Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Some months ago my daughter, who has never been terribly interested in science fiction or fantasy, asked me if I could recommend a couple of good books in the genres. I loaned her a copy of Crystal Singer and The Curse of Chalion. She never read either one, and I retrieved them on my way home from Florida through Salt Lake after Thanksgiving. Just had the urge to read (for at least the third time) Bujold's novel, so here's my thoughts:

I've mentioned before that there are some authors whose newest novels I don't dare start reading at bedtime, such as Orson Scott Card. Bujold is another one who consistently turns out engrossing and wonderful stories that just demand to be finished - even on a third read.
Lupe dy Cazaril was once a page to the Provincar of Valenda,next a courtier, a disappointed poet, and a soldier. While commanding the fortress of Gortoget during the most recent war with the Roknari, he and his men endured a long siege, which left them with a fine appreciation of recipes for roasted rat. When Caz was finally ordered to surrender his post to the Roknari, all of his men were ransomed by the commander of the Chalionese forces, but his name was omitted from the list - by the brother of a man whose cowardice he had once witnessed.

So, after being creatively tortured for a while by the Roknari, he was sold into slavery on a war galleon, and spent months enduring the hardships of rowing and the cruelty of the oarmasters. When things appeared most dire, he and the rest of the slaves were freed by an Ibran ship which captured the galleon, and executed its crew for their crimes. He was released in the port of Ibra and spent several months having a nervous and physical breakdown at one of the temples there. The clerics nursed him back to a semblance of health, fitted him with some castoff clothing, and sent him on his way.

As the story begins, we find Caz on the road "home" to Valenda, hoping to beg a spot as a scullery worker, in the household of the Provincar's widow. He is granted an audience when he arrives, and she offers him refuge for a time, with food, new clothes (still hand-me-downs, but of a better quality) and a roof over his head. The Provincar's daughter, Ista was once wed to the chief ruler - the Roya - of the land of Chalion, but after his death, she apparently went mad, and has been sheltering at her mother's home in Valenda ever since.

Her children, the royce Tiedez and royess Iselle, are heirs to the throne of Chalion, after their half-brother Orico, the current Roya. Orica and his wife, Sara, have been unable to produce heirs of their own, due to - as you can gather from the title of the book - a curse upon the royal house, which clings like some sort of dark miasma to the royal house and all who are born or marry into it. When Iselle and her younger brother are summoned to court, the Dowager Provincara needs a man she can trust to watch over Iselle, and she charges Caz with being her hands and eyes in the palace.

The story of what happens after they arrive at the castle is filled with wonderfully twisty political and personal motivations, and Caz must not only defend his charge from false friends and suitors, but from the dark urgings of the curse, which takes the virtues of the people it chokes in its grasp and exaggerates them into vices.

Richly detailed, gloriously fun, and filled with the usual well-developed characters and plotting that are Bujold's signature.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Core of Conviction by Michele Bachman


I ran across this one a little late, from the perspective of the election cycle, as Mrs. Bachman had already dropped out of the primaries. However, just to satisfy my curiosity and find out what she had to say...

She and I are very nearly the same age, so many of the things she describes experiencing as a child and young lady seem very familiar to me - growing up in small town Idaho and Iowa are not all that different. I'd say that her early life was quite idyllic, were it not for the fact that her father abandoned the family and divorced her mother while Michele was about fourteen. For some time, she had the experience of being part of a family struggling to make ends meet, which should resonate well with most Americans.

Though her mother thought she should just take a secretarial job after graduating from high school, Bachman pursued her dream to go on to college, where she met her future husband, Marcus. Eventually, she would get her degree, then finish law school. She took a job as a federal tax attorney, working for the IRS, which gives her an interesting perspective on our tax code. Her husband became a christian counselor, and they ran a successful counseling business together, while raising five children together.

I think one of the most impressive things that they did during this time period was also to provide homes for twenty-three foster children, while raising their own. They both definitely have a heart for others in need, and it really takes a special kind of person to invest in the lives of at-risk teens over a significant portion of their lives. No matter your opinion about her other political stances, you have to admire that in Mrs. Bachman.

