Read Recently — December 2016 — The rest

The Shepherd’s Crown: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

It had to happen. Terry Pratchett had early-onset Alzheimer’s Syndrome and it was bound to influence his writing before he died. Some argued for an earlier affect than this, and even some of them held this book up as a good example of his work regardless but I disagree. It’s a pity, too, as it’s a Tiffany Aching book, and they are generally good, but this . . . just doesn’t work.

It isn’t that the book begins with Granny Weatherwax dying. Of all Pratchett’s characters Granny was the one most likely to die (other than Rincewind, of course, and killing Rincewind off would’ve been cruel and Pratchett was rarely cruel to his characters) and really, her role in Tiffany’s saga has so far been to act as an example and that’s no longer necessary. So Granny passes on and she leaves her hut to Tiffany, of course, giving Tiffany duties both in Lancre and on the Chalk. And there is unrest in the court of the Elves, and with Granny gone, one of the barriers that kept them out of the world is gone too . . .

So we get a “Tiffany takes on too much work” story, which we’ve done before, and we get a “Tiffany and/or Witches in general against the elves” story, both variants of which we’ve done before, and we’ve got Pratchett not on his A-game (which, sadly, we have also had before) and it’s a sad farewell to the Discworld.

Mildly not recommended.

Atheism: the case against God by George H. Smith; foreword by Lawrence M. Krauss

This was a re-read, though it’s a new edition, re-issued 42 years after the first publication. Smith is systematic in defining his terms, including the many varieties of Atheism and Agnosticism, and sets up his terms of argument well. On the other hand, in one chapter he falls badly into the strawman trap in presenting a “dialogue” between believer and non-believer (which is why this sort of thing is best avoided) and in his chapter titled “Ethics, Rationality and Religion” he draws far too heavily on Ayn Rand, another thing best avoided. Still, it’s an interesting book and the early chapters at least are well worth looking at. Recommended.

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Read Recently — December 2016 — Steampunk

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

Josephine Early is a successful businesswoman in New Orleans in the early 1880s; she runs a “boarding house” for young ladies (yes, that is a euphemism; it’s a brothel, but a good one) and maintains her and their independence, which is quite something for a free woman of colour in a Confederate State in a world in which the US Civil War still hasn’t ended after 20 years. A while ago the Union actually took the city, and when the Confederacy was unable to take it back directly they asked Texas to intervene. Since Texas has the best tech in the Clockwork Century-verse (they’re up to dieselpunk rather than steampunk), they succeeded and now they occupy New Orleans “for the Confederacy”.

Still Josephine has a plan. In tandem with her brother Deaderick (“Rick”) she is aware of a device known as the Ganymede, an advanced submarine (based on a real sub designed by a real person in the real world) scuttled and lost in Lake Ponchartrain. If they can get it down to the Gulf of Mexico and hook up with the Union fleet down there they could strike a real blow against the Confederacy. The problem is that the machine is hard to handle and has a tendency to drown its crews (there is a reason why it was scuttled and lost in Ponchartrain). But then again, everyone they have tried to get to run it so far has been a sailor, and Josephine has a theory that the controls and environmental effects are more like those of an airship. There are lots of airships around, but she can’t afford to pay a good pilot what he’s worth (the Union is not convinced the Ganymede is worth the effort and won’t invest any money in the project until they see it in the field, as it were). Then it occurs to her that she knows someone who is a good airship pilot, owes no allegiance to the Confederacy or the Republic of Texas, and might be willing to work for less than optimal pay due to residual fondness from the long-gone days when they were a couple.

Andan Cly is a pretty good airship pilot, though he’s thinking about getting out of the business. He’s been a pirate and a smuggler for a while, and ten years ago he used to hang out in New Orleans a lot, but lately he’s been working out of the Seattle area and the new sherriff, Briar Wilkes, has him thinking about giving that up. Settling down. Opening a depot. Not that settling down in Seattle is as easy as it is in other cities; Seattle is locked away behind a high wall intended to hold in the heavier-than-air gas that, if not filtered out of the air, kills those who breathe it and then brings them back as violent, undead creatures. The Seattlites live underground, in sealed, well-vented chambers, and are very well-acquainted with gas masks.

