Religious Orders

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Posted: Sunday April 21 2013 @ 10:55am

Religious Order: Books

Okay, so I just finished Greta Christina's new book of edgy erotica, Bending. So how is it? Well, pretty damn good, frankly, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you should read it.

She's very clear in the introduction that the following stories might rub some folks the wrong way. She makes a very good point that people, oddly, expect more veracity from erotica than they do from other forms of entertainment. These stories are dirty. They're not nice fluffy erotica and some of the things in them would be a bad thing in the real world. But this isn't the real world, it's fantasy. These stories are the things that get Greta off. They might get you off, too. Might not. You never can tell...

Anyway, I fully agree. After all, it's not that I actually want to be manacled and ravaged by a chubbly black female TSA agent. But there's no harm in fantasizing about it.

So, given that caveat, this is quality stuff. Greta's a superb writer in general and she's no less skilled in the realm of erotica. The stories are a good balance of set-up and pay-off. It's not just balls-to-the-wall sexual descriptions, but nor does it shy from those. For me, the build up and situation setting is just as important as the sex, so I was very happy. Many stories trail off, leaving the ultimate conclusion to your imagination. If I were going to pick nits, I would have liked them to trail off a little later then many did, though.

I found most of the stories to be blazing hot. A few didn't really do it for me, but that's to be expected. And I didn't dislike those few, they just didn't really hit the spot for me as well as the others did. (The unicorn and rainbow story, for example, was clever and a nice break, but didn't get me turned on. The Catholic one did. The other religious ones didn't.)

The final novella is great, going on longer than anticipated, but in a logical way.

If I'm going to make an actual complaint it's that most of the stories are from a female bottom perspective. I could have done with a few more stories of men being treated roughly.

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Flashback

Posted: Tuesday April 16 2013 @ 7:53am

Religious Order: Books

Reading Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software gave me some pleasant flashbacks to some of my favorite classes from getting my degree. But it also has some problems.

The first part of the book is delightful. It builds up the various pieces of a computer CPU, starting with something as simple as the telegraph, moving through logic gates to transistors and beyond. Eventually, you end up with a pretty functional CPU. It's great. (We went through a similar process in an old class on CPU design, albeit in an abbreviated form.) I highly recommend this section. And then things start to fall apart.

He goes from this delightful built-up to describing the entire opcode set for a real-life CPU. Oh, yeah, that's interesting. Actually, for me, it wasn't all that bad, but nor was it good. If I wanted to read opcode descriptions, well, there are plenty of places to do that. (Hell, somewhere I still have my C-64 Reference Manual with all the 6510 codes defined.) I just don't get why this section is here. Sure, some exposure to various opcodes is valuable, but an examination of each and every one? It brings the whole book to a screeching halt.

After this torturous chapter, he moves up a level to describe the other parts of a computer. This section bored me. It lacked the delightful build-up of the earlier sections. It also showed off the age of the book, which is over a decade old. It was just kinda dull. (Which also reminds me of several classes in my youth.)

My advice? Give it a read, but stop after a couple of opcodes and move onto another book.

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Gulping Down More Roaches

Posted: Tuesday April 16 2013 @ 6:39am

Religious Order: Books

I'm a big fan of Mary Roach's books, so I obviously had to pre-order Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. This won't be a long review. Basically, if you liked her earlier books, you'll like this one. It's not as good as Bonk or Stiff. It's better than Spook.

She's not quite as hands-on with her subject matter in this book, although she does go to prison to learn about hooping.

The approach is a bit scatter-shot. I was expecting the topics to linearly traverse the canal itself. Instead, the first half of the book jumps back and forth between mouth and stomach, with a jump to the end for the latter half. Not a huge problem, but I did find myself occasionally wondering if we were ever going to pass the pyloric sphincter, as it were.

Let me close with one of my favorite things about eBooks. When you pre-order an eBook, it just shows up on your device on the release date. It's awesome!

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Unreadable?

Posted: Tuesday April 16 2013 @ 6:20am

Religious Order: Books

Just finished reading Debbie Reynolds' latest autobiography, Unsinkable: A Memoir. Despite the title of the post, it is indeed quite readable. Ain't really great, though.

