Tag: book reviews


Review – Death in Ecstasy

Posted 9 June, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio MarshDeath in Ecstasy, Ngaio Marsh

Well, I guess I’d better give up the disclaimer about what I think of these. They’re harmless, easy fun, concerned with setting up a puzzle and then working it out, with lots of red herrings and interesting people along the way. Nothing ground breaking, but comfortable.

This one did give me a little bit of unease because of the swishy, blatantly queer couple who were a walking, talking pair of stereotypes. At least they were harmless, but Marsh wrote about them rather unpleasantly and nobody thought any good of them. At least Alleyn, as I imagine him, wouldn’t be an ass to them in person about it, but would respect their relationship (as long as he thought it was real, not just theatrics and melodrama). I suppose I am getting to like him, though I think I’m building on him in my own mind more than Marsh is in the text.

This one only slightly breaks the trend — there’s no reconstruction, though the group do gather together again to talk it over, which is pretty close.

The statement I spotted in another review that Nigel Bathgate does nothing and could he please be murdered now is sadly accurate. The one point I liked was when Alleyn rings up and tells him to act as if he’s talking to Angela. That was a bit amusing.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Nursing Home Murder

Posted 8 June, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio MarshThe Nursing Home Murder, Ngaio Marsh

This is my third Ngaio Marsh novel and I still have somewhat mixed feelings. I’m not into her detective character at all — there’s been too little personality and depth, just a lot of surface shine — and the structure is now formulaic. Set-up for a murder with many potential motives -> murder which is very awkward for lots of people -> Alleyn investigates without explaining much to anyone -> Alleyn has a reconstruction done -> this flushes out the murderer, who incriminates himself without need for a trial, and who is the least suspected person -> an epilogue in which Alleyn explains everything.

I have got the next three books now, though. There’s something relaxing and easy about these, even a little compulsive, perhaps because I don’t care much for the characters and so for me, there are no high stakes. Generally the plots are full of coincidence, misdirection, and meta-nods at the genre (“if this were a murder story, you would suspect the least obvious one, of course!”).

I think you could pretty much class these as cozy mysteries.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Enter a Murderer

Posted 6 June, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Enter a Murderer by Ngaio MarshEnter a Murderer, Ngaio Marsh

I found this a bit more engaging than the first book, and more plausible besides in the way the murder is worked out, but I’m still not sure what I think of Marsh’s work, or perhaps specifically Alleyn. I haven’t got a handle on him at all; I can never quite tell what he’s meant to be thinking, what he’ll do, and whether he thinks it’s awful fun or perfectly awful, except when we’re directly told. Perhaps the alternating, alienating POVs of him and then Bathgate don’t help there. For all that they’re supposed to be friends, I can’t for the life of me understand why.

Still, I cared more about the mystery in this one, and read it all in one go. And I’ve ordered the second omnibus, because I sense that this ambivalence might go on a while. We’ll see, I suppose.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Man Lay Dead

Posted 5 June, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio MarshA Man Lay Dead, Ngaio Marsh

I’m not wildly enthused about Ngaio Marsh and Inspector Alleyn, at this point. It’s a smooth enough read, but the murder is a little haphazardly imagined: some elements of it suggest premeditation, while others suggest a crime of opportunity, but it has to be one or the other or it just doesn’t work. Too much depends on opportunity — the availability of the weapon, the position of the murdered man, the way the murder game turns out — and yet the rest of it smacks of pre-meditation: the bizarre way the murderer sneaks downstairs to do it, planning out what gloves to use, arranging an alibi… And then there’s the whole mess of the Russian secret society plot. Just… what?!

I can’t say I really cared much about any of the characters. Alleyn seems… weirdly mercurial, but not in a believable way, flipping personalities more often than you’d change clothes. I don’t understand him a bit. And Nigel Bathgate is just too bland: a Watson type of sidekick who makes silly mistakes and can’t figure anything out.

I know I didn’t like Peter Wimsey incredibly much the first time I read Whose Body?, so I’m giving this series more of a chance, but I’m not sure I’ll go beyond the three books I have. So many books, so little time.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – My Beloved Brontosaurus

Posted 29 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian SwitekMy Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, Brian Switek

My Beloved Brontosaurus is exactly the sort of book I wanted about dinosaurs. Chatty, personal, but still closely focused on the creatures and how they lived (and died). I know a fair bit about dinosaurs thanks to another Coursera course, Dino 101, so not a lot of the information was new to me, but it was interesting to read it in another context, and to read slightly different angles on it. Switek’s enthusiasm for the subject is kind of adorable, and actually made me smile a lot.

