The plot of this book? A war-preventing intergalactic Eurovision contest in a decidedly Hitchhiker’s Guide-style universe world, where newbies who lose get obliterated and the rankings determine the distribution of galactic resources. It’s a sentience test, designed to figure out whether a species can be trusted to join the ranks of sentient species or needs to be nuked from orbit to prevent future wars. It’s full of glitz and glamour and impossibilities, and Valente has a hell of a lot of fun coming up with weird species and the ways they perform and relate to each other and get high and start wars and have sex.
In fact, she has so much fun with that that the story of Earth’s discovery and non-optional invitation to join the latest contest in order to save Earth is pretty eclipsed by the sheer torrents of verbiage about aliens shiny and strange. It takes a while to realise that Decibel Jones is pretty much the main character, and honestly he’s always pretty much secondary to the wild vagaries of Valente’s imagination.
If you know Valente’s writing, then you can imagine how this comes out. At times, it’s like a firehose of adjectives blasting straight at your eyes, and it takes five minutes to work through a page because the colours are all running — a metaphor, of course, but honestly that’s the indistinct impression I end up with. There’s just too much going on, and it never stops.
And I know it’s not meant this way, because it’s Valente, but it sounds like it’s making fun (in that “oh god SJWs what will they come up with next” way) of some of the language queer people use to describe themselves, and I really don’t find the joy in that. I know it’s meant to be playful, maybe even freeing, but knowing how people complain about LGBT alphabet soups already, it stings. Of course that’s a personal reaction; probably others are really enjoying the freedom from labels pasted onto the characters.
I didn’t connect to the characters or to the plot, and in the end it just felt like I was being hit repeatedly in the head with a discoball while being attacked from all sides with glitterbombs, while someone shouted “ARE YOU HAVING FUN? WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FUN? IT’S SO QUIRKY AND OFF THE WALL! HAVE FUN DAMN YOU! MOOOORE GLITTER! WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FEELINGS??” in my ear. So the big finale didn’t come off, I just rolled my eyes.
I do enjoy Valente’s prose in some instances, but nothing about this worked for me — particularly since I think the tone and humour is frequently ripped absolutely directly from Douglas Adams, do not pass go, do not add anything original beyond LOTS MORE ADJECTIVES and a spot of David Bowie. It feels like Hitchhiker’s Guide with the volume turned up to distortion point.
Meh, meh, and meh again. I’m not entirely sure why I stubbornly finished this book, to be honest.
My Sister, The Serial Killer follows the main character, Korede, as she cleans up after her sister, Ayoola. That’s pretty much entirely literal: you see, Ayoola has developed a bad habit of killing the men she dates, and Korede has become sucked into the role of an accomplice. Everything in her life is just so, but then Ayoola storms on in with her problems, and Korede finds herself handling dead bodies and confessing only to a comatose man in the hospital who is expected never to recover. And then, gasp — Ayoola comes to the hospital where Korede works, and sets her eyes on the young doctor Korede has a crush on.
For the most part, I found this kind of pedestrian. Korede gets jealous about Tade (the doctor) and Ayoola; obviously, in trying to call Ayoola out, she just sounds jealous and unhinged. The comatose man to whom she’s been making her confessions wakes up and (of course) remembers the things she said. Ayoola is unfaithful and capricious. And yet, the sisterly bond is still there, and Korede can’t bring herself to break it: she’s meant to look after Ayoola…
I don’t know: for the most part this all just struck me as inevitable and I got a little impatient with it. I did check back in a little for the end of the story, wondering exactly how it would wrap up — and it avoided being completely banal and obvious.
I do enjoy the setting of this book, and the fact that Braithwaite makes no concessions for people who are unfamiliar. She just talks about the local food, local customs, and expects the reader to keep up. (Not that it’s particularly difficult, but I think the temptation is there sometimes for people to cater to the Anglo and American readers a little too much.) The story is shaped by the setting — the Nigerian police force don’t go about the case like an episode of CSI, giving the story about the sisters space to breathe, but there are other pressures on them from the people around them, from the relationship with technology (Snapchat is important in the story, for instance)… In that sense, it works quite well.
I’m afraid I’m still left rather “meh” overall, regardless. It’s easy to read, but it’s also easy to put down (for me, anyway).
Pale Rider is about the 1918 flu pandemic known as “Spanish flu”: the fact that it killed many more people than the Great War did is a well-known fact now, and this particular pandemic is credited with making scientists realise the dangers of a global health crisis like this — and the likelihood that it could and would happen again.
