Sunday, December 30, 2007

Cuba Libre or Mentirita anyone?

"The Powers That Be" is an ambitious and intoxicating first in the new Room 59 series.

Room 59 is an independent, ultra secret, black operations agency that goes places and does things that governments can't or won't. Once a mission has been approved by the International Intelligence Agency, the Room 59 operatives, lead and chosen by Kate Cochran, act to eliminate global threats arising from the gritty reality of counterterrorism, international crime, and intrigue. Since Room 59 was designed to operate independently of all known governing bodies, if something - anything - goes wrong, there is no one to call for help.

To accomplish a mandate this big and make a story worth reading, the plot must be well researched, believably set in real places, pay attention to detail, be technically accurate, be built of images that are powerful and yet familiar, and delivered with a directness that pulls no punches. With that accounting, "The Powers That Be" succeeds admirably. This story is complex and necessarily so. The cast of characters is large. The level of technical detail and accuracy adds a clarifying granularity. The imagery sucks you into the story, spins on the bottle cap shut behind you, and locks you in right up to the very last page. It starts the prologue with the search and interrogation of a political prisoner in a Cuban prison, and ends on a deserted beach in Florida with the incoming waves removing any evidence that anyone had been there at all.

The action in this story is positively breathtaking. With simultaneous operations in both Cuba and Florida, there is plenty to keep the pages turning. When a historical complication from the early Sixties is twisted into the mix, events really get rolling.

This is not a tidy "Mission Impossible" sort of story with a neatly compact team of characters. The plot is richer than that. It is dark, gritty and executed with the number of characters (both good guys and bad guys) to realistically pull it off. That number of characters can be challenging to follow at times. The richness of the plot redeems it and would make an excellent foundation for a solid summer blockbuster movie.

A simple twist of lime is the difference between an ordinary rum and Coke and a "Cuba Libre". "The Powers That Be" also has a defining twist. Further, it has the imagery and detail that make it really compelling. One example of that is wrapped in this question: What is the difference between Cuba Libre and a Mentirita, and why is that important to me a world away from the sandy beaches and crowded cities of Cuba? The answer is on page 94 of the book. All the other pages of the book are pretty good too.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Satisfying, quick and fun ... again

"The Cost of Honor" by Sally Malcolm picks up where "A Matter of Honor" left off very well. The story seeds planted in the prequel have some very surprising results as well as consequences. Rather than following military protocol and asking permission first, Colonel Jack O'Neill mounts an unauthorized rescue mission of SG-10 using the stolen gravitational technology to slip through the crushing grasp of a black hole. This "breaking faith" becomes a thematic conflict for all of the characters. One by one they must come to terms with the relationship that they have broken faith with, and how, if it is possible at all, they can redeem themselves. The plot that emerges from that conflict is very well done. It makes this novel the strongest story written in the SG-1 line so far.

A simple truth is that the hardest thing in the SG-1 universe for an author to do is to get the characterizations right. Sally Malcolm did an admirable job bringing our favorite Jaffa, Teal'c, to life in the pages of this book. The mannerisms were spot on. His subtle humor was natural and effectively presented. I liked her presentation of General Hammond very much, especially in her deepening of his character through his struggles with the central theme of the story. She perfectly captured the basic weasel in Senator Kinsey's character, and kept him squirming through to the very last page.

In three places in "The Cost of Honor" the author missed the characterization mark. The peek that we get into Samantha Carter's head very early in the story is especially uncomfortable. It is one thing to wonder if she will "fall apart", but another entirely to deny the military bearing and professional demeanor that we've come to expect from her character. She is military and would focus on the mission first, there would be time to second guess decisions made along the way and mourn later. Along the same lines, Jack O'Neill is NOT a "kill or be killed" kind of guy. He is a military man and a professional. That means that he is a principled warrior. We've seen that aspect of his character consistently over the years and we've come to expect better of him than a mere "law of the jungle" player. We expect him to behave consistently on other matters too. On page 308 when Carter "dies", Jack O'Neill does nothing to her killer even though he is standing right there with a gun against the killer's (Koash) chest. Even though this "death" isn't real (an illusion because of the sheh'fet), Jack would have certainly shot Koash first - before he had the chance to injure Carter like he did, and if not, then certainly afterward. Consistency is expected of all the characters, especially from the heroic characters of Daniel Jackson, Teal'c, Samantha Carter and Jack O'Neill. The SG-1 canon has never wavered on that point. Taking liberties with the heroic nature of these four characters is -- CHEATING. Don't do it! These miscues are the only weakness that mattered to me in the story because the storyline is so strong and (otherwise) well done.