In terms of the content, it’s not exactly on the cutting edge, or any kind of exhaustive survey of research on dinosaurs. It picks out interesting facts and theories, discusses some of the historical theories that are of interest or contributed to modern theories, and generally works fine even if you’ve never heard of Torosaurus, didn’t know that the Velociraptor portrayed in Jurassic Park is actually Deinonychus, or couldn’t tell the difference between an ornithischian and a saurischian dinosaur if your life depended on it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Spillover

Posted 28 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Spillover by David QuamnemSpillover, David Quammen

I found this book fascinating. When I originally got it out of the library, some of my friends were a biiiit concerned that given my GAD was health-focused, this would just make me have a panic attack. I’m happy to report that I was simply happily curious, digging around with great enthusiasm, stopping to google things, etc.

In terms of the level this is at, it’s perfectly comprehensible to anyone, I would say. Granted, I do have a background in reading plenty of popular science, an A Level in biology, and various science/medical courses online, but I don’t think that puts me much above the layman, really. Where something needs explaining, Quammen does so quite clearly. (Although if you do find this fascinating but a bit dense for you, this course on Coursera might be worth a look the next time it runs. I enjoyed it, anyway.)

So, granted I already find this topic fascinating, but I think this was a good read. It avoided sensationalism, aside from the couple of chapters where Quammen imagined the life of the Cut Hunter from the cut-hunter theory of the origin of HIV, which were a little much for me. That goes beyond adding a bit of human interest into a flight of fancy, which jars with the rest of the book. If you want to think delightedly of Ebola victims as being a sack of liquefied matter, I gather you want to read The Hot Zone (Richard Preston).

It’s well-structured, taking us through various different zoonotic pathogens and their implications. The search for the “Next Big One” (the next pandemic) isn’t the primary focus, despite the title, and instead Quammen focuses on how the diseases are tracked, particularly how they are tracked to the reservoir species that safely harbour the pathogens until they spill over into other species. It’s not hysterical about the fact that there will be another pandemic, but treats it in a matter of fact way. Of course there’ll be another pandemic: we’re overcrowded, highly connected, highly social, and fairly careless.

I know there are people out there who will be complaining about Quammen’s bias when he notes that we are, to a great extent, making the problem worse. We destroy habitats, bring animals into closer contact with us, and thus bring ourselves into closer contact with their pathogens, which may spill over into humans. Not biased, and not hard to understand, just a fact.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Riddle-master of Hed

Posted 27 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Riddle-master of Hed by Patricia McKillipThe Riddle-master of Hed, Patricia A. McKillip

This is beautifully written, as all of Patricia McKillip’s work is. However, something in the density of it makes it difficult — not to read; I sped through it, in that sense, but to understand exactly what it going on and how we should feel about it. I’ve had that problem with one or two of McKillip’s other books, so I think it’s something about her style which may or may not be a problem for other people. I wouldn’t actually start here, with McKillip: I first fell in love with The Changeling Sea, I think, and I’d start there if I could begin with her work again.

Nonetheless, it is beautifully written and a joy to read in that sense. You might find yourself lingering over a sentence, a paragraph, because of the way it’s put together.

I can’t help but think that Le Guin’s Ged and McKillip’s Morgon have a certain amount in common. They’re both driven by their destinies, rather than following them willingly. They baulk more than a hero-type like, say, Aragorn or Frodo. Maybe slightly more in common with Bilbo, wishing he could be back home listening to his kettle sing, and Morgon especially shares that unwillingness and the sense that the goal is not really his own.

I’m not entirely sure what I think of the world-building. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff here, revealed in a careful way (avoiding any info dumps like “as you know, Bob, the wizards disappeared seven hundred years ago”). But the story is so clearly unfinished, so clearly part of a trilogy — maybe not even a trilogy, I can’t see how this could be a complete book on its own in any sense, it doesn’t really come to any conclusion. So I’ll reserve broader judgement for later. Onwards!

