Category Archives: Books

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Unknown.jpegWell I’m only about six years behind on this.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that I don’t much care for Australian history. Except for the women’s suffrage bit. There are lots of reasons for this and some of them are the same ones everyone else trots out and some of them are idiosyncratic (I really like my history to be properly old, and I like the textual/ architectural etc remains, which is problematic for Indigenous history).

Anyway. I loved You Daughters of Freedom and back when we were still able to congregate with others (ah, the good old days), I went to hear Clare Wright speak about it. I took my copy of Daughters to get signed… and then while I was there I thought I should get this, and also get it signed (which meant lining up a second time which she thought was very funny). This is partly because I was feeling a bit giddy-fan-girl, and partly because she described it as her ‘democracy trilogy’ – the third to be about the Yirrkala bark petitions, I believe, which I will absolutely be buying and reading. I also figured that while I’m fairly indifferent towards the whole Eureka myth and the way it figures in Australian history, I could trust that Wright wouldn’t give me a rah-rah-tattoo-the-Southern-Cross-on-your-chest story.

Wright does a marvellous job of peopling the gold rush fields of Ballarat with real people – men and women and children, from many different places around the world. This is the real key to her work. She points out just how masculine the story has been, and the take-away myths that have grown up around it; and then she debunks those myths by not only pointing out that women were there, but by pointing up how significant the contribution of women was.

Women as publicans. Women holding gold licences. Women running shops. Women running the newspaper, and writing copy for it. Women running a theatre. Women holding together their families. Women being expected by the government to make the place more civilised. The lack of Chinese women being used as an excuse to be racist shits. Women giving birth (including in the middle of the storming of the Stockade!) and women dying. Women as reasons for men to try and make more money, to look after the families – and to stop the woman from being the one supporting the family. Lady Hotham being appealed to, to intervene with her husband, the ruler of the colony. They were there. And important. And ultimately shoved back into old gender roles, for the most part, when the gold fields got more mechanised and Ballarat organised itself as more of a regular town and when the franchise got extended to more men, but no women.

One of the things I liked about Daughters is that it recognised that Indigenous women were excluded from the achievements of 1902 (although Ruby Hamad has words to say about how this is discussed and to what extent, in White Tears Brown Scars). The Wathaurung people appear occasionally in this story: reminders that they had been finding gold in the area for centuries, and that some of them engaged in commerce and relationships with Europeans, and so on; but overall not that much. It seems that Wright had to do immense digging (heh) in the archives to find the information about the white women that she uses in the book; that there would be far less archival information about Indigenous people and their interactions with each other or Europeans doesn’t surprise me at all. Sadly. Could Wright have done better? Maybe. Would it have made the project even bigger? Absolutely. Was it the point of the book? No. If someone hasn’t tried to do a really in-depth look at the Indigenous experience of the Victorian goldfields, that should absolutely happen.

I have a much greater appreciation for what life was like on the goldfields (pretty shit), the political situation with both Hotham back in Melbourne and the local authorities (also pretty shit, for a variety of reasons), and some of what led the miners to actually create what we know as “the Eureka Stockade” (pretty haphazard, not really intended to be a Great Last Stand Bastion), and of course the place of women in all of this. The entire situation really does deserve a place in discussions about the development of Australia as a democracy, as a social liberal experiment, and in how Australia developed its identity (exclusion of the Chinese, other variations on racism, how people spoke of themselves in relation to Britain, etc etc). Which is something I never thought I would say.

(My enthusiasm has one caveat. There’s this weird bit where she talks about women’s menstrual cycles synchronising, and something something hormones affecting a situation, and… it’s just odd. It doesn’t fit with the rest of her style, and the synchronising almost certainly isn’t true, and… yeh. I was a bit thrown.)

Even if you think you don’t like Australian history – if you like history, and the reclaiming of forgotten groups, this is definitely one to read.

We Wuz Pushed

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Basically if you’re interested in Joanna Russ’ work, or you’re interested in the way fiction, in particular, can be involved in radical truth-telling, you need to get this book. It’s from Aqueduct Press.

I am a big Joanna Russ fan, so I’m intrigued by everything that does any work deconstructing her work. Mandelo takes as her project the idea that Russ’ entire oeuvre is concerned with radical truth-telling – that art should bring not only pleasure but truth, and not only deconstruct myth but also present new realities. She goes through all of Russ’ science fiction novels, pointing out the truths that are present there and how Russ uses that fiction to suggest new ways of being. I especially liked how Mandelo presented her own journey to understand And Chaos Died – which I haven’t read – and how context can radically change how we understand an author’s intent. I also really, really appreciated how Mandelo addressed the very tricky subject of Russ’ transphobia in The Female Man, and stresses that being able to adjust our understanding of truth should be part of the truth-telling process. And the fact that Russ did, indeed, change her perspective (on trans women and other issues) makes me respect her the more, and gives me something to aim for.

Mandelo also addresses some of Russ’ non-fiction, particularly How to Suppress Women’s Writing and To Write Like a Woman, where the truth-telling is perhaps more obvious in some ways. Overall Mandelo presents Russ’ body of work as a series of writings deeply concerned with the multiple ways in which truth can be told or distorted and what we as a society must do about that. It kinda makes me a bit uncomfortable when I know that I do often go for escapist literature… and I’m not sure how much Russ would approve of that… but perhaps if I can do it with my eyes open she wouldn’t despair too much?

