Why Dinosaurs Matter, Kenneth Lacovara
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 19th September 2017
The idea of this book is pretty much encapsulated in the words from the summary: “What can long-dead dinosaurs teach us about our future? Plenty.” It’s the story of the dinosaurs as a highly successfully set of creatures who ruled the world — for a time. It’s also the story of their decline and fall, so to speak, and the lessons we can learn from them. Also, a reminder that a penguin is very literally a dinosaur, just as we’re very literally primates.
There’s nothing revelatory here if you’re into dinosaurs, but if you’re looking for something more general than David Hone’s The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, something to get you up to date on current dinosaur scholarship, this isn’t a bad place to start. And I agree with Lacovara: dinosaurs shouldn’t be viewed as synonymous with something obsolete. They ruled the world for a reason.
Acadie, Dave Hutchinson
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 5th September 2017
Acadie is a fun enough little story that had me just sort of nodding along… up until the ending, which packs a bit of a punch and casts all the rest in a new light. I still think that some more world-building could go into the utopian colony, because the little bits that were there were only just enough to whet my appetite; a bit more emotional involvement would probably make that ending even more satisfying. Right now, it’s satisfying in an intellectual way, and didn’t leave me as conflicted as I’d hoped.
Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing story with a heck of a sting in the tail. My favourite sort!
False Colours, Georgette Heyer
This book somewhat ran into one of the problems I have with fiction that includes humour: I’m bad at being embarrassed, and get second-hand embarrassment for characters I like. There’s obviously a lot of scope for embarrassment in a book which features twin protagonists who pretend to be one another, and the muddle they get themselves into when they do this as adults in order to cover for each other. Or, really, Kit covers for his brother who is mostly absent, and really doesn’t deserve such devotion.
It’s generally charming, particularly the bond between Kit and his mother. She’s hopeless, but loveable as well, and while I’m not quite sure how anyone could put up with her from a distance, far too able to see her flaws, I’m sure that in person she would be completely charming. The romance is so-so; this is one of the books where I rather wish there’d been more attention paid to the romantic heroine (though plenty of attention is paid to Kit’s mother, which balances that). There were also some cringy lines that read unpleasantly for the modern reader, but there’s also a lot of fun — the whole relationship between Amabel and Ripple, for instance.
It all works out fairly predictably and easily, but it’s fun while it lasts and I didn’t get too embarrassed on everyone’s behalves, which was a plus. It was definitely a worthy distraction from fretting over my rabbit at the time, too (in consequence of the idiot biting through a cable and electrocuting himself — he’s 100% fine now).
Starborn, Lucy Hounsom
This has garnered good reviews from other bloggers I usually agree with, so I was excited to dig in. It’s certainly a quick read, with some interesting aspects — I like the paired Lunar/Solar magic, for example, and the fact that airships were stirred into the usual fantasy mix instead of it just being your usual race across the land with horses. But I found the characters and world rather thin, really, and the events seemed to lurch from one thing to the other without really making sense. It’s obvious from the beginning that Kyndra is going to turn out to be different and special, but then the book makes such a secret of it — it takes 150 pages for that to be even partially confirmed, despite it being obvious.
I’m not a great fan of the writing, either. It’s not laboured or overly ornate, thankfully, but to me there was something thin about it. ‘Kyndra did this, and then this, and felt like this about it.’ I was more intriged by Nediah and Brégenne from the beginning, although their story reminded me of something else I’ve read. (Kyndra’s did as well, but since it’s fairly typical ‘stable boy becomes the king’ type narrative where an ordinary person turns out to be extraordinary, that’s no surprise.)
Also, sexual assault. Also, a disabled character gets magically healed — and not even through their own choice, but just because someone thinks it’s for the best. Also… yeah. Problematic stuff is not addressed.
In the end, I just didn’t get into it. It’s easy enough to read, but I could take it or leave it, and I feel like I know where things are going. Given that and the neverending backlog, I think I’ll pass on continuing this series.
The Trouble With Physics, Lee Smolin
I came out of reading this book with a pleasing illusion that I understood something of the state of modern physics. Smolin’s style worked for me in explaining things well enough that, for once, I wasn’t left boggling and having to reread pages over and over again to cram the concepts into my head. Perhaps it helps that he’s not an inveterate supporter of string theory, and can explain where it doesn’t work as an explanation for our universe and why — sometimes, it helps to know where concepts break down as much as it helps to know where they succeed.
Part of the book isn’t just about physics at all, though: it’s about the progress of science in general, and how science progresses. I’m not sure Smolin really gets at anything profound here, but when it comes to the specifics of critiquing why physics has come to a standstill, he genuinely cares and genuinely wants to solve the issue. The way he presents it, it’s clear that it’s time for people to re-evaluate string theory and accept that quite possibly it will never yield the answers we’re looking for.
