Category Archives: Books

You Sexy Thing, by Cat Rambo

I received this to review via NetGalley.

This is right on the edge of “too silly” for me. It mostly doesn’t fall over, but skirts precipitously close. There’s mention of magic to do various things (although it all happens off-stage) at the same time that this is a galaxy-spanning society with a multitude of species and, it seems, a variety of FTL options for travelling around. There’s a bit of prophesying going on, too, just to add to the mix.

The blurb suggests this is Farscape meets Great British Bake Off. Yes to the Farscape: improbably different alien species interacting, living and working together; up to and including a biological ship, now I think about it. There’s also a bit of Firefly. These comparisons are good for me; if you’re able to suspend your disbelief about humans and squid-like and bird-like and vegetative species all being in the same place, then you’ll be fine with this. The GBBO comparison is a bit thinner and honestly that’s where I was a little disappointed. Cooking is definitely a factor here – the protagonists are running a restaurant when everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and features sporadically throughout. It’s not a competition and there’s not much baking, and really there could have been more food in general. So if what you’re really craving is a pretty food-based narrative, I don’t think this will meet your needs.

The story is a fairly straightforward one – which isn’t a negative: Niko and her companions were soldiers, now run a restaurant, things go boom (not their fault, swear), and then adventures ensue. Including hijacking and piracy and identity trouble and pasts coming back to haunt, etc. It’s fast paced, there’s a good amount of banter, there’s engaging characters, and no desire to make this any sort of morality tale or a solemn exposition of galactic society. It’s a romp, and for that it was well worth it.

(It should be said that there’s some rather surprising violence about halfway through – surprising because up to that point it hadn’t been graphic at all – which I found disquieting because it seemed so out of place.)

All up, a fun read, and honestly isn’t that something we need right now?

The Nile: A New History of the World’s Greatest River

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I should start by saying that this book is not quite the book I expected. Given it’s the Nile, and given the blurb, I expected the book to be much more about the swathes of history involved in that region of the world. There is, of course, discussion about the role of the Nile in the grand sweep of ancient Egyptian history, and what might be called “medieval” history for want of a better term. There’s mention of ancient Nubia, and some commentary on “medieval” Ethiopia, as well as the Rift Valley and the Olduvai Gorge. However, the reality is that the vast majority of this book is focused on European, and in particular British, colonialism – efforts to control the various parts of the Nile for their own purposes. So I was surprised by that, and occasionally disappointed that it was so modern in focus.

This is also not “just” a history book, and in general this is a good thing. It has aspects of a travel memoir; the author has travelled to every country he mentions, I think, and to most of the parts of the Nile and its tributaries discussed. So there are sections where Tvedt is quite personal in his writing, reflecting on his own experiences and how this matches – or doesn’t – with historical or literary representations of the places. This aspect I enjoyed a lot.

As well, there are aspects of historical theorising that I found quite intriguing. The author challenges Edward Said’s theories about ‘orientalism’ and whether it’s appropriate for this challenge to apply to all aspects of European writing; and challenges most historians in their refusal to consider the very solid, material, and geographic nature of a river like the Nile. I don’t know that much about the theories he’s challenging so I can’t say with full confidence whether he makes perfect sense; but certainly many of the ideas he raises seem fair.

But overall, the book is indeed about the Nile: as something that has shaped geography, as something that has shaped the civilisations that exist along its banks and those of its tributaries, as something that has contributed hugely to political tensions over the last 150 years or so. I had no idea there was a 1929 Agreement that basically said upstream countries could do nothing with the Nile unless Egypt agreed! And of course for most of those upstream countries, this was signed by the imperialist powers then in control… so since the 1960s there’s been argument about whether those powers had the right to sign on behalf of these now-existing countries. Nor had I ever considered the notion of the Nile as a weapon (withhold water, or release too much if you’ve got a dam); or the idea that the Suez Canal crisis can also be linked to control of the Nile.

I learned a lot about the realities of European colonialism and imperialism in the Nile basin – primarily the British, but also German and Italian (I didn’t learn anything new about Belgium, and Leopold). The machinations made me sick all over again: water for Egypt so Egypt can grow cotton to supply to England for the cotton mills…

In terms of structure, the book basically flows from the Nile Delta (seriously under pressure thanks to climate change) to the various sources of the Blue and White Niles (hello, Stanley and others). So it’s not chronological; I quite liked this geographical perspective, though, and it certainly makes sense in the context. Each chapter is broken into what are basically vignettes. It means the author doesn’t have to make one solid narrative for each geographical area, but instead takes various different issues and treats them in sometimes one, sometimes five, pages.

This is a thoroughly researched, detailed, meticulous and very clever story of the Nile.

A Master of Djinn

Fatma: an Egyptian woman dressing in smart (dapper, even) Englishman’s suits; a woman in the still male-dominated world of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities; someone with the tenacity, determination, and bull-headedness that characterises the best (fictional, I suspect) investigative types. I love her madly.

Fatma lives in an alternative Cairo: it’s 1912 and thanks to a man living several decades earlier, djinn and other such ‘supernatural entities’ walk the streets not only of Egypt but elsewhere in the world. They’ve added art and craft and technology, as well as opportunities for crime and political scheming to the world. Egypt has become the sort of world player that it didn’t manage until probably the 1950s in our world (thanks to imperialism etc). And I love this, too: I love Clark’s evocative descriptions of Cairo – by which I do not mean that it’s all “exotic” or whatever; I mean that his descriptions bring the streets and palaces and people to life in the ways that the best literature does.

