Tag: book reviews

Review – Spectred Isle

Posted 18 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spectred Isle by K.J. CharlesSpectred Isle, K.J. Charles

Spectred Isle is set in the aftermath of the First World War, and much of the book is spent trying to find sense and a place in that post-war world. One main character is Saul Lazenby, an archaeologist who ended his war in disgrace after his homosexual love affair landed him in hot water; the other is Randolph Glyde, heir to an illustrious family and last survivor. Saul’s getting by through working for a harmless crank who wants every last sacred well or mysterious ghost story investigated, and Randolph’s trying to do all kinds of jobs at once, carrying on his family’s ancient duty to protect the land from supernatural influences.

Naturally, the two come together, both personally and professionally; they spend a good portion of the book dancing around it, but then quickly find that the other offers everything they’ve been lacking — Saul gets a purpose again, while Randolph finds Saul the answer to his worries about a significant part of his family duty, but then also they offer healing and hope to each other on a personal level as well. I love the way their relationship is written: they communicate forthrightly, make it clear what they each want, and also make it clear what the catch is. Randolph might be eager to have Saul in his life, but he’s not eager to do so on false pretences.

(For those mostly here for the romance, yes, there is a HEA, and there are several sex scenes.)

I’d love to know so much more about this world, which means I’d happily read any other books in this world, which at the moment means The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I have so many questions about the other characters, about the way things work, about the complications doubtless ahead for Randolph and Saul with the guardianship of the Moat, with the Shadow Ministry, etc, etc. Sadly, looks like book two has got into some tangles and is on hold. Luckily, Saul and Randolph’s story is complete enough in itself to be satisfying, so don’t let that hold you back!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The King in the North

Posted 17 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The King in the North by Max AdamsThe King in the North, Max Adams

Having recently read Joanna Arman’s The Warrior Queen, I was a bit worried about plunging into another medieval period biography — that one was so disappointing in prose style, baseless assertions and general slenderness. The King in the North was rather more satisfying; Adams writes well, and though I’m not always a fan of history books that spend too much time prosing about the landscape, his set-pieces on that subject do capture something useful about the locations he writes about.

This isn’t an area of expertise for me, but I’m reassured by the footnotes and endnotes that he is making reference to real findings drawn from a range of sources. When something is his imagination or opinion, that’s clear in the text, which is also important. Generally, I think this is likely to be a pretty solid pop-history source on Oswald of Northumbria, and his life and times.

Like most of these biographies of medieval personages, there’s a lot of preamble with setting up the context and then analysing the aftermath: as ever, very little of it focuses on Oswald’s life and his deeds while alive. Still, I found all of it interesting and relevant. I’ll happily read more of Adams’ work.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Body in the Dumb River

Posted 15 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Body in the Dumb River by George BellairsThe Body in the Dumb River, George Bellairs

As with most of the British Library Crime Classics, this is very readable and entertaining for what it is: a piece of Golden Age crime fiction by a competent writer, with the usual sort of mystery with a solid policeman methodically tracking down whodunnit. I don’t read these reissues because I’m expecting a forgotten masterpiece, so I wasn’t disappointed!

The Body in the Dumb River deals with the death by stabbing of a man who travels around Britain working a hoop-la stall. His assistant and lover must be questioned (in a rather sympathetic scene, without drama), and so must his wife and children — for whom the idea of him running a hoop-la stall is a pretty distasteful surprise. The scenes with his actual family are rather less sympathetic: the murdered man was henpecked, driven to distraction by his indolent, lazy wife, and his wife’s family are all pretty unpleasant.

As I said, it doesn’t stand out above the crowd, but it was a quick and enjoyable read for what it is.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Piltdown Forgery

Posted 13 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Piltdown Forgery, J.S. Weiner

The Piltdown Forgery is a rather old book, reissued after fifty years, which examines the known evidence in an attempt to figure out who exactly forged the famous Piltdown Man. To be more precise, the forger created a collection of remains and artefacts which supposedly proved the presence in Britain of a man with an ape-like jaw and a Homo-like cranium, at such an age to suggest itself as a perfect transitional fossil in the ape to human lineage. It was revealed as a clever forgery by 1953, but interest has since focused on figuring out who the forger was and what exactly their motives were.

The book goes into the detail of the “discovery” and how the fake was unmasked, discussing the various techniques of staining and of later dating the fossil, before trying to work out who had the necessary skills, interest and motive. To my mind, the answer is fairly obvious to begin with, and the evidence presented only makes it more so; Weiner actually holds back from that conclusion, though, rather coyly asserting that surely it doesn’t matter now. Indeed, it’s now been confirmed by DNA testing, so I’m afraid there’s no way out for Weiner, despite the liking he betrays for the chief suspect.

