November 30, 2004

Ex Libris Reviews

The December issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now on-line.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:03 PM | Comments(0)

November 29, 2004

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I finished reading The Hobbit aloud to my two boys a few nights ago. It was an experiment: was James, my five-year-old, old enough to follow along with a longer story, night-after-night? And it was a complete success: both David and James were eager for the next installment every night, and of course I enjoyed reading it myself, having last read it two years ago...when I was conducting the same experiment with David.

We've gone on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that's another review.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:05 PM | Comments(0)

November 28, 2004

Arrrrrrgh!

As I hinted some days ago, I've been playing Metroid Prime 2 recently. It's a tough game; there are some monsters and puzzles that are really tough to beat. Since Wednesday, I've been stumped by something called the Spider Ball Guardian. It's more of a puzzle than a monster, but it takes good reflexes, precise movement, a cool head, and considerable speed at just the right times to beat it. As I'm still afflicted by this nasty cold, good reflexes and a cool head have been in short supply.

To make matters worse, the Spider Ball Guardian is badly placed in the game. In the Metroid series of games, you're exploring a fairly large environment and you can only save your game in particular rooms called Save Stations. You collect equipment as the game goes on; each piece of new equipment gives you some new capability that allows you to do things and go places you couldn't previously go. Most such pieces of equipment are guarded by something extremely nasty, and it often takes several tries before you can beat the nasty what-ever-it-is. Consequently, there's usually a Save Station fairly close by so that you can save your game and not have too far to travel for each successive attempt--and also so that you can save your game quickly once you defeat it.

In the case of the Spider Ball Guardian, though, it takes a good five minutes just to get from the Save Station to the place of battle. And then you need to try to defeat the Guardian, which is a long, drawn out process; it easily takes fifteen to twenty minutes. I figured out how to get most of the way the first day; it's the last bit that's been causing me trouble. And since I'm practically quivering by the time I get to it, I've been making no more than one or two attempts per day.

You may ask, why go to all this effort? If it's so annoying, why not just stop playing? It's partly a pride thing, I suppose, but mostly it's because I've complete less than half the game. If I can get past the Spider Ball Guardian, I've got many hours of enjoyment left in this thing.

Anyway, I felt cooler and calmer this morning (although still sick), plus, with the help of the folks over at Game FAQs, I'd figured out a new angle that might make the timing a little easier. So I sat down, and gave it a try. And I did it! I beat the Spider Ball Guardian! I recovered the Spider Ball (a truly neat gizmo), and headed back towards the nearest Save Station.

And then the power went out.

(We shall here observe a moment of silence--because, with four small children in the house, I was not able to express myself as I might have preferred to, and consequently had to fulminate silently.)

The good news is that the new angle worked pretty nicely, and I should have an easier time of it next time. The bad news is that although the power is back on (it was off for only a few seconds) we're having a wind storm this morning and the power could easily go off again at any time. It probably won't...but I think I'll wait until the wind dies before I give the Spider Ball Guardian another try.

Update: I managed to beat the sucker and save my game after the kids went to bed this evening. Woo-hoo!

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:56 AM | Comments(0)

November 27, 2004

Blush

Jaquandor has some nice things to say about these here Foothills over at his place, Byzantium's Shores. I don't often post links to Jaq's stuff (well, except for the Blogroll link, which is there every day). But I do stop by for a visit every day or so, and it's almost always worthwhile.

(Almost always? Almost always. A couple of times recently there's been nothing but a post about the Buffalo Bills. Jaq's a Buffalo stalwart, and kudos to him, but I'm not similarly obligated.)

(Fair disclosure: I wouldn't read blog posts about our local football team either.)

(If we had one; just where are the Rams playing these days?)

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:50 PM | Comments(0)

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, by Robert E. Howard

Some time back, The Forager reprinted a post on the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. As I related at the time, I was moved by this and by teenage memories to rediscover Howard's work, and especially his tales of Conan the barbarian.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is an anthology of the first thirteen Conan tales in the order in which they were written, and I have to say that the quality is spotty. Some of the tales are quite good; others seem designed just to let Conan spend a lot of time with hot chicks. And some of the plot elements are distressingly repetitive. In at least four different stories (and it might be five) Conan comes to an island on which he finds ruins made of a strange green stone which were built by some cosmically evil non-human elder race who worshipped a horrible demon who will return to cause Conan grave difficulty but over whom Conan will ultimately triumph. Sometimes the remnants of the cosmically evil non-human elder race still live among the ruins.

Now, if this were one single cosmically evil non-human elder race which left its markings scattered hither and yon across the globe, that would be one thing. But it's quite clear that each story concerns a different cosmically evil non-human elder race, and that each went from extreme majesty and power to the control of this one single island, and then dwindled almost to nothing, only to be forgotten by time. I mean, really--how many cosmically evil elder races can one planet accommodate?

