Friday, March 30, 2012

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and HoneyShades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book. I've read a bit of Jane Austen but was never a huge fan. I was quite pleasantly surprised.

The story centers around Jane Ellsworth, a young lady of some social standing whose family lives in Dorchester. Jane is not unattractive, but her somewhat plain looks are overshadowed by her sister, Melody, who is the beauty of the family. Jane is talented in the womanly arts: painting, music and the use of glamour, the manipulation of magic to create illusions of nature or art. Still, she is jealous of her sister's beauty and the attention she gets from the young gentlemen. Melody, for her part, is jealous of Jane's talents. When a neighbor hires a talented glamourist to create a magical mural, Jane is eager to learn how he creates the incredible scenes he does. Melody, meanwhile, becomes involved in a romance that turns disastrous, and Jane finds herself the one to try to save her family's reputation, as well as her sister's honor. Along the way, Jane finds her own way to love and fulfillment.

This is a quiet story. It is not an action packed, adventure quest. It is the day to day life of people in an Austen-like society: social calls, dinners, formal manners.. There are some faster paced scenes at the end, but in general, the story does move slowly, which may be a put off for some. However, the pace suits the story quite well and doesn't detract from the enjoyment.

The most fascinating thing about the story, for me, was the use of glamour. It is also a quiet thing, this glamour magic. No chanted spells, no fiery flashes of wizard light. The glamourist pulls and shapes "folds" of glamour to create art. It brought up images of a prism bending light waves for me. Glamour is here considered somewhat of a woman's art, and all young ladies of society are expected to be somewhat versed in its use. Most of the men don't seem to be able to do more than admire the finished product. Mr. Vincent is an exception, a glamourist of enough talent that he can make a living as an artist in the craft. It's a different sort of magic system, and fits perfectly into the Regency era setting of the story.

The book is a fairly quick read, which I find a nice change of pace. The characters are good, if a bit less developed in some cases than they could be. The story is entertaining, the magic system is quite different from the usual, and I found myself enjoying it a lot. I look forward to the next book, Glamour in Glass, due out in early April.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Deadly Relations: Bester Ascendant by J. Gregory Keyes (A Babylon 5 novel)

Deadly Relations: Bester Ascendant (Babylon 5: Saga of Psi Corps, #2)Deadly Relations: Bester Ascendant by Greg Keyes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog that I am a big fan of the 1990’s television sci-fi show, Babylon 5. I own all the DVDs, have bought most of the behind-the-scenes series of books that have been published, and, of course, the novels. Some have been better than others, of course. I have been looking forward to the Psi Corps trilogy, since Bester was one of the most intriguing characters on the show. I just finished the second book in the trilogy, and it was a bit of a letdown.

The first book, Dark Genesis, was interesting. It told Bester’s story from his infancy. Actually, it started before he was born, with his parents. Not to give too much away, but his background is a bit surprising. This second book picks up with Alfred now in training at the Psi Corps centers. He’s an obnoxious little so-and-so even as a kid, and doesn’t make a lot of friends. He tends to have an independent streak and that gets him into trouble more than once. But he is a P12, and seems destined for greatness. The story follows his education, early days as a Psi Cop, and leads into the years when Bester has become one of the top ranking Psi Cops. It is still an interesting story, but it just didn’t engage me like some of the other novels.

One thing that worked against it was that Bester himself seemed a rather distant character. In some ways, it fits, since he does distance himself from others to a great extent. And even though the story is told from Bester’s point of view, it never felt like I was fully involved with his character. It was more like watching from a distance than being in the middle of a life. It made the whole story less engaging.

There were some nice tie-ins with the story arc as it aired on TV. Bester interacts with several of the characters that were in the show in his early days, and we get a glimpse of them along with Bester.
Even with the above, there are a lot of details revealed about Bester’s life and how he got to the point he was when the show aired. He is still one of the more interesting characters to come out of Babylon 5.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

This Weekend in Pictures

Saturday was supposed to be warm and sunny. So much for the weather man! It was damp and gloomy, much like the previous two days. A bit warmer, but still not the day it was supposed to be. We were planning on working on repairing the chicken pen, but it seems tomorrow will be a better day, so we decided to hold off. I hope it is, for more than one reason.

