Review: My Beloved Brontosaurus

My Beloved Brontosaurus: on the road with old bones, new science, and our favorite dinosaurs by Brian Switek
Acquired how: bought paperback

I picked up this one in a sale because it promised to investigate how scientific discovery, arguments and reporting over time had changed our views of the dinosaurs, which seemed interesting. The clue is right there in the title with the Brontosaurus – a prehistoric dinosaur that may or may not be a real separate species, or may just a sub-type of Apatosaurus. (Hilariously, my browser spelling dictionary wants me to change Apatosaurus to Brontosaurus.) This book was published in 2013 and word as of 2015 is that there is some evidence Brontosaurus may really have existed as a separate species – but debate rages on.

I haven’t really looked into dinosaurs much since 1993, so there was a lot that was new to me in this volume, in terms of theories of what they looked like and how they lived. What was most interesting to me was the way that Switek follows the history of discoveries in palaeontology and the changing beliefs and arguments in the scientific community about what dinosaurs were like, how we delineate one species from the next, how they lived and what killed them. I could stand to read more about that. This book is a relatively basic pop science book and not a deep look into the subject, but as this is not my area of knowledge, I got what I wanted from it.

In terms of the design of the physical book: what a gorgeous, charming illustrated cover, and I’m strangely charmed by the simple interior typesetting and the illo of a fossil reconstruction that stretches across the double page spread of the second title page.

Reading Wednesday 3 August 2016

What I just finished reading

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (library book) – I’d been meaning to get onto this one for years because people kept mentioning that it was one of the books that kicked off the urban fantasy genre, and I do often like my fantasy urban. There was a lot to enjoy about this and some of the faerie stuff still feels really fresh. In here are none of the fantasy creature archetypes and clichés that have overcrowded the genre. I liked the way Bull melded the fantasy elements with the everyday elements of making rent and buying food, as well as the particular kinds of problems and joys musicians face. There’s lovely description of the magic in music.

The romantic entanglement that develops between the main character and one of her new faerie acquaintances is delightful. It is not merely based on physical passion, though the physical awareness is masterfully built up between the characters throughout the book, but also on respect for and delight in each other’s personalities.

However, it is a bit dated. Some of the 80s clothes described I imagine to be delightful but even describing all the clothes in such a way felt very 80s. I liked some of the 80s elements so much (synth!) but the particular kind of casual racism of the times, such as when Eddi looks in a mirror and drags her eyes out to imagine what she’d look like Chinese? Yeah, no. This in spite of a racially diverse cast of characters, granted, and I didn’t notice any unfortunate stereotypes. So some of my reaction to this is a bit mixed but I did enjoy it.

Music Business for Dummies by Loren Wiseman (library book) – I imagine much more useful if you are actually a musician. Some of this was useful; some of this was utterly garbage marketing/promotion advice. Contains almost no actual specifics of the music business though I imagine someone really needed that advice on politeness, posture and healthy touring. Still better than that one for Dummies book I read about Wicca that claimed that Wiccans believe in Karma (…no, we don’t. That’s a Buddhist concept).

What I’m reading now

Only research materials right now, in an attempt to reach the home stretch on the book, sadly. Oh, and half a dozen home decor magazines at work.

What I’m reading next

Every book I’ve put aside while trying to finish In Tune #2 (and I’ll leave my whining about that to another day).

Book: Dying for a Living

Dying for a Living by Kory M Shrum
Own copy

I picked this one up because it was free on Kindle and looked interesting. Unlike most times I do that, this book was actually enjoyable.

The premise is thus: Jesse is a ‘death replacement agent’ which means she has a superpower that allows her to take somebody’s death and die in their stead, then awaken hours or days later. What a cool idea! Jesse wants to get out of the business, eventually – the more often she dies, the more likely she is to lose her mind – but she’s stuck in the job by the fear her boss will report her dark past to the cops. And then somebody starts killing off death replacement agents.

This was a reasonably fun ride. Not without flaw, though. Because the POV is tightly locked on Jesse, several important parts of the climax of the story happened off page and were recounted as exposition later. That kind of fizzled things for me. I also sometimes had trouble remember which of the supporting characters was which before reorienting myself, but that may be down to only reading the book on my commute in short spurts.

