Sunday, December 15, 2013

In the Courts of the Sun, by Brian D'Amato - post-humanist bio-punk essay as novel

In the Courts of the SunIn the Courts of the Sun by Brian D'Amato
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michael Crichton meets Neal Stephenson meets Frank Herbert with a Mesoamerican flavor. Good stuff about game theory and lots of fun tech in the beginning. Unfortunately, for my taste anyway, it bogs down in the middle with an endless journey to the horrors of 6th century Mesoamerica. It's very interesting in an academic way, but the long drawn-out descriptions of every little thing, including multiple acts of violence, really killed the pacing in my opinion. It was like he was channeling Jules Verne or Herman Melville, with laborious illustrations of Mayan culture and folkways and ceremonies and architecture ad nauseam.

I did enjoy the protagonist and his tongue-in-cheek approach to life, and although his relationships with other characters are a bit odd at time, this fits with his Aspbergers and other issues. Overall it's an amazing novel, but when I find I'm just waiting for it to be over, then I can't give it five stars. The last few chapters were so heavily philosophical that I felt like it sucked all the energy out of the plot and just became a treatise on post-humanism or something.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

ReamdeReamde by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Engrossing, entertaining, dryly amusing...a real page turner. Lots of it to love! Guns, hackers, terrorists, spies, and MMORPGs. It ends a bit abruptly, but that's one of Stephenson's few and very minor weaknesses in my opinion. Mostly I felt squarely in the action and lost in the moment. He nails the experiences that I can personally empathize with, and the situations foreign to me to one degree or another ring true. Highly recommended. If you want a more detailed review, I'm sure there are scads of them.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Happy 1st Birthday, Elanor

As of today you've been all the way around the Sun once. That's a long, long journey for a little shiny black beastie. You launch in to each day with fierce abandon, always ready to let bystanders know what's on your mind. Every exertion is punctuated by a growl, grunt or yowl. The rain, much to your disgust, has yet to cede to your muttered complaints, and yet you will rant to anyone with an ear on your dissatisfaction with the weather on stormy days.

You have ridden part of the solar circuit swaying in the tops of various trees, your nose in the wind, like a lookout in the fighting top of a ship of the line.

Part of the journey you've spent burrowed deep in various piles of bedding, visible only as a shapeless lump. The world is your gymnasium, it's wads of paper your footballs, the chickens in the yard your ninepins, and various laps your yoga mats.

You are Eric the Red's last "child", as he is growing old and losing patience with kittens whom he would once have cheerfully raised. You befriended Sam, the patch tabby we brought home from the shelter a month before we picked you up. He is no longer a sad, lonely ex-street cat with few social skills, but a happy, goofy, friendly cat who is happy to play tag with you indoors and out.

You started life with a double hernia which you ignored, but which frightened us terribly. The kindness of friends paid for your surgery and today nobody would ever know this lithe, ferocious little panther had ever been fragile and broken.

Here's to another wild ride around the sun, little demon.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Watching Paint Dry

Writer's quote of the day, courtesy of @adviceToWriters:

"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

I wish more writers would take this advice. I just finished a couple of romance novels, both of which I found somewhat less than romantic. Mostly they were boring, and I don't use that word lightly. I think the word "boring" or "bored" is overused. I myself am never bored. The world is too full of things to do and think about. Some writers try to bore me with bland prose, a paltry collection of tepid adjectives, and sine-wave story arcs. They fail because I either speed-read my way to the end (paper) or start skipping tracks (audio). If it's really awful, I'll just throw in the last disc if I care to hear what happens at the end. I will not let them win. You can't bore me: I quit!

OK, I wasn't going to name names, but the last thing I tried to read was "Honeysuckle Summer" by Sherryl Woods. I should have known I was in for a rough ride when I saw it was the last book in the "Sweet Magnolias" series. "Honeysuckle", "sweet", "magnolia" your teeth hurt, yet? Woods is not a bad writer, but these kinds of books just leave me wanting to stab myself with a fork so I can at least feel something. The phrase "watching paint dry" sprang to mind frequently. This happened a year or so ago, before I started my quest to research romance novels in a more methodical way, when I picked up a couple of Debbie Macomber books at the library. She's local to me, and I love her tea house in Port Orchard, so I thought I'd give her a look-see. I can't remember if I made it past the first chapter of either book, but I do remember that they were the equivalent of sitting in the "fellowship hall" at church listening to nice, wholesome, yet bland people talk about their grandkids, golf games, the altar guild, and what they were planning for Sunday dinner.

Writing about ordinary people does not have to be coma-inducing. Rosamund Pilcher did it all the time, and I adore her novels. Then again, there's usually some kind of social or relational Macguffin in a Pilcher story: a regretted affair, a lost love, a buried secret like a hidden past life. Sprinkle that with some interesting events like, say World War 2, a natural disaster, a tragic accident, the appearance of some kind of villain, all contrasted with vignettes of charming but quirky everyday life, and you have Pilcher in a nutshell. That may sound boring, and it may be to some people, but she is so skillful with her writing that it isn't.

