Tag Archives: books

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior

How exactly did I get to this age without reading a biography of Matilda??

Well… it’s not entirely my fault, because there just haven’t been that many. And oh, couldn’t we talk about the reasons for that. And in fact Catherine Hanley does discuss some of the reasons for the lack of historical focus on this astonishing woman, and puts in the historical context for how she was discussed 900 years ago as well.

Let me say upfront: it may be 900 years ago, but the THEFT of the English crown from Matilda by her cousin Stephen STILL MAKES ME MAD.

Matilda: oldest child of the English king; married at 8 to a foreign emperor; widowed; named her father’s heir (because her brother had drowned); crown STOLEN by Stephen; spends many years fighting Stephen for the right to be monarch of England; eventually manages to have her son named Stephen’s heir, lives to see her son crowned king (although not literally, because being present would have made all the menfolk feel a bit uncomfortable). Matilda was amazing.

Matilda’s epitaph places her in the context of three Henrys: her father (Henry I of England), her first husband (with a complicated set of titles but eventually crowned emperor of ‘the Empire’; his lands included what is today Germany and various other bits), and her oldest son (Henry II of England). This epitaph is not surprising given 12th century attitudes. It’s probably also not the surprising that she has continued to be placed in this context.

Hanley does a really great job of using the existing contemporary documents (all histories written by men, mostly monks, as well as charters and other such legal documents) to give a reasonable suggestion of what Matilda was doing, Matilda was responsible for; reasons for Matilda’s actions and how she worked within, as well as bucking against, 12-century expectations of a royal daughter/wife/mother.

This is why a feminist, and now gender, lens is so important for history. Matilda was often described as ‘haughty’ and other such words… for doing exactly what her father, in particular, was praised for doing. She makes a really nice point of how when Stephen’s queen (…also Matilda, it was as bad as Henry) acted in a masculine way on behalf of Stephen, it was praised; but do so for your OWN benefit, and you’re a ranting virago.

Filling in a gap in my knowledge, this book was priceless (my MA was on this Matilda’s grandmother, also Matilda; this Matilda’s daughter-in-law is Eleanor of Aquitaine). As a thoughtful look at a hugely important part of English medieval history, I think it’s accessible to general readers who are prepared to deal with the Henrys and Matildas.

Making Australian History: Anna Clark

Not a review book! One that I saw in the delightful bookshop in Queenscliff and barely even stopped as I walked past, grabbed it, and paid for it.

(Who am I, reading historiography about Australian history? Australian history? My how I have changed.)

Sometimes I forget how much I love historiography. And I really, truly love it. A history of history writing/making itself? How much more meta can you get?? And Clark writes just so beautifully. This entire book is a delight.

Clark aims to present a history of how Australian History (the capital H is discussed very frankly and thoughtfully) has been written over… a very long period of time; and also how the writing of Australian History has helped to construct that history. Clark is under no illusions about the reality that History writing is part of the colonial project, and I think one of the great ongoing themes here is how Clark starts to unravel, deconstruct, illuminate, and reflect on that very process.

(Do the adjectives give a sense of how much I enjoyed this book?)

Another of the great aspects of this book for me is that it’s not entirely chronological – something else that she discusses frankly in the introduction. Chapters are thematic, and vaguely chronological, and also generally chronological within the chapter; but chronology is not the be-all of history writing, important as it is. I deeply enjoyed that there were chapters on ’emotion’ and ‘gender’ that ranged across time, to show how those things have affected history writing at various points.

Each chapter has a focal text, one that Clark uses as an instrumental text (in a broad sense) to get at a particular idea. Which is precisely something that I’ve done in the classroom, and it works really beautifully in the book to draw out and illustrate particular ideas. It’s a really great way of managing the flow of the chapters.

… it’s just really great. I think it serves as a good, thoughtful introduction to how Australian History has been written, thought about, and itself produced the Australia we live in today. Clark uses the ‘whispers’ and alternate texts and sometimes things that haven’t always been considered as history to give a sense of just what can be meant by ‘Australian history’. You don’t need an in-depth knowledge of history, or historical theory, to enjoy this – although you do need to be prepared to really think about the ideas being presented.

Growing Up Weightless, John M Ford

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. The re-published edition, from Tor Books, is out in September 2022.

Honestly this book really shouldn’t work. It’s so full of lacunae it was like reading the second or third book in a series and not having the information to fill in the gaps. Another issue is the formatting, although I suspect that’s a matter of it being an e-ARC: there are sections where the POV suddenly changes but it’s not indicated by an extended break or anything like that. And if that’s an artistic choice rather than a formatting thing… well, I don’t particularly like it, but it did make me work harder and pay probably closer attention, so maybe that’s what Ford wanted for me. And thirdly, it’s not exactly a grand story. No explosions, no dramatic twists of fate for society, no incredible revelations.

