Category: Reviews


Review – The Pinks

Posted 16 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Pinks by Chris EnssThe Pinks, Chris Enss

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 1st July 2017

I didn’t know much about the Pinkerton agency, other than that they were detectives. I didn’t know they protected President Lincoln and involved themselves in the events of the Civil War — that they worked as spies for the Union. I had no idea about the theatrical and psychological methods they used… and I didn’t know that Pinkerton employed women, before women were regularly employed, and considered them important and indispensable operatives. This book delves into all of that by presenting little case histories of various capers the women were involved in. I say capers because some of them really do seem like that.

It’s a little odd that the blurb mentions Kate Warne, the first woman employed by Pinkerton’s, in the context of an affair with Allan Pinkerton. Unless I somehow skipped a chapter, there’s no such evidence presented in this book. Likewise, it’s a little odd — and sexist — that the men are referred to by their surnames, while women are referred to either by their full names or, more commonly, by their first names. It seems disrespectful to treat them differently than the men.

Otherwise, this is very readable and undoubtedly interesting. I kind of want a whole stack of novels about Kate Warne, now.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Dangerous Women (Part II)

Posted 15 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Dangerous Women ed. G.R.R. MartinDangerous Women: Part II, ed. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

This volume had more fantasy/SF than the first one, with just one story that wasn’t — and that was historical fiction, which often has the same sort of social structures and so on, and thus feels somewhat akin to fantasy. It’s a bit of a stronger collection than the first part, to my mind; I enjoyed it a bit more.

‘Neighbours’, by Megan Lindholm — Quite fun; I kinda called it before the end, but it still worked. I found the stuff with the elderly woman and her kids a bit harrowing, honestly; the trouble is, when someone gets to that point where everything seems to be going wrong, they’re no longer making clear decisions… what do you do? The kids in this book didn’t handle it great, of course, but they’re not wrong that at some point you need to take responsibility.

‘The Girl in the Mirror’, by Lev Grossman — I hoped this was unrelated to The Magicians and its sequels; I didn’t enjoy the first book that much, and didn’t read the others. Unfortunately it was, and given that Quentin appeared, I’m guessing it had some relevance to those stories? Eh.

‘A Queen in Exile’, by Sharon Kay Penman — Felt a little bit like a summary or a historical biography at times, but I enjoyed it; it’s nice to see a dangerous woman of history celebrated.

‘Pronouncing Doom’, by S.M. Stirling — Honestly… I get that modern Wicca is a thing, but the tangle of Irish words and Welsh mythology and modern Earth Mother stuff left me pretty cold.

‘Lies My Mother Told Me’, by Caroline Spector — This is from G.R.R. Martin’s Wildcards ‘verse, if I’m not mistaken; it’s pretty clear what’s going on, even if you haven’t read those. I liked it; weird powers and all.

‘Name the Beast’, by Sam Sykes — I’m… honestly not sure what was going on through half of this. Not a fan.

I didn’t read ‘Virgins’, by Diana Gabaldon; it’s set in her Outlander world, in which I have no interest.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Posted 14 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireDown Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 13th June 2017

I was really looking forward to reading this, having loved the first novella, but I was a bit unsure about the fact that it focused on Jack and Jill. To me, their story was as important to Every Heart A Doorway as Nancy’s, and it was more or less resolved as well — not like, for example, Kade or, since Kade is so sure his story is over, Christopher. There was more to say about them, and I wasn’t sure there was more to say about Jack and Jill. And… in the end, I don’t think there was much more we couldn’t have gleaned already from Every Heart. It’s not a story that I felt cried out to be told: the contradictions of Jack and Jill’s relationship were maybe better for not being elucidated.

That being said, Down Among the Sticks and Bones is still entertaining and does provide more detail on the twins’ background and the world they visited. It’s especially nice to see more of Jack and learn about her girlfriend — and to wince along with her issues with germs and dirt, which hit home for me even though the origin of the phobia is different. It’s lovely seeing the way Jack’s girlfriend deals with the issues of dating someone with such intense phobias (even if part of me is shouting “but that’s the way to make your phobia worse, not better!”).

Again, the ending didn’t particularly surprise me, even the aspect that wasn’t explicitly referred to in Every Heart a Doorway. Overall, it’s enjoyable, but I don’t love it the way I do Every Heart.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Relativity: Einstein’s Mind-Bending Universe

Posted 13 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Relativity; Einstein's Mind-bending Universe by New ScientistRelativity: Einstein’s Mind-Bending Universe, New Scientist

WHOOOOOSHHHH.

