Category: Reviews


Review – The Raven Tower

Posted 18 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of The Raven Tower by Ann LeckieThe Raven Tower, Ann Leckie

Received to review from the publisher

I was so excited when I first heard about this book, and extra excited to come back from a weekend away to a pre-publication copy waiting for me, along with a bag, pin and bookmark! So you can imagine that I was super-eager to dive into it — and dive I did.

To get it out of the way straight away: yes, the point of view is second person. But there is a character telling the story, not to the reader but to a character within the story, for a reason. I thought the narration was brilliantly handled, especially at such length. In retrospect, perhaps some of it came across a little exposition-heavy, but I was so fascinated with the ideas that it worked perfectly for me. Yes, the point of view does limit certain things, particularly the understanding of what characters (other than the Strength and Patience of the Hill) are thinking and feeling — but that would be the case with an ordinary first-person narrative as well, if you think about it.

This didn’t turn out the way I expected, really — I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, really, but certain characters drove events with a strength of feeling and stubbornness I wasn’t expecting. I don’t want to say too much, because spoilers at this stage are really unfair, and I do think that you need the whole book’s build-up to give you the slightly stunned daaaamn but also of course that I had at the end of the book!

I think the world-building is beautifully handled without relying on medieval fantasy tropes. I especially enjoyed that one of the main characters (the “you” the story is addressed to, in fact) is trans, in a way that is essential and authentic for the character, without the plot leaning on it. It flavours the interactions and decisions of the character without being a huge issue. I know for some people the question would be “is it necessary” — and to that, the answer is no, but my answer is “perhaps not, but is it necessary for the character to be cisgender?” (Also no.)

Also, it took me far too long to pick up on the fact that this is essentially Hamlet, in many ways.

All in all, for me, the hype was justified. Leckie hasn’t written a typical fantasy novel as some people expected, but she didn’t write typical SF, either. I’m not sure this one will have the impact of the Imperial Radch books, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, and I’m so glad and grateful I got to read it early.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Busman’s Honeymoon

Posted 13 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. SayersBusman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers

Busman’s Honeymoon isn’t the most substantial story, though it does have insights into married life and the kind of compromise necessary to couples. Harriet and Peter talk out the problems they encounter, and it’s a delight. In this book they finally get married — mostly covered in excerpts from letters and diaries, including some delightful glimpses into Peter’s mother’s life and way of thinking — and go off to spend their honeymoon in their new house, a place Harriet knew as a child. When they arrive, the owner is unexpectedly absent, and things are all at sixes and sevens… and of course, it turns out that the owner is actually dead.

Naturally, Harriet and Peter are drawn into the investigation, finding that it quickly disturbs their married bliss… and that they can find a way through it by communicating, being patient with one another, compromising (although never in a way that compromises their values). Anyone who knows my usual rants about the issues with romance novels and indeed with people in general will see how that delights me!

And as always, it’s cleverly and often wittily written, full of allusions and references. Sayers isn’t afraid of making you work at it, sometimes, and that’s also fun.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Stitches in Time

Posted 12 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Stitches in Time by Lucy AdlingtonStitches in Time, Lucy Adlington

Stitches in Time is a delightful look at the clothes we wear and how they’ve developed over time, from the general fit of women’s clothes down to the specifics of fashion. A lot of it I knew already, partly from the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee (I cannot wait for a new season of that! and oh hey, it starts tonight!) and partly from other books, but it was still a charming read and a nice break from the awful things that happen in fiction. Adlington writes clearly and sometimes wittily, and it’s a good tour through history in general as well at times, contextualising what exactly drove fashion.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Molecules at an Exhibition

Posted 8 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Molecules at an Exhibition by John EmsleyMolecules at an Exhibition, John Emsley

This started out fascinating, but started to wear on me. Basically, it’s a ‘gallery’ of various molecules that are important in one way or another to human life. There are nutrients we require, poisons that kill us, fuels we use, things that make useful objects, etc, etc. It’s possibly better just being dipped into than read cover to cover; I certainly got tired of all the fuels and the relatively similar titbits about some of the elements. It’s not bad, but it didn’t keep me very interested either.

