Review – Subliminal

Posted 5 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Subliminal by Leonard MlodinowSubliminal: The New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us, Leonard Mlodinow

This book was a bit of a disappointment. It covers basically the same ground as dozens of other books which purport to explain the irrationality of the human brain, including the same experiments discussed with more or less the same conclusions. I’m wary of the way Mlodinow decides that certain anatomical areas of the brain are solely and uncomplicatedly involved in specific emotions. For example, he identifies the “ventromedial pre-frontal cortex” as being all there is to it when it comes to preferring Coke over Pepsi because of the brand-name. This isn’t my area (alas) so I’m not going to say he’s definitively wrong, but I’ve read around enough to be cautious when someone decides that a bit of brain anatomy means x or y universally. It smacks of going for a simple, catchy answer instead of acknowledging the actual complexity of the brain.

Anyway, it’s probably a good read if you haven’t read one of the dozens of other books covering the same topic, and in its favour I did find myself snorting in amusement at some of Mlodinow’s commentary. It’s nothing new, though.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Have His Carcase

Posted 4 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. SayersHave His Carcase, Dorothy L. Sayers

As ever, a beloved reread. Okay, the cypher bits can be kind of annoying unless you’re really interested in figuring out, but this time I paid close attention so I could use the Playfair cypher to write a daft message to my wife, so there’s that. I love the care Peter takes to try and be fair to Harriet, not to push her, and to do his best by her. I do think sometimes he’s rather self-pitying, but mostly his sense of humour about it alleviates that.

The mystery itself is a fun one to break: if you figure out the key to it too soon, the back and forth as Harriet, Peter and the police try to break the wrong alibis can be a bit infuriating, but it’s also pretty clever. If you don’t love Peter and Harriet (and mostly their banter), I can’t imagine it being a favourite, but for me… yeah. <3

Rating: 5/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 4 August, 2018 by Nikki in General / 12 Comments

G’morning, all! I’m back in the UK. For a few days it was blissfully cool, but the temperatures are climbing again, alas. And in just three weeks (less now), I’ll be bringing our bunnies across the channel with my wife — we’re finally going to be settled here in the UK! Well, me and the bunnies, at least: the wife is following for good a little later.

But for now, of course, there’s the obligatory away-from-bunnies pic. Here’s Breakfast gearing up to come with me, before he was gently evicted, and another pic of him sporting some new bunny fashion… and Hulk, who would really like some banana now, please.

My babies. <3

Anyway, it’s been a busy week, so as I’ve been doing a fair bit lately, I’m going to split this haul into multiple posts. Maybe that will encourage me not to add to it in the meantime. This week’s is the SF/F section (featuring stuff to review from as well as books I bought).

(By the way, this weekly post is now the ‘weekly roundup’, though I also participate in Stacking the Shelves, courtesy of Tynga’s Reviews and Reading Reality.)


Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells Cover of Descent of Monsters by JY Yang Cover of Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Cover of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse Cover of A Study in Honor by Claire O'Dell Cover of An Unkindness of Ghosts

All of these are pretty exciting, and I’ve been anticipating them for a while, so yay!

Finished reading this week:

 Cover of The Battle of the Sun by Jeanette Winterson Cover of The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon Cover of Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow Cover of At Amberleaf Fair by Phyllis Ann Karr

Reviews posted this week:

Crooked Kingdom, by Leigh Bardugo. Found this a bit of a slow starter, but once it picked up the pace — whoa. 4/5 stars
The Battle of the Sun, by Jeanette Winterson. Just really slapdash (at least it felt that way) and disappointing, albeit with some nice turns of phrase. 2/5 stars
The Murder of My Aunt, by Richard Hull. Despicable characters trying to outwit one another. Fun, if not entirely comfortable to spend time with. 3/5 stars
The Zoo, by Isobel Charman. Not totally focused on the founding of the zoo (it gets distracted in a whole chapter about Darwin, who was rather tangential), but mostly interesting stuff. A little too fictionalised for me at times, maybe. 3/5 stars
The Gallows in the Greenwood, by Phyllis Ann Karr. A Robin Hood retelling with a female sheriff, this has a cute if somewhat sudden romance plot and tries to work with the original ballads in an interesting way. 4/5 stars
The Planet Factory, by Elizabeth Tasker. Lots and lots of information, reasonably well presented. Could’ve done with some more diagrams, in my opinion. 3/5 stars
The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman. It’s a madcap mixture of all kinds of things, and that works well for me. There’s mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, folktales, and the kitchen sink as well. It’s incredibly fun. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: The Rights of the Reader. Building out of Daniel Pennac’s ten rules, a post about the things that should always be permitted for a reader.
WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update, in which I’m reading far too much at once.

