My house has been all cold and damp lately, which has led to some fungal invaders setting up camp. At first I thought they were just confined to the bathroom, but the last few days I’ve noticed it cropping up in other places too. One of those areas was my bookcase, so tonight I bit the bullet and pulled all my books off to see the damage. As you can see, it wasn’t pretty:
The good news is the mold only seemed interested in my bookcase, not the books themselves. In that bottom corner I had a really nice hardcover book which still has clear white pages. I was so relieved to see there was no permanent damage done. I’m pleased to say that the bookcases are all clear now; front and back.
This endeavour has however reminded me that my bookcase needs an attack of a different sort. You see, last week I went to a convention in Sydney called Supanova. As happens at conventions, I ended up buying a new book (The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu) and when I got home I just didn’t have any room on the shelf for it. Oops. The terrible truth is, I need a book cull.
You would think I wouldn’t have this problem, since I get most books on my Kindle, but I do like a good old fashioned dead-tree book at times. I asked for a bunch of physical books for Christmas, and made the decision not to ever buy physical books for myself again. From then on, if I wanted a paperback or hardcover, I’d put it on a Christmas or birthday wishlist and only get myself ebooks. It seemed like a sensible idea since I live in a small house.
Now here’s a picture of all the dead-tree books I have bought myself since I made that decision:
Most were from op shop binges, and so far the only one I have read is Lovecraft Country. I made the decision that one of these would be the next book I read, but then I noticed that I had quite a lot of unread books that have been waiting a long time to be read. Some I might not get around to, and others I really want to try to read before the end of the year. There are also a lot of books that I have read, that I think I have to admit to myself won’t be read again. So, cull time.
A bit off topic, but going to Supanova was awesome. I saw lots of cosplayers, bought a lot of stuff, and got my Maze Runner trilogy signed by James Dashner. So, that’s three books that won’t be in any danger during the upcoming cull.
Now the question is, what to read next? And what to review next. I’ve nearly finished the Hugo Novella finalists, so I’ll be looking for something new to read soon. I suppose the logical thing to do would get one that’s been on my bookcase for ages, probably an older science-fiction story. It would be fun to review some classic SF, since I love the classics but have been reading and reviewing a lot of modern stuff lately.
Oh, but the sequel to Ninefox Gambit just came out. Sorry older books, looks like it’ll be a little bit longer before I start attacking that backlog I need to read.
James LaBrie, Simone Simons, Floor Jansen, Hansi Kürsch, Tobias Sammet, Tommy Karevik, Michael Mills, Russel Allen, Tommy Rogers and Zaher Zorgati
I’m not going to make a habit of reviewing music. After all, just because readers are interested in the same books as me, doesn’t mean you’ll like the same music. But I have to talk about Ayreon at some point, especially now that there’s a new Ayreon album out and damn it sounds good.
Ayreon is the musical project of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, a Dutch singer, songwriter, musician and record producer. Ayreon albums are rock operas, with each one telling a complex story featuring multiple characters, each represented by a different vocalist. Describing the genre of Ayreon is tricky; the most apt label is prog, or progressive rock, but elements of power metal, folk, classical, and electronica music are also heavily featured. Each album tells a separate story, but all bar two of the albums are set in the same universe.
And this wider Ayreon universe is why I’m reviewing this album. The Ayreon albums tell a story of an alien race called the Forevers, who are kept alive by machines and no longer feel emotion. To help them regain these lost emotions, they seed Earth, thus creating Humanity (01011001). They run a number of tests on Humans (Into the Electric Castle and The Human Equation) but in the end we destroy ourselves (The Universal Migrator and again 01011001). We do attempt to prevent our destruction by sending a warning message back in time (The Final Experiment), but this isn’t so successful. It’s a great science fiction saga, which leans a bit on the fantasy side at times, but is a lot more complex than you’d think given the media.
