Monday, December 30, 2013

Finest Western Novella I've Read In Years

I cut my 10-year-old teeth on the exciting pages of Zane Grey Westerns, which occupied most of three shelves in the public library of the small town in which I grew up. With The Finest Frontier Town in the WestI.J. Parnham has captured some of that flavor and rustic humor in this tale of a civic rivalry gone wrong. 

As I read it, I kept hearing dialog from Blazing Saddles in my mind, with echoes of O. Henry's short story, The Ransom of Red ChiefDespite the less-than-heroic main characters, this book would be an excellent story to entice a young male reader. In fact, as I first began reading, I wondered if this wasn't a YA novel geared to male tastes.

The story follows a patent-medicine or "tonic" salesman named Fergal and his shill/bodyguard/sidekick Randolph as they become embroiled in the contest between two Western towns, New Utopia and Tender Valley, to win the title (and ten thousand dollars). You know right away that this will be a bumpy ride for these two men when you learn that they are remembered in Tender Valley mainly for the stomach pains and "rush to the bushes" their tonic provided for the townspeople on their previous visit.

But if that's the case, why are they welcomed with free drinks in the saloon and pats on the back? When inveterate salesman Fergal learns of the contest between the two towns, he proposes an ingenious scheme to insure that Tender Valley wins the title.

And that's when things start to fall apart. Literally.

At 192 pages, The Finest Frontier Town in the West seems like it would be short for a novel, but adequately novel length. After all, many of Zane Grey's novels were around 200 pages in length.

Actually, though, it is 192 pages in fairly-large type (in a locked-in font even on the Kindle) that seems designed to give the reader a feeling of perusing the pages of a nearly-faded epic found in the dusty corner of a room in a Western ghost town. In a user-chosen font and size, its length would be closer to novella.

Yet even though the author's font choice made it more difficult to read than it needed to be, I devoured this novel in one sitting. It's good. It's really good.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nasty, Brutish and Short: Life Among the Thugs

There is much to be learned about a culture from those persons whom it places upon pedestals, whom it admires and emulates, whom it calls heroes.  —Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Yardley, on "The Magnitude of Sport"

I am old enough to remember a time when the only thing that landed on a playing field (besides ball or players) was a penalty flag, years of high-school games in which fans tossed only cheers at each other; and no parent would dream of slugging another parent in the heat of a Little League game. Even college soccer and football were seen as opportunities to upstage the other side's team, their cheerleaders, their band. No explosives or firearms were involved. 

The same ethics of sportsmanship infused politics—if you weren't a union activist or assassin, the gloves were definitely on. Throughout this last nasty political season, something I had read years ago has been nagging at me: I was hearing echoes of Bill Buford's discovery of the intensely partisan soccer supporter. 

Among the Thugs is Buford's description of his experience as a soccer hooligan. In England to attend Cambridge University, he was visiting in Wales, waiting on a train platform with three or four others when an unannounced train came through. It was a football special, a train that had been "taken over" by Liverpool supporters. 

...there were hundreds of them—I had never seen a train with so many people inside—and they were singing in unison: "Liverpool, la-la-la, Liverpool, La-la-la." The words look silly now, but they did not sound silly. A minute before there had been virtual silence... And then this song, pounded out with increasing ferocity, echoing off the walls of the station. A guard had been injured, and as the train stopped he was rushed off, holding his face. Someone inside was trying to smash a window with a table leg, but the window wouldn't break... the police were frightened. For that matter, I was frightened, as was everyone else on the platform... this violent chant was a way of telling us that they, the supporters, were in the position to do anything they wanted.

Buford actually joined the Manchester United hooligans, melting into the crowd, yielding reason and compunction to the rule of the mob. He traveled, ate, slept, stole, screamed, fought, sang when they did. The strongest message of Buford's experiences as a thug is the sinister allure of membership in the mob; how easy it is to give in, and how hard to return to civilization once you do. 

We are on a particularly slippery slope when we surrender our civil instincts in this way. "My country, right or wrong" slides into "my party, right or wrong," my tribe, my family... The only way to win this game, as we were succinctly informed in WarGames, is not to play

Elijah Wood Among the Thugs

Green Street Hooligans is an amazing story, well told in this DVD movie.

This intense story takes Elijah Wood's American, Harvard-expelled, father-deprived character Mark Buckner from the quiet halls of Ivy-League academe to the violent world of the British football thug. Buckner is reeling from his unjust expulsion from Harvard - two weeks before he would have received a diploma. He has no one in the States to reach out to for help with the problem, so he flies to London for the only family he can reach, his sister.

