Category: Reviews


Review – The Mystery of the Skeleton Key

Posted 14 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard CapesThe Mystery of the Skeleton Key, Bernard Capes

I didn’t know anything about Bernard Capes before reading this, only that this was a reissue of a Golden Age crime fiction book, much in the same line as the British Library Crime Classics. Good enough for me, at least when I’m in the mood to tune out and just read an old-timey mystery: this pretty much delivered on that, though it’s hardly the most original or the most exciting of that line I’ve read.

It actually takes a long time for the story to explain why it’s The Mystery of the Skeleton Key; at times, I was actually tempted to check the right book was inside that slipcover! After a long preamble involving some of the characters meeting in Paris, and a bit of mystery about a Baron who plays chess for half-a-crown and frequents the oddest places, eventually there is actually a murder to be investigated. The wrong people are accused, the timings are all mixed up, and the son of the house (because if it’s not quite a country house mystery, it’s definitely set in a country house) is implicated because the girl who gets murdered — killed with a shot from his gun — was pregnant with his child.

In the end, the solution relies on coincidence, spurious old-fashioned science (a man inherits an injury-induced mannerism from his father due to the fact that his mother saw his father with the injury while pregnant with him), and various people not being quite who/what they say they are. I think it’s actually quite interesting in terms of who the culprit turns out to be — not a common solution, and against Knox’s Ten Commandments in a sense — but otherwise there’s not much to set it apart, and in tone it’s fairly dry and without any sense of urgency. My main feeling was mild curiosity, and that’s about it. Nothing terrible, but nor is it something I’d recommend.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Lost Plot

Posted 12 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot, Genevieve Cogman

It’s taken me so long to read this, and not for lack of wanting to. I even had it started for far too long and just stalled on it. Admittedly, that’s because it’s very short on one of the main characters of the previous books: the Great Detective archetype, Vale, hardly appears at all apart from at the beginning and end, and doesn’t play any part in the major action of the book. Still, it’s a great romp, as ever, this time taking Irene and Kai to a world with little magic, where they have to navigate through Prohibition era Boston and New York. The dragons also feature heavily, and the issue of Kai’s family finally really comes to a head. The next book is definitely going to have to be different; that might be a good thing, in terms of changing up the plotline and keeping things fresh.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In The Lost Plot, Irene discovers that another Librarian is violating the Library’s neutrality by working directly for a dragon, in a matter of dragon politics. That interference can’t be tolerated by any of the parties, so Irene is sent by Library security to figure out what’s going on and fix the situation — and as usual, all the blame will fall on her if she fails. Chasing the errant Librarian, Kai and Irene end up in a Prohibition-era USA, swapping smart talk with mobsters and dodging the cops as best as they can. Since dragons are involved, Kai has to be especially careful: at some point, he’s going to have to make a choice about where his loyalties lie.

As I said, it’s a romp in very much the same vein as usual for these books. I’m not sure how I feel about the development of Kai and Irene’s relationship in this book: I feel like there’s been a bit too much will-they-won’t-they with both Irene and Kai and Irene and Vale, and honestly I was at a loss for how it was going to turn out. Now it has turned out, at least for now… I’m a bit disappointed. I did always feel that both potential relationships were a bit of a distraction: I just wanted the three of them, all together, all working on their problems, and all trusting each other. An intense relationship, perhaps, and one that didn’t have to become romantic — it was just pushed that way, almost as if the author can’t see any other way for it to turn out.

Anyway, it’s an entertaining read, though I think my favourite of the series is The Masked City. I’m interested to see how the events of this book will change the pattern for the next book. For one thing, Irene’s going to need a new student…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Book of Hidden Things

Posted 11 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco DimitriThe Book of Hidden Things, Francesco Dimitri

I wasn’t sure about this book from the blurb, but some trusted reviewers (e.g. Mogsy of Bibliosanctum) thought extremely highly of it, and I kept seeing it on the shelves, so when I finally spotted it at the library I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say, I’m not sold on it, but I also feel like I need to talk through my thoughts before I really decide.

So, what’s it about? It starts with the Pact: a group of four friends, who knew each other from childhood and grew up in the same Italian town, have agreed that every year they will meet again in the same place, back in their hometown, to eat pizza and talk and stay in contact, no matter what. They can’t call each other to set it up, they don’t necessarily stay in contact in the meantime, but every year, they meet there. The first point of view character is Fabio, a struggling photographer who hates his hometown, going back only to see the others. He missed the previous year out of shame for his less-than-spectacular career, and he’s not entirely sure what’s going to happen.

