Book Review: Ancillary Mercy


Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very fitting conclusion to one of my favorite sci-fi series. I know some readers of this series were expecting something more of a grand space opera, with Breq perhaps flying across Radch space to end the wrongs of Anaander Mianaai.

That isn't going to happen here and scope and scale of something so large is unfeasible. Instead the story backs off, and focuses more on the specifics. It is telling Breq's story after all, not the story of the Radch. Through that story we get to see the growth and development of Breq becoming the person that she her self cannot admit that she is. It is that point that the rest of the story hinges upon, and really what so many good sci fi stories do hinge upon. They take a character's personal instances and struggles and extrapolate them out to the broader society in question. In this case that question is, is an AI a "person"? The culmination of this trilogy leads us to that point and question and ends not with the answer, but the posing of the question. Some may find that unsatisfying and to an extent, it is. But we are left with the satisfaction of Breq and her position in the world and that her crew and everyone she comes across does care about her.

I came away incredibly satisfied with Breq as a character and would put her right up there as one of the best written sci fi captains. She is cold, calculating and often times hard on those around her, but incredibly fair. That doesn't mean she isn't emotional. We see quite a bit of emotion internally and it is seen in her actions and care for the citizens of the Radch. She is undoubtedly exactly the type of captain you would want on a military ship and one to lead you into an impossible situation.

I also am completely enamored with the writing of the crew and the Left Lieutenants. It is remarkable to me how much the crew truly cares for their obviously flawed Left Lieutenants. They want to see them succeed in almost every situation. They stand up when need and care for them when it is required. In turn, we see the Lieutenants also reciprocate in their own way. And as always, the propriety of the Radch has captured me to no end. This is a series I would love to see some costume and art designers take a crack at. The gender neutral pronouns used in the culture lend me to believe that this is a society that itself has a gender neutral outward appearance. The descriptions of Radch citizens wearing gloves and jewelry stirs my imagination. Ann Leckie herself has a Q/A post over on Goodreads.com that I will quote.

"...I don't think I've ever said that Radchaai are gender neutral--just that they really don't care about anyone's gender, and don't mark it socially or linguistically... it's not really a thing they care much about. They care about it, maybe, as much as we care about hair color.

[I] think it's worth considering...how much of what we consider to be "obvious" about someone's gender when we look at them is actually a set of social cues. Hairstyle, kinds of clothes, even certain colors of clothing. Ways of standing or moving. These can change from culture to culture, or even from decade to decade (just a couple hundred years ago, high heels and hose were a guy thing. Less than a hundred years ago, pink was a "boy" color.)... And consider that while quite a lot of people will say that one's genitals are the defining element of one's gender, we very rarely see the genitals of the people we quite automatically assign gender to. We're not actually gendering the people around us based on their genitals. We're making assumptions about their genitals based on a complicated mass of social cues."

With that, I will say that I hope we get more from this series and this world and could you please prepare some tea.

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Book Review: The Monsters Know What They Are Doing

The Monsters Know What They're Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters by Keith Ammann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a really hard book to rate. It isn't a book of stories or any narrative really. It is a collection of blog posts that provide a description/recommendation on how to run each monster in D&D. On that front this book is very successful. The insight and writing is very well put together and I really learned quite a bit on how to approach encounters.

The real complaint I have with this book is the formatting and layout. This is really a reference book. Unfortunately, the layout and formatting doesn't lend it to be used as a reference book. The book is laid out in "chapters" and a narrative style. I think if the book was formatted more in a dictionary format, two columns per page and with an in-depth index, this could be infinitely more useful for Dungeon Masters to utilize.

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Book Review - Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book should have been called "Plymouth: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

This was a well written narrative that chronicles the pilgrims, and their founding of the Plymouth colony through the first generation of settlers and King Phillp's War. This was an interesting interpretation of that moment in history. The story was written with enough intrigue and character development to keep you going through what amounts to be a very detailed description of the events. It is apparent that the English settlers did an excellent job of keeping diaries and other records of their struggles and trials.

It is important to note though that these accounts are largely from one perspective, and the book acknowledges that while even going so far as to try and provide logically explained reasons or alternatives to some actions.

Overall, a great read, especially if you are looking for an in-depth (sometimes too much so) description of the first decades of Plymouth and New England.


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Music Listening: AAC - Liam Gallagher - As You Were

Oasis is (was), hands down, my favorite rock band. Its ironic that I like them as much as I do considering I really do not like the Beatles at all. Oasis is as close as you are going to get to a Beatles sounding band without being an actual cover band. For those of you out there who are Oasis fans, you are well acquainted with the long standing feud between the Gallagher brothers. They are in short assholes and they are assholes to each other. Liam, the lead singer, developed an almost historic reputation for his antics and the journey that was Oasis came to an end around 2008.

