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Oct. 22nd, 2014

Fishy pics

Sorry guys, I know I said I'd post here every day during my diving trip, but we ended up changing hotels, and the new one didn't have free wifi, and even the paid one only worked in the lobby, so I had to limit my online activities to quickly checking facebook and mails...

The new hotel was quite OK, although the bed was hard as a heap of bricks :( For all its problems, I really liked the bed in the other one.

Diving was quite good for the rest of the week. We didn't get any dolpins or other big guys though, although we went on a boat trip to a place that was supposed to have dolphins very regularly...

We had some challenging dive sites though. At one, we just parked in the middle of nowhere on the coast, and then once in the water, had to dive down a narrow canyon/tunnel towards the open sea. With the current, that was quite interesting. Fortunately, there was a rope to hold on to. I had the camera with me on the first dive, and as it floats under water, it was constantly bouncing off my head when I didn't have a free hand to control it. The batteries were dying anyway, so I didn't take it on the second dive. Of course, we encountered a friendly turtle and a very large baracuda on that one. Thank you Murphy.

The other tricky one was the hotel house reef. You have to walk out over the reef-top, which is pretty much dead apart from a covering of algae, to the edge of the drop into deep water. Usually, the top doesn't have more than a couple of inches of water on top of it, so the waves break over the edge of it. So you walk to the edge, jump into the breakers, put on your fins, and descend. Getting out is more fun though... you swim up to the edge, grab a rock (ideally one that doesn't have a sea urchin hiding in it), take off your fins, and then somehow crawl out of the water without getting washed away by the waves, or losing half of your stuff. To level up, we did that at night too. I was very grateful for wearing a full-length suit ;)

I did manage to snap a couple of decent pics, if you haven't seen them on facebook yet, here they are :)

Oct. 10th, 2014

This thing is alive!

Hello, thought I might reanimate this thing. I'm in Egypt on a diving trip, and thus this will be my diving log for the coming week.

We arrived today, in a hotel that is brandnew, to the point that some rooms apparently never have been used. So they hadn't turned on the cold water in the bathrooms yet. The electricity is a bit wobbly too. Apart from that, it's really nice though. It has potential. The dive base looks good though.

We arrived relatively early, but haven't been diving yet because I was pretty tired from getting up at silly o'clock to catch my flight, and the weather's not very nice today. We went snorkling though, saw a pipefish, a lionfish, two pretty blowfish and lots of other pretty colourful guys. Diving should be good here.

Will report further tomorrow.

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Mar. 2nd, 2012

2012 book 14: The Invention of Hugo Cabret (German edition)

One of the few examples where the movie is better than the book.

I absolutely adored the movie. It has heart, and manages to evoke that sense of wonder that early moviegoers must have felt. The book fails in all of this.

It's composed about half and half of drawings and text, and the text often doesn't even cover the whole page, so that you can get through the 500-page volume in a couple of hours. The plot is pretty much exactly the same as the movie's although less complex.
(very quick summary: Hugo is a feral child who lives in the walls of the Montparnasse train station in Paris. his greatest treasure is a derelict automaton, the last thing reminding him of his dead father, which he is repairing. One day, he meets Isabelle, who has a key that fits exactly into his automaton, and they find out that Isabelle's godfather is the legendary film pioneer Georges Méliès, who, jaded by the great war, gave up filming and now keeps a small toystore at the station)

One problem is that the book doesn't manage to make you sympathise with the main character, Hugo. He's totally feral, although he's been on his own for only a couple of months, he's a lying, thieving (and I don't mean food and clothes, which is totally understandable), unlikeable little git, and you don't really understand why Isabelle puts up with him, after he lied to her, stole the key, and physically hurt her. She must like difficult cases. In the movie, he was careful and quiet, but got over himself after a while, and he and Isabelle worked together. Here, they mainly fight.

Another problem is the almost total lack of suspense and conflict, apart from a very very short sequence towards the end where the station officer locks him up, but it's all solved rather quickly. I understand that this is supposed to be a kid's book, but I liked my kids books with some kind of suspense and conflict.

Next problem is the style. Due to the large percentage of pictures, there's very little text, and it just rushes through the story, without many details. It passes from 100% showing to 100% telling and back, which is a bit annoying. Maybe having smaller pictures, on the same pages and connected to the text, would have been better. The story also totally focusses on Hugo's plot, whereas the movie had some subplots, which made the slightly weird microcosmos of the train station come to life and give the setting additional depth.

Last problem: why the hell do you write a kid's book about Georges Méliès? How many kids have ever heard of him or would even care? And if you wanted to introduce kids to the history of cinema, why rush through it in the last couple of chapters of the book?

In conclusion: interesting idea, poor execution. Or maybe I'm too old for this. I'll have to watch the movie again.

4.5/10

Feb. 26th, 2012

Vienna

Thought I'd post something that's not a book review, for a change...

