I picked this book up at The Moat, a bar/restaurant slightly underneath the Victorian State Library. It has a shelf of books that can be taken by customers on the proviso that at some stage, you put one in yourself – although a further proviso is “No Dan Brown” (seriously it says that on the sign). Anyway I’d heard of Dubosarsky and never read any of her stuff, and the cover was immediately entrancing – look at that purple! and the gold is luminous!
There’s a little bit of Picnic at Hanging Rock around this book, which Dubosarsky herself acknowledges, as well as a lot of inspiration from art – especially that of Charles Blackman, whose paintings and drawings provide the chapter headings. It also, she says, draws on her own memories of being a Sydney schoolgirl.
Eleven little girls have a somewhat peculiar teacher, who takes them out of school down to the nearby gardens, to consider the world and attempt poetry and to listen to a gardener-cum-poet, Morgan. (It’s fair to say that there were a lot of alarm bells for me as a teacher with this book! The 60s were truly a different world…) But something happens – something unexpected and terrible, but probably not what you’re thinking: let me spoil this slightly and say nothing happens to the girls themselves, IT’S OK Tansy can read this if she hasn’t already.
While the ongoing repercussions of the Serious Event colour the entire book, Dubosarsky works other issues in, in the same way that such issues would probably be experienced by your average kid. It opens on the day Ronald Ryan is hanged (the last such event in Australia); the Vietnam War is ongoing. Closer to home, things are not entirely well in the homes of at least one of the girls, although exactly what is going on is never fleshed out; the reader sees glimpses in the way that a casual schoolfriend sees glimpses, only when they’re allowed or by accident.
It’s a very short book – 150 pages of well-spaced type. It’s a delightfully written book, with evocative descriptions of schoolrooms and gardens and slightly creepy creeks. Dubosarsky captures the innocence and bewilderment and childish cunning of children very nicely too; a student would have no trouble seeing themselves in this novel, in the attitudes and expectations of the schoolyard. It’s also potentially a frustrating book. It begins in 1967, with the girls about 10 years old; it covers about a fortnight in their lives, mostly in the schoolroom with occasional forays outside. It then jumps to one afternoon in 1975, with four of the girls sitting their final HSC exam, and a final intriguing addendum to their experience eight years earlier. The story is left ajar – not quite open, not quite closed… I guess this is fitting since the girls themselves are on the cusp of adulthood, so their lives at this point are liminal, balancing between two aspects.
The Golden Day is intriguing, and luminous like its cover; I have no doubt this will stay with me into the future. Especially when considering excursions.
You can buy The Golden Day at Fishpond.
Did you know blue has been the favourite colour of Westerners over the last couple of centuries?
This book is and intriguing idea, although not entirely well executed. I enjoyed the broad sweep of time that Pastoureau attempted to cover – the Neolithic and ancient use of colour very briefly, the medieval world and on in a bit more detail – because the comparison across hundreds of years is fascinating. Unsurprisingly though, this was also one of its downfalls, since the occasional times it treated an idea or subject in detail it felt out of place; and the lack of detail in some areas annoyed me. In some ways this felt, perhaps deliberately, like this was a preparatory work; a number of times Pastoureau raised questions as areas requiring further research, or mentioned medieval manuscripts that have yet to be transliterated or studied in any fashion.
In appearance this is halfway between a history book and a coffee table number. It’s beautifully presented, and the pictures themselves are delightful – most pages have one or two, sometimes three, pictures, illustrating some pertinent point about where and how blue was being used, or other uses of colour at relevant points. But the text is too dense to really work as an art book, while it’s not long enough somehow for it to feel like a really serious treatment of the subject – especially not over such a vast span of time.
