Review – A Perilous Undertaking

Posted February 28, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna RaybournA Perilous Undertaking, Deanna Raybourn

The second Veronica Speedwell book is much like the first, with Veronica being asked to work to investigate a crime more or less at the whim of her newly discovered family, who are of course highly placed and quite able to make themselves a nuisance if she doesn’t do as they ask. Naturally, Stoker won’t leave her to investigate alone, though he’s more than a bit miffed that she’s agreed to the whole proposal.

Their delightfully adversarial friendship continues, and I find myself torn between them continuing to be more-or-less platonic besties and actually getting together oh my goodness please. It’s obvious that’s where they’re heading, but I find myself impatient for them to get there so I can see how they fit together. Some mysteries continue — what happened to Stoker’s wife? — and there are some new ones introduced in just the last few pages, revealing some more of Veronica’s tumultuous travels but mostly just hinting at the things she’s faced down before.

The mystery itself was fairly obvious, and so was the meta-mystery from the last book (who is pulling Sir Hugo’s strings?), but it remains fast-paced and highly enjoyable. The bond between Stoker and Veronica is what drives things, for me — their needling of each other, and yet their growing reliance on each other too. I’ll be picking up the third book, and soon!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Great Pretender

Posted February 28, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Great Pretender by Susannah CahalanThe Great Pretender, Susannah Cahalan

I was fascinated by Cahalan’s previous book, Brain on Fire, which documents her hospitalisation for psychosis that turned out to have been caused by encephalitis, prompted by an immune disorder. For a while, Cahalan was lost, but she found her way back, and The Great Pretender is in part prompted by those experiences. Looking at patients with mental health issues, she’s found herself wondering how many might be suffering from brain inflammation in the way she was, and how many could be cured partially or wholly by the same treatment. That’s how she found out about David Rosenhan’s famous study, which was born from a very pertinent question: “How can we tell the sane from the insane?”

Rosenhan’s study sounds simple: he sent nine pseudo-patients, one of them being himself, into a psychiatric ward with a simple description of non-dangerous but troubling symptoms. They all claimed to be hearing voices which said things like “hollow” and “empty”, but they dropped these symptoms as soon as they were actually in the ward. They all emerged from the wards — some after nearly two months — with diagnoses of schizophrenia.

Cahalan found this electrifying: how could psychiatrists not tell the pseudo-patients were perfectly sane? For the same reason as she was originally diagnosed as psychotic, partially: there’s no actual physical diagnostic criteria you can run someone through to prove one way or another whether they are suffering from a mental health disorder. (The DSM, a diagnostic manual, was updated to include a lot more diagnostic criteria as a direct result of this study; the issues are different now, though there are still deep issues with subjectivity and bias.) And also because all kinds of ordinary actions could be interpreted as insanity when seen in the confines of a psychiatric ward. A person taking reams of notes on everything the nurses do might be a pseudo-patient, but your first thought is probably that they’re paranoid and keeping track of the nurses as part of their out of control fear and attempt to control the situation!

In any case, Cahalan found the study fascinating and began to dig in… which is where it all began to fall apart. This isn’t a small study that no one knew about; this shaped mental health policy for years, and despite the protestations of some mental health professionals reading this book, it’s still in people’s minds. (I knew about it as a layperson, and I only had to say “Rosenhan” for my mother, a psychiatrist, to know what I was talking about.) And yet Cahalan’s investigations call it into question. It seems very likely that Rosenhan faked much of the data, as very few of the pseudo-patients could be found. One who was had a markedly different experience in the wards to the one reported, and was allegedly removed from the study… though his data still remained in the published version.

There are all kinds of little inconsistencies that pointed Cahalan to this conclusion, and I think the length of my review shows my enthusiasm and interest for the digging work she’s done here, interviewing the study participants she could find and searching for the others. She calls into question the study’s truthfulness, but not, in the end, its validity. Rosenhan’s observations struck a chord for a reason, after all. Was it bad of him to lie and fake data like this? Of course it was. But maybe psychiatry needed that.

