Category: Reviews

Review – A Closed and Common Orbit

Posted 5 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky ChambersA Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

The first time I read this book, I was vaguely resentful that it wasn’t about the same characters as the first book, and I briefly had the same sensation here. Becky Chambers is so good at creating characters I care about — even if I don’t like them necessarily — and it took me a while to switch gears. However, it was easier on a second reading, and I was quickly caught up in Pepper and Sidra’s stories once more.

In this book, there are two parallel stories: one follows a little girl who escapes from a scrap sorting factory and finds a derelict ship, still equipped with an AI who takes care of her, teaches her, and helps her escape that world. That girl grows up to become Pepper, and Pepper takes care of Sidra. Sidra was an AI, and now she has a humanoid body, and through the course of the book she learns to deal with that. There’s all kinds of great stuff going on about identity and embodiment and learning how to be content with what you are, all wound up in an emotional story about family and belonging.

So naturally, Chambers rocked it. She’s great at aliens, she’s great at figuring out what an AI suddenly thrown into a human body would be like, she’s great at making the reader care incredibly much. I’m not a big cryer in general, and even less so at media, but this book (and the first) makes me cry — and not in a bad way, because there’s so much warmth and hope and joy here, amidst the normal fears and worries of being a person in a world that isn’t always friendly.

I can’t wait to get on and read Record of A Spaceborn Few now. I know I’m going to be hesitant (give me the Wayfarer crew! give me Pepper and Sidra!) and that I’m going to end up loving them.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind

Posted 4 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Lucy: The Beginnings of MankindLucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Donald Johanson, Maitland Edey

This book might be a little old by now, and somewhat superceded by discoveries of other Austrolopithecines and Homo naledi, but it’s excellent for getting a solid understanding of the issues surrounding how we understand human evolution. It’s also excellent as a way of understanding the kind of environment that kind of research and debate is going on within — things have changed now in several ways, no doubt, but the methods of study and research are still true, and an understanding of the existing fossils –and how they were categorised — from when Johanson wrote is still useful.

I have to admit, I wondered about the obvious sour grapes between Johanson and the Leakeys that came up several times in this book. They were such renowned scientists — and honestly, I’d still remember their names before Johanson’s, despite the fame of ‘Lucy’ — but they were so wrong and so unscientific, in this view. It makes me wonder. Obviously, personal bias is likely to have coloured things here!

My favourite part was probably the final section, in which Johanson discussed theories about why humans are bipedal. It’s clearly argued, and while I agree with the critique mentioned in the book itself (I love the line “I’ve never seen an estrus fossil” as a retort), it mostly hangs pretty well together. (Basically: humans are bipedal to effectively look after children, increasing the number of offspring one woman can have; an advantage over most apes, who keep to one child at a time.)

Good stuff, still.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Whose Body

Posted 3 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Whose Body by Dorothy L. SayersWhose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers

We were watching the Petherbridge TV adaptations again, Brexit is terrible, and it was that kind of day. Of course I gave into the temptation — threw myself into it, more like, from Peter’s first “oh damn” to the denouement. When I review a book over and over again like this, I start to think about new ways to approach the review: it’s no good me telling you every time that this book is the first book in Sayers’ favourite series, in which Peter investigates the mysterious discovery of the body of a vagrant, shaved and cleaned up to look like a wealthy man, found in an architect’s bath wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez. You’ve heard that from me before.

So what really caught my attention this time was the fact that even here, with Peter being a new series detective, when a lot of other Golden Age novels settled for dealing with the puzzle and leaving the detective to enigmatically take care of themselves around the edges of the mystery, Sayers is doing interesting things. She discusses Peter’s character at length — the shell shock is a prominent feature, yes, but also she deals with the fact that he’s an aristocrat, and thus there’s something very public school about how he approaches crime. The scene between Peter and Charles during which they discuss the rights and wrongs of pursuing criminals is great.

What also struck me a lot this time is how casually anti-Semitic it can sound. There’s one line about Sir Reuben having “the shekels” to stop a deal that just… modern Twitter shudders at the phrasing. Sayers thought she was actually quite positive toward the Jewish characters, but… gah.

