Category: Reviews


Review – The Descent of Monsters

Posted 1 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Descent of Monsters by JY YangThe Descent of Monsters, JY Yang

The first two books (The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven) introduce you to a world and a setting without making it essential to have read the other book first (though personally, I would read Black Tides first anyway). I found that by contrast, The Descent of Monsters was very much settled within that now existing framework, and relied on prior knowledge of the other two novellas to orientate you and help you understand who means what to whom and why, and why this character does x and y, etc.

This is a bit different in format to the first two books as well, focusing on the investigations of a new character into events that Akeha and Mokoya are involved in, without giving us much access to the actual thoughts of Mokoya and Akeha (and the other characters we already know). Part of it is written as an investigation report: there are also letters and a couple of interrogation transcripts.

Honestly, I found this not quite enough to re-orientate myself within the world. Before I read another book in this world, I think I might well make the time to reread these first three together, to make sure I understand all the nuances and how the events connect. I didn’t even read the first two books that long ago, but Yang doesn’t spoonfeed you (which is not a complaint! I think it’s reasonable to expect you to carry a certain amount of information between books, it’s just that apparently my brain is a sieve right now).

This one ends up feeling a bit slight compared to the other two: while we learn a bit more about the world and the machinations of those in power, I found it difficult to connect up. Again, rereading might help, but that was (sadly) my impression. I do find it enjoyable: Chuwan is a bit of an archetype (the oh-so-determined investigator, destined to find the truth!) and it works. This does stand alone in the sense that it’s a character we don’t know investigating events which, on their own, are fascinating and clearly shocking — but I think the connections to be made with the previous novellas are important in really getting the full effect.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Gods, Graves and Scholars

Posted 30 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. CeramGods, Graves and Scholars, C.W. Ceram

This book is seriously outdated, but that’s almost irrelevant since what I really wanted was a book with a general, accessible history of archaeology to just sink into. Ceram provides: he covers various great civilisations (Greeks, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, South Americans) and discusses some of the early work done in digging up and restoring their monuments. He’s often admiring of the adventurers who found them, while noting that at times they did more harm than good (something we feel even more strongly now) — there’s a great sense of adventure about some of the people and events he describes, though he does so in a scholarly tone that others might find dry. I enjoyed the range of choices here — e.g. it doesn’t just go for Petrie, Carter, Champollion, Schliemann… but digs into some names I knew less well.

There’s tons more to learn about all the sites and civilisations Ceram discusses, and much of the information here has been updated. For example, we don’t think in terms of slaves building the pyramids anymore. Still, there’s a great deal here to whet the appetite: a glimpse of the wonderful things as seen by those who were very close to their early discovery, but synthesised into a greater narrative about the progress of archaeology.

Not for everyone, but perfect for the mood I was in at the time. I think my favourite bit was the section on Egypt: like it or not, that was my first archaeological love. That said, I want to do a ton more reading about the archaeology of the Americas, which this book inspired me to pick up.

Rating: 3/5 

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Review – And Then There Were None

Posted 28 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of And Then There Were None by Agatha ChristieAnd Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

I started reading this to pass a few minutes at the train station, and ended up reading it all in one go. I always forget that Christie’s work is so enjoyable — especially when she stays away from her series detectives (I can’t stand Poirot). She really could write a solid mystery, and I do intend to pick up some more of her one-off mysteries, and possibly also give Tommy and Tuppence a try. She has a way of setting out the scenario, the characters, and really drawing you in.

And Then There Were None features a very careful set-up: ten characters are drawn together on an island where they can essentially be marooned and prevented from calling for help. Slowly, it’s revealed that each one of them has a death on their conscience — a driving accident, treatment withheld from a dying woman, an operation performed while drunk, fellow-soldiers abandoned to die… Each one has their excuses, their reasons, and not all of these are revealed in one go. When they arrive at the island, they don’t know each other or why they’ve been called there, each brought there on false pretences: after their first dinner, however, they get a shock when a voice reads out their names and the names of the person (or people) they killed.

After that, they begin to die, one by one, according to the means specified in a sinister little nursery rhyme… Those remaining come to the conclusion (of course) that the killer is among them.

There are aspects of this which haven’t aged well: the original “Ten Little Niggers” rhyme has been expunged by now and replaced with “Soldiers”, but there’s also some unpleasantness about Jewish characters and about native peoples “not counting”. Some of that is character, of course, but some of it seems built rather unpleasantly into the narrative voice.

