Posts by: Nikki


Review – Desdemona and the Deep

Posted 20 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 0 Comments

Cover of Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. CooneyDesdemona and the Deep, C.S.E. Cooney

Desdemona and the Deep is a novella featuring a descent into the underworld/otherworld, following mostly the title character, Desdemona. Fae and goblins and the weirdness of the otherworld are the order of the day, though Desdemona starts as a spoilt, rich girl, totally cranky about her mother’s benefit for girls with “phossy jaw” (an element of real-world history which is more or less copy/pasted into Desdemona’s world, which is quite conscious of other worlds). From there, it’s not entirely clear why she takes exception to her father making a deal with a powerful underworld creature, tithing 10% of his miners’ lives in order to get new reserves of oil. Nonetheless, she does, forms a plan for going there, and sets out to win back those lives which have been traded away for her comfortable existence.

(She never really seems to care that this has happened before and it’s not just the 36 names she’s seen in the paper that have been sacrificed on the altar of her love of luxury, including a woman to dress her, endless amounts of good alcohol, designer dresses, art, artists, and more or less anything else she wants.)

Throughout the first half of the book, her best friend Chaz is referred to with male pronouns. Once she reaches the underworld with Desdemona, though, she transitions magically and female pronouns are immediately applied — and Desdemona later says that she always knew Chaz was really female. The tight third POV thus makes Desdemona a misgendering asshole, and the fact Desdemona and the narration all switch to she only when Chaz has a physical form that matches is a really shitty way to deal with a trans character.

The rest of the story is kind of a meh plot that’s been done a gazillion times before: descent into the otherworld, fae contract must be broken, captive must be saved, etc, etc, etc. I liked Chaz, of whom there was not enough and who was misgendered for half the book; I was not keen on Desdemona, who besides being spoilt was a misgendering mean girl who also made shitty comments about the girls with phossy jaw. I think we’re meant to come to like Desdemona, but I never got past the impression that she was playacting concern. The ending maybe alleviates that a little, but too little and too late.

People have commented about the beauty of the prose; it definitely had some high points, but it didn’t stick out to me in particular, so that wasn’t a saving grace for it either. I might have generously given it a three on enjoyment, but I’m also toying with the idea of a one because of the grossness surrounding Chaz. For now, let’s say it averages out to two.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Thornbound

Posted 19 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 0 Comments

Cover of Thornbound by Stephanie BurgisThornbound, Stephanie Burgis

Thornbound is the sequel to Snowspelled, set in a Britain where Boudicca beat back the Romans, leading to a British system where women rule and make the hard decisions, and softer, more emotional men do magic. The partnership between a spellcaster and a political woman is important in this world, leaving somewhat more equality between the sexes in some ways, but shutting down the career prospects of women who are capable of magic or men who wish to do otherwise. Cassandra chose to do magic while her brother chose to be a historian, despite their famous family and legacy, and though Cassandra has lost her own magic, now she’s set up a school to teach other girls like herself. Unfortunately, there are certain political forces set against her…

I don’t 100% love the gender role flip, to be honest. It feels a little too, well, flippant. I’d like to see a bit more of how it works and why it works before I really believe in it? Which these novellas are a little too slight to provide.

Nonetheless, in other respects I like this book a lot: I enjoy Cassandra’s relationship with her family, and particularly her relationship with her sister-in-law. I adore that these are people who care about each other and build each other up (and I wish it wasn’t set against the petty woman who wants her to fail because it might disturb the social order — obviously in this setting a man wouldn’t have the pull a woman would, but I hate the tropes of women bullying and sniping at each other in rivalry, and this kind of hit that for me).

I also adore Cassandra and Wrexham; there’s not really enough of that relationship in this book for my tastes, and yet it is at the heart of what Cassandra is doing… I adore that they sit down and talk about it (eventually) and start figuring out a course in life that will work for both of them, fulfil all of their dreams.

