Monday, April 30, 2012

Z: Scalzi

Wow, Z, am I glad to see you. I wasn’t sure I would make it all the way through the challenge, but here we are!

I’ll have to cheat for the last day. Otherwise my only option is Zucchini Warriors, a book I last read in the fourth grade. So, I’ll write about John ScalZi (no, he doesn’t spell it with a random capital in the middle). More specifically,

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Genre: Science fiction

I can’t top the publisher’s description: John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce--and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity's resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine--and what he will become is far stranger.

When I read Old Man’s War, I had this strange feeling of delight, and it took a while to recognize it as fulfilled nostalgia. I read books like this as a kid – moon bases, life on Mars, space expeditions using telepathic twins for communication, space battles against aliens, etc. I’m guessing they were written in the forties and fifties, before the average person realized how alone we are in our solar system. These books went out of style as hard science and reality pushed out the entertainment factor, but they’ve made a comeback, and they’re even better now, without the racism/sexism of books written in previous decades.

And that's it for Z! ~breathes sigh of relief~

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Y: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded & You're Not Fooling Anyone

You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop by John Scalzi


Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded by John Scalzi

John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors. He’s a rare writer who actually makes a nice full-time living from writing AND is willing to talk numbers. He also writes one of the oldest, most-visited blogs on the internet. I believe the chapters in both these books are pulled from his blog, so theoretically you could read them there. That’s significantly more involved than just getting the books, though. As you can tell from the titles, they’re about writing, and they’re both amusing and insightful.

Because he’s just that awesome, John has a regular feature called The Big Idea, where authors talk about “the big idea” behind their new book. Considering his blog got something like 5.4 million visits last year, that’s a lot of publicity. Based on Big Idea posts, I’ve read:

Starters by Lissa Price

Fair Coin by E.C. Myers

Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Hounded by Kevin Hearne

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K.Jemisin

And other books that were profiled, but which I discovered elsewhere.

I’ll read tons more when the A to Z Challenge is over. J

John Scalzi’s work is everywhere: science fiction books, TV shows (he was a creative consultant for Stargate: Universe), nonfiction of all kinds, articles, blog posts, movie reviews, and his latest project – mobile games from Industrial Toys, a new video game company. I’ve even seen him on television – the Science Channel did a pretty cool “what if” program called Alien Encounters (on what it might really look like if aliens decide to visit Earth), and Scalzi was one of the people interviewed, along with Nick Sagan (Carl Sagan’s son), Neil Degrasse Tyson (director of the Hayden Planetarium), Jill Tarter (director of the SETI Institute), David Brin (astrophysicist & SF author) and other people in science research and entertainment. Scalzi also tours and does the big conferences. Paramount Pictures announced last year that it's making a movie of Scalzi's first book, Old Man's War, directed by Wolfgang Petersen.

For anyone, this is a lot. For a guy still in his early 40s, one has to wonder when Scalzi sleeps.

I think I first encountered his writing in the famous article on Being Poor that he wrote in response to “But they were warned, why didn’t people just hop in their cars and drive away?” comments that were everywhere after hurricane Katrina. I’m not sure where I read Being Poor (lots of media carried it), and didn’t know who he was at the time, and didn’t immediately connect the article with him when I discovered his fiction a few years later. His blog is truly entertaining – whether you want to read about books, science fiction movies, publishing industry news, interesting technology, occasional commentary on politics (or politicians), see great pictures of his cats, or anything else that’s caught his interest that day.

Since his name has a Z in it, I’m going to cheat and discuss his fiction for the next entry…

X: X-Men

Ah, X. Such slim pickings. Well, my choices were the Xanth books, Xanadu, and X-Men.

So we’ll go with the one I encountered most recently.

Genre: movies, science fiction

I liked this Marvel franchise just fine when I saw it in the theater. Enough that I saw X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, as well as X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But not X-Men: First Class yet. I keep going back and forth over whether James McAvoy’s presence is enough reason to watch it.

Considering how many of them I’d seen, you’d think I’d be less…lukewarm about it. But this is one franchise I’ve watched more for special effects and the caliber of actors than for the story. The first one was pretty cool, though. I guess I'm in a Matrix situation here. I keep watching them, hoping one will come along that will match the first.
In the meantime, I watch X-Men for these folks:
Hugh Jackman
Halle Berry
Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen
Rebecca Romijn

James McAvoy
James McAvoy again
Oh, what the hell. One more. :)

Hmm. Maybe I’ll watch First Class after all. J

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W: White Collar

HBO has been getting all sorts of accolades for its shows over the last few years. But for me, the network that truly hits the spot is USA. Burn Notice, RoyalPains, Suits… fun stories, awesome actors, great scripts, and a minimum of bloodshed. By far my favorite is
White Collar
Genre: television

Matt Bomer...~sigh~

Neal Caffrey is a charming criminal with exquisite taste in clothes and contraband (art theft, bond forgery, jewelry heists, etc) who finally got caught by his FBI nemesis, Peter Burke, head of the FBI White Collar Crime Unit. But three months before his sentence is up, Neal breaks out of maximum security prison hoping to catch his girlfriend before she disappears. It earns him another four years. In exchange for not going back to his prison cell, he wears an ankle monitor and teams up with Peter to track down other (usually) white collar criminals.

