."

He and Random attempt to reach Amber, but find their way blocked. Along the way they rescue their sister, Deirdre, who has escaped from Eric's hold on her and the city. They make their way to the underwater city of Rebma, where Random is imprisoned for crimes he committed there long ago, and Corwin is allowed to walk the reflection of The Pattern there. The Pattern is a magical creation which gives the royal family of Amber the ability to walk among the Shadows cast by Amber, which includes all the possible worlds, including Earth. Walking the pattern restores Corwin's memory, and sets him on a quest to wrest the kingdom from the usurper, Eric.

An excellent tale, full of sorcery and chivalry and incredible creatures and people.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein

Time For The Stars (Ace SF #81125)I continue the Heinlein tour with one of my old favorites. This is the story of Tom and Pat, identical twins who are selected for special testing by the Long Range Foundation. It turns out that they are telepaths - they have been communicating with each other mostly by ESP all their lives without even realizing it - and that their services are in demand for the first group of expeditions to explore beyond our solar systems and discover habitable planets. It is believed that ESP happens simultaneously, or faster than the speed of light, and will be the only way to get timely communications between the ships and Earth on these long voyages.

One twin will stay home, while the other one boards a starship and heads out into the unknown. After some wrangling, Pat is selected to go, but injures himself in a skiing accident and Tom takes his place at the last minute.

I believe that this is the book where I first learned of the theory of relativity and of the time dilation effect that takes place at near-light velocities. This quirk of physics plays a large role in the story, as the twin who is left behind on Earth will age "normally", while the one who is traveling to the stars at high speeds will, from the earthly frame of reference, age much more slowly.

How the twins and the other telepaths deal with the pros and cons of their talents, the downsides of time dilation, and their gradual loss of rapport as they live vastly different lives makes for some interesting plot devices.

Once again, Heinlein uses a very odd twist at the end to finish off the story when he'd written his contractual page count, by having the Earth scientists develop a sort of drive that travels instantaneously between solar systems. Earth sends a ship out to "rescue" all of the surviving ships that the Long Range Foundation sent out nearly a century before, and the crews get to return home to experience the Rip Van Winkle effect of time displacement.

A good young adult novel, bereft of Heinlein's usual politicking.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

Neither Here nor There: Travels in EuropeAlternately profound and profane, Bill Bryson's book is an interesting and occasionally sarcastic look at Europe in the 90s, its history, lands, and culture. Bryson had previously traveled around Europe with his friend, Katz, as a young man, wandering from place to place without any real itinerary, and he tries to recreate that journey as much as possible by himself a number of years later.

He starts in Hammerfall, near the Arctic Circle, hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacular Aurora Borealis, and spends quite a few cold, boring days and nights there before finally experiencing them. From there he travels south to Oslo, Paris, and Brussels. He has some rather dour observations of all of these cities, before moving on to other places.

One thing I found interesting, in light of what most of us tend to think about the European social safety net was what he had to say about Switzerland.

"The Swiss have a terrible tendency to be smug and ruthlessly self-interested. They happily bring in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers - one person in every five is Switzerland is a foreigner - but refuse to offer the  workers the security of citizenship. When times get tough, they send the workers home - 300,000 during the oil embargo shocks of 1972 for instance - making them leave their homes, pull their children from schools, abandon their comforts until times got better. Thus the Swiss are able to take advantage of cheap labor during boom times without the inconvenient social responsibilities of providing unemployment benefits and health care during bad times."

The only place he really liked was Capri, where the combination of the Mediterranean climate, the exuberant and lively people, and the wonderful food and drink seemed to strike a chord for him. He does mention some of the beautiful parks and countrysides elsewhere, but for a solitary traveler he remains extremely uninvolved with the people he meets, and perhaps even considers himself a bit superior to them all. Something that's notably missing from his tales are the random acts of kindness and hospitality of foreigners and strangers that other travelers often relate. He seems to feel that everyone is just out to take advantage of him, take or steal his money, or confuse and delay his voyaging.

