Middlegame

Received as part of the Hugo packet for 2020; Middlegame is up for Best Novel.

When a book is written with just enough information that I get a sense of where the plot’s going, and/or when the book is written beautifully, and I trust the author: then I really love a non-linear tale. This is not as non-linear as something like Kameron Hurley’s Light Brigade but it’s not exactly straightforward. I had absolutely no idea what it was about before charging on in, and that was quite a fun way to do it actually.

Alchemy in the 20th century; attempts to make universal forces incarnate in human children; somewhat gruesome violence, because the people doing the former two things are immoral and ruthless. Our central evil alchemist wants particularly to incarnate the ‘Doctrine of Ethos’, in two people – twins: one will be language, and the other will be maths. Which… there’s a lot in that. And the idea is that essentially those people will BE those things… eventually. When they are fully embodied.

Some of the novel is about the alchemists and their dastardly actions and what they want to achieve. Much of the novel, though, is about Roger and Dodger (yes there’s a reason for the names), and them growing up and how they interact with each other – or not. McGuire has said that it’s like a superhero origin story, which I can see; it’s a bildungsroman. How do you cope when you’re solving impossible maths problems at 9? When there’s a voice in your head that you’re pretty sure shouldn’t be there? And that’s on top of everything else about being a kid and being adopted and being a smart kid. Don’t even get me started about being a smart girl-kid whose smarts are in maths.

McGuire has said it took her a decade to get to the point where she felt capable of doing this story justice, and I can appreciate that. I’ve only read her InCryptid and Wayward Children series, which I adore – but they’re not as narratively complex as this, and I don’t get the sense that Toby Daye or the various Mira books are, either. To be able to hold all of what’s happening here in your head and make it actually make sense on paper would have to require a lot of work. And I think the prose is more wonderful, too. This is not to say that the other books are poorly written – not at all. This is more like Wayward Children than InCrytpid because that’s what the story calls for. There’s a… mythic? not-21st-century, perhaps more formal or timeless, feel to this story than the F1-paced InCrytpids.

The thing I really don’t get is why the Hand of Glory was chosen for the cover. Yes they make several appearances, but I wouldn’t have said that they are symbolic of the plot or even that they’re especially central to the narrative. It is, in fact, one reason why I hadn’t read the book before now; the cover really didn’t appeal – and when there are so many other books in the world, covers do actually make a difference sometimes.

I really enjoyed this. However, it’s up against Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire, and Light Brigade, and that’s just horrific competition.

Living on Stolen Land

This book was sent to me to review by Magabala Books. It comes out in July – so very timely – and will be $22.99.

I am an Anglo Australian. My most recent migrant ancestor is maybe 4 or 5 generations back. I am a history teacher. And I live on stolen land. I benefit every day from the fact that indirectly each of my ancestors (and directly, in a couple of cases) contributed to the displacement of Indigenous Australians.

Ambelin Kwaymullina has produced what the media release calls a “prose-style manifesto”, and what I would describe as a free-verse lesson about the past and the present and the future. She’s also responsible for that gorgeous cover and the internal images that help make this a lovely object as well as a powerful text.

Kwaymullina covers so much stuff that I want everyone to experience that I’m tempted to re-hash everything she says… which would be, as she herself points out, a white woman re-interpreting an Indigenous woman and that’s exactly the sort of thing that really needs not to exist. (I’m also currently reading Aileen Moreton Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, so… yeh.) So let me say that she makes it very clear – in case there was any doubt in the reader’s mind – about the original ownership of this land we call Australia; about the ongoing problems of the way we settlers talk about the land and its original inhabitants; and also points ways forwards as to how all of the people now living here might actually make it work. For everyone. As the blurb says, this is a “beautifully articulated declaration… a must-read for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.”

There are two bits that particularly got to me. Firstly, as a history teacher, Kwaymullina’s discussion of time is breath-taking (pp12-14): her description of linear time, where “Things that happened / a hundred years ago / are further away / than things that happened yesterday” – and is “weaponised against Indigenous peoples” and gives “the illusion of progress / regardless of whether / anything has changed”. And it’s that last bit that took my breath away. Then she speaks of Indigenous systems where “time is not linear” – cycles, instead, and “as susceptible / to action and interaction / as any other life”. And then she points out that cyclical time is a gift and a responsibility because “The change has not been lost / for justice / for change” and I nearly cried. I have never thought of time like that and never realised that it was even possible that life could work like that.