Out and about: 

Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘A Mile From The Castle’. A short story set in a fairytale world, but following those outside the story. I’m really proud, actually — Aliette de Bodard tweeted about liking this, Genevieve Cogman liked the tweet where I posted it, and Stephanie Burgis said some really sweet things. (Not to mention the stuff my friends have said, because they’re biased, but also sweet.)
Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘Message in a Bottle’. Humanity’s been reaching out to the cosmos for a while now. This story is about when someone wants to reach back.
Once Upon a Blue Moon: ‘Mrs Gawain’. If you’ve ever read Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife collection, this poem was very much inspired by the intent and style of that collection. Dame Ragnelle has her say on the issue of ‘sovereignty’ and what all women really want…
NEAT science: What’s with this heatwave? Answer: global warming. Yes, really, what a shock — but this is one of those longer term effects that we’re now starting to really see.
NEAT science: A crack in creation. What is CRISPR, and why does it look like a good answer to all our gene editing dreams?

As I said, it really has been a busy week! Remember that the titles above are links which will let you jump to a given review (or post, or in the case of the new ‘Out and about’ section, story/poem/etc).

How’s everyone doing?

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Review – The Invisible Library

Posted 3 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Invisible Library by Genevieve CogmanThe Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman

Another reread! Mostly because I felt like it, and partly to refresh my memory of the series to read The Lost Plot. It remains tons of fun: heists, steampunk trappings, magic, dragons, fae and most importantly, books. I love Vale and Kai and the way they interact with each other and with Irene, and Alberich remains a creep-as-heck villain (come on, he impersonates people by wearing their skin). The whole lore of the worlds, the way Fae work and the way that chaos/order affect magic… that all makes a good background for a story that ticks along at a fast clip. It feels like Cogman’s put everything and the kitchen sink into these books (especially with the more sci-fi trappings of some of the other worlds) and it works.

Above all, I think, I love the fact that the people who work for the Library genuinely love books. That’s one of their chief motivations in life. They’re not after keeping the worlds in order, just after books — on the surface, at least, and definitely for the junior Librarians like Irene — and that’s just… fun, nice to read, because in that secret kid part of you that hoped for a Hogwart’s letter (if you’re that kind of person), maybe you could be a Librarian

So yeah. No surprises I’m giving it a high rating again. It’s not perfect, perhaps, but it’s so much fun.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Planet Factory

Posted 2 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Planet Factory by Elizabeth TaskerThe Planet Factory, Elizabeth Tasker

If you’re interested in planets outside our solar system, this is obviously going to be for you. It explains how planets form and the different ecosystems (of a sort) that different types of planets form in. Like the other Bloomsbury Sigma books, it’s readable and fairly light in tone. I think it could actually have used some more diagrams: sometimes, Tasker explained something and my brain just couldn’t grab hold because I couldn’t do the imagining she was suggesting. (If you start with “imagine an ellipse”, I’m afraid I fall at that first hurdle, so I’m a bit of an outlier here — but I still think some more diagrams could have clarified the more technical stuff.)

I do also have some issues with terminology, although this isn’t Tasker’s fault so much as an issue with astronomy in general: hot Jupiters and super Earths and so on all start to blur together for me. Once you say “it’s like Jupiter only x and y and z and a and b” then I don’t know why you’re still calling it a Jupiter-like object. Some of the hot Jupiters are pretty close to Jupiter, of course, but… I don’t know, it felt like a meaningless phrase that got in the way of me actually following what sort of planets were being discussed. “A gas giant on a close solar orbit” seems more informative…

Anyway, that’s probably mostly down to personal taste. It’s an informative book with which I have no scientific quibbles.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Gallows in the Greenwood

Posted 1 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Gallows in the Greenwood, Phyllis Ann Karr

This novel does a surprisingly good job of weaving together a lot of disparate threads of Robin Hood folklore, while putting its own spin on the story, given that it’s so short. It’s a fascinating attempt at exploring what a female Sheriff does to the story, while also including a romantic plot that’s straight out of that kind of ballad without being directly like any of the ones I can think of. I really enjoyed noticing the references to the traditional ballads, but I also really appreciated the way the female Sheriff became part of the story and explained various aspects of it by her presence.

