The Vaccine Race, Meredith Wadman
I really enjoyed this, and I read it at a very opportune moment — at exactly the same time as I had my lab skills residential school in Milton Keynes. The techniques described were mostly not the same, but there was some crossover, and it was great to think about how I might one day contribute to the same science, if I go that route. My only quibbles with this book were with the sometimes unfocused feel; there’s a lot of scientists which it tracks quite closely, and sometimes I wondered how relevant all of the details are.
It’s also got a bit of a divide between the WI-38 cells, which were used to make vaccines, and the vaccines themselves; there’s a lot of focus on the cell line, and sometimes that wasn’t directly relevant to the vaccines. It’s interesting stuff, particularly when it comes to the commercialisation of science, but it didn’t always feel like it fit with the story of the vaccine race. In that sense, it sometimes felt like two almost-separate books. It’s also odd because Wadman clearly champions Hayflick, the creator of the cell line, despite his rather indefensible actions — dismissing them as being due to ‘stubbornness’. Sorry, but if you have a legal contract and you’ve agreed to it, you can’t just forget about it. If you object to the way things are being sorted out, you don’t abscond with the cell line — you get a lawyer.
It doesn’t sound like Hayflick meant any harm, though I am conscious of Wadman’s bias there, and it’s probably true that he deserved better from the use of his cell line — but even so, he was not in the right.
Other than that, there are also some very worthwhile discussions of the ethics of vaccine production. They were often tested on vulnerable people who couldn’t consent, and the WI-38 cell line came originally from the lung cells of an aborted foetus. It’s worth remembering these facts, even with the undoubted good done by the availability of vaccines.
Definitely recommend this one.
Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Jim Al-Khalili, Johnjoe McFadden
I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now, though also somewhat afraid of the idea — quantum biology?! Do y’all have to bring quantum (which I don’t understand) into biology (which I mostly do understand)? How rude! But this book is really clear about the concepts it describes, and there’s nothing too mind-boggling in it. Sometimes, in fact, the patience the authors had with explaining a concept I already understood was a little frustrating — but will open the book up to a bigger audience.
Do they have a point? Yes, I think so. I’m not sure it’s proven that quantum effects have a major impact on all the biological processes they discuss, but it seems pretty clear from the research they reference that quantum effects are there and might even solve some of the problems we still have in biology.
More research is needed, though — and this is one field you won’t find me trying to join, I think! It’s fascinating stuff, but I’m not a quantum fan.
The Glass Magician, Charlie N. Holmberg
Like the first book, this is basically a bit of cotton candy, and I enjoyed it as such. The alt-Victorian-ish world isn’t sketched out very clearly, but the magic system is fascinating, and it gets extended somewhat in this book, which is interesting. And I can’t help but want Thane and Ceony to get together, even though it was kind of abrupt in the first book.
Ceony herself continues to be irritatingly impulsive and lacking in self-awareness. In the last book, it made a certain amount of sense; no one else was planning to go and rescue Thane. In this book, there are plenty of people who are way more qualified than she is, and she succeeds only in making things more complicated (although of course, in the tried-and-true style, she ends up saving the day even despite that because she has heart and pluck and throws herself in there).
It’s not a particularly surprising story or world, but it remains fun.
Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers
What do I even have to say about these books anymore? This is the second Wimsey book, and it ups the emotional involvement somewhat by bringing in Peter’s family, and therefore higher stakes. I love all the stupid, unreliable, ridiculous characters, and the clever ones too, since they’re often one and the same character. I love the fact that if you pay attention, there are clues throughout — if you know your literature. (I refer to the references to Manon Lescaut.)
Yes, it’s Golden Age detective fiction, with everything that implies. At times, things don’t seem to be moving along much further, things get confused and convoluted, and you just long for people to do some straight talking. It’s Peter and Bunter that carry it, along with some help from the Dowager Duchess — I read these books originally because they’re classics, but I came back again (and again, and again) for the characters and the cleverness of Sayers’ writing.
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
I know that there’s probably a ton of “problematic” themes/scenes/descriptions in this book; without paying much attention to the specifics, I’ve still gained the impression that Gaiman isn’t exactly beloved of the social justice crowd, for various reasons. And I can definitely understand the criticisms of some of his actions, statements, aspects of his writing… but American Gods is still a really satisfying, solid read, and I enjoyed it. I found some of the mythology a little too obvious this time round — “Low Key Lyesmith”, really? The hints were just way too obvious for someone with a solid knowledge of Norse mythology.
Still, the other mythologies that are glimpsed are less well-known to me, and I love the way they’re all woven together to make a rich story that’s like a tour of the US and of its people’s history. I’ve no doubt there are gods that should have been included and aren’t, and that other gods have more prominence than they probably should (well, Odin for one). But honestly, I wasn’t thinking that while I was reading. I was just enjoying it.
It’s true that Shadow, the main character, is a bit of a cypher — intentionally. It’s hard to like someone who seems to go through life so numbly. But really, I’m here for the game Gaiman’s playing with the mythology, so it works for me all the same.
Some of the stuff that really doesn’t work for me, though, would include the way the female characters are treated: so much sex and lying, and “bitchiness” (for lack of a better word)… I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel quite right.