I think that's what writers like Sherryl Woods are trying to do. There is some past drama, a medical malady or two, and even a homicidal ex-husband, but she just doesn't have the chops to keep me interested. The only reason I bothered toughing out "Honeysuckle Summer" is because it was read by Mary Robinette Kowal, who writes wonderfully ("Shades of Milk and Honey") and is a talented Voice Over artist as well. She had her work cut out for her in trying to make this bland story interesting. She did succeed in making me want to listen to the last chapters, but it was a tough haul.

Major problem #1: Woods is very obviously trying to raise awareness about agoraphobia and anorexia (two different characters), but manages to harp on them constantly without actually educating us in any meaningful way. If you're going to be preachy, at least cover the issues in some detail rather than just giving the same surface treatment over and over.

Major problem #2: "Twilight syndrome" or "I only have ten adjectives and you're going to hear them over and over!" Please don't tell me that the hero is "handsome", tell me why he's handsome. Don't tell me the girl is "sexy", tell me why the hero finds her sexy. Points off also for overuse, any use, really, of "rugged".

Major problem #3: Lavish descriptions of things we've already seen multiple times. Things like the protagonist's back yard or the hero's broad shoulders. Also included here are lavish descriptions of cooking and meals. I don't care what they're having for lunch, unless it's pertinent to the plot or unusual in some way. I also don't care what color his or her shirt or jacket is unless, again, it's noteworthy for some reason. Can terrorists fast-rope in and start taking hostages already?! Ahem.

Here's hoping for some romantic romance in the near future.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Accidents Happen, by Louise Millar

Accidents Happen: A NovelAccidents Happen: A Novel by Louise Millar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mildly spoilerish.

This book was sent to me as a galley by Atria Books, through Galley Alley, and it's the second in a row that I've read containing the theme of "sad woman who has been through trying times is befriended by and falls in love with a 'too good to be true' guy who turns out to be too good to be true". This might even be a trope at this point, or at least a trendy theme in psychological thrillers. All I can say is that it is a delicate thing to write this kind of story so that the reader believes that the heroine is vulnerable but not overly credulous.

The story takes place in present-day Oxford, following the tortured daily existence of Kate, a 30s-ish woman with an eight-year-old son, who lost her husband in the recent past. Kate sees her life as a series of unlikely tragedies, feeling she's had more than her share of loss and accident. She's become obsessed with statistics and safety measures almost to the point of agoraphobia. Her husband's parents and her sister-in-law are naturally concerned, but their high-handed ways of demonstrating this concern are a huge source of friction. Kate meets a visiting statistics lecturer one day by chance...or is it? He seems literally to have written the book on the statistics of safety, and when Kate screws up her courage to talk to him they start a tentative friendship which immediately changes her outlook on life for the better.

Louise Millar skillfully sets her scenes in a detailed way that draws you in to the moment. The characters speak naturally and we spend just enough time in their heads to know what they're thinking without drowning in internal monologues. I found myself fully a quarter of the way through before I took a break.

**************More obvious spoilers*************

I subtracted one star from a perfect five for a couple of reasons:

1. The "sad woman needs a man to feel better and have a happy life" trope. I'm not saying this doesn't happen, but I prefer stories where the sad woman meets somebody who helps her find her happiness without needing to be the ultimate source of that happiness, if that makes sense.

2. Kate, our protagonist, is massively credulous to the point of stupidity. I would buy her being snowed by our Bad Guy if she were a 20-something college girl full of blind naïveté, but she's a 30-something woman with a child and an amazing menu of adventurous life experiences. I just don't believe her being so gullible, especially considering her paranoid obsession with security and safety. Bad Guy asks her to do some pretty sketchy things in the name of "bringing her out of her shell". By the second or third, after the first one I would have been very skeptical about this guy, and after a particularly creepy scene involving being stranded in a rural village with a gang of potential gang-bangers I would have punched this guy's lights out and called it quits.

The payoff is decent by the end, and the pacing is good. I always enjoy stories that take me to places I'd like to visit, in this case Oxford, England and environs. It's a nice couple of hours' reading.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

RedshirtsRedshirts by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is to SF novels what "Galaxy Quest" is to SF movies. It's not the same story, or even the same kind of story, but it has the same weight and tone and lovingly pokes fun at a beloved SF world. This is not to say it is pure book candy, as there are places that grow amusingly metaphysical. Don't overthink these moments; you'll just give yourself a headache. You'll laugh, you'll cry (well, get misty, anyway), or maybe you'll shout "SCALZI!!!" like Brandon Sanderson.