(Not to be coy myself, the man who made the original discovery was always the obvious suspect and the recent tests confirm: Charles Dawson was the forger.)

It’s an interesting overview, though cuts surprisingly short when it is about to reach that inevitable conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Aztecs

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

The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend

I read some fairly wide-ranging and eclectic subject matter, and I know a lot of it would bore other people to tears. The Aztecs, however, should be pretty darn interesting in principle: while our sources are fragmentary, there’s still a lot we can know, and there’s so much to be fascinated by in their legends, stories about themselves, and social structure.

Just… not in this book. There are other books in this series that manage to be wonderful, so it’s not the academic-ish introduction or the general goals of the book that constrain it. Something about Townsend’s prose is just stultifyingly dull. I made it halfway through and realised that not only had I failed to absorb most of the information so far, I hadn’t once turned to my wife and said, “Hey, did you know that…”

Well, that’s the kiss of death for me and non-fiction. Somehow it didn’t manage to give me any new information in a way that made it feel interesting. Bye, book! I’m sure you are indeed the “best introduction” to the field (as the back proclaims), for people who either don’t mind being bored or are so fascinated by the field that they can’t look away.

(Lest you be wondering, the things I excitedly tell my wife don’t have to be that interesting to the wider world — the facts can be fairly trivial.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The End of Epidemics

Posted 6 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

The End of Epidemics, Dr Jonathan Quick

Dr Jonathan Quick has a bold claim in the title of this book: the end of epidemics? Does he really think he can stop all epidemics, any epidemics, from ever happening again? The answer, in case you were worried, is no: he’s not quite that full of hubris. Instead, his recommendations are focused on avoiding local outbreaks becoming global pandemics, through improving the way we handle emerging infectious diseases in various ways. His ideas rest on improving leadership, infrastructure, monitoring, education, and response time. For the most part, if you’re interested in infectious diseases then his answers are obvious to you: of course we need a leader who will coordinate resources properly. Of course we need infrastructure to get people and equipment to the right places. Of course we need to monitor exactly what diseases might be currently posing a threat.

There are some interesting dissections of epidemics past and the reasons they did or didn’t explode into pandemics, along with healthy criticism of the WHO. There’s a fair amount of worry about bioterrorism, particularly with the advent of CRISPR; this is a threat we haven’t really seen materialising yet, probably because an infectious disease is so hard to control. You can’t make an epidemic avoid the people you agree with, after all. This makes me somewhat sceptical about the likelihood of someone releasing something like smallpox, apart from possibly as a lunatic ‘destroy everyone’ move.

Anyway, as ever there’s useful ideas in here, but it’s probably not getting into the hands of people who could make a genuine difference anyway. I’m not sure what the purpose of releasing this as a pop-science book was, exactly, though I suppose it serves some purpose in educating people.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Strange Practice

Posted 3 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Strange Practice by Vivian ShawStrange Practice, Vivian Shaw

Yep, I reread it again.

Strange Practice is a delight of a book which grows (it seems to me, anyway) from a question: “What do monsters do when they get sick?” And then, “What kind of ailments would they have, anyway?” Greta Helsing (yes, a descendent of that Helsing) is a doctor who specialises in the diseases of the monstrous. Mummies with decaying bones, ghouls with depression, banshees with sore throats — and vampires with concerning stab wounds they somehow aren’t recovering from. Which is where the story starts, really, and from where Greta plunges into a fight to protect the monstrous of London.

The reason I find it so delightful is because it has so much heart. I know “hopepunk” is typically considered to be more on the scientific end of spec-fic, but this book fits the bill for me. It shouldn’t be radical when Greta says that it is her duty to help and heal the monstrous, regardless of what they have done. But it is — her caring is radical, and a message I think is deeply necessary when Britain is splintering in the way it is. Has probably always been necessary, because humans are far too prone to drawing sharp lines.

I also enjoy that Greta is a deeply capable doctor, and that she relies on the people around her to do things that aren’t medical. However much she wants to be a hero (or at least doesn’t want to be the one left behind wondering how the heroes are doing), her first priority is the importance she has in the community. She knows that if they lose her, they lose something they need, and so she accepts the need for her companions to go and face the Big Bad without her.

Speaking of her companions… it is also delightful to follow Sir Edmund Ruthven and Varney the Vampyre around modern London. I adore the way the book deals with their long lives — Varney with much melancholy and hibernation, Ruthven by learning new skills constantly. Including, for example, latte art. Also, he drove an ambulance during the Blitz. There are so many delightful details in the way Shaw brings these characters to life.

