Everything Old Is New Again

by on Sep.07, 2010, under Entertainment

As my wife depicted brilliantly on her blog (, we took the kids to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire this weekend.  It was quite the initiation for them.  Though truth be told, my visiting tenure there only dates back to the first time my wife took me with her family (back when we were still dating).  But she has been going sporadically since her teen years and it seemed like something the kids would enjoy (if not fully understand).

It turned out to be a fun time had by all and it couldn’t have been a better time to go.  The weather was just right for it, and it happened to be Children’s Fantasy Weekend.  So as we walked in the gates the kids were handed pirate treasure maps on which they were instructed to find several letter clues around the fairgrounds that would spell a password to get them some pirate treasure.  While the map was a tad confusing (it was nice of them to label all of the roads on the map, though it would have helped if there were also matching signs on the roads themselves), the kids managed to keep up with our meandering trek around the park and go excited every time they found a clue.  We took in some fun shows including the birds of prey demonstration, a human chess match, as well as a the jousting match at the end of the day.  Though despite my encouragement to try some authentic Renaissance fare, the kids opted for pizza for lunch.

Grasshopper soaked it all up like a kid in a candy store.  As we passed shops he would shout out “Look! A Harry Potter cape!” or “Look at that pirate skull!”  During a lull where my sister-in-law was waiting for the next glass-blowing demo and my son was decidedly too hyped up on lunch and excitement to be trusted in the vicinity of dozens of hanging glass bobbles, I took him away from the group for a father-son foray into a sword shop that was setup to look like a beached pirate ship.  Both on the way up the walk to the opening and through the entire tour around the store he couldn’t be more exhilarated.  He climbed on the cannons and pretended to fire them.  He sparred with another boy with some wooden practice swords.  He pointed out dozens of exciting decorations and items of interest.  And impressively managed to refrain from grabbing any of the real swords upon my explanations of the real dangers in doing so.  By the time the human chess match was underway in the late afternoon, he was petering out – he nearly fell asleep in my lap (most likely the occasional sword fighting in the match was all that was keeping him from conking out).  But he managed to get a second wind long enough for dinner and the joust (though he was dead asleep long before we arrived back home).

Cricket was equally sparkly-eyed over the events and scenery of the Faire.  Though much of her interest was targeted toward princess and fairy-related items (though she was also excited by dragons, swords, and pirates).  She wanted to see and try everything (including a turkey leg – I believe her uncle let her try some of his).  Being nearly 7, she was a little more understanding of the fact that the Faire was a depiction/dramatization of a period in history.  Though I’m sure her concepts of the history of humanity is very spotty at best (she finds it incredulous that there weren’t things like Wii and iPhones back when I was her age).  There wasn’t a shop in which she didn’t find something she wanted, though we did promise each of them one souvenir and so she was good about cataloging the things she liked so she could make her choice by the end of the day – she went with a princess hat (conical silky hat with frilly edges and streamers – I’ll take that over the $75 dresses and $40 parasols she had her eyes on earlier in the day).  Her brother opted for a small wooden sparring sword which took all of his might not to swing all over the place as we walked around the rest of the day.

If there was any complaints I could offer on the day, there would only be one small one:  this weekend was supposedly Children’s Fantasy weekend, and though there were disclaimers about the joust being graphic prior to the start of it, I really did not expect the level of violence that was displayed to an audience knowingly more heavily weighted with children than usual.  It started off as I’m accustomed to – the usual grandstanding hoopla that opens things up and gives the event personality and color.  Then the jousting commences, then the sword play, then some more talk as you think the bad knight is on the ropes and read to give up.  And then the bad guy claims to be secretly working for the King of Spain and an attack force moves in and explosions start up (even up to this point, though the booms are a bit loud, I’m still feeling this is all fairly family-friendly).  Then, to end the confrontation, the good knight, who has the bad knight on his knees after a stab to the gut, slices the bad knight’s throat and fake blood drools from his neck and spouts out of his mouth. Grasshopper’s point of view prevented him from seeing that particular bit, though I doubt he would have understood it to question it.  But Cricket, who was further down the bench near her grandparents got an eyeful of it.  When I asked her after what she thought of the joust, she commented that it was interesting, but she wasn’t sure why the guy spit out cherry juice at the end (I assume my in-laws threw that explanation out there right after the shock of the ending faded).  So I guess there is no particular harm done, and I can appreciate realistic drama and effects as much as the next guy (as a guy, I thought it was awesomely done), but I found it a little surprising given the theme of the weekend.

