bluegargantua: (Default)

Hey,

  I am still reading books.  Let's get to it.

  First up:The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden.  This book started off really rocky for me, but picked up considerably by the end.  The setting is a near-future South Africa where people have personal robots and advanced genetic engineering to bring back some extinct species.  It also has an ancient African goddess who is looking to get her mojo back via blood and fear.  This mixture of sci-fi and fantasy is always a difficult sell with me.  As the book rolls forward, it leans more heavily into the fantasy side of things which I think is why the book piked up for me in the back half when it finally settled down.

  So yeah, ancient African goddess wants to disrupt humanity to re-ignite the age of the gods.  To do that, she's taking advantage of a genetics program to bring the local dik-dik population under control and the recent introduction of a new designer drug that gives people a glimpse into their divine nature.  Opposing her is a young girl who might be more creation than child, a young teen who can't quite say "I love you" to his boyfriend, and the young man's personal robot whose 1's and 0's are starting to turn into 2's.

  There's a lot of good world-building (both sci-fi and fantasy) and the characters are pretty well fleshed out.  While the book has a fairly serious plot, there's some really fun bits of dialog and humor.  I'm a little cranky about mixing genre's but I did enjoy the book and if you're less snobbish, you'll probably like it start to finish.  There's clearly some openings left for a sequel, but the book stands pretty solidly on it's own.

  Next, Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Empire by Tom Wainwright.  Mr. Wainwright is a journalist for the Economist magazine and he spent a number of months examining the drug trade as a business and what sorts of economic forces bear on it.  From fields of coca in Bolivia, poppies in Mexico, weed in Colorado, and designer drug labs in New Zealand, he looks at how drug cartels create, ship and sell their product.  He runs the numbers to show how the value of drugs increases along each step of the chain from growers to consumers and how the cartels maximize that value, both through violence and basic business management.

  He covers a lot of ground and at the end suggests how we might better spend our money in the fight against drugs.  Not surprisingly, like many people who've investigated drug trafficking, attacking the issue of demand (treating addicts and using public campaigns to prevent new ones) tends to produce a better return on investment than attacking the issue of supply (spraying fields, border security, and the like).  The solutions don't seem terribly new to me, but it was an interesting look at how criminal businesses operate and how they interact with each other.

  I also finished up the last book in the Swallows and Amazons series, but that's a separate post.

later
Tom


bluegargantua: (Default)

Hey,

  I'm clearly off my reading feed.  It's been over a month but I've only got two books to talk about.  I'm hoping summer travel plans will give me some downtime to help catch up my pace.

  Anyway, first up we have Off Rock by Kieran Shea.  This was sold to me as a space heist book and I guess it is, but it's a bit more like "the gang that couldn't shoot straight" kind of deal.

  Jimmy Vik works as a miner and while running some clean-up jobs on a planet about to be abandoned by the company he works for, he uncovers a small seam of gold.  He can easily get it out, but smuggling it back to Earth will take some doing.  He'll need the help of the local fixer and he has to keep his ex-girlfriend (and now his boss) off his tail.  Things go delightfully wrong form the beginning.

  The book was fine, but I really wanted "slick heist story" not "fiasco" so I was a little put out.  Also, the action pretty much stays confined to the mining ship/base where Jimmy works.  It was all ok, but nothing terribly special.  Also, I'm a little concerned that Mr. Shea thinks he can write female characters but can't quite.  Bit of an "uncanny valley" that's hard to describe.

  Following this was The Sculpted Shipby K. M. O'Brien.  This is clearly a self-published book and could've used one more professional editing pass.  There aren't any glaring spelling/grammatical errors and it's pretty well put together but there are a few paragraphs that are heavy paraphrases of a preceding one, leading me to think that one of the paragraphs was from a previous revision.

  Despite those few stumbles, the book is pretty decent.  Anailu Xindar is a young starship engineer who strikes out on her own.  She purchases a rare starship for cheap because a number of parts are missing and then goes about setting up her business and discovering more about her ship in the process.

 I  mentioned elsewhere that this is a sub-genre that's almost unique in science fiction -- adventures in small business ownership.  In most cases (as with this one) it's all about owning/operating a small trading vessel, but there are a few other types where the whole story is about the day-to-day operations to keep things running.  There are larger events going on and the book clearly wants to be the start of a series with all the foreshadowing it drops, but for the most part this is the simple story of a small-time cargo hauler.  I can't think of many genres that have this sort of motif.  Obviously private detectives have their business to run, but we don't get into the minute of that, it's just a simple reason for them to get involved in mysteries.  I think there might be a link to Horatio Alger-type stories, but I find it interesting that we don't see this style in other types of writing very often if at all.  I'm now imagining a whole genre of modern-day fiction explicitly about the small business experience which serves as a bit of a blueprint for people getting started in something.

  Anyway, the book is soothing, but never really goes anywhere and there's a lot of prep work for a sequel I'm not sure we'll see.  If there is one, I might pick it up but I'm in no hurry.

later
Tom

bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

 So back in the mid-90's, we got into a game called Legions of Steel by Global Games. You played a team of space marines who invaded an underground complex to take out malevolent AIs from another dimension. In the process you had to kill off a bunch of Terminator-looking robot enemies. We all enjoyed the game and we thought it was quite a step up from Space Hulk (which we loved so that's saying something).

 Like all good game companies, the line of miniatures was expanded to include other alien races that were hoping to stave off the Machine invasion. One such race was the Fantasians. They were straight up Soviet Aliens. They lived in a Communist dictatorship and it was even hinted at in the fluff that they'd visited Earth and inspired Lennin. I really liked the figures (I liked pretty much all the figures for this game) and I liked their panache and so I had a small squad painted up. Later on, when the game expanded to more wargame-y open terrain skirmish battles, I got a number of their regular line troopers and painted up a force for them.

