Tag: book reviews


Review – The King of Elfland’s Daughter

Posted 3 August, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord DunsanyThe King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany

I can’t really understand people disliking this book. Well, no, I can: the language is olde worlde, the phrase ‘the fields we know’ is used far too many times, it’s more of a fairytale like story than modern fantasy, though it’s sold as being one of the defining moments for the genre, and if you’re looking at it from a modern point of view, the characters and their motivations are hopelessly unsatisfying.

I thought the language was beautiful, though: Dunsany struck just the right note for me, and for the most part I liked his turns of phrase. Even the repeated ‘the fields we know’ phrase and others like it hark back to ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ and other such epithets in Greek epics. I love fairytales, and I think Dunsany’s mimesis here is pretty darn good. I can see how it influenced modern fantasy, and if you expect satisfying characters and development in a fairytale-esque story then… I’m not sure what you’re after. Modern updates of the stories often inject that kind of thing, but it’s not there originally.

Seriously, this book is just gorgeous, in my opinion. I wanted to wrap myself up in it, read some passages again and again, and I did actually genuinely feel the tension of how it would all be resolved. I loved the ending, the descriptions of Lirazel coming back to meet her son and husband. I loved the little asides, like the mischievous trolls.

So, so glad I finally read this.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Mara

Posted 1 August, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of the comic Mara by Brian Wood et alMara, Brian Wood, Ming Doyle, Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles

I liked Mara quite a lot: it’s great that we’ve got a queer woman of colour in a comic like this, where neither of those things define her. I like the lead-in here: it doesn’t come across like a superhero comic in the first issue or so; that had me wondering what the pace would be like and whether I’d want to stick with it. Normally, Carol Danvers or Steve Rogers would’ve punched something by now, after all. Still, I loved the look of the comic, aside from the slightly weird fact that Mara’s white on the cover. The lines and colours all look great.

As the story develops, it becomes a bit more typical. Mara develops superhuman powers, the military gets interested, people want to experiment on her family to see if she’s the only one, etc. I only vaguely remember the bit in >Watchmen that people compare Mara’s reaction to, but I do agree that actually, it’s a really similar character arc. What makes it different is the character. The origin stories of superheroes are often compared to adolescence; their secret identities to being ‘in the closet’. But there’s no mystique about that with Mara, so where does that take the superhero narrative, if it’s an allegory?

I’d need to look at more of the literature and reread at least Watchmen for comparison to really talk about that, but it interests me nonetheless. Mara’s story seems to tell us that for her, it’s not adolescence or having a girlfriend or being a person of colour that sets her apart. Partly it’s fame, as the first couple of issues show us, but characters like Ingrid share that spotlight. Worth pondering.

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Review – Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Avengers

Posted 31 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Marvel's Guardians of the GalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Avengers, Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, Sara Pichelli

Hmm. I wanted more from this. I’m excited about the upcoming film, because it’s Marvel and they reliably entertain me (unpopular opinion: I kinda enjoyed Fantastic Four, even after everyone I know dissed it? Might have helped I watched it on my computer at 2x speed). But I’d never heard of Guardians of the Galaxy before the marketing for the film started, and I don’t know much about it.

In a way, this does feel like it tries to be an introductory volume, with little bits talking about some of the characters’ pasts and relationships, but mostly it feels fragmentary and weird. I think this is probably because I know so little about it. I felt like it was supposed to be a gateway drug, using Tony Stark as it does, but I didn’t really get that involved with it. I wasn’t sure how to contextualise it in terms of the other Marvel comics I read. Gotta admit, I would like to know what Peter Quill and Teddy Altman would have to say to each other, with some similar background behind them.

I do like the cast, and it may well be that I’d appreciate it more if I wasn’t totally new to it. I might look at it again after I’ve seen the film. Oh, and I appreciate the heck out of Freyja being the ruler of Asgard. She deserved more than the fridging she got in Thor 2.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Blood & Guts

Posted 30 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Blood & Guts by Roy PorterBlood & Guts, Roy Porter

This didn’t really work for me as a history of medicine, even a short one. Each chapter treads the same ground, but with a different theme, instead of following the history of medicine through chronologically.

