WWW Wednesday

Posted 22 August, 2018 by Nikki in General / 6 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 A History of Ancient Egypt Volume 2 by John RomerWhat are you currently reading?

Most actively, the second volume of John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt. I’m up to a lot of discussion of hieroglyphs in tombs now, which is kind of fascinating, and Romer has a quite refreshing pragmatic view of Egyptian society instead of seeing it as totally mystical and magical — he talks about some of the rituals being part of the state and as such, more secular than we imagine, because it’s to do with supply and so on. I’m not explaining it very well (it’s late and I’ve been travelling all day as I write this ready to go up in the morning!), but it’s really interesting.

I’ve also finally picked up Blackout by Mira Grant, and I’m excited to finally find out what happens. I’m hoping for a particular reunion in the next 50 pages or so (I know it does happen because spoilers, but not when!) so… eeeh.

Cover of Moral Tribes by Joshua GreeneWhat have you recently finished reading?

Moral Tribes, by Joshua Greene. The most interesting thing about this is that it’s a defence and elucidation of utilitarianism than does deal with a lot of the reflexive dislikes I have about utilitarianism, while acknowledging that it’s not necessarily the perfect value system — just one that enables us to answer most of our moral conundrums in the real world.

Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha WellsWhat will you be reading next?

The third Murderbot novella, I think! I’ve finally actually put it on my ereader. I also bought myself one book for my birthday: Seeds of Science by Mark Lynas. It’s about GM crops, which he used to vehemently oppose (including taking physical action to destroy GM crops), and which he’s now in favour of. I think it’ll be fascinating. So I definitely plan to pick that up soon!

What are you reading?

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Review – The Z Murders

Posted 21 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Z Murders by J. Jefferson FarjeonThe Z Murders, J. Jefferson Farjeon

J. Jefferson Farjeon has a way with setting the atmosphere of a book that I can’t help but love. The first page of each of his books got me right away — and not in the same way, either. There’s something in the way he can describe a scene, and his mysteries quickly take over, clever and strange. The only thing I’d say I don’t fall in love with is the romance: you can see it coming a mile off, and it’s the obvious two people, and you know it’s going to end with marriage.

That aside, The Z Murders works really well at the suspense throughout. Sometimes the main character is just so stupid it makes me want to bash him over the head (sure, let’s not tell the police everything when there’s an indiscriminate killer on the loose!), but it kind of works, and the plot would be a bit stuck without it. This is, I believe, one of the earliest serial killer novels — although it’s not quite the stereotypical mentally ill killer who does it on a whim. The antagonist does have a reason and an end in mind… although that reason does still seem unhinged.

Overall, Farjeon’s books are a pleasure, and I’m sorry I’ve only got Mystery in White left to read of the British Library reissues. The Ben the Tramp books don’t seem quite my thing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Study in Honor

Posted 20 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Study in Honor by Claire O'DellA Study in Honor, Claire O’Dell

Oh man, what to make of this? I love so many things about it: the casually queer main character, the fact that it’s a Sherlock Holmes retelling/homage with female Holmes and Watson, the fact that they’re also black, all the references to the books they’re reading (Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Martha Wells — all names I know, treated as classics). I enjoyed the characterisation of Janet, her sense of duty and honour, her dedication to finding the truth, her unwillingness to be jerked around.

At other times, though, I felt like I didn’t quite know what was happening. A little too much was held back from the reader, so I didn’t follow the leaps to understand exactly what Sara was up to. Janet’s a heck of a smart cookie too, and she left me behind in her understanding of Sara, who is just — man, I’d just want to kick her all the time for being insufferable, and I can’t quite understand the closeness that grows up between the two. Mind you, that goes for the original Sherlock and Watson too, in many ways.

In terms of being a Sherlock Holmes retelling, it isn’t quite. There’s a lot else going on, and a lot more focus on the war-time issues that are affecting their society. It’s more inspired by and referencing Conan Doyle than really using his characters or situations. Janet isn’t John; Sara isn’t Sherlock. They’re their own people, and very much so.

I wasn’t always convinced by the political background. It references recent events like Trump becoming president, and then talks about them being quite a ways in the past and things having been better again… only to describe a situation that sounds very much like current politics, only with more technology (but not quite enough technology to make me believe that it had been a long time). It was very relevant and topical, but I couldn’t fit it all together in my head.