Eventually, she was drawn into politics on a local level at first due to her concerns about the decline of education in Minnesota and around the nation. She became active on the grass roots level in a campaign to demand more local accountability and less federal government interference. When an incumbent state senator refused to listen to her concerns and those of others like her, she pretty much accidentally ended up running against him herself in the republican primary, and won.

Mrs. Bachman makes a very clear and unabashed case for her own core Christian and Conservative principles, upon which she bases her political and personal decisions. She seemed to have problems expressing those as effectively on a national stage, under the spotlights, but that's politics.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

And Pirates, too?

To the formula that made The Lies of Locke Lamora such a great tale, Lynch adds a bit of C.S. Forester or R.L. Stevenson flavor in this installment of the tale. Locke is still figuratively licking his wounds from the mess in Camorr, but his friend and fellow Gentleman Bastard, Jean Tannen, manages to pull him out of an alcoholic self-pitying funk and get their terrible twosome back in business, now in a new location.

The pair of rogues make their way to Tal Verrar, where they put into play a ploy to rob the owner, Requin, of the most expensive gambling hall on the planet, the Sinspire. Anyone caught cheating at the Sinspire is immediately put to death, in a very public manner, but somehow or other Locke and Jean, under assumed identities, of course, manage to cheat their way to the most exclusive floors of the establishment.

Their plans go a bit awry when the Bond Magi alert the ruler of the city, the Stragos, about the pair's true identity and origins, and he decides to use them in a plan of his own to consolidate his power over the nobles of the city. In a bit of "wag the dog" this military ruler coerces Locke and Jean into stealing a ship, raising the pirate flag, and trying to stir up other pirates to stage raids on the Tal Verrar coastline, so that he will be begged by the merchants and nobles to raise a large navy again, as he did the last time the pirates grew too bold. Once his forces are increased, he believes, it will be no problem for him to use them to consolidate his hold on power.

Despite a very concentrated training program forced upon them, Locke and Jean really aren't that skilled as sailors, and when their ship is nearly destroyed in the first big storm they encounter, the men on the ship mutiny and put the two off of the ship. Luckily, shortly thereafter some real pirates happen along and appropriate the ship, incidentally rescuing our hapless heroes.

Plenty of swashbuckling occurs after that, and their efforts turn to recruiting the female captain of the pirates, Drakasha, into their plot to a)finish the swindle on Requin and b)get vengeance on the Stragos. This one doesn't disappoint the promise of Lynch's first book, and now I'm eagerly awaiting the straggling sequel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff

In this sequel to The Magic Emporium, I felt like I had a bit more of a clue what's going on with the whole Gale family, though it took a bit to get back into the flow of family politics. The focus of the action moves from Allie to Charlie (Charlotte), one of the younger members of the clan who has not yet been forced to take her place in the hierarchy, and who is, indeed, a bit of a wild child, spending most of her time on the road playing music, whether it's rock & roll, country, or Celtic. After returning from a long country tour, through Canada, she gets an offer to go on the festival circuit with a Celtic group, and rapidly decides, with a little prompting from the magic mirror in Allie's shoppe, to go for it.

Allie's grandmother, Catherine, is stirring up some trouble again, by getting into the middle of a political battle between an "evil" oil company that wants to drill offshore on the Breton coast, and a group of environmentalists trying to stop the project. The environmentalists' core leadership turns out to be a band of Selkies, whose primary concern is preserving the pristine nature of the oceans for their race; any benefit to humans is purely incidental. When one of the band members' girlfriend turns out to be a Selkie, and Charlie finds out that her skin (which allows Selkies to transform between their human and seal shapes) has been stolen, and along with four others' skins, being held hostage by the head of the oil company, it only follows naturally that she'll bring her Gale powers to bear on the situation.