And yet.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.

It’s not a grand story: it’s an intimate one, a growing-up story – as the title suggest, ‘growing up weightless’: it’s set on the moon, not all that far into the future but far enough that there’s a settled, indeed governmentally independent, colony. And as children have done since time immemorial, some of the children of the moon are unsettled, feeling like they don’t fit in and want more/different/other. And they’re also playing games: surprisingly substantial parts of this story are the kids playing a role-playing game, as outlaws in Sherwood Forest (do I love the idea that this milieu could continue to be attractive for coming generations? yes I do).

Matt, the main character, is born into an important luna family, and is feeling the pressure to figure out what he’ll do as an adult; he basically knows, but he’s afraid to tell anyone else. He loves his friends, and acting, and the role-playing game they’ve had going for many hours now; his relationship with his family is a bit fraught. The moon is somewhere that teens can travel around quite safely, especially within their own domes; there’s excellent train networks, so you can travel between domes too – and so they do. This is pretty much how the main action happens, such as it is. This is, on reflection, a fairly claustrophobic story, as befits one set on the moon.

Along – or perhaps slightly behind – Matt’s story is his father’s, and this is where even more lacunae exist. Albin’s relationships with various figures, the decisions that need to be made for the moon’s future, even how he feels about anyone – all of this is very shadowy. Which mirrors how Matt feels about his father, really, so again maybe that really makes sense and I’m only realising as I write this just how clever and deliberate Ford was.

It probably shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and I am once again grateful that Tor is re-publishing Ford’s work, so that people like me get to appreciate it.

The Atlas Paradox, Olivie Blake

Read courtesy of NetGalley; it’s due out in October 2022.

This review will have some spoilers for the first book, The Atlas Six. And you really need to read the first one. Do not come to this with no prior knowledge.

This is an example of one of those books where very quickly I am pretty sick of the bullsh!t of every single character, impatient with their childishness and arrogance and lack of ability to see beyond their own selfishness… and yet I kept reading. Partly for the characters – I like Libby (and let’s not analyse that particular sentiment), and to my amusement I like Nico, and of course I like Gideon; Reina I am intrigued by. The others I find very frustrating if occasionally intriguing. But I also keep reading because I just have no real idea where Blake is going with all of this. I don’t know whether the characters are going to actually come together, or not; whether they will work with Atlas, or not; whether the world is going to end, or not. And so despite my impatience and frustration – all, it must be said, indications that Blake is skilful at creating characters; I don’t tend to waste emotions on 2D characters – I devoured this book, and am now also impatient for the third book. This situation cannot be left where it is and I need to know how it resolves.

So the book opens with Libby gone, her colleagues initially assuming she’s dead and then realising that she’s just… gone. Using his abilities, Ezra has dropped her in the past, hoping to save her or save the world or… honestly who really knows, Ezra is so messed up. The others, back in the Library mansion, are meant to spend their year doing basically an Honours project, researching their own thing. As may be of little surprise to those who’ve read the first, mostly they just don’t bother because have you ever met another group of incredibly smart people who collectively had so little interest in actually doing the work they’re expected to do? Reina is not included in that indictment. And I guess Nico isn’t either but he’s Nico, and like all the others is definitely running to his own agenda. It will also come as no surprise that things go badly for pretty much everyone at different stages of the story. They don’t cope very well with that.

There’s an enormous depth, here: Blake hints at a lot with Atlas, and with Dalton, and with Reina and Parisa in particular. There’s also terrifying potential for what could eventually occur. Both of these novels have been very well-paced; Blake uses the multiple-narrator mode beautifully to explore the variety of characters and give hints at what’s in their brains. I think, actually, that it’s using that format which makes these novels so very compelling.

Enclave, by Claire G Coleman

I received this from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost.

If you’ve read Terra Nullius or The Old Lie, by Coleman, then I heartily recommend the same strategy as I used: just read the book. Don’t read this review, don’t read the blurb. You already have a sense of how Coleman writes, and what Coleman writes. The first two were very different, but you know how they’re similar; this is also very different, but it’s clearly a Coleman novel. If you were staggered by those first novels, then you really don’t need to anything else other than: it’s a new Coleman novel.

Still with me? Haven’t read either of the first two (but now you know you should because they’re amazing), or somehow not sure about this one? Christine lives in a walled city with no contact with the outside world. Everyone knows that the outside world is terrifying, full of violence and bad things; unlike their city, which is calm and peaceful and carefully surveilled for any trouble. Everyone who lives inside this city is white; the bussed-in servants are brown, but they’re nameless and just go about making houses liveable. Christine isn’t entirely happy – her best friend is missing and she doesn’t know what to do – and then does something unforgivable, and then everything changes.

