Category: Reviews

Review – Akhenaten

Posted November 15, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet by Nicholas ReevesAkhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, Nicholas Reeves

Although this book as billed as being a revolutionary interpretation of Akhenaten, I think that’s just hype. It’s certainly a thorough examination of the evidence we have, and of Akhenaten’s actions and methods, and it points out that there were sound political motives behind the move to Tel-el-Amarna to found Akhetaten… but most of this is stuff I’ve heard before. He talks about theories like the idea that the Amarna family had Marfan’s syndrome as if it was ignored and kind of niche… but even I (not an Egyptologist, not reading the scholarly material and not having any training whatsoever in that field — I have an interest, but not a particularly up to date knowledge) know about that. Perhaps this is due to him popularising it, but it seemed very odd.

There are other things that ring alarm bells, as well. He doesn’t utilise footnotes, so it’s hard to track down his assertions (there is a bibliography, but of course you don’t know what was the source for any particular idea). I did remember when I started reading this that the idea that Tutankhamun had been murdered had been recently pooh-poohed on the 2005 CT scan of the mummy, but I was prepared to hear some solid arguments based on some kind of evidence… and none were forthcoming. It’s clear that whole subject is muddied by post-mortem damage of the body, possibly in antiquity and definitely by Howard Carter, so I would’ve been sceptical of any offered theories, but Reeves avoided the subject as if it were not a serious stumbling block for any theory. His sole comment on the unreliability of the evidence is this (bolding mine):

If this interpretation is correct (and it has inevitably been challenged), the implication would be that Tutankhamun suffered a blow to the head and lingered, drifting in and out of consciousness, for some weeks. What is interesting is that the position of this supposed blow would indicate that the damage had been sustained intentionally rather than by accident — at a time when political manipulation of the god-king was the norm, and regicide a rather more common occurrence than the Egyptian state cared formally to acknowledge.

Whereupon he wanders off into speculation about Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor. But… the challenge really needed to be discussed here, because it’s a serious one: although this book was published almost at the same time as the better scan in 2005 and he can’t have known about the results in time to change the book before publication, Reeves’ whole line of argument is so weak that it falls apart from that point because the CT scan completely dismissed the murder theory, and he had no counterpoints ready. If he’d addressed the uncertainty better, it would seem rather less like he builds his arguments on houses of cards.

As a consequence, he has several interesting theories which I enjoyed reading about, but as a consequence of his light hand with substantiation, I cannot trust. For example, I’ve never heard of the letter to Suppiluliuma being thought to be sent by Nefertiti, instead of the common interpretation that it was sent by Ankhesenamun. It makes sense, on the evidence here, but what has Reeves omitted because it doesn’t suit his racy narrative? Same with his re-interpretation of the kingships just prior to the Amarna period: he lays it all at the feet of Hatshepsut and her “greed” to become the ruler. Quite apart from wondering a little about Reeves’ personal views on women (we don’t hear about the “greed” of Ay or Horemheb in taking power after Tutankhamun’s death), I haven’t heard this elsewhere… and I can’t trust Reeves.

As I said, granted I’m not exactly neck-deep in the latest research, but this book was originally published in 2005, and I haven’t heard most of these theories elsewhere since. At this point, I wouldn’t believe a thing he says without a pinch or two of natron and some supplementary sources.

I also think it’s irresponsible of the publishers to republish a book from 2005 without revision, while stating on the back that it is a “revolutionary” interpretation (which certainly assisted my previous impression that it was a new book). It’s over a decade old and parts of it have been proven to be castles in the sky, folks.

ETA: Slightly amended due to finding out the publication date listed on the source I checked was wrong, and this was originally published in the same year as the CT scan.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Hekla’s Children

Posted November 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Hekla's Children by James BrogdenHekla’s Children, James Brogden

I saw some really glowing reviews about Hekla’s Children, and particularly about its originality, so I picked it up despite some reservations about the story as presented by the blurb. There are some kids, check. They vanish mysteriously, apart from one kid who is found a few days later, in a condition as though she is starving — even though she wasn’t missing long enough for that to have been the case. And then a bog body is found in that rough location, yet one of the leg bones — dated to the right period — is nonetheless found to have been pinned to heal from a break using 20th century medical techniques… And this bog body was supposed to protect against some awful horror, which may now be free to terrorise people.

