[Book Review] Pulphead

PulpheadPulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pulphead is more of a 3.5-3.75 star book than a 4 star, but the rating system will not allow me to award partial stars so I’m rounding up.

I found Pulphead on the Guardian’s “Best Books of 2011” list and I was itching for something new to read. The review pimped it out as being analogous to David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again.” To be fair, this pushed my expectations a little high because almost nothing except, perhaps, Hunter Thompson’s “The Great Shark Hunt” comes close to the above essay about going to a huge commercial luxury cruise (no Mr. Pibb!) but I found essays to enjoy in Pulphead anyway.

No collection of essays is ever completely even or completely excellent. Here, we find three essays worth the price of admission:

– The Axl Rose retrospective about old, fat, no longer touring with Guns N Roses but pretending to tour with Guns N Roses Axl Rose and his original home town in Indiana. The essay is pure Fiasco RPG fodder. And hilarious while, at the same time, horrifying beyond words.

– The essay about Michael Jackson wanting to break away from the Jackson 5 and strike out on his own away from the controlling interests of Motown. Excellent focus on his relationship with his sister Janet and brother Randy, the winning of Grammys for Off the Wall, his obsession with his nose, and the NBC broadcast where Jackson first performed “Billie Jean” and did the Moonwalk.

– The tale of going to the Christian Rock festival and the hollowness of Christian Rock. Opens with a great story about renting an enormous RV (but just enormous enough), the weird tensions between different groups of Christian Fundamentalists, and the limpness of the music they all came to hear.

A few other essays, the one about renting his house out to a TV show on the CW, the story of the Rastafarians in Jamaica and story of the caves in Tennessee are all interesting but not as good as the above three. And like all other essay collections, the rest are mostly filler. Sullivan is at his best when he is writing about music, and decent when he is writing about something other than himself, but when he starts to inject himself into the narrative things tend to go a little off the tracks.

Pulphead is a good, enjoyable, breezy read. Except for the retrospective on Axl Rose, none of the essays really linger. They aren’t thick, meaty longreads. These aren’t the sort of essays you roll around in your head for days and pick apart and analyze and then go argue with people on the Internet. I don’t put Pulphead anywhere near the same level as David Foster Wallace. They’re good and fun but, for the most part, light reads.

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[Book Review] Snuff

Snuff (Discworld, #39)Snuff by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a huge fan of the Discworld and the City Watch books in particular but I didn’t care for Snuff as much as I could have — or should have. Down in my gut I feel Commander Sam Vimes has had a great run but now he’s so over-powerful, so unbeatable, and full of so many powerful allies (Vetinari, Lady Sybil, his unstoppable assassin-butler, the demon who lives in his head, every City Watch post ever, etc) he’s no longer much of a joy to read. He has no challenge. He has no mountain to climb. The term for this is Mary Sue, and Vimes has become a Mary Sue character.

I would have happily rolled with Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork if the book had turned into a commentary on Upstairs-Downstairs like it promised in the beginning, or would have kept to the city and focused on the goblins, or simply had more focus /in general/. Too much was going on and not enough was going on that had focus. We had some Class Warfare AND smuggling AND murderers AND drugs AND poor oppressed goblins whom no one understands AND What Happens to Fred Colon AND Vimes Taking Charge… the book lacked focus and the lack of focus took away from the more interesting action sequences and themes. Oppression bad, yes. But it didn’t have the feeling of freeing an oppressed people like, say, Feet of Clay did, even though it was, at its core, the same story.

I would have been happier, perhaps with two books: Vimes investigating a MURDER in a Countryside Upstairs-Downstairs and a more focused story about the Goblins. Or something to that effect. Much like Unseen Academicals, Snuff is a long way from being unreadable but I had to force myself to finish it. It didn’t grab me the same way Discworld books normally do. It’s no “The Times” or “Going Postal.” If I had to rank them, Snuff would dwell somewhere in the bottom third.