As a history book, I remain unconvinced by some of Pastoureau’s suggestions about how blue worked in culture. The lack of blue in very early art, Neolithic right through to much ancient illustration, is curious but I didn’t entirely buy his explanation for its lack of symbolism and therefore appearance and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it just didn’t feel explained enough to accept such a radical idea. This problem permeated much of the text, in fact; the sober, moral overtones that blue acquired thanks to the Protestants, as well as the issues discussed around its symbolism in the later medieval period, were presented as a little bit too definitive, a little bit too unarguable, for me to be entirely comfortable. Clearly Pastoureau was not setting out to write the definitive work on the colour; he himself points out that a vast amount more work needs to be done in a whole range of areas before such a thing is possible. And perhaps it’s also a fault of translation; maybe there was a bit more uncertainty in the original French?
Anyway, overall this is a fascinating book that has made me think about colour and its uses, but not entirely satisfactory.
My e-copy of this book categorises it as “Fantasy; short stories.” It is neither. Rather, it is a near-future novel about politics, virtual reality, religion, family relationships, and death.
No, it is not a Patrick Rothfuss or George RR Martin-style tome. It is elegant.
Two strands: Nasim is an Iranian woman living in America, working on the mapping of individual finch brains to try and create a generic brain map. Martin is an Australian journalist working in Iran, who gets to cover escalating political unrest. (This book was published in 2010….) Flick forward several years, and Nasim is living in Iran and now working on Zendegi, a virtual-reality platform used by millions of people, mostly for entertainment. Martin is still in Iran, married with a son. I trusted that the two strands would eventually cross, but I really couldn’t figure out how. The answer is both ‘cleverly’ and ‘via tragedy’ (Egan, you are nasty).
I am in serious danger of becoming quite the Egan fangirl. Just so you all know.
Egan does a marvellous job here of entwining the intimate and domestic with large-scale societal issues. Personal tragedies are neither hyped up to become world-ending nor elided as insignificant. The plot moves carefully between, for example, Zendegi as entertainment for a six year old and Zendegi as bleeding-edge technology – and how the company can deal with competitors. Egan portrays politics as they are seen by a slightly-above-average interested citizen, rather than focussing on politicians; he touches on religion as it might be experienced, rather than trying to show rights and wrongs. He’s a sensitive and compassionate author, but did I mention nasty? Also, I think he writes women well, which is something I’m coming to appreciate more and more. Nasim’s feelings of anxiety over having left Iran, and wanting to return, read realistically. In fact, overall human attitudes and relationships read as believable: complex and contradictory and frustrating and glorious.
In a more classically cyberpunk novel, Zendegi would get far more of the focus that it does here; characters don’t actually spend that much time in the virtual world, for example. It is incredibly significant for both Martin and Nasim by the end, but still I am a little surprised by its use as the title. I think Egan has hit on a more likely way for virtual entertainment to encroach on our lives than most early cyberpunkers did – more subtle, and perhaps more insidious for the fact. It’s really nicely presented.
This is a novel brimful of complex and challenging ideas that is an absolute, pretty much effortless, delight to read.
You can buy Zendegi from Fishpond.
I got hold of a copy of this amazing novelette (I think? 17,000-ish words) from one of Galactic Suburbia’s wonderful listeners, who is the Editorial Director of a new digital publisher, Snackreads - he sent through a copy because he thought it would be up our collective alley. To which the answer, I think, is OH YES.
A future where there are space ships carrying cargo between planets as easily as trucks do today… but where there is, for some unknown reason, a societal reaction (on some planets) against women having the freedom of movement to do things like be in space. Dee has taken over a freighting company from her formidable aunt, but is facing difficulties in the shape of her sister, her sister’s husband, and mounting debt. When she has to land on New Niger, things appear to be as desperate as they can be, so she ends up making a deal with a competitor… and things go from there.
The things I love about this story are many: I love Dee’s voice as she makes clear just how much it means to her, to be a pilot, and just how much she hates the idea of being trapped by her brother-in-law. I adore the idea of New Niger (although I must admit I don’t know how accurate Charnas is in her descriptions of Old Niger, and it may well be that there are some things that are offensive/otherwise wince-worthy, and if there are I’d love to hear it) – people of colour in space! Who would’ve thought it! I particularly love (although see previous brackets) the way that one character there, in particular, plays on racial stereotypes very consciously to her own advantage. The denouement had me quietly cackling with glee. I enjoyed the pace of the narrative, the action overall, the ‘domestic’ setting (family feuds) commenting on larger social realities…
I should get me some more Charnas to read, I guess.