That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting in places, and I liked the inclusion of so many images to go along with the text, but it didn’t feel like there was anything to get my teeth into. I felt like it would have been much better done chronologically, even if it was in broad swathes of time: ‘early societies’, ‘the Classical world’, ‘medieval Europe’, ‘British empire’, etc. Something like that would’ve worked a lot better for me.

Also, I know he says up front that he’s not even going to touch on Eastern medicine, but considering the way we’ve imported alternative medicines as a commodity here, it would actually be relevant to talk about their development and give them some more credit.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Darwin’s Ghost

Posted 29 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Darwin's Ghost by Steve JonesDarwin’s Ghost, Steve Jones

I really like the idea of Darwin’s Ghost, taking and updating Darwin’s groundbreaking research, and often showing how relevant it still is, how little of it has actually been disproved. Often people who criticise Darwin haven’t actually read On the Origin of Species, and so they have an inaccurate understanding of what he actually said. Steve Jones goes through all of this in quite a lot of detail, giving modern examples and correcting things where Darwin didn’t quite get it right.

That thoroughness does make the book pretty hard going, though. The topic doesn’t have to be — I’ve read another explanation of the early transmission and spread of HIV, for example, which wasn’t boring at all (though it had other faults) — but Jones’ writing ends up feeling rather stodgy. I’m completely fascinated by the subject, and reasonably knowledgeable about it, so if I thought that… I don’t know what other readers would make of it.

The main effect seems to have been to make me really want to read On the Origin of Species; I’m told that Darwin’s prose is quite readable and even interesting, and comparing it to the view of it I got from this book will be interesting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Delete This At Your Peril

Posted 28 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Delete This At Your PerilDelete This At Your Peril, Neil Forsyth

I picked this up at the library because I needed something light, and the humour reminded me of my dad a bit. I can imagine him stringing along a scammer in this way, though I think he’d be more subtle and clever about it. It’s amusing enough at first, in this case, but after a couple of exchanges I was skimming them all and shaking my head at the reductio ad absurdum of some of it.

I wouldn’t buy this, but it might be worth a flick through if you’re looking for something funny.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Panic Attacks

Posted 27 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Panic Attacks, by Christine InghamPanic Attacks, Christine Ingham

I never actually finished reading this, because by the time I was halfway through, I was actually getting better. I’m returning it to the library now because I think it may be useful for other people, and right now, I don’t need it.

That said, I did find a lot of comfort from reading Ingham’s assurances that you can get better, and will gladly add my voice to that. The prognosis for someone with panic attacks improves if you know from the start that you can get better, and I’m here to assure you that you can. As my counsellor pointed out, I may always be an anxious person, and that means I have to work a little harder, but it’s possible. See also my Mental Health Awareness Month post for more about my personal journey.

The book itself is easy to read and encouraging, without minimising the fear you may feel if you have panic attacks. I had quite a few pages bookmarked in the half that I read. But really, like I already said, I think the most important thing was that it told me I could get better, when I wasn’t hearing that from a lot of people. And it told me I wasn’t alone.

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Review – The Language Instinct

Posted 25 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of The language Instinct by Steven PinkerThe Language Instinct, Steven Pinker

When it comes to something I don’t know much about, I’m pretty easily swayed by other people’s arguments. Like, I finished this book feeling it was pretty intelligent and interesting, and then I read some criticisms and reviews and heck, I don’t know what to think. Still, I did find it interesting, and while the book looks deceptively slim for how long it took me to get through it, Pinker expresses his arguments clearly, with examples and sourcing, etc.

His basic argument is that we’re hardwired for language. That, as with our sight, hearing, etc, we have a ‘language sense’; if properly stimulated during the critical period, our brains quickly figure out how to parse language (at least, the language spoken around us when we are at that age, even if that language is sign language). We don’t need to hear every word or possible sentence structure (couldn’t possibly) to pick up on the rules of grammar and apply them, when speaking and when listening. This only refers to the critical period; a child will learn grammar instinctively on being exposed to a language, but an adult must learn it by rote, in the same way as you have to learn to process visual input during the critical period for that, or you’ll never have the same visual acuity as someone who did.

