The Bards of Bone Plain, by Patricia A. McKillip

The kingdom of Belden was united from five kingdoms by a foreign invader who brought with him a a bard named Declan. When Declan retired from his position as Court Bard, he set up a school on a hill on the Stirl Plain, where he trained other bards, looking for bards of power and skill, who might be trained in the magic that had been lost to the land. His most promising student was Nairn, who had sung the jewels from Declan's harp and had been the marching bard of one of the defeated kings, and who would fail at the Three Trials of Bone Plain and become known to poetry as the Unforgiven.

A thousand years later, Belden has become a modern society, where the car has just been introduced and most wealthy houses have electricity. Jonah Cle is a wealthy man and friend of the king who, when he is not drunk, leads excavations around the kingdom's capital. His son is Phelan, a student at the school on the hill, which is now surrounded by the city. Phelan wants nothing more that to graduate from the school and go on his way, and so researches the Bone Plain for his final paper, thinking it would be easy. One of Jonah's more enthusiastic pupils is the princess Beatrice, much to the disappointment of the queen.

The story goes between Nairn, in the beginning of the kingdom and how he came to take the trials of Bone Plain; and Phelan and Princess Beatrice, as they discover the past in their various ways; and how the past was still with them. In many ways, the parts set in the "modern" era feel very similar to Georgian England (around the beginning of the twentieth century), with people starting to look at their history with a critical eye, and the upper class living in strict social codes (which a young woman digging in the dirt does not include).

One of my favorite fantasy series is McKillip's "The Riddle Master" trilogy, which I read a young lad and was still touched when I finally reread it a couple of years ago. I've also read a couple of other things by her, which I found good but not quite the same. In this book, she hits her A-game. There are passages where she almost sings (appropriate for the theme of the book).

This is a gooooood book.

The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, by Steig Larsson

In some ways, The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo appears to be misnamed. For much of the book, the main character is Mikael Blomkvist, a financial investigative reporter and editor of a magazine who was just convicted of libeling a major business man. Soon after he leaves his position at the small magazine he edits and that published the piece that got him into trouble, he gets an job offer from Henrik Vanger, the patriarch of a major Swedish industrial family. (And yes, the entire book is set in Sweden, which put me adrift when it came to money; how much money is 140,000 krona? Near the end there was one section which gave some help, and 140,000 krona is somewhere around $15,000 or so.) The job: to dig into the family history and find out who killed his niece 40 years ago. For about have the book, Lisbeth Salander, the title character, is only marginally involved in the story, having first been hired to investigate Blomkvist for Vanger. While the episodes involving her are interesting, they really have nothing to add to Blonkvist's investigation. But they are useful in setting up Salander's character.

The main story seems to be a rather standard one where the protagonists try to find the dastard who committed the crime, and then get threatened as they get closer to the truth. But Blomkvist and Salander make an interesting team, and Salander is a fascinating protagonist in her own right. And while Larsson does a good job in building the plot logically, the main story is obviously not the only one he is telling; after the conclusion of Blomkvist and Salander's investigation, there is still another good 50 + pages of the book remaining, as Blomkvist gets back at the business man who set him up. So, while the book is in many ways a standard thriller, when you sit back and think about it, there could very well be more there.

I have heard from somewhere that there are people claiming that Larsson is one of the best writers out there. Personally, I would not say one way or the other. Since the book was originally written in Swedish and all I've read is a translation, I can only really comment on the plotting. Any stylistic methods that Larsson used would have been at least altered in the translation; that's just the way it is.

Finally, this is apparently the first book in a trilogy, which is good, because I was kind of bummed out at the ending. Hopefully, things will eventually be tied up, one way or the other, by the end of the third book.

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So, I'm reading the book, "The Best and the Brightest," by David Halberstam, about the Kennedy administration and our entering into Vietnam. And, when talking about a debate in 1954 as to whether the US should go into Vietnam to rescue the French at Dien Bien Phu, and the ultimate decision not to, there was this passage:

But Eisenhower was in no mood for unilateral action, and in 1954 his manner of decision making contrasted sharply with that of Lyndon Johnson some eleven years later. Whereas Eisenhower genuinely consulted the Congress, Johnson paid lip service to real consultation and manipulated the Congress. Eisenhower's Chief of Staff had made a tough-minded, detailed estimate of what the cost of the war would be; eleven years later an all-out effort was made by almost everyone concerned to avoid determining and forecasting that the reality of intervention meant. In 1954 the advise of allies was genuinely sought; in 1965 the United States felt itself so powerful that it did not need allies, except as a means of showing more flags and gaining moral legitimacy for the U.S. cause. Eisenhower took the projected costs of a land war to his budget people with startling results; Johnson and McNamara would carefully shield accurate troop projections not only from the press and the Congress but from their own budgetary experts.

Ummm, does this sound eerily familiar to anyone else in regards to, say, getting us into Iraq?

