Category: Reviews

Review – The Aztecs

Posted September 8, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend

I read some fairly wide-ranging and eclectic subject matter, and I know a lot of it would bore other people to tears. The Aztecs, however, should be pretty darn interesting in principle: while our sources are fragmentary, there’s still a lot we can know, and there’s so much to be fascinated by in their legends, stories about themselves, and social structure.

Just… not in this book. There are other books in this series that manage to be wonderful, so it’s not the academic-ish introduction or the general goals of the book that constrain it. Something about Townsend’s prose is just stultifyingly dull. I made it halfway through and realised that not only had I failed to absorb most of the information so far, I hadn’t once turned to my wife and said, “Hey, did you know that…”

Well, that’s the kiss of death for me and non-fiction. Somehow it didn’t manage to give me any new information in a way that made it feel interesting. Bye, book! I’m sure you are indeed the “best introduction” to the field (as the back proclaims), for people who either don’t mind being bored or are so fascinated by the field that they can’t look away.

(Lest you be wondering, the things I excitedly tell my wife don’t have to be that interesting to the wider world — the facts can be fairly trivial.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The End of Epidemics

Posted September 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

The End of Epidemics, Dr Jonathan Quick

Dr Jonathan Quick has a bold claim in the title of this book: the end of epidemics? Does he really think he can stop all epidemics, any epidemics, from ever happening again? The answer, in case you were worried, is no: he’s not quite that full of hubris. Instead, his recommendations are focused on avoiding local outbreaks becoming global pandemics, through improving the way we handle emerging infectious diseases in various ways. His ideas rest on improving leadership, infrastructure, monitoring, education, and response time. For the most part, if you’re interested in infectious diseases then his answers are obvious to you: of course we need a leader who will coordinate resources properly. Of course we need infrastructure to get people and equipment to the right places. Of course we need to monitor exactly what diseases might be currently posing a threat.

There are some interesting dissections of epidemics past and the reasons they did or didn’t explode into pandemics, along with healthy criticism of the WHO. There’s a fair amount of worry about bioterrorism, particularly with the advent of CRISPR; this is a threat we haven’t really seen materialising yet, probably because an infectious disease is so hard to control. You can’t make an epidemic avoid the people you agree with, after all. This makes me somewhat sceptical about the likelihood of someone releasing something like smallpox, apart from possibly as a lunatic ‘destroy everyone’ move.

Anyway, as ever there’s useful ideas in here, but it’s probably not getting into the hands of people who could make a genuine difference anyway. I’m not sure what the purpose of releasing this as a pop-science book was, exactly, though I suppose it serves some purpose in educating people.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Strange Practice

Posted September 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Strange Practice by Vivian ShawStrange Practice, Vivian Shaw

Yep, I reread it again.

Strange Practice is a delight of a book which grows (it seems to me, anyway) from a question: “What do monsters do when they get sick?” And then, “What kind of ailments would they have, anyway?” Greta Helsing (yes, a descendent of that Helsing) is a doctor who specialises in the diseases of the monstrous. Mummies with decaying bones, ghouls with depression, banshees with sore throats — and vampires with concerning stab wounds they somehow aren’t recovering from. Which is where the story starts, really, and from where Greta plunges into a fight to protect the monstrous of London.

The reason I find it so delightful is because it has so much heart. I know “hopepunk” is typically considered to be more on the scientific end of spec-fic, but this book fits the bill for me. It shouldn’t be radical when Greta says that it is her duty to help and heal the monstrous, regardless of what they have done. But it is — her caring is radical, and a message I think is deeply necessary when Britain is splintering in the way it is. Has probably always been necessary, because humans are far too prone to drawing sharp lines.

I also enjoy that Greta is a deeply capable doctor, and that she relies on the people around her to do things that aren’t medical. However much she wants to be a hero (or at least doesn’t want to be the one left behind wondering how the heroes are doing), her first priority is the importance she has in the community. She knows that if they lose her, they lose something they need, and so she accepts the need for her companions to go and face the Big Bad without her.

Speaking of her companions… it is also delightful to follow Sir Edmund Ruthven and Varney the Vampyre around modern London. I adore the way the book deals with their long lives — Varney with much melancholy and hibernation, Ruthven by learning new skills constantly. Including, for example, latte art. Also, he drove an ambulance during the Blitz. There are so many delightful details in the way Shaw brings these characters to life.