If you read earlier posts, you know I planted some Spring greens a week ago. And, of course, the weather got chilly immediately. Now, those plants can take cooler temps, but like all seeds, do like some warmth for sprouting. I see some arugula starting, and a few lettuces. I hope the weather improves, since I added more this week. I also got the nicer cover for the beds, so that should help more than the thin plastic that was up there. Here is the bed as it is now:

The rest of the garden is still a bit of a mess. I'm working on it slowly. Oh, and here's a shot of most of the chickens. They all rushed to the fence when I came out, to see if I brought any treats. I didn't. My bad!

We are having our homemade corned beef dinner tomorrow, when Kryss, Kleber and Will can come. But I made cranberry and golden raisin scones on Sunday, so there was some Irish in our St. Paddy's day!

Not too bad, eh?
That was my weekend. What was yours like?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Once Upon a Time, Things Were Rather Grimm

Sorry, but no book review this week. I'm caught up on past reads, and haven't finished the current one, so nothing to review. I'm going to venture into TV-land, instead.

We have two new fantasy type shows on network TV this season: NBC's Grimm and ABC's Once Upon a Time. I've been watching both on Hulu and I'm a couple episodes behind on both. While I can't say I absolutely love either one, they have been interesting enough to keep me watching.

Grimm: For those who don't watch, the basic premise is based on Grimm's Fairy Tales, only here, the monsters (called wesen, German for creature) are humanoid and it seems most of them live in Portland, OR. Nick Burkhartdt is a detective on the Portland police force, and is a Grimm, a member of the family that throughout history, has kept humanity safe from the creatures. He learns about his special heritage from his Aunt Marie, who raised him and returns to Portland, dying of cancer. Since Nick is about to become the next Grimm, he can now see beyond the wesen's humanoid forms to their true selves. He and his partner are set to solving the odd crimes that seem to keep happening in Portland, all tied to one or another wesen.

The concept is interesting, and much of the show lives up to it. There are many more creatures than in any of the Grimm's tales I've read, and not all are evil and bent on destruction. Many just want to live their lives without anyone knowing what they really are. Of course, there are a few really nasty ones. Nick's character is a bit, hmm, I guess wimpy, to me. I understand that he's a good police officer, and he doesn't want to go around slicing and dicing every wesen he sees, but-- He doesn't seem to want to go after any of them, even the evil ones. So far, I think he's killed exactly one of them (I could be wrong, but it isn't many). The ones that are bent on destruction seem to do themselves in or someone else takes care of them. It kind of takes the scary out of Nick's Grimm-ness. Why would the wesen be afraid of him (and they all are), if they know he isn't going to do anything to them? And Aunt Marie left him a trailer full of sharp and/or pointy things and, much to my chagrin, he hasn't used a single one. The only time he made use of a weapon from the trailer, it was Monroe who got to fire it.

And speaking of Monroe. Ah, here's the fun character. Monroe is a blutbad (German: bloodbath), essentially the Big Bad Wolf. But this one is a vegetarian. Yep, a veggie wolf. Monroe is trying to keep his violent nature curbed and staying away from meat is one way he does it. He also helps Nick out with the wesen they encounter, much to the disappointment of the secret group who are most annoyed that a Grimm is living in their playground. Monroe is funny, charming, and one of the reasons I keep watching.

More of the continuing storyline is being pulled in each week, and some things are getting intriguing. How long can Nick keep his Grimm background from his fiance? And his partner? What exactly is Nick's boss' connection to the wesen? He's been seen with a rather vampirish female wesen on occasion, and is definitely keeping tabs on Nick, but doesn't seem to be a creature himself. It's not great TV, but it is decent.

