Category: Reviews

Review – The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh

Posted March 2, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh by KJ CharlesThe Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh, K.J. Charles

This is a short story set in the world of a trilogy I haven’t read, so it feels like just a bit of a teaser. Gabriel Ashley has just made a big mistake: he gambled against a man who was an enemy of his brother’s back when they were at university, who he further insulted when he met him in person by being a drunk idiot, and he’s lost everything. The man in question, Francis Webster, has invited him round to pay up, and proposes another game. Ash ends up with absolutely nothing to bet… except his coat, his shirt, himself…

Ash is a cutie — he’s messed things up with Francis, but he knows it and tries to apologise, and he’s ready to face the consequences of his actions. Francis comes off badly at first, and I’m not 100% in love with the whole scenario, but it’s saved by Ash’s explicit and enthusiastic consent, and the fact that Ash is the one to push the situation into sex.

The story is really minimal and just set-up for the sex, so if you’re not interested, it may not be for you. I’m not sure if Ash or Francis play a particularly big part in the Society of Gentlemen trilogy, but all you’d really need to know is what I’ve described in this review. If you are interested in a short sex-filled story, it turns out rather sweet and seems worth it to me!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Unthinkable

Posted March 1, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Unthinkable by Helen ThomsonUnthinkable, Helen Thomson

Unthinkable is a journey through some non-neurotypical brains. It’s a bit of a mix, actually; some of them have neurological conditions, while others are more psychiatric, and others straddle the border. In part, it illustrates the difficulty in drawing a line between the two. Most of the cases in this book weren’t new to me (or at least, I’d read about similar ones before), although Thomson approaches each person with sympathy and a determination to try and understand them and how they think.

They’re still interesting stories, even though they’re not surprises to me, and there were some details I wasn’t aware of — for instance, the man who believed he was dead was found to have very little brain activity, when scanned, more like someone in a coma than someone alive and walking around.

It’s silly, but I did have to laugh when Thomson mentioned someone “watching manga”. Yikes.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How To Argue With A Racist

Posted February 28, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Argue with a Racist by Adam RutherfordHow to Argue with a Racist, Adam Rutherford

I’ve enjoyed Rutherford’s work before; he communicates clearly, and he’s clearly delighted by the intricacies and weirdnesses of DNA and inheritance. In this book, he tries to provide people with the tools to argue back with some key racist talking points about skin colour, intelligence, milk-drinking, ancestry and proficiency at sport. For the most part, he doesn’t argue with a specific study or source of an idea, but offers up general points. It’s actually a very ineffective way to argue with anyone who’s going to ask for evidence, however true his points are; you can explain to a horse how to get to the water, but it’s not going to go and drink no matter how long you talk at it. Or, as my grandmother says, “You can’t educate pork.”

Really, the main problem is that some people are never going to believe you, even if you can talk the hind leg off the proverbial donkey and you can provide the sources. It’s not really clear who benefits from this book — mostly, I guess, people who know people who are sat on the fence, but can listen to reason. If you know any of those, I’ll send you my copy (assuming I haven’t already sent it to someone else) and best of luck to you!

It’s still clear and engaging, but preaching to the choir (by definition, if it’s aimed at people who want to argue with racists) and without a really clear guide to how to use these talking points. Vaguely replying “yes well everyone is related to everyone else if you go back through the family lines to the 16th century” doesn’t cut it for most racists.

If you’re on the fence and you want to understand why Ashkenazi Jews aren’t inherently more intelligent than other people and African runners aren’t inherently better at sprinting than anyone, it might be useful!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Perilous Undertaking

Posted February 28, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna RaybournA Perilous Undertaking, Deanna Raybourn

The second Veronica Speedwell book is much like the first, with Veronica being asked to work to investigate a crime more or less at the whim of her newly discovered family, who are of course highly placed and quite able to make themselves a nuisance if she doesn’t do as they ask. Naturally, Stoker won’t leave her to investigate alone, though he’s more than a bit miffed that she’s agreed to the whole proposal.

