Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Favorites

Favorite fiction: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Favorite non-fiction: The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Favorite mystery/thriller: Suspect by Robert Crais

Favorite historical fiction: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Favorite fantasy: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Favorite Sci-fi: The City & the City by China Mieville
Just barely edged a couple of Joan D. Vinge titles for its fantastic exploration of what we 'see' and 'unsee.'

Favorite Romance: Two-way tie!
Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale (Audiobook)
For My Lady's Heart by Laura Kinsale (Audiobook)

Surprise hit: The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein
My interest in Arthur tales is pretty much nil these days so I was quite happily surprised to be completely engrossed by this one.

Surprise blunder: No comment.

Favorite author discovered in 2013: Joan D. Vinge

Most re-read book first read in 2013: None for 2013 (!??!?) so instead...
Most re-read author in 2013: N. K. Jemisin

Most recommended book and recommendation actually taken:
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Most recommended books I wish people would have read but usually didn't:
The Black Count by Tom Reiss
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Don't Shoot by David M. Kennedy
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

And since I do occasionally do something other than read...

Favorite - Flight
Surprise hit - Magic Mike
Surprise blunder - This is 40 (though if I had known it was Apatow (sp?) this would not have been a surprise to me)

Video games:
Favorite - Star Wars: The Old Republic

Past Editions: 
2010 Favorites
2011 Favorites

What have been your favorites this year?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nicholas Boulton as Hawke

You know the weirdest thing about listening to Nick Boulton as Male Hawke after listening to Nick Boulton as every Laura Kinsale character you know and love? When Hawke is finished speaking other actors do the other voices! Huh. Weird! :)

As Male Hawke (MILD SPOILERS!!!!):

From Flowers From the Storm:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Funny, insightful, inspiring! Check out this video.

ETA: And this important commentary.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Reading Roundup

New Zealand style! The public library has little subject stickers that are placed on the spines of books. One of them is for NZ stories/authors. I usually pick up a couple of these any time I am at the library. Also, I'm in a book club hosted by a local museum that focuses on NZ lit. Here are a few NZ books I've read since shifting* to New Zealand.

*local lingo: folks here don't move they shift


Title: The Daylight and the Dust: selected short stories
Author: Janet Frame

Frame is a very successful and well-known NZ author. I saw this collection for a reasonable price so picked it up. Have only just started, first couple stories have been alright. No real comments yet.

Title: The Adventures of Vela
Author: Albert Wendt

Also very successful and well-known though he has come up less in my casual book conversations than Frame. This is actually long form poetry which I did not know going into it. I was dubious but it's fantastic. It's incredibly easy to read. I picked up the rhythm right off. However, my Pacific English vocabulary is not good enough to catch everything. I've had to switch to reading this only when I can easily look up terms. I would say that's a testament to how much I'm enjoying it; even though I need to "study" as I read I'm still really into it. On another note, I finally understand why some people have given up on Cajun authors/stories I've recommended. As much as I grew up anywhere, I partly grew up in Cajun country in Louisiana and can easily navigate Cajun English in books. I can see how needing a study guide might be off putting to some. Hell, it'd put me off if the story wasn't engaging enough.

Title: Chinese Opera
Author: Ian Wedde

Pretty cool futuristic setting. It's first person POV but the narrator often refers to himself in the third person so the POV is not exactly standard. It also takes a little work to figure out what is going on at first. I like that as a reader but now that I'm a ways in I'm finding it really repetitive. There are what can only be described as refrains and it's not keeping my attention. As far as I'm concerned it's just using a lot of word count for things I already know. Not sure if I'll be finishing this one. I'm getting a little bored with the story but I like the world so much that I remain curious.


Title: Bound
Author: Vanda Symon

This is the fourth (and most recent) book in a mystery series set in the town I live in. I haven't read any of the others. I enjoyed this because of recognizing place names but it doesn't stray far from the mystery formula. Good enough if you like mysteries. The set up - a home invasion that results in the death of a father, a mother is bound and left alive, their son discovers them. Lots of forensic evidence for the protag to work with but she eventually becomes suspicious of police findings. Two things that stood out to me: the use of generational differences to show how, in these high tech times, a teenager might try to help his family when he encounters a crime scene and the difficulties a female officer can face on a police force. What I especially liked about this last is that the book wasn't about that but it also didn't shy away from female specific challenges that officers might have to navigate.

Title: The Parihaka Woman
Author: Witi Ihimaera

This is set in the 19th Century but the narrative comes through the eyes of a modern history teacher. It's fictional but true events surround Erenora's tale as she and her husband join the group following two Maori leaders who preach peaceful resistance to their land being confiscated by European settlers. (Btw, the two leaders and these true events are quite famous in NZ history and occurred around Mt. Taranaki) The first half moves slower than the second and, if I were more familiar with New Zealand history, I might not have been as into the first half as I was. In any case, the second half moves much faster as Erenora and her sisters attempt to rescue their wrongfully imprisoned husbands. I enjoyed the footnotes and quotations though some fiction readers don't like that sort of style. While reading, I could never escape the fact that the tone was often playful even though the material was really serious. An author's note in the back mentions that he used an opera as inspiration for the structure. The tone made a lot more sense after I learned that and some other things included in the note. Not related to this book but this is another famous, successful NZ author and he apparently had a little problem with his latest novel and plagiarism. I haven't looked with any depth into the details but it's amazing to me that an already successful and gifted author would make such a mistake.

Title: The Book of Secrets
Author: Fiona Kidman

More historical fiction but this follows a Scottish religious cult on their journey from Scotland to New Zealand (stops include N. America and Australia). You follow three generations of women. The current generation is living alone in New Zealand in bizarre circumstances. Her grandmother is the woman who set out from Scotland with the cult. The cult leader was a real guy and several hundred people actually made this trip. The three women are fictional as far as I know. Anyway, definitely an interesting bit of history to read about but I would not have finished it if not for the narrative structure. It's told out of order (which I love) with viewpoints that may or may not reflect what really happened. Or viewpoints that can be easily misinterpreted and only later do you find out what is really going on. Bit of mystery woven into an otherwise straightforward tale. It's deftly done and the only thing that kept me reading. It's just not the kind of story I'm that interested in. However, there is this awesome scene at the end with a traveling cosmetics salesman (all my book group members knew of this brand and that they used to sell in rural areas out of vans) and the granddaughter protag that had me in stitches. Made me happy I'd got to the end.

Title: Cousins
Author: Patricia Grace

It's been quite a while since I read this one but I remember liking it (and finishing it) despite it being not at all my kind of story (I tend to avoid stories without huge Plot Points). You follow several Maori cousins (surprise!) as they navigate life from childhood to adulthood. There isn't any overlap in the stories though. Each section is from a different point of view and it picks up in time after the previous one. I rather liked that as it gave you multiple perspectives on the same thing with the added instability of memories. I'm drawn to multiple perspectives as I like how it plays tricks on the way we normally experience stories. Mostly, you experience a story through the protagonist's eyes and accept the reality given by that protag. You experience the story as s/he does and empathize accordingly. I like when the rug is pulled out from under me as a reader and I am reminded that there are many truths.

Title: Ribbons of Grace
Author: Maxine Alterio

Historical fiction about Chinese sojourners who came to the Otago region at the tail end of the gold rush in the 19th century. Sojourners would come to Otago to work for a time before returning home with their savings. The narrative follows a young woman who dresses like her brother to take his place in working the gold fields. The history part of this was really interesting, the fiction part was a little less engaging for me. Despite some really heavy material the tone was always a bit cloying. Not that I want my serious events to be heavily couched in DOOM but the tone would sometimes actually bump me out of the story just when I should have been most affected.


