Aug 312011
 

Last week was Noir Week over at Tor.com so I decided to revisit some noir books. What better place to start than with Chandler? The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler was written in 1939. It was Chandler’s first novel although he had been publishing stories since 1933. The Big Sleep introduces the character of Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is the epitome of the wisecracking, hard drinking, tough private eye. This type of character feels pretty familiar to us now, but this is where the origins for that familiarity with hard boiled detectives lie.
Parts of The Big Sleep feel like the 30’s. Some of that feel is good–there’s lots of jaunty 30’s lingo in the book. Other parts of that feel are not so good–there is an overtone of racism and homosexuality is not given a very good light. Political correctness was not the phrase of the day. Of course, it was the 30’s and those were the sentiments at play. For Chandler to even mention homosexuals at that time was probably pretty daring. Those aren’t the main focus for the book, however, and I’d say to try to not let them interfere with the flow of the prose.
Here’s the opening paragraph:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Chandler certainly does dish out a pistol hot cup of prose. I really couldn’t stop my mind from reading the book in Bogart’s voice.
This opening sets the scene as Marlowe gets a case from General Sternwood (sick, an invalid and the four million dollars) to investigate an attempt at blackmail. The case quickly escalates from blackmail to kidnapping, a pornography ring, seductions, and several murders. Marlowe perseveres and shows he has morals even if the generals daughters, the police and the D.A. may not.
As Marlowe says, “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” but the book is a very good fast paced read.

 Posted by at 1:48 pm
Aug 302011
 

My gravatar features a photo of TazMan sitting in a Blue Hippo pool float. Peter Watts had asked if it was a blue banana slug but I think the tusks pretty much point to a hippo. However, it occurs to me that Taz deserves some explanation.
Taz appeared in my personal narrative in December of 1986. I was away at college and had called home to see how things were going. My Mom told me that they had a new kitten. What was odd was that it was my Dad who had brought the kitten home rather than my mom. Dad had been delivering propane somewhere in the countryside (recall December in Iowa) and the temperature was around -10F. He had heard a faint mewing coming from a nearby tractor. Upon looking, there was a small bundle of white fur sitting tucked by the engine manifold. The fur was matted and somewhat scorched. Dad decided that a rescue was in order and brought the kitten home. After a bit of food and water, Mom decided that a bath and combing were in order. The kitten didn’t particularly appreciate this part of the rescue–that’s where the name Taz (from Tasmanian Devil) comes from. This may have also had something to do with his lifelong aversion to water. Or, maybe it was that he considered himself a desert cat. One of his quirks was that before drinking he had to clear the (invisible) sand away from the watering hole water dish. His extreme dislike of water for purposes other than drinking adds a touch of amusement to his sitting in the pool float.
Going forward a few years to 1990, I had gotten a house in Rochester and Mom decided that I needed some company. So, Taz and his sidekick cat Rum moved in with me. In 1992 I married Susan and we moved to a larger house. Taz decided that he would raise Josh as a proper cat.
When Josh went off to college in 2002, Taz didn’t entirely approve. He was somehow, however, able to tell when Josh would be coming home and go and sit by the door about 10 minutes before Josh would pull into the driveway. This would happen whether or not we knew Josh was coming home. I’ve never quite figured out a rational explanation for that, so we’ll just have to chalk it up to mystic cat powers.

 Posted by at 10:15 am
Aug 292011
 

This turned out pretty well. The ginger syrup, okra chips and Moroccan seasoning were required ingredients (local “Chopped” contest by ZZest) but they merged with the salad quite nicely. They can be left out if desired and you could use chicken eggs (3) instead of the quail eggs. But, the quail eggs are pretty neat.
I did a bit of research on Salade Niçoise before I put this together and found an approximately infinite number of “traditional” recipes. The underlying theme seemed to be either tuna or anchovies, hard boiled eggs and then fresh vegetables as available. Various sources declaimed the presence of potatoes or green beans and other sources proclaimed them. So, I went to the local farmers market and bought what was fresh. The smoked salmon was the Lookout Stout Smoked Sockeye from Dejon Delights of Skagway, Alaska.

