Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday Musings: Moved

If you came here looking for Monday's post, go here:Monday Musings. Thank you!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Review: Sisters of the Raven (Sisters of the Raven #1) by Barbara Hambly

Sisters of the Raven (Sisters of the Raven, #1)Sisters of the Raven by Barbara Hambly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have always enjoyed Barbara Hambly's writing. She creates interesting characters and settings, and the stories are well done. Sisters of the Raven is no exception.

The story revolves around a society loosely based on desert societies. The men here have always possessed magic and the mages are held in high regard, particularly since they are the ones who call the life-giving rains every year. But for some reason, the men are losing their magic. The mages have a harder and harder time every year calling the rains, and as this story opens, it seems that this year, they may not be able to bring the rain at all. Meanwhile, some women are beginning to show the ability to do magic. One of these has been accepted as a student with the Sun Mages. Another is the favorite concubine and trusted advisor of the king. As tensions both political and personal rise with every day the rains are delayed, these two women, along with a few others, must not only solve the mystery of the change in magic, but also try to discover who has been killing the woman mages.

I enjoyed the book. The main characters are interesting and well-drawn. The Summer Concubine is a strong, intelligent woman, who knows that she must act her part, and does without losing her dignity or identity. The king, Oryn, comes across at first as a bit of a dandy, and to some extent he is, but part of that is act, as well. He is shrewd and intelligent, and at times uses his love of fine clothes, jewels, and food as a blind. He and the Summer Concubine have a strong relationship, based on true affection and respect for each other's strengths. The apprentice mage, Raesheldis, is just rebellious enough, with a quick wit and courage. Secondary characters, while not as completely rounded as the main ones, are still fleshed out and believable.

The world of the story is well drawn. The desert setting is harsh, with wandering nomad tribes to cause trouble. The main part of the story takes place in the Yellow City, essentially the capital of Oryn's kingdom, and the area surrounding the Five Lakes where most of the civilization lives. There is enough detail to bring the setting to life, without interfering with the story or becoming boring.

The action is not slow, but doesn't have a lot of frantic pacing. There are only one or two battles, with most of the fighting relegated to street riots as the drought continues. The story moves along well, and is very character driven.

It was an easy book to read, and I look forward to reading the second story set in this world.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wednesday Wandering: From Around the Internets

Here are a few of the things I found interesting this week:

We all face making apologies at one time or another. Here's a post from John Scalzi on his Whatever blog that gives a good template for doing it right:

And this one is Neil Gaiman's keynote address at the London Book Fair. It's a bit long (30 minutes), but worth listening to. Some interesting ideas on art and creativity. I especially liked the idea that we all should become dandelions, and spread our creativity as much as possible, in as many ways as possible, and allow ourselves to be surprised and delighted by what takes root:
Neil Gaiman at the London Book Fair

There were a lot of jokes and trying to be funny bits floating around after the Boston Marathon bombings. Many of them got the whole point of the humor that should come out of something like this very wrong. This short clip is Stephen Colbert, who got it very right:
Colbert on the Marathon bombing

The last two are cute and amusing. This first one is a girl who has trained her cat to run an agility course and do a few other tricks. It's pretty cool to see what you can do with a cat, an animal a lot of people consider not trainable. The girl has obviously put in a lot of time with her kitty, and found a really good treat reward.
Kitty Does Agility

And the last one is for my Dr. Who fan friends. David Tennant, Dr. #10, had a birthday recently, and this was posted for that occasion. One of the things we love about Tennant is the faces, all those wonderful facial expressions he could make. This is a collage of many of them, from Dr. Who and others. At the end is a short video collection of every time the Tenth Doctor said, "Allons-y!" You Who fans out there will understsnd.
David Tennant Faces

That's the internet for this week. Enjoy!

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Beginning of the End?

     I saw this link on Twitter:
The Day I Forgot How to Use a Book It's an older post, but I found it interesting. I have never (yet) tried to swipe a physical book, but I wonder if others have. And, if it is a common mistake, what it may mean for the publishing industry at large, and writers and readers, as well.

     There are a lot of people out there in the book world that will tell you real, honest-to-goodness paper books are a dying breed, kind of like vinyl records and cassette tapes. "Digital is the only way." "Ebooks are the wave of the future." From one perspective, it may seem to be true.

     Borders no longer exists. Barnes and Noble may be in trouble, as far as their brick-and-mortar stores go, and possibly their digital divisions, as well. (How Barnes and Noble Destroyed Itself and B&N Third Quarter Financial Results) Whether or not they did it to themselves, (as some argue with the Nook) the company as a whole appears to be in trouble. Independent bookstores are not doing much better, in the overall picture. Sure, there are some that are doing very well, but there are many reports of independent stores in trouble or closing. So, what's going on? Does the ease of use and availability of digital books spell doom for bound books? Will we be hoarding our hardcovers and paperbacks in special bookcases, with protective covers, like some aficionados of vinyl records.

     I don't think so. I have a Kindle, which I use regularly. I find it very convenient when travelling, as I don't have to lug heavy books with me. If, for whatever reason, I decide I don't like or don't want to continue to read a current book, I can switch easily. It fits in a purse or computer bag easily, without inconvenient shoving. It certainly is easy to get a new book- just find it online, a couple clicks, and it is right there on the device. There are many books available for free or very little cost. I have the Kindle reader app on my iPhone. I use that frequently in places like doctor's offices, where I might not even want the extra baggage of the Kindle itself. I can catch up on a few pages of a book while I am waiting. I probably have 50+ unread digital books either on the Kindle or on my computer.

     At the same time, I have about the same number of unread paper books, also. I like books. I have a lot of books that I have read and kept on my shelves. Why? I like to have the actual books by favorite authors. There is something that feels more connecting to me about being able to look at a line of books by an author I enjoy. I get a good feeling seeing the spines all lined up together. Then, there is the idea of autographs. It's hard to get a digital book signed. I have a number of signed paper books, most from personal appearances by the author. I can look at that book, and remember meeting someone whose work I admire. You don't get that in a digital book. Add to that just the simple feeling of holding a book in your hands. Something that has weight and substance, that requires you to do a little more than just swipe your finger to turn a page.

     We are physical creatures. We like the convenience of our Kindles, iPads, and smartphones. At the same time, I think we maintain a connection to things like books. They satisfy the need to have something concrete and solid to hold and use, at least for some. Of course, there will be those who think the convenience of electronic media is better. I also believe there will always be a place for those old-fashioned bound books in many people's lives.

    I have become more particular about the books I keep, I do admit that. A lot of the books I read are either given away or donated after I read them. But if I find an interesting book- an actual bound book- browsing a bookstore or swap, I will take it. I don't run to the Kindle and see if I can get it on Amazon, even though pretty much everything is there. Even if I am reasonably sure I will not be keeping it after reading. Because, for me, at least, a book is a wondrous thing to have.

Friday, April 19, 2013

What In The World?

     No Friday review today. Instead, just a few thoughts on recent events.

     A lot has happened in the last week or so. No, let me change that. A lot has happened in the last few months. Shootings, bombings, and explosions, deliberate and accidents. It’s easy to let those things take over our lives and become the focus of our attention. We are bombarded day and night with news reports and sound bites, many of which are contradicted or retracted almost immediately. It becomes far too easy to think of the world as bad or sick.

