Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
Oh dear. Nikki meets modernism, and bounces right off: the sequel. I don’t even get the people who say it’s poetically written, beautiful imagery, etc, etc — I’m just confused by the narration half the time. The introductions by Jeanette Winterson and T.S. Eliot make it sound interesting, and I wanted to get into it since it’s highly spoken of as women’s fiction and queer fiction.
Nope. It’s hard to even keep track of the characters and what they’re doing, for my money.
If you’re a fan of modernism, this is almost certainly worth reading, and a lot better than I make it sound. But sometimes I wonder why I even try to read modernist works: they don’t seem to work for my brain at all. (See also: I don’t get along with Virginia Woolf’s work, other than A Room of One’s Own.) Just as you wouldn’t ask a dentist to help you pick the best horse in the stable, don’t ask me to recommend modernist works…
Alchemy of Fire, Gillian Bradshaw
If you’re looking for thoughtful, well-researched historical fiction, Gillian Bradshaw is a good bet — and she doesn’t always stick to the beaten path, producing stories about Caesars and Cleopatras. Island of Ghosts, for example, surprised me by having a Samartian hero, serving the Roman army in Britain. Not an Italian, not a Brit, but a whole different view I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do before. Her writing reminds me of Rosemary Sutcliff, at times — it scratches the same sort of itch — though her books are more adult.
Alchemy of Fire is set in Constantinople, and follows the fortunes of the owner of a perfume shop. There’s intrigue and politicking, and there’s romance as well, and the story is set against the backdrop of the Arab attacks on Constantinople. It’s the invention of ‘Greek fire’, but it also deals with motherhood and the experience of seeing a child you love grow up, with grief, with falling in love against all sense and without realising, but not in some instantaneous magical way. The emotional journey felt real, and I was rooting for it from the beginning because it didn’t feel as though Anna was somehow destined to marry. It felt like it could have remained friendship, or ended badly, or… anything.
I found it touching and absorbing, even though I wouldn’t call it “unputdownable”. It takes its time, for all that it only comprises 250 pages or so. It didn’t strike me with brilliance like a couple of Bradshaw’s other books, but I enjoyed it.
False Hearts, Laura Lam
I originally received this to review, and then didn’t get round to it, because I suck. So I bought the paperback last week, picked it up to read a page — and looked up 170 pages later. Suffice it to say, it sucked me in and I’m glad I finally read it — and that I have an eARC of Shattered Minds to read. And Lam’s other trilogy, too! Her writing works really well: it’s not stylised and beautiful like, say, Patricia McKillip or Ursula Le Guin, but it’s competent and strong and she brings across the voices of her characters. That makes it both easy to read and absorbing.
The best part about it is that the whole thing relies on the bond between the sisters, Taema and Tila, and Taema’s trust for Tila. The whole drive behind the story is the sisters’ need to protect one another, and that’s what makes solving the mystery and going through all the tension worth it. The thriller aspects in themselves aren’t revolutionary, but coming at it from this angle made it feel fresh and urgent.
I enjoyed the supporting characters, too. It’s a little odd to be reading a book in which people seem to be, on the whole, good. Sure, Mana-ma and the Ratel don’t exactly have people’s best interests at heart, but Nazarin and Kim, Taema and Tila, the other characters they come across — they’re all trying to do the right thing. It’s a nice antidote to the total cynicism of other books I’ve been reading lately, in this genre and others. There are bad things, but there are good people too. And there are good people who get caught up in bad things, and regret it, and remain good people.
The ending of the book feels good; it all unfolds smoothly and stops just at the right point, with Tila and Taema reunited — for good or for bad.
The Ghost Line, Andrew Neil Gray, J.S. Herbison
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 11th July 2017
I didn’t expect to find this so creepy, but wow, it ended up getting under my skin. I thought I’d just start it, see what it was like before bed… and then I read the whole thing. I loved the partnership between the husband and wife team, and the whole idea of a space-liner drifting on an old cruise path just to keep the rights to it. There’s not much explanation for why what happens on the ship occurs, but it’s almost better that way — you don’t understand why anymore than the characters do.
I loved the ending, too. It’d have been easy to give readers an easier, happier way out; to have some kind of compromise be reached. Instead — well, I’d better not say too much. Suffice it to say that it works really well, and though it’s not horror, it definitely has a heck of a creep factor in places.
A New History of Life, Peter Ward, Joe Kirschvink
“New” is a bit of an overstatement. It develops themes already covered in books like Nick Lane’s Oxygen (not exactly recent) and David Beerling’s The Emerald Planet; the main contribution to my understanding is a bit more depth on how oxygen and carbon dioxide have limited and unlimited life over the course of its development. The back emphasises the authors’ belief in panspermia, specifically in the form that states life on Earth was seeded from Mars, but there’s very little space devoted to that — and exactly zero actual evidence.
