Friday, July 20, 2018

PEANUTS A Golden Celebration


By Charles M. Schulz

A collection of Peanuts comic strips from the 1950s to the 1990s. Includes commentary by Schulz, a reminiscence of his life as a cartoonist. Simply fascinating and well worth a read for fans of Peanuts.

A couple of strips from the book, one from the 1970s and one from the 1980s:

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Terminal Alliance

By Jim C. Hines

Something terrible happened to humankind. People lost their higher intellectual abilities and became like wild beasts. Millions died. Only a few thousand survived, degraded and vicious. Then came the Krakau. 
The Krakau gave humankind back its humanity. Now humans serve the Krakau as soldiers and workers in gratitude for being lifted out of mindlessness and brutality.
"Mops" and her small crew of humans work as janitors on the Krakau spaceship Pufferfish. She and her people are content in their positions, happy to be lifted up and restored to self-awareness and intelligence. 
They are not the only humans on the ship. There are several hundred human members of the crew. On a routine rescue mission, something causes all the humans to revert back to their "feral" state. The Krakau officers on board all die. But Mops and her crew are safe as they were wearing hazmat suits while dealing with a messy and dangerous cleaning problem. 
As the only senior officer on board the ship who hasn't reverted to unreasoning savageness, Mops is now in charge. And with the help of her small cleaning crew, she will figure out what went wrong with the rescue mission and expose the lies behind the disaster that afflicted humankind,

This was an OK story. The revelation that the Krakau were behind humanity's downfall was pretty apparent from the very beginning of the story, so no big surprise there. There are a lot of battle scenes, which I find tremendously boring to read. Towards the end of the book, I got tired of wading through the battle scenes and just started skipping those parts.
I enjoyed the story, for the most part. I do like stories with weird aliens and this book has plenty of those! But I would like this one better if it had a lot less combat and battle descriptions.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

It's a Magical World



By Bill Watterson

Another wonderful collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, this one ending with Watterson's last Calvin and Hobbes strip, where Calvin and Hobbes toboggan off down the snowy hill together for the last time.
Here are a couple of strips from the collection:


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Ancillary Justice

By Ann Leckie

I will try to explain this science fiction novel, first of the Ancillary triology, but I must admit I found it very confusing.
First of all the ancillaries: just exactly what they are I never really grasped. Are they brainwashed humans? Are they bodies with robot brains? Are they people whose brains are partially replaced with computer components? The author never really explains what they are. It's like she just assumes you already know.
Second, the genders. For some reason, the author chooses to refer to everyone as if they are female. According to an interview Leckie did with Liz Bourke on Tor.com, she wanted to portray a society that does not care about genders. But to me, it was so confusing. It would have been less so if she had used a gender-neutral term like "it" instead of referring to everyone as "she."
So given my very imperfect understanding of this novel, I will attempt to give a brief synopsis of it.
Breq is an ancillary, a former human who was part of a larger, joined mind consisting of many other components, all based with a starship, Justice of Toren. One of those components was One Esq, who served Lieutenant Awn on a newly conquered planet, Shis'urna. The Radch are expansionist and brutal and they are relentless in bringing new planets into their sphere of influence. Awn is on Shis'urna as one of the Radch's representatives. She (or he) runs afoul of a political plot involving the supreme ruler of the Radch, Lord Anaander Mianaai. Mianaai is like the ancillaries in that he (or she or it) is composed of many bodies and one mind.
An uprising is put down but, as it turns out, the uprising was actually fomented by Mianaai. Mianaai is having an existential crisis. Although one mind in many bodies, part of Mianaai does not approve of what other parts of Mianaai are doing. The uprising plot was meant to be an initial move by one part against the other part of Mianaai. Because Awn succeeded in preventing the uprising, Mianaai orders One Esq to shoot Awn dead, which she/he/it does. Thing is, One Esq, even though an ancillary who is supposed to have no individuality, he/she/it loved Awn. And is devastated to be the instrument of Awn's death. And is now determined that Mianaai must die. So One Esq/Breq/Justice of Toren is on the hunt for a legendary weapon that can break through Mianaai's many sophisticated defenses and kill as many Mianaais as possible. Truly a futile suicide mission, as all of Mianaai is probably not stupid enough to have all of himself/herself/itself in one place at one time.

