Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Sky So Big (Ransom Wilcox and Kurt Beckstrand)

A Sky So Big
Ransom Wilcox and Karl Beckstrand
Premio Publishing
Fiction, Western/Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Patricia Laughlin came to Nevada to oversee the family holdings and locate two missing relatives: her father and her uncle. Instead, she meets Bridger Calhoun, her father's partner in the K-Bar ranch - a man whose charming smile hides many secrets. It isn't long before she hears the name Wade Forrester, a notorious rogue not above putting lead in a man's back, who seems to have it in for the Laughlins and Calhoun. She herself witnesses the man's cowardice, when he refuses to draw in a fair fight with Bridger. With a snake like that lurking in the hills, trouble is sure to come to the K-Bar, and Patricia.
Wade Forrester left his father on less-than-civil terms when his wanderlust got the better of his youthful spirit... but he returned as fast as he could when he heard that the old man had vanished. Worse, his sister Julia was utterly insensible - after signing over the deed to the family's K-Bar ranch to her swindling husband, the lady-charmer Bridger Calhoun. Now Calhoun's buying up all the land in the area, with gold or lead, all in the name of his unseen master Pat Laughlin. For what they've done to his family, they've both earned a bullet from his gun... if he can survive the gauntlet of hired goons swarming the Nevada wilderness after his hide.
When Wade meets Patricia, it's hate at first site - especially when he abducts her from her hotel room as insurance. But it won't be long before they discover that they have more in common than they realize... including an enemy ready to crush the land beneath his heel.
This title also includes Ransom Wilcox's short story "A Barn Full O' Proud", about a ranch boy's first love on four hooves.

REVIEW: This wasn't easy to rate, not helped by misbilling; this is not a "romance" in the modern sense of the word at all, being mostly a straight-up Western tale. It also has an unusual pedigree. Ransom Wilcox was a writer born in the tail end of the Western era, a world of gunslinging outlaws and rival landowners carving up the last bits of unclaimed frontier, while Karl Beckstrand is a modern author who "inherited" this unfinished manuscript. So, while the story itself reads somewhat dated, populated with characters pushing dangerously close to genre cliches (especially the supporting cast), I can't fairly judge it by modern standards. Wade's the standard wronged rogue, half-Mexican to boot, who gets a bad reputation despite only slinging lead when he's threatened, while Bridger Calhoun's a vicious villain who hides behind Laughlin's name and a charming demeanor - one that completely fools Patricia for a while, until the rage breaks the surface. As for Patricia, once she stops buying everything Calhoun and his smile sell her, she demonstrates more grit and guts than many Western heroines, and isn't nearly the deadweight that she could've been. There are some sparks between her and Wade, but for the most part they're both too busy dodging bullets to navigate the thorny brush of lies and skewed truths that stretch between them. When Wade and Patricia aren't trying to survive treks over the Sierra Nevada mountains, they're dodging lead and losing horses; I lost track of how many animals were run to death or caught in the crossfire, so horse-lovers be warned. For that matter, the human body count's deep into the double digits, which is to be expected with the frequent gunfights and ambushes. Despite its flaws and plausibility issues with some action sequences, not to mention a wandering omniscient narration and a few eye-rollingly over-the-top speeches and descriptions, it kept me reading for quite a stretch, so it must've done something right. Though it nearly lost a half-star for the style, which tended to summarize (often in grandiose terms) what characters felt or decided, not to mention a little speech just before the end by one of Wade's Native American friends that reeked of a morality Message, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. (It didn't hurt that I enjoyed the short story.)

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede)

Thirteenth Child
(The Frontier Magic series, Book 1)
Patricia C. Wrede
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Eff's twin brother, Lan, is a seventh son of a seventh son - and everyone knows how lucky and powerful he'll become when he grows into his magic. But Eff has older sisters, too... making her the thirteenth-born child. According to Uncle Earn and most everyone outside her immediate family, she should've been drowned at birth for all the evil she'll undoubtedly unleash upon the world. When Papa accepts a position teaching magic in Mill City, on the very edge of civilized lands, it's both a boon and a danger. Here, away from Earn and other relatives, nobody will know whether she or Lan was born first. But Mill City is right on the shore of the mighty Mammoth river, within sight of the great barrier spell that keeps the monsters of the untamed West - from magical creatures like steam dragons and swarm weasels to mundane-yet-deadly beasts like mammoths, saber cats, and dire wolves - at bay. Many of the young magicians Papa trains will be going to frontier settlements, protecting homesteaders as they push the boundaries of Columbia into the wilderness beyond the river. Eff and her family should be safe enough, with the river and the barrier... but Eff is still a thirteenth child, a curse no magic can thwart, so danger is bound to find her.

