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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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 16 May, 2017 by Nikki in General / 20 Comments

This week is an [International] Mother’s Day freebie. Now the UK Mother’s Day was quite a while ago, but never mind. The thing with me and my mum is that we’ve always shared books, ever since I finally learnt to read — I went from children’s books to her shelves within a year or two. Rare is the letter or conversation that doesn’t involve books somehow, so here are ten books I’d like my mother to read already.

Cover of My Real Children by Jo Walton Cover of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett Cover of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan Cover of Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang Cover of Behind the Shock Machine by Gina Perry

  1. My Real Children, by Jo Walton. You might cry, Mum, sorry. Motherhood is quite important in this one, and it also handles dementia and how it effects families.
  2. City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett. I’m sorry I took my copy back; I’ll get you the ebook or something. It’s a great series, and it’s finished now, too!
  3. A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan. I think you’d enjoy this Victorian pastiche. It’s not as heavy-going as something like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the lead character is a lot of fun. Plus, dragons!
  4. Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang. Mostly for ‘Stories of Your Life’, which the movie Arrival was based on. (I think you’d like the movie, too.) Warning, this will almost definitely make you cry, knowing you.
  5. Behind the Shock Machine, by Gina Perry. I’ve bought you this, so you have no excuse! It’s a fascinating exploration of Stanley Milgram’s experiments and conclusions, and very relevant to about two dozen conversations we’ve had in the last few years.
  6. Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Mostly to find out if you do enjoy it. I’ve been on the fence for years about whether you will. I think it’s very clever and very funny.
  7. The Carpet Makers, by Andreas Eschbach. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this one to you, but it’s a fascinating set of linked short stories. I have a copy, but I’m not sure if Lisa will let me lend it to you indefinitely. Maybe I’ll get you a copy.
  8. Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. Rereading it recently, I enjoyed it a lot. People have emphasised the gender aspects of it, but there’s also a fascinating story about AI and individuality.
  9. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. I haven’t got round to reading it either, but we really should.
  10. Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay. We have the same opinions on most of his books, so you can tell me if I should be shuffling this to the front of my list instead of letting it languish!

Cover of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett Cover of The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach Cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie Cover of The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin Cover of Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

And for those who are not my mother, well, those are all good books anyway.

I love the kind of mother-child relationship I have with my mother, where we can discuss books and psychology experiments and space opera and the accuracy of portrayals of mental illness in books, and just about everything else under the sun. She always treated me as an adult in terms of my formed opinions, and that has undoubtedly enriched our relationship and conversation options greatly. I can recommend it as a mode of parenting pretty unreservedly.

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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


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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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 13 May, 2017 by Nikki in General / 18 Comments

A good week! But deadline crunch time is approaching…

Books bought

Cover of Saga volume 7 Cover of Ruined by Amy Tintera

I forgot to include Saga a couple of weeks back — my wife bought me it on a whim. Yay wives! And I bought Ruined when it finally came in at Fnac, after Cait @ Paper Fury‘s review aaaages ago.

Received to review

Cover of The Beautiful Ones by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia Cover of An Oath of Dogs by Wendy Wagner Cover of Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill Cover of Dark Exodus by Thomas E. Sniegoski

A nice haul, though apparently Dark Exodus is a sequel, so I need to get on with reading the first book.

Books finished this week:

Cover of Dangerous Women ed. G.R.R. Martin Cover of Reinventing Darwin by Niles Eldredge Cover of Herding Hemingway's Cats by Kat Arney Cover of The Pinks by Chris Enss

Cover of Killing Gravity by Corey J. White Cover of All Systems Red by Martha Wells Cover of The Builders by Daniel Polansky

Four stars to: Herding Hemingway’s Cats, The Pinks, Killing Gravity, All Systems Red and The Builders.
Three stars to: Reinventing Darwin.
Two stars to: Dangerous Women (Part III).

Reviews posted this week:

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. This was the kind of reread that makes you appreciate a book even more. I enjoyed it the first time, but this time I was less distracted by the gender stuff and more focused on the story — which is darn good. 5/5 stars
Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente. I didn’t expect to love this. I find Valente’s writing beautiful, but opaque. But for some reason, this grabbed hold of me — and kept a firm grip to the end. 4/5 stars
Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Fascinating account of octopuses, part scientific, part philosophical. 4/5 stars
The Bone Palace, by Amanda Downum. A stronger book than the first one, partly because it contains a character I can’t help but adore. Savedra steals this book entirely; the more time the narrative spent with her, the happier I was. 4/5 stars
Virolution, by Frank Ryan. Could use being a lot more tightly focused. Most of it doesn’t seem directly connected to viruses at all. Interesting stuff about symbiosis and epigenetics, though. 3/5 stars
Dangerous Women: Part I, ed. Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin. Some entertaining stories, but honestly, I found it remarkably weak for an anthology edited by such big names. 3/5 stars
Reinventing Darwin, by Niles Eldredge. Apart from some stylistic tics that drove me round the bed — “we naturalists” would have received some serious red pen from me — I don’t disagree with the scientific theories presented here. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

Top Ten Tuesday: Gimme More… A bunch of things I’d like to see more of in fiction.
What are you reading “Wednesday”. The weekly update. On “Wednesday”, also known as Thursday.

How’s everyone? Any exciting new books on your stacks?

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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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What are you reading “Wednesday”

Posted 11 May, 2017 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

Shush, it’s Wednesday. Totally.

What have you recently finished reading?

Cover of Killing Gravity by Corey J. WhiteI finished Killing Gravity, by Corey J. White last night. It’s basically if River Tam was a lot more active about chasing down the people who messed with her brain, and a bit more sane. I love the idea of voidwitchery. I do wish it hadn’t ended there, though; I want Mookie to be safe!

What are you currently reading?

Cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie BrennanWithin the Sanctuary of Wings! I’m sort of pacing myself with it, because I don’t want it to be over. Also, I got to a certain bit in the middle and just… yelped and immediately laid hands on copies for my wife to read. Like, nowNow. Why isn’t she reading them???

What will you read next?

I don’t know. I’m thinking maybe Martha Wells’ novella, All Systems Red. I wanted to read Sean Stewart’s Passion Play, but the Kindle version from Netgalley is just a mess, missing all kinds of punctuation and the middles of some words. Whaa.

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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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