Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 16 April, 2019 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

This week’s topic is “Rainy Day Reads”, and like imyril, I can’t help reading that as books for a metaphorical rainy day. So here are five books I always turn to when I want a comfort read — and five books I’ve been saving for a rainy day.

Comfort Reads for a Rainy Day:

Cover of Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart Cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers Cover of Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw Cover of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

  1. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. I mean, come on, you knew I was going to say it. I adore the decency of Maia — he’s not perfect: he can be petty and waspish and he does things he regrets, and he’s not always the sharpest crayon in the box either, but he tries his damnedest and he wins hearts (including mine) because of it. <3
  2. Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart. I used to be rather snobbish about these even as I enjoyed them, so here I am eating humble pie. There’s something about Mary Stewart’s ability with settings and her masterful heroes that works, even as I get annoyed with them — the hero of this book does not comport himself beautifully, to say the least. But there is some lovely stuff about grief, and learning to love again, and… I don’t know! It just works for me. It helps that Charity is a badass.
  3. A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. It made me cry in the bath, but it’s still a favourite. It’s all… warm and squishy, even as it’s occasionally upsetting and harrowing.
  4. Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw. It’s a newcomer to the list, I’m sure — I think I’ve written a comfort reads list before, at least — but I’ve been craving it when feeling down and ugh-y, so I guess it qualifies by now! I’ve read it twice, and I really kinda just want to read it again. Now.
  5. A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan. Which is funny, considering I didn’t love it the first time I read it. But it grew on me, rather the same way that Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey grew on me. (And I read them both at around the same time, actually…)

Books I’ve Been Saving for a Rainy Day:

Cover of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers Cover of The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson Cover of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin and Charles Vess Cover of The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin Cover of Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

  1. Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers. I’ve actually started it now, but for a while there it was just sat on my pile, gently tempting…
  2. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson. I might have an odd idea of comfort, but… there’s something nice about having this waiting for me somewhere along the line. I hope it’s a good overview, and not too similar to John Romer’s volumes, but either way I’ll probably enjoy it for the familiar magic of Egyptian archaeology and history.
  3. The Books of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin, illustrated by Charles Vess. Technically, the story isn’t new to me, but this illustrated version will be! It promises to be a real pleasure, which I’ve been putting off for the right moment, when I need it!
  4. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. I did actually start this, got partway through it, got distracted, and then sort of ‘banked’ it to await the full series. Which is all out now and has been for some time, but I know it’ll be good, so… it just kind of waits there.
  5. Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch. To the eternal frustration of Lisa and Mum. I’m in no hurry to be left hanging for the next book like I was after Red Seas Under Red Skies, people!

And an honourable mention to The Tethered Mage, which imyril has been tempting me with on Litsy all this week…

So that’s my rainy day reads — what’re yours?

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Review – Clouds of Witness

Posted 16 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. SayersClouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers

Listening to the radioplay and watching the TV adaptation of Clouds of Witness with Lisa made me really appreciate the actual book all over again. Every detail that she quibbled in the radioplay or TV series had an answer in the book; Sayers really knew what she was about. (Which is not to say that she never dropped a brick, but she made choices in her books for good reasons, and adaptors of her work should pay attention to her intentions there. (I’m looking at you, whoever adapted The Nine Tailors for TV — never mind that you’re blatantly disregarding history by having the Spanish flu occur in the 30s.)

Anyway, the book itself: in this second book of the series, Lord Peter finds his own brother accused of murdering his sister’s fiancé, and has to rush back to England from Paris to help investigate what happened. The book isn’t short of physical peril for Peter: he nearly drowns in a bog, is shot by his sister’s other fiancé, attacked by a farmer, and flies from the US to the UK in a two-person aircraft to hurry back with evidence for Gerald’s trial. He gets to be a hero here for Gerald’s sake, and readers see more of his depth of feeling, sense of responsibility and duty, and of course his wit and brains.

People often think little of mystery books, and consequently of Dorothy L. Sayers, and it’s true there aren’t many mystery novels whose solution turns on the plot of an 18th Century French novel. Still, Sayers ensured there is at least one (and several other books with equally erudite references and plots).

