Category: Reviews


Review – The Riddle-master of Hed

Posted 27 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Riddle-master of Hed by Patricia McKillipThe Riddle-master of Hed, Patricia A. McKillip

This is beautifully written, as all of Patricia McKillip’s work is. However, something in the density of it makes it difficult — not to read; I sped through it, in that sense, but to understand exactly what it going on and how we should feel about it. I’ve had that problem with one or two of McKillip’s other books, so I think it’s something about her style which may or may not be a problem for other people. I wouldn’t actually start here, with McKillip: I first fell in love with The Changeling Sea, I think, and I’d start there if I could begin with her work again.

Nonetheless, it is beautifully written and a joy to read in that sense. You might find yourself lingering over a sentence, a paragraph, because of the way it’s put together.

I can’t help but think that Le Guin’s Ged and McKillip’s Morgon have a certain amount in common. They’re both driven by their destinies, rather than following them willingly. They baulk more than a hero-type like, say, Aragorn or Frodo. Maybe slightly more in common with Bilbo, wishing he could be back home listening to his kettle sing, and Morgon especially shares that unwillingness and the sense that the goal is not really his own.

I’m not entirely sure what I think of the world-building. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff here, revealed in a careful way (avoiding any info dumps like “as you know, Bob, the wizards disappeared seven hundred years ago”). But the story is so clearly unfinished, so clearly part of a trilogy — maybe not even a trilogy, I can’t see how this could be a complete book on its own in any sense, it doesn’t really come to any conclusion. So I’ll reserve broader judgement for later. Onwards!

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Review – A Mind of Its Own

Posted 26 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of A Mind of Its Own by Cordelia FineA Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine

If you’ve read much on the subject, this doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but it’s presented in a readable, well-organised format, meticulously footnoted, and adopts a pretty light tone. If you’re anything like me, you’ll smile in recognition of some of the things she says — in the middle of describing the brain’s unreliability, Fine points out that precisely in line with what she’s saying, your brain is probably insisting you’re different. It doesn’t apply to you. You’d ignore the researcher in the obedience to authority experiments, you can see through your brain’s attempts to make you believe you’re better than you are.

(And if you’re honest, you’ll admit at this point that you do want to think you’re different. My favourite bit was putting some of this together. For example, when it talked about experiments where people were told that extroverts do better at something, they went through their memories and pulled out only ones that corresponded with an extroverted image of themselves. On the other hand, I ruefully thought about all the ways I am a hopeless introvert — thereby illustrating one of the brain’s ways of protecting itself from failure, by providing myself with an excuse, i.e. ‘if I’m less successful, it’s because I’m not extroverted’.)

Not revelatory, but pretty fun.

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Review – Six Feet Over

Posted 25 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Six Feet Over by Mary RoachSix Feet Over, Mary Roach

I don’t think I’m the greatest fan of Mary Roach’s style. It’s informal, easy to read, self-deprecating — but when it comes to a topic like this, I don’t want to hear all about Mary Roach unless it really illuminates the subject matter. Granted, stuff like near-death experiences and the various ideas of what happens to us after we die are things I’ve been interested in for a long time, and don’t really need an entry-level primer on. (I had to memorise the stages of an NDE as described by Kenneth Ring for my religious studies A Level.)

Still, where this deals with facts instead of impressions, it’s interesting stuff. A couple of the studies and anecdotes were familiar to me from what I already knew: I still find the case of the woman who saw the surgical tools being used on her despite having her eyes taped shut an interesting one. (It’s convincing because it wasn’t a typical tool, not something she’d have come across elsewhere, and she didn’t see the instruments before or after her operation.)

Overall, this probably isn’t going to convince you either way, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s certainly got some interesting snippets of information.

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Review – My Real Children

Posted 24 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of My Real Children by Jo WaltonMy Real Children, Jo Walton

So, first off: I am completely, utterly biased. Jo sent me a copy to review, I had my own pre-ordered copy several days before the book released, I love her work in general, and she’s been great to me. This doesn’t speak to me in the same way Among Others did, but all the same, it’s wonderful. I love the way the two timelines are handled, and I love the way that last chapter brings things back into alignment. I love that I was thinking all along that I wasn’t sure about the narration, and yet somehow it worked and brought me to tears.

The thing with the narration is, this is a short book to hold the sum of two lives. So at times the narration seems to summarise things that could have been interesting expanded. I wasn’t sure for parts of it whether the emotional impact would still be there, but it is. In some places, it fits perfectly the way things happen: matter of fact, sudden, without announcing themselves first. I was thinking about whether I’d want it to be expanded, but I don’t think I would. It would take away from the structure, the careful balance Jo builds.

I love the fact that this book is jammed full of people. Gay people, out and closeted both; unconventional relationships and love that doesn’t colour between the lines; families, built and chosen; people with disabilities who conform to no stereotype; pacifists and campaigners; scientists; women making their way in a sexist world and pushing the boundaries… All of them are handled with respect and care for their stories.