REVIEW: Wrede establishes an interesting alternate history of American westward expansion in a world where magic is commonplace, used for everything from the great barrier spells protecting settlements to housewives hastening the drying of laundry. The only ones who don't use magic are those like the Progressive Rationalists, who consider it a corrupting crutch. Wrede doesn't stop at America/Columbia's borders, either, with three established magical systems from around the world... each holding pieces of truth, but none able to encompass or explain the whole, mysterious force of magic, for all its near-omnipresence in daily modern life. Within this setup, though, there isn't much of a main, driving story arc. Mostly, it's about Eff growing up with the stigma of being a thirteenth child, struggling to become her own person and experiencing life on the edge of the frontier. Along the way, she meets enemies and allies, a host of names that were occasionally difficult to keep straight (particularly Eff's large family and extended family). Several of these people turn out to be other than they seemed; one of the main themes of the book is that there are many ways to view any person, thing, or event, so nobody answers to one static description (save a few bit players). Even the Progressive Rationalists don't become bogeymen; they have clearly-stated reasons for their beliefs, and some of their ideas - that a reliance on magic can make for laziness, and ultimately works created by mundane effort last longer - have merit... even though some Rationalists take their beliefs to the point of prejudice. Sometimes, I found the lack of a greater arc or focus a little trying, especially when the name tangle bogged me down. Overall, though, I liked the characters and the world, and the voice kept me reading. I'll have to see if I can track down the next book sometime - I'm especially eager to see what other wonders and dangers lie beyond the Mammoth River, aside from the tantalizing glimpses given here.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition (Charles Darwin)

On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition
Charles Darwin
Project Gutenberg
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: As far back as ancient Greece, some had observed the seeming relation of Earth's many species, but the idea of divine creation of Life - each species created spontaneously and individually, separated by divine mandate from others - held popular sway for centuries. By the mid-1800's, some had begun to question this idea. In this landmark book. naturalist Charles Darwin outlines the theory of evolution by natural selection... a theory counter to the then-accepted "fact" of spontaneous creation.

REVIEW: I'll admit that many of the details were beyond my undereducated brain (and beyond my Nook dictionary's capacity), and some of Darwin's specific conclusions have been altered by new evidence in the hundred-odd years since this book first appeared, but the overall idea of evolution is explained repeatedly and clearly. Here was a man whose observations did not coincide with the common rationale at the time (spontaneous creation of species, alongside the idea of a relatively young planet), and who undertook extensive studies and personal experiments to arrive at a theory that, while initially unpopular, better explained many things about the natural world, past and present. To support his findings, Darwin delves into the well-documented lineages of domestic pigeons, the geologic record of fossils and glacial action, embryonic development, the variable fertility of hybrids, and more, a very broad base of research touching on many fields and all appearing to point to the same conclusions.  Darwin's observations in the Galapagos Islands aboard the Beagle, which spurred this search, actually occupy surprisingly little space. This sixth edition addresses many challenges raised to his theory, giving his own explanations and defenses. This was not an armchair theory, in other words, but the work of a dedicated man unafraid of asking questions that "everyone" already knew the answers to... and unafraid to present his own findings, even when they differed from the status quo among many (but not all) learned men of his day. This is what the scientific process is supposed to be about - sadly, a method that seems threatened in today's world, when the same country that first put a man on the moon now shies from teaching science in its own classrooms when it might threaten the faith of a vocal minority. He was not seeking to prove or disprove the existence of a Creator with the theory of evolution, but to understand the relationships of life on Earth. In 1872, Darwin wrote: "Great is the power of steady misrepresentation: but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure." If only... Overall, though this was a long and, at times, tedious read, with some outdated hypotheses, it is nevertheless still an important book, well worth the time and effort. (It might have gone a little easier had my e-book edition not inexplicably cut the diagrams and illustrations referred to in the text...)

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Best of Damon Knight (Damon Knight)

The Best of Damon Knight
Damon Knight
Fiction, Collection/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Aliens bring the gift of world peace, but with an unexpected price... a misfit steps outside of time... a temporal hiccup gives a con man an extraordinary machine... a lone miner on a planetoid makes a terrible discovery... these and more stories by science fiction master Damon Knight are collected here.

