Category: Reviews

Review – The Secret Life of Bones

Posted August 29, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Secret Life of Bones by Brian SwitekThe Secret Life of Bones, Brian Switek

Brian Switek is better known, perhaps, for writing about palaeontology — and particularly dinosaurs. The Secret Life of Bone is all about a much more familiar skeleton in the closet — well, actually, it’s not even in the closet, so that’s really a bad joke. Ahem. Anyway. The point is, this book focuses mostly on human bone, though it gets there by way of our evolutionary history. Want to know how bones evolved? What bones can tell you about an individual? Freaky facts about bone growing inside soft organs? How bones are formed and reformed throughout your life? How bones fossilise?

This book is all of that, in a pretty breezy and entertaining style. It’s anecdotal, of course, as is common for popular science books — so if you have absolutely no interest at all in knowing Switek’s own thoughts, feelings and experiences, it probably won’t be for you. It makes the descriptions and explanations accessible, and I think really the thing that’s most lacking is some colour-plates to illustrate some of the skeletons he discusses from photographs.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Contact Paradox

Posted August 25, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Contact Paradox by Keith CooperThe Contact Paradox, Keith Cooper

The Contact Paradox is all about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the various issues surrounding it: how are we searching? What are we looking for? Do we expect to find anything? Should we send out signals to help ET find us? How? Why haven’t we found anybody else yet? Are we looking in the right place? Etc, etc, etc. It’s mostly a good exploration of the options, though as always I find myself totally frustrated by the assumptions made on either side of the debate. As I’ve written before elsewhere, I don’t think we have enough data to speculate from. We have one dataset, Earth, and that’s all.

Not that this is the book’s fault; part of SETI is figuring out whether there is other life in the universe or not, and this stuff has to be thought out to know what we’re looking for. The book just discusses the arguments and tries to be reasonably balanced about it… it’s just that I find most of the arguments lacking, or rather, I find that they come to premature conclusions and that people’s attitudes tend to harden on their preferred end of the spectrum.

What I did really enjoy about the book is being reminded about how amazing the universe is — and how much we do understand about it. The stuff we know or can theorise about is mind-boggling in the best way.

This is popular science, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s shot through with references to popular science fiction, and even discusses the point of view of various science fiction writers. I couldn’t help but notice they were all dudes, though, and that in all the references to all kinds of science fiction, not one female author was named. Sigh and eyeroll. I’m sure there are dozens of excuses for that on the part of the author, and I’m not really interested in hearing them.

Though in terms of fiction that he could’ve referred to, I thought the author really missed a trick in not referring to the Mass Effect games, which have their own answer to Fermi’s paradox and the Great Filter.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Priory of the Orange Tree

Posted August 23, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha ShannonThe Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon

Oh boy, how to review this chunkster? I actually started to read it back when it first came out, and was fascinated… and then got distracted, as happens so often for me. Then I ended up reading it at a pace of five pages a day, alongside other workerbees from Beeminder! Which was pretty cool, actually; I thought I would find it really frustrating, because I’m usually a fast reader. Granted, I didn’t exactly stick to five pages a day — it was more like a chapter every other day. Either way, it worked, and I found myself eager for my daily snippet instead of daunted by the size of the book, which has been a problem for me lately.

It’s a retelling of George and the Dragon, but it doesn’t really show unless you already know that; you can also just sink into it as a story about dragons, alchemists with dubious backbones and morals, pirates, witches, queens, friendship and love. I didn’t know anything much about the characters and their relationships before starting, so I very much enjoyed watching them unfold. I never expected Sabran to grow on me so much, or for her relationship with Eadaz to work for me; her moodiness and even capriciousness made her really unattractive to me as a character from the start, but as she opened up to Ead, I came to pity her and understand her a little better… and slowly I could at least see part of what Ead saw, even if I’m not wholly convinced by the depth of the relationship given the timing.

I do agree with some other reviewers that there are pacing issues; Tané’s parts feel almost sketched in compared to Ead’s, which really dominated all the others for me. I’ve read about the book having to be substantially cut and revised, and it makes sense for it to linger on Ead the way it does… but it makes it feel like the others are both secondary and have not enough to say given their significance. I really felt like Tané needed a bit more time to grow, given her completely self-centred and self-righteous behaviour at the start.

I’m not wholly sure I followed the sterren and siden magic system, but this was partly the piecemeal way I read the book, I think. It’s certainly a world I’m sad to leave and interested to potentially revisit.

I’ll agree with other reviewers that comparisons to Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings are completely inappropriate, and if you’re looking for those worlds, you should probably just reread the originals. The Priory of the Orange Tree is not that close a comparison, and you’ll definitely be disappointed if you’re just looking for more Tolkien or GRRM. I’m not saying that as a value judgement, though; The Priory of the Orange Tree is its own thing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Man Who Didn’t Fly

Posted August 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Man Who Didn't Fly by Margot BennettThe Man Who Didn’t Fly, Margot Bennett 

The Man Who Didn’t Fly has a fairly unique set up for a mystery: a plane has crashed, with three men and the pilot aboard. There were supposed to be four men, but one didn’t fly. The bodies are lost… so who exactly died, and who survived? And why has the survivor stayed quiet all this time?

