Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2017-02-19: Haul via parents

My parents were cleaning out a bunch of books they didn't want, so I grabbed some of the ones that looked interesting. A rather wide variety of random stuff. Also, a few more snap purchases on the Kindle even though I've not been actually finishing books recently. (I do have two finished and waiting for me to write reviews, at least.) Who knows when, if ever, I'll read these.

Mark Ames — Going Postal (nonfiction)
Catherine Asaro — The Misted Cliffs (sff)
Ambrose Bierce — The Complete Short Stores of Ambrose Bierce (collection)
E. William Brown — Perilous Waif (sff)
Joseph Campbell — A Hero with a Thousand Faces (nonfiction)
Jacqueline Carey — Miranda and Caliban (sff)
Noam Chomsky — 9-11 (nonfiction)
Noam Chomsky — The Common Good (nonfiction)
Robert X. Cringely — Accidental Empires (nonfiction)
Neil Gaiman — American Gods (sff)
Neil Gaiman — Norse Mythology (sff)
Stephen Gillet — World Building (nonfiction)
Donald Harstad — Eleven Days (mystery)
Donald Harstad — Known Dead (mystery)
Donald Harstad — The Big Thaw (mystery)
James Hilton — Lost Horizon (mainstream)
Spencer Johnson — The Precious Present (nonfiction)
Michael Lerner — The Politics of Meaning (nonfiction)
C.S. Lewis — The Joyful Christian (nonfiction)
Grigori Medredev — The Truth about Chernobyl (nonfiction)
Tom Nadeu — Seven Lean Years (nonfiction)
Barak Obama — The Audacity of Hope (nonfiction)
Ed Regis — Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition (nonfiction)
Fred Saberhagen — Berserker: Blue Death (sff)
Al Sarrantonio (ed.) — Redshift (sff anthology)
John Scalzi — Fuzzy Nation (sff)
John Scalzi — The End of All Things (sff)
Kristine Smith — Rules of Conflict (sff)
Henry David Thoreau — Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (nonfiction)
Alan W. Watts — The Book (nonfiction)
Peter Whybrow — A Mood Apart (nonfiction)

I've already read (and reviewed) American Gods, but didn't own a copy of it, and that seemed like a good book to have a copy of.

The Carey and Brown were snap purchases, and I picked up a couple more Scalzi books in a recent sale.

2017-01-31: Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Series Wayfarers #2
Publisher Harper Voyager
Copyright October 2016
ISBN 0-06-256942-2
Format Kindle
Pages 384

A Closed and Common Orbit has two threads, one that takes place twenty years in the past and one that happens simultaneously with the very end of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. That second part is the motivating plot thread, but it's unfortunately impossible to talk about in any depth without seriously spoiling the previous book. You could otherwise read them out of order, but I think the previous book is too good to spoil, so you want to carefully avoid reading any descriptions of this book until after you've read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Per my normal review policy, I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but just about everything about half of this book would give away spoilers if you're paying attention. So you may want to just go read the other book before reading this review. (It's excellent!)

The part that I can safely say is that half this book is about Pepper, her partner Blue, Pepper's store and Blue's art, and her attempt to help a friend find a place and a sense of identity that she'd never asked for or expected, while keeping a very dangerous secret. That friend starts somewhat passive, but one of the things I liked the most about this story is that Pepper is neither always right in her advice nor always wrong. Sidra is wrong about some of the limitations that she thinks she has and some of the things she thinks she wants, but she's also right about other things where Pepper is wrong. She has a complicated, careful, and courageous journey.

The best part of this book for me, though, was the other half, told in alternating chapters with Sidra's story. This is Pepper's own backstory, which is rather awful (although Chambers does avoid being too graphic about the most horrible parts), but is also an amazing story of someone finding her own power, her own skills, and her own identity. And building a relationship that's something quite special. At first, this seems only vaguely related to Sidra's story and the other half of the book, but they both come together in a way that's both heartbreaking and wonderful.

I found this story particularly wonderful because one of my favorite SF tropes is sentient computers or sentient ships, which play a significant role in Pepper's backstory. And one of my favorite characters to read about is the technician who can cobble together fixes to things and who is always finding something to repair. Pepper is a delight, her story explains so much about how she became the person she is (and adds so much emotional heft to it), and she has a relentless, practical determination that I loved reading about.

A Closed and Common Orbit doesn't have the sprawling cast of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The story is tightly focused on five characters. I think I liked that even better than the previous book, even when I was finding Sidra a bit too passive and not as interesting. Chambers's characters have so much depth, thoughtfulness, and basic decency, while still being uniquely themselves, that I feel like I could read about them for months and keep uncovering new, interesting facets. I particularly loved the occasional excerpts from the chat system where Pepper hangs out (and would have loved about three times more of them). Speaking as someone who spends a lot of time in chat, Chambers got the tone just about perfect.

Just about the only complaint I have about this book is that I thought the ending was too abrupt. It's so important, the climax of Pepper's story and a hugely significant piece of character development, and I wanted more than the short scene and aftermath we got. I really wanted to spend some time feeling with the characters, savoring the emotional release. Another three or four pages would have been greatly appreciated.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a happy surprise in 2015. A Closed and Common Orbit is fully as good, if not better. If you liked the previous book, you will definitely want to read this. I pre-ordered it and then read it within months after it was released, something that I almost never do. I can hardly wait to read whatever Chambers writes next.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2017-01-26: Review: Summer in Orcus

Review: Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher Red Wombat Studio
Copyright 2016
ASIN B01N26G2I0
Format Web serial
Pages 268

In September, Ursula Vernon started posting Summer in Orcus as a web serial, funded by her Patreon supporters. The entire story is now complete and available on-line for free, which is how I read it, but it's also available as an ebook from the expected places if you prefer to read it that way. The ebook publication lists T. Kingfisher as the author, Vernon's pen name for her books for adults. While I would have been happy to read this book as a kid, it does have one fairly gruesome chapter, which is probably the reason for that choice.