Their delightfully adversarial friendship continues, and I find myself torn between them continuing to be more-or-less platonic besties and actually getting together oh my goodness please. It’s obvious that’s where they’re heading, but I find myself impatient for them to get there so I can see how they fit together. Some mysteries continue — what happened to Stoker’s wife? — and there are some new ones introduced in just the last few pages, revealing some more of Veronica’s tumultuous travels but mostly just hinting at the things she’s faced down before.

The mystery itself was fairly obvious, and so was the meta-mystery from the last book (who is pulling Sir Hugo’s strings?), but it remains fast-paced and highly enjoyable. The bond between Stoker and Veronica is what drives things, for me — their needling of each other, and yet their growing reliance on each other too. I’ll be picking up the third book, and soon!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Great Pretender

Posted February 28, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Great Pretender by Susannah CahalanThe Great Pretender, Susannah Cahalan

I was fascinated by Cahalan’s previous book, Brain on Fire, which documents her hospitalisation for psychosis that turned out to have been caused by encephalitis, prompted by an immune disorder. For a while, Cahalan was lost, but she found her way back, and The Great Pretender is in part prompted by those experiences. Looking at patients with mental health issues, she’s found herself wondering how many might be suffering from brain inflammation in the way she was, and how many could be cured partially or wholly by the same treatment. That’s how she found out about David Rosenhan’s famous study, which was born from a very pertinent question: “How can we tell the sane from the insane?”

Rosenhan’s study sounds simple: he sent nine pseudo-patients, one of them being himself, into a psychiatric ward with a simple description of non-dangerous but troubling symptoms. They all claimed to be hearing voices which said things like “hollow” and “empty”, but they dropped these symptoms as soon as they were actually in the ward. They all emerged from the wards — some after nearly two months — with diagnoses of schizophrenia.

Cahalan found this electrifying: how could psychiatrists not tell the pseudo-patients were perfectly sane? For the same reason as she was originally diagnosed as psychotic, partially: there’s no actual physical diagnostic criteria you can run someone through to prove one way or another whether they are suffering from a mental health disorder. (The DSM, a diagnostic manual, was updated to include a lot more diagnostic criteria as a direct result of this study; the issues are different now, though there are still deep issues with subjectivity and bias.) And also because all kinds of ordinary actions could be interpreted as insanity when seen in the confines of a psychiatric ward. A person taking reams of notes on everything the nurses do might be a pseudo-patient, but your first thought is probably that they’re paranoid and keeping track of the nurses as part of their out of control fear and attempt to control the situation!

In any case, Cahalan found the study fascinating and began to dig in… which is where it all began to fall apart. This isn’t a small study that no one knew about; this shaped mental health policy for years, and despite the protestations of some mental health professionals reading this book, it’s still in people’s minds. (I knew about it as a layperson, and I only had to say “Rosenhan” for my mother, a psychiatrist, to know what I was talking about.) And yet Cahalan’s investigations call it into question. It seems very likely that Rosenhan faked much of the data, as very few of the pseudo-patients could be found. One who was had a markedly different experience in the wards to the one reported, and was allegedly removed from the study… though his data still remained in the published version.

There are all kinds of little inconsistencies that pointed Cahalan to this conclusion, and I think the length of my review shows my enthusiasm and interest for the digging work she’s done here, interviewing the study participants she could find and searching for the others. She calls into question the study’s truthfulness, but not, in the end, its validity. Rosenhan’s observations struck a chord for a reason, after all. Was it bad of him to lie and fake data like this? Of course it was. But maybe psychiatry needed that.

That said, the book also showcases how far the pendulum has swung the other way, with prisons in the US absorbing many of the people originally cared for in specialised wards. And Cahalan keeps putting her finger on the sore place, again and again: we still can’t tell the sane from the insane, not really. We still don’t know the physical causes of much mental ill-health, and diagnosis requires an experienced clinician with a checklist of behaviours — and even they can be fooled by an autoimmune disease.

It’s perhaps not as gripping as Brain on Fire, but I enjoyed it and highly recommend it, and find myself largely in agreement with Cahalan’s conclusions.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – A Curious Beginning

Posted February 24, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Curious Beginning by Deanna RaybournA Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning opens with the funeral of Veronica Speedwell’s aunt, one of the two women who raised her under somewhat irregular circumstances. She is a foundling and illegitimate, and that’s all she knows of her family. She’s her own woman, interested in lepidoptery and very competent at taking care of herself, arranging expeditions to find butterflies, selling them, and submitting papers. She conducts her love affairs discreetly far from British shores, and is generally a rather anachronistic but appealingly independent character.

