Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Inalienable Rights of Dragons, Everywhere

Man, it's been a while since I've posted something. Oops. Seriously, I've meant to put something up, but … yeah. Sorry.

Now that that's out of the way (and hopefully the apology's accepted, not that I really need one), it's review time! This week it's not a book, but a series, and a series I'm three books behind in to boot. But it's entirely and absolutely made of awesome, so I'm going to tell you about it anyway.

Also, please, if you've read these books, no spoilers. All I know of books 5–7 is what's on their back covers, which are, predictably, non-commital as to plot and such-like. I'd like to keep it that way.

I picked up the first book in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik because I needed something to read, it was in the library, and I'd vaguely heard it was good. Also because it had dragons, and I'm a sucker for dragons. Some people go for fairies or mermaids or werewolves. I go for dragons.* It was a really good read, but not a great enough one to compel me to the nearest library/bookstore for the second book. But eventually I ended up in front of Throne of Jade in a bookstore and, through fond memories, bought it. The way Novik expanded on the world, characters, and themes of the first book hooked me and I've been reading roughly a book a year ever since.**

The premise of the series is this: Captain William Laurence of the Royal Navy captures a French ship that's transporting a dragon's egg to Napoleon. The egg hatches before Laurence's ship reaches England and the hatchling imprints on Laurence. Laurence and Temeraire, the dragon, are drafted into the Aerial Corps, which means culture shock (the Corps is permissive compared to the Navy), a steep learning curve, distrust on both sides, and the requisite thrilling aerial battles. Every book takes place in a different area of the world, so we see how different cultures deal with having tamed and/or domesticated dragons. Which is utterly fascinating, but not why I've come to love the series. 

I love the series because it's about a proper, upper-class British citizen (and a dragon) discovering human rights and becoming rights activists. Except for "human", I mean "dragon". The way Novik's coaxed Laurence from "dragons are brute animals" to "dragons are sentient beings and deserve better than we're treating them" is fantastic, subtle, and fascinating. And I'm three books behind! Novik writes Laurence's point-of-view so convincingly that more often than not, I didn't notice anything was "wrong" about the treatment of dragons until Laurence did. And then I was as shocked and appalled as he was, though I'm not sure I can credit that to Novik's writing quite so much. I think that's more a "decent person" thing. Ditto my rooting for Laurence and Temeraire to prevail as activists.

Novik's obviously put a lot of thought and research into the alternate history, from how air forces would change military battles, to how the different cultures treat dragons and how having dragons has changed those cultures, to how the Aerial Corps is structured and how Laurence doesn't quite fit in there due to his naval background. I keep thinking "Of course they'd do that" and "Now that's interesting!" and I love when books blow my mind that way. That's what speculative fiction should do all the time.

Which is not to say the world-building is without fault. I read somewhere—though of course don't remember where now—a criticism that the world should be more different if everyone's had tame dragons since Roman times, that it's more like Novik's dropped dragons into the early 19th century Europe of our timeline. I don't know enough about history to contest that. And there's also been criticism (said to me, personally) that the punctuation is neither modern-day or period appropriate, to which I say, "Quibbles! It works for me!" But if you're going to be thrown out of the story by a mis-used semi-colon, consider yourself warned. Also things tend to fall out in Laurence and Temeraire's favour***, but hey, that's simple Protagonist Syndrome. Otherwise, as far as I'm concerned, the books are pretty much perfect.

To say anything further would spoil the books for you guys. I hope I've convinced you to check out the series (it starts with His Majesty's Dragon, a.k.a. Temeraire). I've nearly convinced myself to start the next book already, even though I have so much else I want to be reading right this second.

No, seriously, go read these books. I mean it.

* Also fairies, but the vaguely creepy, morally grey ones of folklore, rather than the twee things from new age stores and Disney movies.
** I don't like reading series books back-to-back very often, because I feel they lose some of their flavour.
*** But not always, and they don't always get the easy road to success either.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Without Batman's Help

The Major Crimes Unit of the Gotham Police Department deals with the same stuff any MCU deals with—except that where most cops only have to handle run-of-the-mill thugs, thieves, and murders, the Gotham PD have to deal with the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman. And, of course, they want to do it alone, without Batman's help.

I'm a sucker for police dramas and procedurals. I'm a sucker for superheroes. How could I not pick up Gotham Central? I'm glad I did, too. The writing's fantastic. (I'm not an artist so can't/won't comment on the art, except to say it does what it needs to.) The book ended too quickly, in the sense of "but, but, why can't there be more" rather than, "that didn't get tied up well." It was definitely tied up well.

