Tag: book reviews


Review – The Blue Salt Road

Posted 1 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

The Blue Salt Road, Joanne Harris

The Blue Salt Road is a take on the myths of selkies: seal-people who can shed their sealskin and become humans, and can be trapped on land by the theft of their skins. This is mostly told in a stripped back, fairytale sort of register; you’re told how characters feel, but there is a lot of telling (and intentionally so: that isn’t a criticism, because that style is deliberate). For the most part, it’s a straight retelling: a girl lures a selkie from the sea and loves him, and then hides his sealskin to keep him on land with her.

What Harris adds to the tale is a little more psychology — examination of the girl’s reasons, of the selkie’s feelings, of how he tries to fit in with the human world he’s been pulled into… and examination of the grief and loss and betrayal inherent in the story.

For all that the shape of the story is pretty traditional, I found the ending a surprise — and in a good way. I’m not sure I believe that the selkie will be happy with the final shape of his life, and there’s still a lot of grief and betrayal… but there’s also a very human and real determination to make something of it. Nobody dies of pure grief here, as in a fairytale: instead, people must carry on.

I enjoyed this a lot, and thought it did quite a bit with the story while keeping a fairytale-style narration.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Turning Darkness into Light

Posted 31 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Turning Darkness into Light, Marie Brennan

Received to review via Netgalley

I wanted to get this reviewed before it came out, but I also didn’t want to do it a disservice and rush it. To be quite honest with you, I basked in having this world to dive into anew, after some time has passed in that world; I adore what Brennan does in the Lady Trent books with showing scientific progress and academic endeavour, and I had the same feeling here. Being both a biology graduate and a literature postgraduate (and one who focused on languages and translation fairly heavily for a while), this world has now reflected so much of my experience it makes me quite squeeful. I know Audrey is much better at translating Draconaean than I ever was at Anglo-Saxon or Old Icelandic, but some of the struggles in reading are similar — and the process of academic review and piecing things together across texts is even more familiar.

(I mean, nor am I as experienced and high level a biologist as Lady Trent is a naturalist; still, there are commonalities, and Isabella and Audrey’s struggle for status is still relevant for female-bodied folks in STEM today, soooo…)

The thing is, in conclusion, that Brennan is just so clever in the way she puts together the work. The way she invents these ancient texts: the structures of them, the lacunae, the difficulty in understanding things that rely on context. The way she understands the process is so clear — which makes sense, given her background in anthropology, but that doesn’t always mean one will be good at writing it. Brennan is.

And that only touches on half the book! There’s also an exploration of what it might be like to be the granddaughter of someone like Isabella, explorations of the developments in Draconaean civilisation since she found the Sanctuary… and delightful bits like Audrey causing a riot (of course) and Isabella dismissing someone as a potential partner for Audrey because he’s not a sound scholar, and all the politics which Audrey manages to entangle herself in… It all comes together very satisfyingly.

Perhaps my only criticism is that Audrey is very like Isabella; their voices are similar, and you can be pretty sure that whatever Isabella would have done in a situation, Audrey will do as well. Obviously, there’s reasons for that, and good ones, but it makes the book feel less its own thing and more like it’s more of the same. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I hope if we see more of Audrey, she does more forging of her own way. (I absolutely want to see more of Audrey.)

Rating: 5/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Warrior Queen

Posted 30 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Warrior Queen by Joanna ArmanThe Warrior Queen, Joanna Arman

Arman’s book promises a lot, offering the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. It comes up rather short, and in part this isn’t the book’s fault: the information on everyone of this era is rather scanty, and women tend to be represented even less than your average big man of the time, even if they turned out to be rulers later in life. Books about these women have to lean heavily on interpreting what the locations of charters and charitable establishments mean, and it doesn’t always make for the most riveting reading.

Nonetheless, most of the book is almost entirely speculative. Æthelflæd may have been taught this, Æthelflæd may have gone here with her father, perhaps Æthelflæd did this… Much of the book is framed by what the women in Æthelflæd’s life were doing (her father, her brother, her husband), right up the point where suddenly she becomes the real protagonist and starts leading men and establishing forts. But I didn’t want a book on Alfred, Æthelstan, Æthelred, etc, etc, etc.

Worse, the book drifts off into pure daydream at times. Mentioning the clasp of a book found in Stafford, the author speculates that it might have belonged to Æthelflæd. There’s no archaeological context given — Arman doesn’t even mention a date given for the clasp! — and it seems that Arman invented this spurious connection out of her own head, just to add spice; I can’t find such an assertion elsewhere. She does have a bibliography, but no detailed footnotes to allow her claims to be followed up, so I’ll give this claim the credence it’s due: none. Now I have to wonder what else Arman has imagined and invented — the coins she mentions, perhaps? The firm dating of forts and towns? To be fair, Arman does make it clear the link is speculative, an ‘I’d like to imagine’, but nonetheless… I have questions.

