Saturday, October 31, 2015

Link Smorgasbord, October 2015

I'm a Librarian Who Banned a Book: Here's Why
Really worth a read.

The UK’s New Consumer Rights Act Will Protect The Right to Return eBooks

Virtual Privacy Lab - San Jose Public Library
This is pretty cool

On The Radical Notion That Women Are People
An author reflecting on feminist science fiction, and the sociopolitical issues of today vs those of 40 years ago.

Paperless Post

It could be worse
A disturbing read, but one worth reading.  The speculative nature of the post is uncomfortably realistic.
The gamification of social conformity, overseen by an authoritarian government and mediated by nudge theory, is a thing of beauty and horror; who needs cops with nightsticks to beat up dissidents when their friends and family will give them a tongue-lashing on behalf of the government for the price of a discount off a new fridge? 
But don't worry, I could make it a whole lot worse.
20 Design Rules You Should Never Break
Some really good guidelines here.

MIT Master’s Program to Use MOOCs as ‘Admissions Test’

Cyberpunk yourself – body modification, augmentation, and grinders
On merging body modification and technology.
Browser extension that lets you check if a book/ebook is available in your library catalog while visiting online bookstores (at least Amazon, not sure of 100%  universal compatibility).  Only works in Chrome for the time being, and your library must ask to be added (note, this supports consortia, and C/WMARS is included)

The Bane of Banality: Frodo Baggins
This caught my eye in particular due to the Middle-Earth group read I'm taking part in.
Simply put, things happen to Frodo; Frodo doesn’t make things happen. He needs significant assistance or an outright bailout in virtually every situation. This, coupled with his increasingly whiny temperament, serves to remind us about how ordinary he truly is.
Raiders of the Lost Web
I've posted stuff along these lines before - the internet is incredibly ephemeral, a shot of now and our interests.
The web, as it appears at any one moment, is a phantasmagoria. It’s not a place in any reliable sense of the word. It is not a repository. It is not a library. It is a constantly changing patchwork of perpetual nowness. 
You can't count on the web, okay? It’s unstable. You have to know this.
Fiction Beer Company
I want to try this beer just on principle.  Also, I LOVE their logo.

Google book-scanning project legal, says U.S. appeals court
A significant case, with undoubtedly positive and negative ramifications down the road.

Metadata that kills
We live in a world where if you live in the right place reading the wrong book can literally be a death sentence.
Descriptive metadata is never neutral. It reflects our understanding of our society, and our interpretation of how we think the world should be. It is unavoidably evocative of not just a book, film, or song, but rather the whole society which gave it genesis. When developed, particularly Western, countries wind up determining codes and classifications, a very specific illustration of the world is drawn which is a slim sliver of human understanding of the world.
French City Introduces ‘Short Story Dispensers’ In Public Areas
Cute and creative.

Cartographic Emporium at
Need maps for your game?  Check this out.  Seriously.
Absolutely incredible resource for RPGs, the link in particular goes to the D&D 5e tools, but there's so much here.

NOOK GlowLight Plus

Rocks fall, no one died!

After nearly 8 years together, and some 15 years of friendship, my spouse finally turned to me and said the magic words.

"I think I want to try Dungeons & Dragons"


The trick seems to be getting him to think it was his own idea.  He knew I wanted to get him to try D&D or some other RPG system, but I had learned to by and large leave the topic alone.  It seems me watching/listening to D&D games on YouTube was the final snare in arousing interest.  For those curious, over the past year or so I've been watching Acquisitions Incorporated, Titansgrave (not D&D, I know), and Critical Role.

Also, this means I'm finally taking a stab as Dungeon Master.  While introducing my other half to role-playing.  No pressure...

I told him that if he pulls together a group of friends, I'll run a game for them.  We have lots of mutual friends, and I easily can pull together a gaming group from people I know, but this is in many ways is starting out as his game.  The final assembly involves 3 people who haven't played any RPG for around a decade and two first timers.

Originally I was looking at maybe doing a 3rd ed game, since I own those already.  But we took a look through the 5e books and both of us found the information flow highly preferable.  So, a unplanned for cash outlay later, the 5e Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual now live in my RPG library.

I'd been kind of mulling around some ideas for a game for some time at this point, but was a bit leery about actually running a game myself.  So this all worked as an impetus to write things out and start filling out the overall storyline.  What I should have realized, but failed to realize until actually starting to go through character creation with the players, is that the players themselves provide incredible amounts of plot fodder.  Also, for folks who haven't taken a look at D&D 5e, they've added tools for providing at least a skeletal character background which we found invaluable in some cases.

We ended up with:
  • a gnome warlock tinkerer with an itch for forbidden knowledge and who is on the outs with the tinkerer's guild after nearly destroying the hall on his first summoning of his archfey
  • a dragonborn barbarian, excommunicated from the order he had hoped to become a paladin of, struggling with chaotic tendencies, and seeking redemption
  • a human monk out in the world for the first time, following clues and rumor about ruins of an elemental citadel on the material plane
  • a half-orc fighter found as an infant by woodelves who raised him, trying to understand his place in the world
  • a wood elf druid seeking to prevent forces from throwing the elemental balance into utter chaos.
Some working of ideas was needed, especially since it turns out I'm not crazy about a lot of the deity stuff in the manuals.  In particular I didn't feel like using Bahamut, and I don't like their interpretation of Tiamat.  I also needed to come up with a workable archfey, and develop the fall (and the seeds of ultimate redemption) of our failed neophyte paladin.  For those curious, based on actual research into gods, went with Tyr instead of Bahamut, and the fall involved misusing a holy weapon in anger and having the weapon and its power shatter (and yes, I am a Dresden Files fan...).  We settled on the Dark Smith of Drontheim as the archfey (cribbed that from Mercy Thompson, but hey, a fae that works with metal fits really well).