Once Upon A Time: This one is based (loosely) on the story of Snow White, with many other fairy tales tossed in. In the fairy tale world, Snow White is being married to James (Prince Charming). The evil queen interrupts the wedding and says that she is going to make sure that Snow and everyone else is going to lose everything that makes them happy. She invokes an ancient curse just as Snow is about to give birth to her first child, and everyone is transported to Storybrook, ME in the modern world, where they don't remember who they were or what happened. All except for the evil queen (now the mayor of Storybrook) and her son, Henry. Henry has a book of fairy tales, appropriately titled Once Upon A Time, and he knows that the fairy tales are the true lives of the town's inhabitants and that the mayor is responsible. Enter Emma, who is Henry's birth mother and Snow White's daughter. It seems Snow and James managed to get the baby into a magic cabinet carved by Geppetto and she escaped the curse. Except she doesn't know about her past either, since she was only a newborn at the time. Henry finds her and brings her back to Storybrook, since the book says she is only one who can break the curse.

The story unfolds both in Storybrook and in flashbacks to the fairytale world. I find the fairytale parts the most fascinating. And the evil queen, played deliciously by Lana Parilla, is a delight. She is cold, calculating, and doesn't care about anyone or anything except insuring that Snow White (Mary Margaret in Storybrook) is miserable. And her costumes are just incredible.

The way the characters are translated to modern times is one of the fun parts of the show. Red Riding Hood is a rather slutty thing here, who works at a restaurant and has bright red streaks in her hair and wears midriff baring short skirts and teetering heels. Pinocchio is a psychiatrist. Snow is a school teacher, and Prince Charming works at the animal shelter (and is also married to someone else). Emma was a bounty hunter before Henry convinced her to come to Storybrook. One of the best characters is Rumpelstiltskin, here known (very appropriately) as Mr. Gold. He also knows what happened and how, and is almost as cold and evil as the queen. Their interactions are some of the best parts of the show. In this version, Rumpelstiltskin was also the bad guy in most of the fairytales referenced. For instance, an episode I watched recently was based on Beauty and the Beast, and Rumpelstiltskin was the Beast.

The exact reason for the queen's intense hatred of Snow White is not fully known. It has been hinted several times that Snow did something to take the queen's chance at happiness away, but we don't know yet exactly what that was. It must have been something pretty bad for her to want to push everyone out of their own "real" lives and into a world where they don't remember each other except as residents of Storybrook. Again, a little more is revealed each week.

This is another show that is not great, but has a lot of nice fantasy elements to it. Yes, you do have to overlook some inconsistencies, but it's entertainment, not science. Most of the characters are well done, and the takes on the familiar fairy tales, and how they parallel the characters lives now, are decently done.

If you haven't checked them out, give them a try. I've been enjoying watching.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring Forward

Daylight Savings time has arrived. I have mixed feelings about it, really. I don't like losing an hour's sleep on Saturday, but I do like the extra daylight in the evening. I know it will only take a few days to adjust to the difference, and I will enjoy the evening light for a lot longer than that. I guess it's OK.

We've had nice weather again. Saturday was a bit chilly, but it was really nice Sunday. We got the new two section compost tumbler assembled, and I got a batch "cooking." I think this should work better than the big bin we had been using. For one thing, the batches will be smaller, so they should be ready sooner. And the tumbler feature means it will get mixed well. With the big bin, it was hard to get a pitchfork in there once the pile got deep.

I have the first of the Spring greens planted. They are under hoops covered with cheap plastic now, but I have better covers on order for them, plus frost blankets for the still chilly nights. That should let me grow some things later in the fall, as well. The whole garden plan is done. I've been using a site called Smart Gardener. I like it with just a few reservations. It is really designed for starting a garden from scratch, so it doesn't work quite as well with an already established plan and rotation scheme. But I have been able to adapt it pretty well, and the woman who designed it was very interested in hearing my thoughts about what I found less than helpful. Anyway, you set up your garden area, pick the plants you want to grow, and it will make a plan for you. In successive years, it will rotate the plants the way they should be done. If the plant you want to grow isn't in the current database, you can add it. I've done that for a few things, but much of the time, I can find something close enough to the variety I have and I just use that. It figures out what you have to do when, and gives you a to-do list every week. And keeps a log of the tasks as you complete them. This is the second year I've used it and it does help.

