Tag: book reviews


Review – Death at Wentwater Court

Posted 23 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover Death at Wentwater Court by Carola DunnDeath at Wentwater Court, Carola Dunn

I really wanted another detective series, a little along the lines of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher (without being a total clone, of course — that’s just boring). I tried Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, and I found the first book less than satisfying — the writing choices took any possible tension out of it, while I found Maisie herself rather a cold fish, and more in the Sherlock Holmes line than the kind of sleuth I prefer. Reading my review of that book back now, I can’t even remember one of the major things that bothered me!

So, digression aside, did Daisy Dalrymple fit the bill for me? Thankfully, yes! She’s the Honorable Daisy Dalrymple, which is the same rank as Phryne, which made me go “hmmmmm” at first — but in many other ways she isn’t like Phryne, being rather less fashionable (she hasn’t even bobbed her hair!), and pretty rather than having major sex appeal. She works for her living rather than relying on endless amounts of money, and her past is not quite so dramatic as Phryne’s (no ambulance-driving during the war). Likewise, her romantic choice is fairly clear. Her inspector isn’t so far from Phryne’s Jack in temperament and such, but he’s a widower with a child, which introduces another interesting element to the personal side of the story.

The plot itself is fairly typical for a cosy. Daisy goes to photograph a rich family’s home and write an article about it, and during her time there a singularly unpleasant person is murdered. Daisy finds herself constantly trying to help the police, and ultimately has totally divided loyalties. There’s nothing new or startling about the plot, but it works as one of those books I read in the bath, and Dunn is good enough with characters that I sympathise with them, worry about whodunnit, and generally get involved enough to make it worth the time invested.

Having finished it, I ordered up the next few books, and dove straight into the second, which I luckily had on hand. I think it’s a good bet Daisy’s here to stay, at least for a few books more. (Then we’ll see if the formula gets repetitive, or keeps working despite being repetitive, and all that sort of thing.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Alpha Beta

Posted 21 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Alpha Beta by John ManAlpha Beta, John Man

John Man is good at a certain kind of popular history book, as I’ve noted before. There are often elements of travelogue, and it’s usually a very easy read, with quite short chapters and not too many long quotations from sources or anything like that. It’s not the most rigorous scholarship in the world, but it’s a good way to get a handle on a subject and get an initial idea of whether you’re interested in reading more. Sometimes there are interesting titbits about newer scholarship that might be a bit more controversial — you catch the drift.

Alpha Beta, then, is Man’s take on the alphabet. Other people have mentioned expecting that he’d just discuss each letter in turn and where we picked it up from, but Man is somewhat more ambitious: he’s after the origin of the Roman alphabet as we know it, and more generally the origin of writing as a form of expression. He has some very interesting points, including about Korea’s hyper-rational alphabet that is designed to be ideal for writing down the language. (Though I do wonder if that will stick after a few centuries of use and language change.)

He has a whole bit on the influence of the alphabet on monotheism that made surprisingly little impact on me and I only remembered when checking over the Amazon reviews to refresh my mind to write this — although actually, I think what he wrote was more the other way round, that monotheism had an impact on the emergence of the alphabet, because he wrote about how useful it can be for an emerging social group to adopt an alphabet. The Mongols (a pet topic of his, clearly, since he’s written books on Genghis and Kublai Khan, etc) were also an example in that context.

Overall, it’s an interesting if not exactly exhaustive read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Rebel of the Sands

Posted 19 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonRebel of the Sands, Alwyn Hamilton

Rebel of the Sands is set in a world that’s part fantasy Wild West, part Arabian desert, with the sharpshooting smart-talking djinn-folk to prove it. It’s a reread for me, so I can go on to read the other two books: it’s not a book I’d class as one of my top reads ever, but I found it solidly entertaining, and I’m interested to see how the trilogy builds on this start. It’s decidedly young adult in tone and level, which I know is a turn off for a lot of people, but I take my fun where I can find it, and Rebel of the Sands was definitely fun.

