Tag: book reviews


Review – The Golden Thread

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

Cover of The Golden Thread by Kasia St ClairThe Golden Thread, Kassia St Clair

This was exactly my kind of pop-history: a narrow focus on a particular subject in various different time periods and geographical locations. In this case, Kassia St Clair looks at the development and importance of fabric throughout history, from the earliest fabrics known to modern stretch fabrics used in the Olympics and high tech designs used on the Moon. The obvious fabrics like linen and silk and wool obviously get plenty of play here, with peeks at their influence on history (and the influence of history on them). I found it very absorbing, and enjoyed the way she gave a glimpse of the importance of fabrics in a lot of different contexts.

If you enjoy the Great British Sewing Bee, some of this will be familiar already, but there’s also plenty more to learn…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

Posted 28 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter AlvarezT. Rex and the Crater of Doom, Walter Alvarez

In this book, Walter Alvarez discusses the problem, process and solution in figuring out how the KT boundary extinction happened (yep, that’s the death of the dinosaurs). Despite the rather sensational sounding title, it’s a thoughtful book: aimed at the layperson, undoubtedly, but still discussing the process of obtaining evidence, and what that evidence means, in some detail. I found his writing incredibly clear, and though I’m not exactly the right person to judge, I think any intelligent and interested person should be able to follow his arguments.

It’s also oddly charming that instead of talking about Luis Alvarez (Nobel prizewinning scientist) by name, or even as “my father”, he’s called “Dad” throughout. “Dad thought up this idea… I spoke to Dad…” etc.

Obviously, Alvarez doesn’t present many downsides to his own theory, and I imagine there have been more refinements and adjustments since this was published in 1997, but it’s still a surprisingly compulsive read. The opening is surprisingly literary, revealing a love of Tolkien.

My kinda guy, clearly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Memory Called Empire

Posted 27 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady MartineA Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine

Received to review via Netgalley

Arkady Martine’s debut novel is an exploration of identity, colonialism and loyalty, pitting the main character Mahit against a culture she loves — the culture of an empire waiting to swallow up her own home, Lsel Station. She’s the ambassador from Lsel Station, taking over after the unexpected death of her predecessor. She has one secret weapon: within her she carries a recording of her predecessor’s personality, partially integrated into her own, though somewhat out of date. At least, she has that weapon until something breaks, and she loses touch with that barely-integrated personality within her.

You can probably see from this description already why I was reminded powerfully of the work of Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee. This is very much in their vein of work, and that sense of familiarity left me a little disengaged. You’re not going to beat Jedao in that role of a shadow from the past half-integrated into a new, younger, female body, and it’s just too darn similar!

There is a lot of entertaining and interesting stuff here, despite that sense of over-familiarity. I definitely enjoy Nineteen Adze and her power; Three Seagrass and her relationship with both Mahit and Twelve Azalea (“Reed” and “Petal”, ahahaha); all the little glimpses we get of how things work… There was also that big barely-defined threat in the background, so it’ll be interesting to see how things go on. I assume it’s going to pick back up the threads of the relationship between Mahit and Three Seagrass, as well; that barely started before it felt cut off by the ending.

In the end, though, I don’t know. I never got quite that engaged with it, though once I hit around 57%, I did enjoy it enough to keep on reading to the end in one go. The similarities to Ninefox Gambit and Ancillary Justice eclipsed a story I might’ve enjoyed on its own terms. I’ll probably pick up the next book, but… there’s definitely no compulsion to do that, for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Lost Girls

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

Cover of The Lost Girls by Sarah PainterThe Lost Girls, Sarah Painter

Received to review from the author

Let’s see if I can do this without any serious spoilers! The Lost Girls is a standalone fantasy with two protagonists. One, Rose MacLeod, is an ordinary student in Edinburgh, in her first year, living with her parents. Well, ordinary apart from the fact that she regularly has blackouts, which can last for days, even weeks, which nobody else around her seems to notice. And the other protagonist is Mal, a decidedly non-ordinary bloke who can see magic, hunts demons and does dodgy errands as a kind of freelance supernatural hitman.

