Sunday, January 15, 2017

Dawn of Wonder (The Wakening)

I've just listened to the best audio book ever.

That may be a little bit superfluous, but I don't care, I loved it.

I bought this book because it was on Audible's list of the best books of last year, and they were right.

The book is called Dawn of Wonder, and it is the first book in a series called The Wakening by Jonathan Renshaw.  From what I understand, this is Mr. Renshaw's first published work, and he is off to an amazing start.

As a synopsis with spoilers only for the first few chapters (of a total of sixty six or so), I will say this book is about a 12 year old boy whose best friend is kidnapped and sold to be sacrificed by a strange civilization.  He then chooses to dedicate his life to avenging her death.

The first thing that I noticed about the book, listening to the sample chapter, was the delicious way Renshaw described the natural world and its unnatural disturbances.  Beautiful, detailed descriptions are given to the fantastic "pearlnut trees" as well as to more familiar features of the landscape.

This book is definitely high fantasy in the sense that it takes place in some fictional world, but there are only a few instances of things that could be considered magical.  I would say the book is mostly pretty grounded in rational ideas, but occasionally something that resembles the supernatural does happen.

I would describe the action sequences as being over the top.  In trying to describe violence, puzzles, and traps, I would say it's along the lines of Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean.  It resembles slapstick, but it is serious, and the actions of the characters do have consequences.

I would say this first book in the series is appropriate for most young adult readers.  I would be remiss in failing to mention that there is a copious amount of child abuse in the book.  There is no lewd content or foul language, but it does deal with some very heavy themes (like slavery), and it also features a copious amount of violence.

Overall, I think the word outstanding fairly describes this ambitious first entry in The Wakening series.  I await the second installment with much anticipation.  I don't have any theories about where it's going to go from here, which is a rare thing for me.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Guards! Guards!

I remember when I first started trying to keep this blog up, someone told me to try to vary my reading.  I imagine they meant for me to try to read lots of different genres and authors.  I then proceeded to mostly ignore them, because I'm doing this for fun.  Rereading Guards!  Guards! is a good example of how I would prefer to spend my time.

What's compelling about Terry Pratchett's Guards!  Guards!  is the way he turns the classic fantasy narrative of the one true king on its head.  There are certain expectations in the fantasy genre of the rightful king in exile.  He's got to have an ancestral sword or a birthmark or something by which he can be identified.  He's got to have some secret explanation as to how he came to turn up claiming his legitimate rule.  He's got to prove himself in some remarkable act of valor.

In the Lord of the Rings, there's Aragorn.  In the Song of Ice and Fire, there's a major spoiler for those who haven't finished the most current season of Game of Thrones.  In The Once and Future King, there's Arthur.

When you find this character in the story, you generally know that somehow he should come to power, and he will work hard to keep the people in his kingdom safe and happy.

This is not really how Discworld works, though the series generally celebrates these high fantasy ideas as much as it makes fun of them.  Guards!  Guards! is one of the strongest examples of this.

Guards!  Guards! is the first book that covers the Ankh-Morpork city watch as operated by Samuel Vimes, one of my favorite Pratchett characters.  Vimes is heavily involved in the series as a whole, and he is as developed and pragmatic as any fantasy character Game of Thrones could throw at you.  He seems to be more influenced by film noir detective stories than by high fantasy tropes.

The rest of the watch is equally colorful.  Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Sgt Colon, and Carrot Ironfounderson are unforgettable characters even in the Discworld with its great wealth of well developed characters.

While this isn't my favorite Discworld novel, I would consider it an essential read for people who like high fantasy.

Clan of the Cave Bear

So, getting back to my little project of reading as many good books as I possibly can, I recently read Clan of the Cave Bear.

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in a series called Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel.  I will start out by saying that the series becomes increasingly difficult to slog through.  I've been stranded in the middle of the third book for weeks.  They have a huge number of scenes that are so awkward and uncomfortable I find myself skipping almost full chapters.  I'd prefer the books spent more time on the anthropology they're drawn from and less time on romance and mating rituals.  There are people and places with names so ridiculous I won't even attempt to spell them.  The main male character is sometimes very irritating.  I will attempt to finish the series in its entirety, as I've heard nothing but good things.  I have the next two books at ready in case I finish the third one soon.

