Review – Gambit: Once A Thief

Cover of Gambit: Once A ThiefGambit: Once A Thief, James Asmus, Clay Mann, Diogenes Neves

I vaguely remember Gambit from watching X-men cartoons as a kid, I think. But I don’t remember him well enough to just jump in like this and actually care about Gambit’s inconsequential adventures that’re his own damn fault for messing with stuff he doesn’t understand for the heck of stealing something. I mean, sure, if that’s Remy’s character, then… okay? But I know he has fans, and surely they’re for something more substantial than this? Right?

So yeah, not impressed with this. The art is great, but the stories are just… I had difficulty, honestly, remembering the names of the two dimensional characters he was running into.

Not one for me, I think.

Rating: 1/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is “Top Ten Books That Were Hard For Me To Read”. Which… it should be an easy one for me, because I get embarrassment squick really easily, and there are various topics that don’t do my brain any good. My mind’s gone blank as I type this, but let’s see what I can do.

  1. Assassin’s Quest, Robin Hobb. Stop hurting Fitz! That’s pretty much a universal in Hobb’s books, but still. The books are great but oh my god, stop hurting Fitz.
  2. Hold On, Alan Gibbons. I read this way back because my sister asked me to. Both of us were bullied pretty badly in school, so it was difficult to read both because it’d happened to me, and because I knew it was still happening to my sister.
  3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling. Yeah, I doubt this one is going to show up on many other people’s lists. But it’s true. I’ve studied it 2-3 times in English Lit, and between that and the massive hype, I have difficulty picturing myself enjoying it now. Or I did: I think I’m starting to feel like giving the series another go now.
  4. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Solely because I read it too much.
  5. The Mermaids Singing, Val McDermid. Rape, torture, gore, violence, suicide, all kinds of triggers. It upset me very much back when it was a set text for a Crime Fiction module, to the point where I actually requested in the end of term feedback that the lecturer put a warning about it on the syllabus, particularly for the benefit of people who have been raped or have the kind of gender issues described. (The lecturer said no and called me a fragile flower in front of the entire lecture hall, but that’s another story.)
  6. The Farthest Shore, Ursula Le Guin. I never used to like going past the first two books of the Earthsea series. I didn’t like how Le Guin developed the world, and the way her concerns within the world changed from fairly typical fantasy tropes to something much more examined. I’d like them better now, I think, particularly now I’ve read the final book and seen how it all comes together.
  7. The Double Helix, James Watson. I have actually enjoyed more recent work by Watson, but this memoir of the discovery of the structure of DNA drove me nuts. He’s so dismissive and awful about Rosalind Franklin and her achievements, with numerous comments on her appearance and how a bit of makeup would improve her. Ugh.
  8. The Innocent Mage, Karen Miller. I loved what Miller did with building up characters, even with world-building. But it was so slow, and her villain was practically a cartoon. I expected him to say “mwahahahaahaaa!” any moment.
  9. An Evil Guest, Gene Wolfe. Gene Wolfe is a really clever writer, but this book seemed like a mess. I can’t even really remember much about it; I certainly didn’t enjoy it. Sadly!
  10. Revealing Eden, Victoria Foyt. It may be possible to do justice to this idea, in the hands of a very good writer. Flipping racism around so that white people are the ones without privilege… it could make for a really interesting story, I guess. But oh man, did Foyt not think it through.

Looking forward to seeing what other people pick!

Review – Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole

Cover of Down the Rabbit Hole by Allan H RopperReaching Down the Rabbit Hole, Brian Burrell, Dr. Allan Ropper
Received to review via NetGalley

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole is a really fascinating book. It’s a little fictionalised, so we get dialogues and little portraits of character, enough that we can care about the cases discussed. Dr Ropper is pretty much everything an ideal doctor should be: knowledgeable, capable of acting fast, capable of explaining complex processes clearly, intuitive, willing to listen, willing to admit he’s wrong… At every stage, he emphasises to the reader and to the residents he’s teaching that each case is individual, that the right answer for one person isn’t the right one for the next, and so on.