It remains entertaining, and I was glad to focus on the scenes that give Peter a little more depth — but I’m also excited to get to Clouds of Witness and onwards.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Glamour in Glass

Posted 2 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette KowalGlamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass follows the Vincents as, early in their relationship, they take a trip to the Continent to study and work glamour together with one of Vincent’s friends. This time, Kowal explores the way her magic system might affect pregnant women, while playing with the historical backdrop as well. The Vincents find themselves at risk from Napoleon’s followers, and their trip becomes less about the glamour and more about spying out what exactly might be happening — perhaps even betrayal from the people they call friends.

This was where the series took off for me, the first time I actually read this book, and while I’ve come to appreciate the first book, this is still where I would say the series really gets interesting. This is where Kowal starts to work out the implications of the magic and how it changes society, eclipsing the primarily romantic plot of the first book. I’d say the third book is even stronger in that sense, but this one is certainly nothing to sniff at, either. It’s all up from here, and this has really become a series I think about fondly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Mummies of Ürümchi

Posted 31 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Mummies of Urumchi by Elizabeth BarberThe Mummies of Ürümchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber

The Mummies of Ürümchi discusses the rather Caucasian looking bodies found, naturally mummified by sand and salt, in the Tarim Basin, northwest China. These bodies were found with amazingly well-preserved textile grave goods, and that is the main focus of this book. Barber tries to discover where these people came from, linking their technology, customs and textiles to what we know of other related people’s.

I wasn’t expecting to read another book so strongly focused on textiles right after I read The Golden Thread, but I guess I came well-equipped. And I love that there’s colour plates with good photos of some of the discussed items — they haven’t fallen prey to the urge to just show the mummies, although several of the plates do.

A little out of date by now, yes, but fascinating.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Watch the Wall, My Darling

Posted 30 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Watch the Wall, My Darling, by Jane Aiken HodgeWatch the Wall, My Darling, Jane Aiken Hodge

I’ve found this author’s romances entertaining before, so I expected this to be a fairly solid entry in that vein. And indeed, it began as expected with the rather Gothic setting on the coast. The hero and heroine are immediately obvious, and the fact that they’ll end up together just as clear. It went more or less as I expected for the first part of the book: Christina arrived at the house, met her cousin, quickly realised he was the smuggler she met on the way to the house, gets sucked into what he’s doing…

It felt like it was all about to wrap up, at around 50% of the way through. And then it took a left turn and went off to do some more plot things… not very coherent plot things. The hero comes off extremely badly, being fickle and tasteless, while Christina shows very little backbone for someone previously so stubborn. Of course, things end as you expect, which is more than a little whiplashy after Ross’ inconsistency in the second half of the book.

In conclusion, not one I’d recommend.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Golden Thread

Posted 29 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Golden Thread by Kasia St ClairThe Golden Thread, Kassia St Clair

This was exactly my kind of pop-history: a narrow focus on a particular subject in various different time periods and geographical locations. In this case, Kassia St Clair looks at the development and importance of fabric throughout history, from the earliest fabrics known to modern stretch fabrics used in the Olympics and high tech designs used on the Moon. The obvious fabrics like linen and silk and wool obviously get plenty of play here, with peeks at their influence on history (and the influence of history on them). I found it very absorbing, and enjoyed the way she gave a glimpse of the importance of fabrics in a lot of different contexts.

If you enjoy the Great British Sewing Bee, some of this will be familiar already, but there’s also plenty more to learn…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

Posted 28 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter AlvarezT. Rex and the Crater of Doom, Walter Alvarez

In this book, Walter Alvarez discusses the problem, process and solution in figuring out how the KT boundary extinction happened (yep, that’s the death of the dinosaurs). Despite the rather sensational sounding title, it’s a thoughtful book: aimed at the layperson, undoubtedly, but still discussing the process of obtaining evidence, and what that evidence means, in some detail. I found his writing incredibly clear, and though I’m not exactly the right person to judge, I think any intelligent and interested person should be able to follow his arguments.

It’s also oddly charming that instead of talking about Luis Alvarez (Nobel prizewinning scientist) by name, or even as “my father”, he’s called “Dad” throughout. “Dad thought up this idea… I spoke to Dad…” etc.