All of that said, I can remember hearing the title of the first book as long as I can remember, and there's a reason for that.  Clan of the Cave Bear is among the best books I've ever read.  I would never have imagined a story about Neanderthals could be so poignant and entertaining.  I was genuinely touched by Auel's imaginative storytelling and beautifully constructed characters.

The story follows a young Cro Magnum girl named Ayla who is adopted by a family of Neanderthal people.  Together, they have to find a new cave and survive a harsh environment.  Ayla's life is further complicated by the Neanderthal clan's ridged societal norms and customs.  There are many impulses Ayla has to deny in order to fit in with her adoptive family.  Ayla must carve out a role for herself in order to survive, with many obstacles along the way.

The most enjoyable part of this story for me are Ayla's Neanderthal family members.  They're complex, developed characters, some of whom are based in part on real skeletal finds.  My attachment to these flawed but lifelike characters really drove my interest through the first book.  It really helps my enjoyment of the book knowing the results of recent genetic testing that find Neanderthal genes in many modern humans.

There's a lot of science and scientific speculation in this book.  I'm sure many academics have tried to pick it apart and show which parts of it are likely accurate and which parts are completely made up.  Auel did a lot of research, but the book is definitely more art that science.  The line between the real and the imagined is blurred in a unique, distinctive way.  There are parts of it I would argue are science fiction, and there are parts that are unadulterated fantasy, and that's absolutely intriguing.  It makes me want to read more like it, though I wouldn't know where to begin to look for something like this.  So far the second and third books really lack some of the unexplainable magic of the first one, but I'm hopeful for a return to that.

While it did occur to me that Ayla has an unrealistic ability to excel at almost everything she tries, Ayla is an impressive character.  Even though the second book was mostly her alone in the wilderness, she was still much more compelling by herself than the other main character was interacting with a huge number of other characters.  She has a tendency to invent all the tools our ancestors needed to survive almost entirely by herself, but I still find her vulnerable enough that I care what happens to her.  I would describe the character as a feminist icon, a woman who does all the things she's not suppose to do.

A movie adaptation of this exists, but I can't imagine it could do the book any kind of justice at all.  Most of the dialog is spoken in sign language in the book, which would make it very difficult for most hearing people to follow if they did a faithful adaptation.  An adaptation with a lot of spoken words would take out most of the drama of the early chapters of the story.

I would give the first book all of the stars.  It's extremely enjoyable.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Game of Thrones Predictions: Concerning Petyr Baelish

This could be extremely spoilery, or it could be nonsense.  Read at your own risk.

Petyr Baelish makes an unusual comment to Sweet Robin in this week's episode.  I don't believe that to be an offhand comment about the fight at Winterfell.  I think by "join the fray" he meant, “join the Frey.” A pun he alone understood. But I'm not sure it had such a straightforward meaning. I've heard some speculation on one of the podcasts I listen to (no idea which one) that he'd be joining the Freys in an attack on Winterfell to avenge Lady Walda Bolton, murdered by her enemy Ramsey. There's a certain Elia Martell appeal to that as an idea, and it would certainly be interesting to see Petyr interact with Walder Frey. But what if I were to remind you of what they had in common? Petyr Baelish's backstory is rooted in his childhood friendship with his lifelong romantic interest, Caitlyn Tully. Though he was denied her hand in marriage after losing a duel to Brandon Stark (older brother to Ned), his affections for her and his inability to secure her due to being of lower station were important catalysts to the trajectory of his ambitions.

Now, let's remember why we hate Walder Frey so much. The Red Wedding. At the Red Wedding, Walder Frey arranges for the assassinations of Rob Stark, his pregnant wife, and Caitlyn Stark.

