Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stray Souls by Kate Griffin

 Though I haven't read any of his stuff in ages, I really enjoyed Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories, and that's probably what this novel by Griffin reminds me of the most strongly. A very quirky, and British, sense of humor gets this novel off to an amusing start, when Sharon Li, a novice shaman decides to form a Facebook group called Magicals Anonymous, and holds their first meeting in a community center in London.

Some of the attendees include an OCD vampire with germophobia, a necromancer with a skin condition and a druid with allergies, who couldn't handle the herbs and potions - failed his exams. Grendel the troll loves ethnic cuisine and a banshee named Sally wants to broaden her horizons taking community college courses in modern art. We also have were-pigeons. Sharon's mentor is Sammy the Elbow, a profanity spewing goblin.

It's difficult to sustain humor throughout an entire novel, but Griffin gives it a good try. Along the way, however, she builds an interesting new mythos surrounding and infusing the city of London, where the spirits of the past are often more real than the commuter at your elbow. This isn't your ordinary action-packed urban fantasy novel with a hack and slash tomboy heroine. When Sharon and her friends are called on to dispatch the villains of the story, their approaches are, to say the least, innovative.

Friday, September 27, 2013

I'm not dead yet (HT Monty Python)

This has been a tough year on my reading habits. I've been lucky to finish a book or two a week, on average. The most likely reason for it has been the amount of travel we've done. I simply don't read as much when I'm on the road. Hope to read and post more as winter approaches.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire

Toby is doing well in her relationship with the King of Cats, Tybalt, so it's inevitable that something major should go wrong. Too many changelings are becoming addicted to goblin fruit, which is fatal over the long haul, but which provides an incredible high in the meantime, and is immediately addictive on the first dose. It has become widely available on the streets of San Francisco and its Fae desmesnes. It is a harmless intoxicant to the Fae, but the half bloods and full humans are strongly affected by it. The worst thing is, it turns out that the Queen is the one who is providing it, and isn't dismayed at all at the changeling deaths - it's a feature, not a bug.

Toby makes the mistake of confronting her, and ends up banished from the kingdom. In her inimitable and rather unique style, she sets about finding the true heirs of King Gilad, and encouraging them to claim their rightful throne, which coincidentally should end her banishment.

Along the way we get to meet a Dog Sidhe (if there are cats, there must be dogs, right?), struggle along with Toby when the Queen's agents forcibly addict her to goblin fruit, which has some wild side effect for someone who can change their own blood to become more human, thus enjoying the intoxication more deeply. Going along with the usual theme these days in urban fantasy with female heroes, we get to learn who all Toby's allies really are, and how she can count on them to have her back.

This book appears to mark a transition in the series. It will be fun to see what's next.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Agenda 21 by Glen Beck

They just don't write dystopian fiction like they used to. Agenda 21 is the tale of Emmeline, who dwells in a compound run by the Authorities along with dozens? hundreds? thousands? (we never really know) of other folks who have been removed from their land and lives by the results of the UN's Agenda 21, a radical green program which forces most of them to walk on a treadmill most of the day producing enough energy to "pay back" the government for the cost of feeding and housing them. Others are assigned as transport workers, manually towing the carts that move people and goods from place to place, caregivers, who watch over the children in the Authorities' crèche, or gatekeepers, who keep track of all the people in each compound, and report all their movements to the Authorities.

Emmeline appears to be the only child who was actually raised by her parents, the rest have been educated by the state, and know an entirely different version of history than she has been taught. There are hints that there may be other "home schooled" around somewhere, as she is mocked a couple of times for being "one of them". The Authorities even control who will mate with one another, pairing fertile couples to keep the population steady.

