Friday 31 May 2019

Books Received in May, 2019

As always, many thanks to the publishers who sent me books this month.

Lady Mechanika, Vol 5: La Belle Dame Sans Merci by M. M. Chen and Joe Benitez - I absolutely love the artwork in this series and the Victorian steampunk aesthetic.  I've reviewed it here.

Lady Mechanika's investigation into her forgotten past is overshadowed by concern for her associate Mr. Lewis when he becomes enamored of a beautiful and enigmatic young widow, whose own past seems disturbingly linked to the untimely deaths of several creative geniuses. Will Mr. Lewis be next?

New Worlds, Year 2: More Essays on the Art of Worldbuilding by Marie Brennan - This is the second collection of essays for Brennan's patreon worldbuilding perk. I read last year's ebook and they're great. Each one's short but goes over a good amount of information. I'm part way through this one and enjoying it.

Explore a world of your own . . .
Science fiction and fantasy are renowned for immersing their readers in rich, inventive settings. In this follow-up to the collection NEW WORLDS, YEAR ONE, award-winning fantasy author Marie Brennan guides you through new aspects of worldbuilding and how they can generate stories. From beauty to books, from tattoos to taboos, these essays delve into the complexity of different cultures, both real and imaginary, and provide invaluable advice on crafting a world of your very own.
This volume collects essays from the second year of the New Worlds Patreon.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone - I enjoyed Gladstone's Craft Sequence novels (though I still have to read the last 2 - there's just not enough time!) and am really excited about this collaboration.

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.
Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Book Review: Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World Edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond

Pros: lots of gorgeous full colour illustrations, essays on a variety of topics, thorough discussion on the evolution of bestiaries

Cons: some of the essays are dense

This is the guide that accompanies the exhibition “Book of Beasts” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit runs from May 14th to August 18th.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one is an introduction plus images and text for the 15 best known bestiary animals. Part two: Exploring the Bestiary is subdivided into The Bestiary in form and function (consisting of 6 essays and the first 28 catalogue listings) and The Bestiary Reimagined (two essays and 5 listings). Part three: Beyond the Bestiary is again subdivided, with catalogue listings after each essay. It’s sections are: Church and Court (3 essays) and Bestiaries and Natural History (4 essays). The epilogue is followed by the final catalogue listings and four appendices.

I found the first few essays of part 2 boring due to their dry and somewhat dense prose. There’s a fair amount of repetition in that most of these essays opened with similar background paragraphs on Bestiaries and their origins in the Greek book Physiologus. For me, the most interesting essay of this section was “Accommodating Antlers, Making Room for Hedgehogs, and Other Problems of Page Design in the Medieval Bestiary”. It was interesting learning how scribes and illustrators may have been working from different manuscripts and so their work didn’t always line up.

The later essays were much more interesting, both in style an content. There’s less minutiae about the manuscripts making them more accessible and I enjoyed learning new things about how bestiaries influenced other forms of art like maps and sculptures. I also appreciated that there were separate essays on Jewish and Muslim uses of animals in manuscripts. Those essays all felt too short, given the amount of information being discussed.

I liked that there are occasional ‘notes to the reader’ explaining some of the terms so that even those who haven’t studied manuscripts can understand the more scholarly language used. The notes for catalogue listings generally mentioned if a manuscript has been fully or partially digitized and is available online for further study. Unfortunately these notes are in such small text I’m afraid some readers will miss this information.

Catalogue images are all reproduced in colour and there was a good variety. I loved seeing the evolution of the genre and how the stories were reinterpreted in later works. I was surprised that some of the images were duplicated though. A page would be used to illustrate an essay and than that same page would be one of the images used to illustrated the catalogue listing for that manuscript. Given the fact that each manuscript only got one or two images, I would have expected different pages to be used each time in order to maximize the number of different images shown.

If you’re new to bestiaries this is an excellent primer, though you’ll have to work a bit to understand some of the terms. For those with some knowledge, it will increase it and suggest other works to examine. If you’re well versed in the subject the later essays don’t go far enough to suggest new avenues of study, though the earlier ones do an excellent job of showing what scholarship has been done and what still needs examination.

This looks like an excellent exhibit and I wish I could attend and see all of these manuscripts and artworks in person.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Video: Super-Hero-Bowl!

Ever wanted to see all your favourite superheroes battle it out to see who's the best? Toon Sandwich (part of ArtSpear Entertainment) has you covered.

