Review – Death at Wentwater Court

Posted 23 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover Death at Wentwater Court by Carola DunnDeath at Wentwater Court, Carola Dunn

I really wanted another detective series, a little along the lines of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher (without being a total clone, of course — that’s just boring). I tried Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, and I found the first book less than satisfying — the writing choices took any possible tension out of it, while I found Maisie herself rather a cold fish, and more in the Sherlock Holmes line than the kind of sleuth I prefer. Reading my review of that book back now, I can’t even remember one of the major things that bothered me!

So, digression aside, did Daisy Dalrymple fit the bill for me? Thankfully, yes! She’s the Honorable Daisy Dalrymple, which is the same rank as Phryne, which made me go “hmmmmm” at first — but in many other ways she isn’t like Phryne, being rather less fashionable (she hasn’t even bobbed her hair!), and pretty rather than having major sex appeal. She works for her living rather than relying on endless amounts of money, and her past is not quite so dramatic as Phryne’s (no ambulance-driving during the war). Likewise, her romantic choice is fairly clear. Her inspector isn’t so far from Phryne’s Jack in temperament and such, but he’s a widower with a child, which introduces another interesting element to the personal side of the story.

The plot itself is fairly typical for a cosy. Daisy goes to photograph a rich family’s home and write an article about it, and during her time there a singularly unpleasant person is murdered. Daisy finds herself constantly trying to help the police, and ultimately has totally divided loyalties. There’s nothing new or startling about the plot, but it works as one of those books I read in the bath, and Dunn is good enough with characters that I sympathise with them, worry about whodunnit, and generally get involved enough to make it worth the time invested.

Having finished it, I ordered up the next few books, and dove straight into the second, which I luckily had on hand. I think it’s a good bet Daisy’s here to stay, at least for a few books more. (Then we’ll see if the formula gets repetitive, or keeps working despite being repetitive, and all that sort of thing.)

Rating: 4/5

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Discussion: Real Life

Posted 22 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

So both last week’s post and my question about prompts for discussion posts raised similar issues: how much do you share about yourself on your blog, and how much are you interested in other people sharing?

Personally, I’m relatively open about identity things (mental illness, being queer, being Welsh, etc) and share some snippets about my life (e.g. the bunnies, a couple of my wedding photos), while keeping it fairly low-key — just the intro to my Weekly Roundups or an aside during a review. I figure you’re here for the books, and though it’s useful to know that I have two English lit degrees in the bag and a biology degree pending, or that I’m queer, or whatever, because it informs what I read and how I review things, it’s not like you want to know what I ate for breakfast or the details of my gym routine.

On the other hand, some people think that even what I share is too much — that one should let their reviews speak for themselves, and not reveal identity, political affiliations, etc.

There’s a few different aspects of that for me: one is that I’ve never had much luck hiding my orientation or my interests. I was forcibly outed when I was thirteen and the cat’s never gone back into the bag, and I think I prefer it that way — there’s no emotional blackmail if I don’t have secrets. (The relief when I told my grandmother I was married, my goodness!) Another aspect of that is that I want people to know I’m queer because it normalises it, for people who’ve never knowingly encountered queer people and for younger queer people who might think they’re alone.

And finally, I think it’s important to know where someone stands in order to properly contextualise their reactions to books. If someone reviews a book that happens to include a gay couple and they give it two stars for “disgusting content”, then if you know they’re homophobic you know that it may not actually be about the quality of the book. Likewise, if I review a book with a serial killer and say that I found it annoying because the serial killer had OCD and that was meant to be a “warning sign” of their mental state, you know that I have OCD and this kind of thing is bound to infuriate me. If that’s not a bugbear of yours, you know that you might well enjoy the book more than I did.

Anyway, so I think I’m likely to keep on as I am in terms of personal commentary. You’ll get to know me a little through what I say about books, and you’ll know when I have an amazingly cute bunny picture — but I’m unlikely to do a weekly feature on what’s up in Nikkiland. The blog is primarily about books, after all. But if you feel super strongly about wanting to know more about me as a person and how I’m doing, maybe I can make a point of including a little more detail in my weekly roundups.

