October 31, 2002

Halloween

Traditionally on Halloween we pack up the kids and go over to my oldest boy's best friend's house and go trick-or-treating with them in their neighborhood where they have little amenities like street lights. This year was no exception, but thanks to a lingering cold I declined to follow the crew about the streets. Instead, I and Dave's best friend's dad (who is also named Dave, and who is also getting over a lingering cold) spent a pleasant evening sitting in front of the fire and chatting. Colds to the side, it turned out to be quite a nice time.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:02 PM | Comments(0)

October 30, 2002

Ex Libris Delayed

Ex Libris Reviews will likely be a day or so late this month; I usually put it together over the weekend, and what with Halloween and with the 1st of November falling on a Friday, and travelling at the beginning of the week and this and that and the other thing, things are moving slowly chez Duquette. I'll try to have it out by Saturday evening.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:56 PM | Comments(0)

Breaking the Maya Code, by Michael D. Coe

This book is a popular survey of Mayan archaeology, with the decipherment of Mayan writing being the uniting theme. The topic may sound dry, but the book isn't--because it's really the story of people. It's the tale of the Mayans themselves, of course, but even more of the wide and varied cast of characters who have studied them over the last five-hundred years. And unlike the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which was accomplished (with the help of the Rosetta Stone) by the great Champollion in two busy years, the decipherment of the Mayan script took many strange turns and odd directions courtesy of the many strange and odd people who have studied it.

It's a surprisingly engaging tale--this is my second time through it, in fact. I learned quite a bit about the Mayans, dispelling quite a few myths, but also about language and writing systems in general (by the end, our alphabet alphabet seems a thing of wonder).

It's also something of a cautionary tale about trends in academia. The Old Guard in Mayan Archaeology had decided that Mayan script was "ideographic", that is, that each glyph corresponded to a particular idea, rather than to any particular word. The same has often been said of Egyptian writing, and Chinese as well, and it turns out that it's hogwash. Every writing system known encodes spoken language, and every writing system known has a phonetic component. In Mayan script, for example, a jaguar's head might be used to mean "jaguar", but it might be used purely for the sound of the word "jaguar" as part of another word. If we wrote English the way the Mayans wrote their language, we might use a glyph that looked like a cat to mean "cat", but also as the first sound in "catapult", "cattle", "category", and so forth.

This has been known to be true for Egyptian, for example, since the mid-nineteenth century; the Old Guard's ideas were 50 years out of date even at the beginning of this century. And although the first successful phonetic decipherment of Mayan script was done in 1952, it was thirty years before that small beginning was able to blossom and bear fruit--largely because the staunchest member of the Old Guard was dead by then.

Anyway, it's a cool book. There's a second edition out, with more pictures than I've got in mine; I should probably find a copy.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:33 PM | Comments(0)

October 29, 2002

I'm Back

Well, I'm back from yet another trip to Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, the pride of the Mojave Desert. This time I stayed at the Landmark Inn in beautiful downtown Ft. Irwin. That's Ft. Irwin the military base. It was a nice place to spend the night (the shower took no liberties), but I felt a little odd surrounded by hundreds of fit, athletic young folks in camouflage, especially as I am by no means fit, athletic, or (by comparison) young. Anyway, posts will resume as usual now that I'm back.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:38 PM | Comments(0)

October 27, 2002

The Tide of Victory, by Eric Flint and David Drake

This is the fifth book of Flint and Drake's "Belisarius" series, now finally available in softcover; I reviewed its four predecessors last fall. For those who've joined us since then, it's an alternate history series with a fun but goofy premise. Evil people from the far future have sent an artificially-intelligent computer called "Link" to Earth in the days of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and his highly-competent general Belisarius. Link's goal, naturally, is to so adjust Earth's history that its creators ultimately end up on top of the kind of world they like. Pursuant to this, Link has caused the founding of the Malwa Empire in India. The goal of the Malwa empire, naturally, is to take over the world in the most brutal and inhuman way possible, all under the guidance of Link. This is a series with White Hats and Black Hats, and the Black Hats (with the exception of a few misguided souls who eventually come 'round) are very Black indeed. It's not enough for them to have evil ends; they must have despicable means as well.

On the other side you've got General Belisarius and his happy, jovial crew of soldiers of all kinds. Belisarius is accompanied by another visitor from the far future, the crystalline entity called "Aide". Unlike the inhuman, emotionless machine-entity Link, Aide is funny, sarcastic, and caring by turns--but Aide is equally determined to see Link fail. Naturally, both Link and Aide give advanced technology and tactical tips to their teams. The difference is, of course, that fascist Link wishes to control the flow of information whereas Aide is happy to give Belisarius and his followers anything they can possibly use.

Unsurprisingly, competence, good humor, and the free flow of ideas is going to triumph over evil totalitarianism, and this is book in which we begin to see it happen. Like it's predecessors, it's a rollicking good time; the good guys beat the bad guys six ways from Sunday, the villains get theirs in suitably ironic fashion, and so on and so forth--though there are some surprises.

There will be at least one more book in the series, in which Link and the Malwa Empire will presumably be destroyed; it's to be called The Dance of Time.

If this sounds like anything you'd enjoy reading, I think you'll enjoy it quite a bit. I did.

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:38 PM | Comments(0)

October 26, 2002

The Pedant Errant: Beauty and the Beast

As everyone with children already knows, Disney has just released Beauty and the Beast on DVD. My kids had never seen it, and as it truly was the great musical (animated or otherwise) of its day Jane nabbed a copy the next time she visited Costco. We watched it over a couple of nights, breaking just after the stunning "Be Our Guest" sequence, and a good time was had by all. It was better than I remembered, and actually deserves most of the hoopla.

But then I got to thinking--it's a chronic problem I have--that the story as presented simply doesn't make sense. I'll grant you the basic premise: the prince is an arrogant, inhospitable, bad-tempered swine; he refuses shelter to an ugly old woman; the woman turns out to be a beautiful enchantress and casts a spell on him, making his poor character manifest to all. I'll even buy the time limit on breaking the spell, though it serves no real purpose but to add suspense.

So we're expected to believe that a prince--a son of the King of France--is turned into a loathsome beast (the members of his household being turned into useful household objects) and nobody in the wider world notices? OK, so the castle's enchantment includes a spell of forgetting on the surrounding countryside...you'd still think his mother the Queen would notice when he didn't come home for Christmas. A Prince of the Blood Royal would be one of the leading citizens of France, and his disappearance would leave an unmistakeable chasm in the political landscape.

Well...perhaps this is France way back in the Dark Ages. The prince's father isn't really the King of France; he's just a minor king of a small region. Well and good--but the setting is clearly post-Renaissance. We can tell that from the vast quantities of printed books alone, if the architecture of the Beast's castle wasn't a dead giveaway. And then, Belle's father's inventions bring it to the verge of the industrial revolution. So this isn't a tale of the Dark Ages; this is a tale of the days when France was already a major European power.

After that, the incongruities keep piling up.

