Brisk Money, Adam Christopher
I’ve gone about things a bit backwards, because I only read Brisk Money after already having read Made to Kill (and Standard Hollywood Depravity, too). So the twist in this tale was one I already knew. It’s still a fun short story; good set up for the later stories, and a good pastiche of Chandler’s general style — if not quite his flair at coining a phrase. It doesn’t take itself too seriously: honestly, all through it you can feel that the author is having fun. It’s Chandler-esque sci-fi, where Chandler called sci-fi fiction crap, and Christopher takes obvious joy in using the noir setting and bending it to take account of a robot detective.
I can’t promise it’ll blow your mind, but if a noir detective robot story appeals, then I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to have fun. It’s well-structured, too, which is also a delight to me in a short story.
Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 11th April 2017
I’m not sure if it’s my reading comprehension or the book at fault, but I did have some trouble understanding the technology and political background to this. There’s stuff which is obvious (overcrowding has forced people into hive-like cities, people want to go to nearby habitable planets) and then there’s the science and the politics of funding the venture and… whatever all that means.
However, on the personal level it worked: Kir’s connection with Margrethe, her difficult relationship with Bill, her half-a-relationship with the computer in her own head, Altair. The hothouse effect of the confined living space felt real, as did the consternation spreading through the group. The ending worked as well, though it felt a little rushed.
Overall, not the most effective of the Tor.com novellas, but that’s a pretty high bar to try and clear. It was entertaining enough to keep me reading.
Ruddy Gore, Kerry Greenwood
I might’ve enjoyed this a bit more the second time than I did the first time, though it’s by no means one of my favourites. It does introduce Lin Chung, but I don’t really enjoy Phryne’s attitude to female characters like Leila Esperance. It’s that slightly bemusing attitude that all actors are the same, and all musicians, even to the extent that all trombonists are a pain in the neck and inclined to murder (see: The Green Mill Murder), and following that attitude, the consequent assumption that all actresses are fluttery and silly and not very smart.
Still, the puzzle comes together well, and it is the book that introduces Lin Chung and all the connections his family will bring. There’s a nice social awareness to the way Lin and Phryne are treated in society, making it more than just wishful thinking — even if Phryne herself is over-the-top liberal. Or perhaps that’s not the term for Phryne, just… “permissive”, maybe.
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham
I know I’ve been reading and reviewing a lot of non-fiction lately, but this is probably one of the more entertaining and accessible of the bunch in style. It’s a convincing idea: what caused humans to be able to evolve such big brains and short digestive tracts, compared to other species? The answer, according to Wrangham: first the ability to hunt and eat raw meat, then control of fire for cooking meat.
It’s a very readable book, making all the science and history easy to follow. For me, it was an enjoyable read, though not exactly revolutionary; I was aware of most of the ideas already, since I’m fascinated by human evolution. It pulls together various different threads of the story, bringing together evidence from different ways of understanding human evolution.
(Oh, but if you don’t believe in evolution, this… will not be the book for you. That’s definitely an assumption of the book.)
Britain BC, Francis Pryor
Having read Francis Pryor’s Seahenge, and of course knowing his work on Channel 4’s Time Team, I was very interested to read this. The prehistory of Britain is mostly not my main period, at least where it applies to the Stone Age, but it is the focus of about half of this book — and of much of Pryor’s interest. That’s fine with me, because though it might not be a period of literature and known culture, it is the period of henges and causewayed enclosures, burial mounds and early humans. It helps that Pryor’s enthusiasm is obvious throughout, and his writing is approachable.
(I can actually understand the people who find it dry — when you’re not that interested in the subject, anything can drag, and Pryor does spend a fair amount of words on flints and the evolution of their form and use. But for me, that enthusiasm carries it.)
His theories and interpretation of the evidence more or less goes along with the other work I’ve read, for example from Mike Parker Pearson, who wrote an excellent book on the conclusions of the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Beyond that, I’m not really qualified to comment, though I do find myself wondering somewhat about his opposition to the idea of any mass migration happening from Europe. The thing is, mass migration must have happened sometime, or there’d be nobody in Britain even now. It’s true that we’re pretty sure now that invasion is the wrong term, and that often the spread of ideas was more important than the spread of people. But there are genetic differences between the Welsh and the English, language doesn’t change as completely as from the Celtic languages to the Anglo-Saxon language without some kind of impetus… I mean, the people in Britain today are not going to adopt French unless there’s suddenly a big need for us to communicate with people speaking French — and that isn’t likely to be talking among ourselves unless there’s a significant presence and intermarriage with French speakers. There’s also the influx of Anglo-Saxon mythology and attitudes; Beowulf is not a native British poem by any means, and there are plenty of parallels between English and Scandinavian languages and culture which don’t exist between the Welsh (for example) and Scandinavia.
So I’m somewhat sceptical about the suggestions in this book that the British have more or less been the same people for such a long period of time. There are definitely things which have survived which point to a closer and less adversarial relationship between the incomers and the residents of Britain, but incomers there must have been.
When it discusses archaeology, it’s probably on safe ground. I’d be less sure when you also need to consider non-physical culture and language.
Deadly Companions, Dorothy H. Crawford
If you’re looking for a book about how human history has been shaped by microbes, and to some extent the evidence from microbes about our own development, this book is definitely going to be of interest. It’s not just diseases, though it does mention a lot of them; it does also touch on some of the more harmless microbes we’ve been carrying around. And of course, it talks about how we’ve shaped the evolution of microbes, as well.