Title: The Godwits Fly
Author: Robin Hyde

It's been a while on this one, too, but as I recall it follows the daughter of an immigrant family (British? Brit via S. Africa?) as she grows up in NZ. It's autobiographical in nature but I would have rather just read a biography of Robin Hyde. What an amazing life she led. I was way more interested in her than in this book. I finally put it down and just read articles about Hyde. Actually, I'd say it's exactly what Cousins above would have been had it not had the cool style. Not surprising that I didn't finish it. I was really impressed with how evocative Hyde was as a writer. Images sprang immediately to mind when reading and I never felt any doubt that I was seeing exactly what she wanted me to.

What have you been reading lately?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Anonymous asked: A billionaire, a white American, and a black single mother are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies. The billionaire takes 11 of them, turns to the white American and says, "That lazy welfare queen is trying to take your cookie."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


...because some things you do and don't know that you do them.
Some other things you do out of mindless habit.
But some things, even those that are most like old habits, you do knowing that you do them. Courtesy that declares itself to be specific. Anger that is specific and directed. You do these things deliberately. You watch yourself do them and you make yourself do them. They are the parts of the character you build for yourself. They are parts of that character's discipline, its power, its leadership and authority.

Chinese Opera by Ian Wedde

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher:  Penguin (2006)
Originally published in 1959
Anyone keeping track of Michael and me over the years of our joint posting will know that October always gets a scary title. What you may not know is that I always let Michael pick these. I don't read much in the horror genre so it's handy for me that Michael has a lot of good recommendations. This year's scary title is different from the rest: it's a straight-up ghost story. Previous titles have been more along the lines of horror thrillers. I realized when reading The Haunting of Hill House that it might very well be the first ghost story I've ever read.
For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Haunting

The Haunting of Hill House takes place in about a week's time following four individuals who have met at Hill House to investigate the weird tales that have surrounded the house during its 80yr existence. Only one of the four knows the place is hinky but the others are game to continue on even when they get there and realize the place is full of the creeps. Our fearless leader is one Dr. Montague but it's one of his assistants the reader follows while Hill House expresses itself.

Eleanor Vance has been taking care of an invalid relative for over a decade and when that relative dies she's perfectly willing to start a new chapter in her life by answering a vague job ad. After sort of stealing the car she shares with her sister she makes her way to Hill House, but only just barely. She's almost as ready to just keep driving. I assume this is due to her highly imaginative nature creating a new reality in every town she visits. Her imagination, by the way, is huge and entertaining. I found myself constantly smiling at her mental gymnastics and the avenues of conversation she would pursue.

At the house, she meets the doctor and his two other assistants. She strikes up an immediate rapport with Theodora and gets along well with Luke, a member of the family who owns the house. Theodora is a bit whimsical with a great sense of humor that appeals to Eleanor personally and, if I may say so, imaginatively. It doesn't take long for the four of them to make the house (and its housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley) the butt of many jokes regarding the ridiculously high creep factor.

 "I don't stay after I set out dinner," Mrs. Dudley went on. "Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes."
 "I know," Eleanor said.
 "We live over in the town, six miles away...
 So there won't be anyone around if you need help...
 We couldn't even hear you, in the night...
 In the night," Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. "In the dark,"she said, and closed the door behind her.

Many of her warnings and admonitions are repeated with little alteration or heed to responses.

Mrs. Dudley turned her eyes to him. "I clear off at ten," she said. "The dishes are supposed to be back on the shelves. I take them out again for lunch. I set out lunch at one, but first the dishes have to be back on the shelves."

When she sets table had to have been repeated at least ten times and that shelf bit is just too funny. So why wouldn't they joke about the creepy house and its odd retainer.

 "Did I understand correctly," Theodora went on, "that Mrs. Dudley is not going to come if we scream in the night?"
 "It was not what she agreed to."

But things begin to take a decided turn from humor and veer straight into scary. And that's when the story kind of lost me. Turns out, ghost stories don't really scare me. If I can imagine a nefarious human behind the weird events using superstition as a tool of terror then I can get into the story and be scared with the protagonist(s) but just weird things that are supposed to be ghosts? Turns out, I can't suspend my imagination. Instead of being scared or creeped out, I was just feeling bad for Eleanor. A couple of my interpretive theories are spoilerish so highlight below if interested:

SPOILERISH BEGIN: I tried to entertain the idea of the Dudleys being behind it, perhaps feeling like they were the true owners of the house (perhaps even being related to the disinherited sister) but what was happening in the house seemed beyond the limits of a two person terror crew - plus the narration slips into Mrs. Dudley's mind for brief moments and it just didn't fit that she had something to do with it. The other idea (see how much I wasn't interested in ghosts???) was that it was simply Eleanor losing her grip on reality. That's a pretty legitimate interpretation given her imaginative nature but she wasn't the only one seeing the weird events and the rest of the house guests were clearly frightened, as well. So back to ghosts, I guess??? END.

Now, I can watch a ghost story and be scared but I think that has more to do with film making than with ghosts. In a book, you just can't startle the reader. So, rather than being scared while reading this I just felt sad for Eleanor and a little bored during the second half of the book. But as I was looking up something about this title I came by a review by someone who is scared of ghost stories so I thought it would be interesting to link her review for an alternative perspective. And I am in complete agreement with her assessment of the excellent writing [emphasis mine]:

  The story is narrated from Eleanor’s point of view and it’s through her eyes that we experience everything that the group does. The story starts really slowly and for the first 100 or so pages nothing significant happens in terms of paranormal activity. Until it does: and it is terrifying.
  The thing is, those first pages are essential to this storytelling and to understanding the presumed supernatural elements....
  In Eleanor’s narrative lies the brilliance of this novel. It is as engaging as it is unnerving – all the more so because it is possible to see the little, subtle lies she tells the group about herself. Then, little by little, things start to change as the group experience the events.

So about the movie...  don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Still Not Interested

Back before Breaking Bad was Breaking Bad (before even the pilot aired, actually) I had some interest in seeing the show. I admire Cranston as an actor and Gilligan as a writer and I thought the combination would be good. But then I read the plot of the show and knew I'd never see it. Now it's over and despite its enormous critical success, and never ending word-of-mouth recommendations, I have still not seen the show.

My list of reasons is short but vehemently felt (not least of which is being a member of a family that has felt the very real and serious effects of meth addiction). I was thrilled to come by this article by Malcolm Harris that not only hits on all my reasons but adds a few more, lays out an excellent and educational pop culture critique*, and does it much more eloquently than I ever could.

*Including 100% nailing why I had no interest in Savages as a book or film.

I've included a few quotes below that particularly struck me while reading but do click on over and read the entire article, whether or not you like/watch Breaking Bad it's an article worth reading. 

The point of critically examining cultural objects like Breaking Bad isn’t to place them in categories good or bad, to predict the ending, or even to decode what’s “really” happening; the point is to pay attention to our attention, to look at how it’s being held, on what, and how someone’s making money on it. If pop criticism is to be good for anything, it’s that.

The idea that people will always pay more for purer or small-batch products makes a lot of sense to demographics used to paying more for quality gimmicks — conveniently, the same demos advertisers pay a premium for. But it doesn’t make sense for the consumers Breaking Bad so sparingly depicts. When we do see White’s ultimate customers, they’re zombies: all scabs and eroded teeth. We’re not talking about impulse buyers or comparison shoppers here; it’s a textbook case of what freshman economics students call inelastic demand. As Stringer Bell told D’Angelo Barksdale in another show about drugs, in direct contrast to what Walter claims, “When it’s good, they buy. When it’s bad, they buy twice as much. The worse we do, the more money we make.”