The Source is a prequel to this saga, detailing how the original humans on planet Alpha became the Forevers. It details how the Alphans reliance on technology led to the destruction of their world and most of their population. The main characters are amongst the few survivors, who escape their dying world on a spaceship and relocate to an ocean world. To live on such a planet, they must undergo certain changes to their biology. They also aim to make other improvements using machinery, while also trying not to make the same mistakes as before.
I’ll admit, as a stand-alone story it isn’t the best Arjen has done, but as a prequel to the rest of the Ayreon story it works well. It is an emotional ride, and I loved hearing all the references to the wider story arc. Musically, it is a masterpiece. All the vocalists were great, and I especially loved Floor Jansen, Michael Mills, and Hansi Kürsch. But really all the performances were perfect. I’ve been listening to this album a lot since it came out. I’ve listened to the whole thing in its entirety, both with my full attention and in the background while driving. I’ve listened to individual songs (cannot get enough of Run! Apocalypse! Run! at the moment) but I don’t think I could pick a favourite one. Most of the tracks are good in very different ways; compare the heavy Everybody Dies with slower tracks like The Source Will Flow and All That Was. Arjen has unleashed another masterpiece on the world. He has been called a genius many times, and I feel that that label is well earned.
If you enjoy metal, or rock operas, or science fiction stories that kinda brush up against the fantasy border, then go check out Ayreon’s music. I find Youtube a good place to listen to music, but I think that makes me a bit of a weirdo when there are so many actual music streaming places out there. Check out Arjen’s official channel to listen to all the songs from The Source and see lyric music videos.
Reviewing music is much harder than reviewing books. I find it hard to articulate what I like about music; it’s a much more instinctual thing than books. But I can say that Ayreon is a truly epic, and unique experience. The Source is one of the best concept albums I have heard in a long time.
I get most of my books through the amazon kindle store. As much as I like physical books, I have limited space. Besides, moving house four times in recent years has made ebooks seem very appealing; I don’t have any problems carrying them.
But now that I can only access the kindle store from Amazon’s Australian site, there are some books I cannot get this way. In particular, there was a book released last year that really grabbed my interest, and when I couldn’t get it on my kindle I was rather disappointed. Fortunately, good old-fashioned online delivery combined with gift cards meant I could finally get my hands on it. Can you guess which book I’m talking about?
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff interested me for several reasons. The big one is my interest in cosmic horror, but also the premise of the story. A young army veteran named Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip across New England (USA) with his uncle George and childhood friend Letitia to find Atticus’s missing father. Before we even get to the crazy rituals and magic, this is already a terrifying and dangerous prospect for Atticus and co because they are black, and the year is 1954. To quote the New York Times Book Review;
“At every turn, Ruff has great fun pitting mid-twentieth-century horror and sci-fi clichés against the banal and ever-present bigotry of the era. And at every turn, it is the bigotry that hums with the greater evil.”
The one thing I hated about Lovecraft’s stories were the constant racist overtones, so it seems fitting to read a book that uses Lovecraftian themes to tackle the horrors of racism. I know I have a lot of other books to read, but Lovecraft Country will be jumping to the head of the queue. You can expect a review soon, and hopefully it lives up to the hype I’ve given it.
In the meantime, 10/10 on that front cover. I wasn’t sure what to make of the ‘pretend to look old and well used’ look at first, but I feel it works well. And what do you see first at the bottom? Tentacles? Or the KKK?
This year I have made my own book bingo card, with some challenges I want to complete. I’m going to put more effort into finishing these challenges than I did for last year’s one; not that there was anything wrong with the challenges last time, I’m just more motivated to set reading goals this year.
I’m hoping to read more previous winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year. I have my own checklist of Hugo and Nebula award winners that I’ve been working through for a few years, and so far I have read 12 out of 69 Hugo winners, and 8 out of 51 Nebula winners. I put a few Hugo winners on my Christmas and Birthday wishlist this year, and for Christmas I received American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and Neuromancer by William Gibson. I’m aiming to tick off a few more Hugo winners this year, which is why this Book Bingo card has five ‘Hugo Winner’ challenges, arranged in such a way that no bingo can be made without one.
