Category Archives: Books

The Girl with the Louding Voice

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost.

I find myself something at a loss as to how to review realist fiction, these days. Turns out it’s been quite a long time since I read something that would count as such – years, even. So what to say about this? What categories to use to assess it?

Firstly, I certainly enjoyed it, and would have no hesitation in recommending it to someone who likes realist fiction and wanted to read a new book about a young girl’s struggles in a difficult world.

I guess that’s the main thing to say about the book: the point is to explore the life of Adunni, fourteen years old, living in a rural village in Nigeria whose life goes from difficulty to difficulty. I would guess that Adunni’s story – at least aspects of it – is experienced every day by young women in Nigeria, and probably other countries with similar histories and traditions (either of domestic service or polygamy or rural poverty). She can’t keep going to school when the family has no money; she is sold as a third wife to an old man; thanks to tragedy there, she ends up in Lagos, working as a housemaid in the house of a wealthy woman, which is also a distinctly dreadful experience. Adunni herself rarely allows circumstances to quell her personality. She is determined to have a ‘louding voice’ and be heard, and be recognised, and make her life better – not just for herself but so she can help her family, and other girls like herself.

The novel is written in what I guess would be called ‘broken’ English, although I’m uncomfortable with the term. Having done a quick Google, ‘Nigerian Pidgin’ is recognised as being commonly spoken in that country, so maybe it’s that. Certainly the point is that Adunni speaks some English but isn’t proficient (there’s a funny discussion about tenses and how confusing they are late in the story), and the story is written in her voice. Not being accustomed to it, it took me a couple of pages to get into the rhythm of the language, but after a while it was very easy to read (I read the 300-ish pages in a day).  Many of the sentence constructions make a lot of sense, even if they’re not ‘correct’ English; I especially like ‘different’ as a verb.

So: plot? It’s a bildungsroman, the formation of a young adult. It takes place over less than a year and while in some ways not that much happens, for Adunni herself things are radically different at the end compared to the start. She faces appalling circumstances and made difficult choices, and lives with the consequences.

Characters? Adunni is a delight, clearly. She is determined to be and do what she wants but not such that she is oblivious to the people around her; she is a true friend and wants to love and help her family. The cast around her is varied, and they seem like believable characters: the man who wants a son and marries a young woman to achieve it; a bitter first wife; a father who doesn’t much care for his daughter; a scheming and ambitious young man; a pragmatic and soft-hearted chef; a woman born in England to Nigerian parents, now living in Nigeria; a wealthy Nigerian couple where the husband is a deadbeat and the wife is… difficult, although sometimes understandably so (what’s not understandable is her violence towards Adunni, which is shocking).

One thing to note is the blurb is misleading; it makes it sound like “the strange disappearance of her predecessor” is one of the key turning points of the novel. While it does worry Adunni, and does have an impact on the plot to a small degree, it’s not a focal point; it’s indicative of the entire situation, not a key hinge of the narrative.

Overall this is an enchanting and enjoyable novel. Not one I would have picked up for myself (see: realist novel), but one I’m very pleased to have received to review.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler…

images.jpegI don’t often read books because I ‘should’ – unless they’re ones that I ‘should’ read before the Hugos, maybe – because I rebel against being compelled to read something when my list of to-be-read books is already one that I will never complete. (Why yes, this is somewhat ironic given my occupation.) This one, though… a number of people recommended it; at least one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels makes reference to calvinos; and then in the most recent episode of Galactic Suburbia, Tansy mentioned that it bore a passing similarity to another book I’d read, in being a book-within-a-book. So I thought it was time to get into it.

