Review – Avengers: The Enemy Within

Posted 18 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Avengers: The Enemy Within

Avengers: The Enemy Within, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Scott Hepburn, Matteo Buffagni, Filipe Andrade

Avengers: The Enemy Within is basically the conclusion of the storyline in Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight and Down, so I expect that if you haven’t read those, you won’t like this one. I’m not actually reading current Avengers, but that didn’t seem to spoil this crossover event. I have no idea how to keep track of all the timelines and so on, so I just throw myself in at the deep end every time and sink or swim. In this case, Carol’s background would help with the swimming, but Avengers background wasn’t necessary.

Love Carol and Jessica’s banter, love the appearance of characters like Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Wasp, love great lines like Carol and Thor’s exchange here:

Carol: You like hitting stuff with that hammer of yours?
Thor: It is an act of which I am singularly fond.

I’m not a huge fan of the art — I preferred the issues that Dexter Soy illustrated — but that’s personal taste and most of the art here does what it needs to do perfectly. All in all, I’ve really enjoyed Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run of Captain Marvel even when I didn’t enjoy the art so much. The writing is very satisfying. I love how many female characters she highlights — I’d have liked Widow to have more to say, but that’s just because she’s the character I know best.

The ending here… without spoiling it, eh, I didn’t find it that original, but I think a lot can be done with it in the right hands.

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Review – The Gospel of Loki

Posted 17 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne HarrisThe Gospel of Loki, Joanne Harris

I love Loki’s voice in this. I promised Joanne Harris I wouldn’t mention A Certain Actor, but actually, I think she makes her Loki pretty distinct anyway. It’s recognisably her writing, her way of getting into a character’s head — I think I could recognise the style somehow without ever knowing the author — and she makes it work very well. I’ve actually found over time that I prefer her other work, like Chocolat, to Runemarks, Runelight and The Gospel of Loki, which are ostensibly closer to my usual genre, but I still liked this a lot.

It sticks fairly close to the source texts of the Eddas, while also linking fairly closely with Runemarks and Runelight, from what I can recall of those books. But you don’t need to read any of those to enjoy Loki’s version of his own story — though it would probably help you appreciate the wry asides and the neat little twists to the tale.

If I was going to compare this to anything, I’d actually talk about Sassafrass’ ‘My Brother, My Enemy’, which gives Loki a voice to justify what he did in a similar way. The main difference is that the song gives both Loki and Odin justification for their actions, while Joanne Harris’ version shows that neither of them are really justified, and left me wanting to bang the heads of both sides together.

Anyway, definitely fun and compulsively readable, as all Joanne Harris’ work has been for me. I love some of her descriptions of Ragnarok — she nailed it, even if I couldn’t stop seeing Chris Hemsworth smashing Bifrost. (Sorry. I didn’t promise not to mention that actor.)

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Review – Longbourn

Posted 17 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Longbourn by Jo BakerLongbourn, Jo Baker

At first I was ambivalent about this — I’m not a huge Austen fan, but the idea of flipping Pride and Prejudice over to look at the people that supported the Bennets’ lifestyle seemed interesting — and then I got more interested in it and then… I put it down for a day or so while I read The Gospel of Loki, and when I got back to it, I just didn’t care. I think it helped at first that I don’t think it really is that intimately entwined with Pride and Prejudice; most of Sarah’s story is separate from theirs, or at least not so closely linked that you can’t have the one without the other. Which then got kind of irritating — why not take this and make it stand alone, as historical fiction?

Anyway, the problems with it… were mostly that I figured it all out way ahead of time, and then I didn’t care enough to properly read on. I skimmed to confirm what I expected to happen did happen, and then I didn’t care enough to fill in the details. The love triangle, particularly, just sort of exasperated me.

On the one hand, the idea of it is a worthy one — while reading a biography of Austen recently, it seemed that she was more aware of the world that conventional assessments of her reflect, but on the other hand, it also noted that she was weakest with the lower class characters. But Longbourn just didn’t work well enough for me as a story in its own right to reflect back on Pride and Prejudice, which though it isn’t exactly my favourite novel ever, is a clever and witty book.

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Review – Cosmos

Posted 16 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Carl Sagan's CosmosCosmos, Carl Sagan

I don’t get people who find this too dry, or lacking in a sense of wonder about the world. It’s full of a sense of wonder, no less potent because Sagan was agnostic (not atheist, as some people say), and he expresses this almost poetically. While some of the science is falling out of date now, it’s still worth reading Cosmos — as a primer, and for Sagan’s clear explanations of how the world works, and how our understanding got to this point.