That said, the book also showcases how far the pendulum has swung the other way, with prisons in the US absorbing many of the people originally cared for in specialised wards. And Cahalan keeps putting her finger on the sore place, again and again: we still can’t tell the sane from the insane, not really. We still don’t know the physical causes of much mental ill-health, and diagnosis requires an experienced clinician with a checklist of behaviours — and even they can be fooled by an autoimmune disease.

It’s perhaps not as gripping as Brain on Fire, but I enjoyed it and highly recommend it, and find myself largely in agreement with Cahalan’s conclusions.

Rating: 5/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted February 26, 2020 by Nikki in General / 2 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. Today’s check-in is here!

Cover of The Great Pretender by Susannah CahalanWhat are you currently reading?

Non-fiction: The Great Pretender, by Susannah Cahalan. Over the course of the book she reveals that one of the most famous psychiatric studies, “On being sane in insane places”, may have been largely faked by the man who wrote the paper, David Rosenhan. He sent “pseudo-patients” (sane people faking some symptoms) to various inpatient units in the US, and wrote about their experiences there and the bizarre diagnoses they received. However, Cahalan tried to track down the study participants and… nothing.

So far she’s only discussed the set-up, so I haven’t read the bit about trying to find the participants and figure out who they were, so I don’t know how to evaluate it. Litsy’s pretty torn about it, with mostly negative reviews, often from mental health professionals who feel the whole study is irrelevant now anyway and thus so is this book. However, I question this; knew about the Rosenhan study, and I’m not by any means a mental health professional, so it’s still in the public consciousness at least that much. Cahalan also discusses all the ways it has impacted psychiatry and… seems pretty important to me!

Fiction: A Perilous Undertaking, by Deanna Raybourn. I enjoyed the first book — it whipped by so fast it left my objections behind — and this book seems set to do the same.

Cover of Hearts of Oak by Eddie RobsonWhat have you recently finished reading?

An ARC of Hearts of Oak, by Eddie Robson. I’m not really sold on it, I have to admit; I haven’t sat down and had a good thing about it, but I didn’t really enjoy it. That ending felt very flat, because I should’ve cared about Iona and her fate, and I didn’t.

I think that’s my main problem with the book as a whole; it could (should!) have evoked emotions, but didn’t. For instance, there should be something incredibly creepy about realising you’re one of only four humans in your entire world, and everyone else around you is an automaton — some of whom are secretly plotting something which will change everything. But… nothing. It felt totally lacking in affect, for me at least.

Cover of How to Argue with a Racist by Adam RutherfordWhat will you read next?

Well, I just got a stack of new books, so something from the stack, probably! How to Argue with a Racist, by Adam Rutherford, promises to finally engage with the question of how to demolish race science (one of the other two books I’ve read on the subject seems to just say that race science sucks and we should just say it sucks, rather than understand why it sucks; the other was from a different angle and didn’t engage with science about race, but more generally about bias).

Also in the pile is Georges Roux’s book, Ancient Iraq, which should have some of the background I’m seeking about places like Nineveh. And then of course I have two new British Library Crime Classics, which are always good fun.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – A Curious Beginning

Posted February 24, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Curious Beginning by Deanna RaybournA Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning opens with the funeral of Veronica Speedwell’s aunt, one of the two women who raised her under somewhat irregular circumstances. She is a foundling and illegitimate, and that’s all she knows of her family. She’s her own woman, interested in lepidoptery and very competent at taking care of herself, arranging expeditions to find butterflies, selling them, and submitting papers. She conducts her love affairs discreetly far from British shores, and is generally a rather anachronistic but appealingly independent character.

This translates at times into her being rather blasé, including about the raid on her aunts’ cottage she finds when she returns to the accommodation. She is met there by a man who helps protect her and then begs her to let him take her to London and keep her safe. To cut a long story short, this ends in his murder and her being thrown together with a foul-tempered naturalist (with nonetheless appealing looks, as we hear frequently), Stoker.

The plot itself… there were points where I literally said “what the fuck” aloud, in the last 50-100 pages. There are period trappings, but Veronica is a firmly modern protagonist, not so much chafing at the rules of her time as barely acknowledging they exist. This would normally drive me up the wall, so I wasn’t sure if I even liked the book… but given how fast I swallowed it down, I guess I did! It’s not great historical fiction, but it is rather fun as a mystery (and probable romance), as long as you go into it with the understanding that it isn’t really a period story, and that the characters aren’t exactly deep. They’re glossy and fun and forever moving, but they don’t have emotional depth, in my view; Veronica’s always so matter-of-fact that she breezes right past emotion, and we don’t get to see much of Stoker’s past to judge his brooding against.

