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review 2019-12-25 16:18
Bloody Stupid Johnson
Hogfather (Discworld, #20) - Terry Pratchett

"'It's a bathroom,' said Ridcully.  'You are all acting as if it's some kind of a torture chamber.'

'A bathroom,' said the Dean, 'designed by Bloody Stupid Johnson.  Archchancellor Weatherwax only used it once and then had it sealed up!  Mustrum, I beg you to reconsider!  It's a Johnson!'

There was something of a pause, because even Ridcully had to adjust his mind around this.

The late (or at least severely delayed) Bergholt Stuttley Johnson was generally recognized as the worst inventor in the world, yet in a very specialized sense.  Merely bad inventors made things that failed to operate.  He wasn't among these small fry.  Any fool could make something that did absolutely nothing when you pressed the button.  He scorned such fumble-fingered amateurs.  Everything he built worked.  It just didn't do what it said on the box.  If you wanted a small ground-to-air missile, you asked Johnson to design an ornamental fountain.  It amounted to pretty much the same thing.  But this never discouraged him, or the morbid curiosity of his clients.  Music, landscape, gardening, architecture -- there was no start to his talents.

Nevertheless, it was a little bit  surprising to find that Bloody Stupid had turned to bathroom design.  But, as Ridcully said, it was known that he had designed and built several large musical organs and, when you got right down to it, it was all just plumbing, wasn't it?"

Somehow, this read slightly differently this year.  I mean, I know it's supposed to be punning Leonardo da Vinci, but please ... B.S. Johnson?!

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review 2019-08-22 21:08
Like a fine wine ...
Wyrd Sisters - Terry Pratchett
Wyrd Sisters - Terry Pratchett,Celia Imrie

... the kind of book that only gets better the more often you return to it.


I've revisited Wyrd Sisters three times in the last two years alone, and every single time I'm savoring every single minute of the experience.  Definitely one of my favorite Discworld novels -- next to its sequel, Witches Abroad, and of course the inimitable Hogfather.


Just gotta love the three witches ... and Verence, too.


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review 2019-08-21 20:32
Thomas Cromwell: A Life - Diarmaid MacCulloch
Thomas Cromwell: A Life - David Rintoul,Diarmaid MacCulloch

Expansion into a full review to come (if I find the time), but for the moment:


If you even have the slightest interest in Tudor history and politics, run, don't walk to get this book.  And for a special treat, also get the audio version narrated by David Rintoul.  This is an intense, fact-packed read and (in either the print or audio version) not a book to rush through; but it is SO worth taking the time.  What a fascinating personality -- and what an amazing biography.

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review 2019-07-21 15:18
Less Than What It Could Have Been
Skeletons: The Frame of Life - Jan Zalasiewicz,Mark Williams

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??"


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review 2019-06-17 17:16
On Trauma and Healing (of Sorts)
The Memory of Love - Aminatta Forna
The Memory of Love - Kobna Holdbrook-Smith,Aminatta Forna

Sierra Leone gained independence from British colonial rule in 1961, but, like so many other African countries, after enjoying a few brief initial years of peace and democracy, it was torn apart by dictatorial rule, military regimes, civil war and corruption in the decades that followed.  As a result, surveys have shown that a staggering 99% of the population exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.


This is the background against which the events in Aminatta Forna's novel The Memory of Love unfold.  Don't be fooled by the title: Yes, love in all of its shapes and forms is a driver of people's motivations here, but this book is about so much more -- it's a vast, virtually boundless tapestry of events, emotions, action and reaction, illness and health (mental and otherwise), war and peace, ambition, greed, selflessness, loss, beauty, ugliness ... and again and again, trauma; pathological, emotional and in every other respect you can imagine.


Forna unveils the enless layers of the novel's complex tapestry with a painstaking and almost painful slowness and care (as a result, it is virtually impossible to describe the plot without giving away major spoilers): The events, alternating between the late 1960s / early 1970s and the present day, are told from the point of view of three men -- Elias Cole, a former university professor lying on his deathbed in a Freetown hospital and telling his story to Adrian Lockheart, an English psychologist who has come to Sierra Leone with an international aid organization but has decided to stay on and help since he specializes in PTSD, and Kai Mansaray, a surgeon at the hospital where Elias is wheezing his way back through his life for Adrian's benefit (and his own -- or so Adrian hopes).  Though strangers initially, over the course of the novel it becomes clear that the three men not only establish a relationship in the here and now but that what connects them goes deeper and has roots in the past; their own as much as the country's.  At the same time, through the PTSD sufferers that Adrian treats at a nearby mental hospital (not the general clinic that ties him to Elias and Kai but a different place), through his and Kai's friends and colleagues, and through Elias's narrative and the men and women inhabiting it, in turn, Sierra Leone itself and its people collectively become a further main character to the novel -- the one that, ultimately, is the most important one of all and which drives every action and event; a huge, many-limbed, monstrously traumatized and brutalized organism that can't help but swallow its own constituent organs -- its own people -- and those whom it does eventually spit out again after all will be changed forever.


It took me a while to get into this book, and this is not the kind of novel that you can race through in a day or two (or at least, I can't).  But this definitely is one of my reading highlights of this year -- and this reaview wouldn't be complete without me giving my due and hartfelt plaudits to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, whose unmatched, deeply empathetic narration lifted an already profound, complex and harrowing reading experience onto yet another level entirely.  Highly, highly recommended.

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