Review – Fireheart Tiger

Posted February 24, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de BodardFireheart Tiger, Aliette de Bodard

Received to review via Netgalley

This is blurbed as The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle… and it’s really not like either of those, to my mind, so I really wouldn’t recommend it as such. There’s a touch of politics, yes, but Thanh isn’t much like Maia and nor is her position very similar except in that they’re both in a precarious position in a court (though Maia’s risks feel quite different to Thanh’s)… though now, a few weeks after reading the story, I suppose I do recognise Maia’s road to taking control of some of his power echoed in Thanh’s story. It might be more alike than it seemed on the surface, now it’s settled.

When it comes to its other big comparison point, for me it lacks the humour of Howl’s Moving Castle. It is also obviously completely devoid of any Welsh influence, and is not aimed at the same age group. It shares one central plot element, sort of. I’m a little confused about these comparisons, to be honest; I always suck at comparing books to one another, but I still don’t see the comparison here.

In any case, it’s a queer story set in a Vietnamese-influenced court. Thanh is a princess, but she’s most definitely a spare: originally sent away as a hostage, now returned and asked to negotiate with those who previously held her hostage. She has two main memories of her time at the other court: her affair with another princess, and a massive fire that overtook the palace and nearly left her stranded.

Both of these things are, obviously, relevant.

I found the way the plot played out fairly obvious; as a novella, it paints in pretty broad strokes. There are some hints of nuance in Thanh’s mother’s characterisation and motivations, which helps, but mostly it’s fairly straight-forward and works out the way I expected. (I’m very surprised by people who don’t recognise the abusive relationship for what it is, though, and think that’s intended to be the romance — so maybe it’s more subtle than I thought and I just trust Aliette de Bodard a bit too much!) For a story of this length, I don’t usually expect to be surprised, though, and I did very much enjoy the queer relationships and the glimpses of a different kind of court life and attitude to that more familiar to me from history and Western-inspired fantasy.

In the end, it didn’t blow me away as much as I’d hoped or expected — which is partly, I think, due to those comparisons to two books that mean a lot to me. It was enjoyable to read, but not like The Goblin Emperor in the ways I hoped for, and even less like Howl’s Moving Castle. We all take different things away from stories, and it’s clear that my version of The Goblin Emperor and Howl’s Moving Castle don’t overlap with the understanding of them taken away by those who made these comparisons. It’s worth keeping that caution in mind when comparison titles make something sound like it’s going to be completely up your alley, I guess!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Symphony in C

Posted February 24, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Symphony in C by Robert HazenSymphony in C, Robert M. Hazen

Honestly, I could’ve picked this up just for the title, which I thought was clever. But of course, carbon is an intensely important element for life, so it ties in very much with my interest in biology — no carbon, no us! — and it didn’t seem like it’d be too far off the random path of my current interests. Which proved to be mostly true: I found it harder going than a book about biology, my preferred science, but Hazen’s enthusiasm for his subject carried me along to a great extent.

Often enthusiasm gives life to writing, but I did find that there were bits of this I got a bit stuck on just through not getting involved enough… and knowing that e.g. Richard Fortey can get me excited about rocks with the way he writes, that I do put down to a certain dryness in the writing. Oddly enough, it was the parts on biology I yawned through; I don’t need the facts to be new to me, but if you’re explaining to me about why carbon is the ideal element for life, I need you to make it more exciting than my textbook. (This may not be fair, as I find certain aspects of my textbooks very exciting. The membrane attack complex is a marvel! No, friends who have been subject to me exclaiming about the MAC — I’m not over it yet! Biology is amazing!)

Anyway, if you’re interested in carbon, in the history of how we understand carbon as well as the current state of the field, it’s not a bad read. It’s lacking in tables and images that can really talk people through the data rather than just explaining like a story, so it’s very pop-science in that sense, so I’m not sure how much of it will stick for me. The symphony conceit got old for me/didn’t always feel like the right way to balance/organise the material, but I learned some new things and cemented some others in my mind, and really, that’s all I ask.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Cemetery Boys

Posted February 24, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Cemetery Boys by Aiden ThomasCemetery Boys, Aidan Thomas

I really wanted to read this as soon as it came out, but I’m a mood-reader and it kept not being the time. Whoops. Anyway, now I have: it’s the story of a trans brujo, someone who can summon the souls of the dead and lay them to rest. Yadriel is a part of the brujx community, but somewhat kept apart because they’re handling the fact that he’s trans quite badly. In his desperation to prove himself, he summons a spirit… and it turns out to be the ghost of Julian, a boy from school who is rather wayward and not at all like Yadriel himself.

