Author Archive: Alex

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.

Medusa

I received this as a review book from the publisher, Bloomsbury. It’s out on November 1; trade paperback $22.99.

Ah, Medusa. I love her as a character – always have. She has so much to give and so much to say about how women are viewed and used; especially women with power. Burton acknowledges Caravaggio for his portrait of her, as part of the inspiration for this book; I’ve seen Medusa heads in the cisterns under Istanbul. She is an evergreen figure.

The blurb suggests that #MeToo was part of the inspiration for the narrative, and you can see a lot of that here. You can tell a lot about the times in which the story is told from how the, uh, interaction between Poseidon and Medusa is framed. It’s crystal, blindingly, clear here that Medusa was absolutely the innocent. So far so good; not entirely new. But what intrigued me here was the framing of Medusa’s whole life: that she has been accused of being vain – after her neighbours started making comments about her appearance – there’s good commentary here on social expectations and how we just can’t win. And even more than that is the way that Medusa’s sisters talk to her, and what she comes to realise: about her value as a person, and about telling her own story. It’s incredibly powerful. I can well imagine giving this to a mid-teenage kid, frustrated by the messages from the rest of society, and hopefully having good conversations because of it.

Oh also there’s Perseus. Yeah yeah.
Actually that’s unfair – he’s presented in a more complex way here than is often the case, too, and I appreciated that. This is very much Medusa’s story, though, and I love that Perseus is there in service of her growth.

The one thing that disappointed me a bit about the story was that Athena is described as making Medusa’s sisters into Gorgons… but what a Gorgon is never gets explained. It’s not entirely obvious whether this is meant to be punishment, or just a change.

As well as the story, Medusa comes with glorious illustrations. I don’t have the vocabulary to really explain them: there are some examples here, and the most incredible portrait of Medusa is here. Olivia Lomenech Gill has made Medusa glorious – Burton describes the snakes in genuinely loving detail, and Gill has captured that. The pictures throughout are a delight; some are almost like collages; the colours are vibrant, and occasionally juxtaposed with almost pencil sketches. There’s a magnificent four-page set where it’s Medusa on one side of a rock, and Perseus on the other. I’m not entirely ignorant of art, but I don’t always appreciate it as much as I should… these pictures definitely add to the overall quality of the book, and it wouldn’t be the same without.

This is a great addition to the overall discussion of Medusa.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

I have been chastised in the past – and rightly so – for saying ‘I don’t like horror’ and then trying to justify something as ‘not being real horror’ and therefore ok for me to like. I’ve only done this a few times, I think, and I have been super aware of not doing it since that particularly poor attitude was pointed out.

(And for me, horror and thriller are close enough that they go together. I don’t enjoy them, in general, for the same reason: I do not like being scared.)

So I do not like horror. This is, though, the second time I’ve read this book.

Many, many years ago, I went to visit my mum interstate because my beloved aunt had cancer, and we knew it was terminal. A day or so after I arrived, she died, and so I was fortunate to be able to stay for the funeral. This did mean, of course, that I didn’t have enough clothes for while I was there… and, oh so small in the pile of consequences, I didn’t have a book to read.

All of this context makes sense of the fact that I read this book. Despite the title, if I had read the blurb I would never have read this book ordinarily; I do not tend to enjoy vampire stories, and I don’t know much about the historical or literary Dracula, so there’s no appeal there. But my mum had it, and I was bored and needed distraction, and so I read it. And, yes, I enjoyed it. Enough so that when my mum was clearing out books, I took it with me – mostly for nostalgia.

I recently re-read it, and I enjoyed it again. It wasn’t as scary this time – not only because I knew what was coming (I had mostly forgotten) but also because I wasn’t reading it stupidly late at night…

I like the way it’s basically a series of found documents; done well, it’s a very clever and appealing style for me. The one thing that irritated me was the letters sounding far too literary, even for a bunch of academics. Anyway – there’s letters from various people, across time; and historical documents, and the occasional bit of narrative to join it together.