It’s fantastic.

Bootstrap, by Georgina Young

Received from the publisher, Text, at no cost. It’s out on 19 July 2022, $32.99.

As a time travel/ romance set in Australia, this book is fine. A pretty slow start – there’s a lot of setting up of the small town and the two main characters – but the second 2/3 is pretty well paced. There are some quirky ideas, the characters are believable (and recognisable, for Australians at least), and it’s… fine.

Yes, I know that sounds like damning with faint praise. And it is fine! Truly! I didn’t mind reading it! But… it’s not outstanding. Sadly. For a YA audience that’s not read many time travel stories; or for Australians who have never seen themselves on the page before, maybe it would be different? I don’t know.

I have a couple of issues with the book. The first is with the blurb writer – note, please, NOT with the author. The book itself literally references The Time Traveller’s Wife. So when the blurb calls this a “genre-bending” novel? No, it’s not. Jonathan Strahan’s new anthology is literally Someone In Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance. So time-travel and romance isn’t new. Even making it queer doesn’t make it new.

The second issue is the language. It’s very Australian. In fact, I would go so far as to call this excruciatingly Australian. I am a big fan of stories being told in the vernacular, but this felt like the author had first written the story in more generic English and then went back and switched everything to the most ocker she possibly could. For instance: “I get a schnozz full of water” (138), “I wanna touch him” (140), “And it’s like finally, ya nong” (144) and so on. Piles of Aussie slang (logs in the toilet) and references to Australian brands (Lemon Fresh, a man eating a Barney Banana ice cream “shoulda gone a chocolate Paddle Pop, idiot” (58). It just ends up feeling like the author is trying too hard. But maybe I’ve become an elitist and I don’t appreciate what kids in small towns really want to read. So if this works for those kids, awesome! It just means I’m not the right audience, and I’m fine with that.

The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November, 2022.

As a Jill-of-all-trades when it comes to history, I feel like “the Mongols” is one of those topics that a lot of people have vague ideas about but don’t really know what they’re talking about, or any details at all. Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, greatest land empire of all time… done.

Yeah. This book has made an enormous difference to the way I see the Mongols as a group, as an empire, as an historical force.

In his Introduction, Morton promises “a multi-perspective history of the Mongol invasions constructed from many different viewpoints”. And that’s definitely what the book delivers, as the way that the movement of Mongol troops – in and out of territory, sometimes staying, sometimes just installing new leadership after dismantling entire areas – impacts on a variety of pre-existing governments. The thing that surprised me is just WHERE that is happening… because it’s the “Near/Middle East” (which is a stupid term for an Australian to use, but there we go). The book is focussed on how the Mongols impact on everything from Egypt, through the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, to Byzantium, and to Syria and Georgia and Armenia. I don’t quite know where I thought the focus would be – I knew the Mongols had briefly penetrated Europe and made everyone crap their pants – but this was not it. And the thing is, the Mongols are a significant force for DECADES. There are events in this history – across the 13th and into the 14th centuries – that I already knew but that I had NO IDEA were at least partly as a result of the pressure coming from the east, via the Mongols: either directly because of the Mongols’ actions, or because of the movement of people driven out by the Mongols (directly or through fear). How is it I had no idea of this?? I’m going to say it’s at least partly racism, and also partly the occasionally narrow focus of some histories – in trying to narrow down the historical story, some things get chopped. (Rant could be inserted here about how choices are made, etc… but I’ll spare my reader.)

One of the slightly odd parts of this book is that it is NOT as focussed as I had expected. There’s entire sections about the politics of the Franks in Jerusalem and the Crusader States… with no apparently connection to the Mongols. Morton gets there eventually, but it does sometimes feel like there’s a lot of extraneous detail that wasn’t required to actually understand the point of the book – the Mongols. Not that I didn’t enjoy the detail! It just wasn’t necessary.

Obviously, I learned an enormous amount from this book. About the Mongols themselves – how they were organised, how they viewed themselves (as having a mandate from heaven to rule, and that all religions were fine because they were all subsumed within their own), and how they dealt with subject people. I also learned a huge amount about what was going on in Egypt around the period of the Mamluks coming to power, and to the east I finally learned something about Georgia and Armenia, which hadn’t previously come across my radar in this period. Also more about the Crusader States, and generally how all of these states interacted with each other. Which is also something that I feel like has been missing from my knowledge here. Of course rulers were in contact, of course they were making deals and alliances, including across religious and ethnic lines… but I don’t really kn0w about them.

