Tag: book reviews

Review – Eight Detectives

Posted May 26, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Eight Detectives

Eight Detectives

by Alex Pavesi

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 352
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

A thrilling, wildly inventive nesting doll of a mystery, in which a young editor travels to a remote village in the Mediterranean in the hopes of convincing a reclusive writer to republish his collection of detective stories, only to realize that there are greater mysteries beyond the pages of books.

There are rules for murder mysteries. There must be a victim. A suspect. A detective. The rest is just shuffling the sequence. Expanding the permutations. Grant McAllister, a professor of mathematics, once sat down and worked them all out – calculating the different orders and possibilities of a mystery into seven perfect detective stories he quietly published. But that was thirty years ago. Now Grant lives in seclusion on a remote Mediterranean island, counting the rest of his days.

Until Julia Hart, a sharp, ambitious editor knocks on his door. Julia wishes to republish his book, and together they must revisit those old stories: an author hiding from his past, and an editor, keen to understand it.

But there are things in the stories that don’t add up. Inconsistencies left by Grant that a sharp-eyed editor begins to suspect are more than mistakes. They may be clues, and Julia finds herself with a mystery of her own to solve.

Alex Pavesi's The Eighth Detective is a cerebral, inventive novel with a modern twist, where nothing is what it seems, and proof that the best mysteries break all the rules.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Alex Pavesi’s Eight Detectives is certainly a fascinating idea: the odd-numbered chapters are short stories, written in-world by one of the characters, which each have strange contradictions and illustrate a mathematical theory — the mathematics of mystery fiction, no less. One of the characters thinks that each story also holds a clue to a particular murder, and spends her time trying to pry into it and figure out the puzzle within the mysteries.

It all fell apart a bit for me with the alternative endings to each of the stories — too much recapping, and sometimes the story as you first read it makes more sense. Of course something like it is needed to bring the stories together and complete the puzzle around in the frame story, but it felt clunkily done. Maybe if there had been just one or two changed endings, or if the changed endings were shorter.

Also, it’s a silly thing to nitpick, but for some reason one of the characters says that nobody was interested in mystery fiction after the war, meaning World War II. I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be a genuine explanation (which would be ridiculous) or if it’s meant to be highlighting a certain character’s inconsistencies and lack of knowledge. I suppose I’d think better of it if it were the latter, and it would make sense given the givens, but hmm…!

It’s an interesting puzzlebox of a story, all the same.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, vol 3

Posted May 24, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, vol 3

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon

by Shio Usui

Genres: Manga, Romance
Pages: 174
Series: Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon #3
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Hinako wants to get closer to Asahi, but there is still a lot she needs to work out. What will happen when she turns to Fuuka in her time of need? And how will Fuuka handle her own feelings for Asahi?

Volume three of Shio Usui’s Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon digs a bit into Asahi’s feelings, through the character of her childhood best friend, Fuuka, and through her argument with her sister (and the sleepover afterwards).

The sudden love triangle did feel a bit frustrating, because just as it seemed like Asahi and Hinako were getting somewhere, Fuuka stepped in and asked Asahi out. It felt a bit jarring pacing-wise, like it should’ve come before — but it does help Asahi and Hinako start to work out their feelings and where they stand as well, so it’s obvious in retrospect what purpose it serves narratively. Otherwise, there’s very little push for them to actually do something about the connection between them.

And of course, I laughed a little about the totally unnecessary “only one bed” trope.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe

Posted May 23, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe

Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe

by Emma Törzs

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 407
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Not all books should be opened.

In this thrilling fantasy debut, meet the family tasked with guarding a trove of magical but deadly books, and the shadowy organisation that will do anything to get them back.

Joanna Kalotay lives alone in the woods of Vermont, the sole protector of a collection of rare books; books that will allow someone to walk through walls or turn water into wine. Books of magic.

Her estranged older sister Esther moves between countries and jobs, constantly changing, never staying anywhere longer than a year, desperate to avoid the deadly magic that killed her mother. Currently working on a research base in Antarctica, she has found love and perhaps a sort of happiness.

But when she finds spots of blood on the mirrors in the research base, she knows someone is coming for her, and that Joanna and her collection are in danger.

If they are to survive, she and Joanna must unravel the secrets their parents kept hidden from them - secrets that span centuries and continents, and could cost them their lives...

It took me a while to read Emma Törzs’ Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe, and I couldn’t quite tell you why. Enchanted books, magic, sisterly love — on paper it’s all pretty compelling. I was definitely intrigued by the magic of the books, and by Nicholas’ abilities, but I think in the end it just felt a bit slow. It feels like it takes forever to assemble the main cast, and some of the big reveals were wholly unsurprising by the time they came. Maybe a bit more pace would’ve made them feel a bit more momentous.

