Category: Reviews

Review – The History of Life in 100 Fossils

Posted October 12, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A History of Life in 100 FossilsThe History of Life in 100 Fossils, Paul D. Taylor, Aaron O’Dea

This isn’t entirely a coffee table book, but it is a little sparing on details — sometimes I really wanted to know how a certain fossil was formed, and they don’t mention it, or their related text is barely related to the actual fossil they’re presenting. And of course, there are fossils I’d like to see discussed and aren’t, and some I wouldn’t have put in my personal lineup of the history of life. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to see someone else’s choices, and follow the timeline of the development of life through their examples.

And of course, some of the fossils are just flat-out gorgeous.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fire in the Thatch

Posted October 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. LoracFire in the Thatch, E.C.R. Lorac

This book begins by establishing the character of a little Devonshire farming area, and a young man who comes to settle there and work on the land after having to leave the army before the end of the Second World War. He’s a quiet man, but conscientious, with a love of hard work for the right purpose. The first couple of chapters establish that he’s well thought of, that he gets along with his neighbours, and his efforts on the small piece of land and cottage he leases are painstaking and well done.

In the fourth chapter or so, however, it jumps to a police inquiry into this man’s death. It looks like an accident, but the carelessness that would allow such an accident seems unlike the man, and it also seems unlikely that he — trained as a Navy man — would sleep through the fire to be burnt alive in his cottage. People are reluctant to believe that it could be murder, but likewise find it difficult to square the idea of him being careless… and Macdonald (Lorac’s series detective, though he doesn’t have much characterisation from book to book — they can be read in any order) is inclined to agree that there’s something strange going on.

As in Lorac’s other books, the order of the day is slow careful detection: speaking to the people involved, checking up on all the details, and piecing together the larger picture. It takes a while to come into focus, but it all comes together beautifully — and damn, this one is sad, because the victim sounds like a genuinely lovely person who was just trying to make a life ready for the woman he loved.

Each of Lorac’s books has a great sense of place and atmosphere, and while this one is quieter than her London-based books, the same applies here. You can almost smell the earth. It’s beautifully done.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fascism: A Warning

Posted October 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright

Part memoir, part political treatise, part history, Madeleine Albright’s book does a quick overview of Fascist regimes in history, taking in the obvious ones, digging into how they took power, legitimised themselves, and made it difficult to get rid of them by dismantling constitutions and laws. Most of that isn’t new to a casual student of history, though some of the details are, but then she moves into some of the more recent dictators and fascists of the world. In some cases, the leaders discussed don’t fit the definition of fascism as stated by her, and sometimes it feels more like the title should be Dictators: A Warning.

Her bias, as a former member of the Clinton administration, is obvious, but her respect for George W. Bush is a rather welcome note in that. Her lack of respect and trust for Trump is explicit, though she stops short of calling the Trump administration a fascist one (granted, the copy I read is from 2018, so her views may have updated somewhat since).

There’s some fascinating insights from Albright based on her experience, including of living leaders (Putin, for one), and her direct experience in Czechoslovakia. As I was reading it, I was thoroughly absorbed by her conversational and clear style. I do doubt how well it translates for people across the party line. (From the look of Goodreads, not well.) Interesting, though not entirely new to me in terms of what fascism looks like.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Posted October 10, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia WaiteThe Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, Olivia Waite

This is a lovely historical romance in which a young girl, Lucy Muchelney, seeks a patron to help her continue her work as an astronomer after her father’s death. She did much of his work in the years before his death, but has never been acknowledged as the author — though she has high hopes that the Lady of Moth, Catherine St. Day, will listen to her and sponsor her as the translator of an important astronomical work written in French. Catherine St. Day is a widow, freed from an unhappy marriage to a scientist, and reluctant to jump into supporting yet another scientist, even in his memory.

Obviously, she decides to do so (early on — that isn’t a spoiler) and the two quickly grow close. Their romance is sweet, though I was frustrated by the miscommunication plotline in the last section of the book. I know constant communication between partners can’t be the norm because everybody seems weirded out by my relationship, but yeeesh, I am tired of it as a complicating trope in romance fiction. On the other hand, I am glad that fear of exposure wasn’t a huge plotline here — it’s hard to shape a happily ever after around constant massive fear of exposure or disgrace, so in that light I was glad Waite steered clear.

I do kind of wish that the former lover wasn’t so petulant… I loved the sympathy with which her husband was treated by the narration and the characters, and I wish she as a character seemed more worth all the devotion she supposedly inspires.

For my folks who’re asexual/demi/just not interested in sex in books for whatever reason, this book does contain sex scenes. They’re not 100% necessary to the plot, though they do demonstrate the emotional connection between the protagonists, and deepen it through intimacy.

