Friday, 23 June 2017

History Book Review: Illuminating Women in the Medieval World by Christine Sciacca

Pros: lots of colour illustrations, good explanations

Cons: 

This is an examination of medieval women as depicted in illuminated manuscripts. There’s a short forward by Timothy Potts, the Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, followed by the Introduction. There are four chapters: Medieval Ideals of Womanhood, Warnings to Medieval Women, Medieval Women in Daily Life and Medieval Women in the Arts. At the end there’s a short epilogue and some suggestions for further reading. The book is 120 pages, and there are 100 illustrations.

The chapters start with a short explanation followed by a large number of illustrations. Each image has a good descriptive explanation that often gives context and/or insights into the medieval mind. I was impressed to see an Ethiopian and a Persian image in the Ideals of Womanhood chapter, as well as a few Hebrew manuscripts represented. The images depict a wide variety of women from a good mix of sources. There are saints, Biblical scenes, scenes of romance, giving birth, patrons praying, etc. Some of the sources are book of hours, prayer books, hymnals, medical and history texts, a book of law codes, etc.

The Warnings chapter opens with a brief foray into nude female imagery and the male readership for whom those images were generally commissioned, something I had never considered before. There are several other interesting tidbits that give greater depth to the people who made and used the manuscripts.


I found this a wonderful read. It’s an introductory volume and so accessible to anyone interested in learning more about the middle ages and the role of women.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Shout-Out: Soleri by Michael Johnston

Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister's help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god's cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Video: Honest Trailer for Aliens

I've been watching Honest Trailers, by Screen Junkies, for years. They're entertaining, spoilery examinations of movies. Aliens is my favourite film and their analysis is spot on.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Book Review: Shattered Minds by Laura Lam

Pros: diverse cast, interesting plot

Cons: minimal world-building

Carina is a zeal addict, living her life plugged into her dreams where she slowly kills virtual people. When a former co-worker uploads coded packets of information into her brain that will help take down her previous employer, she’s not sure she’s capable of sobering up and not becoming a monster in the real world.

This book is set in the same world as the author’s previous novel, False Hearts. While some characters overlap, Shattered Minds works perfectly on its own. 

Carina’s a fascinating character. Having information tied to her memories was a clever idea, and allowed for some great development. I was surprised by how much I liked her considering she had very little emotion, had constant urges to kill, and spent the first part of the book heavily addicted. But then, I also enjoyed seeing the world from Roz’s point of view, and she’s a pretty terrible person. Her scenes didn’t make me relate to her at all, but sometime’s its nice to read about bad guys who are truly evil.

The cast is pretty diverse with one character a native american trans man, which isn’t something you read often. Dax was probably my favourite character, considerate, competent, cool under pressure.

I had mixed feelings about the romantic elements of the book. I liked the pairing, and the text makes it clear that the two find each other attractive. But given Carina’s inability to feel anything other than pleasure at the thought of killing, I didn’t really get the gut feeling that she was even capable of any kind of intimate relationship. I appreciated that things moved slowly, but there was one scene that felt like it happened too early and so didn’t give the emotional satisfaction that it should have. At this point they knew each other better but still didn’t have the emotional connection such a scene requires. Oddly enough, had the author waited a bit, there was a place where I think that would have fit better (see more on this in the spoiler section).  

While I felt the author knew how this world worked, there were times when it would have helped to understand more of what makes Pacifica tick. Towards the end of the book there’s a throwaway comment about the potential consequences of taking down Sudice, of how society could unravel because the company’s tied into so many things. This would have been good to bring up earlier. In fact, the comment states that the group has discussed this issue, though the reader never sees any of these discussions. It’s a failure of world-building because as a readier I didn’t realize the full import of the company they want to bring down and that the Trust’s actions might not be as black and white as they’re being portrayed. Knowing what Sudice does, and how the world would be impacted would have added more depth and complexity to the characters, and the show how difficult the decision they’re making really is.