I think Beck and his co-writer are trying to go for a Katniss Everdeen type of heroine here, but I'm not sure they got there. Emmeline's mother, we find out after she is taken away for some imagined offense and "recycled", left Emmeline some illegal and subversive materials concealed in her sleeping mat; a map of the United States, a knife, a bible, and some matches, as well as some relatively innocuous photographs of happier times. Emmeline finally goes rogue when her baby daughter, Elsa, is going to be taken away to be raised by the government elsewhere. This happens near the end of the book, and I think the authors are planning on some sequel action.

Don't bother.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Possession by Kat Richardson

I really like how Richardson infuses her Harper Blaine stories with local lore, mixed well with more geographically diverse legends. In this installment, the mystery hinges upon the spirit of an early serial killer in Seattle, adds a local native American figure, plus the catalyst of an old goddess, imported from Europe.

Harper's case begins with her trying to figure out why an improbable number of people, statistically speaking, have passed into vegetative states which are interrupted by the symptoms of old-time spiritualists' ghost manifestations, such as directed painting and writing, and ghostly writing in blood scratched on skin.

Her boyfriend Quinton's father shows up in this story when he's capturing supernaturals and suborning and studying them, and this brings in Harper's old allies, Cameron and Carlos, when the elder Purvis captures one of their dhampires.

As seems to be a common theme in urban fantasy this year, Harper finds out in this novel just how connected she is to her friends and family, and realizes that she has more allies and support than she ever thought possible.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Quality and Service

Going totally off topic now, I'm going to say some good things about a well-established company, Chicago Cutlery. In 1983, when my beautiful wife and I got married, someone gave us a set of Chicago Cutlery knives, with a knife block and steel included. I spent a dozen years in the restaurant business, and had plenty of good knives, such as Henckels and Forschner, that I worked with professionally, so I'd always thought when the Chicago Cutlery set wore out, I'd buy myself a set of professional grade tools.

Fast forward (or slow) thirty years. The Chicago Cutlery is still in fantastic shape, though it has been used hard, not just set out on the counter to admire. The only problem I've had is that a small crack appeared in the wooden handle of the 8" Chef knife about ten years after I got it, but the crack never really got any worse, mostly a cosmetic thing. But, what the heck, they're a working set of knives, and like me they're starting to show their age a bit, right?

So, a couple of months ago, I decided that the knives I had in my camp trailer up in the mountains were crap, and thought, "I'll just put the Chicago Cutlery stuff in the trailer, and buy myself some Henckels". The better half and I went out shopping one weekend, looking at various flavors of Henckels, and I just couldn't bring myself to spend the money on them, even with my 20% discount coupons at a noted housewares retailer. So, I took a look online at what Chicago Cutlery cost to replace my set, and it was about 1/3 of what the "pro" knives cost.

Sure, they perhaps don't have quite the "heft" and balance of the high end knives, and perhaps you have to work a little more often with the steel to keep a razor edge on them, but was it really worth the difference. While I was on CC's web site, I saw a comments/feedback area, and so I told my little story about how long I'd had the knife set and how pleased I was how it had held up thirty years (not many things do these days) aside from the minor crack in the handle of the chef's knife. Then, I decided to just order a small three knife set, with a chef, utility and paring knife, which was all I really need when we're camping (well, maybe a bread slicer).

The new set arrived quickly, and I took the old knives up to the mountains, put the new knives in the block at home, and have been generally pleased with the replacement knives, which seem a little lighter in construction than the old ones. I haven't decided yet if that's better or not, but the minor weight change hasn't thrown me off my stride.

Last week, out of the blue, and with no communication from Chicago Cutlery, I received in the mail a brand new 8" Chef knife. I'm assuming they read my comment and decided to apply their lifetime warranty. Wow! Great people, great knives, great customer service.

