Monday, November 19, 2012

Book Review: Argo by Antonio Mendez

     This year, we've had two big spy movies hit theaters. One was, of course, James Bond, and James Bond is all well and good. But the other was Argo, and this one? This one actually happened. (Although word has it that the film played fast and loose with facts. Go figure.)
     I decided to read the story behind the film before seeing the actual movie. I wasn't disappointed. There was little action involved, but it was very suspenseful, and gives a good picture of the not-so-glamorous life of a CIA agent, which appears to involve mainly bureaucracy and astonishing amounts of coffee.

     In 1979, militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking over 50 hostages, believing them to be “spies”. Six diplomats, however, managed to escape, and eventually took shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador. When they made it out of Iran safely, Canada was allowed to take full credit for their rescue; but now, some 30 years later, Anthony Mendez, a CIA officer, has told the story (in as much detail as the Department of Redundancy Department will allow).
     “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History” recounts the history leading up to the embassy attack and the harrowing months spent in devising plans to rescue both the hostages and the escaped diplomats. Mendez does not hold back on describing the various political elements that led to the unrest in Iran, including those elements that reflect badly on the U.S. (Ah, well, wouldn’t be the first time.) We also get some good description of how the CIA operated 30 years ago. Pretty sure they’ve changed things since then, and that’s the reason Mendez is allowed to write this book now. He also does a good job of portraying just how much Canada really helped us. One criticism of the movie I’ve been hearing is that they take much of the credit away from Canada, even though it’s pretty clear we never would have gotten very far without them. They provided shelter, and fake passports and IDs to the escaped diplomats, who wouldn't have gotten far if they were suspected of being American. The book is tense, which shows that Mendez knows how to tell a good story. We know the diplomats escape, yet even to the end you start to wonder: Will it really work? Will the multiverse open up and you get thrust into a world where it failed?
     Joking aside, this is an excellent book, and a fascinating look into real spy life. (Also, Mendez has apparently written other books about his life as a CIA agent. Sounds like more fun reading.)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pure Unmitigated Nonsense For Your Entertainment

Theoretically, I could be doing other things, such as putting up laundry, studying for Psychology, or washing dishes. However, I saw that we have an "unspoilery" Marble Hornets screenshot.

Naturally, I immediately devised several hypothetical situations as to what would happen in Entry #65. However, seeing as how we've had no hints as to what will happen from the IG twitter, I had to come up with my own nonsense.

As you see, the screenshot is of a lake. It appears to be near the area where Jay filmed at the beginning of Season 2. This is of clear importance. I know what will happen.

Jay will follow TiMasky back into Rosswood. Again. Because going into the Woods of Death (TM) is a great idea. Rather than going into the tunnel, Jay will simply walk around. Alex is shocked, and the Operator cries.

Jay will find himself at the edge of a lake, where there is a large amount of gopher wood, hammers, and a surly and half-drunk Noah Maxwell waiting. Hoody will appear right out of nowhere, excited because Jay finally led him to the ark. Upon which Noah will point out, "ARE YOU F***ING CRAZY, IT'S NOT F***ING BUILT, IT'S JUST F***ING WOOD, WHY AM I EVEN IN THIS F***ING PLACE, WHAT DOES THE F***ING OBSERVER WANT ME TO F***ING DO, I MEAN WHAT THE F***?"*

Everyone will back away slowly, and thereafter pretend this never happened.

*NoahSpeak not recommended for public places, particularly near children, cameras, or tall faceless men in suits.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: King Peggy by Peggielene Bartels and Eleanor Herman

