Author: Nikki

Weekly Roundup

Posted September 14, 2019 by Nikki in General / 11 Comments

Good morning, folks! It’s been a busy week, and I’m not honestly sure where the time has gone. Ah well.

I did at least get an Amazon voucher from the bunnies this week, so I’ve indulged in some ebooks — and I got a couple of new releases, too.


Cover of A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker Cover of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow Cover of Return of the Black Death by Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan Cover of Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis

Cover of The Perfect Assassin by K.A. Doore Cover of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark Cover of Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney

Thank you, bunnies!

Finished reading this week:

Cover of The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs Cover of The King in the North by Max Adams Cover of Hekla's Children by James Brogden

Reviews posted this week:

The Aztecs, by Richard F. Townsend. Actually managed to make the Aztecs boring, though I imagine it’s a good scholarly resource. 2/5 stars
The Piltdown Forgery, by J.S. Weiner. A fascinating study, though it pulls back at the last minute to avoid incriminating the obvious culprit. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. The weekly update on what’s been on my reading plate!

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘What is a gene drive? I respond to a question about a genetic engineering technique that may help us eliminate malaria and other pests and diseases.

So that’s this week! How’s everyone else doing?

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Review – The Piltdown Forgery

Posted September 13, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Piltdown Forgery, J.S. Weiner

The Piltdown Forgery is a rather old book, reissued after fifty years, which examines the known evidence in an attempt to figure out who exactly forged the famous Piltdown Man. To be more precise, the forger created a collection of remains and artefacts which supposedly proved the presence in Britain of a man with an ape-like jaw and a Homo-like cranium, at such an age to suggest itself as a perfect transitional fossil in the ape to human lineage. It was revealed as a clever forgery by 1953, but interest has since focused on figuring out who the forger was and what exactly their motives were.

The book goes into the detail of the “discovery” and how the fake was unmasked, discussing the various techniques of staining and of later dating the fossil, before trying to work out who had the necessary skills, interest and motive. To my mind, the answer is fairly obvious to begin with, and the evidence presented only makes it more so; Weiner actually holds back from that conclusion, though, rather coyly asserting that surely it doesn’t matter now. Indeed, it’s now been confirmed by DNA testing, so I’m afraid there’s no way out for Weiner, despite the liking he betrays for the chief suspect.

(Not to be coy myself, the man who made the original discovery was always the obvious suspect and the recent tests confirm: Charles Dawson was the forger.)

It’s an interesting overview, though cuts surprisingly short when it is about to reach that inevitable conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted September 11, 2019 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

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.

Cover of The King in the North by Max AdamsWhat are you currently reading?

A few books at a time, as ever! First of all, my current non-fiction read is Max Adams’ The King in the North. Ostensibly about Oswald of Northumbria, it’s a little wider ranging than that, covering the whole context of Oswald’s life — so much of it occurs before he’s born or after his death. I found myself totally bored by a similar sort of book recently, but this one works; something in the prose style keeps it moving. It helps that it’s very clearly referenced, too; I have fewer questions about the validity of some of the claims. (Though I do think a lot of imagination is at work here, too, Adams is much clearer about when things are his opinion.)

Cover of Hekla's Children by James BrogdenIn fiction, I’m reading Hekla’s Children, by James Brogden, which came very highly recommended. Personally, I’m finding it a bit predictable? I’m also partway through Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths, and honestly would probably be further along with it if it were chaptered instead of one long exhausting narrative with only breaks between paragraphs instead of fresh chapters. And finally, I picked up Gideon the Ninth somewhat by accident (I was curious to read the first couple of pages, but ended up reading 50). I’m very curious about this one; it’s so hyped, and yet people have been saying they’ve struggled with it.

Cover of The Body in the Dumb River by George BellairsWhat have you recently finished reading?

I think the most recent thing was The Body in the Dumb River, by George Bellairs. It’s not a hugely original or surprising piece of Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s satisfyingly of its type. I find that most of the British Library Crime Classics are like that — solid enough, but not something to knock you over with stunning originality.

Cover of Banewreaker by Jacqueline CareyWhat will you be reading next?

As ever, who knows? I have picked what my next random pick from my shelves will be: I’m going to reread Banewreaker, by Jacqueline Carey. Technically, I’ve read it before, which would make it ineligible, but it’s on my list of unread books because I bought it in paperback after originally reading it in ebook. So there.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – The Aztecs

Posted September 8, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend

I read some fairly wide-ranging and eclectic subject matter, and I know a lot of it would bore other people to tears. The Aztecs, however, should be pretty darn interesting in principle: while our sources are fragmentary, there’s still a lot we can know, and there’s so much to be fascinated by in their legends, stories about themselves, and social structure.

Just… not in this book. There are other books in this series that manage to be wonderful, so it’s not the academic-ish introduction or the general goals of the book that constrain it. Something about Townsend’s prose is just stultifyingly dull. I made it halfway through and realised that not only had I failed to absorb most of the information so far, I hadn’t once turned to my wife and said, “Hey, did you know that…”

Well, that’s the kiss of death for me and non-fiction. Somehow it didn’t manage to give me any new information in a way that made it feel interesting. Bye, book! I’m sure you are indeed the “best introduction” to the field (as the back proclaims), for people who either don’t mind being bored or are so fascinated by the field that they can’t look away.