4 oz smoked salmon
1 large, ripe tomato
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 cup ground cherries, husk removed
1 1/2 Tbsp capers
1/2 cup green beans
4-5 fingerling potatoes
1/3 cup small black olives, preferably Niçoise olives, pitted
2 cups mixed salad greens washed and dried
6 boiled quail eggs (see below)
Ginger glazed Okra chips (see below)
6 Tbsps vinaigrette (see below)
salt, freshly ground black pepper

1. Put potatoes in a pot of cold water, bring to a boil, and cook until tender about 12 minutes cooking after water comes to a boil. Remove from water and place in ice bath to cool. Cut in half.
2. Add green beans to water potatoes were in and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Place in an ice bath to cool.
3. Cut the tomatoes into wedges and put them in a colander. Sprinkle them with salt, and let them drain for a few minutes while you finish the salad.
3. Peel and cut the eggs in half. Place the cut eggs onto a plate and sprinkle with Moroccan spice mixture.
4. Add the cucumber, onions, olives, capers, ground cherries and lettuce to a salad bowl.
5. Add the tomatoes to the bowl and toss about half of the vinaigrette with the salad, reserving a bit to drizzle over the eggs. Season with additional salt, if necessary. Add salad mixture to plate.
6. Separately toss the beans and potatoes with the vinaigrette.
7. Arrange beans, potatoes, and okra on top of salad with the salmon in the middle.
8. Place the eggs on top of the salad. Drizzle any remaining dressing over the eggs.

Glazed Okra Chips
Add 4Tsp Ginger syrup to a non stick sauté pan. Add ½ tsp dulcet Moroccan cooking spice. Reduce syrup by about ¼ and add 1 pkg Danielle Okra chips. Toss chips with glaze until coated and spread chips on to a wire rack. Sprinkle with sea salt and allow to cool.

Ginger Vinaigrette
1/8 tsp sea salt
1 Tbsp sherry or red wine vinegar
1/2 small shallot, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp ginger syrup
½ tsp Moroccan spice
1. In a small bowl, mix together the salt, vinegar, and shallot. Let stand for about ten minutes.
2. Mix in the Dijon mustard
3. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir well, then taste. Add remaining olive oil if taste is too sharp.
4 Add in ginger syrup

Boiled Quail Eggs
Fill a saucepan with enough water to cover the eggs and an inch more. Place the saucepan on a burner over high heat. Add the eggs to the pan.
Cover the pan and bring the water to a boil. As soon as the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat. Leave the pan covered on the burner for five minutes.
Remove the eggs and immerse the eggs in an ice bath, to stop the cooking process. When the eggs are cool crack and peel.

 Posted by at 8:44 am
Aug 232011
 

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi is a wild explosion of ideas. We meet a version of Jean le Flambeur (the eponymous thief) in a virtual prison structure. Copies of him are “running” in the prison and are destroyed/modified/rewarded based upon their success in a very real prisoners dilemma situation–kill or cooperate. The goal is reformation of the personality through a genetic algorithm process. Not a pleasant place to be in.
Jean is recruited/rescued from this prison by Mieli and her sentient space ship, Perhonen. At this point it is fairly clear we are somewhere in the fairly far future and that we’re in for quite a ride.
We then meet Isidore Beautrelet a detective on Mars. The Martian culture (post humans) is a truly unique extrapolation of privacy rules. Each Martian’s interaction with all other members of the culture is mediated through gevulot. Gevulot can be thought of as a privacy filter that is built in to the Martians. The extent of your knowledge (even your memory) of others is controlled though their control of gevulot. If your access is finished, the other person is literally not there to you–you may not even remember you met them. The other really interesting part of the Martian society is that the people alternate between an active phase and a Quiet phase. In the Quiet phase they become essentially worker cyborgs whose job is to maintain and protect the society. Their consciousnesses are suppressed during these times. The trigger for conversion is that every citizen carries a watch. When their watch runs out of time, it is time to become a quiet. Units of time are also the basic currency of the civilization. Very interesting society.
The eventual merging of the detective and thief stories was the only part of the book that seemed a little off balance to me. It took a while to figure out if the two events were related and how they were related in time and space. This was somewhat minor, but a little smoothing would have done well there.
As background details we gradually find out that large parts of the rest of the solar system are the domain of some sort of vastly amplified computational minds. There are groups of these engaged in struggle for resources (computational space, minds, …) It is at the edge of these struggles that the conflict and basic mysteries of the book emerge.
This is the first book of a trilogy and I’ve got to say that I am eagerly awaiting the second volume. Nicely done debut novel.

