Review – The Witness for the Dead

Posted September 20, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Witness for the Dead by Katherine AddisonThe Witness for the Dead, Katherine Addison

I don’t love this book as much as I love The Goblin Emperor, but that would be very difficult, and there is a lot to love about this book all the same. It follows Thara Celehar, and has very little to do with the first book, except in expanding what Celehar does and showing us his witnessing first hand. It also expands the world far beyond the court, so that we get to see how ordinary people live and interact — a thing which Maia will never, ever see, and which I think he would find fascinating.

The book is a murder mystery, essentially — actually, several — and also features more directly obvious magic than in the first book. There are ghouls and ghosts, and Celehar’s ability to commune with the dead is also a much bigger part. Inevitably, the various stories come together to some degree, but it doesn’t come together in too neat a knot; they aren’t all related. (For fellow mystery fans, I have to say that I don’t think you can actually work this one out for yourself; we don’t have enough information about a particular character to be able to discern their motive, means or opportunity.)

Celehar is just as tortured a character as he seemed from the previous book, and it should be noted that (in this book at least) there’s comparatively little comfort for him. There is a short scene where another character does manage to lighten the burden of his conscience, and he also makes a friend… though the friendship — and the potential that it could be more — also frightens him, because he isn’t over the secret he confesses to Maia in The Goblin Emperor. If you’re looking for something that feels as hopeful as The Goblin Emperor, then this isn’t it; Celehar is deeply guilty, and though his care for his work and his compassion for the dead are as sincere as Maia’s goodness, he is not driven by the same need to be mindful, to be good. He’s a very different character, and it gives the book a different mood and flavour.

In a way, this is a mash-up of Addison’s other books, The Goblin Emperor and The Angel of the Crows, and I don’t love it quite as much as either. I think it suffers somewhat from brevity — at 275 pages, I was wondering how it could possibly be tied up by 314 pages, and the answer is that a couple of the story threads feel rushed — but despite that, I liked it a lot.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Posted September 19, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

I’m not usually the sort of person who cries over books. There’s got to be something special about a book that makes me cry — something larger than life, almost. Whatever the trick is, Becky Chambers has got it down: I’ve cried over every book of hers that I’ve read so far, often multiple times, even on rereads.

There’s not a huge amount that happens in this book, in some ways — though I don’t quite understand it when people say nothing happens, because there are a few episodes which include the crew being in danger, and then one big incident at the end where the characters are in serious danger. There is a lot of slice-of-life (in space!) and character-study in the makeup of this book, and it’d be silly to pretend it’s not: part of the draw for the people who love it is the hopefulness of many parts of it, and the fact that the characters are pretty much all good people.

It’s pretty character-focused, but there’s a good helping of world-building as well, a sense of a galaxy outside the story. We barely get to meet some of the species in the Galactic Commons, but we get a sense that they’re out there, and sometimes scraps of what they’re like. We get a sense of some of the rules and customs, a little of the history, and some sense of where things might be going.

Overall, if you’re looking for hard SF and grittiness and characters who will do bad things for good reasons, or good things for bad reasons, then this ain’t it and it isn’t ever going to be it. This is about people who are trying to be good, who really do try their best, who become a family of sorts and travel through the universe building tunnels to allow other people to safely travel large distances in a short space of time. It’s warm and fuzzy in many ways, though it has some highly emotional and wrenching moments, and there’s a deep faith in the ability of people (not just humans, but in sapients in general) to be good to one another.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Made to Kill

Posted September 18, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Made to Kill by Adam ChristopherMade to Kill, Adam Christopher

If you like Raymond Chandler’s work and you like SF/F, then this is the fusion you’re looking for! It was a reread for me, and I remembered liking it very much, but not the details of the plot. Adam Christopher manages to pastiche Chandler’s style pretty well: he doesn’t manage to coin as many phrases, and there’s nothing to beat ‘shop-worn Galahad’ and other pithy descriptions in the way that Chandler excelled at… but nonetheless it captures the style and pace of a Chandler story.

Mind you, this isn’t a Philip Marlowe retelling, or something like that. It’s basically “what if Chandler wrote science fiction?” — meaning the main character is a robot. Raymond Electromatic was created as a detective, but after the intervention and tweaks by Ada, who runs the agency, he’s a hitman. Those detection skills come in handy, though, when someone actually shows up at the office with a bag full of gold bars and a pretty face, asking him to kill someone. Ada and Ray don’t normally get jobs like that… but the gold is pretty hard to resist.