This is France; how come the only ones with French accents are Lumiere and his girlfriend the feather duster?

And what are Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts doing in the prince's service? Unlike anyone else in the movie they are clearly English in name as well as accent. England was, more often than not, the enemy in this period of history.

Where's the rest of the prince's household--his secretary, his courtiers, his sycophants and hangers-on, and, for that matter, where are his guards?

When the ugly witch came, what was the prince doing answering his own door? He had servants for that.

Where does all the food come from? Are the villagers still making deliveries? If so, they aren't admitting it.

Once the spell is broken, what is the prince going to use for candlesticks, teapots, wardrobes, clocks, and feather dusters?

Belle's father strays into the castle environs by accident on his way to the Fair. How come nobody else from the village was going?

Belle visits the village bookseller. He's got a sizeable shop with lots of books. Who buys them? It's a very small town; Belle is considered unusual because she's a woman who reads; the men seem to spend all their time in the tavern swilling beer with Gaston. How come the bookseller hasn't gone out of business?

And then consider Gaston, the mighty hunter, he who uses antlers in all of his decorating--where on earth is he finding the deer? We're well into the period in history where any deer in France would be dwelling in the Royal Woods, protected by the Royal Gamekeepers, to be hunted only by the Royal Monarch and his friends and family. Gaston is awfully well-respected in the village for a poacher, especially as the prominent display of antlers all over the tavern might be enough to bring the King's wrath down on the entire town.

Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. Clearly the Beast--the Prince that was--is out of favor with his father the King. He's been banished to a castle in a remote part of France where he can dwell in moderate comfort with a minimum of staff. The greater part of French society has endeavoured to forget him entirely; consequently, his rebirth as a Beast goes unremarked. The local villagers notice, of course, and being canny peasants immediately determine to make the best of it. With the Beast in seclusion, there's nothing to prevent them from taking to themselves as many of the local Royal perquisites as they can grab, the King's Deer chief among them.

The result is peace and prosperity--wealth, even--for the village. This is evident from the hustle and bustle in the opening scenes of the movie, but even more so from the lack of children. I don't recall seeing a single person under marriageable age in the entire flick except for Mrs. Potts' kid Chip. And of course it's well known that family size is correlated with wealth.

So the villagers are all perfectly familiar with the terms of the enchantment. So no wonder they call Belle's father crazy when he talks about the Beast--Belle and her father are newcomers, and are outside the Conspiracy of Silence that protects the village's prosperity.

This in turn explains Gaston's determination to marry a girl who clearly detests him--she's the only young woman in the village who might see beyond the Beast's exterior and so break the spell. Once married, she's no longer a candidate (another incongruity! This is France, after all). And then, when it becomes clear that the secret is out, Gaston and the villagers seek to solve the problem by killing the Beast once and for all.

It doesn't work, of course; Gaston falls to his death, the other villagers are driven away by the Useful Household Items, Belle announces her love, and the Beast changes back into a (not particularly handsome--didja see the size of his nose?) Prince. Belle weds the Prince, and they live happily ever after.

By themselves, in a castle in a remote part of France, forbidden ever to return to Paris. It's a good thing Belle likes to read, that's all I can say.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:27 PM | Comments(1)

October 25, 2002

Fall From Grace, by L.R. Wright

For some reason that I haven't quite discovered none of the Large Chain Bookstores carry books by this author. Even Small Independent Bookstores donít stock her work unless they have a used section. A pity, because she writes award winning mysteries that are excellent for suspense without all the guts and gore you find in a great many of what is on the shelves these days. I don't like guts and gore. Plus, I've read 5 or 6 of her mysteries now and she hasn't repeated a plot. Usually after that many, the mediocre start getting repetitious.

Fall From Grace centers on the relationships of 5 people who went to high school together way back when. The Good Looking Bad Boy, Bobby Ransome, is back in Sechelt after doing a stint in prison. And for some reason, the school nerd and photographer, Stephen Grayson, who hasnít shown his face in Sechelt since leaving right after high school, has decided to come back to visit his elderly widowed mother. And then there is Annabelle, Wanda and poor frustrated Warren, who are just trying to live their lives with messed up relationships and none too hot marriages. So when Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg finally gets his girlfriend, Cassandra, on a boat to go sailing for a day, it seriously interrupts his romantic visions to find Stephen Grayson lying at the bottom of cliff with all the signs that he has been pushed and a whole crew of people who could have done it.

This is one of those mysteries where you know who did it but you can't figure out why. The pleasure from reading it comes from watching Alberg work his way thru all the leads and clues. And with this one, the solution is delightfully ambiguous. Did he or didn't he?

Posted by Deb English at 01:59 PM | Comments(0)

October 24, 2002

Pigs Have Wings, and Summer Lightning, by P.G. Wodehouse

In high school, years and years ago, a friend of mine read Wodehouse and, on her recommendation, I read a couple Bertie and Jeeves stories. They were ok, I guess. I donít remember much more than that. Then a couple years ago our local PBS station ran or reran the Bertie and Jeeves stories with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie and I loved them, especially Stephen Fry as Jeeves. So when I started reading Will's reviews, bells went off and whistles whistled in the back of my head but I never got around to buying any of them. Then last summer, I was looking for Virginia Woolf in the used bookstore and found Wodehouse instead so I bought a couple. But I never got around to reading them. So last week, I was browsing the shelves in my sewing room where all my books are stashed and I found the books I bought and read one. And then I read another. And then I went to the Large Chain Bookstore and bought a bunch more. Which is to say, I am hooked. Thanks, Will.

Anyway, I started with Pigs Have Wings, a Blandings story published in 1952. The Blandings stories have at their center Blandings Castle and it's owner the slightly dim Lord Emsworth. And the center of his world is the Empress of Blandings, his beloved pig, whom in this story he is fattening up to win the prize at the local Fair for largest pig. And then there is Sir Galahad Threepwood, his old but rakish brother, and Beach, his port-drinking butler. His competition at the Fair is his grossly overweight neighbor, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and his pig, The Queen of Matchingham. And he employs Lord Emsworth's former "pig man," George Cyril Wellbeloved, who smells of, um, pig and has a mighty taste for beer. There are love stories, deceptions, mistaken identities, pig thefts and general rushing about in the two seater that fill in the plot of the novel. Summer Lightning, published in 1929, is essentially the same with different girls and a few other characters. In fact, whole passages are repeated at the beginning of the book, which gave me a weird sense of deja vu. I suppose Wodehouse thought it worked well one time, why not repeat it again.

The first thing I noticed is the language. His puns are merciless. I spent much of the time reading and chuckling out loud, to my husband's annoyance. Sir Galahad Threepwood has some of the funniest lines I have read in a long, long time. And the descriptions of the way characters move or look is priceless. I thought about underlining them so I could go back and find them later. About half way thru the Pigs have Wings, I realized that Wodehouse had woven a pretty complicated web of interconnection between the characters that he then was peeling back one by one in the final pages of the story. You know the ending will be happy, you just don't quite know how he is going to do it.

