The British: A Genetic Journey, by Alistair Moffat
I generally enjoy Alistair Moffat’s non-fiction writing (I don’t know if he’s written any fiction), although I don’t agree with his outlook on the Arthurian legends (which he even manages to slot in here). It’s very much popular science, or that’s how it feels with the inserted text boxes of “interesting facts”, but the level isn’t really “complete beginner”. I mean, it talks about mapping population movements via comparing particular unique markers, which must mean single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), but it doesn’t really contextualise that much. To me, my classes in genetics and anthropology contemplated this really well. It also talks about mitochondrial DNA and things like that, again without much explanation.
It starts off being general, rather than really a genetic history of the British, because of course, it goes back to the last common ancestors of mankind. It narrows down later on, looking at the various different inflows of new DNA, e.g. to what extent the Romans or the Normans mixed with the people already in Britain. What I was more interested in was the discussion of how Britain’s population got there. I didn’t know, for example, about the land that joined Britain to mainland Europe at one time, Doggerland, so all of that was new to me.
All in all, it didn’t give me many surprises, but it’s pretty up to date (includes stuff about recentish finds like the Denisovans) and, for the British population, pretty comprehensive. I’d have liked a little more about the separate populations of Britain: there are genetic differences, generally, between Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English people, and I’d have been interested to know more about how those groups formed and remained intact.
Yay, it’s Sunday Saturday (I can do the days of the week!) and I have some books to show off! Tynga’s Reviews, as usual, is hosting Stacking the Shelves.
So first things first, a new library opened in Caerphilly. It is lovely, and only getting four books out was a heroic feat.
And then yesterday after my shift as an RNIB volunteer, I ended up in the hospital’s WHSmith, which was dangerous. They always have buy one, get one half price, but I couldn’t find a fourth I was interested in. Which is probably all to the good.
I’m most excited about Fanny & Stella, which I’ve already started reading. It’s a bit sensationalised, but I think the subjects would’ve loved that. Not the trial for “conspiracy to commit buggery”, but the very exuberant, flamboyant biography.
And finally, here are two pictures of my makeshift bookshelf, containing almost all the books I dragged with me for a five-week trip to my parents’ (minus the comics, which’re on a different shelf).
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson
Caspar Henderson’s 21st Century Bestiary is not an encyclopaedia, as some people might expect, but something more in the medieval tradition of bestiaries, mixing information with philosophical and moral comment. It’s interesting, and Henderson’s ideas are well expressed, and I imagine a full colour version of the book must be stunning (my own is the paperback, all in black and white, but I seem to recall seeing a colour edition). It’s definitely not all that scientific, in places, relying on anecdote and going off on tangents into what an organism might have to teach us.
One of Henderson’s major concerns is the environment, and the preservation of Earth’s current biodiversity, for which he makes a good case. Ultimately, if your interest is science, this will probably be unsatisfying: it’s here to demonstrate some of the scope of biodiversity, not to explain it, or even to go very deeply into any one scientific principle (though it touches on plenty).
I do wish it had been better edited — the typos and such are extremely distracting. All in all, it isn’t quite as good as I’d expected from the rave reviews and my quick glance over it in the shop, but it is interesting.
What did you recently finish reading? The Universe Versus Alex Woods, which made me cry. It starts off misleadingly quirky, and then I went and fell in love with it, and the ideas it articulates. I almost want it to be a surprise in the same way for everyone who reads it (if you’d like the surprise, don’t read my review), because I love the way it developed. I’ve got to keep an eye out for Gavin Extence’s other work.
What are you currently reading? I still haven’t finished reading Rachel Neumeier’s Black Dog. When I do read it, I’m biting it off in big chunks, but I don’t just want to nibble at it — which is hard, when I’ve had a lot of work on, and nibbling books are what I need at the moment.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, by Caspar Henderson, is my currently ‘nibbling’ book, though I’m nearly finished with it. It’s a type of modern bestiary, which I think has confused lots of people who expected something encyclopaedic and mostly scientific, whereas this draws from the medieval tradition of articulating philosophical/moral concepts through talking about mythical/little-known creatures.