 Then Global Games disappeared down a black hole and were never heard from again -- or rather there were rumors of a reboot that never happened. I was very pleased to see that Legions of Steel was released as a game for PC, Android, and iOS.  The implementation is quite good, but there's been almost no support for it since release and they only have Humans vs. Machines and not my beloved Fantasians.

 So I'm going through the scree of Lead Mountain and I came across a few packs of Fantasians that I'd purchased but never actually painted up. So I decided to rectify that:



Fantasian Mobile Artillery Squad



Rejoice, Brave Soldiers of Fantasia! The Mobile Artillery Squad has arrived to help you win the day!

I don't believe this is an "official" formation for Legions of Steel, but it's what I had on hand and it makes for a fun little group. You've got three heavies in power armor backed up by a pair of troopers who act as a security detail or forward observers. Definitely a group for open battlefields and not underground bunkers, but they provide much-needed support in the field.

We'll start with the power armor:



Fantasian T85/36 w/AT4


Above is a T85/36 with AT-4 (you might notice a Soviet flavor to their weapon system names). The AT-4 is an anti-armor cannon and the main weapon carried by this unit. It's got a machine gun on the other arm for softer targets, but its main job is to kill tanks dead.


Fantasian T85/36 w/AT4


Here's a side view so you can see the AT-4 a bit better. Also, you'll notice the design on the shoulder pad. This was part of my "try something new" task when painting these guys up. I decided to experiment with water-slide decals. In this case, I had some 15mm WWII Soviet tank decals and couldn't imagine a better subject. I put markings on both shoulders of the power armor guys and put a star on the helmets of the troopers. I was a bit worried that this was going to turn into a frustrating chore, but I was pleasantly surprised and how smoothly it all went. It was a little fiddly getting the decal properly sited on the mini, but eventually it got where I wanted it and then I carefully removed the excess water and everything turned out ok. I'm not looking to do this for every mini, but I can see where it'll be helpful for some projects and I'm happy I got a chance to practice it.

Now for the big boom-booms:

Fantasian T85/43s with K2 SHAW


This is the T85/43 with K2-Shaw rocket racks. Yeah...the designs are very heavily influenced by WWII Soviets. What else can I say? Power armor with rocket artillery and the arm-mounted machine gun. I don't have the rulebook in front of me so I have no idea how good those rockets actually are. The Fantasians generally worked off a "quantity has a quality all its own" so high rates of fire, but less effective at actually killing things. I suspect the same would be true here, but if you caught the enemy out in the open, this would do a number.

Rounding out the squad, the troopers:


Fantasian Stormtroopers


Standard Fantasian troopers armed with spray-n-pray PPSH and a bandolier of Gauss Grenades. Not as heavily armored as the troopers of other races, the Fantasians are faster and they do get the lead down-range in a hurry. Honestly, they're probably better suited to open battlefields where they have more room to maneuver. Still, I love my little alien Commies.

Finally a couple of photos comparing paint jobs:


Three Generations of Fantasians




Three Generations of Fantasians


So we have power armor and troopers. The figures on the far right were painted by my friend Chris who got me (back?) into miniatures gaming in college. I don't think Chris actually won a Golden Demon, but he has placed in several GD competitions so he was the gold standard of painting we all aspired to emulate. Eventually I figured out that was a mug's game and that I should be looking to paint figures well enough to please me and get stuff rolling on the gaming table.

The figure in the middle were all painted by me a year or two out of college I believe. A basic three-color scheme with a hint of inking and that was pretty much it. Still, I've got three squads of those troopers waiting to prove Fantasian superiority.

And obviously, the figures on the left are the ones I just did. I went all in on the Russian theme and used appropriate colors. There were washes, highlights, and decals. The overall effect is more muted (though I'm not opposed to more colorful sci-fi minis), but I do like how everything came out. I was even able to do a bit of detail work that didn't leave splotches all over everything.

So that was my little Legions of Steel project. It was a lot of fun and I'm kinda hankering to see if I can score any more figures off eBay or something. I am also reminded of just how nice those minis were. Not too much flash, weighty metal, fun designs...it's really too bad those designs went out of print. Nothing new on the horizon, although I've got some small projects left in lead mountain. I also have a heap of plastic WWII vehicles that need some sort of paintjob, but I need to track down some Army Painter spray paints in appropriate armor colors. We'll see what happens.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

For whatever reason my April reading has been dismal (of books anyway). But here's what I've read lately:

First up: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. Oddly, I've probably read more of Scalzi's blog than I have his fiction. No particular reason, just how it fell out.

Anyway, this book kicks off a new series and...it's really the opening book in a series. You've got an interstellar empire connected via a web of space-time anomalies called The Flow. It's nine month's travel time from Hub (the center of the empire) and End (the furthest planet away from Hub in both time and distance).

The Flow is fairly stable but Earth and one other planet have been lost when the Flow moved. Still, the Flow has been unchanged for several centuries so no one gives it much thought. Certainly not Cardinea who, thanks to an untimely accident, is about to be crowned Empress. A message from her father points her at a research station on End where a local scientist is mapping out the disturbances in the Flow. The numbers aren't good. The Flow will be going away slowly but steadily over the next few years. Humanity needs to get settled before the Flow (and vital interplanetary trade) cuts out. End happens to be one of the only planets in the Empire that easily supports life and will be one of the last to drop off the network so End really needs to ramp up for refugees...too bad End is the Empire's dumping ground and the political situation there is...fraught.

