Friday, March 24, 2017

The West: Arches and Canyonlands

Double Arch, Arches National Park
Landscape Arch
Delicate Arch
La Sal Mountains
Grand View Point, Canyonlands
Canyons and badlands

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The West: Bryce Canyon

The amphitheater
Rainbow Point (elevation 9115')
Queen Victoria (left)
Hoodoos from the hiking trails
Late afternoon

Monday, March 20, 2017

The West: Zion National Park

The Narrows
Virgin River
Upper Emerald Pool
Canyon floor from the West Rim
Canyon wall
Looking back from the park's east entrance
This is what happens to trees out there

Book Review: The Devil in Music

The Devil in Music
Kate Ross

Historical mysteries are tricky. Some authors seem to believe that their primary goal is to impress the reader with how much they know about the period. Others use characters who are obviously modern people with modern attitudes in period drag. A non-trivial number simply don't know how to write a mystery plot.

Kate Ross did it better than most. Her period is the 1820s, and her characters are of their time (her detective. Julian Kestrel, is an English dandy in the mode of Beau Brummel). She's got a deft hand with period detail; instead of inserting a factoid every few paragraphs, or smothering the reader under periodic infodumps, she works it seamlessly into the narrative. The Devil in Music is a historical mystery that actually feels historical.

It does not, perhaps, feel quite so mysterious. The central twist in the murder plot is taken from a classic Dorothy Sayers novel. There's also a more intrigue-oriented side to the plot, and that's more satisfying. Without spoiling anything, there's one very clever and completely appropriate piece of misdirection that deserves some kudos. Finally, the resolution involves some pretty good character development.

So: The Devil in Music didn't make my jaw drop, but I quite enjoyed reading it. We already own the first book in the series, Cut to the Quick; now I want to read the others.

If you could somehow combine Kate Ross with Susan Spann, you'd get something spectacular. Spann doesn't have Ross's writing chops, but she's a better technician.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: The Rise of Athens

The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilization
Anthony Everitt

The Rise of Athens is a pretty good general history, concentrating sixth through the fourth centuries B.C. It isn't particularly ground-breaking; Everitt himself stipulates that he's relied heavily on such familiar sources as Herodotus and (especially) Thucydides, and anyone who's familiar with these sources won't find much that's novel in the large-scale picture. (Practically speaking, what else is there?)

On the other hand, if you're not versed on the subject, The Rise of Athens would be a good place to start. Everitt strikes a good middle ground between being hyper-skeptical and completely credulous when it comes to using those sources. The book is written in a pleasing conversational tone. The organization is basically chronological, so it's easy to follow. The main actors are scrupulously identified (and we're reminded periodically of who was who), so it's unusually easy to follow--kudos for this. There are a number of insightful asides into such topics as hoplite warfare, the cost of maintaining a galley, ancient Greek homosexuality, red-figure and black-figure pottery, and so forth. 

On the third hand, The Rise of Athens follows its sources in being largely a politico-military history. It doesn't give a lot of space to Athenian drama, for example, and it gives rather less to Athenian philosophy--both areas of some significance. I also suspect that Everitt over-emphasizes the traditional Clash of Civilizations/Greeks vs. Persians/Freedom vs. Subjugation aspects of his story.

As regards the subtitle: it's hyperbole--but it's pardonable hyperbole. If you read The Rise of Athens you will occasionally be reminded that the past is an alien country. Far more often, though, you'll be struck by the similarities. The questions that the ancient Athenians grappled with--the proper relationship between the state and religion, for example, or the demands of maintaining an alliance against a common foe--are still with us. The extraordinary credit due to the Hellenes is that they were the first people whose answers to those questions are, however greatly mutated, still with us as well.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Back Again

Blogging has been light because I have been conducting certain highly-sensitive investigations in a Secret Undisclosed Location code-named "The West." To my loyal readers (a group whose size--and I do not mean to brag here--reaches the exalted plane of "several"), I say: fear not. I have returned.

As a result of my investigations, I can divulge that "The West" is large and contains many brightly-colored rocks.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Empire Games

Empire Games
Charles Stross
Science fiction

In theory, Charles Stross ought to be one of my favorite authors. He writes idea-oriented science fiction. He's not postmodernist or relentlessly pessimistic or anything-punk. He's a friend of John Scalzi. His "Laundry Files" series is funny and imaginative.

And yet . . . I find that most of Stross's novels have something off-putting about them. Sometimes I just don't like the main character(s). Other times Stross is so busy stuffing ideas into the story that the characters have nothing much to do. And once or twice I've hit something that just makes me say "Ew. Do not want to read."

Empire Games is my favorite non-Laundry-Files Stross so far. It's a sequel to his earlier "Merchant Princes" books, but it's not necessary to have read those first. (However, Empire Games is full of spoilers for the earlier books; you'll lose something by reading them in reverse order.) I liked the protagonist, at least when she wasn't being wimpy. The central idea is a familiar one--Harry Turtledove used it in his "Crosstime Traffic" YA series, to take one contemporary example--so Stross doesn't have to spend all his time riffing on it. The pacing is outstanding; I'd even go so far as to dub Empire Games a page turner.

My chief quarrel with Empire Games is that it takes the main characters all the way up to page 262 to do something they should have done on page 30 or so. Yes, there's plenty of in-story justification for it, but that doesn't make it not irritating. It happens (I think) because of the political metaphysics Stross is using. I won't attempt to characterize his personal politics--he can do that for himself--but in Empire Games there's an unstated assertion which I find both tedious and contrafactual. Namely: There are no good governments. There are only bad governments, some of which oppose one another.

I'll hold off on critiquing this idea in detail. Suffice it to say that it (a) is deployed to prevent the characters from acting rationally, and (b) makes it very hard to care which side comes out on top, or even whether either side survives at all.

Happily, there is a caveat to my caveat. This is the first book of a series. I do plan to read the next one; see prior remarks re: pacing. Hence, I reserve my final judgment. Watch this space.