Caesar’s Last Breath, Sam Kean
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 18th July
Sam Kean is an entertaining pop science writer in general, and though this isn’t as perfectly up my street as The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, it’s still fascinating and very readable. It starts by reminding us that we’re breathing the same air as everyone who has ever lived — including Caesar, hence the title — and that there’s a high chance we’re breathing in some of the same molecules that bounced around their lungs. Then it goes on to talking about the foundation of Earth’s atmosphere, the power of gases and the road humans took to discovering that, and finishes with a look at how life affects its environment — of course, the changes in the composition of our atmosphere that we cause, but also how we might spot other species on other planets doing the same.
As you can see, that’s a lot of ground to cover, and Kean manages to string everything together into a pretty logical narrative. The longer chapters are leavened by interludes covering events that illustrate some part of what’s under discussion, like using hot gases to cut into a bank vault…
Overall, entertaining and interesting, especially given that Earth sciences and the study of our atmosphere has never been a great interest of mine.
Reality 36, Guy Haley
Many, many moons ago, I think this is one of the books I got free from Angry Robot when I visited them as a contest winner. But I’d been meaning to read it before that; I love the idea of cyberpunk and virtual realities, love messing around with the idea of AIs. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on with this too well; first off, it felt unfocused because it took so long to figure out who the protagonists are. Okay, you get Richards in the two-page prologue, but then not again until fifty pages later. Veronique might be cool, and feels at first like a potential protagonist, but it’s clearly meant to be Richards and Klein — given the book’s called a Richards & Klein investigation.
I got a little further in and wasn’t a fan of Otto at all; he’s brutal, makes homophobic jokes about rape (there’s a whole scene with him taunting someone he sent to prison about how he must’ve been raped there, seriously), resorts to torture, etc. Just… not the sort of character I enjoy spending time with. So I skimmed from that point on, and didn’t really find anything that hooked me back in. The story very obviously continues in Omega Point, but I’m not interested enough in reading it. I get that a lot of the unpleasant stuff is part of the genres Haley’s playing with, but… it’s not the good stuff about those genres.
Disappointing, especially as I came back to this to give it a second chance after enjoying The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley.
The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished the book I was reading earlier, so now the only book actively on the go is Guy de la Bedoyere’s The Real Lives of Roman Britain, which I’ve really only just started. Oh, and I’m still partway through rereading Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb. Other than that, there’s a bunch of books sat around with bookmarks in, but I haven’t touched them in, uhhh… too long. Oops.
What have you recently finished reading?
The Shadowy Horses, by Susanna Kearsley. It was a lot of fun — yay, archaeology-based stories! Yay, romantic Scotsmen! Yay, friendly ghosts! Once upon a time I’d have described Kearsley’s books as a guilty pleasure, but stuff that. I like reading romance sometimes, apparently. (I do need recs for other stuff like Susanna Kearsley, Jane Aiken Hodge, Mary Stewart… Do feel free to indulge me, if you know of anything that might suit.)
Before that, I finished James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. Whoa. I need to sit down and collect my thoughts on that.
What will you read next?
I’m planning to try Lucy Hounsom’s Starborn, to see if I want to request the sequel on Netgalley. I think I’ll start on Caliban’s War, the sequel to Leviathan Wakes, pretty soon as well. So much reading to do. So little time. I should also get back to Assassin’s Apprentice and the sequels, and maybe finish up The Essex Serpent.
What are you reading?
Personality, Daniel Nettle
I don’t quite see why this is part of the Oxford Landmark Science range. To me, it’s a relatively low level analysis of the factors that go into personality, much of which I’ve read elsewhere in other popular science books which aren’t so tightly focused. It’s not that it’s a bad book, or uninteresting; there are some things I didn’t know, and it’s interesting to see how Nettle explores the two sides to each of the main personality factors identified — the downside to being extroverted, for example, and the downside to ‘openness to experience’.
Still, none of it is revelatory, and he doesn’t spare much time for the criticisms of the whole idea of studying people’s personalities as if they’re a real thing you can test and measure. His conclusion is basically that of course you can, because you can obtain consistent data that falls into particular trends. I don’t think I disagree, but I’m sure there are more criticisms.
It’s an easy enough read, surprisingly light even for pop-sci.
There’s still no official theme from The Broke and the Bookish, so this TTT is again of my own devising. This time I’m going to look at bookshops I have loved!
- Waterstones (Wakefield). I’ve had plenty of nice chats with the people working there, and some of the same people still work there from when I was a kid. They’ve held some great events — I attended a talk by Robin Hobb back when Fool’s Fate came out, for example — and though the shop is a little small for my tastes, the SF/F section has typically been good enough that I can find what I want.
- Waterstones (Manchester). One of the biggest bookshops in the north of England, I think? Nice little cafe, and so many books. And they have baskets you can grab at convenient intervals, which is useful because I’ve never got out of there without needing a shopping basket. A really great non-fic selection as well as a good amount of SF/F.
- Paramount Books (Manchester). When I last went, it was still tiny and inaccessible for someone in a wheelchair or possibly even on crutches, but it was a great place to browse, with all kinds of second hand books.
- Hatchard’s St Pancras (London). I’m not a huge fan of their fiction section, which isn’t divided up into genres. They have some SF/F books, but it’s not always easy to pick them out. I love how convenient it is to drop in on my way to or from the Eurostar, though, and their non-fiction section has pretty much always been worth the browsing.
- Forbidden Planet (London). Signed books, American books, new releases… I’m not sure what I haven’t been able to find there. And even though it’s Forbidden Planet, I don’t just mean comics. They have a great selection of SF/F books, and I’ve seen some really good bargains there as well.