I’m afraid I found it really predictable from the start, and as in another recent read of mine (In the Night Wood), I wasn’t impressed by the stock male character who had his romantic prospects dashed (he was sleeping with a woman who was engaged to be married to someone else, but woe is him, she chose the other guy). Sympathy with him is rather key to the whole thing working and to not seeing the twists coming, so perhaps that’s part of why it didn’t work for me at all.

There were some aspects I felt positive about — there’s a section in the otherworld where a main character gets into a homosexual relationship, and that’s dealt with carefully and sympathetically in a way that works. But otherwise… no, fairly meh.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Heraclix and Pomp

Posted November 9, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Heraclix and Pomp by Forrest AgguireHeraclix and Pomp, Forrest Aguire

This book turned out to be pretty strongly not for me. It’s not the plot that bothers me: that’s fairly standard as it goes. A fabricated golem and a fairy are thrown together by circumstances and end up journeying together to discover more about the golem’s past. He’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, more than a golem, made of the flesh of various people with various powers, so he ends up tracking down the various parts of himself to learn what happened. There’s a big bad who wants to be immortal, and then there’s also trips to hell, capture by brigands, etc.

What I disliked was something about the narration. There was a certain “and then this happened, and this happened, and this person said this, and then another thing happened”. I never had a strong sense of causal links between things, or what things could lead to. It actually had a flavour something like a translation of a Russian novel for me — some sense that the storytelling doesn’t quite come from the same tradition (though I don’t think it does? I mean, this is just my sense of how the story “felt”). In this case, it just proved really not to my taste; I ended up skimming a lot, and I definitely didn’t get emotionally involved in the story or care much about how it might end.

Rating: 1/5 

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Review – It’s All In Your Head

Posted November 9, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of It's All In Your Head by Suzanne O'SullivanIt’s All In Your Head, Suzanne O’Sullivan

The title of the book gives it away: this is a series of case studies, essentially, covering cases of psychosomatic disease. In it, as in O’Sullivan’s other book, she discusses the cases of various past patients and how she concluded their symptoms were not neurological disorders, but instead signs of a conversion disorder. I think the title is a bit of a disservice, because O’Sullivan is strongly against the kind of dismissal the phrase implies. She believes that (most of) her patients with this issue are truly distressed, truly experiencing pain and disability, and truly require medical help. Though it’s not a physical disorder of the nerves, it is something that should and must be treated in order to allow people to resume normal lives.

Understanding of psychosomatic illness and health anxiety is lacking in many doctors. Part of it is overwork: crowded clinics do not appreciate the sight of someone hoving into view with yet another anxiety-related illness of nebulous symptoms and solely psychological origin. But people like that, all the way along the scale from the lumps and bumps that trouble me to those whose brains paralyse themselves, all deserve compassion and treatment, and O’Sullivan’s book strongly advocates for that. She is firmly against the impulse to second guess a patient and assume they are faking.

That said, of course she makes herself come across as preternaturally patient with this kind of thing, and very sure about her diagnoses. She does discuss uncertainties now and then, but for the most part she is very certain of herself. Most of the cases she mentions are very clear-cut, and it makes it all seem very easy. In reality, things are muddier.

The chapter on ME/CFS has many detractors and as many people who shout that it is pure truth. Lacking the professional background or the academic reading on the topic, I can only say that I was under the impression that the graded exercise she recommends was in fact proven to be unhelpful, and that both sides in ME/CFS discussions can get very fraught and very disinclined to admit the truth of anything the other says. At the very least, O’Sullivan’s sympathy feels real, and she does intend to diminish the suffering of people with ME or CFS; she merely questions its source, and does not believe that a psychological source of issues means weakness or that you can just snap out of it.

It’s not deeply profound if you’re looking for the science of all this, though she does discuss what is known and the history of psychosomatic illnesses. It’s mostly of interest for really understanding the bananas things our brains can do to us. An enjoyable read, but not for me a groundbreaking one.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Lord Roworth’s Reward

Posted November 7, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Lord Roworth's Reward by Carola DunnLord Roworth’s Reward, Carola Dunn

Lord Roworth’s Reward is technically the second book of a trilogy, but most of the characters are new and the set-up is easy to grasp. Felix is an agent for a banker who needs the latest news from the war against Napoleon to help conduct his affairs. Felix is an impoverished nobleman, but due to his experiences in the first book (which are revealed in outline in this book), he is accepting of people from a wide range of social backgrounds — setting the stage for a rather obvious unrequited (but Is It Really) love with the woman lodging in the same house. Fanny is the sister of an artilleryman, and has been following the drum since she was a child. Now she has an adopted child of her own, and Felix’s way with the child brings her over all a-flutter even as she teases him and lets him underburden himself about his courtship of a society lady.

