Sunday 31 July 2016

Books Received in July 2016

As always, many thanks to the publishers who sent me books for review this month.

Hero Grown by Andy Livingstone - This is the second book in the Seeds of Destiny series.  I'm giving the synopsis for book one, Hero Born, below.

It’s in the darkest hour, when all hope is lost, that heroes are born. After witnessing the deaths of everyone he holds dear, Brann is wrenched from his family home and thrust into a life of slavery. Now he must do everything he can to survive. Miles away, word is spreading of a growing evil; a deposed and forgotten Emperor is seeking a weapon to use in his bid to rise once again to power. Ruthless and determined, nothing and no one can stand in his way. Especially not a galley slave like Brann. But heroes can be forged in the most unlikely of ways, and Brann’s journey has only just begun.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal - I loved Kowal's previous series, and am really enjoying Ghost Talkers so far.  World War I is a great setting for this unique urban fantasy.

Ghost Talkers: a new novel from beloved fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal featuring the mysterious spirit corps and their heroic work in World War I.
Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Hartshorne, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force.
Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the Corps can pass instant information about troop movements to military intelligence.
Ginger and her fellow mediums contribute a great deal to the war efforts, so long as they pass the information through appropriate channels. While Ben is away at the front, Ginger discovers the presence of a traitor. Without the presence of her fiance to validate her findings, the top brass thinks she''s just imagining things. Even worse, it is clear that the Spirit Corps is now being directly targeted by the German war effort. Left to her own devices, Ginger has to find out how the Germans are targeting the Spirit Corps and stop them. This is a difficult and dangerous task for a woman of that era, but this time both the spirit and the flesh are willing.

Wolf's Empire: Gladiator by Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan - Rome remains a great setting, and is that a space ship on the cover?

In the Galactic Roman Empire, eight noble houses fight for power. One gladiator fights for justice. This is Wolf''s Empire: Gladiator, by Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan.

When her mother and brother are murdered, young noblewoman Accala Viridius cries out for vengeance. But the empire is being torn apart by a galactic civil war, and her demands fall on deaf ears. Undeterred, Accala sacrifices privilege and status to train as a common gladiator. Mastering the one weapon available to her-a razor-sharp discus that always returns when thrown--she enters the deadly imperial games, the only arena where she can face her enemies.

But Fortune's wheel grants Accala no favors-the emperor decrees that the games will be used to settle the civil war, the indigenous lifeforms of the arena-world are staging a violent revolt, and Accala finds herself drugged, cast into slavery and forced to fight on the side of the men she set out to kill.

Set in a future Rome that never fell, but instead expanded to become a galaxy-spanning empire, Accala's struggle to survive and exact her revenge will take her on a dark journey that will cost her more than she ever imagined.

Time Siege by Wesley Chu - This is the sequel to last year's Time Salvager.

Having been haunted by the past and enslaved by the present, James Griffin-Mars is taking control of the future.

Earth is a toxic, sparsely inhabited wasteland--the perfect hiding place for a fugitive ex-chronman to hide from the authorities.

James has allies, scientists he rescued from previous centuries: Elise Kim, who believes she can renew Earth, given time; Grace Priestly, the venerated inventor of time travel herself; Levin, James's mentor and former pursuer, now disgraced; and the Elfreth, a population of downtrodden humans who want desperately to believe that James and his friends will heal their ailing home world.

James also has enemies. They include the full military might of benighted solar system ruled by corporate greed and a desperate fear of what James will do next. At the forefront of their efforts to stop him is Kuo, the ruthless security head, who wants James''s head on a pike and will stop at nothing to obtain it.

Friday 29 July 2016

Movie Review: Ragnarok (aka Gåten Ragnarok)

Directed by: Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (2013)

Pros: excellent special effects, interesting characters, neat premise, no gore

Cons: not much action, small cast lessened tension

Sigurt Svendsen is a Norwegian archaeologist with some unconventional ideas.  When his partner makes an astounding discovery they assemble a small group to check out an ancient Viking site of power. 

I give kudos to this film for having two tag along kids I actually liked.  Yes, Ragnhild is moody and pissed at her dad, but the film establishes good reasons for this that felt realistic and pitiable.  Sigurt makes mistakes but is trying to be a good father even as he feeds his obsession with Vikings.  Elisabeth was simply awesome.