Our first game was a kobold dungeon crawl, because kobolds are great for a shakedown quest.  Our adventurers were all in the same town when they noticed a hubbub, and found a gathering crowd of angry townsfolk because it seems kobolds had broken into a home and stolen away an infant.  An offer of payment helped convince them to sign up for kobold hunting & extermination, and off we all went.

The dice... were fractious.  Kobolds in the Monster Manual have an AC of 12.  Their attack bonuses ranged from 1-4, but the players had a beast of a time actually hitting them.  On the bright side, the NPCs were semi useful, and the kobolds were also not that successful in raining down destruction.  But while roughed up, all the players survived.  However the barbarian decided that the best way to deal with a shrine that clearly pre-dated the kobolds and was not a god they're known to worship, was to defile it by defecating on it.  So, now I need to figure out an appropriate way for that to mess things up for him.  Minimal loot was acquired, and no signs of the stolen infant were discovered, but they were paid and celebrated as heroes for eradicating the nest.

The best part is everyone had fun.  The players enjoyed my story telling, as well as their combat and exploration.  Getting people to actually dialog was a challenge, but that was an expected challenge and one that I expect to continue having to push for.  Everyone had fun, no one died, and a main objective was completed within a game.  That's pretty solid, especially as I was worried that they'd roll through the kobold cave and on to the next chapter all too quickly.  I'm really looking forwards to running the next bit, and seeing how the characters and players react to what I have in store.

Friday, October 30, 2015

[Book Display] Do you believe in magic?

I bet you have the song stuck in your head now.  You're welcome.  My question is are you thinking the original, McDonald's, or Team Fortress 2?

Well, in case you don't have the song stuck in your head, here's the "Meet the Pyro" video from Team Fortress 2 (Warning: video game gore and twisted humor)

So, it's October.  That means I get to do my Halloween inspired book display.  I decided against doing "So you think you can seance?" or "What a witch!" settling with the this post's title as theme.

I swear I did not intend for yet another display that could include Harry Potter.

For this one I went for books on magic, magicians, witches, paranormal, and general paranatural.  In other words, I have a display that I get to put as much fantasy on it as I want.  If anything, the challenge became in limiting the fantasy titles.

Interestingly, several people asked why I did a display with so many fantasy titles for October, since apparently November is the month for fantasy books?  ~shrugs~

Regardless, this display was loads of fun to assemble (and refill as the books went out), and there are so many more books I could have included.  I focused mostly on books with magic casters and ghosts, leaning away from shapeshifters, fae, etc.  I had to draw the line somewhere...

So, for your enjoyment, books that cycled through the display:
  • The life and many deaths of Harry Houdini / Ruth Brandon
  • Escape! : The story of the great Houdini / Sid Fleischman
  • Born of illusion / Teri Brown
  • The magicians / Lev Grossman
  • The night circus / Erin Morgenstern
  • Alif : the unseen / G. Willow Wilson
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell / Susanna Clarke
  • The Last Dragonslayer / Jasper Fforde
  • Dorko the magnificent / Andrea Beaty
  • The Amulet of Samarkand / Jonathan Stroud
  • Broken Homes / Ben Aaronvitch
  • The truth / Terry Pratchett
  • The witches / Roald Dahl
  • The witches of Eastwick / John Updike
  • The widows of Eastwick / John Updike
  • Wicked business / Janet Evanovich
  • At the mountains of madness : and other tales of terror / H. P. Lovecraft
  • Jinx / Meg Cabot
  • Mark Wilson's complete course in magic / Mark Wilson
  • The Salem witch trials / Laura Marvel (ed)
  • Salem witch judge : the life and repentance of Samuel Sewall / Eve LaPlante
  • A history of spiritualism and the occult in Salem : the rise of Witch City / Maggi Smith-Dalton
  • Death of an empire : the rise and murderous fall of Salem, America's richest city / Robert Booth
  • The encyclopedia of the occult : a compendium of information on the occult sciences, occult personalities, psychic science, magic, spiritualism and mysticism / Lewis Spence
  • Ghosts of New England / Hans Holzer
  • Not in Kansas anymore : a curious tale of how magic is transforming America / Christine Wicker
  • I am legend / Richard Matheson
  • Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone / J. K. Rowling
  • Side jobs : stories from the Dresden Files / Jim Butcher
  • Uprooted / Naomi Novik
  • Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the west / Gregory Maguire
  • 77 Shadow Street / Dean Koontz
  • More scary stories to tell in the dark / Alvin Schwartz
  • Enchantment / Orson Scott Card
  • Heart Shaped Box / Joe Hill
  • Magic Time / Marc Scott Zicree & Barbara Hambly
  • Anya's ghost / Vera Brosgol
  • Dorothy must die / Danielle Paige
  • Ghostwalk / Rebecca Scott
  • April Witch / Majgull Axelsson
  • The witch of Portobello / Paulo Coelho

Monday, October 26, 2015

[Book Review] The Peripheral

The Peripheral / William Gibson (Powell's Books)

Rather late review for the September Speculative Fiction read.

The Peripheral could be considered a successor to Stephenson's Snow Crash, with it's blurring of lines between meat space and cyber space.  The country and economy as we know it isn't quite there, with business and money carving new territories, fabbing and building consuming the manufacturing infrastructure, and a blending of internet and virtual reality.  Instead of a hacker samauri and a skatergirl we have a veterans with PTSD and amputations, a younger sister with a knack for virtual reality, and money from the future playing its own game.

