Category: Reviews

Review – The Hobbit

Posted September 24, 2014 by in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Yesterday — or, by the time this goes live on my blog, the day before yesterday, the 22nd — was Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, so naturally that constituted the final bit of excuse I needed to reread Lord of the Rings. And it never quite feels right without starting with The Hobbit. It doesn’t have quite the same cleverness that I enjoy with Lord of the Rings — Tolkien hadn’t come up with, or didn’t see the need to explain, his complicated text provenances, for example — but I still enjoy the narration, the sense of being told a story, and the fact that he expects you, dares you, to be on the ball. As a kid, I didn’t notice some of the flaws in Bilbo’s plans at all, but Tolkien’s narration gives you the benefit of the doubt there. Self-deprecating, almost.

I think the reason I dislike the Hobbit films so much is because they are adapting the book I love to blend with the films they’ve made already. I can see why they’re doing that, and why people enjoy it, but I don’t feel the desperate need to rationalise the difference between the tones of the two books. I like my dwarves goofy, the hero’s journey a little less blatant; I like that Bilbo makes his way through all the adventures because he’s a hobbit, with hobbit-sensibilities, not just a hero in hobbit form. I love that hobbits are basically Tolkien taking aspects of himself and letting them run around in this fantasy world without the illusion that of course he’d be the heroic type. It’s still wish fulfilment, but it’s a kind of wish fulfilment where the hero probably would be better off as a grocer or something else quiet, and manages despite that.

I mean, I bet a very small percentage of self-insert fanfics have the sense to admit that in reality, they’re more like the hobbits than the typical heroes. I really enjoy that Tolkien quite blatantly did that with his layers of authorship and the characteristics of hobbits as a race, and didn’t give in to the urge to over-romanticise it — while still making hobbits endearing, funny, brave, worth reading about, still pulling out aspects of character from even the most countrified bumpkin that could make them a hero.

And, let’s be honest, I just don’t understand people who don’t see the skill in Tolkien’s writing, in the way he builds up the world. Even here, where it isn’t taking the main character very seriously, he still takes the world seriously, shadowing it with the threat of the Necromancer, the Ring, the great alliances of the orcs — hinting at twisted dwarves and the complicated history of the elves, deftly bringing in little bits of lore so that they’re natural when we come to them in The Lord of the Rings. Not because he was planning it, but because he knew his world and knew how to show it to the reader.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Rewire Your Anxious Brain

Posted September 23, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rewire Your Anxious BrainRewire Your Anxious Brain, Catherine M. Pittman, Elizabeth M. Karle

Received to review via Netgalley.

I didn’t read this from cover to cover, as I’ve read other books like it before. My main interest was in seeing how solid the scientific basis of this is — one of the authors has a PhD, but I could have a PhD in literature, which would by no means qualify me to speak on neuroscience — and how helpful I thought it might be for other people who end up in the same position I’ve been in. The good news is, from my knowledge of science and my intimate knowledge of anxiety disorders, there’s a lot here that’s useful. It doesn’t just focus on targeting the conscious part of anxiety generated by the cortex — which people often try to target on its own, with CBT — but also acknowledges the contribution of the amygdala.

Generally, it seems a sympathetic and credible book that someone with curiosity and determination could work through to help cope with anxiety, whether it’s a full blown disorder or just something that crops up more often than you’d like. It’s not an exhaustive reference book of information mentioning every single disorder, every single type of medication, but it is somewhere to start. And it quite rightly encourages the reader to get the help of medical professionals, and it doesn’t dismiss the uses of medication.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Crochet Answer Book

Posted September 22, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Crochet Answer BookThe Crochet Answer Book, Edie Eckman

Note: Received to review via Netgalley.

The Crochet Answer Book is a great resource, especially for people who are just beginning to crochet or who know the basics and want to add some embellishments. It has very clear illustrations and explanations, and shows pretty much everything from both a right-handed and a left-handed perspective — having tried to teach a leftie to crochet, I definitely appreciate that and would probably use this in future rather than trying to crochet left-handed myself or something like that.

Especially useful for me is the stuff about gauge, because I’ve never made anything that needed me to pay strict attention to that. I’m not sure about “answers to every question you’ll ever ask”, but this is definitely a good resource and worth picking up if a Q&A style book seems likely to help you.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Beauvallet

Posted September 19, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Beauvallet by Georgette HeyerBeauvallet, Georgette Heyer

This certainly wasn’t my favourite Heyer novel so far, given the hero’s grabby hands and ego, but at least the heroine was a match for him in many ways, and it is a fun set up. It’s not a Regency novel like most of Heyer’s others, but one of the more historical ones, and honestly I could’ve dispensed with the romance for more of Nick swashbuckling his way around Spain as a spy. That plot, I liked: I wonder what Heyer would have done if that was her focus.

