Category: Reviews

Review – The Religious Body

Posted April 30, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Religious Body

The Religious Body

by Catherine Aird

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 232
Series: The Calleshire Chronicles #1
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The day begins like any other for Sister Mary St. Gertrude. When her alarm sounds at 5 a.m., Sister Mary begins rousting her convent sisters from their beds, starting with the Reverend Mother. Down the Order she goes with a knock and a warm blessing. But when the young nun reaches Sister Anne’s door, there is no answer. She assumes that Sister Anne got up early, and continues on her way.

But later, when a fellow nun leaves a bloody thumbprint on the sheet music for a hymn, and Sister Anne is nowhere to be found, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong. Then Sister Anne’s body is found at the bottom of a steep set of stairs, her veil askew and her head crushed.

Religious Body introduces the sophisticated Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan along with his eager and trustworthy sidekick, Detective Constable Crosby, and the acerbic Superintendent Leeyes in a mystery of holy proportions that will have readers guessing until the last page.

I think I picked up The Religious Body by Catherine Aird as a result of its inclusion in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (by Martin Edwards), if I recall correctly — it’s been a while since I added it to my wishlist, even though I read it surprisingly quickly after snagging a copy (I’m such a mood reader). Anyway, it’s a fairly standard-feeling mystery, partly from the point of view of the police, and partly from the point of view of the nuns who find one of their number dead in the cellar.

To me, the best parts are actually about the routine of the nunnery: the details of their lives, their interactions, their thoughts, all have something a bit different to offer, while the careful investigation by the police is all routine, and familiar from dozens of other books. I’m sure some of the details are inaccurate, but it’s a good stab at imagining (from an outsider’s point of view, as I presume Catherine Aird was not a nun) what it might be like to be part of such a community.

I didn’t guess the murderer right away, but possibly I should have — it didn’t seem too surprising once we got there, and I definitely realised who he was after his reaction to the joke the police repeat.

In the end, it’s a reasonably solid mystery that doesn’t particularly stand out except by virtue of the setting. I liked it well enough, without feeling a burning urge to read more by Aird.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Oddball

Posted April 29, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Oddball

Oddball

by Sarah Andersen

Genres: Graphic Novels
Pages: 112
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

In addition to their honest and insightful humor, Sarah's Scribbles comics also contain a social conscience, touching on different issues of personal and societal importance. When it comes to humorous illustrations of the awkwardness and hilarity of millennial life, Sarah's Scribbles is without peer.

I’ve always been quite fond of Sarah Andersen’s style and work, and seen a fair bit that’s relatable in it, so having realised that I never picked up Oddball, I was eager to dig in. To say I was disappointed wouldn’t quite be right: as ever, I liked her style and enjoyed her sense of humour.

That said, it’s a collection of loosely connected one-page comics, connected largely by Sarah Andersen’s personality — and knowing her work pretty well, even the ones I’d seen before felt pretty familiar.

I think ultimately, at least for me, it’s a bit one-note, and of a muchness with her other collections.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Howl’s Moving Castle (audiobook)

Posted April 28, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Howl’s Moving Castle (audiobook)

Howl's Moving Castle

by Diana Wynne Jones, Kristin Atherton (narrator)

Genres: Audiobook, Fantasy
Pages: -2
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

In the land of Ingary, where seven league boots and cloaks of invisibility do exist, Sophie Hatter catches the unwelcome attention of the Witch of the Waste and is put under a spell.

Deciding she has nothing more to lose, she makes her way to the moving castle that hovers on the hills above Market Chipping. But the castle belongs to the dreaded Wizard Howl whose appetite, they say, is satisfied only by the souls of young girls... There she meets Michael, Howl's apprentice, and Calcifer the Fire Demon, with whom she agrees a pact.

But Sophie isn't the only one under a curse - her entanglements with Calcifer, Howl, and Michael, and her quest to break her curse is both gripping - and howlingly funny!

This is a review more of the audiobook (narrated by Kristin Atherton) than of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s a book I love very much, even though I saw the (very different) Studio Ghibli animation first. I love all the touches that show very clearly that Howl is Welsh in more than name: the rugby jersey, “Sosban fach”, etc. I enjoy the relationship between Howl and Sophie, and the way the real Howl is slowly revealed.

In the audiobook, Kristin Atherton does a great job. She does all the voices (though one or two come out sounding much the same — inevitable, really), and she does a Welsh accent for Howl and his family which is recognisable without being ridiculously exaggerated. The emotions of the characters come across perfectly, and the narration is lively when it ought to be. I kept wanting to keep listening, which is a little rare for me — often with audiobooks I get fidgety.