Summer is eleven, and her mother loves her very much. So much so that she's never allowed to do anything even slightly risky, and she spends quite a lot of her time and emotional energy reassuring her mother, dealing with the burden of that suffocating love, and helping her through her bad days. Then, one day, a house with giant chicken feet walks into the alley behind her house.

Summer in Orcus is a portal fantasy. It's the story of how Summer meets Baba Yaga and asks for her heart's desire, finds herself in the magical country of Orcus, and is desperately moved by the plight of a frog tree. It has a talking weasel and a werehouse and antelope women who are not to be trusted, and it's about Summer making friends her mother would never have approved of and learning what she's capable of, and about doing what one can to put things right.

Even though it may appear that way at times, Summer in Orcus is not really a book about large things. It's not a saving the world sort of portal fantasy. And it's not really a wish fulfillment portal fantasy, because heart's desires are complicated and subtle. It's a story about being scared and tired and lost, and about making friends, and doing the things one can do rather than learning how to be a completely different person. The plot itself is not particularly complex, but the joy of this story is in all the small things.

Vernon's writing is an absolute delight. Summer in Orcus is packed with sentences and paragraphs that I just want to read again and again and quote at people.

Summer had never had a father, and wasn’t entirely sure what you did with one, and certainly her mother never had anything good to say about the one Summer didn’t have.

Or:

The house lifted its back end up and inched forward a little, like a dog wanting to play. This must have made the floors tilt inside, because Summer heard a banging and sliding of furniture and Baba Yaga yelled, "Fool house! I’ll trade you in for one with turtle feet and a three-car garage!" The house sank back down, but wiggled forward a little more, until the front door was only a few feet away.

Vernon mentions in her author notes at the end that Summer in Orcus started as a place to put a whole bunch of fragmentary ideas that she'd come up with but that didn't seem to fit into other stories, and it does have a bit of a grand tour feel to it. But unlike a lot of grand tour figures, the protagonist is not at all bland. Summer is entirely believable and very sympathetic, torn between wanting a grand adventure and being afraid of circumstance and danger entirely outside of her limited experience. She channels the reader's awe and delight, but is still very much her own person, trying to figure out who she wants to be and believe in without the stifling presence of her mother.

The tour nature of the story does mean that some things weren't explored as deeply as I would have liked. I would dearly love to read more about the dogs, for instance. I also have to admit that Zultan's motives never made sense to me, even after they were explained, and I found him an odd and weirdly random character to the end. But Glorious is, well, glorious, and I utterly adored the bits with the Forester. The ending is highly unusual for a story of this sort, and I thought it was wonderful, with a great symbolic tie back to the start of the story. The aftermath is even better, including Summer standing firm against one of the tropes of portal fantasies that I dislike the most.

This is a great story, with some excellent writing. If you're anything like me, once you read the first chapter you won't want to stop (and since it's all available on the web for free, there's no reason to stop). Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-01-14: Review: Enchanters' End Game

Review: Enchanters' End Game, by David Eddings

Series The Belgariad #5
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright December 1984
Printing February 1990
ISBN 0-345-33871-5
Format Mass market
Pages 372

And, finally, the conclusion towards which everything has been heading, and the events for which Castle of Wizardry was the preparation. (This is therefore obviously not the place to start with this series.) Does it live up to all the foreshadowing and provide a satisfactory conclusion? I'd say mostly. The theology is a bit thin, but Eddings does a solid job of bringing all the plot threads together and giving each of the large cast a moment to shine.

Enchanters' End Game (I have always been weirdly annoyed by that clunky apostrophe) starts with more of Garion and Belgarath, and, similar to the end of Castle of Wizardry, this feels like them rolling on the random encounter table. There is a fairly important bit with Nadraks at the start, but the remaining detour to the north is a mostly unrelated bit of world-building. Before this re-read, I didn't remember how extensive the Nadrak parts of this story were; in retrospect, I realize a lot of what I was remembering is in the Mallorean instead. I'll therefore save my commentary on Nadrak gender roles for an eventual Mallorean re-read, since there's quite a lot to dig through and much of it is based on information not available here.

After this section, though, the story leaves Garion, Belgarath, and Silk for nearly the entire book, returning to them only for the climax. Most of this book is about Ce'Nedra, the queens and kings of the west, and what they're doing while Garion and his small party are carrying the Ring into Mordor— er, you know what I mean.

And this long section is surprisingly good. We first get to see the various queens of the west doing extremely well managing the kingdoms while the kings are away (see my previous note about how Eddings does examine his stereotypes), albeit partly by mercilessly exploiting the sexism of their societies. The story then picks up with Ce'Nedra and company, including all of the rest of Garion's band, being their snarky and varied selves. There are some fairly satisfying set pieces, some battle tactics, some magical tactics, and a good bit of snarking and interplay between characters who feel like old friends by this point (mostly because of Eddings's simple, broad-strokes characterization).

And Ce'Nedra is surprisingly good here. I would say that she's grown up after the events of the last book, but sadly she reverts to being awful in the aftermath. But for the main section of the book, partly because she's busy with other things, she's a reasonable character who experiences some actual consequences and some real remorse from one bad decision she makes. She's even admirable in how she handles events leading up to the climax of the book.

Eddings does a good job showing every character in their best light, putting quite a lot of suspense (and some dramatic rescues) into this final volume, and providing a final battle that's moderately interesting. I'm not sure I entirely bought the theological ramifications of the conclusion (the bits with Polgara do not support thinking about too deeply), but the voice in Garion's head continues to be one of the better characters of the series. And Errand is a delight.

