Tuesday 31 December 2019

Book Review: Salvaged by Madeleine Roux

Pros: great characters, interesting story


On the run from her past, Rosalyn Devar took a job with Merchantia, cleaning up ships when missions go bad. Excessive drinking means this next mission is her last chance. But the Brigantine’s not the dead, drifting ship the company believes. To survive, she’ll have to face her past and a new alien threat.

If you like the claustrophobia of Alien and the mysterious alien element from The Expanse, you’ll love this book. My only complaint was that the holidays cut into my reading time so the paranoia had time to wear off between reading sessions. Otherwise, it gets very intense.

The characters were all quirky and interesting. The storytelling tight and focused. I did figure out one aspect of the mystery a lot sooner than the characters. The ending is a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Book Review: The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

Pros: interesting aliens, thought provoking

Cons: hard to sympathize with Tao’s POV

When Tao’s host is killed during a mission the alien entity must find a new host fast. Roan Tan is unsuitable in every way but beggars can’t be choosers. Now Tao has months to get him up to speed as an agent in the war between the Genjix and the Prophus because the enemy is up to something and Tao’s skills are needed.

I found this a challenging read in that I know enough history to understand that both alien sides of this war have done horrific things to humans and question the humans’ insistence that their side is doing things ‘for the betterment of humankind’. I’m sorry, causing a plague to make the war you started end faster isn’t helping the humans who will die either way. I therefore had a lot of difficulty sympathizing with Tao’s viewpoint.

If you can divorce yourself from the larger issues involved in the story (like the lack of human consent to becoming a host and having your life hijacked by a cause you can’t fully understand as these aliens have been waring on earth since their cashed spaceship killed the dinosaurs) it’s a fun romp. The story is basically a long training montage as Roen goes from an unhealthy lifestyle to becoming a decent agent (there’s still room for improvement in later books).

The book does - towards the end especially - deal with some of the above issues I had and I found the book quite thought provoking in several ways.

I loved the underpinning of the aliens. It’s horrifying and clever to show that they’ve manipulated the largest events in human history. I’d have liked learning more about Tao’s past, though the story gives enough to understand how things got to this point.

I didn’t find it the most engaging read. Roan grew on me but wasn’t someone I wanted to spend a lot of time with. While the pacing was ok, there was a lot of downtime, especially around the training when I found the book kind of dull. It does give the ending more punch but this isn’t a book I’d reread.

Friday 13 December 2019

Shout-Out: Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon

The start of a fierce fantasy duology about three maidens who are chosen for their land's greatest honor...and one girl determined to save her sister from the grave.

In the walled city-state of Alu, Kammani wants nothing more than to become the accomplished healer her father used to be before her family was cast out of their privileged life in shame.

When Alu's ruler falls deathly ill, Kammani’s beautiful little sister, Nanaea, is chosen as one of three sacred maidens to join him in the afterlife. It’s an honor. A tradition. And Nanaea believes it is her chance to live an even grander life than the one that was stolen from her.

But Kammani sees the selection for what it really is—a death sentence.

Desperate to save her sister, Kammani schemes her way into the palace to heal the ruler. There she discovers more danger lurking in the sand-stone corridors than she could have ever imagined and that her own life—and heart—are at stake. But Kammani will stop at nothing to dig up the palace’s buried secrets even if it means sacrificing everything…including herself.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Aga Khan Museum: Caravans of Gold Exhibit

Last week I was able to make it up to the Aga Khan Museum's Caravans of Gold exhibit (there until February 23rd).

Photos aren't allowed in their exhibits so I can only share my notes. The museum does some fantastic information plaques to accompany their displays. I'm using point form with my comments in brackets.

The exhibit deals specifically with trade across the Sahara desert and the medieval kingdom of Mali, which was one of the richest nations in history due to high quantities of gold and salt (necessary for preserving food).

