BooksOfTheMoon

Giant Days: Not On the Test Edition Vol. 1

By John Allison

Rating: 4 stars

Despite hearing good things about this series, I wasn’t really sure what it was about. Recently though, I was looking for something to read, and this was recommended to me again, so I thought I’d give it a go. I’m quite glad that I did – it follows three flatmates in their first year at university and their various (mis)adventures.

I like the art styles here, which was done by Lissa Treiman for the first three quarters (chapters 1-6) and then Max Sarin for the last two. The styles are quite different and when I was flicking through it after first getting hold of it, I thought that the change would be jarring. But when it came to it, I was so absorbed in the story that it barely registered.

I like the three main characters, they’ve all got a lot of personality and are different enough that they complement each other well. It’s very believable that they would be friends, despite being so different. They have the same problems and concerns as other young adults just starting university: getting to know themselves; finding people to love; trying new experiences; making mistakes. It’s a lot of fun, and I look forward to seeing where it goes next.

My one, minor, niggle is that although it’s set in a UK university and written by a British writer, it sometimes feels very American. I’m not sure if this is just me, but it does occasionally draw me out of the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781608869947
Publisher: BOOM! Box
Year of publication: 2017

Ingenious Pursuits: Building The Scientific Revolution

By Lisa Jardine

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve owned this book for the best part of twenty years, but at some point it ended up being moved from my “to read” pile to the main bookshelves, at which point I forgot about it. I only realised I hadn’t read it when I was browsing the shelves recently. I also have no memory of buying this book, and my edition has no hints of what it’s about on the back cover (possibly one reason I kept ignoring it all those years ago, when I couldn’t just google it), but it turns out it’s a history of the scientific revolution that went hand in hand with the Enlightenment in Britain and across Europe in the second half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century.

Jardine uses the Royal Society, its members and associates as her touchstone for the discoveries and inventions of this period. She talks about contributions from Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and many others, in diverse fields. She covers the creation of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich; the importance of accurate clocks; telescopes and microscopes; and several other topics, that tend to become interrelated by the people involved. Hooke, in particular, is a recurring character, turning his hand to everything from clockmaking to microscopy to blood transfusion.

One thing that the book makes very clear is the level of cross-pollination of knowledge across Europe at the time. Henry Oldenburg, in particular, seems to have acted as a clearing house for knowledge, being secretary of the Royal Society. He received and sent correspondence across the continent, passing papers between people he thought would be interested, even when the corresponding polities were at war with each other, thus ensuring that the knowledge was spread around, and enabling new connections to be made that enable further discovery and invention.

The writing is lucid and easy to follow, something that I was relieved about after reading the introduction, which was denser and, to my mind, more deliberately academic. Jardine doesn’t focus much on the personalities behind the scientists — instead concentrating on the discoveries themselves and the relationships between them, although there are some cases when the personalities overshadow everything else. There are very few women mentioned in the book, possibly inevitable due to the period under discussion, although in saying that, I think there has been much more scholarship reviewing these discoveries and the contributions of women since this book was written.

An interesting book telling a fascinating story, and one that has an important message for today: science is international, and operates best in a spirit of cooperation, where people and ideas can flow freely through borders. Something that builders of walls and those stirring xenophobia would do well to remember.

Book details

ISBN: 9780316647526

The Universe Versus Alex Woods

By Gavin Extence

Rating: 3 stars

This isn’t the sort of book I would normally read, but a friend loaned it to me, saying that she thought I’d enjoy it. Through a series of unlikely events, a teenager ends up becoming friends with an old man, and this book charts their friendship. Despite the differences, it’s hard not to compare this to A Man Called Ove. Both feature grumpy old men whose lives change when they let others in. But this book doesn’t reach the same heights for me as the other. It felt a few times like it was trying too hard to press my emotional buttons, whereas Ove did it without me noticing at all.

Our protagonist here is young Alex Woods, who survived being struck by a meteorite and developed epilepsy as a result. The book does a good job in showing the terrible unfairness of childhood, when you have no agency, any signs of being different is a reason to be bullied, and you don’t have the words to explain your inner life to those around you, especially not to adults.

We get much less of of the inner life of Mr Peterson here, the old gent that Alex befriends. He’s more of a plot device than a character. The same is probably true of most of the other characters in the book.

Spoiler
I had to skip most of the bit with the book in the bus, with the bullies. When he took the first Edition Vonnegut on to the bus I could pretty much write the rest myself. As a book lover, who’s also had some experience of being bullied, that whole sequence hurt.

Despite that, it’s a very readable book, I got through it in short order, and it kept my attention throughout.

Aside: I had to chuckle to myself at the universally horrified reaction to Alex’s (one-off) use of the “worst word in the world”. You should come to Glasgow, pal. It’s almost just punctuation up here.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444765892
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2013

Huns, Vandals, and the Fall of the Roman Empire

By Thomas Hodgkin

Rating: 3 stars

Despite being written in the 19th century, with footnotes in Latin (everyone learns Latin at school, right?), this book is actually fairly easy to read. It does sort of throw you in at the deep end, but that’s at least partially because it’s part of a larger work, so by the start of this book, the Roman Empire has already split into Eastern and Western empires, and the Western one isn’t even ruled from Rome any more.