The whole plot… I don’t know how much is too much to give away, here. The final chapter just makes everything slide into place and come clear. You’ve got Pat/Trish living two separate lives, each with their own kinds of happiness and fulfillment. You think it’s going to be simple to choose which one you’d prefer for her, and then if you just tilt to the head you can see why that wouldn’t be the right choice.

And I don’t know if anyone else felt this, coming to the last page, but I don’t actually know which version of herself Patricia chooses. It looks like a straight-up choice between personal happiness and wider well-being, but the whole book shows us the importance of tiny actions by a single person. Trish is a person who takes care of other people, who sacrifices her own well-being for that: does Patricia choose to follow her path, because that’s part of who she is? Pat is a person who focuses on her family, who loves art, who makes the world a better place, but who is ultimately quite insular: does Patricia choose to follow Pat, because that insularity is part of her too? Saying that she couldn’t make any other choice only makes sense after she’s chosen.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

Posted 23 May, 2014 by Nikki in Academic, Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Beowulf trans. J.R.R. TolkienBeowulf: A Translation and Commentary, J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien

I’m full of wonder right now. Not so much at the translation of Beowulf — Tolkien was well-versed in the language and knew what he was doing, and the tone is often reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, which emphasises his attempts to weave his own stories with the old stories of England — but at all the commentary published together here. Pretty much every issue I considered in my undergraduate class/es on Beowulf is touched on here — the pagan aspects, the episodes, potential interpolations, mythic and historic origins — and dealt with in a confident, convincing way. Tolkien’s close reading of the text is exemplary. I don’t feel like I have the knowledge to criticise his work, but I do know that it’s incredibly worth reading.

As with most of the other posthumously published work by Tolkien, though, this isn’t really something for the layman. It’s not exactly technical, but in delves into the minutiae so much. For a translation of the poem for an interested but not greatly knowledgable layman, I’d still recommend Seamus Heaney’s translation as lively, well-considered and interesting. For commentary on the poem, general introductions are still enough. But for anyone who is more deeply interested in Beowulf, then this is an amazing resource. His treatment of the plot of the poem as a short story, ‘Sellic Spell’, doesn’t entirely convince me as a precursor story to Beowulf (it rings very strongly of fairytales, to me, and not so much to a sort of mythic background) but is interesting nonetheless.

In terms of fans of Tolkien’s fiction as well as or instead of his academic work, there are gems here for us too. His translation of Beowulf really emphasises the Beowulfian elements in The Hobbit, and the way he phrases things, though slightly more archaic, is definitely familiar. His commentary mentions words you might recognise from his novels — maþm, OE ‘gift’, for example, as long as you remember that þ = th…

All in all, this may be because of my personal interests and the fact that I have done some academic work on Tolkien, but I think this is generally more valuable than most of the other work brought out posthumously by Christopher Tolkien, and I found CT’s editing most logical and less of a barrier here than ever since The Silmarillion. I got very excited about it, and while I got an ebook to have it right away, I will shortly obtain a hardcover for my collection, and count it worth it.

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Review – Attachments

Posted 18 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Attachments by Rainbow RowellAttachments, Rainbow Rowell

I unexpectedly adored this. I was tempted to stay up late to finish it. I pretty much devoured it. I feel the urge to defend it against bad/lukewarm reviews. And I don’t even really know why — there’s something in the writing style, the characters, the warmth I feel from it.

I love that it deals with heavy issues like self-esteem and miscarriage and self-loathing without making them seem incidental and trivial: Lincoln falls in love with Beth partly because of how she comforts Jennifer, and so did I. She seems a wonderfully warm character, wise, and yet not perfect. If she were perfect, she would have seen her relationship with Chris for what it was. Jennifer is a side character, but she’s not just a plot device: I cared about her issues with having a baby, with her grief and guilt. I cared about Lincoln’s mother’s issues, his sister.

Also, I loved the nostalgia. I was a kid at the time, I guess, but I still remember the new millennium, the worry about the Y2K issues with computers, and I remember those email filters on the school computers and… I think that’s likely to seem like a completely different world to readers only a little younger than me, but I was a bit charmed by the nostalgia factor there.

Bottom line, it’s not a life-changing book, it’s not going to shake your world view in any way. But it’s enjoyable and sweet, and I loved it. It’s a chick flick in novel form, in terms of theme and plot, but it takes serious things seriously, and that makes the whole thing work.

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Review – The Twelve Caesars

Posted 13 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Twelve Caesars by Matthew DennisonThe Twelve Caesars, Matthew Dennison

The quote on the cover calling this ‘gossipy’ is right; ‘insightful’, not so much. There’s a lack of meaningful dates and orientation, and Dennison avoids picking a side so much that he immediately undermines any definite point with something else. He talks about Tiberius, for example, presents him as a little reluctant to take power, and then a couple of pages later presents him as a power-hungry tyrant; he talks about his simple, ascetic life, and then repeats gossip about his sexual proclivities and excesses.

