A Feast Fit for a King (now available to us plebs)

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A 12th century English cookbook was recently discovered. Originally scribed in Latin at Durham Cathedral circa 1140 C.E., the book contains myriad recipes for both enjoyment and health, including seasonal variations of common foods as well as medical tonics.

So what were the most common spices used at the time? “… Parsley, sage, pepper, garlic, mustard and coriander, which I suspect may give them a Mediterranean feel when we recreate them,” says Giles Gasper from Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

If you happen to be one of the plebs like myself, you can get a taste of medieval cooking without needing a doctorate. Here are a couple of available books on Middle Ages fare, some authentic and some with a bit of modern flair:

13226438The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History with Recipes
by Hannele Klemettila
Reaktion Books, 230 pages

How much can you learn about a culture by studying their eating habits? As it turns out, quite a bit! With extra helpings of images from medieval manuscripts, The Medieval Kitchen is sure to stimulate your curiosity, from the dishes served in the Middle Ages to culinary tools. Hannele Klemetilla’s research ranges from Scandinavia to Western Europe, and includes more than 60 recipes so you can easily re-create your own medieval dinner party.

A Feast of Ice & Fire: The Official13329738
Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook
by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel, Sariann Lehrer, and George R.R. Martin
Bantam, 240 pages

Inspired by George R.R. Martin’s insanely popular fantasy series (and HBO program), A Feast of Ice & Fire brings together all the references of food and feasting from book one, A Game of Thrones, though to book seven, A Dance with Dragons. Years ago I went to see Martin at the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto. He told the audience that he enjoys writing about the food and feasts the most, with the delectable descriptions coming to life in his head. Said, of course, with an appreciative pat to his belly. The recipes within are grouped into regions, from the glacier Wall and the spartan meals of the Night’s Watch to the luxurious southern treats of King’s Landing. Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer have thoughtfully include alternative ingredients, in case you have trouble finding locusts and aurochs at the local deli. However, one has to wonder about the practical value of some of the recipes: does a slice of cured ham, hard bread, and a boiled egg (featured as featured Lord Commander Mormont’s breakfast) really require instructions? More kitsch than kitchen, the book serves as a great collectors edition, but its practical applications for cooks may be a bit limited.

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Penguin Drop Caps Series: The Full List (so far)

A few weeks ago, I speculated about what was yet to come from Penguin’s newly released Drop Caps series, reimagining literary and modern classics with an elegant drop cap on a background of bold colour. Here is an updated list of titles, bringing the count to twelve, the letter L. [Note that this post will be edited to include the newest information as it is released: Latest Update Nov 26, 2013]

a1. Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen

 

 

b

2. Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

 

 

c

3. My Àntonia — Willa Cather

 

 

d

4. Great Expectations — Charles Dickens

 

 

e5. Middlemarch — George Eliot

 

 

f6. Madame Bovary — Gustave Flaubert (trans. Lydia Davis)

 

 

g7. Lord of the Flies — William Golding

 

 

h8. Siddhartha — Herman Hesse

 

 

i9. An Artist of the Floating World — Kazuo Ishiguro

 

 

j10. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — James Joyce

 

 

k11. The Secret Life of Bees — Sue Monk Kidd

 

 

l12. Native Speaker — Chang-rae Lee

 

 

melville13. Moby Dick — Herman Melville (Aug. 2013)

 

 

nesbitt14. Five Children and It — E. Nesbit (Aug. 2013)

 

 

butterfield 815. Butterfield 8 — John O’Hara (Oct. 2013)

 

 

proust16. Swann’s Way — Marcel Proust (Oct. 2013)

 

 

nophotosm17. The Greek Coffin Mystery — Ellery Queen (Dec. 2013)

 

 

 

nophotosm18. Haroun and the Sea of Stories — Salman Rushdie (Dec. 2013)

 

 

 

nophotosm19. Cannery Row — John Steinbeck (Feb. 2014)

 

 

