Chalk, Paul Cornell
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 21st March 2017
I don’t quite know how to rate this, because it’s not much my thing. It’s a bit too close to horror, it’s so grim, and the teenage boy fixation with sex was, well, rather beyond my experience or anything I’m interested in. Bullying I know well, and Cornell captures it wonderfully — but I can’t say beautifully, because who could call that beautiful? The magic is weird and wondrous and I do enjoy the way it’s tied in with history and the landscape.
I was less interested or convinced by Angie’s pop music magic; it felt very thin indeed, almost just a way to give her more of a role in the story without it feeling organic. But the main character’s ambivalence to her, the people around him, the great big revenge that’s happened because he wanted it — that feels real.
I can’t say I enjoyed this, and I can’t say I’d read it again, but nor would I urge someone not to read it. It’s definitely powerful, and I had to read to the end, even though I found aspects of it distasteful (I suspect I was intended to).
I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong
If you’ve already read books like Martin Blaser’s Missing Microbes, a lot of this info won’t be new to you. However, Ed Yong’s enthusiasm and wider range — dipping into the microbes of other animals and even insects — is a joy. He also provides a counterpoint to some of Blaser’s more hysterical ideas about the loss of microbes. He agrees that microbes are important, and that our relationships with them are complex. But he doesn’t accept that we’re totally doomed. There’s tons of research into repopulating our guts with beneficial microbes, prebiotics and probiotics. No doubt things are in the pipeline which will make a difference.
Yong is significantly less hopeful about the potential of procedures like faecal transplants — though the results have been encouraging in cases of C. difficile infections, the potential for treating inflammatory bowel disease seems more limited. It’s not impossible that a refined version of faecal transplants can help to rebalance the irritated and inflamed gut systems of people who suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases… but so far, the data isn’t there.
With his enthusiasm and interest, Yong makes me want to hurry the heck up, get my biology degree, and get stuck into researching on exactly these topics. One thing is for sure: our microbiome is incredibly important, and we need more research. Our gut microbes can affect our overall health in so many ways — mental health included — that I foresee a lot more time being spent on this in labs in the near future. And I hope I’ll be one of the people working in one of those labs.
If you don’t know much about microbes, fear not: Yong’s writing is clear and accessible, with no technobabble. I think this book would be totally accessible to anyone with an interest.
Martians Abroad, Carrie Vaughn
Received to review via Netgalley; published 17th January 2017
I had pretty high hopes for this, since I enjoy Carrie Vaughn’s work. And it’s not a bad book; it just never took off for me. The set-up, the conflict, the conclusion — all of it felt a little flat to me. I didn’t quite believe in it, I definitely didn’t believe in the stakes, and I don’t think I really believed in the characters either. On the face of it, I should really enjoy Polly’s character: her presence of mind, her refusal to think inside the box, her quickness to act and her willingness to protect others. I don’t even really know why I didn’t. I suppose because I didn’t feel her emotions coming through. She was dumped by her boyfriend and my reaction was ‘oh, well’ — partly because of her reaction, though admittedly also because that relationship isn’t built up at all.
If the phrase “dumped by her boyfriend” makes you feel like this might be a little juvenile, you’re right there, too. It feels like a YA novel, not just because of the age of the characters but because of the relatively low stakes. I mean, the stakes are allegedly life and death, and yet it always felt like a game. You got the sense that things would be okay. I almost hoped they wouldn’t be, at one particular point near the end, because that would’ve surprised me.
Bit of a miss for me, alas.
Blood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood
In this installment, Phryne leaves behind her safe and comfortable house to do some slumming with the circus. She’s implausibly great at everything, of course, so it’s no surprise she learns how to do some trick riding. It’s also no surprise that her lovers are a clown and a carnie — and neither of them mind.
