Category: Reviews

Review – The Galápagos

Posted December 8, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Galapagos by Henry NichollsThe Galápagos, Henry Nicholls

This isn’t a very substantial book, really: each chapter is fairly brief, and focused on a fairly broad swathe of the creatures living on the famous islands, often focusing on one or two representative examples when it’s a large family of critters. This works quite well for the layperson, avoiding going too in depth on any one subject that might become boring, while still offering an introduction to the wealth of variety and beauty in the Galápagos islands. A lot of it, of course, is related to Darwin and his theories, which are what have made the Galápagos so iconic for anyone with that kind of interest.

I did like the chapters which focus on the way humans have affected the islands. He seems fairly ambivalent about it, in a way: he hesitates to say that tourism is damaging the islands (probably because he’d be a hypocrite if he did!) but at the same time, he makes the impact quite clear.

Sometimes I do wonder about whether we can or should preserve species that are going extinct. In one sense, it’s often our own fault. We’re as much of a natural disaster as a massive meteorite strike. But maybe there should be a test applied first: if humans back off (after some captive breeding and releasing if necessary), can the population once again support itself? Or has the world just changed too fast for them? We can’t foresee all the ramifications, how and whether a species even can adapt. We could risk making a species that we value for its place in the wild into a species dependent on us, like the animals we’ve bred for food and convenience. If we do that, have we really saved the species after all? I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder; certainly I don’t think it’s unequivocally the right thing to do, and so some of the conservation aspects of this I disagreed with. Not the sentiment, but the practicality.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Still Life

Posted December 7, 2014 by in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Still Life by Louise PennyStill Life, Louise Penny

I have quite mixed feelings about this one. It was enthusiastically recommended on Twitter by a couple of authors I do like, but from the very first page it felt clumsily written to me. A little overwritten — “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec knelt down; his knees cracking like the report of a hunter’s rifle, his large, expressive hands hovering over the tiny circle of blood marring her fluffy cardigan, as though like a magician he could remove the wound and restore the woman.” It just reads all wrong to me, and put me off right there — and that’s in the second paragraph. The same sort of style continues throughout, and extends to the characters as well — if there are two more florid and clichéd gay men in all of fiction, I’d almost be surprised, and it’s not as though that gives them life. It’s like a world of cardboard cut-outs, springing up to attention when the reader looks, but flattening down the rest of the time. Some of them were even ridiculous, like the young detective Yvette Nichol: she doesn’t seem capable, trained, adult — she seems like a child having a sulk, most of the time.

This is meant to be a ‘cosy’ mystery, apparently; though it doesn’t really feel like it, with the intrusion of the police into a small rural community, with an old woman killed by someone in that community… Normally in a cosy mystery, I guess I expect there to be a different sort of crime. Someone we sympathise with less, maybe even someone who we feel deserves it. The disruption of a small tight-knit community like this one is supposed to be is pretty much the antithesis of cosy, to me.

The one thing I did really like about this was the domestic partnerships. Gamache is far from the stereotyped lonely detective with a drinking problem, with a wife and a harmonious home to return to. Other characters in the book are married as well, and these relationships are presented as natural, symbiotic, fulfilling. Those were the moments where Penny shone, for me, because for that moment her characters did show a spark of life.

Ultimately, though, I found this really disappointing and just skimmed it. It’s cosy in the sense that it’s not gritty Ian Rankin/Val McDermid style crime, full of sexual abuse and the like. It seems to try and be more in the genre of Mary Stewart or Alan Bradley — the only writers I’d forgive that ending with the snakes — and, well, fails. I’m sure there’s an audience for it, but it ain’t me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Posted December 6, 2014 by in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy FowlerWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

I hurried up about reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves because my aunt talked about reading it, and since she doesn’t seem to be a big reader, I thought it’d be interesting (and maybe add to dinner table conversation the next time she visits). She told me about the twist in a somewhat oblique way that had me wondering how the facts fit together. When I hit the apparently infamous page 77, though, it does all make sense; if I hadn’t needed to return this to the library for the next patron who reserved it, I’d have reread the first 77 pages and figured out where there’s subtler foreshadowing and so on. I wasn’t looking for it in the right places, so if it was there, it passed me by.

