Tag: book reviews

Review – Magic Rises

Posted December 22, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Magic Rises by Ilona AndrewsMagic Rises, Ilona Andrews

In this instalment of the series, Curran and Kate head to Georgia to arbitrate an argument between the European shapeshifter packs. It’s a trap and they know it, but they badly need the payment they will receive if they pull it off: ten drums of panacea, the medicine that helps shapeshifters who are at risk of becoming monsters, a risk that most shapeshifters face during adolescence. It’s not clear where the trap is, and Kate’s going to be a lone human among hundreds of shapeshifters who don’t respect her and think they can easily crush her… but it’s got to be done.

As ever, the book barrels along at an enormous clip. I don’t enjoy the relationship aspect of this book very much at all; after what they’ve been through so far, both Kate and Curran should know better than to behave like idiots and ignore the trust they’ve built between them. I know it’s part of the drama of the series, but ugh, Kate, you know he’d face down an army for you, why are you letting yourself be played?

(Not that Kate’s emotional intelligence has ever been a highly vaunted point in this series, admittedly.)

The escalation of the plot as far as Kate’s origins goes, though, is pretty great. Now she finds herself in a confrontation with one of her father’s closest lieutenants, and though the Pack are at her side, there are a limited number of them with her. She has to walk the line, protect the person she’s there to protect and win the panacea, and try to prevent her father’s lackey learning too much about her capabilities. Every secret she can keep now is one more weapon later. And fittingly for stakes this high, there are serious casualties…

As always, the drama and action are balanced with exquisitely timed snarky humour, and quite honestly I reread this in about three sittings and just plain gulped it down. I might not love the relationship drama in this particular instalment, but I’m Team Kate and Curran all the way.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Miss Jacobson’s Journey

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

Cover of Miss Jacobson's Journey by Carola DunnMiss Jacobson’s Journey, Carola Dunn

Miss Jacobson’s Journey is the first book in the trilogy with a book I already read, Lord Roworth’s Reward. It features Felix during his earlier adventures, alluded to frequently in the second book, though the main character of the first book is undoubtedly Miriam. It opens when she rejects a suitor chosen by her parents to travel around Europe with her uncle, a doctor, and swiftly moves onto her attempts to get home after her uncle’s death. She ends up on a mission to deliver gold to Lord Wellington, accompanied by her longterm companion, Hannah, and two men: a somewhat familiar Jewish man (the very same man she turned down years before), and a young English lord (Felix) — two men who don’t get along at all.

I enjoyed reading about Miriam trying to unite the two, and the struggles and missteps as both of them become attracted to her. I’m not Jewish, or well-versed in Jewish traditions, so it’s hard to evaluate whether the portrayal of Miriam and Isaac, and the other Jewish people they meet, is a good one — but it felt like it to me, as an outsider. Miriam is great, capable and kind, though not always endowed with the best of judgement when it comes to a pretty face. It was good to get to know Isaac a bit as well, after his brief appearances in the second book. Felix is hardly shown to best effect here: we do see him grow over the course of the book, but he starts out as a snobbish antisemite, and that’s a rough thing to shake off. (And perhaps it was easier for me to shake off because I know him from the second book, as a man who has got over a lot of his prejudice, if not all of his stupider ideas.)

The happy ever after is lovely, and I do appreciate the way this trilogy is completely embedded in the history of the time. It doesn’t go too far — Felix isn’t an invented war hero, Isaac’s no international superspy; they’re just cogs in the great machine of war — but it gives you a solid feel for the time they’re living in. All in all, I think I want to acquire copies of this trilogy for my shelves to reread some other time. Onto the third book, Captain Ingram’s Inheritance!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Wychwood

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

Cover of Wychwood by George MannWychwood, George Mann

Things have fallen apart between Elspeth and her long-term partner, so she heads home to her mother, only to find a murder investigation ongoing practically in the back garden. Haunted by what she saw when she checked it out, she looks through her books to discover why it’s so familiar, and finds that it’s a recreation of scenes associated with the local mythology of the Carrion King. She teams up with a childhood friend (now a police officer with a rather slack notion of what should be kept from the public) to dig into it, writing articles for the local paper along the way, and stumbling across more than her fair share of the bodies.

