Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

The Flat Book Society: Books for May - vote for your favourites!

Reblogged from Murder by Death:

Note: because it's early in the a.m. here and I'm still suffering cold-related idiocy, I posted this with the wrong months; they've been fixed.


8 books have been nominated for the May read in the Flat Book Society.  Very few votes so far though.  


To date we have: 

The Double Helix by James D. Watson


Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott


A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup


Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson


The Sun's Heartbeat: And Other Stories from the Life of the Star That Powers Our Planet by Bob Berman


The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee


Venomous: How Earth's Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry by Christie Wilcox


Caesar's Last Breath by Sam Kean



Voting will close  March 1st and the book for May will be announced.  So far it's a tie for the winner with The Double Helix and Darwin's Ghost, so anybody interested in joining us for the March read, be sure to vote. (There's also room on the list for about 5 more books if anybody would like to add a few for the group's voting consideration.)

Storm in a Teacup

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

There is sometimes a bit of snobbery about the science found in kitchens and gardens and city streets. It's seen as something to occupy children with, a trivial distraction which is important for the young, but no real use to adults. An adult might buy a book about how the universe works, and that's seen as being a proper adult topic. But that attitude misses something very important: the same physics applies everywhere. A toaster can teach you about some of the most fundamental laws of physics, and the benefit of a toaster is that you've probably got one, and you can see it working for yourself. Physics is awesome precisely because the same patterns are universal: they exist both in the kitchen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.


I'm re-using the above quote (already used in a progress update) because it truly describes the book's take on science and getting people interested in the subject(s) of science.


I really enjoyed this book. I have a both a personal and professional interest in science, but am neither a scientist nor engineer, which makes me somewhat of an oddball in my family.

While much of this is due to other interests and perhaps a smidgeon of defying parental expectations, I cannot help but think that having a maths/physics teacher and a chemistry teacher who were truly awful at explaining things. To give an example, I once asked my mum, a chemical engineer, for help with my chemistry homework. Thirty minutes later we were discussing it over the phone with her friends from work, also experts in the field, with the outcome that they all concluded that the proposed homework assignment was nonsense as the chemical reaction proposed would not and simply could not occur... I can't say that this impressed my chemistry teacher. Thankfully, I left the country to go to school in the US after that particular year, and didn't have to take any chemistry after that.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading about chemistry - and other sciences, since they are all related, but particularly chemistry - but I strongly believe that the way that science is taught plays a huge role in fostering interest, enthusiasm and even confidence in people, particularly young people, who want to learn about it.


This is where books like Storm in a Teacup come into play. I have seen a few books - and we certainly seem to have picked a few books for the Flat Book Society reads - that in some way failed to communicate with the reader. Communication and the ability to explain concepts and relationships, however, is crucial to producing a good science book.

Helen Czerski did a marvellous job at this. At least in my opinion. I have seldom found myself bored or talked down to. What is more, I could not wait to pick the book up again every night to read the next chapter. I also did not mind at all when I had to re-read a previous chapter to remind myself of a concept that had been explained earlier - which is my failing, or rather my reading too fast. There was a lot to absorb in the book despite Czerski's great efforts to use everyday objects like toasters, tea cups, a piece of buttered toast, a candle, ducks' feet, etc. to explain complex concepts of physics.


And for that reading experience alone - the inspiration to want to read more - I applaud Storm in a Teacup.


Previous Reading updates:


Update # 1

Update # 2

Update # 3

Update # 4

Update # 5

Update # 6

Update # 7



Persuasion (Wisehouse Classics - With Illustrations by H.M. Brock) - Jane Austen, H.M. Brock

Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.

When I first read Persuasion, I must have been out of my mind, preoccupied, or distracted with something because how else could I not have enjoyed this book back then as much as I have enjoyed it now?


Austen's last book is a masterpiece of subtlety and quiet power.


Anne Elliot is not as fierce or outspoken as my other favourite Austen heroines but she is such an awesomely strong character in her own way. She knows her own mind but also takes on advice from others. This ability be persuaded is, of course, at the heart of this story, and Austen plays with the concept of persuasion throughout the book - culminating in a debate between Anne and Captain Harville over whether men or women suffer longer after the loss of love. A debate which is overheard and influences a letter that within Austen's works is eclipsed only be the declarations of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice


There are a number of elements in this story that are similar to Austen's other books - the focus on women in Georgian society being confined to their roles as wives and daughters, the class snobbery, the importance of reputation, financial mismanagement, the plotting of romantic entanglements for position and wealth. 


Austen pokes fun and she admonishes - 

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.

She does it quietly, by implication more often than by expressing it in words. It's a subtlety that needs some focus to absorb it, but that is ever so rewarding. 


Despite this, Persuasion for me will also be the book I will remember for Jane Austen calling an off-page character a ...