Interesting for the amount of ground he covers and the cultural landmarks he describes, but I think he'd be a wretched traveling companion, quite frankly.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Throne of JadeThis is the second book in the Temeraire series, and Will Laurence and his dragon find themselves beset by politics, rather than the conventional sort of conflict. The Chinese emperor has sent a delegation to demand that Temeraire be returned to them, as the celestial dragons are reserved for emperors only, and since Temeraire did not end up with Napoleon, as originally intended, he must return to China. The British diplomats and politicians do not want China to enter the war on the side of the French, so they are bending over backwards to accommodate their demands. In the end, Will and Temeraire board a transport ship bound for the Far East, as they are inseparable, hoping to work things out when they arrive at their destination.

One of the Emperor's nephews, Yongxing, is in charge of the Chinese group, and he is unremittingly hostile towards Will for the entire journey. They are attacked at one point by the French and some of their dragons, and only Temeraire's Divine Wind breath weapon saves the expedition from disaster. They also encounter an enormous sea serpent which attempts to crush the ship and eat the sailors (a la Voyage of the Dawn Treader, perhaps?). Will himself is attacked by one of the Chinese who has either gone mad or is under secret orders from Prince Yongxing. They encounter many strange lands and peoples along the way, though a voyage that took months seemed curiously short in this book.

When they finally arrive in China, they are delayed in seeing the emperor, until he has returned from his visit to another part of the country, and they get to get out and experience a totally different culture. One of the things that's rather interesting is the way dragons are integrated into Chinese society, in contrast to the English. In England, people are still very fearful of dragons, and they are either in captivity for breeding, or kept in the coverts where they train to fly with their crews for warfare. They are well taken care of, like a thoroughbred racehorse, but they have no property of their own, receive no wages, and are not citizens, though they are indeed for the most part as intelligent as men.

In China, however, dragons are everywhere, and for the most part the common ones fend for themselves, taking employment fitting to their talents, receiving wages, eating at restaurants (with a bit different menu from humans, of course) and buying goods they desire. The upper crust of dragondom, the imperials and celestials, live in splendor with the royalty, and are treated with great respect. They are very literate, and create works of art and write poetry. This whole situation provides a new challenge in Will and Temeraire's relationship, and should set up some interesting side plots when they return home in the next installment.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein

Starman JonesI think Heinlein chose to tell this story just for the title. He had a hankering to tell the story of a Martian named "Smith" and I think he just had to accompany it with a Spaceman named, "Jones". Max is a dirt-poor farmer in the Midwest whose father passed away, leaving him to keep the farm going for himself and his step mother. When his stepmother gets married to a ne'er do well named Montgomery (Heinlein re-uses this name for one of his villains in Time Enough for Love), Max decides to run away from home and join the Space Force. His uncle, Chet, was an astrogator, and he hopes that he's been named a "legacy" and will be allowed to join the Guild.

On his way he meets a hobo named Sam, who shares his fire and a meal. Sam steals Max's uncle's reference books while Max is sleeping and leaves him behind. When Max gets to the big city, and approaches the Guild about membership, Sam has already been there, claiming to be Max, but disappeared when the people there wanted to get his fingerprints to confirm his ID. Max is disappointed when he finds out that Chet died without naming him heir, and turns down their offer of sponsorship to a groundhog type of guild, leaving in a bit of a snit, but with a bit of cash in hand as a return of the "deposit" on his uncle's books.

Outside, he encounters Sam again, and after some initial hostility on Max's part, they decide to let bygones be bygones. Sam comes up with a plan to get them both into space as crewmen on a ship, by falsifying their identities. Amazingly, the ploy works, and the two of them end up as crewmen on a cruise liner for rich folks traveling to a pleasure world on vacation.

Lots of great adventure here, and a number of little morality plays in the course of the plot's unfolding.

One quote for all you bibliophiles:

"The library book had been burning a hole in his rucksack...the book had to be returned. Vagrancy in the eyes of the law had not worried him, nor trespass, nor impersonating a licensed teamster - but filching a book was a sin."