Secondly, Kwaymullina has a very pointed section about “Behaviours” from Settlers, and the four different ways we might act. Those who speak well and do nothing, the Saviours, the ‘discoverers’ (appropriating Indigenous stuff for their own life… and the change-makers. And this section made me really think about the ways that I act, and have acted, and intend to act.

Look. This book is 64 pages of free verse that will gently and pointedly make you think about yourself and and your ways of thinking and your understanding of history and the possibilities of the future. I will read this book again and again, I will read it to my students, I will share it with other people, I will tell other people to read it. Every household should have a copy of this and I don’t use the word ‘should’ lightly.

By Force Alone

I have a long and increasingly cynical relationship with King Arthur, and all the stories around him. I read a fair bit of it as an adolescent – I even did subjects at uni about the mythology and so on. But as sometimes happens, I got cynical and impatient as I got old, and I haven’t read much new Arthur stuff in a long time.

I did re-read Susan Cooper recently, which was an excellent choice and is a bit more left-field than other Arthuriana so doesn’t really count. (Also, not new to me.)

UnknownAnd then a friend started raving about this book and while he’s not prone to hyperbole I was a bit like… really? That good? But I was intrigued and so I bought it and…

By golly.

I’m not sure I can read another Arthur book ever.

This is it. This is everything.

Tidhar knows Arthuriana intimately. He’s referencing medieval romances. I’m pretty sure there are Mists of Avalon references, and Sword in the Stone. There’s the grail, sure, and the Green Knight, which is obscure but not that obscure… but there’s also the Questing Beast, and… and… yeh. So this is in no way someone coming in and thinking they’re reinventing Arthur (which has been done, and oh so badly). This is someone who knows Arthuriana deeply.

The thing I kept thinking of when reading this was A Knight’s Tale, that Heath Ledger break-out film. It used modern(ish) rock music in order to make the point about how people in the 14th century (the time of Chaucer) would have perceived music that 20th century ears hear as weird and ‘old’, and it used utterly modern language. By Force Alone is simultaneously utterly set in the 5th or 6th century – the Romans are gone, Britain is a by-water and non-existent in political terms, the Anglo-Saxons are coming (ignore the historical reality here) – but feels in some ways very 21st century: Arthur screaming ‘Come at me if you’re hard enough!’ Bully boys in London who want to be knighted, talking about being ‘made men’. Picts on the northern border being vicious.

Everyone, actually, being vicious.

This is a vicious book. There is no gallantry. There is no courtly love – which is right because the notion wasn’t really a thing until at least the 12th century and then honestly becomes part of nostalgia basically the next day. There is no honour except for what you can get; kings hold power by force alone; Galahad gets him nickname for quite, um, different reasons from how it’s usually told.

This book left me dazed. It starts with Vortigern and ends where every Arthur story ends. It covers so much at a break-neck speed that honestly it’s all you can do to hold on and see where this beast is going to end up. But it’s all completely controlled and Tidhar knows exactly what he’s doing. And what he’s doing is amazing. He’s setting a monumental myth in context, and exposing some of the nasty underbelly of nationalism and the Matter of Britain, as well as writing intriguing characters out of characters who are just so well known (what he did with Lancelot was… unexpected, and I’m curious to chase up whether it was based on stories I don’t remember or know; the Green Knight was the most amusingly outrageous). And he keeps the fantastical nature of Merlin and Morgan and makes that part of Britain itself… but in such a way it almost feels realistic. Almost.

This book is incredible.

 

Good Morning, Midnight

UnknownThe most enduring result of my first-semester first-year English course, aside from a healthy disdain for both DH Lawrence and James Joyce, was a love of Jean Rhys. I haven’t read Good Morning, Midnight since I was 17… and a lot more callow than I realised at the time.

Reading at this at 40 was, unsurprisingly, a whole other thing.

The first thing that I have to say is that whoever wrote the blurb for the Penguin edition really didn’t understand it. In the first sentence they very bluntly set out two things that are serious revelations in the book; and then the last sentence of the summary is just wrong. I don’t know whether they read the book and didn’t get it, or whether the summary was written from third-hand information, or what. But what I can say is: don’t read this blurb. It’s also deeply unsympathetic, which made me cranky.

