Review – The Prisoner of Zenda

Posted 10 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony HopeThe Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

This is one of those classics I always vaguely meant to read — I think my mother or aunt’s copy was hanging round in the room I always used at my grandparents’ house, so it was sort of in the back of my mind. I finally got round to it because of K.J. Charles’ queer retelling, which is apparently more fun if you know the original. So, in I plunged. And it is good fun — it speeds by, with the various implausibilities (the likeness between the two Rudolfs) being skated over, and any moral ambiguities too. There’s some intrigue and sneaking and adventure and fighting, there’s some doomed romance, etc, etc. It’s not the most substantial stunning piece of literature ever, but it does its job of being fun, and manages not to suffer too badly from being sexist or racist or any of those problems which can dog some classics.

So yeah, plenty of fun, and I can’t help but be somewhat charmed, or at least intrigued, by the villainous Rupert of Hentzau. I kinda want to know what’s going on in his head.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Castlemaine Murders

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

Cover of The Castlemaine Murders by Kerry GreenwoodThe Castlemaine Murders, Kerry Greenwood

I enjoy Phryne as a general proposition, but I find myself saying with almost every book (at least later in the series) that it’s not a favourite and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it on its own. If you like Phryne, it’s more of her usual, with daringness, nice clothes, some good food and a sexy man. It fits the formula and at least this one introduces her sister as an actual character, with interests and problems of her own. It’s all the usual glitz and glamour and peril you expect from Phryne, and nothing particularly surprising, moving or suspenseful. You know she’s going to come out okay in the end.

Which all sounds like damning with faint praise, which isn’t quite what I mean either. If you enjoy Phryne, it’s fine. It’s just not one that stands out to me, except maybe for some of Lin Chung’s interactions with his extended family, which make me laugh (though they are perhaps a tad stereotyped, as well).

Rating: 3/5 

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Discussion: Diversity

Posted 9 July, 2018 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

I have this as a prompt in my list of potential discussions — just “diversity”. You all probably know what I mean, given it’s so often talked about in book fandom these days: characters of all types of backgrounds, in terms of culture, in terms of gender, in terms of sexuality, in terms of disability… Basically, there’s been a huge drive in the last few years to encourage books that aren’t just about white men, and books which aren’t just by white men. And I think some people struggle a lot with this and feel like it’s gone “too far”.

One example people have of things going “too far” is when the majority of characters in a book are queer. But queer people are only meant to be a small percentage of the population! someone inevitably cries. Sure, but if you look at queer people in real life… we stick together. I know queer people just because they’re queer and so am I, and it’s not just about the pool of people available for me to date. Queer people often make friends with other queer people because we share experiences that straight people don’t. So it just makes sense that a queer character would surround themselves with other queer characters.

(Also, hey, queer people are people, with the same drives and motivations as everyone else. You’re not reading about an alien with unfathomable motives: what difference does it make if most of the characters don’t share your sexual orientation? If you’re straight, you’re hardly suffering for representation in fiction — you can just pick up another book instead!)

Another worry about diversity is when people not belonging to a certain minority co-opt parts of that experience to write about it or weave a world around it or whatever. I’m not saying it can never be done well, though I’d shy away from doing it myself if I were still writing, because you should respect that experience and do a ton of research to make it right. There’s not a lot of representation of this stuff out there, historically, so adding any is bound to make an impact. Even with all the research in the world, I’d have to ask myself if I was really the best person to write about it.

And of course there’s when people not belonging to a culture outright exoticise it. I mean, there’s a certain amount of the appeal of a different culture that’s always going to be about the exotic, whether it’s actually aliens or just a culture people aren’t too familiar with. But there are right and wrong ways to handle that, when it comes to real cultures, and research is the better part of valour 100% of the time when that’s what you’re doing.

Diversity isn’t easy — it doesn’t come just because you added a couple of black people to your fantasy school body or have a Chinese scientist on your crack team of experts. It also doesn’t have to be about flipping things round and making the minority the dominant group. Reality is diverse (and if yours isn’t, maybe it’s time to consider why)… it’s only right for fiction to follow suit.

