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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:

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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.

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.

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.