Part 2, the Super-Villain-Bowl, is also fantastic.

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Book Review: Vessel by Lisa Nichols

Pros: great depiction of trauma, compelling story, interesting characters

Cons: not sure I believe the ending

Acting Commander Catherine Wells is the sole survivor of the presumed lost Sagittarius mission to TRAPPIST-1f, a planetary system on the other side of a warp hole. Her sudden return to Earth means NASA can better prepare the soon to depart Sagittarius II crew. Or it would, if she could remember what happened on the alien planet.

This is a quick read. The characters are all interesting, with the majority of the story focusing on Catherine returning to a husband and daughter who believed she was dead the past 6 years. There’s a lot for the book to unpack and the author does an excellent job of showing Catherine’s trauma regarding memory loss, extreme isolation for an extended period of time, survivor’s guilt for being the only member of her crew to survive, as well as the guilt over having been away from her family for so long.

The current memory lapses she has makes for a compelling storyline and I found myself rushing ahead to find out what was going on. I loved the periodic flashbacks to what happened on the Sagittarius I mission.

Once I found out what was happening some of that compulsion to finish the book dissipated. The closer the book got to the ending the less I believed how the higher ups at NASA were acting. The final acts of the protagonists seemed highly implausible and I had trouble believing NASA would go along with it considering the cost and time involved in implementing their plan.

On the whole it was an entertaining read, with some interesting twists though a somewhat unsatisfying ending.

Thursday 16 May 2019

Shout-Out: Donovan Series by W. Michael Gear

Book three of W. Michael Gear's Donovan series is now out and the series sounds fascinating.

Book 1: Outpost

Donovan is a world of remarkable wealth, a habitable paradise of a planet. It sounds like a dream come true. But Donovan's wealth comes at a price.
When the ship Turalon arrives in orbit, Supervisor Kalico Aguila discovers a failing colony, its government overthrown and the few remaining colonists now gone wild. Donovan offers the chance of a lifetime, one that could leave her the most powerful woman in the solar system. Or dead.
Planetside, Talina Perez is one of three rulers of the Port Authority colony—the only law left in the one remaining town on Donovan. With the Corporate ship demanding answers about the things she's done in the name of survival, Perez could lose everything, including her life.
For Dan Wirth, Donovan is a last chance. A psychopath with a death sentence looming over his head, he can't wait to set foot on Port Authority. He will make one desperate play to grab a piece of the action—no matter who he has to corrupt, murder, or destroy.
Captain Max Taggart has been The Corporation's "go-to" guy when it comes to brutal enforcement. As the situation in Port Authority deteriorates, he'll be faced with tough choices to control the wild Donovanians. Only Talina Perez stands in his way.
Just as matters spiral out of control, a ghost ship, the Freelander, appears in orbit. Missing for two years, she arrives with a crew dead of old age, and reeks of a bizarre death-cult ritual that deters any ship from attempting a return journey. And in the meantime, a brutal killer is stalking all of them, for Donovan plays its own complex and deadly game. The secrets of which are hidden in Talina Perez's very blood.

Book 2: Abandoned

Supervisor Kalico Aguila has bet everything on a fragile settlement far south of Port Authority. There, she has carved a farm and mine out of wilderness. But Donovan is closing in. When conditions couldn't get worse, a murderous peril descends out of Donovan's sky--one that will leave Kalico bleeding and shattered.
Talina Perez gambles her life and reputation in a bid to atone for ruthlessly murdering a woman's husband years ago. Ironically, saving Dya Simonov may save them all.
Lieutenant Deb Spiro is losing it, and by killing a little girl's pet alien, she may have precipitated disaster for all. In the end, the only hope will lie with a "lost" colony, and the alien-infested reflexes possessed by Security Officer Talina Perez.
On Donovan, only human beings are more terrifying than the wildlife.