I’ve been wanting to read more Judith Merril since Helen Merrick’s Secret Feminist Cabal, since Merril features pretty prominently in the early years. The lady wrote “That only a Mother could love” – a seriously amazing piece of fiction that I’m sure Russ would have dismissed as ‘galactic suburbia’ but I think is staggering in its suggestion about life for the ordinary woman in The Future.
Anyway, “Exile from Space” – the basic story is young woman going to the city for the first time, but there’s clearly something a bit odd about this young woman because of how she talks about her education, and about other people… and it quickly becomes apparent that she has not been living with other humans, at least for her teen years. So although she herself is human and passes for human, she has to deal with all these weird things like eating, and shopping, and interacting with humans – such that she might as well be an alien. Oh, the many levels of ‘alien’. And then, of course, there’s a man…
Merril’s writing is delightful and elegant, and conveys the sheer weirdness of human existence simply and clearly. So many things we take for granted…. This story makes me wish I could find more of Merril’s work, but I keep coming up with nothing wherever I look. I got this story from The Gutenberg Project.
I missed a first-in-the-series, here, which is a bit frustrating; I’m usually pretty good about not doing that. Anyway, if it’s going to bug you like it annoys me, go read Dreamships first. This one will wait.
Scott likes tackling hard topics, and here she’s asking – when does intelligence become intelligence? When can, in crude terms, a computer be regarded as a being in its own right? Does there have to be a deliberate effort on the part of humans for it to happen, or could it develop accidentally? And when we finally find that silicone intelligence shares the same space as us… what will be our reaction? Because we have such a good track record of dealing with humans with different perspectives from our own, let alone an entirely different type of intelligence. Scott presents some intriguing suggestions to these questions – and a few answers, but nothing completely definitive. It’s nicely tantalising, in a lot of ways.
I generally love Scott’s worlds, and this is no different. Humanity has spread to several planets; this story is set on Persephone. For all that there’s some seriously upgraded tech, and that it’s set an unknown distance into the future, it still feels recognisably human. Like, after initial freak-out-edness, it seems like I could probably live on Persephone. This is probably helped by the fact that the story revolves around people whose own lives revolve around that rather ubiquitous human characteristic, a love of music. Initial events are spurred on by the death of much-loved music star, and one of the main characters has a souped-up illusions show at one of the ‘Empires’ – which I think are basically futuristic theatres, catering to a variety of entertainments, from rock music to vaudeville (or their futuristic equivalents). I love this idea that the human desire to be entertained, on the one hand, and the equally pressing desire to express oneself in public somehow, will continue into the future – it’s something that doesn’t get enough airplay in SF I think.
Another aspect of the world-building that I really appreciated is that it’s clearly not a monoculture. I think this is the one main area where not having read Dreamships was a problem (aside from a couple of plot points that I managed to catch up on); the use of ‘coolie’ and ‘yanqui’ and other terms clearly referring to ethnic background didn’t always make sense to me – or, where I could but out the basic meaning (like with those two), it sometimes took me a while to figure out all the subtleties, like whose allegiances lay where and who felt which grievances. Nonetheless – this is a future that is not overwhelmingly white, where cultures have continued to develop and take on bits and pieces of older traditions and moosh them together, and where people can live on the same planet and not be identical. Also, where a common expletive is “Elvis Christ”.
The plot? Assassinations, destruction of property, intrigue, romance – all revolving around that idea of artificial intelligence, how it might come about, what should be done about it if it does, whether machines taking over from humanity in any area is a good thing, and all of those good things.
Scott writes beautifully. She switches between characters effortlessly and gives each a distinct voice. She matches a great plot with hard questions and does wonderful service to both. It’s not quite as cyberpunk as, say, Trouble and Her Friends, but it’s wonderful science fiction.
