Sunday, 25 January 2015

Shout-Out: A Fold in the Tent of the Sky by Michael Hale

Struggling actor Peter Abbott is about to land the biggest role of his life. His audition for Calliope Associates-a clandestine private investigation firm made up of men and women with highly developed psychic abilities-requires only proof of Peter's psychic skills, no dramatic monologue.

Business is booming until members of the group begin disappearing at the hands of fellow psychic Simon Haywood. His genius is matched only by Peter's, but Simon alone discovers a unique way to use his extrasensory skills to travel back in time, committing crimes without any trace. Simon's mind grows warped and paranoid as the universe strains against his tinkering. Terrified that his extracurricular voyages will be curtailed, he plans to "erase" his colleagues. But Simon's methods are not exactly cold-blooded; instead he goes back to the moment of his victims' conception and prevents them from being created. Because no one in the present day recalls he or she ever existed, he's not caught . . . until Peter realizes what's happening. Now time is running out as Simon's sociopathic travels are disrupting the universe, folding and twisting the constraints of matter to a near-breaking point and threatening to spin the entire cosmos out of control.

A Fold in the Tent of the Sky takes murder into a new dimension as it races toward its electrifying, time-twisting climax.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Medieval Plants: Common Yarrow

A column looking at medieval plants and what they were use for. (Archive)

By O. Pichard source
Latin name: Achillea millefolium
aka: nosebleed plant, devil’s nettle, devil’s plaything, bad man’s plaything, soldier’s woundwort, bloodwort, allheal, millefolium,, milfoil, old man’s mustard, stanchweed, field hops, etc.

The Latin name for this bitter plant is said to come from a legend from the Trojan war.  Achilles, having been taught by the centaur Chiron, used this plant to stop the bleeding of his comrades on the battlefield.  The second half of its name comes from the feathery leaves that have mille folium, a “thousand leaf” form.  The English name, yarrow, comes from the Saxon, gearwe, which means healer (Ricola).

From ancient times up through the American civil war the plant was used to treat wounds on battlefields.  Crushed, it could be inserted into the nostrils to stop nosebleeds.  (Kowalchik, p.516-518).  

Hildegard von Bingen suggested using yarrow cooked with fennel as an aid for insomnia (when squeezed out and wrapped around the head) (93).  She added fresh dill to it in her nosebleed recipe, advising that the herbs be put around the forehead, temples and chest (97).  Drunk, it could help heal internal injuries and bring down tertian fever (141).  Yarrow was also added to mixtures that helped women with their menses (138).

In addition to the usual use for treating wounds, Pliny says the plant could also help with bladder issues, asthma and toothache (v5, p61).  

According to wikipedia, it was part of an herbal mixture known as gruit, used in the flavouring of beer before hops.

Given all the healing information I found about the plant I was a bit surprised it made the magic bed of the garden rather than the medicinal bed.  The only information I’d found for its use in magic was an offhand comment that it was supposedly used by witches in incantations (Kowalchick).  So I googled yarrow and witchcraft and came across the Witchipedia website, where I got the following information.  The plant was said to assist both in the summoning and driving away the devil.  In fact, yarrow was used in Christian exorcism rituals.  It was also used as a protective herb, hanging over cradles to protect babies, strewn across the threshold of a house to prevent unhelpful spirits from entering and put in Saxon amulets.

I’m sticking to the medieval European uses of the plant as that’s where my interest lies, but the plant has been known and used in China for over a thousand years.  Native Americans also used it for medicinal purposes.


Hildegard von Bingen. Physica: The Complete English Translation of her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Trans. Priscilla Throop. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 2011. 

Kowalchick, Claire and William Hylton, Ed. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1998.

Pliny. Natural History v. 1-6. Trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Henry Bohn, 1851.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Shout-Out: When by Victoria Laurie

Maddie Fynn is a shy high school junior, cursed with an eerie intuitive ability: she sees a series of unique digits hovering above the foreheads of each person she encounters. Her earliest memories are marked by these numbers, but it takes her father's premature death for Maddie and her family to realize that these mysterious digits are actually deathdates, and just like birthdays, everyone has one.
Forced by her alcoholic mother to use her ability to make extra money, Maddie identifies the quickly approaching deathdate of one client's young son, but because her ability only allows her to see the when and not the how, she's unable to offer any more insight. When the boy goes missing on that exact date, law enforcement turns to Maddie.
Soon, Maddie is entangled in a homicide investigation, and more young people disappear and are later found murdered. A suspect for the investigation, a target for the murderer, and attracting the attentions of a mysterious young admirer who may be connected to it all, Maddie's whole existence is about to be turned upside down. Can she right things before it's too late?

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Video: Ice City

The city of Harbin in Northern China hosts an ice festival every winter in which giant sculptures of buildings are built and lit up.  The video below, by Paul Tauger, shows activities that go on during the day and night.  The whole thing's pretty interesting, but if you only want to see the night shots jump to the 2:40 mark or check out some photos on Trip Adviser.

