Review – The Corpse in the Waxworks

Posted April 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Corpse in the Waxworks

The Corpse in the Waxworks

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 288
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

"The purpose, the illusion, the spirit of a waxworks. It is an atmosphere of death. It is soundless and motionless... Do you see?"

Last night Mademoiselle Duchêne was seen heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the Musée Augustin waxworks, alive. Today she was found in the Seine, murdered. The museum's proprietor, long perturbed by the unnatural vitality of his figures, claims that he saw one of them following the victim into the dark—a lead that Henri Bencolin, head of the Paris police and expert of 'impossible' crimes, cannot possibly resist.

Surrounded by the eerie noises of the night, Bencolin prepares to enter the ill-fated waxworks, his associate Jeff Marle and the victim's fiancé in tow. Waiting within, beneath the glass-eyed gaze of a leering waxen satyr, is a gruesome discovery and the first clues of a twisted and ingenious mystery.

John Dickson Carr’s The Corpse in the Waxworks was surprisingly in the middle for me — usually I quite dislike John Dickson Carr’s earlier work and books involving Henri Bencolin, though I’ve later come to enjoy some of his Gideon Fell stories.

This one’s not one of his more famous, and isn’t a locked room mystery, meaning it actually felt less contrived than some of them. And Bencolin wasn’t quite as annoying as I usually find him, though I wasn’t a huge fan either; his sidekick (Marle) is just kind of vanilla, really, though he gets his own little action sequence (predictable as it is).

In the end, it felt relatively straightforward as Carr’s mysteries go, and without any femmes being too fatale, and it did have an intriguing sense of atmosphere around the masked club and the waxworks — a little bit creepy, a little bit high-strung.

Not a new favourite by any means, but more enjoyable than I expected.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted April 17, 2024 by Nicky in General / 2 Comments

It’s WWW Wednesday time! So, as always, that’s:

  • What have you recently finished reading?
  • What are you currently reading?
  • What will you read next?

Cover of Mountains of Fire by Clive OppenheimerWhat have you recently finished reading?

I think the last thing I finished was Mountains of Fire, by Clive Oppenheimer. It’s about volcanoes, about which the author is undeniably enthusiastic. Sadly, I think volcanoes are just not really my thing? There were interesting facts in the book, particularly when he discusses local culture around volcanoes, but overall it just didn’t speak to me.

Before that, I read The One-Cent Magenta, by James Barron. It’s less about the stamp itself and more about how collectors gave the stamp such value (it’s the most valuable stamp in the world).

Cover of Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones by Hettie JudahWhat are you currently reading?

Apparently, 26 books at once. This isn’t ideal, it’s just that I keep picking up books and reading part of them, and then my whims move on somewhere else, unfortunately. I’m trying to get back to actively reading some of them, so I’ve gone back to Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones, by Hettie Judah. It’s not that it isn’t interesting, it’s just kind of bitty, as there’s only a couple of pages per stone before it moves on. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that, and sometimes less so. It’s a beautiful book, though.

Cover of London Particular, by Christianna BrandWhat will you read next?

I want to get back to focusing on some of the fiction on my list as well! I think I might dig back into London Particular, by Christianna Brand: I only started that a few days ago, so it’s fresh in my mind (even if I did read 50 pages and then just wander off). As is pretty typical for me with Christianna Brand’s work, I don’t really like any of the protagonists (and I know I don’t like the detective, whenever he actually appears), but she does make them come alive.

What about you? Reading anything good?

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Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Posted April 16, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Ten Birds That Changed the World

by Stephen Moss

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 416
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

For the whole of human history, we have lived alongside birds. We have hunted and domesticated them for food; venerated them in our mythologies, religions, and rituals; exploited them for their natural resources; and been inspired by them for our music, art, and poetry.

In Ten Birds That Changed the World, naturalist and author Stephen Moss tells the gripping story of this long and intimate relationship through key species from all seven of the world's continents. From Odin's faithful raven companions to Darwin's finches, and from the wild turkey of the Americas to the emperor penguin as potent symbol of the climate crisis, this is a fascinating, eye-opening, and endlessly engaging work of natural history.

