Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Shout-Out: HEX by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Nell Barber, an expelled PhD candidate in biological science, is exploring the fine line between poison and antidote, working alone to set a speed record for the detoxification of poisonous plants. Her mentor, Dr. Joan Kallas, is the hero of Nell's heart. Nell frequently finds herself standing in the doorway to Joan's office despite herself, mesmerized by Joan's elegance, success, and spiritual force.

Surrounded by Nell's ex, her best friend, her best friend's boyfriend, and Joan's buffoonish husband, the two scientists are tangled together at the center of a web of illicit relationships, grudges, and obsessions. All six are burdened by desire and ambition, and as they collide on the university campus, their attractions set in motion a domino effect of affairs and heartbreak.

Meanwhile, Nell slowly fills her empty apartment with poisonous plants to study, and she begins to keep a series of notebooks, all dedicated to Joan. She logs her research and how she spends her days, but the notebooks ultimately become a painstaking map of love. In a dazzling and unforgettable voice, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight has written a spellbinding novel of emotional and intellectual intensity.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Books Received in March, 2020

Many thanks as always to the publishers who sent me books for review this past month.

The Mother Code by Carole Stivers - I have finished this and will post my review on its release date of May 5th. It has the unfortunate timing of being a book about a man made pandemic during an actual pandemic. Not my preferred reading right now, which coloured my impression of the book.

It’s 2049, and the survival of the human race is at risk. Earth’s inhabitants must turn to their last resort: a plan to place genetically engineered children inside the cocoons of large-scale robots—to be incubated, birthed, and raised by machines. But there is yet one hope of preserving the human order—an intelligence programmed into these machines that renders each unique in its own right—the Mother Code. 


Kai is born in America's desert southwest, his only companion his robot Mother, Rho-Z. Equipped with the knowledge and motivations of a human mother, Rho-Z raises Kai and teaches him how to survive. But as children like Kai come of age, their Mothers transform too—in ways that were never predicted. When government survivors decide that the Mothers must be destroyed, Kai must make a choice. Will he break the bond he shares with Rho-Z? Or will he fight to save the only parent he has ever known?
In a future that could be our own, The Mother Code explores what truly makes us human—and the tenuous nature of the boundaries between us and the machines we create.

Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis - Sounds interesting. This will be my next read.

Truth is a human right.
It’s fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government—and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him—until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.
Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human—and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Book Review: The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages by Geraldine Heng

Pros: good exploration of a challenging topic, lots of examples, thoroughly examines sources

Cons: sometimes uses fictional narratives as if they were accurate historical works, didn’t properly clarify that Ethiopia does not mean the current country, repeats information

The book consists of 8 chapters: Beginnings, Inventions/Reinventions (race studies), State/Nation (Jews), War/Empire (Islamic “Saracens”), Color (Africans), World I (Native Americans as mentioned in the Vinland sagas), World II (Mongol Empire), World III (Romani). There is no conclusion but there are a lot of notes after each chapter.

The ‘Beginnings’ introductory chapter gives a brief overview of what each chapter covers. Chapter one deals with the idea that race is a modern construct and that racism as understood today didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The author pulls that argument apart with a few quick examples of how Jews were treated in England (wearing a symbol on their clothes, accusations of blood/murder libel, the Jewish exchequer). She also quickly goes over the mappamundi that gained popularity in the 13th century, with their ‘monstrous races’ around the edges of the known European world and how the English wrote about the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish closer to home. She concludes this chapter with a quick example of race as it pertains to colour, specifically black Africans.

With the foundation set, the author moves to the heart of the matter starting with how the Jews were perceived in Medieval England specifically. The first two chapters were a struggle for me as the language was hard to parse, being very academic and dense. As the book progressed the language became more accessible and I found the rest of it easier going. The author repeated some information within chapters, which is great if you’re only reading one section but could get annoying at times when reading the whole thing.

I was impressed with the extent to which the author dissected her sources.

The author had the habit of giving very brief mention to things that should have been emphasized more. For example, in the chapter on black Africans there’s little reinforcing of the fact that “Ethiopia” referred to anywhere in Africa south of Egypt, and often included India (as goods from India traveled to Europe via ports in Africa). It would be easy to assume the term deals with the modern country. Similarly, while the same chapter uses fictional works to show the European attitudes towards black characters the author later uses other fictional narratives as if they were pure historic documents (while the Norse sagas might have a high level of accuracy, taking minutae written 200 years after the fact at face value is unwise).

There was a lot of great information imparted, and some interesting works broken down. I learned a lot from this book, especially on topics I have less background in. For example it was great that the author brought in archaeological information about Native American tribes that supported information from the Norse sagas. But there were times when had I not had the grounding on a certain topic (having read several books on ancient/medieval Ethiopia, taken a course in university on the challenges of using fictional primary sources for accurate historical information) I might have come away with the wrong conclusions.

