Category: Reviews

Review – The Ancient Celts

Posted 9 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Ancient Celts by Barry CunliffeThe Ancient Celts, Barry Cunliffe

This book is a gorgeous object, lavishly illustrated with photographs of Celtic artefacts and finds. The book was written by a well-known expert in the field, and I have no doubt of his credentials or his accuracy in laying out what we know and the interpretations that can be drawn (fairly cautiously) from that. This certainly isn’t the kind of book that looks at the mythology about the Celtic peoples written by the Romans and swallows it whole; Cunliffe bases the book on all kinds of different evidence, drawing it together to provide a picture of the groups of people one could confidently consider part of the same Celtic race.

The only problem is that something about Cunliffe’s style sends me to sleep. It’s not that I doubt that he’s fascinated by the subject matter, but he doesn’t communicate a good sense of that enthusiasm, to my mind — there are writers who can make the minutiae really speak even to a layperson, and there are those who can’t. Cunliffe is rather the latter. It’s still an excellent resource about the Celtic peoples, but it wasn’t the best for light reading by a curious outsider to the field.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – One Way

Posted 8 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of One Way by S.J. MordenOne Way, S.J. Morden

One Way was, in the end, too like a grimmer version of Death of a Clone for me to really enjoy. Even though I’m fairly sure neither was trying to copy the other, the similarities made One Way less enjoyable, mostly because it was the second one I read, and partly because it was rather darker in tone. I’ve seen comparisons with The Martian, but again, I think it was darker in tone than that, and less fascinated by the technical minutiae.

The book follows Frank, a convict who killed his son’s drug dealer in a pre-meditated fashion, and went to prison for it. He’s offered a way out by a company who are trying to build a base for NASA on the moon: he and several other convicts must ship out to Mars, there to spend the rest of their lives, and build the base. It’s cheaper than robot labour for them, and it’s a way out for Frank and the other convicts, so of course they say yes. They go through some gruelling training, but only six months of it (which should probably be a hint right there about how expendable they are, but they don’t seem to twig that fact), and then off they go.

Once they’re woken up from cryosleep on the other end, though, people start to die. As each team member finishes their job and becomes expendable, there’s an equipment failure, a weird leak in the hab… and there’s Frank, slowly realising that these deaths really aren’t accidents.

It’s not a cast particularly designed to arouse sympathy: they’re not out and out bastards in everything they do, but you know that each of them killed people, and each of them is capable of some terrible things. The camaraderie between them is fragile, and so is the reader’s willingness to root for them. In the end, I was mostly sitting back to see how each one of them died and when, without really caring much about the outcome. Not ideal!

It’s not a bad idea for a novel, but peopled with such generally terrible people, it’s not something I found particularly compelling either. And I never believed in the promise of a second chance that Frank was offered: it was too obviously too good to be true. That left me feeling like it was just going through the motions, and I was glad to be done.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Labyrinth

Posted 6 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of Labyrinth by Kate MosseLabyrinth, Kate Mosse

I read this ages ago alongside my sister, and while we both had problems with it, we did enjoy it. I always kind of wanted to recapture that reading moment, so I gave it a try.

The book follows Alice, in the present, and Alais, a medieval woman living in Carcassone at the time of the Cathar heresy. Alice gets caught up in what happened to Alais, who turns out to have been her ancestor, as history replays itself in the modern world, everyone focused on obtaining the secrets that Alais found herself guarding. The secret, of course, of the grail.

Now, being a medievalist for the most part as a student, I have strong feelings about grail stories. The way people take them seriously as if there really was a Holy Grail drives me batty: I’ll show you the textual origins of the grail, if you like. They’re no older than Chrétien de Troyes, greatly enlarged upon by the continuations of his unfinished tale, and often taking their cue from Robert de Boron, who wove the whole explicitly religious tapestry around a bare mention of a graal in Chrétien’s unfinished story. Labyrinth… does not irritate me too terribly on this front. The problem is that the writing is not great, explaining things that are obvious and ruining the impact of any similes and metaphors by promptly just stating what they meant afterwards.

(One example, pulled from someone else’s review: “Baillard … felt the years falling away, a sudden absence of age and experience. He felt young again.”)

It’s pretty humdrum in execution: there are no surprises in the links between Alais and Alice, and there’s a whole romance element that just feels cheap. There is a good sense of place and the impression that research has been done in the portrayal of medieval Carcassone, and then that’s undermined by the opening where Alice is working on an archaeological site and just… pulls things out of the ground, without recording context, without any preparation for conservation… nothing.

In this case, looks like you can’t go back: my enjoyment of the book was of its moment, and can’t be recaptured. Ah well.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Magna Carta

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

Cover of Magna CartaMagna Carta, David Starkey

This was a fairly basic survey of what the Magna Carta was, how it came about, and what it means to us now. I won’t say it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, because it does go into a bit of the back-and-forth and negotiations about what the Magna Carta actually contained and why, but it felt very slight. The subtitle of this book is “The Medieval Roots of Modern Politics”, and I didn’t think it really dug into that very much at all, in fact.

So not a bad book, but not exactly a deep dive either. Readable, but. Shrug.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Daughter of Mystery

Posted 2 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose JonesDaughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

It took me ages to get round to reading this, but it turned out to be pretty delightful once I finally did, and I want to read more set in the same world. (Good thing there is more!) It’s basically around (I think) 18th century Europe, only with magic, and it’s set in a Ruritania-like fictional European country, with mixed European elements to the language and culture. The two main characters are two rather different girls: one girl from a well-off but not noble family, and one girl with no family name who serves the nobility as a swordswoman. The general cultural attitude toward women is somewhat straitlaced, and Margerit is headed for a dancing season and then marriage as quickly as possible, despite her scholarly tendencies — while Barbara is an oddity and not exactly socially acceptable, though protected by the patronage of the baron she serves.

Of course, the Baron has it in mind to meddle, and the two girls are quickly thrown together after he dies, leaving his title to an annoying relative but all the non-ancestral lands — and his wealth — to Margerit, his goddaughter… along with Barbara, who remains in service and thus can be more or less given to Margerit through the terms of the will.

As the story unfolds, it slowly becomes apparent that there’s a deeper game going on, with political implications — and also that Margerit is more remarkable than those around her thing, as she’s able to see and manipulate the ‘mysteries’ by petitioning the saints. There’s a solid and satisfying story there even without the relationship that develops between Margerit and Barbara. In itself, the romance is a fairly slight story, with the standard impossibilities and misunderstandings and lack of communication: it kept my attention because of the larger story within which it plays out.

It’s a fascinating take on the usual ‘medieval European fantasy’ type setting (although not quite medieval, I know), and I enjoyed it. It mostly steers clear of tarring any character with too black a brush, though I found it weird that Margerit’s cousin is quickly forgiven by her for attempting to sexually assault her, and I wasn’t entirely keen on how often the threat of rape and abduction arose (often just to explain why Barbara would need to stay so close to Margerit, I think). Some of the side characters are fascinating, and I’ll be glad to see more of them in the other books, particularly Antuniet.

Overall, as a fantasy novel alone it’s not groundbreaking, and as a romance alone it’s probably too focused on the other plot. Taken together, and with the fact that it’s a lesbian romance, it turns into something quite absorbing.

Rating: 4/5

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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