How you interpret this information depends a whole lot on how you think Petyr really felt about Caitlyn, particularly considering we did not see Petyr react to news of her death. Also, he very quickly transferred his affections to Caitlyn's daughter, Sansa, who I remember him commenting in the books was more beautiful than her mother. Even very early in the series, Petyr comments he's saving himself for someone who came from two very good bloodlines. I'm sure Caitlyn was highborn on both sides, but whose blood do we know about? I think it's been Sansa Baelish has wanted for himself since season 1. I've heard Petyr Baelish called the Severus Snape of the Game of Thrones series, which is laughable in the extreme. Snape was the most loyal character in the whole of the Harry Potter series, completely devoted to a single largely unselfish cause. He could have gone on after the first wizarding war and lived a new life. He was a talented guy, he could have marketed those skills to do something other than what he hated, teaching school. Instead, he devoted himself to finishing what the one he loved started, protecting her son. He did this at great personal risk to himself. Petyr Baelish is the anti Snape. He does whatever will help him climb the ladder of chaos. He did have strong feelings about Caitlyn Stark, and he may well have loved her. But he has not, in the time since she died, truly served her interests. He lead on her sister and threw her through the moon door. He kissed her daughter, and then married her off to the worst person ever. But- It's still hard to be sure with Petyr Baelish. He's a master manipulator, but he also has specific things he seems to want, and he does not react well to being denied.

Here's what I think: I don't believe Petyr Baelish has the least bit of interest in any true alliances with the Freys, unless such an arrangement were temporary. Eventually, I think Petyr Baelish will be responsible for the death of Walder Frey, and Frey will know that it's vengeance for Caitlyn's death.

What if Baelish helps organize the Northern Conspiracy to prove his loyalty to Sansa and the Stark brothers? What if he (with the help of Lord Manderly) bakes up a hearty Frey pie to serve to Lord Ramsey Bolton and Walder Frey, who may not even be aware his daughter is dead? What if Baelish is the one to inform Walder Frey of his daughter's death, and causes a Frey/Bolton altercation?

Frey pie for thought.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

My Top Ten Mars One Candidates

I am fascinated by space travel.  I have this wonderful romantic vision of Earth's future, brought on in part perhaps by Gene Roddenberry's five year mission to boldly go.  When I first heard about Mars One's mission, I was firstly shocked I hadn't heard about it sooner, and secondly energized.  What an amazing time to be alive, when human beings are so confident they can make it to Mars!  Recently, Mars One narrowed the field of candidates to take this (one way!) trip to 100 people, and I'm sure the people in charge dread narrowing the field any further!  There are so many greatly qualified candidates.

At this stage, we aren't certain whether the final selections are destined for greater glory or doomed to die at some point along the way.  That's in the nature of exploration.  Many great explorers lost their lives in pursuit of the frontier of human knowledge.  One internet comment pointed out that if we cannot yet put a man at the bottom of the sea, how could we ever hope to reach Mars?  This is an excellent question.  I counter that question with another question.  How can we know whether we could do it or not if we do not try?  I think, in another life, one where I didn't love other people so much, where I had no strong roots to hold me here, and where I had been given a body more prone to athletics, this might have been my dream.  I might have wished for that rocket to another world as these 100 people do.

I've developed a list of the best ten candidates (in my opinion), and I will disclose that list to you here.  Before I do so, let me tell you a little bit about the process I went through to select these ten people.  First of all, any person who had a poorly produced video (bad sound, lots of background noise) was immediately disqualified from selection.  Secondly, if they were annoying or unfocused, I immediately lost interest.  The first people to set foot on Mars should be at least somewhat charismatic, if they're annoying I know I would not be able to suffer through watching video updates from them on Mars.  Thirdly, I tended to pick people who appeared to be somewhat young and healthy.  This is ageist and wrong in a job interview setting, but for the purpose of sending individuals to Mars, I felt it acceptable.  We're talking about a one way trip.  If the person is not in good health, they cannot come home.  The trip isn't scheduled for another ten years, so it's important that the candidate is still healthy ten years from now and has potential to work at the colony for a long time after that, which in my opinion should disqualify some of the candidates currently in their 50's.  My final selections tended to be resourceful people with multiple useful skill sets, particularly in physics, piloting, robotics, medicine, and agriculture.

