Foothills: October 2002
this and that, way back then
Wednesday, 2 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 05:31 PM
A few of the stories in Eternal Frontier have been anthologized since their original magazine appearances; most have not, in some cases because the magazine folded shortly afterward, and nobody had ever heard of them. So there's likely to be something new here for all but the most hardcore Schmitz fans, and it was all new for me.
I wish I could say that I liked this volume as much as its predecessors, all of which have been great fun. On the other hand, I'm not sorry I bought it; some of the stories ("Crime Buff", "The Big Terrarium", and "Summer Guests", to name of a few) are very good. But this isn't where I'd start.
If you like science fiction at all, and you've not read any of these reissues, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Witches of Karres when it comes out. If you like that, I'd look for the first few books in this edition and only buy this one if you enjoyed those.
Thursday, 3 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 04:59 PM
For those who aren't familiar with them, the recorder is the ancestor of the modern transverse flute. It's played differently; instead of blowing across an opening, you blow into a mouthpiece. It's similar in that regard to a tin whistle. They come in a variety of sizes, and on a good day we'll play four part music, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass. The ranges aren't the same as the choral parts of the same name; I believe the overall tonal range is about half that of a choir.
A bass recorder is a thing to see. Picture if you can a small bazooka, about four feet long, turned out of exotic hardwood and festooned with metal keywork. But if a bass recorder is a bazooka, today we were graced with the presence of a howitzer--Dave (Dave my co-worker, not Dave my little boy) was able to borrow a "great-bass". This beast is almost half again as long as a bass and speaks half-an-octave lower. You blow into a long metal tube called a bocal that curves up from your mouth about eight inches and disappears into the top of the recorder; you rest the bell of the recorder on your shoe--and you have to start blowing earlier than everybody else in the consort in order to have the note come out on time. It's heavy as all get out, and it doesn't sound nearly as good as it ought to.
Or that's what Dave keeps saying. But we all know he's trying to prevent himself from wanting one of his own.
Friday, 4 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 06:52 PM
But all of Heinlein's work appears to be back in print these days, so on the strength of the Heinlein books I read on my recent trip to Vancouver I've decided to make the effort to pick up the rest of the set. Here's the first of the lot.
Starman Jones is the tale of Max Jones, a young kid in trouble. His dad is long dead, leaving him to run the farm and support his step-mother; his step-mother has married the town ne'er-do-well; his late uncle the Astrogator neglected to add his nephew's name to the rolls of the Astrogators' Guild. For Max lives in a future United States where all of the professions are controlled by hereditary guilds. He has the talents and many of the skills he needs to go to space, and no way to get there.
Of course these little problems are resolved satisfactorily, with a plethora of exciting adventures; but what struck me most is Heinlein's impression of what space flight would be like. (Note: Starman Jones was written in 1953.) The most important person on board ship is the Astrogator; it is his job to pilot the ship into the charted anomalies which provide quick transport around the galaxy. To do the job, the Astrogator must track the ship's position minute by minute as the ship approaches the anomaly; he must continually compute and apply course correction factors or the ship might be lost in space when it leaves the anomaly again. He has the help of a couple of chartsmen and a "computerman"; the chartsmen feed him numbers from a book of tables, and the computerman enters the result of the Astrogator's calculations into the ship's computer to perform the needed course corrections. That's right--the important calculations all take place in the Astrogator's head.
Even more interesting is the way in which they take sightings of the ship's position. They take photographs of the star field (real photographs, on photographic plates) and compare them with photographs on file or taken just previously.
It's as though you built a starship with all 1953 technology, except for the space drive.
I do have to given Heinlein credit; he's one of the few science fiction authors who gives the feeling that he really understands what computing orbits and trajectories is all about. And the mechanisms he describes would probably do the job. But man! Just thinking of relying on fallible human beings and brute force analog technology to do such accurate computation in real time makes me cringe.
It's a good book though; easily better than Red Planet.
Saturday, 5 October 2002
[Deb English, 08:38 AM
The plot is fairly simple. Miles falls in love and, being Miles, sets about courting with the same tactics he used to take over planets and conduct covert ops for ImpSec. Unfortunately, he forgets to include his lady love in on the mission plan. Also unfortunately, his brother, Lord Mark, has been undergoing therapy on Beta colony for his, um, "issues" and met up with the brainy, chesty daughter of Miles' mother's former female bodyguard. And Lord Mark comes home with a scheme to make money on Barrayar using genetically altered bugs that make something like tofu in their guts, setting up shop in the basement of Vorkosignan House. Oh yes, and Emperor Gregor is getting married and the entire city of Vorbarra Sultana is preparing for the social and political event of the season, including poor Ivan who is assigned to run errands for his mother, Lady Alys, who is in charge of the entire wedding and tired of her son running after anything in skirts and not settling down to provide her with grandchildren. And that's the simple version of the plot. I left out all the sub plots, including the sex change operation of Lady Donna to get herself a Vor Countship and dear Pym, playing straight man in the whole mess.
If you are a Miles fan and haven't read this one, buzz thru the books before so you can read this one. Go back and reread the others later for themselves. It's worth it just to read the scene where Miles throws a dinner party. Honest!
Sunday, 6 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 01:35 PM
I had somewhat the same feeling reading this as I did reading 1632 a month or so ago--a sense that I was reading about values that our popular culture has done its best to trivialize out of existence. When did basic morality become something to laugh at, rather than to adhere to? When did the Boy Scout Oath start seeming quaint? I think we're coming to a time when such things will seem less like a laughing matter, and more like a way of life. I sure hope so.
But anyway, it's a good book. I liked it.
[Will Duquette, 06:50 PM
The last time we tried to go there, they were closed; the sign said that they'd be closed for a month, as they were on vacation. So we waited; and tonight we tried going there again. Lo, how the mighty have fallen!
They looked at our kids with disdain. The table wasn't particularly clean. The beef hadn't been trimmed well, and was full of gristle. The steamed rice and pocket bread arrived when I was almost halfway through eating, instead of when I got back to the table with my barbecue. The rice was dry, with crunchy bits. Jane had to ask for water repeatedly. We asked for a booster seat for James repeatedly, and never got one. Plus, the Diet Coke tasted off, though that can happen to anyone. The pocket bread was better than usual; that was the sole point of light.
So happens, we didn't recognize any of the servers. My suspicion is that it's under new management; or perhaps a new branch of the family that owns it came out to run it; or perhaps there's a different team on Sunday. But however it came to happen, we weren't impressed, and I doubt we'll go back any time soon.
Monday, 7 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 07:31 PM
Frankly, it was a victim of bad packaging. Daimbert, the hero, isn't so much inept as lazy; as a student he'd been too fond of drinking and skipping lectures to learn what he was supposed. And while the cover makes it look like a zany comedy, it's really nothing of the kind, which is a good thing--few authors are really good at it, and bad zany comedy is unspeakably bad, like a failed souffle. Which is why I no longer read; I made the mistake of trying to read one of his books aloud to Jane once. Like the souffle it fell; and there was no point in trying to revive it again.
But I digress. Daimbert, new graduate of the Wizard's School in the City, is hired as Royal Wizard of a small kingdom called Yurt. And Daimbert hasn't been there very long when it becomes clear that there's something wrong. The King is aging unnaturally; Daimbert's wizard locks are broken; the evil something the previous Royal Wizard though he had permanently pent up in his tower chamber is gone. And eventually, Daimbert figures out what it is.
As a mystery, the book is only so-so; the clues were clear enough that by the time Daimbert fingered the nominal culprit the answer had been obvious for quite a long while. But as a fantasy, it was quite competent, and it provided me an entertaining afternoon while Jane was celebrating her birthday. (She had a group of girlfriends to an English High Tea. I was not invited. I was not sorry not to be invited, either. Some things Man was not meant to know.) The book has a good heart.
One other thing that's worthy of note: it's one of the few fantasy or science fiction novels I've read in quite a long while in which organized religion is treated at all positively; and more surprisingly, the religion is Christianity. What a Christian church is doing in a fantasy world I have no idea; but the local priest, while lacking somewhat in humor, becomes Daimbert's good friend. The presentation of Christianity is neither detailed nor profound (nor, in this sort of book, should it be either)--but the very fact that it's positive is remarkable.
Tuesday, 8 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 06:20 PM
They were right, of course. But the joke was, we actually did go to Barstow. That is to say, we went to Sedona, Arizona, and to get there we took the train from Pasadena, and that train stopped for half-an-hour in the railroad yard in Barstow. To be honest, I never expected to spend more time there than that.
For those who have never heard of Barstow, it's somewhat less than halfway between Los Angeles and Los Vegas. It started life as a railroad town (it boasts one of the original Harvey Houses) and so far as I know still mostly is a railroad town. But it's also the nearest town of any size to Fort Irwin, home to the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, one of JPL's three spacecraft ground stations.
And since my project at JPL produces hardware and software for GDSCC, sometimes I need to go there. And unless I'm prepared to drive there and back in one day, that means I end up spending the night...in Barstow.
The nearest bookstore of any size is about thirty miles away, in Victorville.
Tonight I am, you guessed, spending the night in Barstow. Tomorrow I get to get up, bright and early, and drive yet another hour into the desert for a fun-filled day of Acceptance Testing, after which I will turn around and drive home.
Sanity might require me to make a brief stop in Victorville. We'll see.
Thursday, 10 October 2002
[Deb English, 06:00 PM
The story opens on a rainy night with the murder of the young woman by some shadowy man in a dark clearing in a woods outside of Sechelt, British Columbia. No names, no motives and no descriptions of the people involved. Fortunately, Sechelt is blessed to have Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, of the CMP, to handle figuring out the who's and why's of it. Not that he fits the profile of a Mountie, mind you. He's slightly overweight, doesnt wear the red uniform, is middle-aged and drives a beat-up car rather than flinging himself on a horse. His subordinates aren't really movie Mountie material either. Plus Alberg has his eye on the local librarian who, unfortunately, is having an affair with a movie star taking a sabbatical from the pace of life in California. As the lone stranger in town, the movie star is the prime suspect.
The whole thing sounds pretty lame but it actually reads quite well. Summarize the plot to a Stephen King novel (who I think is a dynamite storyteller), and it sounds just as hokey. Wright uses the weather beautifully, particularly the rain, to add to the eerieness and suspense of having a murderer in the town. There's brush and brambles and dripping water and fog. She adds some local color characters that ring true and sets up some other possible victims that you just know are going to get it next. My only beef is that the ending moved a little too fast. She could have drawn it out a little more and gave the killer more lines but, all in all, I really like this book.
I wish I could find more of her books. Sadly, none of the chains carry her.
[Deb English, 06:02 PM
"The Plymouth Cloak" follows shortly afterwards when Roger is asked to protect a messenger of the Duke of Gloucester on his journey to deliver a secret letter to France. The Plymouth Cloak refers to the club that Roger carries as his weapon on the journey. Unfortunately, he and the messenger are not particularly compatible and his discovery that the guy has engaged in kidnapping young children and dwarves and selling them to royalty for court jesters doesnt endear him either. They are attacked and Roger must figure out if the attacks are directed at the message they carry or are retribution for the messenger's former shady trade.
These were ok mysteries. The action dragged in places and I often wished she'd hurry up and put something into the plot to make it more interesting. The period detail was there but could have been done better. Roger isn't a compelling detective. He seems to stumble upon the answer rather than figure it out. I kept comparing these books to Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael mysteries and they seriously fall short of the standard Peters created. I have one more in the series that I purchased along with these so perhaps they will improve as they go along. If you like medieval mysteries, they might be worth picking up at a used bookstore. I doubt I would pay full price for them, though. There are too many really good mysteries out there.
[Will Duquette, 07:54 PM
The middle cupboard has toys and games in it, most dating from when I was a kid. Even David is still too little for most of them, so the cupboard stays locked all of the time.
I was reading my e-mail after dinner when Jane called up to my study, "Will, Dave, can you come down? I need some help." We duly came down, and found Jane sitting in the play room. James and Anne had gotten into the middle cupboard, and there was my childhood scattered all over the floor. There were crayons, coloring books, barnyard animals, two sets of dominoes, a couple of games, some puzzle pieces, and a number of decks of cards: one Peanuts-themed Old Maid deck, two normal decks, both dirty, one oversized deck, and a Flinch deck. That's only a fraction of what's in that cupboard (for which God be praised), but it was still enough to cover about ten or twelve square feet of carpeting.
I gather that Flinch is a card game intended for people who class regular playing cards with short skirts, dancing, and alcohol. I've never played Flinch, and while I believe my mom played Flinch when she was a little girl I don't believe the set we have has ever been used, except that I used to take the cards out and fiddle with them when I was little. They are in remarkably good shape, all things considered.
Oh, and there was a little box filled with little stars--the kind elementary school teachers used to award. That got dumped out, too. It took us a good half-an-hour to get everything squared away enough to vacuum, by which time it was time to get the kids to bed.
James has solemnly promised not to let Anne into the cupboard again. We'll see.
UPDATE: I just sat down to do something else, scratched my knee, and found six more of those little stars stuck there. I expect we'll be finding them floating about for days.
Friday, 11 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 08:43 PM
For what you have just done is given this child an extremely high pitched, badly tuned whistle. The chances of the child learning to play the songs in the song book without help from an adult are slim and none. The chances of the child even learning to blow properly by his or herself are slim and none. And even if they did, the plastic recorder attached to the Disney song book probably isn't worth the plastic it contains.
Jane and I were at Ikea today. And in their children's section, they had a selection of toy musical instruments. One of them was a black plastic recorder--the usual size, a soprano. They wanted $4.95 for it. We were buying a number of other things, and I was curious how bad it was, so I nabbed it.
Oh, dear. The tone is awful, to begin with. The high notes are simply not to be listened to--if you can play them at all. Clear and crisp and clean and pretty are not words you would associate with the sound of this recorder.
And the thing that makes this so sad is that for $4.95 (mail-order from Courtly Music Ltd., among other places) you can buy a plastic recorder, made by Yamaha, of truly outstanding quality. I've got a number of recorders, including a bass recorder for which I paid more than I like to think about, and the soprano recorder I play the most is a $4.95 Yamaha recorder molded in translucent plastic with an evil green tint. My friends tease me about it mercilessly--but only about the appearance, not about the sound.
So if you're bound and determined to buy that child a Disney song book and a recorder, at least buy them a decent recorder to go with the song book. Their parents won't thank you--an overblown recorder sounds ugly no matter how nice it really is--but on the hundred to one chance they really have what it takes to learn to play it on their own, at least they won't get discouraged by how bad it sounds.
Saturday, 12 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 11:54 AM
I class plots as "big stories" and "small stories". The Lord of the Rings is the canonical big story--the fate of the entire world is at stake. I like epics as well as anyone else, but they are problematic. When you're writing a big story, the tale you're telling is by definition the most important thing going on in your world. At best, that spoils your world as a setting for smaller stories; at worst, it trivializes your story if the tale you're telling isn't good enough to carry the weight. And then, of course, you get plot inflation--somehow your big story has to be grander and more explosive and have a more memorable ending than the next guy's.
