Tuesday, July 29, 2014

San Diego Comic Con 2014 - On the Sidelines

A view from the bridge (those white tents are lines for Hall H)
So let me start off with a sad story.  Back in March, I and a few friends hung out online early because it was Comic Con open registration day.  And if one of us got in to buy tickets we would all get tickets for each other.  But nobody got out of the 'waiting room' because after the better part of two hours all tickets to the convention were sold out.  Boo.

Some months later, my friend scored tickets to Aisha Tyler's podcast fan event during Comic Con (but not a part of the con) which included a meet and greet with Aisha to sign things and attendance at her podcast taping as VIPs of the Xbox lounge at the Marriott.  So since my friend's fiance had to work the days of Thursday and Friday, I got to go!  So now we are into the happy story.

I've never been to Comic Con, and was always a little wary of the crowds, but after having been in San Diego last week, it is definitely crazy crowded, but also worth going.  Although I don't think I'd go again if I didn't have tickets to the convention.  But to be there hanging out on the sidelines was so much fun.  There's actually quite a bit to see, and some great swag to score just walking around outside.

(Pictures and commentary below!)

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Refined Reader (19) The Codex


The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!
Source
People today debate on the merits of physical books vs. ebooks - a debate that is not so much about whether books will last (as in the actual art of writing stories - that will definitely last) but how do we cope with a new format?  And what are we losing in the transition?  This post isn't about that particular change however, but the transition people had to make many centuries ago when the most common book format was a scroll and bound pages called a codex began to gain popularity.

In the most important aspects, codices are very like the bound books we use today.  Scrolls were long parchments or papyrus with the text written down the front which could then be rolled up for storage.  Around the first century A.D., a codex started to come into use and featured a set of pages bound together on one end with a sturdy cover and spine easy for labeling.  The only real difference between the idea of a codex and books as we know them today, is that a codex was usually handwritten.  And sometimes a codex could be a folded series of pages like in the image above which is an ancient Mayan codex.  These were huge advances over the scroll format.  Codices were easier to carry, more compact, could fit more text because you could write on the front and back of a page, and the most important advancement - you could read text non-linearly.  You could skip and skim parts of the codex very easily and compare sections, while with a scroll it was necessary to keep what you weren't reading rolled up.

It would be interesting to think that there were some Ancient Times hold-outs who loved that they were able to roll up their books and couldn't accept that codices were an improvement on the reading system.  There's some speculation with historians that Christians helped make codices popular because they used them to write out the Bible (which was much more practical due to the Bible's length).  It is also speculated that Christians wanted to use the codex because scrolls were widely used by the Jews.  Indeed Jewish people sometimes still have Torah scrolls for formal ceremonial use.

By the sixth century, scrolls were completely obsolete, although the scroll was used longer in the Far East than in the West.  So if we look at the example of history, we still have some time before physical books are phased out! (But I don't want them to be!  I still love my physical books!)

Do you think physical books will become obsolete a century from now?  Or perhaps more of a collector's item for the avid reader?

Sources:
Wikipedia
The New York Times (much more informative on this topic)
The Book and Paper Group

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Suspense Sundays (108) Blood is Thicker

Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.


"Blood is Thicker"
Air date: July 5, 1959
Starring Everett Sloane
>>Episodes here<<

Mike Farleigh has a plan.  Marry the rich heiress Vanessa who owns land, a business and a sailing yacht.  His plan involves him ingratiating himself with her by pretending he knows a lot about racing sailing vessels.  He gets on her crew, but unfortunately her cousin and guardian is also there.  And he watches Mike very carefully.  So Mike has a plan to get rid of cousin Hugh.

The world of racing yachts is mostly unknown to me, and this story was written by an actual racer, so some of the finer points in the descriptions was lost on me, but overall this was an interesting story.   If only for the ending which was very unexpected.  I was thinking Mike would kill Hugh, but somehow give himself away by his ignorance of boat stuff, but what actually happens is a lot more gruesome than that.  And pretty disturbing.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ghost: The Musical


So show of hands - who knew they made this movie into a musical?  They make everything into a musical nowadays it seems.  But I do love this movie, so I went to see it recently while the tour was in L.A.  I had listened to the soundtrack before and wasn't very impressed and sadly I still felt the same after watching this.

The show sticks pretty close to the film, as far as I can remember.  It even uses the same lines at times.  But the music is so bland to me.  It's overpowering rock which overwhelms the vocals at times.  It was hard to hear what they were saying.  And with the music so unmemorable, it's unfortunate that the show script didn't reinvent the story somehow to make it stand out.  I normally like adaptations that are close to the source material, but this show needed something more to enhance it.

There are a couple fantastic things about this show however.  One is the effects.  The ghost effects, as well as the multimedia screen that helped with background and setting.  People seemed to levitate, things seemed to fly around, and they were able to show Sam walking into the light.  It was all so beautifully done.  I was very caught up in trying to figure out exactly how each effect was executed!  I also really enjoyed how they showed Sam's death - one minute he's struggling with the mugger, the next he's on the floor dead, and Sam the ghost is walking around.  A dummy was obviously used, but very seamlessly.

The second fantastic thing about this show is Oda Mae Brown, the psychic.  That character is the best and must be so much fun to play!  She brightens every scene she is in,  and if they could have worked her character more into the show, it would have been the right decision.

I feel like Ghost is more of an intimate love story, but this musical really made a spectacle of the whole thing and it just didn't fit.  It's a tragic love story, but an approach like with the musical Once instead of the power rock ballads might have been a better fit for the story.  I'm glad I was able to see it though, and was super happy Oda Mae Brown was there to liven up the story!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review: Half a King

Half a King
by Joe Abercrombie
YA Fantasy
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver.

Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

The betrayed will become the betrayer.

Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?

But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi finds his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy.

Review:

Half a King is a fun and quick read, but it was not a very memorable fantasy debut for me.  But because the action in the story moves quickly and has a number of good twists and surprises, I think for anyone looking for a solid fantasy read with interesting, quirky characters, this would be a good choice.  I suppose I am hesitant about giving this book full marks though because I didn't feel the story stood out enough for me.

Prince Yarvi is the type of resourceful and thoughtful main character that I do enjoy reading about.  His cleverness helps him many times in the story, and I enjoyed how he outsmarted people.  Athough his cunning did not always have a good outcome for his plans, he learns and grows from them, so that by the end he sheds the doubts and worries that made him sometimes annoying and whiny in the beginning.  He's flawed, but he has lots of room to grow, and the author developed him throughout the story in very interesting ways.

Yarvi has a group of friends who are also interesting in their own way.  It's not obvious that this group would work together well, but their friendship was touching in many ways, and that element of a mismatched group coming together is probably the best part of this story.

There are many dark moments which missed it's emotional mark in my opinion because we don't really dwell too much on the heart of these characters and their relationship.  It's hard to describe, but I often felt a little distanced from their plight and I could not really appreciate the darker and sad moments as much as I should.  The book reads more like an adventure tale, and yet with the potential depth of the characters and the darkness of the world, I think it could have been a much more epic story.   I may be putting too much of my expectations on this book though, because overall I feel like it is very enjoyable and I did read it quickly and was eager to know how it would all end.  This is just not a book that will stay with me.

(I received this book from the publisher or author for a fair and honest review.  I was not compensated for this review.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Refined Reader (18) Of Cigars and Books


The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

This is an interesting story I happened to come across and I wanted to share it through The Refined Reader.  There is a tradition in Cuba where readers (lectores) read to cigar rollers in the factory to help them pass the time since cigar rolling is monotonous work.  It started in 1865 when journalist and poet, Saturnino Martinez, organized the first reading for a cigar factory in Havana.  The practice became more widespread when cigar factories flourished - in the United States, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Mexico, but it has since dwindled and now Cuba is the only country that employs these readers.

The reader usually starts out by reading a newspaper to the workers and then after a break, will pick up where they left off the day before in a book.  It is because of this tradition that a couple cigar brands were named after books - the brands Montecristos and Romeo y Julieta.  But classics are not the only books read.  Sometimes popular novels, non-fiction and self-help books are read to the workers and sometimes authors will drop by and read their works.  It's really a fantastic system to keep the cigar workers eager to come to work and mentally engaged and connected with their co-workers.  I would think it would be wonderful to be able to talk about these books with their co-workers and it helps to broaden their horizons by learning something new.  And in the past it was a sometimes subversive act since the workers would have taboo political books on independence read to them.

It is conjectured in the articles I read about this that listening to these readers helps turn out a greater quality of cigar.  Which is a very nice thought, but I'm never going to find out.

Do you listen to audiobooks at work (if you are able to)?  Do you think it would help you be more productive?

Sources:
Cigar Aficionado (just disregard the nonsense on the pleasures of smoking)
BBC News
Project MUSE

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Suspense Sundays (106) Analytical Hour

Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.


"Analytical Hour"
Air date: June 28, 1959
Starring Jack Carson
>>Episodes here<<

Mr. Nelson visits his psychiatrist a little unexpectedly one evening.  He's not there for an average visit, as he begins by talking about his wife who he is unhappy with, and then calmly tells his analyst that he has killed her.  The analyst, at first shocked, is also just as calmly assured that his wife is not dead.  As it turns out the psychiatrist and Mrs. Nelson have been having an affair, and Mr. Nelson is there to finally address the issue.

These two have been having an affair for a year, and deliberately set up Mr. Nelson with the psychiatrist to try and get him to reveal that he doesn't love his wife anymore so they could get a divorce.  That's pretty cold-blooded, so it's no wonder that Mr. Nelson has a plan up his sleeve.  I almost think they deserve it, except of course murder is never the right thing to do.  It's pretty predictable how this story develops, the slight twist in the end is also a bit weak, but this was an interesting two person radio play.  They dynamics of the characters really comes through.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Interview with Sebastien de Castell, author of Traitor's Blade



Traitor's Blade, my new favorite fantasy novel was an incredible read for me. I was so blown away by the depth, the heart, the intensity and the excitement packed into the book's pages.  I think if you like your fantasy full of action, compelling characters, dastardly villains and lots of snark, this book is for you. And I'm so happy for the opportunity to talk to the author, Sebastien de Castell, about this wonderful story!

I’m delighted to be here, Charlene! Thanks for having me.

Q: In keeping with the action packed opening chapters of Traitor's Blade, I wanted to first ask you to talk about how your knowledge of fencing and swordplay helped you write the fight scenes in this book. I really loved how those scenes were so easy to follow and gave some insight into technique. Were those scenes difficult to write? Are they all very technically sound?

Fencing is an odd sport because your time splits very cleanly into two types of moments. The first is when you’re out of measure. What this means is that you and your opponent are too far away for a single attack to reach the other. Think of those moments in a movie when two opponents are circling each other. That’s the time when your mind is weighing options and formulating an attack. Once the opponents are in measure, that is, close enough to strike, then you’re lunging, parrying, binding your opponent’s weapon, or any number of other forms of attack or defence. When that’s happening, you really don’t have time to think - your body is executing on the instructions you gave it a moment before or acting on reflex.