Read it. You can get through it in a long afternoon or a couple of days of light reading. If you enjoy Douglas Adams, Star Trek, or campy SF of any kind, you'll thank me.

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Among Others, by Jo Walton

Among OthersAmong Others by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So far it's like a trip down memory lane for me. I haven't read as many of the SFF novels as Morwenna, but where our lines do cross it's fun to hear her natter on about them as a teenager. I'm not a huge fan of first-person, and in this case you're stuck in the head of a fifteen-year-old, so it can get a bit droll at times. At that age the world revolves around you, and everything is a CRISIS. She tends to overreact to many situations in an overt and external way, which always drives me crazy in a person, but it's utterly believable and consistently written. I'll scribble a real review when I finish.


As is often the case, I finished this book and dashed off to other things without writing a review. Part of the reason is that while I enjoyed it for the most part, I didn't find it as engrossing or fascinating as so many others seem to. Do not let my tepid reaction stop you from reading it. I do think it's worth anyone's time... but I felt like the arc was a slow climb up a very low hill to a moderately interesting climax about fifteen pages before the end. Part of my reaction is because I'm usually not a big fan of first person perspective, and especially when one is stuck in the head of a teenager for 75,000 words or so. Even when I was that age I had little patience for the "it's all about ME" thing, and as a crochety old lady I have none at all.

Still, it was nice to re-visit so many of the things I read as a teenager and through my college years and see them through fresh eyes. Give it a try.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Podcast files: irksome omissions

I've become a bit of a podcast junkie, especially since the electrical troubles started in my car and the radio/CD player no longer works. I just download podcasts on to my phone and listen to them as I drive. This helps me keep awake during my zero-dark-thirty commute to Port Townsend three days a week. If I'm really tired, it helps keep me awake on the way home, too.

Soon I hope to delve into the realm of podcasting myself, mostly as director/engineer for my historian husband who really needs to have one. That said, I listen to 'casts with an ear for what works and what doesn't; what seems smooth and professional, and what is grating and amateurish. I like short intros with minimal music. I like folks who get to the point and dig into it. I don't like constant background music in a 'cast longer than 30 seconds or so. I loathe team podcasters who talk over each other. I am utterly bored by teams who drone on about in jokes and digressions of digressions. I like people who keep up a steady pace without seeming rushed. I cringe at speakers who punctuate every single sentence with "um", "er", and "uh" over and over and over. Stop that.

I really appreciate folks who add album art to their files. It's one of those "metadata" things that really isn't that hard to add, and it makes for a nice "at a glance" visual branding thing on a smart phone or Mp3 player. I really REALLY appreciate folks who have taken the time to actually give their sound files titles, track numbers, and other markers. Again: this is not rocket science. It's really annoying to have to do this oneself so when one is perusing files on one's Mp3 player one sees things like "The Bobcast_Episode_12_flirting with quirts" instead of "TB20dkhfdkl19dl.mp3" or just "Bobcast". Note: don't go looking for a Bobcast, because I just made it up.

I will go so far as to make my own album art for a 'cast that I like enough to download several episodes of. I like to be organized.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Island ApartIsland Apart by Steven Raichlen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book resonated with me perhaps more than any other novel I have ever read. I'll still always have works like "Lord of the Rings" at the top of my favorites list, but LotR is more of a "I want to be there" and "this journey is important to me" kind of experience, "Island Apart" feels like the author got in to my head while he was writing and concocted a tale just for me. The setting, Martha's Vinyard, is an East Coast version of where I live in the Pacific Northwest. The male lead in the story is an extreme version of me: reclusive, introspective, and wary of painful contact with other humans. He's perfectly content in his solitude and comfortable living life his own way. The other islanders refer to him as "the Hermit", and it fits.

I'm a big fan of Rosamund Pilcher, and this is basically her style but told by a Yank in a Yank setting, with the requisite flashbacks to an earlier time and gentle explorations of interpersonal relationships in a colorful setting. Skillfully drawn characters galore. The female lead does a bit of overreacting at one point, dangerously close to the "psycho-harpies" who annoy me in cheap romance novels. But it's a brief, solitary moment and doesn't mar the story at all.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Feeling a little blue

Next month it will be a year since my cat Gimli disappeared. I still grieve about it. I still miss him terribly. He was amazing: so full of life, such a huge personality, such an imp. I loved him a lot. I haven't been this broken up since my first cat, Isis, died in 1988. I don't know why I bond so strongly with some of my cats. Maybe it's because certain of them have personalities that synch with mine in some mysterious way, and that fulfills a need for me that I don't fully understand. I've had so many disappointments, so many dreams squished, made so many bad decisions in my life, and maybe the affection of these inscrutable creatures is a kind of psychological balm. They're always there, consistently loving, yet unpredictable and fascinating. They know when I'm hurting and are content just to sit with, or on, me and commiserate.

