Category Archives: Books

Queens of the Wild

I received this book via NetGalley. It’s out at the end of May, 2022.

As an Arts student of the late 90s, who did do some mythology-type subjects, I have vaguely come across some of the ideas that Hutton explodes here. So that was quite the trip.

The main idea: that the four concepts, or beings, or narrative tools – Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, The Lady of the Night, and the Cailleach – are in no way part of a pagan religion that has survived sin Europe since pre-Christian times. No matter all the stories about witches as pagans or Beltane feasts.

In the opening Hutton revives a differentiation (first proposed by himself in 1991) between two concepts: ‘surviving paganism’, where a pre-Christian religion has actually survived beneath/within Christianity; and ‘pagan survival’, where a belief of object has been redeployed from a pre-Christian to a Christian religious context.

This book has a LOT of historiography, as Hutton explores some of the why and some of the how for the development of the idea that four specific concepts have a long, pagan, pedigree. The very first chapter was probably my favourite, as he explores the development of the study of folklore and how various academic and non-academic types explored and theorised beliefs – especially peasant beliefs – and how attitudes to those sorts of things changed over time. Following the thread from one person to another – occasionally from just one article to an explosion of theories, books, films, and other academic articles – was astonishing.

In the four main chapters, Hutton seeks to find the four characters he has chosen to interrogate – to find the earliest mentions, to find their possible connections to pre-Christian ideas, to find the ways in which they’ve been used in the academic literature. In every case, he comes to the conclusion that none of these are true ‘surviving paganism’ – always with the caveat that more information may be found, and that of course there’s a dearth of written information for so much of the early part of the pre-Christian/Christian boundary. He’s pretty convincing, unsurprisingly.

Moderately academic, but I think accessible for a reader with only a basic knowledge of both the historiography and the characters he explores (which is me).

Breadsong: How Baking Changed Our Lives

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out today (3 May 2022); $39.99.

I actually finished reading the memoir part of this book a couple of weeks ago – the day I received it in fact. But I had to wait until I had baked a couple of the recipes before I could do a legit review!

This is two books in one. The second part is a cookbook – all bread or bread-adjacent (a couple of biscuits and cakes). So far I have made the Miracle Overnight White Loaf, which is a marvellous no-knead, overnight (duh) bread that you cook in casserole dish; and today I made the focaccia, which uses the same dough but you press it out to make focaccia. Both of these are AMAZING and will definitely be in high rotation. A large section of the recipes is sourdough, and… I’ve done the sourdough thing, and I’m just not sure I can face going back to the world of the starter. I’ll have to give it some more thought. There are definitely other recipes I want to try – bialys, and their mini panettone buns. Each of the recipes is laid out beautifully – I love that there is a different font for the chat at the start, and the ingredients, and the recipe itself. It’s also got delightful photos and in general the cookbook aspect is just fabulous.

But the recipes are only half the book. The first half of the book is a memoir. This book is written by Kitty and her father, Al – they tell the story together and they each have a distinct font. It’s the story of how they ended up running a bakery together, and while that sounds all heartwarming – and it is, absolutely – but it starts because baking a loaf of bread is one thing that Al tries to help Kitty with her crippling anxiety. Like, anxiety that made going to school impossible, getting out of bed barely feasible, nothing in the world seeming worthwhile. I deeply appreciated the honesty that Al in particular presents here – that he and his wife did not see what was happening at the start, that they were bewildered by the change in their youngest daughter, and that they struggled to figure out what to do. Kitty, of course, is also very honest: she didn’t know why it happened, either, and makes no excuses for it, or for feeling the way she did. It just was.

The book explores the slow movement from Kitty deciding she wanted to bake a loaf of bread – to wanting to make more, and therefore being allowed to use neighbouring ovens – to giving bread away because she was making so much, leading to a subscription service, then a pop-up, and then an actual real bakery and high street shop. Well, I say slow, but it all happened over about 2 years and that’s just incredible.

It’s the sort of book that makes me think “maybe I could be a baker and make bread all the time and bring joy to people!” and then you keep reading and you realise just how much stress the whole thing is, and how early you have to get up (unless you’re the Margaret River bakers who sell their bread from 3pm onwards, LIFE GOALS) and… yeh. I’ll just stick with making bread for people in my house, thanks.

