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Book Review: A Dangerous Year

Book Review: A Dangerous Year

A Dangerous Year CoverThis was one of those books that, when offered an advance copy for a review, I read the blurb and thought ‘interesting’, and the book lived to the hype.

The publication has been pushed back repeatedly, and that makes adding this to Amazon in a timely fashion difficult. Sad, as this is a great late-YA / New Adult beach-type book. It isn’t too in depth, too heavy, or too cliff-hanger-centric. What this book is is good – at every level.

The main character, as the cover shows, is one Riley Collins, daughter of the widower American Ambassador to Pakistan, who was raised as much by his bodyguard as him (not neglect, reality of a career diplomat) to be independent, confident, and at home in some fairly hostile places. I usually look at ‘teen girl who is also a perfectlybeautifulninjaassassinhackerrockstarcommando’ with a skeptical eye, then put them back on the real or digital store shelf, and move on. This one seemed to not go there – I mean it does, but not so baldly, based on the blurb. Aside to publishers: better blurbs = better sales, really. Anyway, that is explained well in the background, and kept both fairly realistic and limited by some obvious bounds. Guns and fighting, yes. Hacking and ninja stuff, no. Cultures and languages, yes. Mistress of disguise and superspy, no.

So, we have Riley, in Pakistan, being a fairly stereotypical American conservative / libertarian (that is, not allowing the fallacy of cultural relativism to stop her from doing the right thing), which leads to her having a minor death mark on her head. Enter the State Department, who needs her to protect the daughter of a Bill Gates / Steve Jobs / Elon Musk sort of computer genius. Seems he developed a new system that allows any security anywhere to be broken. And his daughter has been the subject of threats in order to make him send the software to the bad guys.

Of course, the spoiled rich girl is at the most exclusive prep / boarding school ever, and our heroine (with little formal schooling, and no interest in prep stuff) has to fit in, and become friends. This is a lot of the conflict setup from ‘Mean Girls’, and the book is fully aware of this – referring to the movie in a nice bit of sly breakage of the 4th wall. The reader is thus brought into the reality where the author is fully aware that the reader is thinking ‘Mean Girls’, and the obvious complaint is sidestepped.

From here, we get some obvious awkward fish-out-of-water scenes, insta-crushes, evil girls, and evil boys. The usual.  This is, I suspect, stock YA fare, and it is handled well. The characters are a bit less fleshed out that I tend to like, but that’s me. They are far from cardboard, and only blend when they need to – that is, when they blend to the main character, they do to me as well. I like that, as there are people in the real world that blend into one person to me, so I completely get how that happens.

As one expects, the obvious isn’t, and the actual enemy is almost a total blindside – I think I saw it a few pages early, but that may be me comforting myself. Other aspects of the villain’s story come totally out of nowhere – and those hit perfectly. This really is very well done, and does manage to both humanize the characters that could easily have come from Central Casting, and keep the surprises a surprise.

Complaints…huh. Honestly, the fairly reckless actions early on seem off – the child of a career diplomat, born and always living on assignment, probably would not act that way. But then again, they might. It is tricky to call. The obvious one of not sending an untrained, totally unprepared, novice onto an incredibly high stakes assignment was the freebie (that is a sci-fi thing – in sci-fi the tradition was that you got one ‘freebie’ magical technology – like hyperdrives – that you didn’t need to explain or justify with any science). It is not realistic, but is the driver for the plot, so you let it go.

This should be on most teen’s reading lists. There is some violence and adult themes, which is expected. But the message is overpowering – do the right thing, and trust your friends to be there.

This looks to be a series, and I am already wanting the next one!

Book Review: Zhukov’s Dogs

Book Review: Zhukov’s Dogs

Zhukov's DogsSome books grab you straight away, some take forever to do so, and some never do.

This is the second type.

I need to head off on a tangent for a bit, sorry. So sometime back, a certain novel was awarded a Hugo for being the best of the year. I tried to read it, and was instantly lost in the undefined terminology, cultures, world, and a distressingly nonlinear flow. That was Ancillary Justice, and I maybe got 10% of the book read before I deleted it. I don’t mind all those things as a reader, I just need something to use as a guide to the world. In Kris Carey and Rod Kierkegaard, Jr.’s ‘Flight To Mecha‘ you get most of those, but it is well done, and you are never thrown into things without a touchstone as you are in Ancillary Justice.