There's a lot of fun stuff in here about the antics of the band members on tour, and some references that will probably make a lot of sense to Celtic music fans, and some subtle moralizing on the dangers of offshore drilling, while acknowledging the need for cheap energy and jobs. I figured out fairly early that Aunt Catherine's motivations weren't quite what they seemed, though I didn't find out the full truth until the big reveal at the end

Charlie and Allie's "nephew", Jack, becomes an integral part of this story. He's a teenager, and that's a dangerous thing for a Gale sorcerer, and even more dangerous time for a dragon Prince. Coming to terms with his odd status in the family, both for him and the elder Aunties, is fraught with trouble, but by the end of this story, his character gets a bit more fleshed out and he seems to secure a place for himself. I wouldn't be too surprised to see him as the primary character in a sequel, actually.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Coffee Addict

I begin to wonder if I have a coffee habit requiring intervention. Currently, on my countertop I have a Mr. Coffee 12 cup brewer, a Keurig single cup brewer and a quadruple-shot Krupps espresso machine. My wife and I each have individual French presses we take on motorcycle camping trips, and I also have a small camp percolating coffee pot, plus I keep a large percolating pot at my parents' cabin. I have an aging electric coffee grinder on the counter that's in use, plus one NIB up in the cupboard, just in case the old one fails in the early morning hours. I have boxes of K-cups on the shelves, bags of coffee beans in the freezer, and a 1 lb can of Folgers in the pantry for the truly dire emergencies.

Do you think I have a problem?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mystery by Jonathan Kellerman

I've long enjoyed the writings of Jonathan Kellerman, and his wife, Faye. Getting to hang out with Alex Delaware and his pal, Milo, or Peter Decker, is always a rare pleasure. Kellerman continues the usual fun with the latest novel, true to form.

When one of Alex and Robin's favorite watering holes, the Fauborg Hotel, closes down after its new owners lose interest, they get all gussied up for one last hurrah there. Unfortunately, the usual employees have already been paid off, and the temporary help doesn't have the zeal for quality to which our friends have become accustomed, but while they are there they observe a young woman, whom they assume to be some sort of minor celebrity because of her behavior and the presence of a man who looks like a bodyguard outside the hotel, being stood up. When Milo visits them later and they find out that the woman's body has been discovered, a victim of a brutal murder, in Topanga Canyon, Alex has all the justification he needs (though we know from experience he needs very little) to become deeply enmeshed in Milo's investigation.

The trail leads to a very successful Internet dating service, run by Armenian immigrants, which connects rich sugar daddies with young, beautiful women who are "searching for their soulmates". It seems to hit a dead end shortly after that when it turns out that the woman's last "daddy" died over a year ago due to natural causes. So Milo and Alex pursue an alternate course investigating the "bodyguard", who has a bit of a shady history.

There's a second plot thread, in which Alex consults with a former "Hollywood Madam" who has terminal lung cancer about helping her young son to deal with her impending death. It provides a bit of distraction from the main investigation, and the minor clues that she provides for Alex and Milo don't really contribute all that much. I wonder if it was included just so Kellerman, a clinical psychologist, can sprinkle a little shrink lore into the story.

The identity of the murderer was fairly obvious to me in the early going, but Kellerman does a good job of suspensefully dragging out the solution for our two heroes. I'd rank this mystery about average in the Kellerman canon.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Behavior Gap by Carl Richards

I used to stop in at The Behavior Gap blog every so often, and enjoy his cocktail napkin graphs or Venn diagrams illustrating some tidbit of financial wisdom, so I was excited to see that author Carl Richards had written a book, which turns out for the most part to be a compilation of many of the subjects he wrote about on his blog. Richards is a certified financial planner and runs a capital management company in Utah, as well as writing and speaking about money, so he definitely knows his subject, albeit with a twist most financial planners don't have.

The title of the book refers to the difference between the overall return on investments in the stock market and the actual return that the majority of investors get. When the market as a whole goes up, for example 10%, individual investors on average are only getting 6%, and Richards calls the difference, which is caused by irrational or emotional behavior on the part of investors, the Behavior Gap. The book attempts to help us to understand those incorrect behaviors and to quit losing money over them.

Of course, the most common mistake that people make, which I know I personally saw happening during the economic meltdown of 2008, is to buy high and sell low. When all the word on the street is exciting, and prices are going up up up! everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon and buy more stocks - at precisely the time when they should be wary, and should hold or sell, instead. Then, when the market begins its inevitable correction, people tend to be fearful and to sell everything they bought at high prices, locking in losses. When the market is down is the best time to buy, instead. However, it takes a cast iron will and a strong stomach to buck the trend and not follow the herd in these situations.