Still, the main character was interesting, as was the world-building (even if some of it was utter nonsense), and I’m interested to read more from this series.

Book: Neuromancer

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Own copy

And now, having finally read this book, I understand so many more nerdy in-jokes and references I’d missed over the years, and also know what Straylight Run are named after.

I should have read this book when I was a teenager. Not that I didn’t enjoy it now but I would have enjoyed it exponentially more as a teen, in the 90s. Partly because this kind of writing and plotting style was like catnip to me when I was a teen. Partly because the internet was weird and mysterious to me then (the internet didn’t come to Australia until 1997 and my family didn’t have a dial-up connection until 2000), so the way Gibson creates his vision of cyberspace would have excited me more. That’s not to say you can’t accept a vision of a future-internet that’s accessed neurologically, instead of via a fixed or satellite connection to a device (and I’m pretty sure plenty of cyberpunk goes with brain-internet connection, because it’s fun to imagine).

Another reason I should have read it before is because I’ve watched so much of the cyberpunk that comes later, and can’t help but think Ghost in the Shell, in its various iterations, does some of the themes better.

Nonetheless: Neuromancer is high-octane science fiction nonsense. It’s so 80s in a way I find highly nostalgic, because like all 30-somethings I find myself becoming nostalgic for the feeling of pop culture and fashion from my youth. I think some of it I would have understood better if I’d read Gibson’s previous short stories (which I do plan to track down, eventually) but some of it is just Gibson’s writing style. He doesn’t go in for setting you up with long exposition, just plops you in the story and lets you figure a lot of it out on your own. For some things that worked well, and it certainly helped in creating the social milieu. For some things I found that less effective.

The main character, Case, is the kind of mildly pathetic and occasionally well-meaning scumbag you don’t see as much of in fiction these days, but that I really enjoy. As a person he’s a bit crap. When it comes to coolness stakes, he’s vastly overshadowed by Molly, a misfit action woman with a painful past, who strides through scenes with the kind of swagger it’s usually hard to capture in prose. But compared to Armitage, the batshit new boss who coerces him into joining the team, and Riviera the gigantic psycho, he looks like a pretty swell guy.

Neuromancer is part noirish cyberpunk story and part heist adventure. For my moment, the best parts of the book are the most sfnal – Linda Lee’s face projected in the fireworks, the other AI’s secret world, the way Riviera uses his projected illusions to reveal people’s secrets. Sf/f marries pretty well with stories about dark and grungy underworlds and the moments of horror, beauty and redemption those stories can bring: Neuromancer is no exception. It’s also a bit of a mess, but then, it was a debut novel. I can definitely see why it struck such a chord in people and it has been enormously influential. It grapples with questions about artificial intelligences and the self, what constructs the self, and what gritty horror the future might be like – all that good stuff you would expect from the genre.

And this is honestly a very long pile of words for a review that has barely talked about the story at all.

Book: A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Library book

I was always going to like this book. Bitter, resentful Gene and his charismatic, mercurial friend Finny, the year that changed their lives and ended Finny’s, and the war that rages outside their little world. I love that Gene can’t reconcile for himself how much he cared about Finny with how he ruined Finny’s life. I love how all the characters are so unstable and angry, how Gene’s envy takes over his life, Brinker’s ambivalence, Leper’s inability to handle the war.

And of course, it’s not just their secret summer at Devon. The threat of the war outside, that they alternately long for and deny existence of, hangs over the story. You can’t get away from the mid 1940s setting and how that means for these boys in a remote boarding school in America the war is both omnipresent and too distant to be believed. So much is shaped by the war pressing in on them (Leper’s breakdown, Gene’s underwhelming memories of his time after enlisting). And yet so much of the dark heart of the story is caused by the trauma and ennui of youth, of a time when everything awful is so much more intense than it will every be again.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Carol by Patricia Highsmith
Acquired how: bought paperback

Carol is a curious book. Originally published as The Price of Salt under the pen name Claire Morgan, Carol is equal parts lesbian romance, suspense thriller and coming of age story. It’s hard to know how to categorise this book, which is going to make tagging by genre tricky.

I watched the film earlier in the year so I was eager to read the book. Though there are changes in the adaptation, both versions of Carol are remarkably similar. Therese is a sales assistant in the toy section of a department store; Carol is the elegant woman who comes to her section to buy a toy for her child’s Christmas present. The connection between them sparks a relationship that changes the course of their lives.

