Tuesday 29 September 2020

Book Review: The Jew, the Cathedral, & the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the13th Century by Nina Rowe

Pros: lots of black and white photographs, several maps, detailed explanations, enough historical background to fit the works into their setting


The book is separated into two parts, the first being the historical background of Jews in medieval European society, specifically how Christian writers addressed their continuing presence and necessity while condemning them for not accepting Christianity. This section also goes over some of the Jewish writings of the time, how their interpretations of the Talmud changed and their polemics regarding Christians. Finally this section examines the development of female personifications in the ancient world into Christian personifications of Church (Ecclesia) and Synagogue (Synagoga). Part two consists of the three case studies on Reims, Bamberg, and Strasbourg. These are the first 3 cities to include life sized sculptures of Church and Synagogue on their cathedral portals.

The first section of the book is informative and lays good groundwork fo the rest of the book and anyone interested in jewish-Christian relations in the middle ages. While other authors shy away from mentioning Jewish polemics and how certain Jewish practices could be seen as mocking Christianity (whether or not that was the intent) sheds important light on the complexities of the period. Jews were not passive victims, nor did their own scholarship lag into the Christian portrayal of preserving scripture for the Christians to use. Their society was vibrant, educated, and engaged with the times.

The case studies are highly detailed with a lot of excellent black and white photographs illustrating the author’s points. If you’re not interested in the minutiae of what sculpture specific workshops were responsible for or how the smile of an angle on one cathedral is similar to that of another, the chapters are still useful for the historical data regarding how Christians utilized the spaces (for example, the portals with these statues tended to be where ecclesiastical judgements were made and punishments meted out). I also appreciated learning how the Jews fit into the city better, how close they lived to the cathedrals and how this would have affected them.

If you’re interested in Jewish-Christian relations, life in the middle ages, or cathedrals and medieval art, this is an excellent book.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

The Warp Zone: Harry Potter: Hogwarts in 2020

The Warp Zone has put together a hilarious video of what Hogwarts schooling would look like under Covid 19 social distancing (ie, at home, with classes on zoom). 

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Book Review: Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford

Pros: lots of images and maps, so much good information

Cons: dense, took me several weeks to read

The book consists of 8 chapters: The transformation of trade; Courts and consumers; From court to counting house; Helps and hindrances to trade; Trade in manufactured goods; Trade in foodstuffs, raw materials and slaves; Imbalances in trade; and Conclusion: the pattern of trade.

The book on the whole goes into the nitty gritty of all aspects of trade, so if you’re not interested in how long it took for couriers to go from one place to another vs the same route travelled by a 4 wheeled wagon, 2 wheeled wagon, or pack animal, then this isn’t for you.

I found the writing style rather dry and academic at times. At other times it grabbed my interest, even if the section wasn’t on a topic I was particularly interested in. For example, I found the sections of the cost of road maintenance and who was expected to perform and pay for it really interesting.

Each chapter is subdivided, though unless you know where the information you want is located, you may not find it easily. For example, the section on how quickly couriers can travel isn’t in the same chapter as that of wheeled wagons, though the author does put in page numbers at times to help you find complementary information. I tried to return to an interesting paragraph about bridge building done by merchants and experienced some frustration as it wasn’t in any of the sections labelled as being about bridges, but in a section called ‘Commercial pressure for improvement’.

If trade in the middle ages is of particular interest to you than you will learn a lot about it here. If you’re interested in fleshing out a novel, again, there are some real gems though you may find it a bit tiresome locating them.

A few things I learned: some merchants paid innkeepers to store and repack good, then arrange transit to the next inn. Rooms in inns contained several beds separated by curtains and travellers found themselves sharing beds with strangers. Merchants braved passes in the Alps during the winter, even when the passes were dangerous. In some cases merchant houses paid for repairs (and even the building) of bridges if the communities responsible for them neglected them. Cities quickly grew up around fairs, and died out quickly if those fairs moved. Though inns were profitable businesses, hospices (hostels for pilgrims or the poor/hospitals), even when properly run, were not. Slaves were traded by Southern Italians from the 1300s on, and owning them was only illegal if they were Christians (and some, captured in the Balkans, were). The children of slaves were free, so there was no ‘self-perptuating’ market.

