What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 6 August, 2014 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

What have you recently finished reading?
Mindstar Rising, by Peter F. Hamilton. I think it was his first novel, according to the back of it, so I might try something from his later stuff, but this didn’t impress me that much. It was aaaaall about the male gaze, as well: the first thing we know about female characters is whether they’ve “let themselves go” or how young and nubile they are. Ugh. So in the end, not impressed.

What are you currently reading?
Some of the things I’ve been featuring on this list for a while are quite big books, so they don’t go on the bus with me, etc. So The Vanishing Witch (Karen Maitland) and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Thomas Sweterlitsch) are still in progress…

My reading in the clinic is currently Gwenda Bond’s Blackwood, which works for the Strange Chem reading month, and which I’ve had for a while. Because of it, I ended up on Wikipedia last night reading up about Roanoke, Croatoan, and then all sorts of missing persons stuff — though I did also read about the genetic testing being done to see if the lost colonists actually assimilated with the local Native American tribes, which is more plausible than some theories, and quite interesting. I want to know what they find!

At home, for ARC August, along with the others I’ve also picked up Marcus Sedgwick’s A Love Like Blood. I’ve been slightly spoilered for the ending by an injudicious review, but I don’t have a great problem with spoilers, so I don’t mind too much. It’s interesting, though very similar in tone to other books in the genre in many ways.

Aaaand from my epic library clean-up, I’m reading Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters (Patricia Pierce), which is very interesting, although there’s a lot about the various men in the profession who overshadowed Mary Anning, which I regret a little in a book that wants to cast light on her.

What will you be reading next?
As usual, heaven knows, but Strange Chem-wise, I think I’m going to fiiiiinally read Stolen Songbird, and that also covers ARC August as well. Even if the “advance” part is kind of dead in the water, I still received it as an ARC and I feel obligated to get round to it.

Library-wise, I think it’ll be Sarah Canary (Karen Joy Fowler), which will also cover my ten-new-to-me SF Masterworks goal.

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Review – The Women of the Cousins’ War

Posted 6 August, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Women of the Cousins' War by Philippa Gregory et alThe Women of the Cousins’ War, Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, Michael Jones

I don’t get on well with Philippa Gregory’s fiction, so I’m not terribly surprised that I wasn’t a great fan of this either. I do like David Baldwin’s work, though I think I’ve already read a full biography of Elizabeth Woodville by him; Michael Jones’ work here is strong enough and based solidly enough on actual research to intrigue me.

I actually quite liked Gregory’s introduction, ridiculously long as it is. She does actually raise valid points about the writers of history, and about how historical fiction and historical fact interact. I can at least relate to her powerful interest in the subject. On the other hand, there’s very little actually known about Jacquetta, the biography she writes, and it reads very much like the fiction books she’s already written, stripped of dialogue and sprinkled with “maybe”.

Overall, I can see this being interesting to people casually interested in the period, with enough experience of non-fiction not to complain too much about the equivocal statements (guys, if they stuck to the facts we know for absolute certain, we could say they were born, married, had children, and died — often, that’s about it; if we presented speculation as fact, that would be rather dishonest and not helpful at all to the field). I can’t really recommend it for people who’ve already delved into non-fiction on the period: this doesn’t offer much of anything new.

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Review – Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010

Posted 5 August, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di FillippoScience Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985 – 2010, Damien Broderick, Paul Di Philippo

This isn’t exactly filled with sparkling deathless prose, and if you’re expecting something definitive or unassailable, I think you’re a bit batty. If you think you’re going to agree with every choice, I think you’re more than a bit batty. It’s basically a list with some commentary, comprising of a number of novels which the authors found notable in one way or another — not necessarily literary merit, but sometimes just really cool ideas.

It’s an interesting list, a little more diverse than I was expecting, and I’m planning to go through it reading all the books. Sometimes the commentary by the authors is useful, sometimes it amounts to little more than a plot summary, but either way it usually gives you a feel of what the book is about, at the very least.