This translates at times into her being rather blasé, including about the raid on her aunts’ cottage she finds when she returns to the accommodation. She is met there by a man who helps protect her and then begs her to let him take her to London and keep her safe. To cut a long story short, this ends in his murder and her being thrown together with a foul-tempered naturalist (with nonetheless appealing looks, as we hear frequently), Stoker.

The plot itself… there were points where I literally said “what the fuck” aloud, in the last 50-100 pages. There are period trappings, but Veronica is a firmly modern protagonist, not so much chafing at the rules of her time as barely acknowledging they exist. This would normally drive me up the wall, so I wasn’t sure if I even liked the book… but given how fast I swallowed it down, I guess I did! It’s not great historical fiction, but it is rather fun as a mystery (and probable romance), as long as you go into it with the understanding that it isn’t really a period story, and that the characters aren’t exactly deep. They’re glossy and fun and forever moving, but they don’t have emotional depth, in my view; Veronica’s always so matter-of-fact that she breezes right past emotion, and we don’t get to see much of Stoker’s past to judge his brooding against.

This sounds like damning with faint praise, but I really did fly through the book and immediately pick up the sequel. It’s good fun.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fell Murder

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

Cover of Fell Murder by E.C.R. LoracFell Murder, E.C.R. Lorac

Another British Library Crime Classic! Lorac’s work, as republished in this series, has been solidly satisfying for me, drawing sensitive portraits of people and places that make you care about the solution of the murder. It’s not a mere puzzle, as it can be in other crime fiction of much the same period. Fell Murder is solidly set in a particular landscape, which Lorac clearly loved and described in beautiful detail, so you can almost smell the hay and the damp earth and — yes — the cow sheds. It’s idyllic, even romanticised, and the characters are made sympathetic through their love of the land and their whole-hearted hard work. Even the crotchety old head of the family is dignified by his hard work and his fairness, despite his ruthlessness.

I found this a little slower than Lorac’s other work; I think because I could see who the killer must be far too soon, and thus didn’t appreciated the beating around the bush. In the final chapters of the book, I rather disliked Macdonald’s little gambit about Charles and Malcolm; what a needless risk, with more evidence due to turn up!

It wasn’t bad, and it definitely had its high points, but it didn’t totally work for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Five

Posted February 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Five by Hallie RubenholdThe Five, Hallie Rubenhold

I didn’t really expect to find this riveting; it really isn’t my period of interest whatsoever, and I’m not hugely into murder stories. But, after all, this isn’t about the Ripper, but about his victims, and Rubenhold brings sympathy and painstaking research to the task. I’ll admit I haven’t fact-checked her on anything (given that it isn’t my period), but assuming she’s done the work — and the bibliography certainly suggests that she did — then it’s a wonderful window into the lives of five women who are only remembered because of their brutal murders, whose real lives and attributes were eclipsed by gossip and sensationalism.

That said, I have a serious issue with the way Rubenhold frames all this. Her urgent mission throughout — restated countless times — is to assert that almost none of the five victims of the Ripper were actually prostitutes. She states again and again that they weren’t prostitutes, that we’ve eclipsed their real lives and motives and struggles in our remembrance of them as such. Which is fair enough; the correction of the record by sketching out their actual lives is a welcome one. But, I got the strong impression that Rubenhold feels that the women are worthy of more attention because they weren’t prostitutes (apart from Mary Jane Kelly, who clearly was, and who gets perhaps the least attention in the book; not coincidentally, perhaps).

And that’s bullshit. If they’re worthy of understanding and remembering, it’s as whole people, and that would be true whether they slept with no one or half the population of London. They’re not more important because they weren’t prostitutes, and Mary Jane Kelly isn’t less important because she was. They were people, and no one has any right to murder anyone regardless of how they earn their money.