On the other hand, the gas, if properly treated, makes a popular drug known in the outside world as “sap”. Sap does have the same side-effect as the gas does, but that only kicks in once the user is dead, and isn’t widely known about. Cly has been transporting sap for the other master of Seattle, but he intends to get out of the business and that will mean refitting his ship. That means a trip out of Seattle and a visit to a shipyard. Various people from around the town want him to get supplies for them as well, including some technical materials to work on Seattle’s airpumps, so a visit to a “Texian” shop would be worthwhile. Why not go to New Orleans and kill two birds with one stone?

Priest does her usual excellent work here. No novel in the Clockwork Century series has been a direct sequel to any other, but characters from the first two books do make reappearances here and the storyline overall advances. Action, great characterisation, excellent world-building (Priest discusses it in the Author’s note at the end): highly recommended.

Read Recently — December 2016 – Phreak Me Right the Phuck Out

Exploding the Phone: the untold story ofthe teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley

Lapsley here brings us the story of how a number of people discovered and exploited mechanical errors in the phone system of the mid-to-late 20th century. The tools they used ranged from charm to fraud to surprisingly simple electronic devices called “Blue Boxes”. They had cool nicknames and exchanged information through long-distance phone calls (free because that’s one of the things they used their exploits to gain) and personal meetings at first, and eventually zines and unofficial phone “chat-rooms”. For the most part, they didn’t do it for money, but for kicks and ego.

They were brought down by a combination of that ego and by the slow replacement of the mechanical switches that they relied on with digital switches. They did, however, give birth to hacker culture, which remains with us to this very day.

For the most part you won’t recognize the names of the “phone phreaks” (they originally spelled it “freaks”, but media attention and the appeal of alliteration made the change irresistable), but there are two you might; notorious but anonymous sellers of blue boxes in the Bay area in the 70s: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Recommended.

Going Postal: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

A re-read, obviously, but since I last read it I have read the above book and the book on the history of the Telegraph (here) and they both provide some new illumination to this volume.

Moist von Lipwig (pronounced “Lipvig”) is a professional con man. Down through the years since he left his home he has swindled a lot of people out of a lot of money, but alas he has finally been caught and is due to be hanged. He is, however, grateful for one thing: he is to be hanged under an assumed name.

And despite his best efforts to escape, Moist is duly hanged, by the neck, until (not quite-) dead. The small mercy of his life is extended to him by a truly proficient hangman at the orders of Lord Vetinari, the Patrician (dictator) of Ankh-Morpork, who has a job for him: Postmaster General.

The Ankh-Morpork post office is a mess. It has only two employees left, one of them elderly and the other obsessed with collecting pins, plus an elderly cat so set in his ways that it is easier to just get out of his way and, if need be, open the door for him than wait for him to realise that he can’t walk through that particular spot. The building is stuffed with undelivered letters, but no one brings mail to it any more. Why bother? If you need messages sent you either deliver them yourself (if local) or else send them by Clacks (visual telegraph) if it’s long distance. Of course, the Post Office now has Moist, and his parole officer, a golem named Mr. Pump.

The last thing Moist wants to be is Postmaster General, especially once he finds out that the last four men assigned to the task have all come to bad ends. Of course, none of those men were Moist von Lipwig, with his particular skills and gifts. None of them befriended Adora Belle Dearheart, head of the Golem Trust. Or none of them came to the attention of Reacher Gilt, the head of the Grand Trunk Clacks consortium, who has to see the Post Offce as a rival, has skills much like those of Moist, and has the . . . aid of Mr Gryle. Who is not someone you want to meet at all.

Pratchett explores a lot of themes in this one, including what is freedom? Does the right of a business to make money trump the right of the people to vital services? Is redemption possible for even the worst people? And it’s funny. It’s a great book, and Highly recommended, especially in conjunction with those other two books.

Read Recently — December 2016 — Mysteries

Who Buries the Dead: a Sebastian St. Cyr mystery by C. S. Harris

The latest St. Cyr mystery to fall into my hands has Sebastian dealing with the decapitated body of a man related to the Home Secretary. The victim was a collecctor of, shall we say, historical artifacts not necessarily obtained by legal means; and as he was found near a leather strap labelled “King Charles I” there is reason to believe that he might have stumbled onto a real find: the head of said Charles, possibly stolen from his recently discovered tomb. This gives St. Cyr a double deadline: stop the killer before he or she kills again, and find and restore the head to its grave before a fascinated Prinny visits it and finds the head not there.