I actually have the DVDs of the series as well, and while I know from seeing clips the book and the series are very similar, I’m gonna have to get round to seeing it soon. And if you’ve never heard of Symphony of Science, I definitely recommend it — my favourite is ‘A Glorious Dawn’.

One of the things reading this really made me wonder is what Sagan would think of what we’ve made of the world in the last two decades. We haven’t destroyed ourselves yet, but we haven’t yet disarmed, we haven’t even convinced everybody that climate change exists, and we still haven’t gone any further from our own small planet. I wish we still had Sagan, speaking clearly and rationally about all the problems we face — particularly because he had hope for us, as well as a warning.

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 15 February, 2014 by Nikki in General / 45 Comments

Aaand it’s Saturday, and time for Stacking the Shelves, as usual hosted by Tynga’s Reviews!

And wow, I have a lot to show off this week — a couple of ARCs, more books than I expected to buy (I deserve it, I gave blood!), and a whole stack of books from Bookmooch. (If you have a Bookmooch account and you ship to the UK, link me! I have a ridiculous backlog of points and an eclectic taste in books.)

ARCs/review copies

Cover of Empress of the Night, by Eva Stachniak Cover of Peacemaker, Marianne de Pierres Cover of Morningside Fall, by Jay Posey

Bought

Cover of Shadows by Robin McKinley Cover of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield Cover of The Avengers: The Enemy Within Cover of Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell Cover of The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris Cover of Wonders of the Invisible World, by Patricia McKillip

Borrowed

Cover of The Pirate's Wish, by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Bookmooch

Cover of Simon Scarrow's Under the EagleCover of The Eagle's Conquest, by Simon ScarrowCover of When the Eagle Hunts by Simon ScarrowCover of The Eagle and the Wolves, by Simon Scarrow  Cover of Declare by Tim Powers  Cover of Magic Kingdom for Sale/Sold, by Terry Brooks  anCover of the Viking Portable Medieval Reader Cover of the Portable Dorothy Parker

I’ve been most excited about The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris, because I’ve had it preordered for a while. I’m halfway through it already, though goodness knows I’m halfway through a lot of books. I’m excited about the ARCs from Angry Robot: I’ve meant to try Marianne de Pierres before, and I read Jay Posey’s first book, Three, a while ago. And the third review copy, well, hopefully I’ll be interviewing Eva Stachniak here on my blog around March ish.

Needless to say, I am also very excited about Avengers: The Enemy Within, as it continues Captain Marvel’s current storyline. I’ve flicked through it already and it contains such gems as this:

Carol: You like hitting stuff with that hammer of yours?
Thor: It is an act of which I am singularly fond.

So what’re you all reading, guys?

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Review – The Assassin’s Curse

Posted 14 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Assassin's Curse, by Cassandra Rose ClarkeThe Assassin’s Curse, Cassandra Rose Clarke

Damn, I love the books Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry pick. And I just saw a review complaining that these books are a-okay with homosexuality, pre-marital sex and masturbation. Okay, I’m in.

So, okay, I don’t love this in the way I loved The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. It’s different, lighter. I really did enjoy it, though. I enjoyed how capable the main female character is, and how it’s really her that keeps pulling the powerful assassin’s bacon out of the fire. I liked how they interact, how prickly they both are, and how the romantic subplot doesn’t seem inevitable from the start even when we have a story that apparently involves love’s first kiss.

I enjoyed the world building, too, the types of magic, the not-typically-Western setting (it kicks off with Annana stealing a camel!). At times things seem a little too easy, the pace a little uneven, but it really wasn’t enough to get in the way of the fact that it’s a fun adventure, and I want the next book now.

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Sight loss and access to reading

Posted 13 February, 2014 by Nikki in General / 7 Comments

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to make a post about my volunteering work for the RNIB. It’s not all relevant to this blog, but certain aspects of it are. I’ve been having a hard time phrasing it, though, and finally Lynn agreed to help by asking me questions as an interview. So thank you very, very much to Lynn for helping out.