This was the third time I read this book, because I was feeling down and glum and needed to whole-heartedly enjoy something which wasn’t grim, or cynical, or angry. This was an excellent choice, once more, and I heartily recommend it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – To Be Taught, if Fortunate

Posted September 2, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky ChambersTo Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers

This novella is a stand-alone which explores many of the same themes as Chambers’ award-winning Wayfarers books: there’s a deeper focus on science, but there are also the same themes of family, friendship, what’s worth it in life. It follows the fortunes of a small crew who are surveying planets far, far from Earth, investigating all manner of things — including life. It’s an optimistic view of the universe in terms of biology: there’s some form of life everywhere the crew go. Throughout, it’s clear that what they’re doing is not necessary — this isn’t about terraforming, finding somewhere new for people to live, finding resources… it’s about discovery, the joy and wonder of it.

It’s not much of a story, really. There’s a fair bit of explanation about why the scientific things are significant, and there’s a dryness to the tone in a lot of places because of the format (a report back to Earth). There is a payoff, but it definitely wasn’t as emotional as the Wayfarers books, and I didn’t feel particularly close to the characters. In fact, I’ve mostly forgotten their names already, though I do remember some things about them and how they reacted to the events — I’m not saying this is a dead loss, at all.

It’s a good short read, with a theme I can get behind — the importance of discovery for discovery’s sake — but I hoped for more, I think is my conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Blue Salt Road

Posted September 1, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

The Blue Salt Road, Joanne Harris

The Blue Salt Road is a take on the myths of selkies: seal-people who can shed their sealskin and become humans, and can be trapped on land by the theft of their skins. This is mostly told in a stripped back, fairytale sort of register; you’re told how characters feel, but there is a lot of telling (and intentionally so: that isn’t a criticism, because that style is deliberate). For the most part, it’s a straight retelling: a girl lures a selkie from the sea and loves him, and then hides his sealskin to keep him on land with her.

What Harris adds to the tale is a little more psychology — examination of the girl’s reasons, of the selkie’s feelings, of how he tries to fit in with the human world he’s been pulled into… and examination of the grief and loss and betrayal inherent in the story.

For all that the shape of the story is pretty traditional, I found the ending a surprise — and in a good way. I’m not sure I believe that the selkie will be happy with the final shape of his life, and there’s still a lot of grief and betrayal… but there’s also a very human and real determination to make something of it. Nobody dies of pure grief here, as in a fairytale: instead, people must carry on.

I enjoyed this a lot, and thought it did quite a bit with the story while keeping a fairytale-style narration.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Turning Darkness into Light

Posted August 31, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Turning Darkness into Light, Marie Brennan

Received to review via Netgalley

I wanted to get this reviewed before it came out, but I also didn’t want to do it a disservice and rush it. To be quite honest with you, I basked in having this world to dive into anew, after some time has passed in that world; I adore what Brennan does in the Lady Trent books with showing scientific progress and academic endeavour, and I had the same feeling here. Being both a biology graduate and a literature postgraduate (and one who focused on languages and translation fairly heavily for a while), this world has now reflected so much of my experience it makes me quite squeeful. I know Audrey is much better at translating Draconaean than I ever was at Anglo-Saxon or Old Icelandic, but some of the struggles in reading are similar — and the process of academic review and piecing things together across texts is even more familiar.

(I mean, nor am I as experienced and high level a biologist as Lady Trent is a naturalist; still, there are commonalities, and Isabella and Audrey’s struggle for status is still relevant for female-bodied folks in STEM today, soooo…)

The thing is, in conclusion, that Brennan is just so clever in the way she puts together the work. The way she invents these ancient texts: the structures of them, the lacunae, the difficulty in understanding things that rely on context. The way she understands the process is so clear — which makes sense, given her background in anthropology, but that doesn’t always mean one will be good at writing it. Brennan is.

And that only touches on half the book! There’s also an exploration of what it might be like to be the granddaughter of someone like Isabella, explorations of the developments in Draconaean civilisation since she found the Sanctuary… and delightful bits like Audrey causing a riot (of course) and Isabella dismissing someone as a potential partner for Audrey because he’s not a sound scholar, and all the politics which Audrey manages to entangle herself in… It all comes together very satisfyingly.

Perhaps my only criticism is that Audrey is very like Isabella; their voices are similar, and you can be pretty sure that whatever Isabella would have done in a situation, Audrey will do as well. Obviously, there’s reasons for that, and good ones, but it makes the book feel less its own thing and more like it’s more of the same. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I hope if we see more of Audrey, she does more forging of her own way. (I absolutely want to see more of Audrey.)

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Warrior Queen

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

Cover of The Warrior Queen by Joanna ArmanThe Warrior Queen, Joanna Arman

Arman’s book promises a lot, offering the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. It comes up rather short, and in part this isn’t the book’s fault: the information on everyone of this era is rather scanty, and women tend to be represented even less than your average big man of the time, even if they turned out to be rulers later in life. Books about these women have to lean heavily on interpreting what the locations of charters and charitable establishments mean, and it doesn’t always make for the most riveting reading.