(Lest you be wondering, the things I excitedly tell my wife don’t have to be that interesting to the wider world — the facts can be fairly trivial.)

Rating: 2/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted September 7, 2019 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

Well, last Saturday was problematic for my weekly roundup, because my site went down! So here’s two weeks’ worth.

Books acquired:

Cover of Making the Monster by Kathryn Harkup Cover of Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy Cover of The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter Cover of Skin Deep: Journeys in the Divisive Science of Race by Gavin Evans

Cover of The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs Cover of Murder at the Fitzwilliam by Jim Eldridge Cover of Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells

Not quite as eclectic as my usual mix, perhaps!

Books read in the last two weeks:

Cover of Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw Cover of Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac Cover of The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon Cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Cover of Any Old Diamonds by K.J. Parker Cover of The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter Cover of Heraclix and Pomp by Forrest Agguire

Reviews posted in the last two weeks:

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs. A long essay on reading and how Jacobs thinks you ought to do it. Not as prescriptive as many, but kind of snobbish; an interesting read, but expect to argue with it. 3/5 stars
Perihelion Summer, by Greg Egan. Solidly not my thing; it’s based around an idea, rather than people, and does neither very strongly from my perspective. 2/5 stars
Late Eclipses, by Seanan McGuire. These books are always fun, but I feel like Toby was hit particularly hard with the idiot stick in this book, missing the obvious way too much3/5 stars
Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennan. The last of the Lady Trent books, this wraps up with some surprising and satisfying reveals… 5/5 stars
Darwin Comes to Town, by Menno Schilthuizen. Lots of examples of evolution to suit urban environments. I quibbled a bit with the organisation of the chapters, though. 3/5 stars
The Warrior Queen, by Joanna Arman. Badly edited, and mostly not about its ostensible subject. Also, prone to leaps of imagination without even the courtesy to source its wild claims. 2/5 stars
Turning Darkness into Light, by Marie Brennan. Picking up on the world of Lady Trent with her granddaughter, I found this just a delight. 5/5 stars
The Blue Salt Road, by Joanne Harris. A decent take on selkies — fairly traditional, but with a slightly re-shaped ending. 4/5 stars
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers. Not a bad novella, but it suffered a bit from its narrative format. 3/5 stars
Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw. A delight, as ever — this was a reread. 5/5 stars
The End of Epidemics, by Jonathan Quick. Recommendations on how to manage epidemics (and pandemics) better in future; not entirely sure it’s directed at the right audience, since much of it requires work on the part of governmens and the WHO. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. Last week’s edition…
WWW Wednesday. This week’s edition.

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘Trilobite shakeup.‘ I wrote about a study that might disrupt our view of trilobite fossils!

Phew, that’s the lot. How’s everyone doing?

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Review – The End of Epidemics

Posted September 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

The End of Epidemics, Dr Jonathan Quick

Dr Jonathan Quick has a bold claim in the title of this book: the end of epidemics? Does he really think he can stop all epidemics, any epidemics, from ever happening again? The answer, in case you were worried, is no: he’s not quite that full of hubris. Instead, his recommendations are focused on avoiding local outbreaks becoming global pandemics, through improving the way we handle emerging infectious diseases in various ways. His ideas rest on improving leadership, infrastructure, monitoring, education, and response time. For the most part, if you’re interested in infectious diseases then his answers are obvious to you: of course we need a leader who will coordinate resources properly. Of course we need infrastructure to get people and equipment to the right places. Of course we need to monitor exactly what diseases might be currently posing a threat.

There are some interesting dissections of epidemics past and the reasons they did or didn’t explode into pandemics, along with healthy criticism of the WHO. There’s a fair amount of worry about bioterrorism, particularly with the advent of CRISPR; this is a threat we haven’t really seen materialising yet, probably because an infectious disease is so hard to control. You can’t make an epidemic avoid the people you agree with, after all. This makes me somewhat sceptical about the likelihood of someone releasing something like smallpox, apart from possibly as a lunatic ‘destroy everyone’ move.

Anyway, as ever there’s useful ideas in here, but it’s probably not getting into the hands of people who could make a genuine difference anyway. I’m not sure what the purpose of releasing this as a pop-science book was, exactly, though I suppose it serves some purpose in educating people.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted September 4, 2019 by Nikki in General / 8 Comments

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.

Cover of Heraclix and Pomp by Forrest AgguireWhat are you currently reading?

I have a small informal project now for reading my unread books: each week I go to the next shelf and pick up an unread book from it that appeals to me, and either read it or put it in my bag to go to charity. This week was the start of that project, in the As in my fantasy/SF section, and the book choice was Heraclix and Pomp, by Forrest Agguire. So far it’s not really working for me; it’s readable enough, but there’s a sort of “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then the other thing happened” quality to the prose which is annoying, and I’m just… not that thrilled?

Cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieWhat have you recently finished reading?

I juuuust finished up my reread of Ancillary Justice, earlier today! I care more about the world and characters each time I read it. This time I particularly enjoyed the way Seivarden — in all her flawed and unpleasant glory — becomes so necessary to the narration and so dear to me. She might not be one of Breq’s favourites, but somehow you come to love her anyway. Perhaps partly because she has begun to learn and begun to try.

Cover of Dreadful Company by Vivian ShawWhat will you be reading next?

No idea! I’ve not written a reading list for this month, and I think I’ll give that a break for a while. I was failing a bit too much at it, and chafing at it too. I’d like to finish rereading Ann Leckie’s books, including Provenance, and I have Dreadful Company to reread, too.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – Strange Practice

Posted September 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Strange Practice by Vivian ShawStrange Practice, Vivian Shaw

Yep, I reread it again.

Strange Practice is a delight of a book which grows (it seems to me, anyway) from a question: “What do monsters do when they get sick?” And then, “What kind of ailments would they have, anyway?” Greta Helsing (yes, a descendent of that Helsing) is a doctor who specialises in the diseases of the monstrous. Mummies with decaying bones, ghouls with depression, banshees with sore throats — and vampires with concerning stab wounds they somehow aren’t recovering from. Which is where the story starts, really, and from where Greta plunges into a fight to protect the monstrous of London.

The reason I find it so delightful is because it has so much heart. I know “hopepunk” is typically considered to be more on the scientific end of spec-fic, but this book fits the bill for me. It shouldn’t be radical when Greta says that it is her duty to help and heal the monstrous, regardless of what they have done. But it is — her caring is radical, and a message I think is deeply necessary when Britain is splintering in the way it is. Has probably always been necessary, because humans are far too prone to drawing sharp lines.

I also enjoy that Greta is a deeply capable doctor, and that she relies on the people around her to do things that aren’t medical. However much she wants to be a hero (or at least doesn’t want to be the one left behind wondering how the heroes are doing), her first priority is the importance she has in the community. She knows that if they lose her, they lose something they need, and so she accepts the need for her companions to go and face the Big Bad without her.

Speaking of her companions… it is also delightful to follow Sir Edmund Ruthven and Varney the Vampyre around modern London. I adore the way the book deals with their long lives — Varney with much melancholy and hibernation, Ruthven by learning new skills constantly. Including, for example, latte art. Also, he drove an ambulance during the Blitz. There are so many delightful details in the way Shaw brings these characters to life.

This was the third time I read this book, because I was feeling down and glum and needed to whole-heartedly enjoy something which wasn’t grim, or cynical, or angry. This was an excellent choice, once more, and I heartily recommend it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – To Be Taught, if Fortunate

Posted September 2, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky ChambersTo Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers

This novella is a stand-alone which explores many of the same themes as Chambers’ award-winning Wayfarers books: there’s a deeper focus on science, but there are also the same themes of family, friendship, what’s worth it in life. It follows the fortunes of a small crew who are surveying planets far, far from Earth, investigating all manner of things — including life. It’s an optimistic view of the universe in terms of biology: there’s some form of life everywhere the crew go. Throughout, it’s clear that what they’re doing is not necessary — this isn’t about terraforming, finding somewhere new for people to live, finding resources… it’s about discovery, the joy and wonder of it.

It’s not much of a story, really. There’s a fair bit of explanation about why the scientific things are significant, and there’s a dryness to the tone in a lot of places because of the format (a report back to Earth). There is a payoff, but it definitely wasn’t as emotional as the Wayfarers books, and I didn’t feel particularly close to the characters. In fact, I’ve mostly forgotten their names already, though I do remember some things about them and how they reacted to the events — I’m not saying this is a dead loss, at all.

It’s a good short read, with a theme I can get behind — the importance of discovery for discovery’s sake — but I hoped for more, I think is my conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Blue Salt Road

Posted September 1, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

The Blue Salt Road, Joanne Harris

The Blue Salt Road is a take on the myths of selkies: seal-people who can shed their sealskin and become humans, and can be trapped on land by the theft of their skins. This is mostly told in a stripped back, fairytale sort of register; you’re told how characters feel, but there is a lot of telling (and intentionally so: that isn’t a criticism, because that style is deliberate). For the most part, it’s a straight retelling: a girl lures a selkie from the sea and loves him, and then hides his sealskin to keep him on land with her.

What Harris adds to the tale is a little more psychology — examination of the girl’s reasons, of the selkie’s feelings, of how he tries to fit in with the human world he’s been pulled into… and examination of the grief and loss and betrayal inherent in the story.

For all that the shape of the story is pretty traditional, I found the ending a surprise — and in a good way. I’m not sure I believe that the selkie will be happy with the final shape of his life, and there’s still a lot of grief and betrayal… but there’s also a very human and real determination to make something of it. Nobody dies of pure grief here, as in a fairytale: instead, people must carry on.

I enjoyed this a lot, and thought it did quite a bit with the story while keeping a fairytale-style narration.

Rating: 4/5

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