Tag: book reviews

Review – Biased

Posted January 17, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Biased by Jennifer EberhardtBiased: The New Science of Race and Inequality, Jennifer Eberhardt

Although the subtitle says it’s science, in many places it’s more history, autobiography and anecdote. There are some bits of science — brief explanations of studies and statistics — before it launches off back into historical context or modern contextualisation, but the science is rather thin on the ground.

It’s not bad because of that, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I think others might also be expecting more focus on bias in general, through not noting that subtitle: it really is just about race relations, and 99% of it is about race relations specifically in the US. I’d have loved to see more general explorations of bias and the science of bias, and how it relates to humans encountering the “other” in all kinds of ways.

I imagine for a US reader, particularly a white US reader, this could be pretty revelatory. For me, there was some context I wasn’t aware of, some anecdotes that were interesting, but it wasn’t new to me, and none of the science that Eberhardt does explain was surprising to me. It’s adaptive for people who are alike to stick together; no surprises there.

There is some minor attempt to pave a way forward in this book; a few mentions of initiatives that have worked and what might underpin them. But mostly it just lays out the problem.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Flight of Magpies

Posted January 13, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Flight of Magpies by KJ CharlesFlight of Magpies, K.J. Charles

Flight of Magpies rounds this trilogy off beautifully. Of course, as it opens, the two are struggling: Stephen’s work-life balance is dreadful, while Crane has too much time on his hands. They’ve come a ways from the start of the last book, but they haven’t really resolved their priorities and their future intentions. That has to play out against the background of even more work issues for Stephen, something going on with Saint, and mysterious deaths that are clearly magical in some way, but hard to trace back.

That’s really just the start of the problems, but I shan’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that everything comes together beautifully, and Stephen and Crane get the ending they deserve. I’ll confess to wandering through the flat with my hands flailing saying “aaaaa” and refusing to spoiler it for my wife, having started and finished the book in one evening.

I’m intrigued by the glimpses of Pastern and his story — which is good, since I have Jackdaw lined up to read soon. None of the revelations in that part of the plot were particularly surprising, but the climax was nail-biting all the same. I’ll admit I was surprised about Merrick, and still don’t quite understand how that relationship developed, as such — like Crane, I was blindsided by it.

There were several sex scenes, some of them including plot-relevant information, for those who might be averse to reading them or might prefer to skip.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Case of Possession

Posted January 12, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Case of Possession by KJ CharlesA Case of Possession, K.J. Charles

A Case of Possession follows up on The Magpie Lord fairly closely; Stephen Day and Lord Crane have returned to London, but not quite to their previous lives, setting up as many clandestine meetings as they can (perhaps not as secretly as they should). Rackham, the man who introduced them in the first place, wants a lot of money fast, and of course, they can be blackmailed. Stephen’s in a spot of trouble too, with even his nearest and dearest fearing his newfound power is a sign he’s gone to the bad.

Also, people are being found mauled by giant rats, and shamans from Shanghai are involved, bringing Lucien into Stephen’s world as a translator, putting him right at the centre of everything again.

I do enjoy these characters so much, and the fact that they can be relatively happy and open despite the homophobic setting; Lucien has no shame due to his time in Shanghai, and Stephen is reasonably sure he can handle any issues that arise, so Charles can tread lightly around the wretchedness that I’m sure many in the period faced. It’s not wholly forgotten, of course, but it isn’t a huge barrier between them. There are some adorable bits in this book as they figure things out and put their relationship on a firmer footing.

It’s also fun to see the new characters, including an excellent scene with some of Stephen’s closest friends, and some more glimpses of Lucien’s past. Some excellent quips and comebacks, too, which I shan’t quote in order to let anyone who wants to find them for themselves.