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

The Body in the Library

The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie

“What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one's house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean.” 

This is a Marple story, but I love the book nonetheless.


The story follows the typical Christie formula - the impossible murder and a cast of suspects who all seem to have a connection to the victim. But who was the victim?


We have red herrings, we have murder, we have greed, jealousy, love, gossip, and everything else that village life has to offer - and that can be applied to the world at large. The cast of characters in this one is as superb as in Murder at the Vicarage - from Mrs. and Colonel Bantry to the young couple squabbling over their jealousies to Colonel Melchett, whose knowledge of the world is more pretence than anything.

“Colonel Melchett silently marvelled at the amount of aids to beauty that women could use. Rows of jars of face cream, cleansing cream, vanishing cream, skin-feeding cream! Boxes of different shades of powder. An untidy heap of every variety of lipstick. Hair lotions and “brightening” applications. Eyelash black, mascara, blue stain for under the eyes, at least twelve different shades of nail varnish, face tissues, bits of cotton wool, dirty powder-puffs. Bottles of lotions—astringent, tonic, soothing, etc.

“Do you mean to say,” he murmured feebly, “that women use all these things?”

Inspector Slack, who always knew everything, kindly enlightened him. “In private life, sir, so to speak, a lady keeps to one or two distinct shades, one for evening, one for day. They know what suits them and they keep to it. But these professional girls, they have to ring a change, so to speak. They do exhibition dances, and one night it’s a tango and the next a crinoline Victorian dance and then a kind of Apache dance and then just ordinary ballroom, and, of course, the makeup varies a good bit.”

“Good lord!” said the Colonel.

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection -  Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry

“How, then, did you know of it?”

“My dear fellow, you know my methods.”

“You deduced it, then?”


“And from what?”

“From your slippers.”

I glanced down at the new patent leathers which I was wearing. “How on earth--” I began, but Holmes answered my question before it was asked.

There are a lot of little things that make a long-term buddy read like this one of the complete Sherlock Holmes canon so rewarding. Having time to read each story without rush, having a friend to bounce ideas off or do research with or just have fun with are some of the best parts of course. However, I also like the way that this particular project has lead to a little Friday night ritual: I get home from work, make supper and pour a mug or glass of something to settle down with and open up the next of Holmes' adventures, then exchange thoughts with my reading buddy.


Why am I bringing this up?


The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk is not a brilliant story. It evokes a sense of deja vu with a plot that features a young man who is offered a post of employment that he is not obviously qualified for, that is paid at a rate that he can't refuse, and that sounds too good to be true. Our young stockbroker's clerk may not have a fine full head of read hair but the feel of this story strongly reminds of The Red-Headed League. There is not the same sense of fun or mystery about this story, and yet, it is a solid story that is filled with comfort - starting with the usual exchange between Holmes and Watson, Holmes exposing his method to Watson, and both of them departing on an adventure shortly after.


While the story is not brilliant, the comfort factor is the same as having a little ritual to look forward to at the end of the working week. And just as I have mine featuring the Holmes stories, I can see how ACD's readers of the original Strand articles might have felt that same way - looking forward to the publication of the next story, maybe reading the story on the commute back home or once they get home, or after dinner. 

I have no idea why it is this story, not any of the previous ones, that makes me imagine a sense of community with ACD's original readers. Maybe it is because I had to think whether it matters that ACD re-used a previous idea (with a different twist...), and how the serialisation of the stories in a magazine could have affected ACD's choice of story - or length of story.  



No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters - Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler

"Meaning - this is perhaps the common note, the bane I am seeking. What is the Meaning of this book, this event in the book, this story ... ? Tell me what it Means.

But that is not my job, honey. That's your job."


- Ursula K. Le Guin

Reading progress update: I've read 23 out of 240 pages.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters - Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler

I could not put off reading this book any longer. 


There are two collections of Le Guin's articles/essays on my Mt. TBR shelf and this is the one that was only recently published (November 2017). 


No Time To Spare is a collection of articles from her blog, which you can check out here


Having read only a few pages so far, it just drives home just what a powerful force of mind we have lost. 


One of my favourite post on her blog so far is this one about Amazon - and I am fairly sure that she deliberately abbreviated "Bestseller" and that the term "BS Machine" does not refer to "bestsellers".


Crow - Boria Sax

Their slouching posture, their love of carrion, have helped to make crows symbols of death, yet few if any other birds are so lively and playful. They indulge in such apparently useless games as carrying a twig aloft, dropping the toy, then swooping down and catching it. For no apparent reason, they may hang upside down by one foot or execute back flips in flight. 

Crows in Alaska reportedly break pieces of congealed snow off sloping rooftops and use these as sleds to slide down.

