Tag: book reviews


Review – Life in a Medieval Castle

Posted 19 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Life in a Medieval Castle by Francis Gies and Joseph GiesLife in a Medieval Castle, Frances Gies, Joseph Gies

This book is pretty much what it says on the tin: an exploration of what life was like in a medieval castle, mostly drawing from the case of Chepstow Castle, but mentioning other castles when variations and other points needed to be made. It covers the life inside the castle — what the Lord and Lady of the castle would do, how they would entertain themselves — but also how the castle was supported by the lord’s people. There’s some space given to warfare and surviving siege conditions, as you’d expect, and the exact social circumstances that promoted the building and use of castles.

It’s an easy enough read, though there wasn’t much that surprised me in terms of being new information. For a more engaging read, I’d probably turn to Marc Morris’ book: Castles, which covers some similar ground. Probably makes a good reference read (no surprises there — the cover mentions that George R.R. Martin used it as such, which is probably why it and the other related books are having a nice little lease of life in bookshops)!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Enchanted Glass

Posted 18 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne JonesEnchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones

I think that Enchanted Glass was one of the very first books I got on my ereader, and I couldn’t remember much from it beyond the general enjoyment and the immortal line — wait for it: “I seem to have excalibured this knife.” I’m not sure why that stuck with me in particular, though I suppose given my other interests it makes sense. So a lot of the plot was almost new to me, and it was surprising how long it took me to catch on. The book opens with the death of Andrew Hope’s grandfather, leaving him with the house — and his grandfather’s “field of care”. The magic system is revealed rather slowly and organically, and to be honest there are never clear rules, as such. Instead, you have to sort of intuit what’s going on, figuring things out rather like a child learning to talk.

(I use that metaphor because I remember Diana Wynne Jones as having written that children intuitively understand magic, and it’s adults that always need to ask too many questions. There’s something true in that, and it reminds me of how children learn languages. If Diana Wynne Jones didn’t write that observation, she should’ve, because I always find her books like that!)

In any case, into Andrew’s beginnings of a quiet life wrangling his computer, his gardener and his housekeeper comes Aidan Cain, pursued by who-knows-what and vulnerable after the death of his own grandmother. Andrew’s not even quite sure how to take over his grandfather’s field of care, and there seems to be something awry with an odd neighbour…

The book barrels along at a good clip, with endearing side characters (“I got zips!”) and entertaining scenes, heading toward an inevitable conclusion: a struggle between the land of Faerie, and Andrew Hope’s own ordinary townspeople. (Sometimes not so ordinary.) It’s solidly entertaining, sometimes funny, and basically everything you’d expect from a Diana Wynne Jones novel. I still enjoyed it greatly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Without a Summer

Posted 17 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Without a SummerWithout a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal

At this point, this might be my favourite novel in this series. It combines the romance and the magic with events in Britain at the time it is set, spinning a new story out of genuine history in a way that explores the implications of the magic system — much like Glamour in Glass, of course, but I love how it winds together the physical conditions in the “year without a summer” and the plight of workers and the magic and just… aah, I really enjoy it.

Which is to skip to the commentary before explaining the book, I know. In this book, Jane takes Melody up to London while she and Vincent are working on a mural together, to give her sister some more time in society to potentially meet someone she might come to love or want to marry (preferably, of course, both!). This happens to be in 1816, the year in which climatic conditions in Britain remained wintery despite the normal turn of the seasons, due to the far-off eruption of Mount Tambora. With famine and general hardship weighing on people’s minds, there’s unrest and a need to blame someone for what’s happening… At the same time, Vincent’s family make overtures to Jane and Vincent, as if they want to bring them into the fold — though Vincent’s sure there’s nothing innocent or forgiving about it.

Naturally, without spoiling the plot too much, I’ll just say that Jane gets herself involved in the unrest, Melody gets herself into trouble, there are misunderstandings and quarrels aplenty… and it’s all pretty darn fascinating. There’s a really great denouement, and — well, I won’t say anymore, for real this time!

Suffice it to reiterate that I love this book. My one point of dislike is the stupid disagreements that arise due to lack of communication. Learn from your mistakes, characters! COMMUNICATE.

(I have joked that if I were the Relationship Advice Dalek, my vocabulary would be restricted to “COMM-UNI-CATE!”)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Clouds of Witness

Posted 16 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. SayersClouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers

Listening to the radioplay and watching the TV adaptation of Clouds of Witness with Lisa made me really appreciate the actual book all over again. Every detail that she quibbled in the radioplay or TV series had an answer in the book; Sayers really knew what she was about. (Which is not to say that she never dropped a brick, but she made choices in her books for good reasons, and adaptors of her work should pay attention to her intentions there. (I’m looking at you, whoever adapted The Nine Tailors for TV — never mind that you’re blatantly disregarding history by having the Spanish flu occur in the 30s.)

