Dreaming Spies

Dreaming-Spies-High-Res-JPEGA few books back Laurie R. King sent Mary and Sherlock on a World Tour, so that Holmes and his wife, Miss Russell, got to see all kinds of exotic places and have all kinds of adventures. This time round we find the happy couple back home in England with an extended flashback of their last great destination, Imperial Japan. As with most Historical Authors, Lauire can’t resist dropping famous people into her tale. This time round the famous person is Hirohito, the sad little Emporer of Japan. Also mentioned in passing are Frank Lloyd Wright, the poet Basho, and very likely countless other famous figures from the 1920s I’m not familiar with.

The story is about a bit of blackmail and a clever young Ninja. This is not a story for the die hard Sherlock Holmes fan, since Holmes always takes a back seat to Mary Russell. In Dreaming Spies Sherlock plays even a smaller role than usual. I think his biggest contribution to the plot is when he buys Mary some clothes. But then, Mary doesn’t do a lot of detecting either, she gets to play second fiddle to the Super Ninja Sato. If this were a TV Show I would say this was a Pilot Episode for a new series about a perky young Ninja.

Like most of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, it’s more of a love song to its time and location than a mystery. There are long passages about a cruise ship, about the Imperial Hotel, about the Japanese countryside and people, and about Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The heart of the story sees Russell and Holmes watching while others act, listening while others talk, hiding while others step forward. Some of the best passages have to do with Mary overcoming her shyness when it comes to bathing with men in super heated Japanese baths and her surprise that people use sex toys.

One odd note that is always hit in these kinds of books is that modern writers have Sherlock take pot shots at Arthur Conon Doyle and what a hack writer Dr Watson is. I always find this a bit odd, since it is a love of ACD’s creation that allows these writers to have a career at all. Still, it is a minor gripe.

I listened to the audiobook version of Dreaming Spies and the reader, Jenny Sterlin, does her usual great work here. If you liked the last few books in this series, you should like this one as well. I would just like it better if Sherlock got to play a slightly larger role once in a while.

Avengers Age of Ultron

avengers-age-of-ultron-poster I haven’t read comic books in a long time, but one of my all time favorite character in the Marvel Universe is Adam Warlock. I mention Adam, because his claim to fame was that he held the six Infinity Stones and became a god once or twice. He defeated that goofy looking purple guy that showed up in Guardians of the Galaxy and at the end of Age of Ultron. I didn’t see Adam though.

Ok, so what about Age of Ultron? Eh. Another CGI Fest that’s on its way to making a couple of billion dollars.

Ultron was an annoying fellow. He was somehow a clone of Tony ‘The Snark Master’ Stark. He talked in jokes and he brought to mind that other great CGI actor, Jar Jar Binks. He was a computer generated cartoon character. Yeah, he wanted to destroy the world, but so what? My biggest problem with CGI is that it removes any feeling of danger because a floating city made out of pixels being destroyed doesn’t really bother me much.

Age of Ultron also reminded me of the last two Matrix films, where a clone army fights to death after meaningless death. There are countless battle scenes where apparently no one is ever hurt, at least not until it serves the plot. And then there is the usual problem of having Hawkeye and Black Widow teaming up with Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. What exactly do they bring to the team? Hawkeye even makes a joke about how he has to fight with nothing but a bow and arrows.

The biggest problem with the story is that Tony Stark is the evil villain, but no one gives a damn. He creates Ultron for crying out loud. And no one even mentions that it seems a little odd that he had an Anti-Hulk suit in orbit, just in case. Does he have suits waiting to take out Thor and Captain America as well?

Age of Ultron wasn’t a terrible movie. It’s not up there with stinkers like Peter Jackson’s King Kong or Matrix Revolutons, but it’s nothing special either.

Person of Interest:Samaritan, Good?

