Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturdays in the Garden - Also the Nation's Capitol


It doesn't feel like tomorrow is the first day in March . If you live in the U.S. you know it has gotten cold again and by cold I mean frigid beyond belief.  It also snowed some more. This affected me only in that it seriously messed with the travel I was doing this week but I'll about that later.  Here's a shot out the plane window of the Iowa landscape:

I got back Friday to some sprouted marigolds which was fun.  The onions and sensitive plant have not yet made an appearance.  I'd like to plant some additional starts this weekend but need more warming mats.  Why are there never enough warming mats??

Hoo boy - this week was a doozy.  Probably one of the more stressful I've had in a long time.  For work I traveled to Washington D.C. with the heads of the agency I work for.  More than that, they are folks I have not previously interacted with in any real way.  So, a week spent with strangers who have ultimate authority over my job.  Fun! That part of the trip ended up being just fine as they are nice folks who weren't examining my every move so they could fire me.  What a relief:).  The purpose of the trip was to meet with all of the congressional delegates for our state which is also stressful but also, strangely fun.  It does mean a very long day of running around (literally) on Capitol Hill and trying to be very adaptable and get across important and complicated concepts in 3 minutes or less. At the end of that day (around 10 pm) this happened at the hotel:
Apparently a fire in the laundry room that caused some excitement for about 45 minutes.  Here's some more D.C. pictures that don't involve emergency vehicles.

We were supposed to travel home on Thursday but, you see, we made the mistake of flying through Chicago so everything went to hell and quick.  After delays and cancellations provided a roller coaster of stress all day, I got to spend the night in Chicago so that I could get up at O'Dark thirty on Friday and sit at the airport through another two hour delay.  Finally got home around noon yesterday and was in bed asleep by 9:00.  Why does air travel suck so hard these days?

In more pleasant news, I was sitting around this morning sipping coffee and watching two rogue llamas run around Phoenix to a Phish soundtrack (as one does), when my friend called and asked if I wanted to accompany her to a matinee of Pippin in Des Moines.  I am a huge musical nerd (as she knew) and Pippin is probably in my all time top five. (Note to Self: I think I need to do a favorites musicals post.... hmmm....)  I said hell yes so we had a great lunch with margaritas and then caught a really, really excellent production of Pippin!  This particular revival, when it was on Broadway won the Tony for best re-staging and I see why - it was one of the better travel shows I've ever seen!

Watching this week has been HGTV.  I don't have cable at home so one of my favorite things to do when staying at a hotel is zoning out to various HGTV shows like Fixer Upper and The Property Brothers and the various shows that follow people on their search for a new home.  It's embarrassing.

The only good thing about the amount of time I spent in airports this week was I got a decent amount of reading done.  I finished The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker and will review soon.  I started and am about 30% into Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon.  I'm still reading The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Abhorsen by Garth Nix and Sheepfarmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Moon.

SUNDAY: Review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.  Very detailed, fascinating and heart-wrenching historical fiction. 3.5 out of 5.
TUESDAY:  Top Ten Tuesday - Favorite Fictional Heroines.  I cheated and re-posted a list I made back in October (see above travels).
WEDNESDAY: Review of Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch.  This is the second book in his Peter Grant series and it was great! 4 out of 5 stars.
FRIDAY:  Tough Traveling - Chess Masters.  Posted a day late (see above travels).

I'm actually caught up on reviews so..... this week may be a little fluid.
SUNDAY:  I'll be ambitious and post about my favorite Musicals while I'm all jazzed up after Pippin.
TUESDAY: Top Ten Tuesday:  Top Ten All Time Favorites from the last 3 Years.  Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.
WEDNESDAY: Review of Avatar: The Last Airbender The Rift and perhaps some other Avatar silliness.
THURSDAY:  The Tough Traveling topic is Vampires.  They're everywhere so the key here is going to putting some kind of unique spin on the topic.  Which will require thinking.  Which is hard. Hosted by Fantasy Review Barn.

That's it for me this week!  Anybody else get trapped in airports this week?  Anybody else want to join my newly formed organization whose mission is to push for the development of teleportation?

I'm not a river
Or a giant Bird
That soars to the Sea
and if I'm never tied to anything
I'll never be free.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Tough Traveling - Chess Masters

Tough Traveling is a fun meme that aims to tour all the tropes big and small, abhorred and loved that are littered across the fantasy landscape. It was conceived of and is hosted by Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn and here's how it's explained on the blog: 

Each Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

This week's trope are the Chess Masters.  No, not Bobby Fischer but this kind of chess master:

A true master knows where all the pieces are at all times.  Others may think they have taken control but alas, the master knew their last move before they played it.
A master of chess when the pieces are people.  Fun!  I love these guys and gals!  I'm posting late because of work travel craziness but better late then never.  Or perhaps I have some devious plan that 20 unforeseen brilliant steps from now will lead to Tough Traveling moving to Friday?  Okay, probably not, as unfortunately I ain't no chess master(...and I have no reason to want Tough Traveling to be on Friday).  However the the folks listed below would have know trouble making just about anything happen!

