Review – The Warrior Queen

Posted August 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Warrior Queen by Joanna ArmanThe Warrior Queen, Joanna Arman

Arman’s book promises a lot, offering the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. It comes up rather short, and in part this isn’t the book’s fault: the information on everyone of this era is rather scanty, and women tend to be represented even less than your average big man of the time, even if they turned out to be rulers later in life. Books about these women have to lean heavily on interpreting what the locations of charters and charitable establishments mean, and it doesn’t always make for the most riveting reading.

Nonetheless, most of the book is almost entirely speculative. Æthelflæd may have been taught this, Æthelflæd may have gone here with her father, perhaps Æthelflæd did this… Much of the book is framed by what the women in Æthelflæd’s life were doing (her father, her brother, her husband), right up the point where suddenly she becomes the real protagonist and starts leading men and establishing forts. But I didn’t want a book on Alfred, Æthelstan, Æthelred, etc, etc, etc.

Worse, the book drifts off into pure daydream at times. Mentioning the clasp of a book found in Stafford, the author speculates that it might have belonged to Æthelflæd. There’s no archaeological context given — Arman doesn’t even mention a date given for the clasp! — and it seems that Arman invented this spurious connection out of her own head, just to add spice; I can’t find such an assertion elsewhere. She does have a bibliography, but no detailed footnotes to allow her claims to be followed up, so I’ll give this claim the credence it’s due: none. Now I have to wonder what else Arman has imagined and invented — the coins she mentions, perhaps? The firm dating of forts and towns? To be fair, Arman does make it clear the link is speculative, an ‘I’d like to imagine’, but nonetheless… I have questions.

Finally, the book is atrociously edited. It’s common for entire words to be missing from sentences, sometimes making them nonsensical, and sometimes no doubt just altering the sense of them.

It is a shoddy job, and I cannot recommend it as a source of information, though there are some titbits that you can call entertaining fiction.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Darwin Comes To Town

Posted August 29, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Darwin Comes To Town, Menno Schilthuizen

Darwin Comes to Town examines the action of evolution on urban organisms — the mosquitos of the London Underground, blackbirds worldwide, white-footed mice in LA, bobcats in Hollywood… Is evolution happening because of human cities, and if it is, how does it work? It’s full of examples showing that there is clearly selection at work in the urban environment (a fact nobody should be surprised by), along with an in-depth discussion of one of the classics, Biston betularia, the peppered moth. (If you don’t know that example, basically in areas near industry, a melanic [black] form of the moth began to thrive, and became the dominant form in such areas. Since industry’s impact on the environment has been ameliorated now, things have quickly gone back the other day.)

I found it a fascinating book, though I think it could have been better organised — I have no idea how to find any of the information again, because I can’t recall any clear sections. There’s a lot of good anecdotes, and reference to studies I want to look up, but it is a tad conversational — and prone to falling into reminisence and flavour text about locations.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Within the Sanctuary of Wings

Posted August 28, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie BrennanWithin the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the last of these books, Lady Trent’s last memoir, and it’s a doozy. It delivers on tiny promises made throughout the other books, drawing everything together so it all makes a new kind of sense. I’m a bit baffled by people who think that the plot twist in this book comes out of nowhere and is not in keeping with what has happened before — we’ve been getting clues about this, hints about the importance of the Draconaeans to Isabella’s story even though she’s not all that interested in them. In some ways, I’m surprised I didn’t see this coming more. It fits exactly with what came before.

So what happens in this final novel? Isabella is told of the body of a new sort of dragon, found preserved in ice somewhere entirely unexpected. Naturally, Isabella has to embark on a hare-brained quest to find the body and record the new information it might bring, and Suhail and Tom are along for the ride. Of course they are.

And of course things don’t go entirely to plan. I fear to say too much even at this point, to avoid spoiling the surprise too much for anyone who still wants to experience it anew. Suffice it to say that this turn in Lady Trent’s career is great, and makes perfect sense.

And I cannot wait for the book following her granddaughter. In fact, I’m going to pick that up right now.

