Tag: books

Review – Alpha Beta

Posted 21 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Alpha Beta by John ManAlpha Beta, John Man

John Man is good at a certain kind of popular history book, as I’ve noted before. There are often elements of travelogue, and it’s usually a very easy read, with quite short chapters and not too many long quotations from sources or anything like that. It’s not the most rigorous scholarship in the world, but it’s a good way to get a handle on a subject and get an initial idea of whether you’re interested in reading more. Sometimes there are interesting titbits about newer scholarship that might be a bit more controversial — you catch the drift.

Alpha Beta, then, is Man’s take on the alphabet. Other people have mentioned expecting that he’d just discuss each letter in turn and where we picked it up from, but Man is somewhat more ambitious: he’s after the origin of the Roman alphabet as we know it, and more generally the origin of writing as a form of expression. He has some very interesting points, including about Korea’s hyper-rational alphabet that is designed to be ideal for writing down the language. (Though I do wonder if that will stick after a few centuries of use and language change.)

He has a whole bit on the influence of the alphabet on monotheism that made surprisingly little impact on me and I only remembered when checking over the Amazon reviews to refresh my mind to write this — although actually, I think what he wrote was more the other way round, that monotheism had an impact on the emergence of the alphabet, because he wrote about how useful it can be for an emerging social group to adopt an alphabet. The Mongols (a pet topic of his, clearly, since he’s written books on Genghis and Kublai Khan, etc) were also an example in that context.

Overall, it’s an interesting if not exactly exhaustive read.

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 20 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

Good morning, guys! Not next week, but the week after, I should be able to introduce you all to our new bunnies! For now, Breakfast has a fistbump for you all.

A brown bun wants to fistbump you

I should hurry up, because I’m writing this on Friday evening (as ever) and we’ve been to the gym and are tired. We being me and my wife, not me and the bunnies, entertaining though the image of them hopping on a treadmill is (and much as Hulk could use the exercise). So here goes!

Books acquired this week:

Cover of The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pevel Cover of Hounded by Kevin Hearne Cover of Sharps by K.J. Parker

Cover of Requiem for a Mezzo by Carola Dunn Cover of Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn Cover of Damsel in Distress by Carola Dunn

Library sale + falling in love with a new series!

Books read this week:

Cover Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn Cover of The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn Cover of The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe

Reviews posted this week:

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes. Nothing groundbreaking, and a bit slow, but if you’re into Golden Age crime fiction… 2/5 stars
Endless Forms Most Beautiful, by Sean Carroll. A great entry-level book on Evo Devo. 4/5 stars
Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, by John Man. Another entertaining pop-history part-travelogue book from Man… 3/5 stars
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. This was a reread for me, and one I found worth it. I enjoy the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone a lot. 4/5 stars
Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton. Another reread, so I can get on with the series. Still entertaining, without being very groundbreaking. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Returning Comments. What do you do if someone comments on your blog, you go to return it, and you find out they think you’re going to hell and frequently post saying so whenever homosexuality comes up in the books they read? To the extent of no longer supporting an author because they’re tolerant of homosexuality?
WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update.

Out and about:

Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘[UNTRANSLATABLE]‘. A rather cynical take on why an alien might be interested in Earth.

So how’s everyone’s week been? Anything exciting going on for you?

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Review – Rebel of the Sands

Posted 19 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonRebel of the Sands, Alwyn Hamilton

Rebel of the Sands is set in a world that’s part fantasy Wild West, part Arabian desert, with the sharpshooting smart-talking djinn-folk to prove it. It’s a reread for me, so I can go on to read the other two books: it’s not a book I’d class as one of my top reads ever, but I found it solidly entertaining, and I’m interested to see how the trilogy builds on this start. It’s decidedly young adult in tone and level, which I know is a turn off for a lot of people, but I take my fun where I can find it, and Rebel of the Sands was definitely fun.

