Saturday, April 30, 2011

Happy Walpurgisnacht!

Hey, it's April 30th!

I hope that someone out there is celebrating by plotting to kill Merlin

Friday, April 29, 2011

Take Your Daughter in to Work Day

Yesterday was Take Your Daughter in to Work Day. When I first started here, in January of 2010, Jen wasn't working Fridays, so I suggested that she and Lily join me and the people in the office for lunch one day. They wound up doing so, and Lily had a really good time and she's been asking with some regularity when the next "Take Your Kid to Work Day" would be.

Well, it was April 28th for 2011, so we went in together. I've mentioned before that my drive in is a long and tedious one and Lily had similar observations. Specifically, she said that the drive is so long that I probably fall asleep on the way there. She kept asking "Are we there yet?" (It's not just for Smurfs anymore) so we started playing the "Guess Which Animal I am" game until we got there.

Once there, she fell in love with the place. Unfortunately, she didn't want to play with the other kids, most of whom were quite a bit older and all of whom were boys. Fortunately, I had prepared for this and we had plenty to do. We played stickers and watched Scooby Doo  on the laptop.

There was a tornado watch in the middle of the day and that added a bit of excitement to things.

I felt like a good parent, because Lily was was the only kid not sequestered in the boardroom they were using as a gulag for the unruly kids.

While we were walking to the breakroom, she asked me to stop, and then she reached up and put a little cow pinata that had fallen down back up. Apparently it fell down because it wasn't balanced, because it immediately did so again when she let go. Then she got the bright idea to prop it up against the other, and it stayed up.

Reverse cow-tipping

We had our lunch and most of the kids went home, as they were only here for a half day. The only one left after 1:00 was a nine-year-old kid. Lily was pretty shy around everyone else, but she warmed to this kid, because, I think, he reminded her of her favorite cousin.

During lunch they were playing games on his mom's PC and Lily said "Your mom's computer is cool. My daddy's computer only has pictures of me!"

They watched some Scooby Doo episodes together and he taught her how to make paper airplanes and she covered hers with princess stickers. They went into the boardroom and Lily drew very nice pictures for me on the dry erase board. I almost missed them and while I appreciate the sentiment, I'm glad I erased them before the room was used for a meeting with a client.

Lily's been potty trained forever, but if she's engaged in something as she was with this, she'll sometimes put off going to the bathroom until the last minute and have an accident on the way. I had to bribe her twice to use the bathroom, and she's old enough now that she feels awkward going into the men's room with me.

Lily: Come in the girl's room with me!
Me: I can't. Men aren't allowed to go in there.
Lily: It's okay if you're with a girl.

And then we passed a urinal, and she wanted to know what it was. I told it is was a special type of potty that you use only if you have to pee. So the second time we were in there, of course she wanted to use it.

I leave around five and I had her go to the bathroom at about 4:40. Like I said above, Lily will sometimes hold it in until the last minute and this time while using the potty, she held it for too long and didn't get her panties all the way down and got them a little wet. I tried to dry them off, but she insisted they made her itchy if they were wet, so when I saw that I wasn't going to get them dry, I just took them off and stuck them in my back pocket. (She was, of course, wearing a dress.)

And then Lily spent the last 20 minutes of the day playing catch with her little friend. At one point the ball bounced under a desk, and Lily got on her hands and knees to retrieve it, and I was like "NO, I'LL GET THAT ONE!"

But we managed to conclude the rest of the work day without flashing anyone. On the way out, we took the back door stairs down to my car and Lily was still excited about the place. She said "Your work is so cool!"  and I was like "Cool?" and she said, "Yeah, it means interesting or neat," as if I were unfamiliar with the word, and I was, insofar as it relates to my job.

We passed the lake around which I take my walks and Lily wanted to stop, despite the fact that I assured her that there were no dolphins, sharks or octopodes in the lake, but she forgot all about them when I reminded her about the doughnuts.

We stopped for doughnuts on the way home. I was trying to keep Lily engaged so she wouldn't fall asleep right before bedtime, but I took a one minute phone call from Jen, and in that minute, Lily conked out completely.

It was windy when we got home, and Lily was still bare-bottomed, and she did a Marilyn Monroe when I was picking her up out of the car seat.

All things considered, an absolutely great day. Lily can't wait until next year.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Knight of Shadows

Whatever problems the I have with the Merlin books, it's not with how they begin.  They generally start off well, and I have to admit, I think that the first couple chapters of this book are really good. Jasra's enslavement of Sharu was vividly described and plenty neat. The meal with Merlin, Mandor and Jasra is moves briskly and is as entertaining as anything else in the Corwin series.  And it even does a convincing job of selling the illusion that everything that had gone before was more than stuff happening for no reason; that events really were part of a coherent narrative if you knew what was going on behind the scenes. For the record, I don't think that's the case; but this exposition is a serviceable fig leaf and I'm willing to buy into it.

It introduces some neat stuff to the mythology of Amber. Take the Broken Pattern, for instance. Zelazny tells us enough to intrigue, but not so much as to spoil the magic.

"In the Way of the Broken Pattern," she explained, "you enter through the imperfection and make your way to the center."

"How can you follow the lines if they are broken or imperfect? The real Pattern would destroy you if you departed the design."

"You don't follow the lines. You follow the interstices," she said.

"And when you emerge . . . wherever?" I asked.

"You bear the image of the Broken Pattern within you."

"And how do you conjure with this?"

"Through the imperfection. You summon the image, and it is like a dark well from which you draw power."

Probably the real reason that I like it is that Merlin doesn't talk all that much. But the exchange below is pretty neat, and it's nice to read some dialogue that really sounds like it was written by Roger Zelazny.

