Stacking the Shelves

Posted 26 August, 2017 by Nikki in General / 21 Comments

I am back with the wife and the bunnies! And soon I’m off to Canada. I don’t know how much I’ll be around there, so there may not be a weekly roundup/STS post, but I have reviews scheduled to go up as usual.

Received to review:

Cover of Shadowblack by Sebastien de Castell

Yay! I only recently read Spellslinger, so I was glad to get this now.

Birthday presents:

Cover of The Hidden Life of Trees Cover of Scientific Babel by Michael Gordin Cover of Priam's Gold by Caroline Moorhead Cover of Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Pappagiani

Cover of Striding Folly by Dorothy L. Sayers Cover of The Wimsey Family Cover of Castles by Marc Morris

I actually got almost the full set of Peter Wimsey books in these new editions like Striding Folly, all matching, but I’m not listing them as new books because there’s so many, and because I’ve read most of them many a time!

As you see, it’s quite a mix. I picked all of them myself, so I can’t blame anyone else’s weird taste…

Books I bought:

Cover of Universal by Brian Cox Cover of Inferior by Angela Saini Cover of The Lost City of Z by David Grann Cover of How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

Cover of The Genius of Birds Cover of Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee Cover of Nyxia by Scott Reintgen Cover of Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

Cover of Abaddon's Gate by James S. A. Corey Cover of Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

I swear, there were sales.

I’d say this is my last acquisition for a while, but I specifically saved up some money for a little book spree while visiting the in-laws in Calgary…

Books read this week:

Cover of Leonardo by Michael White Cover of Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Pappagiani Cover of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee Cover of A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley Cover of The Wimsey Family

Cover of Starlings by Jo Walton Cover of A Rare Book of Cunning Device by Ben Aaronovitch Cover of Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller Cover of How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

Four stars to… pretty much all of these. Three stars to Mask of Shadows, though.

Reviews posted this week:

Life on the Edge, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili. The idea of quantum biology scares me a little, since I’d rather keep quantum out of biology… but this book makes it seem pretty manageable. 4/5 stars
The Vaccine Race, by Meredith Wadman. A lot of stuff I didn’t know about the development of vaccines! 4/5 stars
Just Six Numbers, by Martin Rees. A bit out of date now, but still worth a read and pretty clear for someone not in the field. 3/5 stars
Mapping the Interior, by Stephen Graham Jones. Creepy stuff, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but it’s definitely effective. 3/5 stars
Babylon, by Paul Kriwaczek. What is it about books about Mesopotamia that they fall prey to total lack of sourcing…? 1/5 stars
The Fire’s Stone, by Tanya Huff. A reread, and it’s still fun. 4/5 stars
A Pocketful of Crows, by Joanne Harris. Weaves together a whole bunch of interesting stories into a whole. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. The usual update.
Experiment results: My mood does correlate with how much I read! Nobody who reads my book blog is surprised, but hey, here’s the results of the little study I did on myself over on my science blog. Plus bonus maths! Now doesn’t that sound tempting?

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Review – A Pocketful of Crows

Posted 25 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne HarrisA Pocketful of Crows, Joanne M. Harris

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 19th October 2017

A Pocketful of Crows is based on one of the Child ballads — specifically, ‘The Brown Girl‘. I have to say, I was pleased to see a retelling that isn’t based on one of the most well known stories or songs. The Child ballads are a huge resource of stories, some of which totally need retelling to make proper sense of them, but people often go for retelling the same stories over and over again. I haven’t seen anyone play with ‘The Brown Girl’ before, and it’s refreshing.

Joanne Harris’ writing has a lovely clarity to it; this book is just a dream to read, with a strong narrative voice. The things that frustrated me are things that frustrate me about the ballad as well — how does the girl not realise her lover’s insincere? Harris manages to make me believe it at times, but I still find it frustrating that she’s so naive. Mind you, it also makes sense, given the extra narrative Harris draws in: the story of Mother, Maiden, Crone. I love the way she weaves the ballad into that shape and makes it more than it is on the surface.