Rating: 5/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted August 28, 2019 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 Strange Practice by Vivian ShawI’ve tucked into a reread of Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw, since the third book is coming out in September, and I felt the need for a bit of pure joy. As always, I am greatly entertained by the fact that it treats the idea of a doctor for supernatural creatures seriously; I am delighted by the ghoul on antidepressants and the demon with COPD and… yeah.

I’m also still reading The Gendered Brain, by Gina Rippon. I think Cordelia Fine’s similar book was more readable, somehow, because this one just isn’t sticking in my brain; I had to restart it after a couple of weeks where I’d put it down, because I couldn’t remember the thread of the argument.

Cover of A Little Light Mischief by Cat SebastianWhat have you recently finished reading?

Mmm, what have I recently finished reading? I think the most recent was possibly Turning Darkness into Light, which was wonderful; it may also have been the novella A Little Light Mischief, by Cat Sebastian, which was fun and cute.

I also ditched Townsend’s The Aztecs for somehow managing to be entirely boring, despite talking about a civilisation that is fascinating to me.

Cover of Angel Mage by Garth NixWhat will you be reading next?

I’m not sure. I’m feeling the need for a bit of whim, particularly as we just tidied and that involved a fair amount of rearranging my shelves, thus making me very aware there are books I want to read or reread that I’ve wanted to read or reread for weeks, months, and sometimes years. Whoops. I do think I’ll get to Angel Mage soon, in proper thanks for having been given a proof copy; I’m also intending to get to the next book in the Kate Daniels series soon.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – Late Eclipses

Posted August 27, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuireLate Eclipses, Seanan McGuire

In Late Eclipses, there’s a poisoner on the loose, and there’s little doubt in Toby’s mind that it’s someone from her past — Oleander de Merelands, of course. Throughout the book she leads Toby a merry dance, poisoning her allies and friends, and setting her up to look like the bad guy. Obviously some people are eager to seize on that and chase Toby down as a murderer, while others (the usual suspects) are arrayed beside her and behind her, ready to protect her and commit acts of courage and stupidity to keep her safe.

My main problem with this book was that it felt drawn out painfully by the fact that someone kept hitting Toby with the idiot stick. Things that are obvious to the reader are far from obvious to Toby. I can’t believe someone so trusted by her liege, someone who is an investigator no less, would keep making stupid mistakes like this. It’s not even a matter of trusting the wrong people this time — Toby just puts her head down and starts bulling through the obstacles, instead of using her head the less painful way.

There are some great moments — many of them involving Tybalt — and some payoff from hints we’ve been hearing all along. Amandine makes an appearance, remarkably sane for her. It’s fun, I just feel like about 80 pages could’ve been cut by letting Toby use her brain instead of her skull.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Perihelion Summer

Posted August 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Perihelion Summer by Greg EganPerihelion Summer, Greg Egan

Received to review via Netgalley

Perihelion Summer is a what-if story. What if a pair of black holes passed by the solar system, dragging the planets from their established orbits? What would happen on a warmer Earth, with bigger seasonal variations — variations big enough to make parts of the Earth uninhabitable at certain times of year? The novella follows a group of characters who are all kind of blind, including the protagonist whose name I kept forgetting as soon as I learned it. It’s more of an opportunity to play out the what-if than it is to do any kind of introspection. What if there was a group of people on a floating fish breeding factory in the middle of the ocean? What if they worked as part of a flotilla to move people around the world in these circumstances?

If hard SF is your thing, then this might be more your speed: while I can enjoy an idea-based story, I normally require some relateable characters, and to feel like there’s something I care about at stake. I didn’t feel any emotional connection to any of the characters or situations; I was reading to be finished, I’m afraid. That’s not as bad in a novella as it might be in a novel, but still. Not really one for me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Posted August 25, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction by Alan JacobsThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs

In many ways, I enjoyed reading this 150 page essay on the value of reading, on how to read well (and by well, Jacobs chiefly means “for enjoyment”), on how to get the most out of reading. At the same time, I’m extremely conscious that Jacobs would think me a terrible reader, disapprove deeply of how I read, and despite his belief in the importance of enjoyment and pleasure in reading, is a ginormous snob and doesn’t even know it.