After the climax, the aftermath sadly returns to Eddings's weird war between the sexes presentation of all gender relationships in this series, and it left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. (There is absolutely no way that some of these relationships would survive in reality.) Eddings portrays nearly every woman as a manipulative schemer, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil, and there is just so much gender stereotyping throughout this book for both women and men. You can tell he's trying with the queens, but women are still only allowed to be successful at politics and war within a very specific frame. Even Polgara gets a bit of the gender stereotyping, although she remains mostly an exception (and one aspect of the ending is much better than it could have been).

Ah well. One does not (or at least probably should not) read this series without being aware that it has some flaws. But it has a strange charm as well, mostly from its irreverence. The dry wise-cracking of these characters rings more true to me than the epic seriousness of a lot of fantasy. This is how people behave under stress, and this is how quirky people who know each other extremely well interact. It also keeps one turning the pages quite effectively. I stayed up for several late nights finishing it, and was never tempted to put it down and stop reading.

This is not great literature, but it's still fun. It wouldn't sustain regular re-reading for me, but a re-read after twenty years or so was pretty much exactly the experience I was hoping for: an unchallenging, optimistic story with amusing characters and a guaranteed happy ending. There's a place for that.

Followed, in a series sense, by the Mallorean, the first book of which is The Guardians of the West. But this is a strictly optional continuation; the Belgariad comes to a definite end here.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-01-02: Review: Castle of Wizardry

Review: Castle of Wizardry, by David Eddings

Series The Belgariad #4
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright May 1984
Printing September 1991
ISBN 0-345-33570-8
Format Mass market
Pages 373

Castle of Wizardry is the fourth book of the Belgariad and very much the middle of the story. Despite coming after an intermediate climax, this isn't the sort of series you can start in the middle.

The problem with intermediate climaxes in a long series is that the next book can be a bit of a let-down as the characters do the necessary regrouping and reorienting and determine next steps. I think that hurts Castle of Wizardry quite a lot. The best bits are at the beginning, as the party escapes the consequences of Magician's Gambit, collects one more party member, shows us a lot more of Errand (who is always delightful), and confounds Relg's life and world view considerably. (Although there's a good bit of authorial fiat in the last.) This builds into a major story event, which would normally help avoid the let-down after the climax, but it's the major story event that is so frequently and obviously foreshadowed that you'd have to be as dumb as, well, Garion to not know what's coming. That gives a certain "yes, yes, we know already" tone to proceedings that robs it of its ability to rebuild tension.

That said, the appeal of this series continues to be in the small details. While the first major event of this book goes pretty much as expected (including Ce'Nedra's reaction, which is just as irritating as you might be expecting), my favorite part was the endless, bubbly enthusiasm of the incredibly powerful artifact that features heavily. Usually epic fantasy will treat such world-breaking objects with seriousness and awe, as treasures to be admired and sacred (or terrifying) great works. See, for instance, the ur-example of Tolkien's rings, both the One Ring and the elven rings of power. Eddings manages a mix of awe and bemusement that doesn't undermine their power but that adds a delightful human element. This series pulls off treating a powerful magical artifact like an over-enthusiastic puppy without making it feel any less dangerous. It's a very neat, and I think underappreciated, trick to pull off.

Another part of this book I liked, if a more stock one, is Garion's reactions after the big story event. This isn't the first book to portray basic decency and thoughtfulness as a major feature in people from humble backgrounds elevated to great power, but I always enjoy seeing that. Garion stops whining (mostly) and starts acting like a decent, level-headed person who doesn't assume he has the right to arrange other people's lives, and is rewarded for it. Real life is often not that fair or ethical, but that's why one reads wish-fulfillment fantasy like this: for a world in which being a good person is rewarded.

However, Eddings does have some structural issues here. The narrative arc of this book, as a stand-alone entity, is odd. Its most dramatic event is in the middle, and then has a long traveling section that's, by comparison, much less exciting. The events of that section feel more like random encounters than a coherent part of the story, and are preceded by the most utterly ridiculous temper tantrums. I think the tantrums were meant to be pure humor, but my reaction was primarily eye-rolling. I have a hard time reconciling a screaming fit and breaking furniture with the long life experience and thoughtful planning of the character in question.

And then there is the Ce'Nedra section that closes this book, and Ce'Nedra in this book more generally.

To be fair, Castle of Wizardry is clearly intended to be Ce'Nedra's moment to grow as a person and stop being a childish brat. This does happen somewhat, and there are moments in the last section of the book where she does admirable things. But I couldn't quite believe in the mechanism, and it doesn't help that it's one of the most ham-handed bits of pre-ordained success in a book that has a tendency towards them. That undermines the real attempts Eddings makes to ground that success in Ce'Nedra's actual skills. Also undermining this is that those skills are manipulating people shamelessly, which Eddings seems to think is charming and attractive and I... don't.

But the real problem is that I flatly disbelieve in Ce'Nedra as a character, or, given the apparent existence of such a creature, the level of tolerance that other characters show her. If I'd been Polgara, within fifteen minutes of meeting her I would have been seriously debating whether the destruction of the world might be a small price to pay for the satisfaction of dumping her down the nearest well. And not only is she awful by herself but Garion also descends to the same level whenever he's around her, until both of them are behaving like blithering idiots.

I suspect part of my issue is that, to the extent that she is realistic at all, Ce'Nedra is the sort of intensely high-drama person who I have some amount of life experience with, and that life experience says "do not let this person anywhere near your life." Red flags all over everything. Garion needs to nope the hell out, because this will not end well. (Except, of course, it will, because it's that sort of series and the power of the author is strong.)

I want female characters with real agency in my fantasy, and I want a female protagonist who is doing things of equal importance as the male protagonist (not that Eddings attempts to go that far). But Ce'Nedra reads like a fictional character written by someone who had never met a woman, but has extensively studied female supporting characters in books about junior-high social cliques and then tried to reconcile that research with the stereotype of women as manipulative seductresses. Yes, this series is full of stereotypes and characters painted in broad strokes, but Ce'Nedra is several tiers below every other supporting character in the book in both believability and in my desire to read about her.