The mystery of the giant rats is also a nice nod to Sherlock Holmes, and it works together to create a very good excuse for Lucien to be part of it again — there’s no perfectly coincidental constant stumbling over bodies. (Okay, I know the Daisy Dalrymple books are very different in many ways, but it does grate that a whole series is hinged on Daisy finding murder everywhere she goes, and it’s becoming a slight pet peeve.)

Finally, there are several sex scenes in this book; none of them are plot-necessary, but they do advance the characters and show their states of mind, so that’s worth knowing.

It all comes together well, and as a bonus there’s a short story featuring a little more about Merrick.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Venus & Aphrodite

Posted January 8, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Venus & Aphrodite by Bettany HughesVenus & Aphrodite, Bettany Hughes

This looks more substantial on the shelf than it actually is; I read it in about 90 minutes, though it’ll take more time to follow up on some of the things I’m interested in and maybe follow up some of the bibliography. It’s a sort of biography of the goddess, from her origins as Ishtar through to her afterlife as Venus in the world of razors and the silver screen. It’s not that there’s nothing new to me here, but it feels like without the chapter breaks and introductory quotes and images and rather spaced out text, it would be a much slimmer book.

However, I did learn some interesting things; I hadn’t known, for example, that Astarte and Aphrodite were so strongly linked on Cyprus (I thought it was a bit more vague), and I definitely didn’t know about the female-bodied bearded versions of Aphrodite. Elsewhere those images do seem to be interpreted as referring to Hermaphroditus rather than Aphrodite, but the descent from Astarte sort of suggests that as being a later development, perhaps as Aphrodite became more and more an object of desire instead of the powerful, war-linked goddess she was as Astarte. Hughes definitely describes the statues as definitively being of Aphrodite-Aphroditos, at least. I’d love to see more clarification on that, but the chapter on this was so short.

Enjoyable, then, and an easy read, but not very in-depth.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Sisters of the Vast Black

Posted January 7, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina RatherSisters of the Vast Black, Lina Rather

Sisters of the Vast Black follows the journey of a group of nuns travelling on a living spaceship (derived from sea slugs), Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. They’re wandering about the universe on missions of mercy, baptising babies in colonies, celebrating marriages in young colonies… The universe has barely recovered from a civil war, and hints of that unease wrap the story around, while everyone on board has their secrets, their doubts and their worries. The Mother Superior of the little order is suffering with dementia, Sister Gemma has fallen in love, and Sister Faustina is keeping everybody’s secrets as she watches their correspondence come and go. Worse, their ship wants to mate, and they’re struggling with whether to allow it, or whether it — as a mobile convent, essentially — should be forced to remain celibate as well.

Oh, and there are disturbing hints that a new war might be brewing…

It feels fairly small-scale and insular at first, but it quickly opens out. The Mother Superior’s secrets can shake everything, and the Sisters have been using the ship’s immune system to make vaccines for dreadful diseases. Earth influence is expanding again, including with the arrival of a new priest with new orders from Rome to bring the Sisters into line. It all comes together in a final rush, and you see what it’s all for — there’s a reason for all the choices it makes. It works beautifully; I worked out where it was going ahead of time, but was still glad to see it happen, and there were some beautiful lines about the importance of helping people.

It boils down to: it’s a big world, and we’re just lonely little specks, but we can make ourselves something more. It’s very hopepunk in that sense, and I enjoyed that it was not super cynical about everything. The faith (or lack thereof, in the case of one character) of the Sisters is treated sympathetically, but without elevating them above other people. We’re all human, and can all shine our lights in the vast black, and create our own impossible constellations.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Magpie Lord

Posted January 7, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Magpie Lord by K.J. CharlesThe Magpie Lord, K.J. Charles

My wife was planning to try reading some K.J. Charles, and I suggested these books… and then as she started reading, realised I couldn’t remember the first book well enough to go on the second myself. So, obviously, I had to do a reread! Right up front, the book itself contains triggers for quite detailed attempts at suicide, sexual (and incestuous) assault off-screen, and some mind-manipulation stuff that really isn’t cool (mostly by villains). There are also some scenes where enthusiastic consent is absent, though it isn’t assault.

