Review – The Midnight Side

Posted 26 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Midnight Side by Natasha MostertThe Midnight Side, Natasha Mostert

The Midnight Side is an interesting enough slightly supernatural thriller, but I didn’t find it exceptional. Alette sounded like the sort of person you wouldn’t want to know from the very start, to me, so I was wary of her from the beginning — I didn’t buy into the whole plot of revenge from beyond the grave because I didn’t buy into Alette and her story.

The writer isn’t a bad writer, and the plot moves along at a fair pace, but I wasn’t entranced by the characters and I really didn’t think Isa was being very sensible. The twists didn’t really surprise me, in the end, because I was expecting something like that from the whole set up and structure.

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Review – Grimm Fairy Tales: Oz

Posted 26 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of graphic novel OzGrimm Fairy Tales: Oz, Joe Brusha

Definitely not a fan of this one. I gather it’s part of a wider ‘verse of stories, which might have helped my opinion of it, but I wasn’t enchanted by the rewrite of Oz (though I’m not a big fan of Oz to begin with either, so maybe my reaction is somewhat to be expected).

I’m not a great fan of the art: the faces never seem to stay quite the same, and while scantily clad women are a common problem in comics, that doesn’t make it any less wearing. I mean, what the hell is Dorothy supposed to be wearing? How does she get a bra on invisibly under that get up? Etc.

So yeah, thanks for the Netgalley access, but in general, no thanks.

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Review – Journey into Mystery: Stronger than Monsters

Posted 26 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Journey into Mystery by Kathryn ImmonenJourney into Mystery featuring Sif: Stronger than Monsters, Kathryn Immonen, Valerio Schiti

I liked this quite a bit. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen Sif’s character explored anywhere else in Marvel-verse, whether it be the comics or MCU, but I was just glad to see her front and centre. I liked the art, and I liked the tie-in to known Norse mythology (the concept of berserkers). Other stuff, I think I’d have picked up on more if I was used to the version of Asgardian mythology created by Marvel, but it still worked pretty well.

I think some people talking about her just being bloodthirsty and so on missed all the points where she held back the other Berserkers and forced them to behave fairly. So the spell gives her “licence” — but she fights that even before she knows anything about it.

I did like the bits with Heimdall, too. Also nice to see Asgard with barely a trace of Thor. (I like Thor, but he steals the show.)

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Review – The Biggest Bangs

Posted 25 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Biggest Bangs by Jonathan KatzThe Biggest Bangs, Jonathan I. Katz

This is supposed to be written for a layman, or so the introduction says, but it pretty much made my eyes cross with the technical stuff. I mean, I can follow the explanation of how gamma rays free electrons which then cause damage to neighbouring atoms, and then the energy of all this and the ‘healing’ atoms makes the other element glow with heat, but I have a limited amount of tolerance for pages on pages explaining the difficulty in getting a direction for the gamma ray bursts from that.

Just, generally, too much information for me. I suspect that someone more interested in astrophysics would enjoy it more, but mine is a casual interest. I’m most interested in gamma rays when Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are studying them to locate an object of immense power in the hands of most emphatically the wrong person.

(Or if there was a description of the effect of gamma rays on DNA. That too would’ve got my attention as surely as a giant green ragemonster.)

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Review – An Introduction to English Poetry

Posted 24 March, 2014 by Nikki in Academic, Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of An Introduction to English Poetry by James FentonAn Introduction to English Poetry, James Fenton

This is a very clear introduction to the formal aspects of poetry, but it also serves as a reintroduction for someone who has an English Lit degree but never got very interested in the technical aspects of poetry.

We disagree on quite a few things — his characterisation of Anglo-Saxon poetry as “not English” (because of course, it is quintessentially English: the Anglo-Saxons became the English), for example, and his doubtfulness about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (there are dialect words in Sir Gawain which survive still: just because Chaucer’s Middle English is closer to what became universal doesn’t mean Sir Gawain is irrelevant). Also his relative dismissiveness of tight forms like the villanelle: he rightly praises one of the most famous, Dylan Thomas’, but is otherwise fairly unimpressed by it. I love villanelles, and I think more people have “done them right” than he suggests.

