The Books that Fell Through The Cracks: The 2017 Mid-Year Grab Bag, Part 2

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Here is Part 2 of the 2017 Mid-Year Grab Bag – a list I had to split into two parts because there were so many books I did not sit down to write a long review for. Still, in the spirit of honesty and completion, here they are.

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The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy – Adrienne Mayor

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Anyone who has read about ancient Roman history to any amount of depth will probably be familiar with Mithradates of Pontus, though depending on which books a person reads or which teachers a person has, Mithradates’ reputation can range from “Oriental despot” (the phrasing of which makes me cringe) to a rival ruler the Romans respected and despised, to a freedom fighter trying to keep his lands free from the chokehold of Western (Roman) imperialism.

It is the latter aspect that Mayor focuses on, which is timely considering the current ongoing conflicts in the areas that were once part of Mithradates’ kingdom (parts of the Middle-East and Eastern Europe). Interestingly enough, people there are indeed holding Mithradates up as a native freedom fighter whose success against the Romans (who are equated with Western Europe and America) is something to be emulated. My only problem with this is that it reads a bit dry in places, and the pace isn’t quite as even as I might like it to be. Otherwise, though, it’s a very good read about a person who is not often discussed in history.

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In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages – Max Adams

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This is a lovely ramble (literally) of a book that takes the reader through British Dark Age history by way of very long walks through the countryside. In this book Adams asserts that one of the best ways to understand history (in the UK, anyway) is to actually walk the landscape, tracing paths both ancient and modern to come to a newer and better understanding of a past that has left very few visible traces behind – traces that are usually visible only to those who walk the paths on foot, as opposed to zipping everywhere in vehicles. True appreciation of this is easier for those who actually live in the UK and walk the paths that Adams describes, but for those who live elsewhere (such as myself), Adams’ lovely prose and storytelling will have to suffice – along with a valuable assist from Google Maps.

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Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity – Michael Scott

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Sometimes the contents of a book are not quite aligned with the promise they make in their titles or covers. Sometimes that surprise is pleasant, and other times it is not. In the case of this book, however, it does precisely what it promises: discusses three major ancient civilisations in context of their connections to one another – connections that most people do not even realise actually existed. He also makes a compelling argument for studying ancient cultures as connected instead of separate, distinct entities, which may provide a better understanding of the ancient world as a whole, as well as, perhaps, offer some insight into our own, globalised period in history.

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A Shiver of Light (Merry Gentry #9) – Laurell K. Hamilton

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Hamilton’s Merry Gentry books are something of a guilty pleasure of mine, so when I found out that a ninth book in the series had been released and I hadn’t even known about it, I immediately decided to pick it up when I was in one of those moods when I wasn’t in the mood for anything too complicated.

Now, I am aware that there are better paranormal romances out there than the Merry Gentry books, but even with the relatively low bar I’ve set for this series this one just does not live up to the usual standard. The plot is uninteresting for much of the first three-fourths, only picking up momentum in the latter fourth – and by that point, it’s really much too late to make anything interesting out of the whole thing, either. The climax isn’t even much of a payoff either, all things considered. If Hamilton chooses to continue this series I certainly hope that things pick up, because if this is the direction this series is going I’m not sure I’d be willing to invest in the tenth book.

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The Chosen (Black Dagger Brotherhood #15) – J.R. Ward

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To say that I was excited for this book is something of an understatement. Xcor and Layla’s Romeo-and-Juliet romance had been running in the background for quite a few books in this series now, and to finally get a resolution was something I was definitely looking forward to. And I can definitely say that the wait was very, very much worth it – especially since they are not the only couple with an HEA (or at least, an HEA-in-the-making).

On the other hand, I do have some problems with the way Qhuinn is handled. I feel like he should have gotten a harsher outcome than what he received, but that might simply be because I am vindictive creature and do not like seeing characters punished lightly when I think they deserve so much more pain for their sins. I am also not entirely happy with the use of deus ex machina in this novel, as well as the potential repercussions of said deus ex machina, but we shall have to wait and see what happens further down the line.

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Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong – Paul A. Offit

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I try not to be too judgmental, but this book really tested that ability because of an error in the first chapter – a mythology-related error no less, one that grated on my nerves because if there is anything I well and truly love, it is mythology, plus it was clear that someone was not doing their job as they ought to. This was irritating, especially in a book about science, which is a discipline built on fact-checking repeatedly and often.

But after I got over that slip, which happened in the first chapter (and which is also the weakest chapter, incidentally), everything else is much better and much more interesting. Offit’s narrative style is quite engaging despite the occasional stylistic hiccough, but overall he was able to weave together history, science, and current events in an easy-to-read way. This book reminds the reader that it always pays to be skeptical, even when something is termed “science” or “scientific” – or perhaps, even more so, because nowadays science is being treated more like a marketing strategy than as the rigorous discipline it actually is.

