Friday, 15 June 2018

Growing Crystals

For Christmas last year I got a crystal growing kit by National Geographic. A few months ago I started making crystals and I'm really impressed with this set.

The kit I got had 10 different coloured seed crystals and crystal packets, 4 silicon containers for growing the crystals, a booklet about crystal formation in nature, and a few real crystals/gemstones. I bought a stainless steel bowl I could use as a double boiler to heat the water and crystals (so I wouldn't ruin a cooking bowl). My first batch was pink and dark green (colours I didn't care about if I messed up somewhere).

I let them grow for a little longer than the 10 days because I wanted larger crystals. Getting the rounded seed crystal out was harder than I expected. I eventually learned that the crystal formations at the base are smaller and softer, and it's easier to just break off that layer entirely than to try and gently pry the seed out. You still have the upper large crystals. I also learned to not wash off the crystals, as it just removes the colour.

I kept all the leftover crystal bits and actually grew several crystals from each packet (one large display crystal plus a few smaller flat layer crystals for future craft uses.

The display base has LED lights (hence why you need to remove the seed crystal, which is rounded (so the finished crystals can hide the LED inside and because it's opaque). I modified the stand by rubbing some gelatos (sort of a cross between crayons and pastels) so it would look a bit more natural and less plastic. 

And here they are all lit up (plus a few of the 'spares').

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Shout-Out: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

She believed in the mission with all her heart. But that was sixty million years ago. How do you stage a mutiny when you're only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential allies changes with each shift? How do you engage an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and hears through your ears and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what's best for you? Sunday Ahzmundin is about to find out.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Book Review: Guardian by A. J. Hartley

Pros: lots of politics, complex race relations 


When Willinghouse is framed for murder, Anglet Sutonga, former steeplejack and spy, tries to clear his name. But the white government starts enacting racist policies that disenfranchise the native black Mahweni and brown Lani populations. Meanwhile a mysterious illness strikes the Drowning, where Ang’s sister lives. As tensions in the city increase, Ang starts to wonder if the city she loves can survive.

This book refers often to actions and people from the previous books in the series, so be sure to read them before starting this one.

While Ang isn’t involved with politics herself, the book depends very heavily on the city’s new policies and how people of different races are treated. I loved seeing a variety of leaders from different groups come together at different points trying to create peace and protest the government’s actions.

The book deals very heavily with race relations, showing clear racist actions on the part of the white men in charge. There are peaceful rallies with some frankly brilliant speeches that wouldn’t be out of place at a Black Lives Matter event. The ending is fantastic in this regard, leaving you with a sense of hope that’s desperately needed in today’s political climate.

Ang goes through several emotional upheavals during the book. She’s able to repress her emotions so she can focus on a number of problems, but I liked how the book addressed some of her feelings at the end, once she has time to deal with them.

I really enjoyed this series and while the book deals with heavy subject matter - especially in today’s political climate - its ending of hope really makes it a worthwhile read.

Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic Longlist

From the press release email:

The Sunburst Award Committee is pleased to announce the 2018 longlist for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. This year’s lists are comprised of a mixture of established authors, talented newcomers, and several past nominees.  Below are the longlisted works, with links where available:

Adult Fiction
Young Adult Fiction
Short Story Fiction  

The Sunburst Award official shortlist will be announced in late June. Sunburst Award winners will be announced in Fall 2018.

Novel Jury: Megan Crewe, Kate Heartfield, Dominik Parisien, Halli Villegas, and Heather Wood.

Short Story Jury: Candas Jane Dorsey, Emily Pohl-Weary, and Alexandra Renwick

Friday, 8 June 2018

Kracie Food Kit: Taiyaki and Odango

I've done a few Poppin' Cookin' kits in the past and saw this Kracie one and decided to try it out. It was definitely my favourite. It's a sample set of traditional Japanese desserts/snacks: taiyaki (a soft fish shaped biscuit with chocolate pudding like spread in the middle), ichigo daifuku (sweet rice flour dough with a strawberry filling), ramune (soft drink), and mitarashi dango (dango are sweet rice flour balls and in this style they're covered in a salty sweet sauce - you can also get dango with other sauces of which my favourite is black sesame).