Another problem is overconfidence. In a bull market especially, investors are prone to thinking that their investment decisions are bulletproof, and will often make decisions about where to invest their money without enough analysis. Richards suggest three questions to ask yourself and to go over the answers with someone you trust before you make an investment decision, which he calls the OC (Overconfidence Conversation):
1. If I make this change, and I am right, what impact will it have on my life?
2. What impact will it have if I am wrong?
3. Have I been wrong before?
Question 3 seems a gimme, but...

I liked what he had to say about the Greater Fool of stock market lore. The most recent example was in the run up to the housing crisis recently, when it seemed everyone was speculating on the rapidly rising price of homes, either using their paper home equity as an ATM by taking out more and more loans, or buying up properties and hoping to sell them after a short period of time for a profit. I was watching all of this happening, as well as the mass migration of previously sane engineers, salesmen and others into the professions of real estate broker, mortgage broker and loan officer, and wondering how long it could go on; how people were affording homes that had skyrocketed in price past all sane loan and budget guidelines. It seems that, when you're doing something dumb, whether it's buying high priced real estate or beanie babies, the only way out is to hope someone else is dumber, and hope they'll come along and take your investment off your hands before the bubble bursts.

It's often difficult to ignore the noise, to hold a steady course with your financial plan (which Richards suggests creating with the help of a professional and then following no matter what Jim Cramer says), while the media is screaming about the end of the world or about old rules no longer applying. Richards says that people are often surprised, in conversations with him at social events, given his profession, at his lack of interest in what the stock market as a whole, or individual investments, are doing. If pressed, he tells them that he helps "people make smart decisions about money so they can build and protect their wealth over time" and that "the ability to build and protect wealth is often inversely related to knowing what's going on in the market." Very refreshing.

This book is a quick, accessible and interesting read. There are lots of his sketches, helping to make what seems complicated very simple, scattered throughout the book. Even if you know nothing about the stock market or about investing, it will all make perfect sense.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Awakenings by Edward Lazellari

I'm always on the lookout for new authors, and I happened to see this book on the New Books shelf at the library, so I thought it was worth checking out - both ways. As I began reading it, it seemed to me highly derivative, as a tale of a band of desperate travelers from a magical universe crossing into modern day America, a little bit like the Keepers of the Hidden Ways series by Rosenberg.

Strangely enough, it turned out to be a really easy read, and I got interested in the characters and their dilemmas. Sometime in the past, it was agreed that the land of Aandor  could only be ruled by a king who contained the blood of all twelve of its kingdoms. When such a child was born, rival nobles began to plot how to prevent the child's ascension to the throne. To remove the child from danger, a group of loyalists, led by Cal McDonnell, went through a portal into our world where the child would be hidden.

Unfortunately, one of their own betrayed them, casting a spell which left all of them with total amnesia, and they all wandered off different directions, eventually dying or creating new lives for themselves on Earth. After thirteen years local time, however, another group has been sent, to find the boy emperor and capture or kill him, while a lone loyalist, a centaur named Lelani, has also headed for Earth, to try to find out what became of the original travelers and to help them protect and return the boy to be crowned.

A quick, amusing read, obviously meant to be the first of a series, as nothing is really resolved in this installment.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tuscany by Jonathan Keates

Keates paints a beautiful picture of the midsection of Italy known as Tuscany in this travel guide. It's not a typical guide, listing places to stay, establishments to dine in, trains to catch, or handy phrases to know. It's more of a descriptive, narrative journey through the regions of Tuscany. Beautifully illustrated by landscape photographer Charlie Waite, the photos all seem to have a slightly mysterious and misty quality, lending the whole thing a bit of a fairytale air.

Keates is very well-versed in the history of Italy's warring factions, from the strictly secular to the papal succession rivals, and seems to have his finger well on the pulse of the literary and artistic scene of modern and ancient Italy. The area was named for the Etruscans who used to live her, six centuries or so before Christ, and I get the feeling that there is perhaps more history to be discovered in Italy than pretty much anywhere else.

He mentions St. Zita, the patroness of chambermaids, canonized in 1952...I guess every profession needs a patron saint, eh? Patron saint of network administrators?