Here's the deal, the book has two sections. The first section is Debbie talking about the latter part of her life, namely getting married for the third time, buying a hotel in Vegas, and attempting to find a home for her vast collection of Hollywood costumes. The second section is simply Debbie going through each and every one of her movies, telling you a little about each and the folks involved.

I did get a chance to visit Debbie's hotel while she owned it. (I was attending Comdex. Debbie's hotel was on the walk from the Strip to the Convention Center.) We didn't spend much time. We tried their breakfast buffet, which was awful. We dumped a couple bucks into a kinda neat video blackjack machine that actually had seats for multiple players. But, other than that, there wasn't much there there. Despite that, I have often wondered what the deal was with it. Why did she buy it? Why did it fail?

If you, too, have wondered this, you'll get some value out of the first section of the book. But it's also a sad tale and Debbie often seems clueless as to her own culpability in it all. (Sometimes you just want to shout at her "Get a financial advisor already!")

The second section is a nice breezy read. Some of it you've likely heard before. Some will surely be new. Which actors had huge genitalia? Which actress was being orally serviced by two men when Debbie walked in on her? All that and more!

That said, much of it gets old after a few iterations. Each movie takes the form of: Here's what the movie was about. I worked with X, Y, and Z. X and Y were wonderful and we remain great friends. Z was problematic and here's why. (Optionally, Z later apologized and we remain great friends.)

The whole section feels tacked on, as if she got to the end of the first section and realized she didn't have enough for a full book.

Despite all that, it's still plenty readable. Debbie's writing style is very plain, but I don't mean that in a bad way. Sure, this isn't sophisticated writing, but it's also easy to ingest in huge gulps. It's sad in places, funny in others, and entertaining throughout.

(I should note that Debbie has an earlier autobiography that, if the few reviews I've read are any indication, is a much more developed and cohesive work.)

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Spoiler Alert!

Posted: Tuesday April 02 2013 @ 10:21am

Religious Order: Books

So, I was reading an article about books that contain spoilers for their own plots, and The Sparrow was mentioned. The story is that earth receives radio signals from a nearby star and Jesuits decide to send a mission to it while the rest of the world natters around discussing and then dismissing the idea. And then things go wrong.

The way the story line works is to split it and bounce between events leading up to the climax and the events following the climax. As the former nears, the latter distances itself in time while revealing more. Well, Jesuits in Space and a weird plot structure? I'll give that a try!

So, is it any good? Well sorta kinda...

The Sparrow

I'll be honest, lots of folks simply love this book and a few folks really hate it. Then there's a segment into which I fall who found it an okay read, with an interesting premise and methodology dragged down by some pretty hefty flaws. Let's look at the flaws first!

Flaws

A major fault is the enormous amount of time spent establishing unrealistically likable characters. Fully half the book is dedicated to it, and yet none of the characters have any real flaws. Yeah, okay, one is too logical (until later, when emotion is needed to propel the plot). Another is mired in a sense of machismo which serves to draw out the events following the climax. I liked them all. How could I not? They're all very nice, but they weren't very interesting.

Oddly, given the number of pages devoted to it, the author eventually devolved to large blocks of exposition to fill in backstories. It's weird. This exposition starts in the form of well done character dialogue, but then it's as if the author simply tires of the effort and resorts to the aforementioned narrative blocks. (I was not at all surprised to learn, upon reading the author notes at the end, that the near-saintly Anne was a Mary Sue.)

Of course, the point of all this build-up is to make you sad when horrible things happen to these folks. Alas, while lots of folks die, it really isn't all that horrible. I mean, yeah, it's horrible, but not horrible-horrible. Plus, the two big reveals at the end aren't really a surprise. One is plainly obvious, the other heavily hinted at.

There's a parochial morality to it. It's not a book from the 50s (published in the late 90s), yet it seems to exude a stilted morality, including far too much time trying to justify celibacy. And, honestly, are folks still amazed and confused by the concept of relativistic time dilation in 2060?

Other flaws include, frankly, piss-poor sci-fi featuring the world's most inept attempt at first contact. Their plan? Fuck it, let's just land somewhere! There are other groaners as well, and they're crucial to the plot. So it's painful in places.

Okay, so enough with the flaws. Is there anything to like? Well, sure...

Strengths

While the characters are lacking in depth, they're still charming. The dialogue between them is fun, if unrealistically sincere. While it was plainly obvious I was being set up to like these folks in order to provoke an emotional reaction later, it was still fun to read about them.