There are a couple of very good chapters on Parkinson’s and ALS, some fascinating things like the fact that an ovarian teratoma can cause seizures and all sorts of neurological symptoms, etc. At every turn, it demonstrates the complexity of the brain, the limits of our understanding.

What nearly spoiled it all for me was the fact that Ropper really does revert to talking about hysteria. When I quoted a section to my mother, a psychiatrist, she texted back to ask if the book was written in 1899 — that’s how out of date that section seems. For the most part, he even seems sympathetic to these patients, which is more than I can say for a lot of people who dismiss hysteria/psychosomatic illnesses/conversion disorder, etc. But in this case there seems to be a barrier in his thinking: he sees a young woman with a teddy bear, and he immediately chalks it up to hysteria. Whatever her symptoms: hysteria is the answer. Sure, he dresses it up as “conversion disorder”, but what he means is still pretty much the Victorian hysteria. He uses that term as a direct synonym for conversion disorder, psychosomatic problems, etc.

And it’s exactly that attitude that makes life difficult for people who have mental illnesses, insight and even a glimpse of the way that people are going to look at them. If I’m going into a doctor’s office with some problem, I prepare myself for the inevitable questions about my levels of anxiety, my depression during the last few weeks, is there anything at home I’m struggling with… Because there’s a diagnosis of GAD and depression right there in my file, I know that nine out of ten doctors will listen to my symptoms and hear only psychosomatic. And some of those will even blame me for that — me, the thinking rational person — even though I could no more help it than I could pick the stars out of the sky.

I started having horrible stomach pains in 2010, my second year of university, at the same time as I started a pretty steep descent into anxiety. Doctors were reasonably sympathetic, but continually told me that what was happening to me, whatever it was, just happened because of my anxiety. Here’s a pill, take it and everything will go away. And I believed them: the pain had to be in my head, because I have an anxiety disorder. I knew they wouldn’t believe in the pain and so I didn’t either.

Even at the point where my physical symptoms were completely blatant, when you could do a physical exam and precisely locate the source of the pain, my GP was reluctant to send me for an ultrasound because, in his opinion, I was probably just stressed about my master’s degree. He repeatedly asked if I was happy, if I was sure I was doing the right thing in my career, while I was trying to ask for pain relief. When eventually I pushed hard enough, he sent me for an ultrasound, warning me that I was wasting everyone’s time.

My gallbladder was packed with stones, and the only option was to remove it.

At one point in this book, Ropper discusses signs and symptoms. Symptoms are what the patient reports; signs are what the physician observes. Don’t stop listening to the symptoms just because you think you can see the signs. Don’t get blinded to one thing because another has already been diagnosed.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Cosmocopia

Cover of Cosmocopia by Paul Di FilippoCosmocopia, Paul Di Filippo
Received to review via Netgalley

I have no earthly idea of what to compare this novel to, apart from China Miéville’s New Crobuzon books. There’s something akin in the worldbuilding, in the weirdnesses. But where other people are comparing this to an acid trip and whatever, well, I’ve never taken drugs in my life and even feverish dreams aren’t this bizarre but at the same time carefully drawn.

I wasn’t particularly engaged by the first third of the story, but I loved the second part. The world created was so different from almost anything I know of, and yet still Di Filippo managed to create characters and stakes that you could care about.

The last part was… almost an anticlimax. It was still weird, but I didn’t care so much for it, and despite covering more time/space, it paled compared to the second part. I don’t know how I wanted the story to end, but perhaps I wanted it to surprise me again — and this didn’t, somehow. It seemed almost half-hearted, really, like the important part of the story was the central part and the rest, eh.

Despite all that, it’s not difficult to read at all, and is straight-forward to follow. It’s the ideas that are bizarre, not the execution. Still, if you prefer a good solid novel that goes from A to B — more Neil Gaiman than China Miéville — then it probably won’t be for you. On the other hand, I’d have said that before reading this, and it got under my skin.