Finally, the book is atrociously edited. It’s common for entire words to be missing from sentences, sometimes making them nonsensical, and sometimes no doubt just altering the sense of them.

It is a shoddy job, and I cannot recommend it as a source of information, though there are some titbits that you can call entertaining fiction.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Darwin Comes To Town

Posted 29 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Darwin Comes To Town, Menno Schilthuizen

Darwin Comes to Town examines the action of evolution on urban organisms — the mosquitos of the London Underground, blackbirds worldwide, white-footed mice in LA, bobcats in Hollywood… Is evolution happening because of human cities, and if it is, how does it work? It’s full of examples showing that there is clearly selection at work in the urban environment (a fact nobody should be surprised by), along with an in-depth discussion of one of the classics, Biston betularia, the peppered moth. (If you don’t know that example, basically in areas near industry, a melanic [black] form of the moth began to thrive, and became the dominant form in such areas. Since industry’s impact on the environment has been ameliorated now, things have quickly gone back the other day.)

I found it a fascinating book, though I think it could have been better organised — I have no idea how to find any of the information again, because I can’t recall any clear sections. There’s a lot of good anecdotes, and reference to studies I want to look up, but it is a tad conversational — and prone to falling into reminisence and flavour text about locations.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Within the Sanctuary of Wings

Posted 28 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie BrennanWithin the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the last of these books, Lady Trent’s last memoir, and it’s a doozy. It delivers on tiny promises made throughout the other books, drawing everything together so it all makes a new kind of sense. I’m a bit baffled by people who think that the plot twist in this book comes out of nowhere and is not in keeping with what has happened before — we’ve been getting clues about this, hints about the importance of the Draconaeans to Isabella’s story even though she’s not all that interested in them. In some ways, I’m surprised I didn’t see this coming more. It fits exactly with what came before.

So what happens in this final novel? Isabella is told of the body of a new sort of dragon, found preserved in ice somewhere entirely unexpected. Naturally, Isabella has to embark on a hare-brained quest to find the body and record the new information it might bring, and Suhail and Tom are along for the ride. Of course they are.

And of course things don’t go entirely to plan. I fear to say too much even at this point, to avoid spoiling the surprise too much for anyone who still wants to experience it anew. Suffice it to say that this turn in Lady Trent’s career is great, and makes perfect sense.

And I cannot wait for the book following her granddaughter. In fact, I’m going to pick that up right now.

Rating: 5/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Late Eclipses

Posted 27 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuireLate Eclipses, Seanan McGuire

In Late Eclipses, there’s a poisoner on the loose, and there’s little doubt in Toby’s mind that it’s someone from her past — Oleander de Merelands, of course. Throughout the book she leads Toby a merry dance, poisoning her allies and friends, and setting her up to look like the bad guy. Obviously some people are eager to seize on that and chase Toby down as a murderer, while others (the usual suspects) are arrayed beside her and behind her, ready to protect her and commit acts of courage and stupidity to keep her safe.

My main problem with this book was that it felt drawn out painfully by the fact that someone kept hitting Toby with the idiot stick. Things that are obvious to the reader are far from obvious to Toby. I can’t believe someone so trusted by her liege, someone who is an investigator no less, would keep making stupid mistakes like this. It’s not even a matter of trusting the wrong people this time — Toby just puts her head down and starts bulling through the obstacles, instead of using her head the less painful way.

There are some great moments — many of them involving Tybalt — and some payoff from hints we’ve been hearing all along. Amandine makes an appearance, remarkably sane for her. It’s fun, I just feel like about 80 pages could’ve been cut by letting Toby use her brain instead of her skull.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Perihelion Summer

Posted 26 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Perihelion Summer by Greg EganPerihelion Summer, Greg Egan

Received to review via Netgalley

Perihelion Summer is a what-if story. What if a pair of black holes passed by the solar system, dragging the planets from their established orbits? What would happen on a warmer Earth, with bigger seasonal variations — variations big enough to make parts of the Earth uninhabitable at certain times of year? The novella follows a group of characters who are all kind of blind, including the protagonist whose name I kept forgetting as soon as I learned it. It’s more of an opportunity to play out the what-if than it is to do any kind of introspection. What if there was a group of people on a floating fish breeding factory in the middle of the ocean? What if they worked as part of a flotilla to move people around the world in these circumstances?

If hard SF is your thing, then this might be more your speed: while I can enjoy an idea-based story, I normally require some relateable characters, and to feel like there’s something I care about at stake. I didn’t feel any emotional connection to any of the characters or situations; I was reading to be finished, I’m afraid. That’s not as bad in a novella as it might be in a novel, but still. Not really one for me.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , ,

Divider

Review – The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Posted 25 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction by Alan JacobsThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs

In many ways, I enjoyed reading this 150 page essay on the value of reading, on how to read well (and by well, Jacobs chiefly means “for enjoyment”), on how to get the most out of reading. At the same time, I’m extremely conscious that Jacobs would think me a terrible reader, disapprove deeply of how I read, and despite his belief in the importance of enjoyment and pleasure in reading, is a ginormous snob and doesn’t even know it.