This is a complicated story made even more complicated by the author's refusal to explain the whole ancillary thing and by her insistence on referring to everyone as female. I don't have the kind of mind that, upon seeing every character as referred to as female, can instead picture them as neither male or female. So that was just annoying as was the whole lack of explanation of the ancillaries. And to top it off, the names with their double vowels were a further annoyance.
So I was rather inclined to despise this story as too confusing and annoying. But the fact is that it was really interesting and, even though I was never comfortable with the double vowels, the exclusively female genders and the whole concept of the ancillaries, I did still enjoy the story and I am looking forward to reading the other two books in the series, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy.

NPR has a review: https://www.npr.org/2013/10/08/228508903/a-skillfully-composed-space-opera-in-ancillary-justice.

You Had Me at Halo

By Amanda Ashby

Holly Evans has just died. Which is a real shame because she was just getting started with her life. She had a great job, a handsome and successful boyfriend and the good fortune to have her best friend as a coworker.
But now it is all over and, to make it even worse, everyone thinks she committed suicide. But she as she adamantly tells her heavenly "spiritual realigner," Dr. Hill, she most certainly did not commit suicide and she is really angry that all her friends, family and coworkers think she did! And this is preventing her from transitioning from entry-level heaven to real heaven and her longed-for reunion with her parents, already residents of heaven.
But her baggage is keeping her from advancing and so Dr. Hill gives her 48 hours to return to life and deal with her problems. The catch is that she will have to inhabit the body of a very recently dead person and she ends up in the body of Vince Murphy, a nerdy techie coworker.
Although no one at work knew it, young Vince had a heart condition and he suddenly passed on, enabling Holly to move in and take over his life for 48 hours. She is desperate to contact her boyfriend and assure him that she did not, in fact, kill herself. That she loves him very much and was looking forward to becoming engaged and getting married.
But how can she approach her boyfriend wearing the surprisingly well-built body of a geeky young computer tech? Even worse, turns out Vince didn't actually die and he is quite perturbed to find out Holly has taken over his body!

This was a silly story and I quite enjoyed it. It was a fast, fun and amusing read although I did find the ending a bit weak.
It is another entry in the long line of romance fiction where the girl starts out blindly in love with a scoundrel and totally ignoring the good guy right under her nose. Of course the boyfriend turns out to be a selfish creep and the evil step-mother turns out to have a heart of gold and the wonderful job turns out to be an illusion. So Holly is not the most perceptive of girls and much of what she thought to be true turns out not to be. Pretty typical of this genre.
What is different about this story is how the author sets Holly up with her new love, Vince. Since Holly is actually dead and her 48 hours will soon be up and she will be called back to heaven to face her final evaluation, it seems hopeless that she and Vince can ever have the life they are meant to have together. How the author chooses to solve this dilemma was not very satisfactory.
But other than that, I truly did enjoy this light and fluffy story.

Review from Publishers Weekly.

Born Standing Up

By Steve MartItin

The story of how Steve Martin got his start in comedy, beginning with his childhood days of working at Disneyland and continuing on through his studies and the development of his ultimate comedy act drawing huge crowds at gigantic stadiums. At which point he lost his taste for stand up and switched to doing mainly movies and other endeavors in the entertainment industry.
Starting as a young stand up with a what I would call a goof-ball act, Martin enjoyed that connection with the audience that playing before a small group gives the performer. He felt he lost that connection, that personal relationship when he became massively famous. It was that loss that led him to step away from doing stand up.
It's a wise person who knows when to call it quits.