The alien society is well thought out, which isn't surprising as the author is an anthropologist. The big reveal at the end doesn't come as a total surprise, but it's still an interesting idea.

The overall quality of the writing is high, despite the thin characterization, and the short-cuts taken regarding them. It's an enjoyable read. Well, the ending isn't exactly enjoyable, still...

And the overall schtick of the split plot is handled well. It drags a bit in places, but not enough to seriously hinder my reading. While I was able to anticipate the big reveal at the end, it didn't spoil the reading, although it obviously blunted the impact.

So, is that it? No, wait, I haven't talked about the religious aspect!

The Religious Aspect

The basic idea here is that people like to attribute good things to God, but then are all confused when bad things happen. How do we reconcile this?

There's a series of Calvin and Hobbes strips that actually deal with this same issue, just in a smaller way. In the strips, Calvin finds a raccoon that has fallen from the nest. He brings it home hoping his mom can save it, but, alas, it dies. It ends with Calvin pondering the purpose of putting the bird on this earth, only to let it die. Calvin's conclusion? It's either mean or it's arbitrary, and either way I've got the heebie-jeebies.

But Calvin is missing a third possibility. In addition to God either being an asshole sadist (mean) or non-existent (arbitrary), there could be a vast plan we can neither see nor understand in which it does make sense. Which is basically the author's view, through the lens of her conversion to Judaism. She throws good things at her characters, which they assign to God's grace, then she fucks with them, leaving them to ponder why.

How you react to that will depend highly on your own religious views. Being an atheist, my response is that, lacking any evidence, I'll go with arbitrary. Other folks will likely view it differently.

Oddly, the characters in the book seem scared of considering the arbitrary possibility and I can't figure out why. The same is true in the real world. Many folks just can't conceive of there not being a God. Meanwhile, it seems obvious to me. I had hoped that this book might have worked for me as a bridge to understanding. It didn't. The lone atheist in the book is really an apatheist who takes no part at all in any theological discussions.

So, while I don't have a problem with the author's conclusions, I am disappointed that the atheist option is more or less dismissed out of hand. (Or denigrated, in at least one instance.)

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Out of Timely...

Posted: Sunday March 31 2013 @ 5:40pm

Religious Order: Books

So, a friend of mine, who is an excellent writer, was in this wee collection of time travel stories. And I bought a copy and read it and then didn't write a review in a timely manner. Then she pestered me about it, so here is it, a bit late...

Out of Time

Out of Time is a small-ish collection of five time travel stories. It's cheap, at 99 cents, and 100% of sales proceeds are donated to Doctors Without Borders, so, y'know, just go buy it, eh?

Oh, wait, you want to know if it's any good. Well, yeah, it really is.

The first three stories are good and solid. They didn't blow me away, but they were all fun and enjoyable to read. If that was all there was, my 99 cents would still have been well spent. The fifth and last story was one of the genre of the whip-smart looping plotline. And it's a good un at it, a really fun read.

But it's the fourth story that stands out. Now, bear in mind that this is the one my friend wrote, so I'm probably a bit biased. That said, it's a really powerful and moving tale. It's not a high-tech sort of time travel tale. It's about regret. It made me sad, even a little teary-eyed. (Just teary-eyed, no actual tears were shed.) It stands out in that the time travelling is just an enabler of the story, not really the story itself. It's really good, easily worth the whole 99 cents all on its own.

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A Pretty Awful Tale

Posted: Wednesday March 06 2013 @ 8:37am

Religious Order: Books

So, some pretentious tech blog recommended Pink Noise. I really wish they hadn't. This isn't a good read. It's certainly a pretentious read, though.

The first thing you need to know is that, while the eBook clocks in at 160 pages, only the first 100 pages are the actual story. The rest is back-up material. I'll get to that, but let's start with the story.

The main character is one of those human-consciousness-upload-to-a-computer thingies. It's a doctor who is tasked with reviving a girl who had a chunk of her brains blown out. The HCUtaC thingie melds with her, filling in the blown out chunks, and they go on to have an escape-and-rescue adventure.