Anyway, the book itself: in this second book of the series, Lord Peter finds his own brother accused of murdering his sister’s fiancé, and has to rush back to England from Paris to help investigate what happened. The book isn’t short of physical peril for Peter: he nearly drowns in a bog, is shot by his sister’s other fiancé, attacked by a farmer, and flies from the US to the UK in a two-person aircraft to hurry back with evidence for Gerald’s trial. He gets to be a hero here for Gerald’s sake, and readers see more of his depth of feeling, sense of responsibility and duty, and of course his wit and brains.

People often think little of mystery books, and consequently of Dorothy L. Sayers, and it’s true there aren’t many mystery novels whose solution turns on the plot of an 18th Century French novel. Still, Sayers ensured there is at least one (and several other books with equally erudite references and plots).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Human Planet

Posted 10 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Human Planet by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. MaslinThe Human Planet, Simon Lewis, Mark Maslin

This book is about the impact humans have had on the world, and perhaps more accurately, it’s about how we pinpoint when that impact really began and whether we should consider the human impact to have started a new geological age for the Earth. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about exactly how humans have changed the world: the Columbian exchange which is leading to the homogenisation of ecosystems, and climate change, of course, but also the deeper impacts to the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

There’s also a lot of rather tedious discussion of how exactly the committees to define geological time are set up, and that I could have done without. I don’t mind some information about that, but I don’t need to hear about the endless infighting and bureaucracy created in such detail! I’m actually interested in how humans have impacted the planet, not the process by which we decide whether to commemorate that by naming a geological era the Anthropocene.

There’s several instances of really bad editing in this volume, too — typos, sentences which don’t quite make sense, etc — which gives it quite a careless overall effect. Some useful information and theories, and some stuff I didn’t know from elsewhere, though!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Unexpected Truth About Animals

Posted 9 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Unexpected Truth about Animals by Lucy CookeThe Unexpected Truth about Animals, Lucy Cooke

Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little of this was actually unexpected to me. There is some interesting and entertaining stuff — including the penguin facts — but some of it was fairly well-worn. Possibly that’s because I have read a fair number of pop-science books, possibly it’s because my parents raised me on a solid diet of David Attenborough, but… meh. Cooke’s writing isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have much of a spark, and I didn’t find it particularly entertaining. Actually, I kept feeling rather bored, and switching books to stay awake longer (to maximise the precious hour or two I spend reading in bed — and completely offline — at the moment!).

So… it wasn’t bad, but neither did it strike me as anything special.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Spirals in Time

Posted 8 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spirals in Time by Helen ScalesSpirals in Time, Helen Scales

Spirals in Time discusses shells — all kinds of shells and shelled creatures — with all kinds of weird and wonderful facts… and others I feel like I really should have known. (An octopus is a mollusc!) If you’re interested in shells already, I’m sure it’s fascinating, but I ended up a bit lost and a bit, well… lacking in giving a shit. Scales’ enthusiasm is palpable, but I’m just not interested enough.

Besides which, I totally agree that anthropogenic climate change is real, but somehow being preached at about it in every book I read is beginning to get on my nerves. Yes, thanks, I know all this! I know there’s value in it being there and it’s all true and important, but… arggh! Somehow it’s becoming, unfairly, a pet hate.

This isn’t actually a bad book, just not my thing.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Rose Daughter

Posted 7 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rose Daughter by Robin McKinleyRose Daughter, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley has written two rather different adaptations of Beauty and the Beast; this is the second, and perhaps more sophisticated one. There’s much more magic in this one, and more of a developed fantasy world for the story to take place in. It also departs from the basic story much more, introducing additional characters and motivations. While it makes for a much more rounded world, I found myself much less interested in it! Sometimes simplicity can work better, and this ended up feeling rather fussy to me. The whole tangle has to be explained at the end by a character who has barely previously appeared, and that also feels clumsy.

There is one aspect of this I prefer to other tellings, and that’s the fact that the Beast remains a Beast. The transformation to a man seems weird sometimes — or rather, the transformation to a man followed by an immediate marriage, especially when Beauty is described as being confused by and even timid by her transformed partner. It seems to make more sense this way, at least for this particular version of the story.