1) Varys from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

Nicknamed The Spider, he is the spymaster for the ruling powers of Westeros whoever they might be at any given time.  He is obviously on top of things enough to keep his position even with unexpected changes in power.  It is suggested he has something on everybody which helps him keep his head.   

2) The wizard Bayaz in The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

I love this series of books, and Bayaz may be the key to why.  He starts off like the kindly wise man ala Gandalf but he's got depths and they are indeed dark.  The game he is playing is not one the reader nor any of the characters he's manipulating expects but he definitely knows what he is about.

3) Myfanwy Thomas in The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

This is the second week in a row for this book but it's a great book and it has a nice twist on the chess master trope.  Plus it uses chess as a framework for its fictional spy agency The Chequy which makes it mandatory to list here.  Basically Myfanwy is the chess master of...Myfanwy.  The Myfanwy the reader meets actually has complete amnesia but the original Myfanwy expected this to happen and has arranged everything for her new self to continue to play the game.  She even provides an alternative for the new Myfanwy to step away and disappear into a luxurious retirement if she is not inclined to find out who wiped her memory and the traitor is in The Chequy.

4) Kelsier in Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Look at me listing a Sanderson.  I'm not his biggest fan but Kelsier is definitely a chess master having planned out all the moves well in advance in his desire for vengeance.

5) Locke Lamora from the Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch

Locke is the man with the plan, at least when thievery is on the table.  Plus he might just be the most charming Chess Master on this list?  I think so... except for perhaps the final addition to the list....

6) Dumbledore in Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Dumbledore seems to know all and while he does it in a kindly way he manipulates Harry and really everyone around him in order to have the best chance at defeating Voldemort.

That's what I got.  I do really like this type of character and am looking forward to see everybody elses' lists.  You can check them out yourself at Fantasy Review Barn.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

REVIEW: Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Series: Peter Grant #2, Book 1 Review
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrated by: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

This was a series that I read last year that convinced me that I actually do enjoy Urban Fantasy.  It won me over with its mash-up of mystery/police procedural/ paranormal elements, its utterly charming characters and its witty humor.  This is the second book in the series and Peter gets sucked into his Dad’s world when Jazz musicians around London start dying mysteriously after gigs.   

This book has fewer deity diplomacy issues and focuses on the mystery of the musicians.  The solution to this mystery is very unique and creative.  The book also introduces some really interesting developments that were not resolved and likely will be recurring issues in future books.  We get a glimpse into the state of British wizardry before World War II either killed them all or drove them crazy, leaving Nightingale as last man standing.  I think this whole storyline has a lot of potential and it would be cool if it increases Nightingale’s role further. 

As per usual the characters are great.  Peter has a great voice and is this lovely mixture of idealism and honor and cynicism mostly directed at police bureaucracy and the stupidity of the human race.

“It’s a truism in policing that witnesses and statements are fine, but nothing beats empirical physical evidence. Actually it isn’t a truism because most policemen think the word ‘empirical’ is something to do with Darth Vader, but it damn well should be.”

“If you just warn people, they often simply ignore you. But if you ask them a question, then they have to think about it. And once they start to think about the consequences, they almost always calm down.
Unless they're drunk, of course.

Or stoned.

Or aged between fourteen and twenty-one.

Or Glaswegian.”

“Every male in the world thinks he's an excellent driver. Every copper who's ever had to pick an eyeball out of a puddle knows that most of them are kidding themselves.”

The way Aaronovitch writes the police and the policing, right down to the cynicism, feels very authentic and makes me curious if it is based on experience or research and imagination.  Nightingale is laid up for most of this book so is not present as much as I’d like but he and Peter’s relationship as master and apprentice is developing and even some affection is beginning to show.

“For a terrifying moment I thought he was going to hug me, but fortunately we both remembered we were English just in time. Still, it was a close call.”

Finally, Leslie makes a few short appearances and she is often in Peter’s mind.  They are dealing with devastating injury she suffered in the first book and I really like that it is addressed and that Peter remains a good friend to her.  In fact there is a development with Leslie towards at the very end of the book which also promises some interesting directions in future books. 

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is a terrific narrator and really captures Peter’s voice and handles the humor very well.  I definitely recommend the audio.

FINAL VERDICT: This second book in the series continues to develop the characters in interesting ways, has a creative mystery story of its own and introduces some very intriguing through plot lines.  Part of me wants to read the rest now but the other part doesn’t want to catch up and have no more books to read. 4 out of 5 Stars. 