Definitely enjoyable, and I have a feeling the physical copy is going to be gorgeous.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Fire’s Stone

Posted 24 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Fire's Stone by Tanya HuffThe Fire’s Stone, Tanya Huff

It’s been ages since I first read this, but I’ve been meaning to get round to rereading it for ages, and I’m glad I finally did. The world itself isn’t particularly distinctive: wandering peoples, oppressive clans, magic which requires detachment from the world, royalty and court intrigue… but the characters are what make it shine for me. Chandra, Aaron and Darvish each have their faults, but together they make up a surprisingly strong team, compensating for each other’s faults — and not just easily or naturally, but by working at it and learning to rely on one another. Each has their own sadnesses and goals, and gradually they learn to come together and deal with it.

The relationship between Chandra and the other two is as important as their romantic relationship with each other; she’s not just a woman in the way of the guys getting together, as some people seem prone to viewing women in queer stories. Chandra is just as integral to their strength as either of the men.

I think the process of dealing with Darvish’s alcoholism is also well done. The reasons he drinks, and the reasons he stops; the way he tries to resist it and where he fails. All of it is sensitively done, to my mind, and felt real. Aaron’s struggle with his sexuality is one that is also, unfortunately, real; there’s plenty of people who’ll force themselves to stay in the closet because of fear of what society or particularly their families would say. And Chandra’s determination to remain independent, because attachment might blunt her powers — well, that feels real, too. (Think of the people who complain that a woman will be ‘distracted’ by having a partner and family…)

I enjoyed the book a lot, and it’s also nice that it’s a stand-alone. Not that I wouldn’t mind more of the trio’s adventures, but I feel that it’s unnecessary. The story is complete as a one and done. That’s kind of refreshing in a world of so. many. trilogies.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 23 August, 2017 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 Mask of Shadows by Linsey MillerWhat are you currently reading?

I started Mask of Shadows, by Linsey Miller, on the train, and I think that’s the only thing I’m really actively reading right now. It’s fun, especially because of the genderfluid main character, but it’s very much like Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass, in a lot of ways. Also a touch of The Hunger Games.

What have you recently finished reading?Cover of Starlings by Jo Walton

I just finished Jo Walton’s Starlings on the train today; most of the stories I hadn’t read before, and I hadn’t spent much time on the poetry before either, so that was nice. And last night I read The Wimsey Family, which is a short book collecting some of Sayers’ speculations about Lord Peter’s family through the ages. I like the fact that she thought it all through more than actually reading it, but it was still fun.

Cover of Caliban's War by James S.A. CoreyWhat will you read next?

I should get to Caliban’s War, which is one of my book club reads for this month. Come to that, I really need to get to it, since I’m probably not really going to be online at the end of the month. Canada trip, ho!

What are you reading at the moment?

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Review – Babylon

Posted 23 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Babylon by Paul KriwaczekBabylon, Paul Kriwaczek

Not that long ago, I abandoned Gwendolyn Leick’s book Mesopotamia because of the overwrought sentences and the weird, unsourced assertions, like this:

“Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memory of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.”

And yet, I pick this up, and in the second chapter…:

“Remembered too was the Apsu, the sacred lake from which [a god] emerged, referenced by a basin of fresh water installed in every later Mesopotamian temple — and perhaps also, long after, still remember in the Wudu, or washing, pool of the Islamic mosque and maybe even in the baptismal font of the Christian church.”

There’s no source in the further reading for this. I know that much of what we think we know about Mesopotamia must be speculative, but this repeated assertion leaves me with so many questions. It’s not my area, really, but I can’t help but want to point out that fresh water is easy to conceptualise as sacred because it’s so necessary to human life. By this point in the book, maybe two solid archaeological finds have been referenced, along with a handful of later texts. In the same way, Krizwaczek links the Virgin Mary to the goddess Inanna via Inanna’s symbol of the cow shed:

“The Queen of Heaven of the Christian church would one day give birth to her baby saviour in a distant but direct descendant of the mother-goddess’s cow-byre.”

