Saturday, September 9, 2017

How I Spent My Summer (2017)

Like every other summer, I had my usual assortment of tasks: take the kids to their various summer camps (band camp, Irish dancing camp, sewing & embroidery class, field hockey, ice hockey), chop some wood for winter, and finish random small outdoor projects (like power wash and re-stain the deck). I got off to a good start by finishing a small retaining wall for a flower bed and collecting a couple of cords of wood from my in-laws (they had a couple of trees taken down). But while I was in the shower one day, my daughter answered the door for a guy going house to house to set up sales meetings for a home remodeling company.

I was a bit taken aback by this behavior of hers. She's 11; I thought she knew better. We went through a plague of Jehovah's Witness visits whereupon we hid and pretended we weren't home. But no. I get out of the shower and learn from my son that his sister is talking to a guy through her window. I scrambled to get dressed and send this guy on his way as nicely as possible, but once I went outside to talk to him, I was already caught in his net. When I explained that my wife wouldn't meet with anyone after work—her average arrival time home is 7—he countered with a weekend visit. The time was drawing near that I had to drive my overly friendly daughter to her Irish dancing class. I couldn't get rid of him without being a jerk so I gave up and agreed to a weekend meeting.

My wife and I were impressed by the sales presentation, so we took the plunge on vinyl siding with a side order of new (and bigger) gutters. We'd been wanting to go vinyl for several years, but opted not to make the huge investment. The materials technology has improved over the past decade. That and the company's size made me feel confident that we weren't going to have any issues down the road. And new gutters...I've been struggling with the ones we had since year one.

So this meant that I had a few weeks to split and stack the wood in the driveway. They needed the space for the materials and the ginormous dumpster—7 feet high! It was doable, but one week later, after we'd returned from "celebrating" the move, fate threw a wrench into our plans. A pipe burst in the bathroom on the ground floor, flooding most of the lower level. I opened the garage door on my way to the main shutoff valve, and a wave of water rolled out and down my driveway. While it was only a couple inches, anyone who's been flooded will tell you that it doesn't take much water to cause damage (I can imagine what Harvey's victims are going through).

broken pipes

We pumped out as much water we could and used every non-bath towel in the house to absorb the rest. We thought that we were going to be ok. I left the dehumidifier on all night and hoped for the best. The next day we discovered that the wood parquet flooring in the foyer was trashed once and for all. The carpeting in the den was soggy. We tried the shop vac, but that was a joke. The padding underneath was a sponge and not letting go. It had to go. The more we ripped up, the more wet stuff we found. By the time we were done, half of the den and a quarter of the office was lost. We got to most furniture in time, but an old particle board shelf tower disintegrated.

Sheet rock is also notorious for disintegrating about immersion in water. If it doesn't crumble, that evil black mold grows on the surface. I had to rip out the bottom two feet of sheet rock in the bathroom and laundry room. The other rooms were spared as the carpet and padding sponginess worked in our favor, hogging the water to itself.

We kinda knew this day was coming. We've had water issues many times before. The guy who built our house in 1973 used the cheaper, thin-walled copper pipe meant to be used for re-circulating water heating systems. We have electric heat; so either he was an idiot or a cheapskate. 25+ years of hard and acidic water led to pinhole leaks and cracked pipes. As projects arose and pipes failed, we replaced the copper pipes throughout the house with PEX, except for the laundry room and downstairs bathroom. The pipe failed on the wrong side of the shutoff valve. It sheared right off, and at four gallons/minute (~15 liters/minute) it may well have been a fire hose.

I exposed the old copper pipes so that my plumber could get in there and make the swap. He also suggested getting our water tested so that we could get the proper water treatment system installed. We came in with a pH of 6.1 and a hardness of 154 ppm. That meant we had to install a water filter, neutralizer, and softener. It was a big expenditure on top of an already large investment, neither of which we'd planned on making.

