Peaks of Otter 2019 kickoff

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The View of Flat Top from the peak of Sharp Top

One windy frigid morning i decided to take a jaunt up one of the most popular hikes in my area: Sharp Top, the rocky topped landmark peak of the Peaks of Otter mountains.

Sharp top is heavily hiked, it’s a great out and back that totals a smidge over 3 miles. It’s steep, rocky, and once you’re past the opening 1/2 mile beautiful. i’ve done the hike many times in my life and this super-cold January hike was easily my favorite one. The parking lot is normally packed with cars; on this hike my car was the only one in the lot. i had Sharp Top all to myself! Once at the peak (which affords views for miles and miles in 360 degrees) the wind was blowing so strong i had to lean 15-20 degrees into it just to stand up.

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The hike up Sharp Top
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Sharp Top from the shoulders of Flat Top

i enjoyed my hike up Sharp Top so much i decided to go back and take a stroll up it’s less often hiked sister: Flat Top. Flat Top is actually a little taller than Sharp Top but doesn’t have quite the views. It’s a longer out and back (or you can hike from the Peaks of Otter Lodge to a lot on the Blue Ridge Parkway); my hike was 4.7 miles with 1,680ft of elevation gain during the hike- 417ft more than my Sharp Top hike. It was nearly as cold and to make things more interesting snow had fallen. By the time i reached the peak i was plodding through a foot and half to two feet of fine powdery fluff! The mountain was gorgeous clad in it’s icy duds and once again i had the whole mountain to myself! (there were 10-12 cars in the Sharp Top lot this day though).

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The Peak of Flat Top: The tallest of the Peaks of Otter

Once i had hiked the two most prominent of the peaks i figured there’d be no better way to kick off a new year than getting the third of the triumvirate: Harkening Hill. Harkening Hill makes up the third peak of the Peaks of Otter, it’s a much easier hike than it’s two larger sisters and i’d never done it before. A co-worker offered to tag-along this time and with the Polar Vortex extending it’s icy grip onto the East Coast we layered up and bagged this loop trail. Once again (probably due to the snow on the ground and the skin shattering temperature and wind-chill) the mountain was a private reservation.

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The summit of Harkening Hill

We tacked on a side-leg out to the Johnson Farm site and that brought this loop to 4.5 miles with 958ft of climbing. Compared to its two larger neighbors the grade is much easier. I’d suggest doing this one when the trees are bare if you’re able to as it affords more to look at. If the trees were in leaf it still would’ve been a nice amble through the woods but the views would have been few.

This little “mini-goal” to start 2019 off had me drinking in the beauty of the area i live in. Having these popular hikes all to myself made me feel connected to the old weathered backbone of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a special way. i hope that this sets the tone for the year to come for me!

 

My heart is filled with gratitude to live hear among these venerable hills!

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My frosty stroll on Flat Top.

#61: The Mote in God’s Eye: Niven & Pournelle

The first time i read this book i was a sophomore in high school. It was the recommendation of a close friend of mine, who had it recommended to him by his father. i only mention this because his dad was one of the most interesting people i have ever known. He could cook like a chef, had an amazing library, told us the best dirty jokes, and had a scrap book filled with advertisements and articles with humorous misprints he’d accumulated and cataloged over the years. My favorite being a very old newspaper ad for a brassiere that should have read, “for a great Fit,” but instead read, “For a great Tit!” Needless to say, any book that this man recommended to our young and malleable minds was consumed post haste!

So, it was with a great amount of nostalgia that i picked up the book again. i remembered it being a well written work of science fiction, with a solid story-line, and an interesting take on a new alien race. Digging into the book i found that my nostalgic memory… was totally spot on! Which is a rare thing to happen in one’s life. Normally that thing we remember fondly isn’t nearly as good as we think it is. i recall sitting in an ER waiting room (i had driven an injured friend there) and the first Predator movie came on. A young rippling Arnold commanded a crack team of commandos, explosions, grenades, yelling, CHAIN-MACHINE-GUN!!!!!! i waited with anticipation for my first glimpse at the predator, remembering that magic moment when i was just a nerdy youth. i could not brace myself for the special effects disappointment i faced.  The memory my brain had woven of that cloaked predator running through the jungle made the actual footage just horrible by comparison…. But Mote In God’s Eye was not a cloaked predator event in my life.

