Category: Reviews


Review – Mind-Expanding Ideas

Posted 25 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Mind-Expanding Ideas by New ScientistMind-Expanding Ideas, New Scientist: The Collection

Possibly necessary for full disclosure: I got four of these as a free gift for subscribing to New Scientist. They contain articles from past issues, generally the ones that stand the test of time, and collect them together by topic. This one is mostly physics, which… is not so much my thing. It’s “the most incredible concepts in science”, can’t we have some more love for biology? Epigenetics is mind-expanding — and probably more personally relevant than quarks and leptons to most readers.

That said, I am into biology and find physics a little frightening. Reading this volume mostly left me a little scared and at least halfway to an existential crisis.

If your interest is in dark energy and quantum theory and special relativity, though, then there’s a good chance it’s perfect for you.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Fairweather Eden

Posted 24 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fairweather Eden by Mike PittsFairweather Eden, Mike Pitts, Mark Roberts

This is a fascinating account of a fascinating site: one of the earliest known sites of human activity in the UK. Eartham Pit, Boxgrove is an internationally significant site and it had a lot to tell us about Palaeolithic humans. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because we don’t know much about the people who made the site it’s going to be a boring read: it’s interspersed with the story of the excavation itself and the scientific analysis that went into discovering what happened there. It’s not just about old animal bones, but about the people who made the site, then and now.

If you want to know about early human occupation of Britain, this site is one of the key pieces of evidence, and this book beautifully unravels the history of the dig, its context and the conclusions we can draw from it. I found it a really easy read, too, with relatively short chapters to keep things moving through the information and story it revealed. Definitely recommended.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Furthest Station

Posted 23 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Furthest Station by Ben AaronovitchThe Furthest Station, Ben Aaronovitch

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 30th June 2017

This novella joins Peter Grant and (some of) the usual suspects for a new investigation. Present: Peter, Abigail, Nightingale, Jaget, and briefly, Beverley. I was a bit thrown by the total absence of any mention at all of Leslie; it feels like it’s set in some weird time bubble where there’s nothing going on with her at all, where she didn’t even exist. I don’t know if it’s set before or after The Hanging Tree, which I haven’t read yet; possibly that’ll resolve my slight confusion.

It’s a fun story, which feels very much like the full-length novels, although it resolves faster (of course) and doesn’t involve any of the larger threads like the Faceless Man — though it does advance Abigail’s story, showing her interest in and aptitude for the work of the Folly, whether Peter thinks she’s ready or not. We get some more ghosts and ghostly phenomena, and Peter’s ongoing attempts at rationalising them.

All in all, I rather enjoyed it, perhaps especially because it’s just Peter and business as usual. No heartwrenching personal storylines for him in this novella, and thank goodness for that.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Britain After Rome

Posted 22 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Britain After RomeBritain After Rome, Robin Fleming

Britain After Rome is a rather exhaustive, not to say exhausting, history of Britain after the Romano-British period. It focuses on material culture like grave goods and excavations, rather than the texts and what we think we know. Sometimes these contradict each other, and sometimes they fit together in illuminating ways; Fleming takes her time unpacking both situations. It results in a broader look at society than we might see elsewhere, including the lives of women and the fashions of clothing, as well as the big questions of politics, commerce and religion. (Not that the role of women is a small question, but it’s one about which we know less.)

I did enjoy reading it, but I had to take it in little parcels rather than sitting down to read right through. Despite the avoidance of extensive footnotes, it feels scholarly, dense, lengthy. There’s a lot of material and some of it is lingered over very lovingly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Urn Burial

Posted 21 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Urn Burial by Kerry GreenwoodUrn Burial, Kerry Greenwood

A fun reread, again showing Phryne at her most stubbornly permissive, and determined to see others doing the same. A decent portion of this book is dedicated to persuading Lin Chung to sleep with her under his host’s roof, despite said host’s distaste for the Chinese… It’s kind of fun, and I do enjoy Lin Chung as a character. There’s also a sub-plot of a love story between two young men who are hiding their relationship, including a voyeuristic sex scene. Whatever floats your boat… In any case, one of the pair isn’t stereotyped, which is a source of some relief to me after the tendency for the gay men Phryne meets to be rather ineffectual and/or effeminate. And the other of the pair is actually bisexual, which happens rarely enough to be worthy of note. The bond between them, and their acceptance of each other, does feel real.

The actual mystery ends in a rather grotesque fashion, and it takes a bit of chicanery to pull all the plot threads together. There’s two cases of long lost men returning and not being recognised, for example, which might stretch credulity. (But then, it also stretches Phryne’s credulity.)

There’s some great atmospheric bits, but overall, not a favourite of the series.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How Long Is Now

Posted 20 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How Long Is Now?How Long is Now? New Scientist

If you know what New Scientist is like and what these books are like, this is more of the usual. People ask their strange or not-so-strange questions about topics scientific, and other people chip in with what they know. Where one answer didn’t quite cover all the angles, another one is often included. You’ll notice folks like David Muir of Portobello High School answering a lot of questions, while others are answered by people who happen to work in something related or had that curiosity themselves and carried out experiments. Sometimes the questions are interesting, sometimes less so — and sometimes the answers are satisfying, and sometimes they’re not quite enough.

