Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2016-09-24: podlators 4.08

A new release of the distribution that provides Pod::Man and Pod::Text for Perl documentation formatting.

The impetus for this release is fixing a rendering bug in Pod::Man that spewed stray bits of half-escaped *roff into the man page for the text "TRUE (1)". This turned out to be due to two interlocking bugs in the dark magic regexes that try to fix up formatting to make man pages look a bit better: incorrect double-markup in both small caps and as a man page reference, and incorrect interpretation of the string "\s0(1)". Both are fixed in this release.

podlators 4.00 changed Pod::Man to make piping POD through pod2man on standard input without providing the --name option an error, since there was no good choice for the man page title. This turned out to be too disruptive: the old behavior of tolerating this had been around for too long, and I got several bug reports. Since I think backward compatibility is extremely important for these tools, I've backed down from this change, and now Pod::Man and pod2man just silently use the man page name "STDIN" (which still fixes the original problem of being reproducible).

It is, of course, still a good idea to provide the name option when dealing with standard input, since "STDIN" isn't a very good man page title.

This release also adds new --lquote and --rquote options to pod2man to set the quote marks independently, and removes a test that relied on a POD construct that is going to become an error in Pod::Simple.

You can get the latest release from the podlators distribution page.

2016-08-14: Review: Winds of Fate

Review: Winds of Fate, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Mage Winds #1
Publisher DAW
Copyright 1991
Printing July 1992
ISBN 0-88677-516-7
Format Mass market
Pages 460

As a kid working my way through nearly everything in the children's section of the library, I always loved book series, since it meant I could find a lot more of something I liked. But children's book series tended to be linear, with a well-defined order. When I moved into the adult SF section, I encountered a new type of series: one that moves backwards and forwards in time to fill in a broader story.

I mention that here because Winds of Fate, although well into the linked series that make up Valdemar, was one of the first Valdemar books I read. (I think it was the first, but my memory is hazy.) Therefore, in my brain, this is where the story of Valdemar "begins": with Elspeth, a country that has other abilities but has forgotten about magic, a rich world full of various approaches to magic, and very pushy magic horses. Talia's story, and particularly Vanyel's, were always backstory, the events that laid the groundwork for Elspeth's story. (I didn't encounter Tarma and Kethry until somewhat later.)

Read now in context, this is obviously not the case. The Mage Winds trilogy, of which this is the first book, are clearly sequels to the Arrows of the Queen trilogy. Valdemar was victorious in the first round of war with Ancar, but the Heralds have slowly (and with great difficulty) become aware of their weakness against magic and their surprising lack of it. Elspeth has grown into the role of heir, but she's also one of the few who find it easy to talk about and think about magic (perhaps due to her long association with Kerowyn, who came into Valdemar from the outside world in By the Sword). She therefore takes on the mission of finding an Adept who can return to Valdemar, solve the mystery of whatever is keeping magic out of the kingdom, and start training mages for the kingdom again.

Meanwhile, we get the first viewpoint character from the Tayledras: the elf-inspired mages who work to cleanse the Pelagiris forests from magic left over from a long-ago war. They appeared briefly in Vanyel's story, since his aunt was friends with a farther-north tribe of them and Valdemar of the time had contact with mages. Darkwind and his people are far to the south, up against the rim of the Dhorisha crater. Something has gone horribly wrong with Heartstone of the k'Sheyna, his tribe: it cracked when being drained, killing most of the experienced mages including Darkwind's mother, and now it is subtly wrong, twisting and undermining the normal flow of magic inside their Vale. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, Darkwind has forsworn magic and become a scout, putting him sharply at odds with his father. And it's a matter of time before less savory magic users in the area realize how vulnerable k'Sheyna is.

Up to this point in the Valdemar series, Lackey primarily did localized world-building to support the stories and characters she was writing about. Valdemar and its Heralds and Companions have been one of the few shared elements, and only rarely did the external magic-using world encounter them. Here, we get the first extended contact between the fairly naive Heralds and experienced mages who understand how they and their Companions fit into the broader system of magic. We also finally get the origin of the Dhorisha Plains and the Tayledras and Shin'a'in, and a much better sense of the broader history of this world. And Need, which started as Kethry's soul-bonded sword and then became Kerowyn's, joins the story in a much more active way.

The world-building is a definite feature if you like this sort of thing. It doesn't withstand too much thinking about the typical sword and sorcery lack of technology, but for retroactive coherence constructed from originally scattered stories, it's pretty fun. (I suspect part of why I like the Valdemar world-building is that it feels a lot like large shared universe world-building in comics.) And Need is the high point of the story: she brings a much-needed cynical stubbornness to the cast and is my favorite character in this book.

What is not a feature, unfortunately, is the characterization. Darkwind is okay but a largely unremarkable here, more another instance of the troubled but ethical Tayledras type than a clearly defined character. But Elspeth is just infuriating, repeatedly making decisions and taking hard positions that seem entirely unwarranted by the recorded events of the book. This is made worse by how frequently she's shown to be correct in ways that seem like authorial cheating. At times, it feels like she's the heroine by authorial fiat, not because she's doing a particularly good job. I can muster some sympathy for not wanting to follow the plan of the Companions when it became clear they were acting entirely out of character and actively intervening, but she expresses that with petulant, childish insistence rather than reasoned argument. And she suddenly decides Skif is in love with her and treating her like a fragile princess on the basis of absolutely no action that occurs on camera in this book so far as I can tell, and proceeds to treat him like dirt for large sections of the book. That Skif then lives down to this suddenly negative impression doesn't help.

This book also has quite a lot of the U-shaped story arc in which everything gets worse and more horrific and more hopeless for the heroes over the course of the book until it turns into torture, and only then do they manage to claw their way back out. I've come to dislike this way of building tension. It's undeniably effective, but the parts of the story near the bottom of the U are difficult and painful reading. I prefer a bit more evenly-spread hurt/comfort storytelling in my popcorn fantasy reading.