 

nophotosm20. The Joy Luck Club — Amy Tan (Feb. 2014)

 

 

 

nophotosm21.Kristin Lavransdatter — Sigrid Undset (Apr. 2014)

 

 

 

nophotosm22. Candide — Voltaire (Apr. 2014)

 

 

 

nophotosm23. Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose — Walt Whitman (Apr. 2014)

 

 

 

nophotosm24. Sky Burial — Xinran (Aug. 2014)

 

 

 

nophotosm25. When You Are Old: Early Poems and Fairy Tales — William Butler Yeats (Aug. 2014)

 

 

 

nophotosm26. Unknown — Z

More Upcoming Events: AUTHORS @ Harbourfront Centre

If the dozen or so events at the Toronto Public Library isn’t enough to keep you busy, the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto is showcasing some very talented writers of their own on Wednesdays throughout April and May. I couldn’t possibly include a full write-up on all the authors and their books, there are so many!  What sets apart HC’s events? The groupings of authors in one evening exposes you to books that you may not have discovered otherwise! Here are the ones that most interest me, but click here to check out Harbourfront Centre’s website for the full list of literary events for spring. The best part? The events are totally free for students, no matter what age you are!

April

ruthWednesday, Apr 10
Ruth Ozeki (with Jennifer Close and Amity Gaige)
7:30-9:00

I’m very excited to hear a reading from Ruth Ozeki’s new release, A Tale For The Time Being (Viking, $32). The better part of March was spent reading this book, and I’m gearing up for a Q&A period with Ruth. I’ve never been one for speaking up at readings, but this book just demands discussion.  Stories layered like nesting dolls[N.B. I’ll be doing a full review of A Tale For The Time Being very soon — only 50 pages left and I’m savouring it!]

May

aniaWednesday, May 1
Ania Szado (with Mia Couto and Shyam Selvadurai)
7:30-9:00pm

One of the most anticipated books of the spring/summer season is Ania Szado’s Studio Saint-Ex (Viking, $30). In this WWII historical fiction, French ex-pat Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is torn between two captivating women, his estranged wife Consuelo and young fashion designer, Mignonne Lachapelle. In the background looms Saint-Ex’s work-in-progress, The Little Prince. Saint-Exupéry’s existential novel masquerading as a children’s book has long been a favourite of mine, though I admit I know nothing about his personal life — what could be more enticing than a French love triangle? With just under a month to go, I’m bumping this up on my “to-read” list in time for Szabo’s reading.

AK_AuthorPhoto_BandWWednesday, May 22
Andrew Kaufman (with Claire Mulligan and Benjamin Percy)
7:30-9:00pm

Andrew Kaufman’s latest book, Born Weird, is the story of 5 siblings who all have a “blurse” to overcome: that is, a blessing that has revealed itself to be a curse later in life. Kaufman is also the author of the very popular and funny All My Friends Are Superheroes, and a reading from him is sure to be an enjoyable evening.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Literate: Fantasy & Horror Edition

A short time ago, my colleagues and I were talking about Stephen King. After sharing a funny anecdote about his not being recognized and treated as a vagrant crashing a convention, we came to the conclusion that there are two types of wealthy person: those who flaunt it, and those who cultivate the penniless artist trope despite their bank accounts in the millions of dollars.

“Have you ever seen pictures of Stephen King’s house?” my colleague asked. I had not, but imagined him living in a grand old Victorian or civil war house somewhere in Maine (thanks Steve for singlehandedly putting that tiny state on the map). Sometimes you just know from an author’s writing how their home would be.

And so I give you Lifestyles of the Rich and Literate, a peep into the homes and libraries of prominent authors — the spooky edition!

Stephen King

king collage

This colonial New England home is exactly what you’d expect from the king of creepy. The wrought iron fence that surrounds the property was built by Terry Steel of Steel Forge, Bridgton and took two years to complete. The bats and hydras really give that extra macabre feel to an otherwise typical home of the mid 19th century.