Anyway, that's little more than the back cover blurb and the book basically re-iterates all that, gets the characters introduced and shuttled to where they need to be and then the book is done. The writing was fine and it read well, but not much actually happens. I'm not in any particular hurry to pick up the next book in the series.

Next up is a sequel, Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald. This is a follow up to his book Luna: New Moon about a near future moon ruled by five familial corporations...well, four by the end of that first book, but enough family members survive that they can work on their various plans for survival or revenge.

One of the problems following a series (even a really good one) is that you never remember who half the characters are over a year later when you get the next book (oh Malazan Empire I can't quit you). It doesn't help that the families have a lot of arranged "marriages" (often more legal designation than anything else) so the guy with the Scottish last name is actually from the family originating from China or vice versa.

On the other hand, there's a wonderful kaleidoscope of human cultures on display in the book and mostly from countries that are fairly marginal now. Tons of details from various cultures jammed together in delightful juxtaposition. McDonald does a great job imagining thriving human cultures in a very hostile environment. In general the "moon-building" is wonderful.

This is a bit of a "bridge" novel. The Cortas have to get their act together to rebuild their business, other families have to react to newly formed power vacuums. Stuff happens but some of the most important action happens...not exactly off-screen, but you only see the results not what drove them. At any rate, the book feels like it's sorting things out for the big (and hopefully) final push in the next book.

Anyway, I did really like the book and I will probably pick up the next one in the series.

later
Tom

p.s. If you're reading this on LJ, I am probably going to turn off cross-posting at the end of the month. I may be deleting the LJ account entirely. You can find me on Dreamwidth at this username.
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

I saw three pretty good movies last week so I want to mention them here:

First up Your Name which is a very popular anime movie in Japan which has finally gotten a wide release here in the States. I enjoy anime a fair amount although it gets a bit same-y to me (and yes, I know about Yuri on Ice and Silver Spoon). The trailers for this said "teen body swaps followed by gendered hilarity" and I wasn't terribly impressed, but every review I saw raved about it so I decided to take the plunge.

It definitely started out with the teen body swapping and hi-jinks, but at the halfway point it becomes a very different movie and it really starts earning its accolades. It handles one of the trickier elements of magical/sci-fi movies pretty well and the ending has this delightful tension right up to the last frame.

It's really one of the better RomComs you'll see this year, in part because it has a deeper bite than RomCom would suggest.

Next I saw Free Fire. It's a 90-minute movie of which 85 minutes are a gunfight in a warehouse. It's big, dumb, stupid, and a great deal of fun. The movie takes place in Boston in the 70's. Some IRA members are here to buy a bunch of guns from a South African hustler and his crew. They meet up in an abandoned warehouse to make the switch. Both sides are snarky and insulting to each other and then a couple of low-level mooks on both sides try to settle some personal business and everything goes south in a hurry.

The movie keeps adding complications to prolong the gun fight. Plot-driven ammo counts, people keep getting shot but only badly enough to hobble their movement leaving them free to keep spouting quotes, that suitcase full of money, a working phone ringing in an upper floor office (did we mention everyone's been crippled by gunfire?), and a few other surprises keep things in the mix. Although there are times where the fight gets a little muddy, I think those are deliberate choices to mimic the confusion at that moment. In general, they do a good job of laying out the space and showing where folks are in relation to each other and goodies they want to get.

Again, it's just a gunfight movie and that's about it. Don't ask about the plot because it doesn't want to answer those questions (or at least, it never wants to explain it's answers). But it's violent, mindless fun and I rather liked it.

Finally, we have Colossal which...here's the exchange I had afterwards:

Me: "It's the best giant-monster movie America has ever made."
Her: "What about Pacific Rim?"
Me: "OK, fine, Colossal is the thinking man's Pacific Rim."

I think that's pretty accurate. Gloria is a young writer with a drinking problem who gets kicked out of her boyfriend's swanky New York apartment, so she goes back upstate to her hometown and moves into a house her family owns. She still does a lot of drinking and shuffles home with an early morning hangover. Meanwhile, Seoul, South Korea, a giant monster appears out of nowhere, smashes up some buildings and then disappears into thin air.

These things seem unconnected, until Gloria realizes that the monster only appears when she walks through a playground on her morning trudge back to her place. A little more experimentation reveals that not only does it appear when she walks through the playground, it copies her movements exactly. So...she is the monster.

The trailer makes the movie look like a comedy and it is funny in a lot of places, but this movie gets pretty dark in a hurry. Nothing overtly violent, just a lot of toxic relationship stuff slowly bubbling up and making things more and more uncomfortable. Luckily, the protagonist is a protagonist and even when things are dark, you can see her fighting. The movie touches on a lot of big themes and even though giant monsters are some of the least subtle metaphors you can use in a movie, this one adds some great nuanced touches to it all.

In short, not a fun, entertaining romp, but an entertaining, thoughtful film. Well worth checking out.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

So a year ago I got really interested in Gates of Antares by Warlord Games. I liked the figures. I basically liked the games system it was built on (Bolt Action) so I picked up the starter box.

Then I read through it and I was reminded why sci-fi rulesets are so problematic for me. Each race uses a different technology (or a different application of the same technology) to do stuff. But in the crucible of war, especially between two forces of relatively equal technical sophistication, either one type of technology would turn out to be better (a laser gun is always better than an automatic rifle) forcing both sides to use the same tech or there'd be no functional difference between them (so both laser gun and automatic rifle would be the same stats-wise from the game's perspective). This means there are potential balance issues and, of course, you're locked into a particular manufacturer's minis (unless you proxy them). I dunno...I got it and then kinda lost interest.