I want the final Martians to be a diverse, hard working, intelligent group of people on whom a new society can be built.  In selecting these ten finalists (a list that would have to be further whittled down to six), I'm confronting some of the logistical challenges that I'm sure Mars One administrators are facing at this time.  Do not, however, mistake my choices here for purely scientific ones, because I can assure you, entertainment value was a factor in the final selection.

Here are my ten favorite candidates, five men and five women who I believe are ready to start the journey to Mars.

This gentleman makes the best argument for his usefulness on Mars of any candidate, and he does it while hanging upside down.  He has agricultural skills (including bee keeping!), he's in good shape, he is familiar with harvesting solar power.  He can work on the machinery.  He's got mining experience.  This guy is excellent,

This young woman is studying both physics and premed, which certainly makes her stand out.  She's a clear speaker, with heartfelt opinions on why the trip to Mars is necessary.

She's an electrical engineer and real life anime character with interests in physics, math, chemistry, and robotics.  When I saw her in her kendo outfit with her sword at the ready, I knew she was either a very serious martial arts enthusiast or someone from the con scene, and it turned out she was a cosplayer.  One of her pictures is of herself in a Roxas cosplay from Kingdom Hearts II.

Dr. Joseph Roche
He's an excellent communicator, which is necessary.  He's worked for NASA and teaches science.  He's charismatic and likable.

She's a PhD student in particle physics at Princeton University.  Her hobbies include mountain climbing and computer hardware.  With her cool Russian accent and her awesome anime hair, I would definitely watch her video updates.

He's accessible.  He's a masters physics student.  He seems deeply passionate about going on this trip.  This is the guy that inspired me to make this list.  If I had to pick the final team, he would definitely be on it, because of these people, he's the most able to rationally explain why he wants to go even knowing he won't be coming back.

American (Eastern Woodlands Cherokee)
She's a human factors engineer and pilot.  She's a motivated, social person interested in plants and botany.  She has several active hobbies including biking and scuba diving.  I have my doubts about sending her, though, because her video was filmed by another person who asked her questions.  I could tell by his voice that he cared about her very much.  She has attachments, and I worry that leaving them would be difficult, but then I imagine all of these people would be leaving someone behind.

He's a medical student.  He's got computer skills.  He's climbs mountains.

Maggie Lieu
She's a PhD student in Astrophysics, space science, and Astronomy.  She has teaching experience, which could be useful on the mission.

Taranjeet Singh Bhatia
Why Taranjeet:  He has skills in computers and robotics.  He's athletic.  He's charming.

That's my list of likely finalist candidates.  Let me know in the comments if I missed somebody you'd rather see on Mars, or if you think some of these people are the wrong fit.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Research Frenzy Subscription Box November French Box

I have to say, French Box is a bit better than your average subscription box.  It comes in a nice pink box with the Eiffel Tower on it, with a smaller white and pink inner box with an Eiffle tower pattern.  This box is the absolute cutest of any of the boxes I've seen.  It costs $24 a month, which is above average, but I got a deal on my first month at just $14.

Before I go into the items in this box with a monetary value, let me go ahead and tell you about some of the stuff that's hard to put a price on.  There's a great recipe for Croque-Monsieur in here that might be fun to try.  There's a post card that says, "Paris is always a good idea," which is an Audrey Hepburn quote.  There's an Amazon coupon for 40% off Pier Auge French cosmetics.  There's a packet sized foundation sample by Guerlain.  There's a lovely white ribbon that says French Box on it.  Lastly, there's a very cute French Box drawstring bag, which would be perfect for transporting cosmetics or jewelry.  All very, very cute, and all visible in the youtube video I made of the box opening.

Now, let's get down to brass tacks, the items that make up the value of this box, which you'll remember I paid $14 for.

The spoiler card has this to say about this product, "Wonderfully gentle, this treatment smooths the skin.  Beautified skin regains all its natural radiance and is better protected against the signs of aging, stress and pollution."  The retail price on this is $43.50 for 1.7 oz, which I believe is this size rounded up slightly, because the packaging here says 1.68 fluid oz.  This seems like a pretty good item to receive, certainly it's a high sticker price.  I won't personally use this, I might use it as a gift.  It's an excellent value, to be sure.