So I spent last week in Vienna, mostly at a conference of ICAO about language proficiency for pilots.
Some general thoughts:
  • Conferences: can't help feeling this was a bit of a waste of time, although there were some very interesting presentations. The general consensus was that the testing systems must be harmonised and standardised, and that there must be more emphasis on language training. That was pretty much it. "do we all agree that something needs to be done? Yes? Great. Then let's go home now". Woohoo. At least I got out for once. Ok, maybe not quite that bad. ICAO is currently analysing testing systems to see if they actually correspond to the legislation. On the other hand, it's a bit late, as so far, the legislation has been so vague that pretty much every single of the 191 contracting states of ICAO does its language testing differently. I mean, the JAA managed to publish very detailed checklists for all kinds of practical exams a pilot might want to take, so why not for this?
  • One thing I've noticed during these meetings: people who speak a language unusual in the country they are in apparently feel they may loudly talk over other people's presentations in their language. Last time it was the Polish delegation, this time, I had an entire row of Russians sitting behind me, who were loudly chattering pretty much non-stop. Must get my Russian coworker to teach me how to say "shut the f*ck up" in Russian.
  • Lost in Vienna: I'm pretty sure that either the tourist maps of Vienna don't correspond to reality, or there is a dimension hole somewhere, because I don't think I've ever gotten that lost in my life. I think i prefer Manhattan...I'm pretty sure that the Viennese don't actually like tourists. Most city centres have these little signposts that direct you to interesting stuff. Even Luxembourg has them. Vienna does not. Nor many public maps, either.
  • The person who invented blister sticky plasters deserves an award...as a consequence to the above, I also got the biggest blisters I've ever had. Pretty much the complete outer edge of my heels was one huge blister each. Ouch.
  • Taxis: if you want to take a taxi to or from Vienna airport, try to be as far away from it as possible, as they have a flatrate of around 33€, from any point in Vienna to the airport or vice versa. Unfortunately, my hotel was quite close to the airport...
  • Taxis in Luxembourg: met the rudest driver ever..I wanted to take a taxi back from Luxembourg airport to my office, which admittedly is within sight of the terminal. However, I had a suitcase, laptop, handbag and 2 bags of airport shopping stuff, plus very sore feet and it was foggy and drizzly. The taxi driver almost refused to drive me, because apparently it's too near. He then kept ranting that he'd been there for 4 hours, and that taking such a small fare was disgraceful, and that walking would be good for me...I think maybe he should review his job choice. I do see that it can get frustrating, but he gets paid to drive people, not question them, rant at them, or insult them. No tip for him, obviously. I should have noted which company he was from, and filed a complaint, really. I mean, we get official visitors sometimes, who expect to be driven, and can't really be expected to walk to our offices either...
  • Sightseeing: the organisers of the conference, the Austrian civil aviation authority, organised a bus tour of Vienna for us, which was quite nice of them. Unfortunately, it only started around 7pm. I guess otherwise the bus would have been stuck in the evening rush hour most of the time. So, everything was closed and dark, but it was still interesting. At some point, the red menace got off to go to an exhibition, and it was much more quiet in the bus after that. After the bus tour, we went for a walk through the city centre, during which more and more people went off on their own, and in the end, I went to have dinner with two people from ICAO and an air traffic controller instructor from Belarus, who was fortunately much more considerate than the other ex-soviets. The restaurant was a bit of a tourist trap but had very nice apfelstrudel :)
  • Met luzisrighthand on Monday :) After taking about the most complicated way to get there, we went to the Museum of Natural History. As a museum, it's a bit oldfashioned, mainly a huge collection of preserved animals, either stuffed or stuffed into a glas bottle, so that it gets a bit of a 19th century curiosity cabinet feeling. I like the contrast between the dinosaur skeletons and the richly decorated baroque ceilings of the museum. Unfortunately, they put the lights there in a way that you can't take any good pics. They do also have an animatronic dinosaur, which moves at random moments, scaring the crap out of people. There are some special exhibitions, and they do attempt to include modern research, and explanations though. They also have a really nice collection of fossils and other shiny rocks. We had dinner at 7Stern Bräu, a small brewery with good food and an interesting selection of homemade beer.
  • On Thursday evening, I went to the Haus des Meeres (House of the Sea), a zoo/aquarium situated in a former flak tower in the middle of the city. It's a really great place, with a lot of interesting beasties. They have been taking in abandoned exotic pets, like a cobra that some bright light abandoned in a public park in Vienna, and Puppi the sea-turtle, who was saved from the cooking pot by a diver in the late 1970s and brought back to Austria. In time, Puppi became too big for an water tank, so she was donated to the Haus des Meeres about 30 years ago, and it now over 1m long, and lording it over the sharks in her tank. She likes being petted and brushed by the zoo staff. I'd been there a couple of times before, but since last time, they've added the crocodile house, renovated the greenhouse, and constructed a huge, 2-storey tank for Puppi, the sharks and other big fish. They also have the probably biggest colony of leaf cutter ants in the world, which run all over the place in transparent plastic rails. There's also a colony of fruitbats, who were waking up just then (advantage of going there late), and started flying around, a couple of centimetres past people. Lots of squaking ensued. I'd always assumed that bats are rather gliders than real flyers, but I discovered that they're extremely agile, and have no trouble lifting off from sitting on the ground. Great thing to see. (from above, preferably, because they're a bit leaky)

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Feb. 19th, 2012

2012 book 13: Scholars and Soldiers

Finished Scholars and Soldiers, a short-story collection by Mary Gentle.

Before I get to the stories themselves, I need to rant a bit about short story collections: all but 3 of the stories in this one are also in Cartomany, which I already had. That's 3 out of 9 new (to me) stories. I hate it when they do that. It's just the ultimate rip-off, because, especially for less-known authors, it's pretty much impossible to find out the exact contents of short-story collections. (and no, there's no bookshops or libraries carrying that kind of stuff anywhere around here).

Right. Onto the stories. Gentle's stories are always exquisitely crafted, infinitely complex little universes in a bubble. Each little world has its own, intricate history and culture (usually with strong women), and I wouldn't mind reading longer stories set in many of them. They do, however, often have the problem that you're dropped right in, and don't really get all that's going on.

