Review – The Vinyl Frontier

Posted June 12, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Vinyl Frontier

The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record

by Jonathan Scott

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 288
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

The fascinating story behind the mission, music, and message of NASA's Voyager Golden Record -- humanity's message to the stars.

In 1977, a team led by the great Carl Sagan was assembled to create a record that would travel to the stars on NASA's Voyager probe. The Vinyl Frontier reveals the inside story of how the record was created, from the first phone call to the final launch, when Voyager 1 and 2 left Earth with a playlist that would represent humanity to any future alien races that come into contact with the probe. Each song, sound and picture that made the final cut has a story to tell.

The Golden Record is a 90-minute playlist of music from across the globe, a sound essay of life on Earth, spoken greetings in multiple languages, and more than 100 photographs, all painstakingly chosen by Sagan and his team to create an aliens' guide to Earthlings. The final playlist contains music written and performed by well-known names such as Bach, Beethoven, Chuck Berry and Blind Willie Johnson, as well as music from China, India and more remote cultures, such as a community in Small Malaita in the Solomon Islands.

Through interviews with all of the key players involved with the record, this book pieces together the whole story of the Golden Record. It addresses the myth that the Beatles were left off of the record because of copyright reasons and will include new information about US president Jimmy Carter's role in the record, as well as many other fascinating insights that have never been reported before. It also tells the love story between Carl Sagan and the project's creative director Ann Druyan that flourishes as the record is being created.

The Golden Record is more than just a time capsule. It is a unique combination of science and art, and a testament to the genius of its driving force, the great polymath Carl Sagan.

I don’t know how it took me so long to get round to starting Jonathan Scott’s The Vinyl Frontier, because the Golden Record (as included on Voyager 1 and 2) is a fascinating topic. I’m glad I finally got to it, because Scott writes a lovely biography of the Golden Record here (and a bit of a eulogy for Carl Sagan, too). He captures perfectly the naive hope of it, along with the genuine hard graft, and the difficult thinking to find ways to portray humanity that might mean something to an alien encountering it when we are gone.

He covers the human part of it as much as the technical side (or more so even), and his portrayal of the relationship between Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan is tender and sympathetic. I’ve no idea if it was as lovely and inevitable as he makes it sound, and I’m sure Carl Sagan was no saint, not even a pothead saint, but Scott’s clear admiration is actually enjoyable to read.

Thinking about the Golden Records does always make me imagine someone finding them. I often imagine, though, it’s more likely to be our own descendents. Regardless, what would they or those alien to us make of it all? I wonder.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Den of Wolves

Posted June 10, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Den of Wolves

Den of Wolves

by Juliet Marillier

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 414
Series: Blackthorn & Grim #3
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Feather bright and feather fine,
None shall harm this child of mine...

Healer Blackthorn knows all too well the rules of her bond to the fey: seek no vengeance, help any who ask, do only good. But after the recent ordeal she and her companion, Grim, have suffered, she knows she cannot let go of her quest to bring justice to the man who ruined her life.

Despite her personal struggles, Blackthorn agrees to help the princess of Dalriada in taking care of a troubled young girl who has recently been brought to court, while Grim is sent to the girl’s home at Wolf Glen to aid her wealthy father with a strange task—repairing a broken-down house deep in the woods. It doesn’t take Grim long to realize that everything in Wolf Glen is not as it seems—the place is full of perilous secrets and deadly lies...

Back at Winterfalls, the evil touch of Blackthorn’s sworn enemy reopens old wounds and fuels her long-simmering passion for justice. With danger on two fronts, Blackthorn and Grim are faced with a heartbreaking choice—to stand once again by each other’s side or to fight their battles alone...

Apparently I never posted this review back when I read the book, so here’s a belated one!

Den of Wolves draws the story of Blackthorn and Grim to a close. I waited quite a while to read it, because I didn’t love the direction their relationship was growing in: I adored their bond, but didn’t love that it had to oh-so-typically become a romance. Books with strong bonds between adults that are exclusive and necessary to each member without being romantic are rare enough.

Still, by this point I was ready to accept the direction and enjoy it, and I did: it felt natural for Blackthorn and Grim to find each other and get past their traumas, eventually (much of the book is spent with them apart). I do enjoy that Blackthorn’s feelings about Grim are a good part of the way she manages to rise above her trauma and do the right thing at the right time.