First things first: this is not an Alisa book (WW2 references and events), nor is it a Tansy book (there are children, and babies, and things are not always nice).
This is not, actually, what I would immediately think of as an Alex book, either. I don’t tend to go in for WW2 alternative histories. I don’t object to them, but I don’t have the fascination for Nazis that still seems to occur in Western culture. (Seriously, what is WITH that? Can’t we move on?) I also don’t have the deep understanding of WW2 tactics and dramatis personae that enables me to pick the subtle alterations that can be made. Nonetheless, I got it for review, and the front cover phrase – “An unnatural power. An unstoppable force” – was intriguing, as was Cory Doctorow’s description of it as “Mad English warlocks battling twisted Nazi psychics.”
That is, indeed, the premise of the plot. A German scientist (I use the term in its broadest, amoral sense) has been experimenting with the aim of creating – you guessed it – superhumans. The English find out about it, or bits of it anyway, and in response start trying to figure out what their defence can possibly be. The answer is… not very nice. There’s an element of ‘doing wrong in order to do good’ about a lot of the English response, which causes some of the characters some angst but occasionally didn’t seem to worry them nearly as much as it ought. My reaction to this vacillated. On the one hand, a bit more hand-wringing (or more effective equivalent) would have increased the humanity of the characters; on the other hand, I fully understand that war can and does change perception and attitude, and perhaps what Tregillis is being is brutally realistic. Whichever, it often makes for somewhat unpleasant reading.
The story begins with three significant events in 1920, then jumps to 1939 and continues on to 1941. The 1920 prologue introduces three significant characters and their assorted others. Two children arrive at a deserted German farm (spooky); a group of children steal from a backyard vegetable garden and their ringleader gets rather more than he expects from the garden’s owner (amusing); and the very young scion of a noble family learns rather more than he wants about his odd grandfather (spooky, again). The German children, of course, are subjects for the German doctor’s experiments and – slight spoiler? – both live to become agents in service of the doctor and his patron, Himmler. The young ringleader is taken under the gardener’s wing and joins the Royal Navy and then the Secret Intelligence Service (you know James Bond started off in the navy, right?), and is the one who starts cracking the nut that is the weird German actions. And the other gentleman… well, that would be a spoiler, so I won’t explain him. But he definitely crops up again. Of these characters it is fair to say that none are especially loveable, or even likeable, most of the time. The English secret agent, Marsh, is initially the most approachable, but that doesn’t last. They each have moments where sympathy is definitely appropriate, but half the time they’d go and do something or say something that, if not actively making me dislike them, certainly made me ambivalent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a character, but it certainly made the reading experience more wearisome than others.
The plot basically follows the development of WW2, with added supernatural/psychic/weird elements that naturally alter how some things pan out. I think Tregillis has thought out the repercussions of these new weapons quite well, but then I’m no military historian so my approval is definitely suspect. As with any war, things get more and more unpleasant as time goes on. This is not a nice novel. People get hurt, and not always the right people.
Bitter Seeds is well written and a very examination of the way psychic weapons could alter warfare. It’s also a fairly bleak look at how people react under stress. It’s very well written – engaging, well paced, and with well-timed shifts between characters. All of that said, I don’t see myself seeking out the sequel. I don’t think I could handle the fact that I am quite sure the story can only get bleaker before it maybe, possibly, gets brighter – and sometimes the brighter doesn’t entirely make up for the bleak. So, enjoyable, but not really my sort of thing after all.
You can buy Bitter Seeds at Fishpond.
“Young ladies ought to be seen and not heard, except when they’re climbing over dirigibles or looking for secret information. Unless the being seen bit is part of a misdirection.”
This advice pretty much sums up what Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is all about. They learn music and etiquette, along with eyelash-fluttering and the language of parasols, but all of it goes into the service of turning out young ladies who are capable of stealing, finding, maiming, subverting or even killing anything or anyone as required. With decorum, modesty, and a poise that befits their position. Woe betide any stain on a petticoat hem.