     I think that is the wrong thing to do. We live in a fast-paced world, one that changes daily, if not faster. We have access to so many sources of information, from TV to newspapers, magazines, and the internet. There is a need to be first- first to know, first to see, first in everything. It pushes us to seek out the latest news and reports, especially when tragedy strikes.

     But there is also an urge to explain, to figure it out, to ask why? And who? So we point fingers, assign blame, target someone or something in the effort to ease our own discomfort. I know I can be guilty of doing those things. I also think we should think about what we are doing. Pointing fingers and looking for someone to blame only fosters and fans the anger and fear. Perhaps we should stop, take those proverbial deep breaths, and look around.

     Look around at the good and the beautiful. Look at the babies born on the days of tragedy, new lives just beginning, full of hope and promise. Look around at the people in our lives who make those lives so much better- our families and friends. Look around at the world we live in. Despite the wars and unrest, wrapped around the hatred and fear, is beauty and life. Our world is waking up from its winter sleep. Grass is greening, flowers are blooming, and birds are singing again. I was out  walking the dog the day after the marathon bombings, and I felt the warmth of the Spring sun, and saw the blue sky, and smelled the fresh, new air. Of course, the things that have happened are terrible and horrific, but I felt a peace and joy that somehow, helped.

     Don’t ignore the tragedies. Don’t bury your head in the sand. But maybe, just maybe turn off the TV news, dial the car radio to some great music, use the computer and cell phone to do something other than Google the news. Spend time with your family. Have dinner and enjoy the company, and maybe a few laughs. Meet a friend for coffee. Don’t focus on fear and death. Stop pointing fingers and blaming or criticizing. Put more joy and happiness and good out into the world. I promise, you will feel better. And maybe if enough light is released into our lives, we can make a real difference, one of us at a time. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wednesday Wanderings: Out and About on the Internets

     I'm going to try to get out a post once a week with some links I've stumbled across during the previous week. They will be things that interested me. All are things that I found amusing, informative, weird, fun, thought-provoking, profound. (Don't expect too much of that last one. I lean more toward the amusing or weird.)

     So, here's this week's list:

     First, a link to an article on hacker attacks on WordPress sites that some fear could spawn a super botnet:
WordPress Attacks

     Second, four simple things to add to your daily routine for a healthier life:
Four Things to Add to Your Day

     Third, seven tips to boost your productivity:
7 Productivity Tips
Some of these I already do (most of the time), and others I thought were interesting and maybe worth a try.

     This last one is personal. Chronicle, a program on one of the local Boston TV channels, did s segment on Concord, MA. One of the places highlighted is the Nashoba Brook Bakery, which not only makes awesome bread, but our youngest daughter is the cafe manager there. The NBB segment starts at about the  2 minute mark, and she is on camera twice briefly. She is the one at the cash register in the burgundy shirt. The beginning of the segment may be of interest to some, also, because it highlights The Concord Bookshop, a nice little independent bookstore that promotes local authors, both living and dead:
Concord MA on Chronicle

     Those are a few of the the things I saw this week that I found interesting. Did you find anything fun or informative out there?

Monday, April 15, 2013

OMG! My Privacy!

< rant >     I had a completely different post started for this week, but that will wait for another time. I am going to address something that I have been seeing with increasing frequency, including a couple forwarded emails, that I think needs talking about.

     I'm referring to all those posts, links, and other notifications warning everyone about the (lack of) privacy protection on social media like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and others. The gist of most of them is something like this:

    "Do you think your privacy is safe on Facebook (or wherever)? Think again. These so-called social media sties don't care about your privacy, and you will regret it if you allow them to continue to do what they are doing." Often, these dire warnings are followed by some procedure you can do to "safeguard" your privacy.  It all sounds so horrible and threatening, doesn't it?

     I call bullshit. First of all, while the social media sites do, indeed, want you to feel that you can use them to whatever extent you feel comfortable with, they are not there to lockdown every piece of information you may type into your profile or posts. They give you settings to tailor the visibility of your information, and you should use them. Ultimately, the one responsible for your privacy (or lack of) online is you. Yes, you. And you. You, too. You are the ones who decide what to make public and what not to.

     It goes way beyond just adjusting your settings, however. Because, let's face it, this internet thing is public. Always has been, always will be. Social media sites are just that- social. And public. Despite the best intentions of any provider, the hackers and other unsavory types are out there, and they are working constantly to find workarounds to any and all of the safeguards. As soon as one is plugged, someone finds another loophole.

     Added to that is the fact that providers like Facebook make their money off advertisements. You didn't think they gave you this huge forum for keeping in touch with your friends and family out of the goodness of their heart, did you? Not that I don't think they have good hearts, but it's expensive to run a thing like Facebook (or any of them), and goodness don't pay the bills. Facebook says upfront they will use your online activity to target ads to you. Your activity goes into a database. Want to see less of those ads? Think about what you say, what you like, who you follow. If you like every puppy and kitty you see, you can bet you are going to get pet related ads. Personally, I'm okay with most of that. The ads are reasonably unobtrusive, and I can ignore them easily. But they are going to be there, and there isn't a whole lot you can do about it.

     So, what do you do?

     Well, for one thing, if you truly do not want anyone other than a few select people to see any part of your information, don't post it online. Give it to them personally. If you don't personally know or can't independently verify the person, organization, business, or charity that wants you to "Like" or "Follow" them, don't. It's very easy for phishing scammers to set up bogus accounts that look real. Look at them as closely as you would a suspicious email. Trust me on this- hundreds more cancer patients are not going to die, and thousands of kittens are not going to be killed, if you don't Like some random social media page. If you wouldn't give out certain information in a public place where anyone could overhear it, maybe you shouldn't post it online, either.

     Parents, monitor your kids. Sure, they all want Facebook and Twitter and all that, but if they are under consenting adult age, and they live in your house, they live by your rules. In other words, be parents. Don't expect Facebook and Twitter to do it for you. Make sure your kids friend you, and don't hide or block anything from you. If they do, cut them off. Give them some amount of freedom, and don't breathe down their necks night and day. However, if something does look suspicious, or they are liking every random page that comes across their feed, talk to them about scammers and why they should be careful.

     I don't want to frighten anyone. I love Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other online communities. I use them every day. I keep up with friends, family, and things I enjoy. I talk to people I don't see often, I share jokes, I discuss issues, and I will continue to do so. I do exercise caution. I do verify and check and try to make sure what I pass on is real. Do I make a mistake now and then? Sure. I am human. But each time I do, it serves to remind me that I should be more careful. After all, we are all responsible for whatever we do, online or off. The spammers and the phishers and the other less than legitimate types aren't going away. But if we all take a little care, we can lessen their effects. So, go on, update your status, tweet away, laugh at the latest joke making the rounds, and "awwww" at that cute kitty or puppy. Just be sure it's a real kitty or puppy first.

     Oh, and please do not ask me to change my settings to "make things more secure." I have my settings the way I want them, thank you. And most of the time, those things either are already set that way by default, or the change won't do what you think it will. For example, the one you see all the time that says to click on my profile picture, and uncheck photos, and other items? All that will do is unsubscribe ME from your posts, and I won't see them. Which sort of defeats the purpose of being friends online in the first place, doesn't it?  I won't do it. I'm content with my online experience as it is, and I don't feel that my privacy is in any way threatened by what I am doing.<  /rant >

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling (Graceling Realm, #1)Graceling by Kristin Cashore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Graceling tells the story of Katsa, a young woman in the court of her cousin, a manipulative and vindictive king. Katsa is a Graceling, one of a a small percentage of the population given a Grace, or special ability. There are many Graces, from mundane things like swimming to fighting and mind-reading. Gracelings are identified by their eyes, which are two different colors. Katsa's are green and blue. Her Grace seems to be killing. Her cousin uses her as an enforcer, sending her to physically punish and even kill those of his subjects that have crossed or angered him. Katsa deals with the guilt by forming a secret Council, who take on tasks promoting justice and tolerance. During one such mission, to rescue a kidnapped noble from a neighboring kingdom, Katsa gets involved in the machinations of a cruel and abusive king. In the process, Katsa learns the true nature of her Grace, and begins to let down her own walls.