There are strong resemblances to the story of Supernatural, from Mal’s upbringing by a strict father and his older brother, to the fact that bereft of his dad and then his elder brother too, he ends up going down a fairly dark and morally dubious path. He even thinks of himself as a hunter. Sam Winchester, is that you? Part of the resemblance is probably just that it’s completely unavoidable if you want to have humans hunting down supernatural creatures, but the parallels were a little eyebrow-raising.

Rose is a bit more of a non-entity, due to the flashbacks and the sketchy, blurry idea she has of who she is. It’s a bit weird, then, that there’s a romance subplot centering her, because there’s not much to build on.

Anyway, over the course of the novel, obviously the two get drawn together, as Mal looks for Rose to hand her over to the supernatural crime boss he’s contracting for, and also tries to figure out what’s happening to girls who are being murdered under mysterious circumstances. Rose finds herself remembering things she shouldn’t, and dreaming of girls dying… and tries to escape Mal, with the help of her friend Astrid. Inevitably, they end up together, and the story does a flip as it races toward the end.

I enjoyed reading this, for sure; I read it all in two sittings, and it kept me interested throughout. I wouldn’t say I was riveted, but to be fair to the book, it’s relatively rare these days for me to sit down and read straight through something, and that’s definitely worth considering. The ending, though, felt unsatisfying: it’s better when I think about it, but at first it struck me as wasting some of the stuff that had only barely been built up (the romance subplot, the characterisation of two characters in particular). I’m still unsure of quite how to rate the book, to be quite honest!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Etruscans

Posted 25 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Etruscans by Lucy ShipleyThe Etruscans, Lucy Shipley

This is part of a series on “Lost Civilisations”, but Shipley pushes back on that idea from the start — Angkor Wat, for example, was never “lost” to local people; it was “discovered” by non-local people who acted as though locals had no connection to it, and this is a pattern that keeps repeating: Westerners find something monumental and assume that it has been “lost” and the civilisation that created it is dead, etc, etc. I don’t want to get into the truths and lies about that or debate it too much, but I found it interesting and refreshing to view history and archaeology this way.

The Etruscans are pretty enigmatic, and frequently portrayed as such, partly because we don’t have much insight into their language. The amount of Etruscan we have to work with is steadily growing as finds are made, though, and maybe someday soon we’ll know more. Shipley takes the reader on a tour of the finds we have got, focusing each chapter on a single find or site to tease out what it says about the Etruscans on various topics, including the position of women in their society (often portrayed as rather egalitarian). I enjoyed it very much: Shipley writes well and makes her points very clearly. It helps that the book has a lot of colour photographs as well, and the finds are well-chosen: I love the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, in particular.

Definitely what I was looking for. I wonder how good the other books in this series are…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Beauty

Posted 20 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Beauty by Robin McKinleyBeauty, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley has written two retellings of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale; this one is the closest to what you might think of as the classic story (i.e. actually the version immortalised by Disney, albeit with touches like including Beauty’s sisters), and is also the youngest in terms of how it’s written. It follows the traditional set-up, and the retelling mostly relies on filling in the gaps — characterising Beauty’s sisters, playing with irony (Beauty is not, in fact, beautiful — at least not at first, though somehow she becomes very pretty over the course of the book), creating several secondary love stories — rather than being wildly transformative or creating a rich world. Rose Daughter… well, I’ll come to that when I’ve finished that reread!

I find it very enjoyable, partly because it’s kept fairly simple, and because I enjoy the characters. It’s an undemanding read, but it’s fun.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How the Irish Saved Civilization

Posted 19 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of How the Irish Saved CivilisationHow the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill

A more accurate, but less attention-drawing title, would be something like “How the Irish helped to preserve the literary records of the Greeks and Romans”. In parts, it’s more of a history of the fall of Rome than about the Irish, and in others, it’s more about the coming of Christianity to Ireland. Cahill’s portrait of St Patrick is rather tender and actually worth the read if you’re interested in reading about a saint who seemed to be a bit of a stand-up bloke, but… none of this is actually about saving civilisation in any kind of general sense.

