Category: Reviews


Review – In the Vanishers’ Palace

Posted 1 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 10 Comments

Cover of In The Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de BodardIn the Vanishers’ Palace, Aliette de Bodard

Received to review via Netgalley

I wanted and expected to love this story. It’s a queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast, based on Vietnamese folklore with sci-fi elements as well, and dragons. There’s even a sci-fi library that I really want to exist. I pre-ordered it, requested it on Netgalley, and generally waited on tenterhooks. How did I find it? Well.

It opens promisingly enough: Yên, the daughter of a healer, is traded to a dragon in exchange for her healing powers. It’s clear they live in a post-apocalyptic universe, with viruses wracking the human population and contagion spreading from person to person. As a failed scholar, she’s just not valuable to her village, and so she’s traded away in order to save one of the leaders’ daughters. Off she goes to live with Vu Côn, the dragon, to look after her children — and it turns out that Vu Côn lives in a palace made by those who wrecked the world and disappeared, and the children aren’t any ordinary dragons.

After the start, though, I rarely felt like I understood what was happening or why. Or rather, I could give you a running summary for the whole story, but I felt all adrift; I didn’t know why things were happening, I didn’t catch the undercurrents, and the relationship between Vu Côn and Yên came completely out of nowhere from my point of view. I do like a story where I have to work for it, where I have to figure out where I stand and how this world is different to ours, but I don’t think that was the problem. It was more the characters and their motivations that never worked for me (or when they did, it was only for a few pages). The setting itself was fascinating, but. But.

I seem to be fairly alone in that, looking around at bloggers I trust, which makes me almost reluctant to admit that I just really did not get it. And it makes me reluctant to give this a poor rating, but… my ratings have to be my ratings, not how I think I ought to rate a book.

It’s clear there’s plenty here that’s enchanting other people, and in many ways I’m an aberration. I’ll be passing on my copy to my sister and seeing if it ticks her boxes!

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – The Incas

Posted 30 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Incas by Craig MorrisThe Incas, Craig Morris, Adriana Van Hagen

In comparison to Michael D. Coe’s book on the Maya, this one really made me feel like I was getting to know a people and their customs. It’s no less broad in scope, and no less richly illustrated with diagrams, reproductions and photographs. It feels like it’s more about the people, though, giving an idea of the customs of the Incan Empire. I’d never known about the mitmaq before, for example — the groups of people the Inca resettled in or from troublesome areas in order to calm them down.

I’m sure I didn’t retain half the information that I read here, of course, but that’s beside the point for me. I gained an impression of the people and the period, with some idea of the complexities and customs, and I felt that the writers were as fascinated by it all as any tourist — just to a greater depth. This is one non-fiction book where I did find myself wanting to share what I’d learned and talk about it, and maybe read more.

So yeah, this one’s a good one.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Winter Garden Mystery

Posted 28 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola DunnThe Winter Garden Mystery, Carola Dunn

No surprises that I picked up the next Daisy Dalrymple book pretty quickly — they’re just the perfect length for a long soak in the bath followed by a lazy evening, which is exactly how I’ve been reading them. I continue to enjoy the fact that Daisy’s a worker (although helped significantly by her class), and her relationship with Alec and his team; Phillip Petrie is rather a dear, despite being rather daft. His class-conscious snobbery fades away quickly as soon as he talks to someone for a while and discovers some things in common.

The new characters for this book are rather fun too: Lady Valeria is, of course, a battleaxe, while Roberta’s stubbornness is a joy. I called Sebastian’s relationships with various characters: it seemed very obvious up-front. I didn’t expect to like him, actually: he displays a pretty weak will to begin with, and a tendency to be led astray from what he should hold to — but in the end, he displays a bit of backbone and it really works. Ben was my favourite of the new characters, perhaps predictably: he sees some of the loneliness in Daisy’s past and is one of those people who reaches out and starts to help heal the wounds a little (brought on by her late love having been a conscientious objector, killed while driving an ambulance, and the way most people viewed him as a coward).

