In Calabria, Peter S. Beagle
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th February 2017
In Calabria is a quiet sort of story. It has dramatic moments, certainly, but those weren’t what will stick in my mind in the slightest. What will stick in my mind is Claudio’s quiet care for the unicorn, his moments of inspiration, and his love for Giovanna. He opens up, going from old curmudgeon with a heart of gold to a man who loves, who is brave, who will put himself on the line — and it’s because of the unicorn.
It’s easy to read that as a kind of commentary on the humanising nature of stories. Why do myths like unicorns endure? Because they inspire us, they teach us to open up; from stories we can learn to love.
In Calabria is more like that, a fable or fairy story, though I wouldn’t say it has something as simple as a moral. What’s nice is that, along with the serious moments and the warmth and tenderness, there’s a lot of humour as well. Like Claudio being grateful that Giovanna bought him pyjamas during a critical and dramatic moment…
Touch: The Science of The Hand, Heart, and Mind, David J. Linden
Touch is a pretty fascinating book, delving into the importance of the sense of touch for us and what it would mean to lose that sense. It’s not just losing the sensation of your skin touching something, after all: touch receptors also play a part in interpreting pain, heat, etc. In a way, the book as a whole tells you about more than just touch, since it also gives a solid background in the nervous system and the brain.
It’s also pretty focused on stuff like orgasms and sensual touching, sometimes with fairly explicit (and somewhat unnecessary) examples, e.g. a description of a couple having sex. You may or may not find that helps your understanding; I found it intrusive to be told to imagine these things in which I have no interest! Particularly as some of these descriptions are addressed to you, the reader.
I felt that it got a bit scatterbrained at times — sometimes I felt that it wandered away from touch onto other aspects of our sensory experiences, though that’s almost to be expected. We divvy up our senses into some rather artificial boxes at times; just think of how linked scent and taste are. But mostly I found it interesting and easy to read.
It’s a blue moon! Or something. Yep, I’ve had a week where I haven’t bought a single book, or received any to review. So first, have a picture of my two bunnies cuddling…
They’re not quite at the point where they can run around together yet, but they’re certainly getting used to each other.
And now, the weekly roundup!
Books I’ve finished reading this week:
Not the busiest reading week ever, but not bad either! And the ratings…
Five stars to… The Lions of Al-Rassan.
Four stars to… The Furthest Station.
Three stars to… Where the Universe Came From.
Reviews posted this week:
–Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. A reread. I find this one magical and greatly enjoy the protagonist. 5/5 stars
–Britain AD, by Francis Pryor. Unfortunately, Pryor’s shaky scholarship in this book made me seriously worried about his credibility in general. He’s wrong on King Arthur, and I strongly suspect he’s wrong on linguistics and genetics as well. 2/5 stars
–Wicked Wonders, by Ellen Klages. An eerie and wistful and tender collection of stories I greatly enjoyed. 4/5 stars
–Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher. Reminds me of Valente’s Fairyland books, while still being very much its own book with some amazing and quirky characters. 4/5 stars
–After Atlas, by Emma Newman. Works well as a standalone and as a companion to Planetfall, and leaves me wondering, at the end… My only quibble would be that I didn’t engage as fully with the main character as I did in Planetfall. 4/5 stars
–On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. A classic and desperately important work, it might be a little slow to read but it was definitely worth it. Darwin was a great scientist, capable of generating testable hypotheses and following through, and criticising his own work. 5/5 stars
–The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I might not be a fan of the way the Tolkien estate puts out just about anything J.R.R. scribbled, but I did find this fascinating. 4/5 stars
–Top Ten Breaths of Fresh Air. Books which struck me as bringing something fresh and new to my experience.
–What are you reading Wednesday. The usual weekly update — which happened on Wednesday, honest, guv.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t visit you back last week, I’m afraid it’s because I had a problem with getting comment notifications. I have been baffled about how silent y’all were being! I’m on the case now and will visit back as soon as I can.
