I’m always willing to try Cherie Priest’s books: I haven’t loved all of them, by any means, but there’s usually been something — an idea, a sense of atmosphere, a character — that just really makes it for me. So it was this time: I got really interested in gentle, tortured Tomas, in good-hearted and lively Alice, and I wanted them to triumph. I hated what was happening to Tomas, and to the community Alice finally found of people like her. I enjoyed Alice’s irreverence, her good intentions, her delight in things like food and drink and the fact that she didn’t care what people thought of that, for the most part.
The solution to the mystery of what’s haunting Tomas didn’t surprise me any, and the way things worked out was pretty much as I expected too. The strength of it was in how badly I wanted things to be okay for Tomas, how much I wanted them all to triumph, and the fact that I was actually afraid that one particular character would die before the end of the book.
The horror here is mostly, for me, in the way Tomas is manipulated which is really what darkened the book for me. Violent and demonic ghost/spirit/things, eh, but those things hiding themselves and using a (relatively) innocent man — that got to me.
Wow, where to start with this. My thoughts are still all scattered! I wasn’t very wowed while reading it: that’s not what has me conflicted. It was an interesting enough story and setting, though at times it felt as if Fisher was just lurching from crisis to crisis, with no real indication of what happened in between. I wanted more characterisation, more meat on the bones of the ongoing tragedy, to make me really feel it and feel the strain of the characters’ journey, their isolation.
There are some really raw feelings here — hurt and betrayal and displacement and fear… but it was blunted by not knowing enough about the people it was happening to. I would’ve also enjoyed more background and depth to the world: it didn’t feel two-dimensional, but it felt like a sketch map rather than a painting, if that makes sense. The detail might’ve been there, but I couldn’t see it at this resolution.
Anyway, before I delve any further into mixed metaphors (ack! there I go again), I’ll just have to conclude that I found this tantalising and intriguing, but I wanted more from it, and I wanted a bit more foreshadowing of the conclusion, which was like a bolt from the blue for me as well as for the characters. It should fit in with all the other pieces, in hindsight, but it didn’t quite.
Argh, this book gives me such mixed feelings. Tiffany Jenkins is an unabashed supporter of keeping the Elgin Marbles, and many other items in collections like that of the British Museum which come from other countries. She lays out several arguments for this, including the fact that some of these items would have been destroyed if they weren’t in the UK, either now or when they were first collected. She also argues that no contemporary culture can really claim direct descent from the people whose artefacts and remains are now displayed, and that the British Museum (or insert other museum with a comparable collection here) is an ideal place to study and understand these artefacts. The British Museum, she points out, allows you to see objects in their historical context, and make connections between them.
She also argues that some of these items were legitimately bought or obtained originally, so that should still hold now — even if those sales were forced by the poverty of the people in question, by colonial pressure, etc, etc. That’s such a weak argument, I just dismissed it straight away: how can we know those choices were really free choices, now? Best to assume they were not, and accept whatever moral obligation that puts us under. We’ll be right more than half the time, I would guess.
Jenkins is notably particularly against returning bodies to their putative modern equivalent cultures, because of the loss of scientific data that entails — that, she argues, is more important than the fate of bodies whose former owners surely don’t care about it now! I find this a callous and dismissive point of view, because it demands that everyone else see the world the way she does, and ascribe no value to physical remains. She wants to totally disregard what people may have intended in having their bodies interred in particular ways: science is all. And I’m not with her on that; personally, I don’t think it’ll matter to me what happens to my body once I’m dead, but I’d fight you if you wanted to exhume my grandfather without my family’s permission for an indefinite period of time, even for science, and even more so if you wanted to display his remains. They’re human remains: I think we lose something of our respect for the living when we fail to remember that the dead were once alive and had their own wishes.
I don’t disagree with some of the goods Jenkins ascribes to museum collections, though. There is a scientific value in the remains and artefacts from long ago, and particularly in fields I’m very interested in myself, genetics and the history of disease. In the end, is that worth more than people? Not to me — but I feel that me and Jenkins would be at an impasse on this anyway, since I’m sure she would argue no disrespect is intended, no judgement of worth inherent in the decision.
I love museums, I do. I’m glad I’ve seen the real Rosetta stone, the real statues of dead kings, the actual cups or plates or coins that someone used long ago. Replicas and facsimiles aren’t the same in terms of their emotional impact. But still… there are people who are closer kin to the long-dead artisans and craftsmen who made all those items or were buried with them, and they deserve a chance to have that feeling too, in Greece or wherever else.
So I come to no conclusion on repatriation. Probably it’s something that should be considered on an individual basis, with careful evaluation of all the facts, with one exchange not necessarily setting precedent for another. These are discussions we need to have.
(Don’t ask me about the exhibition of dead bodies of whatever degree of antiquity, unless you want an impassioned and incoherent rant. I’m profoundly uncomfortable at the display of people who died in pain and confusion, such as the casts of bodies from Pompeii; to me, it’s an intrusion, and tourism a sick excuse.)
All in all, this is an interesting read: I don’t agree with Jenkins, and I feel that some of her arguments tend to the insensitive (just as probably some people think that my concern for people of other cultures in the face of scientific facts is just my bleeding heart liberalism speaking), but it’s worth reading even if you expect to disagree. Honestly, I went in wanting her to convince me we should keep the Elgin Marbles and everything else, for selfish reasons, but left the book feeling that it really would just be selfishness, with no better reasons winning out.