SamaritanI wasn’t too impressed with this show when it first started. The story of a minor league Skynet and the man who created it/her/him/whatever. But over the past few episdoes it has changed into something a bit more interesting. The Machine has a rival known as Samaritan. The idea being that this new Artificial Intelligence is a good guy. But Samaratian is a good guy in the same sense that Nazi Germany and Eugenics are good guys.

We can all agree that there are some people the world would be better off without, among them would be Nazi Germany and people who believe in Eugenics. So Samaritan has been killing off people it doesn’t think should be suffered to live. Among them have been suicidal folks and criminals of one sort or another. Samaritan also doesn’t like our hero’s Machine, so he/her/it/whatever wants to kill The Machine as well.

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a good deal of the city’s population was gone for a while. There were news stories about there not being any murders during this time. Now that most of the people have returned, the murder rates have returned as well. Was New Orleans a better city when all the murders were somewhere else? What would Samaritan do to New Orleans? Or Cleveland? Or Detroit? or New York City? Or well, any city in America?

One of my minor gripes about the last episode of Person of Interest is that it’s an American centric show. The Machine is cornered in New York by Samaritan. Why? Wouldn’t The Machine have moved to China? Or India? Or maybe somewhere in Orbit where it could gather itself far from danger if the need arose? It’s an integral part of the plot that The Machine doesn’t hide on the other side of the world, but it is a serious weakness in the plot. It makes the Machine look a bit dim. The Machine is not an American, why the hell would it be limited to the US border?

So I like that Person of Interest as it is asking a lot of big questions now. Is Samaritan the villain or the hero? Is the world it envisions better or worse than what we have now? Should people be treated like weeds in a garden or allowed to grow where they want? Maybe we will get a few answers next season. Or maybe just more questions.

Caffeinated

caffeinatedA few years back I went on The UltraMind Solution Diet. Among the things forbidden on this diet, was caffeine. I went six weeks without drinking coffee, sodas, or anything else that had caffeine added to it. After the diet was over, I was on a long drive and bought a Red Bull. Wow. You really can’t appreciate what this stuff does to you until you stop using it for a couple of months.

Caffeinated tells the story of caffeine, one of the three most abused drugs in America, the other two are nicotine and alcohol. The story starts with the Good Old Days, when caffeine was found naturally in coffee beans and coca beans and the like. We move through the years quickly, with a number of interesting things happening to people who sell and use caffeine.

Seems a little company named Monsanto got it’s start processing caffeine form waste tea leaves around the turn of the 20th Century. But that was before we had Better Living Through Chemistry. Now the good people at Coke and Dr Pepper and countless others, buy tons of pharmaceutical grade caffeine from China. Caffeine made in a lab is a lot cheaper than caffeine extracted from natural sources.

Once the story makes its way to the present, we find the proliferation of Energy Drinks, Energy Gums, Enegry Strips, Energy Drops, and pretty much anything that caffeine and the word Energy can be added to. What is troubling about this is something rattled off right at the start of Caffeinated:A 64th of a teaspoon is a good dose for a habituated user. A 1/4 teaspoon will lead to bodily unpleasantness-racing heart, sweating, and acute anxiety. A tablespoon will kill you. The trouble is not so much that one can of Red Bull or Monster or a Large Frappicino with a Double Shot will kill you, it’s what happens when you have all of them over the course of a day, every day. What is this doing to us? The odds are good that chemists at Coke and Pepsi know, but they aren’t going to tell anyone.

Caffeinated is an amazing book about a drug that I didn’t know that much about. It’s also a drug that I have been known to use a little too much on long drives.

Like sugar, fat, and salt, it’s now hidden everywhere. Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us by Murray Carpenter was a good book and well worth reading.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

51LZVHsTrYL._SL300_I’ve always been a fan of time loop stories. The first such tale I remember reading was a brilliant little short story called 12:01. Then came Groundhog Day and a number of very good episodes of Star Trek. All of these time loop stories worked on a fairly short interval, from an hour to a few days. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August takes the time loop to a new length, the length of a man’s life.