There’s quite a lot going on below a deceptively simple plot: an attempt to reconcile the Robin Hood folklore into a whole story that makes sense. Whatever Karr says in her notes on the text, I find the figure of Robin quite interesting — he’s not a straightforward villain, as the epilogue shows (and as the loyalty of Maid Marian suggests too).

There’s also Denis and Midge, and I just ended up loving Denis — the kind of honourable idiot of a character I can really get involved with. He has principles, but he’s not so honourable he won’t break them in order to do what is actually the right thing. His romance is a little sudden, but it makes a certain amount of sense, especially in the context of the Robin Hood ballads the story uses and echoes.

Nonetheless, it is all comparatively light and the most interesting/valuable thing to me was the inclusion of Karr’s notes on the text, including a letter to her agent in which she categorically (and correctly, in my view) refused to change a lot of key parts of the story. I loved her firm emphasis on things being believable: she’s not just doing lip-service to feminism by completely inventing a role for a woman that doesn’t exist: she found records that supported the position she put her character in.

All in all, enjoyable and interesting, and I’m a little disappointed I never read it in time to work it into an essay for the tutor of mine who really had me digging into the oldest ballads.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 1 August, 2018 by Nikki in General / 4 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.

What are you currently reading?

Cover of Rosemary & Rue by Seanan McGuireUhoh, where do I start? Okay, so last night (well, Monday night, since I’m writing this on Tuesday evening) I started reading Phyllis Ann Karr’s At Amberleaf Fair, because I read The Gallows in the Greenwood at the weekend and felt like maybe reading another of her books was indicated. Also, someone on Goodreads said the main character’s gender is never revealed, so I was a bit intrigued about how that was handled. They must have a very different copy from me, because Torin is definitely a guy in my copy.

Then on the train I started rereading Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary & Rue, because my wife is mainlining that series right now and I need to reread and then get onto reading the ones I haven’t read yet. Devin is a creep, such a creep, ughh. Then I also started Think Like An Anthropologist, by Matthew Engelke, because it sounded interesting and it totally leapt into my bag of my own accord while I was in St Pancras today.

And then I arrived at my parents’, where my copy of Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw was waiting, so of course I dived right in and I just got to the part with the pastry-baking demon, and I just love these books so much.

Cover of Strange Practice by Vivian ShawWhat have you recently finished reading?

I think the last thing I finished was probably Vivian Shaw’s Strange Practice, a reread I engaged in for a) pure fun and b) because I knew I’d be getting my paws on Dreadful Company. I also read Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal, but that was kind of disappointing and pretty much the same as every other book on the weird way humans actually think.

Cover of Blackout by Mira GrantWhat will you be reading next?

Once I’ve finished Dreadful Company, I’ll focus back in on Rosemary & Rue, and then after that there’s the whole October Daye series to be dived into. Other than that, I would like to polish off something from my backlog, so I’ll probably pick up Blackout by Mira Grant and finally finish that. I’ve had a bookmark in the first chapter for far too long now. On the other hand, A Study in Honor just hit my ereader. I’d forgotten that I preordered it but I’m excited.

So yeah, that’s me. How about you?

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Review – The Zoo

Posted 31 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Zoo by Isobel CharmanThe Zoo, Isobel Charman

The cover promises the “wild and wonderful” tale of the founding of the London Zoo, but it isn’t really very wild, though you might decide it’s still wonderful in its way. It certainly was a heck of a task, and the fact that the London Zoo still exists is amazing considering some of the difficulties they had. The style is rather fictionalised — mentioning exactly what Charman imagines the protagonists of the story think and feel — and it doesn’t always stick very closely to the founding of the zoo itself. For example, there’s a whole chapter on Darwin, at least as long as the others, and yet of all of them he has almost nothing to do with the actual business of the zoo.

It’s not all about the zoo, then, but the story it tells is an interesting one, and I did enjoy the stories of men that might have been left out of the story in another time — the first vet, the keepers, etc. The people who did the day to day work on the ground, not just the people who designed the buildings or paid for things.