I don't normally like YA stories. I think it's because I'm a cranky, old lady, and when faced with characters who are not quite children and not quite adults, I find myself muttering, "Grow up, already!" far too often. Of course, the growing up is the point of these stories. And this is one I had a hard time putting down. Cashore manages to give Katsa all the issues and emotional turbulence of any young person trying to find their way to adulthood without turning her into an overly moody teenager. Katsa is tough (or at least she thinks she is), active, and intelligent. She does not open herself to friendship easily, but she has had a secluded life. Her ability to kill with her bare hands manifested early in her life, and people pulled away from her in fear.

The setting is a typical fantasy world, without races other than humans. There are multiple kingdoms with their own intrigues and political maneuvering. Characters are well drawn, with even some minor characters taking on a fully realized personality. There are a few stereotypes: the cruel king who tortures and kills for pleasure, a suitor who can't understand Katsa's reluctance to accept him, but they are few.

The storyline is well drawn. Plot points move along quickly, with a good amount of action. I found the climax a bit too quickly won, but not enough to ruin the reading experience.

Graceling is one of the better examples of genre YA and is certainly worth a read, not only for young people, but anyone who likes a good fantasy with an interesting concept and believable characters.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: Dragonfire (Dragon Keeper #4) by Donita K. Paul

DragonFire (DragonKeeper Chronicles, #4)DragonFire by Donita K. Paul

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is technically the fourth book in the Dragonkeeper series, but it is the second I have read. Much like the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, there is an undercurrent of spiritual idealogy in the stories. And, as with Narnia, you don't have to be a religious person to enjoy them. The religious underpinnings are not so overt as to take over the story. They are there, but Paul does not beat you over the head with them.

In this part of the story, DragonKeeper Kale Allerion is married to Sir Barton, and they have been living in the Bog, working to clean it up of various unsavory creatures. They happen on the cure for Gilda, one of the intelligent dragons. They leave the bog to find Gilda. They find her, and enact the cure, but also find the land being ravaged by the battle between two evil wizards. The people are somewhat indifferent, just hoping the war doesn't affect them too much. Kale is charged with hatching and training an army of dragons, a quest she is aided in by her father, also a DragonKeeper. Bardon is sent on his own quest.

The story moves along fairly quickly, with few passages that bog down the story. The world is fully developed by this fourth book. The cast of characters is fairly large, and it is sometimes hard to keep all of the different races (there are seven higher and seven lower races here), but the glossary at the end of the book and the character list help there. Paul does not shy away from conflict or unpleasant imagery, but nothing is exceptionally graphic. There are religious undertones to the story, but at its core, it is a story of the conflict between good and evil, and that is a familiar theme to readers of fantasy, religious or not.

I found it an enjoyable, easy book to read.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"That's Wonderful, Darling, But What's My Motivation?"

     That's the question I was asked the other day by one of my characters. The story he's in is still in its early planning stages. I've got the two main characters identified, and I know what they are doing. The problem is, with one of them, I don't know why he's doing what he's doing. With the other, it's relatively easy- he's doing  things that are consistent with who he is, for the most part. With this one, he is doing things that are not what you would expect from this type of character. I know what he's doing, I just don't know why. And the why is the thing.

     Motivation is one of the key things a writer needs to know about her characters. Because without motivation, there is no reason for the events that happen in the story. Just as we all have our reasons for doing the things we do, so must our characters, if they are to be believable. And it is especially important for those who do things outside of their normal actions. Readers won't believe in a character who is acting outside his normal boundaries without any reason for doing so.

     And so, yes, darling, we will figure out why you are who you are. I'll give you your motivation. Just let me think about it for a little while, okay?

     In other news, it got cold again! I spent part of Monday out in the garden, cleaning up, digging in compost, and getting the cool weather plant bed ready to be seeded. And then, I wake up Tuesday, intending to test the irrigation system, and plant the bed, but it is cold out there again. And windy, which made it worse. So, no garden work got done.I've been leaving the door open so some fresh air gets in the house, and I was thinking about opening a few windows. But not now.  I want my warm weather back, please.

     Easter was a nice family day. Jill, John, and Carter came for dinner, as did Krysta, Kleber, and Will. The BaldMan cured and smoked a ham, and grilled a lamb roast. We also had German potato salad, blood orange glazed carrots, and asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. I made Williamsburg Orange Cake for dessert. I made it as cupcakes, instead of a full cake, because Krysta is mildly allergic to walnuts. With cupcakes, I could put nuts in some and leave some without. I haven't made that cake in years, mostly because we really don't do dessert a lot. I originally got the recipe from my old Betty Crocker cookbook. It was the first cookbook I owned, and has since fallen apart. I did save our favorite recipes from it, though.

    I'll close with a few pictures from Easter dinner:

That's me, Stephanie, and William

John, Jill, and Carter

Stephanie, Will, Krysta, Kleber, and John

And lots of food! It was a good day.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Grandfather Clock

     My parents have had a grandfather clock in their house for many years. I have always liked grandfather clocks. There is something about them- beautiful, stately, musical- that speaks to me. My Dad bought it as a gift for their 33rd Anniversary, in 1987. There is a brass plaque on the front with their names, 33rd Anniversary, and the date: June 19, 1987. The pendulum is engraved with an M for McCormack. It seems I said I liked it, and would love to own it eventually. From that time on, Dad always referred to it as "my" clock.

     Mom is moving to a smaller apartment on April 1. She will be living in a senior apartment building, where she will feel more secure than being alone in the apartment she is in now. We drove to PA last week to pick up the clock. We brought it here to NH in the back of the van, all wrapped up in blankets. The weights and pendulum were wrapped in bubble wrap.

     Mom said that it wasn't running well lately, and we thought perhaps it needed oiling, and maybe needing a good cleaning. We decided to see what happened, and, if necessary, call the clock shop in town to get it serviced. We got it into the house (with only minor problems. Like the 12 pack of beer I knocked off the counter on the way through the kitchen. Oops.), and put it in place in the dining room. Got the weights and pendulum hung, and set and wound it. It ran for a while, then stopped. Started it again. It stopped after a while again. So the BaldMan did a few adjustments, and it has been running nicely ever since. It was a bit slow, but that's fixable. The strike was an hour ahead, but that's been adjusted, also. It seems a bit quiet, which is not necessarily bad, although I do wish it were just a bit louder.

     It has a "secret" compartment in the bottom, and there is a scroll, hand lettered with Mom and Dad's name, address, and the date, that is supposed to go in there. I will put our names on it, as well as fill out some of the other paperwork that wasn't when it was bought.