The big story is a natural temptation, of course--having invented an entire world, one naturally wants to use all of it. And so I find that in the F&SF genre, small stories, stories about events that are important to those involved but which do not shake the world as a whole, are not only more interesting, but also better written than the big stories. The author of a small story has learned some restraint.
Such is the case here. Humanity is colonizing the galaxy, spreading from planet to planet by means of teleportation gates. Pioneering on newly discovered planets is extremely hazardous--no one knows all of the dangers until much later. And so, in order to qualify as a colonist, one must have completed a detailed course in survival. The course culminates in a survival test: each individual is dropped onto a wild planet, they know not where, and must somehow survive until retrieved some days later. It's not easy--if you survive, you pass the test. If you fail, you're dead.
This book is the story of one particular survival test, a test that goes grossly awry. The only book I can compare it with is Lord of the Flies--except to say that Heinlein is much more optimistic about the human capability to adapt and survive and maintain civility than . As a descendant of pioneers myself, I think Heinlein's more likely to be correct.
Anyway, it's good stuff--not earthshaking, but a good solid novel. If you like Heinlein's style, go buy it.
[Will Duquette, 12:09 PM
It's the story of a young man named Apropos, the son of a prostitute and the child of an unknown father. He's got a mishapen and useless leg (a birth defect), a flame shaped book mark, and a bad attitude; he's a classic anti-hero in the style of Harry Flashman. In fact, the book reads rather like a mixture of Harry Flashman with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For a period of time, Apropos is squire to Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions (the name describes his manor, not his person); at one point he encounters the dreadful Harpers Bizarre.
Except that sometimes it's more serious than that.
I began the book skeptically; I grew to enjoy it; by the end, after numerous twists and surprises, I was really rather pleased. The closing scene is as good a close as I've seen in quite awhile.
There's a sequel out in hardcover, The Woad to Wuin; I'm looking forward to it.
Monday, 14 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 05:50 PM
This was my second time through The Pickwick Papers; I doubt it will be my last. The first time I read it, it was as a Project Gutenberg e-text on my PDA. I picked up a paperback copy while I was in Vancouver last month. I needed a book to read while I ate dinner, and the only bookstore I could find was a remainder shop. Fortunately it had a number of remaindered classics, Pickwick among them.
This is a very long book to read straight through, and I don't recommend that you do that; but being largely episodic in nature it's a wonderful book to pick up every so often, between other books, and that's how I read it.
Bring a little bit of patience, and don't take too much at once, and I think you'll enjoy it considerably.
A Pince of Snuff is a gritty police procedural set in England; it features a pair of directives, Detective-Superintendant Andrew Dalziel, and his subordinate Detective-Inspector Peter Pascoe. It reminds me of 's Peter Diamond series, in an inverted sort of way. Diamond is fat, gruff, and given to plain speaking; so is Dalziel. Diamond is an old school detective; so is Dalziel. Diamond has a younger subordinate who's gotten special training in new ways of doing things; so had Dalziel. Diamond frequently has to put his subordinate in his place; so does Dalziel. Diamond finally puts all of the pieces together; so does Dalziel.
The difference is, Peter Lovesey's books are written from Diamond's point of view; Hill is writing (in this book, anyway) from the subordinate's point of view. There's an interesting complementarity here. The other main difference is that Lovesey gets more into the heads of the other characters than Hill does; and Hill is correspondingly more gritty, as is hinted at by the title--A Pinch of Snuff as in "snuff films".
I've been told that no genuine snuff film has yet been found by the authorities, though they loom large in urban legendry thanks to books like this one. If you're fortunate enough not to have encountered the term, I think that I won't enlighten you; a Google search will likely tell you more than you want to know.
That said, the details in Hill's book aren't nearly as disturbing as those in An Exchange of Hostages, which I reviewed last month.'s Matthew Scudder novel (I forget the name) that involved snuff films. Or, for that matter, as disturbing as
I tend to prefer mysteries more toward the "cozy" end of the spectrum, and I'll admit that I enjoy Peter Diamond more than Dalziel and Pascoe. Nevertheless, this is a good police procedural and I enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to reading more of Hill's work.
Tuesday, 15 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 04:50 PM
A digression: you might ask, why don't I find a barber that takes plastic? Mostly because I've been going to Tony's Barber Shop since it was Chuck's Barber Shop, and before that I'd been going to Chuck's Barber Shop since before I could read. I'm a creature of habit.
Anyway, I've evolved a process for this. When I finally do get my hair cut, I get it cut nice and short; and then I don't get it cut again until it's getting in my eyes and annoying me. This usually works fairly well, as no one expects me to be a fashion plate anyway.
But this time, I've let it go too far. I can pull a lock of hair down until it touches the tip of my nose--far past my eyes. And things are beginning to conspire against me. I was going to get it cut last week; and then I had to go on a business trip. That took out two of the possible week days. Thursdays are bad because Thursdays are Recorder Day; I don't like leaving my recorders in a hot car for any length of time. Friday, well, Friday was Friday. The last two Saturdays have been busy from one end to another. And, being a traditional barber shop, Tony's is closed on Mondays. So I finally got to the barber shop today.