Cuisine and Empire

Was there ever a book more up my alley than this? (Well yes but allow me my extravagance.) I came across this book courtesy of Gastropod, one of my very favourite podcasts: looking at food ‘through the lens of science and history’.

images.jpegRachel Laudan takes the idea that we ‘are the animals that cook’ (p1) and looks at how cuisine – how we cook – has travelled and been shaped. She makes a very interesting point that I’d never really thought about: just adopting a particular food doesn’t mean you’ve adopted a particular cuisine, or in anyway integrated a part of a culture. Cooking is the key bit and cooking has always been hedged about with culture and taboo and expectations and so on. She also deliberately looks at the idea of ’empire’ as hegemonic political units can do a lot to spread, enforce, and encourage the adoption of cuisine through a whole range of methods. The point of the book therefore is not to consider regional differences but to look at broad similarities in the way that food is treated, and how those similarities came to be.

There are chapters on the development of grain-based cuisines, and what that meant for cooking in general. She looks at Buddhism and its spread and influence, at Islam and Christianity, and how their morals and philosophies and taboos influenced the way food worked. How shifts from Catholicism to Protestantism in parts of Europe changed things, as well as how industry and increasing globalisation changed modern cuisines.

I love that Europe is not entirely the centre here; that the Mongols and the Islamic empires have a significant impact (on Mexico, via Spain, for example). I am intrigued to think about how political and moral questions have shaped some of the ways that I, and my food culture, think and perceive food. I’m also fascinated by how early decisions, sometimes made consciously and sometimes not, have continuing impacts on the way the world acts.

Honestly, grasses have a lot of responsibility in the development of world cultures.

This book was a lot of fun – well, it was a bit of work, because it’s not always a straightforward narrative. But that was usually fun too. It has made me think about why we do things the way we do, and the cascade of consequences through history. It’s so easy to think of the way we make food as just… passive, somehow; unconnected to politics or anything else. Actually, that’s probably only possible for me because I am a part of the ruling elite, so I don’t need to think about the consequences of my food choices – and I live in a place and time where choosing to eat outside of my particular food culture is totally acceptable. So I am privileged. But I am still constrained, too, by the things I have been taught. And this book helps me think about some of those things.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

images.jpegThings I have not read: Sherlock Holmes stories.

Things I only read occasionally: mystery or crime novels.

Things I have read a lot in the last three months: Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series. Ten books and several short stories, in fact.

This is all because of a friend who suggested the series to me while I was travelling (also the Amelia Peabody series). I decided I needed something a bit light, and I thought it would be interested to give it a go… and all of a sudden I’d read two novels and a novella. And it went from there.

Mary Russell is 15 in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; orphaned and living with a nasty aunt in Sussex. She literally runs into an older man out looking at bees, and he turns out to be a now-retired Sherlock Holmes. She demonstrates a surprisingly keen mind, he is intrigued, she ends up being his apprentice, they have adventures, and so the series sustains itself.

Russell is an heiress, so there’s no money issues (at least once she inherits); she’s Jewish; she’s very bright, obviously – and gets a degree in theology; and she is, clearly, a match for Holmes in terms of personalities. I can’t speak to how well Holmes is portrayed, but there are amusing references to his being annoyed at Conan Doyle, and the way Watson wrote their adventures up.

To some extent I guess you could call this extended fan fiction. Especially when you have Peter Whimsy turn up briefly, and then Kim (Rudyard Kipling’s Kim), and Dashiel Hammett, and for all I know other characters that I didn’t recognise. But… who cares?

Overall the stories are well-written; they’re definitely page-turners. Sometimes the crimes are dreadful, sometimes they’re on the more intimate side; sometimes Russell and Holmes are personally involved, sometimes they get dragged in. The stories start in 1915, and I’m up to 1924 (where I’m going to pause for a long time, I think; I’ve about done my dash for now), so there’s discussion of blue-stockings and women under 30 not yet having the vote, and King keeps the misogyny and some of the racism that would have been par for the course at the time – which does get a bit uncomfortable at times, it must be said, and I’m sad she felt it necessary.

Overall these are entertaining stories that aren’t too demanding. Perfect for right now, as far as I’m concerned.

Elysium

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I bought this book ages ago, I think because it was on the Tiptree Award (now Otherwise Award) honours list. And then I didn’t read it for ages because I thought it was horror – which makes no sense because why would I have bought it in the first place if I thought it was horror? At any rate, I finally decided it was time to read it, and Wow. What an astonishing, wonderful, weird, and very clever book.

It starts relatively easily, with Adrianne and Antoine, a couple whose lives are drifting apart. Nothing particularly odd – except Adrianne sees an elk, in the city; and there’s a brief interlude of computer code that makes no sense. But then the story continues… And then all of a sudden it’s Adrian and Antoine, and Antoine is ill, and Adrian is caring for him but life is so hard.

And then it’s Antoinette and Adrianne. And you can see why the Tiptree committee thought this was a worthy book to include on their list, as the characters slip in and out of genders and relationships and sexualities and the story evolves around them.

Sometimes the pair are lovers; sometimes they are biological family. Sometimes they have a strong relationship, sometimes things are fracturing. And as the narrative develops, the world in which they live gets stranger – not as time goes on but as their story takes place in different worlds; sometimes subtly different, sometimes spectacularly so (sometimes there’s a variation on a plague, so at the moment some readers may wish to avoid). And always the relationship between the two is significant: sometimes it actively influences events in the wider world, sometimes the focus is intensely personal. And always there are the computer-code breaks that hint at restoring or losing data, or resetting systems, and it’s really not clear what’s going on but clearly all is not as it should be (in case you didn’t guess that when there was an elk in the middle of a busy city).

This novel is lyrical and intense and passionately human. I’m so glad I finally got to read it. And then I read the afterword and I was floored all over again because of course that’s where it was coming from.

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.