Rating: 4/5

Review – FF: Fantastic Faux

Cover of Fantastic Faux by Matt FractionFF: vol. 1, Fantastic Faux, Matt Fraction, Mike Allred, Laura Allred

I think this one definitely requires more background. It might be volume #1 of the FF Marvel Now books, but it clearly follows an ongoing story involving the Fantastic Four and… possibly a lot of other people? I had no idea who a lot of these people were, other than Johnny Storm and Scott Lang. (Where does that fit with Young Avengers? Isn’t he Cassie’s dad, and isn’t he dead? Or did he come back amidst the timeline crossing?)

Anyway, there were fun aspects to this — the line “All of you pale before our hetero-normative cisgendered classification of family!” is a winning one, and there’s some other good one-liners. Which I’d kind of expect from Matt Fraction, really. There was a really nice bit where he fit in a trans* character, dealt with sensitively, yet in such a normal way — it barely caused a blink, and yet it worked well. I liked that bit a lot. Oh, and She-Hulk is great.

Overall, though, I don’t have enough context to really enjoy this. Too bad the library’s collection of comics is generally spotty.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Wherever You Go, There You Are

Cover of Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-ZinnWherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn

If you’re looking for something about meditation and mindfulness that’s devoid of spiritual interpretations and the like, this is one of the closest approaches I’ve seen that still focused on the meditation aspect and not just generally being “more aware”. It has some helpful suggestions for visualisation, including details not just of picturing things but of feeling things, like his suggestions for standing meditation of imagining yourself as a tree, the part where he mentioned approaching the practice with dignity, etc.

Overall, I doubt it’s going to convince anyone who is highly sceptical to begin with, or help anyone start a practice ex nihilo. But it’s worth reading, and sitting with, and thinking about, if you can put aside scepticism and just try it.

One thing I especially liked was that Kabat-Zinn doesn’t have any thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots about this. There’s recommendations, suggestions, but also reminders that any moment of mindfulness in the day, however short, is valuable.

Rating: 3/5

Stacking the Shelves

I haven’t gone on such wonderful buying sprees this week, but I did go to two different libraries (go on, guess how many library cards I have). So it is not particularly a small haul, all the same. And I did get some books — my partner spoils me.

Ebooks

Cover of Graceling by Kristin Cashore Cover of Fire by Kristin Cashore Cover of Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Cover of The Language of Spells by Sarah Painter Cover of Fair Game by Josh Lanyon

I read Graceling a few years ago, and liked it well enough, but I wasn’t bowled over. I’m going to give Kristin Cashore another chance, evidently; my ex-housemate Ru will be pleased with me. The Language of Spells was a somewhat random choice, while Fair Game is necessary for me to read last week’s review copy of Fair Play.

Review copies

Cover of Unborn by Amber Lynn Natusch Cover of Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney

I tried to have restraint this week, see?

Library books

Cover of False Colours by Georgette Heyer Cover of The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen Cover of Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer

Cover of Surrender None by Elizabeth Moon Cover of Liar's Oath by Elizabeth Moon Cover of Tempting the Gods by Tanith Lee

Cover of Bad Things by Michael Marshall Cover of The Mighty Thor by Matt Fraction Cover of Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

Cover of Seahenge by Francis Pryor Cover of Discovering Dorothea by Karolyn Shindler

More Heyer, which surprises no one; I keep meaning to read Sarah Addison Allen and since I’ve misplaced Garden Spells, I may as well start there; archaeology! paleontology! and… Matt Fraction. My usual hectic mix.

What’s everyone else been up to?