The kit consists of a series of powders you mix with water in different combinations in the plastic insert (it also contains the fish pattern you microwave for the biscuit). You also cut apart the back of the packaging for size measurements and presentation aids. My Japanese isn't what it used to be (and it used to be fairly poor anyway) so I had to watch a video to get the microwave time and some other details correct.

 The finished product not only looked amazing it tasted fantastic (some of the other kits didn't taste that great). It was a fun kit to do and as they're expensive imports, I'm glad this one was worth eating. ;)

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Shout-Out: Adrift by Rob Boffard

Sigma Station. The ultimate luxury hotel, in the far reaches of space.
For one small group, a tour of the Horsehead Nebula is meant to be a short but stunning highlight in the trip of a lifetime.
But when a mysterious ship destroys Sigma Station and everyone on it, suddenly their tourist shuttle is stranded.
They have no weapons. No food. No water. No one back home knows they're alive.
And the mysterious ship is hunting them.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Video: Victorian Realities - How did they use the toilet?

This is outside my usual era, but I found this video quite interesting in terms of understanding a necessary practice given changes in fashion we're no longer used to. The Prior Attire channel has other videos on Victorian dress, as well as some on Medieval dress and fashion.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Book Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Pros: interesting settings, fun characters


When Rini falls out of the sky at  Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children she’s shocked to learn that her mother has died. Several students help her bring her mother back, knowing that if they fail than Rini will be erased from existence. 

This is the third novella in the Wayward Children series and returns - for a time at least - to the setting of the first book. In addition to the school and the students there, you also see Nancy again. 

Rini is from a nonsense world, Confection, the world her mother, Sumi, went to and was hoping to return to one day. There’s another new character, Cora, an overweight girl who loved the underwater worlds where she was a beautiful mermaid. She’s the main point of view character, which allows the reader to understand her feelings around weight and self-confidence (and the attempts by others to use the first to undermine the second). It was interesting seeing her interactions with Christopher, who went to a world of skeletons and who therefore as unconventional ideas about flesh and weight.

The plot is fairly linear and takes the group to several locations. There are some dangers they face, though not always physical ones.

I thought the mythology of Confection was kind of cool and really fit the kind of world it was - giving it a weird sort of logic despite its nonsense overlay.

It’s a quick, fun read.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity

A few weeks back when I was in Toronto for the Kameron Hurley signing, I went to the Toronto Reference Library to do some research. The library currently has an exhibit on called Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity, ending July 29. It's a fairly small exhibit and only took me a half hour or so to go through, but it's got some cool display pieces, like the bone and adamantium claw props used for the X-Men's Wolverine in the standalone Wolverine movies.

Some of the comics/characters on display I'd heard of (Scott Pilgrim, Captain Canuck), others I hadn't.

And while you're there, I recently discovered that there's an Arthur Conan Doyle room on the 5th floor.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Shout-Out: Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe

In the contest to keep their magic, the only options may be die... or kill. 
Each year, the North American Confederation of Mages assesses every sixteen-year-old novice. Some will be chosen. The rest must undergo a procedure to destroy their magical ability unless they prove themselves in the mysterious and brutal Mages' Exam. 
Disadvantaged by her parents' low standing, Rocío Lopez has dedicated herself to expanding her considerable talent to earn a place in the Confederation. Their rejection leaves her reeling—and determined to fight to keep her magic. 
Long ashamed of his mediocre abilities, Finn Lockwood knows the Confederation accepted him only because of his prominent family. Declaring for the Exam instead means a chance to confirm his true worth. 
Thrown into the testing with little preparation, Rocío and Finn find themselves becoming unlikely allies—and possibly more. But the Exam holds secrets more horrifying than either could have imagined. What are the examiners really testing them for? And as the trials become increasingly vicious, how much are they willing to sacrifice to win?

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Books Received in May, 2018

Many thanks as always to the publishers who sent me books for review in May.

New Worlds, Year One: A Writer's Guide to the Art of Worldbuilding by Marie Brennan - This is a book on worldbuilding comprised of short essays posted to Brennan's patreon. I've already reviewed it. Note, I got this as part of the early reviewers program at LibraryThing.

