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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Discussion: Likeable Characters

Posted 29 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 19 Comments

For ages on Goodreads I had a really annoying follower who would always complain when I reviewed a book on the basis of liking or not liking the characters. Honestly, I’ve lost track of why they felt that was the case, but it was based on some idea of how one should actually appreciate books, and particularly given the fact I was an English Lit student (and later graduate, and then postgrad).

Friends, it’s bullshit. You can like or not like a book for whatever reason you want on your own time. Personal reading for pleasure has nothing to do with an academic assessment of a book’s merits — if you even think that the job of academia is to sit in judgement over whether a book is good or not (which I think would’ve had the entire literature department at daggers drawn if it was truly what the study of literature is all about).

So yeah. I’ll come right out and say it: likeable characters are a big part of whether I enjoy a book or not. They don’t have to be perfect (that’s just boring), but mostly I do need to be able to root for them, care about what happens, and not just be waiting for them to hurry up and die. It’s part of what adds tension to a story. If you don’t care whether the characters live or die, that climatic scene with the big bad doesn’t mean very much.

There are books you like in spite of characters — and characters who are terrible people but engaging anyway, too! Likeable doesn’t have to mean in the right, either. And characters definitely don’t have to be relateable in the sense of sharing experiences with me: what’s important is that I can understand why they think and feel the way they do.

So, how about you guys? Characters? Or could they be cardboard cutouts for all you care?

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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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Weekly Roundup

Posted 27 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

Good morning, folks! Today I’m out in the chilly pre-dawn (okay, well, not quite) to go to Liverpool for the day to see the Terracotta Warriors exhibit, and whatever else catches my fancy. And then tomorrow, the new bunnies arrive. We’ve been talking about boxing up this old one and sending it away…

(No, of course not really.)

And then on Tuesday I should get my dissertation marks, and thus know how well I graduate. And sometime in the next week or so I need my teeth fixed again because the fix that was meant to help is causing pain in itself. Gah. Buy me books. (Is my constant cry when I feel terrible.)

The bunnies did actually buy me a couple of books this week, so it’s only fair to share.

New books:

Cover of The Mystic Marriage by Heather Rose Jones Cover of Band Sinister by K.J. Charles

I am especially excited about Band Sinister, since it’s a homage to Georgette Heyer, except with queer people.

Read this week:

Cover of Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones Cover of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien Cover of In The Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de BodardCover of One Way by S.J. Morden

Reviews posted this week:

Alpha Beta, by John Man. A competent pop-history on the origins of the Roman alphabet. 3/5 stars
Death at Wentwater Court, by Carola Dunn. Entertaining and just cosy enough, with a hint of romance to come. 4/5 stars
The Maya, by Michael D. Coe. Interesting topic, but Coe’s treatment of it is somewhat dry. 3/5 stars
The Seventh Miss Hatfield, by Anna Caltabiano. Incoherent and badly written, alas. 1/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Real Life. How much do you reveal?
WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update.

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘Neat little boxes‘. Why biological sexual development isn’t at all that simple. If you think there’s men and women and nothing else in between, this is specially for you.
Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘On Books‘. A triolet on the topic of books, mostly written for the fun of writing to a strict structure.

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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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WWW Wednesday

Posted 24 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 3 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 The Hobbit, by J.R.R. TolkienWhat are you currently reading?

I’m mostly engaged in rereading The Hobbit, because I felt the need for something cosy, and our Sunday afternoon walk in the local country park feels a little like walking through Hobbiton. I’m also reading Pax Romana, by Adrian Goldsworthy, because it’s due back at the library and I can’t renew it (someone’s reserved it). Other than that, of course, there’s a whole assortment of things I’m partway through — but those are the two I’m focused on.

Cover of In The Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de BodardWhat have you recently finished reading?

The last thing I finished was In the Vanishers’ Palace, which… despite all my hopes and excitement, I did not love. I think I’d better let my review speak for me on that one, but it’s a few days before that one goes live. It just didn’t work for me, in sum.

Daughter of Mystery was the book I read before that, and that did work for me, for the most part. I’m eager to get the second book and follow other characters as well. It’s like… it’s a solid enough world, and a solid enough romance, but alone they wouldn’t really be anything I’d want to shout about. Yet together they make something rather satisfying.

Cover of Requiem for a Mezzo by Carola DunnWhat will you be reading next?

Well, probably The Lord of the Rings will be one thing, but I have a couple of John Man’s non-fiction books out of the library that are due back soonish. I should get back to reading Ashley Weaver’s detective books, and various other library books like A Talent for Murder (AKA what “really” happened that time when Agatha Christie went missing)… In summary, lots of library books.

Then of course there’s finishing books I’m partway through; Carola Dunn’s Requiem for a Mezzo, for instance, and my reread of Vandermeer’s Authority

What about you? What are you reading?

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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

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Discussion: Real Life

Posted 22 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 8 Comments

So both last week’s post and my question about prompts for discussion posts raised similar issues: how much do you share about yourself on your blog, and how much are you interested in other people sharing?

Personally, I’m relatively open about identity things (mental illness, being queer, being Welsh, etc) and share some snippets about my life (e.g. the bunnies, a couple of my wedding photos), while keeping it fairly low-key — just the intro to my Weekly Roundups or an aside during a review. I figure you’re here for the books, and though it’s useful to know that I have two English lit degrees in the bag and a biology degree pending, or that I’m queer, or whatever, because it informs what I read and how I review things, it’s not like you want to know what I ate for breakfast or the details of my gym routine.

On the other hand, some people think that even what I share is too much — that one should let their reviews speak for themselves, and not reveal identity, political affiliations, etc.

There’s a few different aspects of that for me: one is that I’ve never had much luck hiding my orientation or my interests. I was forcibly outed when I was thirteen and the cat’s never gone back into the bag, and I think I prefer it that way — there’s no emotional blackmail if I don’t have secrets. (The relief when I told my grandmother I was married, my goodness!) Another aspect of that is that I want people to know I’m queer because it normalises it, for people who’ve never knowingly encountered queer people and for younger queer people who might think they’re alone.

And finally, I think it’s important to know where someone stands in order to properly contextualise their reactions to books. If someone reviews a book that happens to include a gay couple and they give it two stars for “disgusting content”, then if you know they’re homophobic you know that it may not actually be about the quality of the book. Likewise, if I review a book with a serial killer and say that I found it annoying because the serial killer had OCD and that was meant to be a “warning sign” of their mental state, you know that I have OCD and this kind of thing is bound to infuriate me. If that’s not a bugbear of yours, you know that you might well enjoy the book more than I did.

Anyway, so I think I’m likely to keep on as I am in terms of personal commentary. You’ll get to know me a little through what I say about books, and you’ll know when I have an amazingly cute bunny picture — but I’m unlikely to do a weekly feature on what’s up in Nikkiland. The blog is primarily about books, after all. But if you feel super strongly about wanting to know more about me as a person and how I’m doing, maybe I can make a point of including a little more detail in my weekly roundups.

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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

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