Anyway, it was a long day and everyone seemed to have a great time.  When they were asked what they favorite parts of the Faire were, the kids both stated that they liked the ship-swing ride and playing with the hula hoops (they’re kids – it’s all about engagement).  I’m sure that this is the start of a semi-regular tradition as I’m sure they’re going to want to go back over and over again.  And I don’t mind one bit.  To see the world of the past light up in a kid’s eyes like a new and exciting place brings a child-like gleam into my eye.

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Jack of Shadows

by on Aug.15, 2010, under books

On the suggestion of a family member, I recently read an older sci-fi/fantasy novel called Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny (the person recommending it is an English professor who loves Doctor Who, so it is easy to give his recommendation some credence).  I am being accurate in labeling it both science fiction and fantasy as it takes place in a distance future where the Earth has long since stopped rotating (to be more accurate, it is in synchronous rotation) and while the residents of the day-side have continued to advance in science, the dark side has taken to the arcane arts and maintains a feudal society based on seats of magical power.  In this world, the protagonist, Jack of Shadows, was born of the twilight zone and as a result has magic that is rooted to shadows themselves rather than any geographical location.

In this story Jack, a thief, finds himself quickly at odds with some daysiders that results in his death (which seems to merely be a temporary inconvenience).  When he returns to being, he takes on a long-term mission of vengeance against those that wronged him.  This journey leads him on a quest for power which, as we all know, corrupts.  But Jack was never really the good guy to begin with, so a turn from shady to deeper shadow is not all that out of character.

While the story was a rather short novel, the world that Zelazny imagined in it had a lot of potential for further exploration and was well thought out.  Though it showed some of its age in the portrayal of technology.  For instance, Jack ends up spending some time dayside using up computer time at a university.  Given that the book was published in 1971, it is no surprise that computers could hardly be depicted in any other way than as mainframe systems that process data and spit out print results.  And one item that struck me as odd was the use of candles as the primary source of artificial light everywhere.  I guess electricity was not likely distributed well darkside, and dayside there was hardly need of lights if there was window access, but it seemed a little odd and was something on which the author failed to elaborated.

Generally though, I rather enjoyed the story.  It was a far cry from most of what I’ve grown accustomed to reading lately, but definitely in a good way.  It has led me to consider broadening my literary horizons – perhaps by reading more of Zelazny’s works.  But we shall see what lands on my reading list next.  A bunch of co-workers (many of which have Nooks) have expressed an interest in starting a small book club where we actually read in coordination.  If that happens, it will likely shape my reading list for a time and I may find myself peppering those reviews with notes from the group.  And as always, I’m open to suggestions on new books.

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Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

by on Aug.08, 2010, under books

Per the suggestion of a friend/colleague, I located and read this first of three books by Barry Hughart in the The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series.  The book and series follow the adventures of a Number Ten Ox, a simple but strong Chinese villager of no particular status, and Master Li, an anciently old and incredibly shrewd sage.  The books very much follow the model of the Sherlock Holmes adventures in that the are from the perspective of the companion to the wiser protagonist.

In this first volume, all of the children between the ages of 8 and 13 in Number Ten Ox’s village seem to befall a plague that puts them into comas.  Seeing as the abbots cannot figure out how a plague could possibly target children of a particular age range, Number Ten Ox is sent to the nearest city to find a wise sage to help shed light on this mystery.  After being rejected by most of the wise men in the city for having such a laughably small amount of coin to secure such services, he finally stumbles upon Master Li Kao – who is old cold, hung over, lean as a bird, and very old.  Ox prepares to leave without bothering him when he discovers that he had once one a prize from the emperor making him one of the wisest men in China at the time.  After sobering him up and getting some food in him, he takes the case.

The root case, as it turns out, is easy to solve – the kids who were afflicted had been eating leaves that were poisoned as they collected them to feed to the silkworms; children under 8 were not used for such tasks and children over 13 refrained from such impulses.  The mystery of the poisoning also was quick to be solved, but the mystery of the cure turned out to be an adventure neither of them could have expected.  With Master Li riding on Number Ten Ox’ back, the pair trek all over China, wend through various labyrinths and face off against monsters, ghosts, immortal dukes and various other characters in their travels, making friends and foes alike.  And in the end they find that their journey is not nearly the serious of random coincidences it initially appears to be.

