She plays o' the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, hath all the good gifts of nature, knows a hawk from a handsaw, and can see a church by daylight. The rest is subject to fancy.

War for the Oaks — Emma Bull

Bull, Emma.
War for the Oaks.
Orb Books, 2001.
ISBN: 978-0765300348

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bull_war_for_the_oaks“Urban fantasy” is relatively new as a fantasy sub-genre. Certainly my first exposure to urban fantasy was via the deserved popularity of the Borderlands shared universe. Borderlands
created a new genre space for heroic fantasy in an urban setting. Bull’s work is often cited as an example of “urban fantasy,” but in War for the Oaks she makes Minneapolis as full of wonder as Tír nan Og. War for the Oaks is about an otherworld intruder, a pooka who shape-shifts into a large black dog, and Eddi McCandry, a mortal musician who becomes an unwilling pawn in a fairy civil war.

Bull draws on fairy folklore throughout her novel, and uses it to create fully realized characters rather then mere types. Bull begins with a solid foundation of traditional fairy folklore and makes it new, in large part because she has interestingly real characters. Eddi McCandry isn’t another calque on Janet from the ballad of Tam Lin; she’s Eddi McCandry. And the Pooka isn’t exactly like anything or anyone else either. Bull has also captured the essence of Fey game-playing and ethics here, and all of it in fabulous dialog. This is a book that you really should read if you have any interest in contemporary fantasy at all, since it has very much helped shape the genre. Plus, it’s really really good.

Emma Bull and Will Shetterly have co-written War for the Oaks: The Screenplay. I keep hoping someday Bull will record all the songs.

Sunshine — Robin McKinley

McKinley, Robin.
Sunshine.
Berkley Trade, October 2008.
ISBN: 0425224015

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It’s not that any of the Others are really popular, or that it had only been the vampires against us during the Wars. But a big point about vampires is that they are the only ones that can’t hide what they are: let a little sunlight touch them and they burst into flames. Very final flames. Exposure and destruction in one neat package. Weres are only in danger once a month, and there are drugs that will hold the Change from happening. The drugs are illegal, but then so are coke and horse and hypes and rats’ brains and trippers. If you want the anti-Change drugs you can get them. (And most Weres do. Being a Were isn’t as bad as being a vampire, but it’s bad enough.) And a lot of demons look perfectly normal. Most demons have some funny habit or other but unless you live with one and catch it eating garden fertilizer or old combox components or growing scaly wings and floating six inches above the bed after it falls asleep, you’d never know. And some demons are pretty nice, although it’s not something you want to count on. (I’m talking about the Big Three, which everyone does, but “demon” is a pretty catch-all term really, and it can often turn out to mean what the law enforcement official on the other end of it wants it to mean at the time.)

Robin McKinley. Sunshine.

Cover of Robin McKinley's SunshineSunshine is a baker. Sunshine is a very good baker, locally known for her cinnamon rolls as big as your head.

She is also the only person known to have survived a vampire abduction, not to mention having escaped with the aid of another abduction victim, also a vampire. In the middle of the day.

So yes, Sunshine’s unusual. To those more familiar with McKinley’s juveniles, this isn’t a juvenile. This is not your standard vampire book. Sunshine is a fully realized character without being truly like anyone else. She’s no Buffy, no Sookie Stackhouse and no Anita Blake clone. She’s completely herself. That said, well, yes, this is an “urban vampire” novel, and yes, I suspect “Buffy, Vampire Slayer” was an influence, but so were Bram Stoker’s Dracula and “Beauty and the Beast.” In Sunshine McKinley has, again, taken old myths and reshaped them. The vampires, and Sunshine’s world, are different from other vampires and not-quite-this-universe worlds. In addition to McKinley’s gift for story and character, we have her flexible prose, which is fully exploited to give Sunshine her own voice. It’s an interesting voice, and a very real voice, though not always an easy one to listen to.

One of the things I love about Robin McKinley’s books is that I can count on her to surprise me, and she did with this book. I’ve read Sunshine twice, and am looking forward to a third reading. This may be my favorite of McKinley’s books, (so far) but I really wish she’d included recipes for some of Sunshine’s bakery creations. Especially the cinnamon rolls.

NYT Editorial on Medicare Costs

There will likely be no real solution until the American health care system moves away from unfettered fee-for-service payments that encourage doctors to perform unnecessary and costly tests and procedures and pays them instead for better management of a patient’s care over time.

You can read the rest of the editorial here.

The article notes that the assumptions behind the formula are based on health care in 1997, and are hampered by an overwhelming trust in the divine wisdom of physicians; the formula has no checks to limit the services doctors provided or distinguish between valuable and needless treatments. Individual doctors poor decisions affect the aggregate costs of everyone. Driven by natural greed, and by fear of making a mistake, there’s a tendency for some physicians to try everything, whether or not it’s medically appropriate.

