Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Blackout! (And bingos Nos. 12 and 13.)

 

Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

Witih today’s call, I’ve blacked out my card, in addition to collecting my final bingos (nos. 12 and 13).

Somewhat to my surprise, after completing my books for my official bingo card at the end of September, I even managed to read enough extra books to put together a supplemental inofficial card throughout the month of October, so this year’s game has really exceeded my wildest expectations in every conceivable way!

 

My Official 2019 Bingo Card:

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week
Fourth Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

The Extra Squares / Card and Books:

13: Rex Stout: And Be a Villain
Supernatural: Jennifer Estep: Kill the Queen
New Release: Sara Collins: The Confessions of Frannie Langton
Genre: Mystery: Catherine Louisa Pirkis: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective
Romantic Suspense: Georgette Heyer: The Unfinished Clue
Terror in a Small Town: Ann Cleeves: Raven Black
Halloween: Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party
Monsters: Terry Pratchett: Pyramids
Shifters: Joan D. Vinge: Ladyhawke
Sleepy Hollow: Dennis Lehane: The Given Day
Film at 11: J.B. Priestley: An Inspector Calls
In the Dark, Dark Woods: Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
Free (Raven) Square: Various Authors: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives
Grave or Graveyard: Kathy Reichs: Grave Secrets
Genre: Suspense: Tony Medawar (ed.) & Various Authors: Bodies from the Library 2
Southern Gothic: Sharyn McCrumb: The Unquiet Grave
Baker Street Irregulars: Joanne Harris: Gentlemen & Players
Darkest London: J.V. Turner: Below the Clock
Magical Realism: Joanne Harris: Chocolat
It was a dark and stormy night: Peter May: The Lewis Man
Full Moon: Edmund Crispin: Glimpses of the Moon
King of Fear: John Le Carré: Absolute Friends
Serial / Spree Killer: Steven Kramer, Paul Holes & Jim Clemente: Evil Has a Name
Classic Noir: Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train
Classic Horror: Matthew G. Lewis: The Monk

Note: With regard to the extra squares, I added the image for the relevant square for every book completed (= “read”); and I am using my “called” markers for the main card to indicate “called and read”.

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
http://themisathena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Bingo No. 3 and Reading Blackout

* Triple Bingo Happy Dance *

Well, that went by much faster than I had anticipated … Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

I’ll continue tracking my bingos of course — and since we now have so many more great squares than can possibly fit on one person’s card, I’ll just continue reading for a few of the extra squares that didn’t make it onto mine.

And I hope everybody else is going to continue / start collecting bingos soon as well!

 

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post-bingo-no-3-and-reading-blackout

Halloween Bingo 2019: The Second Week

A day late (though hopefully not a dollar short), here’s my “second bingo week” summary; and it’s a summary of a much better week than the first one turned out to be.  (So, yey!)  For one thing this is due to the books, all of which were either outright winners or at least enjoyable on some level or other; for another, even though I finished the week with a fairly lengthy read AND RL was running really major interference, I managed to keep it to an average of one book per day, as a result of which — and as importantly, due to the way the bingo calls have been coming in — I’ve now got several sets of multiple “called and read” squares in a row or column (two of which, also with all five squares marked “read”).  Obviously, even three squares marked “called and read” in a row don’t necessarily mean I’ll be in for a bingo anytime soon, but that one is down to the bingo gods.  All I can do is go on reading …

 

The Books

Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor

The second bingo week’s first book, and for the longest time it was on a solid track for a 4 1/2 or even 5-star rating.  Tremendously atmospheric, with London (both 17th century and present day) not so much merely setting but additional character and two timelines tantalizingly mirroring and winding around each other like the two strings of a double helix.  From early on, this is also a book that knows very well just how clever it is, but during the first  90-95% that doesn’t matter a jot … until it does in the end and Ackroyd takes “clever” a step too far into the symbolic, as a result of which the ending is seriously deflating.  What a pity that he proved unable to contend himself with an actual dénouement (however cleverly constructed and meaningful) and instead chose to let narrative lift off and take flight straight into the ether instead.  Still, for the vast majority of its contents, definitely a recommended read — and the beginning in particular, set in the days of the 1665 plague and tying together the plague, a satanic cult, church construction and murder (mirrored by present-day murders in the same churches), definitely packs a punch.

 

Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring

Another book off to a great start; if for no other reason than the fact that we get to meet Frank Abbott’s family and learn why he didn’t become a lawyer — as had initially been his chosen career path — but a policeman instead.  (Wentworth takes us back to Frank’s family home in a much later installment of the series, The Fingerprint, which I had already read before moving on to this one, but that only made it feel even more of a priority to finally catch up with this story as well.)  It felt good to be back in Miss Silver’s (and Frank Abbott’s) world in one of the final novels from the series that I had / have yet to read, and it was cruising along nicely and could easily have earned a higher rating, too … if it hadn’t been for the fact that (1) the murderer is fairly easily to deduce by process of elimination and by looking at it from the perspective of where Wentworth herself, as a writer, was likely going to want to take this book’s plot; (2) the conflict besetting the married couple at the heart of the novel feels terribly manufactured (first because during 99% of the book it isn’t explained at all, and then because the explanation, when finally offered literally on the very last pages, comes across as ridiculously contrived); and (3) the heroine is exhibiting serious bouts of TSTL behaviour both in connection with the aforementioned conflict and in the moments immediately preceding the big reveal.

