The Fire’s Stone, Tanya Huff
It’s been ages since I first read this, but I’ve been meaning to get round to rereading it for ages, and I’m glad I finally did. The world itself isn’t particularly distinctive: wandering peoples, oppressive clans, magic which requires detachment from the world, royalty and court intrigue… but the characters are what make it shine for me. Chandra, Aaron and Darvish each have their faults, but together they make up a surprisingly strong team, compensating for each other’s faults — and not just easily or naturally, but by working at it and learning to rely on one another. Each has their own sadnesses and goals, and gradually they learn to come together and deal with it.
The relationship between Chandra and the other two is as important as their romantic relationship with each other; she’s not just a woman in the way of the guys getting together, as some people seem prone to viewing women in queer stories. Chandra is just as integral to their strength as either of the men.
I think the process of dealing with Darvish’s alcoholism is also well done. The reasons he drinks, and the reasons he stops; the way he tries to resist it and where he fails. All of it is sensitively done, to my mind, and felt real. Aaron’s struggle with his sexuality is one that is also, unfortunately, real; there’s plenty of people who’ll force themselves to stay in the closet because of fear of what society or particularly their families would say. And Chandra’s determination to remain independent, because attachment might blunt her powers — well, that feels real, too. (Think of the people who complain that a woman will be ‘distracted’ by having a partner and family…)
I enjoyed the book a lot, and it’s also nice that it’s a stand-alone. Not that I wouldn’t mind more of the trio’s adventures, but I feel that it’s unnecessary. The story is complete as a one and done. That’s kind of refreshing in a world of so. many. trilogies.
Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek
Not that long ago, I abandoned Gwendolyn Leick’s book Mesopotamia because of the overwrought sentences and the weird, unsourced assertions, like this:
“Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memory of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.”
And yet, I pick this up, and in the second chapter…:
“Remembered too was the Apsu, the sacred lake from which [a god] emerged, referenced by a basin of fresh water installed in every later Mesopotamian temple — and perhaps also, long after, still remember in the Wudu, or washing, pool of the Islamic mosque and maybe even in the baptismal font of the Christian church.”
There’s no source in the further reading for this. I know that much of what we think we know about Mesopotamia must be speculative, but this repeated assertion leaves me with so many questions. It’s not my area, really, but I can’t help but want to point out that fresh water is easy to conceptualise as sacred because it’s so necessary to human life. By this point in the book, maybe two solid archaeological finds have been referenced, along with a handful of later texts. In the same way, Krizwaczek links the Virgin Mary to the goddess Inanna via Inanna’s symbol of the cow shed:
“The Queen of Heaven of the Christian church would one day give birth to her baby saviour in a distant but direct descendant of the mother-goddess’s cow-byre.”
This feels more like imaginative recreation than history. It’s all very pretty to read, but I’m wary of these links. English literature makes such claims of links between literature which the authors never thought of themselves; sometimes the link is elegant and pretty and makes sense, and yet means absolutely nothing, because it wasn’t actually really made in the author’s mind. So too, perhaps, with religion. I’d at least like to see some solid references; even popular history has room for sources and referencing, even if in a supplementary chapter 90% of readers don’t look at.
The book is pleasant enough to read, but marred by the fact that I don’t know how much credence to give to any of it.
Mapping the Interior, Stephen Graham Jones
I don’t know what to say about Mapping the Interior. It’s weird and creepy and it got under my skin. It does involve one character who is disabled being treated fairly badly, including by family, so if you’d prefer to avoid that, then it’s important to know going in. The narrative isn’t exactly okay with it or promoting it, but… I don’t know, in a way it does. The ending, mostly, is what made me feel iffy about it.
It’s also an interesting exploration of Native American community and identity, on which I don’t even know how to begin to comment.
It’s powerful and, yes, that word visceral that gets thrown around. And I’m finding myself otherwise at a loss to describe it.
Just Six Numbers, Martin Rees
This is a little out of date now, and some of the predictions are almost adorably wrong at this point — that we would understand dark matter and dark energy, and that we’d have a unified Theory of Everything explaining how all the forces we know of are tied together. But this book is still useful in explaining, in clear and simple terms, why exactly people say the universe has been “fine-tuned”. It’s not the most in-depth treatment out there, but I think it’d be very good for getting to grips with the basics.
In summary: there are several numbers underlying the universe which are constant, and they are very precisely definable down to multiple decimal places… and if you change them in any way, you make our existence as we know it impossible. There are problems with this, of course; life doesn’t have to look exactly like us to be viable, and of course we’re in a world that is perfectly tuned for us to exist. That doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything. I know people often use it to support the idea of multiple universes, all varying slightly — but something can be made just once and be utterly unique and turn out to be perfect for something, even if you don’t make multiples.
This is, honestly, why I find physics so frightening. It’s all so terribly unlikely, and we don’t understand it, and against all this it becomes very apparent, to my mind, how small and alone and temporary each human being is.
It’s also fascinating, even for those who prefer biology as a science, like one you could probably name…
The Vaccine Race, Meredith Wadman
I really enjoyed this, and I read it at a very opportune moment — at exactly the same time as I had my lab skills residential school in Milton Keynes. The techniques described were mostly not the same, but there was some crossover, and it was great to think about how I might one day contribute to the same science, if I go that route. My only quibbles with this book were with the sometimes unfocused feel; there’s a lot of scientists which it tracks quite closely, and sometimes I wondered how relevant all of the details are.