Discussion Fodder:
  • Did the characters make a Faustian bargain (regardless of the lottery involvement or not)?  Who's the devil in this story?
  • Who and what in the story is real?
  • Do the actions in Flynne's time and Netherton's time actually have no effect on each other's future/past?  By the nature of the forking into alternate continuas, do you think there are multiple Flynnes/Burtons/Conners etc?  What do you think happens when one alternate ends?  What about Griff/Lowbeer?  What would be the impetus to interact with continua?
  • What do you think of the peripherals?  The fact that "At the cellular level, as human as we are"?
  • Janice describes Flynne as a good person, regardless of what trouble she's gotten herself into, because "you are not doing this crazy shit, whatever it is, in order to make yourself rich," but to benefit others. 
  • What do you think constitutes an "evolved culture of mass surveillance"?
  • What do you think about Flynne bringing Conner in to a peripheral ahead of Burton?  Is access to a peripheral a kindness or a cruelty to Conner?
  • "The Jackpot" refers to a sort of rolling event or "climate" where things just get worse to the point of gradual collapse, then die-off, and a climbing out as discoveries and innovation provide the glue to hold society together.  How realistic or far-fetched does it sound to you?
  • When asked what he does, what people do in the future, Wilf responds with "Publicity."  Does that summarize what people seem to do in his time?  What about in our time?
  • Do you think that after everything they managed to "save" the continua stub that Flynne lives in?  Or do you think they're still headed to the Jackpot?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 9

Escaped from the spiders, but still in Mirkwood, our party is in a sorry state.

Thorin is missing, their gear and weapons gone, and all weary and hungry.  Capture and time spent as prisoners makes for an improvement over their present conditions.
"There was no thought of a fight.  Even if the dwarves had not been in such a state that they were actually glad to be captured, their small knives, the only weapons they had, would have been no use against the arrows of the elves that could hit a bird's eye in the dark.  So they simply stopped dead and sat down and waited - all except Bilbo, who popped on his ring and slipped quickly to one side."
Things don't look so good.

The Elvenking is cagey and suspicious.  The dwarfs are unbound not so much as a show of kindness, but a show of power.  They are broken wretches within a fortress with magically sealed doors.  Even proud Thorin teeters on the brink of offering a ransom from Smaug's horde, an extreme low for the dwarf king (though I personally feel the idea that such a ransom would make even a noticeable dent in the treasure a laughable notion).  The tedium and despair even effects Bilbo, who feels the wearing effects of wearing the ring for weeks and surviving only on what he can pilfer without detection.

Back when they escaped the goblins from under the Misty Mountain, Bilbo faced his duty to go rescue the dwarfs.  Then it was ultimately unneeded.  Here, he is the only one who can save them.
"...they all trusted Bilbo.  Just what Gandalf had said would happen, you see.  Perhaps that was part of his reason for going off and leaving them."
Not only that, but Bilbo gets a bit sassy with the dwarfs, telling them to take his solution or go back to their cells.

I find the elves in this chapter to be more human than elven, with nothing besides the label to differentiate them.  The elves of Rivendell are a bit silly, but knowing more than they perhaps should, and Elrond himself as a paragon of wisdom.  These elves sing as well, but we get their petty quarrels, insults, and drinking on the job.  Of course, I suppose it's only logical that within elven hierarchies there is discontent and slacking.

Chapter 9 also ends on a much darker note than we've encountered so far.  Of course we know the dwarfs can't all be dead, there's too much book left to read, but still,
"They had escaped the dungeons of the king and were through the wood, but whether alive or dead still remains to be seen."
Makes for a very dark chapter ending indeed.

Going on to the movie, well, I'm not exactly happy.

This whole section wastes so much time while diverting us from the story and the actual passage of time within the book.  We never get to see how long everything takes (or should be taking), it's just BAM! and we're there.  Nothing takes long in this movie... except for the things that could be done quickly.  The love triangle is both highly unnecessary and rather irksome.  Then the escape becomes this huge mash-up of the two main unnecessary plot additions.  All that stuff I have been bemoaning the loss of could have fit within this extra bit.

I can totally see where kids must love the river escape.  And that would make for an amazing water park ride.

One thing that Jackson does is elevate the elves.  In the books we get blurry snapshots.  The elves of Rivendell seem silly and lighthearted, the elves of Mirkwood seem cagey and all too human.  Jackson's elves are elegant, aloof, powerful, and all-to-aware of their immortality.

I want to come out and say that I like Tauriel as a character, but that her part in the story was completely botched by the love story.  According to canon she's a serious anomaly, being both a guard captain and a red-head, but hey, if they had to add in elf action, I can work with her.  I'd be happier without the addition of Legolas, since that seems to be partly what necessitated some of the extra elf plot.  Though I do get that Jackson went out of the way to include as many of the key LotR characters as possible, and lets be honest, little kids loved his action scenes (I got to hear some kid talk about how he bet that Legolas was going to be the one to kill Smaug).

But Orlando?  Take out the damn contacts!

Orlando Bloom as Legolas from The Hobbit vs The Lord of the Rings
LEFT: The Hobbit / RIGHT: Lord of the Rings

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 8

Spiders.  Why did it have to be spiders?

I'm not so good with excessive mouth parts.

Sleeping Bombur

Again our party has left a home of refuge to head into darkness, only this time on their own volition and perhaps better prepared for what they face ahead.  Or better prepared in theory.

The dwarfs repeatedly display impetuous behavior to their folly, with Bilbo stepping up in the guardian role Gandalf gave to him.  The dwarfs waste the last of their arrows in excitement on seeing deer, though they are all to blame for leaving the path.  But Bilbo finds the boat and devises how to retrieve it, rescues the dwarfs from the spiders, like Gandalf at the goblin caves, remaining free when the dwarfs again are captured in the dark.  Not only that, but the dwarfs begin to look to Bilbo for direction and planning, as they would of Gandalf.

