The Amelia Peabody Series

"I always say that if one cannot have a pyramid, a nice deep tomb is the next best thing." Amelia Peabody (Photo by Yassin Hassan | Creative Commons

“I always say that if one cannot have a pyramid, a nice deep tomb is the next best thing.” Amelia Peabody (Photo by Yassin Hassan | Creative Commons)

Review:

One of my favorite series! Though I had issues with some of the later books, overall this is an extremely fun and enjoyable historical mystery series, starring a female Egyptologist and her family in the late 19th through early 20th centuries. The mysteries themselves are mostly pretty good, but I love the series most for its humor. Expect to laugh frequently and loudly! The novels are among the most quotable I’ve ever read, from recurring catch phrases like “Another shirt ruined!” to Amelia’s pithy observations on life. (There are good collections of quotes here and here.)

Correction: I love it for the humor, and the characters. Amelia, Emerson, Ramses, Sethos, and the rest are larger than life, but so entertaining and (frequently) adorable that they’re irresistible. Reading about their latest adventures is like catching up with old friends. Amelia and Emerson in particular are rumored to be part of the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones, as well as Rick O’Connell and Evy Carnahan in The Mummy.

Series author Elizabeth Peters, who died in 2013, had a Ph.D in Egyptology, so you’ll also learn interesting stuff about Egyptian culture and archaeology along the way.

Here’s the complete series, with my commentary:

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Water Movie Review

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Review:

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual abuse

One of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen. I saw in an arthouse theater soon after it came out in 2005 and haven’t seen it since, but I still feel physically ill when I remember certain scenes.

Water was written and directed by Deepa Mehta, a native of Amritsar, Punjab, India who now lives in Canada. It is set in India in 1938, during the rise of Gandhi, but mostly follows the life of a 7 year old child bride who is widowed and sent by her family to live for the rest of her life in an ashram (house of prayer) with other widows. The women are desperately poor and survive by begging and, it turns out, by prostituting the younger and prettier members of the ashram to wealthy men. Starting in childhood.

It does end on a slightly more hopeful note than most of the rest of the film, but overall, it is very hard to watch. Nevertheless, I do recommend watching Water if you can safely do so without triggering yourself. Not only is it a beautifully made and well-acted film, it’s also a very powerful and important one. Call me a bleeding heart, but I think it’s important for those of us with comfortable Western lives to be aware of the struggles of people in general and women in particular in more superstitious and unforgiving times and places. The plight of poor widows in India remains dire. If you feel inspired to try and help, check out The Loomba Foundation and similar charities.

Little Big Man Movie Review

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Review:

Back in my college days, I once had to write a paper on exactly what Little Big Man gets right and wrong about Cheyenne life. There was quite a bit of both, as I recall. Despite its flaws, however, I think Little Big Man deserves a lot of credit for being one of the first films to give a sympathetic portrayal of American Indians and their cultures, and more importantly, to give a human portrayal of American Indians and their cultures. The Indian characters experience the same depth and range of human emotions as the white characters, and include both “good” and “bad” characters. In contrast to their frequent portrayal in many earlier films as stern, bloodthirsty, and savage and in many later ones as solemn, mystical, and wise, the Indians of Little Big Man even have senses of humor!

Despite several prominent Cheyenne characters, the film itself does follow a white man named Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who is captured as a boy and raised by the Cheyenne. Crabb takes a somewhat Forrest Gump-like path through all aspects of Wild West society, from being “saved” by a fire-and-brimstone preacher after being re-captured from the Cheyenne to becoming a snake oil salesman, gunslinger, drunk, and muleskinner for one General George Armstrong Custer. The real historical events depicted (again, with varying degrees of accuracy) in the film include the Washita Massacre, the death of Wild Bill Hickok, and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

It’s an entertaining, well-acted, and frequently hilarious movie, but hard-hitting in its depiction of the genocidal campaign against the Cheyenne and their fellow Plains tribes, and you may want to keep a hanky handy for certain scenes.