Overall, I found the plot kind of predictable; the mystery side was obvious pretty early on, and it didn’t make much of the tension between ordinary everyday policing and the actually supernatural events. That’s kind of left hanging at the end: the characters agree that there seem to be more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in their philosophy, and then… end of book! I’ve got the second book, and I’m curious enough to dig in, but I’m not overly enthused. I wonder if this might work better for someone who isn’t as steeped in crime fiction as I am? (Because okay, I like my Golden Age crime fiction, and you won’t have anything of this sort in Dorothy L. Sayers, but I did do a module on Crime Fiction during my BA, and I read a lot of Ian Rankin growing up.) For me, the marriage between genres was a rather distant one, tilted toward the crime fiction end, where it wasn’t exactly the freshest doughnut in the box.

Oddly enough, I also found the emphasis on Elspeth’s music choices rather disruptive as well. I don’t know most of the singers/bands mentioned (except Bowie), so if it’s meant to set the mood, it’s totally lost on me. I’m not going to put the book down to spin up Youtube to glean whatever clues to the character’s mental state or the tone of the chapter might be in the music choices.

Peter’s a bit of a non-entity so far, to be honest; Elspeth likes him, but I’m weirded out by the lack of professionalism in giving evidence — interview tapes from people being accused of serious crimes! — to a reporter, childhood friend or not. Elspeth herself… I have no objections to her, but nor am I wildly enthused.

The thing is, although this is all very lukewarm, I read this book in about four sittings tops over the course of 24 hours. It went down easily and I never considered putting it down. That’s worth something, with my current mood (around me lie at least 14 unfinished books, and I haven’t been reading regularly for several weeks now). It’s not that it’s a bad book, but I wanted more from it to be really enthusiastic. I’ll be interested to see what the second book does for me!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Return of the Black Death

Posted December 13, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Return of the Black Death by Susan Scott and Christopher DuncanReturn of the Black Death: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer,Susan Scott, Christopher J. Duncan

Full disclosure: I was sceptical before I even picked this up from the sensational title. You’ve got to go a seriously long way to convince me that the Plague is the “world’s greatest serial killer”, even if we accept that a disease should be considered in such an anthropomorphic light. Let me introduce you to your friendly neighbourhood Influenzavirus A, my #1 vote for “disease most likely to have the means to suddenly eradicate humanity”.

I picked it up because an author tweeted a thread of things she would never let anyone change her mind about, and one of the items was that she doesn’t believe the Black Death was caused by Yersinia pestis. Now, infectious disease is one of my special interests, and I already happened to know that Yersinia pestis has, for example, been isolated from plague pits. So I asked her for evidence of the claim, and she pointed me to this book.

Well.

From the start, it was not very rigorous or scientifically accurate? They’ve claimed that HIV is completely understood and under control and causes no panic, for one thing. (I wrote my dissertation on tuberculosis, so I can guarantee you that no HIV isn’t fully understood, because if we could, for example, understand how it and tuberculosis enable each other, that would be really helpful. We have theories, but as of a year ago, we don’t really know for sure.)

And then they make absurd statements like this: “…by all the rules of infectious diseases, when the Black Death was finished it should have disappeared.”

What?! Have they never heard of animal reservoirs? Re-introduction from the original sources? Endemic diseases? Fast-adapting diseases like influenza that change their surface proteins and thus evade immunity? Infectious diseases almost never just “disappear”, though there may be an outbreak in a new species due to chance contact that doesn’t reoccur that might look like disappearance.

What rules of infectious diseases can they possibly be referring to?

I mean, how many diseases do you even know of that have been driven extinct after much effort by humans doing so deliberately? That’ll be two: smallpox and rinderpest. (Smallpox is the only human disease to be eradicated, and with the aid of a highly effective vaccine and extremely persistent vaccination campaigns, it took 11 years of intense campaigning. We have so far been unable to repeat the effect on other target pathogens.)

And there’s this one: “[Measles] is not a danger to well-nourished children in the developed world.” Measles, which can kill (yes, even in the developed world), and furthermore wipes out your immune memory as well as depressing your innate immune system. And they think that Ebola literally liquefies your internal organs.