It doesn’t help that Nicholas and Johanna are fairly static characters, to whom things just happen — and even Esther, who at least goes places and does things, didn’t really leave me with a sense of urgency about what was happening. Not that everything has to have a sense of urgency, but the slowness kind of detracts from the deadly peril.

It felt a bit like “compulsory heterosexuality” when Johanna and Collins started up a romance, as well. The book didn’t need that.

That said, there are things that felt really well done: Nicholas’ complicated feelings about his uncle, for example; Johanna’s love/anger all in one, directed at Esther (and at Cecily); Esther’s relationship with Pearl…

All in all, I’m not sorry I spent the time on it, but it didn’t live up to my hopes, either.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Chillies: A Global History

Posted May 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Chillies: A Global History

Chillies: A Global History

by Heather Arndt Anderson

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 126
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

There are some of us who can’t even stand to look at them—and others who can’t live without them: chillies have been searing tongues and watering eyes for centuries in innumerable global cuisines. In this book, Heather Arndt Anderson explores the many ways nature has attempted to take the roofs of our mouths off—from the deceptively vegetal-looking jalapeno to the fire-red ghost pepper—and the many ways we have gleefully risen to the challenge.

Anderson tells the story of the spicy berry’s rise to prominence, showing that it was cultivated and venerated by the ancient people of Mesoamerica for millennia before Spanish explorers brought it back to Europe. She traces the chilli’s spread along trading routes to every corner of the globe, and she explores the many important spiritual and cultural links that we have formed with it, from its use as an aphrodisiac to, in more modern times, an especially masochistic kind of eating competition. Ultimately, she uses the chili to tell a larger story of global trade, showing how the spread of spicy cuisine can tell us much about the global exchange—and sometimes domination—of culture. Mixing history, botany, and cooking, this entertaining read will give your bookshelf just the kick it needs.

I’ve been meaning to pick up Chillies by Heather Arndt Anderson for a while — I love books in the Edible series, which are all a little history of a certain food item, accompanied by colour images and a handful of recipes. I’m a lover of spicy food: nothing silly, with trying to one-up other people etc etc, but a burst of spicy heat is great.

Sometimes these books can end up feeling like a bit too much of a list of dishes that the food in question is used in, and despite the subtitle of all of them (“A Global History”), often they don’t go broad enough. This one was broader than some, with a chapter on the worldwide adoption of chillies that did indeed feel global.

As always, it has references and a bibliography, and is a well-put-together little book. And for once, I’m actually quite tempted to ask my wife to try making one of the recipes!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Monarchs of the Sea

Posted May 21, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Monarchs of the Sea

Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods

by Danna Staaf

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 256
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Before mammals, there were dinosaurs. And before dinosaurs, there were cephalopods.

Cephalopods, Earth's first truly substantial animals, are still among us: their fascinating family tree features squid, octopuses, nautiluses, and more. The inventors of swimming, cephs presided over the sea for millions of years. But when fish evolved jaws, cephs had to step up their game (or end up on the menu). Some evolved defensive spines. Others abandoned their shells entirely, opening the floodgates for a tidal wave of innovation: masterful camouflage, fin-supplemented jet propulsion, and intelligence we've yet to fully measure. In Monarchs of the Sea, marine biologist Danna Staaf unspools how these otherworldly creatures once ruled the deep—and why they still captivate us today.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Danna Staaf’s Monarchs of the Sea is a fascinating tour of the evolution of cephalopods. I am very very late to review it, and I’m sorry for that because it was fascinating. I’d never quite understood that ammonites were cephalopods before, somehow, so that was a surprise, and I was delighted to read more about them and the diversity of their shells. It’d be nice if some modern cephalopod was evolved from an ammonite, really, but Staaf does suggest it’s pretty unlikely.

This is the kind of non-fiction I really enjoy: a deep-dive on a particular subject, not afraid to get into the weeds, and glowing with the author’s fascination for the topic. I don’t know if I could stomach dissection, but she makes even that sound fascinating — I bet she’s great at teaching it.

I was especially fascinated by the discussion of the modern cephalopods and what’s become of their shells, the very last vestiges thereof. Fun!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – London Particular

Posted May 20, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – London Particular

London Particular

by Christianna Brand

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 256
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

Night falls in the capital, and a “London particular” pea-souper fog envelops the city. In Maida Vale, Rose and her family doctor Tedwards struggle through the dark after a man has telephoned from Rose’s house, claiming to have been attacked. By the time they arrive the victim, Raoul Vernet, is dead. The news he brought from Switzerland for Rose’s mother has died with him.