REVIEW: Damon Knight's short "To Serve Man" was the basis of one of the most memorable episodes of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone. That tale and several others appear in this collection. The ideas are often intriguing, but I couldn't help finding the presentation and characters occasionally dated. One story in particular, "A Likely Story," loses a lot of relevance over the years: it features many then-popular science fiction writers in thin disguise, and primarily seems like an inside joke that was never meant to be read by an outsider over half a century later. (I picked out a few names, but the rest eluded me.) All in all, I liked several of Knight's concepts, and the writing itself is fairly decent. Unfortunately, it just can't help reflecting the bygone era in which Knight wrote, even in a forward-looking genre like sci-fi.

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

10% Happier (Dan Harris)

10% Happier
Dan Harris
Nonfiction, Autobiography/Self-Help
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: "The price of security is insecurity." So Dan Harris's father told him when he was a young boy, and so he believed. Pursuing a career in journalism, he constantly pushed himself to be better, to dig deeper, to get more airtime. It seemed to be paying off: first a jump to the big leagues of national TV in his 20's, then attracting the attention of the demigod of televised journalism Peter Jennings, leading to numerous high-profile stories around the world and in the middle of active war zones. Throughout his success, though, his personal life was in shambles, insecurities and instabilities eating him alive inside. It came to a head when he experienced a major panic attack - on live TV, in front of millions of of American viewers. Clearly, something wasn't working. Thus began Harris's search for peace of mind, a search leading through the fringes of evangelism, to the books and workshops of modern New Age gurus such as Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, even to the modern-day laboratories of scientists studying the measurable, practical benefits of ancient meditation practices. Here, he reveals his own experiences with meditation, and how he learned to be "10% happier" and more mindful without losing himself in mysticism.

REVIEW: I don't watch much TV these days, and even less televised news (I soured on it a few elections ago), but the name rung a vague bell, and the premise looked intriguing - particularly his promise to explain meditation and mindfulness without the often-circular talk so often attached to it. The book starts on a somewhat Americentric note, saying that meditation has a serious PR problem with so much New Age and mystic baggage, and that more people would be likely to try it but for that stuff... a statement that ignores the fact that, outside of white America, many people and cultures have long embraced meditation as part of daily life. Still, with self-appointed gurus raking in remarkable incomes off their meditation retreats, books, lectures, and refrigerator magnets, I understood what he was going for: to those of us not exposed to meditation outside of such images, it can be off-putting, especially when our first attempts at meditation are anything but the transcendental experience we're conditioned to expect. Here, Harris shares his personal story - which includes several down points and detours and U-turns, including a stint of drug abuse and moments of disillusionment - as he moves from meditation skeptic to believer, learning that mindfulness doesn't mean sacrificing one's competitive edge. Harris isn't alone in discovering (or, rather, re-discovering) the benefits of mindfulness; the trend is sweeping the corporate and scientific worlds, and even being used by the military to help soldiers deal with the stresses and unpredictability of the battlefield. Yet this popularity is bringing its own jargon and clutter to meditation, turning it into another fad full of catchphrases... threatening to create a new kind of backlash, setting up new levels of insecurity as people fail to meet those catchphrase promises and therefore reject the whole notion altogether. Coming from a more-or-less average guy, not a guru or a scientist or other lofty figure, the information seems more practical and common sense, without some of the high-level technicalities or mystic obscurity. Meditation isn't a cure-all for neuroses or depression, nor is it a gateway to the divine realms, but it helps one cope with life's stresses and the often-unhelpful impulses, the nagging little voices and negative scenarios and draining thought patterns that waste too much of our time and energy. By pairing his meditation experiences with his own story, Harris bypasses those catchphrases and promises, creating a more accessible path. Overall, I found it an interesting book, both as an autobiography and an introduction to meditation.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson)

The Rithmatist
Brandon Sanderson
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the United Isles of America, only Rithmatists stand between human civilization and the destruction wrought by wild chalklings, two-diminsional creatures capable of rending living flesh. Blessed by the Maker Himself with the ability to infuse chalk lines with power, these elite warriors are apart from and above the common folk... and, more than anything, Joel longs to be one. But Rithmatists are chosen at age eight, and at sixteen he's too old to ever be more than a powerless theorist - little better than his late father, a chalkmaker, whose obsession with Rithmatics plunged the family deep into debt. Living at the Armedius Academy in New Brittania, rubbing shoulders daily with those who hardly seem to care how they've been gifted with an opportunity he'd do anything for, doesn't help. Instead of focusing on his own studies, he finagles ways to sit in on Rithmatics lessons with old Professor Fitch... so Joel is there the day the new Professor Nalizar, a young man fresh from the Nebrask battle lines, comes to challenge Fitch for his red coat of tenure. With Nalizar come dark days at Armedius. Rithmatist students begin disappearing, leaving nothing but a few drops of blood and fragmented chalk lines that look for all the world like wild chalkling attacks. But those beasts are confined to the isle of Nebrask, nowhere near New Britannia... or are they? As Joel digs deeper, he unearths a mystery with roots deep in the origins of Rithmatics - and a danger older than the United Isles themselves.