Tony is on vacation this week. He won't be back until next Tuesday.
Wednesday, 16 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 04:40 PM
For those who are unfamiliar with Brother Cadfael, he's a Benedictine monk; he resides at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, England. Born in Wales, he had an adventurous youth before settling down as a monk. He was a crusader on the First Crusade, and was with Godfrey of Bouillon when Antioch was taken. After the Crusade, he became a sea captain, and roved over all the Mediterranean world. Finally desiring a little rest he joined the Benedictines and settled down to grow herbs.
The present book concerns the efforts of the ambitious Prior Robert to acquire a saint's relics for the Abbey. Relics (that is, bones) were a big deal then; one gathers that there was something of an (I apologize in advance) arms race among the various cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries to see who could get the best relics. Prior Robert has set his sights on the bones of St. Winifred, a little-know Welsh saint. As a native speaker of Welsh, Cadfael goes along on the trip to get them.
There's so much here that Peters gets right. Cadfael and the other monks, and the people they meet, are all believers, as they would have been. Some are more susceptible to superstition than others (many believe that a corpse will bleed if the murderer touches it); others are quite willing to invent signs, wonders, and visions to advance their cause. But in Cadfael, Peters makes it clear that she understands the distinction between the reality of God and the mockery we all-too-often make of Him in our scheming. It's a fine line to walk, treating the Christian faith with respect while recognizing the frailty of individual Christians, but Peters makes it look easy.
Thursday, 17 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 04:32 PM
The most notable thing is the change in Brother Cadfael's standing. He begins as a minor, if important, member of the Abbey community; he has to work the angles to make things come out the way he wants them to. By the time of this book, though, he's the acknowledged expert on certain things, and well trusted.
Another notable thing is that the cast of continuing characters has solidified; every successful amature sleuth needs a friend among the constabulary, and Cadfael's is Hugh Beringar, the local Sheriff. Hugh didn't appear in A Morbid Taste for Bones; here, his friendship with Cadfael is a matter of long-standing. Ambitious Prior Robert and his friend the obsequious Brother Jerome are still around, but the dreamy, unworldly abbot of the first book has been replaced by the no-nonsense Radagulf, and Prior Robert is clearly on Radagulf's leash.
But the real question is whether the quality has slipped, and I can fairly say that it hasn't. I'll be looking for the other books in the series.
[Deb English, 04:36 PM
Friday, 18 October 2002
[Deb English, 06:22 PM
The Perennial Boarder has Asey Mayo returning to Cape Cod for a weekend off from helping Bill Porter refit his car plant to making tanks or planes. Just as he walks in the door, still in his city clothes, his cousin Jennie insists he help her deliver clams to a local hotel because her husband, Syl, has twisted his ankle and can't drive the truck. After some breakdowns with the truck and problems with military convoys taking up the road, they get the clams to the hotel just under the time deadline only to find it deserted with a dead body in the telephone nook. And the dead body is dressed in the clothes of one of the guests who has been coming to the hotel during the summers for years and years. And there is a tomato pincushion in the middle of the floor. Asey decides to investigate.
These books aren't for everyone. They are definitely period pieces with convoluted plots that dont follow the normal formula for setting up murder mysteries. Asey really has no gimmick to distinguish him from other detectives except that everyone on the Cape trusts him to solve mysteries, including the local cops. There is no luscious descriptive writing to fill in the set and the dialog tends to be terse. And I love them. They are an absolute hoot to read because you never know what is going to happen next or how Asey is going to get himself out of the fix he's found himself in. The stories are straight from the era of radio drama when the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. No psychotic killers with a horrible childhood to lend sympathy. Just plain old murders for plain old reasons like, well, money.
Sunday, 20 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 08:03 AM
I've never been fond of the story of King Lear; the old King is a foolish man, and a bad judge of character. It's always seemed to me that he got what was coming to him (not that his two older daughters were great prizes either). But I have to say, the story makes a lot more sense in Japanese. Kurosawa transforms it into the story of the Great Lord, an elderly nobleman who has conquered a great domain for himself, slaughtering all those who opposed him.
The Great Lord has three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo, and in his great age he announces (at a party) that he is handing day-to-day command over to his oldest son Taro; and that each of his sons will be given command of a castle. He will live with each of them in turn through the year.
His youngest son, Saburo, tells him that he's acting like a senile old fool to trust his children so. And this is where moving the story to Japan works for me: by challenging his father at a party, before guests, Saburo (who is only telling the truth, after all) has caused his father to lose face. The Great Lord gives his son the chance to recant, but when Saburo remains obdurate the Great Lord banishes him.
Is this a nice way for families to behave? No; but at least it makes more sense to me.
And then there's the Lady Kaede. I don't believe she has any exact equivalent in Shakespeare's play; she's the wife of Taro, and it so happens, she's the only survivor of a noble family wiped out by the Great Lord. It's as though Lady MacBeth was transplanted into King Lear--but instead of being ambitious for her husband, she's ambitious for revenge. One can hardly blame her, but the portrayal is chilling.
