Category: Reviews


Review – Rocket Girl: Times Squared

Posted 19 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rocket Girl, by Brandon Montclare & Amy ReederRocket Girl: Times Squared,Brandon Montclare, Amy Reeder

Received to review from Netgalley.

Rocket Girl is kinda fun, though I felt like at a certain point, Dayoung’s flying around and crashing into things gets a bit boring and you want more substance. I do like that we’ve got a fifteen year old girl as the protagonist, though, and that she’s capable and clever, determined and principled.

Overall, though, the supporting cast just didn’t do much for me, and while the way the story plays with time is kind of fun, I wanted more from it. I’m not sure where it can go from here, either, given the ending, and… unfortunately, I’m not that interested.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Legends of Red Sonja

Posted 18 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Legends of Red Sonja, by Gail Simone et alLegends of Red Sonja,Gail Simone et al

Received to review!

I didn’t love this TPB of stories about Red Sonja as much as I did the first TPB Gail Simone worked on, but I definitely appreciate what she did, the way she drew together female creators for this, and also the stories they all chose to tell. Women are prominent in many of them, and there are some delightful lines — like, “What’s wrong with men? I know plenty of decent male fighters.”

(If you don’t know why that made me laugh, well, it’s the flipside of what you usually get. Normally it’s a man damning women with faint praise for whatever skill or job.)

The whole storyline consists of a frame story with the Grey Riders, who are hunting Red Sonja, and then a series of stories told about her by her allies. What I loved about those was the way they emphasised different aspects of Red Sonja: her body, yes, but also her links with other women, her beliefs, her skill at fighting, and her cunning. Especially loved the little hat tip to complaints about her costume when she’s first given it, with the lady who gives her it telling her that if men are watching her curves, they aren’t watching her sword.

Red Sonja is kind of a male fantasy fulfilment thing. The chainmail bikini makes no sense, and probably chafes. But Gail Simone has made me feel very fond of her anyway: she and her team take everything about Sonja makes it feel more real, more worthy of celebration. She might’ve started as a sexist fantasy, but she doesn’t have to stay that way.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Stranger on the Shore

Posted 17 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Stranger on the Shore by Josh LanyonStranger on the Shore, Josh Lanyon

Received to review. Josh Lanyon’s a writer I’m always happy to curl up with — well, with his books, anyway — in pretty much the same way as I’d read Mary Stewart (before I ran out of her books). Mind you, I don’t think Mary Stewart featured a single gay character, while I don’t think Lanyon’s written a non-gay romance.

This was fun, in the way I usually find Josh Lanyon’s books: a bit of tension, sparks flying between the romantic leads, etc, plus mystery and unexpected danger, etc. I usually work out his plots pretty quickly, and this wasn’t an exception. The clues were a bit too obvious. Nonetheless, the exact identity of the murderer was a bit of a surprise, because I didn’t particularly have anyone nailed down for that.

The romantic relationship… For the most part, it worked for me. I could believe in the characters’ complex feelings, and in their connection. But, Pierce fell into the same trap as many romantic leads in YA books and so on (an odd comparison to make, I know). There were traits that were supposed to make him sympathetic in an odd way, but which led to rather creepy things. Like, having sex with someone to get their DNA for a test. And then entering into a real relationship with that person without ‘fessing up. Just, ugh, sure Pierce is supposed to have trust issues, but I don’t see how that makes it any better for him to violate someone else’s trust.

I am not going to quote from the sex scenes, but only one of them made me giggle, which is a start. There are some things that should never be compared to silly string or smashed champagne bottles, I’m just saying.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – 21st Century Dodos

Posted 16 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of 21st Century Dodos by Steve Stack21st Century Dodos, Steve Stack

Received to review. I might be a bit below the target age for this one — I remember some of these things, like cassettes and candy cigarettes and Jif, but other stuff was on its way out before I got there. I’m about to turn twenty-five, so I’d guess I’m about ten years behind some of this nostalgia stuff.

