Shanghai Sparrow, Gaie Sebold
With this book, if you’ve read one steampunky book with a plucky young protagonist who goes to spy school, you’ve read them all, including this. It reminded me of Gail Carriger’s work, with less romance and humour. That’s not a bad thing, even though this sounds like damning with faint praise; it’s a fun book, and the crossover with faerie lore is fascinating — steampunk, plus fox spirits and fairy courts who spirit away humans.
It’s reasonably predictable, but it moves along at a pretty good pace, apart from one interlude which delves into the main character’s past and rather stalls the narrative. It’s enjoyable that it’s mostly not about romance, and that one of the main character’s preoccupations is actually — slight spoiler ahead — finding her mother, who she thought was dead. The ending felt a little easy, in that you had the characters all tangled up in spy school and people’s plans and then… suddenly, they just manage to walk free.
I’m not desperate to read the second book, but I had fun. Sometimes, that’s what you need.
Words and Rules, Steven Pinker
If you’ve read The Language Instinct, you don’t really need to read this book. It’s very much the same theory, with perhaps some different examples, maybe a slightly different slant. Reading it, there was nothing new to me, and I think that it isn’t new because it was all covered in The Language Instinct (though it may be some other books have filled in some gaps in my knowledge before this, in the interim).
Pinker’s work is reasonably easy to read and well-illustrated with examples; he’s very convincing in the way he sets forth his ideas, which does make me rather tempted to find someone who disagrees with him equally convincingly and see what I think after that. Any ideas, friends?
How We Live and Why We Die, Lewis Wolpert
The front of the book blurbs this as ‘a layperson’s guide to the world within us’, and that’s exactly what this is: it’s an accessible, easy to read, whistle-stop tour of cells in the human body, and some of the history surrounding how we’ve come to understand them. If you’ve read almost anything else on the topic, there’s probably nothing new here — but if you’re revising for an exam, you could do worse than spending some time with it. Wolpert manages to explain some complex things very cogently: for example, how enzymes work in breaking bonds, changing molecules, etc.
For me, this was a bit too much of a skimming of the surface — this is stuff I know to the point where I don’t even have to look it up anymore. But for someone not that experienced in biology, or trying to refresh their memory, it’d be perfect.
Trial by Fire, Lore Graham
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 31st May 2017
This is a fun superhero novella which is supremely conscious of the need to include more diversity in fiction, and to be socially aware (e.g. of issues like people’s relationship with the police). The main character dates women, her love interest is trans, there are non-binary characters, etc, etc. It’s really refreshing that it didn’t really do a 101 on it, either; ‘here are the pronouns, the narrative is going to use them from here on out’ was the most you get. It’s also refreshingly frank about communication between couples, negotiating trans body issues (or non-issues), figuring out what people like… and even safe sex, as the use of a dental dam shows.
This is not my thing on one level, because I could happily go forever without knowing what genitalia anyone has, and I’m not that interested in reading sex scenes just for the sake of sex — sometimes it can be important to character development or express something interesting or make you re-evaluate the whole relationship between the characters… For example, I’m thinking of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books — a lot of the sex scenes contain plot-important characterisation and even information. And when it comes to some characters/relationships, you’ve been waiting for it so long and it means so much for the characters that you can’t help but pay attention. But I’m not that interested in the mechanics, and I wasn’t invested enough in these characters to be particularly interested in the mere fact of them having fun sex, much as I appreciated the theme of clear communication.
If the fact that the story includes sex is a major nope for you, I can say that I think the scenes would be totally skippable without missing anything important; the rest of the story is fun, although relatively light on plot and heavier on the characters getting to know one another and getting together.
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
Oh dear. Nikki meets modernism, and bounces right off: the sequel. I don’t even get the people who say it’s poetically written, beautiful imagery, etc, etc — I’m just confused by the narration half the time. The introductions by Jeanette Winterson and T.S. Eliot make it sound interesting, and I wanted to get into it since it’s highly spoken of as women’s fiction and queer fiction.