The first and the last story, Beggars in Satin, and The Knot Garden, are set in the same world, with a kind of 16th century tech, but also magic. In the first one, a magic garden is going seriously wrong, and as "as above, so below" is an important principle about how things work in this world, disorder in a magical depiction leads to disorder in the city. In the second story, ancient powerful beings suddenly appear in the city, and people start disappearing. Again, above and below have to be put in balance.

The Crystal Sunlight, The Bright Air is set in the universe of the Orthe series, which I haven't read yet. It's about a kind of inquisitor, sent to a planet to find out if it should be interdicted.However, he is haunted by his own past.

A Sun in the Attic is about a young scientist, who finds out something that the public must never know, and he must decide between scientific integrity but the risk of starting a civil war, or being bought, and shutting up. I really liked this world, where there is a powerful empire on the south pole, where women can marry several men, and basically run everything. ;)

The Pits Beneath the World is about a human embassy to an alien culture, and a potentially fatal misunderstanding.

In general, reall good and complex stories.

8/10

Movies 2012: Chronicle

Went to the cinema for the first time this year today. There's not all that much on (that out dear Utopia-Mafia won't give a slot where it'll disappear after 2 weeks because, frankly, nobody has the time to go to the cinema during the week at 12 noon or midnight...), and I've so far been unlucky in winning free tickets :(.

Anyway. I went to see Chronicle. It's a bit of a different take on both the superhero origin story, and the "found footage" fake documentary, and really quite interesting. It's a bit like what could have happened to the young X-Men if Xavier hadn't been around. Or Magneto, for that matter.


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I also liked the fact that all cameras in this movie are identified: they're either one of Andrew's, or Casey's little digicams, or different police and other securiy cameras. So you never get that anonymous, omniscient look at the action that you usually get. Fortunately, the footage isn't as wobbly as these "found footage" films tend to be.

Nitpick: American highschools must have an enormous failure rate, that their seniors are in their late twenties...I mean, the actors here were pretty good, but it was really obvious they were far older than their characters. Couldn't they just have set it at university? Or found real teenagers?

In general, I really enjoyed it. Recommended to all who like intelligent superhero movies and experiments.

8.5/10

Feb. 18th, 2012

2012 book 12: Grunts!

Finished Grunts! by Mary Gentle.

Slightly spoilery review!

Plot in a nutshell (more on it later): This book is set in a parallel world of Middle-Earth, where something went terribly wrong, and the forces of darkness are pretty strong, whereas the goodies are pretty dumb. The orcs killed a dragon for their dark Lord, and find a huge stash of allkinds of American marines' weapons in the dragon's hoard. As there is a curse on the hoard, which makes you become what you steal, the orcs soon start behaving like your very stereotypical Army jarheads. The forcesof evil lose the Last Battle, but their Dark Lord comes back. Right in the middle of the final conflict between Light and Dark, another, much more powerful foe appears...

In general, I liked it, as about 90% of it are a pretty good and funny, but very dark parody of both the classical, goody-centered epic fantasy, and the marines. The problem are the other 10%, where the dark comedy crosses the line into disturbing. I have a really high tolerance for evil black humour, but I do draw the line at children being raped to death and then eaten, as well as psychopathic Dutch halflings. Those moments just completely derailed the mood of the book. The parts with the orcs are pretty bloody and violent too, but the violence is so exagerated that you can find it funny. Or maybe violence between soldiers in war is easier to accept than violence against innocent civilians.

The plot also meanders a bit too much. First, there's the Last Battle, which is over pretty quickly for the dark forces, because most of their wizards just turned tail and fled. Left on their own, the orc marines continue training recruits, and start branching out into selling weapons and training all kinds of people, from goblins to elves as marines. In between, there's the story of the halflings, Ned and Will, who are really disturbingly psychopathic, and quite infantile at the same time, and their mother Magda, who marries the General of the orcs, Ashnak. They have half a dozen orc/halfling hybrid babies. At the same time. I don't even want to imagine that birth.
In the middle of that all, the Dark Lord returns, and decides, for reasons known only to her (she's inhabiting a female body), to have an election for the Throne of the World. And, finally, a race of aliens who are definetely related to H.R. Giger's xenomorphs shows up and starts kicking everybody's arses...
It looks a bit as if the author was trying to come up with yet another idea to keep the book going. Some parts also drag a bit, especially the bits with the halflings. (their last name is von Nassau, like a certain grand-ducal family, but at least ours are neither halflings nor overy psychopathic.)

In general, it's an interesting an funny different take on epic fantasy, altough with some rather disturbing parts.
6.5/10

Recommended to people with a very high tolerance for darkness in comedy.

Feb. 12th, 2012

2012 book 11: The Quantum Thief

Finally got a copy of The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi, and pretty much devoured it right through.

Sometime in the far far future, the thief and conman Jean Le Flambeur is recued from a dilemma prison (a huge construct of crystalline cells floating in space, where prisoners are forced to fight eachother over and over for dominion of the prison) by Mieli, an agent of the Sobornost, a community of uploaded humans. He is supposed to steal something for her bosses, but first, he has to recover his memories in the Oubliette, a moving city on Mars.

Meanwhile in the Oubliette, a young art student, doubling as a private detective, finds himself drawn into matters of interstellar politics...