I picked this up mostly because my knowledge of Roman history is pretty weak. The book is split into two sections: a shorter one covering the Huns, and a longer one covering the Vandals. I knew very little about Attila the Hun and the way he swaggered across Europe. Hodgkin is certainly opinionated; he doesn’t try to take a neutral tone at all. He sneers at Attila and the Huns generally, very much giving the impression that he favours the civilised Romans over the “barbarian” invaders. He doesn’t rate Attila’s abilities as a general, despite his obvious accomplishments. This is sort of refreshing, given how used we are to historians trying to remain impartial.

However, I got to the end of Attila’s life, and Hodgkin started setting the scene for the Vandals, and I found myself caring less and less. There’s so many different players, petty politics (some things never change) and armies marching around, that every time I picked it up, I would lose heart after barely a handful of pages.

So I’m admitting defeat. Maybe I’d be better off starting smaller, like with a Wikipedia page summary or something. So despite being well-written, easy to read, I just don’t care enough about the subject matter to continue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853672422
Publisher: Greenhill Books
Year of publication: 1996

Norse Mythology

By Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4 stars

Gaiman’s retelling of the mythology in this volume perhaps doesn’t add anything new, but the stories are pared back and well-told, with little getting in the way of the story itself. I was half way through the book in one sitting, so it’s definitely easy to read.

Gaiman talks in his introduction how he was inspired by Roger Lancelyn Green. Although I read his collection of Greek mythology as a child, it appeared to make little impression, as I don’t have much memory of it, and I never read the Norse mythology book.

I appreciate that the book has to rely on what sources there are, but I’m sure there are more stories than the handful of familiar ones told here. It would have been nice to read some of the more obscure ones, but that’s about my only big complaint. Other than that, it’s a very easy book to read, the stories in it would work well told aloud, and it helps to keep an important cultural touchstone alive.

Book details

ISBN: 9781408891957

Witch Hat Atelier, Vol. 3

By Kamome Shirahama

Rating: 4 stars

The third volume of this enjoyable manga neatly resolves the cliffhanger from the end of the previous volume, and apart from some ominous grumbling at each other, nothing more is heard of from the Knights Moralis, who I assume will be back in a future volume. But we are introduced to a bunch of new mysteries, and Master Qifrey is revealed to have his own connection of some sort to the Brimmed Caps and isn’t above being devious himself.

Our window on the witching world, Coco, continues to be innocent and delightful, and she starts to make a connection with Tartah, the grandson of the quill and ink seller, who turns out to have his own problems.

There’s nice little world-building touches, like the idea that the ban on magic that affects bodies is so absolute that even healing magic is banned; and how much the idea of witches helping others in their society seems to be taken for granted by those around them, and they almost stop seeing the witches as people, and just as things that make their lives better.

It’s continues to be a fun and engaging series and I look forward to continuing the story in future volumes.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632368058

Noumenon Ultra

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 3 stars

You certainly can’t accuse Noumenon Ultra of lacking ambition. Picking up where the last book left off, about a hundred thousand years in the future, it accelerates from there, going ever-further into an unknowably-distant future. We start with the AI, ICC, that has held the Noumenon convoy together for so long waking up from hibernation to find itself about a hundred thousand years in our future, and although its humans have long vacated its ships, there is life within it once more. It eventually learns to communicate with the sentient life of the terraformed world that now bears the name of its convoy and later regains contact with the descendants of its crew, and they all have to work together to solve a problem that could threaten the future of the entire universe.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. We pick up characters from Convoy Twelve from the second book, as well as further clones of the crew of Convoy Seven and spend time with the post-humans that most of humanity, other than the remnants of homo sapiens from Convoy Twelve, has now evolved into. We don’t spend as much time as I would have liked with the post-humans, or see more than a glimpse of the way that they interact with their ancestors, but life in the galaxy at large is only tangential to the story being told here.

I enjoyed this book, but I felt it was missing a spark that both the other two books had. While the first one jumped in time quite a lot, there was conflict and drama in each segment. The second one had the parts of the book that followed Convoy Twelve to ground it. While this book had the time jumps from the first and some of the characters from the second, there was little conflict. Everyone was working together for a larger goal, without any great deviation from that or misunderstandings or disagreements on the nature of the work.

In my review of the previous book I complained that there was no closure on the alien megastructures that the convoys had encountered. Hoo-boy is that resolved here. And in an incredibly mind-blowing payoff as well. So while it has a lot of that sensawunda that we often talk about in SF, it’s lacking in the characterisation to truly make it great.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008412852

Reformed: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 4 stars

I’m a bit of a sucker for traditional superhero stories, so this short novel set in world of regulated superheroes with its strong thread of redemption was a compelling draw. Prism is the young leader of a superhero team, eager to carry on her father’s work in rehabilitating former supervillains. She chooses Fade: someone who had started on the road to redemption and then relapsed.