The book is never particularly surprising, but it’s a competent romance that manages to have some very sweet moments. There was Jewish characters and those of lower income, all portrayed positively, which sets it apart from a lot of Regency romances. I’m not great at the historical stuff, but it’s full of detail (perhaps a little too much at times for those here for the romance) about the political situation, and I think it’s quite well situated in a known moment in history.

I found it very enjoyable, even if I could call every step of the dance, and I’ve reserved the first book and already have my hands on the third.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Women & Power

Posted November 5, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary BeardWomen & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard

The discussion of the female voice (literally) in the halls of power, the first essay of this book, is absolutely great and exactly within Beard’s professional ambit. She discusses perceptions of the female voice, and how the dislike of “shrill” women has been embedded in us in what we consider to be foundational texts for Western civilisation (Homer, etc). I saw someone on Twitter just the other day realising that they disliked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s voice in exactly the way Beard discusses.

The second essay is a little less focused, I think. She looks at some great parallels in literature and such, but it feels a bit less focused and conclusive. (Not that the first essay particularly comes to a rousing conclusion, beyond “we need to be conscious of this”…)

I suppose part of the problem is that no one really has these answers. It’s a worthy read for posing some of the questions, and for showing some of the workings we may not even think about, nonetheless.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Excellent Intentions

Posted November 4, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Excellent Intentions by Richard HullExcellent Intentions, Richard Hull

This is another in the British Library Crime Classics series, and it’s an interesting one: it opens with the opening of the trial, backtracks through interpolated sections of the investigation, and doesn’t reveal the accused until the end, referring to them elliptically right up to the last possible moment. This leaves things a little confused at times, but it’s an interesting way of going about a mystery story and telling it in a fresh way. I’ll admit, part of the interest here was in following just how Hull did that, stylistically, more than the plot or characters!

It is interesting in terms of plot, as well. It goes the whole hog with the traditional Golden Age despicable victim, and everyone involved has, well, excellent intentions. It doesn’t really delve into the psychology of that, though, just presents it as a rather unique motive for murder.

It doesn’t stand out for me as one of the more engaging reprints in this series, but it was definitely interesting.

Rating: 3/5

 

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Review – Murder at the Fitzwilliam

Posted October 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Murder at the Fitzwilliam by Jim EldridgeMurder at the Fitzwilliam, Jim Eldridge

I’ll admit, I mostly picked this up because the idea of mystery stories in and around museums fascinates me, and the second book is set in the British Museum! Naturally, I had to pick this one up first anyway. It follows the work of a private inquiry agent, Daniel Wilson, who is asked to help investigate the discovery of a body in the Egyptian room in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He teams up with Abigail, an Egyptologist working at the Fitzwilliam Museum, to figure out what’s going on.

I thought the police detective did a bit of a 180 on his attitude to Daniel; he went from being an Inspector Lestrade or Inspector Sugg type character to being quite accommodating and friendly, without much real evidence for why that would happen. It was definitely odd, and there was a similar shortcut in the relationship between two other characters — all of a sudden, they were deciding to get married, despite not really courting or anything like that. There’s also a rather odd tolerance of women as prostitutes or being “ruined” for the time period, and in particular the main character is rather idealised. Calm and level-headed and quick-thinking when he needs to be, but conveniently passionate when the love story needs it. Meh. It all felt a bit rushed, and the characters rather mercurial and volatile — that’s how it felt, rather than that they were passionate; that they kept going from absolute 0 to 60 in seconds, just for plot/relationship development reasons.

