Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, Nick Lane
I read this while I was preparing for one of the final exams of my biology degree, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I found it helpful in revising some of the topics (mostly apoptosis!), but also found that knowledge useful in understanding the book itself. To me, it seemed an incredibly clear and well-written account of the role of mitochondria in life and the origin of life, and I didn’t really find any major holes in it based on what I know. If you’ve read The Vital Question, then a lot of the ideas in it aren’t new — but of course, that makes sense, since The Vital Question is a more recent book by the same author.
And since this is pop science, I should add that you don’t need the biology degree to understand it. It might be slower going and less like pleasure reading if you don’t have a solid background in science, but it should work at that level too.
I do roll my eyes a little bit at the title, which is obviously drumming up excitement by sounding provocative and then like a self-help book, but hey, maybe it’s persuaded someone on the fence to pick it up just through sounding a bit unusual for the section it’s in. It’s worth picking up, definitely.
It’s rather weird and jarring to go from the last book into this one focused on someone who isn’t September. The narrator nods to that fact, but really it’s no less infuriating: the last book left September in the lurch and I needed to know. It wasn’t so bad on this reread, but still. Still!
It’s not that Hawthorn isn’t a darling and his companions aren’t excellent and that the depiction of our world through the eyes of Fairylanders isn’t funny and wry and all wonderfully aslant, because all of those things are there. Hawthorn is a darling, his Rules for understanding the world are great, Tam is great. But. September!
Reading it a second time and knowing that, though, and having some more patience with it, I did love all the callbacks to September’s story, the little narrative references and mirrorings. It’s all very clever, in a very typically Valente-ish way, and it’s enjoyable to read it and notice what she’s up to. (And that level of the reading is what makes me think the series had so much to offer older readers as well as young: there’s just so much cleverness to savour.)
But I’m still very glad to get back to September and Ell and Saturday when this book is over.
There is something really sinister and dark about this book. It’s one of those where drug-taking/mental illness really pushes the plot, and it leads to some really gruesome moments. That atmosphere is the best thing about the book, I think: that sense that you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next, because it seems like it could be anything. It’s not very subtle, but it works pretty well.
Of course, I don’t love mysteries which rely on mental illness for their sense of danger and their motives, because the facts are that mentally ill people are more likely to be attacked than to be the attackers, by quite a margin. But it’s a classic trope and this is a classic book, from a less aware time, so while I wouldn’t recommend it if that kind of thing really gets to you, I don’t hold it against it too much in how I enjoyed it.
Mind you, considering I didn’t like the detective that much and found the Watson rather boring, I’m not sure how to rate it. The sense of atmosphere is definitely worth something, though, and it’s not as though I found it a hard read. Until I sat down to think about it, I’d have gone with three stars easily.
Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, Michael Marshall Smith
This is perhaps a little less dark and twisty than one might expect from Michael Marshall Smith, and I felt at times that it wasn’t quite sure of its audience — at times the knowing narration seemed more appropriate for an adult audience (mostly the opening; the ending makes it obvious what’s going on there) and some of the book metaphors for relationships felt a little much for kids. It deals with divorce a fair bit, partially through the eyes/close POV of Hannah, who is eleven or so.
It was a fun read, and I did tear through it very fast. It’s not that it’s bad — there are some great observations of people, and I enjoyed the ambiguity of the Devil in some parts (at other times he was just straightforwardly evil in a kind of offhand “that’s the way it is” fashion). It ticks along at a great pace, and Vaneclaw is a fun character, etc, etc.
But. I don’t know. I finished it in record time, I did have fun, but I’m still left feeling lukewarm — like it could’ve been more. Maybe it’s the sense that the audience isn’t quite right, some of the relatively straightforward morality (in the end, after all, the fallen angels who oppose the Devil are the ones in the wrong and unequivocally evil), some of the simplicity in Hannah’s character… I don’t know. It didn’t quite come together for me, is all I can conclude.
With a title like Rubicon, if you know about the significance of that small river, you might expect the book to be mostly about Julius Caesar (if you didn’t notice the subtitle, which differs slightly between editions but always mentions the Republic). It isn’t: in fact, at times early on you might not be quite sure what Caesar has to do with it and what’s even happening to him at the time. Which is fine: there’s plenty going on that you don’t need the big name to make Roman history interesting, but I do think it makes the title a little bit misleading. It’s not really all about that decisive moment of Caesar’s: it’s more broadly about the Republic, and the sense I got was that even if Caesar hadn’t taken the action he did, the end of the Republic would still have come.
Holland’s writing is mostly breezy and easy to follow: sometimes he gets a little too flippant or broad in his translations for my liking (I wouldn’t put it past Romans to call someone a “cocktease”, definitely, but I’ve seen that line translated rather less explosively, too), and sometimes the sheer number of events and names starts to tangle a little. He’s covering quite a lot here, really putting the moment of crossing the Rubicon into context, and it can feel both a little jam-packed and a little dry as he crams everything in.