There are other flaws as well. For example, no longer being fourteen I really can't believe that pirate queens can maintain discipline over an all-male pirate crew by lounging seductively on the quarter deck clad in next to nothing. And I dare say that most princesses, no matter how grateful, would prefer to remove themselves from the tomb of their late undead captor and perhaps tidy up a bit before allowing themselves to be ravished by their rescuer, no matter how buff and barbaric he is.

The best of the tales, though, are pretty good. As good as Tolkien? Me, I don't buy it. But pretty good. The biggest stumbling blocks for a modern reader are these: brevity and familiarity. Taking the latter first, Howard was enormously influential, and much that is original in his stories has become trite from overuse. And then, these are short stories; there's simply not time or space for the kind of character definition and narrative detail fantasy readers have gotten used to in recent years.

Ah, well. Considering the short length of his career (only twelve years) and the vast number of stories he wrote, I suppose I have to cut Howard some slack. Per Sturgeon's law, 90% of everything is crud, and when you're writing and selling your writing as fast as you can, I suppose a lot more of the crud inevitably gets through.

It appears likely that there will be at least one follow-on volume, and I suspect that I will probably get it if I see it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 12:26 PM | Comments(0)

November 25, 2004

Nightmares of Worry

It's Thanksgiving today, so let me grouse a little before getting down to business.

I've had a cold for the last couple of days. It's not a horrible cold; I feel pretty good, so long as I quaff Robitussin regularly and don't try to do anything strenuous, like sleeping. It's a head cold, see, and I don't sleep well when I can hear--or worse, feel--myself breathing. Last night it gave rise to what I'll call nightmares of worry.

I have nightmares of worry every once in a long while--not nearly so often that I dread them, but often enough to have a name for them. They come in two flavors, one of which is, I suspect, familiar to lots of folks: the dream in which you spend a lot of time running around, trying to accomplish something for which the deadline is already passed, and you can't find the place you need to be. In my case, I'm usually in school (high school or college, or something that's supposed to be "college" but really looks more like high school), and I've just realized that there's a class that not only have I forgotten to do the homework for, I've also forgotten to attend. And I can't find the class room, or my books, or my locker, or my locker combination, or whatever.

The dreams I had last night were mostly of the second flavor. In this kind of dream, I'm trying to accomplish some kind of intellectual task--usually, working on some kind of software, but it varies. I'm not physically present; instead, I'm somehow interacting with a physical representation of the task. Sometimes I'm trying to make it do what I want it do; sometimes I'm just inspecting it to see if it's the way it should be.

Don't ask me to explain that, as whatever the task was never makes any sense at all when I wake up.

Whatever it is, it's always very important that it be right, and of course it's never right for long, and that makes me worry. And since I usually have this kind of dream when I'm only lightly asleep (because, for instance, I have a head cold) the worry makes it even harder to relax and sleep deeply.

What it comes down to is that it's Thanksgiving morning, and I'm tired and sniffly, and if I'm not grouchy yet it's still early in the day.

But, you know, Life is Good. Let me say that again: Life is Good. I've got a lot to complain about at the moment, but discomfort is relative, and it's always easy to find things to complain about. Blessings, on the other hand, blessings aren't relative. If I examine my life seriously, my emotional state consists of minor fluctuations on top of a huge tower of blessings.

So, without further ado (and congratulations if you've read this far) here are some of the blessings I'm thankful for.

  • I will never, ever, be able to say "My wife doesn't understand me" with a straight face.
  • My wife makes me laugh.
  • I make my wife laugh.
  • My kids are glad to see me when I come home from work.
  • AYSO soccer is over for the year.
  • I live in the house where I grew up.
  • My kids go to the same school I went to.
  • The smog's not nearly as bad as it was when I was a kid.
  • We've got four neat kids.
  • We aren't expecting a fifth kid.
  • I've got a good job working with interesting people.
  • Jane and I both have family in the neighborhood.
  • My two older kids were playing peek-a-boo with the baby this morning.
  • Metroid Prime 2 rocks.
  • I'm currently reading a Nevil Shute novel. (Pied Piper. Thanks, Ian!)
  • Lands End is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so I can obey the Biblical injunction to give no thought for what I'm to wear.
  • I'm regularly in touch with old friends.
  • I'm regularly in touch with new friends.
  • We go to a church where we know all the long-time members and people I've never laid eyes on before know my kids by name.
  • We go to a church where the faith received from the Apostles is still preached.
  • Thanksgiving Dinner is at someone else's house this year. (That's not unusual, but I'm still thankful for it.)
  • Jesus is my Lord and Saviour.
  • Jesus isn't simply an anthropomorphic metaphor for some remote, passionless, philsophical "ground-of-being," but rather is the Living God who died that we might have life and have it abundantly.
  • Pixar makes great movies.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien.
  • C.S. Lewis.
  • Lots of other authors.
  • VeggieTales, especially "Silly Songs with Larry".
  • Tcl/Tk.
  • Kleenex.
  • Lego.