Winds of Fate is, sadly, not a very good book. Most of the characterization is intensely irritating, the writing is a bit uneven, and the middle section of the book is rather painful to read. For me, though, that's balanced by the world-building and the sense of broadened scope, by Need's abrasive decisiveness, and by some really entertaining reactions to the combination of Elspeth, Need, and her Companion walking naive into the broader world. I still have a fond spot in my heart for it, but I'm hoping the remaining books of the trilogy are better.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2016-08-14: Summer haul

The reality is that I've just not been reading very much, as you can probably tell from the lack of reviews here. Lots of other things have been occupying my time, including rather too much on-line political reading eating into my off-line book reading. But hope springs eternal, so more books have been acquired in the interim. Since I use these posts to keep myself from buying duplicates, in the absence of a real database that I've not yet written or set up, here they are:

Mishell Baker — Borderline (sff)
Curtis C. Chen — Waypoint Kangaroo (sff)
Mark Forster — Secrets of Productive People (nonfiction)
Yoon Ha Lee — Ninefox Gambit (sff)
Seanan McGuire — Every Heart a Doorway (sff)
Don Norman — The Design of Everyday Things (nonfiction)
Kristina Rizga — Mission High (nonfiction)
John Scalzi — Lock In (sff)

This a pretty random collection of things from authors I know I like, non-fiction that looked really interesting from on-line reviews, the next book for book club reading for work (The Design of Everyday Things, which I've somehow never managed to read), and the first SF novel by an old college friend of mine (Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis Chen).

2016-08-13: git-pbuilder 1.42

A minor update to my glue script for building software with pdebuild and git-buildpackage. (Yes, still needs to get rewritten in Python.)

This release stops using the old backport location for oldstable builds since oldstable is now wheezy, which merged the backports archive into the regular archive location. The old location is still there for squeeze just in case anyone needs it.

It also adds a new environment variable, GIT_PBUILDER_PDEBUILDOPTIONS, that can be used to pass options directly to pdebuild. Previously, there was only a way to pass options to the builder, via pdebuild, but not to configure pdebuild itself. There are some times when that's useful, such as to pass --use-pdebuild-internal. This was based on a patch from Rafał Długołęcki.

You can get the latest version of git-pbuilder from my scripts page.

2016-07-29: remctl 3.12

This release adds a new, experimental server implementation: remctl-shell. As its name implies, this is designed to be run as a shell of a dedicated user rather than as a server. It does not use the remctl protocol, instead relying on ssh to pass in the command and user information (via special authorized_keys configuration). But it supports the same configuration as the normal remctl server. It can be useful for allowing remctl-style simple RPC in environments that only use ssh public key authentication.

Also in this release is a new configuration option, sudo, which is like the existing user option to run a command as another user but uses sudo instead of calling setuid() directly. This allows the server to switch users when running as a non-root user, which will be the normal case for remctl-shell.

The remctl-shell implementation in this release should be considered a first draft and is likely to improve in the future. (I already have a list of things that probably should be improved.)

You can get the latest release from the remctl distribution page.

2016-07-23: Review: The Run of His Life

Review: The Run of His Life, by Jeffrey Toobin

Publisher Random House
Copyright 1996, 1997
Printing 2015
ISBN 0-307-82916-2
Format Kindle
Pages 498

The O.J. Simpson trial needs little introduction to anyone who lived through it in the United States, but a brief summary for those who didn't.

O.J. Simpson is a Hall of Fame football player and one of the best running backs to ever play the game. He's also black, which is very relevant much of what later happened. After he retired from professional play, he became a television football commentator and a spokesperson for various companies (particularly Hertz, a car rental business). In 1994, he was arrested for the murder of two people: his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman (a friend of Nicole's). The arrest happened after a bizarre low-speed police chase across Los Angeles in a white Bronco that was broadcast live on network television. The media turned the resulting criminal trial into a reality TV show, with live cable television broadcasts of all of the court proceedings. After nearly a full year of trial (with the jury sequestered for nine months — more on that later), a mostly black jury returned a verdict of not guilty after a mere four hours of deliberation.

Following the criminal trial, in an extremely unusual legal proceeding, Simpson was found civilly liable for Ron Goldman's death in a lawsuit brought by his family. Bizarre events surrounding the case continued long afterwards. A book titled If I Did It (with "if" in very tiny letters on the cover) was published, ghost-written but allegedly with Simpson's input and cooperation, and was widely considered a confession. Another legal judgment let the Goldman family get all the profits from that book's publication. In an unrelated (but also bizarre) incident in Las Vegas, Simpson was later arrested for kidnapping and armed robbery and is currently in prison until at least 2017.

It is almost impossible to have lived through the O.J. Simpson trial in the United States and not have formed some opinion on it. I was in college and without a TV set at the time, and even I watched some of the live trial coverage. Reactions to the trial were extremely racially polarized, as you might have guessed. A lot of black people believed at the time that Simpson was innocent (probably fewer now, given subsequent events). A lot of white people thought he was obviously guilty and was let off by a black jury for racial reasons. My personal opinion, prior to reading this book, was a common "third way" among white liberals: Simpson almost certainly committed the murders, but the racist Los Angeles police department decided to frame him for a crime that he did commit by trying to make the evidence stronger. That's a legitimate reason in the US justice system for finding someone innocent: the state has an obligation to follow correct procedure and treat the defendant fairly in order to get a conviction. I have a strong bias towards trusting juries; frequently, it seems that the media second-guesses the outcome of a case that makes perfect sense as soon as you see all the information the jury had (or didn't have).

Toobin's book changed my mind. Perhaps because I wasn't watching all of the coverage, I was greatly underestimating the level of incompetence and bad decision-making by everyone involved: the prosecution, the defense, the police, the jury, and the judge. This court case was a disaster from start to finish; no one involved comes away looking good. Simpson was clearly guilty given the evidence presented, but the case was so badly mishandled that it gave the jury room to reach the wrong verdict. (It's telling that, in the far better managed subsequent civil case, the jury had no trouble reaching a guilty verdict.)

