Category: Reviews

Review – The Murders of Molly Southbourne

Posted July 3, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade ThompsonThe Murders of Molly Southbourne, Tade Thompson

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, but I was somewhat put off by the cover and by not really having enjoyed Rosewater — Thompson’s writing is great, but more visceral than I intend to enjoy. Still, The Murders of Molly Southbourne is a short book, and packs a heck of a punch, even though in the end we don’t really get very good answers.

The premise is simple: whenever Molly bleeds, a copy of her is born. They inevitably try to attack her, so her parents raise her to avoid bleeding as much as possible, destroy all traces of her blood, and kill the copies as fast and thoroughly as possible. They also teach her to hide her tracks, and set up a private security company to take care of any issues that crop up in future, tattooing the number into her arm so she’ll always have it with her.

This isn’t really a story about how that came to happen, although a potential explanation does get revealed at the end. It’s mostly about what you would do if you lived that life, how it might play out, and all the ways you might try to get away. It’s oddly flat and emotionless half of the time, in a way that feels like someone telling you a story in a very level voice to hide anything they might feel about it — a restrained, controlled sense, rather than a sense that there is no feeling there.

I know there’s a sequel, and I’m definitely curious enough to give it a try. If you like things to make sense and have all the answers in a self-contained story, it may not be for you so much, but I found it a fun and fast read.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Mr Popper’s Penguins

Posted June 23, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Mr. Popper's Penguins by Florence and Richard AtwaterMr Popper’s Penguins, Florence Atwater, Richard Atwater

I’ve never read this one, so when I was in the market for something short last week I just mainlined it. I think overall it’s neither something particularly special nor anything objectionable, except perhaps for the penguins being used as performing animals. There are some rather cute bits with Mr Popper’s pride and excitement in the penguins, and cute/funny descriptions of their performances… and the illustrations are pretty fun.

I don’t really have more to say, though — I bet I’d have enjoyed it as a kid, but it doesn’t have a lot to offer an adult reader beyond a bit of escapism. There’s nothing bad about that, and it filled the hole I needed it to fill, but I can’t exactly gush with praise either!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Murder in the Mill-Race

Posted June 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R. LoracMurder in the Mill-Race, E.C.R. Lorac

Lorac starts this book by setting the scene, with a young doctor and his wife moving to an idyllic little village on the moor, self-contained and insular. They’re quickly accepted because of the doctor’s skills, of course, but there’s a little friction with a staple of the place: Sister Monica, a rather severe woman who rules over a little children’s home with an iron fist. Everyone says she’s “wonderful”, and yet there’s something forced about the superlative.

Since it’s a Golden Age crime novel, no surprises that Sister Monica is the one found dead, and that it unravels a whole snarl of issues in the little village. Lorac’s series detective, Macdonald, comes in to take a look — understanding the ways of a small village, but not bound by then, and able to cut some of the knots with plain-speaking and an inability to be rattled.

As always, Lorac is great with a sense of atmosphere: you can practically hear the sounds of the village, smell the scrubbed barren children’s home, feel the spray of the water in the mill race. The killer was the person I guessed, but Lorac avoided tying things up in too neat a bow: there are a couple of questions unresolved, and there’s no “sit all the culprits together in a room” moment. You do get a sense for how her detective works and how she likes to shape a mystery, after reading a few of her books — there are commonalities between this and her other books that felt a bit fresher the first time you read them.

Overall, though, Lorac’s ability to portray a place and a bunch of complicated characters remains a big draw, and I think her books are among the finer ones in the British Library Crime Classics collection (contrast Bude, for example, who I find entertaining but unremarkable as far as style goes).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

Posted June 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah PriceWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Books, Leah Price

This book is less concerned with what’s inside books and more about what we do with the actual physical book. Leah Price is a book historian as well as a literary critic, and the reason I bought this book was for her insights on how we read and how you delve into how people in the past read. With some old books it’s easy: you can tell by whether the pages are cut or not. In cookbooks, you might be able to tell from where the pages are stuck together or splattered with ingredients. There’s also folded-over corners, of course, and just letting the book fall open and see where it opens to… Price talks a little about these considerations, but mostly this isn’t what the book is about.