A few things stand out about this book for me, 3 actually:

  1. The plot is very well written, the characters aren’t pools of depth, but most do have clear personalities. The overarching story is really really good. It’s got so much to say about it: There’s discovery, and science, and politics, and aliens that are really alien.
  2. Those alien aliens: Niven & Pournelle really built an alien race that is unlike humans. i’m a huge Star-Trek fan but my one gripe with the world of Trek is that everyone is just a human with a rubber thing on their head. Moties are NOT human, they have 3 arms, and a caste system, and they think differently. It’s nice that the aliens just aren’t re-skinned humans.
  3. The book was published in 1974, and as i’ve mentioned in reviewing other reads, i think reading Sci-Fi written in a different era shows us things about the era it was written in. Conventions on marriage and sexual relations resound with early 1970’s Americana thought processes.

i’m really glad that this book made NPR’s top 100 sci-fi/fantasy books of all time. This project meant that i picked up a book that i loved as an adolescent and i love it still today.

 

Book Club of One Grade: A. Mote gets a solid A from me. Pacing is brisk, story is good, aliens are amazing. If you love science fiction take the time to read this gem.

 

i’d like to devote this Book Club of One, NPRs top 100 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books review to John Philpot, the man who suggested this book to his son, and then his son suggested it to me. Your sense of humor, your intelligence, and the fact that you always made time to chat with us when we were 14 year old knot-heads had some lasting impact on my life! i hope that you’re somewhere in the ether telling somebody a really good risque joke right now!

64:Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell by Susanna Clarke

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Just wrapped up Strange and Norell, which is the abbreviation of the title i’m going with. It’s a long title, and a very long book. It’s pretty well written and if you wish there was more magic in the works of Jane Austin you’ll likely love this one (LOTS of people do). But back to my point: It’s a very long book and to me it felt like a very long book.

i’ve expressed my struggles with long works of fiction in the past (though there have been a few long books i’ve read during this project that were amazing- Sanderson’s The Way of Kings for example) so it’s no surprise that i struggled more than a little to power through this book.

Other than the length my real complaint is that it feels like it always takes the longest way to get somewhere. The spark-notes on this book are probably very amazing and compelling!

Here’s what i really liked about it: flawed characters (i’m a sucker for a flawed protagonist)! More than that though, Clarke’s treatment of magic in her alternate world. Magic in her England is VERY VERY powerful, it’s also pretty dang weird and mysterious. i really like the unpredictable nature of the arcane that she built in her world.

The main characters were moderately interesting (Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norris) but my favorite were John Childermass and the odd Vinculus. i was glad when near the end of the book they got more of the spotlight shone upon them.

Book Club of One Grade: C-. pretty well written, but soooooo loooooong…. If you’re into period work you may love it (i’m also pretty fond of Napoleonic era stuff- due to my deep love of the Aubrey/Maturin series, but even the time-setting didn’t save it for me). It’s not a bad piece of fiction by any measure but it’s a book i don’t forsee myself ever revisiting.

Deep Space 9: my reflections

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Let me open up with a clear statement of my position as a Star Trek fan, i’ve been on team-Next Gen for most of my life. Rewatching all the series pushed the original series WAAAAAY up in the running for me, with it coming in just a hair’s breadth under TNG. DS9 has always been the series that i liked the least out of all of them.

That’s where i’ve lived most of my life… but now… well, i think i’m team-DS9. The first two seasons were shaky but then you hit season 3. From season 3 onward the show just gets deeper and richer and better. The characters  run such an interesting spectrum and are so well developed. i rolled into DS9 with a mild fondness for Miles O’Brien but by the time i had wrapped up all 7 seasons of DS9 i was practically a fan-boy. i’m going on record as saying: any episode that centers around the Chief is a winner! His relationship with Keiko is so real and believable they could use clips of the O’Brien’s in marriage counseling.

Also of MASSIVE import was Captain Sisko’s relationship with his son Jake. One of the reasons that Star Trek holds such a special place in my heart is that the writers have always used Roddenberry’s brain-child as a platform to make commentary on relevant social issues. (that’s an entire post worth of material there, separate from this one though) When DS9 was airing there was some stigma (in politics and the press) about the absence of the African-American father. DS9 put a man of color in charge AND made him one of the most loving and devoted fathers that’s been portrayed in media. Even as Jake grew into a man and chose a different direction for his own life than his very successful father had Benjamin Sisko remained a loving and supportive father to his son. As a father Sisko is a role-model of fatherhood to me!

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Let’s take a minute to visit someone who may be my all-time favorite Star Trek Character… Quark! In TNG the Ferengi were a reoccurring nuisance and little more. In DS9 with Quark running his establishment that was such a central part to life on the station they got a lot more development. i’ve been an avid table top gamer since i was in upper elementary school and the Ferengi are the best example of a Lawful-Evil alignment in action. Quark lives and breathes the Rules of Acquisition, but has enough character development over the course of the show that it’s great to see him struggle when he wants to do good for his friends even though there’s no profit in doing so.

