Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Re-read: The Stress of Her Regard

I've long considered The Stress of Her Regard to be Tim Powers' best novel. However, I read it about 20 years ago, and for the longest time the book was out of print, which I thought was criminal.

Well, the rise of the Kindle meant that such books are no longer out of print and also relatively cheap, and unbeknownst to me, there was a "sequel" (set in the same universe but not with the same characters) out last year, so I bought The Stress of Her Regard to re-read.

And wow, the book's as good as it is now as it was 20 years ago when I first read it. It's a vampire novel, but if you're used to cringing at that term because of what recent teenage fashion for angst is, don't. This isn't "vampire for teeny-boppers". Powers merges the greek myths of the Nephilim, vampires, and then brings in the romantic poets John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley (yes, he whose wife wrote Frankenstein) into a grand narrative worthy of your time and requiring way too much effort and attention span for the usual vampire crowd.

The story revolves around Michael Crawford, a obgyn who on the eve of his wedding makes the mistake of putting his wedding ring on what he thinks of as a statue. Of course, this turns out to be an invitation to the Nephilim to enter his life, and he ends up fleeing, meeting up with the above mentioned poets who are also haunted by the same type of creatures.

The story then heads into the Alps (and yes, the story is now better for me because I've spent so much time in the Alps and visited Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg, etc) and then Venice. What's beautiful about the story is that like all Powers novels, it ties in with the historical events as well as personas, so you're brought into the life of the romantic poets as well as the events of the Austrian empire in Italy during that time. Powers' take on the tragic lives and deaths of Keats and Shelley has to be read to be appreciated.

What's even better is that Michael and Josephine (the protagonist and female lead) are both "damaged goods", with plenty of baggage and histories of mental disorders. Josephine's a schizophrenic, for instance, and Michael frequently resorts to drinking in order to cope with the horrors the Nephilim have brought into his life.

What's more, the novel's climax is a C-section performed on a guy. Take that, Stephanie Meyer!

Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended. Buy it and read it!

Friday, November 14, 2014

2015 Book Reviews

Fiction

Review: On Stranger Tides

On Stranger Tides is Tim Powers' pirate novel. While it was optioned as a novel for Disney's Pirates of the Carribean movie with the same name, it's plot, characters, atmosphere, and feel are altogether different. For one thing, Powers can actually craft a coherent plot, unlike the screen writers of the above-stated movie.

The novel revolves around Jack Shandy, a passenger on a ship over-run by pirates who becomes pressed into a life of piracy due to circumstances, but stays one by his own volition. The main love interest in the novel is Beth Hurwood, who's accompanying her father a trip. The similarities between the book and the movie include Blackbeard (Edward Thatch) and the Fountain of Youth, but that's about it.

The novel is fairly short and a quick read, though the opening is slow. Nevertheless, by the middle of the novel it'd become compelling. Powers is a master of doing a lot in very few words, and yet getting everything historically correct. His description of naval warfare between sailing ships, managing a storm in a sailboat, and the atmosphere of the Carribean all ring true.

The weakness in the novel is in Beth Hurwood: she functions mostly as a MacGuffin to be rescued, and does not play much of an active role in the novel until the very end. To be honest though, Powers' novels rarely have strong female characters, so you should just know this going in.

I'm glad I finally got around to reading this novel: it's a lot of fun, and very well paced. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Video Games of the Year

For those who are unfamiliar with this blog, I have an annual tradition of picking out the best books I've read over the previous year.

This is the first year I've played enough video games to be able to deliver a similar judgement, but interestingly enough, I've been catching up on about 10 years of not playing video games, so nearly every entry that I go around to finishing has been great, or I wouldn't have bothered playing through to the end. If you ever want to feel like a genre is fantastic, you just have to leave it for 10 years and then come back to only the good ones, with time doing the work of eliminating the dreck that results from Sturgeon's law.

I'll separate the selections by platform, since the pickings have been so rich.

I'll start with the PS3, because it's the oldest platform and has the most games out. It's a great time to buy a PS3, and the wealth of software and media available for it is nothing short of astounding. In many ways, the PS4 is still an inferior machine for the casual user, since it still can't talk to DLNA servers or even play MP4 movies!

By far the most outstanding game on the PS3 is Uncharted Among Thieves. It's a relatively old game, but you can't tell. Newer games look better, but load slower or have long startup times. Compared to its predecessors, however, it's clear that Uncharted Among Thieves has done everything right with respect to pacing, game play, and movie-like action. It's an amazing game and has aged well. If you own a PS3 you need to play this game.

Journey runs a clear second place on the PS3. It's non-violent, not challenging, but immerses the player in the environment far better than any of the other experiences I've tried. It's also not available on any of the other platforms, so it's a clear exclusive for the PS3, and well worth the experience. If you like that type of game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons also stands out, and is a short game that's well worth your time.