It’s really well done, and I really want to try more audiobooks narrated by Kristin Atherton. Luckily, looks like there are one or two in my collection already!

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Sticky

Posted April 26, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Sticky

Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces

by Laurie Winkless

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 334
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

You are surrounded by stickiness. With every step you take, air molecules cling to you and slow you down; the effect is harder to ignore in water. When you hit the road, whether powered by pedal or engine, you rely on grip to keep you safe. The Post-it note and glue in your desk drawer. The non-stick pan on your stove. The fingerprints linked to your identity. The rumbling of the Earth deep beneath your feet, and the ice that transforms waterways each winter. All of these things are controlled by tiny forces that operate on and between surfaces, with friction playing the leading role.

In Sticky, Laurie Winkless explores some of the ways that friction shapes both the manufactured and natural worlds, and describes how our understanding of surface science has given us an ability to manipulate stickiness, down to the level of a single atom. But this apparent success doesn't tell the whole story. Each time humanity has pushed the boundaries of science and engineering, we've discovered that friction still has a few surprises up its sleeve.

So do we really understand this force? Can we say with certainty that we know how a gecko climbs, what's behind our sense of touch, or why golf balls, boats and aircraft move as they do? Join Laurie as she seeks out the answers from experts scattered across the globe, uncovering a stack of scientific mysteries along the way.

I found Laurie Winkless’ Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces a little uneven — less in terms of her writing, though, and more just in terms of my interest. The chapter on how geckos cling to surfaces fascinated me, but I’m less interested in Formula 1 cars or curling, especially not because the chapters felt like they unfolded a bit jerkily. I think it’s because each chapter is kind of chronological in revealing how we’ve understood the topic over time, and it starts to feel a bit like “aaand another thing!”

I think though that part of this is just that I’m a biologist, and not that interested in stuff on the level of van der Waals forces and friction. Winkless writes clearly and communicates the concepts well, and is genuinely enthusiastic about the topics, which helps.

So not quite for me, but still a fun detour.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Bookshop of One’s Own

Posted April 25, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Bookshop of One’s Own

A Bookshop of One's Own

by Jane Cholmeley

Genres: History, Memoir, Non-fiction
Pages: 340
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Silver Moon was the dream of three women – a bookshop with the mission to promote the work of female writers and create a much-needed safe space for any woman. Founded in 1980s London against a backdrop of homophobia and misogyny, it was a testament to the power of community, growing into Europe’s biggest women’s bookshop and hosting a constellation of literary stars from Margaret Atwood and Maya Angelou to Angela Carter. While contending with day-to-day struggles common to other booksellers, plus the additional burdens of misogyny and the occasional hate crime, Jane Cholmeley and her booksellers created a thriving business. But they also played a crucial and relatively unsung part in one the biggest social movements of our time.

A Bookshop of One’s Own is a fascinating slice of social history from the heart of the women’s liberation movement, from a true feminist and lesbian icon. Written with heart and humour, it reveals the struggle and joy that comes with starting an underdog business, while being a celebration of the power women have to change the narrative when they are the ones holding the pen.

What was it like to start a feminist bookshop, in an industry dominated by men? How could a lesbian thrive in Thatcher’s time, with the government legislating to restrict her rights? How do you run a business when your real aim is to change the world?

Silver Moon was a feminist bookshop in London — one of the first in the UK, and ultimately the largest in Europe, with the aims of showing there was a market for books for women, books about women, books about lesbians, etc, in all kinds of genres. They started out naive and hopeful, and mostly kept the hope alive through the years of downturns and bastard landlords and men coming in to wank in front of the lesbian bookshelves (really).

Jane Cholmeley was one of the founders, and this book is a little bit her memoir, and mostly the story of the bookshop. It’s selective, of course, though Cholmeley tries to have her eyes open to her own faults, and muses at times on what she did wrong, or on situations she might’ve handled differently. It’s clear that it was an important resource for many, and the support for LGBT women came at just the right time during a period where gays and lesbians needed visibility, to be given a place where they were normal, because of Thatcher’s section 28.

Sometimes it’s infuriating and depressing, sometimes you have to roll your eyes at the earnest naivety of two young feminists starting a bookshop with relatively little knowledge of the requirements, sometimes you just have to cheer them on. And I very much appreciated Cholmeley’s self-examination, and her eagerness to include the anecdotes and perspectives of the people who worked at Silver Moon, including those which were critical.