We also got the plan figured out for the drip irrigation system we want to install out there this year. That will be a big help. I found last year that the sprinkler wasn't getting enough water to the root zones once the bigger plants like tomatoes grew up. Then the leaves stayed wet too long, no matter when I watered and were susceptible to disease. Hope to not have that problem this season. The drip lines should be going in in the next month or so. That way, they will be in on the in-ground plots before I need to lay the new landscape fabric and plant the majority of things.

After all that, I want to get the area where the old garden used to be cleaned up. It's all overgrown brush and small trees right now, but the fencing is still up. I want to use that to dump the old bedding from the chicken coop into so it can break down and age. Right now, it is just in a corner of the yard and the chickens end up spreading it all over, to the point where I can't really shovel it up and use it.

There are a few more projects I want to work on, but all of the above should keep me busy for a while!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder (Lunar Chronicles, #1)Cinder by Marissa Meyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't read much YA these days. There isn't a reason for that, other than I am not the general target audience for these books. But I've heard a lot of good things about some recent YA, and decided to look at a few.

Cinder is a cyborg, a human with some robot parts. She was injured as a child, and surgeons implanted robotic limbs and some nervous system implants to save her life. The problem is, cyborgs are considered second class citizens by the rest of the human population. Cinder lives in New Beijing with her stepmother and stepsisters, where she is forced to work as a mechanic (which she is very good at) to support her family. There is a plague killing people in this dystopic world, for which there is no cure, as well as the threat of war from the Lunars, a subset of humans living on the moon who have psychic powers. When Prince Kai, heir to the Eastern commonwealth throne, brings a broken droid to Cinder to fix, she becomes involved in plots, both political and personal, and it seems she may hold the key to solving both problems.

*A warning* I try to write these reviews without spoilers, and I don't think anything I am going to say would constitute a major reveal, but there may be a minor thing here or there.

Yes, it is a retelling of the Cinderella story, with a few twists. Without giving too much away,I did figure out one of the main story lines about a third of the way into the book. Not that it was much of a surprise, given the basic premise. Knowing that did not in any way detract from how the story arrived at the conclusion. A few things might be a little predictable or glossed over in explanation, but in general, the story is well told.

World building was a tad lacking. We are given few glimpses into what seemed an intriguing setting. New Beijing was apparently built on the rubble of a destroyed Beijing, and it seems a fascinating city with much to offer. Readers don't get to experience much of it, however.

The characters were mainly well drawn. Cinder is a believable teenager, without too heavy a dose of the angst seen in many teen stories. Prince Kai is, as expected, the handsome hero, but even he has an edge that makes him more than a cookie cutter "Prince Charming." Cinder's step family is about as expected, with the exception of the younger sister, who is here portrayed as sympathising and being friends with Cinder. The queen of the Lunars is cold, calculating, and selfish- the perfect evil queen. Other characters are given enough personality to set them apart from each other. Cinder's droid helper is one of the most likable characters in the book.

Cinder, while not an outstanding book, was an enjoyable read, and a nice take on the classic fairy tale of Cinderella. Even no longer exactly young adults may find it worth a read.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Wait Five Minutes

We've all heard the saying: "If you don't like the weather in New England, wait five minutes!" It was proved on Saturday. We were up in North Conway, NH, where the BaldMan was chief judge and I was scorekeeper for the ICS part of their annual Chilly Chili Stroll. We woke up to about 4 inches of new powder snow. Great for the ski slopes, not so great for the cooks! As the morning wore on, we got drizzle, sleet, hard rain, even some hail. By mid-afternoon, the sun was out. Air temps remained a bit chilly, and I was glad the judging area was indoors!

We were set up in the parking lot of the Mount Washington Weather Observatory Museum. When our liaison with the Mount Washington Vally Chamber of Commerce (the organizers of the event), got there at about 6:30 AM, the parking lot had not been plowed. Chili cooks started arriving shortly after, but Chris was on his cell phone, getting the plows there to clear the area right away. We did lose power for a bit in the early part of the day, but hey, with no power for the restaurants in town, people came out to taste the chili that was being served by our intrepid, outdoor-cooking chili cooks!

