Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Book Review: New Spring

In the Wheel of Time prequel, New Spring, Jordan provides a glimpse of the world twenty years before the series proper begins. As it opens, the Aiel War is ending. The Dragon has just been reborn. Moiraine and Siuan are Accepted in the tower. The story details Moiraine and Siuan's discovery of the dragon and how their quest to find and guide him began. It also shows the first meeting of Moiraine and Lan, ending with him becoming her warder.

This book was a lot of fun, especially from a world-building perspective. It's nice to see the White Tower whole and functioning as it ought to. Getting more detail about life as an Accepted and Moiraine's test for the Shawl and induction into the Blue Ajah was great. The characters in the series proper leap-frogged the whole process, so there was no chance of seeing those rituals any other way. What's more, Moiraine and Siuan's story here really drives home how unprepared Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve are to become Aes Sedai. They would have benefitted from a lot more structure and training. Then again, they are what the world needs as the Last Battle approaches.

It was nice to get a shorter story set in this world. Everything is relative, but I'm not used to seeing this much plot from Robert Jordan. Things mostly move fast, though there are still sections that drag. Side plots that seem to have very little point. It does all tie together in the end, but a few things could have been jettisoned or shortened, resulting in something that could actually be called a novella. Of course, so much of that is the epic world-building that I'm enjoying (and that you have to enjoy to be a fan of this series), so maybe not.

I do wish Jordan has lived long enough to write his other planned prequels. He's created an incredibly rich world, and while his stories are a bit dry at times, they're nowhere near as dry as Tolkien's appendices. I'd gladly read as many books as Jordan would have written about this book. It's almost sad that I've only got one more of his books left, eager as I am to see where Sanderson takes the series. But I'm glad to have read this one. And reading it in publication order was the right choice. A lot of it wouldn't have as big an impact if I didn't already know who, say, Cadsuane was, or what lays in the White Tower's future, or how long Moiraine and  Lan spend searching for Rand.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Capital Crescent Trail

There are so many bike trails in and around DC. Every time I think I know all of them, I learn about another one. On Sunday, we went down to DC to ride the Capital Crescent Trail with Zach and Sarah. Adding in the Rock Creek Parkway makes this a 20 mile loop with a variety of terrain.

From what I can tell, the Capital Crescent Trail is still in the process of being developed. Like the W&OD, it's a converted railway line. There actually seems to be a sizable initiative to transform rail lines into biking/hiking trails around the area, which is pretty neat. This one starts in Silver Spring and runs in an arch to Georgetown, along the proposed purple line route. Not that the purple line will exist in my lifetime, but it's a cool bit of forward thinking to tie these together like the orange line is for the end (beginning?) of the W&OD trail.

The trail itself is more dirt than asphalt.This made for a harder ride, though it wasn't as bad as the Accotink Trail. The Rock Creek Parkway was bumpy enough that I lost my water bottle at one point, but the Crescent Creek trail was packed pretty well. It was more difficult than I'm used to, and I was definitely bringing up the rear of the group for most of the ride. Probably because I haven't actually been on my bike for a few weeks. Stupid summer sapping my energy and motivation (we've reached the part of the year where I come home from work and basically collapse on the couch).

Through Georgetown (maybe? I didn't have the clearest idea of where we were for most of the ride), the trail got very crowded. I got stuck behind a child who was wobbling all over the place on his bike because I couldn't figure out how to safely pass him. Once the crowd cleared up a bit, Kevin asked the kid's dad to let us by, and we were able to pick our speed back up, but it was frustrating for a while.

All in all, it wasn't my favorite trail ever. It's narrower and bumpier than the W&OD, which isn't really fair since it's still under construction and the W&OD is one of the best maintained trails out there. But I can see it getting easier with more rides. Who knows, it may even be the step I need to work up to the Accotink Trail (although something closer to a mountain bike will probably help more there).

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Review: Falling Free

Falling Free is an early novel in the Vorkosigan series. It was written shortly after Shards of Honor, The Warrior's Apprentice, and Ethan of Athos, when Bujold hadn't quite decided on Miles as the protagonist. It takes place 200 years before any of the other books, back when space exploration was fairly young and Barrayar was in isolation. It tells the story of the quaddies, gentically engineered humans designed for zero-gee work before the invention of artificial gravity.

This is not a favorite book in the series, being both an early work and disconnected from all of the main characters I went in with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised by home much I liked it. It's not the smoothest or most layered of Bujold's work, and she dives into technical stuff in a slightly distracting way. But the characters are amazing, and the plot, while straight-forward, is fun and interesting.

