WWW Wednesday

Posted 3 October, 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 The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanI’ve picked The Lost Plot back up, so hopefully I’ll be finishing that up soon. I’ve just got to the bit in Boston/New York, so it’s a whole new setting for Irene and Kai. Mobsters! Awesome. I’m also still partway through Endless Forms Most Beautiful (really something I could have done with reading before any Evo Devo came up in my degree), and I’m also partway through rereading Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands (time to finish the series!).

Cover of Stardust by Neil GaimanWhat have you recently finished reading?

The last thing I finished was David Starkey’s book on the Magna Carta. It was okay, but not really anything I didn’t already vaguely know. Before that, I reread Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which was a delight as always, though the ending is not nearly so happy as the movie’s in many ways (though I like both in their own ways).

Cover of Roses and Rot by Kat HowardWhat will you be reading next?

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard, in theory! I’ve selected that as my book club choice on Habitica, so that’s the idea anyway. In practice, I do have a ton of very tempting library books, and I’ve been dying to reread Ann Leckie’s Provenance

So what’re you reading?

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Review – Spying On Whales

Posted 2 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Spying on Whales by Nick PyensonSpying On Whales, Nick Pyenson

Pyenson is clearly obsessed with whales — with the idea of them, with studying them, with understanding them and sharing that understanding. In this volume, he does his best to share all those things: his enthusiasm for whales as much as his academic interest, his wonder at them as much as his understanding of them as part of their environment. He tours through whales of the past through their fossils (so if you’re a palaeontology nut, this one’s for you too!), whales of the present through observation and dissection (so if you’re into biology…) and whales of the future through trying to understand how they impact their environment, and what the seas might be like without them.

It’s a fascinating journey: whales aren’t one of the topics I read about obsessively, but I wasn’t going to pass up a book about them from the library, either. Pyenson’s style is breezy, and he manages to communicate wonder even about things that might sound kind of gross (like whale dissection). To my surprise, I think I was most fascinated by his chapter about the weird new sense organ he discovered in whales’ chins, via actually being there on a whaling station to see freshly killed whales being butchered. (He has mixed feelings about this, but correctly notes that sometimes, you have to use the opportunities you get.)

I’m not raring to go dashing off to become an expert in matters marine, which is the sign of a non-fiction book that really gets to me, but nonetheless there’s plenty of interest here for the armchair enthusiast. If the idea of these massive mammals takes your breath away a little bit, this book might just augment that.

Rating: 3/5

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Discussion: How Do You Review?

Posted 1 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 12 Comments

I might have posted about this before, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve yet hit upon a way to review books that works for every book, and that really satisfies me looking back. After a while I read back some of my reviews and I’ve been so vague about what the book was about that it doesn’t remind me (although I can always tell whether I liked the book or not — but that usually sticks with me anyway) and a lot of my reviews come out the same. The past week I’ve started trying to be more descriptive: set the scene a bit more, for one thing, particularly because I don’t include the publisher’s summary when I post a review. I still don’t have a set procedure for myself, though — honestly, writing to a checklist makes my reviews feel all the same in another way, and makes the whole process even more mechanical and wooden.

How I go about writing reviews, generally… hmm: first, a sentence or two about how I came to pick up the book, or how I felt about doing so. ‘This book has been really hyped for months, so I finally succumbed when I saw it at the library’ — that kind of thing. Then I’m now trying to get in a bit of description — the major ideas of the book and what I think about that and the setting… I don’t want to put in spoilers, but I do try to give some idea of how it develops. And then last, what jumped out at me, for good or ill? Characters, plot points, did it remind me of something, did it go off the rails… And finally, I try and comment on who I think might like it, if the rest of my review hasn’t made it obvious. And at the ending, at the request of some of my earliest blog readers, a star rating out of five.

With non-fiction, of course, it’s a bit different; I try to explain why I’m interested and what my existing level of knowledge is, the stuff the book covers, whether the writing style is clear, and then maybe in the end who I’d recommend it for.

