August 2020 wrap-up

So, August was kind of a hectic month for me. I didn’t have big plans for it, but then at some point I was convinced to go back to Italy to see my family – which I hadn’t seen since the end of November and, well… everything else kind of fell apart.

That said, even with me not being at home and trying to see as much of my family and my friends – and, let’s be honest, the beach – as I could, I managed to read 15 books. Which, if you ask me, it’s not too shabby. I read a couple fantasy novels, a few mysteries, and some non fiction books.

Eight of these books I read out of curiosity: if you remember, I read Eight Perfect Murders at the end of July, and it features a list of the eight “perfect” fictional murders according to the protagonist. Well, I kept hearing good things about those books, so I decided to give them a go and read them all. If you feel in the mood for some crime fiction/mystery recommendation, you can check out my thoughts on them here.

The Deep (2020) by Alma Katsu

Beautiful cover, interesting concept, poor execution.

Annie was a maid for the first class passengers on the Titanic. Strange occurrences seem to be happening, though, amid seances, disappearances and sudden deaths. It’s as if something is lurking in the shadows, just waiting for the right moment to strike…

Years later, having survived the sinking of the Titanic, Annie decides to embark on its sister ship, the Britannic, as a nurse. What she doesn’t expect is to find Mark, one of the passengers she was responsible for and had strong feelings for. But even if she remembers him fondly, he doesn’t want to see her, and from there the story starts going back and forth between the two ships and the two timelines, while we try to figure out what really happened on that dreadful voyage.

I managed to read about half of this novel before calling it quits. The book was unfocused, at times social drama, at times mystery, at times love story; and, when it remembered that it was supposed to also be a supernatural horror, it threw in a couple of weird sensations in the midst and that was pretty much it. The story didn’t have a direction; the characters were a bunch of annoying people doing nothing all day and complaining, or sitting around and doubting their sanity; and I got nothing of the supernatural horror that I was expecting from it. I liked the writing style, though, so I might try something else by the author in the future.

Gideon the Ninth (2019) by Tamsyn Muir

Queer necromancers in space. I mean, do I need to say more?

Harrowhark Nonagesimus is the heir to the Ninth House, and when she is summoned to a competition to become one of the Emperor’s new Lyctors, a prestigious position that would allow her to save her dying house, all she needs is a cavalier.

Enter Gideon Nav, who has been unsuccessfully trying to escape the Ninth House for as long as she can remember. She is the only survivor of a plague that killed all the other children of the house, and she’s been training with the longsword since she was a child. Harrow offers her a deal: she will act as her cavalier for the duration of the competition and, at the end of it, Harrow will let her go free. Gideon knows she can’t trust Harrow, but what other option does she have? Her escape attempts haven’t borne any fruit and she’s tired of waiting. The competition is harder than they thought, though, and when the other participants start to die, they’ll have to work together to solve the Emperor’s riddles, all while watching their backs.

I loved this book. Gideon is goofy and a total ass, Harrow is a bitch, and for some reason I found that endearing. Yeah, well. It was such a fun read for me, but I can see why I wouldn’t work for everyone.

Prince of Fools (2014) by Mark Lawrence

Jalan Kendeth – drinker, gambler, seducer of women – is the only one who can see the Silent Sister, the most dangerous and unspoken weapon of his grandmother, the Red Queen. Tenth in line for the throne and wanting for nothing, he is not moved when rumors of undead armies start arriving from the north. Until he founds himself magically bonded to the bearer of one of this rumors, a viking named Snorri, and is forced by this bond to follow him in a race against time to save his wife and children from the necromancer itself.

Jalan is a charming character. He’s a coward, but a witty one; and spending time in his head, watching the world through his eyes, is bound to be a fun experience, even when the plot itself is a more classic quest. Jalan and Snorri travel through land, meet people, try to figure out the origin and consequence of their magic bond and how to defeat the bad guys; all the while Jalan’s inner commentary goes on, providing a respite from scenes that could, at times, feel a bit boring otherwise. I’ll admit I laughed out loud a few times, and smiled to myself plenty of others. The parts about Snorri’s past manage to be really touching, and the fact that they’re narrated in third person helps to keep them distinguished from Jalan’s narration – whose comments would probably be extremely inappropriate. It’s also a lot of fun to see the easter eggs from Lawrence’s previous work, The Broken Empire trilogy, as they’re set in the same universe at pretty much the same time.