Anne Rice

Ms. Rice clearly likes her environment warm and sunny. From New Orleans to the Gulf Coast to La Jolla, this is the sole consistency in her homes.

New Orleans plantation home

Rice new orleans collage

When I think of Anne Rice, I always first remember the quirky, very strange character from the 90s when she was riding the wave of Vampire Chronicle fame around the time Interview With the Vampire came out (1994). This home perfectly evokes the feelings of those novels: the Spanish moss, the twisted trees, the neo-Doric columns… This is my dream house.

La Jolla, California

rice ranch collage

Bought around the time that she parted from gothic storytelling and became a born again Christian, her home in La Jolla shares none of the personality of her New Orleans home. The kitchen is the sole connection, with its oak counters and cabinets and oversized armchairs for barstools. If homes are an extension of the inner psyche, it is clear that Anne turned a full 180 and marched straight away from her horror past.

Navarre Beach, Florida condo

rice florida condo

Retiring to Florida is what seniors have been doing for decades now, and Rice is getting up there now (though you’d never know it, the energy that exudes from her hides her 71 years well). While the home is nowhere near so mysterious as her Louisiana house, the decor in the Florida condo has a much more distinguished, classic air to it than the Ranch. Rice has been posting for a number of months about her desire to return to New Orleans and get back to her roots. Any connection to her emancipation from Christianity and organized religion?

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is probably one of the most forthcoming authors I know, and posts lots of personal pictures on his blog. The rustic natural wood of his Cambridge, MA home really gives it a cabin-in-the-woods feel, while from outside it is fairly similar to Stephen King’s house. I don’t think there’s any other author for whom I have more library envy! It just looks like the kind of basement where you could curl up for hours, with a dog at your feet and a cat on your lap. I totally love his gazebo office, and I’m adding that to the master plan of my dream house.

gaiman collage

You can take a virtual tour of his library here. Be warned: if you spin through it too quickly, you’ll soon find yourself in a warped world that could have been created by Dave McKean (coincidence? I think not!)

J.K. Rowling

She has great taste in houses, I must say. From her childhood cottage with the garden that just screams “Here Be Faeries” to her Hogwartsesque mega-mansion, J.K. Rowling has never lost the touch of English fantasy, even with her switch to adult fiction.

Church Cottage in Tutshill, Gloucestershire

rowling cottage collage

When I sometimes imagine myself living in a quaint English cottage, J.K. Rowling’s childhood home is the exact image I come up with. The overgrown bushes and ivy, the stone brick, and the earth path all conjure up the most wonderful fantastic ideas. Sold to an unknown buyer in 2011 for £399,950, the house includes a secret trapdoor in the dining room and, famously, a cupboard under the stairs. One wonders if this was one of Rowling’s play areas as a child?

Flat in Edinburgh, ca. 1993

flat

It’s a pretty common notion that Rowling was homeless and living out of her car at the time she began writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. While this is merely rumour, the truth of her living arrangements was only slightly better, as a single mother relying on social assistance in a tiny flat in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh mansion

rowling edinburgh collage

Following the success of the first Harry Potter book, Rowling soon moved to is her £2.25M house in Edinburgh, where she wrote the remaining books in the series. The eight-room mansion was put on the market last autumn and sold for an undisclosed amount, but I personally don’t think the renovations inside reflect the Victorian architecture of the exterior.You can see a full selection of images here.

Killiechassie House in Aberfeldy, Scotland

rowling killiechassie collage

Now richer than the Queen of England, Rowling fully embraces the Hogwarts life in a 19th century estate home. Word has it that nearby Loch Tay is haunted by a water spirit. As if the property weren’t cool enough already, Rowling has contructed a series of castle-like treehouses, to the chagrin of her neighbours who complain the rooftops are visible through the treeline and ruin the rural view.

Are there any authors who you think would make in interesting selection for the next installment? Let me know!