Now, I just have to retrieve the old knife from the mountains and put it in the box with the return merchandise authorization...might take me thirty years...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Magic Rises by Ilona Andrews

Kate and Curran's pack, as well as the rest of the lycanthropes in the world, must deal with the hazard of its children going "loup", losing control of their shapeshifting and becoming little more than ravening monsters. Some of them do it at birth, while others face the crisis in adolescence, and it is heartbreaking for the parents and family to watch a child being put down for the safety of the pack. There is, however, a cure called panacea (how appropriate), a chemical and magical concoction that cures "loupism". The formula is secret, and the compound expensive and difficult to obtain from those who manufacture it. In Magic Rises, Kate and Curran and some of the best and brightest of the pack journey to the Carpathians in Europe for the opportunity to earn two barrels of panacea.

How much of this story is about advancing the overall plot arc and how much is about exploring more of the world than that portion of it which we have seen in the earlier Kate Daniels books is up for grabs, but we get the opportunity to see Kate & Co. encounter sea monsters and were-dolphins, so it can't be all bad, right?

It turns out that the entire trip is the result of a ruse designed by Roland's warlord, Hugh d'Ambray, in order to bring Kate to Europe, so he can implement his own agenda. Kate and her pack spend two thirds of the novel trying to discover his game plan.

There appear to be some events in this novel which are definitely setting up Kate's eventual rumble with Daddy. First, Kate's soft heartedness rescues a man whom Hugh has hung in a cage to die slowly, and I surmise that he may be key to providing Kate with access to books of magic which will allow her to learn more words of power sometime in the near future. Second, Kate encounters an ally overseas who is actually more powerful than Roland, though the power may be geographically localized - can't hurt to have powerful friends, can it? Third, Kate stumbles into the method for creating the blood armor that we recall from her earlier conflict with her aunt, Erra. Definitely comes in handy.

Kate also may have come to some emotional revelations in Magic Rises. I think she and Curran fully realize their love for and commmitment to one another, and both of them vow not to run away from that commitment when the final battle with Roland takes place. She also begins to understand, through some key conversations with pack members, that despite her "humanity" she is truly part of the pack and will be defended by them to the end. Contrast this with what is likely in Roland's case; that he is served only by those who fear him.

Transitional story? Perhaps. We'll need to see the next Kate Daniels book to be sure.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Venus by Ben Bova

Venus is another stop on Bova's Grand Tour. Alex Humphries, the son of a wealthy and powerful man, Martin Humphries, was lost on an expedition to Venus a few years prior to the start of the story, while trying to obtain, for the Greens, evidence that Earth's global warming is similar to the planetary greenhouse effect that has always enveloped the Planet of Love. When Humphries offers ten billion dollars to the first person who returns his son's remains, his other son, Van, who has been a sickly drone most of his life, decides to outfit his own expedition to compete for the prize, which will make him independent at last from his domineering and cruel father.

His only competition will be the expedition mounted by Lars Fuchs, an asteroid miner whose business was ruined and whose wife was stolen by the elder Humphries twenty years ago. Fuchs' ship is named Lucifer, and he spends much of his time in the story quoting Satan's lines from Milton. But there's more to Fuchs than his public persona would suggest, and he actually is one of the more interesting characters in the story by the end.

The best part of this book, however, is all of the fun details that Bova includes about the environment which he believes exists on Venus' surface, and in its cloud layers, and his suppositions about what sort of life might survive in such a vicious place. It ain't Carson of Venus, folks, or even Between Planets; it's nearly literally Hell, which suits the captain of Lucifer just fine, and our "hero" Van not as much.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Jupiter by Ben Bova

 I put some of the earlier books in the Grand Tour series on hold at the library, and the first to come in was Jupiter. I'm not quite sure how Bova fits in the Earth he describes as overrun by vast flooding caused by global warming in New Earth with the vision of an Earth run by the New Morality he envisions here. It seems a coalition of fundamentalists from all religions has banded together in the common cause of enforcing moral behavior and decency upon the entire world, and these fanatics are now in charge of government at all levels. Their antipathy to science is extreme, and their fears that scientists might discover something that disproves creationism or the puts into doubt the existence of God seems to drive all of the conflict in this novel.