The Run of His Life is a very detailed examination of the entire Simpson case, from the night of the murder through the end of the trial and (in an epilogue) the civil case. Toobin was himself involved in the media firestorm, breaking some early news of the defense's decision to focus on race in The New Yorker and then involved throughout the trial as a legal analyst, and he makes it clear when he becomes part of the story. But despite that, this book felt objective to me. There are tons of direct quotes, lots of clear description of the evidence, underlying interviews with many of the people involved to source statements in the book, and a comprehensive approach to the facts. I think Toobin is a bit baffled by the black reaction to the case, and that felt like a gap in the comprehensiveness and the one place where he might be accused of falling back on stereotypes and easy judgments. But other than hole, Toobin applies his criticism even-handedly and devastatingly to all parties.

I won't go into all the details of how Toobin changed my mind. It was a cumulative effect across the whole book, and if you're curious, I do recommend reading it. A lot was the detailed discussion of the forensic evidence, which was undermined for the jury at trial but looks very solid outside the hothouse of the case. But there is one critical piece that I would hope would be handled differently today, twenty years later, than it was by the prosecutors in that case: Simpson's history of domestic violence against Nicole. With what we now know about patterns of domestic abuse, the escalation to murder looks entirely unsurprising. And that history of domestic abuse was exceedingly well-documented: multiple external witnesses, police reports, and one actual prior conviction for spousal abuse (for which Simpson did "community service" that was basically a joke). The prosecution did a very poor job of establishing this history and the jury discounted it. That was a huge mistake by both parties.

I'll mention one other critical collection of facts that Toobin explains well and that contradicted my previous impression of the case: the relationship between Simpson and the police.

Today, in the era of Black Lives Matter, the routine abuse of black Americans by the police is more widely known. At the time of the murders, it was less recognized among white Americans, although black Americans certainly knew about it. But even in 1994, the Los Angeles police department was notorious as one of the most corrupt and racist big-city police departments in the United States. This is the police department that beat Rodney King. Mark Fuhrman, one of the police officers involved in the case (although not that significantly, despite his role at the trial), was clearly racist and had no business being a police officer. It was therefore entirely believable that these people would have decided to frame a black man for a murder he actually committed.

What Toobin argues, quite persuasively and with quite a lot of evidence, is that this analysis may make sense given the racial tensions in Los Angeles but ignores another critical characteristic of Los Angeles politics, namely a deference to celebrity. Prior to this trial, O.J. Simpson largely followed the path of many black athletes who become broadly popular in white America: underplaying race and focusing on his personal celebrity and connections. (Toobin records a quote from Simpson earlier in his life that perfectly captures this approach: "I'm not black, I'm O.J.") Simpson spent more time with white businessmen than the black inhabitants of central Los Angeles. And, more to the point, the police treated him as a celebrity, not as a black man.

Toobin takes some time to chronicle the remarkable history of deference and familiarity that the police showed Simpson. He regularly invited police officers to his house for parties. The police had a long history of largely ignoring or downplaying his abuse of his wife, including not arresting him in situations that clearly seemed to call for that, showing a remarkable amount of deference to his side of the story, not pursuing clear violations of the court judgment after his one conviction for spousal abuse, and never showing much inclination to believe or protect Nicole. Even on the night of the murder, they started following a standard playbook for giving a celebrity advance warning of investigations that might involve them before the news media found out about them. It seems clear, given the evidence that Toobin collected, that the racist Los Angeles police didn't focus that animus at Simpson, a wealthy celebrity living in Brentwood. He wasn't a black man in their eyes; he was a rich Hall of Fame football player and a friend.

This obviously raises the question of how the jury could return an innocent verdict. Toobin provides plenty of material to analyze that question from multiple angles in his detailed account of the case, but I can tell you my conclusion: Judge Lance Ito did a horrifically incompetent job of managing the case. He let the lawyers wander all over the case, interacted bizarrely with the media coverage (and was part of letting the media turn it into a daytime drama), was not crisp or clear about his standards of evidence and admissibility, and, perhaps worst of all, let the case meander on at incredible length. With a fully sequestered jury allowed only brief conjugal visits and no media contact (not even bookstore shopping!).

Quite a lot of anger was focused on the jury after the acquittal, and I do think they reached the wrong conclusion and had all the information they would have needed to reach the correct one. But Toobin touches on something that I think would be very hard to comprehend without having lived through it. The jury and alternate pool essentially lived in prison for nine months, with guards and very strict rules about contact with the outside world, in a country where compensation for jury duty is almost nonexistent. There were a lot of other factors behind their decision, including racial tensions and the sheer pressure from judging a celebrity case about which everyone has an opinion, but I think it's nearly impossible to underestimate the psychological tension and stress from being locked up with random other people under armed guard for three quarters of a year. It's hard for jury members to do an exhaustive and careful deliberation in a typical trial that takes a week and doesn't involve sequestration. People want to get back to their lives and families. I can only imagine the state I would be in after nine months of this, or how poor psychological shape I would be in to make a careful and considered decision.

Similarly, for those who condemned the jury for profiting via books and media appearances after the trial, the current compensation for jurors is $15 per day (not hour). I believe at the time it was around $5 per day. There are a few employers who will pay full salary for the entire jury service, but only a few; many cap the length at a few weeks, and some employers treat all jury duty as unpaid leave. The only legal requirement for employers in the United States is that employees that serve on a jury have their job held for them to return to, but compensation is pathetic, not tied to minimum wage, and employers do not have to supplement it. I'm much less inclined to blame the jurors than the system that badly mistreated them.

As you can probably tell from the length of this review, I found The Run of His Life fascinating. If I had followed the whole saga more closely at the time, this may have been old material, but I think my vague impressions and patchwork of assumptions were more typical than not among people who were around for the trial but didn't invest a lot of effort into following it. If you are like me, and you have any interest in the case or the details of how the US criminal justice system works, this is a fascinating case study, and Toobin does a great job with it. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-07-02: Review: Coming Home

Review: Coming Home, by Jack McDevitt

Series Alex Benedict #7
Publisher Ace
Copyright November 2014
Printing November 2015
ISBN 0-425-26088-7
Format Mass market
Pages 356

Coming Home is a direct sequel to Firebird, the first time McDevitt has done that in this series. You therefore don't want to start here, although the nature of the sequel doesn't require that you remember Firebird in that much detail.