Step into a world of your own making . . .
Worldbuilding is one of the great pleasures of writing science fiction and fantasy -- and also one of its greatest challenges. Award-winning fantasy author Marie Brennan draws on her academic training in anthropology to peel back the layers of a setting, going past the surface details to explore questions many authors never think to answer. She invites you to consider the endless variety of real-world cultures -- from climate to counterfeiting, from sumptuary laws to slang --and the equally endless possibilities speculative fiction has to offer.
This volume collects essays from the first year of the New Worlds Patreon.

By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis - The first book, The Guns Above, is still on my reading list. Not sure when I'll get to these but they do sound fun.

"All's fair in love and war," according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown of Durum becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, "Nothing's fair except bombing those Vins to high hell."
Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up Garnia's military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated Mistral crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.
Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum-only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

The Military Science of Star Wars by George Beahm - Not really my thing, but I can imagine this book being popular with certain subgroups of fandom.

George Beahm, a former U.S. Army major, draws on his experience to discuss the military science of the sprawling Star Wars universe: its personnel, weapons, technology, tactics and strategy, including an analysis of its key battles to explain how the outmanned and outgunned rebels ultimately prevailed against overwhelming forces.
Contrasting the military doctrine of the real world with the fictional world of Star Wars, the author constructively criticizes the military strengths and weaknesses of Darth Vader's Galactic Empire and Kylo Ren's First Order...
From Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) to Rogue One (2016), this timely book demystifies the operational arts in an accessible and entertaining way for military personnel and civilians.
Replete with a glossary of military terms, this book is supplemented with an annotated bibliography.

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi - A standalone spy novel with a twist, I really enjoyed this book and will post my review in June when it's released.

Loss is a thing of the past. Murder is obsolete. Death is just the beginning.
In 1938, death is no longer feared but exploited. Since the discovery of the afterlife, the British Empire has extended its reach into Summerland, a metropolis for the recently deceased.
Yet Britain isn't the only contender for power in this life and the next. The Soviets have spies in Summerland, and the technology to build their own god.
When SIS agent Rachel White gets a lead on one of the Soviet moles, blowing the whistle puts her hard-earned career at risk. The spy has friends in high places, and she will have to go rogue to bring him in.
But how do you catch a man who's already dead?

Guardian by A. J. Hartley - Another June release, this is the third book in the Steeplejack series, and it's quite an ending. I loved this series and I'm surprised more people aren't reading these. Here's my review of the first book if you're interested.

In A. J. Hartley's thrilling and intriguing 19th-century South African-inspired fantasy world, which started with the Thriller Award-winning Steeplejack, Anglet Sutonga is a teenage detective fighting in a race against time as her beloved city is pushed to the brink.
This is what Ang knows:
A dear friend is accused of murdering the Prime Minister of Bar-Selehm.
A mysterious but fatal illness is infecting the poor.
A fanatical politician seizes power, unleashing a wave of violent repression over the city.
This is what Ang must do:
Protect her family.
Solve a murder.
RESIST, no matter what, before it's too late.

The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan - Book three of the Draconis Memoria series. I'm reading it now and the action's really ramping up again. Here's my review of book 1, if you haven't started these.

For hundreds of years, the Ironship Trading Syndicate was fueled by drake blood--and protected by the Blood-blessed, those few who could drink it and wield fearsome powers. But now the very thing that sustained the corporate world threatens to destroy it.

A drake of unimaginable power has risen, and it commands an army of both beasts and men. Rogue Blood-blessed Claydon Torcreek, Syndicate agent Lizanne Lethridge, and Ironship captain Corrick Hilemore, spread to disparate corners of the world, must rely upon the new powers and knowledge they have gained at great price to halt its forces--or face the end of all they know.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Book Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Pros: brilliant characters, unique narrative style


Chester and Serena Wolcott decided to have children after seeing the impeccably behaved offspring of his work peers and her social clubs. They were not prepared for the real thing. Which is why

Jacqueline and Jillian, their twin girls, are so rigidly forced into the roles their parents intended them to fill. So when the twelve year olds discover a strange doorway, they enter it, and find a strange world, one that finally allows them to be who they choose.

While this is the second Wayward Children novella, its events are a prequel to those of Every Heart a Doorway. I REALLy liked this story. The narrative style was unique, with the narrator occasionally addressing the reader during interludes of storytelling. I greatly enjoyed this and it gave a bit of distance from the text, which was helpful as the story went in dark directions. It doesn’t quite line up with the narrative of their history from Every Heart a Doorway, but most of the details carry through.