DS9 is a great show, character development across the board is amazing, story builds on story throughout the series. DS9 also has an amazing series closer. It has heart-warming moments, as well as more than a few tear-jerking moments. If you want to chat about Star Trek you’ll find me on the stool beside Morn in Quark’s, i’ll be the one wearing the “Team-DS9” T-shirt!

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Mug i bought to commemorate wrapping up DS9

 

#66- Magician: Raymond E Feist

Magician: Raymond E Feist
Magician: Raymond E Feist

This series is much-loved by many, making several “top” lists. Maybe it just didn’t click with me…

The opener to Feist’s Riftwar series was a bit of a chore for me to power through. There were some moments, especially early on in the book, that gave me hope that things were going to gel between myself and the book… but it never came to fruition.

i felt like most of the characters were flat, filling archetype roles and not much else for me. The pacing seemed to drag on. It was a book filled with so many of the standard fantasy tropes that i just never really could engage with the story-line. \

The Tsurani were interesting, i wouldn’t mind to learn more about their culture and their war-like motivations, i’m just not sure i’m willing to read through two more books to get that information.

Magician isn’t a bad book at all (i know i’ve painted that picture of it). It’s just not as good as some of the other reads from NPR’s top 100 Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels of all time. It’s also not the worst i’ve read from the list so far (looking at you Sunshine!). All-in-all the best descriptor i have for it is “Meh”. i can see where someone could really fall in love with this world and the story, that someone just isn’t me.

Book Club of One grade: C-. If you really love the standard fantasy tropes grab a copy of this book. If you’re looking for something more in your fantasy reads, maybe look elsewhere. (The Way of Kings would be my most recent read i’d suggest.)

71: The Way of Kings -Brandon Sanderson

The Way Of Kings
The Way of Kings -Brandon Sanderson

If you needed to fortify your gates against an incoming horde and all you had were copies of this book… you’d be just fine! The Way of Kings is a CHUNK! Nearly as thick as it is wide. It’s like cracking open a great tome.

Often i find very lengthy books to be burdensome. (yet i’ll gladly gobble up a trilogy) They’re most often packed with fluff and flowery meaningless descriptors that pump that page count up. The Way of Kings is a hefty read, but it suffers from none of these issues.

What makes Sanderson’s novel different from so many other long fantasy novels? It’s long for a good reason: The pool that Sanderson has created for our imaginations to swim in is deep… i mean deeeeeep deeeeeeep. If it was a pool it’s not an olympic diving pool it’s more like the Deep Joy Y-40 (google it, totally worth the shallow dive into Wikipedia). He uses this depth to weave a dense story for us.

Also, unlike other long novels, the pacing manages to stay brisk. Rarely if ever feeling like it lags. He jumps between a few stories both of wich subtly build upon one another, not so much in interaction but in the knowledge of the world we the reader are gaining.

The world is rich and alien while still being understandable. Massive storms sweep across the land sporadically and all life on the world has adapted to survive them (that’s why vegetation withdraws into the earth, or protective shells, or lays down flat, etc etc etc). There are “magic”* swords, “magic”* armor, a sort of instantaneous transubstantiative alchemy, giant beasts, intriguing huminoid races….. Other than that i don’t think i’ll give any spoilers here.

Book Club of One grade: A+. It’s long, it’s dense, Characters fit into archetypes but in ways that feel refreshing. If you’re on the hunt for a big ol’ fantasy book, give this one a go.

 

*”Magic” in this book doesn’t feel like magic… it’s mysterious and handled more like a lost science. This is the first in the series so i’m excited to one day further my journey into this world and see how that unfolds.

70: The Time Travelers Wife -Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife
The Time Traveler’s Wife -Audrey Niffenegger

i have a weakness for a good chick-flick. Its a fact that few of even my close friends know about me. To me people who say they hate The Notebook are either lying or sociopathic! i’m also (as this Book Club of One project would indicate) pretty dang nerdy! So Time Traveler’s Wife manages to scratch two itches reeeeaaal good!

Niffenegger does a good job of putting a new spin on time travel. In TTW (long title, abreviation established… let’s just accept it for this post) time travel is sporadic, uncontrolable, mysterious. There’s not quantum particals, no Time And Relative Dimension In Space vehicle, no 1.21 Gigawatts or 88 MPH… there’s just Richard DeTamble bouncing around occasionally in the time continuum. Uncontrollable, sporadic, sometimes amusing, sometimes touching, often dangerous; he arrives T-800 style butt-naked.

Niffenegger paints some very interesting pictures with her novel. What happens if love between two people occurs out side of a predictible linear time-line? If good people appear random times and places without so much as their skivies how do they learn to cope with that?

