Tag: book reviews

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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Review – The King in the North

Posted September 17, 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 September 15, 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 September 13, 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 September 8, 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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