Gail Carriger has returned to the world she created in the Alexia Tarabotti (two of which I’ve reviewed here), although this appears – from various internal hints – to be set before Alexia’s thrilling adventures into how to dress to deal with the supernatural. This means that this is a decidedly other version of Victorian England; one in which mechanical servants are completely de rigeur, as is having both a werewolf and a vampire on the faculty of said Finishing School. There are trains but there are also dirigibles; there is no telegraph, but it’s ok – there’s still lots of fashion.
For fans of Carriger’s previous work, I should mention some of the differences, the foremost being in the main character. Sophronia is fourteen, and therefore – despite a propensity towards precociousness – very different in outlook from the adult Alexia. Attached to this is that Sophronia is a student, and therefore at least nominally restricted in her movements, unlike Alexia.And, while Alexia’s adventures revolve around the supernatural because of her unusual preternatural status, the supernatural is just there for Sophronia – to be admired or scared of occasionally, but not intersecting with her everyday life in much of a way (although Captain Niall is a spunk). None of these comments are intended to be in any way a complaint about this new novel; it’s just good to clear the air for fans of the previous work.
So, Sophronia. Imagine getting settled with that for a first name. She’s the youngest daughter but somewhere-in-the-middle child of the Temminnick household, consistently getting into trouble and generally causing small-to-medium mayhem (landing a trifle on a lady’s head doesn’t quite count as major mayhem, since said lady was a duchess or anything). This mayhem is naturally upsetting to her mother, mostly because it means that Sophronia is not acting like a lady and generally ends up looking very unlike a lady (custard is unbecoming). Thus, to finishing school, much to her sister Petunia’s relief (… I think I would rather Sophronia as my name) and Sophronia’s dismay. Fortunately, the journey to the school itself contains adventure, and Sophronia begins to suspect that this school may not be quite what she was expecting. And then she reaches the school itself, and the very buildings indicate that this is quite something else.
The plot revolves around good old fashioned intrigue amongst students and staff, as well as an external threat. As with any good school-based novel there’s a deal of sussing-out the good eggs from the bad, figuring out which teachers can be manipulated in which ways, and poking at the edges of the rules to see which break and which bend. The first is just complex enough to be interesting, even amongst Sophronia’s group of ‘debuts’ (first-years) – there’s only 6. The second is complicated by the fact that the staff are naturally quite good at the things they teach – diversion, for example, and manipulation, and generally devious behaviour. And the third – well, that’s where the fun lies, isn’t it?
The Alexia novels have been referred to as ‘bustlepunk’, and it’s fair to say that you have to have a genuine fascination with, or high tolerance for, descriptions of clothing, toilette in general, and eating to really enjoy those novels. The same applies here, although it’s laid on a little less thick – we’re mostly dealing with young teenaged girls after all, with little interaction with outside society (which doesn’t mean they can get away with not having their hair and nails perfect, nor that they can ever be seen less than fully clothed (inc several petticoats)). Sophronia is an interesting perspective to share, in this case, because her previous attitude was definitely one of scowling at the notion of ‘ladylike’. This changes over time, but the reasons for her change in attitude are also shown – and it’s not that catching a husband suddenly assumes an enormous significance for her. This slight undercutting of the social expectations of a Victorian lady was nice to see.
My one complaint, and fortunately it does not crop up very often, is something that also bugged me in a couple of the Alexia novels, and that’s the attitude towards class. Just occasionally there are comments about those not in the rarified ranks of quail-tay. Usually those comments come from unpleasant characters, but – unlike the comments on social expectations – they are not undercut to show the unpleasant snobbery inherent in such words. It’s somewhat mollified by Sophronia’s unconventional friendship with some Downstairs types, who – glory! – actually manage to be quite useful, but still… the comments rankled.