P.S. I kind of hate the U.S. covers.  I just think the silhouette is weird. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday - Ladies to Love and Look Up To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme for bloggers who like books and lists.  It's awesome and is graciously hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

First of all, my sincerest apologies for the dangling participle up there.  I just couldn't resist the alliteration.   This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is about kick ass heroines:
Top Ten Favorite Heroines From Books (Or you could pick movies/tv): We've done this topic before so you could always do heroines you love since the last time we did this topic, heroines in a particular genre, etc.
I've already tackled this topic a few months back on my own and I think it these ladies bear repeating and deserve all the love that an be heaped upon them.  Also I am traveling this week for work so I'm being just a tad bit lazy.  So here's the post from October:

A few weeks ago the Offbeat Home blog posted this short post about the most inspirational fictional heroines.   This in turn inspired me to make my own list.  I am, somewhat to my chagrin, really hard on female fictional characters, particularly those in a heroine sort of role.  I expect a lot from them and when they don't meet my expectations I tend to get ranty and unhappy with the book, film or tv show.

There are a few characters however, that I can absolutely say without hesitation, that I see as role models and people I wish I emulate more.  Here are some of the characteristics that I most admire:

- They are confident/comfortable with themselves.
- They embrace life with gusto.
- They have a strong moral compass and
- Are always brave enough to choose the right path even if it's the more difficult/less comfortable.
- They make mistakes and take responsibility for them while not giving in to self-loathing.
- They are independent.
- They are smart.
- They are strong.
- They are courageous and opinionated.
- They have compassion.
- They pursue love and intimacy without making it the end all be all.
- They have great senses of humor.

Not all the fictional women below embody all these characteristics but they have at least one and usually more.

The first two on the list are the career women.  They are workaholics (one a tad more reluctantly than the other) who are the best at what they do and they are scientists who can also kick some ass!

1) Dana Scully from The X-Files
Despite what the GIF says, Dana Scully is not flawless.  For one she falls in love with the most exasperating man in North America, possibly the world, who is most of the time too obsessed with aliens to notice how seriously awesome his partner is.  Despite his cluelessness, she is, in fact, so so great.  She has integrity and loyalty in spades.  She is smart and independent and makes up her own mind about things using facts and her own prodigious brain.  She is also grounded and loyal and while good ole Fox may be the charismatic one, he would be nothing without her cool rational mind.  I also really admire women who are able to compartmentalize and have the strength to push through emotional pain.  Also she's flipping gorgeous but you could never just dismiss her as a pretty face - she won't let you.

2) Samantha Carter From Stargate SG1
I not only want to be Sam Carter but I have a lot of affection for her.  She's a gigantic nerd who gets so flipping excited about physics and anything remotely science related that she annoys everyone around her.  She's also super tough though.  Like Scully above she is a woman working in a world dominated by men so she must push harder, endure more and be that much smarter so that she is taken seriously.  I am also a scientist and work in a field dominated by men that gets pretty heavily macho from time to time so I love Scully and Sam as role models in that arena.  They don't get bitter or angry, they are just better than everyone else.

3) Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon has a talent for creating strong and incredibly compelling female characters.  Buffy is a woman who has been given an immense responsibility and despite the fact that she longs to be a regular teenage girl, her compassionate heart and rock solid sense of right and wrong keeps her fighting.  She sacrifices an immense amount and does it with a sense of humor and a ton of ferocity.  I love how she's smart but not necessarily at the the whole school thing and she has a strong sense of who she is.    

You can buy these as posters!

4) The Women of Firefly from Firefly
They are all awesome in their own special, shiny ways.  Kaylee loves life and sees everything through the lens of her cheery and generous spirit.  She's also really great at what she does, takes pride in her work and is completely comfortable with who she is and where she is in the world.  River is a bit mad but she's held on to what she could of herself through sheer determination and strength.  Zoe is calm and cool personified. She's brave, incredibly loyal and will kick your ass if you deserve it.  Unfortunately the show didn't last long enough for us to figure out what darkness was in Inara's past but whatever it was she's come through it to be fiercely independent and self-contained.  Yes, she's a futuristic Geisha but everything she does is on her terms and she uses what she has to make others feel valued and good about themselves.  

5) Anne Shirley from the Anne of Green Gable Series
Oh how I've wished to be Anne and not just because she's captured the heart of the dreamy Gilbert Blythe.  Anne is another who lives life to the fullest every moment of every day. It frequently lands her into predicaments but she takes it all in stride and never backs down from a challenge.   She is independent and smart and can charm the pants off of anyone.  She excels at everything she does because she works hard and is driven.  

5) Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia
Lucy is feisty and doesn't back down from the truth even when her older siblings doubt her and are really quite crappy about it.   She also serves as the moral compass for her family - she is the most compassionate and caring and is strong in her convictions. And she's pretty jolly and friendly on top of it all.

