Robin McKinley has written two retellings of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale; this one is the closest to what you might think of as the classic story (i.e. actually the version immortalised by Disney, albeit with touches like including Beauty’s sisters), and is also the youngest in terms of how it’s written. It follows the traditional set-up, and the retelling mostly relies on filling in the gaps — characterising Beauty’s sisters, playing with irony (Beauty is not, in fact, beautiful — at least not at first, though somehow she becomes very pretty over the course of the book), creating several secondary love stories — rather than being wildly transformative or creating a rich world. Rose Daughter… well, I’ll come to that when I’ve finished that reread!
I find it very enjoyable, partly because it’s kept fairly simple, and because I enjoy the characters. It’s an undemanding read, but it’s fun.
A more accurate, but less attention-drawing title, would be something like “How the Irish helped to preserve the literary records of the Greeks and Romans”. In parts, it’s more of a history of the fall of Rome than about the Irish, and in others, it’s more about the coming of Christianity to Ireland. Cahill’s portrait of St Patrick is rather tender and actually worth the read if you’re interested in reading about a saint who seemed to be a bit of a stand-up bloke, but… none of this is actually about saving civilisation in any kind of general sense.
Which all makes sense, because awesome as Ireland can be, saving civilisation is a bit too big a task. I don’t even agree with Cahill in the sense that Greek and Roman literature and philosophy were that necessary for later civilisation to exist — there would be civilisation, I’m sure: it just wouldn’t be Western civilisation. There’s way too much privileging of the Classical and Christian tradition in this book, in a way that’s kind of gross if you consider how many other civilisations have existed. He’s also a patronising dick about medieval people in general, spouting cliches all over about their views and inner feelings in a generalising and condescending sort of way. Meh.
Cahill is certainly invested in his subject matter, and fascinated by what he’s writing: he portrays St Patrick in particular with sympathy and care. However, there’s that basic premise being all wrong, the condescension towards whole peoples and ways of life, and the condescension to the reader in assuming they’ve never encountered Plato and couldn’t possibly understand what Plato is saying.
In The Hollow Man, some thinly characterised people try to work out a locked room mystery, probably less paper-thin than they seem for some readers since it’s actually the sixth or so entry in a long running series, but really not sufficient for someone just starting out. Various implausibilities are discussed, unlikely red herrings crop up, and in the end there’s a shocking reveal, the trick is explained, and no one of any consequence to the reader has changed or grown at all.
As a puzzle story, it’s not bad, but I don’t quite get the hype about John Dickson Carr if this is typical of his work. It feels like the story and characters are thin layers of papier-mâché covering what the author really wanted to do, which was just play with that puzzle. It’s not unusual for a Golden Age crime novel, but from the enthusiasm of other readers I assumed there would be more to it than this. I’ll probably try another book or so by Carr — series detectives like his Gideon Fell can be a difficult proposition, but other books not featuring this character might be okay (reader, I hate Poirot, but Agatha Christie is really not bad when you leave him out of it). This wasn’t bad, I just didn’t care.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford
It’s an ambitious title, and it should come as no surprise that that’s not really a history of everyone who ever lived. It’s really a story about some of the things we know from our genes, and it’s a bit of a random sampling at that, covering ear wax (those who have studied genetics will find this no-shocker, since wet vs sticky earwax is a fairly common example of a certain kind of genetic trait), kings, disease, migration, redheads, and all kinds of things in between. To me, it read like a grab bag of interesting facts we know about genetics: yes, the facts are interesting, but a coherent argument leading through a book it is not.
Rutherford’s not a bad writer, and he clearly has an eye for a good story, but… first of all, this level of pop-science is a bit too pop for me now, and secondly, it’s a disorganised mess.
A Kiss Before Dying is basically about a charming psychopath, and it feels same-y because I find that whole concept really overdone and boring at this point. The story is cleverly structured, and Levin’s writing isn’t bad or boring, but… the choice of topic and the twists are just kind of meh. Basically, a young man is dating a girl because her father has money. He has her totally hooked, everything’s in the bag, and then she gets pregnant. Her father’s old-fashioned and would’ve disowned her, so he knows that the jig is up — and he can’t ditch the girl, because then her father would probably ruin him. So he decides to kill her.