Still, with short, easy-to-digest chapters, clear explanations, and a helpful glossary, not to mention the addition of his thoughts as a practitioner of the craft, this is an interesting and informative introduction to a cross-section of English poetry.

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Review – Survivors

Posted 23 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Survivors by Richard ForteySurvivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind,
Richard Fortey

I enjoyed this enough that I’ve reserved the other books by Richard Fortey that my local library has. He has a somewhat rambling style, though, which might not be to your taste. I enjoyed the ride, in general; in terms of the science, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, concept-wise, but some of the animals and habitats Fortey described were new to me.

It was quite personal to him, in a way, covering stuff he’s particularly interested in and documenting his travels to find these creatures (to the extent of talking about sipping gin and tonic from a plastic cup while sat on the balcony of the inn at Yellowstone). That might be less than interesting to some, but I did quite like knowing about the wider habitats surrounding these creatures, and the human context that they’re so often really close to, maybe even endangered by.

The inserts with colour photos are nice: words generally work better for me than pictures, so I wasn’t that interested, but it does give you a glance at some of the stranger, more anciently derived creatures of our planet.

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 22 March, 2014 by Nikki in General / 28 Comments

The fun thing about Saturdays: doing my Stacking the Shelves post (hosted, as usual, by Tynga’s Reviews)! This week has been quite busy, though mostly because of library books. Because I don’t have a mountain of ARCs or a TBR list longer than my entire body…

Freebies

Cover of Prospero's Children by Jan Siegel Cover of Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest

Bought

Cover of The King in the North by Max Adams

Gifted (from the lovely Lynn O’Connacht!)

Cover of Orion's Kiss by Becca Lusher

Netgalley

 Cover of graphic novel Oz Cover of Adaptation by Malinda Lo Cover of Marketing the Moon by David Meerman Scott, Richard Jurek, Eugene A. Cernan Cover of Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Library (ebooks)

Cover of Blondel's Song by David Boyle Cover of The Universe: A Biography by John Gribbin Cover of a biography of Beatrix Potter Cover of The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies Cover of An Introduction to English Poetry by James Fenton Cover of The Biggest Bangs by Jonathan Katz

Library books

Cover of Virginia Woolf by James King Cover of I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan Cover of Knight's Fee by Rosemary Sutcliff Cover of The Silver Bough by Lisa TuttleCover of The Story of God by Robert Winston Cover of The Tribes of Britain by David Miles  Cover of Survivors by Richard Fortey Cover of Gulp by Mary Roach

Cover of Spillover by David Quamnem Cover of Journey into Mystery by Kathryn Immonen

Comics (issues)

Cover of Ms Marvel issue #2

So I don’t even know where to start with what I’m excited about here. It’s my typical really really random selection. I’ll probably read the graphic novels soon — I’m partway through the Oz one, though it’s making my eyes roll out of my head, and the Sif one is pretty short and Sif is pretty awesome, so. Other than that, I’m in a science type of mood, so Spillover or The Eerie Silence are probably up next. Or I might go for Knight’s Fee because it’s a Rosemary Sutcliff book I haven’t read and those’re getting pretty rare. Oh, and I already read Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song. It’s amazing.

What’s everyone else been up to? Anything you’re excited about this week?

Oh, and a few I keep forgetting to add that I was sent a month or so ago!

Cover of The Iron Hunt by Marjorie M. Liu Cover of Darkness Calls by Marjorie M. Liu Cover of A Wild Light by Marjorie M. Liu Cover of The Mortal Bone by Marjorie M. Liu

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What I read

Posted 20 March, 2014 by Nikki in General / 5 Comments

So one thing I was asked to write about here a while ago, and something which I think confuses publishers who look at my reviews, is the sheer spread of stuff I read. Crime, fantasy, hard SF, YA of all stripes, comic books, serious graphic novels, literature, non-fiction science, history… I’m currently reading Survivors: The Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind (Richard Fortey) alongside Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell), Tam Lin (Pamela Dean) and The Wizard’s Promise (Cassandra Rose Clarke), for example.