I wasn’t entirely sure how Yadriel and Julian could work together, knowing that this also featured a romance between them, but even as Julian annoys the heck out of Yadriel… the attraction and connection between them also makes sense. It’s somewhat forced on them by circumstance, but Julian’s unexpected kindnesses — and Yadriel’s desperateness to prove himself — speak volumes, and they become quite close. With the help of Yadriel’s cousin Maritza, a bruja also somewhat ostracised for her refusal to use blood to channel her healing powers (she’s a vegan), they try to figure out why Yadriel’s brother is missing, and what the heck is going on.

There was a certain aspect of the plot which I saw coming from a bit too far away, and I really wish it hadn’t worked out that way because I liked the character, and I was more in the mood for a different kind of story there. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, because it does, but it wasn’t how I’d hoped things would turn out.

I adore how fiercely protective of Yadriel Julian becomes; the ending is a smile a minute, honestly. The overall feel of the book is rather young, but that rather suited my need for something that felt easy to read (even as it deals with some difficult topics, like being trans and fitting into your very gendered community properly). Definitely one I’m happy to recommend!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How To Read A Dress

Posted February 24, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Read a Dress by Lydia EdwardsHow To Read A Dress, Lydia Edwards

This book is a handy survey of women’s fashion (mostly of dresses, but occasionally including titbits about other aspects of dress and accessorising, like necklaces and shoes) from the 16th to the 20th century. It features full-colour photographs, carefully annotated with useful pointers as to what to notice, and introductory essays explaining the trends of each period.

The annotation is very good, but the introductory paragraphs for each section are a bit less organised. It doesn’t refer to specific examples of dresses in that chapter, but stays totally general… meaning it’s hard for me — a not especially visual person — to link the dresses up with the trends they illustrate. Sometimes I’d look through the dresses for a specific feature, but not really see anything that seemed to match. In addition, sometimes the text would mention a specific photograph or illustration, but it wasn’t next to the text, and there was no helpful “(figure 3)” or anything; instead it would say something like “this photograph of a gentleman…” Which photograph of a gentleman? What page it is on?!

Anyway, I found it really interesting, and useful, with a few flaws. It would probably work better for someone with a visual memory!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Duke & I

Posted February 24, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Duke & I by Julia QuinnThe Duke & I, Julia Quinn

I went into this book somewhat forewarned about the consent issues, but I was curious enough to give it a try given the amount of Bridgerton allll over my Twitter feed, Litsy, etc. People who are normally pretty on the ball have reviewed it as a “nice Regency romance”, so hey, how bad can it be?

Reader, it can be pretty bad.

I enjoyed it a lot, initially. The connection formed between Simon and Daphne is funny and sweet, and the love between Daphne and her family is really nice — especially the differing ways it expresses itself between different members of the clan, each according to their own character.

However, then it gets toward That Scene, and things fall apart. First Simon totally fails at any kind of communication. Then, once she’s figured things out, Daphne decides that Simon owes her a child, and retreats to her own bedroom to stay away from him to punish him in turn. He responds to this with violent rage, telling her that he literally owns her. (Such a nice Regency romance!) Finally, when he gets drunk, she realises she can take advantage of this and force him to come inside her, because she knows better than him and knows that the real way to cure his childhood trauma is to have a baby he doesn’t want. So she does that, with lots of self-justification, and is shocked and appalled that he’s then furious about being raped for his own good (though Daphne admittedly has the self-awareness to realise that it’s mostly all about herself and her desire for a child).