A high point: the continuation of Wee Mad Arthur’s education as a Nac Mac Feegle from _I Shall Wear Midnight_. I adore the Feegles and having one who isn’t Rob Anybody’s crew is always good.

Here’s hoping PTerry still has a few books left in him — and if they are City Watch books, they star Carrot and Angua and Cheery and the crew.

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[Book Review] Before They Are Hanged

Before They Are Hanged (The First Law, #2)Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ah middle books of a series. Books with neither a beginning nor an end. Nothing but big honking chunks of middle.

Before They Are Hanged follows three separate stories with no overlap. Of the three stories, two of them are excellent and one doesn’t work. Two out of three isn’t bad but the weak story is, in comparison, clearly weak and it costs the book a half a star. (It’s a 3.5 stars book).

In the Union, Inquisitor Sand dan Glotka, our intrepid evil torturing hero, gets an upgrade to Superior Glotka and is sent off to the far-off exotic city of Dagoska on the edge of the Gurkhul Empire to find why Dagoska’s last Inquisitor Superior disappeared. He finds a city under siege by endless armies, some sophomore attempts at underhanded politics, a military in disarray, and a city crumbling. The strongest part of the book — and clearly Joe Abercrombie’s favorite character — Glotka demonstrates why he’s a man not to be messed with, even with his broken and crippled body.

Up in Angland, the Union forces face the implacable Northern armies of King Bethod. Colonel West witnesses the Union crumble as their overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Bethod’s willingness to reach into every kind of evil imaginable to crush his foes. West finds himself traveling through the Northern winter woods chasing down an army with Logan Ninefinger’s old crew, Rudd Threetrees and his Named Men. Excellent battle scenes riddle West’s viewpoint section as they chase through the woods to take out Bethod’s scouts and the story unfolds to some setpiece battles.

Meanwhile, Logan Ninefingers, Bayaz and friends cross an empty continent on a quest for a rock. Road trips can be interesting but this roadtrip wasn’t; the characters went through some battles but mostly they roadtripped across a vast, empty continent full of ruins. Easily the weakest part of this book, it didn’t bring anything to the table except explain some of the doings of wizards thousands of years before.

When “Before They Are Hanged” is good, it is very, very, very good. Joe Abercrombie pulls off what most fantasy authors fail to do: he writes almost Tolstoy-esque battle scenes with huge set pieces all moves through the woods. The battle scenes are great. When they’re small, they’re personal. When they’re huge, they’re immense. The wars — from the Gurkhul sieging Dagoska to the huge battles in the woods in the snow between armies — these parts shine. But when the characters have nothing to do except talk to one another, the books just sort of fall apart.

Clearly good enough to finish the trilogy. It’s a pretty decent fantasy book. It’s just a middle one. So it is what it is.

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[Book Review] The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Dad foisted the Joe Abercrombie books on me as revenge for getting him hooked on Martin’s the Song of Ice and Fire. And, as for a book in the “tits, blood and scowling” genre of fiction, the first book in “the First Law” trilogy is surprisingly good.

I’m not a huge fantasy fan. If I’m going to read fantasy, I want it to be something more than the old Raymond E. Feist books. I want wars and politics and backstabbing and good stuff! Less magic, fewer fairies and unicorns, and more stabbings. More sweep of history with real people, less magic spells. The Abercrombie books fill that bill: not much in the way of sex (none in the first book) but plenty of battles, lots of blood, and tons of politics. We’ve have the fantasy tropes here: the barbarian/ranger, the mysterious Gandalf-like mage and his apprentice, the whiny handsome nobleman with the flashing sword, the evil kings and corrupt empires. But then we have the Inquisitor, once a jumped up nobleman himself but after being a POW not so jumped up any more, and the politics of the Throne, and wars, and the hard men of the North. Put together into a stew and churn and what comes out is a story with some cool characters and a story that moves along. The world is well realized with plenty of history and backstory and politics with the races being the races of men instead of guys with pointy ears.