    So, Dad, I have "my" clock now. I see it and hear it everyday, and it makes me happy.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday Review: Swift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron

Swift, Brutal RetaliationSwift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a nice quick read. It can easily be finished in one sitting. It takes place in the few days after the death of Ian, the oldest child in the family. It is a ghost story, since Ian appears to his younger sisters several times after the funeral. It is also a complex story about family relationships and grief, for all its short length. The family is dominated by the father, who is strict and dictatorial. Mother is withdrawn and distant, afraid to antagonize her husband. The two sisters are confused and unsure how to deal with the changes in the family because of the death of their brother.

The interesting thing about the story is the framework. The girls grew up dealing with their brother's constant pranks and bullying. They fall back on that familiar behavior in trying to deal with their own grief. The ghost of Ian seems to be continuing his pranking behavior even now that he is dead, but there are hints that it is something more. The hints are there, and the girls are trying to figure out what he wants. Without spoiling anything, I think the message is different from what most people might think. The ending is not quite a "tie up all the ends" type, and can seem a bit abrupt and unfinished. It did fit the story quite well.

This is not a typical ghost story, but its subtlety and psychological aspects make it worth the short time it takes to read it.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Monday Musings

Just a few things I've noticed lately:

We were in the grocery store, purchases made, and ready to leave. Coming in the door was a woman with a toddler, maybe two years old or so. They walked in the automatic door, and he just stopped, with a look of pure awe on his face at the door that opened all by itself. He just stood there, staring at it, eyes wide and mouth open in an O of wonder. It made me smile. Just a reminder that we, as busy adults, take so many things for granted, and perhaps we need to just stop and enjoy the wonder of little things more often.

I find great comfort in baking bread. I baked two days in a row last week, and it was so calming. I do use a stand mixer to do all the tough work- mixing and kneading- since my tendinitis makes it hard to knead by hand. But just watching the dough come together, and change from a ragged lump to a smooth dough is amazing. And it requires patience. The dough is going to rise and proof in its own time, and it won't be rushed. I don't know why, but I always feel better when there is bread baking going on.

The White Mountains here in NH are very pretty, even now when they are dark and wintery. The highest peaks are covered in snow, white and frosty looking. On the lower mountains, the ski trails are white streaks among the surrounding trees. It looks like a postcard picture as you drive up the highways.

I was outside at night a while back. I don't even remember why I was out there in the dark, but I looked up and thought to myself that I should just go out and look at the stars more often.

We had our usual St. Patrick's day dinner on Sunday. Both grandsons came. The house had laughing, shrieking kids and an extra dog in it again. It freaks out the cats, but they get over it. And we enjoy it, of course. Family dinner- nothing like it.

I kind of enjoy the slower walks I have to take with Murphy now. Since his legs are giving him trouble, we don't walk as far or nearly as fast as we used to. I miss the extra exercise, but the slower pace means I see and hear more now. More and more birds are singing, there are buds on some trees and bushes, and it gives me time to think. It's good to slow down sometimes.

There is your week's dose of trivial minutia from me. What have you been noticing lately?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Review: The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, Book 1) by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Wheel of Time is one of the most widely read fantasy series around. I've just started it, not because I was waiting for it to be finished (the final volumes, written from extensive notes after Jordan's death, were written by Brandon Sanderson. The final book was published this year), but more because I wasn't sure I wanted to start another long continuing series.

The book certainly stems from the Tolkien school of fantasy. It is a sweeping epic, with a large cast of characters and plenty of action. I found it a bit wordy, something I have also found on re-reads of Tolkien's works. There were repeating sections with the same basic pattern that took up multiple chapters. Escape pursuers in one village, walk to the next, get attacked again, escape, etc. I could have done with a bit less there.

The characters were a mix of good and bad for me. There are strong female characters, although I did find Nyneave rather irritating after a while. The Warder, Lan, is a typical fighter/protector, although he was one of the characters I liked. As for the three main characters, I found Mat and Perrin a bit less developed than I'd like. Rand, while certainly one of the main focus points of the story, was just a bit too whiny for me. I am not sure I'd be any different given the same circumstances, but I was not inclined to like him because of that.

The setting is typical for a large scale fantasy of this type. Descriptions of the places and peoples in the world are detailed and vivid.

I didn't dislike the story, but it didn't break new ground for me. I will read the next volume, since the first of a long series is often more a setting up than the meat of the story. Those who like Tolkien-esque fantasy on a grand scale should give this a try, if you haven't already.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday (Restaurant) Review: Bobby's Burger Palace, Burlington Mall, Burlington, MA

Yes, I am late posting this today. Usually, I write the post up on Thursday, and schedule it to post on Friday morning. I've been behind in my reading lately, and needed something to put up here for my Friday Review post. We went to the newest Bobby's Burger Palace just last night, so I am writing this now.

I think everyone probably knows Bobby Flay, the red-haired TV personality and chef-owner of upscale restaurants like Mesa Grill and Bar Americain. He is well known for his love of Southwest food and many of his recipes feature chilies and other Southwest ingredients. Lately, he has opened a string of steak places, and the burger palaces. The latest of the burger restaurants opened about a week ago at the Burlington Mall in Burlington, MA. We decided to take a ride down there last night and check it out. I am a fan of Chef Flay. We have several of his cookbooks and have enjoyed everything we have made from them, so I was eager to try his burgers. I was not disappointed.

The restaurant is fairly small, with large tables and a curved bar-like counter. The decor is bright, in apple green, deep orange, and gold, with brown accents. A long light fixture, curved like the counter seating it hangs over, echoes the color scheme. Large, modern, food oriented artwork hangs on the walls. It is open and inviting. You come into the restaurant, place your order at the counter, and get a number sign to put on your table. Find a table, sit down, and when your order is ready, the waitstaff brings it to your table. Service was quick and efficient, although the place was not crowded when we were there, so I don't know if it bogs down when it is.

The food was excellent. The menu is burgers only. You can get beef, turkey, or chicken burgers. There are a number of different choices on the menu, with different sets of garnishes and sauces. Any burger can be "crunchified," the signature embellishment of the chain. This involves adding a stack of potato chips to the burger. None of us tried that option. Sides are fries, onion rings, and sweet potato fries. There is a kids' burger option. The usual array of soft drinks, iced tea, and water are offered. This particular restaurant does not offer alcohol, which was a bit disappointing, as I do like a good, cold beer with my burgers. Not a big deal, however.

I ordered the Napa Valley burger, which is topped with goat cheese and watercress. I asked for mine cooked medium, and that is exactly what I got. The burger was crusted nicely, and the entire interior was pink but cooked, and very juicy. The goat cheese was tangy, but not overly so, and didn't overpower the burger. The watercress added a nice bit of crispness. The Meyer lemon honey mustard was slightly sweet, but balanced. The fries were very good, and served with a dipping sauce that seemed a cross between a remoulade and aioli, without the strong garlic of a typical aioli. The onion rings were huge, and the beer batter crisp. You could taste the beer in the batter, unlike some I have had. I even enjoyed the sweet potato fries, and I am not usually a fan of those. They were served with a honey mustard horseradish dipping sauce that was very tasty, but I didn't feel it enhanced the fries.

Prices are reasonable, with all the burgers under $8. Sides are $3.

All in all, I enjoyed the meal, and will likely go there again, when I am in the Burlington area. Next time, I will try the crunchified burger!

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Old Dog's Life

No, nothing is wrong with Murphy. Well, other than the usual, that is. For those who don't know him, Murphy is our chocolate Labrador retriever. He is somewhere in the vicinity of twelve years old. We have had him since he showed up on our porch in December of 2003. He is mostly deaf, his eyesight is a bit cloudy so he doesn't see well in the dark, and he has problems with his rear legs. Mostly, I refer to him as Old Dog. But, as I tell him every day, he is the best dog in the whole world.

