A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Beverly Cleary. She wrote some good books.

Lowell Kempf
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Beverly Cleary died on Thursday, March 25, 2021. Which, from the perspective of when I’m writing this was yesterday. She was 104 so the sad aspect is really fighting the impressive aspect.

I’m not sure if I’ve read any of her books since the 1980s. However, I did read a nice chunk of her books back in the day. You know, back when I was the primary audience. And since it’s been decades since I actually read Beverly Cleary, I am not in a position to make any analysis or commentary about her body of work.

However, her Ramona books did leave a lasting impression on me. I remember finding impossible to believe that the same author who had created Henry Huggins, who I found terribly bland, also created Ramona Quimbly who I remember being a much more nuanced and believable character. Ramona was basically a good kid but full of all the flaws and anxieties that are a part of being a kid.

In fact, I remember being convinced that Beverly Cleary was setting up having Beezus and Ramona’s parents getting divorced. Which, according to Wikipedia, never happened. The fact that I believed that could have happened, though, speaks of the emotional weight Beverly Cleary could convey

I’m a little scared of rereading any of her books because it might be disillusioning. I’ve had decades to develop rose colored glasses. However, she wrote works that have stayed with me and made it to 104. That’s awesome.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Mar 27, 2021 3:01 am
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Neuromancer: the book that became a genre

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If William Gibson hadn’t written Neuromancer and basically invented the genre of Cyberpunk on the spot... I’m honestly not convinced someone else would have.

Gibson didn’t invent the idea of a human mind going into a computer. (Heck, Tron is older than Neuromancer) He certainly didn’t invent corporate-run dystopias. He absolutely didn’t invent noire which is the underlining literary genre of Cyberpunk.

But he did blend those elements and more into a singular vision that informed a ridiculous amount of media that followed it. Heck, a lot of the jargon and slang he created has gone into regular use and become regular words.

This was the third or fourth time I’ve read Neuromancer. And each time has been different. Yes, part of it is that the jargon has become more standardized. However, Gibson’s abrupt, even staccato, way of breaking up scenes has become more common and thus easier to follow.

And with the actual writing easier to follow, the actual story is simpler than I remembered. It’s a heist story, dripping with noire anti-heroes. Taking the basic structure and dropping it into Chicago during the Great Depression would be an interesting exercise although some of the Cyberpunk aspects of the heist would be hard to reconfigure.

Two things I came away from this reading with: I think a big part of the iconic nature of street samurai Molly Millions with her Wolverine claws and perpetual sunglasses is her really awesome name. Second, Maelcum, the Rastafarian navy, is the dark horse of the book. The closest thing to a normal person and a functional human being, he’s now the biggest reason I want to see a movie adaptation.

There is something to the accusation of there being more style than substance to Neuromancer BUT I have seen so much Cyberpunk with no substance that I treasure the substance that is there. That said, I remember liking Count Zero more and I’m looking forward to rereading that.
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Thu Mar 25, 2021 1:19 am
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Sometimes great authors write mediocre kids books

Lowell Kempf
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Sometimes when I was reading The Undersea Trilogy by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson it felt like I was reading one of Heinlein’s juveniles. And then I’d read a section that reminded me that I wasn’t.

I actually picked up used copies of the three books ages ago but my recent interest in Pohl made me decide to read them. The three books describe the adventures of Jim Eden, a cadet in the sub-sea academy.

The books are written a very boy’s own adventure style and the plots are very by-the-numbers. I have read much, much worse books in the genre (I’ve read Stratemeyer syndicate books, for crying out loud) but the Undersea Trilogy still only rose to being okay in it’s best moments.

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Of the three books, the first one, Undersea Quest, was the strongest. Jim gets caught up in a conspiracy to steal one of his uncle’s inventions that gets him kicked out of the academy. He has to save his uncle and keep the bad guys from making a profit. (Okay, they die but it’s not his fault) It all makes sense and the rules of the setting are consistent.

The second book, Undersea Fleet, inexplicably introduces sea serpents and merfolk that don’t work with what I thought was the educational, hard science point of the series. More than that, these world shaking discoveries get one line in the last book. For me, this is where the bottom dropped out of the series.

The last book, Undersea City, wasn’t as bad. However, its plot about a benign conspiracy to mitigate undersea earthquakes only holds together by a perverse lack of communication. One decent conversation could have ended a lot of the conflict.

