Thursday 27 September 2018

Shout-Out: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

In a remote village surrounded by vast forests on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, sisters Liba and Laya have been raised on the honeyed scent of their Mami's babka and the low rumble of their Tati's prayers. But when a troupe of mysterious men arrives, Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother's warning to be wary of strangers. And this is not the only danger lurking in the woods.

As dark forces close in on their village, Liba and Laya discover a family secret passed down through generations. Faced with a magical heritage they never knew existed, the sisters realize the old fairy tales are true...and could save them all.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Video: A Roman Soldier Prepares Dinner

Just discovered the Youtube channel Invicta, which has some great historical video series: Everyday Moments, How They Did It, Deadly Moments in History, Massive Battles and more.

As this video points out, when talking about armies we tend to think about the actual battles and logistics of why one side won/lost. But just as important (maybe even more important) was the logistics of feeding said army. This is a quick look at what a Roman legionary would have eaten and how the food was prepared.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Book Review: The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Pros: very unique world, interesting characters, intrigue

Cons: body horror

Years ago Zan and Jayd came up with a plot to save the worlds from their inevitable slow decline. When Zan wakes up from her most recent attempt to retake their neighbouring world, Mokshi, she has no memory of who she is. Again. Jayd’s manipulations are getting them closer to achieving their goal, but her betrayals are catching up to her and others aren’t playing their roles the way she expected.

This is a very unique novel. I have never read of a world, or rather a series of worlds, so… bizarre. They’re things of flesh, orbiting a sun and populated solely by women who birth the components the world (ships?) require. While each world is unique, the lords of some of the worlds discovered that they could prolong the lives of their worlds by sharing flesh, though this causes other problems. I was a little concerned going into the book as I heard it was body horror. While there’s some disturbing imagery around birth, cannibalism, flesh, etc., it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

The narrative is told from the viewpoints of Jayd, who knows what’s going on but isn’t very forthcoming, and Zan who’s trying to navigate situations she no longer understands. It’s clear that she can’t necessarily trust Jayd, though it’s also clear that she loved Jayd deeply at one point.

The plot is fairly straightforward, despite it’s being drawn out. The book itself is a quick read as you’re anxious to find out who Zan really is, what Jayd’s plan is, and why the Mokshi is so important.

If you’re looking for a good book outside the ordinary and you have a strong stomach, give this a try.

Friday 21 September 2018

TV Show Review: Twin Peaks, Seasons 1 and 2

Pros: some great storylines, good representation, cultural impact

Cons: some hokey storylines, slow pacing, occasional over the top acting

When Twin Peaks aired on television in 1990 I was too young to have been watching and old enough to know what a phenomenon it was going to be. And it was a phenomenon. Most shows at that time were episodic, so if you missed one episode it didn’t matter (as they generally aired at one time on one day - and in reruns, if the show was popular enough and you could catch those episodes). So a show with a continuous storyline that required you see every episode, in order, was unusual. And then there was the hype around the tag line: Who killed Laura Palmer?  

Rewatching the show as an adult, it’s interesting what still worked, what didn’t, and what from the various storylines I remembered all these years later.

First off, I remember the show being quirky and mysterious. I did not remember it being a soap opera. And it most definitely is a soap opera.

Season 1 starts off with a 2 hour made for TV movie. It sets out the mystery of Laura’s death, the coming of FBI agent Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks to investigate the murder, and a decent number of the people who live in the town. That season ended on a cliff hanger when the season was riding high in the ratings. It’s surprisingly coherent in storytelling, with little jokes continuing from episode to episode (like the bizarre conferences going on at The Great Northern Hotel). As an adult, Agent Cooper’s mysticism didn’t work so well. If the FBI en mass actually worked the way he does in this show, no one would trust them to solve cases. While he does examine the evidence he’s got too much reliance on dreams and whatnot for me to believe any sheriff would follow his lead.

Season 2 solves the murder of Laura Palmer a third of the way through. The special feature on the DVD set I watched pointed out that solving the murder so soon was a mistake. Once Laura’s death was solved, the allure of the show vanished and all you were left with was the soap opera. And while the characters were interesting, the increasingly lurid storylines just weren’t compelling enough to get the show a third season. Until 25 years later.

A few things really impressed me about the show. As I said, the storytelling on the whole is impressive. There are a large number of storylines and quite a few of them are resolved. 

The DVD special mentioned that Josie Packard was originally written as an Italian woman, but they liked Joan Chen’s audition so much they rewrote the part so she was from Hong Kong instead. Deputy ‘Hawk’ was played by an actual Native American. I was also impressed by representations of disability, like Donna Hayward’s mother who’s in a wheelchair (and it’s never explained why) and Nadine Hurley’s missing eye. Season 2 has a trans woman (played by David Duchovny - X-Files started in 1993) and while her scenes can be awkward at times, it’s still impressive in terms of representation for its time (for our time too, to be honest).