     Imagine: you’re living the under-appreciated life of a secretary, when suddenly, someone calls to tell you that you’re the heir to (an admittedly small) kingdom. Oh joy! You get to be king! And we all know, it’s good to be the king, right?
     Well, not entirely. At least not for everyone. Lucky that the village of Otuam got Peggielene Bartels for their new king, and it is this story we read in the book King Peggy.
     Bartels was secretary at the Ghana embassy in Washington, D.C. when her uncle, king of the village of Otuam, passed away. The council of elders, through a traditional ritual, had decided she would be king. (The ritual, by the way, is that they pour schnapps onto the ground for each possible successor. The one whose schnapps steam up has been chosen by the ancestors to be king.) After much debate, Bartels went for it.
     And promptly found herself fighting widespread corruption tooth and nail, as well as widespread poverty. The council of elders were hoping that a woman king would be quiet and obedient. Needless to say, Bartels quickly disabused them of such a nonsensical idea. It was an uphill struggle for her as she dealt with all the struggles that come to royalty-rituals, bureaucracy, and corruption. But Bartels has already made a huge difference in her little village. They now have clean water pumps, a new ambulance, and new schools, thanks to Bartels catching the attention of Shiloh Baptist Church in Landover, Maryland.
     This book was hard to put down. You go through all the ups and downs with Bartels, and when she puts the corrupt elders in their places (several times, actually, they  seem rather hardheaded), you can’t help but cheer her on. It was also fascinating to learn about such a wildly different culture. For example, after Bartels becomes king, the priests of a local god visit her, and through alleged possession the god demands tribute. Apparently Bartels was rather freaked out by the whole thing, and you can’t really blame her. It’s also very amusing to see how conversations go. The elders love using metaphors, but if the metaphors are turned against them, they suddenly begin taking everything very literally and playing dumb.
      This is a fantastic book, and very inspiring-it’s amazing how much Bartels accomplishes on her secretary’s salary and fishing fees. Definitely one you’ll want to read.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Babylon 5 Book Reviews

     Most unfortunately, Babylon 5 is done and over. Plans had been made for another movie, but then Richard Biggs and Andreas Katsulas (and now Michael O’Hare) had to inconvenience everyone by dying. Luckily for us, we had dedicated people to write books. Unluckily, not all those books are created equal.

     My first review is of “The Touch of Your Shadow, The Whisper of Your Name” by Neil Barrett, Jr. We start off with Babylon 5 being more chaotic than usual. The Trinocular Film Festival is going on and the Consortium of Live Eaters are rioting (and have plans to, well, eat someone/something alive). The Life in Transition group, who believe life was a terrible mistake by the Universe, are in a fight with the Fermi’s Angels biker gang. (Yes. There is a biker gang on Babylon 5. No, I do not understand this either.) And there’s this giant green wormy-thing floating around in space and freaking everyone out. Including Kosh.
     You know it’s bad when Kosh is freaking out.
     So it appears the green wormy-thing is giving everyone horrible nightmares. Lennier dreams of running about in a loin cloth, Delenn dreams that Sheridan tries to kill her, Sheridan dreams Delenn is trying to kill him, and Martina Coles, the telepath that is there because the author set the book in the post-Talia pre-Lyta days, is having nightmares and having Kosh poke at her mind. Why does Kosh poke at her mind? It’s never entirely explained. Something vague about warning people. I think he just likes female human telepaths. He does tend to get overly personal with them. *cough"energytransferral"cough*
     Meanwhile, Earth Alliance is doing, you guessed it, nothing. Also the Centauri and Narn are fighting, but that’s old hat.
     The book revolves around the growing crisis as the worm grows closer, affecting everyone’s minds, causing them insomnia and making them more and more aggressive. It’s…okay. It’s not a bad book, but it wasn’t really that great. I feel like so much more could have been done with this storyline. We get some anvils dropped about our fear of things different from us, but…that’s about it. I mean, I know Straczynski dropped anvils from time to time, but his anvils felt poignant and meaningful. These anvils felt stale and over-done. Naturally, everything pans out according to the dreams, which means Hilarity Ensues. (Lennier is running around in a loin cloth. Do not ask me to take that seriously.) So, nice try, but it could’ve been better.