After that, it becomes a paean to corrective rape for childhood trauma. Simon is, of course, miraculously healed by having kids with her, and neither his violent anger directed at her nor her rape of him are ever really addressed. Sure, they kiss and make up, but it’s pretty much that — no acknowledgement on either side that they did something destructive and awful.

It’s all very sweet at the end, providing of course that you don’t mind that one of the main characters raped the other, or that your oh-so-romantic male lead shouted at his wife that he owns her. And yes, I get that a robust discussion of consent might not feel period appropriate to you, or you might feel it’s unsexy, or whatever, but on that subject K.J. Charles would like to have a word. Her novels Any Old Diamonds or Band Sinister serve as a riposte in and of themselves, but you can also read her explicit rebuttal.

In conclusion: The Duke & I? 🤮🤮🤮

Rating: 1/5

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Update from the Department of Being Burned To The Socket

Posted February 21, 2021 by Nicky in General / 2 Comments

Hey everyone!

You may have noticed lately that I’ve been a bit absent from the blog. I’ve been thinking through how I feel about reviewing (and blogging and tracking my reading) because I’ve been doing it faithfully for literally half my life. My estimate is that in that time, I might have missed reviewing about 10 books… most of which are recent misses. That’s not a streak I’m excited to see broken!

But as I’ve ramped up to full time at work — which has been a long trek, because I’m self-employed and it’s been a matter of finding people I trust to work with, and work that I enjoy doing (spoiler: I did not enjoy doing transcription) — and as I’ve been studying for my MSc, I’ve had less and less leisure time. At first, I was trying to cram in as much as possible to that leisure time by setting myself targets, making lists, trying to do all the things I did before in half the time.

Needless to say, that was a bad idea. Much as I’ve enjoyed reading, reviewing, doing blog posts, crocheting, playing video games, learning languages, doing online courses… and all the other things I tried to strictly schedule in, once you’re doing it like that it’s work too. I was never getting any time off.

So recently I’ve been slimming everything down, and one of the things I cut out was the obligation to get reviews written on time. Which has meant they haven’t been written at all, or sometimes that when they’re written, I haven’t gone ahead and posted them.

I don’t think I’m going to abandon this blog and reviewing the books I read. But I will be changing things up a bit: I don’t know if folks noticed recently that, with fiction books at least, I did more work on recapping what the book is about — I was trying to write the kind of review that I see being popular elsewhere, and maybe give readers a bit more information on the book rather than my impressions. But I’ve never been that kind of reviewer, and it doesn’t come naturally to me. I prefer to be short and sweet! So I will go back to whatever feels natural for the book I’m describing, rather than trying to recapitulate the summary in an interesting way.

In the end, what I need to go back to is reviews being for me. Those are the reviews most people followed me for, anyway! I need to stop worrying about networking and getting visits and yes, getting ARCs. I think all of this will be more enjoyable for you guys if I’m enjoying it too.

So! What this means practically is just one thing: I’ll be catching up soon, and that might mean a spate of reviews here and there whenever I have energy, as I try to get back up to speed. It might also mean that now and then I won’t review a book, especially if it’s the umpteenth time… or if I do, I might only post it on Litsy or Goodreads. Otherwise, should be business as usual here!

The past year has been exhausting for everyone, so by the way, I fully understand if folks lurk, don’t comment back if I visit, don’t post for months and then post a bit, don’t review, review a lot… whatever’s getting you through. Reminder that this is a hobby for most of us and it should be fun!

Lots of love,
Nicky / The Bibliophibian

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Review – A World Beneath the Sands

Posted February 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A World Beneath the Sands by Toby WilkinsonA World Beneath the Sands, Toby Wilkinson

A World Beneath the Sands is a book not about Egyptology, for the most part, but about Egyptologists — and not just the highlights (Champollion, Petrie, Howard Carter) but some of the less-known names as well, including some of the women who facilitated the study of Ancient Egypt. Broadly speaking, it should have been my thing, but in execution, it just… wasn’t. It was rather slow, and just… not very exciting.

It was mostly about political manoeuvring and the various European countries that jockeyed over control of Egypt, and the doing of archaeology a distant second. The details of digs and finds were barely described, mostly just listed off before moving onto the next list of finds.

