Wednesday Videos: Jane Austen Drinking Game

WednesdayVideoOK, the first version of mew new book has been turned in.  It now resides in the hands of HarlequinPop!  where all my spelling efforts shall be revealed.

What book is this, you say?  Why I’ll tell you – it’s a short book comparing the television and film adaptations of Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and, my personal nemesis, Wuthering Heights.  In honor of this literary event, I bring you…The Jane Austen Drinking Game!

Book Review: Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

Cover of Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThis is history just the geeky fun way I like it!  The Time Traveller’s Guide is a non-fiction history book about Elizabethan England, but it’s written as a travel guide for time travellers.  This means that there’s nothing ponderous about it.  If you want to know the underlying causes of the Spanish Armada attacking England, you probably won’t find it in here (although the book is pretty big – I might have missed that part).  If you want to know how to greet people, and what people eat, and how to brush your teeth and where to take a dump, look no further.

The book is conversational, practical, and amazingly detailed.  Because it’s written in little sections, it’s a handy book to keep in the bathroom or by the table – places where you might want to read something really entertaining for a few minutes, although it’s certainly entertaining enough to read cover to cover.

Author Ian Mortimer has also written a Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (and a lot of other history, as well as fiction).  If only he would write a Guide to Regency England, my life would be complete.  In the meantime, I know how to avoid the plague, and how to keep myself clean (linen plays an important role) and what to wear.  I know that witchcraft was not yet equated with Satanism, but I could still be hung for it, and being a coal miner was a wretched job that usually resulted in death, while being a domestic servant usually involved rape (of the servant, alas).  I know that I will be expected to wash my hands before dinner, although not with soap.  The most depressing thing I learned so far was that infant and early childhood mortality rates were huge.  The most cheerful thing I learned so far?  Reading was wildly popular, and almost everyone could read, at least a little bit.  Surely I could feel just a little bit at home in a world where everyone loves to read as much as I do.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Thomas Odhiambo

102639a0a632f860725f415ca0621c13Thomas-Odhiamo-RWelcome to ‘History’s Hidden Heroes’, a monthly feature in which I challenge my mental image of what a scientist looks like (American or European, and usually male) by learning something about scientists from elsewhere in the world or from other genders and ethnicities.  Write in with your suggestions for what to call this feature.  I’m not happy with “History’s Hidden Heroes” as a title because I bet that plenty of people know about these heroes – just not me!

When I picture scientists in Africa, I picture white men digging for fossils and white women studying gorillas.  But Africa has had plenty of its own scientists, including Professor Thomas Odhiambo, from Kenya.  Odhiambo was an entomologist who was interested in biological ways to reduce agricultural pests.  He wanted farmers, especially impoverished farmers, to have low-cost, environmentally sound, non-chemical means of reducing pests and maximizing yields.  During his life, he published over 130 papers and six children’s books.

Professor Odhiambo lived from 1931 – 2003.  He grew up in Mombassa and studied at Cambridge and in Uganda.  One of his concerns was in not only educating Africans to be great scientists but in motivating them to stay in Africa once they were educated.  Dr. Odhiambo founded three different schools of higher education in Kenya, including The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe).  Odhiambo was particularly proud of the fact that most of Icipe’s PhD graduates are still working in Africa.

My sources for this blog entry are African Success and  The Guardian.   I urge you to click on the links for more details about this amazing man.

Wednesday Videos: The men of Jane Austen

WednesdayVideoTa-Da, it’s official!  HarlequinPop will be publishing my eBook comparing television and film adaptations of Jane EyrePride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights!  One week until my book draft is due!  ONE WEEK!  Can it be done?

The book has no title although I think of it fondly as “Jane, Cathy, and Lizzie Walk Into a Pub”.  For inspiration, I turn to the following video.  I hope you enjoy objectifying the men of the Regency as much as I do.  Fell free to comment with your title suggestions!

