Posts by: Nikki

Review – Incognito

Posted 11 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Incognito by David EaglemanIncognito, David Eagleman

This book is mostly a very readable account of some of the standard weird things your brain does, but it does contain a very valuable discussion of a serious nature, too. David Eagleman shows through examples how often our behaviour is ruled by factors we don’t control — things in our brain that we may not even know about, but which nonetheless change us. And of course that poses a big question when it comes to criminal behaviour: can we be blamed for “choosing” to do something when we only “choose” to do so because we have a brain tumour?

He gives a decent amount of space to a discussion of how the criminal justice system should work given that we know this, and while other reviewers think that what he suggests impinges on civil liberties, I’m not so sure. By my reading, he’s suggested that people can either just sit in prison for as long as necessary, to remove them from society, or they can voluntarily choose to undergo therapies to help them change their behaviour. If that doesn’t work, then they may have to remain incarcerated because otherwise they would reoffend. As long as it is a choice, I don’t see why such an intervention would be inethical — at least no more inethical than letting someone rot in prison for the rest of their life. There are some people for whom that’d be worse than death, after all.

At any rate, this book might make you feel a little bit uncomfortable as regards how much free will you have and what your brain is doing behind your back. Still worth a read! I’d probably rate it higher if it had more info that’s new to me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Paper Magician

Posted 10 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Paper Magician by Charlie N. HolmburgThe Paper Magician, Charlie N. Holmberg

The Paper Magician isn’t epic fantasy, it isn’t some big sweeping narrative; it’s rather short, and to me it feels like cotton candy. In some moods, that’s just perfect, as far as I’m concerned, and I did indeed enjoy this a lot. The magic is fun — in the case of the paper magic, it’s whimsical, and yet in surprising ways it turns out to be useful. I found the main character, Ceony, a little annoying at first, in her preoccupation with the fact that she didn’t get to do exactly the kind of magic she wanted. Emery Thane is pretty awesome from the beginning, and he goes out of his way to be sweet to her — it’s no wonder she becomes interested in the paper magic he teaches.

The relationship forms a little bit quickly, which I kind of expected given these books are romances as much as fantasy, and definitely more so than historical fiction (nearly not at all, despite the semi-Victorian-ish setting). It makes sense, more or less, though Ceony’s a bit of a twit in her rush to go off and confront the Big Bad.

It’s not the most substantial, deeply thought out world ever, is what I’m saying. I still found it fun, and it’s certainly a fast read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Life Unfolding

Posted 9 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Life Unfolding by Jamie A. DaviesLife Unfolding, Jamie T. Davies

Well, now I feel silly that I didn’t read this before my human biology exam! It describes, in very careful detail, how the human body builds itself, beginning at the point an egg is fertilised. It explains processes like cell division and gastrulation, and generally manages to make the whole complex process comprehensible. Davies doesn’t get hung up on quantum biology or how consciousness is generated, but instead focuses on the physical processes by which the human body grows.

You may not find this entirely satisfying, because Davies very much relies on the fact that small events — a chemical gradient, a lack of symmetry in a cell — seem to prompt massive changes. If you feel (like this reviewer) that it’s quite impossible for all this to happen just by a number of useful proteins happening to bump into each other in a sea of proteins which won’t interact at all, you’ll find this unsatisfying. There seems to be no room for a guiding ghost in the machine. But that is the best understanding we have, I’m afraid — and as a biologist, it makes sense to me. Which is not to say that it’s all perfectly understood: it isn’t. Sometimes, we can’t do the experiments in a human context for ethical reasons. Sometimes, the data is just too difficult to obtain. But the fact remains that we do have a reasonable understanding of embryology, and that is described in this book.

I found it an easy and fascinating read, and would definitely recommend it if you have an interest. It doesn’t get too technical as far as I’m concerned (but take that with a pinch of salt, since I have admittedly studied human biology). At a couple of points I found it useful to look up relevant Khan Academy videos to get a differently-worded explanation of the same events, taken step by step, but that’s as much down to individual learning and teaching styles as anything.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 9 August, 2017 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.

What are you currently reading?

Cover of The Carpet Makers by Andreas EschbachI’m rereading Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, because I’ve been meaning to and it was there when I couldn’t sleep and didn’t feel like starting something new. I’m also reading Pantomime, by Laura Lam, though I’m not very far into it, and The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden. I’m about halfway through the latter and not entirely sure what I think. I’m finding it somewhat predictable so far. I’m still reading Assassin’s Apprentice, too.

Cover of Hengeworld by Mike PittsWhat have you recently finished reading?