My favorite part is that we get a few points of view from the chief antagonist Van Atta, who cares about nothing so much as profit and his own career. He's an awful person, but getting inside his ehad reveals how deluded he is. He makes incredibly wrong assumptions, and it just drives in how utterly he is going to be defeated by the good guys.

One of the things I love most about the series is how safe it feels. Yes, there are space battles and tremendous accidents. Bujold doesn't she away from death or injury. But her books are laced with a strong sense of compassion and optimism. You know, early on, that the characters you care most about are going to be alright. It may lower the stakes, but it also makes for a nice, relaxing read. I don't have to spend time worrying that awful things will happen to the characters I love, because those are reserved as punishments for the characters I hate. In a world that seems obsessed with "gritty realism", there's comfort in that.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: The Ersatz Elevator

Snicket continues to play with the formula, resulting in what is my favorite book of the series so far. It's nice when the Baudelaire's get some good mixed in with the bad. It makes the story more interesting. Never-ending misery is ultimately boring (try reading The Two Towers). A few bright spots keep the story fresh and interesting. More importantly, they keep hope alive.

So the Baudelaires are sent to a married couple. And while the wife is greedy and treacherous, the husband is kind. Even if his good intentions come to nothing due to his weak will and distaste for arguments, at least he tries to treat the orphans well while they're under his care.

Additionally, Count Olaf is barely in this book. He sneaks around the edges even more than usual, so the orphans have to be more proactive than usual. They uncover his plot and come close to thwarting it. They find the Quagmire triplets and come close to freeing them. Alas, it's only the sixth book, so nothing can quite be wrapped up yet. But the orphans are learning and growing closer and stronger.

If the books continue to have absurd elements (like Sunny climbing a wall with her teeth) they also continue to be a great source for learning new words and turns of phrase. More than that, they do a good job of teaching how to figure things out from context, and they definitely seemed designed for children to grow with. Though unlike Harry Potter, it will only take a few months to grow through these books rather than 7 years. Which possibly makes them better for children.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Back in high school, all of my friends took AP English and I didn't. At the time it made sense. Mudd really didn't care about AP English, and since my high school capped us at 3 AP courses, I filled that space with physics and calculus. I don't regret that decision, but I did miss out on some interesting books. So I'm going back to fill in these gaps, and the latest "missed" book is Tess.

I can't even really remember how my friends reacted to this book. I'm not entirely sure how I would have reacted to it. Or how it was taught. I doubt I'd have been ready for it when I was 17. But now I shuddered almost immediately when Alec was introduced - ignoring Tess' boundaries from the start and then blaming her for his every transgression. Even Angel, presented as the perfect man, comes across as pretty awful.

Really this is a book about how much it sucks to be a woman. Tess is raped. Her child dies before it can be baptized. She falls in love and loses is immediately when her rape is revealed. She endures years of hard labor. Her every triumph is stolen away from her by drunken parents or moralizing assholes. She's finally driven to murder, and I can't say I blame her.

The language in this book is hard to get through at times. But there are some beautiful turns of phrase, and I did occasionally find myself lost in the fields of England. Hardy's not my favorite author, but I might be persuaded to try some more of his books in the future.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: Cold Days

By this point in The Dresden Files, a lot has changed. The war with the Red Court has ended in their annihilation. Dresden discovered a daughter. He died, spent some time as a ghost, and has now come back to life in the guise of the Winter Knight working for Mab. The first 100 or so pages of the book serve to orient us in the new world, but I had some trouble getting through them. It wasn't until Harry started to reconnect with his old friends and make amends that I became really engaged.

Alas, by then, another change had become apparent. Harry has always leered at women in a way that made me uncomfortable. I brushed it aside in favor of the excitement of his adventures. And he seemed to be getting better. As he gathered more female allies around him and forged all sorts of different relationships with women, I really thought he was becoming less misogynistic. But in this book he levels up in a way that has me wondering if Jim Butcher has ever actually interacted with a woman.

This book gets really uncomfortable a number of times as the so-called good guy starts to really muck around in the grey area. Which is supposed to make him interesting, but has me bordering on not caring. Maybe he'll pull out of it. After all, he's supposedly under some sort of spell that's making him act this way. But the implications, and his digressions on the differences between men and women, had me squirming.

If you can set that aside, the story is exciting and engaging. (Eventually.) It's the back half of the series, and the bad guys are bigger and more powerful than ever before. Allies are coming from the most unexpected corners. And there are interesting implications for the future of the series. It may just take me a while to work up to the next book. At least I'm basically caught up now. Waiting a year between books may ultimately be good for my relationship with this series. Should it continue.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Crabble!