I am quite sure there are lots of deep, thinky pieces about this novel. It’s a book deliberately and self-consciously exploring the very idea of reading, and what books mean, and what authorship means and how it functions. Something like half of it is written in the second person; the first chapter tells you you’re about to start reading If on a winter’s night a traveler and therefore you should relax, find a comfy spot, tell people to turn the tv down, and so on. Why yes, thank you, I was on the couch in a quiet room with my feet up. Also, the description of what it’s like to venture into a book shop – with those towers of books glaring at you, the Books You’ve Been Planning to Read For Ages making alliance with The Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success – was an all-too-accurate description of why I prefer buying books online.

And then you, the Actual Reader that has opened the book, watches the Fictive Reader finally open the same book, and rather than read the book with the Fictive Reader, the Actual Reader is given a description of what the book is like… at least for a couple dozen pages, and then the Fictive Reader finds that his books starts repeating itself. And then the Fictive Reader has to go back to the bookshop… and thus the book that the Actual Reader is reading continues, as the Fictive Reader tries to figure out what is going on with the book he wants to read, and things get more and more surreal.

The pronoun from the previous sentences is deliberate. Calvino very clearly situates the Reader as male. Unsurprisingly, I (as female) found this alienating. Obviously I still read the book but I’m quite sure it wasn’t nearly as immersive as it might have been for a male reader. Added to that is the consistent objectification of women throughout the book which I also found alienating. The “Other Reader” is female, and she only exists “as the Third Person necessary for the novel to be a novel, for something to happen between that male Second Person and the female Third, for something to take form, develop, or deteriorate according to the phases of human events” (p166). Which… yes, I understand, interaction between characters is generally seen as necessary in a novel. But this feels all too much like ‘the woman only exists for the benefit of the man’ – surely Calvino could have figured out a way of talking about characters that didn’t seem to suggest something about gender relationships! And the women who appear in the books that the Fictive Reader comes across also only exist as sexual objects. So all of that was disappointing, to be honest.

… despite all of that, Calvino really is doing interesting things with the ideas of narrative and reader expectations and authorial integrity and so on. The Reader (who is never named, oh the joys of being A Universal Being) quite surprisingly goes on a journey to follow the trail of books he encounters in partial form, and there’s never any real explanation for how that has come about – so motive, and cause and consequence, are (at least partly) thrown out the window. The Actual Reader never develops much of a sense of any of the characters, so characterisation: not important? (I certainly never cared for the Reader as my avatar within the pages. I’d rather imagine myself as Pratchett’s Librarian.) And with the openings of several books presented but not developed: continuity, farewell.

I don’t regret reading this. I don’t think I’ll read it again. Will I recommend it to people? … perhaps. People who are interested in novel structure, and the possibilities of fiction, would probably be intrigued.

A Memory Called Empire

39863625._SY475_.jpgI had a pretty great January of reading because I realised I had time – and it was the time – to do some reading I’d been meaning to do, in order to nominate for the Hugo Awards. And I’d heard this hyped by a few people so I figured it needed to feature.

It was probably my favourite book published in 2019.

And it’s really hard to decide what to say about it.

It’s fitting that the cover quote is from Ann Leckie, because I was immediately put in mind of her colonial/ imperial themes from the Ancillary books when reading this – although Leckie and Martine explore quite different aspects of that troubling human experience. Here, Teixcalaan is definitely imperial, but I would argue they’re just slightly more subtle than the Raadch about it. Slightly. Both are quite convinced that their way of doing things is right, and it’s reflected in their language. What’s different though is the way the protagonist deals with this. Ambassador Mahit, whose home orbital station may be in line for being imperially expanded over, has been chosen as ambassador at least partly because of her fascination with Teixcalaan culture and society. So has she already been culturally colonised or does she know the enemy well or is it a case of appreciating beauty where one finds it? I adore the complexity of this idea.

… before you get the notion that this is an entirely cerebral book, though, don’t be fooled: there are devious plots and explosions and deceitful manoeuvrings, friends who might not be friends and behind the scenes machinations, secrets that must be kept hidden until they’re not, bonkers social manipulation, a great line in snark and discovery-of-unexpected friends.