The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun, J.R.R. Tolkien
I still have a whole rant about the way the Tolkien estate is putting out these books, padded out with excerpts from Tolkien’s drafts, and yet marketing them to a general rather than scholarly audience. If you’re here for Gollums and hobbitses, you’ll be disappointed, though you can see some seeds for and parallels with Tolkien’s later, greater work.
Personally, I was glad to get to read this and the extra material, because Tolkien’s work and scholarship fascinates me. Where he edited his own work, which he did obsessively and meticulously, he rarely puts a foot wrong; in his drafts and rough copies there’s still a lot of beauty and interest. But I’m also interested because this was inspired by a Breton lai, and attempts to keep some of the same atmosphere while dealing with the Breton folklore — though also creating something distinctly Tolkien’s own.
I think it’s a fine piece of work — if you know what you’re going into. Not Mordor, nor Lothlorien (though you might glimpse Galadriel), but perhaps a little bit of Mirkwood.
Ssh. It’s not Thursday yet. I’m in a magical bubble of time dilation, or something.
What have you recently finished reading?
Juuuust finished my reread of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. My heart is broken, of course; he writes brilliantly, and the ending is so tragic and bittersweet. And ugh, I wish Rodrigo and Ammar could just… walk away, and not fight each other. It’s inevitable that they do, and that’s part of the heartbreak, but. Gah.
What are you currently reading?
With the usual caveat that I’m technically currently reading a lot of things, the top of my pile right now is The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. I had an ARC, but I saw a published copy in the local bookshop and grabbed it. Couldn’t resist. And now I’ve finally started it!
What will you read next?
I’m fairly confident, for some reason, that on Thursday morning I will start reading New Scientist’s Instant Expert: Where the Universe Came From. Because I haven’t been bending my brain with relativity enough already. Possibly this has something to do with how I can time travel so I’m still in Wednesday as I write this…
On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
I’m doing a biology degree, and I’ve always been an admirer of (and a believer in) the theory of evolution through natural selection, so it seemed high time I finally went to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Not that Darwin came up with the idea out of nothing, of course; it was “in the air” at the time, and other scientists were thinking along similar lines — Lamarck and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, to name just two. Not to mention, of course, Alfred Wallace, who could’ve beaten Darwin to publication.
But Charles Darwin was the first to publish a theory which really made sense, which hung together and was testable. He may not have known about genetics or had a clear idea of how heritability occurs, yet it’s startling to read this and realise how close he was to right at times. He may not always have backed the right theories, but he considered everything he could imagine, and carefully related it to his own theory. It’s remarkable just how willing he was to consider where his theory might be wrong, and discuss those weaknesses. It’s also remarkable how often he tested what he could, whether it be the germination of seeds soaked in sea water or how pollination works; he may not have had the equipment that we have now, but his attitude is surely a lesson that every aspiring scientist should take to heart.
Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can read this and come away without understanding Darwin’s theory. He’s painstakingly clear, at length, with examples. If you’re reading this and coming to the conclusion that he didn’t support the idea of one species evolving into another, “macroevolution”, your reading comprehension is at fault. He makes it quite clear that “microevolution”, small changes in existing species, can and will lead to new species.
Darwin was not right about everything, but he was right in many key ways — and he would be the first to admit that he could be wrong. He gave us a working, testable theory, one which has ample proof both in his work and in the world around us. Creationists have far too much to explain, by comparison.
After Atlas, Emma Newman
It’s been far too long since this came out, and I have no excuse — especially since I originally had an ARC. It’s a follow-up/companion to Planetfall, but it doesn’t rely on it too much and can be read alone. Personally, I think I’d prefer to read it after Planetfall, though. That novel gives a lot of context for this one, even though it doesn’t share any characters or anything beyond the idea of the Atlas mission. It doesn’t even feel like the same genre, even though they fit perfectly together; this is more of a detective story, with a whole mystery that needs to be unravelled.