Take, for instance, his advocacy of taking notes while you read. If the book is really worth reading, you’ll need to digest it properly; for that, you should take notes, preferably on the book itself. (Otherwise, you’re not doing it right.) However, when he talks about fantasy and sci-fi novels, he dismisses them (in one fell swoop) as being unworthy of the note-taking approach. That’s not, he says, what they’re for. I think he needs to get his head out of his backside and try Ursula Le Guin, for a start.

He’s very anti-list, anti-planned reading; he holds forth on the importance of whim (or Whim, as he puts it), and yet at the same time denigrates fantasy since Tolkien as being a succession of pale imitators, each with less value than the last. Despite everything he says about encouraging people to read, there’s always that undercurrent of judgemental assumption about what popular literature is, and what it is worth.

He’s not wrong in many of the things he says about how to appreciate a book, how to really internalise it and get the most out of it. I’m way too fast a reader for him: he thinks 1,001 books would take a lifetime to read without leaving any room for anything else, bless his little cotton socks, and he’s a huge advocate of sloooowing doooown and ruminative reading. (Of which I’m capable at even my pace, but you wouldn’t believe it to read this.)

This sounds like damning with faint praise, but I found this book genuinely very readable and even enjoyable. In his advocacy of reading what works for you, and reading in the format that works for you (he’s a fan of ereaders), his enthusiasm is laudable. I just think there’s a beam or two he might want to pluck out of his own eye.

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted August 24, 2019 by Nikki in General / 8 Comments

Good morning, folks! I’m back from Worldcon, and as ever I think I need a holiday to recover from my holiday. (Which I worked through, also as ever, though I did do reduced hours!)

I met some lovely folks, got a couple of books, and also won a proof copy of Garth Nix’s new book. Not bad! I also had my 30th birthday, and though I joked I needed 30 books (one for each year), I only got nine, so I guess nobody should be serving me in a bar… 😀

Books acquired:

Cover of Angel Mage by Garth Nix Cover of A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian Cover of The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall Cover of Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

Cover of A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland Cover of To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers Cover of The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite Cover of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Cover of Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee Cover of The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton Cover of Any Old Diamonds by K.J. Parker Cover of The Quite Nice and Fairly Accurate Good Omens Script Book by Neil Gaiman

Cover of Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox Cover of Symphony in C by Robert Hazen

Almost all fiction, but quite a few wildly different genres there. Just another week on my TBR…

Books read this week:

Cover of The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs Cover of A History of Life in 100 Fossils

Cover of Die Laughing by Carola Dunn Cover of Magic Bleeds by Ilona Andrews Cover of A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian

Reviews posted:

The Pandemic Century, by Mark Honigsbaum. Not revolutionary in any way, but there are definitely new titbits of information here. 3/5 stars
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland. This wasn’t 100% for me, but it’s a fascinating setting. I had some questions about the characters — relationships don’t work like that! 3/5 stars
Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers. This had some of the emotional punch of the first and second book, but it didn’t quite add up to a satisfying story for me. It’s a fascinating exploration of a particular corner of Chambers’ world, though. 3/5 stars
In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan. A lovely instalment of the series, which solves some mysteries and involves a lot of the lovely partnership between Tom and Isabella. 5/5 stars
Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells. Not quite what I hoped for, but a good conclusion for Murderbot nonetheless. Looking forward to the novel! 4/5 stars
This is How You Lose The Time War, by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. It didn’t work for me that well, but you gotta appreciate time-travelling multiple-dimensional lesbians. 3/5 stars
Mistletoe and Murder, by Carola Dunn. Fairly standard for this series, but as always it makes a good cosy mystery. 3/5 stars
Heartstopper, volume 2, by Alice Oseman. It’s just so goddamn cute. 4/5 stars
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black. I was told that this gets better if you hold on to the end, which shakes things up, but… I was so bored. I DNFed it. 1/5 stars
Gene Machine, by Venki Ramakrishnan. I found this disappointing in two ways. 1) The secrets of the ribosome aren’t really unlocked, only the structure. That will tell us a lot more in time, but it doesn’t yet. 2) Ramakrishnan’s obvious antipathy to one particular competitor, of whom he says hardly a kind word that isn’t loaded with begrudging “I’m saying this to be fair, but I don’t really mean it”. She’s a woman; that is now how he treats male scientists. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. The pre-Worldcon roundup…
WWW Wednesday. And this week’s roundup.