I love a good redemption story, and while this isn’t entirely the route that the book takes, it’s still fun. There’s a romance between the two leads, signposted very early on, which gave me cause to grumble at the start, as the the chemistry between them felt more told rather than shown. Normally, I roll my eyes at that old cliché, but I guess it’s a cliché for a reason. It wasn’t until quite late in the book that I felt emotionally invested enough in the two characters for their budding relationship to really work for me.

Other than that, I enjoyed it a lot. Of Prism’s team, only her and her brother get a lot of character development, with Keeper (animal control) and Tanvi (super strength) playing supporting roles. I hope they’ll get more to do in future books (especially with the revelation about Keeper towards the end of this one).

Fade never really feels as dangerous or likely to turn on the team as the cover blurb suggested, but the external threat that Prism’s team has to deal with alongside integrating Fade is powerful and works well as a unifying force within the group.

The world is fun and the book doesn’t treat itself hugely seriously. Despite my few gripes, it’s just what I needed in the moment.

(and it’s part of the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, so you can read it for free if you’ve got a Kindle and Amazon Prime)

Book details

Year of publication: 2020

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern

Rating: 5 stars

I’ve never found the circus hugely appealing, until I read this book. I remember it coming to our small town a couple of times when I was a kid, but I never found the wonder that some others seemed to find in it. But I so want to spend time in the Night Circus. Exploring its myriad tents, the monochrome colours and finding wonder and amazement around every corner.

This is a story of competition, of co-operation, of found family and love. I found the characters enchanting and the story riveting. The strange proxy competition between Hector Bowen and Alexander H has a dreamlike quality to it, never seeming quite real, right up until the stakes are revealed, right at the end. Celia and Marco, our protagonists, are people that you grow to care about, moreso than the people who raised them did. Hector is clearly an abusive parent to Celia, and while Alexander isn’t in that sense to Marco, he’s distant, never offering anything that could be seen as affection. These two, who are older than they seem, have lost touch with what it means to be human, seeing people as just pawns and playthings for their own competitions.

The contrast between them and their children is stark. Celia and Marco feel vivid and alive, thriving in the circus and building relationships while the elders do nothing but observe and plot.

The book was a pleasure to read, with smooth and joyful language that gets under your skin. Its structure involves lots of time-shifting, so you really have to pay attention to what’s happening when, but it’s very rewarding for it. I suspect it would reward rereading.

This was a beautiful book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Heartily recommended to anyone who’s ever enjoyed the circus or even wanted to enjoy the circus. It has the added benefit of having no clowns.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage
Year of publication: 2011

Under the Pendulum Sun

By Jeannette Ng

Rating: 3 stars

A gothic Victorian themed novel with added fae? Sounds right up my street. In a world where the Fae are real, and their home, Arcadia, can be found (ironically, only by getting lost), England does what it’s always done when a new frontier is opened up (no, not that one, but see below): sends missionaries to convert the heathens to the One True Faith. When Christian missionary Laon stops replying to her letters, his sister Catherine resolves to follow him there and find out what happened to him.

This is a very slow paced book, that works well for the gothic feel that it’s trying to invoke. The mysterious housekeeper is more Mrs Danvers than Mrs Fairfax, and the first meeting between Catherine and Laon, outside the castle of Gethsemane, that has been provided for the mission, is heavily reminiscent of Jane Eyre‘s first meeting with Mr Rochester. There’s more than one mystery around the castle and Catherine has to try and solve them, and to help Laon win his prize from the Pale Queen: access to the interior of Arcadia.

There’s a strong theological bent to this book, which sometimes makes it difficult for someone like myself, who grew up outwith that tradition, to follow the more subtle aspects of the discussion. While I’ve learned the core of Christian theology (partly, you sort of absorb it through osmosis in Britain, and partly, I wanted to be able to argue from an informed point during my Angry Young Atheist phase), it sort of feels like the whole book revolves around aspects of Christian theology that I struggled to follow.

The other problem I had with the book, is nothing to do with Ng or her writing, but purely what I wanted from it. When I read the description, my head immediately went to a completely different place: to the idea that empires of that era sent missionaries and were quick to follow them up with soldiers. I was intrigued by the idea of the British Empire trying to colonise Arcadia, and the way that temporal power was used to back up spiritual. That’s an interesting (to me) idea for a story, but it’s not the one that Ng wanted to tell. And that’s fine, but I still came away a bit disappointed.

Spoiler
It’s definitely a spoiler, so hidden, but I can’t not mention the incest. While the early descriptions had me feeling an usually close bond between brother and sister, when it develops into full-blown incest, that pushed me right out of the story. No matter that Catherine thought she was a changeling at the time, they were raised together as brother and sister. It was important for the plot, in terms of sin being important to the Pale Queen (gotta say, I still don’t entirely follow that), but I still didn’t like it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780857667274
Publisher: Angry Robot
Year of publication: 2017

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