I've gotten used to his mobility issues. He has significant arthritis in the rear legs and spine, and most likely some myelopathy, as well. He can't do the mile or mile and a half walks we used to. He gets two short ones these days. He also loses control of the rear legs, and falls sometimes. If he gets them too splayed out when he does, he can't get himself back up. He often needs help climbing up the deck stairs.

For a while this winter, I was thinking he was getting worse- he seemed to need help more and more often. Lately, he seems much better. Not miracle better, mind you, but more active and alert. He wants to walk more, and hates it when I tell him it's time to head home. I know he wouldn't make it much further than we go without really having difficulty on the way back, but he wants to keep going. He seems more- sprightly, I guess is the word. Oh, he still walks with that funny gate because of the bad legs, and when he runs, he sort of rabbit hops on the rear legs. The right rear foot knuckles over a fair amount. But I've noticed when we don't have deep snow in the yard, he does run more than he used to. He sleeps a lot when he's in here, but he is a senior and deserves it.

I wish I could say it was something I am doing, because, believe me, I would keep it up. He gets the same food, the same supplement, the same everything. I'm not complaining. I'm loving it. I hope he keeps it up for years.

I know too many people who have lost pets recently. It makes me worry a bit about the old guy. But he's doing well right now, and he's happy, so I'm going to enjoy our walks and excursions to the chicken coop. Best dog in the whole world, for sure.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller and Sebastian Rouxel

Bouchon BakeryBouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven't baked everything in this book, but I think there will be many recipes that get made before long. Thomas Keller is a renowned chef and owner of very upscale restaurants including per se and the French Laundry. He wanted to start baking the breads for his restaurants, and opened the first Bouchon Bakery in 2003. He wanted to provide the bread for the restaurants, of course, but also to have a small cafe to sell pastries and breads similar to the ones he'd loved so working in Paris. He hired Matthew McDonald to run the bakery operation, and Sebastian Rouxel as pastry chef. The Bouchon Bakery has expanded to five bakeries.

Keller is mainly a savory chef, but he grew to love the aroma and flavors of bread and baked goods in Paris, as well as growing up where cookies were an everyday treat. The bakeries recreate some of these childhood memories in their own way. There are versions of Oreos, Nutter Butters, and Pecan Sandies, among others, in the book. I've made the Pecan Sandies, and they are delicious.

The book is beautiful, with clean, white pages, and stunning photography. It is large and a bit heavy. The recipes are clearly written, with ingredient lists in both metric weight measures (which Keller highly recommends using, and I do, too), and the more usual volume measures. Some recipes use specific ingredients, but there is a source listing in the back of the book. There are sections on Cookies, Scones and Muffins, Cakes, Tarts, Pate a Choux, Brioche and Doughnuts, Puff Pastry and Croissants, Breads, and Confections. There is also a chapter on Basics which gives recipes for frostings, fillings, glazes, and other things that don't necessarily fit in the other chapters, but are things every baker should know.

This is not a learn to bake book. Some of the recipes are a bit involved, and some are not, probably, for the novice baker. It certainly has a place on the cookbook shelf of anyone who loves to bake and wants to make some really wonderful treats.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

23 In 2013 Update

Remember the 23 in 2013 Challenge I decided to do? This is my latest update post, now that February is well under way. I got the short story I was working on out to readers, and got some really good feedback. I'll be working on editing and revising so it can get out to where it needs to be by the end of the month. I started a new short story that is coming along very nicely right now. That will be ready for crit reading soon, I hope. I'm pleased with this one, and I hope it feels that way to others. The short piece I wrote for this month is actually just a quick scene. I had an idea for a much longer story (I'm going to say probably novel length) that I started basic plotting on early this month. I doubt I will get to starting it for a while yet, but I needed to get the idea on paper so I don't forget. That also allows me to start outlining a bit at a time, as I can fit it in. Meanwhile, I wrote a quick scene that will probably make it into the longer work in some form, but for right now, it gives me an idea of the main characters and a little about the story itself.

Here it is:

Mary Alice Kropp 
            Father Tim pulled the stiff white band out of his shirt collar and let it fall to the side table. He picked up a crystal tumbler and swirled the amber liquid inside, making the two ice cubes clink against the glass. He sat slowly in the upholstered arm chair and settled back. Taking a sip of his drink, he regarded his companion, seated across from him on a matching sofa.
            “What do you get out of all this?” he asked. “I know what I do, but what about you?”
            The demon sat with his legs crossed, one cloven hoof resting on the dark mottled carpet; the other swinging gently. He was muscular, deep copper-red in color, with a blocky body and thick, corded neck. His face was lined, with eyes that glowed red-gold in the light from the fireplace. His head was bald, with two straight horns growing up from his forehead. When he smiled, he showed two rows of short, sharp fangs. He raised his glass toward the priest.
            “Good Scotch?” The demon’s voice was a deep, rumbling bass. Fr. Tim sighed and shook his head. The priest was in his mid-thirties, with short reddish-brown hair and beard, just showing traces of gray. He had blue eyes behind dark rimmed glasses. He was in good physical shape, although next to the demon’s corded muscles, he looked almost puny.
            “Seriously, Oscar,” Fr. Tim said. “This can’t be an ideal situation for you, but here you are.” The demon grinned again, and drained his glass in a gulp.
            “You ask a question of one you call the Great Deceiver, Trickster, Liar, and you expect a serious answer? C’mon, Timothy, we make a good team, don’t you think?” Fr. Tim opened his mouth to say something more, but the strident ringing of the telephone interrupted. He set his glass on the table, and walked over to the desk in the corner and picked up the receiver.
            “Yes?” He paused to listen. A frown creased his face. “Another one?” He listened a moment. “I see. Okay, w--- I’ll be right there.” He hung up and turned around to see Oscar standing at the table, finishing Fr. Tim’s drink. He gave the demon a look.
            “You need your head if this is real.” The demon spoke with a shrug of huge shoulders. Standing, he was slightly shorter than Fr. Tim’s almost six feet. “I gather we’re on assignment again? This is getting to be an epidemic, isn’t it?” Fr. Tim walked around to the other side of the desk and picked up a black leather briefcase. He came back to stand in front of the demon.
            “Ready?” Oscar asked. At Fr. Tim’s nod, the demon began to fade to a thin column of smoke. Fr. Tim inhaled deeply, and the smoke was drawn into his body. He gave a slight shudder as the demon settled, and opened his eyes. There was a faint scent of brimstone and incense hanging on the air.
            “Do you have to do that every time?” Fr. Tim muttered as he picked up the briefcase and walked to the door. A bellow of deep laughter echoed in the back of his mind.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Snow, Snow, and Even More Snow

We got some snow this week. It started on Friday, and finished up Saturday afternoon. All told, it looks like we got about 2 feet or so, with drifts a bit higher in spots. It's also windy, so the stuff is blowing all over. We did not lose power at all this storm. A good thing. I slept in on Saturday morning. Hey, what else did I have to do? Shovel snow? No hurry on that. I did go out and shovel a quick path so that Murphy could go out and do his thing more easily. Time was, he'd have just plowed through whatever was out there, but with his legs not doing well, it's easier on him if there's some cleared area. Of course, I took him out later while I was shoveling the rest of the walk, and he refused to even leave the deck! Here he is, stylin' in the fleece coat I made for him out of an old vest I rarely wore:

I do have a peeve with the weather folks. Why is everything Stormageddon or Snowpocalypse these days? Do we need all that extra drama? I understand: big storm, folks should prepare, and all that. But it's not like this has never happened before. Yes, we don't get this much all the time, but really, we don't need the over-dramatization. There are some really good words we already have for stuff like this: storm and blizzard come to mind. And they can even be modified by words like severe, threatening, huge, or even dangerous. No need to make it sound like something out of a comic book. Just my opinion.