The mystery itself is solid enough providing you care enough about the characters to care about the outcome. When viewing the country house to write an article about it, Daisy sees a dead rosebush and comments on it. Once it has been dug up, however, a dead body is revealed — the body of a housemaid everyone thought had run off with a travelling salesman, who turns out to have been pregnant when she died. Daisy involves herself immediately on behalf of the young Welsh gardener (ugh, I was not convinced by his phonetically rendered accent) first accused of the murder, and calls Alec straight in. Of course, it’s a bit contrived — even twice all but falling over a dead body while visiting a stranger’s house for work is kind of unbelievable, so I do hope that there’ll be some variation on how Daisy gets involved as time goes on!

The central relationship of the books remains obvious, though it doesn’t develop too fast. Right now, Daisy and Alec are still thinking of the relationship as a possibility, despite their attraction to each other and the telling hints that they really do care. I’m looking forward to seeing this continue to develop.

All-in-all, still a fun cosy mystery, and Daisy is compelling enough a character for me to keep following the series — helped by the fact that I also care about Alec (as opposed to Amory and Milo in Ashley Weaver’s books, for example).

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Seventh Miss Hatfield

Posted 26 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

The Seventh Miss Hatfield, Anna Caltabiano

I didn’t know much about this book or author before I started the book — I’d seen the books around a bunch and ended up just getting it from the library on a whim. I’m really not impressed, and I’m actually giving up without finishing the book, so you should take that for its worth in considering the book itself!

The book opens with a mysterious little scene in which a young veiled woman is thwarted at an auction in obtaining a painting she wants. The first chapter then appears totally unconnected in time (and possibly in place as well), as a young girl called Cynthia plays on the front porch of her parents’ house and goes over to deliver a parcel to their mysterious new neighbour, a Miss Hatfield. Miss Hatfield invites her in for lemonade and cookies, and trying to be polite, Cynthia goes in. Very quickly, she’s aged up to being an adult (apparently gaining more vocabulary as she does so — anyone bothered explaining to Caltabiano that language is acquired by exposure, not simply age?) and given something that makes her immortal. She’s told that she’s the seventh Miss Hatfield, an immortal and unhappy group of women blessed with immortality, and cursed to leave behind their lives. Almost immediately after that, despite her resentment, Cynthia is sent out to retrieve — aha! — the painting mentioned in the prologue.

Although things happen quickly, it doesn’t feel fast-paced. Instead, it feels like the kind of story a child tells: this happened and then another thing and another thing and then this and then another thing and and and and… The explanations barely hang together, and what could be fascinating (for example, the clock) is skimmed over. Cynthia is shockingly accepting of her fate, and does things whether they make sense or not. For example, she’s mistaken for being someone’s granddaughter and just… plays along, feeling trapped because… I don’t understand why.

The story has very little internal logic and doesn’t hang together well, and then, worse, Cynthia ends up in a romance. This is an 11-year-old girl who has just been aged up using vague magic means, adding barely hours to her sum total experience of the world (for all that Caltabiano seems to think that will automatically improve her vocabulary and make her an adult). Romance is not at all appropriate, geez.

So here’s where I get off. This book and the sequels are being summarily handed back to the library without me bothering to read a single word more.

Rating: 1/5

Tags: , ,

Divider

Review – The Maya

Posted 25 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Maya by Michael D. CoeThe Maya, Michael D. Coe, Stephen D. Houston

There’s no denying that Michael Coe is one of the foremost scholars of the Mayan world, and that this is known for being a prime text to introduce people to the Mayan world in an academic sense (rather than a frivolous ‘clearly they were inspired by aliens’ or other such conspiracy theory sense). The volume is beautifully illustrated with photographs and diagrams, and Coe and Houston are painstakingly clear in explaining the lie of the land, the boundaries of Maya influence, the history of the places that contributed to their development as a cohesive people, and the broad reach of their civilisation.

But. There was something dry about this — and though you might be inclined to put that down to this being non-fiction, I read a very similar book on the Incas just a little later and found it riveting. Even the dullest details of stone placed upon stone can be livened up by an understanding of the people, and I didn’t really find that here. I’ve also got Coe’s book on deciphering the Mayan script, and I’m hoping that brings things to life a little more.

