Category: Reviews

Review – Library: An Unquiet History

Posted September 12, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew BattlesLibrary: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles

The idea of a history of libraries and all they’ve meant to people is an appealing one — probably to many bookworms! It’s great that this one focuses on the way libraries have been more than just quiet places out of the way of history. I can’t say that this particular book actually worked out for me, though. It felt scattered, and not as engaging as I’d hoped — and I’m a big lover of books, and of books about books.

I ended up just… feeling meh about it, I’m afraid. It hasn’t stuck very well in my head since I finished it, and I wasn’t very compelled to keep reading it. I don’t think I read a single bit aloud to my wife, either, which is usually the sign I’m really enjoying non-fiction.

I read this before I read Burning the Books, but I’d recommend the latter if you were to read just one. It’s not quite the same focus, but pretty similar, and it covers more ground.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – How Emotions Are Made

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman BarrettHow Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett

The first half of this book is great. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains her subject well, dissecting previous evidence as well as her own research and synthesising them into her full theory. In summary, she posits that emotions are not something pre-formed in the brain, not something genetic, and not something you can point to on a scan. Instead, each instance of emotion is constructed from all kinds of different inputs, in the moment, and may not look anything like another instance of the same emotion if the subject is put in a brain scanner. This makes sense of a lot of things, and makes perfect sense to me — in fact, it starts to seem totally obvious!

She also mentions the “illusion of free will” almost in passing, in a way that made the lightbulb click on for me. I always hate the idea that I don’t have free will, and that “I” am essentially forced to act in a certain way — or more accurately, have no option to act in a different way — by combinations of my upbringing, culture and biology. But the point is that “I” am constructed by all those things anyway, and there is no real separation into “conscious” and “unconscious”, where the “unconscious” isn’t really me. The unconscious part is me as well, and even if it does things without waiting for the conscious me to weigh in — even though the body starts to act before the “decision” to act is consciously made — then… that’s still me. It seems obvious in retrospect, and is completely in line with everything else I believe (mind/body dualism has never been for me).

Why I never saw it that way before… well. Like Robert Sapolsky says in his book Behave, people tend to imagine their conscious mind as a sort of homunculus directing the brain’s actions, and it’s not really the case — but it’s a powerful illusion. It’s that idea of a homunculus separate from the rest of the brain that makes it feel like there’s a problem.

I’m not entirely sure I’m coherent here, but I really appreciated Feldman Barrett’s aside about that. It made things click into place for me.

The second half of the book is more about the applicability of her theories, and it worked less well. There are good examples there of dissecting how her theory works, but in the end her conclusions are familiar ones. That said, her view of constructed emotion, and the ability to impact how your emotions are constructed, give people rather more responsibility for their brains that scientists like (since I mentioned him already) Sapolsky seem to do. That’s interesting and useful.

Overall, I found this really interesting, but the applicability chapters dragged a bit.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – The Hobbit

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

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

Once upon a time, I probably revisited this book every few months, and even as an adult it’d probably be once a year or so. And I never did get entirely tired of it, but it felt like I needed to take a break for a while and let it rest, and wait not just to feel idly like reading but to feel an itch to read it.

Well, that time came, and I grabbed my cute little pocket edition and devoured it in three goes (not the single gulp of childhood, but still fairly swift by my current standards). And as always, Tolkien was waiting for me, with his warm, affectionate, amused narration, his pedantic little worries about whether it’s “dwarfs” or “dwarves”, his silly (and less silly) songs and poems… And as always, I thought about how much more there always is to discover. Less so with The Hobbit, yes, but still — this time I found myself really focusing on the geography, for whatever reason, and how come Gandalf’s never taken that particular path to Rivendell, and questions like that.

Also, the wordplay. I never really followed half the “good morning” wordplay Gandalf does in the first chapter as a kid, but this time it jumped out at me.

The thing I love about Tolkien is the scope of his world. He’s reporting one story that passes through a whole world, and it shows in the small details (even when those were later tweaked for The Lord of the Rings, the fact that he had such a big world is what made it difficult to keep it consistent but let stories evolve within it). That and the warmth of his narrative voice will always carry The Hobbit for me, and make it like cuddling up with a big ol’ hot water bottle — and maybe some hot chocolate for good measure as well.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Winter’s Orbit

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Winter's Orbit by Everina MaxwellWinter’s Orbit, Everina Maxwell

I don’t know why I waited on Winter’s Orbit, because it was everything I hoped it would be. I suspect it won’t appeal much to someone who hates either the SF/F genre or the romance genre: there’s both here, intertwined, and if you don’t find both satisfying then you probably won’t enjoy the book. If you’re in fandom, you’ll immediately feel at home, I think — it feels like fanfic, in the sense that it has a certain joyful use of tropes that fanfic specialises in. “There’s Only One Bed”, “Mutual Pining”, “Sharing A Sleeping Bag For Warmth”, “Arranged Marriage”, etc, etc. There’s a lot of warmth and joy that arises out of the relationship between Jainan and Kiem, and it’s lovely.