Here are a few pictures I took on Saturday morning when we went out to clear the walk and driveway:

The garden is under there somewhere!

The front porch. It's sort of buried.

Me, knee deep in snow on the way to the chicken coop. The chickens did not even try to come out of the coop today. They are not fond of walking around in snow.

The front yard.
Yeah, we got a little snow. There was a driving ban in Massachusetts starting Friday at 4PM. It was partially lifted on Saturday afternoon, and fully lifted early Saturday evening. But it stranded poor Stephanie in Leominster. She decided (wisely) to stay at a hotel there on Friday night since she has an hour drive to get back here in good weather, and it was not going to be anywhere near good. And not knowing when the ban would be lifted, or if her store was going to open, she decided to stay Saturday night, as well. Inconvenient, but it does let the crews get out and clear roads to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. Of course, New Hampshire, being the Live Free or Die state, did not have an actual ban with fines and/or jail time as a consequence like MA. It was just advised for folk to stay off the roads. We'll be back to normal tomorrow, for sure. 

So, just hanging out here at home, doing some research, and some writing, and just enjoying a little winter wonderland. Have you dug out yet?

Monday, February 4, 2013

How Are Things in Your Corner of the Universe?

Around here, things are... weird. It's February, typically one of my least favorite months of the year. February is gray and gloomy. Everyone is sick of winter, and spring seems so far off. We just had two days of 50 degree temperatures, and now it is back to more typical winter cold. The whole world feels confused and a bit disoriented. We had a whole boatload of snow, and it is all gone now. I am sure we will get more before winter is fully gone.

I did get to go to dinner with some former co-workers last week. I do so enjoy those little get-togethers, and must thank the person who always sets them up and pushes us to come. It is a good time. For all the problems, I worked with some really nice people, and we always have a good time. Lots of laughing and catching up. We will probably do it again in six months or so.

We also found out that we are going to be grandparents again! Krysta and Kleber are going to have another baby. Their first, Will, is four now. She is due in early October. They kind of want a girl this time, I think, but Will says he wants a brother and a sister! Mom says "NO!"  Not that I blame her. Just so long as the baby is not born while we are in CA at Worlds!

Update on the 23 in 2013 Challenge Update:

I finished the first draft on the short story, and now am planning an edit run through it this week, to get it out to readers by the end of the week. It needs finishing by the end of the month if it is to go where I intend it to. And the short short one was posted here. So on to February. One thing will be a very short bit (probably just a scene) for an idea that I am starting to flesh out. The other will either be to finish a partly done short story or work on the novella again. But since I did get two things done in January, that puts me right on schedule, right? How is everyone else doing?

As far as this challenge goes, I am going to have to make myself a schedule of some sort. There are things I should be doing that I know will not be finished in the confines of the challenge, but I don't want to just let them slide, either. I think I will start printing out calendars, and setting up what I want to work on each day. A little OCD? Maybe. Of course, I've never been a "pantser." I work best from a plan, so a plan it will be.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: Croaked: Tales of the Firefly Witch by Alex Bledsoe

Croaked (Witch Tales #2)Croaked by Alex Bledsoe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book I read by this author was the first Eddie LaCrosse novel, which I enjoyed very much. When I saw these collections of short stories by him, I decided to give them a read, also.

The Firefly Witch stories are not the same noir, hard-boiled, detective stories as Eddie's adventures, but they are quite a fun read themselves. Dr. Tanna Tully is a professor, and blind, and a practicing Witch. When fireflies are around, she can see. Ry, her husband, is a newspaperman. Together, they solve paranormal mysteries.

There are four stories in the collection, and each is just as much fun as the next. They are light and quick to read, with engaging characters, and interesting plots. One has frogs going missing from our world in large numbers, and another involves a missing teenager on a devilish amusement park ride. There's the mysterious package that may or may not contain a dangerous mythological beast, and a redneck country star with his Daddy's haunted guitar. Tanna finds the paranormal aspect to each mystery, and sets about solving each with her own special abilities.

This is the second in the Firefly Witch series, but I don't think you have to read the first to enjoy the stories. Sure, there is some backstory to fill in from the first, but the individual stories stand on their own as complete tales. I plan on reading the rest of Tanna and Ry's stories.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: Senior Dogs for Dummies by Susan McCullough

Senior Dogs for DummiesSenior Dogs for Dummies by Susan McCullough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Senior Dogs for Dummies is, of course, one of the many For Dummies series of books, on just about everything. They share a common format, with clear, understandable writing and a straightforward layout. They can help make a complex subject approachable to anyone.

The Senior Dogs version is a good starting handbook for anyone who already lives with a senior dog, and can also benefit those whose dogs may not officially be seniors yet, but who are approaching that stage of canine life.

The book touches on many aspects of life with an older dog, from determining if your dog really is a senior (it's not always just a matter of number of years), to the special dietary needs of older dogs, to common and some less common ailments, right up to the final decision to let go. Things are explained in simple to understand language. McCullough doesn't go into in deep detail when talking about medical issues, but the basics are there, as well as strategies to help both owner and dog enjoy life to the fullest. The need for continued socialization is discussed, with suggestions for keeping an older dog engaged and active.

The last sections of the book deal with the most difficult decision faced by the pet owner: when to say good-bye. McCullough gives advice on making the decision compassionately and fairly, with emphasis on knowing what is best for your dog. She also gives a good explanation of what will happen at the end, for owners who have never had to euthanize a pet. The explanations and descriptions are straightforward. She doesn't pull punches or use the euphemisms one hears many times. Still, the compassion and emotion are evident. She's been through it, and you can tell reading here.

As the owner of a senior dog, I didn't find a lot of new information here that I didn't know before, but if you are new to the world of older dogs, or are just anticipating your dog's later years, this book can be a valuable reference. I did learn a few new things, and I think I will keep the book handy on my shelf as both my dog and I go through his senior years.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

23 in 2013 Challenge Update

I posted last week that I was participating in the challenge proposed by
John Anealio to create 23 new things in 2013. I'm attempting to write 23 new stories this year. How am I doing? Well, I finished one short short story, and am progressing on another longer one. Halfway through the month, and I may actually stay on track. Of course, this is only January! :)

In other news, got a rejection on a story I sent off late last year. *sigh* But I did get some helpful critique in the email, and that does not happen often. That was a bit of a surprise. So, back to the drawing board on that one, as they say.

And here is the short short I wrote for the challenge. It's not perfect- I did minor edits for spelling, etc. and not much else. Are there problems with the story? Yeah. Is there a big hole in it? Yep. But it's written and that was the deal: write (not polish to prettiness) new stuff. 