Lawrence Kilham, who later wrote an important work on the social behaviour of corvids, once took a shot at a raven in Iceland. A single feather dropped to the ground and the raven flew off. As Kilham stopped to reload his gun, the raven returned and flew over his head. The purplish remains of cranberries the raven had been eating fell on his hat, and Kilham concluded that ravens, in addition to being smart, had a sense of humour.

Serves him right. 


Crow was a fascinating book that did not so much tell of the natural history or anatomy of crows as of the history of the corvid family in human mythology and culture.

Sax looks at how crows were regarded in different ages and different regions of the world and this makes for light, yet entertaining reading. 


For example, I had no idea that the legend of Noah was based on the Babylonian story of Ut-napishtim, who, together with his wife, survived a flood that destroyed the rest of humanity by building a boat. Unlike in the story of Noah, where the raven is depicted as more of a failure in his task, the sign of the raven not coming back meant that the raven had found land and that the water was receding.


My favourite of the legends about corvids was this one about Odin, who had two ravens named "Hugin" ("thought") and "Munin" ("memory"), which perched on his shoulders.

Odin visited Geirrod, king of the Goths, disguised in a blue cloak, to test the monarch's reputation for flouting the laws of hospitality. Geirrod arrested Odin and suspended the god from a tree between two fires. As he was tortured, Odin told of heaven and earth and said:


Hugin and Munin fly every day

Over the wide World;

I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,

Yet I tremble more for Munin.


This was the fear that the world would degenerate into chaos, as reflection and recollection, the gifts of civilisation, are lost.

Thought and memory. I cannot help but agree with the moral of the story - that a world without thought and memory is doomed to regression and chaos.

Reading progress update: I've read 3 out of 288 pages.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America - Thomas King

"History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They're not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not out of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment."

I needed some history with bite after my last book. Not that dinosaurs have no bite, but I definitely needed something a bit more serious.

Just One Damned Thing After Another

Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary's) - Jodi Taylor

He was calm and soothing and had a reasonable explanation for everything. No woman should have to put up with that.

‘Well, answer me this. How did she get free in the first place?’

‘I let her go.’

I took a deep breath. He took a step backwards. People were edging out of the pod.

‘Hold on. Before you go up like the Professor’s manure heap, I had to let her go.’

I would have raised an incredulous eyebrow, but my face hurt too much. I had to content myself with sipping my drink in a disbelieving manner.


This is not going to be an in-depth review, this is going to be short: this book was a romp.


I still maintain that it is the perfect example of what would happen if you mixed The Eyre Affair with Indiana Jones and based it in Hogwarts - in other words, there seemed to be a bit of pastiche at work in the creation of the story.

It worked.

I laughed, I cried, I rolled my eyes a lot. 


But I may even read the sequel at some point because the cliffhanger ending (yes, I hated that too) promised another romp with a pertinent question at heart:

Was it really Mary Stuart who was executed or was it, in fact, Elizabeth?


Mostly light-hearted fun ... with a few plot issues ... and lot of dei ex machina.


Reading progress update: 86% - Potential

Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary's) - Jodi Taylor

"And then to one side, I saw Jenny Fields. Her lips were moving, but she was such a quiet little thing I couldn’t make out a word.

‘Shut up, you lot,’ I shouted. ‘What is it, Jenny?’

‘Dodos. We could bring back dodos.’

And that was the moment. That was the moment when the true potential of all we could achieve became apparent. That was the moment when everyone’s imagination took flight and we became unstoppable."


I've been meaning to share this for ages, but there are so few (too few!) references to dodos in the books I have been reading lately. ;)


The Snow Leopard

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen



Damn. This book started out so well.


However, after only a few pages it seems to have turned into a version of Log from the Sea of Cortez, complete with philosophical and religious musings on the author's own life, his experimenting with different drugs, and his understanding of Buddhism - in none of which I have any interest at all.


The parts where Matthiessen describes the natural environment of his trek through Nepal are fascinating. Unfortunately, these are too few and too far between for my enjoyment.


I read 85 pages, then skipped to the end. The only sighting of the snow leopard is literally mentioned in the last 3 pages - and he doesn't go into much detail because he wasn't even there. He simply included a very short letter from George Schaller which briefly stated that he did manage to see one in the end (and after Matthiessen had returned home). 


I get that there may be some beauty in Matthiessen's writing, his musings, and his dealing with grief after the loss of his wife, but all that esoteric babble just isn't for me, especially not when I expected the book to focus more on the expedition and the wildlife.  



Reading progress update: I've read 13 out of 312 pages.

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen

GS is the zoologist George Schaller. I knew him first in 1969, in the Serengeti Plain of East Africa, where he was working on his celebrated study of the lion. When I saw him next, in New York City in the spring of 1972, he had started a survey of wild sheep and goats and their near relatives the goat-antelopes. He wondered if I might like to join him the following year on an expedition to northwest  Nepal, near the frontier of Tibet, to study the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep; it was his feeling, which he meant to confirm, that this strange "sheep" of remote ranges was actually less sheep than goat, and perhaps quite close to the archetypal ancestor of both.

Page 1 of the main text of this book has been a roller-coaster of events already: starting with exclamations of "Shut up!" at the surprise that there is such a fabulous creature as a "blue sheep" and resulting in the utter disappointment on finding out that the blue sheep are, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica:


"Blue sheepBlue sheep (genus Pseudois), also called bharal, either of two species of sheeplike mammals, family Bovidae (order Artiodactyla), that inhabit upland slopes in a wide range throughout China, from Inner Mongolia to the Himalayas. Despite their name, blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) are neither blue nor sheep."


Ugh. I am gutted.


They are kinda cute, tho.


[Photo Source]


A Pocket Full of Rye

A Pocket Full of Rye - Agatha Christie

It was Miss Somers' turn to make the tea. Miss Somers was the newest and the most inefficient of typists. She was no longer young and had a mild worried face like a sheep. The kettle was not quite boiling when Miss Somers poured the water on the tea, but poor Miss Somers was never quite sure when a kettle was boiling. It was one of the many worries that afflicted her in life.

She poured out the tea and took the cups round with a couple of limp, sweet biscuits in each saucer.

That quote has very little to do with the plot of A Pocket Full of Rye, but it does set the tone of this story. There is something edgy and sinister about A Pocket Full of Rye. This is not a "cozy" mystery. Sure, there is not blood or gore, but there is darkness, thirst for revenge, and calculating human horribleness.


And that's what I see in the mention of tepid tea and limp biscuits. No, I kid. But I do see in this opening that there is something just not right, and it is this this feeling that runs through this story. 


I can't say that I liked this story a lot, and I can't even put my finger on why this is. Maybe it is because of the murder method causes me to have questions, maybe it because the police investigation misses the mark so often, or maybe it is because of that horrible children's rhyme that is the basis for this story, but it is not a story that I enjoy re-reading a lot.


Nevertheless, I recommend it. The different relationship angles in this story are fascinating. Dark, but benefiting from Christie's acute eye for suffering that can be caused by family. 


Approach with strong tea, and sweet, rich, fresh biscuits.

Steed and Mrs. Peel (Vol. 1 - 3)

Steed and Mrs. Peel Vol. 1: A Very Civil Armageddon - Caleb Monroe, Steve Bryant, Mark Waid Steed and Mrs. Peel Vol. 2 (Steed and Mrs. Peel: Ongoing) - Yasmin Liang, Caleb Monroe Steed and Mrs. Peel Vol. 3 (Steed and Mrs. Peel: Ongoing) - Yasmin Liang, Caleb Monroe

What a fun way to revisit The Avengers.


The first volume took some getting used to as the banter between Mrs. Peel and Steed could not quite make up for the very un-Avengers apocalyptic storyline. That just did not work for me. It felt very much like The Avengers were forcefully dragged into a different comic book universe - and one that seemed to have a penchant for depicting Mrs. Peel in the same scantily-clad or tight-fitting fashions as, say, Catwoman or Wonder Woman... That has little to do with Mrs. Peel.


Volume 2 did away with this nonsense and reinstated Mrs Peel as the scientist and kick-ass character that she is. The storyline was also more in line with the original series, which I thought was far more enjoyable than Volume 1. And there was some interesting content and discussion.


Volume 3 was fun as well but the reliance on people surviving death and wanting revenge on Steed and Peel for bringing down the Hellfire Club is wearing very thin. Throw in some completely unrelated storylines from the original series (neither the doppelgänger idea nor the Cybernauts have any connection to the Hellfire Club) and I was bored and a little annoyed with this volume. However, the banter between Mrs Peel and Steed was quite natural and that was something to look forward to throughout. 


Vol. 1 - 3*

Vol. 2 - 4*

Vol. 3 - 3*


Reading progress update: I've read 5%.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St Mary's) - Jodi Taylor

‘Don’t you ever think that instead of research and archaeology and, let’s face it, guesswork, how much better it would be if we could actually return to any historical event and witness it for ourselves? To be able to say with authority, ‘Yes, the Princes in the Tower were alive at the end of Richard’s reign. And this I know because I saw them with my own eyes.’

‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘It would; although I can think of a few examples where such certainty would not be welcomed.’ He looked up sharply. ‘Such as?’ ‘Well, a certain stable in Bethlehem for instance. Imagine if you pitched up with your Polaroid and the innkeeper flung open the door and said, “Come in. You’re my only guests and there’s plenty of room at the inn!” That would put the cat amongst the pigeons.’

This could be a fun read. Let's see where this goes...

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