It mostly seems as though Dennison is unsure about what the truths are, and isn’t willing to put in the scholarship to figure out how true or false any particular assertion may be. He just seems to present it all.

So yeah, didn’t find this all that entertaining, really. It’s just so vague about actual events.

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Review – The Door into Summer

Posted 12 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of The Door Into Summer by Robert A. HeinleinThe Door into Summer, Robert Heinlein

I haven’t previously managed to get through any of Heinlein’s work, but I am nothing if not determined, so I finally picked this up and decided to have a jolly good go. And it was okay. The style is easy to read, conversational; matter of fact, even. It’s almost not like reading a story, except of course you know that few of Heinlein’s predictions work out (though he did predict the Roomba).

It’s an interesting take on cold sleep/time travel, and a personal one. Dan isn’t saving the world, he’s just setting some personal wrongs right. Despite that, I didn’t find it particularly driven by character: my sympathy for Dan as a character comes from the situation he’s in, not for any personal qualities.

The best bits about the story are Dan’s cat, who has a personality all his own, and who I rooted for more than anyone else in the book. Cat lovers will appreciate this one, and I think Heinlein got close to poetry in the way he talked about Pete, particularly at the end. It was certainly the best of his prose.

People rightly find the plot with Dan’s friend’s stepdaughter, Ricky, pretty creepy. I mean, he meets her when she’s a kid, she has a crush on him which he knows about but treats as a joke… until the grown woman he’s engaged to turns out to be scamming him, and then suddenly he says that if Ricky had been a little older, he’d never even have looked at Belle. And then follows a whole plot where he wants to track her down and marry her, and ends up going to her while she’s still a kid and telling her to put herself in cold sleep when she’s twenty-one so that he can then marry her when she’s an adult. It’s a bit of a fairytale anyway, a kid that age knowing what she wants and going through with it like that without ever doubting or changing her mind (not that we get to see Ricky’s thought processes or how she grows up). But knowing her as a kid and deciding, based on that, that he wants to marry her, without ever meeting her as an adult — yeah, kind of disturbing.

All in all, it’s an easy read and interesting, but I can’t say it’s converted me to being a liker of Heinlein. I do want to try one more of his, since all I’ve read is this and part of A Stranger in a Strange Land, but it’s the sort of thing where you have to keep the words “of its time” very firmly in mind.

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Review – Jhereg

Posted 10 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Jhereg by Steven BrustJhereg, Steven Brust

I was pretty sure I was going to like this, since some people whose taste I trust have mentioned it to me before. (The whole series features in Jo Walton’s series of posts on Tor.com/in her collection of those posts in book-form, and was one of the ones from the list I made while reading it that I have underlined several times as a priority.) Still, I wasn’t sure enough, so I only ordered the first omnibus, which contains the first three books. Ten chapters in, I ordered the rest. Unfortunately, I’ve had them sent to the wrong address, so I am pondering how to pace out reading Yendi and Teckla so that I don’t finish them before I am, one way or another, in the same place as the rest of the books.

At the same time as noting that I loved this book, I will add that knowing a bit about this series to begin with helps. Like, knowing that so much of the series was planned in advance, appreciating the fact that it all plays with time… And knowing people I like love it makes me inclined to extend it some credit. Still, I did very much enjoy it for itself. It’s nice that there’s a whole complicated background to discover in time, over the course of the series, and that Brust avoids any unnecessary info dumps. I did feel a little bit expositioned at, a couple of times, but it was in Vlad’s voice so it still worked.

Very interested to see where this goes, how Vlad develops, and how various things that I know about from reading mild spoilers in reviews come about. And now, onto Yendi.

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Review – Astonishing X-Men: Torn

Posted 9 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Astonishing X-men: Torn by Joss WhedonAstonishing X-Men: Torn, Joss Whedon, John Cassaday

The copy of this I picked up has no indication of where it might come in a series. I was sure it was probably in the middle of something anyway, but I thought I’d give it a go, see if X-men is something I’m interested in following (’cause you know, it’s not like I’m following enough already).

If you’re already invested in the characters and know what’s going on the story, then I think this would be a gut punch of a volume. There’s some amazing stuff going on with Kitty Pryde, and all of the X-men are affected in one way or another by what happens here. Unfortunately, for me, I just don’t know enough of the background — everything I know about Kitty I know from Ultimate Spider-man, everything I know about Scott I remember from a cartoon when I was little, and a lot of them I don’t know at all. It looks like an interesting storyline, and the art is good, but I just can’t say I enjoyed it when I was so at sea for most of it.

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