Two of his friends, Mauro and Tony, show up just as agreed. Mauro’s a lawyer, married with kids, and Tony has since they grew up come out, while maintaining ties to his home town and especially his sister. Art… has not turned up. Worried that this might be linked to their friend’s mysterious disappearance as a child, which had the three of them suspected of murdering him and which he never could satisfactorily explain, the three start to dig into what happened to their friend, talking to the local crime group, the police, anyone who might have information.

The book walks a line the whole time between the supernatural elements and the mental illness explanation, and it’s up to the reader really which you decide it was. The four characters are all fairly unlikeable in their own ways: one can sympathise with Fabio half the time, and then he — well, that’s probably too much of a spoiler. Mauro and Tony aren’t wonderful either, although Fabio is the most annoying. They’re all such boys, too, trying so hard to be macho. It’s realistic, but I tend to prefer likeable characters if I haven’t latched onto the plot/world, and I didn’t really latch on here.

And Art… is a whole ‘nother thing. In the words of Marvel’s Bruce Banner, speaking of Loki: “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you can smell crazy on him.”

In the end, I just didn’t love it, I think. There are some amazing bits evoking the area they’re in, the food, the sense of community. And there are great bits of interaction and banter. But in the end, the whole business of walking the line between fantasy and madness-based mystery isn’t an original one, and I’m not that interested in reading about people being depicted as crazy in stereotyped ways that explain why they go and kill. (Most violence related to mental illness is against the mentally ill person, not committed by them.) Meh.

I’m torn between giving it two stars because I really didn’t feel it, and being coaxed up to three because people did love it and I can see why… but in the end, I rate based on my enjoyment.

Rating: 2/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 10 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.

What are you currently reading?

Cover of Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose JonesReally truly actively, I think I’m down to Michael Coe’s book on Angkor Wat, and Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery. This book on Angkor is more satisfying than the other one was — the other one ended up feeling like a list of names with descriptions of temple architecture, while this one deals a bit more with people (though it’s also a bit broader, looking at the Khmer civilisation in general).

Daughter of Mystery is proving a bit of a slow burn, but I’m fascinated with where it’s going to go! I love Barbara and her protectiveness of Margerit.

Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanWhat have you recently finished reading?

I finished Genevieve Cogman’s The Lost Plot while having a bit of a lie-in on Tuesday morning (this morning as I’m writing, yesterday morning as this is posted!), and I did enjoy it but am not sure how I feel about the resolution. I also finished rereading Rebel of the Sands, which is good fun: I want to go ahead and read the rest of the trilogy now.

Cover of One Way by S.J. MordenWhat will you be reading next? 

I really should finish S.J. Morden’s One Way, and then I have a bunch of books due back at the library, including Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy (I wanted a reread) and books on the ancient Celtic and Sumerian civilisations. Not sure which I’ll pick up, but I have been trying to read more fantasy/sci-fi after reading so much non-fiction for a while, so maybe I’ll get on with that reread!

How about you?

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Review – Poison: A Social History

Posted 9 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Poison: A Social History by Joel LevyPoison: A Social History, Joel Levy

I’ve been joking that my wife should be worried I picked this up, but really I was here to understand how poisons work. Although the ‘social history’ part of the title is definitely true, describing famous historical poisoning cases, it also includes little profiles on each poison which explain how it has the effects it has in chemical terms. I already knew some of the most notorious ones (partially because of the excellent book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons, A is for Arsenic), but there were others I didn’t know.

Overall, it’s a bit shallow, focusing on some of the most sensational cases of poisoning and basically whipping around the types of poison that’re out there and how they’ve been used for suicide, assassination, etc. Still, it had its interesting points, and if you’re interested in true crime there’s a couple of cases I knew nothing about.

