Friday 30 September 2016

Books Received in September

My thanks, as always, to the authors and publishers who send me books. I don't have time to read them all, but I try my best.

Children of Eden by Joey Graceffa - I've finished this book, which was a quick, entertaining read, and will be posting my review of it on Tuesday.

Rowan is a second child in a world where population control measures make her an outlaw, marked for death. She can never go to school, make friends, or get the eye implants that will mark her as a true member of Eden. Indeed, her kaleidoscopic eyes may very well give her away to the ruthless Center government. 
Outside of Eden, Earth is poisoned and dead. All animals and most plants have been destroyed by a man-made catastrophe. Long ago, the brilliant scientist Aaron Al-Baz saved a pocket of civilization by designing the EcoPanopticon, a massive computer program that hijacked all global technology and put it to use preserving the last vestiges of mankind. Humans will wait for thousands of years in Eden until the EcoPan heals the world. 
As an illegal second child, Rowan has been hidden away in her family’s compound for sixteen years. Now, desperate to see the world, she recklessly escapes for what she swears will be only one night of adventure. Though she finds an exotic world, and even a friend, the night leads to tragedy. Soon Rowan becomes a renegade on the run. 

Cumulus by Eliot Peper - The publicity information compared it to Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, so I'm curious to see if I'll like it.

In the not-so-distant future, economic inequality and persistent surveillance push Oakland to the brink of civil war. 
Lilly Miyamoto is a passionate analog photographer striving to pursue an ever more distant dream. Huian Li is preeminent among the Silicon Valley elite as the founder and CEO of the pervasive tech giant Cumulus. Graham Chandler is a frustrated intelligence agent forging a new path through the halls of techno-utopian royalty. But when Huian rescues Lilly from a run-in with private security forces, it sets off a chain of events that will change their lives and the world. 
The adventure accelerates into a mad dash of political intrigue, relentless ambition, and questionable salvation. Will they survive to find themselves and mend a broken system?

Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton - This is the third book in the Spellwright trilogy, though apparently it can also be read as a standalone novel.

Leandra Weal has a bad habit of getting herself in dangerous situations.
While hunting neodemons in her role as Warden of Ixos, Leandra obtains a prophetic spell that provides a glimpse one day into her future. She discovers that she is doomed to murder someone she loves, soon, but not who. That's a pretty big problem for a woman who has a shark god for a lover, a hostile empress for an aunt, a rogue misspelling wizard for a father, and a mother who--especially when arguing with her daughter--can be a real dragon.

Leandra's quest to unravel the mystery of the murder-she-will-commit becomes more urgent when her chronic disease flares up and the Ixonian Archipelago is plagued by natural disasters, demon worshiping cults, and fierce political infighting. Everywhere she turns, Leandra finds herself amid intrigue and conflict. It seems her bad habit for getting into dangerous situations is turning into a full blown addiction.

As chaos spreads across Ixos, Leandra and her troubled family must race to uncover the shocking truth about a prophesied demonic invasion, human language, and their own identities--if they don't kill each other first.

Spellbreaker is the long awaited sequel to Blake Charlton's Spellbound, which was listed by Kirkus Reviews among the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2011. This final installment of the Spellwright Trilogy stands alone as a complete story; however, fans of the series will find in it answers to the questions raised by the previous books about Leandra's parents, Nicodemus Weal and Francesca DeVega.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Shout-Out: Murder in the Generative Kitchen by Meg Pontecorvo

With the Vacation Jury Duty system, jurors can lounge on a comfortable beach while watching the trial via virtual reality. Julio is loving the beach, as well as the views of a curvy fellow juror with a rainbow-lacquered skin modification who seems to be the exact opposite of his recent ex-girlfriend back in Chicago. Because of jury sequestration rules, they can’t talk to each other at all, or else they’ll have to pay full price for this Acapulco vacation. Still, Julio is desperate to catch her attention. But while he struts and tries to catch her eye, he also becomes fascinated by the trial at hand.

At first it seemed a foregone conclusion that the woman on trial used a high-tech generative kitchen to feed her husband a poisonous meal, but the more evidence mounts, the more Julio starts to suspect the kitchen may have made the decision on its own.

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Video: Dust

I saw this on io9 and it's definitely worth sharing. It's a beautiful and haunting story and the special effects on the creatures is incredible.

The description from their site:

A Sci-Fi, fantasy inspired by anime and classic horror, Dust is set in a harsh and unpredictable natural environment where people have isolated themselves in an ancient city behind a massive wall. A socially marginalized tracker teams up with a black-market merchant to save the society that has rejected his way of life.

Dust from Ember Lab on Vimeo.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Book Review: Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley

Pros: brilliant world-building, fascinating protagonist, complex mystery


Anglet Sutonga is a steeplejack. When she was younger she cleaned chimneys. At 17 she’s too big for that, so now she works the factory stacks. After a series of events, including the theft of a city landmark, she’s hired to investigate a series of crimes that the police are ignoring. Meanwhile race relations in the city of Bar-Selehm are breaking down between the white upper class, the black Mahweni (those assimilated to city life as well as the tribesmen living traditional lifestyles outside of it) and the brown Lani, brought to the city by the whites as indentured servants and still not much better off, making her job urgent. And as tensions rise in the city, war between their northwest neighbours, the Grappoli, seems increasingly likely.

