Friday, September 26, 2014

Boldly exploring...

Today's awesome find:

We have the earlier edition as well, but I figured I might as well go with the 2007 updated version.

[Book Review] Scandalous Summer Nights

Scandalous Summer Nights / Anne Barton (Powell's Books)

Lady Olivia Sherbourne knows her mind, and is known for it, on top of being stubborn, direct, and the sister of the protective and sometimes intimidating Lord Sherbourne.  James Averill works as a solicitor and is childhood friend of Lord Sherbourne, putting Olivia out of bounds.  Oliva doesn't much care for James' concept of "out of bounds," and when she learns that he is bound for a two-year expedition in Egypt, she decides to throw away lady-like convention and not only make her intentions known but follows him to the countryside.

Scandalous Summer Nights is an apt description, in the setting Olivia and James do behave in a shamelessly scandalous manner.  I have to hand it to Olivia, for a relatively innocent maid, she's got chutzpah.  James may try to stand on propriety, but she identified his returned interest and played dirty.  Too bad for overprotective brothers barging in, assuming the worst, and through sheer stubbornness to do the right thing nearly destroy a relationship.

There's a tiny hint of magic in this book.  Not strong enough to say for sure that it's included, but just enough to make you wonder.  The story is rather sweet, for all that it revolves around some incredibly stubborn people.  There is no dastardly villain or reputation ruining skeletons in the closet.  Just two adults with some strong mutual attraction getting up to what adults get up to when left to their own devices.  There is character growth and noble (if a little far-fetched) efforts to do the right thing.

Overall Scandalous Summer Nights makes for a fun, fanciful, romance read.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

[Book Review] Hotter than Helltown

Hotter than Helltown / S. M. Reine

A killer is mutilating bodies in Los Angeles. Agent Cèsar Hawke is on the case, but the murderer is ahead of him – way ahead of him.

Wiping the memories of the dead so that the team’s resident necrocognitive can’t talk to them? Done. Preventing magical reconstruction of crime scenes? Oh yeah. And the murders keep getting worse while Cèsar struggles to catch up.

The best way to heat up a cold case is to go to Helltown, where LA’s most powerful evil hides out, but even those demons are afraid of the murderer. Their fear adds one more question to the growing pile of unknowns:

What kind of bad guy is too hot for Helltown?
Hotter than Helltown is the 3rd book in the Preternatural Affairs series by S. M. Reine.  I read the first book, Witch Hunt, back in January, and apparently need to dig up the middle book.

Cèsar seems like a nice guy, dedicated and stubborn to be sure, but definitely seems like he'd be happier with a laid back life with a family of his own instead of one where he has to hunt down a serial killer who mutilates bodies while the victims still live.  He's a sucker for jelly donuts, imitates a deer in the headlights when women flirt with him, and has let himself believe what other people think of his skills without trying to overcome those perceived limitations.

But happy mediocrity isn't always enough.  The Office of Preternatural Affairs doesn't deal with the mundane.  Cèsar needs to overcome himself to keep his job, his memories, and quite likely, his life.  After all, what's so bad that the demons are scared?

The pacing and narrative in Hotter than Helltown is much tighter than in Witch Hunt.  I tore through this book and really want to read what comes next.  The content has stayed around PG-13 so far, but keeps reads as if building up to something really steamy between Cèsar and a certain lady.  The storyline of Hotter than Helltown is tied up nicely at the end, with good groundwork for the series to continue or to allow the book to stand on its own.  You don't actually need to read the previous novels to step into the story, but I'd say reading them all is worth the time.
Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Will the singularity happen?

In the Programming for Everyone (Python) class I took over the summer we had a few short written assignments.  I posted my first response during the summer, and then forgot that this post was wallowing as a draft.  Whoops.  I had fun with these open ended questions, and in both cases received good feedback from my classmates who peer-reviewed my submission.

