Monday, November 30, 2015

Link Smorgasbord, November 2015

ComicBlitz Launches Unlimited Comic Book Subscription Service for the iPad
Pretty cool, but like everything else in the digital reading subscription game, still has a ways to go.

Library Science Fiction: “Tomes and Talismans”
This just sounds super cool to me, some day maybe I'll even have a chance to watch it.

Canva for Nonprofits
Great tool for creating graphic media, now available in full for non-profits.

Entire editorial staff of Elsevier journal Lingua resigns over high price, lack of open access
This... is kind of amazing.

Victory for Users: Librarian of Congress Renews and Expands Protections for Fair Uses
Always a good direction.

2015 World Fantasy Awards Ballot
Sherri S. Tepper won a life-time achievement award!  Also, how did I not realize that this was happening within my range of reasonable to attend events?  AAAAAH!

Anne Frank’s diary in a copyright law paradox 70 years after her death
For those interested in copyright and complications.

This Trunk Stuffed With 17th-Century Letters Is a Historian’s Dream
The archivist in me is drooling over this.

Corporate Internet's persistent identity fetish is killing teens
In the interests of disclosure, I acted as a contributing editor on this, but it's something I think is very important.

How to Fix Everything
On right-to-repair, electronics, waste, and doing it yourself.

AltspaceVR Brings Official Dungeons & Dragons to Social VR
I've got a bunch of friends playing around with this already.

[Book Review] Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway / Seanan McGuire (Powell's Books)

Eleanor West collects children who have slipped through the cracks and come back changed, reaching out to parents who no longer know their children, offering to help their lost boys and girls.  A boarding school asylum for children seemingly driven insane by unknown trauma.

The children who Eleanor gathers aren't crazy, they've slipped through doorways open only to them and into other worlds.  Worlds where their experiences changed and shaped them, worlds with monsters and magic, worlds where the rules of reality differ strongly from our own.  The school is an asylum not for damaged children, but a shelter from a world unable to understand them while teaching the students how to fit in until they find their door again.

The school may be the safest place for these changelings, but darkness lurks with an agenda of its own.

Excellent read, one that will appeal to both teen and adult readers without pandering to either audience.  McGuire handles dark themes adroitly, giving us just enough to paint the scene while avoiding a descent into horror.  She skirts a love triangle, but gives us a lead who is asexual, and one "suitor" who is in love with his skeleton-girl and another who was locked out of his doorway when they discovered their princess was actually a prince.

The story reminds me so much of Changeling: The Lost, but with a focus on changelings who want to return to Arcadia and the Gentry.  If that makes sense and appeals to you, I strongly recommend this book.

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

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 14

While our adventurers huddle in the dark caverns, Smaug's approach brings terror and horror to the citizens of Lake-town.

Tolkien does a lot with very few pages in this chapter.  The battle is framed, and the motivations and intentions of our actors are laid out.

The guards of Lake-town (which I now realize is named Esgaroth) mount a defense against the incoming dragon while the Master seeks to save himself among the confused panic.  We get their determination and desperation, as well as Smaug's cunning and hunger.

We also meet Bard, not a man haunted by legacy or the derision of the town, but a man known for his grim-outlook but also for his worth and courage.  He stands as the captain of the archers holding the line against Smaug's wrath, and as the man the thrush brings news from the mountain.  The black arrow is one of legacy, but not one of legend, an arrow that has served Bard and his father well over the years.  An arrow used by a normal man with a normal bow.

Tolkien also shows us that the Master isn't in a position of power based on fear alone, but on his skill at oration.  He knows how to sway a crowd, to redirect wrath onto a target of his choosing.  He is a man of greed, but also a chameleon at need.

Maybe it's just me, but watching Smaug fly from the mountain, all I can think of is how happy he looks.

So... I've been a little harsh on Bard's role in the film.  I do understand the need to establish him as more than just the "grim-voiced man."  But let's be honest, Smaug wrecking havoc would have still been amazing in a rendition more true to the text.  There's no battle here, just citizens running in fear and Assassin's Creed level stunts framing Bard's efforts to take out Smaug, sprinkled with some slapstick.  Add in the iron ballista bolt of fate (and really, he thought he'd be able to shoot that thing with his regular bow?), and I'm just left feeling like it's a lot of gold plating without any substance.  The heroism of the moment that they took all this effort to build up around Bard, the underdog, takes away from Bard as a pillar of strength.

The Master's follies and selfishness are amplified, but done so though Fry's excellent acting ability.  I could have done without some of the slapstick.  As for Albert, I can't tell whether I hate him, or love to hate him, and honestly, I'm OK with that.  Obviously much of the Master's role after the escape from Lake-town was shifted to Albert.  Gods, he's a despicable worm.

I'm having trouble cutting out profanity at the stupid love story line.  So let's just leave it as a brief restating as I feel that the love triangle demeans Tauriel and resulted in excessive and stimulating additions to the movie.

As for the other additions not otherwise covered we know that Gandalf's incarceration is limited, and at least at the end of this the dwarfs are all finally ending up in the mountain together (since we're filling out things in chronological order).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

[Book Review] Mythmaker

Mythmaker / Marianne de Pierres (Powell's Books)

Previously reviewed: Peacemaker
Virgin’s in a tight spot. A murder rap hangs over her head and isn’t likely to go away unless she agrees to work for an organisation called GJIC with Nate Sixkiller as her immediate boss. Being blackmailed is one thing, discovering that her mother is both alive and the President of GJIC is quite another. Then there’s the escalation of Mythos sightings, and the bounty on her head. Oddly, the strange and dangerous Hamish Burns is the only one she can rely on. Virgin’s life gets… untidy.

Mythmaker picks up immediately on the heels of Peacemaker, with Virginia tangled up in the aftermath of the Mythos incursions and revelations about both her mother and GJIC.

