Category: Reviews

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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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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Review – Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Posted November 15, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon JamesBlack Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James

Black Leopard, Red Wolf follows the adventures of a man named Tracker, from childhood to a cell where he is forced to tell his life story. He has a wolf eye and a nose — he can track anything, anyone, once he has scented it once, and that’s how he gets pulled into a quest to save the son of the king’s sister, prophesied to save the kingdom. Not that the prophecy matters much to Tracker: he’s just in it for the adventure, for the sake of a shapeshifter he loves named Leopard, and gold. Mostly the gold.

The book was pretty hard going for me. It’s rife with violence, sexual and otherwise; the narration is stream-of-consciousness, in rhythms of speech that aren’t very familiar to me. Sometimes it lacks the expected punctuation or grammar, capturing a whole different kind of voice. I found myself skipping parts, because it would take so long to say a simple thing. If a man fires three arrows, one after the other, then each arrow will be described. This isn’t a quote, but it’s an illustration of the style: “Leopard fired one arrow and a man fell down. Leopard fired another arrow and a man fell down. Leopard fired another arrow and another man fell down.”

As a stylistic choice, it adds a certain rhythmic energy, and it all adds to a clear picture of Tracker, so that you can almost hear his voice narrating… but I wasn’t a fan and found it hard to concentrate on (in the same way that it can take me a while to feel my way into the style of a Norse saga, or particularly the set-piece bits of The Odyssey).

Plot-wise, there’s a lot of back-and-forth to get nowhere, but the story builds up in its own time and I never quite got to the point where I got fed up and just wanted to put it down. I did want to know what happened. There are definitely some moments where it got under my skin, too, particularly regarding Sadogo, and another character from later in the book. The violence of it all really put me off, though; I can’t say I’d call it gratuitous, because it says something about this world and about Tracker, his companions and his outlook. It does begin to feel excessive, though.

I don’t think I’ll read the other books — I believe it’s meant to be a trilogy, and apparently the next book focuses on a character I really don’t care for. Not that I particularly care for Tracker, either! It seems like an awful long time to spend with characters I don’t enjoy, since I’m rather the type to hang a lot of my interest in a story on the players. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be invested, and I barely was.

So, glad I read it, because there are interesting stylistic choices and a few bits I did rather like (to explain would be a spoiler, but it involves Tracker’s relationship with a particular character who appears later in the story, and secondarily with some other side characters). But… I don’t think it’s for me.

(Remember, I rate books on my enjoyment of them, not an objective assessment.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Fifth Season

Posted November 14, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Fifth Season, by N.K. JemisinThe Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

Whoa. How to review this without spoiling it… It’s difficult, because The Fifth Season is cleverly structured so that pieces you see right at the start don’t fall into place until the end. I had the tiniest of clues to figure something out from what other people said about the book, and it helped me work things out; I actually like that sensation, of watching to see how the pieces fit instead of trying to find out where they fit, so to speak. I know a lot of people don’t like that and want to go into a book totally unspoiled, though… and I can see the value of that for this book.

I mean, you can barely even talk about the narrative style without risking treading on spoilery ground. Suffice it to say that Jemisin really does know what she’s doing, and you should trust that everything has a purpose. If you really hate second-person narration, or present-tense narration, and think it’s never going to work for you… I doubt it’s going to. But if you’re willing to keep an open mind, it pays off.

The worldbuilding is pretty awesome. Looking back from the end of the book, it’s amazing to think how much has been introduced, explained, hinted at, often without explicit instruction. Jemisin expects you to work for it, but she’s created a whole world and her characters live fully within it, which is always one of my big tests for good worldbuilding. She remembers that the characters will take certain things for granted, even as the reader needs to see and understand them, and she weaves that in beautifully. There are a few instances that feel like infodumps (including the first chapter), but again — it’s for a reason, and in my opinion, it’s not actually meant to be helpful. It’s all in aid of character and voice. Watch what is said, and what isn’t, and how it is said.

It’s worth noting that the whole story is pretty grim, and the outlook is bleak. There’s violence and oppression and coercion and slavery, and everybody is culpable to one degree or another.

I’m glad I waited until the trilogy was finished (and, cough, then some) to read this, because I think it’s probably best read all at once before I lose half the detail.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How to Tame a Fox (And Build A Dog)

Posted November 14, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Tame a Fox by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila TrutHow to Tame a Fox (And Build A Dog), Lee Alan Dugatkin, Lyudmila Trut

This book discusses one of the most famous experiments on the domestication of animals: the silver fox experiment, originally conceived by Dmitri Belyaev. Generations of foxes were bred during this experiment, selecting from each generation only the tamest animals… and quickly, the experimenters found the behaviour and appearances of their subjects converging on that of dogs. Floppy ears, curly tails, play behaviour even in adults, interest in humans, affection — even protective behaviour.

This book discusses these experiments and their context (shadowed at the start by Lysenko’s hold on the government, their funding fluctuating according to who was in power), and some of their implications. It discusses the morphological and behavioural changes, picking apart some of the known or hypothesised causes (like differences in levels of hormone production, including melatonin and serotonin).