This book is definitely worth a read, even if you have to hold your nose to cross these few bad paragraphs. All the rest of the 362 pages of "The Cost of Honor" are a pleasure to read.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Tails Up!

Ray R. Kepley’s "Tails Up!" is an epic, first-person Western that is unexpectedly rewarding for such a familiar genre. It is a complex and sweeping tale set in 1868 in the short grass prairie of western Kansas and eastern Colorado. It is an unflinching look back in time through the intimate prism of history, geography and human behavior.

After reading Harpers Weekly and other publications describing the wonders of the West, Jack "Caroliny" Reynolds leaves North Carolina seeking adventure. He gets a job with a wagon train in Kansas City, Missouri, and follows the Santa Fe Trail west. The freight wagons Jack will drive are owned by Tom Powers from Missouri. One of the most interesting things about the journey is how the vast landscape they travel through transforms from unnoticed backdrop into a fully developed character. To the very end of the story, the expansive prairie never relents. It compels every one of the other characters to adapt to it or it kills them.

Tom Powers elects to stop a few miles east of (Fort Dodge) Dodge City, Kansas, and settles in a sod house. Jack and a friend named Bid McClaine stay on to help Tom build a ranch. Of the many challenges that face Jack, Bid and the other hands at Tom Power's ranch, the one constant is the harsh and untamable nature of the environment. Life changes permanently for them when Bid buys a mule that he is compelled to name "Old Satank". With mobility comes new opportunity. Jack and Bid aren't very good at farming, barely competent at ranching, and it would seem that they only excel in adventuring and scheming ways to make money. That leads them to the hay meadows and into deadly confrontation with the Native Americans.

The final third of this story is spent with Jack and Bid enlisting into the U.S. Army as civilian scouts. Along with fifty other men, Jack and Bid soon find themselves in one of the most important battles that ever took place on the prairie - The Battle of Beecher Island on the Arikaree River in what is now Colorado. Since the story is told in the first person, many of the key details of the battle and the important players in it aren't revealed. On the other hand, the painstakingly researched details and first-person account makes this battle gripping, even terrifying at times.

There were a couple of things that I really liked about this story. The geographical detail and simple truth in the characters were very appealing. The language the author uses in narrative to describe the area where I grew up is spot on ... on the high flats of eastern Colorado, in sight of the lonesome Two Buttes ... somewhere in the unknown past it has all but lost its way in the jumble of shifting sand hills ... (page 304), and later ... the better known and more impressive Two Buttes in Colorado ... (page 449). Having traveled extensively in Kansas, his descriptions of and references to the land there are equally well done.

The language the author used in the dialogue is sometimes difficult to read because it is spelled phonetically - as the author believed the characters to have actually spoken. It makes their creative combinations of curse words all the more potent as period-appropriate punctuation.

The three pieces of the story could stand on their own as separate novellas. Together, the story is very good, although long at 466 pages. The ending was abrupt. It left me wanting to know how the characters grand plans for a cattle ranching operation of their own grazing Texas range cattle on western Kansas short grass prairie would have turned out. That's a testament to the strength of the characterization and energy in its plot.

Unfortunately, we'll never get to read that last component of the story. The author, Ray R. Kepley, died Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007, in his hometown of Ulysses, Kansas, at the age of 99. He wrote the book “Tails Up!" when he was 70.

Definitely worth a read!

Publisher: Elliott Printers (1980)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0960424806
ISBN-13: 978-0960424801

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mel Odom does Geekerati Radio

Local author and writing instructor, Mel Odom, appeared on Geekerati Radio. Mel has written more than 150 novels and can always be counted on for a great interview.

The Geekerati folks entitled tonights forum: "Fantasy on Film: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen". The teaser read like this ...

The new millennium has seen a resurgence of fantasy on the silver screen. Some of these films have been spectacular, and financially successful, but others have failed to bring the audiences studios might have expected. Are we at a crest on a roller coaster of quality, or is it a sign of more good fantasy to come? Join the geeks and our guests, fantasy/sf author Mel Odom and Medieval Literature professor Richard Scott Nokes, as we discuss our favorite fantasy films.

They finally got to Mel with just 15 minutes left in the show. Mel was in fine form. I had to make some notes along the way ...

Hawk the Slayer? Wow, now that one takes me back. I didn’t think that anyone had seen that picture. AND a plug for a “Portrait of Jennie”! Nice. It’s my absolute favorite. Oh and then he goes into a discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ...

