Review – The Luck of the Vails

Posted January 31, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Luck of the Vails by E.F. BensonThe Luck of the Vails, E.F. Benson

The Luck of the Vails is fairly slow, taking its time to build up an atmosphere to set the characters against. Harry Vail is the heir to his family, and he’s just found the most miraculous treasure: a cup called the Luck of the Vails, originally owned by a rather wicked ancestor and said to give the owner luck — whilst putting them in peril of fire, frost and rain. A rather lonely person before, he finds a close friend in his elderly uncle, and begins to go around in society and make friends there as well.

There’s just one slight hitch: an old story about his uncle and the accidental death of a man who happened to be in debt to him. It lies like a shadow across things, colouring Harry’s meeting with a young woman who happens to be the dead man’s daughter…

I was surprised that at every turn the author ducked the obvious next piece of events. Instead of scorning Harry and his uncle, the young woman forgives it all, despite her mother’s whispers of murder — indeed, instead of the characters dodging around it, trying to avoid the revelation, they get it right out in the open. Later, instead of doubting Harry for long, the young woman wrestles with her conscience about it and realises what a stupid mix-up has been made. It’s rather refreshing.

I can’t say too much about the characters or where the plot tends toward without giving it away. I did find myself very curious in the first third or so as to where things would go wrong, but once they did, they did so very obviously. The first third might lull you a little, but the clues are pretty obvious after that, and it’s just a matter of how things come to pass. I did think the somewhat ambiguous characters were fascinating; there’s genuine affection between a would-be murderer and the victim, and a rather ambivalent character who sounds like a villain but becomes an ally.

It wraps up much as expected, and there’s nothing really stunning about it, but I did find it interesting, and appreciated the avoidance of certain tropes.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted January 29, 2020 by Nikki in General / 9 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. This week’s check-in is here!

Cover of The Luck of the Vails by E.F. BensonWhat are you currently reading?

I’m partway through The Luck of the Vails, by E.F. Benson, which is fairly typical for the era, and rather full of over-described scenery. I am interested in what’s going to actually happen, though from about the halfway point it’s fairly obvious where things are going to go. It’s kind of a shame, because I rather enjoyed the generalised sense of menace… but it’s a mystery story, after all, not SF, so of course it’s trundling slowly toward the reveal.

Cover of The Last Wish by Andrzej SapkowskiWhat have you recently finished reading?

The last thing I finished was The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski. I’ve reviewed it already, so I won’t say too much; suffice it to say that I enjoyed it and would quite like to pick up the rest of the series. I read it surprisingly fast, and… I don’t know, something about the covers had led me to expect something more tropey and less subtle.

Cover of A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra RowlandWhat will you be reading next?

Possibly I’ll reread Band Sinister, by K.J. Charles, because I do love it so and I just persuaded my wife to read it. Otherwise I might pick up one of the books I’ve had backburnered for a while and figure out if I want to finish it; A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland, probably, or Heartstone, by Elle Katharine White. I didn’t drop either because I wasn’t interested, I just had a lot going on. I might start Heartstone over, though; it really has been ages.

What about you? What’re you reading?

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Review – The Last Wish

Posted January 29, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Last Wish by Andrzej SapkowskiThe Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski

I’ve been meaning to pick up the Witcher books for a while, and my wife watching the series was a spur to actually pick the first one up. I didn’t watch it myself, but I’ve heard and seen enough about it that I knew I’d be interested. So in I plunged! And plunged and plunged, given I read this all in one day, with breaks to work and go for a walk. It’s very easy to read: I can’t judge the accuracy of the translation, but it’s good quality in that it barely feels like a translation. (Though I question the spelling of dandelion — “Dandilion”, really?)

The structure of the book is interesting: mostly disconnected episodes that illustrate the world and things about Geralt, with interludes in between them that bring us slowly toward understanding the current state of affairs. It doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat bow: there are questions remaining about all kinds of things, which no doubt the other books will help to resolve. It’s definitely not entirely satisfying on its own, but it sets the stage quite well.

I’m not always sure what to make of the gender politics in the book. There are several female characters who are largely treated as equals with men, but that is usually because they hold power of one sort or another. It’s less clear what non-royal and non-magical women are like; we really don’t see many of them. And when we actually see Yennefer, there’s the whole spiel about sorceresses being primarily ugly girls who made themselves beautiful through magic, and how they all have the resentment of ugly girls (because all ugly girls are resentful) even though now they’re pretty. It’s a bit… reductive, and I didn’t enjoy that part.