On the PS Vita, it's a tough decision for my game of the year. I enjoyed Tearaway, and as a game that fully exploits the physical capabilities of the vita, it is nothing short of amazing. However, Golden Abyss also does a lot of very similar things, and is still a better game for me as I dislike platformers. By far the most addictive genre for me, however, is the desktop tower defense game, and for that, Pixeljunk Monsters Ultimate is just too good not to recommend.

Finally, the PS4. Well, I've sampled a bunch of games on it so far. The best one is still Resogun. Over and over again, it is the one game I fire up the PS4 for. Once you have a PS4, however, you might as well get Flower. On the PS3, Flower is overshadowed by Journey, but on the PS4, that doesn't happen and you might as well get to play it at high resolution. It is truly an experience to be savored.

Strangely enough, looking at my list, there's only one PC game on the list, and it's the very old Arkham City. The reality seems to be that the desktop PC isn't in a very inconvenient place in the home for me, and takes a long time to startup and play. It's also not very comfortable compared to playing on the couch, and I'm always tempted to do some work on the PC instead of playing a game. In the future, I'll probably abandon my PC as a gaming platform and stick to the PS4, despite the higher expenses playing on the PS4 entail.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Books of the Year 2014

I read 31 books this year (not counting comic books, magazines, etc), which was unusually low. Part of this was that a portion of my time went to video games, and another part of the reason was that for a large part of the year I lost my Kindle, which had a direct and immediate impact on the number of books I was able to read.

Fortunately, the quality of non-fiction books were very high, and I consider Capital in the 21st Century now just the book of the year, but quite possibly the book of the decade. The book has been widely read, reviewed, and mostly misunderstood, even by luminaries such as Bill Gates. As such, there's no substitute to reading this book for yourself. I cannot sufficiently urge an intelligent reader who cares about the structure of society with even a modicum of curiosity to read this book right away.

All Joy And No Fun is also the best alternative to the standard parenting book you can find today. I highly recommend it to all parents, and especially to the moms out there. If you read only one parenting book, read Brain Rules for Baby, but All Joy And No Fun should be the very next one.

On the fiction side, however, this has been a bleak year. Looking at my list of books I read this year, the best fiction book (and even Tim O'Reilly would admit that the book was mostly "faction") is The Things They Carried. I read that book in 1987, and it's still holds up on re-reading. If it's not in your library it should be.

But the best new (to me) fiction book was Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of the Dark. The problem with this as a selection is that it wasn't even close. None of the other (new-to-me) books I read this year were even remotely a contender, and if I left this book off the list, I would declare a no-winner situation rather than be forced to pick amongst the remaining novels. That's pretty bad.

If there was a particularly great book you read this year but that I haven't, please recommend it. It's sad to think that my usual sources of book recommendations are failing me this year. Piketty's book makes up for the disappointing novels, but I would hate to see this trend continue.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Review: Life with a fire-breathing girlfriend

Sometimes, I buy a book after reading just one review and a sample because the premise had so much promise. I almost always regret this, but with Amazon's publishing platforms, the books are so cheap that it's not much of a regret. Life with a fire-breathing girlfriend is one such example.

The book is almost a homage to every Mary Sue novel that's ever been written. The protagonist is a geeky IT person who one day has a beautiful woman drop into his life, kiss him, and ask to be with him for 3 years. In case the title of the book isn't hint enough, she turns out to be a dragon.

The promise of the book is that you get a mixture of Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, but with a dragon. And the early part of the book leads you to believe that's what the book would be, which is a lot of fun, since the dragon doesn't know much about human life and doesn't think much of human conventions.

Unfortunately, past the first third of the book, the author drops this premise and the novel quickly devolves into a Mary Sue novel. You never feel like the characters are in danger, even as the challenges spike, as the characters never actually have to sacrifice, and nearly everything they need for their quest falls into their lap. The only saving grace is that the characters are very self-aware and make lots of geek-pop culture references.

The book's priced at $1.19, so it's not much of a regret. As an airplane novel it's reasonable, but there's a lot of other books better worth your time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Review: The Magician's Land

The Magician's Land is Lev Grossman's third novel in the series starring Quentin Coldwater, a wizard who went to school in the magical equivalent of Harvard in The Magicians, gets thrown out of Narnia Fillory in The Magician King, and now faces exile from that fabled land.

The novel is a book about discovery, such as when Quentin discovers he enjoys teaching and research back at Blakebills. But the plot is extremely contorted, and more than a little silly, with little twists that turn out to be "uh, why did you bother" when the big reveal shows up.

Quentin as a character finally comes into his own in this novel. Fantasy novels do end up with power creep in a big way, as characters get more and more powerful in order to scale up to more and more challenging threats. The Magician's Land does the same, with Quentin becoming more and more powerful until the climax of the novel, where he literally becomes a god. The neat thing about it is that you do see him actively work on it, so it's not as bad as I've seen in other novels where the characters get vested with power.