Mini Review: The Stolen Luck

stolen luck coverThe Stolen Luck is a gorgeous book that takes a difficult topic and treats it with sensitivity and care to create a beautiful romance with not a trace of squick.  James’ family has benefitted for years from an Elven talisman called “The Luck”.  When it is stolen, James wins an elven slave in a card game and promises to free the slave if the slave will guide James into the Elven realms to retrieve The Luck.  James deeply abhors slavery, and he promises himself that he will treat the slave, whose name is Loren, well.  But honorable though James may be, the taint of slavery makes it impossible for James and Loren to trust one another.

One thing I liked about this book is that it didn’t take the shortcut of showing that slavery is bad because slaves are mistreated, although it is established that they often are.  James doesn’t mistreat Loren – and guess what.  Slavery?  STILL BAD.  The master/slave relationship is not eroticized or glorified.  As long as Loren is a slave, neither he nor James can be happy – Loren, because he lives at the whim of another, and James, because he has violated his dearest principals.

The romance works because the couple is given time to get to know one another well, time to interact with a variety of people and in a variety of situations.  It also works because both parties change and grow.  I read this book with a great deal of trepidation but it left me with good book sigh.  A full length review is at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Testing, One, Two, Three…

There are serious disadvantages to blogging with no computer skills.  For instance, when your posts stop appearing on facebook, you must make this face:

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What should I do?

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If this pops up on facebook, we’ll return to our original programming.  If not, I’ll make this face:

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Pray for me, Internet!

Book Review: The Long War, By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

cover of The Long War

full cover (front and back)

The Long War is fascinating, but not engrossing.  The premise is an interesting one, but the story is so fragmented and slow-paced that it never seems to go anywhere.  From a cerebral standpoint, the book is a triumph.  From a story-telling standpoint, it tries to do so much that it doesn’t fully succeed with anything.

Here’s the premise of the series, as described in Chapter Three:

The Long Earth: suddenly, on Step Day, twenty-five years before, mankind had found itself with the ability to step sideways, simply to walk into an infinite corridor of planet Earths, one after the next and the next.  No spaceships required: each Earth was just a walk away.  And every Earth was like the original, more or less, save for a striking lack of humanity and all its works.  There was a world for everybody who wanted one, uncounted billions of worlds, if the leading theories were right.

Here are the central conflicts of The Long War:

1.  Trolls, beings who inhabit most of the Earths, are leaving those Earths that are settled by humans.  The trolls are frequently abused by humans and the question of what they are, in terms of their relationship to humanity, is controversial.

2.  Lobsang, an artificial intelligence, is manipulating many people who don’t want to be manipulated.  He has essentially brought Sister Agnes back from the dead so that she will keep him in line with her own strong personality.

3.  Back on Datum Earth, Yellowstone is behaving in a strange and ominous fashion.

4.  While Datum Earth is eager to solidify its control over the Long Earth communities, they are eager for more independence.

That’s a lot of plot for  a 420 page book, and as you can imagine, none of it really solidifies into a detailed story.  I do have a bias against books that jump from plot to plot, but I’m pretty sure even more flexible readers will find it frustrating that each plot line deserves its own book, and all of them get short shrift.  I love it that the authors try to figure out all the implications of stepping, but I think the book would have more emotional impact if it stuck to one or two implications and looked at them in closer detail.

Fans of Terry Pratchett should know that this book doesn’t have the zany quality of the Discworld books.  It does share a certain dry wit and the general worldview is similar.  Terry Pratchett loves protagonists with good common sense, and he has several in The Long War.  Readers should also know that although there are many characters, and most of them are enjoyable to spend time with, this isn’t a character-driven novel.  That’s not a criticism, just a fact.

