Category: Reviews

Review – Come Tumbling Down

Posted January 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down, Seanan McGuire

Received to review via Netgalley

Come Tumbling Down is the latest installment in the Wayward Children series, and really does not make sense as a starting point. We’re thrown into it as a girl nobody knows comes through Jack and Jill’s door, carrying the unconscious body of… Jill? And naturally there’s a whole new quest, despite all the rules.

I’ll admit to racing through this and definitely not lingering on anything. Jack is too close to home, with her serious OCD; I remember exactly what it’s like to worry that every inch of the skin of the body you’re in could be making you die any minute now. I also don’t enjoy the bits where she’s actually losing her entire mind as a result of the intensity of her OCD. I think I’m too close to it to fairly judge whether Jack’s behaviour seems right, but it didn’t feel right to me, at least not towards the end.

(Yes, I’m aware that Seanan McGuire is #ownvoices when it comes to OCD.)

I also wondered if it was intentional that everything the characters do actually enables Jack’s OCD, because I get the feeling it is intended to be read as supportive. And maybe it is, for someone with a very different view of OCD than I have, I’ll acknowledge that: I know that coming back from those compulsive behaviours is really hard, and some people don’t want to (and/or do not believe it is possible). But knowing how I came back from it, I can’t stand the way everyone enables it in this book, because I know that when I was in that position, people kindly caving to my compulsions made them worse.

For me, it really isn’t the epitome of love to create a map of someone’s freckles to show them that none of them are cancerous and help them monitor it obsessively — I can see that it’s actively making that person sicker. It’s not a matter of “wear gloves and you’ll be fine”; the gloves do not help, there’ll just be another step after the gloves (refusing to touch anything at all, perhaps). I remember my loved ones being torn between reassuring me and knowing they shouldn’t; it’s not an easy thing to do. But in my experience, OCD isn’t some kind of lifelong thing you just have to live with. There is treatment, you can stop being afraid. It’s rough, but it can be done, and the longer you delay doing it and engage in the reassurance behaviour, the harder it is. So it was pretty fraught reading all these things the characters do for Jack which seem kind and (for a real person) would probably just push her further into paranoia. Maybe Seanan McGuire experiences it a different way, but from my own perspective and a clinical understanding of OCD, I just cannot enjoy this the way I suspect it is meant to be enjoyed.

Also, I just really want to see Kade get a story for himself. Not somebody else’s quest, not somebody else’s happy ending. He’s enabled almost every other character’s story so far, without being given the chance to grow and find his own place for himself.

Reading this, I did enjoy it a lot, but the more I think about it, the less I do. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on with the balance of Jack’s world and meta-fictional stuff about stories, but… for me, this one was overshadowed by Jack’s OCD. And yeah, that’s probably a very personal thing, but that’s allowed.

Edit: Some sections of this review have been changed to make it clearer that I understand that Seanan McGuire is #ownvoices and has a different outlook on it than me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Jackdaw

Posted January 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Jackdaw by K.J. CharlesJackdaw, K.J. Charles

Jackdaw is part of the Charm of Magpies series, but follows a different pair of characters. It’s probably best for those who’ve read Flight of Magpies in terms of the plot, but you might actually be able to enjoy the at least one of the characters more on their own terms if you don’t know them already, because that character is Jonah Pastern, he who nearly brought Stephen and Lucien to disaster in the last book. I trust Charles to bring me to the point of enjoying even a total scoundrel’s love story, honestly, but it took a little more time because I already knew Jonah deeply endangered a character I love, and Ben Spenser — his lover — turns out to be rather dour and angry at first.

It’s worth noting that among the sex scenes in this book, there’s one with strong non-consensual themes. Ben is angry and wants to punish Jonah, and knows what he’s doing is wrong, and though he stops short of actually doing it and then Jonah wants to continue, it’s still pretty discomforting. It obviously coloured how I saw Ben: the kind of man who, in anger, seriously considers using rape to punish his lover. It is clear that Jonah has conclusively ruined Ben’s life at that point: you very quickly realise Ben lost his job, was imprisoned, etc, etc, but that isn’t an excuse.

This is also the only story in this series that really engages with the homophobia of the time. It’s not just hinted here that there could be trouble: Ben can’t do magic, can’t soften his way out of a terrible situation, so he ends up imprisoned, sentenced to hard labour, beaten, rejected by his parents, and at one point you can read him as being suicidal. He’s definitely without hope, only a grim anger, blaming Jonah for everything.