While the special effects were few, they were really well done.  The creature, when you finally see it, looks great and moves realistically.

Given the small cast, there wasn’t as much tension with regards to who would survive the journey, but I thought they solved a few problems creatively.  I also liked the explanation of what the creature is.  It was one of those ideas that sounds obvious after it’s stated, but doesn’t occur to you before hand.

I enjoyed this.  It’s a fun gore free time waster horror flick. 

Thursday 28 July 2016

Shout-Out: The Dark Side by Anthony O’Neill

In this dark and gripping sci-fi noir, an exiled police detective arrives at a lunar penal colony just as a psychotic android begins a murderous odyssey across the far side of the moon. 
Purgatory is the lawless moon colony of eccentric billionaire, Fletcher Brass: a mecca for war criminals, murderers, sex fiends, and adventurous tourists. You can’t find better drugs, cheaper plastic surgery, or a more ominous travel advisory anywhere in the universe. But trouble is brewing in Brass’s black-market heaven. When an exiled cop arrives in this wild new frontier, he immediately finds himself investigating a string of ruthless assassinations in which Brass himself—and his equally ambitious daughter—are the chief suspects. 
Meanwhile, two-thousand kilometers away, an amnesiac android, Leonardo Black, rampages across the lunar surface. Programmed with only the notorious “Brass Code”—a compendium of corporate laws that would make Ayn Rand blush—Black has only one goal in mind: to find Purgatory and conquer it.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Video: Great Minds

SciShow has a series called Great Minds where they talk about people in the past who came up with some amazing ideas.  Some of the people covered are Nicola Tesla, Marie Curie, and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Book Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Pros: interesting characters, fascinating cultures

Cons: didn’t emotionally connect with the characters, ending felt anti-climactic

Four groups of humanoids developed on different worlds.  Many outcasts of those worlds found a home on Cygnus Beta.  When the Sadiri homeworld becomes inhabitable, killing most of the species with it, a group of the survivors head to Cygnus Beta, where they try to find genetically compatible mates from the various settlements.

I really liked all of the characters. Delarua, as predominant narrator, is a lot of fun, and her observations of the nigh emotionless Sidari and their hints of emotional expression are wonderful.  This is her story, and so her family shows up a time or two, an along with them, some person and psychological problems she faces.  Dllenahkh is also great, quite unique, and I enjoyed the ‘will they, won’t they’ aspect of their relationship.  I also liked that the supporting cast included a character who identified as gender-neutral.

Which is good, because while there is a plot, the book is really character driven.

The different cultures they encounter at the settlements were fascinating, especially the Seelie court.  The author did an excellent job of making each one sound unique in terms of government, customs, etc.

While I enjoyed the subtle - very subtle - romance, I didn’t feel particularly invested in the characters emotionally.  So for me the ending seemed to fizzle out.  The two main climactic style events didn’t come with a feeling of satisfaction when they were resolved, both because of that absence of emotional connection and because they were so drawn out that any tension was gone well before the resolutions.

It was a fun, fairly quick read, with some interesting aliens, and cultures, and characters.

Friday 22 July 2016

Star Wars on Super 8!

My dad had an old 8mm camera with which he took quite a lot of home movies.  Over the past few weeks I've been digitizing them.

I figured, since I was doing this anyway, I might as well do my husband's home movies too.  While my family stuck with the soundless films until the 80s when we got a camcorder, my husband's family upgraded to Super 8, which does sound.  And in addition to family movies, they also had these gems:  

Those are official Super 8 releases of Star Wars (in black and white) and Superman the Movie. Unfortunately, whatever chemical they used on the film to 'preserve' it, leached the blues out, so when you watch them now they're very red tinged.  They're also between 15 and 20 minutes each.

Since I can't post the video for copyright reasons, here are the scenes that make up the Super 8 cut of Star Wars (I can do Superman later if people are interested).

There's a still shot of the title (no exposition crawl), followed by Luke and Obi Wan talking about Luke's father and seeing Leia's message on R2D2.  The scene jumps to the Death Star where Luke and Leia meet up with Han and Chewie, before getting on the Millennium Falcon. There's a cut where Ben dies (that is, you see them walking across the floor immediately followed by Leia saying 'he's gone' and Han telling Luke to shoot the door - no lightsaber battle between Ben and Vader).  They leave the Death Star and have the tie fighter battle.  Leia hugs Chewie and The End comes up on the screen.