"Basing my conclusions concerning this remarkable tale solely upon my experience of human nature," Mandor suddenly observed, "I would say that she wished to test her talons as well as her wings. I'd guess she went back and challenged her former master-this Victor Melman-and fought a sorcerous duel with him."

I heard Jasra's intake of breath.

"Is that truly only a guess?" she asked.

"Truly," he answered, swirling his wine in his goblet.

"And I would guess further that you had  once done something  similar with your own teacher."

"What devil told you that?" she asked.

"It  is  only a guess that Sharu was your teacher-and perhaps more than that," he said. "But it would explain both your acquisition of  this  place and  your ability to catch its former lord off guard. He might even have had a stray moment before his defeat for a wishful curse that the  same fate attend you one day. And even if not, these things do sometimes have a way of running full circle with people in our trade."

She chuckled.

"The  devil called Reason, then," she said, a note of admiration in her voice. "Yet you summon him by intuition, which makes it an art."

Unfortunately, after this section, the story segues directly into undershadow, which, for my money is the worst part of the Amber books. And it goes on FOREVER!

While in undershadow, Merlin outwits Brand and outfights Lord Borel. He intimidates the Pattern. If the series had gone on much longer, I'm sure he would have outwrestled Gerard while being more beautiful than Flora. Ghost Jurt sacrifices himself to save Merlin, making him the second person to do this in the series (though he still got a better deal than the "Just-let me-sink here. G'bye..."  woman back in Trumps of Doom, some totally innocent women bodyjacked by the ty'iga to save Merlin from his own stupidity,  which has to be one of the all time shitty ways to go)

And don't get me started on Coral. Apparently her fondest wish was to have sex with Merlin. Women want him, men want to be him!

"Coral?" I tried again.

"Mm," she said.

"Seems the only way we can get out of here is by making love."

"Thought you'd never ask," she mumbled, eyes still closed.

After Merlin does the deed WITH HIS AUNT, he returns to the castle in Amber, where Nayda steals the Jewel of Judgment, which she refers to as the Eye of the Serpent.

I was the next thing out into the hallway. I turned  left  and  started running. A ty'iga may be fast, but so am I.

"I thought you were supposed to be protecting me!" I shouted after her.

"This takes precedence," she answered, "over your mother's binding."

"What?" I said. "My mother?"

"She placed me under a geas to take care of you when you went off to school," she replied. "This breaks it! Free at last!"

I kind of like this. It's left vague, but the way I chose to interpret it is that the caster who lays a geas upon a demon must offer it a way to abrogate the contract, even if the likelihood of fulfilling the alternate condition is vanishingly small. (I suppose I got the idea from A Night in the Lonesome October, where Jack says "There must always be a small, even if only symbolic, exit open to a sacrifice in this.") Nothing in the text really supports this interpretation, but nor is there anything to contradict it, so I'm going with that as my personal canon, because I think it makes the story slightly cooler. And unfortunately, by this point, the story is in desperate need of something to make it cooler. Take, for instance, this standoff between Ghostwheel, the Pattern and the Logrus:

"But neither of you will  do  it,"  Ghost  answered,  "because  such a focusing of your attention and energies would leave either of you vulnerable to the other."

In my mind, I heard Dworkin chuckle.

"Tell me why this confrontation need take place at all," Ghost went on, "after all this time."

"The balance was tipped against me by recent actions of this turncoat," the Logrus  replied-a  burst  of fire occurring above my head, presumably to demonstrate the identity of the turncoat in question.

I smelled burning hair, and I warded the flame.

"Just a minute!" I cried. "I wasn't given much choice in the matter!"

"But there was a choice," wailed the Logrus, "and you made it."

"Indeed, he did," responded the Pattern. "But it served only to redress the balance you'd tipped in your own favor."

"Redress? You overcompensated! Now it's tipped in your favor!  Besides, it  was  accidentally  tipped  my  way,  by  the  traitor's father." Another fireball followed, and I warded again. "It was not my doing."

Good Lord. Is that the best voice he could come up for these ancient, alien things? They predate most of reality and they talk like bickering five-year-olds. Sounds like somebody's getting a Time Out when this is all through, that's for sure!

(On the other hand, as much as I dislike the book, I think it's awesome that Zelazny said that he demolished the bedrooms because he didn't feel like being constrained by the maps in the Visual Guide.)

After the fight, Merlin stumbles on the spikard, though we don't call it that yet.

The  band  was  wide, possibly of platinum. It bore a wheellike device of some reddish metal, with countless tiny spokes, many  of them  hair-fine.  And  each of these spokes extended a line of power leading off somewhere, quite possibly into Shadow, where some power cache  of  spell source  lay.  Perhaps Luke would rather have the ring than the sword. When I slipped it on, it seemed to extend roots to the very center of  my  body.  I could  feel  my  way  back  along  them to the ring and then out along those connections. I was impressed by the  variety  of  energies  it  reached  and controlled-from simple  chthonic forces to sophisticated constructs of High Magic, from elementals to  things  that  seemed like lobotomized  gods.  I wondered why he hadn't been wearing it on the day of the Patternfall battle. If  he  had, I'd a feeling he might have been truly invincible. We could all have been living on Brandenberg is Castle Brand.

Just like in Sign of Chaos, we end the book with a big magical brawl. This one is even more over the top than the last. The phrase that leaps to mind is "comic-booky", but that's not a pejorative for me, so I kind of liked it, even if it moves the conception of magic even further away from the understated incantation in Thari that it was in the Corwin books.

I can't help but feel sorry for Jurt here. For his entire lifetime, he's been losing to Merlin through absurdly bad luck. Right after his bath in the Font of Power, Merlin blunders into an even greater source of power. I think I'd wind up a little crazy too.