Rating: 4/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 13 April, 2019 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

Hey guys! I’m back from my holiday, which included a trip to Amsterdam to ABC (mostly for me) and Stephen and Penelope (mostly for Lisa). I was good and stuck well within budget, but I do have some new shinies! I also have a new ereader: I’ve switched back to Kindle, since I didn’t like some of the design choices for the Kobo Clara, so I have a Kindle Paperwhite (2018 edition) now. By next week, my personalised case should have arrived to be shown off, too…

For now, here goes the haul!

Received to review:

Cover of Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell Cover of Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

Bought:

Cover of The Afterward by E. K. Johnson Cover of Atlas Alone by Emma Newman Cover of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

Finished this week:

Cover of King Arthur: The Making of the Legend by Nicholas J Higham Cover of Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones Cover of Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh Cover of Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell Cover of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Reviews posted this week:

The Edge of Memory, by Patrick Nunn. I have concerns about this one. The basic premise is okay, but then I think it tries to go too far and gets rather circular in argument. Interesting, but the methodology doesn’t seem sound. 2/5 stars
Rose Daughter, by Robin McKinley. Still a nice retelling, with some definite advantages over the earlier Beauty, but ultimately not a favourite. 3/5 stars
Spirals in Time, by Helen Scales. Are you fascinated by shelled creatures? If so, this is probably more for you than for me. I got a little bored before the end, to be honest. 2/5 stars
The Unexpected Truth about Animals, by Lucy Cooke. Kind of meh in the end? Much of it was not unexpected at all, for me. Some interesting titbits, though! 2/5 stars
The Human Planet, by Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis. Got a bit bogged down in how to define the Anthropocene, for me, instead of sticking to the slightly broader topic of human impacts on Earth. A lot of fascinating stuff, though! 3/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update!

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘More accurate gene editing? Some CRISPR news, with a dose of caution.

It’s been a busy week — I feel like I need a holiday from my holiday. How are you guys doing? Reading anything awesome?

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Review – The Human Planet

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

Cover of The Human Planet by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. MaslinThe Human Planet, Simon Lewis, Mark Maslin

This book is about the impact humans have had on the world, and perhaps more accurately, it’s about how we pinpoint when that impact really began and whether we should consider the human impact to have started a new geological age for the Earth. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about exactly how humans have changed the world: the Columbian exchange which is leading to the homogenisation of ecosystems, and climate change, of course, but also the deeper impacts to the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

There’s also a lot of rather tedious discussion of how exactly the committees to define geological time are set up, and that I could have done without. I don’t mind some information about that, but I don’t need to hear about the endless infighting and bureaucracy created in such detail! I’m actually interested in how humans have impacted the planet, not the process by which we decide whether to commemorate that by naming a geological era the Anthropocene.

There’s several instances of really bad editing in this volume, too — typos, sentences which don’t quite make sense, etc — which gives it quite a careless overall effect. Some useful information and theories, and some stuff I didn’t know from elsewhere, though!

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 10 April, 2019 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.

Cover of Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. SayersWhat are you currently reading?

A couple of things, me being me, but most actively I’m actually rereading two books: I’m mid-Wimsey reread, of course, so I’m partway through Unnatural Death. I’m kind of enjoying how obvious Agatha Dawson and Clara Whittaker’s lesbian relationship is, while wondering what Sayers thought of it — the narrative is pretty non-judgemental, but the preface suggests that Sayers put her own words in Miss Climpson’s disapproving mouth. Kind of disappointing, if so; I always rather thought Wimsey didn’t care.

I’m also rereading Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones; I remembered being fond of it, and I am, though the only concrete thing I seem to have remembered about it was the line: “I seem to have excalibured this knife.” It’s rather charming, and I do enjoy the way she didn’t explain much. As she rightly said in an essay somewhere, kids work this stuff out. It’s adults who expect everything to be pinned down and explained. Hopefully I retain enough of the child to just enjoy.

Cover of King Arthur: The Making of the Legend by Nicholas J HighamWhat have you recently finished reading?