The ending was so abrupt I almost started laughing.  This cut wouldn't make any sense to someone who didn't watch the theatrical release.  It's not even a 'best of' cut, as they removed Alderaan being blown up and didn't have the cantina scene or anything from the last third of the film. 

Ain't history wonderful? 

Thursday 21 July 2016

Shout-Out: Voyagers

It's nice to see more middle grade science fiction coming out.  Hooking kids on reading when they're young is important if we want a robust future SF/F readership.  This is a series of 6 books, each written by a different author.

The first book Project Alpha, came out last year:

The entire future of our planet will soon be in the hands of four kids. Sure, they’ll be the best in the world . . . but can they save the world?

Earth is about to go dark. Without a new power source, life as we know it will be toast. A global competition is under way to determine who will join the secret mission that might just save us all. The Voyagers will venture to the far reaches of space, farther than anyone’s ever gone before, and they must be prepared to face anything.


But first the Voyagers team needs to be chosen. Project Alpha is a competition of physical challenges, mental puzzles, and political alliances. The battle is fierce, and only four will make the cut...

The last book, The Seventh Element, was released earlier this month.

In addition to books, the series has an interactive website with a quiz, several games, bonus content, and more.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Book Review: False Hearts by Laura Lam

Pros: great characters, interesting mystery, unique

Cons: a little predictable

Tila and Taema are conjoined twins who grew up in Mana’s Hearth, a cult where meditation and lucid dreaming were an important part of their religious service.  They escaped at 16, and were surgically separated.  Ten years later, Tila arrives at Taema’s apartment, accused of murder.  To clear her sister, Taema must go undercover with the San Francisco Police Department and infiltrate the Ratel, the criminal organization that’s creating a new drug that, when perfected, will allow them to watch and influence dreams.

The book starts with an acknowledgments section, which mentions some of the research the author did into conjoined twins and cults, in order to get the details right.  The book is fascinating and the research shows in the conflicted feelings the twins have regarding their upbringing, their former beliefs, how they interact with each other and outsiders, etc.  The protagonists are wonderfully complex and I loved learning more about them.  I really liked Nazarin, Taema’s undercover partner, as well. 

The story takes a number of twists and turns as the mystery unfolds.  The main story is Taema going undercover, but the narrative switches to Tila writing about how they left Mana’s Hearth.  I did find that as time went on a few of the twists became predictable, but I really enjoyed watching the characters reactions to the various revelations.

It did surprise me that no one considered that Taema’s scar would be on the opposite side from Tila’s when they were made to look alike.  For the most part this wouldn’t be an issue, but there is one scene where that should have come up and given her identity away.  [ETA: I got a tweet from the author explaining that due to the amount of reconstructive surgery the girls needed, the scars are on the same side.]

The subject matter’s pretty dark so but it’s an enjoyable book, and I whipped through it in a weekend, wanting to find out what happens next.  So if you’re looking for a mystery with some unique elements, give this a try.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Shout-Out: A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic Durbin

Set in a world similar to our own, during a war that parallels World War II, A Green and Ancient Light is the stunning story of a boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother for the summer in a serene fishing village. Their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane, the arrival of grandmother’s friend Mr. Girandole—a man who knows the true story of Cinderella’­s slipper—and the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house. In a sumptuous idyllic setting and overshadowed by the threat of war, four unlikely allies learn the values of courage and sacrifice.

Friday 15 July 2016

Tall Ships: El Galeon

Another ship I got to tour at Toronto's Tall Ship festival was El Galeon, a reproduction of a 16th century Spanish galleon, that's been set up as a museum ship (with plaques, etc. explaining things). It's a gorgeous ship.

The rear of the ship, with signalling lantern, religious icon, and balcony off the noble area.

 The Admiral's cabin has an ensuite bathroom.

The gun deck.

