The Books of 2016, #8: The Desert and The Blade (A Novel of The Change), by S. M. Stirling

desert_and_blade*does some quick Googling…*

Jesus Christ. It’s been twelve freaking years since this series debuted. We’re also twelve books into it (plus one collection of short stories by mostly-other authors set in this universe). Annnd, as my review of _last_ year’s entry, The Golden Princess, showed, I struggle with why I’m still reading this series.

So I’m not going to spend much time on this save to say: it’s better than the last book was. We get action, the plot moves forward quite a bit, we get to find out what happened to the greater LA area after The Change… it’s a decent entry in a series that probably should have been put to bed two arcs ago.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m still reading it save for the fact that Stirling _can_ knit a yarn pretty goddamned well, and I’m juuuuust enough of a sucker for “oh, we get to find out what happened to THAT part of the world after the Big Disaster?” that I’ll put aside my inherent disdain for the increasing magical elements of this tale and bull through just for that.

Stirling is very, very good at creating and writing about alternate versions of our world (his Draka books remain my second-favorite type of this genre, juuuust barely beat-out by the downright depressing and therefore all-too-believable agonies of John Barnes’ Century Next Door series…), and injects just enough of that into these books at this point to keep me grimly reading along, regardless of how many orbits my eyes have to do in their sockets at times when the fuckin’ McClintocks and McKenzie’s have to argue over the trivial differences between their fake-ass dipshit clans for the 79th time…

Fortunately, The Desert and the Blade is a lot better than The Golden Princess was, given that Things Actually Happen in this entry. The High Princess’ Quest is in full flower, and they get through a good chunk of it. Stirling seems to have realized that part of the draw of this series was finding out what’s going on elsewhere on our post-Change globe, so he introduces some characters who have had reason to travel that globe, and therefore can spend entire chapters describing what happened elsewhere. It’s a fun, showy example of just how good Stirling is at world-building, and I appreciate the appearances here.

I can’t give much more detail without giving away reasons to actually read this thing, and I assume anyone even considering it is already familiar with the world because good fuckin’ luck jumping in on Vol. 12 if you aren’t. In a world where this type of book has been almost entirely taken over by Young Adult tropes (bleaugh), I appreciate that Stirling is still writing somewhat more adult tales of the apocalypse, his staunch advocacy of Renn Faire nonsense aside. It’s far from his best book, but certainly the best this series has seen for a while, and further sets up the next entry to be pretty far-ranging and interesting to my particular tastes.

So, if you’re into this series already, you’ll probably like this. If you’re not, this book will probably just confuse you. If you like to spend your weekends m’ladying your way through Society for Creative Anachronism meetings, who are we kidding, you’ve probably already written erotic fanfic based on this world.

Don’t Fuck With The Bus

As mentioned innumerable times before, my commute kinda blows. To prevent it from ending up with me on top of a tower bellowing threats at a SWAT team, I have to find ways to distract and amuse myself, particularly since the driving itself is no fun at all nor engaging because it’s really hard to fuck up and crash OR just enjoy putting a car through its paces when you’re averaging 9MPH the whole way. So, podcasts and music do the heavy lifting of distracting me from the boring tediousness of this kind of driving. Once in a while, though, I also get to witness the kind of dumb shit that proves it’s been and will continue to be worth my time to work very hard at not getting angry while driving.

Take this morning. Any commuter whose route has them on city surface streets for any length of time knows what it’s like to deal with busses. As part of my “Stay Zen” commuting philosophy, I don’t waste any energy trying to get ahead of busses or cut them off when I need to turn right and they’re in the turning lane… it’s a fuckin’ bus. No matter when and where you come across one, at some point REAL SOON, it’s going to pull over to let people in/out and you will pass it. And they’re keeping a large number of folks from being on the road solo in their own cars themselves, clogging shit up worse.

In short: Busses Are A Good Thing. Don’t be a dick to busses.

Of course, not everybody adheres to this philosophy. Nay, FEW people do. Most people, for whatever reason, look at a bus in front of their car like it’s fucking their mom or something. These people, to be clear, are fuckin’ assholes.

As was the guy I saw this morning.

Picture your textbook shitty old white guy.  In his 70’s or just a badly-maintained 60’s… white hair flying out all over under a cheap baseball hat. Perma-scowl etched into his face. The kinda guy who you know just by looking at him, he’s gonna vote for Trump. The kinda guy that you know ruins at least one Denny’s waitress’ (he ain’t got IHOP money) or Dollar Store clerk’s fuckin’ day, EVERY day. Just a shitty dude, who has no empathy or sympathy for anyone else as we are all, at best, annoyances getting in the way of his slow march to the grave. And he was NOT about to let a goddamned BUS, paid for by HIS tax money so a bunch of poor browns could possibly come into HIS neighborhood, to get in front of him.

