Review – The Mystery of the Skeleton Key

Posted 14 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard CapesThe Mystery of the Skeleton Key, Bernard Capes

I didn’t know anything about Bernard Capes before reading this, only that this was a reissue of a Golden Age crime fiction book, much in the same line as the British Library Crime Classics. Good enough for me, at least when I’m in the mood to tune out and just read an old-timey mystery: this pretty much delivered on that, though it’s hardly the most original or the most exciting of that line I’ve read.

It actually takes a long time for the story to explain why it’s The Mystery of the Skeleton Key; at times, I was actually tempted to check the right book was inside that slipcover! After a long preamble involving some of the characters meeting in Paris, and a bit of mystery about a Baron who plays chess for half-a-crown and frequents the oddest places, eventually there is actually a murder to be investigated. The wrong people are accused, the timings are all mixed up, and the son of the house (because if it’s not quite a country house mystery, it’s definitely set in a country house) is implicated because the girl who gets murdered — killed with a shot from his gun — was pregnant with his child.

In the end, the solution relies on coincidence, spurious old-fashioned science (a man inherits an injury-induced mannerism from his father due to the fact that his mother saw his father with the injury while pregnant with him), and various people not being quite who/what they say they are. I think it’s actually quite interesting in terms of who the culprit turns out to be — not a common solution, and against Knox’s Ten Commandments in a sense — but otherwise there’s not much to set it apart, and in tone it’s fairly dry and without any sense of urgency. My main feeling was mild curiosity, and that’s about it. Nothing terrible, but nor is it something I’d recommend.

Rating: 2/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 13 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

Good morning, readers! It’s been a quiet week for me, still getting over my coughing and wheezing, lots of bunny-snuggling, etc. I did get my hair dyed again, it’s a rather amazing colour…

Pic of me and my bright teal hair

We’ll see how long that lasts! Anyway, no new books this week, so here’s a feature of the covers of the books I finished!

Books read this week:

Cover of The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri Cover of Angkor and the Khmer Civilization by Michael D. Coe Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

Cover of Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Reviews posted this week:

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. A reread of a beloved book. There’s still much to love, though maybe I’m less taken than I used to be! 4/5 stars
The Lake District Murder, by John Bude. Another in the British Library Crime Classics range. Entertaining enough, but not a particular highlight. 3/5 stars
Poison: A Social History, by Joel Levy. An interesting, if somewhat limited book with rather short chapters and some good scientific profiles of poisons. 2/5 stars
The Book of Hidden Things, by Francesco Dimitri. This one was an interesting read, but not really my thing. Some aspects felt way too obvious to me. 2/5 stars
The Lost Plot, by Genevieve Cogman. A good installment of this series, although I’m not sure I love all the developments! 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussions: What to discuss? I know, I’m cheating. Any topics anyone wants me to write about, though?
WWW Wednesday. The usual update on what I’m currently reading.

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘Evaluating scientific papers‘. Breaking down exactly how to decide what to trust and avoid being taken for a ride.

So that’s that. How’s everyone doing? Anything good on your shelves right now?

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Review – The Lost Plot

Posted 12 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot, Genevieve Cogman

It’s taken me so long to read this, and not for lack of wanting to. I even had it started for far too long and just stalled on it. Admittedly, that’s because it’s very short on one of the main characters of the previous books: the Great Detective archetype, Vale, hardly appears at all apart from at the beginning and end, and doesn’t play any part in the major action of the book. Still, it’s a great romp, as ever, this time taking Irene and Kai to a world with little magic, where they have to navigate through Prohibition era Boston and New York. The dragons also feature heavily, and the issue of Kai’s family finally really comes to a head. The next book is definitely going to have to be different; that might be a good thing, in terms of changing up the plotline and keeping things fresh.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In The Lost Plot, Irene discovers that another Librarian is violating the Library’s neutrality by working directly for a dragon, in a matter of dragon politics. That interference can’t be tolerated by any of the parties, so Irene is sent by Library security to figure out what’s going on and fix the situation — and as usual, all the blame will fall on her if she fails. Chasing the errant Librarian, Kai and Irene end up in a Prohibition-era USA, swapping smart talk with mobsters and dodging the cops as best as they can. Since dragons are involved, Kai has to be especially careful: at some point, he’s going to have to make a choice about where his loyalties lie.

