Thursday, December 13, 2018

So, We Got A Dog

So, we got a dog. (Just one dog, this time.) Her name is Tallulah and she's a Great Dane. The decision to get a dog was a long time in coming. We lost both Winston and Sophie very quickly and the fact that it was so quick I think made us not want to rush into getting another dog quickly. There was something relatively nice about being dog free- at least for a while. You don't have to worry about your cats as much if you want to sneak off for a weekend- you can just throw extra food down and they'll leave you little piles of puke and hairballs here and there as thanks.

But, after a while...  you start to miss dogs. Cats can be affectionate. Cats can be loving, even. But only when they want too. You started to miss someone who is always happy to see you, no matter what. But we didn't want to rush into anything- both the Missus and I did research. We looked at breeders. We really thought about how much we both work and how much time we would have for a new dog. We knew we didn't want a small dog. A high energy dog probably wasn't a good fit for us either- though the Missus had a Boxer growing up and I had always liked that breed.

We thought about Bernadoodles, but then we looked at the price. We checked into Newfies and Bernese Mountain Dogs- but again, the price on the former and some sketchiness on the latter (at least on the website with the breeder we checked out.) Then, we found some Great Dane puppies up in Cedar Rapids.

The Missus and I had thought about Great Danes before. A co-worker of hers has Great Danes and spoke highly of the breed. Everything seemed to fall into place: the price point was good. We met the Mama and saw the environment the puppies were kept in. We looked for the right temperament. We checked into birth order.  And then, we went ahead and did it- we didn't run out and drop a chunk of change on any old dog. We sort of got this dog the way grown up, responsible pet owners should. (Which given the fact that our menagerie at its height included three cats and two dogs, is kind of an improvement I think.)

Miss Tallulah is a puppy, so she does plenty of puppy things- chewing, playing, figuring out the cats. But she's also a sweetheart. She cuddles with everyone. Loves all the boys- though Lachlan isn't a fan of her, as she tends to love him a little too enthusiastically when he's crawling around on the floor. Appropriately enough, to paraphrase the President, it appears that she's 'gonna be yuuuuuuuuge' which will be new and different for us- but we've always wanted a big huge dog and I think that's what we're going to get.

She's a great addition to our family so far- and we couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Epic Bookshot #3: The Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy

Another #EpicBookshot has been completed! (I'm tackling Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy next, so post #4 is probably going to be awhile in coming.) I went back to some of my all time favorite books, the touchstones of my childhood- Anne McCaffery's original trilogy for The Dragonriders of Pern: Dragonflight, Dragonquest and The White Dragon.

I can't remember how old I was when I first read these books, but I remember that my parents had an omnibus version of all three books that I think between my sisters and I (mostly me, though) read until it about fell apart- which I think it did at some point. But what I do know is that these books were the first sci-fi/fantasy books that I think I read on my own. My parents read us The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings* and, weirdly, The Hunt for Red October- but Pern was something I got swept away by all by myself.

That first line of Dragonflight, "Lessa woke cold" was probably the first book that taught me the power of the first line of any book. To me- in my personal canon- that line probably ranks right up there next to "Call me Ishmael" and "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." (I know that's really shooting the moon when compared to all the great first lines in literature out there in the world, but it's my personal canon and this is one that's always stuck in my head.)

It's really the escapism of it all that appealed to me as a kid. I wasn't exactly Mr. Popular in school and Pern was the perfect place to get away from it all. I dreamed of having a dragon of my own and flying through the air wherever we wanted too. I dreamed of having a partner like Lessa (to kid me, I was obviously the main hero F'lar. Obviously.) I didn't stop with these three books of course- I read every Pern book I could get my hands on and it still ranks as one of my favorite places to visit- even if I don't get back there as much as I did when I was a kid.

Re-reading these books as an adult combines the pleasure of returning to my old literary haunts with a new appreciation for the world building and maybe some of the more problematic shortfalls in McCaffery's writing- at least from the perspective of a reader looking at these books today. So, let's break down the original trilogy, shall we?

They're all great books. But if you want to start with Dragonflight, I think it's important to note that the first part of the book, 'Weyr Search' was the novella that won McCaffery the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novella. (The second Pern story- 'Dragonrider' won the 1969 Nebula Award, which made McCaffery the first woman to win both awards.) So, if you're all about hitting the touchstones of science fiction, you've got to at least read Dragonflight. I love this book way too much to be able to find anything major to pick at- but I would say, when compared to the next two books in the trilogy, it feels way more like an origin story and can stand alone all by itself. Dragonquest and The White Dragon sort of feel more like sequels- though again, weirdly, I think The White Dragon could probably function fairly well as a stand alone novel.