Someone asked me if my insurance company was covering any of the cost. Honestly, I hadn't even considered it. So I decided to call my insurance agent and hear what they had to say. I was informed that the insurance company would cover the expense for the damaged flooring (minus the deductible) but not the corrective equipment we'd installed to get our water in line. After filing said claim, our rates would then go up as we'd lose our 20% discount for being claim free. Factoring the rate increase with the high deductible, we decided not to file a claim.

After I got this taken care of...

...I got to work on repairs. All the sheet rock has been replaced, spackled, primed, and painted. Both the bathroom and laundry room are fully functional again. All of the foyer flooring and old carpet have been disposed of (Thank you, ginormous dumpster).

I still have half the old padding and all the tack strips to remove and dispose of. Since we have to replace the foyer flooring, we decided to completely renovate it. That's on my plate for September. After that, we'll have someone install carpet (That's beyond my skill set) in the den and office. So you can see that I won't have a whole lot of time for writing in the weeks ahead. All is not lost though. I did manage to find the time to write up this explanation for my whereabouts.

EDIT 9/14/17: Forgot to mention that our microwave oven died the week before the siding guys arrived. So that was yet another thing to buy and install.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: Timing (Far from the Spaceports #2)

book cover for TimingWhen quick wits and loyalty are put to the test...

Mitnash and his AI companion Slate, coders and investigators of interplanetary fraud, are at work again in
Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports.

This time their travels take them from Jupiter to Mars, chasing a small-scale scam which seems a waste of their time. Then the case escalates dramatically into threats and extortion. Robin's Rebels, a new player in the game, is determined to bring down the financial world, and Slate's fellow AIs are the targets. Will Slate be the next victim?

The clues lead them back to the asteroid belt, and to their friends on the Scilly Isles. The next attack will be here, and Mitnash and Slate must put themselves in the line of fire. To solve the case, they need to team up with an old adversary - the only person this far from Earth who has the necessary skills to help them. But can they trust somebody who keeps their own agenda so well hidden?

It was good to get back to Abbott's Far from the Spaceports series. In the first book, we're introduced to Mitnash and his AI companion, Slate. They work for the financial regulatory body ECRB (Economic Crime Review Board) and are periodically sent off-world to investigate financial shenanigans. I found Abbott's world-building solid and his take on AI refreshing (full review here).

This book adds more of the travelogue aspect of this series. Abbott sends his duo to Phobos and Mars before their return to the Scilly Isles, a cluster of settlements in the asteroid belt that was the setting for the first book. Abbott provides more detail on life on Phobos, demonstrating how the geology of the fragile moon has shaped the culture of the settlements there.

Abbott also delves more into the characters' relationships. Mitnash struggles with maintaining a long distance relationship (astronomical units!) while a local woman intrigues him. And it's not just Mitnash's relationships, but Slate's as well. I don't know how we'll imbue emotion into AIs, but in Abbott's universe, it happened and each AI has a unique personality. With their consciousness capable of living the human equivalent of decades in a fraction of the time, they seek out relationships with other AIs, hoping for a match. Mitnash is put into a situation where he has to consider that Slate's feelings are no less valid than his.

While the story remains non-violent, save for a couple of off-camera incidents, Abbott manages to build tension, primarily through the "old adversary" mentioned in the blurb. Mitnash is slowly learning that life (on multiple fronts) is seldom as simple and straightforward as it seems. There are complications during the investigation, and Mitnash finds himself in a predicament that isn't easily remedied and will hang over his head as his story continues.

4.2 out of 5 stars. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

It took me longer than expected to finish this book. The delay had nothing to do with the quality of the material, rather most nights I was too tired from the day's activities to read more than a page. Details forthcoming when I have time for a lengthy post.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: The God Engines

book cover for the god enginesCaptain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this—and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given. Tephe knows from the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It's what he doesn't know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put—and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely

"It was time to whip the god."

Now that's an opening line! It grabs hold of the reader (this one anyway) and immediately begs the question: What the hell is going on here? Aspiring authors should take note. Actually, I've noticed that some established authors should make note of it as well.

