Saturday 31 December 2022

2022 My Reading Year in Review

I've done a lot more non-fiction reading the past few years, so the number of books I finished is smaller than I'd like, though I did read some fantastic books. I only managed 28 books, 15 of which were history or history adjacent (like a cookbook and a book on gardens). For SF/F/H I read 13, only 1 science fiction and 12 various fantasy (6 general fantasy, 3 urban fantasy and 3 historical fantasy).

The books I enjoyed the most were for fiction:

The City of Dark by Tara Sim (my review)

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher (my review)

Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire (Comes out in Jan, 2023 so my review isn't posted yet.)

For non-fiction:

The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel (my review)

The Rose Window by Painton Cowen (I didn’t end up reviewing this for my blog (sometimes I just want to enjoy books without breaking them down). Though it came out in the 70s, it has some great information about the possible origins of Cathedral rose windows and gave me a few churches to check out during my recent trip to France.)

I'm still fully into non-fiction books, so I expect my reading numbers next year will be similar to this year's. I'm hoping to take a trip to Italy, so I'll be deep diving into more Italian history and medieval primary sources (I'm slowly making my way through the Decameron). I'm also hoping to put up more photos from France but that will depend on time as I have a lot of touch-up work on those to do. I'm torn between trying to finish France stuff while also looking towards prepping for Italy.

I hope you've all had a great year. Hopefully 2023 will be a fantastic year, with less war and illness. 

Thursday 29 December 2022

Books Received in November and December 2022

Many thanks to the publishers who sent me books to review the last 2 months. 

Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling - Set in Canada, it sounds pretty interesting.

In a near-future northern settlement, a handful of climate change survivors find their fates intertwined in this mesmerizing and transportive novel in the vein of Station Eleven and The Power.

America, 2049: Summer temperatures are intolerably high, the fossil fuel industry has shut down, and humans are implanted with a ‘Flick’ at birth, which allows them to remain perpetually online. The top echelons of society live in Floating Cities off the coast, while people on the mainland struggle to survive. For Rose, working as a hostess in the city’s elite club feels like her best hope for a better future.

When a high-profile client offers Rose a job as an escort at an American building project in northern Canada called Camp Zero, in return for a home for her displaced mother and herself, she accepts it. But her real assignment is to secretly monitor the mercurial architect in charge.

Rose quickly secures the trust of her target; but in the north, she begins to sense a new way forward, and her objective shifts. Through skillfully entwined perspectives including a young professor longing to escape his wealthy family, and the collective voice of an all-female US military brigade at a climate research station, the fate of the Camp and its select inhabitants comes into stunning relief. Atmospheric, original, and utterly gripping, Camp Zero interrogates the seductive and chilling notion of a utopia; asks who and what will survive as global tensions rise; and imagines how love may sustain us.
Culinary Travels by Emily Szajda - This is a fun cookbook with recipes from around Europe. I've reviewed it here

A map of flavors, aromas and evocations from across the European continent and beyond, Emily Szajda takes you on a culinary journey traversing borders. In this narrative cookbook, you will encounter healthy adaptations of traditional recipes from her travels and life abroad along with stories and takeaways on how food, the simple act of breaking bread, creates an experience. It has the power to tear down walls and create a space for conversation, understanding, and memory. Awaken your senses and relish the moment. From an afternoon tea with fresh baked scones and clotted cream at the St. James Hotel in London to a plate of delectable truffled risotto with osso bucco in Rome, food is not merely sustenance, a part of the human existence but an act of love and fellowship. Please be my guest. Learn how to have a soulful, interactive relationship with food that not only fills your belly but your heart and mind. Take time. Pull up a seat at my table. Let's eat!

Dragonfall by L. R. Lam - I haven't read a good dragon fantasy novel in ages. Really looking forward to this one. Out in May 2023.

Long-banished dragons, revered as gods, return to the mortal realm in the first in this magical new epic fantasy trilogy from a bestselling author

Long ago, humans betrayed dragons, stealing their magic and banishing them to a dying world. Centuries later, their descendants worship dragons as gods. But the "gods" remember, and they do not forgive.