This is a good book that discusses an important topic, but it’s not for beginners and should be read with care.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Book Review: Where Oblivion Lives by T. Frohock

Pros: fast paced, focused, interesting worldbuilding

Cons:

It is 1932 and tensions between Germany and France are on the rise. Diagos nightmares of the Great War and sharp violin music are getting worse and he fears los Nefilim will cast him out unless he can prove himself trustworthy. So when his lost violin case is discovered he offers to track down the instrument in Germany. But a past life connection implicates Guillermo’s half brother and a fallen angel.

I really enjoyed this. The plot is quick paced and engaging making the book hard to put down. Everything is focused on the plot, so while there is some groundwork being set for the next book in the series (with regards to the Spanish Civil War and World War II), most of what goes on is directly related to what’s happening at this period of time.

I love the characters and how they support each other. Even the scenes from one of the antagonist’s point of view showed that he has what he feels are noble motivations for his actions. Since Diago is gone for most of the book there isn’t as much family time, which is a shame as their personal dynamics are so wholesome and loving - and hard to find in media.

The alternate history additions of angels and daimons continues to be interesting. I love that the magic system is built around symbols and music.

I’m looking forward to the next book.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Book Review: Los Nefilim by T. Frohock

Pros: great relationships, tight plots

Cons: not enough background!

Several years ago Diago had a short "affair" with an angel, a betrayal he hid from his husband. Now another angel threatens to kill his husband if he doesn’t sacrifice the son he didn’t know existed to a daimon.

This is a collection of 3 novellas dealing with Diago, his husband Miquel, and his son, Rafael and how the Nephilim (offspring of humans and either angels or daimons) interact with each other. The stories take place within a short time frame.

I've put "affair" in quotation marks because as the story goes on it's revealed to be a rape. There are no graphic details but if this will trigger you you may want to avoid the book. I thought the author handeled it well, though the characters don't dwell on the emotional aftermath that would result from this revelation as much as I suspect real people would.

I liked the interactions between the three principle characters. The relationship between Diago and Miquel was so loving and considerate. Seeing Miquel caring for Rafael was very touching, especially given Rafael’s origin. There were some great family moments, especially with the later stories.

Each novella has a tight plot that gives you the necessary information and characters and little else.

I’d love to learn more about Diago’s past, his time with King Solomon in particular. Hopefully one of the novels the author has written as follow-ups will go into that period and fleshes out the world some more.

I enjoyed this and am looking forward to reading more in this world.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Shout-Out: The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Sky in the Deep in this bewitching, historical horror novel, perfect for fans of Holly Black and V.E. Schwab.

Seventeen-year-old Aderyn ("Ryn") only cares about two things: her family and her family's graveyard. And right now, both are in dire straits. Since the death of their parents, Ryn and her siblings have been scraping together a meager existence as gravediggers in the remote village of Colbren, which sits at the foot of a harsh and deadly mountain range that was once home to the fae. The problem with being a gravedigger in Colbren, though, is that the dead don't always stay dead.

The risen corpses are known as "bone houses," and legend says that they're the result of a decades-old curse. When Ellis, an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past, arrives in town, the bone houses attack with new ferocity. What is it that draws them near? And more importantly, how can they be stopped for good?

Together, Ellis and Ryn embark on a journey that will take them into the heart of the mountains, where they will have to face both the curse and the deeply-buried truths about themselves. Equal parts classic horror novel and original fairytale, The Bone Houses will have you spellbound from the very first page.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

History Review: Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography by Sara Lipton

After the introduction there are seven chapters: Mirror of the Fathers: The Birth of a Jewish Iconography, ca. 1015-1100, Blinding Light and Blinkered Witness, ca. 1100-1160, Jewish Eyes: Loveless Looking and the Unlovely Christ, ca. 1160-1220, All the World’s a Picture: Jews and the Mirror of Society, ca. 1220-1300, The Jew’s Face: Flesh, Sight, and Sovereignty, ca. 1230-1350, Where are the Jewish Women?, and The Jew in the Crowd: Surveillance and Civic Vision, ca 1350-1500.

The first few chapters the author would posit an idea and then later refute it, making a mess of my attempts to note take the book. I found the later chapters much more straightforward. The chapters are all subdivided into smaller subjects that wrap around the issue so you get a feel for the times and places being discussed in addition to the main question of how Jews were depicted in art during the middle ages.

She alternates between generalized statements and specific examples but constantly reminds the reader that there is no singular interpretation - that anti-semitic images existed along side images showing Jews witnessing ancient prophets and detailing important Old Testament stories in positive ways. The slow evolution of images from merely illustrating stories to hook nosed, cap wearing personifications of evil is a sad reflection of their society as a whole, made even sadder by the fact that you can see a lot of similar beliefs/accusations against Jews and other minority groups cropping up in society today.