 

Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering

Neither as “epic” nor as “profound” as the blurb promises, and definitely higher on the “popular” than on the “science” part of “popular science writing”.  Based on his style of writing, I can very well imagine Berman as a personable guide at his local observatory or as a host of popular radio science programs; the problem is that what sounds approachable in dialogue and oral explanation just comes across as chatty in writing.  (This gets better once the book has left the opening chapters behind, but it never goes away entirely, and arguably the Big Bang — which is the subject of the first single-topic chapter, i.e., chapter two — should be the last subject you want to approach with that much of a casual attitude.  For purposes of the audio version, it definitely also does not help that the casualness factor is virtually automatically enhanced in oral performance — which isn’t necessarily down to the narrator; it’s just in the nature of the beast.)

In fairness, astronomy, nuclear and astrophysics will never be my strongest subjects, so as far as the actual depth of topical penetration went, it may have been a blessing in disguise that the book didn’t do much more than give an overview of the various types of cataclysms and in so doing, rarely did more than scratch the surface.  (Then again, I tend to acquire both a quicker and a more profound grasp of any topic presented to me both at greater length and in greater depth than here.)  Eitiher way, this was enjoyable for what it was or turned out to be, but IMHO it’s seriously being oversold in the blurb — the author himself also seems to be quite the efficient self-promoter — and I think it’s at least also fair to wonder what medical and man-made events such as the medieval plague epidemics and WWII are doing in a book explicitly setting out to deal with astrophysical and earth-bound types of physical cataclysms.

 

Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer

Brown’s second Ed & Am Hunter novel and the book that, thanks to Tigus’s generous gift of last year, has been pencilled in for precisely this square ever since.  I truly enjoyed my return to the Chicago and Midwest of the Classic Noir era — Brown’s writing and plot construction easily stands up to that of the likes of Chandler and Hammett, and despite their less-than-bed-of-roses life experience both of his heroes are decidedly less cynical than Messrs. Marlowe and Spade, which makes for an interesting change from the classic noir approach.  (Though now that Ed has had his first bruises from a prolonged encounter with a blonde bombshell gold-digger, I hope his views on women in general aren’t going to end up being overly skewed too fast.)

In this particular book, it also plays out to great effect that Brown knew the mid-20th century carney world from the inside — from the start, the setting with all of its bizarre characters and attractions and its very own language (carney talk) comes alive in a way it only can if described by someone who once used to walk the walk himself.

 

Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased

In my travels in the world of classic crime fiction, one of my truly overdue reads — a book rightly renowned for its dry sense of humor and truly unique way of disposing of a body.  If you ever thought a crime novel set in a law office specializing on wills, trusts and property law is bound to get mired in the dust of legal lingo and technical details, think again.  Given this mystery’s setting and the murdered man’s position, the motive for the murder isn’t hard to guess (though not all of the details are equally obvious), but thanks to the understated irony of Gilbert’s writing, this is deservedly one of the novels that have endured and can still be enjoyed in an era when lawyers’ deed boxes are long since a thing of the past.

Side note: Treat yourself to the print edition, not the Michael Mcstay audio — Mcstay’s preferred style of narration consists of hurling rapidly mumbled bursts of speech at the reader, which makes following his performance decidedly more of a chore than it reasonably ought to be.

 

Anthony Rolls: Scarweather

Quite a change of pace compared to the author’s Family Matters, the first book by Rolls that I read — but if the two books have one thing in common, it’s a sense of the unusual and extraordinary, and an incurable urge to pour the acid of satire on experts (self-appointed and otherwise) and on society’s habit of treating them, and each one of their pronouncements, as holy cows — as sages whose every word must be weighed in gold and not under any circumstances be questioned.  In Family Matters, it’s doctors, chemists and forensic experts (who are bamboozled by an onslaught of unlikely medical coincidences in connection with a death occurring in the context of a breakdown of a marriage); here it’s archeologists.  There is no way this book can be fairly summed up without spoiling half the plot, but if you should decide to tag along with the narrator and his Holmesean scientist friend, you’re in for quite a ride … even if somewhere between the 50% and the 75% mark you’ll probably have quite a good idea of what will be waiting for you at the end of the journey.

 

Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The week’s longest read and, perhaps surprisingly, not its best one.  To start with the plus side, this novel’s most interesting characters (and its single most outstanding feature) are the cats — not merely Rowl, the feline protagonist, but all of them; not least also Naun, the giant black tomcat leader of a tribe of street (or rather, tunnel) cats whose character constituted my reason for attributing this book to the “black cat” bingo square.  (Rowl is a ginger.)  Butcher really “gets” cats, and their scenes come across as both laugh-out-loud funny and entirely authentic.  Needless to say, almost all of the cats in this book are completely badass — Rowl first and foremost.  If the rest of the book had lived up to the cats, unquestionably this would have ended up straight on my “favorites” shelf.

