Tag: book reviews

Review – Lock In

Posted August 3, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Lock In by John ScalziLock In, John Scalzi

My review is going to discuss a certain aspect of this book that you might like to make your mind up about yourself, in case you haven’t read it. It’s not a spoiler per se, but it’s something you might like to bring a fresh perspective to!

So that said, Lock In follows Chris Shane, a brand new FBI agent… who happens to have had “Haden’s syndrome” as a child, leaving Chris “locked in”. It’s pretty much how it sounds: some people who get Haden’s syndrome after a bout of a particular pandemic strain of flu find themselves unable to communicate, unable to move their own bodies, but awake and aware. Back when it happened, Chris was just a child… and all kinds of funding and research was thrown at the situation to render Hadens (people who were locked in) to communicate, and eventually to pilot robot bodies around and interact with society in much the same way as anyone else.

Chris joins the team that deals with Haden-related crimes. The first week… does not go smoothly. Therein lies the story of a conspiracy, some real nastiness, and some familiar-feeling events and issues.

The first time I read this book, I read Chris as male; I’ve since experienced the narrator as female, having listened to the Amber Benson version of the audio (there’s a version with Wil Wheaton as well, a clever gimmick). This time… I didn’t really bother either way? Having realised that it wasn’t part of the narrative, I read Shane as being more like myself… but only now I know about the gimmick. Before that, even I couldn’t help myself!

Anyway, Lock In is a pacy and entertaining mystery, with some thrilling action scenes, banter and clever quips, and moderately high stakes. The characters are likeable enough, inasfar as you’re meant to like Vann, and in retrospect it’s an obvious set-up for a series (now with a follow-up, Head On). I’ve read it before, so I steamed through it knowing all the twists and turns, and just kind of enjoying watching Scalzi experiment with this narrator and with a near-future world.

He missed some tricks with his portrayal of the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways; it’s surprising that Haden’s is caused by an influenza and there’s no reference to vaccines or anything… and somehow that same strain of flu is still burning on, still causing the same disease, when someone who caught it as a child is old enough to be an FBI agent. Other stuff is pretty on point, and one can only hope the funding and government initiatives that help Hadens in the book are coming for “long COVID” and vaccine research. I won’t hold my breath; I think Scalzi’s vision was really optimistic here (though I suspect partly based on initiatives like the March of Dimes for polio).

Enjoyable, even on a reread when it couldn’t spring surprises on me and I’d read all Shane’s lines before.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Mystery at Olympia

Posted August 3, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Mystery at Olympia by John RhodeMystery at Olympia, John Rhode

I enjoyed John Rhode’s work under the name of Miles Burton, so I snapped this and two others up when I spotted them. Rhode is a fairly workmanlike writer, without the exquisite turns of phrase of Cox or Sayers, or the deep sense of place and character of someone like E.C.R. Lorac. They’re puzzles to be solved, with an ingenious method of murder and all kinds of twists in the tale (four separate attempts to harm the victim, any of which could have killed him… and not all by the same culprit, for instance). There are some nice little character sketches (primarily Mrs Markle, but with neat little impressions of several other characters and how they think).

The way it works out is surprising, mostly because I think there are really insufficient clues; it’s one of the school where the detective is utterly reasonable in his suspicions, but hopelessly wrong, and the big man of the story (Sherlock in some, Dr Priestley in this) has it all figured out in actuality… and it’s so Machiavellian and labyrinthine that you can’t guess. That’s not something I enjoy greatly in too big a dose, but it was nice to settle back and let the story carry me to its conclusion in this case. I knew I probably wouldn’t work it out and that there’d be a surprise, so thus prepared, I just passively followed the process.

Probably I’ll avoid reading Death at Breakfast or Invisible Weapons too soon, and come back when I’m ready to be told what the non-obvious “obvious” solution is.

Oh, and if you’re just picking it up and wondering if you need to follow all that explanation about how the fancy new transmission works in the cars at the Olympia show… the answer is no. You can skip that whole spiel. Someone got too pleased with his own idea there.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Secret Lives of Colour

Posted July 31, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St ClairThe Secret Lives of Colour, Kassia St. Clair

This was perfect for a kind of scatter-brained mood: the stories about each colour are short, and it’s easy to dip in and out. Actually, it’s better that way, since there’s some repetition here and there between the colours, and it can get a bit samey to just sit down and read multiples. It seems to be well sourced and squares up with what I know about the history of colour and optics, though admittedly that isn’t much!

I would definitely recommend reading it on a colour screen, or preferably in a physical book, where you can see the colours right beside the images. It was OK on my phone screen, but not great.

Overall, enjoyable and informative… but also kinda repetitive. Not something I’m wildly enthusiastic about, even though it came at a good time for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Alike As Two Bees

Posted July 31, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Alike As Two Bees by Elin GregoryAlike As Tw0 Bees, Elin Gregory

Not a period I’ve read romance for (that I can think of), so when my automatic recommendations turned this up I pounced on it! Philon is an apprentice stonemason, and as he works on portraying Castor and Pollux, he’s copying from a horse he’s seen on the beach. Her rider Hilarion is clearly interested in him, and Philon’s apprehensive and eager about that… even as Hilarion’s brother, Aristion, starts to bully Philon’s fellow apprentice. Hilarion comes to his rescue, and Philon… well, he falls a bit head over heels.

