Review – Scoff

Posted September 18, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Scoff by Pen VoglerScoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that a book purporting to be a history of food and class in Britain does itself verge into snobbery now and then, but I was a little annoyed by it all the same. You can feel the judgement dripping off Vogler in what she includes and what she doesn’t — and for the most part, it’s not about British food at all, but the food that English people will eat. A single token reference to bara brith, a few potatoes and a quotation or two from Sir Walter Scott don’t make this British. I think there’s more about French cuisine here than Welsh, Scottish or Irish, and there’s classism going on in the very choice of examples she keeps harping on (Austen, Thackeray, etc).

There are some interesting titbits here, but I found the format of the book really annoying — you really don’t have to link each chapter to the next through a tenuous lead-in, and you really don’t need to make me hop around the book to read other sections.

I don’t know from personal experience whether all of her research is correct, though I saw one or two reviews on Goodreads suggest that she’s a bit off base about some things. She does at least have a fairly exhaustive set of references, should you want to look something else up.

I found this, in the end, surprisingly tedious for something that so clearly catered to my current, randomly acquired interest in food history. I was riveted by the history of white bread in America, so it’s not the subject that’s lacking here — it’s the delivery.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Murder Next Door

Posted September 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Murder Next Door by Sarah BellThe Murder Next Door, Sarah Bell

At first, reading The Murder Next Door felt like reading the nth book in an ongoing series. There were references to previous investigations, and bits of one of the protagonists’ past were peeping through, and it just felt like there was a whole previous book or even series being referenced. I knew it was the author’s debut, though, from other reviews, so I stuck with it and can confirm that the information you need is all contained within this book, that you don’t need to know about the previous investigations (aside from that they were ill-received by the local police), and that the characters and their motivations all fully make sense by the end.

The story itself is not so unique: the couple next door have always seemed a little haughty and aloof, but beneath the surface, the husband was abusive and unfaithful, and the wife was terrified and fed up. Louisa and Ada become involved when the husband suddenly dies, and it’s clear it was poison: Ada saw the wife fleeing with her young son, and is haunted by another woman who was once arrested for murder.

Where it becomes a little less typical is the fact that Ada and Louisa are a couple, with Ada acting as Louisa’s ‘companion’ in order to hide the truth of their relationship. What’s more, Louisa is actually asexual (though she doesn’t have that word for it), and her relationship with Ada is a balancing act of trying to read cues she doesn’t understand, and trying to ensure the relationship is also satisfying for Ada. That aspect of the book was handled pretty well: that navigation between them rings true.

Overall, it was a fairly enjoyable story once I got into it and felt sure that all the pieces would be present in the same book (and that I wouldn’t have to find some other book to figure out why Ada was so affected by the case). I did find the characters a little… wooden, I suppose, in some ways? There were some scenes where things definitely rang true, and then others where it felt that the characters were arguing or agreeing solely because that’s what the plot needed in order to proceed. Sometimes it felt like a bit of a shortcut, I suppose.

So I guess the upshot is that it was enjoyable, just not brilliant.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Chaucer’s People

Posted September 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Chaucer's People by Liza Picard

Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, Liza Picard

Chaucer’s People is pretty much what it says on the tin: a history of the lives of an assortment of everyday people through the frame of The Canterbury Tales. She discusses the various pilgrims and what they did for a living, what they ate, where they lived, the clothes they would have worn, etc. She digs into some of the details Chaucer gives us about them, and draws out what they mean.

One thing I have to note is that it rarely touches on the lives of everyday people, the people who couldn’t afford to go on a pilgrimage. The title is a bit of a contradiction because people who could go on pilgrimage weren’t everyday people! So it’s not as complete as it might sound.

In any case, I’d bet it’s a really good companion to reading The Canterbury Tales — I was somewhat hampered at times by the fact that I last read it when I was an English lit student, a good ten years ago. Because it wasn’t fresh in my mind, sometimes I didn’t have quite enough context, which is reflected in how much I enjoyed reading it.

That said, there’s a lot of detail that doesn’t require you to know or remember anything about The Canterbury Tales.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Magic Bleeds

Posted September 14, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Magic Bleeds by Ilona AndrewsMagic Bleeds, Ilona Andrews

NB: this is posted out of order from my other Kate Daniels reviews, as it was in the backlog! 