Review – The Human Age

Cover of The Human Age by Diane AckermanThe Human Age, Diane Ackerman

I got a proof copy of this from Bookbridgr, so I’m not sure how many of the issues are going to be dealt with before the completed book is rolled out. There were still a lot of errors at this stage — a bit where some words were struck out, problems with punctuation, etc. I think the purple prose will be there to stay, though; the writing isn’t terrible, but it’s rather overloaded, and I’m not keen on Ackerman’s flights of imagination. It’s one thing to imagine the trace we’re leaving on the earth for future archaeologists, it’s another to imagine those future archaeologists. That’s science fiction, which I don’t have any argument with, but I don’t tend to like it when that crosses over into my supposed non-fiction.

Ackerman picked an interesting topic, though, and aside from the blizzard of adjectives, this book is an easy read. It’s not a pessimistic humans-are-destroying-the-world sort of book; at one point she mentions the idea of (some) industrial landscapes being beautiful, which is apparently a growing tourist thing in some parts of the world.

Her chapters are short, though her sentences are long, and all in all it’s a quick one. I’m not impressed by her writing style, but I would like to read more on the same topic with a similar outlook.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Bath Tangle

Cover of Bath Tangle by Georgette HeyerBath Tangle, Georgette Heyer

I’m not entirely sure how to rate this, because I did enjoy it a lot, but it’s still not on par with The Talisman Ring or The Grand Sophy for me. Having finished it, I was just a little relieved that all the tangles of the love interests were sorted out, and that everyone got to where they intended to go (though, I would almost have enjoyed it more if someone had made an irrevocable mistake, even if it were just Gerald and Emily; the way it came out was too good to be true, and Rotherham far too in control of the whole situation).

You’ve got to like that this isn’t just a story with a tempestuous male character pulling everyone along; Rotherham may well remind the gentle reader of Rochester from Jane Eyre with his manners. Lady Serena is no Jane, however, and she gives as good as she gets. I liked that their romance is not some insipid mutual regard, but something real and passionate.

I especially like that Heyer manages to bring in a spread of characters across social class and attitudes. Obviously, Lady Serena and her cohort are privileged as heck and don’t know it, but I don’t really expect an older book like this to really deal with that aspect. I liked the realism of Serena’s indifference to class while Fanny, equally likeable, has more difficulty with being snobbish. The way Heyer handles show-don’t-tell is pretty instructive, too; scenes like Serena holding the thorny flowers, or Fanny and Kirkby, etc.

Of course, the situation itself is one of Heyer’s typical tangles, with Serena’s father putting her under the guardianship of a man she jilted. It could be pretty creepy, to be honest, but Heyer handles it well — Rotherham never takes advantage of the guardianship, and is prepared to let Serena make her mistake if necessary, even if he is manipulative.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday Thoughts: Novellas

This week’s prompt from Ok, Let’s Read is about novellas.

What are your general opinions on novellas or short stories in a series or otherwise? Have you read any novellas? Do you always make sure to read the novellas in a series? Do you read them where they belong (i.e. between the correct two books) or are you not too bothered about that sort of thing?

They can be interesting. Sometimes they drive me mad because they’re in some obscure anthology, which I only want for that one story. Or they’re just not available anymore. Still, they can add something interesting to a series, and I do try to read them where they belong in a chronological order. Sometimes, that really doesn’t work — I read The Assassin and the Pirate Lord, by Sarah J. Maas, for example, back before the first novel was released, and I didn’t really care enough. It’s an interesting method of trying to whet people’s appetites, but you have to make it really good if you’re going to do that.

I have a lot of opinions about short stories because I like to write them. You can’t just think of them as a watered down novel; they’ve got to have all the elements of a good novel, but concentrated. You’ve got to tighten up the writing until every word is important, every paragraph advances something. I don’t mean just plot-wise; a good paragraph could help build up the world, the characters, or yeah, the plot.

For sci-fi fans, I’d definitely recommend Alastair Reynolds. I loved Troikawhich is a 100 page-ish novella, and I remember being very enthusiastic about Diamond Dogs, as well. Reynolds has that knack of taking an idea that could fill a whole novel and focusing in on it, staying with it without getting distracted, and delivering something really powerful.