Tuesday 30 January 2018

Book Review: Harry Potter: A History of Magic

This is the adult companion guide to the British Library’s exhibit on Harry Potter (there's a shorter children's version of the guide that I did not look at).

After the introduction the book has nine chapters: The Journey, Potions and Alchemy, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Defence Against the Dark Arts, Care of Magical Creatures, and Past, Present, Future. Each chapter begins with a short introductory essay, followed by exhibit items in that category. There are a number of tidbits thrown in by the curators of the library’s collection. The final chapter is about J. K. Rowling’s work, showing some manuscript pages and edits she did on the books.

I found there was a lot of repeated information, especially with the first few chapters. The same quote or tidbit would be in the essay, mentioned again with the catalogue entry, then be in a text box elsewhere on the page. 

Entries are accompanied by relevant quotes from the Harry Potter novels. A few chapters showed early manuscript pages or drawings by J. K. Rowland depicting the characters. There were also portrait paintings by Jim Kay and mini biographies for some of the Hogwarts professors teaching the classes that lend their names to the chapters. 

Personally, I found the information provided lacking. It gives the barest overview of the subjects. If anything, it’s a very basic primer for the history of magic and a jumping off point for doing more in depth research elsewhere. A lot of great source material is mentioned, much of it free online, for those wishing to learn more specifics on many of the topics.

There’s no deeper discussion of why people believed in these things or how beliefs changed over time and distance. I guess I was hoping the book would go into more depth. Instead, it barely scratches the surface of what’s being covered.

As an exhibit guide it’s fantastic, showing a lot of colour photographs of the objects, often with multiple pages of manuscripts shown and comparison images. While the majority of information is Europe specific, I was impressed that some magical items from other cultures were mentioned (Ethiopian talisman scrolls, a Thai divination manual, a Japanese mythological creature, etc.).

On the whole, I wasn’t as impressed by this book as I’d hoped to be. 

Friday 26 January 2018

Movie Review: Le Moine et la Sorciere (Sorceress)

Directed by: Pamela Berger and Suzanne Schiffman, 1987

Pros: good acting, amazing sets and costumes, attention to detail

Cons: slow paced

Etienne de Bourbon, a Dominican friar, visits a French village in search of heretics. While keeping an eye on the woman of the wood, who uses her knowledge of plants to save lives, he witnesses her performing a pagan seeming ritual to save a baby’s life.

The movie is based on the thirteenth century writings of the real Etienne de Bourbon, who witnessed such a rite and the story of a dog that was killed after saving the life of a knight’s son and which the local people turned into a saint and protector of children. (The real account adds more detail to the ritual and doesn’t necessarily agree with what happens at the very end of the film. You can read some of his writings, including this tale as item 370, here.)

The acting is quite good and he drama surrounding de Bourbon as he tries to see heresy in local superstitions and practices, becomes quite tense as he has the power of life and death for the villagers and their wise woman.

The film has excellent period sets and clothing and really gives a good view of peasant life. A side plot involves a conflict with the local count who’s sectioned off good farmland for a fish pond leaving his people with barren land for tilling.

There’s a minor amount of period nudity (nursing mother, naked child). The version I saw was in French with rather poor English subtitles (some things were left untranslated and some of the translations weren’t particularly accurate).

It’s a slow film with little action and it included the myth of jus primae noctis (that the lord has the right to sleep with a subordinate woman - on her wedding night or otherwise), which I could have done without. I was impressed that while rape was mentioned (twice) it wasn’t done in a gratuitous way. 

I enjoyed this film and wish I’d heard of it earlier.

Thursday 25 January 2018

Shout-Out: Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Without the dead, she'd be no one.
Odessa is one of Karthia's master necromancers, catering to the kingdom's ruling Dead. Whenever a noble dies, it's Odessa's job to raise them by retrieving their soul from a dreamy and dangerous shadow world called the Deadlands. But there is a cost to being raised: the Dead must remain shrouded. If even a hint of flesh is exposed, a grotesque transformation begins, turning the Dead into terrifying, bloodthirsty Shades.
A dramatic uptick in Shade attacks raises suspicions and fears around the kingdom. Soon, a crushing loss of one of her closest companions leaves Odessa shattered, and reveals a disturbing conspiracy in Karthia: Someone is intentionally creating Shades by tearing shrouds from the Dead--and training them to attack. Odessa is forced to contemplate a terrifying question: What if her magic is the weapon that brings the kingdom to its knees?