That sound? Oh, that was just most of this collection going over my head. It’s still good for the same reasons as the other New Scientist collections: it collects articles and features on a theme into one slightly more durable collection, so you don’t have to keep every issue of the magazine ever that contained stuff that really interests you.

Unfortunately for me, this is physics. A lot of the time I’ll understand perfectly while reading it, but I couldn’t explain it to someone else. Some of the time I won’t understand at all, and I’ll just skim past the words. Despite the assurances of the New Scientist employee who sold me this, I’m squarely in the latter territory for large stretches of this. It’s probably great if you understand physics and are really interested in putting in the time to understand it. I’m… not, really.

It’s an interesting collection, worthy topic, yada yada. I’m glad I had a crack at reading it. But… nope. Not for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Reinventing Darwin

Posted 12 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Reinventing Darwin by Niles EldredgeReinventing Darwin, Niles Eldredge

The most prominent phrase in this book by far is “we naturalists”, which I think demonstrates pretty well the ideological stance of the author. Niles Eldredge begins by setting the scene: the “naturalists”, people like himself and Stephen Jay Gould, vs the “ultra-Darwinists”, like Dawkins. The naturalists have a more nuanced view of natural selection, while the ultra-Darwinists think selection occurs on genes and genes alone (according to Eldredge). This book is a debate about the fine details of natural selection, not about whether it happens: “Darwin demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that natural selection is an ineluctable law of nature” (p.12), “No one doubts that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is correct” (back cover) — so if you’re in any doubt about evolution itself, this won’t convince you.

I don’t know whether science has sorted out a lot of this dichotomy yet, or whether you don’t see it at BSc level, or if the structure of the Open University is such that you happen to get exposed to both views, but I didn’t think of the debate in these starkly delineated terms at all. I’ve been taught principles espoused by both sides, in a kind of synthesis. Of course, it probably also helps that I’m coming in from outside, but either way, I see value in both sides of the debate.

Eldredge manages to be reasonably even-handed, despite the “we naturalists” refrain, and sets forward a good case for species sorting, punctuated equilibria, stasis, etc. Even though my training leans toward the genetics end of things, because I find the biochemistry fascinating and ecosystems less so, I can’t think of anything I vehemently disagreed with, except that refrain of “we naturalists” — which started to come across as needlessly divisive, given that plenty of people sit somewhere in between.

Of course, this is from 1995, so it’s not the most up-to-date text; to me, it was kind of interesting because it fossilised attitudes at the point Eldredge was writing. I don’t think anything in it was new, surprising or controversial to me. The style was rather dry and repetitive (we get it, we get it, “you naturalists” are not denying natural selection); I’m told Gould was a better prose stylist, so that’s probably where I’ll turn next.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Dangerous Women (Part I)

Posted 11 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Dangerous Women ed. G.R.R. MartinDangerous Women: Part I, ed. George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

I expected this to have more fantasy stories in it, given Martin’s involvement, the cover, everything I’d heard about it. But nope, four of the seven stories in this volume aren’t fantasy — even one I thought would be, since I know the author’s fantasy work.

‘The Princess and the Queen’, by George R.R. Martin — Reads like a summary of a story he couldn’t be bothered to write, heavily cribbed from English civil wars. I ended up skipping it, since I’m not actually a Martin fan and haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire yet.

‘Raisa Stepanova’, by Carrie Vaughn — I kept expecting the SF/F here, but nope; this is a historical story set in World War II. I didn’t really get into it, perhaps because it wasn’t what I was expecting.

‘Second Arabesque, Very Slowly’, by Nancy Kress — Your fairly typical women-are-breeders spec-fic future, with some kids getting all hooked on ballet, enough to kill so they can run off and do it for fun. Didn’t really work for me, because every beat was predictable, and even if I sympathised with their need to get away, I didn’t enjoy the characters’ methods.

‘I Know How To Pick ‘Em’, by Lawrence Block — Gritty noirish short story, sex and murder, exactly what you expect going in.

‘My Heart is Either Broken’, by Megan Abbott — I wasn’t sure where this was going, and I’m not sure it quite got there, but it got hold of me. I wanted things to come out okay; I feared that things would never be the same for the characters if they did.

‘Wrestling Jesus’, by Joe R. Lansdale — Another fairly predictable one. Not my genre, either. The dangerous woman of the anthology’s theme is, in this case, a nasty woman who likes playing around with people; yay… I’d kinda like to see more dangerous women who aren’t morally dubious. Speaking of which…

‘Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell’, by Brandon Sanderson — Probably my favourite of the bunch, though I guess that isn’t saying much considering my feelings on some of the above. This is actually fantasy, the world is fascinating, and you get sucked in by the character’s problems and what they need to do to survive.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Virolution

Posted 10 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Virolution by Frank RyanVirolution, Frank Ryan

The cover made me worry that this was going to be complete pseudo-science, but it’s not bad at all. It’s a little scatterbrained — although the title is Virolution, a good chunk of it involves epigenetics, and it isn’t very clearly linked to the viral theme. The main thrust of the book is: evolution didn’t just happen by natural selection, but also through symbiosis. That symbiosis includes symbiosis with bacteria and viruses, as we co-evolved.