The Blade Itself is clearly the first third of a book too big to publish as one standing novel. It is all setup with no conclusions or follow-through. As all setup, it’s a compelling read but again, the book just sort of ends with the expectation that the reader will go grab the next one. Sort of the way the Song of Ice and Fire books just sort of end — stuff and things happen but nothing gets wrapped.

It’s worth it to go for the next book. Recommend for people who like their fantasy books to read more like historical novels than fairy tales.

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[Book Review] The Fourth Part of the World

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History's Greatest MapThe Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History’s Greatest Map by Toby Lester

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read history books the way others read genre fiction. Some of them are well-written and some not, some well-sourced and some not. Sometimes a book claiming to be a work of historical scholarship is actually a political screed. When I read one well-written, well-sourced, and about a subject not often tread, I am in my happy place. The Fourth Part of the World is one of those books and it’s about maps.

To be precise, it is about one map: the first map in the world to name the New World “America.” But to get to that point, one has to go back in time and start with the Medieval maps of the 12th century and slowly move the clock forward through the Golden Horde and the Crusades. The Travels of Marco Polo and “the Book” — no authoritative version of the travels of Marco Polo exists but any number of versions await a reader’s pleasure. The endless fascination and eternal quest to find Prester John, an imaginary king with an imaginary army waiting just over the hills to come to the assistance of the Crusaders and who existed in every unexplored corner of every map. The re-discovery of Greek in Western Europe, lost for a thousand years, and the translation of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographie, a book with instructions on how to draw maps, described latitude and longitude, and with 8000 places in the ancient world. Great convocations on religious matters where men of learning got together and, for the first time in dark rooms, discussed the forgotten philosophies and mathematics of the ancient world as they were feverishly translated, and exchanged books. The printing press. The invention of the Caravel. Dreams of Japan. The Portuguese and Africa and what they found there. The first trip around the Cape of Good Hope. The men of Bristol who saw something, once, a long stretch of coastline while chasing schools of cod. Columbus. John Cabot. Amerigo Vespucci. de Medicis and Papal Spies and secret societies of Royal mapmakers and the quest for the way to India. Lies and false letters and Monarchies jostling to lay hands on the New World.

And it all comes together with two men in a small town outside of Strassburg, one a philosopher and one a cartographer, who had access to a printing press, a stolen map of the New World, and a set of forged letters full of imaginary extra adventures of Amerigo Vespucci. They fell in love with the alliteration of Africa and Asia and Europe and, with small metal letters and newly translated Latin poetry in their heads, named the new world America. It was a best seller for twenty years but maps being what maps are and they wore out as new ones appeared. The map disappeared from the face of the Earth until one copy complete, in tact, and whole, found… and now in the Library of Congress.

The book ends with a very nice touch of the impact of the maps of the New World on Nicolaus Copernicus who quotes much of the intro text to the first true world map in his On the Revolutions. It leaves proof that, while perhaps not all of his theories of the Earth revolving around the Sun came from this source, it had bearing on his thinking. With the Fourth Part of the World, the old Aristotelean view of the world no longer worked. And if it didn’t work, what else about how the world worked was outright wrong.

The Fourth Part of the World is terrific. For anyone interested in the history of maps and learning in Western Europe, or the Age of Discovery, I can completely recommend this book. It’s a fun read, it’s well written, it’s incredibly well sourced, it is full of pictures of maps to help with the text, and it’s all around great.

Fantastic. An easy 5 star rating.

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[RPG Review] Bookhounds of London (a Trail of Cthulhu Supplement)

Bookhounds of London by Ken Hite
Available from Pelgrane Press

Bookhounds of London isn’t so much a hardcover supplement for Trail of Cthulhu as a tesseract, a sort of space-time aberrant tear where more information exists between the two covers than the physical space inhabited by the book. In no way could so much dense Cthulhu information exist in such small a space. But then again, this is not just some book. This is a Trail of Cthulhu supplement. It may be warping space time around it preparing for its flight to some far-off alien existence.