I’d happily read more in this world, for sure, I’d just like some things firmed up a bit so they don’t feel so contrived.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Spectred Isle

Posted 18 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 0 Comments

Cover of Spectred Isle by K.J. CharlesSpectred Isle, K.J. Charles

Spectred Isle is set in the aftermath of the First World War, and much of the book is spent trying to find sense and a place in that post-war world. One main character is Saul Lazenby, an archaeologist who ended his war in disgrace after his homosexual love affair landed him in hot water; the other is Randolph Glyde, heir to an illustrious family and last survivor. Saul’s getting by through working for a harmless crank who wants every last sacred well or mysterious ghost story investigated, and Randolph’s trying to do all kinds of jobs at once, carrying on his family’s ancient duty to protect the land from supernatural influences.

Naturally, the two come together, both personally and professionally; they spend a good portion of the book dancing around it, but then quickly find that the other offers everything they’ve been lacking — Saul gets a purpose again, while Randolph finds Saul the answer to his worries about a significant part of his family duty, but then also they offer healing and hope to each other on a personal level as well. I love the way their relationship is written: they communicate forthrightly, make it clear what they each want, and also make it clear what the catch is. Randolph might be eager to have Saul in his life, but he’s not eager to do so on false pretences.

(For those mostly here for the romance, yes, there is a HEA, and there are several sex scenes.)

I’d love to know so much more about this world, which means I’d happily read any other books in this world, which at the moment means The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I have so many questions about the other characters, about the way things work, about the complications doubtless ahead for Randolph and Saul with the guardianship of the Moat, with the Shadow Ministry, etc, etc. Sadly, looks like book two has got into some tangles and is on hold. Luckily, Saul and Randolph’s story is complete enough in itself to be satisfying, so don’t let that hold you back!

Rating: 4/5

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Discussion: Putting the Joy Back Into It

Posted 17 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 5 Comments

Well folks, the time has come to talk of many things. Just up front: I’m not quitting blogging! Things just need to change, that’s all.

But let’s begin at the beginning, with the background: for the last year or two, or… no, let’s be honest, at least three or four years now, reading has started to feel like a bit of a chore. Not all the time, but more and more. When I do read, I enjoy it, but it’s become something I almost have to schedule time for. I’ve tried a couple of different things to make that better (Game of Books is one of them), but I think overall it’s become a bit too much of a boxticking activity. Every so often I get the urge to kick over the traces and ditch all my rules, and each time it’s resulted in a new set of rules and no net gain.

(Particularly because the average number of books I read in a year has fallen, despite all the lists, all the desperation to keep up with things!)

Balls to that, right? So, when was I happy with my reading last? I think in retrospect I’d put that at about the time I started leaving Goodreads, before I kept track of things with spreadsheets and before I started trying to keep some kind of regular blog schedule. (Actually, I pinned this solely to the spreadsheets, but the wife-creature kept poking me to think about what else might be in play.)

So, come the end of this year, I’m going to stop tracking my reading so obsessively. I don’t want to know how many books I’ve read this year. At the moment, my admirable wife is going to take over the tracking (and refuse to let me see it) so that at the end of the year, I can get a bunch of pretty graphs and pie charts to talk about my reading year with. That’s the plan for 2020, and if it doesn’t work out, well, maybe I won’t track my reading at all. I suspect I just need to get the numbers out of it, though; I was very happy when I was using Goodreads for it.

(I’d start now, but I need the spreadsheet to help me with my book blanket project, and I’m far too fond of that to let it go!)

I might also stop trying to track my progress vs my backlog. It’s never-ending, and it’s become about striking books off a list rather than enjoying them. We’ll see; it’s as the whim takes me.

More immediately, and more relevantly for you guys, I’m also going to stop scheduling my posts in advance. One of the things that was part of my routine on Goodreads was going to write a review as soon as I’d finished a book, and publishing it right away. That way I could share my feelings about the books I was reading more or less in real-time.

So, posts will no longer go live at 9:00am BST on the dot; reviews will be posted when I’ve finished a book, and that means there might be two posts on some days and then none for a week. When I get into obsessive mode and read five books in a row about influenza, there could be five reviews all in a row on books about influenza. So be it! I trust you’re all here for my reviews, in all their weird and wonderful variety, and not for a rigid posting schedule.