So how’s everyone doing? Reading anything good? Got your hands on an awesome book? Share! (The news, not the book. At least not till you’ve read it. I’m not a monster.)

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Review – Gene Machine

Posted August 22, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Gene Machine, Venki Ramakrishnan

Gene Machine is not really about the secrets of the ribosome. It’s rather more an autobiography, mostly but not entirely focusing on Ramakrishnan’s path to solving the structure of the ribosome. Now, as any half-baked biologist knows, the structure of a biological molecule is absolutely integral to its function… a protein’s chemical makeup determines how it will fold, and how it will fold determines whether it has the right pocket for something to bind to, or the right side chain to bind with something else. So I don’t mean to belittle the achievement of finally resolving the structure of the ribosome, but it doesn’t actually reveal that much yet. There is, on this showing, a lot more work to be done to really understand ribosomes. It will be made possible by the work of Ramakrishnan, there’s no denying that.

Still, I’m more interested in that than in the process of taking the ribosome’s photograph, and so I found this book disappointing. It doesn’t help that Ramakrishnan lacks grace when it comes to some fellow scientists, and one scientist in particular. If all he says of Ada Yonath is true, she’s quite a piece of work, lacking in basic politeness to others, willing to steal from competitors to get ahead, and a terrible scientist who cannot accept when she is wrong. However, what emerged for me was a sense of a personal lack of warmth between the two amplifying her perceived faults, and the gossipy way this is passed on makes me think less of Ramakrishnan. He is always gracious to his male competitors, but can never resist revealing a nasty anecdote about Yonath, whether she overran the time for her presentation, left him out of a thank you speech, or allegedly had a student attend one of Ramakrishnan’s lectures to take pictures of his slides. His tone regarding Yonath is disingenuous, a sort of constant damning with faint praise.

Now, maybe she is all the things Ramakrishnan says, but I find it curious she would manage to get a Nobel if so, given the acknowledged politicking involved, along with the requirements of satisfying the committee that your contributions are worthwhile. I’m sure there have been undeserving Nobel prizewinners, and I know there have been prizes awarded for things that actually turned out to be wrong. But still. I don’t think Ramakrishnan’s line on Yonath does him credit.

It is interesting to follow a process of discovery like this, but it can be rather dry and technical — mostly spiced up by those bits of gossip and interpersonal strife. Given that on balance I find Ramakrishnan somewhat less than wholly charming, I wouldn’t wholly recommend this, though if your interest is more in crystallography and the structure of the ribosome than in the function of it, this may be more your thing.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted August 21, 2019 by Nikki in General / 7 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?

Most actively, I’m neck-deep in Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan, the sequel to the Memoirs of Lady Trent series! Audrey is a delight, and I do so adore the way these books showcase the scientific and academic processes — coming from a background of both literature (with a lot of focus on translation) and later science as well, it’s just. Yay!

Cover of Magic Bleeds by Ilona AndrewsWhat have you recently finished reading?

I read Magic Bleeds on our flight back from Worldcon! (Well, half of it; I read the first half before — the flight isn’t that long/I don’t read that fast!) It has some of my pet peeves in fiction (miscommunication) and yet Kate and Curran are so extreme and stupid it ends up just being funny to me.

What will you be reading next?

I don’t know! I still have a crowded TBR for August, and I haven’t read even half of those books yet. I have a bunch of them half-finished, though. I know that the library really wants the book on the Aztecs back (in fact, the lady was reluctant to re-issue it at all) because someone shouldn’t have let me have it (it’s a reference book), so maybe I’ll get on with reading that!

What are you currently reading?

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