Back to the review at hand. Zhukov’s Dogs starts off going down the wrong path. Terms, environment, an obvious cultural shift…all of this is there in abundance, and it was enough to get me to stop reading while I read a few other books in the middle. But I did return, and I have to say I am glad I did. Because it clears up, mostly, and clears enough to allow the reader to move forward without knowing the whole of the story.

And you never do. You are seeing a fraction of the world – a narrowly focused slice telling this one specific story, without the background to really understand things. You wind up not really needing it, I suppose, but for myself, I missed it. As I have mentioned in this space before, I like knowing the full story. I like knowing what I am seeing in the background. I want to know why Zhukov is known as a dog, why there even is a Youth Intelligence Division, who decided Grey Men were a good idea (and, yes, why), how Seattle came to be not only mostly underground, but the cultural shift to make it uncomfortable for a gay character to be openly so.

So, yeah, there are some things that would make this more enjoyable.

But then there is that ‘First Novel’ tag, for this is indeed Amanda Cyr’s first novel, and I do tend to give a lot of leeway on those. Getting published is hard, and having some dude half a continent away with precisely zero books published (or submitted, or written, or started) slam your decisions because they aren’t his isn’t needed.

So, what is the book about? Simply put, it is about one Lieutenant Colonel Nik Zhukov being dispatched to the underground city beneath the icy Seattle tundra, this is supposed to be his final mission handed down directly from The Council. The year is 2076, and America is vastly different than it is now – there is a Council, for one. Also different are the Grey Men, who seem to be genetically / chemically engineered super soldiers (more Bane than Captain America), who serve as guards and shock troopers. Nik, as a member of the YID, is also enhanced in some ways. A lot of this is gleaned from the text – the feel is very much one of ‘everyone knows this, so no one explains it’, which is a huge bonus to authenticity (as opposed to a single character spouting exposition for a chapter), but also a bit of a drain on the ease of readability. It makes the beginning harder to understand than it needs to be.

Don’t give up though. While my preference for reams of backstory creates blinders, the bulk of the information you need is filled in, and the story soon leaves behind the need for explanation. What we get then is a decent infiltration tale, with the usual bits of seeing that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t, that the establishment is corrupt, and so forth. These are well executed, and have their own twists, which removes them from being mostly standard tropes. The characters are mostly well developed, with two exceptions that I kept confusing. In the end, they didn’t really matter, so no harm done.

That leads to the final issue I had – there is a lack of wrap-up. Which, again, is very much something Nik wouldn’t know, but this reader wanted. Not that I need the follow-on novel of each character, but something would have been nice. After the story got me into it fully, that was a bit of a let-down.

So, if this review seems all over the place, it’s because my impression of the book is as well. I loved large chunks of it – most of it, really, but then other parts were inexplicably deus ex machina mixed with handwavium. I couldn’t get a handle on it. There is a reason I paused to read another novel in the middle. It just wasn’t holding me. Then it was.

So, finally, we get to the end of this ramble. Let me close with this. I want to read the backstory – how did it get to this place where there is no President? What happened to the environment to make Seattle tundra? What changed in a fairly liberal city to make it intolerant of homosexuality? How do we have the tech we do, but not the tech we don’t see? Grey Men? Youth Intelligence Division? So. Many. Questions. So, yes, I would read a sequel, and be vastly more interested in a prequel.

Zhukov’s Dogs is good, it raised a lot of unanswered questions about the setting, and came dangerously close to losing me in the beginning, but it pulls it out, and is a good book. I think Amanda Cyr is worth watching – this is a great start.

Book Review: Darkscapes

Book Review: Darkscapes

darkscapes coverAnother Curiosity Quills anthology. Honestly, the usual disclaimer of ‘I don’t usually like these’ is getting played out, as I keep requesting them. I think CQ simply had managed to figure the format out, and pulled together some good authors, a solid editor, and kept things focused on working, not on some other thing. Weak sentence there, but you take my meaning.

