Monthly Archives: November, 2021

The Library: A Fragile History

Update: and THEN Allen&Unwin sent me a hard copy!! I’m so excited to have a physical copy of this amazing book!! And it is GORGEOUS – swirly oil-colour end papers, and A RIBBON. PEOPLE, a RIBBON. It’s just swoon-worthy.

The hard cover is RRP $49.99 and is out as of 30 Nov. I’m sure there will be a paperback copy at some point. Definitely the book for the bibliophile in your life.

I initially read this book courtesy of NetGalley.

Oh. My.

What an astonishing book.

Honestly I’ve had such a good year for book-related histories: The Gilded Page (Mary Wellesley), and The Bookseller of Florence (Ross King), and now this. Interestingly, this book contains parts of those two, because understanding how libraries function requires some knowledge of books themselves function, and how the book trade functions. It’s been like a mini-course in the whole book production history of Europe.

The authors begin with a discussion of the fabled Library of Alexandria, which is appropriate given its mythical place in the history of libraries… and ALSO that there’s some attempt to do something similar in the Alexandria of today, which is, let’s say, not the Alexandria of yesteryear.

What utterly intrigued me was the way that exactly what a library is FOR has changed over the centuries. I am a huge fan of the public library, and absolutely uphold its place as a community resource. I do know that in medieval Europe, libraries were the province of monasteries and nobles – not least because that reflects the literacy of the age, and also the aspirations of such people.

It was the use of libraries as exhibitions of wealth that was one aspect explored beautifully here – collecting the ‘right’ books, and beautiful versions. And then how do you have architecture that reflects that? If you’re worried about scholars nicking off with your precious tomes, and you only have a few books, then you chain the books up (literally) and your building reflects that. But when books starting getting more accessible and you are HAPPY for them to be accessed (unlike Oxford libraries not allowing students in and having opening hours for about three hours a week), then what the rooms look like needs to change.

I deeply appreciated the exploration of libraries as both weapons within colonialism and imperialism, and victims of it too. Colonial outposts in NZ and India being sent books; translations into the languages of the colonised; and libraries being looted, or outright destroyed, across the globe – these are things that need to be remembered and dealt with as people keep thinking about the use and abuse of knowledge as power. It would have been so easy to not include those things, and to stick with somehow seeing libraries as just repositories of books – ignoring books as power – but I’m so glad the authors wanted to give a rich and full exploration of libraries as institutions.

Look, I just loved this book. It’s beautifully written and has lovely images. It covers predominantly European examples of libraries. It does so across just over two millennia, from monastery to castle to private home to public institution. And the modern arguments about what a library is for! Clearly these authors are defenders of the existence of libraries, but they’re not just stuck in mid-20th century versions. They are, if anything, ambitious for what place libraries can and should have in communities.

I love books and I love libraries and this was a wonderful history of them both.

Kundo Wakes Up

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in March 2022.

Firstly, for those who have read The Ghurka and the Lord of Tuesday, this is set in the same universe but is not a sequel; so there’s no pistachio-cracking Gurung, no Melek Ahmar getting furious about the world. One blurb describes it as a “companion”; it is still a world in which the climate crisis has reached epic proportions; in which some cities are run by an AI called Karma (a different version in each city, it seems); and humans can basically only survive when they’re in sufficient numbers that the nanites they create are at such density that they can make the climate liveable. In Karma cities, there is no money; there’s just points for good deeds, which you can ‘spend’ to get what you want. And when there’s points, there’s always going to be people who have none – who are zeroes… Oh, and also there are djinn.

This time, the focus is Chittagong, Bangladesh. And things are not going particularly well – either for the city, or for Kundo, once a famous-enough artist, now a man whose wife has left and whose life is such a stretch of nothing that he easily loses track of days. The focus of the story is on Kundo looking for his wife; I have to admit that I was a bit worried about where the story would go – there are good reasons for wives to leave, and Kundo admits he was never a great husband – but I shouldn’t have been concerned; Hossain dealt with that aspect of the story skilfully. In the course of trying to find his wife, Kundo gets a team together – a struggling mum, a has-been underworld figure, and a junky coder. Together they try and figure out the world, and get enough to eat, and maybe some basic human dignity as well.