A quick lick on the nose or a head butt from a lithe, sinuous, amazingly athletic predator goes a long way to make up for slights or other fallout from humans who really should have more understanding. That feline companionship is truly comforting when I'm sick or in physical pain. I always feel terrible when they're hurt or sick and my efforts to soothe or heal them don't seem to be working, or just take longer than I'd like to see results, because they're always there for me. They are perhaps not exactly my "children", but I am responsible for their well-being. I love them, and can't imagine life without them.

If I die while still harboring cats or any other animals in my life, I can only hope that some caring individual would take them in and care for them until the end of their lives. I guess I should set up a will with a section in it for just such a contingency. My husband is a good man, but I wouldn't want to burden him with the care of so many animals after my passing. He enjoys the cats on his good days, but taking care of animals isn't something he ever asked for. As I write this, a very old lady cat is sitting in my lap. She started out semi-feral and is now retired from the feral life. I hope I can end my days as gracefully as she is doing, and with my fur as unruffled.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I've become a podcast junkie lately. I especially enjoy "Writing Excuses", "Sword and Laser", and "The Secrets". The "Chillpak Hollywood Hour" is also an occasional favorite. There are a handful of podcasts that I linked to from other sites, or that were otherwise recommended to me, but the style of those 'casts just didn't work for me so I never went back. Here's my advice to anybody thinking about doing a podcast.

1. If there are two or more people in the podcast, please try to keep it from getting jokey and do NOT talk over each other.  I find that "drive-time radio jokey duo" style of 'casting the equivalent of nails on a blackboard. Also be careful of wandering off-topic, especially if this means inside jokes and nattering about personal stuff. Nobody cares but you guys, so save it for Off Air socializing.

2. Music: Snappy intro jingles are nice, but when it's all said and done I don't really care about any music you may or may not have as an intro or outro, I just care about what you have to say. A good, clean recording goes a long way toward keeping me engaged.

3. More musical mayhem:  The jarring "are you paying attention?!" monkey-banging-on-a-drum riff. A news station local to me (KIRO 97.3) does this with their twice-an-hour traffic/weather reports, and it's really, really annoying, especially because of the heavy percussion. When I'm listening to late-night radio, the last thing I want is a sudden burst of obnoxious jazzy crap with a drum machine track that won't shut up.

4. Even more music whinging: The Ear Worm. Please don't feel compelled to run some noodley tune behind the whole podcast. Don't get me wrong. I love music. I've been known to play piano and harp. I run Pandora while I work on the computer, but that is music of my choosing, and there's a time and  place for everything. When I'm listening to a podcast in my car, or over the racket in my kitchen, a music track under soft-spoken vocals is at best just distracting, at worst really annoying. That seemingly innocuous guitar jingle you've carefully edited into a loop to run behind your monologuing is auditory Chinese water torture (looking at you, Michael Stackpole...but your podcasts are still so worth my time that I'll keep listening, dang it).

I love being read to, and podcasts are a nice change from the audio books that I devour constantly. For me some are just plain entertainment, others a poor person's grad school. Keep 'em coming, just don't force me to listen to repetitive jingles while you deliver your words of wisdom. What you have to say is far more interesting to me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Children's Hour: A NovelThe Children's Hour: A Novel by Marcia Willett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charming story about dealing with love, loss and family. Sort of "Rosamund Pilcher light". Brave use of present tense for the flashback scenes of wartime England, but it works. Believable characters, nice character development arcs, satisfying resolutions without being overly saccharine. I would definitely read more by this author. I find this type of story to be good "summer reading".

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Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon (The Dresden Files, #2)Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Dresden Files, being the first-person chronicles of a Sam Spade-esque Chicago detective...well, wizard, actually, but a wizard who hires out to solve crimes and other difficulties. He's in the phone book. I really love this character and the "hard-boiled detective meets the supernatural" concept in general. I also like the actor who is reading the audio versions to which I'm listening, James Marsters, but it's taking me some time to get used to his narration style. He is maybe two degrees above a mumble most of the time, which means I sometimes have to punch up the volume so I don't lose parts of sentences. Buzzy Media need to raise the bar a bit on their sound engineering, because I should not be hearing mouth noises and gasps of air as I do on these recordings. Ouch. Still, Marsters lends the tales the right tone of resigned, fatalistic self-deprecation, and that works for me.