It starts with Lord Crane being overcome by seemingly outside impulses to harm himself after a return from Shanghai where he made a living for himself after being kicked out and sent away by his father. His father and brother killed themselves too, the only reason he’s inherited, and his manservant reckons there must be something going on — they’ve seen magic before and know it’s real, so he persuades Crane to ask for the help of a local equivalent. Enter the Justiciar Stephen Day, with a family grudge against Crane’s family and an unbending need to do the right thing. Naturally, Crane’s not as bad as his family, and sparks fly between the two of them as they get to grips with the rather sordid details of the curse.

There are a couple of scenes I’m less than comfortable with between Lucien Crane and Stephen Day. I read an older version of the book, so it’s possible the 2017 version softens this somewhat — I don’t know if it was edited. But Crane’s tendency to push Stephen around is less than attractive for me, even if Stephen is actually enjoying it — and the scene where he does explicitly consent but only out of a sort of spite isn’t so great. It isn’t that I don’t love the characters together, because I do, and these kinds of stumbles and miscommunications are entirely human, but it is best to go into them forewarned if it’s something that might trip your wires.

Despite that caveat, I do love the way they come together, and especially the epilogue/added bit in the re-issue (which I did read as well after realising I somehow had the old version). Their relationship is genuinely exciting, and I love Crane and Merrick’s protection of each other, and the hints about Stephen’s life elsewhere. I hope to see something of Esther in the second or third book!

It stood up to a reread, and I’m looking forward to the second book.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Tea and Sympathetic Magic

Posted January 6, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Tea & Sympathetic Magic by Tansy Rayner RobertsTea & Sympathetic Magic, Tansy Rayner Roberts

Saw this described on Twitter and thought, hey, I’ll give that a go! So I signed up to Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Patreon, and snagged a copy. It’s set in a place called the Teacup Isles, with a vaguely Regency-ish mindset and morality, except there’s magic too. All the ladies at the fashionable parties are trying to snare a duke — except Mnemosyne, who grew up with said duke, doesn’t think that much of him, and would really rather be reading a book. This endears her to the spellcracker tasked with protecting the duke from matrimony, who is run ragged trying to stop everyone using charms to make themselves irresistible.

Naturally, hijinks ensue. I’d have loved a little more time spent developing Mnemo and Mr Thornberry’s relationship; it’s obvious where it’s going, but sometimes one wants to enjoy the ride. I did enjoy that the relationships between the women are largely friendly, even when they’re rivals; Mnemo and Letty are rather fun, and I like that nobody is a stereotype and the women work together.

Overall, cute and enjoyable! It’s quite short and not particularly surprising or substantial, but that makes it feel very much like a cupcake — sweet and indulgent, and not too fattening (to the TBR).

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Watchtower

Posted January 6, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Watchtower by Elizabeth A. LynnWatchtower, Elizabeth A. Lynn

Oof, I was always so sure I’d love Watchtower, and yet when it comes to it I don’t know what to say. It felt like there was meant to be a lot going on under the surface, but I couldn’t see through it to what I was supposed to be connecting to and understanding. It opens with the aftermath of a battle: Ryke has survived, though the lord of the Keep has not, and he’s offered a chance to live and serve… and if he does, his prince will be kept safe. He agrees in order to save Errel, and ultimately contrives his escape after Errel has been thoroughly humiliated by being forced to be essentially a court jester. So far, so heard it all before.

And then he and Errel end up in a sort of… commune, where everybody pitches in and everybody learns to fight, only there’s also dancing, which Errel learns and Ryke won’t learn. Some things turn out the way you expect — actually, none of the actual plot surprised me, per se — but the relationships are what I think are what’s really being explored. Sorren and Norres (their names aren’t alike for any particular reason I can see) help Ryke and Errel escape, and the four become entangled in a weird web of trust, jealousy and confusion.