This was a fairly amusing story and I found out I knew nothing about Steve Martin's rise from unknown to famous. Or rather everything I thought I knew turned out to be wrong.
It's really interesting to read about that transition from obscurity to fame. Made me wonder how come it happens for  some and not for others. As Martin points out, a lot of his act was derived from that of earlier comics and magicians. So even though there was a lot that wasn't all that original, I guess his particular genius was putting it together and putting his own spin on it. Plus being there at the right time and simple luck must have something to do with it, I imagine.
He does touch on his personal life, speaking of his unhappy relationship with his angry father and of some of the women who passed through his life. He does not go into any detail about his personal life, his current wife, lovers, children at the time the book was written.
Some of the funniest lines in the book are found towards the end where he talks about his mother and quotes her accidentally funny put-downs:

"In an interview she said, 'He writes his own material, I'm always telling him he needs a new writer.'"

"She once told me, 'Oh, my friends went to the movies last weekend, and they couldn't get in anywhere so they went to see yours, and they loved it!'"

"We were driving through Beverly Hills and she said, 'Get out and walk down the street so I can watch people look at you.'"

Review by Slate.com.

Monday, June 04, 2018

The Dosadi Experiment

By Frank Herbert

Jorj X McKie, from Herbert's novel The Whipping Star, is back to solve a new mystery: Dosadi. Dosadi is a toxic planet where a group of humans and Gowachin were confined within a rift valley.  They are trapped in the valley and along the rim by what they call the God Wall. The God Wall is maintained and powered by a Caleban, celestial beings who appear to be actual stars. No one may exit through the God Wall except via one method, which McKie discovers after he arrives in the valley. 
McKie has a close relationship with one particular Caleban, Fannie Mae. In the past, he rescued Fannie Mae from torture and certain death. Fannie Mae reveals that the only way to leave Dosadi is in a different body: "McKie cannot leave in his own body/node." Eventually McKie figures out that Dosadi is being used as a source of youthful bodies into which older beings have their minds transferred. Using the power of the Calebans, one person's mind can be transferred into the body of another person, no matter their species. This is being used by the rich and powerful as a way to have eternal life. The person whose body is used is transferred into the old person's body and then killed to keep the whole process secret.
The population of Dosadi has to cope with a very hostile and dangerous environment. It has made them the ultimate survivors. They have become a threat to the rest of the civilized universe and they are determined to break free of their prison. The wealthy cabal is now fearful of the result if these people manage to gain their freedom. Their solution is the destruction of the entire planet of Dosadi and its captive population of humans and Gowachin. McKie only figure this out once he is on Dosadi. When he reveals it to the warring factions in the rift valley, it brings the conflict to an end as they come together to face this terrible threat.

This was, frankly, a rather boring read. The characters spend most of their time together trying to read each other's body language. The Dosadi are so adept at reading body language that non-Dosadi are an open book to them. Which makes it easy for them to spot non-Dosadi. So a lot of the story is about various Dosadi reading each other and reading McKie and other non-Dosadi. Kind of boring. 
McKie's love interest in the story is a Dosadi woman, Jedrik, leader of one of the warring factions. She reminded me of the bitch mothers of Dune, those austere and cruel women trying to build a better society.


Unbelievable

By Katy Tur

Katy Tur wasn't even living in the USA when she got offered the job of following Trump while he campaigned for the presidency. It meant she had to give up her place in London, England and move back to the States and then spend over a year on the road traveling. It was brutal. Just the physical demands of the constant travel, the fast food grabbed and gobbled, the lack of sleep and the lack of exercise and the mindless hostility of both Trump and his fanatical followers. I don't know how she did it, how any of the reporters tasked with trailing after Trump managed to do it without losing their composure, not to speak of their sanity (and their health).

A very readable book that illustrates both the hardships of being a reporter on the campaign trail and the basic dishonesty of Trump and his supporters as his many lies are exposed and shrugged off by his loyalists. It left me with a stomachache as everything I thought about Trump and the current Republicans was proven to be true. Sad days for our country when lies trump truth.


There's Treasure Everywhere


By Bill Watterson

A Calvin and Hobbes collection, copyright 1996. Calvin and Hobbes was one of my favorite comics and it is so nice to be able to revisit it through these collections. Frankly,  I don't know of any cartoonist today who compares in the least to Watterson.