It opens in the town of Dustwalk — or rather, at a shooting contest in the nearby town of Deadshot. Amani is dressed as a boy, and she plans to win a shooting contest, earn some money, and finally get away from her life in Dustwalk, a life that has been shadowed by the fact that her father was clearly not from Dustwalk and the execution of her mother for killing her adoptive local father. She has at least one friend in Dustwalk, a fact which I assume is going to become relevant later on, probably in a way Amani will regret. Tamid has to use a crutch to get by, and has a tendency to be overly serious, but he accepts her (more or less) for who she is, and even bravely offers to marry her to help her get out of a repugnant marriage. In this book, he’s kind of wasted, because Amani is only too quick to leave him behind when trouble starts.

She travels across the desert with Jin, an enigmatic boy who nonetheless (and unsurprisingly) has ties to the rebellion going on at the time. Slowly, he persuades her towards where she’ll meet others in the cause, where she could be an asset for a particular reason that isn’t her sharpshooting…

In many ways, it’s a typical story, and more so because of the romantic tension between Amani and Jin. The desert-setting helps to make it feel a little fresher, though the caravan travel section isn’t exactly unique, for all that.

In the end, it’s not a standout story that I’ll never forget. It’s entertaining, though, and I don’t regret the reread to bring myself back up to speed.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Annihilation

Posted 18 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, and a reread for me. It’s a really, really weird trilogy, which always reminds me of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside PicnicI seem to have forgotten a lot of the finer detail of the trilogy, and the extent to which we ever receive explanations, but this particular book stays really clear in my mind. It’s something about the tone, the matter of fact calm of the biologist, the illusion of objectivity that her narrative gives.

Annihilation records the twelfth expedition into Area X. The team is made up of a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor — along with a linguist who actually backs out of the expedition before they cross the border. And Area X is… a pristine wilderness filled with uncannyness. You can’t take in anything high tech, people don’t report back — or if they do, they come back changed, riddled with cancer in the case of the eleventh expedition, oddly amnesiac and lacking in affect. The objective of the missions is to work out what’s happening, what Area X is, how it came about, and try and get some understanding of a phenomenon that seems to have no rhyme or reason.

As usual, everything goes awry. The psychologist turns out to be hypnotising the group; the anthropologist quickly dies; they see things which make no sense — words written in fungi, colonised with living creatures; villages decaying faster than they ought to; a lighthouse which has clearly been the site of intense struggle, even a battle… and one by one, the group come apart. The biologist no less than the others, though as the narrator she gives a kind of illusion of calm objectivity, of careful and unbiased observation. As the story unfolds, you learn how much she holds back from the reader as well, and that shapes the story profoundly…

It’s well written in the sense of handling an unreliable narrator well, and also in the sense of creating a truly weird, uncanny landscape which sounds beautiful, undisturbed, and yet…

I really enjoy these books, though they leave me with a sense of creeping unease. I’m looking forward to rereading the second and third as well. If you find this one frustrating, well, the others don’t take quite the same format — if you’re intrigued by the world, you might want to give the second one a try too. On the other hand, Vandermeer’s class of weird might just not be your thing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection

Posted 16 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Genghis Khan by John ManGenghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, John Man

John Man writes good, light, easy to read pop history. I have no illusions that I’m reading about the latest cutting edge discoveries, or that I’m getting a deep critical look at all the possible sources… but a story is woven together that illuminates a bit of history, with a touch of the travelogue as well. I know that it annoys other readers that Man also writes about his experiences while writing a book — where he went for research, the almost-calamities experienced, etc, etc. Still, for a bit of light reading I don’t mind, and it’s certainly easier to digest than something more academic.

Genghis Khan himself is a fascinating subject: the name is so evocative, yet really all it conjured up for me was tent villages and conquest. I didn’t really have a good idea of the Mongol peoples and their context, except dimly refracted through fiction. And well, okay, John Man gives us little snippets of “faction” (as is his wont), but it is based on research and an understanding of what was likely.