Arriving to the scene, Inspector Cockrill faces a fiendish case with seven suspects who could have murdered their guest – family members and friends with alibis muddled by the suffocating fog and motives wrapped in mystery. Now, the race is on to find the truth before the killer strikes again.

First published in 1952, London Particular was Brand’s favourite among her own books, and it remains a fast-paced and witty masterpiece of the genre, showing off the author’s signature flair for the ruthless twist.

Christianna Brand’s mysteries aren’t entirely my thing, and London Particular is perhaps the not-my-thingest. One of the major characters, Rosie, has been sleeping around and got pregnant, and much of the narrative revolves around tearing her down for it — exposing her petty lies without sympathy, and to put it baldly, slut-shaming her all the way. Some of the other characters pity her, and yet it’s not a kind sort of pity.

Of course, the book and its judgements are a product of their time, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to read. Rosie’s a careless girl, true enough, and her actions make her a little unlikeable at times, but none of that is helped by the fact that the narrative doesn’t like her. Oddly enough, she reminds me of Thea Gilmore’s song “Rosie“, not just in name.

Anyway, the mystery itself is alright. It avoids some of the trends I’ve seen in Brand’s other books, so it surprised me a little in that sense, and there’s some genuine tension in the court scenes, and in the way some of the characters try to shield each other, stand up for one another. But… mostly Brand’s work isn’t quite my thing. I don’t think she had much sympathy for other women who didn’t fit her mould, and it shows.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Don’t Call Me Dirty

Posted May 19, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Don’t Call Me Dirty

Don't Call Me Dirty

by Gorou Kanbe

Genres: Manga, Romance
Pages: 176
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

After some time in a long distance sort-of-relationship with his crush, Shouji is crestfallen when weeks of getting ghosted finally result in a confession: his boyfriend just isn't gay. Having struggled with his sexuality for years, Shouji throws himself into his work to distract himself from the rejection — but when a young homeless man called Hama shows up at the shop, Shouji finds himself curious to learn more about him and, hopefully, befriend him. Attempting to make their way in a society that labels each of them as 'outcasts' and 'dirty,' the two men grow closer. Together, they begin to find they have more in common than either of them could have anticipated.

Gorou Kanbe’s Don’t Call me Dirty surprised me. It was available to read with a subscription I have so I gave it a try when I wasn’t really in the mood to read anything substantial. The main character, Shouji, is a young man who works in his dad’s liquor store and helps out next door in the snack store. He’s gay and everyone knows it, because his dad is a blogger who talks constantly about their whole life.

When he gets dumped by his bicurious sort-of-boyfriend, he gets interested in the life and actions of a local homeless man (Hama) who acts noble and kind despite suspicion. Initially it seems kind of insulting, like he’s interested to distract himself and then dis­placing his feelings onto his new friend. But there are some surprisingly affecting scenes in which he admits his fears (about being “dirty”, in part because of his ex’s behaviour) and Hama begins to reciprocate.

Ultimately the happy ending involves figuring out how to get Hama off the street, and Hama becoming a productive member of society again. The whole thing is not really subtle in the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ message, but… there is genuine sweetness between the characters — and the people around them. Shouji might have a dad who talks more easily to the internet than him, but he’s 100% fine with his kid being gay — even supportive, in his own way — and there’s a surprisingly strong bond bet­ween Shouji’s dad and the next door neighbour, which we also catch glimpses of.

Overall, I was surprised to find that I did get pretty invested in this one, after not really being encouraged by the title/concept.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Eve

Posted May 17, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Eve

Eve: How The Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution

by Cat Bohannon

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 621
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

How did wet nurses drive civilization? Are women always the weaker sex? Is sexism useful for evolution? And are our bodies at war with our babies?

In Eve, Cat Bohannon answers questions scientists should have been addressing for decades. With boundless curiosity and sharp wit, she covers the past 200 million years to explain the specific science behind the development of the female sex. Eve is not only a sweeping revision of human history, it's an urgent and necessary corrective for a world that has focused primarily on the male body for far too long. Bohannon's findings, including everything from the way C-sections in the industrialized world are rearranging women's pelvic shape to the surprising similarities between pus and breast milk, will completely change what you think you know about evolution and why Homo sapiens have become such a successful and dominant species, from tool use to city building to the development of language.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

It would be easy for a book like Cat Bohannon’s Eve: How The Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution to get all gender essentialist about things, and I was completely braced for it. I also wouldn’t have been surprised if the book just ignored the existence of trans people, since how we currently understand and perceive gender variance is often quite divorced from stuff that might be obviously related to evolution.