King Arthur, by Nicholas Higham. He examines all the various historical origins for King Arthur… and rejects them one by one. His evidence seems thorough and sound, though of course it always helps that I’m in agreement with him. He covered all the fictional texts I would’ve expected, and the bibliography is very thorough (although I couldn’t find what edition of Malory he used, and he did persist in saying Le Morte d’Arthur, instead of the correct Le Morte Darthur), so all in all I’m inclined to believe it’s all pretty sound. Romans, Sarmatians, Narts, Greeks — all dismissed as sources, after discussion and presenting the evidence for and against.

Cover of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky ChambersWhat are you reading next?

I really don’t know. I’d like to focus on Record of a Spaceborn Few, and I still need to read The Priory of the Orange Tree to the end. I’ve got rather behind on reading during this holiday, which has involved a lot of people and not enough time using the opportunity to hide from chores to just craft things and read all day. I’ll be travelling back to the UK tomorrow, and I have the radioplay of Unnatural Death and some cross-stitch for the drive up from Ebbsfleet to Yorkshire, but I’ll be reading Record of a Spaceborn Few on the train, probably.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – The Unexpected Truth About Animals

Posted 9 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Unexpected Truth about Animals by Lucy CookeThe Unexpected Truth about Animals, Lucy Cooke

Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little of this was actually unexpected to me. There is some interesting and entertaining stuff — including the penguin facts — but some of it was fairly well-worn. Possibly that’s because I have read a fair number of pop-science books, possibly it’s because my parents raised me on a solid diet of David Attenborough, but… meh. Cooke’s writing isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have much of a spark, and I didn’t find it particularly entertaining. Actually, I kept feeling rather bored, and switching books to stay awake longer (to maximise the precious hour or two I spend reading in bed — and completely offline — at the moment!).

So… it wasn’t bad, but neither did it strike me as anything special.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Spirals in Time

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

Cover of Spirals in Time by Helen ScalesSpirals in Time, Helen Scales

Spirals in Time discusses shells — all kinds of shells and shelled creatures — with all kinds of weird and wonderful facts… and others I feel like I really should have known. (An octopus is a mollusc!) If you’re interested in shells already, I’m sure it’s fascinating, but I ended up a bit lost and a bit, well… lacking in giving a shit. Scales’ enthusiasm is palpable, but I’m just not interested enough.

Besides which, I totally agree that anthropogenic climate change is real, but somehow being preached at about it in every book I read is beginning to get on my nerves. Yes, thanks, I know all this! I know there’s value in it being there and it’s all true and important, but… arggh! Somehow it’s becoming, unfairly, a pet hate.

This isn’t actually a bad book, just not my thing.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Rose Daughter

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

Cover of Rose Daughter by Robin McKinleyRose Daughter, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley has written two rather different adaptations of Beauty and the Beast; this is the second, and perhaps more sophisticated one. There’s much more magic in this one, and more of a developed fantasy world for the story to take place in. It also departs from the basic story much more, introducing additional characters and motivations. While it makes for a much more rounded world, I found myself much less interested in it! Sometimes simplicity can work better, and this ended up feeling rather fussy to me. The whole tangle has to be explained at the end by a character who has barely previously appeared, and that also feels clumsy.

There is one aspect of this I prefer to other tellings, and that’s the fact that the Beast remains a Beast. The transformation to a man seems weird sometimes — or rather, the transformation to a man followed by an immediate marriage, especially when Beauty is described as being confused by and even timid by her transformed partner. It seems to make more sense this way, at least for this particular version of the story.

In any case, I’m glad I reread this, but I probably won’t do so again. I far prefer McKinley’s first version, Beauty!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Edge of Memory

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

Cover of The Edge of Memory by Patrick NunnThe Edge of Memory, Patrick Nunn

Patrick Nunn’s premise is that oral traditions may preserve details about events from a long time ago — not just decades, but centuries, and even millennia. He goes about trying to prove this by taking inundation stories as an example, linking them to post-glacial sea rise events, and trying to prove that the stories accurately depict the experiences of the tellers’ ancestors. I think his basic point is proven anyway: we know that oral traditions can preserve an amazing amount of detail over astonishing lengths of time. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down long after the events they describe, with clear features showing they were actually performed aloud and passed from person to person in a feat of memory. We know that this survival wasn’t just a matter of a generation or two, because the stories contain clear details that were no longer relevant to the time when the stories were actually written down: weaponry, customs and geopolitics were different, but are preserved in the epics with a surprising degree of fidelity.

