Cold Days

Cold Days by Jim Butcher

I wish I could write like that. I don’t know how he does it, but I wish I could write like that.

I can’t, though. I can’t weave together a mix of humor, and moral philosophy, and myth exploration, and — this phrase, though trite, is in this case quite literally true — non-stop action, and somehow make it all come out right, together. I can’t make a story that satisfying, have that many moments when the reader is nodding his head, grinning madly, even fist-pumping while saying, “YES!” Dozens of them. Dozens of moments like that: from the pitch-perfect reference; to the beautifully lucid description of how it feels to love, to hate, to fear, to howl, to weep, to suffer; to the heart-thumping adrenaline-pumping cheer as the righteous defeat the vile, again and again.

If it isn’t clear yet, I love these books. Love them. I love this book. The Dresden series has never let me down, but the remarkable thing is that — even through fifteen books, now, counting the short story collection Changes — it just keeps getting better. I don’t know how Jim Butcher does it, but I hope he never stops. I’ve read this one before, when it came out, but I didn’t remember much of it; none of the denouement. And so it had me, rapt and wild-eyed, as everything came together at the end, with just the right mix of pure victory with surprising defeat to make it seem — perfect. I read this 500-page novel in two days, just as excited about the next chapter as I was the first time I read it; that I remember.

I can’t write like this. But at least I can read like this. And I plan to keep on doing it: Skin Game was published just a couple of weeks ago, and it’s sitting on my shelf right now. I’ll bet you anything it will be even better than Cold Days, as Cold Days was better than Ghost Story. I’ll let you know as soon as I finish it.

Probably be a couple more days, though. I have to go to work tomorrow.

 

If you liked this book, I would recommend — reading the whole series over again.

And, I suppose, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, the Nightside books by Simon R. Green, and the first few Rachel Morgan books by Kim Harrison.

Written In My Own Heart’s Blood. So That’s Why It Took So Long.

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

First of all, if you haven’t read these books, stop reading this review: go now and find a copy of Outlander. Seriously. Do it now.

After you’ve read Outlander, fallen in love with this author and these characters and this absolutely lovely series of books, go ahead and read all of the rest of the series, and then come back when you reach the 8th book, which this is. (And while you’re at it, be grateful you’re coming into the series now, rather than doing what my wife did, and discovering Gabaldon when Outlander was first published — 25 years ago. It’s been a long time, waiting for this series to get this close to the end. A very long time. But she still loves it: every book, every chapter. Worth the wait.)

So for those who are caught up, this is a great book. A great one. This one gets back on track, in some ways; there are more moments of joy than heartbreak, which has not felt true of the last few books, but is one of the reasons why I love the series so: because they are lovely, and loving. It’s a true romance, rather than a heartbreaker for the sake of poignancy. And because love is good and great and sublime, there is more joy than sorrow — and though I don’t want to spoil, I will say that there is much more love in this book than just Jamie and Claire.

Of course there are heartbreaking moments. There is more than one death that just tore me up inside. There are frustrating times — particularly with William. Those damned stubborn Frasers. You understand. There is more than one terrifying moment, particularly those associated with more than one life-threatening injury. But this book does the right things, and goes the right places, and I loved it. I would say I can’t wait for the next one — but I have to wait, don’t I?

If I had one complaint, it was this: I always enjoy the historical elements, and the accuracy and detail are remarkable; it’s why I’m willing to wait patiently (Well, somewhat patiently) for the next installment, unlike George R.R. Martin, on whom I gave up years ago. But I don’t think all of the historicity actually serves the story. Gabaldon went to great lengths to make a few real Revolutionary personages true to their historical selves, even quoting their personal papers for their dialogue. Why? To please the seven people in the world who would recognize a genuine Nathanael Greene quote from a false one? I appreciate the realism of the British retreat from Philadelphia, and the influence that has on the lives of our heroes; but do we need every single aspect of the Battle of Monmouth to be on the record? I’m really not reading a history book, here. I do understand that every instance when Gabaldon varies from the truth earns her a dozen irate letters from fanatics; but I personally vote she lets that go, and does more things like name Fergus’s paper The Onion. Which I just got, by the way. These books are not historically accurate: you can tell by the 20th century doctor in the middle of the Revolution. Verisimilitude is wonderful, and I appreciate all the work that goes into making the books feel and sound real; but they don’t actually need to BE real. I’ll love them anyway.
If you like the Outlander series, I would also recommend:
The Bloody Jack series by the wondrous L.A. Meyer
The Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (Who is not afraid of changing history to include dragons)
Everything by Jeffery Farnol, my favorite historical romance novelist. Check out the pirate books, especially.