No. Fucking. Way.

Now… busses are big and powerful, but slow. Takes time to get anything that size up to speed. There are VERY FEW cars that can’t out-race a bus from a dead stop.

A 2014 Toyota Corolla, however, is one of those cars. Much to Ol’ Shithead’s impotent fury.

The bus driver was an African-American man, middle-aged. He had a look of such grim, focused determination on his face that was positively frightening: this old white prick was NOT getting in front of him.

Now, I’m ascribing a lot of motives I can’t possibly have been privy to here, but, c’mon: I’ve seen enough driver vs. bus shitheadery to be able to tell immediately what was going on. I don’t know if these guys had been dogging each other for like a mile down Lawrence at this point already or if this was just a single stoplight making of eye contact between two dudes who instinctively oppose each other that led to this, but it was clear that Some Shit Had Gone Down and now these two dudes hated each other.

What I _was_ privy to was this sequence of events:

Shitty white guy, red-faced and angry, absolutely flooring the miserable 4-pot engine and crap-assed automatic transmission that base-spec penalty box Corolla comes with for all it’s worth. Which ain’t much.

A bus being pushed to (and possibly beyond) the absolute limits of its accelerative powers, to the point that I swear the front end of this thing was rearing upwards as it screamed down the street.

The bus didn’t win outright, but it got far enough ahead of the Corolla to where it could impose its will in this game of chicken. The parking lane was coming up soon, and the bus either had to hit the brakes or make a move to take the lane.

Of course, duder chose to take the lane, and FUCK the asshole in the cheap little import trying to interfere with that plan out of sheer orneriness. Corolla Guy had been trying to fully pass the bus since the previous stop, but his sadmobile had barely got him even with the back third of it by this point. So he’s NOT gonna pass the bus, period.

The bus driver, for his part, the fuck does he care? His bus weighs about 40,000lbs, empty. That Toyota doesn’t even weigh 3,000. Bus driver knows he ain’t getting hurt if the Toyota doesn’t give and smacks into the back side of his bus.

Here’s where I find that it gets interesting, though: if Corolla Guy had any spine to back up his impotent anger, he could’ve taken the hit. Even full out, neither vehicle managed to build up much in the way of speed (I think both that bus and that car are officially rated to do a 0-60MPH run in “maybe”), so the collision would’ve been annoying and probably really bad for the car but it’s a new enough car to be safe enough that a sub-30MPH sideswipe collision is not going to hurt the driver much at all unless the odds are REALLY against him. And then he’s basically written himself a check on the City’s dime for damages and pain and suffering.

But no, that would take even one iota of balls to go through with. Instead, like most screamy old fuckers when actually challenged on their bullshit, Grampa Grumpy backed down, slammed on the brakes, and let the bus take the lane.

By now, my lane is moving, so I take one last look at his face: the engulfing depression of utter defeat barely masking a deep-seated, decades-built rage. Yet another defeat, and you, sir, are now 0-for-A Lifetime.

Next time? Maybe let the bus in, and get to Denny’s 30 seconds later than you would have otherwise, and leave a fat fuckin’ tip when you’re done and go home with your dignity intact.

Too Long For Facebook: Bulgarian Barber Terror

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For years, my standard response to complaints about what or how much I post on Facebook has been “Fuck you if you don’t like it, you CHOSE to see my shit. Feel free to unfriend and/or block me because I literally do not give any fucks either way”. And, to be very clear, I still absolutely feel that way. There’s just a part of me, though, that misses the pre-social media days, the good ol’ Web2.0 when people who wanted to write had their own blogs and owned and controlled their own content instead of just generating it for behemoth aggregators like FB and Twitter for free… therefore, some of the longer stuff, I’ll post here instead and just link to this on FB rather than dump the whole thing there. My FB friends, I’m sure, will appreciate the option to ignore this shit when it scrolls through their feed. I’ll appreciate having my own goddamned writings controlled on my own site when the Zuckerberg Tax of 2024 is enacted and Facebook is allowed to retroactively charge us all a dollar for every update we’ve ever posted to his fuckin’ tar pit of a website. Anywho, on with the actual post…

Fuckin’ hell. One of my sisters is getting married this coming weekend so we have a lot to get done to make sure we’re ready for it; y’know, reserve the hotel, make sure the suit is back from the cleaners, get a haircut…

For the latter, I didn’t want to have that “totally just got a haircut” look going so the plan was for me to take care of that this past weekend so I’m not stressing it this week nor looking entirely like an alcoholic hobo at my beloved sibling’s special day.

