Tag: book reviews


Review – The Shambling Guide to New York City

Posted 19 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur LaffertyThe Shambling Guide to New York City, Mur Lafferty

I was kind of avoiding these because… I don’t know why, really. I thought it might be more like World War Z; a gimmicky set-up with comparatively little story. Wrong! There’s a solid story and direction behind The Shambling Guide to New York City, and though it does contain excerpts from the actual guide, the book itself is not written as a guide to New York City from the point of view of monsters — called, in this book, coterie. Instead, we follow our intrepid, sometimes somewhat slow heroine, Zoe, as she accidentally gets herself employed by a coterie company, learns that monsters are real and do want to eat her, and gets dragged into epic showdowns of opposing coterie.

Okay, in a way it’s wish fulfilment, because Zoe is adaptable, quick on her feet, able to train to learn to cope with all this. Most real people wouldn’t be a quarter as adaptable. But it worked for me all the same: I loved the rather mild Phil the vampire, who turned out to have a vicious side after all. (I don’t know what it is with me lately, but I’d fancast Clark Gregg for this role too.) It reminded me a bit of Cherie Priest’s Bloodshot and Hellbent. There wasn’t too much romance, and the creepily persistent (or persistently creepy) incubus who wants to seduce Zoe gets nowhere fast.

I love most of the characters — Gwen, the Welsh death goddess; Morgen, the water sprite; Granny Good Mae, the… slightly eccentric Yoda to Zoe’s Luke Skywalker. And those I don’t like still make sense, rather than being caricatures designed to be hated, except maybe one particular character.

Overall, I found this thoroughly enjoyable, and I immediately went on and devoured (heh) the second book, The Ghost Train to New Orleans. Recommended!

Also, the covers! Jamie McKelvie, I believe?

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrodinger’s Cat

Posted 18 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Pavlov's Dogs and Schrodinger's Cat by Ron Harré

Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrodinger’s Cat, Rom Harré

I’m torn about this book: on the one hand, it does what it sets out to do pretty well. It describes experiments that happened to use living subjects, treating those living subjects as though they’re simply part of the equipment. On the other hand, it very deliberately doesn’t engage with the moral aspect of these experiments, instead choosing to present the experiments dispassionately, claiming to be unable to deal with the moral dimension.

I can appreciate this way of looking at the experiments as a way to gain an understanding of them, but I think avoiding the moral dimension in the end just seems cowardly. If it’s your point of view that the suffering of an animal is worth it for the sake of the experiments, then at least own it. Admit the distress is there.

Without addressing that aspect, this book actually comes across as very flat. I ended up losing interest in a lot of these experiments, because animals aren’t just another piece of equipment. We have to use living tissue in experiments because only living tissue responds in the weird and wonderful ways that it needs to in order to give true results. Pretending a dog is a just a petri dish that happens to be pumping blood and breathing air seems disingenuous and pointless.

If you’re interested in the purely scientific treatment of animals as just objects in an experiment, this will work fine for you — that’s what the author delivers. If you find it hard to separate the two, or like me believe that it’s our duty to at least own what we do to animals, then it may fall rather flat.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Lightning in the Blood

Posted 17 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Lightning in the Blood by Marie BrennanLightning in the Blood, Marie Brennan

I feel like I might have appreciated this more if I’d refreshed my memory on the first book, Cold-Forged Flame, first. I remembered the basics, of course, but some of the subtleties apparently escaped my brain even in the short time since I read the first book. Still, I do find the world really interesting and Ree’s role in the world compelling. The end of this book came as no real surprise as I’d already pegged Ree as a wanderer type.

I felt like maybe I didn’t connect enough with this one, though. I wasn’t hooked on it, at least. It’s still well-written, but I do recommend having the first book fresher in your mind when you start it. And maybe I’m also suffering a little from missing Brennan’s Lady Trent, now that series is finished. I’ll be interested to revisit this (and the first book) when another book is on the horizon…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Within the Sanctuary of Wings

Posted 16 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie BrennanWithin the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan

I kind of procrastinated on reading this book, or at least finishing it, because I didn’t want the adventures to be over. This is the concluding volume of Lady Trent’s memoirs, and I already miss her ‘deranged practicality’, her curiosity and drive, and the people around her. Still, it’s a worthy end to her story, concluding her major scientific studies with — well, I’d better be careful not to say too much. The series has been building up to this point, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the moment of realisation and discovery halfway through this book.