It’s sweetly done, and avoids the issue of an age gap (since in Greek tradition, it would be a rather older man and a fairly young boy) by having Philon be more or less an adult. Though he gets a serious crush, it’s not “instalove” — it’s quick, but he even acknowledges himself that for now it’s just the beginning of something. I’d be interested to see more of Hilarion’s point of view here, since we only see him from Philon’s point of view.

It’s nice that it doesn’t feel like the story is just there as a wrapper for the romance: the work of the stonemasons goes on and surrounds the budding romance, and each gives the other meaning.

It’s a quick read, and I’d gladly check out more by this author.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Deep

Posted July 30, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Deep by Rivers SolomonThe Deep, Rivers Solomon

The Deep is a novella which the afterword describes as part of a game of “narrative telephone”, inspired by the work of clipping., an American hip-hop group. I know absolutely nothing about the music, to be honest, so The Deep was my introductory point.

The story follows Yetu, the Historian of the wajinru, a mermaid-like people who were born by magic from pregnant women tossed overboard from slave ships. They have few memories, leaving all of it to be held by their Historian — and Yetu is too fragile, losing her sense of self and drowning in the accumulated memories of her people. During an event in which she passes all the memories on to other wajinru, Yetu flees, hoping to be free of the burden…

There’s an awful lot going on in this novella, especially given it’s pretty short: coming to terms with the past, mental and chronic illness/neurodiversity, moving forward despite trauma, finding your place and your people… Obviously, some things are just taken for granted (there’s no real reason given for why the wajinru were born like that), and some bits of the story are painted in broad strokes. Yetu’s point of view is rather dark and hopeless at times, and she has suicidal impulses as well, so I definitely wouldn’t recommend this if you’re feeling unwell yourself. Nevertheless, it’s not an especially dark novella, somehow — it’s not about wallowing in past awfulness, despite the provocative idea of a human-like people being born from the corpses of pregnant slaves. It could be a lot darker than it is, but actually it finds a way to shine a light.

I enjoyed the character of Yetu in some ways — her determination to make space for herself — and in other ways she frustrated me so much. She just… runs away, leaving her people in the torment she’s fleeing, and that’s not really something I can relate to. The whole bit flopping around in the tide pool was extra frustrating. Like, of course she needed a period of healing, but… gah, the self-pity. I did like her matter-of-fact conversations with Oori, at the same time.

Overall, I found it beautifully written, and the structure works well, despite the repetitions (which I think bothered some folks). I was surprised how much got told and felt in such a small space. I found the ending came a little easily… but then of course that’s what anxiety and mental illness is like: it holds you back from seeing an obvious possible solution.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Return of the Earl

Posted July 28, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Return of the Earl by Sandra SchwabThe Return of the Earl, Sandra Schwab

Con has been away from his father’s estate for thirteen years, after his father caught him with the stableboy. In the intervening time, he’s inherited the estate and the title… but he has no wish to return home, having been told by his father that his stableboy lover repudiated him harshly and had to be paid for his silence. Matters need to be handled, though, so reluctantly, he returns to the place he grew up… to find Bryn still there, waiting for him, and apparently totally brazen about his actions.

Needless to say, I don’t think there’s a spoiler here to say there has been a grave misunderstanding. It’s understandable in the context, but Con spends the entire time refusing to trust Bryn, looking desperately for the evidence that Bryn really did have to be paid off, instead of realising that, hey, his dad was a git and Bryn was always true. Once that gets through Con’s head, the story turns sweet, but until that point he’s rather petulant… and his about-face felt a little odd.

Bryn would almost have been a more interesting POV character; he has his head on straight, knows what he wants, and while he isn’t impervious to pain, he knows he’s not the only one suffering.

Anyway, a fun and quick read, overall, but not super memorable.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries

Posted July 21, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries by Donald R. ProtheroThe Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries, Donald R. Prothero

This one is quite an expensive tome, so I was pleased when the library got it for me in ebook! It’s not quite as good as being able to see the full-colour, full-size illustrations, but I’m not very visual so I was here for the text anyway. I could get a quick look at the interesting ones, and that’s enough for me; I recommend experiencing it in colour, though, and probably in pbook form instead of ebook.

Overall, it was… pretty much as I’d expect, from a fairly generalised dinosaur book: there was a lot that I already knew, with some nuggets that I didn’t, and different interpretations of some fossils while trying to portray a fairly broad consensus. There are some gossipy stories about palaeontologists and work in the field, enough to give you a little taste of the conditions fossils get collected in and the history around their study.