She discusses the physical form of a book in the first chapter, the joys of pre-owned books and scribbling in the margin, and even how those habits have evolved over time. Much as we like to think of the book as a well-worn and traditional object, we haven’t always read from folded wood-pulp paper folded into covers, and our habits around books have changed accordingly. Books haven’t always been affordable, either: subscription libraries where people clubbed together to buy and share books were once very common. Scribbling in the margins and doing underlining was a lot more common before modern libraries discouraged the practice.

(I fear Price wouldn’t think much of my shelves, which are loaded which books kept in almost mint condition, even when I’ve read them. I think she’d see them as lacking personality and even love, instead of finding my rather obsessive, jealous, hoarding love of books on every single shelf. Not much room for nuance in her words here, approving most of books where she can clearly see the fingerprints of previous readers.)

Price also discusses the big one: pbooks versus ebooks. She’s fairly nuanced, and mentioned some fascinating insights about how different countries consume their ebooks. (In France, apparently, mostly via laptop screen; in the UK, dedicated readers giving way to reading on phones.)

She’s also got some things to say about the uses books are put to, discussing the book prescriptions service provided in Wales (which I’ve used!) and so on. To be honest, this seems like a bit of a mish-mash of subjects, and it doesn’t really come together very coherently. I was most interested in the first chapter and her commentary on ebooks, and I’m glad to have picked up her term for physical books (pbooks) — way easier to say than “dead-tree books” — but… overall… I wasn’t that enthused? It took looking at the contents to refresh my memory on what she even said, which isn’t a super great sign.

In the end, I’m not sure what she wanted to say and whether she ended up saying it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – How To Be An Antiracist

Posted June 21, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. KendiHow to Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi

Received to review via Netgalley

I think a lot of people are picking this up expecting it to be a handbook, from the title — a list of actions you can take, a discussion of prejudice and the prejudiced things people can inadvertently do: something, in short, that tells you what to do. It isn’t that. How to be an Antiracist is a memoir, which charts the journey of Kendi himself through both racist and antiracist thoughts, through all the things that shape his response today. There are definitely things here that can point to what you need to do (primarily taught through example: one of the important things to do is reflect on how your thoughts and actions could contribute to or fight against racism), but it isn’t a recipe book.

Which is good: I don’t think any single book can tell us what needs to be done, because Black people are not a single organism with one mind. Kendi believes that racism against white people is possible, for instance, which I know a lot of Black people disagree with (using the definition that racism requires power). Kendi lays heavy stress on changing racist policy (a term he prefers to “institutional racism”) rather than confronting racist people or even racist actions. His theory is that social attitudes are informed by what policy dictates: he suggests that the changing of minds and hearts will come after a change in law, and changes to laws should not be held up to wait for the changes of attitude.

Kendi’s also looking mostly at the way racism operates in the US; my impression is that while there are commonalities, things play out differently in different countries because of the different histories and policies. If you’re going to read just one book on racism, I’m not convinced this is the right choice for everyone, even though the title makes it sound like a panacea.

It’s true too that it isn’t just a memoir: Kendi sets out each chapter carefully, beginning with a definition and then using examples (often from his own experiences) to illustrate the problem, how it affects people, and how he grapples with it and has grappled with it in the past. In some ways, you can treat it as a template — because you can go through it and substitute your own experiences or those of people you know, and understand the same issue from where you’re standing. But still, I’d say it’s primarily memoir, and that accounts for the fact that it can be a little repetitive (we see the same issues and themes examined in different parts of Kendi’s life) or unfocused.

For me, there were some snippets of history and culture that were new to me, partly because I’m not from the US; I think it’s also worthwhile on that level, though it isn’t a history book and doesn’t delve deeply into it.

Overall, my feeling is that it’s a worthwhile read, alone or as part of a little self-taught curriculum of books about racism and how it impacts people — and how to be better, taught through example.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Sussex Downs Murder

Posted June 19, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Sussex Downs Murder by John BudeThe Sussex Downs Murder, John Bude

The Sussex Downs Murder is the third book I’ve read by John Bude from the British Library Crime Classics series, featuring the same detective as the previous two. Meredith is a policeman, and much of the story involves careful police work: cross-checking, putting a man on this and a man on that, and slowly amassing more evidence — so much that at first it’s hard to sort out what’s relevant and what isn’t, and which of the herrings are a suspiciously ruddy colour.