Note: This film shouldn’t be confused for a biography of the historical Little Big Man, an Oglala Lakota.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Book of Enchantments Review

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Review:

Book of Enchantments is a collection of short stories by Patricia Wrede, author of my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. It really shows off her versatility as a writer, as the stories are written on a variety of themes and in a variety of styles. Unfortunately, I don’t own a copy and it’s been awhile since I read some of the stories, but as best as I can remember them, here are my thoughts on each:

  • Rikiki and the Wizard – This is set in the shared world of Liavek, which I am unfamiliar with, so I didn’t get a whole lot out of it. It was originally published in The Players of Luck.
  • The Princess, The Cat, and the Unicorn – I was already familiar with this story due to its inclusion in The Unicorn Treasury, but I’m very fond of it, so it was nice to bump into it again. It’s set in the same Enchanted Forest as the one in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, but doesn’t have any of the same characters. However, the story is very similar in style and tone to the series, with another unconventional princess trope-busting her way through an encounter with a unicorn.
  • Roses By Moonlight – A fantasy about fate and choices inspired by the story of the Prodigal Son.
  • The Sixty-two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd – A humorous story about a young woman whose family is cursed with lycanthropy. It was originally published in A Wizard’s Dozen.
  • Earthwitch – I honestly can’t remember this one.
  • The Sword-Seller – This one is set in Andre Norton’s Witch World, which I’m also unfamiliar with, so I didn’t get much out of it either.
  • The Lorelei – As you can probably guess, this is a story about the Lorelei myth of Germany. I remember enjoying it, particularly because it has a teenage girl rescuing a boy, rather than vice versa.
  • Stronger Than Time – A melancholy Sleeping Beauty AU in which the Prince didn’t come.
  • Cruel Sisters – A retelling of the same legend told in Loreena McKennit’s The Bonny Swans.
  • Utensile Strength – A funny story featuring Cimorene, Mendanbar, and Daystar (among others) from the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, as well as the Frying Pan of Doom. (Comes with a recipe for Quick After-Battle Triple Chocolate Cake.)

In general, I prefer Wrede’s humorous stories to her more serious ones, so I’d say my favorites were “The Princess, The Cat, and The Unicorn,” “Utensile Strength,” and “The Sixy-Two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd.” However, I enjoyed most of the stories. Like the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, it’s also great feminist fiction – nearly all of the stories have female protagonists, with a variety of personalities and skills. There are also several nice depictions of supportive female family relationships and friendships, as well as some that are more dysfunctional.

Although several of the stories (especially the Enchanted Forest ones) are suitable for younger audiences, I’d say most of them are better for young adult and adult readers, rather than children.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Review

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Review:

Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, and one of my favorite comfort reads to this day. This funny and exciting series centers mainly around Cimorene, a very atypical princess who decides to run away from her life in the pleasant but boring kingdom of Linderwall and become a dragon’s princess. Wrede gleefully and hilariously demolishes fairy tale stereotypes and tropes throughout all four books of the series, but in the end its real attraction is its memorable characters. Cimorene, Kazul, Morwen, Telemain, and the rest are like old friends, and I never fail to be cheered up by dipping into their lives.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is also great feminist fantasy, as it stars multiple intelligent, powerful, and independent-minded female characters and plays with gender roles in interesting ways. In dragon culture, for example, “King” and “Queen” are the names of positions with distinct duties and responsibilities, and the gender of the dragon who holds them is irrelevant. Over the course of the series, there is both a female King of the Dragons, and a male Queen. It’s also suggested that dragons can choose their gender when they reach a certain age, but this is never explicitly stated.

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Dealing With Dragons

Book one of the series could easily be read as a stand-alone fantasy novel, but I don’t personally see why anybody would want to. It introduces Cimorene, the dragon Kazul, the witch Morwen, and the dastardly wizards, who Cimorene must foil in between whipping up cherries jubilee for Kazul and trying to get rid of the annoying knights and princes who keep interrupting her work to try and rescue her.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Searching For Dragons

The wizards are at it again! This time they’ve kidnapped Kazul and Cimorene must set off through the unpredictable Enchanted Forest to rescue her. Luckily, her companion is none other than the King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar. I remember being a little disappointed that the story was told from Mendanbar’s point of view when I first started reading this book at age 10 (or so), but it actually ended up being kind of fun seeing Cimorene, Morwen, etc. from somebody else’s point of view, and though I wouldn’t say Mendanbar is Wrede’s most memorable character, he’s certainly one of the nicest, so I couldn’t dislike him for long.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Calling For Dragons

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The third book in the series ends on a rather annoying and distressing cliffhanger. Apparently, the fourth book, Talking With Dragons, was actually the first book to be written and published, so by the time Wrede got around to writing Calling With Dragons, she was already stuck with having to make poor Mendanbar disappear for 17 years while Cimorene raised their son without him. Nevertheless, the book is tons of fun, thanks in part to the fact that its main POV character is Morwen, so you can understand her cats. There’s also a 6 foot 11 inch floating blue donkey with wings named Killer (he used to be a rabbit) and lots of witty repartee to liven things up despite the disappointing conclusion, so I’ve always considered it my second favorite after Dealing With Dragons.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Talking With Dragons