All in all, enjoyable enough and I’d read more in the series, though it didn’t blow me away.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Magic Slays

Posted October 7, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Magic Slays by Ilona AndrewsMagic Slays, Ilona Andrews

This is, what, the fifth Kate Daniels book? So it begins true to type: everything explodes into chaos as Kate takes on a job that looks routine on the surface, and quickly devolves into apocalyptic-level stakes. Personal matters are also fraught, with Kate’s kid Julie refusing to stay in school where she’s safe and heading home, right into an Atlanta that’s boiling with trouble. Curran’s got his own worries, and Kate’s brand new business isn’t doing so well, though she’s gaining employees faster than she’s gaining contracts.

It’s fast-paced and I think rather more even than the earlier books. The pacing doesn’t feel sticky here: it just goes and goes and goes. I’m still in love with the world they create here: the magic waves, the way people get round them, the way society has evolved… and there are still things I don’t love, like the rigid roles in the Pack and the way some behaviour is excused because “that’s how shapeshifters are”. But there are also parts where that gets called out and Curran takes a deep breath and apologises, so… there’s that in the balance as well.

In this particular book, there’s a little more background on Kate’s history, a few hints as to how she might power up… and at the end a terrifying hint that she might have been noticed at last. There’s also a high-powered showdown, and Kate learns a little more about how to use her magic out of pure necessity. This is another thing I love: although Kate wants to be the badass lone-wolf mercenary right at the start, her strength comes again and again from her friends and allies. Alone, she’s a smartass with a sword; with people she loves, she finds a way to be more than that, to accept and use her power to help them. She wouldn’t get there without them, despite the way she was raised, despite her feeling that she’s safer not loving. That’s a pretty powerful thing to take away, and that it comes from the men in her life as much as the women is great too.

In any case, the stakes continue ramping up, but it doesn’t feel like a middle-of-the-series dead book either, by a long way. Everything is advancing the overall arc, yes, but also everything has meaning within the confines of this book. I enjoy this series a lot, and I think people unfairly dismiss it way too often.

(I mean, it’s okay for it not to be your thing! But I think people dismiss it because it’s dubbed paranormal romance, and okay, yes, Kate does eventually get together with Curran and their relationship is a key driver of the plot, but the focus is Kate, what drives her and what she’s running from or toward. Romance is just a part of that.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Red House Mystery

Posted October 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Red House Mystery by A.A. MilneThe Red House Mystery, A.A. Milne

It seems weird that the author of Winnie-the-Pooh also wrote a fairly classic murder mystery, complete with amateur detective and his Watson, but there you go. Antony, the amateur detective, shows up more or less coincidentally at the Red House because his friend Bill is staying there, only to find himself immediately involved in the finding of a body, the brother of the home’s owner. The owner of the house is missing, and his faithful cousin/solicitor/man-of-all-work Cayley holds down the fort while the police investigate, obligingly dragging the pond and searching the railways for the missing man. But Antony’s very observant, and can replay in his mind everything that happened, and he notices a few inconsistencies…

It’s one of those stories where I quickly jumped to some conclusions that turned out to be right, but had to wait for the story to work itself out to figure out why it was right. There was some witty dialogue and the mystery isn’t bad, but it’s not one that will stick in my mind. I find that having finished it just yesterday, there’s not that much to say about it. It was okay, and the detective was okay, and I rather liked Milne’s introduction explaining quite firmly that he had written the kind of detective story he thought was worth reading (no forensics, just cool deduction!). I think the forensics can actually add a whole extra line of misdirection under skilled hands, and don’t need to exclude the reader from understanding, so I disagree with him — but it’s an interesting perspective.

Anyway, overall not impressed, but it was fun enough while I was reading it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Too Like The Lightning

Posted October 4, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Too Like The LightningToo Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer

Well, what a ride! I expected to love this one, from the company it’s been keeping, and it’s certainly a complex book with a lot of moving parts, some of which I really appreciated… and others which felt weird or even viscerally discomforting to me. I feel like this is one where I almost don’t want to judge it at all until I’ve read the sequels, because the sequels are so necessary to evaluate the plot and get all the revelations that make things fall into place… but I’m also not sure I want to invest the time into them in case the potential doesn’t realise itself and I’m left feeling just as ambivalent.

Let’s start with what the book is even about: Too Like the Lightning takes the form of a document prepared by a man called Mycroft Canner, with the help of some of the other people involved in the events it discusses. It’s set in an attempt at a utopian society of hyper-individual people, where laws are imposed by agreements and a flying car system connects the world with such speed that geography is no longer a divider. There are all kinds of new-to-us social groupings: with the most important being the bash’, a sort of intentional family of like-minded people which may or may not raise children, and the Hive. Hives include Humanists, Cousins, etc, each Hive having different aims and priorities.

There’s all kinds of philosophy underlying this world, and I felt very at sea with that. I have studied some philosophy, but only for a year, and none of the philosophers mentioned here; sometimes I’ve read their literature (Voltaire), and that helped a little. I did wonder if I’d feel more at home in Palmer’s world if I had done the prerequisite reading on philosophy.