Before we start, I just want to say that while I’m talking about being a volunteer for a couple of charities, I don’t officially represent them. And while I hope that I’ve been sensitive and thoughtful in my answers, I’m aware that there’s nothing wrong with my own sight a pair of glasses can’t fix, and that I may get things wrong or mess up in some way. Feel free to tell me if I do: I’ll be glad to add corrections to my post if necessary.

That said, here’s Lynn!

I know you volunteer for RNIB/Macular Society, but what is it that you do when you’re volunteering?

Well, my role in the Macular Society is really simple: I moderate the forums. I answer questions when I can, offer reassurance if I can, but mostly just make sure there’s no spam. Which is why I’m really glad I have a more active role for the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind). It’s also affiliated with the local Institute for the Blind, and we have a really good network of support out there for people who are blind or partially sighted.

My particular role involves working in the clinic and trying to ensure everything works smoothly: I’m there to help both the patients and the nurses. So if someone’s lost, I tell them where to go; if someone’s just had their eyes dilated, so they can’t see to go get a coffee or get a taxi home, I’m trained to lead them safely and comfortably; if someone’s upset, I sit next to them and talk to them a bit; if someone needs to know how much longer it’s going to be, I go and find out. I also help with the general running of the clinic. If there’s work that you don’t need to be a healthcare professional for, I’ll do it: moving files, sorting files, taking requests to the photographers, running messages… It doesn’t sound like much, but when you know how big the clinics are and how many people we move through them each week, the five hours I volunteer a week is actually a significant help to the nurses.

Can you give any rough estimates on the numbers you alluded to?

I remember being told that in one of our treatment clinics, we move 800 people through each month. And we’re sometimes running seven clinics at a time, as well as the eye casualty. Diagnostic appointments usually take longer than the treatment clinics, so the numbers are probably lower for some of those, but it gives you an idea. The waiting room is often standing room only.

For more context, everyone who comes into the clinic has to first have their ‘visions’ done — a simple eye test to compare their current sight to when they had their last appointment. There is one visions room, divided into two parts, so only two nurses are ever doing visions at one time. Some clinics have a specific nurse assigned in one of the other rooms, if it’s a bit more complicated, but most people will go through the visions room.

That sounds like a lot of people! You must be really busy when you’re at the clinic.

Reaaaally busy. I don’t know what they do when they don’t have a volunteer there, because a lot of the stuff the nurses have to do then means they take even longer to get people through the visions room. Even with me there, we’re nearly always running with a delay.

Wow! I hope they always have at least one volunteer there then. How do the people visiting the clinic spend their time waiting for their appointments?

Some of them nap, which is an entirely valid response to the waiting times! Or glare at me, which is kind of unfair but also understandable. Mostly, though, and what I really wanted to talk about, people bring a book or a magazine, or buy the paper on the way in. That really surprised me, actually: I see a lot of the rest of the hospital, helping people around, and I don’t see as much reading in any other clinic or waiting area. You’d think a badly lit eye clinic full of partially sighted people would be the last place you’d see loads of people reading, but that’s my experience.

That does sound pretty incredible! And I mean that in the most positive sense of the word. Does that mean you sometimes end up talking about books and reading with the visitors too?

“What are you reading?” is the third most popular question (after “Where is the toilet?” and “Why is the clinic running late?”) I get asked. Not that I have chance to be actively reading when I’m on duty, but reading is an easy conversation topic to help distract people or just give them some interaction time with a friendly face. When people are worrying about the effects of losing their sight, too, the idea of not being able to read is what seems to really scare a lot of them. And quite often they know very little about the options out there to help them read for as long as possible.

Does the clinic offer them information on the options they have?

The clinic doesn’t, no. Not as such, anyway. My ‘boss’, the person who coordinates all of the volunteers, has an office in the clinic for that purpose. I was taught about the assistive devices we have, but mostly if someone asks for information, it’s easiest for me to go and find her. Then she’ll arrange to spend some time with them, talking about options like that and registering as legally blind, etc.

The one thing I do talk about when I can is ereaders. I’ve been investigating the various options for several years now, since my mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration, so generally I can help people figure out the best ereader for them, and recommend places to get books. Sometimes if it’s quiet I’ll fetch my own ereader and show them how it works.

So… there isn’t a lot of information to help ensure people are still able to read at the clinic other than in a specialised consultation? Is that why you mention ereaders specifically as something you talk to the visitors about?