This sounds like damning with faint praise, but I really did fly through the book and immediately pick up the sequel. It’s good fun.

Rating: 4/5

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#ReaderProblems Tag

Posted February 24, 2020 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

Imyril did it, and I’m a dirty thief.

You have 20,000 books in your TBR, how in the world do you decide what to read next?

Currently, complete and utter whim. I’ve borrowed the Wimsey family motto — “as my whimsy takes me” — and applied it to my reading. When I start feeling like I “should” read something, I distrust it. Making reading into an obligation sounds less than fun.

If there’s nothing that immediately strikes my fancy, I’ll go with book club choices, stuff I’m due to review, random number generators, or holding the bunnies up to the shelves to pick for me. They mostly take this philosophically.

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you put it down or are you committed?

I’m trying to put them down a little more often. I’ve trained myself into accepting a book won’t be for me, lately, but it takes work to remind myself there’s no obligation here.

However, there is a sort of grey area where for whatever reason a book isn’t living rent-free in my brain, even though I’m mildly enjoying it, and I’ll accidentally start something else instead, get distracted, and come back six months later having forgotten half the story. These books live on the shelf above my desk, and I’ve never really got the hang of how to deal with them.

The end of the year is coming and you’re behind on your reading challenge, do you try to catch up? And if so, how?

I’m trying not to be too attached to reading challenges, lately. It helps that I’ve more or less quit Goodreads, since they have a bug causing my books to sort wrongly and have admitted they’re never going to bother fixing it or even applying the temporary fix for me. (They’ve told me I can do it myself, but with 4k book records, I’ll pass, thanks.)

The covers of a series you love do not match, how do you cope?

Actually, this is another thing I’ve tried to let go of. If I’m collecting a series because I already know and love it, I’ll go to some lengths to get matching covers, but mostly I have books to enjoy and not to obsess over how they look. Uniformity pleases me, but I’m not unduly worried.

(I have literal, as opposed to convenient “oh I’m so OCD!” obsessive-compulsive tendencies, so it’s never wise for me to let myself get caught up in something too much. Hence I’ve also broken my habits of only stopping reading after even-numbered chapters, for instance.)

Everyone and their mother loves a book that you do not. Who do you bond with over your shared feelings?

I mostly don’t care. If it’s abjectly stupid about Arthuriana or Wales in general, I might DM Lynn O’Connacht, or rant about it to my twitter following. My mother comes in for some texts of outrage, as well, especially if the book is pop-science. Otherwise, my wife is the usual suspect; I have referred to her as my “auxiliary processing unit”, and that holds for literature as much as anything else.

You’re reading a book in public and you’re about to start crying. How do you deal?

I’m not sure this has ever happened to me. I’ve only just learned to cry again after medication for anxiety and depression evened me out so much I couldn’t, though. I’d probably just power through it and ignore my eyes stinging.

The sequel to a book you loved just came out but you’ve forgotten a lot of what happens. Are you going to reread it?

Yep! I love rereading, and will sometimes reread the first book of a series many many times if the series goes on a long time. This doesn’t bother me; if I’m sticking with the series, I probably really like it.

If it’s the sequel to a book I just liked, then I may actually never read it because I don’t want to spare the time to reread the first. I’m not a “plunge in and hope I remember” type.

You do not want anyone to borrow your books, how do you politely say no when someone asks?

I don’t. I am very bad at saying no. Hence my mother still has my original copy of Kerry Greenwood’s Blood and Circuses after two or three years, and I’ve simply ended up replacing it! My mother and I have a serious disagreement about the creasing of book spines, so I try to get her the ebook instead when I can.

You have picked up and put down 5 books in the last month. How do you get over this reading slump?

I probably read The Goblin Emperor or Strange Practice, or pick up a non-fiction read to clear my palate. Or sometimes I just ride out the slump and wait for my mojo to come back. Nobody’s paying me to read, it’s not my job.

There are so many books coming out that you are dying to read, how many do you end up buying?