Once there, Buckner is drawn into his brother-in-law Pete's seethingly violent focus on "making the reputation" of the "firm" he commands, the Green Street Elite, or GSE. Ostensibly the GSE are fans, followers of the West Ham United football team. (NEVER call it "soccer", Buckner quickly learns.) In fact, they are mainly followers of Pete, fans of each other and devoted only to the need for a violent reputation. This reputation-building process opens the story, with a bloody conflict at a railway station between the GSE and "fans" of a rival football team.

Right away, this film echoed for me the similar experiences of American journalist Bill Buford, in Among the Thugs, an eye-opener of a novel about Buford's exploration of the Manchester United firm. (Put a full dark beard on Wood, and he'd even look a bit like the author photo of Buford in my paperback edition!) Just as Buford learned with the firm he researched, the thugs Buckner meets (and fights with) on match day and in the pub have "normal" lives in everyday society - away from the GSE, Pete is a history teacher and coaches football for a middle school.

There is plenty of blood and flying fists, although the swift tidying-up of bruises and wounds downplays the consequences of it. I did find the "progress" of Wood's character (from a timid, overhead-punch-throwing, "girly" fighter to a true brawler, willing to stand his ground) delightful, despite the bloody noses and split lips. The final scene, when Buckner picks his ground to stand, is perfect in every detail - at last we see, not only the scars, but the benefits he derived from his time among the thugs.

The genuine character development and enticing story make this a good film - and the great cast, which includes Charlie Hunnam (seen on US TV recently in Sons of Anarchy) as Pete, Claire Forlani (seen recently in NCIS: Los Angeles and CSI: NY) as Mark's sister Shannon, and Marc Warren (recently of The Good Wife and MadDogs) as her husband Steve, adds to the appeal. 

Not for the kiddies (due to violent action and raw language), but for adults I recommend it highly - you won't be disappointed!

Primitive Does Not Equal Innocent, Ignorant, or Stupid

First contact with aliens is a well-spring for science fiction writers. It can be back-story to well-known characters (as in David Weber's story in More Than Honor), it can present humanity in a good light (see Legwork by Eric Frank Russell) or reveal our less-than-stellar qualities (a far more common theme). 

In Contact With Chaos, Williamson uses it to explore three very deep ideas.

First is a widely-held perception that primitive equates to innocent or ignorant (as in stupid) or both. The exploration team from Earth and Freehold is surprised when this outlook on their stone-tool-using aliens is shattered again and again by their ability and willingness to use those wood, bone and stone tools in creative and wicked ways. 

" good thing, they won't have artillery..." Oh, yeah? Ever heard of a trebuchet?

Next is the idea that primitive societies are always tribal or clan-like in structure. Instead, the human teams are confronted with a somewhat capitalistic economy "governed" by a pair of chairmen who can be removed from their posts if they don't deliver as expected. Here, WIlliamson's Freehold team members see the capitalist nature of the alien society, while the Earth team prefers to see the "elected" nature of the governors. Again, this misperception eventually bites them both.

Finally, I found it delightful that the alien scientists learned just as much from what they were not told as from what they were, the alien's military trainers found even the Freehold students in their training classes to be a bit clumsy and hard to train, and that generally, these aliens were shrewd and canny. They played each side of the human team against the other, and managed to keep them guessing and off-balance.

An excellent story that plays well on several levels, this is a worthy addition to the Freehold* series.

* Contact With Chaos does not have the same strong Libertarian/Military themes as the Freehold series, but uses the reader's understanding of those ideas to help drive the story.

Like His Story, Blaze Is Simple, Yet Powerful

Before the story of Blaze begins, author Stephen King explains why a new novel under his pseudonym "Richard Bachman" is now being released: it is a trunk novel from his Bachman days, rejected by the author as "...great when I was writing it, and crap when I finished." Other Bachman novels were written before, but published after King's Carrie, which fixed the name Stephen King firmly in the horror-genre frame.

Thirty years later, King returned to the draft of Blaze to begin a re-write, ruthlessly stripping sentiment and purple prose to leave a strong noir-objective narrative, influenced strongly by the crime stories of James M. Cain, and the character-rich style of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. (More than character-development comes from the latter novel — King says the novel is " homage to Of Mice and Men — kinda hard to miss that.")

Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., or "Blaze" as his associates call him, has always been bigger than the others around him, but he wasn't always dumber. A series of misfortunes, including a deceased mother, an abusive father who threw him downstairs repeatedly (leaving a cup-sized dent in his forehead and a larger gap in his mental faculties), a tyrannical headmaster at the orphanage, and a series of unfortunate foster-home experiences, have shaped him strangely.

Blaze has survived through having a series of partners who help him cope with life despite his feeble mind, from his buddy Johnny's signals in Arithmetic to his partner George's planning in their career as petty con artists on the streets of Boston. Now, though, George is dead. Blaze is having trouble remembering that, though — he hears George clearly, urging him to do that one last big crime they had been planning before his death.

So Blaze sets out to kidnap the six-month-old son of a wealthy family. This mentally-numb, socially-frozen giant connects with his own childhood of deprivation, the kidnap victim, and the still-functioning depths of his own mind in a story as compelling as any of King's later fiction. 

I was reminded of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, calling on her inner resources to survive in the wilderness — Blaze's wilderness is in his own mind, and his rescue is also driven by what he finds within himself. 

Rule of Words—Not the How, But the Why

Steven Pinker has a strong claim to the niche his books occupy: He explains in language accessible to the layman how our brains work. In Words and Rules, Pinker expands on the language-development concepts he introduced in The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, to give us a clearer picture of why* this language "trick" works. 
Language comes so naturally that it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is... We humans are fitted with a means of sharing our ideas, in all their unfathomable vastness... Yet to me the first and deepest challenge in understanding language is accounting for its boundless expressive power. What is the trick behind our ability to fill one another's heads with so many different ideas?
Pinker tosses out ideas like popcorn pouring from the movie-theatre machine: Language acquisition is hard-wired, but the exact sounds we will use requires a software installation. Thus languages are culturally acquired, and children who miss the "acquisition window" are condemned to learn their own "native language" as a foreign tongue. It's hard for adults to learn languages unless they have been exposed to multiple tongues during the acquisition window, in which case the "multi-lingual" switch turns on. Sounds used in language seem onomatopoeic because they are. English is terse because of syncretism and allomorphy. Adding human vocal chords to a chimpanzee would not be sufficient to give it an oral language, because the brain structures aren't there. 

Whoa, too much popcorn! 

Pinker makes these concepts easy enough to acquire, because he provides a structure to fit them into. And that is precisely his premise. Our brains are structured to acquire language. This is a fascinating book, and gives a fair voice to competing theories of language development. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Appalling Statistics

Upon first reading, the statistics in this chart seem ridiculous to me. As a reader, I can't conceive of living my life without books. But as I began to write a comment to the original G+ post (h/t to +Celine Zabel and +Anthony Russo), I realized that I've been ignoring the opinions of such book-apathetic people all my life.

I thought of a perfectly ordinary woman who visited our house once, years ago when we lived in Southern California. I have forgotten her name, but at the time she was working with me in a startup tech firm near Long Beach - not an ignorant woman by any stretch of the imagination. She looked around at the full bookshelves lining the walls of our living room, and said, "How can you read so many books? Why would you want to keep them after you've read them once?"

I tried to explain that the books in the living room were mostly references that we looked at as needed: science texts, dictionaries and other lists, histories and how-to books. I showed her our master bedroom, also lined with bookshelves (with perhaps 2000+ books in the two rooms), and offered to show her the girls' room (another 400-500 in there, and the family room upstairs (the "serious" reading room).

She froze as we walked through the dining room on our way to view the patio and back yard. You guessed it, more full bookshelves.

She said, "No one needs more than one or two books." And with that, she left and never came back.

Most of our visitors were more polite than she was, but most of them had this puzzlement at the number of books we just couldn't live without.

We read at home during minor meals. Although books were not welcome at the family dinner table, our girls were encouraged to read while eating breakfast or lunch. Thinking about it, I realize that although my spouse and I read at tables in restaurants, we almost never see anyone else doing so, unless they are sitting alone at the table.

I wonder, in fact, how much of the normal disdain for reading is disarmed by our current habit of reading on a Kindle. No way, after all, to tell if we are reading books or Facebook postings. And the collection of "fun reading" novels that used to line the walls of my bedroom now resides in the Kindle itself or the Cloud.

I hope these statistics are untrue. Now that you might be reading something weighty or frothy, something light or something intense, or simply catching up on baseball stats, I hope more people will not worry about the opinions of others and dive into the joy of reading.