Bude’s writing is like that: methodical, thorough, a little slow, but ultimately assembling a pretty fascinating picture, with some nice set-pieces along the way. I don’t visualise things easily, but Bude brought to life the chalky cliff and the grassy downs of the setting, as his characters walk through them — a sketch, perhaps, but one that suggests just enough to contextualise what the artist wants to show.

I’ll admit that I find John Bude’s plots a trifle obvious, though Martin Edwards’ introductions don’t always help with that. He dropped a clue that raised my eyebrow right at the start, so I figured out where we were going. Still, I didn’t know quite how we’d get there, and with Golden Age crime fiction that’s usually the main thing.

In all, it’s a solid story, I didn’t spot any major holes, and it has its moments for characterisation, setting and humour. Not perhaps the best of the series, but an enjoyable specimen of the species.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Pet

Posted June 18, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Pet by Akwaeke EmeziPet, Akwaeke Emezi

Pet takes place in the utopian city of Lucille. They’ve rooted out all the evil at their core: the violent policemen, the corrupt politicians, the liars and abusers… It wasn’t easy, and those who had to hunt for the evil in their midst had to do terrible things, but now there are no monsters in Lucille. Jam has been raised in this world, and is shocked when a spatter of her blood combines with a painting made by her mother and calls forth a monster which calls itself Pet and says there is a monster in Lucille, in the home of her dearest friend. Worse, it says she has to help it hunt down that monster.

It’s hard to put a finger on quite where Pet sits, though it’s labelled as YA: Jam feels rather young, despite the fact that she’s older than fifteen. I suspect that’s partly because of her naïveté, though. I don’t know how old I was when I first understood that children around me were being abused by family members, but I can’t have been more than ten. The idea of children being able to be that naïve is a pretty shocking one from that perspective: of course they wouldn’t have to grow up as fast. Of course they could have space to figure out their way through their lives.

So despite how young it feels in that way, YA is probably fair — especially because of the things Jam discovers while she’s on the hunt with Pet.

I really enjoyed the different kinds of representation here: there’s a family with three parents, one of whom is non-binary; Jam is trans; Jam prefers not to vocalise and uses signs and alternative ways to communicate; race feels unimportant to the world but is clearly signalled to the reader (with Jam’s afro, learning to do her hair in cornrows, etc — not to mention the cover)…

And as for the story… It feels simplistic, but there’s a lot of stuff to untangle. I enjoyed Jam’s friendship with Redemption, and the easy way they help each other, make each other better, and figure out their way around their problems. The relationships between Bitter and Aloe, Jam’s parents, and within Redemption’s family as well, have that feel to it as well. A world where people communicate and figure things out — and yes, are awful to each other sometimes, but figure things out as well. And there’s the whole issue of the monsters in Lucille, which people don’t want to see: we’ve done the work, they say. The work’s been done, there are no monsters.

There are always monsters, and we can’t pretend we’ve got rid of them for good, no matter how righteous we are, no matter how we purge and purge. We always have to be ready to listen, to accept that we could have been wrong.

Pet does a lot in a very short space, and it’s very worth a read at this particular moment in time especially. It has the simplicity of a fable or a parable, but within that simplicity is a hell of an idea to have to wrestle with.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Think of England

Posted June 16, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Think of England by K.J. CharlesThink of England, K.J. Charles

I knew what I was getting into with a K.J. Charles story, of course. Men being stupid at each other, probably a bodycount, good snark and a handful of sex scenes. That makes it sound formulaic, but it really isn’t — with each new story you’re meeting new and distinct characters, with their own reasons for taking their time or falling right into bed. In this book, we meet Archie Curtis and Daniel da Silva: one an ex-military man, still healing from wounds from a terrible accident, and the other an effete poet.

