A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Jerry Brotton
I was fascinated by the idea of this: of course maps are a huge part of how we understand our world, and the way we format our maps is a big giveaway to the way we feel about the world. A map covered in clearly-marked borders marks separations and national boundaries; different maps with disputed borders show areas of conflict. Maps can reveal belonging and isolation and the limits of the human imagination.
Unfortunately, Brotton’s writing is really dry, from my perspective, and I wasn’t always convinced about his choice of maps. Or rather, he would pick maps and then talk about almost everything but the map: the context the map came from, yes, the politics of those that made it, yes. But the map itself, less so. Now, context is a great thing — hello, I was pretty much exclusively a new historicist as a literature postgrad — but I wanted more about the maps. More images would probably have helped, too.
If you’re more interested in the history of cartography and geography than I am, this is probably a great book. It just didn’t quite take the angle I was looking for.
Happy Saturday! Not that it’s the end of the work week for me. Big project to be doing, which means a surprising amount of money and hopefully a correspondingly large number of books. Also, class.
But still, I managed quite a bit of reading this week!
Received to review
Hee! I need to reread The Dragonbone Chair, stat — I’ve been meaning to for a while anyway, but now this is extra motivation. I’m not sure if The Heart of What Was Lost stands alone, but it sounds like it comes after the series?
It’s fine, Mum, it cost £1.49, and besides, it’s always a good thing for me to read about things that scare me. Knowledge is power, etc.
Finished reading this week:
Not a bad week, as you see! And five of them were ARCs. Hurrah me. And the ratings sneak peek:
4 stars… p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code, Final Girls and Passing Strange.
3 stars… Proust and the Squid and Birthright.
2 stars… Martians Abroad, Binti: Home and Maisie Dobbs.
Reviews posted this week:
–Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas. A reread, which I once again found solidly enjoyable. I don’t expect great literary merit from Maas, just a fun time, which maybe helps. 3/5 stars
–The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. A lovely space opera adventure, full of characters you get to know and love. Just one criticism: the vaguely episodic feel to each of the events. Everything feels like it gets wrapped up very quickly, with only the bare bones of a larger plot. 4/5 stars
–Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew, by John Pickrell. Very enjoyable, and not always just for the dinosaurs but also for the people — almost characters — caught up in their story. 4/5 stars
–The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I still love this, but my review this time poked at some of the flaws. 5/5 stars
–The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker. If you’ve encountered academic technobabble, and particularly if you’re allergic to it, this makes a good antidote. 4/5 stars
–Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds. More of a memoir than I’d thought going in. Some interesting stuff, but… meh. 2/5 stars
–Strangers in Company, by Jane Aiken Hodge. Mystery, politics and romance, in the vein of a Mary Stewart novel. Fun, though not mindblowing. 3/5 stars
–Top Ten Tuesday: Graphic Novels. A rundown of my favourites!
–What are you reading Wednesday. Another update from my neverending assault on Mount TBR.
Strangers in Company, Jane Aiken Hodge
Received to review via Netgalley
Very much in the vein of Mary Stewart’s work, and possibly Heyer’s more adventure-driven romances, Strangers in Company takes two women and throws them into a perilous situation. They become involved with local politics and have issues with local people, and of course, their bravery and resourcefulness — or that of their friends — sorts everything out in the end. And there’s a spot of romance, too, to leaven the mystery and politics.
Marian isn’t the most vivid character of the type, though she does have a well thought out background: a short-lived marriage to a pop idol, twin children who have left her to be supported him, and a raft of resulting anxieties. All of that makes sense for her character, and motivates her throughout the book — or rather, causes her to be the fairly colourless, passive creature she is. Stella is a little more vivid, with strange sulks and mood swings. Overall, there’s enough characterisation to make it a little group of people you can care about for the purposes of the story, although they don’t stick in the mind.
The landscapes and atmospherics aren’t as well done as Mary Stewart’s typical wont; I felt much less a part of the events and the landscape, though the story is intriguingly tied into the landscape and its history. Overall, it’s enjoyable without being a sudden favourite; more of a potboiler than a solid, memorable story. And such things have their place.
Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: A Book Lover Bridges the Digital Divide, Merilyn Simonds
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 11th April 2017
This is more of a personal memoir than I expected, somehow; with a title that references the digital divide (a common term for the social problems arising from the rich having computer access and the poorer being denied opportunities because they don’t) and Gutenberg, I expected something else. Instead I got something meditative, which deals with book creation and paper-making from a very personal perspective. And, it turns out, Simonds isn’t talking about the same digital divide I was thinking about — it just means the gap between print and digital, and digital books being here to stay now.
So not the book I was hoping for, but it’s not a bad meditation on books and paper and making things. The prose is evocative and the musing interesting, just… much more personally focused than I expected from a book with this in the blurb: “Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?”
Oh, and if you’re interested in the history of the book, Keith Houston’s The Book might be more what you’re looking for.
Look! Look! I remembered!
What have you recently finished reading?
I had a blitz on some of my review copies. The mooost recent book was Birthright, by Missouri Vaun. Fun fantasy with a lesbian relationship at the heart; it’s not a particularly surprising or new story in terms of the tropes, but it’s fun.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve finally dug into my ARC of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion. I normally prefer her non-fiction to her fiction, but I still think she comes up with some amazing worlds. I’m not very far into it, though.
What are you planning to read next?
Probably A Closed and Common Orbit, or Maisie Dobbs, since they’re both book club choices on Habitica this month. Very different books, heh. I’m hopeful about both of them!
The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker
Perhaps a book on how to write by a scientist who studies neurology and linguistics and how they interact seems odd, but it’s right up Pinker’s street. He loves to think about language and the way it evolved, and what is natural for our brains when it comes to language. While he does go into the rules of grammar and the parts of speech and all of that, he tempers it with an understanding of why we make the kinds of mistakes we do, and when it might be time to let go and surrender to the fact that we just don’t think the way grammar prescriptivists would like.
His style is, fortunately, readable and engaging, though I did begin to tune out when it got very technical, or when there were a lot of tables presenting all kinds of information. I’ve never learnt to diagram a sentence, being part of that denigrated lot who didn’t get taught grammar in school. Instead, I rely on… well, a sense of style. A gut feeling that something is right or wrong. It usually doesn’t steer me wrong; where it might trip me up is in more formal writing, and cases that don’t often come up — like remembering how exactly to apply who vs. whom.
I enjoyed the parts of this which touched specifically on academic writing, and the kind of nonsense academics can sometimes produce in their attempts to elevate their subject of study and get funding. It’s why a lot of literary theory is utterly impenetrable to me, for example. On the other hand, I can see that if I applied some of Pinker’s ideas to the style of my undergrad science essays, I’d get very low marks. Sometimes you just have to bow to the academicese.
The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
And so another reread came to an end — somewhat painfully. The first half of The Return of the King is just as epic and well-written as the rest. Aragorn shows his nobility and saves the day, epic battles are fought, the hobbits surprise themselves with their own valour, and the creeping dread of the Nazgul can be felt by characters and reader alike. The battles and the nobility of all the characters are clear, there’s tension and excitement, and some truly vivid images — like Denethor’s hands, holding the palantir, withering in flame.
Even the start of the second part works well: Sam and Frodo practically crawling through Mordor. The despair and the trudging and the dirt and defilement are as vivid as anything written before.
Even their triumph works reasonably well. But it’s as though Tolkien just didn’t know how to end the book. It ends on the Field of Cormallen, then again in Gondor. Then again at Orthanc, and Rivendell, and in Bree, and again in the Shire, and then yet again at the Grey Havens. Each scene makes sense, but it feels like it’s wrapping up… and then it’s as if Tolkien takes a deep breath and plunges on.
It feels a little untidy, even while it ties up all the loose ends. And when you get to the Scouring of the Shire, you just want to yell at him to give Frodo a break already. Thematically, it makes sense. It’s been hinted at from the beginning, and the plot is ready for it. But I don’t feel like the story is. It just doesn’t draw to a close gracefully. ‘And then another thing. And another thing.’ Like being told an anecdote that never seems to end.
I do love The Lord of the Rings passionately, in spite of all its faults… But I skimmed the Scouring of the Shire, this time round.
This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday is graphic novels. I’m not positive I have ten, but then, I have read quite a few comics, so one hopes I do. Here goes!
- The Wicked + The Divine, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. The art is gorgeous, and I’m intrigued by the story as well.
- Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Again, gorgeous art along with a story I’m hooked on, and it’s quite often hilarious.