So that’s a good thing.

Books go naturally with Cthulhu. After all, Lovecraftian horror is full of fun tomes teaming with terrible ideas which worm their ways into the mind and rip it to shreds. Book selllers and buyers and owners of bookshoppes and librarians and occultists are, also, a natural fit. Who else has the books? Hordes the books? Handles the books? Presented is precisely that: new character templates for book sellers and book agents and book forgers to help the supply and the occasional occultist. But that’s not all! Rules for book stores. Libraries. Book auctions. Book sales. The actual books! Detail on the wear on the books. The bindings of books. Why, there are even more books.

About this time I’d be totally satisfied with the supplement. That’s enough to get up a Cthulhu game centered around the buying, selling, and underground trade in evil books but Bookhounds of London is a strange supplement black hole containing far more information than can be contained in a single supplement. The section on 30s London is thick with NPCs, places, rumors, descriptions, and color plates in the appendix. New cults! Expansions on current cults! New monsters! Even more NPCs for rivals and villains and…

And then a very lengthy adventure involving Gods and crazy city magic and German witch hunters and sacred ley lines and, oh hell, Jack the Ripper. Maybe. A book, perhaps, is involved. And murder. And creatures from beyond. And a race against time. And other good stuff. Unlike most supplement adventures, the Bookhounds of London adventure (Whitechapel Black-Letter) does not disappoint — it can be run, and it makes a great intro-adventure to a big Bookhounds campaign.

The sign of a decent supplement is one good character idea by the end. A great supplement is three character ideas. Bookhounds of London leaves one with ideas for complete Cthulhu variants, teams of rival book stores, and several complete campaign ideas. And this is from someone who doesn’t run all that many campaigns these days. It’s good stuff.

A few things in specific:

* The new skills are brilliant but the best is the Knowledge. Having a skill representing deep and precise geographical information is a great skill for Investigators. Also, claiming to have the Knowledge on a character sheet is damn awesome.

* Bookhounds allows for building a rivalry with NPCs. This cool game mechanic doesn’t exist in normal Cthulhu where the Investigators go and investigate without too much outside pressure beyond “bad guys wish to chew off their faces.” Rival bookstores and rival book auctions introduces a new and interesting pressure on the group without introducing more cackling evil cultist villains. (Although nothing is wrong with cackling evil cultist villains.)

* One can never have enough cults or monsters.

* The new play styles are interesting — Sordid, Arabesque and Technicolor. Yes, one can fill a game full of horrible relationships or trips to Deepest India or like a movie from the 60s.

* The boxes, callouts, rumors — as good as the original book in quality and variety.

* I love the bundle of PDF+Hard Cover. The bundles make me very happy from a customer perspective.

I heartily recommend Bookhounds of London to anyone who bought Trail of Cthulhu. It does require ToC, but if one has ToC sitting on a shelf, it needs a friend. The quality is spectacular. Buy it, cuddle it, read it, run the games for your friends. Definitely pick up a copy. And I still have no idea how all that information got crammed into 128 pages of text.

Meanwhile, I need to finish working up some notes on a Bookhounds of Leverage, a Bookhounds/Leverage crossover game….

[RPG Review] Trail of Cthulhu

Trail of Cthulhu by Ken Hite from Pelgrane Press

In middle school I discovered horror fiction.

I cannot remember what was the first book — I suspect Stephen King’s the Shining in used book form — but I do distinctly remember reading anything that had a dismemberment. If it featured splatters of blood, I read it. Good writing, bad writing, schlock writing, I read it all, and in great spews. Somewhere in there I laid hands on a collection of horror short stories that contained the usual standbys of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”* It also had HP Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls.” And that one was my favorite. I read it over and over.