I could continue, but one of my neat kids has just asked if he can watch me play Metroid Prime 2, so it's time to go battle the Spider Ball Guardian. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:57 AM | Comments(0)

November 23, 2004

Speaking of Leon Thintwhistle...

...I'm still working on getting Through Darkest Zymurgia! published via CafePress. That is to say, I'm still working on proofreading the manuscript and fixing hyphenation problems, and my estimable brother is indeed working on cover art for it. Perhaps after the book is available, I'll post some of the preliminary artwork, just for fun; for now, all I'll say about it is that we're following the well-known principle that the cover art should depict a scene that never actually appears in the work in question.

I'd love to have the book out by Christmas; but that depends on when the cover art is ready, and on my devoting enough energy to proofreading. Since there's no hard deadline, it's really easy for that to slide.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:18 AM | Comments(0)

Mary Sue

Courtesy of Eve Tushnet, I've just become acquainted a literary phenomenon called the Mary Sue story. A Mary Sue story is essentially a piece of wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the hero/heroine, a symbolic representation of the author with wildly magnified skills, talents, and characteristics (ahem), gets to show off his or her stuff. The term originates in Star Trek fan-fiction (with a Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest graduate of the Star Fleet Academy, natch) but has been found to be generally applicable to amateur fiction of all kinds.

I remember back in the late '80's when I started reading the rec.arts.sf.written Usenet news group. At that time, so much of the traffic on the newsgroup (around 50%, if not more) involved Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series that all such posts were required to have titles beginning with "JORDAN:" so that the rest of us could ignore them. I was a fan of the series at that time, and so dipped into the "JORDAN:" posts a bit, but I soon stopped--and now I know why. Most of them were published by wannabe Mary Sues. (Eventually the Wheel of Timers got their own newsgroup, and there was blessed peace.)

As an amateur novelist, learning about Mary Sue is rather like reading a list of symptoms for some exotic new disease. Yes, I do feel rather tired, and my toes do feel a little achy. And my shins have been itching like mad. Oh, no! I must have Kronenborgowitz's Syndrome! Upon reflection, though, I think I'm OK. It's true that I'm occasionally pedantic and condescending, but other than that I can't see that I resemble Leon Thintwhistle in any way...nor would I want to.

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

November 22, 2004

Getting Lost In A Good Book

The Forager has a typically lengthy and interesting post on the topic of getting taken out of a book by something strange the author does. It's an experience I'm perfectly familiar with: you're reading the book, utterly lost in the story, and then some character does something completely out of character and you say, "Huh? Where did that come from?" And the magic is gone, for the moment at least, and you're out of the book.

Consequently, I was rather surprised when the Forager quoted a number of clearly literate and intelligent people, book-lovers all, who have no idea what it means to be lost in a book. As one says,

But people talk about being immersed in the story, forgetting they're reading a book or watching a movie. That can't be what they mean. How could they really forget that they're scanning a sequence of words (or images) on a page, or that they're watching a sequence of images projected on a screen?

The Forager's diagnosis is straightforward:

I think what is underlying what both Steven and Dave are saying is their belief that being truly engaged with a work of art means analyzing and interpreting it. I even get a sense that they feel that an audience has a kind of moral imperative to analyze and interpret a work of art, or that this kind of analysis and interpretation is morally superior to old-fashioned “appreciation” of art works.

And I think it's clear that if you can only approach a book as an analyst, rather than as an old-fashioned reader-of-tales, you're going to have trouble getting lost in it. The Forager then describes getting taken out of a book as follows:

...saying “X took me out of the story” isn’t so much about breaking “suspension of disbelief” or puncturing an illusionist surface as it is about an audience member feeling that the art maker has broken the rules of a game they were playing or that the art maker has failed to properly set up or cue a change in these rules.

He goes on about this at some length; it's worth reading, and I think he's correct. But there's a real psychological aspect to this that I think he's missing. If you ask me to describe what it's like to be lost in a book, I might well say that while lost in a book I forget that I'm reading a book--but while forgetting is involved, it's not the book that's forgotten by myself. While lost in a book I am in a blissful state of unselfconsciousness. The book's contents is dramatically present, and I am so fully engaged with it that I vanish and all that remains is the story.

I sometimes have a similar experience while deeply engaged in a programming project. It's sometimes called "flow," or being "in the zone," and it's a remarkably pleasant state. I say "remarkably" because the pleasure is only obvious in retrospect--being a state of unselfconsciousness, you can't only reflect upon it without leaving it.