With Darkscapes, the theme is “…worlds of terrible family secrets, unexpected doppelgängers, a home invasion on an alien planet, androids and assassins, places and people who aren’t as stable as they seem, frustrated musicians going to desperate lengths — and more.” A high bar, and one mostly met.  The book itself is a collection of 21 stories, ranging in length from novella to just over back cover copy. That helps get more authors involved, and we always like that.

In theme, the one thing that kept coming to mind was Robert Chambers (The King In Yellow). Several of the stories, to me, mirror that genre of fiction, with the universe cast as vase, unknowable, and uncaring. Specifically, ‘Of Lusher And Sleep’.

Other mythos-inspired stuff is all around, but the King In Yellow was what came to mind the most.

Overall, this was a good collection – some uneven bits, some overlong parts, and a few that read more like a treatment that a complete story. After a pair of those in the beginning, I was beginning to question the wisdom of picking this title. But it gets much better as it continues.

Some of my personal highlights are the aforementioned Of Lusher And Sleep, Roomies, Circular Argument, and Landing a Job In The Private Sector. These were the most compelling, or entertaining, in the collection. There really weren’t any that were bad, although Second Sentience lost me early, and the Skeleton Jim had to work too hard to overcome my dislike of the concept. But that’s me.

The surprise close is Heart of the Harvester – this I didn’t see ending the way it did. It was different than I thought, and a nice surprise.

So, as with other collections, CQ has managed to pull together a good stable of authors for their books, and keep (generally) to a theme. I didn’t see the ‘yearning, regret, and fear’ so much in some of these, while others were prime examples of the form.

So, again, a good CQ read, and one worth picking up soon.

Farewell, Mr. President

Farewell, Mr. President

While I think that the Obama presidency will be judged a failure, for several reasons (and one huge one), I also know no person is wholly one thing or another.

So, to that end, here are some things that I believe Mr. Obama got right.

Repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ – Look, anyone who thinks that only straight men serve in the military is deluded. Flat Earthers + Reptilian Overlords from Alpha Draconis + Packers fans deluded. Removing a rule that forced people into hiding is always a good thing. To that end, this was long overdue, and good riddance to a bad rule.

Supported Federal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriages – Repeat after me: “Marriage Is A Religious Institution Not A Government One”. So, while the government should not be in the marriage business (their interest should only extend to the civil and civic sides of a union – thus, civil union), that isn’t the way it is. The government shouldn’t be dictating how or whom one chooses to enter into a partnership with. At any level. So while the fight to get the government out of marriage continues, the legal recognition of a same-sex civil partnership is good. Now, to get the government to stop limiting those partnerships between consenting adults in any way…

Well, two things. I am sure there are others. Some lines from speeches were good too, but that is way too much time and effort to read them all. (more…)

Book Review: Prelude to Mayhem

Book Review: Prelude to Mayhem

coverOh, this was good. Very, very good. It is hard to cover it all – but to me it hit all the marks dead on.

Prelude to Mayhem tells the story of an America (world? one expects so) transformed on May 30, 2004. The result is an unpredictable combination of magic, ultra-tech, dinosaurs, and other strange occurrences. In this world, we find Harrison Cody, loner on the East Coast, who hears a voice on the radio calling him to Chicago. We also meet Dorothy O’Neill, precocious teen for whom the change in the world means not getting to go to high school – and losing her family. Each has a different perspective – from the journey Harrison must undertake to Dorothy’s forting up in a Hallmark store, and making the best of where she is. As the book progresses, Harrison is forced to be a better person, and Dorothy is forced from her shell (or safe place), bringing them both to a huge change in Chicago.

Of course, there is a lot more than that.

The story above is good, but skips over the fact that both characters have to grow and deal with changes that neither wants – good and bad. In the course of the novel, we find that there may be a pattern to the change in the world, and that very, very little is as it seems on the surface. Including the surface.