This feels more like imaginative recreation than history. It’s all very pretty to read, but I’m wary of these links. English literature makes such claims of links between literature which the authors never thought of themselves; sometimes the link is elegant and pretty and makes sense, and yet means absolutely nothing, because it wasn’t actually really made in the author’s mind. So too, perhaps, with religion. I’d at least like to see some solid references; even popular history has room for sources and referencing, even if in a supplementary chapter 90% of readers don’t look at.

The book is pleasant enough to read, but marred by the fact that I don’t know how much credence to give to any of it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Mapping the Interior

Posted 22 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Mapping the InteriorMapping the Interior, Stephen Graham Jones

I don’t know what to say about Mapping the Interior. It’s weird and creepy and it got under my skin. It does involve one character who is disabled being treated fairly badly, including by family, so if you’d prefer to avoid that, then it’s important to know going in. The narrative isn’t exactly okay with it or promoting it, but… I don’t know, in a way it does. The ending, mostly, is what made me feel iffy about it.

It’s also an interesting exploration of Native American community and identity, on which I don’t even know how to begin to comment.

It’s powerful and, yes, that word visceral that gets thrown around. And I’m finding myself otherwise at a loss to describe it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Just Six Numbers

Posted 21 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Just Six Numbers by Martin ReesJust Six Numbers, Martin Rees

This is a little out of date now, and some of the predictions are almost adorably wrong at this point — that we would understand dark matter and dark energy, and that we’d have a unified Theory of Everything explaining how all the forces we know of are tied together. But this book is still useful in explaining, in clear and simple terms, why exactly people say the universe has been “fine-tuned”. It’s not the most in-depth treatment out there, but I think it’d be very good for getting to grips with the basics.

In summary: there are several numbers underlying the universe which are constant, and they are very precisely definable down to multiple decimal places… and if you change them in any way, you make our existence as we know it impossible. There are problems with this, of course; life doesn’t have to look exactly like us to be viable, and of course we’re in a world that is perfectly tuned for us to exist. That doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything. I know people often use it to support the idea of multiple universes, all varying slightly — but something can be made just once and be utterly unique and turn out to be perfect for something, even if you don’t make multiples.

This is, honestly, why I find physics so frightening. It’s all so terribly unlikely, and we don’t understand it, and against all this it becomes very apparent, to my mind, how small and alone and temporary each human being is.

It’s also fascinating, even for those who prefer biology as a science, like one you could probably name…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Vaccine Race

Posted 20 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Vaccine Race by Meredith WadmanThe Vaccine Race, Meredith Wadman

I really enjoyed this, and I read it at a very opportune moment — at exactly the same time as I had my lab skills residential school in Milton Keynes. The techniques described were mostly not the same, but there was some crossover, and it was great to think about how I might one day contribute to the same science, if I go that route. My only quibbles with this book were with the sometimes unfocused feel; there’s a lot of scientists which it tracks quite closely, and sometimes I wondered how relevant all of the details are.

It’s also got a bit of a divide between the WI-38 cells, which were used to make vaccines, and the vaccines themselves; there’s a lot of focus on the cell line, and sometimes that wasn’t directly relevant to the vaccines. It’s interesting stuff, particularly when it comes to the commercialisation of science, but it didn’t always feel like it fit with the story of the vaccine race. In that sense, it sometimes felt like two almost-separate books. It’s also odd because Wadman clearly champions Hayflick, the creator of the cell line, despite his rather indefensible actions — dismissing them as being due to ‘stubbornness’. Sorry, but if you have a legal contract and you’ve agreed to it, you can’t just forget about it. If you object to the way things are being sorted out, you don’t abscond with the cell line — you get a lawyer.