But I had a pile of plastic and felt like the minis were interesting enough to paint up so over the past couple of months, I have been. Let's look at what I've done.

First up, we have the forces of the Ghar, vicious little goblin-like creatures that wrap themselves in powerful, slightly unstable battle suits and wade in for the kill. You get six the in the starter kit:


Ghar Battlesuits


These battle suits come in two configuration. You have the Scourer Cannon:


Ghar Battlesuit -- Scourer Cannon

\

Ghar Battlesuit -- Scourer Cannon 2


For close-in work, you've also got a group equipped with a plasma claw:


Ghar Battlesuit -- Plasma Claw


The fact that a power claw is a viable choice for a military force, kind of underscores my point about wonky sci-fi rulesets. I'm not saying that close combat won't be a feature of combat in the future, but no one's going to have major formations of guys equipped with a can opener. Maybe if you're fighting in a space unfriendly to projectiles such as a ship in space. But then, assuming the suit fits in the hallways, you're not likely to think a plasma-powered claw is a good idea either. Still...they look pretty cool, I do admit.

So that's the evil aliens. How about the humans?


Concord Strike Force


These are the basic Strike Troopers for the Concord (human) force. Each squad is composed of five guys that includes a leader and a heavy weapons trooper with plasma lance:

Concord Leader and Heavy Weapons Trooper

And three Strike Troopers:

Concord Strike Troopers

But because this is the far future, these squads get some robotic assistants (and this, by the way, is one of the things that really drew me to the game initially, most forces have or can have various helper drones). These primarily consist of Spotter Drones helping to find enemies and direct fire:

Concord Spotter Drones


Your squad can also pick up some heavier Combat Drones with a plasma cannon for a little more support:


Concord C3D1 Support Drones


Oh and the second one on the left has a subverter matrix to hijack enemy drones (and again, this cyber-war component was another draw to this game for me).

Anyway, a typical strike squad will have the troopers and their spotter drone along with a combat drone and its personal spotter drone:


Concord Strike Squad


A rather nice looking group even if I do say so myself.

I took this opportunity to try and practice a couple of different painting techniques. In particular, I normally use a dip shader to shade/shellac the mini with maybe a hint of highlighting after. Here, I used some colored shades (black and green) and then tried harder to do more highlighting afterwards. I need to work with this technique a bit more, but I am pleased at the way all these guys came out. 

The Ghar probably could've used a bit more highlighting to brighten them up a bit, but again, it all came out pretty well.

This was also the first time I tried painting figures on flight stands. Honestly, I should've white glued the drones to a stick, painted them on that and then transferred them to the clear flight stands, but I was feeling lazy and masking the flight stand worked out pretty well.

The biggest experiment was detailing the lenses. The Ghar suits in particular have those glowing blue plasma cores and a face full of lenses. Usually, I paint those kinds of things black (or one other color) and let it go at that. I still can't paint eyes to save my life. But this time, I wanted to give the lenses a shot and I'm really happy with the way it all turned out. I'm hoping to keep working on these detail bits and improving those a bit. It doesn't take much and it really makes the model pop.

Anyway, these guys are unlikely to hit the table (at least not in a game of Gate of Antares) but I'm glad I got them painted. I got to practice a few different techniques and I really do enjoy painting these little dudes even if I'm not a Golden Demon.

Next up: a blast from the past.

later
Tom


bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

So the other day I finished up Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer. This is the sequel to last year's Too Like Lightning which I rather enjoyed. So I was really looking forward to this.

Unfortunately, I think the series finally succumbed to the issues I noted in my review on the previous book. The book is a history of seven fateful days that changed the course of a human utopia. It is also, a lengthy mediation and discussion of Enlightenment-era thinking and personalities. The problem, as I noted in the previous book, is that the world-building and technology on display in the book mean that you can't just shoehorn 18th Century thinking as the power-behind-the-throne as it does here. The book's world, it's plot, and it's philosophical discourses all work at cross-purposes to one another and eventually you finally have to start asking questions the book doesn't really want to answer.

Let me be clear -- there is an enormous value to reading and understanding historical patterns of thought. I love history and I love listening to the thinking of people of the past. It's why I really enjoy Lapham's Quarterly for example. No matter what Big Topic you're thinking about, someone in the past has probably already had thoughts similar to yours and articulated it better, just as someone else probably was more articulate in tearing down that idea.

But those thoughts also existed in a certain context and you can't just wholesale dump them into a new context and expect everything to run smoothly (and yet, you can't also just blandly claim that the new context invalidates all the thinking of the past).

Anyway, with this book, people make a number of decisions that just don't quite hold up under scrutiny (outside of their Enlightenment context...maybe) and a couple of them are actively being assholes, but somehow the other major players shrug their shoulders and let them get away with it.

I dunno, there's a lot of really neat stuff in this book, but it's just doesn't fit together. Also, there'll be yet another book in the series. To it's credit, the book does end at a decent(ish) stopping point, but I'm in no hurry to pick up the next book in the sequence.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

Couple more books and here's what I thought.

First up, Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly. The basic description of this book is a Le Carr spy novel written by Oscar Wilde. That's not strictly true, but it gives you a sense.

Amberlough is the capital city of the country that shares its name. Amberlough and three other countries are arranged in a loose confederation of states, but there's a growing right-wing movement to unify the country and impose a more repressive society -- something that corrupt, cosmopolitan, devil-may-care Amberlough isn't really in the mood for. Luckily, it's just a small, fringe group of Unity politicians. Then they start winning elections.

Cyril DePaul is a top agent for Amberlough's in-house spy agency. After a gruelling mission to a war-torn region, he currently has a cozy job keeping tabs on Amberlough's police force and helping them out from time to time. It's especially cozy because one of the most (if the most) notorious smuggler of illicit goods is Aristide Makricosta...who happens to be DePaul's lover.