It opens in the town of Dustwalk — or rather, at a shooting contest in the nearby town of Deadshot. Amani is dressed as a boy, and she plans to win a shooting contest, earn some money, and finally get away from her life in Dustwalk, a life that has been shadowed by the fact that her father was clearly not from Dustwalk and the execution of her mother for killing her adoptive local father. She has at least one friend in Dustwalk, a fact which I assume is going to become relevant later on, probably in a way Amani will regret. Tamid has to use a crutch to get by, and has a tendency to be overly serious, but he accepts her (more or less) for who she is, and even bravely offers to marry her to help her get out of a repugnant marriage. In this book, he’s kind of wasted, because Amani is only too quick to leave him behind when trouble starts.

She travels across the desert with Jin, an enigmatic boy who nonetheless (and unsurprisingly) has ties to the rebellion going on at the time. Slowly, he persuades her towards where she’ll meet others in the cause, where she could be an asset for a particular reason that isn’t her sharpshooting…

In many ways, it’s a typical story, and more so because of the romantic tension between Amani and Jin. The desert-setting helps to make it feel a little fresher, though the caravan travel section isn’t exactly unique, for all that.

In the end, it’s not a standout story that I’ll never forget. It’s entertaining, though, and I don’t regret the reread to bring myself back up to speed.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Annihilation

Posted 18 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, and a reread for me. It’s a really, really weird trilogy, which always reminds me of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside PicnicI seem to have forgotten a lot of the finer detail of the trilogy, and the extent to which we ever receive explanations, but this particular book stays really clear in my mind. It’s something about the tone, the matter of fact calm of the biologist, the illusion of objectivity that her narrative gives.

Annihilation records the twelfth expedition into Area X. The team is made up of a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor — along with a linguist who actually backs out of the expedition before they cross the border. And Area X is… a pristine wilderness filled with uncannyness. You can’t take in anything high tech, people don’t report back — or if they do, they come back changed, riddled with cancer in the case of the eleventh expedition, oddly amnesiac and lacking in affect. The objective of the missions is to work out what’s happening, what Area X is, how it came about, and try and get some understanding of a phenomenon that seems to have no rhyme or reason.

As usual, everything goes awry. The psychologist turns out to be hypnotising the group; the anthropologist quickly dies; they see things which make no sense — words written in fungi, colonised with living creatures; villages decaying faster than they ought to; a lighthouse which has clearly been the site of intense struggle, even a battle… and one by one, the group come apart. The biologist no less than the others, though as the narrator she gives a kind of illusion of calm objectivity, of careful and unbiased observation. As the story unfolds, you learn how much she holds back from the reader as well, and that shapes the story profoundly…

It’s well written in the sense of handling an unreliable narrator well, and also in the sense of creating a truly weird, uncanny landscape which sounds beautiful, undisturbed, and yet…

I really enjoy these books, though they leave me with a sense of creeping unease. I’m looking forward to rereading the second and third as well. If you find this one frustrating, well, the others don’t take quite the same format — if you’re intrigued by the world, you might want to give the second one a try too. On the other hand, Vandermeer’s class of weird might just not be your thing.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 17 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.

Cover of Authority by Jeff VanderMeerWhat are you currently reading?

Too many books at once, as per usual! Let me see: the two non-fiction books I’m reading are Barry Cunliffe’s The Ancient Celts — informative and a beautiful book in terms of the images, but oh my goodness for some reason his writing puts me to sleep — and H.D.F. Kitto’s The Greeks, which is out of date in both info and attitudes, but so enthusiastic and interested in everything the Greeks were that it kind of makes up for it. Then fiction-wise I’m partway through rereading Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer, and I’ve started reading the second Daisy Dalrymple book.

Cover of The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola DunnWhat have you recently finished reading?

Death at Wentwater Court, the first Daisy Dalrymple book by Carola Dunn, was the last thing I finished. I do like Daisy: she has many similarities with Phryne, only less sex appeal (and decidedly less sex going on). I’ve bought the next couple of books: it’s promising to be a good cozy series, which I’m glad of — I needed that!