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For a variety of reasons, Carlisle's Old Home Day, which used to be a celebration of Independents Day, has not been on the 4th of July for some years. This year, my mother decided to that this was wrong. So, quietly, she organized a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the local memorial for the Revolutionary War that's on the grounds of the church in the center of town. For this one, at least, she wanted it small and simple, so she didn't make a big deal of it (aside from the fact that many people in town go away for the 4th, especially when it makes a 3 day weekend), although she did invite the various members of the Board of Selectmen, members of both political town committees, and others. But the local paper wrote an editorial touting it. So there was a good turnout. All those who wanted to read were given the opportunity. Maybe next year we'll alter the timing because the Catholic church was still in session when we started, but other than that, all I heard was good things.

I read the second paragraph:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

If you haven't read it lately, go here to read it. You really should.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

In N. K. Jemisin's premier novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the entire world is ruled by a single nation from the city of Sky. This nation is the chosen of the most powerful god of the world, who imprisoned his brother and three other younger gods and gave the ruler of the Arameri to use as tools and weapons. Enter Yeine Darr, a chieftan from the north and granddaughter to the king of the Arameri, who is summoned to Sky and unexpectedly made an heir. She must deal with unknown rules and relationships to meet her destiny.

Jemisin has been getting some good press for this book, and I can certainly understand why. She creates wonderfully believable characters, including gods, and almost everyone, even some of the real bastards, are wonderfully complex. While her writing style is not up there with the elites (I cannot think of a passage that was memorable), it is still very good.

Interestingly, as I was reading it, the thing that struck me was that this was the second book I've recently read that dealt with one god capturing and using the power of others; the other book was Scalzi's The God Engines. I wonder if Scalzi read this, much longer (412 pages vs. 136), book and was inspired.

There is one last thing about this book. It lists itself as "Book One of the Inheritance Trilogy." Which seems really odd, since the book comes to a definite end. I wonder what the rest of the trilogy is going to be about.

Customer Service philosophy

As a cashier and a librarian, both my jobs involve dealing with customers, or, as libraries like to term them, "patrons." There are many, many slogans and catch phrases that involve customer service. "The Customer Is Always Right." "Be an Agent For the Customer." All of these sayings and slogans attempt to boil down the basics of great customer service into a single, simple sentence that anyone can keep in mind. The problem with this method, of course, is that if you boil something down enough, you end up with a burnt layer of caked crud at the bottom of the pan.

"The Customer is Always Right."

This is, in my opinion, the single most poisonous phrase ever coined about customer service. The main reason is because it is, at its very nature, false. Absolutely, 100% incorrect. Yes, often customers are right, and often when they are wrong, it's best to let them have their way. But sometimes the customer is wrong; how does this phrase help you?

Sometimes the customer has made a simple, honest mistake that if pointed out politely, will be admitted at once. This is easy to deal with, because you can either lie and say, "Sorry, our mistake" (which, in many ways, it is, since you failed to communicate the situation correctly in the first place), or say, "Well, technically your wrong, but only because you never took graduate work in Egyptian Heiroglyphics, so let's just forget this whole thing and do it your way."

But there are time when this is not so simple. Sometimes the customer's stupid and would need to be hit repeatedly by a clue-by-four to be right; and sometimes the customer is trying to cheat you blind. How do you handle these situations, if "The Customer Is Always Right"? It's these situations that make this phrase so poisonous. Because if you smile politely and act as if they are not bloody morons or blatant thieves, you kill a little bit of yourself. Cynicism grows as you feel yourselves forced to make nice to people who you feel don't deserve it. You grow to realize that not only is this phrase wrong, but it's a lie; you would have to be an ultra-naive, almost psychotic optimist to believe that "The Customer Is Always Right" is any more than just hooey.

So why did it get adopted? Because it is meant to impress an attitude in the customer service personal, and because it is simple. A cashier who believes that the customer is always right is not going to be disrespectful to the customer. However, after a day or two of running into customers who are so obviously wrong, customer service people either discard the phrase altogether or put on a rictus smile and show of good cheer. Thus I say this phrase should be thrown on the trash heap of bad ideas, where it can lay along side of "let's line our drinking water pipes with lead" and "loose asbestos is really good."

What next?

Without the most famous of all the catch phrases, which one should we use? For the most part, I find that any catch phrase tends to be too simplistic. They take one aspect of customer service but minimize or ignore another.

Discarding all catch phrases, how do we encourage good customer service? Instead of catch phrases and other marketing gimmicks, I prefer to go with a philosophy. The problem with those is that they really don't make for good slogans or catch phrases.