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Review – A Mind of Its Own

Posted 26 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of A Mind of Its Own by Cordelia FineA Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine

If you’ve read much on the subject, this doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but it’s presented in a readable, well-organised format, meticulously footnoted, and adopts a pretty light tone. If you’re anything like me, you’ll smile in recognition of some of the things she says — in the middle of describing the brain’s unreliability, Fine points out that precisely in line with what she’s saying, your brain is probably insisting you’re different. It doesn’t apply to you. You’d ignore the researcher in the obedience to authority experiments, you can see through your brain’s attempts to make you believe you’re better than you are.

(And if you’re honest, you’ll admit at this point that you do want to think you’re different. My favourite bit was putting some of this together. For example, when it talked about experiments where people were told that extroverts do better at something, they went through their memories and pulled out only ones that corresponded with an extroverted image of themselves. On the other hand, I ruefully thought about all the ways I am a hopeless introvert — thereby illustrating one of the brain’s ways of protecting itself from failure, by providing myself with an excuse, i.e. ‘if I’m less successful, it’s because I’m not extroverted’.)

Not revelatory, but pretty fun.

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Review – Six Feet Over

Posted 25 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Six Feet Over by Mary RoachSix Feet Over, Mary Roach

I don’t think I’m the greatest fan of Mary Roach’s style. It’s informal, easy to read, self-deprecating — but when it comes to a topic like this, I don’t want to hear all about Mary Roach unless it really illuminates the subject matter. Granted, stuff like near-death experiences and the various ideas of what happens to us after we die are things I’ve been interested in for a long time, and don’t really need an entry-level primer on. (I had to memorise the stages of an NDE as described by Kenneth Ring for my religious studies A Level.)

Still, where this deals with facts instead of impressions, it’s interesting stuff. A couple of the studies and anecdotes were familiar to me from what I already knew: I still find the case of the woman who saw the surgical tools being used on her despite having her eyes taped shut an interesting one. (It’s convincing because it wasn’t a typical tool, not something she’d have come across elsewhere, and she didn’t see the instruments before or after her operation.)

Overall, this probably isn’t going to convince you either way, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s certainly got some interesting snippets of information.

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Review – My Real Children

Posted 24 May, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of My Real Children by Jo WaltonMy Real Children, Jo Walton

So, first off: I am completely, utterly biased. Jo sent me a copy to review, I had my own pre-ordered copy several days before the book released, I love her work in general, and she’s been great to me. This doesn’t speak to me in the same way Among Others did, but all the same, it’s wonderful. I love the way the two timelines are handled, and I love the way that last chapter brings things back into alignment. I love that I was thinking all along that I wasn’t sure about the narration, and yet somehow it worked and brought me to tears.

The thing with the narration is, this is a short book to hold the sum of two lives. So at times the narration seems to summarise things that could have been interesting expanded. I wasn’t sure for parts of it whether the emotional impact would still be there, but it is. In some places, it fits perfectly the way things happen: matter of fact, sudden, without announcing themselves first. I was thinking about whether I’d want it to be expanded, but I don’t think I would. It would take away from the structure, the careful balance Jo builds.

I love the fact that this book is jammed full of people. Gay people, out and closeted both; unconventional relationships and love that doesn’t colour between the lines; families, built and chosen; people with disabilities who conform to no stereotype; pacifists and campaigners; scientists; women making their way in a sexist world and pushing the boundaries… All of them are handled with respect and care for their stories.

The whole plot… I don’t know how much is too much to give away, here. The final chapter just makes everything slide into place and come clear. You’ve got Pat/Trish living two separate lives, each with their own kinds of happiness and fulfillment. You think it’s going to be simple to choose which one you’d prefer for her, and then if you just tilt to the head you can see why that wouldn’t be the right choice.

And I don’t know if anyone else felt this, coming to the last page, but I don’t actually know which version of herself Patricia chooses. It looks like a straight-up choice between personal happiness and wider well-being, but the whole book shows us the importance of tiny actions by a single person. Trish is a person who takes care of other people, who sacrifices her own well-being for that: does Patricia choose to follow her path, because that’s part of who she is? Pat is a person who focuses on her family, who loves art, who makes the world a better place, but who is ultimately quite insular: does Patricia choose to follow Pat, because that insularity is part of her too? Saying that she couldn’t make any other choice only makes sense after she’s chosen.

Rating: 5/5

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