Wednesday 28 February 2018

Video: The Complete Bayeux Tapestry

Lindybeige has put together a video showing the Bayeux Tapestry in its entirety, along with commentary of what's going on, pointing out several oddities of the embroidery work, and animating some of the characters. It's great fun, especially given the size of the work and how difficult it is to see it (especially in its entirety).

I had the privilege of seeing the tapestry in Bayeux 10+ years ago while touring France. It's currently housed in a custom built display room, with the tapestry behind glass. Entry includes an audio guide, but you can't pause, so it forces you to either rush through the experience so you can follow the story or ignore the story and really appreciate the work. I decided to do the latter, so I loved watching this.

Monday 26 February 2018

Book Review: The Apprentice’s Masterpiece by Melanie Little

Pros: flawed characters, interesting style, lots of accurate historic details

Cons: limited plot

Fifteen year old Ramon Benveniste is a converso, a Christian with Jewish ancestors, living in Cordoba in 1485. As an apprentice in his father’s scribe business he knows things are tough as the Spanish inquisition puts more suspicion on those with their background, chasing away prospective clients in an already hostile environment. The family is given a Muslim slave, which makes them even more cautious about breaking rules of perception. The two boys don’t get along, and Ramon’s hasty decision one day changes both their lives.

While fiction, the book is solidly rooted in a factual portrayal of Spain at this time. The country shifted quickly from Muslim rule - where the three major religions were legally practiced, to Christian rule, where Jews were expelled, then converted, then persecuted, then expelled again, and Muslims were conquered, then converted/expelled/persecuted too.

The book is told in free form verse poetry. Each poem describes an event or scene and is from a few verses up to two pages long. It’s astonishing how much description and information is packed into so few words. Both the prologue and epilogue explain background information necessary for enjoying the story.

It’s subtitled a story of medieval Spain. There’s only a limited plot as the story focuses on the two boys and how they interact with each other and the world at large. The first and third sections are from Ramon’s point of view and cover short periods of time, while the second section is from Amir, the slave’s, point of view, and relates events that take place over several years.

The author pulls no punches about the brutality and reality of the history she’s relating. There’s a brief description of an auto da fe, a burning of heretics in the town square, told via a nightmare Ramon has after being forced to witness the execution. 

Both characters are flawed but approach the world from their own unique experiences. They both have histories and make decisions they later regret. They also learn from past mistakes, and grow as individuals.

It’s an interesting style and a quick read. If you’re not familiar with medieval Spanish history than you’re in for quite an education. 

Friday 23 February 2018

Book Review: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths by Susanne Alleyn (Edition 3.1)

Pros: goes over a good variety of topics with a fair amount of detail, engaging language, educational

Cons: spends more time than necessary complaining about general and specific errors encountered in fiction and books

The book consists of 18 chapters (though the first chapter explains what an anachronism is and the last one is a bibliography for research purposes). The other chapters are on: underpants (VERY interesting), geography, expressions/slang, attitudes, food/plants/animals (ie, what was originally American and therefore unavailable in the rest of the world before the ‘discovery’ of the new world), naming practices, guns, money, aristocratic titles, lighting, travel, hygiene, servants, guillotine (for French Revolution works), a chapter on minor things (pens, rubber, restaurants, etc.), and burial practices.

There’s a real wealth of information here. Some of it seems obvious once it’s pointed out while other items felt like real revelations. The author goes pretty in depth on some of these topics.

The author has a tendency to complain about errors she’s encountered in historical novels and books. While some examples are helpful, it’s often clear the author just wants to complain about shoddy research, which isn’t always useful for someone interested in avoiding such mistakes. Indeed, towards the end of the book I started skimming these passages so I could get back to the historically accurate information.

On the whole I was very happy with this book. I learned a lot, and it’s the kind of detailed minutae that often gets overlooked when thinking of the past.