As a memoir, the book is a delight. It’s honest and thoughtful and funny (when appropriate). It’s got enough context of other things going on that you know bread isn’t absolutely everything, but it’s also very clear that the focus is the story of Kitty not being able to go to school —> opening the bakery; it’s not a complete autobiography. The different fonts make the dual authorship work really well, there’s lovely pictures and photos throughout, and I really did sit and read the 150-odd pages in one day, because I started and then I had to keep going. I didn’t really need another bread book in my life but I definitely needed this book.

Elektra, by Jennifer Saint

I received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.

Maybe it’s me, but when I see a book described as a retelling – particularly of something from Greek mythology – I expect to get new insights, a twist on the narrative, or something else unexpected. Sadly, I did not get any of those from this book.

I know a fair bit about Greek mythology – I’m not an expert, but I’ve done my share of reading. I know the story of the House of Atreus; it’s why I was so keen to read a new version of Elektra’s story. I can’t really imagine being someone who doesn’t know about the stories wanting to pick up this book; why would you? But if you are like me, and you do know about Elektra and her parents, then I feel that this book doesn’t really offer anything. And I’m a bit sad about that.

One unexpected thing that the book does have is three narrators. For all that it’s named for Elektra, there’s nearly as much space given to her mother, Clytemnestra, and the Trojan princess/eternally ignored prophet, Cassandra. Now, maybe having Clytemnestra there is an interesting foil for Elektra’s perspective – she is, after all, a child when Agamemnon heads off to war, and it’s Clytemnestra’s desire for vengeance that leads to the later events around Orestes. And Clytemnestra also allows the author to start the story much earlier, with the ‘wooing of Helen’ and all. And I understand why you’d have Cassandra too – the Trojan perspective – but it felt jarring in a book named for the Mycenaean daughter.

My final whinge is some of the anachronisms, which I found a bit uncomfortable. Firstly, the use of ‘Greek’ as a collective term for all the little city states who banned together to go reclaim/recapture Helen. Maybe ‘Hellene’ is too weird for a general reader? Is it too weird to have an explanatory note at the start of the book? I don’t know. But it made me a bit grumpy. And there were other little things too, mostly more concerned with atmosphere: it felt like Saint couldn’t decide whether she wanted this world to feel really familiar, just with added deities and exotic-ness; or whether she wanted to play up the temporal distance from the reader. I think she mostly leaned to the former, and so in an odd way Clytemnestra and Elektra and everyone felt too familiar.

So… a lot of things to complain about. Why did I finish it? It really is well written; it’s easy to read, the pacing is good, the language is often lovely. (I partly kept reading in the hopes of something different, too, which was a bad reason to continue but is nonetheless true.)

Could you read this if you didn’t know the source material? I think so. I think there’s enough explanation that you would be able to follow the intricacies of the different problems with no trouble. And perhaps that’s indeed part of the problem for me – everything was too laid out, I wasn’t required to do any thinking at all.

Recipe, by Lynn Z Bloom

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in May.

This is an eclectic book. It’s not an in-depth examination into the social, cultural or culinary history of the recipe – and it doesn’t want to be that. This is more whimsical, more meandering, more dip-a-toe-into-interesting-spaces than that.

It’s also super American; I feel I should flag that for all the other non-US readers. There’s a whole chapter on Thanksgiving – and I get why you would do that, but also there’s no acknowledgement that it’s restricted as “a recipe” to one country and its diaspora. And in the first chapter, about the basics of what a recipe is, the author uses the idea of chicken stock to elaborate on the idea of variation. Which makes sense! But then says this: “Every version of this basic recipe involves the same ingredients in the same proportions – the amount of chicken in the recipe is always five pounds” (12). Um. Not in my recipes? Even given that maybe she just couldn’t be bothered mentioning that other countries might use different measurements, it’s still a weirdly sweeping generalisation. (This one might be picked up in editing, but the author also refers to “the Great British Baking Show” which struck me a really WEIRD mistake.)