     My second review is of “To Dream In The City of Sorrows” by Kathryn Drennan. This is considered the first purely canon novel for the Babylon 5 series, as it was written by Straczynski’s wife, who has 24/7 access to his brain. In it, we find Sinclair when he is first stationed on Minbar as ambassador. He is frustrated by his attempts to get in touch with Catherine and his lack of news from the outside world. Catherine, meanwhile, is mucking about on the Rim and finding oddly exploded planets and getting chased by strange black alien ships, which is a great idea I’m sure, and Marcus is trying very hard to be a good boy and manage the family mining company while his brother travels the galaxy looking for ancient conspiracies to fight.
     Then, Sinclair is told the real reason he is on Minbar-they believe he has Valen’s soul (OBVSLY) and that he must take over the Rangers and prepare them for a coming war against the Shadows. We get a fantastic line where Sinclair says something about “even I could have come up with that”, and a great deal of giggling ensued. We get to delve a little more into the Minbari political system. We also get to meet Ulkesh, whose main job in the Vorlon hierarchy is apparently to be a pain in the butt to everyone, and watch as he and Sinclair bicker like an old married couple. In fact, between Ulkesh and Neroon the jerk quota is more than filled up for this book. Then, our three storylines converge: Catherine arrives on Babylon 5 to find that Delenn and Garibaldi already set up a plan for her to get to Minbar; Marcus’ brother joins the Rangers and returns to recruit Marcus (“Hello, are you willing to let Valen into your life?”), only for the Shadows to come RIGHT THE EFF OUT OF NOWHERE and blow up the mining colony. Marcus promptly heads off to seek revenge.
     This book is not only well-written, it feels like Babylon 5. I felt like I was getting a good back story to what was going on with Sinclair while Babylon 5 devolved into its usual chaos. And we also get some intriguing little hints about Catherine’s fate. (In fact, I recall hearing something elsewhere about how Valen’s family was somewhat…odd. HMMMM.) All in all, an excellent book, and a good addition to the series.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review: Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

While shelving in the long ago days of pagedom, I noticed a set of mysteries that had the same subtitle: Peculiar Crimes Unit. As Peculiar Crimes are much more interesting than Ordinary Crimes, I thought I’d give them a shot. I had to go elsewhere to get the first in the series, but I’m glad I did.

The story follows two separate arcs: one set in the present, and one in the past. Present day, an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes department has seemingly killed off Arthur Bryant, one of the founders. His partner, John Mays, tries to find out what his last case was, the case he was working on when the department exploded. To his surprise, he discovers his partner had reopened their very first case.

This leads us to England during World War II, where John Mays, a young nineteen year old, has been hired as an amateur detective to a unit dedicated to solving all the strange crimes that the regular police won’t deal with while the bombings continue. According to Bryant, studies show that an observant civilian is just as useful as a trained detective. Mays is his first hire, followed by a rule-abiding police officer shunted over to the unit for being too, shall we say, zealous.

They get their first taste of a peculiar crime only a few days later, when a dancer’s severed feet are found on a vendor’s cart, and the dancer’s body later found in the elevator of one of the few theaters still open. The theater is on the verge of putting on a daring opera, yet it seems that a curse dogs their every move. As the bodies pile up, Bryant and Mays fight the deadline to discover the perpetrator before anyone else dies, or worse, the theater closes.

Fowler does an excellent job, weaving the plot between the past investigation and the present one. It’s intriguing to see the young, naïve Mays in contrast to the older, wiser, and much more sober Mays that has been bereaved of his best friend. Fowler has an excellent sense of atmosphere as well. You can feel the tension and the desperation for people to “keep calm and carry on” as the bombings rage around England, and the funereal air that dogs the present story line as Mays follows his partner’s last steps.

Characterization is done well. Fowler picked well when he put two highly different men together, as well as giving them their own contrasting characteristics. Mays is young, naïve, and open-hearted, yet he remains rational and logical throughout. Bryant is cynical, gruff, and sometimes cold, yet he is the one consulting mediums and considering the prospect of an actual curse.

Fowler’s book is as peculiar as his crime unit, yet it does him no disservice. He’s an excellent writer with the dry English wit we all love.

I give a 3.5 out of 5.