I tend to like books that bring magic into a modern context, or even a postmodern one. In that regard, there is that annoying taste of magic, without the full exploration that I would have liked better. It may be in a sequel. There is enough to give the reader a taste, but not a full serving. We get a bit more of the ultra-technology than the magic, but again, this is not a story about (or enabled by) some super-high-tech gizmo falling into the hands of 21st century Joe Protagonist. I get the feeling that Aubry has an easier time with the tech than the magic. Perhaps the common need (perceived or real) to develop a universally cohesive system – a metaphysic of magic as it were – is too daunting. Interestingly, the alterations to the world could allow for any system, or many, to coexist. Similar to how some tech is fairly achievable in the near now, while other tech is pure space opera.

The mixing of technology and fantasy is nicely done. Each is internally consistent (even though there seem to be several tech bases in use, each is internally consistent to itself), and is used well. Fantasy elements make sense, and don’t make this feel like a poorly cobbled together mess. Or the product of a committee.

This is a good YA and adult novel, and very much worth picking up.

Carrier & Starfish

Carrier & Starfish

So this week, President-Elect Trump secured a deal with Carrier to keep about a thousand jobs in Indiana. At a cost of more than seven million dollars over several years.

This has been widely panned as showing companies how to blackmail the President into giving them tax incentives and so forth in order to keep them from going off shore. It has been treated like a bad deal, and used as another club against Trump.

Ignoring the obvious fact that the same deal from President Obama would be receiving praise, there are two points not being made that show some unpleasant sides of the press.

First, that this is not a political move, but a CEO move. Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, breaks this down far better than I can. His article sums up like so:

I’ll say this again because it’s important. We’re all watching closely to see if President Elect Trump has the skill to be president. And while you watch, Trump and Pence are pulling off one of the most skillfully executed new CEO plays you will ever see. Remember what I taught you in the past year: Facts don’t matter. What matters is how you feel. And when you watch Trump and Pence fight and scratch to keep jobs in this country, it changes how you will feel about them for their entire term. This is a big win for Trump/Pence disguised as a small win.

So there is that.

Second, is the arrogance to dismiss this as ‘ineffective’. I have heard claims that even if this pace continues, it will restore but 4% of the lost manufacturing jobs. And the media wonders why they are so dismissed, distrusted, and disregarded. Yes, you morons, it is a small drop. But it is a drop. It is effort on behalf of those who have been denigrated and ignored.

It’s like the annoyingly sentimental thing you see on Facebook every so often. Where the kid is throwing starfish back into the ocean, and says ‘it matters to that one’.

In other words, it matters to them. It matters to those 1000 workers who get to keep their jobs. And the next 1000. And so on. These are the same people Obama dismissed as ‘bitter clingers’, Clinton as ‘deplorable’. And that supported Trump because he at least paid lip service to believing in them. Even if this is the only 1000 jobs saved, he managed this before coming into office.

So think on that. And remember that the day when people had to turn to self-proclaimed elites is over. The truth will out, and in this case, the truth is, for 1000 families, Christmas came early, and has bad hair.

A Fisking…

A Fisking…

So, I saw this posted, and decided it was too good to not fisk a bit. My comments in <<brackets>>. I cannot verify, and do not suggest, that this represents all supporters of Black Lives Matter (I know it does not), but it does claim to speak for the leaders. Make of that what you will…

Lessons from Fidel: Black Lives Matter and the Transition of El Comandante

<<Transition? Thought he was dead, not trans…>> We are feeling many things as we awaken to a world without Fidel Castro. <<Relief that one more Communist dictator is gone?>> There is an overwhelming sense of loss, complicated by fear and anxiety. <<Why? For what possible reason?>> Although no leader is without their flaws, we must push back against the rhetoric of the right and come to the defense of El Comandante. <<Defend forced reeducation of gays! Defend restrictions of speech and art! Defend oppression! Defend totalitarianism!>> And there are lessons that we must revisit and heed as we pick up the mantle in changing our world <<If you assholes are ‘picking up the mantle’ from Castro, you really don’t care about black lives – like I have suspected all along.>>, as we aspire to build a world rooted in a vision of freedom and the peace that only comes with justice <<Therefore the struggle in Cuba is different. There cannot be a civil rights movement. You will have instantly 10,000 black people dead. 1>>. It is the lessons that we take from Fidel. <<I know this one! Kill all who oppose you, set up forced labor camps, discriminate against blacks…oops>> (more…)

Highland Gourmet Scones

Highland Gourmet Scones

downloadSo, we are currently down in the Birmingham area for Thanksgiving, and in a storefront in front of the hotel, I saw Highland Gourmet Scones. It looked like a decent coffee shop, so the first morning there, I wandered over. And wow.