That said, I don’t want it to sound like this book is pure fluff, because it isn’t (much as I might enjoy pure fluff with these two characters). It’s quickly obvious that Jainan has been abused in the past, and that his life has been very tightly controlled… Obvious, that is, to everyone but his new partner, who thinks he’s grieving, tries to give him space, and generally tries to be decent. They talk at cross-purposes and it leaves Jainan deeply unmoored, not sure of what to do, how to behave, or where the thin ice is. That theme runs throughout the book, yet overall I’d call the tone hopeful. And that’s mostly because of Kiem, who is a sweetheart.

The story is so enjoyable because the romance is a little bit of a slow burn: the misunderstanding at first, and Jainan’s fear, mean that the initial easy route into “oops, they’re in love” is blocked, and instead there’s a fairly natural development of their relationship into awkward friendship and more. That said, the “slow burn” has nothing on the 70-parter fics you can find in fandom!

I got really invested in this, which is why I decided to bump the rating up to 5 — I rate based on my enjoyment of books, after all, not some objective measure. At one point I kept having to put the book down to make stressed noises at my wife because eeep! Eeeep! It all came together really well for me.

I get the comparisons to Red, White and Royal Blue, and also the comparisons to Ann Leckie. For once, I can’t disagree. It’s not quite the same kind of book as Ancillary Justice et al, but there are some things that feel similar.

Rating: 5/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Consider the Fork

Posted September 10, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Consider the Fork by Bee WilsonConsider the Fork, Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork is a look through history at the utensils humans have used for cooking and eating, from knives and forks to the ovens that we prepare food in and our control of fire/heat. Each chapter themes itself around one of these implements, and discusses the changes through history and between cultures.

I found it broadly interesting, but… somehow it didn’t quite keep my attention in the way I expected. I suspect part of it is because I’m not a cook, nor particularly interested in eating food for its own sake. For whatever reason, food and the culture surrounding food is what has caught my magpie interest for the moment, but I don’t have that deep connection to the right pan or the knife that perfectly fits your hand that I think some cooks do and which Wilson seems to have in spades. Also, I think Wilson’s writing style just doesn’t quite work for me, which is fine.

I did finish it, though, and find that in several places I wanted to tell other people the interesting facts I just learned. It’s not bad at all, and I think there are people for whom it would be deeply fascinating. It just didn’t quite click with me.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – The Invention of Murder

Posted September 9, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Invention of Murder by Judith FlandersThe Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders

This could easily have felt really prurient and invasive, given its focus on the various bloody murders that fascinated Victorian society — or too bloodless and dry despite the topic, if it got too academic. I found that Flanders steered a perfect path; it might still be too dry for those who are mostly interested in the murder part of it, but I found it really fascinating, especially as someone who studied the development of crime fiction in novel-form (mostly in the following century).

Flanders does hop about in time a little bit, which gets frustrating and a little confusing. It’s partly because the chapters are grouped thematically, which mostly does work, though since it marks a progression over time then maybe it could have been managed a little better. There are lots of examples to illustrate the trends being discussed, plus images where appropriate as well.

There’s lots of referencing at the end, which is always reassuring in a non-fic work like this. All in all, I’d be happy to read more by Flanders.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – An Unexpected Peril

Posted September 8, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of An Unexpected Peril by Deanna RaybournAn Unexpected Peril, Deanna Raybourn

If this was just any book, I might rate it a little higher, given that I tore through it in three sittings, and would eagerly have done so in one. But because it’s a book in this series, I have to compare it in my mind to the other mysteries, and I don’t think it quite matched up.

The thing that bothered me, really, was that Stoker really doesn’t want to be dragged into the mystery, and yet Veronica insists she knows what’s good for him, dragging him into danger again and again. That’s been the case for a while now, but in this book he genuinely didn’t seem that intrigued or happy to be dragged into a mystery. His worries about Veronica and her need for adventure rang very true, while Veronica just steamed ahead pulling him with her into any mess she could conceivably manage to traipse through.