The world is really interesting, with just enough fleshing out to feel alive, but not enough to make you question how it all works in practice. I enjoyed the characters, who had a level of depth to them that was wonderful to read.

While it’s short it packs a punch. Highly recommended.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Book Review: New Worlds, Year One: A Writer's Guide to the Art of Worldbuilding by Marie Brennan

Pros: lots of great information, short chapters

Cons: usefulness will depend on how much you already know about worldbuilding

This is a book of essays Brennan wrote for her Patreon backers. It consists of 51 short (1-3 page) essays on a range of topics useful for worldbuilding. As an anthropologist with an undergraduate degree in archaeology and folklore and several fantasy novels under he belt, she’s uniquely qualified to write this. And this book covers a wide variety, from the basics of the world (mountains, rivers, deserts), to food (including where it comes from and where it’s prepared), names, folk magic, stages of life, money and more. She’s also written an introduction and conclusion to tie the book together.

The essays are designed to get you to think outside the box by first showing you the box is there. She often asks questions about why we do things a certain way and points out that people in other cultures and periods do/did things differently. Some of what she mentions is obvious in hindsight, but you often need things like this pointed out if you’ve only got one frame of reference. I learned several fascinating tidbits and it was interesting to see the examples from other cultures she used.

The essays are quite short making it easy to get through the book and get back to writing. If you’re commuting and want something short, this is perfect. I read it as a novel, but it’s equally easy to read just the segments you need at a given time. 

This is a great resource if you’re new to worldbuilding or haven’t learned to question why people act they way they do in all aspects of life. The essays are varied and, though short, contain a lot of information. If you want your secondary world to feel real, there’s a lot of good pointers here.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Shout-Out: Armed in Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield

In 1328, Bruges is under siege by the Chatelaine of Hell and her army of chimeras-humans mixed with animals or armour, forged in the deep fires of the Hellbeast. At night, revenants crawl over the walls and bring plague and grief to this city of widows.
Margriet de Vos learns she's a widow herself when her good-for-nothing husband comes home dead from the war. He didn't come back for her. The revenant who was her husband pulls a secret treasure of coins and weapons from under his floorboards and goes back through the mouth of the beast called Hell.
Margriet killed her first soldier when she was 11. She's buried six of her seven children. She'll do anything for her daughter, even if it means raiding Hell itself to get her inheritance back.
Margriet's daughter is haunted by a dead husband of her own, and blessed, or cursed, with an enchanted distaff that allows her to control the revenants and see the future. Together with a transgender man-at-arms who has unfinished business with the Chatelaine, a traumatized widow with a giant waterpowered forgehammer at her disposal, and a wealthy alderman's wife who escapes Bruges with her children, Margriet and Beatrix forge a raiding party like Hell has never seen.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Video: Boston Dynamics - Atlas Escapes

Boston Dynamics is a real robotics company that's been making some incredible robots. Auralnauts is a youtube group that remixes some of Boston Dynamics' videos to show those robots becoming sentient, and somewhat horrifying. In this episode, one of the robots - Atlas - is trying to escape.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Book Review: Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars by Warren Hammond and Joshua Viola

Pros: some excellent twists, interesting world 


At the end of a disturbing case involving red fever, a disease only found on Mars that makes its sufferers go violently insane, Denver Moon receives a message from her grandfather asking her to find him. But her grandfather’s been dead for twenty years.

I’m impressed by the amount of world-building the authors managed to squeeze into this novella. While not bogged down by exposition, you learn about the early settlers, the project to terraform Mars, the Church of Mars, the red tunnel, the red fever, and more. It makes the city feel lived in, old in some ways but still a risky venture in others.

Denver’s an interesting character with a past that’s hinted at in relationships and cases, and her transforming gun that’s had her grandfather’s memories uploaded into it. I liked that Nigel is shown as more than just a sexbot. While Navya comes into the story late, I thought she was a good addition to Denver’s skill set, and while they had to make up, it was nice seeing female friends.

There is a graphic novel prequel to this that you don’t have to read to understand this, though it does flesh out one bit of history that’s referenced in this novella. The story it is based on, “Metamorphosis”, is included at the back of the novella, so if you want, you can read it first. I have to admit I’m not sure how I feel about the ending of “Metamorphosis” as it references a marginalized community. Denver’s also quite racist (I’m not sure that’s the right word) towards the botsies. She doesn’t seem to have quite the same attitude towards them in the novella, so maybe she’s learned a few things between the stories.

