Review – The House in the Cerulean Sea

Posted December 2, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ KluneThe House in the Cerulean Sea, T.J. Klune

If you’re looking for a feel-good book right now, then this is a solid one to choose. It starts off with Linus Baker, the main character, finishing up his inspection of an orphanage for magical children. No sooner is he back from that than he’s handed a bigger task, a highly classified task, to go to an orphanage he’s never even heard of to check on the welfare of some very unique children. Lucy, for one — guess what that’s short for?

I say it’s a feel-good book, but it’s not always: Linus Baker works for DICOMY, which supervises magical children. All magical beings must be registered and monitored, and though Linus cares deeply about the welfare of the children in the orphanages he inspects, he might be the only member of DICOMY who does for all we can tell. It’s a dystopic world, and one that’s not a far cry from our own: “See something, say something” is a recognisable slogan that also haunts the book.

The reason it’s a feel-good book is that Linus is a good person. A very ordinary person in many ways, but one who cares deeply. He tries not to sacrifice his objectivity, and sometimes it’s hard, but he genuinely tries to do his best for the children he oversees… and pretty much everyone he meets. That makes him the right caseworker for Marsyas, a rather unique orphanage, holding unique and troubling children. Talia, a female gnome; Phee, a powerful young sprite; Chauncey, a protean creature of unknown origin; Sal, a shapeshifter with a history of being abused; Theodore, a wyvern with a penchant for buttons… and Lucy, short for Lucifer, and yes, it means that Lucifer. Not to mention Mr Parnassus, the master of the orphanage.

As you’d more or less expect, Linus quickly finds himself losing objectivity, feeling incredible tenderness for the children and concern for them. He also quickly comes to like their caretakers, Mr Parnassus, and the island’s resident sprite, Zoe. He accidentally becomes part of their family, standing up for them against prejudiced villagers, and coaxing the children to come out of their shells — even coaxing Mr Parnassus to give them a little more freedom, rather than protect them too closely.

In terms of the plot, it is predictable, but what’s satisfying is just watching Linus be a good man, and watch him figure out what he needs to do, and where he wants to be. The fact that I found it was predictable didn’t make it a whit less lovely. I shan’t say any more about it, because there are some surprises, and they’re worth it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Driftwood

Posted December 2, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Drift Wood by Marie BrennanDriftwood, Marie Brennan

Driftwood is a novella, sort of, but also a set of short stories set in the world of Driftwood, where realities go to die. It’s a world where stepping from one street to the next can induce a change in the weather, the laws of physics, and the very air people need to breathe. And everyone there knows their worlds are vanishing… and either accept it or not, as they can. Last is the main character, sort of — mostly glimpsed through others — and is a lone survivor from a long-gone world. He’s a guide, helping others half for a living and half for curiosity, and sometimes out of kindness as well.

He also isn’t dying, despite the loss of his world, despite having outlived the normal lifespan of his people a dozen times over.

It’s a fascinating setup, and Last is a pretty cool idea; the stories told about him by other characters in this book highlight a lonely man, who is making the best job he can of unasked for immortality. The sadness of it takes a while to shine through, but there’s one particular story which illustrates it beautifully, without lingering too long.

Overall, I found it a really enjoyable novella/collection — and the illustrations help! It’s possible to imagine an infinity of worlds and stories within Driftwood, but the last bit of this book closes it off beautifully. I still have questions, but the more important answer is the one Last finds, smiling at the end of the world.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fire & Hemlock

Posted December 2, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne JonesFire & Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

This was the first adaptation of Tam Lin that I ever read, so it was sort of odd to come back to it now with various sung versions of the ballad rattling round my head. I remembered much of the story and the events — one thing that stuck with me in particular was Polly’s mortification when she realises (or at least thinks she does) that Tom knows about her crush on him and thinks she’s too much of a kid. Gah. Cringe.

It’s funny the way the story weaves slowly through Polly’s childhood, dropping clues, and then suddenly at the end Jones puts her foot down and zooms off. This is kind of a feature of her endings, which take careful reading sometimes — you can’t just let them wash over you, or you’ll be left asking “wait, what?”

It’s sort of aged badly for me, though: it feels completely gross the way Tom uses Polly, not just because of the grossness of using someone but because she’s so young (I don’t care if he’s not as old as she initially thinks; you can make an argument that he grooms her, with the gifts and the letters). Her grandmother is quite right to worry about it, and though she’s the solid and dependable centre of the book in many ways, it feels like she isn’t listened to enough there!