Of course, every so often I’ll lose my head and do something different, maybe even write a little story. But for the most part, the above is what I try to do, or am trying to do now.

So what do you put into your reviews?

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Review – The Descent of Monsters

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

Cover of Descent of Monsters by JY YangThe Descent of Monsters, JY Yang

The first two books (The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven) introduce you to a world and a setting without making it essential to have read the other book first (though personally, I would read Black Tides first anyway). I found that by contrast, The Descent of Monsters was very much settled within that now existing framework, and relied on prior knowledge of the other two novellas to orientate you and help you understand who means what to whom and why, and why this character does x and y, etc.

This is a bit different in format to the first two books as well, focusing on the investigations of a new character into events that Akeha and Mokoya are involved in, without giving us much access to the actual thoughts of Mokoya and Akeha (and the other characters we already know). Part of it is written as an investigation report: there are also letters and a couple of interrogation transcripts.

Honestly, I found this not quite enough to re-orientate myself within the world. Before I read another book in this world, I think I might well make the time to reread these first three together, to make sure I understand all the nuances and how the events connect. I didn’t even read the first two books that long ago, but Yang doesn’t spoonfeed you (which is not a complaint! I think it’s reasonable to expect you to carry a certain amount of information between books, it’s just that apparently my brain is a sieve right now).

This one ends up feeling a bit slight compared to the other two: while we learn a bit more about the world and the machinations of those in power, I found it difficult to connect up. Again, rereading might help, but that was (sadly) my impression. I do find it enjoyable: Chuwan is a bit of an archetype (the oh-so-determined investigator, destined to find the truth!) and it works. This does stand alone in the sense that it’s a character we don’t know investigating events which, on their own, are fascinating and clearly shocking — but I think the connections to be made with the previous novellas are important in really getting the full effect.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Gods, Graves and Scholars

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

Cover of Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. CeramGods, Graves and Scholars, C.W. Ceram

This book is seriously outdated, but that’s almost irrelevant since what I really wanted was a book with a general, accessible history of archaeology to just sink into. Ceram provides: he covers various great civilisations (Greeks, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, South Americans) and discusses some of the early work done in digging up and restoring their monuments. He’s often admiring of the adventurers who found them, while noting that at times they did more harm than good (something we feel even more strongly now) — there’s a great sense of adventure about some of the people and events he describes, though he does so in a scholarly tone that others might find dry. I enjoyed the range of choices here — e.g. it doesn’t just go for Petrie, Carter, Champollion, Schliemann… but digs into some names I knew less well.

There’s tons more to learn about all the sites and civilisations Ceram discusses, and much of the information here has been updated. For example, we don’t think in terms of slaves building the pyramids anymore. Still, there’s a great deal here to whet the appetite: a glimpse of the wonderful things as seen by those who were very close to their early discovery, but synthesised into a greater narrative about the progress of archaeology.

Not for everyone, but perfect for the mood I was in at the time. I think my favourite bit was the section on Egypt: like it or not, that was my first archaeological love. That said, I want to do a ton more reading about the archaeology of the Americas, which this book inspired me to pick up.

Rating: 3/5 

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 29 September, 2018 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

Good morning, folks! I have a bit of a cold and (writing this on Friday night) rather want to get to bed, so I’ll keep this quick! It’s been a quiet week except for my various trips from the library (I have [mumble] books out of four different libraries right now…), but I still have some books to show off from last week in London, plus a review copy.

Received to review:

Cover of The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Yay! I’m torn about whether to reread The Traitor Baru Cormorant first: I think I could maybe use a reminder on the political background, but the character-development stuff has really stuck with me.

Bought:

Cover of Stars Uncharted by S.K. Dunstall Cover of Vengeful by V.E. Schwab Cover of The Thorn of Dentonhill by Marshall Ryan Maresca Cover of Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Cover of Made to Kill by Adam Christopher Cover of Killing Is My Business by Adam Christopher Cover of I Only Killed Him Once by Adam Christopher

And my copies of Made to Kill and Killing is my Business are actually signed! Thank you, Forbidden Planet London. Likewise, my copy of Vengeful is one of the limited edition signed ones. I really need to at least get that one out of the plastic and admire it!