Later I read the rest of HP Lovecraft’s stuff. Some of it was good. Some of it was terrible. Some of it was incomprehensible. And some of it was the Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath.

My copy of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition** is actually the second copy as my first copy disintegrated from overuse. The glue binding did not hold up to the love and after a while the pages fell out. The second one is a used copy from somewhere or other. I know dimly there was a 6th edition but I only have the 5th; that was the version for me. Even reading the rules of the BRP version of CoC belied the obvious: the only way someone was going to get out of an adventure was by being an illiterate track star. The BRP rules were charming in their crappiness but they had that one beautiful sanity meter rule, and that was a permanent brain worm. For 20 years I have been rolling my SAN and I am pretty sure by now it’s pretty low.

BRP had a special lethal charm. I knew of Runemaster games ended in the first five minutes by the entire party failing swim rolls when crossing a river. Or another character killed by a highly dangerous glass of water. But BRP was what was in Chaosium’s books and Chaosium’s books were special so we played it, and made it work, and CoC got ran and played anyway. That’s the greatness of CoC.

That brings me around to Trail of Cthulhu, a game I read and fell fiercely in love with but for completely different reasons than the clunky charm of CoC 5th Edition. It’s CoC where you get to live until you get your head eaten by Azathoth in the end, and that’s the kind of CoC we want to be playing.

A bit about GUMSHOE

I talked about GUMSHOE in my review of the Esoterrorists, so for an overview of GUMSHOE it’s best to consult there. Trail runs with the core idea of getting to the end of the story and not being held up by the system. When we watch Law Dramas, we don’t want the Intrepid Cops to end the plot because they failed a “look for clue” roll. We don’t want House not figure out the disease in the last act because he failed to make some surgery roll halfway through. We do not want our Cthulhu hunters to be killed by a wayward glass of water.*** It’s no good to be blocked because of a botched roll, so GUMSHOE waves that part. The players always get the clue. The question is what do they do with it? That’s where the play is.

And that’s what Trail brings to the table. It feels less blatantly horror-focused as Esoterrorists, it adds some new skills, it goes in with Drives to give players motivation for why they are hunting down the terrors that go bump in the night. The SAN meter is now dual tracked: you can take a Stability hit or take actual Sanity damage but it takes a bit to shave off a little of the ol’ SAN. The focus is on episodes like a show: the point is not the bumbling around with skill checks; the point is to get to the end of the story — where no doubt everyone is turned into splatters.

GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for Cthulhu. You don’t need to be an illiterate track star. You can still be that uber college professor and run away. Run away! AIIII!

PURIST vs PULP

Trail is set in the 30s where, yes, there are Nazis. And where there are Nazis, there are guns and planes and tanks and Socialists and Swinging Archeologists and other such tropes. Trail provides two modes of play: PURIST and PULP.

I get people want to play Cthulhu in all its deadly, terrible, horror glory. And that is what PURIST is for — as close to a simulation of the old BRP system with high levels of DEATH. A great thing for those who love difficulty in their gaming and where a gun is going to kill you.

Then there is PULP. PULP is where you get to shoot Cthulhu. In the face. Or ram him with a boat — HP Lovecraft’s preferred Cthulhu Removal Device. But who doesn’t want to shoot a tentacle or two? It might seem a little silly but hoards of evil cults with dark books that cast horrible spells are also a little silly. So is Hitler on his quest for the Spear of Longinus. It’s all silly, but sometimes, horror calls for a little pulp horror.

Dark horror vs. the Mummy. I find I want to run the game in PULP mode. Who said Cthulhu wasn’t high adventure?  When isn’t the dark spawn of the universe high adventure?