So I’m going to say up front that it doesn’t go in that direction, and Bohannon mentions trans people and trans bodies where relevant, often with the caveat that (unfortunately) we don’t have the same volumes of data to go on, and in some cases studies just haven’t been done. The book does focus on sex rather than gender, mostly (there’s some stuff about stereotype threat that’s more gendery), but transness is mentioned where appropriate.

It’s a chonky book, and there are a lot of footnotes, sometimes multiple per page; at times, that makes it a bit too dense and overwhelming. Each aside takes you away from the main point of the narrative, and ultimately I found it rather distracting, even where the footnotes were useful or interesting. Sometimes it kind of had the effect of a student trying to show you they know a lot about a topic by inserting an only slightly relevant footnote on the topic (I’ve never done that, I swear); sometimes it just felt like a digression.

Regardless, I really enjoyed it, even if the organisation felt a little overwhelming at times. It focuses on the ways evolution had to work on female bodies: pregnancy and lactation, the implications of pair-bonding for offspring, behaviours that needed to go with the physical changes, etc. It isn’t my exact area of interest, so it’s hard to evaluate some of the claims: evolution must’ve acted on male bodies too, but sometimes it seems like there’s not much left that can be about the males of the species, based on this! But it’s interesting, and Bohannon writes very clearly about a whole range of topics.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Spindle Splintered

Posted May 16, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Spindle Splintered

A Spindle Splintered

by Alix E. Harrow

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 119
Series: Fractured Fairytales #1
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

It's Zinnia Gray's twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it's the last birthday she'll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no-one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia's last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered is a delightfully meta take on Sleeping Beauty, inspired by the Spider-verse. Which makes it sound kind of gimmicky, perhaps, but it (mostly) isn’t — it’s created out of love for the story, for all the ways humans have told the story of Sleeping Beauty, and what a modern take can look like.

Being a novella, it doesn’t go super deeply into world-building or anything: the point is obviously the play with the tropes, the pure fun of summoning a space princess with a blaster gun to save a Sleeping Beauty from her fate. And it works: I tore through it, and loved Zinnia’s relationships with Charm and with her parents, and with Charm falling head over heels for Primrose.

In some ways, I liked Zinnia’s feelings toward her own narrative, the fact that she knows she’s going to die, and sometimes I wanted to tell her to just give it a rest. Which would be unfair with a real person, of course, but it isn’t always super fun to read about in fiction.

Overall, though, very enjoyable, and I’m keen to read the second novella soon too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The One-Cent Magenta

Posted May 15, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – The One-Cent Magenta

The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World

by James Barron

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 224
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

An inside look at the obsessive, secretive, and often bizarre world of high-profile stamp collecting, told through the journey of the world's most sought-after stamp.

When it was issued in 1856, it cost a penny. In 2014, this tiny square of faded red paper sold at Sotheby's for nearly $9.5 million, the largest amount ever paid for a postage stamp at auction. Through the stories of the eccentric characters who have bought, owned, and sold the one-cent magenta in the years in between, James Barron delivers a fascinating tale of global history and immense wealth, and of the human desire to collect.

One-cent magentas were provisional stamps, printed quickly in what was then British Guiana when a shipment of official stamps from London did not arrive. They were intended for periodicals, and most were thrown out with the newspapers. But one stamp survived. The singular one-cent magenta has had only nine owners since a twelve-year-old boy discovered it in 1873 as he sorted through papers in his uncle's house. He soon sold it for what would be $17 today. (That's been called the worst stamp deal in history.) Among later owners was a fabulously wealthy Frenchman who hid the stamp from almost everyone (even King George V of England couldn't get a peek); a businessman who traveled with the stamp in a briefcase he handcuffed to his wrist; and John E. du Pont, an heir to the chemical fortune, who died while serving a thirty-year sentence for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz.

I am not really a stamp person, but because of my work at Postcrossing, I’ve been exploring the world of postal stuff more generally, and thus came across The One-Cent Magenta, by James Barron. It’s the story of obsession with one particular stamp, which collectors have made the most valuable stamp in the world.

There isn’t, in the end, a whole lot to say about the one-cent magenta in and of itself. It’s a very plain-looking stamp, and it doesn’t have a particularly special story. Barron’s book is more about the people who’ve gone after it, and how that incredible value was created — partly out of rarity (the one discussed is the only one extant, as far as we know) and partly just out of sheer enthusiasm/greed/desire to be the one who owns the thing only one person can own.

It’s interesting to get a glimpse into that world, and also kind of repellent. I’m sure some people who collect stamps are lovely, but the fuss over the one-cent magenta is kind of silly, and the amounts of money spent on it have much better uses.

I also reviewed this book for Postcrossing’s blog! (Not the same text.) I included a picture of the one-cent magenta, if you’re curious.

Rating: 3/5

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