This past weekend was overbooked, but I had a window of like 1.5 hours to get it taken care of on Saturday, which, given that I don’t patronize some “schedule it a month in advance and bring a credit check” salon NOR an off-the-books old ‘hood joint where somebody’s slightly palsied auntie will take a weed-whacker to your lid for a ten spot, should’ve made this doable.

So, of course, there was an hour-plus wait.

Now… it’s bad enough that I pay $23 for a haircut to begin with since, when you have as little hair left as I do, you’re basically paying for the memory of actually needing a haircut more than you are the stylist’s time. It’s a lil’ bit of anachronistic vanity, y’know, “whooaaaa the ol’ golden locks are gettin’ a litttttttle TOO flow-y right now, better have Delilah trim back Samson’s magic power source here or panties are gonna be flyin’ at me from every direction, amirite, ladies?”.

I’m dumb and nostalgic enough for my old thick long hair to pay $23 once in a while to be reminded of that feeling.

I’m NOT dumb enough to wait a goddamned hour for it.

So color me pleasantly surprised when, a mere five hours later than I was _planning_ to take my lunch break today (thanks, workplace! You’re #1!), I’m fighting rush hour traffic through the north side to the joint, which, miraculously, not only DOESN’T have a wait at the moment, but has a barber (they don’t call themselves that, they’re stylists, of course, but I already typed that word once a few paragraphs ago and I _STILL_ feel douche-y about it) waiting for a customer. Boom. Walk right in, don’t even have to turn on the Kindle because Mr. Important gets to slide right into a chair.

BEST is this… I don’t care who cuts my hair. Truly, I don’t. As mentioned, I don’t have much left, so it’s not like giving me a high’n’tight would stress even a first-semester at University of Phoenix’s Bachelors of Liberal & Beauty Arts program student’s chops. So, whichever barber is available, I’ll take.

EXCEPT this Bulgarian lady who works there. She’s a tiny thing, extreme amounts of makeup, extremely high hair, extreme aggression. I lost the “Next Available” lottery to this fuckin’ scissors-wielding nightmare once.

And only once.

There’s no other way to describe it other than… she beat THE SHIT out of my head. She worked the clippers like they were divorce papers and my head was the abusive American slob who ordered her off of “slavicbrides.com” ten years ago. She said NOTHING to me beyond “what you want for hair?”. And, man, I am a pleasant goddamned customer. I loathe fuckers who are dicks to service industry people. I am “Hi, how are you?”, a smile on my face, charge me for the shampoo but we’ll be skipping that part because EW, weird, and you can quickly cram another paying customer into your chair here because I will smilingly be on my way in about four minutes, because giving me a haircut is the dictionary picture of Easy Money.

Seriously. I have no idea what her damage was.

I swear my head was bruised and had like three nicks that itched while they healed on it after she was done.

“But why didn’t you tell her to knock it off, smr?!?!?! Why put up with that?”

Yeah, you go spend your childhood growing up in a Slavic neighborhood having mean small old Polish ladies scare the shit out of you in the neighborhood all the time and then having mean, small but beautiful Polish girls attract and terrify you throughout your teenaged years and THEN tell me that that accent coming out of a stern blonde face doesn’t reduce you to mute submission every time.

So yeah, I consoled myself by getting the fuck out of there afterwards and telling the hostess every time since “I’ll take next available but, um… not the little one” if she’s working when I walk in.

Now, imagine my joy when I walk in today and she’s there but NOT the free barber. Instead, I get the nice Filipino dude who does a fast, great job every time.

And my pissy Bulgarian tormentor? She’s stuck giving a long, careful haircut to Captain Actually instead. I’m telling you… you haven’t enjoyed life until you’ve gotten to witness a tiny Bulgarian witch-barber that you HATE have to listen to a m’lady-ing Fedora Farmer mansplain to her about how cash money and checks are not even going to exist in ten more years because Bitcoin.

It was DELICIOUS. This fuckin’ guy actually had the stones to tell her “they don’t even USE checks in Europe anymore at all!”. Yes, this dipshit Brony actually said this to a woman who’s PAINFULLY AND OBVIOUSLY FROM FUCKING EUROPE. I mean, she’s got an accent so thick that you can physically cut a slice of it out of the air in front of her mouth when she talks, but nope, this guy’s gonna tell her how things REALLY are back in her homeland that the sum total of HIS knowledge of comes from a Reddit sub-thread on how to buy child-themed sex animes online without getting caught.