It's not that Eddings doesn't know how to write women at all. Polgara still falls into a few stereotyped categories, but she's sensible, opinionated, and has clear agency throughout the story. Taiba is delightful, if minor here. Poledra is absolutely wonderful whenever she appears. Some of the queens are obviously practical and sensible. And this book features a surprisingly good resolution to the subplot around Barak's wife, although the mechanism is a bit eye-rollingly cliched. Ce'Nedra's character is unusual for the series and almost certainly a deliberate authorial choice, and this book is supposed to be her coming of age. But I am baffled by that choice, and there's very little about it that I enjoyed reading.

One more minor complaint: Silk gets a "tragic secret" in this book, and I really wish he hadn't. More time with Silk is always a feature, and I still love the character, but his oddities were already adequately explained by both his innate character and his way of dealing with a particularly awkward court situation. (One that ties into Eddings's habit of using some bad relationship stereotypes, but that's a rant for another day.) I think this additional tragic secret was gratuitous and really unnecessary, not to mention weirdly implausible and oddly cruel towards the other character involved.

I was hoping that Magician's Gambit had turned a corner for the series, but Castle of Wizardry, despite having some neat moments, has some serious flaws. One more book to go, in which we learn that some of the eastern races have redeeming qualities!

Followed by Enchanter's End Game.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2017-01-02: End of 2016 haul

May as well start 2017 with a burst of recorded optimism: the last books I bought in 2016 that I'm queuing up to read. The hopoe is that this year I'll actually read more of them!

Becky Chambers — A Closed and Common Orbit (sff)
T. Kingfisher — The Raven and the Reindeer (sff)
Joseph R. Lallo — The Book of Deacon Anthology (sff)
M. Louisa Locke — Maids of Misfortune (historical)
Rebecca Solnit — Hope in the Dark (nonfiction)
K.B. Spangler — Maker Space (sff)
K.B. Spangler — State Machine (sff)
Steven W. White — New World (sff)

Most of these are various StoryBundle add-ons that I'd somehow missed downloading the first time (and hence are fairly low priority on the reading list). The rest is a mixed bag of Kindle purchases.

I started A Closed and Common Orbit today and could barely put it down. An auspicious start to the new year.

2017-01-01: 2016 Book Reading in Review

So, I did not accomplish my reading goal for 2016 (reading and reviewing more books in 2016 than I did in 2015). Many things contributed to that, but the root cause was that I didn't make enough time for reading. Much of the time that could have gone to reading went to playing Hearthstone (a good thing) and obsessing over the 2016 US election (mostly a waste of time and particularly energy, although I'm not sure I could have stopped). That said, I did get quite a lot of reading done at the end of the year, and I'm hoping to keep up that momentum for next year.

In 2016, I did a lot of re-reading and comfort reading. I'm probably going to continue with some of the re-reading in 2017, since I'm enjoying it, but my reading goal for the year is to get back to reading award nominees and previous award winners. There's so much great new stuff being published that I want to discover. I'm not going to set an explicit goal around number of books, but I am going to make an effort to carve out more time in my schedule for reading books (and less for reading on-line news).

This was another year with two 10 out of 10 books. One of them was a re-read: Lord of Emperors, the second book of Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic. (I also re-read the first book this year, Sailing to Sarantium, and gave it a 9.) I like nearly all of Kay's historical fantasies, but this duology is one of my personal favorites.

The second 10 out of 10 book was a complete surprise: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (translated by Henning Koch). My mother found this book and suggested it to me, and I loved every moment of it. I will definitely be reading more of Backman's work.

There were two more fiction standouts this year: Digger by Ursula Vernon, and The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton. The first is a graphic novel about a wombat who is trying to make her way home from an unexpected detour into a mess of magic and gods. The second is the middle book in a trilogy about an attempt to construct Plato's Just City and all of the philosophical and social problems that ensue (with some bonus science fiction and fantasy elements). Both of them are excellent. Walton is consistently one of my favorite authors, and Ursula Vernon was my great discovery of a new author to read this year. (Not that I've followed through on that much, the year in reading being what it was, but I will be doing so.)

My favorite non-fiction book of the year continues my interest in time management in general and Mark Forster's approaches in particular. Secrets of Productive People was the last book I reviewed this year (just a coincidence, not any intentional attempt to set things up for next year) and the best version of his overall approach to date. If you've not read any of Forster based on my previous recommendations, this is a good place to start.

Also worth mentions were Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of His Life, on the O.J. Simpson case, and Andrew Groen's The Empires of EVE, on the history of player empires in the EVE Online MMORPG. I Kickstarted the latter and didn't regret it.

The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

2016-12-31: Review: Secrets of Productive People

Review: Secrets of Productive People, by Mark Forster

Publisher Teach Yourself
Copyright 2015
ISBN 1-4736-0885-6
Format Kindle
Pages 289

Regular readers of my reviews will know that Mark Forster is my favorite writer on time management and productivity. That's mostly because of his flexible toolkit approach that talks about theory and overall goals and then describes multiple ways to get there, rather than presenting a single system that will solve all your problems. There are a lot of writers who explain productivity tips and tricks or describe systems that work for them. There are fewer who can explain why those tricks work (and why they sometimes don't work), and even fewer who can put them into a meaningful analytical framework for thinking about productivity.

Forster has several books, but they're a mixed bag. His clearest and most coherent book prior to this one was Do It Tomorrow. Secrets of Productive People is organized differently, chopped up in to small bite-sized chunks with synopses to an extent that it felt a bit choppy to me, but apart from that it's the closest I've seen to an updating of Do It Tomorrow. His other books can be slight (The Pathway to Awesomeness) or downright weird (How to Make Your Dreams Come True). I still have a soft spot for Do It Tomorrow, and I like how it was organized a bit better than this one, but I think Secrets of Productive People has become my new recommendation for where to start with Forster.