The Only Good Indians (2020) by Stephen Graham Jones

Ten years ago, on the last day of the hunt, four indian men killed nine elks, one of which was carrying a late pregnancy. Even though the event stirs unease in all of them, they try to shake it our of their heads and keep going with their life. On the tenth anniversary of the event, though, they start to be haunted one by one by the memories of it. And, maybe, it’s not just memories…

The concept for this book was really original, and the novel weaves horror elements with social commentary almost flawlessy. That said, I have mixed feelings about it. While it spent almost no time with the first one of the protagonists, I believe it spends even too long talking about the basketball player daughter of one of the others. I know she’s important as well, but as a person who does not really care for sports, some of the basketball scenes felt like they dragged a bit. I’m also not sure that the perspective of the elk adds to the story, especially toward the end, when from time to time I found the change of POV somewhat confusing. I don’t know if it was written in a different font or something on the printed book, but listening to the audiobook the transition between the POVs was not as clear as it could have been. It was still a very interesting read, but be warned if you are sensitive to animal cruelty: there are a few graphic scenes in this novel, and while they are necessary to the story and not gratuitous, they might still be a bit too much for some readers.

I then went through a phase where I wanted to listen to something, but couldn’t seem to focus on fiction. Non fiction books proved to be perfect company for the hours I spent on the beach, and especially ones dealing with paleoanthropology and human evolution.

A Pocket History of Human Evolution (2016) by Silvana Condemi and François Savatier

A fast read full of interesting facts and even more interesting theories. Especially new to me was the explanation of all the branches of the hominids family. It is packed full with information while remaining always easy to follow even for someone who is not in the field.

Some of the explanations of the evolution of some specific human traits fall a bit heavily on the evolutionary psychology side, like the reason of bipedalism: yes, of course walking on two legs instead of four freed our hands to use tools more effectively, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the use of tools that brought about bipedalism as a result. But I digress. The book was still full of very valid information and theories, and it’s interesting to see different opinion on how we became the way we are.

The Human Instinct (2018) by Kenneth Miller

The book covers a wide array of topics, and does it while always remaining interesting. As much as I can’t vouch for the accuracy or veracity of the author’s conclusions, I can at least say that he’s convincing. The chapters range from the discourse around evolutionism vs creationism, to an analysis of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, to the role of genes in the determination of our actions, to cosmic determinism, until it finally reaches what it hints in the title: consciousness and free-will.

The author never pronounces himself on the dilemma wether the human beings are only complex machines, destined to act according to a predetermined set of rules, or the result of a “superior” project, and thus endowed with intrinsic value in lieu of their consciousness; he prefers to stay outside of the dispute. The man is, without any doubt, a marvelous machine fruit of millennia of lucky turns of the evolutionary process; that said, isn’t it exceptional that the result of such fortuitous events is a being able to gain awareness of its own place in the universe, of asking itself questions and seeking for answers that might be beyond its capability, and, especially, that he can realise all of this and still be awed by its own complexity? Humans are proof that nature was able to evolved to the point of gaining self-awareness, and that’s truly exceptional.

Close Encounters with Humankind (2018) by Sang-Hee Lee

Another book filled with interesting anectodes and informations. The chapters were originally written for a korean magazine, and were then translated and expanded to be included in this book. This means they are grouped by topics instead of chronologically, and that gives the book the chance of being read in any order, according to one’s curiosity. None of the topics are treated in such a way as to come off as too technical; even the tone and writing style are colloquial and pleasant to read.

I’ll admit I personally didn’t find too many new informations in this one, but it would be a perfect starting point for someone who would like to know more about paleoanthropology and a wide range of topics without feeling overwhelmed.

On Human Nature (1978) by Edward O. Wilson

It’s clear that the author knows what he’s talking about, especially when the discussion verges toward the social insects – like ants and bees – which are his chosen field of expertise. It was also interesting to see the point of view of the author of Sociobiology, which caused quite a stir when it first came out.

There were some interesting observations throughout the book, but a week after finishing it I struggle to recall something to name here. The writing style was quite dry at times, and a lot of the ideas are so outdated as to sound almost silly. I partially expected it going into the book, seeing as it was published some forty years ago, but I still felt like I was not getting much at times. It’s interesting if you want to see how the field of sociobiology – now evolutionary psychology – has evolved from its beginning, and how back then it tried to track back every single human trait to some kind of ancestral need for reproduction.

So, these are all the books I managed to get through during the month of August. It was a mixed bag, with only a couple of books that I really liked, and a lot of average stuff. Well, better luck next month, I hope.

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