- Wellfield Bookshop (Cardiff). It might be small, but I always felt at home there and perfectly welcome to browse. They’re very helpful and would always offer to order in anything I wanted.
- Sterling Books (Brussels). They’ve moved to a smaller location, which is a crime as far as I’m concerned, but they still have a reasonably good selection of English books, both fiction and non-fiction. Also, free bookmarks!
- Chapters (Dublin). New and used books, and tons of them. The staff weren’t the friendliest, but the selection more than made up for it.
- Fair’s Fair (Calgary). They have a couple of stores, and nearly all of them contained some delights for me. Seriously recommended, if you’re in Calgary.
- Troutmark Books (Cardiff). A treasure trove to me when I was a student — and apparently served my grampy with bags of books before me. It’s conveniently in the centre of Cardiff, and too many people miss it because it’s tucked away in one of the arcades. Well worth going to — great selection and great pricing.
That’s not all of the bookshops I’ve ever loved, of course, but I thought I’d share a little bit of the joy!
Nova, Samuel R. Delany
I’ve meant to read this for so long, because it’s a total classic and everyone seemed to expect me to love Delany’s work. Although the writing is clever, the way some of the characters speak (verb last) just got infuriating, and I don’t think any of the characters are really there to be liked. As for the grail story narrative that’s supposed to be there, well; knowing the grail story as well as I do (clue: very well, thanks to Cardiff University’s medieval lit tutors) it didn’t really feel like a grail story. Moby Dick, perhaps; that’s a comparison that does feel apt.
There are some gorgeous bits of prose and intriguing ideas, and I did want to read it all and find out how things turned out, but… it just didn’t blow me away. Possibly the fault lies in me, since Delany is a classic SF writer; I’ve still got Babel-17 to read, and we’ll see if I like that better.
Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, Philip Ball
Although this is classed as ‘popular science’, more than half of it is essentially literary criticism. It’s all relevant to the kinds of anxieties humans have about artificial people, but if you’re here for cloning, IVF, gene editing, etc, then it’s pretty thin on that. I hadn’t thought about a lot of stuff in the way this book opens it up, but there was far too much waffling before it got to the actual science bit — I’d have enjoyed it more if it’d been marketed as literary criticism/history, or if there’d been more of the science stuff.
At the very least, Philip Ball writes clearly, and it’s not a chore to read except in that it wasn’t what I was hoping for. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more holistic about the modern science around ‘making people’, including the myths and literature that inform and reveal our anxieties about it, then you’ll probably enjoy it.
Good morning, folks! Today I’m off to spend the day with my grandparents-in-law until evening, so I might not comment (or comment back) until tomorrow. It’s been a quiet week, really; I worked on reading some difficult stuff, so I haven’t finished nearly as many books as I’d like. As for new books, well… just one ARC, and a quiet week ahead too, I think. But next weekend is my paper wedding anniversary, and we’re celebrating in style by going to Amsterdam to browse their bookshops, so that might well be a busy week for books!
Received to review:
I was going to pass on this one, until I realised that the warrior princess in question is Welsh, and this is set in Wales! You have my attention, sir!
Finished reading this week:
Four stars: Mapping the Interior, The Trouble With Physics, Life on the Edge, American Gods (reread).
Reviews posted this week:
–Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie. I appreciated this one more on a reread, just like the first book. A really great trilogy, and this middle book doesn’t disappoint. 5/5 stars
–Bloodshot, by Cherie Priest. I didn’t love this as much as I remembered, but there’s still so much awesome about it. 4/5 stars
–The City of Dreaming Books, by Walter Moers. So much to love about this, particularly the way it bursts at the seams with inventiveness and love of books. 4/5 stars
–Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by David Whitehouse. Not my favourite area of science, but still an interesting diversion. 3/5 stars
–Top Ten Tuesday: Pet Peeves About Blogging. Featuring: why do I get spammed with my own copy?!
–WWW Wednesday. The update on what I’m reading, what I’ve just read, and what I’m going to read.
So how’re you all doing?
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, David Whitehouse
This book uses all kinds of insights from mineralogy and seismology to put together a picture of what the Earth’s composed of, layer by layer. Despite the author’s obvious enthusiasm, this isn’t one of my primary interests, and I did find my interest flagging at times — it seemed like some chapters were just unnecessarily dragged out and like he got off the point some of the time. Nonetheless, if this is the kind of science that enthuses you, it’s worth reading — it deals with the history of the study of our Earth as well as the straightforward facts about the composition of each layer.
The more I learn about all kinds of science, including Earth science, the happier I am. Even if it’s not my field, I’m glad I read this.
The City of Dreaming Books, Walter Moers, trans. John Brownjohn
The City of Dreaming Books is delightfully whimsical, crammed full of ideas that practically want to burst out of the pages, and it’s all about books and writing and the love of reading. There’s so much going on — so much humour, so much inventiveness — and it’s all supplemented by the illustrations. I was a little worried after reading a synopsis of one of Moers’ other books (which is apparently in the same world, though this one stands alone) that it’d be too childish, but it didn’t feel that way at all. Of course, it’s a total adventure yarn, but it’s the sort that I think should appeal to anyone who likes a bit of adventure.
There are catacombs full of books, creatures that live only far beneath the surface of the city and devote their lives to learning to recite a single author’s output, deadly books and living books, monsters made of paper… And, you know, the main character is a dinosaur (who loves books excessively and wants to be a writer), and…
It’s hard to describe all the stuff that’s going on in this book. I can only conclude by saying that I found it deliciously readable and a lot of fun.