Category: Reviews

Review – The Grace of Kings

Posted September 12, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Grace of Kings by Ken LiuThe Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

I think on balance I enjoyed The Grace of Kings, but I’m not sure whether I care enough to seek out the next book any time soon. It reminded me very much of my experience of reading Icelandic sagas, somehow; something about the parade of characters and the almost didactic tone of the prose at times… It’s hard to put my finger on, but it felt very much like that — which let me engage the same reading technique I used when reading the sagas: I sat back and let it wash over me, trusting that the narration would remind me of the important things at the right moments. And it did.

The thing is, though I could read massive chunks of it all in one go, I didn’t crave picking it back up when I put it down. It was so easy to read, and yet not compelling to me; I liked the characters okay, but felt like they were more legends and parables than people to follow or enjoy. The violence and plotting and political manoeuvring felt less than urgent to me, and in the end I only barely got invested in who won in the end. It’s a different way of storytelling, and one I wasn’t in the mood for at the moment.

I think I need to sit with this a bit longer before I decide whether to get the second book; right now, I don’t feel like it, but I wonder if it’ll creep back and make me curious. We’ll see!

So the upshot is, it’s enjoyable enough, but if my past self asked, “Hey, should I bother?”… I wouldn’t say no, but I wouldn’t say a whole-hearted “yes!!!”, either.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Belting Inheritance

Posted September 9, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Belting Inheritance by Julian SymonsThe Belting Inheritance, Julian Symons

I quite liked a previous book by Julian Symons, and this had quite a similar feel: more literary and polished than some of the other crime novels in the British Library Crime Classics series, which just attempt to be good stories. And another experience has led me to conclude that, well… I don’t really like his work, on balance: I find it has a certain self-conscious feel, a knowledge of its own cleverness, that I find somewhat offputting.

That’s more the case with this one that with The Colour of Murder: the narrator is an older man recounting something that happened when he was just barely an adult, describing his naive young stumblings-about and pretentiousness with an older, more temperate eye… and in the meantime showcasing how very clever he was in some ways (like wordplay and random intuitions to dash across to France). The tone felt fussy and slow as a consequence.

The whole family are pretty unpleasant here, as is traditional, and I didn’t really get majorly involved in the mystery: parts of how it would work out were much more obvious than I think the author would’ve liked! It’s just not that clever, and something about that smarmy narrator (both his young and adult selves) just gets up my nose. Bah.

As a piece of writing, I think it’s well done, pretty well-plotted and structured and so on. The neat sketches of the characters are mostly unkind, but do conjure up people quite vividly… But overall, meh for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Brit(ish)

Posted September 8, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Brit(ish) by Afua HirschBrit(ish), Afua Hirsch

I’ve been looking for a while for something that deals with the issues of race in Britain; Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book was one answer to that, and Brit(ish) another. It’s really mostly a memoir, an examination of what being Black in the UK is like and how Hirsch had to navigate figuring out her identity. Lots of it felt familiar, as someone who spent a lot of their time as a kid furiously asserting their Welshness, while not feeling Welsh enough. Obviously any bias I faced from people when I did so was nothing like the same scale as Hirsch experienced (and probably partly just because I was stepping out of line in my very English school), and not based upon my appearance… but it means that some of her pains and frustrations in exploring her identity (and where she calls home) were familiar.

This definitely answered some of the questions I had about race in Britain — and reminded me to my shock that though a lot of the people I grew up with were the children of immigrants, they were mostly from Pakistan and India; I knew few (if any) Black people growing up… and though I can’t say I have many white friends either, I’d say I’ve got more insulated from people who don’t look like me, not less, as I grew up. Even in Cardiff — famous as a melting pot for cultures — my experience was very, very white. So there’s a whole subset of the British population that I somehow never figured into how I saw race, and all also filtered to those who could afford the fees for private school and university… which makes a hell of a lot of sense out of some of my past misconceptions.

However, I found it a bit flat to read; mostly I am not a reader of memoirs, and I wasn’t that fascinated by Afua Hirsch as a person. She does very much come from my world of private school and a good university, but even more so since she attended Oxford… and it did make me wonder sometimes what people more like her husband’s family would say about the navel-gazing.