ANYWAY. Despite those things, I did enjoy reading this a lot. I love Bloom’s idea that “as a literary genre and social construct, multi-faceted and complex, a recipe in its human context offers lessons in life and living” (3) – that’s such a fantastic way of putting it. Throughout the book, she shows those different aspects of the idea of ‘a recipe’. And also made me feel better about the fact that I often don’t follow a recipe to the absolute letter (except in baking, which is chemistry) – she says this is indeed what people everywhere always do. I love the idea of recipe as story, and as memory. I’m less wild about it as a symbol of power or politics, but absolutely accept that it can be.

All up, a really great read. Also it’s made me dead keen to find other books in the Object Lesson series: a book on the eye chart? on exits? THE TRENCH COAT??

Amongst Our Weapons (Rivers of London)

I received this at no cost from the publisher, Hachette. It’s out now; RRP $32.99.

Firstly, this is number 9 in the Rivers of London series, so do not pick it up if you haven’t read the rest. You’d be able to follow the basic plot – provided you’re ok with the idea of London police needing to deal with weird bollocks (that is, magic); but the relationships will make no sense to you and the references to past problems won’t have any impact. Also, it’s an enormously fun series (with, sadly, some thick-headed and annoying misogyny in the early books from the main character) so if you ARE fine with modern London policing engaging in magic and dealing with criminal practitioners, just start from the start.

And if you’re already on the Rivers of London train, you really don’t need me to write this review because you’re already going to be reading it whenever it comes in at the library / your preorder arrives / you nick it from your mum. So if the purpose of the review was to convince people to read this particular book… there’s really no point.

Not my main reason!

I have enormously enjoyed the development of Peter Grant over these books – I was very dubious about him as the POV when I first started, because he was just a bit … painful. Young? Smug? At any rate, not a character I could particularly connect with. But the world Aaronovitch presented – a very modern one, but where magic fries electronic circuits; his boss Nightingale, whom I always found intriguing; and the magical cases themselves – all convinced me to keep going. And Peter has indeed grown up, due to circumstances and Beverley, and has become much less annoying and more like a decent bloke and a generally good copper. So that’s been worthwhile. The cases keep being interesting – and what I like there is that Aaronovitch doesn’t feel like he has to keep uping the ante; it’s not like one book we’re blowing up a building then the city then the world. Because magic can help you do a vast assortment of nefarious things so you can just have varied crime, rather than ratcheting up.

Here, Aaronovitch takes the opportunity to make some Lord of the Rings jokes, with a bunch of people connected through university and each in possession of odd rings being targeted by a peculiar and rather terrifying person. There’s the usual work with Guleed, more Seawoll than usual, and trainee Danni – plus, of course, Nightingale. (I would love a bunch of Nightingale prequels…) Not so much Mary or Foxglove, but more foxes; plus, Beverley is very nearly at term, so there’s paternity leave to be considering, too. It’s a standard Rivers of London, which is in no way a slight! It’s exactly what I was hoping for: a bit ridiculous, some very clever connections, an enormous fondness for London as a city, lots of banter and precisely paced – brisk, but not whirlwind. I’ll happily keep reading these for as long as this standard endures.

The Normans: Power, Conquest & Culture in 11th Century Europe

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on 22 March, 2022.

I love the Normans. I have been fascinated by them as a group for a pretty long time now. The conquest of England! Randomly being in Sicily! The First Crusades! Occasionally popping up elsewhere!

I also love a good interrogation of sources. And asking new questions, or using new information to contribute to questions already asked.

Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Given the above, I can’t say how easy this would be to read for someone with zero knowledge of the Normans. Even I found it hard to follow the Roberts and Rogers and various families (honestly I kind of stopped caring about whether I was completely following who was related to who; it didn’t seem to matter in some instances, and Green often reminded me when it did). It should also be noted that there is more historiography than I think is usual for a purely narrative sort of history, so if learning what specific historians (medieval and modern) have said about specific issues is not your cup of tea, you may well find this book a bit annoying. For the rest of us… this is a really great, and thorough, examination of the Normans in the 11th century.