Based on the smell alone, I ordered a custom tin, then took home the mocha, original (golden raisin), and an orange-cranberry. And we sampled, and both agree, this is a find! These are clearly the best scones I have encountered – from the mass-produced at Starbucks to the fancy at Third Coast Cafe in Chicago’s Gold Coast. These beat them all. Properly dry, epic flavor, and just that incredible smell.

I can’t say I have sampled them all, but of those I have, I prefer the Cherry-Almond, Original, and Orange-Cranberry. These are something you need to experience. And lucky for me, they ship!

Book Review: Windows Into Hell Anthology

Book Review: Windows Into Hell Anthology

cover1000-1-678x1024Hey, another collection of shorts! The kind of book I usually dislike because it is a good story in the midst of garbage. Old, smelly, fish garbage, usually.

Not. This. Time.

Holy…um…Hell, but this was solid. Not a wasted tale in the bunch. Not one. Which is beyond impressive.

Each story is about someone arriving into hell, and what happens next. There is an oddly overarching theme that hell is a waystation, and once you learn an important lesson, you move on to a heaven better than anything you could ever imagine. I do like that idea, personally. It is an echo of some of what I read decades back in Whitley Strieber’s Catmagic, that hell is only for those who need it, not for the everyone. It also echoes some interpretations of the Book of Revelation (or the Revelation of St. John the Divine – depends on the version you prefer), that you do have a last chance to repent, and enter heaven.

Of course, if you check the tags on the bottom, you’ll see a recurrence of the ‘Zoroastrianism’ tag. One conceit across the bulk of the stories is that Zoroaster (Zarathustra) got it right, no one else. Amusing, especially if you know some of how modern religion developed, and see the parallels that are there.

Anyway, I could do that all day, let’s talk book. First, this is emphatically not a horror anthology. Yes, Hell, but not horror. That is vital.

The stories are all about the idea of a personalized hell – one you have managed to create for yourself. There is (excepting one story) no generalized hell for all, which is a nice touch. In each, the protagonist is sent to learn a lesson of some kind, the learning of which will set them free. Of course, we are not privy to the lesson, only that it is personal, exceedingly hard, and you have eternity to get there. If you think of how hard it is to change a small thing – say cutting out carbs, smoking, sugar, Diet Coke – then you can imagine how hard it is to make a fundamental change to your person. When you also have to identify the problem. And the solution. And not just mouth the words, but make the change.

So, yeah, you’ll be there a bit.

Of all the stories, the one I was most impacted by was ‘A Tall Vanilla Order’ by Tonya Adolfson. On one hand, I was cringing at what looked like a overly blunt social message – one of those where you get it, understand it, and keep being clubbed by it. Of course, then the rest of the story happened, and it hits like a gut punch. Hard. Brutal. A virtual Judge Dredd of an impact. And it does exactly what it is supposed to, and makes you think. A lot.

I was less impressed with ‘The Egress of Hell’, but then the long-form poem is not a style I have even been able to get into. As much as I might want to, it eludes me. Good ending though.

Finally, the last story, ‘A Hell of a Life’ by Steven L Peck is the optimistic one of the bunch, and it has a tremendous outlook on things “In addition, there is so much joy to be had in life! It is true there are lives of such misery that it truly would be better not to be born, but it is not as often as you might guess, and even some lives that appear withered and worn have had moments of joy and experiences that make their life worth having been placed here below. I always think of heaven as upward, and myself as below it, down here in Hell. Whenever I can, I gaze that direction though the eyes of my shell and try to catch the attention of whatever God might be gazing back.” Powerful stuff.

So, yes, I can suggest this without hesitation or reservation. It is amazing, with stories that make you think, and keep you engaged throughout. It isn’t being archived on the Kindle like most. It is staying in active memory, to be revisited.