Rating: 3/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 5 August, 2014 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

This week’s theme from The Broke and the Bookish is “Top Ten Books I’d Give To Readers Who Have Never Read X”. This is kind of a tough one, because I’m not really sure what to go for. My taste is pretty broad, but I know most people’s isn’t, so… (On the other hand, if I picked comics, it’d be Batgirl, Captain America, Spider-man and Young Avengers, and then I’d be running out.) So instead I decided I’d go for ten different values of X.

  1. Regency romance: The author is unquestionably Georgette Heyer, but which book…? Well, I started with The Talisman Ring, and adored it: I was a convert on the spot. I also enjoyed The Grand Sophy very much.
  2. Superhero comics: Ultimate Spider-man. It’s fun, you don’t need to know any back story, and it does start to bring you into the Marvel universe, with appearances from other characters like Daredevil, the X-men, Human Torch, etc.
  3. LGBT YA: David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. So bloody adorable.
  4. Medieval-ish fantasy: While I love Tolkien, I think I have to award this spot to the more accessible Robin Hobb. She has a great narrative voice and a knack for characters you will love. Start with Assassin’s Apprentice; you may wish to skip the Liveships trilogy entirely, as I found that more uneven and full of characters I didn’t want to spend time with.
  5. Renaissance fantasy: Yep, ha, a technicality. Scott Lynch is my recommendation here, especially if you like the loveable rogue. Main downside is how long it takes for us to even see the most important female character of the series: she isn’t in the first two books.
  6. Golden Age crime fiction: Dorothy L. Sayers is my pick, without a doubt. I found that I needed to read a few books to get really into the character of her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, which may be a problem. I might almost suggest beginning with a later book, perhaps Strong Poison. But if you’re willing to let a character grow on you, start at the beginning with Whose Body?
  7. Alternate history: Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy wins hands down. Farthing is, for bonus points, a loving pastiche of Sayers’ work, although it is also a serious and harrowing tale of appeasing the Nazis and the world that creates.
  8. Speculative fiction: I’m going to go for something a little off the beaten path here. Try The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach. It completely enchanted me.
  9. Cheesy space opera: Philip Palmer. Or at least, Debatable Space, Artemis and Version 43. High octane fun! I found a lot of fault with these, but I also had a whale of a time.
  10. Non-fiction (science/history): The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The ethical issues this raises are well worth grappling with.

Somewhat random list, I know…

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Review – Brain on Fire

Posted 4 August, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Brain on Fire by Susannah CahalanBrain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan

I didn’t expect to connect so personally with this. On the surface, there’s not much to compare between me and Susannah Cahalan. There are a few correspondences: the start of her illness was marked with an intense fear, almost a belief, that she’d been infested by bedbugs; so was mine. On the other hand, I “just” had GAD: Susannah Cahalan had an autoimmune disorder in which her own immune system was attacking her brain. (She does mention some speculation that obsessive-compulsive behaviours and other psychiatric issues may actually be attributable to inflammation of the brain similar to what she experienced. The more I think about that, the more I want to become a doctor, maybe work in psychiatry, or maybe neurology, and push that research further. And research into epigenetic aspects of mental illness. Or at least get to the point where I can understand all of the existing research.)

(And sotto voce, I can almost hear my mother’s comment: “Well, you should be a doctor.”)

Anyway, despite the vast differences in the actual content of our diseases, I shared some of Cahalan’s feelings about it. I felt like I lost part of myself, the steady logical voice that refutes the brain’s wilder ideas about what’s going on, and though Susannah lost a lot more than that, I know something about the struggle to regain your own mind. I think people often believe that my anxiety was just an emotion like all my others. It wasn’t, though. It felt stronger than anything else, stronger than me. It felt like something from outside of me, subjugating the real me. It was like having another person physically holding me back, sometimes. The sheer courage it took me to step outside the front door, sometimes — it felt impossible, alien.

