Tag: books

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.


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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WWW Wednesday

Posted December 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts. Check out the link-up post here.

What are you currently reading? 

Cover of The Firebird by Susanna KearsleyI just started Miss Jacobson’s Journey, by Carola Dunn. It’s actually the first in a trilogy of connected books, and I’ve read the second already, so it’s a bit weird to meet Felix as an arrogant young buck… but it’s lovely to meet Miriam and get things from her POV, already having encountered her in a supporting role in Lord Roworth’s Reward. I haven’t read any other romances with a Jewish lead before (I haven’t read that many romances yet, to be fair, so maybe it’s common), and I’m enjoying how matter-of-factly that’s treated, while it also shapes things.

I wish I knew this portion of history a bit better, because I’m a liiiiittle bit lost in terms of the political/military background to the story, which is pretty important in this trilogy.

I’m also still rereading Genevieve Cogman’s books; I’m currently partway through The Lost Plot. Once I’ve finished that, it’s pastures new for me; The Mortal Word and The Secret Chapter will both be new to me. I mostly find it like brain-candy; it’s familiar (so far) and comforting because of it, but the less I think about it, the better. (There have been some contradictions in the world-building and such that break things down a bit if I stop to think!)

Aaaand finally I’m reading Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird for a group read. I’m finding the flashbacks into the past a little clunky, but so far it’s working okay for me.

What have you recently finished reading?

Cover of The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel HayUgh, I’m not reading that much at all recently, so I’m not sure what I recently finished reading… oh, wait, I remember: the last thing I finished was The Santa Klaus Murder, by Mavis Doriel Hay. I don’t know if I just need a break from British Library Crime Classics or what, but it felt really pedestrian. Mind you, if I recall correctly, I didn’t think that much of Hay’s other book in the series. Maybe I should restore my faith by reading another of Michael Gilbert’s… Smallbone Deceased certainly stood out.

Cover of Wychwood by George MannWhat will you be reading next?

I’m not really sure; I’ve never been good at guessing what I’ll be in the mood for next. Ideally, I need to clear some library books out of my stack, since they’ve overflowed from the “library” shelf and started stacking on the windowsill. Whoops. So, picking at random, I’m gonna try Wychwood next. (Or Hallowdene, if that’s first, but I think it’s Wychwood.)

What are you currently reading?

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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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Weekly Roundup

Posted November 23, 2019 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

Two weeks since the last roundup! What have I been doing? Working, mostly, and doing NaNoWriMo. I’m hoping in December I’ll get back into the swing of reading more… but if I don’t, that’s fine too. Here’s everything that’s been going on…

New books:

Cover of The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman Cover of The Light Years by R.W.W. Greene Stormsong by C.L. Polk

Thanks to Angry Robot and Tor for the ARCs!

Books finished:

Cover of Quick Curtain by Alan Melville Cover of Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet by Nicholas Reeves Cover of The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Cover of The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman Cover of A Mourning Wedding by Carola Dunn. Cover of The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman

Reviews posted:

Heraclix and Pomp, by Forrest Aguirre. Not quite my cup of tea. 1/5 stars
Hekla’s Children, by James Brogden. I found this rather predictable and nasty, with one of those entitled male protagonists that bug me so much. Sure, that’s part of the point, but it doesn’t make it more enjoyable. 2/5 stars
Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, by Nicholas Reeves. Misleadingly still billed by the publishers as revolutionary for this 2019 reissue, when it was in fact written in 2005. Not updated. Rests on some very tenuous evidence and generally entirely skippable. 2/5 stars
The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman. Remains one hell of a romp, and a book I recommend. 4/5 stars
Quick Curtain, by Alan Melville. Unfortunately, this is another one that was solidly not my thing. Comedic and incompetent crime detection story? Meh. 2/5 stars
The Reluctant Widow, by Georgette Heyer. Still enjoyable, but the male lead drove me a bit nuts on this reread. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

