Wages of Sin

By Kaite Welsh

Rating: 2 stars

Sarah Gilchrist is a female medical student in 1892 Edinburgh, living with relatives after being exiled by her family after a scandal, and struggling to manage her studies and the disdain of both faculty and fellow students. She also spends evenings working in a poor hospital, and when she finds one of the patients on her dissection table the next day, she can’t let it go.

Firstly, I wonder if “Sarah” Gilchrist is a reference to Marion Gilchrist, who was getting her medical doctorate (the first woman to get such a qualification in Scotland), on the other side of the country, in Glasgow, at around the same time as this book is set.

Anyway, aside from possible coincidences of nomenclature, I struggled a bit with this book, although I whizzed through it. It’s not huge, and I got through it in an afternoon off work. Sarah is incredibly impulsive, not hesitating to trail men into the worst parts of the city. And, as we learn, she should really know better. She’s also very mistrustful of men, being quick to see any action in the worst light, and being ready to believe the worst of them. We find out why this is, and what has happened to her is truly awful, but it’s still frustrating to see her making poor decision after poor decision.

And you might expect solidarity from her fellow female students, but they’re under the thumb of class mean girl Julia and keep their distance, at best. I assume that Welsh is isolating Sarah on purpose, to make us empathise more with her, but it’s also exhausting to read.

She doesn’t even really solve the mystery. The mystery solves her, more or less, and it comes completely out of the blue. I know I’m not good at figuring out whodunnit, but I don’t know that there were any clues here at all. And I also don’t really get the murderer’s actions towards the end of the book. The attempt on Sarah’s life seems entirely unnecessary, given how clueless the girl was. There was another person who it would have made more sense to silence, but maybe it was deliberate – the author showing the murderer’s judgement slipping and them making mistakes?

I’m not that familiar with Edinburgh, but enough of the ancient city has survived intact to the modern era that I was able to follow the famous streets and landmarks that Sarah lives amongst (unlike poor Glasgow which had a shovel taken to its heart after WW2). Still, it’s nice to see something set in Scotland, rather than London, which always seems to be where murderers and detectives set up shop.

So, I sympathised a lot with Sarah’s predicament – I can’t imagine the strength of will necessary to recover from what happened to her, and then deal with the scorn of trying to do a medical degree in that period as well. But I found many of her actions bizarre and unreasonable, and I never really saw why she got so obsessed with this murder over any of the others that must be happening in the city at any given time. I’ll not be searching out any more of her adventures, I don’t think.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472239822
Year of publication: 2018

Station Eternity (The Midsolar Murders, #1)

By Mur Lafferty

Rating: 4 stars

Mallory Viridian is tired of being a murder magnet – wherever she goes people are killed, and she can’t help but solve them. Trying to get away from it all, following first contact, the sentient space station Eternity agrees to take her in, and she becomes one of only three humans allowed on the station. Until the day that Eternity decides to allow more humans to visit. And then the murders start.

This was a mystery that was a lot of fun, with some great world-building. Humans (i.e. the military), newly introduced to galactic society, are, as usual, terrified and want weapons that will “protect them” from the aliens. The aliens are really interesting, and this is a universe where most races can form symbiotic bonds with other sentients, something that humans don’t seem to be able to do. That symbiosis is important throughout the novel in different ways. The different species are all interesting in their own way, from the rock-like Gneiss, to the insect-like hivemind of the Sundry.

As well as Mallory, our secondary PoV character is Xan, a former soldier who’s been granted sanctuary on Eternity. How his story intersects with Mallory’s is an important facet of the story. And then we have the aliens. They’ve got translator bugs, like the Babel Fish, but more painful (for humans) to have implanted which seem to translate their names to innocuous human names, which is a lovely little touch. And then there’s the point that a universal translator would only translate spoken words – our humans still really struggle on Eternity because they can’t read any of the signs. In all my years of reading science fiction, this is something that I’ve never even considered, but is a really neat touch.

I enjoyed spending time with Mallory and would definitely want to watch her solve another case (although, maybe from afar!).

