July Reading List

Back in March, I compiled a list of reads I intended to tackle. Here’s my summer reading progress thus far. I am currently reading Descent of Angels by Michael Scanlon.

First, the stuff I’ve finished reading…

The Whitechapel Demon by Josh Reynolds
Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturlusson
Ambassadora by Heidi Ruby Miller

Next, there’s what I want to read eventually. I treat these titles as rewards for accomplishments.

Death’s Legacy by Sandy Mitchell. After finishing the previous two books, I’m curious how the third is going to end.

Blighted Empire by CL Werner. The great start of the first book has me curious as to what happens in the next.

Njal’s Saga. After the Prose Edda, I’m looking forward to further viking readings.

In the mean time, there is the stuff currently in the queue to read first.

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Napoleon by Felix Markham
It by Stephen King
Heroes Die by Matthew Stover
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Finally, Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche was one I couldn’t finish. I may revisit a differently translation this autumn and try again.

Oh, P.S. I might move It to the fall to celebrate Halloween.

A Good Book, Great TV and Whining

“Tie-in has a whole extra level of stuff to get right,” Narry told me today.

And he’s right. I got the beta review back on a story I was preparing. While I feel the tale has some strong themes and solid action going for it, there were a handful of technical issues that need addressing. And there were a few other elements that need better delivery in order to stay true to the background. Best guess, it’ll take an hour of work to get right. Another hour to correct the synopsis and probably 30 minutes to an hour to revisit the cover letter.

Meanwhile, my conscience continues to Navi me over the novel. I haven’t touched it since the turn of the month, returning to the standard 1,000 words a day rate of my short story speed. I’ll be certain to return to it this week at some point, but as I’m so close to being ready on this story, it’ll be easier to finish it and have it ready.

The Whitechapel Demon

"The Whitechapel Demon" by Josh Reynolds.

The Whitechapel Demon by Josh Reynolds.

Over the weekend, I finished The Whitechapel Demon by Josh Reynolds. The book is the first of an upcoming series involving the duties of a figure entitled the Royal Occultist. Appointed by the queen, it is the duty of the occultist to investigate all strange and macabre incidents throughout England.

The current holder of the title (there have been several before, giving Reynold’s work a rich background to draw from) is a Mister Charles St. Cyprian, a veteran of the Great War. St. Cyprian is not alone throughout his efforts, as he works with his assistant Ebe Gallowglass, and both competes and cooperates with the Ministry of Esoteric Observation, his bureaucratic rival.

Mister Reynolds has certainly done his homework. Although I’ve yet to fully research it, many of his elements come from real world sources and references, such as Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, hyssop oil, ectoplasm and pentagrams. Although fiction, the big draw of the Royal Occultist is its reverence to historically-attempted applications of magic.

The book is a treat for anyone who loves Sherlock Holmes, the occult, The X-Files or perhaps Constantine. Or better yet, any and all of these blended into one. Although the novel is relatively short at less than 180 pages, its brevity helps the reader decide whether or not the forthcoming series will be for them, a wonderful change from the 600 page novels that begin too many fantasy series.

Halt and Catch Fire, “Landfall”

The latest episode of Halt and Catch Fire was the best yet. Hands down.

Perhaps the reason I like it so much is due to how it has stopped being so prudent. The pilot was great and set the stage perfectly, then the follow up episodes slowed it down a little, holding back the tide of plot. But as of the sixth episode, they changed course and let the chips fall where they may. Exactly how it should be.

On paper, the show seems to have a lot of similarities with Mad Men. There’s direct client interactions, a historical basis, the focus remains business drama, and a great deal of personal character dilemmas and conflicts. But in execution, the show has a faster pace, more sudden turns and borrows themes from David Fincher’s The Social Network.

What I like the most is the difference in how the two shows handle foreshadowing. Mad Men sticks to its tried and true subtle method of hinting the future. But while Halt and Catch Fire flirted with that, they eventually gave up and went bold. That is the ideal for a show about a revolution, with its characters persistently pushed to the edge and recovering with an ever weakening grip.