I’ll confess, I didn’t think I’d learn that much about the flu from reading this book, having already read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, but in fact there was a lot here that was new to me. Not so much in understanding the disease itself — if Barry’s book didn’t do that, studying for my exams certainly did — but in understanding the impact it had on the world, and particularly on non-Western countries. There’s a lot here that’s new to me about China and Russia, for instance, whereas I feel like The Great Influenza focused much more on the American side of things.
There’s also, I feel, more of an attempt to understand the social and political effects of the pandemic, rather than just the medical and scientific.
However, my end feeling is the same: influenza is a fascinating topic, and if it doesn’t scare you (in a measured informed way that leads to taking sensible precautions like getting the flu vaccine every year), it should. Spinney has a common-sense approach to it all — there’s a lot of things that need to align to make a pandemic, and Spinney doesn’t overstate the likelihood of that happening, but she does lay out the risks and emphasise the need for data collection and disease surveillance. Hear hear!
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?
I’m making another attack on Space Opera; I’m half-tempted to just ditch it, but I keep wondering if there’s a plot in there somewhere, under the frippery. I’m also reading Kassia St Clair’s The Golden Thread, which is just the sort of focused history I like. I just learned that Viking sails were made of wool — which surprises me, but I’m not sure what I thought they were made of.
What have you recently finished reading?
The Hollow Man, by John Dickson Carr. It’s a clever setup for a mystery, but I feel kinda meh about it because it has no characters that I like. There’s no personal side to it: it’s all about the central puzzle. So meh.
What will you be reading next?
The Priory of the Orange Tree, maybe? Finishing my reread of Glamour in Glass and the rest of that series? Not sure! I am trying pretty hard to finish the books I start, at the moment, and also trying to read the books I buy this year before buying any more, so either of those are good guesses.
I know, I know; some of you are surely wondering, “Again?!”
The Goblin Emperor is the story of an ill-prepared fifth son, who has hitherto spent his time in exile due to the disfavour his mother was viewed with, finding himself on the throne of the Elflands after the murder of his father and half-brothers. Thrown into the midst of it all, he has to find his feet and become a ruler — one who is careful to respect his father and the tradition of the throne, but who is also prepared to make some fairly drastic changes to benefit his people. All of them.
Naturally, some of his people were quite enjoying the status quo, and even those who wanted to change things had some rather different plans.
This was, I think, my fifth time reading this book, and I still love it so very much. It helps that the main character is so completely endearing: despite a lifetime of mistreatment, he clings to the principles taught to him by his mother (herself fairly mistreated by the system) and tries to be a good person. It’s not that he succeeds entirely — he’s unfairly waspish at times, he has the impulse to be ungracious and to take revenge, he has the urge to run away… The important factor, though, is that he works on it.
I do also enjoy the world-building, which is pretty high quality: Addison has given thought to how the language works, to how the two primary cultures in the book intersect, and to the world that surrounds them. She has so many characters who are intriguing, even when they can only be seen in glimpses due to Maia’s isolation as emperor — so many things I’d love to know more about, and so many opportunities to expand on the story (not necessarily Maia’s story). I’m so excited for the new book in this world; there are so many possible characters it could follow, and I’m pretty excited about most of them.
Saying anything else really comes repetitive of all my other reviews, but as usual, I thought I’d pick out the things I really noticed this time round. One image that this read-through left me with: the image of Maia, on the day of his coronation, in the rocky cave alone; the quality of the darkness, the coldness of the water, the stillness of the room.
In this book, Daisy gets involved in a whole new kind of case — one that involves her with the police in America, along with whispers of corruption in the local government, vast amounts of gun crime… and a babysitter arranged for her while Alec is away to try and stop her getting into trouble. (Spoiler: he doesn’t succeed.) This is a very different setting for Daisy and it feels much less cosy, because she’s in a lot more genuine danger at times.
At the same time, there’s a whole section of the book that finally picks up on Alec having been a pilot, featuring an air chase across the US. Pretty epic stuff.
I feel like the this book was somewhat lacking because it has so few familiar characters. Ms Genevieve/Eugene Cannon is pretty awesome, a now-retired former crime reporter who wrote under a male pseudonym for acceptance, but otherwise I missed Daisy’s friends and family, and Alec’s team at the Yard. I’m quite, quite ready for Daisy to be home now. I worried about this series getting too formulaic for me, but with more variation in the background, I missed some of the more routine characters.