This was the third time I read this book, because I was feeling down and glum and needed to whole-heartedly enjoy something which wasn’t grim, or cynical, or angry. This was an excellent choice, once more, and I heartily recommend it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – To Be Taught, if Fortunate

Posted 2 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky ChambersTo Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers

This novella is a stand-alone which explores many of the same themes as Chambers’ award-winning Wayfarers books: there’s a deeper focus on science, but there are also the same themes of family, friendship, what’s worth it in life. It follows the fortunes of a small crew who are surveying planets far, far from Earth, investigating all manner of things — including life. It’s an optimistic view of the universe in terms of biology: there’s some form of life everywhere the crew go. Throughout, it’s clear that what they’re doing is not necessary — this isn’t about terraforming, finding somewhere new for people to live, finding resources… it’s about discovery, the joy and wonder of it.

It’s not much of a story, really. There’s a fair bit of explanation about why the scientific things are significant, and there’s a dryness to the tone in a lot of places because of the format (a report back to Earth). There is a payoff, but it definitely wasn’t as emotional as the Wayfarers books, and I didn’t feel particularly close to the characters. In fact, I’ve mostly forgotten their names already, though I do remember some things about them and how they reacted to the events — I’m not saying this is a dead loss, at all.

It’s a good short read, with a theme I can get behind — the importance of discovery for discovery’s sake — but I hoped for more, I think is my conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Blue Salt Road

Posted 1 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

The Blue Salt Road, Joanne Harris

The Blue Salt Road is a take on the myths of selkies: seal-people who can shed their sealskin and become humans, and can be trapped on land by the theft of their skins. This is mostly told in a stripped back, fairytale sort of register; you’re told how characters feel, but there is a lot of telling (and intentionally so: that isn’t a criticism, because that style is deliberate). For the most part, it’s a straight retelling: a girl lures a selkie from the sea and loves him, and then hides his sealskin to keep him on land with her.

What Harris adds to the tale is a little more psychology — examination of the girl’s reasons, of the selkie’s feelings, of how he tries to fit in with the human world he’s been pulled into… and examination of the grief and loss and betrayal inherent in the story.

For all that the shape of the story is pretty traditional, I found the ending a surprise — and in a good way. I’m not sure I believe that the selkie will be happy with the final shape of his life, and there’s still a lot of grief and betrayal… but there’s also a very human and real determination to make something of it. Nobody dies of pure grief here, as in a fairytale: instead, people must carry on.

I enjoyed this a lot, and thought it did quite a bit with the story while keeping a fairytale-style narration.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Turning Darkness into Light

Posted 31 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Turning Darkness into Light, Marie Brennan

Received to review via Netgalley

I wanted to get this reviewed before it came out, but I also didn’t want to do it a disservice and rush it. To be quite honest with you, I basked in having this world to dive into anew, after some time has passed in that world; I adore what Brennan does in the Lady Trent books with showing scientific progress and academic endeavour, and I had the same feeling here. Being both a biology graduate and a literature postgraduate (and one who focused on languages and translation fairly heavily for a while), this world has now reflected so much of my experience it makes me quite squeeful. I know Audrey is much better at translating Draconaean than I ever was at Anglo-Saxon or Old Icelandic, but some of the struggles in reading are similar — and the process of academic review and piecing things together across texts is even more familiar.

(I mean, nor am I as experienced and high level a biologist as Lady Trent is a naturalist; still, there are commonalities, and Isabella and Audrey’s struggle for status is still relevant for female-bodied folks in STEM today, soooo…)

The thing is, in conclusion, that Brennan is just so clever in the way she puts together the work. The way she invents these ancient texts: the structures of them, the lacunae, the difficulty in understanding things that rely on context. The way she understands the process is so clear — which makes sense, given her background in anthropology, but that doesn’t always mean one will be good at writing it. Brennan is.

And that only touches on half the book! There’s also an exploration of what it might be like to be the granddaughter of someone like Isabella, explorations of the developments in Draconaean civilisation since she found the Sanctuary… and delightful bits like Audrey causing a riot (of course) and Isabella dismissing someone as a potential partner for Audrey because he’s not a sound scholar, and all the politics which Audrey manages to entangle herself in… It all comes together very satisfyingly.

Perhaps my only criticism is that Audrey is very like Isabella; their voices are similar, and you can be pretty sure that whatever Isabella would have done in a situation, Audrey will do as well. Obviously, there’s reasons for that, and good ones, but it makes the book feel less its own thing and more like it’s more of the same. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I hope if we see more of Audrey, she does more forging of her own way. (I absolutely want to see more of Audrey.)

Rating: 5/5

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