It was also nice to get some answers about Conmael; that was obviously coming, but it could’ve been anticlimatic or weird, and it wasn’t.

The other story of this book features a young girl, Cara, and her relationship with her father… and his decision to send her away while a wild man, a builder, returns to create something called a heartwood house. Blackthorn meets Cara and begins to untangle that mystery with her; I’ll confess that I’d wanted a certain character to be a bit more ambiguous, rather than turning out to be super evil, but mostly other characters around that story had some shades of grey.

It’s a lovely conclusion to the trilogy, but I am glad I waited and let the fact of Grim and Blackthorn’s coming romance settle before I read it, so I didn’t get cranky about it!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Final Acts

Posted June 9, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Final Acts

Final Acts: Theatrical Mysteries

by Martin Edwards (editor)

Genres: Crime, Mystery, Short Stories
Pages: 347
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

"… and what a motive! Murder to save one's artistic soul… who'd believe that?"

Behind the stage lights and word-perfect soliloquies, sinister secrets are lurking in the wings. The mysteries in this collection reveal the dark side to theatre and performing arts: a world of backstage dealings, where unscrupulous actors risk everything to land a starring role, costumed figures lead to mistaken identities, and on-stage deaths begin to look a little too convincing...

This expertly curated thespian anthology features fourteen stories from giants of the classic crime genre such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Julian Symons and Ngaio Marsh, as well as firm favourites from the British Library Crime Classics series: Anthony Wynne, Christianna Brand, Bernard J. Farmer and many more.

Mysteries abound when a player's fate hangs on a single performance, and opening night may very well be their last.

Final Acts is another collection from the British Library Crime Classics series, edited as always by Martin Edwards, and this time all themed around the theatre and acting. It’s a fun spread of stories, not all using the theatre in quite the same way, and as usual demonstrating a bit of a spread across time as well.

The one thing to note is that there’s a repeat story in here, by Christianna Brand. I’m not sure which other anthology it appeared in, or whether it was maybe included with one of her novels, and I’m also not sure (because of that) whether this is the repeat or the other is the repeat. Still, bit disappointing.

Still, as usual, a fun handful of stories.

Rating: 3/5

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Stacking the Shelves & The Sunday Post

Posted June 8, 2024 by Nicky in General / 1 Comment

Yay, it’s the weekend!

Long week here: my first exam was on Monday. I started it at 10am, and didn’t finish up and submit it until 8:30pm — though that time includes breaks for stretching, food and rest, it was a lot of work. Two more to come, on Monday and Tuesday, and then I’m freeee.

So I’m still not caught up with comments on my blog, and might just need to call amnesty on the ones I’ve received so far and do better going forward.

Books acquired this week

…Zero! This isn’t really intentional — actually, I’m still meaning to pick some more of E.C.R. Lorac’s books to get on Kindle — but I keep forgetting.

Posts from this week

Despite everything, I’ve been keeping up with getting my backlog of reviews posted, so here’s a roundup:

And that was it for posts this week!

What I’m reading

I started the week not reading very much, really, but in the past few days I’ve got busy finishing books from the huge stack of books I technically have part-read all at the same time, plus doing a reread of a favourite (Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet). Here’s a glimpse at the books that I finished that I’ll be reviewing on the blog in the next weeks and months…

Cover of System Collapse by Martha Wells Cover of Death Came Softly by E.C.R. Lorac Cover of The Vinyl Frontier by Jonathan Scott Cover of The Book of Looms by Eric Broudy

Now I’m just trying to have a nice chill weekend reading whatever catches my fancy — right now I’m finally getting back into In Deeper Waters, by F.T. Lukens.

How’s everyone doing?

(Probably) Linking up with Reading Reality’s Stacking the Shelves, Caffeinated Reviewer’s The Sunday Post, and the Sunday Salon over at Readerbuzz, as usual!

