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Jessica Strider (Toronto, Canada)
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Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
by John H. Taylor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 23.16
25 used & new from CDN$ 23.16

5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning, highly informative book, April 9 2014
Pros: lots of gorgeous coloured photos, detailed chapters, covers numerous aspects surrounding death and the afterlife

Cons: no complete text translation

This is a gorgeous pictorial overview of what we call the Egyptian Book of the Dead and what the ancient Egyptians called The Book of Coming Forth by Day. It evolved over time as a collection of knowledge and spells designed to help those for whom they were made, and with whom they were buried, find their way through the perils of the afterlife and judgement so they could ‘live’ again.

Journey Through the Afterlife takes examples from dozens of papyrus roles that have been recovered to discuss their purpose, the Egyptian view of death and the afterlife, burial practices and the act of preparing the rolls themselves.

Each chapter ends with several examples of what was discussed, often including supplementary information in their explanatory passages.

I was surprised by how many of the medieval views of magic (which I studied in university and elsewhere) started in Egypt. For example: the belief that words have power, both when spoken and written. The use of amulets. The importance of knowing the true name of spirits/gods/demons in order to have power over them. Making protective circles drawn with ‘wands’. Using ‘virgin’ (unused) papyrus (in the middle ages it would have been unused parchment) for spells. The importance of ritual in the efficacy of magic, etc.

It would have been nice had a translation of the full text of the Egyptian Book of the Dead been included, but as this book is intended as a companion guide to the texts, it’s not surprising they didn’t have room for it.

The is a beautiful and highly informative book if you have an interest in ancient Egypt, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, views of the afterlife or the ancient practice of magic.

Zita the Spacegirl
Zita the Spacegirl
by Ben Hatke
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.82
57 used & new from CDN$ 3.83

5.0 out of 5 stars Expressive Artwork and Quirky Characters Make for a Fun Read, April 8 2014
This review is from: Zita the Spacegirl (Paperback)
Pros: fun protagonist, cute story, expressive artwork

Cons:

When Zita finds a strange device in a meteoroid and pushes the button on it her friend Joseph is pulled through the rift that opens. She reacts as any young girl would, by running away and pretending nothing bad just happened. Then she gathers her courage, pushes the button again, and jumps through the rift to go find her friend. Her quest to rescue Joseph takes her to an alien planet that’s facing its final days.

Zita’s a personable girl, with a lot of courage and heart. She makes friends easily, finding several creatures willing to help her out.

The artwork is very expressive, giving the characters a lot of personality to match the dialogue.

The plot is quick moving, with a few twists. Things wrap up well enough at the end of this comic, but there are 2 other books in the series, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl and Return of Zita the Spacegirl. The three books together make up the completed story arc.

This is a great kid friendly graphic novel that will inspire readers and hopefully encourage them to read more SF and fantasy adventures.

Talus and the Frozen King
Talus and the Frozen King
by Graham Edwards
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.49
23 used & new from CDN$ 1.37

4.0 out of 5 stars Neolithic Sherlock Holmes solves mystery of king's death, April 2 2014
Pros: intricate mystery, interesting characters

Cons: slow opening, characters never seem to sleep

Talus, a widely travelled bard, and his companion, Bran, a former fisherman, arrive at a Northern island the day after their king has died. A quick examination of the body reveals that the king was murdered, and Talus offers to help find the killer.

Talus is basically a neolithic age Sherlock Holmes. He examines the evidence and observes the world closely to see what others miss. And while he doesn’t use much in the way of scientific deduction, he is highly observant and has a personality that alternates between charming (when he’s telling a story) and abrasive (when he’s exhorting Bran to pay attention and see what’s happening around him). Also like Sherlock, he’s not very good when it comes to relationship matters, and so tends to miss some of the human clues that crop up.

Which is where Bran comes in. Bran is hot tempered and still grieving the loss of his wife and the use of his right hand, which was seriously injured the day she died. He misses a lot of subtle clues but prompts Talus with regards to some of the more human elements of the case.

There are two strong women from the isles who have fairly prominent roles, while maintaining historical deference to the men around them.

The mystery is complex and while it takes a while for the more intricate details to come up, by the end of the book there’s quite a knot of intrigue to untangle.

This is historical fiction and the only fantasy style elements - if you can call them that - are the character’s beliefs in various gods and a judgement style afterlife.

My only complaint with the book is that the action takes place within a few days and the protagonists are constantly on the move. Even after Bran exclaims his exhaustion he and Talus never seem to actually sleep, as they deal with one crisis after another.