I can't find this product online, but it's 8.81 oz of French coffee.  L'original French Authenticity Cafe de Paris C'est La Vie 100% Arabica Ground Coffee.  The spoiler card calls it Segafredo.  It says, "Cafe de Paris <<The Original>> is irreplaceable.  Its rich, aromatic flavors will leave you craving for a little bit more French throughout the entire day..."  The full size costs $6.00, and I believe this is the full size.  It's well in date as well, good until March of 2016.  This will make an excellent gift.

A perfume sample is included from Leonard.  It smells lovely, and at .05 oz, there's enough in this spray applicator for several uses.  I enjoyed this one a lot, it's just a really nice scent.

The spoiler sheet lists the "exclusive item from the Lido collection" at a retail price of $12, which seems kind of steep if it is either the magnet or the cell phone charm from this box.  Even if it's both, it seems kind of high, but then I don't really use magnets and cell phone charms are cool but my pone doesn't have a slot for them anymore.

I thought the Missiu Eiffle Tower bracelet was pretty cool, but it slipped off and got lost the first time I wore it, so that was less cool.  It had a retail price of $12, and I can't find another one like it to show you what it looked like.

Overall, it was an interesting box, and a great value.  Again, I paid $14, and I think ti was a pretty good deal at that price.  I'm tempted to keep my subscription for next month, but I haven't decided for certain yet.  This will probably be the last subscription box I'll try until the end of the year, and then I might start again in January.  Christmas is a stressful time to try to do anything extra.

Would you keep this subscription, or do you think I should try something else?  Should I go back and try loot crate again?  Do you know of something else?  Let me know what you think in the comments.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Research Frenzy: Subscription box SuperKawaiiPop's Kawaii Box

Today I received my SuperKawaiiPop Kawaii Box.  I ordered the product on October 5th, and received it on November 17th.

Here is the description of the product I ordered:

The reality of the product was that I did not receive a rement or a popin cookin kit.  I got an Aluminum lunch bag by Daiso.  I got an unmarked, unwrapped pair of chopsticks. I got some "funny" dessert erasers.  I got a bunny bento box that says "Let's Play Together!  Hey!  I want to be a friend of you." I got a set of teddy bear bento wrapers.  I got a memo set.  I got five individual sauce packets.  

No popin cookin set.  No rement.

Let's look at the individual items:

This is the bento box I received, as sold through another vendor.  It has a seal on the inside and yellow flaps that lock the lid in place.  The words printed on it in English are rather ridiculous.  "LET'S PLAY TOGETHER!" the Bunny entices, "Hey!  I want to be a friend of you."  The bunny himself is rather cute, with his plaid ears over a polkadot background.

The sauce bottles came in two sizes, three were 6ml and two were 13.5ml.  I'm pretty sure they came out of these packages.

I couldn't find similar aluminum bags, paper bento cups with teddy bears on them, or the chopsticks, so here are the items I received, minus the letter set, which I immediately gave to my niece.

My favorite item included in this selection is the aluminum lined lavender bag.  Here's what it looks like with all the items inside:

Do I think this service was a good value?  Not really.  I mean, yeah, this stuff can be expensive to import, but almost all of it was Daiso.  It did not include a rement or a popin cookin set as it said it would in the description.

The big issue I had with this stuff is that it wasn't all that cute.  Here's a much cuter bento set with a rabbit on it, available on Amazon right now for less than $17:

If you're willing to pay more than I did for your lunchbox, here's a very cute My Neighbor Totoro set:

The other issue I had with SuperKawaiiPop is that the customer service wasn't very good, and the product took a long time to get here.

Some months are probably better than others, but I would not recommend this service after my experience.

Edit:  Here's someone else's unboxing of the same month, her items were somewhat different from mine.


She got two bags of erasers to my one, a piece of candy, and a more varied set of bottles.  I think her bento box is cuter than mine, but I like the bag I got better than the one she got.  Mine has a draw string, hers has a zipper.  There's not much difference there, but there is a little variation.