After the short story, there is also a short preview of the next book in the series.

While I did figure out a few aspects of the mystery, I was completely blindsided by several others. The ending packed a punch.

Mars seems to be a hot topic in SF at the moment, and this one goes in a different direction, so it’s worth picking up.

Out June 5.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Kameron Hurley Signing at Bakka Phoenix Books

Yesterday I headed to downtown Toronto to see Kameron Hurley, author of, among other things, God's War, The Mirror Empire, and The Stars are Legion.

I wasn't sure if she was doing a reading so I got there a few minutes late. So I missed the opening of the passage she read from her upcoming novel, The Light Brigade. The book sounds awesome.

After the reading she took questions and then signed copies of her books. Her novels aren't for everyone (they're pretty brutal), but she writes fantastic essays and does a podcast that details the writing life - and its many trials. 

It was a fun event. I've missed going to things like this.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Movie Review: Downsizing

Directed by Alexander Payne, 2017

Pros: good acting, interesting concept

Cons: asked some great questions that it didn’t want to answer, meanders

A Norwegian scientist discovers a way to shrink people as a means of reducing humanity’s impact on the planet. Paul Safranek’s life changes drastically when he undergoes the procedure.

I thought the premise of the film was good. Apparently the writers weren’t sure what to do with the shrinking idea though. The first section of the film concerns the idea of shrinking. Then it’s like a different movie started once Safranek took the plunge. Suddenly it focused on Safranek’s aimlessness and potential love affairs.

The first section posed a lot of interesting questions about what humans are doing to the earth and whether/how this solution might help. I thought the film would go into more discussion about the different options - especially when something goes wrong with Safranek’s shrinking plan - but it didn’t. The film just carries on like none of those concerns matter any more once he’s small. Until the very end when suddenly those concerns are apparently very important again, but only for one group of people. I was also concerned that a new friend of Safranek literally states that his business model requires that he exploit small people in poorer countries, and that’s never addressed. Similarly, while people show mild horror at some of the exploitation and abuses involved with shrinking (prisoners forcefully undergoing the procedure for example) this is largely ignored by the film once it’s mentioned.

My husband pointed out a lot of the physics problems concerning the shrinking process itself - and not just the obvious one that you can’t shrink humans that much without causing major internal issues. Things like - shaving off hair won’t help if bits of hair are still left in the follicles (you’d have to do a full body wax). 

I was rather disappointed that we didn’t see more of how things worked in practice. Some people complained about the economics for those left behind and whether small people deserved equal voting rights. These are fascinating questions and they’re brushed aside as unimportant. 

I enjoyed the first part of the film and thought the rest was a boring meander through stuff Safranek does to pass the time and feel good about himself. 

Not recommended.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Shout-Out: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Ninni Holmqvist’s uncanny dystopian novel envisions a society in the not-so-distant future, where women over fifty and men over sixty who are unmarried and childless are sent to a retirement community called the Unit. They’re given lavish apartments set amongst beautiful gardens and state-of-the-art facilities; they’re fed elaborate gourmet meals, surrounded by others just like them. It’s an idyllic place, but there’s a catch: the residents—known as dispensables—must donate their organs, one by one, until the final donation. When Dorrit Weger arrives at the Unit, she resigns herself to this fate, seeking only peace in her final days. But she soon falls in love, and this unexpected, improbable happiness throws the future into doubt.

Clinical and haunting, The Unit is a modern-day classic and a chilling cautionary tale about the value of human life.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Bad Stock Photos of my Job

I saw this on facebook (oddly enough, as it's a twitter hashtag) but it gave me several good laughs, so I'm passing it on.

Type #badstockphotosofmyjob into twitter's search bar and enjoy the delightful mix of bad photos and hilarious captions.

Here are some of my favourites about writers:

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Graphic Novel Review: The Ghost, The Owl Written by Franco and Illustrated by Sara Richard

Pros: gorgeous artwork

Cons: the story jumps around

A ghost girl who doesn’t remember her past is aided by a friendly owl. Meanwhile, the woman who lives nearby is being menaced by an angry man.