I can't wait to read Bertie and Jeeves.

Posted by Deb English at 05:04 PM | Comments(0)

Flesh and Blood, by Jonathan Kellerman

I normally eschew suspense thrillers for the more traditional mystery but every once in a while I will pick one up. I read Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series whenever I can find a new one in paperback. And I read Faye Kellerman's Decker/Lazarus series. But that's about it because they tend to have too much gore and violence for my taste. However, Faye Kellerman is married to Jonathan Kellerman and his books are everywhere so I thought I'd pick one up and give it a go. It was just what I expected.

Alex Delaware, the "hero," is a former child psychologist who is now working as a consultant in LA on police and custody cases. He works primarily with Milo, a gay homicide detective. His live-in love is Robin who builds and rebuilds expensive string instruments for a living. She has issues with his police work centering on his knack for getting himself into tight situations involving guns. Oh, and he has a mastiff named Spike. Alex has a visit from a former, failed therapy patient, a young hooker named Lauren, who then turns up dead a few days later, shot in the head and dumped in a dumpster. Alex feels all sorts of guilt and angst over not doing more to help the child she was years ago and his investigation goes from there.

The book kept my attention. The plot twists were unpredictable and kind of interesting. His characters were certainly realistic. Kellerman kept Milo, the gay detective, real and didnít stereotype him too badly. But beyond that, it was just ok. I remembered why I donít much care for suspense thrillers and got it out of my system for a few months. Too much gore and violence. Too many graphic descriptions that I donít need in my head.

Posted by Deb English at 05:03 PM | Comments(0)

Shaggy No More

In case anybody was worrying about it, I did indeed get in to see the barber on Tuesday. People no longer say "Scooby-dooby-doo" as a walk by.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:55 PM | Comments(0)

October 23, 2002

Dead as a Dodo, by Jane Langton

Deb English has reviewed a couple of Langton's novels, and she finally persuaded me to give one a try--she thought that they might make good read-alouds for Jane and I. She further suggested I start with the earlier books in the series. I don't think this one is particular early, but it was the earliest I could find at the bookstore.

Homer Kelly, former detective, Harvard professor, transcendentalist, and his wife have been invited to Oxford for a term; Homer will be a visiting lecturer. Meanwhile, a number of odd events occur about the building and inhabitants of the Oxford Museum. A night watchman falls to his death; many jars of sadly decayed crabs are found mysteriously under a tarp in an area where refurbishment has been going on. Might they have been collected by Charles Darwin?

Before I start tearing into it, I'd like to say that I did enjoy it; it filled a pleasant afternoon.

To begin with, it isn't much of a murder mystery; there's a little mild-but-inconclusive investigation, and just a dribble of suspense, but there's no real deduction; the case, such as there is, just sort of solves itself over time. Homer Kelly doesn't so much solve the case as simply stamp "Solved" on its cover. (I seem to recall that Deb has made the same criticism.) And yet everyone is convinced that he's a great sleuth.

On top of that, the book is essentially a long meditation on evolution and the difficulties of bridging the gap between Science and Religion; it seems that one might sooner drive a Camel through the eye of a needle. And it's not a gap that I, at least, have any great difficulty bridging. I see no reason to interpret the first chapters of Genesis literally; it's a description of the creation suited for the first ancestors of the Hebrews. They weren't stupid people, by any means, but they weren't scientifically sophisticated. And given that understanding Divine Creation is probably beyond the human intellect anyway, it wouldn't matter much if God updated Genesis with a description suitable for people of our age--it still wouldn't tell the whole story. So what's the message of the creation story? In a nutshell: this is God's world; he created it; he created us. That's the meat of it. Who am I tell God what mechanisms he's allowed to use? God's got Eternity to work in; perhaps He decided that starting with a Big Bang and working His way up over billons of years to the first people was the most beautiful way to do it.

And so, given that the tale turns on the chasm between Science and Religion it didn't completely work for me.

But still, I did enjoy it; it was even a little goofy in spots. It didn't pass the read-aloud test, in that I wasn't motivated to share all of the good bits with Jane as I was reading it, but it was fun.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:10 PM | Comments(0)

The Door into Summer, by Robert A. Heinlein

This is a pleasant time travel story padded to novel length. I enjoyed it well enough, but a classic it ain't.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:10 PM | Comments(0)

October 22, 2002

Double Star, by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein wrote this in 1956, and won a Hugo award for it. I'm not sure just when they first started awarding the Hugo, but this must have been one of the first Hugo winners.

Man, how times have changed.

This is a novel of imposture. A prominent politician has been kidnapped; it's urgent that it not be known. So an out-of-work actor with the politician's bone structure is dragooned (more or less) to impersonate him--just for a few days. He's successful, and the politician's staff manage to rescue him. Alas, the great man is much the worse for wear, and the impersonation must continue....

It goes on fairly predictably from there. It's a friendly little tale, well-told, but I am shocked that it won a Hugo.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:55 PM | Comments(0)

October 21, 2002

Snit V0.7

Snit V0.7 is now available on the Snit home page, for any of you who are Tcl programmers.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:50 PM | Comments(0)

Arms and the Women, by Reginald Hill

OK, now I'm impressed. While I liked it, I compared Hill's book A Pinch of Snuff somewhat unfavorably with Peter Lovesey's work. Having read this later book in Hill's Dalziel/Pascoe series, I still think the comparison is apt, but no longer unequal. Arms and the Women is as good as any of the Lovesey books I've read, and still feels somewhat similar in style. As with the later Peter Diamond book, the main characters have mellowed somewhat.

Arms and the Women is less a murder mystery than a thriller. It begins very confusingly: there's a cache of illegal guns, and a shoot-out, and the who's and why's remain murky until much later in the book. Then there's an extended internal monologue by a character whom I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to recognize or not, before good ol' Pascoe appears. (There's a twenty-one year gap between this book and the previous one in calendar years, and at least six to eight in internal years, and it's not clear how much has happened in the mean time; it makes it hard to know who the players are.) Once it gets rolling, though, it cooks right along.

The heart of the book (it would merit publication on its own) is an extended narrative written by Pascoe's wife, Ellie. She's an aspiring novelist, and is in fact waiting to hear from a publisher about a manuscript she sent in. It had come back the previous time with some encouraging comments, and so she reworks it and polishes it, and sends it in again--and then finds herself completely unable to work on anything serious while she was waiting. So she starts writing a tale, for her eyes only, about a meeting between Odysseus and Aeneas on Calpyso's isle. Aeneas is there with his army. He's not gotten to Carthage yet, but he's clearly a man of destiny, and it's clear to everyone, including himself, that he's going to make it to Italy and found Rome. Odysseus, just as tricksy as you'd expect him to be, is just trying to get home. It's a lovely, funny little creation, and worth the price of admittance.