M. A. Kropp

                “Across the bow!” The crewman’s voice shouted as the first volley hurtled across the port side into the distance.
                “Warning shot,” growled Atchens, the first mate. He turned his dark, bearded face to the captain. He jerked his head at the view to the front of the ship with a scowl.
                “They’ll not be givin’ us many of those, y’know.” The captain nodded.
                “I know,” she said, moving forward to stand against the bridge rails. “Ready the cannon.”
                With a crisp “Aye, Captain,” the gunner’s mate turned to his comm.
                “Cannon at ready,’ he said into the unit. A moment later, the speaker came to life with the acknowledgement.
                “Cannon primed,” the voice from below replied. “Target acquired.” The captain nodded to the gunnery mate. He leaned into the comm again.
                “Fire at will,” he relayed. A moment later, the soft whump of the cannon firing shivered the deck. All eyes on the bridge watched the missile as it streaked toward the pirate ship, right on course.
                “What the hell…?” Atchens cried. The captain leaned forward, as if it would give her a better view outside. The missile sped toward the second ship. When it got close, instead of smashing into the hull of the other ship, it seemed to bounce off an invisible wall, and was hurtled back toward them.
                “Some kind of force shield,” came a calm voice from behind them. “But not one I’ve seen before.” The senior science officer was watching the missile on its return path.  “I believe we are about to be hit by our own weapon.”
                “Brace for impact!” The captain shouted, and the message was relayed to the whole ship.          
The gunnery mate punched a few buttons on his console.
“That bounce took the missile just a hair off course,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a lot of damage.”  Just as he finished, the ship shuddered as the missile hit. The captain gripped the deck rail, and gritted her teeth. When the deck stopped quaking, she turned to the science officer, standing behind her.
                “Damages?” She threw the question over her shoulder, as she turned. “And just what the hell was that?” She spat the question at the science officer, who calmly shrugged. Atchens took a half-step forward, a low growl in his throat. The captain stopped him with a raised hand.
                “Cargo bay 2 breached,” a voice from the lower deck recited. “Inner doors sealed and holding, but we’ll need repairs soon as possible. No casualties. Lucky no one was down there.” The captain nodded, and turned her attention back to her science officer.
                “I don’t know,” he said. His voice was quiet and calm. “Obviously, some sort of defense shield, but how it slingshot that missile back at us, I don’t know. No idea where they got it, either, but they are pirates, so chances are they stole it.” The captain eyed him for a moment.
                “Terrific,” she said, turning around again. “Now we’ve got pirates we can’t even fire on, unless we risk getting cut up by our own weapons.” She thumped a fist on the rail. “Helm! Can you get us out of here?” The pilot at the front of the lower deck turned around.
                “I can try, ma’am,” he said, and began to turn the ship away from the pirates who now sat directly in front of them. The ship turned slightly and they felt the buildup of speed as the pilot put it into motion. The pirate ship turned smoothly to match the maneuver and pulled alongside.
                “Grapples!” The science officer’s voice called out. “They’re going to board through the breach in the cargo bay!” The captain scowled.
                “Get us out of here!” she called to the pilot. The man’s shoulders tensed.
                “I’m trying,” he said, his voice tight. “But they’re using grav tracks to keep us lined up with them. I can’t pull us out too suddenly. It will rip the ship apart.”
                “Keep trying,” the captain said. They felt the soft thumps as grapple lines settled on the outside hull.
                “Get me a visual,” the captain ordered. The front screen changed to a view of the ship’s side. The black night of space surrounded them, broken by pinpoints of starlight. The pirate ship loomed beside them, painted dark to blend with the surrounding darkness, the only color a zigzag streak of red lightning on the underbelly. As they watched, figures in space suits began to appear outside the pirate vessel. They clipped to the lines running between the ships and fired jet packs.
                “I want guns down there to meet them!” the captain ordered.
                “It’s going to take time,” Atchens said. “We’ll have to put on suits. If they come through the cargo bay, we’ll be exposed.” The captain gazed at him levelly.
                “Then you’d better get going, don’t you think?” Atchens trotted off the bridge, barking orders into his comm as he went.
                Atchens picked five men with decent weapons skill as his team. They struggled into the awkward, bulky pressure suits and took the hand weapons Atchens handed out.
                “No heroics, boys,” Atchens growled over his suit’s comm. “Just keep ‘em from getting into the ship proper.” The group made their way to the corridor outside the breached cargo bay.
                “Belt up to the handrail,” Atchens instructed. “When they open that door, the hole in the hull is gonna try and pull you out. Keep yourself tethered, but allow as much maneuvering room as you can.” They pulled empty cargo containers into the hall, and strapped those to the walls, as well. The men ranged themselves behind the bins on either side of the door, and waited. The bay doors shuddered and began to slide open.
                “Here we go,” Atchens said on the comm link. He tightened his grip on his weapon, and trained it on the slowly sliding doors. The gap widened enough for the first of the pirates to glide through, powered by the jet packs they wore. Atchens fired, knocking the pirate back through the gap. Answering fire screamed through the gap, now widening more, as the pirates forced their way through. Two of Atchens’ men went down quickly, caught as they leaned around the cargo bins for a better shot.
                Atchens crouched low to the deck and ran as quickly as he could from his left side position toward the bay doors. Movement was awkward in the clumsy suit, and he was hampered by the tether attached to the handrail. It slid in jerky movements as he ran, forcing him to tug at it to get more slack. He made it to the edge of the container barrier when he felt the clink of something on his helmet. He turned slowly. One of the pirates had his weapon trained on Atchens’ faceplate. The first officer glanced over the pirate’s shoulder to see a third crewman sprawled in the corridor.
                “Give it up,” the pirate’s voice came over the comm. “Nobody else has to die.” Atchens looked at the barely visible face behind the pirate’s visor. He dropped his shoulders and let his weapon slide to the deck.
                “Stand down, Andy,” Atchens said into his comm. A static laced voice came back.
                “But, sir!”
                “We’re all that’s left, Andy,” Atchens responded. “And I’m staring down the barrel of a gun. Stand down.”
                “Aye, sir,” came the reluctant reply. All sounds of the battle stopped and a moment later, two of the pirates joined Atchens and his captor, Andy walking just ahead of them. The rest of the boarding party joined them and they made their way to the ship’s bridge. They herded the crew together on the lower deck, guarded by armed pirates. The captain stood alone on the upper deck of the bridge.
                                “All here, Cap,” one of the pirates said to a tall, suited figure. He nodded and loosened the latch on his helmet. He pulled the helmet off and tossed it on the gunner’s chair. His clear gray eyes met the cargo ship captain’s blue ones. She didn’t flinch under his stare. He nodded.
                “So, it seems I’ve got myself a new ship,” the pirate captain said. His voice was light. The cargo captain let one corner of her mouth turn up in a smile and tossed her head.
                “A ship with a great big hole in her side that’s going to cost you to fix,” she said. The pirate waved a hand.
                “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said, crossing the bridge and climbing the short flight of stairs to the upper deck.
                “And we have no cargo,” the captain continued. “We’re on our way home from dropping our shipment now. So you haven’t got much to show for all that, do you?”
                The pirate looked her up and down, then turned to the group of her crew huddled around the helm station. He turned back to face her.
                “I wouldn’t say that, either,” he said, with a wide grin. “There’s cargo, and then there’s cargo.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: Les Miserables (The Movie)

Let me start by saying I love this story. I've read the book, seen the stage play, and now the movie. It's heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. I'm not going to try to do a compare/contrast sort of thing, because I have never felt that was fair to something that has been done in various forms. Print, stage, and film are three very different media, and what works in one, doesn't necessarily translate to another. So, things get left out, changed, compressed or expanded, to fit the medium. I'm going to talk about what I thought about the movie.