Basically, I adored every single word.

Martine has enormous ideas and, I’m convinced, a much larger vision of the universe than readers have any notion of yet. There’s even broader problems for Texicalaan and everyone else than are directly dealt with here, and I can’t wait to see where Martine goes with it all.

And I haven’t even mentioned the secret technology that Mahit must protect, and that her predecessor possibly died doing so.

… And then I discovered that the sequel isn’t due out until early 2021, and I had to sit quietly for a while to allow myself to recover from the devastation.

 

Gideon the Ninth

OMG this book aaaahhhhhh how did I liiiiiive before I read it.

42036589._SY475_.jpgSo this book, right. It’s ok.

Where to even start. How about this: Gideon hates where she lives, everyone she lives with, and her life in general. But she has plans for getting away, and it’s aaaallll going to work out… except of course it doesn’t and she ends up compelled to work with one of the people she hates the most for a chance at actually making her life better. She lives on a nothing rock a long way away from the bright centre of the universe (or solar system), which she hates.

Gideon is a fighter, and she’s cranky, and she has a great stock of lesbian porn, and a magnificent line in snark, and a heart that she tries to bluff her way out of showing anyone. I love her to pieces.

Someone mentioned the Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee in connection with Gideon, and it made me realise all sorts of correspondences. Both have space-faring civilisations that seem to be powered by arcane things: Lee’s universe by calendar mechanics (which is still a seriously ??? moment); Muir’s is driven, in the upper echelons at least, by necromancy. Yeh, if the bones didn’t give it away: this book has, at its core, death magic. Some people die. I do not like horror and I did not find this to be horror: for me, I tend to characterise horror as when I actively feel afraid while reading, and while I was afraid for characters in this novel, I did not get that ‘oh God is there something under my couch reaching for my legs’ feeling that, say, the Doctor Who ep ‘Blink’ encouraged.

Then there’s the characters and their interactions. Frankly, they’re screwed up, in both Machineries and here. Neither main character is exactly someone you’d say was emotionally on an even keel; and neither of them have open, trusting, and healthy relationships with their closest companions. There are aspects of the key relationship here that could perhaps be seen as abuse; I have been fortunate not to experience it so certainly I’m coming from a privileged position, but somehow it didn’t read like abuse. Harrow, Gideon’s opponent/companion, definitely does some actively horrible things… perhaps part of the difference for me was in her motivation. Or maybe I’m just making excuses. The relationship really is quite destructive; and Muir never tries to paint it as anything but.

Finally, I seem to remember being a good halfway through the first Machineries book before having any real notion of what the heck was going on – and the subsequent books revealed more and more until it made that first book like one square on a chess board (maybe a 2×2 square at best). When I got to the end of Gideon, I still wasn’t entirely sure why things were happening or where the story might go next. But in both cases, I was so utterly enthralled by the writing, and so captivated by the characters and the world building, that I actually didn’t care and just threw myself along for the ride. That’s a fairly uncommon experience for me – I tend to be impatient – and it’s a giddy and joyful one when you trust an author that much.

And then I discovered that the sequel isn’t due out until June this year, and I wept.

The Light Brigade

Unknown.jpegI’m going to make the call: this is the best Kameron Hurley book yet. And I say that as a very big fan of Nyxnissa.

This is… something else. Something outstanding as a narrative, as a commentary, as a work of art.

First let me note that this is not exactly a linear narrative, since I know that will put off some readers. It’s not exactly not linear, either… depending on what frame of reference you use. And yes, if I explain that, it will involve spoilers.

The story is set some time in the future – probably a century or so? Humans have been to Mars, and apparently we’ve also got so fed up with democracies (or been so conned) that Earth is now ruled by mega-corps, where you have to earn the right to be a citizen. And now there’s a war, and enlisting seems like a good way both to earn citizenship (Starship Troopers?) and to get back at the enemy for their atrocities. So that’s what Dietz does, and then the soldiers get broken into light in order to be transported more swiftly, and then weird things start to happen: but only to Dietz.