Geek Speek Movie Review: Sucker Punch

My review of Sucker Punch is up at Geekspeak, if you're into that sort of thing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Sign of Chaos

Trumps of Doom and Blood of Amber had already been released by the time I started actively seeking out Zelazny books, but I had to wait for Sign of Chaos. It's strange to think back to a time when I was craving more stories about Merlin, but that was teenage Josh. He liked all sorts of crappy things.

I think this is the book where the wheels begin to come off the whole Merlin saga, though again, it does have a few things to recommend it. For instance, the beginning in Wonderland is a pretty entertaining read.

I felt vaguely uneasy, though I couldn't say why. It did not  seem  all that  unusual  to be drinking with a White Rabbit, a short guy who resembled Bertrand Russell, a grinning Cat, and my old friend Luke  Raynard,  who  was singing  Irish  ballads  while  a  peculiar  landscape shifted from mural to reality at his back. Well, I was impressed  by  the  huge  blue  Caterpillar smoking  the hookah atop the giant mushroom because I know how hard it is to keep a water pipe lit. Still, that wasn't it. It was a convivial scene,  and Luke was known to keep pretty strange company on occasion. So why should I feel uneasy?

Merlin is hardly a tool at all when he's drunk. Much like Dennis Wexroth, Fred's guidance counselor in Doorways in the Sand, he's "considerably more congenial" when he's inebriated.

Luke relates his an account of his glider-borne invasion of the Keep of the Four Worlds. Hang-gliding shows up an awful lot in this series, though Random did it first, of course. (Though it was the hang-gliding in Isle of the Dead that I happened to think of first.)

It gives us our first real appearance of Mandor and Mandor is a pretty cool cat.

I held it before me and put the others away, studying the blue eyes and the young, hard, slightly sharp features beneath a mass of pure white hair. He  was dressed all in black, save for a bit of white collar and sleeve showing beneath the glossy tight-fitting jacket. He held  three dark steel balls in his gloved hand.

Mandor is one of the few people who isn't falling over himself to marvel at Merlin. In fact, he tells Merlin that he's kind of a fuckup, which may be why I like him so much.

I really enjoyed the interaction between Mandor and Fiona. Then we get back to Amber, and it really starts to drag again, though this line made me chuckle. "I'd like to meet the person who wrote the reports. There may be a great creative talent going to waste in a government office." Heh heh. Silly Merlin. He gave that up and now he's a guard in Castle Amber!

I thought they were doing something with the throwaway line about the Ghost of Oberon, but it never really went anywhere. It probably became the Pattern Ghosts we see in the next book.

This was also a very nice exchange between Luke and Merlin.

"Oh,  I know most of it, in theory. I wouldn't mess with it, though. I think it takes away something of your humanity. You don't much give a shit about  other  people  or human values afterward. I think that's part of what happened to my father."

What could I say? Maybe that part was true and maybe it wasn't.  I  was sure  Luke  wanted  to  believe in some  external  cause for his father's treachery. I knew I'd never contradict him on it, even if I learned differently.

You know, I could come to like Merlin if he had more lines like that. I think that is the most kind and profoundly human thing he says across the entire series.

This was pretty interesting. I liked learning a little more about the magic system:

Not Art. Whoever enjoyed the luxury of  living  near  and  utilizing  a power  source  such as this would doubtless get very sloppy as time went on, only using the basic frames of spells as guides,  running  rivers  of  power through them. One untutored, or extremely lazy, might possibly even dispense with that much after a time and play directly with the raw forces, a kind of shamanism,  as  opposed to the Higher Magic's purity-like that of a balanced equation-producing a maximum effect from a minimum of effort.

Ultimately it suffers from the same flaws as the other books in the series, though they were certainly more pronounced here. Merlin is almost universally loved, respected and admired. Coral is smitten, Jasra is instantly charmed. Merlin is not just a tool, he's the whole shed. When I think of the image on his Trump, I can't help but imagine it as Merlin with a hipster haircut, smirking over the late 80s Macintosh he used to create Ghostwheel.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Our Egg-cellent Easter

We had an extremely good Easter. I don't think it's a stretch to say that it's nicest Easter I've ever had.

Jen and I got up at about 6:45 to a beautiful Spring day. That right there was a nice change of pace, because it seems like the weather is always terrible for Easters around here, either snowy or rainy. But the temperature was in the mid-70s and absolutely lovely.

Lily woke up in a delightful mood, dressed herself and consented to a leisurely breakfast. We went out to the yard and she hunted for eggs with the excitement only a four-year-old can muster. Someday, she's going to be a sullen 15-year-old who paints her toenails black while she listens to The Cure, and I'm glad I've got the video of this so I can remind her of the enthusiasm she used to have for the simplest things.

We went to Jen's UU church after this, and the pastor had a sermon about Eostra, the pagan goddess after whom Easter was named. He pronounced it "Ôstarâ", which is just as legitimate as the version to which I'm more accustomed, but it was rather unfortunate, because he put the accent on the second syllable, which made it sound like he was saying "O-Starro", which made me think of Starro the Conqueror.

Starro giving the children's sermon
Of course, it's fairly well known that Unitarians worship Cthulhu, and I'm not up on their whole weird theology, but I think Starro may be one of their saints.

We were meeting Jen's family at 1:30 and church let out before noon, so we had a little time to kill. I suggested that we spend it wandering around a local cemetery. (I imagine you probably spent your Easter in much the same way)

Like the sign says, the place is called the Ninsky Hill Cemetery and it's really quite nice, and rather more expansive than it looked from the street. The most distinctive features of the place are a residential home complete with swingset actually on the grounds of the cemetery,

This guy is going to be screwed when the zombie invasion comes

and a rather phallic looking monument.

Paging Doctor Freud...

After that, we met Jen's family at a local firehouse, and Lily was super sweet while we were there. Some poor bastard was dressed up in a bunny costume, and by this time it was nearly 80 degrees. Lily waved to him very nicely, and then as soon as he took off, whispered to me, "That's not really the Easter Bunny. He has a zipper in the back. It's just a man in a costume."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tetris Heaven

xkcd is a seriously funny webcomic that deals with science, math and human nature. In a recent installment, they posted this comic:

Had that been it, things would have been funny, but unremarkable. But someone at this website, put together a functional version of the game. Now how awesome is that?!They even included code to embed it on your own website, so that's what I'm going to do! (If you read this on Facebook, you're probably going to need to click on the view original post option to see the game)

Controls: ... up rotates, left goes left, right goes left, down goes down; space bar is a soft drop that gives you a 'beat' to reposition (so if you want to drop it and set it, hit space twice)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Blood of Amber

For today's Roger Zelazny book review, I'm covering the second book in the Merlin Chronicles, Blood of Amber.

I alluded to what I thought to be some of the problems with the series in earlier reviews, but I think they're less in evidence here. Zelazny really didn't seem to have any idea where a Merlin series should go, and the first book just kind of meanders about. He didn't seem to know what to write in Trumps, but now he's actually got something to work with and build upon, it's actually a pretty engaging story.

I actually read this one before Trumps of Doom. I can't remember if it was from a school library or a used book store (and it seems to be the one Zelazny paperback that's always in stock at the used book store), but I know it was the only book they had in stock and it was my introduction to the Merlin books. It opens with Reflections in a Crystal Cave, a lengthy recap of the earlier book, so I was actually pretty well informed about what had led up to this.

Flora gets good characterization. It introduces Dalt, one of my favorites from the new series.

It's got some cool lines:

I twisted my hands deeper into the Logrus until I wore the  limbs I desired as fine-fingered  gauntlets, stronger than metals, more sensitive than tongues in the places of their power

Merlin meets a hermit named Dave, who lives in a cave and about whom many dirty limericks have been written.

Scrof, the Dweller on the Threshold was really pretty cool, but I've already reproduced the section I like with him in the combined Merlin review, so I won't do so here.

It was nice to get a street level view of Amber with Merlin's visit to Bloody Bill's. I even like the running joke that was continued throughout the series.

"Uh, Bloody Bill's."

"Thanks. I'll say hi to Bill for you."

 He shook his head. "Can't. It was  renamed  after  the  manner  of  his demise. His cousin Andy runs it now."

"Oh. What was it called before?"

"Bloody Sam's," he said.

(Also, how awesome is it that Grimjack is a fan of the place?)

We get some flashbacks to Merlin's childhood in the Courts, which serves to flesh him out a bit. It really picks up in the middle when Luke returns, and though it never reaches the heights of the the Corwin books, I found myself enjoying it, sometimes even when Merlin was around. The cover art is beautiful, the duel at the Keep of the Four Worlds is pretty awesome too. It works as a self-contained novel, with a little bit of foreshadowing in the beginning tying into the reveal at the end.

I actually think it's pretty okay. I consider it the best of the Merlin series. How faint that praise is, depends, I suppose on your own opinion of the Merlin books.

Beautiful Bugs

I was at the computer this weekend and Jen and Lily were picking out clothing to wear. Lily couldn't find what she wanted. I heard her voice float over. Words in all caps indicate whining:  I WISH you would SORT my clothes by ITEM!
Later on, she was ticking off which fantasy characters are real. "Belle, Ariel, Cinderella," (because she had met women playing the princesses at Disney)  "...and Elmo." because apparently she saw him at a restaurant or something. That's terrifying. I don't want to live in a world where Elmo is real!
Also, we were outside last night and she saw something she thought was a bee.

Lily: Ah! What's that?!
Me: A fly.
Lily: What do they do?
Me: They fly
Lily: Are you sure they don't bite?
Me: No, they're just a little gross.
Lily: (thinks) I think they're beautiful, with their fluttering wings and little black bodies.
Me: Uhh...
Lily: I think they're cuter than Baby Bear.

She is definitely her mother's daughter. The reason we were outside was because she was collecting materials for her "bug nest."

She was reading a Winnie the pooh choose your own adventure which they had borrowed from preschool for last night's bedtime story. I had never even imagined that such a thing existed, but how cool is that?

This is what Josh thinks is cool

I loved CYOA books when I was a kid! The guy on this page mapped all the possible outcomes for the books and provides some really interesting insights into the books and how they evolved.

Wikipedia has a list of all the CYOA type books and it is huge!

The List

And one more thing. I often listen to podcasts of different NPR shows when walking (like other cool people do) and yesterday, I'd been listening to an episode of This American Life. The topic was "The Fine Print", and the Ira Glass opened the show by talking about the famous clause in Van Halen's contract, that they were to be provided with a bowl of M&M's with all the brown ones removed. If you've heard the story, you probably reacted the same way I did, "I'm not sure it that's really true, but if it is, what a bunch of assholes."

However, when talking to John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, and he explained to Ira that he was reading the rider all wrong. It was because they played in a lot of sketchy venues, and they had some pretty specific demands for power supplies and load bearing capacity. Per Wikipedia: According to David Lee Roth, this was listed in the technical portion of the contract not because the band wanted to make capricious demands of the venue, but rather as a test of whether the venue had actually read and honored the terms of the contract, as it contained other requirements involving legitimate safety concerns. On earlier tours, inadequate compliance by local organizers to the safety requirements of the rider had placed members of Van Halen's road crew in danger which was occasionally life-threatening. Because of these incidents, the band developed the M&M's demand as a means of checking whether the venue was properly honoring the terms of the contract to their satisfaction. Subsequently, if the bowl was missing, or if there were brown M&M's present, they had reason to suspect that the venue might not have honored legitimate technical and safety concerns within the contract. As a result, the band would be within their rights to inspect the technical side of the performance prior to going on stage, and/or request the venue redo their work properly

(Snopes also has an amusing anecdote about it in their article.)

We're all looking forward to Easter and I'll be sure to blog about that when it's done. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's a nice day for a dice wedding

Lily woke up in a good mood this morning. I was checking my email when she popped out of bed and announced "I'm awake now!" We usually have to wrestle her out of bed and prod her for fifteen minutes before she's even willing to acknowledge us, so this was a rather pleasant change of pace. Since we had extra time this morning, we played in her room.

When she was younger, I bought her a bag of the famous Chessex pound of dice (mostly, so she would stop playing with mine) and we dug those out this morning. At first she wanted to "play the game" with the dice, and I told her that the player who rolled the highest won that particular round. We did that for a couple minutes, and then she noticed some of the miniature dice. She decided that they were baby dice and then we spent some time organizing them into dice families of a mommy, a daddy and a kid.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Trumps of Doom

After I finished with the Corwin Chronicles, I reviewed the Merlin books as a group, but I decided to come back to them because as much as I do hate Merlin as a character, there are certain elements that I really do like about the books. There's a website called Garfield minus Garfield which is just what it sounds like. Somebody took a bunch of Garfield strips and photoshopped the titular cat right out of there. I really wish that somebody would do that with the Merlin Chronicles, because they're a perfectly serviceable series of fantasy books marred by a smug dickhead of a protagonist.

Trumps of Doom, taken alone, is not as atrociously bad as my endless bitching about Merlin would suggest. I'm even fond of the beginning.

It is a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you. But it was April 30, and of course it would happen as it always did. It had taken me a while to catch on, but now I at least knew when it was coming. In the past, I'd bin too busy to do anything about it. But my job was finished now. I'd only stayed around for this. I felt that I really ought to clear the matter up before I departed.I got out of bed, visited the bathroom,showered, brushed my teeth, et cetera. I'd grown a beard again, so I didn't have to shave. I was not jangling with strange apprehensions, as I had been on that April 30 three years ago when I'd awakened with a headache and a premonition, thrown open the windows, and gone to the kitchen to discover all of the gas burners turned on and flameless. No. It wasn't even like the April 30 two years ago in the other apartment when I awoke before dawn to a faint smell of smoke to learn that the place was on fire. Still, I stayed out of direct line of the light fixtures in case the bulbs were filled with something flammable, and I flipped all of the switches rather than pushing them. Nothing untoward followed these actions.

Also, I happen to like the art on the paperback editions.

The hardcover, not so much

Jesus, what the fuck is that?
Edit: Per Chris Kovac's suggestion, I edited in the image from which the Trumps of Doom hardcover had been copied: 

Any resemblance is surely purely coincidental

I forget where I read a quote that went something like "A Musician has a lifetime to produce the first album and six months to produce the second." The impression that I get from the Collected Stories is that Zelazny was offered a large advance to write a second Amber series, and it's not something he would have initiated at the point in time if not for the offer.

And I can't fault him for that. I think it was Jane Lindskold who wrote that Zelazny took pride in being able to write up a story on spec. Also Neil Gaiman has some choice words about fans and their entitlement issues.

So, Trumps of Doom. What do I think?  The elements that would come to annoy me were all mostly already present, Ghostwheel, Merlin's smug stupidity (particularly with the Sphinx), everyone being obsessed with Merlin. (That last one drives me crazy: His boss wants him back!  As soon as he gets back to Amber, the Elders are falling over each other to be his buddy!)

Everything in the Corwin books fits together, but some things just seem poorly thought out, uncharacteristically so for such a normally fastidious author. Like Merlin going to college. Sure, there are benefits to a higher education, and it would make sense if he eventually went to college, but doing it in his late teens or early 20s just seems like asking for trouble.  Bill Roth observes "back when you came you weren't even certain how most people here behaved", so a period of adjustment would have been logical.

Or take this:

"He's Master of the Logrus. He's an uncle of mine, too. He felt that the Pattern of Amber and the Logrus of Chaos were incompatible, that I could not bear the images of both within me. Random, Fiona, and Gerard had taken me down to show me the Pattern. I got in touch with Suhuy then and gave him a look at it. He said that they seemed antithetical, and that I would either be destroyed by the attempt or the Pattern would drive the image of the Logrus from me, probably the former. But Fiona said that the Pattern should be able to encompass anything, even the Logrus, and from what she understood of the Logrus it should be able to work its way around anything, even the Pattern. So they left it up to me, and I knew that I had to walk it. So I did. I made it, and I still bear the Logrus as well as the Pattern. Suhuy acknowledged that Fi had been right, and he speculated that it had to do with my mixed parentage. She disagreed, though-"

Dara, of course, walked the Pattern before her son, and she's shown using Logrus powers later in the series. The best way to reconcile this is to conclude that she negotiated the Logrus after walking the Pattern, but I don't think it's ever really addressed. But it seems unlikely that she would have done so after Merlin did, but since the conversation here seems that the experts believe the Imprint of both is utterly irreconcilable.

"Now you come along with a story that makes me believe Pandora's box has been opened again. Why couldn't you just want a divorce like any sensible young man? Or a will written or a trust set up? A partnership agreement? Something like that? No, this sounds more like one of Carl's problems. Even the other stuff I've done for Amber seems pretty sedate by comparison."

"Other stuff ? You mean the Concord-the time Random sent Fiona with a copy of the Patternfall Treaty with Swayvil, King of Chaos, for her to translate and you to look at for loopholes?" 

I once remarked that I thought the exposition in the Corwin Chronicles was well handled. I don't even know what the fuck that was. That's fan fiction level of exposition right there.