Stephen Moss’ Ten Birds That Changed The World is a style of non-fiction I enjoy very much, where history gets illustrated through a focus on key things like archaeological items or, well, birds. Instead of being a straightforward timeline, such things can give a different view on well-worn events and times: an everyday view, or a less human view.

Much of this focuses on how humans have exploited and endangered birds, as one might expect, from climate change to more direct impacts. There are also interesting discussions about other things, though, like the fact that “Darwin’s finches” have become the focus of a sort of mythology around the figure of Darwin. In reality, the finches played little part in the germination of his theories, and were recognised later as the perfect example of his theories in action.

One thing I found a bit questionable was the focus on ravens as mentioned in what Moss referred to as one of the earliest stories, that of the Biblical flood. He’s wrong. The same story is told in the epic of Gilgamesh, also featuring a raven — and that epic was, of course, written before the Bible. It’s curious that he makes no mention of it, but perhaps it’s not very surprising at all since he matter of factly refers to “the birth of Christ” as a way of marking time (not just through using the term “BC”, but specifically stating that something happens “before the birth of Christ”). There’s a particular kind of framing there, subtle but noticeable, and it raises questions about the depth of Moss’ research when discussing mythological and legendary depictions of birds (at the very least), or about his ideological decisions in writing the book. Definitely a weird moment. Of course one’s beliefs shape how one writes and thinks, but a little objectivity is important when you’re talking about historical fact.

All in all, I enjoyed it, but perhaps not as much as I hoped to.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Honey & Pepper

Posted April 15, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Honey & Pepper

Honey & Pepper

by A.J. Demas

Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance
Pages: 222
Series: When In Pheme #1
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Newly freed from slavery, Nikias is making a life for himself in the bustling city of Pheme, working at a snack stand, drinking with a group of anti-slavery radicals, and pining for the beautiful law clerk next door. When he sees his crush attacked in the street by an outraged ex-client, it seems it’s finally Nikias’s chance to be the hero.

Kallion doesn’t need a rescue. What he really needs is a skewer of octopus fritters (with extra sauce) and a friend. Nikias can supply both, and maybe, with the help of Nikias’s skill in the kitchen and Kallion’s excellent collection of wine, they can fight past their misunderstandings and the disasters of their pasts to something deeper.

But when civil unrest roils the city and old threats resurface, the trust these two have built will be tested. And they’d both better hope that Kallion’s vicious former master will just stay dead.

Honey & Pepper is a standalone m/m romance and also the first book in the When in Pheme series set in an imaginary ancient world.

I really enjoyed A.J. Demas’ Honey & Pepper. I wasn’t sure if I would, due to the initial misunderstanding (both because it revealed that Nikias had some kind of shame about his desires, and because I wasn’t looking forward to the two of them angsting about it). But I gave it a chance anyway, and was glad: Nikias swiftly comes to realise he was rude, and that also makes clear his character as someone who is willing to be wrong, willing to think, willing to self-examine. And Kallion, for his part, forgives easily enough, because the two of them are in a situation created by the fact that they have both been slaves, and they understand how that shapes you.

Nikias is fairly straightforward as a character — his heart is well and truly on his sleeve. Kallion took longer to open up, but fortunately it didn’t happen as a third-act breakup or something like that. Instead, a plot that was already hinted at comes to the fore, and wraps things up enjoyably.

I enjoyed both Nikias and Kallion’s characters, and their interactions: the way that Nikias sweetly takes charge because that’s what Kallion needs/wants, and the positive communication between them (mostly from Nikias, but I don’t think there’s ever much doubt about Kallion’s needs and wants, even if he’s less clearly verbal about them). They work well as a couple, and I liked the supporting characters, too.

The villain of the piece is a bit unsubtle, and that part is all very black-and-white; in such a short book, there isn’t really time to add more depth, I suppose, but beside Kallion and Nikias, it felt a bit pantomime villain-y.