Thursday 14 July 2016

Shout-Out: The Iron Assassin by Ed Greenwood

In Ed Greenwood's The Iron Assassin, Victoria never ascended the throne; the House of Hanover held England only briefly before being supplanted by the House of Harminster. It is a time of gaslamps and regularly scheduled airship flights, of trams and steam-driven clockwork with countless smoke-belching stacks. London, the capitol of the Empire of the Lion, is a filthy, crowded, fast-growing city where a series of shocking murders threatens the throne itself.

Energetic young inventor Jack Straker believes he has created a weapon to defend the Crown: a reanimated, clockwork-enhanced corpse he can control. He introduces "the Iron Assassin" to the highly placed Lords who will decide if Straker's invention becomes a weapon of the Lion-or something to be destroyed.

It quickly becomes apparent that the Iron Assassin is more self-willed than Straker intended, and that the zombie's past life is far more sinister than Straker thought. Has he created a runaway monster? Or the best guardian the Lion could ever hope for?

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Book Review: Song of the Deep by Brian Hastings

Pros: great female protagonist, fast paced, variety of challenges, illustrations

Cons: too short! (though not for the intended age group), inaccurate science

When Merryn’s father doesn’t return from his day’s fishing in a storm, she builds a submarine and goes looking for him.

This is a middle grade book, designed for ages 8-12, though it’s suitable for those outside that range as well (there are a few scary bits, but nothing 6 year olds couldn’t handle, and the short chapters make for good bedtime reading).  While the science isn’t accurate, I was impressed that the author mentioned some of the challenges of working and using a submarine (like what to do for air).  

Merryn’s a highly motivated character.  She doubts herself a few times, wondering if her quest is futile, but forces herself to keep searching regardless.  Along the way she encounters some fantastical sea creatures and faces several types of dangers.  I also appreciated that there was no physical description of her.

The story’s well paced, with a variety of challenges for Merryn to overcome, some using her wits and others her mechanical know how.

There’s black and white artwork throughout the book, illustrating some of the wonders Merryn encounters.

This book is a tie-in to the video game of the same name, which follows Merryn’s quest.  The author wanted media his daughter could appreciate that focused on attributes outside of looks.  And he’s succeeded as far as this book is concerned.

As an adult I found the book an entertaining, quick read.  I’m sure kids are going to love this.

Monday 11 July 2016's Ebook Club

The fantastic website - and publisher - is starting up an ebook club.  And they'll be giving away a book a month to those who join (USA & Canada only) so members can read along.  The first book is Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, available in epub and mobi formats.  Check out their post for more information.

Friday 8 July 2016

Draken Harald Hårfagre

This past weekend Toronto had a Tall Ships festival, with deck tours on some pretty special ships, one of which was the Draken Harald Hårfagre, a reconstructed viking ship that sailed from Norway.

The crew gave a short tour, explaining their living conditions (a large tent on deck where they sleep in shifts and cook).  The floorboards are loose, allowing storage under the deck.

And the navigation table at the stern has 2 carved ravens. :)

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Video: Netto-Katzen

I'm in the middle of a time consuming family project, and so am throwing this up here because I don't have time to find something else.  It's a WTF grocery store add (I believe), using a bunch of cat memes.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Book Review: The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan

Pros: great characters, brilliant world-building, variety of action

Cons: lots of close shaves

Claydon Torcreek is a thief who gets roped into being the blue-trance communicator for the Longrifle Independent Contractor Company.  The Company’s mission is to find the fabled white dragon, living in the dangerous interior.

Lizanne Lethridge is a blood-blessed covert agent of the Exceptional Initiatives Division of the Ironship Trading Syndicate.  She’s sent to Morsvale to investigate the former owner of a box that held a device that might aid in Clay’s company’s mission.

Corrick Hilemore is the new Second Lieutenant of the IPV Viable Opportunity.  Their ship is trying out a new engine that allows for faster travel, as it takes out a pirate ship.

Meanwhile, the drakes that have been bled for their magical blood for decades, have started acting in strange ways despite their reduced numbers, attacking cities, leaving their hunting grounds, and working together in ways they never have before.   

There’s a lot going on in this book.  There’s some political intrigue, spy work, sea battles, steampunk style inventing, dragons, dragon blood magic…   Told from three POV characters, the book jumps around enough that you’re always on your toes, wondering what will happen next.