(A related question would be how I keep all these books I’m reading concurrently separate and fresh in my mind. I can only say, uh, practice? Necessity?)

It basically runs in my family. We’re all a bit “grass-hopper minded”, jumping to new interests all the time. We all have some unexpected hobbies and interests — my dad, who now only reads non-fiction, once shocked me profoundly by admitting he’d read all the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters and thought they were “quite good”; my grandmother did her A Levels at the same time as her daughters and has dabbled in just about every craft I can think of; my mother’s a doctor and a passionate lover of both Tolkien and the seemingly endless stream of academic stuff I had to write about topics from Sir Gawain to Tennyson (which is almost the most modern I ever got, apart from some Arthurian literature and Welsh writing, which tend to come from fairly deep roots anyway). My sister’s in medical sciences, but I’ve caught her reading about sparkly vampires.

So it might look, Dear Publisher Considering Me For An ARC, like I’m only interested in reading a ton of books about biology, and it makes no sense that I’m requesting your upcoming cheesy space opera. Or that I’m not likely to be interested in fantasy when I’m reading books about astronomy and archaeology and the latest in the field of genetics. Or one week I might be catching up on my stack of comics, and then it’ll be all Captain Marvel all the time — not the reader you’d expect to be interested in your non-fiction book about potential life outside the solar system.

Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a polymath, but I’m here with my MA in English Literature, pondering either a PhD in literature or a switch to genetics or medicine. (And people who know me can tell you, it’s still very much up in the air with me, no matter what you’d think with me having gone as far as completing my Master’s degree.) Trust me, if I’ve requested your book, I’m interested.

So, yeah, in summary? I’m just interested in everything. Bring it on. I want to learn, but I also want to be entertained; I read like I breathe (that’s why I’m the Bibliophibian) and I never, ever go anywhere without a book. Preferably two or three.

Now will someone please rec me a good non-fiction book on dinosaurs that isn’t an encyclopedia? Actually, fiction works too. Just, dinosaurs. Please?

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 20 March, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

What did you recently finish reading?
Fiction-wise, it was Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge, which I loved to bits. If I had to come up with an immediate comparison, I guess Franny Billingsley’s Chime comes to mind — some similar ways of dealing with human/Other interaction, plus flawed families that feel real.

Non-fiction-wise, it was How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom, which, well, I love my science so his very clear, very accessible, very basic style disappointed me a little.

What are you currently reading?
Many things, as usual. Two ARCs have reached the top of my not terribly orderly pile: The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke, and Natasha Mostert’s The Midnight Side. Because of the very nature of the twists I’ve been promised in the latter, I think I’ve figured out the story and I’m not desperately impressed, but will finish it. Don’t know if I’ll review the other two books I was approved for by her, though. The Wizard’s Promise is so far fun, though I think I like the protagonists of The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish better.

Next down on the pile (if you think of it in terms of archaeology, with strata, you wouldn’t be far wrong) is Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. I’m not head over heels in love with it, but I recognise Cath’s fannishness and also her social awkwardness, and I think I might end up liking it. Although one review I read pointed out the chronic boundary pushing going on around Cath, and now I can’t stop seeing it. It’s really setting my teeth on edge.

Still reading Tam Lin, The Thirteenth Tale, Retribution Falls, etc, etc.

What do you think you’ll read next?
It’s been pretty well established that I don’t have a clue. But I’m looking thoughtfully at the book I got from the library on zoonotic diseases, and I’m thinking of finally getting to Maus and Persepolis, to prove that I r serious graphic novels reader, as well as a fan of superhero comics.

Although I did also get a Marvel Now Journey into Mystery: Featuring Sif TPB, so there’s plenty of the latter due to go on, too. I should finish reading Dark Reign: Young Avengers, too.

