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 Tor.com.

Plantagenet Princes

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

The good things:

  • The very concept. I love the idea of a book that covers all the Plantagenet fellas from Henry II to Richard III. Seeing their wildly varying careers one after the other points up just how outrageous and sometimes amazing and sometimes dreadful this lot could be. So great.
  • Some of the context given. I appreciated the broader comments about the Crusades, for instance – and this lot were involved right up to Crusade #8, which I didn’t know before this. The book starts with a very general intro to the concept of being a knight, and then gives an overview of the first couple generations after the Conqueror. I didn’t need these, but for a reader less familiar with the era I’m sure it would be very welcome.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine. Any time I get to read about her, it’s a good day.
  • It’s pretty straightforward to read.

The less good things:
(sigh)

  • The author mentions an historian who claims the Bayeux Tapestry must have been designed by a man because there are penises embroidered on it. And just… leaves that comment sitting there.
  • The author repeats that old saw about spices being used to cover the taste of rotting meat. Pretty sure that’s been debunked.
  • The editing. Most significantly, the editing. First, there’s some odd things going on here with the structure. Clearly I read a review copy so I don’t know whether it’s still got some editing to go. But there were bits where I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or deliberately presenting variant spellings (Saladdin, and then Saladin); and there were several occasions where it felt like sentences were in completely the wrong place. Like, he would have a paragraph about an event; then the next event in the next paragraph, but suddenly the first event is mentioned completely out of context. And this got more frequent as the book progressed. Really quite confusing. And then additionally, several times there would be two men mentioned as being involved in something, and then “he” made some final gesture… and it was often unclear which “he” was being referenced.

Overall, I did enjoy this as a history of the family. It presents the princes in their context, shows how they’re connected and how they variously win and lose bits of their empire-not-an-empire. I suspect it would be a bit hard for someone with absolutely zero knowledge of the early Middle Ages, but then again if you’re picking this up you must have at least an ember of a passion for that time. The editing problems came close to killing the enjoyment a couple times, but I was able to bull past it.

We Are Satellites

I received a review copy of this novel from NetGalley.

I love Sarah Pinsker’s work and this is no exception.

We have always lived in a world where access to technology can determine what an individual is able to do. We’ve also been making body mods, as a species, for an awfully long time. And SF writers have been wondering about wearable tech, and body mod tech, and brain alteration, for a fair while. We Are Satellites fits right on in to that area of exploration.

The book opens with a new device, a Pilot, becoming available. The exact science is never explored but it’s designed to help with focus and somehow enable users to have ‘functional multitasking’. And to show that you’ve got one you have a small blue LED on the side of your head… yes, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise this was a Pilot light. A Pilot is connected directly into your brain and this very idea is absolutely terrifying to me.

Pinsker chooses to tell the story through one family: Val, Julia, David, and Sophie. Val is a teacher; she’s anti-Pilot (and look, all her reasons are so completely mine that I can’t help but make her my favourite). Her wife Julia works for a politician and ends up getting a Pilot (and her reasons absolutely make sense, don’t get me wrong, it just makes me a) squeamish and b) cranky at the idea of feeling compelled to get something in order to keep up). Their son David also gets a Pilot, while daughter Sophie can’t because of her epilepsy. Pinsker uses chapters from the perspectives of the different characters to both explore the various issues and move the narrative along; one thing I loved is that it wasn’t a steady cycling through each character, but there were times when you got three Val chapters and then moved to one of the others. This meant the narrative felt less jumpy than might otherwise occur, and you can get to know one character that bit more. Using the multiple perspectives, though, also means the chance to get a more authentic exploration of having/not having a Pilot, and exactly what’s going on within the family.

The story arcs over several years, which means that Pilots have a chance to become more embedded in society, and for expectations within society to change, and for organised protest to develop too. It also means Sophie and David grow up and the family dynamics change. All of this makes for a narrative that moves along at a nice pace – striking the balance between interrogating issues thoughtfully, and experiences that compel reaction.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on awards lists next year.

Revelations: a novel about Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

I received this as a review copy from NetGalley.

A fictionalised account of the life of Margery of Kempe, generally regarded as being the author of the first autobiography in English. Mystic, wife, mother, pilgrim, accused heretic, all-round confounder of stereotypes and expectations. Margery always comes across as something quite extraordinary, beginning with the fact that we know anything about her at all – so few medieval women are known to the historical record, let alone in her own words. (Well, probably; she’s recorded as having dictated her account to a scribe. But I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that her words are her own.)

What Sharratt chooses to do in order to really bring Christianity and mysticism to the forefront is highlight Margery’s friendship with Julian of Norwich. They definitely did know each other, so that bit isn’t a problem. Julian was an anchorite – she took vows and was sealed up in a room that she never left, the better to contemplate God. She was also an author – the first named English female author, in fact. Her book was about revelations from God, concerning grace and love and the overwhelming affection that God has for creation; and she goes so far as to refer to ‘Mother God’, and call God’s love maternal. Sharratt makes her quite accessible, here, and the fate of her book is a significant part of the story – written as it was when England was terrified (and intrigued) by “Lollardy” – the idea of having the Bible in English and challenging the supremacy of priests as interpreters of God’s word, and various other things imputed to them.

Julian and Margery together certainly challenge the structure of the medieval Catholic Church. Margery, too, claimed to have visions, and Sharratt includes them as genuine and deeply affective experiences. Through Julian and Margery, Sharratt touches on some of the issues facing the Catholic Church throughout the Middles Ages – the role of priests and of communion and the accessibility of God to laypeople. The book doesn’t get especially deep into these issues, though. There are some truly despicable friars and priests, but also some genuinely loving and holy ones. Margery and Julian are certainly shown to be faithful daughters of God.

The one thing that troubled me here was some of the historical licence taken. Various true events have been included out of time for emotional impact: Margery witnessing the burning of Jan Hus, for instance. I don’t really see that this was necessary to heighten the tension, and I don’t think Margery needed to see someone being executed in order to have the reality of the dangers she faced brought home.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It’s well written and a fast read (I read it in a single, admittedly uninterrupted, day). It’s useful for emphasising both the similarities of the Middle Ages to our own time, as well as the vast differences. I already knew a little about both Julian and Margery, so I don’t know what this would be like with no prior knowledge; I suspect it would be fine.