The Awesome of the Call-Out Boxes

RPGs almost always have these inset boxes with little bits of random information or skills or stats or tables or whatever in them. They tend to be a bit lame; I find them annoying and want to read around them. In Trail read the call-out boxes because they’re the best parts. Either about the 30s or how to build cults (please add cults!) or about Gods (please don’t add more Gods!) or creeping totalitarianism, they are all wonderful. The boxes are plentiful and worth the price of the book alone. They don’t contain any rules, per se, but they are so chock full of goodness that it is worth sitting there with the book and flipping from call-out box to call-out box.

I need to mention the call-out boxes because they are so deeply wonderful.

Oh, and while I am talking about the call-out boxes with all their wonder, the section on the Cthulhu Elder Gods/Outer Gods is superb and packed with so many incredibly insane ideas for running plots it is hard to talk about it without waving hands around incoherently. One small sentence about Elder Gods as meme loads was so compelling it was a hot topic in my house for three days. If you’re into CoC at all, this is worth getting to juice up campaigns and take them to 11.

And Overall…

I can gush about Trail of Cthulhu for a long time. Much of the original Call of Cthulhu (5th Edition) was preserved from one edition to the next. It’s all here: the Gods, the Monsters, the Cults, the Horrible Books, the Spells, the must and the rain, the horrible New England cities. The Cults section is wonderful**** and full of juicy goodness of evil. The GM section on how to build an adventure from the Horror to the Beginning and then through a list of clues is also very helpful — the advice is spot-on for crafting a horror based adventure.

Me? I am picky about my Cthulhu. I don’t like no d20 editions or LARP editions or Savage Realms. I don’t do Cthulhu card games.  In my mind, it is the crumbling second copy of CoC 5th Edition. This is the only worthy successor and it’s glorious.

So I’m fanboying a little bit. I do that on very rare occasions because I’m a curmudgeon and I hate everything. But this is truly, honestly a great version of Cthulhu. It is not Call — it’s a different system — but Trail is an excellent game with compulsively readable text that has ideas and stuff packed into every corner and page. Is it worth the $40? Yes. Would I run it? In pulp mode, yes. Would I play it? Definitely. Can I recommend it? Oh hell yes.

Go buy it. Stop reading blog posts! I bought my PDF+Hard cover bundle from Indie Press Revolution right here.


* The only work by Faulkner I ever liked. A tiny bit of excellent gothic horror.
** Always 5th Edition.
*** Okay, maybe we do. It’s Cthulhu. Those glasses of water are dangerous as hell.
**** And one section turned into a new supplement, the Booksellers of London.

Book Review: River of Gods

River of GodsRiver of Gods by Ian McDonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In August in 2047, in the city of Varanasi in the country of Bharat in central India, nine people converge on one singular event that changes everything for mankind. For some, it’s an asteroid containing the alien relic the Tabernacle. For others it is chasing down AIs. And for others, it is about finding themselves in the midst of a water war when the monsoon rains no longer come and the Ganga runs dry.

The good: River of Gods does very interesting things with the arc of the growth of computers and computing into every corner of life. Even the very popular soap, “Town and Country,” is completely computer rendered with fake AI actors having fake AI-based weddings and entire “People Magazine”-like publications fawn over the imaginary private lives of the AIs inhabiting the rendered soap opera. Everyone has a cellphone-like device, even the most poor. Everything is wired together. And AIs (called aeais in the book) fill every corner of existence — driving cars (but apparently not the taxis), running heating and cooling systems, injecting themselves into medical devices, everywhere. One of the main themes of the book is hunting down rogue AIs, those who have somehow “evolved” through illicit programming or through happenstance to become “Generation Three” AIs, those AIs that have developed full native intelligence. The question the book grapples with is not only how these beings come about and flow through the interconnectedness of all computers, but how they see existence and how their consciousness is represented by copying millions of copies of themselves. The other is how humans react to the super intelligent AIs, hunting them down, and “excommunicating” them with huge EMP pulses and destroying all the copies hiding in the machines.