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Book Review: Killing Gravity by Corey White

Pros: interesting characters

Cons: lots of swearing, lots of violence

Mariam Xi knows she’s a danger to the new ship that picks up her distress beacon. So she’s keen to leave them when they stop at a station. She’s not surprised when MEPHISTO troopers show up. But Mariam doesn’t want to go back to the program that gave her psychic powers - and she has the means to refuse.

I loved the characters. They had a lot of personality and verve. I especially liked the experimental cat thing, Seven, who’s just so cute. Mariam is quite powerful, but that’s in keeping with what was done to her in the past. It might take some readers a bit of effort to remember that Squid gets they/their pronouns, but how Mariam reacts to them, and the positive sexuality of some of the characters, makes the future feel like it’s progressed in some good ways from our own time.

The novella length means you don’t get to know the characters as much as I’d have liked. Mariam doesn’t get to interact with the crew that much so while you get the feeling that they’re starting to become friends, they don’t really have the history of working together, being there for each other, etc. that the ending requires. 

I did find the amount of swearing a bit jarring, especially as it came from Mariam. For some reason I couldn’t reconcile how I pictured her with the language she often used. Which is weird because I didn’t have the same disconnect regarding the amount of violence and destruction she causes.

It’s a quick, interesting read.

Friday 16 February 2018

Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, 2017

Pros: brilliant acting, interesting story, great creature effects


“At a top secret research facility in the 1950s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.” (IMDb)

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, the mute janitor, who’s able to hear but cannot speak. The actress does a brilliant job with a difficult role. I thought it was cool that sometimes her signing was subtitled and others it was verbally translated by friends. In one scene she forces the person she’s talking to to repeat her words back in order to force him to listen to what she’s saying. I was also impressed by how much information she transmitted via gestures and facial expressions.

I loved Giles, her flatmate artist who’s also lonely, and feeling his age. In fact, the entire supporting cast did great jobs. Michale Shannon as Strickland, the antagonist, was quite menacing. Octavia Spencer as a fellow janitor, and often translator, was a real joy to watch.

The creature effects were wonderful. It looks very realistic.

I’m not sure I believe the two could fall in love so quickly given the communication - and situational - difficulties of their meeting. I did appreciate that they took time to develop a relationship and trust.

The story had more varied threads than I was expecting, elevating it from a regular creature feature to a kind of spy thriller/romance.

My husband pointed out that Esposito’s bathroom was surprisingly watertight in order to handle the pressure during one scene. I expected more water to leak out around the door, if nothing else.

There is some nudity and sexual content. There’s also some violence and a few scenes that made me cringe.

It’s a brilliant film, a real modern fairy-tale.

Thursday 15 February 2018

Shout-Out: The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray by E. Latimer

Bryony Gray is becoming famous as a painter in London art circles. But life isn't so grand. Her uncle keeps her locked in the attic, forcing her to paint for his rich clients . . . and now her paintings are taking on a life of their own, and customers are going missing under mysterious circumstances.

When her newest painting escapes the canvas and rampages through the streets of London, Bryony digs into her family history, discovering some rather scandalous secrets her uncle has been keeping, including a deadly curse she's inherited from her missing father. Bryony has accidentally unleashed the Gray family curse, and it's spreading fast.

With a little help from the strange-but-beautiful girl next door and her paranoid brother, Bryony sets out to break the curse, dodging bloodthirsty paintings, angry mobs and her wicked uncle along the way.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Video: Perfect-Timing Villain

This is a great video by Chris & Jack about how villains have such impeccable timing when the hero shows up.

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Book Review: WANT by Cindy Pon

Pros: great setting, real people, great extrapolation

Cons: slow at times

Jason Zhou has been living on the streets of Taipei since his mother died when he was thirteen.The haves (yous) and have nots (meis) are at odds in the city, a situation exacerbated by the terrible pollution covering the city in perpetual smog and acid rain, pollution the yous never experience, all but living in suits fitted with filtered oxygen and temperature controls. Zhou’s closest friends have come up with a plan to stop the creator of the suits, a man who’s also bribing and threatening - even murdering - politicians to prevent any environmental clean-up. That plan begins with him kidnapping a you girl for ransom. Because bringing down the man is an expensive business.