There’s a huge amount going on here.

There’s the relative merits of democracy, capitalist-authoritarianism, and socialism. There’s war and its impact, in sympathetic and horrific detail; the value of citizenship, the value of life, the use of propaganda and the importance of time…. For a fast-paced military SF novel, Hurley (unsurprisingly) packs a vicious amount of political (in its broadest sense) commentary in.

Plus there’s the evolving character of Dietz, as we delve deeper into back story and follow events and watch, sometimes horrified, as Dietz responds. I don’t think I necessarily like Dietz; I didn’t especially like Nyxnissa, either. But as a compelling and complex character, whose story I am compulsively drawn to understand? Dietz, and Nyxnissa, work.

On the constructed level, Hurley is playing with many “wilful homages” as she calls them in the Acknowledgements. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that this was basically a ‘Mars attacks’ novel, and that Hurley was playing with lots of the literary connections there. I suspected one or two other nods, early on, but wasn’t sure if they were deliberate until the James Tiptree Jr reference leapt out and smacked me on the nose. I knew that one was deliberate.

This novel is amazing.

Gender Identity and Sexuality…

Unknown.jpegin Current Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I picked up this little anthology at Helsinki’s WorldCon, from Luna Press. I’d not heard of them before but I was and remain intrigued by their doing these non-fiction anthologies.

Yes, Helsinki was two years ago. Yes, I just got around to reading it.

As the name suggests, the essays deal with both issues of gender and of sexuality, primarily in fiction but also – and I loved it – in an analysis by Juliet E McKenna on the place of female-identifying authors across time in the publishing world. “The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and other obstacles in Science Fiction and Fantasy” made me think of Joanna Russ (as do so many of these sorts of conversations) and is well researched, persuasively argued, and did not – surprise! – leave me feeling completely hopeless. It’s a fascinating way to open the anthology.

Some of the essays meant more to me than others because in some I am familiar with the  material, and with others less so. Kim Lakin-Smith’s “Doll Parts: Reflections of the Feminine Grotesque in France Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline,” for instance, was truly fascinating but I couldn’t feel it as deeply as I might because I’ve not read either of the works (the Hardinge exactly because it’s billed as being horror). And it turns out I am even less up to date with fantasy than I thought, because AJ Dalton’s “Gender-identity and sexuality in current sub-genres of British fantasy literature: do we have a problem?” referenced sub-genres and authors I’ve not heard of. The essay itself was very interesting, don’t get me wrong, but I was unable to reflect on it meaningfully.

Of course, some essays I had little problem accessing. Both Jyrki Korea’s “What about Tauriel? From divine mothers to active heroines – the female roles in JRR Tolkien’s Legendarium and Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations” and Alina Hadîmbu’s “Newly added female chapters to blockbuster franchises: gender balancing in otherwise male-dominated fictional worlds or a greater purpose?” hit on issues and franchises very dear to my heart, and I greatly enjoyed reading the explorations of Tauriel and Arwen and Rey.

Let us not forget that this anthology includes an essay about Magic: The Gathering! Which is not something I would have thought was very interesting a year ago, but now I do! Rostislav Kurka (their name is meant to have a circle above the ‘u’ but my symbols don’t seem to include that one…) has helped me realise just how much more is going on in the fiction about M:TG than I realised, and how the cards’ art reflects and helps that too. So I also love that Luna Press saw M:TG as a legitimate topic for inclusion here; the essay absolutely fits the theme, and of course both the game and the fiction are a part of the speculative fiction world.