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein

The Star BeastThe Star Beast is a slightly more "mature" young adult novel by Heinlein. John Thomas is the owner of an extraterrestrial beast known as Lummox, who has been passed down from generation to generation - the creature was adopted by his grandfather on a voyage of exploration beyond our solar system, and has been living with the family ever since. Lummox is about the size of a rhinoceros, with armor plated hide and an appetite like a goat - eat anything that's not tied down. One day Lummox decides that the neighbor's rose bushes look quite appetizing, and ends up causing thousands of dollars in damages after being chased off by the neighbor, attacked with a shotgun by another, and pursued to the edge of town by the police.

The ensuing civil/criminal trial of John Thomas comes to the attention of the bureau of Extraterrestrial affairs, and the undersecretary sends his assistant to find out if the ET in question is a member of any of the known intelligent races in the galaxy. Lummox doesn't at first fit the criteria for recognition as a "human" equivalent being, as it doesn't have any hands. When the court decides that Lummox should be destroyed as a dangerous nuisance, John Thomas and Lummox run away to hide.

It turns out, however, that 1) Lummox is a girl, 2) she is the culmination of a millenia long breeding project by the Hrotha, who have come to Earth finally to recover their prodigal daughter, and 3) has been slowly maturing over the years and grows a set of arms and hands while she and John Thomas are wandering in the wilderness.

The story, however, is not so much about the two main characters as it is an an educational yarn about how government bureaucracies and diplomatic efforts work. Heinlein had plenty of experience dealing with the government when he left the Navy to work for a defense contractor, and he shows us in this story where the real powers in government live.

One of Heinlein's more enjoyable YA tales.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

Space Cadet
No, this isn't a story about the kind of space cadets we used to hang out with, it's about actual cadets at an academy for the Space Patrol. Peace has broken out on Earth for decades, and it's largely due to the efforts of the Patrol. This is a tale of four young men, Matt, Tex, Oscar and Pete, two from Earth, one from Venus and the last from Ganymede, who are selected to attend the prestigious and demanding academy.

We follow them through their final testing before they are admitted, and some of their early training. Heinlein just jumps ahead suddenly and we are joining them on their first cadet cruise through the solar system. They travel to the asteroid belt, where they search for a lost Patrol vessel, and find some interesting fossils that will likely shake up the beliefs of scientists about the origins of the belt.

Then, they have a wild and wooly adventure on Venus, where they come to the rescue of a commercial ship, and end up having to make the types of decisions normally reserved for officers when their superior suffers a concussion in a bad landing. They befriend a new nation of the Venerian swamp dwellers, and fly an antique space ship back to civilization.

Heinlein, I'm sure, drew a lot of the ambience of this novel from his time at the Naval Academy. It's a pretty good coming-of-age story, with his usual moralizing a bit muted. There's one tie-in to his short story, Requiem, in this novel. See if you can find it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kitty's Big Trouble by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty's Big Trouble (Kitty Norville, Book 9)Kitty's Big Trouble is the ninth book in this series, and it seems like it's a little lighter fare than some of the previous novels. One of the blogs I read regularly complained about the title of this book, wondering why anyone would sign off on "Big Trouble". I believe it's an homage of sorts to Big Trouble in Little China, a Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall (pre-Sex in the City (OMG, she was wonderful in Mannequin!)) film of some note, a bit before that blogger's time, perhaps.

At the start of the story, Kitty is digging into the rumor that Civil War General Sherman may have been a werewolf, based on a journal account of one of his soldiers, but is having some difficulty getting anyone to allow her to have him exhumed for DNA testing. She asks her Conquistador vampire friend, Rick, about Sherman and other potential historical figures who were more than they seemed, and gets a clue that Wyatt Earp may have been a monster hunter, like her friend, Cormac. So she travels to Dodge City with Cormac and Ben to investigate rumors of a burned out den of vampires attributable to Earp. They encounter a crazed vampire while they are there, but deal with it easily, and the only thing left to mark the occasion is an old Roman coin on a string.