It doesn’t go into any of the criticism of the project’s far-reaching conclusions, which I’ve been seeing a bit of around now Google knows I’m interested in this subject. For instance, at least one study has suggested that the foxes used in the experiment weren’t wild to begin with; though it was always acknowledged that they were from fur farms (and the descriptions of their behaviour, per the book, certainly don’t make it sound like any tameness had been selected for)… it’s still a confounding variable. The book is wildly positive about the experiments, so it’s worth noting that slant and the fact that the story here definitely isn’t the full story. It’s very much a story, though, including a touching tale from Belyaev’s funeral and snippets about the lives of those who worked with the foxes, so it’s pretty much to be expected.

It’s a very clear and easy to follow read, and I think it would be perfectly fine for a complete layperson, even when it dips into the science. It makes me wonder very much about whether these foxes will become common pets in future.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Leviathan Wakes

Posted November 11, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. CoreyLeviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey

The opening of Leviathan Wakes is just pure horror. Julie Mao has been trapped in a storage locker for days, during a takeover of her ship. When her need for food, water and other relief overcomes her caution, she bursts out… to find the ship empty and almost dead. She works her way to engineering to find —

Well, I won’t spoil that moment for you, even though it’s at the start of the book. The horror aspect recedes for quite a while, leaving more generic (but fun) space opera and a touch of noir. One side of the narrative follows James Holden and his tiny remnant crew after the destruction of their ship, the Canterbury, as they acquire a new ship (the Rocinante) and attempt to find (and hurt) whoever blew up the Cant.

The other side follows Miller, a halfway-decent cop who is melting down a bit after being ditched by his wife, and who fixates on a job he’s asked to do — to find Julie Mao, daughter of a rather famous family, and ship her back home. The two sides converge, of course, juxtaposing Holden’s righteousness against Miller’s almost amoral tendencies and making both of them look like assholes in the process. (Though in most ways I’m on Holden’s side, and Miller’s just kinda really creepy sometimes.)

The horror comes back in the middle, for sure, and threads through the rest. There are some epic fight scenes, some great character moments, some horrible revelations… and for my money, it all comes together really well. It’s pretty breathless, for me; for all that’s ~550 pages long, I didn’t often put it down. It was a reread for me, and it stood up to the memory. I’m looking forward to rereading Caliban’s War, too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – House of Fiction

Posted November 11, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of House of Fiction by Phyllis RichardsonHouse of Fiction, Phyllis Richardson

I was hoping for something that was totally disconnected from current events, something like stepping back into the bubble that was my BA/MA at Cardiff University… and I got it. This is a history of houses in British literature, what houses might have inspired the authors and what the houses meant to them — and what, perhaps, they were trying to say with their fiction. It gets a bit infodumpy, which may or may not bother you: the books it mentions are comprehensively spoilered, which may or may not spoil the stories for you. (For me, no; it probably enhances them most of the time.)

It is, consequently, not a book about the history of houses, per se. Some of that creeps in, of course. Some of the books and stories are more focused on houses than others, and some books felt included here as an afterthought — but it’s nice to have some signposting to other relevant reading, should I care.

I don’t, really; I wanted this for my wide-but-shallow knowledge acquired by pleasure reading, and so it was an end in itself, something that demanded very little of me. As far as I can tell, the theories and arguments about the influence of certain houses on certain writers (and the intent of the writers in shaping their stories) were well-argued and plausible. Richardson writes clearly and made me interested in books and authors I’ve not read yet, and makes some interesting points.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fly By Night

Posted November 10, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fly by Night by Frances HardingeFly By Night, Frances Hardinge

Fly By Night is a heck of a lot of fun, and though I’d say it’s perfect for a pre-teen or young teenage reader… there’s a lot to attract the adult reader too. Hardinge’s created a strange world, a bit aslant from our own, and through it rampages Mosca, a young girl who has run away from her home village; Saracen, a goose that she took with her; Eponymous Clem, the smooth-talking stranger she decided to join… and a host of other characters of various stripes. I have to admit that, primed by Untitled Goose Game, I was on Saracen’s side in all of this. In any given scene, at any given stopping point, my main concern was where is Saracen???

(People who watched me live-tweeting my binge of this book can attest to that. Several tweets demanding to know where the goose was.)

Part of the reason I was on Saracen’s side is that things get a bit twisty. Who do you trust? By the last hundred pages, I only trusted Saracen. There’s so much going on: old religious iconoclasms, political upheaval, guildsmen of different factions, censorship of the written word, secret schools in alleyways, floating coffeehouses which are free of some of the censorship and rules that apply in the city… And I haven’t touched on a lot of the other stuff. There’s highwaymen! Daring escapes! Shocking revelations! It’s a madcap world and the narration tumbles through it joyfully.

The book almost ends on this note: “I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.”

I concur. Good thing I’ve got the next book!

Rating: 4/5

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