So yeah, enjoyable and accessible. I wouldn’t use it as a source for something that needs scrupulous accuracy, but if you’re curious, it should be a good read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Posted 15 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean CarrollEndless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean Carroll

At this point, I must admit I’m a bad judge of pop-science when it covers biology. To me this is a very easy read now, covering simple topics, but I know I wouldn’t have felt that way a couple of years ago. If you’re interested in evolutionary biology, though, this is a very good primer on the science of Evo Devo: understanding evolutionary relationships through understanding the development of embryos, how certain genes work in causing large morphological differences even though almost the same gene can be found in a wildly different species.

think if you have a reasonable understanding of genetics and how proteins are made, you should be okay here: it’s not requiring expertise, though it may take concentration to follow some of the reasoning if you’re not already familiar. If you are, it illustrates the principles nicely, and I imagine a full colour copy of the book (if it exists) would be rather physically gorgeous as well. There’s a lot of black-and-white images of butterfly wings, for instance, in my particular edition. The points could probably have been more clearly demonstrated with colour images where the differences are easier to highlight…

All the same, a fascinating book, whether you’re an expert or not (I think). Evo Devo is a bit of a buzzword for some biologists lately, and this book is worth the read for learning about that. I wish I’d read it before the module I did that included some of this stuff: it would have definitely made the learning part come easier!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Mystery of the Skeleton Key

Posted 14 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard CapesThe Mystery of the Skeleton Key, Bernard Capes

I didn’t know anything about Bernard Capes before reading this, only that this was a reissue of a Golden Age crime fiction book, much in the same line as the British Library Crime Classics. Good enough for me, at least when I’m in the mood to tune out and just read an old-timey mystery: this pretty much delivered on that, though it’s hardly the most original or the most exciting of that line I’ve read.

It actually takes a long time for the story to explain why it’s The Mystery of the Skeleton Key; at times, I was actually tempted to check the right book was inside that slipcover! After a long preamble involving some of the characters meeting in Paris, and a bit of mystery about a Baron who plays chess for half-a-crown and frequents the oddest places, eventually there is actually a murder to be investigated. The wrong people are accused, the timings are all mixed up, and the son of the house (because if it’s not quite a country house mystery, it’s definitely set in a country house) is implicated because the girl who gets murdered — killed with a shot from his gun — was pregnant with his child.

In the end, the solution relies on coincidence, spurious old-fashioned science (a man inherits an injury-induced mannerism from his father due to the fact that his mother saw his father with the injury while pregnant with him), and various people not being quite who/what they say they are. I think it’s actually quite interesting in terms of who the culprit turns out to be — not a common solution, and against Knox’s Ten Commandments in a sense — but otherwise there’s not much to set it apart, and in tone it’s fairly dry and without any sense of urgency. My main feeling was mild curiosity, and that’s about it. Nothing terrible, but nor is it something I’d recommend.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Lost Plot

Posted 12 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot, Genevieve Cogman

It’s taken me so long to read this, and not for lack of wanting to. I even had it started for far too long and just stalled on it. Admittedly, that’s because it’s very short on one of the main characters of the previous books: the Great Detective archetype, Vale, hardly appears at all apart from at the beginning and end, and doesn’t play any part in the major action of the book. Still, it’s a great romp, as ever, this time taking Irene and Kai to a world with little magic, where they have to navigate through Prohibition era Boston and New York. The dragons also feature heavily, and the issue of Kai’s family finally really comes to a head. The next book is definitely going to have to be different; that might be a good thing, in terms of changing up the plotline and keeping things fresh.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In The Lost Plot, Irene discovers that another Librarian is violating the Library’s neutrality by working directly for a dragon, in a matter of dragon politics. That interference can’t be tolerated by any of the parties, so Irene is sent by Library security to figure out what’s going on and fix the situation — and as usual, all the blame will fall on her if she fails. Chasing the errant Librarian, Kai and Irene end up in a Prohibition-era USA, swapping smart talk with mobsters and dodging the cops as best as they can. Since dragons are involved, Kai has to be especially careful: at some point, he’s going to have to make a choice about where his loyalties lie.