If Dragonflight is your origin story, Dragonquest deepens the world and ups the conflict a bit- as all good sequels probably should (and usually do.) I think I like the explorations of culture clash, as Pern has to come to grips with the dragonriders from the past who are having plenty of trouble acclimating to four hundred years worth of changes in the planet. The tensions between the three main prongs of Pernese society are explored and the tension ratchets up to and an explosive climax ensues.

The White Dragon rounds out the trilogy and it might be- well, shit. I can't claim it as my favorite, because all of them are really my favorites. But there's something unique about this one- and it was actually McCaffery's first entry onto the best seller list. The story of Jaxom, who is introduced as a baby in Dragonflight and impresses/bonds with a unique white dragon, Ruth in Dragonquest- he finally moves to center stage for this book and it's an amazing turn. Not a new character, but a minor character we've already met. I love that. It's so organic. It's so natural and it works really really well.

So, does McCaffery seem 'problematic' by today's standards? I hadn't actually heard a lot of mention or critiques of her out in the world, as it were- but I did hear a random grumble on a podcast once about her female characters always seeming to need a man. In the context of another one of her series' that might be true- but I don't think it's necessarily true here. She doesn't feel dated. She doesn't feel problematic. (In contrast to say, Flannery O'Connor, because GOD DAMN does she use the n-word a lot.) It'd actually be interesting to find more criticisms of her writing out there- but she doesn't feel controversial at all and a lot of her books- including these, feature strong female characters and it's not like there's a shortage of female characters anywhere to be found.

Look, if you're into science fiction/fantasy/dragons you've probably already read these books. But if you haven't- they're worth a read. Dragonflight feels more unique and probably the most fantasy-like of the three, but The White Dragon feels like a classic of blend of science fiction/fantasy that should land in a 'must read' list somewhere. These three books are always going to have a special place on my bookshelf because Pern is one of my favorite places I've ever explored. A touchstone of my youth, these three books started me on my way into Pern and a lot of other places beyond.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Bookshot #114: Artemis

The Martian was such a good book that when Andy Weir wrote a sequel called Artemis, I knew I was going to have to grab it and read it at some point. Happily, Christmas of last year was good to me and it's been sitting in my queue until about a month ago, when, frustrated with Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow, I decided to pick it up and use it as a 'palate cleanser' to keep  my sanity as I trudge on through Gravity's Rainbow.

As palate cleansers go, it was exactly what I needed. However, Weir established himself as an author of fast-paced massively entertaining books with The Martian and suffers no sophomore slump with Artemis- it went fast- probably too fast to be honest, but what can you do with a book that you don't want to put down?

The story opens in Artemis, the first city on the moon, where porter and part-time smuggler Jazz Bashara delivers some contraband to wealthy businessman Trond Landvik- Jazz knows both Landvik and his daughter Lene quite well, but on this particular occasion they're entertaining a new associate, by the name of Jin Chu, who holds a case marked with the name ZAFO. Trond offers Jazz a big score: he wants to take over Sanchez Aluminum, whose by products help produce oxygen for the entire city. The score is easy: smash their harvesters and then Trond will appear with a supply of oxygen and the equipment and money necessary to take over their contract.

The money is too good for Jazz to say no so she borrows some welding equipment from her estranged father, Ammar and gets a small robot called HIB from an associate of his. She disguises herself as a tourist and visits the Apollo 11 site, placing HIB outside the airlock and positioning him so he can open the airlock for her. Another friend of hers makes a device that makes it appear as if she's still in her quarters- so the next day she sets out across the moon to where the harvesters are working and manages to destroy all but one. She's spotted and eventually caught upon her return to the city by Dale, her former friend. He agrees to remain silent if she agrees to be friends again, which she reluctantly does.

Heading back to Trond's place, she finds him and his bodyguard murdered- and putting two and two together hunts down the associate she saw at his house, Jin Chu. He lures her into a trap with Trond's killer, but Jazz manages to escape with the mysterious case labelled ZAFO in tow. They're soon both taken into custody by the city's police chief, Rudy.

Soon Jazz finds out the truth: ZAFO represents a major advance in fiber optics, virtually eliminating the attenuation factor that normal fiber cables provides and eliminates the need for repeaters as well- and here's the real kicker: the only place it can manufactured is outside of Earth's gravity- and it turns out the Brazilian company that controls Sanchez Aluminum is in fact, a crime syndicate who has sent an assassin to the moon to clean up the competition. (Namely: Trond.) If they're allowed to control ZAFO, they'll effectively run the city.

