Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 9

Cheeky hobbits and the comfortable levity of friends reunited.  There is quite a lot to be said for the bonds that are forged through shared trauma and hardship.  The hobbits are some changed for their experience, both in mind and body (the latter thanks to the entish draught).  Meanwhile Aragorn is becoming altogether more with his different aspects coming into a balance with each other.  The world has grown a little smaller too, with hobbitish pipe weed discovered in Saruman's private reserves.  Aragorn notices the oddity, but does not quite mark the significance of it.  Th3 hobbits and the Shire are no longer a passing rumor to those in power, and that "Wormtongues may be found in other houses than King Theoden's."

The ents themselves deliberate, but when they come to a decision it is with fury and purpose, marching on Isengard.  The battle as described has a discomforting air of menace and danger otherwise missing from the encounters before.  The huorns to wild to be safe, even if fighting on our side, and perhaps there's something just innately unsettling about the woods rising up in violent anger.

We learn that Gandalf knew perfectly well what he was bringing the company into, having already visited the captured Isengard.  During his visit he is most hasty and is off before much time is spent with the erstwhile hobbits, racing back into peril and to generally save the day.


Rather than getting the assault on Isengard as recollection, the film gives it to us interspersed with the siege at Helm's Deep.  The process and battle involving the ents are barely the same events between the two.

The hobbit trickery makes for a fun bit of interplay, and Merry and Pippin are just wonderfully cheeky throughout.  I do have to say that Treebeard is clearly a shit tree herder if he's only just realizes the devastation Saruman inflicted on the forest.  This also conflicts severely with ents and huorons sneaking up on the gates, watching Saruman's people marching out of Isengard to Rohan, and how they pulled apart the masonry like roots growing into rock.  Jackson portays the ents as both more and less vulnerable than Tolkien.  The one that catches fire survives to douse the flames, while others are overwhelmed by attacks that should leave them largely untouched.  The flooding of Isengard should take place at night, but considering all of the other changes... it's a minor one and added contrasting action.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

[Book Review] Lexicon

Lexicon / Max Barry

Lexicon is a book about words, about using them to manipulate and control the world around you.  About power, balances, and relationships.

In some ways Lexicon is a light thriller with a unique premise.  In other ways it is a very complex and multilayered story.  Part of my reason for picking it as a book club read was that I knew I would be able to read this quickly, something I generally need in July, and it delivered.

My discussion questions are limited, but ones that are tied deeply to the narrative itself, and questions that are not necessarily insubstantial on their own.

Discussion Fodder
  • What issues does Lexicon bring up in regards to privacy and personal data?  "But what bothers me is how HARD they're all working for that data, how much money they're spending, and how they never admit that's what they want."
  • Words have power, what are the different ways this story explores it?  What ways do they have power in your life and the world at large?
  • How do words shape our conceptions and understanding?
  • Is there a hero of the story?

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 8

Mercy again comes up as a theme, though mercy of a less surprising nature.  The Rohirrim are by and large people of heroes in this story, and so they show mercy on the attackers from Dunland who Saruman had raised against Rohan.

Gandalf hasn't really been in a place to know fully what the ents (and our troublesome hobbits) have gotten themselves up to... but he knows a thing or two about ents... and hobbits.  I'm pretty sure he knows exactly what became of "the miserable Orcs," but that sort of thing is probably best not disclosed while traveling with nervous companions.  The malice of the forest is not subtle, even Gimli picks up on it (that or he rolled really high on a perception check).  As a wood-elf, Legolas has a bit more insight, about the specificity of the wood's hate and of their non-local origin.

The discussion of dwarven and elven aesthetics stands out to me as a study in contrasts and values.  What one finds wondrous and precious, the other views with trepidation and unease.  Gandalf brings more to the table, pointing out that the war they fight is not just for men, elves, and dwarf, but for beings and lives outside of the bounds of society as well.

The descriptions of Isengard serve well to capture scale and magnitude.  Saruman's great tower, Orthanc, is a citadel, with Isengard itself surrounding it creating a stronghold that contains a city in itself.

And then, of course, we meet (again) the cheeky wardens of the captured citadel... Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took.  Gandalf seems less surprised at their presence, which does make me wonder at his leaving Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn in the dark regarding these two hobbits.  But the surprise was a good one, and I for one believe that they earned their repast.