I loved that the book was set in Taipei. It’s cool inhabiting another city, even if it’s one in an unpleasant extrapolated future. Given the way global warming is being treated, I have no problem believing that the future will be covered in smog and that life expectancy will drop because of it. I also have no problem believing that the rich will isolate themselves from the problems of the world so long as those problems aren’t seen as directly impacting them.

Zhou and his friends all have different strengths, making them fascinating to watch as they work on their plan. I loved that they complemented each other’s skills and that though they didn’t always agree, they worked things out. Daiyu was also great, a mixture of determined, smart, courageous, and feminine. The characters all felt like fully fleshed out people. 

The story was interesting, though I found it was slow at times. I never really worried characters wouldn’t pull through, even though there were some tense moments.

This is a great book.

Friday 9 February 2018

Movie Review: The Girl With All the Gifts

Directed by Calm McCarthy, 2016 

Pros: unique zombies, good acting, tense

Cons: not much character growth

When their military base is overrun by hungries (humans infected with a parasite that turns them into zombies), several soldiers, a scientist, a teacher, and their unorthodox charge - a brilliant young girl, head towards safety through inhospitable terrain.

The book is based on the novel of the same name by Mike Carey, who also wrote the screenplay. The basics of the story remain the same though there are numerous differences between the book and the movie, most of which deal with shortening the time frame in which events occur. Characters also don’t look as described in the book: Melanie is black instead of white with blonde hair and blue eyes, Miss Justineau is white, instead of black, Gallagher is black instead of white with red hair, and Sgt Parks is missing the ugly scar across his face. On the whole I was ok with their casting choices. 

While shortening the time frame is necessary to fit everything into a film, it has the disadvantage of removing a lot of the character development, which also removes a fair amount of the natural conflicts of interests that created tension in the book. Helen Justineau is less hostile towards Sgt Parks (and less feisty altogether, which was unfortunate), Gallagher’s background is never touched on, Melanie doesn’t keep the same physical distance and constant sense of self-awareness of the danger she poses to the others. Sgt Parks felt like the only character who showed growth, as his attitude towards Melanie changes.

There’s a good amount of tension in the film due to the hungries and trying to avoid triggering them. 

Sennia Nanua does a remarkable job as Melanie. It’s a difficult role and she’s amazing in it. The character starts off a little irritating (being the only one in the class to answer questions correctly and the first to volunteer responses), but grows on you quickly as the film progresses. She’s alternately terrifying (when feeding) and sympathetic (learning the truth about the world).

The film does good things with its zombies. They’re just different enough from the norm to be interesting, and how they came about is downright terrifying. The ending has changed a bit, but still has an emotional gut punch.

The future it shows is bleak and there’s a definite I Am Legend feel to it. If you like post-apocalyptic or zombie films, it’s a good one.

Thursday 8 February 2018

Shout-Out: The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch

Inception meets True Detective in this science fiction thriller of spellbinding tension and staggering scope that follows a special agent into a savage murder case with grave implications for the fate of mankind...
Shannon Moss is part of a clandestine division within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In western Pennsylvania, 1997, she is assigned to solve the murder of a Navy SEAL's family--and to locate his vanished teenage daughter. Though she can't share the information with conventional law enforcement, Moss discovers that the missing SEAL was an astronaut aboard the spaceship U.S.S. Libra--a ship assumed lost to the currents of Deep Time. Moss knows first-hand the mental trauma of time-travel and believes the SEAL's experience with the future has triggered this violence.
Determined to find the missing girl and driven by a troubling connection from her own past, Moss travels ahead in time to explore possible versions of the future, seeking evidence to crack the present-day case. To her horror, the future reveals that it's not only the fate of a family that hinges on her work, for what she witnesses rising over time's horizon and hurtling toward the present is the Terminus: the terrifying and cataclysmic end of humanity itself.
Luminous and unsettling, The Gone World bristles with world-shattering ideas yet remains at its heart an intensely human story.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Video: The 809 Objects Left on the Moon

Half as Interesting has posted a video about all of the objects humanity has left behind on the moon. Spoiler alert: it's mostly trash.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Book Review: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Pros: brilliant world-building, fascinating characters and situation

Cons: some stories were very impersonal

The Commonwealth of Pax started as a group of volunteer colonists leave the horrors of war on Earth to begin a hard life on star HIP 30815f. Almost immediately they discover that the plant life on their new home world has varying degrees of intelligence, and that another alien species left ruins of a magnificent but failed city.