The whiny little "hero" of this story is Grant Archer, a grad student in astronomy who is required to serve his four years of Public Service on a space station orbiting Jupiter, while his wife serves hers on Earth. He is recruited by the New Morality to spy on the scientists already on the station, who are suspected of the sin of finding intelligent life on another planet. Bova regales us with a vast data dump of interesting information about Jupiter and its environs, which I assume is mostly factual, though he certainly departs from terra cognita and takes us on a journey of the imagination as we explore deeper than any probes sent to date. You know (if you've read much SF at all in your life) how this has to go, don't you? Archer goes over to the "dark side", joins the expedition, finds the aliens, and broadcasts the truth far and wide so that it cannot be suppressed.

Hmm, is this how Bova creates the downfall of the New Morality and the rise of the government seen in later books? The truth will set you free?

I know that a good science fiction story often requires the willing suspension of disbelief, and yet I have a few quibbles with some of the themes in this story. Bova is cheating a bit with a cardboard cutout "anti-science" villainous entity here (he does the same with an evil corporate CEO in Venus, which I just started reading).

First, I cannot imagine a situation so dire that all of the fundamentalists of the world's religions would ever agree to cooperate for much longer than it took to stab one another in the back. Their fundamental beliefs, though it might not appear so to unbelievers, are not compatible. Not gonna happen. Ever.

Second, Bova seems to think that ALL, shall we say "religionists" are against science, and probably responsible for all of the funding cuts that our country's space program has taken recently (though he does mention in Venus that all NASA funds must be spent on studying climate change, not planetary exploration). Obviously Mr. Bova hangs around (or most likely doesn't) with a whole different group of Jesus Freaks from the ones I hang around with. It would be the exciting topic of many a Sunday afternoon coffee shop discussion if intelligent life was discovered on Jupiter. Do you know how many closet Trekkies go to my church?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Final Thoughts on our New Zealand Trip

(I jotted some of this down a while back, and just rediscovered it)

One of the prettiest places in the world, the most hospitable and polite people.

While lodging prices appear to be comparable to the and other Western nations, the prices of food, both in grocery stores and restaurants, were amazingly high. Out of season vegetables were as much as ten times the price back home, while most other things seemed to be double or triple, in general, what we are used to. The most surprising costs were associated with seafood, which one would expect to be cheap and plentiful. The only exception were the local green-lipped mussels, which could be had in the groceries for around $3 a kilo, while in the restaurants a kilo went for around $20, steamed.

Interesting differences:

Takeaway food does not automatically come with condiments; in fact one may have to pay exorbitant prices for packages of tomato sauce or tartar sauce to go with fish & chips.

I didn’t see any fountain drinks in restaurants; it was always cans or bottles offered. They may have been available at McDonalds and Burger King, but I didn’t go in to check.

Public restrooms were generally clean and smelled of disinfectant, but there was still an appalling amount of vandalism and littering for a country which prides itself on being eco-friendly.

Many homes use filtered rainwater, stored in immense cisterns, as their primary water supply.

Due to eco-friendliness, local detergents seemed weak and powerless against greasy messes.

After a week or so of driving, I began to see the benefits of the roundabouts and after conquering ingrained habits, driving on the left side of the road posed few problems.

I think that the NZ media is, either by design, laziness, or by giving them only what boosts ratings, doing the people the same disfavor ours in America is doing us, feeding them diluted news and infotainment. The publicly available news channels seldom delivered anything of great import, and were mind numbingly repetitive, just like home.

LOL. I always over pack a bit, and come home and make notes of things not to bother with next time. However, this time I had a couple of things come in quite handy. I had a fairly extensive first aid kit in my carry-on that saved my bacon when I gashed open my leg in the San Francisco airport, while gathering my luggage. None of the airport staff had any idea where to find a first aid station or kit. Pitiful. The other thing I had packed was a compact LED flashlight for my wife and myself, and when we went to Hot Beach in the dark to dig pools and sit in them, they worked out well. That was the only time I needed them.

I could go back there...I could.