The rules for this challenge are simple: each book can only count for one challenge, and I have until the end of the year to complete it. If anyone else is interested in giving themselves a reading challenge or making themselves read more Hugo winners, then feel free to copy the card and play along with me. A list of all the winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel can be found here. Happy reading everyone.
Well, my kindle is now looking like my bookcase; full of interesting books on my ‘to read’ list. I recently bought a package of sixteen science and science fiction books for $15. Well, $20.78 when converted from US dollars. Since cheap books seems to be one thing everyone loves, I decided to turn into a spam bot for a few minutes and share some information about this deal.
My partner is the one that showed me this deal, which is found on Humble Bundle. He usually finds bundles of games there, but until now I’ve never known they do books as well. The purpose of Humble Bundle is to support charities by offering games and books at a pay what you want rate. In this case, you get to name your price for up to $294 worth of digital books from Springer Publishing. Proceeds go to Unicef, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, or a charity of your choice. Theoretically, you could pay as little as $1 (though that would only unlock six of the books on offer) or up to… well I don’t think there is an upper limit, but the highest contribution so far as been $100. It’s a great way to support charity, and so far, this bundle has raised over $80,000.
As for the books themselves, I’ll admit I hadn’t actually heard of any of the ones in this package before, though some of the names are familiar. I remembered Nick Kanas – the author of three of the novels in the bundle – from his articles about the psychological and physiological effects of space travel in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Brad Aiken’s short story collection Small Doses of the Future: A Collection of Medical Science Fiction Stories includes a couple that have previously been published in Analog. Including Locked In, a story I remember quite fondly. H.G Stratmann is also an Analog regular who has a book in the bundle, called Using Medicine in Science Fiction: the SF Writer’s Guide to Human Anatomy. As an aspiring writer a fan of Stratmann’s fiction, and someone who is interested in Biology, I’m really looking forward to that one. I’ve never heard of Stephen Webb before, but his book, If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens… Where is Everybody? Will probably be one of the first ones I read, because the possibility of alien life is one of the most fascinating unanswered questions facing us today.
One more thing before I leave you. There are only five days left for this deal. Not having read any of the books here, I can’t with confidence say ‘if you have an e-reader go buy these books; they are awesome and you won’t be disappointed.’ But they can be as cheap as you want, and it’s for charity. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in checking out, head over to Humble Bundle as fast as you can.
This isn’t going to be like my normal blog posts. I have a number of things I want to talk about, but nothing I really want to spend an entire blog post about. So, strap in for a dose of reviews, advertisement, ramblings, and tadpoles.
First of all, I should mention that after I made that big post about everything Harry Potter related, new stories came out. The Pottermore Presents series; trio of ebooks that contain short stories and tidbits from Pottermore that shed more light on the wizarding world. They are currently on sale at Pottermore (but not Amazon), though I have yet to get around to reading them. Pottermore has always been a source of interesting information, so it’ll be fun to read these books. However, I’m not super excited about them like I am with everything else Potter-related. Though it’s great that this world is still getting so much attention. I’ll let you know what I think of these stories when I finally get around to reading them. If you want to beat me to the punch, you can buy the Pottermore Presents trilogy here.
Those of you who have been paying attention would have noticed that a book I’ve really been looking forward to came out last month. I have finished The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. It’s book two in the Broken Earth Trilogy, and book one, The Fifth Season, won this year’s Hugo. I’m not going to write up a full review, because I’d be repeating a lot of what I said from my review of Fifth Season. This series features a rich world, compelling characters, and an interesting magic system. I’d give Obelisk Gate a score of 9/10. It is a great continuation of the story, though not as strong as Fifth Season. Possibly that is just standard Middle Book Syndrome. Now I just gotta wait for the final book to be written.