Tim DeKay

Neal (Matt Bomer) and Peter (Tim DeKay) have amazing onscreen chemistry. They’re like brothers, coworkers, rivals and friends all rolled into one relationship. The conflict between the honest law man and the wily criminal who truly know each other (and often trust each other against their better instincts and their associates’ advice) is just delicious. While I feel like this is one of many places where they could have had a show starring women that would have been brilliant, I have to say I really love these two guys in these roles. Television doesn’t get much better than this.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V: Valentine's Day on This American Life

Valentine’s Day on This American Life
Genre: radio

Another This American Life episode for V. Rather than cover the idea of falling in love and the overwhelming emotion of it (which is normally the story we get in books or movies or when a couple’s telling us how they got together), this episode is about stories that happened to couples “decades after the moment their eyes first meet.”
In Act Two, Veronica Chater interviews her parents. They’d been married for 45 years, and in that time had never gone on vacation, and never been apart for more than two days. As her dad put it, “I detest shopping. I detest eating out. I detest motels. I detest beaches. I detest anything having to do with what most people go on vacations for. For me it’s the opposite of having fun. It’s a purgatory.”
So when Veronica’s mom decided to go off to a Mexican resort with a friend, Dad (a former cop and corporate security consultant) prepares for the vacation as if she’s going to a war zone. He’s completely convinced that “two na├»ve women” are just asking for trouble going to Puerto Vallarta by themselves (as they talk, it’s hard to tell whether his wife is more amused or insulted, but you can tell she’s been dealing with this quite calmly for years). He gradually works himself into a frenzy as the day gets closer and closer, even getting to the point where he invites himself along. He writes to the Mexican authorities to inform them he plans to come into their country armed, and wants to know what’s legal. When his friends tell him that was a really bad idea, he decides to stay home after all.
Mom prepares for her vacation by shopping, packing, writing out her itinerary, and preparing meals for Dad to eat while she’s gone, as he doesn’t cook. She’s more worried about how he’ll cope without her, which he thinks is ridiculous as she’s the one going off to another country. As she hands him the list of chores to do while she's gone, he's instructing her on how to jam her hotel room door shut with a chair.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. J

I’m the one in my marriage who’s super-vigilant about being safe, and it was fascinating and a bit uncomfortable hearing my viewpoint taken to such an extreme.
Act Three is about monogamy, narrated by a 39-year-old man who starts out by talking about the couple across the street, who have sex in their living room and can be heard from outside (and he’s not the only man in the neighborhood who knows and arranges to be outside at around that time).
It’s funny and thought-provoking. Somewhere in the middle he says:

That's why monogamy has such a bad reputation. It's boring. Monogamy is the habit of not acting on what you want. I even hate the word itself. It sounds so staid, so bourgeois. Monogamy, like a board game, the approximation of excitement.

Sometimes, of course, I hear about open marriages. Jung had one, Sartre had won, Henry Miller, Dickens, Freud. I hear about open marriages, and they seem like some fabulous, exotic city that I've always wanted to visit but never seem to get to. Istanbul, open marriages are like Istanbul. Some ancient, mysterious place where there are minarets and strange music, where one entire civilization suddenly ends and a whole new stranger one begins, a whole new religion even, the mysterious east. I've always wanted to go to Istanbul.”

Despite the quote, he ends up at a rather interesting conclusion, a different way of looking at monogamy than he did at the beginning. And it wasn’t the way most people look at it (whether they’re for it or not). Which is why I love This American Life. They always find new perspectives on familiar subjects. Of course, reading a transcript is not the same as listening to the story they've built using peoples' voices and music and whatever else. I highly recommend streaming This American Life online if you don't live in an area that has it on the radio.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U: Unveiled

As they’re all one series, I’m recommending ALL of Courtney Milan’s books starting with U (three novels and a handful of novellas). One of many things I love about her books is the heroes. Nary a brooding duke nor randy rake in the lot.   

Courtney Milan is not only an expert in Georgian/Regency/Victorian-era English law and law court decisions (and is (or was once) a lawyer in her day job), but she writes the most intriguing characters working through gut-twisting situations.

This series follows three brothers (mostly). Their deranged mother abused them relentlessly. They couldn't go to anyone for help because their mother was the respected widow of the local lord, and very charitable, besides. She let their sister die because it was "God's will". She named them each for Bible verses. Not Biblical characters. VERSES. Of course they all go by shortened versions - Ash, Smite, and Mark.