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Review – A Side Character’s Love Story, vol 17

Posted June 7, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Side Character’s Love Story, vol 17

A Side Character's Love Story

by Akane Tamura

Genres: Manga, Romance
Pages: 162
Series: A Side Character's Love Story #17
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Growing up, Nobuko Tanaka was always a "side character" standing off in the corner. Now in her 20s, she's fallen in love for the first time. While she isn't any good at being assertive, she will muster her courage bit by bit as she tries her best to close the distance between herself and her crush -- because even side characters fall in love. If you're tired of the same old romantic protagonists, this modest, refreshing love story is for you.

Volume 17 of Akane Tamura’s A Side Character’s Love Story pretty much typifies everything I’ve come to love about this series. Irie and Nobuko continue to be really sweet and supportive of one another, finding ways to stay in touch and communicate their importance to each other even now they’re not living in the same area.

Their relationship is always really cute, even when Nobuko gets insecure, and even when the two of them are shy with each other, because the whole time they’ve been trying their best to communicate with each other and talk openly. I love that Irie specifically pictures that happening throughout their lives.

When I picked up volume one of this manga, I didn’t expect it to be so cute, for the love story to be so mature and lovely (though when I say mature, I don’t mean there’s any explicit sexual content, because there isn’t). I always smile so much when a new translated volume is out.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Lapidarium

Posted June 6, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Lapidarium

Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones

by Hettie Judah

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 336
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Inspired by the lapidaries of the ancient world, this book is a beautifully designed collection of true stories about sixty different stones that have influenced our shared history

The earliest scientists ground and processed minerals in a centuries-long quest for a mythic stone that would prolong human life. Michelangelo climbed mountains in Tuscany searching for the sugar-white marble that would yield his sculptures. Catherine the Great wore the wealth of Russia stitched in gemstones onto the front of her bodices.

Through the realms of art, myth, geology, philosophy and power, the story of humanity can be told through the minerals and materials that have allowed us to evolve and create. From the Taiwanese national treasure known as the Meat-Shaped Stone to Malta’s prehistoric “fat lady” temples carved in globigerina limestone to the amethyst crystals still believed to have healing powers, Lapidarium is a jewel box of sixty far-flung stones and the stories that accompany them. Together, they explore how human culture has formed stone, and the roles stone has played in forming human culture.

Hettie Judah’s Lapidarium is a really beautifully presented book. Not just the cover (though yes, that’s gorgeous), but with the coloured tabs on the sides of pages, the organisation of it, the colour images, etc. I feel like the only thing is lacking there is more realistic images of the various stones, rather than just one canonical image — and especially images of some of the sculptures and examples the stories refer to.

The text itself varies a bit: some stones are more interesting than others. It luckily doesn’t feel like she’s just shoehorning everything into the same space: some stones get a couple more pages than others, while some are short and sweet.

Overall, it’s lovely to look at and there were some interesting titbits, but I feel like it gets more points for presentation than content! Not that the content is bad, either, but it’s very bitty and disconnected, there’s no overarching narrative, and that makes it a book designed for dipping in and out of more than anything.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sleeping Beauties

Posted June 5, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture

by Andreas Wagner

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 352
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Why do some of nature’s marvels have to wait millions of years for their time in the sun?

Life innovates constantly, producing perfectly adapted species – but there’s a catch.

Animals, plants and even human inventions can languish for eons, despite having everything going for them. Once you start to look, those ‘sleeping beauties’ crop up everywhere. But why?

Looking at the book of life, from apex predators to keystone crops, and through cutting-edge experiments, Andreas Wagner demonstrates that innovations come frequently and cheaply to nature, well before they are needed. Look at prehistoric bacteria with the remarkable ability to fight off 21st-century antibiotics. And human history fits the pattern too, with life-changing technologies invented, forgotten and rediscovered before they finally took off.

Andreas Wagner’s Sleeping Beauties is a book of two halves: the first half posits a modified idea of how evolution works, which is mostly common sense once it comes down to it. The point is that things which don’t currently help organisms survive but might in future already exist, and it is these which evolution often acts on. It’s easiest to understand in the microscopic world: a bacterium which has never encounted penicillin can nonetheless be completely immune to it. How? Because there are other adaptations which just happen to also allow it to evade the action of penicillin. This can be through “promiscuous” enzymes, which do one job but also have a sort of general function. Evolution can select for organisms which have that, and those organisms with the best match for penicillin survive and multiply. The enzyme gets better and better suited to handling penicillin, until it looks purpose-made for that — but originally it was handling something completely different.