The book is paced well so there’s a good mix of action and down time. The mystery of what Roz is doing and how the Trust can take her down is quite entertaining, and there are a good number of twists to keep things interesting.

On the whole I enjoyed the book.


***SPOILERS***

















I think Carina and Dax slept together too early. While you get scenes from his point of view, you never see him question the wisdom of starting a relationship with a woman who has urges to kill and how he (or they) would deal with this. The scene at the end I refer to in my review is after Carina has Roz at her mercy and chooses not to kill her. The two talk about where things are headed between them. Given that Dax now knows she can control her negative urges better, this felt like a more natural place for their first sexual encounter. As a reader, this is also where I felt they connected better on an emotional level.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Short Story Review: Darkness Upon the Deep by Hristo Goshev

Aurora Wolf Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6

Philip Carter is a Valkyrie pilot on the interstellar destroyer Bastion. When a surprise attack and emergency jump leave his best friend behind - certainly dead - and the crew stranded in some unknown space, morale breaks down and Phil has to confront some unpleasant truths about himself.

It’s an interesting science fiction story with a clear underlying sense of dread. You really feel for Phil, for his loss, and even his desire to redeem himself. You learn just enough about the enemy they’re fighting to make their pre-jump situation dire, and enough about their new situation to understand why things are falling apart. It’s quite engaging.

You can read it online here.


Friday, 16 June 2017

Movie Review: Mad Max

Directed by George Miller, 1979

Pros: great costumes, shows soft-apocalypse, good world-building

Cons: slow, limited plot, sometimes boring

A few years into the future, Australia is slowly falling into anarchy. Max is a cop in a world where the law has little power. When a car chase leads to the death of an important gang member, the gang starts going after the police and eventually draw Max’s ire.

I never saw this growing up, though I did see the other films. I didn’t remember much of them though, so I had certain expectations that were shattered watching this. The first surprise of the film was that it wasn’t the post-apocalyptic setting of the later films. Society still exists in some recognizable ways, though it’s quickly crumbing as police become more brutal and courts have less power. It reminded me of Octavia Butler’s collapsing world in Parable of the Sower

The second surprise was how long it took for Max to go on his rampage. The precipitating event wasn’t hard to guess, but it kept getting deferred, which I must say created more tension than I suspect was intended. 

I loved the costumes, particularly the cops’ leather uniforms. The world-building was pretty good too. I liked that there were still institutions, but that their power was lessened. The bureaucracy shows up once when it comes to buying new police equipment and the costs involved. I was surprised at how willing Max’s wife was to go off on her own, which implied that things had deteriorated at a rate that meant people still felt relatively safe, despite the roving gangs. There are hints of the future wars over gasoline, and some good car chases.

While the slow pacing allowed the viewer to get to know the characters, there were several parts of the film that were kind of boring. I really expected the action to start sooner and the ‘hunt’ to take longer.

I was horrified by the treatment of the couple’s son. When he’s first shown, the toddler is sitting on the floor playing with Max’s gun. Seat belts weren’t really a concern when the film was made, but even so, in one scene he’s kind of tossed into the back trunk area of their station wagon. Then, after a traumatic experience, the wife (girlfriend?) take a good ten minutes to remember he exists and goes looking for him. 

As a content warning, the film is rated R, with some nudity and a heavily implied rape scene.


I can understand why it’s not considered one of the better Mad Max films, but I’m glad I finally saw it.  

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Shout-Out: Want by Cindy Pon

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.
With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.
Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart?

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Video: Bach's "Gott ist mein Konig" in St. Mary's Church, Muhlhausen

A friend posted this on my facebook wall and I thought it was awesome, so I'm sharing it here. This is performed by the Michaelstein Telemann Chamber Orchestra in Saint Mary's Church, Muhlhausen Germany. Doing a bit of research on the church, it's 14th - 15th century, made from local limestone.

This cantata, "Gott ist mein Konig" (God is my King) was written to mark the Council Election, and premiered at this church in 1708.