That’s not the sort of book you expect after the casual way Crane deals with even blackmail about his homosexuality; Stephen and Lucien duck almost all consequences through being able to protect themselves. It’s also not what you’d expect from Jonah’s flamboyant devil-may-care attitude in the last book. Ben doesn’t have that protection, and in the first half of the book in particular, the damage, anger and shame are all on display. It’s very grim, given the previous book, and more realistic; that’s something to bear in mind.

Aside from that, the story is essentially a redemption arc for Jonah, and somewhat for Ben as well. It has the great dialogue I expect in a novel by K.J. Charles, and in the last half or so of the book, you can start rooting for the characters again. It stands or falls, really, on the extent to which you can forgive Jonah (and Ben, if that near-rape scene bothered you as much as it did me) for what he’s done. I got there in the end — there are some delightful bits when the two of them finally feel free and comfortable — but this definitely is not a favourite in this series or among Charles’ books.

For those who are fans of the series, it does include cameos by Stephen and later Lucien, Merrick and Saint. It wraps up into a lovely conclusion, and there are some great bits of dialogue between Lucien and Stephen, as seen from outside.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Upright Women Wanted

Posted January 21, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Upright Women Wanted by Sarah GaileyUpright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey

Received to review via Netgalley; book due out 4th Feb 2020

A Western, but set in the future, in the American Southwest during war and oppressive government. The main character flees her home after the execution of her secret lover, Beatrice, for the possession of seditious literature. She runs away by hiding in the wagon of a group of Librarians — people who travel around distributing approved literature.

Naturally, the group turn out to be not-so-law-abiding, and Esther finds herself facing the law and learning all kinds of things she never thought she could. She also finds herself attracted to the trainee librarian of the group, who considers themself to be non-binary and just pretends to be female in towns, where it’s necessary. In some ways, it’s a fairly typical narrative and hits more or less the beats I expected, with Esther slowly growing in confidence and competence as the story rolls along. The ending comes along briskly and leaves the way open for plenty more in this world.

It’s a pleasant read, and I’m still pleased to see a non-binary character casually included in a place of prominence. The relationship between Esther and Cye seems a little fast for me, and I’d honestly have liked to learn more about Bet and Leda — and Amity, come to that — whose stories might perhaps have stood out a bit more. I enjoyed it, but as it’s settled in my mind, I realised that I hoped for more.

Rating: 3/5 

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Review – Captain Ingram’s Inheritance

Posted January 20, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Captain Ingram's Inheritance by Carola DunnCaptain Ingram’s Inheritance, Carola Dunn

In Captain Ingram’s Inheritance, it’s Frank’s turn to find love. It begins with the move to Felix’s home, and part of it happens concurrently with the end of Lord Roworth’s Reward, as Felix and Fanny figure out their feelings and sort out their misunderstandings. Constantia, Felix’s sister, decides to nurse Frank and help him through his recovery from his injuries, and is overjoyed to be invited to help him set up home when he discovers that he is in fact heir to a substantial property. She’s reluctant to have a Season and go looking for a husband, and finds herself daydreaming about the (admittedly lower-class) soldier while nursing him.

Now, the main barrier for her and Frank is no longer class (as it was for Felix and Fanny) but a secret both are hiding… Constantia has a raised scar across her chest from a childhood accident, while Frank’s injuries have left him heavily scarred. Both feel they’re not desirable as a result, have nothing to offer a partner, might shock/frighten a partner, etc, etc. Now, I can understand having those feelings, but it makes it very much not a story I — scarred literally from head to food by my long history with skin excoriation disorder — thought I could really get into. But I enjoyed the previous two books, so I gave it time.

For the most part, it does not focus on the scarring. The two have fears about it and try to hide it, but the reveal doesn’t do anything too awful like “I’m damaged too” or such lines/ideas. They eventually each find out about the other’s scars, and are supportive of each other without focusing on it. I still don’t love this as a plotline, but I do enjoy Constantia and Frank, and the ending scene is very sweet.

There is also a non-romance plot involving Fanny and Frank’s inheritance; it’s almost something out of Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple novels, with a rather wicked uncle doing his best to cause havoc. I found it fairly obvious, and also surprisingly slapstick in terms of the humour. Not my favourite bit of the novel. Also, sadly, Miriam is only mentioned, so no cameo from her.

Overall, I did still enjoy it, but maybe a bit less than I enjoyed Miss Jacobson’s Journey or Lord Roworth’s Reward. I think I will be trying to get myself a copy of all three of these, though!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Biased

Posted January 17, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Biased by Jennifer EberhardtBiased: The New Science of Race and Inequality, Jennifer Eberhardt

Although the subtitle says it’s science, in many places it’s more history, autobiography and anecdote. There are some bits of science — brief explanations of studies and statistics — before it launches off back into historical context or modern contextualisation, but the science is rather thin on the ground.