Therese is 19 and an aspiring set designer. She seems crushed under the weight of her life, almost paralysed with fear of being stuck working at the department store forever like her co-worker Mrs Robichek, pushed into wearing clothing she doesn’t especially want, and dating a boy – Richard – that she doesn’t especially like. The atmosphere in the early chapters is claustrophobic. When she agrees to a trip with Carol halfway through, I could only feel a sense of relief.

Carol is more mysterious. She seems more remote and frequently cold. Her actions are easily explained by her divorce drama but Therese doesn’t really see or understand it (at least, until the end, and even then she expects Carol to choose Therese over her child).

My experience of reading this book was necessarily influenced by having seen the movie first. There were plot moments I was eager to get to, which made me frustrated, at times, with parts of the book prior to that (hardly the fault of the book). The movie also benefited from giving the audience Carol’s point of view, so that she was more of a rounded character and less of an idealised object, and her fears of losing her daughter were given more weight. Because the book, on the other hand, is limited to Therese’s point of view, Carol remains frustratingly out of reach for much of the book. Though her motivations become clear to the reader with time, they remain opaque to Therese for much of their relationship.

And Therese is so very young – 19, and the kind of 19 that makes it difficult for her to sympathise with Carol’s fear of losing custody of her daughter. This book is as much about her slow maturity toward an adult identity as it is about her first romance. In Carol she seems to be looking for a mother figure as much as a lover, which is equal parts creepy and fascinating.

And yet for all that, I enjoyed this book immensely.

My copy of the book has an afterward from Highsmith, talking of the letters she received from fans so happy to read a lesbian novel with a happy ending. Frankly, even in 2016, that’s something I get excited about.

Review: Loud is How I Love You

Loud is How I Love You by Mercy Brown
Acquired how: bought ebook

I read what feels like a lot of the rock romance novels, because I like romance and I like music, so I tend to assume those two things will go great together. In practice, a lot of those books are really dramatic New Adult novels (and I’m not overly eager to relive my late teens and early 20s) and/or about the bad boy fantasy. I’ve never understood the bad boy fantasy, so I can’t get into that.

This book is definitely not about the bad boy fantasy – it’s a friends-to-lovers story (that’s the stuff I love) and Travis tries to portray himself as more responsible than Emmy.

It is definitely a New Adult novel about people in their early 20s making ill-advised choices due to hormones, misunderstandings, bad communication and back-and-forthing because the heroine feels she can’t have all the things she wants and dicks the hero around a little. And yet I liked it anyway.

Why? Well:

  • Emmy was worried that if she continued giving in to her passion for Travis that various horrible things would come true – and then they did. The heroine’s fears seemed founded in reality and given that these fears revolved around important parts of her identity, it made sense to me.
  • Unlike most rock romances, this book is actually about the music. The writer, Mercy Brown, is a musician from New Jersey just like the characters, and so the description of life in a college band felt true. The characters know about and care about musical instruments, they rehearse, they play gigs, they are part of a scene and so forth. This is the kind of stuff I read these rock romances for.
  • This is one of the ways in which New Adult can shine – this book was as much a coming of age story as it was a romance. Emmy’s internal turmoil about reconciling her admiration for her late father with feeling abandoned by him and the way she dealt with revelations regarding same was integral to the book. It made sense that there could be no romantic resolution with Travis until she’d dealt with her unresolved issues about her father, because that was a huge part of what was holding her back. That made her refusing to commit to Travis even though she loved him less annoying.
  • This is a comedy and the wacky hijinks and description of the other players in the music scene really lightened things up.
  • There’s a small but wonderful moment about the power of stories and the way they connect to things in our lives.

There were also some issues with the book that kept me from truly loving it:

  • Sometimes the wacky comedy hijinks got too much.
  • And the romantic drama really was dragged on for a long time.
  • There were some things I thought may have been anachronisms, possibly intentional, but to be fair my memory of the 90s is a bit shaky. But I do remember coming of age in the 90s meant growing up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis so the moment of (spoilers) unprotected sex without long discussion beforehand shocked me.

Still, I enjoyed it, and I think a reader who wants a book that captures the zanyness of the American college experience as well as the highs and lows of an indie band, with a sexy romance to boot, could do a lot worse than to read this book.