To wrap things up, the moderators tossed a curve ball at him. The moderators had some prize to give away, so they needed a trivia question to make a contest of it. So, they let Mel come up with the trivia question. The first person to answer at wins the prize - a one sheet movie poster from "The Golden Compass".

The trivia question he asked was - In the story "Mysterious Island", Captain Nemo supposed got blown up and the Nautilus was damaged and sank to the bottom of the sea. What popular fiction author supposedly revealed the resting place (location) of the Nautilus?

Now that’s quite a trivia question. Do you know the answer?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Once a Femme Fatale ...

Was reading the latest post at the "Noir of the Week" blog and followed a link through to a link and then another link that popped a picture of Lizabeth Scott at me.

If you don't know who Lizabeth Scott is, you're not alone. She was an actress who made twenty or so movies in the late 40's and 50's, and then quit. With only a couple of exceptions, she hasn't done anything in public for years. A full three-quarters of her pictures were dark and gritty noirs. When the popularity of that genre faded, the blonde femme fatale tried but couldn't move into the future.

The future is a strange place that's built out of the past. Somewhere between the time that Led Zeppelin discovered Kashmir and Frampton came alive, my great uncle and his family moved back to the Great Plains from California. That part of my family fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930's and actually did find work in southern California. So they stayed and put down roots; that is, until the souring economy of the 1970's brought them back to southeastern Colorado to work for my stepdad on our farm.

My great uncle married early and had two children, Dave and Linda. Linda was in her twenties, pretty and a lot of fun. She never really adjusted to southeastern Colorado. The climate was too dry. There weren't any trees. Worse still, there weren't any eligible men. She had won a car on the "Price is Right" television game show. That made her just about the only celebrity anyone from Baca County had ever seen.

Dave was in his twenties also. He was the first person I ever met that was truly "cool". He had long blonde hair and listened the kind of music that my Mom called "hippie shit". There were a lot of "hippies" in those days and she refused to suffer anything about them or their culture. I was thirteen and was oh-so-ready to rebel. Dave taught me how and in exchange I taught him how to drive the tractor, work the combine, take care of cattle, move irrigation pipe, service the wells, and how to properly order a sandwich at Stella's Grocery in the booming metropolis of Two Buttes, Colorado, with a population was 67 at the U.S. Census 2000.

My great uncle was a bull of a man. He had wide, strong hands and a tireless work ethic. He knew nothing about farming. He drove a truck and did some mechanic-ing in southern California. He had remarried somewhere along the way after finding a beautiful Lebanese woman named Sharon. She was great. She cooked food no one had ever tasted before, and it was great. She was the first cook I ever knew that didn't have a ceramic jar next to the stove for bacon fat. She had a keen sense of humor and was the first person I ever heard say the word "penis". Her son Ricky actually knew what that meant too. My brother Jeff and I didn't dare confess we didn't know what it meant. Just as soon as we possibly could, we were picking through a Funk & Wagnell's to find it. My stepdad's name was Dick and that was pretty much everything we needed to know about that word. Just goes to figure that you learn something new everyday.

My great uncle John was able to rent a house about five miles away from our farm. That house needed a whole lot of work, so John got it for free provided he make the place livable again. After it was fixed up, then he paid a small rental for it and everyone was happy. The house came with full rights to use the barn and the stock corrals. John put them to use right away when he picked up some calves from a feedlot in Johnson City, Kansas. His idea to bring out a Jersey or a Guernsey for milking never panned out though.

As it turned out John and my stepdad had something in common. They didn't mind bending an elbow to toast something. After a while their elbows were bent most of the time. The "Irish Disease" is fairly common where I'm from.

One day John asked me go around to take care of his cattle because Dick and he were going to take Dave to the Two Buttes Anchorage, which was codespeak for a ramshackle beer joint beside Two Buttes Lake. There was water in the lake in those days. The jukebox there still had Shambala by Three Dog Night. There was tons of Country music also, and in those days, it was mostly just bad music to drink and get drunk by.

John wanted his cattle fed a special mix of packaged feed, grain and hay. He stored the packaged feeds in the barn, but he hadn't told me where in the barn he stacked the 50 pound sacks. While I was searching I found a fat leather photo album that was like something out of a movie. It was three feet tall and two feet wide. The cover was dusty and thick. I opened the album to the first page and saw a black and white picture of this pretty blonde woman stepping off an old propeller driven airplane. She was surrounded by guys in Perry Mason suits and hats. Another one of the pictures had this woman waving to a crowd. I turned page after page. She wore other dresses in the other pictures. She was always beautifully dressed and elegant. Some of the pictures were movie stills, others were publicity shots. Some of them were obviously staged, but others were spontaneous and there she shined most brightly of all. Not only did the camera love her, but she was full of confidence and had fun with all of this. A few of them were candid shots of her getting into a car or trying on some sunglasses. She must have had a thing for sunglasses because there loads of those pictures. There were some newspaper clippings stuffed into the album also and that's how I learned that the woman was Lizabeth Scott.

