Monday, December 22, 2008

Blessed Solstice to You and Yours

I love Georges de La Tour's use of light; he's one of my favorite painters. And yet, I'd never seen this picture, which seems appropriate for today.

The Young Singer by Georges de La Tour

PS Hopefully I will post soon and explain how writing roughly 30,000 words of fiction in the last two weeks has kept me from posting reviews for the five books in my "already read" stack.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book Twenty-three -- Empress (Godspeaker, Book One) by Karen Miller

Empress (Godspeaker, Book One)
by Karen Miller
717 pages

Have you ever read a book only to find that you don't like the majority of the characters, you find the writing to be mediocre at best, you think the world-building only succeeds some of the time and find yourself wanting to read the next page (and the next book in the series) because you really have to know what happens next? Or maybe it's just me?

Empress is the story of Hekat, a girl born into horrible, back-breaking poverty in a part of the world that sees women as useful only for bearing sons. At 12, as soon as she has her first period, her father sells her to slavers. One of the slavers thinks she's something special and treats her better than the rest of his stock and certainly better than she was treated at home.

She learns a great deal from the slavers as they traveling from The Savage North (no really, that's what it's called, right there on the map) to their home city of Et-Raklion, way down in the south. We learn along with her and here's where the shaky world-building comes in. We do learn that it's only in the north that women are totally disenfranchised and that, further south, they can serve as warriors and priests (godspeakers) of the nameless, monolithic God, and yet we see them still being treated poorly elsewhere. While yes, that happens even in our own society, the way it's handled here feels like Miller didn't really think everything through.

We also learn that this is an almost insanely religious society; the godspeakers are everywhere, sacrificing live animals at the drop of a hat, doing magic, enforcing curfews, advising the warlords who are the head of the secular side of the government and generally interfering with people's lives. Although the whole setting has Middle Eastern overtones, the one good thing I can say is that this doesn't really read like a fantasy version of Islam.

Once Hekat and the slavers reach Et-Raklion and she learns that, while she's "beautiful and precious" (a phrase she and other people use about her all the goddamn time), she's still a slave and not as important to the slavers as she thought. She runs away and that's essentially where her story really begins.

There's nothing really new about her journey (it's a pretty typical "rise to the top while not caring about who you step on to get there" trope) and the fact is, she's a rather unpleasant character--manipulative, lacking in any real empathy, and incredibly selfish. It makes sense given her background, but it also makes it kind of hard to care about what happens to her. The people around her, with the exception of Vortka, a young man taken from the same slave train as Hekat and made a godspeaker, are mostly annoying as well. The high godspeaker of Et-Raklion, Nagarak, is scheming and ambitions; the warlord, Raklion, is a good soldier, but easily manipulated, and so on.

On top of it all, if it weren't for the adult nature of the sex scenes and the sacrificial scenes (seriously, avoid this book like the plague if you hate animal death or ifscorpions freak you out), I'd think it was a YA novel. Miller's writing is incredibly simplistic and repetitive; off the top of my head, I could easily name twenty fan fiction writers in my current fandom who are much much better writers.

And yet, as I said up there at the beginning of the review, I blew through this book and will undoubtedly be grabbing the next one. I don't know what it is, but sometimes a story will manage to break through all of the obstacles the author throws in its way and demand that you finish it. So I ask again: that ever happen to any of you?

Or is it just me?


This one was going around LJ the other day (although you were writing a poem and not a song) and now I see that both Figgy and Marra have done it, and because I am about the stealing of good ideas, and also about procrastination, I'm going to do it again here.

First phrase from iTunes songs on shuffle 1-20; 21 - song title, 22 - band name.

Turn Your Ugly Face
by I Had a Dream

I was born by an old streetlight
She knows the voices in her mind
Have I got everything? Am I ready to go?

My lover's charms
I know you just want to kill me
You belong to the gang

Field of light
Something isn't right
Knew you were born under a waxing moon

Well turn up the bottle, pour down the wine
Oh, life is bigger
When I offer you survival

The leaves tell
Be ready to fly
Alcoholic kind of mood

Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
Must it take a life for hateful eyes
The canyon air is like a breath of fresh LA

Bye bye love
There's no time for us

Okay then, that's surreal. Although the last two lines dovetailed nicely.