My philosophy of customer service is thus: all customers deserve to be treated with respect because they are customers. If you are a cashier or librarian or any other such profession, then customers are the reason for your existence. If they go away, why is anyone paying you? Therefor, *all* customers deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of how much they deserve it for their other qualities. That's the nice thing about this philosophy; it is all encompassing. Are they utter morons? They are still customers and so deserve to be treated with respect. Are they obviously trying to flim flam you out of the change? They are still customers. Also remember that is that they deserve to be *treated* with respect, not that they deserve to be *respected*. Under this philosophy, it is fine to feel contempt for them, so long as you don't treat with that way. Remember, even stupid people pay for your services, and thus they also pay your salary.

So, remember that catchy phrase:

"All customers deserve to be treated with respect because they are customers."

The God Engines, by John Scalzi

Ean Tephe is the captain of a space ship that is literally powered by a chained god. Sometime before, Tephe's god defeated a bunch of other gods and enslaved them, and now they are engines and defenses of these space ships. Then Tephe, whose faith in his Lord is untouched, is sent on a secret mission to ensure the primacy of his Lord, and things ... change.

There's not much more to say about this book without giving away the ending, and that's mostly because this is a novella at only 136 pages. It is a disturbing book, despite Tephe is a likable character and every character really getting just what they deserve at the end. I think that's a testament to Scalzi's writing (this is the first book of his I've read, but I think I'll have to pick some of his others up). Pick it up, but don't expect it to be necessarily fun.

Up Jim River, by Michael Flynn

Up Jim River is the sequel to Flynn's earlier work, The January Dancer, a book that I haven't read. Not having read the first book did not detract from reading this one; while there were references to the Dancer, they were like any background stories of books. There was one thing about this being a sequel: after finishing Up Jim River, I now want to read The January Dancer.

Bridget ban has disappeared. As she was one of the League's elite agents known as the Hounds, this is not normal. Then even her fellow Hounds cannot find her, and it falls to Mearana, her daughter and a Harper, to find her. She enlists Donnovan, an old acquaintance of Bridget ban's and once agent of the Confederacy. But the leaders of the Confederacy have either punished Donnovan or performed a failed experiment on him: there are seven personalities within him, and they frequently have conversations and arguments with each other. So they go out looking throughout the perrifery of civilized space for the Hound, or for what killed her.

This is a good book, and Flynn has a good grasp of a certain complexity that I have not often seen in many sci fi books. The League is a collection of different governments on many planets. Most sci fi writers who take this situation will talk about the government of Planet X, or the King of Planet Y. Flynn, however, has his planets having multiple governments, like Earth is. It adds a certain versimilitude to the writing which I find refreshing.

As a final note, the ending does ensure that there will be another book about this universe.

"Except the Queen," by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder

I'd been hearing about Jane Yolen for awhile now, especially about how she seems to be a favorite of Charles de Lint, one of my all time favorite authors. But I've never got around to reading any of her stuff, because most of her books are for younger audiences. So when the library got this book, I had to pick it up.

And glad I am that I did. Serana and Meteora are fairy sisters who stumble across the Seelie Queen rutting with a mortal. When they let the secret out, the Queen exiles them to the modern world, stripping them of their magic and separating them. Without their glamour, they find themselves old and fat, and in an alien place which has rules that confuse them. Then the sisters discover some troubled youngsters and fall into a series of events which involve powers that they probably could not have handled when they had their magic.

Except the Queen is one of those books that brings the fairy tale to the modern world. There are several, only a few of which I have actually read. But the fairies are not always good natured; the sisters are thoughtless about mortals before they have to live as them. And the UnSeelie are truly scary. Since the main characters are fairy, the wording is generally more archaic, but still readable, giving it a lilting air. As an interesting side note, Yolen and Midori manage to successfully use all three "persons" in their narrative: 1st person (I do this), 3rd person (She does that), and even 2nd person (You do the other thing)!

If you are looking for another book about the fair folk, pick this one up. You won't be disappointed.

The King of Elfland's Daughter, by Lord Dunsany

The valley of Erl was small and unremembered, and the parliament of Erl wanted it to be memorable, so they demanded that they be ruled by a magical lord. So the lord of Erl sent his son, Alveric, into Elfland to bring back and marry the King of Elfland's daughter. With the help of the witch Ziroonderel, he succeeds in besting the guardians and winning Lirazel back to the fields we know. In time, they had a son and the parliament of Erl achieved a magical lord. But there were consequences of having a magical lord that they did not foresee, and the King of Elfland is unhappy that Lirazel was taken from his palace that may be only told of in song.

The King of Elfland's Daughter was first published in 1924. Like Tolkien's work, I do not think it could be published today, because the style of writing is not "modern" in the least. Dunsany (his full name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany), wrote in highly lyrical prose, using a scarcity of dialogue and repetition of phrases to instill the otherworldly aura of the tale. The most obvious repetition is the phrase "fields we know" to designate the real world, as opposed to Elfland. Despite this slightly archaic style, the book is still highly readable, and is mostly about how plans can be made which later backfire, and his descriptions are marvelous. If you enjoy the story telling of Tolkein or fairy tales, I'd go read this book.

(The edition linked to has an introduction by Neil Gaiman.)