The goblins and orcs are a twisting of elves by Melkor, one of the Ainur of Middle-Earth and something of an analog for Lucifer, who was jealous of Eru's creation.  So the goblin tunnels exist as a sort of reversal of the elven homes.  Instead of trees, art, light, and beauty, we get darkness, twisting tunnels, caverns, and cruelty.  They both, however, have laughter and song, but of diametrically different natures.  The Mirkwood was once an elfhame, still is, but the elves there are lesser and darkness closes in on all sides.  This is the corruption of the Greenwood, the Necromancer's power like a sickness on the lands and the inhabitants, bringing a darkness in which the sun is more than just light but life, hope, and desire.
"It was not long before the grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending.  But they had to go on and on, long after they were sick for a sight of the sun and of the sky, and longed for the feel of wind on their faces.  There was no movement of air down under the forest-roof, and it was everlastingly still and dark and stuffy.  Even the dwarves felt it, who were used to tunneling, and lives at times for long whiles without the light of the sun; but the hobbit, who liked, holes to make a house in but not to spend summer days in, felt that he was being slowly suffocated."
The dark river they encounter has always felt like the Lethe to me, a river associated with forgetfulness and oblivion.  True, the river Styx is the one with Charon and ferry passage, but we are in a fantasy world that has created its own mythology separate from any we have known.  They are perhaps sneaking into the underworld, crossing the river without paying the toll, and trespassing against its king.

This chapter marks the first time we get any of Bilbo's music, and frankly it's some of my favorite so far, for all that Tolkien says "Not very good perhaps."  The songs are teasing, playful, and feel like children's rhymes.  They fit very easily into a number of tunes familiar from children's songs.  I can easily imagine it being chanted as a clapping game or a jump-rope song.

On to the movie, where there is a little bit of blending between Chapters 8 & 9.

Ok, I get why the Mirkwood isn't really, well, murky.  It's just a lot easier to see the action when we're not in complete darkness.  It is however, beautifully presented (except for the obviously fake oak leaves when Bilbo climbs the tree).  But again we get the weird time dilation where Jackson has elongated some parts and compressed others.  In this case, we completely lose the bit with the river (and the subsequent attempts to carry Bombur), and their shortages of supplies.  It feels as if we traipse into the forest to very shortly run into some spiders that only Hagrid could love, and then into the custody of elves, without out that creeping unease or despair that the Mirkwood inspires nor the almost fae experience with the Wood-elves.  Hallucinations don't really replace it.

The spiders?  Those were done well.  Really, there isn't much more I could ask for that part.  Well, except for "What the bloody hell is Legolas doing here?"  And why the hell does he have those freaky blue contacts?  He has brown eyes in Lord of the Rings.

The wearing of the ring giving Bilbo the ability to understand the spiders is a neat work around.  We also get a bit of preamble on the corruption of Bilbo by the ring, which in my opinion, occurs rather fast even in light of the Lord of the Rings foreshadowing.

I do feel like Jackson robbed Bilbo of his growing heroism here.  He literally bumbles through things, avoiding trouble by accident, or saving himself in a ring-induced blood rage.  Bilbo performs admirably in the chapter, and we get none of that, or his song, here.

One thing that is very much noting is this passage here:
"In ancient days they had had wars with some of the dwarves, whom they accused of stealing their treasure.  It is only fair to say that the dwarves gave a different account, and said that they only took what was their due, for the elf-king had bargained with them to shape his raw gold and silver, and had afterwards refused to give them their pay.  If the elf-king had a weakness it was for treasure, especially for silver and white gems; and though his horde was rich, he was ever eager for more, since he had not yet as great a treasure as other elf-lords of old.  His people neither mined nor worked metals or jewels, nor did they bother much with trade or with tilling the earth.  All of this was well known to every dwarf, though Thorin's family had had nothing to do with the old quarrel I have spoken of."
So that whole "Thorin is an overwhelming ass towards elves" bit that I've complained about here and there?  Based on a bit of lore that never should have applied to Thorin & Company.

I find Lee Pace's Thranduil to be incredibly dragonish when he meets with Thorin, which fits in well with the greed themes throughout the story.  Particularly with his hands so tightly at his side or behind his back, his movements become very serpentine.  Overall, I rather like Pace's performance, especially in once he hits full diva in the later chapters.  But yes, the eyebrows are a bit startling.  Thorin's bit through all of this?  That dwarf has a surplus of pride, arrogance, and meta-knowledge.  Because of course he knows that Bilbo's still free to find them.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

[Book Review] An Apprentice to Elves

An Apprentice to Elves (The Iskryne #3) / Elizabeth Bear &Sarah Monette (Powell's Books)

Alfgya would no doubt chafe against restrictions and tradition no matter where she was raised.  Raised as much by the wolfheal's trellwolves as by her father, then apprenticed to the svartalfar mastersmith Tin, she's split between natures and cultures and standing representative of the alliance between humans and alfar.  But cultures take more to bridge than a single woman, and the Rheans encroach and threaten the men of the North.

The first thing that stood out to me when reading An Apprentice to Elves is that we are no longer following Isolfr's story, but that of his daughter Alfgyfa.  She is a fantastic protagonist, exceptional in her own way, but living life as a growing child and woman.

If you're starting the series with this book the first thing you may notice that the "elves" are not the Tolkien standard of tall, fair, pretty humanoids with pointed ears and who love trees.  These elves delve in the ground, with the Mothers and the Smiths the most honored among them.  The authors explore gender rolls and concepts in their take on the Animal Companion trope, in a setting inspired by Norse and Roman cultures.