What unfolds is a detective story that unfolds in a pretty classic way. There’s a good helping of pulp in this, and that makes it a joyful romp — as long as you aren’t expecting it to be too serious. It’s meant to be fun, and for me it works.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Magic Rises

Posted September 18, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Magic Rises by Ilona AndrewsMagic Rises, Ilona Andrews

I feel really conflicted about Magic Rises. Some really epic and amazing things happen, and there’s an undeniable emotional kick to the book — the last chapter or so are a real kick in the teeth. There’s a lot of development of Kate’s story, to the point where she can’t really hide anymore: her secrets are spilling out, both to those who will accept her and those who don’t. There’s also development in her relationship with Curran, and they have an important conversation about it.

Unfortunately, that comes towards the end of a book where Curran acts frustratingly, refuses to communicate, and in fact breaks all the rules he tries to bind Kate by. And sure, he might have the very best of reasons, but it hurts Kate like hell, and the fact remains that he doesn’t trust her. He won’t come up with a plan with her — he’ll come up with a plan that excludes her, and she’s just supposed to trust him. He breaks the rules he insisted on in their relationship, and Kate’s just meant to roll with it, for her own good. It doesn’t ring true for Curran, to be honest, when I put it like that. Sure, the rolling with it for her own good is Curran all over, but he puts rules in place for a good reason and almost always abides by them.

I guess I can see it — he fights in the Midnight Games, after all, albeit after sentencing himself to weeks of hard labour — but the way he expects Kate to just trust him when he’s doing that is just gross.

So parts of this book — and especially the last two chapters or so — are a five star. The story really starts to bite again, after Julie’s miraculous escape in the last book. And yet… miscommunication is my least favourite relationship trope in fiction, and deliberate lack of communication like this is even worse. I really dislike that aspect of this book. Arrggh!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Scoff

Posted September 18, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Scoff by Pen VoglerScoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that a book purporting to be a history of food and class in Britain does itself verge into snobbery now and then, but I was a little annoyed by it all the same. You can feel the judgement dripping off Vogler in what she includes and what she doesn’t — and for the most part, it’s not about British food at all, but the food that English people will eat. A single token reference to bara brith, a few potatoes and a quotation or two from Sir Walter Scott don’t make this British. I think there’s more about French cuisine here than Welsh, Scottish or Irish, and there’s classism going on in the very choice of examples she keeps harping on (Austen, Thackeray, etc).

There are some interesting titbits here, but I found the format of the book really annoying — you really don’t have to link each chapter to the next through a tenuous lead-in, and you really don’t need to make me hop around the book to read other sections.

I don’t know from personal experience whether all of her research is correct, though I saw one or two reviews on Goodreads suggest that she’s a bit off base about some things. She does at least have a fairly exhaustive set of references, should you want to look something else up.

I found this, in the end, surprisingly tedious for something that so clearly catered to my current, randomly acquired interest in food history. I was riveted by the history of white bread in America, so it’s not the subject that’s lacking here — it’s the delivery.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Murder Next Door

Posted September 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Murder Next Door by Sarah BellThe Murder Next Door, Sarah Bell

At first, reading The Murder Next Door felt like reading the nth book in an ongoing series. There were references to previous investigations, and bits of one of the protagonists’ past were peeping through, and it just felt like there was a whole previous book or even series being referenced. I knew it was the author’s debut, though, from other reviews, so I stuck with it and can confirm that the information you need is all contained within this book, that you don’t need to know about the previous investigations (aside from that they were ill-received by the local police), and that the characters and their motivations all fully make sense by the end.

The story itself is not so unique: the couple next door have always seemed a little haughty and aloof, but beneath the surface, the husband was abusive and unfaithful, and the wife was terrified and fed up. Louisa and Ada become involved when the husband suddenly dies, and it’s clear it was poison: Ada saw the wife fleeing with her young son, and is haunted by another woman who was once arrested for murder.