Thief Arcady scrapes a living on the streets of Vatra. Desperate, Arcady steals a powerful artifact from the bones of the Plaguebringer, the most hated person in Lumet history. Only Arcady knows the artifact's magic holds the key to a new life among the nobles at court and a chance for revenge.

The spell connects to Everen, the last male dragon foretold to save his kind, dragging him through the Veil. Disguised as a human, Everen soon learns that to regain his true power and form and fulfil his destiny, he only needs to convince one little thief to trust him enough to bond completely--body, mind, and soul--and then kill them.

Yet the closer the two become, the greater the risk both their worlds will shatter.

Tuesday 20 December 2022

Cookbook Review: Culinary Travels: Memories Made at the Table by Emily Szajda

I've something different for the blog today, a cookbook review. There seem to be a few standard meals in fantasy novels: stew at inns and feasts for nobles. We sometimes forget the sheer variety of food available around the world and the cleverness of humans in preparing similar ingredients in different ways. This cookbook shares recipes from around Europe and shows that even cultures that are geographically close can have widely varying menus.

There’s no table of contents. The book starts with a brief introductory prologue. Each chapter deals with a specific country/region and begins with a little introduction. The chapters are: Germany, Austria, & Switzerland (11 recipes, including 2 deserts and a drink); Italy (14); England & Ireland (9); France (12); Belgium (9); Spain (10); and Poland (12).

The chapters vary in number of recipes as well as their variety. The book as a whole includes quite a few seafood recipes, a few meat recipes, a decent number of vegetarian recipes, and deserts from each region. It includes well known regional specialties (Belgian waffles, pierogi, French onion soup) as well as less familiar options. There’s also a good mix of simple recipes to more complex fare.

Each recipe is accompanied by a photograph, mostly of the finished dish though a few have photos at a later stage in the cooking process.

I made two recipes, tortilla Española (sweet potato omlet) and surówka z marchewki z jabłkiem (carrot salad with apples). The instructions were easy to follow and both tasted very good (I did half yellow and half sweet potatoes for the tortilla).

The chapter introductions often mention the importance of slowing down in life and travel to experience the moment and really savour your food. Always a useful reminder.

It’s a nice cookbook with a good variety of recipes from around Europe.

Tuesday 13 December 2022

Video: The Roots of Magic Signs

Last month I stumbled across a kickstarter campaign to make a sourcebook for magic signs (sigils, etc). The author has done a couple of youtube videos on the topic, including the one below. I find magic a fascinating topic. So much time and effort has gone into carving amulets and blessing or curse tablets, praying to or trying to manipulate higher powers for aid, creating formulas, symbols, potions, etc. It's also interesting how older traditions got folded into religions.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Book Review: Babel by R. F. Kuang

Pros: thought provoking, great characters, fascinating discussions

Cons: ending gets brutal, tension drags on

When Robin is saved from cholera in Canton and brought to England his life becomes one of study and languages. He’s sent to Oxford’s translation department, where silver bars are inscribed with words that - like magic - power much of Britain’s modernization. The others in his program have also suffered to be a part of it. But they realize their successes are designed to only benefit the British Empire, not the homelands they were torn from and whose languages the silverworking magic is based on.

This is a brilliant book. I found the frequent etymological breakdown of words and the discussions on translation fascinating. The author did an excellent job of showing the fallacies of colonialist thought. It was such a thought provoking story.

The characters were all well fleshed out. Robin is such a conflicted character, not fitting into white society but also no longer Chinese. Told to feel grateful for the opportunities he’s been given but aware that he’s been given no choice regarding his future. I loved Ramy and Victoire and their perspectives on things. I wasn’t as keen on Letty, but she was still an interesting character. I appreciated that we get to see interludes from their perspectives, giving more information about their backgrounds and allowing us to see what led to their convictions.