Divine Misfortune Review

Divine Misfortune by A. Lee Martinez

I liked this book right from the start. From the very first chapter, when the main human character, Phil, goes looking online — on a divine version of Match.com which is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while — for a god to worship, I knew this was the kind of thing I love to read. Funny and irreverent, but with just enough social criticism to give it some bite, and something to ground the silliness. Oh yeah: this is definitely a book about a slacker luck god who looks like a raccoon in sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, who crashes in your house and orders pizza with anchovies and invites his god buddies over for a party; but it’s also a book about the callous and self-serving way that people treat faith and religion. It’s a book about the way that religion exploits its own worshipers, as represented by my favorite character, Quetzalcoatl — “Just call me Quick.” It’s a book about how having the right credentials, which often includes religion, can make or break your career. And it says some interesting things about all of those topics, which alone would make it worth reading — because the writing is good, the characters are both fun and genuine, and it’s never too heavy nor too light. But when you include the fact that Martinez makes great use of the concept of a luck god, imagining all of the possible benefits of having luck on your side — you find enough spare change to buy a new microwave; should anyone (Say, the bloodthirsty cultists who worship THAT OTHER god) come by to try to shoot you, their guns will jam and then blow up in their hands; that kind of thing — as well as the ups (and downs) of serving a hideous lord of chaos, and the fact that the book includes a goodly amount of smiting, then this book becomes something not only worth reading, but worth telling other people that they should read, too.

You should read this book. It’s a lot of fun. I haven’t even mentioned most of the things that make it amusing and enjoyable: you should check them out yourself.

Are there flaws in the book? Sure. I don’t think the human characters are developed enough; they’re just “regular folks,” there to give the gods somebody to play with or fight over. The final battle was something of an anti-climax, though it does fit the plot perfectly. And as amusing as the pagan gods are walking around in modern America, I think it’s been done better, by Christopher Moore, Kevin Hearne, Neil Gaiman, probably others.

But this book was, for me, a lucky find. I’d recommend it.
If you liked this book, I would also recommend:
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
The Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne
Coyote Blue, Dirty Job, Practical Demonkeeping and others by Christopher Moore

Respect my authority!

Okay: that title actually takes me into a different topic than I meant to talk about. So let’s see if I can tapdance my way into a confluence of ideas.

Here’s where I was going to go with this: This story about the drunken Secret Service agents who crashed into a White House barrier. Now, I’m tempted to bash law enforcement in general about this — and I think there’s grounds, because the worst part of this story, for me, is that a senior Secret Service agent overruled local law enforcement that wanted to drunk test and detain the two agents. Somebody actually told some cops to stand down and let the drunken agents drive away — and then they promptly crashed their car right into CNN (Not literally. Though that would have added a nice zest to the story. It’d be even better if they ran over Rush Limbaugh. But then they’d be heroes.). This shows the way our unquestioned “respect” for policemen has damaged our objective judgement, and therefore corrupted the police, who seem to believe they have carte blanche simply because they are police — and in Ferguson and Coney Island, indeed, they seem to have just that.

So I could go there. But I was thinking that the problem I wanted to speak to here is the lack of respect for the office of the President. Barack Obama is a President that has been called a liar, during a State of the Union address, by a U.S. Congressman. This is a President that had to grin and snark his way through another mocking round of applause when he said he had no more campaigns left to run, during his most recent State of the Union. Applause from people who wouldn’t applaud all of the good things the man has accomplished, simply because they don’t like the man. Think about that: they dislike the man so much they are unhappy when he helps the country. This is a President who has had to “work with” a Senate minority, now majority, led by a man who stated, plainly and unequivocally, that his party’s only goal in 2009 was to make sure that Barack Obama was a one-term president.