Another bit of good comes from grappling with how humans are forcing their own evolution through selective breeding, gene therapy, and remaking themselves with extensive surgery. From this comes a shortage of women, strange children who age at 1/2 the rate of regular human beings called Brahmins who have no empathy for the human race, and nutes — a group of people who have surgically removed all gender. The reaction from normal humans is revulsion but the book implies this is the forward trajectory of humanity and the normal people will soon be an out-bred relic of the past.

The bad: I generally like books with multiple viewpoints but River of Gods has nine and it felt overdone. The themes of the book were focused over the actual characterization of the characters. Only the nute Tal really stood out as a distinct personality. The rest of the characters tended to flow together into one amorphous mass. All the characters _do_ get a different view of the actions during August 2047 to give a perspective on how the whole plot comes together in the end — with a little bit of Science Fiction Plot Device thrown in.

The science fiction is a little too precious at times. Sometimes it wants to be Arthur C. Clarke and sometimes it wants to be Blade Runner with just a dash of the original Philip K Dick and it doesn’t seem to know which is which.

The Hindi sprinkled through is not much of a challenge. However, the kindle version of the book lacks bookmarks so looking up terms in the back of the book is a major challenge. Also, the kindle version is sprinkled throughout the text with enough typos for it to be called out.

The ending is about middling for a science fiction book. It’s not awful. It’s no Sphere. It’s not a total collapse like Snow Crash. The book ends very definitively.

River of Gods by Ian McDonald is an awful lot of book. It’s big. In parts it goes on and on and on and on. Some of it drags in places when it goes BEHOLD MY INDIA OF THE FUTURE! For an easy comparison on pure word count, it’s about 1 Red Mars. Figure out how long it took to read Red Mars, add a tax for having to look up all the words in Hindi in the appendix in the back, and that’s about how long it takes to get through River of Gods.

So, not bad. I made it all the way through. It definitely does have some good ideas and it is one of the better science fiction novels floating around. It’s in the “pretty good” category but it’s not Childhood’s End or anything. It’s a decent read but it’s not one of those science fiction novels that lays hooks in your brain that lie there and fester until they get disgorged in some argument one day. I give it about a 3.75 stars but the rating system isn’t that fine grained so I round it up to a four. It’s not quite a four star book. It’s very much a 3.75 star book.

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Review: Cocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for Developers

Cocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for DevelopersCocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for Developers by Daniel Steinberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I usually don’t read tech books cover to cover. Typically, they’re used for reference — looking up something here or there, finding a technique and reading the chapter, or just giving up because the book is written so badly the more advanced sections are completely impenetrable. This was an exception. I read every chapter, did every exercise, and came out feeling I actually learned enough to be dangerous.

"Cocoa Programming: A Quick Start" is not for beginners. It assumes from the outside the reader has had years of C and C++ experience, is familiar with all of the standard programming techniques and the standards OO development techniques and, near the end, has a good grasp of threading and functional programming. The idea is not to teach /programming/ per se but to get a professional software engineer from 0 to building useful MacOSX, iPhone and iPad apps in a relatively short about of time. Projects begin with the very simple, no code required application using widgets all the way through to writing somewhat complex applications using threading and queuing with all the very important pieces — delegates, notifications, memory management, persistence, introductions to core data — in between.

For someone dedicated to working through the book, I found it takes about three weeks to get through all of the tutorials. The tutorials must be completed — no skipping steps — because the next chapter often builds upon the first. The text is clear and I found all the code samples in the book to be pretty bug-free. The concepts move pretty fast. Only a few paragraphs are spared for a new concept before jumping in feet first. Since I’m one of those people who "learn by doing" this worked for me. After typing in the tutorials by the end of the book I was comfortable with the Objective C MVC models, I understood how connections and bindings worked, and I could see how to extend my own controllers with new messages to make new event-driven models. I was surprised how many applications fall into CRUD models (create/read/update/delete) but also pleasantly surprised how easy it is to work with Core Data to make data-driven applications.

I only have really two issues with the book. The first is mechanical: the text applies to XCode 3. XCode 4 was a major revision to the GUI interface of the iDE so many of the hot keys and screen shots no longer apply. This was incredibly confusing for the first few chapters until I learned where everything was. The second is finishing the book leaves me with a "what now?" feeling. There’s a few days of failing while ideas about projects coalesce.

I would and do recommend this book to seasoned adventurers who are looking for a brave new world to conquer. Objective C, once one gets past the mildly bizarre Simula-based syntax, isn’t that bad and there’s lots of cool things to build. "Cocoa Programming" is a pretty strong place to start to get oriented and get going causing app-based havoc.

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Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar FishesUnfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The day Unfamiliar Fishes came out, it was downloaded to my Kindle. I loved Sarah Vowell’s previous books, especially Assassination Vacation. Sarah Vowell has turned into a sort of deep sticky underbelly of American History sort of historian whose books feel like long episodes of The American Life (and I love This American Life). I foist them on everyone I see — “Want to learn bizarre facts of American History? Read these books!”

I liked Unfamiliar Fishes, a book on the history of Hawai’i from 1778-1900, but the subject matter is so soul-crushingly depressing the upbeat sarcastic tone of the text clashed with the actual text at times. The narrative begins with the death of Captain Cook in 1778 at the then-named “Sandwich Islands” for doing horrible things to the local natives and then discusses what Hawai’i was like at that time: not a peaceful paradise. The islands had just been forged into a Kingdom after a bloody civil war. The society was highly stratified with bloodlines of chiefs and a feudalistic system of land division. Men and women were segregated from one another at meal times and women were forbidden to eat certain foods under kapu laws. They had their own Gods — Ku the War God gets prominent mention for his prominent temple. Then the missionaries came with their Jesus and their Bibles in 1820 and everything changed.

Everything would have changed anyway. Had it not been the missionaries it would have been someone else. The missionaries at least came with the printing press and a zeal for learning. They translated the Bible into a new written form of Hawai’ian and, from there, others wrote down all the chants and religion and myths and culture they could to preserve it. The missionaries came to save the Hawai’ians, which meant stamping out the local culture, shoving New England Protestantism on it, and persuading the high Chiefs to do away with various bits of their culture to make it more “modern.” Granted, by the time the missionaries came, the Hawai’ians were starting to dismantle some of their culture anyway, so perhaps some of it is moot, but it would have taken a different course.

Then the shipping came, and then the sugar plantations, and the imported workers, and the round trips from newly established and totally hot San Francisco, and then with it came the smallpox and the malaria and the dysentery and everything else that could wipe out a local population. In time, the US Navy started eying Hawai’i as a Pacific port, especially with the sexy Pearl Harbor. Enterprising grandchildren of the original missionaries decided to stage a coup, and then decided to get Hawai’i annexed to the US to avoid tariffs on sugar. When Congress voted against the treaty of annexation due to the protest of the islanders, Pres. William McKinley decided it was good old “American Manifest Destiny” and figured out a back door to get annexation through anyway.

The sugar plantations are gone, now. And there’s a huge revival of local culture — a good thing.

Why did I give this book 3 stars? Mostly because Goodreads won’t allow me to set 3.5. This is a good book, but not a great book. It does feel like a long episode of This American Life, but not one that sticks in the memory. I also felt terrible and depressed at the end because it’s a terrible and depressing subject, and no amount of sarcasm and no number of funny stories about insane Mormons who are trying to become King of the Pacific make up for how sad and depressing the story is. It reminded me strongly of George Carlin’s bit, “Religious Lift.” It goes like this:

“Like I say, religion is a lift in your shoe, man. If you need it, cool. Just don’t let me wear your shoes if I don’t want ’em and we don’t have to go down and nail lifts onto the native’s feet!”

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