Hengeworld, by Mike Pitts. It’s an examination of the whole ritual landscape in palaeolithic times, mostly in Wessex — Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill and other associated monuments. It’s pretty fascinating, and it digs deep into all the different digs which have gone on at those sites.

What will you read next?Cover of Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

I think I’m going to embark on my reread of Jacqueline Carey’s work, starting with Kushiel’s Dart. It’s been ages since I read it, and I conveniently have copies of this trilogy available both at my wife’s and at my parents’ place, so I don’t have to drag them around while travelling.

What are you reading?

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Review – The Refrigerator Monologues

Posted 8 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 9 Comments

Cover of The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente, Annie Wu

If you’re not into comics, you might not know about the trope of “women in refrigerators”, recognised by Gail Simone. Basically, it involves female characters who are killed off to further a male hero’s story — like Alexandra DeWitt, who is literally shoved in a refrigerator to die for the manpain of Green Lantern. Catherynne Valente takes a bunch of those stories and lets the women speak for themselves. If you like working it out, don’t worry; I won’t spoil which women are included in the line-up.

It’s a fun bunch of stories; they don’t end well for the women involved, because that’s the set-up here, and there’s a certain amount of rage at how this shit keeps on happening in Superhero Land (not to mention everywhere else as well). So if you’re looking for a transformative work that changes these stories, that’s not what this is. For now, it just gives the women voices; lets them tell their half of the story.

I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ll be looking out for a copy just to have — I borrowed the copy I read. The art included is pretty cool too (though this is a prose work, not a comic).

Rating: 4/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 8 August, 2017 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is gleaned from the old prompts on the page. Here’s ten books I was forced to read — which I loved! I’ve a vague feeling I’ve done this before, but I can’t find it by searching back, so why not?

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It’s a classic, of course.
  2. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. I even had to read it in a week, thanks to a dare with my dad.
  3. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. I didn’t get far with this when I tried to read this as a kid, but when I finally had to read it for school, I fell in love.
  4. Troilus and Criseyde, by Geoffrey Chaucer. I didn’t have high hopes for this because I wasn’t a fan of The Canterbury Tales, in general. But I really got into dissecting it, in the end.
  5. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Is this cheating? I read a translation, of course, but I had to read it in the Middle English for my BA, and that was revelatory. The playing with language is gorgeous.
  6. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. In style and content it’s not at all what you’d expect me to enjoy, but I really did.
  7. Postcolonialism Revisited, by Kirsti Bohata. I was never much of a fan of actually reading theory, in my lit degrees, preferring to closely analyse the texts. But this was pretty revelatory, discussing Welsh fiction as postcolonial fiction — because in many ways, the Welsh experience was like that of colonialism.
  8. Richard III, by William Shakespeare. I was never a fan of Shakespeare, but I ended up having to take a class on his history plays for lack of other modules that interested me. And I loved this one.
  9. Country Dance, by Margiad Evans. Or indeed, all the other Welsh fiction I read for that particular class. I’d never even been fully aware there was Welsh fiction like this out there.
  10. The Annotated Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien et al. I love The Hobbit, of course, but I’m not really a fan of annotated texts. Still, the annotated version of The Hobbit was fascinating for its insights on Tolkien’s process.

There’s probably dozens of others I should think of — at one point, my mother bought me a whole bunch of classics she said I had to read before I went to university, for example! (She wasn’t wrong in suggesting they were important to know. Should’ve included more Oscar Wilde, though, Mum, and insisted I read more Shakespeare. Now you know!)

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Review – Ancillary Mercy

Posted 7 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Ancillary Mercy by Ann LeckieAncillary Mercy, Ann Leckie

If there’s a place that this trilogy disappoints me a little, it is with this book. There’s plenty of action and character development, and if it were the middle book I’d probably be perfectly happy. But it isn’t; this is the end, and it’s unsatisfying in the sense that we have no idea how things will turn out. It makes sense as a decision, when you see it in the context of the second book in particular — this is really about Breq and her relationships with those around her, and less about the Radch. Breq’s story, and especially that of the Radch, go on before and beyond the books.

But still. I want to know what happens next. Do the Presger rule in favour of Breq’s little republic? What happens to Tisarwat? Does Anaander Mianaii try to take control back — or rather, being Anaander Mianaii, what does she try to get control again?