When Ash takes off for India to make his fortune, their mother tries to kill Smite by starving him in the flooded cellar. Mark rescues him, and they run away, surviving on the streets of Bristol before their brother comes back and finds them. Ash returns a rich man, determined to give his younger brothers everything he wanted and didn't have - an education at Eton, big houses, power. But Smite and Mark have now formed a bond that seems to exclude Ash, no matter what he tries. This is all backstory, but Milan does some awe-inspiring story-spinning with the psychological damage they've suffered.

Ash's story is Unveiled. As relentlessly ruthless as he is cheerful, he's set himself a mission to destroy the wealthy distant relation who refused to help them when they were in need. His love interest? The daughter of that family, who is equally determined to save her family from social and financial destruction.

Mark's story is Unclaimed. Mark is a sincere, funny, likeable guy who writes a hugely popular book on chastity. His love interest? A courtesan who's been hired by a political rival to take him down.

Smite's story is Unraveled. He is a dedicated magistrate. His love interest is a runner for the local crime boss.

There’s nothing contrived about the conflict between the two main characters in each book. Just look at that list! It makes me want to read them all again...

Monday, April 23, 2012

T: Timeline & Testosterone

Timeline by Michael Crichton
Genre: historical, SF, suspense/thriller

General premise A group of archeology students goes back in time to rescue their professor from 14th century France, and find out that medieval times were even more brutal and ruthless than they’d thought.

It’s a typical Michael Crichton book – brilliant scientists with little common sense, backed by corporations with dollar signs in their eyes, and a bunch of well-meaning, highly-educated people stuck in the middle. Crichton is pretty much the only author I admire who did zero character development. At least, that’s what I remember of his books – thrilling stories, cardboard characters.
Gerard, looking hot
and mysterious.

I saw the movie first. It was terrible. It shouldn’t have been – I still don’t get how they messed this up. BUT. The premise was so intriguing that I thought, “I’ll bet the book is just incredible.” And it was my introduction to Gerard Butler, looking ridiculously hot in 14th century period costume. J

There’s a jousting tournament in the book, so I’ll put in a quick plug here for the History Channel reality TV show Full Metal Jousting. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a bunch of guys competing in a modern-day jousting tournament for $100k. When I first heard of it, I thought, “You can’t be serious!”

And then I immediately set the DVR to record it.

I loved it. The guys came from all sorts of active backgrounds – one firefighter, one polo player, a couple of marines, a couple of rodeo cowboys, and then a handful of horse trainers, show jumpers, and a whole bunch of Medieval Times knights. That last bunch, oddly enough, were apparently at a disadvantage, because even though they were the only ones to have handled a lance before, theatrical jousting is not about eliminating your opponent. It’s about looking great in a saddle and falling dramatically out of it without getting hurt. They had to unlearn how they sat, how they held the lance, what to do when they got hit.

The horses were awesome. So gorgeous. So much personality. They ranged from those that were dependable but kind of staid, to those that took off like bullets, but constantly fought their riders for control.

And I loved the modern take on medieval armor.
Speaking of “manly men”…

Testosterone on This American Life
Genre: radio

This American Life is hosted by Ira Glass, one of the best story creators of our time. I don’t know of anyone else doing quite what he does. His radio show puts stories together around a theme for each episode. I’ve heard Ira Glass speak live twice, I’ve listened to This American Life for years, but it wasn’t until I tried to analyze how they put together such enthralling stories around usually-normal situations that I truly began to appreciate his genius, and the subtlety of it.
I could spend all day recommending specific TAL episodes, but for “T” I’ll stick with Testosterone. The First Act was an interview with a man whose body stopped producing testosterone for four months before the doctors figured out what was wrong with him. He talks about how lack of testosterone meant lack of desire for anything. And how unexpectedly pleasant it was, because if you don’t want anything, then you don’t psychologically want for anything.

Act Two was about Griffin Hansbury, who started out as a woman, but got testosterone injections and now lives as a man. This one’s particularly interesting, because you can hear the interviewer’s horrified fascination as Hansbury “confirms” pretty much every stereotype you’ve ever heard about men vs women, and, as the interviewer puts it, sets gender relations back about a hundred years. I put “confirms” in quotes because the testosterone injections meant that for a while, Hansbury (who is 5'4" and smallish) was walking around with the testosterone levels of two linebackers, and so I’m assuming the effect was somewhat exaggerated. Hansbury talks about everything from the change in his interest in science to how hard it is to concentrate around women. But he also talks about how he’s gone from being this really cool woman everyone admired to being a nerdy-looking guy who’s now caught up in this very male fight for dominance every time he steps out on the street.

Act Three follows the staff at TAL after they decided to get their own testosterone levels tested for the show. First they ranked each other, guessing who would have the highest levels. Everyone agreed on which woman would have the highest (except that woman), but for the guys it was a toss-up, because they each had traits that tend to go with high testosterone (one of them created the show and was the boss, one of them was muscular and balding, one of them played lots of sports, etc), but none of them considered themselves to be “manly men” (like NFL football players or whatever). And as the day of the results grew closer, more and more of them agreed that this had been a terrible idea and it would forever change the way they related to each other – but they still wanted to know who “won”.