Monday, October 19, 2020

Book Review: Glory Season

book cover for Glory SeasonYoung Maia is fast approaching a turning point in her life. As a half-caste var, she must leave the clan home of her privileged half sisters and seek her fortune in the world. With her twin sister, Leie, she searches the docks of Port Sanger for an apprenticeship aboard the vessels that sail the trade routes of the Stratoin oceans.

On her far-reaching, perilous journey of discovery, Maia will endure hardship and hunger, imprisonment and loneliness, bloody battles with pirates and separation from her twin. And along the way, she will meet a traveler who has come an unimaginable distance—and who threatens the delicate balance of the Stratoins' carefully maintained, perfect society....

I'm 240 pages in and DNF-ing this one out of boredom.

Statoin is a colony founded by feminists who have bioengineered humans to give women the upper hand in their society. This was accomplished by dampening the sex drive in men such that they were only sexually active during summer and enabling a form of parthenogenesis in women during winter. It isn't true parthenogenesis as sperm were still required to initiate embryo development though no genetic material was transferred. Sexual reproduction in summer led to typical offspring as one would expect on Earth, but winter reproduction led to clones. But since the sex drive of men in winter was very low, women needed to coax men into having sex. Thus it forced both sexes to work together in good faith if either side wished to get what they wanted.

It's certainly an intriguing premise with a host of potential storylines, but sadly, it goes to waste.

Brin spends way too much time delving into the main character's thoughts, going on and on for pages as she overthinks situations, dives into flashbacks, or over explains another aspect of her world. To get an idea of the writing style employed, check out Zach's review. By the time Brin gets back to the matter at hand, one could be forgiven for forgetting what was actually happening before the detour. The plot is barely a whisper. We're given hints that something sinister is going on with the world's sexual balance, but then we get pages worth of flashback or world building after which the protagonist moves on.

I'm a fan of Brin. I've read nine works of his and enjoyed all of them. His Uplift books are among my all-time favorites. But this one was a disappointment. I think if this book were about half its size (772 pages), it would be much better. Too much world building and navel gazing and not enough execution of the plot. If you're good with stories that take a really long time to get going, then maybe this one is for you.

2 stars.


Friday, October 2, 2020

Book Review: The Last Wish

book cover for The Last WishGeralt the Witcher—revered and hated—is a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent.

But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good...and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.

I watched season one of the Netflix series and thought that this might be a fantasy series worth checking out. I wasn't wrong.

First off, cool looking cover! Like maybe something out of the video games (that I haven't played) inspired by this series. Alas, the scene is not depicted in this book. There are no epic battles here, although Geralt has to fight off some monsters.

Having watched season one of the Netflix series, I recognized a few of the stories that were used to draw up part of the episodes. However, there were some major alterations to what was in the book versus what was seen on the screen. The worst part of the Netflix series was knowing when things were happening. This book didn't help much as only one story, "The Voice of Reason," was current. It was broken up into seven parts with the rest of the stories existing as flashback interludes. After consulting this map and timeline, it would seem that it was a 56-year span, but I digress.

Much has been made of the re-written fairy tales that appear in this book. Suffice it to say that the reinterpretations bear little resemblance to the originals, containing only the most basic elements. While done well, what was more satisfying to me were the elements of humor that were injected into the stories.

This is a character-driven work with each story meant to provide insight into Geralt—his skills, his morals, his outlook on the world. We learn that witchers were once men who were subjected to alchemical experimentation to enable them to fight the monsters of the world. But their collective success has reduced the survivors to mercenary status, traveling from one village to the next, asking, "Hey, ya got any monsters ya need killin'?" We're also introduced to Yennefer the Sorceress and Jaskier Dandelion the Bard. Both challenge Geralt in some way. Jaskier is a foil to Geralt's dour disposition while Yennefer's strength attracts him, forcing him to deal with...feelings.

One interesting thing to note is that in all but one of the flashback stories, women are the antagonists. While a couple were actual monsters, the other times they were just strong women. That's not to say that Sapkowski was expressing misogyny. Each of the three women had been dealt a rough hand in life and had to be tougher than their circumstances just to survive. Some people resent that, prefering women to be submissive no matter the circumstances. As such, they're unfairly demonized. Sapkowski puts Geralt into a confrontation with each of them, and he must negotiate his way through these encounters to see the truth. He isn't always successful.