Wagner also talks a bit about de novo new genes, and points out that of course (completely according to common sense if you understand genetics) those genes don’t appear from nowhere. Instead, they’re random transcripts in an open reading frame that happen to have a start codon and a stop codon. Those transcripts can do useful things, perhaps regulating other genes, or producing random peptides that boost a microbe’s resistance. That’s enough to create something that can be useful and can be selected for.

The second half of the book goes on to discuss this same concept of “sleeping beauties” in other fields, including technology and art. To me, this is the lest interesting half, and kind of just obvious (technology sometimes needs to wait for other circumstances in order to be useful; art sometimes doesn’t fit current tastes, but later takes off because tastes change); I’m amused to notice another StoryGraph review which finds the biology part irrelevant and boring, and finds the second part much more interesting. I think it depends on your existing interests.

From the blurb of a previous book by Wagner, I’d expected something a bit less evidence-based, and I think it’s because it did something dramatic like suggest it aimed to show that “Darwin was wrong about how evolution worked”. But Darwin’s theory was general: he didn’t know yet about genes or anything about how inheritance works. Modern knowledge expands and refines his theory, rather than (at least so far) outright contradicting it. Nothing I read here contradicts Darwin, it just illustrates how beautifully the theory fits what we observe: organisms adapt because the ones which can handle new challenges survive and the others don’t. Those that survive, breed. Those that survive best, breed most. And so the species change and change.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Letter to the Luminous Deep

Posted June 4, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Letter to the Luminous Deep

A Letter to the Luminous Deep

by Sylvie Cathrall

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 368
Series: Luminous Deep #1
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

A beautiful discovery outside the window of her underwater home prompts the reclusive E. to begin a correspondence with renowned scholar Henerey Clel. The letters they share are filled with passion, at first for their mutual interests, and then, inevitably, for each other.

Together, they uncover a mystery from the unknown depths, destined to transform the underwater world they both equally fear and love. But by no mere coincidence, a seaquake destroys E.’s home, and she and Henerey vanish.

A year later, E.’s sister Sophy, and Henerey’s brother Vyerin, are left to solve the mystery of their siblings’ disappearances with the letters, sketches and field notes left behind. As they uncover the wondrous love their siblings shared, Sophy and Vyerin learn the key to their disappearance – and what it could mean for life as they know it.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I really loved A Letter to the Luminous Deep, which I believe is Sylvie Cathrall’s debut. When I came up for air after finishing it, I was really startled by the number of DNFs, ambivalent reviews, and people who downright hated it. I can understand why, though: it’s written in an entirely epistolary format, which mostly works, and the letters are written with a sort of Regency-level formality and style. That means the execution of the plot takes some serious time, since the letters need to build characters and relationship in order to make the plot feel satisfying.

The frame story behind why these letters have been collected is equally important, in the end, to the story revealed in the letters themselves. There’s basically three threads:

1. Henery and E. form a friendship, discover something mysterious, and investigate it, ultimately leading to their disappearance;
2. E.’s sister Sophy is part of an expedition deep underwater to study wildlife, which encounters something strange as well;
3. Sophy and Vyerin (Henery’s brother) try to piece together their siblings’ archive of letters to understand how their connection formed and what happened to them.

The third thread is fraught with grief and fondness, as Sophy and Vyerin try to figure out what their lives look like without their siblings, try to give comfort to one another, and work through the loss to remember who their siblings were and share something of that. The first and second threads take time to reveal their secrets, and we discover what happened at the same pace as Sophy and Vyerin come to understand it themselves.

It’s a story that rewards some patience, and which may depend on how well the letters hit for you. I had no trouble telling who was writing what letter, though I know other readers did, and I loved E. and her bravery in vulnerability, discussing what is clearly obsessive-compulsive disorder, and possibly also social anxiety or maybe generalised anxiety disorder. I thought that portrayal was well done, as someone who has OCD/GAD, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Cathrall has OCD. (I didn’t find it triggering, for what it’s worth, though the things that get to me are a little different from E.’s triggers.)

I’ve seen people describe this one as cosy, and I think it both is and isn’t. There’s a deep sadness here in knowing from the start that E. and Henery are gone, and in following Vyerin and Sophy’s path to understand why they died.