So, It’s Trump

graphic from cnn.com

Well, didn’t see that coming. Like a lot of people, I simply underestimated Trump, and it looks like that was a mistake.

But honestly, people. You’d think you woke up to hell on earth or something. Let me clue you in – this ‘how could this happen’ feeling? Yeah, it is how conservatives felt in 2008. And 2012. And we didn’t riot. Unlike leftists in Oakland. So, well played. Check your post history, and reread any ‘cope and move on’ posts you or others might have directed at us, and apply to yourselves. This not some end of history moment. It is a message. A loud one.

Hillary Clinton ran as the establishment candidate. Honestly, she couldn’t do otherwise, regardless of her desires. She has been in the inner halls of power since 1992. She has been #3 in line for the White House. She was the first overtly consulted First Lady. She was presented as the heir to Obama, and the guardian of his legacy.

And that is why she failed. Seriously. How do the Democrats not get this? Did they not see the kinds of focus Sanders received? Did they not need their rigged system to ensure the establishment candidate won the nomination in the face of the most anti-establishment electorate in US history? And yes, the superdelegate system is rigged for the insider candidate – just because Sanders chose to play in that system does not make it less rigged. Trump is the most outsider candidate ever – having never held any elected office before. This was the year of the outsider, which we should have seen in the massive rallies and crowds Trump and Sanders drew. Especially in comparison to the anemic crowds Clinton drew (especially in the primaries).

Despite the usual 20/20 hindsight, I figured that his support would not overcome the leftist fear-mongering about him. I was wrong.

To those who see this as the beginning of the inevitable revocation of whatever civil issue you hold dear, please, for the sake of everyone, take a civics course. That isn’t how this works. Never has been. Look to FDR – insane popularity, and when he tried to ram things through to do what he thought would help the most, he was blocked. Trump? Even his notional party doesn’t like him. Do you honestly think that he will somehow break Democrat resistance, GOP dislike, and popular opinion to magically deport everyone who isn’t white? Revoke every equality law in every state? End abortion?

Grow. Up.

  • Most of those are state laws, and the federal authority does not extend to state laws. See literally every state that has legalized marijuana. It is still illegal at the federal level, but holy crap, states can write their own laws! So if your state has passed any kind of equality law, nothing Trump does can change that.
  • If the President could handwavium laws away, don’t you think Obama would have done so? He hasn’t. As much as I think he was at best a sub-par President, even at his most arrogant (and he is absurdly arrogant “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” -New Yorker, 11/17/08) never managed that. It isn’t how the system works.
  • Pence may have religious objections to gay rights (ok, flat out does as far as I can tell). Trump has been accused of that, but a search of WikiQuote doesn’t show a single quote indicating any animosity. Not one. No use of the common slurs. A few about defending the LGBT community from Islamic terrorists / Islamists (where being gay is a death sentence – and that sentence is enforced in the modern world). But no slurs. So, again, relax. Your rights won’t be stripped away by a Trump administration. Also, see above on state laws.
  • No one is coming for your daughters, for Muslims, for illegal immigrants. Maybe we will finally join the rest of the world in enforcing our own border laws. But even that is doubtful – again, states like California simply don’t have the will to do so, and will continue to ignore border laws. But don’t expect any changes there.
  • And if you are upset about Trump’s comments about women (and wow, even a hostile media dropped those assault claims like they were made against Bill Clinton or something), remember who you supported as VP for eight years…‘Gropin’ Joe Biden.

Basically, it will be a challenge for four years, yes. So this is the left’s chance to show that they actually believe all the stuff they keep saying – I don’t think they do for a second. Leftists in my experience are more bigoted, hateful, spiteful, racist, and generally nasty than anyone else. So prove me, and millions of other conservatives, wrong. Act like you believe all that shit you keep saying. Work together, work across the party lines, be kind, be helpful, don’t hate.

I honestly don’t see it happening. The political left1 is founded on hate, built with spite, and rife with unrestrained bigotry. But the rules changed last night. So anything might happen…

 

 

  1. As a whole – I know may liberals who are not like this, but the movement writ large…very much so.