Book details

ISBN: 9780593098110
Publisher: Ace
Year of publication: 2022

Winter’s Orbit

By Everina Maxwell

Rating: 4 stars

The Iskat Empire is at the heart of a solar system where they rule several of the terraformed planets through a system of treaties and intermarriages. An important renewal event is coming up that will rebind them to the wider galaxy, but Prince Taam has died in a flyer crash, so his widower, Jainan, is quickly rushed into a political marriage with one of the emperor’s more disreputable grandchildren, Kiem, in a bid to keep things running. But then it turns out that Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and Jainan is a possible suspect. The newlyweds must solve the murder and prevent interplanetary war.

This was a fun story of an interplanetary empire in crisis, with a strong romance at its heart. Kiem is thrown right into the arranged marriage on the first page, with no warning and he and Jainan spend the first half of the book circling each other warily. Kiem because he feels Jainan must be grieving, and Jainan because he wants to fulfil his duty but thinks he’s not good enough for Kiem. It’s a punch the air moment when they finally fall into each others’ arms.

The story is told from both Kiem and Jainan’s points of view. We, the audience, are seeing inside Jainan’s head and slowly coming to the realisation that Jainan’s former marriage may not have been as perfect as it seemed, and screaming that Kiem should be able to see this. But, of course, he doesn’t have our luxury of being able to follow his partner’s thoughts on the written page.

Maxwell teases the conspiracy at the heart of the novel for quite some time, and it’s fun to see it slowly be exposed, along with the wider galactic civilisation and how Iskat and its empire fits into that.

A lot of fun, with some great secondary characters as well, particularly Kiem’s aide, Bel, who’s properly of the non-nonsense, hyper-organised variety. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even though I did find myself repeatedly rolling my eyes and yelling “just talk to each other” at the book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356515885
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2021

Journey Beyond Tomorrow

By Robert Sheckley

Rating: 2 stars

I gave up on this book after about 70 pages, which is disappointing as I’ve got a lot of time for Sheckley and generally enjoy his work (although I do find that he tends to be better at the shorter form than the long). This very much feels like it’s talking about its own time, that being the early 1960s, although obviously the satire on the failures of the justice system depressingly apply as much today as they did half a century ago. But although the satire was on-point, I just wasn’t particularly enjoying the book, and didn’t think it would get better. I did jump forward to the last couple of chapters, and that pretty much confirmed my decision to give up on it was the right one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575041226
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1987

Mail Obsession: A Journey Round Britain by Postcode

By Mark Mason

Rating: 2 stars

This book sort of falls between two stools for me. It tries to be a travel book crossed with a trivia book, and doesn’t entirely succeed at either for me. It sort of felt like the author was trying to outdo Bill Bryson, and, friends, he is no Bill Bryson. Notes From a Small Island did the tour round Britain so much better, and even when Bryson didn’t like a place, it never felt like he was looking down his nose at it, the way Mason does about Belfast, Swansea or Southall.

Because I never entirely liked the authorial voice, I didn’t get on with the book. The facts are fun and all, but they’re pretty random, and while I’d hoped that the Royal Mail might act as as central theme, it didn’t really feature that much.

A bit disappointing, and, I suspect, a book that will find its way off my bookshelves, the next time they need clearing out a bit.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780228334
Publisher: Weidenfeld Nicolson
Year of publication: 2016

Mary Poppins

By P.L. Travers

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve wanted to read this for a while now, and after finding that the version that the library had was an abridged version decided to just buy a copy. It’s an odd book, the nanny of the book is a very different Mary Poppins to the one portrayed by Julie Andrews. She’s crabid, cross and vain, always stopping to admire her reflection in shop windows. She doesn’t come across as someone that her charges could love at all. I honestly don’t know what a child of today would make of Mary.

As well as the stories familiar from the Disney film, we also see Mary take the children to a creepy sweet shop; they encounter a reverse zoo, where the animals admire the humans in cages; and they encounter a star who comes down from the sky to go Christmas shopping for her sisters.