I really really liked this novel, although I'm not quite sure if I didn't get lost a bit towards the end. The author doesn't really make it easy for the reader, dumping you straight into a world where even the baseline humans barely have anything in common with us today. (except the chocolate). I don't really mind that approach, and I'm happy to go with the flow until things clarify themselves through context, but I would have appreciated a tiny little infodump sometimes. Wikipedia has a glossary ;)
It reminded me a bit of Simmons' Hyperion /Endymion books, and Banks' Culture.

I really liked the different cultures, like the Oubliette, which seems to be a really nice place to live. (once they get that Voice thing cleared up, anyway) (you might argue that doing time as a Quiet is not all that nice, but I guess it's normal that you do some public serice in exchange for all the time you get to play. And you're basically immortal, which would get a bit boring without any change in life). Also liked the idea of the zoku colony, which are essentially a bunch of gamers and anime-fans who uploaded themselves as soon as they could, and now pretty much play WoW across the universe. Sounds like a good plan...they're also responsible for the superhero vigilantes who act as the Oubliette's police force.

While the worldbuilding is extremely interesting and complex, the plot is a bit thin at times. Style over substance, but the style is very good. The characters are quite well-done and complex, first of all Jean, who has done all kinds of things in his long life, and can't even remember most of them, and Mieli, who seems to have quite a bit of so-far unrevealed background story.

Spoilers from here!!!

I got a bit lost towards the end...why didn't Raymonde turn into an Atlas Quiet when the gun was fired? Also, am I right about the following: the King /Le Roi was another version of Jean/Paul himself? He hid bits of himself in nine places and nine watches of nine people, and then left the Oubliette. Isidore is the son of Raymonde and alternate Paul/Jean, but was raised by another man, who is now a Quiet. Also, he himself corrupted the exomemory of the Oubliette with the aid of the zoku, implanting the idea of the Kingdom and the Revolution in people. And took control over the Voice. Or something like that...

/End Spoilers

Anyway, I really liked it. A great, if a bit confusing space opera. Looking forward to the next one.
8.5/10

Feb. 10th, 2012

2012 book 10: A Hawk in Silver

Finished A Hawk in Silver by Mary Gentle.

Teenager Holly finds a weird coin on the ground, in front of a normal shop in her normal hometown... then she meets a strange young man, and all of a sudden, the animals around her seem very interested in her... and suddenly she and her best friend find themselves drawn into an ancient war between two tribes of exiled fairies, the hill-dwelling elukoi, and the sea-dwelling morkani. The fate of all will be decided on Midwinter, when there will be either war, or a return to Faerie.

This book was published when Mary Gentle was only 21, and it shows a bit. It's a slim thing, a bit less than 200 pages, and still far away from the sometimes excessive descriptive style of her later works. It reads a bit more like a long summary of a fantasy epic than a novel in itself.

It's pretty good though. It picks up the characters of its teenage protagonists quite well, with all their likes, worries and fears (mainly a clique of sadistic bullies at school). In contrast to many other characters, (I think I've written about them, who, even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still refuse to believe in the supernatural), the girls here go along with everything very quickly, although they do some serious thinking about the things they got themselves into.
The faerie society is very detailed for such a short work, but their characters stay a bit stereotypical: the magician foster-father, the female magician, the harper...but well-done tropes are still better than unimaginative originals.

All in all, it's a nice, fast-paced little story, with a lot of worldbuilding stuffed into quite a small number of pages, with a pretty good ending

7.5/10.

Feb. 8th, 2012

2012 book 9: Heirs of the Blade

Finished volume 7 of Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky; Heirs of the Blade.

(slghtly spoilery!)

In terms of plot, the first part of the book follows Tynisa, who fled Collegium after Achaeos' death, and is now wandering through the Commonweal, hunting some idealistic spark of an ideal society that she caught from her friend Salma.

Later, Che and Thalric are trying to find her. And there's a violent peasant uprising that they all end up right in the middle of.

So, looking at the general summary, there's not all that much happening in terms of plot, but there's quite a lot of good character stuff. Tynisa finally gets her day in the limelight. Poor thing...child of two warring kinden, raised by a third, in a city of Apt, where, on the one hand, she is cut off from a lot of aspects of life in Collegium, being Inapt, and, double whammy, also from the Inapt magic stuff of her parent kindens. No wonder she doesn't feel she fits in. Through Salma, she gets an idea of the Commonweal being an ideal place, happy peasants governed by benevolent nobles. She decides to go there, to find Salma's family, and maybe also find a place where she belongs.

Unfortunately, she not only finds out that everything isn't quite as nice in the Commonweal, and that Salma's mother is a bitch, but she also gets caught by her father's errant ghost, who uses her crush on Salma's brother (as replacement for Salma himself) as a hook to turn her into an emotionless killing machine, and guide her towards a Mantis-typical bloody and heroic end.

Fortunately, Che and Thalric and a magician they picked up on the way arrive in time to help her cast out the ghost. Unfortunately, that's not the end of Tisamon...

I didn't really like the peasant rebels when they were introduced. Maybe they weren't really supposed to be likeable, as they're not very Robin-Hood-like, at least not in the beginning. They do become slightly more endearing though. And they do have a certain reasin to be, as they've been abandoned by their nobles after the end of the war.

I quite liked the changing focus onto the Inapt kinden and their magic. I wonder how far Che will be going in that regard. I guess she'll have to face off against Seda at some point. After The Sea Watch, which was a bit of a sideline, despite being very interesting, we've moved furter back into the main action now. Or rather, it's been set up to hit the fan sometime soon.