Which brings us to the awesome scene from “Landfall” where Gordon runs about the city, desperately trying to buy a Cabbage Patch doll for his children before a hurricane strikes. After being swindled out of $80 by a conman offering a wrapped box with a stone, Gordon finally comes to a toy store and finds it closed due to the storm.

gordon

But while returning to the car, Gordon spots the doll on display in the window. Frustrated with seeing the prize taunt him, he takes (what I believe) is the stone from his conning and smashes the display. But before he returns, he hears something about the building and finds a body who eerily looks like his boss Joe MacMillan.

I don’t know whether the body was real or a hallucination. Gordon was who saw it. But the question is, was it foreshadowing, or was it simply a manifestation of his fears? Of the three main characters, Cameron has barely applied effort to anything in her life, and to our knowledge Joe has never failed. But Gordon, uniquely, has done both these things when he created and failed to market the Symphonic.

I feel this vision, real or not, will add to Gordon’s conservative sense and turn him into a greater obstacle for Cameron and Joe. And given his experiences, it’s a shame they probably won’t listen.

 

Steaming up the Summer

ds

The Steam Summer Sale is on. Go. Buy things. I highly, highly recommend the cheaper Don’t Starve as it’s getting a multiplayer version this September. I intend to buy like 3 copies to give to friends.

It’s been a productive month. Not crazy, “I just finished five books and learned the guitar” productive, but a steady progression of words down, pitches readied, business, working out and so on. A really balanced approach to problems and progress towards what I want to finish.

The super hero novella quarterly pitch, which we’re calling the Outlier Universe for now, has been fired to our potential publisher. It’s amazing what happens when you get five guys to sit down and come up with a shared story. But we’ve got it all: Realistic government agencies built in reaction to these strange events, a philosophically charged organizations whose splinter cells engage in anything from small time crime to straight terrorism.

We’ve got fleshed out characters with plenty of personal inclinations and reasons to be involved, big time “Billionaire’s Clubs” who find ways to turn the changing circumstances to their advantage. And a designer drug that causes new characters and dangers to come out of the woodwork.

And all of this takes place in the same universe. The events influence each other. Envisioned stories flow back and forth from smaller, personal pieces to address changing view points and philosophies to larger, meaningful epics. And whenever possible, connecting how the former relates to the latter. It’s kind of the ultimate power trip to see a person’s opinion on matters have such a potentially powerful impact.

What I love the most is that we don’t do run-of-the-mill origin stories either. The moral compass isn’t clearly defined, and many of our so called heroes have some shady backgrounds. But we haven’t reached that point in our timelines of introducing the ultimate evils yet. And I don’t know what will happen to our gray characters when that shadow falls upon them.

Another thing the guys and I haven’t addressed yet is what happens when a character dies. Marvel and DC Comics have tendencies to resurrect the dead all the time, which seems to make all violent struggles nigh pointless in the long run. I’m more inclined to bury my characters when they die unless there is an extremely, compelling reason and a steep price tag to bring them back (and for us, that “price tag” will probably include nothing less than a complete story, which is expensive to the writer’s time.) What’s the point of death if it isn’t permanent?

But one way or the other, we’re ready for some damn fine story telling.

The novel writing however, is slow going. I got on a roll and finished two and a half chapters, but there are still 24.5 more to go. I’m fairly happy with the direction, but as I write I wonder, “What if I shifted this chapter here and this one there? Or cut up and reshuffled these chapters so they more evenly tell the story?”

Once the novel is through the beginning I’m happy with the way it flows. But the opening tends to be lump, preferring one group of characters over the others. But that’s an issue for editing and it’s more important to just get the words down for now.

By the way, have you seen “Expiration Date” from the Team Fortress 2 development team?

Food and Mythology

Far South Shrimp Salad

20 medium shrimp, uncooked
1 lime, small is fine
mixed greens
1 avocado
1 mango
1 shallot
paprika
olive oil
salt and pepper

Run cold water on the shrimp until they’re thawed. Carefully remove the shells, legs and tails (unless you prefer tails, as some do.) Add a tablespoon of olive oil to a skillet and cook the shrimp until they’re an orange/pink on both sides.

Meanwhile, cut the mango into bite sized cubes and dice the shallot into tiny pieces. Cube the avocado as well. Microwave the lime for about 10 seconds to soften it and cut it in half. Drop the shrimp, avocado, shallot and mango into a bowl with the mixed greens and squeeze the lime onto it. The toss the salad, making an effort to crush the avocado if at all possible. Afterwards, try it and add salt, pepper and paprika to your taste.