(For a few days or weeks I do have a backlog of reviews that haven’t been posted yet; I’ll publish those when there’s a day or two without other reviews, but once they’re gone, they’re gone. I do actually have a review for a book I finished today, but I’ll hold it just until morning so there aren’t too many posts on my blog, and more to the point in people’s notifications, in one day.)

I think I will still post a Weekly Roundup and What Are You Reading Wednesday, but I shan’t be obsessive about it either. Blogging isn’t my job — in fact, it has signally failed to produce any income at all on the occasions I’ve tried affiliate links and a donation button — and nor do I want it to be.

I’m trying to have no expectations about how this little project will go — maybe I will read less, not more! But hopefully I will be happier, and I’m sure you all want that for me!

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Review – The King in the North

Posted 17 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 0 Comments

Cover of The King in the North by Max AdamsThe King in the North, Max Adams

Having recently read Joanna Arman’s The Warrior Queen, I was a bit worried about plunging into another medieval period biography — that one was so disappointing in prose style, baseless assertions and general slenderness. The King in the North was rather more satisfying; Adams writes well, and though I’m not always a fan of history books that spend too much time prosing about the landscape, his set-pieces on that subject do capture something useful about the locations he writes about.

This isn’t an area of expertise for me, but I’m reassured by the footnotes and endnotes that he is making reference to real findings drawn from a range of sources. When something is his imagination or opinion, that’s clear in the text, which is also important. Generally, I think this is likely to be a pretty solid pop-history source on Oswald of Northumbria, and his life and times.

Like most of these biographies of medieval personages, there’s a lot of preamble with setting up the context and then analysing the aftermath: as ever, very little of it focuses on Oswald’s life and his deeds while alive. Still, I found all of it interesting and relevant. I’ll happily read more of Adams’ work.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Body in the Dumb River

Posted 15 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 0 Comments

Cover of The Body in the Dumb River by George BellairsThe Body in the Dumb River, George Bellairs

As with most of the British Library Crime Classics, this is very readable and entertaining for what it is: a piece of Golden Age crime fiction by a competent writer, with the usual sort of mystery with a solid policeman methodically tracking down whodunnit. I don’t read these reissues because I’m expecting a forgotten masterpiece, so I wasn’t disappointed!

The Body in the Dumb River deals with the death by stabbing of a man who travels around Britain working a hoop-la stall. His assistant and lover must be questioned (in a rather sympathetic scene, without drama), and so must his wife and children — for whom the idea of him running a hoop-la stall is a pretty distasteful surprise. The scenes with his actual family are rather less sympathetic: the murdered man was henpecked, driven to distraction by his indolent, lazy wife, and his wife’s family are all pretty unpleasant.

As I said, it doesn’t stand out above the crowd, but it was a quick and enjoyable read for what it is.

Rating: 3/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 14 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 11 Comments

Good morning, folks! It’s been a busy week, and I’m not honestly sure where the time has gone. Ah well.

I did at least get an Amazon voucher from the bunnies this week, so I’ve indulged in some ebooks — and I got a couple of new releases, too.

Acquired:

Cover of A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker Cover of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow Cover of Return of the Black Death by Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan Cover of Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis

Cover of The Perfect Assassin by K.A. Doore Cover of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark Cover of Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney

Thank you, bunnies!

Finished reading this week:

Cover of The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs Cover of The King in the North by Max Adams Cover of Hekla's Children by James Brogden

Reviews posted this week:

The Aztecs, by Richard F. Townsend. Actually managed to make the Aztecs boring, though I imagine it’s a good scholarly resource. 2/5 stars
The Piltdown Forgery, by J.S. Weiner. A fascinating study, though it pulls back at the last minute to avoid incriminating the obvious culprit. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. The weekly update on what’s been on my reading plate!

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘What is a gene drive? I respond to a question about a genetic engineering technique that may help us eliminate malaria and other pests and diseases.

So that’s this week! How’s everyone else doing?