Some days after reading it, being me, I can no longer explain string theory to anyone else, but I can explain why it doesn’t work, so I got something out of this! And I more or less enjoyed letting it turn my brain inside out, too.
Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes starts out weird and intriguing, with an opening that wouldn’t disgrace a horror story. After that, for a long time it becomes mostly space opera, with some political manoeuvring and a noir-ish detective story alternating chapters. There’s some clumsy world building in the first 100-200 pages, which often takes the form of infodumps. That made me hesitate about carrying on with the series, but after about the 200 page point, I found myself getting sucked in.
I gradually started to be interested in the characters — though Miller is never quite likeable, only piteable, to my mind — and what exactly was going on. Miller’s obsession with Julie Mao was weird, maybe even a little creepy, but his interactions with Holden and his crew were interesting. The way he wants to be accepted, but at the same time is willing to compromise that by doing whatever he thinks is right — even if idealistic Holden won’t like it.
I do think the book could definitely use more female characters. The society itself seems to be pretty equal opportunity, but the main female characters are Naomi and Julie. Julie’s mostly just an idea, and while Naomi is capable, a lot of her importance lies in her relationship with Holden and how that works out.
About halfway through, the weird stuff kicks back in, and then I was definitely hooked. When I got to the end, I decided I’d have to get Caliban’s War to find out what exactly happens next…
15 Million Degrees, Professor Lucie Green
If you want to know all the things we know or guess about the sun, this is definitely the book for you. Lucie Green isn’t just a science communicator — she’s actually doing the research, so she knows what the current questions are, what the latest research is, and all the history of how we came to know what we know. Her enthusiasm is plain throughout, and she does a good job of describing both the actual physical events of the sun, and the sensation of observing and understanding them.
If you’re not hugely into physics, you might find that a few chapters do start to drag. But for the most part, it’s a fascinating book — and there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know.
A Crack in Creation, Jennifer Doudna, Samuel Sternberg
If you haven’t heard of CRISPR before, chances are you’ll be hearing of it again pretty soon. It’s starting to be used in clinical trials to edit the genes of human embryos, and it’s already being used in countless research projects. It’s an amazing tool which could completely revolutionise gene editing, allowing very precise changes to be made with very little unintended impact. Doudna is one of the people who has been involved in developing CRISPR and recognising its potential, and her book covers exactly how it works and the potential it has — and some of the philosophical questions around how we’re going to use it.
The explanations of how CRISPR works are perfect: clear and precise, along with diagrams which help elucidate the processes described. Even if you already know a little about CRISPR, this account will probably help you understand just how it works and why it’s so revolutionary.
As far as the ethics/philosophy goes, Doudna says nothing particularly revolutionary. (It’s very much framed as her book, despite Sternberg’s involvement.) What struck me especially was her conviction that this is a decision that has to be made by people in general, not just scientists — it’s something I agree with very much, and why I have a science blog of my own.
An important read, I think — even if you’re not hugely into science/gene editing.
Buffalo Soldier, Maurice Broaddus
I think my enjoyment of this book would be greatly enhanced if I knew my US history a bit better. As it is, it’s an alternate history, and yet I can’t judge the cleverness of it and what it’s trying to show. I feel like I might’ve got into it more at novel length, even without more history knowledge; events might have come upon me a little less abruptly, then.
It’s definitely readable and pacy; that’s not the issue at all. There’s some great lines, including some bitterly funny ones (“We call them engineers. It’s from the Navajo meaning… engineers”). The world building is intriguing, but I just didn’t know enough — either about the world being built, or about the world it is building on. There’s great action scenes, but.
After the whole concept of his King Arthur retelling totally failed for me, though, it’s good to have tried some more of Broaddus’ work. I think I’ll pick up something else by him if I get the chance.
A Pocketful of Crows, Joanne M. Harris
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 19th October 2017
A Pocketful of Crows is based on one of the Child ballads — specifically, ‘The Brown Girl‘. I have to say, I was pleased to see a retelling that isn’t based on one of the most well known stories or songs. The Child ballads are a huge resource of stories, some of which totally need retelling to make proper sense of them, but people often go for retelling the same stories over and over again. I haven’t seen anyone play with ‘The Brown Girl’ before, and it’s refreshing.
Joanne Harris’ writing has a lovely clarity to it; this book is just a dream to read, with a strong narrative voice. The things that frustrated me are things that frustrate me about the ballad as well — how does the girl not realise her lover’s insincere? Harris manages to make me believe it at times, but I still find it frustrating that she’s so naive. Mind you, it also makes sense, given the extra narrative Harris draws in: the story of Mother, Maiden, Crone. I love the way she weaves the ballad into that shape and makes it more than it is on the surface.
Definitely enjoyable, and I have a feeling the physical copy is going to be gorgeous.