So what happens when the author "takes me out of the book"? Simply, he has done something in the text which causes me to remember myself as myself, sitting and reading his book, where before I was fully engaged in his world and not thinking of myself at all.

Now, it's certainly true that various auctorial hi-jinks and blunders can distract me from the text in a purely analytical sense. But that's certainly not what I mean by being "taken out of the book"--though, in all fairness, I might also use that phrase for occasions when I certainly would have been taken out of the book if I had in fact been so fortunate as to be lost in it.

Anyway, if the critics the Forager quotes really don't know what it means to be lost in a book, they have all my sympathy.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:31 PM | Comments(2)

November 21, 2004

And Also, There Were Donuts

There was a bit of special shindig bright and early yesterday morning on the streets of Pasadena. On January 1st, 2005, JPL will have a float in the Rose Parade for the very first time. And yesterday morning we got to see it road tested--there was a special party for JPL employees. The float's title is "Family of Explorers"; it portrays a giant robot made of bits and pieces of various JPL spacecraft. (If you look closely, you'll see Spirit and Opportunity pretending to be feet.)

I have it on good authority that the object on which the robot is standing is a burst of flame rather than some kind of exotic shellfish.

The float will play music as it rolls down Colorado Boulevard: predictably, it's Rocket Man, by Elton John.

We got to see a number of other undecorated floats as well; the Honda float, which I'm told will lead the parade, is going to be spectacular. I've got some neat pictures, but it seems unfair, somehow, to spoil the surprise...at least, when it's somebody else's float.

For the record, I'm told that JPL's float was paid for by Caltech, which operates JPL for NASA. Your tax dollars are not at work in these pictures.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:05 PM | Comments(0)

November 19, 2004

The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken

I picked up a couple of Joan Aiken juveniles a month or so ago; the first was The Shadow Guests. This is the second, and it's different from the first in every way but one--like the first, I'm not going to read it to my kids any time soon. The reason is different as well, as I shall explain later.

It so happens that The Whispering Mountain takes place in the same world as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels. It's not a fantasy world, so much as an alternate history in which James II of England wasn't driven from his throne and James Edward Stuart (the "Old Pretender") took the English throne as James III. Just why Aiken chose this particular counterfactual I've no idea, as it rarely seems to play a significant role; but it does serve to relate a number of books that otherwise would seem to be unrelated.

In any event, the present volume takes place toward the end of James III's reign and is set entirely in Wales, beginning in the small Welsh town of Pennygaff. Owen Hughes, the curator of the town museum, has found an aged gold harp; he believes it to be the Harp of Teirtu which figures in many local legends. The local lord collects gold artifacts, and has demanded that Hughes give him the harp, as all found property in the lands surrounding Pennygaff are rightfully is. Hughes refuses; the harp was found on the site of a ruined monastery once used by the monks of the order of St. Ennodawg, and so legally belongs to the order--provided that any monks of the order yet live.

But the story's not really about Hughes the Museum, as the villagers call him, but about his grandson, also called Owen, who is kidnapped by the thieves Lord Malyn sends to steal the harp, and about Young Owen's friends Tom Dando the poet and his daughter Arabis who help him to recover it, and about the fairy folk who inhabit the Whispering Mountain of the title, the mountain on which Lord Malyn's castle is built.

Fairy folk--but didn't I say that this isn't a fantasy? It isn't.

Aiken has here crafted an entertaining if not entirely convincing tale, and a host of memorable characters, not least of whom is His Royal Highness Davie Jamie Charlie Neddie Geordie Harry Dick Tudor-Stuart, the Prince of Wales (Davie to his friends); but what stands out most for me is the richness of the many dialects that appear. For example, there's a Levantine potentate, the Seljuk of Rum, who has the most delightful habit of speaking like a thesaurus:

"Well, well," cried the Seljuk impatiently when the gates stood open wide enough to admit the carriage, "what are you waiting for? Drive on, my good chap, fellow, old boy!"

"Two sides to that, I am thinking," said the driver. "Hired to drive you to Caer Malyn I was, not right into the castle. Sooner put you down here, I would."

"Tush! Pshaw! Odds Bodikins! In fact, fudge, my good man. Pray continue!"

Grumbling, the coachman climbed back on the box and drove the chaise across a paved courtyard. But when they came to an inner archway he stopped again.

"Come, come, come?" cried the Seljuk. "Proceed, my dear crony, I beg. There is yet another court, campus, quadrangle beyond that archway, can you not perceive, remark?

Then there are the two thieves, Bilk and Prigman. They hail from London, and speak what I suppose must be a sort of proto-cockey thieve's cant. Arabis sees them hiding the harp in a cave, and overhears the following conversation:

"All rug?" said one of the voices at length.