This is a level of disrespect that nobody, no dedicated professional in any field, should have to put up with. (Well — maybe Rush Limbaugh.) Let alone the President of the United States. Think about that: the man is the pinnacle of achievement, here. Out of 330 million Americans, he has done the best of us all (Except for the other four guys still living who did the same thing. No disrespect meant to Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush, and Bush. Seriously. I think George W. Bush was terrible for our country, but the man was still the President. He managed to accomplish more than any of the rest of us. And so if he came into the room, I would stand up, and I would salute, and I would be honored to shake his hand. And I wouldn’t say to his face all the mean things I think about him. I sure as hell wouldn’t shout “LIAR!” during his speech to the entire nation.). This is what we tell kids they can do when we mean to say “You can do anything: you can do the greatest thing you could ever dream of.” And what do we say to exemplify that belief? We say You could grow up to be an astronaut, or the President of the United States.

Barack Obama did it. You didn’t. Show some goddamn respect.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say that the recent spate of absurd Secret Service screw-ups is also related to this same lack of respect, but I don’t think so. I think that’s exactly what the issue is. These drunken idiots did not think, “If I get busted for this, it will reflect badly on my office, my country, and my President.” But they should have. The Secret Service is directly linked to the President. That’s why they get respect — even respect from cowed but genuine police officers, who let drunken dipsticks go when they know better (I am presuming about the details of the law enforcement override, but the point remains regardless), and they should be glad the drunks didn’t kill anyone, and they should remember that even though the President deserves respect and consideration, and so too do his people, we are a nation of laws: and the law against driving drunk is one of those that can’t really be debated, unless you want to make it tougher.

Any road: the agents should have been cognizant of how their actions would affect their President. They should be cognizant of that every second of every day. That, as much as protection, is their job. And I think it is a lack of respect that leads to the slackening of personal standards of behavior, in this case. What else? Maybe that LEO carte blanche I was speaking of, and maybe it’s the simple rise of idiocy — but I doubt it. Drunk driving is not quite the same thing as “protecting the citizens,” which the cops in Ferguson, and Coney Island, and LA’s Skid Row, could tell themselves they were doing; and though every generation seems dumber than the last, these were senior agents, so not young enough to really claim “Electrolytes are what plants crave.

No: I think the point is that they don’t take their job seriously enough. And the reason they don’t is because the entire country has apparently given up on the idea that our President is, for the time that he is in office, the very best this nation has to offer. He is our leader. He is the one out in front, for all of us.

Show some respect.

 

And then there’s this: as soon as I typed that title (My first thought was to use the line “Show Dick some respect!” which is from one of my all-time favorite movies, but it doesn’t work here, since I’m serious, and nobody in this situation is named Dick. More’s the pity.), I was reminded of the fact that today I had to deal with a class that has been disrespecting me as a teacher. This is not a new thing, but it also isn’t that common for me, compared to many of my colleagues: my students like me, and so it is easier to command, and retain, their ostensible respect (Ostensible because they’re teenagers. They don’t respect anyone. Just ask them.) for me than it is for people who work hard and teach well, but maybe aren’t as popular as I am. But still, all it really takes is a class where the good kids are quieter — in this case, the best students are all girls, who are, because this is America, generally quieter and far less confrontational in a classroom than are boys — and some combination of indifference, perversity, or circumstances. And in this class, I have a student who has absolutely no respect for the educational process, who thinks of school as a series of boring hoops that must be jumped through in order to make money, and who is entirely up front about this opinion; and I have a group of students who are computer/math folk, and don’t care much about English; and I have a student who flirts with anything female, during class, before class, after class, and who survives by dimples alone. And the class is the last of the day. It’s enough to make them push a little more than usual to do nothing, every day — which to me, even though I know it is only teenaged laziness, still shows how little they respect what I do, or the effort I put into teaching them — and to try to get me to break rules for them, to let them go early, or let them out of class, or just — watch movies and stuff. Which shows their lack of respect for literature, and for rules. There’s more, too, but that’s enough to make the point.

The point? This shouldn’t be an issue. I shouldn’t have students talking when I talk. I shouldn’t have students packing their stuff up and trying to move towards the door while I’m still talking. I shouldn’t have students groaning when I say it’s time to work, and yelling out, “Can’t we just do nothing instead?” (Okay, maybe that last one is universal. But it’s still annoying. And disrespectful.) This stuff shouldn’t happen. But it does: and the reason is the same. They may like me personally, they may think (Most of them do) that there is value in education, and that teachers deserve consideration for our efforts; but there is a pervasive lack of respect for the entire endeavor of public education in this country, and especially in this state, and the kids pick up on it, and act accordingly.They may know that they shouldn’t talk while I talk — but they don’t really understand why, and so when push comes to shove, when they have something to say while I happen to be trying to teach, then they go ahead and say what they wanted to say.