The book contains a good amount of black and white photographs of the artworks discussed as well as a central section with colour photos.

It’s an interesting and complex topic and the author does a good job of breaking it down into smaller, easy to understand pieces.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Shout-Out: Songs From the Deep by Kelly Powell

The sea holds many secrets.

Moira Alexander has always been fascinated by the deadly sirens who lurk along the shores of her island town. Even though their haunting songs can lure anyone to a swift and watery grave, she gets as close to them as she can, playing her violin on the edge of the enchanted sea. When a young boy is found dead on the beach, the islanders assume that he’s one of the sirens’ victims. Moira isn’t so sure.

Certain that someone has framed the boy’s death as a siren attack, Moira convinces her childhood friend, the lighthouse keeper Jude Osric, to help her find the real killer, rekindling their friendship in the process. With townspeople itching to hunt the sirens down, and their own secrets threatening to unravel their fragile new alliance, Moira and Jude must race against time to stop the killer before it’s too late—for humans and sirens alike.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Book Review: The Killing Light by Myke Cole

Pros: intense, great slow-burn romance

Cons:

Heloise and her allies march on the Emperor’s city, but a ghastly glow behind them changes their focus when it becomes clear a rent has been torn into the demonic realm after their battle with the magicians in Lyse and demons have come through.

As with the previous volumes there is a lot of action, a lot of pain, and a lot of surprise twists. The book can get very intense at times, especially during the fight scenes. I had no idea where anything was going but the ending felt like the perfect wrap-up for all Heloise had been through.

I loved the relationship that formed between Heloise and her bodyguard Xilyka. Xilyka’s understanding of Heloise’s PTSD was wonderful to see.

Tone’s storyline was very surprising considering everything he did in the previous books and yet seemed to fit. I appreciated that though Heloise was hurt and angry, she never became a monster.

This is a great series if you want a heroine you can root for - the whole way through, one who grows as a person and doesn’t become corrupted by loss.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Shout-Out: The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by the white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William. 
William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Book Review: Salvation Day by Kali Wallace

Pros: compelling, thought provoking

Cons: limited tension

The world believes that 10 years ago Zahra’s father killed everyone aboard the House of Wisdom spaceship using an old virus. Zahra now belongs to a wasteland ‘family’ that plans to hijack the ship and use it as a new home, escaping the reach of the United Councils of Earth. To access the ship Zahra and a small group kidnap the only surviving member of the House of Wisdom massacre, Jaswinder Bhattacharya. But the Councils were wrong about what happened on the ship and Zarah’s small infiltration group is about to learn the horrifying truth.

This is a very compelling read. I had a hard time putting it down and finished it in one day. This did have the unfortunate side effect that I didn’t really have time to fear for the characters’ lives or feel any emotional connection with any but the point of view characters. There was only limited tension built up before bad things happened.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of Zahra and Jaswinder, with occasional transmission logs in between giving information from the time of the original massacre. Both protagonists were in many ways broken people with tragic pasts and complicated presents. They were interesting to learn more about and easy to sympathize with.

The book occasionally had characters point out the racism and politics of their world, especially with the treatment of Jaswinder’s best friend, Baqir, who immigrated to the Councils but lost family members and an arm to a disease before their application was processed.

The mystery on the ship was handled well, with information being revealed at a satisfying rate.

It’s a great, quick read.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

3D Notre-Dame de Paris Puzzle

For Christmas my husband got me a really cool, incredibly detailed, 3D model/puzzle for Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral.  I spent the last 2 weekends putting it together. It's by a company called Cubic Fun.

The pieces are printed on each side of thin foamboard, which you punch out of cards. There's also a card of printed acetate windows and double sided tape pieces for putting the windows in.

The puzzle/model starts by putting the west facade together. I was amazed by the number of pieces each step took.

The doors look so real, with a piece of foamboard for each layer of statuary. It looks amazing. And they got the pictures for the sculpture right - so each door has the proper tympanum and archivolts (sculpture above and around the door), rather than the same images printed 3 times. The rose windows are also different, though the other windows are copies of the same image.

 Next were the two sides, and all their flying buttresses.

Here's one side done, roof and all.

The finished cathedral looks incredible and is quite large. My cat walked around it while I was taking pictures, giving a sense of scale. Closed, it's over a foot high and at least a foot and a half long.


It even opens up so you can see the interior aisles and tiny altar.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Book Received in January 2020

Meso Volume 1: Rise of the Tzalekuhl written by Tyler Chin-Tanner - My thanks to the publicist who sent me a copy of this graphic novel for review. I enjoyed it and have posted my review here.