It’s not bad because of that, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I think others might also be expecting more focus on bias in general, through not noting that subtitle: it really is just about race relations, and 99% of it is about race relations specifically in the US. I’d have loved to see more general explorations of bias and the science of bias, and how it relates to humans encountering the “other” in all kinds of ways.

I imagine for a US reader, particularly a white US reader, this could be pretty revelatory. For me, there was some context I wasn’t aware of, some anecdotes that were interesting, but it wasn’t new to me, and none of the science that Eberhardt does explain was surprising to me. It’s adaptive for people who are alike to stick together; no surprises there.

There is some minor attempt to pave a way forward in this book; a few mentions of initiatives that have worked and what might underpin them. But mostly it just lays out the problem.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Flight of Magpies

Posted January 13, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Flight of Magpies by KJ CharlesFlight of Magpies, K.J. Charles

Flight of Magpies rounds this trilogy off beautifully. Of course, as it opens, the two are struggling: Stephen’s work-life balance is dreadful, while Crane has too much time on his hands. They’ve come a ways from the start of the last book, but they haven’t really resolved their priorities and their future intentions. That has to play out against the background of even more work issues for Stephen, something going on with Saint, and mysterious deaths that are clearly magical in some way, but hard to trace back.

That’s really just the start of the problems, but I shan’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that everything comes together beautifully, and Stephen and Crane get the ending they deserve. I’ll confess to wandering through the flat with my hands flailing saying “aaaaa” and refusing to spoiler it for my wife, having started and finished the book in one evening.

I’m intrigued by the glimpses of Pastern and his story — which is good, since I have Jackdaw lined up to read soon. None of the revelations in that part of the plot were particularly surprising, but the climax was nail-biting all the same. I’ll admit I was surprised about Merrick, and still don’t quite understand how that relationship developed, as such — like Crane, I was blindsided by it.

There were several sex scenes, some of them including plot-relevant information, for those who might be averse to reading them or might prefer to skip.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Case of Possession

Posted January 12, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Case of Possession by KJ CharlesA Case of Possession, K.J. Charles

A Case of Possession follows up on The Magpie Lord fairly closely; Stephen Day and Lord Crane have returned to London, but not quite to their previous lives, setting up as many clandestine meetings as they can (perhaps not as secretly as they should). Rackham, the man who introduced them in the first place, wants a lot of money fast, and of course, they can be blackmailed. Stephen’s in a spot of trouble too, with even his nearest and dearest fearing his newfound power is a sign he’s gone to the bad.

Also, people are being found mauled by giant rats, and shamans from Shanghai are involved, bringing Lucien into Stephen’s world as a translator, putting him right at the centre of everything again.

I do enjoy these characters so much, and the fact that they can be relatively happy and open despite the homophobic setting; Lucien has no shame due to his time in Shanghai, and Stephen is reasonably sure he can handle any issues that arise, so Charles can tread lightly around the wretchedness that I’m sure many in the period faced. It’s not wholly forgotten, of course, but it isn’t a huge barrier between them. There are some adorable bits in this book as they figure things out and put their relationship on a firmer footing.

It’s also fun to see the new characters, including an excellent scene with some of Stephen’s closest friends, and some more glimpses of Lucien’s past. Some excellent quips and comebacks, too, which I shan’t quote in order to let anyone who wants to find them for themselves.

The mystery of the giant rats is also a nice nod to Sherlock Holmes, and it works together to create a very good excuse for Lucien to be part of it again — there’s no perfectly coincidental constant stumbling over bodies. (Okay, I know the Daisy Dalrymple books are very different in many ways, but it does grate that a whole series is hinged on Daisy finding murder everywhere she goes, and it’s becoming a slight pet peeve.)

Finally, there are several sex scenes in this book; none of them are plot-necessary, but they do advance the characters and show their states of mind, so that’s worth knowing.

It all comes together well, and as a bonus there’s a short story featuring a little more about Merrick.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Venus & Aphrodite

Posted January 8, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Venus & Aphrodite by Bettany HughesVenus & Aphrodite, Bettany Hughes

This looks more substantial on the shelf than it actually is; I read it in about 90 minutes, though it’ll take more time to follow up on some of the things I’m interested in and maybe follow up some of the bibliography. It’s a sort of biography of the goddess, from her origins as Ishtar through to her afterlife as Venus in the world of razors and the silver screen. It’s not that there’s nothing new to me here, but it feels like without the chapter breaks and introductory quotes and images and rather spaced out text, it would be a much slimmer book.