Unfortunately for Virginia, things are just getting worse.  Local law enforcement has a axe to grind, the Mythos appearances are increasing rapidly, and agents are instigating war between factions for their own gain.

Like Peacemaker, we have a potential near-future that blends together Science Fiction and Fantasy, but with a lighter touch of Western due to most of the action taking place within heavily urban confines.  In many ways, Mythmaker is a story about the past, and how it shapes the present, and Virginia's past is haunting her with a vengeance.

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 13

Trapped in the dark, our party is forced into action by necessity.

Bilbo and the dwarfs spend days in the darkness, waiting on the dragon's return, and it's again Bilbo who takes the lead.
"Come, come!" he said.  "'While there's life there's hope!' as my father used to say, and 'Third time pays for all.'  I am going down the tunnel once again.  I have been that way twice, when I knew there was a dragon at the other end, so I will risk a third visit when I am no longer sure.  Anyway the only way out is down.  And I think this time you had better all come with me."
The Dwarfs, making quite the dwarfish racket too, follow the hobbit's lead to some extent.  These dwarfs are cautious, worried about their own skins, even when all signs indicate that Smaug is no where in residence.  Most notably is the lack of light.  They're in the middle of a mountain, and Smaug himself gave off a burning glow.

Ultimately I think it's guilt more than anything that makes the dwarfs step forward.  Balin is the one who points out that it is "about our turn to help," though once they are among the treasures a sort of bravado fills each dwarf.
"Though they were much relieved, they were inclined to be grumpy at being frightened for nothing; but what they would have said, if he had told them at that moment about the Arkenstone, I don't know.  The mere fleeting glimpse of treasure which they had caught as they went along had rekindled all the fire of their dwarvish hearts; and when the heart of a dwarf, even the most respectable, is wakened by gold and by jewels, he grows suddenly bold, and he may become fierce."
Their proud bravery sends them searching, and in particular Fili & Kili find "golden harps strung with silver" to play, long ignored by Smaug.  It seems that dragons have no interest in music, which may be one of the most marked differences between dragons and dwarfs?  Though perhaps the other difference is dragons are creatures of appetites, while dwarfs become overcome by theirs to their detriment.

What follows next highlights the scale of this fortress within the mountain.  After arming themselves, they travel for five hours to the old look-out post.  This under-ground domain is a marvel.

I clearly got a little ahead of myself when critiquing the movie in the last chapter review.  In my defense, three chapters were jumbled together for various reasons.  The short version is that all of my bitching about the extra content in Laketown should have waited until next week.  On the bright side, I'll probably try to keep it short for next week.

Also, the bit about finding the remains of their ancestors was in the book all along, I just forgot about it.  So that wasn't a neat addition, that was a detail from the text.

Alright, so let's just ignore how everyone was outside to witness Smaug's fall, be it because they were stupidly left behind, or because they were taking some fresh air.  The good news is, we're all back in one place.

I am happy that Bilbo is attempting to be the voice of reason, but Thorin is sliding pretty hard into evil overlord territory.  I feel like the decision was made to combine all of the dwarven love of gold into Thorin himself.

I can't go too much into direct relation of chapter to movie, at this point it's too shattered with too much added in.  The focus on reunion of the party, of Thorin's growing paranoia and "dragon-sickness," and on the demoralization of the dwarfs under Thorin's increasingly unstable rule.  We do get a few moments of Martin just being Bilbo, which I still find enjoyable and a highlight of this experience.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

[Book Review] Anywhere But Here

Bookburners: Anywhere But Here (Season 1, Episode 2) / Brian Francis Slattery, Margaret Dunlap, Max Gladstone, and Mur Lafferty

Episode 1 was an eerie bite-sized read filled with demonic books, magic, and possessions.  Episode 2 just goes into a whole other universe of creepy weird.  A demon reaching out through a book to possess your brother is horrific, and the aftermath brutal, but Sal Brooks is learning that's just the tip of the iceburg in her new line of work.

Things might have gotten much worse if not for the disappearance of two little girls alerting the neighbors to something wrong.  But still things had progressed to a point of no return and it's up to the Bookburners to perform triage.

Entrancing and weird, a great continuation of the story.

I still desperately want to LARP in this setting.

Episode 1 review here
Episode 3 review here

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

[Book Review] Wrong Number, Right Guy

Wrong Number, Right Guy / Elle Casey (Powell's Books)

On first glance, May is the type of girly-girl who you'd expect to be a ditz.  Which means she sticks out like a sore thumb when she walks into a dive bar frequented by biker gangs, all dolled up in pink with her chihuahua-mix in her purse.  Of course, first glance leaves out the fact that she's been running her own business for years and is the rock her older sister relies upon as a single mother with three kids.  Which ultimately is what brings her to Frankie's, and into Ozzie's life, after she mis-attributes a wrong number text.

First impressions aren't so great between May and Ozzie. For one thing, he's sporting a beard that puts May in mind of a "duck dynasty nut job."  For another, someone's shooting at them as he knocks her down and half drags her out of the bar.   Now Ozzie's cover is blown, and May's been implicated as an accomplice and is at risk.  What starts out as an offer of protection turns into an offer of employment... and maybe something more.

I'm going to start this by saying that I'd totally read more in this series.  It's a light read, with a great touch or humor, and a fun romance.  Not saying that everything makes sense to me, like saying they love each other at rather early stage of their intimate relation, but some of that is really a personal preference thing.  I mean, the whole dogs-in-purse thing just leaves me puzzled more than anything, and now I'm going to start wondering how many of those dogs are on puppy pads inside said purses.  But we get actual consideration of the fact that the characters are working adults who have other relationships and responsibilities in their life, something that often gets no more than a casual nod at best, and the dogs are kind of adorable.

