Tag Archives: books

Random Stuff for Tuesday, 20 March

Test sites for WordPress themes display several standard elements so theme hunters can see how things like images and bulleted lists look on the page. As it happens, I’m in the process of tweaking the Blue Zinfandel theme and I’ve got a few random things that I wanted to talk about, giving me the perfect opportunity to put the theme through its paces and solicit additional feedback.

  1. I picked up a copy of Fool Moon today, the second book in Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files. I tore through the first book, Blood Moon Storm FrontEDIT: Blood Moon? Where the hell did that come from?, over about two days when I was on vacation in Michigan, so I’m going to start Fool Moon as soon as I finish Eragon, which I’m about two-thirds of the way through.Liar, liar, pants on fire. Technically, I started reading Fool Moon while I was waiting for my General Tso’s Chicken at the China Express.
  2. My father was featured in a documentary that has (I’m told) aired twice in Finland. Laura and I got a copy of the 50-minute DVD in the mail yesterday. I think I’ll talk about it a little more once I’ve had a chance to watch it again.
  3. Laura’s birthday was Sunday. If you’ve been paying attention to My Twitter, you’ll know that my gift to her was food poisoning. I also got her some foul-tasting (but pretty) tea, a birthday card that looked familiar because I gave her the exact same one sometime in the past couple of years, flowers that were supposed to be a surprise but were anything but, and a couple of movies on DVD.
  4. Who’s the Man?
    image-567
    Kyle was sick a couple of weeks ago, but he’s feeling much better now. Actually, the entire Johnson household was under the weather; Kyle was the only one who didn’t seem to realize that he was sick. He had a cough and a runny nose, but was acting for the most part like nothing was out of the ordinary. If Laura and I were too slow with the tissues, Kyle would wind up wiping snot all over his face. Bleah.
  5. I didn’t watch the entire premiere of The Riches on FX, but I did see the second episode last night. Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver are both very good, and the show has a dark side that didn’t come across in the ads that drew me to it in the first place. I like what I’ve seen so far, though.
  6. On the topic of new shows, I also enjoyed the premiere of Raines starring Jeff Goldblum. The show has a very cool concept (cop talks to the victim of the homicide he’s trying to solve) and I really like the way Goldblum plays the character; Michael Raines has all of the quirks I associate with Jeff Goldblum, but he’s definitely more ruthless and edgy than I expected him to be. I appreciate that.
  7. Rae promises that Robin Hood will get better with the next episode. The first three episodes weren’t bad, but they could certainly have been better.
  8. I don’t think I like the default styling for ordered lists. Expect tweaks.
  9. It’s Game Night. I’m hoping to play Arkham Horror, but I’ll be happy playing pretty much anything.

Netstuff: Podiobooks article in the New York Times online

There is an article in the Books section of the New York Times online today about one of my favorite websites, Podiobooks.com.

Podiobooks combines the concepts of audiobooks and podcasts to deliver free, full-length novels (fiction and non-fiction) in regular, bite-sized installments to your favorite podcatcher (I use iTunes).

After signing up for a free account, you can browse the site and subscribe to more than 90 titles. Once you’ve subscribed, chapters from the novel(s) are delivered to your podcatcher on a weekly basis. Feeds are customizable, so if you want to receive chapters more frequently you can tweak the delivery settings to meet your preference.

With most podcasts, when you subscribe your podcatcher downloads the latest episode; if you go to J.C. Hutchins’ 7th Son website right now and subscribe to his feed, you’ll get the latest episode of the second novel in his trilogy, which is definitely not where you want to begin listening.

On Podiobooks, when you subscribe to Hutchins’ first novel, 7th Son: Descent, (and you should), you get a custom feed that starts from the beginning of the book and delivers a new chapter on whatever schedule you like. That’s what makes Podiobooks unique.

Read the article, then go sign up for an account at Podiobooks.com. If you want some recommendations, I can suggest a few titles:

  • Ancestor by Scott Sigler.Am I the only one who finds the idea of Scott Sigler recording in a closet absolutely hilarious? I hope not. I want a poster made of that photo! Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read the New York Times article, dammit! Most of the action Sigler’s second podcast novel takes place on a fictional island in Lake Superior, where scientists are hard at work creating beastly critters that want to eat us all. I enjoyed the hell out of this book, but I have one bone to pick with Mr. Sigler: No self-respecting Yooper would name his dog “Pasty”.
  • 7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins. I’ve talked about this book on KJToo.com and on The Round Table more times than I can count, and with good reason: it rocks. After a four-year-old boy kills the President of the United States, seven men are suddenly ripped away from their ordinary lives to discover that they are all clones of the man responsible assassination, and only by working together can they stop him.
  • The Red Panda Adventures by Decoder Ring Theater. Radio drama in the style of The Shadow and The Green Hornet. The Red Panda and The Flying Squirrel use clever gadgets, hypnosis and fisticuffs to fight crime on the streets of Toronto. By day, the costumed vigilantes are actually one of the city’s wealthiest menUnless I missed something, The Red Panda’s alter ego is never named throughout Season One. I only realized this about halfway into the season, so I’ll admit I wasn’t listening for the name in the first few episodes. Very clever. and his sassy driver, Kit Baxter.
  • Voices: New Media Fiction edited by Mur Lafferty. A collection of previously-podcasted short stories from authors like Cory Doctorow, Tee Morris, James Patrick Kelly and Patrick McLean (whose “Death of a Dishwasher” is one of the collection’s highlights).
  • The Curious Education of Epitome Quirkstandard by A.F. Harrold. How to describe this one? At the risk of insulting the author and the citizens of the United Kingdom, I’ll call it “very British”. Epitome Quirkstandard is an English dandy who — thanks to World War I — finds himself without a cadre of servants waiting on him hand and foot. Simone Crepuscular ran away from home to join the circus and accidentally joined the army, instead. After a long tour in India, Crepuscular leaves the service and travels across Asia and Europe, eventually returning to England where he self-publishes an astonishing number of pamphlets that contain the length and breadth of his considerable knowledge and experience. When the clueless Quirkstandard passes out near Crepuscular’s pamphlet shop, it marks the beginning of his curious eduction.

Non Sequitur: Biblioptimus Prime

Moving day looms like an ancient monolith at work. We scurry around in its shadow, fully aware that the hour of its descent draws nigh. When the simile topples, we will scatter or be crushed beneath its awesome mass.

I will be moving approximately eleven feet west, which means I need to pack everything at my desk (except my laptops, which currently number five) into boxes and vacate the building by 4:00 Friday afternoon. When I return on Monday, the journey from MVoD to desk will be approximately eleven feet shorter.

Today, I decided it was time to get rid of some technical tomes that I haven’t touched in a couple of years. I brought Newton’s Telecom Dictionary, The XML Bible, Teach Yourself HTML 4 in 24 Hours and a slew of Microsoft “core” references for Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000 and IIS to Half-Price Books, where the going rate for out of date computer books is approximately thirty cents per pound. This came to six whole dollars, the voucher for which burned like the innards of a freshly-microwaved Hot Pocket in my hand.

Browsing through the store, I saw a few possibilities: Sudden Strike II was only $4.98, but I decided that I don’t really need another computer game right now; Dungeons & Dragons: The Movie could be had for a paltry $6.98, but that would necessitate dragging out the debit card for a mere dollar and change; ((For some reason, I can’t bring myself to pay with a debit card if the total is less than about three bucks. I’ve gotten better; I used to balk at anything less than $10, and would wander around a store until I found something to bring the total over that threshold.)); Black & White 2 was available for $7.98, but that’s another sequel to a computer game I didn’t play enough in the first place.

I was ready to turn the voucher in for cash (which I would undoubtedly have blown on iced tea and Frappuccino®) when Miscellaneous G™ came to the rescue. Like Prince Adam lifting his sword high in preparation to invoke the power of Greyskull, Miscellaneous G™ held aloft a copy of Transformers: The Movie on DVD. The price tag: $9.98, which amounted to an acceptable $4.73 on the debit card.

The original value of the books I traded in probably topped three hundred dollars but I was glad to get six bucks for them, and Half-Price Books will be lucky to sell them for twice that; just another testament to how quickly computers and nearly everything related to them become obsolete.

Transformers, on the other hand, will never be obsolete to me. In the immortal words of Peter Cullen, ((Peter Cullen provided the voice of Optimus Prime in the Transformers cartoon as well as Transformers: The Movie. Fans of the original television series were delighted to learn that Cullen would be reprising his role in the upcoming live-action movie directed by Michael Bay. To date, Cullen’s inclusion is the only thing about the upcoming film that hasn’t led to indignation, outrage and rampant bitching from said fans.)) Autobots, transform and roll out!