Despite that ick factor, I kind of want to reread it again sometime sooner, to see if the memories layer over each other better and show up more of the hints and clevernesses to make that ending work.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Beast’s Heart

Posted November 30, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Beast's Heart by Leife ShallcrossThe Beast’s Heart, Leife Shallcross

The Beast’s Heart is a retelling of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, set in France (though it’s unclear at exactly what era, I think), and narrated by the Beast. I started it with some trepidation, since the Beast’s narration in the opening chapter didn’t quite appeal. I mean, it’s not especially surprising that the Beast is kind of self-absorbed before he becomes the Beast, but that was the immediate impression I had of his character as the Beast as well from his rather fussy narration. He never particularly sounded Beastly, you know?

That said, once we got over the part where he tricked Isabeau’s father into thinking he’d kill him if he didn’t return with Isabeau, things began to improve. I do love retellings of this story, and it was interesting to get things from this perspective — though there weren’t exactly any surprises. Shallcross doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary with the story at all, except perhaps for the Fairy that loved his grandmother.

Isabeau manages to feel fairly real; unlike some versions of Beauty, she’s not too perfect — she has her pettinesses, and she’s not the cleverest most amazing person of all, just a caring young woman who likes books and music and drawing and getting to have a rather indolent existence. The glimpses we get of her sisters work for me, too, though it all felt fairly close to Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

I don’t think this is the freshest version of the story; worth it if you have an itch for ‘Beauty and the Beast’, or you’re particularly fond of collecting versions of it, but not something I’d go out of my way for. That said, I read it in a few sessions, compelled to speed through it, so it wasn’t bad either — it just didn’t bring anything startling to a story that has been done many times.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted November 25, 2020 by Nicky in General / 1 Comment

Greetings, friends! I just caught up on all the unanswered blog comments I could find — and I’ll try to be better here on out!

Cover of MetaZoa by Peter Godfrey-SmithWhat are you currently reading?

Without much enthusiasm, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Metazoa. I remembered really liking Other Minds, so I am disappointed by this one, which I’m not finding very readable. I don’t expect much popular science stuff that focuses on biology to be new to me except in the finer details — I read it for a) obscure factoids and b) comfort through familiarity and order — but this one isn’t new and it’s slooow.

I’m also partway through Abaddon’s Gate (James S.A. Corey), and a reread of Fire & Hemlock (Diana Wynne Jones). It’s fun to rediscover the latter now I have a more than passing familiarity with the Tam Lin story.

Cover of Network Effect by Martha WellsWhat have you recently finished reading?

Uhhh, good question… I think the last thing was Network Effect (Martha Wells) and The Churn (James S.A. Corey). The former was a lot of fun; it is nice to hang out with Murderbot. The latter was… superfluous, I think, if you’ve read the main series. It doesn’t tell us much more about Amos than we already knew.

What will you be reading next? 

Nooo idea. My brain isn’t cooperating very much, so I think it’ll be a while before I get to reading something else.

What’re you folks reading?

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Review – Network Effect

Posted November 23, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Network Effect by Martha WellsNetwork Effect, Martha Wells

I was so excited to learn that there’d be a Murderbot novel, and so excited to get my hands on an ARC, that my performance dropped by several points due to the number of inputs. Which is to say, I started reading the book, was loving it, and then actually I got too wound up by certain events and ended up with a sort of anxiety about picking it up and continuing. Needless to say, I finally did, and many of my wishes for the series were fulfilled by the return of known characters and more exploration of the world.

I don’t really know what to say without being spoilery, because I think the thing that got me wound up is worth getting wound up about on your own terms. I should say that I found some of the interludes a little irritating, because they felt like padding. Though, well, you’ll see if you read it.

I’ll also admit that in some of the scenes where they were all figuring things out and making plans, my brain started derailing and refusing to hold the details in mind. I just sort of trusted to the narrative at that point, and it did work, but there is a lot of talking and negotiating, and there are a lot of characters running round doing their own thing. It might have been a bit sharper through narrowing down the focus to fewer characters. There are two characters who didn’t feel totally integral to the plot, who could’ve been left behind without harming things too much.

However, it’s also delightful to see Murderbot with its people, having returned with them to Preservation. All of Murderbot’s complicated feelings about having friends and being part of a team are on full display in this novel, and it’s lovely to explore. It’s also fascinating to see more of their world (spoiler spoiler spoiler). Despite my quibbles about the dialogue-heavy bits and the extraneous characters, I sped through the book in several large gulps once I settled down to it and started again.

If you’ve loved the novellas, it’s definitely recommended, with the caveat that you may feel the longer format wasn’t as ideal.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Churn

Posted November 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Churn by James S.A. CoreyThe Churn, James S.A Corey

The Churn is a short novella which tells the story of one of the major characters from The Expanse series: Amos Burton. I like Amos a lot, but I’m not totally sure I care about having read this; it wasn’t bad in any way, or not enjoyable, but it wasn’t necessary. We know who Amos is, and we get glimpses of where he came from… and I’m not sure I needed to read this novella to fill it in. I almost prefer piecing it together, because in some ways who Amos was isn’t as important as who Amos is… and in other ways, he really hasn’t changed very much in the series: it doesn’t add much development-wise, because the differences are simply in the different contexts.