So I shared with Cahalan some of the feelings of getting my old self back. Self-hate at the things that still aren’t going right. Worry about what people will think of you. Celebration of tiny steps at the same time as feeling they’re not enough, you’re not there yet. Wonder at how far you’ve come. Worry that you’ll relapse. I very directly share that fear Cahalan feels when she thinks she sees a bug or something. My brain conjured ’em where there weren’t any, too.

I was expecting to find this interesting because of the medical content. That is interesting, though because it’s from Cahalan’s point of view, it’s more of a layman’s understanding of the disease, a memoir of dealing with it. I found it unexpectedly much more compelling than that, because Susannah Cahalan lost and regained her identity, and therefore has a lot to say about the whole idea of identity, and maybe some things to teach neuroscience, maybe even psychiatry.

The financial cost of treating a patient with Cahalan’s disease is staggering, eye-watering, jaw-dropping — there aren’t enough adjectives. But to bring someone back from that state, that’s beyond price.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The King of Elfland’s Daughter

Posted 3 August, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord DunsanyThe King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany

I can’t really understand people disliking this book. Well, no, I can: the language is olde worlde, the phrase ‘the fields we know’ is used far too many times, it’s more of a fairytale like story than modern fantasy, though it’s sold as being one of the defining moments for the genre, and if you’re looking at it from a modern point of view, the characters and their motivations are hopelessly unsatisfying.

I thought the language was beautiful, though: Dunsany struck just the right note for me, and for the most part I liked his turns of phrase. Even the repeated ‘the fields we know’ phrase and others like it hark back to ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ and other such epithets in Greek epics. I love fairytales, and I think Dunsany’s mimesis here is pretty darn good. I can see how it influenced modern fantasy, and if you expect satisfying characters and development in a fairytale-esque story then… I’m not sure what you’re after. Modern updates of the stories often inject that kind of thing, but it’s not there originally.

Seriously, this book is just gorgeous, in my opinion. I wanted to wrap myself up in it, read some passages again and again, and I did actually genuinely feel the tension of how it would all be resolved. I loved the ending, the descriptions of Lirazel coming back to meet her son and husband. I loved the little asides, like the mischievous trolls.

So, so glad I finally read this.

Rating: 5/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 2 August, 2014 by Nikki in General / 24 Comments

Yay! It’s time for Stacking the Shelves, hosted by Tynga’s Reviews. Like last week, I have actually not bought any books this week, which I know will come as a surprise. I’ve now been dared not to do so until Loncon, and not to get any books out of the library on any of my tickets until I’ve read all the ones I’ve got for at least one ticket.

Torture.

But I do still get ARCs, and here’s what I got this week!

Fiction ARCs/review copies

Cover of A Planet for Rent by Yoss Cover of A Legend of the Future by Agustin de Rojas Cover of The Before Now and the After Then by Peter Monn Cover of Venomoid by J.A. Kossler Cover of Zeus is dead by Michael G. Munz

Venomoid and The Before Now and the After Then are both LGBT, though probably of rather different stripes. Zeus is Dead, I won from Librarything Early Reviewers. The first two are via Netgalley, and I couldn’t find any more inspiring covers for them. Thanks, all!

Non-fiction ARCs/review copies

Cover of The Left Side of History by Kristen Ghodsee Cover of Words in Time and Place by David Crystal

Random stuff about words and language is very cool, and given Wales’ historical socialist/communist tendencies, I have an interest in something that is a bit more nuanced than “communism=bad” in my non-fiction. (In fiction, I recommend the Library of Wales books, especially Cwmardy and We Live.)

Freebies

Cover of Hildegard of Bingen by Fiona Maddocks

Was given this one in the library I volunteer at because it’s been in the sales basket for as long as I’ve been volunteering there, and before that, hadn’t been taken out since 2007. They pretty much figured I’d be the only person in the world who’d give it a home.

Out of curiosity, the couple of times I put Goodreads URLs in so you could click through the book’s page by clicking on the cover, stats showed no clickthroughs using those links. Is that a thing people want/find useful, or not? It’s a faff for me, but if it’s useful, I’ll do it.