It’s mostly a reasonable read, if not at all “new”, but they badly needed some more time with an editor. They have odd repetitions, or places where they don’t define a word until long after its first use (not a problem for me, but possibly difficult for other pop science readers), and at times the grammar is just terrible. Sentences don’t have subjects, or the verb doesn’t agree, or… It’s not so bad that I’d call it a mess, but I was very conscious that they needed a proofreader or three to make their book feel more professional.
There were some interesting things in here, though: for example, a discussion of different types of lungs and breathing systems. I hadn’t seen that discussed before, and it was fascinating. And for dinosaur aficionados, yep, they definitely touch on dinosaurs and why they once ruled the Earth (and why, perhaps, that rule ended as it did).
Life’s Engines, Paul G. Falkowski
This is an accessible book, crystal-clear about all the concepts it discusses. It’s not bad as a revision guide for me, as far as some of my cell bio concepts go; it’d be good for an intelligent layperson. Falkowski writes with assurance, and though there were no surprises here for me, it was still an interesting read.
My only qualm would be that sometimes his choice of words is a little cringy to me. We don’t need “cell stuff”; I’m sure all readers at this level could manage the term “nutrients” or “proteins” or something clearer. Which is funny, given I just said he’s crystal clear — it’s not that the words are confusing, it’s just that they don’t actually make things simpler and easier to understand. They don’t actively obscure, but they do the reader no favours either.
Nonetheless, a book I enjoyed reading.
How Your Brain Works, New Scientist
As ever with the New Scientist books, this is a great introduction to a topic — and in this case, it’s a fairly narrow topic: the brain, and how it works. It’s not just a collection of stuff that’s appeared in the other collections, although I think a few of the info boxes and so on did come from other New Scientist publications originally. It’s also based on one of their Instant Expert courses, a great series of events that I do recommend if they cover a topic you’re interested in.
For me, even without my degree, this was a fairly simplistic view of the brain — “instant expert” isn’t quite what you’d become from reading it, I’d feel. “Instantly more informed and able to understand further information with a good foundation,” perhaps.
Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date was 6th April 2017
Wow. Sylvain Neuvel isn’t messing around. Waking Gods is the follow-up to Sleeping Giants, and it doesn’t pull punches. If you hoped that it’d end with everything being okay, well, certainly not yet. And there’s apparently more to come, if the ending of this book is any indication…
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because it’s worth discovering it yourself. The structure is the same as in the first book, and if that annoyed you previously, then this isn’t going to be any better for you. If you found it simultaneously frustrating and intriguing, then that sensation will also pretty much persist. If you straight-up love it, well, again. The point is, the format hasn’t changed, and it’s roughly the same characters as well. However well those things worked for you in the first book is likely to be repeated.
If Mitchell could just, like, implode or something, I’d be pretty happy, I’ve gotta say.
The solution at the end of this book struck me as a bit convoluted and contrived, because of the constraints on it and the limited time to suddenly figure it out. All the same, hurrah for the character who figured it out making good.
Harrowing the Dragon, Patricia A. McKillip
As you might expect from Patricia McKillip, this is a lovely collection — some of the stories are just beautiful, and her writing always is. ‘The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath’ is a strong point, as you’d expect from the fact that the collection is named after it, and I enjoyed ‘A Matter of Music’, ‘The Stranger’ and ‘Lady of the Skulls’, too.
The lighter, more humorous ones like ‘A Troll and Two Roses’ and ‘Baba Yaga and the Sorcerer’s Son’ are still well written, but the tone doesn’t work for me. Mostly, it just doesn’t fit with the dream-like prose-poetry I expect from McKillip (and which she delivers, even with the lighter stories).
It’s a nice collection, but not a favourite by any means. It’s one of those I’ll keep because I enjoy the way McKillip writes rather than because I particularly want to revisit most of the stories. This sounds like faint praise, but McKillip’s writing really is beautiful.
Instant Expert: Where the Universe Came From, New Scientist
These books are based on the Instant Expert events that New Scientist hosts on various topics. I’ve been to two of them (one on genetics, one on consciousness), and they’re pretty great: pitched at a level most educated people can understand, but delving a bit deeper into some of the latest events and innovations in whatever area of science they cover. They generally have a panel of experts and, honestly, some pretty good food… Anyway, so I was interested to read this one, even without the good food.
Sadly, it’s more relativity than Big Bang; it’s more worried about how to resolve the issues between quantum physics and relativity than about what we do know. That said, it’s pretty accessible and I did follow most of it, which is more than can be said for most attempts to educate me about relativity. However, it does contain repeated material from New Scientist collections and possibly also previous books; how much, I couldn’t say, since I haven’t read those exhaustively.