Jazz and her friends decide not to let that happen by destroying the smelter belonging to Sanchez aluminum, which would let Trond's daughter Lene seize their contracts and rebuild. They break into the plant and destroy the smelter, but create a deadly backflow of chloroform into the city. They race back to the city, trying to reach Trond's oxygen supplies in time and Jazz sacrifices herself to save the city- but gets rescued by Dale.

When she's fully recovered, Lene pays Jazz what her father promised he would. Jazz buys her father a new welding shop to replace one she destroyed as a teenager, but then ends up paying the rest to a city administrator to avoid deportation- and she convinces the administrator of her value as an 'authorized' smuggler who keeps undesirables out. With lucrative opportunities on the horizon thanks to ZAFO Jazz, back at square one gets back to work.

Overall: Fast-paced, entertaining and almost impossible to put down, Weir's jump from Mars to the Moon is perfectly executed and leaves the reader wanting more. If you think this is tailor made for the big screen, well so did Hollywood. There's a movie already in development aiming for a 2020 release date. Weir has some interesting touches: Kenya is the power behind Artemis, thanks to a far seeing economic minister who lands a massive private space investment for her country and leverages it to become administrator of Artemis. There's also a refreshing diversity of countries that move beyond the usual 'space countries' like America and Russia. Put together it makes for a thrilling and believable vision of the future. My Grade: **** out of *****

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Netflix & Chill #54: Outlaw King

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2018
Directed By: David Mackenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Tony Curran, Callan Mulvey, Stephen Dillane
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
Pick: Mine

I've been seeing previews and pop-up ads for this for weeks now, so I finally broke down and gave it a watch, curious to see what it would be like. My perception of Robert The Bruce (at least on film) is largely colored by the way he's treated in Braveheart- which was...  odd, if I remember correctly. He was sort of the leader everyone wanted but weak enough to make compromises with the English and betray Wallace- but eventually he turns out okay and wins the day at Bannockburn.

A film that focuses solely on Robert the Bruce? It feels interesting to me. Braveheart was free to tell the story of Wallace with it's embellishments and dubious history, but Robert The Bruce feels more embedded in history than the story Braveheart told. Outlaw King brings his story to life.

First, you've got to give Chris Pine some serious props. Not every actor can carry an accent. (See: Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson in K-19: The Widowmaker) but Pine carries a Scottish accent perfectly throughout this movie. It sounds good and he doesn't overdo it either, which I think helps the cause and keeps him in character more effectively throughout the movie.

The story begins in 1304 outside Stirling Castle where John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), Robert Bruce (Chris Pine) and the rest of the Scottish nobility surrender to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). During the celebration in the camp, Bruce spars with the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) and learns that the King has given him his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) to marry. During the celebration, James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) arrives to ask for his land back, but King Edward turns him away. Both Prince and King then leave Scotland, leaving it's management to Bruce, Comyn and the head of the English Garrison at Perth, de Valence (Sam Spreuell.)

Two years later, after collecting taxes, Bruce realizes how unpopular the English are when he gets caught in a riot after the public display of the quartered body of William Wallace and he starts planning a revolt. His family and, perhaps surprisingly his English wife, Elizabeth agrees with him. Bruce then tries to persuade John Comyn to join him, but Comyn instead threatens to inform Edward about the plan and Bruce, in a panic, kills him. The clergy of Scotland offer Bruce a pardon, but only on the condition that he accepts the crown of Scotland. He does so- though not many Scottish nobles support him. He heads to Scone anyway where he's crowned the King of the Scots.

Edward I declares him and outlaw and sends Prince Edward to Scotland to find him and capture him. De Valence gets a little too ambitious and moves against Bruce before the Prince arrives- Bruce wishes to avoid bloodshed and challenges De Valence to single combat. The latter accepts, but wants to wait until the next day. Bruce agrees but De Valence launches a surprise attack on their camp at Methven and Robert is forced to flee with only fifty men. He loses a brother to treachery as they attempt to flee and another brother is executed when Prince Edward finds Elizabeth and Bruce's daughter Marjorie. Then, he launches a guerilla campaign against the English, taking castle after castle and burning it, gaining support as he does so.

Finally, Edward I has had enough and goes to Scotland himself to try and end the rebellion once and for all. He dies along the way, leaving Edward II to try and complete the task. The Scots meet the English at the Battle of Louden Hill and despite the odds being against them, defeat the English, securing Scotland's freedom. Bruce is crowned King of Scots- his wife and daughter are eventually returned. Edward II is murdered by his own lords (in a somewhat unpleasant way if you know your history) and eventually, a descendant of Robert The Bruce unites the crowns of England and Scotland.