And actually, I thought it was quite good. The basic story lines were there, mostly intact. Some additional material was added, and some bits a tad better explained, while others were left to be figured out. The story held together well, and had strong emotional impact. I had tears in my eyes for a lot of the time we were there.

As for the cast, some were better than others. I don't know who told Hugh Jackman he could sing, but whoever it was, he should not have listened. Valjean is a tough role to sing, and Jackman sounded strained and out of his range (whatever that is) most of the time. I have to say, however, that I thought he played the role well, and the torment and anguish was all there. Russell Crowe, on the other hand, carried his role well. His voice was better suited to Javert, and it showed. The highlight for me was Samantha Barks. Her Eponine was wonderful. Not only is her voice lovely, but she put such emotion into the performance, it was a joy to listen to. Natalya Wallace was very convincing as the young Cosette. There was something unnerving about Eddie Redbayne's Marius that I can't quite put my finger on, but I wasn't fully into his role. And Helena Bonham Carter was, as always, wonderful!

The sets were nicely done, although I thought the "slum" areas could have been-- dirtier? Costumes were good, as well, particularly the Thenardier's- perfectly over the top.

A few things didn't fare so well with me. In the scene where Marius and Cosette meet at the garden gate, it is night, isn't it? So why were there butterflies flitting about. That bit of unrealism stuck out to me. And the worst- the cow. Now, I don't really know a lot about Herefords, but I'm not so sure there were any in 1800's France, especially in the middle of a Paris slum street. And if there was a cow there, I suspect it would be a milk cow, not a beef breed. It was in the scene where the people are tossing all sorts of furniture out the windows to be used to build the barricade and I can only think they were going for the humor aspect of having this one lone cow standing in the middle of all the flying furniture and mooing. But it was just so out of place and ludicrous, it popped me out of the story for a moment. There were nice touches, as well- the two coffins at the front of the barricade was a nice little bit of foreshadowing that I liked.

All in all, I enjoyed the movie. Not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes at many points in the film (and not all were because of Hugh Jackman's singing! :) ). Is it worth seeing? Yes, especially if you are a fan of the story, or of big, romantic, tragic, and hopeful stories. And don't mind if that story is mostly told in song.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival by Ken Wheaton

The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit FestivalThe First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival by Ken Wheaton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Father Steve Sibille has returned to his bayou home to take charge of St. Peter's Church in Grand Prairie. Grand Prairie is a tiny backwater town, full of the (un)usual small town characters: senior citizens who hang out at Wal-Mart, teenage altar girls, and the daughter of the former pastor. There's also Miss Rita, a Negro centenarian who helped raise Steve and his siblings, and who now lives in a nursing home, where Steve slips her whiskey, cracklin's, and other taboo food whenever he can. And then there is Father Mark, a gay priest who has a crisis of conscience about his priesthood and homosexuality, literally on Fr. Steve's doorstep. As if all that isn't enough, the Reverend BP arrives with full intent to poach Fr. Steve's Catholic congregation to his Pentecostal church. At Miss Rita's suggestion, Fr. Steve decides to organize a festival to bring his congregation together. And so, the First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival is born. It is not an easy birth.

I bought this book a few years ago, after browsing through a table full of books at Sam's Club. I have to say, it is far outside my usual realm of fantasy and sci-fi, but whatever it was that told me to buy it, was very, very correct. I devoured the book in just a few days. It is laugh out loud funny in some places, and teary eyed poignant in others.

The characters are well written, and relatable, even if you are not from bayou country. Those who were raised Catholic will recognize pretty much the entire parish, from the teenage altar girl with a bit of a crush on Fr. Steve, to the elderly women who cook him more food than he could possibly need and who flutter around him after Mass. And if you are not Catholic, you'll enjoy them as well, as they are quite the interesting bunch.

Setting is somewhat secondary to the story, which is truly character driven. The town of Grand Prairie, though never described in minute detail, springs to life with its inhabitants. There is a real sense of small town lifestyle there.

I can't go into too much detail about the internal crises that flow throughout the book without giving too much away, but they are handled deftly and with the same attention as the rest of the story. When it hits, you realize that maybe the story wasn't quite what you expected, but it provides a nice, satisfying end.

While some may be put off by the open treatment of homosexuality, and the personal demons that a priest, straight or gay, may need to live with, everything is treated in a straightforward and mature manner. There is nothing "racy" or "dirty" about it. The story is human, compelling, and there are lessons here for everyone. I am very glad I decided to pick this one up.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

A Challenge for 2013

I saw a post from John Anealio (who, by the way, writes some really terrific scifi themed music: check him out here- John Anelio) about a challenge he is giving himself this year- to release 23 new songs in 2013. He is also challenging others to do a variation on that challenge: write 23 new stories, read 23 books, create 23 pieces of art, whatever your particular interest is.

I think this is a great idea, and I'd like to try it. The question is: what to commit to? Not blog posts. I did slack off a bit last year here, but still managed to get double the 23 done. I normally read 25 or so books a year, anyway. Besides, I do that challenge on Goodreads.

I know some of you are thinking of the obvious one: write 23 new stories. I thought about that, but the reality is, I don't really write that fast. That's about 2 stories a month. Whew! That's some pace, for me. I know there are others who would laugh at that, but they ain't me! I don't really do artwork of any kind.

I know! I'll make 23 excuses why I didn't get anything done! <Laugh> Not really.  Though I could do that one- easily.

I may have to think about this one for a bit, but I'll come up with something, and, in keeping with the spirit of the challenge, I will announce it here and then do regular (fingers crossed) updates to keep me accountable.

To update:

I think I have decided. I am going for the 23 stories thing. But I'm putting a few conditions on it so that I hope I'll have a shot at actually making it.

1) 23 stories finished. Not necessarily polished, but with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And some of them will be finishing up ones that are started. You know, the ones that you start working on, and then- ooh, Shiny New Idea! Hello!

2) In order to finish, that will mean roughly two stories per month. I think I am going to say that at least one will be flash fiction. It should be quicker to write, for one thing. Also, it's not something I do regularly, but I think it has value as a learning tool.

This is going to be interesting, at the very least.

Want to join in?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Review: Some of the Best from 2011, Patrick Nelsen Hayden and Liz Gorinsky, Editors

Some of the Best of Tor.comSome of the Best of by Patrick Nielsen Hayden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of eight short works by Tor Publishing authors. I say “works” because not all are stories, there is one epic poem in the mix. Some of the authors I knew by name, some were unfamiliar, and one I have read before.
As with many things of this nature, there were some things I enjoyed more than others. I can’t say that anything included was badly written, just that some appealed to me more than others. I particularly enjoyed “Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders and “The Dala Horse” by Michael Swanwick. The poem, by Paul Park, was less than successful for me, and I found myself skimming most of it. “Hello, Moto” by Nnedi Okorafor was another I found less appealing, though not for lack of talent. The premise is interesting and the writing fairly good, but I found myself not relating to the characters well. The real gem in the collection is Harry Turtledove’s “Shtetl Days.” Without spoiling anything for those who have not read this one, it combines Turtledove’s deft hand with alternate history with a story about transformation that is both subtle and scary. This one alone was worth downloading the collection.
The eight stories are varied in theme and setting, and not everyone will enjoy each one. But since it is offered for free, it is certainly worth checking out, especially if you are looking for an introduction to a new author or two.

The 2012 edition is out now, with ten stories this time.

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