The House of Binding Thorns, Aliette de Bodard
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 4th April 2017
I know this review is terribly late; I salved my conscience by buying a copy as well. Aliette de Bodard has built a fascinating world in this post-apocalyptic Paris, and it’s so refreshing to get Vietnamese influences running through a story like this — it might be set in France and involve angels of a rather Western bent, but it also features dragons of a rather more Eastern variety.
I don’t think you can really read this without The House of Shattered Wings; you need the background for Madeleine and Philippe. I was surprised, though, at how interesting I found Asmodeus. I wasn’t too taken with him before, but this book does show another side to him. There’s also a lesbian couple, Françoise and Berith, and their story is new here, but adds more to the world.
If The House of Shattered Wings didn’t work for you, I suspect that The House of Binding Thorns won’t, either. I found it bleakly beautiful, and really enjoyed the additions to the world-building and the way the characters grew and changed, or at least revealed other aspects of themselves. It also won’t work for you if you’re not a fan of something that falls squarely into moral grey areas: you could have believed Silverspires were the good guys, in the previous book, but now the house is Asmodeus’, and for all that you kind of find yourself rooting for him, he’s still not a pleasant person.
A Rough Ride to the Future, James Lovelock
I found Gaia interesting, and if not entirely in line with what I believe, still plausible; it’s obvious that the Earth’s ecosystems are governed by systems of feedback, and that sometimes that has had a stabilising effect — and that life continues to find a way to survive. From this book, it seems like Lovelock believes the ‘rough ride’ is mostly for humanity, ignoring the fact that we’ve severely thrown off natural systems, and that we’re not innocent in this. We’ve known we’re doing it for quite some time, and yet he sort of shrugs it off and says there’s no use feeling guilty. Well, guilt won’t fix the climate, but a sense of responsibility might help.
He’s right that humans have to change and adapt to the changing climate, but I’m not so sanguine that’s going to be enough for life to go on. I’m pretty sure bacteria and archaea will get along fine, but we’re decimating the ranks of amphibians, big mammals, sea creatures, etc. And he’s not always up on modern science: he still seems to believe, here, that the atmosphere can’t be more than about 25% oxygen without causing regular devastating fires. He’s wrong: we know the oxygen saturation has been much higher, and life went on — that’s why there were gigantic dragonflies; they couldn’t have survived in a lower-oxygen atmosphere.
While the Gaia theory has been influential, I think perhaps Lovelock should sit down and stop profiting by it. This book is rather rambling, at times even confused.
Whose Body?, Dorothy L. Sayers
A beloved reread, as you might expect, this time occasioned by having watched the Edward Petherbridge adaptations with my wife (who has, at least in BBC adaptation form, been converted to the love of Lord Peter). Whose Body? is a neat little mystery, and it’s given some depth by the fact that it already deals with Peter’s difficulties about whether he can do detecting as a hobby, or if there’s something wrong with that, etc, etc — and also with his shell shock, which retreats into the background in later books but is a key feature for how he reacts in this book.
He’s a little too perfect, of course, but I knew that going in. I don’t think Sayers had quite settled into what she was doing when she wrote this book, but it’s entertaining and, if you’re not interested in romance, long before Harriet Vane arrives on the scene.
The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski
You might think that a book about the role of death in the way humans approach life would be morbid, and probably difficult to read. I didn’t find it that way; in fact, I found that it reflected a lot of my own musings about it (said musings being helped along by the fact that for years, my biggest anxiety was about death). As someone with anxiety, this fear and knowledge about death hasn’t been hidden for me, and I wasn’t really surprised by the results of the authors’ research showing that it is a key anxiety for many or even most people.
If you read it without that background, you may feel that it’s rather overstating its conclusions. I think that might be a fair assessment if you try to apply it too literally to everyone. There are some people who’ve dealt with the anxiety, or don’t feel it at all. But in general, I do think that knowledge and fear underlies a lot of human thought and behaviour.
Definitely a worthwhile read, and actually quite smooth and easy too. I ended up reading it all in one Eurostar trip.
Shattered Minds, Laura Lam
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 20th June 2017
Shattered Minds is set in the same world as False Hearts, with endless possibilities for body modification and indulging all your fantasies, and no crime. Sort of.
Naturally, both books give the lie to that, but especially this one, exploring the world of an addicted woman struggling with her urges to kill, and how she ends up exposing a company’s lies for what they are — and getting back her whole self, since it turns out it was that very company who programmed her and made her the way she is. It also features a group of hackers who are trying to get the word out, whose paths converge with hers.
I love the diversity of Lam’s world — Dax, who becomes a love interest, is trans and Native American; Raf has a boyfriend who’s a cop… This isn’t as warm a read as False Hearts — lacking the love between the twin protagonists that drives that story — but the characters made up for it, drawing me in and making me wonder how they would ever all fit together. Even Roz, the villain of the piece, is compelling in her way — I have so many more questions about her and what drives her.
Basically, if you’re looking for another thriller like False Hearts in a nearish-future sci-fi setting, Shattered Minds delivers, with more than a dash of the Firefly feel (circa Serenity, though; less funny and fuzzy than some of the episodes): disparate group of wanted criminals takes down a mind-hijacking superpower of their world.
Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty
This is rather different to Mur Lafferty’s other books, The Shambling Guide to New York City and The Ghost Train to New Orleans. Different isn’t bad, though if you’re looking for the same humour and light-heartedness, that’s not so much in evidence (although I’d argue that yes, there is wit). It’s a fascinating locked room mystery in a sci-fi setting, essentially, where the locked room is a generation ship (ish, actually people can survive by being clones or through being in stasis).