The stuff leading up to the mind-melding is not bad. It's not all that good, but it's readable. Alas, then things fall apart. The story originally derived from a poem and it shows. Tons of flowery language tries to be mind-blowing, but instead is just tedious. Much of the plot is simply filled-in with blocks of character exposition, as if the author couldn't think of a way to make it into poetry and simply punted. There are some good imaginative descriptions, but they're few and far between. The whole plot itself is minimal.

And then you get to the end. It's only 100 pages but sure feels like more.

But wait, you're not done! Now comes the back-up material. Again, keep mind that this makes up over a third of the whole book.

It starts with the science behind some parts of the main story. There's a section on spontaneous self-organization in systems far from equilibrium. It's actually interesting, although marred by asides about the existence of God, which seemed out of place, as well as flat out wrong.

But, just as in the book itself, things then go wrong. He switches over to talking about the plasma universe, which is, frankly, fringe crackpot science. Now, there's nothing wrong with writing stories based on weird ideas. It can lead to some excellent work. There is a problem with appending a long treatise on how all the mainstream scientists are totally wrong and your favorite crackpot theory is the actual truth and how can those other folks be so stupid. Which is, exactly, what he's done here. Ironically, he has a Ph.D. in math from MIT yet still goofs up the application of electrostatic forces weakening over distance as compared to gravity. Actually, it's not ironic, because what he's doing is blindly applying math to physics without really understanding the physical limitations. (No, I'm not so smart that I just know this. I read it somewhere. I did do a little debunking research.)

Following this is a long bibliography, with one source for every three pages of story.

Then, there's a really long glossary, because there isn't this thing called Google, nor does my eReader have built-in dictionary functionality. To be fair, some of this is explanation of terms from different cultures. Those probably aren't in the built-in dictionary.

Speaking of different cultures, next is a quick pronunciation guide to the names and other foreign words used in the story. This is a nice touch, although I'm not about to go reread the story itself just to use the correct pronunciation. It would have been more effective to preface the story with a guide to specific character names, with a reference to this material.

And then it wraps up with some acknowledgments and info about the author. (And the illustrator, although the artwork didn't translate well to an e-paper screen. So I make no comment on the quality.)

So, in the end, it's a skeletal plot on which the author hangs poetry and bad science. If that turns your crank, give it a shot.

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Time Escape

Posted: Wednesday February 20 2013 @ 2:05pm

Religious Order: Books

Timescape - Gregory Benford

Read a blog post somewhere about really mind-blowing novels. Timescape was mentioned. I've read a couple other books by Benford, so I took a shot.

The bottom line? There's a really awesome novella here, mired in a lot of boring attempts at characterization.

The main idea is that the world is in an ecological mess but tachyons have been discovered. (Tachyons are theoretical particles that always travel faster than light. This makes them also go back in time. No, they most likely do not exist, but the math would allow them to exist.) So, some scientists try to send a message back in time to warn folks to avoid the dangers.

Let's look at the plus side first. The science is spot-on. Once you accept the reality of tachyons, pretty much everything flows believably from there. (With one wee exception, which I'll detail at the end.) The descriptions are accurate, mainly because the author's also an astrophysicist. The idea is audacious and handled well. A character has a great realization, while in an airplane. It's fairly obvious to a well-informed reader of science today, but viewed with 1980 eyes, it's an opener.

All the usual plots turns are there. I mean, the plot really isn't all that different from any other one in which folks receive transmissions from afar. Someone happens onto it. After awhile, she realizes it's a message. No one believes her. Eventually, she perseveres and they believe her and the day is saved. However, the time aspect totally revamps the genre.

If that's all this book did, I would have mostly loved it. But, no...

Instead, the books is saddled with just horrible characters. It's almost as if the author sat there and asked himself Now, what qualities can I give this character to make the reader not like them in the least? Everybody fares poorly, but the women more so. One male character fucks anything that moves and nearly all the women give into him. The only one who doesn't? Well, the lesbian of course. It's not just that the characters are louts. There are pages and pages detailing their lives. I don't care. None of them are interesting enough for me to want to care. I found myself eventually skimming over much of the interpersonal drama in order to get back to the actual story. It got so bad that there were points at which I contemplated abandoning the book.

