Category: Reviews


Review – Red Sonja

Posted 16 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Red Sonja by Gail SimoneRed Sonja, Gail Simone, Walter Geovani

I’ve heard of Red Sonja before, though only as a really sexist comic character that didn’t sound at all appealing or interesting. I remember the arguments and debates around the SFWA Bulletin cover that was a tribute to Red Sonja in all her chain mail bikini glory: looking at it now, the cover itself seems less offensive, but the defence of it by Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg remains completely offensive. Gah. Need to get that bad taste out of my mouth.

So I’ll talk some more about Gail Simone! I’d heard of her work on other comics, but I hadn’t read anything she’d worked on yet, so I was very curious about this. I love that she’s taken this sexist character and surrounded her with other women, peopled the world with strong women who in various different ways support each other and make the world a better place. There are some good male characters, too, but the focus is definitely on women — and women as protectors, as fighters, as able to fight for themselves.

Sonja herself isn’t the most likeable character in some ways: if she chooses to wear that chain mail bikini, for one thing, her taste has got to be terrible. She’s uncouth and she drinks a lot and she glories in violence. But… she’s also honourable, brave, capable of love. Her origin story isn’t anything particularly special, and maybe I wouldn’t find this book so good if I wasn’t so well aware of the sexist past behind it, but I did really enjoy it, and enjoyed seeing the range of female talent that went into making it.

Received from Netgalley!

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Review – Silhouette of a Sparrow

Posted 16 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth GriffinSilhouette of a Sparrow, Molly Beth Griffin

Silhouette of a Sparrow is a quiet little LGBT coming of age story, set in… the 1920s or so? Garnet, the main character, has a passion for birds, a vague hope of going to college, and a summer to spend away from her family. She falls in love with a flapper, decides not to marry the boy who’s waiting for her back home, and sets her sights on going to college.

While there is drama in the story — Hannah’s outburst at her mother, thunder and hail storms, even a fire in the hotel where Garnet is staying — none of it really did much for me. It’s an introspective story, and that kind of thing didn’t seem to fit; I was much more interested in the quiet parts, Garnet cutting out bird silhouettes and thinking of her father, trips out on the lake, the quiet triumphs in Garnet’s life like getting a summer job and convincing her employer not to sell feathered hats anymore, etc.

The relationship between Garnet and Isabella is almost unnecessary, when you view it that way: a friendship between them would be enough. But then of course you remember how little there is in the way of LGBT fiction and especially teen LGBT fiction — I at least felt much less inclined to go bleh at the inclusion of an “unnecessary” romance when I thought about that.

The ending fits the story well — a mixture of the bitter and the sweet, some hope and some disappointment, maybe even some fear. It leaves a lot open, but that’s alright.

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Review – The Female Man

Posted 15 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Female Man by Joanna RussThe Female Man, Joanna Russ

I think people are wrong when they say this book is out of date. Many of the feminist issues Russ engaged with are still with us today, the double-standards women are held to and the things men expect of them. That part of the book seemed perfectly reasonable to me: a little out-dated, perhaps, as all of this sort of thing will become in just a few decades, but not irrelevant.

The story, however… I found it incomprehensible, buried under the weight of the feminist concerns and issues raised. I would rather have read the story and the examination of the role of women separately, I think. For me, I came to this book expecting a classic of science fiction, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem like there’s much. It’s a thought experiment, which can be done in literary fiction just as well (better?).

I’m a little uncomfortable with it being relegated to the class of science fiction, in a way, instead of being read as a classic in general. So often that’s used as a way to minimise the importance of a work: oh, quaint old genre fiction, rather than oh, social commentary. Those of us in the genre know how powerful a tool it is when used to examine society (and if you don’t, may I introduce you to the works of Ursula Le Guin?), but in academic circles… we’re starting to see more work on genre fiction — part of my MA was on Tolkien, and mainly on his fiction — and there’s been some good work on fantasy and SF, but it’s not as if any of that is even approaching “the canon”.

I almost feel like rereading this in an annotated version, or a Norton Critical Edition, would help me appreciate it more. But just on the merits of it as a story… no, I can’t say it did much for me.

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Review – Mystery Mile

Posted 12 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Mystery Mile, by Margery AllinghamMystery Mile, Margery Allingham

Didn’t expect to read this book so soon or all in one go, but I was having trouble sleeping, so I figured, why not? It’s very obviously a cousin of Sayers’ Lord Peter (Campion could, in fact, be Peter’s cousin), although in a more satirical vein. Albert Campion is a pretty close analogue of Peter Wimsey, complete with a number of idiosyncrasies, and Lugg (although of a decidedly more criminal bent than Bunter) shares some characteristics with Lord Peter’s man.