Breaking Bad in which the street dealers were diluting the product would have had Walter and his partner Jesse Pinkman competing with every local operation, struggling to set up a larger distribution network without costly middlemen and, well, interacting with meth users a lot. But The Wire on Ice isn’t sexy enough to sell a Dodge, and a teacher slanging to his fucked-up former students would turn stomachs, not open wallets. Suffice to say it would be a darker show.

In Savages, another recent story of Mighty Whitey getting people stoned, Berkeley-educated botanist Chon (maybe the only name whiter than “White”) and his war-vet buddy Ben combine exported Afghan seeds and a public-Ivy STEM degree to create a strand of superweed. A narrator asserts Afghanistan is the source of the best weed on earth with the same revelatory reverence that Anthony Bourdain might declare Iberia the source of the best pork. It’s not enough that these two 20-somethings grow and sell weed; they have to do it better than anyone else by a huge margin.

White-washing the illegal drug market involves depicting it like markets wealthy viewers are more comfortable and familiar with, namely those of the farmers market or the local pharmacy. Walter White combines the ostensible moral complexity television audiences demand in a post-Soprano protagonist with a cleanliness that allows him to market expensive cars.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Must Stop Faffing About the Internet

Have real life to participate in... but how is one to sign off when completely overtaken by the giggles after seeing this Technical Support Transcript?

Covers Matter

An oldie but goodie from The Book Smugglers about book covers (with resources and links) and a little about book content.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

Laura Kinsale Audiobook Update

It's recently occurred to me that I shared my S/Paul-on-the-way-to-Damascus conversion experience with The Prince of Midnight audiobook but how's it going with the rest of the Laura Kinsale audiobooks that have been released, you ask? Well, you would ask if you weren't busy having your own transcendent experiences with LK and narrator Nicholas Boulton. (You are, right? I mean, you've run right out and got your own Kinsale audiobooks, right?)

So this is how it played out for me in listening order:


The Prince of Midnight
 Linkie above

Midsummer Moon
 After the awesomeness of TPoM this was a step back. MM is not one of my favorites (not forgetting that there's no such thing as a bad Laura Kinsale book) and Shelby's voice... gah! I could never reconcile myself to it. With Merlin, one of my absolute fave Kinsale characters, I came around to NB's depiction even though I didn't like it at first. But Shelby! Just no! That is not his voice. Blech! I was able to forgive this when I heard Jacqueline's voice, though. What perfection! Merlin, Shelby, and Jacqueline make this book for me so two out of three ain't bad. I should also mention that I thought Ransom perfectly done. He sounded just like the overbearing asshat he is. And by the time he realizes he's an overbearing asshat the change in his voice reflected that. Speaking of asshattery, I got to Ransom burning the flying machine and tricking Merlin and had to take a break. These narrations bring the stories to life in a way that makes the difficult parts even more difficult to bear so what I can normally wince through reading I have to turn off when listening. Back to this one below...

Flowers From the Storm
 I didn't really expect a repeat of TPoM perfection... I mean, how could NB actually get one of my precious Kinsale experiences exactly right twice??? That's asking too damn much but then I started listening and holy fuck HE DID IT AGAIN! HE FUCKING DID IT AGAIN!!! He nailed the aphasic speech, he brought Maddygirl to life in a way that made me love her even more (didn't even know that was possible), he captured the camaraderie of the three friends perfectly and the aunt!!!! Oh the aunt!!! She is divine! And the final speech in the Meeting House.... there are no words... except I'm going to try. I was fully prepared with finger-on-mute-button preparedness to turn that shit off if the final speech went south. But damn if it went as north as north could be and left me in tears. I've read this book at least a dozen times and never cried. I cried listening to Nicholas Boulton as Christian. My gosh, it was brilliant. Listening to FFtS has got to be one of the highlights of my lifelong affair with books.

Still reeling from FFtS, I wasn't ready to go back to Ransom's bullying so I waited for the next release.

The Dream Hunter
 I don't have quite the attachment to this one that I have to TPoM and FFtS. So, fairly or unfairly, even though NB nails it again with this title, it didn't feel quite so much like he plucked my interpretation straight out of my head. Or maybe I wasn't as worried at this point, not quite sure. Also, Zenia spends a goodly portion of the second half of this novel upset. NB does a loud, angry female voice quite well but his loud, upset female voice tends to grate a little on the ear (I'd noticed this before but readers of TDH will know that a narrator issue like that would be more obvious here). I don't blame Zenia for her worries (Arden digs his own grave a bit on this one) and she's a refreshing heroine for acting like a regular person and reacting to what is right in front of her (vs. magically knowing that if she just gives a little then the hero will fall right into place) but I can never get over the kid thing. Poor Elizabeth stuck in her room and Zenia constantly denying Arden his right to see her just drives me crazy. Couple that with the voice issue and I ended up taking a break on this one, too. Plus, my heart just breaks for Zenia, Arden and Elizabeth (though thankfully she's too young to know what's happening:) when Zenia goes back to her father's house in London. Back to this one later... (including comments on my vote for sexiest scene narrated by this ridiculously sexy voice so far!)

My Sweet Folly
 This was an enlightening experience. I had no idea I skipped so much when re-reading this book. There were passages I had straight-up forgotten about. I thought about this a lot while listening and figured out why by the end, but before that let's talk about just how much creepier Robert is when narrated! I realize the poor dear is being poisoned but even so, NB makes him downright scary! I was mentally shoving Folie and Melinda down the drive when they decided to make their escape. Get out, ladies! Get out while you can!

 Real life had prevented me from getting to this one right away so at about this time the latest release came available and I love Folie because she's hilarious but there was no way I was delaying my chance at Melanthe, Ruck and Middle English. Back to this one soon...

For My Lady's Heart
 Oh Melanthe, oh Ruck, oh Middle English! I become a puddle of mush in my love for you. And do you know what makes you better? (Did you even know that you could be better?) Nicholas Boulton. (At this point, I might be a little in love with NB.) Seriously, folks! Another home run. I was lucky enough to be able to focus solely on activities* that could be coupled with listening for this one, so I finished it in less than two days and then felt bereft when it was over. I wasn't ready. I wanted more Melanthe, more Ruck, more ME and more Cara. Yep, that's right! I needed more Cara. I admit, I've skipped her parts as often as not in my rereads of FMLH but in the audio I positively ached for her. As much as I could be a stand-in for any character in a Kinsale novel, she would definitely be the one I have the most in common with. In fact, I suspect she's even more brave than I would be in her situation and I could feel the hot panic of her breath while listening, making my heart pound like I really was there with her in danger. Amazing! Oh, and the poem (of a sort:) that Ruck makes up for Melanthe!!!! Brilliant!!!! (I really need a superlatives thesaurus at this point.) I've actually tried to read that out before and get the rhythm of it. I am a complete failure but NB performs it in all its glory. I wish I had a clip of just the poem in its entirety. I would listen and smile and think of Ruck and Melanthe slaying dragons.^

*sitting on my couch watching clouds float by out of my bay window counts as an activity, right?
^no dragons are actually slain in this book which I feel I should mention since dragons and zombies are almost expected in books these days

Return to My Sweet Folly
 We've relocated to London now and Robert isn't going out of his mind, though Folie is still rightfully suspicious of his bizarre behavior, so mostly we're hanging out in Folie's head giggling our tushies right off listening to her jokes. Folie is such a delight. As I got closer and closer to the end of the book I realized that the reason I had forgotten entire sections is because I tend to re-read it like this: Prologue, any scene with Folie excepting love scenes directly after the wedding (because, seriously Robert, party foul!), the awesome ending with Lady Dingley's masterful performance, Epilogue. And with the audio there I was for every scene. And I mean every scene! And as fun as it was to hear all the voices of Robert's mentor there was still the flesh, flesh, flesh ([TM] all royalties to Beth) scenes with Robert right after the wedding and it was a little akin to Beth's nipple moment. I freaked out and could not stop obsessing over how NB read that scene aloud and so well. Damn, he's good. My burning question for NB used to be "what is your favorite Kinsale novel?' and it's now "how did you perform Folie asking 'please kiss...' and not evaporate?"