 

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Upcoming Author Events at Toronto Public Libraries

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April is an exciting month for author events.

Toronto Public Library’s spring 2013 program, The Eh List, features some prominent Canadian authors in the coming months. What’s wonderful is that many authors have multiple engagements at different library locations throughout the city, both during the day and in the evening, so no matter what neighbourhood you live in or what your schedule allows, you’ll definitely be able to squeeze in a few hours of Can Lit.

April

riverThursday, Apr. 4
Guy Gavriel Kay — River of Stars
7pm — Toronto Reference Library (tickets required but FREE)

Register online at the Toronto Public Library for your free tickets to Guy Gavriel Kay’s book launch for River of Stars (Penguin, $32). The acclaimed fantasy author’s sort of sequel to Under Heaven, but it definitely works as a stand-alone text taking place 400 years later, during the Song Dynasty.  I have my copy set aside, and I’m really looking forward to the long weekend to get a head start of the April 2nd publishing date (the perks of bookselling!). Click here to read the Globe and Mail’s review.

warriorThursday, Apr. 11
Jamie Swift — Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety
7pm — Runnymede Branch

Join author and journalist Jamie Swift for a discussion of Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (Between The Lines, $26.95), co-authored with Ian McKay (who will not be appearing). From peacekeeping to militarization, Swift analyzes the way we define ourselves as a nation, and the way it conflicts with the current government’s vision. Left or right, if you like hotbutton topics you won’t want to miss this.

419Tuesday, Apr. 16
Will Ferguson — 419: A Novel
12:30pm — Northern District Branch
7pm — Taylor Memorial Branch

Winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2012, Will Ferguson’s 419: A Novel (Penguin, $20) is the gripping story of disparate lives connected through the seedy world of internet scams. Come check out the book that the Toronto Star calls “heart-wrenching, fascinating, and scary. A thriller with a raw nerve ending…”

 

 

livesThursday, Apr. 18
Sandra Martin — Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives That Changed Canada
7pm — Barbara Frum Branch
(Also speaking May 2 at Toronto Reference Library)

What’s it like to spend a journalistic career focussed on dead people? Find out from “Obit Queen of Canada” Sandra Martin, who’s memoir Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives That Changed Canada (HarperCollins, $29.95) combines biography, commentary, and social history with her own personal history. It’s a biography lover’s dream, rife with the obituaries of fifty prominent politicians, writers, artists, athletes, and activists.

sweetTuesday, Apr. 23
Annabel Lyon — The Sweet Girl
2pm — Taylor Memorial Branch

Wednesday, Apr. 24
7pm — Toronto Reference Library

May I begin by thanking Annabel Lyon and her editors for not calling this book “Aristotle’s Daughter,” as is the trend for books of a female protagonist these days (that is a whole other topic on lack of agency in book titles…). The Sweet Girl (Random House, $21) is the sequel to Lyon’s fantastic novel The Golden Mean. Aristotle’s orphaned daughter Pythias struggles to find her place in Greece in the time following the death of Alexander the Great. This is another one that is on my “to-read” list, and I’m looking forward to hearing from Lyon at this event. (N.B: Does the cover art look like Kiera Knightly or what?!) Want a sneak peak? Click here to listen to Lyon’s interview with CBC’s Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

leakyThursday, Apr. 25
Julie Devaney — My Leaky Body: Tales from the Gurney
7pm — Runnymede Branch

Julie Delaney speaks up about the chilling indignities of “hospital purgatory” in her recent autobiography My Leaky Body (Goose Lane, $22.95). Based on her one-woman show, her book lays bare the deficiencies in health care, creating a road map for patients and for all those who want to transform the system.

 

Check back in April for another summary of upcoming events. Hope to see you there!

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Books and Horror Movies

Keeping the conversation going, my friend over at A Daily Babble made her own list of bookish horror movies. Check out her list here: Books and Horror Movies.  I am proud to say I have seen most of the movies on her list, except for The Number 23 and Tales from the Darkside.