Falcio tends to use that out of measure time to, in effect, explain to the reader how he’s thinking and what strategy might work for him. It’s as if time slows down, just a bit, which is often how it feels during a bout. When he’s actually in measure and the fight is happening, only the quick, raw actions are described so that the reader can feel the speed of what’s taking place. The reason I write this way is so that when the actual fighting is happening the reader has a sense of the motivation behind the movements, rather than just watching whirling blades in their head with no sense of what it all means.

In terms of the question of the fights being technically sound, I’d say they’re true to the world of Tristia, in which the story takes place. Because it’s a fantasy world rather than simply a replica of our own Renaissance or Early Modern Europe, I stay away from what I’d call pseudo-historicism. So I don’t start referencing specific historical techniques from our own world and instead gave a new set of names and forms to the fencing styles. I aim for things that can be evocative rather than literal. So, for example, there never was a move in our own history called “the widow’s parry”, but when people see it in the context of the story they’re able to visualize what it might be. That’s the ultimate goal for me: to put down just enough text that the reader can create the fight in their own minds - to make the reader the true choreographer of the fight.

Q: What was your inspiration for the corrupt land of Tristia - was it based on a historical place and time?

I’m always a bit leery of giving too much detail about the origins of ideas because I don’t want that to colour the reader’s own interpretation of the story. That being said, Tristia is a country that has been rich and powerful for several hundred years but has, in effect, stopped advancing. The weight of corruption is preventing any of the developments that, in our own world, led to the Enlightenment and subsequently the modern era. There’s such an inertia - a belief that things are as they have always been and always will be - that the country never advances socially, politically, or technologically. Because they’ve always been more sophisticated than their neighbouring states, they think of everyone else as barbarians. But the barbarians have been continuing to develop as nations, and they’re soon going to come sniffing at the door of this once mighty country...

Q: The main character, Falcio Val Mond, is very interesting to me, because he has had so much grief in his life but still remains optimistic. What was your inspiration for his character and his inspiring strength of will?

Falcio is a grown man - hurt, cynical, and overcome with the rage and grief that comes from the tragedies that he’s experience. But there’s still an eight year-old boy inside him, the one that raised his fist and swore to become a hero like the Greatcoats of old, who wants to protect the people he loves and make the world a fairer place. I think it’s a very normal state of being for many of us. For me, part of the inspiration was that we tend to become more conservative after our twenties and to see idealists as somehow deluded or self-aggrandizing. But when you become aware of this in yourself you have to ask, am I a wiser person who is thinking for myself? Or am I simply becoming the products of my own fears. What I love about Falcio is the way that idealist inside him is always fighting for dominance against the darker side of his nature.

Q: Can you tell us an interesting and little known fact about the development of Traitor's Blade?

In the very first draft of the book, the entire sequence set in Rijou was cut out. They arrived, they saw the opening of the Blood Week, and then we jumped to the next day when they found the girl and left. I had always known the key parts of the Rijou storyline, but I didn’t feel I had the skill and pacing during the first draft to write it. It took me a couple of years to get that part right.

Q: The Greatcoats are a group of elite swordsmen, tasked with maintaining justice in Tristia, although at the start of the book they have lost power and are generally reviled. I still want to become a Greatcoat though, and was more than a little jealous when a character gets to join them in the story. Can you please tell us Five Requirements of Becoming a Greatcoat?
  1. Almost every Greatcoat experienced a tremendous personal tragedy at some point in their lives - something that gives them a strong enough reason to commit their lives to bringing some small measure of justice to the country. Kest is the only mentioned exception in the books.
  2. Because the nation of Tristia has a strong cultural tradition of trial by combat, every Greatcoat has to master a duelling weapon in order to be ready to defend their verdict against a Lord’s champion.
  3. Every Greatcoat swears an oath when accepting their coat of office, but the oath is different for every person and they themselves have to make it up themselves. So rather than making grand pronouncements, the oaths are often very simple and personal.
  4. Greatcoats are not supposed to bow to anyone including the King himself. This drives the nobles and clergy a little nuts sometimes.
  5. Every Greatcoat must learn to sing the common songs of the land in order to be able to set their verdicts to those simple melodies so that people will remember them.
Q: With the Greatcoats singing their laws and judgements to make them more memorable, I was wondering if their songs have a particular melody in your head or if there is a song that embodies the style of their songs as you imagine it?

It wasn’t a single melody, but a lot of the 18th century British sailing songs came to mind when I was writing the book. The easiest songs to remember tend to be the kind of simple folk melodies that are often found in drinking songs. Without this fact, Brasti would have had a terribly difficult time remembering them!

Thank you so much for your time Sebastien! I hope everyone will check out this book and love it as much as I did!

My pleasure. I love hearing from people who enjoy the book so feel free to drop me a tweet at @decastell

I feel like I need to comment just a bit more on this interview, first because Sebastien's answer on fencing and fight choreography was so fascinating!  I plan to re-read some of the fight sequences just to really analyze how it was written (I was too caught up in the action the first time!)  Also, even though I still want to join the Greatcoats, I can do without the whole great personal tragedy thing (though it makes for great character development in the book).  But then I don't mind being like Kest!   And I do have my Greatcoat seal -

And you can get one too, by visiting the Greatcoat Seal Generator on the author's website!  I wish my weapon was something sleeker and more refined than an axe, but I just can't get away from the fact that I would prefer having a weapon that is deadly but also helps me survive in the wild.  It's good to be practical!