Kitty gets a call from Anastasia, the ancient vampire we met in Kitty's House of Horrors, asking for her help in recovering an object of power, The Dragon's Pearl, before the arch villain vampire, Roman, acquires it. Kitty, Ben and Cormac travel to San Francisco to help Anastasia, and end up in the middle of some ancient Chinese secrets (not Calgon). They journey with a guide, Grace Chen, whose ancestors swore to guard the Pearl centuries ago, into the heart of an underground maze in Chinatown, which is not exactly firmly grounded in our reality.

The Pearl turns out to be missing from its hiding place, and their work gets a bit more complex and hazardous. They encounter a few miscellaneous figures from Chinese myth, the Monkey King, the Hundun, and the Queen Mother of the West in their quest, and get some help from the vampire community in the city by the Bay. We get to learn, finally, about Anastasia's past, and a little more about Rick's, too.

A good read, setting things up well for a little bit of a new direction for Kitty and her pals.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence
My mom gave me this book, as well as a couple more Mayle wrote about his adventures in France. The one thing I don't understand is how she can read books like this one and not have any desire to go visit the places he talks about, eat the meals he describes, and meet the oddball characters he lives among. I read passages to my wife, and daydreamed about traveling to Provence some day.

Mayle and his wife moved to the Provence region from London, bought a house, and settled in to enjoy la vie provencale. The structure of the book is that of the calendar of their first year, beginning with January and concluding with December, of course. Each month, each season in Provence has its own challenges and rewards, from the wind of the winter mistral to the baking heat of summer, the frustrations of remodeling an old chateau and the joys of delicious meals, fine wines and cheeses, and the viands and fruits of each season.

Both here and abroad, people rally round to donate blood after a natural disaster, but some things are not quite the same.

"In England, the reward for a bagful of blood is a cup of tea and a biscuit. But here, after being disconnected from our tubes, we were shown to a long table manned by volunteer waiters. What would we like? Coffee, chocolate, croissants, brioches, sandwiches of ham or garlic sausage, mugs of red or rose wine?"

I think I'd much rather donate blood in France.

As a neophyte plucker of morels in the Northwest, this bit surprised me:

"It had never occurred to me that a mushroom could be clinically tested before being permitted to enter and omelette, but, since the stomach is by far the most influential organ in France, it made perfect sense. The next time I went into Cavaillon, I toured the pharmacies. Sure enough, they had been converted into mushroom guidance centers...the small, muddy objects in the bags were inspected by the resident white-coated expert, and a verdict was pronounced."

On one of the meals they enjoyed at a neighbor's home:

"It started with homemade pizza - not one, but three: anchovy, mushroom, and cheese, and it was obligatory to have a slice of each. Plates were then wiped with pieces torn from the two-foot loaves in the middle of the table, and the next course came out. There were pates of rabbit, boar and thrush. There was a chunky, pork-based terrine laces with marc. There were saucissons spotted with peppercorns. There were tiny sweet onions marinated in a fresh tomato sauce. plates were wiped once more and duck was brought in. The slivers of magret that appear, arranged in fan formation and lapped by an elegant smear of sauces on the refined tables of nouvelle cusines - these were nowhere to be seen. We had entire breasts, entire legs, covered in a dark savory gravy and surrounded in wild mushrooms."

This book was a delight to read, though I had to take it in small portions, savored and digested slowly.

Monday, September 12, 2011

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire, Book 1)
His Majesty's Dragon is the first in the Temeraire series by Novik. The novel is set in the time of the Napoleonic wars, though it doesn't spend a lot of time working on total historical accuracy. The story starts aboard a warship in service of the king of England, when they have just finished a somewhat one-sided battle with a French frigate. When they board the ship to plunder it, Captain Will Laurence discovers a treasure worth a king's ransom, the unhatched egg of a dragon.

Dragons are more commonplace in the world of Temeraire than in our own, so Laurence is not unfamiliar with them, though its discovery puts him into the midst of a dilemma, as the aerial corps who normally deal with dragons is several weeks sailing away from their present location, and a dragon normally imprints upon whomever harnesses it first, shortly after hatching. Once the bond is forged, that person must join the aerial corps, and will have to leave the Navy - a fate worse than death, evidently. They draw lots to see who will approach the dragon first, and a young sailor is chosen - who is afraid of heights, by the way. The dragon ignores the sailor, and fixates on Captain Laurence, instead.