- glass weights were used for measuring gold (I've not seen glass used as a measurement weight before, so this was cool. I'm used to seeing metal weights in European contexts)
- salt from Mali was tastier than other salt due to the number of minerals it contained, giving it a higher nutrient count as well
- lustreware was an ingenious innovation of Arab potters; it was highly prized in Europe for its reflective 'gold like' qualities, which were achieved by mixing silver sulfides and copper oxides into the paint before firing the item a second time
- Arabic manuscripts in west Africa were usually loose pages kept in a leather pouch (I'm curious if these were read one page at a time or if the reader would take out a small stack at once, or if these were more for meditative study rather than quick reading)
- Islamic religious writings were used as amulets (for example the text of the Qur'an was written on a tunic for protection when hunting)
- ivory was purchased by weight so the amount of it removed when carving sculptures/religious icons indicated a lavish expense
- by the 14th century increasing supply of ivory meant lower prices so more domestic items were made out of it (before this it was mainly used in religious icons, after this you find ivory combs, boxes, etc.)
- cowrie shells from the Indian ocean were used as currency in parts of medieval west Africa (I'm guessing their scarcity made them valuable and sought after)
- many ceramic canteens were left unglazed so as to cool the contents through evaporation
- Saharan nomads consider the tent to be a woman's property; mothers collect and sew together goat hides during their daughters' childhoods and then gift them a tent when they marry; this gives women more independence as if they divorce they still have a place to live
- nomads also use a lot of milk products; they put milk in portable containers when they travel and the motion of the camel churns it into butter (what a good use for motion, it also frees the person to do other tasks)

Saturday 30 November 2019

Books Received in November 2019

Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for sending me the new Star Trek Discovery tie-in novel.

Star Trek Discovery: Dead Endless by Dave Galanter - I had mixed feelings regarding the first season of the show (haven't had the chance to see the second season yet). I really loved Stamets' character though. This sounds pretty interesting.

The U.S.S. Discovery’s specialty is using its spore-based hub drive to jump great distances faster than any warp-faring vessel in Starfleet. To do this, Lieutenant Paul Stamets navigates the ship through the recently revealed mycelial network, a subspace domain Discovery can briefly transit but in which it cannot remain. After responding to a startling distress call originating from within the network, the Discovery crew find themselves trapped in an inescapable realm where they will surely perish unless their missing mycelial fuel is found or restored. Is the seemingly human man found alone and alive inside the network the Starfleet officer he claims to be, or an impostor created by alien intruders who hope to extract themselves from the mycelial plane at the expense of all lives aboard Discovery?

Thursday 21 November 2019

Shout-Out: Starship Alchemon by Christopher Hinz

Nine explorers aboard a powerful AI vessel, Alchemon, are sent to investigate an “anomalous biosignature” on a distant planet. But they soon realize their mission has gone to hell as deadly freakish incidents threaten their lives. Are these events caused by the tormented psychic mysteriously put aboard at the last minute? Has the crew been targeted by a vengeful corporate psychopath? Are they part of some cruel experiment by the ship’s ruthless owners? Or do their troubles originate with the strange alien lifeform retrieved from the planet? A creature that might possess an intelligence beyond human understanding or may perhaps be the spawn of some terrifying supernatural force... Either way, as their desperation and panic sets in, one thing becomes clear: they’re fighting not only for their own survival, but for the fate of all humanity.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Pros: interesting characters, fascinating world, various necromantic magics

Cons: slow pacing at start, hard to keep characters straight

I’m using the book’s back cover synopsis as I can’t come up with a better one:

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

It took me a while to get into this book. I really enjoyed the characters and there’s conflict immediately, but there’s so much to take in with regards to their history and the setting that it just felt kind of slow. The main plot takes a fair bit to get underway which contributed to the feeling that the pacing was on the slow side, even though there was a lot of action.

The worldbuilding is rather neat, with different houses (each on their own planet) having their own style of necromancy. You really get to see the powers on display towards the end of the book. You only learn as much as you need to in order to understand this story, so there are no info dumps and a lot of unanswered questions regarding the larger universe.