Thank you for reading, and please check out Traitor's Blade if it sounds like your kind of read!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: Traitor's Blade

Traitor's Blade (Greatcoats #1)
by Sebastien de Castell
Fantasy
AmazonBarnes & Noble  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

With swashbuckling action that recall Dumas' Three Musketeers Sebastien de Castell has created a dynamic new fantasy series. In Traitor's Blade a disgraced swordsman struggles to redeem himself by protecting a young girl caught in the web of a royal conspiracy.

The King is dead, the Greatcoats have been disbanded, and Falcio Val Mond and his fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti have been reduced to working as bodyguards for a nobleman who refuses to pay them. Things could be worse, of course. Their employer could be lying dead on the floor while they are forced to watch the killer plant evidence framing them for the murder. Oh wait, that's exactly what's happening.

Now a royal conspiracy is about to unfold in the most corrupt city in the world. A carefully orchestrated series of murders that began with the overthrow of an idealistic young king will end with the death of an orphaned girl and the ruin of everything that Falcio, Kest, and Brasti have fought for. But if the trio want to foil the conspiracy, save the girl, and reunite the Greatcoats, they'll have to do it with nothing but the tattered coats on their backs and the swords in their hands, because these days every noble is a tyrant, every knight is a thug, and the only thing you can really trust is a traitor's blade.

Review:

I am absolutely in love with this book.  This fast-paced adventure fantasy was extremely hard to put down because there were twists and turns up, down and sideways.  Some I did see coming, but others surprised me and hit me very hard.  This book is intense, inspiring, thrilling and funny.  It's not often I see so much humor in a fantasy novel that can get very grim.

I believe the biggest and best part of the appeal in this book for me is the sense of hope in humanity.  The very best and the very worst of humanity is shown, but the indomitable spirit of mankind in the face of oppression is so inspiring.  The worst needed to be shown, to understand how powerful it is when people fight for what's right.  Even when it might seem hopeless.  The world in this novel has a bleak outlook - especially since the narrative takes place some time after the kind and idealistic King Paelis has died for his attempts to reform the politics of the land, but it's wonderful to see Falcio, Kest and Brasti impart their strength to other people through their actions.

The Three Musketeers was briefly mentioned in the synopsis, and while I think it is a good comparison in terms of the action and Falcio, Kest and Brasti are all excellent fighters who work together fluidly as a team, there is much more to them individually than fighting companions - they are not perfect and interestingly they are not even perfect friends.  These characters are a perfect complement when it comes to fighting skills, but their beliefs can be somewhat at odds.  Fortunately, their banter makes for fun humorous moments despite the tension that can come up between them and then it's easy to see why they remain together.  I found these men and their friendship to be very believable and it made them fantastic characters to carry the story.

However, Falcio is the leader and the main character, and the depth to him because of his tragic past and his need to atone and live up to the principles he holds dear was very moving.  There are many satisfying moments in this book when the reader sees how capable Falcio is as a fighter and how accomplished in his understanding of people; he's also very intelligent and cunning and I think it would be easy to make a character like this too idealized, but Falcio is flawed and damaged which makes him fascinatingly multi-faceted.

Flashbacks are an important part of the narrative - through them we see what happened in Falcio's past and the origin of the Greatcoats.  I was very impressed with how the flashbacks were worked into the story.  The flashbacks supported the main story perfectly and just enough was given to keep creating all of these intensely, emotional moments - because the flashback would give some information that enhanced the present-day story.  While the reader is concerned with Falcio and his men's attempts to complete their mission, we come to gradually understand the tragedy that led up to the present and the revelations are deeply poignant.

This book is a wonderful and exciting journey.  The only hitch in the story for me was towards the end when a couple things seemed too easily resolved.  But it was a very minor issue for me because this story offers an intelligent examination on our humanity that I found very profound at times especially when it was juxtaposed against truly awful situations.  Don't worry though, there's lots of swashbuckling action, wit and dark humor to counter the bleakness and the possibility of excessive sentimentalism.  (I did find myself tearing up many times anyways.)  I loved most everything about this book, it was a practically perfect read for me.

I received this book from the publisher or author for a fair and honest review.  I was not compensated for this review.

I was able to interview the author, Sebastien de Castell, about Traitor's Blade and am super excited for everyone to read it!   The interview goes up tomorrow, but for now I highly recommend checking out Tabitha's blog to read her awesome and fun interview with the author!

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Refined Reader (17) Swashbuckler


The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

Source
This week, I'm sort of featuring one book that I've read recently - Traitor's Blade - which comes out tomorrow in the U.S.  My review will be posted tomorrow and an interview with the author, Sebastien de Castell, will go up Wednesday to make this an informal swashbuckler/adventure week on my blog.  This book enthralled me from the first chapter, so I hope to encourage other readers to check it out!

So! I was curious about the term 'swashbuckler' which is usually applied to pirates and swordsmen, and as an adjective or sub-genre to books and films.  It's an interesting term on it's own, one that has been used since 1560.  The origin of the word is conjectured to be a combination of the sound of a side sword brandished and struck against a buckler, which is a type of small hand shield. The term was originally applied to the people who would use those weapons in a fight, but with a slightly negative connotation according to the OED - "A swaggering bravo or ruffian."

As a genre, swashbucklers usually have chivalric intentions at it's heart and it's beginnings include King Arthur's tales, as well as Robin Hood.  Later, classic interpretations would continue to build on the idealistic and daring theme with Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and (a personal favorite) The Scarlet Pimpernel.  There's a sense of heightened drama and excitement that comes with the term now, as well as a strong sense of justice and honor, and it's definitely an appealing sub-genre for me because of it's historical settings and Romantic intentions.