Not something to rush out and get, in my opinion, and while spouses should maybe be worried it’d put ideas into someone’s head, there’s no practical information about obtaining poisons or anything dangerous like that! It really is much more about the history, with explanations of how poisons actually do their damage.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Lake District Murder

Posted 8 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Lake District Murder by John BudeThe Lake District Murder, John Bude

For all the praise of the series’ editor in the introduction, I don’t think Bude is that great a writer. His work is certainly enjoyable, but I found some aspects of this mystery painfully obvious, and he steers clear of having a particular character be front-and-center, totally indispensable in that Great Detective sense. His main character is a working man, and his prose is rather workmanlike to go with it. That’s not necessarily a criticism, and if you want to experience the Golden Age of Crime Fiction there’s no doubt it’s worth a read… but if you were to pick just one of the British Library Crime Classics, or just one Golden Age novel, I wouldn’t recommend one of Bude’s to be it.

This particular novel follows Inspector Meredith as he investigates the apparent suicide of a garage owner. There’s a few telltale hints, though, that the suicide might be staged: for example, the man’s hands are totally clean (when they should have been dirtied in setting up the suicide), and he’d lain the table for dinner, even putting the kettle on. As Meredith investigates, some kind of smuggling case becomes apparent in the background — something the dead man was involved in, and wanted to get out of.

The police spend most of the book stumped and trying various convoluted ways to figure out what’s going on, without figuring out a principle that occurred to me right away. I won’t explain what it is, of course — maybe you want the pleasure of working it out for yourself — but I really found myself rolling my eyes. Also, once the why was apparent in the form of this smuggling ring, the who and even the how were fairly obvious.

There are no sparkling characters who can’t be resisted, and to be honest I didn’t think there were any brilliant set-pieces describing the landscape, or delving into the human psyche. It’s just a mystery, moderately well investigated by a bland policeman, and moderately well-written. Not bad to while away some time with, but I couldn’t possibly describe it as unmissable.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Stardust

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

Cover of Stardust by Neil GaimanStardust, Neil Gaiman

My wife was rewatching Stardust, so the urge was there and I… gave in. I read it in the space of a couple of hours, drugged to the gills on antitussive meds (aka codeine-based painkillers, so probably my familiarity with the book is a good thing; I don’t think I was up to the heights of intellectualism at that point).

It’s tempting to imagine that everyone knows all about Neil Gaiman by this point… all the same, what is Stardust? It’s a light-ish novel which is somewhat based on fairytales: Tristan is sort of a changeling child (not switched for a human child, but he’s half-fairy in a human world), and he goes through a fairly typical quest narrative, learns to take help from the people he meets, etc. At the same time, there’s wicked witches, people go off seeking their true loves, and there’s a kingdom with seven sons who have to fight out the succession. It’s a bundle of fairytale/fantasy tropes, dealt with in a self-aware and sometimes rather wry manner (Tristan is decidedly Wrong, for example, about the identity of his true love).

It’s a bit more morally complex than the movie, and perhaps has less of an emotional payoff because of that. I don’t honestly have a preference: I think the book is clever, but the movie is the kind of story that cheers me up. It has some interesting background stuff that I’d love to know more about (the Castle thing? What’s going on there!), but for all that I said it’s more morally complex than the movie, it stays pretty focused on Tristan’s quest and his path to a fairytale ending. It’s not really a complex story: it even skips over a ton of the potential development for Yvaine and Tristan’s relationship in a couple of pages.

It’s clever and amusing, but maybe not quite the epitome of wonderfulness I thought it was a few years ago. The love story isn’t all that epic because it kind of just happens, sort of inevitably; there are surprising depths to the characters at some points (Victoria in the book is more complex and interesting, in the end, than in the movie; Tristan’s human mother actually exists and has complex feelings about him), but… but…

I don’t know. I’m less wowed than I used to be. It’s still absorbing and charming and I do enjoy it very much.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ancient Lives, New Discoveries

Posted 5 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Ancient Lives, New Discoveries Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, John H. Taylor, Daniel Antoine

Ancient Lives, New Discoveries is a fascinating volume which peers beneath the wrappings of eight mummies in the British Museum’s collection, using state of the art CT scanning and reconstruction to do so completely non-destructively. The mummies are from different areas of Egypt, and different eras as well, from mummies preserved naturally through to mummies prepared using every trick of the embalmers’ trade. There are amazing images in this book, with various different views of each mummy, and additional notes explaining significant features (like poles used to stabilise detached heads, an odd metal(?) ring somewhere in the oldest mummy’s abdomen, etc. There’s also some background information of a fairly basic sort, if you already know a fair bit about Egypt — if you don’t, this volume gets you up to speed enough to understand the mummies, in relatively few pages.

One quibble I had was the constant insistence that male bodies in sarcophagi with female names were definitely put there by accident (either in antiquity or now). I’ll admit I don’t know anything about gender in Ancient Egypt, but gender has always been fluid and expressed in different ways in different societies. Probably some of the bodies are in the wrong sarcophagi, owing to the way their tombs were pillaged and the way collections were swapped about with little attention paid to provenance. But… just maybe some of the ambiguities might be best resolved by thinking about whether we’re looking at gender the same way. Clearly the wrapping and presentation of mummies reflected social roles as much as anything else, as demonstrated by the young girl identified as a temple singer, mummified and presented as a desirable young woman — the intent does not seem to have been to reflect a person accurately, at any rate. Who says they weren’t wrapped and presented in a way meant to represent who they were in life, rather than the bare details biology gives us?

I know I’m not an expert in that field, but I can’t help but think that some acknowledgement of that as a possibility would have fit in well. Instead, it felt as if everything was explained away as a mistake on someone else’s part, rather than a potential misunderstanding on the part of those investigating the mummies now.

Still a fascinating book, though; perfect for someone fascinated by mummies.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Murder at the Brightwell

Posted 4 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley WeaverMurder at the Brightwell, Ashley Weaver

When I picked this up, I was looking for something cosy, a bit Kerry Greenwood-ish, a bit Mary Stewart-ish. Mostly crime, maybe some romance, probably a main female character being terribly capable. Most of my wishes were granted: the heroine might not be quite as striking as Greenwood’s Phryne, and Weaver’s writing certainly isn’t as evocative as Mary Stewart’s (particularly not of location), but it’s a nice nibble.

The story opens with Amory being surprised by two visits: one, from her somewhat-estranged husband Milo, last known to be gallivanting about the Continent and linked with plenty of other women, and the second from the man she jilted to marry Milo — a man to whom she’d been engaged. Thus the romantic stage is set: who will she choose? Who really cares about her: her husband Milo, or her ex-fiancé Gil? That tussle is the constant backdrop to the mystery, featuring the unexpected murder of Gil’s sister’s fiancé… whom Gil never did get along with.

It’s a pretty obvious setup, but that’s kind of why I found it a relaxing read. Amory isn’t super-prepared for everything or as in control as a character like Phryne, but she does wear some nice clothes, and isn’t obviously a terrible person (if a bit daft for ever trusting Milo, maybe). Milo isn’t as charming as you’re meant to find him (I’m not distracted from the fact that he hasn’t explained at all why he was away from Amory so long or why he’s suddenly interested again), but I wasn’t expecting astounding characters and complex arcs. Putting aside my critical eye and just relaxing with the story, I had a pretty good time, and I’ve picked up the other books (completely perfect to coddle me through the cold I’m suffering, ugh) from the library. If you’re into cosies, this is worth a look; if you’re not, this won’t convince you.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Spying On Whales

Posted 2 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Spying on Whales by Nick PyensonSpying On Whales, Nick Pyenson

Pyenson is clearly obsessed with whales — with the idea of them, with studying them, with understanding them and sharing that understanding. In this volume, he does his best to share all those things: his enthusiasm for whales as much as his academic interest, his wonder at them as much as his understanding of them as part of their environment. He tours through whales of the past through their fossils (so if you’re a palaeontology nut, this one’s for you too!), whales of the present through observation and dissection (so if you’re into biology…) and whales of the future through trying to understand how they impact their environment, and what the seas might be like without them.

It’s a fascinating journey: whales aren’t one of the topics I read about obsessively, but I wasn’t going to pass up a book about them from the library, either. Pyenson’s style is breezy, and he manages to communicate wonder even about things that might sound kind of gross (like whale dissection). To my surprise, I think I was most fascinated by his chapter about the weird new sense organ he discovered in whales’ chins, via actually being there on a whaling station to see freshly killed whales being butchered. (He has mixed feelings about this, but correctly notes that sometimes, you have to use the opportunities you get.)

I’m not raring to go dashing off to become an expert in matters marine, which is the sign of a non-fiction book that really gets to me, but nonetheless there’s plenty of interest here for the armchair enthusiast. If the idea of these massive mammals takes your breath away a little bit, this book might just augment that.

Rating: 3/5

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