I can see why Travers might not have liked the Disney film, given how different the character of Mary is to her own creation, and it’s been interesting to read the original. It might have stuck with me if I’d read it at a more formative age, but coming to it as an adult, it’s just an interesting historical footnote.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006753971
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1998

Through a Darkening Glass

By R.S. Maxwell

Rating: 3 stars

Ruth Gladstone is studying at Cambridge University in 1940, but an unexploded bomb persuades her to evacuate, along with her grandmother, Edith, to stay with her great aunt Vera in the tiny village of Martynsborough. There, she makes friends with another evacuee, Malcolm, an injured soldier, and they join forces to investigate the mysterious wraith that seems to be haunting the village.

It took a while for me to get into this book. There were some issues of American English that threw me out of what should be a very English story (“pants”, “first floor = ground” etc) and a few things that didn’t entirely feel right. Once we got to Martynsborough, it did very much have the somewhat caricatured feel of the pub scene from American Werewolf in London or “a local shop for local people” with the locals being comically unfriendly to Ruth. But it settled down, as she started to get to know people, and the mystery of the wraith starts to come to the fore, as well as the separate mystery of Edith and Vera and the “terrible thing that happened that day, long ago” were quite intriguing.

The relationship between Ruth and Malcolm builds slowly, complicated by Malcolm’s wife, who’s withdrawn into a state of “shellshock” and isn’t really communicable any more. I wondered how that would be resolved – and after the end of the book, I’m frankly none the wiser, which is a bit disappointing.

Speaking of the end of the book, the whole interlinked set of mysteries was unravelled very quickly in the last few chapters. I would have liked more time to unpack some of that, especially the revelations that resulted from Edith and Vera’s mystery.

Of the supporting cast, Maude was my favourite. The Cambridge geology post-doc whose room that Ruth ends up staying in after the unexploded bomb meant she had to leave her own, and who comes to stay with them in Martynsborough later. She bucks everybody up and tramps around the countryside in her trousers, looking for interesting rocks. On the opposite end of the scale, we have Warren, Ruth’s fiancĂ©. He’s a wraith himself for the first chunk of the book, haunting Ruth in his absence. Then he turns up, and we get to see this awful character for ourselves. He hangs around for just a chapter or two, whining, and is eventually sent packing. The whole thing is very weird and I’m not entirely sure that it added anything to the story.

An enjoyable enough WW2 thriller, with very mild supernatural trappings. It’s got some enjoyable characters but I’m glad that I got it through the Amazon Prime First Reads programme, since I’ll probably never read it again.

Book details

Year of publication: 2023

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy

By Megan Bannen

Rating: 4 stars

Hart Ralston is a marshal, tasked with protecting the realm of Tanria from humans and zombies alike. Mercy Birdsall is an undertaker, taking quiet pride in her work. These two people hate each other, which is unfortunate, given how much of Mercy’s work comes from the marshals, including Hart. After yet another bruising encounter, Hart finds himself penning a letter to just “a friend” and, on a whim, posts it. Much to his surprise, he gets a reply, and a warm postal friendship soon builds up. No prizes for guessing who’s at the other end, or that sparks will fly when the anonymous “friends” eventually meet in person.

I love a good enemies-to-lovers story, and this one is a delight. We enter the story when Hart and Mercy are long-established enemies, and only gradually find out the history to this. To be honest, the initial argument doesn’t show either of them in a good light, and I don’t really see how a minor misunderstanding turned into such a big thing. But that’s something that does happen, doesn’t it? You’re having a bad day, and a small thing irritates and leaves a bad impression for the next meeting and before you know it, that initial grit has turned into an pearl of mutual hatred.

As well as our title characters, Hart is given an apprentice, Pen Duckers, who helps pierce the protective armour of loneliness that he’s put around himself. Partly because the people he cares about have died, and partly because he’s a demigod and doesn’t know if he’s mortal or not. The idea of everyone he cares about getting old and dying is too much for him to bear, so he’d rather not build up relationships at all.

Mercy, on the other hand, has a loving, if squabbling, family, but is struggling to hold the family business together, as her father gets older, and her brother shows no interest. It doesn’t help that everyone seem to think they know what’s best for her without actually asking.

The book certainly doesn’t stint on the lovers part of enemies-to-lovers! When Hart and Mercy eventually get together, there are some very steamy scenes. I thought it was very well done, but it’s one to look out for if you’re of a, shall we say, delicate constitution?