Also, as someone who's really not a fan of facial hair, the whole beard thing had me laughing again and again.
"Listen, Ozzie, I'm sorry for the horrible beard comments. It was just... way bigger than a beard has a right to be. I couldn't help myself."
Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Montlake Romance via NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 12

Wherein Bilbo is sassy to everyone, we get to meet a dragon, and Laketown pays for everyone's hubris.

I've said it before, and now Tolkien is saying it, the dwarfs are not heroes.  This is not their hero story, it's Bilbo's.
"The most that can be said of dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they had would have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reason for being grateful to him.  There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect much."
Bilbo's been gradually finding the strength and depth of his courage all along, largely by discovering that doing the right thing often means doing something incredibly uncomfortable rather than simply fighting off monsters.  Perhaps the real lesson here is how much of fear lies in our minds.  The battles are not all visible, many are within.
"Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.  The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it.  He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait."
Of course, along the way of finding his courage, Bilbo got his sass back.  He definitely starts the book with a little bit of sass, with that oh so auspicious first meeting with Gandalf.  Now he calls out the dwarfs on their timidity, their reliance on others to solve their challenges, and that maybe, just maybe, that they need to step up their game if they want to reclaim their home from a dragon.  You go Bilbo.
"But they could think of no way of getting rid of Smaug - which had always been a weak point in their plans."
Just a minor weak point...

Bilbo is barely the same hobbit as when he left his home.  He's grown in confidence, courage, and leadership.  He's gone from just the surprising problem solver, to coming up with ideas that actively affect the shape of the party's activities.  Tolkien calls him the "real leader in their adventure," a role that perhaps he assumed some time ago, in his repeated efforts to keep the dwarfs out of trouble.  Luck may have been a large part of his earlier successes, but he's still consistently showing more thought and initiative than any of the dwarfs.  And now he's off to beard a dragon in his den.

The interactions between Bilbo and Smaug has long been one of my favorite parts of the book.  I love the exaggerated courtesy in which one talks to dragons, the game of riddles and compliments.  A telling chapter overall, in the matching of wits, and in the twisted truths that Smaug tells, sewing discord without telling falsehoods.

The interaction with Smaug leads to probably the most pivotal statement in the book.  Thorin promises Bilbo that he may select his 14th share of the treasure.  Unlike the dwarfs, Bilbo doesn't really have any strong desire for wealth, though the dragon's hoard is enough to tempt even a hobbit.  But Thorin's words effectively give Bilbo carte blanche for the plot-changing actions he takes later on.

Of course, in the end of all of this, we have an irate Smaug flying off to Laketown to exact vengeance for the insult and theft sponsored by the dwarfs.

In the film we're really seeing Balin stand out here.  If any of the dwarfs mirror Gandalf, it's him.  He's far more of a keystone and noble than Thorin is.  Balin offers guidance, grounding, support, and reason.  And, tying into the mirroring to Gandalf, Balin too says "It never ceases to amaze me... the courage of hobbits."  Perhaps more importantly, Balin is the one who really touches on the deterioration of Thorin, saying to his face that "You're not yourself."

Thorin...  Thorin is very dramatically unhinged and angsty.  Man, I probably would have loved this when I was a teenager.  Or maybe not, he really is far too much of an ass.  I mean, the proper response to "The dragon is coming!!!!" is not "I don't care, do you have my rock?" and threatening the messenger with your sword.  At this point, Thorin stands as leader by dint of pre-existing loyalty and some fear.  I suppose it could be argued that Thorin is feeling the effects of the Ring, and in the book the dwarfs know about it by now, but I'm disinclined to accept this as an explanation because the object of his fixation is the Arkenstone.  Any hostility and suspicion he lays on Bilbo is not due to the Ring, but indicative of his growing paranoia and Bilbo as the only one who could have encountered the Arkenstone at this point.

Now, I get that walking on a literal landscape of treasure makes it hard to sneak, but what about the quiet movement skill possessed by hobbits?  Come now, Bilbo, we know you can do better.  But man, what a hoard, it looks like the treasures of multiple empires.

But man, they nailed so much right here.  The design of Smaug is amazing, and Cumberbatch's voice is now what I hear in my head when I read Smaug's lines.  We have some excellent attention to detail, both in the CGI and small things like the beam of light from Smaug's open eye.  I'm willing to forgive a lot of sins for this.

I really wish there was more of the interplay between two of them.  One of the delights of this story to me is the almost playful nature of their verbal ripostes.  The nature of the exchange has been completely and utterly changed.  From a game of wits, to a game of cat and mouse.  There is no slyness on the part of Smaug, no withholding of insight here.  By the end of it all, Smaug just seems whiny, as he flies off to Laketown.

I'm not even getting into the bit about Smaug detecting "something made of gold, but more precious."  A teenager could take tips on eye-rolling from my reaction.  Something about creatures of darkness immediately sniffing out the ring, particularly when it's in such a subdued state, just rankles.  The ring-wraiths themselves can only vaguely track the ring when Sauron's power is awakened, yet the dragon narrows in on it in a snap.  And of course Smaug would know about the "madness" of the Arkenstone...

Clearly decisions were made to trim a bit from Bilbo's solo jaunts into the Mountain, which I can accept generally why this might be done.  Of course, the trimming is offset by the whole addition of the dragon-dwarf chase scene.

I'm not sure if I completely can forgive the dwarf vs dragon fight.  Yes, it is more heroic than hiding out in a cave, and I do love more time devoted to Smaug, but it's a bit ridiculous.  Among other things, the architecture really isn't conducive to a dragon of his size, and he's able to literally shoulder down support pillars carved from the mountain itself but gates slow him down.  I'm also not convinced of the thermodynamics involved with that golden statue (and they knew the mold would just happened to be there?), but it was visually stunning.  For all my complaints, I cannot fault the artistry of this passage.  Just, it all felt like the weirdest game of Mousetrap ever.