Here is one of the strips from the collection that is a timely commentary on the state of the nation, thanks to the morons of the airwaves these days.



Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Hammer of God

By Arthur C. Clarke

Set in the 2100s, the book finds humanity facing doom in the form of a big wayward space rock on a collision course with the planet, with catastrophic consequences.
Captain Singh has the responsibility of hauling a powerful engine out to the location of the rock and placing the engine on the rock and firing it up, in the hopes that it will nudge the rock into a different orbit, one that will not send it crashing into Earth or the moon or Mars, all of which now have human populations. It doesn't have to move it much, just a little nudge would be enough to send it into a safer orbit.
But, not unexpectedly, there are religious zealots who are eager for the end, for God's judgment of wicked humanity. The zealots have managed to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings: the engine spills its fuel instead of doing what was intended. And the space rock remains on its killer trajectory. Now it is up to Captain Singh and the bright minds of the 22nd Century to try and save Earth and its people, including the nutters who want to see it all go up in smoke.

A pretty interesting tale, but filled with a lot of technical jabber that I just skipped over.

The Power

By Naomi Alderman

It's a world turned upside down when women suddenly develop the power of the electric eel: the power of the electric shock. Now gangs of electrified women roam the streets, looking for wayward males to torture and even murder. A new religion is born, with a new leader, Mother Eve. The scriptures are rewritten, with the women elevated and the Holy Father now the Holy Mother. And the men are running scared, plotting in back rooms and with deposed tyrants to take back their ancient reign over womankind. But the women are not going to bow down again, even if they have to bring the whole world crashing down.

Sounds like an exciting premise, but overall it was a pretty dull read. It heats up toward the end but mostly it just drags along, repeating over and over that, once the women have the power, they become just like their overbearing and cruel former masters, the men.
The author is probably right about how the women become abusers just like their former abusers, since enormous power does corrupt all except the most centered and strong-willed. And that the men would not take their new status lightly. But somehow, the story just never grabbed me.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Eternals

By Neil Gaiman

Graphic novel based on the Marvel comic book series by Jack Kirby. A bit hard to follow if you are totally unfamiliar with that series, which I was. So my summary may be a bit off.
As I understand it, back at the beginning of life on Earth, there were these giant robots/gods/ aliens called Celestials who came here and created two sets of beings, the Eternals and the Deviants/Changing People. The Eternals were perfect and immortal. Even if totally destroyed, they would be reassembled. The Deviants were mortal and able to change their appearance, but mostly they look monstrous. When apes evolved into humans, the humans were enslaved by the Deviants until freed by the Eternals or by the Celestials, I'm not sure which. And the Deviants retreated underground. The Eternals role on Earth is to protect, preserve and repair. What exactly they are supposed to protect, preserve and repair, I'm not sure. The Earth? Humanity? All life on Earth? Does that include the Deviants? Beats me.
Anyway, and this is where I got really confused, there's is this kid, Sprite. He has a TV show and he is really famous and popular. And he is immortal. I think he is one of the Eternals. Anyway, he was created a kid and he remained a kid and has been an eleven-year-old boy for a million years and he is sick of it. He wants to be a man in a man's body with all that the entails, mainly sex. So, somehow (if it was explained how, I missed it) Sprite causes all the Eternals to forget who they are and now they all believe they are mere humans living ordinary human lives. The effect of this is that Sprite is the only one who knows the truth and that he is now human (why & how did he become human?) and mortal and will finally achieve his dream of becoming a real man. Except it doesn't quite work out that way.
One of the Eternals has retained snippets of memory and knows that he is not a mere man. Dismissed by others as some kind of nut, Ike Harris (Ikaris) has managed to locate Mark Curry (Makkari). Now he has to convince Makkari that he is an Eternal, which turns out to be pretty easy when Ikaris ends up in the hospital under Makkari's care and Makkari can see for himself how quickly and unnaturally Ikaris heals, totally unlike a normal person would.
Ikaris gives Makkari a few leads on the whereabouts of some other unaware Eternals and Makkari sets out to rouse them. Ikaris is kidnapped from the hospital by a couple of Deviants. The Deviants, who can look human, are trying to figure out how to kill an Eternal and they are using every method they can think of, finally blasting Ikaris to atoms. They think they have succeeded, but they don't know that he is being reassembled by machinery at the Eternals' deserted base in Antarctica.
The two Deviants travel to San Francisco where they dig up a Celestial who was buried there a long time ago as some kind of punishment. They are thinking or hoping the Celestial will be on their side against humanity and the Eternals, once they get it reactivated. It will reactivate when exposed to sunlight, apparently. Does this have something to do with the Sprite plot? I'm not sure. I know he shows up at the San Francisco location and gets captured by the two Deviants.
Meanwhile Makkari and the reassembled Ikaris don't want the Celestial reanimated. So they also show up at the SF location and Makkari has some kind of melt down and the robot alien god Celestial thing stands up. But that is all it does. It just stands up.
Then a horde of Deviants show up at the base in Antarctica, to challenge the few Eternals who have regained their memories and their powers. Makkari stands up to them and earns their respect, I didn't really get that part. And the head Eternal tracks down Sprite and kills him for causing a lot of the troubles.

