Thursday, June 23, 2022

New (to me) Music - Porcupine Tree

Take the following groups/performers, and toss them in a rhetorical blender.

  • Pink Floyd
  • Styx
  • Journey
  • Led Zepplin 
  • Duncan Shiek
  • Yes
  • Chemical Brothers

What do you get?

Porcupine Tree  

I came across Porcupine Tree a while back due to their song Blackest Eyes from the In Absentia album.  I finally got around to listening to their complete discography.  So far, I've just been listening to their studio albums.

It is like walking in a musical wilderness where one moment you are looking at a bucolic pasture and the next you are watching a river crash down a mountainside in a raging set of mountain waterfalls.

One moment you are listening to an ethereal and melancholic tune with a singer lightly singing wistfully.  The next moment comes as the same song will transition into something with a thumping drum beat and guitar riffs that make you look around to see where all the metalheads came from.

The band has been around for over 20 years and it is probably the best band that you've never heard.

I heartily recommend listening to the albums Signify and In Absentia.

Steven Wilson formed Porcupine Tree and provide both instrumental and vocal leadership in their music.  He has been praised by musicians as varied as Alex Lifeson (Rush), Steve Howe (Yes), Robert Trujillo (Metallica), Jordan Rudess, Michael Portnoy (both of Dream Theater), and others.

Give them a listen.  Spotify - YouTube 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Review: King of the Bastards

King of the BastardsKing of the Bastards by Brian Keene
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a 2-star review which is a fair evaluation of my experience with this book.

Our protagonist (??!?) is a Conan knock-off who has all of the bravado and toughness but none of the nuance. He conquers and kills because that is what he does. Others are expected to submit to his will. That apparently includes raping women just because.

This book is an amalgamation of cosmic horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Our protagonist is out adventuring when his group is attacked by various monsters from the ocean's depths as well as raiders arriving across the sea. He and one of his crew survive after running aground on some foreign land. They beat off the remainder of their attackers and are discovered by some of the locals.

The locals are afraid of some wizard that lives on the top of a mountain. In exchange for agreeing to help rid the locals of the wizard, the locals agree to travel with our protagonist as he sails for his home that has been taken over by raiders working for the deity that fomented in the original attacks.

There are two primary issues with this book.

1. Our protagonist is a cheap Conan knock-off.
2. The author is attempting a pastiche of the original RE Howard stories, but he is unable to consistently use language that is in keeping with that pastiche. He uses terms and phrases that are not appropriate for a Conan-type character.

View all my reviews

Review: Reign & Ruin

Reign & Ruin (Mages of the Wheel, #1)Reign & Ruin by J.D. Evans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a 2-star review. My experience would be closer to 2.5 stars.

This book won the SPFBO this year. I have read every winner since becoming aware of the competition. Those books have been uniformly fantastic...until now. The grammar and spelling were fine. The pacing was fine.

But I spent the first 15-20% of the book wondering if I was going to toss it across the floor in disgust.

The book is centered on a princess/sultana who is slated to marry whomever the powerbrokers want her to marry. Her father's memory and grasp on reality have fractured to the point where he really doesn't know what is going on. She is working to protect him and to protect her country from an aggressive nation to the north. Naturally, she disapproves of this marital arrangement and is working to get out of it. (as a reader, I sympathized with the Sultana) The Sultan's dementia is a result of employing his specific type of magic.

There are six magic houses. Each has a different skill (i.e. air, fire, water, etc.) and each has a different color. I had no real idea of how that worked after reading 15% of the book. There were some indications on some of the houses, but no real establishment of how magic works.

Why? Because in the first 15% of the book none of these supposedly powerful mages does a lick of meaningful magic. We are told they are powerful (mostly by the Sultana who is the focus of the book) but there is no evidence of that power in their actions.

The author does not understand the principle of "show don't tell".

That is the primary flaw with this book. We are told there are powerful mages. We rarely see that power in evidence. We are told that there are some nefarious characters but rarely see them behaving in a nefarious manner. We are told there is a threat from the neighboring country to the north and they never show up in the book.