It’s another really great story from Hossain. He explores the variety of humanity: what they need – and what they want; frustrations and desires and ways of relating; what’s good for one but not for another… all in the context of quite a frightening view of the future, actually, that still manages to have some redemption and goodness in it.

I’m hoping that we get more stories from this world.

Until Proven Safe: the History and Future of Quarantine

I like to imagine Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh saying “No one would have believed…” like Richard Burton at the start of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, when asked how they feel in 2021 about this book. They started it, as far as I can tell, many years before 2020… and then finished it while large portions of the world were getting the ideas of ‘quarantine’ and ‘isolation’ mixed up. (As the pair make clear, quarantine is when there is doubt about the infection status of a person or object.)

I came across this book because I am a massive fan of Gastropod, “food through the lens of science and history”, co-hosted by Twilley. And as a fan of wide-ranging history in general, it seemed like a good bet that it would be right up my alley. The podcast did one episode using some of the ideas from the book – talking about the quarantining of cocoa plants, mostly, so as to prevent the spread of chocolate-destroying pests, which I am heartily in favour of.

As the name suggests, the book covers both the history and the future of quarantine – and, of course, the present. Many more people know, in 2021, the origins of the word – the 40 days people and cargo on ships were kept out of places like Venice, for fear of sickness. Manaugh and Twilley visit Venice and Dubrovnik and Malta, places where quarantining had a long history in architecture and laws, and occasionally in famous people getting grumpy about being stuck.

The middle section is about quarantine today. As an Australian this is a particularly real issue; we really don’t want to bring yet more pests and diseases in if we can avoid it. There’s a reason dogs don’t get to be smuggled in, JOHNNY DEPP. It was fascinating to read about measures that are used around the world to try and stop invasive stuff – and how often, this is a stop-gap measure, because with ever-increasing world trade it’s just so easy for teeny critters and seeds to travel. This section also looks at ‘quarantining’ radioactive waste – which is a bit of a stretch, since there’s no real question about the stuff being dangerous; and the authors acknowledge that it is, indeed, about isolation, rather than quarantine; but their argument is that places doing this stuff are fascinating for ‘quarantine tourists’ because they showcase ‘extreme engineering controls’. And this section also looks at the measures used around space travel: like I didn’t know the first couple of sets of Apollo astronauts were required to quarantine for fear of moon diseases.

My one grumble about the book is a minor Australian one. In discussing Australian legislation from 1884, they call Australia “the newly unified continent” (p125). Australia didn’t federate until 1901. My quick google suggests that there were, indeed, “Sanitary Conferences” at this time aiming to have a united policy across the colonies, so I guess in that sense the continent was unified?

In the section about the future, Twilley and Manaugh do look at COVID responses, comparing them to medieval responses in terms of government use of power, and even deploy Foucault as a way of examining government (over)reach. We’re discussing these questions a lot at the moment, of course, and it was interesting to see it all in this context. And what was completely terrifying was to discover that there’s a “data-aggregation and modelling firm with close ties to the US defense industry” (p328) called Palantir. Palantir. The seeing-stones of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Wikipedia notes that “beings of great power could manipulate the stones to see virtually any part of the world”. And someone at this company thought this was a good name for this company.

I think, given our situation at the moment, one of the last points made in the book is particularly pertinent: “Ironically, if quarantine does work… it will almost always be perceived as an overreaction” (p349).

Well written, well researched, broad ranging and examining difficult issues with compassion and clarity. This is a great history of quarantine and I thoroughly recommend it. Exactly WHEN you want to read it will depend on your experience of 2020 and 2021, I suspect.

Where the Drowned Girls Go

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in January 2022.

The first thing to note is that I love this entire series enormously. I love the very idea of asking what happens to children if they come back from their fantasy land but they didn’t want to, and then have to confront parents who want them to be ‘normal’.

Pretty early on in the series we learned that there was an alternative school: that Eleanor West’s school was for those biding their time, waiting to go back to their real home; the other place was for those who wanted to forget their adventures. It was obvious that eventually a story would be set there – but I didn’t expect it to be Cora who went. And for this reason, I do think that the previous books need to be read first; you need to understand what Cora has gone through, the trauma she has experienced in helping her friends, before you can understand why she wants to do something to try and forget. So if you haven’t read the others, you should go and do that first… don’t worry, it’s totally worth it, I promise.

So Cora goes the Whitethorn, and things are as opposite to Eleanor’s school as it’s possible to be, and completely dreadful. Unsurprisingly, it’s all even more dreadful than it initially appears, and events unfold as Cora confronts both her own trauma and the school-wide problems. It’s beautifully and devastatingly set up, and – as with all the Wayward Children stories – unfolds in complex, complicated, bittersweet ways.

McGuire continues to do wonderful things with her characters. Across the novellas she’s presented humanity in all of its myriad shapes and colours. Cora being fat has always been a part of her character because it had such an influence on how people saw her, and therefore how she saw herself, and therefore all the choices and consequences from there. In some ways I feel that the deliberate and blunt way in which Cora’s size is presented – and her implacable insistence that, of course, there is nothing WRONG with her – is perhaps more transgressive these days than discussing queer and trans folk. The world is coming to accept a gender and sexuality spectrum… but we’ve still got a lot of hang-ups about appearance. So I love that we have a fat hero, who hears and acknowledges the snark from her peers and it DOES get her down but also it doesn’t destroy her. Cora is so very, very human (and a mermaid).

This is a marvellous addition to the series and my only regret is that I read it too quickly and now I’ve got too long to wait til the next one.

Kaiju Preservation Society

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in March 2022.

This is my first written-in-COVID, mentioning-COVID, novel. If you’re not ready for that yet, maybe skip this for now.

Having said that, it’s not like it’s ABOUT COVID (you should avoid Station Eleven more than this book if it’s the ABOUT COVID aspect you’re worried about). Instead, the realities of businesses being shut down and people being frustrated is a catalyst for our narrator to take an… unusual job. He doesn’t realise the full weirdness of the job when he signs on, of course.

Look, you can see the title. Kaiju Preservation Society. You’re already ahead, since Jamie just knows he’s signing on to lift things for KPS, a group who help look after ‘large animals’. What sort of large animals? He doesn’t know until after he gets on a plane with other newbies, and then through a door, and then… ta dah.

This is what I take to be classic Scalzi. Super fast-paced – not TOO fast, so I never felt lost, but also nothing extraneous and very few lulls and I read it in a single afternoon. Effortless diversity, delightful banter, and persuasive enough that I was content to read about ludicrous kaiju biology and just go along with it.

It’s pretty obvious from the set-up – newbie gets involved with group who are looking after kaiju, which are secret from most people in the world – that eventually something is going to go wrong. That’s no spoiler, but I’m also not going to reveal WHAT goes wrong, because I am not a monster (heh). I was fascinated, though, by some of the commentary Scalzi gets into what could just have been a romp (this is not unexpected, of course). The idea that private corporations AND governments might work together on something as expensive as this is… kinda weird from an Australian point of view. I mean it happens, sure, but I feel like we’re less at ease with it than the American standard. (Maybe I’m just naive.) The discussions about how start-ups sometimes work, and how the American system let people down during COVID, were also particularly sharp – while completely fitting into the narrative.

This book is bonkers, and was an absolutely delightfully madcap ride. An excellent read when you when you want to immerse yourself into something delightfully ridiculous.

Terciel and Elinor

YAY OLD KINGDOM.

If you haven’t read any of the other Old Kingdom books, let me tell you these things: the Old Kingdom is a place where some people can summon the spirits of the dead, usually using bells and a variety of magic. It borders Ancelstierre, which is kind of early 20th century England? ish. They don’t have magic there. In this story, Terciel lives in the Old Kingdom and Elinor is across the border and they’re brought together by, unsurprisingly, some tragedy and much adventure. It’s really, really, good.
OK, now go and read it and don’t read the rest of this review.

If you HAVE read Sabriel et al…

OMG. Given the opening pages of Sabriel – which, yes, of course I read immediately after finishing this – this was such a bittersweet story! I am SO, so glad that Nix went back to this world and gave Elinor and Terciel their own story. I am always intrigued to read about a young man when I originally knew them as an older man, and of course we had no knowledge of Elinor at all (which is such a classic, if awful, circumstance for YA fantasy). This is a really wonderful addition to the Old Kingdom, and to an understanding of the kingdom and the Clayr and, in particular, the Abhorsens – Terciel’s experience as In-Waiting was not the best!

This is, of course, beautifully written; it’s fast-paced – I read it in a day – and balanced with lovely dialogue and character moments. Definitely going onto the bookshelf for rotation every year or two. (I really need to buy a new copy of Clariel, since someone has nicked mine.)

Quantum of Nightmares

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, Tordotcom. It comes out in January, 2022.

This is a Charles Stross novel on… whatever drugs you take that make you talk at, like, three times the normal speed. (Hmm. Is it speed?)

One blurb says this is a Laundry Files novel. Another says that it is Laundry Files-adjacent… and that’s the accurate one. I haven’t read every Laundry Files, but I’ve read enough that I know what’s going on. The start of this novel, though, was unrecognisable… so then I went to look it up, and it’s the sequel (not mentioned in the blurbs I saw) to a spin-off. So… that’s all important information to have on hand. (There is no Bob Howard in this novel.) Having said that, I did read the whole thing and I did largely enjoy it, so Stross manages to get enough background info in without dry info-dumps to make it understandable… eventually.

CW: there’s some pretty gross stuff here. Think… meat packaging… and really the very worst bits about what can go wrong in abattoirs. Also, and I’m only slightly joking, if you have a phobia about HR and their policies, this is not the book for you; it takes corporate speak and the ill-intentions of large corporations to a whole new level. I suspect this does count as horror, because of those aspects, in which case this is right on the giddy edge for me.

There are many different strands entwined throughout this story. There’s a pseudo-nanny looking after kids who are not what they seem (well, they’re annoying little kids but with Extras); there’s loafers who just want to play D&D who get pulled into annoying real world stuff; there’s the aforementioned HR and a truly heinous view of cut-price supermarkets and a nightmarish future for how they might turn a profit. There are desperate people and sad people and bewildered people; there are double-crosses and worshipping of sinister entities and ruthless acts that just made me blink at their atrociousness. It’s not a particularly happy book; nor is it uplifting; so if that’s what you need right now, go somewhere else. But there is a dark humour to parts, and there’s a diverse cast of characters (trans, queer, not-Anglo), and the occasional good deed, so it’s entirely and unrelentingly depressing.

… when I put it like that I’m not sure how I managed to get through it! It’s not quite as bad as that makes it sound. For one thing, it rockets along at a tremendous pace. I never quite got lost but it was occasionally a white-knuckle, hold-on-tight and trust that Stross is in control of the narrative kind of experience. I probably only kept going because I do, indeed, trust Stross to land such intricate stories in a way that makes sense. Which he does here, yet again.

I don’t think I’ll go find the first book now – I suspect much of it is now spoiled, because I know who survives various difficult situations. Also, if it’s like this one, I need a fair while to balance out the grimness. But I don’t regret reading this one.