Cover of Elantris by Brandon SandersonWhat will you be reading next?

That, I don’t know. Acceptance, the final book of Vandermeer’s trilogy, would be a good guess, and probably more Daisy Dalrymple. I’ve got Anna Caltabiano’s books out of the library, starting with The Seventh Miss Hatfield, and they’re sort of appealing to me right now… but there’s so much, both in the library pile and elsewhere. My sister’s been reading Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, so maybe I’ll jump on that bandwagon.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection

Posted 16 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Genghis Khan by John ManGenghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, John Man

John Man writes good, light, easy to read pop history. I have no illusions that I’m reading about the latest cutting edge discoveries, or that I’m getting a deep critical look at all the possible sources… but a story is woven together that illuminates a bit of history, with a touch of the travelogue as well. I know that it annoys other readers that Man also writes about his experiences while writing a book — where he went for research, the almost-calamities experienced, etc, etc. Still, for a bit of light reading I don’t mind, and it’s certainly easier to digest than something more academic.

Genghis Khan himself is a fascinating subject: the name is so evocative, yet really all it conjured up for me was tent villages and conquest. I didn’t really have a good idea of the Mongol peoples and their context, except dimly refracted through fiction. And well, okay, John Man gives us little snippets of “faction” (as is his wont), but it is based on research and an understanding of what was likely.

So yeah, enjoyable and accessible. I wouldn’t use it as a source for something that needs scrupulous accuracy, but if you’re curious, it should be a good read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Posted 15 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean CarrollEndless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean Carroll

At this point, I must admit I’m a bad judge of pop-science when it covers biology. To me this is a very easy read now, covering simple topics, but I know I wouldn’t have felt that way a couple of years ago. If you’re interested in evolutionary biology, though, this is a very good primer on the science of Evo Devo: understanding evolutionary relationships through understanding the development of embryos, how certain genes work in causing large morphological differences even though almost the same gene can be found in a wildly different species.

think if you have a reasonable understanding of genetics and how proteins are made, you should be okay here: it’s not requiring expertise, though it may take concentration to follow some of the reasoning if you’re not already familiar. If you are, it illustrates the principles nicely, and I imagine a full colour copy of the book (if it exists) would be rather physically gorgeous as well. There’s a lot of black-and-white images of butterfly wings, for instance, in my particular edition. The points could probably have been more clearly demonstrated with colour images where the differences are easier to highlight…

All the same, a fascinating book, whether you’re an expert or not (I think). Evo Devo is a bit of a buzzword for some biologists lately, and this book is worth the read for learning about that. I wish I’d read it before the module I did that included some of this stuff: it would have definitely made the learning part come easier!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Mystery of the Skeleton Key

Posted 14 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard CapesThe Mystery of the Skeleton Key, Bernard Capes

I didn’t know anything about Bernard Capes before reading this, only that this was a reissue of a Golden Age crime fiction book, much in the same line as the British Library Crime Classics. Good enough for me, at least when I’m in the mood to tune out and just read an old-timey mystery: this pretty much delivered on that, though it’s hardly the most original or the most exciting of that line I’ve read.

It actually takes a long time for the story to explain why it’s The Mystery of the Skeleton Key; at times, I was actually tempted to check the right book was inside that slipcover! After a long preamble involving some of the characters meeting in Paris, and a bit of mystery about a Baron who plays chess for half-a-crown and frequents the oddest places, eventually there is actually a murder to be investigated. The wrong people are accused, the timings are all mixed up, and the son of the house (because if it’s not quite a country house mystery, it’s definitely set in a country house) is implicated because the girl who gets murdered — killed with a shot from his gun — was pregnant with his child.