The novel is told from the points of view of one of the first settlers and six descendants, one from each of the following generations. Each generation faces new problems and challenges, from predators, from the plant they’ve allied with, internal strife, and the rediscovered aliens.

Most of the stories are told with an element of reserve, that allows some of the more unpleasant things that happen to leave little impact on the reader. By the time I got to know each character their segment ended. Though I’m glad that the rape scene was written in a clinical rather than sensationalist manner, on the whole I much preferred the longer stories that allowed me to really immerse myself in the character’s lives. Higgens’ section especially touched me deeply.

The sentient plants were handled well. I didn’t understand a lot of the chemistry involved, but there’s explanations for how the plants communicate - with humans and with each other. I loved the bamboo’s learning curve, from wanting to domesticate these strange but helpful animals to being a contributing member of their community. 

The world-building was excellent, with whole alien ecologies and while plants and animals were given names reminiscent of Earth, it’s clear they’re VERY different. 

During the second story I was shocked at how far the parents had fallen from their own constitution and their use of Earth tactics they claimed to hate. I’d have expected that kind of break to happen much later in the colony’s lifespan.

This was a fascinating book.

Friday 2 February 2018

Books Received in January 2018

Many thanks as always to those who sent me books for review.

The Initiation by Chris Babu - I'm a sucker for YA dystopian novels, so I'm looking for this.

In a ruined world, Manhattan is now New America, a walled-in society based on equality. But the perfect facade hides a dark truth.
A timid math geek, sixteen-year-old Drayden watches his life crumble when his beloved mother is exiled. The mystery of her banishment leads him to a sinister secret: New America is in trouble, and every one of its citizens is in jeopardy.
With time running out, he enters the Initiation. It’s a test within the empty subway tunnels—a perilous journey of puzzles and deadly physical trials. Winners join the ruling Bureau and move to its safe haven. But failure means death. Can Drayden conquer the Initiation, or is salvation out of his grasp?

Nemo Rising by C. Courtney Joyner - I don't believe I've ever read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, looks like I'll have to rectify that, as this sounds interesting (I have seen the Disney film, but we all know how adaptations go).

An exciting sequel to the Captain Nemo adventures enjoyed by millions in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Sea monsters are sinking ships up and down the Atlantic Coast. Enraged that his navy is helpless against this onslaught and facing a possible World War as a result, President Ulysses S. Grant is forced to ask for assistance from the notorious Captain Nemo, in Federal prison for war crimes and scheduled for execution.
Grant returns Nemo’s submarine, the infamous Victorian Steampunk marvel Nautilus, and promises a full Presidential pardon if Nemo hunts down and destroys the source of the attacks. Accompanied by the beautiful niece of Grant’s chief advisor, Nemo sets off under the sea in search of answers. Unfortunately, the enemy may be closer than they realize...

The Midnight Front by David Mack - WWII and magic. What more do you need to know?

On the eve of World War Two, Nazi sorcerers come gunning for Cade but kill his family instead. His one path of vengeance is to become an apprentice of The Midnight Front—the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program—and become a sorcerer himself.
Unsure who will kill him first—his allies, his enemies, or the demons he has to use to wield magick—Cade fights his way through occupied Europe and enemy lines. But he learns too late the true price of revenge will be more terrible than just the loss of his soul—and there’s no task harder than doing good with a power born of ultimate evil.

Thursday 1 February 2018

Shout-Out: Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson's Rosewater is the start of an award-nominated, cutting edge trilogy set in Nigeria, by one of science fiction's most engaging new voices.

Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless - people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumored healing powers.

Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn't care to again -- but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.