Worldbuilding was scarce. Sure there were plenty of references to monsters that inhabited the places Geralt was visiting, but they were just lists of names, most of which carried no weight. Places were obscure with no explanation for where they were in the world. Did it matter? No, I guess not, but the randomness of it all left me feeling rudderless.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Book Review - Die Empty

book cover for Die EmptyLance is a middle-aged man stuck in a loveless marriage and a life with no meaning. His sedentary existence has packed on the weight, both physical and mental, and he envies his successful and fit neighbor who may be banging his alcoholic wife on the sly. The Grim Reaper shows up to recruit Lance into brainstorming new ways for people to die.

Kirk Jones tells the story in second person, thus forcing you to take on the role of Lance. In chapter one, Jones dumps you into Lance's life. Jones systematically tears down Lance's pitiful attempts to find meaning in a world of soulless consumerism. Lance knows that his life is pathetic, but he lacks the self-esteem—or even friends—to find a way out of it, so he trudges on, looking for something, anything, to jolt some life back into him.

Fortunately for the reader, the Grim Reaper shows up in chapter two to give Lance a way to escape what author Danger Slater perfectly describes as "suburban ennui." Seeing this as an opportunity to escape his misery, Lance accepts.

The pace picked up, and it seemed like the story was headed in a direction I was hoping it would go, but then it veered off into a different direction. While Jones does a fine job with second person storytelling, I could never connect with Lance. Jones would write that you (Lance) would do something and my reaction was always, "I wouldn't do that." All I could do was shake my head and hope that Jones would have the Grim Reaper show up because those were the best parts.

3 stars.


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Book Review - Exit Strategy

book cover for Exit StrategyThe GrayCris Corporation thinks that Dr. Mensah ordered Murderbot to investigate their shenanigans at the terraforming facility in Rogue Protocol, so they take her hostage and hold her for ransom. This is unacceptable to Murderbot.

Murderbot travels to the space station—basically the size of a small city—where Mensah is being held captive and has to figure out how to rescue her without getting her killed and it caught. Dying would be fine for Murderbot so long as Dr. Mensah gets away. Actually, dying would be preferable to getting caught.

Along the way, Murderbot is forced to confront its feelings. Those damned interminable feelings.

Exit Strategy is a fine conclusion to the story arc that spanned a quadrilogy of novellas/short novels that opens the Murderbot Diaries series (Yes, book five, a standalone novel, is already out). There's bot vs. bot action, lots of hacking, and overloading of processor memory buffers. Murderbot's biting sense of humor is in full swing, and the humans who care about Murderbot have learned how to give it space. Ultimately, the question of Murderbot's personhood status is finally resolved.

If you've made it this far into the series, you know what to expect and won't be disappointed.

4 stars


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book Review - Hideous Absinthe

book cover for Hideous AbsintheAdams has crafted a thoroughly researched tome that explores the history of absinthe use in society with emphasis on its peak use in the late nineteenth century. While it runs from ancient Egypt's medicinal uses up to today's connoisseurs on the web, the focus of the book is on its peak usage period from mid-19th century Europe to its eventual banning in the early 20th century.

I'd heard about absinthe some thirty years ago, and its purported mind-altering effects were the stuff of urban legend. When something is banned, all people have to go by are tall tales meant to keep a firm grip on the listener's attention. Adams explores that aspect. How much of absinthe's legend is true; how much is hype? He focuses on the poets and painters who were associated with absinthe. He goes into great detail about the lives of famous artists (Van Gogh, Gaugin, Verlaine, Degas, Dowson, Wilde, etc.) to determine how much of their work's success, moral shortcomings, and health failures can be attributed to "the green fairy." In fact, he goes into so much detail that I feel he got sidetracked. The book becomes less about absinthe and more a study of the Decadent Movement and its propensity for creating alcoholics.