Meanwhile, Columbian gun runners are closing in on the cache of weapons--where so ever it is--and a government spook named Gawain Sempernel is closing in (so we are led to understand, by hint and by whisper) on the gun runners. And closing in as well on their English confederates, one of whom just might be Ellie Pascoe. She might actually be innocent, but it's clear Gawain doesn't much care; this is his last operation and if she stands between him and a comfortable retirement, she's expendable.

I don't want to give any more away, but I will say that Hill shows the same restraint that Lovesey shows in The Vault--he lets the narrative speak for itself. He doesn't explain all the jokes at the end; he assumes that we're smart enough to notice them and appreciate them without his help.

I'll definitely be looking for more from Mr. Hill.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:58 PM | Comments(0)

October 20, 2002

Ran, by Akira Kurosawa

Friday night my friend Dave came over, bearing Akira Kurosawa DVDs. We settled down to an evening of fresh-baked home-made chocolate chip cookies and Ran, Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's King Lear. Dave is a film buff, and Kurosawa's pretty much his favorite director.

I've never been fond of the story of King Lear; the old King is a foolish man, and a bad judge of character. It's always seemed to me that he got what was coming to him (not that his two older daughters were great prizes either). But I have to say, the story makes a lot more sense in Japanese. Kurosawa transforms it into the story of the Great Lord, an elderly nobleman who has conquered a great domain for himself, slaughtering all those who opposed him.

The Great Lord has three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo, and in his great age he announces (at a party) that he is handing day-to-day command over to his oldest son Taro; and that each of his sons will be given command of a castle. He will live with each of them in turn through the year.

His youngest son, Saburo, tells him that he's acting like a senile old fool to trust his children so. And this is where moving the story to Japan works for me: by challenging his father at a party, before guests, Saburo (who is only telling the truth, after all) has caused his father to lose face. The Great Lord gives his son the chance to recant, but when Saburo remains obdurate the Great Lord banishes him.

Is this a nice way for families to behave? No; but at least it makes more sense to me.

And then there's the Lady Kaede. I don't believe she has any exact equivalent in Shakespeare's play; she's the wife of Taro, and it so happens, she's the only survivor of a noble family wiped out by the Great Lord. It's as though Lady MacBeth was transplanted into King Lear--but instead of being ambitious for her husband, she's ambitious for revenge. One can hardly blame her, but the portrayal is chilling.

So did I like it? Well enough, considering. It's a tragedy, and I usually don't do tragedies; the tragic flaw usually strikes me as avoidable stupidity, and I hate watching that. But I'm not sorry I saw it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:03 PM | Comments(0)

October 18, 2002

The Perennial Boarder, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Thankfully, Foul Play Press, which I believe has been bought out by Norton, keeps Atwood Taylor's books in print. Someone out there besides me must read them because they are consistently on the bookshelves in the Large Chain Bookstores I browse on occasion. I keep a list in my wallet of which ones I own so I can snap up those that aren't on the list when I find them.

The Perennial Boarder has Asey Mayo returning to Cape Cod for a weekend off from helping Bill Porter refit his car plant to making tanks or planes. Just as he walks in the door, still in his city clothes, his cousin Jennie insists he help her deliver clams to a local hotel because her husband, Syl, has twisted his ankle and can't drive the truck. After some breakdowns with the truck and problems with military convoys taking up the road, they get the clams to the hotel just under the time deadline only to find it deserted with a dead body in the telephone nook. And the dead body is dressed in the clothes of one of the guests who has been coming to the hotel during the summers for years and years. And there is a tomato pincushion in the middle of the floor. Asey decides to investigate.

These books aren't for everyone. They are definitely period pieces with convoluted plots that donít follow the normal formula for setting up murder mysteries. Asey really has no gimmick to distinguish him from other detectives except that everyone on the Cape trusts him to solve mysteries, including the local cops. There is no luscious descriptive writing to fill in the set and the dialog tends to be terse. And I love them. They are an absolute hoot to read because you never know what is going to happen next or how Asey is going to get himself out of the fix he's found himself in. The stories are straight from the era of radio drama when the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. No psychotic killers with a horrible childhood to lend sympathy. Just plain old murders for plain old reasons like, well, money.

Posted by Deb English at 06:22 PM | Comments(0)

October 17, 2002

Good Wives: Image and Reality of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

This is Ulrich's first book, published in 1980. Unlike her other two, The Age of Homespun and A Midwife's Tale, she broadens her scope to encompass most of what is known about women's lives during the late 17th and early 18th century. It is an examination of the reality of women's lives and how it compared to the Puritan ideals of wife, mother and woman. Ulrich's use of primary materials and the stories of real women is fascinating and, as with the other two books she has written, her writing is crisp and clean. The early half of the book dealing with the role of woman as Bathsheba was particularly good. I should clarify that the Puritans saw Bathsheba as the mother of Solomon whom he idealized in Proverbs 31:10-31, rather than David's tempting bather on the housetop. I enjoyed the book a great deal and if you are a reader of colonial history, I would certainly look it up. It has perspectives not normally found in the more traditional history of the times.

Posted by Deb English at 04:36 PM | Comments(0)

The Hermit of Eyton Forest, by Ellis Peters

This is a much later book than A Morbid Taste for Bones (see previous review) and it's interesting to see how the character has developed and changed in the meantime.

The most notable thing is the change in Brother Cadfael's standing. He begins as a minor, if important, member of the Abbey community; he has to work the angles to make things come out the way he wants them to. By the time of this book, though, he's the acknowledged expert on certain things, and well trusted.

Another notable thing is that the cast of continuing characters has solidified; every successful amature sleuth needs a friend among the constabulary, and Cadfael's is Hugh Beringar, the local Sheriff. Hugh didn't appear in A Morbid Taste for Bones; here, his friendship with Cadfael is a matter of long-standing. Ambitious Prior Robert and his friend the obsequious Brother Jerome are still around, but the dreamy, unworldly abbot of the first book has been replaced by the no-nonsense Radagulf, and Prior Robert is clearly on Radagulf's leash.

But the real question is whether the quality has slipped, and I can fairly say that it hasn't. I'll be looking for the other books in the series.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:32 PM | Comments(0)

October 16, 2002

A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters

Deb English mentioned Ellis Peters a few days ago, and it got me thinking. I read one Brother Cadfael mystery quite a few years ago; I don't recall disliking it, and yet I'd never bothered to read any more about the Welsh monk. The series is perenially in print, and I decided it was time to investigate. Suiting deed to thought, I picked up a couple of Cadfael titles; this one (the earliest) and one written many years later.

For those who are unfamiliar with Brother Cadfael, he's a Benedictine monk; he resides at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, England. Born in Wales, he had an adventurous youth before settling down as a monk. He was a crusader on the First Crusade, and was with Godfrey of Bouillon when Antioch was taken. After the Crusade, he became a sea captain, and roved over all the Mediterranean world. Finally desiring a little rest he joined the Benedictines and settled down to grow herbs.