Towards the end of the book the tension ramps up. It stays high so long though that I found myself needing a break from the book. There is a section of the book towards the end that gets quite brutal, with a lot of people dying in quick succession. It’s not overly graphic, though there is a torture scene. The book also contains period accurate slurs which may be distressing to read.

The book has footnotes, which is great as they give some authorial asides and additional information that’s not essential for the story but fun nonetheless. They also make the book feel more scholarly. They are marked by as star (*) after the text. Clicking the mark is supposed to hyperlink you to the explanatory note at the back of the book. Unfortunately, the first time I tried this is just turned the page, so I didn’t realize it worked (I guess you have to be very careful to hit the star). I ended up using bookmarks to flip between them, but the footnotes aren’t numbered, so I had to be careful to check each one and move my bookmarks so I didn’t lose my place in the 100+ pages of footnotes.

If you like languages and alternate history, though brutal at times, this is a brilliant read you’ll be thinking of for some time after you close the book.

Saturday 3 December 2022

Topaz Sharpen AI Thoughts

I recently came back from a research trip to France. I took... tens of thousands of photographs using a 10+ year old camera. It's focusing ability wasn't as good as it used to be, nor are my eyes or my ability to hold it super steady. So taking photos in low light cathedral interiors and museums means I came home with a larger than I'd like number of blurry photos. :(

So I was intrigued when I saw an ad for Topaz Sharpen AI. The reviews I saw for the program were pretty impressive and it turned out my husband had used some of their products in the past. So I got their free trial download (it's the full program that puts a watermark in the centre of test photos) and tested it. I was impressed enough that I bought it, and the Denoise AI program during their black friday/cyber monday sale.

I don't know enough about other similar editing programs, and I've only been playing with it for a few days, so this isn't a review. It's just some observations of how well the software has worked with the photos I've tried it on.

To start, the successes. The software gives 3 levels of sharpening: motion (camera shake or subject movement), out of focus, and softness. Photos that are just slightly blurry with clear lines are the easiest to fix. Here's an example of stained glass (I didn't choose the entire frame, so the section on the left didn't get sharpening), and a Virgin & Child statue. (Click on any image to scroll through larger versions of all the photos.)

Blurry original stained glass.
Sharpened stained glass of Salome dancing before Herod.

Blurry Virgin & Child

Sharpened Virgin & Child

The photo that sold me on the program though, was this one. I had to go very heavy on the anti-blur as I otherwise ended up with Mary having extra ghost fingers, but I'm very happy with how this one turned out. I also ran it through Denoise AI to make it look even better. I did find that their combined 'Photo AI' didn't do as good a job with this photo as the individual programs. I guess trying to de-noise & sharpen in the order Photo AI uses didn't seem to jive with this specific example. I couldn't get rid of the ghost fingers no matter what I tried. I love medieval ivories, so fixing this photo was amazing.

Original ivory of the Annunciation

Sharpened & de-noised ivory of the Annunciation

As a historian I need to warn that with some fixes important detail is lost. So the photos can no longer be used as pure representations of the original (as much as a photo can in the first place). For example, I was able to make the following 2 photos usable from a general standpoint, but if you zoom in you can see that the detail isn't there. In the cathedral facade's sharpened image, you can see that the trefoils at the top still have some ghost effects showing the blur.

Original light show on the west facade of Amiens cathedral. 

Sharpened west facade of Amiens.

Crop showing a lack of detail (though, part of this is also due to the light show, which created a shadow on the figures).
Original photo of prayer bead with Virgin & Child.

Sharpened prayer bead.

Zoomed in image of sharpened prayer bead. 

You can clearly see how the program smeared the faces in the zoomed in prayer bead. I kind of like how the queen below Mary has become more skeletal, but this no longer reflects the true detail of the bead.

If there's too much blur the program is unable to fix it at all. I had a few failures and a few photos that turned out better than the originals, but still not usable.

It's always best to get a properly focused and sharp image in camera. But if you can't, this program does a shockingly good job on making slightly blurry photos usable. Is it worth it for you? Try out the software first. I'm just stoked that I can save some of my trip photos. :)