Tag: book reviews

Review – Civilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress

Posted September 27, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of First Contact / The Cult of Progress by David OlusogaCivilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress, David Olusoga

There’s a lot going on in this book: it sweeps past swathes of history, touching on some of the important questions and critiques of colonialism and empire, dwelling on how they were represented by artists and how art of different cultures met and mingled. It doesn’t linger, speeding past the Benin Bronzes and cramming in the Eiffel Tower as well, and I found it a little vague and unfocused. It was unclear what the argument was meant to be until the afterword, where he mentions the idea that all human art comes from “the same imagination”.

Hmm. A little insipid, really; that’s my final conclusion on this. It’s nice to have a quick guide to some of the art and its context, but it really is the most glancing look at most of it. It’s nice to have a degree of breadth, but then I wouldn’t say it has that much by way of breadth — it’s all so lightly touched on. There are some artworks I didn’t know about, and interesting facts, like the portraits painted by Lindauer of Maori people (and the fact that they would choose to be painted in a combination of Western and traditional clothing, to show they knew how to move in both worlds).

I feel like there are several books here and this is just a not very focused amalgamation of all of them. It didn’t work for me, though perhaps people who saw the series they accompany will get more out of it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Documents in the Case

Posted September 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. SayersThe Documents in the Case, Dorothy L. Sayers

Somehow, I’d never read this one! Well, I have now. This showcases all Sayers’ usual eloquence and flair, and also her tendency to become enamoured of a set-piece that encapsulates a character and carry it on for pages at a time. Jack Munting’s letters to his fiancée are sweet, but they could probably been edited down a smidgeon, and some of the key scenes are likewise rather over-elaborated.

It’s a fascinating format, particularly when it sticks to the letters — it’s a little disappointing when it switches to a long statement, narrative-style, as if anybody ever actually remembers dialogue in such detail. It feels like she got tired of the format and had to round it off with a good long section of narrative just to make life easier. Still, I do love the way she teases out the conclusion, and the fact that it is based on an understanding of chemistry and right/left-handed molecules. Brilliant.

I do have questions about some of the characters: mostly lots to side-eye when it comes to Agatha Milsom, whose institutionalisation is never shown to us directly. It’s hard to judge if she’s actually mentally ill to a great degree, or (more likely) mostly just inconvenient to everyone. Sayers is rather harsh on her — as is Libby Purves, who wrote an introduction to this edition — but it seems to me that she is commenting on something real in the relationship between Mr and Mrs Harrison that other people don’t see. It isn’t the whole story, but the whole idea of her developing a monomania is so very Golden Age and so very irritating as an explanation.

In any case, it’s entertaining and clever, and there are some great character studies. Worth a read, even though it’s not an absolute resounding success on all fronts — it’s pretty darn entertaining despite that.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Intersteller Age

Posted September 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Interstellar Age by Jim BellThe Intersteller Age, Jim Bell

This was a pretty entertaining read about the Voyager missions, with the usual kind of autobiographical detail (extra odd Bell was more a fan of the project than a part of it, though he worked on things that were tangentially related at times) and some biographical detail. Lots of fanboying about Carl Sagan, which is sweet, but not always to the point. It’s a good overview of what the Voyager program did, and there were lots of little titbits I didn’t know.

I think the favourite part for me was discussing the Golden Record, though; I think I’ll have to look up the book he mentioned which goes into it in detail. I love the idea of the Golden Record (I did write a story about it a while ago, after all!), and I especially love the fact that we filled it with “our hopes, not our fears”. It makes it very clear that few people on the project thought there was much chance of it being found, but it was considered so important anyway: a moment for humanity to reflect on itself, and send out something of ourselves into the universe… the good parts, at least.

In terms of the engineering of the Voyager crafts, there’s relatively little, and though the math and physics of figuring out how to send them on their way is mentioned, it’s not explained. It’s more of a cultural history with explanations of what the Voyagers found than a science book, though there are interesting factoids about the various planets and moons of the Solar System which we wouldn’t have known (until later) without Voyager. Likewise, it discusses some of the problems that the Voyagers had — like the seizing of the camera platform — but not nearly all.

Entertaining, and probably as deep as some folks want to go!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – In the Night Wood

Posted September 25, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of In the Night Wood by Dale BaileyIn the Night Wood, Dale Bailey

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: literature professor is married with a kid and decides to have an affair anyway. Something terrible happens as a result, and the poor thing must live with the consequences.

Myeah, my sympathies with this book were low from the outset: infidelity is one thing I can’t really abide in most situations, and Generic Literature Professor is a wishy-washy example. He doesn’t have much strength of character to mark him out from the crowd, and he’s so forgettable I can’t remember his name and I finished this book less than an hour ago. (The back copy reminds me that the name is Charles.)

So anyway, with that set-up, Charles and Erin get a letter from England informing them that Erin is the last of a long family line, and do they want to take possession of the family house? So they go. Erin’s mental health is dreadful, and she travels with most of the contents of a pharmacy (how does she replenish her stocks when a UK doctor would not provide those meds or in that quantity? Unclear, she never sees a doctor for them) and self-medicates with wine. Charles starts to investigate the mysteries of the creepy house and surrounding wood, fails to share things with Erin, and is tempted multiple times to start affairs with every woman he meets. He’s always very aware of the scent and warmth of their skin, etc.