Bar-Selehm is a unique setting based on 19th Century South Africa but with fantasy overtones. The book is very contained to the city and its immediate surroundings, only mentioning Grappoli but not the wider politics of the outside world. Which keeps the book focused on the city and its problems. I loved that Anglet was able to mix with people of different races in different ways - depending on their social status, and how status and race were shown to be holdovers from the past, despite the current ideology that everyone is equal. There’s a great quote later in the book which sums up a lot of modern racism - and blindness towards it:

“We say we are all equal in Bar-Selehm, but you know as well as I do that that is not even close to being true. You cannot simply take people’s land, property, freedom from them and then, a couple of hundred years later, when you have built up your industries and your schools and your armies, pronounce them equals. And even when you pretend it is true, you do not change the hearts of men, and a great deal of small horrors have to be ignored, hidden, if the myth of equality is to be sustained.”

When going to the Drowning, where most of the Lani live, Anglet encounters hippos, monkeys, an ibex, and other creatures. She also mentions a few things that are made up, like weancats, which make the world feel both real and other at the same time. Similarly, the mineral that Bar-Selehm was built up on, luxorite, is made up, but the trade concerns, her brother-in-law’s stubborn effort to pan more, and how society interacts with the mineral is explored in some depth.

The author brings in just enough minor details of taste, smell, sight, and touch to make the world feel 100% genuine without bogging down the narrative at all.

I loved Anglet as a character. She’s necessarily tough and has to make a series of difficult decisions that change her life. I loved that her choices had consequences, and that as the book went on she often questioned the decisions she’d made. In several situations there was no good outcome, just the best she could do for now.

I liked that she encountered a wide variety of people during her investigation. The paper girl was probably my favourite, but Anglet meets people from several levels of society and cleverly finds ways to interact with them.

The murder mystery was tightly twisted so that while I figured out two of the twists at the end, several others were complete revelations. Looking back on the book as a whole the clues were there, but you take such a roundabout way to the end that it’s hard figuring out everything that’s going on. I found the ending quite a shock and really felt for Anglet.

It’s the first in a trilogy, but can easily be read as a standalone as the mystery is entirely wrapped up at the end. This a great novel with all the things people in SFF circles have been asking for. I can’t believe it’s not being more widely read and talked about. 

Friday 23 September 2016

Getting Writing Ideas From Travelling

Note: I'm saying fantasy novel as that's my main focus for reading and writing, but these could easily apply to any genre.

Peru was a magnificent country to visit, with such a huge variety of cultures, climates, landscapes, foods, etc. And it got me thinking. While I'd love to see an Incan fantasy series (like what Aliette de Bodard did with the Aztecs), there are so many aspects of travel that can be used to inspire writing that don't require tons of research or transporting a particular culture wholesale into a book.

Food. So often in fantasy books people will travel across countries and continents and yet never comment on the food they're eating. And yet, food differences can be huge. Consider what your character ate at home and then question whether they foods they encounter on their travels will be spicier or blander, use ingredients unavailable at home, look strange even though it's a familiar dish (for example I had stew in France that used only medieval ingredients, so the carrots were white instead of today's common orange and tasted different as a result). Different countries tend to focus on different grains - depending on growing conditions. The rice in Peru, for example, tasted to me like a cross between white rice and Japanese sticky rice (so, a little sticky but without a distinct flavour of its own, as with bismati and jasmine).

Language. I know 'common' has become short hand in fantasy novels for having peoples of different backgrounds talk, and when there is no common tongue somehow the protagonist understands 7+ languages. But wouldn't it be fun to watch a protagonist enter a city and try to bargain for something only to realize they can't understand what's being said? You can get a lot of information across using gestures or by drawing pictures and it might be fun reading about the difficulties of communication in a fantasy novel.

Transportation. I come from a country where most people have cars. Unless your city has good public transportation or you live downtown in a major city, it can be difficult getting around without one. But other countries have numerous forms of transport. Peru had buses, combini (like buses only privately run and departing only when full or nearly full), taxis, motortaxis, etc. And traffic was insane. There were stop signs that I'm sure only 1 in 20 cars paid attention to. Traffic police were constantly blowing their whistles to keep people moving...

Noise. This is something one of my professors in University pointed out, that the noises were hear every day - and learn to tune out - would have been completely different in the past. And travelling somewhere with different noises can remind you of that. I stayed one night on an island where a donkey braying woke me up, and in the jungle howler monkeys were my alarm clock. But even the lack of traffic can bring forward other noises you forget about. Insects are LOUD. And pervasive. Bird song. Running water from a stream. Frogs around ponds and lakes. Medieval societies would have had mills grinding grain and creating a racket that likely went on day and night. Think of what's in a town/city and what sounds those things make. Does your city have room for wagons to go down cobbled streets? That's a racket, not including whatever animal is pulling it.