The singing and playing are beautiful, and there's some great camera work highlighing the church. If you want to see more, part 2 is here.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Book Review: The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett

Pros: conflicted characters, good world-building

Cons: not hard SF

Earth spent years forcing thousands of people to emigrate to other inhabitable worlds as the population grew out of control. Jamie Allenby was living on Soltaire, at the edge of inhabited space, when the plague came through. The survival rate of zero point zero zero zero one percent haunts her as she makes her way to the space port in hopes of finding other survivors. As others emerge, they head towards Earth, unsure of what they’re looking for or how life will carry on. 

I found Jamie an interesting character. In many ways she reminded me of Millicent, the protagonist in Mishell Baker’s Borderline. She’s not particularly likeable, but because you’re seeing her thoughts and feelings (and occasional flashbacks), you understand why she’s making the decisions she is, and why she has trouble letting people get close. Jamie slowly comes to understand what she’s looking for, but I suspect some readers will find her constant questioning herself and where she’s going with her life frustrating. I felt this frustration myself a time or two towards the end of the book, especially when she’s trying to get others to join their group despite making it clear that she thinks people should do what they want and joining the group isn’t what those people want to do. 

Most of the supporting characters are conflicted too, not sure what this new world holds, whether it’s better to return to the old way of doing things or hope for something new. Rena annoyed me, but I think she was supposed to. I appreciated the author including an autistic young man in with the main group of survivors. 

I liked that different views of how the world should continue were offered by different groups. It didn’t surprise me that societal classes would survive the apocalypse. One of the groups they encountered did surprise me though, with their adherence to an even older age. 

Some sections of the book are designed to get you to think deeply about life: what it means, where humanity is headed, etc. This was undercut by Jamie’s constant waffling though, never sure of what she wanted and feeling at one with the universe for a moment and then doubting the emotion the next.

The world-building was pretty good. Callan’s history especially grounded the world for me, in all its cruelty. 

This isn’t hard SF. While there are lags for communication transmissions, there’s no time dilation affecting space travel and it only takes a day or two to get between worlds, with no explanation of how the ship is navigating the distances so quickly. Because Jamie was constantly questioning her decisions, it made me wonder how things would have changed for her if moving from one planet to the next meant years or decades would have passed for those she left behind, so that there was no going back, no reconciliation. How would things have changed for her if these decisions were permanent once she left? Would she have been happier? Would she have stayed on Earth? On Alegria? Would she have found the personal space she needed some other way? Or would she still have ended up on Soltaire, conflicted about the decisions she’d made with her life? 

It was an interesting debut. It posed some good questions and while it wasn’t perfect, it kept me turning pages.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Polychromy in Classical and Gothic Art

A few days ago I read a really good article by Sarah Bond on why it's important we start seeing Classical artwork the way it originally was - in colour. The article points out that the Renaissance looked at classical art - what was by their time uncoloured marble - and found its aesthetic ideal. They did not know (unlike us) that originally these white marble statues were vibrantly (even gaudily) painted.

From Wikimedia Commons: Istanbul Archaeological Museum - A modern reconstruction of the polychromy of troyan archer of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 485–480 BC. On a loan from the Glyptotek in Munich, for the Bunte Götter exhibition. Picture by: Giovanni Dall'Orto May 28 2006.

What the article did not point out, much to my surprise (probably due to space constraints), was that this turn towards Classical art was a response to - and rejection of - the current art style, what they termed 'Gothic'.

'Gothic' is named after the Visigoths, a 'barbarian' tribe that invaded what is now Italy, sacking Rome twice and bringing the final end to the Roman Empire in the West.

Its easy to forget when looking at cathedrals today that Gothic sculpture was also fully painted. The clean marble we admire, would have looked just as garish to modern (and Renaissance) viewers as Classical sculpture when it was first made. But the Renaissance artists didn't realize that.

Every generation tends to reject what came before in some way or another. Sometimes it's a complete backlash that vilifies the previous era. Sometimes it's more subtle. Consider, would you want a house decorated in 60s style?