Obviously, when you read this, you can’t help but compare it to Gaudy Night if you’re a Sayers fan, or at least versed in your Golden Age crime fiction. It’s set at a women’s college in Oxford, after all, though it lacks the maturity and reflection of Sayers’ novel — the characters are mostly undergraduates, and there’s some leaning on stereotypes like the one single foreign student who attends the college (and doesn’t think about time, or tidiness, or anything else in the same way as British students — of course). The characters get all entangled in solving a mystery half for the fun of it, although there is the same focus on protecting the reputation of the college as Harriet and her peers feel in Gaudy Night.
Overall, it’s entertaining, with a fairly obvious (to me, anyway) mystery; it’s an interesting read as part of my ongoing dive into Golden Age crime fiction — but I’m not in a hurry to read Mavis Doriel Hay’s other two novels republished by the British Library. I probably will, but they haven’t catapulted to the top of my list.
The Great Mortality is how the Black Death was referred to, before we came to know it by that evocative name. There’s a lot of detail here if you’re interested in the historical aspects of the plague: where it struck, how people reacted, the changes it brought about. The scientific background is a bit more lacking, though: there’s some tantalising hints, like a brief discussion of the increased virulence of the illness compared to the modern version that’s still endemic in some parts of the world, but for me with my primarily scientific rather than purely historical or sociological outlook, it began to drag.
So, not a bad read, but not what I was really looking for.
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, Leena Likitalo
I still feel that the first book ended too abruptly, and really the two should have been published together. The first might’ve been a novella, but this was definitely long enough to qualify as a novel, leaving me really wondering why it was published as part of the novella line (though I see others in that line-up now that I wouldn’t have called novellas). Does The Sisters of the Crescent Empress satisfactorily complete what The Five Daughters of the Moon began? Well, sort of.
I did enjoy this a lot: the interactions between the sisters, the way it embellishes the basic story of the Romanov princesses in a fantasy world, the complex relationships and allegiances between the characters, torn between the old world and the new. I enjoyed the development of some of the characters, particularly Sibillia, and getting to see more of Celestia and what made her tick.
I did feel that it ended abruptly, again, and that there’s so much more of the story I want to know, and which the duology feels incomplete without. Does Celestia succeed in ending the riots? What role does Elise play? Does the body-swapping trick work, and how does that end up? Sibillia’s story just ends in a way that feels almost like wasting her character development, but she’s the only one who does get a solid end.
I also felt that sometimes the way the characters spoke felt wrong: the abrupt sentence fragments, for example, just left some of the characters sounding like automatons, when that plainly wasn’t the intent.
I definitely enjoyed this duology, but I wanted more from it, too.
I’ve been meaning to try Hoffman’s books for literally years. Not sure how long this one has been on my TBR, but long enough. Short stories aren’t always my thing, so perhaps it wasn’t the right place to start: nonetheless, it’s what came up on my Kobo first and I thought, well, why not?
I ended up bailing, I’m afraid; it’s competent enough writing, but I didn’t get hooked on the stories or characters, and one of the stories was just unbelievably gross, with a ton of rape and rape culture. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be approving of rape, but it’s just not a sort of story I’m interested in, and the obsession with rape in that particular story turned me off all the others. I’ll definitely try some of Hoffman’s novels, but her short story writing seems to be unequivocally not my thing.
It’s been a while since this book was published, of course, and the science of investigating ancient mitochondrial DNA has been going from strength to strength, but this is still a good book on the background of that research, the importance of mitochondrial DNA, and the idea that we can trace our lineage back through the female line to just a few specific women. (Actually, this is very Europe-centric, a fact that becomes clear when you read the whole book: the seven ‘clan mothers’ mentioned are only the last common ancestors of European mitochondrial lines.)
Sykes writes clearly and well, and the only bit I wasn’t happy with as popular science writing is the little fake histories of the seven women. He tries to put flesh on the bones of what the women might have been like, the environment and social situations they would have encountered, but it’s really far too much like pure fiction for me. If he’d even included some more perhapses and maybes and alternative scenarios, I might have been more comfortable with it. As it is, it gives us a false idea that there were seven such knowable women.
Still, it’s fascinating stuff and I do love reading about this kind of genetic detective work.
If you’ve read River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, this doesn’t add much to those two novellas. It’s a nice collected edition with two bonus stories, though: one features Houndstooth, Ruby, and the dentist who looks after Ruby’s teeth (and Houndstooth’s money… sort of), and the other features Houndstooth, Archie, and a certain Marshal. They’re nice little snippets in the world, but they don’t add much to the story of the two novellas. And, sadly for me, they don’t feature my fave, Hero.
That said, if you like the idea of an alternate history in which hippos were introduced in the US as a farm animal and you haven’t read these yet, especially if you enjoy a good caper… you should totally, totally pick this up. What better time?
This is really clearly written, it covers fascinating subjects, and the authors have tried really hard to equip readers with the ability to think things through for themselves. They don’t just state conclusions: they lead the reader through how those conclusions were reached, until they are also inevitable for the reader. It’s a smart way to write, although the right people — the people who look at the conclusions and decide they’re wrong without any evidence — probably won’t actually go through the evidence.
Unfortunately, a lot of this evidence involves thinking mathematically, which is not a strong point for me. I can hammer something into my head for practical purposes (I can now do a bunch of statistical tests using paper and a calculator!) and I can remember how to calculate something I find interesting (the number of base pairs in a fragment of DNA from how far it travelled during gel electrophoresis), but I’m not good with big concepts. And Cox and Forshaw tackle some of the biggest here.
At another time, I might be in the mood to work through this more thoroughly. As it is, I didn’t finish it — not because I think it’s bad (it’s not), but just because this is not the time. Too much for me to learn that’s more immediately relevant.
(Remember that my ratings denote enjoyment, not usefulness or interestingness per se. It’s just… maths. Not for me, not right now.)