I need more than one or two books, more than high-school or college reading. I need my friends around me, those characters and the writers who create them, whether in paper or ebook. To live without books would be a barren life indeed.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tickets for the End of the World Now Available

Review: All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson

Colin Laney may be dying in a cardboard shelter in Tokyo, but he sees what's coming: the end of the world as we know it. Laney has a talent for seeing the shape of things to come by recognizing patterns in the ebb and flow of information in the Web. But as Heisenberg noted, "the observer interacts with the observed through the process of observation." Laney may be starving and sick in a cardboard shelter in Tokyo, but his detachment from life isn't helping — there is a perturbation in the shape of what he sees, and it may mean someone else is now able to observe it. And him, as well.

In All Tomorrow's Parties, Gibson has given us visionary insights into how the information age shapes us and the world we inhabit. Pattern Recognition introduced that concept in a current-time setting, while we met Laney and several other characters who appear in this near-future novel, in Idoru and Virtual Light

These are solid characters, and we recognize them easily by their actions and choices. Laney hides, and obsesses, due to the action of the drug that initiated his skills; Rydell yearns to be a cop as he dances from one low-level job to another; Chevette the one-time bike-messenger/thief moves restlessly from one interstice to another; Rei Toei the idoru lives her virtual life and conspires to make the leap to flesh and blood. 

Their lives intersect one final time on the quake-damaged Bay Bridge. Suspended between San Francisco and Oakland, they hunt through the cobbled-together dwellings and lives of the bridge people for the one thing that will trigger the end of the world. Because Laney has foreseen an event coming, and after it nothing will be the same.

Gibson's prose distills the objective style of 30s noir and gives it new vigor with a futurist edge:

"Rydell knew that killing was not the explosive handshake exchange of movies, but a terrible dark marriage..." 
He uses words with precision and grace, crafting phrases, sentences and paragraphs of such evocative power that they haunt you for hours. "Formal absences of precious things" describes the empty pedestals in a jewelry-store window at night; a man whose concealed knife is "a key to a door", and he "is by trade a keeper of the door to that country", Death. Laney calls his interface with the world "Suit", because his black salaryman's costume is maintained with paint; also "the man's ankles are painted, in imitation of black socks, with something resembling asphalt."

As with the novels that preceded it, All Tomorrow's Parties is a feast of life both real and virtual, and not to be missed.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Trust a Woman to Get the Job Done

John Ringo is known for his thrilling depiction of combat and the future weapons of war, and for the creation of steely-jawed heroes and loathsomely inhuman creatures born either to battle against humans, or fight at their sides. In Princess of Wands, however, Ringo takes a sidestep into the swamps of Louisiana to present a warrior of a different kind.

Barbara Everett is a sweet lady. A devout Christian, she believes it is her duty to stay at home, keeping the house clean and her family nourished in both the physical and the spiritual sense. Her hobby, though, is martial arts, and in her modest way, Barb has become a master at "all forms and all attacks". She's a good wife and Mom, but she's at the end of her rope with managing her children (and her husband's drinking problem). She's off to Louisiana for the weekend to find peace and sample Cajun food.

Detective Sergeant Kelly Lockhart is a skinny graying fellow trying desperately to find a clue in a vicious series of rape/murder crimes that police fear may be the actions of a cult. His hunt for a person of interest takes him to Madame Charlotte, a fortune-teller who warns him to find the "sign of the princess" if he wants to survive his search in Cajun country. One look at the too-small Aloof Elven Princess t-shirt stretched tight across Barbara's well-endowed figure, and Kelly suspects he's found his sign. Her familiarity with firearms and other arts of self-defense merely confirms his hunch.

Almadu is a demon. His latest attempt to break through to our world is the root cause of the case police call the Bayou Ripper. He's collecting the souls of those slain by his followers; three more and he wins the toaster. And humanity — especially Christians — is his idea of toast. 

The intersection of these three deep in the bayous of Louisiana is simply the beginning of a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions. Before they are done, Kelly and Barbara will need to battle Almadu's cult members in the swamps and also in the halls of a resort hotel during a sci-fantasy convention. With the help of a Wiccan and several gaming, technical and hocus-pocus-style wizards, they will fight the good fight against the evil demon. And once they're done, Barb will really have to do something about her home life...

John Ringo's heroine is a winner, so I hope we see more of Barb and her partner Kelly Lockhart. I was impressed with the way he was able to keep Barb sweet and Christian without making her mushy or preachy, and how well she and Kelly worked together without becoming sexually involved. Well-done all around, and a joy to read!