The Sparrow Readalong Week One: I need to catch up! Way behind now. But here were my thoughts on week one…

And that’s it! Here’s hoping things will be busier around here in the next couple of weeks. *blows away the cobwebs*

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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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Review – Akhenaten

Posted November 15, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet by Nicholas ReevesAkhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, Nicholas Reeves

Although this book as billed as being a revolutionary interpretation of Akhenaten, I think that’s just hype. It’s certainly a thorough examination of the evidence we have, and of Akhenaten’s actions and methods, and it points out that there were sound political motives behind the move to Tel-el-Amarna to found Akhetaten… but most of this is stuff I’ve heard before. He talks about theories like the idea that the Amarna family had Marfan’s syndrome as if it was ignored and kind of niche… but even I (not an Egyptologist, not reading the scholarly material and not having any training whatsoever in that field — I have an interest, but not a particularly up to date knowledge) know about that. Perhaps this is due to him popularising it, but it seemed very odd.

There are other things that ring alarm bells, as well. He doesn’t utilise footnotes, so it’s hard to track down his assertions (there is a bibliography, but of course you don’t know what was the source for any particular idea). I did remember when I started reading this that the idea that Tutankhamun had been murdered had been recently pooh-poohed on the 2005 CT scan of the mummy, but I was prepared to hear some solid arguments based on some kind of evidence… and none were forthcoming. It’s clear that whole subject is muddied by post-mortem damage of the body, possibly in antiquity and definitely by Howard Carter, so I would’ve been sceptical of any offered theories, but Reeves avoided the subject as if it were not a serious stumbling block for any theory. His sole comment on the unreliability of the evidence is this (bolding mine):

If this interpretation is correct (and it has inevitably been challenged), the implication would be that Tutankhamun suffered a blow to the head and lingered, drifting in and out of consciousness, for some weeks. What is interesting is that the position of this supposed blow would indicate that the damage had been sustained intentionally rather than by accident — at a time when political manipulation of the god-king was the norm, and regicide a rather more common occurrence than the Egyptian state cared formally to acknowledge.

Whereupon he wanders off into speculation about Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor. But… the challenge really needed to be discussed here, because it’s a serious one: although this book was published almost at the same time as the better scan in 2005 and he can’t have known about the results in time to change the book before publication, Reeves’ whole line of argument is so weak that it falls apart from that point because the CT scan completely dismissed the murder theory, and he had no counterpoints ready. If he’d addressed the uncertainty better, it would seem rather less like he builds his arguments on houses of cards.

As a consequence, he has several interesting theories which I enjoyed reading about, but as a consequence of his light hand with substantiation, I cannot trust. For example, I’ve never heard of the letter to Suppiluliuma being thought to be sent by Nefertiti, instead of the common interpretation that it was sent by Ankhesenamun. It makes sense, on the evidence here, but what has Reeves omitted because it doesn’t suit his racy narrative? Same with his re-interpretation of the kingships just prior to the Amarna period: he lays it all at the feet of Hatshepsut and her “greed” to become the ruler. Quite apart from wondering a little about Reeves’ personal views on women (we don’t hear about the “greed” of Ay or Horemheb in taking power after Tutankhamun’s death), I haven’t heard this elsewhere… and I can’t trust Reeves.

As I said, granted I’m not exactly neck-deep in the latest research, but this book was originally published in 2005, and I haven’t heard most of these theories elsewhere since. At this point, I wouldn’t believe a thing he says without a pinch or two of natron and some supplementary sources.

I also think it’s irresponsible of the publishers to republish a book from 2005 without revision, while stating on the back that it is a “revolutionary” interpretation (which certainly assisted my previous impression that it was a new book). It’s over a decade old and parts of it have been proven to be castles in the sky, folks.

ETA: Slightly amended due to finding out the publication date listed on the source I checked was wrong, and this was originally published in the same year as the CT scan.

Rating: 2/5

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