There are a few points that felt overly awkward to me in the epistolary format, and the one that jumped out was Henery and E.’s first meeting, where we know what happened because they wrote notes to each other on a programme because E.’s brother is putting on some kind of performance that’s too loud for them to hear each other. It’s a reasonably neat way of getting them into the same place but preserving a text record, but what they’ve supposedly written to each other (in full sentences, with punctuation) doesn’t ring true — even lampshaded by the commentary of Sophy, who says her sister would’ve used full sentences to calm herself down.

Still, for the most part it worked well for me, and I felt enchanted. I’m eager to read the next book, and wondering how on earth it can be achieved through the medium of letters.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Murder in the Basement

Posted June 3, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Murder in the Basement

Murder in the Basement

by Anthony Berkeley

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 224
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

When two newlyweds discover that a corpse has been buried in the basement of their new home, a gruelling case begins to trace the identity of the victim. With all avenues of investigation approaching exhaustion, a tenuous piece of evidence offers a chance for Chief Inspector Moresby and leads him to the amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, who has recently been providing cover work in a school south of London.

Desperate for evidence of any kind on the basement case, Moresby begins to sift through the manuscript of a satirical novel Sheringham has been writing about his colleagues at the school, convinced that amongst the colourful cast of teachers hides the victim – and perhaps their murderer.

A novel pairing dark humour and intelligent detection work, this 1932 ‘whowasdunin?’ mystery is an example of a celebrated Golden Age author’s most inventive work.

Anthony Berkeley was a clever writer, and never one to rest on his laurels. I’m not a fan of his detectives, nor particularly the way he wrote female characters, but Murder in the Basement was structured really interestingly, and it’s not the first book by him that played around with structure which I’ve read. In this case, the middle section of the book is a fictionalisation of the chief suspects, written by Roger Sheringham before the crime was committed, and which allows us to begin to guess at the motives — and identity — of both murderer and victim.

I found it a little frustrating to go so long without being able to guess even who the victim was, and I’m not certain that part was really fair-play. But perhaps it’d have made it too obvious too soon to reveal it earlier…

Anyway, the story itself is fascinating, and Berkeley’s playing around with the rules of the genre as well, so it’s not the cosy and neatly contained package that some classic mysteries are. I definitely admired it, even as I wished he could just once like a woman and portray one positively!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Mushroom

Posted June 2, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Mushroom

Mushroom

by Sara Rich

Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pages: 152
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

They are the things we step on without noticing and the largest organisms on Earth. They are symbols of inexplicable growth and excruciating misery. They are grouped with plants, but they behave more like animals. In their inscrutability, mushrooms are wondrous organisms.

The mushroom is an ordinary object whose encounters with humans are usually limited to a couple of species prepackaged at the grocery store. This book offers mushrooms as much more than a pasta ingredient or trendy coffee alternative. It presents these objects as the firmament for life as we know it, enablers of mystical traditions, menders of minds lost to depression. But it acknowledges, too, that this firmament only exists because of death and rot.

Rummaging through philosophical, literary, medical , ecological , and anthropological texts only serves to confirm what the average forager already knows: that mushrooms are to be regarded with a reverence deserving of only the most powerful entities: those who create and destroy, and thrive on both.

Sara Rich’s entry into the Object Lessons series, Mushroom, is another one which is more about the author and about ideas around mushrooms than about mushrooms in and of themselves. Mushrooms as metaphor, mushrooms in Rich’s own life, and only sometimes mushrooms as mushrooms and what they’re like.

Still, there are glimpses of what a mushroom actually is, as well as what it means to us, and there are short sections describing a handful of mushrooms you might find and how you’d prepare them to eat, and as such it felt a bit more grounded than some of the other Object Lessons.

That said, I wondered very much at Sara Rich’s apparently unselfconscious juxtaposition of “my family’s land in Kansas, which used to be a reservation” and her closeness with various Native American people. Your land, huh? You sure about that? You’re just talking about something like animism (to simplify it a lot), and yet you think your family can own that land? Hmmm.

Perhaps there’s explanations for all that in Rich’s full life biography, but it jumped out at me as an oddness (meaning that Rich’s life got very much in the way of the actual topic, mushrooms).

Rating: 2/5

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