Grilled Fresh Pacific Northwest Salmon

I admit that I’m really loving easy access to fresh, locally caught, salmon. At this time of year in particular, when it’s simple to buy a fillet or a couple of salmon steaks, and take them and a bottle of wine to a local park for grilling, it’s pretty hard not to love salmon. For those of you interesting in grilling your own fresh salmon in a simple, but delicious fashion, go read MacAllister Stone on do-it-yourself salmon grilling:

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I could not eat enough salmon to suit me, and at the time, salmon was extraordinarily reasonably-priced, in-season.

Salmon cooked outside, in the fresh Northwest air, on a charcoal grill has to be one of the finest culinary experiences available, anytime, anywhere. If you’ve been in the Pacific Northwest for any amount of time, you’ll already be familiar with the popularity of good local fresh “salmon bbq”—it took me a little while to realize that doesn’t actually mean salmon smothered in a tangy catsup-based sauce; rather, barbecued salmon is simply salmon cooked on a barbecue grill. The best part of that, of course, is that there’s no need to wait for a special occasion. Salmon is healthy, delicious, and remarkably easy to prepare.

Read more here.

Pompeii and Herculaneum: Abandoned to the Ravages of Time

Peter Popham of Prospect Magazine asks:

Pompeii and Herculaneum have been listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites since 1997. So why isn’t the world’s culture policeman keeping the world’s most important Roman sites in order?

Popham details the rapid decay of two of the richest and most important archaeological sites in Italy—including the virtual abandonment by the Italian government, and the efforts of a millionaire donor to make the sorts of structural repairs that forty years of neglect—and two million tourists a year—mean to an ancient site. Less than half of the 70 or so excavated buildings are open to tourists, or even safe to enter, since they are in advanced stages of decay.

Whedon, Rimbaud, and Cicero: Introduction to the Angel Rewatch

The central question informing the character of Angel is asked during season 3, first in the episode “Amends.” Angel’s been having really bad dreams. Except they’re also teh sexy and over-the-top with all the blood and pain and dying and the—wait for it—decadence of Angel’s sordid past. So a suicidal and tormented Angel asks Buffy (BtVS, season three, “Amends”), “Am I a thing worth saving, huh? Am I a righteous man?

You can read MacAllister’s response in this introduction to a series of re-watching Joss Whedon’s Angel.

James Fallows: “If the TSA Were Running New York . . .

James Fallows at The Atlantic writes:

The point of terrorism is not to “destroy.” It is to terrify. And for eight and a half years now, the dominant federal government response to terrorist threats and attacks has been to magnify their harm by increasing a mood of fear and intimidation. That is the real case against the ludicrous “orange threat level” announcements we hear every three minutes at the airport. It’s not just that they’re pointless, uninformative, and insulting to our collective intelligence; it’s that their larger effect is to make people feel frightened rather than brave.

Read the rest here.

EFF on FaceBook’s Eroding Privacy—And Rights Grab

The EFF has published two important discussions of recent changes regarding who controls your data on Facebook; first, a timeline of the changes to the Facebook privacy statements:

Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it’s slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users’ information, while limiting the users’ options to control their own information. Read more . . .

Earlier, the EFF’s Tim Jones noted that Facebook has deliberately created a user interface from hell, in order to make it more difficult for users to control their data:

As Conti describes it, a good interface is meant to help users achieve their goals as easily as possible. But an “evil” interface is meant to trick users into doing things they don’t want to. Conti’s examples include aggressive pop-up ads, malware that masquerades as anti-virus software, and pre-checked checkboxes for unwanted “special offers”.

The new Facebook is full of similarly deceptive interfaces.

Mind the “new” Facebook UI is so idiotic and poorly implemented and documented that I find it exceedingly difficult to share the information I want to share; there are six separate settings to modify in order to present an RSS feed on a “Wall” that is universally available, while still restricting other kinds of data.

One of the first responses users make to this kind of UI and policy is to deliberately pollute the data stream, to create false IDs, and fake metadata. This policy will adversely affect Facebook.

Slacktivist on Tim LeHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Tribulation Force

Fred Clark has been doing a close analysis of the Tim LeHaye “Left Behind” books about on life after the Apocalypse for those “left behind” by the Rapture. MacAllister calls the books “post-rapture revenge fantasy,” and that’s the best description I’ve seen yet. Currently, Clark, aka Slacktivist, is up to Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind. Tribulation Force is the second novel in the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Clark in addition to being a fine writer and blogger, holds a M. A. T. S. cum laude in Theology and Public Policy from Palmer Theological Seminary. He’s hardly hostile to Christianity, or Protestantism. In his latest entry Clark offers an analysis of pp. 192–205 of Tribulation Force, noting:

The Good Christian Dad ought to, like Rayford, pray for his daughter while distrusting her, belittling her opinions and conspiring with the man who appears to be two-timing her. The Good Christian Young Man ought to be, like Buck, stern and parental in his conquest of his intended. And the Good Christian Young Woman ought to be, like Chloe, submissive, distraught and humiliated.