Scalzi is noted for writing science fiction. Although this story mostly takes place on a starship, it's dark fantasy. There are no sci-fi elements other than the starship and a bit of interstellar travel. Space fantasy, perhaps. It is a distant cousin to the Barsoom saga in terms of genre. But don't go expecting a Burroughs-style adventure; this is much darker.

Being just a novella, the pace feels a bit rushed. Backstory for the characters is hard to come by, so every tidbit that Scalzi shares is valuable. If the page count had been doubled, Scalzi could've gone into more detail about this strange universe where faith powers technology, maybe revealed more detail about the setting and how things work. But maybe that's a good thing as Scalzi just sticks to the molten core of this story, and more detail might slow things down too much.

The conflict between Captain Tephe and Priest Andso is well done. The two are locked in a power struggle and clash often to see who will come out ahead. All the while, the aforementioned god taunts Tephe, assailing his faith. Both interpersonal relationships maintain the tension until the first contact meeting with a heathen people, when Scalzi reveals his hand (I must say, I was caught off guard). From there it's a mad dash to the book's bloody conclusion.

It was nice to see Scalzi break from his established style and go dark. I can see why the novella was nominated for a Hugo. 4.5 stars.

A slightly shorter version of this review appears on Goodreads.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: Echoes of Avalon

book cover for Echoes of AvalonPatrick Gawain knows monsters. He's seen plenty of the human sort in the Holy Lands, and as he sails home from The First Crusade, a hooded apparition begins to stalk him. Convinced that he's lost his mind, he holes up in a monastery to convalesce and, if recovery proves impossible, to hide his demons from the world. But a stranger comes to find him and presents a barely credible invitation: travel to Avalon and serve with the Avangarde, an order of knights sworn to protect young scholars from around the world.

Thinking it will be a fresh start, Patrick agrees, and soon discovers that Avalon is more than a myth; it is the site of a vibrant secret academy - and it's also full of ghosts, goblins, and talking wolves. He can capably protect the castle from the island's supernatural beasts, but in the relative peace of the academy life, his hooded demon returns and his troubled heart causes him to sabotage the love of a young woman, Katherina. When an ancient being with sinister designs for the island infiltrates the academy, Patrick is the first to suspect its true nature when it begins its quest by seducing Katherina.

Patrick soon learns that before he can defeat monsters, he must first defeat his personal demons.

This was a tough book to finish, but after taking a break midway through, I was able to get it done. It could've used a developmental edit to whittle out 150-200 pages. Why is that? Well, as someone complained in the Goodreads comments, nothing happens for the longest time. This isn't epic fantasy. There's no great quest. It's clearly not Arthurian legend. It took forever to even learn who the villain was. This is a character driven story, and that's generally incapable of supporting a 500+ page novel.

At first, I thought this was going to be a story about a knight with PTSD, suffering from what he witnessed during the Crusades, but then the hooded apparition and Gawain's dwelling on the war disappeared from the story. It was replaced by day-to-day life on Avalon, which turned out to be rather mundane given the mysterious opening regarding how one gained access to the island. It all seemed like so much soap opera: Which knight is courting which lady? Will Gawain ever realize the affections of a certain handmaiden?

The villain arrived late and was more annoying than threatening. His relationship with his minion, Minion, was like watching a Saturday morning cartoon in the 70s. I won't say his name as that would certainly spoil it for future readers, but it's a name that carries a lot of literary baggage. The villain's origin story in the middle of the novel was wholly unnecessary as it didn't change my opinion of him nor enlighten me to his motivations. A shorter version could've worked as a prologue in a shorter novel, but randomly dumped in the middle of the book was too much, too late.

I would give this 2.5 stars if that were possible on Goodreads. I rounded up to three as Copeland shows that he firmly grasps characterization (I stuck with the story because I cared about Gawain). He's also capable of fine world-building and garnishing it with the proper descriptive prose to render the scene, even negative ones—the opening scene on the boat stirred up a recent seasickness memory. He just needs the right editor to tighten the narrative and make it less tedious.