 Posted by at 3:52 pm
Aug 162011
 

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi won the Hugo and Nebula awards last year and I finally got around to reading it. I have to say that it deserved to win–it’s really quite the story. It is a story set in and of Thailand somewhere in the late 22nd century or so. Oil has mostly run out and eco-plagues caused by genetically modified organisms have wrecked havoc with the worlds ecosystem. Patented (and sterile) food supplies are the jealously guarded province of mega-corporations like AgriGen and SoyCal. The narration of the book is provided through the eyes of five different people.
Anderson Lake is an undercover calorie man (calories of work are a basis of currency) in a Bangkok struggling to keep ahead of rising sea levels. His cover is as a factory head developing a new process of kink spring (organic energy storage) devices. His real job is to find the Thai seed bank and the gene scientists they are using to keep Thailand from under the control of the calorie corporations.
Hock Seng is Anderson’s office manager. He is a Malaysian Chinese refugee in Thailand. He used to own a shipping corporation but a genocidal purge by extremists forced his entry into Thailand. He is continually looking for an edge to regain his footing. He thinks the kink springs are such an edge.
Emiko is the titular Windup Girl. She is a genetically modified human, known more politely as New people , bred for obedience and features in a Japan that needs to create its own servants in order to make up for an aging population. Her state is the lowest of any of the people in the book as she is cruelly used by many.
Jaidee and Kanya are White Shirts–essentially a kind of environmental police. Their job is to enforce strict import controls and keep a lid on plague borne problems.
Amid this background of an energy starved and bio-shocked world we follow the characters and their goals and their flaws. I think that Bacigalupi does a very good job of showing these characters and what is driving them. Many of the driving forces are fear and prejudice, but Bacigalupi makes that understandable from that characters viewpoint.
One particular prejudice is against the New People. Most of the people in the book don’t consider them human at all. For the Japanese and Europeans they are servants at best. For the Thai’s they are fit only to be “mulched.” I can, unfortunately, understand how these views would emerge in the world presented by Bacigalupi. Humanities ability to pick out differences and declare that trait as “non-human” are all to apparent throughout history.
Bacigalupi does a fantastic job of putting us into the middle of this world and slowly feeding out the details of what is going on. No big info dumps here–just a slow a steady building of a complete world.
Very good book–highly recommended.

 Posted by at 11:08 am
Aug 122011
 

Here are a couple more little ditties inspired by blog entries on Ian Tregillis‘ site.

The first reveals the deep angst 😉 in having to wait for books (and blurbs):

wrt: Arlen & Harburg

(Me)
I could enjoy many an hour
Even readin’ in the shower
Squintin’ in the dark
And my head I’d be fillin’
With thoughts about the villain
If I only had an ARC

I’d read all through the middle
Discoverin’ the riddle
Oh it’ll be a lark

(Ian)
With the words you’d be readin’
Your thoughts you’d be feedin’
If you only had an ARC

(Me)
Oh, I could give you quite a blurb
I could choose a poignant adverb
And then I’d add reverb

I would not be just a reader
Waitin’ for a leader
Like some silly narc
I would caper and be airy
Even if it was scary
If I only had an ARC

In this second entry, we see the life of the modern day physicist amidst urban travails:

(wrt: Lee, Peart, Lifeson and Dubois)

A modern-day physicist
Mean chi square,
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Taggers beware.

Though his lab is not for rent,
Don’t put it down as a convent.
Its got quite a defense,
Beyond the horizon’s events.
The laser

When you try to tag his secret lair
You’ll find all about the henchman’s stare.
Catch the mess, catch the mass
Catch the wire, catch the pith.

The lair has, the lair has,
Zero Point Energy
Maybe as your eyes go wide.

Today’s Tom Sawyer,
He lets fly on you,
And the mind he invades
Is in place of you.

No, his lab is not for rent
To any gods or government.
Always finding, new content,
Electrodes are permanent
Embedded.

When you try to tag his secret lair
You’ll find all about the henchman’s stare..
Catch the tagger, catch the tag,
Catch the breaker, catch the bit.

The lair has, the lair has,
Zero Point Energy
Maybe as your skies go by.