It’s an intriguing set-up, but it doesn’t end up really working for me. Most of the book is recounting the everyday life of a family who are involved with the case, as it slowly reveals clues to what happened, who exactly died… and what crime was committed. It took a while to see the solution, for sure, but that’s partly because it felt rambly, and because so much time was given over to Hester mooning over one of the male characters. Said male character being an obvious scrounger and pain in the butt, who goes from one house to the other in search of freebies and handouts, it was not a very enjoyable experience.

I just couldn’t believe in the supposed depth of feeling there… and there is another romance in the book, and it comes more or less out of nothing. The whole emotional life of the book is lacking, and it leaves the ending pages hollow. Like, who cares?

Aside from the premise, I can’t say I really liked this at all. I ended up reading to the end because I wanted to know how things turned out, but I felt like I’d been blundering around in a directionless morass. I don’t find Hester particularly likeable, though there are glimpses of likeability (she wants to study medicine; she honestly cares for her father, even as they fight) — and there’s something just so… irritating about the prose. Solidly not for me, despite the effusive preface and the award this book almost won at the time.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Last Smile in Sunder City

Posted August 20, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke ArnoldThe Last Smile in Sunder City, Luke Arnold

From the cover onwards, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a patchwork of influences. Ben Aaronovitch, obviously and brazenly; my bets are on Jim Butcher as well. And, if not directly from Raymond Chandler, then his brand of noir and his style of imagery — there’s something about his comparisons that make it feel like a cut-rate Phillip Marlowe. It’s a very readable book, even though Arnold doesn’t have the control of language that Chandler did (none of his coinages are as good as “shop-worn Galahad”, even though Fetch Phillips suits the description as well as Marlowe does).

Sunder City is just one city in a world that used to be full of magic, but the source of magic has been destroyed by humans. Elves have aged suddenly and cruelly, anyone who uses magic is bereft, vampires are shrivelling to nothing… and Fetch Phillips is a man for hire amidst all this, tracking down missing folks and contemplating oblivion, at the bottom of a bottle or a long, long drop.

You know from the start that Fetch has done something godawful, and you can see it coming in the flashbacks, and you kind of want to stop it or ameliorate it somehow — and that’s when I knew it was really working for me. Fetch is not a good person, but you can see in him the ability to be so much better than he is… and even though he keeps making the stupidest mistakes, and you know nothing can be alright for him again, you can’t help but hope along with him that he can salvage something.

I’m kind of eager to read the next book right now; I don’t know how much this first one will stick with me, but it was a quick and enjoyable read, and I’m really curious to see where Arnold goes next with Fetch.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Woman in the Wardrobe

Posted August 18, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter ShafferThe Woman in the Wardrobe, Peter Shaffer

The Woman in the Wardrobe features a few elements I usually find myself disliking, to wit an amateur detective full of bombast, wit and ego, and a locked-room mystery. There are some definite similarities with Gideon Fell… but the writing style is so breezy — and the included caricatures of various characters so full of life — that it swept me right through my usual objections. It’s one of those with a clever trick ending (as most locked-room mysteries are) and it worked reasonably well.

I can’t say I like the amateur detective, but at least the narration knows he’s a bit of an ass. It doesn’t push too hard on his genius, though there is a very Sherlockian scene with a reverie over a pipe just as the case is reaching its conclusion… It’s all contrived, of course, but it’s fun. It mostly helps that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland

Posted August 18, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland by Lisa SchneidauBotanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland, Lisa Schneidau

I was curious about this book because I used to collect pamphlets and stuff about local tourist attractions wherever I went, and ended up with a fair few that discussed folk traditions like fairy rings and vengeful trees. This kind of felt nostalgic for thumbing through those and trying to imagine the magic back into Britain… and it’s kind of cool to learn more about plants long-established in Britain and what people thought of them.

Not all the retellings really worked for me, nor the faux-dialect introduced to make them sound folksy. They might be better performed aloud, perhaps, but you’d have to have the right accent or you’d sound a little mocking, and that’s the way it comes off in print… though that’s probably a personal preference. The retellings are fairly straightforward, and there are few surprises in the tales, which are mostly traditional or based off traditional stories, and act in the expected way.

A fun curiosity, and perhaps one to dip in and out of if it’s something you’re interested in, but not a whole-hearted recommendation, I think. If you’re interested, you probably already know it’s your thing; if you’re just curious, the stories and their morals become a little repetitive.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Posted August 17, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 10 Comments

Cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

I know there are people for whom this book leaves them entirely cold — whether the whole story falls apart for them, or the setting, or they see massive problems with certain plot points… I tried to read it more critically this time, ready to see those things and understand where they’re coming from. It didn’t work; I fell in love all over again and devoured it whole in about five seconds flat. Well, not quite, but you get the idea.