While this tale incorporates a significantly greater amount of mysticism and magic than one would tend to find in a Sherlock Holmes tale, it certainly makes for a similarly entertaining and brain-teasing adventure.  And the narrative format of being written from the perspective of an ancient Chinese man of humble roots really yields a unique perspective.  Even though there is no cliffhanger to the story – it is well encapsulated – I can easily see myself reading through the second and third books in this series.

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by on Aug.05, 2010, under books

As promised, this review is close on the heels of my review of book three (mostly because I pretty much read them back to back).  Overall I’m definitely getting into the flow of these books and I’m interested to see how long they will stretch out.

In Chill Factor, Joanne managed to save the world from both the nihilistic tendencies of the god of Djinn under the ownership of a misguided teenager and a dirty cop that switched to drug smuggling to Djinn smuggling (partially due to her own past meddling).  And in the end when faced with the choice of joining up with either the newly discovered Ma’at or her old job with the wardens, she opted for neither.

In Windfall,  we find Joanne doing her best to stay off of the aetherial radar – most poignantly as a weather girl on a Ft. Lauderdale local TV affiliate.  It pays the bills and keeps the wardens from bothering her … mostly.  But when strange things start to swirl around her (e.g., freak storms, missing wardens, Djinn standoffs in the streets), fingers start to migrate in her direction.  But having a Djinn boyfriend that is barely holding himself together (literally), having limited abilities herself due to her Djinn tether and the unborn Djinn daughter in her belly, and having her recently divorced sister mooching off of her all seem to hamper her ability to do much to clear her name much less save the day.  But she manages to make a dent none the less.  And in the end, things change fundamentally once again.

While I’ve been enjoying Rachel Caine’s first-person perspective throughout these novels, I have to say that I’ve seen a marked improvement in her writing form in this book.  Where many of the past volumes had about 3 or 4 long chapters, this one had about 7 shorter chapters that each had an interstitial arc that nicely wrapped up into the main story arc by the end.  It made the story much more interesting to read and added a narrative element that introduced a key alternate perspective as well as pertinent background that would otherwise have been difficult to integrate.

Once again, this story ends with drama in progress, so I will likely be starting book five as soon as I can.  Though I’ve taken a brief break from it to read another book recommended by a friend.  So I will likely be reviewing that book before another Rachel Caine review appears here.

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Chill Factor

by on Aug.03, 2010, under books

I’m writing this post belatedly because I’ve since read the fourth book as well and will likely start the fifth book soon.  But I’ll attempt to try and keep the events separated enough now to review the third volume (and I’ll likely write another post shortly reviewing the fourth).  Anyway…

So in the first book, Joanne Baldwin was a weather warden on the run (being that she accidentally killed a prominent weather warden in the process of getting a demon mark thrust into her) and died at the end to save the world from the evil growing inside of her.  In the second book she is reborn as a Djinn, but quickly learns that (a) being a Djinn isn’t as easy as it looks and (b) the price of her afterlife was higher than she could have imagined – in the end she spends her life force to make it right, and is then gifted with rebirth as a human.  Now in the third book, she has unfinished business to attend to – namely that a punk teenager has bound to his service the most powerful Djinn in existence.  And they are holed up in Las Vegas.

Through this story Rachel Caine continues to build out the canon behind the Djinn, their origins, and their nature.   What I find most interesting about Joanne’s character is that she holds nothing back – she will confront anyone about anything regardless of whether she is out-matched, out-powered, or out-classed.  In that way, she is a bit like a small, yippy dog – always barking at everything and everyone.  But she has the bite to back it up.  And unlike many of the protagonists I’m accustomed to reading about, Joanne hardly ever has a clue what she is getting herself into.  But that rarely stops her from jumping in mouth first.  And once again the smaller struggle she is working through seems to have world-changing repercussions if she fails.

Once again, there are moments of male-ogling that I could do without.  But they are less frequent and the story is definitely compelling enough to make it a non-issue.  And while this book does not end in nearly so much of a cliffhanger as the second volume had, it still ended in a way that left me eager to see where things may go next.  What really makes the series easy to breeze through is that each volume is fairly short (a little over 300 pages).  And through many of them, the timespan between volumes is no time at all.  So the series is very fluid.  If you are looking for an easy-read series with some action and some mystical elements set in a familiar setting, The Weather Warden series is a great choice.

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