Unfortunately, that was not to be.  And it’s not the fault of the human characters, either — particularly the three young women, Bridget, Gwen(dolyn) and Folly, as well as Captain Grimm (the eponymous aeronaut) and Gwen’s cousin Benedict — but Butcher’s own approach to storytelling.  (Which, incidentally, also makes me even more wary about his Dresden Files series than I had been before reading this book.)  The main characters in The Aeronaut’s Windlass are fine, and if Butcher had given them (and me) different stuff to work with, I’d be eager to follow them on their future adventures.  As it is … well, let’s just say the jury is still out on that one.

For one thing, the world building here is not anywhere near as innovative as blurb writers and five-star reviews want to make you believe: Heaven knows I’m not the most ardent reader of speculative fiction, and if even I recognize some the stuff cribbed from elsewhere, there’s bound to be a lot more that I didn’t see.  (Seriously, Mr. Butcher — Habble Landing as a place name and The House of Lancaster as one of the ruling families?  Geez, I thought George R.R. Martin was derivative, but are we into the derivative of a derivative now?  And a Discworld style guild system (only minus the satire)??  Be glad you’re not being sued by the estate of Terry Pratchett.)

Similarly, Captain Grimm and the whole aeronautics thing — warfare, tactical battle  manoeuvers, ship construction and equipment, even down to the details of (aero)nautical language included — are straight out of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series: Replace aeronautics (obviously, with the sole exception of aerial ascents and descents) by early 19th century / Napoleonic Wars seafaring craft, ships, and language, and that is precisely what you get.  Grimm himself, too, is so obviously a cousin to Hornblower in his more mature years and to his former Captain Pellew — and Grimm’s Predator a near-identical twin of Jack Aubrey’s HMS Surprise (plus the whole “privateer” subplot / past so obviously built on O’Brian’s Letter of Marque, as well as, incidentally, Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood) — that Forester’s and O’Brian’s (and Sabatini’s) estates should, by rights, be asking for a share of the royalties as well.  To be fair, from the book’s descriptions this was the one aspect I had expected — just don’t please anybody tell me that this is anything even close to original.

Finally, while I did appreciate the whole “cinder spire” idea, and I seriously also appreciate the absence of any sort of infodumps, I would have liked to find out a lot more, over the course of the book, what happened to make Earth’s “surface” world an uninhabitable wilderness and caused “the Builders” generation to construct the spires to begin with — and I’m also not entirely clear how you get to square an alleged “democracy” (this is the exact term actually used) with a de-facto king (called Spirearch) who is quite obviously much more than merely a representative figure and wields true power.

My other gripes tie into those that I have with a lot of speculative fiction (especially sci-fi, as well as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series), so this may be an instance of “it’s not you, book, it’s me” — but anyway, the book’s plot essentially consists of an incessant series of incidents of armed combat (aeronautic and on terra firma / the spires alike), every single one of which incidents goes down according to the tried and true formular of “hero(es) drawn into fight by overwhelming enemy force — hero(es) bravely stand their ground in the face of impossible odds — after a while enemies seem to get the upper hand after all — and a millisecond before it all goes pear-shaped for good salvation for hero(es) comes from unexpected quarters”.  Sorry, but this sort of stuff flat-out bores me every time it’s served up more than once to begin with (preferably only at a book’s point of climax), and that is true even more if the entire plot of a 700+ page book consists of little else.  (And it is even more true if I can anticipate the precise person or group providing the last-minute rescue — even if not also the precise manner — at least a chapter or two in advance, as was invariably the case here.)

On a related note, “surviving impossible odds in battle” also seems to be the only thing accounting for whatever character growth we seem to be seeing in this book; especially with regard to the younger main characters, particularly the young women, all of whom are inexperienced recruits and barely out of their teens.  OK, so Gwen has her moment of “how do I go back from all this warfare and combat to ordinary everyday civilian life” at the end of the book, and that was another moment I truly appreciated.  I just would have wished there had been more of this, instead of our protagonists incessantly rushing from one fight to the next — and I would also have wished there had been some experiences for them to grow on outside the fighting stuff, as there are (aplenty) in the Hornblower and Aubrey / Maturin books.

Long story short, it’s a miracle this book hasn’t been made into a movie yet — there’s plenty of things going “boom” with a vengeance, the CGI department would have a field day, and there are also plenty of great characters to root for, both feline and human.  And who knows, I might even watch that movie.  But the whole thing is also so similar to the movies that made me essentially stop caring about any new blockbuster releases years (nay, decades) ago that I’m not sure whether I ultimately would go and see it.  And I’m not sure I’m going to be reading the sequel to this book, either … even though Rowl (and Naun) might eventually tempt me to do so after all.

 

The Card

… as of today; with my “virgin” card below for reference:

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1952754/halloween-bingo-2019-the-second-week

Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering


Neither as “epic” nor as “profound” as the blurb promises, and definitely higher on the “popular” than on the “science” part of “popular science writing”.  Based on his style of writing, I can very well imagine Berman as a personable guide at his local observatory or as a host of popular radio science programs; the problem is that what sounds approachable in dialogue and oral explanation just comes across as chatty in writing.  (This gets better once the book has left the opening chapters behind, but it never goes away entirely, and arguably the Big Bang — which is the subject of the first single-topic chapter, i.e., chapter two — should be the last subject you want to approach with that much of a casual attitude.  For purposes of the audio version, it definitely also does not help that the casualness factor is virtually automatically enhanced in oral performance — which isn’t necessarily down to the narrator; it’s just in the nature of the beast.)

In fairness, astronomy, nuclear and astrophysics will never be my strongest subjects, so as far as the actual depth of topical penetration went, it may have been a blessing in disguise that the book didn’t do much more than give an overview of the various types of cataclysms and in so doing, rarely did more than scratch the surface.  (Then again, I tend to acquire both a quicker and a more profound grasp of any topic presented to me both at greater length and in greater depth than here.)  Eitiher way, this was enjoyable for what it was or turned out to be, but IMHO it’s seriously being oversold in the blurb — the author himself also seems to be quite the efficient self-promoter — and I think it’s at least also fair to wonder what medical and man-made events such as the medieval plague epidemics and WWII are doing in a book explicitly setting out to deal with astrophysical and earth-bound types of physical cataclysms.

Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams: Skeletons — The Frame of Life

Less Than What It Could Have Been

OK, so I admit I didn’t check on the authors’ scholarly credentials before picking this up — if I had, I might not have been so disappointed to find that this is not, after all (not even in part) a book dealing with the way in which skeletons help the creatures populating today‘s world live their lives the way they do.  (The authors are paleobiologists.)  So that one is probably down to me alone, but it still made for more than a bit of a deflating discovery.

(Not that I don’t like paleobiology.  It just wasn’t what the book’s title primarily suggested to me; and even less so, the subtitle.)

That aspect aside, though, as Elentarri already noted, this is chiefly an overview of the different types of skeletons that have ever existed on Earth; and here’s where I really expected more — more depth, that is, decidedly not more breadth.  Chapters 2 and 3 in particular (the book’s two longest individual chapters) are essentially a run-down of every major type of skeleton-equipped creature in existence, all the way back to the Cambrian explosion and forward again from there, which only resulted in making my head spin.  Rather than going on, in the subsequent chapters, to extend the definition of “skeleton” to things not typically associated with that term (pretty much everything from trees to medieval iron-plated armour and space exploration rovers like Curiosity) and trying to prove the validity of that broad definition, I would really have appreciated it more if the authors had (1) limited themselves to a few meaningful examples showing the development of exoskeletons (chapter 2) and endoskeletons (chapter 3) over time, and (2) used more of the available page space explaining how their respective skeletons worked for these animals in particular, and how they evolved to adapt to the changing conditions of their environment.  By the time we got to chapter 7 (“Flying Skeletons”) especially, I was hoping for just this type of contents, as for once the chapter title sounded specific enough to suggest just this, but again, unfortunately, the same approach as before prevailed.  Equally disappointing — though perhaps tell-tale as to the authors’ approach — was the fact that they kept trotting out that generalizing “birds are dinosaurs” line without any sort of explanation or qualification whatsoever.

That said, there is no question that this is a book written by two scientists who not only know but truly care about their stuff, and who can write about it without resorting to rhetorical fireworks all the time — which made for a very nice change compared to some of our recent Flat Book Society reads.  In fact, my disappointment with the superficiality of the contents stems precisely from the fact that these are authors who very well could have provided more depth if they had chosen to; and they could have done so without wasting half the available page space on hyperbole.

So in summary, if you’re just looking for an overview of all the types of skeletons and skeleton-equipped creatures that have ever existed, plus a bit of (sketchy but factual) biographical information on some of the past heroes (and heroines) of paleobiology and geology, this is your book.  Just don’t expect much of the information being provided to be extended to the creatures populating todays world, and none of it to focus on how the skeletons of today’s creatures equip them for their respective lifestyles — let alone, how precisely the human skeleton evolved to its present makeup and what (other than well-known factors such as our brains, erect gait and opposable thumbs) has allowed us to gain such preeminence that we’ve pushed pretty much every other mammal to the sidelines worldwide and are in a fair way of achieving the same even with creatures that have so far always vastly outnumbered us (such as insects).

Three final takeaways:

* Note to self: If you want to know about present-day life on earth, don’t read a book written by paleobiologists.

* After all these millions and millions of years, it still all comes down to plankton.  Kill off the plankton in our oceans, and we’re doomed.  (Not the planet as such.  Just us, and pretty much any and all other currently-existing creatures, too; regardless whether landlubbers or oceanic.)

* Scientists love science fiction movies, because they love to point out where the “science” in those movies fails.  It’s still a good thing, though, that they’re neither in charge of movie making nor of public safety, at least not in any scenario even remotely like those typically portrayed in science fiction movies.  Because I really don’t believe it would go down well — either in a movie or in real life — if in the face of an attack by swarms of giant spiders, or similar exoskeleton-clad monsters, public safety officials were to tell people, “Relax, we just need to wait until they’re going to moult … then we’ll get them.  Until then, it’s probably a good idea if you don’t leave your houses (ever), because yeah, these are man-eaters and they’re bigger than us and they’re out there to get you.  And no, we don’t think they’re all going to moult at the same time, either.  But hey, it can only be a matter of time until they do, right??”

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1922168/less-than-what-it-could-have-been

Martin Durrani & Liz Kalaugher: Furry Logic — The Physics of Animal Life

A bit on the fluffy side …

… but I’m at the point where I basically celebrate any Flat Book Society group read that actually makes a serious effort to deliver (popular) science content without authorial grandstanding, fashion commentary and similar distractions — and notwithstanding a few silly jokes too many, this book certainly does accomplish that.

Not all of the examples given were new to me, but plenty of them certainly were; and while I would have appreciated a few more diagrams here and there, generally the authors’ explanations are easy enough to follow.  As a result of reading this book, my appreciation of our fellow creatures on this earth has certainly grown yet again — and I also found myself nodding along with this passage from the concluding chapter:

“It is mere convention to talk about biology and physics as if they’re unrelated; they’re just labels we give to different ways of looking at nature.  Convenient, but not necessarily helpful.  Dividing physicists and biologists — making them go to separate classes and learn different subjects — stifles progress.  Each camp ends up speaking a different language: to a physicist, a nucleus is a collection of particles at the heart of an atom; to a biologists, it’s a structure at the heart of a cell that contains genes.

Many physicists are guilty of believing that everything reduces to physics.  What is an animal, they will say, other than a collection of atoms and molecules made of electrons, neutrons and protons, themselves composed of quarks and gluons?  That’s true, but it only gets you so far.  Though we use the movement of air molecules to explain how peacocks create infrasound, we won’t know why they make those noises unless we study their mating habits.  The world’s a complicated place that can’t always be boiled down to physics; and that’s without even mentioning animal genetics, neuroscience or physiology.”

Hell, yes.  There should be more interdisciplinary learning and scholarly exchange — and I’d wager to many a student it would make a huge difference, too, not only to learn about the laws of physics in the abstract (or by way of lab experiments) but also to understand where those laws find application in the world surrounding us, in animal life and beyond.

 

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ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1865509/a-bit-on-the-fluffy-side

Sam Kean: The Disappearing Spoon


DNF @ Chapter 4

I think it’s fair to say that if I prefer doing office admin chores and listening to a(n albeit truly fascinating) memoir about growing up in and getting out of North Korea to reading this book, that’s a pretty good indication I won’t be getting back to this.

Chapter 4 started readable, but within 2 pages we had the next bit of arrogant nose-snubbing, at the scientist authors of one of the most groundbreaking papers in all of 20th century science writing no less, with a casual misinterpretation of two lines by Shakespeare tagged on in another asterisked footnote — and I decided I just couldn’t take it any longer.

Writerly tone aside: if I find that I can’t trust an author’s pronouncements on the bits of his book that I can instantly verify based on my own knowledge, experience and interests (e.g., European history and Shakespeare’s writing) … how can I possibly trust him on the bits that I cannot verify quite as easily and quickly?

So Huggins must regretfully record that I’m outta here as well.  I think we may seriously need to review our Flat Book Society book selection procedure …

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1838679/dnf-chapter-4

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Prior Status Updates

31 Pages:

Well, let’s just say Mr. Kean clearly isn’t Helen Czerski (and that is not a good thing).

He either has no clear conception of who his target audience is, or he doesn’t know how to talk to his audience.  Someone with an average to advanced training in science obviously wouldn’t need any explanations as to the structure of the periodic table, to begin with.  The rest of us might need one — but (and it speaks volumes that I even have to emphasize this) a clearly structured one, please, not an assortment of anecdotes that blows any explanatory structure clean out of the window.  Also, if you’re writing a book subtitled (in part) “…Tales of … the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements“, wouldn’t it be a good idea to give your readers an idea when and how the periodic table itself made its first appearance in the history of the world?  Just a paragraph or so, for reference in conjunction with its basic structure, so we know where we are, both in chemical terms and the history of science?  (Ms. Czerski did just that.  But as I said … Mr. Kean clearly isn’t Helen Czerski.)

So far, he’s managed the feat that only one of my school teachers ever managed, and that was my physics teacher, who, like Sam Kean, presented his material full of enthusiasm as to the magic of it all, or the big joke associated with a given scientific fact / discovery, or some other reaction clearly warranted in his eyes, while completely failing to transport to the rest of us — and hence, leaving us entirely mystified — what all all of this had to do with any of us and why it was actually important (other than in a way that only the initiated would be able to appreciate).  I used to actually like chemistry in school (unlike physics), and I believed I had a fairly good grip on the subject — an impression my teachers seemed to share, judging by my grades.   A major reason for this was the fact that (unlike in physics class) I never had a moment’s doubt as to why what I was learning mattered, and how it all fitted together in the grand scheme of things.  But if I didn’t at least have this distant reservoir to rely on, I’m pretty sure I’d be entirely baffled already.  And I can only hope that this state of affairs is going to improve, because otherwise I’m either going to throw in the towel or it’s going to take me eons to finish this book (and it won’t earn a particularly high rating, either).

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1831685/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-31-out-of-391-pages

 

63 Pages:

The fact that I actually finished chapter 3 the day before yesterday and it took BT’s first status update for me to remember to also comment on my own progress probably tells you all you need to know about the priority this book has in my reading.

Well, the good news, I guess, is that chapters 2 and 3 are actually readable.  I don’t think I’ll retain from them much more than I already knew (and chapter 2 is another example of Kean getting stuck on two elements, amplified on by way of numerous details, after setting out to make a more general point), but at least he held my attention for the duration of those two chapters, and chapter 3 also contains a historical positioning of the periodic table.  Since this is the final chapter of the introductory section of the book, I’ll retract my criticism that he didn’t give any sort of historical introduction at all.  Which however doesn’t excuse the amount of condescension and outright innuendo going on in the description of the key biographical details of the scientists whose works he is describing in chapters 2 and 3.

That said, two days have gone by and I still haven’t been able to bring myself to move on to chapter 4.  As I mentioned in my comments on BT’s status update, somehow the combination of atoms as a topic and this author’s fractured approach to narrative and explanations doesn’t portend much encouragement.  Nor does his approach to the presentation of scientific theories (psst, Mr. Kean — that’s where footnotes just might be put to good use) … or his dealings with the biographies of several eminent scientists of the past, who can actually count genuine, important discoveries among their achievements.  I’ll be on a full-day trip tomorrow, and although it will include some train travel, I don’t see myself actually taking this book.  I also don’t think I’ll be in much of a mood to touch it tomorrow night when I get back.  I guess what I’m saying is I’m still on the fence whether or not to finish this.

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1834022/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-63-out-of-391-pages

 

2018 Airing of Grievances: Least Favorite Books of the Year

24 Festive Tasks: Door 19 – Festivus, Task 1

I’ve been blessed with a pretty amazing reading year in which disappointments were few and far between — so it was fortunately not difficult at all to spot the small number of candidates for my “grievances” list when scrolling back through my shelves.  They are / were, in no particular order (except for no. 1):

Margaret Drabble: The Red Queen
Pretentious, artificial, historically incorrect and, most of all, monumentally self-involved.  If this is the type of book that Drabble’s sister A.S. Byatt criticizes under the byword “faction”, then I’m with Byatt all the way — and that statement is far from a given where Byatt’s own fiction is concerned.  Someday I’ll seek out the actual memoirs of the Crown Princess whose story inspired this poor excuse for a novel.  I doubt I’ll go anywhere near Drabble’s writing again anytime soon, however.

Original review HERE.

 

Stephen Brusatte: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
Speaking of monumentally self-involved, this wasn’t much better than Drabble’s book in that particular department.  It does contain the actual bit of paleonthological information, but that bit is essentially hidden between tales of Steve the Great and his almost-as-great famous friends and acquaintances, as well as Brusatte’s pet theories — pun not intended — and a lot of generalization on subjects that don’t necessarily lend themselves to same.  (Also, Brusatte obviously loves T-Rex … and his obsession with the Rex’s “puny arms” has me wondering about the wider psychological implications of Brusatte’s fascination with the big bad  boys (and girls) of dino-dom.)

Original review HERE.

 

Jennifer Wright: Get Well Soon
Our third candidate under the “monumentally self-involved” header.  Leaving aside that the book’s subtitle (“History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them”) is a complete misnomer, this, too, is chiefly about the bright and sparky Ms. Wright and her opinions, frequently at best shallow research, and largely inappropriate oh-so-clever (NOT) quips, asides, and pop culture references.  At least two of the “plagues” mentioned in the book actually are not epidemics at all (which shows that indeterminate “medical horrors” is what Wright was truly after), and on the epidemics that do get mentioned, entire chapters of medical research and the world-renowned scientists chiefly responsible for that research don’t even get so much as a passing mention.  Virtually the book’s only saving grace was Wright’s stance against anti-vaxxers and similar superstitious nonsense — the sum total of which, however, would easily have fit into one of the magazine articles that Wright produces when she’s not pretending she is a science writer.

Original review HERE.

 

Ethel Lina White: The Lady Vanishes
One of the rare examples where I like the movie adaptation (by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock, no less) vastly better than the literary original.  “Woman in peril” stories aren’t my cup of tea to begin with, but leaving aside that I rather like Hitch’s spin on the conspiracy at the heart of the book, most of all, the two protagonists (Margaret Lockwood’s Iris and her “knight in shining armour”, portrayed by Michael Redgrave in the movie) come across as much more likeable and believable in the screen version — the guy in particular is nothing more than a pretentious prick in the book, for however much he’s supposed to be the Hero and Iris’s big savior and love interest.  All in all, Hitchcock elevated what seems to amount at best to B movie material on paper into one of his early masterpieces — no small feat on his part.

Original review HERE.

 

Francine Mathews: The Cutout
Not strictly a disappointment, as I was a bit skeptical going in anyway; however, it had an interesting premise and started well and thus got my hopes up to a certain extent — only to deflate them pretty thoroughly, alas, before it had really gotten going.  Totalitarian political machinations in a post-collapse-of-the-Wall Europe may have sounded interesting when the book was written in the early 2000s — and sound even more up-to-date these days, in fact — but it would have required a different writer to pull this off convincingly.  Matthews has no understanding of Germany, German society and politics, nor that of the Eastern European countries where her book is set (if she ever lived in Berlin or any of the book’s other main locations, she obviously had virtually zero interactions with anybody other than her American intelligence colleagues), and unfortunately, name-dropping half a street atlas’ worth of names of tourist sites and major traffic arteries is no replacement for a believable reproduction of local atmosphere. Similarly, not one of the characters is anything other than a two-dimensional cipher, and by the time the book reaches its end, it degenerates into the cheapest of cheap spy thriller clichés once and for all.

Original review HERE.

 

Honorable mentions:

(Or would that be “dishonorable mentions”?)

John Bude: The Lake District Murder
I already used this for the task of finding something redeeming in an otherwise disappointing book (International Day of Tolerance / Door 6, Task 1), so I won’t formally use it again in this particular context — besides, unlike the five above-mentioned books it didn’t actually make me angry … it just fell flat of what it could have been.

Original review HERE.

 

Joanne Fluke / Laura Levine / Leslie Meier: Candy Cane Murder
A huge disappointment only considering how popular these three ladies’ books are (particularly so, Fluke’s) — ultimately, I guess this was nothing more than a confirmation of the fact that cozy mysteries aren’t actually my kind of thing (with the sole exception of Donna Andrews’s Meg Langslow series).  Of the three entries, Meier’s was by far the weakest, but I neither cared particularly for Fluke’s nor ultimately for Levine’s, either — though in the sense of “amongst the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, Levine’s was the strongest entry in an overall weak threesome.

Original review HERE.

 

 

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ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1824367/24-festive-tasks-door-19-festivus-task-1-airing-of-grievances

Stephen Brusatte: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Yet another overhyped book


Reading Status Updates

8%

Flat Book Society November read, and also my read for the New Year’s Eve square in the 24 Festive Tasks game.

So far, it’s sounding good — at least you can tell the author is a scientist writing about the subject matter he’s studied.  This makes me hopeful.

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1805284/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-8

 

54%

Hmmm.  The science content is paleontology 101 (though the explanation of the factors that impacted the changes from one earth age to the next is quite accessible).  Only with regard to a few major species and subspecies do we get some sort of discussion of their basic attributes, strengths and weaknesses, however — other creatures falling into the same bracket are basically name-dropped in as a lengthy list, without any discussion whatsoever.  Perhaps most importantly, though, this is another huge case of titular mislabelling — this is about the author’s own career, field trips, cooperation with other scientists, and about his personal heroes as well as the notable scientists of yesteryear, at least as much as it is about the dinosaurs themselves.  I’ll finish it, but it’s not anywhere near a five-star book.

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1805370/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-54

 

100%

He redeemed himself a bit with the nonfiction part of the T-Rex chapter, but man, that narrative tone and his “I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread and I’m best buddies with all the cool kids in paleontology (even the long-dead ones)” attitude seriously grated pretty much from page 1 to literally the last words of the book.

Also, pro writing tip, Mr., um, Dr. Brusatte: If you seriously think it’s a good idea to begin a chapter with a dramatic, pseudo-fictionalized scene involving T-Rex and a bunch of other dinosaurs, and you’re telling it from the POV of one of those other dinosaurs, you’ll want to avoid describing T-Rex as “a monster bigger than a city bus”.  Because I’m pretty sure a dinosaur would have had no idea what a city bus was going to be looking like some 66+ million earth years after the extinction of its own species.  It’s all about narrative perspective, you see …

Oh, well.  Next!

Read for the Flat Book Society and the New Year’s Eve square of the 24 Tasks of the Festive Season (a book where things go BOOM!).

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1806707/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-100-of-yet-another-overhyped-book

 

24 Festive Tasks: Door 9 – Thanksgiving, Task 3:
A Book Full of Stuffing

The proverbial stuffed turkey — full of self-praise and completely unnecessary references to the author’s interactions with paleonthologists of note; space that would have been better used for actual information on … the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.  And yes, Dr. Brusatte — I know.  Turkeys are birds, and birds are dinosaurs.

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1811806/24-festive-tasks-door-9-thanksgiving-task-3-book-full-of-stuffing

 

Jennifer Wright: Get Well Soon

Epidemics are horrible. Well, duh …


In substance, I don’t really have a whole lot to add to my one ill-humored status update on this book.  This is the book-form equivalent of a cross-breed between tabloid journalism and a series of superficial, but opinionated and self-centered blog posts: short on bonafide science, history, and research generally; long on sweeping, generalizing judgments, inappropriately flippant tone, ill-matched pop culture references, character assassination, vagueness and imprecision, the sensational aspects of the diseases treated, and the personal histories of some of the protagonists of the episodes chosen for presentation (clearly not all of them selected for their “heroic” attributes but for their “human interest” and sensationalist appeal).  Several of the chapters do not deal with genuine epidemics (never mind “plagues”) at all: the “dancing plague” was arguably collective hysteria, encephalitis lethargica doesn’t qualify on either overall numeric or “sudden mass occurrence” grounds, and if Wright’s grounds for including lobotomies seriously were (as she writes) that you can’t possibly leave a gruesome procedure such as this out of a book on “medical horrors,” then that statement alone shows what she was truly after; never mind her book’s extremely misleading subtitle.  Most of all, however, Get Well Soon is extremely long on MeMeMe: the book’s true protagonist is not in any way, shape or form any of the brave, poor, heroic, stupid, bright, unfortunate and other souls remembered for their accidental, unwilling or deliberate involvement in one epidemic or another, but the author herself, who clearly considers herself God’s gift to popular science writing.

Well, no, Jennifer.  You’re not.  And contrary to what you seem to be hoping, history won’t remember you, either.  Not even because you’ve written a book.  Because this just isn’t the sort of book that either scientific or general literary history will remember.  Not even because it’s taking a scientific position that will be shown off as outrageous in the near or far removed future.  It’s just a run-of-the-mill, subpar, badly-researched tract that would be (and, as the books you cite show, has in fact been) in better and more competent hands with just about any writer who, unlike you, actually understands what they’re talking about.

To the above comments, I will add only one thing that began to bug me (no pun intended) progressively more after I’d posted my only status update:

Wright’s view is extremely Anglo-centric: in a book that makes so much out of the benefits reaped by humanity at large from the medical and scientific advances of the late 19th and the 20th century, and a book that purports to deal with, inter alia, cholera and tuberculosis, you’d expect scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch and their research to be given fairly big play, but Wright has either never heard of them at all or is completely unaware of their immense contributions to the diagnosis and treatment of the very diseases she writes about, including in the areas she trumpets over and over again: disinfection / sterilization, sanitation, and vaccination (which contributions to science and medicine justly earned both of them the scientific community’s highest honors — Pasteur was, inter alia, a member of the Académie Française and the Académie des Sciences, and gave his name to the Institut Pasteur and the procedure known as “pasteurization”; Koch was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine).  Even more than that, however, Wright’s world is divided into “core countries” and “periphery countries” — which seems to translate vaguely into “the North American and Western European parts of the industrialized world” and “all the rest.”  If that isn’t outright racism — and not of the casual sort, either — I don’t know what racism is.

Wright is adamant enough about the importance of vaccination and disinfection / sterilization / sanitation for me to give her the benefit of the doubt that she really is passionate about these subjects — and about the importance of science and scientific research generally.  On those grounds, and those alone, and in light of the undeniable importance of these topics (not only in connection with the current anti-vax idiocy), I’m willing to award her books two stars.  But that doesn’t stop me from wondering who at Henry Holt (of all places) thought this book would be a good idea in the first place, and where they hid both their science editors and their general editors before they let it go to print.

Finally, two fun facts:

(1)  “Lone genius” or not, I learned more about Edward Jenner and his research from my 5th and 6th grade English language textbook — i.e., from a book whose primary purpose was not to teach science, but to teach English to nine- and ten-year-olds who were just starting to learn the language from scratch, and who were in the very first stages of building a very basic English vocabulary.

(2)  I happen to know one of the authors Wright cites.  He is a friend of my mother’s and, when in Germany, always makes sure to spend some time with my mom / with us.  On one of those occasions, we took a trip to Speyer, which is some 2 – 2 1/2 hours south of Bonn (near the Luxembourg and French borders), has a certain significance in the history of Germany, and was founded, like many cities in the southwest of Germany, by the Romans.  Not surprisingly, it therefore has a museum dedicated to its Roman history, which the three of us decided to visit.  Having perused the museum’s exhibits, we afterwards proceeded to discuss the decline and fall of the Roman empire and my mom asked her friend what he considered the key causes of Rome’s eventual downfall.  Now, that was a very apt question not merely on general grounds in light of our just-concluded museum visit but more specifically because her scientist friend had published, a few years earlier, a book on the collapse of certain civilizations (including some highly advanced ones), and even before that, a book that deals with the way in which [resistance to] epidemics, warfare and technological advances combined have historically favored the descendants of the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent over the indigenous inhabitants of other parts of the world (say, the Americas) (this, incidentally, is the book that Wright cites in Get Well Soon).  So you could say that he knows his stuff.  And you’d think that if a scientist who had researched, in depth, these specific aspects of scientific, medical, geographical and social history, were to consider the Antonine Plague even remotely among the things that brought to an end a millennium’s worth of Roman history, he’d say so, right?  Well, guess what was the one thing he did not consider worth mentioning at all?  (Spoiler alert: yes — the Antonine Plague.)

Nice try, Jennifer.  Better luck next time.  Or on second thought — maybe better not.

 

 

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