Fighting alongside her fellow mages--and a powerful girl as enthralling as she is infuriating--Odessa must untangle the gruesome plot to destroy Karthia before the Shades take everything she loves.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Video: Details Matter

This is a really cool by Bill Robertson, a man who makes miniature WORKING replicas and tools of 17th and 18th century devices. When he makes a tiny lockbox, the locks actually work. No time for the video? Here's an article about his work.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Book Review: Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren

Pros: interesting story, really captures the high school atmosphere

Cons: really captures the high school atmosphere, takes a while to get to the mystery aspects

Fourteen year old Freddy has enough problems in life - a neglectful mother and step-father, a deaf step-brother she resents, a genius little sister - the last thing she needs are crazy neighbours, Josiah and Cuerva Lachance. She’s worked hard to maintain social invisibility at school, but when Josiah starts talking to her, she becomes a target for abuse. She and her sister are convinced there’s a mystery with the neighbours, and intend to solve it, even as their step-brother warns them away from the pair.

This is a hard book to discuss without spoilers, but I’ll try. There’s a slow burn on the mystery of what’s up with the neighbours and you don’t really get more than hints until the half way point. Having said that, it’s a quick read (took me two days), so you’re not frustrated trying to figure things out.

There are some very realistic depictions of high school. I personally didn’t enjoy high school so that’s kind of a negative for me, especially since I straddled the not cool but not outcast social position Freddy’s in.

I really liked Freddy. She’s got some real issues and has a coming of age where she realizes that some of the things she did in the past weren’t that great. Her interactions with her step-brother felt honest given her circumstances.

I liked seeing a deaf character in an important role. I’d be interested in seeing what readers with more experience with this issue have to say about the portrayal.

It’s a fun, quirky, story.

Friday 19 January 2018

Faras Frescoes

In 1959 prior to the construction of Aswan dam, UNESCO appealed to governments and archaeologists to help save historic sites that would be flooded by the lake the dam created.  There was a concerted effort to save as much as they could

Polish archaeologist,Professor Kazimierz Michałowski’s team uncovered a buried Nubian Christian cathedral. Conservators from the National Museum in Warsaw along with the professor’s team managed to detach numerous walls, saving 150 paintings (tempura painted on dry mud plaster, called the Faras frescoes) as well as other artifacts from the remains of the buildings surrounding the church.

As previously agreed, the findings were divided between Poland and Sudan. In 2014 the National Museum of Warsaw reopened the Faras gallery, now designed to evoke the look and feel of the church the artefacts were from.

This google culture online exhibit explains the story and shows several images as well as a few videos. For more information, check out the Faras gallery website.

(image) National Museum of Warsaw Faras Gallery - St Anne fragment

I've seen some readers complain in the past about the number of science fiction books that uncover previous societies. What these readers fail to consider is the fact that all societies - unless you're talking about a new colony on a world without any sort of previous intelligent species - is built on the ruins of the past, often quite literally. Many important European cities have layers and layers of older cities beneath them. So it makes sense for characters in books to stumble across ruins, depending on the circumstances of the story. if nothing else, it shows that the world/universe has a history. 

Thursday 18 January 2018

Shout-Out: The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

Somewhere away from the cities and towns, in the Valley of the Rocks, a society of men and boys gather around the fire each night to listen to their history recounted by Nate, the storyteller. Requested most often by the group is the tale of the death of all women.

They are the last generation.

One evening, Nate brings back new secrets from the woods; peculiar mushrooms are growing from the ground where the women’s bodies lie buried. These are the first signs of a strange and insidious presence unlike anything ever known before…

Discover the Beauty.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Video: Dimensional Meltdown

A short but interesting time travel piece. It was directed by Ofer Perdut in 2009 as his final movie for his first year of film school.