So did I like it? Well enough, considering. It's a tragedy, and I usually don't do tragedies; the tragic flaw usually strikes me as avoidable stupidity, and I hate watching that. But I'm not sorry I saw it.
Monday, 21 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 04:58 PM
Arms and the Women is less a murder mystery than a thriller. It begins very confusingly: there's a cache of illegal guns, and a shoot-out, and the who's and why's remain murky until much later in the book. Then there's an extended internal monologue by a character whom I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to recognize or not, before good ol' Pascoe appears. (There's a twenty-one year gap between this book and the previous one in calendar years, and at least six to eight in internal years, and it's not clear how much has happened in the mean time; it makes it hard to know who the players are.) Once it gets rolling, though, it cooks right along.
The heart of the book (it would merit publication on its own) is an extended narrative written by Pascoe's wife, Ellie. She's an aspiring novelist, and is in fact waiting to hear from a publisher about a manuscript she sent in. It had come back the previous time with some encouraging comments, and so she reworks it and polishes it, and sends it in again--and then finds herself completely unable to work on anything serious while she was waiting. So she starts writing a tale, for her eyes only, about a meeting between Odysseus and Aeneas on Calpyso's isle. Aeneas is there with his army. He's not gotten to Carthage yet, but he's clearly a man of destiny, and it's clear to everyone, including himself, that he's going to make it to Italy and found Rome. Odysseus, just as tricksy as you'd expect him to be, is just trying to get home. It's a lovely, funny little creation, and worth the price of admittance.
Meanwhile, Columbian gun runners are closing in on the cache of weapons--where so ever it is--and a government spook named Gawain Sempernel is closing in (so we are led to understand, by hint and by whisper) on the gun runners. And closing in as well on their English confederates, one of whom just might be Ellie Pascoe. She might actually be innocent, but it's clear Gawain doesn't much care; this is his last operation and if she stands between him and a comfortable retirement, she's expendable.
I don't want to give any more away, but I will say that Hill shows the same restraint that Lovesey shows in The Vault--he lets the narrative speak for itself. He doesn't explain all the jokes at the end; he assumes that we're smart enough to notice them and appreciate them without his help.
I'll definitely be looking for more from Mr. Hill.
Tuesday, 22 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 06:55 PM
Man, how times have changed.
This is a novel of imposture. A prominent politician has been kidnapped; it's urgent that it not be known. So an out-of-work actor with the politician's bone structure is dragooned (more or less) to impersonate him--just for a few days. He's successful, and the politician's staff manage to rescue him. Alas, the great man is much the worse for wear, and the impersonation must continue....
It goes on fairly predictably from there. It's a friendly little tale, well-told, but I am shocked that it won a Hugo.
Wednesday, 23 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 06:10 PM
Homer Kelly, former detective, Harvard professor, transcendentalist, and his wife have been invited to Oxford for a term; Homer will be a visiting lecturer. Meanwhile, a number of odd events occur about the building and inhabitants of the Oxford Museum. A night watchman falls to his death; many jars of sadly decayed crabs are found mysteriously under a tarp in an area where refurbishment has been going on. Might they have been collected by Charles Darwin?
Before I start tearing into it, I'd like to say that I did enjoy it; it filled a pleasant afternoon.
To begin with, it isn't much of a murder mystery; there's a little mild-but-inconclusive investigation, and just a dribble of suspense, but there's no real deduction; the case, such as there is, just sort of solves itself over time. Homer Kelly doesn't so much solve the case as simply stamp "Solved" on its cover. (I seem to recall that Deb has made the same criticism.) And yet everyone is convinced that he's a great sleuth.
On top of that, the book is essentially a long meditation on evolution and the difficulties of bridging the gap between Science and Religion; it seems that one might sooner drive a Camel through the eye of a needle. And it's not a gap that I, at least, have any great difficulty bridging. I see no reason to interpret the first chapters of Genesis literally; it's a description of the creation suited for the first ancestors of the Hebrews. They weren't stupid people, by any means, but they weren't scientifically sophisticated. And given that understanding Divine Creation is probably beyond the human intellect anyway, it wouldn't matter much if God updated Genesis with a description suitable for people of our age--it still wouldn't tell the whole story. So what's the message of the creation story? In a nutshell: this is God's world; he created it; he created us. That's the meat of it. Who am I tell God what mechanisms he's allowed to use? God's got Eternity to work in; perhaps He decided that starting with a Big Bang and working His way up over billons of years to the first people was the most beautiful way to do it.
And so, given that the tale turns on the chasm between Science and Religion it didn't completely work for me.
But still, I did enjoy it; it was even a little goofy in spots. It didn't pass the read-aloud test, in that I wasn't motivated to share all of the good bits with Jane as I was reading it, but it was fun.
Thursday, 24 October 2002
[Deb English, 05:03 PM
Alex Delaware, the "hero," is a former child psychologist who is now working as a consultant in LA on police and custody cases. He works primarily with Milo, a gay homicide detective. His live-in love is Robin who builds and rebuilds expensive string instruments for a living. She has issues with his police work centering on his knack for getting himself into tight situations involving guns. Oh, and he has a mastiff named Spike. Alex has a visit from a former, failed therapy patient, a young hooker named Lauren, who then turns up dead a few days later, shot in the head and dumped in a dumpster. Alex feels all sorts of guilt and angst over not doing more to help the child she was years ago and his investigation goes from there.