In the film of course, we've already witnessed the Entmoot and the decision to take on Isengard, but in the book we need to wait for a recounting.  So I'll try to handle all of that in next chapter, but it's worth bringing up that Jackson did some nice balancing of pace and tone (even if not chronologically balanced) by contrasting the entmoot with the battle of Helm's Deep.

The company that rides forth from Helm's Deep to Isengard is but a hero party of named characters, not a full armed contingent expecting battle.  And again, Jackson has shuffled the end of one book into the beginning of the next movie.  Gandalf here seems more cautious and less self-assured, as they ride through the woods.  Merry and Pippin are... well... very much themselves.  No one does sassy quite like hobbits.

Most of the mystery and atmosphere has been excised, leaving some gorgeous scenery and giving all the tension to the battle scenes.  I'm guessing a discussion of aesthetics wasn't considered titillating enough for the screen against all the action.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

[Book Review] Angel in Scarlet

Angel in Scarlet / Lavinia Kent

Previously reviewed in this series:
Once it seemed as if Angela Ripon and Matthew Harkness, Earl of Colton, would be wed.  Angela's defiant spark caught Matthew's attention, but when it seemed to go out without any warning he dismissed her as too timid for his tastes.  With a behavior change triggered by overhearing Matthew with a mistress, Angela is left angry and wanting him to feel what she felt at his rejection.  And the only way she can think of to do that is to learn seduction from the infamous Madame Rouge, to make the Earl burn for her so that she can teach him rejection.

The two of them fall into a dangerous and exciting game, one where more than hearts are on the line.


Angel in Scarlet is a creative continuation of the Bound and Determined series, with some interesting development/growth regarding a rather obnoxious familiar antagonist.  I'm wondering if he'll be transitioning from a general annoyance and bother to a protagonist of his own story soon.

Matthew Harkness does really deserve getting some sense knocked in to him.  Putting it bluntly, and even the whole mistress thing aside, he is more than just a bit of a dick to Angela.  Is Miss Ripon's method the best?  That's up for debate, but it does work out for all of them in the end, and she does bludgeon some insight into her target.

The stories within the series tend to have something of a formula (as do most romance novels), and while they're we'll done, I wouldn't mind a bit more of a derivation from the secretly-kinky-man and the eager-to-learn woman.  Especially since one of the regular points is the man "testing" the woman's resolve (point of note - the Ruby stories actually have less of this, but also don't have much kink).  I'm kind of hoping that one of her future stories in this series has a dominant woman instead of a man.  I'd say at this point Mastering the Marquess remains my favorite, but I've been looking for each new release as they come out.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Random House Publishing Group - Loveswept via NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 7

The non-hobbit faction of the Fellowship rides knowingly with Rohan into Isengard's storm.

The defending team has not fared well in the face of overwhelming odds and little support.  But the host turns away from the Fords of Isen and makes way instead to Helms Deep, while Gandalf takes his leave on an unstated errand.  On their way they encounter signs of merciless battle, the bodies of slain citizens cut down while they fled and what few decimated companies remain are scattered and leaderless.  The surviving civilians who escaped have holed up in the caves of Helm's Deep.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gimli totally digs hanging out in caves while Legolas is generally left unsettled.  Gimli also turns out to be unexpectedly sneaky... as well as quite eager for battle.

Once the battle is joined it does not ease off, but comes in waves, testing and trying the defenses.  As far as sieges go, this is a short one, lasting mere days.  The fight is not just man (and dwarf and elf) against orc, but man against man as well, with old cultural grudges flamed into violent action.  The assault itself spreads over an impressive footprint, a citadel large enough that thousands can stand in defense of entirely different areas, both inside of the cave networks and from outside the walls.

In the dark shortly before dawn Aragorn offers the horde a chance to parlay, and has the presence to stagger the wild men among the orcs.  Seemingly on the winning side, the Uruk-hai decline the opportunity and believe they chased Aragorn away, until the royal heavy hitters burst out into the fray.  The hero party comes out in a concerted force and proves quite effective.  Then in the eleventh hour Gandalf returns with men thought to be long fallen to the Uruk-hai and proceed to assist in cleaning house.


Looking at the film, there's very little similarity beyond the fact that it's a desperate pitched battle, a culvert is blown open, some thrilling heroics, Gandalf returning with an army, and the kill count competition.