"I reckon she could lay there till Doomiesday, no one would twig. Back to the bousing-ken, eh? Us could do with a dram of hot stingo."

"You go on then, cully, and lay on a dram for me; I'm going to give my napper a rinsing in yonder freshet."

"Tol-lol; I'll meet you at the bousing-ken then."

And then later, having moved the harp to a different place, Prigman says,

"Oh, won't old Bilk-o be set back on his pantofles when he finds the bandore's not there any more. Ho, ho, I can't wait to see his nab!"

And then Prince Davie speaks the braid Scots tongue, and the Welshmen all speak an English with a decidedly Welsh flavor and lots of Welsh words which I cannot pronounce.

And that's why I'm not going to read it to my boys--I'm afraid that the very linguistic richness that made the story so delightful for me would make it nearly unintelligible to my kids, even assuming that I could do justice to the pronunciation. Maybe in a few years I'll give it a try.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:14 PM | Comments(0)

November 18, 2004

Distractions, Distractions

Or, why I might not be posting much for a few days.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:30 PM | Comments(0)

November 17, 2004

Lonely Road, by Nevil Shute

Ian Hamet introduced me to Nevil Shute by encouraging me to read A Town Like Alice. I read it and loved it, and looked for more, and discovered that Shute is mostly out of print. So while I was scouting about the many used bookstores in New Orleans' French Quarter some while back, it occurred to me to look for some Shute, and this is what I found. It's an early novel, and it shows, a little; it's clearly intended to be something of a spy novel, and yet more than anything else it turns out to be a romance.

The book is set in England in the late 1920's, and (having been published in 1932) belongs to that small set of books that can look back to the Great War without any conscious overtones of the greater war to come. We think of them as the years between the Wars, but Shute and his characters do not.

Malcolm Stevenson is a war hero, having served in the Royal Navy, and consequently is now given the courtesy title of Commander. He owns a shipyard and a small fleet of merchant ships, and he spends most of his time designing ships and boats. He's unmarried, and not by choice; he has asked many women to marry him, and all have turned him down. It's not clear why, mind you; he's wealthy, good-looking, well-mannered, and friendly. In any event, he remains an essentially lonely man, buryied in his work.

Early in the book Stevenson is asked to help with a police investigation-- some group, probably Communist, is running guns into England in order to foment an uprising. During the course of things, Stevenson becomes acquainted with a hired dancer at a Palais de Danse in Leeds. Her name is Mollie, and she turns out to be the key to the investigation; her brother has been driving a lorry for the gun-runners. But as he comes to know her, things change between them.

And as I say, the romance between Stevenson and Mollie becomes the centerpiece of the book. She's a smart, capable girl from a lower class family, doing the best she can; he's a smart capable older man of means. Each of them have expectations about the other that turn out to be wrong; and amazingly, these differences are allowed to unfold naturally rather than being turned into dramatic plot contrivances. It's touching, and ultimately heartbreaking, and well worth the trip.

Oh, and they find the gun-runners too.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:27 PM | Comments(0)

November 16, 2004

Stood Up For A Fish

I suppose I've been stood up a time or two in my life, but never for such a reason as this.

Every Friday, I and a couple of other folks get together at lunchtime to play recorder music. (If you don't know what a recorder is, go here.) There used to be four of us, and then Mo decided to move up to the Bay Area. (Shame on her!) Every once in a while, though, she comes down to Los Angeles, and when she does she tries to join us on Friday so that we can play quartets. And she was supposed to come last Friday.

So last Friday morning, I get a call from Mo. She's not going to make it. She's still in town, but she's about to leave; she has to get home before it gets dark. And why? She says, "I have to give a koi an injection. (If you don't know what a koi is, go here. Oh what marvels there are in this bright world!) I haven't heard anything so exotic in daily conversation since a co-worker casually said, "I was at this hookah lounge in the Egyptian section of Bangkok..." I stopped him right there, just to marvel. (So happens, we were sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Canberra at the time.) But I digress.

Apparently she's got a sick koi, and although usually when the koi is sick you can give it medicine in its food, this time the koi needs an injection, and her husband can't do it alone--it takes two people.

Now, I don't want to minimize the fish's illness. And no doubt the fish has great sentimental value for Mo. Koi live a long time; perhaps she raised it from a tiny goldfish. Perhaps it is, in fact, a family heirloom koi, a prize potato-fed koi from a line of champions raised in the peat-bogs of the Emerald Isle and handed down through the generations like a batch of sour-dough starter. Or perhaps Mo simply paid an arm-and-a-leg for it. I don't know. But one thing is clear.