It sounds like it was a lovely and vital place, and it made me sad for all we lost in the closing down of the bookshops (not just Silver Moon) on Charing Cross Road.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Breaklands: The Chase

Posted April 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Breaklands: The Chase

Breaklands: The Chase

by Justin Jordan, Sarah Stern, Rachel Deering, Tyasseta

Genres: Fantasy, Graphic Novels
Pages: 120
Series: Breaklands #1
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

One hundred and fifty years after the end of the civilization, everyone has powers. Some big, some small, but you need them just to survive in the new age. Everyone except Kasa Fain. Which is a problem when her little brother, who has the potential to reshape the world, is kidnapped by people who intend to just that.

Breaklands Season One is the start of a three-volume journey that struggles a bit to really differentiate itself from the crowd. It’s enjoyable enough in an uncritical, “hey-ho let’s read a quick adventure” way, but most of the details are going to blur into the aether for me within a week or two more. A boy with mysterious powers gets separated from his older sister (who has no powers), and she chases after him, assembles a ragtag crew to help her find him, and of course gets into trouble along the way. Don’t hurt her brother, or she’ll hurt you!

Oh, and she does, after all, have powers. Etc, etc.

There are things I wondered about a bit with this, and it was mostly about the supporting cast and how they came to be where they are. Ruth in particular, I felt like he spent a lot of time being beaten up (and beating others up), but in the end all we know is that he’s indestructible. But what drives him? The book doesn’t care much.

Technically I’ve read all three volumes, but I don’t think I’ll review the other two: it goes where you would expect it to, pretty much how you’d expect it to. Maybe for younger readers (or less prolific readers), it’d come as more of a surprise, and I’m sure there are readers out there who’d love the series.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Tainted Cup

Posted April 21, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Review – The Tainted Cup

The Tainted Cup

by Robert Jackson Bennett

Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 410
Series: Shadow of the Leviathan #1
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

In an opulent mansion at the borders of the Empire, an Imperial officer lies dead – killed when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even here, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.

Called in to solve the crime is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricity. At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol, an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory.

Soon, the mystery leads to a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself. For Ana, all this makes for a deliciously thorny puzzle – at last, something to truly hold her attention. And Din? He’ll just have to hold on for the ride.

An eccentric detective and her long-suffering assistant untangle a web of magic, deceit, and murder in this sparkling fantasy reimagining of the classic crime novel – from the bestselling author of The Founders Trilogy.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Robert Jackson Bennett’s books are always a lot of fun, and The Tainted Cup was no exception. It’s a fantasy world, though the relationship between Ana and Din smacks very much of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (albeit with an additional superior/subordinate component, especially given that Din is only in training). The setting is a fascinating world that as yet has a lot sketched in around the edges — we see life on what is basically the frontier, the walls which repel gigantic attacking Titans from the sea, but there’s more to the Empire than that… and one suspects we’ll see more of that, in future books.

Though the exact shape, size and composition of the Empire might be sketchy, there is a lot of detail about the world to wonder over: the different ways people have been altered to suit others’ needs, the reagent keys, the poisons and medicines. There’s some serious body horror in all that — not just the trees sprouting from people’s bodies, but also the more subtle horror of the cracklers that doesn’t always get noted by the narration as being horrifying, and even Din’s own skills.

Once I settled into it, it was a surprisingly fast read for how chunky it looked, sweeping me along to the conclusion. I’d love to see more of the world, and get deeper into Ana’s investigation: in true Sherlock Holmes style, I didn’t always understand where her conclusions came from, and I don’t think it was an entirely fair play mystery (in part because it’s not our world), but I hope the next book is also a mystery: it’s always fun when my favourite genres cross.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sticker

Posted April 19, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Sticker

Sticker

by Henry Hoke

Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pages: 152
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: one-star
Synopsis:

Stickers adorn our first memories, dot our notebooks and our walls, are stuck annoyingly on fruit, and accompany us into adulthood to shout our perspectives from car bumpers. They hold surprising power in their ability to define and provoke, and hold a strange steadfast presence in our age of fading physical media. Henry Hoke employs a constellation of stickers to explore queer boyhood, parental disability, and ancestral violence. A memoir in 20 stickers, Sticker is set against the backdrop of the encroaching neo-fascist presence in Hoke's hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, which results in the fatal terrorist attack of August 12th and its national aftermath.

Unfortunately, I seem to be having bad luck with my Object Lessons choices lately. I enjoy the ones which pick into the history of an everyday object and try to understand it, like Personal Stereo and Blue Jeans. I’m less a fan of the memoir type, and Henry Hoke’s Sticker falls into that category. It’s a life told through tenuous connections with stickers, from the stickers his mother put on bottles of dangerous household cleaning products to the parental advisory stickers on CDs and onward.