I just wish Daisy would go ahead and become a PI, honestly. At least that would put a figleaf over the glaring fact that nobody accidentally finds so many corpses!
Sealey Head is a small town, perched above a harbour, where people mostly go about their everyday lives — managing an inn, running a business, selling their wares — with the main magic being in the stories written by Gwyneth and the books read by Judd, childhood friends who have become somewhat estranged as they grew up and had more responsibilities. The strange thing, though it’s now so normal that inhabitants of the town think of it entirely normal, is that every day a mysterious bell sounds. They have no idea where the sound comes from or when it began, though there are a cluster of stories and assumptions around it.
In the big house owned by a local aristocrat, a servant called Emma knows magic does exist, because every so often, she opens a door in the house and sees another world, and a woman she’s never met in this world. Princess Isabo lives a life strictly confined by ritual: light this candle, move this sword, fill the goblets of certain men but not others… and don’t ask questions.
Into that world comes a scholar, Ridley Drow, to shake everything up and make people confront the magic in their midst. It feels like such a typical story for McKillip: it has all her hallmarks in the handling, in the love of books, in the way the magic is handled, in the prose, in the way people relate to each other. So if you enjoy McKillip’s work, you’ll probably enjoy this as well: I certainly did, from the shy reconnection between Gwyneth and Judd to the chattering good-heartedness of Daria Sproule to the daring of Princess Isabo, finally asking questions and breaking the ritual routine.
It all builds up very nicely, but the denouement stumbled a little, for me. After all the build-up, knowing there’s danger and that their friends are in trouble, Gwyneth and Judd rush to Aislinn House to help… only to be thwarted by the fact that no one can open a way into Isabo’s world. Instead of doing anything, they settle down to wait… and the climax of the story happens entirely without them. It feels like all the characters build towards that, but only Ridley and Isabo actually get to see it. It feels odd that they’re left out of the main plot, even though Gwyneth and Judd’s stories are completed in other personal ways.
Also, there are some things I just… missed somehow in the climax of the book — some things seemed to come out of nowhere for me. I didn’t have a clue about the significance of the boat, for instance — or rather, I did realise it was significant, but the reason for its significance just didn’t seem to have been telegraphed at all, to the point where it felt like a deus ex machina. This isn’t a first for me with McKillip’s writing, and sometimes it’s possible she’s just being too subtle for me.
Overall, despite those quibbles, I enjoyed the book a lot, and McKillip’s writing is gorgeous. It’s a great read all the same.
Fayke Newes looks like a gimmicky book, and it’s true that it lacks a references section entirely, so it’s difficult to evaluate the depth of the research. What I read tallies with what I already know, but it’s impossible to trust a serious non-fiction book without references or at least some “further reading”, and it raises my eyebrow a little that the book suggests teaching children to distinguish real news from puffed up misinformation… and that book does not itself have the basics I would consider important for evaluating whether a piece of writing is accurate. (Though admittedly I’ve fallen into this trap myself, and need to start adding sources on my science blog posts.)
Taking it with a pinch of salt, though, it’s an interesting survey of the press vs power — the media vs the mighty, in the other alliteration it uses a lot — from Henry VIII to Trump. It discusses how the press have clashed with governments in the past, discussing how the media has made and broken politicians… and how they’ve been complicit in hiding things from the people during situations such as wartime. This is pretty much the main theme of the book: is the press speaking truth about power to inform the people, or aligning with it in order to deceive them (regardless of the intent behind the compliance)?
It’s odd, given that the book ends with a paean to a long history of marvellous unbiased reporting, that mostly the incidents it mentions sound very much to me like the press is mostly biased and prone to falling in with the wishes of the rich and powerful. Taylor suggests that unbiased, well-trained reporters are going to save us in this age of misinformation — in the concluding chapter of a book with example after example of the press being owned by the rich and dictated by their demands, or cheerfully complying with government bans to send home encouraging untruths during wartime, etc, etc.
I think we do need some well trained and unbiased reporters we can trust to tell us the facts. I’m not convinced by his arguments into believing that those reporters exist, or rather that when people with that ambition do exist, they have a platform and are able to tell us a damn thing people with power don’t want us to know.
Interesting book, but has several blind spots about the implications of its own content.
Good morning, folks! It’s been a good week for finally catching up on the reviews I’ve needed to write for a while; I’m really getting somewhere! And it felt like a good week for reading, even though I finished fewer books than I thought.