It’s not a very substantial book, but if you feel like a bit of nostalgia and an opportunity to go ‘I thought I was the only one who remembered that!’, then this might be for you.

Some of it hasn’t yet gone the way of the dodo for me: my parents get milk delivered, and I remember watching the milk float arrive on those illicit late nights I stayed up reading, sometimes. Okay, the first time it actually really freaked me out. But still. Milk float.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

Posted 14 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil GaimanTruth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell

I got this to review from Headline via Bookbridgr. Like I needed another source of goodies! Anyway, I hadn’t read this short story before, so my first experience of it was this version with Eddie Campbell’s illustrations and the slightly odd partial graphic novel format (which I wanted to kill with fire because for whatever reason I found the lettering hard to decipher, I don’t know if I’m the only one).

Viewed as a sort of fable/folk tale, I enjoyed it. The structure is great, too: the slow unspooling of information so that it all comes together close to the end, and if you were to start reading it again right away, you could appreciate the little clues. The art worked well for me, too, slightly unsettling and vivid, without any attempt to be photo-realistic.

What didn’t work for me so well was the treatment of women. The frankly unnecessary rape scene in the middle — I’m not going to tone it down and say it was “almost” a rape scene: it was a man having sex with his frightened wife after beating her, let’s call it what it is — and the idea of an independent, fierce young woman dying because her hair is tied to a thorn bush. That sort of works in a fairytale sense, but in reality… if I had to separately break every strand of my hair to get free, I would (yes, even back in the days when I had long hair and it was my pride and joy). I’m pretty sure 99% of people with long hair would value their lives over their hair.

And you know, the main character… I could forgive him wanting vengeance, and I could forgive him for the thing he can’t forgive himself for. What I can’t forgive him for is lying there on the floor of a hut where a woman has given him hospitality while she is beaten and raped for doing so — after he got her to come out from where she was hiding with promises she wouldn’t be harmed. Especially as it’s all focused on how uncomfortable he thinks about it — I’m pretty sure a woman in that situation would be feeling worse.

I know it’s set in a different culture, etc, etc, but it isn’t even necessary to the narrative or characterisation. Passing the woman’s husband outside would yield the same information, and we could avoid the whole sorry episode.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Black and Brown Planets

Posted 11 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Black and Brown PlanetsBlack and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, ed. Isiah Lavender III

The only stuff like this I’ve read before was during my degree, when I read books on postcolonial fiction as part of my Welsh Fiction in English class. The whole topic fascinated me, particularly because of the parallels between Welsh fiction and that of other non-dominant identities, so I have kept an eye on fandom discussions, and become involved in some (on both the right and the wrong sides, sometimes simultaneously). That’s not quite the same as reading a book like this one, with references, formal language, bibliographies, etc.

So I was interested to see how I got on with academic language again, since it’s been a while. Fortunately for me, this one is on ‘read now’ on Netgalley. And unfortunately for me, as well as being an interesting exploration of race in SF, it’s also generated a list of books I want to read/reread. For example, Malisa Kurtz’s piece on Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I remember not enjoying that, but picking apart the complexities of it has made me interested all over again.

I was also a big fan of De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s essay discussing DS9, and Gerry Canavan’s referencing it as well. I remember being quite a fan of DS9 as a kid, and never realising that Ben Sisko was that revolutionary a character. I just took him for granted. The possible link Kilgore draws between Sisko and Obama becoming present seems to me like a big jump because of that, but I’ll keep my mouth shut on that one since that’s very much a US politics thing.

Oh, and I loved Isiah Lavender III’s own essay on Octavia Butler’s work; I haven’t read enough Butler yet, but she’s excellent and well worth the analysis.