For the most part a good read, though a fairly traditional account of the doings of men in classical history. (Give me more about Clodia and her influence!)
This took me a long time to finish, and I’m not entirely sure why. There’s a lot I love about it — the diversity, the bonds between the characters, the fact that it’s so driven by female characters (in both positive and negative ways), the way things aren’t just simple right and wrong. I mean, Kadeja and Leoden are undeniably pretty evil, which does undermine me saying that somewhat, but Yasha raises doubts at times as well. She’s on the side of the “good” characters, but I’m not convinced she’s always acting for the good of everyone — for interesting character reasons. I love what the book says about grief and healing and love.
On the surface, the intrigue and adventure and the friendships and alliances between the characters should’ve been enough to keep me hooked, and the writing doesn’t throw up some huge barrier or anything. I can’t put my finger on what kept me equivocating about the book, or what kept me from loving it enough that I just consumed it in a rush as I’m completely capable of doing. Something just didn’t work for me.
Which leaves me somewhat surprised that the ending leaves me curious and interested enough that I might just have to pick up the next book right away. Partly that’s because I want a bad thing not to have happened (and it’s a world with magic, so surely there’s a chance), and partly it’s because that ending is pretty interesting in terms of what it sets up (though I find myself largely unsurprised by it).
I didn’t expect this one to have me hooked, and to the extent that I was interested, I’ll admit that it was initially mostly in the true crime aspect. I didn’t know much about H.H. Holmes’ actual crimes, just a vague sense of notoriety, so that was really what I was interested in — the design of the World’s Fair, with all the architecture and infrastructure decisions, sounded kind of boring to me. I wasn’t really sure about the juxtaposition of the two, either: it seemed like the story of the World’s Fair would be boring in comparison with the horrors of Holmes’ crimes.
In the end, I was more interested in the World’s Fair sections, and I don’t know why. Partly the people discussed, I guess: they had a powerful vision, they had determination, and they achieved a lot in a very short time. Regardless of the topic, that kind of drive can be fascinating. And Larson’s writing works for me — it feels crisp and to the point, and evokes feelings and motivations that the people involved may have felt without feeling like he was going out on any limbs or fantasizing too much.
I think in the end, despite my initial sense that H.H. Holmes would be more interesting, the thing is that psychopaths are psychopaths. I’ve read about psychopaths before, but the challenges of organising the Chicago World’s Fair were a one-off thing that nobody has or could repeat in quite the same way.
This is one of those classics I always vaguely meant to read — I think my mother or aunt’s copy was hanging round in the room I always used at my grandparents’ house, so it was sort of in the back of my mind. I finally got round to it because of K.J. Charles’ queer retelling, which is apparently more fun if you know the original. So, in I plunged. And it is good fun — it speeds by, with the various implausibilities (the likeness between the two Rudolfs) being skated over, and any moral ambiguities too. There’s some intrigue and sneaking and adventure and fighting, there’s some doomed romance, etc, etc. It’s not the most substantial stunning piece of literature ever, but it does its job of being fun, and manages not to suffer too badly from being sexist or racist or any of those problems which can dog some classics.
So yeah, plenty of fun, and I can’t help but be somewhat charmed, or at least intrigued, by the villainous Rupert of Hentzau. I kinda want to know what’s going on in his head.
I enjoy Phryne as a general proposition, but I find myself saying with almost every book (at least later in the series) that it’s not a favourite and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it on its own. If you like Phryne, it’s more of her usual, with daringness, nice clothes, some good food and a sexy man. It fits the formula and at least this one introduces her sister as an actual character, with interests and problems of her own. It’s all the usual glitz and glamour and peril you expect from Phryne, and nothing particularly surprising, moving or suspenseful. You know she’s going to come out okay in the end.
Which all sounds like damning with faint praise, which isn’t quite what I mean either. If you enjoy Phryne, it’s fine. It’s just not one that stands out to me, except maybe for some of Lin Chung’s interactions with his extended family, which make me laugh (though they are perhaps a tad stereotyped, as well).
This was a really fun and quick read, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected. When someone says Amazons, you get a very clear picture, right? But John Man goes beyond the myth and digs into first the origins of that myth, and then into other societies which might more or less be considered Amazons (whether they were ever identified with Amazons or not). There’s also stuff on why Amazon.com is called Amazon, and other detours like that. It becomes a sort of cultural history of warrior women — and that’s not a criticism, because I found that more enjoyable than something which focused myopically on something the evidence suggests was never more than a rumour born from a rumour, or even political convenience.
And though the subtitle is all about warrior women of the ancient world, there’s a good discussion of modern warrior women too.
Overall, enjoyable — and left me very curious to read more about the Scythians and the archaeology of the people of the steppe. One book leads to another… Anyone got any recommendations along those lines?!