Cyril gets assigned a field mission to find out how the Unity party is winning their elections. He uncovers some pretty big secrets and soon he's trying to figure out how to get Aristide and himself out of the country and far away from Unity zealots. As his schemes spin up, he recruits Cordelia Lehane, a dancer at the nightclub Aristide frequents. So begins a race against time to get people out of the city before Unity manages to seize power.

So this was a pretty good book. I only had two nits -- 1.) DePaul makes an important decision early on in the book that doesn't seem well motivated. They try and back-fill the rationale a bit later, but still, DePaul is a pretty experienced agent and it doesn't seem like his decision makes a lot of sense in that light. Still, it drives the book forward. 2.) Very clearly angling for a sequel and does a poor job of tying up the important loose ends at the end of the book.

That aside, the writing is good and clips right along and the worldbuilding is excellent. Amberlough is a mix of Steampunk Victorian London and Cabaret Berlin and there are lots of great little details that don't overwhelm. I'm particularly enamored of the slang in Amberlough. There's a lot of clever wordplay.

One example of that wordplay that didn't fully set in until after I read the book was the way in which cigarettes were referred to as "straights". In real life, cigarettes are sometimes called "nails" so I had that connotation in mind. Of course, two days after I read the book, I realized that cigarettes are also called "fags" and calling them "straights" in a book with gay themes was, I thought, pretty clever.

So yeah, a wobbly ending, but it's a fun book and well-worth checking out.

After that, I zipped right through Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. It's a fantasy novel, but it treats adventuring groups like rock stars.

So Clay "Slowhand" Cooper was the tank for a group called Saga known far and wide for their many exploits (as told by a series of bards who keep dying on the group). But Saga broke up and Clay got married and settled down and now he's happy being a town watchman. Then Golden Gabe shows up and begs Clay's help to "get the band back together again" so that they can go save Gabe's daughter currently on the far side of the world being besieged by a horde of monsters so vast they fill the landscape.

Reluctantly, Clay agrees and the two set off to find the other members. The wizard is selling potions to cure impotence, the assassin is king and the deadliest warrior alive has been imprisoned in stone. So...they've got a bit of convincing to do. Then they just have to cross hundreds of miles of treacherous forrest, cross a forbidding series of peaks and then shatter the monster horde and their leader to rescue Gabe's daughter.

Of course they do (you know how these books go), and the journey is absolutely worth the price of admission. Again, lots of great world-building on display here and again, no huge info-dumps to overwhelm readers. The magic system is never defined, but it never plays deus ex machina. The characters, if a bit comedic, do seem lived-in and they're a bit deeper than you might think.

If you like D&D fantasy and it's tropes, you'll probably really enjoy this one. Even if that's not your thing, it certainly makes for some great beach reading. The book leaves itself and opening for a sequel, but, quite honestly, the book is very stand-alone and I wouldn't care if there was a follow-up. I certainly would like to see more from Mr. Eames though.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

A couple years ago, I read The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White. It was the story of a secret society of people who essentially lived forever by uploading themselves into the Jungian Collective and then downloading themselves into other people (it's not quite a creepy as it sounds). That connection to the Collective means that they are able to persuade an manipulate people with just a bit of research and after some spectacular failures to remake the world in their image, they work more quietly, in small increments to make the world a better place (hence, The Incrementalists). I thought it was an interesting book with a lot of fun concepts that were worth exploring more.

The second book, The Skill of Our Hands, has finally come out and I finished up reading it the other day.

This is a book that I think a lot of people will want to read. Especially if they're feeling overwhelmed by the political situation and wondering if there's anything they can do to help. There's a lot of great moments that touch on the questions around when and how and why we take actions to try and change things. The downside is that if you just jump into this book, there's quite a lot of interesting background/world-building that gets brushed over. They do explain things for new readers, but I remember reading the first book and thinking about all the interesting things their "magic" could do. It's not downplayed or ignored here, but it's not explored in quite the same way as the first book.

Now maybe this is ok, the story isn't about the background or kewl powers, it's about gifted people struggling to use their talents to help people and each other and the ways they get that right or wrong. So it's a bit odd. I think people should read this book, I think they should read The Incrementalists first, and I think that if they're only going to read one book, read this one. It really zeroes in on modern-day issues in a way that people will probably resonate to.

The short version of the plot is that Phil, one of the oldest Incrementalists, has been shot while trying to change immigration enforcement in Arizona. For Phil, that's not the worst thing that could happen, but it sort of throws the rest of the Incrementalists into a bit of a tizzy since no one's sure who killed Phil and they sort of need him around to move their projects forward. Things start fraying from there.

Oh -- the book has one of the most cheerful and positive portrayals of polyamory I've seen in a while.

Anyway, the series is pretty good and this book is the stand-out so far, so check it out.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

So the other day I finished up Silent Hall by N S Dolkart. It's...it's not bad, but it spends a lot of time in the set-up and then leaves everything for the next book. Also, it's the "band of chosen young people save the world" kind of book and that's not a huge draw for me.

Again the writing clips along and it's not bad, but it was mostly filler while waiting for the release of a book I wanted to read more. So...I guess it fulfilled its mission?

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

It's been a while since I last wrote. Part of it was that Assassin's Creed 3 was so bad I didn't want to keep up with the series (although I heard good things about the pirate-assassin installment that followed) and then I just sorta stopped playing video games.

Over Christmas, I picked up a new Xbox One (because I'm a console scrub who has brand loyalty) and I've been playing through a few games.