One of the suspects is a banker named Henry Austen, and the investigation brings St. Cyr into contact with his daughter Jane, whose (anonymously-published) novels have been recently fascinating the ton. Her insights into personality may be useful for finding the killer. And of course, as he works his investigation, St. Cyr annoys the famous and the powerful, one of whom may be angry enough to try to kill him.

All things considered, this is another good entry in a good series. Recommended.

Black Cat Crossing by Kay Finch

Sabrina (you know, I just realised that I don’t know the character’s last name; if it’s mentioned in the first 30 pages I can’t find it. I don’t know if that’s good writing or bad, but it’s certainly indicative of something) has moved to Lavender, Texas, to help her aunt Rowena (Aunt Rowe) run her collection of vacation cottages while Rowe recovers from a broken leg. It’s not exactly labour-intensive, as Rowe has a handyman and lots of friends, but Sabrina is irrationally fond of her aunt and has good memories of summers spent in Lavender as a girl. Also, she wants to work on her novel, a mystery/thriller that she is having some problems with.

The arrival of her aunt’s cousin, Bobby Joe Flowers, throws a spanner into everyone’s plans (everyone except Bobby Joe, that is). A wildman and sometime thief, Bobby Joe is already unpopular with Rowe, but on this trip he brings worse news than usual: a blood test has revealed that he, and not Rowe, might actually be the heir to the property holding the cottages. Rowe doesn’t let a broken leg stop her from throwing Bobby Joe out, and that turn to near-violence makes her a natural suspect when Bobby Joe is found dead on the property, his head smashed with a shovel.

Concerned for her aunt, Sabrina begins an inept investigation that is hampered by her concern for a new friend: the titular cat, which she nicknames Hitchcock but who many locals are blaming for any bad luck they might happen to have. And her friend Tyanne, who owns a bookstore, has arranged for a major literary agent to visit and told her all about Sabrina’s book. And now the agent wants to talk to Sabrina about it. Her unfinished book.

That was the part of the book I really tripped over: you don’t approach an agent with an incomplete book, one that hasn’t even finished a first draft. What if you never finish it? The agent could wind up putting a lot of work into a product that you never actually deliver. And Sabrina’s refusal to do the sensible thing and tell her friend to fuck off, she’ll find an agent when the book is ready, combined with her ineptitude as a detective, makes her really unlikable to me, and the book mildly not recommended (mildly because this particular quirk is probably mine alone).

Tempest in a Teapot by Amanda Cooper

The front cover says that this is “a teapot collector mystery”, but there is no series indicator inside the book.

Sophie Taylor is a trained chef, but her New York restaurant recently failed and she’s kind of adrift. Rather than fall into the social whirl that her mother, a wealthy woman, expects her to, Sophie decides to go back to the small Finger Lakes town of Gracious Grove, where her grandmother runs “Auntie Rose’s Victorian Teahouse”. Sophie used to spend summers with Rose and loves both the woman and her teahouse very much.

Ands so the reader is plunged into an environment sweet enough to give you diabetes; though fortunately the palate is quickly cleansed by old feuds, dislikeable relations (none of them Sophie’s), and a murder right in the teahouse–though it’s not Auntie Rose’s, but the place across the street, the source of much of the tensions mentioned above. All things considered, this wasn’t too bad, and Sophie is certainly no Sabrina, but frankly I felt that the whole plot was dragged down by the circumstances that lead to Sophie being in Gracious Grove in the first place: her failure at her planned career. For all that the book does not blame Sophie for it (there are always economic factors to consider) I am tired of the “woman fails in the big city and must return to her small town roots to find success” sort of storyline so endemic in romance and romantic comedy. But then, I’m not a small town kind of person, so I might be prejudiced.

Mildly not recommended.