This may be my favorite novel in the series so far.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Macmillan-Tor/Forge via NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 7

Chapter 7 gives our party of adventurers a brief rest, introduces a new ally, and we bid a temporary farewell to Gandalf.

Bilbo, a dwarf, and an eagle in its nest

 "I always meant to see you all safe (if possible) over the mountains," said the wizard, "and now by good management and good luck I have done it.  Indeed we are now a good deal further east than I ever meant to come with you, for after all this is not my adventure. I may look in on it again before it is all over but in the meanwhile I have some other pressing business to attend to."

In this chapter we get snippets of the world at large, of adventures and dangers beyond what Bilbo will encounter on his way to the Lonely Mountain.  We hear of other wizards and of the Necromancer, of other's feuds with the goblins, and we even get more song from the dwarfs.

I've always wondered what exactly about Beorn's home makes it the Queer Lodgings.  They've certainly stayed in stranger locations, including the eagle's aerie, and even the Last Homely House could be argued to be strange (wonderful, but still strange).  In spite of his deliberate choice to live in the wilds and the unexpected appearance of 15 guests, Beorn proves a most able and incredibly generous host.  In many ways Beorn's home is the wilderness analog to the Last Homely House.  Like the elves and Elrond, Beorn knows more about things than one would expect, as well as living in a harmony with the lands around him.

Against the backdrop of those they've met so far, the oddest thing about Beorn is not his skin-changing, but his lack of care for riches.  Even the eagles look forward to their reward.  Even Bilbo isn't immune, and while elves may look down on the dwarfs for their love of gold, they too love precious things.  He eschews the company of the other races, and as a predator lives in peaceful harmony and symbiosis with the animals of the woods.  Gold and jewels have no place in his life beyond clutter.

In introducing the dwarfs to Beorn, Gandalf takes a page out of Scheherazade's book, spinning a story accented by interruption.  Gandalf says that Beorn is "under no enchantment but his own," but I think it can be argued that there's a magic of sorts in a good story.  Playing with words and trickery is really an area where Gandalf excels, something I focused on in an earlier chapter and something that continues here.  I even wonder at Gandalf telling Bilbo "you have got to look after all these dwarves for me."  It could be a joke, but Gandalf isn't one to simply crack jokes for no reason, there's a purpose behind his words.  Through the start of this adventure, the dwarfs have been pulling Bilbo through.  But as Gandalf is fond of reminding us, hobbits are full of surprises, and since Gandalf never intended to continued for the entire journey I wonder if part of his inclusion of Bilbo from the start was as an outside observer and voice of reason.

Gandalf and Bilbo speak with Beorn

This was one of the sections I was most worried about it's translation to film.  I really wanted to see Beorn, and wanted to see him done well.

Before we can get to the meat of the chapter, there's a time-warp tossing us some backstory... with Thorin conveniently in Bree and the Prancing Pony, and Gandalf selling him the Brooklyn Bridge.  I mean, convincing him to go retake the Lonely Mountain in order to retrieve the Arkenstone to unite the dwarven armies.  Then back to present time with our party being hunted by the White Orc and them running full tilt into Beorn's home (literally)... chased by Beorn himself.

I'm left feeling a little let down.  I wanted Beorn to be more, yet I felt that the additions diminished him as a character.  Instead of him being an individual with his own mysterious story and battles, his story almost makes him into an object of pity as well as tying him to Thorin's ongoing plight.  Beorn's bear form was pretty awesome, but rather than him taking out some goblins/orcs they get called away by the Necromancer.

One thing Jackson did do was to really build on the parallel between Elrond and Beorn.  Personally, I feel they made Beorn too beaten down and sage-like.  Something about Beorn's presentation made me think "druid" (of the D&D type).  He reads in the book like a large powerful man that takes fierce enjoyment in life and in defending what he considers him.  I did not get that from the movie.  Strong, yes.  But not quite wild or fierce enough, except when charging almost out of control as a bear.

Gandalf, Bilbo & dwarfs looking into Mirkwood
I feel that Bilbo detecting that the forest feels "sick" rather fitting.  Of all of them, he is the one with the feeling for gardening and growing things by personal preference.  The build up to the Mirkwood's corruption and darkness was handled relatively well, and since the the Mirkwood was not long ago the Greenwood some indication was definitely warranted for the audience.  And the ring here is certainly the One Ring of Lord of the Rings, not the largely dormant magic ring of The Hobbit.

On the topic of Mirkwood, one thing that does leave me wondering is we hear that Radagast lives on the southern edge it.  If that's the case, it really stretches plausibility that he should meet up with Gandalf to deliver his ill news on the other side of Rivendell.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book club starter ideas

Over the past few weeks I've been asked to do a bunch of brainstorming for book club suggestions, coming up with a few suggestions and themes that could be proposed as a starting point for different reading groups.  The end result is a collection of "seeds" for book clubs that are at this point, largely unused.

The biggest challenge for me in doing this is avoiding SF/F picks, since I read so much of it.  It generally is hard to support a SF/F book club with a small population, and the standard book club population that one tends to encounter tends not to be fans of SF/F.   We also specifically avoided mystery, due to a very well established Mystery Book Club at a neighboring library that many of our patrons already attend.

So, in case anyone else needs some inspiration in coming up with book club ideas, feel free to borrow from here if any of this catches your eye.