This was a really disjointed story, too much going on, and if you are not familiar with the back story, pretty confusing.

Vicious

By V.E. Schwab

Two college boys, Eli and Victor have a secret project. They want to become EOs: people with Extra-Ordinary powers. Their research led them to try a dangerous experiment and Eli ended up dead, but only briefly. When he was revived, he revived with the an extra-ordinary ability: he automatically healed from any injury. As time passed, it became apparent that he was ageless too. But despite his apparent resurrection, Eli felt he not the same person, that something basic was missing. He became convinced that people brought back from death were unnatural and wrong and he set out on a new mission in life. He would hunt down and kill all those revived from a near death experience who came out of it with an extraordinary ability.
But before Eli left college to go hunting and murdering, there was Victor. Victor had been the first to undergo the experiment, but in his case it didn't work. So he tried again, against Eli's wishes. He enlisted the help of his ex-girlfriend (and now Eli's girlfriend) but the procedure didn't go as planned. The girlfriend ended up dead and Victor, framed by Eli, in prison for her murder. But Victor did get a super-power out of it, namely the ability to inflict or remove pain. Which meant his time in prison went fairly well for him, since everyone was terrified of him. Except for his cellmate, Mitch, who became his follower. Once the two of them were out of prison, Victor got another follower, Sydney, a young teen girl on the run from Eli and Eli's partner in murder, Sydney's older sister, Serena.
Both Serena and Sydney were EOs. They had both drowned together and been brought back. Serena's power was her voice. Whatever she told anyone to do, they would do it. Even to killing themselves, if she told them to. Sydney's power was the gift of life. She could bring the dead back to life. Serena met Eli when he tracked them down, planning to kill both the girls. But Serena simply told him not to kill her and he couldn't. Eli explained to Serena what he was doing and she agreed with him. The next victim was to be her little sister, Sydney. But Sydney escaped with a bullet wound to her arm.
That is when Victor found her, on the roadside, bleeding and running away from Eli and Sydney. And when Victor understood the possibilities of Sydney's gift, he knew she would be a powerful ally against Eli and Serena. Because she hated Eli almost as much as Victor did. Together, with the faithful Mitch, they would attempt to bring down two ruthless killers who believed themselves to be on a mission from God to rid the world of those like themselves and Victor and Syndey.