Then there are things you might not think about that people in the past did that you only learn because you researched or travelled to a place. The city of Cusco was built in the shape of a Puma. The head was a hilltop defensive bastion, the heart was the location of the temples and worship. Other Incan cities were also based on animals, which is a pretty interesting method of city planning that I'd never heard of before.

Sometimes it's good to get out of your comfort zone and go to a place that's very different from what you know. You'll discover you have some habits that are hard to kick, and notice things you've never considered before. And if you can't afford to travel, libraries have books and videos on different places. I learned a lot about Peru before I went there. And that learning made my experience - and my ability to notice little things - greater.

Now, you don't want to bog down your narrative with thousands of little details about food and travelling and language and culture, but the occasional aside about how something is different from home gives a touch of verisimilitude that can elevate your novel from good to great.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 4: Puno to Lima

We got back to Cusco and checked-in to our hostel. An hour later we got the news that our tour bus to Puno the next day was cancelled due to an impending two day strike in the area. The next day we frantically tried to find a way to get to Puno so we could continue our trip and eventually got tickets on a night bus.

We arrived in Puno in time to see sunrise, but were quite tired for our tour of Lake Titicaca and its islands. The first stop was the Uros floating islands. The islands are made of layered reeds that have to be constantly renewed. The platforms are quite squishy, your feet sink into the reeds an inch or so when you walk around. Houses are built up on extra platforms of reeds, and must be raised for new reeds to be laid down underneath. For electricity the people now have solar panels.

It took about three hours to get to Amantani island, and most of us napped on the boat. Our group was split up for the homestay and sent off with their ‘mama’. Our host had a little garden out back, and a courtyard with rickety stairs we had to climb to get to our room. Lunch was delicious: quinoa soup, slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, two types of boiled potatoes, and a slab of fried cheese.

After lunch we hiked to the top of the island for sunset. The altitude was still pretty high, so it was slow going. Again, the views were worth the effort. In the evening we were dressed in local costume and brought to the community centre where a dance was underway. Many of us were too tired to dance, but I enjoyed watching others. We retired early.

The next day we had rolled quinoa pancakes with jam for breakfast and were on our way to the final island of the tour, Taquile. More climbing got us to their plaza de armas, and a pleasant walk around the island gave us more beautiful views.

Another day, another bus, this time to Arequipa. We passed some small lakes, got to see alpacas and vicunas, and saw a few mountains and volcanos. 

Our hotel was a converted colonial building, and had some great decor. The city’s plaza de armas was gorgeous - my favourite of the trip. The white marble looked so beautiful. From the correct angle you could even see the mountains in the distance. We visited the Jesuit church and its painted St Ignatius chapel (no photography allowed), and the the Santa Catalina monastery, which was huge. In many cases the nuns had a series of rooms to themselves, including their own kitchen (or maybe heater?). I got some nice night photos in the plaza before heading off to bed.

We flew to Lima and spent the first day exploring the Miraflores neighbourhood - including its stray cat filled Parque Kennedy and Mercado #1 de Surquillo, where we got lunch at one of the food stalls.

After lunch we did some shopping and then walked along the coast to the Barranco neighbourhood and the Bridge of Sighs. We had dinner at a restaurant that included a dance show. 

Our last day in Peru was spent in the centre of town, at the plaza de armas. We saw the changing of the guard, toured the San Francisco monastery and catacombs, and then walked to the park with the Magic Water Circuit - a series of lit fountains including a light show.

That night we picked up our luggage and headed to the airport for a 3:40 am flight home.

Puno to Lima from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 3: Inca Trail + Machu Picchu

This was both the highlight and hardest part of the trip. Highlight because Machu Picchu is amazing and the views on the trail were incredible. Hardest, because the trek is not easy. It's full of steep, uneven stairs (both up and down) and punishing heights (Dead Woman's Pass, the first of two high passes, is 4200 meters).

We started at Kilometre 82, where breakfast was prepared for us. The walk starts with 'Andean flats', meaning there's a lot of gentle and not so gentle slopes. There were a few high stretches that first day, but nothing compared to what we faced on the second. It's a good preparation day, and our company (Alpaca Expeditions) had us walk further than most companies, so we'd have a bit less of a hike on day two.

Day two started early and we walked a gruelling 16 km. Yes, I know 16 km doesn't sound so bad. But we started at 3300 m, went up to Dead Woman's Pass at 4200 m, down to Pacaymayu at 3580 m, where we had lunch, back up to 4000 m for the second pass, and then camped at 3600 m. And trust me, you can't adequately prepare for altitude hiking when you live close to sea level. There was another Canadian couple that was huffing and puffing the last 100 m of the first pass, leap frogging me, counting off 20 steps before having a rest break. And all those fantasy novels of people running up mountains and/or having no problem with them are wrong. Our porters - who were from mountain regions and properly acclimatized, were also taking rest breaks and huffing and puffing along (and not just because they were carrying gigantic packs).

One of the photos shows our last public washrooms before our lunch location, a llama picture, and then there's a photo of the mountain we're about to climb, followed by a close-up showing that the minuscule coloured dots on the distance picture are actually people near the peak. Getting to the top of that mountain felt incredible. Though, around that last 100 m mark, someone else's guide came down and told some people ahead of me that the path down was worse, which wasn't what I wanted to hear when I wasn't even done this first difficult part.