It’s still fun, even though it’s more or less mocking one of my favourite series in many ways — it manages to be a story on its own, too. It didn’t involve me emotionally, but I did read it straight through, in one go, so there’s that going for it. I did find the mystery a little bit disjointed/incoherent: it helped that I’d read a summary somewhere before, but some of the events seemed pretty random.

Overall, I enjoyed it enough that I might pick up more, but not enough that I’m going to be in a hurry. Allingham was a capable writer, but Campion’s not interesting enough to me to follow him compulsively.

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Review – Why Evolution is True

Posted 10 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 18 Comments

Cover of Why is Evolution True by Jerry CoyneWhy Evolution is True, Jerry A. Coyne

This is a suggested book related to one of my current classes on Coursera, so I decided to pick it up. I already believe in evolution, so I can’t judge on whether it’s convincing — I already know that evolution by natural selection is mathematically inevitable, and I know of a lot of the supporting evidence.

Still, this is the kind of book that produces all sorts of titbits that you didn’t know before, and which lays things out so clearly it helps you understand how to explain it to other people (which, to my mind, means a deeper understanding of the theory — if you can explain it, there are fewer grey areas).

Overall, it’s clearly written, with lots of supporting diagrams and so on where it’s useful, and a good set of footnotes and suggestions for further reading. I found it interesting, too; perhaps not for a person with a science background to begin with, but for me (humanities background, science interest) it was easy but not boringly so.

Interestingly, he also touches a little on why people find it hard to accept evolution, and answers some of those objections, too — for example, why our behaviour isn’t fully dictated by our genes, why morality and ethics aren’t dismantled in any way by evolution.

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Review – 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels

Posted 9 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 17 Comments

Cover of 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels, Nick Rennison, Stephen E. Andrews

This is a pretty good whistle-stop tour of some important, influential, or particularly interesting fantasy novels. I’ve got two pages in my notebook scrawled full of books to try now, and reminders of stuff I want to go back to. It’s a very accessible little book; it begins with an essay about the origins of fantasy, includes a glossary of various terms which can get confusing (the differences between sub-genres, for example) and a lot of extra suggestions after each book for further reading.

Normally, this sort of book doesn’t interest me much because they always pick the same novels. Well, this one had a fair amount of the staples on it — Tolkien, of course, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Lewis Carroll, Michael Moorcock — but it did have some others which surprised me — Megan Lindholm, for example, listed under that name and not as Robin Hobb — and some pretty recent ones too. It doesn’t claim to show us the best of fantasy fiction, which is a good plan, to my mind — only books which are worth reading.

Not exactly groundbreaking, but worth a flick through at least. Excuse me, I’m off to look up some ebook prices.

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Review – The Testament of Mary

Posted 8 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin.The Testament of Mary, Colm Tóibín

The reviews for The Testament of Mary are pretty much the spread I would expect — some people viewing it as a literary work, some as deliberately heretical trash, some seeing it as written just to shock, etc. I read it for more or less the same reasons I read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: because I’m curious, because I’m okay with questioning things that I have or have had faith in. (Ask me which on any given day and I’ll be able to give you specifics.)

I think it’s an honest and earnest attempt to think about Mary as a person, not as the sort of demi-goddess we’ve made of her. To think of her as a woman, a mother, and as a mortal, as someone of quiet faith and love for her son. Tóibín’s Mary isn’t a believer, really; she doesn’t see what Jesus does as proof of miracles, she’s not exactly sceptical but is concerned about what is done to Lazarus, she doesn’t seem to believe he’s the son of God. She resists the urge to find meaning in what’s done to him. She’s even human enough to leave the site of the crucifixion to save her own life.

The book is her telling her story, quietly, with certainty, knowing it won’t survive or rival the story Jesus’ followers want to tell — i.e. what we know as the Gospels — but because she needs to voice her truth. Parts of the story didn’t really work well for me, the semi-imprisonment she has where she’s looked after by Jesus’ disciples, for example, but overall I found it moving — in a quiet, understated way. These are the emotions of a woman who has lost her son, quiet and traumatised, not the mother of a martyr, a saviour. Which is fine and worthy, from my point of view, but I think other people object to that.

(Particularly, people keep saying that Tóibín is writing Mary using modern psychology. That’s… somewhat true, but I think people in times past still had the same feelings — depression, PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc — and just understood them differently. Mary never talks about Freud or anything, so I think that’s not really an issue.)