His turn of phrase is often amusing:

"Now the island is a haven for wildlife outside the annual period of grotesque carnage which passes in Italy for 'hunting'".

He speaks of the Fortezza Orsini, "built on medieval foundations by the Sienese architect Anton Maria Lari in 1552 and traditionally never taken by besiegers."

How's that work? The besiegers are about to break down the gate, rape the women, pillage the treasury, and one of the guardsmen says, "You can't do that! We have a tradition, you know."

If you're not interested in a practical how-to guide, but enjoy a rambling, bumbling sort of tour, not in any great hurry, you'd do well to pick up Keates' guide.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Blogoversary

Hard to believe the blog has been live now for two years. The time has certainly flown by. I've been averaging reading 3 to 4 books a week for another year, and haven't forgotten to review and post even one - though a couple barely deserved it.

Not a lot of progress on the Followers front, and I understand Google/Blogger is discontinuing that feature anyway. I appreciate everyone who has been faithfully following my blog, and hope y'all continue to stop by and comment on my thoughts.

Let's raise a toast to another good year!

Raven Cursed by Faith Hunter

The only downside to this Jane Yellowrock novel is that it's the last currently written for this series, so there's going to be a wait for the next one. I think I'll have to check out Hunter's other series.

After the mess at the summit between the witches and vampires in New Orleans, Jane decides to get out of town, so she heads for Asheville, North Carolina to get away from it all...but not really. Her boyfriend, Rick LaFleur, was bitten by a were panther, and is anticipating turning furry at the next full moon, so he's also hiding out near Asheville, in the woods, with the head of the African were cat delegation, Kemnebi, who has agreed to help him through the transition, but who secretly hates Rick, and intends to kill him when he's helpless.

Jane's witch friend, Molly, and the rest of her family are also living near Asheville, and when Master of New Orleans and most of the southern U.S.A., Leo Pellisier needs to have a high level audience between his delegate and a powerful vampire from Asheville, he requests and requires Jane's participation as head of security. Jane recruits the ex-military group headed by Derek to help out, so, aside from a change of scenery, the gang's all here for a wild and , crazy brawl.

Oh, I forgot to mention that two of the werewolves whose pack Jane and her friends wiped out in Mercy Blade, while Jane thought they were safely tucked away in jail, have gotten out and headed for the wilderness nearby, where they are attacking campers, hoping to infect some females, to rebuild the pack. Did I fail to note that the grindylow, whose race is responsible for catching and killing rogue weres, is also marking territory in the woods of NC?

Jane must use all of her powers to help local law enforcement track down and kill or capture the renegade werewolves, rescue Molly and her younger sisters and the rest of the family from a spell cast by their coven leader and elder sister, Evangelina, banish a demon, execute a rogue vamp, help Rick through his transition, and somehow or other - survive.

There's a couple of brief appearances from another vampire faction, either attempting to take control of some of Leo's territory, or disrupt the negotiations for some other reason, we never know just why - probably fodder for a sequel.

Molly's daughter, Angie, who has come into her witch powers far earlier than the usual puberty-based awakening, turns out to have some surprisingly strong powers and allies, which makes it fun.

Jane learns more, perhaps, than she bargained for about her own and her people's past from the demon, and only her connection to Beast keeps her from being overwhelmed by this evil monster. In the end, to defeat it, she sacrifices almost more than she can bear.

Lots of action, plenty of fun!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer

I had always somehow assumed that the members of Congress and the Senate were somehow covered by the same sorts of insider trading rules and conflict of interest policies that the rest of the country has to abide by, but Schweizer's book has rapidly disabused me of that quaint notion. I always knew that the politically powerful had financially advantageous connections, who steered them to business deals that the rest of us would never be privy to, but the practices described in Throw Them All Out go far beyond my innocent imaginings.

The book attempts to be non-partisan, and lists examples from both sides of the aisle of those who have benefited from their access to insider information and their abilities to manipulate the market, as well as steer legislation that would benefit their private coffers. There is, however, a fairly heavy focus on the party in power today, which I believe has two reasons: first, the party with the most control over legislation is the most heavily courted, and gets to appoint its cronies to positions of power, and second, our memories are short, and we'd probably have no idea who Schweizer was talking about if he detailed all the business wheelings and dealings of previous administrations.