While this isn’t as amusing as most of her work, and the romance wasn’t exactly to die for, I did enjoy it well enough. It’s only the fact that I know Heyer also wrote The Talisman Ring and The Grand Sophy, both of which I love, that means this rather pales in comparison.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Peas & Queues

Posted September 18, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Peas & Queues, by Sandi ToksvigPeas & Queues, Sandi Toksvig

I’m not sure what other people were expecting with this: luckily, I approached it for exactly what it is, a book which offers advice on all sorts of situations and how to navigate them with dignity and politeness. Sort of like Captain Awkward, but more formal, and less tailored to a specific individual or situation. It contains all sorts of advice from dealing with family life to what to do at weddings and funerals.

It even touches on some etiquette that seems obvious when you hear it, but which people genuinely do miss. Like asking a lesbian couple about their sex life and which of them is the man — just don’t. If you wouldn’t ask the question of a straight couple, don’t ask it of a gay couple. A lot of Toksvig’s advice boils down to not putting other people in awkward situations (e.g. like public proposals where there’s an obligation to say yes or look ridiculous) and respecting other people’s privacy.

Pretty solid. And it’s sometimes interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes useful — and sometimes, as all generalisations are, not useful. At least Toksvig acknowledges — repeatedly — the importance of context rather than a rigid set of rules.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – On My Way to Jorvik

Posted September 17, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of On My Way to Jorvik by John SunderlandOn My Way to Jorvik, John Sunderland

The most interesting part of this book, for me, is obviously the Jorvik part. It’s fascinating to see how someone with no experience managed to get into a big project like the one at Jorvik, and then create something pretty much universally acclaimed for the way it changed people’s relationship to the history there.

The problem is, the book is about the way to Jorvik as much as Jorvik itself, so there’s all sorts of distractions along the way, and details about Sunderland I wasn’t that interested in. Not just the formative incidents of skipping school to browse in museums, but also his relationships, his pre-Jorvik projects no matter how irrelevant, and weird incidents of the type that happen to nearly everyone at least once: a lady in a cinema with a “suspiciously deep voice” offering him sweeties. Some of the incidents are interesting, and Sunderland has a vivid imagination, but mostly I was just waiting for the parts about Jorvik, and wondering why the hell I’d be interested in that anecdote from the cinema, or what exactly Sunderland did on his days skiving from school.

There was some interest in it on another level, because Sunderland’s a Yorkshire lad, and while I wouldn’t say I’m a Yorkshire lass, I did grow up there, and I could put the things he said into that context and see how utterly Yorkshire he was being — things he said, his attitudes, etc. I doubt that’s going to be a big draw for many people, but it was part of the enjoyment for me: wry smiles and snorts of recognition.

The part about the actual Jorvik project is interesting. He doesn’t talk much about the dig or the actual findings there: he talks about how they set up the space, preservation methods, how they got those ‘piped smells’ sorted out, the commissioning of the figures… I’ve been to Jorvik, though not recently; possibly even long enough ago that I saw something like the exhibition Sunderland created, even though he says it’s been revamped and changed now. So it was interesting to get a behind the scenes view of how a very unique museum was put together, by someone outside the museum business, and how it upped the ante for other projects and museums. It is ultimately an autobiography, though, not a book about Jorvik.

Rating: 3/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted September 16, 2014 by in Reviews / 3 Comments

This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday is “Top Ten Authors I’ve Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More”, which… I’m not quite sure if I can do, since I tend to go on sprees. Let’s see what I can manage.

  1. Steven Brust. I’ve only so far read Jhereg, though I know I’m gonna read the rest of the series.
  2. Laura Lam. I’ve read one of the short Vestigial Tales, but not the main series.
  3. Phyllis Ann Karr. I loved Idylls of the Queen (and wrote part of my dissertation on it). Lucky for me, I have a few more of her books waiting in my queue.
  4. Steven Erikson. I’ve got almost the whole Malazan series to go. I might have to reread Gardens of the Moon by the time I get round to that, though.
  5. Philip Reeve. I’ve read Here Lies Arthur, and have a bunch of others on my list.
  6. Jorge Luis Borges. This is more because, much as I wanted it to, The Book of Imaginary Beings didn’t wow me.
  7. Italo Calvino. Same goes, with Invisible Cities. There’s a lot I wanted to love.
  8. James Morrow. I haven’t actually quite finished This is the Way the World Ends yet, but it fascinated me the way he managed to draw me in, despite my usual aversion to comic novels of any kind.
  9. Kameron Hurley. I’ve actually only finished reading her book of essays. I really need to read God’s War and Mirror Empire.
  10. Lucius Shepard. I’ve only read The Dragon Griaule, and that was just fascinating, the weirdness of the world and the way he built it up.

Oh, I could manage after all. What about everyone else?

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Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Posted September 15, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Posting this old review since the book is a Kindle Daily Deal today!

Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time. Cancer scares me silly, so it’s not something I was able to do for a while, but I finally got round to it today. And in perfect time, because today I was an event marshal at a charity event raising money for cancer research, and tomorrow I’m running in that same charity event to raise money myself. (This seems an opportune moment to point at my fundraising page. Here.) I’m wearing a t-shirt tomorrow on which I’ve written the names of people who’ve died of cancer — my grandparents among them, but including people I’ve never known, people I’ve never even heard of. In fact, you can contribute names yourself in the comments to this review, if you like. Anyway, HeLa/Henrietta Lacks is the only one given special treatment, written larger than the others. Without ever knowing, she has contributed the most to cancer research and indeed to medical research of anyone living or dead. Rebecca Skloot’s book is important because it seeks to unearth what little information remains about the real Henrietta — a young black woman with cervical cancer — and how her legacy has affected the world, including her children.

Reading the one-star reviews, there’s a lot of concern about Skloot’s choice to document her personal activities in the search for HeLa, and the fact that she’s profiting from this story while pointing out the injustice of the fact that Henrietta Lacks’ children do not even have medical insurance. I’m not sure myself why she couldn’t outright give money from the profits on this book to the family, but she has set up a foundation. Most important is the fact that in writing this book she had the permission and cooperation of the family, who read the book in draft form and approved it. Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, repeatedly asks for this book to be written just as it is, telling the full truth about the family.

Skloot documents first the process of discovering the HeLa cell line’s potential, and moves on to the contributions made to scientific knowledge because of it. Slowly, her focus expands to examine the legacy of HeLa for the family, and the effect upon them. It’s pretty shocking reading, because this family was completely taken advantage of. Laying aside any ethical debate about whether the cells belonged to them and whether they could or should profit from them, they didn’t even understand what was happening. Nobody bothered to explain to them, even while taking samples from them to compare to the HeLa cells.

I don’t think this book is perfect, but it certainly succeeded in opening a dialogue. Maybe we should never have known who HeLa was — her genetic code has been published, arguably violating the privacy of her descendants too — but now we do know, questions about the race and class issues surrounding the family need to be asked. And judging from what the Lacks family are now doing in terms of talking about Henrietta, giving talks and so on, I think Skloot did a great thing.

There is a lot about the author herself in this book, because it was a personal journey; whether that’s to some degree appropriative is a good question to ask, and one I don’t feel I can answer.

Rating: 5/5

 

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Review – Book of Skulls

Posted September 14, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Book of Skulls by Robert SilverbergBook of Skulls, Robert Silverberg

I liked the idea behind this, and I even liked the way Silverberg set up the four characters, stereotypes that over the course of the novel are pried open and exposed for the often hypocritical things they are. The writing, too, is pretty good, lyrical and intense. The psychological building up and tearing down of the characters works really well, and it’s not easy to predict who will commit the murder, who will be the sacrifice, etc. The only real problem for me was that I kept having to check the chapter headings to see who exactly was talking: despite the four very different character backgrounds, they didn’t sound different at all.

But. The stereotypes manage to be so offensive — like, the portrayal of the gay male character/s is kind of horrifying, the whole portrayal of what gay people are like as a community. I know this isn’t exactly a new book, and doubtless Silverberg knew he was using stereotypes and that real gay people come from all over the spectrum, but it’s still pretty ghastly to read.

I can see why people enjoy it, I think, but euch, not for me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Radio Free Albemuth

Posted September 10, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K DickRadio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick

I think I’ve only read one Philip K. Dick book before, and that was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and I didn’t really get on with that. I wonder now if that was due to different interests at the time, not settling down with it enough… because I did enjoy Radio Free Albemuth, and it’s making me want to try going back to Do Androids Dream and to some of Dick’s other work, and have another try.

It’s a smooth read, confidently written, and easy to follow — which as I recall, was my problem with Do Androids Dream; I just couldn’t keep a handle on what was happening and why, for whatever reason. I was braced for that with this book, but actually, it unfolded reasonably easily. The sci-fi aspects are well done, and the dystopian setting is sketched in so that you can imagine the whole world from the little bits you do see. There’s something very 1984 about it, obviously, but with — well, I won’t spoiler it.

The discomforting thing is really the fact that this is semi-autobiographical, and Dick really believed this, or some of this anyway, was happening to him. When I didn’t know that — I didn’t know much about Dick, other than something about Harlan Ellison saying he used drugs? — it was fine, but once I did, I found myself looking for what he was trying to say with it, trying to find his line between fact and fiction.

The bad news is, I’m pretty sure he was bonkers. The good news is, I don’t think it was a harmful kind of bonkers, and he could tell me about Valis all day if he wanted. I’d probably just feel a little cringy at the total disconnect from reality, outside of a science fiction novel. In a way, if Dick really did believe all that… well, he lived in a universe that was full of different possibilities. You’ve got to envy him that a little.

Rating: 4/5

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