I now have many hours of watching time, while I burn my fingers slaving away at my mini-books (post to come soon!)

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Movies for Book Lovers

Inspired by my good friend’s post about the impression that The Neverending Story left on her as a child, I began to reflect on my own favourite movies that feature book lovers or books as part of the plot. It’s a surprisingly untouched subject, as most searches on Google will bring up movies based on books regardless of the variations of search terms plugged in.

The Ninth Gate (1999). Directed by Roman Polanski.
Based on the book The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

poster-thumb-399

In a nutshell: Johnny Depp, Satan worship, and antique books.

Rare books dealer Dean Corso is brought in to evaluate the authenticity of a grimoire of demonic ritual, The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. Oh to be ridiculously wealthy and eccentric with nothing better to spend my time and money on than obscure Occult tomes! While Polanski is a veritable creep, he does know filmmaking.

The Neverending Story (1984). Directed by Wolfgang Peterson.
Based on the book The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

The-NeverEnding-Story-the-neverending-story-690111_720_545

In a nutshell: Nerdy escapism into a good book.

From what I consider the golden age of children’s film which embraced puppetry and muppetry, fantasy, and misfit child heroes, The Neverending Story is high ranked among contemporary films LabyrinthThe Dark Crystal, and Legend. Bastion is bullied at school and takes refuge in an old bookshop, where he finds The Neverending Story. He then skips school and reads it in a single sitting in the school’s attic, something we all wished we could do throughout those horrible “formative years.”

Quills (2000). Directed by Philip Kaufman.

quills

In a nutshell: Perversion, compulsion, and hypocrisy, with a lot of sex and death.

Starring Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, Kate Winslet as chambermaid Maddie, and Joaquin Phoenix as the Abbé du Coulmier. At first glance, Quills appears to be a biopic about de Sade and his imprisonment in the asylum at Charenton, but it is so much more than that. Censorship and of course pornography are at its core, but it also considers a writer’s compulsive need to write and the barbaric notions of mental illness in history. First heard about this movie back in high school thanks to my Censored Lit teacher Jenn, and it’s been a favourite ever since! (**N.B. Fans of True Blood should keep their eyes out for a young Stephen Moyer as the architect – he’s so much better without that silly, fake southern accent!)

You’ve Got Mail (1998). Directed by Nora Ephron.

youve-got-mail2

In a nutshell: Typical Rom-Com, with books!

I’m not the hugest Rom-Com fan, but how could anyone who works in a bookstore not love this movie? Meg Ryan stars as the owner of indie bookstore The Little Shop Around the Corner, a typically Ryan character who falls for Tom Hanks, whose family owns Fox Books, a big-box bookstore chain similar to a Barnes & Noble or Chapters-Indigo. Like Romeo and Juliet for booksellers, their love crosses the economic boundary between noble mom-and-pop shop and corporate bully. While it’s a bit dated now (does AOL even still exist??), the movie is still applicable to today’s online dating fears and the crushing blows to bookstores of all types suffered today at the hands of Amazon.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2011). Directed by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg.

The_Fantastic_Flying_Books_of_Mr_Morris_Lessmore-849402803-large

In a nutshell: A life lived with books will carry you through anything, even death.

This heartwarming story won Best Animated Short at the Oscars in 2011. After surviving a terrible storm, Mr. Morris becomes the librarian at a special library full of flying books. He cares for the books that were damaged in the storm, mending their broken spines and sealing their pages back together. The film inspired an interactive, animated iPad app for children and beautiful children’s book — though let’s be clear, it’s such a great story that it shouldn’t be limited to a kid’s room!

Beauty and the Beast (1991). Directed by Gary Tousdale and Kirk Wise.

beauty-and-the-beast_76352_3

In a nutshell: Typical Disney, with books!