The book is fairly slow moving, focusing as much on character as on the mystery. If you like historical fiction and/or interesting mysteries, give this book a try.

Psychomania: Killer Stories
Psychomania: Killer Stories
by Stephen Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.36
23 used & new from CDN$ 8.43

4.0 out of 5 stars A Creepy, High Quality Collection, March 25 2014
Pros: frame story that pulls the collection together, high quality writing, diverse stories

Cons: some of the stories were more interesting than others

The collection starts off with an introduction by Robert Block, author of Psycho, followed by a prologue by John Llewellyn Probert. The prologue sets the theme and tone of the series, and gives it cohesion. There are periodic brakes in the collection that returns the reader to the prologue’s scenario. This is a great technique as it gives an inherent reason for the collection. The book ends with short bylines for the contributing authors. At the end of most of the bylines, is a paragraph or two explaining why the author wrote their story.

The quality of stories is consistently high. My reviews of the stories are, of course, subjective. I gave the scariest stories higher ratings as this is a horror anthology. There’s a good variety of tales, and while most of the stories deal with psychotic murderers, there are a few that don’t.

If you like stories of psychos, mysteries and / or scaring yourself, this is a fantastic collection.

***** Prologue, Casefiles & Epilogue by John Llewellyn Probert
A journalist goes for an interview with the head psychologist of a prison for the mentally insane, but before the interview, the psychologist insists on a quiz: to guess which case files he shares are true and which are false. - This is a frame story for the collection but has its own inner logic and conclusion. I was impressed that the casefiles segments refered to the stories around them, giving a real sense of cohesion to the collection.

**** “I Tell You It’s Love” by Joe Lansdale
A sadomasochistic couple experience true bliss. - A creepy story about what people will do for those they love.

*** “The Green Hour” by Reggie Oliver
Private detective Dupin is asked to help solve a series of murders associated with the Paris World’s Fair. - A classic ‘who done it’ with a few twists.

***** “The Secret Laws of the Universe” by Steve Rasnic Tem
Ed knows he can be more than he is, but not so long as his wife’s alive. - Ed’s casual attitude towards the talking inanimate objects and the deaths he causes is quite chilling.

***** “The Recompensing of Albano Pizar” by Basil Copper
A literary agent treats the widow of one of his former clients badly, and faces her terrible vengeance. - Another creepy and well written story. Reminded me of one of Poe’s stories.

**** “Night Soil Man” by David Sutton
A workman tries to hide from a bad influence of his past - I liked the story but found the dialect hard to read.

**** “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” Brian Hodge
The narrator has a one-sided discussion about an attempted suicide that should have succeeded. - An interesting story that deals with some deep issues. I’m not sure I understood the ending.

***** “The Trembling Living Wire” by Scott Edelman
Iz is a music teacher who will go to any lengths to help his most promising students reach their full potential. - A fabulous story about obsession.

***** “The Undertaker’s Sideline” by Robert Silverberg
An undertaker has an unexpected side business. - Brilliantly creepy.

**** “The Long Shift” by Joel Lane
Jim’s going for revenge against the manager who belittled and forced numerous people out of their company. - Loved the ending.

**** “The Man Who Photographed Beardsley” by Brian Lumley
A dedicated artist creates modelled photographs out of famous drawings. - More description of Beardsley’s work would have been helpful for those unfamiliar with his work (like me), but it’s not necessary to get the gist of the story.

**** “Hollywood Hannah” by Lisa Morton
A producer’s intern gets more of an education on the movie industry than she expected. - An interesting story about how little acts can eventually corrupt.

**** “I Spy” by Paul McAuley
An abused kid looks for what’s special in himself. - This was a sad, disturbing story.

*** “Reflections on the Critical Process” by Mike Carey
A book critic faces an author who is murderously unhappy by the review his gothic novel received. - While I enjoyed the critic’s sense of humour, the implausibility of the story made me lower its score. At no point does the protagonist think of calling the cops for help. It is, however, a true gothic tale.

**** “The Finger” by David Schow
A man watches in surprise as a finger bone he finds slowly grows into a monster. - The reasonable tone of the narrator somehow makes this story feel less horrific than it is.

***** “Hot Eyes, Cold Eyes” by Lawrence Block
An attractive woman, tired of the stares of men constantly following her, goes for a wild night on the town. - This story does a great job of showing the protagonist’s discomfort and has a great ending.