While it's strange to see fully painted Classical artwork, we need to accept that our aesthetic ideal isn't the same as that of people from the past. And looking at a fully painted church - the restored and recently cleaned Saint Chapelle royal chapel in Paris - excessive painting can look beautiful under the right conditions. Here are some photos I took when I visited in 2015.


The first picture shows the lower chapel. Both it and the upper chapel in photo 2 share a blue painted ceiling with gold fleur-de-lis, but the upper chapel photo is too dark to properly see it. The stained glass means the entire upper chapel is bathed in coloured light.


The statuary along the walls is vibrantly coloured, and rather than looking gaudy, the whole together is quite magnificently beautiful. It perfectly captures the Gothic art goals of coming to God through light and colour.

While I wouldn't advocate painting all the sculpture in Cathedrals and museums, I do think it would be helpful to see more artists renditions of what they would have looked like. I'd love to see the same for Classical artworks.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Shout-Out: The Moon and the Other by John Kessel

In the middle of the twenty-second century, over three million people live in underground cities below the moon's surface. One city-state, the Society of Cousins, is matriarchy, where men are supported in any career choice, and can have all the sex they want, but no right to vote-and tensions are beginning to flare as outside political intrigues increase. After participating in a rebellion that caused his mother's death, Erno has been exiled from the Society of Cousins. Now, he is living in the Society's rival colony, Persepolis, when he meets and marries Amestris, the defiant daughter of the richest man on the moon. Mira, a rebellious loner in the Society, creates graffiti videos that challenge the Society's political domination. She is hopelessly in love with Carey, the exemplar of male privilege. An Olympic champion in low-gravity martial arts and known as the most popular bedmate in the Society, Carey's more suited to being a boyfriend than a parent, even as he tries to gain custody of his teenage son. When the Organization of Lunar States sends a team to investigate the condition of men in the Society, Erno sees an opportunity to get rich, Amestris senses an opportunity to escape from her family, Mira has a chance for social change, and Carey can finally become independent of the matriarchy that considers him a perpetual adolescent. But when Society secrets are revealed, the first moon war erupts, and everyone must decide what is truly worth fighting for.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

LGBT+ StoryBundle

Story Bundle has their new DRM free ebook bundle up, and it's full of LGBT+ goodness for Pride Month. The curator of this bundle, Melissa Scott, has this to say about the offerings:
First, no novels in which being queer means you're evil, nor any in which it's a doomed and tragic fate. There are places for the latter, but this is June and Pride Month, and I want to share books that celebrate queerness. I've also decided to focus on small press offerings, as they are more likely to be overlooked than books from the mainstream houses. I've tried to pick newer novels, and to reintroduce some older writers, and in general to include books and writers who you might not have seen yet.

Here's what you can get (copied from the email), learn more about each book on the website.

The initial titles in the LGBT+ Bundle (minimum $5 to purchase) are:
  • The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by KJ Charles
  • Wonder City Stories by Jude McLaughlin
  • The Mystic Marriage by Heather Rose Jones
  • Riley Parra Season One by Geonn Cannon
  • Out of This World by Catherine Lundoff

If you pay more than the bonus price of just $15, you get all five of the regular titles, plus seven more!
  • The Marshal's Lover by Jo Graham
  • Vintage: A Ghost Story by Steve Berman
  • Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett
  • Death by Silver by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold
  • The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories by A.C. Wise
  • Trafalgar and Boone in the Drowned Necropolis by Geonn Cannon
  • Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff
They still have 2 other bundles up for sale, Moonscapes and Military SF.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Book Review: Firebrand by A. J. Hartley

Pros: excellent world-building, interconnected plot, great characters

Cons: 

Grappoli is invading more native territory, sending refugees fleeing to the city of their enemy, Bar-Selehm. But Bar-Selehm’s politicians aren’t sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, and some believe the time to unite with their white brothers of Grappoli, at the expense of the black and brown lower classes of their own city, has arrived. When important military papers are stolen, a clue sends Anglet Sutonga to an exclusive club, where she investigates the connections of its members.