I really liked how Green examined what was going on in Normandy, England, Sicily/Italy and Antioch/the First Crusade as a way of trying to see if there really is something to the very IDEA of ‘being a Norman’ – which honestly is a brave thing when you’re entire book is about ‘the Normans’ – but that’s exactly the point of it. Some people at least claimed the Normans as Very Special People with a Very Special Place in the World (via God or character or whatever else). Is that actually true? Is it even possible to speak of “Normans”? Gosh I love these sorts of questions. I also quite like that Green doesn’t entirely come to a complete answer. She has some suggestions – that maybe Normans themselves in the 11th century weren’t alway seeing themselves as ‘Normans’ – and also proposes a whole bunch more avenues for investigation. Which is the other awesome thing that Green does – she’s not just using the old Williams of history (Jumieges, Malmesbury, etc), but adding in archaeology and DNA and various other sources to make a way more interesting and complete picture.

Overall, not My First Introduction to Medieval History, but a really great work on a group of people who had a fairly hefty impact on medieval Europe (and beyond).

Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan

I read this courtesy of the publisher, Bloomsbury. It’s out now; $39.99 trade paperback.

… and I thought I was an iconoclast. What a remarkable, thought-provoking and intriguing biography.

Things I already knew about Magellan: he did not circumnavigate the world. I learned that in a book about how Basques influenced the world, because the captain of the only one of Magellan’s boats that did, actually, go around the globe was captained by a Basque.

Things I did not know: most of what Fernandez-Armesto discusses in this book. I did not know that Magellan (to use his Anglicised name) was Portuguese who ditched that kingdom and went to Spain – a traitorous act at the time. I did not know that he was a little too keen on chivalric romances and maybe wanting to emulate them. I definitely did not know what a truly dreadful leader and person in general he was.

OK, that last bit is something of an exaggeration. Indeed one of the problems that Fernandez-Armesto discusses here is the difficulty of ever truly understanding someone like Magellan: partly because of the temporal distance, as well as the mental distance, between me and a Portuguese court-educated man of the 1500s; but also because much of the evidence is deeply conflicted. There’s something close to hagiography by someone who was on the voyage and managed not to die… but there’s also plenty of accounts from men who mutinied. So how do you get to ‘the truth’, and what even is that.

Anyway. As a biography this is awesome. The author brings the context wonderfully to life, exploring what the world was like for someone like Magellan in the 16th century – what Europe knew of the world, and what the world knew of Europe; what kings and adventurers wanted, how empire was going, knowledge of the Atlantic and Pacific, and so on.

Something I had never really appreciated before reading this: just how Very Big the Pacific is. Especially for those accustomed to the Atlantic.

For the historians, Fernandez-Armesto skilfully uses primary sources to make his points, and to show people in their own words – and they never get overwhelming, or in the way of the story. It’s a really great example of how such sources can and should be used.

And finally, the last chapter is called “Aftermath and Apotheosis”, and this is where my iconoclast remark comes in. I got the sense that Fernandez-Armesto doesn’t necessarily like Magellan – which is fine, if intriguing; he certainly proves that Magellan deserves to be studied, if only to learn what he can show about his world. And beyond that, Fernandez-Armesto completely goes to town on previous biographers who do love Magellan, and all those companies who use Magellan’s name as if it’s some sort of shorthand for scientific endeavour or great achievements or frankly anything good. Because what the author shows is that Magellan deserves none of that. He had no scientific interest; he was out for the main chance. He didn’t achieve anything much that was great: yes, he sailed through the straits that bear his name, but he didn’t know they were there and he wasn’t the pilot or navigator anyway PLUS the cost in human suffering was enormous.

This is a great book. If you’re keen on the history of exploration, or early modern biographies, or learning the story behind a fairly familiar name, this is an excellent choice.

Taste: A book of small bites

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in August 2022.

Food has often been used by poets as a way of expressing themselves. Chefs and others have often been moved to exuberant, passionate language to try and describe food. So a book like this makes perfect sense. Dubrow explores our relationship with our five tastes through experiences – some near-universal, some not – and exquisite language, to try and get at what we mean, what we experience, when we saw sweet or sour or salt or bitter or, most recent to the Western vocab, umami.

There’s the sense-memory of strawberry jam, and being a feverish six year old – like Proust’s madeleines; heathen that I am in never having even attempted Proust, I have heard of this story and how the taste catapults the narrator through memory. There’s Persephone and the sour pomegranate seeds, the experience of sweat dripping down one’s face, the ceremony of making a cup of tea. How food have been represented in art – still-lifes, and others – and what this says about the particular foods. Cheese and coffee and chocolate.