The book kept my attention. The plot twists were unpredictable and kind of interesting. His characters were certainly realistic. Kellerman kept Milo, the gay detective, real and didnt stereotype him too badly. But beyond that, it was just ok. I remembered why I dont much care for suspense thrillers and got it out of my system for a few months. Too much gore and violence. Too many graphic descriptions that I dont need in my head.
[Deb English, 05:04 PM
Anyway, I started with "Pigs Have Wings," a Blandings story published in 1952. The Blandings stories have at their center Blandings Castle and it's owner the slightly dim Lord Emsworth. And the center of his world is the Empress of Blandings, his beloved pig, whom in this story he is fattening up to win the prize at the local Fair for largest pig. And then there is Sir Galahad Threepwood, his old but rakish brother, and Beach, his port-drinking butler. His competition at the Fair is his grossly overweight neighbor, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and his pig, The Queen of Matchingham. And he employs Lord Emsworth's former "pig man," George Cyril Wellbeloved who smells of, um, pig and has a mighty taste for beer. There are love stories, deceptions, mistaken identities, pig thefts and general rushing about in the two seater that fill in the plot of the novel. "Summer Lightening", published in 1929, is essentially the same with different girls and a few other characters. In fact, whole passages are repeated at the beginning of the book, which gave me a weird sense of deja vu. I suppose Wodehouse thought it worked well one time, why not repeat it again.
The first thing I noticed is the language. His puns are merciless. I spent much of the time reading and chuckling out loud, to my husband's annoyance. Sir Galahad Threepwood has some of the funniest lines I have read in a long, long time. And the descriptions of the way characters move or look is priceless. I thought about underlining them so I could go back and find them later. About half way thru the "Pigs have Wings", I realized that Wodehouse had woven a pretty complicated web of interconnection between the characters that he then was peeling back one by one in the final pages of the story. You know the ending will be happy, you just don't quite know how he is going to do it.
I can't wait to read Bertie and Jeeves.
Friday, 25 October 2002
[Deb English, 01:59 PM
"Fall From Grace" centers on the relationships of 5 people who went to high school together way back when. The Good Looking Bad Boy, Bobby Ransome, is back in Sechelt after doing a stint in prison. And for some reason, the school nerd and photographer, Stephen Grayson, who hasnt shown his face in Sechelt since leaving right after high school, has decided to come back to visit his elderly widowed mother. And then there is Annabelle, Wanda and poor frustrated Warren, who are just trying to live their lives with messed up relationships and none too hot marriages. So when Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg finally gets his girlfriend, Cassandra, on a boat to go sailing for a day, it seriously interrupts his romantic visions to find Stephen Grayson lying at the bottom of cliff with all the signs that he has been pushed and a whole crew of people who could have done it.
This is one of those mysteries where you know who did it but you can't figure out why. The pleasure from reading it comes from watching Alberg work his way thru all the leads and clues. And with this one, the solution is delightfully ambiguous. Did he or didn't he?
Saturday, 26 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 08:27 AM
But then I got to thinking--it's a chronic problem I have--that the story as presented simply doesn't make sense. I'll grant you the basic premise: the prince is an arrogant, inhospitable, bad-tempered swine; he refuses shelter to an ugly old woman; the woman turns out to be a beautiful enchantress and casts a spell on him, making his poor character manifest to all. I'll even buy the time limit on breaking the spell, though it serves no real purpose but to add suspense.
So we're expected to believe that a prince--a son of the King of France--is turned into a loathsome beast (the members of his household being turned into useful household objects) and nobody in the wider world notices? OK, so the castle's enchantment includes a spell of forgetting on the surrounding countryside...you'd still think his mother the Queen would notice when he didn't come home for Christmas. A Prince of the Blood Royal would be one of the leading citizens of France, and his disappearance would leave an unmistakeable chasm in the political landscape.
Well...perhaps this is France way back in the Dark Ages. The prince's father isn't really the King of France; he's just a minor king of a small region. Well and good--but the setting is clearly post-Renaissance. We can tell that from the vast quantities of printed books alone, if the architecture of the Beast's castle wasn't a dead giveaway. And then, Belle's father's inventions bring it to the verge of the industrial revolution. So this isn't a tale of the Dark Ages; this is a tale of the days when France was already a major European power.
After that, the incongruities keep piling up.
This is France; how come the only ones with French accents are Lumiere and his girlfriend the feather duster?
And what are Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts doing in the prince's service? Unlike anyone else in the movie they are clearly English in name as well as accent. England was, more often than not, the enemy in this period of history.
Where's the rest of the prince's household--his secretary, his courtiers, his sycophants and hangers-on, and, for that matter, where are his guards?
When the ugly witch came, what was the prince doing answering his own door? He had servants for that.
Where does all the food come from? Are the villagers still making deliveries? If so, they aren't admitting it.
Once the spell is broken, what is the prince going to use for candlesticks, teapots, wardrobes, clocks, and feather dusters?