The characters were highly varied and interesting. I did have some trouble keeping the various house members apart so I’m glad there was a list of characters by house at the front of the book. You’re introduced to everyone all at once which made it hard for me to remember who was who.

The book is told from Gideon’s point of view and she’s a cool character. There’s a fair bit of profanity and sarcasm. I really enjoyed seeing her develop as the story went on. I’m not entirely sure I believe how quickly she adjusted to a few revelations, but there was some emotional punch to the story.

The mystery of how to obtain Lyctorhood (immortality) was interesting and the story really kept me guessing regarding the murders.

It’s a unique book and worth picking up.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Book Review: In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Pros: interesting character, evocative writing, quick paced


Katherine Victoria Lundy is content to be the friendless principal’s daughter so long as she can read her books. When a mysterious door appears before her one day, she opens it and finds a new world, one with strict rules of fairness. She has until she turns 18 to decide which world she wants to live in, a choice that gets harder the closer the deadline comes.

This is a novella and so can be read in a couple of hours. It’s a great, fast paced story that’s hard to put down. I liked Katherine’s no nonsense behaviour and the world where people state what they want and try to deal fairly with one another (or risk discipline). I can understand why she’d want to live there as there’s something comforting in the idea of knowing that no one can take advantage of you.

I thought her choice at the end was believably difficult, with several sides to consider.

The writing was quite beautiful at times. Almost lyrical even.

While part of the Wayward Children series it easily stands alone and you don’t need to have read any of the others to fully grasp the story.

This is a great series and a good alternate starting point.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Accusations against ChiZine Publications

Several years ago, back when I worked at the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, I heard of a new horror imprint that was starting called ChiZine Publications. They’d started as a local horror magazine and were branching out to publish short story collections and novels.

Over the years I went to several of their events: book launches at Ad Astra, evening readings at bars, the store hosted a few readings and launches. I reviewed some of their books on this blog and interviewed a few of their authors for an in store display and posting in full here online.

Several of their authors were regulars at the store and would chat with us and sign copies of their books when they came in to shop.

So it’s with surprise and horror that I’ve learned how the publisher has been treating some of their employees and authors. Apparently the close friends of the publishers (Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory) have been treated well, but others have had late or non-existent payments for work, missing author copies of anthologies, there are accusations of authors being intimidated (so they wouldn’t complain about lack of payment) and fears of being blackballed by the publisher so others wouldn’t work with them. One author has also accused another author of some vile racist comments.

I’ve been following the complaints via twitter and facebook but file770 now has a good overview so I’ll link to that post here.

As some others have pointed out, being a 2 person operation doesn’t excuse not paying people on time. If you can’t run the business properly, maybe it’s time to shut down.

ChiZine has published some amazing books, but the harm they’re doing to the writing and speculative fiction community in Toronto seems to outweigh the positives.

I still have several of their books on my to be read pile. I don’t believe punishing the authors by not reviewing books is fair, so I won’t remove them from my pile. One author has been accused of using racist comments towards another author so I will not review that author’s books anymore (and if other authors are named in the future in such things - from ChiZine or other publishers - this will apply to their books as well).

However, until I hear these issues have been cleared up and proper apologies rendered, I won’t be supporting any more of their events.

I’m a bit torn on buying and reviewing newer books. Again, I don’t think authors should be punished for the publisher’s behaviour, but I don’t want to support the publisher by giving them money. I’ll have to think about this and see how things play out in the next few weeks.


High Fever Books has an updated rundown with more stories of mistreatment and the official ChiZine Publications statement (several of these are linked to on facebook).

Update Nov 9
Dora Badger has started a Google Doc with information on how you can support ChiZine authors outside of the publisher (other books they've written, patreon accounts, etc). It's a work in progress, as there are a lot of authors.

Tuesday 5 November 2019

Ethiopia Trips: Books and Video clips

Here are the video clips I mentioned yesterday.