I’m also reading The Iron Wyrm Affair, by Lilith Saintcrow, which is so far too blatantly drawing on the Sherlock Holmes tradition for me to be too interested, although it does feature a female main character who seems to have a fair amount of agency and power without being perfect, so we’ll see how that goes on.
What do you think you’ll read next? I have Secret Chambers, by Martin Brasier, next on my pile. I’m in a non-fiction mood at the moment, so that’s been calling me. Also maybe Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, because of my astrobiology and astronomy classes.
Fiction-wise, I should just be working on my backlog of books/series started and not yet finished. The Assassin’s Curse, by Cassandra Rose Clarke, is next on my pile in that sense.
And now I’m going to go off and draw for the winner of my giveaway for Black Dog!
Oh, wow. The Universe Versus Alex Woods starts off seeming like it’s gonna be a quirky sort of book: the narration is matter of fact where it possibly shouldn’t be, and the situation Alex is in on the opening pages is an interesting one. Unfortunately for everyone who picked it up on the basis of that, it’s not really the kind of book it turned out to be. I don’t know that I’d call it funny — it’s not laugh out loud funny, anyway; more “wry smiles” funny — and I don’t know that I’d call it heartbreaking, either. It made me cry, but the simplicity of the narrative voice kept it from being maudlin, from dwelling too much on any of the important details, which is what for me made them strike all the more forcefully.
It is the story of an unlikely friendship, that’s definitely true, and it’s a beautiful story from my point of view. It’s fairly apparent from the first chapter, to me, what exactly is going on here: what matters is how we get there, and how much less funny/quirky it seems by the end, and how much more sad and true and beautiful. But if you don’t want to know, don’t read any further in this review.
What was apparent to me from the beginning is that this is a book about an assisted suicide. It didn’t even need to be stated clearly: trying to get back into the country at Dover, the urn of ashes, somehow it all just clicked for me. Possibly because this is an issue that I’ve thought about at great length, forwards and backwards. Because if I were Alex Woods, I’d do exactly the same things, in exactly that order, and I would feel exactly as right about it.
The friendship between the two is the fun and quirky part; the fact that, when Mr. Peterson becomes ill, Alex chooses to take care of him, and then to make sure that he is also allowed to die when he’s ready, and the understanding between the two… This is an idealised version of how this might happen, and the fact that Alex narrates means that we don’t pull up and see this from another character’s point of view — how they might worry about Alex’s reactions, how he might feel — and that might make some people feel that this is a book somehow advocating for euthanasia. Which I think it is, but only in the sense that it makes it clear that to be allowed a choice about how and when we die makes it a lot easier to die — and that for some people ‘how’ and ‘when’ might be very clearly defined, as they are for Mr. Peterson. But I don’t think it advocates euthanasia as the only way. It just emphasises choice, and how very comforting it is to many people to know that they have control over even that last inevitability. It even emphasises choice in smaller matters, like what drugs you take.
If you don’t understand why someone would want assisted suicide, this might help. If you don’t understand why someone would want to help someone commit suicide, I think this would definitely help. And if you already understand both of those things, then it’s still something that articulates all this very clearly, and might just give you words or clarity for yourself in the future.
I am definitely, definitely keeping this book. I will probably lend it to people, and I hope I never need to read it again myself, but I can imagine times when I might want to.
Slow Fall to Dawn is the first book of a trilogy. The basic premise is a sort of feudal clan/guild based system, and we’re following a guild of assassins within it. They have a very specific code, and are completely neutral, but naturally there’s a lot of bad feeling stirred up by a guild of murderers, particularly as they remain neutral (even as that makes them useful to everyone), and the book follows the course of a few events that threaten the stability and perhaps even the existence of the guild.
It’s a short book, and a fast read. There’s some clunky aspects — for example, mentioning something as a minor background point and then bashing you over the head with its relevance in the next chapter. (Although then it didn’t really seem to be that important at all…) But mostly it flows very smoothly and while I wasn’t exactly sympathetic to the characters, I understood them and was interested in their conflicts and dilemmas.
The author cleverly avoids issues of it being an unrealistic science fiction future (i.e. one that’s been well outpaced by reality) by having it set after a civilisation collapse. It’s not the sort of SF that feels like fantasy; it does manage to feel like a world, a society, that has progressed and regressed and generally evolved over time.