***1/2 “Hush… Hush, Sweet Shushie” by Jay Russell
A former child star’s wild ex-wife asks him for help. - An intriguing story with several flashbacks to flesh out the characters and situation.

**** “The Gatecrasher” by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
A seance unleashes a spirit that possesses a man and makes him do terrible things. - It centres on a creepy premise that is skillfully told.

**** “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman
Karen’s older brother Nicholas teaches her a ritual to perform on her dolls that affects her later in life. - A disturbing story with a sudden ending.

***** “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator’s evil deed comes to haunt him. - A brilliant story.

**** “Got to Kill Them All” by Dennis Etchison
A game show host plans revenge on his cheating wife. - An interesting story with a chilling ending.

***** “Essence” by Mark Morris
A middle aged couple target a college girl at a pub. - A very disturbing story.

*** “The Beach” by Michael Kelly
A woman bemoans her loneliness and the loss of growing up. - A sad, somewhat bleak story.

**** “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch
Sir Guy Hollis asks a psychiatrist’s help in tracking down Jack the Ripper in 1945 Chicago. - I rather enjoyed this story, though I predicted the ending. I should also point out that there is some now politically incorrect language used.

**** “See How They Run” by Ramsey Campbell
Mr. Foulsham is a juror at the trial of Mr. Fishwick. But his concerns about the case don’t end when the trial does. - A compelling read.

**** “Manners” by Conrad Williams
A man living on his own has an unusual diet. - The ambiguous ending allows for a few interpretations of what’s going on. (Though the author’s byline implies that the obvious ending is the correct one.)

***** “Bryant & May and the Seven Points” by Christopher Fowler
Two detectives investigate a side show for a missing spy. - A highly detailed story. Easily solved, but intriguing nonetheless.

*** “All the Birds Come Home to Roost” by Harlan Ellison
Michael Kirxby laments his past relationships, before his former lovers, inexplicably, start looking him up again. - A strange but interesting story that ends too soon.

***** “Wide-Shining Light” by Rio Youers
After separating from his wife, Martin attends a school reunion and meets up with his old best friend, Richard, who helps him get back on his feet in return for a favour later on. - A complex story with a satisfying conclusion.

***** “Feminine Endings” by Neil Gaiman
A man’s love letter to his beloved. - A creepy story with a fantastic ending.

***** “Eater” by Peter Crowther
It’s nighttime at a precinct where three guards are watching a serial killer who ate his victims. - This is a terrifying story.

**** “Mister Mellor Comes to Wyside” by Peter Crowther
Mr Mellor visits a new town. - A continuation of the previous story, with equally horrific connotations.

***** “Failure” by Michael Marshall
A man suspects that his son has taken a wrong turn in life regarding his treatment of women. - Fantastic plot with a great ending.

*** “The Only Ending We Have” by Kim Newman
The shower scene stand in for Hitchcock’s Psycho flees the studio with something precious. - An unsettling story with parallels to Psycho.

**** “Kriss Kross Applesauce” by Richard Christian Matheson
Mrs. Harris writes her annual Christmas letter. - The story’s short but packs quite a punch.

The Emperor's Blades
The Emperor's Blades
by Brian Staveley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.05
38 used & new from CDN$ 13.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic debut, March 18 2014
This review is from: The Emperor's Blades (Hardcover)
Pros: organic world-building, fascinating characters, slow build up, satisfying conclusion

Cons:

The Emperor of the Annurian Empire has died. His oldest child, a daughter, Adare, lives in the Dawn Palace and has been raised to the post of Finance Minister. Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has been training under the tutelage of the Shin monks for eight years, trying to master a technique he’ll need in order to rule. Their younger brother, Valyn, is close to becoming a member of the Kettral, an elite force that flies on gigantic birds.

As the plot that killed the emperor spreads to his children, they must master their various skills in order to survive.

This is a slow building story that allows the reader to learn about the world through the actions and knowledge of the characters. There are no info dumps, and a lot of information is left unstated. The characters develop slowly, changing as the events of the book affect them.

The world is multicultural, though the focus remains on the three protagonists, each of whom live in very different places. The majority of time is spent alternating between Valyn’s brutal training as a warrior and Kaden’s rather different, but equally brutal training to learn how to empty his mind. While Adare gets fewer pages devoted to her story, it’s in no way less important to the plot or interesting to the reader. Hers involves more political intrigue while her brothers’ tales have more blood and pain.