All of the band member's have experimented with projects for the past decade, but we not have before us Liam's first solo album. I have always been able to enjoy his and Oasis' music without having to like the member's personally. I don't need to be friends with them, so what they do with their personal antics are of no concern to me. 

This album is pretty much exactly what you expect it to be. It sounds like Oasis, and for me that is just find. Some good, solid brit rock is always welcome. The opening track "Wall of Glass" is a great sounding song that captures that glimmer of Oasis and Liam. That quintessential Oasis guitar riff is featured right there while the track opens. 

The rest of the album is good, but doesn't really present any truly memorable songs. If you are an Oasis fan, like me, then you will probably love this album. It is good to have fresh album in my library with this sound. For everyone else out there, I would say check it out. It is sort of like how the new U2 albums are. When you listen to them they are all solid albums and well produced, but not necessarily "memorable". 

Matt's Reading Suggestions for Political Theory

You won't often see me get onto a soapbox on my blog here, but with the whole political atmosphere as of late I have seen too many posts on social media and elsewhere from people who have taken a few words from a political philosophy, put it onto a meme and then expanded that to encapsulate and summarize what an entire political theory is. That sort of stuff annoys me to no end. If one wants to disagree with a political ideology they should take the time to try and understand what that theory is, where it came from and why it's ideals came to be where they are. 

My undergraduate degree was political theory, and while that seems like a sort of useless degree to have in a practical world, I feel like being exposed and reading the works of political theorists has made me an extremely well rounded person and one who can empathize with various points of view. These political theories, philosophies, and movements were born out of a need. They didn't just spring up out of nowhere so there is always at least some degree of legitimacy to what they are trying to convey. Some, in fact many have not stood the test of time, while others ebb and flow in their prominence around the world depending upon various political and socio-economic conditions in the world. While none of them are the Truth, all of them hold some bit of truth and reasoning for why individuals and societies believe what they may believe. 

So with that in mind, I am going to outline a couple of the works that I have found to be the most influential upon me. Hopefully, you will read some of these yourselves. And please, in the future, don't just Google something and take the first sentence or two of Wikipedia and use that as your education on a topic. All of the books here also have volumes of work worth of discussion and critique upon them so I won't go and try to summarize in detail what they are about. Instead I'll try to mention the main topic from each book that is typically drawn out and discussed in conversations.  

Most of the books I will recommend are probably in the public domain, so I will try to link to their ebook and if it is available the audiobook. 

Finally, before I get into my list I want to point everyone to another resource which i feel is way more useful than Wikipedia for a lot of these topics. The Internet Encyclopedia or Philosophy, is a great place to go if you need to get your summarized version for some of these books. Most of these are going to be hard to read so some sort of companion is truly helpful. 

Learning the Mandolin

I am teaching myself to play the mandolin. I have been toying with the idea of learning a new musical instrument for a while now, but I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to latch onto. I was confident that it would be a stringed instrument since that would be completely foreign to me. 

Megan has stated that she has wanted to learn how to play the violin, ahem, fiddle, for quite some time. One idea I had was to try and find a potential companion instrument, with the hopes that we could one day play together. 

Various instruments ranging from violin, cello, viola and banjo have all been under consideration. All would allow me to play some folk music and some Irish music as well for Megan. 

The mandolin emerged as the top contender a couple of months ago. Not only is an entry level mandolin dirt cheap, but I was surprised to find the wide range of music that the mandolin can cover. Being in the lute family the musical repertoire ranges from medieval court music, to just about every folk genre you can find. It seems to have a particularly strong presence in Italian, Irish and American (Bluegrass) folk music. 

So, mandolin it was. My first couple of days with it were productive, but also a real challenge. My form needs a significant amount of work and many of the notes get a metallic "twang" to them, I think due to my bad finger positioning. Through the book I have purchased and also a fantastic website called MandoLessons.com, I have been able to get down the basic notes, understand the basic fingerings and learn my first three chords. 

I hope there is a lot more to come. 

Music Listening: Vinyl - Tour de France - Kraftwerk

I have a couple of recent vinyl pickups which I will be posting here over the next couple of weeks. The first one up is the album Tour de France from Kraftwerk. This is a 2009 reissue of the album and I received this as a birthday present. If you do not know who Kraftwek are, they are an electronic music group from Germany who has been around since the 1970's. They are early pioneers of techno and the Berlin techno scene. Their music is sometimes quintessentially identified as "robot" music since the beats and rhythms are very mechanical. The group is also known for their live performances and visuals. 

This album follows in their standard music profile so if you know that you like or dislike Kraftwerk then you will know what you are getting here. The opening tracks on side A, Tour De France Étape, are probably the best tracks on the album. They are a relaxing, almost downtempo collection of synthetic textures. 

The album also features a really nice 20 page artbook, which is a collection of typographic images. It is a nice touch for those out there who are collectors of that sort of stuff. 

Great album and certainly a good evening listening type of album to put on while reading or relaxing. 