There’s also something opaque about the writing: it’s hard to understand why things are happening as they are, because you have to guess just as if you were there. We’re used to books giving us a bit more insight, weighting every action with significance; here, the really significant stuff is super-telegraphed in comparison to the relatively sparse narration.

Still, I’m quite intrigued by the world, and entertained by the fairytale stories that are adapted into it (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast) and given their own flavour. It was really more-ish while I was reading it, even though I have more doubts now I’m no longer reading it. I’m not sure whether I want to read the whole series, but I definitely want to try the next book.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Because Internet

Posted January 27, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Because Internet by Gretchen McCullochBecause Internet: Understanding How Language is Changing, Gretchen McCulloch

Because Internet discusses various ways the internet is changing language, including how that has changed between generations. If the idea of language-change makes you clutch your heart in horror, then this won’t be the book for you: McCulloch is fascinated by the changes to language and thinks it is wonderful, pointing out that teenagers using all-lowercase and “lol” on the internet has not actually changed formal writing one iota so far. If you’re looking for outrage and someone to worry about the malign influence of emoji on communication with, McCulloch’s not your friend.

If you just want to read her observations and analysis about how people use emojis (they replace gestures in spoken language! we’re using text to communicate conversationally now, so we’re replicating aspects of verbal communication through the tools available like emoji!), how different generations of “internet people” use language, and turn-taking in chats, without assuming these things are bad, then voila! This probably is for you.

I’ve seen people complain that it was dry, but I found it very engaging; it probably depends somewhat on your initial engagement with the subject, and also on your usual reading fare. If you’re used to reading non-fiction, I doubt it’ll be any problem, but of course, your mileage may vary. I found that McCulloch’s excitement shone through.

I think a mistake some people are making is to think that because some aspect of the way they communicate online contradicts McCulloch, she must be wrong. From this blog, you’d never guess if the current trends are minimal punctuation, all-lowercase writing and SHOUTY CAPS for emphasis; obviously, I’d be an exception. (For reasons you can easily figure out: I have three degrees, including two in English Literature, and thus am highly trained in how to do formal writing and the historically “proper” use of the English language; I’ve been writing fiction since my early teens; I’m a reader, so I’m exposed to a lot of formal writing; I’m used to using HTML and Markdown to use italics for emphasis… it goes on.) She’s not describing you, Individual McInternetPerson: she’s describing trends, and for the aforementioned trend, you don’t need to spend long on Tumblr to find many, many examples.

I think there is something in the complaint that she’s a little prone to description rather than analysis. It does also get a bit “here is a history of the trends in language on the internet”, with some brief explanations of why that should be. I still found her enthusiasm in doing this and her particular viewpoint on it interesting; I hadn’t thought about emoji as gestures, or encountered the understanding of the internet now as where teenagers — dispossessed of the places they used to hang out due to rules against loitering — aimlessly talk rubbish to each other all day. It’s clear when you say it, but I don’t think I’d consciously stopped and thought about it.

Like I said, there’s no alarmism about the death of the English language — no prescriptivism about how grammar ought to be — so if that’s what you want, you might find yourself wanting to throw the book across the room. I just nodded a lot, and read a fair number of lines out to my wife because wow, that’s right! that’s how it works!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Bloodlust & Bonnets

Posted January 26, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovernBloodlust & Bonnets, Emily McGovern

I was sold on this pretty much right away by two things:

  1. “I hope you like honey, because I have a bee in my bonnet.”
  2. “It is I, Lord Byron. You know, from books.” “However did you find me?” “My eagle, Napoleon. He’s psychic.”

It’s a madcap ride, featuring Lucy (a girl who is rather unsure of her place in life and what her value might be), Lord Byron (from books), and Sham (“are you a boy or a girl?” “yes”). They’re not always in harmony (in fact, mostly they aren’t), but they’re hunting down vampires, each with their own motive. There are some great bits, including Lord Byron’s room full of rabbits, Sham’s bucking of gender norms (“is that Ms Sham or Mr Sham?” “no”) and fun dialogue.

However… it’s a bit too madcap, and that started to grate on me. It’s a bit “this is funny and quirky because I’m so ~*~random~*~!” I was in for a few chapters, and then my attention started to drift just because it was so scatterbrained. It sort of wraps itself up, but I found it kind of unsatisfying because it didn’t really seem to mean much. There was a bit of a power-of-friendship theme in the formation of the group, but otherwise… shrug. It sort of fizzled to a stop.