If you’re looking for a book that delves into some of what it’s like to be Black in the UK, then yes, this will be useful. I’m glad I read it, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it — not because it presented any hard truths I lacked from elsewhere, but because I didn’t find Hirsch’s writing compelling… and I wasn’t sure about some of her forays, which felt like gawking. Did she really need to go spectate at a swingers’ club to discuss Black sexuality in Britain? Hmm.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

Posted September 6, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of When the Tiger Came Down The Mountain by Nghi VoWhen the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Nghi Vo

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 8th December 2020

This is a follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, following the cleric Chih on another journey to discover and record stories. I’m a little sad that the book doesn’t contain Almost Brilliant, but in every other way I liked it even more than the first book. I think that despite giving the first book a pretty high rating, it didn’t wholly stick with me; this one, I think, will. Perhaps it’s partly the sense that Chih is not only learning the story, is not just a vessel for the reader to experience it, but is in a story themselves with a beginning and an ending and tension in the middle. That sense was missing from the first book, for me, for all that it was cleverly done.

It’s not that this one was more surprising for me — I mentioned with the first book that I knew where we were going before we got there — but that the frame story kind of supported it better, I suppose. The predictability in both cases is a good thing; it’s like seeing the end result of a puzzle, and then all the intermediate stages as you work towards it; that doesn’t “spoil” getting to the end!

I’m definitely on board for more of Chih and their travels.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Seventh Perfection

Posted September 6, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Seventh Perfection by Daniel PolanskyThe Seventh Perfection, Daniel Polansky

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 22nd September 2020

This is the first book I’ve read by Polansky, and I’m very tempted to expand to read more in the near future. The Seventh Perfection is a little bit challenging, because it’s all narrated by various people who are speaking to the main character — a different one in each chapter. It’s a format you have to have a bit of patience with, as these voices don’t necessarily know what’s on the main character’s mind and what they’re searching for, and there’s plenty of room for red herrings. I hadn’t read the blurb recently, so I had very little to guide me going in… and that turned out to be all the more fun, trying to fit the story together and learn about the world from only the hints in the text.

I think that’s honestly the most notable thing about this book — not so much the story, or the world, though there are fascinating bits of that I’d love some more answers to — but mostly the narration, the clever way things are fed to you a very little at a time. It works so very well, and though I can quite understand other people not getting along with it, I’m very enthused.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Mudlarking

Posted September 5, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Mudlarking by Lara MaiklamMudlarking, Lara Maiklem

The term “mudlark” might be familiar to you if you read Victorian history or books set in the Victorian period: it referred to people, often children, who would pick through the mud of the River Thames in order to find valuable things people dropped or which got lost from ships docking in London. Lara Maiklem is a modern mudlark, picking through the mud not as a means of making a livelihood, but for personal interest. She is, broadly speaking, a responsible one — documenting her finds correctly when they may count as historically significant or be classed as treasure trove, and avoiding mudlarking in areas where it’s forbidden. Or so she says, at least; it’s impossible to verify that, and occasionally her “of course I won’t tell you where” attitude to “her patch” raises an eyebrow.

She writes engagingly, though any single topic is quickly lost in the flow: there are so many different objects with stories and explanations, and each chapter covers at least a dozen, from old clay pipes to pieces of Roman hypocausts to bones to Codd bottles to pins… There’s no end to what can be found in the mud of the river after each tide, and she delights in all kinds of things that many would dismiss as trash, imbuing them with stories and researching who they may have belonged to whenever she can. Obviously this book is half a work of imagination, as she tries to picture the hands that handled and lost the objects she finds.

It’s just the sort of microhistory that interests me, magpie-minded in my own way, so that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism, necessarily — and she’s not presenting herself as a historian, so I don’t mind her flights of fancy so much. She does include a bibliography, if you want to go digging yourself, though it’d take a lot of digging to figure out where any particular factoid came from, and I suspect many of her sources from over the years aren’t listed.

It’s just worth knowing that this is a bit of a ramble, and a highly personal book, rather than a historical account of the River Thames or anything of that sort. There’s a lot of history in it, but piecemeal and cracked and strewn about the place, as befits a mudlark.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Bigger than History

Posted September 4, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Bigger Than History by Brian Fagan and Nadia DurraniBigger than History, Brian Fagan, Nadia Durrani

There’s nothing much surprising in Bigger than History, and in some ways it feels rather forced. I wish that knowledge didn’t have to be justified as useful for some current problem in order to receive funding and attention, and sometimes it feels like a bit of a stretch… but at the same time, it is entirely true that archaeology can shed light on the human history of reacting to changes in climate and how we’ve seen gender through history, etc — and it can be a powerful corrective to history as written by the winners. The issues mentioned are deeply important and relevant, like the discussion of the use of history to prop up misplaced nationalist pride.

It’s not a long book, so it doesn’t go into a lot of depth, but it does give a high-level view of what archaeology can tell us about those chosen topics. There are black-and-white images in most of the book, and a section of colour plates, which help to illustrate things.