Laurence turns over the ship to his second in command, and spends the rest of the voyage home taking care of the young dragon, whom he has named Temeraire. The dragon grows by leaps and bounds, and eats to match. When he arrives home in England, he's in a little hot water with his superiors until they realize he really had no choice in the matter of adopting a dragon, and then starts off on the wrong foot with the Corps, as they have sent a dragon rider to take Temeraire off Laurence's hands, but the dragon has other ideas, and refuses to be controlled by anyone other than Will.

So Will leaves his own service, is disowned by his father, and joins the Corps. He and Temeraire must train quickly in the skills necessary for aerial combat, and find their place in a whole new world, as Napoleon's own dragon riders are coming soon to invade England and bring it under his rule.

Some great action sequences, a sympathetic hero, a few interesting supporting characters - though none with any great depth - and an interesting premise for alternate history make this one a good read. I'm looking forward to reading the next one in the series already.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones is another one of Heinlein's young adult novels, loosely tied into the story The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, taking place perhaps 60 years later. The matriarch of the family, Hazel, was a bit player in the revolution in the earlier novel. This seems to follow a well-used formula by this author, a highly competent pair of parents, Roger and Edith Stone (an engineer and a doctor), have a set of very precocious offspring, the twins Castor and Pollux, their older sister, Mead, and the youngest, an infant chess genius, Lowell. Note the astronomical references in their names.

Castor and Pollux, boy geniuses (or is that genii?), have invented a very successful breathing mask. Their father and mother have kept the proceeds from its sales in a trust fund for their education, but the boys have other ideas. As the story opens, we find them at a rocket ship junkyard, trying to negotiate the purchase of a space freighter, which they intend to fill with cargo (or contraband) and ply the spaceways to make a profit.

Unfortunately for them, their father soon brings them back to Earth - which is tough, as they all live on the Moon - and tells them in no uncertain terms that they're to go to college, not gallivant around the solar system. However, after Grandma Hazel - a variation on Heinlein's usual old wise cranky male curmudgeon - gets into the act, and then Edith puts her two cents in, Roger's hope of staying quietly at home is ground fine, and he ends up buying a spaceship himself, instead. The entire family jaunts off towards Mars on a grand adventure. Their ship is the Rolling Stone, and they are The Rolling Stones. I wonder if this was written long before Mick Jagger hit the scene?

The twins get some harsh lessons in shipboard discipline, the vagaries of commerce, and the inexhorable laws of physics. Roger and Edith keep their cool, mostly, amidst the demands of their extremely intelligent and devious children, and Grandma Hazel chimes in with all sorts of advice and harassment, as necessary. For once, Heinlein doesn't end the story awkwardly, but leaves it open for further adventures.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman

From Beirut to JerusalemThomas Friedman was a reporter for the New York Times, reporting on the middle east in the 80s and early 90s. As such, he bears witness to many crazy things that went on there during that time, such as the civil war in Lebanon and the bombing of the Marine barracks there, and the start of the intifada against Israel by the Palestinians. Friedman provides a great deal of background about the tribes and history of the region for those wishing to obtain a greater understanding of some of the issues.

He provides an occasionally amusing anecdote about the lives of folks over there, and quite a few good insights, that perhaps our leaders here (and those over there) have yet to learn. There's far to much material here to do a full walkthrough, but some of the things I found interesting follow:

"If there is one thing I have learned in the Middle East, it is that the so-called extremists or religious zealots, whether in Jewish or Muslim society, are not as extreme as we might think. The reason they are both tolerated and successful is that they are almost always acting on the basis of widely shared feelings or yearnings..these so-called extremists are usually just the tip of an iceber that is connected in a deep and fundamental way to the bases of their respective societies."

A little worrisome.

Regarding the Rimon School in Israel, where people come to study and play rock and roll music:

"The Rimon campus looks like an army base gone to seed - low-slung barracks with peeling white paint and a lawn that has needed cutting for months; it was once a school for the mentally handicapped. Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis think it stilll is."

About the intertwined nature of Palestinians and Israelis prior to the intifada:

"In the Old City of Jerusalem, in Bethlehem and in Jericho, Palestinian merchants would sell yarmulkes, monorahs, "I Love Israel" t-shirts and other Jewish items - most of them made by Palestinian labor - right alongside kaffiyehs and Korans and other traditional ARabic souvenirs."

About Israeli legal maneuvers in holding and charging Palestinian terror suspects:

"...I never found the Israeli legal abuses particularly surprising. The Israelis were fighting a war with another community living right next door - a community that itself was not playing by any rules...The truth was, each side understood that they were in a war for communal survival. One side had knives and pistols; the other had secret agents and courts."

This is a good, though sometimes repetitive, read about some of the roots of the conflict still active in the Holy Land today.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Zendegi by Greg Egan

It's a little hard to believe that I've never, to the best of my knowledge, read anything by Greg Egan before. I saw this little number at the library and thought I should give it a try. It reminds me a lot of some of the early William Gibson cyberpunk novels, in a good way.

Zendegi takes place in the very near future. In fact, it begins in the early years of the Obama administration, apparently, and Egan makes note of the inaccuracies in the world situation that is portrayed here in his afterword, but that doesn't harm the story much. Part of the story takes place in Iran, during something analogous to the Green revolution, where a reporter from Australia, Martin Seymour, witnesses the dramatic events leading up to the liberalization of Iranian society and politics, and the removal from power of the mullah-ocracy. In the course of this, he makes some lifelong friends, and meets his future wife, Mahnoosh.

Halfway around the world, an Iranian ex-pat named Nahim, one of Mahnoosh's cousins, is working for the Human Connectome Project, an attempt to map the brains of humans into computers. When the project threatens to grind to a halt due to a lack of funding, at the same time as the revolution in Iran succeeds, Nahim and her mother decide to return to their home country, where she takes a series of jobs over the next few years, leading eventually to one writing software for a virtual world called Zendegi. Zendegi's biggest competitor is a world created and run by a company in India, and once again Nahim is facing losing her job as venture capital runs dry.

In the meantime, Martin and Mahnoosh have married and had a son, Javeed, a precocious and charming child, but whom Martin fears will be contaminated with many of the racial prejudices and overt sexism displayed by the Iranians around them. When Manoosh is killed in a car accident, and Martin later develops liver cancer, he decides he must find a way to raise Javeed "himself" after he has passed away, rather than leaving him to be raised by his Iranian god-parents.

Martin and Nahim join forces to map Martin's brain and personality so that he can live on after his death in the world of Zendegi. The serious portion of the tale is relieved by the adventures that Martin and Javeed experience together, based on Persian fables, in Zendegi.

One of the things I really liked about this was that many of the "inventions" in the story were so close to modern technology that I found myself asking, every so often, "Hey, do we have that already?" Not much willing suspension of disbelief required for most of this book. I suppose I'm going to have to hunt down some more novels by Mr. Egan.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Last Snow by Eric Van Lustbader

Last Snow
Over the years, Van Lustbader has written some fairly good novels, from his early fantasy in the Dai San series, to one of the Bourne adventures. Unfortunately, this one isn't really some of his best work. In fact, I grew so disillusioned with it that I gave up rapidly, and had to look up the characters' names just to write this review.

It's the sequel to an earlier work about Jack McClure, an ATF agent who once saved the President's daughter from a sadistic kidnapper, First Daughter. In this book, McClure is traveling with the President's entourage in Russia when the president sends him on a mission to investigate the death of a Senator in Capri. He gets sidetracked on the way by interfering in a squabble between a Russian mafia thug and his mistress, who turns out to be a secret agent for the FSB, then picks up another impediment in his investigation in the form of the president's daughter stowing away on his plane.