The present book concerns the efforts of the ambitious Prior Robert to acquire a saint's relics for the Abbey. Relics (that is, bones) were a big deal then; one gathers that there was something of an (I apologize in advance) arms race among the various cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries to see who could get the best relics. Prior Robert has set his sights on the bones of St. Winifred, a little-know Welsh saint. As a native speaker of Welsh, Cadfael goes along on the trip to get them.

There's so much here that Peters gets right. Cadfael and the other monks, and the people they meet, are all believers, as they would have been. Some are more susceptible to superstition than others (many believe that a corpse will bleed if the murderer touches it); others are quite willing to invent signs, wonders, and visions to advance their cause. But in Cadfael, Peters makes it clear that she understands the distinction between the reality of God and the mockery we all-too-often make of Him in our scheming. It's a fine line to walk, treating the Christian faith with respect while recognizing the frailty of individual Christians, but Peters makes it look easy.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:40 PM | Comments(0)

October 15, 2002

I Am Become Shaggy

I hate getting haircuts; it's time consuming and inconvenient. I invariably need to stop at the bank first to get some cash, because the barber I go to doesn't take plastic; then I need to wait my turn; then I need to wait for the barber to cut my hair. I suppose that doesn't seem like such a big hairy deal...but the problem is, after work I want to go home. I don't want to deal with all of that. And the penalty for procrastinating is very small.

A digression: you might ask, why don't I find a barber that takes plastic? Mostly because I've been going to Tony's Barber Shop since it was Chuck's Barber Shop, and before that I'd been going to Chuck's Barber Shop since before I could read. I'm a creature of habit.

Anyway, I've evolved a process for this. When I finally do get my hair cut, I get it cut nice and short; and then I don't get it cut again until it's getting in my eyes and annoying me. This usually works fairly well, as no one expects me to be a fashion plate anyway.

But this time, I've let it go too far. I can pull a lock of hair down until it touches the tip of my nose--far past my eyes. And things are beginning to conspire against me. I was going to get it cut last week; and then I had to go on a business trip. That took out two of the possible week days. Thursdays are bad because Thursdays are Recorder Day; I don't like leaving my recorders in a hot car for any length of time. Friday, well, Friday was Friday. The last two Saturdays have been busy from one end to another. And, being a traditional barber shop, Tony's is closed on Mondays. So I finally got to the barber shop today.

Tony is on vacation this week. He won't be back until next Tuesday.

Go figure.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:50 PM | Comments(0)

October 14, 2002

A Pinch of Snuff, by Reginald Hill

I bought this on the recommendation of one of my correspondents; I'm glad I did.

A Pince of Snuff is a gritty police procedural set in England; it features a pair of directives, Detective-Superintendant Andrew Dalziel, and his subordinate Detective-Inspector Peter Pascoe. It reminds me of Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond series, in an inverted sort of way. Diamond is fat, gruff, and given to plain speaking; so is Dalziel. Diamond is an old school detective; so is Dalziel. Diamond has a younger subordinate who's gotten special training in new ways of doing things; so had Dalziel. Diamond frequently has to put his subordinate in his place; so does Dalziel. Diamond finally puts all of the pieces together; so does Dalziel.

The difference is, Peter Lovesey's books are written from Diamond's point of view; Hill is writing (in this book, anyway) from the subordinate's point of view. There's an interesting complementarity here. The other main difference is that Lovesey gets more into the heads of the other characters than Hill does; and Hill is correspondingly more gritty, as is hinted at by the title--A Pinch of Snuff as in "snuff films".

I've been told that no genuine snuff film has yet been found by the authorities, though they loom large in urban legendry thanks to books like this one. If you're fortunate enough not to have encountered the term, I think that I won't enlighten you; a Google search will likely tell you more than you want to know.

That said, the details in Hill's book aren't nearly as disturbing as those in Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novel (I forget the name) that involved snuff films. Or, for that matter, as disturbing as An Exchange of Hostages, which I reviewed last month.

I tend to prefer mysteries more toward the "cozy" end of the spectrum, and I'll admit that I enjoy Peter Diamond more than Dalziel and Pascoe. Nevertheless, this is a good police procedural and I enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to reading more of Hill's work.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:51 PM | Comments(0)

The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

I'm not a big fan of Dickens; I usually find him tedious and long-winded. But it would take a far more curmudgeonly fellow than I am to dislike Mr. Pickwick and his travelling companions, to say nothing of the inimitable Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick's unsinkable servant.

This was my second time through The Pickwick Papers; I doubt it will be my last. The first time I read it, it was as a Project Gutenberg e-text on my PDA. I picked up a paperback copy while I was in Vancouver last month. I needed a book to read while I ate dinner, and the only bookstore I could find was a remainder shop. Fortunately it had a number of remaindered classics, Pickwick among them.

This is a very long book to read straight through, and I don't recommend that you do that; but being largely episodic in nature it's a wonderful book to pick up every so often, between other books, and that's how I read it.

Bring a little bit of patience, and don't take too much at once, and I think you'll enjoy it considerably.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:50 PM | Comments(0)

October 12, 2002

Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

My last few Heinlein reviews have all contained caveats, not least that the reviewed books have all been dated in various ways. This one I can unequivocally recommend--not least because it's what I call a "small" story.

I class plots as "big stories" and "small stories". The Lord of the Rings is the canonical big story--the fate of the entire world is at stake. I like epics as well as anyone else, but they are problematic. When you're writing a big story, the tale you're telling is by definition the most important thing going on in your world. At best, that spoils your world as a setting for smaller stories; at worst, it trivializes your story if the tale you're telling isn't good enough to carry the weight. And then, of course, you get plot inflation--somehow your big story has to be grander and more explosive and have a more memorable ending than the next guy's.

The big story is a natural temptation, of course--having invented an entire world, one naturally wants to use all of it. And so I find that in the F&SF genre, small stories, stories about events that are important to those involved but which do not shake the world as a whole, are not only more interesting, but also better written than the big stories. The author of a small story has learned some restraint.

Such is the case here. Humanity is colonizing the galaxy, spreading from planet to planet by means of teleportation gates. Pioneering on newly discovered planets is extremely hazardous--no one knows all of the dangers until much later. And so, in order to qualify as a colonist, one must have completed a detailed course in survival. The course culminates in a survival test: each individual is dropped onto a wild planet, they know not where, and must somehow survive until retrieved some days later. It's not easy--if you survive, you pass the test. If you fail, you're dead.

This book is the story of one particular survival test, a test that goes grossly awry. The only book I can compare it with is Lord of the Flies--except to say that Heinlein is much more optimistic about the human capability to adapt and survive and maintain civility than William Golding. As a descendant of pioneers myself, I think Heinlein's more likely to be correct.

Anyway, it's good stuff--not earthshaking, but a good solid novel. If you like Heinlein's style, go buy it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 11:54 PM | Comments(0)

Sir Apropos of Nothing, by Peter David

This is a deceptively silly book about destiny and the nature of fantasy fiction. I picked it up on a whim, based on the cover description, thinking that it was more likely to be really bad, but if good might be a lot of fun.