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Review – Amazons

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

Cover of The Amazons by John ManAmazons, John Man

This was a really fun and quick read, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected. When someone says Amazons, you get a very clear picture, right? But John Man goes beyond the myth and digs into first the origins of that myth, and then into other societies which might more or less be considered Amazons (whether they were ever identified with Amazons or not). There’s also stuff on why Amazon.com is called Amazon, and other detours like that. It becomes a sort of cultural history of warrior women — and that’s not a criticism, because I found that more enjoyable than something which focused myopically on something the evidence suggests was never more than a rumour born from a rumour, or even political convenience.

And though the subtitle is all about warrior women of the ancient world, there’s a good discussion of modern warrior women too.

Overall, enjoyable — and left me very curious to read more about the Scythians and the archaeology of the people of the steppe. One book leads to another… Anyone got any recommendations along those lines?!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Death in the Tunnel

Posted 7 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Death in the Tunnel by Miles BurtonDeath in the Tunnel, Miles Burton

The other Miles Burton book I’ve read was fun, but the plot was kind of out there. Death in the Tunnel is a little more down to earth, and I ended up devouring it. Burton’s writing is crisp and sure, and while the story has its twists and turns, it all makes perfect sense. Never are you left feeling that the detective has made a sudden leap and left you behind — you have the clues you need, provided you can make something of them.

I can’t really put my finger on why it worked so well for me: it’s just well-structured, with enough to keep one interested and some odd puzzles along the way. It’s also a glimpse at some interesting characters — the murder victim, for example, is fascinatingly self-righteous and determined he’s doing the right thing, while somehow managing to justify fraud. And it all makes sense, too; you can see the character and what drives him.

The fact that the detective (not the police officer, but the independent guy the policeman consults for some reason) is the same guy from The Secret of High Eldersham is kind of irrelevant: he remains a bit of a non-entity, just distinguished by being clever. The point of the book is more the mystery-solving through the understanding of the characters and clues presented. I enjoyed it, but if you were looking for a good series detective, Desmond Merrion isn’t the one.

Rating: 4/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 7 July, 2018 by Nikki in General / 14 Comments

Hello, folks! Once more, I’m out and about this weekend — time to go spend a day with my grandparents-in-law, but before I go, here’s the haul from last week’s paper (two year) wedding anniversary trip. Shoutout to both the American Book Center and Stanza Bookshop in the Hague for being lovely. <3

Oh, and here’s Breakfast reacting to the full haul (I’m splitting it in two to post!).

And let’s get to it!

Non-fiction:

Cover of Wonderful Things Cover of From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C Dennett Cover of The Broken Spears Cover of The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker

A bit broad in scope, as ever. I’d been looking for something on the Aztecs especially, so I’m glad I found that!

Misc:

Cover of The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull Cover of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith Cover of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

All a bit classic. I’ve been meaning to reread Rebecca, and my wife picked it up for me mostly because the owner of Stanza Bookshop is so lovely.

Received to review:

Cover of The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt Cover of City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender Cover of Hidden Sun by Jaine Fenn

Thank you, Angry Robot! And Tor. I need to get to reading my ARCs!

Books read this week:

Cover of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine Cover of The Deep by John Crowley Cover of The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams

Cover of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson Cover of The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope 

Reviews posted this week:

Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett. A lot of fun, with a heck of an ending. 5/5 stars
Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart. I keep coming back to this, and I think part of it is the mature view of love the characters have. It’s just… lovely, even if other parts of the novel are decidedly not. 4/5 stars
Immune, by Catherine Carver. A good rundown of the immune system, at a fairly basic level. 3/5 stars
Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel. A reread to get back in the swing of things. So many little things I’d forgotten! 5/5 stars
The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, by Catherynne Valente. Another lovely entry in the series. 4/5 stars
The Ruby in the Smoke, by Philip Pullman. A fun reread for me, and Sally is still awesome. 3/5 stars
Almost Human, by Lee Berger and John Hawks. A really fascinating account of finding hominin remains and what they might mean. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Deciding What To Read. What it says on the tin. Are you lister, or a random grabber?
WWW Wednesday. The weekly update on what I’m reading.

Whew! That’s that. How’s everyone doing? What’ve you been reading or stacking onto your overflowing shelves?