Belle's father strays into the castle environs by accident on his way to the Fair. How come nobody else from the village was going?
Belle visits the village bookseller. He's got a sizeable shop with lots of books. Who buys them? It's a very small town; Belle is considered unusual because she's a woman who reads; the men seem to spend all their time in the tavern swilling beer with Gaston. How come the bookseller hasn't gone out of business?
And then consider Gaston, the mighty hunter, he who uses antlers in all of his decorating--where on earth is he finding the deer? We're well into the period in history where any deer in France would be dwelling in the Royal Woods, protected by the Royal Gamekeepers, to be hunted only by the Royal Monarch and his friends and family. Gaston is awfully well-respected in the village for a poacher, especially as the prominent display of antlers all over the tavern might be enough to bring the King's wrath down on the entire town.
Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. Clearly the Beast--the Prince that was--is out of favor with his father the King. He's been banished to a castle in a remote part of France where he can dwell in moderate comfort with a minimum of staff. The greater part of French society has endeavoured to forget him entirely; consequently, his rebirth as a Beast goes unremarked. The local villagers notice, of course, and being canny peasants immediately determine to make the best of it. With the Beast in seclusion, there's nothing to prevent them from taking to themselves as many of the local Royal perquisites as they can grab, the King's Deer chief among them.
The result is peace and prosperity--wealth, even--for the village. This is evident from the hustle and bustle in the opening scenes of the movie, but even more so from the lack of children. I don't recall seeing a single person under marriageable age in the entire flick except for Mrs. Potts' kid Chip. And of course it's well known that family size is correlated with wealth.
So the villagers are all perfectly familiar with the terms of the enchantment. So no wonder they call Belle's father crazy when he talks about the Beast--Belle and her father are newcomers, and are outside the Conspiracy of Silence that protects the village's prosperity.
This in turn explains Gaston's determination to marry a girl who clearly detests him--she's the only young woman in the village who might see beyond the Beast's exterior and so break the spell. Once married, she's no longer a candidate (another incongruity! This is France, after all). And then, when it becomes clear that the secret is out, Gaston and the villagers seek to solve the problem by killing the Beast once and for all.
It doesn't work, of course; Gaston falls to his death, the other villagers are driven away by the Useful Household Items, Belle announces her love, and the Beast changes back into a (not particularly handsome--didja see the size of his nose?) Prince. Belle weds the Prince, and they live happily ever after.
By themselves, in a castle in a remote part of France, forbidden ever to return to Paris. It's a good thing Belle likes to read, that's all I can say.
Sunday, 27 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 10:38 AM
On the other side you've got General Belisarius and his happy, jovial crew of soldiers of all kinds. Belisarius is accompanied by another visitor from the far future, the crystalline entity called "Aide". Unlike the inhuman, emotionless machine-entity Link, Aide is funny, sarcastic, and caring by turns--but Aide is equally determined to see Link fail. Naturally, both Link and Aide give advanced technology and tactical tips to their teams. The difference is, of course, that fascist Link wishes to control the flow of information whereas Aide is happy to give Belisarius and his followers anything they can possibly use.
Unsurprisingly, competence, good humor, and the free flow of ideas is going to triumph over evil totalitarianism, and this is book in which we begin to see it happen. Like it's predecessors, it's a rollicking good time; the good guys beat the bad guys six ways from Sunday, the villains get theirs in suitably ironic fashion, and so on and so forth--though there are some surprises.
There will be at least one more book in the series, in which Link and the Malwa Empire will presumably be destroyed; it's to be called The Dance of Time.
If this sounds like anything you'd enjoy reading, I think you'll enjoy it quite a bit. I did.
Tuesday, 29 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 06:38 PM
Wednesday, 30 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 07:33 PM
It's a surprisingly engaging tale--this is my second time through it, in fact. I learned quite a bit about the Mayans, dispelling quite a few myths, but also about language and writing systems in general (by the end, our alphabet alphabet seems a thing of wonder).
It's also something of a cautionary tale about trends in academia. The Old Guard in Mayan Archaeology had decided that Mayan script was "ideographic", that is, that each glyph corresponded to a particular idea, rather than to any particular word. The same has often been said of Egyptian writing, and Chinese as well, and it turns out that it's hogwash. Every writing system known encodes spoken language, and every writing system known has a phonetic component. In Mayan script, for example, a jaguar's head might be used to mean "jaguar", but it might be used purely for the sound of the word "jaguar" as part of another word. If we wrote English the way the Mayans wrote their language, we might use a glyph that looked like a cat to mean "cat", but also as the first sound in "catapult", "cattle", "category", and so forth.
This has been known to be true for Egyptian, for example, since the mid-nineteenth century; the Old Guard's ideas were 50 years out of date even at the beginning of this century. And although the first successful phonetic decipherment of Mayan script was done in 1952, it was thirty years before that small beginning was able to blossom and bear fruit--largely because the staunchest member of the Old Guard was dead by then.
Anyway, it's a cool book. There's a second edition out, with more pictures than I've got in mine; I should probably find a copy.
[Will Duquette, 07:56 PM
Thursday, 31 October 2002
[Will Duquette, 08:02 PM