Those Secret Service agents may have known that they really shouldn’t drink and drive — but they didn’t know why, or else they wouldn’t have done it. (They may have known, but ignored the reason. But that’s not better.) They should have known that their actions not only show respect, but help to create an atmosphere of respect. It’s a positive feedback loop: show respect, and you make respect more common.

My problem, in the end, is this: I have absolutely no idea how to fix this. When that class came in today, I said nothing at all to them. Because what could I say?

How do I teach them to respect me? How do I get them to listen to me when they’re too busy thinking of ways they can get out of my class?

And where the hell is this all going to end?

The Right Idea

I had an idea.

I received an essay from a student arguing that the drinking age should be lowered to 18. I have seen this argument before, and believe me, this was not the cleverest attempt; this student failed to offer even the traditional outrage over the idea that one could join the military and fight and die for one’s country, but not even buy a beer! I mean, come on!

I’ve been looking for the just-right response to that particular “argument” for years. I’m trying to choose between, “If you cut off your left hand, you can’t cut off your right. Is that fair?” or “You’re right. And you know what else? Boko Haram lets their soldiers drink.” or “I heard you can make a lovely Cosmopolitan out of the blood of a slain enemy and just a little wasabi. I bet the Army lets them drink THAT.”

Although I did not have the opportunity to appreciate, again, the absurdity of being allowed to shoot people and not be drunk while doing it, I did get to enjoy my very favorite class of argument: the “Everyone on Earth thinks like a perverse, obnoxious adolescent” argument. In this instance, it goes something like this: People think drinking is cool because it is against the law, and teenagers want to be rebellious. Teenagers do things for no other reason than because people tell them not to do those things. Therefore, if the drinking age were lowered and kids had access to alcohol, it wouldn’t seem so tempting and dangerous, and therefore fun and cool and stick-it-to-the-man-y, and so they wouldn’t do it as much.

Ah, yes. Many times I have thought, “You know what would be cool? Building an addition without a permit. That would really impress my biker buddies.” Whenever I need street cred — and I can’t count the times I have needed to cash in on my street cred — I just fail to report an accident, or I make a fake 911 call. Because I’m a thug, and thug life means jaywalking, yo. I’ve always been a rebel: I remember back in high school, one morning I told my bathroom mirror, “I’m going to falsify legal documents. Yeah: then the head cheerleader will notice me!”

It worked, too.

But while I was reading this particular essay, and trying to think of the best way to point out how absurd is the argument that laws against certain behaviors actually make those behaviors more attractive and therefore more common (I usually ask if the student thinks that murder would become less common if the laws against it were eliminated. Just picture all those murderers thinking, “Yeah, sure, I could go out and kill someone tonight. But where’s the spice, without running from the cops? Unless I’m risking jail time, there just doesn’t seem any reason to kill people. Sigh. I miss the good ol’ days.”), I got to the conclusion, which argued that things would be a whole lot better for everyone if drinking were considered an individual right, not a fascinating vice.

That’s when it hit me.

That student was absolutely right.

The key is not making things legal: the key is making something a right. That’s how you get people to walk away from it.

Just think: our forefathers fought for the right to build a government based on the rule of law and the basic principle of democracy, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And they won that right, too. Then it only took us 200 years or so to tear the whole thing down and replace it with Citizens United, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and the Wall Street bailout, and the Keystone Pipeline: a government that represents money and power, and nothing else. A government of the rich (or at least only interested in the rich), by their puppets, for the profit margin.

Know why they do that? Because we’ve been told for years that greed and corruption are wrong. That makes them cool. (I can’t tell you how tempted I am right now to turn this whole thing against God and the Ten Commandments. But the problem with that is the Bible actually supports the claim that I’m currently mocking: after all, God told Adam and Eve not to eat the apple, and they did exactly that, and lost Paradise for us all.

Come to think of it, this bullshit really is the Bible’s fault.)