However many my budget allows. That can be a lot; I know myself well and allocate a good chunk of each month’s budget to books.

After you purchase all of these books that you’re dying to read how long do they sit on your shelves before you get to them?

It can be years. There are some books that have been on the TBR since 2011. I actually just did a massive clear-out, and am trying to adhere a bit more to one of Marie Kondo’s statements about books: “For books, timing is everything. The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it.”

Obviously I don’t follow through to the end of the quote, which recommends curating a very small book collection — mine is 300+ books now, even after a massive cull. But lately I’m trying to engage that when it comes to new books, and prioritise them so I can capture the spark of interest that made me buy it in the first place.

Alrighty. Who’s surprised by any of this? Interested to know if I defy any expectations! Or maybe I’m an open book…

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Review – Fell Murder

Posted February 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fell Murder by E.C.R. LoracFell Murder, E.C.R. Lorac

Another British Library Crime Classic! Lorac’s work, as republished in this series, has been solidly satisfying for me, drawing sensitive portraits of people and places that make you care about the solution of the murder. It’s not a mere puzzle, as it can be in other crime fiction of much the same period. Fell Murder is solidly set in a particular landscape, which Lorac clearly loved and described in beautiful detail, so you can almost smell the hay and the damp earth and — yes — the cow sheds. It’s idyllic, even romanticised, and the characters are made sympathetic through their love of the land and their whole-hearted hard work. Even the crotchety old head of the family is dignified by his hard work and his fairness, despite his ruthlessness.

I found this a little slower than Lorac’s other work; I think because I could see who the killer must be far too soon, and thus didn’t appreciated the beating around the bush. In the final chapters of the book, I rather disliked Macdonald’s little gambit about Charles and Malcolm; what a needless risk, with more evidence due to turn up!

It wasn’t bad, and it definitely had its high points, but it didn’t totally work for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Five

Posted February 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Five by Hallie RubenholdThe Five, Hallie Rubenhold

I didn’t really expect to find this riveting; it really isn’t my period of interest whatsoever, and I’m not hugely into murder stories. But, after all, this isn’t about the Ripper, but about his victims, and Rubenhold brings sympathy and painstaking research to the task. I’ll admit I haven’t fact-checked her on anything (given that it isn’t my period), but assuming she’s done the work — and the bibliography certainly suggests that she did — then it’s a wonderful window into the lives of five women who are only remembered because of their brutal murders, whose real lives and attributes were eclipsed by gossip and sensationalism.

That said, I have a serious issue with the way Rubenhold frames all this. Her urgent mission throughout — restated countless times — is to assert that almost none of the five victims of the Ripper were actually prostitutes. She states again and again that they weren’t prostitutes, that we’ve eclipsed their real lives and motives and struggles in our remembrance of them as such. Which is fair enough; the correction of the record by sketching out their actual lives is a welcome one. But, I got the strong impression that Rubenhold feels that the women are worthy of more attention because they weren’t prostitutes (apart from Mary Jane Kelly, who clearly was, and who gets perhaps the least attention in the book; not coincidentally, perhaps).

And that’s bullshit. If they’re worthy of understanding and remembering, it’s as whole people, and that would be true whether they slept with no one or half the population of London. They’re not more important because they weren’t prostitutes, and Mary Jane Kelly isn’t less important because she was. They were people, and no one has any right to murder anyone regardless of how they earn their money.

For the most part, Rubenhold is sympathetic to the plight of the women, noting where things went wrong for them and points where things may have turned around. (I’ll note again that she did not do the same for Mary Jane Kelly, who was actually a prostitute.) She details their everyday lives with pity and care, and she writes well. But I’m left just a little bit uncomfortable about that constant implication that it matters whether they were prostitutes. At the time, it did, because it shaped their whole lives, and their deaths as well, and because it may well have mattered to them. I can understand rehabilitating them for that reason.

But even if every single one of the five was a prostitute, they should still be interesting to us now for the exact same reasons as they are interesting to Rubenhold. It speaks poorly of her if she thinks that sex workers are automatically less interesting than everyone else, and that is very much the impression I got.

Rating: 4/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted February 22, 2020 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

Welllll, that was an anxiety-inducing game and a very disappointing outcome. If any of you visiting here are French and follow rugby… let’s not talk about it.