Do you have a favorite swashbuckling tale?

Sources:
Wikipedia
Oxford English Dictionary

(It seems the publisher of Traitor's Blade is involved in the whole Amazon dispute thing, so I'm definitely buying my copy from my local bookstore - please let them stock it! - Amazon is being so annoying...)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Suspense Sundays (105) The Pit and the Pendulum

Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.


"The Pit and the Pendulum"
Air date: June 7, 1959
Starring Raymond Burr
>>Episodes here<<

Based on the famous Edgar Allan Poe short story, a French man is captured by the Spanish Inquisition and made to go through some interesting, yet brutal torture techniques.  While he hallucinates and is often overcome with horror, he perseveres with ingenuity.

The radio episode was expanded a little to fit the time slot, so there was more background with the character of the prisoner - John - who tries to argue reasonably with the judges and then later when he is locked up, he sees and talks to his beloved who is most assuredly not there.  The suspense is greater in Poe's story I think, though Raymond Burr does an excellent job fighting his fear and struggling for lucidity as he first avoids the dangerous pit and then ingeniously gets away from the pendulum.  I think the story was a little toned down as well when it came to the details - probably it was not thought proper family listening, at that time, to exactly hear what was in store for John.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: These Old Shades

These Old Shades
by Georgette Heyer
Historical Romance
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is called 'Satanas' by enemy and friend alike. In the aristocratic circles of London and Louis XV's he has a reputation as a debauched rake.

Late one evening, the Duke stumbles across Leon, a red headed urchin fleeing a certain beating at his brother's hands. On a whim, Avon buys the boy and makes him his page. But it soon becomes clear that Leon is not what he seems...

When the grubby Leon turns out to be the enchanting Leonie, the Duke is not prepared for the breathtaking transformation or the tender emotions she awakens in him, or the unconditional love she has for the man who saved her.

Review:

I find most of Heyer's romances to be enchanting reads and this book was no exception!  The fun of her historical romances are in the characters, and the Duke of Avon is suitably droll and clever enough to be completely captivating.  Leonie is an interesting heroine - boyish, innocent, and irrepressible - she is completely refreshing as a character because there is so much humor in how clearly and simply she sees things.  And in how everyone around her has to work so hard to be proper.  I found it interesting how youthful and childlike she comes off on the page, and yet her romance with the much older Duke is actually very sweet and well done.  It's easy to see how well they complement each other.

The plot of the novel is mostly interesting for the unraveling of Leonie's past, of figuring out the Duke's motivations, and the way that Leonie upsets the status quo for everyone.  The side characters were all so colorful and entertaining themselves - especially the Duke's siblings Fanny and Rupert.  There is such a sense of cheerfulness and fun throughout this whole story - in these characters and in their wit and outlook, that augmented my enjoyment of this story.  I was really impressed with how easy it was to get to know and love these characters.

This is a charming read with absolutely wonderful characterizations, vivid historical details and an interesting glimpse into the proprieties of the time.  I would characterize this as Jane Austen lite, with more fun and a greater sense of the romantic.  I highly recommend this to anyone looking to read a great Regency romance.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Disney's Aladdin - Broadway Cast Recording

Riffraff, street rat.  I don't buy that.
If only they'd look closer
Would they see a poor boy?  No siree
They'd find out there's so much more to me.

This year, Disney debuted their new Broadway stage show based on Aladdin.  I feel like it kind of quietly came out since I haven't really heard anything about it!  They had a fun performance on the Tony Awards though which led me to picking up the cast recording and I wanted to talk a bit about the differences between the movie soundtrack and the show's cast recording.  Because there are many differences!

The different orchestration strikes me at first.  "Prince Ali" has a really strong jazzy influence, that makes it almost cartoonish sounding (haha, interesting that the animated version wasn't as cartoonish) and with "A Whole New World" - oh no.  It's pared down, takes a while to build, and begins with Aladdin sort of talk-singing.  It really felt underwhelming somehow.  Granted I am VERY much a fan of the film version.  But according to most reviews, that flying carpet scene in the show is amazing, so maybe it fits better somehow with the scene.

The show begins with a very info-dump-ish version of "Arabian Nights" which is a little long to listen to and the number is led by the Genie I believe.  Fortunately everything with the Genie afterwards sounds amazing! "Friend Like Me" is the crowdpleasing number, and they did something really interesting in this show by having the Genie do a pastiche on other Disney songs including "Beauty and the Beast", "Part of Your World" and "Colors of the Wind".  The Genie, of course, needs to steal the show as often as possible and he does it completely in this number.  It  must be so much fun to watch.  I do think the Tony Awards performance was a little bland somehow, but I hope it was just that performance.

Jasmine has one song which was not very memorable to me - the same goes for Jafar and Iago's song and everything that Aladdin's friends sing (a new subplot to the story).  But I do want to mention how cool it is that the original actor to voice Jafar in the film is playing Jafar in the stage show!

There are a few songs that were originally written for the movie that are now included in the show, but the best one really is "Proud of Your Boy."  I just love this one!  And it lets the actor Adam Jacobs really show off what a beautiful voice he has.  This song gave me chills the first time I listened to it - there's so much emotion behind the lyrics.