That might very well be a case of it being me and not the book, and even with my quibbles above, I tore through the book and enjoyed it. Janet’s a good person, struggling with various issues but trying to do her best — not only for her own sake, but to do her best ethically, which makes her exactly the kind of character that attracts me. I’d read more of Janet and Sara’s adventures, for sure. My rating feels a little unfair, if it was a case of it’s-me-not-you, but this is another of those rare cases where I kind of wish I used half-stars, just to denote my on-the-fence-ness. I enjoyed the book a lot, but I’m not sure how it’ll stick with me and whether it’ll improve or fall apart as I turn it over in my brain.

Rating: 3/5

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Discussion: Half Stars

Posted 20 August, 2018 by Nikki in General / 8 Comments

It’s come up a couple of times lately when I’ve rated a book — I experience a fleeting wish for half stars. I used to be pretty active in the Goodreads Feedback Group, and that was perennial plea: give us half stars! And I don’t really actually get it, most of the time, if I’m honest. I mean, the Goodreads rating system goes like this:

5 stars: it was amazing
4 stars: I really liked it
3 stars: I liked it
2 stars: it was OK
1 star: terrible

I can’t remember if that’s the exact wording or not, but you get the gist. Now I don’t really see how that leaves room for intermediates (unless you’re just not using the scale at all, but then you can do whatever you like anyway and state that you’re awarding half stars in your review). Making it more granular makes it harder to decide, for me at least — and yet the cry was always, “well, I need half stars because I can’t decide between four and five!” To me, I don’t see how that helps: now you have more stars and they have ambiguous meanings (“I half really liked it!”) and surely that could lead to infinite regression. Quarter stars, eighth stars, sixteenth stars…

Nah, I’ll stick to full stars. If I was rating something to suggest whether a publisher should pick it up, maybe there’d be more need for precision. But it’s not like the ratings are actually precise anyway: how many times can you say you liked two books exactly the same?

I just don’t get it, I guess. A simple five star scale is enough for me in terms of giving a sense of where I am on the continuum — and having the stars weighted towards the positive end makes sense, too, because it’s not as important to know how much someone disliked a book as how much someone liked a book.

Probably this is all just me, but hey, now you know why I don’t use half-stars and rarely talk about wanting to use them: if I do, I really am on the fence, and usually it’s because I think a book deserves a higher score for technical merit, but I didn’t like it. (And all my star ratings are based on liking, so giving some things four stars is just lying, no matter how technically brilliant I think they are.)

So how do you rate books? Do you have a system, or do you go with your gut?

And hey, happy birthday to me!

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Review – Delusions of Gender

Posted 19 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia FineDelusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

The main takeaway from this book is never to trust what people think studies say. Always read the study and look at the data yourself if you really want your opinion to be based on fact. Once you dig into it, you’ll find people making the weirdest assumptions or failing to account for their own bias. Fine mentions study after study that have been overinterpreted and misinterpreted due to faulty premises in the whole experimental set-up. I wouldn’t suggest that you take Fine’s word for it: even though she points out some fallacies, no doubt she falls into some of her own. That’s the nature of humans, and that’s why peer-reviewed and replicated science is so important.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff discussed and she makes her points clearly. It mostly accords with what I understand about differences between sexes, and overall I found myself nodding a lot (probably a sign you should also treat anything I say about gender difference with caution — I have strong pre-formed opinions that are already fairly in line with Fine’s). I found her entertaining, as well as clear, which is always a plus in a pop-science book as long as it doesn’t go too far.

If nothing else, if you want to dig into the topic this book is good for context, and has a wealth of notes and sources you can follow up. If you do believe that there’s an in-built difference between the sexes for biological reasons, you might find Fine a bit too stringently against the evidence on your side, which she spends a lot of time dismantling. That might be a bit infuriating for you, so if you’re just looking for the facts, go straight to the source.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Think Again

Posted 18 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Think Again: How To Reason And Argue by Walter Sinnott-ArmstrongThink Again: How To Reason and Argue, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

I always meant to take the Coursera class this is based on, but I never quite got round to it, so when I saw it’d been made into a book, well, that seemed likely to be a format that would work for me (and wait for me to get round to it, though as it happened, it didn’t have to wait long). I think it does have some good suggestions and some good analysis of ways to argue, but there are a couple of things I find difficult.