There are lots of rather generic ancient-fantasy-encroaching-on-reality descriptions, like this:

The present seemed to lie lightly on the land here, as though the narrow span of gray road, where the solicitor’s car hove momentarily into view at the crest of each new ridge, might simply melt away like a light dusting of snow, unveiling the bones of an older, sterner world.

This is supposed to be near Harrogate. I can assure you that Harrogate is as modern as anywhere else in Britain, and you will not melt away into a fairytale driving anywhere just outside Harrogate, especially not having just come off a busy roundabout.

Naturally, something creepy involving child sacrifice is going on, etc, etc, you’ve heard this story before.

I didn’t know how little I cared for it until I started trying to describe it. It’s not that it isn’t well written, though it ventures a tad towards the purple for something that’s describing fucking Harrogate. It’s a quick enough read, but. I… am profoundly unimpressed.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Smallbone Deceased

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

Cover of Smallbone Deceased by Michael GilbertSmallbone Deceased, Michael Gilbert

The preface to this is very effusive in its praise, declaring this one of the best mystery novels of all time. I wouldn’t go that far, but it does work well: the body of a trustee for a particular fund is found in the deedbox of that fund, in a solicitors’ office in Lincoln’s Inn. The body is discovered, somewhat decomposed, shortly after the death of the head of the firm, and a new lawyer at the firm ends up being drawn into the investigation. There are essentially two detectives, working away partly together and partly alone: Inspector Hazlerigg, the police detective, who works methodically, and Henry Bohun, an insomniac with remarkable genius (etc, etc — you can imagine the type of super special amateur detective being described) who can turn his hand to anything he wants to. The obvious solutions turn out to be easily, demonstrably wrong; motives are murky; and, of course, that Golden Age standby… it could be any of us, everyone at the firm thinks.

In many ways, this reminded me of Murder Must Advertise — not because of the plot, per se, but it because it is set in a context of utter familiarity to the writer. The characters are total fictions, of course, but the way they interact in the office is drawn from an intimate knowledge of how offices work… and how, in particular, a law office might work. (There are similarities with Murder Must Advertise in the sense of the team dynamics, as well, but there are also differences.) There’s a realness to the characters and relationships that makes the whole thing work so much better.

Of course, one is led totally up the garden path and there’s a dramatic reveal, but it didn’t annoy me in the way that John Dickson Carr’s books have done (to pick on an example I just reviewed). Instead of being revealed in a set-piece of revelations spilling out to the whole cast, people come to their realisations piecemeal, and the moment of drama is largely off-screen.

Definitely enjoyable; glad I have two more of Gilbert’s books lined up.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – It Walks By Night

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

Cover of It Walks By Night by John Dickson CarrIt Walks by Night, John Dickson Carr

This is my second attempt at reading John Dickson Carr’s work, and I think it’s safe to say I’m unlikely to become a fan. This is, like The Hollow Man, a locked room mystery, and this version contains a short story which is a third locked room mystery. In It Walks By Night, we’re presented with a scenario: the re-marriage of a woman who was formerly nearly killed by her insane husband, to a man who seems nothing at all like him, taking place shortly after her first husband has escaped custody and undergone plastic surgery. He could be any one of their acquaintances, hidden amongst the party with them on their wedding night… And somehow, in that busy house, in a locked room, the new husband is killed by the old.

The French detective Bencolin is already on the case, and making key observations from the start. It’s very much a Holmes-and-Watson situation, with an English gentleman playing the part of Watson to his mentor Bencolin, a friend of his father’s. It all gets very involved, and the detective makes numerous ominous pronouncements, telegraphs ‘this is an aha! moment’ all over the place, and generally seems somewhat supernatural in his ability to find and piece together clues. None of the characters really stand out; to me they felt like cardboard cutouts, with the author attempting to give them life through melodrama.

In the end, we get so many preoccupations of this period — the killer is among us! anyone could be mad and we might not know! drugs! casual sex! — that I feel like I could’ve filled out a bingo card. The by-the-numbers sort of love scenes didn’t work for me, and the moments that were meant to be intense left me cold. And of course, at the denouement, the detective reveals all with a dramatic recital, forcing a confession, etc etc etc.

Meh. I will admit that there’s a certain febrile atmosphere to the whole thing which does work quite well, but overshadowed every other emotion in the book. It’s readable, and I followed along dutifully to find out how the magic trick (the answer pulled from a plethora of disconnected cues) would be done, but I didn’t like it.