Sasha is in Paris. It’s the late 1930s, and she’s been in a bad way, but she’s better now. Honest. As she walks around Paris, much of the novel is taken up with reminiscing – about being in Paris in the heady post-war days when she was a Bright Young Thing, or living like it anyway. The Sasha doing the remembering is a bit older than I am now. She has lived a lot, experienced joy and tragedy, struggled with identity – all the things you would expect for someone in her late 40s.

There’s little action in this novel – and let’s be honest, that makes it a bit unusual for me. It’s a deeply internal novel, although it never gets to self-indulgent navel-gazing. It’s an emotional novel, although it never tried to make the reader experience wild and tumultuous feelings: it balances the line between clinical – here’s what happened – and drawing the portrait of Sasha’s experiences so finely that honestly, at the end, I felt a bit exhausted. It’s short; I read it in a day. And when I finished I had to go dig out the bottle of Pernod from the back of the cupboard and sit and have a quiet drink. (Sasha drinks a lot of Pernod in her time in Paris.) Rhys writes so… matter-of-factly about life, and the difficulties of life. Her genius is in not making it melodramatic and also not detached.

In an odd way I see a connection between this and The City We Became; Paris is an integral part of the novel. The places Sasha goes, and the influence cafes and faubourgs and parks have on her mood – it reminds us that a place isn’t always only, or just, a place; it’s a trigger for emotions and memory, sometimes even a repository of them. As with The City, I don’t know Paris – I’ve visited once but didn’t invest in the place that deeply. I can only imagine what it would be like reading this as someone who knows the area.

I love this book. It’s not likely to be one I re-read every year; I’m not sure I have the emotional resilience for that. But every few years, now that I’m reminded of it? Absolutely.

The City We Became

UnknownI loved the short story that turned into the prologue of this book. And I love this book.

It should be noted that I do not know New York. At all. I understand people who love NYC have a very particular reaction to this book, but that’s not me. You tell me it has five boroughs? OK. You tell me Staten Island doesn’t like being one of those boroughs? Happy to believe you. You could tell me that New York streets are all slightly curved either north or west and I would have to actually do research to see if you were right.

So anything I say about this book in relation to New York City should keep that in mind. My love for this book does not stem from my love for the city that is, in more visceral ways than is usually meant by this phrase, truly a character within the book.

Six characters, in fact…

Look, to some extent my reviewing this book is a bit redundant. There have been lots of other reviews by people who are far more eloquent than me; who know New York better than me, who can speak to the WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT twist that I seriously didn’t see coming (possibly because I don’t have a certain background, which I am completely fine with), who can speak to the way this book reflects Americana with much more knowledge than me. So what do I have to add?

I can say that even as someone who doesn’t know the USA or NYC, this book is visceral and captures a city brilliantly. And USES a city and the way people think about it to magnificent effect

I can say that it’s fantastically paced – meeting new characters and ‘getting the band together’ can sometimes be tiresome, but not here. Here, it’s all so intricately part of the evolving plot and understanding what the heck is happening that I barely noticed half the characters hadn’t met each other for a substantial part of the novel.

I assume that those who know NYC will agree with the choices made for who represents each borough, or at least see where Jemisin in coming from; the explanation for why you get a particular person in a particular area made sense to me in a fictional way, at least. So I can say I loved the variety of characters and the amount of backstory that is woven expertly into the current story and why those things are necessary and how each character could really just have a mundane story written about them and it would still be fascinating.

I can say that I have precisely zero regrets about pre-ordering this six months ago and have every intention of doing the same as soon as the sequel is announced.

And… SPOILERS BELOW:

Continue reading →

Slow River

UnknownI don’t often go to the library, privileged as I am to be able to afford books, as a rule – and I like owning books. But sometimes I think I might like to read a book and probably not own it.

This book is one that I picked up at the library because I was there getting something else; the yellow of the SF Masterworks stood out to me, along with Griffith’s name – I didn’t know she had a piece in that set. So, serendipity at play.

This is a fascinating novel and one that I can’t really do justice to in a review – I’d give too much away and I hate doing that.

At the centre is Lore, who either doesn’t know much about herself or doesn’t want to know much about herself when she wakes up naked on the street. She’s taken in by Spanner, who might have acted like a saviour but really isn’t one, not in how she acts and not in how she thinks, and she doesn’t want to be one either. The relationship between Spanner and Lore is… difficult, and sometimes unpleasant; necessary, too, at least for a while. Griffith does a good job at revealing details quietly, and slowly, and almost without you noticing, so that a complex picture gradually comes to light.