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A big jump in time and another POV switch, this time to Cimorene’s now 17 year old son Daystar. As I mentioned above, Talking With Dragons was the first book in the series to actually be written, and it follows a somewhat more traditional quest format, with poor Daystar being shoved into the Enchanted Forest with inadequate information (although an excellent education) about what he’s supposed to do and having to unravel it along the way. In the process, he runs into many old friends, including Morwen, Telmain, and Kazul, and makes some new friends of his own.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

If you can find them, I recommend buying the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in hardcover thanks to Trina Schart Hyman’s beautiful cover art:

There is also a story about the Enchanted Forest (set after Talking With Dragons) in Wrede’s short story collection Book of Enchantments. It’s called “Utensile Strength.”

Adventures in Marvel Movie-going

I have never been a comics fan. First and foremost, I find the the physical act of reading them really difficult. I suspect they’re too visually busy for me, causing me to get distracted easily and have problems following the narrative thread, but I’m not really sure, as I don’t have the same problem with newspaper-style comics, even the more visually experimental ones like the later Calvin & Hobbes strips. On top of that, I haven’t been overly impressed with the writing of most comics I’ve attempted (which is, to be fair, not many, thanks to the aforementioned problem reading them). To me, they read like something halfway between a novel and a film, but with neither the depth of a novel or the immersiveness of a film. (Sorry, fans, I’ll turn in my geek card now.) On top of that, I don’t like the typical plots of traditional comics – superheroes gifted their powers by some bizarre accident involving radiation (or whatever) are inherently less interesting to me than someone who’s developed their natural abilities to the highest level via hard work and dedication. And supervillains with grandiose plans to destroy the world are even worse. So yeah, nothing against those of you who do like them, but comics so far have just not been for me.

Comic book movies haven’t been that much better, in general. Spider-man and Spider-man 2: yawn. Batman Begins: yawn. The Dark Knight: better, but only when Heath Ledger was onscreen. The Dark Knight Rises: on my list to watch someday on account of Tom Hardy, but not very high on my list. Supermannever watched in any form, unless you count this Smallville humor vid. X-men: on my list to try, but again, not exactly high on the list.

Marvel’s recent oeuvre, on the other hand, has started to pique my interest a bit more. It’s managed to produce not one, but two entire movies based on comic books that I really liked. I’m not sure how long this will continue, considering that the contracts on its biggest stars are running out, but for now, I’m enjoying it.

My adventures in Marvel movie-going, so far:

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The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman Book Review

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Review:

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, by Louise Plummer, is one of my favorite YA romance novels. It’s an extremely witty and tongue-in-cheek read, in large part because of the great use of first-person narration. Kate is a very intelligent and charismatic heroine and she narrates as if writing a romance novel based on her own life, complete with frequent consultation of The Romance Writer’s Phrasebook and hilarious commentary on the bodice ripping descriptions she finds there. She is also (speaking as a fellow tall, plain-ish nerd with bad eyes) extremely relatable, so I’m sure there was some wish fulfillment involved in my enjoyment of this book when I first read it as a never-been-kissed teenager. However, I’ve found it equally enjoyable as an adult.

Another thing I liked and found relatable was the portrayal of Kate’s family. As someone who really didn’t have a rebellious teenage phase and whose relationship with my parents ranged from pretty good to great even at the height of my puberty-induced hormonal moodiness, I really enjoyed the depiction of a loving and mutually respectful parent-teen relationship. (There’s also a great depiction of female-female friendship, in keeping with the book’s feminist themes.) The novel is set over Christmas break in Minnesota, and Kate’s (mostly) happy family life and Swedish Christmas traditions add to the cozy, comforting atmosphere, making it an especially good read for the holiday season or the sorts of days when you don’t feel like doing anything but curling up with a blanket, some tea, and a good book.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Historical Fiction By Sharon Kay Penman Review

Sharon Kay Penman has been one of my favorite authors since I was a teenager. Her novels focus on the Plantagenet family that ruled England for several centuries starting in the 12th century, and their contemporaries.

It would be admittedly be pretty tough to make the Plantagenets boring (they were some of England’s least boring rulers, and that says something!) but Penman’s novels are not only highly regarded for their historical accuracy, they’re also rip-roaring good reads, with plenty of action, romance, and intrigue to keep almost anyone enthralled. For such a male-dominated period of history, I like that she also puts a lot of focus on the female characters and their complex situations.