First up, is Forza Horizon 3, an open-world, arcade driving game like Burnout Paradise City or Burnout: Most Wanted. The game is set in "Australia" and you go bombing around rain forest, beaches, farmland, outback, and urban centers. You unlock new cars and new events and just try to go fast and look good doing it. I really like it. The controls are responsive, and the physics are pretty good. I will say that, being Australia, there's a lot of off-roading so while the Lamborghinis and Ferraris are beautiful, they lose that luster once you get off the road. So my car of choice has been a Subaru WRX 05 rally car that handles highways and dirt roads no sweat. It's a solid game and I've been enjoying it.

Next, I gave Far Cry 4 a try. I really enjoyed Far Cry 3 and I was curious to give it another spin. So, often the series has a bit of the old "white guy saves native people" problem, although it does put twists and spins on it that helps it avoid a lot of this trope's issues. This time, you are Ajay, a refugee from the Nepal-like country of Kyrat. So although a bit of an outsider, you are actually a member of the ethnic group you're trying to save. Of course, you never really see your face and you wear gloves so it's not like your confronted by that visually very often but still.

Anyway, you're here to scatter your mom's ashes but then you get pulled into the civil war that caused you to flee in the first place. So you run around, kill bad guys, get near-supernatural powers to hunt down bad guys, and kill lots of endangered creatures so you make a bigger bag to store your ammo in. You liberate towns, forts, and radio towers. You take on various missions and eventually you reach the end only to realize it was all a huge waste.

See, the rebels have two rival commanders who have different approaches to waging war. You, as the son of the former rebel head, are used as a political football to help one or the other reach the top. So you'll get a mission where each rebel leader wants you to do something different. Despite the fact that you are the long-lost golden child of a fondly remembered rebel leader and despite the fact that you actually get stuff done, you can't become the actual head of the rebellion, nor can you try and work out a compromise between the conflicting things the rebel leaders want you to do. In the end, no matter who you back, you feel like you've just made things worse somehow. Which, actually, is something I kind of like about this series -- interventions may not always produce successful outcomes.

So the game is fun, but it gets a bit tedious and given your complete inability to actually affect any positive change, I mostly just pushed through to the end of the story and then dumped it.

What replaced it is why I'm writing to the Master of Assassins. I didn't pick up a new Assassin's Creed game, instead I picked up Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Um...this game is awesome.

So you play Talion, a ranger who works at the Black Gate protecting Gondor and watching over Mordor lest evil returns. Then...evil returns and kills everyone, including your wife and son. You, however, are fused with the spirit of an ancient elf and return to get revenge on the forces of Sauron.

You start off with a sneak attack and that's about it. Even two or three orcs will quickly overwhelm you. But as time goes on you gain more skills, your weapons (sword, bow and dagger) get runes that you can use to swap in and out various bonuses or powers. Eventually, you just wade into dozens of orcs and just straight-up wreck them. Even better, you eventually gain the power magically brand the orcs and put them under your control. So you sneak around, brand a bunch of mooks and then turn them against their boss.

The coolest part of this game, however, is the orcish chain of command. You've got your mooks and then your captains, verterans, chiefs and warchiefs. All of these guys have special powers and weaknesses and you don't know what they are until you track down and interrogate special "informant orcs". You can pick them off without researching them, but it helps to know more about them.

All well and good, but the brilliant bit comes when you kill one of these ranking orcs. See, when you do that, there's now this hole in the chain of command. Eventually, some lower-ranking orc will be promoted to fill his place. On top of that, if you get killed by some random mook (and it will happen), that mook will get promoted to captain and gain a name and special powers. And if a ranking guy kills you they often get stronger gaining new powers.

So you get killed by a mook and they become a captain. You go after him, but he kills you a second time, getting stronger. Let me tell you, you get real invested in killing this guy after a while. On top of that, ranking orcs have power struggles so the chain of command can change without you doing anything. On top of that if you mind-control an orc, you can help him rise through the ranks. To take out some of the later high-ranking warchiefs, I mind-controlled his lower-ranking bodyguard and had them turn against him. The overall effect is to create this dynamic environment of targets to go after and you feel like your actions are really making a difference.

Just a really solid game and I highly recommend it.

So no Templars, no business dealings, no bevy of beauties to strike down targets, but probably the best assassin's creed game I've played in a while.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

So the ad-hoc bookclub is reaching the end and people are beginning to talk about stuff so let's get some reviews out of the way.

We start with the ad hoc book club book for January, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It was quite the best-seller in 2016 (and Oprah really liked it), so we decided to give it a whirl.

In the 1820's, Cora is a slave in Georgia. She's a bit of an outcast because her mother ran to freedom and Cora violently defends her only inheritance, a small garden plot, from another slave. Cora doesn't mind too much and lives in a shelter with other women deemed "not right". For the most part, Cora keeps her head down and when newcomer Caesar asks her to come with him in his own flight to freedom, she initially turns him down. When life on the plantation takes a decided turn for the worse, she changes her mind.

The book isn't strictly historical (I suspect that some of the events she encounters weren't from 1820 although they easily could be), but it only really stands out when you discover that the underground railroad is, in fact, an actual underground railroad that ferries people through the dark to new places. Cora and Caesar travel from Georgia to South Carolina and it seems to be a much better place, but the chains are simply gilded. Cora is forced to move on when Ridgeway, a professional slave catcher, shows up. Ridgeway failed to capture Cora's mother and so has a personal interest in returning her to her owner.

