Thursday 28 March 2019

Shout-Out: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn't an accident-or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan's unceasing expansion-all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret-one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life-or rescue it from annihilation.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Lego Women of NASA

For Christmas my husband got me a Lego set, but not just any Lego set, the Women of NASA set.

It's got 3 stands with nameplates for the four women featured: Nancy Grace Roman (with the Hubble space telescope), Margaret Hamilton (with a stack of books filled with flight software source code for the Apollo Guidance Computer), Sally Ride and Mae Jemison (with the Challenger shuttle). I love the attention to detail. It also comes with a booklet talking about the women and their contributions to science.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Splendor Solis: The World’s Most Famous Alchemical Manuscript by Stephen Skinner, Rafal Prinke, Georgiana Hedesan and Joscelyn Godwin

Pros: in depth discussion, full translation, summaries are useful for quick reference


Note: I received a copy for review from the publisher via NetGalley. My copy did not include the manuscript reproduction pages for the illustrations, therefore I cannot comment on the images or their quality. 

The book gives the historical background of the Splendor Solis and then a new English translation of the Harley manuscript 3469 version, currently held by the British Library (and viewable online here. Click on the image below ‘view bindings’ to see the pages). 

There is an introduction and four chapters, followed by a glossary of alchemical terms and other alchemical works the Splendor Solis refers to. The chapters are: History and authorship of Splendor Solis, Inventing an alchemical adept: Splendor Solis and the Paracelsian movement, Commentary on the text and plates of Splendor Solis and finally Translation of the Harley manuscript.

The chapter on the history of the manuscript is very scholarly and quite dry. I appreciated that Prinke mentioned the history of scholarship regarding the Splendor Solis, in terms of printed volumes, manuscripts, the illustrations and attempts at discovering the author and illustrators. He even includes recent scholarship on the topics. I was disappointed that there was such a limited discussion on the antecedents of the artworks, the topic that most interested me. Instead of showing examples of where the Splendor Solis’ illustrators received inspiration, he simply offhandedly mentioned the works with little to go in if you’d like to research this topic yourself. When discussing the Aurora Consurgens’s artistic lending he merely cites the page of an English translation that got a 200 copy print run in 2011 and is quite difficult to find. I did find an older reproduction of the Aurora Consurgens online (digitized by Zurich’s Zentralbibliothek), but Prinke gave so little descriptive information that I found it difficult to identify which images he was comparing. 

I really enjoyed the essay on the Paracelsian movement. There was a lot of information here I was unaware of and it was fascinating to learn about.

The next chapter summarizes all of the passages in the manuscript and gives a thorough description of the illustrations and their meanings. It is here that the reproduced manuscript pages are found. The information is in clear language with translations of any text that appears in the images.

I was a little surprised there was a summary of the text followed by a full translation, but the translation’s fairly dense, so it’s actually quite useful to have read the summary and explanation before digging into it. It meant I came away with a much better understanding of what I read.

As stated above, I can’t judge the quality of the images included in this edition, but the text alone is definitely worth the price. It’s a deep dive into the Splendor Solis and a worthwhile addition to your collection if you’re interested in alchemy.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Book Review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

Pros: interesting characters, great melding of history and myth


Fatima is one of the sultan’s concubine’s in Alhambra, 1491AD. Amid the siege and her anger at her lack of freedom, her only comfort is Hassan, a gay scribe who can create maps to places that don’t exist. When a delegation from the Spanish monarchs arrives, Hassan’s life is put in danger and Fatima flees with him, hoping to escape the inquisitorial eye and find a better life.

I loved the blending of history and myth and the clash of beliefs that form the foundation of this novel.

The author has a solid grasp on the events and world of 1491, including a lot of minor details that bring the world to life.

I loved her depiction of jinn, which was different from any I’ve read before and made them fascinating. The island being a part of both Islamic and Christian myth was a nice touch, showing that some things are universal.

Beyond the jinn, there’s the magic associated with Hassan’s maps. It’s subtle and beautiful and while the plot hangs on it, it’s sparingly used.

The characters questioned their actions at every point in the book, which made them feel real. They blamed each other for bad decisions. They forgave each other for outbursts they regretted. Fatima is so full of anger and so unaware of the world outside the palace that her growth arc was huge. She’s very passionate and her reactions run the gamut. Luz was absolutely terrifying and I loved that the author played on a modern understanding of what the inquisition was to avoid graphic descriptions. There’s a little information but mostly the book relies on hints of what happens to those put to the question.

The book is fairly fast paced, with the characters constantly running into trouble.

If you like history with a hint of magic, this is a great read.

Out March 22nd.

Thursday 7 March 2019

Shout-Out: The Migration by Helen Marshall

When I was younger I didn't know a thing about death. I thought it meant stillness, a body gone limp. A marionette with its strings cut. Death was like a long vacation--a going away. Not this.

Storms and flooding are worsening around the world, and a mysterious immune disorder has begun to afflict the young. Sophie Perella is about to begin her senior year of high school in Toronto when her little sister, Kira, is diagnosed. Their parents' marriage falters under the strain, and Sophie's mother takes the girls to Oxford, England, to live with their Aunt Irene. An Oxford University professor and historical epidemiologist obsessed with relics of the Black Death, Irene works with a Centre that specializes in treating people with the illness. She is a friend to Sophie, and offers a window into a strange and ancient history of human plague and recovery. Sophie just wants to understand what's happening now; but as mortality rates climb, and reports emerge of bodily tremors in the deceased, it becomes clear there is nothing normal about this condition--and that the dead aren't staying dead. When Kira succumbs, Sophie faces an unimaginable choice: let go of the sister she knows, or take action to embrace something terrifying and new.