This was a pretty good story. I enjoyed it, although it is kind of hard to tell who really are the bad guys. Eli and Serena are totally certain that the EOs are an affront to nature, based on what they perceive to be lacking in themselves. And, towards the end of the story, Victor admits to himself  that he has no real feelings, he just pretends to have them:
Victor didn't feel guilt, or fear, or even a sense of consequence, not like normal people. All those things had been dead—or at least dulled to the point of uselessness—for years. But he'd trained his mind to reconstruct those feelings from memory as best he could, and assemble them into a kind of code. 
So it kind of boils down to a battle between monsters. But Victor has Mitch on his side and Mitch is clearly a good guy. Sydney brings a dying dog back to life and adopts it, which makes her a good guy too. But Victor is most definitely in much the same league as the deadly Eli and Serena.
I am looking forward very much to the next book in the series, Vengeful.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Separate Development

By Christopher Hope

Harry Moto is of an age to graduate from school and go on to college. He has a group of friends but isn't really that close to any of them. On the night of what would be here in the United States senior prom, Harry and a girl are caught making out by one of the teachers. This teacher, a man who has taken a dislike to Harry, runs to Harry's parents and rats him out. So Harry comes home to yelling and incriminations and ranting and raving ( the novel is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s) and his parents acting like hysterical fools. So he runs away.
Harry has a problem, though. Living in South Africa during apartheid, Harry has kinky black hair and an swarthy complexion. His parents are both white but his grandmother was swarthy like Harry. And Harry's parents never got around to registering him as the son of white parents. So he is often accused of or mistaken for being of mixed blood.
At this time in South Africa, it was in fact illegal for non-whites and whites to have sexual relations. People could go to jail for breaking the so-called Immorality Act. Since Harry looked mixed, without papers, there was very little he could do to earn a living. Just to get by, Harry accepted his mixed looks and passed himself off as mixed to be eligible to do the jobs considered suitable for non-whites: delivery boy, cab driver, bus boy. He lived this way for years but eventually crossed paths with the police and ended up rotting in jail just for not looking white enough, basically.

What a disappointment this novel was, and all because of the lying blurbs: On the front of the book, "A wildly funny novel." From the back: "Make the reader ... hoot with laughter." "bitterly funny."
I didn't find anything about this story to be funny, not even 'bitterly funny." Rape, murder, child abuse, mutilation, unfairness, hatefulness, discrimination, it is anything but funny.
I wanted to read a funny story, something to take my mind off things. This was not that story. In fact, about half way through, I stopped reading it for several weeks. Then when I picked it up to finish it, I started to get the feeling the story wasn't going to end happily and that made me impatient to finish with it. I pretty much just skipped through the last two chapters. Reading about poor, innocent, unlucky Harry being beaten and tortured by his jailers for the crime of being a white man with darker skin was not what I wanted to be reading. This is not a funny story, this is a tragedy. Don't read this book thinking you will be amused unless you are the kind of heartless creep that laughs at the suffering of others.
If  I had gone into this book knowing it was a tragedy not a comedy, I might have liked it better. Instead I was hugely disappointed, thanks to the lying blurbs and reviews.


Hundred Miles to Nowhere

By Elisa Korenne

Living in New York City, musician/singer Elisa Korenne was a typical New Yorker, working, enjoying her friends and her activities and relishing life in the big city. But then she was invited to be a visiting artist for a month in a small western town in Minnesota with the odd name of New York Mills. The offer came with free housing and a nice stipend.
Doing a little research about Minnesota (which she had initially confused with Missouri, good grief), Elisa decided she wanted to experience the outdoors. Her contact in Minnesota gave her the name of a man who might be willing to take her canoeing and camping. And that is how she met the man she would eventually marry, Chris Klein.
Elisa and Chris hit it off and started dating and soon the subject of living together came up. Chris visited Elisa in NYC after the month in Minnesota was over. They talked about Chris moving there, but that would mean leaving the family business. Plus Chris doubted that any NY firm would be interested in hiring him. Since a lot of Elisa's work involved traveling to various gigs around the country, it made more sense for her to move to Minnesota.
But could a big city girl find happiness in the isolation and lack of amenities living, as the title says, a hundred miles to nowhere? Could she learn to cope with the quiet? With the peculiar neighbors? With the long, cold winters? Or would she discover that Minnesota has its own vibrancy and charm and a place for a Jewish singer/songwriter from the Big Apple?

This was a pretty good memoir. Elisa finds her place in the country, surviving vicious dogs, wacky neighbors, brutal weather and a sloppy, sometimes selfish boyfriend who eventually becomes her husband.