The mystery of the disappearing starships was understood in Firebird but not resolved. The title advertises that as a major theme in this book, but it progresses very slowly. There's more media bickering and various factional attempts to draw Alex (and, to a lesser extent, Chase) into the controversies. McDevitt does a good job writing popular media, the strange position of public intellectual and talk-show favorite, and the way this filters into popular arguments. But with Alex trying to take a nuanced and unsure position and with a lot of talk but little action, it's not the most compelling reading.

Coming Home holds to form in balancing a mystery and a second plot. Since the starship problem is understood, it can't be the central mystery of the book. That role is taken by the discovery of communication device from the very early days of space flight, which takes Alex and Chase to Earth for the first time in this series (at least that I can recall). This time, the search is for a legendary trove of historical artifacts that was moved from a space flight museum in Florida when the ocean rose to cover the state. From there, its location was lost in the middle of a general economic collapse called the Time of Troubles that destroyed most of Earth's governmental systems (and, apparently rather more importantly to McDevitt, the space program).

Anyone who has gotten this far in the series will know the standard problem with McDevitt's futures: they're indistinguishable from the 1960s except that they have flying cars. There is a tiny break from that tradition here, since climate change has clearly happened to Earth, covering Florida with the ocean and shifting the major cities north. But the sense of deep history that McDevitt is trying for in this series doesn't work: I just don't believe as much time has gone by as the story claims. He does offer an explanation for why technology has been stagnant for apparently millennia, but it's just a contention that science ran out of more things to discover due to authorial fiat and is now just a matter of engineering and step-wise refinement. (I think the science behind the disappearing starships happening in this very same book undermines that contention considerably.)

Even if one can put that aside, Earth is, well, boring. This is partly an intriguing stylistic choice by McDevitt: Earth is intended to be just one more world. It might have a longer history than many other human-occupied worlds, but history is so long everywhere that this only matters to a few people like Alex and Chase. The choice makes sense, but it doesn't make a good story. And there are other things that I flatly didn't believe, such as the supposed isolation of Earth from the communication network of Alex's home world of Rimway for... no apparent reason other than that different communication networks don't talk to each other except via, essentially, letters. Even if one is willing to ignore the mysterious failure of forward progress in technology, this makes no social or engineering sense given the capabilities already shown in the series.

I found the main mystery at best mildly interesting. McDevitt does a good job showing the research and investigation process, with all its tedium and dead ends, but I wasn't as invested in the search as he wanted me to be. The endless space boosterism started getting on my nerves, as it so often does in science fiction of a certain type, and I had a much harder time swallowing McDevitt's Earth than his fictional Rimway. I will give him credit for a surprisingly affecting conclusion of the main mystery, but the missing starship subplot putters to an undistinguished end.

I think this series is running out of steam. It's become increasingly formulaic, and the characters, like McDevitt's future technology, have stopped developing. I was hoping the reunion foreshadowed since Firebird would shake things up, but at least in this book it doesn't. Maybe it will in subsequent books, but I'm starting to question whether I really want to keep reading.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2016-07-01: Review: Ashes of Honor

Review: Ashes of Honor, by Seanan McGuire

Series October Daye #6
Publisher DAW
Copyright September 2012
ISBN 1-101-59480-2
Format Kindle
Pages 368

This is the sixth book in the October Daye series, contains payoffs for some relationships that have been building over the whole series, and involves entangled politics set up by previous books. It's not the place to start with the series.

Ashes of Honor starts, as so many of Toby's books do, with a friend asking her for help. But this request is entirely unexpected, and the help needed comes as a complete surprise: a previously unknown changeling, who has disappeared. A changeling whose powers are completely out of control, and who poses a threat to reality itself.

As Toby's cases go, this involves a lot fewer horrible things happening to her and a lot more faerie politics and maneuvering than usual. I appreciated that; I'm not as fond of the books that go deep into despair or desperation. It does involve Toby getting almost killed multiple times, but, due to earlier events of the series, that isn't quite as bad as it used to be. More focus on investigation and political maneuvering and less Toby braving her way through horrors works for me.

Even more notably, this book marks Toby finally figuring out that she has friends and allies who are there to help, not just be obligations she feels overwhelmed by or aid that she's not allowed to accept. This was one of her most frustrating characteristics; it's a relief to see her finally relax. This opens the way not only for deeper friendships and more complex plots but also a relationship that I've been awaiting for the entire series, and it's as much fun as I was hoping it would be. Toby started the series rather messed up and unwilling to let anyone close. It was for understandable reasons, but I like her better when she realizes why people respect her.

Toby's connections with the royalty of the Bay Area also allow McGuire to tell a political story that moves farther afield from the Shadowed Hills. First in One Salt Sea and now in Ashes of Honor we see more of local politics, more of the lore of McGuire's universe, and another dangerous queen. Toby is particularly fun when she's dangerously outflanking people with considerably more power than she has. At this point, you could call it a specialty. I thought McGuire's take on San Jose and the sort of person who would be in charge of its fae was on point.

We also get more of the Luidaeg, which is always a good sign for a Toby novel, and more of Tybalt, who is entangled in a major subplot of the story. Next to Luidaeg, Tybalt is my favorite of Toby's friends, so this book is full of the things that make me happy. McGuire adds some more pieces to her transplanted Celtic mythology and some tantalizing hints of what the fae have left behind. I'm hoping we see more of that in future books. (I suspect that may be what this whole series is building up to.)

The story doesn't have quite as much oomph as One Salt Sea, but it's still one of the best books in the series so far. If you've enjoyed the series up to this point, keep reading.