For the most part, Rubenhold is sympathetic to the plight of the women, noting where things went wrong for them and points where things may have turned around. (I’ll note again that she did not do the same for Mary Jane Kelly, who was actually a prostitute.) She details their everyday lives with pity and care, and she writes well. But I’m left just a little bit uncomfortable about that constant implication that it matters whether they were prostitutes. At the time, it did, because it shaped their whole lives, and their deaths as well, and because it may well have mattered to them. I can understand rehabilitating them for that reason.

But even if every single one of the five was a prostitute, they should still be interesting to us now for the exact same reasons as they are interesting to Rubenhold. It speaks poorly of her if she thinks that sex workers are automatically less interesting than everyone else, and that is very much the impression I got.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – When The Dogs Don’t Bark

Posted February 22, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of When the Dogs Don't Bark by Angela GallopWhen the Dogs Don’t Bark, Professor Angela Gallop

I picked this up on a whim because it looked like it could be my sister’s thing, and I never object to more random information about all kinds of topics. Angela Gallop is a well-known forensic scientist who has worked on several famous murder cases; this is a sort of professional memoir, barely touching on her personal life, but digging into her opinions on forensic science, her part in expanding forensic science services in the UK and eventually worldwide, and her involvement (sometimes tangentially) in various cases.

It’s a little bit of everything, really: she talks about setting up her business, and that butts up against the horrible details of bloody murders and the less than fascinating references to board meetings. It feels rather unfocused, sort of like there’s the kitchen sink at all: there’s certainly plenty of interesting anecdotes, but the wealth of examples sometimes bogs down her theme. Where you expect her to be contrasting two cases, they turn out to be remarkably similar and prove the same point. It’s not terribly written, but I’d tighten it up ruthlessly and make her add in an organising theme.

She does have something she wants to say about forensic science: “it’s more complicated than you think, it needs funding, it needs to be impartial, and it needs to be done in context”. But those cautionary notes for the understanding of and the future of forensic science get a bit lost when suddenly she’s complaining about the perils of borrowing money to start a company and how things could have gone wrong there. The book’s neither fish nor fowl; it’s not just about digging into the story behind investigating specific crimes, but it’s so heavy on those details that it feels like maybe that was the original point.

That said, the details are interesting and her style isn’t bad, just a bit flabby. I mildly enjoyed it, but felt it could’ve been more impactful if it knew what it was.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – One Corpse Too Many

Posted February 19, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of One Corpse Too Many by Ellis PetersOne Corpse Too Many, Ellis Peters

The second Brother Cadfael book is more deeply rooted in the historical period it’s set in, with everything in it being touched by the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. We see quite a bit of Stephen in this book, in fact, since he is actually in command of the forces that enter the town and kill the garrison. Cadfael gets himself involved first by sheltering a daughter of the local nobility (dressed as a boy and acting as a novice) and then by investigating the murder of the mysterious extra corpse hidden among the bodies of the garrison.

It’s an interesting and nuanced vision of the time; Cadfael is pretty non-partisan (which I believe was actually very difficult to maintain at the time, but he’s a fictional monk, so he can do as he likes) and ends up aiding both sides of the fight through his interest in individual people. I shouldn’t say too much about the characters, because it deliberately takes quite a while to figure out where everyone stands: I ended up feeling very affectionate toward one particular character, in a way that’s very cleverly done.

The idea of a monk solving mysteries sounds kind of gimmicky, perhaps, but the strong roots in the time help make it feel realistic and serious. Both mysteries so far have been uncontrived — a crime of passion in the first book, and this one in a historical framework where the death makes sense and the only wonder is that someone cares — and Cadfael getting involved feels natural. There are so many books in the series that of course it could get a bit Daisy Dalrymple-ish, but it helps that in Cadfael’s times everyone was closer to the fact of death.

(I don’t mean to pick on Daisy too much, because I genuinely enjoy Carola Dunn’s books, but by this point my only explanation for how many independent murders she manages to involve herself with is that some mastermind is tugging the strings to involve her “accidentally” in dozens of otherwise unconnected murders. I somehow doubt that Daisy has a Moriarty, though.)

Definitely enjoyable, and I do rather hope to see some of these characters again.

Rating: 4/5

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