It's the story of a young man named Apropos, the son of a prostitute and the child of an unknown father. He's got a mishapen and useless leg (a birth defect), a flame shaped book mark, and a bad attitude; he's a classic anti-hero in the style of Harry Flashman. In fact, the book reads rather like a mixture of Harry Flashman with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For a period of time, Apropos is squire to Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions (the name describes his manor, not his person); at one point he encounters the dreadful Harpers Bizarre.

Except that sometimes it's more serious than that.

I began the book skeptically; I grew to enjoy it; by the end, after numerous twists and surprises, I was really rather pleased. The closing scene is as good a close as I've seen in quite awhile.

There's a sequel out in hardcover, The Woad to Wuin; I'm looking forward to it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 12:09 PM | Comments(1)

October 11, 2002

Don't Do It

Someday there will be a child in your life. It might be your own; it might be a niece or nephew; it might be the child of a close friend. And you will need to buy them a birthday or Christmas gift. And you will be at the music store or the book store or even (quite possibly) at Costco, and you'll see a Disney song book with a plastic recorder attached to it. And you'll think (especially if the child is not your own), "Music! How lovely! I'll help them learn to love music." And you'll buy them the Disney song book with the plastic recorder attached to it. And yea, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth when the child opens the package and the child's parents see the Disney song book with the plastic recorder attached to it.

For what you have just done is given this child an extremely high pitched, badly tuned whistle. The chances of the child learning to play the songs in the song book without help from an adult are slim and none. The chances of the child even learning to blow properly by his or herself are slim and none. And even if they did, the plastic recorder attached to the Disney song book probably isn't worth the plastic it contains.

Jane and I were at Ikea today. And in their children's section, they had a selection of toy musical instruments. One of them was a black plastic recorder--the usual size, a soprano. They wanted $4.95 for it. We were buying a number of other things, and I was curious how bad it was, so I nabbed it.

Oh, dear. The tone is awful, to begin with. The high notes are simply not to be listened to--if you can play them at all. Clear and crisp and clean and pretty are not words you would associate with the sound of this recorder.

And the thing that makes this so sad is that for $4.95 (mail-order from Courtly Music Ltd., among other places) you can buy a plastic recorder, made by Yamaha, of truly outstanding quality. I've got a number of recorders, including a bass recorder for which I paid more than I like to think about, and the soprano recorder I play the most is a $4.95 Yamaha recorder molded in translucent plastic with an evil green tint. My friends tease me about it mercilessly--but only about the appearance, not about the sound.

So if you're bound and determined to buy that child a Disney song book and a recorder, at least buy them a decent recorder to go with the song book. Their parents won't thank you--an overblown recorder sounds ugly no matter how nice it really is--but on the hundred to one chance they really have what it takes to learn to play it on their own, at least they won't get discouraged by how bad it sounds.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:43 PM | Comments(0)

Snit V0.6 Is Released

I've just released V0.6 of Snit, my Tcl/Tk object framework. Programmers, see Snit for more information.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:31 PM | Comments(0)

October 10, 2002

Idle Hands

We've got three cupboards in our "play room". This is where the TV is; it's also the one room we could easily close off with a gate to keep the little ones inside. It's like a big playpen. The cupboards are all "locked" with those white plastic two-piece babyproofing locks: the kind that you snug down around the knobs on a pair of double cupboard doors so they can't be opened?

The middle cupboard has toys and games in it, most dating from when I was a kid. Even David is still too little for most of them, so the cupboard stays locked all of the time.

I was reading my e-mail after dinner when Jane called up to my study, "Will, Dave, can you come down? I need some help." We duly came down, and found Jane sitting in the play room. James and Anne had gotten into the middle cupboard, and there was my childhood scattered all over the floor. There were crayons, coloring books, barnyard animals, two sets of dominoes, a couple of games, some puzzle pieces, and a number of decks of cards: one Peanuts-themed Old Maid deck, two normal decks, both dirty, one oversized deck, and a Flinch deck. That's only a fraction of what's in that cupboard (for which God be praised), but it was still enough to cover about ten or twelve square feet of carpeting.

I gather that Flinch is a card game intended for people who class regular playing cards with short skirts, dancing, and alcohol. I've never played Flinch, and while I believe my mom played Flinch when she was a little girl I don't believe the set we have has ever been used, except that I used to take the cards out and fiddle with them when I was little. They are in remarkably good shape, all things considered.

Oh, and there was a little box filled with little stars--the kind elementary school teachers used to award. That got dumped out, too. It took us a good half-an-hour to get everything squared away enough to vacuum, by which time it was time to get the kids to bed.

James has solemnly promised not to let Anne into the cupboard again. We'll see.

UPDATE: I just sat down to do something else, scratched my knee, and found six more of those little stars stuck there. I expect we'll be finding them floating about for days.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:54 PM | Comments(0)

Death and the Chapman, and The Plymouth Cloak, by Kate Sedley

Sedley writes mysteries set in 1400's in England during the War of the Roses. Her detective is Roger the Chapman, a failed monk who peddles door to door from his pack--oddments like laces, needles, pins and assorted pieces of fabric. The conceit is that he is telling each story looking back on his life from old age, 50 years after the action has taken place. "Death and the Chapman" is the first in the series and sets up the life of Roger leaving the monastery to seek his fortune on the road after his mother dies and frees him from his obligation to fulfill her wishes that he become a monk. The cloistered life is not for him so he buys a pack of inventory from a retiring Chapman and sets out. He discovers, eventually, that the son of a wealthy Alderman has disappeared on a journey to London and promises to investigate when he reaches London.

The Plymouth Cloak follows shortly afterwards when Roger is asked to protect a messenger of the Duke of Gloucester on his journey to deliver a secret letter to France. The Plymouth Cloak refers to the club that Roger carries as his weapon on the journey. Unfortunately, he and the messenger are not particularly compatible and his discovery that the guy has engaged in kidnapping young children and dwarves and selling them to royalty for court jesters doesnít endear him either. They are attacked and Roger must figure out if the attacks are directed at the message they carry or are retribution for the messenger's former shady trade.

These were ok mysteries. The action dragged in places and I often wished she'd hurry up and put something into the plot to make it more interesting. The period detail was there but could have been done better. Roger isn't a compelling detective. He seems to stumble upon the answer rather than figure it out. I kept comparing these books to Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael mysteries and they seriously fall short of the standard Peters created. I have one more in the series that I purchased along with these so perhaps they will improve as they go along. If you like medieval mysteries, they might be worth picking up at a used bookstore. I doubt I would pay full price for them, though. There are too many really good mysteries out there.

Posted by Deb English at 06:02 PM | Comments(0)

Sleep While I Sing, by L.R. Wright

I have read other mysteries by Wright and been impressed with her plot lines and general writing so when I found this one in the used bookstore I pulled it off the shelf right away. After I got home, I realized they charged me $6 for it because it's out of print but, hey, it's less than the price of a movie and it took me at least a couple hours to read it.