Bill Roth comes across as thorough and reasonably bright in all his appearances. We're told how smart Merlin is, but Bill Roth is running circles around him. Smart doesn't mean sensible, of course, and he might be a brilliant engineer and clueless in other arenas, but there's a large gap between Merlin as described and Merlin as shown.

Also, Ghostwheel. I like the concept, but, well, like so much in the series, I just didn't enjoy the execution.

"Ghost, within five thousand Shadow veils, this location-how many Shadow-storms are currently in existence?" 

The words camne as if spoken within the hoop: "Seventeen."

"Sounds like-"

"I gave it my voice," I told him. "Ghost, give us some pictures of the biggest one." 

Of course you did.  You're your own biggest fan! I bet Merlin was sockpuppeting support for himself on Usenet message boards back in the 90s.

Is it all bad? No. It's Roger Zelazny after all. Fiona, probably my favorite among the sisters, gets substantial development and shows herself as a force to be reckoned with. Luke is introduced, and I think he's one of Zelazny's finest characters.

It has some memorable exchanges:

"Who are you?" I snarled. 

"Jasra," she spat back, "dead man!"

She opened her mouth wide and her head fell forward. I felt the moist touch of her lips upon the back of my left forearm, which still held her own right wrist against the chair's arm. Seconds later I felt an excruciating pain there. It was not a bite, but rather felt as if a fiery nail had been driven into my flesh. 

Also one of my favorites:

 People who work in slaughterhouses know that there is a spot on an animal's forehead to be found by drawing an imaginary line from the right ear to the left eye and another from the left ear to the right eye. They aim the killing blow , an inch or two above the junction of this X. My uncle taught me that. He didn't work in a slaughterhouse, though. He just knew how to kill things.

As a side note, I'll probably make a post about the Amber Diceless RPG. Those who play the RPG have a different conception of the novels than those who have only read the books. Among fans of the RPG, it's practically an article of faith that Caine faked his death a second time.

The ending is nice too.

I count the days by the lightening and darkening of the blue crystal walls. It has been over a month since my imprisonment, though I do not know how slowly or rapidly time flows here in relation to other shadows. I have paced every hall and chamber of this great cave, but I have found no way out. My Trumps do not work here, not even the Trumps of Doom. My magic is useless to me, limited as it is by walls the color of Luke's ring. I begin to feel that I might enjoy even the escape of temporary insanity, but my reason refuses to surrender to it, there being too many puzzles to trouble me: Dan Martinez, Meg Devlin, my Lady of the Lake . . . Why? And why did he spend all of that time in my company, Luke, Rinaldo, my enemy? I have to find a way to warn the others. If he succeeds in turning Ghostwheel upon them then Brand's dream-my nightmare of vengeance-will be realized. I see now that I have made many mistakes . . . Forgive me, Julia . . . I will pace the measure of my confinement yet again. Somewhere there must be a gap in the icy blue logic that surrounds me, against which I hurl my mind, my cries, my bitter laughter. Up this hall, down the tunnel. The blue is everywhere. The shadows will not bear me away, for there are no shadows here. I am Merlin the pent, son of Corwin the lost, and my dream of light has been turned against me. I stalk my prison like my own ghost. I cannot let it end this way. Perhaps the next tunnel, or the next..

I think it's kind of cool that Merlin wound up imprisioned in a crystal cave.

I'll be back with the next in a couple days.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Dead Man's Brother

Well, I guess this is it.  I'm pretty sure that this is the last of Roger Zelazny's standalone novels that I have yet to cover. And I'll probably revisit some of the reviews (I was particularly disappointed with how my coverage of Doorways in the Sand came out) and perhaps give each of the Merlin books its own entry and maybe look some more of the shorter works, but there's no question that the review process is mostly over and that just makes me a little blue.

The Dead Man's Brother is unusual among Roger Zelazny's novels in that it's not a genre work. However, it's still a Zelazny story.  I have a friend who proposed, half in jest, that due to the rise of "monsterized" classics, such as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, that someone should "de-monsterize" classic horror stories. It reads like a Zelazny book, minus the supernatural/SF elements that have come to characterize most of his work.

Except, as Chris Kovacs pointed out, the fantastic is not entirely absent, and unfortunately, I think that's where the book is weakest. But more on that later.

Ovid Wiley is a former art thief turned respectable art dealer who finds a colleague from his criminal days dead inside his gallery.  Ovid is accused of the murder, and told that the CIA can make his troubles go away in exchange for a little favor. What they want is for him to find a priest who stole three million dollars from the Vatican. So he jets off to Europe, and later to Brazil, learning that that the priest has apparently been killed, but determined to find answers from...The Dead Man's Brother.

I took my time reading it, because it's almost certainly the last "new" work we're going to find from him. It was completed in 1971 and unearthed only relatively recently in his papers. The thing that probably impressed me most is that it seems to have been rejected all over the place, but he never cannibalized it for other works. The rant Ovid receives from Berwick reminds me of the one Hell Tanner gets from Denton in Damnation Alley. Likewise, the sentiments about how intelligence received from spying is overrated mirrors a sentiment in Isle of the Dead, but both of those were written prior to Brother.

I don't think it's his best work, but like everything he's ever written, it has more than a few memorable lines and exchanges. I particularly like his description of the Rome of the day, with vespas weaving in and out of traffic, Ovid enjoying the play of sunlight on yellow plaster walls, of pigeons that bobbed at crumbs before a sidewalk cafe, of ropes of vines which escaped across a garden wall. Also: I did not attempt ahead before I left, as I would not throw a Roman telephone or a phone book at a screaming alley cat. They are just not accurate. Heh.