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Interview with Eva Stachniak

Posted 19 March, 2014 by Nikki in Interviews / 0 Comments

This has been in the works a while, so I’m really glad to note that today I have the Canadian writer Eva Stachniak here, doing an interview and promoting her new book, Empress of the Night, which is historical fiction based around the figure of Catherine the Great. That’s coming out in the UK on 25th March with Traverse Press. More info here! Eva is a new author to me, and I’m interested to dig into her portrayal of Catherine the Great; I hope you guys enjoy her interview here. So, here goes —

Hello, Eva. Thank you for agreeing to do a little interview with me! I’m sorry if these end up being questions you’ve been asked a dozen times before, but I’m new to your work, and so are most people who normally read my blog. Now, I think everything you’ve written is historical fiction, right? How do you choose the setting? Are these periods/places/people you’ve always wanted to write about, or have you come across them while researching and had anyone capture your imagination?

Author photo: Eva StachniakMy first novel was more contemporary than historical, but, yes, I mostly write historical fiction.

How do I choose what I write about? Each book follows its own path, although there are some similarities. I’m drawn to women characters, especially strong, immigrant women, because their experience speaks to me on a personal level. It may be hard to see Catherine the Great as an immigrant, but when she arrived in Moscow at fourteen, she was a minor German princess, and it took her many years to assimilate and become as Russian as she could possibly be. Sophie Potocka, from my novel Dancing With Kings, was a Greek peasant girl who showed up in 18th century Poland, married one of richest Polish aristocrats, and never looked back. Both Catherine and Sophie are, of course, historical figures. My fictional characters are also uprooted and transplanted into new worlds. Varvara from The Winter Palace, Anna from Necessary Lies.

I know you were born in Poland, and from the summaries and interviews I have looked at, it seems like most of your work is connected to Poland. That’s a country and history I don’t know much about. Do you hope that through your novels you can interest people in and teach people about your background? Or is that just a side effect of writing about something deeply significant to you?

I was born and raised in Poland, behind what was known as the Iron Curtain. The stories I heard in my childhood and adolescence come from there. I’m drawn to them because they are deeply significant to me and—I believe—universal in their appeal. I don’t want to teach—I don’t think novels should teach anything— but I want to share stories that had sustained me, stories that are part of our wider, European heritage.

The Polish borders shifted many times in the course of history,  from east of the Oder River to present day-Ukraine. I was born in Wrocław, which until the end of WWII was German Breslau. Catherine the Great was born in Stettin which is now Polish Szczecin. My paternal grandfather was drafted into Russian Imperial Army, my ancestors were subjects of Catherine the Great.  Thus a Polish story becomes also Russian or German. I believe that there are no Polish stories without a significant European connection of some kind.

This is why I probe them, explore their meanings.

I’ve actually done a course or two on historical fiction, because it’s a topic that really interests me, and I don’t think my professors or fellow students would forgive me if I didn’t ask about this — what sort of sources do you use? Have you come across anything particularly interesting in the process?

I’m a lapsed academic, so I find the research part of writing addictive and very rewarding. For my 18th century novels I read memoirs and letters by all my major characters. I also read their biographies, not just the recent ones, but those penned in the previous centuries. Sometimes research done for one novel, carries on to the next. When I was writing Dancing With Kings where two of the characters are surgeons, I immersed myself  in the memoirs of 18th century doctors and researched 18th century medicine—a lot of which I could use in portraying Catherine the Great’s Scottish doctor in Empress of the Night.

One of my most favourite sources for details of the 18th century Russian life were The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot.  The Wilmot sisters were protégées and house guests of Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, a close though estranged friend of Catherine the Great.  Newly arrived from Ireland, curious and willing to learn as much as they could, the two adventurous ladies described what they saw and experienced at a Russian country estate. Their journals and letters offer a wealth of details, a treasure-trove for a writer.

So really you’re here to talk about your new book, Empress of the Night. It’s being promoted as a “follow-up novel” to The Winter Palace. Did you know you were going to write it when you wrote The Winter Palace? Or did you finish that book and find that you still had things you wanted to say about Catherine the Great?

Cover of Empress of the Night, by Eva StachniakIt was always a two book project; I found Catherine too complex to do her justice in one novel.

