Stacking the Shelves

Posted 14 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 10 Comments

Time for the other half of my haul from the Hague! Shoutout again to the American Book Center and Stanza Bookshop for being amazing and friendly. This time it’s the SF/F books, so let’s have at it. Note: the bunnies bought me a couple of these.

Books acquired:

Cover of Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky Cover of The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn by Tyler Whitesides Cover of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal Cover of The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

Cover of The Genius Plague by David Walton Cover of Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport Cover of Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter

Cover of Circe by Madeline Miller Cover of The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood

Extra shoutout to the bookseller who made sure there was a copy of The Calculating Stars for me. <3

Books read this week:

Cover of Gorgon by Peter D Ward Cover of An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows Cover of The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker Cover of Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjohn Cover of Children of Time by Adrian Tchiakovsky

Reviews posted this week:

Death in the Tunnel, by Miles Burton. A fun and clever mystery; I can’t put my finger on quite why it worked so well for me, but it really did. 4/5 stars
Amazons, by John Man. A bit of a broader book that it sounds just from the main title alone, I found this a fascinating and surprisingly quick read. 4/5 stars
The Castlemaine Murders, by Kerry Greenwood. The usual sort of Phryne book, fun enough but not exceptional. 3/5 stars
The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope. A good adventure story, not too hobbled by being a classic. 3/5 stars
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this, and also which parts of the book I found more interesting. It reads like fiction at times, almost. 5/5 stars
An Accident of Stars, by Foz Meadows. There’s a lot about this that I did enjoy, but… I don’t know. I might rate it higher once I’ve read the second book and I can see it as a whole. 3/5 stars
Rubicon, by Tom Holland. Less about Caesar than you might expect, and more broadly about the end of the Republic. Pretty enjoyable overall. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Diversity. The perennial question in book fandom these days.
Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books So Far This Year. What it says on the tin!
WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update on what’s on my plate.

So what’s everyone been up to? Good hauls? Quiet week? Horrible warmth and drought like here?

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Review – Rubicon

Posted 13 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rubicon by Tom HollandRubicon, Tom Holland

With a title like Rubicon, if you know about the significance of that small river, you might expect the book to be mostly about Julius Caesar (if you didn’t notice the subtitle, which differs slightly between editions but always mentions the Republic). It isn’t: in fact, at times early on you might not be quite sure what Caesar has to do with it and what’s even happening to him at the time. Which is fine: there’s plenty going on that you don’t need the big name to make Roman history interesting, but I do think it makes the title a little bit misleading. It’s not really all about that decisive moment of Caesar’s: it’s more broadly about the Republic, and the sense I got was that even if Caesar hadn’t taken the action he did, the end of the Republic would still have come.

Holland’s writing is mostly breezy and easy to follow: sometimes he gets a little too flippant or broad in his translations for my liking (I wouldn’t put it past Romans to call someone a “cocktease”, definitely, but I’ve seen that line translated rather less explosively, too), and sometimes the sheer number of events and names starts to tangle a little. He’s covering quite a lot here, really putting the moment of crossing the Rubicon into context, and it can feel both a little jam-packed and a little dry as he crams everything in.

For the most part a good read, though a fairly traditional account of the doings of men in classical history. (Give me more about Clodia and her influence!)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – An Accident of Stars

Posted 12 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of An Accident of Stars by Foz MeadowsAn Accident of Stars, Fox Meadows

This took me a long time to finish, and I’m not entirely sure why. There’s a lot I love about it — the diversity, the bonds between the characters, the fact that it’s so driven by female characters (in both positive and negative ways), the way things aren’t just simple right and wrong. I mean, Kadeja and Leoden are undeniably pretty evil, which does undermine me saying that somewhat, but Yasha raises doubts at times as well. She’s on the side of the “good” characters, but I’m not convinced she’s always acting for the good of everyone — for interesting character reasons. I love what the book says about grief and healing and love.

On the surface, the intrigue and adventure and the friendships and alliances between the characters should’ve been enough to keep me hooked, and the writing doesn’t throw up some huge barrier or anything. I can’t put my finger on what kept me equivocating about the book, or what kept me from loving it enough that I just consumed it in a rush as I’m completely capable of doing. Something just didn’t work for me.

Which leaves me somewhat surprised that the ending leaves me curious and interested enough that I might just have to pick up the next book right away. Partly that’s because I want a bad thing not to have happened (and it’s a world with magic, so surely there’s a chance), and partly it’s because that ending is pretty interesting in terms of what it sets up (though I find myself largely unsurprised by it).

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Devil in the White City

Posted 11 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonThe Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

I didn’t expect this one to have me hooked, and to the extent that I was interested, I’ll admit that it was initially mostly in the true crime aspect. I didn’t know much about H.H. Holmes’ actual crimes, just a vague sense of notoriety, so that was really what I was interested in — the design of the World’s Fair, with all the architecture and infrastructure decisions, sounded kind of boring to me. I wasn’t really sure about the juxtaposition of the two, either: it seemed like the story of the World’s Fair would be boring in comparison with the horrors of Holmes’ crimes.