Return to Midsummer Moon
 Turns out it was a complete mistake to take a break when I did because the end was the best! I find MM a little long when reading and so am not always wholly invested by the time the end comes but Merlin and Mr. Piminey held by The French! had me in stitches! Mr. Piminey (sp? can't remember if this is right) was a riot. I loved his voice! Just cannot praise NB enough. His talent is staggering. And, bonus! Shelby's voice undergoes a miraculous change from obnoxious to tolerable for the end. And Jacqueline's heart speech. Oh, I just love her!

Return to The Dream Hunter
 Dear, dear Mr. Jocelyn gets wonderfully depicted here and, while I've never disliked him, it's hard to actually want to spend more time with a possible impediment to Mawwiage. But in this case I did because, you guessed it, Nicholas Boulton. However, he's a minor character and what we really want to focus on for the rest of this is the hilarious zoo incident (sorry Zenia, I am sure you weren't laughing but I was) and what has to be the sexiest scene so far - which is saying something when so many sexy scenes have been read out by a fucking sexy-as-sin voice. I was actually quite embarrassingly weak-kneed at Arden's voice for the entirety but that scene in the cottage when he's describing what he was thinking about at the zoo and talking about what delightful creatures females are... well, erm, ahem, let's just say this heterosexual cis-female was stirred.

To sum up: Laura Kinsale audiobooks highly recommended

Looks like I've got several weeks before the next title is out so my plan is to wile away the listening hours in this order: FFtS, FMLH, TPoM, MM, TDH, MSF

All titles:
Author: Laura Kinsale
Narrator: Nicholas Boulton
Publisher: Hedgehog Inc (2013)

And check out the awesome NEW cover art for each title here.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Snail combat"

Too good not to share.

I've actually made a small habit of going to view illuminated manuscripts when possible but I've obviously not been paying enough attention. If they are, in fact, absolultely riddled with 'snail combat' I feel very unobservant to have never noticed. Will obviously be keeping an eye out from now on.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

Title: Black Hawk Down: a story of modern war
Author: Mark Bowden
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (1999)

Here we are at the end of September and time is flying by. I believe it's now that time of year that Michael calls The Slide. I'm happy to start The Slide(TM) revisiting an old favorite. We're also just days before the 20th Anniversary of The Battle of the Black Sea (or The Day of the Rangers depending on your nationality) and I am firmly of the opinion that this book is not only of historical interest but remains topical. It seems the moral questions of humanitarian relief, military intervention, and nation building are never far from the heart of US foreign policy. This title focuses exclusively on the military intervention tip of this thorny triangle.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down recounts a mission by Task Force Ranger into Mogadishu, Somalia which occurred in October of 1993. What was intended to be a one hour mission to capture a warlord’s top lieutenants became an overnight urban battle after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down.

Mark Bowden presents a strict account of the Battle of the Black Sea but its style is one of real-time drama. Through extensive interviews, research, and military records (much, if not all, of the 15 hour event was captured on video and audio), Bowden was able to recount the battle from the perspective of the US/UN soldiers and Somali militiamen and civilians. Even though the reader is treated to an almost minute-by-minute, factual account, this book reads much like a novel. Excellent structure creates genuine suspense without disservice to real events or hyperbolic dramatization.

Bowden does an excellent job of creating the emotional environment surrounding the battle and even includes some of the preceding US-Somali relations that led to it. (The latter is necessarily limited as that was not the focus of the book.) The various and varying attitudes of US soldiers and Somalis are presented with care and without obvious bias. In fact, this was a strong point of the book. Bowden does not appear to "have a side" or an agenda. Very often authors fall into the trap of setting readers up to have a particular reaction to events/people, but it's clear that Bowden's only agenda is to recount "a story of modern war."

SPOILER WARNING: This warning may not be needed for the recounting of a non-classified military exploit that has since been made into a film. Nonetheless, the warning remains. Highlight the following if interested: [One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the capture of a Black Hawk pilot by a group of Somali militiamen. The importance of a captured US soldier, and which group could afford to keep him, was something I had not previously understood. It was also interesting to read the account of the interactions between the captured pilot and the man who cared for him. After the unrest and chaos of urban battle, the relative quiet of captivity was surprising and, again, not where my previous understandings would have led me.]

I give this book a very high recommendation. This event is an extremely relevant part of modern US history and Bowden recounts the battle with authority and rigorous detail while maintaining an easy-to-read style. My recommendation shoots even higher if you've only seen the movie. Don't let the movie be your only encounter with this material.

So about the movie...  don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Note: I've written previously about Black Hawk Down and the issue of humanitarian relief . Parts of this review were originally in that 2009 post.

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Title: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Author: Paul Torday
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc (2008)
   First published in GB in 2007

I picked two titles for this month's joint post with Michael and I have to admit my failure and, possibly, apologize. Firstly, I picked a title and, for various reasons, had to do a takesy backsy. Michael, with his usual grace, had no problem with this and suggested a few alternatives. I picked this one because I was intrigued by the bizarre premise. Despite what appears to be universal praise for the title (my copy had 4! pages of blurbypraise) I was not a fan. So, apologies to Michael if he ended up reading and disliking this one as much as I did. And apologies to any readers who love this book; here's your warning that I didn't and my review will not be full of praise, blurby or otherwise. 

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

From the publisher's website: "Dr. Alfred Jones is a henpecked, slightly pompous middle-aged scientist at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence in London when he is approached by a mysterious sheikh about an outlandish plan to introduce the sport of salmon fishing into the Yemen. Dr. Jones refuses, but the project, however scientifically absurd, catches the eye of British politicians, who pressure him to work on it. His diaries of the Yemen Salmon Project, from beginning to glorious, tragic end, form the narrative backbone of this novel; interspersed throughout are government memos, e-mails, letters, and interview transcripts that deftly capture the absurdity of bureaucratic dysfunction."

I started this title quite prepared to like it. The bizarre premise coupled with a narrative told through diary, memos, emails, etc is just the kind of thing to catch my interest. I was initially taken aback by the assholery of Dr. Jones and the ridiculously over-the-top FemiNazi nature of his wife but I recalled seeing "satire" generously sprinkled through the blurbypraise so I figured I just didn't have the right attitude. I switched to reading it as a satire but then enter Exotic Foreigner and I was like what the shit have I got myself into? The beauty of satire, to this reader, is its ability to subvert the status quo. I failed to catch the subversion of this book. I was getting more and more annoyed with it as I read and started mentally composing nasty replies to all the individual blurbs. Then I went on to marking out passages as back-up to my disappointment all with the intent of taking a big poo all over the novel. Then I thought, this is just mean. Not every book is going to catch every reader and one person's satire is another person's total miss. So, instead, I thought I'd do something useful. I'm going to list the two biggest misses for me on this title and maybe it'll help others decide if this is one that will work for them or not.

1. Dr. Jones and his wife do not love each other. I doubt they ever did. They don't communicate their needs/wants and never did. It's clear that Dr. Jones has always allowed this relationship to happen to him rather than being a participating member. Whatever this says about his wife, it's none too complimentary of him either. And again, rather than doing something concrete (like filing for divorce) he just constantly bombards his wife with "are we still married" emails when SHE HAS MOVED TO ANOTHER COUNTRY. Dude, wake up! The thing is, he never seems to learn that this is his failing. Instead, he falls in love with his new boss (the Exotic Foreigner's Estate Manager) because she is so Awesomely Wonderful (in point of fact, she is) but he doesn't know her in any kind of personal capacity. She's capable, caring, intelligent, and kind. But what does she do at home? What are her hobbies? What is important to her in life? Does she want children? Etc, Etc. It's easy to fall in love when you don't have to bother with any of the hard, real stuff of relationships. Dude, wake up!