Overall: It lacks the epic touches of Braveheart, but it's a solid movie that doesn't skimp on the battle scenes and seems to be fairly historically accurate- at least compared to Braveheart. Chris Pine portrays Bruce as a patriot intent on winning back freedom for his people- but the historians seem to think that Bruce would have been more canny and ambitious than warm and personable- which would seem to be more in line to his portrayal in Braveheart. The more restrained story told in Outlaw King, however, makes it a less flamboyant and grand film. I don't think that's a bad thing, however. My Grade: *** out of ****

Saturday, December 1, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #275

This Week In Vexillology is finally back! I sort of put everything on the back burner to focus on my third novel for NANOWRIMO, so blogging has been light for a month now- but I'm back and I'm ready to get after it again and what better way to do that than to continue our Tour of the Counties of England with the next two counties up: Kent and Essex.

Here's Kent:
Here's the thing: I've been to Kent... I tagged along with an Aunt and Uncle for a trip down there one summer and it's beautiful. The houses have all these weird, white little chimneys- the views south east toward Dover are beautiful. There's tons of history there-- we saw Cantebury, we saw Dover Castle... It was amazing and I'd love to show y'all a photo or two of the place, but here's the thing: I can seem to find any at the moment. (I'm going to work on that some.)

Oh, the directions are even simple: find Dover and you're in Kent. (Easy enough, right?)

Their flag is beautiful... the white horse has been a symbol of Kent dating back to the old Jutish Kingdom of Kent back in the 6th Century. The current flag dates all the way back to 1605 and was used by the Justices of Kent for many years. The arms featuring the horse were granted to the Kent County Council on October 17th, 1933 and again in 1975. The flag was accepted as official on the basis of it's traditional use and historic roots with the county.

Next up, Essex:

I am... somewhat shook by this flag, kids. Consider the following video clip:

This pretty much sums up Essex quite nicely. It's sort of a weird blend of New Jersey and Laguna Beach? (Weird could also be 'hellish') but it seems to work. Don't really have a good explanation on what the flag means. Wikipedia has a one sentence description: "The flag of Essex is ancient in origin and features three Saxon seaxes on a red field." And that is it. But I also love the contrast between the video clip above and the flag. This is not the flag that I would have expected Essex to have. Which in and of itself is the most Essex thing ever.

And there's the next two flags of the counties of England... remember until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, November 30, 2018

NANOWRIMO: The Last Day

The actual total is: 70,684 words- but 50,000 words was never my goal with this. I wanted to use NANOWRIMO to kick start my third book. It was in desperate need of a kick in the ass. I had a few chapters here and there and I knew how it was going to end, but I felt like I was writing myself into corners and circles and I was tired of it. So, I sat down and made an outline- two to three days of frantic outlining and then November 1st, I started writing and I didn't stop until I got it all done.

I have what I wanted: a working draft of my third book. Is it perfect? Not in the slightest. Is it anywhere close to being ready to publish and let out into the world? Not at all. But I have a starting point to work with and that's amazing. My first two books had to be carved out of a pile of words and made, forged into the books they became. I'm going to have fun beating this one into shape, but for now I'm going to take a well-deserved break and let it flavor up a bit before I jump back in and start the revising process. My goal is to get it into good enough shape to fling it out into the world for real in 2019- if I do my job right, then I might be in a position to jump in and do this again- this time though, for real, from scratch and the very beginning.

The process was interesting and yet very boring: I had an outline and I just followed that and took everything one section and one chapter at a time. A lot of times with my writing, I like to tinker around a lot- I like to get things 'perfect' and sometimes I overthink them. This time I just plowed through and kept right on going- all with the goal of getting to that elusive working draft that I wanted.

This is my first 'win' for NANOWRIMO. I sure hope it won't be my last.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Brexit: An Uninformed Opinion

I'm continually astonished at the internal politics of the British Conservative Party. We here on this side of the Pond only think we've got rough and tumble politics. There are headlines for days when Cocaine Mitch McConnell raises his voice above a creaky growl or when Ted Cruz gets shouted at by some unemployed baristas while he's trying to eat human meat at the secret Lizard Person Restaurant in D.C. that everyone knows about but no wants to mention out loud in public.

Kids, I'm telling you, it ain't nothing on the internal politics of the British Conservative Party. Game of Thrones? Pshaw. Who needs it! Get yourself some popcorn and a live blog from The Guardian or the Beeb and you'll have entertainment for days... it is, I imagine, somewhat like being trapped in a burlap sack with three hundred and thirty feral cats, most of whom are in heat. Someone might have a good time in a situation like that, but it probably won't be the Head Cat in Charge.

