The first thing to know about this book is that it’s set in a slightly parallel universe with a slightly different British royal family, though the US politics are more recognisable. I found it a bit maddening trying to follow what was real and what was alternative, actually, because at one moment it’d be talking about Obama and the next it’d be talking about a fictional politician — but in the end I found it easiest to just go along with it. The stuff that’s important quickly becomes clear, and to behonest, I don’t need a vivid and accurate portrayal of a modern royal family. I know some people are sticklers for accuracy, but I can put up with a lot as long as I care about the characters/plot.
And oh, did I ever care. The two main characters are total idiots about many things, and certain aspects of the plot were deeply obvious, but nonetheless I was hooked on them — their idiotic banter and their emails, texts, phone calls; the way they wind their way into each others’ lives, despite never expecting to. The way they go out on a limb with their feelings, and eventually decide to make it work somehow. It’s great escapism, and the relationships between them and also those around them worked for me.
The triumphal note of the ending makes sense for the genre, but rings rather more hopefully than I’ve been feeling lately, given the trends in British politics. It’s nice to end on a high note, though.
Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science, Stuart Ritchie
I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and happened to pick it up this week — just a week after doing a course on pharmacoepidemiology in the age of COVID, which involved a lot of discussion of how to evaluate papers, and responsible study design. I’m also studying biostatistics and epidemiology this year, of course, meaning that I understand more about statistics than I care to — which means, all in all, that this book slotted in admirably, though quite without meaning it.
The issue the book discusses is a serious one: through the current system of “publish or perish” and the way grants are awarded, tenure is granted, etc, poor science is becoming the way to do things. It’s more important to produce a positive result than to produce a correct one, and even good scientists are lead astray by the rush to publish impressive results from underpowered studies with small sample sizes and implausibly large effects. There are a fair number of innocent mistakes being made, along with the fraud, bias and hype, but it all adds up to a bit of a crisis. As students we’re taught all about how to recognise faulty studies and how to build good ones — but the scientific world we enter into, if we choose research, doesn’t build on those foundations.
The book is surprisingly readable, and I would recommend it to both laypeople and scientists. It offers some very good analyses of what can go wrong, and some suggestions for how we can fix that, move on, and create a better, more open scientific community. It’s possible that if you’re a scientist you’ll wince and recognise that you yourself fell prey to this — the temptation to report positive results and shelve the negative ones, perhaps — but the point isn’t that one should always have been perfect, just that we all have to hold our hands up and work to make things better.
Plus, for a layperson, you’ll gain a better understanding of when to be sceptical, and what the warning signs are.
These books could really each be a trilogy on their own, in someone else’s hands. Book one would be up to Phèdre in La Dolorosa, book two would be… maybe up to her time in Kriti, and then book three would be the return to Terre D’Ange. There are so many cinematic glorious moments, though Ysandre’s stunt near the end is the most glorious of the lot.
Kushiel’s Chosen follows Phèdre as she strikes out on her own, playing the game against Melisande in much the same way that her mentor Delaunay (unknowingly) did in the first book. She is, of course, rather too perfect in herself (apart from her drama with Joscelin, which sometimes gets frustrating) — too capable of carrying the day, through sex or divine mandate, but I always just settle down to enjoy it: the purple-tinged prose, the dramatic narration, the exoticisation of literally everything. It’s like a really, really rich banquet, and when I view it like that then I quickly sink into the story and characters.
What I can’t believe, really, is how quickly I used to read these books. I’ve slowed down in my old age. But there was also much enjoyment in spinning this out, episode by episode of Phèdre’s adventure, and building up slowly to the crescendo. I think this series has lasted well, for me.
Shelf Respect is a nicely presented little book which is more of a stocking filler for the bibliophile in your life who you don’t know very well than an in-depth read about how to curate your bookshelves. In the end, it amounts to a collection of observations, lists and quotes about reading. There’s a weird tendency to believe that people who love books are morally superior, and parts of this book indulge jokingly in that. All a bit hyperbolic and for a particular sort of reader for whom “being a reader” is an identity, a part of being “not like the other girls” or “the clever one” or whatever.
That last part is something that I’ve struggled with, lately. I do think of myself as “a reader” as fundamentally as I consider myself a person, and I’m not sure it serves me well. At the very least it’s important to note that many amazing people do not read, and that doesn’t make them less intelligent or more morally suspect than the next person — and we’re saying something pretty horrible about ourselves as readers when we make those assumptions
It’s fairly fluffy and benign, as a book, but that undercurrent bugs me.
Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, Rebecca Wragg Sykes
That’s a pretty big title, particularly as it includes concepts that people doubt applied to Neanderthals (like love and art). Nonetheless, Wragg Sykes lives up to it, painting a picture of the current state of the art in understanding Neanderthals, their lives, their relationships to each other… and their relationships to us. I lost count of the number of times I just had to share a snippet or an image from this book with my wife, because it’s just so cool what we can know about these people, from the way they ate to their technology level.
One example: their technology level, since we’re speaking of that, was higher than you’d think — for example, they were creating a sort of glue from resin. Pine resin was the best, but other resin when mixed with beeswax gained similar properties, and they knew that and used it! There are multiple levels of technology there, from getting the resin out of the bark (which required a low-oxygen fire) to mixing it to applying it to attaching spearheads to hafts, etc.
I knew some of the things mentioned in this book, of course, particularly when it comes to how Neanderthals are related to us. But much of it was new, or more detailed than I thought, and Wragg Sykes’ interpretation of the evidence is fascinating. Even if you don’t go all the way with her in attributing complex thought and planning to Neanderthals (though I think the evidence tends in her direction), the evidence is astounding enough to keep your attention.