The first trade paperback of the series, a.k.a. the only one I've read so far because I'm trying not to buy every book in the universe at the moment, comprises two distinct stories, each focusing on a different detective and introducing us to the dynamics of the MCU. The stories pull you on as you get sucked into the characters and their problems, and provide a few good "Omigosh no! That can't happen!" moments*. The writing is so tight the book feels like it should be longer, considering how much is in there. The dialogue is the kind of punchy you'd expect from a good TV show, but sounds human. I've read comics, and even novels, where everyone sounds similar, as if there's only one way to write a line of dialogue. That's not the case here. I knew who the characters were from their first pages, if not their first line, and even when I couldn't see them, I knew who was speaking. To say any more about the book here would mean spoiling the plot of the stories, and where's the fun in that?

I thoroughly enjoyed the first trade of Gotham Central and am looking forward to picking up the next, whenever that happens. I want to stay with these characters as they drive around Gotham trying to stop supervillains with guns and procedure and the law. I want to know what happens to them. I want it to be good things. And I want you, if you're at all interested, to pick up the series too. You won't be disappointed.

* One of the signs of a Good Read for me is the ability of a story to do that.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Faustus Resurrectus, or, An Experiment

So I think I'm going to try rebooting this blog again. Third time's the charm, right? After my post the other day my mom pointed out that I don't have to talk about my writing woes or my process or anything from the writer side of the book biz. I can simply review the books I read and the films I watch. (Possibly also TV shows? We shall see.) I've posted reviews on this site before, after all, and it's certainly something I'm comfortable talking doing, considering it's part of my dayjob. And I read a lot of good books that we either don't stock at work or couldn't sell well enough to justify stocking them if I brought them in. I have to get people to read those books somehow, right?

Here's the deal, then. Whenever I read or watch something I think should get a wider audience or is just plain good, I'll write a review of it. I don't promise any of the following:

  • set times between posts
  • sticking to any genre, though science fiction and fantasy will dominate
  • the recency of the book (or film) — I read books published in the last couple years and books published hundreds of years ago
  • sticking to this review thing for any length of time, though of course the positive feedback of comments will help me keep going (hint hint)
  • reviewing everything I read or watch, because negative reviews aren't much fun to read or write and I have other things to do besides write long, though-out reviews

Fair enough? Good.

First book up is the first book I finished in 2013, though I started it shortly after Christmas. It's from a smaller press so hasn't gotten the same level of coverage as a book from one of the Big Six-Nearly-Five, and I found it gripping and refreshingly different from most of the urban fantasies I read.

Thomas Morrissey, Night Shade Books, 2012

Donovan Graham, recent M.A. in philosophy specializing in the occult, has built a pretty good life for himself. He bartends. He's all set to start his Ph.D. in the fall. He's close friends with his former thesis advisor. He's about to propose to the woman sharing his New York apartment. It's when he offers to help his advisor consult on a case with the NYPD that things start getting weird and dangerous. Satanic killer who may have the right rituals weird and dangerous.

This is certainly a much more horrific book than most of the urban fantasy I've read, even the series I'd point to as creepy. Morrissey doesn't shy away from blood, guts, human sacrifice, and madness. I actually had to put the book down a couple times because "ohgodohgod those poor people, that is urk"—note that mine is not a constitution suited to slasher films—but that's okay since I picked the book up again a couple minutes later to keep going. It's incredibly suspenseful—starts slow and builds, and when you think it's going to stop building, that we finally know what the bad guy's after, you look at the page count and realize that a) it's going to get even worse and b) you have no idea what's going to happen. Except that there's no chance of it being good. It's rare for a book to raise the stakes so much and so well that I genuinely doubt that anyone's getting out of the climax intact.

Donovan himself is another nice departure from the norm. He's entirely human and, while he's working with the police, he's not law enforcement per se. He's not broken like a lot of urban fantasy protagonists, either—you know, the ones who have addictions, dysfunctional relationships, PTSD, or are otherwise self-destructive. He's confident, driven, and knows what he wants from life. He can handle himself in a fight, sure, but his victories come from his brain, not his brawn. As a result of all that, I ended up rooting for Donovan a lot more than I've rooted for most urban fantasy protagonists, who generally have either more supernatural advantages or less to lose or both. (I rooted for a lot of the secondary characters too, including some of the less despicable bad guys. Everyone had fascinating dynamics with each other too, and felt realistic.)