Anime, Manga and Multiple Deities

Eight Million Gods by Wen Spencer is a stellar fantasy that takes the self-doubt and world-building of a nascent writer to whole new level of angst.

Nikki has a problem. Well, actually she has more than one: she channels the future events in the lives of the people she writes about (who she had assumed were fictional characters) and graphically describes the horrible disasters that befall them. Somehow, the events she sees are always disastrous and usually fatal. This wouldn't be anything but a singularly gory authorial voice, except that the bloody catastrophes she writes have begun to come true. And a little research shows her that they always have been true.

Nikki's mother, a U.S. Senator, treats her as a lunatic for writing such horror, tracking her down wherever she goes and trying to get her committed. And she can see and talk with gods - which wouldn't be a problem, except that she is now in Japan, where there are shrines everywhere.

The initial chapters of this book reminded me strongly of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the novel that introduced American readers to the practice of adolescent self-mutilation. At first, Nikki is strongly reminiscent of Deborah Blau, the teen of Rose Garden who finally decides to abandon her fantasy demon and "hang with the world, full weight" after a course of treatment for schizophrenia.

But as I read on, I realized that the resemblance was only superficial. Nikki is not hallucinating; she really does see her Anterrabae, a young samurai spirit residing in a katana stolen from a shrine. In fact, the samurai can "inhabit" Nikki, lending her strength, courage and an understanding of Japanese. Nikki's latest writings concern a heavenly spear sought by a vengeful goddess who wishes to use it to unmake the world. Considering Nikki's practice of writing things that later come true, this particular fictional disaster could rival Hiroshima!

Her challenge, though is sorting out the true actions from the welter of details that she writes about. Her friend Miriam realizes that is no simple task: 

"She knows who stole the spear. She knows, and she's guessing that it will be at a temple dedicated to that god." Miriam laughed bitterly. "Oh, that narrows it down. You know there's eight million gods?"

If you like Eight Million Gods, you'll probably also enjoy Tinker, Wolf Who Rules, and Elfhome, a trilogy about a world in which a portion of mundane Pittsburgh is swapped for a part of Elfhome. Tinker grows up using her impressive collection of cold iron (she lives in a junkyard) to hold off the wargs, elves and other opponents of humans on Elfhome.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Truth as Solid As Rock

Ecology and murder in Death Valley

Review: BadwaterQuicksilver and Volcano Watch by Toni Dwiggins

These are a unique trio of novels about Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaw, forensic geologists. Even though I originally read these three thrilling books by Toni Dwiggins in the opposite order, I would recommend reading in the order given below. 


I'm not much of a mystery fan, perhaps because mysteries too often require one to focus on the human reactions. Mediocre mystery writers find it hard to imbue their characters with enough life to allow such reading.

That's not Toni Dwiggins; not only are her human characters fully realized, but there is a whole set of non-human entities to gauge in order to solve the mystery. In Badwater, bats, rocks, canyons, mines, weather and the desert itself are recruited to present a complex thriller of stolen radioactive waste.

What I loved about this novel was the reality of these extra characters - there really exists such weather, such canyons and roads, such wildlife and history, in wonderful Death Valley. By the time you recognize the forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaw (and as a geological engineer, I've met them several times before, though under different names!), you're already well involved in the thrilling story.

I enjoyed it very much, and will gladly read anything more by Dwiggins.

Quicksilver: Fascinating, Terrifying, Like Playing with Mercury

When I was a child, my parents were puzzled by the way thermometers kept disappearing in our house. Little did they know that my siblings and I loved to play with the silvery liquid that poured out of them once they were broken! And little did we know that we were playing with a killer...

Toni Dwiggins brings that fascination and danger to life in Quicksilver, a novel that, like Badwater, mingles mining history, eco-terror and deep knowledge of rocks and human frailties. And, yes, there was plenty of toxic mercury released into the environment in the bad old days of gold mining - but the lure of the gold is still strong, as the characters in this novel make clear.

Cassie Oldfield herself is not immune to that lure, nor is her partner Walter Shaw. Yet for the forensic geologists, I believe it is closer to the Spell of the Yukon as made explicit by Robert W. Service:

There's gold, and it's haunting and haunting,
And it's luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn't the gold that I'm wanting
So much as it's finding the gold.

Stunning story, great geology - another winner from Toni Dwiggins!

(Since this review was written, Dwiggins has added the Service quote as an epigraph to the paperback version.)