All in all, it’s an interesting story, based on the idea of raising a chimp among humans and seeing how much we can humanise them, which has been done in various experiments. It’s hard to say more about the themes of the book without spoilering people for page 77, because the whole way the plot comes together relies on that reveal, and whether it works for you. For me, it did. I got the book out of the library at 5.30pm and finished it by 11pm; I feel that the voice is engaging, the unchronological way of telling the story works well, and the mystery/twist combined with that narrative voice worked for me, because Rosemary (the narrator) speaks to the reader. It’s like an oral story in some ways — you’re being told a story by someone who finds it difficult, who is feeling their way into telling it.

There are things I didn’t like very much about this book, even so; some of the plotlines/characters didn’t seem to add much. Some of it was all part of the red herrings, of course, to lead the reader astray. But I was unsure about the whole character of Harlow — her later appearances seemed unnecessary, and that first performative scene with her the best and most revealing thing about her character (revealing both herself and Rosemary, I mean). The lost suitcase plot… shrug? The puppet… what?

So needless to say, given how fast I devoured it, I did quite enjoy it. I haven’t a clue what I’ll have to say about it when my aunt visits again, though; I’m still thinking about it all.

(Mum, this book is very anti-animal experimentation, it’d drive you nuts. Squirt, don’t read it, it’ll upset you.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Chime

Posted December 5, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Chime by Franny BillingsleyChime, Franny Billingsley
Review from March 3rd, 2013

Where do I begin to talk about Chime? It’s a magical story and it’s not: the plot revolves around magical beings, around what are essentially soul-sucking vampires, around a girl who is a witch. The plot revolves around a stepmother, and illness, around a girl who is made to believe that she’s a bitch. Sorry: Chime makes me want to play with words, makes me think a little like Briony (which was, by chance, almost my own name).

I can quite see why some people don’t like it. It requires thought, patience, and a willingness to tread out new brain-paths. Briony isn’t an easy narrator, and she isn’t reliable either, as she constantly tells us. The narrative isn’t a straightforward quest, it’s a maze, it’s full of funhouse mirrors.

I loved this. I found the culmination of it all satisfying, and I happily followed the maze through to the end. I loved the friendship that turned into love and also remained friendship, so much more solid-feeling than the kind of romances that fiction is enamoured of where there’s a spark and then a flame without any time in between. I loved the characters, and I would prefer to read them again.

But if you read fifty pages and you’re not intrigued, if you read fifty pages and you would like to kick Briony, if you’d like to stop reading, then stop. It probably isn’t going to magically turn out to be the book for you.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – If On A Winter's Night a Traveller

Posted December 4, 2014 by in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of If On a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo CalvinoIf On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Italo Calvino

I can appreciate Calvino’s prose (albeit veiled through translation), but I can’t seem to get on with his work as a whole. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is just really frustrating to me, no matter how good he is at conjuring up a scene, an atmosphere, an intriguing idea. I’ve never been much for experimental novels and the like, so it was probably inevitable I wouldn’t like this, but I had hoped I’d like it more than I did — it’s all about books, after all! But it annoyed me from the start, first because it’s not written for me at all. I don’t think Calvino thought for a moment about a female reader really picking up the book, because it’s all addressed to a male reader who you can supposedly, as a reader, relate to. So he wasn’t talking to me, but to some man: isn’t there enough literature that does that?

Secondly, the whole construction of the thing is just infuriating. It’s not what I look for in a novel at all, because the entire point is that disconnectedness and incompleteness, the constantly broken thread of story.

Besides, this might sound weird, but the way he writes, he seems untrustworthy. I can get behind a good unreliable narrator, but I don’t like it when I feel as if the writer himself is deceiving me, sneering at me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Into the Green

Posted December 3, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

1062774Into the Green, Charles de Lint

I’m not entirely sure what I thought of Into the Green. I read it in one go, which normally indicates a pretty good book, but I’m not overwhelmed by it, thinking back. I liked the imagery and the idea of ‘going into the green’, the set up, the world… but I tend to be most strongly drawn by characters, and none of the characters here really got me. I finished it yesterday and I actually just struggled to remember the protagonist’s name (Angharad — I’m a little doubtful about taking someone who is clearly Romani-based and giving her a very Welsh name, but then I don’t know much about the Romani and maybe that fits in just fine); she’s not a very strong character. She’s described as naive at some points, and honestly, the way she blunders about, I’d rather say “stupid”.