There is also not a little theological debate, because on top of all the SF elements, there is a boy who can literally make toys come to life with a touch. A major element of the story also revolves around the work of sensayers, who help people discuss ethics and theology in private (any kind of public proselytising is illegal). And then (no, I’m not done describing the basics of this world), the societies are all basically genderless and use ‘they’ pronouns… but the narrator has definite opinions on this and assigns pronouns to people based on gender stereotyping (a nurturing type is obviously a “she” to him).

That latter is part of what skeeves me out with this book. I’m not sure to what degree it is meant to be about Mycroft himself, though the central importance of other characters who enjoy presenting in a gendered way despite the non-gendered society kind of gets to me as well. The way they do at times verges on sexual assault, to my mind: aggressively in your face gendered sexuality, enforcing traditional gender roles whether the person you’re speaking to is willing or not — perhaps this bothers me so much because I would adore the ungendered world Palmer presents and then has these characters transgress against. Do what you like for yourself, but “aggressively flirting” is not actually your gender identity and your right to do that stops where my body and my comfort begin.

All the politics and all the theology plots are not in the slightest resolved by the end of the book, though, and leaving all of that hanging leaves me unable to form my opinion on whether the gender politics aspect is just gross or integral to the story. Likewise all kinds of other things.

In terms of characters, Mycroft is awful, and the same applies: I’d need to know the motivation behind his past crimes and what he is doing in shaping his narrative in order to judge whether I’m okay with having read all this, and… I don’t know if I want to read on. It’s a bit of a conundrum. There is a lot of fascinating social commentary here, and many elements I really want to learn the answers to. But at the same time… ewwww.

[I wrote this review a month ago and set it aside to stew over a bit longer. I don’t disagree with anything I said before, but I’ve lowered my rating by a star. I don’t think this series is for me.]

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Making the Monster

Posted October 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Making the Monster by Kathryn HarkupMaking the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Kathryn Harkup

I really enjoyed Harkup’s book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons in her plots — I wasn’t a Christie fan, but the book gave me a whole new appreciation for her work — so I jumped on this the minute I saw it. It begins largely as a biography of Mary Shelley, to be quite frank; there’s very little science for at least half the book, and there’s rather too much re-describing the plot. I get that the actual book isn’t familiar to everyone, but this is billed as pop-sci, not Sparknotes.

Nonetheless, when she does eventually get down to it, it’s fascinating to hear about the science of the day and what Shelley may have been aware of. Calling it the first science fiction book sounds a bit odd, because it’s not really the aesthetic you think of — but Shelley did research and was careful to reflect the science of the day. Maybe it’s not hard SF, and there’s much that seems unlikely now, but it’s still based on the understanding of science that she could possibly have been aware of.

Still a bit too biographical, overall: I believe seeing books in their context is important, but Mary Shelley’s parentage and miscarriages were less than necessary to the overall narrative.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The October Man

Posted September 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The October Man by Ben AaronovitchThe October Man, Ben Aaronovitch

This is a novella set in the world of Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, but taking place in Germany. Tobias Winter is Peter Grant’s equivalent in Germany, apprentice to their one remaining practitioner in much the same way as Peter is Nightingale’s apprentice. The story rumbles along with much the same formula: mysterious death, Tobias is sent in, has a local sidekick/liaison who does not really freak out about magic, and slowly they pick apart the weirdness and unravel what’s going on. Lots of the elements are clear enough if you’ve read the main series: sequestration, genii loci, etc.

It’s not that it wasn’t a fun enough read, but the voice was so similar to Peter Grant’s that it leaves me wondering whether Aaronovitch can do any other characters, really. It was solid in itself and yet weirdly disappointing because it doesn’t bode well for me to keep enjoying the books — it felt predictable, not just in plot but on a line-by-line basis.

I enjoyed Tobias’ competence as a cop, and Vanessa isn’t a bad character either. But… I don’t know, it mostly left me cold.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Lost Languages

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

Cover of Lost Languages by Andrew RobinsonLost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts, Andrew Robinson

This is a bit of a whistlestop tour of, well, the world’s undeciphered scripts. It starts off by exploring some scripts which have been deciphered — Mayan, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B — and discussing how those decipherments were accomplished, and what if anything might be relevant in the study of other languages. After that, it introduces a few different undeciphered languages, including Linear A, Rongorongo and the Phaistos disc, discussing what we know and what we don’t, giving a little of the context, and figuring out to what extent any claimed modern decipherments are real.

It’s an interesting read, and reproduces a lot of photographs, sketches and diagrams showing these scripts and ways of deciphering them. Those images are probably really useful if you think in a very visual way, but they were somewhat limited for someone like me with no visual memory or imagination! It got a bit technical at times, but if that’s your interest then I’ve no doubt it’s useful and quite probably inspiring (in the sense of making you want to dig into these mysteries yourself).

I think Robinson’s attitude toward claimed decipherments is fairly cautious and conservative, but he takes the time to explain what his reservations are and what the field as a whole thinks of the ideas. It’s not always a riveting read, but it was overall pretty interesting and easy to absorb information from. Probably even better if you are, like I said, a visual sort of thinker/learner.

Rating: 4/5

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