One thing I really liked about the video is the snapshot of how people in China celebrate winter.  The ice chairs(?) people were skating with, for example, and the different foods at the booths were cool to see.

I've been thinking lately how festivals were (and still are) a big part of life, and yet a lot of fantasy (and other) books fail to account for this.  Even if the festivals aren't shown, they'd still be talked about and anticipated by the people.  Perhaps they'd even be used as motivation for working hard.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Pros: tense, compelling, humerous, hard sf

Cons: swearing, some exposition

Mark Watney is presumed dead after being hit by flying debris and having his suit depressurize during the evacuation of the Ares 3 mission on Mars in a dust storm.  But hours after his crew departs on the only ship, Mark wakes up.  Now he’s alone on Mars with no way home and supplies only designed to last a crew of 6 for 31 days.

This is a novel of survival under extreme conditions.  It’s predominately told from Mark’s point of view via daily journal entries.  Mark is a resourceful man with a dry sense of humour, which helps keep the novel upbeat even though things are constantly dire.  It’s a compelling book that’s hard to put down with lots of tense moments.  

It’s also hard science fiction, meaning there’s a good amount of science explanation and mathmatics going on.  Most of the time it’s quick and engagingly told (often using humour).  Communications are reproduced with the time lag and flight times are dictated by real physics.  According to an interview I read by him the only scientifically inaccurate point in the book is the dust storm on Mars at the beginning of the book.

There’s a fair bit of swearing, which I’m not keen on, but a lot of it was understandable given the circumstances.  My only other complaint is that a lot of necessary information was given in conversations in ways that - though they worked in the text - would sound odd in real life.  So, for example, people would say things like “It’s nice to be back in Houston.”, rather than simply “It’s nice to be back.”, so the reader would know where the conversation was happening.  Similarly, people often explained things to coworkers that their coworkers should know, like how various scientific things work, or what they’re called, so that the reader would learn this information.  It’s a catch-22 in that the reader needs the information and there are only 2 ways to get it across, via dialogue or exposition.  Dialogue is the more interesting way of reading it, so he made the right choice.  And most people won’t notice he did this, they’ll just enjoy the fast paced story.

This is a fantastic book and I can understand why it made so many top 10 lists for 2014 and why it’s been optioned for film.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Medieval Plants: Research Difficulties

Ok, I spent several hours going through numerous sources on the first 3 plants on my list.  I discovered a few things.  

First, plants go by many names and translators don’t always use the same name, or the latin name. I found this quote which sums up the problem nicely:

“Controversy exists concerning the exact identification of some plants that are mentioned in medieval literature and depicted in medieval art.  It is often extremely difficult to identify plants from the names given them by medieval writers, while plants in works of art are not always rendered with botanical accuracy.” (Bayard, 55)

So, for example, an alternate name for Yarrow is Woundwort.  Hildegard von Bingen has sections for both Yarrow (garwa) and Woundwort (wuntwurtz) in the Physica, showing that Woundwort may also  be used for a different plant entirely.  I'll therefore have to exercise caution when attributing information to a plant from a source that doesn't use the latin name.
I also discovered that it’s useful to go online and find out the alternate names for plants before go ing through all my physical books, so I don’t have to go through them multiple times.

Second, most of my sources don’t differentiate between periods regarding when plants were used for what.  In other words, it’s difficult for me to say that a particular plant was used for x in the middle ages.  I knew that a lot of classical lore would have been preserved, as well as a lot of pre-medieval local lore, I didn’t expect that there would be little differentiation in my sources with regards to when certain practices may have stopped (beyond the obvious ‘modern age’, as we’ve learned more about the efficacy of plants and can synthesize the beneficial elements).  

Third, the secondary sources that reference the middle ages specifically are pretty light on the details, meaning I’ll probably have to do more research online than I anticipated.  Having said that, I came across some great sites that will help me flesh out my posts.

So these aren’t going to be as focused as I’d intended.  I'm going to try posting one a month and take things from there.

Bayard, Tania. Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Shout-Out: Wolves by Simon Ings

Augmented Reality uses computing power to overlay a digital imagined reality over the real world. Whether it be adverts or imagined buildings and imagined people, with Augmented Reality the world is no longer as it appears to you, it is as it is imagined by someone else.

Two friends are working at the cutting edge of this technology and when they are offered backing to take the idea and make it into the next global entertainment they realise that wolves hunt in this imagined world. And the wolves might be them.
A story about technology becomes a personal quest into a changed world and the pursuit of a secret from the past. A secret about a missing mother, a secret that could hide a murder. This is no dry analysis of how a technology might change us, it is a terrifying thriller, a picture of a dark tomorrow that is just around the corner. Ings takes the satire and mordant satirical view of J.G. Ballard and propels it into the 21st century.