Books read this week:

Cover of Alpha Beta by John Man Cover of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie Cover of Legion by Brandon Sanderson

 Cover of The Lake District Murder by John Bude Cover of The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes Cover of Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver

Reviews posted this week:

Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. Clearly written essays, most of them kind of indifferent, but the title one is worth the time for that sense of validation: ah, it’s not just me this happens to. 3/5 stars
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Steve Brusatte. A bit basic for me — go with David Hone’s Tyrannosaurus Chronicles instead, and you won’t be disappointed. 3/5 stars
Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, by Brandon Sanderson. Finally got to read the whole story in this collected edition! Well worth the time, though I’m unsure about how I feel about the ending. Maybe I just didn’t want it to end. 4/5 stars
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Christie could put a heck of a story together, and I read this one straight through. Kind of creepy, too. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Keeping Books. Do you hoard the books you’ve read? Or do you pass them on once you’re done?
WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update on what I’ve just read, what I’m reading now, and what I might be about to read next.

Out and about:

NEAT science: Calculating the mass of a planet. Ever wondered how we do that, given you can’t stick Jupiter on a set of weighing scales? I go through that here!

How’s everyone else doing, anyway? Exciting week?

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Review – And Then There Were None

Posted 28 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of And Then There Were None by Agatha ChristieAnd Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

I started reading this to pass a few minutes at the train station, and ended up reading it all in one go. I always forget that Christie’s work is so enjoyable — especially when she stays away from her series detectives (I can’t stand Poirot). She really could write a solid mystery, and I do intend to pick up some more of her one-off mysteries, and possibly also give Tommy and Tuppence a try. She has a way of setting out the scenario, the characters, and really drawing you in.

And Then There Were None features a very careful set-up: ten characters are drawn together on an island where they can essentially be marooned and prevented from calling for help. Slowly, it’s revealed that each one of them has a death on their conscience — a driving accident, treatment withheld from a dying woman, an operation performed while drunk, fellow-soldiers abandoned to die… Each one has their excuses, their reasons, and not all of these are revealed in one go. When they arrive at the island, they don’t know each other or why they’ve been called there, each brought there on false pretences: after their first dinner, however, they get a shock when a voice reads out their names and the names of the person (or people) they killed.

After that, they begin to die, one by one, according to the means specified in a sinister little nursery rhyme… Those remaining come to the conclusion (of course) that the killer is among them.

There are aspects of this which haven’t aged well: the original “Ten Little Niggers” rhyme has been expunged by now and replaced with “Soldiers”, but there’s also some unpleasantness about Jewish characters and about native peoples “not counting”. Some of that is character, of course, but some of it seems built rather unpleasantly into the narrative voice.

However, the solution of the mystery works pretty well for me (it all hangs together and makes sense, and we had the clues), and the feeling of horror/suspense is well built up. It’s an enjoyable read, if you can ignore the unpleasantness about anyone who isn’t white, British and preferably middle-class. (Not that anyone really comes off well in this book, but that group isn’t slandered for the sake of being that particular group.) It’s not exactly groundbreaking, although part of that is hindsight, but it does the job and it definitely held my attention for a solid hour or two of (mostly) enjoyment.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Posted 27 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, Brandon Sanderson

Received to review via Tor

I read Legion ages ago — and then reread it sometime more recently, actually — but never got round to reading the second book, Skin Deep. Once I got my hands on this collected edition, though, it was inevitable: I might be a little late to the party (sorry, Tor; moving is a pain in the butt), but I absolutely raced through it once I did settle down to read. I didn’t stop or put the book down at all, and I’m sure my bunnies got away with murder while I was reading.