Tender and chilling, unsettling and hopeful, The Migration is a story of a young woman's dawning awareness of mortality and the power of the human heart to thrive in cataclysmic circumstances.

Tuesday 5 March 2019

Great Courses Review: Food A Cultural Culinary History

Taught by Professor Ken Albala

Pros: interesting content, wide variety of subjects, lots of references


This is a Great Courses series of 36 thirty minute lectures that start with humanity’s hunting and gathering in the ancient past all the way up to the experimental cooking of the 2000s. I saw this via my local library’s digital lending program (Hoopla).

I learned so much from these lectures. The breakdown is extensive with separate lectures for various religious groups, ethnic groups, time periods, etc. Even the early modern lectures that I thought I wouldn’t be interested in turned out to be fascinating.

The professor is enthusiastic and knowledgable, easy to listen to, and very clear. In a few lectures he actually reproduces recipes he discusses. I wish he’d done more of that (I originally thought he was going to do one of these per lecture).

If you like history and/or food, this course is delightful.

Friday 1 March 2019

Books Received in February 2019

Many thanks as always to the publishers that sent me books last month.

The Afterward by E. K. Johnston - I've posted my review of this post-quest inclusive fantasy. It's a great standalone novel if you want something with an optimistic feel.

It's been a year since the mysterious godsgem cured Cadrium's king and ushered in what promised to be a new golden age. The heroes who brought home the gem are renowned in story and song, but for two fellows on the quest, peace and prosperity don't come easily.
Apprentice Knight Kalanthe Ironheart wasn't meant for heroism so early in life, and while she has no intention of giving up the notoriety she's earned, reputation doesn't pay her bills. Kalanthe may be forced to betray not her kingdom or her friends, but her own heart as she seeks a stable future for herself and those she loves.
Olsa Rhetsdaughter was never meant for heroism at all. Beggar and thief, she lived hand to mouth on the streets until fortune--or fate--pulled her into Kalanthe's orbit. And now she's reluctant to leave it. Even more alarmingly, her fame has made her profession difficult, and a choice between poverty and the noose isn't much of a choice at all.
Both girls think their paths are laid out, but the godsgem isn't quite done with them and that new golden age isn't a sure thing yet.
In a tale both sweepingly epic and intensely personal, Kalanthe and Olsa fight to maintain their newfound independence and to find their way back to each other.

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson - I've been reading a lot about the history of Spain recently and this book fit in nicely. It introduces mythology and magic into the world and portrays some fascinating characters. My review will go up soon.

From award-winning author G. Willow Wilson, The Bird King is an epic journey set during the reign of the last sultan in the Iberian peninsula at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.G. Willow Wilson's debut novel Alif the Unseen was an NPR and Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and it established her as a vital American Muslim literary voice. Now she delivers The Bird King, a stunning new novel that tells the story of Fatima, a concubine in the royal court of Granada, the last emirate of Muslim Spain, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan has a secret - he can draw maps of places he's never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan's surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan's gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls? As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.

Splendor Solis: The World's Most Famous Alchemical Manuscript by Dr. Stephen Skinner, Dr. Rafal T. Prinke, Georgiana Hedesan and Joscelyn Godwin - I finished this today. My advanced copy did not include the manuscript reproduction plates (you can find the entire manuscript digitized online so it was fine), but the text is really good, giving a fair amount of background information on the alchemical text. It was also cool reading the full translated text.

The only high-quality yet affordable edition available of the classic alchemical manuscript Splendor Solis, described as "the most magnificent treatise on alchemy ever made". Includes up-to-date commentary from experts in the field and a modern translation of the 16th-century text.
A magnificent edition of the Splendor Solis for all those interested in alchemy, magic and mysterious manuscripts. Popularly attributed to the legendary figure Salomon Trismosin, the Splendor Solis ('Splendour of the Sun') is the most beautiful alchemical manuscript ever made, with 22 fabulous illustrations rich in allegorical and mystical symbolism. The paintings are given a fitting showcase in this new Watkins edition, which accompanies them with Joscelyn Godwin's excellent contemporary translation of the original 16th-century German text, as well as interpretation from alchemical experts Stephen Skinner and Georgiana Hedesan, and from Rafal T. Prinke, an authority in central and Eastern European esoteric manuscripts. Stephen Skinner explains the symbolism of both the text and the illustrations, suggesting that together they describe the physical process of the alchemical transmutation of base metal into gold. Rafal T. Prinke explains the theories about the authorship of both text and illustrations, discussing Splendor Solis as the turning point in alchemical iconography passing from the medieval tradition to that of the Baroque and the reasons for the misattribution of Splendor Solis to Poysel and Trismosin. Georgiana Hedesan looks at the legendary figure of Salomon Trismosin and his creation by followers of Theophrastus Paracelsus as part of an attempt to integrate their master in a lineage of ancient alchemical philosophers. The images are taken from the British Library manuscript Harley 3469, the finest example of the Splendor Solis to survive.