He was right though, the path down was very steep, very uneven steps, and you had to walk with extreme care in order to not trip and break something. At lunch time our chef gave a demonstration of how to make lomo saltado (basically beef stir fry), which was pretty cool. The meals on the trail were a real highlight, though altitude made it so I couldn't do the meals justice. I didn't get sick (thankfully), but my appetite was down, despite the huge amounts of exercise I was getting.

Day two also had us entering could forest, which meant misty cool weather and lots of mosquitos at night. The mist cleared enough that we were able to see an incredible sky full of stars. The moon was half full, so it wasn't as starry as our guide wished, but there were a lot more stars than I can see from Toronto. We were all exhausted, so we didn't get to admire them for long.

Day three was the best. I was getting quicker on the downhill stairs - and it was mostly downhill stairs that day. It meant I was at the front of the group, instead of the back, and had stretches of time on the misty path where I couldn't hear or see any other humans. Bliss. Luckily the mist broke as we got to the first of the day's two gorgeous ruins, allowing us some lovely valley views. There were llama droppings on the ground and our guide quipped that they were 'llama beans'. The second ruins that day, Winay Wayna, were my favourite on the trek. They're quite large, and we almost had them to ourselves, which made photography a lot of fun.

We woke up early on the final day. It's only an hour walk to the sun gate, then another hour down to the site, but they don't let you start walking until 5:30, so by the time we made Machu Picchu it was full of day trippers.

The site itself is magnificent. Lots of interesting temples (the circular one is the Temple of the Sun, while the one that looks like a rock slide is the Temple of the Condor - the two big side rocks = its wings), sacred rocks, and architectural features. And again, that view! Absolutely stunning. We had a tour and then got to enjoy the site for a while.

Finally, we took a bus down to Agua Caliente, where we caught the train and then a bus back to Cusco.

Inca Trail + Machu Picchu from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 2: Cusco and the Sacred Valley

We flew from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco and got checked-in to our hostel before going out to explore the city. We started at the San Pedro food market, where I had a lucuma con leche drink (lucuma is a fruit that has a caramel style flavour + condensed milk). There were a lot of different booths - some with food items (prepared and ingredients), some with flowers, some with tourist goods for sale. I also tried choclo, the giant corn on the cob. I was expecting sweet corn as that’s what we have in Canada, but the kernels were hard and dense and I couldn’t finish it.

We made it to the Plaza de Armas (central square) around dusk, and so got some nice pictures of the Cathedral and Jesuit church (La Compania de Jesus) as the sun set. On the mountains in the distance, we could see the white Christ statue and three crosses. For dinner we went to Limo, which had great food presentation (tasted great too). The crescent moon looked really cool, lit from the bottom instead of the side like at home.

The next day we had breakfast at our hostel and then waited in the front lobby for our 8:30-9am pick-up for our day trip. At 9:20 we were still waiting, so we called the booking office. Six minutes later a frazzled looking woman came in, and hustled us out to the nearby square. There she hailed a taxi and got in with us. She didn’t speak much English and didn’t tell us what was going on, just talked to the taxi driver for a minute. Then she got out and the taxi drove away with us inside.

The taxi driver didn’t speak much English either, so we weren’t sure what was going on. Was he our guide for the excursion? Was he driving us to meet the bus? Was he driving us to one of the sites? We eventually communicated enough to know we were going to Chinchero, the first stop on the tour. It was a wild ride - traffic’s pretty crazy in Peru at the best of times, and our driver wanted to pass a lot of cars and drove quite fast down windy roads.

We made it to Chinchero where our tour group was just starting to hear a presentation on textiles - how the wool is prepared, local natural dyes, and what some of the patterns mean. It was quite interesting and I’m glad we caught it. We then had time to shop.

The next stop was the ancient agricultural site of Moray. The belief is that these giant circular terraces (one’s been restored but there are 2 others that are unrestored at the same site) were used to create seeds for corn and potatoes that were acclimatized to the conditions at different altitudes. The first crop of potatoes would be grown in the bottom ring, and then would spread up and up and up, eventually covering all of the circular rings. The corn worked the same way, but was planted at the top of the straight area and worked its way down. The seeds would then be sent to people living at those altitudes, giving them hardy crops. Our guide on the Incan Trail believes the site was for growing medicinal plants, so not everyone agrees on its purpose.

Our last stop was the one I most wanted to see, the Maras salt flats. Water with 70% salt content pours out of the mountain and the local people channel it off during the rainy season. During the dry season (when we were there) the water evaporates and they can harvest the salt. The flats were down a steep cliff that provided some amazing views. The flats themselves looked amazing. There were a lot of shops where you could buy the salt (white and pink for eating, and black for bathing), salted chocolate, seasoned salt, and the regular souvenirs.

After the tour we had some free time in the city and so went to the Q’oricancha (Incan Temple of the Sun), now the monastery church of Santo Domingo. It was once covered in gold, with life-sized gold statues of people and animals in the courtyard. The Spanish pillaged the temple, tore down as much of it as they could, and built their church on top of the remains.

A festival was going on in the grounds, so we got to see some folk dancing.

