The Man with the Golden Torc by Simon R. Green

Filed under:Adventure,Fantasy — posted by Randolph on December 2, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

The Man with the Golden Torc by Simon R. Green

This is the first book of the Secret Histories novels, in which a family, the Droods, uses ancient secrets of science and magic to protect the human population from a large assembly of evils, demons, monsters, aliens, etc. Except the official story conceals a dark secret.

Eddie Drood does what the family asks of him. Being independent, he isn’t satisfied living under the roof and rules of the family matriarch, so he works among the normal humans, fighting the family’s fight. Until he is sent on a mission, doomed to fail, and is declared rogue by the matriarch with a kill-on-sight order. Most of the book is his story of trying to find out why this happened.

The book is full of odd and fun characters, each is a creative creation with an interesting story. There is also a large array of odd artifacts, each also creative and unusual.

The author almost gets in the way of the story. He enjoys setting up a situation, and then adding a one-liner to build its opposite. This happens in the characters’ stories, in idioms, settings, all too much. Some of them are very good, which keeps them from getting entirely stale, it is just part of his sense of humor.

The book has several allusions to James Bond. Eddie operates under the moniker Edwin Bond, and has an uncle James Drood with a history that sounds like James. This character sets a high-mark for establishing Edwin as a major operative.

The beginning of the book was a bit difficult to get through. As the author set the scene, he set up Edwin Drood as a masterful and powerful agent with a powerful tool. It felt like Deus-ex-Machina as he pulled new skills out to defeat opponents. But this was all stage setting to familiarize the reader with his abilities. The book definitely improves.

Toward the end of the book, it became a page-turner for me. The situations were exciting. However, I was quite disappointed in the ending, in which an entirely misunderstood plot element suddenly just solved all the problems. Oddly, it didn’t feel like it ruined the book. The story was good enough to carry the novel, the humor was good, and it was interesting. I will make time to read the second novel.

The Great Courses: The World of Byzantium by Kenneth W. Harl

Filed under:History — posted by Randolph on November 10, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

The Great Courses: The World of Byzantium by Kenneth W. Harl

This lecture series provides incredible detail into the world of Byzantium and its relationships to other civilizations over the millennium of its existence. This is a time period during the middle ages that I, and many I know, lack much knowledge.

The only complaint I have is that the information comes too fast. It really is designed as a lecture, where you can sit and take notes. Not having that opportunity, I suspect I will not retain much, but the lecture would be worth a second hearing.

Sword Song: The Battle For London by Bernard Cornwell

Filed under:Fiction,History — posted by Randolph on October 13, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

Sword Song: The Battle For London by Bernard Cornwell

The book is set in the late 9th century England and involves several of the primary historical figures of Wessex and Mercia. The characters are well-done, they have depth and are interesting. I can’t speak to their historical accuracy, though.

The book gives a very good feel for the time period. The characters strong, their actions are immediate and often cruel by our standards. The culture really comes out.

The story hinges around the fight for London between Danish Vikings in the north and the Saxons in Wessex. King Alfred gives his daughter’s hand in an attempt to solidify his hold on London.

I found the fight scenes very detailed and convincing. Their descriptions reveal well-thought out tactics and formations. You can almost smell the sweat and gore.

I hadn’t realized it was part of a series. It makes a good stand-alone book, though. It helped to solidify my understanding of that period in English history.

How to Write a Short Story by John Vorwald and Ethan Wolff

Filed under:Writing — posted by Randolph on October 5, 2016 @ 10:48 am

How to Write a Short Story by John Vorwald and Ethan Wolff

I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, it has good information and is presented well. It is easy to read and has good examples from common short stories.

On the other hand, I don’t feel it delivers what it promises, guidance for writing a short story. Almost all of the book discusses material that is generic to fiction writing. Little focuses on the short story, it often felt like an afterthought.

I would have liked, and expected the book to assume a moderate knowledge of writing and to focus on the distinctions unique to writing a short story.