Then for decades, people fought against slavery, fought for the freedom not to be treated as a commodity. They won that, too, after struggle and war and destruction. And now we happily enslave ourselves: we work harder and for less reward than any other people of any other civilized nation. We do whatever the boss says, whenever the boss says it — you’ll never see a better example of this than teachers. “Why are we giving up the things we know are right for our students, like actual literature and field trips and creative endeavors? Because the boss says we have to raise test scores. Well, then, I guess we have to do it. Somebody pass me that stack of Scantrons.” We all happily give up our free will, duck our heads, bow and scrape, and do what we are told. Some of us even become Ditto-heads, and Moonies, and Beliebers; we “Let go, and let God.”

We have the right to vote: we don’t do it. We have the right to speak freely: we are silent. We have the right to a free press: we stopped reading the ones that spoke the truth, and now we have Fox News and CNN. We have the right to peaceably assemble, and we stay at home and tag each other on Facebook. We have the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and instead we simply grieve.

It’s true: make something a right, and we can’t run away from it fast enough.

Therefore, I am advocating for the right to murder, the right to hate, and the right to celebrate and enforce ignorance. I believe all Americans should have the right to exploit each other, the right to feel no compassion for any other living thing, and the right to pervert and corrupt every goodness on Earth for the sake of instant gratification and petty, spiteful vengeance. Screw that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness stuff; we need to have those rights taken away. Life and liberty — and happiness — should be outlawed. Then they’ll be cool.

Then we’ll want them. Like everything else we can’t have.

So I hereby stand corrected in my basic intent as a blogger: we do not need to fight for the natural rights of man, we do not need to fight for justice, nor peace, nor love.

We need to fight for the right to treat each other, and ourselves, like dirt. The right to drink beer. And bacon: definitely the right to bacon.

The Last of Bloody Jack

Bloody Jack

Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life and Times of Jacky Faber
by L.A. Meyer

This was the book I wanted to read, and I loved it.

I’ve been an avid Bloody Jack fan for several years, now, along with my wife, who discovered the first book while searching for pirate-themed books for me (I have a bit of a thing for the pirate life and the yo-ho-ho.) and found that she loved these as much as I do. There are not many characters in the world like Jacky Faber: so human, so likeable, and so very, very frustrating. I have for years now felt just like Amy Trevelyne and Ezra Pickering, and I have nothing but the deepest admiration for Mr. John Higgins, the unflappable, dependable, and eternally reliable friend to our dear girl.

Jacky Faber makes me wish I had done one-hundredth of the things she has done — and at the same time, she makes me very glad that I have never suffered one-hundredth of the things she has suffered. That’s why I love these books: I love the adventures, love the chances Jacky takes (even while I keep saying to myself, “No, Jacky, no — for the love of God, why do you keep doing this?”), and I love the way reality comes crashing down on her, again and again — and yet she never gives up. And in this book, here she goes again: within the first fifty pages, she is on the run from the law (Not an uncommon occurrence) and she hides out, meeting yet another historical figure — in this case, one of my personal favorites, even though Meyer had to fudge the history a bit to make it happen. But it is subtly done, this time, possibly because of that; and I can’t blame him for taking this opportunity, because if I could write that person into my story, I’d do it in a heartbeat. (I don’t want to spoil who it is because it is subtly done, and the moment when the hints build up to the epiphany was fun for me, and I want it to be fun for everyone who hasn’t read it yet.)

Jacky also joins the circus, in this book. Because Jacky does that: Jacky takes the opportunities that the rest of us would shy away from, and she lives out the dreams that all of us cherish, up to and including running away with the circus and being, at the same time, a Russian princess. Hell, it almost made me want to be a Russian princess in the circus — though I don’t think I should do the fan dance.

And the end of this one — hoo boy, the end. It is the end, the last book, and it is the finish of Jacky’s adventures. I won’t spoil this one either. I genuinely didn’t know until the final moments which way it was going to go: Meyer managed to do it perfectly, with as much suspense as any novel I think I have read. It made it hard to put it down.

And I am truly sorry that I now have to put these down. The saddest part of this book is not within its pages: it is on the dust jacket, because now the biography of the wonderful L.A. Meyer says “was.” You are a loss to the world, sir, both the world of letters and the world of imagination. Your books were a gift to us all, and I am deeply grateful for them. I may have put them down for now, but rest assured: I will pick them up again and again. Thank you for that. Rest in peace. You and Miss Mary Jacky Faber.