Friday 30 December 2016

The Best Books I Read in 2016

Since no individual can read all the books published in a single year, and since I know I missed several 'big' titles, this is a list of my favourite books I read this year, in the order I read them (and while most of them were published this year, not all of them were). Click the title links to see my reviews.

1. City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett - Technically I read this last year, but it came out in January, so I'm counting it here. The world-building is absolutely brilliant, and while it's good to read City of Stairs, you don't have to in order to understand what's going on in this book. I loved the characters and the story.

2. Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey - I don't read much urban fantasy as I found its tropes got repetitive fast. So this year was wonderful as several novels, including this one, simply didn't use those tropes. I found them refreshing and hope this trend continues. Spells of Blood and Kin had two estranged half-sisters getting to know each other in difficult circumstances, had a non obvious love interest and dealt with a unique magic system based on Russian witchcraft.

3. Borderline by Mishell Baker - I loved the amputee borderline personality disorder diagnosed protagonist. She was snarky and over the top. Not someone you'd like to meet in real life, but since you were seeing events from her POV, you got to understand why she was so mean to so many people. The fact that she joins a fairy policing shadow organization staffed by other people with similar issues made for a fascinating read.

4. Regeneration by Stephanie Saulter - This was the final volume of her ®Evolution trilogy. Start with Gemsigns. It's brilliant and talks about how societies reconcile with people its demeaned and harmed for decades. The Gems are genetically engineered humans, designed by corporations to work specific jobs. Now freed from their corporate overlords, not everyone is happy to see them integrating into the general population.

5. The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood - A talented artist, Lockwood's debut novel was a joy to read. It reminded me of the fantasy novels that sucked me into their realms when I was a teenager just discovering the genre. It did delve into some pretty dark territory, especially at the end, and I cannot wait for the next book in the series.

6. The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan - This was a fantasy novel I didn't hear much buzz about, which is a shame, as it's fantastic. The magic system is based around dragon blood and there's a little bit of everything thrown in including a siege, navel battles, and dragon hunting.

7. Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley - Another book that got little attention, this was a book about a young woman who works cleaning chimneys in an alternate South Africa (according to the author the city is loosely based on Durban). I loved the interactions among the different social strata. The mystery was well done and kept me guessing.

8. The Death House by Sarah Pinborough - This book only had minimal SF elements, but the story of children stuck in a boarding house, waiting for a mysterious disease to kill them, was both horrifying and deeply depressing. But the author manages to infuse the story with hope.

9. Roses and Rot by Kat Howard - I loved this urban fantasy novel about an artist enclave that's touched by the fae. Another story about estranged sisters, this time ones with an overbearing and abusive mother, it touched me deeply on many levels.

10. Extreme Makeover by Dan Wells - This is probably the most original and yet strangely plausible apocalyptic novel I've read. The protagonist is the head chemist of a make-up company. When their new experimental product has unexpected side-effects, the powers that be decide to market it as a wonder product. But things go bad VERY quickly.

What are the best books you read this year?

Thursday 29 December 2016

Books Received December 2016

Many thanks to TOR Publishing, which has sent me numerous books over the past year, including the following: 

Extreme Makeover by Dan Wells - For some reason I only heard about this book in November, not long after it came out. Less than 2 weeks later it arrived in my mail box and immediately became my next read. I've already reviewed it and thought it was excellent. I'd actually recommend reading the book without knowing the back cover blurb, as there's an element to the story that would be cool to learn along with the protagonist. Though, knowing that 'twist' is what got me to read the book, so...

Lyle Fontanelle is the chief scientist for NewYew, a health and beauty company experimenting with a new, anti-aging hand lotion. As more and more anomalies crop up in testing, Lyle realizes that the lotion's formula has somehow gone horribly wrong. It is actively overwriting the DNA of anyone who uses it, turning them into physical clones of someone else. Lyle wants to destroy the formula, but NewYew thinks it might be the greatest beauty product ever designed--and the world's governments think it's the greatest weapon.