After absinthe becomes a victim of its own hype, the narrative rushes to modern day. Contemporary accounts note that absinthe tastes like crap, and Adams barely questions why that may be. A few scientific accounts are brought up, but it seems that biochemical analysis was a bit lacking at the time of publication. We know that thujone is the active ingredient in wormwood oil that gives absinthe its claim to mind-altering fame, but there doesn't seem to be any consensus on anything other than toxicity levels. As for why its taste doesn't hold up? We're met with a shrug, which isn't a great way to end a book.

3.5 stars


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Book Review - Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America

book cover for Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North AmericaWhen my son was little, he developed a curiosity about bugs. He'd ask me what a particular one was, but most of the time I didn't know. We'd then try to look them up on the internet ( is a good source). So one Christmas, his mom got us this book.

It's a great introduction to the world of insects (and select arthropods often misidentified as "bugs"). It's broken down by class and order with color photos and relative sizes of select species that are either common or of notable interest. After a general introduction about the particular group on a page, there's often another paragraph about a sub-group followed by a sentence or two about featured species or genera, typically the pictured individuals.

And so this has fueled our continuous drive to identify every insect we observe in our yard.

Who's that butterfly that keeps landing on Alex? Red Admiral

Do I need to worry about this beetle? No, it only eats decaying wood.

Is this bee going to sting me? No, it's just a yellowjacket that smelled the sugar in your drink. Don't kill it because it eats the bugs that eat our crops.

These ladybugs have different spots. That's because they're different species.

Dragonflies, damselflies, katydids, fireflies, soldier beetles, paper wasps, weevils, stink bugs, owlet moths, robber flies, ants, butterflies, and bumble bees. On and on.

One of the most useful features of the book is learning who's a pest and who's an ally. The pest identification part is obviously important, but even more so the ally. While I knew that ladybugs were awesome, they didn't have any biting or stinging parts to worry about. And they're cute. Insects that we were taught in our childhood to fear for their nasty stingers are actually our allies (wasps, hornets), too. I even let some paper wasps build a nest under my deck one year because of what I learned here. Spoiler alert: No one got stung.

Even at just shy of 400 pages, there are limits to what this book can cover as there are nearly a hundred thousand species of insects in North America alone (11,000 moths; 16,000 flies; 24,000 beetles, and so on). As such, sometimes we were left wanting more information on either a bug we'd found or clarity on a particular type of beetle. But I guess that's where the internet comes in handy.

Definitely recommended for those wanting to get to know more about whom they share their yard with.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Tropical Storm Isaias

A month ago, Tropical Storm Isaias ploughed into the northeast. Connecticut took a pounding. Eversource, the deliverer of my electricity, claimed they were ready, but judging by the number of people without power and the length of time we were out, it would seem that they weren't.

We were without power for seven days and 22 hours. I bought a new generator the next day (the old one was on the fritz), so we were able to keep the food in the fridge. I grilled a lot. We flushed the toilets with water from the rain barrel. I keep five gallons of potable water on hand at all times, but even this time we ran out and had to get more.

Here's why I was without power for eight days:

two trees on the power lines
It's always here. Irma, Sandy, the October Snow Surprise. There's a rock shelf where several trees staked their roots down decades ago, but the shallow soil has left the trees that grow in this spot vulnerable to high winds. And so, they come down in the big storms.

Fortunately, my home and family were spared. But it was terrible to watch. The winds came out of the south and battered the trees like waves crashing on a beach. This grand red maple in the backyard (picture taken from my garage shortly after it happened) is the closest the damage came to my house.

red maple damaged

A cottonwood crashed across two of my neighbors' yards.

cottonwood down

An ash tree fell from a neighbor's backyard into mine.

ash tree down on rock wall
Two other trees, a maple and a birch, were severely damaged. I don't have pictures at the moment, but if I take them, I'll post them later. A leader on the maple was snapped about fifteen feet off the ground, sending it into a v-notch on a nearby tree. The crown on the birch broke off about forty feet up. It's now dangling by a fragment of xylem.

And yet this is nothing. Hurricane Laura, a category four storm, just tore up Louisiana. Many of those poor souls have nothing left. So for all my griping, I am thankful things weren't worse. If a storm like Laura came through here, the damage would've been incalculble.