I suppose there’s nothing quite like a beach trip to make one wish to cut a few pounds. I’ve reached the point where I’m just no longer going to bother with the vanity of trying to earn and maintain a six pack or push my biceps to be 18 or 19 inches in diameter. But I also have no plans to ignore the importance of trying to be healthy.

A recent doctor check up told me everything I already knew: Less beer, less refined sugar, more exercise. The obnoxious thing about weight loss, as I constantly yo-yo weight, is that it requires total lifestyle changes. Lunch has to be a salad most of the time or soup. I have to swap out the doughnut or breakfast sandwich for a bowl of grainy cereal or fruit. Red meats get exchanged for lower calorie seafood. Rather than sit down for an hour of Titanfall or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it’s either some dancing game or throwing the television on while I lift weights.

Usually, the first two weeks are the hardest. You miss those foods, you miss being able to be lazy. There’s a constant hunger in the back of your mind that interferes with any concentration intensive tasks, whether it’s reading, writing or especially studying.

Vidar_by_Collingwood

Víðarr (Vidar) slaying Fenrir, after the wolf slew his father, Odin.

Speaking of study, my return to non-fictional reading has been interesting at the least. I had finished a translation of The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturlusson. And to further examine the correlation between the Norse mythology and the actual pagan practices in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson whose work in understanding the Æsir is incredibly extensive (check out that bibliography…)

The reading caused great thoughts of pensiveness, and reflection of the underlying philosophies. A fair bit of Norse mythology has been lost to the kulturkampf of Christian revisionism. Even the word, myth, carries with it a sense of untruth in its modern context. The Christians of that age worked hard to brand the Æsir as an untruth, a once sacred religion reduced to mythology.

Of course today, Christianity struggles to remain a religion and not a mythology in the eyes of a skeptical, science-and-fact oriented society. The irony isn’t lost on me that Christianity finds itself the victim of the very cycle its earlier followers fought in mind and body to start.

Davidson’s best points seem to reflect a lot of my own thinking as with regard to the elder religions. That the gods and goddesses of the Æsir and Vanir were merely metaphysical expressions of our own desires. Like their Greek counterparts, the denizens of Asgard were welcoming of humanity in all his glory and failings alike. They had their war gods, their gods of sex and fertility. Their nature gods, fortune granters and tricksters… and ultimately celebrating humanity rather than chiding us or attempting to guide us by some vision of a utopia.

Hm. Will finish Davidson’s book this week. Perhaps 75 more pages left.

Bert Cooper, Death Drive, Thanatos

Memorial Day Weekend

Brief news announcement: A review of Far Worlds is available over at The Founding Fields.

This three day weekend was spent at a lake house in North Carolina. I was afforded a chance to get some exercise, some sun, drink a little and get some reading over with. Oh, a piece of advice. If you ever see a guy you would call a joker go fishing, don’t turn your back to him…

Over my time there, I finished Dead Winter by C.L. Werner, and wrapped up 75% of Sandy Mitchell’s Death’s City, the second of the Blood on the Reik trilogy. Both of these books take place in the Warhammer universe.

Death’s City, like it’s precursor Death’s Messenger is the closest thing you will ever get to Young Adult literature from the Black Library. The second book is an immediate continuation of the events of the first, following young hunter Rudi and his magically gifted friend Hanna, as they escape the clutches of Witch Hunter Gerhard.

The books are written from the third person but always at the perspective of Rudi himself, which has allowed Mitchell to maintain a sense of mystery as Rudi tries to find out the enigma of his birth. The plot flows along, as Mitchell invents new twists and turns to keep it moving, light and breezy. But the young adult elements enter the book as Rudi deals with teenage pride, his wax-and-waning attraction to Hanna and just trying to make a living as a teenager despite the hardships both of life itself and caused by those pursuing him.

Dead Winter was something very different from C.L. Werner’s usual work, and the results are amazing. Dead Winter is the first of a trilogy (always a trilogy) that is a Warhammer Fantasy take on the Black Death which swept through Europe during the years around 1350. Thus, it manages to be a rebellion story, a natural disaster tale and a spy thriller all in one.