The sign of a good non-fiction book, for me, is that I have an endless store of things to share about it at the end. Coe and Houston’s book didn’t get there, for me. It’s still a great primer if you want to go deeper into understanding the Maya, and it’s worth looking at for the collection of images alone, but… it’s not the most entertaining book I’ve ever brought home from the library.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Death at Wentwater Court

Posted 23 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover Death at Wentwater Court by Carola DunnDeath at Wentwater Court, Carola Dunn

I really wanted another detective series, a little along the lines of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher (without being a total clone, of course — that’s just boring). I tried Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, and I found the first book less than satisfying — the writing choices took any possible tension out of it, while I found Maisie herself rather a cold fish, and more in the Sherlock Holmes line than the kind of sleuth I prefer. Reading my review of that book back now, I can’t even remember one of the major things that bothered me!

So, digression aside, did Daisy Dalrymple fit the bill for me? Thankfully, yes! She’s the Honorable Daisy Dalrymple, which is the same rank as Phryne, which made me go “hmmmmm” at first — but in many other ways she isn’t like Phryne, being rather less fashionable (she hasn’t even bobbed her hair!), and pretty rather than having major sex appeal. She works for her living rather than relying on endless amounts of money, and her past is not quite so dramatic as Phryne’s (no ambulance-driving during the war). Likewise, her romantic choice is fairly clear. Her inspector isn’t so far from Phryne’s Jack in temperament and such, but he’s a widower with a child, which introduces another interesting element to the personal side of the story.

The plot itself is fairly typical for a cosy. Daisy goes to photograph a rich family’s home and write an article about it, and during her time there a singularly unpleasant person is murdered. Daisy finds herself constantly trying to help the police, and ultimately has totally divided loyalties. There’s nothing new or startling about the plot, but it works as one of those books I read in the bath, and Dunn is good enough with characters that I sympathise with them, worry about whodunnit, and generally get involved enough to make it worth the time invested.

Having finished it, I ordered up the next few books, and dove straight into the second, which I luckily had on hand. I think it’s a good bet Daisy’s here to stay, at least for a few books more. (Then we’ll see if the formula gets repetitive, or keeps working despite being repetitive, and all that sort of thing.)

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Alpha Beta

Posted 21 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Alpha Beta by John ManAlpha Beta, John Man

John Man is good at a certain kind of popular history book, as I’ve noted before. There are often elements of travelogue, and it’s usually a very easy read, with quite short chapters and not too many long quotations from sources or anything like that. It’s not the most rigorous scholarship in the world, but it’s a good way to get a handle on a subject and get an initial idea of whether you’re interested in reading more. Sometimes there are interesting titbits about newer scholarship that might be a bit more controversial — you catch the drift.

Alpha Beta, then, is Man’s take on the alphabet. Other people have mentioned expecting that he’d just discuss each letter in turn and where we picked it up from, but Man is somewhat more ambitious: he’s after the origin of the Roman alphabet as we know it, and more generally the origin of writing as a form of expression. He has some very interesting points, including about Korea’s hyper-rational alphabet that is designed to be ideal for writing down the language. (Though I do wonder if that will stick after a few centuries of use and language change.)

He has a whole bit on the influence of the alphabet on monotheism that made surprisingly little impact on me and I only remembered when checking over the Amazon reviews to refresh my mind to write this — although actually, I think what he wrote was more the other way round, that monotheism had an impact on the emergence of the alphabet, because he wrote about how useful it can be for an emerging social group to adopt an alphabet. The Mongols (a pet topic of his, clearly, since he’s written books on Genghis and Kublai Khan, etc) were also an example in that context.

Overall, it’s an interesting if not exactly exhaustive read.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Rebel of the Sands

Posted 19 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonRebel of the Sands, Alwyn Hamilton

Rebel of the Sands is set in a world that’s part fantasy Wild West, part Arabian desert, with the sharpshooting smart-talking djinn-folk to prove it. It’s a reread for me, so I can go on to read the other two books: it’s not a book I’d class as one of my top reads ever, but I found it solidly entertaining, and I’m interested to see how the trilogy builds on this start. It’s decidedly young adult in tone and level, which I know is a turn off for a lot of people, but I take my fun where I can find it, and Rebel of the Sands was definitely fun.

It opens in the town of Dustwalk — or rather, at a shooting contest in the nearby town of Deadshot. Amani is dressed as a boy, and she plans to win a shooting contest, earn some money, and finally get away from her life in Dustwalk, a life that has been shadowed by the fact that her father was clearly not from Dustwalk and the execution of her mother for killing her adoptive local father. She has at least one friend in Dustwalk, a fact which I assume is going to become relevant later on, probably in a way Amani will regret. Tamid has to use a crutch to get by, and has a tendency to be overly serious, but he accepts her (more or less) for who she is, and even bravely offers to marry her to help her get out of a repugnant marriage. In this book, he’s kind of wasted, because Amani is only too quick to leave him behind when trouble starts.

She travels across the desert with Jin, an enigmatic boy who nonetheless (and unsurprisingly) has ties to the rebellion going on at the time. Slowly, he persuades her towards where she’ll meet others in the cause, where she could be an asset for a particular reason that isn’t her sharpshooting…

In many ways, it’s a typical story, and more so because of the romantic tension between Amani and Jin. The desert-setting helps to make it feel a little fresher, though the caravan travel section isn’t exactly unique, for all that.

In the end, it’s not a standout story that I’ll never forget. It’s entertaining, though, and I don’t regret the reread to bring myself back up to speed.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , ,

Divider

Review – Annihilation

Posted 18 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, and a reread for me. It’s a really, really weird trilogy, which always reminds me of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside PicnicI seem to have forgotten a lot of the finer detail of the trilogy, and the extent to which we ever receive explanations, but this particular book stays really clear in my mind. It’s something about the tone, the matter of fact calm of the biologist, the illusion of objectivity that her narrative gives.

Annihilation records the twelfth expedition into Area X. The team is made up of a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor — along with a linguist who actually backs out of the expedition before they cross the border. And Area X is… a pristine wilderness filled with uncannyness. You can’t take in anything high tech, people don’t report back — or if they do, they come back changed, riddled with cancer in the case of the eleventh expedition, oddly amnesiac and lacking in affect. The objective of the missions is to work out what’s happening, what Area X is, how it came about, and try and get some understanding of a phenomenon that seems to have no rhyme or reason.

As usual, everything goes awry. The psychologist turns out to be hypnotising the group; the anthropologist quickly dies; they see things which make no sense — words written in fungi, colonised with living creatures; villages decaying faster than they ought to; a lighthouse which has clearly been the site of intense struggle, even a battle… and one by one, the group come apart. The biologist no less than the others, though as the narrator she gives a kind of illusion of calm objectivity, of careful and unbiased observation. As the story unfolds, you learn how much she holds back from the reader as well, and that shapes the story profoundly…

It’s well written in the sense of handling an unreliable narrator well, and also in the sense of creating a truly weird, uncanny landscape which sounds beautiful, undisturbed, and yet…

I really enjoy these books, though they leave me with a sense of creeping unease. I’m looking forward to rereading the second and third as well. If you find this one frustrating, well, the others don’t take quite the same format — if you’re intrigued by the world, you might want to give the second one a try too. On the other hand, Vandermeer’s class of weird might just not be your thing.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , ,

Divider

WWW Wednesday

Posted 17 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.

Cover of Authority by Jeff VanderMeerWhat are you currently reading?

Too many books at once, as per usual! Let me see: the two non-fiction books I’m reading are Barry Cunliffe’s The Ancient Celts — informative and a beautiful book in terms of the images, but oh my goodness for some reason his writing puts me to sleep — and H.D.F. Kitto’s The Greeks, which is out of date in both info and attitudes, but so enthusiastic and interested in everything the Greeks were that it kind of makes up for it. Then fiction-wise I’m partway through rereading Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer, and I’ve started reading the second Daisy Dalrymple book.

Cover of The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola DunnWhat have you recently finished reading?

Death at Wentwater Court, the first Daisy Dalrymple book by Carola Dunn, was the last thing I finished. I do like Daisy: she has many similarities with Phryne, only less sex appeal (and decidedly less sex going on). I’ve bought the next couple of books: it’s promising to be a good cozy series, which I’m glad of — I needed that!

Cover of Elantris by Brandon SandersonWhat will you be reading next?

That, I don’t know. Acceptance, the final book of Vandermeer’s trilogy, would be a good guess, and probably more Daisy Dalrymple. I’ve got Anna Caltabiano’s books out of the library, starting with The Seventh Miss Hatfield, and they’re sort of appealing to me right now… but there’s so much, both in the library pile and elsewhere. My sister’s been reading Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, so maybe I’ll jump on that bandwagon.

What are you currently reading?

Tags: ,

Divider