It's a common idea in vulcanology: extinct volcanoes aren't.

The magma chamber may be too deep or too cool to concern us on the surface, the pressure may be adequately relieved by vents elsewhere in a field, but if a volcano has erupted once, there is always a potential for it to erupt again. Toni Dwiggins takes the "extinct" volcano that formed the crater in which Mammoth Lake, CA, is located, and spins it into a threat to the hometown of Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaw, forensic geologists.

It isn't only the volcano that is heating up - tensions within the town threaten to derail sensible efforts to evacuate or combat the potential for eruption. If you've ever lived in a small town with one or two industries (especially seasonal industries), the political infighting in this novel will ring true!

Once again, in Volcano Watch Dwiggins has provided an intensely satisfying thriller that combines a human and a geologic threat with edge-of-the-seat pacing. The level of scientific explanation was just right for me, while the way she incorporated volcanic precursors and eruptive action was realistic.

What in the world could come next for Cassie and Walter? I can't wait!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Re-Aiming the Arrow of Time

Time travel is a staple of science fiction*; you can write about how the ability to travel in time allows changes to history, or how such changes are prevented; you can explore the need for time police to prevent disastrous changes to history, or simply play with the ways in which a future-time traveler in the past or a past-time traveler brought to the future experiences the event and his new surroundings.

Then there is the rare new look at this concept, which Rysa Walker has achieved in Timebound, her debut novel. Her protagonist, Kate (or perhaps Prudence), has experienced the changes of history as a helpless particle in the stream of time. Like everyone around her, one moment she has a firm memory and history of one kind, the next, her memory and the world's history have shifted completely. Unlike others around her, Kate can sense that something has happened.

When Kate learns that there is a technology to control time travel and retain one's memory of the history that pertained before a change was made, she must travel back to 1893 Chicago to save her family from the actions of a cabal of time saboteurs. In so doing, Kate must essentially play God by determining which history will be saved. And it is that decision, with her actions at the World's Columbian Exhibition, that make this novel so compelling.

There is an amazing book by Eric Larsen, Devil in the White City, that details the culture of the end-of-the-19th-century World's Fair in Chicago. 

The story underlying the development of the Fair with its presentation of wonders (that today are commonplace) is told against the background of a serial killer who stalked young women at the fair, imprisoning, torturing and killing them.

Rysa Walker uses both of these stories, the killer and the debut of items like electric fair lighting, the Ferris wheel, and civic gardens, to drive her tale of sabotage, altered history and the triumph of love over time's arrow.

* Just off the top of my head:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Before Bitcoin: Cryptonomicon and Data Havens

Review: Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson

This novel is a staple of my reading year; at least once every twelve months, I pull it down from the shelf (or open it on my Kindle) and take that wild ride.

It is a marvelous roller-coaster trip through code-making and breaking, with a side order of treasure-hunting, twenty-first-century style. Stephenson has a powerful way of including the reader in some pretty abstruse stuff, making us feel, not just as if we might understand these topics, but as if we do

This is not a weekend read for the beach, unless you're willing to stay in a darkened hotel room, geek-wise, ignoring the volleyball competition in favor of the effort. The reward is a generation-spanning hunt for the meaning in the signal, the value in the data. Richly designed, with Innis-mode-like shifts in time, place and POV, the story itself is signal-laden. 

Stephenson says Cryptonomicon is not prerequisite for his Baroque Cycle (beginning with Quicksilver), but I think you miss more than one flavorful nuance by jumping straight to the hefty code-and-signal involvement of Quicksilver. This is science fiction in the same way that the early James Bond novels were, speculation wrapped in current events, then tossed just over the line into next week. 

Look for investment in data havens. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Wit, Wiles and Bad Wine

The usual history of the French Resistance in World War II focuses on urban battlegrounds, with underground strategists meeting in cafes and cellars beneath Parisian landmarks. But outside the city, in Champagne, Burgundy, Vichy, Armagnac and Cognac, an equally fierce resistance was waged by the vintners of France.

In Wine & War, Don and Petie Kladstrup reveal the German plan to plunder the bottled treasure of the vineyards of France, and the determined struggle by the French in vineyard, winery, negociant and wine cellar to protect their wares. Why would they do so? The Kladstrups make it clear that to the French winemaker, their wines are more than product; they are family and regional history, cultural icons, and the heart of the French way of life.