When I picture Ovid, I imagine him not as the man on the cover of the book, but rather as looking just the like the pictures of Gallinger from The Illustrated Roger Zelazny. (Same deal with "Nemo" from My Name is Legion, actually.)

The book is most enjoyable when it focuses on individual scenes or memorable characters. I like this vignette from Ovid after he survives an assassination attempt: 

I once spent a day looking after my sister's kids. I took them presents to keep them amused  and settled down with a book I was reading. Only I had made the mistake of giving my nephew Timmy a toy drum. After a couple hours, I gave him my pocketknife and told him that drums were usually filled with candy. That solved my problem for a small while, and I still remember shaking my head an telling him, "Yours was one of the ones that wasn't."

My head was a toy drum with no sweets inside.

Walter Carlton the art critic was another vividly sketched minor character.

Short, stocky, near-bald and in his forties, Walt had come into a lot of money and abominable taste somewhere along the line and traveled about the world exhibiting both. Over the years, he has demonstrated an amazing ability to back losers and mock the truly talented. His articles and books arouse a sense of wonder in art history and art appreciation classes, where they are held up as models of half-assedness.

Ovid follows the clues and heads to South America, where he is tortured in a scene that goes on entirely too long. He tries to escape, fails, and is eventually released. He has a couple lucky breaks and finds what he's looking for. We get a lot of exposition at the end, and everything is more or less wrapped up.

I think there is a good book in here somewhere, but it has two main problems. Its structure and Ovid's "luck". We get very few clues about what's going on up until the very end, where everything is explained in a rather big hurry. This is something I find unsatisfying anywhere, but especially in a mystery novel.

The other is Ovid's luck, which Professor Berwick suggests may be some kind of measurable characteristics. It smacks of a "Plot Coupon" a literary device discussed in a fairly well-known essay at this link: Plot Coupons

From the piece: Up until very recently, really elaborate plotting has only been possible in comedy, where you don't mind being reminded of the existence of an author by the absurd artificiality of the structure of events. Real life isn't, on the whole, especially well plotted, and as soon as the good plotting in a story begins to get obtrusive we lose that essential impression of a purely internal logic governing the progress of events within the story.

The gist of that rather than provide a convincing explanation as to why things unfolded as they did, authors (fantasy authors primarily) will handwave an intrusive element. TVtropes calls it lampshade hanging when attention is called within the story to something that threatens the reader's suspension of disbelief.

The luck thing isn't as bad as I think I'm making it sound here. If not for Berwick's remarks, and the occasional observation by Ovid about his luck, I think it would pass entirely unnoticed, as extremely unlikely occurrences are a staple of detective fiction. It might have required a little more exposition or some rewriting to make things flow more smoothly, but I beleve it's something that could have excised without affecting the story. In fact, I think I would have found it a more satisfying narrative had this been done.

Overall? I didn't hate it.  I think, as in To Die in Italbar, that the story could have benefited from a little tightening up here and there. The ending was fun and everything is tied together very neatly, though, as I said before, we don't learn very much until almost the very end. Also, I felt the afterword by Trent Zelazny was very nice, half introduction to book and half remembrance for his father.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Egg Show

We had a fairly busy weekend. Jen showed her eggs at the annual egg show. This was Lily's third year there, as these pictures show.

2009: Year One
2010: Year Two
2011: Year Three

I also went to a job fair over the weekend. It was held at a local college. As I was driving into work today, I heard a piece on another job fair. The reporter opened with "Thousands of job seekers descended on Wilmington  where dozens of local companies were hiring." And, to me, the important part of that sentence is the juxtaposition of "thousands" of people competing for "dozens" of jobs. (Also, "descended" is very apt, because that's how it felt, just this grim swarm of humanity, every one of us equally desperate.) I noticed that there were a lot of older folks there too. The job environment is crappy right now.

But the weekend wasn't all bad. In addition to the egg show, Lily discovered the magic of magnets. We had one on the door of the fridge and she was asking about it, and we had some fun going around the house figuring out what was attracted to a magnet. I showed her a wooden toothpick and asked her if she thought it would stick to the magnet. I was very impressed when she tested it before answering. That's my little scientist!

 Lily did that thing of making little daisy chains out of a bunch of ferromagnetic objects, so she had the magnet sticking to the fridge while suspending a screwdriver, which in turn held a chain of paperclips. This week, the letter "M" is up for show and share day, and we might have our item!

Monday was our first pleasant day in ages, so we took a family walk in the local cemetery. Jen wanted to find dandelions for her eggs and Lily and I just wanted to walk around in a cemetery.  Everybody was happy! Lily was extra sweet. She found a dandelion that had reached the wispy white seed stage, and she had picked it up a was so very earnestly making a wish on it. She had her eyes closed and she was thinking exactly about how she wanted to word it, as carefully as an adventurer negotiating with a genie for the last of three wishes. I didn't catch everything, but it went along the lines of, "I wish everyone in the whole world and my whole family would never be hurt and that I can be good so mommy and daddy never get angry with me."

I suppose we'll see if the wish was granted as time goes on.

Monday, April 11, 2011

New Page: Casting Call

I finally got around to posting all of the picks for an Amber movie on this page (link):

What do you do here? Study? Party? Make traps?

I watched Scooby Doo as a kid,  like just about everybody born since 1970. I loved it, but looking back now, I see that it wasn't actually very good.

We're watching a lot of Scooby Doo lately. It's become a more sophisticated property than it was when I was a kid, with some continuity between movies. I was kind of half paying attention, and I mentioned that the one character in Chill Out, Scooby-Doo! looked like one from Scooby-Doo! and the Loch Ness Monster, and I assumed that they had just recycled the character design, but apparently it was the same guy. Also, there's a funny scene where Shaggy, who is voiced by Casey Kasem, is broadcasting on the radio and he asks Scooby, "Hey, do you want to hear my radio voice?" and then speaks like Casey Kasem doing a Top 40 Countdown.