The most emotionally involving storyline involves the fate of the trolls.  But the message of tolerance and acceptance is undercut by the fact that while many of the characters see the trolls and sentient individuals, the three characters who are most involved in reaching out to the trolls have no problem treating kobolds, who are clearly sentient individuals, with utter contempt.  And they don’t just show contempt for one kobold – they show contempt for the entire species.  I’m puzzled by this discrepancy.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed The Long War.  I like the idea that the authors take a concept and really examine all the permutations of that concept.  But it wasn’t what I’d call a page-turner.  I cared about the characters, but mostly in a perfunctory way, because there wasn’t time to get to know them.  I never felt invested in what happened.  But I did enjoy watching two brilliant people throw ideas around on the page, and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.  So far, counting The Long War, there are two books in the series, and I recommend starting with the first one (The Long Earth).

cover of The Long Earth

The series begins with The Long Earth

Book Review: Joyland, by Stephen King

cover of JoylandStephen King has written some books that are great, some that are OK, and some that are awful, but he has never, ever, written a book that is boring.  Joyland is a book that is OK.  It has flaws, but being dull is not one of them, even though the story is more a coming-of-age story than one of horror or suspense.

Dev is a twenty-one year old college student with a broken heart who accepts a part-time job at Joyland, an amusement park.  He makes friends, he saves two lives, he bonds with a sick kid and the kid’s overwhelmed mother, and he recovers from being dumped by his first love, Wendy.  He also tries to solve an old murder that happened in the park.

I was thinking there might be some murderous clowns or something, but actually the horror quotient is quite low.  This is a coming of age story, and although the murder ties all the elements together, and gives the book a certain sense of dread, there’s not a lot of scary stuff.  There is a show down with the bad guy, and there are some hints of the supernatural (a ghost, a psychic kid) but this book is more about coping with the kinds of losses that are devastating but not supernatural in origin.

The book seems sort of thrown together – it feels like Stephen King has two completely different books in mind and he just chucked them in a blender to see what would happen.  I never understood why the murder is so important to Dev, or why solving it was such a catharsis for him.  I was also disturbed by an undercurrent of misogyny.  In general, I don’t consider King to be a misogynist writer – books like CarrieLisey’s Story, and The Gingerbread Girl (a novella), not to mention Rose Madder, Dolores Clairborne, and Gerald’s Game, have viewed women with deep sympathy and celebrated their individuality and their ability to survive.  Maybe I’m just a little bloodthirsty, but reading The Gingerbread Girl was one of the most cathartic experiences in literature I’ve ever had.

But there’s a weird thread of hostility to women that runs through Joyland.  I’m not speaking so much of the murders – they are clearly viewed by all (except the murderer) as despicable acts.  I’m more concerned that Dev is so angry that Wendy, his first love, never had sex with him.  Guess what Dev – Wendy doesn’t have to have sex with you.  Not having sex does not make her a tease.  Having sex does not make her a slut.  She dumped you for another guy, and that’s shitty, but sex isn’t something that’s owed to you, dude.  So get over that.  Really, that’s all we know about Wendy – Dev adored her, she wouldn’t have sex with him, she dumped him for someone else.  Not having sex with Dev, but presumably having it with someone else, is her one defining characteristic and we are supposed to hate her for it.

The other two women in the story are sweet and supportive.  Annie, the mother of Mike, the sick kid, is initially hostile, but she warms up to Dev and rewards him for his goodness to Mike with – you guessed it – sex.  And Dev’s friend Erin is uniformly sweet.  She is, in fact, the perfect girlfriend (although she’s not Dev’s girlfriend).  And yes, she does have sex with her boyfriend, and not with anyone else.

What I liked about Joyland was its description of carnival life.  With the carnival, and the boardwalk, and the feeling of the transience of summer, overlaid by ghost story shivers, this is a great summer reading book – but not, overall, a great book.

Mini Review: The Golem and the Jinni

cover of Golem and JinniThe Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker is a beautiful and remarkable piece of historical fantasy.  Set in New York City in the early 1900’s, the book follows the lives of a golem named Chava and a jinni named Ahmad as they try to adjust to life among humans.  Chava has lost her master, and without a master, she is overwhelmed by the needs and wishes of those around her.  Ahmad is bound to a wizard, but he doesn’t know who the wizard is, or how to free himself.  While Chava struggles with a crushing sense of obligation towards others, Ahmad has no sense of empathy and no understanding of how his actions affect others.  He does what he wants, when he wants.  For the most part, these two characters face New York separately, but when they finally meet, they are able to help each other reach a tenuous sense of balance between responsibility and freedom.