It’s not something I disagree with, and Ryan lays out the ideas clearly and informatively. I’m not sure I see such a huge role for viruses in evolution, at least not in the sense that he does. I don’t think it really modifies natural selection that much. Perhaps I’m just a little too familiar with stuff like Lynn Margulis’ theories about symbiosis? I’d always seen a fairly big role for symbiosis in evolution, because of course it drives co-evolution to establish stable mutualism.

Not a bad book, but perhaps a little too enthusiastic about its claims, and a little too scatterbrained about the content.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Bone Palace

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

Cover of The Bone Palace by Amanda DownumThe Bone Palace, Amanda Downum

The Bone Palace is a better book than the first one, I think; more of the characters were compelling to me, and the magic all felt like it fit together better. Isyllt’s magic didn’t fit, somehow, with the world of river spirits and djinn, with the desert magic and the heat. Which makes sense: she’s out of her own world there.

It’s hard to glimpse whether there’s a larger story behind the politics and magic — it feels like there should be; there’s plenty of history and geography underlying the world. But it’s hard to tell where it’s going. When I last read it, the third book wasn’t out, so that might solve some of my questions. But the first two books together feel odd; not quite the same story, not even quite about the same characters. Isyllt’s a main character in both, but Savedra steals this one entirely.

I love the magic, love the history, love Savedra. The only thing I’m not sure about is, again, some of the cultural stuff. For instance, Savedra is trans; the story uses the term hijra, which fits badly with the Russian-sounding words floating around, the Greek names, and which might not even fit with the actual concept of hijra in our world. I can imagine people being annoyed that hijra in Downum’s world are mostly prostitutes, for example.

All the same, I love Savedra — the complex relationship between her and Nikos and Ashlin, the fact that she’s a royal concubine and she navigates that world so carefully and protects her loved ones, while not feeling brave or strong. She just does what she has to do, for Nikos and Ashlin, for her family. And it works. Isyllt and Kiril? I don’t hate that relationship, but it just doesn’t breathe for me like Vedra’s life.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Other Minds

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

Cover of Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith

A mixture of science and philosophy about consciousness, I found this book really fascinating. The joins between the two are pretty seamless, so they lead into one another and contribute to one another — if you hate philosophy, this would probably still be okay for you, because it does lean a little toward the science end. To my mind, anyway. If you don’t have a strong grounding in either, it’s still accessible and fascinating, as long as you have some level of interest in the subject.

What we know about cuttlefish and octopus minds is just astounding — their intelligence is almost uncanny, and yet we know very little about how they experience the world. There were a few surprises here for me — their typically short lives, their decentralised control of movement, the seeming personalities of the animals the author observed…

There’s a lot of anecdotes and such, so if you’re looking for hard science, this isn’t really what you want. But if you’re casually interested, then I recommend it. And if you can end it without wanting to dive and meet some cuttlefish and octopi for yourself, you must be made of stone. (Not really, but. I’m left so curious! That’s a thing I love in a book.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Radiance

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

Cover of Radiance by Catherynne M. ValenteRadiance, Catherynne M. Valente

What can I say about this book? I just finished it and I feel a little dizzy, drunk on words and possibilities. I don’t know what to make of it, and I don’t even really care. It served up so many questions, so many mysteries, and yet I found it entirely satisfying anyway — even though the ending still leaves a question mark.

Valente’s writing is beautiful, as ever. The mixture of media she uses — scripts, transcripts, diaries — let her really indulge in it, play with words and throw ideas around like splashes of colour. It rubs off on you; I’ll be writing like Valente for at least a week now, like a kid trying on their mother’s high heels. Not sure it really suits me, but playing with the idea all the same.

I can’t tell you about this book; I can’t explain it with anything other than a handful of impressions. I think I want to read it again. It worked for me; it might not work for you. I’m sure there are people it will leave entirely cold, and I might’ve been one of them, on a different day. Today Valente drew me in and had me eating it up: her black-and-white movie world, her sparkling and astonishingly fertile worlds out there in space, the Mars and Venus and Jupiter of bygone sci-fi. Another day, the profligacy of plot and imagery and illusions to mythology and imagination might have turned me off.

Try it and see.

Rating: 4/5

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