This is actually that rarest of things: a popular science book which I will keep, even though I probably won’t read it again, because I enjoyed it so much and I would like to have it to hand to refer to in the future.
The Animals at Lockwood Manor follows Hetty, an assistant at the natural history museum, elevated to supervisor due to the beginning of World War II and the loss of the men of the department to enlistment. Hetty’s in charge of the evacuation of key parts of the museum’s collection, including invaluable type specimens, to a house in the country: Lockwood Manor. At first, the site seems close to ideal, but almost immediately there are issues: valuable items disappear, things are moved around when Hetty isn’t looking, and something sinister seems to be happening which makes her begin to doubt her sanity.
It’s all very Gothic and a little spooky, with brief interlude chapters from the point of view of Lord Lockwood’s daughter, Lucy, who is clearly haunted by the wild behaviour of her mentally ill mother. Throughout, there’s a sense that either there’s some serious gaslighting going on, or Hetty and Lucy are truly haunted — even as they become close and start a romantic relationship, clinging to one another amidst the awfulness of the seeming haunting and of Lord Lockwood’s dalliances with women younger than his own daughter.
On the one hand, I couldn’t point to anything special about the book — nothing I thought stood out, or particularly made it worth reading. On the other hand, I read it practically all in one go: there’s something about it which is gripping, helped along by the connection between Hetty and Lucy (at its best before they say a thing to one another, laying tension into each scene) and the fact that I am interested in Hetty’s job and the work she’s described as doing. It was enjoyable, though not outstanding; I may not even think of it again, but it certainly whiled away a few hours entertainingly.
The Restaurant: A History of Eating Out, William Sitwell
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this survey of eating out through the ages covers Britain most heavily, especially toward the end of the book. Which somewhat makes sense as a strategy, given the scope of the theme “eating out”, but the subtitle doesn’t really make that clear. In the end, I don’t know a lot about food, so I can’t say much about the accuracy of the actual information, but Sitwell writes clearly (if not always with sparkling prose) and introduces the important points well, developing his theme about the fact that British food isn’t really that bad after all, and that we have our own food-wizards.
Like I said, though, it’s not always sparkling prose, and I did drift off a bit. It’s actually a nice source for a story I want to write, so it served its purpose, but… to put it another way, it’s not the kind of non-fiction where I turned to my wife to ask “did you know? did you know?” — nor the kind of non-fiction I read compulsively, eagerly, regardless of the topic. (And there are certainly books that fascinate me about topics that don’t; Richard Fortey can make me enthused about geology, for goodness’ sake.)
So, interesting, but not special, I guess would be my summary.
I’ll confess… I didn’t get it. I picked this fairly randomly from the library’s selection of poetry, because I had a reading bingo prompt for a poetry book, and I wanted to give something new a try. It’s been a while since I’ve read poetry, so I’ll admit I’m out of practice. Nonetheless, it was hard to follow these through to the end, to get past the images and clever rhymes and half-rhymes and structures to see what he was ever trying to say.
In the end, I’m not sure I ever actually got anything out of any of these, beyond some very brief sense-impressions (several of them disgusting). There were a few funny lines and a few images I liked (“the compass gathered like a rose/into its bud” — clever!)… but overall, it just wasn’t for me at all.
Julian Symons was, I think, a good writer — just one I don’t get along with very well. He plays well with perspective and voice, and he can certainly put together a story — which is not an impression another repeat British Library Crime Classic author I detest gives me (John Dickson Carr, sorry folks) — but I just don’t enjoy his books. This is the third book of his I’ve read, and I think I appreciate them less with each successive book I read. It doesn’t matter that I know he did his research, or even that I’m curious about the true story that germinated the idea for him. I just… don’t like the book.
Which I hate to say, because I’ve enjoyed most of my tour into Golden Age crime fiction to one degree or another (E.C.R. Lorac’s books very much; Gil North’s, not at all)… but Symons’ work just doesn’t work for me. I’m always feeling like I picked up a smooth dry-looking stone and found a craggy wormy maggoty mess under it. It just leaves me feeling icky. There’s no characters you can really unambiguously enjoy, either because they’re fun caricatures or because they’re people you can root for: everything’s just complicated and messy, and the ending feels like a relief just because it’s over with (though it’s not a relief because it ends on a massive downer).
Not the era/genre of crime fiction that tends to end with the world set to rights, clearly!
I finally read Going Postal because I need to write a review of it for Postcrossing, in the not too distant future, and also because I needed a book I could borrow from Libby so I could read on my Kindle while on the treadmill. I expected to take some time over it and have a daily date with it while walking; I’m stranded somewhere partway through Monstrous Regiment because I kept stalling for no apparent reason. I didn’t have the same experience with Going Postal at all: it just seemed to smoothly hook me and draw me in and just keep on dragging me with it.
I’ve had a somewhat rocky relationship with Discworld in general, I guess. I remember reading the first few books (in publication order), and getting a bit tired of the humour; I got a bit tired of the running gags of Monstrous Regiment, too. Going Postal clicked with me, though; I was glad to finally meet the origin of some of the regular fan references for myself (GNU, for instance) and I found Pratchett’s humour to be, in general, less juvenile here than in Monstrous Regiment. There a few bits where I rolled my eyes a bit and wished he’d get on with it; the initiation bit was one of those. Yes, yes, postmen fall over rollerskates and get chased by dogs, I get it!
But for the most part, it really worked for me. And you can’t help but like Moist van Lipwig, really. He’s not a good man, except he accidentally kind of becomes one while playing the part. He has a kind of dedication to it — admittedly in fear of his life — and a wild enthusiasm, and the quirks of the postal service he organises are a joy.