It’s a very slim book, and I’m not entirely sure why it was shortlisted for the Man Booker: it’s not that powerful a story, though it has its moments. But it is worth a read if the idea interests you — it certainly won’t take too long.

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Review – The Gutenberg Revolution

Posted 6 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Gutenberg Revolution by John ManThe Gutenberg Revolution, John Man

The Gutenberg Revolution is a really easy read, with a pretty chatty style that doesn’t undermine the material, but does make it easy to digest. I read it on the train — like some other people I see reviewing it, actually — and it was interesting enough to hold my attention from start (in Cardiff Central) to finish (somewhere between London and Lille).

It begins by exploring the man who invented moveable type, Johann Gutenberg, and the context he was born into and grew up in. It isn’t all about Gutenberg specifically, though: it talks about the people he was involved with, or could’ve been involved with, in the endeavour — and most of all, about the revolution that was printing and how it became a force for social change, particularly the Reformation. There’s quite a good bit about Martin Luther, as well as some other interesting titbits about how the printing press went on to be used. There’s a bit about Caxton, which is particularly interesting to me given my interest in Arthuriana (even if Sir Thomas Malory is far from my favourite).

John Man’s enthusiasm for the subject comes through perfectly, and I like that he chose a type setting (Poliphilis) for the book related to one of the stories he wanted to tell. It’s a pretty clear and easy to read font from my point of view, though I’m not sure how it’d be for someone with sight problems. Still, I enjoyed it — the book as a whole, of course, but also this specific font.

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Review – A Hole in the World

Posted 5 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Hole in the World by Sophie RobbinsA Hole in the World, Sophie Robbins

A Hole in the World isn’t a very mature story, and the writer has a long way to go, but I did find it pretty fun all the same. I loved the set of friendships going on between characters, the fact that not everyone had to be paired up, the fact that Bianca and Scotty are best friends and say “I love you”… That aspect of it made the story feel more mature than it could have done, because it wasn’t all about Bianca and Alexandra, and while it has a happy ending, it’s not all wish fulfillment. People get hurt along the way.

Aspects that felt immature were the focus on things like iPods and brand names, naming specific songs, etc. It made it very much of its moment: it’s not a story that will be timeless. The writing style itself needs sharpening up, and a good editor could probably transform it. And then there’s obviously the age of the characters — I’m a bit past giggling and “ommggg you have a cruuuush”, or I’d like to think so, at least.

But it’s still a fun little adventure story, and definitely worth the 77p I spent on it. It’d be 2/5 stars for technical merit alone, at best, but I enjoyed reading it. Three stars!

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Review – Travel Light

Posted 3 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Travel Light, by Naomi MitchisonTravel Light, Naomi Mitchison

I came across this because of Amal El-Mohtar’s NPR review; the idea of a book in dialogue with Tolkien, by one of the women around him who he encouraged and listened to, definitely appealed: I think just recently I was asking if anyone’s written anything about Tolkien’s female students, about whom I know very little except that I’m sure I have been told they existed. (Time for a woman to write a biography of Tolkien? Move over, Humphrey Carpenter, Tom Shippey?)

And this book delivered. It is rather slight — it’s short, and on first glance, rather fable-like. Naomi Mitchison resisted any urge to insist on a moral, though: while there are religious people in the story, and Hella’s travelling light seems a virtue in her, there are good people who struggle with faith, good dragons who keep out of the gods’ way, and though for a while it looks as though there might be a moral about Christianity in there, then there’s also a bit of a wry look at the church in Constantinople, and it ends with some more Norse mythology. I don’t think she honestly ever pushes any moral except finding your way through life and being good to people and creatures, and in the meantime she has an intriguing wander through different cultures and traditions.

Mitchison is a lot less sure than Tolkien about the period and the people she wants to write about, I think. Tolkien talked about creating “a mythology for England”, and I’ve argued elsewhere that Susan Cooper succeeds, but I don’t think Mitchison is as rooted in a place, an idea. Like her protagonist, she’s willing to wander. I wonder what a difference it’d have made to genre fiction now if Mitchison had a greater role, and Tolkien a lesser? Maybe we’d have less to worry about from the constant onslaught of medieval European fantasy.

It won’t scratch the same itch as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, for sure. It’s a different sort of story — if you’re a fan of Le Guin, perhaps, it’s more like the stories of Earthsea. Or it’s like a more fantastical, more female Rosemary Sutcliff. Don’t read it for The Hobbit 2.0 — it’s something all its own.

Oh, and it can be quite amusing, too: Dragon Economics 101…

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