The premise of the story, the villain and the goal he's working towards, are also fairly novel. There's urban fantasy about vampires, werewolves, demons, angels, fairies, ghosts, and the like all over the place these days, drawing from all kinds of traditions, but there isn't much that tackles Christianity in any aspect and this is the first book I've seen deal with the Faust legend at all. I think that factored into my need to keep reading, because I knew enough about the legend to kind of predict where the book was going, but not enough to really be certain. 

Of course, this is Morrissey's first novel and there are some moments where the writing is less good than others. I mean, the characterisation, description, scenes, plotting, etc. were all quality, but every so often there was a scene or a moment within a scene that was a little uneven, or a little too convenient re: keeping the plot moving. There were some things that I felt could've been shown better rather than told to the reader, too. None of that ruined the story for me or even particularly drew me out of the moment, though, and I have high hopes for the sequel. The world has potential, the characters are compelling, and I have absolutely no idea how Morrissey's going to match the level of suspense the next time round. Now I just need to keep my eyes open for a release date….

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2012 Reading Recap

So I have two traditions on this blog: a New Year's resolution to actually write it regularly for a whole year, and writing a post around New Year's itself about the best books I read in the past year (and kind of summing up the year at the same time). As you can probably tell by the time stamp on my previous post, I … kind of didn't manage that first resolution last year. At all. And since I've utterly lost the blogging spirit, I'm not even going to try to start the blog up again.* But I still want to do the These Books Are Awesome post so here goes.

Last year I read 55 books for the first time, and did two re-reads, for a total of 57 books. This year, I read 63 books for the first time, and reread 6, since I'm counting The Lord Of The Rings as three books. That gives me a total of 69 books, my personal best since I started tracking my reads in high school. I hope to do even better in 2013.

What do you mean, normal people don't make lists of books they've read? I reject your reality and substitute my own.

2012 is the Year of Britain. Not only did I go there (see previous posts), but I ended up reading a tonne of fiction set in England, much of it steampunk. Seventeen books, to be exact, including four that I read basically back to back over the two months that included my England trip. I had to consciously choose non-British books for a while after that.

I both did and didn't do better with my reading habits in 2012. I keep promising myself I'll read more literary and/or non-genre adult fiction and once again I ended up reading a grand total to two adult books that weren't science fiction, fantasy, or mystery. I did, however, read more young adult, graphic novels, and non-fiction than the past couple years, so there's that, at least.

Best Science Fiction: Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis
Best Urban Fantasy: Sixty-One Nails, by Mike Shevdon
Best Non-Urban Fantasy: The Alphabet of Thorn, by Patricia Mckillip
Best Superhero: Alias, vol. 1, by Brian Michael Bendis
Best Steampunk: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore
Best Horror: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin
Best Graphic Novel: The Unwritten, vol. 1, by Mike Carey
Best Young Adult: The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins
Best Middle Grade: The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann
Best Mystery: Cross Bones, by Kathy Reichs
Best Non-Genre Adult Fiction: The Iliad, by Homer
Best Anthology: Shine, by Jetse de Vries
Best Non-Fiction: The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene

A fair number of the books above were tough decisions. I also enjoyed and highly recommend Ashes of Honor by Seanan Mcguire; Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen; The Fault in Our Stars by John Green; Passage by Connie Willis; Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? by Jesse Bering; Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch; and Vicious Circle by Mike Carey. (Note that I've thrown Good Omens, American Gods, The Hobbit, and LOTR out of the running on account of they'd probably win everything if I didn't.)

In 2012 non-book news, I visited England for a week, as previously mentioned; I changed jobs and moved house, though I'm in the same city; and I finally got the first part of my novel "finished", for a given definition of the word. It's complete enough I feel I can move on, anyway. For those of you tracking my progress on this novel, the first part is what was once the whole book and now I have to write new stuff. Yeah. The less said, the better. I'm starting to despair this will ever be finished. Also that I've lost my writing mojo. Hopefully this is an end-of-the-year, start-of-the-year worry and things'll get better with time.**

What's new with you? Got any book recommendations for me? Not that I need any more…

* The periodic sciency post notwithstanding
** And please, please let voicing my worries not blacklist me with agents, editors, and publishing houses.

Monday, May 28, 2012

England, Part Three

I spent my last day in London at the British Library, Westminster Abbey, and walking the West End. The British Library, sadly, does not allow photography in their manuscript viewing room, so I can't show you any of the fabulous illuminated manuscripts or other historically interesting books I saw. (I also can't show you the Chaucer manuscript, but that's because it wasn't on display. Hmph.)