Where it becomes a little less typical is the fact that Ada and Louisa are a couple, with Ada acting as Louisa’s ‘companion’ in order to hide the truth of their relationship. What’s more, Louisa is actually asexual (though she doesn’t have that word for it), and her relationship with Ada is a balancing act of trying to read cues she doesn’t understand, and trying to ensure the relationship is also satisfying for Ada. That aspect of the book was handled pretty well: that navigation between them rings true.

Overall, it was a fairly enjoyable story once I got into it and felt sure that all the pieces would be present in the same book (and that I wouldn’t have to find some other book to figure out why Ada was so affected by the case). I did find the characters a little… wooden, I suppose, in some ways? There were some scenes where things definitely rang true, and then others where it felt that the characters were arguing or agreeing solely because that’s what the plot needed in order to proceed. Sometimes it felt like a bit of a shortcut, I suppose.

So I guess the upshot is that it was enjoyable, just not brilliant.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Chaucer’s People

Posted September 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Chaucer's People by Liza Picard

Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, Liza Picard

Chaucer’s People is pretty much what it says on the tin: a history of the lives of an assortment of everyday people through the frame of The Canterbury Tales. She discusses the various pilgrims and what they did for a living, what they ate, where they lived, the clothes they would have worn, etc. She digs into some of the details Chaucer gives us about them, and draws out what they mean.

One thing I have to note is that it rarely touches on the lives of everyday people, the people who couldn’t afford to go on a pilgrimage. The title is a bit of a contradiction because people who could go on pilgrimage weren’t everyday people! So it’s not as complete as it might sound.

In any case, I’d bet it’s a really good companion to reading The Canterbury Tales — I was somewhat hampered at times by the fact that I last read it when I was an English lit student, a good ten years ago. Because it wasn’t fresh in my mind, sometimes I didn’t have quite enough context, which is reflected in how much I enjoyed reading it.

That said, there’s a lot of detail that doesn’t require you to know or remember anything about The Canterbury Tales.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Magic Bleeds

Posted September 14, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Magic Bleeds by Ilona AndrewsMagic Bleeds, Ilona Andrews

NB: this is posted out of order from my other Kate Daniels reviews, as it was in the backlog! 

Magic Bleeds is the fourth book of the series, and some things are finally really heating up — not just Kate’s relationship with Curran, although that happens, but also Kate’s secrets, her problems with the Order, her growing attachment to her friends and acquaintances. She’s in a hell of a mess, and the mess is coming for everyone she cares about.

Of course, I was also attracted by the various plagues that break out or attempt to break out in this book. The practically sentient syphilis really caught my attention, as you’d expect, and was a hell of a start to the story. Kate’s not exactly built to contain a real plague, but magically-virulent ones she can actually fight.

The book also features the arrival of a certain furry asshole, and I’m not talking about Curran.

Normally I remember the third book most fondly, but actually, I think this one is probably better. Everything starts getting somewhere, and there’s development in characters and relationships which is really important to the story.

Of course, there are also some really funny moments, but I won’t spoil the jokes.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How to Read a Paper

Posted September 13, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Read a Paper by Tricia GreenhalghHow to Read a Paper, Tricia Greenhalgh

This is chiefly useful if you’re planning on reading papers in order to apply them to a medical context: it basically teaches you how to use the concepts of evidence-based medicine. However, it can also be useful for those who have to read papers in general, because there is a good discussion of how to read the statistics without getting overwhelmed and weirded out — and it has some hints about what to watch out for in terms of poor methodology and bad data manipulation.

It’s a slow read, of course, but it’s a worthwhile one if that sounds like something you might need to apply in your work or study!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Library: An Unquiet History

Posted September 12, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew BattlesLibrary: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles

The idea of a history of libraries and all they’ve meant to people is an appealing one — probably to many bookworms! It’s great that this one focuses on the way libraries have been more than just quiet places out of the way of history. I can’t say that this particular book actually worked out for me, though. It felt scattered, and not as engaging as I’d hoped — and I’m a big lover of books, and of books about books.

I ended up just… feeling meh about it, I’m afraid. It hasn’t stuck very well in my head since I finished it, and I wasn’t very compelled to keep reading it. I don’t think I read a single bit aloud to my wife, either, which is usually the sign I’m really enjoying non-fiction.

I read this before I read Burning the Books, but I’d recommend the latter if you were to read just one. It’s not quite the same focus, but pretty similar, and it covers more ground.

Rating: 2/5

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