Magic Bleeds is the fourth book of the series, and some things are finally really heating up — not just Kate’s relationship with Curran, although that happens, but also Kate’s secrets, her problems with the Order, her growing attachment to her friends and acquaintances. She’s in a hell of a mess, and the mess is coming for everyone she cares about.

Of course, I was also attracted by the various plagues that break out or attempt to break out in this book. The practically sentient syphilis really caught my attention, as you’d expect, and was a hell of a start to the story. Kate’s not exactly built to contain a real plague, but magically-virulent ones she can actually fight.

The book also features the arrival of a certain furry asshole, and I’m not talking about Curran.

Normally I remember the third book most fondly, but actually, I think this one is probably better. Everything starts getting somewhere, and there’s development in characters and relationships which is really important to the story.

Of course, there are also some really funny moments, but I won’t spoil the jokes.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How to Read a Paper

Posted September 13, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Read a Paper by Tricia GreenhalghHow to Read a Paper, Tricia Greenhalgh

This is chiefly useful if you’re planning on reading papers in order to apply them to a medical context: it basically teaches you how to use the concepts of evidence-based medicine. However, it can also be useful for those who have to read papers in general, because there is a good discussion of how to read the statistics without getting overwhelmed and weirded out — and it has some hints about what to watch out for in terms of poor methodology and bad data manipulation.

It’s a slow read, of course, but it’s a worthwhile one if that sounds like something you might need to apply in your work or study!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Library: An Unquiet History

Posted September 12, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew BattlesLibrary: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles

The idea of a history of libraries and all they’ve meant to people is an appealing one — probably to many bookworms! It’s great that this one focuses on the way libraries have been more than just quiet places out of the way of history. I can’t say that this particular book actually worked out for me, though. It felt scattered, and not as engaging as I’d hoped — and I’m a big lover of books, and of books about books.

I ended up just… feeling meh about it, I’m afraid. It hasn’t stuck very well in my head since I finished it, and I wasn’t very compelled to keep reading it. I don’t think I read a single bit aloud to my wife, either, which is usually the sign I’m really enjoying non-fiction.

I read this before I read Burning the Books, but I’d recommend the latter if you were to read just one. It’s not quite the same focus, but pretty similar, and it covers more ground.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – How Emotions Are Made

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman BarrettHow Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett

The first half of this book is great. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains her subject well, dissecting previous evidence as well as her own research and synthesising them into her full theory. In summary, she posits that emotions are not something pre-formed in the brain, not something genetic, and not something you can point to on a scan. Instead, each instance of emotion is constructed from all kinds of different inputs, in the moment, and may not look anything like another instance of the same emotion if the subject is put in a brain scanner. This makes sense of a lot of things, and makes perfect sense to me — in fact, it starts to seem totally obvious!

She also mentions the “illusion of free will” almost in passing, in a way that made the lightbulb click on for me. I always hate the idea that I don’t have free will, and that “I” am essentially forced to act in a certain way — or more accurately, have no option to act in a different way — by combinations of my upbringing, culture and biology. But the point is that “I” am constructed by all those things anyway, and there is no real separation into “conscious” and “unconscious”, where the “unconscious” isn’t really me. The unconscious part is me as well, and even if it does things without waiting for the conscious me to weigh in — even though the body starts to act before the “decision” to act is consciously made — then… that’s still me. It seems obvious in retrospect, and is completely in line with everything else I believe (mind/body dualism has never been for me).

Why I never saw it that way before… well. Like Robert Sapolsky says in his book Behave, people tend to imagine their conscious mind as a sort of homunculus directing the brain’s actions, and it’s not really the case — but it’s a powerful illusion. It’s that idea of a homunculus separate from the rest of the brain that makes it feel like there’s a problem.

I’m not entirely sure I’m coherent here, but I really appreciated Feldman Barrett’s aside about that. It made things click into place for me.

The second half of the book is more about the applicability of her theories, and it worked less well. There are good examples there of dissecting how her theory works, but in the end her conclusions are familiar ones. That said, her view of constructed emotion, and the ability to impact how your emotions are constructed, give people rather more responsibility for their brains that scientists like (since I mentioned him already) Sapolsky seem to do. That’s interesting and useful.

Overall, I found this really interesting, but the applicability chapters dragged a bit.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Hobbit

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Once upon a time, I probably revisited this book every few months, and even as an adult it’d probably be once a year or so. And I never did get entirely tired of it, but it felt like I needed to take a break for a while and let it rest, and wait not just to feel idly like reading but to feel an itch to read it.