Almost every character in the show has some quirk. And they’re pretty in your face obvious, like the log lady carrying a log that speaks to her and FBI Director Gordon Cole’s propensity to shout due to his difficulty hearing. On one hand it made some people feel like caricatures, while on the other, it made the town feel more realistic.

The music was great, offbeat and quirky to match the characters. We had the soundtrack so I still remember all the different character themes.

Watching it nowadays it’s a fairly slow moving, often boring show. There are a lot of panning shots and close-ups that last too long. Some of the storylines are just comically bad and some of the resolutions disappointing as they depend on mysticism of some kind. The acting is often over the top (especially Leland Palmer, whose scenes of grief are hard to watch - and make me wonder if Lynch was trying to show how callous people are in the face of others’ grief, expecting them to get over tragedy quickly as it’s hard to watch someone else break down).

The show had a huge impact at the time and still has its moments. I don’t think I could watch it again though.

I tried watching the more recent 3rd season and just couldn’t. It was so slow and several episodes in still had no plot. Some things are products of their time and there’s no going back.

Thursday 20 September 2018

Shout-Out: Paramnesia by Brian Wilkinson

Nora Edwards finally has everything she wants out of life, including the boy of her dreams, until one night that dream turns into a nightmare. On their way home from prom, Nora and Andrew are attacked by a supernatural creature called the Revenant that sucks the souls out of the living in order to feed itself. Nora manages to escape from the creature, but Andrew is not as fortunate. Although Nora suffers loss that night, she gains something as well: the ability to see the dead, including her recently deceased boyfriend. Whether the skill is a gift or a curse is yet to be determined, since those around her assume Nora's erratic behaviour is due to "paramnesia," a disorder in which a person confuses dreams with reality. She's also attracted the attention of the Revenant's masters, who need to preserve the secret of their supernatural existence and will stop at nothing to prevent her from talking. Nora, along with Andrew and her living and dead allies in the Deadish Society, quickly finds herself in a battle for her life--and the souls of her city.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Book Review: Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Pros: interesting characters, great setting, unique mystery

Cons: more details of bodily functions than I needed

Kaaro’s criminal past and his abilities as a sensitive have trapped him in the role of government agent. His assignment is to live in Rosewater, a city surrounding a mysterious alien biodome that once a year heals those that stand within a certain area, and learn what he can about it. When the sensitives around him start getting sick, he realizes that change is coming, and tries to finally uncover the mystery of the alien, his abilities, and what they mean for the future.

The book mostly takes place in Nigeria in 2066, with flashbacks of Kaaro’s life, particularly around 2055, when he was first recruited by S45 and Rosewater was founded. I don’t know much about Nigeria, so it was great reading about how it might look in the future, with several chapters taking place in Lagos and neighbouring areas. There were food and religious references and translated lines in some of the regional languages.

Kaaro’s an interesting character. He starts out apathetic to what’s going on around him and slowly comes alive as he falls in love during the course of the book. He’s an avowed coward and thief, so he’s not the easiest protagonist to like, but his life is very different and so carries the book well.

While you don’t learn too much about the aliens they are unique and make the mystery compelling. Some early information doesn’t make much sense (like using anti-fungal cream to reduce psychic abilities) but they are explained in time. As the story progressed I found it harder to put the book down.

I could have done without some of the mentions and descriptions of bodily functions. While the sexual ones at least gave character information (even if I didn’t feel I needed to know about every erection he had), on a few occasions bowel movements were also mentioned.

If you’re looking for unique science fiction, pick this up.

Friday 14 September 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Gravity Falls Lost Legends by Alex Hirsch

Pros: fun stories, good artwork


Schmebulock the gnome narrates four new stories of the Pines family in this graphic novel based on the TV show. In “Face It” Pacifica wants magical aid removing a wrinkle, “Comix Up” sees Stan trapped inside a comic book, “Don’t Dimension It” has Mabel lost in the multiverse, and “Pines Bros Mystery” is an adventure from when Stan and Ford were kids.

There are new journal pages and puzzles to solve, and the stories fit in nicely with the show. Be sure you’ve seen both seasons as one of the stories may be spoilery otherwise. There’s little character introduction, so if you haven’t seen the show you won’t know who anyone is or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

The artwork matches that of the show, though in some panels Ford and Stan’s heads are a bit too large for the bodies they’ve got.

Overall it’s a fun book with some cute additional stories.

Thursday 13 September 2018

Shout-Out: The Echo Room by Parker Peevyhouse

The only thing worse than being locked in is facing what you locked out.

Rett Ward knows how to hide. He's had six years of practice at Walling Home, the state-run boarding school where he learned how to keep his head down to survive.

But when Rett wakes up locked in a small depot with no memory of how he got there, he can't hide. Not from the stranger in the next room. Or from the fact that there's someone else's blood on his jumpsuit.

Worse, every time he tries to escape, he wakes up right back where he started. Same day, same stranger, same bloodstained jumpsuit.

As memories start to surface, Rett realizes that the logo on the walls is familiar, the stranger isn't a stranger, and the blood on his jumpsuit belongs to someone-or something-banging on the door to get in.