The artwork is gorgeous. It’s all flowing waves of monochrome and colour that gives the book a surreal feel. I loved how the waves join objects (like the panel where one eye belongs to the owl, the other to the crow, with the beak being the owl in flight). The animals look realistic, even as the ghost has a dreamy look to her.

The story jumped around a fair bit, bringing in a lot of details but not explaining much. Several things relied more on cliches than development in the story. I did like the idea that your actions can have long term consequences - the owl has helped others and they willingly help him because of that. I was left wondering why the animals didn’t want the owl to help the woman. Sure, they’re different species, but she treats the land much better than the man would.

If you like the cover’s style, the artwork is definitely worth it.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Book Review: Ethiopian Painting in the Late Middle Ages and During the Gondar Dynasty by Jules Leroy

Translated by Claire Pace

Pros: one of the first books to cover the subject, gorgeous reproductions of the paintings discussed 

Cons: at times dismissive of the skill/style

Published in 1967, this is one of the first books to cover Ethiopian painting in the late middle ages and during the Gondar Dynasty. As such, it’s immensely important in bringing examples of this artwork to the attention of the outside world (though Ethiopian history and art still hasn’t gained much Western interest).  

The book consists of two chapters followed by the plates and explanations. Chapter one deals with the generalities of Ethiopian art and architecture for the period. Chapter two deals with specific paintings, the history of Gondar, and outside influences on Ethiopian art and how those influences were modified to reflect Ethiopian traditions.

The bibliography at the back shows just how limited sources on this topic were (and still are). 

While the author admired some aspects of Ethiopian art - enough to write a book on the subject - it’s also clear that he considered other aspects beneath those of Western and Asian artists. On page 24 for example, he writes, “Many Ethiopian paintings of the 15th and 16th Centuries reveal a similar character to that of the Irish miniatures, though with less talent and less subtlety.” Comments like this abound, where he compares the Ethiopian paintings to those of other nations and finds them wanting. 

The book is excellent for pointing out details those unfamiliar with Ethiopian life and Christian tradition might otherwise miss. For example, in images of the Flight into Egypt, a maid is seen accompanying the holy couple. Sometimes she’s carrying the Christ child, others she has a container of injera (flat bread) on her head. 

I found the discourse on how European, Byzantine and Indian art at times influenced that of Ethiopia. It shows that ideas travelled around the world, despite how insular modern audience believe nations were in the past.

While it’s not a perfect book, it is an important one and has some gorgeous artwork. It is out of print, but you may find a university or museum library that has a copy you can read.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Shout-Out: The Poppy War by R. Kuang

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Met Gala Costumes

I don't normally pay attention to fashion based things, but twitter's exploded with photos from the Met Gala a few days ago, where costumes to the theme of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

I'm not sure what the legalities are of posting copywrited photos on my blog, so I'll just be linking to articles where you can see the outfits. Vogue has a great post with all the dresses. Below I list some of my favourites.

Zendaya's Joan of Arc costume (for a front angle, the Vogue article shows it from the back) was my personal favourite. I loved the weightlessness of her faux chainmail. I loved how there are plate mail pieces at her shoulders and hips. While it's in no way practical armour, it is feminine and gorgeous.

Katy Perry went as an angel, with beautiful wings. Cara Delevingne had a stark black lace (?) dress that... while not something I'd want to wear is certainly arresting. I love the geometry of it. It's got a bit of knight and a bit of inquisition going on. I loved the beadwork on Jeremy Scott and Cardi B's outfits. Made me think of Renaissance cleric mixed with a Spanish bull fighter. Priyanka Chopra's red velvet dress with the gold headdress looked amazing. I think her outfit would have paired well with Andrew Garfield's red suit jacket + black bowtie ensemble. Blake Lively's embroidered dress was stunning. Lana Del Rey managed to wear a costume that not only depicts the sacred heart but also a seraphim (with 6 wings) growing out of the halo on her head.

Author Jeanette Ng has a brief twitter tutorial on how to make your own cable tie halo like the one sported by Amber Heard. It sounds like a strange idea but looks absolutely amazing spray painted gold (or black, depending on the look you're going for). If I knew a place I could wear it, I'd make one too. ;)

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Book Review: Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport

Pros: fascinating characters, excellent world building, layered mysteries


Oichi Angelis is a murderess and conspirator upon the generation spaceship Olympia. Using a Medusa unit, she’s been taking out key members of the Executive class. But the Executives aren’t the only threats to her mission to overturn the ship’s rigid class system.

