Tuesday 31 July 2018

Book Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Pros: some interesting world-building/science

Cons: unsympathetic characters

Gulliver Foyle has spent months trapped in a room on a destroyed space ship. When the Vorga passes by and fails to pick him up, he’s filled with rage and determined to survive, if only to find and punish the Vorga for what it’s done.

Originally titled Tiger! Tiger!, after the William Blake poem, “The Tyger” this is a science fiction rewrite of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. There’s some interesting world-building going on, with people becoming able to teleport, or ‘jaunt’, and how that affects humanity. There’s also trouble brewing between the inner and outer planets (tired of being taken advantage of and seeing an economic downturn due to the ability to jaunt, which has reduced the need for the resources they mine).

For the most part I found Gully an unsympathetic and horrifying character. He’s so hell bent on his revenge that he ignores the fact that he’s survived horrors (in part because their ‘betrayal’ galvanized him into saving himself). In many ways he throws away years of his life and several opportunities he’s given to live for the future, in order to get his revenge. There’s no personal enmity towards Gully by the crew of the Vorga, so his quest feels excessive and unreasonable, especially when you learn what happened on the Vorga, and why they didn’t pick him up.

The female characters aren’t the greatest. There’s a bit of variety, though none of them felt particularly fleshed out. They all fall in love (and out of love) quickly and act in somewhat bizarre ways at times. Jisbella’s love/hate relationship with him annoyed me because she waffled so much I was never sure where she stood, and I was horrified by how he manipulates Robin into helping him, considering what he did to her. And for some reason, despite what he does to them, the women forgive him in the end. There’s also an off page rape that factors into the story later on.

I enjoyed the ending in that Gully finally seems to snap out of his mindless revenge kick and actually says a few profound things with regards to the potential war. But aside from his stint in prison (which was for the wrong reasons), he never seems to get any punishment for his actions beyond what he does to punish himself, which seemed unequal to what he did. On the whole I found reading this a bit of a slog, and as it’s not a long book, that’s saying something.

Friday 27 July 2018

Movie Review: Creature From the Black Lagoon

Directed by Jack Arnold, 1954
IMDb listing

Pros: excellent pacing, some tense scenes, good music

Cons: Kay is useless, mostly natives die

When a scientist makes an amazing discovery in the Amazon jungle, a team returns to continue the dig. But instead of more fossils, they find something alive and deadly.

I was impressed by the music and its role in creating much of the tension in the film, especially during the well shot underwater scenes. One refrain has what might be the genesis of the JAWS theme (the pulsing 2 beat alteration). The pacing was great, with some down time between ‘scares’.

The plot, while simplistic, does what’s required in a horror film. The acting’s pretty good, though I wish Kay had more to do - as a scientist - than swim and look pretty and scream occasionally when things go wrong. In researching her rather distracting wardrobe for the film I learned that Madonna’s pointy bra was actually a throw back to 40s and 50s ‘bullet bra’ fashion. Huh.

While it’s not scary in today’s terms, I can imagine that it caused people to jump or scream in theatres back when it opened. The creature looks great considering it’s a rubber suit. I’m impressed that they thought to have it swim in a different way from humans to make it feel more alien. I also liked its open mouthed breathing on shore (though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn this had something to do with the make-up rather than as a creature ‘effect’).

It's mostly the natives helping the white scientists who die, which kind of annoyed me considering natives understand their land and its dangers better than the white scientists of the expedition. Several deaths happen off screen, and the ones that don’t aren’t gory.

The film holds up surprisingly well.

Thursday 26 July 2018

Shout-Out: Sanctuary by Caryn Lix

Kenzie holds one truth above all: the company is everything.
As a citizen of Omnistellar Concepts, the most powerful corporation in the solar system, Kenzie has trained her entire life for one goal: to become an elite guard on Sanctuary, Omnistellar’s space prison for superpowered teens too dangerous for Earth. As a junior guard, she’s excited to prove herself to her company—and that means sacrificing anything that won’t propel her forward.

But then a routine drill goes sideways and Kenzie is taken hostage by rioting prisoners.