As I said, it’s a romp in very much the same vein as usual for these books. I’m not sure how I feel about the development of Kai and Irene’s relationship in this book: I feel like there’s been a bit too much will-they-won’t-they with both Irene and Kai and Irene and Vale, and honestly I was at a loss for how it was going to turn out. Now it has turned out, at least for now… I’m a bit disappointed. I did always feel that both potential relationships were a bit of a distraction: I just wanted the three of them, all together, all working on their problems, and all trusting each other. An intense relationship, perhaps, and one that didn’t have to become romantic — it was just pushed that way, almost as if the author can’t see any other way for it to turn out.

Anyway, it’s an entertaining read, though I think my favourite of the series is The Masked City. I’m interested to see how the events of this book will change the pattern for the next book. For one thing, Irene’s going to need a new student…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Book of Hidden Things

Posted 11 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco DimitriThe Book of Hidden Things, Francesco Dimitri

I wasn’t sure about this book from the blurb, but some trusted reviewers (e.g. Mogsy of Bibliosanctum) thought extremely highly of it, and I kept seeing it on the shelves, so when I finally spotted it at the library I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say, I’m not sold on it, but I also feel like I need to talk through my thoughts before I really decide.

So, what’s it about? It starts with the Pact: a group of four friends, who knew each other from childhood and grew up in the same Italian town, have agreed that every year they will meet again in the same place, back in their hometown, to eat pizza and talk and stay in contact, no matter what. They can’t call each other to set it up, they don’t necessarily stay in contact in the meantime, but every year, they meet there. The first point of view character is Fabio, a struggling photographer who hates his hometown, going back only to see the others. He missed the previous year out of shame for his less-than-spectacular career, and he’s not entirely sure what’s going to happen.

Two of his friends, Mauro and Tony, show up just as agreed. Mauro’s a lawyer, married with kids, and Tony has since they grew up come out, while maintaining ties to his home town and especially his sister. Art… has not turned up. Worried that this might be linked to their friend’s mysterious disappearance as a child, which had the three of them suspected of murdering him and which he never could satisfactorily explain, the three start to dig into what happened to their friend, talking to the local crime group, the police, anyone who might have information.

The book walks a line the whole time between the supernatural elements and the mental illness explanation, and it’s up to the reader really which you decide it was. The four characters are all fairly unlikeable in their own ways: one can sympathise with Fabio half the time, and then he — well, that’s probably too much of a spoiler. Mauro and Tony aren’t wonderful either, although Fabio is the most annoying. They’re all such boys, too, trying so hard to be macho. It’s realistic, but I tend to prefer likeable characters if I haven’t latched onto the plot/world, and I didn’t really latch on here.

And Art… is a whole ‘nother thing. In the words of Marvel’s Bruce Banner, speaking of Loki: “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you can smell crazy on him.”

In the end, I just didn’t love it, I think. There are some amazing bits evoking the area they’re in, the food, the sense of community. And there are great bits of interaction and banter. But in the end, the whole business of walking the line between fantasy and madness-based mystery isn’t an original one, and I’m not that interested in reading about people being depicted as crazy in stereotyped ways that explain why they go and kill. (Most violence related to mental illness is against the mentally ill person, not committed by them.) Meh.

I’m torn between giving it two stars because I really didn’t feel it, and being coaxed up to three because people did love it and I can see why… but in the end, I rate based on my enjoyment.

Rating: 2/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 10 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 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.

What are you currently reading?

Cover of Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose JonesReally truly actively, I think I’m down to Michael Coe’s book on Angkor Wat, and Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery. This book on Angkor is more satisfying than the other one was — the other one ended up feeling like a list of names with descriptions of temple architecture, while this one deals a bit more with people (though it’s also a bit broader, looking at the Khmer civilisation in general).

Daughter of Mystery is proving a bit of a slow burn, but I’m fascinated with where it’s going to go! I love Barbara and her protectiveness of Margerit.

Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanWhat have you recently finished reading?