I've been stood up for a fish.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:12 PM | Comments(2)

November 14, 2004

The Shadow Guests, by Joan Aiken

Despite not having read all that much of her work, I have a fondness for Joan Aiken. It goes back to reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (one of my sister's books, I do believe), and then discovering some of her grown-up fiction later on; I particular like her short stories "Dead Language Master" and "Sonata for Harp and Bicycle". Every so often I stumble across another of her books, and buy it, and sometimes I like it. Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds in Nantucket are in some sense sequels to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; I read them many, many years ago now, and at the time didn't think they quite measured up to their predecessor. (I shall have to read all three of them again and see what I think now.) On the other hand, I rather enjoyed The Cockatrice Boys. So when I saw a couple of juveniles by Aiken that I hadn't seen before, I bought them, with an eye toward perhaps reading them aloud to David.

With regard to this one, at least, I think perhaps I won't. But before I explain that, let me say a few words about the story.

Young Cosmo Curtoys (pronounced "Curtis") has just returned to England from Australia, where he had been living with his family in the desert until his mother and brother mysteriously disappeared. He'll be living in the old Curtoys family home with his father's cousin Eunice Doom, an Oxford professor. On the weekends, that is; during the week, he'll be attending a boarding school in Oxford. Cosmo takes to life on the old homestead with relish, but the situation at school is not so rosy. And then there are the ghosts, and the old family curse....

The Shadow Guests is essentially a rite-of-passage novel, with ghosts. Cosmo must learn to deal with his mother's death, and must learn to fit in at his school; he must also deal with the family curse, but that plot thread is given no more prominence than his progress at school.

I actually enjoyed the story well enough. So why don't I want to read it to David? There are two reasons, really. One has to do with the school story, and the other has to do with Cousin Eunice.

When Cosmo shows up at the school, he's shy, and feels out of place, and naturally keeps pretty much to himself. He's also the New Boy, coming to the school in the middle of the term. And the other kids put him through hell. He's fairly stoic about it, though he hates it, and though he doesn't complain several older people remark to him that it happens to all of the new kids, he has to show the right spirit by putting up with it, and eventually he'll be accepted and it will stop.

Now, this might be very good advice in the context of an English boarding school circa 1980; but I find the casual acceptance of cruelty by the older folks rather appalling. (I will say that the hazing is mild compared to other school stories I've read.) Anyway, I'd rather my boys learned to stand up for themselves a little more than Curtis does.

But the more important reason is Cousin Eunice and the absurd nonsense she spouts. Eunice plays a role in this book similar to that of Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; she's the benevolent grown-up who listens to the kid's wild tales with an open mind. Kirke gives creedence to Lucy's stories of Narnia because of Occam's Razor--Lucy is either mad, or lying, or telling the truth, and as she's clearly not mad, and as she's known to be trustworthy he assumes that she must be telling the truth. It's simple logic, based on common sense. I could cope with Cousin Eunice if she dealt with the story of the family curse in just the same way. She starts there, indeed, but then goes on about the plausibility of telepathy, ghosts, and a variety of other phenomena using bad mathematical metaphors that prove nothing and sound remarkably silly if you know what she's talking about but which might sound convincing if you don't.

I want my kids to appreciate good fantasy, but at the same time I want them to always be clear on the difference between fantasy and real life, and Cousin Eunice muddles the two a little too much for my taste.

All that said, this isn't a bad book; it's not a great book, either, but it's not bad. I'll be keeping it, and if David wants to read it to himself in a few years, that will be OK.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:19 PM | Comments(0)

November 11, 2004

Swing, Swing Together, by Peter Lovesey

The procedure followed in this book is rather unusual, even for lateral-thinking Sergeant Cribb. A man has been murdered along the Thames near Oxford, and Cribb's only lead is a young woman named Harriet Shaw, a student at the Elfrida College for the Training of Female Elementary Teachers. Harriet and two of her classmates had crept out of College after midnight for a clandestine swim in the Thames, and been disturbed by a boat containing three men and a fox terrier. As they were in the buff (this adding spice to their scandalous behavior), consternation ensued, and what with one thing and another Harriet was lucky to return to College undetected by the steely-eyed Miss Plummer. Indeed, had it not been for the help of a kindly police constable Miss Shaw would have been packed home in disgrace.

Now Cribb wants to locate those three men and their boat (to say nothing of the dog) for he suspects them of the murder. And he requires the aid of Miss Shaw to identify them. And the only way to find them, he reasons, is to proceed by boat down river in the guise of pleasure-seekers.

By now some fraction of you are nodding your heads, and you are quite right to do so. Swing, Swing Together is Lovesey's homage to Jerome K. Jerome's delightful book, Three Men in a Boat. If it's not much of a mystery, it's nevertheless quite a lot of fun--though you should really read Jerome's book first.