This is also the case with Lore’s own family and personal history. A glimpse here and an idea there, gradual filling in of gaps, and suddenly things make so much more sense.

The world Griffith created as futuristic in 1995 is really quite recognisable today. There are some things that are still futuristic – the bioremediation of waterways is probably still a long way off – but her descriptions of the city and the way things work is full of familiar detail. And that’s where Griffith’s genius is, I think; it’s in the detail. This isn’t a Neuromancer adventure; it’s not a Mellissa Scott adventure. This is a story about life and the difficulties – and joys – of relationships, set in a web of competing economics and politics. Above all it’s about identity, and whether identity is mutable or not; whether revelations can change who we are, and whether we want them to; whether other people can change who we are, and whether we want them to.

Just great.

Made to Order

UnknownFor the centenary of the coining of the word ‘robot’, Jonathan Strahan has compiled an anthology of new work about those… beings? objects? creations? The word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word for slave, so perhaps it’s appropriate that a description of what they are is hard to come by. Strahan begins by putting robots into an even greater lineage and ancestry than a hundred years, though, pointing out that the Greek god Hephaestus has golden assistants, and the many stories of golems, and coming up to Frankenstein’s creation too. He goes on to touch lightly on the myriad ways robot-like beings have influenced fiction more recently (tripods to chat bots). I don’t always read introductions (sorry J), but this one is well worth the time and really sets the scene for the entire anthology.

I won’t go over every story, because that would be a bit tedious. Basically every story was great, which pleased me immensely!

Vina Jie-Min Prasad starts off the anthology with “A Guide for Working Breeds,” written as a series of chats between two bots. One is required to be the mentor for the other, who is pretty new to the whole work-scene; the slight boredom and irritation of the first is set off against the enthusiasm of the newb and feels all too real. The entire narrative is in chat; Prasad works in enough detail that by the end of it I felt like I had read far more narrative than was actually on the page. Very nice.

On the other hand, Peter Watts’ “Test 4 Echo” is not nice. It’s a great story, but it’s not nice. It’s got solar exploration and an intriguing design for a robot on Enceladus, but the way that the robot is treated is not nice. It’s got discussion of developing robot sentience, but the way it works out is not nice. I really enjoyed it… but it’s not nice. 

“The Hurt Pattern,” from Tochi Onyebuchi, is a terrifying look at a very near, very plausible future that is more about the humans than the robots, because it’s about how humans teach robots and what we can unconsciously impart, and how that can be manipulated and used for profit, or nefarious purpose. I found this story distressing, actually, because it’s so very believable: how algorithms can be used to affect society. Including law enforcement.

In-built obsolesce crops up a few times, and perhaps nowhere as poignantly as in John Chu’s “Dancing with Death” which features a robot that should be on its way out and a mechanic who is more than he seems and also a really, really good mechanic. This one really is beautiful.

Sofia Samatar contributes probably my favourite story, in “Fairy Tales for Robots.” Onyebuchi presented a nightmare scenario for what might happen with the way humans teach algorithms; Samatar presents someone trying to teach a ‘robot'(ish) to think for itself, to consider how stories might guide decisions and attitudes. The way Samatar takes fairytales and myths – some familiar to my Anglo-Australian upbringing, others not so – and demonstrates how they can be seen as relevant to an artificial life is just breathtaking, it’s so imaginative. I really, really loved this piece.

Twilight

I recently did a thing. Perhaps a silly thing, perhaps a pointless thing. I fell off – or, perhaps, swan-dived – off the cliff. I finally watched Twilight.

It was a Sunday night. I was in need of something that didn’t require much attention, as I wanted to knit.

Notice how I need to justify myself? Oh Twilight, the amount and type of emotion you stir simply by being named.

Even had I been 15 when Twilight came out, it would not have been quite my thing. I’ve never been much of a one for romance movies – at least not at the cinema – and I never went in for paranormal romance much, certainly not as a kid (with just a few noticeable exceptions; ahem, The Changeover, Margaret Mahy).