So, if you’re a hardcore lover of The Expanse and you want to read every scrap of background, then yeah, The Churn is probably of interest. If not, then I don’t think I especially recommend it — the main series are all you need, I suspect.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Caliban’s War

Posted November 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Caliban's War by James S.A. CoreyCaliban’s War, James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War is the second book of the Expanse series, and I can’t help but see it (and Leviathan Wakes) in some ways as an answer to Firefly/Serenity. Serenity ends as a triumph, to some degree, with Mal getting the story out there. That’s the big win. And yet… Leviathan Wakes almost starts with that, but Holden can’t sit back and retire. He figures that getting the message out is enough, and of course it isn’t — as we’ve found in our own timeline with Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave campaign and impeachment and… everything. Getting the signal out there isn’t enough, and Caliban’s War shows Holden continuing to reckon with that, and keep trying to find a place for himself and the crew of the Rocinante.

There’s another way in which Holden is like Malcolm Reynolds, and that’s really showcased here as well. It struck me during the middle-ish part of the book, when Holden goes to confront Fred Johnson — who spits back at him:

“I’ve been putting up with your bullshit for over a year now,” Fred said. “This idea you have that the universe owes you answers. This righteous indignation you wield like a club at everyone around you.”

And yeah, Malcolm Reynolds has that as well, for all that he wants to think he’s a hardened criminal. I think Caliban’s War does a good job of digging into that and showing what makes a man like that dangerous, as well as someone to follow.

Anyway, that’s what particularly struck me this time — maybe because the part about “we got the signal out and nobody cared” really cuts deep right now!

It really did bother me again that everyone spends the book running around looking for Mei, without questioning basic things like “why did they want an immuno-compromised kid?” And Prax is a biologist! Okay, not a human biologist, but at other times he clearly has a scientific mind and the ability to think through a problem, including those which aren’t restricted to botany. I’m not sure it changes the story to know why Mei’s key, but it bothers me as someone who knew what was going on from the minute her condition was mentioned.

This book introduces Bobbie and Avasarala, and they are both great and balance out the gender balance, and give us the outside-perspective on Holden and his crew that we need. I know we won’t be seeing a lot of them for a couple of books, which sucks, because Avasarala is the kind of character who really challenges the dudes-with-guns sci-fi stereotypes. (Bobbie is less so, since she’s essentially the female version of them.) She’s a grandmother, a diplomat, an Earther — and that’s a needed sort of perspective.

I’m looking forward to continuing to chew through this series; I called it popcorn before, and I still concur. It’s very more-ish, and it goes down easy.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted November 19, 2020 by Nicky in General / 3 Comments

Quick update, because I am tired!

What are you currently reading?

Actually, pretty much nothing. There are some books on the Shelf of Abandoned Books that I need to pick back up, but I finished a book earlier and that was pretty much all I had on my plate actually in progress at the moment.

Cover of Caliban's War by James S.A. CoreyWhat have you recently finished reading?

My reread of Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey. I remembered it pretty well, in broad strokes, but some stuff I’d forgotten. I’m enjoying getting stuck back into this world: the books are chunky (500-600 pages) but somehow I can easily sit and read 100 pages at a pop.

Cover of Goldilocks by Laura LamWhat will you be reading next?

I will be returning to some books from the Shelf of Abandoned Books, including Network Effect (Martha Wells) for the Mini Battle in the Clear Your Shit Readathon. I’m also planning to start on Laura Lam’s Goldilocks again (which I put down because my anxiety ate my brain right before it came out) and also steam on with rereading The Expanse books, with Abaddon’s Gate up next.

What’re you folks reading?

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Review – Murderous Contagion

Posted November 16, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Murderous Contagion: A human history of disease by Mary DobsonMurderous Contagion: A Human History of Disease, Mary Dobson

I’d expected this to be right up my alley, but in the end, it was too general to really serve up the kind of titbits I’m looking for. Each chapter is a pretty high-level summary of the disease, its effects, its place in history and the current state of affairs, and though here and there some snippets were new to me, on the whole it just wasn’t deep enough for me. There’s some sourcing and recommended further reading, which is worth digging into, but it’s very much a layperson’s book.

As a layperson’s book, because of course I’m not a layperson in this field, it’s a pretty good overview of some very important diseases. The section on SARS and MERS is, well, not prophetic, but an intelligent person mentioning a warning they were aware of which we should all have heeded. The information in the book, as far as my own knowledge goes, is correct and interesting, though I wondered now and then if some things might be apocryphal (Albert Szent-Györgyi calling vitamin C “godnose”, for example).

I think the writing style might be a bit dry at times, though. I can’t tell if I thought so because so little of the information was new, or whether it was genuinely boring.

Rating: 2/5

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