However, I did learn some interesting things; I hadn’t known, for example, that Astarte and Aphrodite were so strongly linked on Cyprus (I thought it was a bit more vague), and I definitely didn’t know about the female-bodied bearded versions of Aphrodite. Elsewhere those images do seem to be interpreted as referring to Hermaphroditus rather than Aphrodite, but the descent from Astarte sort of suggests that as being a later development, perhaps as Aphrodite became more and more an object of desire instead of the powerful, war-linked goddess she was as Astarte. Hughes definitely describes the statues as definitively being of Aphrodite-Aphroditos, at least. I’d love to see more clarification on that, but the chapter on this was so short.

Enjoyable, then, and an easy read, but not very in-depth.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Sisters of the Vast Black

Posted January 7, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina RatherSisters of the Vast Black, Lina Rather

Sisters of the Vast Black follows the journey of a group of nuns travelling on a living spaceship (derived from sea slugs), Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. They’re wandering about the universe on missions of mercy, baptising babies in colonies, celebrating marriages in young colonies… The universe has barely recovered from a civil war, and hints of that unease wrap the story around, while everyone on board has their secrets, their doubts and their worries. The Mother Superior of the little order is suffering with dementia, Sister Gemma has fallen in love, and Sister Faustina is keeping everybody’s secrets as she watches their correspondence come and go. Worse, their ship wants to mate, and they’re struggling with whether to allow it, or whether it — as a mobile convent, essentially — should be forced to remain celibate as well.

Oh, and there are disturbing hints that a new war might be brewing…

It feels fairly small-scale and insular at first, but it quickly opens out. The Mother Superior’s secrets can shake everything, and the Sisters have been using the ship’s immune system to make vaccines for dreadful diseases. Earth influence is expanding again, including with the arrival of a new priest with new orders from Rome to bring the Sisters into line. It all comes together in a final rush, and you see what it’s all for — there’s a reason for all the choices it makes. It works beautifully; I worked out where it was going ahead of time, but was still glad to see it happen, and there were some beautiful lines about the importance of helping people.

It boils down to: it’s a big world, and we’re just lonely little specks, but we can make ourselves something more. It’s very hopepunk in that sense, and I enjoyed that it was not super cynical about everything. The faith (or lack thereof, in the case of one character) of the Sisters is treated sympathetically, but without elevating them above other people. We’re all human, and can all shine our lights in the vast black, and create our own impossible constellations.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Magpie Lord

Posted January 7, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Magpie Lord by K.J. CharlesThe Magpie Lord, K.J. Charles

My wife was planning to try reading some K.J. Charles, and I suggested these books… and then as she started reading, realised I couldn’t remember the first book well enough to go on the second myself. So, obviously, I had to do a reread! Right up front, the book itself contains triggers for quite detailed attempts at suicide, sexual (and incestuous) assault off-screen, and some mind-manipulation stuff that really isn’t cool (mostly by villains). There are also some scenes where enthusiastic consent is absent, though it isn’t assault.

It starts with Lord Crane being overcome by seemingly outside impulses to harm himself after a return from Shanghai where he made a living for himself after being kicked out and sent away by his father. His father and brother killed themselves too, the only reason he’s inherited, and his manservant reckons there must be something going on — they’ve seen magic before and know it’s real, so he persuades Crane to ask for the help of a local equivalent. Enter the Justiciar Stephen Day, with a family grudge against Crane’s family and an unbending need to do the right thing. Naturally, Crane’s not as bad as his family, and sparks fly between the two of them as they get to grips with the rather sordid details of the curse.

There are a couple of scenes I’m less than comfortable with between Lucien Crane and Stephen Day. I read an older version of the book, so it’s possible the 2017 version softens this somewhat — I don’t know if it was edited. But Crane’s tendency to push Stephen around is less than attractive for me, even if Stephen is actually enjoying it — and the scene where he does explicitly consent but only out of a sort of spite isn’t so great. It isn’t that I don’t love the characters together, because I do, and these kinds of stumbles and miscommunications are entirely human, but it is best to go into them forewarned if it’s something that might trip your wires.

Despite that caveat, I do love the way they come together, and especially the epilogue/added bit in the re-issue (which I did read as well after realising I somehow had the old version). Their relationship is genuinely exciting, and I love Crane and Merrick’s protection of each other, and the hints about Stephen’s life elsewhere. I hope to see something of Esther in the second or third book!

It stood up to a reread, and I’m looking forward to the second book.

Rating: 4/5

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