Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Words

The Oxford Dictionary just added a bunch of new words. Jazz hands!

Bourgeois Book Club

The Art Detective by Philip Mould

Art is fragile. Pigments chemically change, light fades, dirt obscures, overenthusiastic restorers of yesteryear overclean and overpaint. Then there are the hoaxes and forgeries, the misattributions and the mistakes, and just the plain occultation of time. This memoir of the art world by Antiques Roadshow (UK) valuer, British portrait specialist, and Dickensian-named Philip Mould takes us through the detective work, scientific and archival, necessary to take an ugly duckling picture in some dingy shed and turn it, through the magic of restoration and provenance, into a beautiful swan at auction. It's a treasure hunt through old churches, forgotten attics, and disused corridors to find the mislabeled and misidentified, the neglected and the damaged, for those rare birds.

The portrait of Mould painted by his writing is that of a tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking good egg with a plummy accent; sadly, however, he doesn't have the moustache, mane of white hair, and stylish, but unstated, eyewear I had pictured. (I can neither confirm nor deny based on that picture whether he smokes a pipe or wears tweed jackets.) He's terrific at sketching out the oddballs and eccentrics of the art world, always with good humor and sympathy. Indeed, good humor is one of the most appealing aspects of the book, though often with a very British subtlety and wryness. Mould takes art seriously, but neither himself nor his fellow man thus.

Mould is particularly interesting when talking about the role of connoisseurship in art. All of today's high-tech analysis and readily available scholarly material, as important and fascinating as they are (and Mould goes into some detail about them), can't quite replace the in-depth knowledge of a painter or school. Sometimes, millions of dollars ride on nothing more than a gut feeling. But that's all part of the game that Mould so beautifully describes: the thrill of discovery, of winning over rivals, of uncovering neglected art.

An absolute delight and most highly recommended.

Farlander by Col Buchanan

The assassin Ash is an exile on the cusp of death. Nico is a homeless youth from a besieged and beleaguered island. After a robbery gone wrong, Nico agrees to become Ash's apprentice in the arts of killing.

The Empire of Mann is an expansionist theocracy dedicated to a Nietzschean religion based on conscienceless cruelty, debauchery, and butchery. When the son of the Holy Matriarch kills a girl under the protection of the Roshun assassin order, Ash and Nico, along with Ash's great rival and his apprentice, are dispatched to assail the very heart and stronghold of the Empire and take lethal revenge. Meanwhile, the war between Mann and Nico's homeland, the Mercian Free Ports, the last remaining free nation around the Midere sea, enters what could be its final, catastrophic phase and signal Mann's final triumph.

A shocking ending, compelling characters, and a host of varied viewpoints make this a well-above-average fantasy. Bits of steampunk, such as dirigibles and gaslights, seem a bit tacked-on and cosmetic more than integral, but they don't really detract, either. The exploration of the psychological and sociological tolls of war, especially what it means to be brave and survive, is thought-provoking and something you don't often see in fantasy. Definitely worth a read.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Diana Bishop is the heir of two magical lines, but determined to lead a normal, human life as a historian of sciences, specifically seventeenth century chemistry, without the burden or crutch of magic. Unfortunately, an alchemical manuscript pulled from the shelves of the Bodleian for her latest research project blows the carefully constructed wall of separation between her heritage and scholarship clear away. Her discovery attracts the attention of Michael Clairmont, vampire biochemist and neuroscientist, and a host of other daemons, witches, and vampires, as these things incidents invariably do.

Honestly, though it sounds like I read the whole book, I couldn't get past the first hundred pages. As if I didn't feel like enough of a misogynist this week, I find that the book by a female in this edition of Bourgeois Book Club is the one I'm going to pan. I'm all about the infodumps, but something about Harkness's exposition just grates. I found I had no connection to the characters, and surprisingly little interest in the world. The romance was a little too Twilighty for me. Michael, who like all vampires just happens to be devastatingly attractive, just finds her instantly irresistible and Diana finds him mysteriously alluring and it all just is unconvincing. He actually breaks into her house and watches her sleep! Way to be creepy!

It's a book I expected to enjoy, and it's getting good notices, but somehow, despite being right in my remit, it turned me right cold. Maybe if I did my full duty as a reviewer and finished the book, I'd find it ultimately satisfying, but I just can't summon the energy to continue with a book that I'm disliking. I'm just a bad, baaaaaaaad reviewer, I guess. I'll put it away for a while, though, and maybe if I come back to it I'll be able to enjoy it more and finish it.