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Review – Almost Human

Posted 6 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Almost Human by Lee BergerAlmost Human, Lee Berger, John Hawks

Way back possibly even before I was doing my biology degree, I was doing all the MOOCs (massively open online courses) I could, and one of them was run by John Hawks. So when I stumbled across this book I had to have it. I’ve always been vaguely aware of and interested in what’s understood about hominin evolution, but I mostly knew about the big classic hits like Lucy. Homo naledi, discussed in this book, is new and rather surprising.

The story of excavating the remains is also pretty fascinating, with a team of female scientists picked for their ability to wriggle into the cave systems to retrieve the items, and all the science and planning that went into understanding what was happening. The book does also include some info on Berger’s career in general, which is less interesting to me, but his excavations of hominin remains… it’s all astounding and exciting to me.

Knowing that Berger’s work can be controversial, I’d love to read some other takes on the same info. I might even dig into the journals while I still have access, before my degree’s done. Either way, it’s fascinating stuff, though.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Ruby in the Smoke

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

Cover of The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip PullmanThe Ruby in the Smoke, Philip Pullman

This was a favourite when I was a kid: I loved the other books a little less, I think, but this one got very worn and tattered. I reread it during my exams mostly just because it caught my eye, and I wanted to revisit Sally and Frederick and Rosa and the smoky, sinister world of Victorian London which Pullman evokes in these books. I remembered almost every detail of the story, every step in the sequence, but it was still fun to read and think about how I loved and looked up to an independent character like Sally (her immaturity shows to me, now, as an adult, but she’s still pretty awesome all the same).

It was also nice to appreciate the details that went into some of this — Pullman did his homework in learning about the photography business, in painting a picture of that time and place which felt real, if sometimes a bit too squalid to be true. (Though Dickens was praised for realism, and Mrs Holland’s lodging house could have come right out of a Dickens novel, I think.)

The whole opium/India/ruby stuff was a little uncomfortable and felt like exoticisation, treating a troubled time in the history of a British colony like it was just a penny dreadful, but it’s hard to judge, and it still works when you lay that aside and embrace the penny dreadful feel — a thing I’m sure is intentional, because Pullman demonstrates several times in the story that he’s well aware of the kind of content of penny dreadfuls, and lampshades the similarities a bit through Jim’s reading of the whole situation.

Overall, it’s still enjoyable, even if I have more doubts now. I’d probably have given it five stars back then.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

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

Cover of The Girl who Soared Over Fairyland by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, Catherynne M. Valente

I keep thinking, looking back at these, that each book alone is definitely not my favourite of the series for this and that reason. I think the point is that I love it as a series: you need to see the whole of it to see what Valente’s really doing, and one installment alone doesn’t quite satisfy. Standing alone, the book is whimsical and fantastical and touching and glorious, but I wouldn’t recommend reading it on its own. You need all the build up, all the cleverness.

That said, this book does have Aroostook, which is pretty awesome, and the Blue Wind and her puffins. Definitely awesome. And taxi crabs, and, and, and.

(That seems to be my refrain with books I love. I don’t think it’s a bad expression of all the muchness that some books provide.)

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 4 July, 2018 by Nikki in General / 4 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 Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonWhat are you currently reading?

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. I didn’t expect to find it quite this captivating, actually, but somehow it’s really moreish. The dichotomy between the design work for the World’s Fair in Chicago and what H.H. Holmes is doing is kind of jarring, even though the one informs the other, but somehow it works anyway. I’m very curious about Larson’s other work now: none of it sounds like it’d appeal to me a ton on the surface, but there’s something about his writing…

Cover of The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren AdamsWhat have you recently finished reading?

The Notting Hill Mystery, by Charles Warren Adams. It was one of the first detective novels, and the fact that there’s no established conventions does show a bit. It’s an interesting bit of writing, though. The plot revolves around mesmerism and the bond between twins; a little far-fetched, perhaps, but a fun read, even with the stuffier bits.

Cover of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha LeeWhat will you be reading next?

As ever, goodness knows. I should probably get on with one of the books I’ve already started — like, you know, Revenant Gun — but Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith is kinda tempting me. I only bought it this weekend, but I have a grasshopper mind.

What are you reading at the moment?

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