Everything about this novel is marvellous. I love the characters; I love the setting. I love the exploration of how humans might interact with the supernatural when it becomes basically mundane, and I love the police investigation aspect (a lot). I love that it’s set in Egypt and deals sensibly, sometimes snarkily, with the imperialism issues that would still have been present despite the magical changes (the patronising ‘exotic’ comments from the white mouths are just… so on point). I love the language and the pacing and the revealing of important clues and… Look. Everyone should read this.

The Good Wife of Bath

I received this as a review copy via NetGalley.

I love a story about reclaiming women – whether it’s in history or fiction. Turns out I’ve read a few of these recently: Wendy, Darling and Forces of Nature for example. And The Good Wife of Bath fits into that space: yes, it’s that Wife of Bath, perhaps Chaucer’s most contested character (from The Canterbury Tales anyway).

I have to admit it’s a long, long time since I studied Chaucer at university, and I’m not sure I read all of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale even then (I found the language really hard going, not going to lie). Which means that people who’ve never read any Chaucer (like, most of the population, surely) will be just fine with reading this. If you do know the Wife’s original story I guess you get that extra frisson when a name is dropped, but it’s not essential to the story. Honestly I got more of that from the fact Chaucer is a character in the book and I know bits and pieces about his life courtesy of Who Murdered Chaucer? which I recently re-read.

Anyway. The story is Eleanor’s biography, basically beginning with her marriage at age 12 to a stranger several decades older than she is. Which is a deeply unpleasant thought, but it wasn’t until I got to the Author’s Note that it occurred to me that many people would find this shocking – the shocking-ness of not knowing this was at least sometimes a reality in the 14th century, I mean. 12 was the legal age of marriage in much of Europe for much of the Middle Ages, a fact I already knew and so I guess I’ve already dealt with being shocked by that. (I still don’t find it a pleasant idea, don’t worry.) In Chaucer’s recounting, the Wife talks of having had five husbands, and how she has tried to have mastery over them. Two thirds of the book is Eleanor as wife: who she marries, why, and what her life is like in each circumstance. In many ways it’s an exploration of the possibilities for a woman in the late 14th century: a good life or hard, a loving husband or abusive, allowed by her husband to participate in decision making or treated like a child, and the fact that her property becomes his property at marriage. And then the last third is Eleanor attempting to live as a feme sole, or sole woman – not connected to a man – which basically translates to “target”.

What Eleanor doesn’t personally experience, the women within her circle do. And overall that means that this book has some hard parts to read. Life for everyone in the Middle Ages had its brutality, especially compared to many of the things I take for granted in 21st century urban Australia; and the mid 14th century has the added bonus (?) of the Botch – what we call the Black Death. Life for women had its particular brutalities, and Brooks presents these as a part of life. Eleanor is at times very poor, and at times relatively wealthy; living on a farm or in town; respectable and not, surrounded by family and not. Brooks explores the lot. And by including Chaucer as a character, with as accurate a biography as is available, Brooks also includes bits of the contemporary politics (Lollards, John of Gaunt, 1381…).

The one thing I was left feeling a bit… confused by is the subtitle: A (Mostly) True Story. I love an unreliable narrator, and Eleanor certainly has the potential to be one. But nowhere is there a clear suggestion that she is being slippery, or fiddling with facts to make herself look better, or do anything other than present her story as she experienced it. So the suggestion that she is somehow being crafty in presenting her story doesn’t make sense. I actually forgot it was the subtitle while reading, because it’s just not relevant.

Overall, this is a great addition to the reclaiming of women’s voices within fiction. It’s fairly long; that’s balanced by being very readable, and smartly paced: it’s certainly not a trial to read. Definitely recommended to the historical fiction crowd, or if you were compelled to read any of Chaucer at any stage.

Salmon, by Mark Kurlansky

I received this book via NetGalley.

I’ve read a lot of Mark Kurlansky books, because I’ve really enjoyed the way he takes one thing – salt, in particular – and investigates its history and place in the human and natural world. Sometimes his work can feel a bit too general; I think this is a function of the format and his purpose, which is to present a wide-ranging view of the chosen topic. However, he does also present specifics – vignettes, effectively, to illuminate a broader point.

All of these comments stand for Salmon.

The first chapters are largely about the biology of the fish, which is way more complicated than I had realised – what even is a salmon, basically?? – and about its natural habitat and habits. Most salmon return to their natal spawning ground for their own spawning, and then die, which is just a whole thing when it comes to life cycles and how on earth they find their way back to a particular river after hanging out in the ocean for a variable number of years.

Much of the rest of the book is a litany of how humans have placed the existence of salmon in peril: through destruction of habitat in a multitude of ways, and directly through overfishing. Kurlansky touches on several ways in which indigenous peoples in what are today the USA and Canada and Japan used and managed salmon over hundred or thousands of years to demonstrate the possibility of living in balance… but all of that is against the construction of dams and other ways that ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ have led to the destruction of rivers, in particular. Honestly most of this book was pretty depressing to read. There’s so much we just don’t really understand about how to make it possible for salmon stocks to redevelop… which leads to further catastrophe in the food web. Salmon is, to an extent, just a symbol for how much the last 300-odd years of industrial development have ravaged the environment. So that’s fun.

If you can handle the story of environmental destruction, this is a readable and generally approachable book. As noted above, Kurlansky necessarily goes in for some generalisations – it’s a result of making a readable book for the general public, I think. But he does present specifics – about particular rivers, about particular indigenous groups, about particular styles of fishing, and so on – and there’s no doubt that he’s put an enormous amount of research and work into telling this story. It’s a sobering read, and it’s a worthwhile one.

Bread & Water

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy, Darling

I received this book via NetGalley.

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

Peter Pan is an awful person.

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

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

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

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

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

In the Watchful City

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

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

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

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

So. Let’s try this.

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

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

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

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

How Iceland Changed the World

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Reboot

I received this as a review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

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

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

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

Definitely another good novella in a string of such from