My partner and I had a Stranger Things binge the other week. It’s Netflix’s new big show, and I’d say it is well worth the hype. It’s a horror/Sci-Fi show (though it leans more towards the horror) that is set in the 80s. It has a good Stephen King vibe to it and pays homage to a lot of 80s genre films. There’s a monster, a conspiracy, telepaths, all the good stuff. I have to praise the acting in the show too; really got the feels at times, especially in episodes 3 and 4. The child actors were also great, and it was nice to see a mature show that featured kids as main characters. Plus D&D rules. A second season was recently announced, so that’s another thing I am really looking forward to, and would recommend without hesitation to anyone reading this.
I have also just finished reading The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson. I suppose technically it’s fanfiction, since this story takes place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and features some of his characters. Though, Lovecraft’s work is in the public domain. There also seems to be a trend for retelling fairytales and folk stories, but I don’t know if they’d count as fanfiction. It’s one of those interesting cases that shows how blurred the line can be between fanfiction and well, regular fiction.
Whatever we want to call this novella, it was amazing. The setting had all the creepy, exotic richness of Lovecraft’s vision, but was told from a perspective he would never have considered. Johnson wrote this story as a way to revisit something she loved in childhood (The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) and fix some of the things that made it problematic for her. In my previous post about Lovecraft I mentioned that the man’s persistent racism was a problem, but the lack of female characters is another downside to his work. I love that Johnson has brought me into the Dreamlands, with their zoogs and ghasts and zugs, and now included women into the mix. It is the Lovecraft experience without the baggage. And guess what else is new and improved? Kij Johnson can write dialog.
Now I also have something for fans of old pulp magazines out there. Well, I don’t, but Jamie Todd Rubin has. Back in 2012, he bought a whole bunch of Astounding magazines, ranging from 1939 to 1950. In other words, the Golden Age of science fiction. Rubin began a column called ‘Vacations in the Golden Age’ where he reviewed the magazines and discussed what was happening in the world when they were written. Due to time restraints the project was dropped, but now it’s back and in a new home. Even if you aren’t interested in Astounding/Analog, if you like history, science fiction, or the history of science fiction, you might be interested in these reviews. Check them out here.
And finally, I would like to share that I have a pet. Sort of. Spurred on by a spate of backyard activities, we ended up draining the old septic tank out the back. It hadn’t been used in years and had filled up with rainwater. As the pump got to work, I noticed that the tank was full of tadpoles. It didn’t seem like a good long term home for them (even after we gave up emptying the tank) so I decided to have a go at raising them. I only managed to catch one, and now I’m going to try and raise him to froghood and release him into a nearby stream. Try being the operative word; it seems tadpoles are quite fragile creatures. As for the ones still in the tank, well there is some exposed roots and rocks for them down there, and a hole in the top. Maybe if I can get a long branch down there they’ll be able to get out. I’ll figure something out.
That’s all for now. I gotta go check on Taddywaggles.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, you know what Pokémon is. You probably also know that there are new games coming out called Sun and Moon. (Pokémon S&M, oh my!) Last week a trailer was released in Japan, and in the west we got to see some gameplay footage. In both places, we got to meet the three starters.
For those who don’t know, the starter Pokémon are a big deal. At the start of every game, you get presented with three Pokémon; a grass type, a fire type, and a water type. You can only choose one, and that critter becomes your first Pokémon; your partner throughout the game. For Sun & Moon, the grass type starter is Rowlet, a little owl with a bowtie, the fire type is Litten, a black cat with red markings, and the water type is Poplio, a happy little sea lion.
After processing all that information, I began to wonder if there was some sort of theme among these starter Pokémon. In X and Y, the final evolutions can be seen as an RPG team (a fighter, a mage, and a rouge), and the final evolutions of the starters in Diamond and Pearl are based on legends (Torterra is a World Turtle, Infernape is the Monkey King, and Empoleon is Poseidon). Of course, spotting such a theme at this stage would be hard, since the final forms of these starters has not been revealed.