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Mr. Splitfoot – Samantha Hunt

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I picked this up because it was on next on the docket for the little book club I have with a friend. I selected it for inclusion in our pool too, because I thought the title and premise were both interesting, plus it’s always great to read horror written by women, when the genre is so dominated by men.

And yet, despite all of this positivity going in, I’m not entirely sure what to think of this book. On one hand, the imagery is excellent, and chillingly creepy where it needs to be. I also appreciate that the horror comes from the harsh truths of reality (in particular, what it means to be a woman, and an expectant mother) as opposed to blood and gore, but in between those interesting bits there are large stretches of nothing very interesting happening. I suppose that makes sense, given that this is sort of a road trip story and there are plenty of moments during a road trip where absolutely nothing happens, but still. I am still interested in reading more from Hunt, though, so I am somewhat inclined to pick up her latest book – not right away, of course, but I will consider reading it.

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Magic for Nothing (InCryptid #6) – Seanan McGuire

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every instalment in McGuire’s InCryptid series, so when I finished the fifth book last year and learned that the sixth book would focus on Antimony, I was very delighted and eager to read more. Antimony did not get a lot of screen time in the first five books, and what had been seen of her up to this point was mostly from Verity and Alex’s perspective. So to learn that she’d finally have her own set of books was something I could not pass up.

And, as I hoped, this book is a treat to read. Antimony is a fascinating character because she provides so much perspective when it comes to her relationship with her siblings – especially given the fallout of what Verity did in the fifth book. Appropriately for a book about changing perspectives, the reader gets to finally see the infamous Covenant from the inside – or at least, a part of it. I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens next, because it’s clear that this book is only the beginning of Antimony’s adventures, and there is more down the line that I am excited to read about.

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River of Teeth (River of Teeth #1) – Sarah Gailey

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I stumbled across this novella while scrolling through Twitter: a handful of the authors I follow were talking about it, and I got curious. Upon looking it up, I realised that the premise was one I could not resist: alternate-history wherein the swamplands of the United States teem with wild hippos, as the result of a plan by the government to start herding them as a meat source. In actual history, the plan did actually exist, but did not happen. In Gailey’s story, however, she projects a version of American history where the swampy South is just as wild as, if not wilder than, the American West of the same period.

And I am so glad I chose to pick this up, because this was an absolute treat to read. I spent a lot of time quietly exclaiming in delight to myself over the characters and the action, and though it goes by very quickly due to its length, it still feels like a complete story overall, with all the appropriate development in terms of plot and character that I could want – well, except for that cliffhanger there are the end, because as it turns out this will have a sequel coming out at later this year, and I am very much looking forward to reading that too.

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The Ghost Line – Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison

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While I enjoy haunted house stories a great deal, I also happen to enjoy haunted space ship stories too – usually for much the same reasons that I enjoy haunted house stories, albeit with the higher chance for face-hugging aliens than I would expect from a haunted house. That also explains why I picked this novella up: I couldn’t pass up the chance to read a haunted space ship story, especially one that promises to run quickly.

And for the most part, this is quite an enjoyable read: the tension is tight all throughout, and I like that the cause of the haunting is not revealed until it absolutely necessary (unlike in this one novel I read). However, this does suffer from a lack of characters development. The main character is given her time in the sun, to be sure, but the other characters around her are not given the same treatment. This might have made the novella longer, perhaps something approaching novel length, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder just how much better the story would have been, how much tighter the tension and how much higher the stakes, and all the characters been given the development they deserve.

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Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon – Nick Trout

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Pet parents know that a reliable, sympathetic vet is worth his or her weight in gold, but while the parents know how difficult it can be to watch their beloved fur/feather/scale baby undergoing medical treatment for whatever ails them, especially if that treatment is surgery, I rather wonder how many of those parents think about what must be going on in their vet’s head during all of this. To be sure, there are television shows out there that show what running a veterinary clinic is supposedly like, but since those are television shows it can be hard to hear a real, authentic voice from underneath all that editing.

This is why Trout’s book is such a treat to read. Not only is he an excellent storyteller with the kind of dry humour I appreciate (no surprise: he’s British), but he shows such obvious and sincere love for his job and the animals that he cares for that makes his writing especially compelling to read. He also takes the opportunity to express his opinions regarding certain matters such as pet euthanasia and the existence of “Neuticles” – silicone balls used to replace the testicles of male dogs after they have been neutered. This makes his book not only a compilation of excellent vet stories (not all of which end happily – but that’s only to be expected), but also insight into the sometimes weird, sometimes tragic things humans do for the sake of the pets we love – and what they can tell us about ourselves.

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