In short, Pohl and Williamson, both very solid authors, feel like they totally phoned it in. If they had stopped with the first book, it would have been better.

I came out of the experiences with two takeaways:

Robert E. Heinlein really was amazing for his ability to write juveniles.

Juveniles and Young Adult are two different genres and I like Young Adult better.

You can find this also at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Mar 17, 2021 4:34 pm
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The Reckoners Trilogy is the apocalypse via super powers

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I was about a third of the way through the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy when I finally realized that they were young adult books. That was when I noticed that while there was graphic violence and a lot of examinations of ethics and morality, there wasn’t any swearing or sex scenes.

Let me say before anyting else that I won’t be discussing the plots of any of the books because there would just be too many spoilers.

The books in the trilogy are Steelheart, Firefight and Calamity. In theory, they are super hero fiction but (not in a remotely bad way) they didn’t read like super hero fiction but post apocalyptic science fiction.

Ten years before the start of series, a red star appeared in the sky. Some people became epics, gaining eclectic mixes of super powers. And every last one of them became corrupt and destructive murderers. By the time the first book starts, the entire world is a devastated ruin that makes the Mad Max movies seem like a happier place to live.

Our hero is David Charleston, who has become an expert on Epics after one killed his father. He basically forces the Reckoners, the underground resistance dedicated to killing Epics, to recruit him. From there, we follow his journey into becoming an action hero and growing up. It’s actually more subtle than most young adult coming of age stories. Oh and one of his best characteristics is that David is hilariously bad at similes.

Seriously, I read digital copies from the library so I could see how many of his terribly similes other folks had underlined.

While I don’t want to discuss the plot, I do want to discuss the setting. I can’t say it isn’t comic book-like since The Walking Dead and Uber are comic books. But despite having super powers, it does not feel like the superhero genre.

Super powers in this setting are a literal curse. Not a Spider-Man everything goes wrong curse but a curse that drives you insane. And there are quirky elements to them. Oddball weaknesses (they all have them) and mishmashes of powers. It’s a plot point that one epic has ‘conventional’ powers.

More than that, power epics have geographic effects. In addition to the collapse of society, each book features a city that has been warped by Epic powers. Chicago is enshrouded in night and changed to steel, including part of Lake Michigan. New York is flooded with sky skraper top islands with glowing plants. Atlanta is a creeping mass of salt. (That last one is really weird)

Much of my super hero reading has been real world + super heroes. The Reckoners trilogy is its own crazy thing in a pretty realized setting. Which is what made it worth reading.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Mar 10, 2021 9:35 pm
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Cyberpunk had to start somewhere

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I revisited William Gibson’s anthology Burning Chrome for the first time in at least twenty years.

It’s quite a different read for me than it was back then

From what I can tell, it’s some of his earliest writing before he got into novels and once he started long form, he never went back to short stories. That worked out well for him. They were mostly written before Neuromancer, which was a bomb that hit both Science Fiction and Pop Culture and whose reverberations are still being felt today. (Cyberpunk 2077, anyone?)

Gibson is interesting. He coined the term cyberspace but he didn’t invent the idea. The Muller-Fokker Effect by Jon Sladek explored the idea of minds in computers with a lot more satire and bitterness and hatred in 1970, for instance. (I don’t know if I’m brave enough to revisit that book!) I think what he did that had such impact was add the punk to cyberpunk. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking him. Gibson made it work by being a really good writer.

There were two stories that really stood out for me: Dogfight and Burning Chrome. Which were also the last two stories in the book although not the last two written.

At least at this stage of his writing, most of Gibson’s protagonists may be flawed loners on the fringes of society but they are still talented people. You have to be good to break the internet. There is a certain element of glamor to them. Deke of Dogfight, on the other hand, is a Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman figure. Which makes his self-destruction even more poignant.

On the other hand, Burning Chrome is the story where Gibson introduced many of the imagery and ideas that would become cyberpunk. The heroes are tarnished cowboys who pull off their impossible heist, even if it turns out to not make them fulfilled or happy. They are larger than life, flawed archetypes. In Burning Chrome, you can see the shape of what was to come.

And now I want to reread Neuromancer

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Mar 4, 2021 1:35 am
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Wow, the Monster at the End of This Book is turning fifty!

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Last week, a friend told me that 2021 is the fiftieth anniversary of The Monster at the End of This Book. My reply to that was that we wouldn’t have Deadpool if it wasn’t for that book.

While I was just trying to sound clever, that might be true.