I don’t know when, but I will be picking up some of the books — both fiction and non-fiction — mentioned in this collection, in future. It’s an area of literature about which I know I’ve got tons to learn, and I hate having to admit ignorance. This makes a good start.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Planets

Posted 10 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Planets by Dava SobelThe Planets, Dava Sobel

I think I expected this to be more scientific than it turned out to be, which may be a common problem judging from other reviews. It’s actually more of a historical glance at the way humanity has envisioned the galaxy, and the way our knowledge has grown over the millennia. It’s a lot literary, with bits of science and mythology thrown in. Some parts of it were lovely for that, though I wasn’t sure about the emphasis on linking the Old Testament Genesis story with the scientific facts of creation. It seems likely to alienate a lot of readers, even if it sounds pretty.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that this is also quite behind the times now: published in 2007ish, shortly after the demotion of Pluto, it has nothing to say about more recent discoveries about the moons of the outer planets, or Curiosity, or anything like that. It’s quite accessible, but not up to date, which is a pity.

Sometimes the literary interludes really got on my nerves, with Sobel putting words into people’s mouths and anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. I like literary tricks like that as much as the next person, but it just seems ridiculous when they’re giving words and complex thought to a meteorite…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Behind the Shock Machine

Posted 7 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Behind the Shock Machine by Gina PerryBehind the Shock Machine, Gina Perry

I’ve been interested in the Stanley Milgram experiments for a long time — the “obedience to authority” ones, more than anything else, though as Gina Perry pointed out, he did other startling and original research. For example, that idea that you’re only six degrees of separation from someone else? That was his experiment. The one about good will, testing whether people would post letters just left out, and how many would respond based on the addresses on the envelope? Also Milgram.

Anyway, my interest was piqued again more recently by Dar Williams’ song, Buzzer (lyrics), which imagine being a participant in the experiment. It doesn’t matter about the details, how closely they fit what really happened. What matters is this line: “I get it now, I’m the face/I’m the cause of war/we don’t have to blame white-coated men anymore.”

Part of Gina Perry’s focus in this book is unpacking how people felt after they were the subject in the experiments. She met some of them for research, listened to the transcripts and the follow-up interviews, spent hours with the material. And some of them really were traumatised by what happened under the experimental conditions: some of them weren’t ‘dehoaxed’ until months after their participation in the study. They didn’t know that they hadn’t really come anywhere near killing a man. Some of the ethical problems with this study are astounding, and Perry unpacks them nicely.

One of the things I think people find harder with this book is her outlook on Milgram. She started out being an enormous fan of his work: it was only when she dug deeper into it that she began to feel ambivalent, even a little horrified. I wonder if people would feel the same unequivocal admiration for Milgram if they could listen to those transcripts, all of them, and experience the way he went on with the experiments despite the distress of his subjects.

It certainly sounds from this book like Milgram’s results were nowhere near as clear-cut as he presented them. For example, everyone knows that the outcome is that “most” people would obey an authority figure to the point of killing someone — but the fact is that 65% did. That’s still the majority, but that includes people who weren’t sure if the shocks were real or not as well as people who were sure they were real, and it also includes people who protested all the way. It does show the effect of pressure by an authority figure, but the picture is a little less clear than we tend to think.

And then there’s the cherry picking of his results. For example, condition 24 showed only 10% obedience: that was people paired with people they really knew. Authority can’t overcome personal relationships. Milgram never published about condition 24. Despite being a fan of his work, Perry didn’t know anything about it until she found the records, bundled in with those of condition 23.

Given that, it’s astonishing to me that anyone defending Milgram can then claim that Perry is cherry picking her data. At the very least, she provides details of all of the conditions. She ends up with strong personal feelings about the whole situation, but she quotes both from Milgram’s private notes and his published work, showing his doubts, showing that he worried about the welfare of the subjects more than comes through in his published work. After reading one of the first major critiques of his work, he drew a little doodle and wrote beside it, “I feel bad.”

It’s true that Perry has an ideological position on Milgram, but it’s fair to say that from her account, that arises from the depth of her research. I don’t think anyone going into the impact of the experiments could avoid it; she doesn’t claim to be writing a book about the scientific principles, but about the people involved. I think she does a fairly good job of presenting various sides of all of them.