On a more positive, but shallow, note: it has an absolutely gorgeous cover. Really, one of the prettiest I've ever seen. And it smells really good, too, with thick, creamy paper that's a delight to touch. (Long-time readers know I have a bit of a fetish for book texture and smell.)

Added 3/3/11: Nice to know I'm not totally crazy. It doesn't sound like I missed much by stopping.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reviewin' La VIDA Loca

There's been some coverage of and soul-searching about the VIDA statistics that show that women authors still being reviewed at a much lower level than men authors. (Bookslut has been having a particularly interesting series on it, but there are lots and lots of other places commenting.)

Curious, I decided to look into my own reviewing record in Bourgeois Book Club. The final tally: 25 male authors reviewed/9 female authors reviewed, or a 64%/36% split. I had a feeling there would be more men than woman, but I was surprised and disappointed that it was that skewed. In part, I think the numbers reflect the fact that I often review books from male-dominated genres (why they are male-dominated is a whole other conversation), including history, science, and science fiction.

But I don't want to abnegate any responsibility so breezily. I am, after all, choosing to review those books. What I review isn't all of what I read. I tend to review what I really like, what I think might be of interest to you, the reader, what I consider important or thought-provoking, and/or what I think deserves the attention. For instance, I went on a Jane Austen Pride & Prejudice fan sequel kick a few months ago, all written by women, but I didn't review them. I enjoyed them well enough, and they were fine to pass the time during a particularly slow and dull time at work, but I didn't think they were anything much worth mentioning. Did gendered bias have something to do with this? Did I dismiss those stories as unimportant and not worth the time to review just because they were "girly"? I don't think so, but it has gotten me thinking.

What does it say that I, who likes to think of himself as an enlightened individual who loves women and women authors, has reviewed them a lower rate than men authors? I don't know. It's something I need to keep in mind going forward. Hopefully, I can in future at least approach parity.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Creative Destruction

Despite my raging bibliomaniacal book fetishism, I agree with Pyramus about book art. Even I will admit there are plenty of books that would be worth more as art than they are as books-qua-books. It's all about reincarnation.

Skimpy Sunday

(Via Fleshbot [NSFW]; Overnight to London [NSFW]; Mimziz [NSFW])

Friday, February 11, 2011

Lovey-Dovey Timey-Wimey

Tell that special geek in your life how much you care with these Doctor Who Valentines!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Attack of the Mutant Albino Redwoods!

Mutant albino redwoods are parasites freeloading off of their parent trees until the mother screams, "Why can't you just get a job!" and they die.

(Via i09)

Dog Blogging

Read this article or whatever, it's an okay piece, but all I really care about is that pug! OMGSOOOOOOCUTE!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Man, The 50s Were Weird

Does anyone remember The Boxcar Children? There was a period in about third grade where I was all about them. But am I imagining things, or was one of the plots about how they owned this run-down ranch and planned to make an egg farm out of it, but then they found the yellow rocks all over the place were actually uranium and they made a fortune selling it to the government? I mean, what?!? Only in the Cold War would a young adult book about the lucrativeness of uranium mining get published.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

Harbinger of the Storm by Aliette de Bodard

The continuation of the story of Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, following
Servant of the Underworld (reviewed here). This time, he must investigate the deaths of prominent noblemen while navigating the labyrinthine and bloody intrigues, human and divine, surrounding the succession to the throne of the Mexica Empire.

Wasteland of Flint, House of Reeds, and Land of the Dead by Thomas Harlan

The first three volumes of the
In The Time of the Sixth Sun series, set in an alternate history where the Aztecs and the Japanese rule Earth and its colonies in the shadow of Lovecraftian dangers. Gretchen Anderssen, xenoarchaeologist and disenfranchised descendant of defeated Sweden-Russia, finds herself drawn into the world of the Judges, those who guard the Empire from threats not-so-mundane, and the deadly politics of the Imperial Court. Meanwhile, Captain Mitsuharu Hadeishi must chart a treacherous course between the demands of honor and the realities of Fleet politics.

Space battles, Lovecraftian horror, mystery, intrigue, espionage, military honor, aliens, In The Time of the Sixth Sun is a genre-bending delight.

Echo City by Tim Lebbon

An incredibly ancient city, literally built on the past and surrounded by a lethal desert,is all there is. Or is it? As something terrible crawls up through the darkness below the city, a stranger arriving from the desert that has killed all others thrusts an exile, her former resistance colleagues, the witch/genetic engineer known as "the Baker," a hermetic cult, and a deformed spy into a race to survive the impending destruction of the city.

Saturday, February 05, 2011