Other essays, I should point out, are more interested in a broad summary, rather than focusing on one genre or set of texts. Cheryl Morgan’s “Tipping the Fantastic: How the Transgender Tipping Point has influenced Science Fiction” was (as expected) a throughout examination of how trans characters have been presented in various stories, and what that means both for trans and cis readers and general diversity/understanding. Anna Milon’s “Bikini armour: women characters, readers and writers in male narratives” also made me think of Joanna Russ, and made me cranky, as you may imagine some of what is discussed from the title (it’s a good essay; it’s a frustrating topic).

Overall I think this is a great little anthology – and it is little, at 236 pages in about an A5 package. Obviously there is plenty more to be said, and part of me hopes that Luna does another one… although of course there are lots of other topics to cover, and they’ve got one on Evil and one on African fantasy and science fiction, so those are both excellent topics, too.

Authorized Pasts

This is so utterly Peak History Nerd it makes even me laugh.

Unknown.jpegMany, many years ago – back in undergrad – I was walking through the building I spent way too much time in and there, on a shelf, was a pile of books that were free to good homes.

Reader, I have rarely been able to walk past a free book. I know, it’s adorable.

So I looked through the books, and I grabbed a couple. Just a couple, honest. And they’ve sat on my bookshelf, unread, ever since.

Authorized Pasts is one of those books, and the other day I decided it was finally time to read it. And… it was better than I expected!

The idea behind the essays is the idea of ‘official history’: what does official history look like, function as, in different times and in different places? It’s not something I’ve had much to do with in my own studies, but I am intrigued by official remembering and the uses history gets put to, so I was already coming from a place of interest.

Probably the best thing overall about this anthology is its breadth. It’s not broad spatially; it’s basically all European with a couple of diversions to the USA (I assume this reflects the fact that most contributors were from the same university, which when this was published – 1995 – leaned strongly in those directions). But it’s broad temporally, with the first essay being Ronald Ridley writing about ‘official history in the ancient Western world from he third millennium BC to the third century AD’, and the last being Alison Patrick reflecting on French Revolution history on its bicentennial. In between, there’s discussion about Carolingian history and celebrating the Reformation and how the remembrance of Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus are similar and different.

As a complete book one intriguing aspect is that almost every essay begins with a discussion of what makes something official history, or not. This was fascinating partly because the definitions seem to be different depending on what era is being discussed, as well as the personal definitions of the historians writing the essay. It also included some discussion of what even ‘history’ is, in the context of the time and place being discussed. And I love that stuff.

It must be said that the line-editing of some of these essays is somewhat poor; there are some grammar and punctuation issues that annoyed me, although they didn’t get in the way of understanding.

I don’t think this book is easy to get hold of, and let’s be honest it’s very niche. But I don’t regret picking it up that fine day lo these many years ago.

The Old Lie

I knew nothing for sure about this book, going in.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I knew it was by Claire G Coleman, so having read Terra Nullius I had a reasonable assumption that it would involve something very clever and probably heart-wrenching as a commentary on Indigenous Australians.

Unknown.jpeg(If you haven’t read Terra Nullius yet, and you’re Australian, you really really really should.)

I also assumed that it would be a really awesome story, because it was her.

The other main assumption I made was from the title. I’m not the world’s greatest poetry reader, but I did study war poetry in Year 12 (our teacher gave us the choice of what themes to look at: we chose war and death. We were 16, what did you expect?). So I can recognise a Wilfred Owen allusion when it’s waved in my face.

Putting those two things together and I could hazard a guess at the general ideas Coleman would be broaching. And if you’ve read Terra Nullius you can guess what sort of clever things Coleman is going to do with the ideas of war, and Indigenous soldiers. If not… look, both of these are the sort of books that really reward the reader having faith in the author, and going in with as few spoilers as possible. It is incredibly worthwhile. So go away, read it (them), then come back, because there are spoilers below.

Basically, Claire Coleman has written another brilliant book for today’s Australia and compels non-Indigenous Australians to think about the past and present realities for our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Also, it’s bloody brilliant story that’s going to work as a story whether you know the history behind it all or not.

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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.

Unknown.jpeg

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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