I actually picked up this book (in the omnibus form) in Belgium, while I was doing a little experiment and only getting books I’d never heard of before, preferably by authors who were new to me too. In this case, I won’t hungrily seek out every book Stephen Leigh might ever have written, but I will happily finish this series.
Dance of the Hag
Dance of the Hag kept my attention well, considering I enjoyed but wasn’t that enthusiastic about the first book. Leigh is a better risk taker than I expected, not willing to take the easy way out, and I was also impressed that he managed to make an impersonal character like the Thane of the first book into someone we worry about personally.
I like the political background, too — it feels as if Leigh spent some serious time thinking about how exactly his society would work, so that while you might not know everything about it, everything works according to the internal logic of it.
It remains a smooth, easy read, and I was surprised (and pleased) that it did actually include a brief (very brief) reference to an LGBT relationship by a main character.
A Quiet of Stone
That was not the ending I wanted. However, it makes perfect sense with the build-up. Leigh doesn’t go for any easy way out, as I already observed: we’ve been building towards this for the whole trilogy, and Leigh takes us there. It’s also a credit to his skill that where I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the first two books, with the third I actually had to make myself finish because I didn’t want to reach the end, which didn’t for a moment seem like it could be a happy one.
So yeah, this series is surprising, interesting, and worth picking up, I think I’d have to say. It’s still a fast read, and it took time to get hooks into me, but once it did, I couldn’t stop reading.
Most people who know me are probably aware that I am very pro-cyborgs. (I even wrote a four-page comic featuring my terrible art and a woman made into a cyborg for my Comics & Graphic Novels class.) The idea fascinates me and given half a chance I’d probably volunteer myself to get wired up. So this book caught my interest immediately, though how exactly Amazon knew to promote it at me, I’m not sure I want to know.
It was published in 2004, so in terms of the technology, it’s a little behind. It talks, for example, about the clunkiness of then-current e-reading technology. I read it on my little Kobo with its e-ink screen — you know, the little device that I actually bought for £24. But in terms of concerns about technology, we haven’t moved much past it. Some of them I was less convinced by (alienation, disembodiment), while others remain a concern, like the “digital divide”.
The main thrust of the book, however, is the theory that we’re already cyborgs, in a sense. Human beings are tool users; we’re not the only ones, but we’re the most sophisticated ones we know of. We’ve had a form of external memory for thousands of years — writing. Though most of us can’t hold numbers in our heads for complicated equations, given a piece of paper, we can work through it and produce the answer. (Given a piece of paper and appropriate time, even I can calculate the heritability of a certain gene in the population, for example, and yet I struggle with remembering how to calculate percentages.) And now, there’s the internet, information at our fingertips. When you grow up with these things, you learn to use them as semi-consciously as you do your own hands: I don’t consciously calculate where the keys are as I’m typing this any more than I consciously calculate how far to lift my hand to turn a door handle.
This aspect of the book hasn’t dated badly. I found it interesting and convincing, and while I don’t share all the author’s ideas about where the links between biology and technology are going, I do agree that the lines are blurring. Perhaps one day we’ll be indistinguishable — after all, our mitochondria began as separate to the cells that were our ancestors.
So a while back my mother made a bargain with me: £5 for every so many books I managed to finish from my to read list. Well, I never finished that list, but now it’s back! And we have renegotiated so that I get £5 for every ten books I finish. This seems fair. Wish me luck! And here’s the list.
(I’ll even come back and update it with strikethroughs, this time.)
Bold denotes that I’ve already started it, underline that it’s an ARC.
Sarah Addison Allen, Garden Spells. Rosie Best, Skulk. Lauren Beukes, Zoo City. Katherine Beutner, Alcestis.
Alan Bradley, Speaking from Among the Bones. Alan Bradley, The Dead in their Vaulted Arches. Gillian Bradshaw, Render Unto Caesar. Wesley Chu, Deaths of Tao. Cassandra Rose Clarke, The Assassin’s Curse. Anna Cowan, Untamed.
Jeffery Deaver, The Empty Chair.
Diane Duane, The Door into Shadow.
Diane Duane, The Door into Sunset.