There isn’t. I think that’s a problem that comes out of the NHS being very compartmentalised, which is a whole ‘nother rant — basically, instead of treating problems holistically, we treat problems separately. The clinic is there to deal with the physical issues; as far as I know, apart from the volunteers, I’ve never seen anything in place to help with the emotional side of going blind. With the clinic so busy, there isn’t time.

So it’s something I bring up when I can, something I know a lot about and can share that sometimes makes it all a bit easier to handle. I know for me, if I couldn’t read anymore, I’d be devastated. I’d probably end up on (more) antidepressants and just miserable. That’s why I also advocate for large print books in libraries (including the one I volunteer in), and for access to audiobooks and so on. Which is, you know, another reason to love the RNIB: they have a Talking Books subscription service with thousands of books available. (Which always needs help and donations, by the by.)

I see. That is… very sad. I’d be devastated too. Apart from ereaders and audiobooks, what other ways have you learned about that help people continue to be able to read?

Well, sometimes really good lighting is enough to help for some people, but then there’s also a variety of magnifiers. The one I find easiest to use myself (I have tried all of the ones we have available) is one of the variety of dome magnifiers we have. You just place them over the page and slide them along, and they magnify the text as well as concentrating the light on it. There’s CCTV video magnifiers, which take the text and magnify it up on an LCD screen, and have the advantage of being somewhat adjustable, but they cost a lot. I’m talking in the region of £800. For something that’s such a major concern for so many partially sighted people, the technology is difficult to access.

We do have programs that can give people these sorts of things free, but again, it takes resources, and it depends on where you live whether you can access one of those programs.

That sounds awful! I hope as technology increases, the costs will become less prohibitive to people. So ereaders and audiobooks are pretty much people’s best options?

To my mind, yes. An ereader is easily the cheapest option. It wasn’t cheap when I first started researching — I got mine for £180, and I think the Kindle was around that price too, then — but now things have caught up. The ereader I’d most readily recommend is the Kobo Mini: I got it when it was in a sale for £24, it’s pretty easy to use, and it’s lightweight, which is often another bonus for elderly people. The Kindle’s about the same weight and so on, but it doesn’t have the same range of fonts and font sizes. There’s a version of the Kobo with a backlight, too; that or the Kindle Paperwhite might be best for people who need bright light and good contrast.

I know you’ve already mentioned this, but just so we’re clear on this and have it reiterated: different people do have different requirements in ereaders? How do you know which ones work best for who?

It can be a problem, because obviously there’s lots and lots of people coming through the clinic from all sorts of backgrounds. Some of them might not be able to afford even a basic Kindle (~£60), or they might have trouble with coordination so a touch screen might not be a good idea. Generally, I just start by mentioning that I have a Kobo and find it useful, and let them ask me questions, which tends to give me a good idea of what they need. E.g. if they say they have trouble reading on a backlit screen, then obviously I scratch the idea of recommending the Kindle app on an iPad and go for something with e-ink technology.

I see… Do you think you could give people a few recommendations on ereaders to start with? Not too many details, perhaps, but some general pointers that you’ve found the most useful.

My first recommendation is generally to ignore me and get to a shop and try them out! In the UK, WHSmith will usually have display models of Kobos, while Waterstones has Kindles. Big supermarkets sometimes have them out, too. That way you can fiddle with the font options for yourself and just see what suits you.

Good idea! Though I know that I find it helpful to have some idea of what I should be looking for before I go into a shop myself. I feel very self-conscious if I have no idea what I want or need from a shop and I’m sure it’d be much worse if I had to deal with losing my sight as well. Having some idea of what kind of ereader I should be looking for would really help me look for one.

For that, I’d probably end up suggesting chatting to other people with similar issues, e.g. on the Macular Society forums. But in the meantime I’d go through a sort of checklist: what sort of screen do you want/need? Do you want it to do other things as well (i.e. a tablet)? Write down the things you know you can’t do without (like a lightweight unit, large buttons, lighting options, fonts), and that’d give you some idea of what to ask the shop assistants. There’s usually a particular shop assistant who handles ereaders, in my experience, so ask about that and ask to speak to them if possible.

I am actually planning to do a post here sometime soon about the pros and cons of various ereaders, and if anyone has any specific questions, feel free to ask me. If I don’t already know, I may be able to find out.

That doesn’t leave me with many questions to ask, beyond thanking you for your time and wishing you loads of good experiences volunteering!