Obviously, Alvarez doesn’t present many downsides to his own theory, and I imagine there have been more refinements and adjustments since this was published in 1997, but it’s still a surprisingly compulsive read. The opening is surprisingly literary, revealing a love of Tolkien.

My kinda guy, clearly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Memory Called Empire

Posted 27 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady MartineA Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine

Received to review via Netgalley

Arkady Martine’s debut novel is an exploration of identity, colonialism and loyalty, pitting the main character Mahit against a culture she loves — the culture of an empire waiting to swallow up her own home, Lsel Station. She’s the ambassador from Lsel Station, taking over after the unexpected death of her predecessor. She has one secret weapon: within her she carries a recording of her predecessor’s personality, partially integrated into her own, though somewhat out of date. At least, she has that weapon until something breaks, and she loses touch with that barely-integrated personality within her.

You can probably see from this description already why I was reminded powerfully of the work of Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee. This is very much in their vein of work, and that sense of familiarity left me a little disengaged. You’re not going to beat Jedao in that role of a shadow from the past half-integrated into a new, younger, female body, and it’s just too darn similar!

There is a lot of entertaining and interesting stuff here, despite that sense of over-familiarity. I definitely enjoy Nineteen Adze and her power; Three Seagrass and her relationship with both Mahit and Twelve Azalea (“Reed” and “Petal”, ahahaha); all the little glimpses we get of how things work… There was also that big barely-defined threat in the background, so it’ll be interesting to see how things go on. I assume it’s going to pick back up the threads of the relationship between Mahit and Three Seagrass, as well; that barely started before it felt cut off by the ending.

In the end, though, I don’t know. I never got quite that engaged with it, though once I hit around 57%, I did enjoy it enough to keep on reading to the end in one go. The similarities to Ninefox Gambit and Ancillary Justice eclipsed a story I might’ve enjoyed on its own terms. I’ll probably pick up the next book, but… there’s definitely no compulsion to do that, for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Lost Girls

Posted 26 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Lost Girls by Sarah PainterThe Lost Girls, Sarah Painter

Received to review from the author

Let’s see if I can do this without any serious spoilers! The Lost Girls is a standalone fantasy with two protagonists. One, Rose MacLeod, is an ordinary student in Edinburgh, in her first year, living with her parents. Well, ordinary apart from the fact that she regularly has blackouts, which can last for days, even weeks, which nobody else around her seems to notice. And the other protagonist is Mal, a decidedly non-ordinary bloke who can see magic, hunts demons and does dodgy errands as a kind of freelance supernatural hitman.

There are strong resemblances to the story of Supernatural, from Mal’s upbringing by a strict father and his older brother, to the fact that bereft of his dad and then his elder brother too, he ends up going down a fairly dark and morally dubious path. He even thinks of himself as a hunter. Sam Winchester, is that you? Part of the resemblance is probably just that it’s completely unavoidable if you want to have humans hunting down supernatural creatures, but the parallels were a little eyebrow-raising.

Rose is a bit more of a non-entity, due to the flashbacks and the sketchy, blurry idea she has of who she is. It’s a bit weird, then, that there’s a romance subplot centering her, because there’s not much to build on.

Anyway, over the course of the novel, obviously the two get drawn together, as Mal looks for Rose to hand her over to the supernatural crime boss he’s contracting for, and also tries to figure out what’s happening to girls who are being murdered under mysterious circumstances. Rose finds herself remembering things she shouldn’t, and dreaming of girls dying… and tries to escape Mal, with the help of her friend Astrid. Inevitably, they end up together, and the story does a flip as it races toward the end.

I enjoyed reading this, for sure; I read it all in two sittings, and it kept me interested throughout. I wouldn’t say I was riveted, but to be fair to the book, it’s relatively rare these days for me to sit down and read straight through something, and that’s definitely worth considering. The ending, though, felt unsatisfying: it’s better when I think about it, but at first it struck me as wasting some of the stuff that had only barely been built up (the romance subplot, the characterisation of two characters in particular). I’m still unsure of quite how to rate the book, to be quite honest!

Rating: 3/5

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