Disney has a reputation for bastardizing and adulterating classic fairy tales, and this is no exception. But while many things have changed from the original story, I feel it was for the better. Belle is just such an awesome heroine: strong willed, bookish, and uninterested in superficial dopes like Gaston. And that library! I have serious biblio-envy over that spooky castle and tiered library. (**N.B. Belle is the only Disney “princess” I ever fantasized about being, I even got to dress as her for Halloween in grade 5, with my very own shiny gold ballgown!)

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Book Bling: Penguin Drop Caps series

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Last year, Random House launched its Books Are Beautiful line, casting classic titles in a new role as bookshelf art available exclusively at Chapters Indigo bookstores.

Penguin, not to be outdone by its big brother-to-be, has launched its own version of books as artifacts: the Penguin Drop Caps series, designed by Jessica Hische and Paul Buckley.

r-DROP-CAP-CLASSICS-large570

A new series of twenty-six collectible hardcover editions, each with a type cover showcasing a gorgeously illustrated letter of the alphabet.

(Penguin Summer 2013 Catalogue)

The first six books in the series form a gradient, moving from deep crimson A to butter yellow F. I presume they will follow this theme as the progress through the alphabet, much in the same way that Random House ran through all the colours of the rainbow with their Pantone designs.

booksLeft to right: Pride and Prejudice-Jane Austen; Jane Eyre-Charlotte Brontë; My Ántonia-Willa Cather; Great Expectations-Charles Dickens; Middlemarch-George Eliot; Madame Bovary-Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis

The first book in the series is Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, a fitting choice for the bicentennial of most loved story. Next in the list will be William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but it seems their lips are sealed for the nineteen remaining books. See my predictions below, check back in to see if they were right. I mostly picked authors whose works are in the public domain or whose publishing rights are already held by Penguin. In some cases, I just put what I’d like to see despite copyright, or whatever might fit the letter!

NOTE: FOR THE CURRENT LIST OF RELEASED TITLES PLEASE SEE MY MORE RECENT POST HERE: https://blackinkbooks.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/penguin-drop-caps-series-the-full-list-so-far/

H: Thomas Hardy

I: John Irving (although A Prayer for Owen Meany is in the B.A.B. list, so Penguin may steer clear of him)

J: Shirley Jackson

K: Franz Kafka

L: D.H. Lawrence, Harper Lee

M: Margaret Mitchell

N: Vlad Nabokov

O: George Orwell  (No collection of literary classics would be complete without 1984)

P: Marcel Proust

Q: Tough luck with this one! Your guess is as good as mine…

R: Erich Maria Remarque

S: John Steinbeck

T: Leo Tolstoy

U: I’m open to suggestion!

V: Kurt Vonnegut

W: H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf

X: Malcolm X?? No clue. I’m very curious to see what they will pick!

Y: Richard Yates

Z: Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Emile Zola

Check back in the coming months as I will be updating with the results of my guesses. Let’s hope Penguin will be releasing numerous titles at a time for this collection, I’ve never been very patient for surprises!

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Harry Potter Movie Memorabilia

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Are you tired of your uninspired muggle decor? Looking to spruce up the Burrow with some artwork that would impress even the most esteemed wizard? Now you can add that magical touch with Harry Potter limited edition prints, available from The Printorium! Originally designed as props for the films, the book covers were designed by Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, and some of them would make really nifty wall art. Available as shown below, or an even more limited run with gilt details.

history-of-magic_product hogwarts-a-history_product mudbloods-book_productdark-arts-defence_product 

(Book Cover Prints, £79.00 each – includes shipping!)