It was when I tried to imagine what Litten could possibly evolve into that it came to me. You see, the marks on Litten’s face and its colouration suggest to me that it could become a big tiger-like Pokémon. A fire tiger? Tigers in the circus jump through rings of fire, and Polio obviously fits a circus theme too. I’m not quite sure how Rowlet fits in, but he could evolve into something that resembles an acrobat, or a magician, or a ringmaster. I think it’s safe to say that the finale evolutions of the Sun & Moon starters will have a circus feel to them.
As you can imagine, I felt pretty good figuring that out myself. Of course, a quick Google search showed that I was about three days behind the rest of the internet, and people were already talking about the circus connection. However, so far I am not seeing any discussion about the parallels between the circus, Pokémon games, and the themes of the Japanese Sun & Moon trailer. So let’s start talking about 19th Century circus troupes and the Tokugawa Shogunate. Yes, I’m digging that deep for something new and relevant to say about the this announcement.
During the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan was subjected to an isolationist policy and trade with foreigners was strictly controlled. In 1636, an edict enforcing sakoku (literally, country closed) was handed down, stipulating that no-one could enter or leave the country, the punishment for breaking this law was death. It remained illegal to leave Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. During this time there was still trading with Dutch, Korean, and Chinese merchants, but only at designated ports. The majority of Japanese people during this time would never have any contact with foreigners, and vice versa.
Four years after the Meiji Restoration, Richard Risley brought a U.S circus troupe to Yokohama, and the Japanese loved the show, which was mostly equestrian acts. Risley also got a chance to see local performers and was impressed with what he saw. He sought permission to bring a troupe of Japanese contortionists, conjurers, acrobats and other performers to tour the U.S. and Europe, thus creating the The Japanese Imperial Artistes’ Company. More Japanese circus troupes would later travel overseas, and more Western circuses would tour Japan. The Meiji Emperor once visited a circus performing at Tokyo and was so impressed he gave the ringmaster $5000 worth of gold.
So… what is the point I’m trying to make here? Well, apart from the merchants and the statesmen, the first Japanese people to travel overseas were circus performers. In the 19th century, the only place the average Westerner would see a Japanese person would be at the circus. Likewise, the circus was the first exposure a lot of Japanese people had to Westerners. The circus was an early channel for cross-cultural interactions between Japan and the West. Different cultures were bonding over something fun and frivolous.
Does this seem familiar to anyone? Let’s have a look at the Japanese trailer with this context in mind. (Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r0_F-_ClcQ) In the trailer, a young boy moves to Hawaii, and has trouble making friends. Not that the other kids are mean, it’s just hard to make friends in a new place where everyone speaks a different language. The new Pokémon games help the boy connect with his classmates, as all the kids are drawn together by playing the games. Pokémon transcends language barriers and national borders. It’s a way to play with people from different cultures, who you may never be able to play with in any other setting.
See what I’m getting at here?
It’ll be interesting to see how this circus theme – this coming out from isolation, travelling the world, meeting people from different cultures, sharing skills and experiences, and bonding over a fun event – is applied in the rest of the game.
Yes, the rest of the game. In Ruby and Sapphire, the starters represented different habitats, and the environment was front and centre in the games. In Diamond and Pearl, the starters had that legend theme, and the games were very big on expanding the Pokémon mythology. In Black and White, the starters had a theme of different cultures, and these games were set in an expy of New York, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The villain team also had an inability to see any views other than their own as valid; their views were not about race or culture, but the lesson of being able to accept difference still fits with this theme. In X and Y, the starters represent different roles players in an RPG may take on. In these games, you travel and fight against the baddies alongside a group of friends at many points in the story, and all your friends are constantly trying to figure out what role they want to play in the world.
So, what can we expect from a circus theme? Will the focus on cross-cultural bonding play a big story role? How will that focus on meeting people from across the world impact the wireless battling and trading features? Will the locations and travelling play a bigger role than usual? What will the villain team’s motivation be?
I am super excited about these games. I can’t wait to find out the answers to these questions alongside my brand new Pokémon partner; which will be Litten, of course.