2. It features an Exotic Foreigner. It features a fucking Exotic Foreigner!!! I about fell out of my chair. But then, ok, going back to the satire thing I thought there would be some lovely subverting of this outdated and insulting trope. Nope, not really. Our Exotic Foreigner never loses his temper, always senses how those around him are feeling, never says the wrong thing, inspires the previously uninspirable, opens Dr. Jones mind to faith/believing in impossible things. Oh my gosh!!!!! Is the satire supposed to be that we have moved beyond the Magical Negro and now have the Magical Arab?

Let me leave off with a positive comment, the book has several laugh out loud moments. It's mostly when it's mocking politicians (an easy thing to do really) but the path of Dr. Jones being bullied into taking on this project then blamed when it's out of favor (then being needed again when it's in favor) were the best parts of the book.

I realize this is a bit of a non-standard review but I hope it'll help folks decide if this is a book for them or perhaps one to pass over.

So about the movie... don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fifth NZIFF Session - Us and the Gaming Industry

My fifth session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was Us and the Gaming Industry. This NZ documentary is about independent game designers in the video game industry. It mostly follows the designers of the game Journey but several other independent designers and their games are included. Despite the film being an interesting look at the philosophy of gaming, and especially of independent designers, I still can't quite decide if it bridges the gap to non-gamers. One thing, though, you will certainly get an idea of how passionate these artists and designers are.

I'm not going to say much on this one as I'm hoping I can eventually get Dr M to weigh in (it's been too long since we've had one of his guest reviews) but the trailer is below and I will soon post some pics of the venue as it was a very nice, old theatre.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cover Posing Series Link

I remember the original post but I had no idea it had spawned what can only be referred to as a series. I love these images and highly encourage others to check out this insightful look at book covers.

I doubly enjoy the cover posing because a game that Dr M and I play is gender switching in pop culture. It's remarkable just how much easier it is to get past our engrained sexism and see the ridiculousness of it all when you start putting men into the positions (literally) women are often stuck in.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fourth NZIFF Session - Wadjda

My fourth session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was Wadjda. This movie is about a young Saudi girl who chafes at the restrictions experienced by women in Saudi Arabia. In the film we see this in her determination to make enough money to buy a bike and beat her neighbor in a bike race. I chose this film because it's the first feature-length movie filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia (where cinema is banned) and the first film to be directed by a Saudi woman.

I thought this review had some interesting points about the film: 
Waad Mohammed, a 12-year-old born and raised in Riyadh, is utterly disarming in the title role: she strikes the perfect balance between cheek and impudence, and her tomboyish grin lights up the screen.The film largely consists of little vignettes in the home and at school, and while many of them are very funny, we get an acute sense of the little everyday frustrations and burdens that Saudi women have to shoulder.

Al Mansour reveals in the film’s production notes that she often had to direct from her production van via walkie-talkie when filming in more conservative areas, but Wadjda offers the hope that for the next generation of Saudi women, things might be different. Modest as it may look, this is boundary-pushing cinema in all the best ways, and what a thrill it is to hear those boundaries creak.

Wadjda, by the way, is awesome! She's the kind of friend/daughter/sister you wish you had. Creative, ambitious, determined and independent, you root for her in every way. This is a protagonist you don't want to miss.

Interspersed with Wadjda's efforts to buy her dream bike (and if you can resist a protag who uses the religious club to further her entrepreneurial schemes then I have to assume you have no sense of humor at all!) are the challenges facing her mother in marriage. It's easy to see how Wadjda's family life shapes her as much as her ambition does.

Slice-of-life/vignette films are not usually my kind of thing but this movie is a definite exception. I highly recommend seeing it. Wadjda alone makes the film worth it but this window into Saudi life* is just as compelling.

My next and last film to see is a NZ documentary about the video game industry. Dr M is going to join me for this one so perhaps I can convince him to do a guest review.

* I thought I'd take a moment to mention a mystery series set in Saudi Arabia because many of the things described in the books came alive for me in this film. The fully covered women waiting on drivers and shopping in the malls gave me a sense of deja vu. That's good writing, yes? The author Zoe Ferraris is not a Saudi national but lived there for a time with her then-husband.

Third NZIFF Session - The Broken Circle Breakdown

My third session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was The Broken Circle Breakdown. This movie is about the relationship of a banjo player, Didier, in a band called 'The Broken Circle Breakdown' and eventual lead singer, Elise. I chose this film because BANJOS! Banjos in BELGIUM! And that's probably the only flipish thing I'll say because this film is pretty heavy.

I went to see this title despite what looked like heavy relationship melodrama because I love bluegrass music. I didn't realize there was much of a bluegrass community in Belgium (if I'd only known the few times I was there I would have looked out for some concerts) and it piqued my curiosity. Despite my reservations, this was probably the movie I've enjoyed the most in the theatre since Black Swan. The script was quite excellent and never fell into melodrama. There were a few scenes that I thought a little heavy-handed but, ultimately, that did not decrease my enjoyment or my admiration for the craft on display in this movie.

The screenplay is based on the play co-written by Johan Heldenburgh, who plays Didier in the film (he wasn't one of the screenplay writers). He and Veerle Baetens (Elise) were absolutely fucking fantastic! I was really impressed with their individual acting skills and with their chemistry (which no amount of training can supply). Baetens is luminescent with remarkable range. It's been a long time since I've taken so much pleasure in a performance.

In addition to the bluegrass performances scattered throughout the film, it is also set apart from standard relationship dramas in that the narrative skips in time. The movie covers about 8 years of actual time but slips back and forth as it covers the highs and lows of Didier and Elise's partnership. Narrative jumps can be anything from confusing to contrived but the style is executed superbly in this film. At no time are the jumps hard to follow and they added an intimacy to the film that would otherwise have been lost. I found that it nicely mimicked how a relationship works between two people. Never do you meet someone and start with "i was born." The way we get to know new partners/friends nicely parallels how viewers learn of the relationship between Didier and Elise.

And the bluegrass performances? Awesome! I'll be getting the soundtrack.

So, not my usual kind of film but highly recommended nonetheless. I did a double feature the day I saw this to also catch the Saudi film Wadjda. Another that is not my usual kind of movie, it ended up being just as must-see as TBCB. I'll talk about that one in another post.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another one worth a read

As an opponent of "stop and frisk" tactics and the US military as an occupying force, it was interesting to see this short piece on the juxtaposition of the philosophies behind both.


...witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Monday, August 19, 2013

Second NZIFF Session - Jappeloup

My second session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was Jappeloup. This movie depicts the real life events of show jumper Pierre Durand and his horse Jappeloup. I chose this film because HORSES!

I didn't know anything about this French horse and rider team but they were apparently quite the hit at the 1988 Olympics. The story follows the ups and downs of Durand's equestrian career and the challenges presented by the atypical (for a stadium jumper) Jappeloup. Durand was a bit atypical himself and just as prickly as his horse. It's as much a human drama as a sport or horse drama so you don't need to be into equestrian sport to enjoy this one. My one quibble was with the director not always using the camera to highlight the jumping. I'm sure it has to do with creating more drama for the non-horse person but if you're doing a Nascar film would you have endless close-ups of the tires?

I wouldn't call this one a tear jerker by any means but I did tear up at the end. I'm a sucker for sports, I adore horses, and the Olympics always make me weepy so ending this film with the 1988 Olympic performance hit all my buttons.