7) Veronica Mars from Veronica Mars
When I first watched Veronica Mars I was WELL out of high school but that didn't stop me from looking up to her.  She goes through a horrific tragedy and has her whole life turned upside down at the awkward age of 15 or 16 no less.  She comes out the other side snarky as hell and cute as a bug.  One of her greatest advantages is that people frequently underestimate her because of her aforementioned youth and cuteness while she proceeds to run circles around them.  Veronica has every reason to be bitter but as is a popular catch phrase of the show - she's a marshmallow.  She is incredibly compassionate but don't cross her or those she loves because she will take you down. 

8) Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice
Austen has a number of good heroines but Elizabeth Bennet is arguably her most admirable.  Not because she doesn't make any mistakes - she makes some pretty dismal judgment calls - but Lizzie is who she is.  She's smart and funny, affectionate towards and defensive of her family even though they are seriously loco or you know, a little uncouth.  She enjoys life and doesn't take it too seriously though when crisis does strike she is the voice of reason. 

9) Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With The Wind
So you may be thinking "Seriously? Scarlett O'Hara?" Scarlett is a spoiled brat, vain, self-centered, and her moral compass is way out of whack but she is one seriously strong lady.  She's independent and calls the shots in her life during a time when women didn't really do that.  When things got rough, like "middle of a war, we might starve" rough she was never beaten and did what needed to be done to survive.  She most certainly embraced her life with gusto and was comfortable with who she was in all her crazy glory. 

So that's my ode to the fantastic fictional women that have inspired me through the years.  What fictional women have inspired you?  How about real women?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

REVIEW: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Original Publication Year: 2004
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Series: None
Awards: None
Format: Audio (downloaded from library)
Narrated by: Janet Song

This book has been on my TBR for a LONG time (hence why it is on my 100 books project list) but I honestly didn’t entirely know what it was about.  So let me clear that up right away – it is historical fiction that takes place in Imperial China (1800s) and tells the story of two girls who become the closest of friends – laotong or old sames.  The story is told by Lily as an old woman reflecting on her life and contemplating the mistakes she has made dwelling on those she most regrets.  

Right up front I should warn; this is a heartbreaking book.  I was listening to the final few chapters on my iPod while walking my dogs around town and it literally took almost everything I had not to begin sobbing – not quietly weeping – but hard sobbing.  These women have horrible lives just as a matter of course and it does not save them from the bad things that life brings as an extra burden. 

So it is a book that evokes emotions but is it a good story?  It is but don’t expect action-packed adventures – it is the story of the lives of these two women who are intertwined.  Much of the interest of the book is tied to the very authentic-feeling presentation of the lives of rural women in Imperial China.  Their lives are highly ritualized and seemed to be laced intricately with cruelty and repression.  The unexpected thing is that much of the cruelty and repression comes from other women.  I found myself frequently wondering how these modes of behavior became a ritualized and expected part of women’s lives and behavior – what was the advantage of a mother-in-law heaping abuse upon their daughters-in-law?  Why was the accepted mode of communication, even with one's friends, framed as scolding and disapproving of any behavior that was less than perfect or outside the norm?  Where was the natural human sympathy?

And then, of course, there is the foot-binding which I had always imagined was a painful process but I thought it consisted of just keeping one's feet restricted so they would not grow beyond a certain size.  Horrifying enough but doesn’t come close, as I discovered, to the mutilating and torturous reality.  The ideal size for a bound foot was 7 cm. or about as long as your thumb.  Lisa See’s description is vivid but I had to look up photos and dressed women with bound feet looked like they didn’t have feet at all; like they are tottering on stumps.  Naked, the feet looked deformed and grotesque to my modern western eyes and I cannot imagine how this practice became a necessity in that culture.  However, I have in my youth been a classical ballet dancer en pointe which isn’t exactly natural or good for one’s feet/body and yet I am in awe of the beauty of classical ballerinas.  Basically we humans are an odd and often incredibly cruel bunch.

There is a little twist at the end that I didn’t entirely buy into and while it is well written and readable it did not suck me in entirely – I didn’t spend my time in between listening sessions wanting to get back to it.  I also struggled to see if there was any lesson to be taken from the story or if the book was just fiction that elucidated an unfamiliar past.  I felt like, from my perspective, that most of what was on the page was so straight forwardly bad and terrible - there was no gray area or thought provocation.  This is why the book gets 3 out of 5 stars which for me means I liked it well but didn’t love it.  If I could be more precise I would likely give it a 3.5.

Final Verdict:  A vivid and heartbreaking portrayal of two women’s lives in Imperial China and I do recommend it! 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Read Harder Challenge - A book that takes place in Asia