Category: Reviews

Review – The Secret Life of Books

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

Cover of The Secret Life of BooksThe Secret Life of Books, Tom Mole

This book is a bit more substantial than Shelf Respect, which I bought in the same flurry of looking for non-fiction about books and reading. Tom Mole has a look at the book as an object, or more accurately, the codex as an object, and he goes into a bit more depth about reading, collecting books, relating to books, and how that’s changed and will change over time.

Funnily enough, just as I was reading the parts about how the book is an object we don’t even think about until it malfunctions, I noticed that the pages in my copy were cut badly. It wasn’t unreadable, by any means, but I tend to riffle the pages ahead of me and fidget with them as I read, and those cut pages threw me off immensely.

I found it an interesting but fairly light read at the time, and now I’m finding that very little has stuck with me — any information that I picked up has stuck more by just joining my general knowledge than by getting labelled as belonging to this book in my brain. It’s possible that says more about me than the book, but I read other books at around the same time — like Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ book on Neanderthals — where I could reel off a lecture on the information contained, so I don’t think Mole’s book was precisely revelatory. Just… pleasant.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Echo Wife

Posted June 17, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Echo Wife by Sarah GaileyThe Echo Wife, Sarah Gailey

I wasn’t quite prepared for the journey when I picked up The Echo Wife. It goes some pretty dark places, musing about the way people shape each other, the fingerprints we leave on each other — both metaphorically and for some people physically — and the way we re-enact our own traumas and fall into terrible patterns. Even the acknowledgements at the end are a hell of a thing: raw, truly thankful, but in some cases in a twisted way that hurts. Gailey has put a lot of pain into this book, and that could make it a really difficult read.

For me, though, it got its hooks into me and wouldn’t let go. I read it in two sittings — a whole 150 pages or maybe even more while my wife was on the phone with my parents-in-law. Okay, it must’ve been a long call, but wow.

I don’t want to say too much about the story, but it is not the kind of story where you necessarily end up liking the characters — all that matters is that you really get to understand the characters, the things that shaped them and the way they in turn shape their world. It’s a hell of a ride.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – White Bread

Posted June 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of White Bread by Aaron Bobrow-StrainWhite Bread, Aaron Bobrow-Strain

I wasn’t sure how interesting a book on store-bought white bread could be, but someone recommended it to me and I wanted to give it a chance… and it was everything I could want from the kind of book which takes an everyday part of life and digs into its history and social meaning. Bobrow-Strain lays bare all kinds of things about the US which you wouldn’t necessarily link to white bread. Or maybe, knowing the US you would — wealth, health, religion, race.

It ended up being really fascinating: rather densely written — for 200 pages, it took me a while — but in a good way, informative and considerate. Unlike another recent book on food I read, Reinventing the Wheel, it managed not to sound like it was judging everyone in the world’s bad food choices for causing problems. Instead it really dug into why white bread seemed (and seems) so desirable, and what powerful motivations lie behind the choice.

I’d really love to know more about this whole subject as relates to the UK as well, and I’m eager to explore the references for more books on food, since I’ve been finding them fascinating lately.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

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

Cover of The Acts of King Arthur by John SteinbeckThe Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, John Steinbeck

I remembered this book very, very fondly — I remember stumbling upon it and being so surprised that Steinbeck had written anything about King Arthur. I made use of it when writing my dissertation to discuss his portrayal of Sir Kay, which is sympathetic and tries to explain some of why Kay could both be a bold knight who earned his place at the table and an apparent coward who couldn’t hold his own against anyone. I also remember finding it one of the few versions of Lancelot and Guinevere which felt real to me.

Overall, I didn’t feel as positively this time. Much of the first part is a fairly straight rewrite of Malory, without working in too much more detail (though there is some lovely stuff here and there). The last two tales do start to bring more detail and sometimes a real sense of pathos to the stories, and they are worth a read… but if you’re familiar with Arthurian stories, much of this will seem pretty flat.