This is the second book set in this faux 19th Century South Africa. While you can read this without having read Steeplejack, characters are reintroduced without preamble, so you may find yourself confused by some of the relationships. The plot is self-contained and while the politics carry on from the previous book, it’s easy to figure out what’s happening in that respect. Some of the world-building assumes you’ve read Steeplejack, so there’s little explanation of the Drowning and the racial divisions of the city, though those come up a lot in the story.  

The world-building on the whole is excellent. Again, there’s very little of the book happening outside the city, but the city itself affords lots of conflict. I’m impressed by how detailed and realistic the interconnectedness of everything is in the book.

I really like Anglet. She’s young, passionate, and tries to do the right thing, even when knowing what the right thing to do is difficult. And with the racial and political tensions running through this book, she’s often left unsure of why she feels like she does and whether her work for Willinghouse is achieving any good. I especially liked her confusion over how to best help the refugees, and why she felt a connection to their sorrows despite their differing circumstances.

I appreciated the introduction of a deaf character and the chance to see more of Bar-Selehm’s society (high and otherwise). I liked the fact that characters had differing opinions on the political situation of the city. 

Unfortunately I read the book in a disjointed manner, which made it hard for me to recollect who some of the players were. There are certain scenes that require a careful reading, as the cast is fairly large and some seemingly minor details become important later on.

The plot went in several disjointed directions as Anglet slowly figured out what was going on, pulling together for the climax. 

I really enjoyed this book, and its discussion of racism, refugees, and colonialism is topical.


Friday, 2 June 2017

Movie Review: Escape From New York

Directed by: John Carpenter, 1981

Pros: great sets

Cons: poor world-building

Set in 1997, super high crime rates required turning Manhattan Island into a walled prison. When Air Force One crashes inside its boundary, ex-soldier and recent convict Snake Plissken is given a chance at a pardon. To get it, he has to go in and bring the president out alive.

This is one of those influential ‘80s films that I somehow missed growing up. 

I suspect the acclaim for the film is due to nostalgia, because it’s quite a boring film to watch. The light techno music was an odd touch for the opening credits, with the theme sounding much like Halloween’s at times (which isn’t surprising when you note that both were composed by John Carpenter). Given the theme of the film I was expecting something more heavy metal.

The acting was decent, though the story left a lot to be desired. There were so many world-building questions left unanswered. Questions like: Why does everyone know who Plissken is? Why did he rob a bank? What’s on the tape? Does the ending mean there’s going to be another war (or renewed war? I believe the summit was to end the current war with China and Russia).

The sets were amazing. The building where Plissken gives the woman a smoke was creepy, and contained the only 2 scares in the whole movie. I loved the old library turned Brain’s base, and the Duke’s subway hideout.

The action was ok. Having only recently seen They Live for the first time too, I’m guessing Carpenter was enamoured of the WWF (both films have a protracted fight scene, I also remember the WWF being huge when I was a kid, and knowing all the major fighters).

Snake Plissken was a surprise. I was expecting someone like other 80s heroes (or anti-heroes). Brash, noisy, in your face. So his soft voice and complete lack of interest in the mission was interesting. I wish the film explained more of his past, as he sounded like an interesting person.


I have to admit, this isn’t a movie I’d watch again.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Shout-Out: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Coloring Book by Paul Kidby

Paul Kidby, Sir Terry Pratchett's artist of choice, designed the UK covers for the Discworld novels since 2002 and is the author of the definitive portfolio volume The Art of Discworld. Containing black-and-white line drawings based on his hugely popular artwork with original pieces created exclusively for this book, Terry Pratchett's Discworld Coloring Book features iconic Discworld personalities including Granny Weatherwax, Sam Vimes, Archchancellor Ridcully, Rincewind, Tiffany Aching, and, of course, Death. This is the coloring book that all Discworld fans need!