Quick Review: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

I just finished Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire, and I enjoyed it a lot!

Personally, I am a big fan of new or different takes on traditional fairy tales, and so this take on Cinderella appealed to me. It is almost historical fiction as much as it is a fairy tale, set in Holland during the 1600s, during the early parts of the tulip craze. I felt that the story moved along at a good pace (although I was occasionally confused as to how much in-story time had actually passed), and I was definitely able to immerse myself in the world. There were some unexpected twists as well, especially at the end.

Does anyone have other recommendations for good fairy-tale retellings? I am a fan of Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, and I know that I read some others when I was younger, but don’t recall them too well now.

Review: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

(“A nonfiction book” from the Reading Challenge)

I am switching my non-fiction book because I read this one more recently and feel that I can write a decent review. (I did read My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek, which was my original choice, and I definitely liked it a lot and would recommend it! But I didn’t get to writing a review as soon as I should have, so I’ll do this one instead.)

This book was a Christmas present from a family member, who rightly guessed that I would enjoy it. It was very good!

The author is a paleontologist and professor of anatomy, and he has a clear, engaging writing style that was very easy to read. The book is (as you might guess from the title) talking about evolution as it relates to the biology and anatomy of the human body.

I really loved the way he talks about science! He talks about his lab (which is half fossils and half genetics/DNA, apparently), and he talked about looking for fossils in ways that I hadn’t thought about before. He points out that while yes, there is a certain amount of luck involved in actually finding the fossils you’re looking for, you have to start by doing the right prep work identifying where your chances will be greatest.

He uses the example of wanting to find an intermediate stage between finned fish and amphibians with true limbs, a transition which happened between 385 and 365 million years ago. So, he had to identify rocks in that age range, of the right type to preserve fossils at all (meaning, sedimentary rocks), and that were somewhere exposed/accessible to people. In this case, Ellesmere Island in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle, turned out to be the best place, and so that is where he and his team have gone summer after summer. And, after many seasons, they did in fact find the kind of fossil they were looking for; Tiktaalik was a fish that had fins…but they were fins with bones in them, and bones in the same basic number/arrangement that we see in all limbed animals today.

He does a really good job of working the reader through a somewhat abstract idea (that we can trace our bodies/body parts/body construction back in time through evolution, as evidenced by both fossils and genetics), by providing several concrete examples that show this, and going through the process each time. Looking at our bodies this way helps to make sense of some things about us that seem confusing when you think about them by themselves. Hiccups, for example. Why do we get hiccups? Well, probably because our bodies are descended from amphibious creatures that needed to be able to switch back and forth between breathing with lungs in air and breathing with gills in water. The muscle/nerve combination that causes hiccups originally worked as a pausing mechanism that allowed for that switch…only we don’t need it anymore, so for us it’s just a leftover thing our bodies do that can be a nuisance.

All of his examples are really interesting like that. Going back to limbs, he points out that every vertebrate creature that has limbs has limb bones in the exact same combination: one upper bone, two lower bones, blobby bones in the “wrist,” and then rod-like bones that radiate from those (fingers/toes, for us). The exact shapes, lengths and configurations of these bones are very different in an alligator, a bat, and a human, but the same basic combination is there in all three animals. In another example, he talks about nerves in the human head, some of which are very complex and kind of confusing, because they do lots of different-seeming things. But when you look at them from a developmental view, they make perfect sense, because one nerve is connected to all the various parts of the head that form from one “gill arch” on the human embryo, and another nerve is connected to all the parts that form from another “gill arch,” and so on. (Those “gill arches” are so called because, in fish like sharks, they do actually form into gills. In humans, they are present when we are an embryo, but then develop into various parts of our face, jaw, neck, and throat.)

So it was a very interesting book! It falls into the category of “I sort of knew the basics of this (evolution and how it works),” but this book lays it out so much more specifically and with such fantastic examples that it just becomes much, much clearer in my head. Books like that are the best ones, for me. I definitely recommend this one to anyone interested in paleontology, science, evolution, or the history of life on earth. A fantastic read!

Review: The Martian

(“A book a friend recommended” from the Reading Challenge)

I put this on my Reading Challenge list on the recommendation of a friend, and then ended up reading it for a book club that I’m part of with a few other friends – we definitely did not regret it. I’m probably a little late to the party on this particular book, but in case you haven’t heard about it or given it a try yet, The Martian is excellent. (Spoilers below.)

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Review: Princess Retribution by Elaine Tipping

(“A graphic novel” from the Reading Challenge)

I have enjoyed Elaine Tipping’s art and comics for quite some time, and her latest graphic novel, Princess Retribution, was a very welcome addition! As usual, the art was great, and I especially enjoy her character and clothing designs. Add to that the fact that there is a fun story to go with it, and I’m very glad I was able to contribute to her Kickstarter to support this book! (I’ll cut for minor spoilers.)

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Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

(“A book published this year” from the Reading Challenge)

So, this is technically a review of Shadow Scale, but out of necessity it will also talk about the preceding book Seraphina. Expect spoilers for both books!

I loved both Seraphina and Shadow Scale! Seraphina was one of my “grabbed it randomly off the library shelf because it looked interesting” finds that worked out well – I was hooked about ten pages in. They are set in a fantasy world in which two sentient species – humans and dragons – are struggling to coexist. The first book is set entirely in the country of Goredd, where forty years of uneasy peace between the humans and the dragons is teetering. Seraphina herself is a musician in Goredd’s court…and secretly a half-dragon. Continue reading