We walked down some side streets and found the famous 12 sided stone, monument to the precision with which the Incans built their edifices.

The following day we had our Sacred Valley tour. We got picked up as scheduled and were on our way. We had a few short stops for shopping and admiring the view, with the first main stop at the archaeological site of Pisac. The Incans liked building close to their gods, so many of their cities were high up with incredible views. The walls of their cities were built with a slight incline, to help them weather earthquakes. Their doorways were also slanted towards the top, to help prevent damage.

We had a bit of time to shop in the market of the colonial city below the Pisac ruins before heading to our lunch buffet in Urubamba. We passed a street stall/restaurant cooking the local delicacy: cuy (guinea pig).

Then it was off to Ollantaytambo, the only remaining fully Incan planned city and its ruins. Due to the sun’s position, I didn’t get a good shot of the ruins from below, but I got some nice shots from above, and some of the other side of the city - with the ancient granaries and the face carved in the mountainside. There were some gigantic stones used at the top of these ruins for the Temple of the Sun. Our guide explained that the richest people were at the top, with the best architectural buildings, while poorer people were lower down, with their stone work not being quite as precise. It’s amazing how many of the old Incan aqueducts and fountains are still in use today.

The city of Ollantaytambo is quite small, just a plaza, the train station for Machu Picchu, the ruins, and a small series of narrow cobbled roads dating from Inca times (when room for cars wasn’t necessary, so they’re all pedestrian lanes). Doorways on either side of the narrow paths led to large open courtyards of houses that were quite beautiful (when you could look in). Our hotel had a beautiful garden outside the building.

There was an abundance of motor taxi’s, motorcycles with coverings and seating for 2 people inside, in the main square. Some had fanciful designs, like the Batman logo. At night there were so many stars in the sky. But I didn’t have a tripod and the confluence of valleys in the town meant the wind was so strong I couldn’t get my camera to stay still enough for a decent photo.

Cusco + Sacred Valley from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Tomorrow it's on to the Inca Trail.

Monday 19 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 1: Amazonian Basin

I just got back from 18 days in Peru. Normally I wouldn't post trip recaps here unless they had some sort of writing or SF/Fantasy connection, but Peru was so cool - and I don't like facebook for these sorts of things and I have no intention of writing out my trip stuff over and over again - so I'm doing it here for the sake of convenience.  I'll also have some tie in thoughts on how to use trips for writing inspiration at the end of the week.

This explanation goes with the photos in the slideshow at the bottom of this post. The soundtrack is from short videos I took while in the jungle. At the end of the week I'm also hoping to compile some of the video clips I took into one video (note, these were more for sounds and small events rather than the cool youtube trip videos you see that narrate everything, so don't expect anything too spectacular).

I left on September 1st and arrived in Puerto Maldonado on the 2nd (it was a painful flight plan that included 'sleeping' at the Lima airport).  When I arrived in the jungle it was hot and humid, just as I'd pictured.

The company I went with for my stay was Posada Amazonas, of Rainforest Expeditions.  It's co-owned by the Ese-Eja community of Infierno, and our guide was a member of that community.  The lodge itself is situated on community land off the Tambopata river preserve, part of the Madre de Dios state.

The day my group arrived, we were picked up at the airport, brought to a lodge to minimise luggage, and then transported by boat to the lodge. On the boat, we were given an amazing seasoned rice dish wrapped in a bijao leaf.

The main lodge was made using local construction techniques, and had hammocks, a bar, dining room, bedrooms, etc. joined by wooden walkways.  The bedrooms were walled on 3 sides using reeds and plaster (?). The bathroom also had some natural ventilation, with a plastic square around the shower. It was the dry season, so bugs weren't much of an issue, but the beds all had mosquito netting put down at night, just in case. There was one giant moth that kept falling into a vase placed on the bedside table and several smaller moths that sat on the flooring - daring us to squash them by accident.

The first night we went to a canopy tower 37 m high (120 feet) to observe birds and get a different view of the jungle. We saw some parrots flying and several other birds but no monkeys. The view itself was unbelievable. At one point in the far distance we could see flashes of lightning.

Food was served buffet style, and there was a good variety of dishes. There were even some fruits unique to the area, including the passion fruit like granadillo - a hard shell with a jelly like interior holding numerous black seeds.

The second day we went to see an oxbow lake - formed when the bows of the river get too close and the river starts a new path, bypassing that curve. There were a lot of different birds, a swampy section that was a vibrant green, monkeys, piranha's (we went fishing, caught a few and then threw them back in the water - holding a piranha is a crazy experience, you can feel it flexing its sides, trying to escape your hold). The lake even had giant river otters, which only 60% of the visitors are privileged to see.

In the afternoon we had an ethnobotanical tour, learning about indigenous plants and how the native peoples use them for healing. On the way there we passed a juvenile caiman sunning itself on the beach. Our guide made a shaman headdress and staff out of palm leaves before serving us 3 liquors made from the medicinal plants.