November 2015 - Videogaming

It has been way too long since I have posted a video game update. This fall has been a bit crazy, but I have thankfully gotten some good video gaming in. 

My gaming has been spread out all over the place so let's take a look at what I have been playing lately. 

Over the summer I have put a lot of time into my Nintendo 3DS. I got in on the Humble Nindiebundle and picked up a bunch of games for the 3DS and WiiU. SteamWorld Dig, Retro City Rampage and a few other games took one some great hours. I have really put a lot of time into Fantasy Life though. I am clocked in at around 37 hours on it right now and I still haven't beat the game. It is a fun, light RPG that has many of the same charms that Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon would bring to the table. It also has some excellent multiplayer so Megan and I have been playing that quite a bit with a little couch co-op. Personally, I think it is a must have game for the system.

The bulk of my gaming over this past summer has probably been on my Wii U. A lot of Splatoon has been going down along with some Yoshi's Whooly World over the past couple of months. Yoshi has an excellent multiplayer game, but let's talk about Spaltoon. This game is really an amazing home run for Nintendo. They nailed a competitive multiplayer game in only the way that they could and in doing so may a game that is fun, charming, fast and intense all at the same time. It also makes great use of the WiiU gamepad. 

But, all of those other games have now taken a back seat to my most recent obsession. Xenoblade Chronicles X. This is a huge open world JRPG released for the WiiU about a week ago. It has been a long time since I have played a full on JRPG so I was itching for some of those old story tropes again. This is another one of those games out for the WiiU that define the system. Not only is the game huge and immersive, but it makes great use of the WiiU hardware. It really in a lot of ways is what I wanted the Monster Hunter games to be. There are simply huge monsters in this game set in incredibly gorgeous environments, but you don't have the deal with a slow and pedantic combat mechanic. 

Lastly, but certainly not the least is the Xbox. There have been a couple of great games that have caught me this past fall. First up is a game called Valiant Heats which was released on Games with Gold I think in October. It is a heartbreaking story set during World War I that follows a family that is torn apart by the war. This game really touches on some emotional and tragic topics and it is accompanied by really in-depth diary logs that explain some of the horrors of the war. It is out on just about every platform so if you have a chance to play it, please do. It is remarkably well done. 

Then we have Elite Dangerous. This is a very pretty space "simulator". It is one of those games that does not hold your hand. The galaxy in the game is rendered in real size to our own and there are millions of systems to discover in the game. It is big and the world is set before you to basically just explore on your own. There is no story and no right or wrong way to play. You can just go explore, or you can bounty hunt, or deliver goods. It is up to you and one of those games like the Golf Cub that I will keep on my hard drive and go back to periodically for probably the life of the Xbox One. It also has some of the best sound design I have ever heard and is the sort of thing you can just put on to listen to the sounds of your ship's engines and space to calm you. It is incredibly relaxing in that way. 

Finally, we have Halo 5. Probably the biggest game release this fall. I am a huge Halo fan. So much so that I have even read some of the books. The game is flat out gorgeous and the multiplayer is as good as ever. It is a fun game and it will likely share the top spot as my goto multiplayer game with Splatoon over the next six months or so. 


Music Listening: Vinyl - Phases Of The Moon - Traditional Chinese Music: CBS Masterworks

I have made it a purpose over this past year to purchase new music every month. Not quite sure why I haven't thought about blogging about it all year, but I figured I might as well start doing it now and perhaps I'll even take a look back at some of the other albums and music I have recently picked up. These recent purchases range from vinyl, to mp3's to even sometimes just some CD's checked out from the library. While most people seem to be going the Spotify route for their music with a subscription, music is one of the few medium I still feel like fall on owning myself. 

My most recent purchase was Phases of the Moon - Traditional Chinese Music from the CBS Masterworks collectionThis is a really interesting collection of music. It was assembled as an orchestral collection of Chinese styled music from the 1950's and 60's. The music is quote good, but has a distinct "western" flair to it since the orchestral arrangements future a more traditional orchestra. 

The inner cover of the album has some really nicely done narrative that discusses each song and there are certainly some gems on it. I was hoping for a more traditional Chinese musical arrangement, but I am glad I picked this up. 

I hope I'll be able to find some more foreign music 

Cook Book Series: The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook - Beef Stew with Herb Dumplings

I can't believe that I forgot to post this. All the way back on October 14th we did our second Cook Book Series recipe. Well, technically Megan did since I wasn't home to do the cooking on this one. The second recipe turned out to be just as big of a success as the first one. It was honestly one of the best beef stews I have ever had. Usually with most beef stews I get hung up on too much potatoes, but this one was really well balanced and also had some really delicious dumplings. Another keeper of a recipe. 

Added bonus was that Megan made Apple Slices to go with dessert which I had never had before. They were such a huge hit that we brought another batch to work for my birthday and they were devoured quickly.