This one didn’t connect with me on the visceral level that Planetfall did, because one of the reasons that book got to me was the description of the main character’s anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s something I’m familiar with, much more so than with Carlos’ circumscribed existence — even though that is evocatively written too.
All in all, I wish I’d got to this sooner, and I’d love to read more in this world and find out what happens, particularly to Dee, Carlos and Travis, but to all of them. My only criticism is that the end felt like it happened so fast — that last chapter covers so much time!
Summer in Orcus, T. Kingfisher
Summer in Orcus is just lovely; a portal fantasy with something of the whimsy and warmth of Valente’s Fairyland, and likely to appeal to a similar audience. Some of the characters could’ve come straight from Fairyland, in the best possible way: Reginald the society hoopoe, with his Regency slang; Glorious the were-house, who is a wolf during the day and a house by night; Boarskin, Deerskin and Bearskin, who warn Summer of the cancer at the heart of the world; even the Frog Tree and its dryad.
That isn’t to say it feels derivative, because it doesn’t: it feels very much like itself. But it has something of the same whimsy and imagination, and I enjoyed it heartily. There is something a little darker than Fairyland, I think; perhaps from the very fact that the quest is initiated by the capricious and sometimes cruel Baba Yaga.
It’s a fairly typical quest story, in a way, except that the great confrontation at the end turns out to be uniquely suited to Summer’s talents and experience. There’s a fair dose of bittersweetness, heroism aplenty — and, to my relief, a hope that Summer will see her friends again someday.
This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday is “unique books”. I’m not sure these books are unique, but they felt like a breath of fresh air when I read them.
- The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. A complete antidote to all the grimdark fantasy out there, this felt like a message of hope. It’s about building bridges rather than walls. Apt for the current political climate, I’d say.
- The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. I’m not sure why, but this practically leapt off the page for me when I read it first.
- The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. Character-focused, thoughtful, touching. Small scope, huge heart.
- The Bone Palace, by Amanda Downum. The first book didn’t blow me away, but this one did, particularly with the character of Savedra.
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. I went in sceptical; I came out dazed.
- This Savage Song, by Victoria Schwab. Or perhaps Vicious — either way, there’s some vital spark about Schwab’s work that made it feel genuinely exciting.
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. I picked it up with quite a bit of scepticism, and then devoured it. Something felt new.
- City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett. One of those books that made me go, wow, you’ve gotta read this.
- Among Others, by Jo Walton. It’s set after the character’s great calamity — it’s about moving on (and the way life doesn’t stop throwing new stories at you).
- Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb. I read it when I was fourteen and was totally hooked. The magic systems were just fascinating.
Kinda dreading looking at other people’s lists today — as if I need to expand my TBR more! By which I mean: gimme.
Wicked Wonders, Ellen Klages
Received to review via Tachyon
I was really interested to read more of Klages’ work after reading Passing Strange. I think I’ve read one or two short stories before — one of the stories in here was definitely familiar — but I hadn’t consciously connected the author to them, if that makes any sense. Klages is a careful writer, as her afterword shows: she moves the words around until they’re just right, pays attention to pace and rhythm and all of that. It works: her stories are all readable and all seem to fit perfectly within the form.
There’s something eerie and wistful and tender in almost all of these stories, bar one or two that are more mischievous than anything. I was pleased to meet some of the characters from Passing Strange again, particularly, and get some more detail on the paper-folding magic which is alluded to there. But my favourite of the stories was probably the least speculative: ‘Woodsmoke’, which features two girls on the cusp of adolescence, at a summer camp. I won’t say too much about it, but it felt real and wistful, and the ending avoided any kind of saccharine sweetness, touching something real instead.
It’s a good collection of stories, and I also enjoy the fact that there’s a section included on where each story came from and giving more details. There were one or two bits I hadn’t noticed about the stories, which is always fun to learn.
If you enjoy short stories, this is definitely a good collection; if you enjoy Ellen Klages’ work, doubtless you know what you’re in for. Either way, Passing Strange is also worth a look…