At first, she’s confident her commanding officer—who also happens to be her mother—will stop at nothing to secure her freedom. Yet it soon becomes clear that her mother is more concerned with sticking to Omnistellar protocol than she is with getting Kenzie out safely.

As Kenzie forms her own plan to escape, she doesn’t realize there’s a more sinister threat looming, something ancient and evil that has clawed its way into Sanctuary from the vacuum of space. And Kenzie might have to team up with her captors to survive—all while beginning to suspect there’s a darker side to the Omnistellar she knows.

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Video: Organistrum

Last week's hurdy-gurdy post had me uncover another medieval instrument, the organistrum. This was an early version of the hurdy-gurdy, played by two people, one who turned the crank while the other pulled keys upwards to change the pitch of the melody strings. This is the instrument being played by the figures above Christ's head in the portal of glory (central doorway) of the West facade at the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Photo by Jessica Strider.

I wasn't able to find a video describing its use in English, so here's one uploaded by tzenobite showing what it sounds like. And if you'd like to learn about it in French, here's a video by Groupe OC.

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Book Review: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughan

Pros: good worldbuilding, interesting characters

Cons: middling mystery, little action

Decades ago the world fell apart in a slow apocalypse. Now, those that remain live in small communities, husbanding their resources. When things go wrong that the communities can’t solve, they call in Investigators.

Enid and Thomas are Investigators from Haven. There’s been a suspicious death that might be murder. The case turns up other infractions and a man from Enid’s past.

I thought the worldbuilding was well done. As the book goes on you learn more about how people survived the slow falling apart of civilization and how they rebuilt using a new social order. I really liked the ruins and what happened there, showing that not everyone ended up living the same way.

Enid was interesting in that she liked questioning things and learning about the world but used what she found to justify their way of life instead of wondering if things could be better if done differently. This makes her a decent Investigator but I found myself not liking some of her conclusions about the world. Her underlying anger is problematic for investigations but makes her a more interesting character.

The case is mostly straight forward and while there are a few twists the resolution is what I suspected early on. There’s little to no action and I found myself getting bored towards the end.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Shout-Out: Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah Dawson and Kevin Hearne

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, a hero, the Chosen One, was born . . . and so begins every fairy tale ever told.
This is not that fairy tale.

There is a Chosen One, but he is unlike any One who has ever been Chosened.

And there is a faraway kingdom, but you have never been to a magical world quite like the land of Pell.

There, a plucky farm boy will find more than he’s bargained for on his quest to awaken the sleeping princess in her cursed tower. First there’s the Dark Lord, who wishes for the boy’s untimely death . . . and also very fine cheese. Then there’s a bard without a song in her heart but with a very adorable and fuzzy tail, an assassin who fears not the night but is terrified of chickens, and a mighty fighter more frightened of her sword than of her chain-mail bikini. This journey will lead to sinister umlauts, a trash-talking goat, the Dread Necromancer Steve, and a strange and wondrous journey to the most peculiar “happily ever after” that ever once-upon-a-timed.

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Video: Hurdy-Gurdy

A few weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a link to a video explaining how to play a hurdy-gurdy, an old medieval instrument. I wondered why more fantasy books didn't include older instruments, and low and behold, the Sanctuary duology I'm currently reading by Carol Berg mentions one!

These two videos briefly go over the mechanics of a hurdy-gurdy and demonstrate how they're played.

Tuesday 17 July 2018

Book Review: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

Pros: brilliant worldbuilding, compelling characters, thought-provoking
Cons: some brutal descriptions of wartime atrocities

Fang Runin knows the Keju exam is her only way out of a miserable village life working as shopkeep for her adoptive opium smuggling parents. And only Sinegard charges no tuition. But getting into the Empire’s preeminent military academy is just the first hurdle she must overcome, for war is coming to the Empire. And she’s going to use everything she’s learned to win it, even the power of the gods themselves.

This book is absolutely brilliant. The writing is lyric and feels so effortless you know the author worked HARD on it.

The book is predominantly character driven, which I normally don’t like, but Rin is such a fascinating character that I loved it. With so much intricate history to learn with Rin as she goes through her classes, I never felt bored. The supporting cast was equally interesting from the eidetic memoried Kitay, the other two girls in her year, and her rival, Nezha.