Steven Erikson, Deadhouse Gates.
Steven Erikson, Memories of Ice. Ian C. Esslemont, Night of Knives. David Gemmell, Ironhand’s Daughter.
David Gemmell, The Hawk Eternal. Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber. Jason M. Hough, The Darwin Elevator. Jason M. Hough, The Exodus Towers. Jason M. Hough, The Plague Force.
Matthew Hughes, Costume Not Included. Matthew Hughes, Hell to Pay. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne. Nicola Griffith, Hild. Caspar Henderson, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. Bruce Holsinger, A Burnable Book.
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice. Fritz Leiber, Swords Against Death. Fritz Leiber, Swords in the Mist. Fritz Leiber, Swords Against Wizardry. Stephen Leigh, Dance of the Hag. Stephen Leigh, A Quiet of Stone. Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds. Scott Lynch, Republic of Thieves. James A. Moore, Seven Forges. Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop. Rachel Neumeier, Black Dog. Thomas Penn, The Winter King. James Renner, The Man from Primrose Lane. Brandon Sanderson, Elantris. C.J. Sansom, Heartstone. Julianna Scott, The Holders. Julianna Scott, The Seers. Melissa Scott, Shadow Man.
Michael J. Sullivan, Avempartha. Michael Swanwick, Dancing With Bears.
David Weber, The Honor of the Queen.
David Weber, The Short Victorious War.
David Weber, Field of Dishonor.
David Weber, Flag in Exile.
David Weber, Honor Among Enemies.
David Weber, In Enemy Hands. Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Djinni.
Chuck Wendig, Mockingbird. Chuck Wendig, Cormorant. Tad Williams, The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls.
I’ve been a supporter/fan of Angry Robot and their sister companies, Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A, since… well, early on, really. So I’m glad that the second author I get to host here on this blog is Strange Chemistry’s Rachel Neumeier, promoting her new book, Black Dog. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but my review will be coming up soon: for now I’ll just say I’m intrigued by the Mexican-American heroes and heroine, and I think Neumeier is doing something fascinating and new here.
Anyway, I came up with a whole list of topics Rachel Neumeier might like to post about. I’ll let her introduce herself now!
“Thank you, Nikki, for inviting me to post at The Bibliophibian – it’s a pleasure to be here!
I liked the idea of picking out a Top Ten list of werewolves, but quickly discovered that ten was beyond me . . . I simply haven’t read enough UF or paranormal to manage a top ten list, yet. I know that’s kind of shocking. I haven’t read anything by Eileen Wilks yet – though I want to, and have her first book on my Kindle. I haven’t read Nalini Singh. I’ve heard great things about NIGHTSHIFTED by Cassie Alexander, but I just haven’t found the time, yet.
I will say, any werewolf story that is more horror than fantasy isn’t likely to make my Top Ten list. I like the modern shapeshifters of urban fantasy and paranormal much better than the old-fashioned horrific werewolves.
Let me start with werewolves and then move on to other shapeshifters – including at least two that I bet have never before appeared on “best shapeshifter” lists, though they totally qualify.
Okay, I discovered my all-time favorite werewolves in MOON CALLED by Patricia Briggs. And my favorite little coyote, too, of course. I totally fell in love with Bran Cornick not to mention Samuel and Charles. And Adam, of course. Scarily competent always works for me.
It’s hard to overstate how important the Mercy Thompson series was to me – without this series, it’s very unlikely I would ever have written BLACK DOG. I would have stuck to straight secondary fantasy and maybe branched out into SF, but UF or paranormal? Very unlikely.
Is it cheating to pick two books in the same series? But it’s my favorite series, so I think I will go with it. IRON KISSED, the third Mercy Thompson book, is a really powerful story and made me really love Ben as a character.
Even though I haven’t even begun to read All The Things, I think the best wolves in UF/Paranormal are probably found in BITTEN, by Kelly Armstrong. I don’t mind when werewolves don’t act a bit like real wolves no matter what form they’re in – but I am not so keen on werewolves that are supposed to act like real wolves, but don’t. I really love the way the werewolves in Armstrong’s series act so much like real wolves when they are in wolf form. Armstrong does by far the best job of capturing the playfulness and joie de verve of wolves.