The first third of the novel is a magical heist caper. It's fun to read, but doesn't quite fit in. Furthermore, one of the characters who's a big player in that section sticks around for the rest of the adventure but never amounts to much other than window dressing. The rest of the novel revolves around the end of Fillory, which resembles Narnia's ending far too much though thankfully does away with Christian allegories.

What bugs me about the novel is that it had a natural ending, with Quentin sealing his ties to his beloved Fillory forever, but instead veers off in order to leave things open for a sequel. The resulting end of the novel doesn't feel as solid as I thought it could have been, and smacks too much of commercialism.

It's a reasonable read on an airplane, but I wouldn't go out of my way to find this novel to read or pay full price.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

First Impressions: Sony Playstation 4

My brothers got me a PS4 for my birthday, so here are my first impressions. The first thing I did after unboxing the unit was to install an old Momentus XT hybrid SSD in place of the 5400rpm drive. It's not worth installing a brand new SSD onto the PS4 because that would cost as much as the console itself, but since I had a couple of the old drives around before SSDs became reliable enough to use on the laptops/desktops, I repurposed them as drives for the PS3 and PS4. This particular drive has a 7200rpm spinning platter, unlike the newer drives that utilize a 5400rpm platter. The net result is that even if the SSD cache on the drive doesn't get hit that frequently, the increased RPM should grant better performance compared with the OEM drive.

The experience of doing so was a snap. Unlike other vendors, Sony actually designed the system to make replacing drives easy. You slide back the left side of the device, exposing the drive bay, undo one screw, and slide out the caddy holding a 2.5inch drive. The OEM drive is 7.5mm thick, but Sony thoughtfully made the caddy such that it supports a 9mm drive, so the momentus fit with no problems. The OS install was painless and easy, though finding the power on button was surprisingly challenging, since there was no obvious button, just a touch sensitive pad.

Installing the device into my existing entertainment system was straightforward. One potential complication if you have an ancient analog receiver like I do, is that the PS4 doesn't support analog output, only HDMI. I redirected the audio to the analog receiver through the TV, but that adds lag, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Once the system boots up, it's clear that this is a different animal than the PS3. It boots up quickly, and you can quickly download multiple applications and games easily and quickly. Even logging onto Amazon Prime was easy as the controller felt less laggy than the PS3's. What's interesting to me is that the PS4 controller feels much more comfortable than the PS3's, so the ergonomic improvements are definitely very welcome. The controller also uses standard micro USB ports, and thankfully can be charged with any charger, unlike the PS3's which required special chargers. What is much appreciated is the headphone port on the controller: I could mute the TV and then playing using headphones attached to the controller. It'll even support a microphone headset, and the PS4 comes with one so you can chat. I eschewed the crappy PS4 default one for my Koss Portra Pros, and the sound was acceptable, though not as nice as when I plugged it into my Vita.

I stuck the Life of Pi into the PS4 and watched it with my wife. That's a gorgeous movie and the PS4 was more than capable of doing rendering the movie in gorgeous 1080p. I was very pleased, though you wouldn't buy a PS4 just to act as a Blu Ray player, knowing that it can serve the function is the major reason to go with one of the major video game consoles, as opposed to a Nintento Wii or Wii U, which can't serve as a general media player.

Vudu and Amazon Instant Video both installed nicely onto the PS4, as did YouTube (as of the 2.0 update). You're not missing anything over any of the other streaming sticks or streaming video boxes. What's missing from the PS3 is that it won't serve as a DLNA client, or even play music from disk.

I've already completed one game, Resogun on the device, and it's definitely very impressive. One problem with the PS4 right now is that there aren't that many high quality titles out yet. I expect that to change over the next year, and look forward to being able to play console titles that my 5 year old desktop probably won't be able to keep up with. That's an unfair comparison, since the 5 year old desktop is driving a 1440p display, but that's how it goes.

One of the big benefits of having a PS4 and a Vita is that you can use the Vita as a remote play terminal for the PS4. The two sync up very nicely, and you can use the OLED screen to play games on the PS4 via remote play from any room in the house with decent wifi. This runs surprisingly smoothly with next to no lag, and lets you do things like play games while someone else uses the TV to watch streaming video, though you can't do that if your primary input into the TV is the PS4, so you need at least a secondary streaming device like the FireTV stick or Chromecast. Now, the problem with remote play is that in order to take advantage of it, you need to keep your PS4 in standby mode. Standby mode, however, consumes nearly half the power projected to be used by your PS4 over its lifetime, so it's not costless.

I'll maintain that right now is a bad time to buy a PS4, while it's the best time ever to buy a PS3. But if you already have a PS3 and are setting up a second room with a TV, then you might as well get a PS4. It's a sleek device, and does its job for anything faster than the alternatives.