Anyway, it’s been a quiet week around here, but I got some new books!

Books acquired:

Cover of When the Dogs Don't Bark by Angela Gallop Cover of The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan Cover of The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Reviewed this week:

Small Robots, by Thomas Heasman-Hunt. Just delightful. 5/5 stars
Heartstopper vol. 3, by Alice Oseman. Adorable as ever, though not pure fluff; the boys have a lot to deal with. 5/5 stars
One Corpse Too Many, by Ellis Peters. Love the historical setting and the way it shapes the mystery; loved a character I did not expect to love. 4/5 stars
When the Dogs Don’t Bark, by Angela Gallop. Interesting, though a bit unfocused. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

WWW Wednesday. This week I talked about E.C.R. Lorac’s Fell Murder, Angela Gallop’s When the Dogs Don’t Bark, Brother Cadfael, and Susannah Cahalan’s new book.

What’s everyone been reading?

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Review – When The Dogs Don’t Bark

Posted February 22, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of When the Dogs Don't Bark by Angela GallopWhen the Dogs Don’t Bark, Professor Angela Gallop

I picked this up on a whim because it looked like it could be my sister’s thing, and I never object to more random information about all kinds of topics. Angela Gallop is a well-known forensic scientist who has worked on several famous murder cases; this is a sort of professional memoir, barely touching on her personal life, but digging into her opinions on forensic science, her part in expanding forensic science services in the UK and eventually worldwide, and her involvement (sometimes tangentially) in various cases.

It’s a little bit of everything, really: she talks about setting up her business, and that butts up against the horrible details of bloody murders and the less than fascinating references to board meetings. It feels rather unfocused, sort of like there’s the kitchen sink at all: there’s certainly plenty of interesting anecdotes, but the wealth of examples sometimes bogs down her theme. Where you expect her to be contrasting two cases, they turn out to be remarkably similar and prove the same point. It’s not terribly written, but I’d tighten it up ruthlessly and make her add in an organising theme.

She does have something she wants to say about forensic science: “it’s more complicated than you think, it needs funding, it needs to be impartial, and it needs to be done in context”. But those cautionary notes for the understanding of and the future of forensic science get a bit lost when suddenly she’s complaining about the perils of borrowing money to start a company and how things could have gone wrong there. The book’s neither fish nor fowl; it’s not just about digging into the story behind investigating specific crimes, but it’s so heavy on those details that it feels like maybe that was the original point.

That said, the details are interesting and her style isn’t bad, just a bit flabby. I mildly enjoyed it, but felt it could’ve been more impactful if it knew what it was.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted February 19, 2020 by Nikki in General / 0 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 Fell Murder by E.C.R. LoracWhat are you currently reading?

Fiction: Fell Murder, by E.C.R. Lorac. Normally I quite like Lorac’s books, as far as I’ve experienced them from the British Library Crime Classics reissues, and this one is appealing in several ways. My brain just isn’t doing fiction right now.

Non-fiction: When The Dogs Don’t Bark, by Professor Angela Gallop. It’s kind of bitty and disorganised, though roughly chronological through her career. I’m finding it interesting, but wouldn’t say I recommend it, because it’s pretty shallow and in some ways repetitive.

Cover of One Corpse Too Many by Ellis PetersWhat have you recently finished?

The second Brother Cadfael book, which was a reread. I don’t think I’ve read the third book, so it’s all-new territory from here. I think. I do enjoy the historical setting of it, the fact that it could only be set exactly when it is. I don’t know how accurate the portrayal of anybody real might be, but it worked for my level of knowledge.

Cover of The Great Pretender by Susannah CahalanWhat will you be reading next?

I don’t know, but I picked up Susannah Cahalan’s new book this week, so that’s a possibility. The Great Pretender is about a famous study of psychiatric wards by a guy called Rosenhan, which portrayed the wards as a place where perfectly sane people sounded mad. Cahalan was curious about how the study participants felt about it, but found that she couldn’t find them… and eventually concluded they may not have existed. A lot of people on Litsy seem to hate it, which gives me pause; I guess it depends on how she presents the relevance of this study now, for me.

What are you currently reading?

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