It began with the fall of the Maginot Line on the north-eastern border of France. Wine-makers in the Champagne region relate seeing soldiers from the line fleeing through the vineyards because the roads were crowded with refugees from northern France who carried their worldly goods on their backs. As they fled, soldiers discarded their arms in among the vines — even today, rusting rifles are found when vineyards are plowed up.

When the fleeing French soldiers were followed by the German army of occupation, a two-fold battle began: protect the fine vintages of France, and sell the German the poorer qualities as rare old wines. In the Chateau Laudenne, the cellar acquired a new back wall that was carefully festooned with spiderwebs brought from all over the vineyard. Behind that wall, the Chateau's famous wines rested safe from the German troops. Meanwhile, ancient dust gathered from carpets cleaned at a certain company was bagged and distributed to restaurants. They would dredge this dust over the shoulders of a raw new bottle, then sell it to the unsuspecting Germans as aged and valuable wine.

In the Hugel vineyards in Alsace, the 1939 vintage was "disastrous." The weather that year did not cooperate, and the grapes did not develop in sugar. Wine making has such seasons, and the Hugels simply barreled the puny wine and stored it away. When their vineyards were occupied, the German army requisitioned wine by the barrel for the Russian front. "They never specified the vintage," Andre Hugel related. "So whenever we filled these requisitions, it was always the '39 we shipped."

From the weinfuhrers to the Champagne Campaign of liberation, this book is a trove of tales of how surrendered France fought the German occupiers with wit, wiles and bad wine. Lay in a good Burgundy, light a fire, and sit back to enjoy the rich adventure of Wine & War.

Contemplating the Naval Metaphor

This morning, December 7th, I began re-reading one of my favorite Bildungsroman (coming-of-age tales), Midshipman's Hope, which is explicitly based on 18th-century Navy life as experienced in the British and American navies of the day.

Feintuch gives the words to Ibn Saud, a passenger on the interstellar ship  Hibernia, speaking to the midshipman of the title, Nicholas Seafort:
And so we have the anomaly of a great starship, the pinnacle of technology, governed by an authoritarian system not unlike that of the eighteenth century sea navies.
As I read these words again, I was struck by how many of my favorite stories build upon the naval metaphor as a microcosm of society, or to express the structure of the society as a whole. While such science fiction novels rarely, as Feintuch does in this series, delve into the author's (or "society's") reasons for choosing the discipline-taut, tradition-rigid authoritarianism of the Georgian-era navy to govern a starship, they all share that structure as a basis for their stories.

Bildungsroman with a naval metaphor usually focus on the development of a youth who begins as a ship's boy, cadet, or midshipman, although occasionally they begin deeper below deck, and follow an older "ordinary seaman" or crewhand. They range from literary classics like C.S. Forester's Hornblower Saga, which begins with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower; and science fiction classics like Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination; to juveniles like the David Birkenhead series by Phil Geusz, which commences with Ship's Boy; and epic science fiction like the outstanding Honor Harrington series, in which the first novel finds David Weber's eponymous heroine On Basilisk Station as a disgraced captain, but tells the back story of her days as cadet, ensign and commander in the course of the novel.

What do they share in common?
  • In each, an exceptional person begins from a position of inequity with the overall authority, and develops to become a peer or leader in that structure
  • Where introspective, the protagonist questions his/her ability to achieve what is needed to progress; where not introspective, as with Bester's Gully Foyle, he/she simply accepts the inequity as a fact of life and does not initially try to overcome it
  • Whether authority is paternal (David Birkenhead's Lord Marcus or Harrington's Admiral Raoul Courvousier); martinet (notably, some of the captains under whom Honor Harrington served in her backstory); or simply indifferent in applying the regulations (as with Gully Foyle's unnamed captain on S.S. Nomad), its end result is the growth of the protagonist. Each becomes better able to function as a crewmember, officer or captain on their ship, or a better, more productive member of society.
As I enjoy the Seafort Saga again, I am reminded on this day of the way in which a real navy was nearly defeated at the outset of America's entry into WWII, and that eventually that navy surmounted the disastrous day of December 7, 1941. 

The discipline, tradition, and culture of that navy could not be sunk with a few battleships in Hawaii. And that is a metaphor worth contemplating.

Friday, December 6, 2013

In the Midst of Life...

Better than the original (sorry, Alec Guiness!)

I originally wrote this review, with thoughts about the meaning of the film, in February 2008. What I did not know then was that The Last Holiday DVD was the last post I would ever make on the Paper Frigate blog.