Secrets of Productive People is divided into five sections: The basics of productivity, the productive attitude, productive projects, aids to productivity, and productivity in action. Each part is divided into several small chapters, which open with a generous helping of quotes about some productivity topic (and I'm going to go back and save some of those), present some easily-digestible related set of thoughts (usually with an exercise), and conclude with a summary. Each chapter is about the length of a long blog post. I think this structure interferes with developing an idea at greater length, but it does make for good reading material in an environment where you're regularly interrupted or only have five or ten minutes.

I think I've mentioned in every review that Forster won me over by being willing to talk about the problems with attempting to do too much, not just presenting a system to allow one to accomplish more. Some other books, such as David Allen's famous Getting Things Done, seem to assume you already know what you need to get done, or will easily be able to figure that out when you think for a while, and just need a system to manage all the things you've decided to do. Forster takes the opposite approach, and this book is the clearest yet on this point: most productivity problems are not from being insufficiently efficient, but from doing the wrong things and too many things. You don't need more time; everyone gets the same amount of time. You need to do the right things with the time you have, and that usually means doing fewer things.

Readers of Forster's previous books will recognize many of the themes here. Some of the techniques from Do It Tomorrow and some of the exercises from Get Everything Done show up again here. But Forster has streamlined and focused the advice, discarded some things, made his task management recommendations less elaborate and more focused, and spends much more time hammering home the point that the only prioritization that really matters is whether you commit to doing something or don't.

The specific task management system he recommends here is one of the variations he's been talking about in his blog and is much simpler than the Do It Tomorrow system: pick five tasks, work on them until you've finished three of them, and then refill to five tasks. I've been using it since reading this book, replacing one of Forster's more elaborate systems from his blog, and it's surprisingly effective. He breaks down in some detail why this works and how to extract additional useful feedback information from it, and now I want to do some of the additional exercises he describes. (That said, I'm still dubious about his advice to not keep any larger to-do list and only rely on your analysis at the time of refilling the list to decide what to do. I use this system with a supplemental, longer list of ideas for future tasks, and that works better for me, although I do have to fight forming a sense of obligation about the things on the longer list. David Allen still has a point that if you don't write down a complete inventory of the things you're worrying about, your brain will try to obsess over them to keep from forgetting them.)

The productive projects section told me some things I needed to hear about time commitments. Projects take regular, focused attention, and starting numerous things without giving them that attention is much worse than doing far fewer things but doing them regularly and reliably. I think Forster's coaching on focus and persistence is very valuable; the trick, of course, is building up your willpower for it and learning to say no. This is in-line with recent psychological analysis of multi-tasking and its various negative effects. The working to-do list capped at five things provides enough variety to mentally shift gears if one runs out of steam on some specific project while maintaining enough focus to not leave things behind half-done.

The productivity aids section provides a more random collection of tips and tricks, many of which I've seen before in his previous books. I've mostly not tried these, so can't say much about how effective they are, but Forster's ideas almost always sound interesting and plausible.

I thought the weakest part of the book was the last section, on applied productivity. Here, Forster takes various life areas (exercise, parenting, finances, writing, etc.) and talks about how the principles of this book can be applied to them. Each area could be a book in itself, and the short essay format of these chapters doesn't do justice to large topics. The result is a rather repetitive section that just stresses analysis, metrics, and repeated, focused attention — all valid points, but ones you can pick up from the previous chapters. I don't think these case studies added much value.

Do It Tomorrow is still my favorite Forster book to read, but I think Secrets of Productive People is now the best and most polished overview of his time management and productivity approach. If you're interested in this topic and not already sick of Forster from my previous recommendations, this would be a great place to start. I got a lot out of it even with all the time management reading I've previously done, and will probably re-read sections of it and try more of the exercises.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2016-12-30: Review: Magician's Gambit

Review: Magician's Gambit, by David Eddings

Series The Belgariad #3
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright June 1983
Printing February 1990
ISBN 0-345-33545-7
Format Mass market
Pages 305

Magician's Gambit is the third book of the Belgariad, and although it's the best, you probably can't start here. Too much setup has already happened by this point of the story.

In retrospect, it's my memories of this book that led me to hang on to this series all these years and pick it up for a re-read. Garion has finally gotten past his whining (mostly), the party puts Ce'Nedra in a hole and leaves her there for a bunch of the book, and the characters finally do something concrete (and significant) in advancement of the plot. Eddings does a good job of avoiding the series problem of saving up all the climactic moments for the end of the story and instead adds a very good middle climax to the story that wraps up the main plot line of the first three books.

I think this is also the book that best displays the interestingly quirky ways that Eddings approaches the epic fantasy genre. (Now to figure out how to talk about them without spoiling the story....)

One of my favorite bits in this series is the dry voice in the back of Garion's head. I don't want to say too much about it, since discovering the nature of that voice slowly over the series is part of the fun. But this is the book where most of that mystery is revealed, and it's a rather different spin on the wise advisor trope. Garion has more than the usual number of mentor figures, and like many books of this type they function partly as plot devices to force the story down the correct path. One of the things that makes plot devices irritating is that they feel forced on the story from outside. Eddings here pulls a trick to embed that device inside the story, so it feels less like the hand of the author and more like an aspect of the mythology. I'm not sure it would work for everyone, and the execution isn't that sophisticated, but it's entertained me every time I read this series.

It helps that the voice is an interesting character in its own right, and one of the few characters in the book who takes Garion seriously and explains things to him. By comparison, Belgarath and Polgara are still annoyingly high-handed and uncommunicative (particularly Polgara).

Another highlight of this book is a lovely interlude in Belgarath's home, where we meet some of his colleagues (Beldin is a delight) and Garion finally starts experimenting with his own power. I mostly read this series for the supporting characters, not for Garion, who spends far too much time whining and most of the rest of the time being just neutrally there. But in this book Eddings finally gives him some moments of real awe and discovery, using one of my favorite approaches to the powerful chosen one character: making normally-hard things easy but normally-easy things unintuitive because they think about magic differently than anyone else. Most of the moments when Garion does something that shouldn't be possible are highlights.