- Ms Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, etc. I’m not going to pick a specific volume — I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything in this run.
- Young Avengers, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. Yeah, pretty much a winning team on everything, though there have been a couple of their comics I didn’t enjoy. Their Young Avengers were perfection, though. And hey, love saved the world! (And it was queer love.)
- Captain Marvel, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, etc. I loved almost all of DeConnick’s run, even when I wasn’t in love with the art. (I did like Dexter Soy’s a lot, for example — I have some of it on a t-shirt — but was less a fan of Emma Rios.) I love Carol with all her faults. Pros: she wants to punch her way through most situations. Cons: she wants to punch her way through most situations.
- Civil War: Iron Man, by Brian M. Bendis, Christos Gage, etc. I don’t like the Civil War event in general, but this volume brought home how the Avengers were torn apart, plus Tony’s genuine regard for (and love of) Steve. I don’t know how anyone read it and was unaffected, though the whole Camelot bit was weird.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier, by Ed Brubaker et al. I think this was a really, really effective comic — and I love the fact that the storyline also went into the MCU.
- Nimona, by Noel Stevenson. Cute, cute, cute, funny… oh wait you just ripped my heart out.
- Red Sonja, by Gail Simone. Pretty much all of her run. I loved that other women got involved in the story, that there was humour, that there were little moments lampshading the sexist background of the character…
- The Movement, by Gail Simone. The second time I read it, I found more flaws, but… I loved that the team were openly politically disparate, queer, disabled, asexual, weird… All the things they turned out to be.
Hurrah for a week where I feel I really participated in the spirit of the TTT prompt! What’s everyone else been putting together?
Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew, John Pickrell
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 7th March 2017
Weird Dinosaurs is a fun and reasonably accessible look at some of the more unusual dinosaurs discovered (or sometimes rediscovered) in recent years. Perhaps they’re not that unusual if you follow dinosaur news — I certainly wasn’t that surprised by some of these — but it is an interesting summary of some of the latest in dinosaur news. Despite what you might think, there are still loads of dinosaurs being discovered, and this book really emphasises the possibilities out there. It’s quite likely we’ve barely scratched the surface. The dinosaurs we’ve found are most likely the really common ones, which would be more likely to be preserved long enough to fossilise. So there’s all kinds of weird wonders out there.
If you’re interested in dinosaurs, I think this is a worthwhile read. It covers dinosaurs with feathers and what kinds of dinosaurs we might expect to find with feathers; habitats where we haven’t always believed dinosaurs could survive, like the Arctic; dinosaurs with unusual morphology which we can’t quite figure out. It’s a good survey for the layperson, though sometimes I felt it got a little bit dry and wandering as it went into background details.
Favourite thing about this book: probably the history of the Transylvanian gay spy baron who nearly became king of Albania. Let’s not forget Franz Nopcsa.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
I picked up The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet after much urging, expecting to read a chapter or two and then find time to do something else. Then I read the whole thing through. People who liken it to Firefly are right (only with more diversity). People who mention the loveable characters and LGBT relationships are also right. People who say it’s a feel-good sci-fi are right. And yeah, people who complain that it’s definitely soft SF are also right: this is about people who happen to be in space, not about people in space, if that makes sense.
It depends what you’re looking for. For me, all of that is exactly my cup of tea. Not that I drink tea. My cup of hot chocolate, perhaps.
Not all the characters are loveable, or faultless: that would be the wrong impression to take from this. Instead, they’re all understandable, and even the alien ones have, well, you can’t call it humanity… but compassion, decency. Sissix and Rosemary’s relationship is just lovely: negotiating around the fact of their differences, while finding common ground. The same goes for Jenks and Lovelace. I love the differences of the aliens, the fact that they do have different sensibilities to the humans. I’d happily read more of the adventures of almost every single character here (long may they fly together).
The only complaint I have about this book is that all the tensions, all the plot entanglements, seem to dissolve very easily. Things turn out more or less how you’d hope, every single time, and with barely time to get worried about it. It reads more like a serial in that sense — a burst of tension to make you read the next installment, with the overall arc being somewhat backgrounded for most of it. It makes things seem a little too easy at times.
All the same, I found it very enjoyable, and I’m eager to pick up A Closed and Common Orbit. Thankfully, I did get it on one of my trips through London, since the bookshop I usually go to in Belgium has no plans to stock or even order it.