Bookstuff: Wild Cards and A Song of Ice and Fire

Once upon a time, I was a member of the Science-Fiction Book ClubActually, it’s at least thrice upon a time, as I seem to re-join every six or seven years for some reason.
and I forgot to promptly return the “Selection of the Month” cardThis happened more than once, and I have several books on my shelf because of it. One other that I can recall off the top of my head is Marrow by Robert Reed, which I’ve not read. Yet.. As a result, one of the books I received was George R.R. Martin‘s A Storm of Swords. I probably would have sent the book back, but I’m a huge fan of a series of books that Martin edited back in the 1980’s called Wild Cards.

The Wild Cards series is a sort of alternative history of Earth, one that diverges from our own history slightly after World War II. The key event is the release of an alien virus into the atmosphere; a virus that radically alters a significant portion of the population of first New York City and eventually much of the world. Those affected by the Wild Card virus gain super-human abilities (Aces), become hideously deformed (Jokers), or die immediately (referred to as “drawing the Black Queen”).

Wild Cards is a collaborative universe, with stories written by George R.R. Martin, Walter Jon Williams (Dread Empire’s Fall), Melinda M. Snodgrass and Roger Zelazny (Chronicles of Amber), to name a few. The authors each created several characters that inhabited the Wild Cards universe, from Doctor Tachyon, the alien who brought the virus to Earth to Father Squid, the Joker priest, to Jack Braun, the Ace known as The Golden Boy (and later The Judas Ace).

Wild Cards: Death Draws Five

The series spans seventeen volumes, but I only have the first thirteen. There was also a four-issue limited series comic book published by Marvel’s Epic imprint, which I own in its entirety, and a GURPS supplement, which I do not. Though I thought the comic book was a merely mediocre, I absolutely loved the novels. I’ve re-read most of them at least twice, and went through all thirteen volumes I own last year. The most recent installment, Death Draws Five was published just last month. Volumes fourteen through sixteen have proven to be somewhat difficult to find, but I’d certainly like to complete the set eventually.

A Storm of Swords is the third volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Since I’d enjoyed Martin’s collaborative work in the Wild Cards series so much, I thought I’d give his solo stuff a shot. Rather than jumping into the middle of the series, I went out and picked up a copy of the first volume, A Game of Thrones. I read the first few chapters and then something new and shiny caught my eye, so I set it aside. The novel (which weighs in at 800+ pages) sat on my shelf for several years, until I was looking for something to take to the hospital when it was time for Kyle to make his debut. In the week Laura and I spent running back and forth to the Cleveland Clinic, I managed to read about a quarter of A Game of Thrones, quickly learning that the point where I’d stopped reading years ago was the chapter immediately before the plot took a very interesting turn.Should you happen to be reading/have read A Game of Thrones, I am referring to an event involving a young lad who likes to climb things.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Song of Ice and Fire puts the “epic” in “epic fantasy.” In the first volume, Martin is setting the pieces on the board, but it is very clear that the game is already well underway, and has been for quite some time. It’s a big game, too. Each chapter focuses on one character, and eight characters share the spotlight in A Game of Thrones. Six of the characters are from a single family, the seventh is a dwarf who is at one turn admirable and at another replusive, and the eighth isn’t even on the same continent as the others. All of these characters are involved in a “game of thrones,” attempting to prevent one faction or another from siezing control of the Seven Kingdoms, plotting to take the throne themselves, or even simply watching helplessly as the game is played out around them.

I finished A Game of Thrones just yesterday, and I’m itching to run out and buy the second volume, A Clash of Kings. The fourth volume, A Feast for Crows was released last year, but at about eight hundred pages per installment—not to mention dozens of other unread books on my shelves—I’ve got plenty of reading to keep me occupied until it is released as a paperback. Of course, between volumes two and four is A Storm of Swords, which I already own in hardcover and will probably purchase in paperback just to make the reading experience a little more enjoyable. I should keep that in mind the next time I’m tempted to join The Science Fiction Book Club again.

Movie Preview: Perfume

Perfume by Patrick Suskind (Book)Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has been adapted for the big screen. I read the book earlier this year, and I’m not sure how I feel about it being turned into a movie. On the plus side, Alan Rickman’s in it, but that alone isn’t enough to guarantee the movie will be good (see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). On the minus side, it’s a movie about a guy (Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, played by Layer Cake‘s Ben Whishaw) with an incredibly developed sense of smell. The book is filled with imaginative, vivid descriptions of the scents that fill Grenouille’s nostrils. How do you translate that to film?

I await the answer with some trepidation.

Movie Review: Sahara (2005)

SaharaSahara (2005)

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, William H. Macy, Delroy Lindo and The Merovingian.

Written by Clive Cussler (novel) and Thomas Dean Donnelly (screenplay).

Directed by Breck Eisner.

It’s been quite some time since I last read one of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels. I remember “discovering” them in my late teens and plowing through several of them (Raise the Titanic!, Iceberg and a couple others). Like most of what I read in those days, I can recall only vague details of the stories. What I do remember is that I enjoyed them a great deal. Dirk Pitt was the quintessential man’s man, and his best friend/sidekick Al Giordino was fiercely loyal and utterly dependable.

When I saw the trailer for Sahara several months ago, I was very interested to see how Pitt, Giordino and the other regulars from the series would translate to the screen. I don’t know that Matthew McConaughey would have been my first choice to portray Pitt, but I was more concerned that casting Steve Zahn as Al Giordino would relegate the character to comic relief. The Al that I remember was a short, stocky guy with dark hair and dark skin. The Al living the back of my head was usually quiet and serious; more Kato than C-3PO. In other words, not Steve Zahn.

Whatever Al should have been, I can’t say that I was too disappointed with Zahn in the film version of Sahara (I never read the book, to my recollection). As I expected, he provided a lot of comic relief, but it worked fairly well against McConaughey’s Pitt.

I remember even less about the Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy) and Rudi Gunn (Rainn Wilson, who reminds me a lot of Steven Page from Barenaked Ladies) characters than I do about Giordino, so I don’t suppose I can make any kind of comparison between their film and print versions. On screen, I really had no problem with either performance.

Overall, Sahara proved to be an entertaining action flick; not great, but not terrible. I did think that the music was a bit too James Bond-y at times, and the hundred-fifty-year-old treasure a bit too shiny. More than anything, the movie made me want to crack open a Dirk Pitt novel and see whether McConaughey was really a good choice for Pitt and whether or not Al Giordino was as goofy as Steve Zahn.

American Gods

American Gods

The bookmark I’ve been using to keep my place in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a page from the 2001 Mensa Puzzle Calendar. The page is Tuesday, 10 July 2001. This may or may not be the day I originally began reading the book, but it’s probably pretty close. The book was first published in 2001, and I’ve got the hardcoverHardcover books are a pain in the ass to read, especially in bed. After a while, my arms, hands and fingers get tired of holding up the book, so I rarely read more than ten or twenty pages of hardcovers when I’m in bed (I don’t like to read on my stomach). I know the hardcovers look nice on a shelf and all, but paperbacks are simply more convenient. They’re also easier to carry around.. I suppose you could say that I averaged about a hundred and ten pages a year on American Gods, but that would be an oversimplification.

See, I’ve got BADD. I’ll pick up a book today, read fifty pages or so, then buy another book tomorrow and temporarily abandon the old in favor of the new. As a result, my rate of finishing books is pretty sad. At any one time, I’m partway through at least a half-dozen books, if not more.

Sometimes, I can pick up a book I haven’t finished and dive right in where I left off a couple months (or years) ago. Other times, I have to back up a bit, or start all over again. That’s what I did with American Gods a few weeks ago. I picked it up and started from the very beginning.

This afternoon, eating cold lasagna and garlic breadsticks on my lunch hour, I finished the book. I feel inordinately accomplished right now. Not because American Gods was difficult or unpleasant to read, mind you. It’s just that I so rarely complete a book without allowing myself to be distracted by another that when it happens I want to celebrate. Buying The Once and Future King last weekend could very easily have led to the derailment of my Gaiman train”[M]y Gaiman train” is a very suspect phrase. Don’t think about it too much., but it didn’t.

The basic conceit of American Gods is this: as people from far-flung lands emigrated to America in days gone by, they brought their gods (or rather, a copy of their gods), with them. As the great Melting Pot heated up and different cultures blended together, the old gods and their mythology were forgotten. The manifestations of these gods grew bitter as the rites and sacrifices that made them powerful faded into memory and the people of America created new gods of their own, gods of media and technology.

Now, a storm is coming. The gods, old and new, are gathering their numbers to face one another in a great war. The mysterious Mister Wednesday hires an ex-convict named Shadow to aid him in recruiting some of the old gods, and thus begins Shadow’s travels to and from the places of power in America and his encounters with gods, leprechauns, piskies, and a host of other figures from a host of mythologies.

American Gods is dense with strange and wondrous places—from roadside attractions like The House on the Rock to the idyllic little town of Lakeside, Wisconsin—populated with an array of gods, both familiar and foreign. Despite this, the world Gaiman creates seems hollow at times. His descriptions of settings seem to lack detail in some cases, giving the impression of a rough hand-drawing that was never inked or colored. There is also a distinct lack of incidental characters. In motion picture terms, it seems like the director forgot to hire extras to fill the empty seats of the diner where the main characters eat their breakfast.