I'm certain that we all recall the broad strokes of the events that led to the banking crisis in this country. Schweizer relates the story of a briefing that took place between the leaders of The Fed and major Senators and Congresscritters from both sides of the aisle, warning them of the coming collapse of many of the megabanks. Within days after that meeting, many of the attendees sold off large blocks of stock that they owned in those banks, knowing that the prices would go tumbling down. While the rest of us took our losses in the market meltdown that followed, our humble representatives didn't lose a dime!

Then, as meetings went on throughout the crisis, when it became apparent that the TARP bailout was actually going to be passed and put into place to rescue many of the banks, the same group of folks quietly bought back bank stocks that they knew would be getting bailout money, at bargain basement prices.

"One study by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and the University of Chicago found that during the critical votes on the subprime-mortgage bailout and subsequent matter related to the financial crisis of 2008, a key facto in how members of Congress voted was whether they held stock in banks and in the financial sector. Personal equity ownership also influenced congressional committee decisions on the amount of bailout money particular financial institutions received and how quickly they got it."

The truly scandalous thing about all this, however, is not that they're doing these sorts of things, but that the Congressional Ethics Committee deems it acceptable. When a particular member of the House Financial Services committee approached the ethics experts there about whether it was OK for him to use options puts and calls to double his congressional salary, they gave him the green light. If members of Congress buy and trade stock based on "valuable information revealed in private meetings, phone calls and correspondence" they are not guilty of any wrongdoing - by their own rules!

Members of Congress also are known for increasing the value of their private real estate holdings by the legislative earmark process. They can be instrumental in determining which local municipalities get federal money, and see to it that roads are built granting access to previously undeveloped plots of land which, coincidentally, they own, or approving light rail projects within walking distance of their commercial buildings, and they are!

Companies or industries that make the investment, not in R&D, but in political campaign donations, seem to have an edge when it comes to receiving government contracts or funding. In the case of the stimulus package recently, billionaire venture capitalist John Doerr has donated almost $2 million to Democrats over the past twenty years.
"...well over 50% of the companies listed...as part of his Green-tech venture capital portfolio received taxpayer grants or loan guarantees from Obama's stimulus program."
Some highlights:
  • One company alone received $102 million in credits!
  • 60% of another of Doerr's company's customers were winners of government grants totalling more than $560 million!
That was $20 million well spent!

These are just a few examples of the outrageous actions of our ruling political class. Plenty more in the book. I consider this book a must-read for all voters before Election Day 2012.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card


Card has, for many years, been one of those authors whose novels I'm unable to put down until finished, once I start. This novel, part of the endless Ender's Game saga, wasn't quite that enthralling, but it managed to wrap up one dangling plot thread from the tale of his old sidekick in Battle School, Bean (Julian Delphiki). Bean was a genetically engineered human, designed by a scientist to have extremely high intelligence, but an unfortunate side effect of the process was that it turned off the genetic switch regulating growth, and Bean is destined to continue growing, becoming a giant whose body will not survive past his mid twenties.

In an earlier book, Bean and Petra (also from Battle School) fell in love, married, and had children. Three of the children, Andrew, Carlotta and Cincinattus, were afflicted with Anton's syndrome, and Bean takes the children away from Earth with him on a starship, hoping to take advantage of the time dilation effect to allow researchers to work on a cure. They are well into the voyage at the beginning of this tale.

They discover an Earth-like planet in a distant solar system, at the same time as a ship of the Hive Queens goes into orbit around it. Everyone believes that all of the Hive Queens (save the one in its cocoon that Ender, Speaker for the Dead, is still dragging around the galaxy with him) are dead, and the Formic threat destroyed. Bean and the children decide to attempt contacting the aliens, and there's some interesting stuff about what they discover on board, as to the fate of the Formics.

Not his best work, but amusing, and it wraps up a sub plot nicely.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Embassytown by China Mieville

I've seen Mieville's works on the shelves at the library quite frequently, and finally decided to give him a try. If Embassytown is representative of the quality of his writings, I may have to read some more. Embassytown reminds me of some of the older science fiction authors. Suzette Haden Elgin leaps immediately to mind, as well as LeGuin, the first because this novel deals primarily with xenolinguistics, and the second for the odd human and alien cultures she described in her novels.