However, the solution of the mystery works pretty well for me (it all hangs together and makes sense, and we had the clues), and the feeling of horror/suspense is well built up. It’s an enjoyable read, if you can ignore the unpleasantness about anyone who isn’t white, British and preferably middle-class. (Not that anyone really comes off well in this book, but that group isn’t slandered for the sake of being that particular group.) It’s not exactly groundbreaking, although part of that is hindsight, but it does the job and it definitely held my attention for a solid hour or two of (mostly) enjoyment.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Posted 27 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, Brandon Sanderson

Received to review via Tor

I read Legion ages ago — and then reread it sometime more recently, actually — but never got round to reading the second book, Skin Deep. Once I got my hands on this collected edition, though, it was inevitable: I might be a little late to the party (sorry, Tor; moving is a pain in the butt), but I absolutely raced through it once I did settle down to read. I didn’t stop or put the book down at all, and I’m sure my bunnies got away with murder while I was reading.

So what is Legion about? The main character is Stephen Leeds, but really he’s more of a cipher: it’s his ‘aspects’ that are really intriguing, something like voices in his head or a split personality, but not exactly. He is, as he says several times in the narration, something different — and he doesn’t consider himself insane, since he’s living a (relatively) normal life. That’s arguable, but the fact that he’s a genius and gets along pretty well using his aspects in many ways isn’t. When he needs to know something — speak Hebrew, understand theoretical physics, deal with crime scene investigation — he flips through a book or two on the subject, and a new aspect will join him, genuinely expert on the subject and able to guide him in his investigations. These books are mysteries, too, with a supernatural/science fictional bent. A camera that can take pictures of the past; using the cells of the human body as storage for information…

Through the mysteries, we get to know a little about Stephen and his aspects, and how they work: Ivy, repository of all his social understanding; Tobias, a walking encyclopaedia with a deep knowledge of art and architecture, always able to talk soothingly about something or other; J.C., a trigger-happy Navy SEAL, who knows security and weapons… and all the other aspects who play a more incidental role, like Armando (photography expert and megalomaniac who thinks he’s the king of Mexico), Ashley (far too comfortable with being imaginary), Ngozi (forensics expert) — the list goes on. It’s a fun cast, and Sanderson has been conscious to make the aspects pretty varied, while trying to be respectful of their apparent origins. Aside from the aspects, there’s also Stephen’s butler, who is impressively forbearing and clearly very fond of Stephen, despite the weirdness.

The mysteries themselves are a little light, definitely not the point of the stories, and I’m still not sure what I think exactly about Lies of the Beholder, the third (and final) novella. It’s not the ending I wanted, but it makes a certain amount of sense and answers various questions arising from the events of the previous two books (or less the events than the actions and hints of Stephen’s aspects during that time). It works; maybe I just didn’t really want my time with the characters to be over.

All in all, as a collection it’s very satisfying (perhaps less so if you only try the novellas standing alone), and I do recommend it. Excuse me while I go press my wife to read it soon

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Posted 25 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Rise and Fall of the DinosaursThe Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte

If you’re not really up to date on the modern science around dinosaurs, this is a pretty good way to catch up. It doesn’t go into enormous amounts of detail about any one dinosaur, and it’s honestly rather more surprised about feathered dinosaurs than I would think is warranted at this point, but it makes for a good overview. There is a lot of personal detail here about what made him interested in dinosaurs, various scientists, etc, etc. There’s a lot of name-dropping, and though I didn’t twig at the time, other reviews mentioning that it seems like a total boys-only club are quite correct.

It’s nothing astounding and not really in-depth enough to have wowed me. More of an adult’s version of a pretty basic intro to dinosaurs. That has its place, but not really on my shelves!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Men Explain Things To Me

Posted 23 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca SolnitMen Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit

A lot of the men I know dislike the idea that Solnit has a point in the title essay, but she really does. There’s an attitude amongst some men — usually of a certain age and status — that they know better than any female-shaped person they might be talking to. I get it when working support, I get it when talking about my academic interests, and yep, I’ve had it on this blog. Bibliophibian = female = doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

I recently had someone explain drug-resistant tuberculosis to me. I’d just completed six months of research into drug-resistant tuberculosis, how it arises, how it persists, and how it can be treated (for my BSc dissertation). The person in question was someone on a forum who had, in their own words, “not done any biology since my GCSE”. I’ve had people explain to me (wrongly) that Sir Gawain was a symbol for x and y in Arthurian myth — I have a master’s degree in English Literature, and my dissertation for that was on… well, you can guess, right? Their qualification was that they’d read T.H. White’s novels. I can’t remember what White had to say about Gawain: pretty sure White didn’t come into my dissertation at all due to being almost entirely irrelevant to my theories (I mean, at least read Malory and Chrétien before you pontificate, dude).

The point is, it’s a real phenomenon. I’ve never had a woman do that. Granted, there are also many men who will accept that I have the expertise I claim, but the same as Solnit’s examples, there are also plenty of men who don’t. And it’s rare to get an apology for those assumptions made.

So the title essay of this book definitely strikes a chord. The other are a little more uneven: I wasn’t that interested in the one on Virginia Woolf, for example. Solnit writes clearly, and hedges her assertions round with reminders that she really isn’t saying all men do x or all Americans are racist or anything else. She’s pretty moderate in that regard.

