Tag: books


Review – Reinventing Darwin

Posted 12 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Reinventing Darwin by Niles EldredgeReinventing Darwin, Niles Eldredge

The most prominent phrase in this book by far is “we naturalists”, which I think demonstrates pretty well the ideological stance of the author. Niles Eldredge begins by setting the scene: the “naturalists”, people like himself and Stephen Jay Gould, vs the “ultra-Darwinists”, like Dawkins. The naturalists have a more nuanced view of natural selection, while the ultra-Darwinists think selection occurs on genes and genes alone (according to Eldredge). This book is a debate about the fine details of natural selection, not about whether it happens: “Darwin demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that natural selection is an ineluctable law of nature” (p.12), “No one doubts that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is correct” (back cover) — so if you’re in any doubt about evolution itself, this won’t convince you.

I don’t know whether science has sorted out a lot of this dichotomy yet, or whether you don’t see it at BSc level, or if the structure of the Open University is such that you happen to get exposed to both views, but I didn’t think of the debate in these starkly delineated terms at all. I’ve been taught principles espoused by both sides, in a kind of synthesis. Of course, it probably also helps that I’m coming in from outside, but either way, I see value in both sides of the debate.

Eldredge manages to be reasonably even-handed, despite the “we naturalists” refrain, and sets forward a good case for species sorting, punctuated equilibria, stasis, etc. Even though my training leans toward the genetics end of things, because I find the biochemistry fascinating and ecosystems less so, I can’t think of anything I vehemently disagreed with, except that refrain of “we naturalists” — which started to come across as needlessly divisive, given that plenty of people sit somewhere in between.

Of course, this is from 1995, so it’s not the most up-to-date text; to me, it was kind of interesting because it fossilised attitudes at the point Eldredge was writing. I don’t think anything in it was new, surprising or controversial to me. The style was rather dry and repetitive (we get it, we get it, “you naturalists” are not denying natural selection); I’m told Gould was a better prose stylist, so that’s probably where I’ll turn next.

Rating: 3/5

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What are you reading “Wednesday”

Posted 11 May, 2017 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

Shush, it’s Wednesday. Totally.

What have you recently finished reading?

Cover of Killing Gravity by Corey J. WhiteI finished Killing Gravity, by Corey J. White last night. It’s basically if River Tam was a lot more active about chasing down the people who messed with her brain, and a bit more sane. I love the idea of voidwitchery. I do wish it hadn’t ended there, though; I want Mookie to be safe!

What are you currently reading?

Cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie BrennanWithin the Sanctuary of Wings! I’m sort of pacing myself with it, because I don’t want it to be over. Also, I got to a certain bit in the middle and just… yelped and immediately laid hands on copies for my wife to read. Like, nowNow. Why isn’t she reading them???

What will you read next?

I don’t know. I’m thinking maybe Martha Wells’ Tor.com novella, All Systems Red. I wanted to read Sean Stewart’s Passion Play, but the Kindle version from Netgalley is just a mess, missing all kinds of punctuation and the middles of some words. Whaa.

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Review – Dangerous Women (Part I)

Posted 11 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Dangerous Women ed. G.R.R. MartinDangerous Women: Part I, ed. George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

I expected this to have more fantasy stories in it, given Martin’s involvement, the cover, everything I’d heard about it. But nope, four of the seven stories in this volume aren’t fantasy — even one I thought would be, since I know the author’s fantasy work.

‘The Princess and the Queen’, by George R.R. Martin — Reads like a summary of a story he couldn’t be bothered to write, heavily cribbed from English civil wars. I ended up skipping it, since I’m not actually a Martin fan and haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire yet.

‘Raisa Stepanova’, by Carrie Vaughn — I kept expecting the SF/F here, but nope; this is a historical story set in World War II. I didn’t really get into it, perhaps because it wasn’t what I was expecting.

‘Second Arabesque, Very Slowly’, by Nancy Kress — Your fairly typical women-are-breeders spec-fic future, with some kids getting all hooked on ballet, enough to kill so they can run off and do it for fun. Didn’t really work for me, because every beat was predictable, and even if I sympathised with their need to get away, I didn’t enjoy the characters’ methods.