It doesn’t sound like Hayflick meant any harm, though I am conscious of Wadman’s bias there, and it’s probably true that he deserved better from the use of his cell line — but even so, he was not in the right.

Other than that, there are also some very worthwhile discussions of the ethics of vaccine production. They were often tested on vulnerable people who couldn’t consent, and the WI-38 cell line came originally from the lung cells of an aborted foetus. It’s worth remembering these facts, even with the undoubted good done by the availability of vaccines.

Definitely recommend this one.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Life on the Edge

Posted 19 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Life on the Edge by Joe Al-Khalili and Johnjoe MacFaddenLife on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Jim Al-Khalili, Johnjoe McFadden

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now, though also somewhat afraid of the idea — quantum biology?! Do y’all have to bring quantum (which I don’t understand) into biology (which I mostly do understand)? How rude! But this book is really clear about the concepts it describes, and there’s nothing too mind-boggling in it. Sometimes, in fact, the patience the authors had with explaining a concept I already understood was a little frustrating — but will open the book up to a bigger audience.

Do they have a point? Yes, I think so. I’m not sure it’s proven that quantum effects have a major impact on all the biological processes they discuss, but it seems pretty clear from the research they reference that quantum effects are there and might even solve some of the problems we still have in biology.

More research is needed, though — and this is one field you won’t find me trying to join, I think! It’s fascinating stuff, but I’m not a quantum fan.

Rating: 4/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 19 August, 2017 by Nikki in General / 18 Comments

Good morning! Tomorrow is my birthday, so I’m getting a couple more books then… but after that, I swear I’m toning down my hauls for a while.

Since I’m still at my parents’, here’s a bunny pic! Yes, this is Hulk. Yes, that’s her bag of hay — the one we use to replenish her ball of hay, which is the hay she’s actually meant to eat.

Hulk (bunny) bodily in her bag of hay

I recognise that furtive-looking butt…



Cover of The Zoo by Isobel Charman Cover of Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

Cover of Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw Cover of The Regional Office is Under Attack Cover of Masquerade by Laura Lam

Ah, Waterstones, I missed you.

Received to review:

Cover of Starlings by Jo Walton Cover of The Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock

Yaaaay! I love Jo Walton’s work, so I am excited for this. I’ve also been eyeing An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors for a while, so I’m excited to get to that, too.

Read this week:

Cover of The Ghoul King by Guy Haley Cover of The Button Box by Lynn Knight Cover of The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach Cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

Cover of Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb Cover of Defy by Sara Larson Cover of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff by Christopher Moore Cover of Machiavelli by Michael White Cover of The Warrior Princess by K.M. Ashman

Five stars to: The Carpet Makers.
Four stars to: The Ghoul King, The Button Box, The Hammer and the Cross, Machiavelli, Assassin’s Apprentice.
Two stars to: Defy, Lamb, The Warrior Princess.

Reviews posted this week:

The Martian, by Andy Weir. Still a lot of fun on a reread. Such snark! 4/5 stars
The Spellslinger, by Sebastien de Castell. This is a fun coming of age story that doesn’t go the typical, easy way of fantasy novels that feature misfits who can’t use their magic. 4/5 stars
Wicked Plants, by Amy Stewart. More for flicking through than reading exhaustively. 3/5 stars
The Real Lives of Roman Britain, by Guy de la Bedoyere. A good attempt at bringing the Britons of Roman Britain alive. It falls a little short for me, because we have so little information. 3/5 stars
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. A reread I thoroughly enjoyed, although aspects seem a bit too… obvious to me now. 4/5 stars
Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy L. Sayers. Another reread of a favourite. 4/5 stars
The Glass Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg. Ceony drives me a bit mad, but overall I still had fun. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

Top Ten Tuesday. My last regular Top Ten Tuesday post, this features a top ten of past top ten posts.

How are you doing?

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