Take, for instance, his advocacy of taking notes while you read. If the book is really worth reading, you’ll need to digest it properly; for that, you should take notes, preferably on the book itself. (Otherwise, you’re not doing it right.) However, when he talks about fantasy and sci-fi novels, he dismisses them (in one fell swoop) as being unworthy of the note-taking approach. That’s not, he says, what they’re for. I think he needs to get his head out of his backside and try Ursula Le Guin, for a start.

He’s very anti-list, anti-planned reading; he holds forth on the importance of whim (or Whim, as he puts it), and yet at the same time denigrates fantasy since Tolkien as being a succession of pale imitators, each with less value than the last. Despite everything he says about encouraging people to read, there’s always that undercurrent of judgemental assumption about what popular literature is, and what it is worth.

He’s not wrong in many of the things he says about how to appreciate a book, how to really internalise it and get the most out of it. I’m way too fast a reader for him: he thinks 1,001 books would take a lifetime to read without leaving any room for anything else, bless his little cotton socks, and he’s a huge advocate of sloooowing doooown and ruminative reading. (Of which I’m capable at even my pace, but you wouldn’t believe it to read this.)

This sounds like damning with faint praise, but I found this book genuinely very readable and even enjoyable. In his advocacy of reading what works for you, and reading in the format that works for you (he’s a fan of ereaders), his enthusiasm is laudable. I just think there’s a beam or two he might want to pluck out of his own eye.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , ,

Divider

Review – Gene Machine

Posted 22 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Gene Machine, Venki Ramakrishnan

Gene Machine is not really about the secrets of the ribosome. It’s rather more an autobiography, mostly but not entirely focusing on Ramakrishnan’s path to solving the structure of the ribosome. Now, as any half-baked biologist knows, the structure of a biological molecule is absolutely integral to its function… a protein’s chemical makeup determines how it will fold, and how it will fold determines whether it has the right pocket for something to bind to, or the right side chain to bind with something else. So I don’t mean to belittle the achievement of finally resolving the structure of the ribosome, but it doesn’t actually reveal that much yet. There is, on this showing, a lot more work to be done to really understand ribosomes. It will be made possible by the work of Ramakrishnan, there’s no denying that.

Still, I’m more interested in that than in the process of taking the ribosome’s photograph, and so I found this book disappointing. It doesn’t help that Ramakrishnan lacks grace when it comes to some fellow scientists, and one scientist in particular. If all he says of Ada Yonath is true, she’s quite a piece of work, lacking in basic politeness to others, willing to steal from competitors to get ahead, and a terrible scientist who cannot accept when she is wrong. However, what emerged for me was a sense of a personal lack of warmth between the two amplifying her perceived faults, and the gossipy way this is passed on makes me think less of Ramakrishnan. He is always gracious to his male competitors, but can never resist revealing a nasty anecdote about Yonath, whether she overran the time for her presentation, left him out of a thank you speech, or allegedly had a student attend one of Ramakrishnan’s lectures to take pictures of his slides. His tone regarding Yonath is disingenuous, a sort of constant damning with faint praise.

Now, maybe she is all the things Ramakrishnan says, but I find it curious she would manage to get a Nobel if so, given the acknowledged politicking involved, along with the requirements of satisfying the committee that your contributions are worthwhile. I’m sure there have been undeserving Nobel prizewinners, and I know there have been prizes awarded for things that actually turned out to be wrong. But still. I don’t think Ramakrishnan’s line on Yonath does him credit.

It is interesting to follow a process of discovery like this, but it can be rather dry and technical — mostly spiced up by those bits of gossip and interpersonal strife. Given that on balance I find Ramakrishnan somewhat less than wholly charming, I wouldn’t wholly recommend this, though if your interest is more in crystallography and the structure of the ribosome than in the function of it, this may be more your thing.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Cruel Prince

Posted 20 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackThe Cruel Prince, Holly Black

The Cruel Prince turned out not to be my thing. It just felt so immediately typical — the cruel and fascinating Fae with their fairy fruit and their grudge against mortals, the human girls in love with the world of Faerie. The human girl determined to prove herself by fighting, the betrayals and backstabbing, the evil and beautiful boy who turns out to have been abused, etc, etc, etc… it just all kind of felt familiar and I wasn’t getting into it. I’ve heard that the ending is very worth it, but I didn’t get there, so I couldn’t say.

Mostly, I just feel like if I’m dragging through a book at 50 pages a day and only that much because I feel I have to, even though it’s not all that dense or anything, then it’s time to give it up. So I did.

Rating: 1/5

Tags: , ,

Divider