I’m hoping his book specifically on poisons is more up my street…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Ninja

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

Cover of Ninja by John ManNinja, John Man

Ninja is another travelogue-ish, easy to read history of a broad and fascinating topic, in this case the history and afterlife of ninjas in Japanese culture. It felt more scatterbrained than Man’s other books, and was more of a chore to read; I wasn’t really impressed, and although there were some very informative chapters about actual ninjas and what they did, there’s a lot of fluff about traditions and stories about ninjas that didn’t really add up to much.

Of Man’s books, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this; if there’s a better book out there about ninjas and their history, I think I’d actually like to read it, please.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Cobbler’s Boy

Posted 6 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Cobbler's Boy by Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison.The Cobbler’s Boy, Katherine Addison, Elizabeth Bear

This novella is basically the story of how Kit Marlowe (think “Come live with me and be my love” if you know poetry!) and how he became a spy, as the rumour about his life and death goes. In this story, he’s a teenage boy, just awakening to his sexuality (with a local lad named Ginger) and forced to be quick-witted to help his mother and keep his lout of a father from being accused of the murder of one of his own friends.

It’s a quick read, and it almost doesn’t matter if you know about Marlowe or not: you quickly orientate yourself with the time period and the circumstances of young Marlowe’s life. The authors chose to go with fairly period-authentic language for the dialogue: thees and thous abound, which I know would turn some people off (but it is, I promise you, all grammatically correct and appropriate, to the best of my knowledge).

It’s not quite a rip-roaring thriller, but it does go along at a fair clip, and it’s a fun adventure whether you know Marlowe or not. If you do, and are aware of some of the facts about him, it has a little extra depth and savour.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Mystery in White

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

Cover of Mystery in White by J. Jefferson FarjeonMystery in White, John Jefferson Farjeon

I read this around Christmas, because it’s seasonal, and why not? It’s a set-up with tonnes of atmosphere: heavy snow falls, trapping trains on the tracks where they stand, and a group of travellers leave to try and walk to their destinations, or a working station, or just because of sheer boredom. The weather worsens, however, and one of them twists an ankle, and so they end up sheltering in a house they find empty, but open and ready as if for visitors. The mystery grows as a couple of other people join them, and as they explore the house. This is even one of the sort of mystery novels where there’s a hint of the supernatural, as a paranormal investigator is one of the group, and another susceptible member of the company finds herself experiencing weird episodes of pain and fear.

In the end, there’s some down to earth murder going on as well, and a touch of romance. To be honest, although I’ve enjoyed Farjeon’s other books, this one rang a little hollow for me and I wasn’t as keen. He does the atmosphere pretty well, but the characters are an odd bunch who wear their flaws rather openly, and I honestly just got confused by the comings and goings and mysterious happenings. It relies on coincidence a bit too much, and just… doesn’t in the end quite work for me. Sad, since I was sure it’d be a good one!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Breaking the Maya Code

Posted 4 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. CoeBreaking the Maya Code, Michael D. Coe

This book is, I’ll warn people right up front, also a history of how the Mayan specialists in the West failed to break the “Maya code” for far too long, due to petty jealousies and larger than life characters. Quite often Coe sketches a mini-biography of someone who was involved in the decipherment (or more often, the failure of decipherment); sometimes the biography isn’t so mini.

Still, I think it’s better written than his other book on the Mayans, which I read not that long ago — it certainly worked better for me, anyhow. Perhaps because there are glimpses of the scholars and larger than life characters who put in the work, erroneous though it often was.

The book is illustrated, both with full reproductions and sketches. For me, the full-page spreads of Mayan characters were meaningless, but I’m sure it would appeal a lot to some people to be able to have a crack at it themselves. I know I’m not visually inclined enough, so I tended to skip the examples and such, but they are there and I’m sure more visually inclined people could pick out some of the features Coe discusses.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Gaudy Night

Posted 3 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night looks to be the chunkiest of Sayers’ novels on my bookshelf: in effect, it’s a book-length musing on women and education, on equality in a relationship, and in doing the thing that you’re best suited to do — and making the sacrifices that may entail. Although there’s another book after this, it’s really the culmination of the series in some ways, resolving the romance between Peter and Harriet, and finally bringing the two of them into balance.