Characters feel rich and developed, the story of Richard and Claire’s love together is equally rich. Most of the supporting cast also feel well rounded, complex, and interesting. The origins of the time travel problem are interesting. Some scenes are steamy enough to fog up a mirror but never feel distasteful. (side note: as a male i’m often very interested in how female authors write about sex and sexuality. Niffenegger did a good job depicting sexuality from both sides of the gender coin, both from Claire’s viewpoint and from Richard’s. Kudos)

Book Club of One grade: A+ i recomend this one with zero reservations. This is a book i’d throw into the ring of a non-nerd book club too, you know one with more than one person in it haha. Paced well, great characters, thought provoking, i’ll likely re-read this one agin in a few years.

79: Something Wicked This Way Comes -Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Something Wicked This Way Comes -Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes feels like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman sat down and wrote a project together… which since the book was published in 1962 i guess a better way to phrase that would be that Something Wicked feels like it should be a notable influence on the work of King and Gaiman.

We follow two boys in a small town in America in an age that has since moved on. An age when traveling circuses and carnivals moved around and set up temporary shop outside of towns for a week or so. An age when young boys left the house in the morning and played unsupervised until dinner time. The book proves to be both a glimpse into a world that no longer exists and a deep stare into the fears that plauge us.

Something Wicked is delightlfully surreal. The carnival rolls into town but arrives with odd and ominous portents of it’s true dark nature. A magic carosel features prominently in the story, a ride on this carosel is able to effect the age of the rider as they revolve around on it’s carved horses, either moving you forward or reversing the aging process. This proves to be a source of temptation for several charaters in the novel, including one of the main ones! As i continue to age, and especially now that a new tiny-human is a part of my life, aging is very much in the forefront of my mind many days. A recent trip with my own aging father highlighted the gravity of the passage of time on the human body even more. So i’ve read this book at a time in my life when this magical carosel is of extreme interest to me!

 

In short this roving band of supernatural and evil carneys come to town looking for the “food” they need… the essence and life-force of life itself. Our two main protagonists are both tempted and terrorized by the creepy carnival hands and their leader.

In the end one of the boys own aging fathers (he’s not old, just older than the father of a boy that age should be- yet another thing i can relate intimatly to right now) cracks the mystery of defeating the evil carneys and winds up in the end saving the day and the town (although the town is mostly unaware of the danger they were really in).

 

Book Club of One Score: Solid B: Bradbury does a great job painting this dark tale on the stark contrast of such a wholesome backdrop. Its a pretty easy read overall and dips into heavy enough subject matter that while not taking long to read it still sticks in my brain and gives me pause. It has a slight YA feel overall, which i like in a book from time to time (even as a grown man). Pick it up and give this one a go!

The Orville

The Orville
The Orville

i just wrapped up season 1 of The Orville. i’m not a huge fan of McFarlane’s other work, particularly Family Guy. i appreciate some of the humor and i’m convinced that McFarlane is this generation’s Mel Brooks. He’s able to make jokes few others would get by with. There is just a sort of self-congradulatory feel to much of Family Guy that leaves me feeling like i’ve just had dinner with one of my ruder, more arrogant aquaintences.

So i rolled into The Orville with low expectations.

Maybe it was my lowered expectations, or the strong cast, or the money they clearly sank into the special effects… or a combination of all of those factors. i wrapped up season 1 pretty satisfied overall!

The Orville starts off as a parody of the much loved (by me and many, many others) Star Trek universe. Just a few episodes in it seems to switch gears from parody to tribute. The Orville uses it’s platform to address current social issues that our world is dealing with today, and it often does so with a great blend of tact, humor, and irreverance. It’s got a softer edge than some of McFarlane’s other work but it drives points home possibly even harder than they do.

i started watching The Orville because i’m a Trek fan, i wanted to see how bad a Family Guy version of Trek would be… and now:

i’m just waiting around for season two to drop!

 

83: Consider Phlebas -Ian M Banks

Large ring structures that spin in space.
Consider Phlebas: Orbital

Consider Phlebas is the opening novel in the Culture Series, written by Banks.  The series is most often branded as a Space-Opera and i think that fits it just fine. It’s fast moving, full of big spectacular sci-fi tech that would make for great visuals on a movie screen, and the characters are often fast-talkers who are entertaining to the reader.

The opener focuses on a “changer” named Horza. From a fading race of humanoids who are basically sci-fi doppelgangers (with a few extra bells and whistles, poison bells and whistles).  He’s the fastest talker of them all in the book and throughout his dialogue was probably my favorite thing in the book.

A little like Perdido Street Station the book reads like watching someone’s table-top RPG campaign, one with lots of charisma based checks in it. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail.

Book Club of One Score: B-; if you want a hefty book that’s still a fast-paced read and want your imagination to soar at the visuals then consider Consider Phlebas (see what i did there?).