Read Recently — December 2016 — Fantasies, Urban and Other

The Aeronaut’s Windlass: the Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher

In a world in which civilization is centered in cities laid out in levels inside massive spires of stone-like material, reared by ancient technology centuries ago in the wake of a disaster that made the surface dangerous to inhabit (though it can still be reached for the purposes of, say, harvesting wood for furniture), the main method of travel between spires is airship; the ships are kept airborne by power flowing through a network of wires and crystals, and driven by steam (though in the event of problems most maintain sails as a backup). The AMS Predator, under the command of Captain Francis Madison Grimm, is badly damaged in battle, her crystals cracked, barely able to rise or descend — no better than a windlass, a type of crane, as someone with an agenda helpfully tells the Captain.

However, the Spirearch (essentially the King of the Spire, though he has lttle actual power to back up the title) needs some agents taken downspire to search for agents of another Spire who may, according to an etherealist (essentially a wizard, though in a discipline which renders its users eventually, to the casual viewer, quite mad) be a great danger to the Spire. In return for ferrying these passengers down and back up the Spirearch will re-equip the Predator with a full new set of crystals, perhaps even making her better than before. Since Grimm regards the Predator as his home and her crew as his family, he agrees.

Grimm thus comes into contact with the Etherialist Master Ferus and his apprentice, Folly, who cannot talk to living humans but only to a collection of defunct crystals she carries around with her, Guard trainees Gwendolyn Lancaster, whose wealthy family grows power crystals, and Bridget Tagwynn, whose family grows vat-meat to feed the Spire but are now barely count as a house, Rrowl, a cat-prince who regards Bridget with a certain fondness (she speaks Cat), and Benedict Lancaster, a Guardsman and warriorborn, cousin to Gwen and follower of the Way. The group of them will face not only enemy marines who have, indeed, infiltrated the Spire, but also an enemy Etherealist with a dangerous mission of her own and something darker come up from the surface . . . and a hint of something even darker and more powerful lurking in the background.

I’ve enjoyed most of Butcher’s work and particularely his last limited fantasy series (as opposed to the open-ended Dresden Files, which eventually drove me away) Codex Alera, so I had high hopes for this one. I did read some reviews, both formal (actual reviews) and informal (opinions), that were negative, but I’m pleased to find that they were wrong and the book’s quite good, certainly up to Butcher’s usual standards (which you may regard as a recommendation or a warning, depending on your tastes). The characters are appealing or appalling, depending on what they need to be (though the enemies are given character, not mere stereotypes or faceless villains) and the world seems well-thought out and intriguing. I’m looking forward to more.

Highly recommended.

Once Broken Faith: an October Daye novel by Seanan McGuire

In her last adventure (mild spoiler follows) Toby and her crew found a cure for elfshot — the weapon that allows the fair folk to go to war without violating their absent king’s dictate that they not kill each other. Elfshot puts purebloods to sleep for a century, which is not a long time if you’re basically going to live forever (though it’s still a distressingly long absense for those left behind). Changelings it kills, but who cares about Changelings? Being elfshot twice has caused Toby to move further towards pureblooded, as first her mother and then her own power changed her blood to move her away from lethal status (I know, I know: blood doesn’t control your heredity. Hush, it’s magic). Now, the king of North America’s fae (based, for some reason, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) has declared that the cure is not to be used until he and a convocation of monarchs have met, and discussed it, and come to a decision. And they could potentially decide that it is not to be used. And the convocation is to be held in the Kingdom of the Mists, where Toby lives.

Of course, nothing goes exactly as planned. To start with, the High King and Queen are the parents of Quentin, Toby’s squire. Quentin being a prince-in disguise puts a certain amount of pressure on Toby as things stand; having his parents around is going to make it worse. Toby is ordered to attend the convocation, mostly as a device to allow Quentin to attend, both so that his parents can see more of him and so that he can learn how these things are done. The Luidaeg attends; elf-shot was invented by one of her sisters, who now sleeps, elf-shot herself, on a faerie road, having made the mistake of attacking Toby, and the two sisters never got along. The Luidaeg wants the cure used to frustrate her sister, but the sister has found a way to speak for herself: one of Toby’s honourary neices is an oneiromancer, a dream-walker and, as the sister is asleep, but still powerful, she can force the oneiromancer to speak for her.