Sometime in the near future. Three parallel universe, the girlfriend dies in each one, the guys cant take the loss. With an unsecured technology that accidentally made its way to the wide public, They decide to go for a ride to another parallel universe - our universe, in which the girl is still alive...

Dimensional Meltdown from Ofer Pedut on Vimeo.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Book Review: An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King

Pros: brilliant world-building, fascinating diverse characters, interesting premise

Cons: can get very emotionally heavy at times 

The China of this future has a Bounty of unmarried men. Lee Wei-guo is a 44 year old gym owner and coach and the general of the Strategic Games army Middle Kingdom. He’s finally saved enough money for a dowry, but only as a maximum - a third husband. His matchmaker has only found one interested family. The Wus looks good on paper, but Wei-guo’s two dads aren’t convinced. And they’re right. May-ling’s first husband is an undeclared Willfully Sterile, a gay man who, if outed, would lose contact with his son among other punishments. His brother and May-ling’s second husband, Xiong-Xin (who prefers to be called XX), is a potential Lost Boy. He’s an autistic computer security genius with whom May-ling is terrified of having a child through their mandated weekly conjugal sessions, because if their child is also a Lost Boy, the child would be taken from them. As Wei-guo gets to know the family and decides he wants to join it, politics and their personal problems make that outcome less and less likely.

The book shows four points of view, starting with Wei-guo’s and extending to May-ling and her husbands. It’s great seeing the four people, how they interact, why they act the ways they do, what they believe and feel. There’s so much complexity to the situations presented in the book that it’s great seeing the same problems from various viewpoints. It allows you to sympathize with everyone, even as they annoy, betray, anger, and love each other. 

The world-building in the book is top notch. I was impressed with how carefully the author approached this potential future. The government is integrated into so many aspects of regular life, in ways that make public dissension difficult to impossible. Maintaining an aura of party support is second nature to all of the characters, as is reading between the lines of what is acceptable to say/do to understand what people actually mean. It’s a world that becomes more terrifying the more you learn about it. I was glad there was a section explaining how the Helpmates (the women who meet once a week with men to work off sexual tensions) were organized. There isn’t much mention of life outside of China, though the China First party line does frown on foreign wives, if not state sanctioned foreign sex workers. No issue is clear cut. While homosexuality is treated like a genetically inherited disease, those who declare themselves Willfully Sterile and get sterilized have a place in society. The book shows that many gay men hide their status, not willing to leave families or be seen as other by society. It’s a complex issue and it’s handled with the recognition that there are many sides to all difficult issues (even if some of those sides are abhorrent to us and the protagonists). 

I was also impressed by the clarity of language used to explain the thoughts that went unspoken and the acts that went undone. There are no pulled punches over how emotions work and the difficulties encountered when people with different ways of interacting are forced into close relationships. XX’s annoyance at being second guessed by his brother and wife, the difficult choices May-ling must make with regards to her marital vows when considering having XX’s child, Hann’s being a pawn in the games of his company partners, create three dimensional people with problems that seem simple from the outside, but have no easy solutions.

There is a sex scene between May-ling and XX that’s very uncomfortable to read. While it’s graphic, it is also important for understanding a lot of the interpersonal problems the family has.

Elements that I thought were window dressing for the purpose of world-building, for example the strategic games Wei-guo plays, turned out to have a major impact on the story later on, so read carefully.

Obviously I can’t speak to how accurately the author grasped the modern Chinese mindset.

This is a brilliant book.

Friday 12 January 2018

How To Request a Review (And How Not To)

While I won’t be accepting many review requests again this year, I still get quite a few. Most are well written and professional, but occasionally I get requests that.. could be improved. So with that in mind, here are a few suggestions of what to do, and what NOT to do, when requesting a review of your novel.