I loved this book for its rich sense of culture and of place.  Wecker is equally adept at describing daily life in a busy bakery and life in a glass castle in the desert.  I loved the language and the characters and the feeling of being in another world.  The fantasy elements are subtle enough that I think people who don’t normally enjoy fantasy will love this for the historical fiction.  At the same time, these elements are rich enough that people who aren’t crazy about historical fiction will like it for the fantasy.  There is a love story, though it develops slowly and carefully – in fact, for most of the book, I didn’t think the romance would happen at all.  This is a book I can’t stop thinking about.  You can find my full-length review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Wednesday Video Might Cause You To Swoon

WednesdayVideoThere I was, looking up a completely different video, one infused with humor and snark, when I found this tribute to romantic period dramas.  There’s quite a bit of Austen in here, and my very favorite Jane Eyre couple (Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson).  Seriously, this just pure, unabashed romance. I have to go watch it about ten more times but I guess I’ll have to pick myself off the floor first.

John Scalzi: Making Conventions Safe For All

In the last couple of years, convention attendees, both male and female, have been working to confront sexual (and other) harassment at conventions.  John Scalzi is the past president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SWFA) and the author of books like Redshirts and Old Man’s War.  Recently, Scalzi announced on his blog that he will not attend conventions unless they have a sexual harassment policy in place.  You can read his initial entry here.

Since Scalzi just can’t stop being more and more awesome every day, he wrote another, longer piece explaining why he took this action here.  It is some kick-ass writing (and funny, too).  I urge you to read it.  You can also co-sign his pledge should you care to.

As a woman and the mother of a daughter, I’m deeply appreciative not only for women who fight for my rights but for men who ally with me.  To those who view women at conventions as playthings, sex toys, or objects of derision, I have a news flash for you:

1.  We are here.

2.  We are people.

3.  We are not leaving.

And oh, yeah, in case only an appeal to baser instincts will convince you to treat me with respect, here’s one more thing:

4.  We have money and we represent a considerable portion of your audience and your clientele.

I’ve always been treated well at cons and I hope for all people to have as delightful of experiences as I’ve had.  I’m hoping to hear glorious fan tales of a busy, safe, and fun convention summer this year!

That’s the News from Westercon, Where all the Costumes Are Above Average

A milestone in the geek girl family – I took my daughter, who shall herefore be referred to as Princess Leia for costuming reasons, to her first science fiction convention, and here’s what happened:

girl and toy yoda wearing Victorian hats

Yoda goes Victorian

Westercon was a small-scale, relaxed con.  It didn’t feel as commercial as a lot of cons do – in fact, people were almost compulsively giving my friend’s daughter free stuff and saying things to me like, “Oh, it’s fine, we trust you, just mail us a check”.  This convention had a focus on writers and fiction.  It was a really laid-back, happy gathering of some serious geeks.  I loved it, and Princess Leia is now, as they say in The Big Bang Theory, “Queen of the Nerds”.

It wouldn’t be a Con without Cosplay.  My thanks to the many cosplayers who gave me permission to take and post pictures.  I apologize for the fact that my camera is crap and my photography skills are nill.  These photos aren’t very polished, but I hope they’ll give you a feel for how colorful the Con was!

cosplay (TARDIS maid outfit)

The TARDIS – original, fun, and check out the stockings!

You have to have some steampunk in your life, right?  This trio was immaculately outfitted right down to their shoes:

three people in steampunk cosplay

Ready for their airship departure!