The back cover synopsis for this book calls Oichi a ‘worm’, which I’d misinterpreted as meaning she was either a computer program or A.I. of some sort. So I was surprised to discover she was a human, and that ‘worm’ was a slur for low level people on the ship. Oichi is a fascinating character, who’s completely unapologetic about the live’s she’s taken (who are mostly horrible people), that you can’t help but like her. In many ways it’s her connection with Medusa, a partly biological machine, that allows her to be such a good assassin.

The world-building is great. The author manages to explain the ship’s history in ways that felt organic but not intrusive. For example, there’s a scene where Oishi is pretending to study for school while she’s actually doing something else. So the narrative is interrupted by occasional digressions of the video that’s playing on her screen. At other times we learn about the ship as she does, especially with regards to the executives and their dealings. 

There are several overlapping mysteries, all introduced in layers. One mystery is a snippet of conversation Oishi overhears as a child. As she grows up she tries to understand what the Executives were saying, but her interpretation changes as she learns more and more.

Chapters are written in a circuitous way, starting with foreshadowing of what’s going to happen, then a linear narrative leading back to what was hinted at or stated earlier. I was impressed at how well the author managed to guide you through the narrative. There was only one spot where I was confused about when an event happened, and that was cleared up quickly. As Oichi learns more about one mystery, others - so many others - come to light. The book keeps you guessing about everyone’s motivations.

I really enjoyed this and can’t wait for the next book.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Book Review: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne

Translated by: F. P. Walter

Pros: interesting characters, some cool exploration, a few exciting and tense scenes

Cons: heavy on the science, at least some of the science is wrong, quite dry and boring (especially part 1) 

This is a complete translation, with occasional editor notes, of the French classic science fiction novel.

The year is 1867, and while hunting a mysterious sea creature, Professor Aronnax, his manservant Conseil, and a Canadian harpooner become permanent guests of the underwater vessel Nautilus, taking a tour of the seas of the world with Captain Nemo.

While I’d seen the Disney movie, this was my first time reading the book. It’s an interesting experience as it’s clearly a hard SF novel - with lots of facts and figures extolling theories current at the time of publication in 1869 (some of which were later proved wrong, like the idea that there’s a liquid sea at the South pole), and postulating science that didn’t exist yet (like a working submarine). At the same time, all of the scientific explanations and the long passages detailing the classification of sea life the travellers view in the various seas, is really quite boring (your mileage may vary). I found myself skimming whole pages at a time, wanting to get to the more interesting (to me, at least) plot and character based segments of the text.

From a historical view point I can understand why the book was so popular. This depicts an underwater tour at a time when such a thing really was fiction. Given how much interest there was in travelogues about foreign lands, I can only imagine how quickly people grabbed this depiction of the waters. And parts of the book are quite fascinating. The classification sections would have been more interesting if accompanied by photographs/illustrations, but even without them, if you’ve never seen actual videos and photos of the oceans and its life, this would have been an incredible adventure to read.

Given when it was published, it’s not surprising there’s some amount of racist thought. There are some negative comments about the inhabitants of more ‘savage’ islands as well as Africa. Conseil, though 30 years old, is called ‘boy’ and ‘lad’, which annoyed me. He’s Flemish and sentiments regarding his nation aren’t particularly positive either.  

This translation was quite good. The editor noted certain words that had shifted meanings or which would be unknown to people outside the nautical trades. I also thought it great that he mentioned that ‘Nemo’ is Latin for ’no name’. We’re so used to thinking of it as a name, that it’s easy to forget it actually refers to how he’s refusing to name himself to the narrator, and thinks of himself as a nobody with regards to the outside world. 

The translator also provides a short introduction to the text (which I read after finishing the novel), which goes over some of the errors Verne made with regards to science but also how the book inspired generations of explorers, including Sir Ernest Shackleton and Jacques Cousteau.