Do Include:
  • Your book cover if you have one. A picture really is worth a thousand words and a good cover sells. If you don’t have one yet that’s ok, but I’m surprised by the number of authors who decide not to include their gorgeous covers.
  • A synopsis of your book. I cannot stress this enough. While I will check your website (if you have one) or Amazon to figure out what your book is about, it’s much easier for me (and gives me more good will towards you) if the information I need is in the email you’ve sent me. And please make sure that your synopsis mentions the book’s actual plot. I’ve seen a few where the synopsis was all back story or setting and I was left with no idea of the plot or characters (or at times even the subgenre it’s in).
  • A link your website (if you have one) and the on sale date of your book (including if the book is already published). This helps me plan my reading schedule. I personally prefer getting books 1-3 months before publication (different reviewers have different lead times).
  • What genre/sub-genre this is. Not strictly necessary, but helpful (especially if you didn’t include a synopsis).  

  • Mock or insult the genre you’re writing in or other authors’ books. I read these genres because I love them. I won’t read your book if you talk smack about books I’ve loved in the past or the genre I support now. Negging isn’t a good tactic in this or any other relationship.
  • Tell me this is the first/only/best book to do X. Often I’ll read those comments and immediately think of 2 or 3 books that did exactly what you’re trying. Comments like this make me want to re/read those books instead.
  • Compare your book to bestsellers that don’t relate to your book. Comparison books can be helpful but only if they’re done right. Telling me your book is like 4 unrelated bestselling kids books won’t make me believe your adult sci-fi//horror/mystery mash-up is good. Agents want comparison titles. I’m more interested in what your book is - rather than what other books your book is like. 
  • Be unprofessional. I treat reviewing as an unpaid job. My time is precious to me and you’re asking me to spend a week or more of it reading your book. Treat me with respect and I’ll treat you the same way.
  • Take rejection personally. Different books are for different readers. There are a lot of reasons I reject books, the biggest simply being time. I don’t have as much time for reading as I used to and I already own more unread books than I can read in my remaining lifetime. My preferences have also changed over the years and I’ve become pickier about what I’ll try. One of my policies is to email the author/publicist where I stopped reading if the book doesn’t work for me. I don’t enjoy doing this, so if I’m on the fence about a book I’ll usually say no upfront (and sometimes get it myself later). Also, to keep things in perspective, I’ve said no to books I desperately wanted to read but knew I couldn’t finish by the publication date, as well as books by bestselling authors. 
  • Query about your draft or work in progress. Have a finished novel. If I’m devoting time to your book I don’t want my review to become defunct because you’ve drastically changed it.  

Final notes:

I like to showcase new authors and the first book in a series. If you’re querying a sequel, check to see if I’ve reviewed the first book. If I haven’t, I’m more likely to review book 1 and mention that the sequel is out/coming soon rather than read two+ books.

My current reading preferences include the following. I like unconventional fantasy (for setting, characters, plot). Some examples of books I’ve loved to give you an idea of what I mean: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, Transformation by Carol Berg, Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw…

I’m no longer interested in quests, portals to fantasy worlds (or vice versa), grimdark (I read fantasy for the sense of hope when the good side wins. Grimdark brings the dread of the real world into fantasy, and if I want to feel crappy about life I’d watch the news). I don’t read much urban fantasy and you’ll need a very original idea to make me consider it.

I prefer psychological horror to slasher fiction.

Because I read a lot less science fiction growing up I’m more lenient with this category. I enjoy young adult dystopian (I read a lot of adult dystopian as well, though I’ve found I don’t necessarily enjoy it, but I’m continually fascinated by it), post-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, space opera, etc. I’m less interested in near future SF. I still like superhero fiction, though the market seems to be becoming saturated with them.

I like romance as side plots but only rarely as the main story. I especially like romance when coupled with comedy (or snarky back and forths). A few examples of romance I’ve enjoyed: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn. 

In all cases I’m looking for diverse casts, well-rounded characters, interesting, well-constructed worlds, and thought-provoking stories. I also like books with political intrigue.