The idea was to show Catherine from two distinct vantage points, external and internal. Thus The Winter Palace tells Catherine’s story through the point of view of a close confidante, while Empress of the Night lets Catherine herself take centre stage. The Winter Palace concentrates on the younger Catherine, a woman who is reaching for power, while Empress of the Night focuses on Catherine at the end of her life, reflecting on a life she had. I see the two novels as bookends, with historical Catherine the Great in the middle, works of fiction illuminating history, offering readers not just the facts of Catherine’s life but the experience of them.

Obviously Catherine the Great was an amazing woman (whether people like her or not), and under her rule Russia became very strong. But do you like her? What drew you to write about her?

I do like her, although I do not approve of many of her choices or political decisions, and I like her less at certain periods of her life.

I’m drawn to her energy, her dedication to what she considered her job, her sense of purpose, the breadth of her interests and passions. She was a very modern manager, excellent at motivating those who worked for her, using their potential to the fullest. I often say it, jokingly, that I wish she had been elected the Queen in Poland. With a monarch like her, the 18th century Poland would have fared much better.

The problem with historical fiction for some people, particularly when it involves public figures whose lives are well known, is that we know how it ends. Did you find that a problem in writing this, or didn’t it matter for what you wanted to do?

It didn’t really matter. Tension and suspense can be created in other ways.UK cover of Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak

Unless a historical novel tells a story of a fictional character, we cannot help knowing how things turned out in the end, who will live and who will die, why and how. Readers of historical fictions are like the spectators at a Greek tragedy who knew their myths very well and yet they flocked to the theatre for yet another rendering of the story of Oedipus or Antigone or the Trojan war.

For a writer, this means that how things happened must take precedence over how they ended. A historical novel must create suspense from what is still a mystery:  the character’s emotions and motivations that were driving their decisions.

Where do you want to go now with your writing? Are all the stories you feel you have to tell from the same setting/time period, or are you planning to go somewhere else? Do you even know — are you just going to see what strikes you?

I’m now working on a novel set among Russian exiles before WWII. It is not exactly a continuation of my Catherine the Great novels, but it takes place during the final unravelling of Catherine’s empire. In the streets of Paris, Berlin, and London, Catherine’s descendants rub shoulders with Imperial artists, all of them exiles, cast adrift when Russia plunged into the Revolution of 1917.

Beyond that I do not think.  Some story will grab my attention, turn into another novel.

I know people aren’t supposed to pick favourites among their children, but is there a book of yours that you’re particularly proud of, or which is particularly dear to you? Or perhaps a book you’d recommend new readers to begin with?

The book I’m working on is always my favourite, because it is still truly mine. But I would recommend The Winter Palace as a starting point. It is a perfect introduction to Empress of the Night,  showing Catherine the Great in the first two decades of her life, a woman who reaches for what she wants, not yet aware of how much she would have to pay.

Are there any particular writers who have influenced you, who you’d recommend to people who are interested in the kind of books you write?

 To many to mention, but here are a few.

Hilary Mantel is a genius of historical novel writing and I’d recommend Wolf Hall followed by Bring up the Bodies. I also admire Kate Grenville, the Australian author of The Secret River which combines family history with the history of a continent, Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence and Colm Tóibín’s The Master.

One last one: are you a bookworm like me? The name of my blog is “the Bibliophibian”, because it does feel like I’m swimming (though thankfully not drowning) in all the books I have. How’s your TBR pile?

 Growing with each day, sometimes too fast for me to cope. I’m reading biographies of 20th century Russian exiles, dancers, choreographers, writers, painters, and tricksters of various shapes. I’m reading Memoirs of Bronislava Nijinska, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, and memoirs of Felix Yusupov, one of the murderers of Rasputin. Biographies of Sergiey Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova await me, and a marvellous history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels.

And then, when I need a break from this rather focused TBR pile, I’ll start reading Deborah Swift’s  The Lady’s Slipper.

Wow. I wish I had that focus!

Thanks for answering all my questions, Eva. For those who’re interested in her work now, her books are available as ebooks and it looks like once Empress of the Night (link to goodreads page) is officially out on March 25th, all of them will be available in the UK — at least on Kindle, and of course, apart from Empress of the Night, as hard copies as well. Now to restrain myself from buying The Winter Palace

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