A New History of Life, Peter Ward, Joe Kirschvink
“New” is a bit of an overstatement. It develops themes already covered in books like Nick Lane’s Oxygen (not exactly recent) and David Beerling’s The Emerald Planet; the main contribution to my understanding is a bit more depth on how oxygen and carbon dioxide have limited and unlimited life over the course of its development. The back emphasises the authors’ belief in panspermia, specifically in the form that states life on Earth was seeded from Mars, but there’s very little space devoted to that — and exactly zero actual evidence.
It’s mostly a reasonable read, if not at all “new”, but they badly needed some more time with an editor. They have odd repetitions, or places where they don’t define a word until long after its first use (not a problem for me, but possibly difficult for other pop science readers), and at times the grammar is just terrible. Sentences don’t have subjects, or the verb doesn’t agree, or… It’s not so bad that I’d call it a mess, but I was very conscious that they needed a proofreader or three to make their book feel more professional.
There were some interesting things in here, though: for example, a discussion of different types of lungs and breathing systems. I hadn’t seen that discussed before, and it was fascinating. And for dinosaur aficionados, yep, they definitely touch on dinosaurs and why they once ruled the Earth (and why, perhaps, that rule ended as it did).
Life’s Engines, Paul G. Falkowski
This is an accessible book, crystal-clear about all the concepts it discusses. It’s not bad as a revision guide for me, as far as some of my cell bio concepts go; it’d be good for an intelligent layperson. Falkowski writes with assurance, and though there were no surprises here for me, it was still an interesting read.
My only qualm would be that sometimes his choice of words is a little cringy to me. We don’t need “cell stuff”; I’m sure all readers at this level could manage the term “nutrients” or “proteins” or something clearer. Which is funny, given I just said he’s crystal clear — it’s not that the words are confusing, it’s just that they don’t actually make things simpler and easier to understand. They don’t actively obscure, but they do the reader no favours either.
Nonetheless, a book I enjoyed reading.
How Your Brain Works, New Scientist
As ever with the New Scientist books, this is a great introduction to a topic — and in this case, it’s a fairly narrow topic: the brain, and how it works. It’s not just a collection of stuff that’s appeared in the other collections, although I think a few of the info boxes and so on did come from other New Scientist publications originally. It’s also based on one of their Instant Expert courses, a great series of events that I do recommend if they cover a topic you’re interested in.
For me, even without my degree, this was a fairly simplistic view of the brain — “instant expert” isn’t quite what you’d become from reading it, I’d feel. “Instantly more informed and able to understand further information with a good foundation,” perhaps.
Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date was 6th April 2017
Wow. Sylvain Neuvel isn’t messing around. Waking Gods is the follow-up to Sleeping Giants, and it doesn’t pull punches. If you hoped that it’d end with everything being okay, well, certainly not yet. And there’s apparently more to come, if the ending of this book is any indication…
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because it’s worth discovering it yourself. The structure is the same as in the first book, and if that annoyed you previously, then this isn’t going to be any better for you. If you found it simultaneously frustrating and intriguing, then that sensation will also pretty much persist. If you straight-up love it, well, again. The point is, the format hasn’t changed, and it’s roughly the same characters as well. However well those things worked for you in the first book is likely to be repeated.
If Mitchell could just, like, implode or something, I’d be pretty happy, I’ve gotta say.
The solution at the end of this book struck me as a bit convoluted and contrived, because of the constraints on it and the limited time to suddenly figure it out. All the same, hurrah for the character who figured it out making good.
Harrowing the Dragon, Patricia A. McKillip
As you might expect from Patricia McKillip, this is a lovely collection — some of the stories are just beautiful, and her writing always is. ‘The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath’ is a strong point, as you’d expect from the fact that the collection is named after it, and I enjoyed ‘A Matter of Music’, ‘The Stranger’ and ‘Lady of the Skulls’, too.
The lighter, more humorous ones like ‘A Troll and Two Roses’ and ‘Baba Yaga and the Sorcerer’s Son’ are still well written, but the tone doesn’t work for me. Mostly, it just doesn’t fit with the dream-like prose-poetry I expect from McKillip (and which she delivers, even with the lighter stories).
It’s a nice collection, but not a favourite by any means. It’s one of those I’ll keep because I enjoy the way McKillip writes rather than because I particularly want to revisit most of the stories. This sounds like faint praise, but McKillip’s writing really is beautiful.
Instant Expert: Where the Universe Came From, New Scientist
These books are based on the Instant Expert events that New Scientist hosts on various topics. I’ve been to two of them (one on genetics, one on consciousness), and they’re pretty great: pitched at a level most educated people can understand, but delving a bit deeper into some of the latest events and innovations in whatever area of science they cover. They generally have a panel of experts and, honestly, some pretty good food… Anyway, so I was interested to read this one, even without the good food.