I do still think the portrayal of Kay is good, but I was less convinced by Lancelot and Guinevere somehow. The spark between them did feel real — there’s a very powerful description of the sudden desire they feel — but there was no build-up. Guinevere seemed almost motherly to him before, and then all of a sudden, poof! They’ve gone up like straw.

That’s partly the source material and not Steinbeck’s fault, but he did manage to be so sensitive and willing to adapt things where necessary at other points in the book. Maybe he’d have made more of it if he’d finished the work — it’s worth remembering that this isn’t a completed novel or anything of the kind.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – And Only to Deceive

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

Cover of And Only to Deceive by Tasha AlexanderAnd Only to Deceive, Tasha Alexander

Lady Emily married quickly to get away from her parents — or mostly her mother, who is overbearing and absolutely obsessed with getting her married off safely before she loses her looks. (Ugh.) She barely had time for the honeymoon, though, before her husband went away on an expedition… and never returned, with his friends sending back the news that he was dead, leaving her in possession of all his things, a lot of money, and a lot more freedom.

Over the course of the book it turns out that he was deeply in love with her, and she begins to read his journals and understand the kind of man he was, beginning to explore his interests and what she might have shared with him. This leads to her falling in love with him too, despite knowing he’s already gone. At the same time, strange things are happening and it seems that he may have been involved in something strange, or perhaps even dangerous, a tangle that Lady Emily decides to unravel.

I ended up enjoying this a lot, enough that I immediately got the next book (and by this point I’m gleefully onto the third). I liked the idea of how Emily falls in love with her husband posthumously — it’s feels surprisingly tender and real, and it’s a surprising touch, especially given she does go on to have a new love interest. She’s anachronistic, of course, though not quite so much so as Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell — the book does show some of the ways in which that disturbs people and that makes it feel a bit more real. No surprises that I’d feel a kinship with a heroine who loves books, anyway…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Long Live Latin

Posted June 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Long Live Latin by Nicola GardiniLong Live Latin, Nicola Gardini

This… turned out to be really not my thing. It’s a passionate defence of Latin as something you should learn just for its own sake, for the beauty and versatility of the language — not because it serves some other purpose, like preparing you for other languages or limbering up your brain or something like that. I don’t disagree with the argument at all; I’d love to learn Latin… but this isn’t the book to convince you. I think this is a book you can enjoy best when you understand a little Latin, and can better appreciate the many, many, many examples of Latin texts that the author draws in to help make his points.

For someone who doesn’t already know any Latin, though, it’s difficult to appreciate the elegance of phrasing, especially when twice-translated (since this book is originally written in Italian, I think? it’s definitely in translation, anyway). Sometimes there would be an interesting insight or two into the writers and texts described and given as exemplars, but there’s just too much “here’s a quotation and here’s why it’s great”.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Angel of the Crows

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

Cover of The Angel of the Crows by Katherine AddisonThe Angel of the Crows, Katherine Addison

I took ages to read this book, despite being really eager for it, because… well, I didn’t think I’d love it as much as The Goblin Emperor, which holds a pretty special place in my heart, and also because I heard some bad things about the portrayal of some of the characters which made me a little wary. In the end, though, I ate it up — I read it in a few hours flat, and it was very compulsive.

It’s essentially a retelling of Sherlock Holmes, only what if Sherlock was an angel and Watson was… well, there are a lot of things about the Watson character, which I shouldn’t share too much about for fear of spoiling the surprise. Sometimes the retelling is fairly close, and you’ll recognise a lot of the Sherlock Holmes stories if you’re familiar with them, but twisted into a new shape by the changes to Crow (Sherlock) and Doyle (Watson), and the world around them.