The next morning we tried to see parrots and macaws at the nearby clay lick but the weather was unseasonable cold and overcast that none were there (in fact it was so cold I had trouble sleeping with only the thin blankets the lodge carried - our guide said it never gets that cold in the jungle). After breakfast we went on a walking tour to visit a several hundred year old ceiba (or kapok) tree. On the way we encountered a termite nest (round blob of excrement & dirt in a tree), more monkeys, monkey-comb (our guide said the spiky rounded fruit was used by monkeys to comb their hair, but I'm not sure if he was telling the truth or just messing with us). Everything in the jungle has spikes on it, even bamboo and other trees. We passed more army ants before coming to the giant tree. Honestly my pictures don't do the tree justice, you just don't get the sense of scale. Near one of the roots our guide used a stick to coax out a tarantula.

On the walk back, our guide picked up some plant fuzz that looked like cotton, a giant spike from one of the trees, and a leaf and made a dart gun. He said the natives would use bamboo for the blow pipe, but the leaf did a good enough job.

That afternoon we went to a locally owned farm and saw some capybaras by the river side. Apparently they sit near the edge of the cliff in case a jaguar comes out of the jungle hunting them. They can then jump into the river to escape.  The farm visit was cool - we saw some local trees, coca trees (the plant cocaine is made from, but which natives use to combat altitude sickness), cacao trees (for chocolate), different peppers, an more. We also got to try two kinds of mini bananas (yellow and white fleshed).

Night in the jungle is surprisingly peaceful. Mornings... now they can get loud. We were woken up by howler monkeys around 5 am. Our last day, we were able to see some parrots on the clay lick as we drove by on the boat. Then it was back to the airport, heading to Cusco.

Amazonian Basin from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Friday 16 September 2016

Pokemon Go: Fun Photos

The last time I was out playing Pokemon Go, I wandered through the Japanese park where my husband and I got married.  I placed a lure on the pokestop and then took a bunch of photos of the pokemon that showed up.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Shout-Out: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women's College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Video: Candy Bar Controllers

I'm always on the look out for some great nerd friendly birthday and Christmas gifts for my husband. So Nerdy Nummies (the playlist by Rosanna Pansino) was a wonderful find.  These candy bar controllers were high on my list of things to try. If you don't have the molds, consider that any novelty silicone ice cube tray can be used for chocolates (ebay can be great for these - I got my lego trays for a few bucks each).

Like her, I got my controller at Think Geek, but it's no longer listed on their website.  For fillings, I used peanut butter, chocolate cream cheese, and Skor bits with caramel sauce. In the picture on the left below you can see the fillings before I added the chocolate on top. I filled them a bit too much, and so had to be extra careful to make sure the back sealed with the sides properly (especially with the caramel, which didn't harden like the other fillings and so was trickier to cover).

My controllers don't look quite as good as Nerdy Nummies', but they were pretty easy to make and they are super cute.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Comic Review: Ususual Tales 42 + Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery 10

Unusual Tales Volume 1, Number 42 (November 1963)

This comic consists of a series of short stories, one of which was not illustrated.

The titular story, “Prisoner in the Atom” involves a hen pecked scientist who has a theory about atoms, and the life contained within them.  It’s quite stereotypical now (scientist who doesn’t deal well with the outside world, nagging shopaholic wife), but the ending had a good twist. 

“Man From Mars” is a great story about xenophobia.  Gossip abounds in an average small town when a strange new family moves in.  The twist ending’s now been done so often it wasn’t a surprise.

“Martian Mistake” is the prose story, about how Martians conquer Earth - and how one man fought back.

“Macklin’s Miracle” is an underwater ‘did it really happen’ story.  As with “Man From Mars”, modern readers will find the ending predictable, if abrupt.  It’s also got the trope of one man finds true love and his friend - who’s yet to find a good woman - believes she will come between them.  

There’s a 2 page scientific comic called “Radiation and Space Travel”, talking about some of the problems we’ll have to overcome if space travel is to become a reality.

Finally, the comic ends with “The Land of Peace”, about three scientists from different nations (USA, Russia, and China) who have all discovered something more powerful than the A-bomb and are about to tell their respective government leaders about it.

Several of the stories are worth reading and were quite entertaining. But remember that what seem like tired tropes now were once new and surprising ideas.

[I'm not sure what the legality of this is, but when I was putting my review together I found this comic free to read online here (you need an account to download it). Considering the age of the comic, I'm assuming it's free of copyright, but if it isn't, tell me and I'll remove the link.]


Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery #10 (June 1965)

This comic is also a series of short stories - a mix of ghost stories mostly designed to make you ask, ‘are they true?’.

The first story, depicted on the cover, is “Guardian of the Mounds”, set in Peru (though without any accurate Peruvian costumes or traditions - at one point Hades is referenced).  A treasure hunting captain and an archaeologist arrive in the village of Secara, hoping to find gold in the mounds near the village.  An old man warns them away from the sacred site.  The story revolves around mountain barbarians.  I would have called foul on their colonial Spanish dress if a later panel hadn’t called them Spanish barbarians.

This is the longest story and it’s accompanied with a non-fiction article about the money lights of Peru that supposedly point to buried treasure.

There are a few 1 page stories, “Secret of the White Harpoon”, about a whaler who falls off the boat and almost dies, and “Ghost Dog”, about a thief who’s chased by something he can hear but not see.