All in all, it was a good event and we made the 20 cooks needed to bump the status from District to Regional, which means all three winners qualify for the World's Championship in October. (The quick explanation: if it remained a District, only the verde and salsa winners would qualify for their finals at Worlds. The red winner would need to win another District, or he would be able to compete at the Last Chance cook off on Worlds Weekend at no charge.) We have a great chili family, and everyone pitched in to help the new members who joined the ICS on Saturday so we could make that magic 20.

That area of the state is just beautiful. You are surrounded on all sides by the the White Mountains. The drive up the state is a scenic joy. With the lakes region, and the mountains, you see a lot of pretty views along the way. And North Conway itself is a pretty town. Lots of tourism, of course, with all the ski areas around, but they still manage to keep a quaint atmosphere. I understand a number of people had fun at the Weather Observatory Museum, as well. They have a lot of interactive exhibits in there for hands-on activity.

Still, it is good to be home. We got an early start, as the hotel we stayed at has an early check out. We drove to Ossipee and had breakfast at the Sunny Villa restaurant there. Nice place, with a really nice bar area. (No, we did not have breakfast in the bar! It was just very pretty.) The building is set up on a hill, so you get a really nice view of the mountains. It was clear this morning, so we could see Mt. Washington in the distance. We took our time coming home, and drove a lot of non-interstate roads. Much nicer a drive than all highway, and we still got home early afternoon.

So tonight is Sunday gravy from the freezer, and relaxing. Today starts another week.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Icefalcon's Quest by Barbara Hambly

Icefalcon's QuestIcefalcon's Quest by Barbara Hambly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the stand alone novels set in the same world as Hambly's Dawarth trilogy, Icefalcon's Quest centers on the Icefalcon, who has been cast out of his barbarian nomad tribe and now lives at the Keep of Dare. He is one of the elite Guard and a trained warrior who still keeps his native code of honor, often at odds with the more civilized society he has chosen to live in.

In this story, a rogue mage infiltrates the Keep and kidnaps young Prince Tir. Tir, as heir to the royal line, has the race memories of his people, although the flashes he gets are not always clear or easily interpreted. His kidnappers plan to use those memories to unlock the secrets of a lost, ice-buried Keep and use the knowledge to conquer the land. Icefalcon, blaming himself for not recognizing the disguised mage, sets out to rescue Tir. His journey brings him back to his native land, where he must face his past, as well as try to safeguard the future.

As with any of Hambly's works, this is an enjoyable read. The story flows well, with conflict, tension, and both inner and outer struggle. The turmoil that eight year old Tir faces is intense and frightening. Vair na-Chandros is chillingly evil, if a little one-dimensional. He doesn't appear to have any redeeming qualities, although that characterization fits him well, and makes him a frightening adversary. The mage Bektis is both daunting and vulnerable as he tries to hide his few weaknesses from na-Chandros. Other characters are given enough personality to make them real and interesting.

By far, the most fascinating character in the Icefalcon. Introduced in the original Dawarth trilogy, he is a bit of an enigma. His outlook and apparent lack of emotion can be off-putting at first, but if you pay attention to his background as it is slowly revealed, it becomes clear that the Icefalcon is a far more complex and intriguing character than he might seem. His journey is not only one of adventure and the rescue of Prince Tir, but also an internal struggle with who he is. He comes face to face with himself and the choices he's made, conscious or not. Icefalcon was one of my favorite characters in the Darwath sagas, and is even more so after reading this book.

The story takes place in the same basic geographical area as the earlier trilogy, although here the rescue mission takes Icefalcon and company farther into the approaching glaciers. It is not necessary to have read the earlier books to read this. There are some references to the earlier stories, but the pieces given are enough to fit the background in without needing to know every detail. The main characters in the early stories, Rudy, Gil, and Ingold are not a main part of the tale, although they do appear. Icefalcon's Quest is a tale that stands on its own quite well.

I very much enjoyed Icefalcon's Quest. It is another well written, fluid story, and a solid choice for fantasy fans.

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