Both of them have been invited to a country house, and they each have ulterior motives for being there. Despite early tension between them, Curtis finds himself learning to appreciate Daniel better — and of course, their tension morphs into something else. I found myself going from wanting to throw things at Daniel to totally appreciating the developing relationship and wanting Curtis to be better at all this! That said, it isn’t really fair: Curtis is always decent, and though he might have some stupid stereotypes in his mind, he’s also open to learning better. I do wish we got a little more of Daniel’s point of view and how he sees Curtis, though…

There are also some very fun side characters, and I’m excited to meet them in Proper English. So glad I have it on my shelf… but on the other hand, I might save it for when I need a pick-me-up! K.J. Charles’ books are always perfect for my fidgety moods when I’m not sure what I want to read: fun stories, interesting characters, and yes, sparks always fly — and the chemistry is always great.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Science of Monsters

Posted June 13, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Science of Monsters by Matt KaplanThe Science of Monsters, Matt Kaplan

Part of the entertainment factor of this book is the fact that it takes its theories too far. After explaining Chimaera legends as the result of animals wandering into a tar pit and becoming fossilised in a weird tangle, the author goes on:

And Chimera was hardly alone. If a horse went down to a tar pit for a bit of water, got stuck, died, and was subsequently fed upon by a vulture that also got stuck in the tar, that would provide an explanation for the legendary Pegasus. Some art even shows Chimera battling with Pegasus. Was this linked to a find of fossils that people could barely make sense of?

He then goes on to use tar pits to explain sphinxes and Scylla: “Indeed, if there is a monster that stands as evidence that the ancients were looking at fossils of multiple animal skeletons jumbled together, it is Scylla.”

He does nobly admit right after that that “this requires tar pits, and Greece (and the rest of Europe) doesn’t have any”! Yes, that would be a bit of a problem for this theory, but it’s okay — he then posits trade routes as bringing the stories to Greece…

The problem with this book is that there is a lot of truth in it: it discusses gigantism in humans as arising due to tumours in the pituitary gland and suggests that could be the source of some monstrous legends; it points to fossils and tar pits as origins of various monstrous legends and ideas; it points out that giant predators were around in the past. However, it leans on these ifs and maybes — and on a good deal of special pleading — and takes it way too far. Maybe we imagined Cerberus because a giant slavering dog with three heads just seemed scary, you know? No need for three wolves to be swept off to sea together and fossilised as a jumble of bones with three heads.

In the end, I got tired of the exercise for my rolling eyes and put this down, relieved that I never paid for it and instead borrowed it. Whew. If you’re interested in some of the potential scientific seeds of monster stories, there are definitely nuggets of truth here. I learnt that the pituitary tumour thing actually ran in families due to a genetic disposition, producing families of giants! I learnt about some monsters I didn’t know that well! But… I have serious questions about the author’s seriousness here: his Chimera and Pegasus idea really begs for us to ask whether he thinks the fights between King Kong fighting Godzilla were inspired by film-makers finding an enormous ape fighting an enormous reptile in a tar pit? Or does he recognise that while the monstrous can (probably always does) grow from seeds of reality, probably a lot of ancient story-tellers were just thinking up ways to scare the shit out of each other, create amazing spectacles for artwork, or just tell a good story.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken

Posted June 10, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's BrokenStories of the Law and How It’s BrokenThe Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister writes under this pseudonym in order to speak frankly — and in this book they let loose on the state of the legal system in Britain. The poor management of CPS, the decimation of legal aid, the Innocence Tax, and all the ways that the government (not just the Tories, but perhaps mostly) have messed up our adversarial system, prioritising statistics over justice… while arguably failing to properly prosecute many cases as paperwork slips and overworked CPS employees fail to come up with the goods.

The title might trick you into thinking that this is going to be juicy gossip about defending the indefensible and prosecuting the most egregious crimes, but instead the Secret Barrister has several bees in his bonnet (or wig, as the case may be) and they really let it rip. I barely understood our legal system before, and now I know two things: 1) I’m writing to the chocolate teapot I have to call my MP, for all the good he does (Dan Jarvis, I’m looking at you and your constant banging on about veterans like they’re the only constituents that matter; are you planning on replying to any of my letters anytime soon?) and 2) staying the hell away from the courts.

I don’t know how my sister can want to be a lawyer, ye gods. I mean, obviously it’s not all criminal law, but… yipes.

And yes, there are one or two awful stories of justice gone awry, if that’s what you’re interested in. But instead, I recommend it as a way to get a handle on what our legal system really does, how it ought to work, and a little about what the government could be doing about it. It isn’t always an easy read, but the Secret Barrister writes clearly; law isn’t always something you can feel passionate about, but I am fully convinced of the Secret Barrister’s dedication to their work… and their desire to improve our system.

Rating: 4/5

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