In any case, I’m glad I reread this, but I probably won’t do so again. I far prefer McKinley’s first version, Beauty!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Edge of Memory

Posted 6 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Edge of Memory by Patrick NunnThe Edge of Memory, Patrick Nunn

Patrick Nunn’s premise is that oral traditions may preserve details about events from a long time ago — not just decades, but centuries, and even millennia. He goes about trying to prove this by taking inundation stories as an example, linking them to post-glacial sea rise events, and trying to prove that the stories accurately depict the experiences of the tellers’ ancestors. I think his basic point is proven anyway: we know that oral traditions can preserve an amazing amount of detail over astonishing lengths of time. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down long after the events they describe, with clear features showing they were actually performed aloud and passed from person to person in a feat of memory. We know that this survival wasn’t just a matter of a generation or two, because the stories contain clear details that were no longer relevant to the time when the stories were actually written down: weaponry, customs and geopolitics were different, but are preserved in the epics with a surprising degree of fidelity.

However, I think Nunn tries to go too far, and is generally pretty unsound. For one example that made me question his research, he mentions his theory that people originally created rock art as a sort of aide-memoire, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t aid in survival — that it must be so, because they wouldn’t have had time for anything other than survival. However, the 40 hour work week is actually a purely post-Industrial construct: modern hunter-gatherers — even living in a world circumscribed by land ownership and industry, i.e. with nowhere near the range they would have had prehistorically — need to spend far less time on subsistence. Anything from 2 hours a day to 8 hours is suggested, most of it on the lower end of that scale; if nothing else, hunter-gatherers had the same amount of free time as modern humans, likely more.

That’s a comparatively minor point, but it definitely made me sceptical. Add to that Nunn’s tendency to use phrases like “it is plausible to assume” and “it seems likely”, and his rather circular attempts to use sea levels to date the stories and stories to date the sea levels, and I’m extra-sceptical. These are mythic stories — things like a kangaroo digging a hole that causes the sea to flood in — and his interpretations are faltering. Does it mean X? Does it mean Y? At one point he says the presence of a particular feature in a story proved it referred to a permanent inundation and then later, though I suspect this was bad editing, seems to say the opposite of another story (it didn’t contain the same feature, and therefore still referred to a permanent inundation — what?!).

I think Nunn attempts to use two things that are necessarily imprecise to date each other, and gets tangled up in the relationship between those. I’d much rather see some underwater archaeology to show that people were living in these locations at the right time, as a kind of independent third corroboration. I think he’s particularly shaky when he discusses stories where drowned buildings are clearly visible beneath the water: it’s obvious that those stories cannot be purely handed down from the time of the inundation, but will have been reinforced, changed, or possibly even invented by new tellers, when the drowned buildings were observed in later times.

The basic premise that oral culture can preserve some astonishing detail from very far in the past is undeniable, and I commend Nunn’s use and examination of Australian Aboriginal stories in particular — I think it was a sound choice given their isolation from other people’s and the strength of their oral culture. I just think Nunn tries to stand up a stool with only two legs (the stories and sea levels), and should definitely have thought about other ways to establish his theories.

Obviously this is not my field in any sense, though I have a background in scientific investigation, so take my opinion for what you think that’s worth. I found the book interesting and largely well-written, even if the arguments are weak. I did find the recounting of every single individual inundation story known to the author rather tedious. There’s something like 21 one of them: pick the best ones, dude. Make a table to compare them. Just… something!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A Closed and Common Orbit

Posted 5 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky ChambersA Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

The first time I read this book, I was vaguely resentful that it wasn’t about the same characters as the first book, and I briefly had the same sensation here. Becky Chambers is so good at creating characters I care about — even if I don’t like them necessarily — and it took me a while to switch gears. However, it was easier on a second reading, and I was quickly caught up in Pepper and Sidra’s stories once more.

In this book, there are two parallel stories: one follows a little girl who escapes from a scrap sorting factory and finds a derelict ship, still equipped with an AI who takes care of her, teaches her, and helps her escape that world. That girl grows up to become Pepper, and Pepper takes care of Sidra. Sidra was an AI, and now she has a humanoid body, and through the course of the book she learns to deal with that. There’s all kinds of great stuff going on about identity and embodiment and learning how to be content with what you are, all wound up in an emotional story about family and belonging.

So naturally, Chambers rocked it. She’s great at aliens, she’s great at figuring out what an AI suddenly thrown into a human body would be like, she’s great at making the reader care incredibly much. I’m not a big cryer in general, and even less so at media, but this book (and the first) makes me cry — and not in a bad way, because there’s so much warmth and hope and joy here, amidst the normal fears and worries of being a person in a world that isn’t always friendly.

I can’t wait to get on and read Record of A Spaceborn Few now. I know I’m going to be hesitant (give me the Wayfarer crew! give me Pepper and Sidra!) and that I’m going to end up loving them.

Rating: 5/5

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