And then, you know, I read the immortal words stating that “it came as a great surprise to learn” that Iceland had effective contact with the rest of Europe in the 15th century, and also suffered two major outbreaks of the Black Death. Do they just… know nothing of history? At all? Clearly not: they also referred to a manuscript from 1404 as “ancient”…

I had more quibbles. Honestly, I was made out of quibbles about this book. I do have some lingering questions from good points they raised about the vectors, since they claim that rats/fleas of the type that could transmit bubonic plague were not present in Britain and certainly not in Iceland. It’s clear that their claim it was simply too cold in Britain for bubonic plague to survive is untrue, since studies since the publication of this book with reliable controls have found Yersinia pestis in plague pit remains in Britain, but that still makes me wonder about the vectors.

I’d also like to see independent verification of their work on the incubation period of the Plague, which according to their calculations aren’t at all like the modern Yersinia pestis (which is not genetically that different from the medieval version). However, the shakiness of their grasp on facts elsewhere leads me to doubt just about everything they say.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Ivory Vikings

Posted December 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie BrownIvory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory Vikings is ostensibly a book focusing on a famous archaeological find: the Lewis chessmen. The chessmen constitute multiple sets of pieces, though there are pawns lacking, and are carved from walrus ivory. Nancy Marie Brown attempts to look into who made them, and when and where the carving was done. She communicates this by taking each type of piece in turn (bishop, queen, king, etc) and discussing the pieces themselves briefly, and then ranging off into historical and geopolitical context.

Mostly, it doesn’t work for me. The book relies heavily on her Scandinavian location being correct, and it’s very plain she has one particular person in mind as the artist from the outset. A lot of the information is not relevant if her theory is incorrect, and her theory is far from proven (even though I agree that from the evidence as presented, it does seem likely).

I wanted something a bit more focused on the pieces themselves, I’ll be honest. It wasn’t a bad read, but it dragged a little, because I’m not here for church politics!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Conan Doyle for the Defence

Posted November 25, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit FoxConan Doyle for the Defence, Margalit Fox

I read Margalit Fox’s books more or less automatically: I greatly enjoyed her book on the decipherment of Linear B, and something about the way she dives into a subject works for me. It’s broadly true in this case, as well, a book in which Fox delves into three things: first, the murder case that led to the framing of Oscar Slater; second, the detection methods and ideas of Arthur Conan Doyle, including his Sherlock Holmes books and stories; and thirdly, the way Conan Doyle investigated the murder case and advocated for Slater’s freedom. There’s a theme underlying parts of the book, which is the fear of the other which was entrenched in society at the time and led to unfair accusations of this kind — it feels very relevant to read this book now, when a similar fear of immigrants is taking over.

Fox writes sympathetically about both Conan Doyle and Slater, though they were very different men, and takes care to show us that both of them were human, with virtues and faults. Conan Doyle comes across as the better man, of course, because Slater was definitely involved in some less than salubrious escapades (though not ever murder or really anything involving violence).

I didn’t find it as fascinating as sign language or the decipherment of Linear B, but it’s still a worthwhile and interesting read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Portrait of a Murderer

Posted November 24, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Portrait of a Murderer by Anne MeredithPortrait of a Murderer, Anne Meredith

I think there’s only one other British Library Crime Classic that I seriously considered just… not finishing, so this book isn’t in the most ideal of company. It opens with the murder, very quickly reveals the murderer, and then goes on to fill in the details of the murderer’s frame of mind, subsequent actions, and eventual end. The ‘portrait’ is both what the book itself does and a plot point… and also mostly why I dislike the book. The murderer in question is to be sympathised with (as the introduction claims), but I can’t find any sympathy for a man who expresses this sort of sentiment:

It was ridiculous, it was pathetic, it was abominably wrong that a man capable of such work should be grinding out his life in a draughtsman’s office.

Yes, we get it, you’re an artist, that’s nice. That doesn’t make you a saint or entitle you to anything. But the narrative sort of agrees with him, with the more sympathetic members of the family being very sorry for him that he’s going to be caught. He’s abusive to his wife, neglectful of his child, kills his father in a rage, forges himself a cheque to take his father’s money, and then cold-bloodedly frames an innocent man (not a good man, but innocent of the crime of murder at least)… but we’re supposed to see his eventual death as a tragedy.

Nooope. Not down with this. Do not pass go, do not collect £2,000 as the winnings of murder, do not try to claim murder is ever justified in this facile way.