There’s nothing particularly surprising, if you’re interested in dinosaurs and tend to pounce on books about them… but for me it was nice to wander through the Cretaceous landscapes for a while and let it wash over me. It’d be great if you were interested in dinosaurs as a kid, don’t know much about them now, and would like a refresher that brings up to date whilst being informative and fairly thorough.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Like a Gentleman

Posted July 19, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Like a Gentleman by Eliot GraysonLike a Gentleman, Eliot Grayson

I read a different book by Eliot Grayson on a whim a while ago, and thought it was okay, and I wanted something short and relatively low-stakes this evening, so I thought I’d give this a try! James Rowley is a writer, and the brother of an Earl. His editor, Leo, has been awfully rude to him, and the crowning insult is that he’s stolen James’ work. James sets out to get revenge, and when he learns that Leo’s attracted to him, he decides that will be the perfect revenge.

The bit that I don’t really get is Leo’s nasty letter to James, which is half-explained but seems way too angry and incongruous with Leo’s feelings and actions (even if he gives some excuse about it being due to irritability). The whole scenario felt very manufactured as a result, and it doesn’t help that Leo’s feelings for James are based on very little… and James’ for him on even less. I didn’t really believe in the relationship between the two, so I wasn’t invested in it — the scene where James uses Leo and makes him feel awful is well-done, but to believe in it, I’d need to understand much better where Leo’s feelings come from.

The best bit is actually the final chapter, where they’ve got their HEA and then bicker with each other. A lot of stories dismiss the issues of class in this period, and that last chapter unpicks that a little and deals with that barrier to their happy-ever-after. Their emotions and reactions to each other in that scene make a lot more sense to me!

It’s on Kindle Unlimited and not a bad fast read; overall it’s kind of sweet, but I wouldn’t really recommend it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ring Shout

Posted July 17, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ring Shout by P. Djeli ClarkRing Shout, P. Djèlí Clark

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 13th October 2020

I’ve pretty much had Clark on my “must-read” list since I picked up The Black God’s Drums, but I was less sure about reading this one. I wasn’t sure about the idea of the Ku Klux Klan being literal monsters: it seemed a bit unsubtle? And I don’t know much about the Ku Klux Klan beyond the very basics, and I just don’t have that deeply American background where they’re a part of my story. That said, I’m gathering that a lot of (white) Americans don’t either, and I don’t normally let a lack of context stop me! Just I’m not always sure what’s really clever and what actually happened, when books blend reality and fantasy like this, and I was worried it’d matter particularly with a book like this, grounded in the pain of Black people and the real horror of history.

I’ll admit, I’m still not entirely sure the literal monsters worked for me. I stayed a bit too conscious of how apropos it is, almost to being a cliché… But laying that aside, it was a quick read, albeit a challenging one: trying to parse the Gullah dialogue kept me busy, especially since I’m not actually good at sounding out what I read, and the dialogue sometimes gave me pause at first. I think it’s probably a good thing I read it in one go, because it gave me a chance to get into the swing of the dialect!

The horror is genuinely horrifying, and I quickly got fond of Maryse and (mostly) Chef. I can’t say any of the twists of the story really surprised me, but they unfolded in such a way that they felt like the only natural way for things to go — not that they felt forced, but that it all flowed from one decision to another. I loved the quoted bits about ring shouts, which illuminated the story and gave me the background I needed… while teaching me a bit of history that I didn’t know about at all.

I can’t say I liked it as much as The Black God’s Drums, but it might stick with me more in terms of the story and images (there’s some really gory bits). I’m not quite sure how to rate it, being honest: my first instinct is three stars, but other aspects (including a worry that I just don’t “get it”) make me want to bump it up… and reading other people’s reviews and what they pick out (particularly the use of folklore, including the shouts) I think that’s more than fair. I’m just a wuss and still cringing at some of those descriptions!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The A.I. Who Loved Me

Posted July 12, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa ColeThe A.I. Who Loved Me, Alyssa Cole

Trinity Jordan is recovering from an accident she can’t wholly remember, traumatised and struggling to get back on her feet, despite her physical recovery. She’s thrown out of her usual, comfortable(ish) routine when she meets Li Wei, the nephew of the scientist who lives in the same building. He is, Dr Zhang says, recovering from a terrible accident of his own, and relearning almost everything. There’s something powerfully attractive about Li Wei, for Trinity, and she’d almost forgotten what that’s like; they find themselves drawn together, even before Dr Zhang suffers a stroke and begs Trinity to take care of Li Wei.

The thing is, Li Wei is an AI in a synthetic biological body, learning to express himself and unlock his past memories — and his progress accelerates around Trinity, who is still powerfully drawn to him when she discovers the truth. The problem is that he’s beginning to pick at the inconsistencies in her life: why does she say she frequently leaves the area, when he’s never known her to do so? Why does she describe a childhood memory and then immediately forget it?

I wasn’t quite expecting the turn the story took, from the description, but it was definitely an interesting way to twist the expectations from the cover and description. There’s more sci-fi lurking under the hood than I’d expected, though it builds up toward that point pretty well.

Apparently this was originally written for Audible and recorded with a full cast, which I think might be a better way to experience it (or at least some of the dialogue-heavy sections). If you’re looking for a sci-fi romance to listen to, it sounds like it’d be fun — and the story itself is definitely fun. I didn’t expect to find myself reading non-stop for just over an hour to read it in one go, but whomp! It happened.

Rating: 4/5

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