I finished Genevieve Cogman’s The Lost Plot while having a bit of a lie-in on Tuesday morning (this morning as I’m writing, yesterday morning as this is posted!), and I did enjoy it but am not sure how I feel about the resolution. I also finished rereading Rebel of the Sands, which is good fun: I want to go ahead and read the rest of the trilogy now.

Cover of One Way by S.J. MordenWhat will you be reading next? 

I really should finish S.J. Morden’s One Way, and then I have a bunch of books due back at the library, including Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy (I wanted a reread) and books on the ancient Celtic and Sumerian civilisations. Not sure which I’ll pick up, but I have been trying to read more fantasy/sci-fi after reading so much non-fiction for a while, so maybe I’ll get on with that reread!

How about you?

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Review – Poison: A Social History

Posted 9 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Poison: A Social History by Joel LevyPoison: A Social History, Joel Levy

I’ve been joking that my wife should be worried I picked this up, but really I was here to understand how poisons work. Although the ‘social history’ part of the title is definitely true, describing famous historical poisoning cases, it also includes little profiles on each poison which explain how it has the effects it has in chemical terms. I already knew some of the most notorious ones (partially because of the excellent book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons, A is for Arsenic), but there were others I didn’t know.

Overall, it’s a bit shallow, focusing on some of the most sensational cases of poisoning and basically whipping around the types of poison that’re out there and how they’ve been used for suicide, assassination, etc. Still, it had its interesting points, and if you’re interested in true crime there’s a couple of cases I knew nothing about.

Not something to rush out and get, in my opinion, and while spouses should maybe be worried it’d put ideas into someone’s head, there’s no practical information about obtaining poisons or anything dangerous like that! It really is much more about the history, with explanations of how poisons actually do their damage.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Lake District Murder

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

Cover of The Lake District Murder by John BudeThe Lake District Murder, John Bude

For all the praise of the series’ editor in the introduction, I don’t think Bude is that great a writer. His work is certainly enjoyable, but I found some aspects of this mystery painfully obvious, and he steers clear of having a particular character be front-and-center, totally indispensable in that Great Detective sense. His main character is a working man, and his prose is rather workmanlike to go with it. That’s not necessarily a criticism, and if you want to experience the Golden Age of Crime Fiction there’s no doubt it’s worth a read… but if you were to pick just one of the British Library Crime Classics, or just one Golden Age novel, I wouldn’t recommend one of Bude’s to be it.

This particular novel follows Inspector Meredith as he investigates the apparent suicide of a garage owner. There’s a few telltale hints, though, that the suicide might be staged: for example, the man’s hands are totally clean (when they should have been dirtied in setting up the suicide), and he’d lain the table for dinner, even putting the kettle on. As Meredith investigates, some kind of smuggling case becomes apparent in the background — something the dead man was involved in, and wanted to get out of.

The police spend most of the book stumped and trying various convoluted ways to figure out what’s going on, without figuring out a principle that occurred to me right away. I won’t explain what it is, of course — maybe you want the pleasure of working it out for yourself — but I really found myself rolling my eyes. Also, once the why was apparent in the form of this smuggling ring, the who and even the how were fairly obvious.

There are no sparkling characters who can’t be resisted, and to be honest I didn’t think there were any brilliant set-pieces describing the landscape, or delving into the human psyche. It’s just a mystery, moderately well investigated by a bland policeman, and moderately well-written. Not bad to while away some time with, but I couldn’t possibly describe it as unmissable.

Rating: 3/5

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Discussion: What to discuss?

Posted 8 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 5 Comments

I know, this is kind of cheating. But I really was wondering — what kinds of topics would you like to see me write about? Is there anything I haven’t talked about related to books, comics, genre fiction or blogging that you’d like to see me write about? Right now my list of prompts is empty, and my brain is totally blank.

In apology for the threadbare discussion post, here’s one of my buns in their new hammock:



Review – Stardust

Posted 7 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Stardust by Neil GaimanStardust, Neil Gaiman

My wife was rewatching Stardust, so the urge was there and I… gave in. I read it in the space of a couple of hours, drugged to the gills on antitussive meds (aka codeine-based painkillers, so probably my familiarity with the book is a good thing; I don’t think I was up to the heights of intellectualism at that point).