Now, for the added content.  I could go on for a long time here, so I'm going to make a concerted effort to keep it short even if that means leaving stuff out.

I do like the dwarf backstory shared through to the remains of their ancestors.  This adds to the central story neatly, without detracting.

Gandalf is in a bad place and Bard clearly has a glorious heroic destiny coming to him.  Clearly, how could we not know with such dramatic hints hammering us over the head.


So here's an idea; if a set of additionally fabricated characters/plots cancel each other out, how about we don't include them in the first place?

Also, this is the most YA romance scene ever.  So glowy and fated.  And what is Kili using as a pillow?  A bowl of walnuts?  This is a serious question, I'm really confused.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

[Book Review] Bitch Planet (Volume 1)

Bitch Planet (Volume 1) / Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro (Powell's Books)

I don't even know where to start with this review.  I'd been aware of Bitch Planet for some time, and it totally seemed like my jam from what I heard, but I just didn't get around to reading it.  And then I did.  Holy shit.


Embracing the outrageousness of 70's exploitation films, Bitch Planet channels the irony of a culture that calls women who dare to push against objectification "angry feminists," into a piece about the anger of those who feel the caging bars of cultural expectations.

The comic is magnificent with a sort fervent insanity that reminds me of what drew me into Tank Girl.  There's an embracing of women's bodies as they are, and a celebration of rebellion against controlling gender expectations.

These women have a reason to be angry.  Not quite chattle in a society that explicitly tells them that they are flawed.  Too loud, too religious, too atheist, too extreme.  Not thin enough, not friendly enough, not compliant enough.  Your husband cast you aside for a younger, prettier, woman?  That may be all it takes to end up exiled from Earth, incarcerated as a noncompliant on an auxiliary outpost.

Bitch Planet is angry and feminist, and is glorious.

There's a fantastic interview with DeConnick over on NPR, I strongly recommend listening to it.

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

[Book Review] Ravishing Ruby

Ravishing Ruby / Lavinia Kent

Previously reviewed in this series:
Madame Ruby runs a premier pleasure house in London, where gentlemen come to indulge in their varied desires.  But never with Ruby herself.

But for one night, Ruby let her hair down, and visited the compellingly attractive Captain Derek Prince as the delicate Emma Scanton for a night of unforgettable passion.

It's been months since that encounter, after which the Captain sailed away without a trace and Emma is tucked away except for visiting her grandparents on Sundays.  Life goes back to normal.

Until Derek returns, falling back into Ruby's life, and her bed, like he never left.  Only, he's engaged to another woman, and forces in Ruby's life are coming to a head and she must chose if she wishes to hold on to her life with her family, or become Ruby and only Ruby from now on.

As can be expected from Lavinia Kent, the story is exuberantly sexy.  The teaser text includes the phrase "Eloisa James meets E. L. James in Lavinia Kent's deeply sensual Regency romance!"  I can't say I agree.  For one thing, Lavinia Kent has very strongly established herself as a writer of sensual and steamy Regency romance before now, and two, out of the entire series this one isn't particularly kinky (of course, I don't think E.L. James' claim to fame is particularly erotic or kinky, both of which are generally the intended implication when she's evoked).

The story is definitely charged, though I can't say I'm as convinced of the emotional connection between the two.  It's left more as assumed, building as it is on the events of Revealing Ruby.  Derek... is lacking in some regards, but there is development in their relationship.  We also get cameos of individuals from the previous novels.

There are definitely a few times where the sex made me go "that's not how this works, that's not how any of this works."  Narrative choices that were likely made to exaggerate the passion of the moment bother the detail oriented part of me.  Some things really do call for even a rudimentary lube, and silk scarves do not lightly tear just because someone hulks out against them.  Silk is incredibly strong, that's one of it's well established and valued traits.

The character development that takes place in Ravishing Ruby is different than the others in this series.  Ruby's had a hand in all of the other stories, but for all of them there are elements of the unknown and uncertain, particularly in regards to their desires.  Derek and Ruby have already met and discovered their mutual passions and desires.  Instead the story focuses on who they want to be as people and where they want their lives to take them.  Some unexpected twists and coincidence add twists and complications to their story, but it moves towards a happily ever after.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Random House Publishing Group - Loveswept via NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

[Book Review] The Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: Overture / Neil Gaiman, J. H. Williams III, & Dave Stewart

A precursor of sorts to his original Sandaman series, though in telling the stories of Dream respect for time is more of a courtesy than necessity.  Not truly an origin story, but a story of what came before Preludes & Nocturnes.

Gaiman gives us a glimpse of Dream not just as an Endless, but as an Endless out of place with his family and the world around him.  We see the insanity of stars, the power of dreams, and the instability of reality.  The story is dark, about the destruction of worlds not just individual lives, but darkness is still expected in world where creatures such as the Corinthian exists.

The art is lovely, rich, and jarring, illustrating pictures of madness and unreality.  There's a saturation that doesn't exist in the original comics.  The art shifts and changes, both in style and orientation, delivering different realities.  I strongly recommend reading this in print, as digital pagination may interrupt the flow of art and dialog across two pages.  The one advantage of a digital copy is the ease with which you can zoom in to read some of the more decorative fonts.

I actually have the issues on my shelf, reading them long before I saw the ARC of the deluxe edition for request on NetGalley.  In much of The Sandman we get the story of Morpheus, and that of his siblings, as they interact and react to the mortal world.  The Sandman: Overture exists separate from our world, purely in dreams and worlds beyond our ken.

A definite read for fans of The Sandman.