We also get nearly the final characters for Garion's band, and they're good ones. Relg is mostly amusing in some of his later reactions to specific characters and is a bit tedious in this book, but Errand is a unique idea and one of my favorite characters of the series. He fits well with the tendency of this series to not take itself, or power, or mythology, too seriously. Eddings avoids the trap of making everything Significant and Fraught; characters snark and do things on a whim, power has funny side effects, and the most powerful object in the story is treated in a way that has one both laughing and flinching at the same time. (It's a nice twist on and homage to some of the trappings around the One Ring, while making it far more light-hearted.)

There are a few things I could complain about (the gender stereotyping between Garion and Ce'Nedra is so strong, for instance), but they're more minor here than in previous books. I enjoy reading about characters doing things they're very good at, and there's quite a lot of that here. (That said, I do feel like I should mention somewhere that one of the characters is very good at killing Murgos, who are supposedly human. I suppose it wouldn't be epic fantasy without a bit of casual genocide, and to be fair the Murgos in question are mostly trying to track down and kill the party, but the way that's played partly for laughs gets distasteful if one thinks about it too much.)

This series is at its best when it balances dramatic prophecy with irreverent poking, gives the protagonists moments of odd and very human joy (Garion's colt!), and celebrates the unlikely and unexpected collection of people (or fable characters) who are drawn together by the story. I think this book hits those notes well, and although the flaws of the previous books are still there, they're muted and don't get as much screen time. Instead, we get some fun foreshadowing, a sense of power and growth, a few moments of delight and awe, and a lot of the sort of exasperated wise-cracking common to experienced people who trust each other and are working together on something hard.

Magician's Gambit, and this whole series, will not be to everyone's taste, but it's the first book of the series I can comfortably recommend if you like this sort of thing.

Followed by Castle of Wizardry.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-12-29: Review: Queen of Sorcery

Review: Queen of Sorcery, by David Eddings

Series The Belgariad #2
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright November 1982
Printing March 1992
ISBN 0-345-33565-1
Format Mass market
Pages 322

Queen of Sorcery is the second book in the Belgariad, which is a "one story in five books" sort of series. You could probably take a chance on skipping Pawn of Prophecy, since it's not a very good book, but some parts of the story may be confusing without it.

We're now getting into the part of the series where I can start saying some nice things about it, so I should put that in context and not get expectations too high.

The Belgariad as a series is fully invested in the stock symbols and stereotypes of Tolkien-derivative fantasy. White is good; black is bad. West is good; east is bad. People are very neatly divided into countries, and national traits are exceptionally strong. The Murgos, the people who serve (although "under the thumb of" would be more accurate, Eddings doesn't spend much time thinking about the difference) the Big Bad of the series, are basically orcs, for all that they're theoretically human. With an unsympathetic reading, it's very easy to see the echos of the Yellow Peril in the war between the west and the east, including the standard trope of fractious, arguing, and diverse western kingdoms against a unified horde from the east. (To be fair, Eddings does undermine the unity a bit with the Nadraks later in the series, and my recollection is that the Mallorean, a follow-on series, undermines it even further.)

Given that, I've been trying to figure out why I had fond memories of this series and enjoyed this re-read, since that normally isn't my thing. There are a few elements that are best talked about in the context of the next book, but one element shows up here as the party of heroes, finishing their forced detour in Cherek, head south through Arendia. Eddings is aware that he's stereotyping each nation of people in this world and embraces it so thoroughly that it stops feeling like stereotypes and starts feeling more like a fable.

The Arends are a great example. Arendia is pure medieval fantasy world (even more so than the rest of this world). There are knights in castles, large forests reserved for noble hunting, and miserable serfs. The Arends, apart from the serfs, are full of tales of glory and honor, are impulsive and loyal to a fault, and are in the midst of a simmering internal war that's just barely not broken into open fighting. But the Arends know that they have an unhealthy obsession with honor, know that they constantly get themselves into trouble by being absolutist about honor and far too impulsive, and can't seem to help themselves. They bemoan the war while being apparently unable to do anything that would bring it to an end.

If you think of them as people, none of this makes much sense. If you think of them as talking animals in a fable, aware of their natures but still governed by them, it starts to strangely work. When they're isolated from their society by joining the protagonists' party (the early part of this series mostly involves collecting people, for reasons explained later in the series, while following the trail of a thief), the characters of Eddings's world start developing a bit more nuance and depth. But even then, it's more within the bounds that one would expect in a long fable, and falls a bit short of human growth. The lion might learn something from the badger, but the lion is still a lion.

With that frame, the first half of this book is rather entertaining. Eddings is taking the stereotype of the noble knight from a typical Arthurian romance and treating it like a class of animal in a fable, which I think is subtly delightful. There's even a doomed love triangle (a very chaste one, which is a reminder that this series was probably targeted at YA readers). The reader joins the primary characters in a sense of bemused exasperation. (Well, Garion takes the doomed love triangle much too seriously, but he's young).

Unfortunately, the second half of this book is not one of the finest moments in this series. It's mostly a duet of whining.

The first half of the whining comes from Garion, who finally discovers one of the many things about himself that's been obvious to the readers since the middle of the first book, and then promptly develops one of the worst cases of pathetic angst you'll encounter. The people who have been lying to him and keeping secrets from him are now all eager to teach him, which grates almost as much, whereas he's determined to never use his abilities. It makes me think the worst of absolutely everyone involved, and it all happens in one of the most depressing and disgusting settings of the book.