A Glimpse of Ethiopia from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

I hope you enjoyed some of my posts on the history of Ethiopia. Obviously I condensed a lot and left a ton out. If you’re interested in learning more, here are some of the books I read that are worth checking out. Many of them I read at my old university library (or this would have been some expensive research). I was lucky in that my university has begun a program teaching Ge’ez, the liturgical language, and so they have a very good collection of books on Ethiopia including some indispensable guide books by a press from Addis Ababa.

For a good overview:

African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia by Marilyn Heldman and Stuart Munro-Hay, 1993 - This is out of print but you might find it at a library (like I did). It’s a museum special exhibit catalogue with some fantastic essays on the history of Ethiopia followed by a gorgeous display of artworks. It’s the first book on Ethiopia I read and the one that showed me that the country’s history and art are incredible.

For history:

Ancient Churches of Ethiopia by David Phillipson, 2009 - A great book predominantly on the rock-hewn churches. It briefly goes over Yeha and Axum and ends with the Lalibela complex. There are floor plans and reproduction diagrams of what some older structures would have looked like.

Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum and the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 by David Phillipson, 2012 - This book gets very in depth and scholarly at times making it harder for the average reader to enjoy, but has a lot of great, detailed information on the topic.

Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270 by Sergew Hable Sellassie, 1972 - Written by an Ethiopian professor, this one is hard to find but really delves into the history of the country starting with all the primary source materials that mention the word ‘Ethiopia’ (and explaining that ‘Ethiopia’ in ancient times could refer to a lot of places/people including India, as trade goods from India passed through Africa).

Church and State in Ethioopia, 1270-1527 by Taddesse Tamrat, 1972 - The book is old but one of the few to cover this period of history. I found it a tough read, scholarly and not very engaging though it covers some tumultuous times.

The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles Edited by Richard Pankhurst, 1967 - I didn’t know this existed until I stumbled across it at the university library. It’s primary source writings from the Solomonic dynasty. It’s only excerpts with commentary, but it’s cool reading what Ethiopian nobles of the day thought was important to comment on.

If you can’t find any of these, the history section at the start of guide books is remarkably good for a concise but thorough overview.

For church artwork:

Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia by Maria-Jose and Bob Friedlander, 2015 - This has a fantastic rundown of Ethiopian saints, which differ significantly from those of other Christian denominations. If you’re interested in churches and religious paintings, this information is important. It also maps the paintings for a number of churches. I wish there were more photographs of each church they cover.

Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom by Mary Anne Fitzgerald and Philip Marsden, 2017. - Documenting 66 churches, it’s a massive coffee table book with hundreds of gorgeous photographs.

Lalibela: Wonder of Ethiopia by Claude Lepage, 2012 - A fantastically detailed book on the church complex at Lalibela. Lots of diagrams and cross sections.

Next week I'll be back to more regular science fiction and fantasy content. I have a book review all ready to go on Tuesday.

Monday 4 November 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Wrap-up

 Ethiopia was an amazing trip. Seeing the various rock-hewn churches was incredible. We went with a company based in Addis Ababa called Awaze Tours that took care of all of our hotel reservations, driver, local guides, food (restaurants for lunch, hotel restaurant for dinner), and internal flight. Everyone we dealt with there was great. Our driver and guides were professional and knowledgeable. We only had to pay for alcoholic drinks, tips (the biggest expense in country), and souvenirs. And our international flights, of course. We did the Historic Route A trip.

Food was a mix of Ethiopia (generally stews of lentils, chickpeas, meat and/or veggies on injera, a sourdough from tef grain made into a pancake) and European (generally Italian, I’m assuming due to their occupation of Ethiopia during WWII - so a lot of pizza and pasta).

Their fruit juices, more like smoothies, were fantastic. Towards the end of the trip we tried the avocado juice, which is made with citrus and sugar and is SO yummy.