‘I Know How To Pick ‘Em’, by Lawrence Block — Gritty noirish short story, sex and murder, exactly what you expect going in.

‘My Heart is Either Broken’, by Megan Abbott — I wasn’t sure where this was going, and I’m not sure it quite got there, but it got hold of me. I wanted things to come out okay; I feared that things would never be the same for the characters if they did.

‘Wrestling Jesus’, by Joe R. Lansdale — Another fairly predictable one. Not my genre, either. The dangerous woman of the anthology’s theme is, in this case, a nasty woman who likes playing around with people; yay… I’d kinda like to see more dangerous women who aren’t morally dubious. Speaking of which…

‘Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell’, by Brandon Sanderson — Probably my favourite of the bunch, though I guess that isn’t saying much considering my feelings on some of the above. This is actually fantasy, the world is fascinating, and you get sucked in by the character’s problems and what they need to do to survive.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Virolution

Posted 10 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Virolution by Frank RyanVirolution, Frank Ryan

The cover made me worry that this was going to be complete pseudo-science, but it’s not bad at all. It’s a little scatterbrained — although the title is Virolution, a good chunk of it involves epigenetics, and it isn’t very clearly linked to the viral theme. The main thrust of the book is: evolution didn’t just happen by natural selection, but also through symbiosis. That symbiosis includes symbiosis with bacteria and viruses, as we co-evolved.

It’s not something I disagree with, and Ryan lays out the ideas clearly and informatively. I’m not sure I see such a huge role for viruses in evolution, at least not in the sense that he does. I don’t think it really modifies natural selection that much. Perhaps I’m just a little too familiar with stuff like Lynn Margulis’ theories about symbiosis? I’d always seen a fairly big role for symbiosis in evolution, because of course it drives co-evolution to establish stable mutualism.

Not a bad book, but perhaps a little too enthusiastic about its claims, and a little too scatterbrained about the content.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Bone Palace

Posted 9 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Bone Palace by Amanda DownumThe Bone Palace, Amanda Downum

The Bone Palace is a better book than the first one, I think; more of the characters were compelling to me, and the magic all felt like it fit together better. Isyllt’s magic didn’t fit, somehow, with the world of river spirits and djinn, with the desert magic and the heat. Which makes sense: she’s out of her own world there.

It’s hard to glimpse whether there’s a larger story behind the politics and magic — it feels like there should be; there’s plenty of history and geography underlying the world. But it’s hard to tell where it’s going. When I last read it, the third book wasn’t out, so that might solve some of my questions. But the first two books together feel odd; not quite the same story, not even quite about the same characters. Isyllt’s a main character in both, but Savedra steals this one entirely.

I love the magic, love the history, love Savedra. The only thing I’m not sure about is, again, some of the cultural stuff. For instance, Savedra is trans; the story uses the term hijra, which fits badly with the Russian-sounding words floating around, the Greek names, and which might not even fit with the actual concept of hijra in our world. I can imagine people being annoyed that hijra in Downum’s world are mostly prostitutes, for example.

All the same, I love Savedra — the complex relationship between her and Nikos and Ashlin, the fact that she’s a royal concubine and she navigates that world so carefully and protects her loved ones, while not feeling brave or strong. She just does what she has to do, for Nikos and Ashlin, for her family. And it works. Isyllt and Kiril? I don’t hate that relationship, but it just doesn’t breathe for me like Vedra’s life.