When the war starts there’s little talk of heroism, it’s a realistic portrayal of fear and butchery. There are some brutal descriptions of wartime atrocities committed by the enemy. Seriously horrific stuff. Like, nightmare fodder if you think about it too much.

The worldbuilding was solid. There’s multiple branches of history, various races with their own customs, the people on the mainland have different dialects. The politics even in the Nikara Empire were messy and complex, not to mention the relationship they had with their neighbouring countries. There are some WWII reference with regards to the naming of characters and some of the horrors that happen at the end.

While I’m not a fan of swearing in fantasy (or books in general) I’d say it was handled well here. It’s not excessive, and when it shows up it’s appropriate to the situation.

There are several philosophical questions the book asks, especially towards the end. I love books that make me think.

This book was brilliant. Pick it up if you haven’t already.

Friday 13 July 2018

Toronto Maker Festival 2018

Last weekend I went to the Toronto Reference Library for the city's Maker Festival. There were a bunch of booths both displaying cool makes and selling interesting things (like steampunk jewelry). There were booths on 3 floors, plus more outside.

At the 'learn how to solder' booth I bought a mini rocket kit and soldered LEDs and a battery holder on it.

The library's booth had a 1D arduino game called Twang that was played on an LED strip. When the enemy red lights came near, you had to 'twang' the joystick, which basically fired light a few LED away so you could proceed. Later levels involved water and lava traps that pushed you quickly in one direction. It was surprisingly fun for such a simple concept.

The R2D2 builders from the local 501st division had a display of some of the things they'd built.

Ryerson University had an infinity mirror with LEDs you could turn on and change the colour of called 'Twinfinity'.

When I was a kid I read Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield, a book about a 12 year old boy who goes blind due to a firecracker accident. I thought the book was fantastic and taught myself braille as a secret code. It was really neat seeing this braille typewriter and learning about some of the modern tech used to help the blind.

Thursday 12 July 2018

Shout-Out: The Atrocities by Jeremy Shipp

When Isabella died, her parents were determined to ensure her education wouldn't suffer.
But Isabella's parents had not informed her new governess of Isabella's... condition, and when Ms Valdez arrives at the estate, having forced herself through a surreal nightmare maze of twisted human-like statues, she discovers that there is no girl to tutor.
Or is there...?

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Video: Floppotron

I've seen videos in the past of music played on CD Roms, dot matrix printers, etc., but Floppotron takes that to the next level. Here it is playing two of my favourite 80s theme songs, Knight Rider and Air Wolf.

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Graphic Novel Review: The Furnace by Prentis Rollins

Pros: decent artwork, interesting story, thought provoking

Cons: left with questions

In the future US Department of Gard Administration and affairs needed a new way to deal with the prison population. It created GARD, a ball that hovers 1 meter behind and 1.5 meters above the prisoner, creating a field that renders the prisoner unseen and unheard.

This is the story of Walton Honderich, who must come to terms with how his brief contact with the unfinished GARD program in university affected the rest of his life.

The story starts a bit slow and gains momentum through flashbacks. There’s a fair bit of philosophical dialogue which makes it surprising that so little time is spent debating the ethics of what the GARD program will do. The graphic novel does make you think about it though, the ethics and about how many people along the way could have stopped the program and didn’t.

The artwork is done in a realistic style with subdued colours. It’s not my favourite style, but it’s well done.

The art style and philosophy reminded me of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen, though maybe a ‘light’ version, as the story isn’t as deep or heavy handed here.

It’s an interesting story and worth a read or two.

Friday 6 July 2018

Alchemy Laboratory Part 3: Putting It All Together

You can see parts 1 and 2 of this project here.

Once the box was finished I was able to start adding decorations to it.

The left wall had three framed items: butterflies, a bat, and fairy wings. I rolled up some alchemical images and laid them in the corner. The celestial sphere at the base of the bookcase sits on a custom 3D printed stand and has some glow in the dark crystals on it.