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Review – Alpha Beta

Posted 21 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Alpha Beta by John ManAlpha Beta, John Man

John Man is good at a certain kind of popular history book, as I’ve noted before. There are often elements of travelogue, and it’s usually a very easy read, with quite short chapters and not too many long quotations from sources or anything like that. It’s not the most rigorous scholarship in the world, but it’s a good way to get a handle on a subject and get an initial idea of whether you’re interested in reading more. Sometimes there are interesting titbits about newer scholarship that might be a bit more controversial — you catch the drift.

Alpha Beta, then, is Man’s take on the alphabet. Other people have mentioned expecting that he’d just discuss each letter in turn and where we picked it up from, but Man is somewhat more ambitious: he’s after the origin of the Roman alphabet as we know it, and more generally the origin of writing as a form of expression. He has some very interesting points, including about Korea’s hyper-rational alphabet that is designed to be ideal for writing down the language. (Though I do wonder if that will stick after a few centuries of use and language change.)

He has a whole bit on the influence of the alphabet on monotheism that made surprisingly little impact on me and I only remembered when checking over the Amazon reviews to refresh my mind to write this — although actually, I think what he wrote was more the other way round, that monotheism had an impact on the emergence of the alphabet, because he wrote about how useful it can be for an emerging social group to adopt an alphabet. The Mongols (a pet topic of his, clearly, since he’s written books on Genghis and Kublai Khan, etc) were also an example in that context.

Overall, it’s an interesting if not exactly exhaustive read.

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 20 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

Good morning, guys! Not next week, but the week after, I should be able to introduce you all to our new bunnies! For now, Breakfast has a fistbump for you all.

A brown bun wants to fistbump you

I should hurry up, because I’m writing this on Friday evening (as ever) and we’ve been to the gym and are tired. We being me and my wife, not me and the bunnies, entertaining though the image of them hopping on a treadmill is (and much as Hulk could use the exercise). So here goes!

Books acquired this week:

Cover of The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pevel Cover of Hounded by Kevin Hearne Cover of Sharps by K.J. Parker

Cover of Requiem for a Mezzo by Carola Dunn Cover of Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn Cover of Damsel in Distress by Carola Dunn

Library sale + falling in love with a new series!

Books read this week:

Cover Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn Cover of The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn Cover of The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe

Reviews posted this week:

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes. Nothing groundbreaking, and a bit slow, but if you’re into Golden Age crime fiction… 2/5 stars
Endless Forms Most Beautiful, by Sean Carroll. A great entry-level book on Evo Devo. 4/5 stars
Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, by John Man. Another entertaining pop-history part-travelogue book from Man… 3/5 stars
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. This was a reread for me, and one I found worth it. I enjoy the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone a lot. 4/5 stars
Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton. Another reread, so I can get on with the series. Still entertaining, without being very groundbreaking. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Returning Comments. What do you do if someone comments on your blog, you go to return it, and you find out they think you’re going to hell and frequently post saying so whenever homosexuality comes up in the books they read? To the extent of no longer supporting an author because they’re tolerant of homosexuality?
WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update.

Out and about:

Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘[UNTRANSLATABLE]‘. A rather cynical take on why an alien might be interested in Earth.

So how’s everyone’s week been? Anything exciting going on for you?

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Review – Rebel of the Sands

Posted 19 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonRebel of the Sands, Alwyn Hamilton

Rebel of the Sands is set in a world that’s part fantasy Wild West, part Arabian desert, with the sharpshooting smart-talking djinn-folk to prove it. It’s a reread for me, so I can go on to read the other two books: it’s not a book I’d class as one of my top reads ever, but I found it solidly entertaining, and I’m interested to see how the trilogy builds on this start. It’s decidedly young adult in tone and level, which I know is a turn off for a lot of people, but I take my fun where I can find it, and Rebel of the Sands was definitely fun.