The second half of the whining comes from Ce'Nedra, who is by far my least favorite character of this series. She's intended to be an obnoxious, spoiled, imperious brat, and also runs headlong into gender roles in this series, which means she's a living mass of irritation and gender stereotypes, made worse by the fact that the protagonists mostly tolerate her and Garion's reactions to her nonsense are also whiny and obnoxious. It's not my favorite bit of reading. Ce'Nedra does get marginally better later in the series, but she's at her worst here, at the same time Garion is at his worst, which makes the last half of this book a real chore. The only real plus side is that the voice in the back of Garion's head gets a few great moments, but more on that in the next book where it starts playing a prominent role.

I should note here that Eddings isn't a complete disaster on gender in this series. There are a lot of unexamined stereotypes, but there are also a lot of examined ones, and it's obvious in places that he's trying. Polgara is a major character, women get some agency in this story, and they at least appear (which is never a given in Tolkien-derivative fantasy). But it's pretty obvious that gender roles start from a "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" set of expectations and then run into Eddings's general tendency to exaggerate all such divisions to fable levels, which in places isn't pretty.

And, well, there are all-female giggly dryads who have to capture men to reproduce and who have a euphoric reaction to chocolate. That's a thing that happens. So you may or may not want to agree with me about the completeness of the disaster. Adjust expectations accordingly.

If Queen of Sorcery had stuck with the tone of the first half of the book, I would say that it was doing something oddly interesting and showing some of the charm that made me want to re-read this series. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is a bit of a disaster, full of characters acting in ways that makes them very hard to like. Still, I plowed through this book in a couple nights of reading, so there's something here that draws one through the story. And the next book of the series is considerably better.

Followed by Magician's Gambit.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2016-12-28: Review: Pawn of Prophecy

Review: Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings

Series The Belgariad #1
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright April 1982
Printing August 1990
ISBN 0-345-33551-1
Format Mass market
Pages 258

I hit a period in November when I felt like reading something entirely undemanding and fun, something that was predictable, comfortable, and guaranteed to be a happy ending. There are times in life for books like that. I've been vaguely thinking of re-reading the Belgariad for a while, which I'd not read since I was in college, and that seemed to fit the bill.

Garion is a farm-boy in Sendaria, a quiet and industrious kingdom full of farmers. His only family is his Aunt Pol, who ran the kitchen at Faldor's farm. His life has all the hallmarks of being entirely unremarkable, despite occasional visits by a traveling vagabond, Wolf, who clearly knows his Aunt Pol. But then something extremely important is stolen elsewhere, Wolf and Pol have to leave to pursue it for reasons that are quite murky to Garion, and Pol is unwilling to leave Garion behind. This begins Garion's great adventure, in which he becomes far more important and powerful than he would have ever imagined.

That's the promise, at least, and the stock plot of every series like this. And let me be clear up front: the Belgariad is very stock. That's part of what I was in the mood for, but don't come to this series looking for interesting differentiation. It's clearly in the center of the secondary world chosen one fantasy genre, with a great evil, forces of good arrayed against it, and someone who unknowingly has the power to stop evil but has to learn how to use it. If you're in the mood for this, every note will be comfortably familiar; if not, it might be boringly predictable.

Unfortunately, this particular book does not cast the Belgariad in a good light. Garion's introduction to this story is intensely irritating, almost entirely because no one will tell him what's going on. Pol is excessively protective (smotheringly so), but shuts down any questions he has and doesn't explain why she's freaking out. (This doesn't become entirely clear until towards the end of the second book.) What little scraps Garion picks up, he has to get by eavesdropping. Even by the end of this book, when Garion has met royalty and started helping with larger political issues (albeit mostly by accident), everyone is keeping him in the dark and he doesn't believe the hints he's gotten. I can't remember how I reacted to this the first time I read this series, but the second time through, it was extremely frustrating.

The frustration is stronger because any regular reader of this genre knows exactly what Garion is, although not precisely how the story will play out, and can make fairly good guesses about Pol and Wolf from early in the story. Everyone playing coy doesn't even add legitimate suspense or set up a big reveal. It just made me irritated at Garion's blindness (it's mildly understandable given how foreign the idea is to his life, but he seems remarkably dense even with that), and even more irritated at Wolf and, in particular, Aunt Pol for keeping him so thoroughly in the dark. Garion is very attached to his aunt; on this re-reading, I wasn't entirely sure why. She occasionally shows love and support, and she's certainly wise, but for most of the book she treats him with brusque condescension and tries to keep him as ignorant as possible.

Garion's weird entanglement with a black rider that he'd seen for most of his life doesn't make this any better. It's creepy and disturbing, it's not entirely resolved in this book, and Garion is clearly in danger, which wasn't the vibe that I was looking for when starting this re-read. And it's hard to escape the feeling that Garion might have managed to tell someone if all the adult figures in his life weren't so secretive, dismissive, and excessively controlling.

So, all in all, an inauspicious beginning. It was good enough to keep me reading when I first read the series, and it was good enough on this re-read, but just barely. The saving grace is Silk and Barak, when the story finally meets them. Those who have read this series will know that they're just the beginning of the party-building process that will take up much of this series (so many Lord of the Rings resonances), but the one thing I will give Eddings is that he writes entertaining supporting characters. Both of them are a bit stereotyped, but they add so much to this story. Silk in particular is a delight and remains a delight throughout the series, adding a much-needed level of snark and sneaky enjoyment that lightens so many of the serious episodes of this story.

The Belgariad in general is highly derivative map exploration fantasy, and you shouldn't expect anything deeper. It is, however, enjoyable map exploration fantasy with some entertaining supporting cast members. Sadly, only the glimmers of that are visible from this book. Pawn of Prophecy is mostly an irritating tour of bad parenting techniques, refusal to talk to teenagers, sneaking around to get information that should have been legitimately shared, and taking forever to get around to the mythology that we all know is coming.

I therefore can't recommend this book, although one does have to read it in order to read the rest of the series, which as I recall gets considerably better.