Chapter 5 on where and how trade goods were manufactured was very interesting. Each section was fairly short but packed in a ton of information. Chapter 6 on bulk trade items (things like raw wool and grain) was also interesting, talking about which goods were worth transporting and how larger cities needed to import food as the local areas couldn’t support them.

The book has a large number of black and white as well as colour images illustrating medieval processes. These are often later woodcuts, manuscript images or close-ups of the background in paintings where painters added scenes from daily life. There is also a lot of maps so it’s easy to understand the various trade routes and manufacturing centres.

It took a while to read as the information is very dense, but it’s worth the time and effort and you’ll come away knowing a lot more about the interconnectedness of the medieval world.

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Book Review: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Pros: very tense, interesting characters

Cons: is a bit gory at times

Ten years ago four friends went into the forbidden elder’s section of the reservation for their end of season elk hunt. Now the spirit of one of the elk they killed is back for revenge.

This is the first contemporary fiction book I’ve read in years so it took me a while to get into (in part because I’m not conversant with the shorthand for car names so spent some time trying to figure out what the character was talking about). The book is split into 4 sections, each dealing with a different point of view character involved with the elk event.

I wasn’t a fan of Ricky and Gabe, but really enjoyed reading Lewis and Cassidy’s stories, hoping they could shake the horror coming their way. The pacing was great, really ratcheting up the tension in all the right places.

In the first sections the author makes you doubt what’s going on, especially with Lewis. Is there really an elk spirit or is he having a psychotic break from reality? Either way things get horrifying fast. I almost stopped reading it was getting so intense.

While the horror is mostly one of anticipation, there is some gore. Thankfully the descriptions aren’t overly graphic. Part of the earlier horror is simply seeing the level of everyday, casual racism natives face. The characters are constantly double checking their surroundings for danger, ignoring slights, conscious of how ‘native’ their actions appear, due to criticism from others: natives and non-natives alike, for being both too native and not native enough. There’s a strong undertone that no matter what the characters do it will never be ‘enough’, whatever ‘enough’ even means. Because the characters aren’t just up against the supernatural, they’re against the biases and prejudices of themselves and everyone around them.

I was shocked by some of the people who died. Which made the ending, that last section, very tense. I DID NOT want that character to die. Not this way. I was on the edge of my seat urging them on, not to give up, just one more step.

The ending fits the story.

If you can handle horror this year (no shame if you can’t, 2020’s horror enough for a lot of us), this is a good read.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Books Received in August, 2020

Many thanks to the publishers that sent me books for review last month.

The Vanished Queen by Lisbeth Campbell - Sounds like an interesting story. 

When a country is held in thrall to a vicious, despotic king, it’s up to one woman to take him down.

Long ago, Queen Mirantha vanished. King Karolje claimed it was an assassination by a neighboring king, but everyone knew it was a lie. He had Disappeared her himself.

But after finding the missing queen’s diary, Anza—impassioned by her father’s unjust execution and inspired by Mirantha’s words—joins the resistance group to overthrow the king. When an encounter with Prince Esvar thrusts her into a dangerous game of court politics, one misstep could lead to a fate worse than death.

Esvar is the second son to an evil king. Trapped under his thumb and desperate for a way out, a chance meeting with Anza gives him the opportunity to join the resistance. Together, they might have the leverage to move against the king—but if they fail, their deaths could mean a total loss of freedom for generations to follow.

The First Sister by Linden Lewis - I've actually read this but chose not to review. I thought the first 2/3 of the book were interesting but that the ending didn't land. I had some issues with the world building, especially towards the end.

First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.

The Year's Best Science Fiction vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 Edited by Jonathan Strahan - Coming out September 8th the line-up for this collection is excellent.

A must-have collection of the best short science fiction and speculative fiction of 2019, showcasing brilliant talent and examining the cultural moment we live in, compiled by award-winning editor Jonathan Strahan.

With short works from some of the most lauded science fiction authors, as well as rising stars, this collection displays the top talent and the cutting-edge cultural moments that affect our lives, dreams, and stories. Authors include past award-winners Rebecca Roanhorse, Ken Liu, Carmen Maria Machado, Aliette de Boddard, Kim Stanley Robinson, Yoon Ha Lee, and Ted Chiang.

An assemblage of future classics, this anthology is a must-read for anyone who enjoys the vast and exciting world of science fiction.