I found it riveting, though I guessed early on who the culprit was because I just didn’t latch onto him at all, and wanted it to be him. But half the mystery is also in how the characters are related to each other, and how they got to where they are, and that wasn’t always as easy to figure out. I didn’t love the captain, either, but I did find her and the other characters intriguing — it’s only the culprit who totally didn’t interest me, which might be an individual thing (or might be a giveaway, if other people reacted the same).
That said, while there’s a culprit on board — of course — it’s all part of a larger plot, and you have to figure that out too. And as they say of the MCU: “Everything is connected.”
On top of all that, there’s also some introspecting about identity, brain hacking, the implications of cloning… I found it all entertaining and intriguing, and I’m very glad I managed to get my hands on a copy despite it not being very easily available in the UK (at least when I read it).
Walking on Knives, Maya Chhabra
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date is 26th July 2017
When the warning says “Walking on Knives contains some explicit content and a scene with dubious sexual consent”, it’s not kidding. I know there’s a whole debate about whether you can say consent is “dubious”, but I think I see why in this case — in both cases the characters explicitly consent, in pursuit of a goal, without actually wanting the sex itself.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure I buy any of the emotions here. It has the potential to be dark and twisty, but because I don’t believe in any of the love stories, it doesn’t work; it’s still too much in the fairytale style, with none of the characters named. Worse, it gets confusing between all the epithets; ‘the little mermaid’, ‘the sea-witch’, ‘the strange woman’… and then all the ‘she did this and she did that’. In the end, I just… nah.
Honestly, I feel most sympathetic toward the Prince. I wanted to root for the little mermaid and the sea-witch’s sister, but that didn’t feel real. The Prince’s conflict was the most real part of it, and I felt like he deserved more of an ending.
NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman
This is a bit of a slog to read, because it spends a lot of time lingering on details that you may or may not feel are relevant. It goes into the lives of the people who ‘discovered’ autism and described it clinically, much more than it goes into the lives of actual autistic people, and there’s one chapter I found rather troubling which follows the family of an autistic child. It focuses on their anguish and confusion, and their increasingly desperate attempts to “treat” their son with whatever unpleasant, pseudo-scientific methods they could find. By the end, I was desperate to hear that someone had actually ever asked the child what effect it had on him. (As far as I can tell, nobody did.) Those particular parents weren’t extreme, but nonetheless, I got very tired of their desperation to have a “normal” child.
It also does some retrospective diagnosing of a couple of scientists and thinkers from days before there was such a diagnosis. I’m always a bit iffy on that: there do seem to be good grounds to make those judgements, but… most of the people I know now don’t know much about what goes on in my head and why I react the way I do. I don’t want them diagnosing me once I’m dead. Still, at least it does provide autistic models and heroes for people now.
I’m also a little leery of the ubiquity of being on the spectrum in Silberman’s view. Lots of fandom, lots of engineers, maybe even most in the picture he’s painting — it’s a stereotype of fandom and of STEM that I haven’t necessarily found to be true. And fandom hasn’t been so very welcoming of actual neurodiverse people, either. If it’s ever been the perfect home for them, it isn’t now.
All in all, though, I did find the book interesting, and the perspective on neurodiversity as something to be accommodated and used productively is one that’s definitely timely. Despite my criticisms, I found it an interesting book — and it definitely treats autism as a spectrum, touching all kinds of people. This definitely isn’t the attitudes of Autism Speaks: instead, Silberman urges understanding, accommodation and respect.
Newt’s Emerald, Garth Nix
I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, and I’m not entirely sure what finally prompted me to pick it up — but hurrah that I did. If you enjoy Georgette Heyer’s work, you’ll probably enjoy this. It’s a little adventure very much along the same lines, only with magic as well. Girls disguising themselves as boys, a Pride and Prejudice moment for the romance, and daring escapades. The tone is light and witty, and okay, it’s not as though as it’s as deeply committed to being authentic as Heyer was, but you wouldn’t expect that from a book that injects magic as well!
I found it really fun, and a surprisingly quick read too. The romance is… well, Heyer-ish, so if dislike-turns-to-love and capricious young ladies who deny they have any feelings for That Odious Man bother you, it probably won’t be your thing. It’s definitely not much like Nix’s other books (at least the ones I’ve read).
It’s a little magical cream puff, and I enjoyed it greatly. It helps that the main character gets to be kickass and daring, and she’s also really smart. She’d verge on too perfect if she didn’t have the odd immature and petulant moment too, but as it was, she was a lot of fun.
Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts — Shapes, Flow, Branches, Philip Ball
There’s a lot of info in these three books about patterns formed both by life and by other, non-living natural processes. Sometimes it got a little too much for me to process and I started glazing over — mostly when math came into it. EVen given that, it’s still a fascinating look about how patterns form, and a good note of caution to sound about genetic determinism. Just as the colours of a calico cat aren’t determined genetically — so a clone of one calico cat would not have the same patterns as the first — neither are many other patterns in nature, whether in pelt colour and pattern or the building of nests. Instead, there seem to be sets of rules built in: processes that will occur in all genetically normal members of a species, but which won’t produce the same pattern time and again.
It’s also a good reminder that even with Batesian mimicry, there’s no intent behind it. The genetic code just happens to code for proteins which work in a particular way, ultimately producing a particular pattern. That’s obvious when we see the way other natural systems create the same patterns — rivers, sand dunes, chemical reactions.
Worth reading, definitely. And personally, I was really intrigued to learn that it was Alan Turing who actually proposed some theories of how animals get their patterned fur. Not just a code-breaking genius, clearly. Individually, I might rate each of these three books a ‘3’, but together… a 4, I think.