My only quibble, perhaps, is a minor spoiler — I find it amazing that Isabella’s team come out of all of this so well. They end up in what I think are an analogue for the mountains of Tibet, suffer avalanches and punishingly cold temperatures, and yet for the most part, they come through these trials whole or able to heal. No frostbite, no permanent injuries, etc. It’s a bit of a contrast to the end of book one, where of course Isabella’s husband dies. I probably would’ve been annoyed if Isabella didn’t get a happy ending, but maybe this one felt a little too easy.

I don’t want to end on a quibble, though, because I truly love these books — more than I ever thought I would, the first time I read A Natural History of Dragons. Isabella is an amazing character, and I can’t help but love her and most of those around her. I really enjoy that the books have some illustrations of dragons and finds, and that Isabella is a serious scholar who tests hypotheses and formulates theories — she doesn’t get to the answer in one leap of intuition in book one and then simply have to prove what she already knows. The five books each see her learning more, changing her ideas, and being surprised along the way.

And lest you be worried about the Victorian-ish setting of these books and what effect it might have on the narration, don’t. If they were actually set in Victorian times, I’d call them anachronistic — there’s a flavour of the old fashioned in some of the phrasing and such, but no more. Suffice it to say that my sister read the last two books in about 24 hours — snatching my copy of this one from my hand almost as soon as she saw me when I arrived to visit.

If my wife would start reading them now, that’d be good. I’m waiting (and hoping she likes Isabella and her adventures as much as I do).

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Raisins and Almonds

Posted 15 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Raisins and Almonds by Kerry GreenwoodRaisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood

I try not to think too much about the way Phryne’s lovers are described at times — Lin Chung and Simon (Chinese and Jewish, respectively) are described as exotic and beautiful and… yeah, I’m starting to get uncomfortable the more I think about it. Likewise, there’s a certain amount of stereotyping that goes on with the Jewish and Chinese characters in particular. It’s not negative, but it is so… generalising and annoying.

On the other hand, the first time I read this I enjoyed it because it puts one of Phryne’s lovers in serious danger, and there’s an incredibly powerful family scene which just felt completely raw and not “cosy” at all. I felt the same this time, and that somewhat mitigated the rather lower star rating I’d have given.

Plus, while I do find aspects of these books problematic, I still adore the idea of Phryne’s character, the way nothing gets in the way, the way she controls her own sexuality and uses it. There’s still a lot of fiction that pretends women are more asexual by default, and it’s annoying. (Yep, even to me, even though I have no actual interest in reading about Phryne having athletic sex.)

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Dino Gangs

Posted 14 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Dino Gangs by Josh YoungDino Gangs, Josh Young

Based on the work of Philip J. Currie, the man who helped to found the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller (a very worthwhile visit if you find yourself in Alberta), this book goes into various aspects of dinosaur life, mostly focusing on the tyrannosaurid Tarbosaurus. The main theme is Currie’s theory that they hunted as a pack, based on several lines of evidence such as finding articulated skeletons apparently buried at the same time, the high proportion of predators in the landscape, etc.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with this book. One is the repetition. The other is the fact that evidence contradicting Currie’s theories is presented several times, and then ignored — like the fact that the bonebeds might show a high proportion of Tarbosaurus, but their trackways comprise only 5% of the estimated population. And the fact that Komodo dragons devour their prey whole, which would lead to deposition of more predator remains than prey, even though prey are actually more abundant. Or the fact that the geologists aren’t at all sure the bodies were deposited at the same time.

I have no problem with the idea of dinosaurs as pack animals, but there seem to be some serious objections to Currie’s reasoning, which this book rather skims past as if they don’t matter. The way Young portrays Currie, it’s as though he pounces on things that confirm his ideas, and dismisses other things because they don’t fit with his ideas — the marks of a terrible scientist. Currie is widely respected, so that may well not be true, but that was definitely the impression I got here.

There are interesting more general bits of info about palaeontology, other aspects of Tarbosaurus, the realities of fieldwork… but mostly I’d stick with The Tyrannosaur Chronicles for something that feels a bit more solid.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Shanghai Sparrow

Posted 13 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Shanghai Sparrow by Gaie SeboldShanghai 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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Words and Rules

Posted 12 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Words and Rules by Steven PinkerWords 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?

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How We Live and Why We Die

Posted 11 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How We Live and Why We Die by Lewis WolpertHow 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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Trial by Fire

Posted 10 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Trial by Fire by Lore GrahamTrial 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.

Rating: 3/5

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