The writing itself isn’t bad, though occasionally tending towards the purple and/or grandiose (though the latter is appropriate when writing from the murderer’s POV), but the choice of where the narrative’s sympathies lie… nope nope nope nope nope.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Reluctant Widow

Posted November 22, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Reluctant WidowThe Reluctant Widow, Georgette Heyer

I didn’t remember The Reluctant Widow as well as I thought I did. There was still a lot to like about it, but the heavyhandedness of the male protagonist really got on my nerves this time through. The plot: Elinor Rochdale has to work as a governess due to her father’s death after gambling away his money. Travelling to a remote place to take up a new post, she accidentally gets into the wrong carriage and finds herself entangled in the affairs of the Carlyon and Cheviot families. Ned Carlyon advertised for a woman to marry his cousin Eustace Cheviot so that he, Ned, won’t have to inherit Eustace’s land — the woman didn’t turn up, only Elinor. This is further complicated by Ned’s brother accidentally stabbing Eustace, precipitating the need for immediate action, which Ned takes by more or less bodily carrying Elinor off to marry Eustace. In theory, she’s given an opportunity to consent, but he’s so heavyhanded I don’t know if I could say no. Or acquiese without it being partly due to fear and embarrassment.

It’s not that Ned seems like a bad guy, by and large, except for his overall insistence that he is right. There is some delightful interaction between him and Elinor, and also between him and his brothers; it is hilarious, and one can see why he is liked at the same time as finding it rather maddening. That personality is all that spoils this book for me — Elinor would be a stronger character in herself if not set against Ned, and if the narrative didn’t prove Ned right over and over again.

Overall it’s a fun mystery and a fun romance, a heck of a romp, but gah, Ned’s personality.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Quick Curtain

Posted November 21, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Quick Curtain by Alan MelvilleQuick Curtain, Alan Melville

Oof, not a big fan of this. The reason is pretty clear from the glowing introduction: this is a rather comedic take on the murder mystery (strike one), with little recourse to realism in the way the crime is detected and handled (strike two). It’s all about the cunning dialogue and the funny asides about the father and son duo (one a policeman, one a reporter) as they stumble around overcomplicating the crime, ignoring leads, and misreading the situation. Some of the dialogue is alright, and I can appreciate some of the cackling at the dynamic duo, but it just got old really fast for me.

Your mileage may vary, however, if you’re a fan of comic stories. There’s some snideness about the theatrical profession and marketing in general; there are some witty parts; and honestly in the end I’m glad they muff it all up, because I didn’t like either main character. It wasn’t a horrible read — not one I felt the need to abandon. But neither was it something I enjoyed.

And damn it, no one gets to be in that position in Scotland Yard without some basic crime scene handling skills, even in the time this is set.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Invisible Library

Posted November 21, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Invisible Library by Genevieve CogmanThe Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman

I’m unfortunately a little behind on writing reviews after I had some issues with posting last week, so let’s get caught up! I felt like romping back through this world, especially with the new installment released; it’s always such a fun read, and it didn’t disappoint on this occasion either. It feels like an excuse to have a Great Detective, a fog-shrouded steampunk London, dragons, and books all in one package — and that’s no bad thing. The stuff that happens is all a bit madcap, and it’s very meta-fictional at times: Fae tend to work according to internalised narratives, and worlds with more inherent Chaos tend to create storylines, so that the thing you need to find to continue your quest is right there when you accidentally stumble into a labyrinth, and so on.

I enjoy Kai and Vale very much — Vale more so, I think, because Kai is arrogant without cause, because he believes himself inherently above others. Vale is arrogant as well, but in a way that derives from his capabilities more than from his position in society. I’m glad that though they are both attracted to Irene, it’s not a conventional love triangle: they’re also connected to each other with respect (starting in this book) and affection (from the end of this book onward), and you get the distinct sense that Kai at least wouldn’t mind an arrangement involving all three of them in some combination. It’s definitely refreshing.

Ever since a friend read this and mentioned that it has inconsistencies, I keep thinking about that fact… and then quickly forgetting it as Irene dashes onto the next place. Perfect? No, it’s definitely not that. But highly enjoyable, for sure, and in a way that matters a lot more to me than perfection, as long as it can keep me hooked. And so far it has, multiple times and through the multiple volumes. It’s the kind of fun reading I want to experience more often, and the kind of unashamedly, riotously fun rollercoaster (which has its ups and downs, there’s no mistaking that — it’s not all sunshine and roses) that I needed to remind me of that.

Rating: 4/5

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