Things I learned at the British Library:
  • Handwriting hasn't changed substantially in the last several hundred years, because I can still make out words penned centuries ago.
  • 200 years ago, they were still writing in chicken scratch rather than proper handwriting
  • I've always thought illuminated manuscripts got touched up for their scans, much like fashion models. This is not true. The colors really are still that vivid and solid.
  • Gutenberg Bibles were BIG. Also printed without initials so purchasers could personalize their books with the local art styles.
  • Medieval drawings of humans look less stilted and stylized in person.
  • There are some phenomenally well-preserved books from the Middle Ages.
  • Everyone illustrated manuscripts, including the Persians, Indians, Chinese, and, of course, the Muslims.
  • The Chinese were block-printing way before anyone else was.
  • The Beatles wrote lyrics on some very strange things.
  • Bookbinding is beautiful, but not nearly as interesting as illumination.

Then it was on to Westminster Abbey, which also doesn't allow photographs inside. I definitely recommend going, especially if you have a historical bent, and also recommend getting the audio tour. It points out things you wouldn't necessarily notice otherwise, because there's no map or guidebook available. First off, though, the exterior!

I've been in some really dark and oppressive Gothic holy buildings, and in some light and airy ones. Westminster Abbey is definitely light and airy—and, like any regularly used historical church, full of more recent architectural styles as well. In this case, those styles are mainly for tombs, but I've seen mashups in central Europe where parts of the church were actually rebuilt. I'm very glad that didn't happen at the Abbey. Still, the massive amount of baroque and Victorian tombs and memorials (and the occasional Tudor one) were a bit jarring. The highly worn medieval ones fit a lot better into the aesthetic.

I found the tombs interesting, though. A lot of political and military leaders, and nobles, are either buried or remembered in Westminster Abbey, to the point that it's hard to see some of the statues in detail because there are three or four other statues in the way. A lot of the gravestones in the floor have also been worn down by foot traffic so are hard to read. The Tudor royalty were big on elaborate tombs of the "I need a better tomb than my dad" variety. Absolutely gorgeous work, though. Intricate. Lifelike statues.

I was the odd one out in the respects I paid to the memorials too, I think. Most people seemed to be there for the nobility, clustering around Queen Elizabeth I's tomb, or Henry V's. Poet's Corner was pretty crowded too (not that anywhere wasn't), but I got the impression that people were there just to say they'd been, rather than to see specific memorials. And, of course, there were the handful of people who'd actually come to Westminster Abbey for religious reasons. Me? I paid respect to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Handel, Darwin, Newton, Clementi, Addison, Blake, the Bront√ęs, Watt, and a host of other literary and scientific figures I recognized. I was more excited to find Blake than I did to find Cromwell, who's also buried there.

All good abbeys have a cloister, which I sat in a while because my legs were tired from walking. It's cool and calm, and, wonderfully, allows photography because it's outside!

Those are medieval limestone coffins with holes carved for the head.

The back of the cathedral has a row of statues of 20th-century religious martyrs:

Opposite the abbey are, of course, the Houses of Parliament:

I headed for the West End next, because of Forbidden Planet, because I wanted to see the theatre district a bit, and because there was a ghost walk meeting there that evening. Forbidden Planet was more like a department store than I'd expected, but definitely cool. The theatre district was also neat to see, but also tempting. I almost didn't go on the ghost walk after all. 

The walk itself was more history and fewer ghosts than I'd expected. There can't have been more than six or seven ghosts for the two hour tour. I'd thought a city as old as London would have been more haunted, but maybe the guide only picked the highlights. He was a good storyteller, if a bit of a ham and overly fond of invading personal space for dramatic effect. Most of his stories followed the urban legend formula—an unnamed friend or client just the other week had seen a ghost right there…. 

None of the pictures I took on the walk have ghosts in them, but they're still good.

After the walk, I hopped the tube back to the hostel. I caught a plane out the next morning. I have to go back someday, no question. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

England, Part Two

The Victoria and Albert Museum! Art and design through the centuries! Highly recommended! I spent the whole day there, just about, and by the time I was done, my brain was ready to melt, I'd absorbed so much information. As I mentioned in the last post, a lot of the photos I took here were blurry. Low light levels and no flash will do that, unfortunately. I've left most of the blurred ones out because I can't show you all the cool bits of detail if they're not there, but also because 100+ photos is probably too many. I'm pushing it as it is.

The earliest street lighting was not gas, but coils of burning rope, in the Tudor era:

Famous statues!

A late-medieval German Madonna and Child:

A medieval cowl, photographed for the embroidery:

Early Korean bronze mirrors (polished side facing wall):

Chinese ritual drinking vessels, Bronze Age on left, 19th-century (?) on right. Photographed out of delight at how much the design didn't change.