Hell, I _almost_ rooted for her a little bit when she replied, quite stonily, “Huh. I just back in Bulgaria last summer. Used checks”. Which, of course, the fuckin’ greasy manga fan in her chair obliviously failed to hear and/or let derail in the _slightest_ his ongoing man-ologue about The Future of Money.

I can only imagine, by the time she was done, that he was actually missing entire chunks of his scalp.

So, thanks, haircut place! Yeah, I spent too much time and money getting my bald spots shaped again, but I left there with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, and can you really put a price on that?

The Books of 2016, #7: Rebellion: The History of England from James I to The Glorious Revolution, by Peter Ackroyd

rebellionLast year, I read the first two books of this trilogy, Mr Ackroyd’s comprehensive overview of the history of England from earliest times up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. And I loved them. I came into this entire series with a bias as I had read, a few years earlier, his London: The Autobiography, which was a GODDAMNED OUTSTANDING history/mash note of/to that awesome, insane city.

So, yeah, long story short, Ackroyd knows and does England well. It’s his thing.

One of the key aspects of this series that makes it manageable (even at three volumes) is its sharp, laser-focus on _England_. This is not a history of Great Britain, or the Empire, or the colonies, or even Ireland or Scotland. It’s about England, that weird little 2/3rds of a rather dumpy, damp island that has punched orders of magnitude above its weight in human affairs for a couple of centuries now. Mr. Ackroyd makes no apologies for this focus; one of the tasks of the historian-as-author is circumscribing what they’re going to present rather than let that admittedly-interesting but increasingly distant from the theme subtopics run away with the entire narrative.

So, for example, the whole complex web of Irish history is pretty much absent save for when it directly impacts the goings-on in England proper. Ditto Scotland. The conflict between the Anglican Church and the Puritans gets a very large chunk of the text devoted to it, as it was extremely important, particularly in the time period covered by this volume, but, as noted in the book itself, once a large chunk of Puritan leadership decides to fuck off for America, that’s the last the book concerns itself with them.

Within the boundaries of these constraints, what you’re left with is just a wonderfully detailed, deep look at the people, processes and actions that shaped England throughout this era. As it was a particularly violent and clamorous time, it lends itself to being a good read. The Stuarts were not quite as bloodily bonkers as the Tudors who preceded them, but what they lacked in personal viciousness they generally made up for in bull-headed, stubborn incompetence. This naturally led to the English Civil War, a fairly catastrophic event for the English people (~140k dead in a country of five million souls is… well, it’s a fuckin’ LOT), followed by the grim stretch of Cromwell & Son’s grey rule over a joy-deprived island.

Ackroyd maintains a lively trip through this otherwise dark and bloody era, leading the reader along through the very bad goings-on but also taking care to show the hard-earned lessons the English learned from their suffering, all culminating in the reestablishment of the monarchy in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Stronger boundaries were proscribed around both the throne’s and Parliament’s spheres of action by this, and most agreed that it was basically time to shunt religion out of the political arena entirely, leaving it generally up to the individual’s conscience. The sense as this volume and series closes is that, for all the blood, the Civil War and Protectorate taught the English people the right lessons that directly led to the next two-odd centuries’ worth of general growth and prosperity.

Interspersed throughout this volume, and every volume in the series, are shorter, stand-alone chapters that cover various single important works of art, or scientists, or, in the earlier volumes, what people ate, wore, lived in… these asides add a tremendous amount of color to the otherwise-standard chronological march through time of powerful people and their doings. I enjoyed these breaks from the main narrative, and digging into a chapter on, say, how the writings of John Milton reflected the uncertainties and passion of Republican England adds as much to the reader’s understanding of the era as the raw facts do.

In all, this is a wonderful end to a wonderful series by a frankly wonderful author. Ending with the Glorious Revolution is a wise choice, as from there forward the history of England is inextricably intertwined with the story of the Empire and of Europe, and the scope would have to widen considerably. Stopping here allows this series to stand alone as a history of pre-modern _England_ all on its own.

I genuinely like and respect all of Peter Ackroyd’s work that I’ve read to date, and I can heartily recommend this particular series to any reader interested in any aspect of English history. It’s definitely a popular history, so no prior knowledge of the topic is required to understand or appreciate the work. But, being popular by no means implies that it is shallow or poorly-done; it’s masterfully written and will be equally engaging to those of us who were already quite familiar with the period covered here.