Thus far, I think I’m going along with him. I do have questions of a sort of chicken and the egg nature: which came first, the brain’s Universal Grammar module, or language that necessitated it? I’m inclined to think that the structures that we now use to understand language were used for something else earlier in our evolution, and became co-opted into our communications array (so to speak) over time. Our brains formed language, and then the language formed our brains…

All in all, I don’t know whether Pinker’s right, but I found his work convincing. Having read a couple of other books on language, including Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, and applying what I know from those too, I find it hard to disagree with Pinker even where I want to, for example about relativism.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Eleanor & Park

Posted 23 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow RowellEleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell

I have conflicting feelings about Eleanor & Park. I know that various aspects of it really troubled some people, from the treatment of the characters of colour to the way it deals with Eleanor’s fraught home life. I don’t know enough about American culture and history to really comment on that, other than acknowledging that some people find it problematic, e.g. in the exoticisation of Park’s looks and the stereotyping with his mother. I think everything Rowell does here is an honest attempt, though; I think there’s a conscious effort to bring in more diverse characters, it’s just that it brings in a lot of new problems with it.

Still, despite that, I actually really liked the book. I tend to enjoy Rainbow Rowell’s style anyway, and in this book I enjoyed the way she portrayed a teenage relationship. It’s dramatic life and death stuff, and while I don’t think I ever behaved that way, people I know did. Just discovering hormones and making a big mess of themselves over it and each other. It’s complicated in this case by Eleanor’s relationship with her step-dad, and Park’s discomfort about whether he’s the kind of son his father would want. I think parental situations had a fair amount to do with the rather desperate coupling up I saw sometimes: if you’ve got someone to think about while whatever’s going on at home kicks off, then it’s a bit more bearable. Or you’re less alone. Etc.

I think someone else said that to write for teenagers, you have to remember what it’s like to be a teenager, and I think Rainbow Rowell evokes that pretty well here.

When it comes to dealing with the difficult themes around Eleanor’s family, again, I think it’s an honest attempt. She evokes the feeling of threat well when she’s in Eleanor’s POV; it comes through a lot less when she’s writing from Park’s point of view, though. In a way, that’s realistic: we never know exactly what’s going on behind someone else’s eyes. But in this case… Park was so shocked when Eleanor spilled everything, and I’m just thinking, hey, there were plenty of warning signs, in neon.

All in all, though, I found Eleanor & Park a really easy read, and I liked Rainbow Rowell’s attitude to it that she mentioned at the signing I went to — she couldn’t write some happy ever after for Eleanor and Park, because they’re still kids. It’s not the end of their story, it’s the beginning. I really like that she didn’t go for the easy end where everything’s alright: she gave us hope, sure, but no more than that.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Stroke of Insight

Posted 22 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte TaylorMy Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor

Someone gave this as their example of what to expect from this book, and, well, it’s pretty instructive all on its own:

“I unconditionally love my cells with an open heart and grateful mind. Spontaneously throughout the day, I acknowledge their existence and enthusiastically cheer them on. I am a wonderful living being capable of beaming my energy into the world, only because of them. When my bowels move, I cheer my cells for clearing that waste out of my body. When my urine flows, I admire the volume my bladder cells are capable of storing. When I’m having hunger pangs and can’t get to food, I remind my cells that I have fuel (fat) stored on my hips. When I feel threatened, I thank my cells for their ability to fight, flee, or play dead.”

Plus a lot of being one with the universe, etc.

The book actually starts off with a good introduction to what having a stroke is like, albeit I felt that the science was aimed ridiculously low: I felt like even someone who didn’t know anything about the brain would get impatient with the tone. It was overly simplistic, maybe even a touch condescending. Still, that’s the best part of the book: whatever else you may say about her, Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist and can explain very clearly what happens to the brain during a stroke. For that aspect alone, I’m glad I followed up on the rec from the Coursera neurobiology MOOC.

But once we get onto oneness with the universe, I’m getting antsy, and once we’re thanking our cells for our bowel movements, I’m out the room.

Oh, and this review is a good critique of it from the point of view of a clinician.

Rating: 2/5

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