One of the first things we did when I came to visit Kevin in DC way back in 2008 was go to an all-you-can crab place. I'd never had crabs before, and Kevin was excited to share with me one of his favorite foods. I had three crabs that afternoon, while Kevin sat at the table and ate crabs for three hours.

We still make sure to eat crabs once a year, but this has changed from something we go out to do to a party we throw at our house. Where I can drink beer and hang out friends and eat something other than crabs which are not, in my opinion, worth the effort.

With more friends and tighter schedules, it's becoming harder to schedule things like this. Especially in the summer. But we did find a weekend when most people were free, and when Ben, Autumn, and Alex were able to come down from NYC. The addition of out-of-town guests morphed this from an afternoon party to a full weekend extravaganza.

Ben and Autumn arrived at our house late on Friday night. We had a few beers and visited for a bit, but it wasn't long before exhaustion took over and we went to bed. The next morning we had plans to meet the rest of our group at the National Building Museum for their "beach" exhibit: essentially a gigantic ball pit. We woke up early, and I made shakshuka for breakfast. I've been wanting to make it since we went to NYC last month, and we finally had guests I could make it for. We'll get better flatbread next time, but it was enough of a success that I'm putting it in the rotation.

We ended up at the museum half an hour before it opened. This was good. The exhibit is popular, and by getting there so early we were close to the head of the line, able to get tickets and go right in. Kevin hung back to give tickets to the other half of the group, and we spent some time playing in the ball pit. It was enormous and almost waist deep in some places. I had a really hard time standing up once I'd sat down, or even keeping my head above the balls. After the novelty wore off we wandered around the rest of the museum, which had some pretty cool architectural models and a fun exhibit on the differences between houses and homes, as presented through the history of housing in America.

Just before noon, Kevin and I departed to pick up the crabs. We went to the Fish Market, which wasn't as big as I'd been expecting. It was really cool. Boats full of fish pull up to the dock and you buy seafood right off of them. Then it was off to get a keg and prepare the shrimp boil. The shrimp boil was a great addition to this party, especially for people like me who aren't too fond of crabs. Basically, you boil a bunch of potatoes, corn, onions, sausage, and shrimp in water that's been heavily seasoned with Old Bay. It's just a tad spicy and all around delicious and easy to eat.

People started arriving around 3, and we sat in the backyard, eating and drinking beer, until some time after 7. We had 16 people at our house, and I'm actually a little surprised we managed to fit that many in the backyard. But with two tables it worked out pretty well. Still, our parties are beginning to outgrow our house. I think it's time to start thinking about upsizing. (No, it's not. But it will be before too much longer.)

When the sun went down (well, a little before) we transitioned to beer pong. Alex and I did a good job of crushing other teams for a while. Then Autumn and I had a good winning streak until I abandoned her to get some sleep.

At one point, the guys became convinced that we were going to run out of beer. Several of them spent a long time taking turns lifting the keg and trying to determine how much beer was left. It was finally decided that we were nearly out of beer and that we had better go pick up some more while there were still sober drivers around. Ben went can came back with three cases. The next morning we discovered that the keg had not really been in danger of running out. In fact, we didn't actually finish it until some time in the afternoon, and that took a concerted effort (it didn't help that the beer was warm and going flat by then).

Sunday morning was filled with mimosas and board games. We played games we haven't played in years, which was a lot of fun. And we laughed at Kina's attempts to carry a pig ear around the house. Then she tried to bury the pig ear using her bed and Alex's shirt. At which point we noticed that Alex's shirt was damp and smelled. As did Kina's dog bed. We couldn't figure out if it was beer or urine (it was probably beer), and rather than running an extensive investigation I threw everything in the washing machine. Which both ruined the dog bed and revealed a mysterious puddle of liquid on the lower shelf of the table behind the bed. I still can't fathom how it happened. It's a very awkward spot to spill a drink, but it's not like peeing there made any more sense. We cleaned it up and spent some time reminiscing about the other mystery puddles from our drunken adventures over the years. I don't think this one will ever be solved.

People started drifting out in the afternoon. We miraculously got the house cleaned up in less than three hours, which I believe is some sort of record for Kevin and me. Usually it takes a week to get the house back in shape. But with the cleaning people coming to mop and dust the next day, I was motivated to clean up as much as I could.

And now we rest until Hallowiener. After which I'm seriously considering taking the Monday off to help recover.