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

Monday, November 9, 2015

[Book Review] The Martian

The Martian / Andy Weir (Powell's Books)

Separated from his crew during a dust storm after being struck by a piece of debris, with biostats reading zero, and a storm requiring an immediate launch, Mark Watney was left behind on Mars.  Unfortunately for Watney, dumb luck and circumstance meant he was still alive.  Alone, with very limited supplies, on Mars.  With no way to communicate with Earth, and the next mission not expected for several years, he might just stay alive long enough to starve to death, if nothing breaks first.  Mark must be incredibly creative and extremely lucky to pull through as the single largest rescue mission ever starts to pull together on Earth.

So when I chose this for the November read, I had no clue that it was coming out as a feature film in October.  Whoops.  Made finding a copy in the library system a little challenging, but fortunately not impossible.

The Martian was a surprisingly light read.  I tore through it.  I'd say in terms of pacing and voice it actually felt similar to Ready Player One, with a focus on science instead of 80's pop culture and video games.  Considering how much of this book is literally talking about the various science and engineering that goes into keeping Mark Watney alive, that sort of lightness is not something I expected at all.  As Ready Player One is a love letter to 80's popular culture, The Martian is a love letter to NASA and space exploration.  The fact that Chris Hadfield describes the book as having "the rare combination of a good, original story, interestingly real characters, and fascinating technical accuracy," speaks volumes to me.  A real astronaut reading it and going "yeah, that's accurate" is a good endorsement.

I'd like to recommend watching this video, where Adam Savage, Chris Hadfield, and Andy Weir discuss The Martian as both a book and a film.

Discussion Fodder:

  • A deliberate decision was made to not inform the Ares 3 crew of Watney's survival.  Do you think this was the right thing to do?  How would have keeping them in the loop from the start changed things?
  • One of the criticisms of the book is Watney's humor and tendency towards crude remarks.  Was it realistic, unnecessary, understandable?
  • Watney has a certain disregard for instruction, is it warrented?
  • The expenditure of resources to rescue Watney was astronomical.  Would you argue it was too much?  What do you think of the original decision against the Rich Purnell Maneuver to risk fewer lives?
  • What do you think of the plan for ensuring that one of the Ares crew survives?
  • What do you think about things from the book bleeding in reality?  In particular the adoption of the "Watney Triangle" as mentioned in the video above.
  • Is travel to Mars something we should be pursuing?  Do you think it's something that's achievable in our life time?  Would you want to go to Mars if you had the opportunity?
  • Did you go see the movie?  How does it compare?  What stood out to you?

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 11

More than anything, this is a chapter of nostalgia.  Scene and setting take the stage over action.

This whole journey has been in stages moving towards the wilds, away perhaps not from civilization, but away from the richness of life and into desolation.  The land around the Lonely Mountain is dead and barren and Dale lies in abandoned ruins, "Indeed their stores had no need of any guard, for all the land was desolate and empty."  The dwarfs who were there when Smaug came are seeing not just their ancestral home, but perhaps a mass grave.  The dwarfs who have never been to the Lonely Mountain are seeing it for the first time.  Everything is grim, even the sparse wildlife, with the dwarfs saying "dark birds, they look like spies of evil"

Bilbo has gone from part of the party on sufferance to leading.  The dwarfs by and large are feeling more defeated and despondent than inspired, as they face the reality of the mountain itself.  On the other hand, Bilbo is invigorated at their success so far.  "It was he that made the dwarves begin the dangerous search on the western slopes for the secret door."  Not only that, but he's getting strong feelings that are instrumental in steering the quest.

This is a very short chapter, dedicated to transition and setting the stage for the next step of their quest.

Finally a chapter that matches the pacing of the film.  A whole lot of scene setting and nothing happening.  Though of course, the chapter doesn't match the pacing of this section of film, with a journey that takes some time in the book taking place in a single afternoon (and apparently it's any Durin's Day, no longer a specific one).  The dwarven stair was cleverly done.
"Before setting outto search the western spurs of the Mountain for the hiddne door, on which all their hopes rested, Thorin sent out a scouting expedition to spy out the land to the South where the Front Gate stood.  For this purpose he chose Balin and Fili and Kili"

So, if you've been reading along previous chapters, you know exactly where this is going now.  That whole bit with needing to heal Kili is just extra drama.  I've beat this dead horse again and again.

We also get interludes with more of Gandalf's quest, and that more specifically tightly links the events during the time of The Hobbit to those of The Lord of the Rings, complete with some familiar musical passages.  Honestly, I find it neat to see Gandalf actually use some magic, but you know I'm displeased with White Orc bits.  We'll leave it like that, and it does give Gandalf good reason to not be exactly where he wants exactly when he wants to be there.  On the other hand, between this and the whole Kili plot, it feels like the whole purpose is to give us multiple cliffhangers.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

[Book Review] Horns

Horns / Joe Hill (Powell's Books)

No one would be surprised to learn that Ignatius Parrish was a devil, after all they all know he was the one to murder and rape his girlfriend.  At least, no one would be surprised except the actual murderer.  So when Ig wakes up one morning with horns growing out of his forehead it's just another addition to the hell he's lived in since Merrin told him they should see other people for awhile, then was found dead the next morning.  The dark spiral of his life speeds up as the horns seem to effect those around him, confessing secret desires and impulses, taking only a signal of approval from Ig to act on them.

What unsettled me the most about the story is how believable the characters were as normal people.  That Lee's interpretation and subsequent actions sounded realistic to me.  The dark fantasy elements are laid on top of a man's life that's sunk into a personal hell, and he finally has the means to reach out and tear it apart.

I'm usually not a horror reader, so it took me a long time to get around to reading Horns the first time.  Once I started I tore through it as the story drew me in.  It's less speculative in nature than most of the Virtual Speculation picks, but I really wanted to include it nonetheless, so I slotted it in as a thematic pick for October. 

Discussion Fodder:
  • This book is extremely heavy on symbolism, what stood out to you, and what do you think about it's meaning?  (Examples: The Pit, the cherry bomb, the nativity scene, pitchforks, snakes, etc)
  • Was Ig meant to become whatever it is he became all along?  Why does Ig transform?  Is it because of his actions at Merrin's shrine or is he a foil to Lee?
  • Is anyone in the story good, is anyone evil?  What do you think of the motivations and actions of community members, of Ig, of Ig's family?  What do you think about their confessions?
  • Both Lee and Ig feel that the cross signified a right to Merrin.  How do you think the story would have gone had Lee returned the cross to her?  What do you think about the connection between Merrin & Ig?
  • After Lee gets caught in the explosion he says that "It was to remind me."  What do you think he means?
  • What do you think about Merrin's decisions?  Both in regards to her relationship with Ig and concerning treatment for her cancer?
  • How do you think the story would be told from Lee's point of view?
  • What do you think about Ig's sermon to the snakes?  "I see God now as an unimaginative writer of popular fictions, someone who builds stories around sadistic and graceless plots, narratives that exist only to express His terror of a woman's power to choose who and how to love, to redefine love as she sees fit, not as God thinks it ought to be.  The author is unworthy of His own characters.  The devil is first a literary critic, who delivers this untalented scribbler the public flaying he deserves."
  • What do you think about the Tree House of the Mind?  What is the Tree House of the Mind?
  • If you watched the movie, what do you think of the adaptation?  Does it capture the spirit of the story?  How do the changes made affect the story?

Monday, November 2, 2015

[Book Review] A Taste of Scandal (Boxed Set)

A Taste of Scandal: Bad Boys, Sexy Scoundrels, and Regency Rogues (Boxed Set) / Megan Bryce, Elizabeth Cole, Madelynne Ellis, Dawn Halliday, Vicki Hopkins, Suzanna Medeiros, Kate Pearce, and Sandra Schwab

Eight in one!  A promised little something for everyone in this collection of sexy historical romance.  Also, I for some reason felt the need to distract myself from the more involved reading projects and the chaos that is my life with some books I can read in a few hours.

I'm breaking this down by book, since I feel reviewing the box set as a single piece would be doing a disservice.  Overall, I'll vote the box set a mix, some good, some not bad but not to my taste, and some please no.

To Wed the Widow (The Reluctant Bride Collection #3) / Megan Bryce (Powell's Books)

This one entertained from the first page, with wit, affection, and love of life throughout.  There's actually two love stories here, one between George Sinclair and Lady Haywood, the other between the Earl and his wife.

George is back in England, leaving the home he built in India, on his brother Sebastian's request.  Without any sons of his own, Sebastian needs to make sure his younger brother is prepared to take on the responsibilities or being an Earl, including producing and raising a heir of his own.  Of course, George settles on the least appropriate bridal prospect, and she's not quite so sure she wants to get married again herself!

Fun read with good relationship building.

A Heartless Design (Secrets of the Zodiac #1) / Elizabeth Cole (Powell's Books)

Don't read this one immediately after (or before) To Wed the Widow, which has an Earl named Sebastian and a younger brother named George, while this has an Earl named George and a younger brother named Sebastian.  I ended up a bit confused.

Cordelia Bearing has long refused any and all proposals of marriage that come her way, and there have been quite a few, earning her the reputation of being "heartless."  Sebastian Thorne earned a reputation for irresponsible behavior in his youth, but his time in the army and then as a spy turned him around and kept his reputation as a cover.  Now he needs to find the mysterious and retiring "Lear" before enemies of the nation, as they seek a revolutionary ship design that would definitively turn the tide of war.  He knows somehow Miss Bearing is tangled up in all of this, but he never guessed to what depths.

Not a bad light read, but historical romance spy novels really aren't my bag.  Some secrets keep everyone on their toes, others just exist to cause inconvenience and misunderstanding in the plot.

Once the characters considered the threat resolved it all turned into wedding cotton candy, and the fact that the villain who threatened everyone Cordelia cares for is still at large and is brushed under the carpet bothers me.

Three Times the Scandal (Scandalous Seductions #4) / Madelynne Ellis (Powell's Books)

This one feels like it went for quantity of sex over quality of writing, and part of me wants it to be either book three, or "Four Times the Scandal." But I suppose the last option requires an additional intimate player.  However, there is a lot of sex here, and with differing number of partners.  The sexualization of twins doesn't really do it for me, but I know it's a pretty common thing.

We get a (I believe, based on the earlier name for this series) Georgian-era Free Love movement, a lady so desperate to avoid being forced into an appaling marriage that she is willing to deliberately ruin her reputation, some rather lusty gentlemen, and one conniving man willing to ruin a lot more than a lady's reputation if she won't become his wife.  She takes shelter in the home of notorious rake Giles Dovecote, unknowingly falling into an atmosphere of casual sexuality and strong carnality shared by Giles and the Darleston twins.  If one wants to ruin their reputation, there possibly could be no better place, and Fortuna accepts it with open arms.

The Sweetest Revenge / Dawn Halliday

This one fell under "what the hell am I reading?" followed shortly by "who would ever think this was a good idea?"

Regardless of my consistent dislike of the story, it is decently written just possessing some of the most absurd decision making and... unique revenge plans I've encountered.

Three ladies have a friendship on a shared experience, the loss of their reputation and subsequent abandonment by the same man.  Their plan to teach him a lesson about all of the lives he's ruined (beyond just theirs) involves kidnapping him, tying him up in the basement, and sexually assaulting him to give him an idea of what the ladies he discards go through.  Meanwhile, his wild rover ways for the past seven years are an overwrought guilt reaction to the loss of the one he loved.

To which I largely kept reacting to with "wut?"  My reaction can't be conveyed with correct spelling.

There was a bit of a revenge plot twist that came out of left-field at the end, which I honestly felt was rather well pulled off... if absurdly chancy and long-game.  But way better than the primary revenge scheme which just left my head hurting.

I'm also pretty skeptical that someone can live at all part of society, even if it's on the edges, and remain unaware that to the world at large they died seven years ago.  I mean, what?

If a plot where scorned women bring a rake to shame and make him repent, but that also has a happy ending, this might be the book for you.

Dark Persuasion / Vicki Hopkins (Powell's Books)

As a child, Charlotte Grey was adventurous and daring, her father's favorite and as close to a son as she could manage.  Then a cruel and childish action by a boy several years her senior cost Charlotte her sight and almost her life.  Now grown, the neighboring Lord & Lady Rochester see fit to sponsor her coming out into society, and she ends up as the object of affection, and competition, between Patrick and Rupert Rochester.  Both young men grew up handsome, but one has a streak of cruelty and disdain for those around him, while the other is haunted by guilt of the action that cost Charlotte her sight.

I started this one hopeful, I like novels that break the model and try something less common, like handling disability (in this case, blindness).  I suppose it was too much to hope for the subject to be handled well or there to be any sort of research regarding it.  Regardless, blindness generally does not manifest as seeing black, and there definitely was not a school for the blind that specialized in training with seeing-eye dogs circa 1890, since the first formal seeing-eye dog wasn't around until several decades later.  Both of those can be learned without even doing in-depth research.  On the flip side, she's about on target for development of retinal detachment surgery, even if I'm pretty sure it takes the brain some time to readjust to

Rupert made it so incredibly hard for me to read this book.  10 years ago he and Patrick thought they killed Charlotte, when an ill-tempered and ill-considered shove sent the young girl flying from the tree branch onto the hard ground below.  They left her sprawled and bleeding in the woods, fearful of the punishment they would face.  Then as an adult he's making jokes at how she looked ready to be fucked when she was lying in a pool of her own blood as a child.  It's pretty clear that Rupert's the villain of the love-triangle without that gem, but he literally makes this a repulsive read.  Yes, there's a dark secret that's ultimately revealed as the source of his behavior, but it's treated more like an excuse and something that he nearly immediately gets over once he decides to.

Personal opinion of this whole book: ugh

Loving the Marquess (Landing a Lord #1) / Suzanna Medeiros

Louisa Evans and the Marquess of Overlea are both in difficult situations, ones that can be abated by a marriage of convenience.  The Marquess' family was the downfall of Louisa's father, but the Marquess is in her debt and his cousin is lurking like a vulture to take advantage of her family's precarious situation.  The Marquess seems to have inherited the mysterious illness that felled his father and brother, leaving him to assume the title, and must not only marry but produce a heir in short order lest it fall to his unscrupulous cousin. He thinks he's found a solution, but the last thing he expects is to fall in love with his bride.

A little over halfway through this book I made a prediction about how the last 100 pages would play out.  There were no real surprises here.  In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will refrain from listing them.  But as far as writing goes and plot, I've come across far more absurd and unlikely.  Fast read with a happy ending, and set up for future novels.

Educating Elizabeth (Diable Delamere #1) / Kate Pearce

Oh man, this one.  I read the premise and went "I fully expect this to be gloriously over the top."
When Miss Elizabeth Waterstone encounters the enigmatic Duke of Diable Delamere in the most shocking of circumstances, she is determined to exploit his rakish expertise to the fullest extent. The duke agrees to teach her everything she needs to know, but in return expects to receive her unwitting cooperation to uncover an assassination plot against the monarchy. But Elizabeth is hard to deceive, and the duke finds himself needing more than her innocent skills in his bed. Together they must use their remarkable abilities, to thwart a villain, save the Prince Regent and accidentally and inevitably fall in love.
What I can say is that this book does not disappoint.  It's sexy, over the top, and unabashedly ridiculous, but never slides into the absurd (well, except for a corset becoming see-through when wet, that really is just absurd).

The Duke can be excused for thinking Miss Waterstone was a lady of ill-repute, after all, her step-father specifically gave her to him as collateral against the significant gambling debt he had accrued, nor was this the first time he had lent out his stepdaughter's services.  Turns out, the services in question are a quite bit different than the ones the Duke assumed, but Elizabeth has a sharp mind and steely determination, and figures out that association with the Duke may have it's own benefits.  Outside of her family's cruelty and indifference, Elizabeth Waterstone blooms, and she and the Duke become entangled in ways neither dreamed.

Bewitched / Sandra Schwab

It was only a little magical mishap, and it's not like the house stayed blue for very long.  But Miss Amelia Bourne is exiled from her uncle's manor and sent to stay in London, stripped of her powers.  The gentlemen may be fascinated by the lovely new addition to society, but her hosts delight in exaggerating Miss Bourne's provincial nature.  Not that Amelia particularly enjoys high society, and the tedium that is expected of her as a young lady.  Then forces conspire to entangle her affections with those of Sebastian "Fox" Stapleton, but to what ends?  And without her magic, can Amelia defeat the evil that threatens?

The read is fluffy and inconsequential, but enjoyable none the less.  The characters are amusingly mismatched, situations often cheekily comical, and the snippets of penny novels we are treated to are hysterical.  Sebastian's manservant speaks like Terry Pratchett's Igors, and some of the moments of dialog are just priceless.

I really like how the author handled the potion forced infatuation between Amelia and Sebastian.  The potion works true, but like any forced attraction cracks do show, especially as actions and events bring out behaviors and reactions contrary to the spell's influence.

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 10

Worse for the journey down the river in barrels, but still alive and kicking, the Prodigal Son returns.