Land far Away
  • The lacuna / Barbara Kingsolver
  • A spear of summer grass / Deanna Raybourn
  • Love in the time of cholera / Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • A thousand splendid suns / Khaled Hosseini
  • The Madonnas of Leningrad / Debra Dean

Incredible Lives, Incredible Stories (the fact that 3 of them are WWII related was accidental)
  • Unbroken / Laura Hillenbrand
  • 81 days below zero : the incredible survival story of World War II pilot in Alaska's frozen wilderness / Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou
  • When books went to war : the stories that helped us win World War II / Molly Guptill Manning
  • Smokejumper : a memoir by one of America's most select airborne firefighters / Jason A. Ramos & Julian Smith

  • Leaving Time / Jodi Picoult
  • Fly away home / Jennifer Weiner
  • Where'd you go, Bernadette? / Maria Semple
  • Eat, pray, love / Elizabeth Gilbert

You can't go home again
  • The Shipping News / Annie Proloux
  • All the Pretty Horses / Cormac McArthy
  • Leaving Home / Anita Brookner

Growing up
  • The Cider House Rules / John Irving
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • Sacred Time / Ursula Hegi

Magical Realism
  • The Golem and the Jinni / Helen Wecker
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane / Neil Gaiman
  • Forever / Pete Hamill
  • Midnight's Children / Salman Rushdie

Flavors of Life
  • Julie & Julia / Julie Powell
  • Kitchen Confidential / Anthony Bourdain
  • Tender at the Bone / Ruth Reichl
  • Blood, Bones, & Butter / Gabrielle Hamilton

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

[Book Review] Chivalrous

Chivalrous (Valiant Hearts #2) / Dina L. Sleiman (Powell's Books)

Born female means no matter how much she wishes to be a knight, Gwendolyn Barnes is expected to become a wife and a mother, hopefully to the political benefit of her parents.  When the plans of her domineering father to wed her to a brutish man come to light, Gwendolyn must fight for herself or utterly surrender.  In her struggle she finds an unexpected ally in a handsome newcomer, a man seeking his place in the world and instead finds Gwendolyn.

I couldn't hold an interest in this book.  It's not necessarily poorly written, though it could use a little polishing for less of a "checking off the plot points" feeling.  It just utterly failed to compel or engage me in any way.

I may also be the wrong audience for this.  It's supposedly Young Adult, but had more of a Middle Reader feel.  I can see someone 8 to 10 really liking this book.

It may also be worth noting that this is Christian fiction, something I was completely unaware of when I requested it.  This is my fault, I didn't read the publisher description beforehand, which clearly states that religious fiction is their thing:
"Recognized as the industry leader in inspirational fiction, we publish many of the top names in historical and contemporary romance, Amish and Mennonite fiction, romantic suspense, and many other fiction subgenres. Our nonfiction encompasses a variety of subjects, including Christian living, family resources, theology, heaven, and many more."
Generally Christian fiction fails to interest me, but I can honestly say that the book lost my interest in the early chapters before faith even really enters the picture (besides the introduction).  So it really wasn't the religious/"inspirational" aspect of the story that disengaged me from the book.  However, this might be something that elevates the read to someone else.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Bethany House via NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Monday, October 5, 2015

[Book Review] Salt

Salt / Adam Roberts

I added this as a book club pick based on the strength of its reviews, described as a 'landmark' novel and compared against works of Heinlein and Le Guin.  As it turns out, Salt is out of print and not anywhere in my state's library system.  As it also turns out, I feel horribly betrayed by the reviews that led to this selection.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a landmark novel in science fiction. Not only for being one of, if not the best description of a functioning anarchy, the message it delivers—emphasized by the transcendent conclusion—remains relevant to this day due to the political circumstances which have perpetuated. Grabbing the anarchist-authoritarian dichotomy in Le Guin’s tale and running with it, Adam Robert’s Salt (2000) is likewise an engaging thought experiment on how an anarchist society might exist and the reaction it could draw from the political ideologies opposed to it. Containing its share of action as well, the novel is well-balanced across nearly all aspects of science fiction, making it a debut novel which gives hope for more quality material to come.  - Speculiction: Review of Salt by Adam Roberts
I mean, to me, that sounds pretty damn amazing.

Instead I slogged to the finish ultimately out of a sense of duty rather than interest, and left wondering what the hell did I just read.  Salt tells the story of pilgrim societies colonizing a far-flung planet, and of clashing religious and political ideals.  Salt switches between narration by Barlei and Petja, members of different factions that come into increasing conflict over ideological differences.  Barlei becomes the people's leader on the long journey through the stars, after the citizens revolt against their increasingly disconnected leadership.  The Senaarians respect order, contribution to society, sharing of resources, and God.  Petja is by no means a leader of the Als, an anarchist community that claimed religious affiliation to escape from Earth, but due to his technical expertise was viewed as a spokesperson by the other communities.

We're going to get a bit more here than I usually put out, since these are generally discussion guides.  But usually the book club selections are not ones that I feel I owe an apology for choosing.

I found both Barlei and Petja to be unbearable, their prose leaning towards bombastic and self-indulgent.  I also found that their narrative voices were not distinct enough to have them stand out as two individuals.  Both are blinded to the potentiality of other cultures and ways of life, and to the idea of respecting any sort of lifestyle choice alien to their own.  To the Als, a child belongs to the woman who bears it, the father is no more than a genetic donor who has no say in the child's upbringing or the woman's decision to seek pregnancy.  To the Senaarians who indulged in flings in the early stages of their journey with Als women, this is tantamount to kidnapping of their children.  When it comes down to it, this conflict over rights of parents to their offspring is the key source of conflict in this book.  Their whole war is the result of one group objecting violently to the lack of access to children that they had no intention of fathering, nor whom they had any original knowledge of.