I think the highlights of this cast recording are "Proud of Your Boy", "Friend Like Me" and the two bonus tracks where we get to hear Adam Jacobs practice "Proud of Your Boy", and James Monroe Iglehart tries a medley of Disney songs including "Go the Distance", "Kiss the Girl", and "Gaston".  If you are curious about this recording but not ready to buy the whole thing - definitely try the first two songs I mentioned at least!  Of course if I ever get the chance to see this show live, I'm taking it!  Even if I was unimpressed with some of the recording, it's Aladdin.  I have to see it!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen
Classic Literature
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

Taken from the poverty of her parents' home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny's uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry's attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary's dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords' influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. A subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen's most profound works.

Review:

This book is a little strange for me.  In that I almost completely dislike all the characters in the story - there's not one I admire, or even really sympathize with and yet I found myself enjoying the narrative pretty thoroughly.  There's something interesting about the unimportant dramas of these characters.  And for the most part they feel unimportant because of how Austen subtly colors them in such a ridiculous light.  It's hard to take them seriously or care how they end up when Austen continues to highlight their flaws and foolish thoughts and actions.  Really that's how every one of these characters comes off - as foolish.  But there was something intriguing in reading about them.  I guess this is why Jane Austen is a master!

Since the drama is very character-driven, I'll talk about the characters first.  Fanny Price is the heroine, and the most admirable character in her way - if her reserve, her fragility and languor can be overlooked.  She does have a strong moral compass, which many of the characters in this book lacks, and that seems to send many of them down the wrong path - or at least they make some very painful mistakes.  I think reading how these mistakes come about is what makes the book so interesting - especially in trying to understand how manners and rules of etiquette are so important in their time.  It's interesting alone to read this book for the glimpse of the genteel life of Regency England.

The hero of the story - Edmund - is a mundane sort of hero, kind, but mostly unimaginative and serious.  I was never really caught up in the romance part of this story, which is just as well as Jane Austen wraps up that part really quickly.  And um, Edmund and Fanny are cousins.  First cousins.  That easily killed the romance for me.  I think Fanny and Edmund needed to get out more.  Especially Fanny.

The Crawfords are a fun pair though - definitely the bad seeds but so thoroughly charming and unheeding of their actions that I could almost root for them.  Almost.  I was hoping that Henry really could be reformed, but in the end I think it was important for the story that the Crawfords were true to themselves.  It was a little surprising and saddening how one of the Bertrams wind up in the end though; this family was not perfect but it seemed that everyone began with good intentions or high hopes, even if they did not always act properly, it was unfortunate that it didn't not work out for some in the end.

I easily slipped into the world of Mansfield Park and these characters even though I could not really like any of them, so that I think the merits of this book are as a historical character study.  There are other Austen novels more engaging and uplifting then this one, but the subtle drama of the characters' lives really carried my interest very well.

Fifth book read in the Classics Club Challenge
Also part of the 2014 Jane Austen Challenge

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Refined Reader (16) Dewey Decimal System


The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

Created by Melvil Dewey in 1876, the Dewey Decimal System categorizes books by topic, with decimal numbers added for sub categories within each broad topic.  Previously libraries often organized their books in order of acquisition or by height. (!)

Melvil Dewey came up with his classification while working in the library of Amherst College and was largely inspired by the structural systems of Sir Francis Bacon, and the card system of Italian publisher Natale Battezzati. After some refinement, he published his system as a pamphlet and it quickly gained popularity in the U.S.  Although of late, other systems have been put into use because the Dewey system is copyrighted and can be expensive (The Library of Congress uses a classification based on one created by Charles Ammi Cutter), the Dewey system is still widely used and continues to be updated. Here's how the Dewey Decimal system breaks down 800 - Literature:

800  Literature, rhetoric & criticism
810  American literature in English
  • 811 Poetry
  • 812 Drama
  • 813 Fiction
  • 814 Essays
  • 815 Speeches
  • 816 Letters
  • 817 Satire & humor
  • 818 Miscellaneous writings
  • 819 Puzzle activities
820  English & Old English literatures
830  German & related literatures
840  French & related literatures
850  Italian, Romanian & related literatures
860  Spanish & Portuguese literatures
870  Latin & Italic literatures
880  Classical & modern Greek literatures
890  Other literatures

Obviously this can be sub-divided into many more categories.  Another example I wanted to look at is a phrase I've seen around that I think is pretty cute - "I still believe in 398.2"

300 - Social Sciences
390 - Customs, etiquette and folklore
398 - Folklore
  • 398.204 Folk literature by language
  • 398.208 Groups of people
  • 398.209 History, geographic treatment, biography
  • 398.21 Tales and lore of paranatural beings of human and semihuman form
  • 398.22 Tales and lore of persons without paranormal powers
  • 398.23 Tales and lore of places and times
  • 398.24 Tales and lore of plants and animals
  • 398.25 Ghost stories
  • 398.26 Tales and lore involving physical and natural phenomena
  • 398.27 Tales and lore of humanity and human existence
  • 398.28 Tales and lore of other topics
Uh, basically fairy tales.  The Dewey Decimal System does have it's criticisms - it can be complex, it's geared towards an Anglo-American world-view, and it is copyrighted.  But it enjoys a widespread popularity as a classification system in libraries, and it helped changed the way libraries are organized to make it more accessible to the patron.  Although when I was younger, I never really understood how it worked!  I just looked at the name of each section!

How familiar are you with the Dewey Decimal System? Did you understand it's basic structure before reading this post? (I'm wondering how widely it was understood for library patrons.  Of course if you're a librarian that is different!)

Sources:
Wikipedia / Wikipedia
Nova University
Dewey Decimal Classification

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Suspense Sundays (104) Ivy is a Lovely Name

Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.