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Review – Mara

Posted 1 August, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of the comic Mara by Brian Wood et alMara, Brian Wood, Ming Doyle, Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles

I liked Mara quite a lot: it’s great that we’ve got a queer woman of colour in a comic like this, where neither of those things define her. I like the lead-in here: it doesn’t come across like a superhero comic in the first issue or so; that had me wondering what the pace would be like and whether I’d want to stick with it. Normally, Carol Danvers or Steve Rogers would’ve punched something by now, after all. Still, I loved the look of the comic, aside from the slightly weird fact that Mara’s white on the cover. The lines and colours all look great.

As the story develops, it becomes a bit more typical. Mara develops superhuman powers, the military gets interested, people want to experiment on her family to see if she’s the only one, etc. I only vaguely remember the bit in >Watchmen that people compare Mara’s reaction to, but I do agree that actually, it’s a really similar character arc. What makes it different is the character. The origin stories of superheroes are often compared to adolescence; their secret identities to being ‘in the closet’. But there’s no mystique about that with Mara, so where does that take the superhero narrative, if it’s an allegory?

I’d need to look at more of the literature and reread at least Watchmen for comparison to really talk about that, but it interests me nonetheless. Mara’s story seems to tell us that for her, it’s not adolescence or having a girlfriend or being a person of colour that sets her apart. Partly it’s fame, as the first couple of issues show us, but characters like Ingrid share that spotlight. Worth pondering.

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Thursday Thoughts: Readathons

Posted 31 July, 2014 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

Today’s Thursday Thoughts, as hosted by Ok, Let’s Read, is on the topic of “readathons”.

Have you ever participated in a read-a-thon? If so, which one was it and what was your experience? If not, do you want to participate in one? Do you like the idea of read-a-thons? What’s your strategy going into a read-a-thon or a period of time where you just plan to make yourself read more than normal? Are there any tricks you use to encourage yourself during read-a-thons?

I love doing readathons, actually. I’ve already hosted one hourly challenge for Dewey’s 24-hour Readathon, and I always look forward to that event coming back round. Invariably, I read more than usual on that day, though I’m not quite sure why that does the trick, but planting myself firmly with books just for fun doesn’t (most of the time). I mean, it’s an activity I enjoy, so… brains, who understands ’em?

My problem in recent years has been that between my medication and my anxiety, it’s both hard to stay up and usually inadvisable. Quite often I’ll end up with intrusive thoughts, scared of random noises, etc. So lately I just read until I’m sleepy and then sleep, despite how much I’d like to keep participating.

When we’re talking less concentrated readathons, e.g. the Strange Chem one that’s coming up or ARC August, I… intend very strongly to do it, and then get distracted, usually. I need more intensive poking and prompting to keep to the goal. It helps for a week or two, but then I spot a new shiny and get distracted.

How about anyone else?

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Review – Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Avengers

Posted 31 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Marvel's Guardians of the GalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Avengers, Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, Sara Pichelli

Hmm. I wanted more from this. I’m excited about the upcoming film, because it’s Marvel and they reliably entertain me (unpopular opinion: I kinda enjoyed Fantastic Four, even after everyone I know dissed it? Might have helped I watched it on my computer at 2x speed). But I’d never heard of Guardians of the Galaxy before the marketing for the film started, and I don’t know much about it.

In a way, this does feel like it tries to be an introductory volume, with little bits talking about some of the characters’ pasts and relationships, but mostly it feels fragmentary and weird. I think this is probably because I know so little about it. I felt like it was supposed to be a gateway drug, using Tony Stark as it does, but I didn’t really get that involved with it. I wasn’t sure how to contextualise it in terms of the other Marvel comics I read. Gotta admit, I would like to know what Peter Quill and Teddy Altman would have to say to each other, with some similar background behind them.

I do like the cast, and it may well be that I’d appreciate it more if I wasn’t totally new to it. I might look at it again after I’ve seen the film. Oh, and I appreciate the heck out of Freyja being the ruler of Asgard. She deserved more than the fridging she got in Thor 2.

Rating: 3/5

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