All of these people have deep psychological disturbing issues in their past, and the book begins to read more like a soap opera than a thriller after a while. It's a pity; I thought I could count on Mr. Van Lustbader for a good read.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein

Rocket Ship Galileo
Rocket Ship Galileo is another young adult novel by Heinlein, which starts off well, and then goes in an unexpected direction. It begins with three young men, Morrie, Ross and Art, close to graduating from high school, who have formed an amateur rocketry club and have been designing and building rockets that are far from amateurish. While they are testing their latest rocket, Morrie's uncle, Doctor Cargraves - a respected atomic scientist, stops by to see how it's going. When the rocket explodes, it appears that he is hit by a piece of shrapnel, but fortunately survives.

When he sees what a professional setup the boys have built for testing their rockets, he makes them a proposal. He's trying to build an atomic-fueled rocket to go to the Moon, hoping to capture a large financial prize, and he's working on a shoestring budget. He needs some help building the spaceship, and hopes they can work for him over the summer. After overcoming some objections from the boys parents, they all set off for a secluded spot in the New Mexico desert and begin construction.

There are nefarious forces in opposition, however, and someone tries to sabotage their efforts several times. They perservere, and end up blasting off for the Moon just one step ahead of a subpoena.

There's some great, though dated, educational bits about rocketry, stellar navigation, engineering, and a number of other subjects here, and a good look at what science fiction authors thought about space travel before the U.S. succeeded on putting a man on the Moon.

Unfortunately, after the landing, things go wacky rapidly. Space Nazis?? I mean, really. Heinlein seemed to have a problem ending his stories back in those days in a reasonable manner. He always used some outlandish premise - more outlandish than space travel.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Deathwish by Rob Thurman

Deathwish (Cal Leandros, Book 4)
This is book four in the Cal Leandros series by Thurman, and it picks up just hours after the finale of Madhouse. The Auphe are back, and they desire nothing more than to torture and kill all of his friends and family in front of him before taking him back to Tumulus, their hellish parallel realm. There are not as many of them left as before Cal and Nik wiped out hundreds in an exploding warehouse, but the ones that are are vicious, fast, nearly indestructible...and female.

Nik's vampire girlfriend, Promise, finds a couple of odd jobs for the boys, one of which involves killing a sea serpent, way more than they bargained for, but they end up with way more financial rewards than they bargained for, in the end, so that works out well for them. She also asks them to investigate who is stalking an old flame of hers, Seamus, and they discover a secretive organization that tries to prevent ordinary humans from finding out about the supernatural creatures in their midst, called The Vigil.

Promise's daughter - did you know that in Thurman's world vampires reproduce in an ordinary manner, not by "conversion" as in other worlds? - Cherish, shows up with a major bad-ass magical being named Ososshi on her tail, trying to recover stolen property. She's as amoral as her mother is moral, and provides a lot of challenges for Cal and Nik while they're in the middle of trying to outwit the Auphe.

More good action, and some fun new directions for this series here. Gotta grab book five and see what's next!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Unquiet Dreams by Mark Del Franco

Unquiet Dreams (Connor Grey, Book 2)
This is the second book in the Connor Grey series, and it keeps the story arc moving along well. Conner and Murdock are called in to investigate a murder where the corpse has been dropped from mid-air, which implies that some sort of flying being, if not the murderer, is somehow involved. Coincidentally, a wealthy philanthropist also dies on the same night in what appears to be a magical battle, and Conner and Murdock arrive on the scene to be immediately dismissed by agents of the Guild who are called to investigate. Conner, of course, believes that the two incidents are linked, and ends up trying to figure out what the tie-in could be.

One of Conner's mentors, Briallen, has designated him as her alternate on the Guild board of directors while she is on sabbatical, so he also gets dragged into some high level political wranglings in the city. The philanthropic murder victim, Alvid Kruge, was also a member of the board, and the selection of his replacement is high on the list of issues to consider. Conner hates politics these days, but seems to enjoy his role of monkey wrench in the works of the backroom deals.

With the help of the flit, Joe, and others, Conner eventually unravels the mystery, getting into all sorts of interesting scrapes along the way. There's a minor subplot of a developing flirtation between Conner and Meryl, his former coworker who enjoys giving him access to information from the Guild archives that he should be allowed.

A fun sequel. I'm looking forward to reading the third book in this series.