You are now nearly through a first programming class (congratulations). There are many people that feel that at some point in the future, computer intelligence will surpass human intelligence. The word for this moment is called the "singularity". There are endless movies and books about the time where technology will become the master of the human race. What do you think about the singularity? Is it coming soon? What will life be like after the singularity? Will the singularity never happen? Is there a point in time where the impact of technology on our lives will be reduced as shown in alternate future scenarios like "steam punk"? You can pick any position you like but make sure to write in a way to make your point and support your arguments.

I cannot say with a certainty that I believe that a singularity will or will not happen.  In creating artificial intelligence, we are somewhat limited by our own intelligence.  The singularity that seems more plausible to me is when technology and integration moves from the silicone and digital to biology and life.  When the singularity is part of us and the disruptive technology involves the artificial evolution from human into trans- or post-human.

Part of what technology allows is for us to transcend the physical and mental boundaries of our bodies.  While it is not common practice to voluntarily undergo surgery to implant robotics or circuitry, if one looks into the world of assistive technology and innovation one can discover things seeming right out of science fiction.  We are using robotics to give eyesight to the blind, implanting electrodes in the brain of a paralyzed woman allowing her to control a robotic arm with her mind, and more.  In the consumer sector we see things like real-time translations in voice chat, parking assist and collision detection in our vehicles, and Google glass.

As computing devices become quicker, more intuitive in standard interaction, and more portable, we integrate them more and more.  What happens when the bio-mechanical body parts can out perform what we are born with?  What happens if we develop the technology where we can literally save our memories directly to a personal "data cloud"?  How could the ability to turn our bodies into bio-mechanical computers change the bounds of innovation?  Will we be able to learn how to upload consciousness to a digital format, and how will that effect our concepts of life, death, mortality, and even religion?

According to Ramez Naam, author of More than Human : Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, “scientists cannot draw a clear line between healing and enhancing," and raises the question of where the line even is between healing and enhancing.  Should bio-mechanical devices progress to the point where they far surpass nature, I would not be surprised to see people electing for upgrades similar to how today one might visit a doctor for body sculpting plastic surgery.  I feel that the potential singularity that we could face lies in humans becoming something else, where human intelligence becomes intertwined with computer intelligence, rather than the singularity of computer intelligence alone.

Friday, September 19, 2014

[Book Review] Circus of the Damned

Circus of the Damned / Cornelia Grey (Powell's Books)

Magician Gilbert Blake has spent his entire life conning drunkards in the seediest pubs in the darkest towns, careful to hide the true depths of his power. But when he spends a little too much time in Shadowsea and the infamous slumlord Count Reuben gets wind of his abilities, hiding within the Circus of the Damned may be Gilbert’s only chance at survival.

But there’s more to the Circus than meets the eye. Every time a performer dies, a new one must take his place, or the entire circus suffers the consequences. And while the handsome ringmaster Jesse isn’t one to coerce unwilling performers into giving up their souls to the devil, a recent death in their ranks makes Gilbert exactly what they need.

Yet the longer Gilbert stays with the Circus, the more danger he seems to bring them. Being with Jesse is more than Gilbert could have hoped for, but as Count Reuben’s men continue to search for Gilbert and the Circus loses another performer, they all face running out of time long before the Devil claims his due.
I'd say Circus of the Damned comes out as a sweet and steamy, if somewhat improbable (beyond the bounds of a fantasy) novel.

Jesse belongs to the circus, bound by a pact with a devil.  As long as he and the circus abide by the pact Jesse lives on without aging, but as soon as the covenant is broken his soul and that of every performer ever part of his circus go straight to hell.  Gilbert signs his soul away to the circus as an escape from capture, not realizing that what he agreed to was no jest.  Thrown together they face an undeniable attraction, the power machinations of Count Reuben, and a fight for their souls.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It turns out that Jesse has been ringmaster of the circus for over 200 years.  The terms of the deal are as long as he keeps the circus going (with a full compliment of performers) he lives to seek his fame and fortune.  Once signed to the circus, no one leaves, ever.  Their soul stays attached to the circus (with plenty of company after so many years), but if the contract is every broken everyone goes to hell.  Not only that, but whenever someone dies Jesse basically experiences their death.  200 years seems like a long time to have kept the circus going in light of the fact that it's basically a hell soul farm.  Though I guess no one wants to go to hell while they have a chance of staying out just a little bit longer.