I was tempted to drop my rating from four stars to three this time when I think about how dramatic this one gets. There’s a lot of violence, with a whole gang situation. And there’s also attempted rape and personal danger for Phryne herself. For a series I normally view as relatively cosy, that felt like a bit much. But then, if you think about it, it’s not much more over the top than the anarchists of Death at Victoria Dock or some of the later stuff Phryne does for Lin Chung.
Also, there’s a bit where the clown is almost violent with Phryne, against her will — sorry, no, not having had sex for a long time is no excuse for that.
On the other hand, I enjoy Jack’s half of the story. An intersex individual is always a bit of an invitation for an author to mess up. Greenwood mostly does not, and Jack is satisfyingly brusque in ordering his subordinates to refer to the individual by their chosen name and pronouns. There’s also a fun friendship developing between unlikely characters in the form of Lizard Elsie and a former acrobat. So a tentative four stars it remains.
The Burning Page, Genevieve Cogman
Full disclosure: I did receive a review copy of this, but I also bought a copy.
I was really, really looking forward to this book, and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. It continues to be a fun romp, centring around that idea of an interdimensional library preserving all kinds of variant texts. The warmth and love of books is still a key feature, and the characters are the same group we’ve come to love. While the last book was a bit of a break from overarching plot, this one returned to it: in this one, Irene has to confront the rogue Librarian, Alberich — and he has some very big targets in mind this time.
I especially loved the visits to alternate worlds; I’d love to see more of that. The visit to a Russia ruled by an immortal Catherine the Great was pretty awesome, and there’s so much room for Cogman to play with all kinds of alternates. They aren’t the main point of the book or plot, but they’re still fascinating little microcosms of things that could be.
I’m relieved that this isn’t the last book, because there are a few more mysteries introduced here. Irene’s parentage, where the Library is going now… it feels like the beginning, rather than the end of a plot line. And if I have any disappointment about this book, it’s in that: somehow, the seeming end of the story arc didn’t feel final enough. There may be good reason for that, in which case this book would work better on a reread after reading sequels; for now, it just felt a little odd. It felt like a return to the status quo, without being knocked as far away from it as I’d expected.
There’s still plenty to wonder about, and plenty of room for more stories, thank goodness. I think I sound more critical than I really am; I enjoyed the book a lot, and read it in almost one gulp. The whole series is a lot of fun, and I definitely recommend it — especially if you need a break from reality.
Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
Despite my mother’s interest in space and all things to do with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, I never knew about the ‘computers’ who supported the US race to space. The history I knew was all about the big shots: the astronauts, the program director, even the doctors… It was a white, male history. And it was a history that was worth knowing, no denying: the astronauts and scientists it covered worked hard and achieved amazing things.
But there were women behind them, and black women at that. Reading this, it was a little unbelievable at times that none of them ever showed up in the histories I read before. And sometimes it was unbelievable to read about racism, segregation and sexism and then see such a recent date on it.
If you know someone who says women have never achieved anything, well, this book’s for them. If you know a black little girl who wants to be a scientist? This is for her, too. If you want to be more informed about women in STEM? You guessed it.
It’s not always the most focused read, covering as many women as Shetterly could get concrete details on. She didn’t just cover their lives when at NASA, but their time pre-NASA and even pre-NACA. It leaves you with a lot of names to keep track of, but it’s worth paying attention. I appreciate the way Shetterly puts the women into their social context, showing how they also had families to support, how they helped other women and black people around them, how they were involved in the wider societal change of the time. All of these women are worth reading about — and I think I’m only sorry they didn’t each have a book to themselves.
Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
This would probably have got a higher rating from me if I’d reread the first novella. As it was, I couldn’t tell what was supposed to be new to me and what was just part of me remembering the first book poorly. Things just kept happening, and I couldn’t make any guess about the next event — and then it suddenly ended. I forgot the basics. So if you were wondering about reading this as a standalone, I would say: don’t.