Look, there are fundamental problems with the EU as it's currently set up. It does involve surrendering a certain amount of sovereignty in the name of greater political and economic cooperation- but it comes with a lot of conveniences and economic benefits that it seems like a lot of Europeans are willing to go along with- at least to a point. I don't think Brexit is an isolated thing. I think if you pop the hood on any given European country and rooted around a little bit, you'd probably find that people aren't all that thrilled by having dictates handed down to them by a bunch of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. If strange women lying on their backs in ponds and handing out swords is no basis for a system of government, we can hardly be surprised when voters think the same things about the EU's distant, vaguely democratic governing structure.

So, yes, articles like this which want to save British democracy by 'taking back control'* aren't entirely wrong. But they all suffer from one fatal flaw: I don't think the Conservative Party under David Cameron called the referendum to actually give the voters a say in whether they wanted to Brexit or not. I think it was about shutting up the Eurosceptic wing of his party. I think it was about outflanking UKIP.** I don't for one second think that he actually thought the country would vote to leave...

And that's the flaming bag of dog shit that was handed to Theresa May and to be honest, she's done about as well you could expect for someone holding a bag of dog shit that's on fire. Granted, she illustrated why snap elections are never a good idea*** and thought she had a plan, which got laughed out of the room after Chequers and then managed to hammer out a deal with the EU which she presented to her Cabinet only to find out that as with such big, messy important things, the compromises necessary to produce anything at all please absolutely nobody.

To me, it was obvious that the politicians were only saying they wanted to Leave when they started negotiating with the EU to begin with. The British Government has been prairie-dogging this particular turd for months now, unsure if they want to shit or just get off the pot altogether. My preference would have been to shit from day one. (If you say you're going to do something, then do it. I don't really have an opinion on Brexit one way or the other. I can see why people wanted to Leave and I can for sure see why folks wanted to Remain.) Prepare for a No Deal Brexit. Send out your envoys to negotiate trade deals. Get some economic love going with the major Commonwealth countries. Figure out a deal with Ireland. And granted, I know, its far far more complicated than that. Undoing four decades of ties with Europe isn't something that one can do in a paragraph- but for crying out loud, you'd think that if they were committed to honoring this non-binding referendum of theirs that the Conservatives would have, I don't know, been ready to implement something with a modicum of competence on day one?

Preparing for a No Deal Brexit from Day One would have been a good start. Accepting that the EU was never going to give the UK a good deal from Day One would have been another. They don't want to give other member states ideas- it goes back to that fundamental problem with it's distant, vaguely democratic governing structure. People (he said, with no scientific basis for his assertion whatsoever) probably aren't crazy about having national governments be subject to some damn council somewhere else. They'll put up with it, because you know- EU passports, man. But I'm willing to bet they're not crazy about it. So they can't give the UK a nice pat on the back and an amicable divorce, because that would give voters in other countries ideas. And they can't be having that.

The bargaining chip for the UK should have been the divorce bill. The EU wants something like 39 billion pounds and any British Government coming to the table without a flaming bag of dog shit in its hand should have had the spine to say that not one pence would be paid until they get a deal they can live with.

So what now? Damned if I know. It's the greatest train wreck on planet Earth at the moment. Assuming Theresa May hasn't used up her nine lives by this point, I think she survives- if for no other reason than I don't think the Tories like Boris Johnson all that much and they probably like the thought of Jacob Reese-Mogg even less (I mean, I wasn't around when Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister. It might be a novel experience to see what Reese-Mogg would be like in 10 Downing Street. Like Back To The Future cosplay gone awry.) The irony of ironies of course is that Scotland is watching carefully. Northern Ireland doesn't seem thrilled the prospect of being a doorstop or a backstop  or whatever the hell they're supposed to be. After staving off a vote on Scottish independence, a botched Brexit could lead to just that- with a bonus possibility of a united Ireland to boot.

How's that for a Brexit no one saw coming?

*'Taking Back Control' sounds an awful lot like 'Make America Great Again' or that probably forgotten Howard Dean slogan from '04: 'We're Going To Take Our Country Back.' The latter always perplexed me a bit. I mean, where did America go? Did it move in with Mom? Was there a custody battle of some kind?

**UKIP is a ridiculous name for a political party. It makes me think of fish. "You kip?" "Yes, please, but only on toast." "You kip if you want too, this fish is not for turning. Unless it's done on that side and you need to add some lemon."

***Do Tory Prime Ministers not read history anymore? Edward Heath called a snap election back in the 70s by asking the somewhat unfortunate question, 'Who Governs Britain?' The voters, somewhat surprised by the question decided that whomever it was going to be, it wasn't going to be Edward Heath anymore.