You can, and should, read the entire post. Clark is reliably intelligent, caring, and thoughtful. In an earlier post on the late Evangelist Francis Schafer in which Clark traces the roots of current extreme Evangelists, Clark notes that

. . . by the 1980s, Graham had been eclipsed by new faces and very different voices with a very different agenda — men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Evangelicalism had become fiercely partisan, polarized and polarizing. It had become more a political movement than a religious one and the dominant issue—the only shibboleth or litmus test that seemed to matter—was opposition to legal abortion.

The founding myth of this new, stridently political faith says that this politicizing arose in reaction to the Roe v. Wade decision acknowledging the legal right to abortion.

Clark demonstrates that this politicizing of the new Evangelism was in fact not inspired by Roe v. Wade. He links to a piece in Huffington Post by Francis Schaffer’s son, Frank Schaffer, author of several books on evangelism in America. Frank Wade, writing about current American extreme Evangelicism in the context of the Hutaree militia obsessive [alleged] conspiracy madness notes that “The rhetoric we in the early pro-life movement unleashed combined, with the apocalyptic fantasies of the fundamentalist evangelicals, is a deadly brew.” He sees the Left Behind books as a distinct ingredient in that “deadly brew,” and notes that the new evangelicals “have cultivated a following among the terminally aggrieved based on ceaselessly warning them about ‘the world.'” Schaffer points out that merchandising is the least of the effects of the Left Behind books, and the aggressive evangelicism they espouse as the religious Right:

Such products as Left Behind wall paper, screen savers, children’s books, and video games have become part of the ubiquitous American background noise. Less innocuous symptoms include people stocking up on assault rifles and ammunition, adopting “Christ-centered” home school curricula, fearing higher education, embracing rumor as fact, and learning to love hatred for the “other,” as exemplified by a revived anti-immigrant racism, the murder of doctors who do abortions, and even a killing in the Holocaust Museum. And now we have a cult/militia dedicated to the same idea.

This New Evangelism, as much as it scares me, does seem to be having some resistance in the under 25 crowd. As Pastor Carol Howard Merritt notes:

There are three major reasons that a younger generation is leaving Evangelicalism: pernicious sexism, religious intolerance, and conservative politics. The term “Evangelical” is a broad brush that colors a large and diverse movement, so these characteristics may not be true of every Evangelical. But as long as those in the movement allow themselves to be represented by Pat Robertson and James Dobson, then these spokesmen will continue to whitewash the entire group’s values.

In other words, many of these new Evanglists are in fact not evangelizing Christ as much as they are preaching a new world order under the aegis of the Religious Right:

For the last couple of decades, a majority of the movement began to find great power as the Christian Right. Partnering with the Republican Party, they began to extol an idealized view of the family, rallying against abortion and homosexual rights. Often the fixation on these two issues came at the expense of feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Many Christian Right leaders brushed aside caring for the earth and mocked global climate change. Health care became demonized and wars glorified. So many Christian teachings became sacrificed for the Republican agenda that we hardly recognized our faith any longer. And so we left our congregations.

I’ve added Slacktivist to the blogroll under Nonfiction.

Tor has a Blog!

Long ago, around 1983, and before 1984, when I was an already devout fan of F and SF, I discovered that Tor books were a reasonable gamble; even if I didn’t know the author’s work, I had a 90% or better chance of finding anything this small publisher called Tor published. And by 1990, when I’d started learning about typesetting and book design, and my eyes started their downward spiral, I noticed that Tor books, even the paperbacks, were more legible, and just plain prettier than most other books.

For those of you who don’t know, Tor publishes Emma Bull, (Finder, War for the Oaks, Territory,) Joan Vinge, Charlie Stross, Peter Watts, Elizabeth Bear, John M. Ford (Last Hot Time), Vernor Vinge (“True Names,” Fire Upon The Deep, Deepness in the Sky), Caroline Stevermer, Sarah Zettel, Martha Wells (City of Bones, John Scalzi, Charles de Lint, Madeleine E. Robins (Point of Honour, Petty Treason).

These are authors I initially read and bought because they were published by Tor, and I trusted Tor; even if I didn’t love a book, I felt confident that I wouldn’t be hurling a Tor book at the wall for quality issues.

So I’m especially pleased that Tor has a blog!