Book 3: Pariah

Corporate assassin Tamarland Benteen's last hope is the survey ship Vixen. With a load of scientists aboard under the supervision of Dr. Dortmund Weisbacher, Vixen is tasked with the first comprehensive survey of the newly discovered planet called Donovan. Given that back in Solar System, Boardmember Radcek would have Benteen's brain dissected, he's particularly motivated to make his escape.
The transition that should have taken Vixen years is instantaneous. Worse, a space ship is already orbiting Donovan, and, impossibly, human settlements have been established on the planet. For Dortmund Weisbacher, this is a violation of the most basic conservation tenets. Donovan is an ecological disaster.
Down on Donovan, Talina Perez takes refuge in the ruins of Mundo Base with the wild child, Kylee Simonov. But the quetzals are playing their own deadly game: one that forces Talina and Kylee to flee farther into the wilderness. Too bad they're stuck with Dortmund Weisbacher in the process.
Back in Port Authority, Dan Wirth discovers that he's not the meanest or deadliest man on the planet. Tamarland Benteen is making his play for control of PA. And in the final struggle, if Benteen can't have it, he'll destroy it all.

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Graphic Novel Review: Lady Mechanika Vol 5: La Belle Dame Sans Merci by M. M. Chen and Joe Benitez

Pros: gorgeous artwork, interesting story, great costumes

Cons: depressing ending

Lady Mechanika’s quest to discover her past is sidetracked when Mr Lewis’s depression suddenly dissipates and he announces his engagement to a mysterious woman.

This volume collects the three comics that make up this storyline. It references some of the earlier volumes, but as situations and people are given enough reference, you can follow along even if you haven’t read those.

As with the other volumes, the artwork is gorgeous with some great steampunk costumes and a Victorian style setting. There are a few fight scenes with good action and a new female bad guy.

I found myself conflicted by the depression plotline. On the one hand I think the team did a great job of showing that it can take a long time for people who have suffered lost to recover. On the other hand, Lady Mechanika seems to have reached a point where she’s tired of Mr Lewis’s grief and just wants him to go back to being her occasional sidekick. I could actually understand his choice for marriage at the end of the volume and felt that Lady Mechanika took something from him and then left him alone to deal with the fallout at a point when he clearly needs intervention. The idea that he’ll just recover on his own - given enough time - is unfortunately rarely true in real life, and it would have been nice to see this acknowledged in the comic, maybe by sending him to a convalescent home or giving him a pet to care for (it’s possible this will be addressed in the next issue). But that last page with him is very depressing to read.

On the whole though, I thought it was a great volume.

Friday 10 May 2019

Spain part 4: Madrid

We didn’t have much time in Madrid. We finally got to see the tropical garden at Atocha train station (our 3rd time there). We spent several hours at the archaeology museum, which has a reproduction of part of the Altamira prehistoric cave paintings and the original Visigothic crowns (reproductions are at the Visigothic museum in Toledo). 

We took a stroll through El Retiro park in the evening.

Our last full day in Spain, we wandered the city, seeing some of its old squares, the palace gardens, and the Temple of Debod, an actual ancient Egyptian temple saved from destruction when the Aswan dam was created.

I visited a lot of smaller museums and churches and took TONS of pictures. If you're interested in hearing about some of those, or the larger sites in more detail, tell me and I'll do some deep dive posts.

Thursday 9 May 2019

Spain part 3: Toledo

I fell in love with Toledo when I was there in 2008. It’s a city on the hill, bordered on three sides by a river, and the fourth by a major highway. I wandered around for hours, happily getting lost. It was the end of my 3 week trip and I just couldn’t bring myself to see any of the major sights. So I knew I had to return. 

Toledo is a wonderful city, with its narrow streets and alleys, stairwells, old buildings, churches and museums every 2 feet. There are a number of gates still standing from when it was a Muslim city, as well as some rare remnants from its days as the Visigothic capital. It’s the perfect place to buy a sword or expensive knife, and monastic houses still make and sell sweets, including marzipan (almond paste). Marzipan can be made into sculptures that once graced medieval dessert tables, but now advertise for shops. 

A common way to enter the city is over the Alcantara bridge and gate, which funnels you through a switchback that was the first line of defence against attackers. 

The Jewish quarter has the remaining 2 synagogues in Spain, one of which is now part of the Sephardic museum (pictured below), the other was transformed into a Christian church and is now a museum. 

There’s also a Mosque that was converted into a church. The apse (rounded end) was added later, but the gorgeous ceiling and pillars are original. 

The Visigothic museum, housed in the painted San Roman church was worth a couple of hours. 

And the night views, both within and outside the city are incredible. The churches and castle are lit up and it looks awesome.

Wednesday 8 May 2019

Spain part 2: Cordoba

Our second stop was Cordoba. There was enough I wanted to see there that I didn’t want to do it as a day trip from Sevilla. Which turned out to be a good thing, as during the day Cordoba is PACKED with tourists. But at night and in the morning, the old Jewish quarter is blissfully empty. 