Which all makes sense, because awesome as Ireland can be, saving civilisation is a bit too big a task. I don’t even agree with Cahill in the sense that Greek and Roman literature and philosophy were that necessary for later civilisation to exist — there would be civilisation, I’m sure: it just wouldn’t be Western civilisation. There’s way too much privileging of the Classical and Christian tradition in this book, in a way that’s kind of gross if you consider how many other civilisations have existed. He’s also a patronising dick about medieval people in general, spouting cliches all over about their views and inner feelings in a generalising and condescending sort of way. Meh.

Cahill is certainly invested in his subject matter, and fascinated by what he’s writing: he portrays St Patrick in particular with sympathy and care. However, there’s that basic premise being all wrong, the condescension towards whole peoples and ways of life, and the condescension to the reader in assuming they’ve never encountered Plato and couldn’t possibly understand what Plato is saying.

Meh.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Hollow Man

Posted 14 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Hollow Man by John Dickson CarrThe Hollow Man, John Dickson Carr

In The Hollow Man, some thinly characterised people try to work out a locked room mystery, probably less paper-thin than they seem for some readers since it’s actually the sixth or so entry in a long running series, but really not sufficient for someone just starting out. Various implausibilities are discussed, unlikely red herrings crop up, and in the end there’s a shocking reveal, the trick is explained, and no one of any consequence to the reader has changed or grown at all.

As a puzzle story, it’s not bad, but I don’t quite get the hype about John Dickson Carr if this is typical of his work. It feels like the story and characters are thin layers of papier-mâché covering what the author really wanted to do, which was just play with that puzzle. It’s not unusual for a Golden Age crime novel, but from the enthusiasm of other readers I assumed there would be more to it than this. I’ll probably try another book or so by Carr — series detectives like his Gideon Fell can be a difficult proposition, but other books not featuring this character might be okay (reader, I hate Poirot, but Agatha Christie is really not bad when you leave him out of it). This wasn’t bad, I just didn’t care.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

Posted 13 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam RutherfordA Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford

It’s an ambitious title, and it should come as no surprise that that’s not really a history of everyone who ever lived. It’s really a story about some of the things we know from our genes, and it’s a bit of a random sampling at that, covering ear wax (those who have studied genetics will find this no-shocker, since wet vs sticky earwax is a fairly common example of a certain kind of genetic trait), kings, disease, migration, redheads, and all kinds of things in between. To me, it read like a grab bag of interesting facts we know about genetics: yes, the facts are interesting, but a coherent argument leading through a book it is not.

Rutherford’s not a bad writer, and he clearly has an eye for a good story, but… first of all, this level of pop-science is a bit too pop for me now, and secondly, it’s a disorganised mess.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Kiss Before Dying

Posted 12 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Kiss Before Dying by Ira LevinA Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin

A Kiss Before Dying is basically about a charming psychopath, and it feels same-y because I find that whole concept really overdone and boring at this point. The story is cleverly structured, and Levin’s writing isn’t bad or boring, but… the choice of topic and the twists are just kind of meh. Basically, a young man is dating a girl because her father has money. He has her totally hooked, everything’s in the bag, and then she gets pregnant. Her father’s old-fashioned and would’ve disowned her, so he knows that the jig is up — and he can’t ditch the girl, because then her father would probably ruin him. So he decides to kill her.

We jump forward to the girl’s sister investigating her death, sleuthing around the campus where her sister died and generally threatening to open up a whole can of worms for the killer. After that — well, this is one of those books where you probably want to read the reveal for yourself, so I won’t spoiler. (Everything I’ve mentioned so far is pretty surface-level stuff that might even be in the summary, don’t worry!)

I did enjoy looking out for the scene that Chelsea Cain, in the introduction, says is completely innocuous to someone who just opens the book at that page, and is a shocker for anyone who has been reading the whole thing. She’s right, it is a pretty awesome moment, if you’re keeping an eye on the details.

So meh, because I’m bored with the allure of a charming psychopath, but the writing and structuring is good, and it’s probably right up a lot of people alleys.

Rating: 2/5 

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