It opens in the town of Dustwalk — or rather, at a shooting contest in the nearby town of Deadshot. Amani is dressed as a boy, and she plans to win a shooting contest, earn some money, and finally get away from her life in Dustwalk, a life that has been shadowed by the fact that her father was clearly not from Dustwalk and the execution of her mother for killing her adoptive local father. She has at least one friend in Dustwalk, a fact which I assume is going to become relevant later on, probably in a way Amani will regret. Tamid has to use a crutch to get by, and has a tendency to be overly serious, but he accepts her (more or less) for who she is, and even bravely offers to marry her to help her get out of a repugnant marriage. In this book, he’s kind of wasted, because Amani is only too quick to leave him behind when trouble starts.

She travels across the desert with Jin, an enigmatic boy who nonetheless (and unsurprisingly) has ties to the rebellion going on at the time. Slowly, he persuades her towards where she’ll meet others in the cause, where she could be an asset for a particular reason that isn’t her sharpshooting…

In many ways, it’s a typical story, and more so because of the romantic tension between Amani and Jin. The desert-setting helps to make it feel a little fresher, though the caravan travel section isn’t exactly unique, for all that.

In the end, it’s not a standout story that I’ll never forget. It’s entertaining, though, and I don’t regret the reread to bring myself back up to speed.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Annihilation

Posted 18 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, and a reread for me. It’s a really, really weird trilogy, which always reminds me of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside PicnicI seem to have forgotten a lot of the finer detail of the trilogy, and the extent to which we ever receive explanations, but this particular book stays really clear in my mind. It’s something about the tone, the matter of fact calm of the biologist, the illusion of objectivity that her narrative gives.

Annihilation records the twelfth expedition into Area X. The team is made up of a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor — along with a linguist who actually backs out of the expedition before they cross the border. And Area X is… a pristine wilderness filled with uncannyness. You can’t take in anything high tech, people don’t report back — or if they do, they come back changed, riddled with cancer in the case of the eleventh expedition, oddly amnesiac and lacking in affect. The objective of the missions is to work out what’s happening, what Area X is, how it came about, and try and get some understanding of a phenomenon that seems to have no rhyme or reason.

As usual, everything goes awry. The psychologist turns out to be hypnotising the group; the anthropologist quickly dies; they see things which make no sense — words written in fungi, colonised with living creatures; villages decaying faster than they ought to; a lighthouse which has clearly been the site of intense struggle, even a battle… and one by one, the group come apart. The biologist no less than the others, though as the narrator she gives a kind of illusion of calm objectivity, of careful and unbiased observation. As the story unfolds, you learn how much she holds back from the reader as well, and that shapes the story profoundly…

It’s well written in the sense of handling an unreliable narrator well, and also in the sense of creating a truly weird, uncanny landscape which sounds beautiful, undisturbed, and yet…

I really enjoy these books, though they leave me with a sense of creeping unease. I’m looking forward to rereading the second and third as well. If you find this one frustrating, well, the others don’t take quite the same format — if you’re intrigued by the world, you might want to give the second one a try too. On the other hand, Vandermeer’s class of weird might just not be your thing.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 17 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.

Cover of Authority by Jeff VanderMeerWhat are you currently reading?

Too many books at once, as per usual! Let me see: the two non-fiction books I’m reading are Barry Cunliffe’s The Ancient Celts — informative and a beautiful book in terms of the images, but oh my goodness for some reason his writing puts me to sleep — and H.D.F. Kitto’s The Greeks, which is out of date in both info and attitudes, but so enthusiastic and interested in everything the Greeks were that it kind of makes up for it. Then fiction-wise I’m partway through rereading Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer, and I’ve started reading the second Daisy Dalrymple book.

Cover of The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola DunnWhat have you recently finished reading?

Death at Wentwater Court, the first Daisy Dalrymple book by Carola Dunn, was the last thing I finished. I do like Daisy: she has many similarities with Phryne, only less sex appeal (and decidedly less sex going on). I’ve bought the next couple of books: it’s promising to be a good cozy series, which I’m glad of — I needed that!

Cover of Elantris by Brandon SandersonWhat will you be reading next?