Since I have lost access to edit and add posts to that blog, I will simply reshare them here from time to time. That way, the posts of which I am proudest will eventually be part of my new blog.

The mistaken diagnosis of imminent death is a rich field for comedy writers, giving them a chance to explore the honest life values of the protagonist, without actually requiring the character to die. What will the character choose to do with the supposed remaining days of life? In Send Me No Flowers, Rock Hudson's hypochondriac George tries to set up his wife (Doris Day) with a safe mate in a future without him. George's shallow self-focus turns one-eighty with the expected onset of death.

Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) of 
The Last Holiday has the opposite of Hudson's neurosis; she is shy and self-effacing. She cooks Cordon Bleu-level meals, but only for others — she herself eats only Lean Cuisine. She sings in a choir, but has to be told by the director to sing out. "I thought I was," is her puzzled response. And her love for fellow Kragen department store employee Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) is unrequited only because she doesn't dare say anything to him.

A bump on the head changes her life. A faulty CAT scan shows blank areas in her brain that lead her doctor to give her the death sentence: she has three, perhaps four, weeks to live. Suddenly, her "Book of Possibilities", in which she has recorded all the things she wants to do someday, is a list of things she will never accomplish.

Like George, Georgia makes a one-eighty. She cashes in her savings, splurges on a first-class trip to Prague and books into the ritzy Grandhotel Pupp, in the Presidential Suite, and makes up for lost future-time by ordering seven meals at dinner. 

Coincidentally staying at the resort are Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), owner of the department store chain where Georgia was mis-diagnosed, and her Congressman and a Senator with whom Kragen is trying to work some kind of back-room deal. Georgia's straight talk and lust for life puts her into an unexpected competition with Kragen for the respect of these men, the star chef of the Pupp, Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu), and even Kragen's mistress (played by Alicia Witt).

Done wrong, this story would be schmaltzy or trite. But Queen Latifah has the presence to pull off both the shy, withdrawn Georgia and her fully-blossomed Madame Byrd character. Brilliant writing (including credit for the 1950 Alec Guiness version of the film, written by JB Priestly) with a perfect casting of Hutton as the unlikable mega-mart mogul and Depardieu as the goofy-but-wise chef combine to let Latifah shine.

This one goes on my "watch often" shelf.

Fifty Shades of Green

I used to write a blog called Paper Frigate, in which I reviewed (mostly) books, commented on things I encountered while shopping for books or reading them, and generally shared my views as a Reader making my way through life. Sadly, the blog is now officially a cobWeb site.

So I will start again, opening this time with the surprising range of novels written by Sharon Green.

Why the Fifty Shades reference?

I first encountered Sharon Green at a time when I was collecting novels that had themes of B&D or had main characters who were strong women. For a while, it seemed that aside from the Gor novels, all the multi-novel series that matched the first criteria were written by Sharon Green, and they all also met the second parameter.

I had three shelves in my wall bookcase devoted to Green. And each time a new novel in a series came out, I had the joy of re-reading the novels that went before it. I also had a constant battle to keep my collection intact; friends would "borrow" a paperback and it would be unavailable to reread.

Early eBook Author

Green has written more than 40 novels, most available as eBooks. This is especially important to me, because now I read mostly on Kindle. So much easier to protect my collections when they are not displayed on a bookshelf!

And what a wide swath of story types Green has generated so far:

  • warrior maidens in a world of magic and myth (the Jalav, Amazon Warrior series); 
  • psychically-enabled competitors for world power (The Blending and The Blending Enthroned pentalogies);
  • interstellar secret agents trying to operate in radically different cultures (the Terrilian and Mind Warrior series);
  • "hard sci-fi" with cool gadgets and spy-vs-spy action (the sadly-truncated Diana Santee series, encompassing 13 novels so far - I keep waiting for the final novel, but Green has said she "just doesn't hear that story line any more");
  • vampire and werewolf action (the brilliant Taz Bell series, but also Werewolf Moon, a favorite - and a Harlequin Romance!, and Shadowborn);
  • "contemporary romance", some with B&D themes and some without;
  • "historical romance" (really, Silken Dreams is almost a steampunk novel, although the original cover image certainly doesn't do the story justice).

You get the picture. I've written Amazon reviews of Green novels on occasion, but a single review attached to a single novel simply doesn't touch the amazing bandwidth of stories produced by this prolific author.

So this post is to celebrate an author who's brought me (and all those friends who've borrowed my paperbacks over the years) a lot of pleasure:

Sharon Green, Warrior of Amazon!