As a movie, I was not very impressed. I thought the effects were pretty lame – not sure if that’s a time factor or not; I thought the tinkly music accompanying the sparkly vampire reveal was overdone; I didn’t think much of Pattinson’s performance. There are definitely bits of the narrative that I thought were pretty poor and being watched while you sleep by someone who doesn’t have permission to do so is utterly, utterly creepy.

However. My goodness I can understand why this was so popular. What an absolute slightly-awkward-teen-girl fantasy! Your parents are fine but a bit distant (so relatable); you’re new but everyone wants to meet you; new to school but instantly get friends; all the guys want to date you but you know how to redirect them so everyone ends up happy. You’re awkward in sport but it doesn’t matter. And then you fall in love with the hot guy no one understands who warns you he’s the villain but you know he Has a Heart of Gold and you can Really Reach Him.

This story is a story a million nervous, worried, awkward, frustrated, dreamy, anxious, and lonely girls dream of living. It’s catnip. It’s not necessarily good for them, but it fills a need/ meets a hunger/ suggests a pathway in a glorious, sparkly, slightly creepy, romantic way and I kinda don’t blame them for eating it up with a spoon.

I have no intentions of watching the rest (… until I really need another no-pressure movie, possibly…) but I don’t blame anyone who loved it.

It Might Get Loud

I’m assured it’s not too weird to have a favourite documentary, but it does still feel a bit strange to admit that I have one – and that I’ve watched it more times than I can count. I’m not sure why that seems weird; I guess I don’t know that many people who count non-fiction things as ‘favourite’.

Unknown.jpegI love music history and I love music documentaries. Led Zepellin are my favourite band. I’m a fan of (early-mid) U2, and I quite like The White Stripes. And I love rock music. So Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White in one place talking about the electric guitar, occasionally teaching each other their songs, and each going on a journey with the documentary maker about their journey to being guitar players… I mean, I was always going to love this documentary.

The moment when Jimmy Page starts playing Whole Lotta Love and Edge and White just stare at him in raptures is everything.

They play Seven Nation Army together. And In My Time of Dying. And, although it’s a deleted scene (WHY), Kashmir.

I really enjoy the background pieces for all three, although I believe very little of what Jack White says (it’s fun to watch but I take it all with a liberal fist of salt). The idea of Page playing muzak and simply revolting from sessional music, and Edge’s horror of the Irish troubles leading to Sunday Bloody Sunday; their sheer delight in music and each other and their drive to keep playing and discovering; it’s all magnificent. I could have had a bit more of them together comparing notes, but I guess I can’t have everything.

Sleep it off Lady

Once upon a time I was an undergrad Arts student. I was going to study English and History. One of my first semester English classes was Modern Literature. I had no idea ‘modern’ was a critical term rather than just a temporal one; I had never done any literary theory or real critique. I discovered that I loved Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and could barely keep my eyes open for Dubliners (James Joyce); I was captivated by Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) and finally watched Apocalypse Now as a result. And I read Good Morning, Midnight and I don’t even really remember the story but I remember being absolutely bowled over by Jean Rhys. I later read Wide Sargasso Sea (because I kinda do love Jane Eyre) and was astonished all over again.

Unknown.jpegSome years later I supported The Second Shelf in their Kickstarter, and as part of my reward I got a first edition of Sleep it Off Lady, a collection of Rhys’ short stories. This was a pretty great result for me, since I had let her fall off my radar, and now I could re-discover this writer that A. Alvarez in 1974 called “quite simply the best living English novelist”.

In some ways I don’t really know how to talk about this collection. They are, by and large, realist fiction – and most are more along the vignette line, rather than having fully developed narratives. But all of them comment on some aspect of life, or relationships, or social interactions. And none of them have superfluous words and none of them are sentimental and all of them left me thinking about what life is like.

“Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers” is set on a Caribbean island, where Rhys grew up; from the perspective of a young girl we get a view on how the Europeans might view another European who doesn’t really match their idea of how a European man should act.

“Goodby Marcus, Goodbye Rose” is also set on a Caribbean island, again told from the perspective of a young girl… whose innocence and expectations of an ordinary life are basically removed when an old man grabs her breast.

Some of the vignettes are reflections on being a young woman in the pre- and inter-war years in Britain, or Paris. And several are haunting reflections on getting old, as a woman, and how people might view you, and how you might view yourself.

This is a really short collection and all of the stories are short, too. They pack an immense punch and they will definitely be re-read.