1. Street Smart, Book Stupid by Sara Slean
2. After All (DJ Moon) by Delerium
3. Traveling Again (Traveling I) by Dar Williams
4. My Lover's Box by Garbage
5. I Need to Say Goodbye by VAST
6. O Valencia by The Decemberists
7. Happy by Mazzy Star
8. Something Isn't Right by Aimee Mann
9. Majesty by Claire Voyant
10. It Ain't the Wine by Kate Wolf
11. Losing My Religion by REM
12 Bling (Confessions of a King) by The Killers
13 From Heaven to Dust by Azam Ali
14. Journey by Hungry Lucy
15. Nancy Boy by Placebo
16. Kashmir by Led Zeppelin
17. Drunken Lullabies by Flogging Molly
18. Dogs of LA by Liz Phair
19. Bye Bye Love by Simon and Garfunkel
20. Who Wants to Live Forever by Queen
21. Getting Scared by Imogen Heap
22. Fallen by Beauty's Confusion

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Done and done! or: Game Hens and Gratitude!

Dinner is over and the dishes are washed! Go me! *does victory dance*

We had game hens with pomegranate glaze, mashed potatoes, greens, and yams. I've done the hens before, but that didn't stop me from ruining the first batch of pomegranate molasses. Fortunately, I'd made a small batch and only used half of the bottle of Pom so I was able to do a second batch, to which I paid a great deal more attention.

Mashed potatoes are something I could do in my sleep; I used some really nice little red potatoes and the results were creamy and buttery and yum. This was the first time I'd been the one to make the greens, usually that's Nancy's thing. She walked me through it and they were tasty and good.

We cheated on the yams. While we were shopping at TJs the other day, they were giving out samples of their frozen yams with brown sugar, pecans and cranberries and they were fantastic so we picked up a package and they were every bit as good as they'd been in the store. I might have to grab a couple of packages of them and stash them in the freezer.

We both had water and Two Buck Chuck--Nancy had the white zin and I had a half glass of the Cab that I'm still working on. It's raw, but not bad, and it remains to see if it'll give me a headache.

Dessert will be a vanilla bean cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory. After we picked up up yesterday, we went to Cocos for coffee and their oh so yummeh Harvest pie; it's standard pumpkin pie with pumpkin chiffon on top. I love it, but not a whole pie's worth so the cheesecake will be perfect.

This hasn't exactly been the greatest year for us. Never the less, I'm grateful for my wonderful friends, my great family and my lovely wife. I'm grateful that this country elected a President we can be proud of and I'm grateful that, even though it took a defeat to do it, my people and our allies are energized and ready to fight for our rights.

I hope all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving or an enjoyable Thursday!


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book Eighteen -- Anathem by Neal Stephenson

by Neal Stephenson
science fiction
935 pages

I've been putting off this review for a while because I feel a little like Wayne and Garth--not worthy. However I need to move on and so here I am, taking my best stab at it. I'm going to try to avoid too many spoilers, but some are inevitable, as are excessive italics, due to many made-up words.

On a world known as Arbe, the study of science, mathematics and philosophy is limited to the avout, cloistered scholars who live in maths or concents (a concent is a large community often made up of more than one math) and who only interact with the Sæculum (secular world) on a limited basis during the Apert, a yearly period of ten days when the gates of the concent open and people from both the secular and mathic worlds can mingle. The concents are divided into groups: the Unarians (one-offs, whose members remain cloistered in the math for a year), the Decenarian (tenners, whose members are cloistered for ten years), Centenarians (hundreders, whose members are cloistered for one hundred years) and the Millenarians (thousanders, whose members are cloistered for one thousand years). Within the cloistered world are many different Orders who study different things and have many different philosophies, but all of them abide by the long-established rituals and rules of the Cartasian Discipline.

Sounds like the set up for a fantasy novel set in some medieval not-quite-Earth, right? Not so much, actually. The world outside the concents is modern and technological, with cars and cell-phone analogs (called jeejahs, which is a great word) and TV and so on, and the work done inside the concents is scientific and not religious. This is an old world with over 7,000 years of recorded history; there have been set backs and failures of the system more than once, including three great Sacks (when the outside world attacked the concents), and something called The Terrible Events, which sounds a lot like a nuclear war or some similar technological planetary disaster.

The story begins with our hero, Fraa Erasmus (known to his friends as Raz), facing his first Apert. He's a tenner who's been at the Concent of Saunt Edhar since he was a small child and is now at a point where he needs to decide what he's going to do with his life. During the Apert, he meets his sister and we get a look at the difference between the thinky, mostly low-tech world of the concents, where everything is discussed to death and beyond, and the secular world, full of commerce, industry, somewhat mindless entertainment and flash in the pan religions.