Still, the only thing that I find really annoying about these first two novels in the Dresden Files series is the character of Connie Murphy, the tough-as-nails Police Detective who occasionally hires Harry to help out with "special" cases. I realize that this character has to be pretty hard-bitten to make it in the mostly male world of law-enforcement and keep the respect of her peers, but she crosses the line in to "bitch" a bit too often for me to like her at all. For somebody who purports to believe and respect Mr. Dresden's abilities and profession, she seems far too eager to mistrust him and slap the cuffs on at every turn. I can't really see why Harry professes to care for her on anything more than a professional (as in "source of income") basis. I'll give the third installment a go and see if she hasn't learned anything by the end of it. At the moment I find her pretty unreasonably tetchy

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Blindspot, by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore

Blindspot: By a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in DisguiseBlindspot: By a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise by Jane Kamensky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable read, if a bit perplexing at times solely due to my feeling that I was being shifted back and forth from one genre to another all the way through. I know I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or by the synopsis on the back of it, but I think that a synopsis should at least give a flavor of the contents. Reading the back cover of this (audio) book, one would think this was going to be a nice historical murder mystery. It is that, if you're willing to wait until about halfway through the book for the murder. That's kind of a stretch for a first plot point, at least it would be if that were the first plot point.

This book really seems to me to be more of a historical romance. The first plot point concerns the heroine and her choice to break from an almost literal pit of despair and make a grab for a better life. Since the story is told in letters by the two protagonists, we are also set up with a male protagonist who has his own desperate situation to overcome. It's an intriguing setup which pays off nicely by the end of the tale, but...


I was not prepared for the bodice-ripping soft-core sections. At all. Frankly, I found it all a bit out of place in the story. I'm not saying there shouldn't be sexual tension, but when the sex finally happens it felt like I was reading excerpts from a trashy romance novel pasted in to a solid historical murder mystery. This would be bad enough, but for two-thirds (more?) of the story, our heroine is disguised as a boy, which is always entertaining, but of course our hero is "strangely attracted" to him/her. That's a nice, if overly done, bit of tension. My problem with this particular story is that our heroine exploits that attraction and deliberately tempts the hero with no apparent thought for the turmoil this is causing him. I found that more than a little disturbing and not an admirable quality in her.

Much is made of both characters having distanced themselves from "the church" and apparently any kind of Christianity, but homosexual temptations would still have been very disturbing to an upright, moral man of the times and this is ignored utterly.

All that said, the good guys win, so it ends well. Nice evocation of the period with very few faux pax concerning clothing, usually a big problem in this genre. Nice treatment of the political situation in Boston in 1764. Worth a read.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are many Americans alive today who are convinced that nothing like the internment of the Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany could ever happen here. Those people need to crack a history book. What the US government did to Japanese Americans during World War 2 is a blot on our record. While the camps in the United States were nowhere nearly as horrific as the ones in Germany, and later Russia, they were an infringement on the civil liberties of thousands of American citizens. Some were fortunate enough to have neighbors who took care of their property and belongings while they were away, but many of them lost everything and had to begin their lives anew after their release. It would be an easy thing to write a bitter, condemnetory, angst-ridden portrait of a shameful time in our nation's history, but Mr. Ford instead gives us a frank and un-judgemental view that is, as per the title, both bitter and sweet.

There are a few anachronisms in the 1986 chapters of this story, but they are minor and I found did not detract from the solid story-telling. The expected themes are present: old world values clashing with new world, racism between whites and Asians as well as between Chinese and Japanese, and patriotism both for good and as a vehicle for greed.

No spy thriller stuff, no car chases, just a vivid picture of Seattle's "International District", as it is known today, during a very tumultuous time. It's also a nice look into the Seattle Jazz scene in the forties, too, which was an unexpected bonus.

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Friday, February 01, 2013

Bro Camp

Friend and filmmaker Brady Hall posted a link on Facebook today to an oh-so-precious little trailer for a slick Manly Man Camping Getaway dude experience. After an initial few seconds of "this looks kind of cool..." it abruptly degrades into a bad episode of "High Five'n White Guys go camping!" (For those of you who didn't live in Seattle in the 80s and 90s, here's a clip of said High-Five'n White Guys from an episode of "Almost Live")  Were it not for the fact that this is a real "dude ranch" type adventure company, the casual viewer could easily take this for a spoof. Even knowing that this was a real thing, I laughed all the way through after the first few seconds.

"Artisinal food"?! Cocktails, propane grills, and a baggage truck...seriously. It's the Dood Ranch! No, it's Bro Camp! Please, I went on Sea Scout adventures in high school where we did more manly things, and I'm a girl. I'd forward this to some rancher friends in Texas and Colorado for the humor value, but they'd have to be hospitalized afterward from either laughing or barfing. The hipster "guy-next-door" voice over extolling the virtues of finding oneself in rugged outdoor male-bonding combined with images of guys unloading gear from a chase truck, eating catered food served by a chef, chugging bottled brewskis, and throwing hatchets at a log make for a jaw-droppingly awesome experience, but probably not in the way intended. I do not exaggerate, my husband's mouth was actually agape whilst watching this for the first time.