Overall, it is a very good writing reference, but not a good one for short stories.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Filed under:Science Fiction — posted by Randolph on September 15, 2016 @ 8:44 am

The Martian by Andy Weir

This book is riveting from page its first lines, “Log Entry: Sol 6. I’m pretty much fucked.” Mark Watney, a botanist and one of the first humans to walk on Mars, has just discovered he’s stranded on Mars with no hope of survival. Then he addresses each problem one-by-one. There is a lot of action, Mark goes through a variety of emotions as he faces problem after problem, then proceeds to look for a solution.

The book has strong, believable characters. The science and engineering are very solid. You can sense the amount of NASA training he’s experienced and the preparation for this mission.

The book also tells the story of people on Earth and the other five astronauts en route back home. Each thread is well-told and just as gripping.  Many times, I could feel the NASA experience, having worked at JSC early in my career.  It felt very natural.  Toward the end of the book, the tension and sequence of preparations for the Mars liftoff reminded me of the many launches in the 60s.

The story also has a human dimension, where many people go to extraordinary means to help an individual. The world becomes captivated in Mark’s fate, and nations go to action to make things happen.

The book is awesome, I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it.  I’ve restrained myself from seeing the movie, now it is a high priority for me!

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Filed under:Science Fiction — posted by Randolph on August 29, 2016 @ 8:08 pm

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

This novel is about an exploration of an alien civilization and its death. The book opens at an archaeological dig on an alien world uncovering evidence of an alien civilization and its demise. The book, sort of, follows this exploration into space and artifacts.

Alastair Reynolds is a scientist, and has stated that the technologies in his stories are conceivable with our current understanding of science. So space travel is sub-light speeds with people in hibernation, who face elapsed-time differences with the people they know. In spite of this, he does introduce a number of odd, strange and even peculiar technologies and associated problems.

From a hard science fiction perspective, this is an interesting story. However, that’s where it ends. The characters are a bit flat with weak dialog, and weak prose. There is no character growth, and the story seemed to drag on in the middle.

The characters themselves are rather odd and include a virtual character. Much of the book involves mistrust between the different characters as they try to guess each others motives. This went on too long without showing much evolution. I felt it had the making of a good political struggle, but it didn’t pan out.

I did find the end somewhat compelling, but it didn’t make up for the weaknesses. It is a good read for those interested in the hard science, but others will be disappointed.

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting by Ian Roberts

Filed under:Art — posted by Randolph on August 13, 2016 @ 8:00 am

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting by Ian Roberts

This is a wonderful book for learning composition. I felt that Ian Roberts broke the concepts down and explained them well. He discusses different compositional forms with examples and explains whey they work.

There are a lot of examples from his own work, discussing why it works and what some subtle changes could do to it.

The book includes a dvd. The technical quality of the DVD is poor, I had to turn the sound on my tv almost to maximum to hear it adequately, and the dvd buzzed in the player.

But after that, the content was excellent. He showed most of the pictures in the book, and showed them with alterations while discussing what these alterations do to the eye movement. Then he goes through the same video again without the voice so you can see and feel the effects yourself. The dvd is an excellent addition to the book.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Filed under:Science Fiction — posted by Randolph on June 6, 2016 @ 8:49 pm

Seveneves  by Neal Stephenson

This is a disaster book, about the destruction and rebirth of the Earth. In this story, the Moon breaks up from an unknown cause, the parts continue to fracture and fall onto the Earth until the Earth is deluged by fragment impacts causing the atmosphere to heat up and much of the surface to become molten.

The book is in three parts. In the first, the disaster is looming and people are trying to prepare for survival of the race or preparing for their own end. The second part sees the destruction of the Earth, the numbers in space are dwindling in their effort to survive both natural disasters and each other. The final part is the re-terraforming and resettlement of Earth, discovery of people who sheltered themselves on the Earth, and new political struggles.

Seeing the impending doom, humanity unites and elects to send select people into space, each country is to select two candidates to send. There is some conflict, and there are extreme reactions to them, but thing generally go too smoothly.