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Review – The Piltdown Forgery

Posted 13 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 0 Comments

The Piltdown Forgery, J.S. Weiner

The Piltdown Forgery is a rather old book, reissued after fifty years, which examines the known evidence in an attempt to figure out who exactly forged the famous Piltdown Man. To be more precise, the forger created a collection of remains and artefacts which supposedly proved the presence in Britain of a man with an ape-like jaw and a Homo-like cranium, at such an age to suggest itself as a perfect transitional fossil in the ape to human lineage. It was revealed as a clever forgery by 1953, but interest has since focused on figuring out who the forger was and what exactly their motives were.

The book goes into the detail of the “discovery” and how the fake was unmasked, discussing the various techniques of staining and of later dating the fossil, before trying to work out who had the necessary skills, interest and motive. To my mind, the answer is fairly obvious to begin with, and the evidence presented only makes it more so; Weiner actually holds back from that conclusion, though, rather coyly asserting that surely it doesn’t matter now. Indeed, it’s now been confirmed by DNA testing, so I’m afraid there’s no way out for Weiner, despite the liking he betrays for the chief suspect.

(Not to be coy myself, the man who made the original discovery was always the obvious suspect and the recent tests confirm: Charles Dawson was the forger.)

It’s an interesting overview, though cuts surprisingly short when it is about to reach that inevitable conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 11 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 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 The King in the North by Max AdamsWhat are you currently reading?

A few books at a time, as ever! First of all, my current non-fiction read is Max Adams’ The King in the North. Ostensibly about Oswald of Northumbria, it’s a little wider ranging than that, covering the whole context of Oswald’s life — so much of it occurs before he’s born or after his death. I found myself totally bored by a similar sort of book recently, but this one works; something in the prose style keeps it moving. It helps that it’s very clearly referenced, too; I have fewer questions about the validity of some of the claims. (Though I do think a lot of imagination is at work here, too, Adams is much clearer about when things are his opinion.)

Cover of Hekla's Children by James BrogdenIn fiction, I’m reading Hekla’s Children, by James Brogden, which came very highly recommended. Personally, I’m finding it a bit predictable? I’m also partway through Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths, and honestly would probably be further along with it if it were chaptered instead of one long exhausting narrative with only breaks between paragraphs instead of fresh chapters. And finally, I picked up Gideon the Ninth somewhat by accident (I was curious to read the first couple of pages, but ended up reading 50). I’m very curious about this one; it’s so hyped, and yet people have been saying they’ve struggled with it.

Cover of The Body in the Dumb River by George BellairsWhat have you recently finished reading?

I think the most recent thing was The Body in the Dumb River, by George Bellairs. It’s not a hugely original or surprising piece of Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s satisfyingly of its type. I find that most of the British Library Crime Classics are like that — solid enough, but not something to knock you over with stunning originality.

Cover of Banewreaker by Jacqueline CareyWhat will you be reading next?

As ever, who knows? I have picked what my next random pick from my shelves will be: I’m going to reread Banewreaker, by Jacqueline Carey. Technically, I’ve read it before, which would make it ineligible, but it’s on my list of unread books because I bought it in paperback after originally reading it in ebook. So there.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – The Aztecs

Posted 8 September, 2019 by Nikki in / 0 Comments

The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend

I read some fairly wide-ranging and eclectic subject matter, and I know a lot of it would bore other people to tears. The Aztecs, however, should be pretty darn interesting in principle: while our sources are fragmentary, there’s still a lot we can know, and there’s so much to be fascinated by in their legends, stories about themselves, and social structure.

Just… not in this book. There are other books in this series that manage to be wonderful, so it’s not the academic-ish introduction or the general goals of the book that constrain it. Something about Townsend’s prose is just stultifyingly dull. I made it halfway through and realised that not only had I failed to absorb most of the information so far, I hadn’t once turned to my wife and said, “Hey, did you know that…”

Well, that’s the kiss of death for me and non-fiction. Somehow it didn’t manage to give me any new information in a way that made it feel interesting. Bye, book! I’m sure you are indeed the “best introduction” to the field (as the back proclaims), for people who either don’t mind being bored or are so fascinated by the field that they can’t look away.

(Lest you be wondering, the things I excitedly tell my wife don’t have to be that interesting to the wider world — the facts can be fairly trivial.)

Rating: 2/5

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