In some ways this is almost a Dirk Pitt or Indiana Jones version of history: following one improbably clue after another, happening to meet useful people and locating useful documents in unlikely places. Nonetheless I enjoy reading about historians in archives, doing real primary research!

It doesn’t make me interested in going to read more about vampires. In thinking about where this sits in horror/thriller territory, I would guess that some horror fans wouldn’t class it as horror – but since I’m not one, I’m not sure, and I’m also not au fait enough with the intricacies of the genre. The level of violence isn’t greater than other books I read; I suspect I managed to read it because the focus isn’t on scaring me out of my wits. Is this a “it’s horror but…” argument? maybe. Are there bits I found frightening? yep. The first time I read it, I read it late at night a couple times, and that was definitely a bad idea. Does this mean that I might enjoy other books in the horror or thriller genre? Maybe, but there are so many other books I want to read where I’m in little danger of increasing my fear of the dark, I probably won’t seek them out.

Terminator: Dark Fate

I MEAN.

Just.

I mean. What a film.

I love T2, and I really enjoyed Genisys, but this… this is another league.

Mostly, I love Sarah. I really, really love Sarah, and what she represents:

  • I love that she’s so competent.
  • I love her determination.
  • I am saddened by her bitterness, but everything about her subsequent actions makes sense.
  • I love that SHE gets some of the great lines to call back to the first movies.

And I really, really love that basically Sarah is living out the unreconstructed second-wave feminism attitude at its worst – the assumption that it’s about Dani’s child, the grumpiness about being Mother Mary and wombs, etc. And then Dani and Grace are there as third-wave feminism: this is the first time a protagonist hasn’t been white! And a modern-day Terminator not set in middle class white American burbs! It’s race and class and women being both tough and vulnerable, which Sarah has never been allowed to be simultaneously – she’s one or the other. I love how Sarah comes to realise the truth, and the fact that she accepts it and keeps going (looking at you, TERFs).

And I also love Karl. Like, seriously.

  • Karl, the draper.
  • The ‘give a little girl butterflies on her curtains’ terminator.
  • (And the fact that apparently this aspect arose out of Arnie’s actual interest in home decor.) His whole deadpan explanation about why his relationship with his wife works – HELLO HEALTHY MASCULINITY.
  • And of course, this is the logical conclusion of the exploration of terminator / humanity boundaries. The machine who knows what he is and consciously – even logically – becomes more human.
  • Plus, he has a great sense of humour.

None of this is to detract from Grace and Dani, either.

  • Grace: another logical conclusion for the franchise – an augmented human – and her augmentation comes, of course, with frailty, because human bodies aren’t built for the sort of output of a terminator. I am always amused by her less than gracious arrival into the past. I love her.
  • Dani: somewhat bewildered and hapless, like an early Sarah, but definitely catches on faster – which makes sense given that she’s clearly had a tougher life than pre-terminator Sarah, and she’s been managing her family. She also gets a ruder awakening, arguably, since her “father” (she doesn’t know it’s a terminator) is killed in front of her and then her brother dies too. She seems to know her limits and yet still push against them. She’s determined and angry and she’s really, really great.

I love this film.

Terminator Salvation and Genisys

I was thinking that I should review Salvation, Genisys and Dark Fate together, because then it’s two trilogies, in a sense… but then, no. Because Dark Fate definitely gets its own post.

Therefore, a few thoughts on Terminator: Salvation:

  • I think this is only the second time I’ve seen this film. And I am not surprised.
  • I mean. Is it even a Terminator movie without Arnie. I guess it can be. But I’m just a bit suspicious.
  • I really like Sam Worthington usually… and I think he’s quite good here too, actually. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him for the first bit but when he really gets into the meatiness of the role, and the conflicted nature stuff: he brings it.
  • I also usually like Christian Bale and… look, I’m not convinced. He’s better as Connor than Nick Stahl was (not hard), and comparing him to Furlong is ridiculous. It’s Bale, right? he’s fine. I’m just not sure that I buy him as John Connor, which… is more the fault of the writing, and the narrative.
  • Which, blah. Why do we have a leadership group who don’t want to know Connor? I mean I’m fine with that in theory – that’s a great tension to have, and honestly who would believe a dude who says “I’m the leader because…[insert T1-3 plot]”?? But… we don’t see the build-up of that tension, or even hear any discussion of anything about how leadership has developed, how people decided to follow Connor or not, etc. It’s just weak.
  • Wow that’s a young Bryce Dallas Howard. I’m intrigued by the idea of making Kyle the focus of the required rescue this time. I think it works, as a reason for the infiltration etc. Thinking back on T1 I’m not convinced about him as a teenager though.
  • From I guess a technical point of view it’s easy to watch. The FX are great, the chases are generally succinct enough but are still full of energy, and I like the look of the wasteland the world now is.
  • Helena Bonham Carter is awesome.
  • Honestly the best thing about this entire movie is the moral conundrum of Marcus. If you believe you are a human, are you a human? Did Cyberdyne have any right to use his personality and turn it into a terminator? No fate but what we make… T2 saw the Model 101 learn a few human tricks, but neither T1 nor T3 spent much time on that idea. Now we get this idea of a terminator who doesn’t know he is one blasted into our faces and I love it. (And doesn’t it set up Dark Fate in a beautiful way.)
  • And then Terminator: Genisys.

    • This is only the second time I’ve seen this film, too, and now I am surprised at myself. The DVD has a quote from someone calling it the best Terminator film since Judgement Day, and they’re not wrong.
    • I was suuuuuper dubious about someone else being Sarah, and when I saw that they had re-done That Photo to make it Emilia Clarke I was very angry; like Hayden Christensen at the end of Jedi angry. However, Clarke made it work… and this Sarah is a very different Sarah, after all.
    • Timeline? WHAT TIMELINE? Nah man, now we’re into the multiverse, and everything you thought you knew has gone out the window. (Theoretically.) And this is why there was no ‘watching in internal chronology’.
    • Once again Kyle Reese is very much the focus, except this time he’s an adult… and rather than getting to be the hero as T1 Reese did, now he’s thrown into a very unexpected situation and he struggles to keep up. To his credit, though, he eventually does; and he usually pulls his weight along the way. I think Courtney was fine in the role.
    • I really, really enjoyed the way that this film played with so much of T1, and even bits of T2. Everything from “on your feet, soldier”, to the molten metal… the arrival of the Model 101 (with a body double for Arnie, I’m told), and the punks, was beautifully screwed with. And Reese’s flight from a cop who turns out to be a T1000 – that was magic.
    • I’ve decided the T1000 is my favourite Terminator. Way more interesting than the 101, and not as distressingly overpowered as the TX.
    • I think, and I hope, that Arnie enjoyed playing this version of the Terminator. From “old, but not obsolete” to “Nice to meet you” [insert terrifying grin] – it’s such a glorious evolution for an actor, not to mention the character.
    • Sarah was very interesting! She’s not quite as hard as T2-Sarah, but she’s pretty close; probably saved from absolute paranoia by not having been institutionalised. In fact she’s remarkably well socialised for someone largely brought up by a machine (and if you didn’t laugh when Arnie said “Sarah Connor, seat belt” as they are literally trying to escape an inferno, you were not paying enough attention). I love the gradual revelation that she deeply resents having known a lot about how her life will pan out; and I love her unreserved and defiant affection for Pops.
    • And then there’s John Connor. This Connor (when he’s Connor-proper) is slightly more interesting than the Bale Connor, I think; and then to completely flip the tables and throw them across the floor by making Connor a Terminator… honestly, that’s just genius. Connor v Model 101 but now you’re on the side of the 101! Such a logical place to go, I guess, if you’re messing with the Terminator franchise; and I love it.
    • So… Genisys is the unholy lovechild of Apple and Google, right? Synching across all of your devices and everything you know about yourself? Cool cool cool.

    Salvation gave us a machine built from a man, who doesn’t know he’s a machine and doesn’t want to be and ends up working for the humans. Genisys gave us a man turned into a man/machine hybrid who knows exactly what he is, and works for the machines. And Dark Fate… well, I guess it’s the final, logical conclusion: to have a machine who knows he’s a machine become wonderfully human.