And of course, as everyone might have expected, since Toby is in attendance, someone starts mudering the local kings. Toby, as the only person there with experience, is assigned to investigate. Can she solve the murders despite the unwillingness of most kings to cooperate with a changeling? Can she convince them to use the cure? Will she and Tybalt get married in Toronto?

This volume includes the novella (or possible novelette; I’m never sure) “Dreams and Slumbers” about how Queen Arden deals with the aftermath of the convocation and its effects on her elf-shot brother.

Highly recommended.

Read Recently — November 2016 — Nonfiction

Chocolate Wars: the 150-year rivalry between the world’s greatest chocolate makers by Deborah Cadbury

Deborah Cadbury is a cousin of the family that were the famous chocolatiers; close enough that an uncle regularely sent chocolates at Christmas; far enough away that she visited the family chocolate factory only a few times in her life (one such visit being in preparation for this book). Note that Cadbury the company is now owned by Kraft and that takeover is the closing point of the story, as far as Deborah Cadbury is concerned.

What fascinated me about this story was the way the various chocolates and candies we all know now (and many others we have never heard of because they went out of fashion long ago) and the brands that created and marketed them came to be. I never really thought about Cadbury being a family name, for example, or why they named what was for a long time my favourite chocolate bar “Mars”. Cadbury explores all this sort of stuff, as well as the personalities behind it all. Even more fascinating is how many of the original chocolatiers were Quakers, who got into big business not just to get rich, but to help those around them as well. There is a fascinating other model of capitalism in this and the book is worth reading just for that, even if you don’t much care about chocolate.

Well written, well edited. Recommended.

What if?: serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions by Randall Munroe

I actually had somebody ask me on a blog comment section whether I was “the XKCD guy” (I’m not, if anyone is still wondering. We simply share a common last initial). XKCD is a webcomic using simple stick figures (though Munroe’s various drawings suggest more artistic talent than the stick figures themselves imply) and scientific/science fictional/nerdy themes. What If? is a subsection of his website where people submit questions and he does his best to answer them, liberally linking to useful sites and supplementing the writing with drawings and pop-up texts (on mouseover).

This book, then, is a collection of those question-and-answer essays, some of which may not have appeared on the website. Example questions include such things as, “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent of the speed of light?” and “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time, would it change colour?” There are also “Weird (and worrying) questions from the What If? mailbox”, most of which are not actually answered.

Weird, informative, thought-provoking, highly recommended.

Read Recently — November 2016 — Some People Just Can’t Relax

Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

A “Busman’s Holiday” is to spend your vacation doing what you do for a living. It comes from the idea, basically, that they guys who drive those iconic double-decker buses in London, England, would go to Europe on their holiday and go riding around on a bus tour. The title of this, the latest Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, is thus a play on the fact that Lord Peter and Harriet Vane just can’t get together without having to solve a murder.

And, indeed, they are finally married; neither of them can quite encompass it. Peter’s marriage being a big deal with the media, they decide to skip the usual honeymoon sites in favour of a house near where Harriet grew up, a country house called “Talboys” (which at last makes sense of the title of one of the short stories, which has been baffling me for a while), which she had always wanted to own. Peter bought it for her and arranged with the owner, a local landlord, to have it furnished and ready when they arrive. They fake a reservation at a posh hotel and flee to the country, unannounced.

Unfortunately, all is not ready when they arrive at Talboys. The house is furnished, but unfortunately dark and cold and the landlord is not there to give them the keys. He has, in fact, quite vanished. Fortunately, he has been in the habit of leasing the place out for the summers, so when he is gone there are always people around to take care of things, and they get the keys from his niece and things seem to go on well from there, until the late landlord turns up in the basement, his head smashed in.

Of course, so much for a private honeymoon. It falls to Peter and Harriet to –er– assist the local police in solving the crime, while also taking in the local colour and dodging the press. We also get to spend time in the presence of local people. What with the stress of adjusting to being married, and, for Harriet, the stress of changing social status, and of course the presence of so many outsiders, there is rather less of the patented Vane/Wimsey patter that drew me to the series in the first place, but it is there when the couple relaxes, as they do occasionally get to do.

Overall, this is a fine addition to the series and, as the rest are, is highly recommended.