Interesting things in this one:
  • I bet nobody else ever noticed either that there's almost no birds in Kinden-world? The insects probably ate them in revenge when they started growing into gigantism...Tynisa clearly has never seen one before.
  • I see bad things coming...the Empire declares the Provinces as protectorate, is setting its sights back on Collegium, has an agreement with the Iron Glove. Oh, and rock oil. And undead Tisamon (in a bad mood). Good times are coming...
  • Varmen's blaze of glory... :(
  • We finally find out that Salma isn't actually his first name, but his family name. Barbarian lowlanders...
  • I really wonder how the Mantids have managed to survive as a kinden so far, seeing their overblown ideas about honour and dying in battle and things like that. Definetely the most mentally screwed-up of all kinden...or maybe Tisamon was an extreme example of the kinden.

And now, I've really caught up with the writer...I hope the next one will be out soon.
(Although, dear Mr Tchakovsky, could you please stop flogging the dead Mantis? just let him rest in whatever amount of peace he can, poor sod...)

In short, really really liked this one.
9/10

Feb. 4th, 2012

2012 book 8: The Devil's Graveyard

The Devil's Graveyard is the third of the "Bourbon Kid" books by some Anonymous guy. (would be interesting to find out who he is. How many contemporary anonymous authors of fiction are there nowadays?)

It's set in the Devil's Graveyard (duh), a tiny place somewhere in a desert in North America, containing mainly a diner and a huge hotel. Every Halloween, the hotel hosts the Back from the dead contest, a competition for singers covering dead stars, where the winner gets a million dollars and a contract as a singer at the hotel.

This year though, there's going to be some problems, as there's far too many hitmen around, some shady characters, zombies, and a deal with the devil.

I remember quite liking the first 2 books in the series, because they contained an unexpected amount of complex plot between the graphic and rather extreme violence. In this one, though, the plot is rather paper-thin, and mostly an excuse for lots of splatter. What there is in terms of plot also takes a long time to get going, it's mainly hitmen hunting eachother and their targets. Once there is some plot, it's not really resolved ot explained either.

(Spoilers: why has nobody ever noticed that every year, hundreds of people disappear there? Why don't the singers ever notice that none of the previous winners are ever seen again? Why did it take Jacko years to get there? etc...)

It reads like a script to one of Tarantino's less good movies. The pacing is pretty fast, and it keeps you reading, and the Bourbon Kid, although he's an uttery psychopath, is kinda endearing. But still, it has all the brain-nutritional value of the literary equivalent of a McD hamburger.

In conclusion, it's a decent read if you like splatter movies, but left me a bit disappointed. And now I should dig out the other 2 books and reread them.

6/10

Jan. 29th, 2012

2012 book 7: The New Space Opera 2

Finished the collection The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois.

All these stories are set in the far future, with very advanced tech, and often a rather loose definition of human. Most of them are OK, although, unfortunately, there are few WOW moments, and some stories that don't make all that much sense.

Detailed review:

ꉿ Robert Charles Wilson: “Ultriusque cosmi”  Carlotta was taken away by aliens when Earth exploded. Now, she's travelling back in time, in order to close a time loop and make sure things happen like they are supposed to be. Not bad, but not terribly exciting either
ꉿ Peter Watts: “The island”: A space-ship crew comes across life on the other side of the universe, and finds out that some characteristics seem to be true for all intelligent species...quite liked this one.
ꉿ John Kessel: “Events preceding the Helvetican renaissance” : A young monk has to bring a precious object home in order to blackmail the enemy into ceasing hostilities. Not terribly original, but well-executed, and with nice world-building
ꉿ Cory Doctorow: “To go boldly” : A kind of Star Trek parody. Captain Tsubishi, trying hard to out-kirk Captain Kirk, comes across a rather weird alien species, and suddenly his whole world is turned upside-down. Quite funny.
ꉿ John Barnes: “The lost princess man” : A conman is running the Lost Princess con in the very very far future, when he gets a strange busines proposition. Quite a good story, although there could have been some more explanations about the tech, it gets a bit confusing. Pretty nice take on the con story though.
ꉿ Kristine Kathryn Rusch: “Defect”: An assassin swears revenge...quite standard assassin-revenge story in space. Decently done but nothing special
ꉿ Jay Lake: “To raise a mutiny betwixt yourselves”: In the very very far future, at the other end of the universe, two immortal former lovers and an intelligent starship have to deal with mutiny. Quite good story with complex background and interesting characters.
ꉿ Neal Asher: “Shell game” : A very long-planned and complex revenge story. Quite liked this one.
ꉿ Garth Nix: “Punctuality” : The heir to the throne of the Galactic Empire is introduced to the secret about the mysterious Punctuality drive. Interesting worldbuilding. Would be interested in reading more stories set in this universe.
ꉿ Sean Williams: “Inevitable” : Another time loop story. A terrorist who destroyed an entrance to the mysterious Structure is supposed to redeem himself by leading a Guild captain to another entrance, but things don't quite turn out as planned. Really liked this one, it has another very interesting universe which should have more stories set in it.
ꉿ Bruce Sterling: “Join the Navy and see the worlds” : Pretty bizarre story about a captain of space trips for tourists (where he's only for show), and Titan, somehow. More deliberately confusing than interesting.
ꉿ Bill Willingham: “Fearless space pirates of the outer rings” : Quite fun story about a human from the 1960s who ends up in a space pirate crew.
ꉿ John Meaney: “From the heart” : I really like the background of this story, where cadets bond with a spaceship grown specially for them. The story itself, though, is again more confusing than interesting. Some more details about what's going on would have been nice.
ꉿ Elizabeth Moon: “Chameleons” : A bodyguard and his two teenage charges run into trouble at the spacestation where he grew up. Pretty standard plot with quite special and interesting supporting characters though.
ꉿ Tad Williams: “The tenth muse” : A strange spaceship appears through a gate and indiscriminately starts destroying ships. A linguist has an extraordinary theory about it. Quite interesting premise.
ꉿ Justina Robson: “Cracklegrackle” : A father is looking for his disappeared daughter, with the help of a heavily modified human. Pretty annoying main character, but interesting setting.
ꉿ John Scalzi: “The tale of the wicked” : A couple of intelligent ships decide to take matters into their own "hands". Really quite liked this one, very optimistic.
ꉿ Mike Resnick: “Catastrophe Baker and a canticle for Leibowitz” : Fun story about a hero, a beautiful, mysterious woman, and a quest.
ꉿ John C. Wright: “The far end of history”
: Didn't like this one. It throws a ton of unexplained ultra-high-tech terms at you, and is in general very confusing in structure and plot. Something about intelligent planets and something called Atkins anyway...

