Review: The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

My first thought when I finished this book was “I have died and gone to heaven…or maybe just to Paradise.”

In many ways, this is just another Alternate-Medieval-Europe fantasy (though quite well-written); it has bloody battles, secret (and not so secret) religious fanatics of various flavors, and plenty of political intrigue. I appreciated the author’s way of using languages; the book is written in English, but he uses a blend of English and other languages to give the sense of the different countries, for instance giving titles in both Spanish or French as well as in English. It leaves the reader not needing to guess what unfamiliar words mean, while still getting to see them, learn them, and appreciate the varied vocabulary.

In many ways, it is just another fantasy…but it also has dinosaurs.

Some reviewers have made the point that this story is not a Medieval Jurassic Park. I agree, and would then add that I think it’s much better than that. If you are a Jurassic Park fan and your favorite part is that a bunch of people run around screaming and then get eaten by the dinosaurs, this may not be the book for you (though some people do get killed/eaten by dinosaurs in the story).

I think the best way to describe it is to say that dinosaurs exist in the world of Paradise; they are animals that inhabit the land, and people have learned to exist with them, much as we exist with the many animals around us today. There are some unique challenges to life with dinosaurs, given their often-large size and definite ability to cause harm to humans, but in this world those are challenges that people have undertaken. Some dinosaurs still roam the wild, and are hunted for meat or sport or self-protection by the humans. Many have been tamed or domesticated to one degree or another; they are beasts of burden, war-steeds, pets. The dinosaurs in the world of Paradise feel real, because they are part of the landscape and the ecosystem and the culture; much better than attractions at an amusement park.

To many of the characters, this is all dinosaurs are: part of the landscape, a familiar backdrop to everyday life. But to a couple of the characters (and to the author, I believe), the dinosaurs are more than that: to these characters, dinosaurs are a source of awe. Even as they fully understand and constantly deal with the realities (pleasant and otherwise) of coexisting with dinosaurs, they never lose the lingering edge of breathless wonder at the existence of these great creatures. That, more than anything, was what sold me on this book’s premise and world (and not surprisingly, those two characters are my favorites so far!)

I did enjoy the story itself, and am interested to see where it goes in the next two books of this (I believe) trilogy. This is a very adult book – plenty of gore, sex, violence, and foul language. If you don’t mind those things, then I would recommend it to fans of dinosaurs (the author seems to have done his research fairly well), fans of epic medieval fantasy, and fans of stories with battles and political intrigue.

Quick Review: Sahara (2017)

This was a cute animated movie about snakes! Being a snake person myself, it was exciting to see a kids’ story with snakes as the main characters and good guys, rather than being the bad guys as they are so often portrayed.

The story is set in the Sahara Desert in Africa, and follows the story of a young cobra named Ajar. Ajar lives in the desert with the other venomous snakes, but is bullied and not accepted. He tries to escape to the local oasis where the green serpents (which maybe were supposed to be modeled after the boomslang? Unclear.) live. Here he runs into Eva, a green serpent who cannot stand life in the oasis anymore, and they try running away together. Eva is captured by an evil snake charmer, though, and so Ajar, his scorpion best friend, and Eva’s brother set out to cross the desert and rescue her.

There is very little accuracy in how the snakes are portrayed (early on, the venomous ones are shown eating a watermelon), but the story is cute and the animation was good. The music got a little strange at times, but was enjoyable.

If you are looking for a fun, not-too-serious movie, then I would recommend this! (It is a Netflix original movie.) If you will be really put off or desperately disappointed that the snakes are not portrayed accurately, then I would probably hold off. Personally, I hold out hope that someday we may get movies not only with snakes as the good guys, but also portrayed as carnivores/with correct movements and anatomy/etc. But, in the meantime, I will take (and support) a cute movie that at least doesn’t portray them as evil or scary.

Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

I went to see this opening night, and was not even a little bit disappointed.

As a brief, spoiler-free review: Visually stunning, with good music, I would recommend it to fans of superhero/action movies. Setting it during World War I rather than World War II worked with some of the themes about human free-will in interesting ways (and contributed to some of the aforesaid stunning visuals). I thought the setup used to frame this (Wonder Woman’s origin story) was well-done. I am not greatly familiar with the DC universe, so this take on some of the Greek mythology struck me as strange, but interesting. Definitely recommended.

More in-depth thoughts (with spoilers) below.

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Song Review: The War Was In Color by Carbon Leaf

I’m honestly not even sure if song reviews are a thing, but I’ve been in love with this song for months and really want to talk about it, so I’m doing it anyway.

So, I first discovered The War Was In Color through this fan video that someone made based on the first Captain America and Avengers movies, which is honestly kind of perfect, so I would definitely recommend watching that. But the song is also really gorgeous just by itself, so that’s what I’m going to focus on here: it is a tribute to those who fought during World War II, from a U.S. perspective.

I happen to be involved in a big WWII project at work right now, so I’m already feeling a bit invested in the time period and also pretty emotional about it. That makes the lyrics for this song hit me a little harder even than they did when I first discovered it.

I see you’ve found a box of my things –
Infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings.
These old pictures are cool. Tell me some stories
Was it like the old war movies?
Sit down son. Let me fill you in

I love the imagery here – it’s just a box of old photographs, but to the WWII veteran, it’s a lot more than that: “infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings.” These are the pieces of the war that he remembers, not the two-dimensional pictures. I like also the imagery of a younger family member actually asking a veteran about his time in the war, and the veteran being willing to answer and speak about it.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo don’t capture the skin
From the flash of a gun to a soldier who’s done
Trust me grandson
The war was in color

There is something about the last line of this verse/the title of this song that really hits me. Even as an historian who knows better, it is still sometimes easy to get caught up in the immediate depictions of the war that are readily available to me…the black and white photographs, newspapers, and movies of the time. There are other artifacts as well, of course, that are not black and white (colorful propaganda posters, flags, etc.). But so many of the direct photographs of that era are black and white, that it can be easy to forget: like life for all people, in all places and all times, this war too was in color. It was immediate and real…the present for many millions of people, even if it is the past for us now.

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Quick Review: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

I just finished Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire, and I enjoyed it a lot!

Personally, I am a big fan of new or different takes on traditional fairy tales, and so this take on Cinderella appealed to me. It is almost historical fiction as much as it is a fairy tale, set in Holland during the 1600s, during the early parts of the tulip craze. I felt that the story moved along at a good pace (although I was occasionally confused as to how much in-story time had actually passed), and I was definitely able to immerse myself in the world. There were some unexpected twists as well, especially at the end.

Does anyone have other recommendations for good fairy-tale retellings? I am a fan of Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, and I know that I read some others when I was younger, but don’t recall them too well now.

A Personal History of Books: 16 Years of Reading

A Personal History of Books: 16 Years of Reading

As my second post of 2017 (although it’s coming a bit later than I intended), I thought I would talk about my New-Books-Read list.

Back in 2000, somewhat on a whim, I decided to start keeping a list of the new books that I read that year in this small, cheerfully-psychedelic Lisa Frank notepad:

booklist

(I can hear you all crying “Oh god, the nineties!” and shielding your eyes.)

The list is just titles, no author names or any other information. My only criteria for adding things were that it had to be an actual book of some sort or another, that I had not read it before (I am an inveterate re-reader of books, sometimes, so I decided not to count those), and that I read all of it. At the end of that first year, I counted up how many titles were on the list (109!), and then flipped the page over to make a “New Books Read Since January 1, 2001,” and continued on.

booklist2000

I kept this up for the next 16 years. At the end of 2016, I finally reached the last page of the notebook.

booklist2016

(As you can see, my handwriting has not notably improved. Be glad that you get to read only typed things from me, my handwritten fiction drafts are awful. XD)

Looking through it since then, I ran a few numbers just for kicks:

-694 new books in 16 years

-Average of 43.375 books per year

-Best year: 2000 (109)

-Worst year: 2007 (13)

For those interested, the 2000 list includes all of both the Dragonriders of Pern series (Anne McCaffrey) and all of the Lord Peter Wimsey series (Dorothy Sayers), among other things. I was prone in middle and high school to spending my summer vacations discovering a new series of books (or two) and then devouring them all in one steady go. (I really miss being able to do that sometimes.) After 2007, I vowed to never read fewer than 15 new books per year again, and so far I’ve managed to hold to that. (To be fair, 2007 was in the middle of college, and I was pretty swamped with work, but still.)

So, the psychedelic 90s teddy bear will now be retired to a shelf, and I have a plainer (less eye-smarting) little purple notebook in which to continue these annual lists. This one has more pages than the previous one, so it will probably take me longer than 16 years to fill it up (unless I get back to reading 100+ new books every year!) Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a post about that one when I finish it too. 🙂

Happy Reading, everyone!

~Ethelinda

Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (movie)

I should preface this review by stating that, as a general rule, I very much dislike zombie movies, zombies being the main type of horror-genre monster that actually frighten me. Those that fall more into the humor genre than the horror (such as Shaun of the Dead), have been more tolerable, but I do not usually seek them out.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was an exception to that rule, and I was glad of about 30 seconds into the movie.

(I should probably also preface the following by saying that I have read the original Pride and Prejudice and loved it, but have not seen any film versions of it. I have also not read the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Cut for spoilers.)

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Review: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

(“A nonfiction book” from the Reading Challenge)

I am switching my non-fiction book because I read this one more recently and feel that I can write a decent review. (I did read My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek, which was my original choice, and I definitely liked it a lot and would recommend it! But I didn’t get to writing a review as soon as I should have, so I’ll do this one instead.)

This book was a Christmas present from a family member, who rightly guessed that I would enjoy it. It was very good!

The author is a paleontologist and professor of anatomy, and he has a clear, engaging writing style that was very easy to read. The book is (as you might guess from the title) talking about evolution as it relates to the biology and anatomy of the human body.

I really loved the way he talks about science! He talks about his lab (which is half fossils and half genetics/DNA, apparently), and he talked about looking for fossils in ways that I hadn’t thought about before. He points out that while yes, there is a certain amount of luck involved in actually finding the fossils you’re looking for, you have to start by doing the right prep work identifying where your chances will be greatest.

He uses the example of wanting to find an intermediate stage between finned fish and amphibians with true limbs, a transition which happened between 385 and 365 million years ago. So, he had to identify rocks in that age range, of the right type to preserve fossils at all (meaning, sedimentary rocks), and that were somewhere exposed/accessible to people. In this case, Ellesmere Island in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle, turned out to be the best place, and so that is where he and his team have gone summer after summer. And, after many seasons, they did in fact find the kind of fossil they were looking for; Tiktaalik was a fish that had fins…but they were fins with bones in them, and bones in the same basic number/arrangement that we see in all limbed animals today.

He does a really good job of working the reader through a somewhat abstract idea (that we can trace our bodies/body parts/body construction back in time through evolution, as evidenced by both fossils and genetics), by providing several concrete examples that show this, and going through the process each time. Looking at our bodies this way helps to make sense of some things about us that seem confusing when you think about them by themselves. Hiccups, for example. Why do we get hiccups? Well, probably because our bodies are descended from amphibious creatures that needed to be able to switch back and forth between breathing with lungs in air and breathing with gills in water. The muscle/nerve combination that causes hiccups originally worked as a pausing mechanism that allowed for that switch…only we don’t need it anymore, so for us it’s just a leftover thing our bodies do that can be a nuisance.

All of his examples are really interesting like that. Going back to limbs, he points out that every vertebrate creature that has limbs has limb bones in the exact same combination: one upper bone, two lower bones, blobby bones in the “wrist,” and then rod-like bones that radiate from those (fingers/toes, for us). The exact shapes, lengths and configurations of these bones are very different in an alligator, a bat, and a human, but the same basic combination is there in all three animals. In another example, he talks about nerves in the human head, some of which are very complex and kind of confusing, because they do lots of different-seeming things. But when you look at them from a developmental view, they make perfect sense, because one nerve is connected to all the various parts of the head that form from one “gill arch” on the human embryo, and another nerve is connected to all the parts that form from another “gill arch,” and so on. (Those “gill arches” are so called because, in fish like sharks, they do actually form into gills. In humans, they are present when we are an embryo, but then develop into various parts of our face, jaw, neck, and throat.)

So it was a very interesting book! It falls into the category of “I sort of knew the basics of this (evolution and how it works),” but this book lays it out so much more specifically and with such fantastic examples that it just becomes much, much clearer in my head. Books like that are the best ones, for me. I definitely recommend this one to anyone interested in paleontology, science, evolution, or the history of life on earth. A fantastic read!

Review: The Martian

(“A book a friend recommended” from the Reading Challenge)

I put this on my Reading Challenge list on the recommendation of a friend, and then ended up reading it for a book club that I’m part of with a few other friends – we definitely did not regret it. I’m probably a little late to the party on this particular book, but in case you haven’t heard about it or given it a try yet, The Martian is excellent. (Spoilers below.)

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