An early pottery horse, from China:

A comparatively recent pottery camel, photographed for his expression:

Two suits of samurai armor

A plaster cast of Trajan's Column, in two parts:

And in close-up:

Various Scandinavian works, mostly from the Viking period:

One of four Tudor flag holders (there's a proper name for them, but I can't remember). This is the one that caught my eye first.

A circle of flattened brass instruments, hanging from the ceiling.

You know those cardboard cutouts you can get of your favourite actor or movie character? Apparently they were cool in the 18th-century too.

And then my camera battery announced that it was seriously low and would like to be recharged, please, so I stopped taking photos at the V&A and went to the Science Museum around the corner, which had…

Difference Engines!

Among the many, many things I didn't photograph at the V&A were an impressive jewelry collection; an exquisite collection of jeweled snuff boxes; all sorts of Tudor and Jacobean artifacts, from clothes and cushions to furniture and weapons; many more statues and religious artifacts; a timeline of Japanese pottery; and an Islamic exhibit I skipped because, as I said, my brain was melting. I didn't see anything else in the Science Museum because there wasn't time and not much else looked interesting anyway.

By the time I was done with these two museums, I'd decided that I wanted nothing more than to sit down for the next century, and that I'd seen so many artifacts that going to the British Museum the next day would be overkill. Unfortunately, because I did really want to see the Anglo-Saxon stuff and I think they have bog bodies? Maybe? Ah well, next time. Incentive to go back. :)

Part Three (and Last) will largely consist of pictures of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliment. You've been warned.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

England, Part One

I got back from England a couple days ago. It was kind of a spur of the moment trip, which meant a lot of scrambling around the two weeks beforehand, getting everything in place, and therefore not a whole lot of blogging. So, if you've been wondering why I haven't posted much in the last while, that's the big reason. I'd have said something about the trip, except you're not really supposed to tell the internet about your travel plans. 

But I can share pictures of the trip after the fact, so here goes. Easy blog posts ahoy!

Here's the Dutch coast, about half an hour after my transfer in Amsterdam: 

And here's a mostly-Victorian graveyard in Manchester…

… that contained an intriguing gravestone. I'm voting time travel.

Make that two intriguing gravestones. I'm not sure what the symbolism means here.

I was in Manchester for my sister's wedding. I'd post pictures, except she'd probably kill me. It was good, though. Nothing to complain about and everything to rejoice over.

The day after the wedding, I hopped a train for London. I had big plans to stare out the train window and absorb the many variants of England as they rushed past me, but it turns out that the only variant of England along the rail lines is the farmland-and-stone-village one out of James Herriot and Beatrix Potter. That got kind of dull, so I stuck my nose in a book pretty quickly. Sixty-One Nails is absolutely fantastic British urban fantasy—it's blurbed as "Neverwhere for the next generation" and they're right—and I completely struck out finding the sequel in the UK. It's not out in North America yet.

Anyway, London, Day One!

Saint Pancras Station, on my way to discovering the British Library wouldn't allow my duffel bag inside and I'd have to come back a different day.

King's Cross was on the other side of the street, but I didn't get a picture of Platform 9 3/4. I didn't want to push through the crowds to find out if I had to buy a ticket or not.

After dropping my bags at the hostel, I headed downtown again. I hit The Clink museum first, which was interesting but not nearly as much as I'd hoped. Would be good for kids who didn't know much about the early British prison system, but didn't have a lot of advanced material or artifacts to keep a knowledgeable adult engaged. But! in the same neighbourhood there were:

the ruins of Winchester Palace (1100s),

Southwark Cathedral,

and the Golden Hind (replica):

There are lots more pictures of Southwark Cathedral, but I thought I'd spare you. :) After that, I crossed a bridge and saw this:

On a building I found a (18th-century?) notice, proving that prosecution signs go back a long way. I can't read the whole of this, unfortunately, but am assuming it's for loitering, because it amuses me to think so.

Also spotted were a church showing damage from the Blitz…

… a baroque water fountain …

… and, of course, St. Paul's.

I've always heard about the beauty, majesty, and perfection of St. Paul's and said, "Ha! No building could live up to that hype! I don't believe it!" Except that this one does. It's flawless and tasteful, in a baroque sort of way, and in the early evening, took my breath away. I have a lot of photos of St. Paul's.

And then my legs were really tired and it was late, so I went to the hostel again.

Next up, the Victoria and Albert museum! In which I went overboard with the camera again and a lot of the photos are blurry!