At first Harry is shocked to find himself in an infant body again. But as he relives his life, he finds that there are others like himself and they come to his rescue as soon as they can. He does what anyone might do, he treats each life as a new adventure and tries his hand at business, crime, adventure. But then he gets word that the world is coming to an end and only he is in a position to help.

It seems that from time to time one of these repeating immortals gets the idea to change more than his own life. It’s that whole if you had a time machine, would you kill Hitler thing. The problem with the perfect world is that it can only ever be one person’s perfect world, which kind of screws things up for everyone else. So when this happens, they send word back through the reborn that this person must be stopped.

The bulk of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has to do with Harry and a friend of his who wants to rule the universe. Even worse, he knows how to stop his fellow immortals from being reborn. So Harry ends up having to go to battle alone. But it isn’t a standard battle, it’s more like a very long undercover assignment.

I listened to the audiobook version and found the reader, Peter Kenny, to be well suited for the material.

I liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, but I was left with a few doubts about the ending. When I read it, I was very satisfied with it, but when I thought about it, I had to wonder if the villain had outwitted the hero. It was still a good read.

Wayward Pines

WAYWARD PINES:  Based on a best-selling novel and brought to life by suspenseful storyteller M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”), WAYWARD PINES is an intense, mind-bending 10-episode thriller starring Academy Award nominee Matt Dillon (“Crash”) as a Secret Service agent on a mission to find two missing federal agents in the bucolic town of Wayward Pines, ID. Every step closer to the truth makes him question if he will ever get out of Wayward Pines alive.  WAYWARD PINES will join the schedule in 2015 on Fox.  Pictured L-R:  Juliette Lewis, Melisa Leo, Matt Dillon, Tim Griffin, Toby Jones, Terrence Howard, Shannyn Sossamon, Charlie Tahan, Reed Diamond and Carla Gugino. ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Frank Ockenfels/FOX

WAYWARD PINES will join the schedule in 2015 on Fox. Pictured L-R: Juliette Lewis, Melisa Leo, Matt Dillon, Tim Griffin, Toby Jones, Terrence Howard, Shannyn Sossamon, Charlie Tahan, Reed Diamond and Carla Gugino. ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Frank Ockenfels/FOX

The first episode of Wayward Pines hits a lot of familiar notes. A man wakes up in a strange hospital. He meets a mysterious person who offers him help. The people he meets all seem normal, in a Stepford Wives’ kind of way. When he tries to leave the town, he finds himself back in the middle of town. Our hero is a Special Agent and I kept waiting for them to call him Number 6.

M Night Shyamalan made one really good movie, two so-so movies, and several really bad movies. Much like The Wachowski Brothers, instant success was his downfall. So now he’s giving network TV a shot.

His early films all had a very Twilight Zone feel to them, and that is certainly the note he strikes with Wayward Pines.  I’m reminded of The Prisoner, Euerka, Twin Peaks, and the short lived Cape Wrath/Meadowlands as well as the Twilight Zone.   And there is also that whole Under The Dome and Divergent can’t get away thing going on.  Not that a retelling of The Prisoner would be a bad thing, an ending that makes sense would be nice.

One new aspect here is the apparent lack of continuity in the time line.  One woman thinks it’s 2000 while another has aged 14 years in 5 months.   We see in the first episode that it isn’t a closed system, as the prototypical mad scientist meets both people on the inside and outside of Wayward Pines.

Since this is the Fox Network, I don’t want to get too attached to Wayward Pines, after all, Fox loves to start shows and then kill them in the cradle.

The cast is very good.  The sets are fine.  And the only over the top special effect was a fence borrowed from Jurassic Park.  I was half expecting the usual punch line from these kinds of shows, that the person was on the moon or a space station-but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.   I’ll give Wayward Pines a few episodes and see how to fills out.

50 Shades of Grey-Yawn

50shadesSheldon: This is the temperature you agreed to in the roommate agreement.
Leonard: Aw, screw the roommate agreement!
Sheldon: No, you don’t screw the roommate agreement. The roommate agreement screws you.

