Discussion: A Fast Read

Posted 27 August, 2018 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

I can’t remember which author it is, but there’s someone on Twitter who gets deeply offended whenever someone says, “Hey, I found your book a really fast read, totally unputdownable!” They completely take it as an insult, because they don’t want to be the kind of author who writes books that might be classed as easy to read.

Authors: please don’t do this. If I read your book fast, it is a compliment, and you’re just willfully taking offence if you decide that it isn’t. I’m a fast reader anyway, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t take in what I’m reading or appreciate your subtleties. How fast I read a book is much less important than how long it stays with me afterwards: there are books which take me months to read and feel like a total chore — do you really want to be one of those?! Because if your book is one of those, I can almost guarantee you… I don’t like it that much.

(There are some exceptions, mood reading and such. But in general…)

Now, there is a time and a place for close-reading. 1) A literature degree, 2) understanding how something is put together because it’s just that fascinating, and 3) you enjoy doing it. I’ve done close-reading for all three reasons — it’s not an impossible thing to hope that someone might do at some point — but most readers aren’t interested in doing that, and most of us just read at our own speed, and savour the book (or not) in our own way.

It’s a compliment, I swear. Chill.

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Review – The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet

Posted 26 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

I decided to reread this (and the second book) before I read Record of a Spaceborn Few, because they’re lovely books and why not? So I sank back into this one gratefully. I think I liked it more this time (not that I disliked it before), and I really got to appreciate the characters and the way they interact, the found family they make, warts and all. (Sorry, Corbin, but you kind of are.) It helped to be really invested in the crew right from the start, instead of feeling my way with them, and it also lessens the feeling that it’s leaning a bit too hard on Firefly (Kizzy = Kaylee in many, many ways).

Even so, there’s still a part about 60% of the way through the book where it went from “mildly fun” to “completely hooked and rooting for these people and oh goodness please let nothing bad happen to them”. This time, I actually cried through several parts near the end, because it really works — we’re not just told these people are close, but you feel it too.

I do also enjoy all the aliens, and the way they actually feel both like aliens and like plausible friends, in many cases. Sissix is undeniably not human, but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine anyone as a better friend for Ashby — to me, that’s a difficult road to walk, making aliens alien enough while also making a crew that fit together as well as this. And Dr Chef might’ve been my favourite, this time, with the way he cares for everybody, but again… definitely alien. There’s attention to detail in setting up several rather different alien cultures, and even different cultures within humanity.

All in all, a very fun time was had by all, as I fully expected. I do kinda wish the second (and third) books followed the Wayfarer as well. I don’t want to be done with Ashby and company.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Ancestral Journies

Posted 25 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Ancestral Journeys by Jean MancoAncestral Journeys, Jean Manco

This is a multidisciplinary synthesis of all kinds of information about the populations of Europe and how they got here. There have been trends in understanding the movement of peoples that anyone dipping into the topic will know about, largely the great argument over migration and whether it’s ever really occurred or not. I think Manco’s book shows that, in the end, it’s the middle road that’s the answer: sometimes there has been movement, sometimes not; usually, there’s been some movement, whether of traders or invaders.

The book presents tons and tons of evidence, drawing from genetic analysis, written records, archaeological remains and linguistic traces. No doubt some of the details are wrong here and there, but I strongly suspect that the overall sweep of it is a good picture of how Europe was populated, and how populations interacted and lived together. It’s quite attractively presented, too: it’s printed in colour throughout, with colours used to good effect to produce heatmaps and all sorts illustrating the density of certain genetic markers or linguistic groups.

It’s also, to my mind, a pretty easy read. I did get a little lost at times when it fell to listing the markers that characterise this or that population, but for the most part Manco remembers to keep all the evidence in mind, and not simply regurgitate strings of haplogroup identifications. She also explains how the genetic analysis techniques used work, which helps — not in enormous detail, so nothing new to me, but enough to contextualise the work she’s presenting.

Interesting stuff, and while I wouldn’t call it a pageturner as such, I read it in two days.

Rating: 4/5

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Weekly roundup

Posted 25 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Well hey, guys! It’s been an eventful week here, but as of right now the bunnies are in Britain and my wife has a job in the UK, and I turned 29 safely. And instead of buying books (well, mostly) I bought us a mattress.

Normally I wouldn’t post a pic of the bunnies when I’m actually in the same place as them, but I thought you all might want to admire their new two-storey condo, with spacious living area and a nice and private bedroom. Welcome to Rose Cottage!

And also, shoutout to my wife for being totally badass and getting a job offer within like… three hours of the interview.

In the meantime, here’s some books that I bought or received sometime in the last couple of months but haven’t featured yet!

Received to review:

Cover of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker Cover of War Cry by Brian McClellan

Both of these sound fascinating, so hopefully I’ll get chance to dig in soon in between all the moving stuff!

New non-fiction:

Cover of Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. Ceram Cover of Seeds of Science by Mark Lynas

Gods, Graves and Scholars looks like exactly the kind of general book on archaeology I like to just soak up and relax with, so I’m looking forward to this, even if it’s not the most up to date resource!

New fiction:

Cover of The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White Cover of Austral by Paul McAuley Cover of Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre Cover of At the Table of Wolves by Kay Kenyon

I’ve been meaning to pick up all of these except Austral, and Austral tempted me in a buy-one-get-one-half-price deal in Waterstones. Oops?