So what is Legion about? The main character is Stephen Leeds, but really he’s more of a cipher: it’s his ‘aspects’ that are really intriguing, something like voices in his head or a split personality, but not exactly. He is, as he says several times in the narration, something different — and he doesn’t consider himself insane, since he’s living a (relatively) normal life. That’s arguable, but the fact that he’s a genius and gets along pretty well using his aspects in many ways isn’t. When he needs to know something — speak Hebrew, understand theoretical physics, deal with crime scene investigation — he flips through a book or two on the subject, and a new aspect will join him, genuinely expert on the subject and able to guide him in his investigations. These books are mysteries, too, with a supernatural/science fictional bent. A camera that can take pictures of the past; using the cells of the human body as storage for information…

Through the mysteries, we get to know a little about Stephen and his aspects, and how they work: Ivy, repository of all his social understanding; Tobias, a walking encyclopaedia with a deep knowledge of art and architecture, always able to talk soothingly about something or other; J.C., a trigger-happy Navy SEAL, who knows security and weapons… and all the other aspects who play a more incidental role, like Armando (photography expert and megalomaniac who thinks he’s the king of Mexico), Ashley (far too comfortable with being imaginary), Ngozi (forensics expert) — the list goes on. It’s a fun cast, and Sanderson has been conscious to make the aspects pretty varied, while trying to be respectful of their apparent origins. Aside from the aspects, there’s also Stephen’s butler, who is impressively forbearing and clearly very fond of Stephen, despite the weirdness.

The mysteries themselves are a little light, definitely not the point of the stories, and I’m still not sure what I think exactly about Lies of the Beholder, the third (and final) novella. It’s not the ending I wanted, but it makes a certain amount of sense and answers various questions arising from the events of the previous two books (or less the events than the actions and hints of Stephen’s aspects during that time). It works; maybe I just didn’t really want my time with the characters to be over.

All in all, as a collection it’s very satisfying (perhaps less so if you only try the novellas standing alone), and I do recommend it. Excuse me while I go press my wife to read it soon

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 26 September, 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.

Cover of Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean CarrollWhat are you currently reading?

Too much at once, as ever! Most actively, I’ve just got started on Endless Forms Most Beautiful, by Sean Carroll — it’s alll about Evo Devo, i.e. what embryology and development tells us about evolution. I bought it as a sort of knowledge top-up back before I actually read a bunch of papers on Evo Devo for my degree. It’s still interesting, but not surprising or as necessary to top up my knowledge anymore!

Cover of Legion by Brandon SandersonWhat have you recently finished reading?

I just finished reading the whole collected Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. I’m still digesting that ending, and I’m not sure it’s what I wanted, but it sure is a fascinating concept and Sanderson is a great writer. Before that, I think the last thing I finished was Christie’s And Then There Were None, which I just gulped down, rather to my own surprise. Christie’s a better writer than I remember, every time.

Cover of The Lake District Murder by John BudeWhat will you be reading next?

I should focus on something I’ve got on the go, so probably I’ll reread more of Under Heaven, or really dig into John Bude’s The Lake District Murder. Or maybe Bernard Capes’ The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, since I do seem to be in the mood for Golden Age crime fiction! Or there’s always some library books, like Cameron Johnson’s The Traitor God.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Posted 25 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Rise and Fall of the DinosaursThe Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte

If you’re not really up to date on the modern science around dinosaurs, this is a pretty good way to catch up. It doesn’t go into enormous amounts of detail about any one dinosaur, and it’s honestly rather more surprised about feathered dinosaurs than I would think is warranted at this point, but it makes for a good overview. There is a lot of personal detail here about what made him interested in dinosaurs, various scientists, etc, etc. There’s a lot of name-dropping, and though I didn’t twig at the time, other reviews mentioning that it seems like a total boys-only club are quite correct.

It’s nothing astounding and not really in-depth enough to have wowed me. More of an adult’s version of a pretty basic intro to dinosaurs. That has its place, but not really on my shelves!

Rating: 3/5

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