It’s tempting to imagine that everyone knows all about Neil Gaiman by this point… all the same, what is Stardust? It’s a light-ish novel which is somewhat based on fairytales: Tristan is sort of a changeling child (not switched for a human child, but he’s half-fairy in a human world), and he goes through a fairly typical quest narrative, learns to take help from the people he meets, etc. At the same time, there’s wicked witches, people go off seeking their true loves, and there’s a kingdom with seven sons who have to fight out the succession. It’s a bundle of fairytale/fantasy tropes, dealt with in a self-aware and sometimes rather wry manner (Tristan is decidedly Wrong, for example, about the identity of his true love).

It’s a bit more morally complex than the movie, and perhaps has less of an emotional payoff because of that. I don’t honestly have a preference: I think the book is clever, but the movie is the kind of story that cheers me up. It has some interesting background stuff that I’d love to know more about (the Castle thing? What’s going on there!), but for all that I said it’s more morally complex than the movie, it stays pretty focused on Tristan’s quest and his path to a fairytale ending. It’s not really a complex story: it even skips over a ton of the potential development for Yvaine and Tristan’s relationship in a couple of pages.

It’s clever and amusing, but maybe not quite the epitome of wonderfulness I thought it was a few years ago. The love story isn’t all that epic because it kind of just happens, sort of inevitably; there are surprising depths to the characters at some points (Victoria in the book is more complex and interesting, in the end, than in the movie; Tristan’s human mother actually exists and has complex feelings about him), but… but…

I don’t know. I’m less wowed than I used to be. It’s still absorbing and charming and I do enjoy it very much.

Rating: 4/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 6 October, 2018 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

Good morning, everyone! It has been a quietish week for me, mostly spent coughing and sniffling, but I’m almost better now. And it’s a good thing I’m not putting library books in these posts anymore, because I’ve been on a serious spree lately. (Right now, I have, um… 50ish books out of the four libraries I’m a member of.)

Anyway! To books!

Received to review:

Cover of Skyward by Brandon Sanderson Cover of Shadow of a Lady by Jane Aiken Hodge Cover of In The Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

I’m especially excited about In the Vanishers’ Palace. I had it preordered anyway, and then I spotted it on Netgalley…


Cover of Salt by Mark Kurlansky Cover of Fayke Newes by Derek Taylor Cover of Hekla's Children by James Brogden

Cover of The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude Cover of The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons Cover of Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Exit Strategy! The final Murderbot! Eeeeek gaaah eeeeeee etc.

Read this week:

Cover of Ancient Lives, New Discoveries Cover of Poison: A Social History by Joel Levy Cover of The Maya by Michael D. Coe

Cover of Stardust by Neil Gaiman Cover of The Incas by Craig Morris Cover of Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll

Reviews posted this week:

Gods, Graves and Scholars, by C.W. Ceram. This is out of date in many ways, but the fascination is very much still there. It covers a lot of the great sites of archaeology that formed the whole discipline. 3/5 stars
The Descent of Monsters, by JY Yang. I liked this less than the others: it seemed less able to stand along, more fragmentary. Still a fascinating addition to the world being built here, though. 3/5 stars
Spying on Whales, by Nick Pyenson. Whales aren’t one of my primary fascinations, but they are fascinating creatures and Pyenson’s enthusiasm is catching. 3/5 stars
Murder at the Brightwell, by Ashley Weaver. A fun Christie-esque mystery: nothing special, but nonetheless fun. 3/5 stars
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, by John H. Taylor and Daniel Antoine. A fascinating glimpse beneath the wrappings of mummies from the British Museum’s collection. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: How do you review? Musing on the ingredients that go into a good review.
WWW Wednesday. The weekly update!

Out and about:

Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘Me, Too‘. A poem and commentary on the #MeToo movement.
NEAT science: ‘Writing in DNA‘. Answering the question of how information can possibly be encoded by acids.
NEAT science: ‘Why chimpanzees are still around‘. Explains how chimpanzees can be around if humans evolved from them. (Spoiler: we didn’t, we evolved from the same common ancestor, also, species do not have to die in order for new species to evolve anyway.)

So actually it’s been a bit of a busy week in some ways. How’re you doing?!

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