The Sultana ends up falling in love with a prince from the country to the west. The two nations used to be one nation hundreds of years ago but were split apart. The prince arrives on a diplomatic mission that is part of the Sultana's machinations to avoid a forced marriage.

The two fall in love. Why? She is pretty and he is handsome. They don't actually do much of anything to justify each other's love. We are told they are pretty and that's that.

Then there are the obligatory sex scenes that do nothing to advance the larger narratives of the various storylines.

The last few chapters were predictable. Very little of the consequences in the story are actually earned.

While I usually am enthusiastic about continuing a series that begins with a SPFBO winning book, I have no interest in continuing this series. If not for winning SPFBO, this book would have received the Dorothy Parker treatment after reading 15% of the book.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Review: Fevered Star

Fevered Star (Between Earth and Sky, #2)Fevered Star by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been an active Worldcon member for over a decade; nominating and voting for the Hugo Awards. And I've been a fan of science fiction/fantasy since I learned to read.

This book is why I am usually a Worldcon member. The first book in the series was nominated for the Best Novel award in 2021. I had the first entry in the series (Black Sun) in the first position on my ballot.

This year's book from Ms. Roanhorse, Fevered Star, continues her tour de force in the fantasy genre.

The series is based on the first nation's traditions of the pre-Columbian Americas. In this book, two opposing gods have had their essences imbued into their respective "priests". The people carrying those divine beings don't necessarily want to fight, but the gods most certainly do.

Coupled with that are seven competing clans who all want to control the city of Tova. Each uses the current conflict as a premise for maneuvering events to the advantage of their individual clans.

Rather than using the first book to coast further down the established narrative, Ms. Roanhorse uses this next installment to change the stakes and some of the players to tell an enthralling story.

This book is a singular example of why fantasy fiction exists. Just as JRR Tolkien introduced the world to a completely new epic tale, Ms. Roanhorse is introducing the world to her vision of fantastic characters and places.

Assuming that I am participating in Worldcon 2023, Fevered Star will be on my nominating list.

View all my reviews

Review: The Last Dance

The Last Dance (The Near-Earth Mysteries, #1)The Last Dance by Martin L. Shoemaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Captain Nicolau Aames commands a spaceship that travels the Armstrong cycle/circuit from Earth to Mars and back. It really is more of a space train that shuttles people and material to Mars and back.

The Captain is obsessed with details. Along the way, he trains people going to Mars and his own crew by forcing them to train for obscure scenarios. Essentially, he envisions a stream of cascading errors and demands that his crew be prepared to respond to any contingency.

Captain Aames finds himself in trouble as he refuses an order from command. The ensuing investigation eventually becomes centered on a death on Mars. If the Captain is correct, it is a murder. Command doesn't see where it could be a murder and just wants the investigation closed.

A second feature is the potential for the spaceship to become a self-contained polity that is free from the dictates of Earth. As an independent polity, the Captain of the ship would be free from many of the regulations imposed by Earth.

Mysteries within mysteries with the question of self-determination in the balance.

View all my reviews

Review: The Liar of Red Valley

The  Liar of Red ValleyThe Liar of Red Valley by Walter Goodwater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our protagonist's mother possesses the magical ability to cause reality to change based on what she writes in her book. Whatever she writes comes to pass.

Rather than using that power to run things, she mostly just exchanges her talent for money.

Mom eventually dies and our protagonist discovers that she also possesses this ability, it has been passed down from mother to daughter since the founding of the Valley.

There is some sort of powerful being (an alien? something supernatural?) that is attracted to the valley. He wants her for her power.

Fans of Stephen King will recognize many of the features of this book. But this is a reasonably unique story and setting. Worth a read for any fan of horror and fantasy.

View all my reviews

Review: The Last Campaign

The Last Campaign (The Near-Earth Mysteries, #2)The Last Campaign by Martin L. Shoemaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another fantastic installment in this series. Where before our protagonist was a spaceship captain, he has lost that high position and now works with his wife running various businesses.

Murders occur and those in power seek someone capable of running a detailed investigation. It turns out to be his wife that is called to serve rather than him. This naturally causes a great of stress between them.

What follows is a collision of principles in front of a background of people struggling to build a new civilization on Mars that is not dependent or based on an overly bureaucratic Earth.