It’s a delightful collection of moments, of mediations. It reminds that food isn’t just fuel, that taste is an experience even if we’re just gulping something down as fuel. We don’t always have to sit and reflect on the emotion brought about by a particular taste, but it can occasionally be rewarding.

Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in June 2022.

This is a really fascinating book that takes food and issues of ‘nativism’ and looks at how they work together. It seems kind of obvious once you start thinking about it that food can be a political tool – even a weapon… one need only think of some of the racist insults that people use, which are either specifically or tangentially food related. Or the way politicians are publicised eating particular foods. Or the boycotting of foods…

One of the first things that I appreciated about this book is that Parasecoli is quite open about things needing much more extensive research to fully understand what’s going on, and that “patterns [he identifies] are tentative, unstable, and shifting” (xi). That the book “raises questions rather than offering solutions… proposes one point of view, food and its ideological uses, to read events and and tensions that are obviously much larger” (xii). This sort of intellectual honesty is a delight, and also brings me hope that maybe the ways food is used and discussed in connection to politics may indeed become a greater field of investigation.

Parasecoli’s idea of ‘gastronativism’ is a broad one, and encompasses political positions that are, at least to my mind, both arch-conservative leaning towards fascist, and at the other end much more progressive. The first limits what it means to be in a community (white supremacy, anti immigrant) – what he calls exclusionary gastronativism. On the other hand is what he calls nonexclusionary gastronativism (and I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to give a speech on this topic): it looks at “extending rights, resources, and wellbeing to the disenfranchised and the oppressed” (22). Cross-national issues of worker rights, and such issues. I love that such seemingly different issues can be examined together, using similar thought-tools.

It must be acknowledged that this book challenged me to think about the way that I approach food. In one section, Parasecoli discusses the idea of authenticity – “a Thai restaurant feels more authentically Thai if the cook and staff are recognisably Thai” – and that being able to “distinguish authenticity becomes part of consumers’ cultural capital” (89). And then you get arguments about what IS authentic, and things can get very messy. I don’t think the author is saying that a desire for authenticity is automatically bad; but it did make me start thinking about what constitutes ‘the canon’ when it comes to food, and that sent me down a bit of a spiral, being something of an iconoclast in those issues.

There is a LOT in this book; Parasecoli touches on a broad range of issues and explores exclusionary and nonexclusionary examples from various parts of the world. As he says in the intro, he doesn’t always go into huge detail about all of them – that’s not really the point of the book. Instead he’s trying to show what the very concept of gastronativism can be, how it might be interrogated, what sort of actions people use and thoughts it stimulates. And I think he is very persuasive in showing that food isn’t always just something that someone like me eats for fuel. It’s always much more than that.

Nettle and Bone

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

If you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher, I can say “this is exquisitely T. Kingfisher” and know that you’ll run for a copy of this book. (Fair warning: book does include reference to family violence, and an abusive partner.)

If you’re not already… maybe you’re a fan of Angela Slatter? Kingfisher’s books remind me of her work too.

What does that mean?

They’re both doing fascinating things with fairy tales… except not really fairy tales, because they’re not always familiar stories, but it’s the vibe of fairy tales – fairy tale logic – fairy tale expectations and narrative structures. And I don’t mean Disney versions, I mean grim/m and sometimes gritty and meaty and fully embedded in the world, where not everything is lovely and wonderful but sometimes they are, and sometimes by force of personality you can make a change in the world and sometimes you just have to roll with the world’s punches.

I loved this book a lot.

There’s a princess who doesn’t especially want to be and who is really sure that she’s good at it, and a bone dog, and two godmothers, and a dust-wife. Also a quest and a heavy dose of gritted-teeth determination and a good level of snark, generally dished out by old ladies, which is of course the best sort. It goes at a good pace – not so fast as to leave you spinning, but you’re also not just sitting around always admiring flowers. I read this quickly and it felt just right.

This book keeps Kingfisher as one of those novelists whose work I just read pretty much automatically. I mean, it includes such gems as: “My dog trusts me… My dog is witless and also dead” and also this, addressed to a chicken: “I know you aren’t broody, demon, but you’re going to make an exception or so help me…”.

Definitely should go on your to-read shelf.