One thing to note, though: while slavery isn’t romanticised, there’s a touch of romanticisation of some of the slave-owning characters. I think that’s addressed somewhat by Nikias’ firm opinions on the matter (including that he is clear that he loved his master, and still thinks his master acted wrongly), and Kallion also comments on the fact that past inaction matters somewhat in the balance (though he isn’t talking directly about the owning of slaves). Still, one of the female characters is rather lionised for deciding to free her slaves and invest in the businesses of freedmen, but prior to that she did put up with an awful lot of slavery and mistreatment of slaves without doing anything about it. It feels like a little bit of a blind spot to me.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, volume 1

Posted April 14, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, volume 1

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon

by Shio Usui

Genres: Manga, Romance
Pages: 170
Series: Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon #1
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Uno Hinako throws herself into makeup, fashion, and falling in love, hoping that will make her seem normal to the other people at her job. But no matter how hard she tries, she's a self-doubting mess inside, and her attempts at normal romance with men just keep failing. When she starts to think she might be alone forever, a new normal presents itself in the form of her relationship with Asahi Sato, a level-headed woman who works at her company, which starts as respect until it becomes far more intimate.

Shio Usui’s Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon is a cute story about two coworkers who appear not to have much in common, who start to find they have more in common than they thought, and that they enjoy one another’s company. It’s obviously heading toward romantic territory, but the author doesn’t rush the gate and have them jumping there: in this first volume, they’re just becoming friends, and starting to see that they’re not alone.

The main character, Hinako, is trying hard to be the perfect woman: approachable, pretty, accommodating, and willing to try dating just about anyone her friends suggest in the desperate effort to find a man she can fall in love with. Her insecurity and confusion is obvious and painful as she tries to figure out why she doesn’t want what she thinks she “ought” to want — and what she might want instead.

We see less of Sato’s point of view, but she’s a slightly older woman who seems pretty secure in herself and confident, despite having chosen the things that Hinako thinks will have her rejected by people. She and her sister have an enjoyable relationship too: it’s not just about Sato and Hinako, but also about the people around them.

Vibes-wise, this feels like an f/f version of A Side Character’s Love Story, in many ways — which is a series that I adore. I was keen to pick up a bit more of this at least and see where it goes; that said, having done so, I should point out that the lesbians are both explicitly asexual, and there’s a certain amount of horror and self-loathing along the way. It’s fairly light as things go, but it’s worth knowing, and though it is ace rep, there’s of course always the problem that sometimes that’s just to render it more acceptable socially (or because of censorship).

Rating: 3/5

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Stacking the Shelves & The Sunday Post

Posted April 13, 2024 by Nicky in General / 20 Comments

It’s been a quiet week — hurrah! And I’m pretty caught up on comments and blog visits too. It’s a shame that in a few weeks things will ramp up again for my exams, but hey, at least I’m on an even keel right now.

So, as usual, I’m linking up with Reading Reality’s Stacking the Shelves, Caffeinated Reviewer’s The Sunday Post, and the Sunday Salon over at Readerbuzz.

Books acquired this week:

Technically, there are no books acquired this week, but here’s the rest of last week’s haul! First off, the non-fiction:

Cover of The Oxford History of The Book by James Raven Cover of Email by Randy Malamud Cover of Mountains of Fire by Clive Oppenheimer

I’ve started on Mountains of Fire; I’m finding it a little slower than I expected, but maybe that’s just my mood. It has a pretty cover, though; it’s actually shiny.

And here’s the rest of the fiction!

Cover of Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh Cover of Crimson Snow ed. Martin Edwards Cover of The Warden by Daniel M. Ford

It definitely isn’t the season for Crimson Snow — I’ll probably keep that for December, but it gets me closer to completing my British Library Crime Classics collection. As for the other two, I’ve been curious about both for a while!

Posts from this week:

And here’s the usual roundup of the books I’ve been reviewing this week!

Other posts:

What I’m reading:

This weekend I have all kinds of cute plans to read a lot, but goodness knows if I actually will, or whether I’ll read the things I’m intending to read. I’m content as long as I have fun. A lot of my reading this week was manga I don’t intend to review here (the Fairy Tail series by Hiro Mashima), but I did finish up two other books which I will review, or already have:

Cover of A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg Cover of Sticky by Laurie Winkless

So, back to my books! Hope everyone else has had a good week, and some lovely books to read.