To the Als, the Senaarians are rigid thinking and self-limiting.  To the Senaarians, the Als are little more than savages.  In both cases there's honestly a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.  The Als have a rather structured society, yet should someone start thinking of something as inherently 'theirs' they are derided as a rigidist.  The Als also view autonomy as the most basic of all human rights, with no inherent responsibility or consideration to the well-being for those around them.

Most of this book was just kind of plodding, without really giving me a reason to care about either society.  Perhaps Roberts intended to give us no clear protagonist/antagonist, but to leave it unclear and muddy.  There was quite a bit of political and religious theory in here, but the rhetoric of either culture singularly failed to impress.

What probably switched me from 'This really isn't my bag, even if I ignore all of the God's mandate parts,' to 'What the fuck?' was the rape scene.  In this scene we learn that Petja has his head so far up his ass that he legitimately thinks nothing of the woman fighting off his advances.  She struggles so much he chokes her into submission and reflects that her face turning red is nothing out of the ordinary because she blushes so often.  I have no clue what the purpose was of this scene.  The Senaarians were outraged at the 'interfering' with one of their women, but the war was already in full swing.  All we got out of it was a reason to loath Petja and a victim to give us an epilogue, but maybe that was considered reason enough.

TL;DR - I did not enjoy this book.

However, it was a book club pick, and others may like it more than I did, and there are certainly many themes to discuss.

Discussion Fodder:

  • "What life could there be without salt?"  "Salt combines the good and the evil, yin and yang, God and the Devil."  How does salt shape the lives in the story?  How does salt shape the world we live in?
  • There are multiple forms of government in Salt, but we mostly see that of two groups, the Al and the Senaarians.  What do you think of the styles?  How would you classify them?  Is the author promoting one over the other?  Do you think we are given accurate representations and classifications, or are they skewed by bias?
  • The Al believe that parenthood is completely the domain of the mother, in the choice to conceive, to bear, and to raise, with no place for the father.  STDs aside (since they seem to be discussing non-barrier method contraception), what do you think about their views on procreation?  What about the Senaarian's opinion on "divinely sanctioned forms of birth control"?
  • The Senaarian's feel wronged that some of the Al women they trysted with conceived and bore children.  Do they have any right to the children as genetic parents?  Does the fact that the children were born and initially raised without any knowledge of their existence?  What weight do existing cultural conventions bear on custody in a case like this?  What do you feel about the Al response to the demand that the fathers have access to the children?
  • On the Senaarian ship there is a revolution, with the Captain increasingly alienated from his people.  Was the revolution justified, or do you think we are hearing a story colored by the narrators bias?  Barlei comes out a hero of the Senaar, but does he stay one?  Or does he follow in Captain Tyrian's footsteps?
  • What do you think of the different solutions to the environment of Salt?  Modification of self versus necessary equipment?
  • Barlei says that "the Alsists mocked our new technology.  It is in the nature of anarchy to fear new technology."  Do you think that is necessarily true?  What do you think about the nature of technology and fear in relation to other types of government?
  • Are the Al actually an anarchy?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 6

Wherein our party completes their Great Escape (only, with less motorcycles and Nazis).  Out from the goblin warren, and right into another pretty pickle, before flying off with the birds.

the other side of the Misty Mountains

In this chapter we're treated to not just evidence of Bilbo's growth, but some actual characterization of the numerous dwarfs that he travels with.  With so many dwarfs they become a bit nameless, blending into Thorin & Co.  Here we get dialog and bits of personality, and even Thorin calling on Dori to give Bilbo a hand.

Going back to Bilbo's development, the hobbit we met at the start of the book was not someone capable of coming to the conclusion that it was his duty to walk back into danger to save his friends, let alone act on that feeling.  This is a landmark moment in Bilbo as a hero and adventurer, and from this point on we'll see him to start to take ownership of the situation and become more and more important to how events fall out.  He's still misses his comforts of home, but our hobbity friend starts living up to Gandalf's expectations, and perhaps even surpassing them.

Tolkien also takes steps to connect The Hobbit to our world through language.
"Escaping from goblins to be caught by wolves!" he said, and it became a proverb, thought we now say "out of the frying-pan into the fire" in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.  This sort of connection we lose in the translation to film, where perhaps there is a desire for a disconnect from this fantasy world and our own. 

Tolkien also uses language for little flourishes of detail that draw us in, not only in expressing the actions and feelings of individuals, but for whole groups through song.  We've had music in the story from the dwarfs, the elves, and the goblins, each expressing a different cultural personality.  The dwarfs have a lay about their lost land and gold, the elves have a song that sounds silly but reveals that they know more than they should, and the goblins have music that shows their delight in cruelty.  The goblin music again takes the stage here, as they gleefully sing to our party of adventurers.  The first song is truly horrible to the dwarfs as the goblins sing about cooking and eating them, but in the second song we get music similar in cadence and sound to the music of Chapter 4.  Chapter 5 itself lacks music, but the riddle game that Bilbo plays with Gollum could stand as substitute, with tricky, slippery thinking being a clear personality trait of Gollum.

My feelings on the movie interpretation for Chapter 6: blah, blah, heroic balderdash and action driven plot.  Overly dramatic Thorin is overly dramatic.  Also, where is the music?

Now don't get me wrong, I actually think Richard Armitage is an amazing Thorin.  But the point of this section seems to be Drama.  Thorin does a bit of badmouthing of Bilbo (nothing new here, and this is true to the spirit of the general feeling about going back for Bilbo in the book), learns that his nemesis is alive (and somehow able to teleport over mountains), flails really ineffectually at said nemesis, and dramatically nearly dies.