We jump forward to the girl’s sister investigating her death, sleuthing around the campus where her sister died and generally threatening to open up a whole can of worms for the killer. After that — well, this is one of those books where you probably want to read the reveal for yourself, so I won’t spoiler. (Everything I’ve mentioned so far is pretty surface-level stuff that might even be in the summary, don’t worry!)
I did enjoy looking out for the scene that Chelsea Cain, in the introduction, says is completely innocuous to someone who just opens the book at that page, and is a shocker for anyone who has been reading the whole thing. She’s right, it is a pretty awesome moment, if you’re keeping an eye on the details.
So meh, because I’m bored with the allure of a charming psychopath, but the writing and structuring is good, and it’s probably right up a lot of people alleys.
Threads of Life is a history of the world through sewing, from the Bayeux Tapestry to modern protest banners. Obviously, part of the reason it caught my attention is that I’m doing a fair bit of sewing (cross-stitch) myself at the moment — but also, I’m a sucker for this kind of micro-history that focuses in on one particular element of the human experience of history. In this case, there’s a lot of personal musing too: the author has been involved with a lot of community projects and art initiatives encouraging people to sew, bringing communities together through sewing, etc. There’s a healthy amount of history too, though, discussing how embroidery is viewed and how that has changed, discussing the roles embroidery has played in all kinds of situations.
Overall, it’s an interesting book, and there are all kinds of things I had no idea about that I’d love to see, like the quilts made by women in captivity during wartime. All of it makes me want to sew, and to be political with my sewing as well — if I could design worth a damn, I’d be cross-stitching Jo Cox’s (somewhat paraphrased quote): “We have much more in common than that which divides us.”
Overall, the author tries to get more than just a Western perspective, and to include people from all walks of life and how they’ve used sewing — both as something that is useful in itself, and as a form of self-expression. The abridged BBC programme about this book is good, but very much abridged: it’s more of a taster than a full idea of everything Hunter covers.
Ostensibly, this book is about a simple question: are humans alone in the universe? It has to go the long way around to come to any answers, exploring other arguments by way of figuring out whether the Earth is or isn’t rare in the universe and whether or not life is as tightly constrained as some people say, but the core principle of the book is that we need to find a middle ground between the current main ideas — the Copernican view that we can’t be unique, and the Rare Earth view that says life in the universe must be unusual.
Mostly, my wife got to watch me mutter “yes, obviously”, and I’m tempted to quote Lord Peter on Chief Inspector Parker here — it takes Scharf a desperately long time to someone who already has a somewhat formed opinion to “crawl distantly within sight of a conclusion”. That conclusion, in the end, is basically where I stand: not enough data, come back later (with a side of Scharf being pretty sure that neither extreme is going to turn out to be correct, with which I disagree — I think it’s all up for grabs at this point).
So anyway, if you want to know why I came to the conclusion I’ve written in my science blog recently (i.e. “we don’t know and we can’t know based on the current data we have”), this book has a good roundup of the evidence. Scharf isn’t bad at explaining it.
But if you’re looking for answers, I find it as unconvincing as all the other attempts at answering this question.
My Sister, The Serial Killer follows the main character, Korede, as she cleans up after her sister, Ayoola. That’s pretty much entirely literal: you see, Ayoola has developed a bad habit of killing the men she dates, and Korede has become sucked into the role of an accomplice. Everything in her life is just so, but then Ayoola storms on in with her problems, and Korede finds herself handling dead bodies and confessing only to a comatose man in the hospital who is expected never to recover. And then, gasp — Ayoola comes to the hospital where Korede works, and sets her eyes on the young doctor Korede has a crush on.