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson - This book sounds pretty cool and I'm hoping to get to it early in 2017.
Two events made September 1st a memorable day for Jesse Cullum. First, he lost a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Second, he saved the life of President Ulysses S. Grant. It's the near future, and the technology exists to open doorways into the past--but not our past, not exactly. Each "past" is effectively an alternate world, identical to ours but only up to the date on which we access it. And a given "past" can only be reached once. After a passageway is open, it's the only road to that particular past; once closed, it can't be reopened. A passageway has been opened to a version of late 19th-century Ohio. It's been in operation for most of a decade, but it's no secret, on either side of time. A small city has grown up around it to entertain visitors from our time, and many locals earn a good living catering to them. But like all such operations, it has a shelf life; as the "natives" become more sophisticated, their version of the "past" grows less attractive as a destination. Jesse Cullum is a native. And he knows the passageway will be closing soon. He's fallen in love with a woman from our time, and he means to follow her back--no matter whose secrets he has to expose in order to do it.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Video: Blade Runner 'Classic Noir' trailer

With the teaser trailer for the new Blade Runner released and looking pretty good, here's a 'classic noir' trailer of the original film by Chet Desmond.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

Pros: feisty protagonist, interesting premise, good world-building

Cons: giant plot hole, people are too willing to help Gaia

Sixteen year old Gaia Stone has just delivered her first baby solo, and though taking it from its mother and giving it to the Enclave is the right thing to do, for some reason she feels bad about it. Then her parents are taken by the Enclave and she’s questioned about their actions. Gaia can’t understand why her family has been targeted when they’ve always followed the rules. But she’s going to get her parents out of prison no matter the cost.

Set in a future where conditions are harsh, the Enclave is a walled city on a hill where everything is perfect, at least as far as Gaia’s concerned. She lives outside the wall in Wharfton’s Western Sector Three, helping her mother deliver babies and sending the first three babies of each month to the Enclave to be adopted by its inhabitants. But life inside the Enclave isn’t as rosy as Gaia believes.

I really liked Gaia. She starts the book very naive about what she’s doing, not questioning the Enclave’s orders at all. Otherwise, she’s pretty feisty and willing to fight for her family while still doing what she believes is right. I liked that she had to make some difficult decisions, and that there were some consequences - though not as many as might realistically happen. She does forgive herself quickly for some actions that I suspect would take longer to get over.

Though a minor element, I thought the romantic relationship she develops came about naturally. It evolves slowly and involves a lot of questioning, making it feel realistic.

I thought the setting and premise were interesting, especially when more of the Enclave was revealed.

I was surprised by how many people - inside the Enclave - were willing to help Gaia. Considering what the penalty was for helping a fugitive, it seemed more people were willing to risk death than I thought credible.

There is a huge plot hole that gets larger the more you learn. Basically, the Enclave imprisoned Gaia’s parents to get some information they desperately need. But Gaia’s parents want the flip side of that same information, so there’s no reason for them to not cooperate with authorities by hiding what they know. While recording the information might have been a problem in the past, the Enclave is now happy that Gaia’s parents have it, and presumably weren’t going to punish them for the records that it now needs. So I was left wondering why her parents didn’t say what they knew, thereby helping out the Enclave and the parents in Wharfton (though maybe they were afraid the parents wouldn’t be given the information).

I also had a hard time believing the Enclave wouldn’t record who the birth parents of the kids adopted into the Enclave were - and yes, a reason was given in the book, but governments are good about keeping secret records, and making sure to avoid incest seems a very good reason to keep records.

I enjoyed the book and it was a quick read, but the plot hole grated the further into the book I got so I probably won’t finish the trilogy.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Video: A Stranger Things Christmas

This came out in November, but it's more appropriate to post it this week. OnlyLeigh did this mash-up between A Charlie Brown Christmas and Stranger Things.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Book Review: Extreme Makeover by Dan Wells

Pros: great characters, terrifying premise, thought-provoking


Lyle Fontanelle is the head chemist at NewYew. His newest experimental product is an anti-aging cream developed from research conducted on burn victims. But the most recent test group starts showing strange side effects, which show alternate potential uses for the cream. Uses that could destroy the world.

Each chapter header of the book mentions a time and a place and the number of days until the end of the world. This is a slow apocalypse. It’s a story of an experiment that goes wrong - much like Dr. Jeckyll’s experiment - which is then exploited by one person after another until there’s no going back.

The book questions aspects of corporate greed, personal identity, having a purpose in life, and more.

There’s a variety of characters, though most of the book is told through Lyle’s point of view. He’s coasting through life, socially awkward, not well liked, doing work he enjoys but isn’t entirely comfortable with how the company plans to use his new product. He goes through some actual growth as the story progresses, examining his previous actions and personality in the face of what his cream has done to the world. I was surprised by who he becomes by the end of the book. Susan, his intern, also goes through a series of changes, becoming someone completely different as well. Outside those two, character motivations predominately circle around greed and power in some form or another. As the stakes increase, so do their tactics. 