Dead Winter is one of the Time of Legend series, centered around a critical, historical event in the Warhammer universe which numerous other works mention and reference without going into any great details. Werner seems to take a cue from A Game of Thrones, but in a different manner. Where as George R.R. Martin invests entire chapters to the point of view of a single character, Werner instead expends one or two pages on a character before shifting to someone else within the chapter. The result is a kind of ‘serial flash fiction’ approach that builds to something awesome and then shifts immediately after the plot twist.

And there are more than a handful of characters to follow, such as the lowly rat catcher Walther, Priest of Morr Frederick van Hal, Prince Mandred of Middenheim and a Reiksknecht named Erich. And those are only the humans, as the other half of the conflict involves a plague ridden Skaven (rat-man) priest named Puskab Foulfur.

Each of these characters have their own separate story lines which indirectly connect and relate to the plague that sweeps the Old World. The Skaven start the plague, intent on weakening the human-held Empire before invading. Their timing is nearly perfect too, as the humans are too busy rebelling against the current Emperor, Boris ‘Goldgather’ Hohenbach. But other than spreading the plague and engaging in espionage and sabotage against the humans, the rest of the Skaven are involved with their own infighting.

The story ends as the rebellion fails to stop the Emperor but sows the seed of a second wave, while the Skaven experience a power shift in their council of thirteen. All this while other historical elements are laid bare, preparing the story for an even greater conflict to come.

Perhaps the only weakness of the book was the sheer number of introduced characters in the beginning. The earliest chapters open with meetings amongst not one but two major political bodies, bringing a horde of names that aren’t thrown around during this book but are likely to be important in the later installments. A Horus Heresy style personae dramatica listing of names and titles would have gone far to alleviate the problem.

Finally, there’s Mad Men. Satellite issues kept me from watching the season finale “Waterloo” until yesterday night. Spoilers follow.

bert

I have to say, the entire episode seemed to be about showcasing Don Draper’s maturity. In almost every way, Don faced off against challenges and problems that the old Don would not have handled with the grace that he did this episode. From turning down Meredith’s advances, to handling the end of his second marriage, to dealing with Jim Cutler. At the last minute, he brought that wisdom to Ted Chaough, saving the man from walking the very path he had.

The last scene, where the recently departed Bert Cooper appears in a hallucination to give us a song-and-dance number, seems to carry a sinister message. For many seasons, we’ve seen the quiet hints of death, death, death tap dancing for us, from Lane Pryce’s suicide to Betty’s cancer scare to finally Cooper passing away. If this farewell had been strictly for us and not something Don had witnessed, it would have come across as a cheeky send off.

But no, Don watched it unfold. A smiling, happy and now dead Bert Cooper informing him that the “best things in life are free,” is a most ironic notion for a man who invested his life in the pursuit of money. As I write this, it hits me. Mad Men, episode 1. The death drive, a point which Pete used to try and get a cigarette client. Bert was Thanatos. Now it makes sense… we’re coming full ouroborus. You haven’t seen the end of the snake’s tail yet… but you’ll taste it soon enough.

Titanfall Hiatus

titanfall

Onward, valiant steed!

Starting since yesterday, I’m not touching Titanfall for a month.

My game play has truly plateaued, and the reasons for it are plentiful. I’ve had a few network issues since the last patch and now frequently have bad ping, probably due to the “missing token from Origin” issue I keep getting. My system is just too out of date… frame loss during up close fights has hurt my survivability. I’ve been stacked against a number of better opponents too. Or maybe I’m just too frustrated by it to think clearly.

My current generation requirements aren’t much help either. Explained, the game divides itself into 50 levels and 10 generations. At level 50, if you’ve satisfied all your requirements, you can promote yourself to the next generation, a respect worthy accomplishment. G3, my current generation, requires 75 Pilot kills with the R-97 Compact Submachine Gun, and 50 Titan kills with the Plasma Railgun.

Interestingly enough, the R-97 was my choice weapon for the longest time when I first picked up the game. Over time however, it felt increasingly outclassed by other weapons, namely the C.A.R. SMG. I keep letting myself get lured into open fields where the R-97 is at a disadvantage, or just my gun play sucks and I need practice. Too often, I’ve found myself on the wrong side of a close call. Like getting gunned down by a guy who I left with a meager 25% life left.