Jesus Brienne, you look terrible.  What did you do, get in a fight with a bear or something?  On a happier note, Daenerys and her dragon were trailed all afternoon by adoring children.  I guess they haven’t found out what the dragons eat yet.

cosplayers (Brienne and Daenerys

Brienne and Daenerys

Beautiful sparkly things from Jewels By Olivia.  See the green tiara on the top left?  I MUST HAVE IT.  I will earn a zillion dollars and achieve world domination and make the nations cower before me, and when they cry out to me for mercy, saying, “What do you wish for?”  I shall say, “BRING ME THAT TIARA.”

tiaras from Westercon Sealer's Room

Jewels by Olivia, Westercon Dealer’s Room

I didn’t go to many panels due to the presence of children (mine and my friend’s, not other people’s).  But I did go to one on Finding Your Muse, where I got some great advice from M. Todd Gallowglass:

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block.  No matter how difficult a passage is, you can always write just one more sentence.  and then just one more sentence after that.  and then just one more after that”.

Wise words, indeed.  Thanks for a great day, Westercon!

Book Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

cover of Life After LifeI’ve read a lot of good books lately, but it’s been a long time since I was reading a book at one o’clock in the morning because I just had to know what happens next.  EVERYONE has been talking about Life After Life, and I can tell you why – it’s freaking amazing, that’s why.

Life After Life is historical fiction with one speculative fiction twist.  The main character, Ursula, dies moments after she is born, and, for lack of a better word, reboots.  She starts her life over, with no memory of having lived before.  Everything reboots.  She dies and reboots over an over again, as a child and as an adult.  The only thing that remains for her from each past experience is that at critical moments she experiences a feeling of dread and déjà vu.  She feels compelled to keep the maid from going to London during the influenza epidemic, or compelled to convince her sister that they should make sandcastles instead of going swimming.  But she doesn’t know why she feels compelled to do these things, and the results are uncertain (she has a hell of a time surviving that influenza epidemic, let me tell you).

Many people have reviewed this book so I’ll just touch on a couple of things and then urge you to go read it.  One thread is that changing one thing can change your whole life.  Sometimes that one thing is a big thing.  In one version of her life she is raped, and in one version she fights off her attacker.  Her life diverges drastically based on the outcome of the attack.  Sometimes smaller things change, or even save, her life – she puts a doll in a drawer instead of leaving it out But many things stay the same no matter what, like her aunt’s wild nature, her mother’s bitter one, and her sister’s pragmatic loyalty..  I found this fascinating, and I’d love to re-read the book so I can pay less attention to the suspense of “what happens next” and more to the underlying philosophical themes about life and love and relationships and identity.

Which brings me to my next point – there’s a lot of thoughtful stuff in this book, but above all it is an incredibly engrossing read.  Did I mention that I was up at one am reading it?  And then I couldn’t fall asleep because I was thinking about it?  I cannot overstate how compelling and suspenseful this book is.  I thought the flu epidemic section was a real nail-biter and then Ursula grows up and has to survive London during the Blitz, and she just keeps rebooting, in all these variations, and each time you hope that this time she’ll make it…one in the fucking morning, people.  I’m both appreciative and a little bitter about this.

The final thing I want to mention is that the vividness of detail and the feeling of historical accuracy is remarkable.  Everything is drawn in fine, beautiful, careful language, whether it’s the pattern of the wallpaper in Ursula’s childhood home or the appearance of bodies during the blitz.  There is a great love for the mundane, and it grounds the story in a real place, with real, flawed, people.

I’m not sure exactly how to interpret what happens at the end – but it left me feeling hopeful, and proud of Ursula, who comes so far, so many times, and makes a heroic choice that makes terrible sense.  This amazing book is funny and harrowing and suspenseful and moving.  It made me feel, it made me think, and it let me vicariously experience life in a big city, a mountain retreat, a crowded cottage.  I can’t recommend this book enough.

Wednesday Videos are Ready For The Convention Season

WednesdayVideoIt’s summer, and that means conventions!  And cosplay!  And expensive crap, and panels, and hanging out with people who totally do not think it’s strange that you care very, very passionately about fictional characters!  In the immortal words of Austin
Powers:  YEAH, BABY!”

Here’s hoping this year’s cons are inclusive and safe and welcoming for all!

You'll Be Safe Here, by Dean Trippe

You’ll Be Safe Here