It’s a fun read, though not perfect. I think that has to be my conclusion.
The Real Lives of Roman Britain, Guy de la Bedoyere
I picked this up mostly because Guy de la Bedoyere worked on Time Team, which I loved as a kid and now watch sometimes with my wife. He was their Roman expert, or one of them, so that’s a pretty good endorsement (and it amused me to notice a blurb from Tony Robinson on the front!). The problem, as ever, is that there isn’t really that much material for the “real people” of Roman Britain, because there’s no rich written record to refer to. There’s scraps — an inscription here, a letter there, an eloquent tomb — but often de la Bedoyere is pressed to make more than a paragraph or two of the material he has. It’s about real people, alright, but there’s so little we know about them, that doesn’t necessarily add to what we know.
Which is not to say it’s a bad book; it’s solidly based on the archaeology and records we have, and there are some fascinating glimpses at life in Roman Britain. But it’s less a full picture than a glance through a door that’s open just a crack.
Mind you, I’m sure de la Bedoyere feels closer to the people he writes about than we do, reading about it — he’s examined the evidence first hand, perhaps worked on the excavations. This might be more satisfying if you’re in that position, too!
Wicked Plants, Amy Stewart
Wicked Plants is one of those books which seems, to me, more like the sort of thing you dip into, flip through, and ultimately probably leave on the bookshop shelf. The illustrations are quite pretty, and some of the facts are entertaining, but all in all it becomes a list of facts, grouped into categories of varying usefulness/interest.
If you’re fascinated by all the ways the natural world can kill us, this might well be your thing — and if you love plants in general, and spend a lot of time gardening, it might be a good idea to know the baddies hiding in the hedgerows, too. But for me it was more of a curiosity, and I only finished it because it happened to be what I had on hand when I couldn’t sleep.
Spellslinger, Sebastien de Castell
Received to review via Netgalley; published 4th May 2017
I’ve read one other book by Sebastien de Castell, Traitor’s Blade, and it was a lot of fun, much like this — although aimed at a different audience, somewhat, given that this is essentially a coming-of-age story, and deals with the various trials and tribulations of proving yourself to your society, living up to your parents’ expectations, and discovering you’re just not like everyone else. It surprised me in that it doesn’t take the easy way out, emotionally. Kellen has to get through the whole book with more or less the same advantages he started with.
The family dynamics are just… painful. They’re plainly abusive, even when they express affection/pride in any way, and it’s just not at all fun to read for me. The way Kellen’s friends turn their backs on him, too. I don’t want it to be a true depiction of people, of family and friendship, but I’m afraid it really can be, and that’s kind of awful.
Spellslinger doesn’t go easy on the protagonist or the reader, it has a pretty cool magic system and world-building, and plenty of space for more adventures. Oh, and a talking animal sidekick which is not a dog, but a squirrel cat. I’m here for this.
There’s plenty more room for world-building, and I feel like things might really kick off in later books — this did feel like an origin story, though there are one or two themes that I imagine will be explored further.
The Martian, Andy Weir
Reread, because I just felt like it. It’s a great adventure story which uses a lot of reasonable, modern science to imagine how we’d get people to Mars to explore — and what we’d do if someone was stranded there. The main character, Mark, is funny, which both builds sympathy for him and ameliorates some of the frustrations of the way things just keep going wrong. I love the bit in the afterword by the author where he explains that he found that each solution to the last problem naturally presented a new problem for the characters; now that’s a good way to put a story together.
Most of the characters aren’t that well rounded, because so much of it relies on reporting Mark’s diary entries as he struggles to survive on Mars. It mostly still works, though, and there’s some excellent snark I just love, e.g. the whole “Elrond” meeting.
It’s not a perfect book, but I enjoy it a lot. If you’re a fan of the Apollo 13 movie, or of space stuff in general, then I think this should appeal — as well as if you’re into survival adventure stories.
Incognito, David Eagleman
This book is mostly a very readable account of some of the standard weird things your brain does, but it does contain a very valuable discussion of a serious nature, too. David Eagleman shows through examples how often our behaviour is ruled by factors we don’t control — things in our brain that we may not even know about, but which nonetheless change us. And of course that poses a big question when it comes to criminal behaviour: can we be blamed for “choosing” to do something when we only “choose” to do so because we have a brain tumour?
He gives a decent amount of space to a discussion of how the criminal justice system should work given that we know this, and while other reviewers think that what he suggests impinges on civil liberties, I’m not so sure. By my reading, he’s suggested that people can either just sit in prison for as long as necessary, to remove them from society, or they can voluntarily choose to undergo therapies to help them change their behaviour. If that doesn’t work, then they may have to remain incarcerated because otherwise they would reoffend. As long as it is a choice, I don’t see why such an intervention would be inethical — at least no more inethical than letting someone rot in prison for the rest of their life. There are some people for whom that’d be worse than death, after all.
At any rate, this book might make you feel a little bit uncomfortable as regards how much free will you have and what your brain is doing behind your back. Still worth a read! I’d probably rate it higher if it had more info that’s new to me.