While the poor characters are the biggest problem, there are others. Half of the story takes place in 1998, but the technology seems old. I don't mean that he's done a poor job of predicting 1998 technology from his actual real timeframe of 1980. No, I mean that the tech in 1998 seems outdated compared to the actual tech available in 1980. Even in 1980, I wouldn't have tapped out Morse code by hand for hours at a time, day after day, after day. Seriously, had he not heard of the Jacquard loom? I dunno. Maybe it was a stylistic choice. If it was, it was a poor one.

There are also sections I thought were clunky. I lost count of the number of times one of the main characters had his momentum blunted. It's not a bad turn of phrase, just overused. (Just counted. He only used it four times. Still, that was enough to make it stand out.) It's the character-based writing which was the clunkiest.

The ending is also weak. There's no real resolution. After wading through all that characterization, I wanted some resolution. Alas, I didn't get much, which leads to my last complaint.

At one point, they conduct a test to see if they can, indeed, change the past. But there's no control. So they don't really know. They know they can contact the past, but still remain clueless as to whether they can change it. Unfortunately, this weakens the already weak resolution further. (It's possible that this is all on purpose. I doubt it, though.)

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Voided

Posted: Wednesday February 20 2013 @ 8:04am

Religious Order: Books

Destination: Void - Frank Herbert

Okay, let me say this up front: I've never read any of the Dune novels, nor have I seen the movie adaptation.

That said, I read a blog post somewhere listing some non-Dune Herbert books to read. So I chose this one, more or less at random.

The idea is that a ship full of clones is being sent off to colonize a planet. The onboard ship-controlling brains die, leaving the rest of them in a lurch. The crew are faced with not only deciding what to do but also with determining the true nature of their mission.

Did I like it? Well, enough to finish it, but not enough to want to read the next book in the series. There's a ton of character introspection, some of which is interesting, some of which consists of meanderings on the nature of consciousness. The meanderings are boring, a bit like A Voyage to Arcturus without the benefit of being really fucking weird, man.

I enjoyed the slow reveal of the actual mission. I didn't enjoy the dated technical descriptions. (The book is from 1966.)

I enjoyed the personal introspection regarding crew relationships. I didn't enjoy the philosophical meanderings.

I enjoyed getting to the end. I didn't enjoy the climax, straight out of a bad Star Trek episode.

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The Erotofluidic Age?

Posted: Friday February 01 2013 @ 7:46pm

Religious Order: Books

So, a few weeks ago, I reviewed Fantastic Erotica: The Best of Circlet Press 2008-2012. My only complaint, really, was that the sex itself was pretty plain vanilla.

Following my review, one of the authors in the collection sent me a message suggesting his own The Erotofluidic Age as a rather kinkier alternative. Of course, I had to take him up on his suggestion.

Structurally, the book is basically three linked novellas, and this serves the stories fine. But you don't care about that! You want to know about the fucking, right? What did I think about the fucking?

Fucking weird-ass shit, man! No, really, this is some weird stuff. It's not tentacle porn. Oh, no, tentacle porn isn't nearly strange enough. Think mutated gooey ducks, phonetically. I'll say no more, just, really, the sex is weird. And I'm fine with that. The strap-on scene is, well, wow. Just wow.

(I'll note that, while weird, the sex isn't violent or mean. It's a happy, good-natured weird. But it is really fucking weird.)

So, is that it? A seriously weird wank book? Well, no, there's more to it than that. It's billed as a pornographic steampunk comedy, and, to be sure, it's pornographic. But what about the rest, you ask? It's also a darn good steampunk yarn. The descriptions and dialogue feel right. Authentic, if you will. I'm not the world's biggest steampunk fan. Even so, this went down smooth. (Phrasing!) All that steampunky goodness is melded nicely with the sex, making it, well, steampunk sex. Weird Victorian steampunk sex. And there's a hilarious throw-away joke about goggles.

Oh, right, is it also funny? Yeah, it is. It's not a joke-a-minute sort of book. Rather, there's a fun amusing quality throughout, punctuated at intervals with full on hilarity. I laughed aloud at several points.

(Side-note: Why don't we write LA for laugh aloud instead of LOL?)

In the end, the real test is to ask whether the book would be worth reading without the sex scenes. For me, the answer is a big thumbs up. I would have been perfectly happy with it had the story been less explicit. The explicitness was just a bone-us!

But, fair warning, if you find the thought of really weird sex to be disturbing, then you might find that it detracts from the rest of the book. It didn't for me, but I'm pretty fucking weird at times, too.

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