This review previously appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: The Dreaming Void

book cover for The Dreaming VoidTo read the book blurb, click here.

I don't give up on books; I always see them through to the end. I came close to quitting Rainbow's End, but I stuck with it. But not this time. 80 pages in and I'm done.

When I ran an indie book review blog, I had a simple system set in place. If the blurb piqued my interest, I'd read the first chapter to see if I was hooked. It was a good system, but not perfect. Some clunkers got through. Apparently, I need to apply that same system to traditionally published books. Blurbs (and Goodreads recommendation engines) aren't enough.

The opening sentence was a dud. The Prologue was dull. Every single bit of writer's advice that I've heard and read states that you have to hook your reader with the first sentence, the first paragraph at the very latest, but this doesn't do that. The first sentence:

The starship slipped down out of a night sky, its gray and scarlet hull illuminated by the pale iridescence of the massive ion storms that beset space for light-years in every direction.

Pretty, but not exactly hook worthy. The rest of the Prologue describes this guy's arrival at an scientific observation post and then his attendance at a party. When he's tired and had his fill of socializing, he goes to his quarters to sleep. And then he has "the dream." End of Prologue. I think "the dream" was meant to be the hook.

The book blurb says that said dream was of a paradise that lies within the spatial anomaly that the observation post has been studying for centuries. This is the fantasy setting that people have referred to in the Goodreads comments. Apparently the dreams spawned a religion and everyone wants to migrate there. But why? Magic? These people already benefit from FTL spaceships that reduce travel time to distant stars to mere hours and have all the body modification abilities that transhumanist wannabes could possibly desire. I found it lacking. Maybe transhumanists in the future are bored (spoiled?) with centuries long lifespans and want more.

There wasn't any action until page 57, and it came out of nowhere. Everything was character introduction and gee whiz fantastic tech. The character who participated in the action scene never revealed any indication in his previous scenes that he was anything more than a pilgrim just chillin' before the big trip. I had trouble forging any sort of connection with the characters. I felt lost and bored, struggling to read more than five pages at a time.

If I'm reading Hamilton's bibliography correctly, this was his 11th novel. His publisher must figure that he's got his audience. No need to mess with the formula; it works. No hooks necessary. The man is the hook.

Even though I didn't like the book to this point, I'm giving this at least two stars for world building, pretty prose, and—I'm going to make an assumption here—an intricate story. With the right audience, it works. However, I'm not that audience. And that's a pity. I'd read "Blessed by an Angel" and I was keen to explore the worlds he created. Now, not so much.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: Skullcrack City

book cover for Skullcrack CityLife as a corporate drone was killing S.P. Doyle, so he decided to bring down the whole corrupt system from the inside. But after discovering something monstrous in the bank's files, he was framed for murder and trapped inside a conspiracy beyond reason.

Now Doyle's doing his best to survive against a nightmare cabal of crooked conglomerates, DNA-doped mutants, drug-addled freak show celebs, experimental surgeons, depraved doomsday cults, and the ultra-bad mojo of a full-blown Hexadrine habit. Joined by his pet turtle Deckard, and Dara, a beautiful missionary with a murderous past, Doyle must find a way to save humankind and fight the terrible truth at the heart of...SKULLCRACK CITY

It's been five years since I read We Live Inside You, JRJ's second collection of short stories. I'd forgotten how much he can get under your skin—I won't go any further with that metaphor. He has this wonderful ability to get you to care about his characters (with exceptions of course), be silent witness to their suffering, and re-assure them that they're still human no matter what.

One could say that Skullcrack City is an outgrowth of "The League of Zeroes," the opening short story in JRJ's first short story collection, Angel Dust Apocalypse. But while the body modification elements of "The League of Zeroes" factor into Skullcrack City (it's not a novel for the squeamish), the novel is so much bigger. "The League of Zeroes" is actually the origin story for Buddy the Brain, a minor character in the novel—the two doctors from the novel appear in a limited fashion in the short story.