Nope. It’s hard to even keep track of the characters and what they’re doing, for my money.
If you’re a fan of modernism, this is almost certainly worth reading, and a lot better than I make it sound. But sometimes I wonder why I even try to read modernist works: they don’t seem to work for my brain at all. (See also: I don’t get along with Virginia Woolf’s work, other than A Room of One’s Own.) Just as you wouldn’t ask a dentist to help you pick the best horse in the stable, don’t ask me to recommend modernist works…
Alchemy of Fire, Gillian Bradshaw
If you’re looking for thoughtful, well-researched historical fiction, Gillian Bradshaw is a good bet — and she doesn’t always stick to the beaten path, producing stories about Caesars and Cleopatras. Island of Ghosts, for example, surprised me by having a Samartian hero, serving the Roman army in Britain. Not an Italian, not a Brit, but a whole different view I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do before. Her writing reminds me of Rosemary Sutcliff, at times — it scratches the same sort of itch — though her books are more adult.
Alchemy of Fire is set in Constantinople, and follows the fortunes of the owner of a perfume shop. There’s intrigue and politicking, and there’s romance as well, and the story is set against the backdrop of the Arab attacks on Constantinople. It’s the invention of ‘Greek fire’, but it also deals with motherhood and the experience of seeing a child you love grow up, with grief, with falling in love against all sense and without realising, but not in some instantaneous magical way. The emotional journey felt real, and I was rooting for it from the beginning because it didn’t feel as though Anna was somehow destined to marry. It felt like it could have remained friendship, or ended badly, or… anything.
I found it touching and absorbing, even though I wouldn’t call it “unputdownable”. It takes its time, for all that it only comprises 250 pages or so. It didn’t strike me with brilliance like a couple of Bradshaw’s other books, but I enjoyed it.
False Hearts, Laura Lam
I originally received this to review, and then didn’t get round to it, because I suck. So I bought the paperback last week, picked it up to read a page — and looked up 170 pages later. Suffice it to say, it sucked me in and I’m glad I finally read it — and that I have an eARC of Shattered Minds to read. And Lam’s other trilogy, too! Her writing works really well: it’s not stylised and beautiful like, say, Patricia McKillip or Ursula Le Guin, but it’s competent and strong and she brings across the voices of her characters. That makes it both easy to read and absorbing.
The best part about it is that the whole thing relies on the bond between the sisters, Taema and Tila, and Taema’s trust for Tila. The whole drive behind the story is the sisters’ need to protect one another, and that’s what makes solving the mystery and going through all the tension worth it. The thriller aspects in themselves aren’t revolutionary, but coming at it from this angle made it feel fresh and urgent.
I enjoyed the supporting characters, too. It’s a little odd to be reading a book in which people seem to be, on the whole, good. Sure, Mana-ma and the Ratel don’t exactly have people’s best interests at heart, but Nazarin and Kim, Taema and Tila, the other characters they come across — they’re all trying to do the right thing. It’s a nice antidote to the total cynicism of other books I’ve been reading lately, in this genre and others. There are bad things, but there are good people too. And there are good people who get caught up in bad things, and regret it, and remain good people.
The ending of the book feels good; it all unfolds smoothly and stops just at the right point, with Tila and Taema reunited — for good or for bad.
The Ghost Line, Andrew Neil Gray, J.S. Herbison
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 11th July 2017
I didn’t expect to find this so creepy, but wow, it ended up getting under my skin. I thought I’d just start it, see what it was like before bed… and then I read the whole thing. I loved the partnership between the husband and wife team, and the whole idea of a space-liner drifting on an old cruise path just to keep the rights to it. There’s not much explanation for why what happens on the ship occurs, but it’s almost better that way — you don’t understand why anymore than the characters do.
I loved the ending, too. It’d have been easy to give readers an easier, happier way out; to have some kind of compromise be reached. Instead — well, I’d better not say too much. Suffice it to say that it works really well, and though it’s not horror, it definitely has a heck of a creep factor in places.
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.