Overall, this is a rocking, enjoyable novel. Steampunk for the sake of the plot, not the aesthetic; spunky female lead (this definitely passes the Bechdel test); and a satisfactorily intriguing plot. Yes I am looking forward to the sequel… which, given this has only just come out, is something of a problem for me.
You can get Etiquette and Espionage from Fishpond.
Some of the books I discuss here are ones that I have received from publishers. This was especially the case when I was reviewing for the now sadly closed Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus. I have, however, rarely (if ever?) made this clear in my comments. Not from a desire to hide that fact, or in any way be deceitful; rather it’s never a habit I got into, and sometimes I forget the provenance of a book I really want to read! Some book bloggers do a very good job of announcing it (I think of Sean the Blogonaut). So what I’m wondering is… does it make a difference? Should I make a conscious effort to notify my readers of when a book was given to me gratis by a publisher or author? I’d be very interested in your thoughts.
Look, I’ll be honest: when Tansy wrote her blog post with some recommendations for the Hugo graphic novels category, and mentioned this one, and then made a rather pointed comment about me having to read it, I kinda skimmed the post because I don’t NEED another graphic novel to be reading! This is meant to be my year of reading books I already OWN! So, you know, I was just going to… not pay much attention…
Then, Tansy discussed said graphic novel on Galactic Suburbia, and made it sound even more compelling – comparing it very favourably to the Deathstalker series, which she just KNOWS is bound to pique my interest.
I went and downloaded the first instalment. (I know there’s controversy around paper vs electronic comics, but I don’t want to start buying hard copy comics – I already struggle to find space for my books, this would just be another imposition. Plus, convenience.) And then I downloaded the next one. And then… yeh. So now I am as addicted as that nasty Tansy KNEW I would be. Maybe I should send her the bill. I do, though, disagree slightly with her comparison – I think the relationship is closer to that of Hawk and Fisher than Deathstalker.
Look closely at the cover and you’ll see why Tansy was smitten so quickly. That’s a mixed race (species) couple, with the woman breastfeeding a baby. And this image was on the very first issue. Remarkable, no? The story itself is actually told from the point of view of the baby herself, which is a clever little quirk and – as Tansy pointed out with some relief – it means you know that THE BABY SURVIVES. This is a good thing. The couple themselves are soldiers from opposite sides of a galaxy-spanning war, which has been going on for more years than people care to remember. She’s got wings; he’s got horns; they’re both soldiers. Their relationship – once discovered – is naturally one that does not bring joy to their respective authorities. Especially after the revelation of the abomination that is their mixed-species child.
I am still coming to terms with the idea that I have to genuinely consider the art when I read graphic novels. First, I don’t have an instinctive love of the visual medium; second, I don’t always feel that the art is… integral?… to the comics I read. It is vital in Girl Genius but seems less so in the new Captain Marvel or Hawkeye. Maybe that just makes me a bad comic-book reader. At any rate, Fiona Staples’ art is wonderful and rich and nuanced and definitely adds to the story overall. Alana and Marko – the couple – are drawn with great expression and realism. Maybe the art works here because there’s such a range of characters and species and settings – which is more like Girl Genius and less like Captain Marvel and Hawkeye. Eh; that’s probably an indefensible proposition. Probably I just need to pay more attention to the art in those stories, like I do with Saga.
There have been 9 issues as I write. Brian K Vaughan has said that there’s a definite arc he has in mind for the story, but it’s not clear how long that will take. This could be a long term commitment, TANSY. So far, there have been mercenaries; ghost-girl nannies; subversive romance novels; attempted assassinations; robot-headed folks; in-laws; magic; blasters; secrets revealed; rocketship forests; space travel; and the sorts of domestic interludes that we’ve been complaining don’t turn up often enough in science fiction and fantasy but that clearly MUST if these people are to be believed and their relationships to function. It’s a science fiction and fantasy heroic domestic adventure. It’s Mad About You meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In space. With magic.
I second the nomination of this as a nominee for Best Graphic Novel :)
You can buy Saga Vol 1 here; it collects issues #1-6.