REVIEW: It's been a while since I devoured a book like I did The Rithmatist. Sanderson sets up a great world, a fragmented "gearpunk" alternate history that re-imagines not only North America but the whole early 20th century, as well as an interesting magic system that's as much about mathematics as it is power, even as it sets up political, religious, and cultural tensions. Joel makes for a clever, driven protagonist, but he's not without his blind spots and flaws. As a sidekick, he picks up Melody, a girl who represents many things Joel wants - particularly wealth and the Rithmatic ability - alongside a melodramatic streak. The two hardly hit it off as quickly as many young adult heroes, but they make a decently balanced team. A host of other characters turn up, many of them adults, but none of them deliberately obtuse or as foolish as grown-ups can be in novels with underage main characters. Joel doesn't get things right all the time, and he makes some serious missteps in his pursuit of the abductor's identity and ultimate plot. Along the way, naturally, he does some much-needed growing up. The story ticks along like a well-wound clock, building to a tense climax with an interesting, unexpected twist. There's every indication of at least one more book in the series, and some of the ideas almost needed more exploration, though most of the tale is resolved here. Given how it pulled me in to a day-long reading binge (even keeping me up late on a work night), and the overall imagination level, I give it top marks.

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Animal Wise (Virginia Morell)

Animal Wise
Virginia Morell
Broadway Books
Nonfiction, Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The family dog that seems to know when its "people" are upset, the dolphin that appears to act to save a drowning human, the elephants that visit the bones of their dead... people throughout the centuries have wondered about animal minds, reporting observations hinting at surprising abilities and perceptions. For many years, modern science dismissed the notion that any species beyond Homo Sapiens experienced thoughts or emotions, or even processed sensations like pleasure or pain, viewing them as organic machines hardwired by instinct and genetics. Since the early twenty-first century, many scientific breakthroughs have challenged this notion, with new evidence that humans are not the only thinking, feeling creatures on this planet. The author visits scientists in the field and in laboratories around the world as they explore the intellectual and emotional worlds of all manner of animals, from fish and ants to dolphins and chimpanzees.

REVIEW: I often see articles praising the purity of the modern scientific process, how purely objective and free of prejudice these highly-trained professionals are in pursuit of truth and knowledge... articles that conveniently omit the very human blind spots such as the ones revealed here, where even the mere whisper of the idea that animals might think or feel would be met with harsh professional criticism and dismissal until fairly recently, prejudices carried over from nonscientific cultural ideas and popular philosophies, not to mention the very species-centric idea that, since animals cannot speak human languages to explain their worlds, it's pointless to even ask questions about their perceptions. Even so prominent and respected a researcher as Jane Goodall faced opposition when speaking of chimpanzees as individuals and not subjects. (The idea of animal minds and intelligence wasn't necessarily helped by some enthusiastic researchers such as John C. Lilly, who in the 1960's declared that dolphins spoke a distinct language and carried oral histories dating back millions of years... "evidence" possibly influenced by the LSD he occasionally dosed his subjects with. These claims, unfortunately, overshadowed other, legitimate research and discoveries, tainting the subject matter for decades to come.) New thinking and experiments, not to mention brain-scanning techniques and other technological advances, have allowed us to finally begin asking those questions, and the results are little short of astonishing. From ants little larger than a printed hyphen who appear capable of teaching to the surprisingly complex social lives of wild dolphins, from the remarkable long-term memories of elephant matriarchs to the genetic roots of joy as demonstrated by lab rats, even to the mental and behavioral changes that transformed the wary wolf into today's dogs, Morell explores all manner of unexpected discoveries, as well as offering insights into the people stepping up to ask the questions so long ignored by the scientific world. Each one raises more questions about our own place in the natural world: for instance, with new evidence of how fish experience stress and pain, perhaps new methods of fish farming are called for, to benefit both the animal and the humans who rely on them for food.
There are, predictably, still those who resist the idea of animals as anything more than self-replicating automatons - that humans alone have been blessed with self-awareness and emotions. The more that is revealed about the wonders of the animal minds, the more proud we humans should be to consider ourselves their kin... and the more seriously we should take our responsibilities, as the species whose actions seem to have the greatest planetary impact.

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