Followed by Queen of Sorcery.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2016-12-26: Apologies for RSS feed duplicates

Sorry about the duplicates showing up in your feed or in e-mail, for those who saw them. I changed the canonical URLs of my journal entries to use https instead of http and forgot that would confuse a lot of RSS readers. Didn't mean to suddenly give you all a replay of the last 15 entries!

This should be a one-time change and not happen again. (Although I need to find or fix a good broken link checker and then track down the rest of the URLs in my web site that aren't using https.)

2016-12-26: Review: The Kingdom of Gods

Review: The Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin

Series Inheritance #3
Publisher Orbit
Copyright 2011
Printing April 2012
ISBN 0-316-04394-X
Format Mass market
Pages 567

The Kingdom of Gods is the third and final book of the Inheritance trilogy and rests very heavily on the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. I think it's the best book of the trilogy as well, but this isn't the place to start. The build-up from the previous books is very important to this story.

The first book of this series followed Yeine in her introduction to the highly political, abusive, and exploitative world of the Arameri, and her deeper introduction to the complex theology and mythology of Jemisin's constructed world. The second involved fewer theological fireworks and more day-to-day decisions, but it followed the implications of the first book's climax and revealed another important lurking weapon from the past. The Kingdom of Gods returns to a theological focus, this time putting Sieh front and center, and is once again concerned with the fate of the entire world, or even reality itself.

Sieh played a significant role in the first book, but only seen from Yeine's perspective. He's the trickster god, the god of childhood, of play and whim and unfairness and practical jokes, of all the chaos and lack of impulse control and impudence of childhood. The Kingdom of Gods opens with him encountering two Arameri children in the abandoned areas under Sky and making an unlikely and impulsive pledge of friendship. One that leads to an unexplained catastrophe, a long blackout, and possibly the end of his existence, since Sieh starts aging. And growing up directly undermines his power.

One of the two children turns out to be the heir of the haughty, devious, and deeply racist Arameri, whose position atop the hierarchy of the world has been weakened by earlier events but not shaken entirely. Her relationship with Sieh is much more fraught and complex when both of them are teenagers and Sieh is struggling badly to remain true to himself. But what drives the plot is a deadly new form of magic that is targeting the Arameri family and threatening to bring back world-wide war.

This is my favorite book of the trilogy, not so much because it brings a relatively satisfying conclusion (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms wasn't bad at that either), but because for once I like all of the main characters. Yeine and Nahadoth are hit and miss (the second two books of the trilogy make it clear that Nahadoth can be a real asshole), and as mentioned in the review of The Broken Kingdoms, I found Shiny exasperating. But Sieh is fun, even when he's being obnoxious, and both of the kids he befriends are complex and multifaceted. Shahar, with her hard and complex relationship with her mother, is probably my favorite character in the book, but her brother certainly has his moments.

I did not like Sieh's maturation process. There are parts of this story that are squirm-inducing, and not in a good way (at least for me). And he does tend to get whiny in places. But he knows everyone in Jemisin's complex mythology, he has a great first-person narrative voice, and there are some very fun moments of interaction with his sibling gods. It says something that I really enjoyed this story even though books about slow, ongoing illness and diminution are rather far from my favorites (and Sieh's aging falls into that category).

While there are some beautiful set-pieces here once the shit starts to hit the fan in earnest, the concluding fireworks didn't really work for me. The final confrontation was too abstracted, too indescribable, and too full of ancillary carnage to be the ending I was looking for. (Perhaps because of what I've been playing recently, I keep thinking of it as one of those chaotic, floating, dream-like cut-scene disasters in a Final Fantasy game that's trying to hint at indescribable magic.) But the denouement made me happy, and it fit the characters. And don't miss the glossary at the end of the book that Sieh has scribbled all over.

This book includes, as a bonus, a short story:

"Not the End": This is the ending that The Broken Kingdoms actually needed. It (plus some key bits in the rest of The Kingdom of Gods) made me feel much better about the end of that book, and added a much-needed light note to the rather heavy bits at the end of this book. And I do love Oree. It's very short, and it's not in any way a standalone story (more of a belated epilogue to the previous novel), but that's all that was needed. (8)

Rating: 8 out of 10

2016-12-25: krb5-strength 3.1

krb5-strength provides password strength checking plugins and programs for MIT Kerberos and Heimdal, and a password history implementation for Heimdal. This is the first new upstream release since I left Stanford, since I don't personally use the package any more. But it's easy enough to maintain, and it was overdue for merging some contributed patches.

This release adds a new configuration directive, cracklib_maxlen, which can be used to not run longer passwords through CrackLib (whose concepts of password strength were not designed for longer passwords and which can spuriously reject passphrases). It also allows require_classes to require a certain number of character classes in a password, not just specific classes. There are also a variety of portability and cleanup fixes. Thanks to Jorj Bauer, Toby Blake, and Bernt Jernberg for their contributions.

I've merged into the embedded CrackLib all the relevant security patches that have come out, although none of them turned out to be relevant for this package due to how CrackLib was called. I also applied a patch from Mark Sirota to fix mkdict and packer to force C locale, which keeps them from creating corrupted dictionaries.

Finally, configuration instructions for the plugin are now installed as a new krb5-strength man page, and configuration instructions are included in the heimdal-history and heimdal-strength man pages, instead of just being in the README file. This makes them more accessible after the package is installed.

You can get the latest version from the krb5-strength distribution page.

2016-12-25: DocKnot 1.01

This is the second release of my new documentation generation system for my packages. It's still probably not of much interest to anyone other than me, particularly since the metadata format is still rapidly evolving so I've not documented it yet. But the templates are getting fleshed out and it's generating more and more of my package documentation, which will make releases much easier.

This release adds generation of build and test instructions for my packages from templates and metadata, with some support for adding a bit of custom wording. It also offers a few new options for expanding license notices, and for annotating packages with additional bootstrap requirements.

You can get the latest version from the DocKnot distribution page.

Last modified and spun 2017-02-20