Thursday 11 January 2018

Shout-Out: The Bees by Laline Paull

Born into the lowest class of an ancient hierarchical society, Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, an Untouchable, whose labour is at her ancient orchard hive's command. As part of the collective, she is taught to accept, obey and serve. Altruism is the highest virtue, and worship of her beloved Queen, the only religion. Her society is governed by the priestess class, questions are forbidden and all thoughts belong to the Hive Mind.

But Flora is not like other bees. Her curiosity is a dangerous flaw, especially once she is exposed to the mysteries of the Queen's Library. But her courage and strength are assets, and Flora finds herself promoted up the social echelons. From sanitation to feeding the newborns in the royal nursery to becoming an elite forager, Flora revels in service to her hive.

When Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen's fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses who are jealously wed to power. Her deepest instinct to serve and sacrifice is now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart and her society, and lead her to commit unthinkable deeds . . .

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Video: Time Travel in Fiction Rundown

MinutePhysics has done a great video talking about different kinds of time travel. There are spoilers.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

2017 Book Stats & 2018 Goals

I read 49 books last year, of which 4 were history and 8 were rereads of things I’ve already reviewed. I also read 7 comics.

Of the books, 19 were science fiction (2 of which were Young Adult). Twenty were fantasy (with 5 YA), 6 urban fantasy, and 4 horror.

I usually get roughly even genders in my books, but I went heavy on men this time. Part of this was due to the series I finished (all of my rereads were books by men so I could read sequels). Thirty-two of the books I read were by men and only 15 by women. Two were by a transgender woman. 

Last year I made several reading goals and wrote down titles with check boxes to help me achieve them. I’ve looked over my lists and while I didn’t stick to them as strictly as I’d planned, I did a fairly good job of keeping most of them.

History: 4 of 5
Diverse books: 7 of 5 
Older books from my overflowing shelves: 9 of 10
2017 releases: 20 of 10 
Story collections: 1/2 of one book + a bit of another book out of 2
Graphic Novels: 7 of 10
Magazines: 1 of 5

For 2018 I wasn’t going to make any specific goals. The truth is that if I don’t tackle my shelves of older titles I’m going to have problems. I keep meaning to do this and side-tracking myself with shiny new books. In the past I’ve had a habit of requesting too much and then feeling pressured to read them all as quickly as I can. I’ve tried to request/accept fewer books but I still pushed myself hard to get enough review material for a review a week last year. Several other projects were abandoned (history posts, craft projects) as I felt the need to read so much. So I’ll be cutting down on my reviews this year. I’m aiming for a review every second week so that I have more time for other things. If I can manage more I will, but I’m trying not to stress myself out over my review hobby. I realize this means I’m only planning to review 26 books - but I’m sure I’ll read (and thereby review) more. 

This means that again I won’t be accepting many review requests this year. 

Tuesdays will remain review day. I'll alternate book and movie reviews. I'll be keeping Wednesday video and Thursday shout-out posts. Fridays will have a variety of posts. I want to do more medieval stuff. I'm hoping to get my medieval plant, saint, and cathedral posts going again. As those are all time heavy to prepare, I'll likely pad things out with photos of medieval objects I've seen at various museums, articles on other sites that I found interesting, etc. If there's something you'd like to see, feel free to suggest it in the comments.

2018 is a new year and I'm hoping to get a lot of great work done.

Friday 5 January 2018

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Listed in the order I read them in, here are my favourites from 2017 (not necessarily published in 2017). Links are to my reviews.

1. City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett - Written from Sigrud's point of view, the book shows the end result of the work started in the previous two books as the gods of the past die. It made me cry several times as people realize that the world is harder to change than expected. (Review of book 1, City of Stairs.)

2. Dreadnought by April Daniels - When a superhero dies and his mantle bestows a female body - and superpowers - on Daniel, Danielle must face many trials: being outed as transgender in a bigoted world, learning how to use her powers, and a city under attack by the supervillian who killed her predecessor. The author juggles a lot of things here, and does an incredible job.

3. Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap - A novella about a female Sailor Moon style superhero team now in their twenties and wondering when the world will be saved and their service ended so they can get on with their lives.

4. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty - A locked room murder mystery taking place on a starship with a 6 person crew, all of whom just woke up in new clones. Lots of twists in a claustrophobic setting.

5. Skullsworn by Brian Staveley - Pyrre, a priestess of the god of death, was one of my favourite side characters from the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, so it was great seeing her in a standalone where she had to kill seven people - but seven specific people - in fourteen days to pass her final test or she'll be killed herself.

6. Legion of Flame by Anthony Ryan - The Second book in the Waking Fire series. I'm loving the dragon blood powered magic and the race to figure out how to prevent the end of the world. (Review of book 1, The Waking Fire.)

7. Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw - Several new urban fantasy books are making me reconnect with the subgenre. This book follows a human who heals supernatural creatures.

8. Halls of Law by V. M. Escalada - I really enjoyed the world-building in this female dominated country being overrun by an outside empire. I liked the magic system of flashing, holding objects to learn more about them and the people who'd held them before. I also liked seeing a heroine who isn't always heroic, and who feels guilt over past decisions.

9. Leviathan Wakes by S. A. Corey - The first book of The Expanse series was incredible. I love the show and the book - slightly different - gave some good rounding out for characters. It's tense and compelling.

10. The Core by Peter V. Brett - The final book of the Demon Cycle was as pulse pounding as I could have wished. It touched base with all the characters mentioned in the past (including those from the novellas) and was quite a wild ride. (Review of book 1, The Warded Man/The Painted Man.)

11. Valiant Dust by Richard Baker - I thought this space retelling of part of the pre-WWI colonizing effort in Africa was well done. It showed the complexities of racism as people 'civilize' (as determined by the colonizing power).

12. Hymn by Ken Scholes - The fifth and final book of The Psalms of Isaac. This is a fantasy series with so much intrigue and layers of deception you're constantly guessing what horrible thing is going to happen next. (Review of book 1, Lamentation.)

What were your favourite books of 2017?

Thursday 4 January 2018

Shout-Out: Everless by Sara Holland

In the kingdom of Sempera, time is currency—extracted from blood, bound to iron, and consumed to add time to one’s own lifespan. The rich aristocracy, like the Gerlings, tax the poor to the hilt, extending their own lives by centuries.

No one resents the Gerlings more than Jules Ember. A decade ago, she and her father were servants at Everless, the Gerlings’ palatial estate, until a fateful accident forced them to flee in the dead of night. When Jules discovers that her father is dying, she knows that she must return to Everless to earn more time for him before she loses him forever.

But going back to Everless brings more danger—and temptation—than Jules could have ever imagined. Soon she’s caught in a tangle of violent secrets and finds her heart torn between two people she thought she’d never see again. Her decisions have the power to change her fate—and the fate of time itself.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Video: Paradise - A contemporary interpretation of The Garden of Earthly Delights

Lou Anders posted this on facebook and it's pretty awesome. Studio Smack's done an amazing job of animating the figures from Bosch's painting. The jittery animation adds to the surreal nature of the creatures.

In collaboration with the MOTI museum we created a new and animated interpretation of 'The Garden Of Earthly Delights' by Hieronymus Bosch. We were chosen to go crazy on the middle panel. So we did...

Tuesday 2 January 2018

Book Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Pros: fascinating story, get some concrete answers

Cons: lots of detail

Picking up where book two leaves off, Acceptance follows three individuals: Saul, the lighthouse keeper in the days before Area X; the Director and the lead up to the twelfth expedition; and Control and Ghost Bird, wandering through Area X, looking for the Biologist on the island.

While I enjoyed Saul’s story the most, it was fantastic finally learning more about Area X’s creation and the Southern Reach’s real inner workings. While not every mystery is solved, enough concrete answers are given that having to interpret some for yourself is fine.

The story does get bogged down in details at times, making some parts harder to get through than others. I found my mind wandering at times and had to reread sections to make sure I wasn’t missing something essential.

It was a good conclusion to the series, bringing in a lot of elements from both of the previous books.