If you’re a nut about this kind of topic, this isn’t very in depth and I don’t think you’re going to learn much from it. Something like David Quammen’s Spillover hits some of the same points while going a bit more into depth. But it’s a well-written survey of the subject, perfect for a layperson.
Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
Great excitement always sweeps the book community when a Gaiman book is due out, and this was no exception. I was less interested, as I prefer rewrites and reinterpretations — like Gaiman’s American Gods — of mythology I know well rather than simple retellings in modern language, which is what this seemed to be. That’s more or less true: the stories stick very close to the Eddas, and are entirely familiar to me. The fun part is really Gaiman’s own touches; his sense of humour, and his fine sense of timing. “Shut up, Thor,” is a refrain that becomes surprisingly comical in one or two of the stories, for example.
It’s not, however, a groundbreaking reinterpretation. It’s just like sitting with Gaiman and being told the stories, more or less true to their sources, with a sense of humour that sometimes illuminates their inconsistencies and the things which startle or amuse a modern audience. It’s not a bad book, by any means, but as I expected it’s not the kind of retelling I really enjoy. For something more complex which really uses the Norse mythology and creates a new story, American Gods is a great choice — it’s not that Gaiman doesn’t handle the material well.
I am glad I’ve got a physical copy, though; it’s a gorgeous looking book, both with and without the dust cover. I don’t think it’s going to fit on my shelf next to my other Gaiman books, but that’s beside the point. It’s pretty.
In any case, my rating isn’t a criticism as such — I read this because it’s Gaiman and my (former, I guess) field and it was bound to be amusing, and it was, but no more than that for me.
The Death of Caesar, Barry Strauss
I was interested to read The Death of Caesar, since I’d read Barry Strauss’ work before — his book on Spartacus, for one, and the one on the Trojan War. I was less impressed with this one — it’s still informative and interesting, and it even pulled out things I didn’t know about the Ides of March and Caesar’s life in general. For example, if I’m thinking about the Ides of March, I’m thinking about Brutus and Cassius, and not about a guy called Decimus who didn’t even make it into Shakespeare’s version properly. And yet Strauss brings Decimus back into the foreground, pointing out how close he was to Caesar. If Caesar’s last words were “et tu, Brute?”, then he was referring to this Brutus: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus.
But. The book didn’t have quite the energy I remembered from the book on Spartacus, and things seemed to drag on. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t only cover the death of Julius Caesar, but also somewhat of the rise of Mark Anthony and Octavian (Augustus). It seems to wander a little from the point — but then, how would you write a whole book about the Ides of March? And doesn’t it make sense to cover the political fallout and the fate of the assassins?
So possibly I’m just being picky, but this didn’t feel as riveting as Strauss’ other books. Interesting, though, definitely.
Gaia, James Lovelock
When I’ve heard of the Gaia theory before, I’ve usually heard of it in a sceptical sort of context that criticises the tree-hugging idea that Earth has a soul. That is not actually the main thrust of Lovelock’s argument at all: instead, what he argues is that Gaia, or Earth, is a self-sustaining system with in-built feedback loops which hold it more or less steady and capable of supporting life.
If you’ve studied climate or geology or even the water cycle, you know that he’s not wrong about the self-sustaining system. There’s so many negative feedback loops which keep things in check — some of which are, of course, threatening to be sabotaged by the action of one particular upstart mammal species with delusions of grandeur. We’re a part of the system, of course, but one which may have got out of hand. Or maybe not; maybe our intelligence will help rein us back in. We can only hope.
The point is, Lovelock’s not saying anything about a cosy loving Earth Mother spirit watching over us. Though his language in this book is sometimes poetical, and his sense of wonder at nature is clear, he’s talking about self-regulating, self-sustaining systems. He’s talking about the fact that the world has checks and balances in place which bring Earth into equilibrium, even though other factors — like the sun’s energy output — have changed over time. And okay, at some points he goes off on a tangent about whale intelligence and a hypothetical future in which whale brains give us technological advances, but the science here isn’t wrong.
There’s nothing actually revolutionary or tree-hugging here. It’s just true. Call it Gaia or call it a complex set of feedback loops; whatever you’re comfortable with, I guess. I do wish I’d read Revenge of Gaia instead, since this is horribly optimistic that humans will pull our collective fingers out and stop damaging the planet. I suspect Lovelock’s less sanguine about that prospect now.
Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear
I had high hopes for Maisie Dobbs as the series that would take over from Phryne as my current new comfort reading. I don’t think Maisie is the detective for me, though; for a lot of this, it felt more like the focus was historical fiction that detective fiction. There’s a big digression in the middle which eventually leads up to Maisie’s interest in being a detective, but it’s mostly about her character and the issues of class she’s faced. There’s something very cold about it — for example, the fact that she never went to see the man she’d intended to marry after his operation. She feels more like Sherlock Holmes than Peter Wimsey. Which is fine, but not what I’m interested in.
In terms of the mystery, well, any sense of urgency gets taken away first by the fact that there’s a massive flashback section, and secondly by the fact that Maisie doesn’t face any of the dangers personally. She doesn’t even meet many of the characters involved in the mystery more than once or twice. And she relies heavily on a “shiver down her spine” to tell her what’s going on. Sure, instinct, okay, but… it’s just too perfect, too precise, even alongside the many notes she takes. It’s more like precognition than detection, and I don’t think it’s intended to be supernatural.
I might give the second book a try, because there are aspects of the character and the context that I quite enjoy. I was curious/interested enough to finish this book, after all. But I’m not really feeling it at this point.