As I said, it’s a romp in very much the same vein as usual for these books. I’m not sure how I feel about the development of Kai and Irene’s relationship in this book: I feel like there’s been a bit too much will-they-won’t-they with both Irene and Kai and Irene and Vale, and honestly I was at a loss for how it was going to turn out. Now it has turned out, at least for now… I’m a bit disappointed. I did always feel that both potential relationships were a bit of a distraction: I just wanted the three of them, all together, all working on their problems, and all trusting each other. An intense relationship, perhaps, and one that didn’t have to become romantic — it was just pushed that way, almost as if the author can’t see any other way for it to turn out.

Anyway, it’s an entertaining read, though I think my favourite of the series is The Masked City. I’m interested to see how the events of this book will change the pattern for the next book. For one thing, Irene’s going to need a new student…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Book of Hidden Things

Posted 11 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco DimitriThe Book of Hidden Things, Francesco Dimitri

I wasn’t sure about this book from the blurb, but some trusted reviewers (e.g. Mogsy of Bibliosanctum) thought extremely highly of it, and I kept seeing it on the shelves, so when I finally spotted it at the library I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say, I’m not sold on it, but I also feel like I need to talk through my thoughts before I really decide.

So, what’s it about? It starts with the Pact: a group of four friends, who knew each other from childhood and grew up in the same Italian town, have agreed that every year they will meet again in the same place, back in their hometown, to eat pizza and talk and stay in contact, no matter what. They can’t call each other to set it up, they don’t necessarily stay in contact in the meantime, but every year, they meet there. The first point of view character is Fabio, a struggling photographer who hates his hometown, going back only to see the others. He missed the previous year out of shame for his less-than-spectacular career, and he’s not entirely sure what’s going to happen.

Two of his friends, Mauro and Tony, show up just as agreed. Mauro’s a lawyer, married with kids, and Tony has since they grew up come out, while maintaining ties to his home town and especially his sister. Art… has not turned up. Worried that this might be linked to their friend’s mysterious disappearance as a child, which had the three of them suspected of murdering him and which he never could satisfactorily explain, the three start to dig into what happened to their friend, talking to the local crime group, the police, anyone who might have information.

The book walks a line the whole time between the supernatural elements and the mental illness explanation, and it’s up to the reader really which you decide it was. The four characters are all fairly unlikeable in their own ways: one can sympathise with Fabio half the time, and then he — well, that’s probably too much of a spoiler. Mauro and Tony aren’t wonderful either, although Fabio is the most annoying. They’re all such boys, too, trying so hard to be macho. It’s realistic, but I tend to prefer likeable characters if I haven’t latched onto the plot/world, and I didn’t really latch on here.

And Art… is a whole ‘nother thing. In the words of Marvel’s Bruce Banner, speaking of Loki: “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you can smell crazy on him.”

In the end, I just didn’t love it, I think. There are some amazing bits evoking the area they’re in, the food, the sense of community. And there are great bits of interaction and banter. But in the end, the whole business of walking the line between fantasy and madness-based mystery isn’t an original one, and I’m not that interested in reading about people being depicted as crazy in stereotyped ways that explain why they go and kill. (Most violence related to mental illness is against the mentally ill person, not committed by them.) Meh.

I’m torn between giving it two stars because I really didn’t feel it, and being coaxed up to three because people did love it and I can see why… but in the end, I rate based on my enjoyment.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Poison: A Social History

Posted 9 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Poison: A Social History by Joel LevyPoison: A Social History, Joel Levy

I’ve been joking that my wife should be worried I picked this up, but really I was here to understand how poisons work. Although the ‘social history’ part of the title is definitely true, describing famous historical poisoning cases, it also includes little profiles on each poison which explain how it has the effects it has in chemical terms. I already knew some of the most notorious ones (partially because of the excellent book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons, A is for Arsenic), but there were others I didn’t know.

Overall, it’s a bit shallow, focusing on some of the most sensational cases of poisoning and basically whipping around the types of poison that’re out there and how they’ve been used for suicide, assassination, etc. Still, it had its interesting points, and if you’re interested in true crime there’s a couple of cases I knew nothing about.

Not something to rush out and get, in my opinion, and while spouses should maybe be worried it’d put ideas into someone’s head, there’s no practical information about obtaining poisons or anything dangerous like that! It really is much more about the history, with explanations of how poisons actually do their damage.

Rating: 2/5

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