There were aspects that I liked, though — some of the people she meets, and the way everything came together at the end. I’d have liked to hear more about the silver puzzle box, really, and how it came to be, the culture and world it came from.

Overall, I’ve got to give it points for keeping me interested, but I’m not going to keep the book around and I hope de Lint’s other books are stronger.

Rating; 3/5

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Review – If Walls Could Talk

Posted December 2, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of If Walls Could Talk by Lucy WorsleyIf Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley

If Walls Could Talk isn’t exactly an academic, peer reviewed, footnoted piece of work, but it is kinda fun as a light read. Some of her etymological claims seem a bit spurious, some I’m sure I’ve heard debunked elsewhere, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. I think it could’ve been more interesting if she’d gone more into the things she experienced for herself like sleeping on a rope bed, blacking a range, etc, etc. That’s a perspective most of us don’t know anything about, and which she couldn’t have got wrong since it’s down to experience.

At least unlike some other popular non-fiction writers, she doesn’t get too giggly or avoidant about some of the topics that inevitably come up: sex, sanitation, death, childbirth, etc, etc.

Oh, and someone else quite rightly pointed out that she’s really talking about English houses. Not a single mention of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. I believe there were some significant differences…

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Goblin Emperor

Posted December 1, 2014 by in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine AddisonThe Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

When I finished The Goblin Emperor, I was sad there wasn’t more of it. Is there higher praise?

The things other people have critiqued do make sense: the fact that is very much character-driven rather than plot driven; the plethora of names and titles to get used to; the language stuff which may superficially appear just gimmicky and faux-archaic; the fact that Maia is often reacting rather than being proactive. Me, though, I loved it, for all of those things and more. For example, the thee/thou stuff was annoying me until someone pointed out to look closer: normally people who use thee/thou don’t get that it’s an informal form of address (presumably at least partly because of the ubiquity of the Lord’s Prayer, which uses that address for God) and so for someone who is familiar with Old and Middle English and French like me, it becomes very annoying to have people addressing their king as if he were their equal or inferior. Here, however, the pronouns are all intentional. If a character uses the first person plural, most often they are actually being formal; if they then drop into using ‘I’, then they are speaking as a private person, among friends. It’s worth watching what Addison does with pronouns, because when they change, you know something’s up. In a way, the conflict between I/we is a central part of Maia’s character and his relationships.

When it comes to the invented language, it’s a little more difficult. You end up with various forms of address depending on marital status and rank, and there are suffixes which alter names according to number and gender. This is something we’re just not used to dealing with in English these days, and it can make it very difficult to keep track of a character as they switch spheres and are referred to in different ways. There is actually a helpful section in the back, which is probably easier to refer to if you’re reading it in dead tree, which explains all of these things if it’s something you’re interested in. For me, I liked puzzling it out, and context often helped.

(From this point in the review, there are some minor spoilers!)

But all that could be there and interesting and it wouldn’t have made me care about the book like the central character did. People are right to talk about the massive contrast with “grimdark” fantasy; Maia is pretty unambiguously good, and though he may sometimes feel angry, or vengeful, he tries to be fair and not to use his newfound rank to punish those who have done him wrong. He has plenty of opportunity, he has the right, but he holds himself back. He cares about his social inferiors and servants, and though he was never trained to be emperor, never expected to be emperor, he gives himself to the role without reserve. I loved him and the characters around him, loved the moments when he pushed the boundary by apologising to them or showing concern, and the moments in return where they took a more personal interest in him. I wanted to see more of his closest guards, especially Cala, but the public/private formal/informal boundaries prevent that; we just get glimpses. I loved the moment where Cala buttons up Maia’s sleeve for him to hide the marks of abuse, the way Beshelar reacts.

