Monthly Archives: May, 2021

Bread & Water

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

This is a set of essays, many published elsewhere previously, written by a woman who has been many things: a chef, a restaurant owner, a writer; mother, both married and single; a culinary student and a teacher; resident on farms and in cities and, as these essays are written, back on the farm that was originally set up by her grandparents. The essays are ruminations on life, reflections on choices both good and bad, an exploration of cause and consequence, and a meditation on – as the title suggests – food and water: the place of both in our lives, how they can impact on the way we live, the positives and negatives.

When I read a book like this I think, How can I find more books like this? What category do they come under? I’m not interested in reading just any essays on life; the focus on food and, I suspect, having a female author make these particularly appealing. I’m also not always interested in just reading about food for its own sake – the connection to life more generally, here, as well as the stories behind the growing and making of food, helps make these essays intensely readable and occasionally challenging.

Hobsbawn-Smith is writing these essays having moved back to the Canadian prairie. She reflects on many moments in her life, from horse riding as a teen to the area around her farm becoming a lake for seven years, with stories of her sons growing up in between. Sometimes she recounts stories for their own sake; more often she’s thinking about what they mean – how they reflect and connect to other moments in her life, what they show about the importance of family and feeding each other, how she has come to be the person she is today.

I didn’t always agree with the conclusions about life that Hobsbawn-Smith reaches; and I suspect that, given the differences between us (age, aspiration, location) she wouldn’t have a problem with that. But I do feel challenged – reminded, rather – to consider food more meaningfully, to remember the love that making and giving food can show; to try and take life just a little slower; and to be more aware of where food comes from. Trying to be intensely locavore is something that works if you’ve got the time and the money, which is something society as a whole needs to struggle with – and it’s not something that’s particularly doable for me right now. But I can, for example, be more mindful of seasonality.

These essays were deeply enjoyable to read, both on an intellectual-challenge and -stimulation level and also as prose in and of itself. Hobsbawn-Smith writes beautifully of food, and nature, and experience; she has an entire essay of her love for a temperamental oven, which is a delight. She made me remember that food is more than fuel, that life can be lived slowly, and that doing so is worthwhile.

Wendy, Darling

I received this book via NetGalley.

Jean Rhys gave me the story of Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, in Wide Sargasso Sea. Seanan McGuire made me consider what happens to children when they come home from their otherworld adventures. AC Wise gives me the story of Wendy, and what happens after Neverland, and the reality about Peter Pan.

Peter Pan is an awful person.

(I should note that it’s well more than 20 years since I read Peter Pan, so it’s possible that I’ve missed some of the more subtle and clever nuances that Wise brings to the story. (And to be honest when Hook was mentioned, my brain immediately went to Dustin Hoffman…). Clearly, though, this is not a problem for appreciating the novel, Whether it would be as thoroughly appreciated with zero knowledge of the original is unclear; I suspect it would be fine, given the depth of story about Wendy as a human, but some of the references might be a bit weird.)

Wendy, Darling presents its story over a few different timelines: Wendy in Neverland. Wendy after World War 1, when she is committed – by her brothers – to an asylum. Wendy married, and a mother. And the story of Jane, Wendy’s daughter… I think you can guess what happens to Jane.

This book is amazing. This book is compulsive reading (I read it in 24 hours, and it only took that long because ugh, life). This book is sharp and piercing and reflects on a whole lot of the issues that the (white, patriarchal) world has come aware of since Barrie wrote his original. (Uh, hi there Tiger Lily….) And this book balances being well-paced and driven by action in some parts, with being deeply reflective and thoughtful in other parts. You know how sometimes you get to a different timeline in a story and you’re all “get on with it! get back to the other bit!”? That never happened here.

It’s about memory, and family, and loss, and compromise, and fidelity. The pain and the joy of growing up, the complexity of relationships, how much we can hurt the ones we love and how we can make our own families. And the fierce, wonderful, difficulty of life.

I just love it. Everyone should read it. It should be nominated for all the awards.

In the Watchful City

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

This… is a really hard book to write a review on.

I could just say it’s amazing, but that doesn’t give you much sense of, well, anything.

I could just say it’s a book you have to experience to appreciate but… that’s so deeply a cop-out I can’t even.

So. Let’s try this.

Characters? Varied and intriguing and even though you’re with most of them for such a short period of time, I felt emotionally connected to pretty much all of them. I’m pretty stony-hearted so that’s saying a lot. Gender diverse (two, I think, non-standard pronouns), very little physical description so imagine what you like of skin colour etc (aspects of Chinese-based world-building like references to foot binding had some impact on my imagination).

World-building? One of those instances where there are so many little moments where something is mentioned and I’m like “wait WAIT what? You need to explain that more!” and the author just ignores me (unsurprisingly) and although I don’t fully understand some idea (which might be my lack of cultural context or it might be deliberate), it turns out actually I don’t need those details to fully experience the world and the story. Having said that, by the end of the story I had a lot of tantalising detail that gave me a very full sense of the world – far more full than might be expected from a fairly short story, and especially one that’s not entirely linear.

Plot? There’s one main one – Anima lives in Ora, and works basically as part of a surveillance system, designed to keep citizens safe. Anima meets someone very unexpected, as well as experiencing tragedy. But along with that, there are additional stories, told to Anima via representative objects… and I loved Anima but maybe I loved the stories more? Some involve great loss and some involve victory and they all help to develop a sense of the world in which all of this is taking place.

It’s SF and it’s fantasy. The writing is gorgeous. It’s utterly absorbing. It’s going on my list of things to nominate for awards next year.

How Iceland Changed the World

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

Take a person, group, or – in this case – country that has rarely featured in mainstream histories of Really Important Stuff, and show how actually this person / group / country was significant.

I love this formula. It’s how you get great histories of women, a lot of the time, or Mark Kurlansky’s Basque History of the World. So taking the same approach to Iceland absolutely makes sense, and it really works.

Bjarnason is coming to this as a journalist, rather than as an academic, and that’s apparent in the writing style: it’s a bit more chatty, a bit more amused, than your classic history – even an historian that’s trying to be really approachable is unlikely to describe an early Icelandic historian as Iceland’s first nerd. I loved it: the book is super comfy to read – very engaging, and well-paced. The latter is aided by the fact he’s not trying to cover absolutely everything in Iceland’s history. Instead he’s picked a few key moments – as the title suggests, where Iceland’s history has interacted in interesting or significant ways with the wider world – to illuminate the several centuries of Iceland’s human habitation.

For me, I think the first few chapters were the most interesting. I knew the basics about Erik the Red and and Leif Ericsson and their escapades and ‘discovery’ of North America. Have I heard of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir? No I haven’t. Because patriarchy. Anyway, she’s rescued along with a bunch of other castaways by Leif, and then went on a voyage that went to North America, where she gave birth to the first European American. There’s a lot in that. So those discoveries are the first chapter – along with the settling of Iceland and Greenland by these Europeans, and how that affected the rest of Europe – and then the second chapter looks at other ways Iceland interacted with medieval Europe. It focuses a lot on the recording of the sagas and how Iceland’s parliament functioned, and of course bloody Snorri Sturluson. And then the third chapter is Iceland’s volcanoes leading to several years of very, very bad weather and general climatic problems, some of which I’d heard of while others (like the lung problems in England) were completely new.

Chapters 4-9 are modern history, and most of it’s 20th century. This shouldn’t be too surprising because even though there’s a spectacular amount of evidence about Iceland from earlier than that, especially in comparison to some other places. it still doesn’t compare to modern obsessions with record keeping and, of course, our ability to store things durably (not that good quality paper is any defence against half of Copenhagen boring down and destroying the university and its records, no that’s not a random example). So there’s Iceland’s part in WW2 (small but significant) and in “the first of Israel” (through involvement in the UN), and Iceland in the Cold War – focused on Bobby Fischer.

There were only a few bits that didn’t feel like they worked, for me. In particular, discussing NASA”s sending of astronauts to Iceland to ‘practice’ on lunar-like surfaces is cool, but then a lot of the chapter was actually about the changing landscape thanks to the introduction of an invasive species (which some people happen to like). But this was a rare example of ideas not feeling like they fit together.

This was an absorbing book that taught me and entertained me and gave me more appreciation of Iceland. Which I suspect means the author can say “job done”.

Hard Reboot

I received this as a review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

It’s a far future universe where humans have spread to other planets and the Earth is basically a dump. It’s still worth visiting if you’re a historian or archaeologist, but you have to take drastic measures, like disabling your ability to access the network, and even physically covering up the jacks in your head, because otherwise they’re likely to be targets for malware.

Kas, a scholar whose background may get in the way of her achieving her goals, gets the chance to go to Earth and watch mech battles in the Drome (and it took me an embarrassing number of pages before I fully clicked that this was short for hippodrome or similar). From there, things go exceedingly not well, from accidentally laying a bet to being chased to meeting people she’s not meant to and getting on the wrong side of her boss.

Hard Reboot is fast-paced and exciting and a lot of fun to read. It flits between Kas’ perspective and that of Zhi, a mech pilot struggling to make her way as an individual in a society dominated by a corporate-or-is-it-a-gang. The narrative reveals teasing bits of what has made human society the way it is, but there’s still enough that’s not explained that it remains a bit opaque, a bit mysterious. Kas and Zhi’s interactions include an amusing level of banter, and the descriptions of the mech battles balance being precise in the mechanics with not going into the sort of boring detail that irritates me in some fight descriptions (my spatial awareness doesn’t really let imagine what you’re describing and also I don’t really care).

Definitely another good novella in a string of such from Tor.com.

Plantagenet Princes

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

The good things:

  • The very concept. I love the idea of a book that covers all the Plantagenet fellas from Henry II to Richard III. Seeing their wildly varying careers one after the other points up just how outrageous and sometimes amazing and sometimes dreadful this lot could be. So great.
  • Some of the context given. I appreciated the broader comments about the Crusades, for instance – and this lot were involved right up to Crusade #8, which I didn’t know before this. The book starts with a very general intro to the concept of being a knight, and then gives an overview of the first couple generations after the Conqueror. I didn’t need these, but for a reader less familiar with the era I’m sure it would be very welcome.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine. Any time I get to read about her, it’s a good day.
  • It’s pretty straightforward to read.

The less good things:
(sigh)

  • The author mentions an historian who claims the Bayeux Tapestry must have been designed by a man because there are penises embroidered on it. And just… leaves that comment sitting there.
  • The author repeats that old saw about spices being used to cover the taste of rotting meat. Pretty sure that’s been debunked.
  • The editing. Most significantly, the editing. First, there’s some odd things going on here with the structure. Clearly I read a review copy so I don’t know whether it’s still got some editing to go. But there were bits where I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or deliberately presenting variant spellings (Saladdin, and then Saladin); and there were several occasions where it felt like sentences were in completely the wrong place. Like, he would have a paragraph about an event; then the next event in the next paragraph, but suddenly the first event is mentioned completely out of context. And this got more frequent as the book progressed. Really quite confusing. And then additionally, several times there would be two men mentioned as being involved in something, and then “he” made some final gesture… and it was often unclear which “he” was being referenced.

Overall, I did enjoy this as a history of the family. It presents the princes in their context, shows how they’re connected and how they variously win and lose bits of their empire-not-an-empire. I suspect it would be a bit hard for someone with absolutely zero knowledge of the early Middle Ages, but then again if you’re picking this up you must have at least an ember of a passion for that time. The editing problems came close to killing the enjoyment a couple times, but I was able to bull past it.