Contextually, these are two entirely different battles, even if their outcomes fundamentally mean the same thing.  In the book the battle is an act of major defiance against Saruman's power as well as the reclaiming of Rohan's strength.  Their failure would signal the defeat of Rohan in both a symbolic manner.  Jackson made the battle a lot less symbolic thanks to putting all of Rohan's eggs in one basket.  The assault becomes far more personal, with Wormtongue pushing for the offensive against the vulnerable, and more desperate with the defending forces supplemented with the young and untrained.  Adding in the elves helps highlight the waste of war, the dead shining bodies of a favored but diminished race.

At the same time, the grandeur of the conflict is lessened, much of it's harshness offset by physical humor (mostly at Gimli's expense).  The humor was something I appreciated far more when I was  younger, now it seems to mostly detract from the battle... and skipping the in between scenes highlights how much time is spent on this fight.  I still appreciate the dwarf tossing though.  On the way to Helm's Deep we get pitched battles of a few dozen heroes against orcs, defending what seems to be a few hundred civilians, and budgets and logistics what they are the scale of Helm's Deep comes nowhere near the massive fortress described.  My complaints aside, it is still an impressive battle sequence all around and visually a good match for Alan Lee's painting.

The "loss" of Aragorn strikes me as by and large unnecessary.  I suppose it does link well into showing Arwen's Choice and the ramifications, though I can't say I'm fan of the tight focus on a crying face (and I just feel... weird about a father asking is he has his daughter's love, I don't know why, that's probably my own baggage).  On the flip side, I wonder if there was an intent to offer a a mirror to Gandalf's fall and return, and his return is appropriately dramatic.

As much as I generally bitch about the added material, the set up here involving Isengard is fantastic (as well as generally visually stunning).  Similarly, Galadriel's prophesy/seeing voice over cleanly links the splintered story lines, while building tension.  Next to that, I want to commend the development of Theoden, a man faced with hard decisions and few options.  Aragorn complains at first of Theoden's proclamations, until he realizes the widsom of Theoden's choices.  Strider becomes more actively encouraging of those unlikely to survive, realizing that hope is essential here.

Friday, August 12, 2016

[Book Review] Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever / James Tiptree, Jr

Somehow I made it into my 30's without ever really being aware of James Tiptree, Jr.  I don't know how this occurred, especially since now I'm realizing how many authors I love have won the James Tiptree, Jr literary award.

Alice Sheldon, best known in the literary world as James Tiptree, Jr, led an amazing life that ended in tragedy.  His/her stories are original, powerful, and often unsettling.  Science Fiction set in a "now" or far in the future, close to home or far flung.

For me the biggest challenge came in the size of the volume - it appears my attention span for short story collections is shorter than the size such a comprehensive collection calls for.  It's a book that would have worked better for me not to have a month's framing to read it, but one to read stories then have time to take a break as they bounced around in my head.  That being said, I'm very happy I included it as the Virtual Speculation pick for June.  This is definitely on my "to recommend" SF reading list now.

Discussion Fodder
  • What themes did you notice in the stories?  How were they handled?  What stood out to you?
  • Alice Sheldon published both as a woman and as a man, using a female name for stories that might betray "James" as a woman.  What makes a writing style masculine or feminine?
  • Alice's reasons for writing as James have been reasonably well stated - which ones would apply to an author today?
  • How do her stories hold up some fifty years after they were written?  What shows their age, and what could be written today?
  • Did you have a favorite story?  What drew you to it?  Were there stories that you disliked?  What pushed you away?

Friday, August 5, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 6

This chapter opens with setting and world-building, with much on the vastness of Rohan and the shortened lives of regular men.

Rohan itself has become defensive and insular, not just thanks to the corruption of their King but in a growing atmosphere of fear and separation.  Middle Earth has many cultures and kingdoms, but by and large they exist spread out and distant from each other.  I do like Tolkien's explicit acknowledgement of a common tongue here, the members of the fellowship and those they meet certainly have their own languages, yet largely speak the same.  Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli have already met suspicion and distrust based on their outsider status, but here are met with guards deliberately using the language of Rohan to filter friend from foe.  This is not an insignificant action in creating division between us and them, and is one that regularly causes us issues in modern life.

The continuing suspicion of Gandalf as a spy of Saruman is both logical and hilarious.  The facts as known to the people of Rohan are that Gandalf and Saruman are of similar ilk and before now have always stood as allies.  With the trouble seeping out from the White Tower, even mild paranoia suggests that Gandalf's presence is a ploy.  Add in an agent such as Wormtongue bending the King's ear, and well none of this stands as shocking.