It’s also got a bit of a divide between the WI-38 cells, which were used to make vaccines, and the vaccines themselves; there’s a lot of focus on the cell line, and sometimes that wasn’t directly relevant to the vaccines. It’s interesting stuff, particularly when it comes to the commercialisation of science, but it didn’t always feel like it fit with the story of the vaccine race. In that sense, it sometimes felt like two almost-separate books. It’s also odd because Wadman clearly champions Hayflick, the creator of the cell line, despite his rather indefensible actions — dismissing them as being due to ‘stubbornness’. Sorry, but if you have a legal contract and you’ve agreed to it, you can’t just forget about it. If you object to the way things are being sorted out, you don’t abscond with the cell line — you get a lawyer.
It doesn’t sound like Hayflick meant any harm, though I am conscious of Wadman’s bias there, and it’s probably true that he deserved better from the use of his cell line — but even so, he was not in the right.
Other than that, there are also some very worthwhile discussions of the ethics of vaccine production. They were often tested on vulnerable people who couldn’t consent, and the WI-38 cell line came originally from the lung cells of an aborted foetus. It’s worth remembering these facts, even with the undoubted good done by the availability of vaccines.
Definitely recommend this one.
Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Jim Al-Khalili, Johnjoe McFadden
I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now, though also somewhat afraid of the idea — quantum biology?! Do y’all have to bring quantum (which I don’t understand) into biology (which I mostly do understand)? How rude! But this book is really clear about the concepts it describes, and there’s nothing too mind-boggling in it. Sometimes, in fact, the patience the authors had with explaining a concept I already understood was a little frustrating — but will open the book up to a bigger audience.
Do they have a point? Yes, I think so. I’m not sure it’s proven that quantum effects have a major impact on all the biological processes they discuss, but it seems pretty clear from the research they reference that quantum effects are there and might even solve some of the problems we still have in biology.
More research is needed, though — and this is one field you won’t find me trying to join, I think! It’s fascinating stuff, but I’m not a quantum fan.
The Glass Magician, Charlie N. Holmberg
Like the first book, this is basically a bit of cotton candy, and I enjoyed it as such. The alt-Victorian-ish world isn’t sketched out very clearly, but the magic system is fascinating, and it gets extended somewhat in this book, which is interesting. And I can’t help but want Thane and Ceony to get together, even though it was kind of abrupt in the first book.
Ceony herself continues to be irritatingly impulsive and lacking in self-awareness. In the last book, it made a certain amount of sense; no one else was planning to go and rescue Thane. In this book, there are plenty of people who are way more qualified than she is, and she succeeds only in making things more complicated (although of course, in the tried-and-true style, she ends up saving the day even despite that because she has heart and pluck and throws herself in there).
It’s not a particularly surprising story or world, but it remains fun.
Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers
What do I even have to say about these books anymore? This is the second Wimsey book, and it ups the emotional involvement somewhat by bringing in Peter’s family, and therefore higher stakes. I love all the stupid, unreliable, ridiculous characters, and the clever ones too, since they’re often one and the same character. I love the fact that if you pay attention, there are clues throughout — if you know your literature. (I refer to the references to Manon Lescaut.)
Yes, it’s Golden Age detective fiction, with everything that implies. At times, things don’t seem to be moving along much further, things get confused and convoluted, and you just long for people to do some straight talking. It’s Peter and Bunter that carry it, along with some help from the Dowager Duchess — I read these books originally because they’re classics, but I came back again (and again, and again) for the characters and the cleverness of Sayers’ writing.
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
I know that there’s probably a ton of “problematic” themes/scenes/descriptions in this book; without paying much attention to the specifics, I’ve still gained the impression that Gaiman isn’t exactly beloved of the social justice crowd, for various reasons. And I can definitely understand the criticisms of some of his actions, statements, aspects of his writing… but American Gods is still a really satisfying, solid read, and I enjoyed it. I found some of the mythology a little too obvious this time round — “Low Key Lyesmith”, really? The hints were just way too obvious for someone with a solid knowledge of Norse mythology.
Still, the other mythologies that are glimpsed are less well-known to me, and I love the way they’re all woven together to make a rich story that’s like a tour of the US and of its people’s history. I’ve no doubt there are gods that should have been included and aren’t, and that other gods have more prominence than they probably should (well, Odin for one). But honestly, I wasn’t thinking that while I was reading. I was just enjoying it.
It’s true that Shadow, the main character, is a bit of a cypher — intentionally. It’s hard to like someone who seems to go through life so numbly. But really, I’m here for the game Gaiman’s playing with the mythology, so it works for me all the same.
Some of the stuff that really doesn’t work for me, though, would include the way the female characters are treated: so much sex and lying, and “bitchiness” (for lack of a better word)… I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel quite right.
It’s a fun read, though not perfect. I think that has to be my conclusion.
The Real Lives of Roman Britain, Guy de la Bedoyere
I picked this up mostly because Guy de la Bedoyere worked on Time Team, which I loved as a kid and now watch sometimes with my wife. He was their Roman expert, or one of them, so that’s a pretty good endorsement (and it amused me to notice a blurb from Tony Robinson on the front!). The problem, as ever, is that there isn’t really that much material for the “real people” of Roman Britain, because there’s no rich written record to refer to. There’s scraps — an inscription here, a letter there, an eloquent tomb — but often de la Bedoyere is pressed to make more than a paragraph or two of the material he has. It’s about real people, alright, but there’s so little we know about them, that doesn’t necessarily add to what we know.
Which is not to say it’s a bad book; it’s solidly based on the archaeology and records we have, and there are some fascinating glimpses at life in Roman Britain. But it’s less a full picture than a glance through a door that’s open just a crack.
Mind you, I’m sure de la Bedoyere feels closer to the people he writes about than we do, reading about it — he’s examined the evidence first hand, perhaps worked on the excavations. This might be more satisfying if you’re in that position, too!