Next up is The Broken Circle Breakdown and Wadjda back to back tomorrow.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

First NZIFF Session - Giselle

My first session (as the film slots are called) at the NZ Int'l Film Fest was Giselle. Reading the program notes tells me that this ballet was first performed in France (1841) and that this production by The Royal New Zealand Ballet is "universally acclaimed." I chose this film because it was a NZ production and because I like ballet. I should clarify that I like ballet because I think the dancers are amazing athletes not that I like ballet because I know and appreciate the history of ballet as an art form. I'm just throwing that out there so anyone reading this review knows where I'm coming from as a viewer.

Overall, the director did a mostly good job at bringing a stage performance to the screen. Two major party fouls were committed, in my opinion. The first is what can only be described as cut scenes. In between the staged ballet there were scenes of Giselle (Gillian Murphy) and Douchey Suitor (Qi Huan, whose character's name is probably Prince in Disguise or similar) in NY and Shanghai being sad. This did not work for me. The second was performer close-ups/above the waist shots while dancing was going on. The story, such as it was, was not hard to follow so I didn't need close-ups of the acting when there was dancing; it's a ballet! I don't want to miss the dancing. Also, over-acting and heavy make-up are stage necessities, in film they become comical. Bad decision to highlight them.

Giselle is a commoner who loves to dance. Douchey Suitor is a Prince who has disguised himself (for unknown reasons) as a commoner. He sees Giselle and instantly falls in love (natch!) and courts her (i'm using courts loosely as they dance for a few minutes outside her house and the courtship is complete). Turns out he woos her away from a local who we will call Rejected Suitor. Shortly thereafter a party of royals comes picnicking through the countryside near Giselle's house and we get our first view of Douchey Suitor's fiance (hence DOUCHEY Suitor). Later, Rejected Suitor reveals the princeliness of our hero and calls the royals back with the special Royal Calling Horn the prince had hidden away earlier. Giselle is so sad she dances herself to death. Well, that's unfair, they were not her best dances so perhaps she was despondently dancing and then could never snap out of it and so died. (I think I prefer that second interpretation since everyone stood around and watched her and I'd like to think they would have stopped her from exercising herself to death.) End Act One.

I enjoyed the second act much more because there was more dancing (less acting/story) which was why I was there. The second act is full of a bunch of female wraiths who had such uninteresting lives that when they were left nearly/at the alter they died and have been dancing forever in the afterlife. So, not the most interesting cast of characters for the second act but I loved the dancing. Leading Wraith was phenomenal. She and her Wraith Chorus performed several beautiful sets (or whatever they are called) and spent the rest of the time alternately rejecting and judging Wraith Giselle for dancing with Douchey Suitor now that she's a wraith. There was a bizarre section where Rejected Suitor was harassed by the wraiths. I didn't really get that. Other than not taking rejection graciously he really didn't do anything that should warrant wraith harassment. Oh well. The dancing in the second act was well worth any weird story stuff. Huan's character might have been douchey but he was a powerful dancer (I found it very difficult to stop staring at his rugby thighs) with amazing grace. Murphy was also quite good (though I found her to be overshadowed by Leading Wraith in the second act) so I got what I went for: ballet dancing.

Now I'm off to watch a French film about a horse show jumper. I'll report back on that one later. For now, the Giselle trailer is below and here's a cool ballet dancer link I coincidentally saw today.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In defense of dialects

I was born in, and most of my family still live in, a dialect heavy region of the US. While most regions have dialects some are more noticeable than others. I've always been fascinated by those who look down on dialects and mildly interested in this phenomenon in my not-at-all-a-linguist way. More practically, it's made me That Person who will always speak up in defense of dialects. But never so well as in this example.

What I find as fascinating as dialects is the fluidity of speech contained within one speaker. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about, most everyone's speech alters for a given situation. Whether it be the use of in-group slang or an actual modification of an accent/dialect, almost everyone does it. In my everyday conversation the only regionally specific marker* I use with regularity is "y'all." However, when I'm visiting family my speech alters so greatly that my jaw is actually sore at the end of the day. Amazingly, I don't even notice it's happening until after my jaw has alerted me to the fact that I'm clearly not speaking in my adult default way. I don't actually ever fall into the full dialect as I moved so much as a child that I never fully learned the dialect in the first place. However, the parts of it I picked up as a youth are definitely still lurking in my brain. Fascinating!

I was talking about accents with a Dutch colleague back when I lived in The Netherlands as I had come to the point in my time there that I could hear a few of the different Dutch dialects (don't think this means I could speak or understand the language with anything approaching fluency, though:). He relayed a story about visiting his family in the north with his son. He immediately drops into the local dialect when with family but his son was not raised there so he gaped at his father who had just adopted a completely different dialect. Again, fascinating!

*Dr M would probably refute this as he often points out little bits of my speech that are markers for my region of birth. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Recently Read

After a hot streak I've been suffering from some duds. No mini-reviews this time... just a few words. But I'd love some recommendations to get me off the Dud Train.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
--actually this should be super highly recommended. this might be my favorite title read so far this year. keep meaning to post a review.

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
--very cool world with excellent characters. only drawback for me was the idea that i was supposed to think Sparks/Starbuck was worth dallying over.

13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis by Robert F. Kennedy
--reviewed here

Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
--i'm a bit burned out on alternate british history but this world was intriguing and the protagonist is freaking awesome. loved her! however, this one seems geared to the younger half of "young adult" which tends to lose me as a reader.

Where Serpents Sleep by C. S. Harris
--interesting mystery (and cool motive for Hero Jarvis' interest) but i think it could have been much shorter and i ended up skipping lots of words. how many times do i need to be told about Jarvis wearing alpaca or about how St. Cyr doesn't really like her?

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
--still reading this one but it's easy to put down. love the setting and societal structure but it moves pretty slowly. i own this so will probably eventually finish it so it will have a chance to improve. if it was a library book i would just return it...

Joyland by Stephen King
--still reading this one, too. i feel like i'm supposed to like the main character because it's a first person perspective so he's leading the action but he just seems like an asshole who needs to get a life. maybe that's what the book is about (along with the mystery) and i own it so i will probably finish it. also, i'm so compelled to comment on his extremely poor relationship skills* that i plan to review it and i prefer to finish books i plan to review.
*for anyone who has read this title, i don't mean in comparison to his ex, her relationship skills are awful, too. he's going to get the commentary because his perspective allows me to see his thought process.

not recommended
Dreamfall by Joan D. Vinge
--after enjoying Cat's first two books so much i found myself mostly bored reading this one. spending time with the Hydrans was a great addition to the world building but overall the story was predictable and didn't seem to add much to Cat's journey.

Lifelode by Jo Walton
--really cool style/narrative structure, interesting world, but spent the second half mostly bored (which is extra off-putting due to it being the heart of why the story was being told in the first place) and what originally seemed like a fascinating set of characters devolved into mostly petty bickering.

Lirael by Garth Nix
--the imaginative world gets precedence over story and that gets boring to me. i've started to skip a lot and actually haven't finished it yet. i *might* finish this one but it belongs to the library so if i don't finish it before this week's trip i plan to return it. oi! that doesn't say much for being interested in the ending. the world is quite imaginative which is nice but the two MCs never go for long without whinging on about not fitting in (in a book of over 500pgs that's a lot of whinging). i don't think of myself as having a short attention span but it's obviously shorter than your average teenager because they seem to gobble Nix up.
bonus points for being a fantasy world with men AND women... women who get to do things other than be the silent incubators of more men who get to do things. 

did not finish
Fall of a Kingdom by Hilari Bell
--read about half of this before i gave up. really liked the persian setting which is what kept me reading as long as i did. the characters left me cold and i couldn't get interested in the plot.
bonus points for being a fantasy world with men AND women... women who get to do things other than be the silent incubators of more men who get to do things.

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
--i might have finished this one if i hadn't just read Fly by Night. this is another that is on the younger end of young adult and i didn't have the patience to read another. great setting, though!!!!