The tension between personal principles, love for another, and the desire to live free creates space to explore the human condition from many directions.

This was on my nomination list for the Hugo Awards in 2021.

View all my reviews

Review: Bystander 27

Bystander 27Bystander 27 by Rik Hoskin
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book is populated by cliches and cardboard characters. The protagonist is some sort of high-speed special forces guy with an apartment in New York City. There aren't any SF bases in NYC. It goes downhill from there.

The ghost of Dorothy Parker rose in a manner adroit and definitive.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 5, 2022

In Memoriam - A Headstone

Fans of the band Rush are aware that drummer Neal Peart lost both his daughter and his wife within a very short period of time.  It crushed him. 

His daughter's headstone is engraved with part of the following poem.  Having never read this before, it moved me.

Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.

Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Review: MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors

MASH: A Novel About Three Army DoctorsMASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a 4-star review.

I was a big fan of the TV show as a kid. At least, I really liked the early seasons. I didn't see the movie for many more years but liked it as well.

The book was a different experience. It attempts to be a "year in the life" sort of book with what are effectively a series of vignettes that follow our heroes over their tour in Korea during the Korean War*. There isn't really an overarching story being told across the various chapters.

Most of those stories end up in either the movie or the TV series. At least, all of the better stories end up in some sort of video format - and sometimes both!

The primary problem with the book is that the number of hijinks that our heroes experience over the course of a year seems to be far too great for only two US Army doctors to achieve over such a short period of time. The author indicates in the preface that Hawkeye and Trapper John are really amalgamations of a larger number of doctors.

But as a single narrative, it's hard to believe that two doctors drink that much, conduct extended surgery sessions that much, and make side trips to so many other places within a single year.

It would be interesting to encounter this book without having had prior exposure via the TV series or the movie.

People that enjoyed the early years of the series but not the later years should enjoy this book. People that didn't enjoy the early years but liked the later years probably will not enjoy this book.

*I know. "conflict" - "police action" - nonsense. Men and women died in huge numbers fighting against enemy armies. It was a war.

View all my reviews

Review: Terms of Enlistment

Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines #1)Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a 3-star review. It's a weak 3 stars.

Read this some time ago, but had not reviewed it. The story wasn't terribly memorable. As I recall, it had some anti-Starship Trooper elements. Or at least it was trying to subvert the ST narrative in some way.

A couple of plot points stood out to me.

One was that so many people were basically being warehoused. They received a subsistence level of money from the government. Their access to good food was poor. And there was precious little explanation of how this came to be and how it was sustained.

Downstream from the inexplicable economics was the suggestion that people should just take what they wanted as well as the suggestion that those people had no options in which they could demonstrate their usefulness to humanity by pursuing meaningful work.

The second was that the author made the unforgivable mistake of conflating an "assault rifle/weapon" with a semi-automatic rifle. Being a veteran, he should know better.

The unexplained economics were a much larger problem.

There are better works of MilSF out there. Pursue them instead of this.

View all my reviews

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Review: Isolate

Isolate (The Grand Illusion, #1)Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a 4-star review. My experience is closer to 3.5 stars.

Isolate is the latest book from L.E. Modesitt Jr. It is the first in a series. I have been a fan of Mr. Modesitt for many years and was hoping that this book would be worthy of being on my Hugo Awards nomination list this year because that sort of recognition of his work is long overdue. Sadly, it fell a bit short of that high bar.

There are many plot elements to this book that mostly interlock. The characters are well developed. Despite the flaws and the predictable ending, I was fully engaged with the book from beginning to end.

The Isolate world appears to be steam-punk-ish. Automobiles are powered by water and kerosene. There might be electricity, but it isn't a significant feature. Gas lighting is evident. Long-distance communication is accomplished via light reflectors sending coded messages. Travel over long distances is done via rail. Technologically, the world is on par with roughly the 1910-1920 era.

The most significant speculative fiction element is the presence of a range of empaths; people capable of sensing/projecting emotions/thoughts. On that range are "isolates" who are anti-empaths with emotions/thoughts that cannot be sensed by empaths.

The author likes to explore issues of social science in his work. In this book, the political framework is a sort of parliamentary system with a monarch; sort of like the UK. There are three parties formally recognized in the nation's formal organization. There are electoral restrictions that are intended to prevent any one party from becoming too strong without preventing an outright majority.

The three parties are separately presented as representing labor, business, and inherited wealth. Inherited wealth tends to line up with business more as a matter of convenience than ideology. The regulatory framework tends to enable corruption with big businesses controlling construction contracts.

Another unique feature is that votes by members of parliament are secret. Members enter a voting booth and vote via a mechanism that hides their hands. They select a tile that indicates their party that is then dropped into the appropriate yes/no slot. This is intended to prevent voters from responding against votes cast by a single individual. This in turn causes a plot point where some citizens are campaigning for changes so that a politician's discreet voting record will be public. "People not parties!"

The story centers on a politician, Axel Obreduur, and his security team of one empath, Avraal Ysella, and one isolate, Steffan Dekkard. The two are teamed together as their relative "abilities" are complementary.

There are several plot lines that are woven together in the central story. Most of them have to do with the powers of the government and how laws are made/changed/etc. That sounds pretty dry, but it really isn't. Most of the political negotiations occur behind closed doors while the reader is engaged with other characters elsewhere. Some of the plotlines deal with personal/private relationships either as a result of government policies and in some cases despite government policies.

There is some action (Steffan kills a few people while defending Axel and Avraal). But this is largely a quieter story that unfolds gracefully.

The author introduces some interesting twists. The policies and interests of the three parties do not map perfectly onto modern American political parties. Axel supports some interests that might be considered "left" and others that would be considered "right" relative to American political interests. That skewing of interests relative to party labels opens up opportunities to consider/re-consider different perspectives.

There were some plot issues that detracted from the overall story.

- There are several instances of markets being distorted by government regulations/taxation. It never occurs to the characters that less government might result in greater individual success due to the increase in individual autonomy.

- All of the policies that Axel supports are considered to be desirable. All of the policies that he opposes are considered undesirable. Conversely, the business party is presented in all their mustache-twirling glory. In a book with moral grey areas, that sort of binary characterization seems out of place.

- The conclusion(s) of the book is/are predictable after reading roughly a third of the book.

- In an attempt to explore social conditions, there are a few features that are nonsense. The first of those features is the fact that the police are armed with revolvers and the rebels/terrorists/youpickaname have semi-automatic pistols with a larger magazine capacity than the standard revolver. If pistols are available, then why wouldn't the police have them? Another would be Axel's penchant for campaigning outside of a "sportball" arena on game day, but never actually engaging with the event. He campaigns while the crowd is filtering in and then leaves when the game starts.

This book is worth reading, once. I doubt I will continue reading the series.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

A Quilt for Olivia

Our son Josh married his beloved bride, Kayla, last fall.  As circumstances would have it, bun number 2 was already in the oven!  

I haven't had much time to quilt over the last year.  I lost my quilting space during some home renovations.  I've got a new/better space now, but for a while, there just wasn't anyplace to work.

We've had some other changes in our lives that have also cut into my quilting time over the last few months.  But this is a grandbaby!  One must make time for such an occasion.

I have a nice little stash of Dr. Seuss fabrics.  I just haven't had the opportunity to use them.

Until now.  Click to embiggen any photos of interest.

The pattern is a modified log cabin design.  I call it "Log Cabin Deconstructed".

Instead of doing a more traditional layout (see Quilt #1 for a good representation of a more traditional layout), I modified the pattern with a larger 4" x 4" centerpiece and a semi-random distribution of fabrics.  The larger centerpiece was a bit of a crutch/time-saver as the first three pieces of a log cabin quilt are small.  Combining them into a single block helped move the project along.

I used a process that is related to the one used in the stained glass quilt that I made my mom to distribute the fabrics.  In this case, I sorted the fabrics so that no two adjacent pieces would use the same fabric.  I also shuffled the blocks as they were being added to the pile so that none of the finished blocks would have exactly the same arrangement of fabrics.

I'm pretty pleased with the result.  Once I had the quilt finished, the hard part was done and our grandbaby could arrive on schedule.

We are ecstatic with the arrival of Miss Olivia Gene Todd on April 6, 2022.