Avice grew up in Embassytown, an enclave on an alien world occupied by the Hosts, or Arekei. The Arekei have two mouths that they use for speaking, and are only able to understand humans speaking their language when it is spoken by a pair of humans, The Ambassadors, who have been specially cloned, raised and trained to think the same thoughts as they speak. The other odd thing about the language of the Hosts is that it is impossible for the Hosts to lie while speaking. They are only able to say things that are true, by some strange quirk of their neural programming and biology. Ordinary humans are able to understand, to some extent, the Hosts' language, but when they try to use it, the Arekei hear only meaningless noise.

When Avice was young, she became a simile for the Hosts. As the hosts are capable of only literally speaking what exists, in order for them to speak figuratively of something, they use the humans to perform strange actions and become similes or metaphors to which they can refer. Wild stuff, I know, but this is the sort of creative thing that Mieville uses that I found so intriguing. Avice became "The Girl who Ate what Was Given Her", and when she returns to Embassytown after a career working on space vessels traveling the "immer", she is still recognized and even acquires a coterie of Host groupies.

Another little creative bit that I found amusing was when the "automa" (mobile self-aware artificial intelligences) in Embassytown are infected with a virus that turns them into preachers of a new religion, and "...their catechisms changing as the 'ware degraded and threw up protestant, variant sects."

When a unique form of political sabotage sends a new Ambassador, EzRa, to Embassytown whose voice acts as an immediately addictive drug on the Arekei, all hell breaks loose. The addiction is contagious, nor merely limited to those who hear EzRa, but also by biological contamination between the infected Hosts and other Hosts, as well as many of their biological creations - they're supergeniuses when it comes to genetic engineering, and use biological constructs for all of their industrial applications.

Very serious, world-threatening problems develop, and the solution is totally amazing. I highly recommend this novel, and I'll let you know as I try some more Mieville.

The Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer by Lucy Weston

This review is coming in as a twofer today, as it is extremely brief. I only got about 44 pages into the book before giving up on it. Perhaps folks who are more into historical romances might like it, though I'm sure any Arturian purists won't.

The events of the book, purportedly written by the character, Lucy, from Stoker's Dracula,  center around the coronation of Elizabeth Tudor. She has some previously unexploited spiritual powers which, I am assuming, will make her a powerful vampire slayer. The main antagonist in this book appears to be Mordred, bastard son of Arthur and Morgaine, who has survived for centuries as a powerful master vampire. When he took Elizabeth on a flying tour of the capital cities of Europe, offering her the opportunity to jointly rule them with him, a la Satan and Christ, I gave up.

P.N. Elrod did a better mixing of Arturian legend and vampire adventures quite some time ago with Keeper of the King and a companion volume, His Father's Son, I believe.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jonathan R. Eller

This is an extraordinarily complete and comprehensive account of how Ray Bradbury was inspired and created all of his stories and novels. Painstakingly filled with details, it's a very slow read.

Bradbury began writing while quite young, and was heavily involved in the science fiction fan community in the Los Angeles area. The book is full of information about his relationships with many of the players in the early SF field, such as Leigh Bracket, Henry Kuttner, August Derleth, Hannes Bok, and many others.

Unfortunately, it tends to loop back upon itself chronologically at times, which can be a bit confusing.

One quote I found amusing:

"Late in 1945, he would remark to (August) Derleth, 'God, are there no happy big-time writers?'"

It seemed to take him a while, personally, to find happiness, as he lived with his parents and even slept in the same bed with his older brother until his marriage at age 27.

The book mentions "Franz Werfel's perennial bestseller The Song of Bernadette", which I found interesting. I am not alone in having nominated Werfel's Star of the Unborn as the all-time worst SF novel ever published.

Another interesting passage:

"He (Bradbury) was able to use the evolving Dark Carnival collection to signify that a literary author had emerged from a genre where writers were often seen as entertainers rather than authors..."

I tend to enjoy "entertainers" more than "authors", myself. Non-fiction reading keeps me well aware of the miserable state of most human experience. I much prefer to read to escape from reality.

A great book for the serious Bradbury student.