Two other longer stories finish the comic, “The Unwanted” about a man who dresses up in a bear skin and unintentionally scares people wherever he goes, and “Phantom of the Films” about a B-list actor who would like to do major horror films.

None of the stories are terribly good, but they are entertaining enough.  I found the front and back cover flaps interesting as they have “Keys of Knowledge”, one on steel production, the other on the British people. I wonder if these were added to give the comics a more educational feel.

Friday 9 September 2016

Book Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

Pros: absolutely fascinating, in depth, lots of end notes, explains background 

Cons: uncomfortable reading at times, hard to share what you’ve learned without using evasive speech 

This is a surprisingly in depth brief history of swearing in English, focusing in the modern era on America.  It’s told in 6 chapters: ancient Rome, Biblical times, the middle ages, the renaissance, 18-19th centuries, and modern day.  

Mohr’s premise is that swearing has historically taken two forms, bodily functions (bathroom and sexual) and oaths (swearing on a deity).  The first two chapters explain the background necessary for understanding those two factors; body shame from Rome (as many scientific terms for body parts and functions come from Latin) and a veneration for oaths from the Bible.  Both sections included extensive historical references and explanations, so the reader is properly grounded in the appropriate contexts when the history of English begins in the middle ages.

It’s easy to forget just how interconnected everything is in the world.  Mohr shows how religion, social customs, language, and more intersected to create taboos and change what was appropriate and inappropriate to say.  She also showed how changing beliefs over time radically altered those taboos.

There is, naturally, a lot of swearing in the book.  Mohr gives numerous historical examples of things that were considered inappropriate at the time, and things we would consider inappropriate now, but were fine to say in certain eras of the past.  

I personally found the information fascinating, though it was difficult to share what I’d learned with others, as I often had to modify my own speech so as to not cause offence while giving examples from the book.

While I didn’t use the end notes, the book is well researched and references quite a number of sources.  I did however, read the notes at the bottom of pages which often explained quotes and references in more detail than the main text.

This book is VERY interesting.  If you’re interested in language, in how language affects society, in how language changes over centuries, or just in why people swear, read this book.

Thursday 8 September 2016

Shout-Out: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium's disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo's "owner," King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

Nisi Shawl's speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Video: Dressing in late 14th Century Armour

I saw this on facebook via Lou Anders' page.  It's cool to see all the different ties and buckles that were used to put armour on.  No wonder knights had to be dressed by squires.  There's no way to put many of these things on yourself.

From Ola Onsrud's youtube video description:

A video shoving how to dress in and wear armor (harness) from late 14th century. The harness is a detailed reconstruction based on the effigy of the Black Prince (1330-1376) in the Canterbury Cathedral, other relevant effigies, paintings in 14th century manuscripts and late 14th century armour displayed in The Royal Armories in Leeds.

From his facebook page:
Those who have participated in the reconstruction of the harness are:
Basinet and breastplate made by Albert Collins (via armorari)
Sabatons, plate legs and gaunlets made by Russell Thomas
Plate arms Roman TereschenkoKnight belt and necklace made by Jakub Vácha / Klinštejn ShopMail supplied by GETDRESSEDFORBATTLE© (
Sword form Albion Swords Limited LLCFittings for belts and scabbard from Tods StuffI (Ola Onsrud) have done all customizing of the mail, made all textile/clothing and leatherworks.

He's got a video on 14th C target practice and one on 13th C armour, that goes over how he made and modified some of the pieces.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Comic Review: Black, Chapter 1

Author: Kwanza Osajyefo, Designs: Tim Smith 3, Illustrator: Jamal Igle

This is a comic I backed on kickstarter.  They’ve released the first of 6 chapters.

The premise for the project is: What if only black people had superpowers?

As expected, this issue is all set-up.  It starts with the debriefing of a cop who witnessed 3 black kids being shot multiple times.  One of those kids, Kareem Jenkins, survives.  There’s a brief introduction to what’s happening to him as he meets other superpowered people, meanwhile it’s clear they are being hunted by some government organization.

From the painted style of the concept art I wasn’t sure if I’d like the artwork of the finished comic, but I’m really liking what they’ve done so far.  It’s all greytone, which fits the subject matter well.

In terms of character design, I love Kareem’s long dreadlocks and his facial expressions are great - especially the panel where he wakes up after the attack.  There’s a huge amount of motion in that still frame.  The brief glimpse of the superheroes we’ve gotten showed a ripped man and a woman who’s not only wearing a more sensible outfit than superheroes generally do, but is also not as buxom as is typically the case.  Both of which I like.

I’m impressed with this issue and glad I backed the project.  I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Friday 2 September 2016

Movie Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Directed by: Zack Snyder, 2016

Pros: excellent special effects, good acting

Cons: story is a mess, central character motivations don’t make sense and change for no reason, Lex’s character is very erratic rather than calculating, 

Bruce Wayne and Lex Luther both want to bring Superman down because of the human cost of the Metropolis battle.  

I was surprised by how well Ben Affleck played Bruce Wayne.  I thought he did a great job with the material he was given.  He’s in some ways a much darker Batman, willing to kill and maim to achieve his goals.  I also liked that he recognized he wasn’t necessarily one of the good guys.