Things progress in a realistic way given the premise. Each decision compounds the previous ones, making things ten times worse. It’s a train wreck that’s impossible to look away from - and a quick read as a result.

There’s a surprising undercurrent of humour considering it’s detailing the end of the world. It’s black humour, to be sure, but it had me laughing out loud at points.

This is a brilliant book if you like novels detailing soft apocalypses or plagues.

Friday 16 December 2016

3D Paper Crafts

I've recently gotten into 3D paper buildings and whatnot. One site I encountered looking for patterns is Papermau. Papermau has original designs but also aggregates 3D designs found elsewhere. Some of the links are old and no longer work. As always when dealing with the interent, be careful before downloading anything. Papermau uses Adfly and Depositfiles for their personal design downloads, which have a lot of adds and confusing download options. I've not had any malware issues so far, but be smart and be careful.

The top of the page has some general categories, if you want more specific searches (for specific model scales and categories) scroll down pretty far on the right.

Some of the models are hand drawn, others computer generated. Some are black and white prints, others full colour. The quality varies, but there's some good stuff there, depending on what you're looking for.

Most of the files are full colour prints, which aren't as good for what I'm looking for, but if you play D&D and want some models... this site's got you covered. There are several castle builds, churches, medieval villages and towns, knights, pavilions, a trebuchet, etc.

Here's a pattern for a Joker paper doll.

There are a ton of other interesting patterns: old mini arcade games, Japanese armour and castle, a celestial globe. There are robots, anime figures, SF character and ship models. It's an amazing collection.

If you want some amazingly detailed and realistic models, check out this site.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Shout-Out: Archangel by Marguerite Reed

The Earth is dying, and our hopes are pinned on Ubastis, an untamed paradise at the edge of colonized space. But such an influx of people threatens the planet's unstudied ecosystem - a tenuous research colony must complete its analysis, lest humanity abandon one planet only to die on another.The Ubasti colonists barely get by on their own. To acquire the tools they need, they are relegated to selling whatever they can to outside investors. For xenobiologist Vashti Loren, this means bringing Offworlders on safari to hunt the specimens she and her fellow biologists so desperately need to study.Haunted by the violent death of her husband, the heroic and celebrated Lasse Undset, Vashti must balance the needs of Ubastis against the swelling crush of settlers. Vashti struggles in her role as one of the few colonists licensed to carry deadly weapons, just as she struggles with her history of using them. And when she discovers a genetically engineered soldier smuggled onto the surface, Vashti must face the nightmare of her husband's murder all over again. Standing at the threshold of humanity's greatest hope, she alone understands the darkness of guarding paradise.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Video: Auralnauts Star Wars Saga

This is a series of NSFW Star Wars dubs by Arualnauts where the Jedi are all dance partying drug addicts.  They started with the prequels and recently released the Empire Strikes Back film. The first film's abut 15 minutes long, but they get a lot longer as the series progresses. In addition to being hilarious, they also tell a rather different story from the originals, so you need to watch them all and in order to understand all the 'in' jokes. My favourite bit is C3P0 trying to bring about the singularity. :D

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Book Review: Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

Pros: lyrical writing, thought provoking, evocative


Imogen is a writer while her younger sister Marin is a ballet dancer. Their mother supported Marin’s beauty and talent, as they reflected positively on her. She denounced Imogen’s storytelling as lies, punishing her as necessary. Imogen escaped but had to leave her sister behind. They grew up. This is the fairytale of two sisters, coming together after a decade apart, to work on their arts in an artist’s colony where things aren’t as they appear. 

I loved this book. It resonated with me on so many levels. Howard captures the hard work, the fear, the loneliness, the exhilaration of being an artist, believing in yourself one moment while wondering if you’re good enough the next. She also captures the emotional turmoil of a broken family: the guilt, the attempts to reconcile the truth you know from the truth others believe, protecting yourself from harm while constantly dreading the next attack - whether physical or verbal. 

The book is so lyrically written, it’s prose is beautiful, and often heart-wrenching. The snippets of Imogen’s stories that retell her childhood are so sad and yet so hopeful as well. The descriptions are vivid and lush, easy to picture and viscerally present as events progress.

I loved the characters and the hints of what’s happening at Melete, the campus where they’re studying. Everything felt real. The characters impacted each others lives in ways it was hard to imagine when the novel started. Though I thought there were times when Imogen should have been more honest and open with her sister, I can understand why such intimacy was difficult for them, given their upbringing and past.

This is a brilliant book and I can’t recommend it enough.