While the book employs familiar elements, the writing feels fresh and the ideas are cleverly used. It’s a fantastic debut and I can’t wait to see what comes next in the story.

The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages
The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages
by Spike Bucklow
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.06
36 used & new from CDN$ 10.47

5.0 out of 5 stars In depth examination of Medieval Alchemical ideas, March 12 2014
Pros: very well researched, explains things clearly using numerous examples, goes over various historical traditions

Cons: only mentions the most expensive pigments artists used, only a few illustrations

This is an exploration of colours used by painters in the middle ages by way of their ‘scientific’ and alchemical significance. It mentions myths, traditions, physical and spiritual significances of the materials according to Traditional beliefs. It also goes over the alchemical procedures that made these already expensive pigments even more important.

I was expecting a treatise on all the different pigments used in the middle ages, something akin to a teaching manual. Instead, I got a mind blowing exploration of philosophy and world beliefs of the past. I’ve always been interested in alchemy, and this book explained things like Plato’s cave, 4 element theory, and the Philosopher’s Stone in a way that was easy to understand. While there were only a few simple figure drawings, the clarity of the writing meant illustration wasn’t really necessary (even if it would have been welcome).

Only a few pigments are mentioned: Tyrian purple, ultramarine blue, vermilion and dragonsblood (both red), and gold. Later chapters revisit some of these materials showing their spiritual, rather than physical, significance. I appreciated learning that the location and method of obtaining materials had meaning for the later artwork and use of the pigments, which I hadn’t expected. Similarly, it doesn’t cover all aspects of alchemy, just those associated with the pigments being discussed.

The opening’s a bit condescending in the way of ‘we don’t think as they did, so it will be hard for you to understand what I’m about to say’, but he quickly moved on to the topic at hand, and only occasionally gave a modern analogy for those who might have trouble wrapping their heads around the Traditional world view (as opposed to the modern Scientific, analytical view).

This is a fascinating book and if you have any interest in alchemy I can’t recommend it enough. Another thing it showed, that modern audiences don’t recognize, is how interconnected the world of the past was. We see Europe as an isolated area, ignoring the fact that materials and ideas traversed borders and continents to influence them. I also didn’t realize just how much Christianity took from other traditions. Looks like I’ve a whole lot more reading and research to do.

Tin Star
Tin Star
by Cecil Castellucci
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 13.71
33 used & new from CDN$ 8.91

5.0 out of 5 stars A Fun, engaging read, March 4 2014
This review is from: Tin Star (Hardcover)
Pros: fun, engaging protagonist, interesting alien races

Cons: takes Tula a long time to figure out something fairly obvious

For parents: kissing, some violence

Sixteen year old Tula Bane arrives on the Yertina Feray as a member of the Children of Earth on their way to colonize a new world. But when her questioning puts her at odds with their leader, Brother Blue, she’s left for dead on the station as they move on.

Surrounded by numerous alien species who think little of isolationist humans, and with only limited knowledge of Universal Galactic, she wonders how she’ll survive, let alone get her revenge on Brother Blue.

Tin Star is a fun, quick read. The protagonist is intelligent and quickly makes a place for herself on the station, with the help of another alien. It’s interesting watching her interact with the various alien races and, when some humans arrive on the station, realize how little she now knows about her own kind.

The different alien races are only loosely described, allowing you some freedom in creating your mental image of them. Similarly, while it’s clear that Tula learns how to understand them for trade purposes, a lot of their habits, customs, etc, are also left to your imagination. I personally enjoyed this, though I imagine some readers will wish for more descriptive and explanatory passages. The same goes for the political intrigues of the universe at large. Changes in the outside world affect the station, but - due to problems with their communications array - the station’s information about the outside world is minimal.

There are minor romantic elements towards the middle of the book but the focus remains on Tula and her mission to get off the station.

My only complaint is that it takes Tula rather a long time to figure out something that seemed pretty obvious early on in the book. And that’s a mild complaint as it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book nor did it seem the author was purposely making her blind. It’s something a person in her circumstances wouldn’t consider.

For parents wondering about content issues, there’s no language or sex (though some scenes suggest sex may be happening off page, those passages can be interpreted either way). There’s a little kissing and some minor violence (the protagonist is beaten in the first chapter).

The book is self-contained, but set up for a sequel. I really enjoyed this book and hope there’s more to come.