It was fun, but I’m glad it was from the library and can go back there now. If I ever gave half-stars, I might be inclined to now, to give it a 2.5.

Rating: 2/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted January 26, 2020 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

I didn’t manage this last week, did I? Whoops. Still, there have been no books entering the Bibliophibian compound — and a lot exiting it; stand by for a post nattering about how I chose what to cull and why I think Marie Kondo has some really good ideas.

Here’s what I’ve been reading since my last roundup:

Cover of Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt Cover of Captain Ingram's Inheritance by Carola Dunn Cover of Jackdaw by K.J. Charles Cover of Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire Cover of Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovern

Reviews posted since the last roundup:

Flight of Magpies, by K.J. Charles. The end of Stephen and Lucien’s story, and it doesn’t skimp on the drama or the HEA. 4/5 stars
Biased: The New Science of Race and Inequality, by Jennifer Eberhardt. It’s very interesting, though relies a lot on anecdote rather than science. 4/5 stars
Captain Ingram’s Inheritance, by Carola Dunn. I worried about the plot, but it did actually turn out okay, and they are very sweet. 4/5 stars
Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey. It was fun, but I was more interested in other characters than the main ones. 3/5 stars
Jackdaw, by K.J. Charles. I warmed to the characters in the end, but it took me a while to really like either of them. It’s grimmer than the main series in being more realistic about the morals of the time. 3/5 stars
Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire. As a quick read, I enjoyed it, but the more I think about the portrayal of OCD and the particular outlook on OCD of the characters, the less happy I am. (Yes, I know Seanan McGuire is #ownvoices when it comes to OCD; so am I.) 2/5 stars

Other posts:

The Finished Books Tag. What do I do when I’ve finished a book? Well…
WWW Wednesday. This week I talked about Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, and Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down.

That’s it for now! Maybe next week I’ll get this post out on time. I can dream, eh?

So what’ve you been stacking and unstacking? Any new favourites this past week or so? Let me know in the comments!

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Review – Come Tumbling Down

Posted January 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down, Seanan McGuire

Received to review via Netgalley

Come Tumbling Down is the latest installment in the Wayward Children series, and really does not make sense as a starting point. We’re thrown into it as a girl nobody knows comes through Jack and Jill’s door, carrying the unconscious body of… Jill? And naturally there’s a whole new quest, despite all the rules.

I’ll admit to racing through this and definitely not lingering on anything. Jack is too close to home, with her serious OCD; I remember exactly what it’s like to worry that every inch of the skin of the body you’re in could be making you die any minute now. I also don’t enjoy the bits where she’s actually losing her entire mind as a result of the intensity of her OCD. I think I’m too close to it to fairly judge whether Jack’s behaviour seems right, but it didn’t feel right to me, at least not towards the end.

(Yes, I’m aware that Seanan McGuire is #ownvoices when it comes to OCD.)

I also wondered if it was intentional that everything the characters do actually enables Jack’s OCD, because I get the feeling it is intended to be read as supportive. And maybe it is, for someone with a very different view of OCD than I have, I’ll acknowledge that: I know that coming back from those compulsive behaviours is really hard, and some people don’t want to (and/or do not believe it is possible). But knowing how I came back from it, I can’t stand the way everyone enables it in this book, because I know that when I was in that position, people kindly caving to my compulsions made them worse.

For me, it really isn’t the epitome of love to create a map of someone’s freckles to show them that none of them are cancerous and help them monitor it obsessively — I can see that it’s actively making that person sicker. It’s not a matter of “wear gloves and you’ll be fine”; the gloves do not help, there’ll just be another step after the gloves (refusing to touch anything at all, perhaps). I remember my loved ones being torn between reassuring me and knowing they shouldn’t; it’s not an easy thing to do. But in my experience, OCD isn’t some kind of lifelong thing you just have to live with. There is treatment, you can stop being afraid. It’s rough, but it can be done, and the longer you delay doing it and engage in the reassurance behaviour, the harder it is. So it was pretty fraught reading all these things the characters do for Jack which seem kind and (for a real person) would probably just push her further into paranoia. Maybe Seanan McGuire experiences it a different way, but from my own perspective and a clinical understanding of OCD, I just cannot enjoy this the way I suspect it is meant to be enjoyed.