One is the claim that the world is increasingly polarised and things were better, people were more polite, in ye olde days of yore. Sure, it’s very clear that the discourse has changed, and Sinnott-Armstrong does have the receipts to show that we are more polarised in terms of our political view. On the other hand, I have a hard job seeing that as just a symbol of our current times: countries have been split by civil war before. People haven’t always been more polite or known how to argue or how to disagree civilly, and maybe the less-polarised times he’s holding up as a better time had their own problems (like people feeling unable to express their opinions, perhaps even feeling unsafe to do so, in the cases of a lot of minorities).

The other thing is the way Sinnott-Armstrong pushes always being civil, always giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. On the one hand, it feels like the right thing — I would love more civility in debates. But there are some views which are legitimised by being engaged with, and there are some things that are indefensible. Now it’s true that he does say that it’s not always the time to argue, but it really wasn’t clear to me that he understood the position his insistence on civility and hearing both sides would put some people in: debating with someone who believes that it’s simply a fact that they and everyone like them should be cleansed from the world, and asking them why, charitably reframing their argument… Ew. No. It comes across as very “good people on both sides”, and it’s not true.

Perhaps it’s a fault of it being a rather short book and limited space, but given he’s constantly framing the issue in terms of the political divide in the US, I wonder. I don’t feel that he quite gets out of it by simply stating that sometimes it isn’t the right time to argue. Maybe it’s just a matter of saying that you just can’t argue productively with some people/views, and he’s automatically discounting those right away. It didn’t feel like it, though, with some of his examples.

The book did make me want to try debating more instead of constantly either passing arguments by or dismissing people as too biased to bother. I do think it could be pretty useful when both parties are willing to argue in good faith. I doubt it’ll be an antidote to political polarisation right now, though, for most people — I think for many people, the other side (whichever that is) just isn’t willing to talk anymore. There’s too much at stake, and it’s too exhausting.

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly roundup

Posted 18 August, 2018 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

Good morning, all! It’s been a heck of a week, but hey, since we last spoke I’ve signed a contract on a flat for me and my wife, I’ve started sorting out getting some furniture in so we can actually live there, and I’ve aaaalllllmost finished my dissertation. And then on Monday, it’s my birthday! The last birthday of my 20s, in fact (and yet I still don’t feel like an adult).

Before the books, I’m still away from the bunnies (only for a few more days!), so here’s Breakfast enjoying his castle before it’s gone (we’re not moving it with us; it’d fall apart), and a pic of both Breakfast and Hulk, both demanding grooming from each other at the same time (that’s how bunnies roll).

And now we’re onto the non-fiction section of my recent hauls! Hold on to your hats.


Cover of The Spartans by Paul Cartledge Cover of Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge cover of Praetorian by Guy de la Bedoyere

To Be a Machine by Mark O'Connell Cover of 4th Rock from the Sun by Nicky Jenner Cover of Swearing is Good For You by Emma Byrne

Cover of The Human Planet by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin Cover of Think Again: How To Reason And Argue by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong Cover of Think Like An Anthropologist by Matthew Engelke

Books finished this week:

Cover of The Regional Office is Under Attack Cover of Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg Cover of Think Like An Anthropologist by Matthew Engelke Cover of Rosemary & Rue by Seanan McGuire

Cover of Think Again: How To Reason And Argue by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong Cover of A Study in Honor by Claire O'Dell Cover of Ancestral Journeys by Jean Manco Cover of Circe by Madeline Miller

Reviews posted this week:

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk. I feel like I should’ve liked this more, but I was left a little bit lukewarm by some aspects, particularly the romance. It’s sweet, but I wanted more substance. 3/5 stars
The Masked City, by Genevieve Cogman. For a second book in a series, I think this is really strong and keeps all the best things about the series going strong. 4/5 stars
Swearing is Good For You, by Emma Byrne. Lots of information — really fucking interesting, actually. 4/5 stars
Dreadful Company, by Vivian Shaw. It lived up to how much I enjoyed the first book, and I found myself really gulping it down. 4/5 stars
The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales. I feel like I missed something. What was the point? It feels like it just peters out. It’s a fun enough read, but it doesn’t answer many of the questions you’ll have on finishing it. 2/5 stars
Death of an Airman, by Christopher St John Sprigg. Not my favourite in this series of reissues: there’s something dry and characterless about it, from my point of view. 2/5 stars
Think Like An Anthropologist, by Matthew Engelke. A bit unfocused and not sure of what it’s trying to do, with some interesting bits. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Who are reviews for? Other readers? The authors? Publishers? In the end, I feel like it’s “whoever I damn well say it is”.
WWW Wednesday. The weekly update on what I’m reading, in which I’m reading too much at once (as always).

Out and about:

NEAT science: Do sunbeds cause cancer? I really did see that as a headline in the Daily Mail (sorry, my parents take it). The answer is yes (and I do explain why, if you’ve always wondered!).
Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘Strange Heroes’. A short story in which a superhero called Flechette saves one woman, which did not go where I expected when I started writing it.

How’s your week been? Any exciting news? Any exciting books?

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Review – Think Like An Anthropologist

Posted 17 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Think Like An Anthropologist by Matthew EngelkeThink Like An Anthropologist, Matthew Engelke

This book is less “how to think like an anthropologist” and more “how do some anthropologists think, and what do other anthropologists think about that”, and so on. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it goes into the history of anthropology and various examples and at times it just seems to get lost a bit. If the primary aim is to give a bit of context around anthropology and suggest how it’s relevant to everyday life, I think it succeeds in some ways, but it’s not always clear what exactly it is trying to do. At times it seems like it’s going to avoid anecdotes like “x culture thinks y” and what anthropology thinks about those, and the next it delves right in.

It’s not without interest, but I couldn’t keep my mind on following the thread at times. Possibly that means something’s wrong with my mind (or at least the way I in particular think), but history shows I’m generally pretty good at following a well put-together argument through a book, so maybe it’s the book. Regardless, while I had fun with some aspects of it, I don’t think it’s a great book.

Rating: 3/5 

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Review – Death of an Airman

Posted 16 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Death of an Airman by Christopher St John SpriggDeath of an Airman, Christopher St John Sprigg

I didn’t like this as much as most of the other British Library Crime Classics, and I can’t put my finger on why, really. It wasn’t worse than them in any palpable well, and probably better than one or two, and I rather liked the Bishop as a character. Perhaps it was a certain feeling of inevitability — having read Kerry Greenwood’s (obviously more recent) Cocaine Blues and Dorothy L. Sayers contemporary Murder Must Advertise, certain things seemed immediately obvious.

Mind you, when I say I liked the Bishop… after the opening of the story, he wasn’t much of a character; none of them were, really. Maybe that was my problem: it felt more like a puzzle than anything at times, and the two Inspectors were pretty indistinguishable (actually, were they both Inspectors? the details are slipping away already).

It’s an interesting read as part of an overall revisit of the Golden Age, and it’s not bad, but this is not one of the more surprising and absorbing of the series of reissues. I’m not in a hurry to read anything else by Christopher St John Sprigg, even if they republish one of his other works.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Regional Office is Under Attack!

Posted 15 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Regional Office is Under AttackThe Regional Office is Under Attack! Manuel Gonzales

Hm. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I found some parts of it quite interesting — like, I’d love to know what the hell is up with Sarah’s arm and then her foot and then, well, that’s spoilers. And I found it quite a fast read, too. But the narration drove me a little nuts: it’s rather stream-of-consciousness, and things keep repeating, or thoughts don’t quite seem to finish. Or you get through a long paragraph and then realise it was all hypotheticals and the character has yet to act at all.

I’d love to know a bit more of the background stuff, really: Oyemi, and what was going on there; why any of these powers and people existed; what’s going on with Sarah, because that was creepy and weird and fascinating. It feels like a mash-up of superhero/sci-fi tropes that doesn’t quite go anywhere, leaving you not even knowing which side to pick. It was fun enough to read, but at the end, I’m left staring a bit blankly, and I don’t think I could really explain why any of it happened. It just… peters out, boom, the end. I don’t get it.

Rating: 2/5

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