But then, you should read Jerome's book anyway.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:36 PM | Comments(0)

November 10, 2004

The Incredibles

All I knew about this movie before I saw it was that it was made by Pixar and that it involved superheroes. (I've not even seen any of the TV commercials. I assume that there have been some, but I've not seen them.)
And that was a very good state in which to see it. And so I don't want to relieve your ignorance if you haven't seen it. And so I'm not going to say anything but vague generalities.

Wow! Terrific! Biff! Bam! Boom!

Plus, the plot was surprisingly deep--this is not a kid's movie made to be fun for grown-ups, it's a grown-up's movie made to be fun for kids. David and James both enjoyed it, but I know that at least half of it went right over their heads.

Anyway, go see it. The story is a delight, the visuals are stunning (as usual), and all in all I loved it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:04 PM | Comments(0)

November 09, 2004

Mad Hatter's Holiday, by Peter Lovesey

This is yet another Sergeant Cribb mystery, and yet it's entirely different than the two I've reviewed previously. The quirky Lovesey style, absent in the previous two books, is here clearly present, and wonder of wonders the book has nothing to do with the world of sport.

Instead, it concerns one Albert Moscrop, purveyor of fine optical instruments, as he begins his holiday in the English beach resort town of Brighton. With him he has brought a small collection of fine optical instruments, which he intends to use to view the beachgoers from the remote safety of one of Brighton's two piers. This, evidently, is how he usually spends his holidays, spying on people through binoculars or telescopes, though he tells himself he's really just comparing the resolving capabilities of different instruments.

And then, completely against his normal inclinations, he finds himself striking up an acquaintance with an elegant young woman he first sees from the pier--an elegant young woman who, sadly, turns out to be married to a philanderer. And as his objectivity lies in tatters, the young woman turns up missing, and a body is found buried in the Brighton sand....

Sergeant Cribb is actually a relatively minor character, given that he doesn't even appear until the book is approximately halfway through, and even then much of the action is told from Moscrop's point of view. But he remains the cheerfully sadistic fellow we've met before, and is just as willing to be a little unconventional if it gets him his man.

All in all, I liked this book much better than the two previous Sergeant Cribb mysteries I've read.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:59 PM | Comments(0)

They Really Are Different

It's taking me a little while to get used to being the father of daughters, being that my two older kids are both boys. And the thing I notice most, given all of the feminist rhetoric I grew up with in the 1970's, is that my sons and daughters are different.

Here's a case in point. As soon as my eldest could snap Duplos together, he was building guns out of them. My three-year-old daughter has recently begun playing with Duplos, and just a few minutes ago she walked up to me with a vaguely gun-like construction...and proceeded to blow-dry my hair.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:37 PM | Comments(0)

November 08, 2004

Lost in a Good Book,
The Well of Lost Plots
, by Jasper Fforde

These are the second and third books in Fforde's Thursday Next series, and they are just as delightfully literate and goofy as the first--perhaps even more so. Thursday spends even more time in the BookWorld, and finds out quite a lot about how the BookWorld operates, and what characters do when they're offstage. Lenny, for example, likes to visit Watership Down, and the Red Queen has a taste for trashy romances.

I hesitate to say much more about them, because I don't want to spoil the jokes; but I enjoyed them quite a bit, and I have every intention of getting the next in the series when it comes out in paperback.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:22 PM | Comments(0)

November 06, 2004

Ecto Plasm

Ever since I started using Movable Type, I've been posting blog entries using my web browser. That's a bit of a nuisance; it's slow, and the editing features in an HTML text field aren't too swift. I've been willing to live it mostly because most of the entries I post are book reviews, and since all of the book reviews get included in Ex Libris Reviews I edit them in a separate application and save them locally anyway.

So what are the alternatives? There are a number of dedicated blogging apps available; the best ones work with a number of blogging systems, including Movable Type. And tonight, for no particular reason, I decided that it was worth checking out one or two of them.

There are a number of dedicated blogging apps available, though, that know how to work with Movable Type, and for some reason I decided that tonight was a good night to give one a try. A Google search later, I was downloading an app called Ecto.

Ecto gets definite points.

  • Set up was trivial. I pointed it at my blog, and it knew what to do.
  • The editing window is nice
  • It's got some features I don't understand yet, which is cool.
  • It will insert the name of the song currently playing in iTunes into the post.

On the other hand, it's not all peaches and cream. There's an "Insert Hyperlink" feature that either doesn't work or doesn't work the way I think it should, for example. So I'm not in love...but it's possible that Ecto might grow on me.