Also, I just really want to see Kade get a story for himself. Not somebody else’s quest, not somebody else’s happy ending. He’s enabled almost every other character’s story so far, without being given the chance to grow and find his own place for himself.

Reading this, I did enjoy it a lot, but the more I think about it, the less I do. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on with the balance of Jack’s world and meta-fictional stuff about stories, but… for me, this one was overshadowed by Jack’s OCD. And yeah, that’s probably a very personal thing, but that’s allowed.

Edit: Some sections of this review have been changed to make it clearer that I understand that Seanan McGuire is #ownvoices and has a different outlook on it than me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Jackdaw

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

Cover of Jackdaw by K.J. CharlesJackdaw, K.J. Charles

Jackdaw is part of the Charm of Magpies series, but follows a different pair of characters. It’s probably best for those who’ve read Flight of Magpies in terms of the plot, but you might actually be able to enjoy the at least one of the characters more on their own terms if you don’t know them already, because that character is Jonah Pastern, he who nearly brought Stephen and Lucien to disaster in the last book. I trust Charles to bring me to the point of enjoying even a total scoundrel’s love story, honestly, but it took a little more time because I already knew Jonah deeply endangered a character I love, and Ben Spenser — his lover — turns out to be rather dour and angry at first.

It’s worth noting that among the sex scenes in this book, there’s one with strong non-consensual themes. Ben is angry and wants to punish Jonah, and knows what he’s doing is wrong, and though he stops short of actually doing it and then Jonah wants to continue, it’s still pretty discomforting. It obviously coloured how I saw Ben: the kind of man who, in anger, seriously considers using rape to punish his lover. It is clear that Jonah has conclusively ruined Ben’s life at that point: you very quickly realise Ben lost his job, was imprisoned, etc, etc, but that isn’t an excuse.

This is also the only story in this series that really engages with the homophobia of the time. It’s not just hinted here that there could be trouble: Ben can’t do magic, can’t soften his way out of a terrible situation, so he ends up imprisoned, sentenced to hard labour, beaten, rejected by his parents, and at one point you can read him as being suicidal. He’s definitely without hope, only a grim anger, blaming Jonah for everything.

That’s not the sort of book you expect after the casual way Crane deals with even blackmail about his homosexuality; Stephen and Lucien duck almost all consequences through being able to protect themselves. It’s also not what you’d expect from Jonah’s flamboyant devil-may-care attitude in the last book. Ben doesn’t have that protection, and in the first half of the book in particular, the damage, anger and shame are all on display. It’s very grim, given the previous book, and more realistic; that’s something to bear in mind.

Aside from that, the story is essentially a redemption arc for Jonah, and somewhat for Ben as well. It has the great dialogue I expect in a novel by K.J. Charles, and in the last half or so of the book, you can start rooting for the characters again. It stands or falls, really, on the extent to which you can forgive Jonah (and Ben, if that near-rape scene bothered you as much as it did me) for what he’s done. I got there in the end — there are some delightful bits when the two of them finally feel free and comfortable — but this definitely is not a favourite in this series or among Charles’ books.

For those who are fans of the series, it does include cameos by Stephen and later Lucien, Merrick and Saint. It wraps up into a lovely conclusion, and there are some great bits of dialogue between Lucien and Stephen, as seen from outside.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted January 22, 2020 by Nikki in General / 6 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. This week’s check-in is here!

Cover of Because Internet by Gretchen McCullochWhat are you currently reading?

I’ve started on Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch, which is all about how the internet (and to some extent, other instant written communication like text messages) is changing the way we speak. I’m not far into it, but I’ve already looked up at least half a dozen times to tell my wife interesting facts or read out good bits.

Cover of Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireWhat have you recently finished reading?

I finished two books yesterday; one was K.J. Charles’ Jackdaw, which I didn’t love as much as the rest of the series, but did warm up to significantly in the last half. And especially when Lucien and Stephen showed up, admittedly.

I also read Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down, which I really didn’t linger over. Jack’s OCD is a bit too familiar (the bit where she worries about every mole on the body she’s swapped into being potentially cancerous, aaah), but also so… overblown and pathologised that it both felt very much about people like me, but also very disparaging about people like me. Jack literally starts losing her sanity completely because of OCD, and… it felt very extreme, and I did not enjoy it. This is probably largely a personal thing, of course.

Cover of The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn by Tyler WhitesidesWhat will you read next?