Around the corner is the bookcase. The top shelf had natural history items, followed by alchemical images, tarot cards, the metal flower, an accordion book, etc. The remaining shelves were stocked with books, including one with a clasp closure (not seen in these pictures is the magnifying glass that was added later). On top sits a glow in the dark skull. After this picture was taken I added some black ink to it to give it more definition.

Beside the bookcase is a hanging metal owl and two shelves. The top shelf has a 3D printed chest of drawers and several filled bottles (more bottles were added after these pictures were taken). The lower shelf has a test tube holder and more bottles. Below them is the alembic on the furnace. Anachronistic tubing leads to a glass container and a vial on the floor. A container on the other side helps fill the middle vial. On the wall is a dance of death image by Hans Holbein the younger and a 3D printed alchemical symbol of Nicholas Flamel.

 The furnace has several pairs of tongs and pliers leaning against it and hung on the wall next to it, along with a bellows. Above the tools is a cameo of the Virgin Mary.

 Here's an image with the completed walls and back. I then glued down the table, making sure the candle wire went up the leg and was glued to the table top. It's got an armillary sphere, scales, several experiment pieces including an hour glass, the inkwell, a mug, cloth, keys, handwritten notes and an open book. Under the table is the mortar and pestle and a drawer with 'gold'. Beside the desk is a pile of books with another open book on top and a kitten poking its head out.

 The finished diorama! There are 3 modes: flickering candlelight, brightly lit, and ultraviolet. When those go out several items in the display glow.

The finished dimensions of the box are 12" wide, 9 1/2" high, and 5 1/2" deep. Here's a video tour I did of the display, giving a closer look at the pieces and finished diorama.

Alchemy Laboratory Diorama from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

I've set up an album here, with more detailed shots and explanations on how I made the box and all the items inside, including ones that I wasn't able to detail in these blog posts. Click on any photo in the album and then the circled 'i' icon at the top to read the descriptions.

I'm very happy with how this turned out. It was a lot of work and a real learning experience.

Thursday 5 July 2018

Shout-Out: Drop by Drop by Morgan Llywelyn

In this first book in the Step By Step trilogy, global catastrophe occurs as all plastic mysteriously liquefies. All the small components making many technologies possible-navigation systems, communications, medical equipment-fail.
In Sycamore River, citizens find their lives disrupted as everything they've depended on melts around them, with sometimes fatal results. All they can rely upon is themselves.
And this is only the beginning . . .

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Video: Granny Horror Game in Real Life

I enjoy Screen Team's videos and they're back after a hiatus. While I haven't played the Granny horror game they're doing a live remake of here, this video is well done - and quite creepy.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Book Review: The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan

This review is for book 3 of the Draconis Memoria series. Click the links for my reviews of The Waking Fire and The Legion of Fire.

Pros: lots of action, some new revelations

Cons: very short epilogue

Clay is returning from the South with a new mission to help defeat the white dragon: find a sunken treasure in the Krystaline Lake, deep in dragon country. Lizanne has the tinkerer, but unlocking the Mad Artisan’s secrets isn’t easy, nor is finding safe haven for the growing number of refugees she encounters. Sirus, General of the White dragon’s army of Spoiled, marches his troops across the world, pillaging and ‘recruiting’ as they go under the watchful eye of the insane Catheline Dewsmine. But he’s got a plan to betray his masters once the time is right…   

If you like your books with lots of action and military campaigns (on land, sea, and sky) then this is the series for you. The action quickly ramps up and the majority of this book is one battle after another. It’s impressive how the characters persevere despite the losses each side takes. It’s also impressive how the author keeps each fight scene fresh, bringing in new tactics and weapons as well as varying the locations and situations.

You finally discover who the Mad Artisan is, and see some newly invented war machines. You also learn a little bit more about Kris, though I’d have enjoyed learning more about her people and how they tinkered with the dragons.

Normally I like short denouements to books, but while the epilogue does touch on what everyone’s doing after the book ends, I would have liked more details of how they pick up the pieces. The ending is highly satisfying, but it’s hard leaving characters I’ve come to love.

This is an excellent series with a highly unique magic system and some excellent worldbuilding and characters. I highly recommend it.

Monday 2 July 2018

Books Received in June 2018

Many thanks as always to the publishers who send me books for review.

Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport - I bought a copy of this right when it came out in May as I was so excited to read it. You can read my review of it here. While it wasn't quite what I was expecting it was a fantastic book. If you like generation ships and assassins, this is the SF for you.

My name is Oichi Angelis, and I am a worm.
They see me every day. They consider me harmless. And that's the trick, isn't it?
A generation starship can hide many secrets. When an Executive clan suspects Oichi of insurgency and discreetly shoves her out an airlock, one of those secrets finds and rescues her.
Officially dead, Oichi begins to rebalance power one assassination at a time and uncovers the shocking truth behind the generation starship and the Executive clans.

Lady Mechanika vol 4: The Clockwork Assassin by Joe Benitez and M. M. Chen - I've enjoyed all of the Lady Mechanika graphic novels. I love the artwork and the light mysteries are a bonus. My review of volume 4 is here.

When a series of brutal murders linked to Mr. Lewis' past leads DetectiveInspector Singh to Lady Mechanika's doorstep, the Inspector is finally forced toconsider: is Lady Mechanika a crime-fighting hero or a cold blooded killer?

In the Region of the Summer Stars by Stephen Lawhead - Lawhead's an author who's been on my radar for years and yet I've never read his books. With good time management that will change soon.

Ravaged by barbarian Scálda forces, the last hope for Eirlandia lies with the island's warring tribes.
Wrongly cast out of his tribe, Conor, the first-born son of the Celtic king, embarks on a dangerous mission to prove his innocence.
What he discovers will change Eirlandia forever. For the Scálda have captured the mystical Fae to use as an ultimate weapon.
And Conor's own people have joined in the invasion.

The Furnace by Prentis Rollins - I started reading this today. So far it reminds me of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and Watchmen in style and political/social commentary. Out July 10th.

One decision. Thousands of lives ruined. Can someone ever repent for the sins of their past?
When Professor Walton Honderich was a young grad student, he participated in a government prison program and committed an act that led to the death of his friend, the brilliant physicist Marc Lepore, and resulted in unimaginable torment for an entire class of people across the United States.
Twenty years later, now an insecure father slipping into alcoholism, Walton struggles against the ghosts that haunt him in a futuristic New York City.

With full-color art and a dark, compelling work of psychological suspense and a cutting-edge critique of our increasingly technological world, The Furnace speaks fluently to the terrifying scope of the surveillance state, the dangerous allure of legacy, and the hope of redemption despite our flaws.

A Gift of Griffins by V. M. Escalada - I greatly enjoyed book 1 of this duology and will post my review of book 2 on its publication date, August 7th.

The second book in the Faraman Prophecy epic fantasy series returns to a world of military might and magical Talents as Kerida Nast continues the quest to save her nation.
Kerida Nast and her companions have succeeded in finding Jerek Brightwing, the new Luqs of Farama, and uniting him with a part of his Battle Wings, but not all their problems have been solved. Farama is still in the hands of the Halian invaders and their Shekayrin, and it's going to take magical as well as military strength to overcome them.

Unexpected help comes from Bakura, the Princess Imperial of the Halians, whose Gifts have been suppressed. As the Voice of her brother the Sky Emperor she has some political power over the Halian military, and she will use it to aid the Faramans, if Kerida can free her from what she sees as a prison. But whether Kerida can help the princess remains to be seen. If she succeeds, Bakura may prove their salvation. But should Kerida fail, all may be lost....

Vox by Christina Dalcher - Weirdly enough while it's one of my favourite subgenres, I don't actually end up liking many dystopian novels. The way things are going with regards to politics, dystopian futures are looking less fictional these days so I've not been reading as many lately. But this one sounds fascinating. The synopsis reminds me of Laura Bynum's Veracity, which I actually enjoyed. Out August 21st.

Set in a United States in which half the population has been silenced, Vox is the
harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.
On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than one hundred words per day, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial. This can't happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning...
Soon women are not permitted to hold jobs. Girls are not taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words each day, but now women have only one hundred to make themselves heard.

...not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.