If you’re not a fan of Sherlock Holmes (or Sherlock Holmes derivatives), in the end this isn’t going to bring you joy. I’m lukewarm on Holmes as a character and a phenomenon, though I loved the movies with Robert Downey Jr, and ended up loving this, so it’s not that you have to be a Holmes superfan in order to enjoy it. The context helps, I think, though sometimes the story was so close to the familiar one that I kind of wished I wasn’t as familiar with the source.

That said, by the end I just wanted more, more of these characters and their bond, and more of the worldbuilding surrounding them.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – A Murderous Relation

Posted June 8, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Murderous Relation by Deanna RaybournMurderous Relation, Deanna Raybourn

This review is inevitably spoilery for certain things, so look away now if you want to be unspoiled — I couldn’t think of a way to comment on some of this book without spoilers.

I was wondering what Raybourn would do now that the will-they-won’t-they potential should, in theory, be over with after the ending of the last book. Turns out, it’s actually “go straight into another book with very little time difference, meaning they haven’t had chance to consummate their relationship… and they’ll dither for another book about whether they’re going to do it or not”. Granted, that does give her chance for a good payoff scene near the end which is everything you need for the couple getting together; anything else might have felt a bit flat.

In the meantime, the plot goes ahead and entangles Veronica further with the Royal Family and even Jack the Ripper (of course, given the era). It barrels along at a cracking pace, of course, with some anxious moments for certain characters, and the inevitable emotional complexities of Veronica’s every interaction with any member of her family. I enjoyed it a lot, and raced through the book.

I don’t know if maybe the shine isn’t wearing off a little on this series for me, though. Not because the main characters are together, but just because it’s ever more unrealistic for Veronica to be this deeply entangled in the Royal Family’s affairs, and this trusted to untangle them without question… without much payoff, on her part. I kind of want her and Stoker to tell ’em to sod off, and ride off into the sunset. Somewhere that Veronica can catch butterflies and also screw Stoker silly on the regular, since that’s what she really wants.

Not that I’m stopping reading the series in the least — it’s highly entertaining. but I hope Veronica gets some payoff for her tireless efforts on the behalf of a family who regard her existence as an embarrassment and will never give her any official recognition whatsoever.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Word by Word

Posted June 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Word by Word by Kory StamperWord by Word, Kory Stamper

Ahhh, I really loved this book. Kory Stamper works for Merriam-Webster, the dictionary, and her work has been focused on words. Reading to find context and new usage for words, obsessively logging new usages she sees in the wild, and painstakingly combing through proofs to prepare new editions of the dictionary. She manages to make it sound fascinating, sometimes while breaking down some processes which are probably even more tedious in reality than they sound in her account, and throughout she has a sense of humour and a real enthusiasm for her work and what it means to people that made reading about it very enjoyable.

It’s the kind of book where I found myself reading bits out to my wife, just to share the sheer glee about some of the anecdotes mentioned… like how they figure out whether a verb is transitive (does it fit if you lay over a piece of paper saying “I’mma _____ your ass”, with the ____ being a blank space for the word you’re trying to parse?).

I loved it. Kory Stamper seems pretty great.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Death in Fancy Dress

Posted June 6, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Death in Fancy DressDeath in Fancy Dress, Anthony Gilbert

This is one of the British Library Crime Classics, by an author I’ve read before, under another name — Anne Meredith. I don’t recall loving her other book, but I enjoyed this one a bit more, despite there being a fairly strong note of melancholy in the ending, and some real awfulness between the characters.

The mystery was okay: it took some untangling, and I didn’t call the final twist. I wasn’t in love with the characters and their attitudes toward each other — okay, I disliked it quite a bit — and the narrator is pretty much a non-entity (aside from being a Moaning Minnie about everything), and Jeremy seems like a dick. There is something interesting about the mildness of Dennis placed beside his obvious competence and self-assurance, though. I did find the character of Eleanor to be an interesting study, really: that strange utter selfishness about preserving her relationship with her husband, alongside the narrator’s obvious reverence for her.

In the end, it was an entertaining enough read, but not one that will stick with me in any way.

Rating: 3/5

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