It’s an excellent source of general science knowledge, and a good type of book to dip in and out of casually. I did notice that some of the answers are also included in at least one of the New Scientist collections, which I guess is to be expected.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Vikings

Posted 19 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Vikings by Neil OliverVikings: A History, Neil Oliver

It’s a rather odd experience, reading this soon after reading Francis Pryor’s work. Where Pryor minimises the impact of folk migration, Oliver highlights at least half a dozen occasions where the Norsemen did, in fact, invade or colonise. From apparently the same sources, they argue completely different things. Now, Oliver’s work is a bit more accessible than Pryor’s, I think; for a start, this ties in with a BBC series (though Pryor’s Britain AD had a tv series as well, I think) and is generally pitched at that level, avoiding tedious levels of detail like the exact sequence of archaeology — interesting stuff, as far as I’m concerned, but not always the most riveting reading.

It also features a lot of attempts at imagining the past and bringing to life the past: Neil Oliver’s poignant imaginings about Birka Girl, for example. For me, that has varying success — for example, it’s all very well to note that someone had a lavish burial in a highly visible place, but does that necessarily mean they were loved by the people around them? Maybe it’s guilt, or ritual sacrifice, or political show.

Still, generally Oliver manages to be both informative and entertaining. For myself, I wished he’d spent more time on Icelandic concerns, since he mentioned Iceland few enough times it has a one line entry in the index. One line! And yet Iceland is the place I know the most about in terms of preservation of contemporary evidence, the sagas, etc. And on that note, I could’ve wished for a bit more engagement with the sagas, especially since any lit student knows that they were preserved with high fidelity and not written centuries later — they were written down centuries later, but the stories themselves were far older and were communicated orally well before they were written down.

(Well, unless new research has found otherwise in the four years since my MA, but I haven’t heard or read anything to that effect.)

Enjoyable read, and an antidote to the idea that Vikings were nothing but bloodthirsty raiders.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Lions of Al-Rassan

Posted 18 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel KayThe Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are almost always worth a second read, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is no exception. (Sorry, but Ysabel remains the outlier. I’m sure somebody likes that one, but not me.) The Lions of Al-Rassan is based on the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, with all the clashes between religions you’d expect. The Jaddites are pretty plainly Christians, the Kindath are Jewish, and the Asharites are Muslims — more or less. There are some variations.

As you’d expect from Guy Gavriel Kay, nothing is that simple. It’s not just about the clash of cultures, but what they can give to each other and how, perhaps, they could live alongside each other… except of course for the folly of humans, which means it never works out for long. But while nothing works on the grand level, the various characters find ways to learn from each other and live with each other on the individual level — and therein lies the tragedy, as their loyalties conflict and they are ultimately and unwillingly forced to choose.

I love all three of the main characters, and many of the side characters too. Jehane is particularly awesome, especially the fact that she’s not just a serious female physician with dignity to stand upon. She’s also funny, daring, sexual, warm… and self-controlled to her own detriment. Then there’s Ammar, who loves his country despite his faults, who will not abandon his people despite everything — and who also finds room to love those outside his experience. And Rodrigo, so faithful to his wife, to his king…

And then, of course, there are characters like Miranda, and her determined defence of her home and family — and of her right not to be jerked around by her spouse, who honestly better watch himself.

And then… As my wife just said: “Imagine the most loving meat-grinder, and then put all your emotions into it.” That’s pretty much this book.

It’s beautiful and painful and if you get emotionally involved with it, you will be ripped to shreds. And you’ll like it. Sort of.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Collapsing Empire

Posted 17 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Collapsing Empire by John ScalziThe Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

I originally received this to review, but then I also grabbed it the minute I saw it in the shop. I’m pretty busy at the moment with ridiculous amounts of class work, which seemed like the perfect time to read something by John Scalzi. His work is pretty much universally compelling, readable and fun — often with a great deal of humour as well. The Collapsing Empire delivered more or less what I expected: I could have done with less of Lady Kiva and her foul mouth and more of Cardenia and Naffa. Or indeed, Cardenia and Marce, when he reaches her; that’s a relationship I’m going to be happy to cheer on in future books, in whatever form it takes.

(Kiva herself is fun, all the same, particularly in her indiscriminate approach to sleeping with whoever she can. Hurrah for a female character who can do that with such abandon, and a world which accepts that. Too many people port over all our society’s hangups to a world removed from ours by vast distances or even dimensions. Scalzi dispenses with that. Good.)

The set up of the Interdependency works well, though the fact that it’s a scam is obvious from the beginning — at least to a sceptical-minded Leftist like me who distrusts Empire and anything that looks like it, just on principle. I don’t know how the science holds up, if it does at all, since relativity and quantum physics all sound like wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey to me — but in-universe, it held together and seemed convincing, which is what matters. (To me, anyway, and when it comes to physics. If you fudge biology, you might lose me, admittedly.)

It’s a quick and enjoyable read; I’ll be interested to read more. Just what I wanted from a Scalzi novel.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – In Calabria

Posted 16 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of In Calabria by Peter S. BeagleIn 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…

Rating: 4/5

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