Review: Act Like It

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Acquired how: bought ebook

I feel like everyone reviewed this book a while ago and I kept meaning to get around to it, eventually. I’d look at it in my unread books queue in my kindle app and think, when I have the time, or, when I’ve finished all those other things. Well, finally I’ve read it, and it’s delightful.

Absolutely delightful.

A lot of romance is about the big drama and big emotions – and that’s great – but sometimes it’s also about the big misunderstandings and the yelling and chest-beating nonsense and all that really teenage stuff. Sometimes I just want people to act like adults, you know? One of the best things about this book is that Lainie and Richard do act like adults. They know what they want and go after it. When they get cross at each other it’s for good reasons and it’s neither cause for loud yelling arguments nor swept under the rug. There’s plenty of exciting things happening in this book and plenty of fun dramatic tropes but I didn’t worry that either of the main characters was going to get carried away with acting like a dickhead and ruin the fun.

Act Like It is about two theatre actors in London having to pretend to be in a relationship for PR reasons. Of course, it turns real and things get sexy and feelingsy fast. I love that trope. I never get tired of it. Of course, along the way there’s all sorts of wacky hijinks, including punch ups between silly men, unflattering gossip news articles and interpersonal drama sabotaging performances.

But while all this frivolous nonsense (of the kind I like) is going on, Lainie and Richard act like mature adults about it. Sure, they don’t have 100% of their lives sorted out. They get in moods. They make bad decisions. But through it all they felt like real people who acted appropriately for adult professionals with careers. Which is pretty great. I’m a sucker for that stuff.

Review: Trade Me

Trade Me by Courtney Milan
Acquired how: library ebook

What a good book. I tried a couple of regency romances by Courtney Milan, and though they were well written, they didn’t grab me. Not knocking the writing, just noting that historical romances aren’t really what I’m into, and when I do go historicals I’d rather not read regencies.

And then I read Trade Me, after everyone raved about it last year, and it was just as good as I expected it to be.

First of all: these young people talk the way real young people talk (or, at least, the way they talk in tumblr posts when I’m secretly browing random blogs). Technology is integrated into their lives the way technology is integrated into everyone’s lives in real life. Cyclone really was strongly reminiscent of several big tech companies.

The main characters – Tina and Blake – are such caring, deep-thinking characters. Blake is so constantly stressed in a way that rings true. Tina’s poverty strongly reminds me of periods of my twenties, when you’re wondering how to make $20 without dying of malnutrition.

I haven’t read a whole bunch of billionaire romances but if I did I suspect I would be disappointed. Milan gets the way privilege and power structure a lot of society. She gets the way money – having it or not having it – changes the way people treat you. I’m glad I got to read a book where someone like Tina Chen gets the billionaire and teaches him something about the rest of the world on the way.

I loved the drama at the end – just ridiculously intense enough to be a wild, funny ride, but not so much that I rolled my eyes and walked away.

I only wish I’d read this last year when everyone else did so I could have joined the discussion at the time.

Review: The Superheroes Union: Dynama

The Superheroes Union: Dynama by Ruth Diaz
Acquired how: bought ebook

TJ is a superhero and single mother of two kids, working a day job and saving the world. Annmarie is the nanny she hires to help out at home. When TJ’s supervillain ex escapes from prison they draw closer together as they both protect TJ’s kids in their own way.

I often like to read romance novels with a bit of a fantasy element – sometimes that gives the book an extra bit of spice, and sometimes that means that the book is enjoyable even if the romance is less convincing. This is a case of the latter.

The superhero plot is grounded in every day concerns. Even a superhero mum has to balance her job with childrearing and makes mac and cheese from a packet. The ramp up of tension with the supervillain plot is entertaining, as are the action scenes. Her background and Annmarie’s background are both convincing. The issue is that the relationship between the two leads goes too fast, ramping up from meeting to love within a matter of days, and the chemistry isn’t particularly convincing initially. Once the characters are in a relationship, their interaction seems believable, but until that point they seemed awkwardly manoeuvred together.

Released three years ago, this seems to be the author’s only book before vanishing from the face of the internet. That’s a shame because this novella shows potential. It would have been interesting to see how she would have improved her skills with further books.