The airport going home had some unexpected surprises. We didn’t know we’d need proof of our flight to be allowed into the building and had some tense minutes trying to come up with something. We’d done online check-in for our flight but weren’t sent the confirmation email. Luckily my sister had a print out of our flight times which the guard accepted. Once in the building we immediately had to go through metal detectors and x-ray machines. It was full airport procedure, so off with the coats, shoes, empty the pockets, take out the laptops and tablets but liquids could stay in bags. We then got to check our bags. I considered keeping mine as it was small enough for the cabin but I’m glad I didn’t. We then had an immigration check and the security gate. In the terminal we started looking for our gate and glancing in some shops. Turns out if you still have birr (local currency) you can get things pretty cheap. If you’re spending American dollars though it’s a real price gouge. We found our gate and had to go through security AGAIN, this time with the full body scanner. Good thing we had the full 3 hours because we made our gate only a few minutes before boarding started.

Ethiopia is a gorgeous country. Here’s a video I made of panning shots of some of the amazing views we saw. Tomorrow I’ll post a video of clips mostly take from the car driving through various locations and a reading list if you’d like to learn more about the country and its history.

12 Views of Ethiopia from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Gondar

Oral traditions and later medieval writings say that Yekuno Amlak was an Amhara prince who traced his lineage to the last Axumite king. With the help of Tekle Haymanot, a monk who was later sainted, he overthrew the las ruler of the Zagwe dynasty and reestablished the Solomonic line in 1270. This is also when the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings), which tells the story of how the Ethiopian kings were descended from the union of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon was compiled and popularized.

For the next few hundred years the royal family travelled around the country in a tent city, using up resources before moving on.

Gondar was chosen to be a permanent capital by Emperor Fasilidas in the early 1600s due to its location at the centre of three trading routes. He expelled the Jesuits who had helped the country with the muslim invasions of the 1500s but who also kept pressuring people to convert to Catholicism. Fasilidas started a royal compound with castles influenced by Portuguese architecture. (Our guide said he wanted to build a more impressive building than the Europeans.)
His castle now graces the 50 Birr bill. 

Following monarchs built additional castles, administrative buildings, thermal baths, lion cages and more in what is now called Fasil Ghebbi (The Fasilidas Complex or Royal Compound).

Another nearby building is called Fasilidas’ Bath. During Timkat (January 19th or 20th), which celebrates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan river, celebrants bathe in the waters.

Founded by Emperor Iyasu I, who reigned from 1654-1706, Debra Berhan Sellassie church is one of the most iconic churches in the country. Famed for its ceiling of painted cherubs (angels) and fully painted walls. The church itself is shaped like the Ark of Noah, only upside down. The building was originally circular but was rebuilt later in a rectangular style. The thatched roof is modern. 

The Gondar Emperors were patrons of the arts and there are two distinct Gondarine styles.

In the 1700s Emperor Bakaffa died and his widow Empress Mentewab (whose crown name means 'how beautiful she is') became regent for their son. She had a castle complex built on a different site, called Qusquam, after a city the Holy Family stopped at on their way to Egypt when Christ was a child. Here’s a photo of the banquet hall ruins. The builders reused some older carved stonework when building it.

Gondar is an interesting city. We stayed at the Goha Hotel which had a wonderful panoramic view. You could even see Fasil Ghebbi from there.

Saturday 2 November 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Lalibela North Complex + St George Church

The North complex at the site consists of several churches joined by tunnels. It's built with more verticality, so there's a section where a tunnel and courtyard are overtop another church.
You begin the tour by going down a set of carved stairs to see the largest church on the site: Bet Medhane Alem (Saviour of the World). In terms of the site being a replica of the Earthly Jerusalem, this one represents the tent of the Ark of the Covenants. A second site interpretation that our guide pointed out was that the site was the body of Jesus, with this church acting as the head. 

The southeast corner pillars are joined by small pieces of rock with crosses carved in them, symbolizing the Trinity. Many of the exterior pillars have been replaced. The original ones would have been directly carved out of the rock like the church proper.