The synagogue - recently reopened after renovations - was gorgeous. It's one of 3 medieval synagogues remaining in Spain. It's remarkable that any of them survived, considering the forced conversion and then expulsion of Jews in 1492. It was packed when I was there during the day, so I stopped by in the evening and again the next morning to get more photos. Here’s the east wall (where the holy items would have been stored). 

I went to the Mesquita - the Visigothic church location upon which a Mosque was built, which was then turned into a Cathedral, twice. Once in the morning during the free hour before the service starts, and later in the day during the paid tourist time. Tour groups aren’t allowed in during the free opening time so I thought it would be quieter, but there were still a lot of tourists. I also climbed the bell tower (you need a timed ticket for this, as they only allow groups of 20 to go up every half hour) so I could get photos of the building from above. 

Cordoba’s Jewish quarter is known for its whitewashed walls and flower pots, especially calle de las flores (street of flowers). We were there too early for the patio festival, but we got to see the Posada del Potro, an old inn that’s been converted into a flamenco museum. There were a lot of beautiful open patios attached to restaurants, often with live entertainment in the evening. The quarter is sectioned off by a wall, parts of which still stand. 

At night we saw the Roman bridge and cathedral lit up. The next morning we had the traditional Spanish breakfast: churros con chocolat. The hot chocolate is quite thick, half way to being pudding, and really sticks to the churros. Soooo gooooooood.....

Tuesday 7 May 2019

Spain part 1: Sevilla

A few weeks back my husband and I went to Spain. I considered it a research trip as much as a vacation and so planned to visit a lot of churches, museums and other cultural monuments. Spain has such a varied, rich history so it was awesome being able to see more of it (I took a previous trip in 2008 during which I did the camino to Santiago de Compostela). 

We visited four cities: Sevilla, Cordoba, Toledo and Madrid. I’d been to Toledo and Madrid before but the other places were new. I may do individual posts for some of the highlights, where I go into more depth on specific sights. For this week, I’ll be doing a post per city, starting with Sevilla.

Sevilla’s old city centre, where we stayed, is a warren of narrow, cobbled streets. Bring a device with GPS, not just a paper map, as each junction is a new opportunity to get lost. After successfully navigating most of the area one night, I spent 30 minutes walking around constantly missing the turn for my hotel. The streets are so narrow you have to squish up against the walls when a car comes by.

I noticed these… wheels? set into the walls in several locations of the old city. I have no idea what they are or what they were for. If someone else does, please tell me.

We were there only a few months after the completion of the renovation and cleaning of the Giralda bell tower (one of the few remaining pieces of the great mosque that was converted into the cathedral), so it looked amazing (and was no longer covered in scaffolding). 

 I started the trip by taking the rooftop tour of the cathedral. Spain is one of the few places where some cathedrals were built with stone roofs so you can actually walk on parts of them. The views are magnificent, not only of the city, but of the structural features of the building. Some of the architect markings for the original build are still visible! The interior is also gorgeous.

The real alcazar (palace) was magnificent. We got to bypass the line by getting tickets in advance. While not as grand as the Alhambra, it’s got some great courtyards and beautiful rooms. And the gardens are exquisite. 

When walking along the river we passed the torre del oro, the 13th C Moorish ‘golden’ tower. In the past a chain connected it to a tower on the other side of the river, to control the passage of ships on the river for trade purposes. Outside the castle ruins just off the river, is the last passage condemned heretics walked. 

The old city has a surprising number of churches, many of which have mudejar (hispanic/moresque) architecture. Like this dome ceiling from one of the side chapels of St Marina.

We had gelato by the cathedral for dessert one night. I love how the ice cream is topped with whatever the flavour is (especially chocolaty flavours, giving you some extra goodness).

The next night we had tapas for dinner. I'd heard Sevilla was the place for tapas, but wasn't sure I was confident enough to order them (I'd also heard you have to be assertive to order them as the bars/restaurants get busy, and my Spanish is atrocious). But we found a nice place near our hotel and ordering was a breeze (they had an English menu and everything). The food was delicious. We got: garlic mushrooms, fried breaded eggplant with cane sugar (LOVED them!), cheese croquettes, an egg on potatoes with grilled peppers, and (not pictured) chicken skewers. Each plate was only 3 Euro, so the meal for the 2 of us was quite cheap.