Conquest: Book 1, The Chronicles of the Invaders
Conquest: Book 1, The Chronicles of the Invaders
by John Connolly
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.80
25 used & new from CDN$ 18.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Great start to a new series, Feb. 26 2014
Pros: compelling story, political machinations, minor romantic elements

Cons: slow opening

Conquest takes place roughly 16 years after the Illyri, a race similar to humans, take over the Earth. Syl, conceived among the stars and the first Illyri born on Earth, lives with her father, the governor of Britain and Ireland, in Edinburgh castle. On her 16th birthday she and a friend sneak out of the castle and encounter two human teenagers, members of the Resistance just as a bomb goes off on the Royal Mile. Events spiral into a series of political machinations that change the world as these 4 youths know it.

The book gets off to a slow start, as there’s a lot of background information the reader needs to know in order to follow what happens after the bombing in Edinburgh. Once things start happening they happen fast. By page 100 I found that I couldn’t put the book down, I was so invested in the characters and what was happening.

While a lot of the politics happen off stage, given the ages of the protagonist, there’s still a fair amount of political maneuvering, among the humans (different resistance groups) but mainly among the Illyri (the sisterhood, the military and the diplomatic corps). It’s the alien politics that fascinate, and I’m hoping the next book includes more information about the sisterhood.

There are a lot of SF elements borrowed from other sources, but the authors do a great job of using those elements in new ways. The addition of a burgeoning romance between one of the humans and Syl only enhances the difficulties the two races face. And the ending contained some great twists.

This book is more complex than humans: good, aliens: bad. Having protagonists on both sides makes both sides partly sympathetic. And partly not. It’s a great start to a series.

Ancillary Justice
Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.27
32 used & new from CDN$ 8.06

5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking SF, Feb. 11 2014
This review is from: Ancillary Justice (Paperback)
Pros: fascinating premise, thought provoking, hard SF

Cons: Seivarden’s personality changes a lot

Twenty years ago she was Justice of Toren, the artificial intelligence of a Radchaai spaceship with thousands of ancillary units at her command. Now she is simply Breq, a single ancillary. Her mission: to destroy the entity that reduced her to her present state.

This is a fascinating novel. It’s predominantly told in chapters alternating between Breq’s present and what happened 20 years ago when One Esk was stationed in the newly annexed city of Ors.

I liked the idea that the Radchaai language had no genderization (he/she), so Breq finds it difficult to determine the genders of people when speaking other languages, often guessing wrong. The use of ‘she’ in the book for everyone made me question my own preoccupation with gender, as I first tried to figure out what gender all the characters were, with some difficulty. As the book wore on, I finally gave up, even though the correct genders for several characters were stated. Once I got used to the idea that the character’s gender didn’t matter, I found it oddly liberating not caring about what gender everyone was and simply appreciating the characters for their actions.

There were several quotes that spoke to me in the book, like this one by Breq about the actions of her ancillaries and officers who participated in a genocide:

“It’s easy to say that if you were there you would have refused, that you would rather die than participate in the slaughter, but it all looks very different when it’s real, when the moment comes to choose.” (p. 114, ebook edition)

The book definitely makes you think about identity and choices.

While there are jump gates to facilitate and speed up space travel, the book is hard SF in that it still takes a long time to get places. While you won’t find detailed explanations of how the ship and station AIs work, there is enough information about it to create a good backdrop for the rest of the book.

While there is a plot, it’s the character of Breq/One Esk that carries the book. She’s such a fascinating figure that you read on just to find out more about her and her past.

I’m not sure I believed the extent of Seivarden’s transformation from highborn snob to what he becomes at the end of the book, but I did appreciate what he went through and could see how such events would change a person a lot.

The ending was exciting and satisfying given what’s happened in the story. It’s open enough for the coming sequel but does stand on its own.

I highly recommend this book.

Where's Lolly? (Class Heroes)
Where's Lolly? (Class Heroes)
Price: CDN$ 1.64

4.0 out of 5 stars Fun, quick read, Feb. 4 2014
This is a novella that takes place after Class Heroes book 2, What Happened in Witches Wood. While it is possible to read this without reading the 2 novels that precede it, this novella does somewhat spoil aspects of the second book’s ending.

The story focuses on Lolly Rosewood, on the run from the police, in London, looking for help after the events of book 2. The story’s fast paced, and involves lying, sex and bad decisions.

Due to her loss of powers, Lolly’s more sympathetic here than in the novels, though she does make choices that make you forget how young she is.

It’s a fun, quick read. And while you can read it as a stand-alone, those who have read the novels will obviously get more out of it.

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