I enjoyed that Addison evaded some things that would’ve spoilt my enjoyment. For example, Maia gets a crush on an opera singer, and yet there’s no seduction, no abuse of his power over her or vice versa. When she offers to have a ‘closer relationship’ with him, in a personal sense you want Maia to say yes, because it may make him happy — but because of the situation, you want Maia to remain the person he is, reluctant to abuse his role, and it’s a relief when he does. Addison shows Maia struggling with the role, but never betraying it or himself. I love that, I love that we’re not expected to forgive him a betrayal of his self because shiny happy love or something.

In terms of female characters, it’s interesting, because it’s set in a proto-medieval type world (though the religion implied at is somewhat Buddhist, with meditation taking a key role for Maia) and women are marginalised, but they’re not happy with it, and nor are all the men around them. There are educated women, women who pursue their skills and interests, women who are not afraid to defend their rights, their children, and in Maia’s fiancée’s case, her husband! Even one of Maia’s guards is, in the end, a woman. While I think the proto-medieval-Europe thing can be overdone, and there are shades of it here, Addison goes further than others in showing that world changing. For example, Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is ostensibly set in the world where women are given freedoms, educated, political, etc, and yet not one of them chooses to take an unambiguously unfeminine role — we don’t see female warriors, there remains a definite line between the roles of the sexes. Addison blurs that, shows it in the process of blurring, which I enjoyed very much.

When I say that I’m sad there isn’t more of this, it’s not because the story is incomplete. Of course, Maia’s life goes on afterwards, but I don’t want more because I need to know what happens next, or because there’s anything unsatisfying about it. I want more because I love the world, love engaging with Addison’s characters and figuring out her world, and I think there’s plenty more there for her to play with if she chooses. This is a book I’m sure I’m going to reread — I could almost just start it again right now, which is very rare for me. There are few fiction books I engage with on this level of looking for language, history, figuring out customs and conventions. It’s not on the same level as Tolkien, who spent a lifetime refining his world, but there is a complexity here which I really love.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Goldilocks Enigma

Posted December 1, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Goldilocks Enigma by Paul DaviesThe Goldilocks Enigma, Paul Davies

I’m not sure that this book is entirely successful in answering, or even trying to address, the question posed on the cover — why is the universe just right for life? It talks a lot about how the universe may have formed, and what the laws of the universe are, and it seems like it does a lot of describing rather than explaining. Now, of course, that’s because we don’t really have an answer, but it does seem a little misleading.

Davies looks at a lot of different theories here, some of them more scientific than others — he includes the philosophical side of things too, including the religious point of view. He’s fairly even handed about this, so it’s hard to tell exactly where he’d put his money most of the time (except that he’s generally sceptical of the religion explanation, because it’s a non-explanation: it just shunts the question up a level). Most of the explanations are clear, though string theory remains utterly baffling to me (or at least, the rationale behind it does).

Oddly enough, I’m left feeling that The Goldilocks Enigma is much more positive about the idea that other intelligent life is out there than The Eerie Silence. I haven’t looked at publication order or anything, but it was a little strange, reading them one after the other.

Regardless, this was written before the Large Hadron Collider swung into action, so no doubt it’s out of date in some ways. Still a good background in the various theories, particularly the more philosophical ones like the anthropic principles that aren’t likely to change. (To his credit, I now understand the anthropic principle a lot better than I did after GCSE/A Level Religious Studies. Sorry, Mr B.)

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Eerie Silence

Posted November 30, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Eerie Silence by Paul DaviesThe Eerie Silence, Paul Davies

Paul Davies does a really good job here of illustrating the issues of SETI’s lack of success, and Fermi’s Paradox. He goes into the science and philosophy of it in depth, explaining all the terms and generally making it crystal clear. What amazes me is that he’s still somewhat optimistic about finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, given all the things he says in this book — I’m now almost completely sure that even if intelligent life has arisen elsewhere (and that’s still a big if) that we’ll have trouble finding it because of the issue of the sheer amount of time and space involved.

Not that I don’t think the search is worth doing. Even if we’ll never manage to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, we might find signs of it, and understand more about how life begins. There’s so much we can learn along the way, and maybe the idea that we may not be unique will keep us a little bit more humble.

Or not.

Rating: 4/5

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