Overall, I found this really fascinating, though I do always keep in mind that non-fiction is no less ideologically charged than any kind of writing. Of course Perry has opinions, and her exploration of these and how they developed during her research are a key part of the book. It’s not the last or only word on Milgram.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Moral Landscape

Posted 6 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Moral Landscape by Sam HarrisThe Moral Landscape, Sam Harris

I’ve had a good go at reading this without any knee-jerk reactions, but generally I find Harris’ views instinctively abhorrent — despite his championing of reason and science, I don’t think he avoids knee-jerk reactions more than anyone else. Particularly when it comes to religion.

The basis thesis that there are optimal states of well-being for humans, I accept. That science will be able to improve our understanding of that, I don’t doubt. That Sam Harris could be the person that executes this moral calculus? That, I can’t countenance. It’s partly an instinctive dislike — I haven’t enjoyed any of his lectures and talks that I’ve watched either — and partly his intolerance of anything he doesn’t understand.

I mean, he claims to be talking about universal states of well-being, and states that there may be multiple ‘peaks’ on the ‘moral landscape’ where the greatest possible well-being can be achieved. In almost the same breath, he dismisses any thought system he can’t understand, particularly if it involves religion.

Perhaps the fact that I’m a Unitarian Universalist makes this so difficult to swallow. I believe that there are many different paths to follow, whether you’re looking for an afterlife, Enlightenment, reincarnation… There are different ways to be good, and it’s hard to measure that. For example, we would accept a person who works with abused children in Britain, who kept their good as their first priority, as a good person. We would also accept a person who teaches children who are living in poverty in another country as good. Which is better? Which more worthy?

I’m not sure I’m being very coherent about this. I’m sure there’s someone waiting to jump on me telling me that Harris is completely coherent, entirely reasonable, etc; most likely some of them will have some sexist comments to make, without being aware of their own hypocrisy. For me, though, I didn’t find Harris’ argument that coherent. He seemed to argue himself round and round a tiny point without ever looking up to see the wider world and put his work in context — every statement seemed to be a reiteration of his core thesis, rather than something which expanded it.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Invisible Orientation

Posted 5 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra DeckerThe Invisible Orientation, Julie Sondra Decker

Received to review.

Reviewing this book publicly feels kind of awkward, because I know the fact that I’ve read it is likely to make people ask questions right away. The temptation with something like this is pretty inevitably going to be asking me why I’m interested, to what extent it might align with my own experiences, etc.

To dispose of that in a single paragraph: I have no interest in sex for physical gratification. I do have a partner, and whatever we may do is between the two of us and no one else’s business. Certainly I’ve had some of the experiences mentioned in this book: wondering what is “wrong” with me that I’m not interested, being told that my disinterest can be “fixed” (sometimes quite forcefully), being told that it’s down to my medication/mental illness, etc.

So, to the extent that any single person can identify with a book about a broad issue, this book is “about me”. If you’re now feeling curious about all this, I would ask you first not to ask me questions but to read this book and the book I’m currently reviewing. Then, maybe, we can talk.

Speaking more generally, this is a pretty awesome book for acknowledging the sheer breadth of human experience. It acknowledges all sorts of levels of interest in sex and romance, all sorts of orientations on the spectrum of attraction. I know one of my friends who identifies as demisexual also found this a useful resource. It can be a means of finding information, whether you’re asexual or not; it can also be a means of finding validation, of finding a measured and sensible voice telling you that there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not strange, there are people out there like you.

The problem is that people who are opposed to the idea right away probably won’t read this, or if they do won’t be convinced by it; that’s definitely not the book’s fault, just that issue that people much prefer things that confirm their pre-existing bias. It’s worth trying, though — you never know what’s going to get through and change someone’s mind, even your own mind.

Rating: 5/5

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