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.
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.
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.
Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas
I find Sarah J. Maas’ work solidly enjoyable in the way I used to find fanfiction enjoyable (or still would, if I read much of it). It’s wish fulfilment — the beautiful, utterly capable assassin who has her pick of love interests; the decadent surroundings; even the books she has access to and the friends she makes. Let’s not forget that she’s also an accomplished musician, dancer, etc, etc. And that’s great. I enjoy reading this series, and I enjoy the whole idea of Celaena and the fact that she exists.
I’ve never really understood people who expected great literary merit from these books, or even a consistent approach to who Celaena wants to date, sleep with or throw off a cliff. I was alerted to that pretty early on in the instant switches between Chaol and Dorian, and from knowing that neither of those appears to be her ultimate love interest. (Sorry, Chaol fans. But it’s true.)
It’s fairly typical fantasy, with a kickass heroine, magic, Fae, a bit of mystery, a wicked king… It’s fun because it’s pretty unashamed about being that. I know people didn’t enjoy the latest book as much as they hoped, but me… I’m not getting my hopes up. I’ll just enjoy whatever Maas serves up — and stop if it takes a turn I dislike. Same as I would a fanfic.
Before anyone protests, this isn’t about disparaging Maas’ writing. There are some amazingly well-written fanfics and some amazingly badly written original novels. But the feeling of energy and creativity and fun I get is one I associate more with writing for fandom.
Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
If this book is a blatant Christian allegory, I don’t know enough to notice — well, okay, there are some bits which are, but that’s always the case when Aslan is involved. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is one of my favourites. I love Caspian and his rapid rise to maturity and understanding, and his determination to do right by his people. Even if those people happen to be talking badgers. The supporting cast, like Trumpkin and Trufflehunter, are fun, and of course, it also features the Pevensies. What’s not to love?
This one probably gave Tolkien the most heart palpitations as regards mixing-and-matching of mythologies (suddenly the Maenads appear following Jesus!), but in a way, I like that too because it’s quite a universalist spirit. Take what’s good and uplifting and illuminating from all kinds of mythologies, and live by that — that’s not my motto, but it could be.
It doesn’t feel quite as warm as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does — to me, anyway — but it’s fun.
Armada, Ernest Cline
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date was 16th July 2015
I thought this was going to be amazing. As you can see from the fact that I didn’t get round to finishing and reviewing it until now, it definitely fell short of my expectations. It felt like it tried to take the plot of Ender’s Game and tie in the nostalgia of Ready Player One, but it just… didn’t read as authentically geeky in quite the same way. Where I found Ready Player One charming, I ended up rolling my eyes. And I didn’t find any of the characters particularly interesting.
And while I may not be a big fan of Orson Scott Card as a person for his stated opinions about various topics, I think Ender’s Game was better structured and had more to say.
But now I want to reread Ready Player One and see if I still enjoy that as much.
The Toll-Gate, Georgette Heyer
I don’t normally get along with cases of instantaneous love, but some authors can make me go along with it. Heyer is one of them, and this mystery/romance works well. Both the male and female lead are capable and likeable, and they treat each other with respect (unlike in, say, Faro’s Daughter). All in all, it’s an appealing combination, and Heyer shows off her research in her use of thieves’ cant and dialect. If your favourite Heyer novels tend to be the ones with mysterious highwaymen, capricious noblemen who don’t mind pretending to be commoners, etc, then it’s definitely one for you — more like The Talisman Ring than The Grand Sophy.
The only problem for me was that I’m not very knowledgeable about period-appropriate dialects and thieves’ cant. Some of it I didn’t follow very well, and at times it does hinder you in understanding exactly how a certain character gave themselves away, etc. But for the most part, it becomes obvious if you keep reading.
Heyer writes with humour and flair, as ever, and the afternoon I spent devouring this was well worth it.