In the end, the solution relies on coincidence, spurious old-fashioned science (a man inherits an injury-induced mannerism from his father due to the fact that his mother saw his father with the injury while pregnant with him), and various people not being quite who/what they say they are. I think it’s actually quite interesting in terms of who the culprit turns out to be — not a common solution, and against Knox’s Ten Commandments in a sense — but otherwise there’s not much to set it apart, and in tone it’s fairly dry and without any sense of urgency. My main feeling was mild curiosity, and that’s about it. Nothing terrible, but nor is it something I’d recommend.

Rating: 2/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 13 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

Good morning, readers! It’s been a quiet week for me, still getting over my coughing and wheezing, lots of bunny-snuggling, etc. I did get my hair dyed again, it’s a rather amazing colour…

Pic of me and my bright teal hair

We’ll see how long that lasts! Anyway, no new books this week, so here’s a feature of the covers of the books I finished!

Books read this week:

Cover of The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri Cover of Angkor and the Khmer Civilization by Michael D. Coe Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

Cover of Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Reviews posted this week:

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. A reread of a beloved book. There’s still much to love, though maybe I’m less taken than I used to be! 4/5 stars
The Lake District Murder, by John Bude. Another in the British Library Crime Classics range. Entertaining enough, but not a particular highlight. 3/5 stars
Poison: A Social History, by Joel Levy. An interesting, if somewhat limited book with rather short chapters and some good scientific profiles of poisons. 2/5 stars
The Book of Hidden Things, by Francesco Dimitri. This one was an interesting read, but not really my thing. Some aspects felt way too obvious to me. 2/5 stars
The Lost Plot, by Genevieve Cogman. A good installment of this series, although I’m not sure I love all the developments! 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussions: What to discuss? I know, I’m cheating. Any topics anyone wants me to write about, though?
WWW Wednesday. The usual update on what I’m currently reading.

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘Evaluating scientific papers‘. Breaking down exactly how to decide what to trust and avoid being taken for a ride.

So that’s that. How’s everyone doing? Anything good on your shelves right now?

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Review – The Lost Plot

Posted 12 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot, Genevieve Cogman

It’s taken me so long to read this, and not for lack of wanting to. I even had it started for far too long and just stalled on it. Admittedly, that’s because it’s very short on one of the main characters of the previous books: the Great Detective archetype, Vale, hardly appears at all apart from at the beginning and end, and doesn’t play any part in the major action of the book. Still, it’s a great romp, as ever, this time taking Irene and Kai to a world with little magic, where they have to navigate through Prohibition era Boston and New York. The dragons also feature heavily, and the issue of Kai’s family finally really comes to a head. The next book is definitely going to have to be different; that might be a good thing, in terms of changing up the plotline and keeping things fresh.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In The Lost Plot, Irene discovers that another Librarian is violating the Library’s neutrality by working directly for a dragon, in a matter of dragon politics. That interference can’t be tolerated by any of the parties, so Irene is sent by Library security to figure out what’s going on and fix the situation — and as usual, all the blame will fall on her if she fails. Chasing the errant Librarian, Kai and Irene end up in a Prohibition-era USA, swapping smart talk with mobsters and dodging the cops as best as they can. Since dragons are involved, Kai has to be especially careful: at some point, he’s going to have to make a choice about where his loyalties lie.

As I said, it’s a romp in very much the same vein as usual for these books. I’m not sure how I feel about the development of Kai and Irene’s relationship in this book: I feel like there’s been a bit too much will-they-won’t-they with both Irene and Kai and Irene and Vale, and honestly I was at a loss for how it was going to turn out. Now it has turned out, at least for now… I’m a bit disappointed. I did always feel that both potential relationships were a bit of a distraction: I just wanted the three of them, all together, all working on their problems, and all trusting each other. An intense relationship, perhaps, and one that didn’t have to become romantic — it was just pushed that way, almost as if the author can’t see any other way for it to turn out.

Anyway, it’s an entertaining read, though I think my favourite of the series is The Masked City. I’m interested to see how the events of this book will change the pattern for the next book. For one thing, Irene’s going to need a new student…

Rating: 4/5

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