There’s absolutely a place in this world for this kind of memoir, and the story of a gay kid growing up in Charlottesville is a story worth telling. I want to be clear that it’s not that I don’t think the story should be told at all. I’m just not a fan of it in this series, and nor is it something I particularly seek out to read (nor memoir in general). Just not for me.

So, if you’re looking for something that discusses the history or wider cultural relevance of stickers, this ain’t remotely it. Which is a pity, because that book would be fascinating. This book is about Henry Hoke.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Corpse in the Waxworks

Posted April 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Corpse in the Waxworks

The Corpse in the Waxworks

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 288
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

"The purpose, the illusion, the spirit of a waxworks. It is an atmosphere of death. It is soundless and motionless... Do you see?"

Last night Mademoiselle Duchêne was seen heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the Musée Augustin waxworks, alive. Today she was found in the Seine, murdered. The museum's proprietor, long perturbed by the unnatural vitality of his figures, claims that he saw one of them following the victim into the dark—a lead that Henri Bencolin, head of the Paris police and expert of 'impossible' crimes, cannot possibly resist.

Surrounded by the eerie noises of the night, Bencolin prepares to enter the ill-fated waxworks, his associate Jeff Marle and the victim's fiancé in tow. Waiting within, beneath the glass-eyed gaze of a leering waxen satyr, is a gruesome discovery and the first clues of a twisted and ingenious mystery.

John Dickson Carr’s The Corpse in the Waxworks was surprisingly in the middle for me — usually I quite dislike John Dickson Carr’s earlier work and books involving Henri Bencolin, though I’ve later come to enjoy some of his Gideon Fell stories.

This one’s not one of his more famous, and isn’t a locked room mystery, meaning it actually felt less contrived than some of them. And Bencolin wasn’t quite as annoying as I usually find him, though I wasn’t a huge fan either; his sidekick (Marle) is just kind of vanilla, really, though he gets his own little action sequence (predictable as it is).

In the end, it felt relatively straightforward as Carr’s mysteries go, and without any femmes being too fatale, and it did have an intriguing sense of atmosphere around the masked club and the waxworks — a little bit creepy, a little bit high-strung.

Not a new favourite by any means, but more enjoyable than I expected.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Posted April 16, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Ten Birds That Changed the World

by Stephen Moss

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 416
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

For the whole of human history, we have lived alongside birds. We have hunted and domesticated them for food; venerated them in our mythologies, religions, and rituals; exploited them for their natural resources; and been inspired by them for our music, art, and poetry.

In Ten Birds That Changed the World, naturalist and author Stephen Moss tells the gripping story of this long and intimate relationship through key species from all seven of the world's continents. From Odin's faithful raven companions to Darwin's finches, and from the wild turkey of the Americas to the emperor penguin as potent symbol of the climate crisis, this is a fascinating, eye-opening, and endlessly engaging work of natural history.

Stephen Moss’ Ten Birds That Changed The World is a style of non-fiction I enjoy very much, where history gets illustrated through a focus on key things like archaeological items or, well, birds. Instead of being a straightforward timeline, such things can give a different view on well-worn events and times: an everyday view, or a less human view.

Much of this focuses on how humans have exploited and endangered birds, as one might expect, from climate change to more direct impacts. There are also interesting discussions about other things, though, like the fact that “Darwin’s finches” have become the focus of a sort of mythology around the figure of Darwin. In reality, the finches played little part in the germination of his theories, and were recognised later as the perfect example of his theories in action.

One thing I found a bit questionable was the focus on ravens as mentioned in what Moss referred to as one of the earliest stories, that of the Biblical flood. He’s wrong. The same story is told in the epic of Gilgamesh, also featuring a raven — and that epic was, of course, written before the Bible. It’s curious that he makes no mention of it, but perhaps it’s not very surprising at all since he matter of factly refers to “the birth of Christ” as a way of marking time (not just through using the term “BC”, but specifically stating that something happens “before the birth of Christ”). There’s a particular kind of framing there, subtle but noticeable, and it raises questions about the depth of Moss’ research when discussing mythological and legendary depictions of birds (at the very least), or about his ideological decisions in writing the book. Definitely a weird moment. Of course one’s beliefs shape how one writes and thinks, but a little objectivity is important when you’re talking about historical fact.

All in all, I enjoyed it, but perhaps not as much as I hoped to.

Rating: 3/5

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