It’s a smooth enough read, but I won’t be reading the second book after all, I think. It’s very much trying to hit that Golden Age note, I think, but it really doesn’t manage to in terms of the period elements. Things like the votes for women or men’s unfavourable attitudes to women all feel somewhat pasted on; everyone’s fine with Abigail until it’s convenient to show Daniel being passionate about her, etc. Everything lacked depth.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ancillary Mercy

Posted October 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ancillary Mercy by Ann LeckieAncillary Mercy, Ann Leckie

The finale of the trilogy! If you are hoping for a massive showdown between multiple parts of Anaander Mianaai, this isn’t quite it. It remains the story of Breq, and all the characters around her: Seivarden, Tisarwat, Mercy of Kalr, Ekalu… Breq continues to hold Athoek Station, dealing with the resistance to her insistence on changing things and figuring out who supports what faction and how to move all the pieces on the board to protect those she feels responsible for. And of course, the Tyrant wants access to the Athoek System, and wants revenge on Breq, and that arc does play out here.

All in all, I find it both a satisfying and climactic ending — involving a lot of the small (and not so small) pieces coming together into a new whole. Not only that, but there are some amazing explorations of the relationships in the story: Seivarden and Breq, Seivarden and Ekalu, Breq and Mercy of Kalr, Breq and Basnaaid… One of my favourite bits involves a three-way conversation between Seivarden, Breq and Mercy of Kalr, but there’s so many other favourite parts to choose from: Translator Zeiat and Sphene, Breq and Sphene, most scenes with either Zeiat or Sphene… There’s a lot going on emotionally as well, and I don’t feel unsatisfied by the fact that the story is entirely tied up in a bow.

I do think these books have disappointed some people by not being focused on the Tyrant tearing herself apart, the larger story which is often just a backdrop to the interpersonal affairs we see. Others have been disappointed by Breq’s measured perspective on things, that her reactions are not more human, more immediate. She does feel things deeply, but you see that through a sheet of ice sometimes, because she was a Ship and she is also analysing things from that perspective, as someone who has been many people in one (or one person in many — I think it’s clear it goes both ways, though: the ancillaries are both the ship’s mind and control, and also a little bit themselves). The deep attachment to Breq and to the other characters through her is one that has grown on me, rather than being there ready-made; it’s not an instantaneous liking as of meeting a person you want to know. I love the way Breq’s character is developed, and the things she has to learn and the ways she feels, but I think she’s an acquired taste, and perhaps one some people won’t acquire, and that’s fine.

But for me, Leckie’s first trilogy remains not just groundbreaking space opera for being different or doing daring gender things or not just being generic white culture in space or any of the things that people have praised it for — it’s also something with a lot to think about, and a lot to love if that kind of story and those kind of characters are to your taste. There’s stuff here to come back to again and again, and I’m sure I will continue to do so.

Rating: 5/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted October 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Good morning, folks! The bunny hutch drama took some sorting out — it arrived, and we spent about three hours trying to push it into the flat, but we couldn’t manage it. Buuut we found a local moving company willing to help, and they shifted it in, and now it sits in our flat, minus only the trim on its roof! To gain an appreciation of how truly large it is (and how cute the buns are), here are some pics (click them to embiggen)…

That last pic is me standing on the floor, body mostly straight… I am 5ft4, or around 1.6m tall.

You see why it was a bit of an effort! In any case, a mostly quiet week for acquiring and reading books…

Acquired:

Cover of Gilded Cage by KJ Charles Cover of Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Read this week:

Cover of Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vlyar Kaftan Cover of Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie Cover of Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Reviews posted this week:

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, by Vylar Kaftan. Less plotty and more character-focused than I expected; I found at least one of the twists rather… not so much predictable, in retrospect, as banal. Of course that was what happened. So it left me a little cold. 3/5 stars
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. A reread, and just as beloved as ever! I found myself focusing on Seivarden and how she is an utter problematic fave. 5/5 stars
Any Old Diamonds, by K.J. Charles. Lovely relationship between the characters, wrapped into a plot that’s both heart-wrenching and satisfying. 4/5 stars
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie. Quieter than the first book, maybe; I think this had people thinking about second book syndrome, and yet to my mind it totally avoids that. Perceiving it as that is to sort of miss the point of Breq’s quiet one-step-forward-and-then-the-next passage through life. The point isn’t to shake the stars, it’s to stay alive and do what one can in one’s own orbit. 5/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. The usual Wednesday post, including lesbian space pirates and Ann Leckie.

So that’s that. How’s everyone else been doing?

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