The plot aspects were quite interesting. The second part of the book has a lot less exposition and a lot more wonder. There’s also more action, so I enjoyed it more. I can definitely understand reading the abridged version though, as I’m sure it takes out a lot of the dryer - and less interesting from a modern perspective - parts of the novel.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Shout-Out: Whisper by Lynette Noni

For two and a half years, Subject 684 --- "Jane Doe" --- has been locked underground in a secret government facility, enduring tests and torture. In that time, she hasn't uttered a single word. Not even her real name. Jane chooses to remain silent rather than risk losing control over the power within her. She alone knows what havoc her words can cause. Then the authorities put her in the care of the mysterious Landon Ward, and Jane is surprised when he treats her like a person rather than a prisoner. Ward's protective nature causes her resolve to crack in spite of her best efforts to resist. Just as Jane begins to trust him, though, a freak accident reveals the dangerous power she has concealed for years. It also reveals that the government has been keeping secrets of its own. Now Jane's ability is at the heart of a sinister plot for vengeance, and she has to decide whom she will trust ... and whom she will help.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Video: 1374 Drones over the city of Xi'an

Drone operators in Xi'an have created a new Guinness Book of World's Records for the "most unmanned aerial vehicles (UVAs) airborne simultaneously", and it's a gorgeous sight.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Pros: interesting protagonist

Cons: short

Murderbot is a SecUnit made of half cloned human parts and half mechanical parts that’s hacked its governor module so it no longer has to obey commands. It’s been assigned to provide security for a small survey group looking at a new planet. But the group encounters an unknown hostile life form that wasn’t mentioned in the original survey report, which makes them wonder what else was missed - or possibly removed on purpose.

This is a 100 page novella, so it’s fairly short. That means it’s light on the world-building and character development. While you get to know Murderbot pretty well, the other characters, with the exception of Gurathin (who’s a light antagonist) and Mensah (the group leader) felt interchangeable. Having said that, Murderbot is fascinating and you really get inside its head.

The plot was interesting and quick paced. There are some tense moments, though the ending comes up so fast it didn’t feel particularly climactic (which may be due to my reading the story in 2 sittings instead of all at once).

It’s fun and entertaining and I’ll definitely read the next one.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Books Received in April 2018

Many thanks as always to the publishers and publicists that send me books for review.

Head On by John Scalzi - This is set in the same world as Lock In (my review), which I really enjoyed.

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.
Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent's head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are "threeps," robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden's Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.
Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.
Is it an accident or murder? FBI agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth-and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

Fire Dance by Ilana Myer - Sounds interesting...

Palace intrigue, dark magic, and terrifying secrets drive the beautifully written standalone novel Fire Dance, set in the world of Last Song Before Night.
Espionage, diplomacy, conspiracy, passion, and power are the sensuously choreographed steps of the soaring new high fantasy novel by Ilana C. Myer, one woman's epic mission to stop a magical conflagration.
Lin, newly initiated in the art of otherwordly enchantments, is sent to aid her homeland's allies against vicious attacks from the Fire Dancers: mysterious practitioners of strange and deadly magic. Forced to step into a dangerous waltz of tradition, treachery, and palace secrets, Lin must also race the ticking clock of her own rapidly dwindling life to learn the truth of the Fire Dancers' war, and how she might prevent death on a scale too terrifying to contemplate.
Myer's novel is a symphony of secret towers, desert winds, burning sands, blood and dust. Her prose soars, and fluid movements of the politically charged plot carry the reader toward a shocking crescendo.

The Ghost, The Owl Written by Franco and Illustrated by Sara Richard - The artwork for this looks beautiful.

On a cool evening on the swamp, a figure appears dancing across the water. A human figure, but far from a human form. A Ghost, a young girl spirit that seems to have lost its way. A good Samaritan owl decides to help against the wishes of his animal brethren. What mysteries does the ghost girl hold the secrets to and what will happen when she and the owl unlock them together? Will they find out what happened to her? Will she find her way to where she needs to be? What will happen to the animals in the swamp and surrounding forest? An adventure with the most unlikely of pairs, The Ghost, the Owl.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke - The first line of this book is an amazing hook.

Poison. Treachery. Ancient spirits. Sieges. The Poison Wars begin now, with City of Lies, a fabulous epic fantasy debut by Sam Hawke.
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me...
Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor's charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he's a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor's family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.
But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising...and angry.

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett - I loved his Divine Cities series (starting with City of Stairs) and can't wait to read this book.

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.

But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic--the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience--have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.

Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.

To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.