The rise of the Tzalekuhl Empire threatens to disrupt the peace that has lasted for generations across the land of Mezo. When the conquest begins, a young girl named Kyma witnesses the death of her father, Hegol, a tribal leader who refused to yield. As the solar eclipse nears, Kyma must unite the various tribes against an emperor determined to make them all kneel before his god or be sacrificed in his name.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Book Review: The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell

Pros: very thorough, lots of endnotes

Cons: not many photos 

This was a very interesting book about how peoples in the past thought about the concept of evil and how those philosophical musings and religious beliefs slowly morphed into the idea held by Christians that there is a single force that causes evil: the Devil.

After the preface the book consists of 7 chapters: The Question of Evil, In Search of the Devil, The Devil East and West, Evil in the Classical World, Hebrew Personifications of Evil, The Devil in the New Testament, and The Face of the Devil. There’s a select bibliography and an index.

The book starts with a discussion of what evil is. This book traces how ancient societies thought of ‘evil’, whether it was part of the gods, human nature, imposed from the outside or something within us. It examines both religious and philosophical beliefs from various cultures and periods whose peoples wanted to know why good things happened to bad people. Why, if there’s a god (or gods) who is good, who created a world of good, is there evil in the world?

We’re so used to categorizing things that it’s easy to forget just how interconnected the world really is. I tend to think of Greek mythology as independent from other religious practices, even though I know the Romans modified the beliefs to fit with their own pantheon of gods. So it was eye opening learning how the Greek gods were turned into evil spirits by early Christian thought, and how Pan was used as a template when artists started visualizing the devil as a personification of evil.

I only knew bits and pieces of other ancient religions so leaning more about them and how they intersected and built off of one another was fascinating. I also loved learning side information like why people with red hair were considered evil.

The most interesting section for me was on the Persian Zoroastrian religion, whose basic mythology is similar to the one Christianity ultimately settled on. I also enjoyed learning more about the apocalyptic Jewish writings and how they impacted the Gospels in the New Testament. 

There aren't that many photos, but the ones included help visualize how the devil gained certain attributes (like wings, horns, etc). 

This is an older book (it came out in 1977), but it’s still highly relevant to Christian and general religious studies.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Graphic Novel Review: Meso Volume 1: Rise of the Tzalekuhl written by Tyler Chin-Tanner

Illustrated by Josh Zingerman and Val Rodrigues
Pros: good artwork, interesting set-up, interesting characters

Cons: /

Still angry that as child refugees they received no aid from their neighbours, the now adult Children of Tzalekuhl go to war determined to make the Huax’kin submit to their rule - or wipe them out.

This is a fantasy graphic novel inspired by Mesoamerican history and mythology, in particular that of the Maya and Aztecs.

I loved the artwork and how the various tribes look distinctly different, with their own hairstyles, clothing and adornments (jewelry, piercings, body art), weaponry, etc.

This is an opening act, so there’s mostly some character introductions, set-up for the various conflicts, and some background on how the various groups ended up where they are. It starts with a battle, so that’s not to say there’s no action. I found the different protagonists compelling. I felt conflicted about Roden, who seemed like a decent guy doing things to protect his family and home. But some of those things are kind of horrible when seen from the other side.

I was curious how much of the story was based on actual history (if any) and so was overjoyed the author included a ‘historical notes’ section at the end going over this, including a few book recommendations for those wishing to learn more.

This is an era of history that isn’t often used for fantasy storytelling so I found it fascinating and would love to read more.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Book Review: The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes

Pros: interesting mythology, sympathetic protagonist

Cons:

Yetu is the Historian of the wajinru, sea dwelling descendants of pregnant slave women cast overboard. The memories of the ancestors overwhelm and pain Yetu, so they conceive a plan to leave the memories behind.

The Afterward mentions that the idea behind the wajinru comes from the mythology written by the music group Drexciya (James Stinson and Gerald Donald). Another music group, Clipping (rapper Daveed Diggs and producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes) wrote the song “The Deep” (nominated for a Hugo award in 2018) based on that mythology. The narrative of Basha, one of the ancestors whose story is told in this novella, incorporates the war with the two-legs that “The Deep” speaks of.

The mythology of the story is strangely poetic as it takes something horrifying and turns it into something beautiful. And while the story is fairly short, there’s a lot to take in. There’s a real weight to it, a depth that makes the underwater world feel real and lived in.

The idea of a singular memory keeper reminded me of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, but I much preferred the ultimate solution the protagonist comes up with here for how to deal with memories as a population that wishes to forget the past while having it accessible, without having a singular member of the group subsumed by those memories. I appreciated that Yetu had anxiety and this caused the memories to weigh on them even more than on past historians.

It’s a sad, touching, and ultimately hopeful story that’s definitely worth the read.