In space there is a lot of struggling to survive. The science is good, and the reader will pick up some basic orbital mechanics and physics on the way. One billionaire manages to ride his own rocket into space. But rather than a burden, he flies out to collect a comet for fuel – and meets his own disaster when the reactor that fuels his ship leaks. One politician resembling Hillary Clinton, uses her influence to get into space, then turns the space colonies into a political battleground. I found her character to be foolish and unlikable, I admit that don’t care for real politics in my fiction. She is one of the last surviving women, the seven Eves, who are to repopulate the human race. Without surviving men, they use parthenogenesis to repopulate and ‘improve’ their progeny. Each Eve is permitted one improvement in her offspring.

The third part of the book involves finding survivors on the Earth’s surface. The world has already been terraformed. We learn that each of the eves have created seven races of humans, with both physical and mental differences. Their differences reflect the personality of the Eve that sired their race.

Conflict comes when they encounter the survivors, who claim the surface of the world as their domain. These people lived deep in caves with massive provisions to get them through the apocalypse. Politics leads to battle and eventually compromise. You see the beginnings of politics as normal in all their relationships.

I had a number of issues with the story. Early in the book, it seemed people were too accepting of their fates. You didn’t see people becoming extremely religious, no survivalists, no people looting to get the most they can for their personal last days. They may have been unimportant to the story, but it seems like it should have been mentioned. There was only one instance of resistance to the policy of getting people into space, even that required an organized nation to mount. This just isn’t my view of a world-wide disaster that has no hope of survival.

Other issues such as, people who have lived in space for 5000 years have no problems adapting to gravity, when our astronauts have trouble after a matter of months. Would they even be interested in going someplace they’ve never been?

People who lived underground had no problems adapting to the sunlight. They had lighting, but it wouldn’t be close to the same. I suspect they would have lowered the lighting levels over time as they continued to adapt.

Generally, the third part of the book felt like a different book from the first two. It had too much content that was nothing more than descriptions of neat new technologies. a little of it was valuable to the story later on, but I glossed over most of it. The book is already too long for its value, taking most of this out would have helped.

I also have to wonder why the seven races didn’t interbreed. With the enlarged gene pool, it would have enhanced humanity and brought the genetic advantages to all humans. But it wouldn’t have made as interesting of a story.

The ‘white sky’ should have been darker, more eclipse-like as small fragments cast massive shadows over the earth similar to the rings of Saturn. I don’t see a couple of years being sufficient to have fragments in polar orbits, so the sky coverage wouldn’t have been complete. This would have made the poles have glowing arcs around them at night.

The books name refers to the fact that there are seven women, or Eves, that plan to repopulate the human race. It is also a palindrome, which made me think about the destruction and rebirth of the Earth and of the human population. The seven Eves being the pivotal point and the low point of the population.

Overall, the books is enjoyable. It is one of the more interesting disaster books that I’ve read, but I can’t recommend it that highly due to the issues I’ve raised.

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

Filed under:History,Sports — posted by Randolph on June 1, 2016 @ 7:29 am

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh

In this book, a couple of baseball podcasters with just a little management experience between them get the opportunity to manage a baseball team by the numbers. They offer to manage the team using statistics, similar to those used in the major leagues. The get the opportunity in a very minor league in Sanoma, California, the Sanoma Stompers.

In the course of their adventures, they learn that statistics aren’t everything. They get resistance from players and other managers who don’t want rules from outsiders. They learn about the politics of baseball, and that some things are more important than the statistics.

At times the books is outright funny, it is insightful, and you can learn a lot about the inside activities of baseball. It is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in the sport.

The Art of Storytelling: From Parents to Professionals by Hannah B. Harvey

Filed under:self-help — posted by Randolph on May 16, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

The Art of Storytelling: From Parents to Professionals by Hannah B. Harvey

This lecture covers all aspects of storytelling, such as forming the story, connecting with the audience, the relationship between narrator-audience-storyteller, using the voice, using gestures, preparation, props, character development, and on and on. It seems almost too much, as few topics are covered in much depth, but it is a great introduction to all the material.

The material has a lot of examples. At times, Hannah references gestures or posture – or something in the video. She does acknowledge that this is the CD version and provides some additional information, there are not too many of these instances.

She is a good storyteller, the voice is clear and easily understood, the audio quality is good. There is a lot of information covering many aspects of storytelling and presentation.

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace