Monthly Archives: September, 2019

The Olive Season

It’s fair to say that I take what previously I would have called a guilty pleasure in reading books about foreigners who go to France (or Spain) and rehabilitate dilapidated farms. It’s a guilty pleasure because of course there’s a level of exoticising what for the people these foreigners encounter is just their daily life, and a degree of Othering that I’m uncomfortable with. However, I’m not calling such things guilty pleasures anymore. Problematic, perhaps. It is a pleasure; I’ll not call it guilty anymore. If I keep the problematic nature in mind, and remind myself that these are deliberately romanticised narratives, then I think I’m doing ok.

The Olive Season is the second in a series. I’ve not read the first; I found this in a second hand shop, and while I considered buying the first I decided it didn’t matter. All I need to know is that Carol fell in love with Michel and they bought a near-derelict farm with a few olive trees. Right, got it.

Basically if you’ve read one of the Tuscany books you have a sense for what happens here. Water issues! Planting problems! Madcap guests! However things do get awfully real, too, as Carol experiences some very real and significant tragedy. Her honesty in the way she discusses these in the book is bracing, and a bit heart breaking, and could probably be a bit much for those who have experienced similar things. And it’s appropriate too, since this is a memoir, not a story of a farm. As someone on the outside of such things I respected the way Carol worked through some of the problems in her writing, and the way she also integrated her discussion of the farm, and what it means to her, and how physically working helped her headspace.

Look, the book is set in Provence, and written by someone who loves the place. Of course it makes it sound like it’s a marvelous place to be. There’s no denying the hard work that’s involved in the olive farm, and Carol doesn’t try to downplay it, but nonetheless… she can’t, and the reader can’t, get away from the fact that: this is Provence, and that will always have certain overtones for the non-Provençal.

I enjoyed this book a lot as a holiday read. I won’t go out of my way to find the other books, but if I find them by serendipity I’ll happily grab them.

The Arrows of Time

The time has finally come.

I have finally finished Greg Egan’s Orthogonal trilogy.

There really ought to be a fanfare for such an announcement.

The other books: Clockwork Rocket and Eternal Flame. Spoilers for these two naturally follow.

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At the start of his one, Egan himself has written that you just won’t really get this book without the previous two. I don’t think I’ve ever come across the third book in a trilogy that said that so bluntly, and I really appreciate it. Because it is SO true: if you don’t understand how light and time work in this universe (and look, I don’t understand it, but I get how it’s different from ours), let alone the society and what the folks are doing on this mountain-turned-spaceship, you will be so lost you’ll end up in Antarctica instead of Bali.

As the second book was a few generations after the third, so here. The ship is sailing happily through the universe, and folks are still working on how to save the homeworld. Not that everyone especially wants to save the homeworld, from which they are now several generations distant – and will never see themselves anyway. So, classic generation ship angst, really. That’s one issue. Then, there’s what turns out to be a logical consequence of the bizarre universe Egan has set up where light travels at different speeds and some parts are orthogonal to others: that time is affected, too. Specifically, that it should be possible to set a receiver for messages from the future.

Because that couldn’t possibly turn out badly.

So now there are two issues dividing the crew of the Peerless. And just to add to the problems, while the earlier issue about children has been solved – the females no longer need to either die to become their children, or starve to prevent that from happening, and they’re not overpopulating – there are some people who aren’t happy with the solution: especially some brothers who don’t want to be compelled to care for their sister’s children. So life is definitely not rainbows (which they’ve never seen) and roses (which they don’t grow).

I love that Egan tackles such weighty topics as democracy, needs of the few vs needs of the many, the importance of choice, the place of parenthood, and so on – all in a book that literally has vector diagrams in it as it explores the outcomes of a thought experiment in physics.

From a narrative point of view, the most gripping part is when four people travel to an orthogonal world to see whether it would be habitable. Again, this is an exploration of the consequences of ‘orthogonality’; time is literally going in the opposite for this world from how it is experienced by the travellers, so what could that possibly look like? What does that, what can that, mean for free will? (A whole bunch of headaches is the answer. Mostly metaphorically.) This bit is also a deeper exploration of the characters, as they interact only with each other, in very trying circumstances.

As with the other two books, I admit that I skimmed bits of the physics explanations. Including the diagrams. I read it well enough to get the point Egan is making, but I would in no way attempt to explain it.

I have a couple of thoughts that are spoilers, so don’t read the rest if that’s a problem… but if you’ve read the first two, I think you definitely need to see how the story plays out.

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Mysterious Charm

As a rule, I don’t gravitate to romance novels. I have a complicated relationship with them: I absolutely grew up rejecting the idea of them as being too femme, and I didn’t want to have a bar of that… even while knowing that I enjoyed a well-written romance in whatever books I was reading, or film I was watching (yes, I would watch Empire Strikes Back with just the Han/Leia scenes). As I grew up I realised what I was doing and finally started thinking more sensibly about romance as a genre. It will still never be my go-to genre, I think; while I have enjoyed romance/SF, for instance, I do prefer the balance to be on the SF narrative rather than the romance.

However. Every now and then someone recommends a romance novel to me, and I give it a go, and I have hugely enjoyed them. The Brothers Sinister series by Courtney Milan, for instance, was just lovely: the romance is the centre of each book but around it is a meaty, thoughtful and engaging narrative. (Although I haven’t read the last one, because the term suffragette wasn’t coined until about 1903, and the book seems to be set at least two decades too early.) And that’s what I like, it seems; a romance where the surrounding plot is as strong as the romance. Maybe there’s lots of stories like that; perhaps I’m continuing to do a disservice to romance – I have read a few where that’s not the case, but maybe I was misled by the person who gave them to me.

GoblinFruit-683x1024.jpgANYWAY. The whole point is to explain that when I say I’ve read four books by Celia Lake in about a week, that’s a pretty serious recommendation from my perspective. The Mysterious Charm books are largely centred around the New Forest, in the 1920s. It’s a world where magic exists but those with magic keep pretty separate from the non-magical. It doesn’t seem to be as strict as in JK Rowling’s world, but it’s still significant. The date is a clue to some of what is significant in these books: it’s post WW1 Britain, with the issues that implies: returned soldiers with physical and mental ailments, people grieving their lost ones, survivors struggling with that, and so on. It’s also clear that Lake was influenced by Dorothy Sayers – in fact she says as much, and one of the books is very much a Lord Peter Whimsy story – and the story around the romance in each of the books is some sort of a mystery. There’s an archaeological story, there’s a mysterious drug story, a smuggling story, and a reappearing house story; in each, the pair who will end up involved have to figure out what’s going on. The magic is generally pretty low-key, but essential to the story.

The books aren’t perfect; there are a few idiosyncrasies in the writing style that bugged me at time, mostly around use of commas! But they’re not detrimental to the story. In each, the protagonists generally go chapter for chapter, so the reader gets insight into both sides, which I really enjoyed; there’s no agendas hidden from the reader, and while there are of course obstacles to true love, these are cosy stories, so you don’t have to be worried about where it will end up (not saying I was burnt, but I’m thinking of you, Roman Holiday, and I’m still angry). (These are also stories akin to the Mills&Boon ‘Dare’ or ‘Blaze’ imprints – relatively sexually explicit.)

The first story is “Outcrossing” and while I did think it was adorable I would honestly suggest starting with Goblin Fruit, because it was a meatier and generally more intriguing story. The four that are out so far are intertwined, with some of the same characters popping up, but there’s no real spoilers – if you know that things are going to end well for the characters anyway, it doesn’t matter if you see them happily together in a different book.

I may have signed up for the author’s newsletter so I know when the next one is due…

Mission Critical

Unknown.jpegAs a rule, I really enjoy Strahan’s anthologies, and this one intrigued me: the stories of when things go wrong. These are small stories and large, set in our near space and a very long way away – in time as well as space – and stories where not everything ends up well. You already know something is going to go wrong.

I didn’t love every story in the book; it’s an anthology, so that’s no surprise. To my own surprise I did not love the Greg Egan story that starts it: it was fine, but it didn’t have quite the… flair… that I like from his work usually. Ah well. There were plenty of stories I did love. Linda Nagata’s was in the vein of AI-gone-wrong, and I really enjoyed the characterisation. Gregory Feeley’s is set on Mars, like Nagata’s, with a completely different set of problems and hints at a whole bunch of background issues that intrigued me. Possibly not one to read if you’re feeling sensitive about children in danger. Going way off into the distance, temporally and spatially, Tobias S Buckell sets up a really intriguing society and a problem that verges on a “Cold Equations” scenario. I loved the characters a lot, and would absolutely read a novel or three set in this place.

Despite what the Goodreads page says, this book does not have an Alastair Reynolds story. To my disappointment, as you can imagine. There is, however, a Yoon Ha Lee story, and these days that pretty nearly makes me as happy. And “The Empty Gun” absolutely delivers in cold hard explosive story that I could not hope to guess the ending of. Same goes for Peter F Hamilton’s story. I’ve read only a few things by him, and it’s been a bit hit and miss – I think because he often verges on, or is outright, horror – but this one, set in our solar system but many, many years away, is amazing: the changes to humanity necessary for survival, the uncomfortable conception of maternity, and the outrageous version of a bad roadtrip. The final story, by Peter Watts, is a fairly uncomfortable place to end the anthology – it absolutely works, but it’s a grim view of the future, and one that feels if not plausible then at least imaginable.

This is a highly enjoyable anthology with a good range of stories; I’ve only covered maybe half of them here. The theme is broad enough that you’d almost not know that the authors were writing to a theme, except for all the time things go wrong. Many of the stories are long enough that they get to develop their worlds and characters a bit more than in a short-short. Definitely one to read if you’re after some wide-ranging SF.

The Gate to Women’s Country

Unknown.jpegI’ve heard of Tepper as one of the early-ish feminist SF authors who got quite a lot of attention. This came out in 1988, so not early at all, but nonetheless it’s one whose name seems to kinda float around in the ether as an example of feminist writing. It’s been sitting on my shelf for ages, so I figured I should give it a go.

Set some time in the future, on Earth, this is largely an exploration of a society through one character’s life. There are a few significant events, but most of them are daily-life-level, rather than world or even community-level: it’s intentionally small scale, I think, to explore the issues on Tepper’s mind rather than to present an epic narrative.

This is a very complicated book to think about. Firstly, although it’s only mentioned in passing this is a deeply homophobic book. I don’t think there’s any mention of female same-sex relationships, and male homosexuality is regarded as an illness that needs to be cured; men who want to sleep with other men are deeply suspect.

Secondly, it’s an example of that sub-genre where women and men live largely segregated lives. The women are mostly in towns, while many of the men live outside the town walls in a garrison. There are exceptions: the men who return to the towns, through ‘the gate to women’s country’, and why they choose this and how the other men regard them is one of the key aspects that’s explored through the story – eventually, anyway. I don’t think Tepper is advocating for this segregation as a real way to live, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

Thirdly, the narrative structure isn’t linear. It largely follows Stavia, and her experiences both as a child and as woman; a large part of this is about how childhood experiences influence her as an adult (the child is the mother of the woman, etc etc). This isn’t too complicated, but it is occasionally confusing, since there’s no textual indication at the start of the chapter or whatever to indicate which time the chapter is in. It does become evident pretty quickly, but it’s still something to be aware of.

Fourthly, there’s the Iphigenia at Ilium aspect. This is probably the strangest bit. The book is set some centuries after some sort of disaster has killed a massive proportion of the population and devastated the environment. Lots has been lost, but somehow a variation of The Trojan Women has survived, and become so important that it’s staged every year. I can see some of the thematic similarities that Tepper is trying to convey – Achilles’ ghost is basically laughed at, and it seems to try and remind the women that there are problems with warriors and senseless violence, or something like that? Perhaps I missed something deeper, because overall it just didn’t make sense to me.

Lastly, one of the big revelations towards the end is a major spoiler, so if you don’t want that, look away now…

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