It feels like a collection padded out with a few random pieces that sort of maybe fit together, mostly in order to publish Men Explain Things to Me. It wasn’t a bad read, but… meh.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Death of a Clone

Posted 21 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Death of a CloneDeath of a Clone, Alex Thompson

Received to review via Netgalley

This has been out for, um, ages now. I did actually start it as soon as I got it, and then I had my dissertation and moving and a thousand other excuses. When I actually sat down to finish it, though, it’s a very easy read and went by quickly. It was a little bit predictable to me, but it comes together nicely, and I do enjoy the constant references to Golden Age crime fiction (or at least Agatha Christie; now I think about it, I’m not sure whether any others were mentioned).

I probably shouldn’t say too much about it for fear of spoiling the reveals — it is kind of fun to just read and let things fall into place for yourself, after all. But I do find it weird that it has a lot of similarities with another recent book, One Way (S.J. Morden). There’s a slightly different angle, but nonetheless a lot of similarities, right down to the ending (which I peeked at in the case of One Way, which I haven’t quite finished). If I remember rightly they must have been being published at the same time, so it’s not a matter of plagiarism — just a kind of synchronicity, I think, but it definitely gave me deja vu!

Not bad, but nothing particularly astonishing either.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Seeds of Science

Posted 20 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Seeds of Science by Mark LynasSeeds of Science, Mark Lynas

I’m pro-GMOs, so you could say it’s typical that I’d like this book, and I’m really the only kind of audience it would reach — but I think Lynas is genuinely attempting to dispell myths and introduce other people to the actual science behind GMOs, for all that. He was himself once very much anti-GMO, and participated in the crop destructions and demonstrations against people who tried to grow genetically engineered crops in the UK; he was “converted” by actually looking into the science behind it, and finding that behind the scaremongering, there’s very little real science.

He does also (perhaps somewhat weirdly) mount a defence of Monsanto; some aspects are like a case study of the problems of GM crops in action, but at other times he seems to be conflating the rise of GM crops as a whole with Monsanto — not quite the same thing; one doesn’t need to defend Monsanto to prove that GMOs are no threat. (Although he’s also not wrong that many of the kneejerk claims against Monsanto are on shaky ground. For example, the idea that Monsanto deliberately sell sterile seeds in order to force farmers to purchase new seed every year. That idea is just poor understanding of genetics: the second generation of seed may not actually carry the Roundup-resistant gene, in the same way that the seeds of hybrid crops don’t necessarily breed true.)

Lynas writes well and clearly, and often evocatively; his struggle with becoming pro-GMO isn’t drawn out in angsty detail, but it’s plain that it wasn’t an easy change for him and that he made the decision based on facts he could no longer ignore. Perhaps for some people, his presentation of the known facts will be enough to tip the scales. I’m somewhat doubtful (I think a lot of people who are anti-GM will automatically reject this book as being by a sellout, particularly because of the defence of Monsanto), but maybe it’ll help. If you’re on the fence, it should definitely help to clarify your views.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Verdict of Twelve

Posted 18 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Verdict of Twelve by Raymond PostgateVerdict of Twelve, Raymond Postgate

This book isn’t really about the crime itself, but about the jurors who sit to judge it in court. Each of them has their own experiences, some of them shadier than others, all of them changing the way they look at the woman in the dock. The mystery itself is wholly second to the examination of why each character decides to vote guilty or not guilty. It’s a clever story, albeit rather shallow — after a few characters on the jury, the author gives up really giving them backgrounds and personalities, because twelve is too many to really handle. It makes sense, but it also makes some parts of the deliberation of the jury rather perfunctory.

Overall, it’s clever enough and entertaining, if not massively difficult to figure out, or really all that good a psychological examination of juries.

Warning: one thing that may be distressing for some folks is that a pet rabbit is brutally killed (in a way designed to distress its owner). I honestly found that bit rather disturbing. Yeesh.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Paper Trail

Posted 16 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Paper Trail by Alexander MonroThe Paper Trail, Alexander Munro

Possibly I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much of the history of papermaking and paper usage is focused on China and the surrounding countries, but I was still somehow surprised — and I definitely hadn’t known about the key role Buddhist sutras players in popularising paper there. I did enjoy that the book didn’t just focus in narrowly on paper-making, but discussed its usage, the people who used it, and explained the contexts. It’s one of those books that might seem to be a microhistory, but in the end tells you a lot about various different things.

Of course, in later chapters it discusses the Reformation and the rise of literacy in the population, and the invention of the novel. But a lot of it isn’t about the West, which is… actually, probably a good thing for a complacent Westerner like me to run into. Paper was already established, understood and used fully well before we started printing Bibles and novels on it. It’s obvious, when you say it like that.

I found Munro’s style pretty compelling and definitely clear, and I enjoyed the fact that he didn’t hurry to the more familiar parts of paper’s history.

Rating: 4/5 

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