There's amazing alignment between the inner and outer carvings. In the north aisle near the altar are 3 'tombs'. It's unclear whether they're the actual tombs of Sidi Meskal and two of his companions or if they're symbolic and are meant to represent Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Above the curtain sectioning off the main sanctuary is an arch with some symbolic disks representing the shields and crown of King Lalibela.

A short tunnel opens out into a very large courtyard. There are three pools of water (for baptisms and healing), two small churches carved into the walls, and a central church: Bet Maryam.

The church on the north wall is Bet Masqal (House of the Cross) and has a cross carved into the ceiling. It represents the right hand of God. The four pillars dividing the gallery into 2 aisles represent the 4 evangelists.

The church on the south wall leads to another channel through which you can access the site. It is Bet Danagel (House of the Virgins). It represents the left hand of God and/or the Christian virtues of faith and love. Records show that it existed in 1280 and may have been made for a community of nuns, so it's more humble that some of the other buildings.

Bet Maryam represents Gethsemane / the body of Christ. It was likely founded by King Lalibela as a royal church and is richly decorated inside. Outside the east wall has symbolic windows. The top row of three represent the Trinity. The central three read vertically are for the resurrection, incarnation (womb of Mary) and crucifixion. The bottom set read horizontally has Christ crucified in the middle. On the right is the thief who went to heaven (represented by the T shaped window above) while on the left is the thief who did not repent (with the T below indicating he went to hell).

It is also the only church in the complex to have porches. Above the west porch is a bas relief carving of two figures on horseback. There's dispute over who these represent but one theory is that one of them is a king and the other is St George.

Inside most of the ceiling and arches are painted. There are crosses, two headed birds, some religious icons (including Christ with the woman at the well pictured below). There is also a pillar said to be carved with prophecies explaining the history of the world to the end of time. It is kept covered with a white cloth.


To the west of this is a series of small caves that included Lalibela's tiny library and study (according to our guide). Apparently Lalibela was a tall man, as the stairs were built at two sizes, one for him and one for regular people.

From here you go down into the complex to the combine lower church of Bet Mikael (formerly Bet Debre Sina aka Mount Sinai) and Bet Golgotha. These churches represent the legs of Christ. Bet Mikael has cruciform pillars with relief carved crosses and eyes on them.

Bet Golgotha represents the Holy Sepulchre and only men are allowed inside, though the priest was nice and let the women stand at the doorway and take photos. My guide was also kind enough to go in and take some photos for me. This is the only church in the complex with life sized carvings of people in wall niches. There's also a painting of a woman beside one of the figures (one source said it was St Mary, another that it was St Cyriacus's mother. St Cyriacus was martyred as a child and is the labelled figure next to the painting). The Selassie chapel mentioned on the floor plan above is closed to the public.

Outside the churches is another tunnel with a large stone that was once a hermit's cell now called the Tomb of Adam. Above it you can see a window in the stone. This was the proclamation window of King Lalibela, where he could address his subjects.

A little south of this site lies the only single church at Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis. It's a masterpiece of carving with attention given to water runoff. Our guide said that the building represents the Ark of Noah, with the bottom floor only having false windows, the second none, and the third having 12 that open for the dove to return. There's a... hill... at the rear of the courtyard that he said symbolized Mt Ararat.

It's also one of the few churches where the access route hasn't been modified (you go down two slanted corridors). Near the bottom of the second corridor are holes in the wall said to be from the horse of St George who confronted King Lalibela over the fact that none of the churches were dedicated to him. King Lalibela promised that he would get the finest church. And it is a fine church. It's also the only one where the Italians haven't put up ugly massive covers (the covers protect the sites from the weather but were built so close to the structures there's fear that they have damaged the foundations. The French government is currently surveying the site to see if a different protective covering can be installed). The baptismal pool was full of reeds (and dragonflies!) but is still a working church as our guide and driver were both baptized here as children.