I found the feed sacks and took care of the cattle, but a couple days later, I asked my great uncle about the photo album. He told me that he had found it in the barn when he was cleaning it out and that I shouldn't look through things like that because some of the pictures "weren't very good". He reserved those words for sins of the flesh. That didn't make sense of me because I had looked through them all and hadn't seen anything indecent about any of them. He was sincere about it, so I didn't ask again, but every chance I got, I always went back to look at those pictures just in case one of them "wasn't very good". I even volunteered to take care of his cattle.

One day I went into the barn and found the leather photo album stuffed into a trash barrel. When I had the chance I fished it out of the trash and hid it in the pickup I was driving. I finished the chores for my great uncle and rushed home. My great uncle came over that evening to visit. He suspected that I had taken the album. He took it and burned it in our trash can while he and my stepdad drank and talked.

To this day I don't know who took those pictures of Lizabeth Scott or why. Somehow Lizabeth Scott had made her way into my world - in the darkest corner of Colorado. In my own "coming of age" noir, she was a femme fatale again. It was a role for which she received no credits, but certainly one I'll never forget.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Poulan Predator

After the ice storm hit, I went to three stores to buy a good saw to help removing my trees. Of course, the gas powered chainsaws were sold out, and naturally the electric ones were also gone, but these people had picked the shelves clean of every type of saw - no matter how ridiculous ... I called around, I even went to the stores in town that had no power. I was hoping that in those suddenly "cash only, no credit cards" stores, maybe there would be one left. Nope, nope, and hell no ...

One of my neighbors had a visit from a tree service company. She only had one mortally wounded Bradford Pear tree in her yard. They gave her a quote that covered bringing down the part that was still standing, chopping all the wood, and piling it up within five feet of the curb - all for the low, low price of $600. Gouge, gouge, gouge. I have three trees, so the survey says ... $120 more or less for a chain saw and some sweat beats a $2,000 drumming!

On the third day of looking, the happy Walmart voice told me that two more skids of chain saws just came in and they would have them out on the floor in about an hour. I rushed over to the store, had to parked a mile away from the door, and sprinted in (so what that it looked like a ruptured hog on ice!?!). I found the chain saw pallets in a sea of people. I got my saw!

It's a Poulan Predator. It has a powerful, but compact 34cc engine that didn't complain too much starting for the first time in 28 degree (F) weather. The instructions for starting the chainsaw are in pictures by the handle. The instruction manual was a little more technical, but cold starts are a snap. You pull the handle five times, then pump the little primer bulb 6 times, then pull till it starts.

It's got an Anti-vibration handle on it that really makes for comfortable operation of the saw. It is small, but you can feel its 11.8 pound mass after welding it for a couple of hours. The vibration is very low. The "sweet spot" on the cutting chain is right where you'd expect it to be. It is noisy, so wear ear plugs. The operation of the saw is cleaner than I expected. It directed saw dust away from me, but some dust did accumulate in the area where automatic chain oiler works - not an excessive amount, but it was noticeable. You definitely want to wear eye protection when using this or any saw. The instruction manual spends a lot of time discussing kickback. If you are careful and pay attention to your technique, you can minimize kickback and other problems. There is an inertia activated chain brake on the saw just in case though.

This saw is small and inexpensive. It's got plenty of power too. It fits well with the type of work that I need it for. I cleared the very large Bradford Pear tree that was split open and dead in my front yard in just an hour and a half. Highly recommend it for odd jobs and occasional work.

It does come with a one Year Guarantee too. Unlike many other items sold in Walmart, the Poulan Predator is Made in the USA.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rocking the Bird-spa

I was lucky enough to be able to find and buy a chainsaw yesterday. Everyone in the area needs one to clear the downed trees. The weatherman says that it will snow this weekend, so it's a rush to get at least a little cleaned up in the yard before then. Here's a look at my front yard:

Down at the Pond, life has taken a turn also. One of our intrepid Homeowners calls in the ducks and farm geese whenever the weather gets bad. He bribes them to come into his garage with a hefty sack of cracked corn. There he locks them in for the duration with a plastic kiddie pool of water, a mountain of Homeowner's Association Cracked-Corn and a good dose of warmth from his central heat and air. None of them has ever complained about the Homeowner's Association "Bird-spa", but the wadding pool gets a little funky after a couple of days.