The Monster at the End of This Book has been a best-selling classic for generations so I probably don’t have to describe it. But, just like in case (*spoilers*), it is a Sesame Street book where Grover sees the title of the book and desperately tries to keep the reader from finishing the book. He’s scared of monsters, you see. Of course, since loveable old Grover is a monster, he is the monster in the title.

According to Wikipedia, the book was designed to encourage kids to finish books. Since that idea terrifies Grover, the author is clearly relying on children’s innate sadism. However, the book’s significance is how much it explores the meta space.

The Monster et al is the not the first work to break the fourth wall and play with the meta. However, it is baby”s first metafictional book and it is a darn tooting good example of metafiction. Reread it now, I realize that it is not just a book about being a book. It also perfectly captures Grover’s voice. The different elements create a dynamic between two characters and one of them is you, the reader.

There is literally nothing that I can’t say about The Monster et al that hasn’t already been said. I have seen learned papers written about this book. The book is so profoundly about being a book.

I have had We Are In A Book! by Mo Willlems recommended to me as an even more meta children’s book. Which it is. And I know a sequel was written to The Monster et al that adds Elmo to the mix. (I don’t think it’s as good, by the way) However, none of that could have existed without The Monster et al and the legacy that it created fifty years ago.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Feb 10, 2021 3:28 pm
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Is Lord Peter Wimsey too perfect?

Lowell Kempf
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Every time I read a Lord Peter Wimsy story (which happens reasonably often), I find myself thinking what an odd character he is. He’s like Doctor Frankenstein stitched Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster together and threw in James Bond’s pancreas for good measure.

The protagonist, no, the hero, of a good number of mystery novels and stories by Dorothy Sayers, Lord Peter is insanely wealthy, really quite brilliant and a dapper hand at just about any skill he puts his hand at. And anything he can’t do, his manservant Bunter can. (Thus answering the question of what if Bertie was as smart as Jeeves. We’d still get fun stories but they’d be about murder) There’s a lot of Mary Sue elements and wish fulfillment to Lord Peter.

But... the shadow of World War I and the changing world of England in between the wars helps counter those elements. The works aren’t just set in that time period. They were written then too and Dorothy Sayers had a keen eye for what was going on in society. Lord Peter served in the trenches and occasionally has bouts of PTSD. He also has guilt over thre number of folks he’s sent to death row, particularly because he isn’t driven to solve crime by justice but by his curiosity and amusement.

For all of his crazy money and amazing talent and silly last name, Lord Peter is damaged.

My introduction to the series was Gaudy Nights, which was a terrible introduction to Lord Peter Whimsy but an amazing one to Dorothy Sayers. The book is really about Harriet Vane, Lord Peter’s love interest, and the state of feminism and women’s rights in England at the time. (And if the common theory that Harriet is an author insert, then Lord Peter is definitely a work of wish fulfillment)

I haven’t actually read all the books. That’s because every time I try, I start over from the first book. Maybe I’ll try reading them in reverse order this year. But they are good reading.

As I said at the start, Lord Peter is strange. He’s practically perfect in so many ways and many of his stories are downright pulpy when actually looking at the crimes. However, Sayers ability to capture the turbulence of a changing England saves him and his stories from being silly and forgettable.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Feb 3, 2021 4:02 pm
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The bizarre but gentle world of Daniel Pinkwater

Lowell Kempf
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Daniel Pinkwater was one of my favorite childhood authors, if not my flat out favorite. While I sometimes wonder if the world has forgotten him but he’s not just still kicking but writing so maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd.

I’ve found his books to be gently bizarre with insights into isolation and figuring out who you are. Which is pretty important when you’re writing books for kids and young adults. He also has the weirdest titles. His books are strange but the titles are even crazier.

Case in point, I decided to reread The Snarkoit Boys and the Avocado of Death. While the book features a mad scientist who specializes in avocados, a master criminal obsessed with orangutans and the triumphant return of the chicken man from Lizard Music, the story is still more grounded than the title would suggest. Pinkwater’s fantastic elements have a dingy quality, like Star Wars’ used future look.

Mind you, reading the book as an adult is a different experience. For one thing, I now realize the title is a tribute to the b-movies the characters watch

There are some elements that wouldn’t do too well these days. An anti-Semite English teacher being played for laughs definitely stands out. (Although I understand that Pinkwater, himself Jewish, revisits the idea in a more serious book, making me wonder if it’s autobiographical) Not to mention the core concept of teenagers sneaking out of the house to go to an all night movie house. That isn’t as cool as it was in the early 80s.