The story opens on a rainy night with the murder of the young woman by some shadowy man in a dark clearing in a woods outside of Sechelt, British Columbia. No names, no motives and no descriptions of the people involved. Fortunately, Sechelt is blessed to have Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, of the CMP, to handle figuring out the who's and why's of it. Not that he fits the profile of a Mountie, mind you. He's slightly overweight, doesn’t wear the red uniform, is middle-aged and drives a beat-up car rather than flinging himself on a horse. His subordinates aren't really movie Mountie material either. Plus Alberg has his eye on the local librarian who, unfortunately, is having an affair with a movie star taking a sabbatical from the pace of life in California. As the lone stranger in town, the movie star is the prime suspect.

The whole thing sounds pretty lame but it actually reads quite well. Summarize the plot to a Stephen King novel (who I think is a dynamite storyteller), and it sounds just as hokey. Wright uses the weather beautifully, particularly the rain, to add to the eerieness and suspense of having a murderer in the town. There's brush and brambles and dripping water and fog. She adds some local color characters that ring true and sets up some other possible victims that you just know are going to get it next. My only beef is that the ending moved a little too fast. She could have drawn it out a little more and gave the killer more lines but, all in all, I really like this book.

I wish I could find more of her books. Sadly, none of the chains carry her.

Posted by Deb English at 06:00 PM | Comments(0)

October 08, 2002

Barstow

Fifteen years ago, as our wedding day drew nearer, people would ask us, "Will, Jane, where are you going on your honeymoon?" And we'd tell them, gleefully, "Barstow". And they'd say, "Barstow!?" And we'd reply, smiling smugly, "Barstow". And they'd walk away thinking we just didn't want to tell them where we were going.

They were right, of course. But the joke was, we actually did go to Barstow. That is to say, we went to Sedona, Arizona, and to get there we took the train from Pasadena, and that train stopped for half-an-hour in the railroad yard in Barstow. To be honest, I never expected to spend more time there than that.

For those who have never heard of Barstow, it's somewhat less than halfway between Los Angeles and Los Vegas. It started life as a railroad town (it boasts one of the original Harvey Houses) and so far as I know still mostly is a railroad town. But it's also the nearest town of any size to Fort Irwin, home to the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, one of JPL's three spacecraft ground stations.

And since my project at JPL produces hardware and software for GDSCC, sometimes I need to go there. And unless I'm prepared to drive there and back in one day, that means I end up spending the night...in Barstow.

The nearest bookstore of any size is about thirty miles away, in Victorville.

Tonight I am, you guessed, spending the night in Barstow. Tomorrow I get to get up, bright and early, and drive yet another hour into the desert for a fun-filled day of Acceptance Testing, after which I will turn around and drive home.

Sanity might require me to make a brief stop in Victorville. We'll see.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:20 PM | Comments(0)

October 07, 2002

A Bad Spell in Yurt, by C. Dale Brittain

I remember when this book first came out. I remember picking it up, looking it over, and saying to myself, "Oh. Another incompetent wizard. How nice." Then I put it back on the shelf. At that point I'd read a number of Terry Pratchett's books about Rincewind the inept wizard, and a number of Craig Shaw Gardner's books about Wuntvor the Eternal Apprentice, as well as several other singletons along the same lines, and frankly I was tired of the whole thing. I'm still very fond of Rincewind, but you couldn't pay me to read anything by Craig Shaw Gardner these days (nor for many years prior to this one). But I was browsing about the bookstore the other day, and saw it on the shelf, and thought to myself, "You know, this book has been continuously in print for the last ten years. Perhaps it's better than I expected." So I bought it, and today (so as not to go through the Heinleins I bought too quickly) I picked it up and read it.

Frankly, it was a victim of bad packaging. Daimbert, the hero, isn't so much inept as lazy; as a student he'd been too fond of drinking and skipping lectures to learn what he was supposed. And while the cover makes it look like a zany comedy, it's really nothing of the kind, which is a good thing--few authors are really good at it, and bad zany comedy is unspeakably bad, like a failed souffle. Which is why I no longer read Craig Shaw Gardner; I made the mistake of trying to read one of his books aloud to Jane once. Like the souffle it fell; and there was no point in trying to revive it again.

But I digress. Daimbert, new graduate of the Wizard's School in the City, is hired as Royal Wizard of a small kingdom called Yurt. And Daimbert hasn't been there very long when it becomes clear that there's something wrong. The King is aging unnaturally; Daimbert's wizard locks are broken; the evil something the previous Royal Wizard though he had permanently pent up in his tower chamber is gone. And eventually, Daimbert figures out what it is.

As a mystery, the book is only so-so; the clues were clear enough that by the time Daimbert fingered the nominal culprit the answer had been obvious for quite a long while. But as a fantasy, it was quite competent, and it provided me an entertaining afternoon while Jane was celebrating her birthday. (She had a group of girlfriends to an English High Tea. I was not invited. I was not sorry not to be invited, either. Some things Man was not meant to know.) The book has a good heart.

One other thing that's worthy of note: it's one of the few fantasy or science fiction novels I've read in quite a long while in which organized religion is treated at all positively; and more surprisingly, the religion is Christianity. What a Christian church is doing in a fantasy world I have no idea; but the local priest, while lacking somewhat in humor, becomes Daimbert's good friend. The presentation of Christianity is neither detailed nor profound (nor, in this sort of book, should it be either)--but the very fact that it's positive is remarkable.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:31 PM | Comments(0)

October 06, 2002

Alas!

There's a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant we like to go to. Jane and I like it because we like the food, and the boys like it because they get to eat won-ton chips and jello, and little Anne likes it because we're all there. Plus, they've always been very friendly when we come in, despite the fact that we always bring in a troop of messy little kids. So we enjoy ourselves, and tip well.

The last time we tried to go there, they were closed; the sign said that they'd be closed for a month, as they were on vacation. So we waited; and tonight we tried going there again. Lo, how the mighty have fallen!

They looked at our kids with disdain. The table wasn't particularly clean. The beef hadn't been trimmed well, and was full of gristle. The steamed rice and pocket bread arrived when I was almost halfway through eating, instead of when I got back to the table with my barbecue. The rice was dry, with crunchy bits. Jane had to ask for water repeatedly. We asked for a booster seat for James repeatedly, and never got one. Plus, the Diet Coke tasted off, though that can happen to anyone. The pocket bread was better than usual; that was the sole point of light.

So happens, we didn't recognize any of the servers. My suspicion is that it's under new management; or perhaps a new branch of the family that owns it came out to run it; or perhaps there's a different team on Sunday. But however it came to happen, we weren't impressed, and I doubt we'll go back any time soon.

Sigh.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:50 PM | Comments(0)

Farmer in the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

This is book about pioneering, survival, and the Boy Scouts--on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's satellites (A condensed version of it appeared in Boy's Life magazine). And actually, it's quite good, and has much, much less of the dated feel of Starman Jones, despite having been written three years earlier.

I had somewhat the same feeling reading this as I did reading 1632 a month or so ago--a sense that I was reading about values that our popular culture has done its best to trivialize out of existence. When did basic morality become something to laugh at, rather than to adhere to? When did the Boy Scout Oath start seeming quaint? I think we're coming to a time when such things will seem less like a laughing matter, and more like a way of life. I sure hope so.

But anyway, it's a good book. I liked it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 01:35 PM | Comments(0)

October 05, 2002

A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Will suggested I read the books in this series in order so that I donít spoil them by knowing too much ahead of time and I would agree that is the way to go. You have to have all the background so that you can FINALLY get to the best book in the series and actually get all the jokes Bujold throws at you in such short a time. And while you are at it, you might want to brush up on Jane Austen and Bronte and the others she lists in her dedication because they all show up in the book one way or the other. So do Hamlet and Rumpole but you don¬ít really need to know them as well.

The plot is fairly simple. Miles falls in love and, being Miles, sets about courting with the same tactics he used to take over planets and conduct covert ops for ImpSec. Unfortunately, he forgets to include his lady love in on the mission plan. Also unfortunately, his brother, Lord Mark, has been undergoing therapy on Beta colony for his, um, "issues" and met up with the brainy, chesty daughter of Miles' mother's former female bodyguard. And Lord Mark comes home with a scheme to make money on Barrayar using genetically altered bugs that make something like tofu in their guts, setting up shop in the basement of Vorkosignan House. Oh yes, and Emperor Gregor is getting married and the entire city of Vorbarra Sultana is preparing for the social and political event of the season, including poor Ivan who is assigned to run errands for his mother, Lady Alys, who is in charge of the entire wedding and tired of her son running after anything in skirts and not settling down to provide her with grandchildren. And that's the simple version of the plot. I left out all the sub plots, including the sex change operation of Lady Donna to get herself a Vor Countship and dear Pym, playing straight man in the whole mess.

If you are a Miles fan and haven't read this one, buzz thru the books before so you can read this one. Go back and reread the others later for themselves. It's worth it just to read the scene where Miles throws a dinner party. Honest!

Posted by Deb English at 08:38 PM | Comments(0)

October 04, 2002

Starman Jones, Robert A. Heinlein

I've been avoiding Heinlein's juveniles for years because of bad experiences I had with them in elementary school. I tried reading two or three of them--of which this might or might not be one, I'm not sure--and every one of them seemed to begin with some poor kid in an intolerably painful clash with authority and no appeal. At the time, this was not something I was prepared to cope with. Those I've read in the last few years have done nothing to weaken that impression; in fact, I think it's truer than I realized. Fortunately I'm no longer twelve and can get past all that.

But all of Heinlein's work appears to be back in print these days, so on the strength of the Heinlein books I read on my recent trip to Vancouver I've decided to make the effort to pick up the rest of the set. Here's the first of the lot.

Starman Jones is the tale of Max Jones, a young kid in trouble. His dad is long dead, leaving him to run the farm and support his step-mother; his step-mother has married the town ne'er-do-well; his late uncle the Astrogator neglected to add his nephew's name to the rolls of the Astrogators' Guild. For Max lives in a future United States where all of the professions are controlled by hereditary guilds. He has the talents and many of the skills he needs to go to space, and no way to get there.

Of course these little problems are resolved satisfactorily, with a plethora of exciting adventures; but what struck me most is Heinlein's impression of what space flight would be like. (Note: Starman Jones was written in 1953.) The most important person on board ship is the Astrogator; it is his job to pilot the ship into the charted anomalies which provide quick transport around the galaxy. To do the job, the Astrogator must track the ship's position minute by minute as the ship approaches the anomaly; he must continually compute and apply course correction factors or the ship might be lost in space when it leaves the anomaly again. He has the help of a couple of chartsmen and a "computerman"; the chartsmen feed him numbers from a book of tables, and the computerman enters the result of the Astrogator's calculations into the ship's computer to perform the needed course corrections. That's right--the important calculations all take place in the Astrogator's head.

Even more interesting is the way in which they take sightings of the ship's position. They take photographs of the star field (real photographs, on photographic plates) and compare them with photographs on file or taken just previously.

It's as though you built a starship with all 1953 technology, except for the space drive.

I do have to given Heinlein credit; he's one of the few science fiction authors who gives the feeling that he really understands what computing orbits and trajectories is all about. And the mechanisms he describes would probably do the job. But man! Just thinking of relying on fallible human beings and brute force analog technology to do such accurate computation in real time makes me cringe.

It's a good book though; easily better than Red Planet.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:52 PM | Comments(0)

October 03, 2002

Recorder Day

Thursday is Recorder Day. Every Thursday morning I gather up my bag of recorders and sheet music, and the separate case containing my bass recorder, and lug them in to work. At lunch I meet with three other people (on a good day), and we play a variety of things ranging from Early Music to relatively modern klezmer.

For those who aren't familiar with them, the recorder is the ancestor of the modern transverse flute. It's played differently; instead of blowing across an opening, you blow into a mouthpiece. It's similar in that regard to a tin whistle. They come in a variety of sizes, and on a good day we'll play four part music, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass. The ranges aren't the same as the choral parts of the same name; I believe the overall tonal range is about half that of a choir.

A bass recorder is a thing to see. Picture if you can a small bazooka, about four feet long, turned out of exotic hardwood and festooned with metal keywork. But if a bass recorder is a bazooka, today we were graced with the presence of a howitzer--Dave (Dave my co-worker, not Dave my little boy) was able to borrow a "great-bass". This beast is almost half again as long as a bass and speaks half-an-octave lower. You blow into a long metal tube called a bocal that curves up from your mouth about eight inches and disappears into the top of the recorder; you rest the bell of the recorder on your shoe--and you have to start blowing earlier than everybody else in the consort in order to have the note come out on time. It's heavy as all get out, and it doesn't sound nearly as good as it ought to.

Or that's what Dave keeps saying. But we all know he's trying to prevent himself from wanting one of his own.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:59 PM | Comments(0)

October 02, 2002

Eternal Frontier, by James H. Schmitz

Over the last year, Baen Books has been publishing anthologies of all of Schmitz' published fiction; this is the penultimate book in the series. The previous anthologies collected his short stories and novellas in related series; this one collects everything else but his outstanding novel The Witches of Karres (which will be re-released in a few months).

A few of the stories in Eternal Frontier have been anthologized since their original magazine appearances; most have not, in some cases because the magazine folded shortly afterward, and nobody had ever heard of them. So there's likely to be something new here for all but the most hardcore Schmitz fans, and it was all new for me.

I wish I could say that I liked this volume as much as its predecessors, all of which have been great fun. On the other hand, I'm not sorry I bought it; some of the stories ("Crime Buff", "The Big Terrarium", and "Summer Guests", to name of a few) are very good. But this isn't where I'd start.

If you like science fiction at all, and you've not read any of these reissues, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Witches of Karres when it comes out. If you like that, I'd look for the first few books in this edition and only buy this one if you enjoyed those.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:31 PM | Comments(0)