That, I don’t know. Acceptance, the final book of Vandermeer’s trilogy, would be a good guess, and probably more Daisy Dalrymple. I’ve got Anna Caltabiano’s books out of the library, starting with The Seventh Miss Hatfield, and they’re sort of appealing to me right now… but there’s so much, both in the library pile and elsewhere. My sister’s been reading Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, so maybe I’ll jump on that bandwagon.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection

Posted 16 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Genghis Khan by John ManGenghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, John Man

John Man writes good, light, easy to read pop history. I have no illusions that I’m reading about the latest cutting edge discoveries, or that I’m getting a deep critical look at all the possible sources… but a story is woven together that illuminates a bit of history, with a touch of the travelogue as well. I know that it annoys other readers that Man also writes about his experiences while writing a book — where he went for research, the almost-calamities experienced, etc, etc. Still, for a bit of light reading I don’t mind, and it’s certainly easier to digest than something more academic.

Genghis Khan himself is a fascinating subject: the name is so evocative, yet really all it conjured up for me was tent villages and conquest. I didn’t really have a good idea of the Mongol peoples and their context, except dimly refracted through fiction. And well, okay, John Man gives us little snippets of “faction” (as is his wont), but it is based on research and an understanding of what was likely.

So yeah, enjoyable and accessible. I wouldn’t use it as a source for something that needs scrupulous accuracy, but if you’re curious, it should be a good read.

Rating: 3/5

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Discussion: Returning comments

Posted 15 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 7 Comments

Normally, I have a policy of commenting back on the blogs of everyone who comments here. It slipped for a while due to complete lack of time between working, studying and moving, but I’m trying to get back into the habit now. However, during the last week someone commented on my blog and I blithely went to comment back on theirs… only to find that they hold views completely repugnant to me.

I’m (somewhat) okay with having friends who disagree with me, who even think that (for example) homosexuality is a sin, support Trump, support Brexit, think that trigger/content warnings are political correctness gone mad, etc, etc. But those friends are usually friends who mostly keep it under their hat when around me unless we decide to discuss it in a civil manner: they don’t openly rank homosexuality with paedophilia, or tell me my wife should have been turned back at the border, etc. I don’t usually make friends with people who openly declare that they think I’m going to hell, and to be quite frank, pushing one’s boundaries and not living in an echo chamber is one thing — putting up with someone who sounds honestly gleeful about how disgusting they find me and people I love is quite another.

And, being honest… I know another blogger can’t do anything to harm me, but going to their blog to find their comments about homosexuality being a sin and perversion felt like a bucket of ice cold water being dumped over my head. I was scared. People like that make the world a frightening place for people like me. Even if they themselves do nothing but talk, people like them followed me and my sister around at school telling us we should kill ourselves; people like that leave people like me for dead on the side of the road, not just historically but now (with homophobic attacks in my own country up almost 80% in the last four years). People like me have to be careful.

It was a harsh reminder that sharing a love of books with someone doesn’t mean we share anything else. Maybe if their top review hadn’t contained a disgusted comment about the book involving homosexuality, we’d have had a short chat about books and parted none the wiser. But I did see that.

So, should I have commented? I don’t know. In the end, I decided that they too would probably prefer it if I didn’t comment, given the givens. I definitely felt safer not doing so.

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Review – Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Posted 15 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean CarrollEndless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean Carroll

At this point, I must admit I’m a bad judge of pop-science when it covers biology. To me this is a very easy read now, covering simple topics, but I know I wouldn’t have felt that way a couple of years ago. If you’re interested in evolutionary biology, though, this is a very good primer on the science of Evo Devo: understanding evolutionary relationships through understanding the development of embryos, how certain genes work in causing large morphological differences even though almost the same gene can be found in a wildly different species.

think if you have a reasonable understanding of genetics and how proteins are made, you should be okay here: it’s not requiring expertise, though it may take concentration to follow some of the reasoning if you’re not already familiar. If you are, it illustrates the principles nicely, and I imagine a full colour copy of the book (if it exists) would be rather physically gorgeous as well. There’s a lot of black-and-white images of butterfly wings, for instance, in my particular edition. The points could probably have been more clearly demonstrated with colour images where the differences are easier to highlight…

All the same, a fascinating book, whether you’re an expert or not (I think). Evo Devo is a bit of a buzzword for some biologists lately, and this book is worth the read for learning about that. I wish I’d read it before the module I did that included some of this stuff: it would have definitely made the learning part come easier!

Rating: 4/5

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