Half a Crown by Jo Walton
--i was so impressed with the writing style of Lifelode that i wanted to try another Walton. got about halfway through (would not have read that far if i wasn't newly familiar with the author) and was just bored. writing style was completely different. liked the watch commander a lot but with the plot moving so slowly i couldn't stick with him. also, this world is not to my taste... plus my alternate british history burnout.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

13 Days by Robert F. Kennedy

Title: 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis
Author: Robert F. Kennedy
Publisher: Pan Books Ltd (1969)

Have I mentioned lately that Michael is awesome? It really can't be said enough and this month will show us another example: he's doing two movies for the book I picked!!! That's right, two! I've always liked the movie Thirteen Days and I thought it would be a nice addition to our series. Turns out a person shouldn't assume books and movies of the same title about the same thing are necessarily based on each other. But, again, Michael is awesome so he queued up the actual movie based on this book and that other movie about the same thing that I like.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Missiles of October/Thirteen Days

"You are in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President." The President answered quickly. "You are in it with me."

This succinct memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a fascinating look not only at the events surrounding the placement of nuclear warheads into Cuba but of the philosophy of dealing with a crisis. It is virtually impossible to separate Kennedy's description of the events from his thoughts on the obligations and responsibilities of those called to respond to crises. I have not found government officials this inspiring in a very long time.

He [RFK] demonstrated then, as I have seen him do on so many other occasions before and since, a most extraordinary combination of energy and courage, compassion and wisdom.
--Robert McNamara

The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis are inherently exciting and tense but this is not the type of memoir prone to the grandiose. If anything, it is focused and generous. RFK sets forth a clear record of the days he spent in council with Ex Comm and the president responding, sometimes hourly, to the USSR's provocation. It's generous in that RFK highlights what was brought to the table by each of the committee members rather than judging or blaming individuals whose opinions varied greatly from his own.

And so we argued, and so we disagreed - all dedicated, intelligent men, disagreeing and fighting about the future of their country, and of mankind.

What becomes abundantly clear is that multiple opinions and viewpoints was integral to what RFK thought was the committee's strength as an advisory body. He never misses a chance to point out that comprehensive information and detailed contingency plans for all recommended courses of action are what enabled JFK to act appropriately during this global, nuclear crisis.

It might be this aspect of the memoir that was most captivating to me. It's a crisis we know the end of, it's a crisis that comes with its own 'dramatic tension' but what may not be known is the absolute dedication of both brothers to have all possible information and not be hasty. JFK did not want the Russians backed into a corner from which they could not gracefully exit. It was the ultimate in think globally (a mistake now will almost surely lead to world devastation) but act locally (our national security is threatened, how do we fix this without precipitating war).

The strongest argument against the all-out military attack, and one no one could answer to his satisfaction, was that a surprise attack would erode if not destroy the moral position of the United States throughout the world. 

I'm the last person who's going to opine modern morals as inferior to the Greatness of the Good Old Days but an additional theme of the decision making during this crisis was: Can we justify what we're going to do? Will the world support what we do? Appropriate answers to these questions were vital to anything JFK might decide. Again, it's clear that Kennedy believed any decision made by a super power had to serve that super power but also had to serve the greater world responsibility any super power has. How inspiring!

Miscalculation and misunderstanding and escalation on one side bring a counter-response. No action is taken against a powerful adversary in a vacuum. A government or people will fail to understand this only at their great peril. For that is how wars begin -- wars that no one wants, no one intends, and no one wins.

Reading this book left me feeling much as I did when I read Don't Shoot by David M. Kennedy: could people who make policy decisions please also read this book? Read it, learn from it, pay attention and apply that knowledge. Emotion and knee-jerk reaction almost never end well. Careful consideration and analysis improve everyone's chances of making the correct decision at the right time. My little scientist heart just soars when I see good analysis. 

He did not want anyone to be able to write... that the United States had not done all it could to preserve the peace. We were not going to misjudge, or miscalculate, or challenge the other side needlessly, or precipitously push our adversaries into a course of action that was not intended or anticipated.

Neither brother ever forgot that this was as much a human crisis as a nuclear crisis. How hard to push was a carefully orchestrated gesture that would be just hard enough and come with UN/Latin American support. This memoir shows the delicate and elegant dance that is international relations. It shows the success that deliberate and visionary problem solvers can enact in the face of great pressure. How inspiring!

So about the movie... don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Monday, July 15, 2013

Reading Roundup

Quick notes:
Still haven't got my brain working properly to write a few words on the Flowers From the Storm audiobook. I keep trying to sit down to write something useful and all that comes out is: so much awesome. (tears) didn't know the book could get better. (joy) just listen. (more joy). holy shit the ending. (tears) Yeah, seriously, I cried! I've read that book more times than I can count but this is the first time I cried! Also, just started Code Name Verity (my library didn't have any more of Wein's Aksum series) and I'm totally hooked. This book is fantastic and flat out engrossing. And after gobbling up some Vinge I'm so full of joy smiles satisfaction at being on a good reading run. Yay!

Title: Paladin of Souls/The Hallowed Hunt
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Publisher: Harper Voyager (2003, 2005)

These are next after The Curse of Chalion. Paladin is about the dowager Ista and it is awesome. And so is she! The gods are back meddling with the poor wee humans and Bujold's amazing characterization/plotting are, of course, around while she enriches the world she introduced in Chalion. The Hallowed Hunt is about some people who do some stuff... I didn't finish it. Stick with just the first two in this trilogy.

Paladin: recommended
Hallowed: not recommended

Title: A Coalition of Lions
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Viking Juvenile (2003)

I mentioned in a previous post that I finally got around to reading The Winter Prince which is a retelling of the King Arthur legend... it begins Wein's Aksum series and I'd thought I'd read 2 and 3 from the series. I picked this title up again (#2) and realized I didn't finish it the first time. I remember why I didn't finish it and it was a mistake. Coalition follows Goewin who has fled Britain after the high kings' deaths for help from her allies in Aksum (Ethiopia). There she encounters complicated politics that involve her fiance (the British ambassador in Aksum), the kingdom's heir, and her Aksumite ambassador who escorted her to Aksum. Oh, and she meets her nephew (son of Medraut) who lives with his mother and grandfather. Loved the world, loved the characters! It's been a few years since I read The Sunbird but I would say this one edges it as the better between the two. Have not read the two newest in the series.


Title: Borrower of the Night
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Publisher: Dodd Mead (1973)

I picked this one up as I was attracted to a mystery without a PI/former cop/succubus or similar as the protag and I ended up really liking Vicki Bliss but, in the end, the series was too dated for me. Too many gender based jokes, too few female allies... but Bliss did intrigue me so I went ahead and tried another (Silhouette in Scarlet) since the Bliss character had a lot of potential for me but, in the end, my first impression of the series won out and this series is not for me.

not recommended

Title: Psion/Catspaw
Author: Joan D. Vinge
Publisher: Delacorte Press (1982); Warner Books (1988)
I read the newer Tor editions...