Exit the physicist,
Today’s Tom Sawyer,
He lets fly on you,
And with the mind you trade,
He gets right on to the fiction of the day.

 Posted by at 3:33 pm
Aug 102011
 

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher is the 13th (or 14th depending on how you count Side Jobs) book in The Dresden Files series. If you haven’t been reading these books you really should. They’re a blast. If you haven’t read this particular volume and you’ve read the rest, then go pick it up right away, read it. It’s very, very good. In the rest of the review, I’ll be talking about things that could be spoilers, so, read the book and then come back (unless such things don’t bother you.)

 

 

————– Spoiler Warning Space—————-

 

 

 

 

At the end of Changes Harry gets shot. Things don’t look so good, but we don’t know for sure. At the beginning of Ghost Story our doubts are removed as Harry wakes up and finds himself a spirit. The title’s kind of a giveaway, so that part shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
Harry is met by one of Murphy’s old partner–Carmichael and taken to meet his boss. Harry is told that he needs to solve his own murder in order to prevent three of his friends from being hurt.
Harry (being Harry even though dead) elects to help and chooses to be delivered to the house of Mortimer Lindquist (Mort), ectomancer.
From here on, the story has an overall feeling of a Dresden story, but there are a few interesting differences. Harry is dead and that means that he is quite limited in how he can interact with the mortal world and mortals. He can talk to Mort and other spirits. He can’t directly effect change in the mortal world. This (and being dead) give Harry some cause to think about his actions as he proceeds through the book rather than just blowing holes in things as is sometimes his wont. Being introspective is good for character growth in Harry’s case. It will be interesting how this plays out in future volumes.
Speaking of future volumes, one of the things I was very interested in as the book progressed was how (or if) Harry might re-enter the mortal world. Being a ghost is pretty interesting for a single volume but would seem to cause some problems in an extended series. I could picture a few ways in which this could happen and there are some hints along the way.
I admit to getting teary eyed at Harry’s reunions with Mouse, Mister and Molly. Butcher did a really good job with these. Molly has certainly gone through the wringer and the effects of that will also be interesting.
As ghosts are essentially memories, we spend some time in Harry’s memories. Specifically, we get to see his encounter with “He Who Walks Behind.” This is a good series of scenes and some of it is surprising to Harry (he had blanked it out) so we definitely get some new info. It seems that Walker may not have just been sent out by Harry’s old tutor to kill him. Walker may have been doing some organizing of his own.
The ending of the book was quite satisfying for me. It sets up the action for the next book and gives a few surprises. Very well done, Jim Butcher.

 Posted by at 12:18 pm
Aug 082011
 

Rule 34 by Charles Stross is set in the near future (less than 20 years I’d say) Edinburgh, Scotland. We arrive (or you arrive) as Detective Liz Cavanaugh is summoned to a fairly odd murder scene–a “two wetsuit job”. She finds that the victim was a prior person of interest and he has died from the deleterious effects of a former bathroom appliances of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.
I say that “you arrive” as the novel is told in the second person. The voice wasn’t as difficult to get used to as I had thought it would be. The only problem I had was that it was sometimes (for me) a bit difficult to remember who was the “you” in the particular chapter. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character in the story.
We next meet Anwar Hussein. Anwar is on parole for some bit of identity theft related computer crime and is looking for some job reputable enough to satisfy his parole officer. He finds this as he is recruited to run the Scottish consulship of a small central Asian republic. His main job seems to be to hand out packages of bread mix.
Liz is in charge of a computer-crimes unit who’s main function is to try to stay ahead of internet pornography. She thinks of her squad as the “porn monkeys.” She has been placed into this role as a result of something occurring a few years back that has derailed her career. When more unorthodox murders begin seeing the light of day she is assigned to the investigation.
Meanwhile, we also meet the Toymaker. The Toymaker is something of a middle manager for a modern day organized crime ring. He is also suffering from some form of psychopathic disorder that is somewhat kept in check with pharmaceuticals.
I enjoyed this story quite a lot as Stross brings all these threads together into a very well done thought provoking story. Along the way he turns a few things on their head. He plays with the idea of where Artificial Intelligence may get its market push (think anti-spam) and what it may look like. He also moves away from the lone detective genre to the team approach to solving crime. Very enjoyable.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
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