All in all, some very nice worlds, and mostly quite decent stories, but few real highlights.

7/10

Jan. 23rd, 2012

2012 book 6: Deathless

Finished the audiobook of Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente.

The plot is based on the Russian folktale of Koschei the Deathless, a powerful magician, famous for having hidden his death, and thus having become immortal.

In St.. Petersburg, on a long, thing street, in a long, thin house, in a long, thin window, Marya Morevna is waiting for a bird to turn into her husband and take her away, just like it happened for her 3 sisters. But first, communism arrives in Russia, and 11 other families move into the long, thin house, making Marya, who is perceived as a bit crazy, because of her solitary ways and serious nature, withdraw into herself more and more. Times are getting harder and harder, food getting ever more scarce, and even the socialist domovye living in the walls of the house can't help her, and she is basically starving and despairing.

But then, while she isn't even looking, an owl topples off the oak tree, and turns into a handsome young man, who presents himself as Koschei, and whisks her away across thrice nine kingdoms, to his kingdom on the island of Buyan, the realm of the Czar of Life. Here, Marya is as happy as anyone could be, but then she learns some disturbing things. The kingdom of the Czar of Life is caught in an eternal war against the Czar of Death, and the war is always going badly, because all dead soldiers of Life just switch over to fight as ghosts on the side of Death.

Closer to Marya's own concerns, she is given several tasks by Koschei's sister, Baba Yaga, to prove herself worthy of him. She is shown what happened to her predecessors: there were hundreds of girls called Elena or Vasilisa, who failed, betrayed Koschei, and ran off with young men called Yvan, until they got caught, brainwashed and locked into a factory where they weave soldiers on looms.

Marya passes all the tests, but the nature of a fairytale is that it has rules, and has to play out in accordance with these rules. The girl, whether she is called Elena, Vasilisa or Marya, always meets an Yvan, always betrays Koschei, and always leaves him, whether she intends to or not...

Really loved this book, like all the other Valente novels. I know just about enough of Slavic mythology to recognise most of the creatures appearing here, but not enough to get upset at how their stories might have been mangled, which apparently upset some people. And we really get the all-star cast of Slavic mystical beasties. Just click yourself through the list at the bottom of Koschei's Wikipedia article...

As usual with Valente, the book focusses heavily on descriptions which are incredibly detailed and sensuous. The sequence of Koschei's and Marya's travel/seduction is extremely sensual, as much as the later description of Russia during the Second World War makes you shiver and feel starved.

The tone of the novel is mostly rather sad and fatalistic, due to the themes of economic destaster in Russia, as well as the war and the pessimistic, ever repeating fairtale the main characters are stuck in.

Nitpicks concering the audiobook version (from Audible, narrated by Kim de Blecourt): the narrator tends to make everybody sound like a petulant 5-year old when she's reading direct dialogue, which gets a bit annoying. I'm also not quite sure about her Russian accent...
Another disadvantage of audiobooks in general is that I've got no idea on how to spell most of the names...

All in all, a really beautiful and sad novel. Recommended to fans of Valente, Sedia, and tolerant fans of mythology.

9.5/10

Jan. 21st, 2012

2012 book 5: Blood Engines by T.A. Pratt

Finished Blood Engines by T.A. (Tim) Pratt, the first of the Marla Mason books.

Plot in a nutshell:

Marla Mason, a powerful mage and leader of the East-coast city of Felport, has travelled to San Francisco to use the Cornerstone, a powerful magical artefact, in order to cast a spell that will defeat her enemy Susan, who wants to kill her and take over in Felport. However, arrived there, she discovers that her friend, the keeper of the Cornerstone, has been murdered. By poison-frog. Although she is at heart rather egocentric, she finds herself drawn into the fight against the magician Mutex, who is also after the Cornerstone, and is bloodily fighting his way through San Francisco's magical elite to get it, and has rather sinister things in mind. She is supported by the former actor-turned psychic B, Rondeau, a mysterious magical entity living in a human body, and an ancient Chinese snake-god.

Hmm, what to say about this...it's pretty standard urban fantasy fare, easily readable, with some nice idea, but all in all, nothing special. The protagonist Marla is pretty much Harry Dresden's bitchy twin sister, violent, egocentric and a bit cold-hearted, but still with a soft spot somewhere deep inside.