"Ivy is a Lovely Name"
Air date: June 21, 1959
Starring Frank Lovejoy and Joan Banks
>>Episodes here<<

This episode is not about murder and mayhem, but about a regular, suspenseful situation - the birth of a child.  Also driving the freeway.  The story begins with a father calming his wife, Linda who is soon to give birth, while also looking after their first born son, Bobby, who likes to climb the ivy outside their house.  They have everything prepared.  Except the sister can't pick up Bobby, and then it's raining really hard.  But Tom has everything under control.  Until a tire blows out on the freeway on the way to the hospital.

This isn't a good story to listen to if you are expecting because it's kind of scary how everything goes wrong.  And an expecting mother wouldn't want those ideas put into her head!  The fact that Linda NEEDS to be at the hospital NOW does make this a pretty suspenseful story.  I've also traveled on the Hollywood freeway so it was interesting to hear it described in this episode.  It's practically the same as it was all those years ago, and I can imagine needing to walk along the freeway in the rain by the middle divider would be harrowing.  Even though the suspense in this story is a domestic one, I thought it was pretty entertaining.  And of course there is a happy ending (must be nice to give birth so easily...)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Review: Hyperion

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos #1)
by Dan Simmons
Science Fiction
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.

Review:

Hyperion is an intense and complex novel.  The story focuses on seven pilgrims traveling to the planet Hyperion and on what occurred in their lives to bring them to that point.  Each character tells their story in a long, extended chapter - with each story incredibly varied and richly detailed.  Characters and worlds are introduced and elaborated on in ways that made me feel so invested in each story.  These individual stories are really what made this book outstanding because they are well-written, thoughtful back stories on these characters we are at first barely familiar with.  But at the end of each story it feels like the reader knows them intimately.  The format of this book is intriguing and really well executed.  This book is about the journey of these characters and it is very important to revel in that while reading.

The characters themselves are also well-developed and realistic - it was incredible how unique and relatable the author made each of them through the story they had to tell.  Almost every story had a shock moment for me, when true horror of what each character has had to experience in their life sunk in.  And there are so many moments in this story that center on life and humanity's place in it - most of the characters are striving for a better world, but they are understandably overwhelmed and confused by reality.  This book definitely makes you think.

I also found it so interesting that the reader is thrown into this world completely at the start of the story.  There are almost no explanations about the technology or the slang of the future, but the reader gradually understands through context.  The book does a great job of showing and not telling when it comes to explanations about the world.  It can be a bit confusing in the beginning, but the pieces are all laid out in the narrative for the reader to put together.

This story has beautiful writing and story development - I can't imagine how hard it must have been to put this story together!  I am only disappointed in the ending which I will just say lacks a certain amount of closure.  Again the focus of the story is in the journey, not the ending, but I did feel a little empty over the open ending.  This book is a great read though, and the story continues in the next books in the series, so if you like complex, thought-provoking, science fiction, you should give this a read!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Star Trek TNG Season 3 - Top 5 Favorite Episodes

This is what I signed up for!  The third season of Star Trek The Next Generation was fantastic!  There were so many memorable episodes that I really had trouble narrowing it down to five!  Somehow the characters and the storylines just really hit their stride, and I'm really impressed with how well the whole cast fits together.  I had trouble ranking these episodes from 5 to 1, so if you are surprised that a particular episode is ranked higher than another, let me just say this is not a ranking set in stone.  I will probably change my mind in a day or a week!

5. Hollow Pursuits


A very shy and socially anxious Lieutenant Barclay has a holodiction to the holodeck as a way to work through his frustrations.  There are several reasons why I enjoyed this episode so much - Barclay was kinda cute in his painfully shy way and I really understood where he was coming from.  I also loved how understanding Picard was in motivating La Forge to try and help Barclay instead of dismissing him.  And Picard's slip of the tongue to Barclay was pure LOLz.  Also Barclay's fantasy illusions in the holodeck involving the crew of the Enterprise was hilarious!  Especially when Riker and Troi see their alternate versions.  But the fluff side to the story was rounded out by the heartwarming efforts to help Barclay overcome his anxieties and I could see how being a part of the the Enterprise is like being a part of a big family.

4. A Matter of Perspective


After a clearly uncomfortable Riker returns from a trip to check on the progress of Dr. Apgar's research, the research station explodes killing Dr. Apgar.  Riker is accused of murder, and a preliminary investigation is conducted through the use of the holodeck to view everyone's story of what happened right before the explosion.  This was a wonderful whodunit, with such an interesting mix of conflicting stories, where the truth arises from delving in between the lines of what everyone says.  I thought it was so interesting that Troi said everyone believed they were telling the truth and yet these stories were sometimes very different from each other.  It's amazing how easily the human mind can rationalize or delude itself.  I do wonder at what the truth of Riker's actions were on the research station - I mean, his version of how he acted was very proper, while Mrs. Apgar's story paints Riker as an almost rapist, so the truth is somewhere in between that?  That's disturbing.

3. Captain's Holiday


After a grueling diplomacy mission, Picard is pretty much forced to take a holiday by Dr. Crusher, Riker and Troi.  Picard beams down to a vacation planet and just wants to be left alone to read his book (word!!) but he becomes involved with a beautiful woman, a Ferengi, and two visitors from the future.  The Indiana Jones vibe of this episode was really fun, as was the emergence of Picard's dry sense of humor.  There's a bit of a mystery, and of course Picard gets to the bottom of it, and makes the right decision in the end.  I loved seeing this whole new side to Picard because he is not quite so stiff as he usually is.  Vash, the bold and feisty woman who forces Picard to come out of his shell, was also a great character to follow.  And I loved that she was not always what she seemed.