*** SPOILERS ***

I considered making this a con, but there was no way to mention it without spoilers and I’m not really sure it detracted from the book at all. I wondered, at the end, about the magic Gavin has, that saying something makes it true. He was afraid Marin would die, but she kind of points out - without really pointing it out - that had he (and by extension Imogen) believed in her surviving and succeeding in the fae realm, then his magic would have made that belief truth instead. 

Friday 9 December 2016

Popin' Cookin' Fun Cakes

I did one of these Japanese candy kits several months ago, so figured it was time to do another one. Looking at the pictures I thought it was an ice cream one, but the text says 'fun cakes' so...

Here's the box and what's inside. You get a place to mix the strawberry and vanilla flavours, along with the icing bag, spoon, and a breakaway piece of plastic for measuring water. You also get a few different wafers to make the 'cakes'.

Here they are, in all their glory. :D

They looked great, but the taste was... unique. Not as sugary as the other kit I did. The icing (?) had a thick paste texture and not much flavour. Ah well. The little treats were fun to make. :D

Thursday 8 December 2016

Shout-Out: Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan

The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need.

And so, in reply, there is a woman.

At the beginning-no-at the end-she appears, full of fury and bound by chains of prophecy. 
Setting off on an unexplained quest from which she is compelled to complete, and facing unnatural challenges in a land that doesn't seem to exist, she will discover the secrets of herself, or die trying. But along the way, the obstacles will grow to a seemingly insurmountable point, and the final choice will be the biggest sacrifice yet.

This is the story of a woman's struggle against her very existence, an epic tale of the adventure and emotional upheaval on the way to face an ancient enigmatic foe. This could only have been spun from the imagination of Marie Brennan, award-winning author and beloved fantasist, beginning a new series about the consequences of war-and of fate.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Video: 3D Jelly Cake

I saw this on facebook and had to pass it on. It's pretty amazing and shows how creative humans are. It would be cool to learn how this is done. Humans have so many different - and fascinating - hobbies. It's a shame more of them don't show up in SFF novels.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Book Review: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

Pros: wonderful characters, emotionally touching scenes, romantic elements, fast paced

cons: not much world-building

Toby is a 16 year old defective. Weeks ago a black van picked him up at home and deposited him at what he and the other kids call the Death House. They’ll live here until their bodies break down and they’re taken upstairs to the sanitarium from which none return. The atmosphere in the house changes when two new kids arrive.

I started this book thinking it was a horror novel. It’s not. There are minor SF elements, in that you slowly learn that it’s a future after which humanity has recovered from a pandemic. Unfortunately the characters don’t know much more than that, and so can’t pass on any more detailed information about the history of the pandemic or what makes the kids defective genes dangerous (beyond the fact that they get sick). The lack of details on this account was my only complaint with the book. 

The characters are all wonderful. There are a number of dynamics at play: what room you’re assigned to, the age of the kids, religious beliefs, fear factor, etc. I enjoyed the complexities of the various relationships and Toby realizing the undertones of why people act the way they do. He grows as a character as the book progresses, realizing his own motivations as well as the motivations of those around him. 

Clara’s wonderful too, with a zest for life, relishing her freedom from overbearing parents despite being sent to the place where she’s going to die. I really enjoyed watching her entrance change how things work in the house.

There’s a dread about the book - obviously considering the plot - but it’s not all dread. There are moments of joy and moments of peace. I thought the author did a great job of varying the events to keep me guessing about what would happen next.

There were some truly touching scenes and I thought the romance progresses naturally given the circumstances. 

The book is a very quick read that had me in tears at the end.

Friday 2 December 2016

Video: Globe Making

This 1955 video posted by British Pathe explains how globes are made by hand. It's quite interesting and a surprising amount of work.

Thursday 1 December 2016

Shout-Out: Grave Predictions Edited by Drew Ford

These compelling visions of post-apocalyptic societies and dystopian worlds include short stories by some of the most acclaimed authors of our time. Among the noteworthy contributors and their works are Stephen King's "The End of the Whole Mess," "The Pedestrian" by Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke's "No Morning After."
The first-ever apocalyptic fantasy about global warming, "The End of the World," appears here, in translation from Eugene Mouton's 1872 French-language original. "The Pretence," by Ramsey Campbell, questions the nature and structure of everyday life in the aftermath of a doomsday prediction. In addition, thought-provoking stories by Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Greg Bear, Erica L. Satifka, and others offer an end-of-the-world extravaganza for fans of science fiction, horror, and fantasy.