There follows a series of events as Cora moves from place to place, but the underlying theme is that there really isn't any safe place in America for black people. In fact, the ending is a tad ambiguous in that we never really find out Cora's fate, unlike many of the other less-fortunate characters in the book who often get their own small chapter explaining their fate or background.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book, although I'm much more fond of Lovecraft Country in terms of talking about America's racial problems. In part, because it covers a lot of interesting (to me) issues like how do we enjoy the creative products of racist assholes and in part because the protagonists of Lovecraft Country exhibit a lot of agency. Cora is mostly buffeted about by the winds of fate. Obviously, she makes the decision to run and she does take drastic actions at times to keep running, but it's always a snap decision and it's clear there are times where if she hadn't caught a lucky break, she would've been dragged back to the plantation or succumbed to her own misery.

All of this isn't the best for a strict narrative (we want our heroes to take decisive action and rally from setbacks), but it probably says something more truthful about slavery and those subjected to it. Maybe it should feel unsatisfactory and a little unfinished, since that's where racial issues are right now.

I will say that I was reminded that Colson Whitehead also wrote The Intuitionist about a black elevator inspector and that is a terribly misleading description for what was an amazing book. If you were in ad hoc and thought Underground Railroad was good, you'll definitely want to read The Intuitionist.

Next, a youtube video brought The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. The two political scientist distill their research into how and why leaders make the decisions they do. Like many of these books, the answer is one that took them 18 years to work out and most of us would simply cynically spout off -- leaders want to gain power and then stay in power and everything else they do arises out of that.

In particular, leaders have essential supporters who must be kept happy or they won't support the leader and then the leader won't be leader any more. In non-democratic societies, this is usually a small circle of nobility, family or tribal members, economic or military leaders, or some other small but important group. The upshot is that the leader will only do what it takes to make them happy and no one else (since the members of his small circle can crack down on any dissent). Conversely, in democracies, a politician has a large number of essential supporters (i.e. voters) and to keep them happy, a leader has to support a lot of public goods (police and fire, clean water, good schools, etc.). If he can't keep enough voters happy, he gets kicked out.

This is all well and good, but like a lot of soft sciences, they provide some simple theoretical examples and then proceed to apply the concepts to everything without accounting for the complexities of the real world. In particular, they claim that leader's can't really pursue any policies that don't keep them in power (i.e. that don't cater to their core supporters). However, a leader can use their power to convince their supporters that a pet project of the leader (a war, a change in taxes, an environmental policy, etc.) is something good for their supporters and then they can do what they want because they've convinced their supporters it's what they want too.

They advocate democracies because having a large group of essential supporters forces leaders to help out as many people as they can, but they also acknowledge that leaders want to reduce that group of essential supporters. In fact, the very first real-world case study they open the book with is about how a democratically elected group of town directors reduced their essential supporters to a small block of voters and proceeded to write themselves huge, fat, legal checks. When they talk about ways to increase essential supporter sizes, they don't really talk about how to incentivize leaders to keep increasing that group of essential supporters. Though they do talk about gerrymandering and abolishing the Electoral Collage -- there's not a lot of discussion on how to convince the people who got where they are thanks to those things to give up their winning ticket.

Likewise, they discuss how corporate governance could be improved by using the internet to connect small shareholders and organize them in to a large voting block. The problem is that many corporations are set up so that the essential supporters hold a majority share. The other problem is that most people don't own stocks to run a business, they own it as an asset they hope to see grow over time. There are activist investors who rail against overpaid CEOs and bad business practices and the like, but can they reach and organize every small investor to build a commanding block? I'm not saying they can't, but again, it doesn't seem likely. Mostly it just seems like they're short on answers.

The book is, however, an intriguing lens in which to view the recent elections. Sanders didn't rely on big donors and Trump self-funded a fair chunk (and wasn't terribly beholden to traditional political backers in the first place). Both platforms also directly told voters to ask establishment politicians "what have you done for me lately?" and if they didn't like the answers....

I hope someone else reads this book so I can discuss/argue about it with them. I seem to have a lot of criticisms, but I think that just means they present an interesting case that deserves reading and discussion.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

So August 21st, 2017, my hometown of Ravenna, Nebraska will be under the line of totality and will experience a total eclipse of the sun. I'm going home to watch it and there's crash space available at my parent's place. If you're interested in checking it out, please let me know.

This is my last reminder, I need to get a solid head count early so that we can start planning for the trip. Securing plane tickets and rental cars may be a bit tricky so better to get that stuff locked down earlier rather than later.

I know a few of you have expressed actual or tentative interest. This is basically Last Call. If you really want to go please email me. Don't reply to this post or PM me or whatever -- email me -- even if I know you want to go. I need to build up a contact list and I don't want to miss anyone because I forgot to check the comments to a post. Also, I want to set up a short meeting in mid-February so everyone who wants to go can meet up and we can cover the basics of scheduling for the event. I don't think this will take too long. Probably an hour, maybe two if there's a lot of discussion -- I'll try and keep things moving along. So when you email me, let me know dates that are good for you to have this meeting. I'm thinking this will probably happen on a weeknight rather than weekend. Hopefully I won't have to resort to a doodle poll.

So. Eclipse Viewing Trip to Nebraska in August 2017. If you're set on going, send me an email and let me know some dates you'd be ok with sitting down for about an hour to discuss the trip and get organized.

Thanks
Tom

Fingersmith

Jan. 4th, 2017 12:09 pm
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hey,

I went to see Fingermith at the A.R.T.

It was...amazing. The basic story is great, the acting was good and the theatre tech was jaw dropping.