Negative aspects are the before-mentioned, not very endearing protagonist, who needs a bit of getting used to, as well as the fact that this feels very strange for a first volume of a series, as it's not set on Marla's home turf (or rather concrete), and we're pretty much dumped into things, and told about half a dozen important characters, but we're not really introduced to them, as they're all on the other side of the continent. The magical system is also rather undefined.

Nice things: I liked the Possible Witch, who looks through infinite parallel universes to see the outcomes of an action, and, as payment, makes you live through a random series of alternate universes too. I also really liked the character of B, who is pretty much the opposite of Marla, and somehow manages to stir some human-like emotions in her. The magic is, as mentioned, a bit vague, but a very vast field, whose different users are quite well-described.

All in all, I was expecting a bit more, from a short story set in the same universe, that I read in a collection recently. I'm not sure if I'm going to bump up the next volumes to the top of the to-read-pile.
It's not bad and has pretty good pacing, but rather standard, and with a rather...special protagonist.

6.5/10

Jan. 17th, 2012

2012 book 4: Kafka on the Shore

Also finished listening to the audiobook of Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.

Plot:
15-year old Kafka Tamura decides to run away from home, as his father doesn't show him much affection, and he finally wants to find out what happened to his mother and sister, who left when he was 4. So he travels to the other end of Japan, and meets Sakura and Miss Saeki, who might or might not be his lost family. He also has an invisible friend named Crow, who sometimes supports him but mainly pushes him along.

Then, there's a elderly man called Nakata, who found himself mentally disabled after falling into a coma as a child, due to a weird flash. Nakata can talk to cats, and is employed to look for lost ones, which leads him to the mansion of a man called Johnny Walker, who talks him into killing him. After that, he leaves Tokyo, and also travels, in the company of a young rough but good-hearted trucker, who takes care of him.


Spoilers!Collapse )

Notwithstanding a sense of closure at the end, a lot of questions remain, which isn't really satisfying, and makes the book appear a bit pretentious. This is supported by the mostly rather pointless and unrelated but lengthy ventures into philosophy, classical music...

If you like a good mindscrew, with mostly great characters, go for it though.

6.5/10

2012 book 3: 1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle

Finished 1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle.

Plot in a nutshell:
After having failed to avert the assassination of the French King Henri IV, the French spy/assassin/duellist Valentin Rochefort has to urgently leave France. He finally finds himself in the company of his nemesis, a young duellist who calls himself Dariole, and who refuses to leave him, and a mysterious Nipponese stranger, in London. Although they only try to lay low and find out what's going on at home, while attempting to get Saburo an audience with the English King James I, they find themselves drawn into a very strange conspiracy: the mystic Robert Fludd claims to know a method to divine the future through calculattion. Thus, he finds out what would need to happen for a certain event to take place (or in this case, rather, not take place, as he claims that a giant asteroid is going to crash into the Earth in about 500 years unless he acts), and thus nudges history along by making things happen. Unfortunately, the main thing that should happen would be for King James to die, and so Fludd thought it useful to employ, or rather pressgang a man who already got rid of one king before...

I really liked this one. As usual in Gentle's work, we are presented with a world that is almost, but not quite ours. In fact, apart from the three protagonists, pretty much everybody in the novel really existed, and most events happened as they did (just waiting for the asteroid...). Even Robert Fludd, although he was not into mathematical foretelling in our world. Of course, our protagonists run into all kinds of very important people of their times. Usually, I hate it when that happens to Joe Nobody in a novel, as it's usually quite unrealistic. Here, though, I don't mind that much, as Rochefort and Saburo were close to that milieu anyway, and they are following the calculations, which require them to do certain things and seek out certain people, often whether they like it or not.

You can go into quite some depths regarding ethics in this one. Is Fludd evil? Or is he just one of those people who coldbloodedly do what needs doing in order to save the majority, even if some others will die along the way? That is, if you don't just think that he's a total nutcase who just likes torturing people. Is one halfway decent English King's life worth more than that of 6 billion people who aren't even born yet, but will die if James lives? Justified as he may be, Fludd is still quite a bastard about it though.

Another theme is love and forgiveness. And obsession, I guess. This happens mostly between Rochefort and Dariole (as usual in a Mary Gentle novel, look for the crossdresser). I don't know if you have that kind of person in your life, that you're drawn to, although you know you shouldn't, and who makes you feel used and embarrassed and all kinds of confusing things...Gentle catches that kind of relationship quite well.
Dariole feels drawn to Rochefort, and follows him, but later tries to blame him for dragging her out of her familiar surroundings, because she unexpectedly gets ripped out of her fantasy life of young, successful duellist, and confronted with real life. It takes her some time to realise that she took that decision out of her own free will, and forgive him. Although he never forgives himself.

The characters are in general very well drawn, although Rochefort is a bit annoying in the beginning, when he steadfastly refuses to believe in Fludd and Catarina, and has all kinds of paranoid fantasies about how they got the knowledge. That's something that always annoys me: people who refuse to accept the obvious because it's unusual, even if it's right in front of them. (accepting here does of course not mean agreeing to it. He's quite justified in not working with Fludd) He's a lot more bearable once he makes peace with things.

One could argue that the pace is quite slow until things really get going, but there's always minor stuff happening all over the place, and interesting characters and descriptions, so it never gets boring.

If you like Mary Gentle's other works, this one should be good too.