I really liked the secondary world setting, although with the initial setup being what it was, I could never get the look and feel of a steampunk Wild West out of my head (although I still have no real idea what an “autoduck” is). But this is a world where the Old Gods were overthrown and the New Gods look upon us with kindliness; where same sex relationships and women working outwith the home are mundane; where the anthropomorphic animal messengers of the Old Gods now act as posties; and where Gods (Old and New) have relationships with mortals, relationships that sometimes end up with children.

A delightful cosy story where the closest thing to a Big Bad isn’t a supervillain or Dark Lord, but is just a crooked businessman. I can’t, for the life of me, remember where I saw the book and thought that it sounded like fun, but I’m really glad that I did.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356518664
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Year of publication: 2022

At Amberleaf Fair

By Phyllis Ann Karr

Rating: 4 stars

The toymaker Torin has just had his marriage proposal rejected in favour of that from one of his best friends. His day gets worse, however, as his brother, Talmar, the High Wizard, falls ill, and then his friend’s marriage token goes missing, and Torin is the prime suspect. He has to work to clear his name, all the while worrying about his brother, and his own future marriage prospects.

I really enjoyed this book – in the afterword, the author calls Torin’s world “The Gentle World”, and I very much agree with this characterisation. The whole book is really gentle – nothing really bad happens at all. People are still arrogant, proud and impetuous, but there seems to be no real malicious intent in any character.

It took me a while to get into the flow of it, but once you do, it’s a pleasure to read. The narrative is split between Torin, the storyteller Dylis, and the judge Alrathe and it’s it’s fun to read to build up a picture of the world that the characters inhabit as they go about their lives. There were hints within the text that got me wondering, and again, the afterword confirmed that this is a far-future Earth, rather than secondary world fantasy, albeit one where Clarke’s Third Law is in full swing.

A lot of the book is focussed on Torin’s choice to break from generations of his family to be a toymaker, not a magic-monger. This decision is being tested by his brother’s illness and Talmar’s desire to have Torin come back into the “family business” if he dies. Torin spends a lot of the book agonising over this decision, of how he wants to spend his life, versus what others expect of him. That, not the theft, is the greatest intrigue for me, and I had great sympathy for his plight.

This is a good comfort book. It’s got a gentle mystery, romance and everything is All Right In The End. Delightful.

Book details

Life in Medieval Ireland: Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome

By Finbar Dwyer

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been listening to the Irish History Podcast for a few months now, and in that time, have clearly decided that I favoured social history over “kings and battles” history, tending to skip episodes that favoured the latter in favour of the former. When I heard that the host of that podcast had written a book that looked at the social history through a number of individual stories, I was intrigued.

The book is composed of twenty two short chapters, each on a different theme around everyday life and how it was lived in medieval Ireland, using case studies from the historical record. As I say, the chapters are pretty short, and in some cases, I actually wished for them to be longer and more comprehensive. But the book is very readable (I can’t help narrating it in the author’s voice in my head) and the subjects are interesting. While the first few chapters deal with violence and politics, later chapters are more diverse, covering marriage, protest, food, healthcare and more.

I found the chapter on marriage quite depressing. I know that the rich (throughout the world) used women as political pawns, marrying them off to cement various deals, but it would have been nice to have some counterbalances to that. There must have been cases where people did marry for love, but I guess such things weren’t interesting enough to record. And it would have been nice to see what happened in the lower classes, where there was less politicking. Did poor women have more say in their marriages than the rich?

I was intrigued by the line that Dywer drew from the fall of the Knights Templar (due to the money woes of the king of France at the time) to the rise of a particularly intolerant kind of Christian theology and to the burning of women as witches. That’s not a connection I was aware of before and it’s a fascinating one. The book is filled with little nuggets like this, making it a fun thing to dip in and out of.

I’m usually really bad at reading non-fiction, but I raced through this. It’s a great overview of the social history of medieval Ireland, something that very often gets missed in favour of the big battles and the various kings and nobles at war. It’s not exactly comprehensive, but if you’re interested in the subject, it’s a good book to start with.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848407404

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