In the end, I was more interested in the World’s Fair sections, and I don’t know why. Partly the people discussed, I guess: they had a powerful vision, they had determination, and they achieved a lot in a very short time. Regardless of the topic, that kind of drive can be fascinating. And Larson’s writing works for me — it feels crisp and to the point, and evokes feelings and motivations that the people involved may have felt without feeling like he was going out on any limbs or fantasizing too much.

I think in the end, despite my initial sense that H.H. Holmes would be more interesting, the thing is that psychopaths are psychopaths. I’ve read about psychopaths before, but the challenges of organising the Chicago World’s Fair were a one-off thing that nobody has or could repeat in quite the same way.

Rating: 5/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 11 July, 2018 by Nikki in General / 5 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 The Planet Factory by Elizabeth TaskerWhat are you currently reading?

I’m working my way through The Planet Factory, by Elizabeth Tasker. It’s interesting stuff, of course — it’s about the formation of planets! how could that not be fascinating! — but I’m finding it a little slow going because it’s hard to grasp some of this stuff. There are some diagrams, but not enough to compensate for the fact I totally can’t visualise any of this stuff, and I think it does require visualising. Add the succession of hot Jupiters, super Earths and whatnot, and I’m a little bit at sea.

Cover of An Accident of Stars by Foz MeadowsWhat have you recently finished reading?

The last thing was An Accident of Stars, which took me far too long to read, and I don’t really know why that is. There’s lots that I enjoyed about it, but whenever I put it down, it didn’t scream out for me to pick it back up. Although I’m very curious about some aspects of the ending, so maybe I’ll pick up the second book in more of a hurry. We’ll see.

Cover of Children of Time by Adrian TchiakovskyWhat will you read next?

According to a Twitter poll, I’m pretty sure it’s Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I’m already a few hundred pages into it, if I recall correctly, so this will be an effort to finish it — there are some fascinating ideas, even if I don’t really have characters that I’m all that interested in (and that’s often what keeps me reading).

So what are you reading?

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 10 July, 2018 by Nikki in General / 13 Comments

This week’s theme is Top Ten Books of the Year So Far — so armed with my statistics spreadsheet, let’s jump into mine: books I’ve read this year for the first time and rated four or five stars! I’m going to skip the non-fiction books, as I think people are less interested in those. I’ve also stuck to the first book if it’s a series, because I think it’s hard to judge a second book on its own and I think this list kind of works as recommendations!

Cover of A Matter of Oaths by Helen S. Wright  Cover of In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan Cover of Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine Cover of Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. A Matter of Oaths, by Helen C. Wright. I’m so glad I finally got round to reading this, because it really worked for me. If you’re a fan of Ann Leckie or Yoon Ha Lee’s work, I think this’d be right up your street. Becky Chambers, too.
  2. Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett. I got the ARC for this, and just can’t wait to talk about it with other people. Luckily, my wife’s now reading my copy and I get to watch her react to it.
  3. In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan. Okay, Elliot is a dick but he’s a dick who tries to do the right thing, and I love his relationships with his closest friends. I think it’s a good one if you’re a fan of Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.
  4. Arabella of Mars, by David Levine. This isn’t groundbreaking in any way, but it’s such a lot of fun. There’s a need for that when everything seems like crap around you, and I think a lot of people feel that way at the moment.
  5. Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Thank you for breaking my heart and expecting me to enjoy it, Kowal. …I did.
  6. Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero. I didn’t love one of his other books — and this one had its eyerolly moments in his chosen writing style, but I had a ton of fun and read it in an eyeblink.
  7. Semiosis, by Sue Burke. This has a dazzling central concept: sentient plants on a world humans are trying to colonise. I had some quibbles, but I loved exploring the minds of these plants.
  8. An Unseen Attraction, by K.J. Charles. Charles has a knack for characters and stories I can really get into, and this is a great gay romance/mystery.
  9. The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang. This is just adorable and fun. I mean, unless you have a problem with a prince who likes to wear dresses and for whom things turn out great. If you are, you might not enjoy this blog in general and you definitely won’t enjoy this graphic novel.
  10. War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull. A classic of fantasy literature, and one I found a heck of a lot of fun. Kinda like hanging out with the cool grandma of Kate Daniels and Toby Daye, this was an introduction to Where It All Began for urban fantasy.