(Currently listening to: Take Five from the album "Dave Brubeck: Jazz Collection" by Dave Brubeck)

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:32 PM | Comments(1)

Getting Out From Under

Starting today, I'm going to require folks who want to leave comments to register with TypeKey. I hate to do this--I tend not to leave comments on blogs where registration is required, and I'm sure lots of other people feel the same way.

Here's the deal. For the past month I've been deleting on the order 200 to 300 pieces of comment spam per day. Most of it is reasonably harmless, but however you slice it, it's a real nuisance. I've tried installing MT-Blacklist, a plug-in that filters out comment spam, but it didn't work (I couldn't get it installed correctly) and I haven't pursued it.

TypeKey is a service provided by SixApart, the folks who sell MovableType (my blogging software). You can go to the TypeKey website and create an account for free. That account will let you leave comments on any MovableType blog that requires registration.

This is a bit of an experiment; if any of you frequent commenters are unwilling to register with TypeKey, send me some e-mail, and I'll maybe reconsider.

Posted by Will Duquette at 12:46 PM | Comments(4)

November 04, 2004

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, by Peter Lovesey

In Wobble to Death we made the acquaintance of Sergeant Cribb and his hardworking assistant Constable Thackery as they investigate a murder that takes place during a fiendish kind of footrace called a "Six-Day Go-As-You-Like". This book, which follows shortly thereafter, continues the sporting theme with a look at prize-fighting.

In England in those days, the term "prize-fighting" invariably meant boxing with bare-knuckles--no gloves. Gloves were a recent innovation, and were utterly disdained by the "Fancy", the followers of the sport. (See my review of George MacDonald Fraser's Black Ajax for another view of the Victorian Fancy.) And in England in those days, bare-knuckle fights were illegal, and had been for quite some time. Such fights as were held, then, were always held out-of-doors in some remote location, and near the county border so that if the location were discovered by the local magistrates it could be easily continued in another jurisdiction.

As the present book begins, Sergeant Cribb is led to a body found floating in the Thames. The body is headless, but otherwise bears all the hallmarks of a bare-knuckle fighter. Someone has committed murder, and the murderer is almost certainly belongs to the Fancy. Time for some undercover work, and hence the silk drawers of the title.

In my review of Wobble to Death I noted that there wasn't anything particularly memorable about Cribb, but in this book his personality begins to emerge. He's clever, and is willing to do quite unorthodox things in pursuit of his investigations, as he shows when he enlists a young detective who's good with his fists to infiltrate the Fancy. Prize-fighting is illegal, and no exceptions are made for detectives working a case; both of their careers are at stake. And though he's loyal to his underlings in his own way, he has a remarkably cheerful--one might even say sadistic--lack of concern for their comfort, a trait that only increases in later books.

So, the book is better than its predecessor, in that Cribb and Thackery are more fully developed; otherwise it's much the same, and that classic Lovesey flair is still lacking.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:22 PM | Comments(2)

November 02, 2004

What's Up Doc?

The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2 DVD set came in the mail today from Amazon.com.

Bye for now.

Update: We watched the first disk through last night; it contains some real gems, cartoons I loved as a child but hadn't seen in over thirty years. I'm especially fond of Baby Buggy Bunny, in which Bugs makes the acquaintance of a bank robber named Baby-Faced Finster. My older brother Charles, he who is designing a cover for Through Darkest Zymurgia, called me "Diddums" for years and years thanks to that cartoon; in fact sometimes he still does.

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

November 01, 2004

I Do Not Understand The Japanese

Jane read some articles recently about the demographic time-bombs faced by many countries, and notably Japan--the average age in Japan is, if I recall correctly, in the high-40's, and the average family has only 1.1 or 1.2 kids. (The required rate for replacement is a little over 2.) So indeed, they've got a problem.

Now Cronaca tells me that the Japanese think they've found a solution.

Hmmm. Nope, I still don't see it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:29 PM | Comments(0)

Toktru, masen?

The Tensor has some interesting conjectures on the futuristic English used in John Barnes' Jak Jinnaka novels (The Duke of Uranium et al) which I've reviewed here in the past. Interestingly, he has the same reaction to Barnes' work that I do--the man writes interesting stories, and there's something deeply foul about them.
Posted by Will Duquette at 09:23 PM | Comments(0)

Cold vs. Cold

This past weekend, I got sick; and amazingly, half-way around the world, Ian Hamet got sick as well. But somehow, Ian's cold sounds more interesting than mine.
Posted by Will Duquette at 09:17 PM | Comments(0)

Attack of the Snerds

Snerds -- so that's what they're called. Now I know. († Ian Hamet)
Posted by Will Duquette at 09:12 PM | Comments(0)

Ex Libris Reviews

The November issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now on-line. Craig Clarke's back this month, so there are some reviews that regular readers of the Foothills won't have seen.
Posted by Will Duquette at 06:25 PM | Comments(0)