2. Yesterday's Enterprise


An alternate reality comes into being when the Enterprise comes across a starship Enterprise from the past.  A character who died in the first season is now alive, and the Federation is at war with the Klingons.  What a complex episode!  And how interesting to see the crew of the Enterprise in such a different situation - as a war ship rather than an exploration ship.  I also loved that Guinan was the only person to realize that something was wrong, and on her word alone does Picard attempt to put things right.  Seeing Yar again was another big surprise, as was how emotional I got from her dilemma once she realized she was not alive in the other reality.  This episode had it all really - time travel, drama, and emotional depth.  And a lovely romance between Yar and the first officer of the other Enterprise.

1. The Most Toys


A dastardly, awful, slimy man by the name of Fajo, engineers an elaborate kidnapping of Data so he can add him to his collection of rare objects.  Can you tell that I was not a fan of Fajo?  Obviously Data is my favorite character on the show, so seeing him in this episode as a captive and treated like an object was especially upsetting.  Fajo is really clever, but it's so aggravating how he refuses to see the worth of other people.  So in painting such a detestable character, I think this episode did a great job.  It's interesting to see all the ways in which Data tries to get the better of Fajo as well as the ambiguity of Data's action in the end - did he or did he not try to kill Fajo?  (Of course I think he is totally justified if he did!)  The side plot of La Forge and Wesley trying to solve what really happened to Data was very exciting too, and it was so nice to see how much Data is loved and missed on the Enterprise.

To Be Continued...


The season cliffhanger finale -The Best of Both Worlds part 1 - was definitely the best episode of this season (I mean SO GOOD) but I really feel like it should be talked about along with part 2 which opened Season 4.  So til the next season recap!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Refined Reader (15) The Four Great Classical Novels


The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!




Last week, The Refined Reader looked at the top best-selling novels which included a novel called Dream of the Red Chamber which I had never heard of before.  When I read about that book I discovered it was part of a special group of novels in Chinese culture which are seen as the pinnacle of pre-modern Chinese Literature.  These four books are extremely influential and popular in China, and I thought it would be interesting to find out why they are culturally so important.  The four books are:

The Water Margin by Shi Nai'an (written during the Song dynasty - 14th century)
This book is about a large group of outlaws (over 100!) who fought against the harsh feudal system of the Song dynasty and who repulsed the government troops who tried to subdue them.  I read that this book is reminiscent of Robin Hood and features many connected individual tales.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong (written during the Yuan (or Ming) dynasty - 14th century)
This book is a semi-historical and semi-fictional account of the Three Kingdoms period in history when the Han dynasty was broken up into rival kingdoms.  The story is a complex narrative of dramatic intrigues, battles and corruption.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en (written during the Ming dynasty - 16th century)
This is a fantastical tale of a journey by a monk and his protectors - one of whom is a very intelligent monkey, and one who is a dragon prince who takes the form of a white horse.  Of course this epic novel is popular as a children's story but it is an allegorical tale of individuals seeking enlightenment.

Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (written during the Qing dynasty - 18th century)
As I mentioned in last week's post, this book is a soap opera-ish drama of two ruling clans in the Qing dynasty.  "Red Chamber" is a Chinese idiomatic expression for the "sheltered chambers where the daughters of wealthy families lived."  This book is also the most recent novel on this list.

There are a few things these four books have in common - they were partially written in vernacular Chinese which made novels written in vernacular much more accepted in Chinese culture.  There are disputes for all four books on who exactly wrote them (which is surprising to me!)  They are epic, complex novels based in historical events and were breakthroughs in the techniques of the novel by using irony and satire.  These books also helped give novels prestige in China, when poems and Classical texts were considered more worthy in the 'literary hierarchy.'

And one last thing - there is a fifth unofficial Great Classical Novel which has been largely banned for it's explicit sex scenes.  It's called The Plum in the Golden Vase and was written in 1610.

All of these books are very long and feature a large cast of characters (except perhaps for Journey to the West) which is very daunting to me, but I would like to read them one of these days as I find their history so interesting, and I have not read any Classic Chinese novels.

Are you familiar with any of these four novels?  Which one sounds the most interesting to you?

Sources:
Wikipedia
China Highlights
Expat-China

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Suspense Sundays (103) Drive-In

Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.


"Drive-In"
Air date: June 14, 1959
Starring Margaret Whiting
>>Episodes here<<

This takes place in a fast food drive-in - how quaint!  :)  Mildred is asked by her coworker to take one more car order even though Mildred is due to go home soon.  The man in the car is in a bit of hurry, and as Mildred takes his order she gets a bit of blood on her hand - from the man's car.  The man explains he's a doctor and just transported a patient before.  And when the Doctor finds out that Mildred is in a rush to catch the bus, he offers to drive her to the bus stop.  She accepts.  And it turns out the Doctor is afraid Mildred has realized he just killed a man.

This story was one of the quintessential Suspense radio stories - an innocent gets caught up in a terrifying situation.  And the suspense is in how she can get out of it.  It's really well done in this story - Mildred's dilemma is so tense, and the setting of a dark, rainy night definitely helps keep up the atmosphere.  It's also interesting to think what you would do in that situation (heaven forbid!) - kidnapped by a murderer who intends to make sure you can't make any trouble for him.  The resolution is wonderful as well - it's easy to guess what will happen towards the end, but it all plays out perfectly!