If you want to see some hot bondage action, try Sex and Submission or The Upper Floor. If you want to watch a man who claims to be a Dominant whine and beg for three hours, you might like 50 Shades of Grey.

50 Shades of Grey is another book that I couldn’t quite finish. I did like the scene near the beginning where Christian is buying tape and rope and zip ties, but this bit of mommy porn with a Cinderella plot didn’t do much for me. And not because the sex wasn’t written well or I didn’t like the idea that only emotionally crippled and damaged losers like Christian Grey can possibily enjoy BDSM. No, I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the story.

Our hero, Anastasia Steele, ok, really? Really? Anastasia?? Twenty-four year old virgin, Anastasia, is a college student who does an interview for a sick friend and meets a twenty-seven year old billionaire who instantly falls madly in love with her. Not lust, love. Sure he want to fuck her, hard, but like all love stories, we are lead to believe that he never really lived before he met her. We are told that he never sleeps with women, and promptly sleeps with Ana. We are told he never dates, and promptly dates Ana. We are told that he never ‘plays’ with a woman until she signs a contract, and then watch as he plays with Ana even though she refuses to sign a contract.

Which brings me to the single most annoying aspect of 50 Shades of Grey, Have You Signed The Contact Yet? The real star of 50 Shades of Grey is the Submissive Agreement. Christain whips this out almost as soon as he mets Ana. She reads it and has questions, like, What’s a Submissive? What’s a buttplug? They go over the contract point by point and subsection by subsection and even add a couple of riders.

Oh my god. Did George Lucas sit in on the writing of these scenes? At least they didn’t each have lawyers standing over their shoulders whispering to them.

Ok, this bit of contract porn was not written for me. It’s made half a billion dollars at this writing, so it must be hitting the mark for it’s intended audience. It is a good looking film, even if they did kind of overplay the everything is gray card. It’s like a filmed copy of Archetucural Digest and Martha Stewart’s Living. The Red Room is a little over stylized with every toy stored for maximum display valye.

In the end, Christan beats Anastasia with a belt. This was not something she had on her list of limits. She doesn’t use her safe word during the scene. She then hops up and runs from the room, telling Christian that he will never do anything like that to her again. Christian is understandably confused by this. She leaves in tears and clearly dominates Christian as a parting shot. Which bring another odd note to this mishmash of cliches, Christian spent six years as a Sub and he’s now a Dom.

50 Shades is a great looking film that makes no sense.

Jason-Stop The Presses Anita Blake Likes Rough Sex

jason I can see Laurell K Hamilton sitting at her desk. She arches her back and cracks her knuckles like Lurch getting ready to play the harpsicord. She smiles as she thinks to herself, what could I do that would be more boring than watching Anita Blake have sex for the umptempth time? Aha! Inspiration strikes. I could have Anita talk about having sex!

The Anita Blake books used to be nice and predictable. She would go to work and raise a zombie or two. Word would come down about a Monster on the loose. She would track the Monster down and kill it. Roll credits. But somewhere along the line Laurell decided that straight thrillers and detective stories were not her thing, so she tossed in the curse called the ardeur. Now Anita has to have sex or she will die. Fine. Ok. No problem. But then things got a little out of hand.

In each of the past ten or fifteen books, Anita has added at least one new fuck buddy, and often more, sometimes a lot more. The result being that Anita Blake has a harem that would be the envy of any Sultan. Again, ok, fine, whatever. Except that this has radically changed the tone of the books. Instead of having say, a handful of Main Characters, like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond or Gilligan’s Island, we have a cast of thousands. Anita Blake’s universe is more like Lord of The Rings or Star Trek, so damned many new people have been added, and are constantly being added, that I need a scorecard to figure out who all these people are.

I basically like four people in the Anita Blake books. Anita, Edward, Jean Claude, and Richard. Which means there is not a lot for me to like in the bulk of the last ten books. This is sort of like saying my favorite characters on MASH are Spear Chucker Jones and Painless Pole. In other words, Richard and Jean Claude and Edward aren’t exactly central to Anita’s story any more.