Rating: 4/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 9 May, 2017 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

Good morning, everyone! This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday is “things you want to see more of”, which sounds easy enough…

  1. Asexual and aromantic characters. I have no idea how many asexual/aromantic folks there are in the population, so it’s hard to gauge how much representation we “should” have. But I think we could do with fewer books with love triangles and more with complex platonic relationships, and exploring the way aces and aros negotiate relationships could be fuel for some pretty fascinating stories. Also just casual inclusion of people who aren’t interested in sex or romance.
  2. No dead/absent parents. You get portal fantasy where kids just disappear for ages and nobody cares much, because they don’t have parents or their parents don’t care or whatever. Take the parents with! Have a mum who has to deal with the fact that her kid is the chosen one and she can’t just write them a note excusing them from it.
  3. Boundary setting. We’ve all got to learn it: when we say no. Let’s have some characters turning round and saying, “No. This is where I stop.” Whether it’s relationship drama or the Chosen One trope, let’s have way more acknowledgement that people can say no.
  4. Diverse characters in general (especially on covers). Here is my confession: I have ghostwritten romance books. The plot, characters, all of that was my choice; I just had to produce and then turn in a manuscript with which my employer could do what they wanted. So I had some diverse leads — about whom I’d best not say too much because of an NDA — and, guess what? They were white on the covers. Let’s utterly trash this, guys. I want to see diverse characters being impossible to ignore.
  5. One volume fantasy. You don’t all have to do The Lord of the Rings, guys. There are epic stories which don’t need trilogies. (And they especially don’t need trilogies of trilogies.)
  6. Disabled detectives. This one goes out to the lecturer at my university who was going through the list of diverse detectives you might see now: “Gay detectives, cat detectives, dog detectives… Really scraping the barrel here, disabled detectives…” Here’s to scraping the barrel.
  7. Nuanced depictions of mental illness. There’s as many ways to be mentally unwell as there are people, I think. Let’s skip the guy who turns serial killer after a host of obvious signposts, stereotyped because we see it play out in fiction all the time.
  8. Fully fleshed out worlds. Do you know what your character’s first memory was? It might never be relevant to the story, but if you know, it shows — knowing exactly how your world and characters are built gives them depth even when those details don’t make it into the story.
  9. Surprise me. Turn the tropes upside down. The court mage is a lady. The senior advisor is a female knight. The biker guy runs a bakery.
  10. Practicalities. Okay, sometimes it just doesn’t fit — I can’t imagine and don’t want to know what Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas did about going to the loo while running across Rohan. But what are the arrangements if your astronaut needs to pee? What is your character eating while lost in the woods — you know berries don’t keep body and soul together in the long term, right? These little details make your world.

Whoops, got all rambly. Looking forward to seeing what other people post for this!

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Review – Other Minds

Posted 8 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 9 Comments

Cover of Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith

A mixture of science and philosophy about consciousness, I found this book really fascinating. The joins between the two are pretty seamless, so they lead into one another and contribute to one another — if you hate philosophy, this would probably still be okay for you, because it does lean a little toward the science end. To my mind, anyway. If you don’t have a strong grounding in either, it’s still accessible and fascinating, as long as you have some level of interest in the subject.

What we know about cuttlefish and octopus minds is just astounding — their intelligence is almost uncanny, and yet we know very little about how they experience the world. There were a few surprises here for me — their typically short lives, their decentralised control of movement, the seeming personalities of the animals the author observed…

There’s a lot of anecdotes and such, so if you’re looking for hard science, this isn’t really what you want. But if you’re casually interested, then I recommend it. And if you can end it without wanting to dive and meet some cuttlefish and octopi for yourself, you must be made of stone. (Not really, but. I’m left so curious! That’s a thing I love in a book.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Radiance

Posted 7 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Radiance by Catherynne M. ValenteRadiance, Catherynne M. Valente

What can I say about this book? I just finished it and I feel a little dizzy, drunk on words and possibilities. I don’t know what to make of it, and I don’t even really care. It served up so many questions, so many mysteries, and yet I found it entirely satisfying anyway — even though the ending still leaves a question mark.

Valente’s writing is beautiful, as ever. The mixture of media she uses — scripts, transcripts, diaries — let her really indulge in it, play with words and throw ideas around like splashes of colour. It rubs off on you; I’ll be writing like Valente for at least a week now, like a kid trying on their mother’s high heels. Not sure it really suits me, but playing with the idea all the same.