It’s the found family thing that gets me every single time, I think: the way they’ll cover for each other and work to understand each other and accept each other no matter what. This is mostly a book about good people, perhaps implausibly so: with almost everything any of them do, you can believe that they’re doing it because they think it’s right, and that it’s the right thing to do. (There is a major exception for me which I’ll discuss in a moment.) I can understand people who aren’t hooked by that, who don’t find it believable or can’t even get invested because the conflict feels implausible to them… but it’s catnip to me, apparently.

I do hate the whole plotline with Ohan, I’m afraid. Even as my heartstrings are tugged by the results of it, I loathe that Corbin takes away Ohan’s self-determination, and chooses things for them that they don’t want. I hate that the reader is manipulated into being glad about that, and to think that Corbin essentially does the right thing. Nope nope nope nope nope. It’s the dark spot in this book for me: I understand why it’s there, and I can’t help but love the bit with Dr Chef at the end… but the decision made for Ohan is not something I’m actually comfortable with.

It doesn’t darken the rest of the book for me, and as ever I actually cried cathartically for almost the last 50 pages of the book… but it’s worth knowing about, particularly if you have a disability or mental illness where other people think they know better than you about your own body. It’s very discomforting, and it’s worth knowing before you go in if that’s something you might be sensitive about.

I just love almost all the characters so much; Sissix is so darn awesome, Ashby’s a darling, Kizzy’s like Firefly’s Kaylee on speed (almost literally)… It all comes together so well for me. Pitched perfectly to my id, I guess!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Green Mill Murder

Posted August 10, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Green Mill Murder by Kerry GreenwoodThe Green Mill Murder, Kerry Greenwood

The Green Mill Murder is one of the books of this series which really sticks in my head, mostly because of the descriptions of the flight over the mountains, and then the silence and space of the mountains. That part is so vividly imagined — including Phryne’s dislike of it — that it can’t help but stick in my head… that and the sheer awfulness of both Charles and Mrs Freeman. The mystery itself feels a little unfair… I knew how it was done and still couldn’t piece it together until Phryne, like magic, pulled it out of the hat. I don’t always mind that, myself, but it does rankle with some mystery readers, so it’s worth knowing.

Ostensibly the main mystery of the book is the murder which happens in its opening page, when one of the dancers in a marathon dancing session suddenly collapses, and seems to have been killed with a very slim knife. Something’s changed about the corpse when Phryne next looks at it, but she can’t put her finger on what… and in the meantime her date has vanished off to be copiously sick. Or just vanished: the policeman who goes to look for him finds no trace.

I find the main mystery oddly forgettable, though, despite the power of Nerine’s voice and Tintagel’s alleged charms. I didn’t really see it myself, for Tintagel’s case, though of course Phryne is susceptible to a pretty face… it’s just that he’s also a bit of an amoral bastard, and that always colours my reading of his character. In any case, the bit that sticks in my head is Vic Freeman and his lonely hut. Or not lonely, really, given he has a horse (actually a donkey or mule, I think? I am too lazy to get up and check), a dog, and a wombat (who proves instrumental). The rest of it is full of awful people, but Vic is just happy to be alone, to have some silence and healing away from the city.

It’s an enjoyable read, but sometimes feels a little lopsided to me, because of the bits of the plot I prefer.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Scream in Soho

Posted August 8, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Scream in Soho by John G. BrandonA Scream in Soho, John G. Brandon

Ooookay this one is just somehow really not my thing. It’s all Italian mobsters and German spies, slathered on thick with a side of racial determinism. The policeman at the centre of the story, McCarthy, is prone to violence to get his way — and has a rather Holmes-ian moves-in-mysterious-ways air about him, along with various sidekicks pulled off the streets and a disguise or two. It’s fairly obvious whodunnit, from pretty early on, and whydunnit comes pretty quickly after as well. After that, McCarthy just knocks some heads together and does some casual breaking and entering.

The joy of Golden Age crime fiction is often the sense of order, the sense that things in Britain are fundamentally good and just. It’s a total nostalgic lie, and always was, and the noble policeman as much as any of it… and this doesn’t have to be everybody’s thing, but I do think it’s a big part of what calls to me about E.C.R. Lorac’s series detective, or John Bude’s: they are decent men, doing a job which they believe to be serving justice, and doing it for the right reasons.

Needless to say, then, I did not enjoy McCarthy, even though he’s probably more realistic in many ways — particularly not since we’re supposed to be entirely on his side. Nope, nope, nope.

Not one for me. 1/5 stars feels kind of unfair, but… no, I can’t honestly point to anything I liked.

Rating: 1/5

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