As a result, when the “real world” is left behind while Shadow walks along the unseen paths travelled by the gods or finds himself moving through a strange dreamscape, the disconnect from reality is incomplete. The world he normally occupies seems so often surreal that these fantastic side trips seem a little less so.

Still, there are times—such as certain moments when Shadow is in Lakeside—when the world seems truly alive and full, and the reader is fully immersed in the richness of the setting. Perhaps Gaiman is painting a more detailed picture with his words, or perhaps the character interactions somehow make the scene more clear. I’m not sure which it is without going back to re-read several chapters.

That hollowness is my only major gripe with American Gods. I found the idea that these gods-made-flesh were walking among us and simply trying to get by in a land where no one prayed, offered sacrifices to or even remembered them to be fascinating. They lead a dull existence, often caught in a monotonous routine, but when Shadow and Wednesday arrive we see glimpses of their former glory that show us just how far they’ve fallen since the days when someone believed in them.

Shadow wanders in a world that doesn’t quite seem like his home. He has lost everything that was important to him and at first he follows Wednesday simply because it’s what he agreed to do. Soon, he finds that he wants some of what has been taken away from him back and seeks to find a way to regain it. The cause seems hopeless, but he pursues it nonetheless. As he pursues his own goal and does the bidding of Mister Wednesday, he eventually learns that his part in the war between old gods and new is much, much more important than he could have guessed.

Shadow is as defined and mysterious as his namesake. On the surface, his motives are simple and clear, his sense of duty and devotion unflagging, yet what truly drives him, what keeps him going when there seems little point in continuing is a slippery eel to catch. He is at once powerful and powerless, engaging and empty, always sympathetic, never cruel. He does what he does because he said he would, yet there is more to the man than simple, mindless persistence. On the surface, Shadow may look like the stereotypical dim-witted muscle, but he’s never anywhere near as dumb as anyone thinks he is.

American Gods turned out to be every bit as good as I thought it would be, and well worth taking the time to read. From start to finish, it is a satisfying story with a few shortcomings that are easy enough to forgive. It’s a book I’d like to read again when I have time to look up each and every location and character and learn more about the role they play and who it was that made them important in their day.

Food of the gods.

“Breakfast for me,” said Shadow. “What’s good?”

“Everything’s good,” said Mabel. “I make it. But this is the farthest south and east of the yoopie you can get pasties, and they are particularly good. Warm and filling too. My specialty.”

Shadow had no idea what a pasty was, but he said that would be fine, and in a few moments Mabel returned with a plate with what looked like a folded-over pie on it. The lower half was wrapped in a paper napkin. Shadow picked it up with the napkin and bit into it: it was warm and filled with meat, potatoes, carrots, onions. “First pasty I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s real good.”

“They’re a yoopie thing,” she told him. “Mostly you need to be at least up Ironwood way to get one. The Cornish men who came over to work the iron mines brought them over.”

“Yoopie?”

“Upper Peninsula. U.P. Yoopie. It’s the little chunk of Michigan to the northeast.”

The chief of police came back. He picked up the hot chocolate and slurped it. “Mabel,” he said, “are you forcing this nice young man to eat one of your pasties?”

“It’s good,” said Shadow. It was too, a savory delight wrapped in hot pastry.

—Neil Gaiman, American Gods

I’ve got to give Mabel credit for not putting rutabaga in her pasty. Nothing ruins a good pasty like rutabagaThe citizens of Cornwall (and maybe a few Yoopers) might be dismayed to learn that the second sure-fire way to ruin a pasty is to serve it with gravy. Pasty should only ever be served with two condiments: butter and ketchup..

The Cornish may have brought the pasty to the U.P. (maybe they really do pronounce it “yoopie” in Minnesota WisconsinFor some reason I had it in my head that Shadow was in Lakeside, Minnesota. It’s actually Lakeside, Wisconsin., but that seems a little lazy for the Yooper in me), but it was the Finns who kept it there. Today, the pasty is closely associated with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as lobster is with Maine, cheese with Wisconsin or cheesecake with New York. On arriving in the U.P. by way of the Mackinaw Bridge, the billboards advertising are omnipresent in St. Ignace and points west.

When Laura and I visit my parents in the U.P., pasty is almost invariably the first meal we have at their house (though I haven’t eaten pasty for breakfast in many moons). There are probably a dozen or so places to buy pasties in South Range, Houghton and Hancock, and only one place to buy a Big Mac. That’s the way it should be.