I can’t tell you about this book; I can’t explain it with anything other than a handful of impressions. I think I want to read it again. It worked for me; it might not work for you. I’m sure there are people it will leave entirely cold, and I might’ve been one of them, on a different day. Today Valente drew me in and had me eating it up: her black-and-white movie world, her sparkling and astonishingly fertile worlds out there in space, the Mars and Venus and Jupiter of bygone sci-fi. Another day, the profligacy of plot and imagery and illusions to mythology and imagination might have turned me off.

Try it and see.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ancillary Justice

Posted 6 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieAncillary Justice, Ann Leckie

The first time I read this book, I was very conscious of everything people were saying about it in terms of how it treated gender, how it was feminist, etc, etc. I think reading it with those expectations did it a disservice — the way it handles gender is fascinating, and it’s definitely intriguing to get this look at another world where gender isn’t indicated grammatically or socially. But that’s not all this story is. It’s also an adventure, a thriller even; it’s about political machinations when you’re a being who can be divided against yourself in your opinions. It’s about AI and how to control them, about empire and how it functions. There’s a little bit of Rome in it, but there’s a lot of other influences as well.

Which is to say, it’s not about gender. If anything, the most powerful aspect of this book this time round was Breq’s repeated refrain, the closing words: “Choose my aim, take one step and then the next. It had never been anything else.”

When you’re not worried about figuring out who is what gender, and whether that’s clever or subverting your expectations or what, it’s a smoother read, and one in which you can become attached to the characters. Lieutenant Awn — I don’t know what she looks like, nor do I care. I care what she does in the moment, and about her regret for acting or not acting. I care about Breq’s determination to be worthy of the person Awn was. Despite myself, I even care about Seivarden — a snob, a jerk, but also someone who begins to try to be something more.

Going into Ancillary Justice at a remove from the buzz, just because I wanted to reread it and enjoy it, was an excellent decision. I don’t expect my experience of Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy to change in that way, because I already knew what to expect at that point — but I’m quite prepared to find more depth there than I saw the first time.

Rating: 5/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 6 May, 2017 by Nikki in General / 16 Comments

Good morning! How’s everyone? My exams are still approaching, but I got a bit more reading done this week, hurrah.

Received to review:

Cover of Shattered Minds by Laura Lam Cover of Passion Play, by Sean Stewart Cover of Killing Gravity by Corey J. White Cover of None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

It’s been a while since I read anything by Sean Stewart, but I remember enjoying his work!

Bought: 

Cover of Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver Cover of Reinventing Darwin by Niles Eldredge Cover of Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

I’ve been meaning to read Chameleon Moon and Sunbolt for ages, and they were each 99p on the Kindle Store. So, grabbed ’em. As for Reinventing Darwin, it was recommended to me, and I can’t help a satisfied sigh at the words brazenly quoted on the back cover: “No one doubts that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is correct.” Overly optimistic, perhaps, but a delightful window into a world I’d like to inhabit, where no one does doubt evolution.

Finished this week:

Cover of The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery Cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie Cover of Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente Cover of Dangerous Women ed. G.R.R. Martin

Technically I’ve read parts I & II of Dangerous Women, with part III still on the pile, but I’m not going to upload the identical-but-for-colour separate covers!

Five stars to… Ancillary Justice.
Four stars to… Radiance.
Three stars to… Dangerous Women: Part I & II.
Two stars to… The Soul of an Octopus.

Reviews posted this week:

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi. Don’t think too much about how this would work! If you ignore that, it’s an interesting setting for a mystery. 4/5 stars
Byzantium, by Judith Herrin. A labour of love — too much love, perhaps, to be objective and to pick the right incidents to discuss for a non-specialist audience. 3/5 stars
Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel. This really hooked me despite, or perhaps even because of, my qualms. Must. Know. What. Happens. 4/5 stars
What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology, by Addy Pross. What it says on the tin, and hardly revelatory for me. 3/5 stars
The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery. Touching, but more of a memoir than a scientific book, even a pop-science one. 2/5 stars
The Drowning City, by Amanda Downum. A reread, and one I enjoyed maybe more than I liked the book the first time! 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Top Ten Tuesday: Cover Love. Some covers that have really struck me.
What are you reading Wednesday. An update on what’s been crossing my bookshelves this week.

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