Jason is about one of Anita’s fuck buddy’s who has a new girlfriend who doesn’t understand BDSM. So instead of buying her a copy of 50 Shades of Grey, they decided to show her what it means by having her watch Jason and Anita have rough sex. The first third of the book is Anita and four of her people talking about their sex lives over coffee and tea.

The rest of the novella is Anita having sex and trying to learn how to be a good lesbian. It’s a bit repetitive and I have to admit that I just skimmed most of it. It’s just not worth the effort of learning the names of these new people, let alone learning what gets them off in the bedroom. It’s a rare book that I can’t finish, but Jason made the cut.

On the plus side, there’s a sample chapter from the next book, Dead Ice, which reads more like an old fashioned Anita Blake fighting monsters book and less like a how to guide for the poly curious.

The Graveyard Book

TheGraveyardBookCD_AudioCD_1250349449 The story of a boy who grows up in a graveyard and learns the many tricks of the trade of being a ghost. We start off with our hero as a baby, his parents murdered and a madman hot on his trail. The child ends up in the graveyard and falls under the care of a rather tall man who has the power to cloud men’s minds. We also met a Russian woman who possesses some interesting powers of her own. Oh, and the whole graveyard is filled with ghosts, who all end up influencing our young hero one way or another.

Neil Gaiman is a great writer and I have yet to read anything of his that I haven’t liked. This is a typical bit of Gaiman’s work, a normal person finds themselves in a world that isn’t all that normal. Of course, here our hero has never known any other world, and yet it still feels like he is the normal one. He is alive while everyone else is either dead or undead or cursed in some way. He is told to never leave the cemetery, and of course, he does leave in the fullness of time.

Years go by and our hero, young Nobody Owens, becomes curious about things like why he is in the graveyard and what it’s like to be a human in the outside world and what it’s like to be a human in the underworld. Like most speculative fiction, there is a lot of suspension of disbelief needed here. We never get any answers about the evil League of Jacks or the vampire who takes Bod under his wing or what eventually happens to our hero once he is exiled from the graveyard. The hope of his future love life is dashed, his graveyard powers seem to be gone, and yet he still wanders off into the ‘real’ world with a smile on his lips and song in his heart. I still liked it.

Neil Gaiman does a brilliant job of reading The Graveyard Book and giving the many people we met a little bit of a twist. It’s well worth reading.

The Water Diviner

water_diviner_ Connor: Are there any more records about my son?
Jemal: We are Ottomans, not Germans.

An Australian man loses all three of his sons and his wife due to World War I. Russell Crowe stars in and directs this tale of love and loss in Turkey after the Battle of Gallipoli. Like most products of an American Education, I couldn’t find Gallipoli on a map and I had no idea there was a big battle there in WWI. Of course, the Turks feel about the British much as the Arabs feel about Americans today-why the hell are you here if you’re not even interested in taking over?

Modern parallels aside, the story is a pretty gripping one. Our hero leaves his home in the middle of nowhere and travels for three months to get to another middle of nowhere. But the architecture is nicer in Istanbul than in the Outback. Russell wanders around, makes friends with the Enemy, falls for a local widow, and finds the bones of his sons. We see the horrible conditions of the battle and the brutality of their deaths in flashbacks that our semi-clairvoyant father shares.

The bad guys are British Army Officers who are sticklers for the rules and fez wearing Turks who want the world to go back to the way it was before the War. Russell meets with opposition, but keeps going forward anyway.

The Water Divener is a good looking film with a lot of great costumes and a lot of great shots of vast open spaces and crowded city streets. There was a pretty poorly done CGI sandstorm, but otherwise the film was free of bad special effects. The actors were all good and the ending was very satisfying. I liked this film a lot.

Russell Crowe is a little older and a little softer around the middle these days, but he’s still Russell Crowe and still worth watching on screen.