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Book Review: Ash and Silver by Carol Berg

Pros: lots of plot twists, interesting characters

Cons: opening drags a bit, some questions of how the Order works in practice

Two years into his training to become a knight of the Order of the Equites Cinere, Greenshanks learns that his real name is Lucian de Remeni. His memory was wiped when his service began, and it quickly becomes clear that he left a lot of important things undone before he joined the Order. Now caught in numerous plots and unsure of who to trust, Lucian works to understand his past while saving the future of his world.

The two year gap and Lucian’s memory loss made it difficult for me to jump back into the story. It felt more like a new story rather than a continuation. Once hints of his past started to surface things began to pick up. The second half of the book was a whirlwind of action and I had trouble putting the book down as the plots within plots slowly unravelled.

There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue, more interesting because while the plots mostly overlap through Lucian, many of the players are unaware of each other. Seeing things purely from Lucian’s POV, it’s hard to know who he should trust and what actions he should take.

I loved all of the new characters, particularly the knights. Commander Inek and Fix were great.

I did have some questions about how the Order remained secret considering it’s populated by Purebloods, people under tight Registry regulation. Do the knights remove all trace of their past lives? That is, do they remove memories of them from their loved ones and removed their names from the registry so that they’re not considered runaways? Or are their deaths faked when they join? Lucian’s wasn’t so why aren’t people looking for all these missing Pureblood men?

There are quite a few major plot twists and my emotions were jerked around quite a bit the last few chapters. I liked that the ending ties some things up but leaves others open, with the world continuing on.

Friday 7 September 2018

Uffizi Digitization Project

Open Culture recently had an article about the Uffizi Digitization Project. Basically, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, has been digitizing their collection of Greek and Roman sculpture and releasing the 3D images online. It's not done, but they've got a nice selection of statuary (altars, busts, statues, etc.) that you can click on and then view from all angles. I love that so many museums are digitizing their collections. And I'd love to see more museums put 3D images up so you can see the whole object, not just the 'front'.

Thursday 6 September 2018

Shout-Out: The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette

Three years ago, a spaceship landed in an open field in the quiet mill town of Sorrow Falls, Massachusetts. It never opened its doors, and for all that time, the townspeople have wondered why the ship landed there, and what-or who-could be inside.

Then one day a government operative-posing as a journalist-arrives in town, asking questions. He discovers sixteen-year-old Annie Collins, one of the ship's closest neighbors and a local fixture known throughout the town, who has some of the answers.

As a matter of fact, Annie Collins might be the most important person on the planet. She just doesn't know it.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Video: Tudor Monastery Farm

While it’s a little outside my usual period of study, this documentary goes over a lot of fascinating items, many of which overlap with the late middle ages. I loved seeing how a paintbrush was made, how a rush light was made and how much light it gave off, how a plow was managed, etc. The documentary starts in the spring and mentions the tight timeframe for things (peas needed to be planed in a small window so the seeds can germinate), the Easter holidays, and more. This is only the first of 3 episodes. It’s fascinating how versatile people in the past were and how cleverly they used the materials around them.

Tuesday 4 September 2018

Book Review: Dust and Light by Carol Berg

Pros: several interesting mysteries, great characters, brilliant worldbuilding

Cons: so much bad stuff happens to Lucian it can feel pretty intense in parts

Lucian de Remeni-Masson was punished for his youthful indiscretion by having his magical history ‘bent’ burned out of him, leaving him only his ‘bent’ for art. He was also given a Registry contract, painting portraits of other Purebloods. When his extended family is all killed, save one younger sister, he thinks it’s nothing more than a Harrower attack. But when he’s suddenly contracted out to a common coroner he slowly begins to realize that the attacks on his family aren’t finished. His magic of seeing truth through art reveals that noble children are being killed, and the coroner wants to catch the culprit. But that same art may have revealed secrets those in power would prefer stayed hidden.

It’s been a few years since I’ve last read a novel by Carol Berg and I’ve missed the depth of feeling she evokes in her characters. I’d also forgotten just how much she tortures her protagonists. Her books tend to be very intense reads and the first book in this Sanctuary duology is no exception. There’s no graphic depictions, but you definitely feel Lucian’s despair at numerous points in the book. While it’s set in the same world as Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone, you don’t have to have read those in order to enjoy this one.

There’s a lot going on in this book, from the mystery surrounding Lucian’s family’s murder, the dead children, mythological danae, and what really happens when Lucian invokes his magical bent. There’s also a civil war and famine going on.

Berg’s worldbuilding is as brilliant as always. Her worlds always feel realistic, with complex social systems (here there’s commoners, royalty, clerics, the Cicerons and Pureblood magicians). I love how different characters all have realistic - and often opposing - priorities, making it hard for Lucian to know who to trust. I loved his relationship with Bastian, with the two of them constantly rewriting their roles and how they interact, based on what’s been happening. They slowly learn to trust one another, but it’s always a tentative thing, due to their different backgrounds and expectations.

The ending is such that you’ll want the next volume at hand when you finish.