There are many things I love about this book, but it’s still a little bit in danger of getting only four stars because I just want more. On the other hand, there’s all the delicious dry snark from Breq and Sphene, there’s continued exploration of AIs and personhood, there’s the Translator and her fish sauce and her improbable digestive system… There’s all the heroics and the goodness of Breq, and the desperate moves Station makes to protect its inhabitants —

So in summary, there’s a lot to love, and I want more of it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Machine

Posted 6 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Machine by Jennifer PellandMachine, Jennifer Pelland

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m still not quite sure what to say. Machine is a powerful exploration of body dysphoria, set in a world where your consciousness can be downloaded into a medical android body replacement, while your human body is cryo-frozen to prevent the progression of disease. It reflects on body dysphoria in general, of course, and it’s pretty inconclusive about the answer — should you modify, should you learn to live with it, how will people around you react…

There are parts of this which are frankly disturbing — the erotica parts didn’t interest me, obviously, but I actually found them actively discomforting even to skim past. That’s 100% intentional, and that’s obvious, so that’s not meant as a criticism. It’s just something you might want to bear in mind if you find the book interesting.

I found it difficult to believe in the central couple, whose separation sparks the whole plot. Rivka doesn’t seem like a great person, if she couldn’t even tell her wife that she wasn’t happy with the medical replacement body before she went through the whole procedure. Character-wise, no one really shines — even the main character’s closest friend and people who are sympathetic to her do stupid things which out her to the world (which is fairly anti-robot), things which I wouldn’t tolerate in a friend even in the less fraught environment nowadays for queer people.

It was interesting and powerful, but not something I was willingly emotionally involved in, or emotionally involved in for the reasons I’d usually enjoy. The ending… it was what I wanted, in a sense, but it felt like a cop-out as well. Consequences-be-gone.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Star-shot

Posted 5 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Star-Shot by Mary-Ann ConstantineStar-shot, Mary-Ann Constantin

Star-shot is… weird. Fascinating, though. The first section, for example, features a woman in love with a building. And right across Cardiff, in the places I know so well, a strange silence is descending — you can lean into it, and the world goes silent and cold; lean back out, and you’re back to reality.

The novel follows various characters whose lives intertwine, as they eventually come together to solve the problem as best they can, and help each other along the way. Connection and communication is a big theme, obviously.

It’s hard to describe exactly what goes on; each storyline blurs into the next, and you can’t always tell which character a section is following at first. That’s very intentional, though; same as the way the speech blurs into the narration, because there’s no speech marks. (Worry not, though, there’s other punctuation.)

There’s some really gorgeous bits here, crisp writing, etc. Not quite my thing, in the end, but still a worthwhile read.

Rating: 3/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 5 August, 2017 by Nikki in General / 18 Comments

Good morning, folks! Today I’m off to Amsterdam with my wife to celebrate our paper wedding anniversary in bookshops. Hurrah! To celebrate the one-year anniversary of our wedding (and the 12th anniversary of being together), here are a couple of our wedding pics! Click to embiggen, if you’re so inclined.

And now, back to books.


Cover of Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey Cover of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

I needed Caliban’s War for a book club read, and A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived was on sale on the Kindle store for 99p!

Received to review:

Cover of Acadie by Dave Hutchinson Cover of Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone Cover of Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara

Cover of Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng Cover of The Man in the Tree by Sage Walker Cover of The Fifth Doll by Charlie Holmberg

A lucky week, though I’m still sad I didn’t get approved for Provenance or Into the Drowning Deep on Edelweiss!

Books read this week:

Cover of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey Cover of Babylon by Paul Kriwaczek Cover of The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley Cover of The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bedoyere

Cover of Starborn by Lucy Hounsom Cover of Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara Cover of Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Reviews posted this week:

Unnatural, by Philip Ball. This is billed as popular science, but honestly it’s as much lit-crit as it is science. Interesting topic, of course, but… 3/5 stars
Nova, by Samuel R. Delany. I wasn’t as big a fan as I hoped I was going to be. I feel like a bad SF fan. 3/5 stars
Personality, by Daniel Nettle. Landmark science this is not, but it is interesting enough. 3/5 stars
Reality 36, Guy Haley. Not characters I want to hang out with. 1/5 stars
Caesar’s Last Breath, by Sam Kean. Not as entertaining as his book on neurology, but still interesting. 3/5 stars
Killing is My Business, by Adam Christopher. Another entertaining entry in this series — and I want to know where it’s going next! 4/5 stars
Genomes and What To Make of Them, by Barry Barnes and John Dupré. Somewhat out of date now, and probably not worth picking up. 2/5 stars

Other posts:

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookshops I Have Loved. More or less as you’d expect, though you might not expect that bookshops in Dublin, Ireland and Calgary, Canada are on the same list…
WWW Wednesday. This week’s update on what I’m reading.

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