I really liked some of the questions posed about Superman and whether he should use his powers to help others.  I thought the representation of people forcing him into a God/hero role was realistic, and showed a fundamental flaw in humans - that we all want someone to save us, but don’t allow for the humanity of that figure (ie, we want someone perfect who can save everyone and remove all danger, but can’t allow that someone with powers could be fallible in some way without then turning on and destroying them).  I liked that Clark was still conflicted about his powers and whether using them was the right course of action.  Having said that, it did frustrate me that others in the film couldn’t see how much worse Superman’s lack of involvement would have made things.  The Kryptonians from the Man of Steel (referenced at the start of this film) wouldn’t have just left everyone alone in the first film had Superman not appeared to stop them.

It also drove me nuts how long it took Lois Lane to realize she was a crutch for Superman.  And even when she figured it out, she still needs to be rescued several times because people have learned that Superman shows up when she’s in danger.

The special effects were really well done, though I didn’t like the overuse of slow motion and there were moments when I wasn’t sure if something was a dream sequence or really happening.  And Snyder’s several flashbacks to Bruce’s parents’ murder showed a lack of respect for the memory and intelligence of his viewers.

The movie tried to do so many things that it didn’t really accomplish any of them.  I would have liked more Lois and Clarke discussion about who and what Superman is to ground the character better.  The story as it stands was a mess, with characters changing motivations for no reason and so many stupid things happening.

I think the scenes with Wonder Woman were brilliant.  Watching this made me excited about her upcoming film.

This film was a time waster, and while it was entertaining enough, it had some many plot problems it’s hard not to nitpick them film when you’re done.


I’ve seen several articles/videos going over the problems with this film (one I’m embedding here), so I’ll leave out the more obvious problems (Why does Superman let the bomb go off when he should be fast enough to stop it?  How does he always know when Lois is in danger but not his mother?  Why does saying Martha’s name change Batman’s idea about Superman when only a moment before Batman was mocking Superman saying that his parents probably told him he was special?  Why does Lex create an obvious monster when his stated motivation in the film is to remove the threat of Superman, whom he things is a monster?  How does Lex know how to use the alien ship?  Why does the alien ship use fingerprint technology? Why does the ship speak English when it thinks it’s speaking to General Zod?) and go with some I haven’t heard mentioned.

Diana enters the film trying to retrieve a picture.  At the end she leaves, as if she accomplished this goal when what actually happened is that she got a digital copy of the picture back.  Unless I missed something, Bruce only copied Lex’s files, he didn’t delete them.  In other words, Lex still has him copy of the photo, only now Bruce has one too.  So by going after the photo, she made things worse for herself.  And realistically, the way things work in the DCU, she could have said the picture showed her mother or grandmother and people wouldn’t have thought twice about the resemblance.

Now, I’m not that well versed in the DC Universe, but I always pictured Lex Luthor as a cold, calculating, brilliant businessman.  While I agree it isn’t fair to dock the film points for not following my personal interpretation of the character, I do think it’s fair to ask how he’s done so well as a business man when he’s such an erratic and unbalanced person.  Who would be willing to deal with him?  Unless the empire was entirely built by his father and people deal with him because he already has the money and they’re hoping he doesn’t ruin things with his behavour.

It’s a good thing Bruce’s parents hired someone so well versed in espionage and building military grade weaponry and machinery as their butler or Bruce would have had some problems becoming Batman.

I really liked this video by Nerdwriter 1 on the difference between moments vs scenes, and agree that the over use of moments, rather than scenes, was a problem in this film.

Thursday 1 September 2016

Shout-Out: The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

Ruler of Florence for seven bloody years, 1531 to 1537, Alessandro de' Medici was arguably the first person of color to serve as a head of state in the Western world. Born out of wedlock to a dark-skinned maid and Lorenzo de' Medici, he was the last legitimate heir to the line of Lorenzo the Magnificent. When Alessandro's noble father died of syphilis, the family looked to him. Groomed for power, he carved a path through the backstabbing world of Italian politics in a time when cardinals, popes, and princes vied for wealth and advantage. By the age of nineteen, he was prince of Florence, inheritor of the legacy of the grandest dynasty of the Italian Renaissance. Alessandro faced down family rivalry and enormous resistance from Florence's oligarchs, who called him a womanizer-which he undoubtedly was--and a tyrant. Yet this real-life counterpart to Machiavelli's Prince kept his grip on power until he was assassinated at the age of 26 during a late-night tryst arranged by his scheming cousins. After his death, his brief but colorful reign was criticized by those who had murdered him in a failed attempt to restore the Florentine republic. For the first time, the true story is told in The Black Prince of Florence. Catherine Fletcher tells the riveting tale of Alessandro's unexpected rise and spectacular fall, unraveling centuries-old mysteries, exposing forgeries, and bringing to life the epic personalities of the Medicis, Borgias, and others as they waged sordid campaigns to rise to the top. Drawing on new research and first-hand sources, this biography of a most intriguing Renaissance figure combines archival scholarship with discussions of race and class that are still relevant today.