I was watching some episodes of the newest incarnation of the series (the tenth reboot of the series, if you can believe that) and it's really, really good.  It's smart without being cynical.  I particularly like the re-imagining of Fred as amazingly obtuse and obsessed with traps. (He subscribes to Traps Illustrated, but only for the articles.) Gary Cole is his dad, the mayor and he's just as great.  Matthew Lillard, who was Shaggy in the live action movies (a role that he was born to play) is the voice of Shaggy, and Casey Kasem, who had provided the voice Shaggy for the previous 40-odd years is the voice of Shaggy's dad.

It seems that it took some cues from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which in turn owes a debt to earlier incarnations of Scooby Doo)  in that it's mostly episodic, but there is also an overarching mystery for the season.

List of ten things that make the series great:

  1. Matthew Sweet composed the title theme.
  2. There was a character named H.P. Hatecraft, who writes Mythos stories "in order to gain access to the lucrative world of plushy monster toys" and is voiced by Jeffrey "Reanimator" Combs. His teaching assistant is named Howard E. Robertson. Harlan Ellison played himself in the same episode.
  3. It seems like the entire cast of Arrested Development is going to be on there sooner or later!
  4. Daphne's sister talks like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, complete with hoowas!
  5. There's a scene where Scooby gets in a forklift to fight off a robot dog in a scene that seems to be an homage to the power lifter fight at the end of Aliens.
  6. Fred wears his ascot even when swimming.
  7. Gary Cole is Fred's dad, and expresses his surprise with amusing exclamations, including at one point, "by Grapthar's Hammer, Fred!"
  8. The series features a super-intelligent parrot named Professor Pericles, who masterminds an escape from the pet asylum where he is being held. The same episode has Yogi Bear strapped to a gurney like Hannibal Lecter.
  9. It's a little thing, but when the lights go out when Daphne is alone in the library, she turns on her cell phone to use as a light source, which struck me as an entirely sensible thing to do.
  10. Velma's parents run a mystery museum and the exhibits are all monsters from the original series.  
"You want my autograph? Five dollars."

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Repeating Game

We watched Toy Story 3 for our Wacky Wednesday. What a spectacular movie.  The only thing that could make it better would be a cameo from Totoro. Hey, there he is! Perfect movie!

Jen's doing a program tonight, and she happened to unearth an astronomy program I put together for an old project in college. I'm pleased she kept it around and it's actually pretty decent.

Lily and I played the repeating game. I had to repeat what she said, so of course, the first thing out of her mouth was "Batman rocks! Superman poops!" and I repeated through gritted teeth, "Batman rocks. Superman poops."

"Batman's the best superhero."


"Batman's the best superhero."

"I love daddy."

I asked her if I could substitute Lily for daddy, but she said no, so I said  "I love daddy."

Then she said "I love myself and my whole family!" and I was very happy to repeat that.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Look, up in the eighth grade!

I guess it's been a while since I last made an entry here.

We were reading the Tiny Titans comic that she likes so much and there was an ad for Supergirl: Cosmic adventures in the 8th grade. Lily said "Who's that?" in a voice of hushed reverence.

I said "That's Supergirl," and Lily repeated in the same hushed voice, "I didn't know she wore a skirt!" I  ordered up a copy to read to Lily.  ($1.61 plus s&h from a Goodwill shop that sells on Amazon.)

If I'd known that Lily would be so impressed by a skirt, I would have started wearing one.

It's a really cute little book, though rather above Lily's comprehension at this point. It's nice to see something squarely aimed at girls that A.) Isn't full of goddamn rainbows and ponies and B.) doesn't talk down to them.

A teenaged Supergirl sneaks aboard a rocket to earth, where she has to keep a secret identity as an 8th grader until Superman can figure out how to get her home. She finds out that superpowers really don't help you weather the vicissitudes of middle school.

The character designs were really cute. I liked the gawky, gangly Supergirl, and her best friend Lena Luthor. Lily had trouble with some of the concepts, like why Supergirl's two best friends didn't get along. I like it. It's got some nice understated humor along with some silliness that Lily can appreciate. ("Daddy, go to the page where she gets the power to elongate her toes!") Also, any comic with Streaky the Supercat in it is okay in my book.

Jen has expressed some concern that Lily is really interested in comics as bedtime stories now though, so I think Supergirl will be our last purchase for a while. I imagine her annoyance came to a head when she had to break up a fight about who was the best superhero.

While we're talking about dorky stuff, I've been playing Akinator at the computer whenever I have a few minutes. It's a program that plays twenty questions with you and tries to guess which fictional or real person you might be thinking of.  It got Marc Dacascos (the chairman for Iron Chef America) after 16 questions. I was rather amazed. The thing has a huge database on which to draw, and sometimes I think it's on the wrong track (like when we had established that my character was a real person and then it asked if his skin was green) and then it makes the correct guess. It really is an amazingly awesome waste of time.

Also, I had this dream the other night and Jen wanted me to post it here at my blog:

I was showering at a crowded state park down near Philly.) After I got out, I realized that I didn't have any clothes, but Jen suggested going to the Lost & Found and grabbing something there. When we got there, they had the lost & found clothes hanging on the tree, and they had every article of clothing that I had ever torn or misplaced. I said to the guy, "Hey those are mine!" and he was like, "I'll sell 'em to ya."

Also, today marks the two year anniversary of my departure from my last job, where I worked in Competitive Intelligence. I really enjoyed it there for a long time, and then I got a new supervisor who wanted a new team of her own people, and bit by bit, she got that. And it's strange how a job can go from your dream job to a place where the only thing worse than working there is not working there. (Unemployment sucks, no matter how bad your job is)