The world-building is excellent.  There’s real history here.  There are several countries with different ways of doing things, past rebellions, corporate greed.  Different people from different lands interact in different ways (sometimes as part of the same crew, sometimes as infiltrators). 

The characters all felt like real people with real hopes and goals.  I enjoyed spending time with all thee POV characters, learning more about them and seeing how they react in different circumstances.  Their supporting casts were all really interesting too.

This is partly explained by the end of the book, but there are a LOT of close shaves for the various groups.  Enough that it started to feel really manufactured and repetitive.  There was a reason for that, but it doesn’t prevent some scenes from feeling a bit fake.

The economics around blood-magic was well done, though it started to drive me nuts hearing how depleted their stores of product were becoming and how expensive it was to buy, and then seeing so much wasted blood as more and more drakes get killed.  The magic itself was cool, with each type of drake having a different property.  I especially liked that there were limitations on the magic and that there were actual consequences for using it extensively.

At the back of the book is a list of dramatis personae, which I would have referred to a few times had I known it was there.  There’s a large cast, and on the ship especially I had to remind myself who was who.

This is an excellent book with a lot going for it.  It you love immersive fantasy, pick this up.

Friday 1 July 2016

Books Received in June 2016

Many thanks again to the publishers that have sent me books this past month.  I'm in the middle of several time consuming family projects, so I won't be reading some of these as quickly as I would like.

Song of the Deep by Brian Hastings - I've finished this middle grade book already, and it was a fun, cute read.  The book is based on the Insomniac game by the same name.  My review will go up on July 12th on the book's release date.

Twelve-year-old Merryn lives with her fisherman father in a little cottage by the sea. Each day, her father braves the tumultuous waves and returns home in time for dinner. One stormy evening, he doesn’t come back. Merryn has a vision that he’s been dragged underwater by a terrifying sea creature, and he needs her help. Determined to rescue him, Merryn builds a tiny submarine and embarks on a journey through the undersea worlds she’s only heard about in her father’s lullabies. As she faces the dangers and wonders of the world below the waves, she realizes that her father’s stories were all real.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright - I have to admit, this book is outside my comfort zone, and that's one reason I really want to read it.

The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute teenager called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans driven from other parts of the country, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.

False Hearts by Laura Lam - This is a debut that sounds interesting.

Raised in the closed cult of Mana's Hearth and denied access to modern technology, conjoined sisters Taema and Tila dream of a life beyond the walls of the compound. When the heart they share begins to fail, the twins escape to San Francisco, where they are surgically separated and given new artificial hearts. From then on they pursue lives beyond anything they could have previously imagined.
Ten years later, Tila returns one night to the twins' home in the city, terrified and covered in blood, just before the police arrive and arrest her for murder--the first homicide by a civilian in decades. Tila is suspected of involvement with the Ratel, a powerful crime syndicate that deals in the flow of Zeal, a drug that allows violent minds to enact their darkest desires in a terrifying dreamscape. Taema is given a proposition: go undercover as her sister and perhaps save her twin's life. But during her investigation Taema discovers disturbing links between the twins' past and their present. Once unable to keep anything from each other, the sisters now discover the true cost of secrets.

The Weaver's Lament by Elizabeth Haydon - This is the 9th book in the Symphony of Ages series, one I've long wanted to read.

For a thousand years, the lands ruled by the Cymrian Alliance have been at peace. When the brutal death of a dear friend catapults the kingdom to the brink of civil war, Rhapsody finds herself in an impossible situation: forced to choose between her beloved husband, Ashe, and her two oldest friends, Grunthor and Achmed. Choosing her husband will mean the death of thousands of innocents. Siding against him will cost Rhapsody the other half of her soul, both in this life and the next.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Vampires in Mexico city? Sign me up!

Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Here in the city, heavily policed to keep the creatures of the night at bay, Domingo is another trash-picking street kid, just hoping to make enough to survive. Then he meets Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers. Domingo is smitten. He clings to her like a barnacle until Atl relents and decides to let him stick around.

But Atl's problems, Nick and Rodrigo, have come to find her. When they start to raise the body count in the city, it attracts the attention of police officers, local crime bosses, and the vampire community. Atl has to get out before Mexico City is upended, and her with it.