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Review – A Fish Caught in Time

Posted April 12, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Fish Caught in Time

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth

by Samantha Weinberg

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 256
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor - 400 million years old - a four-limbed dinofish

In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman's trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth - a species known to have lived 400 million years ago, and believed by many scientists to be the evolutionary missing link - the first creature to crawl out of the sea. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer had thus made the century's greatest zoological discovery. But Smith needed a live or frozen specimen to verify the discovery, so began his search for another coelacanth, to which he devoted his life.

I didn’t really expect to be hooked when I picked up Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time. Fish aren’t a huge interest of mine, even coelacanths, and in many ways the book is quite biographical in detail, discussing the life of J.L.B. Smith and Margaret Smith in quite a bit of detail, along with some of the other personalities who searched for live coelacanths.

Nonetheless, I found it surprisingly riveting! And that’s always fun, when a book turns out to surprise you. And there are details about coelacanths too, and the controversies surrounding them (are they a missing link between the water and the land, for example? and do they bear live young, or not?), which the biographical details help to highlight and contextualise.

It also helps to make the political implications of coelacanths and their territories very clear; I hadn’t particularly thought about who might consider themselves to own coelacanths, and yet it’s very clear that various countries and localities and political bodies have tried.

If you’re looking for something that’s more of a deep dive into coelacanth biology and ecology, this wouldn’t be it — but it’s an interesting history of the moment the first recently-dead coelacanth was found, and what it meant, and what it led to.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Navigational Entanglements

Posted April 11, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Navigational Entanglements

Navigational Entanglements

by Aliette de Bodard

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 176
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Using the power of Shadows generated from their own bodies’ vitality, Navigators guide space ships safely across the Hollows: a realm of unreality populated by unfathomable, dangerous creatures called Tanglers. In return for their service, the navigator clans get wealth and power—but they get the blame, too. So when a Tangler escapes the Hollows and goes missing, the empire calls on the jockeying clans to take responsibility and deal with the problem.

Việt Nhi is not good with people. Or politics. Which is rather unfortunate because, as a junior apprentice in the Rooster clan, when her elders send her on a joint-clan mission to locate the first escaped Tangler in living memory, she can’t exactly say no.

Hạc Cúc of the Snake clan usually likes people. It says so on her resume: “information gathering”—right after “poisoning” and “stabbing.” So she’s pretty sure she’s got the measure of this group: they’re the screw-ups, the spares; there isn’t a single sharp tool in this shed.

But when their imperial envoy is found dead by clan poison, this crew of expendable apprentices will have to learn to work together—fast—before they end up cooling their heels in a jail cell while the invisible Tangler wreaks havoc on a civilian city and the reputation of all four clans.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Aliette de Bodard’s Navigational Entanglements has quite a bit going on for a novella, with a bunch of worldbuilding around the navigators, their clans, the Empire, the politics between them, and the dangers of creatures that lurk out there in space. Việt Nhi, a junior, is sent with a couple of others (none of whom get along very well) to find and kill a tangler, a strange creature whose touch can kill humans. Predictably, things don’t go to plan.

Việt Nhi likes secrets and she likes rules. She likes to understand what’s at the root of things, because that’s easier to understand than the shifting rules of conversation and interaction with peers. She’s quickly drawn to one of her companions, Hạc Cúc, because even though she’s dangerous and relationships don’t usually seem to go well anyway, Hạc Cúc seems to understand a bit of what makes her tick, and want to work with it. Meanwhile, Hạc Cúc is struggling with her own feelings of inadequacy, her worry that she isn’t half as kind or capable as her mentor, her expectation that she’ll hurt those around her.

It makes for a pretty sweet romance, as each goes out on a limb for the other, and the bond that forms between them is also part of what makes the story come together. Their relationships with the other characters are less central, but also part of what makes it all tick — I got pretty caught up in whether they’d all come through for each other (and it didn’t feel like a foregone conclusion).