You’re the one who helped me out! Thank you for your time, Lynn.

As I said, if anyone has any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments — if there’s anything interesting, I may add it to the post, and likewise I’ll add any corrections that may be necessary.

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 13 February, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

Well, it’s kind of Thursday now, but I’ve never let that stop me!

What did you recently finish reading?
The Assassin’s Curse, by Cassandra Rose Clarke. Review coming up on the blog tomorrow: suffice it to say that I think it’s a lot of fun, and I’ve acquired the second book and the companion stories to read ASAP. Like my to read list isn’t long enough.

Before that, it was The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory, which… I just don’t get the appeal. Elizabeth Woodville was smarter than Gregory’s version, a political schemer, why does she have to melt into goo over a man? She could still be political and canny and in love, but it doesn’t seem that way.

What are you currently reading?
Longbourn, by Jo Baker; “Downton Abbey meets Pride and Prejudice“. I’m quite enjoying it. From the reviews, I didn’t expect to, but maybe it helps that I’m not precious about Austen. I do think Baker’s rather riding on Austen’s coattails, telling a story that isn’t inextricably entwined with that of Pride and Prejudice and just using the original story to garner interest. I don’t know if that feeling will stick with me.

Also, Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, because it’s high time I got round to that.

What do you think you’ll read next?
Joanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki — just out today! I have promised Joanne Harris that I won’t mention a certain actor’s name in my review… Also, obviously, A Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke.

I’m also interested in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. It’s being mentioned in my ethics class this week, and we had an excerpt to read. There’s some fascinating research, and I’ve found his TED talks interesting.

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Review – The White Queen

Posted 12 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The White Queen, by Philippa GregoryThe White Queen, Philippa Gregory

I didn’t get on with The Other Boleyn Girl, but I was willing to give Philippa Gregory another chance because she is such a loved writer, and it is an interesting part of history — and perhaps more importantly, the portrayal of medieval queens is something I’m really interested in academically. But gah, I’m afraid I’m really wishing I hadn’t bothered, or at least that I hadn’t bothered to buy it. €12!

The problem with it is apparent from the very first pages. Elizabeth moves from a crafty, strong woman who despises the king but does what she needs to out of necessity to a giddy girl who doesn’t even seek proper proof of what’s happening within a handful of pages. By page fifty, she’s desperately in love with him, she’s married to him, she has faith that he’ll come back to her — all based on very little character development, for us, and with no time spent getting to know him (unless, I’m going to be crude, knowing his dick very very well counts) for her.

I actually liked the references to Melusina, etc, because that was something that could well inform someone’s attitude back then. But that was about the only thing I liked. Here is this woman who was strong, capable, and at the very least politically astute if not downright clever — reduced to a melting, credulous little dove over a handsome face. Gregory’s version doesn’t feel consistent, either internally or with history. Other characters are just as mercurial, so it’s not as if this is a clever characterisation thing.

If I ever get to writing a thesis, I’ll probably have to reread this and read a lot of Gregory’s other work, but it’ll be unwillingly.

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Review – Fanny and Stella

Posted 11 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fanny & Stella by Neil McKennaFanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, Neil McKenna

Despite the claims of meticulous research, Fanny & Stella seems to be mostly a sensational recounting of some admittedly quite sensational events. On the one hand, I felt that there was a lot of delight taken in talking about the “sordid” details — pretty thorough accounts of physical examinations for sodomy, and also a bit of an obsession with the sex as well. It’s also written in many places as if it’s nothing but a story, and it certainly doesn’t keep in mind that for Stella and Fanny, this trial was potentially a death sentence.

On the other hand, from the descriptions here (admittedly this could be the author’s work rather than reality), the two would have loved the attention, the tell-all details, outside the context of, you know, being in great danger. And I certainly learnt about the LGBT community in the Victorian period, and some of it rather surprised me.

The fact that Fanny and Stella were referred to by those names, more or less consistently, and by female pronouns… I couldn’t decide if that was meant to be respectful to them (what were their gender identities? Would they even have had a concept of that as we do?) or if it was meant to drive home at every point the whole “He-She Women” thing going on. Adding to that was the way the author presumed to know what was going on in their minds…

All in all, it’s entertaining but I wouldn’t trust it as solid scholarship, and I’m a bit leery of the author’s motives in writing it. Certainly it felt like there was a lot of prurient interest going on.

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