I have nooo idea. Re-cataloguing my books has moved some further up in the queue. The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn by Tyler Whitesides, for example, caught my attention the day before yesterday. Ultimately, though, I’m finding that reading by whim is working well for me, and I want to stick to it. Maybe I’ll pick up something I see people talking about in the comments here, and that’s awesome.

What are you currently reading?

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The Finished Books Tag

Posted January 22, 2020 by Nikki in General / 10 Comments

Stolen shamelessly from imyril, who won’t mind.

Do you keep a list of the books you have read?

At least two lists, heh. I track all my reads both in a spreadsheet adapted from Reader Voracious, and also in my Game of Books spreadsheet. I used to have a post on LJ (like imyril! I wonder if we ever crossed paths back on there!), but I’ve stopped having a list like that because — like many of my listing and recording habits — it was actually counterproductive. I’d be finishing books just to add to the list. Blech.

If you record statistics, what statistics do you record?

I track the points in Game of Books, and then track title, author, date started/date finished, genre, source (i.e. either year bought or whether it’s an ARC, library book, etc) and page count, in my big stats spreadsheet. I currently have ‘audience’ as well (adult, new adult, young adult, etc), but it’s just not a useful/interesting thing to track for me, so I’m nixing that. Not sure if I’ll replace it with anything… if I did, I could add a nice new table in its place on the spreadsheet.

Do you give star ratings for books and if so, what do you score books out of and how do you come about this score?

Yep! I use basically the Goodreads scale:

* – Didn’t like it
** – It was okay
*** – Liked it
**** – Really liked it
***** – It was amazing

I don’t see the point in having gradations of ratings for disliked books, so it skews to the positive end. I try to be really selective about my five-star books, so people can be sure I really, really mean it when I rate a book five stars. Even a three-star review isn’t bad from me, and even a two-star will have had good points, though I admit that if I were an author I wouldn’t enjoy it either.

I do rate on enjoyment rather than on technical merit, though technical merit is of course part of what will help me to enjoy a book. Still, if I found a reading experience really grating, even if the book was technically amazing or the plot was super innovative, nah, that’s still a one/two-star book. I have been told people expect “better” of me given that I have an MA in literature, but I refuse to budge. You want to know if I liked books, not if I thought they were objectively good. Objectivity isn’t really that helpful in deciding what to read.

Do you review books?

Yep! Everything I read. I’ve got into a habit of writing longer-form reviews here than I used to on Goodreads, because they look so pointless if they’re short! I always tend to brevity, though: I can’t believe the length of other people’s reviews, when mine already feel padded sometimes!

Where do you put your finished books?

If I’m keeping it, then back on the shelf. If I didn’t love it enough that I’ll want to reread it one day, it goes in a bag to be taken to a charity shop, donation bin, or our knit and natter group (depending on whether it’ll be interesting to them).

How do you pick your next book?

I go through phases. Sometimes I have really strict lists of what to read in a given month, what to read in time to review it, etc. I’ve significantly softened on that of late, and in fact this year I am trying to go completely on a whim. Someone quoted Marie Kondo to me when I was talking about how I struggle with my enormous TBR. I know some people really hate her rules, and I’ve been fairly lax with them myself in my great big cull, but there’s a lot of wisdom there too. I should probably do a whole post about what I did and didn’t adhere to when I’m completely done with re-organising, but here’s the one I’m really trying to keep in mind:

“For books, timing is everything. The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it. To avoid missing that moment, I recommend that you keep your collection small.”

So when folks talk about a book they really love, and it sounds like something I want to read right now… fuck it, I’m buying a copy (assuming it’s in-budget) and going for it. I did that with Sisters of the Vast Black due to imyril’s Litsy comments about it, and it was very worth it.

My book collection isn’t small, but it’s smaller than it was two weeks ago, and I’m trying to let my whims speak here with what I read of what’s left. I think having “obligations” about reading was really artificial, and also really stifling.

Do you have any other rituals for when you have finished a book?

I update my stat posts and write my Litsy review as soon as possible (and usually my blog review too) so it’s still fresh in my mind when I rate it and talk about it, but otherwise, no. I really try not to be precious about this kind of thing. I think it’s fair to say that I literally have OCD (though my anxiety in general is under pretty good control at the moment, it is always under control and not gone), so any kind of ritual behaviour that doesn’t serve a purpose is worth avoiding, for me.

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