Overall, glad I picked it up, but maybe I should’ve suggested it to the library instead of buying it. Not one I’ll be keeping; it’s just too slight.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Unfit for Purpose

Posted September 1, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Unfit For Purpose by Adam HartUnfit for Purpose, Adam Hart

Unfit for Purpose expands on a familiar-sounding theme: humans evolved over millions of years for a certain set of circumstances, but in recent centuries we’ve changed how we live entirely so that the bodies that we’ve developed and the genes we carry are optimised for a hopelessly different world… and sometimes they prove to be a disadvantage. The obvious first target is body fat storage, and Adam Hart goes straight there like a bird to the nest.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but I know I’ve read better coverage of the “obesity crisis” than Adam Hart manages here. Obesity is just bad, per Hart, and though he doesn’t embrace the idea of BMI uncritically, I know I’ve read counter-arguments for several of his points. As a scientist, I probably should spend some time tracking down this info… as a person, however, this doesn’t interest me, so it’s just worth being aware of if you pick the book up. There is not even a mention of “health at every size” thinking here.

I found the other topics similarly skimmed across. It’s amazing that he managed to mention Stanley Milgram’s experiments as a key part of how our psychology makes us ill-adapted to modern life… and used only a page to discuss them, even though it’s actually a complex issue, with many critiques of Milgram’s experiments (not least the accusation, per Gina Perry’s book, that he cherry-picked his data and massaged the scenarios to get the answer he wanted).

In the end, Hart’s main point isn’t wrong. We didn’t evolve for a situation like this… but I think part of the problem is imagining that any organism ever did. Evolution broadly shapes a species, of course, but what each species is adapted to is not the current circumstances, but those of their forebears. Humans have created change on a massive scale, shaping our environments, rapidly changing the way we live and altering our interactions with other species.

Of course we’re not adapted for this. No species ever is, and we’ve sped things up so much that it becomes incredibly obvious. I found Hart’s analysis fairly obvious and high-level — which one would expect from a popular science book, of course, but even if the pop-science book doesn’t dig deep, the author should have. There were some interesting bits, but knowing there was more digging to be done on some of these topics to get a fair impression of the landscape leaves me very hesitant to uncritically believe the pictures Hart paints.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A Dangerous Collaboration

Posted August 30, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna RaybournA Dangerous Collaboration, Deanna Raybourn

A Dangerous Collaboration is the fourth outing in the Veronica Speedwell series, and is much like the other books: a quick, fun, fairly anachronistic read which somehow still manages to sink its claws into me and make me desperate to read more. Veronica and Stoker continue to be absolute soulmates, and the obvious romantic arc continues beautifully here… though we also get to see more of Stoker’s elder brother, Tiberius, and what really moves him.

(The bit about their obvious romantic arc is not to say that I don’t wish they could’ve remained platonic. Reading Veronica as aromantic would make a lot of sense with some of her previous statements and dalliances, and it’s always kind of cool to read something where a man and a woman can just be friends. That said, Deanna Raybourn was obviously going to go there, so it’s misplaced to fret about wishing it’d steer away from the romance!)

The setting is fun as well, being relatively constrained. No dashing about London here, but instead an exploration of an old castle on an island, and the old mystery of a young bride who disappeared on her wedding day a few years before. I’ll admit I kind of called it, for no reason other than a kneejerk reaction, because I immediately suspected a character so ubiquitous and *nice* sounding.

It’ll be interesting to see how the events at the end of the book impact the next. I’m hoping it isn’t bloody Jack the Ripper, though. That would be a cliché too far for me, most likely… though who knows? I practically eat these books up with a spoon; it’ll take something egregious to shake me.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Posted August 29, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard GribbleThe Arsenal Stadium Mystery, Leonard Gribble

I was kind of reluctant to read this one, though it’s been out for quite a while and I’ve picked it up in shops a few times already. Football in itself doesn’t interest me at all, so I wasn’t interested in the gimmick of it being set in Arsenal’s stadium or featuring real Arsenal players and staff of the time. It’s a bit of a curiosity, but not more than that. However, I’m not that interested in lawyers’ offices or farms or advertising offices, really, and I see plenty of those in fiction and read it anyway… so I decided to give it a go.

So in case anyone else is worried, there’s really no need to know anything about football. As with the farms and advertising firms, it’s mostly set dressing, and the motivations are love, hate, self-interest, vengeance, obligation, fascination… all the usual stuff. A player is killed during a game, and one of his teammates looks like the perfect culprit… too perfect, perhaps, thinks Inspector Slade from Scotland Yard.

It’s one of those where I didn’t really see the culprit coming; I knew who it wasn’t, from the clues and so on, but not who it was. The story spends so much time on the red herrings that I’m not sure the clues given for the real murderer are fair play. That said, I found it pretty enjoyable.

Rating: 3/5

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