A little slow, really; it was a bit too fictional to give me the sort of details I want in my non-fiction, but too dry for my tastes as a work of fiction.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Murder of my Aunt

Posted 30 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Murder of My Aunt by Richard HullThe Murder of my Aunt, Richard Hull

The narrator of most of this book is, by design, pretty repugnant — and honestly, I find the other characters so too, even when we get a little glimpse of the other side of the story. The satisfaction here is in seeing their plans come to grief, and waiting for everyone to get their comeuppance. There’s something satisfying in Hull’s skill about putting together these characters, but at the same time it feels like it would’ve worked better as a short story. Enough time to get the gist, without enough to start getting truly frustrated by the general horribleness (and stupidity, too).

It’s an entertaining enough read, but I was glad when it was over, too!

Rating: 3/5

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Discussion: The Rights of the Reader

Posted 30 July, 2018 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

I’m fairly sure a lot of people have heard of Daniel Pennac’s book, The Rights of the Reader, maybe without knowing quite where it comes from (since the book itself is originally in French). Quentin Blake’s illustrations help with that, given the posters of the rights plus his illustrations that you can get, and I know I have seen those around.

Anyway, if you’re curious you can read my review of the book here, which is mostly about getting kids reading instead of the rules’ general applicability, but this post is actually about the rights themselves. And here they are, illustrated by Quentin Blake (click to embiggen):

  1. The right not to read.
    Seems like good sense to me. Who wants to feel forced to read? There are some situations where I guess you do have to read the book, like literature classes. Even there, I think there should be room for wriggling. I did a crime fiction course at Cardiff University, and one of the books included was a transphobic, rapey mess with tortures lovingly described in practically every chapter. I did feel that maybe we should’ve at least been given some warning about that one.
    Also, you know that feeling where everyone’s been reading a book so you should hurry up and do it too? Yeah, I think this right covers that, too. Read what you want to, when you want to. In other words, Mum, I’ll read Republic of Thieves when I’m good and ready.
  2. The right to skip.
    Read the ending first? Skip a gross scene or a boring chapter? Skip ahead to your favourite bit? All good with me, I’m all for this right.
  3. The right not to finish a book.
    I know a lot of people don’t like not finishing a book, but I’m all for it — I’ve already done a discussion post about it. Again, I just don’t see the point in feeling forced to read something you’re not enjoying. Unless you’re sort of masochistic about books, I guess. Actually, Quentin Blake’s illustration looks like he’s thinking that means just waiting to finish a book you’re enjoying, and hey, that’s valid too.
  4. The right to read it again.
    Something I’m clearly for, if you hang around here at all. Again, I have a whole post on it.
  5. The right to read anything.
    Screw the idea of guilty pleasures or feeling weird because the book’s actually aimed at middle grade readers or whatever. Read for pure joy and if it makes you happy, that’s great.
  6. The right to mistake a book for real life. 
    “It me!” Also referred to in the book as “Bovary-ism”. Because who doesn’t want to imagine they’re an interdimensional Librarian? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what this one is meant to mean anymore, but if it means getting so caught up in a book it matters more than whatever else is on your plate, I’ve been there and done that and those are some of the absolute best books.
  7. The right to read anywhere.
    Okay, don’t do anything dangerous, but if you want to read sitting in the kitchen sink (high five if you know that reference) or while walking (with a careful eye on traffic) to work, then more power to you. I’ve read in bed, on trains, on planes, sitting on the stairs, sitting on a wall, sitting in the hall… and I’ve no doubt the list will keep growing.
  8. The right to dip in.
    Sounds a bit like the right to skip, to me. Actually, I’m kind of against this one for myself — I start at the beginning and go on until I come to the end, or give up. But hey, if you like reading random chapters or the middle book of a series, why not?
  9. The right to read out loud.
    I actually like to whisper the words to myself as I read. It’s not like I read to, and I read faster silently, but I love the shape and taste of words, and I kinda hate that I have to give that up in public for fear of being weird. (Also when my sister is in the room, because the whispers annoy her.)
  10. The right to be quiet.
    Nobody should disturb you when you’re reading.

I can think of some other ones, some more silly than others — the right to fill a book with bookmarks at strategic points while I’m reading so I can track my progress. The right to babble to others about the exciting thing I’m reading. The right to give other people books you think they’ll love. The right to differ from other people about a book (I’m sorry, I just don’t get some authors).

But really, it all comes down to one golden rule, which if you read my blog you can probably guess. Everyone deserves…


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