But nothing ached more than one particular Titan on Titan fight when I shredded the guy’s shields and nearly had him when I had to reload my Railgun. He got the better of me… with 1% health left.

It’s not that the Railgun is a bad weapon per say. It is quite powerful. A fully charged shot against the weak point of a Titan’s armor is devastating. The problem is that between the charges and the small ammo magazine, I either get shredded by multiple Titans, or find myself whittling the guy’s health just enough so someone else steals the kill I desperately covet.

If the game was more inclined to promote teamwork, then the Railgun will have a place supporting my teammates. A lot of Titanfalls‘ achievements and game play doesn’t center around working with others. Sure, you get some experience for assisting in the kill of Pilots and Titans, and there are a few achievements for riding the shoulders of allied Titans. But the rest of it is very self-centered. You have to get the kill for it to really count towards anything, especially generation progress.

Currently, I’m level 38. I’m 24 kills with the SMG and 13 kills with the Railgun before I’m ready for G4. Sure, I could grind my way through and get the last needed kills. But as I’ve gone from being a constant top three player to a consistent rank 6 (the bottom), it’s time for a break to fix my strategies, improve my rig and figure out my network problems. I’ll come back better than ever.

Mead, Vikings and Television

Mead

So last Tuesday, Dan came over and we bottled up the mead pitch that finished fermenting. It had been sitting a month and it’ll be another six at least until it’s ready for tasting. The smell was so powerful… the sheer alcoholic content dizzying. And it isn’t anything special either, just six pounds of Safeway brand honey and water with Kolsch yeast. Nothing else. We’re not even carbonating it, as I want to drink it in the traditional manner. It should be ready just in time for birthday-packed November.

As I set to work, my interest in viking culture flared again, enough that I decided to later sit down and watch a single, mid-stream episode of the History Channel’s Vikings. I managed to get fifteen minutes into it before turning it off, with the intention of watching it from the beginning later. I just wanted to take a measure of the series first, and the taste I took suggested a slower historic drama piece that mixes Game of Thrones with the characterization and story telling pace of Breaking Bad.

What’s interesting to me is that this is another example of cable television jumping on the historical drama bandwagon. They won’t jump into the violence and sex that HBO or Showtime can pull off, so they instead invest in story telling in the past, just as with Downton Abbey. (Another fine show I’ve fallen behind on…) And it’s not hard to imagine the value of it. While no one should expect a hard history lesson, these shows do convey a sense of cultures of antiquity.

Television, as a medium for story telling, has grown again in the last couple of years. Our last TV renaissance brought us great shows like The Wire, The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica. A lot of that era was brought to us by HBO. These days, we’re seeing great shows come from very unlikely sources. AMC alone brought a handful of great shows out. PBS and the History Channel, of all people, each have one great show worth watching. I don’t watch Scandal regularly but I do respect that it’s a good show. And now Netflix is changing the game, bringing back shows thought dead like Arrested Development and The Killing, whenever they’re not blowing our minds with original series like House of Cards.

It’s not hard to wonder why. In the past, television actors have tended to be less skilled than their movie counterparts, with a few talented individuals who managed to find work in the multimillion dollar roles later. These days, the stigma of being a television actor are gone, as Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright play the Underwoods and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson shock us with True Detective.

I suppose one reason for this is simply because television, at least as of late, tends to allow for internal promotions as an actor becomes central to a show.

If you take a look at opening credits in later episodes, it’s very common to see one of the main actors being listed as an executive producer, likely working to develop their own characters and some of the scripts. There is likely creative growth there, as power slowly shifts from the director to the actor. Directors frequently shift and share their positions on television, but the actors are seldom replaceable, recasting being a caution inducing move even between movie sequels. This credit can be very valuable as a means to pave the way into becoming a regular producer of future projects.

The downside I feel is that television, unlike a movie, can be really be difficult to keep up with as a pop culture topic. All you need to do is sit down for two hours and you’re caught up on the latest movie. Television frequently takes six to thirteen hours per season. If you choose the wrong television series to invest in, your friends might go on talking about season 3 of some series you haven’t even tried. As more great television comes out, it gets more and more difficult to keep up with it all. It’s even worse when you have someone you want to share television with and they’re not interested, or they’re behind.

I don’t think the good TV train is going to stop for a while, making it all the more easy to lost in it.