But if you really feel like splurging, take a look at the magnificent limited edition box set  Harry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey. Not for the casual fan, this 8-volume set comes at a steep  £552.00. Each book is uniquely bound to be visually appealing, worthy of any aspiring wizard’s shelf.

harrypotterset

The collection includes:
* Harry Potter: Page to Screen
* The Creature Shop Compendium: Flora and Fauna from the Harry Potter Films
* Environments Envisioned: Building Fantastic Sets and Scouting Dramatic Locations
* A Guide to the Graphic Arts Department: Posters, Prints, and Publications from the Harry Potter Films
* Movie Magic: Practical Props and Exciting Effects
* The Paintings of Hogwarts: Masterpieces from the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry Sets
* Ten Years Later: Life on Set with the Harry Potter Cast and Crew
* Wizard Wear and Muggle Attire: Costuming the World of Harry Potter
*The Monster Book of Monsters (replica of book prop, not an actual book)

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Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

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aNHoD Cover 300dpiA Natural History of Dragons
by Marie Brennan
Tor Books, 2013
Hardcover, 336 pages

The seventh novel from science fiction and fantasy author Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons is just what you’d expect from a graduate of Harvard who studied archaeology, anthropology and folklore.

Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent has been pursuing her love of dragons since she was a seven-year-old girl preserving Sparklings in vinegar (kind of like butterflies, but they’re dragons–not to be confused with dragonflies). Now at last she has released her memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, to give personal context to her existing scientific publications. 

The novel is less of an all-encompassing autobiography, as I had expected, and more of a memoir of Isabella’s time in Drustanev, Vystrana, a fictional village akin to the isolated mountain towns of Eastern Europe. Early chapters provide the necessary background to appreciate Trent’s interest in natural history, but we do not dwell on her childhood. She shares only dragon related memories, and keeps the narrative focused toward the Vystrani expedition.

Essentially a travelogue, Isabella’s story shares more in common with academic-come-adventure tales than romantic novels of the period. The brief time spent in Falchester (at her mother’s behest) is the closest we come to Austen-style romance, and even then her hunt for a husband is tied to her lust for knowledge. Brennan walks this line without ever crossing into “sentimental” territory, a genre she frequently mentions and to which Trent turns her nose up.

Brennan’s experience in writing genre fiction shows in the details. While Lady Trent’s world is basically a fictionalized 19th century Europe, Brennan changes certain details to distinguish her world. Changing the names of months, for example, could be trite if not managed well. Yet Brennan never patronizes the reader with explicit definitions; meaning is drawn from context, as it should be. This may be obvious, but every reader of speculative fiction has come across a forced conversation in which a character explains basic concepts to another, as if they were as unfamiliar with these concepts as we are. (For more on this topic, I recommend Ursula K. Leguin’s essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.”)

Despite Isabella’s analytical nature, the book is not an encyclopedia of mythic beasts. An old fashioned mystery is at its core, as Isabella and her companions investigate the erratic change in behaviour of the rock-wyrms, who begin to prey on the Vystrani. The disappearance of their would-be host Gritelkin further paints the plot with dark strokes.

Sparkling

A Sparkling (Artwork by Todd Lockwood)

Overall, the pacing of the novel was appropriate to the Victorian style. Enough background is given to progress the expedition to Drustanev, building the story steadily, though at times I felt certain details were repeated unnecessarily at the expense of later chapters. The ending came with a flurry of action, as one expects in a mystery, yet I thought the final chapters were a bit rushed over. After such a lengthy buildup, it felt rather sudden with too many details skimmed over regarding the future of Drustanev and the companions’ return to Scirland. Anticipating the reader’s eagerness to read more, Brennan teases us with the promise of “future volumes” of Lady Trent’s numerous expeditions.

As if the story wasn’t awesome enough, Todd Lockwood’s beautiful cover art and inspired sketches put this over the top. Taking his cues from encyclopedic drawings of natural history books, the cover blends fact and fiction in a balance that perfectly reflects the tone of the novel. I sincerely hope that if this is to be a series, his illustrations will be ongoing as well!

I loved the book so much that I ordered in an extra copy at work so that I can have one for my shelf (and I can’t wait to see what that map will look like–a fantasy book without maps is like a day without sunshine).

a special thank you to Leah Withers from tor books for not only providing oodles of promo materials, but also providing me with another copy of the file when my laptop died in the middle of reading the book!

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