The makers of this video seem woefully removed from any kind of reality to which I can relate. I host events at my house that are more rustic than Dude Bro Camp, or whatever Wilderness Collective, the company that puts on these outings, is called. As mentioned above, when I showed this to my spouse he was utterly gobsmacked. He was particularly in awe of the French press coffee, commenting "I took my girls on camping trips when they were babies that were more arduous than that." It's true. In fact, he and I have been on "romantic getaway" type camping trips that were more rugged than this, including one where we snowshoed several miles in, hauling our gear on a sled and pitching a lean-to under a pine tree, cooking our food over a fire with iron and tinware. Oh, and we set up a rustic shooting range and plinked at some rocks and pinecones with our rifles. The rules for that trip were "no gear or supplies that could be had after 1898". Nuts to your pansy theme parties, we do theme camping.

Needless to say, the Facebook comments on this short film were as expected. Even folks whom I know are city dwellers are in awe of the "dood" factor on display here.

M: "This thing is a joke right? It's like a bad SNL skit."
L: "For $2,500 I could go on one hell of a camping trip with plenty of fancy cheese and cocktails..."
E:  "they should just put on their hunting tweed and discuss the colonies while the beaters flush the pheasants."

I don't know if these guys are necessarily "rich and fancy" as one commenter put it. I'm guessing they're just typical urban guys who are trying to fill that manly man vacuum in their lives, although guys who obviously have a lot more cash to blow than I do. Men are meant to "go out and DO things", not just sit around. Are these guys really so unimaginative or inertia-bound that they can't just go hiking or car camping on their own?  I'm not saying women aren't supposed to do things, too, but men are hardwired to go out in to the bush and bag that mammoth and dance around with a bunch of other guys high-fiving, shouting, "Yeah! Food for a month for EVERYBODY!" This is another reason why Bro Camp, while I'm sure it's a lovely time, doesn't really fit the bill. These guys need to be handed fishing poles and told to go catch dinner. They need to learn to build decent cookfires and cook their own grub.

To be fair, Wilderness Collective offers several types of "adventures", of which this is perhaps the most redolent of reality TV. I kid you not, they even include a film crew in the package. One of their other offerings is a mule-packing trip in to the Sierras which looks a heck of a lot more macho than this motorcycle and chase truck deal.

My poor spouse, on the other hand, would probably be happier with a little less manliness around our place. He's out chopping wood every day, feeding and mucking horses, and when I call him to take care of a varmint it's a coyote not a spider (I'm a lousy shot).

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my first experience with Mary Robinette Kowal, and I'll definitely be looking for more of her work. This is a lovely immersion into a world of "Jane Austen meets Susannah Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell)". It poses the question, "What if the gentler arts of early 19th century high society included a magical manipulation of the senses?" Picture, say, the Bennett sisters sitting doing their daily handiwork which might include embroidering underthings, knitting socks, pressing flowers, and using magic to brighten dull corners of a dark room with artfully placed lumination or add soft music to a dinner?

This tale quite charmingly evokes the tone, plot style, and romantic entanglements of any given Jane Austen novel. At the same time there are moments of interpersonal drama and even a little bit of high action toward the end to keep a modern reader entertained. Our heroine, in typical Austen fashion, is the sensible sister who has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Her younger sister is a full-on Maryanne Dashwood type: all emotions and selfish melodrama with suitors to spare. What will become of them? At right around 300 pages, it's not a huge time investment but enough to paint a detailed picture of English country life in the upper classes just after the beginning of the 19th century. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Relentless, by Dean Koontz

RelentlessRelentless by Dean Koontz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reader reviews on this one seem pretty polarized. I see a lot of "Dean Koontz can do no wrong and I loved this...more please!" at one end and "What the blue blazes was that supposed to be?! What a hack!" at the other. Ironic because, well, you know, the story in question features an author who gets one bad review on his latest opus...but is it just a bad review, or an omen of much worse to come (cue horns &  strings: "duh Duh DUH!")

My bias is that Koontz is a very fine writer, and I love everything I've ever read by him to one degree or another. Some of his novels are works of fine art and deserve to be re-read, some are nerve-wracking page-turners that give an E-ticket experience but are not nuanced enough for me to want to own my own copy. This one is not what I would call one of his best, but hardly worth the bile that some folks feel must be hurled at it.

What I liked were the usual Koontz hallmarks: believable protagonists, believable dialogue, good pacing, well-researched technology, and a bit of humor to offset some of the grim content. Some people thought it was a bit too lighthearted, but I just imagined it as directed in film form by, say, the Cohen brothers or Wes Anderson, and then it worked just fine. There is also, big surprise, a charming dog, which seems to throw some people into a tizzy. Folks, if you don't like the inclusion of a good natured, smarter than average dog in your fiction, then don't read Koontz! Seriously, that's like picking up the "Twilight" series and then whinging about all the vampires.