I do think the fact that it was originally sold with the ending parts sealed in the book is a very interesting gimmick. I’ll bet few people actually tried to claim a refund (which you could get if you returned the book without breaking that seal) because the seal comes at an infuriating point where, if you’ve sat through it this far, you might as well find out how it comes together.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Haunting of Tram Car 015

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

Cover of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli ClarkThe Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark

In this novella, well, there’s a tram car, and it’s haunted! Sort of. Agents Onsi and Hamed are called in to a mysterious case of a haunted tram. So far, so routine (for them, if not for the reader). Onsi and Hamed have to figure out what exactly is “haunting” the tram car, and how to get rid of it, against a backdrop of a steampunky aesthetic in an alternate reality Cairo. I’m not sure if I’m even mentally dating the setting right; these things run straight out of my head if it’s mentioned at all, and it’s made more difficult by the magic and supernatural beings that are served up against the backdrop of women getting the vote in Cairo. So very likely I am missing some clevernesses in the setting.

As a whole, this didn’t work as well for me as The Black God’s Drums, but it’s enjoyable and the setting is great. I feel like I’d have liked it more with a more substantial plot, or rather that there seemed to be more plot in there trying to get out, which went unresolved; it wrapped up rather suddenly, and I have such questions about stuff that was barely featured! What’s up with Abla? She seems so significant, and yet she just sort of conveniently keeps setting the male protagonists on the right path and then drawing back from the story. I didn’t fall for the male leads in the way I remember falling for just about everything in The Black God’s Drums, which is also part of it.

Very enjoyable, though — I’d love to read more in the same world.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Desdemona and the Deep

Posted September 20, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. CooneyDesdemona and the Deep, C.S.E. Cooney

Desdemona and the Deep is a novella featuring a descent into the underworld/otherworld, following mostly the title character, Desdemona. Fae and goblins and the weirdness of the otherworld are the order of the day, though Desdemona starts as a spoilt, rich girl, totally cranky about her mother’s benefit for girls with “phossy jaw” (an element of real-world history which is more or less copy/pasted into Desdemona’s world, which is quite conscious of other worlds). From there, it’s not entirely clear why she takes exception to her father making a deal with a powerful underworld creature, tithing 10% of his miners’ lives in order to get new reserves of oil. Nonetheless, she does, forms a plan for going there, and sets out to win back those lives which have been traded away for her comfortable existence.

(She never really seems to care that this has happened before and it’s not just the 36 names she’s seen in the paper that have been sacrificed on the altar of her love of luxury, including a woman to dress her, endless amounts of good alcohol, designer dresses, art, artists, and more or less anything else she wants.)

Throughout the first half of the book, her best friend Chaz is referred to with male pronouns. Once she reaches the underworld with Desdemona, though, she transitions magically and female pronouns are immediately applied — and Desdemona later says that she always knew Chaz was really female. The tight third POV thus makes Desdemona a misgendering asshole, and the fact Desdemona and the narration all switch to she only when Chaz has a physical form that matches is a really shitty way to deal with a trans character.

The rest of the story is kind of a meh plot that’s been done a gazillion times before: descent into the otherworld, fae contract must be broken, captive must be saved, etc, etc, etc. I liked Chaz, of whom there was not enough and who was misgendered for half the book; I was not keen on Desdemona, who besides being spoilt was a misgendering mean girl who also made shitty comments about the girls with phossy jaw. I think we’re meant to come to like Desdemona, but I never got past the impression that she was playacting concern. The ending maybe alleviates that a little, but too little and too late.

People have commented about the beauty of the prose; it definitely had some high points, but it didn’t stick out to me in particular, so that wasn’t a saving grace for it either. I might have generously given it a three on enjoyment, but I’m also toying with the idea of a one because of the grossness surrounding Chaz. For now, let’s say it averages out to two.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Thornbound

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

Cover of Thornbound by Stephanie BurgisThornbound, Stephanie Burgis

Thornbound is the sequel to Snowspelled, set in a Britain where Boudicca beat back the Romans, leading to a British system where women rule and make the hard decisions, and softer, more emotional men do magic. The partnership between a spellcaster and a political woman is important in this world, leaving somewhat more equality between the sexes in some ways, but shutting down the career prospects of women who are capable of magic or men who wish to do otherwise. Cassandra chose to do magic while her brother chose to be a historian, despite their famous family and legacy, and though Cassandra has lost her own magic, now she’s set up a school to teach other girls like herself. Unfortunately, there are certain political forces set against her…

I don’t 100% love the gender role flip, to be honest. It feels a little too, well, flippant. I’d like to see a bit more of how it works and why it works before I really believe in it? Which these novellas are a little too slight to provide.

Nonetheless, in other respects I like this book a lot: I enjoy Cassandra’s relationship with her family, and particularly her relationship with her sister-in-law. I adore that these are people who care about each other and build each other up (and I wish it wasn’t set against the petty woman who wants her to fail because it might disturb the social order — obviously in this setting a man wouldn’t have the pull a woman would, but I hate the tropes of women bullying and sniping at each other in rivalry, and this kind of hit that for me).

I also adore Cassandra and Wrexham; there’s not really enough of that relationship in this book for my tastes, and yet it is at the heart of what Cassandra is doing… I adore that they sit down and talk about it (eventually) and start figuring out a course in life that will work for both of them, fulfil all of their dreams.

I’d happily read more in this world, for sure, I’d just like some things firmed up a bit so they don’t feel so contrived.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Spectred Isle

Posted September 18, 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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