Cover of Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero Cover of Semiosis by Sue Burke Cover of An Unseen Attraction by K.J. Charles Cover of The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang Cover of War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

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Review – The Prisoner of Zenda

Posted 10 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony HopeThe Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

This is one of those classics I always vaguely meant to read — I think my mother or aunt’s copy was hanging round in the room I always used at my grandparents’ house, so it was sort of in the back of my mind. I finally got round to it because of K.J. Charles’ queer retelling, which is apparently more fun if you know the original. So, in I plunged. And it is good fun — it speeds by, with the various implausibilities (the likeness between the two Rudolfs) being skated over, and any moral ambiguities too. There’s some intrigue and sneaking and adventure and fighting, there’s some doomed romance, etc, etc. It’s not the most substantial stunning piece of literature ever, but it does its job of being fun, and manages not to suffer too badly from being sexist or racist or any of those problems which can dog some classics.

So yeah, plenty of fun, and I can’t help but be somewhat charmed, or at least intrigued, by the villainous Rupert of Hentzau. I kinda want to know what’s going on in his head.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Castlemaine Murders

Posted 9 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Castlemaine Murders by Kerry GreenwoodThe Castlemaine Murders, Kerry Greenwood

I enjoy Phryne as a general proposition, but I find myself saying with almost every book (at least later in the series) that it’s not a favourite and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it on its own. If you like Phryne, it’s more of her usual, with daringness, nice clothes, some good food and a sexy man. It fits the formula and at least this one introduces her sister as an actual character, with interests and problems of her own. It’s all the usual glitz and glamour and peril you expect from Phryne, and nothing particularly surprising, moving or suspenseful. You know she’s going to come out okay in the end.

Which all sounds like damning with faint praise, which isn’t quite what I mean either. If you enjoy Phryne, it’s fine. It’s just not one that stands out to me, except maybe for some of Lin Chung’s interactions with his extended family, which make me laugh (though they are perhaps a tad stereotyped, as well).

Rating: 3/5 

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Discussion: Diversity

Posted 9 July, 2018 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

I have this as a prompt in my list of potential discussions — just “diversity”. You all probably know what I mean, given it’s so often talked about in book fandom these days: characters of all types of backgrounds, in terms of culture, in terms of gender, in terms of sexuality, in terms of disability… Basically, there’s been a huge drive in the last few years to encourage books that aren’t just about white men, and books which aren’t just by white men. And I think some people struggle a lot with this and feel like it’s gone “too far”.

One example people have of things going “too far” is when the majority of characters in a book are queer. But queer people are only meant to be a small percentage of the population! someone inevitably cries. Sure, but if you look at queer people in real life… we stick together. I know queer people just because they’re queer and so am I, and it’s not just about the pool of people available for me to date. Queer people often make friends with other queer people because we share experiences that straight people don’t. So it just makes sense that a queer character would surround themselves with other queer characters.

(Also, hey, queer people are people, with the same drives and motivations as everyone else. You’re not reading about an alien with unfathomable motives: what difference does it make if most of the characters don’t share your sexual orientation? If you’re straight, you’re hardly suffering for representation in fiction — you can just pick up another book instead!)

Another worry about diversity is when people not belonging to a certain minority co-opt parts of that experience to write about it or weave a world around it or whatever. I’m not saying it can never be done well, though I’d shy away from doing it myself if I were still writing, because you should respect that experience and do a ton of research to make it right. There’s not a lot of representation of this stuff out there, historically, so adding any is bound to make an impact. Even with all the research in the world, I’d have to ask myself if I was really the best person to write about it.

And of course there’s when people not belonging to a culture outright exoticise it. I mean, there’s a certain amount of the appeal of a different culture that’s always going to be about the exotic, whether it’s actually aliens or just a culture people aren’t too familiar with. But there are right and wrong ways to handle that, when it comes to real cultures, and research is the better part of valour 100% of the time when that’s what you’re doing.

Diversity isn’t easy — it doesn’t come just because you added a couple of black people to your fantasy school body or have a Chinese scientist on your crack team of experts. It also doesn’t have to be about flipping things round and making the minority the dominant group. Reality is diverse (and if yours isn’t, maybe it’s time to consider why)… it’s only right for fiction to follow suit.

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Review – Amazons

Posted 8 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Amazons by John ManAmazons, John Man

This was a really fun and quick read, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected. When someone says Amazons, you get a very clear picture, right? But John Man goes beyond the myth and digs into first the origins of that myth, and then into other societies which might more or less be considered Amazons (whether they were ever identified with Amazons or not). There’s also stuff on why is called Amazon, and other detours like that. It becomes a sort of cultural history of warrior women — and that’s not a criticism, because I found that more enjoyable than something which focused myopically on something the evidence suggests was never more than a rumour born from a rumour, or even political convenience.

And though the subtitle is all about warrior women of the ancient world, there’s a good discussion of modern warrior women too.

Overall, enjoyable — and left me very curious to read more about the Scythians and the archaeology of the people of the steppe. One book leads to another… Anyone got any recommendations along those lines?!

Rating: 4/5

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