After the Apert, Raz and his circle of friends realize that something is going on within the concent; the starhenge (observatory) has been closed off and the older fraas and suurs (the concents are co-ed) seem to be a little worried. Things come to a head when Raz's mentor, Fraa Orolo, an astronomer who's made a dangerous discovery, is tossed out of the concent in a rite known as anathem (a lovely portmanteau word made up of "anthem" and "anathema"). As Raz and his friends figure out why, they are called to leave the concent and travel to a world-wide convocation, where they will help advise the secular authorities on the crisis. Normally, the secular authorities would provide transportation for the avout, but with so many being called, the scholars are forced to make their way on their own.

And so, Raz, his sister Cord, Sammann (an ita--one of the concent's technology experts), a thousander named Fraa Jad and several others set out on a journey across Arbe. Their quest includes adventures along the way, as well as several detours while Raz attempts to find his mentor, but finally, they reach the convocation, only to get caught up in plans to defend the whole planet from the threat from space discovered by Fraa Orolo.

If Anathem were nothing more than the story of Raz's journey and subsequent mission to save his planet, it would be a fantastic addition to the quest genre of SF. The world-building is excellent and nuanced, the characters are engaging, the story is fascinating and the climax is exciting and enjoyably convoluted. Even the background romance between Raz and one of the suurs from his order is handled well.

But this is Neal Stephenson and so the book is much much more than that; there are layers upon layers here. One of the layers is historical--for someone up on their history, it's easy to see that Arbe is what our world would be like if the ancient Greek philosophers and scientists had retreated behind walls and all their knowledge had not been lost, but rather added to throughout the subsequent centuries. It's a lot of fun to read about historical events on Arbe and say "oh hey, I know where he got that from!"

Then there's the philosophy of language and science layer, which is the stuff that probably loses Stephenson readers. The characters talk everything to freakin' death; there's a section that's almost 100 pages long in which, during a series of dinners, senior fraas, suurs and a secular politician discuss the crisis from any number of philosophical angles. I kind of got lost in there because philosophy is not exactly my forté, although I really do like the position of the Lorite school of thought, which is that everything that can be thought of has been thought of already; the Lorites pretty much exist to say "so-and-so had that idea back in 2015" every time someone comes up with something, which might be annoying for the characters but amused me.

If you're a long time Stephenson reader, you're probably either really really intelligent and educated and can follow his digressions, or you're the kind of person who takes what he's talking about on faith and reads his books for the sheer enjoyment factor and the possibility that you might learn something new. Either way, you're used to books with huge amounts of information about various subjects woven into the narrative-- language theory in Snow Crash, for example, or cryptography in Cyrptonomicron. In other writers this kind of thing is annoying and info-dumpy, but somehow, Stephenson makes it work.

One of the things you look for in computer/video games is the level of replayability--do you want to play GTA: San Andreas again when you finish, or are you just done with it? For me, that's a concern with books as well--can I reread them and get something new out of the book? Anathem is going to be one of those books I will return to again and again, and each time, I'll pick up something I missed the time before.

While Stephenson uses a number of made up words for this (including bullshytt, which only kind of means what you think it does), there are definitions scattered throughout the book and an glossary at the end of it. There's also a historical timeline as well as several appendices that help illustrate some of the concepts Stephenson uses in the novel.

So yes, at 900+ pages, this is a massive undertaking, but seriously, if you have the time, read it. It's easily Stephenson's best novel since Snow Crash and as his first attempt at setting a story in a world other than Earth, it is truly brilliant and detailed world-building. The characters are engaging, and, for all the discussion that goes on, the action sequences are gripping.

Of the twenty-two books I've read so far, this is the one I want everyone to take the time to read. Trust me, it's worth it.

Side note: someone actually made an amateur trailer for the book. It's a bit cheesy in places, but it's an interesting piece of transformative fan work.

The World of Anathem

The Freebies List

Both Marra and Figgy did this, so let's make it a Cannonball Meme, shall we? To quote Figgy, "a 'Freebies List' consists of the 5 celebrities you'd most like to do whoopie with. No consequences or regrets. Just pure enjoyment."

Because I love the laaaadies!