I really want to find the Okorafor novel/la that will work for me. Binti hasn’t been it, with either instalment. I do enjoy the worldbuilding, the mix of cultures, and the feeling of warmth I get from the story, from Binti’s courage… but I found the movement through the story a little too bewildering. I probably won’t read any more books about Binti; I just don’t seem to “get” it.
The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, David Damrosch
The Epic of Gilgamesh is some of the oldest literature we have access to, so you’d be forgiven for imagining it must have had a huge influence on subsequent mythology. The truth is, it was only rediscovered relatively recently, via archaeology, decipherment and a fair amount of politics. And of course, money. David Damrosch’s book discusses both the epic itself, its themes and context, and the archaeological and political process of bringing it back to light.
Despite the fact that it’s talking about archaeology, political manoeuvring and the long process of decipherment, The Buried Book manages to be entertaining and even gripping. I was certainly hooked, anyway. Damrosch does a great job of making it accessible and interesting, and pulling out facts that are both pertinent and interesting. You’ll learn a fair amount about Mesopotamia from this, not a little about British archaeology and the process of deciphering an ancient language, some interesting titbits about various personalities you’d never heard of before… and of course, about the epic itself — which is well worth reading.
In fact, if you’re thinking about reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, I’d recommend reading something like this first. Get some context on where it came from, where its been, and how people are still using and relating to the story told now. Then grab a translation and settle in.
Standard Hollywood Depravity, Adam Christopher
Received to review via Netgalley, publication date 7th March 2017
Just like Made to Kill and Brisk Money, this is an entertaining story — imagine Chandler’s noir detectives, that kind of world, but add in one robot detective-become-assassin and his profit-orientated handler (actually a computer). It’s full of references and hat-tips to Chandler’s era, and though it doesn’t have Chandler’s flair with words (few people do), it’s well written and goes down easy. It’s also reasonably clear of sexism, racism, and Chandler’s other such vices.
This story in particular involves Raymond getting tangled up in the antics of various criminal cartels, and all that sort of thing implies. Bullets and assumptions fly, garnering a possibility of some grudges being held against Raymond and Ada, his handler — and we end the story with Ada and Raymond in a pretty good position. All ready for the next novel, since this is marked as 1.5 in the series on Goodreads?
In any case, this is readable whether or not you’ve read Made to Kill and the short story Brisk Money, but it is worth reading those for extra background and a better understanding of Raymond, his capabilities, and his limitations. The ARC version I read bundled in Brisk Money, so you could comfortable skip to that and read it first before going back to read Standard Hollywood Depravity.
Meanwhile, I never seem to have reviewed Brisk Money itself, and the release of this novella seems like a prime opportunity to do so — so watch out for that review coming sometime soon as well.
Brother’s Ruin, Emma Newman
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th March 2017
Brother’s Ruin is another of the Tor.com novella series, though this one is very obviously just the beginning of a series of novellas, rather than standing alone (as, for example, Passing Strange does). So it mostly seems to function as a way of setting up the world: there is a story here as well, but more important is the alternate reality being created. It’s sort of vaguely Victorian, but with magic as a relatively commonplace event, and some steampunky elements. There’s some politics around magic and its practitioners that is obviously going to become more important as the novellas go on.
The main character, Charlotte, is pretty cool. She’s part of a family and has a fiancé, but she also earns her own money through illustration work and hides her own strong magic. She’s prepared to take risks to take care of her family, and she’s fine with supporting them from her own funds. She has her weaknesses — a pretty face, apparently, as well as her strong and almost uncontrollable magic — but she also has great strengths.
The reason I’m not rating this more highly is that it does feel very much like an introduction, and it only grazes the surface of the male character who is presumably going to become a much bigger part of Charlotte’s life. I don’t know what motivates him and why he’s interested, and nor do I understand why Charlotte finds him so fascinating. The scenes where she’s suddenly finding him amazingly attractive don’t quite ring true to me, given her otherwise practical nature.
There’s a lot of potential here, but I’m not 100% sold — yet.