My Favorite Penman Novels: The Welsh Princes Trilogy

The Welsh Princes trilogy were the first Penman books I read, and are still my favorites. I think they have the most appealing characters (confession time: teenage me had a huge crush on both Llewelyns), although history being what it is, they’re also something of an emotional roller coaster, especially the second and third books.

Book 1: Here Be Dragons

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The first in the series focuses on Joanna, a bastard daughter of King John. (Yes, that King John.)

Joanna is married to the Welsh prince Llewelyn ab Iorwerth (more commonly remembered as Llewelyn Fawr, or Llewelyn the Great) at the age of 14, and soon finds herself torn between her loyalty to her beloved father (who is here given a more nuanced portrayal than usual) and husband, who she also grows to love deeply.

Joanna is nearly unique in the annals of royal wives in that she was caught in an adulterous relationship and not only forgiven by her husband but restored to full favor and position at court. (A Royal Affair demonstrates a much more common aftermath for such a situation.) By all accounts, Llewelyn was grief-stricken by her death some years later, and even founded a Franciscan friary in her honor, which was completed shortly before his own death. I thought Penman navigated this tricky and unusual situation well, and came up with a plausible explanation for it, given the apparent happiness of Llewelyn and Joanna’s marriage otherwise.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Book 2: Falls the Shadow

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Book 2 continues with the deaths of most of the characters you grew to love in the first book (seriously, keep a tissue handy!) but introduces new ones in the form of Llewelyn Fawr’s grandson, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, and Simon de Montfort, the reform-minded French husband of Joanna’s younger half-sister Eleanor (Nell), as they each contend with John’s weak and incompetent son Henry III, and the rise of Henry’s far stronger son, the future Edward I (Longshanks).

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Book 3: The Reckoning

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Don’t throw that tissue away yet! You’ll need it a few more times as Edward warms up for his future role as “Hammer of the Scots” by taking on the Welsh. Although I love them all, this is probably my favorite of the trilogy. Family drama, romance, and high tragedy abound.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

If you enjoy the Welsh Princes trilogy, I also recommend Edith Pargeter’s Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, which focuses on the lives of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd and his brother Davydd.

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Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! Book Review

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! by Pamela F ServiceReview:

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! was one of my favorite books as a child. Mandy and Owen are outcasts at school and start their own club to celebrate weirdness. While collaborating on a school project about mythological characters, the characters suddenly start coming to life – and before they know it, Mandy and Owen are being called upon to help save the world from an alien invasion!

Weirdoes is a funny read, with some great banter between the different mythological personalities (who include Baba Yaga, Coyote, and Siegfried), and I really loved the concept of Otherworlds, where all the different mythological characters and creatures dreamed up by mankind exist somewhere, even the ones that nobody has believed in for thousands of years.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Although I don’t remember them as well, I also enjoyed Pamela F. Service’s novels The Reluctant God, about an ancient Egyptian prince who wakes up in the modern world, and Being of Two Minds, about an American girl who has a telepathic connection with a European prince, a connection that becomes extremely useful when he is kidnapped.

Battlestar Galactica, Season 4 Review

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Review:

Sooooo, season three of Battlestar Galactica was a bit of a mess, but had some redeeming points. Season 4? I don’t even know. I disliked it so much that I’ve never gone back and rewatched any episodes. I suppose if I did, I might find myself liking it better?

But then again, maybe not. As I said back in my review of season one, I got invested in these characters. I cared about them. And I feel like almost all of them were completely shat on by the final season.

In retrospect, some of this started as early as season two, but it accelerated in season three and was practically intolerable by season four. Characters that were once lovable turned gross. Characters that were once fascinating got boring. Yet others broke so badly and so completely that the pieces were impossible to put back together and it was not a tragedy but a relief when they died.

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And that’s not even getting into the ludicrous mess that was the series finale.

So the question becomes, can I in good faith recommend that people watch Battlestar Galactica when I and a significant percentage of its fanbase were not just dissatisfied but actively infuriated by the final season? Maybe I’m masochistic, but I think the answer is yes. Battlestar Galactica may be a cautionary tale about how badly a great show can go astray, but when it was great, it was really great. As painful as it was watching them fall apart, my imagination would be a poorer place if Starbuck and Roslin and Adama and Six and Cain and Shaw and the rest had never flown in and taken up residence.

My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

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