A couple of things happen whenever the ducks and geese are rocking in the "Bird-spa". The one that almost always makes the newspaper begins with an unusual noise complaint - which leads to a police visit - which leads to an investigation - which leads to "THE MAN" discovering the lounging ducks - which leads to a citation for "Harboring domestic livestock within the city limits" - which leads to a court appearance, and finally which leads to a $120 fine. Since judges are retained by popular vote in this state, I urge EVERYONE to please vote to dump every judge (except for Lucas and Heatherington) at the next general election.

The next thing that happens at the pond is Evil. Everything is super quiet down at the pond ... until Nature elects to fill the ecosystem vacuum left by the vacationing domestic ducks and geese. Such vacuums are usually filled by poo-chumming Canadians.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The incredible self-pruning Bradford Pear

The ice storm that roared through this weekend did quite a job on the trees in the Homeowners Association. All three of my trees were killed by the storm. Two of them were completely destroyed. The one in the front yard had on limb still standing, but at a dangerous angle toward the house. All of my trees were Bradford Pears. Yes, I know that the wood is very, very soft, but these trees grow so well here and they have that perfect gumdrop shape. One of the downsides to this type of tree is that they are "self-pruning" in even moderate breezes; that is, whenever the wind blows, they shed leaves, twigs and even branches. Toss on several hundred pounds of weight in the form of ice and you have a disaster like this:



Another Angle:

Hrothgar motored through the neighborhood taking pictures from the toasty comfort of his ultra-deluxe, 3 miles per gallon SUV. As soon as the power came back on, he emailed the images out to everyone - along with this note:

It looks like we have a lot of clean up! The trees that incuurred the most damage are the bradford pears, the river birch trees and the cottonwoods. The bald cypress, hackberry, red maples, and the sycamores had the least damage overall. The trees that still had their leaves were hurt the most.

I'll post up a few of those later this week.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

OK, this is the last one of these ...

OK, this is the last one of these quiz things. I know, they are stupid and a total waste of time, but this one fits my world view so very well that I couldn't resist. Here's to hoping this is true. Cheers!

How will I die?
Your Result: You will die while having sex.

Your last moments in this life will be enjoyable indeed...hopefully. Do not fear sex. Try not to become celibate as a way of escaping death. You cannot run from destiny.

You will die in your sleep.
You will die from a terminal illness.
You will die while saving someone's life.
You will die in a nuclear holocaust.
You will die of boredom.
You will die in a car accident.
You will be murdered.
How will I die?
Create a Quiz

Saturday, December 08, 2007

What kind of reader are you?

Well, now I know. Here's the answer I got. How about you?

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Literate Good Citizen
Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Book Snob
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Armadillo Jailbreak

Titus the Armadillo almost lost his freedom last night. Maybe the fear it caused and the work it took for him to break out of this Armadillo Jail drove home the point. Maybe that was enough. Maybe Titus will stay out of my backyard. I hopse so. I fixed the bent and broken aluminum trap, and then took it into the attic and put it away. Even though it was a safe catch and release trap, the armadillo wouldn't lose his freedom tonight - even if just for a few hours - because of me. He would have to choose that himself.

This evening a friend of mine told me some sad news. I couldn't stop thinking about it. This is the first time I've ever seen tears in her eyes. It was heartbreaking to see her heart breaking. Later, when I got home, I tried reading to put it out of my mind. I came upon an article called 'Thinking About Freedom' by Robert LeFevre from back in 1983. I've appropriated and contextualized it the questions that follow.

If an armadillo stalks into someone's backyard and lightning strikes well manicured Bradford Pear tree which falls on the armadillo, pinning him to the ground, has the armored beastie lost his freedom? No, he has lost his mobility, although some would call it ... justice. He is still free in the sense that his plight arises between himself and the laws of nature.

If an armadillo is cornered in the someone's backyard by a hungry lion, has the armored demon lost his freedom? No. He is merely confronting a hostile manifestation of nature, although some would call it ... justice. His battlefield is one ordained by nature - through a choosing of his own.

If an armadillo is felled by a virus and ends up flat on his back in a beautiful hedgerose flowerbed, has he lost his freedom? No, his health is imperiled. Although some would call it ... justice, he is still free. Again, the arena is a natural one - the armadillo doing what Nature intended for him to do.

If an armadillo chooses drugs over the beautiful wife he promised to love and to cherish, hasn't he already lost more than his freedom? Hasn't he lost everything?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Putting up the lights

Finally got the lights up.

Merry Christmas ya'all!