It works well at novella length, providing a story that’s both a glimpse of a larger world and complete in itself as far as Việt Nhi, Hạc Cúc and their motley band go. There are surely other adventures ahead of them, and there’d be room for a sequel — but it’s also complete in itself.

I did have to chew on this a bit to decide how much I liked it, because it wasn’t something I instantly connected with, but I enjoyed it the more for thinking over it.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted April 10, 2024 by Nicky in General / 2 Comments

It’s WWW Wednesday time! That’s:

  • What have you recently finished reading?
  • What are you currently reading?
  • What will you read next?

Cover Honey & Pepper by A.J. DemasWhat have you recently finished reading?

I’ve mostly been reading Hiro Mashima’s Fairy Tail, a manga series which is a bit male-gazey and focused on fighting, but has been fun enough and low-stakes enough to keep my interest when I’m feeling a bit meh and having trouble getting into the swing of things again.

Before that, it was A.J. Demas’ Honey & Pepper, which is a standalone romance set in an alternate Ancient Greece. I loved the way the relationship between them develops and how thoughtful Nikias (one of the two main characters) is about his own kneejerk reactions.

What are you currently reading?

Cover of A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha WeinbergLike I mentioned, I’ve been a bit fidgety, but last night I did pick up A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth last night, which is by Samantha Weinberg. It’s not just about coelacanths: there’s a good amount of info about the guy who described the first recently-dead specimen found, J.L.B. Smith. I’m not always a fan of more biographical stuff, especially when I’m more interested in popular science, but there’s a good amount of context for the importance of coelacanths and what they can tell us. I’ve found it surprisingly absorbing.

I’m also partway through The Ha-ha Case, by J.J. Connington, which is a pretty classic mystery, nothing special.

Cover of Mountains of Fire by Clive OppenheimerWhat will you read next?

Possibly I’ll get back to one of the books I have on the go — for example Clive Oppenheimer’s Mountains of Fire. On the other hand, I’m really trying not to nail myself to anything, and just read whatever strikes my fancy in the moment. So we’ll see!

What about you? Reading anything good?

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Review – Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

Posted April 9, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

by James Suzman

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 464
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

Work defines who we are. It determines our status, and dictates how, where, and with whom we spend most of our time. It mediates our self-worth and molds our values. But are we hard-wired to work as hard as we do? Did our Stone Age ancestors also live to work and work to live? And what might a world where work plays a far less important role look like?

To answer these questions, James Suzman charts a grand history of "work" from the origins of life on Earth to our ever more automated present, challenging some of our deepest assumptions about who we are. Drawing insights from anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, zoology, physics, and economics, he shows that while we have evolved to find joy meaning and purpose in work, for most of human history our ancestors worked far less and thought very differently about work than we do now. He demonstrates how our contemporary culture of work has its roots in the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago. Our sense of what it is to be human was transformed by the transition from foraging to food production, and, later, our migration to cities. Since then, our relationships with one another and with our environments, and even our sense of the passage of time, have not been the same.

Arguing that we are in the midst of a similarly transformative point in history, Suzman shows how automation might revolutionize our relationship with work and in doing so usher in a more sustainable and equitable future for our world and ourselves.

James Suzman’s Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time didn’t really go where I expected. It takes a very long view of work and starts before humans even evolved, down at the level of cells doing “work” and life acting ultimately to increase entropy (even as it appears to create order). He spends a long time discussing the early evolution of humans and human society, discussing hunter-gatherer societies (extrapolating back from currently existing ones to make guesses about earlier ones, which is always dangerous though probably justifiable).

When he eventually got round to farming societies, half the book was already gone, and he dashed madly onward to do industrial societies at a gallop. I felt like half of this book wasn’t on topic, and some of his promises weren’t kept in terms of what he was going to discuss. Either a lot of the first part needed to be cut, to keep things at a relatively surface-level throughout… or he needed to go just as in-depth on the second half.

There were some interesting titbits here, including contradictions to received wisdom about sexual selection that’s intriguing and which I want to look into further, but it just doesn’t come together well.

Also, the editing was very shaky in some places. Typos galore! Ouch.

Rating: 2/5

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