However, the danger didn’t seem nearly as real in the other books, and the way they stumble out of the final danger just felt so unbelievably convenient and contrived. It took the whole book to get there, and they’re barely in trouble for a chapter before it’s all fixed up — and most of the time they are in trouble, they spend it having a lovers’ tiff.

This all sounds very critical, but I gulped this book down. The pace starts a little slow, but the mysteries are tantalising enough to drag you into it — and there is some genuine pathos and a little character development, mostly toward the end. If you’re a fan of the series, it’s good fun; it’s just not the best.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , , , , ,

Divider

Review – The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

Posted September 8, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat SebastianThe Queer Principles of Kit Webb, Cat Sebastian

I pounced on this as soon as it came out, of course, and wasn’t disappointed. There’s a bit of a vibe of K.J. Charles’ Any Old Diamonds about the plot (except I guess it may also be reminding me of The Gentle Art of Fortune-Hunting, in some ways), and I’m totally here for that, any time. The relationship between the two leads is very different to that book, with far less power-play (and less cold-blooded criminality), but there’s an element of getting your own back that’s delicious.

Speaking of the relationship between the two leads, it’s a sweet one. It takes quite a long time to develop, though the seeds are obvious from the start in their strong physical attraction to one another. The best part, of course, is the slow development of trust between them, despite their disparate backgrounds, despite the harsh parts of their past.

There were a few twists and turns that I spotted coming, but nonetheless made shocked noises when they did happen, because oh! no! how dare! etc. So that was fun, and in general it was just everything I needed — if, in the end, the happy ever after felt rather easy to come by, I completely didn’t mind, because I was charmed by the characters. And in this plague year 2020-gone-2021, we can all do with some happy endings. I don’t want to talk too much about why I felt it was easy to come by, because that’s a spoiler, but suffice it to say that it’s very neat. It feels believable for the characters, but people usually find it harder to make wholesale changes like that!

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Hoarfrost

Posted September 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Hoarfrost by Jordan L. HawkHoarfrost, Jordan L. Hawk

Hoarfrost could be a bit of a disappointment, coming after the crescendo that is Whyborne’s confrontation with the Endicotts in the previous book, his discovery of his heritage, and all that came with it. And it does start a little slower, since (once again) they have to journey to actually confront the issue at hand… but in some ways, this is just as climactic for Griffin as the previous book was for Whyborne, giving him a chance to face his fears and reconnect with his family.

I actually ended up reading this in pretty much one sitting (minus the time spent getting out of the bath before I turned into a prune). It has a lot of the features that are great about these books — Christine, archaeology, Whyborne being a secret badass, Griffin and Whyborne learning to darn well communicate — and it combines them into a story that rapidly picks up pace. Almost like an avalanche, you might say.

I fear to say too much, since this book makes things really fall into place for some of our beloved characters. I wonder where it’ll go next — and these days I’m securely along for the ride, given that Whyborne and Griffin generally talk now instead of just making assumptions. (Okay, mostly Whyborne did that.) So yeah, very enjoyable!

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Magic Slays

Posted September 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Magic Slays by Ilona AndrewsMagic Slays, Ilona Andrews

Magic Slays is the fifth book of the series, so I really don’t recommend jumping in here. You need to understand the dynamics of the Pack, have caught up on Kate’s ancestry, understand her relationships with Julie and Curran, etc. If you have all that info, then this book is one hell of a ride.

It’s not obvious that it’s going to be that way from the first pages. Kate’s newly created detective agency, Cutting Edge, is in trouble (totally classic for a private investigator) and she’d have trouble paying the bills if it weren’t for the advance she got from the Pack. She does get a call where Ghastek needs a favour, and naturally ends up in deep shit, at which point Andrea shows up.

So far, so good; it’s entertaining, but where are the big guns? Hold on, it’s all building up to something — and once it does, all hell breaks loose. As you’d expect from a book in this series, to be honest.

My favourite part about this book is actually not the epic stuff, though. It’s the moments where Kate and Curran clash and spar, even though they’re together now — and then they talk and work things out and support each other. Kate thinks about running, but doesn’t; Curran thinks about being the autocratic bastard he is to Kate, but doesn’t. They’re still figuring out how to fit together, but they both think it’s worth it.

And then that epilogue. Oof!

Rating: 5/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider