Category: Reviews

Review – It’s All In Your Head

Posted November 9, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of It's All In Your Head by Suzanne O'SullivanIt’s All In Your Head, Suzanne O’Sullivan

The title of the book gives it away: this is a series of case studies, essentially, covering cases of psychosomatic disease. In it, as in O’Sullivan’s other book, she discusses the cases of various past patients and how she concluded their symptoms were not neurological disorders, but instead signs of a conversion disorder. I think the title is a bit of a disservice, because O’Sullivan is strongly against the kind of dismissal the phrase implies. She believes that (most of) her patients with this issue are truly distressed, truly experiencing pain and disability, and truly require medical help. Though it’s not a physical disorder of the nerves, it is something that should and must be treated in order to allow people to resume normal lives.

Understanding of psychosomatic illness and health anxiety is lacking in many doctors. Part of it is overwork: crowded clinics do not appreciate the sight of someone hoving into view with yet another anxiety-related illness of nebulous symptoms and solely psychological origin. But people like that, all the way along the scale from the lumps and bumps that trouble me to those whose brains paralyse themselves, all deserve compassion and treatment, and O’Sullivan’s book strongly advocates for that. She is firmly against the impulse to second guess a patient and assume they are faking.

That said, of course she makes herself come across as preternaturally patient with this kind of thing, and very sure about her diagnoses. She does discuss uncertainties now and then, but for the most part she is very certain of herself. Most of the cases she mentions are very clear-cut, and it makes it all seem very easy. In reality, things are muddier.

The chapter on ME/CFS has many detractors and as many people who shout that it is pure truth. Lacking the professional background or the academic reading on the topic, I can only say that I was under the impression that the graded exercise she recommends was in fact proven to be unhelpful, and that both sides in ME/CFS discussions can get very fraught and very disinclined to admit the truth of anything the other says. At the very least, O’Sullivan’s sympathy feels real, and she does intend to diminish the suffering of people with ME or CFS; she merely questions its source, and does not believe that a psychological source of issues means weakness or that you can just snap out of it.

It’s not deeply profound if you’re looking for the science of all this, though she does discuss what is known and the history of psychosomatic illnesses. It’s mostly of interest for really understanding the bananas things our brains can do to us. An enjoyable read, but not for me a groundbreaking one.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Lord Roworth’s Reward

Posted November 7, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Lord Roworth's Reward by Carola DunnLord Roworth’s Reward, Carola Dunn

Lord Roworth’s Reward is technically the second book of a trilogy, but most of the characters are new and the set-up is easy to grasp. Felix is an agent for a banker who needs the latest news from the war against Napoleon to help conduct his affairs. Felix is an impoverished nobleman, but due to his experiences in the first book (which are revealed in outline in this book), he is accepting of people from a wide range of social backgrounds — setting the stage for a rather obvious unrequited (but Is It Really) love with the woman lodging in the same house. Fanny is the sister of an artilleryman, and has been following the drum since she was a child. Now she has an adopted child of her own, and Felix’s way with the child brings her over all a-flutter even as she teases him and lets him underburden himself about his courtship of a society lady.

The book is never particularly surprising, but it’s a competent romance that manages to have some very sweet moments. There was Jewish characters and those of lower income, all portrayed positively, which sets it apart from a lot of Regency romances. I’m not great at the historical stuff, but it’s full of detail (perhaps a little too much at times for those here for the romance) about the political situation, and I think it’s quite well situated in a known moment in history.

I found it very enjoyable, even if I could call every step of the dance, and I’ve reserved the first book and already have my hands on the third.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Women & Power

Posted November 5, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary BeardWomen & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard

The discussion of the female voice (literally) in the halls of power, the first essay of this book, is absolutely great and exactly within Beard’s professional ambit. She discusses perceptions of the female voice, and how the dislike of “shrill” women has been embedded in us in what we consider to be foundational texts for Western civilisation (Homer, etc). I saw someone on Twitter just the other day realising that they disliked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s voice in exactly the way Beard discusses.

The second essay is a little less focused, I think. She looks at some great parallels in literature and such, but it feels a bit less focused and conclusive. (Not that the first essay particularly comes to a rousing conclusion, beyond “we need to be conscious of this”…)

I suppose part of the problem is that no one really has these answers. It’s a worthy read for posing some of the questions, and for showing some of the workings we may not even think about, nonetheless.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Excellent Intentions

Posted November 4, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Excellent Intentions by Richard HullExcellent Intentions, Richard Hull

This is another in the British Library Crime Classics series, and it’s an interesting one: it opens with the opening of the trial, backtracks through interpolated sections of the investigation, and doesn’t reveal the accused until the end, referring to them elliptically right up to the last possible moment. This leaves things a little confused at times, but it’s an interesting way of going about a mystery story and telling it in a fresh way. I’ll admit, part of the interest here was in following just how Hull did that, stylistically, more than the plot or characters!

It is interesting in terms of plot, as well. It goes the whole hog with the traditional Golden Age despicable victim, and everyone involved has, well, excellent intentions. It doesn’t really delve into the psychology of that, though, just presents it as a rather unique motive for murder.

It doesn’t stand out for me as one of the more engaging reprints in this series, but it was definitely interesting.

Rating: 3/5

 

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Review – Murder at the Fitzwilliam

Posted October 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Murder at the Fitzwilliam by Jim EldridgeMurder at the Fitzwilliam, Jim Eldridge

I’ll admit, I mostly picked this up because the idea of mystery stories in and around museums fascinates me, and the second book is set in the British Museum! Naturally, I had to pick this one up first anyway. It follows the work of a private inquiry agent, Daniel Wilson, who is asked to help investigate the discovery of a body in the Egyptian room in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He teams up with Abigail, an Egyptologist working at the Fitzwilliam Museum, to figure out what’s going on.

I thought the police detective did a bit of a 180 on his attitude to Daniel; he went from being an Inspector Lestrade or Inspector Sugg type character to being quite accommodating and friendly, without much real evidence for why that would happen. It was definitely odd, and there was a similar shortcut in the relationship between two other characters — all of a sudden, they were deciding to get married, despite not really courting or anything like that. There’s also a rather odd tolerance of women as prostitutes or being “ruined” for the time period, and in particular the main character is rather idealised. Calm and level-headed and quick-thinking when he needs to be, but conveniently passionate when the love story needs it. Meh. It all felt a bit rushed, and the characters rather mercurial and volatile — that’s how it felt, rather than that they were passionate; that they kept going from absolute 0 to 60 in seconds, just for plot/relationship development reasons.

It’s a smooth enough read, but I won’t be reading the second book after all, I think. It’s very much trying to hit that Golden Age note, I think, but it really doesn’t manage to in terms of the period elements. Things like the votes for women or men’s unfavourable attitudes to women all feel somewhat pasted on; everyone’s fine with Abigail until it’s convenient to show Daniel being passionate about her, etc. Everything lacked depth.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ancillary Mercy

Posted October 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ancillary Mercy by Ann LeckieAncillary Mercy, Ann Leckie

The finale of the trilogy! If you are hoping for a massive showdown between multiple parts of Anaander Mianaai, this isn’t quite it. It remains the story of Breq, and all the characters around her: Seivarden, Tisarwat, Mercy of Kalr, Ekalu… Breq continues to hold Athoek Station, dealing with the resistance to her insistence on changing things and figuring out who supports what faction and how to move all the pieces on the board to protect those she feels responsible for. And of course, the Tyrant wants access to the Athoek System, and wants revenge on Breq, and that arc does play out here.

All in all, I find it both a satisfying and climactic ending — involving a lot of the small (and not so small) pieces coming together into a new whole. Not only that, but there are some amazing explorations of the relationships in the story: Seivarden and Breq, Seivarden and Ekalu, Breq and Mercy of Kalr, Breq and Basnaaid… One of my favourite bits involves a three-way conversation between Seivarden, Breq and Mercy of Kalr, but there’s so many other favourite parts to choose from: Translator Zeiat and Sphene, Breq and Sphene, most scenes with either Zeiat or Sphene… There’s a lot going on emotionally as well, and I don’t feel unsatisfied by the fact that the story is entirely tied up in a bow.

I do think these books have disappointed some people by not being focused on the Tyrant tearing herself apart, the larger story which is often just a backdrop to the interpersonal affairs we see. Others have been disappointed by Breq’s measured perspective on things, that her reactions are not more human, more immediate. She does feel things deeply, but you see that through a sheet of ice sometimes, because she was a Ship and she is also analysing things from that perspective, as someone who has been many people in one (or one person in many — I think it’s clear it goes both ways, though: the ancillaries are both the ship’s mind and control, and also a little bit themselves). The deep attachment to Breq and to the other characters through her is one that has grown on me, rather than being there ready-made; it’s not an instantaneous liking as of meeting a person you want to know. I love the way Breq’s character is developed, and the things she has to learn and the ways she feels, but I think she’s an acquired taste, and perhaps one some people won’t acquire, and that’s fine.

But for me, Leckie’s first trilogy remains not just groundbreaking space opera for being different or doing daring gender things or not just being generic white culture in space or any of the things that people have praised it for — it’s also something with a lot to think about, and a lot to love if that kind of story and those kind of characters are to your taste. There’s stuff here to come back to again and again, and I’m sure I will continue to do so.

Rating: 5/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted October 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Good morning, folks! The bunny hutch drama took some sorting out — it arrived, and we spent about three hours trying to push it into the flat, but we couldn’t manage it. Buuut we found a local moving company willing to help, and they shifted it in, and now it sits in our flat, minus only the trim on its roof! To gain an appreciation of how truly large it is (and how cute the buns are), here are some pics (click them to embiggen)…

That last pic is me standing on the floor, body mostly straight… I am 5ft4, or around 1.6m tall.

You see why it was a bit of an effort! In any case, a mostly quiet week for acquiring and reading books…

Acquired:

Cover of Gilded Cage by KJ Charles Cover of Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Read this week:

Cover of Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vlyar Kaftan Cover of Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie Cover of Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Reviews posted this week:

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, by Vylar Kaftan. Less plotty and more character-focused than I expected; I found at least one of the twists rather… not so much predictable, in retrospect, as banal. Of course that was what happened. So it left me a little cold. 3/5 stars
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. A reread, and just as beloved as ever! I found myself focusing on Seivarden and how she is an utter problematic fave. 5/5 stars
Any Old Diamonds, by K.J. Charles. Lovely relationship between the characters, wrapped into a plot that’s both heart-wrenching and satisfying. 4/5 stars
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie. Quieter than the first book, maybe; I think this had people thinking about second book syndrome, and yet to my mind it totally avoids that. Perceiving it as that is to sort of miss the point of Breq’s quiet one-step-forward-and-then-the-next passage through life. The point isn’t to shake the stars, it’s to stay alive and do what one can in one’s own orbit. 5/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. The usual Wednesday post, including lesbian space pirates and Ann Leckie.

So that’s that. How’s everyone else been doing?

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Review – Ancillary Sword

Posted October 24, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Ancillary Sword by Ann LeckieAncillary Sword, Ann Leckie

In the second book of this series, Breq is sent by one version of Anaander Mianaai to secure a system. Before she even arrives at Athoek Station, of course, Breq sets out to change things, defend the system, and serve only her own notions of what is best. Which sounds pretty disloyal, but another version of Anaander Mianaai destroyed the other parts of Breq, and a lieutenant that Justice of Toren loved…

Okay, it’s all very complicated to explain if you haven’t read the first book, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to jump in with Ancillary Sword. It’s in some ways a quieter story than Ancillary Justice: the problems faced are all very local, problems with the crew and with the staff on Station, with only hints of the larger conflict intruding.

In that sense it might feel rather middle bookish, but I think that would be a mistake — seen as a whole, the second book is very much the point of this trilogy. Not epic space battles and daring escapes, but drinking tea, talking to people, changing things with a refusal to accept that things must be right as they are simply because they are that way when you find them. Breq has a journey in these books, but it isn’t to become leader of the whole Radch, to overthrow a whole regime, and this book reflects that: Breq simply wants to make a place for herself, and to take care of those she has become responsible for.

The first time I read it, I definitely didn’t enjoy it as much as the first book; the second time, I think I enjoyed it more. It’s one of those books where I find more to appreciate each time, not in a whirlwind of plot but in people making connections, in people doing what they believe to be right.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Any Old Diamonds

Posted October 23, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Any Old Diamonds by K.J. ParkerAny Old Diamonds, K.J. Charles

In Any Old Diamonds, Alec has a score to settle with his family, and to do so, he enlists the help of a notorious pair of jewel thieves: the Lilywhite Boys. To get them into his father’s home in order to steal his mother-in-law’s jewellery, Alec must put aside all pride and grovel to his father, and then pass Jerry off as a friend who can be invited as a guest to a fancy party, giving him the opportunity to complete the theft. In the meantime, he must work closely with Jerry, taking his advice on how to ingratiate himself with his father, and create the impression of intimacy between the two of them.

Alec and Jerry quickly discover that they’re attracted to one another, and their tastes align in particular ways; it’s worth noting for any potential readers that Alec’s submissive side, and Jerry’s eagerness to exploit that in a consensual way, are rather key to the plot. There are several sex scenes which are important both to the overall plot and to the relationship between the two characters, and if that’s something you can’t even stand to skim through, this will not be the book for you. Nonetheless, I thought the romance was beautifully handled: they communicate with one another (with one notable plot-specific exception which is not to do with sex), they’re clear about their desires, needs and intentions, and despite Jerry being a criminal and fully capable of awful violence, the relationship between the two of them is always completely frank and consensual.

I did wring my hands rather about a certain development partway through the book — I was sure it was going to put paid to any easy resolution between them — but everything turned out beautifully. Alec and Jerry might not have quite a conventional romance, but I adored their dynamic and how everything turned out. There are some very difficult parts of the story to do with Alec’s family, but I promise, there’s a happy ever after and excellent payoff.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ancillary Justice

Posted October 22, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieAncillary Justice, Ann Leckie

This has somehow become a comfort read for me, and it’s hard to explain why. It’s clever, of course: it’s so very clever, with the slow unfolding of the dual-timeline narrative, with the pronouns, with the various bits of worldbuilding that make up a whole lived-in universe. It’s a beautiful exploration of how you might shackle powerful AIs, and also of how identity might fracture and change when you spread yourself through hundreds of bodies across an empire so large you can’t keep them all in immediate contact with one another, and also of various moral decisions to do with colonialism and empire, but also the right thing to do step by step and day by day.

I think this time in particular I noticed how quickly I began to care about Seivarden, despite the fact that nothing about her behaviour is sugar-coated. She’s selfish, inconsiderate, fragile in her refusal to accept her new circumstances — and yet in Breq’s company she begins to change, and even before that change has really had any effect you begin to care. To feel betrayed along with Breq when Seivarden does the wrong thing; to be anguished when you see Seivarden’s misunderstandings of Breq, and the trouble that comes despite it… Seivarden is a walking Problematic Favourite, and made for the purpose: it’s a masterclass in how a character (a person) can be awful and yet redeemable, and worth the effort of doing it too.

The first time I read Ancillary Justice I liked it, but I wasn’t in love. But it haunts me and keeps coming back to me, and I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to it, again and again.

Rating: 5/5

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