Sadly, it’s more relativity than Big Bang; it’s more worried about how to resolve the issues between quantum physics and relativity than about what we do know. That said, it’s pretty accessible and I did follow most of it, which is more than can be said for most attempts to educate me about relativity. However, it does contain repeated material from New Scientist collections and possibly also previous books; how much, I couldn’t say, since I haven’t read those exhaustively.
Sea of Rust, C. Robert Cargill
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 7th September 2017
The cover of this is gorgeous, no question, and the idea sounds pretty cool: post-apocalyptic robot Western, what’s not to love? Unfortunately, I didn’t finish this book, because it’s just too bogged down in tons and tons (and tons) of exposition via info dump. There are whole chapters where the main character, Brittle, does nothing but explain the history of her world. It’s first person narration, so to whom is she telling the story? Why wouldn’t they know?
(I credit, or curse, Lynn O’Connacht with my pickiness about first person narratives, these days. She’s the first one who really made me go, oh, right. Why is this person telling this story anyway, and to whom?)
That gripe and the exposition aside, I was also put off by the fact that at first, the robots were pretty much ungendered. Brittle didn’t seem to have a gender identity, and certainly there was nothing in the story to indicate one way or the other. (At least to a casual reader, and I’m not going back in to check.) Then all of a sudden, 20% of the way through, it turns out that robots do have gender identities, or at least there’s enough there that other robots still bother with gendered pronouns and distinctions between hes and hers.
That’s probably a very personal gripe, and it may not even have crossed the author’s mind — female robot, why not? But I just have to ask why, why would a robot cling to an outdated, human idea of gender in a post-human world?
Maybe that gets addressed later on, but I don’t have the patience to wait for it.
The Loveless Princess, Lilian Bodley
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 3rd May 2017
There was a lot of potential for this to go really wrong, since it features an aromantic and asexual character in a typically heavily romance-is-your-happy-ever-after world. Princess Anette has to get married, and she’s not interested in the idea at all. It’s not the prince in particular: it’s the idea in general. She’s not interested in sex or romance at all; she doesn’t feel a lack of it in her life, she doesn’t even really feel curious about it.
But she has to get married all the same, to the son of Briar Rose, and everyone around her assures her that it’ll happen. She’ll find her happy ending with the prince.
Well, eventually she does, but not in the simple way they expect. Fortunately, she remains true to her stated identity throughout, without wavering; in that sense, the author deals with having an aro-ace character perfectly. And the setting is kind of cool, with various other fairytales popping their heads up to say hello — people are descending from a princess who could feel a pea through a hundred mattresses, witches can make jewels come out of your mouth whenever you speak, and three old spinning women have attended quite some weddings in their time as honoured guests. I liked all those references, and the way the story follows the logic of fairytales.
At times it does feel a little simplistic, but it takes a lot of work and space to build something really solid onto the fairytale base, and perhaps it’s wrong to expect it. The one thing that does feel wrong to me is that the antagonist is also aro-ace, and it motivates him to be a real ass to everyone. I get that bitterness and loneliness can really mess you up, but ugh.
Herding Hemingway’s Cats, Kat Arney
I didn’t expect to get that much out of this, since it explores the subject of genetics — I read a lot about genetics, after all, and have done one or two modules focusing on it. And it’s true that the tone is very light and journalistic, quippy and light and funny, but it also has an extensive section for further reading and covers some fascinating topics I didn’t know about. The section on epigenetics was particularly interesting; I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm for epigenetics, of course, but this was a more measured and conservative interpretation.
It’s the kind of book that left me turning to my wife and saying, “hey, did you know…?” a lot, and looking up things online (like Minoo Rassoulzadegan’s white-gloved mice). There’s a lot of complications and new things coming out about genetics, and this proved to be an excellent survey of that.
The only thing I disliked was the way the interviews were presented — almost like a dialogue in a novel, but without new paragraphs for new speakers. It made it a little difficult to follow, and I’m not all that interested in what kind of shoes the scientist in question was wearing during the interview.
Passion Play, Sean Stewart
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th June 2017
I wasn’t sure where this one was going, but it ended up darker than I expected. I kept waiting for something to happen, and then it got all messed around — saying it got turned on its head wouldn’t quite be true, because it made perfect sense and it was coming all along, but I wasn’t quite expecting that. It’s a powerful story, and that ending has a heck of a sting in the tail.
The whole Christian fundamentalist running the USA thing is, well, kind of close to home with someone like Mike Pence as the VP. But this is mostly not about that world; that’s just the backdrop. It’s about living in that world, and making your way if you happen to be an empath, or ‘shaper’. Diane, the main character, uses her skills to chase down criminals and bring them to justice, but she’s starting to burn out.
I don’t want to say too much about this, because it’s a mystery story and it works very well at getting under the skin, for my money. Definitely worth picking up.