However, I think Nunn tries to go too far, and is generally pretty unsound. For one example that made me question his research, he mentions his theory that people originally created rock art as a sort of aide-memoire, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t aid in survival — that it must be so, because they wouldn’t have had time for anything other than survival. However, the 40 hour work week is actually a purely post-Industrial construct: modern hunter-gatherers — even living in a world circumscribed by land ownership and industry, i.e. with nowhere near the range they would have had prehistorically — need to spend far less time on subsistence. Anything from 2 hours a day to 8 hours is suggested, most of it on the lower end of that scale; if nothing else, hunter-gatherers had the same amount of free time as modern humans, likely more.

That’s a comparatively minor point, but it definitely made me sceptical. Add to that Nunn’s tendency to use phrases like “it is plausible to assume” and “it seems likely”, and his rather circular attempts to use sea levels to date the stories and stories to date the sea levels, and I’m extra-sceptical. These are mythic stories — things like a kangaroo digging a hole that causes the sea to flood in — and his interpretations are faltering. Does it mean X? Does it mean Y? At one point he says the presence of a particular feature in a story proved it referred to a permanent inundation and then later, though I suspect this was bad editing, seems to say the opposite of another story (it didn’t contain the same feature, and therefore still referred to a permanent inundation — what?!).

I think Nunn attempts to use two things that are necessarily imprecise to date each other, and gets tangled up in the relationship between those. I’d much rather see some underwater archaeology to show that people were living in these locations at the right time, as a kind of independent third corroboration. I think he’s particularly shaky when he discusses stories where drowned buildings are clearly visible beneath the water: it’s obvious that those stories cannot be purely handed down from the time of the inundation, but will have been reinforced, changed, or possibly even invented by new tellers, when the drowned buildings were observed in later times.

The basic premise that oral culture can preserve some astonishing detail from very far in the past is undeniable, and I commend Nunn’s use and examination of Australian Aboriginal stories in particular — I think it was a sound choice given their isolation from other people’s and the strength of their oral culture. I just think Nunn tries to stand up a stool with only two legs (the stories and sea levels), and should definitely have thought about other ways to establish his theories.

Obviously this is not my field in any sense, though I have a background in scientific investigation, so take my opinion for what you think that’s worth. I found the book interesting and largely well-written, even if the arguments are weak. I did find the recounting of every single individual inundation story known to the author rather tedious. There’s something like 21 one of them: pick the best ones, dude. Make a table to compare them. Just… something!

Rating: 2/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 6 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Good morning, folks! As we speak, I’m off for a few days in Belgium, hanging out with my in-laws and so on. So this is totally prepared in advance! Here’s hoping it’s been an acceptable week…

Books read this week:

Cover of The Edge of Memory by Patrick Nunn Cover of Life in a Medieval Castle by Francis Gies and Joseph Gies Cover of Catullus' Bedspread by Daisy Dunn

Cover of The Bull of Minos by Leonard Cottrell Cover of Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers Cover of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt by Chris Naunton

Reviews posted this week:

Watch the Wall, my Darling, by Jane Aiken Hodge. Really disappointing and badly paced. 1/5 stars
The Mummies of Ürümchi, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Fascinating, especially as it deals a lot with the preserved fabrics! 4/5 stars
Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal. This is where this series really takes off for me, and I enjoyed it just as much a second time. 4/5 stars
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. The usual good time. It’s Lord Peter! 4/5 stars
Lucy: The Beginnings of Mankind, by Donald Johanson. This is hardly new and groundbreaking at this point, but it’s still fascinating, explaining a lot of the controversy and questions around Johanson’s findings. 4/5 stars
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers. Insert fannish flailing here. 5/5 stars

Other posts:

Top Ten Tuesday. This one’s all about what will prompt me to pick up a book!
WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update!

So how’re you guys doing? I’m trying to get better again at replying to and returning comments, so I’ll be visiting back anyone who comments here.

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