What I had a bit of trouble with were things that involve spoilers, so…


The book moves along at a nice brisk pace, with few quiet moments as per a good page-turner, then suddenly ramps into high gear in the last few chapters. This sounds reasonable, but at the same time we’re bombarded with a slew of new characters and an over-arching organization not previously hinted at. Is Shearman Waxx working for the mysterious “triskelion” organization or his creepy mommy? Is the triskelion group a legit black project or some kind of private body that has hacked in to the Fed? Disturbing genetic experimentation is hinted at, or at least some kind of personal breeding program, by Evil Mommy, explaining the existence of Waxx and his also creepy “son”. Then we have little Milo and his science projects. It’s no surprise that his gadgets save the day at the end, because the kid has “deus ex machina MacGuffin” stamped on his forehead from the get go, but Koontz never really develops that thread other than to keep talking about Milo’s obsessive tinkering. I don’t need the schematics handed to me, but where does this knowledge come from? Does he have some kind of extra-terrestrial tutor? Pan-dimensional? Supernatural? All of the above? I just think there needed to be a little more explanation to make it seem less like a plot-convenience at the last minute.

What bothered me the most was the extremely hideous sadistic cruelty of Waxx and his cohorts. I can understand his groups cultural agenda, but that in no way explains the series of grotesque murders and complicated cover-ups. It just seems out of proportion to me given the otherwise generally light-hearted tone of the book. We’re talking “Silence of the Lambs” level horror, here, and in fact our hero, Cubby, references that book/film at one point, saying “I know what happens to people who go in to Gumb’s house.”

All that said, I still enjoyed it and it was worth reading through. Or listening, in my case.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Old Man's War by John Scalzi: classic sci-fi

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man's War by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Starship Troopers meets Ender's Game meets, um, Sunshine Boys? However you tag it, it's a really good story. It's mostly Starship Troopers, the wonderful Heinlein novel, not the weird fascist Verhooven film, without coming across as an homage or pastiche. It stands on its own as a tale of interstellar colonization and combat with a very human face.


My only real quibble is the position of the Earth-based forces as "kill 'em all" colonists. Basically, it makes us the evil invading aliens wherever we go, and that position is never explained. Did we try diplomacy at one point and give it up as a bad job? Oh, well, it's Scalzi's world and he writes a compelling tale within it.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 and other disasters

My husband and I thought it would be fun to watch Roland Emmerich's "2012" on New Year's Day, but it didn't arrive at the library in time, so we watched it tonight. Boy, gone are the days when I could blithely enjoy a good disaster movie and just go along for the ride. Maybe I'm just jaded. Maybe I just know too much casual science. I know I am a lot pickier than I used to be about story and character in the books I read and the films I watch. All that said, this movie is pretty awful, instead of awe-ful, which is what it should be. Seriously: it's a global disaster movie. How can it not be gripping and awesome and breathtaking? I'll tell you how; by falling prey to the "wouldn't it look cool if..." trap that plagues successful directors with huge budgets, big imaginations, and little grasp of reality.

Just because you can do anything these days, courtesy of amazing Computer Generated Imaging technology, it does not mean you should do it. Stephen Sommers slipped on this banana peel in "Van Helsing", which should have been a fantastical adventure with studly heroes, stunning heroines, and scary monsters. Instead, after an affecting opening sequence featuring Frankenstein's monster, it was one scene after another of over-the-top CGI enhanced shenanigans rendered soulless by their sheer preposterousness. What a waste of a fine cast and a usually good director. After the twin successes of "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns", both fun adventure movies with a fair amount of silliness and improbability, supernatural elements aside, I guess Sommers decided to go crazy and make the monster movie he always wanted to see as a kid. Unfortunately, I think he let his inner kid write it, too, because almost every scene seems to have been written by a group of fourteen year old boys saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if THIS happened?!" and "Yeah, and then THIS could happen!" That's nice, boys, but I'd like a plot along with those wicked cool  moments, thanks.I case you think I'm being too picky, try watching it sometime with the director's commentary track. I only made it about five minutes in because Sommers literally verifyies my suspicions by saying things like, "OK, this is so cool right here.", "Isn't this awesome?" and so on. To further substantiate my theory, I listened to the actors' commentary track, which actually made the film enjoyable for me because I love hearing the behind the scenes stuff. Mostly they talk about how they pranked each other during the filming and what it was like to work with such a good cast on a fun set. The nail in the coffin (pun intended) is when they break at one point from talking about tangential things to comment on the actual scene in progress...and none of them can remember what the scene is actually about, just that it was fun to shoot. Yeah, when your actors can't figure out the story, you have a problem.