Nonetheless, most of the book is almost entirely speculative. Æthelflæd may have been taught this, Æthelflæd may have gone here with her father, perhaps Æthelflæd did this… Much of the book is framed by what the women in Æthelflæd’s life were doing (her father, her brother, her husband), right up the point where suddenly she becomes the real protagonist and starts leading men and establishing forts. But I didn’t want a book on Alfred, Æthelstan, Æthelred, etc, etc, etc.

Worse, the book drifts off into pure daydream at times. Mentioning the clasp of a book found in Stafford, the author speculates that it might have belonged to Æthelflæd. There’s no archaeological context given — Arman doesn’t even mention a date given for the clasp! — and it seems that Arman invented this spurious connection out of her own head, just to add spice; I can’t find such an assertion elsewhere. She does have a bibliography, but no detailed footnotes to allow her claims to be followed up, so I’ll give this claim the credence it’s due: none. Now I have to wonder what else Arman has imagined and invented — the coins she mentions, perhaps? The firm dating of forts and towns? To be fair, Arman does make it clear the link is speculative, an ‘I’d like to imagine’, but nonetheless… I have questions.

Finally, the book is atrociously edited. It’s common for entire words to be missing from sentences, sometimes making them nonsensical, and sometimes no doubt just altering the sense of them.

It is a shoddy job, and I cannot recommend it as a source of information, though there are some titbits that you can call entertaining fiction.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Darwin Comes To Town

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

Darwin Comes To Town, Menno Schilthuizen

Darwin Comes to Town examines the action of evolution on urban organisms — the mosquitos of the London Underground, blackbirds worldwide, white-footed mice in LA, bobcats in Hollywood… Is evolution happening because of human cities, and if it is, how does it work? It’s full of examples showing that there is clearly selection at work in the urban environment (a fact nobody should be surprised by), along with an in-depth discussion of one of the classics, Biston betularia, the peppered moth. (If you don’t know that example, basically in areas near industry, a melanic [black] form of the moth began to thrive, and became the dominant form in such areas. Since industry’s impact on the environment has been ameliorated now, things have quickly gone back the other day.)

I found it a fascinating book, though I think it could have been better organised — I have no idea how to find any of the information again, because I can’t recall any clear sections. There’s a lot of good anecdotes, and reference to studies I want to look up, but it is a tad conversational — and prone to falling into reminisence and flavour text about locations.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Within the Sanctuary of Wings

Posted August 28, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie BrennanWithin the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the last of these books, Lady Trent’s last memoir, and it’s a doozy. It delivers on tiny promises made throughout the other books, drawing everything together so it all makes a new kind of sense. I’m a bit baffled by people who think that the plot twist in this book comes out of nowhere and is not in keeping with what has happened before — we’ve been getting clues about this, hints about the importance of the Draconaeans to Isabella’s story even though she’s not all that interested in them. In some ways, I’m surprised I didn’t see this coming more. It fits exactly with what came before.

So what happens in this final novel? Isabella is told of the body of a new sort of dragon, found preserved in ice somewhere entirely unexpected. Naturally, Isabella has to embark on a hare-brained quest to find the body and record the new information it might bring, and Suhail and Tom are along for the ride. Of course they are.

And of course things don’t go entirely to plan. I fear to say too much even at this point, to avoid spoiling the surprise too much for anyone who still wants to experience it anew. Suffice it to say that this turn in Lady Trent’s career is great, and makes perfect sense.

And I cannot wait for the book following her granddaughter. In fact, I’m going to pick that up right now.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Late Eclipses

Posted August 27, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuireLate Eclipses, Seanan McGuire

In Late Eclipses, there’s a poisoner on the loose, and there’s little doubt in Toby’s mind that it’s someone from her past — Oleander de Merelands, of course. Throughout the book she leads Toby a merry dance, poisoning her allies and friends, and setting her up to look like the bad guy. Obviously some people are eager to seize on that and chase Toby down as a murderer, while others (the usual suspects) are arrayed beside her and behind her, ready to protect her and commit acts of courage and stupidity to keep her safe.

My main problem with this book was that it felt drawn out painfully by the fact that someone kept hitting Toby with the idiot stick. Things that are obvious to the reader are far from obvious to Toby. I can’t believe someone so trusted by her liege, someone who is an investigator no less, would keep making stupid mistakes like this. It’s not even a matter of trusting the wrong people this time — Toby just puts her head down and starts bulling through the obstacles, instead of using her head the less painful way.

There are some great moments — many of them involving Tybalt — and some payoff from hints we’ve been hearing all along. Amandine makes an appearance, remarkably sane for her. It’s fun, I just feel like about 80 pages could’ve been cut by letting Toby use her brain instead of her skull.

Rating: 3/5

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