Well, that time came, and I grabbed my cute little pocket edition and devoured it in three goes (not the single gulp of childhood, but still fairly swift by my current standards). And as always, Tolkien was waiting for me, with his warm, affectionate, amused narration, his pedantic little worries about whether it’s “dwarfs” or “dwarves”, his silly (and less silly) songs and poems… And as always, I thought about how much more there always is to discover. Less so with The Hobbit, yes, but still — this time I found myself really focusing on the geography, for whatever reason, and how come Gandalf’s never taken that particular path to Rivendell, and questions like that.

Also, the wordplay. I never really followed half the “good morning” wordplay Gandalf does in the first chapter as a kid, but this time it jumped out at me.

The thing I love about Tolkien is the scope of his world. He’s reporting one story that passes through a whole world, and it shows in the small details (even when those were later tweaked for The Lord of the Rings, the fact that he had such a big world is what made it difficult to keep it consistent but let stories evolve within it). That and the warmth of his narrative voice will always carry The Hobbit for me, and make it like cuddling up with a big ol’ hot water bottle — and maybe some hot chocolate for good measure as well.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Winter’s Orbit

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Winter's Orbit by Everina MaxwellWinter’s Orbit, Everina Maxwell

I don’t know why I waited on Winter’s Orbit, because it was everything I hoped it would be. I suspect it won’t appeal much to someone who hates either the SF/F genre or the romance genre: there’s both here, intertwined, and if you don’t find both satisfying then you probably won’t enjoy the book. If you’re in fandom, you’ll immediately feel at home, I think — it feels like fanfic, in the sense that it has a certain joyful use of tropes that fanfic specialises in. “There’s Only One Bed”, “Mutual Pining”, “Sharing A Sleeping Bag For Warmth”, “Arranged Marriage”, etc, etc. There’s a lot of warmth and joy that arises out of the relationship between Jainan and Kiem, and it’s lovely.

That said, I don’t want it to sound like this book is pure fluff, because it isn’t (much as I might enjoy pure fluff with these two characters). It’s quickly obvious that Jainan has been abused in the past, and that his life has been very tightly controlled… Obvious, that is, to everyone but his new partner, who thinks he’s grieving, tries to give him space, and generally tries to be decent. They talk at cross-purposes and it leaves Jainan deeply unmoored, not sure of what to do, how to behave, or where the thin ice is. That theme runs throughout the book, yet overall I’d call the tone hopeful. And that’s mostly because of Kiem, who is a sweetheart.

The story is so enjoyable because the romance is a little bit of a slow burn: the misunderstanding at first, and Jainan’s fear, mean that the initial easy route into “oops, they’re in love” is blocked, and instead there’s a fairly natural development of their relationship into awkward friendship and more. That said, the “slow burn” has nothing on the 70-parter fics you can find in fandom!

I got really invested in this, which is why I decided to bump the rating up to 5 — I rate based on my enjoyment of books, after all, not some objective measure. At one point I kept having to put the book down to make stressed noises at my wife because eeep! Eeeep! It all came together really well for me.

I get the comparisons to Red, White and Royal Blue, and also the comparisons to Ann Leckie. For once, I can’t disagree. It’s not quite the same kind of book as Ancillary Justice et al, but there are some things that feel similar.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Consider the Fork

Posted September 10, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Consider the Fork by Bee WilsonConsider the Fork, Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork is a look through history at the utensils humans have used for cooking and eating, from knives and forks to the ovens that we prepare food in and our control of fire/heat. Each chapter themes itself around one of these implements, and discusses the changes through history and between cultures.

I found it broadly interesting, but… somehow it didn’t quite keep my attention in the way I expected. I suspect part of it is because I’m not a cook, nor particularly interested in eating food for its own sake. For whatever reason, food and the culture surrounding food is what has caught my magpie interest for the moment, but I don’t have that deep connection to the right pan or the knife that perfectly fits your hand that I think some cooks do and which Wilson seems to have in spades. Also, I think Wilson’s writing style just doesn’t quite work for me, which is fine.

I did finish it, though, and find that in several places I wanted to tell other people the interesting facts I just learned. It’s not bad at all, and I think there are people for whom it would be deeply fascinating. It just didn’t quite click with me.

Rating: 3/5

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