Roland Emmerich can make a good film. "Stargate" is one of my favorite adventure sci/fi films ever. "Independance Day", for all its flaws, is also on my list. "2012" makes "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" look like both thoughtful documentaries and cerebral dramas by comparison. He uses the same template as in ID4. He starts with a Scientific Discovery followed by Tough Decisions for world leaders. He then assembles a varied cast of characters dotted around the country and even the world, in this case, and attempts to weave them together toward inevitable intersection at the climax. It works for me in ID4. In this film I never really feel like I get to know anybody, and the writing is so contrived and cliched that nobody seems real. It's like watching a Saturday Night Live sketch pasted over an Irwin Allen disaster movie. The worst and most annoying offense is unrealistically adult dialogue for child characters. I have no patience for writing kids who act like miniature world-weary, worldy-wise adults. If the kid has been living on the streets of Calcutta or in a boxcar in the wilds of north England since infancy, then I might buy it. If the kid is an urchin who has learned to be tough and goes through life with an earnest solemnity, like Miette in "The City of Lost Children", then I believe it. Not so much in a couple of privileged white kids living in suburban Los Angeles.

Then there's the science. For more on this, just Google "2012 bad science" and bask in the pages and pages of blogs and websites, including one from NASA, taking this film to task for its flagrantly fanciful crimes against physics, geology, plate tectonics, and fluid dynamics. I will not presume to give an exhaustive list of all the faux pax in this film, but I don't mind mentioning a few. Bear in mind that I am a Drama major, not a scientist, and these were things bothered me all the way to the end of this expensive film. 1. Neutrinos can not "evolve". They cannot interact physically with our environment and turn into microwaves and overheat the Earth's interior. Really, that was their choice of trigger events? 2. The Earth's crust is a bit more than a few hundred feet many miles. The shots of bits of the pacific plate tipping L.A. into the sea? Um, no. 3. I don't care how big the earthquake is, and 8.5 is pretty big, even 9.5 later in the film, but cracks hundreds of feet deep can not magically appear going down to the red-hot, plastic (not molten) mantle. See point #2. 4. Tsunamis only get big and destructive as they hit shallower water. Out in the open ocean a tsunami from even a massive earthquake might only be as big as a few inches or maybe feet, not hundreds of feet tall and able to capsize an ocean liner. By the time they hit land, we might be talking about ten to twenty foot-high surges, which on its own is really scary. Look at the footage of Kesennuma, Japan from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami(s) to see how terrible even five to ten feet of water can be. In this movie we have waves thousands of feet high powered by terrible earthquakes alone. It is so preposterous that it took the tension out of scenes that should have been awesome. Not only that, but there is no way that even a thousand foot high wave could have reached the Himalayas. Look on a map sometime. I wish the makers of this film had done as much.

I could ramble on about it, but I think I'll just content myself with waiting to see the upcoming dramatization of the 2004 Thailand tsunami, "The Impossible", which looks to be a lot more awe-inspiring and compelling. Realism is like that.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Lake House, by James Patterson

The Lake HouseThe Lake House by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Despite Patterson being one of the biggest, as in most books sold, authors in the land, I hadn't heard of him until recently. I thought I'd try something of his, and found this at my local library. The edition I listened to is actually from Time Warner, and features Stephen Lang and Hope Davis as narrators. My assessment? If this is representative of Patterson's typical work, then I'm not sure what all the hoopla is about.

This is a thriller dealing with genetic modification and the consequences thereof, but to me it reads like a Young Adult supernatural thriller. The main characters consist of a small animal Veterinarian, an FBI agent, and a handful of genetically altered kids who have escaped from a horrific "research center". In the hands of Michael Crichton or Dean Koontz, this would have been a page-turner. All I found was a lot of melodramatic dialogue and internal monologues, with very little attention to detail regarding the nefarious plan of the Evil Mastermind behind all of the mayhem.

*spoilers* (sort won't ruin the story for you)

The escaped children are marvels of successful recombined DNA: physically fit and super-intelligent...and yet they are constantly endangering each other and the adults trying to help them by flying around like nincompoops, yelling at each other, and generally demonstrating tactical imbecility while they know they're being actively hunted by assassins.

At one point I caught myself comparing all of the exclamations over the "magnificent, beautiful children" to Bella's constant gushing over Eward in the "Twilight" books, and that's where I threw in the towel.

I finally lost patience about 2/3 of the way through, and skipped to the end, where I was left feeling nothing for the characters and still unsure who the protagonist was supposed to be. Maybe I just picked one of his lesser efforts.

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Friday, January 04, 2013

That Old Ace in the Hole

That Old Ace in the HoleThat Old Ace in the Hole by E. Annie Proulx
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Proulx's books is like watching a Cohen brothers movie, which is to say utterly unique. As another Goodreads reviewer commented, the setting of the story is as important and vivid as the characters. The characters themselves are strange yet familiar, larger than life yet homey. As in "The Shipping News", we are treated to numerous vignettes from the past which gradually intertwine with present events in a disarming way. It's fine writing. The Cohen-esque quirkiness may be offputting at first, but give it some time. I listened to the audio version read by Tom Stechschulte, and his rough-hewn and nimble timbre perfectly complements the text.

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