The plot itself takes Harriet to Oxford, a place she’s avoided since before she was tried for the murder of her lover. She didn’t think she could go back, after both taking a lover and being tried for his murder (even if she was acquitted), but she quickly finds there’s still a place for her there, and a life that has its charms of quiet contemplation and good hard work. She’s asked to stay there to help them track down something rather odd going on in their midst, a cross between a poison pen and a poltergeist, bent on causing disturbances that will reflect badly on the good name of the college — something that could be a pretty harsh blow to women’s education. In the meantime, she gets embroiled in various rivalries and misunderstandings, meets Peter’s nephew, and generally gets herself into trouble.

Really, the mystery isn’t as important to this book as Harriet’s struggle to forgive herself, and to begin to trust again after what happened to her. Although it’s been some time since the trial, she hasn’t really been confronting the demons and letting the wounds heal, and this book makes her do so. It also makes her really look at Peter, and discover how she actually feels about him.

It’s a book that dramatises badly: the BBC television adaptation is by far my least favourite of the three with Edward Petherbridge, despite the manifest delights of both him and Harriet Walter’s performance. The BBC radioplay is actually narrated by Harriet, and sticks much closer to the book, and so is more successful as a cohesive listening experience, though perhaps less so as a dramatisation. It’s a pretty insular book, and I think you may have to love Harriet, Peter, Oxford, or all of the above, to really appreciate it.

I really do. The thing that excites me most about Harriet and Peter as a couple is the fact that from their first meeting, everything hinges on them becoming equals and seeing each other as such — this isn’t a relationship where either of them subordinates their own wishes. Both are fully formed people, and Peter wants it that way — and Harriet doesn’t know or believe that he does, instead believing that any relationship will involve the subjugation of one to the other. Her realisation is beautiful, and Peter’s patience with bringing her there likewise.  I think that aspect of the books has aged well, even if the concern about educating women to a high level seems much less relevant.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Styx and Stones

Posted 31 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

Styx and Stones, Carola Dunn

Styx and Stones is basically the same as the other Daisy Dalrymple books in its basic outline: somehow, Daisy ends up finding a dead body, and getting embroiled in the case to discover exactly what happened, despite Alec’s best efforts. In this case, she gets involved because her brother-in-law asks for her help in a little matter of someone writing poison pen letters to him — and perhaps to various other people in the village. Taking Alec’s daughter Belinda with her for a holiday, Daisy charges right in to see what can be done.

It’s a generally enjoyable book, with Daisy enjoying the quiet village life and poking her nose in everywhere. Her reactions to the local Scarlet Woman are, as you’d expect from her character and the fact that she’s designed to appeal to a modern reader, tentative but overall positive. As usual, she quickly decides who can’t have done it, based on personal feelings, and lets that colour her whole view of the case — and lead her somewhat astray at times.

My enjoyment of this book is mostly marred by the fact that there is a patently ridiculous chapter in which Alec decides Daisy’s been dragging his daughter into danger, Daisy has a tantrum about it and returns the engagement ring, and then they swiftly make up because Belinda gets sad about it. I’m not sure Alec ever really deals with the fact that he’s mad about Belinda getting into danger, and Daisy never really answers the accusation that she got Belinda into a nasty atmosphere (because I do think Alec has a point that maybe a village where someone is writing nasty and potentially threatening poison pen letters is maybe not the best place to take a child), and basically proper communication and discussion never really happens. I mean, it’s cute and all, but hmm. If there was an issue to begin with, it never does get resolved.

That being said, still a mostly enjoyable book, with a couple of little twists on the subject of who is writing the letters and who did the murder, for variety.

Rating: 3/5

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