Men of Lake-town gathering barrels

Bilbo gets his first glimpse of the Lonely Mountain, and shepherds the dwarfs along their path.
"Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror King under the Mountain!" said the dwarf in a loud voice, and he looked it, in spite of his torn clothes and draggled hood.  The gold gleamed on his neck and waist; his eyes were dark and deep.  " I wish to see the Master of your town!"

"We have no need of weapons, who return at last to our own as spoken of old.  Nor could we fight against so many.  Take us to your master."
Music, more than anything, wins the dwarfs the support of the Master.  People remembering the stories and singing convince the Master to side with the dwarfs instead of his elven trading partners, and even the elves themselves start to wonder if their king was mistaken in detaining the dwarfs.

As returning heroes and legends out of story, the dwarfs (and poor ill Mr. Baggins) are feted and equipped for two weeks before moving on.  Time to rest, recover, and regroup.  So our adventure continues, our party heading across Long Lake, and with the elfking making his own plans regarding the dwarven wealth.

Of particular note here is that Lake-town (and once upon a time, Dale) exists and thrives out here.  Back in Chapter 3 we stay at the Last Homely House, since then we've journeyed further into the land of monsters and untamed wilds.  Beorn provides hospitality, but his home is a haven of wilderness, shelter but not civilized.  The woodelves of the Mirkwood (once the Greenwood) were a known entity, and were not considered a bastion of hospitality or civilization by the elves of Rivendell or by Gandalf.  "Last Homely House" may be more of a conceit than a truth, or an assumption of racial superiority.  A map of Middle Earth places Rivendell in the north-western quadrant, with Misty Mountains and Mirkwood to the east, but beyond those we see kingdoms of man (Gondor, Rohan),  the kingdoms of the dwarfs (Iron Mountains), and even elfhames (Mirk/Greenwood, Lorien), though the last are considered wild and dangerous.  It is in truth the last bastion of peace and comfort for some distance, but civilization and hospitality exists within shockingly short distance all around Rivendell.

All that being said, it is true that Lake-town is not the haven or bastion of civilization on par with Rivendell, or the once bustling Dale.

As for the movie.  First and foremost, we get a little of Gandalf's side quest, something that is brushed aside as a "story for another time" in the book.  In my opinion, this is a nice little treat.  It doesn't consume much time, and fulfills that Gandalf has THINGS TO DO.  Though perhaps "The enemy is preparing for war" is a bit over stated, since we're looking at 50+ years until the war in question.  It's more "the enemy is preparing to prepare for war," which lacks a certain gravitas.
My notes for the added scenes involving the orc hunting party and the elves include the following:
  • blah, blah, interrogation, blah, blah
  • woodgie woodgie dark arrow
  • cause of course we need to keep Legolas & Tauriel
  • orcs tracking dwarfs, *yawn*
I want to talk about the changes in how the party enters Laketown.  In the book they enter openly, self-assured in their right to be there, intruding on the Master's dinner party, and backed by popular rumor (even if they don't like the whole idea of sharing their wealth).  In the movie they are smuggled in by Bard, albeit with a comedic moment involving fish and a rather good moment highlighting the corrupt nature of the Master, and only come to public light when they are caught (extremely clumsily) stealing from the armory.  Then Thorin, in a bit of oration promises  "all will share in the wealth of the mountain," which wins him the interest of both the Master and the townsfolk, and really is complete and utter bullshit.  I mean, we all know he has every intention of sharing as little of the wealth as possible.

Excellent oration aside, Thorin is such an asshole in this section.  You were caught in the act robbing the city armory, they have every right to treat you like a criminal even if you are royalty.  Poor and arrogant behavior on the part of the dwarfs isn't in anything new, and just continues throughout now.
My best guess is this was all done in the interests of heightening tension and drama.  Largely it just seemed overdone with a few bright spots to carry it.  The overly dramatic prophesy is overly dramatic, but the rumors are reasonably accurate.  I don't know why there was any need to make Bard a smuggler, and the dwarfs are acting not only arrogant, but like petulant children in response to the weapons Bard provides.  Their robbing of the armory is just impetuous and poorly executed. 

Bard's accusation of the "blind ambition of a mountain king who cannot see past his own desire," is both accurate and prophetic for what is to come.  But perhaps also accurate is Thorin's response, "I have the only right."

I'm just grumpy about the whole ailing Kili plot.  Why do we need this?  We don't need the love story, and the leaving behind of three dwarfs just wrankles.  I will get even grumpier as it continues.

For all my complaints above, the Master is done brilliantly, and if anything is achieved in the changes, it is to show the Master as a corrupt individual, and I like that direction.  Stephen Fry is generally amazing, and a magnificent choice for the part.  Amusingly, in the discussions I've had with others about who we thought could have pulled off a Tom Bombadil, Stephen Fry is pretty much the only name that comes up (generally otherwise the thought of Bombadil in the movie fills most of us with dread).  Alfred is absolutely despicable, which by and large is his entire purpose.  He feels like a precursor to Grima Wormtongue, though in this case more as an enabler than a corrupter.

I've complained a lot about Legolas and the decisions regarding Tauriel's role in the movie (seriously, if she'd just been kick-ass elven ranger who thought the dwarfs deserved help or just wanted to hunt down orcs she'd be awesome).  The Legolas/Tauriel scene added to this chapter I think is actually important and worthwhile.  In translation to screen we lose some of the depth and allegory of the text, in in that some of Tolkien's personal beliefs and dislike of war.  This scene gives the movie a little more than just an epic high fantasy.  Even without the concern for Kili, Tauriel has strong impetus for her actions, seeking to scour the land from the invading evil represented by the orcs.  As she says to Legolas, "When did we let evil grow stronger than us?"  The elves have power, from their long lives accumulating experience and honing skills, and from their magical and natural affinities.  Thranduil shows us how that can twist a soul, Tauriel shows us how it can still burn bright.