It's only playing for a few more days but if you can get tickets you should try and go.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (Default)

Hey,

  Just a reminder that there will be a total eclipse of the sun on August 21st this year and my hometown of Ravenna, Nebraska will be right under the line of totality (i.e. the eclipse will be fully visible, the moon eats the sun, yadda-yadda).  If you'd like to see it, my folks are offering crash space for anyone who'd like to join me.  I've got a couple of people who've confirmed they'd like to go, but there's still some room.  If you're interested in actually going, let me know.  In February, I'll organize a planning meeting for people who want to go.  If you just want to be in and out to see the eclipse, that's great, if you'd like to plan out a vacation that includes the eclipse viewing, I can help you find an itinerary that will suit your needs. 

later
Tom

bluegargantua: (Default)

Hey,

Not an outstanding, but a pretty good year for books. Here's everything I read:

 
 
 

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence Schoen

Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Expendable by James Allen Gardner (Audiobook)

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The House of War and Witness by Mark, Linda and Louise Carey (didn’t finish)

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Inca Civilization in Cuzco by R. Tom Zuidema

Railroad Semantics 1 and 2 by Aaron Dactyl

Unsinkable: How to Build Plywood Pontoons & Longtail Boat Motors Out of Scrap by Robnoxious

Brotherhood of the Wheel by R. S. Belcher

Dream Whip #15 The Pedal Powered Movie Tour by Bill Brown

Shantyboat: A River Way of Life by Harlan Hubbard.

Low Town by Daniel Polansky

Coot Club by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Railhead by Philip Reeve

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 by Samuel Clemens

Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm

The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey

Reminiscences of the "Filibuster" War in Nicaragua by Charles William Doubleday

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gaveriel Kay

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Sex with Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Enemy by K Easton

Dark Run by Mike Brooks

Making the Rounds by Allan Weiss

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Los Nefilim by T. Frohock

Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign by Peter Cozzens

White Elephants by Katie Haegele

Outlaw by K. Eason

Hell Divers by Nicholas Sandsbury Smith

The Big Six by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Behind the Throne by K. B. Wagers

Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

Smokejumper by Jason A. Ramos

Secret Water by Arthur Ransome (Audiobook)

The War at the End of the World by Mario Vegas Llosa

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky

A Long Spoon by Jonathan L. Howard

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

Slaughtermatic by Steve Aylett

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante

What to Do When I Get Stupid by Lewis Mandell

Roll Call to Destiny: The Soldier's Eye View of Civil War Battles by Brent Nosworthy

The Uskoks of Senj by Catherine Wendy Bracewell

The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens

The Burning Isle by Will Panzo

Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert F Capon

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky

After the Crown by K B Wagers

So that's around 56 books read/listened to. But you want to know what to add to your reading list.

Top Fiction books:

1.)
 Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
2.)  Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone
3.)  The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard
4.)  A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante

Top Non-fiction Books:
1.)  Supper of the Lamb by Robert F Capon
2.)  The Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 3 by Samuel Clemens
3.)  The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens

Looking forward to some interesting books in 2017.

later
Tom
 
bluegargantua: (Default)
Hi,

Technically it started yesterday but I was busy. It's time once again for an Ad Hoc Book Club reading. This time around, we're going to be reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I'm already starting in on it and it's an interesting read, I think people will really enjoy it.

As always, it's a casual book club so you can read at your own pace. On Jan. 31st, we can start talking about it.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (default)
Hi,

[livejournal.com profile] beah and I are doing another ad hoc book club for January 2017. This time around, we're going to be reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It won a National Book Award and Oprah seemed to like it so...let's give it a go.

As usual, the "official" start date is Jan. 1st, but you can begin whenever and we'll all avoid discussing it too much until the 31st.

later
Tom
bluegargantua: (default)
Hey,

Unless I get real ambitious these are probably the final reviews of the year.

First up: Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Mr. Tchaikovsky is best known for this "Shadows of the Apt" series, a fantasy novel in which various groups of humans gain special powers related to their insect totems. It was a fun series, but I kinda lost interest and stopped after a few. Spiderlight is a stand-alone fantasy novel that mostly plays with the tropes.

Nth is a giant spider, one of the multitudes that infest the Mirkwood forest. As the book opens the forest is being invaded by a small band of humans. No trouble except whoops, these are adventurers and they've got a pyromaniac wizard to boot. The spiders rally to defend their Mother, but can't stand against the Forces of Light. But they stop short. They're on a quest, there's a prophecy what needs fulfilling and a spider's tooth and a spider's knowledge are what's required.

To save her children, Mother gives up a venom-filled fang and offers to let them have Nth, into whom, she's implanted the memories the group needs. So now, Nth is an eight-legged member of the party. Hrm...a bit conspicuous that. Luckily, the wizard has an Idea.

The book is fun. It skewers stereotypes and has a bit of fun with the black and white morality of fantasy worlds. If you've read any fantasy at all, you'll probably catch various bits and gags. Luckily, there's still an actual story going on so it doesn't slide into that "forced funny" that a number of parody books suffer from.

Next up: After the Crown by K B Wagers. This is the second in her Indranan War series (the first being Behind the Throne I reviewed a few months ago). The story follows Hail Bristol, former princess, ex-gunrunner, and current Indranan Empress. She inherited a lot of problems when she gained the throne and one of them is a shadow war by a neighboring empire. Hail leads a negotiation team to try and work things out, but, surprise it's a trap and there's a coup on.

The book was fine, but it follows very closely on the events of the first book and since (spoiler alert) a few people die in that book, you've got new staff and half-remembered pre-existing dudes so...it was a little tough to follow in spots. Still, we get to see Hail be a bit more proactive in this book so that's nice. Unlike the first book, there is definitely no real resolution in this book (wait for book three!) so that knocks it back a bit. I'm not 100$ sure I'll buy into the final book of the series, but it continues to be some light, fast reading.

later
Tom

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