We've also got an almost hysterically compressed timeline for how long it takes on screen.  It's important to note that in The Hobbit they lost several days with the goblins:
"You lose track of time inside goblin-tunnles.  Today's Thursday, and it was Monday night or Tuesday morning when we were captured."
After this huge shortcut in traversing the mountains, they journey away, and then take refuge in the trees when they hear the Wargs approaching.  We're talking several hours of travel, and then a significant time waiting in the trees that is compressed into an oddly drawn out half hour standoff (might I even accuse the dwarfs of hanging around?) before the eagles save the day.

In the film, the Wargs are present not on their own agency, but there as the mounts for the White Orc and company, and somehow they've all gone from well behind the dwarfs to right behind them.  Even with their goblin alliance I'm a bit dubious about that traveling speed.  As for the Wargs themselves, I liked them as intelligent, scheming creatures.  And why do they so strongly resemble hyenas?  Is it because they were afraid over-sized wolves would make us think of Twilight?

Then to cap it all off Gandalf saves (restores?) Thorin's life, which Thorin follows up with giving Bilbo some mixed messages leading into a fond acceptance of the hobbit into their fellowship.

And, the part that made me *squee* in the theater, a teaser of Smaug.

What I did find most interesting about the film, is that Gandalf clearly not only knows that Bilbo is hiding something, but that he just as clearly does not want the dwarfs knowing about it.  We don't get the recollection of the riddle game, and when the dwarfs want to know how Bilbo got past all the goblins they are brusquely cut off by the wizard.

Friday, October 2, 2015

[Book Review] Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

Led Astray : The Best of Kelley Armstrong (Powell's Books)

I came into this anthology as a fan of Armstrong's Otherworld stories, but with little familiarity with her other work.  After reading this collection, I'm really not sure why I haven't read more of her work, particularly her other paranormal/dark fantasy books.

Really, why the hell haven't I?

*Glaces at current pile of library books*

*Checks ILL holds*


Well, time to fix my lack regardless of how many books I'm in the middle of reading.

Led Astray doesn't limit itself to one canonical universe, but spreads across the different worlds that Armstrong has created and introduces several others.  An engaging dark fantasy collection for both fans and new readers of Kelley Armstrong's work.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Tachyon Publications via NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

[Book Review] An Ancient Peace

An Ancient Peace / Tanya Huff

In An Ancient Peace, Tanya Huff kicks off a new military SF series.  Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr may no longer be officially serving, but that doesn't stop her and her team from being pulled in for special operations.  Especially ones where plausible deniability is preferred.  And when grave-goods of a once all-powerful Elder race start appearing on the black market, the powers that be worry that someone may be looking for world-destroying weapons, and if this comes to light that humanity may be the one to take the fall.  But who's really moving the pieces around this intergalactic game board?  Can Torin prevent a war?

We have aliens, interstellar politics, personal vendettas, sex, and violence.

Slow to build, as our team goes on a wild goose hunt for some treasure hunting grave robbers threatening to precipitate an intergalactic incident.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of PENGUIN GROUP Berkley, NAL / Signet Romance, DAW via Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

When We Were Blog Tour

When We Were / Alexandra Diaz

They promised they would be friends forever...

No one messes with Whitney Blaire or her friends, which is why she can’t help but let it slip that someone spotted Tara’s boyfriend making out with one of the guy cheerleaders.

Even after spending hours training for her marathon, down-to-earth Tara can't outrun the rumors about the boyfriend she thought was perfect.

Pinkie, the rock and "Big Sister" of their inseparable group, just wants things to stay exactly the way they are...

...but that's not possible when new-girl Riley arrives in school and changes everything.

Suddenly Tara starts to feel things she's never felt before—for anyone—while Whitney Blaire tries to convince her that this new girl is Trouble. Meanwhile, Pinkie’s world begins to crumble as she begins to suspect that the friends she depends on are not the girls she thought she knew.

Can friendship survive when all the rules are broken? 

When We Were is a story about teenage relationships, love, and misunderstandings (so much misunderstanding).  Tara's dream relationship with Brent crumbles after she can't get a rumor about his infidelity with another boy out of her head, and her friends can't decide if she's better off with out him or shouldn't let him go.  Whitney Blaire has a seemingly perfect life, successful wealthy parents and great looks. but she's closer to their cleaning lady than she is to her mother.  And Pinkie is learning to grow into a young woman under the shadow of her mother's death, and learning that people aren't always what they seem

When Riley shows up she doesn't get off on the right foot with Whitney Blaire, who thinks Riley is out to steal Tara's boyfriend Brent.  But it isn't Brent that Riley has her eye on, Tara learns that Brent hasn't been exactly honest with her, and misunderstandings multiply.

When We Were develops over the course of several months, switching between the view points of Tara, Whitney Blaire, and Pinkie.  The misunderstandings and personal demons are believable, though it seemed odd how limited in spread rumors seemed to go, and in the modern days of tampons and women being expect to actually do things on their own the whole "bleeding virgin" thing is almost a pet peeve.  I appreciate that Tara's realization that she's attracted to Riley takes time, growing organically as something out the rightness of friendly intimacy rather than a rapid blooming.  Before Riley, Tara has considered herself strictly heterosexual, but she comes to realize that perhaps for her attraction is more about the person and less about the gender.  An easy read with good character growth, both as individuals and in relation to others.

Alexandra Diaz grew up bilingual in Puerto Rico and various U.S. states. Thanks to an over-active imagination, she's always loved creating stories and "what-if" scenarios. She got her MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University in Bath, England and is the author of five young adult and middle grade novels. When she is not writing, she gets paid to walk dogs, teach creative writing, web edit, and parade in costume on stilts; sadly, other things she enjoys—traveling, eating ice cream, and circus aerials—don't pay. Yet.

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