The very first werewolf book I ever read was BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE by Annette Curtis Klause. This story hits all the werewolf tropes – and it does it very well, too. It’s easy to get pulled along by the new, shiny titles as they hit the shelves, and of course we all have ever-expanding TBR piles – but this one is well worth looking up.
I’ve read other werewolf stories, of course, but none that would make a Top Ten list. Instead, I’m going to expand the parameters to other kinds of shapeshifters and see if I can fill out the rest of a Top Ten list that way.
And that leads me to an obvious choice, because, hey, Ilona Andrews! For me, the Kate Daniels series did not hit its stride until the third book, MAGIC STRIKES. Everyone insisted I should keep going, and I’m glad I did, because with the third book, everything pulled together and the series stepped up from “okay” to “can’t miss.” Now Ilona Andrews is an auto-buy author (s) for me. Because, Kate! And Curren! And their amazing chemistry. Everyone needs to read this whole series just so they can appreciate the “Oh, sorry, we broke your rock,” line in MAGIC RISES. There are probably other werelions out there, but I bet no one else does it as well as Ilona Andrews. And, of course, there are also some fine werewolves in this series as well.
Another story which has werewolves, but I love the cat better, is DEFINITELY DEAD by Charlaine Harris. Quinn! I can’t even imagine. What an amazing creature a weretiger must be. I was sorry it didn’t work out between him and Sookie.
There are no werewolves at all in WAR FOR THE OAKS by Emma Bull, but every single person who loves UF should give this one, published in 2004, a try. Because the Pooka is amazing. And, hey, a Pooka who turns into a big, shaggy, black dog is sort of werewolf-like, right?
While we’re on the subject of black dogs, the ones in Deb Coates’ DEEP DOWN are not shapeshifters, so they don’t count. Yet this is an UF . . . well, a rural fantasy . . . that readers who love the genre might not want to miss. The black dogs in this one are not a bit like mine, being instead the classical harbingers of death. If you’re the sort of person who can see ghosts, you may find these black dogs following you around and chatting with you, which may be a bit disconcerting.
Returning to shapeshifters, but departing from anything even vague dog-like, one of my favorite shapeshifters in fantasy is found in THE GREY HORSE by RA MacAvoy. You will surely have no trouble guessing what kind of shapeshifter we find in this story, a beautiful, quiet fantasy first published back in 1987, set in Ireland. I’m delighted to see that this one is now available on Kindle, though I have to say, I definitely preferred the original cover.
And, while we’re on the subject of shapeshifter stories that also make the horse lovers among us happy, DUN LADY’S JESS by Doranna Durgin approaches the concept of shapechanging from the other direction: a horse that is turned into a woman. This story is actually a portal fantasy, clever and beautifully written, and anyone who ever went through a horse-crazy period (or is still horse-crazy now) should definitely look it up.
And that’s ten! Werewolves, werelions and weretigers, pookas and black dogs, and a couple of wonderful horses: a shapeshifter menagerie. At the moment, I don’t plan to ever write shapeshifter stories set in any world other than that of BLACK DOG – but who can say?
Thanks to Rachel Neumeier for stopping by on her blog tour. Don’t forget to check out her site, and if you’re interested in Black Dog but haven’t got your hands on it yet, I’m doing a giveaway! Just use the Rafflecopter linked below to enter, and I’ll contact you if you’re the lucky one!
Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic. Pure magic can protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs. In rare cases – like for Natividad’s father and older brother – Pure magic can help black dogs find the strength to control their dark powers.
But before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them. Their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered by black dogs. Their parents die protecting them. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.
In the snowy forests of Vermont they are discovered by Ezekiel Korte, despite his youth the strongest black dog at Dimilioc and the appointed pack executioner. Intrigued by Natividad he takes them to Dimilioc instead of killing them.
Now they must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. Alejandro must prove he can learn loyalty and control even without his sister’s Pure magic. Natividad’s twin Miguel must prove that an ordinary human can be more than a burden to be protected. And even at Dimilioc a Pure girl like Natividad cannot remain unclaimed to cause fighting and distraction. If she is to stay she must choose a black dog mate.
But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.