What does shock me is the fact that someone openly going by the moniker Wormtongue wormed his way into the King's confidence.  There is nothing subtle about either his name or his nature.  In Middle Earth people tend to bear names that with significance, be it inherited or earned.  The name Wormtongue catches Gandalf's attention immediately, but my guess is that this is not due to familiarity with the individual, but with the weight of the name.

They definitely aim for shock and awe when making an entrance to the heart of Rohan.  Yes, the traditional giving of names tends towards acknowledgement of lineage, but in context it feels as if there is a stress on their prestige, especially in conjunction with the speaking of the value of their weapons.  I've spoken repeatedly about Gandalf as a Trickster, but his whole shtick with his staff makes me laugh every time.

Theoden first appears to us as an old man, worn down, suspicious, and afraid.  It is heartening to see that the people of Rohan herald his restoration with joy, but the cynic in me doubts that Grima was the only bad seed.  On the other hand, Tolkien tends to write his characters with strong alignments and nobility.  Through stages, Gandalf brings Theoden back to himself, first by silencing Wormtongue, then through exposure and consultation, ending with an reintroduction Eomer who lays his sword at Theoden's feet.

In my mind, Hama is the unsung hero of this.  He let Gandalf bend the rules and then fetched Eomer from his imprisonment.

Even when the tables are turned, Grima tries to talk his way out of it, and honestly makes a good show.  He does have a gift with words and a turn of phrase, but his allegiance to Saruman is declared by Gandalf and Eomer confirms Grima's desired prize of Eowyn, which takes away any creedence given to Grima's words.  They not only let Wormtongue go free, but they offer him a chance at redemption, similar to the mercy shown to Gollum again and again in this story.

For their services the party is gifted from the armory, though they needed little in way of armaments, and they make preparation to ride out in defense of Rohan.  The placing of Eowyn as steward in absence of both Theoden and Eomer strikes me as a particularly striking decision.  The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) both have been noted for their distinct lack of women, hence why it's so easy for me to describe the different groups by phrases such as "the men of ____."  But it is worth also noting that what women he did include are by and large quite notable in their strength.  Galadriel may be the single most powerful elf in Middle Earth, though I do not know how she matches against those who have crossed to Valinor, Elwyn's story may be largely secondary in this trilogy but she still plays a significant role in Middle Earth, and Eowyn has her biggest moment yet to come.


There are some big diversions in the film from the text, starting off with a significantly earlier display of Grima's powers over the King of Rohan and an all-around effort to make him appear generally aesthetically unpalatable.  He not only pulls Theoden's strings, but goes full creeper mode on Eowyn (which generally makes me go "ugh," but not nearly as bad as if he'd attempted sexual assault which is the all-to-common way of showing someone to be a lusting villain).  There's also the addition of the death of Theoden's son (Eomer I believe is his sister's son), used as a prop to show how bespelled the King is when he fails to recognize the weight of the news.

I think Grima Wormtongue was done well, but part of me wishes they hadn't strove to make the character physically unattractive - all the book states is he has pale skin, and as Frodo says on meeting Aragorn, agents of the enemy are more likely to "seem fairer and feel fouler."  What they did was effective, but wasn't a challenge.

The transformation of Theoden is very dramatic, and done to good effect.  However, if Saruman is controlling Theoden as a puppet... what purpose does Wormtongue serve?  Though I guess he does stand in as a puppet master for when Saruman has other things to do.

The real notable difference regards the actions of Theoden in the face of looming war.  This Theoden does not appoint his niece steward and ride off to battle with his armies to defend his land (ultimately leading to a conflict at Helms Deep), but instead evacuates the city population for fortified stand against their enemies.  I forgot about this difference, and had to re-read the relevant sections of the book to make sure I read correctly.  The comic relief of Gimli with the too-large chain mail is no more than that - Tolkien explicitly writes that Gimli had no need of chain mail, having his own, and his time in the armory took place before they rode out.

I find Jackson's interpretations of Tolkien's women problematic.  I greatly enjoy that he expands their rolls, but the downfall for Elwyn, Eowyn, and Jackson's own creation Tauriel, is his focus on the romance.  Until significantly later, Eowyn's roll in the film is that of a fiesty but love-struck girl.  Her unrequited feelings for Aragorn do play a roll in the story, but that's not the full story of who Eowyn is and what she achieves.  I think Jackson missed a golden opportunity.