JRJ's writing style shifts fluidly in Skullcrack City as the protagonist, S.P. Doyle, changes. The Doyle we meet in the Prologue struck me as sinister. He hardly seemed like the guy we were supposed to be rooting for. But then the story proper starts and we meet the Hex-addicted Doyle. The guy is a total mess, spiraling out of control with paranoid fantasies, and it shows up in the narrative. You're not sure what's real and what's hallucination as one sentence runs head on into the next. And just when you think he can't go any further, he crashes as his paranoid fears are confirmed. But we're only a third of the way through the book.

In the middle third, the Hex is purged from his system, but Doyle struggles like a newly hatched chick as his body returns to normal and he awkwardly tries to grow into the would-be hero role. The narrative slows down to a manageable pace with periods of introspection, letting the reader catch their breath. But it's also punctuated by episodes of violence to prevent reader complacency and prod Doyle out of episodes of navel gazing.

In the final third, Doyle is forced to adapt or die. His struggle to survive forces him to shed the awkward persona and stand for something. As certainty of purpose kicks in, a calm settles over Doyle. There's a sense of purpose now. As the world teeters on the edge of insanity and terrible monstrosities, it is Doyle who's now the rational one. We recognize the guy from the Prologue as the story has come full circle.

While this is standalone novel that eliminates any chance of sequels, I'd still like to make a request for more JRJ novels. Please.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Walking Dead: Compendium 1 vs TV Show

Book cover for Walking Dead Compendium #1I have never been a fan of zombie fiction, but several years ago, a friend of mine—who is very much into both horror and comics—highly recommended The Walking Dead TV show. My wife and I binge watched season one just before season two came out, and we loved it. Now I knew from watching Talking Dead that the show differed from the comic in several ways, most notably the absence of the Dixon brothers from the comics. But I wondered in what other ways the two differed, so I decided to check out the source material.

Wow, I had no idea.

Sure, the TV show hits on the main places and events (Rick waking up in the hospital, the camp outside Atlanta, Hershel's Farm, the prison, Woodbury), but the nature of these places, how they're encountered, and the events that play out there are very different.

More drastically though are the differences in the characters. Except for Maggie, Hershel's kids are completely different people. No Beth. Tyrese shows up much earlier, but with a daughter and her boyfriend. No Sasha. And there are characters in the comic that don't exist on the show, though none of them are memorable enough to be missed.

But I'm not just talking about the absence of characters from one world to the other, the characters that exist in both worlds are different. Nearly every character shows some degree of difference, some more than others. I think it's really noticeable with the female characters. If you liked Carol in the TV show, her version in the comics is completely unrecognizable. You probably won't like her, too obsessed with how others perceive her. Lori seems to nag Rick all of the time. Michonne is underdeveloped. Maggie and Glen are ok, but still inferior to their TV versions. Except for Andrea, and to a lesser extent Tyreese, I found that I preferred the TV show version of the characters over the comic. And that goes double for the primary villain here in volume 1: the Governor.

The TV version of the Governor was a far more complex character than the comic version. On the TV show, the Governor is out to woo newcomers and attempts to be a gracious host. He seems to be wrestling with caring for the people of Woodbury while doing terrible things to hold onto power and keeping his secrets hidden. Not so the comic version. The latter was just a maniacal sadist with sick hobbies. Demonstrating why he was such a charismatic figure to the inhabitants of Woodbury, the true source of his strength, seemed more of an afterthought.

So I give the producers of the TV show credit for recognizing the potential here, and I give Kirkman credit for being humble enough to work with other writers as they rearranged and revised the characters and events of his beloved work. I can see why the fans of the comic, who were there from the beginning, don't like what the show has done. However, I'm glad that I watched the show first. Not too sure I need to keep reading the comic.

A slightly shorter version of this review initially appeared on Goodreads.