Books read this week:

Cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers Cover of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North Cover of Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs Cover of Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene Cover of A History of Ancient Egypt Volume 2 by John Romer

Reviews posted this week:

Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. I wasn’t totally won over by his opinions on the political divides in the world (the US, mostly), but he does write well about how to understand an argument and put one together. 3/5 stars
Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine. A fascinating read, though not (of course) free of bias in its own direction. 4/5 stars
A Study in Honor, by Claire O’Dell. It’s a retelling of Sherlock Holmes with two black women in the lead roles — two queer black women. There’s something awesome about that, no matter what. Actually, in many ways I think this is more a homage than a retelling. Either way, I found it enjoyable but maybe not quite there. 3/5 stars
The Z Murders, by J. Jefferson Farjeon. Not my favourite of his sets of characters, but fun and an early serial killer novel, so interesting on that front too. 4/5 stars
Circe, by Madeline Miller. I enjoyed this a lot, especially because it made me sympathise with Odysseus while not making him some paragon of virtue. 4/5 stars
Rosemary & Rue, by Seanan McGuire. Hindsight is difficult — as a reread, Toby’s (lack of) judgement about people drove me nuts, but it’s still a fascinating world and I muuust read more. 4/5 stars
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, by Gil North. Just… skip this one. Unless you’re titillated by repeated descriptions of sullen women’s breasts — yes, mostly just descriptions of their breasts, including the nipples of a corpse. Gross, thanks. 1/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Half Stars. About how I rate books!
WWW Wednesday. The mid-week update on what I’ve been reading and what I’m going to read. Usually about as accurate as the 10-day weather forecast.

Out and about:

Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘Opportunity Only Knocks Once (Cats, However…)’. A silly and hopefully funny short story. And yes, it includes a cat.
NEAT science: Human interbreeding. Scientists have analysed the DNA of some ancient human remains to find that the girl was actually the daughter of two different human subspecies, something that scientists have usually thought unlikely to occur. I explain a bit more about what this means in the post!

So how’re you guys? Anything big and exciting going on for you?

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Review – Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm

Posted 24 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil NorthSergeant Cluff Stands Firm, Gil North

This book is just… kind of gross. If there’s a woman on the page, North is bound to describe her breasts. If she’s anything less than a perfect housewife from the 1800s, she’s a whore and the narrative — and main character — treat her as such. Even the murder victim is described in somewhat less than sympathetic ways: that kind of desperate-for-a-man stereotype for a stalwart police officer to pity when she inevitably comes to grief.

I don’t understand Martin Edwards’ praise for this book in the introduction. The writing style is probably a matter of taste, but it felt clumsy to me, and way too reliant on staccato narration: “This happened. Then that happened. The man was afraid. The woman laughed.” That kind of style. It creates a certain kind of tension at times, but doing it that way for the whole book is just actually kind of boring.

Skip Gil North’s writing, even if you’re collecting the British Library Crime Classics. Ugh.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Rosemary & Rue

Posted 23 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rosemary & Rue by Seanan McGuireRosemary & Rue, Seanan McGuire

I’ve been meaning to reread this for a while, but after persuading my wife to read it and watching her tear through the series, I was ready to jump back in. It’s definitely a fascinating world, weaving together all sorts of fairy lore, and while Toby is stubborn and pigheaded — and ugh, how did she ever trust and sleep with that one particular person? All the warning signs are there in freakin’ neon — she’s also someone who cares, has her own sense of honour and duty, and is willing to do whatever necessary to abide by her promises and obligations.

It’s also interesting seeing the little hints here at the beginning for things revealed in later books: there’s a lot about Toby that just isn’t revealed here, even though when you look at retrospect, there were clues.

I’d forgotten some aspects of the books — like the Luideag’s rather unexpected appearance and attitude — so the refresher was definitely needed. I think An Artificial Night is a better book (I think that’s the third?), but I wouldn’t recommend skipping this one. If you’re not into the style of this one, you probably won’t want to try the other books anyway, as Toby’s voice is much the same (albeit she rolls with the changes in some ways and updates her viewpoints).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Circe

Posted 22 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Circe by Madeline MillerCirce, Madeline Miller

I know The Odyssey pretty well, by necessity: I did Classical Studies for both a GCSE and an A Level. In fact, I got a little sick of Odysseus. Circe obviously isn’t all about Odysseus, and brings in a lot of other sources as well, but I do have to pause to note that it does wonderful things with Odysseus. It manages to give us both the good and the bad in Odysseus, the things that make him an attractive person and the things which mar him, and it really works. I was both invested in his relationship with Circe and in his safety, and yet still horrified at the bad sides of his character. The book also does a great job with Telemachus, making him more than just a chip off the old block: the descriptions of him are lovely, even as you know it’s Circe’s feelings tinting the whole narrative.

The story as a whole does a great job of synthesising the different sources and giving Circe a voice. It reminds me of someone else’s writing, and I can’t quite put my finger on what, but I suspect it’s actually Ursula Le Guin. In fact, the descriptions of Telemachus and the way Circe’s story ends clinch it: something about this book very much reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s work, and that’s a pretty towering compliment.

I’m usually stingy with my five stars, but when I try to think about anything that would make me dock a star with this book, I couldn’t put my finger on anything. It’s not one of my favourites ever that you can pry from my cold dead hands someday, but it’s good and I think Miller’s done an astounding job. I found it engaging and felt like she gave Circe a voice that worked, and I would recommend it to others.

Rating: 5/5

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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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