For the most part, I found this kind of pedestrian. Korede gets jealous about Tade (the doctor) and Ayoola; obviously, in trying to call Ayoola out, she just sounds jealous and unhinged. The comatose man to whom she’s been making her confessions wakes up and (of course) remembers the things she said. Ayoola is unfaithful and capricious. And yet, the sisterly bond is still there, and Korede can’t bring herself to break it: she’s meant to look after Ayoola…
I don’t know: for the most part this all just struck me as inevitable and I got a little impatient with it. I did check back in a little for the end of the story, wondering exactly how it would wrap up — and it avoided being completely banal and obvious.
I do enjoy the setting of this book, and the fact that Braithwaite makes no concessions for people who are unfamiliar. She just talks about the local food, local customs, and expects the reader to keep up. (Not that it’s particularly difficult, but I think the temptation is there sometimes for people to cater to the Anglo and American readers a little too much.) The story is shaped by the setting — the Nigerian police force don’t go about the case like an episode of CSI, giving the story about the sisters space to breathe, but there are other pressures on them from the people around them, from the relationship with technology (Snapchat is important in the story, for instance)… In that sense, it works quite well.
I’m afraid I’m still left rather “meh” overall, regardless. It’s easy to read, but it’s also easy to put down (for me, anyway).
Pale Rider is about the 1918 flu pandemic known as “Spanish flu”: the fact that it killed many more people than the Great War did is a well-known fact now, and this particular pandemic is credited with making scientists realise the dangers of a global health crisis like this — and the likelihood that it could and would happen again.
I’ll confess, I didn’t think I’d learn that much about the flu from reading this book, having already read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, but in fact there was a lot here that was new to me. Not so much in understanding the disease itself — if Barry’s book didn’t do that, studying for my exams certainly did — but in understanding the impact it had on the world, and particularly on non-Western countries. There’s a lot here that’s new to me about China and Russia, for instance, whereas I feel like The Great Influenza focused much more on the American side of things.
There’s also, I feel, more of an attempt to understand the social and political effects of the pandemic, rather than just the medical and scientific.
However, my end feeling is the same: influenza is a fascinating topic, and if it doesn’t scare you (in a measured informed way that leads to taking sensible precautions like getting the flu vaccine every year), it should. Spinney has a common-sense approach to it all — there’s a lot of things that need to align to make a pandemic, and Spinney doesn’t overstate the likelihood of that happening, but she does lay out the risks and emphasise the need for data collection and disease surveillance. Hear hear!
I know, I know; some of you are surely wondering, “Again?!”
The Goblin Emperor is the story of an ill-prepared fifth son, who has hitherto spent his time in exile due to the disfavour his mother was viewed with, finding himself on the throne of the Elflands after the murder of his father and half-brothers. Thrown into the midst of it all, he has to find his feet and become a ruler — one who is careful to respect his father and the tradition of the throne, but who is also prepared to make some fairly drastic changes to benefit his people. All of them.
Naturally, some of his people were quite enjoying the status quo, and even those who wanted to change things had some rather different plans.
This was, I think, my fifth time reading this book, and I still love it so very much. It helps that the main character is so completely endearing: despite a lifetime of mistreatment, he clings to the principles taught to him by his mother (herself fairly mistreated by the system) and tries to be a good person. It’s not that he succeeds entirely — he’s unfairly waspish at times, he has the impulse to be ungracious and to take revenge, he has the urge to run away… The important factor, though, is that he works on it.
I do also enjoy the world-building, which is pretty high quality: Addison has given thought to how the language works, to how the two primary cultures in the book intersect, and to the world that surrounds them. She has so many characters who are intriguing, even when they can only be seen in glimpses due to Maia’s isolation as emperor — so many things I’d love to know more about, and so many opportunities to expand on the story (not necessarily Maia’s story). I’m so excited for the new book in this world; there are so many possible characters it could follow, and I’m pretty excited about most of them.
Saying anything else really comes repetitive of all my other reviews, but as usual, I thought I’d pick out the things I really noticed this time round. One image that this read-through left me with: the image of Maia, on the day of his coronation, in the rocky cave alone; the quality of the darkness, the coldness of the water, the stillness of the room.