5. Allison Janney -- Fabulous, talented, hot and also? Tall.

4. Kate Hewlett -- Actress and playwright and generally gorgeous. (and yes, that's her brother down in the "honorable mention" section of the guys. It's a talented family.)

3. Rachel Luttrell -- Unless you're a Stargate: Atlantis fan, you undoubtedly don't know who she is. Poor you.

2. Gina Torres -- I've lusted after her since the Xena days.

1. Carrie-Anne Moss -- I'm sorry, were we talking about something?

Honorable mentions: Monica Bellucci, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Lawless, Tilda Swinton...okay the list could go on and on.

Guys I'd switch back for, a list that proves that I'm a big, geeky fan-girl.

5. Joe Flanigan -- Someone else from SGA. To be honest, he's hardly the best actor out there and he's a Republican (which is why he's fifth on the list), but I really do think he's hot in a dorky kind of way.

4. Jason Momoa -- Another obscure SGA alumni. Just look at him for a minute, okay? Now, any questions as to why he's on this list? Even I like a little beef in my cake now and then.

3. Liam Neeson -- Yeah, he's a little craggier these days, but still...

2. Sean Bean -- Because everyone needs a bit of rough from Yorkshire.

1. Viggo Mortenson -- Smart, funny, sensitive, talented and really really hot. The question is: why wouldn't you? (yes it's a huge picture but I've always loved that shot.)

Honorable mentions: Jason Isaacs (Brotherhood and Harry Potter) and David Hewlett (SGA again)--two guys I'd love to just hang out with.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Take to the streets and possibly scare and or offend people? Damn right!

So, over in this post and in reply to comments to it, Artaxastra thinks the GLBT people and their allies who have taken to the streets are like the KKK. She thinks we should concentrate on getting people to like us, that we should be conciliatory and we should step back and work carefully and not try to scare anyone.


On September 5, 2008, Nancy and I, along with two very dear and wonderful friends, went to the county clerks office and got married in a ceremony recognized in the city and county of Sacramento and in the state of California. Why we did it doesn't matter. What matters is that we had the right to do so. It was a right determined by the highest court in the state, doing their job interpreting the Constitution of the State of California.

Apparently, our marriage and the 17,999 other same-sex marriages that took place after May 16, 2008 offended a group of people. They didn't like it, didn't like that we had that right. And so...they decided to take it away from us. They got help from many places, but the chief source of funding and people to man phone banks and protest--did you know that they bused people in from Utah to protest on California streets?--was the Mormon Church.

And they did it. A combination of factors that are even now being debated enabled a church from Utah to scare the people of California into taking away a right granted to a minority under the law.

Should people be scared of gays and lesbians, bisexual and transsexuals, people who somehow don't fit into their narrow view of sexuality that we call straight?

No, of course not.

Should they be scared that an out of state church was able help to pass a proposition to amend a state's constitution to take away a minority's right ?


They should be terrified. You should be terrified. We should all be terrified.

They took away our rights.

The tragedy here isn't that 18,000 couples now have to wonder if that piece of paper means something. The tragedy here isn't that many many more couples who dream of being married someday now have to wait even longer than they already have. The tragedy here isn't that the GLBT folk and their allies took to the streets in protest, thus upsetting some delicate balance that some people think might some day down the line get some people to LIKE some of us.

The tragedy here?

The tragedy here is that MORE PEOPLE aren't out there in the streets.

They took away our rights.

Are we angry? No, we are fucking outraged.

They took away our rights. Here in the United States of America.

They took away our rights.

Of course we took to the streets. I don't want to live in a country where a minority has its rights taken away and DOESN'T take to the streets.

They took away our rights.

What if women had been granted the right to vote and then had it taken away. Would you expect our suffragette fore-mothers, women who fought and marched and went to jail and were force-fed, to just sit down and wait for people to LIKE them?

What if everyone who ever marched or spoke up for their civil rights, MLK and Black people, Césear Chavéz and the Hispanic workers, the stone butches and drag queens and the fags and dykes of color...what if they'd been given the rights they deserve as citizens of America only to have them taken away? Would you expect these people who fought and talked and marched and argued and bled and, yes, sometimes died to just sit down and wait for people to LIKE them?

They took away our rights.

Everyone in this country who believes that all are created equal, that what we as Americans strive for is a more perfect union....

Everyone should be out in the streets, because they took away our rights.

They. Took. Away. Our. Rights.

Whose rights are next?