The other thing that struck me is how urban the book is. While that isn’t uncommon now, it seems like we had decades of children’s books that were set in the country-side during the first chunk of the 20th century. I blame Mark Twain, personally. But a big theme of the book is the characters learning about the eccentric parts of their city, which is based on Chicago.

It is obvious is retrospect but just about every book Daniel Pinkwater wrote that I can think of is about self-discovery. He’s very gentle and exceedingly bizarre in how he goes about it so I’m not surprised I did t always get it when I was young.

Revisiting Daniel Pinkwater with his insight into being a social outcast and how to learn to belong, not to mention the quirkiness of people in general, I can’t help but wonder if he’s always been ahead of his time.

As I mentioned at the start, I’m not sure how much Daniel Pinkwater is still read. (Probably a lot more than I know) However, I think he was and still is very relevant.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Jan 28, 2021 12:17 am
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Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians sounds like Daniel Pinkwater wrote the name

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The only reason I found out that the Alcatraz books by Brandon Sanderson even existed was because I was researching snarky narrators on TVTropes. (TVTropes: we will make your time binging Wikipedia seem productive)

A young orphan named Alcatraz Smedry learns that he is actually part of a powerful, magical family that is part of a sort of secret war against the vast evil empire that is also all the librarians. I say sort of because there are three whole continents whose existence the librarians have hidden that know all about the librarian war.

One of the things that is very striking about the series is how goofy many of the innate concepts are (libraries are dens of Illuminati-style evil overlords, the Smedries have super powers that would be a stretch in the Legion of Substitute Heroes, magic glasses are the ultimate tools, the main character is named Alcatraz) but how deadly serious they are taken.

In a lot of books about a kid or kids who are dealing with some sort of hidden conflict, the bad guys don’t really seem to be out to hurt anyone and the conflicts are almost cozy in their scope. In the Alcatraz series, the bad guys are perfectly willing to torture and kill the protagonists and the scope of the overall plot is global.

I came across the series because I was looking for examples of Lemony Snicket narrators. The Alcatraz series doesn’t actually use one. Instead, it is first person narrator who is unreliable, rambling and very snarky. (From spoilers, I learned he has a good reason for his attitude. Still, I wouldn’t have read the books if the spoilers hadn’t interested me)

I haven’t really discussed the plot. The plot is fun but doesn’t have any real surprises. For me, the voice and the world building are what make me want to read the Alcatraz series and they are enough to make me want to keep on going and finish the series.
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Wed Jan 20, 2021 8:47 pm
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Plutonia is a comic book spin on a childhood classic

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Margaret Wise Brown, the same person who wrote Good Night Moon, also wrote a book called the Dead Bird, a picture book about a group of kids who find a dead bird in the wood, bury it and sing a song.

It is actually more of mediation about the acceptance of death than the start of a cult or the origin of a bunch of serial killers. I still find it an unsettling work, although I will grant that it does teach a necessary lesson.

A few years ago, I came upon a comic book called Plutonia that could honestly be described as some saying ‘What if we rewrote the Dead Bird but made it a dead superhero instead?’

Five kids find the body of local hero Plutonia in the woods after she is apparently killed by one of her many foes. Things go dark from there.

I read the first issue but it was years before I found the rest.

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I had heard that the story culminates in one of the kids getting beaten to death by the others so I was all set for a Lord of the Flies scenario. Instead, said kid had gone nuts and was trying to kill the others. The nicest character hits him in the head once with a log to save the other kids. Self defense instead of mob violence. Quite a different scenario and one that actually ties back in with The Dead Bird comparison since they then shamefully bury him in the woods.

The kids, who are in turns petty and scared and completely out of their depth, are believable. That helps sell the story, as well as make it more uncomfortable to read. It’s not a superhero story but a story about kids. Unlike the kids in the Dead Bird, these kids do not come to terms with death but, to be fair, it’s a much more extreme situation.

Plutonia is a meditation about children trying to cope with death. Just not a happy one.



Post Script: Plutonia, who isn’t actually dead, is a fascinating character developed in flashbacks. She has Superman’s powers with Batman’s working arrangement with the police and Spider-Man’s problems. Spider-Man as a single mom isn’t a new concept but Plutonia did a good job using it.


Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jan 6, 2021 11:27 pm
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