If you're looking for historical fiction with a touch of the bizarre, and good characters, give it a try! :)

8/10

Jan. 8th, 2012

2012 book 2: Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia

Finished Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia.

After readin The Secret History of Moscow, and The Alchemy of Stone, I thought that Sedia was one of those authors who reliably publish highly imaginative and interesting novels. Unfortunately, it turns out I was wrong, as this one is very disappointing.


Spoilery reviewCollapse )

In conclusion: pretty boring, unrealistic plot with a really Sue-ish protagonist.
4/10

Jan. 5th, 2012

maori

2012 book 1: Ilario by Mary Gentle

Finished Ilario by Mary Gentle a couple of days ago.

(Mary Gentle deserves much more love and internet presence, by the way, because she's a kickass writer)

The novel is set in the early 15th century in the same universe as Ash; A Secret History, which is almost like ours, except that magic exists, Carthage was captured by Visigoths at some point, and was later cursed by a Rabbi, so that a huge black cloud called the Penitence covers the land, and the Mediterranean up to Malta. Out of necessity, Carthage has conquered a lot of land in order to grow food, and they have evolved a very strong kind of technology, or magitech, including incredibly strong stone golems that move to commands of their owners. The Turks have chucked the Egyptians out of Egypt at some point, and the latter have now settled in Constantinople, called Alexandria-in-exile, where the Pharao-Queen Ty-ameny rules with a tiny but strong hand. (she must be an ancestor of Harry Dresden's friend Murphy)

Plot: the young hermaprodite Ilario flees from home (the court of a small Iberian kingdom), after almost having been killed by the own mother. (I see why the novel is written in first person, because otherwise you'd have to constantly come up with a fitting personal pronoun...) Ilario decides to travel to Rome to study under a famous master of a new style of art, and become a painter. On the way, s/he stops in Carthage in order to try some painting under the darkness of the Penitence. However, Ilario has barely made it through the city gates before being seduced by a guardsmen, and then poisoned by his mother, and sold into slavery. Fortunately, Ilario's new master, the Egyptian Rekhmire' (don't ask about the apostrophe...) is actually quite nice and understanding, and supports Ilario's ambitions, and they travel on to Rome, where Ilario manages to become an apprentice to Master...and that is only the beginning, as there will be more murderous relatives, slaves, a baby, Egyptians, mysterious visitors, golems, Etruscans, etc.

I really quite liked this novel. The setting is close enough to reality to feel familiar (if you paid attention to your history classes), while being strange and exotic enough to make me want to know more about it. Ilario being an artist, and thus a very good observer, means that we get a lot of visual impressions about things, people and surroundings, which make the text very vivid and accessible.

While one may argue that Ilario is a bit too successful although being rather naive and often rushing into things, there's enough lampshades hung on that to keep it out of Mary Stu territory. Rekhmire', for example, often responds to a harebrained plot by Ilario by saying that s/he should not trust his/her own decisions too much, as s/he spent most of his/her life being a slave and thus not able to take decisions. Ilario is incredibly lucky in finding a surrogate family to keep her/him out of trouble. Ilario does grow up to a certain extend in the course of the novel, although you still should get the Venetian glass out of reach if you're going to tell him/her something s/he's not going to like.

While the plot is sometimes rather slow, (the time in Venice drags along a bit between assaults, sickrooms, and a veeery long labour), the characters are well-defined ans fleshed-out, the politicy are reasonably sound, and the setting is really fascinating, if you're that kind of geek. There's also a bunch of extra geek references, like the ghost ships, the book printer, and Onorata, who apparently will grow up to be a mercenary leader, and meet Ash about 20 years later.

Another huge plus of the book is the humour. Pretty much everybody in this story is a deadpan snarker, which makes for nice reading and covers some plot weaknesses.

All in all, a very entertaining and funny, but also serious (and often graphic) read with a stunning setting. 8.5/10

Jan. 1st, 2012

2011 Tops and Flops: Literature

Apparently, I've read about 90 books since I started the 365 days project in November 2010. Of which about 80 this year. Not too bad, I think ;)

Top 15 (series count as one) in no particular order because I can't decide:
  1. The Habitation of the Blessed & The Folded World by Catherynne M Valente
  2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  3. The Year's Best Science Fiction v.24, 2007 (part 1, part 2)
  4. The Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovski (vol 1, vol 2, vol 3, vol 4, vol 5, vol 6)
  5. The Kingkiller series by Pat Rothfuss (NotW, TWMF)
  6. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  7. Midnight Riot/Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (didn't like the second one quite as much though)
  8. A Dance With Dragons by GRRM (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) (reviews also contains random other stuff and cute animals)
  9. Various Wild Cards Novels by GRRM and friends (Jokers Wild, Aces High; Suicide Kings; Busted Flush; Inside Straight
  10. All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear (the second part of the series is also really good, the third a bit less so, unfortunately)
  11. Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail by Christopher Dawes
  12. House of the Stag & The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker
  13. Snuff by Terry Pratchett
  14. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
  15. The Jacob's Ladder Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear (part 1, parts 2&3)
Honorable mentions:
Flops of the year: (i.e. book I really expected to be better)
Dishonorable mentions but not totally terrible:Now let's have yours!
(don't be lazy! ;))

2011 Tops and Flops: Films

Best "serious" films: (in no particular order):
Best "popcorn flicks" (also in no particular order):
Best films somewhere in between the former:
WTF award of the year:
Disappointments of the year:
That's 19 good movies this year, which I consider not too bad :)

Now I want your assessment of the cinematic year 2011!

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