Followed by Chimes at Midnight.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-06-20: Review: Furiously Happy

Review: Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson

Publisher Flatiron
Copyright September 2015
ISBN 1-250-07700-1
Format Hardcover
Pages 329

Jenny Lawson, who blogs as The Bloggess, is best known for a combination of being extremely funny and being extremely open about her struggles with mental illness (a combination of anxiety and depression, alongside a few other problems). Her first book primarily told the story of her family, childhood, and husband. Furiously Happy is a more random and disconnected book, but insofar as it has a theme, it's about surviving depression, anxiety, and other manifestations of your brain being an asshole.

I described Lawson's previous book, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, as the closest thing I've found to a stand-up comedy routine in book form. Furiously Happy is very similar, but it lacks the cohesiveness of a routine. Instead, it feels like a blog collection: a pile of essays with only some vague themes and not a lot of continuity from essay to essay.

This doesn't surprise me. Second books are very different than first books, particularly second books by someone whose writing focus is not writing books, and particularly for non-fiction. I feel like Let's Pretend This Never Happened benefited from drawing on Lawson's full life experience to form the best book she could write. When that became wildly popular, everyone of course wanted a second book, including me. But when the writing is this personal, the second book is, out of necessity, partly leftovers. Lawson's recent experiences don't generate as much material as her whole life up to the point of the first book.

That said, there is a bit of a theme, and the title fits it. Early in the book, Lawson describes how, after the death of a friend and a bout of depression, she decided to be furiously, vehemently happy to get back at the universe, to spite its attempts to destroy her mood. It's one of the best bits in this book. The surrounding philosophy is about embracing the moment, enjoying the hell out of everything that one can enjoy, and taking a lot of chances.

A lot of the stories in this book come after the beginning of Lawson's fame and popularity. She has book tours, a vacation tour of Australia, and a community of people from her blog. That, of course, doesn't make the depression and anxiety any better; indeed, it provides a lot of material for her anxiety to work with. Lawson talks a lot about surviving, about how important that community is to her, about not believing your brain when it lies to you. This isn't as uniformly funny as her first book, and sometimes it feels a bit too much like an earnest pep talk. But there are also moments of insightful life philosophy mixed into the madcap adventures and stream-of-consciousness wild associations.

Lawson also does for anxiety what Allie Brosh does for depression: make the severe form of it relatable to people who have not suffered from it. I was particularly struck by her description of flying: the people around her are getting nervous and anxious as the plane starts to take off, and she's finally able to relax because her anxiety focused on all the things she had to do in order to get onto the right plane at the right time. Once she didn't have to make any decisions or do anything other than sit in one place, her anxiety let go. I don't have any type of clinical anxiety, but I was able to identify with that moment of relief and its contrast with anxiety in a deeper way than with other descriptions.

Furiously Happy is a bit more serious and earnest, and I'm not sure it worked as well. I liked Lawson's first book better; this felt more like a blog archive. But she's still funny, entertaining, and delightful, and I'm happy to support her with a book purchase. Start with either her blog or Let's Pretend This Never Happened if you're new to Lawson, but if you're already a fan, here's more of her writing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2016-06-14: Review: Matter

Review: Matter, by Iain M. Banks

Publisher Orbit
Copyright February 2008
ISBN 0-316-00536-3
Format Hardcover
Pages 593

Sursamen is an Arithmetic, Mottled, Disputed, Multiply Inhabited, Multi-million Year Safe, and Godded Shellworld. It's a constructed world with multiple inhabitable levels, each lit by thermonuclear "suns" on tracks, each level supported above the last by giant pillars. Before the recorded history of the current Involved Species, a culture called the Veil created the shellworlds with still-obscure technology for some unknown purpose, and then disappeared. Now, they're inhabited by various transplants and watched over by a hierarchy of mentor and client species. In the case of Sursamen, both the Aultridia and the Oct claim jurisdiction (hence "Disputed"), and are forced into an uneasy truce by the Nariscene, a more sophisticated species that oversees them both.

On Sursamen, on level eight to be precise, are the Sarl, a culture with an early industrial level of technology in the middle of a war of conquest to unite their level (and, they hope, the next level down). Their mentors are the Oct, who claim descendance from the mysterious Veil. The Deldeyn, the next level down, are mentored by the Aultridia, a species that evolved from a parasite on Xinthian Tensile Aranothaurs. Since a Xinthian, treated by the Sarl as a god, lives in the heart of Sursamen (hence "Godded"), tensions between the Sarl and the Aultridians run understandably high.

The ruler of the Sarl had three sons and a daughter. The oldest was killed by the people he is conquering as Matter starts. The middle son is a womanizer and a fop who, as the book opens, watches a betrayal that he's entirely unprepared to deal with. The youngest is a thoughtful, bookish youth pressed into a position that he also is not well-prepared for.

His daughter left the Sarl, and Sursamen itself, fifteen years previously. Now, she's a Special Circumstances agent for the Culture.

Matter is the eighth Culture novel, although (like most of the series) there's little need to read the books in any particular order. The introduction to the Culture here is a bit scanty, so you'll have more background and understanding if you've read the previous novels, but it doesn't matter a great deal for the story.

Sharp differences in technology levels have turned up in previous Culture novels (although the most notable example is a minor spoiler), but this is the first Culture novel I recall where those technological differences were given a structure. Usually, Culture novels have Special Circumstances meddling in, from their perspective, "inferior" cultures. But Sursamen is not in Culture space or directly the Culture's business. The Involved Species that governs Sursamen space is the Morthanveld: an aquatic species roughly on a technology level with the Culture themselves. The Nariscene are their client species; the Oct and Aultridia are, in turn, client species (well, mostly) of the Nariscene, while meddling with the Sarl and Deldeyn.

That part of this book reminded me of Brin's Uplift universe. Banks's Involved Species aren't the obnoxious tyrants of Brin's universe, and mentoring doesn't involve the slavery of the Uplift universe. But some of the politics are a bit similar. And, as with Uplift, all the characters are aware, at least vaguely, of the larger shape of galactic politics. Even the Sarl, who themselves have no more than early industrial technology. When Ferbin flees the betrayal to try to get help, he ascends out of the shellworld to try to get assistance from an Involved species, or perhaps his sister (which turns out to be the same thing). Banks spends some time here, mostly through Ferbin and his servant (who is one of the better characters in this book), trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a society that just invented railroads while being aware of interstellar powers that can do practically anything.

The plot, like the world on which it's set, proceeds on multiple levels. There is court intrigue within the Sarl, war on their level and the level below, and Ferbin's search for support and then justice. But the Sarl live in an artifact with some very mysterious places, including the best set piece in the book: an enormous waterfall that's gradually uncovering a lost city on the level below the Sarl, and an archaeological dig that proceeds under the Deldeyn and Sarl alike. Djan Seriy decides to return home when she learns of events in Sarl, originally for reasons of family loyalty and obligation, but she's a bit more in touch with the broader affairs of the galaxy, including the fact that the Oct are acting very strangely. There's something much greater at stake on Sursamen than tedious infighting between non-Involved cultures.

As always with Banks, the set pieces and world building are amazing, the scenery is jaw-dropping, and I have some trouble warming to the characters. Dramatic flights across tower-studded landscapes seeking access to forbidden world-spanning towers largely, but don't entirely, make up for not caring about most of the characters for most of the book. This did change, though: although I never particularly warmed to Ferbin, I started to like his younger brother, and I really liked his sister and his servant by the end of the book.

Unfortunately, the end of Matter is, if not awful, at least exceedingly abrupt. As is typical of Banks, we get a lot of sense of wonder but not much actual explanation, and the denouement is essentially nonexistent. (There is a coy epilogue hiding after the appendices, but it mostly annoyed me and provides only material for extrapolation about the characters.) Another SF author would have written a book about the Xinthian, the Veil, the purpose of the shellworlds, and the deep history of the galaxy. I should have known going in that Banks isn't that sort of SF author, but it was still frustrating.

Still, Banks is an excellent writer and this is a meaty, complex, enjoyable story with some amazing moments of wonder and awe. If you like Culture novels in general, you will like this. If you like set-piece-heavy SF on a grand scale, such as Alastair Reynolds or Kim Stanley Robinson, you probably like this. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-05-30: Review: By the Sword

Review: By the Sword, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Vows and Honor #4
Publisher DAW
Copyright February 1991
ISBN 0-88677-463-2
Format Mass market
Pages 492

By the Sword is the next book in my (slow) Valdemar re-read. This one is a bit hard to classify in the series; it's technically a stand-alone novel, and it doesn't require a lot of prior series knowledge. But the heroine, Kerowyn, is a relative of Tarma and Kethry, and Tarma and Kethry appear in this novel. Most of the book also deals with similar themes as the rest of the Tarma and Kethry books, even though it's also a bridge into Valdemar proper. I'm going to follow Fantastic Fiction and call it book four of the Vows and Honor series, even though the publisher doesn't refer to it that way and it's not strictly correct. I think that creates the right impression, and it's mildly better to read the other Tarma and Kethry novels first.

This book is also a bit confusing for reading order. It was published just before the Mage Winds trilogy, and happens before them in series chronological order (between that trilogy and the Talia series). But some of the chronologies in some of the Valdemar books show it after the Mage Winds trilogy. I think I originally read it afterwards, but both natural reading order and publication order puts it first, and that's the ordering I followed this time.

Series ordering trivia aside (sometimes the comic book shared universe continuity geek in me raises its head), By the Sword is a hefty, self-contained novel about a very typical Lackey protagonist. Kerowyn is the daughter of a noble house, largely ignored by her father in favor of her brother and tasked with keeping the keep running since her mother died. She wants to learn to fight and ride, but that's not part of her father's plans for her. But those plans become suddenly irrelevant when the keep is attacked during her brother's wedding and the bride kidnapped. Unless someone at least attempts to recover her, this will be taken as an excuse for conquest of the keep by the bride's family.

(Spoilers for the start of the book in the following paragraph. I think the outcomes are reasonably obvious given the type of book this is, but skip it if you don't want to know anything about the plot.)

If you're familiar with Lackey's musical work (most probably won't be, but you might if you follow filk), "Kerowyn's Ride" is the start of this book. Kerowyn goes to her grandmother Kethry, who is semi-legendary to Kerowyn but well-known to readers of the rest of the series. From Kethry, she acquires Need; with Need's help, she improbably manages to rescue her brother's bride. It seems like a happy ending, but it completely disrupts and destroys her life. Her role as hero does not fit any of the expectations the remaining members of the household have for her. But it also gives her an escape: she ends up as Tarma and Kethry's student, learning all the things about fighting she'd craved to learn and preparing for a life as a mercenary.

Quite a few adventures follow, all of which are familiar to Lackey readers and particularly to readers of the Tarma and Kethry books. But I think this is one of Lackey's better-written books. The pacing is reasonably good despite the length of the book, Kerowyn is a likable and interesting character, and I like the pragmatism and practicalities that Lackey brings to sword and sorcery mercenary groups. In style and subject matter, it's the closest to Oathbreakers, which was also my favorite of the Tarma and Kethry novels.

By the Sword is both the natural conclusion of the Tarma and Kethry era and arc, and vital foundational material for what I think of as the "core" Valdemar story: Elspeth's adventures during Selany's reign, which start in the Mage Winds trilogy immediately following this. Kerowyn becomes a vital supporting character in the rest of the story, and Need is hugely important in events to come. But even if you're not as invested in the overall Valdemar story arc as I am, this is solid, if a bit predictable and unspectacular, sword and sorcery writing presented in a meaty and satisfying novel with a good coming-of-age story.

This is one of my favorites of the Valdemar series as measured by pure story-telling. There are other books that provide more interesting lore and world background, but there are few characters I like as well as Kerowyn, and I find the compromise she reaches with Need delightful. If you liked Oathbreakers, I'm pretty sure you'd like this as well. And, of course, recommended if you're reading the whole Valdemar series as a fairly key link in the plot and a significant bridge between the Heralds and Tarma and Kethry's world, a bridge that Elspeth is about to cross in the other direction.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-05-29: Review: Empires of EVE

Review: Empires of EVE, by Andrew Groen

Publisher Andrew Groen
Copyright 2015
Printing 2016
ISBN 0-9909724-0-2
Format Hardcover
Pages 171

The version of this book I read was the hardcover Kickstarter campaign reward, since I was a backer. I believe it's the same as the hardcover currently available for sale from the author's site for those who didn't back the project. There are also softcover and Kindle versions. I've lost track of whether they have less sidebar content, or just less high-quality artwork.

EVE Online ("EVE" is not an acronym, just the developer's way of writing the name, so you'll also see "Eve" both for the game and for this book) is a massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game (MMORPG) based on interstellar mining, manufacturing, and combat. Its Icelandic developer takes a different, more emergent approach than most MMORPG developers: rather than fill the world exclusively with pre-scripted adventures and enemies (although there is some of that for those who want it), vast regions of EVE's world are left open to the players to govern, exploit, or fight over as they see fit. Player versus player combat plays a large role in that aspect of the game, and many actions that would be prohibited or made impossible in other games (stealing from other players, betrayals, tricking other players into fatal situations) are permitted and sometimes core components of the game. EVE is best-known for its economy, which is almost entirely player-driven and requires extensive mining and manufacturing work by large teams of players to build the largest and most powerful ships in the game.

Empires of EVE is an unusual type of book, one that I'm not sure would have been possible ten years ago. Subtitled "a history of the great wars of EVE Online," it's a history of a virtual world, but not one sponsored by the developer or part of the marketing or lore of the game. I love seeing this (which is also why I backed the Kickstarter). Video games have developed beyond just games to play into games to watch other people play (successfully competing, for me and for many others, for the role previously filled by professional sports), and now into emergent events that are complex enough, and dramatic enough, to warrant their own third-party history. I was quite surprised and delighted by how broad the audience for this sort of writing is.

And this is not a shallow effort. Andrew Groen is a freelance writer who does not, himself, play EVE. He approaches the complex political and in-game fighting with the attitude of a reporter and historian, cites sources (to the standards I would expect for long-form journalism, if not quite at the level of academic history), discloses where history has been lost or one side of some fight could not be contacted, and puts substantial effort into explaining the political strengths and weaknesses of the shifting in-game alliances. It's a proper political history of an imaginary world, including objective (so far as I can tell) reporting of times when developers were accused of assisting one of the factions.

If, like me, you don't play EVE and are primarily interested in this book to get a feel for the game, there are a few caveats to be aware of. EVE is divided into regions with game-enforced security levels. The ones near the center of the game galaxy are heavily policed by the game to prevent most of the player versus player combat and let new players get their feet. Those regions also offer various built-in missions that don't require interacting with other players. As one moves out from that central area, the game-provided security (and I believe the game-provided interactions) drops off. Empires of EVE deals exclusively with nullsec space: the outer regions of the game where the richest resources are, and where there is no law or policing except what's done by the players themselves. The game here, and as described in the book, is relentlessly blood-thirsty, but this isn't representative of the entire game.

Second, most of this book is devoted to ship-to-ship combat and missions of conquest and reprisal. But combat is built on top of a vast "civilian" infrastructure of mining and manufacturing, and there are players who focus on those aspects of the game and rarely, if ever, fight. Groen talks about this in passing, since it can have significant influence on the politics of the game, but spends little time describing the day-to-day life in the game for those players. The focus here is on the resulting combat.

Finally, Groen starts his history at the EVE beta in 2003 but ends it in 2009. Maneuvering and wars have, of course, continued ever since, but he has to stop somewhere. As he mentioned during the Kickstarter, it takes some years for events to become history, and for people to be willing to talk about them. The developer has kept changing the game, so some of the mechanics here will be mildly stale and the current political alliances are quite likely far different (although many of the players discussed in this book are still playing).

With those caveats, though, this is a fascinating book, even if this isn't your sort of game. Personally, I have a deep-seated dislike of games like Diplomacy where alliances, betrayal, and political maneuvering is sanctioned and encouraged by the game. I've never played EVE and I can't imagine ever wanting to, particularly after reading this book. But it's still a fascinating war history and analysis of slightly skew human politics. The alliances and backstabbing are reminiscent of real human history, but the game setting adds some significant twists: players can just quit if they're not having fun, the largest threat to strong alliances is players just not bothering to show up because they're not having fun or because the risk is too high, and without the stability and momentum of real-world institutions, in-game corporations and alliances can collapse overnight when players lose faith in them. From a distance, it's quite entertaining to see how those factors reshape politics and propaganda. (If sadly somewhat reminiscent of the sort of personalities that killed Usenet. I shouldn't have been surprised that organized Internet trolls made an appearance in EVE, although the nature of EVE politics meant they fit right in rather than doing much to spoil other people's fun, at least in nullsec.)

I can't speak to the other formats, but the hardcover is also a gorgeous book. The artwork isn't quite my style, and the in-game screen shots are a bit muddy and confusing (not Groen's fault), but the maps are clear and invaluable, the propaganda posters are amazing, and the hardcover printing is clearly of a very high quality. I felt like I got my $50 worth in terms of presentation and quality printing, and have a book that isn't going to fall apart in a few years. The one quibble that I have is that Groen picked a fairly thin and light font for the main text, which my eyes had some trouble with on high-gloss paper. Something thicker and darker may not have looked as good on the page, but it would have been easier to read. The font choice for the sidebars was a lovely high-contrast white on black, but I would have appreciated something a bit larger. If you have vision issues, you may find the ebook more readable, if not as beautiful.

Empires of EVE has apparently been very successful within its niche, which makes me happy. I would love to read more books of this type. I know I'm not the only person who grew up with gaming but has been increasingly drawn into watching other people game or reading about other people game. I love watching or reading about people who have put the effort into becoming very good at something they love, and when that comes with emergent history, creative propaganda, and a lot of assholes to root against (although sadly not many people to root for), the history of EVE makes compelling reading, at least for me. Recommended if this is at all your sort of thing; the ebook version of the book is fairly inexpensive.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-05-28: Another small book haul

Book reading is happening, and more book review posting will be happening. I'm a bit behind in writing reviews, but the holiday weekend is a good opportunity to do a bit of catching up.

In the meantime, here are some new acquisitions:

Roxanne J. Coady & Joy Johannessen (ed.) — The Books That Changed My Life (nonfiction)
James S.A. Corey — Caliban's War (sff)
James S.A. Corey — Abaddon's Gate (sff)
Max Gladstone — Full Fathom Five (sff)
Max Gladstone — Last First Snow (sff)
N.K. Jemisin — The Fifth Season (sff)
Guy Gavriel Kay — Children of Earth and Sky (sff)
Naomi Novik — Uprooted (sff)
Ada Palmer — Too Like the Lightning (sff)
Graydon Saunders — Safely You Deliver (sff)
Neal Stephenson — Seveneves (sff)
Jeff VanderMeer — Annihilation (sff)

This is mostly catching up on books that were nominated for awards. I want to read the (legitimate) nominees for Hugo best novel this year if I can find the time, and VanderMeer won the Nebula last year. The rest of Gladstone's series to date was on sale, and I really liked the first book. And of course a new Guy Gavriel Kay is buy on sight.

I'm currently re-reading The Sarantine Mosaic, since I read that before I started writing reviews and Children of Earth and Sky is apparently set in historical contact with it. (It's possible all of Kay's historical fantasies are set in the same universe, but they're usually fairly disconnected.)

2016-05-15: Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Series Vorkosigan #15
Publisher Baen
Copyright 2015
Printing February 2016
ISBN 1-4767-8122-2
Format Kindle
Pages 352

This is very late in the Vorkosigan series, but it's also a return to a different protagonist and a change of gears to a very different type of story. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen has Cordelia as a viewpoint character for, I believe, the first time since Barrayar, very early in the series. But you would still want to read the intermediate Miles books before this one given the nature of the story Bujold is telling here. It's a very character-centric, very quiet story that depends on the history of all the Vorkosigan characters and the connection the reader has built up with them. I think you have to be heavily invested in this series already to get that much out of this book.

The protagonist shift has a mildly irritating effect: I've read the whole series, but I was still a bit adrift at times because of how long it's been since I read the books focused on Cordelia. I only barely remember the events of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, which lay most of the foundations of this story. Bujold does have the characters retell them a bit, enough to get vaguely oriented, but I'm pretty sure I missed some subtle details that I wouldn't have if the entire series were fresh in memory. (Oh for the free time to re-read all of the series I'd like to re-read.)

Unlike recent entries in this series, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is not about politics, investigations, space (or ground) combat, war, or any of the other sources of drama that have shown up over the course series. It's not even about a wedding. The details (and sadly even the sub-genre) are all spoilers, both for this book and for the end of Cryoburn, so I can't go into many details. But I'm quite curious how the die-hard Baen fans would react to this book. It's a bit far afield from their interests.

Gentleman Jole is all about characters: about deciding what one wants to do with one's life, about families and how to navigate them, about boundaries and choices. Choices about what to communicate and what not to communicate, and, partly, about how to maintain sufficient boundaries against Miles to keep his manic energy from bulldozing into things that legitimately aren't any of his business. Since most of the rest of the series is about Miles poking into things that appear to not be his business and finding ways to fix things, it's an interesting shift. It also cast Cordelia in a new light for me: a combination of stability, self-assurance, and careful and thoughtful navigation around others' feelings. Not a lot happens in the traditional plot sense, so one's enjoyment of this book lives or dies on one's investment in the mundane life of the viewpoint characters. It worked for me.

There is also a substantial retcon or reveal about an aspect of Miles's family that hasn't previously been mentioned. (Which term you use depends on whether you think Bujold has had this in mind all along. My money is on reveal.) I suspect some will find this revelation jarring and difficult to believe, but it worked perfectly for me. It felt like exactly the sort of thing that would go unnoticed by the other characters, particularly Miles: something that falls neatly into his blind spots and assumptions, but reads much differently to Cordelia. In general, one of the joys of this book for me is seeing Miles a bit wrong-footed and maneuvered by someone who simply isn't willing to be pushed by him.

One of the questions the Vorkosigan series has been asking since the start is whether anyone can out-maneuver Miles. Ekaterin only arguably managed it, but Gentleman Jole makes it clear that Miles is no match for his mother on her home turf.

This is a quiet and slow book that doesn't feel much like the rest of the series, but it worked fairly well for me. It's not up in the ranks of my favorite books of this series, partly because the way it played out was largely predictable and I never quite warmed to Jole, but Cordelia is delightful and seeing Miles from an outside perspective is entertaining. An odd entry in the series, but still recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2016-05-08: BookRiot's SF/F by Female Authors

A list by Nikki Steele of the 100 best SF and fantasy novels by female authors (in her subjective take), published on BookRiot, has been making the rounds, with people noting which of those they've read. These crop up from time to time, and I've always been tempted to do the work to track the list over time the way that I track award winners. I had some free time this afternoon, so went ahead and set that up (although I badly need to refactor or rewrite a lot of my review posting code).

An extra advantage is that I can publish the list as a separate web page so that I don't spam RSS readers with a huge list.

The list, annotated with ratings and reviews where I've read the books, is under the reviews section of my web site. As I have time, I may add more lists. I'm also (slowly) working on the project of adding all the nominees for major awards and annotating those, since often the short lists contain a lot of interesting material too.

One big caveat for this list: Steele only lists the first book of series, and in many cases the first book isn't very good and is far from the best of the series. So you'll see some anomalous low ratings here for first books that improve later on.

Last modified and spun 2016-09-25