In principle, a history of the archaeologists, scholars and looters who shaped our understanding of the history of Ancient Egypt really should have been fascinating, but I found it really dry and unnecessarily verbose. I’m hoping it’s just because I didn’t enjoy the topic as much as expected, because I have another of Wilkinson’s books (The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt), and I’m hoping to enjoy that a lot!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Biscuit

Posted February 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Biscuit by Lizzie CollinghamThe Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence, Lizzie Collingham

When I mention that I’ve been reading a history of biscuits, people’s usual response is confusion about why that would take a whole book or be particularly interesting. The answer is that Collingham discusses the social, economic and political circumstances surrounding the development of biscuits, and though the subtitle calls it a “British indulgence“, it discusses other countries too and the colonial uses of biscuits (yes, really — they were thought to be useful in ‘civilising’ places like India).

This was exactly what I was hoping for: a microhistory on a really narrow topic that used that topic to reflect on larger issues. You might not automatically think of looking at the Industrial Revolution through the role of biscuits, or realise the extent to which naval voyages of exploration relied on ship’s biscuit, or appreciate the fact that the original biscuits were twice-baked bread made a couple of times a year in communities that couldn’t afford to bake fresh bread every day… but all those different topics can open out when you start digging in.

You don’t just get to learn about when they started making Jammie Dodgers, or that the company was notoriously cheapskate and used plums for the “raspberry” jam in them because it was cheaper than raspberries… that’s certainly one of the things I learned, but I also learned that the custom of following savoury food with a sweet dessert has come down in a very long tradition from when the stomach was thought to putrefy food, and Arab ideas that sugar was ideal to help seal off the stomach from harmful vapours caused by that process.

In the end, it’s a history of biscuits and it comes back to that pretty swiftly when it strays away, but using the biscuit as a home base, it can tell you an awful lot.

In addition, it also contains some recipes between chapters, some of them traditional and others from modern sources. I haven’t tried any, since I’m not the baker of the family and I’m also very lazy, but it’s a nice touch and we’ll probably keep my copy in order to give them a try someday.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack

Posted February 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, Tom Gauld

I expected to really really love this, because I generally enjoy Tom Gauld’s humour and style, and most of the Snooty Bookshop postcard collection are great (if niche, and thus sometimes difficult to place with appropriate recipients on Postcrossing)… but actually, I found that it all got a bit samey after a while, and some of them just weren’t that funny or worth noting.

I’m still glad I got it, because there are some great ones, including the one that gives the collection its title. But at the same time, I probably wouldn’t recommend it… you can follow Tom Gauld on Twitter to see many of his cartoons there, and that’s usually more fun — you get to see them one at a time, as they come out, and then the less amusing ones fare better because you’re not reading a whole book of them.

It’s also a matter of taste, of course, and maybe it’s best read a little bit at a time anyway!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Borrowed Time

Posted February 6, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Borrowed Time by Sue ArmstrongBorrowed Time: The Science of How and Why We Age, Sue Armstrong

I’ve read one of Sue Armstrong’s books before, on the role of the p53 gene in cancer, so despite aging and the science thereof not really being my thing, I thought I’d give it a try. And it was, in fact, riveting. I knew a little about some of the experiments — I read a paper on sirtuins and resveratrol for my final exam of my BSc, so that gave me some extra context — but much of the detail was new to me, and Armstrong explains things beautifully and keeps things very clear.

The answer to the question of how and why we age is, of course, “lots of ways and lots of reasons”, and the science isn’t all the way yet on understanding exact mechanisms and unpicking the many small effects that can add up over a lifetime. Armstrong avoids giving any false certainty, but makes it clear how people in the know expect things to go, and what they’re cautious about. Unlike some writers, she doesn’t intrude a lot into the narrative (we don’t have to hear stories about her neighbour’s sister’s dog’s brother, which some science writers lean on a bit too heavily), or when she does it feels relevant and useful to understand where she stands.

For a field with so many different puzzle-pieces, Armstrong really brings it together well, and I actually found myself reading this all in one day, in great big chunks. Now that’s good science writing!

Rating: 4/5

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