Cat is a poor, disenfranchised Oldcity dweller on a planet which has become the new Hub of interstellar human commerce. He's picked up yet again by Security personnel but given an alternative to prison: take a test, see if you are a psion. Psions are a minority group of humans who have tele powers (be they pathic, kinetic, or otherwise). Cat is unaware of his latent skills but is willing to avoid prison. For the first time in his life he becomes part of a group, has a safe place to live and meals to eat. If it seems too good to be true, it is; he'll soon find himself caught up in complicated interstellar schemes but the real heart of this novel is what it's like to be caught up in the schemes of humans, be they carefully crafted or emotionally tangled. And I'm only describing Psion! Catspaw continues with the interstellar politics but again focuses astutely and acutely on themes of what it means to have humanity, the temptations of power, the plight of the have-nots, prejudice, greed, fear and loathing. This is not light reading but it is worthwhile reading. My poking about the internets has revealed that Catspaw is generally thought to be the cat's pajamas (hee!) but I think I liked Psion just a little better. Both are very good so it's splitting hairs but I thought I'd mention it.

both recommended

As is probably obvious, I've been reading a lot of sf/fantasy of late. I need to take a moment to talk about awful cover art. Because seriously why does sf/fantasy trend towards awful cover art? Fantasy titles have better odds here (and some fantasy books have some truly beautiful covers) but, holy fuck, the sf covers are almost 100% just plain terrible. Am I just getting unlucky here? Can anyone point me towards some beautiful sf cover art? I also find sf cover art is often inaccurate. Body types and especially skin color are so off from what is described that I wonder if it's even supposed to be for the book I'm reading. Ugh!

What have you been reading lately?

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Long Answer

My Time With Captain Cordelia Naismith's Son

One of the author crossovers for Megan Whalen Turner fans is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Vorkosigan series is oft recommended to me. I loved Cordelia's Honor (which I've mentioned before) but only tepidly made it through a Miles book many moons ago. I decided to not mention to my fellow mwt fans how little Miles interested me due to the, as far as I could tell, universal love of Miles by my fellow fans. Time passed, my little Miles aversion remained hidden but a confession to discussion with jmc inspired me to give him another chance. She directed me to some of the later books in the series and I gave it a go again. I'm still not a fan of his series (though you wouldn't know it if you've been checking out my recently read stuff on goodreads) but I know exactly why now.

What I Like About Miles:
His refusal to accept "conventional wisdom" limitations. His loyalty. His faith in second chances. His "trust beyond reason." (I think that's the way Cordelia was described which gets him his mother's "results beyond hope.") He doesn't ask for more than he gives. His commitment to enthusiastic consent. :)

What I Don't Like About the Series/Miles:
I listed the heading that way because what I don't like about Miles is basically what I don't like about the series. I loathe Barrayar as a character. I don't find its social situations interesting as conflict for a series. If anyone has any links to articles/interviews with Bujold as to why she picked such a culture for her centerpiece culture I'd love to read them. I'm sure reasons for not liking Barrayar are pretty obvious (Quinn and I have identical thoughts on the issue) but I find the whole set-up so done. It's what's already been done, it's what's being done now (just see the news about this recent event in Texas where, incidentally, citizens who wish to participate in the political process are seen as disruptive), and these characters aren't bringing anything new to the struggle. Maybe that's the point, I don't know but repetitive social problems without new applications of conquering said leaves me cold. And Miles is so Barrayaran. In a feat of characterization that impresses me no end he's galactic but psychologically enmeshed with that "backwards hole." Ugh. Specific things that stand out to me about the Barrayar Issue that I can't let go of while reading.

1. Miles' determination to be successful with "the hand he was dealt" is completely self-serving. His actions are to prove that he can still be Vor and worthy but he doesn't seem to participate in any way with a greater representation of disabled/disadvantaged Barrayarans. How is this being part of the vanguard for galactizing Barrayar?

2. I read somewhere that Bujold chose for Miles to be disabled as it would be one of the hardest things her characters, Aral and Cordelia, could go through being parents on Barrayar but, in fact, she should have made him female. He is assumed to be a mutant on a mutant-phobic planet and yet he still managed to get to the Academy and get into Imperial Service. Turns out a vagina is even more disabling on Barrayar.

3. Miles doesn't escape Barrayar's patriarchal respect for women. I find this line from Mirror Dance particularly telling: "Miles sometimes wondered how much of his on-going maintenance of the Dendarii Mercenaries was really service to Imperial Security, how much was the wild self-indulgence of a very questionable aspect of his own faceted--or fractured--personality and how much was a secret gift to Elena Bothari." How revoltingly insulting! To me, this is the equivalent of his parents coming up to him and handing him a Miles-scaled Barrayar with lower physical requirements because without them doing that he would not have had his successful life as a result of his choices and hard work. (To be fair, I think Cordelia later pointed out the fallacy of this as a strategy with Ekaterin's garden. Cordelia is so awesome.)

4. Marriage is death to female characters getting to do much of anything interesting on the page. I know the series is about Miles but do the wives have to end up in the hinted at behind the scenes stuff all the time? I find Ekaterin to be the most egregious example of this. Seeing her in Komarr and A Civil Campaign and then comparing that to her "have you eaten anything yet sweetie" and "you just listen to him right now" role in Diplomatic Immunity makes me sad. (This is where you need to hear Cordelia saying Barrayarans! as a curse.)

5. Miles accepts his mother's love/respect without question but has to perform worthwhile work to obtain his father's??? See #3.

6. This isn't a Barrayar specific issue but the series is riddled with darker skin being described with food (and sometimes even as exotic!) which maybe it's time to move past that in the literary landscape we are living in today. Unless, of course, we're going to start using exotic water chestnut hues (or similar) to describe lighter skin.

What I Do Like About the Series:
The world building. The humor. The characterization. The variety of characters. It can break your heart. Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. Cordelia makes appearances. The MC shows that determination and persistence are more important than convention based limitations.

Below are the titles I've read and some thoughts. All titles by Baen Publishing. Click here for publication dates and internal chronological order of titles if interested.

Shards of Honor/Barrayar
As I've mentioned before, I love Cordelia with the power of a thousand burning suns and these books are on my keeper shelf and warrant rereads.

The Warrior's Apprentice
While my admiration for Miles' persistence was high, I find the inferior to daddy complex tedious and most of the time was just wishing I was reading another book about Cordelia. I also find Miles' idea of what he needs to do to be worthy of his father to be weird (does he not see the same Aral I see?). I actually think it's a displaced Barrayar complex but he expresses it as an inferior to Aral complex.

The Borders of Infinity (novella)
This has ended up being my favorite of the entire series. The amount of enjoyment I get out of a Miles title is indirectly proportional to the amount of Barrayarness that creeps into the story.

Brothers in Arms
Liked this one well enough. Ivan, Quinn and Cordelia are my faves* in this series so I like situations that heavily involve Ivan. I find his later appearances in the series to be jarringly off from our introduction to him as the guy who importuned Elena when she was young. Are we to assume that Ivan smarted up (he is also a great supporter of enthusiastic consent) or that Bujold didn't initially imagine him as so large a character in the series?

*Sergeant Bothari is one of the most fascinating characters of the series but it's difficult to list him as a fave due to his complexity.

Mirror Dance
Was really enjoying this one until the torture-porn made its appearance. Was Mark not interesting enough already?

Can't really decide on this one. I like Illyan so the mystery surrounding his condition was interesting but it felt a bit like MC cheating for Miles to do something so destructive and then get rewarded with a second career.

Can I still count this as a favorite if I skimmed almost everything that wasn't Ekaterin? No matter, the final conversation between her and Miles makes the entire novel worth it. I was laughing my ass off.

A Civil Campaign
I think it says a lot that I like this one despite it being completely on Barrayar. The plot moppet stuff got a bit over the top and cloying, though.

Diplomatic Immunity
I love the quaddies but Ekaterin was a disappointment.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Good times with Ivan but this book felt really series dependent. Like a twenty year summer camp reunion where everyone is "just happy to be here." Plus you have these two awesome women who lose all initiative once they are on the page with a Barrayaran. Barrayar strikes again.

I didn't read these in the order listed and found there really is no need at all. Any pertinent plot/character points from previous novels get explained to the reader. I don't care for this technique so didn't always read the re-caps.

My top three Miles books:
The Borders of Infinity (novella)
Mirror Dance (sans torture-porn)

Miles fans, your top three?