It doesn’t help that Ryke is obtuse and stubborn all along. At the end, I was left with a pretty powerful sense of melancholy: that aspect of the regret and confusion Ryke feels comes through solidly, but what anyone else feels and why is rather beyond me. Why Ryke’s so stubborn and stupid (except learned prejudice, which he displays fairly frequently) doesn’t really come through for me.

In the end, I’m not really intending to bother with the other Tornor books, on the strength of this; it’s interesting how casually queer it is (Sorren and Norres are women and in a committed relationship; there are people of non-binary gender presentation in the world, though it seems that’s by birth rather than choice), given the age of the book. That part of it hasn’t aged it at all.

It all feels deceptively simple, in a way that I think is intended and meant to create something with that melancholy regretful feeling. But it’s like trying to hold a handful of snow in the palm of a warm hand; it doesn’t last long, and it doesn’t stand up to any pressure — it won’t last in my mind, I don’t think. I’m glad I gave it a try, though.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Hidden Hope

Posted January 6, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of A Hidden Hope by Laura AmbroseA Hidden Hope, Laura Ambrose

A Hidden Hope is such a familiar love story; I’ve been to a couple of SF/F cons; I could almost imagine the panels, the nervous debut authors, the stupid and not-so-stupid questions about the attendees. I definitely remembered the whirlwind romance-ness of sharing story critiques, loving each other’s writing, fiercely supporting one another — and then just as fiercely falling out, over stupid things that only a few years later I’d feel daft about, and now would solve by talking. This is a story about getting past that and learning: Natalie and El get a second chance when they meet at a convention in London, having expected that they’d be totally safe from running into each other there, and Natalie lets El sweep her back off her feet despite the bruised feelings.

It feels a little rushed, partly because I didn’t get much of a feel for the characters outside their relationship — even within fandom, there’s only a little glimpse of that. It means they didn’t quite feel real to me, despite how much I recognised their relationship and how they worked together. It felt like it was a little sketched in.

It’s sweet enough, and I’m glad of the HEA that they get, though Natalie’s negativity and self-sabotage is a bit of a downer and makes me wonder if I believe they’ll make it as a couple. There are several sex scenes, and I think the relationship seems rather built around sex and their sexual connection in a way I’m not interested in, so perhaps that didn’t help me connect to it. I’m not sure I particularly recommend it, but it’s not bad either. I’m pretty sure the same story wrapped in just a few more details would have worked for me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Posted January 5, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sorting the Beef from the BullSorting the Beef from the Bull, Nicola Temple & Richard Evershed

This book is about the science of food fraud — the way food fraud is committed, hidden, and detected. It has chapters on various staple foodstuffs, from meat (Horsegate, of course, but also other meat-related frauds like the injection of extra water into meat so that the consumer pays for water in the alleged weight), spices (you don’t want to know what happens with many ground spices), wine (mostly affecting rich people, but also some of the lowest end stuff), oil (olive oil is a big target), milk… Apparently it’s endemic in the UK, at least in Lancashire, that pizza takeaways almost universally do not use mozzarella — it’s not even cheese at all, with actual cheese only being added as a flavouring. And if you’re in the US, I have bad news about the likelihood that any red snapper is actually red snapper. 80% odds say it isn’t.

Most boggling to me, the idea that you can make a synthetic egg that fools people to the extent that they’ll crack the eggs, fry them up and consume them. (You can tell they aren’t real eggs because they lack a membrane inside the eggshell. That’s about it, to hear these authors tell it.)

It’s not just horror stories, of course: the authors also discuss the science at work in detecting these frauds, and the best ways for a consumer to avoid them. Mostly, it comes down to awareness, buying things whole (fish with the heads on; whole spices; recognisable cuts of meat, etc) buying seasonally, and buying locally from sources you can trust.

It’s all a bit horrifying, but fascinating as well. Definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4/5

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