One thing that the author does well is create rich setting description.  She weaves together imagery pulling on the array of senses when creating the environment that the action takes place in.

The setting is not true historical, but more a fantasy vaguely historical setting that allows this story to exist.  The book is within the same world as Devil at the Crossroads, just not set in modern times.  I expect that the author will be writing more romance novels revolving around performers making deals with this particular devil.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

[Book Review] The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni / Helene Wecker

In overstated simplification, The Golem and the Jinni is a story about two improbable beings discovering themselves, and each other, in a time and a place where neither belong.  The setting is the New York of 1899, with flashes of the past lives that set the stage on which our actors perform, yet the novel has a feel of happening once upon a time.  As the golem named Chava and the jinni named Ahmed learn what it means to live as a human in a city they explore existential questions of human behavior and belief that are so alien to these creatures of myth.

The Golem and the Jinni was the August pick for Virtual Speculation.  I had previously read this book and failed to review it simply because it was one of those books that I loved yet had difficult describing or quantifying.  The story has a dreamlike quality that I feared ruining through poor description.

Discussion Fodder:
  • What do you think of Rottfield's requests for his golem's personality?
  • Could The Golem and the Jinni be considered a sort of "Adam & Eve" story?  About creation, innocence, curiosity, and downfall?
  • What do you think about the golem's willingness to accept another's decision to destroy her, or even to destroy herself?  Can she be considered suicidal?  Fatalistic?  Pragmatic?
  • Do you agree with "A man might desire something for a moment, while a larger part of him rejects it.  You'll need to learn to judge people by their actions, not their thoughts"?  What about the intent behind an action?
  • The jinni finds assuming a name to be upsetting; "To him the new name suggested that the change's he'd undergone were so drastic, so pervasive, that he was no longer the same being at all."  Do you think the assumption of a name and the attempt to appear human change him?
  • Does Chava have a "soul" (and does it matter)?  Beyond the physical, what sets her apart from humanity?  Is she "a person made of clay" or a "beast of burden"?
  • As a golem, Chava needs to be bound to someone, is this a terrible thing?
  • Is relying on someone a weakness, as Ahmed thinks, or is it the way things for everyone, as Chava believes?
  • "So, it's just stories now.  And perhaps the humans did create their God.  But does that make him less real?  Take this arch.  They created it.  Now it exists."  What makes something real, when does something become "just a story," and no longer real?
  • Did the jinni child die because Sophie wished it, or because a human/jinni child couldn't survive within a human?
  • What do you think about Chava's relationship with Michael.  Is it wrong that she responds to his sexual desire out of her need to answer the desires of those around her?  What about her suppression of exploration of her own sexuality due to Michael's discomfort?
  • Chava suffers from dissatisfaction, restlessness, a desire to be more.  Do you see any of the 'feminine mystique' in her difficulties?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

[Book Review] The Witch

The witch : and other tales re-told / Jean Thompson

We all know at least one of the classic fairy tales.  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, and others, both just as well known and less well known, such as the tale of Bluebeard.  Stories that all take place once upon a time, in a faraway land.  "In a time when wishes came true" as I believe the stories were originally published as starting.

What if these stories took place today, in a time considered without magic, and when wishes do little to impact our lives.  That is what we find within The witch : and other tales retold.  Thompson has masterfully recreated familiar fables into dark tales of the modern world.  I highly recommend her re-imaginings.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy through Penguin First to Read; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.