The book itself is well-written. I found it engaging – perhaps because I was already invested in the general period and area. As with all such books, I did sometimes find the names hard to follow… if only everyone in the past had differentiated their names more (did there need to be more than one Bohemond?). Morton has structured the book well, largely chronologically and within that, geographically. There are also some useful maps that make locating the changing circumstances of the various polities easier. Overall, definitely a good addition to my understanding of the world.

The Genesis of Misery, Neon Yang

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out at the end of September, 2022 (sorry; I promise it’s worth waiting for).

WHAT DID I JUST READ AND WHERE CAN I GET MORE OF IT?

… actually, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing else quite like this. (Dare I hope to add ‘yet’?)

This was just… so much. So great and so complex and so enthralling. So fast-paced and so intricate. So many genders and so many alliances and betrayals and things-aren’t-as-they-seem; so many space battles. Also angels and messiahs and heretics and possibly divine intervention. Also an irritable and foul-mouthed protagonist who is out for the main chance and whom some people think might just be the path to salvation. Of some sort.

Where do I even begin? The story starts with one person (probably human) asking another (not human, taking many different shapes throughout the conversation) for ‘the story of Misery Nomaki’ – and what follows is that story, with all the narrator’s caveats about truth and consequence and revelation all being problematic. At the start of that story, Misery (she/they) is having a bad time, trying to make her way through a very large space station; she’s able to manipulate any holystone she comes across, which is useful, but that doesn’t necessarily help when you’re stuck in a warren of tunnels and don’t know where you’re going. Her delusion, Ruin, isn’t being of any help, and there are weird all-white, maybe-cloned saints that are freaking her out.

… and it just gets more quirky, and more clever, and more intricate, from there. Fighting princesses, treachery, giant battle mechs. Zero clear explanation of ‘holystone’ – holy obsidian, holy jasper, and so on – but some very tantalising hints; no real explanation of how saints actually happen, except that somehow they can live on starlight alone? Sometimes an author’s expectation that you’ll just go along with whatever whacky things they’ve created for their new world is overwhelming or irritating or enough to make a book Too Much Work. Not so here: there’s just enough explanation to make everything hang together – surely you don’t need saints explained, this is what they’re doing! – and the writing is so gripping, and Misery so enticing, that explanations can wait; I need to know what’s happening next RIGHT NOW.

Everything about this book worked for me.

Finally, something I’ve seen a couple of people mention that to me, at least, is a bit of a spoiler (in an odd way), but may be just what someone else needs in order to read this… it’s an historical thing that the story seems to be inspired by (I haven’t read confirmation of that, but it does make sense)… only read on if you’re now intrigued!

Continue reading →

Budapest: Between East and West

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.

Things I knew about Budapest before reading this: it used to be two towns, and pictures of Soviet tanks in the streets in 1956. I think that’s about it, really.

An intriguing aspect of this book is that it’s written by a man born in Budapest, whose family fled Hungary when he was a child. Sebestyen makes no secret of this, and of his connection to the country and the city. So there’s a mix of ‘objective’ history, and also the occasional mention of how things relate to him personally. I like this kind of honesty a lot.

One annoying aspect – and this might just be a personal gripe – isn’t peculiar to Sebestyen, and is at least partly a reflection of the historical record (and my personal preferences). The book begins with a very brief look at what is known of the area around Budapest from pre-history, and then moves to what the Romans did. There’s barely a discussion of Attila and the Huns. By p30 we’re up to the year 1000. p109 and we’re already at 1800 and at p272 it’s the accommodation between Hungary and Hitler’s Germany. The book is 377 pages long. While I know that there’s a lot more evidence for the alter centuries, it always makes me despair that history is given such an unbalanced presentation. As if the modern world is the only bit worth discussing. Sigh.

Despite this preponderance of modern history, Sebestyen does give a good overview of the history of Budapest – as Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in the front cover quotation., it’s really a history of Central Europe. You can hardly have a history of the city without discussing the history of (what is now) the country; and in this particular case, at least some of what was happening in Austria for a few centuries. And so I learned more about the Turkish occupation, as well as how the Habsburgs managed to create Austria-Hungary as a dual monarchy; and of course the role of Hungary in both world wars and then as part of the Soviet bloc.

The story is largely told chronologically, with occasional chapter breaks about particular themes – one in particular that stood out was about the role of the Jewish population in the city. I had no idea that Hungary had been something of a haven for European Jews, although they were still not safe from the occasional pogrom (because anti-Semitism is apparently just too easy). The way that Jews stood outside of the feudal system, basically – and the incredibly bizarre way Hungarian feudalism was structured, with a massive number of nobles who refused to get into trade or anything similar – meaning that Jewish artisans and traders filled that niche.

This book fits into a tradition of using city histories as a way of looking at changes over time, to everything from culture and tradition to language and politics and everything else. The sub-title is pointed, here: part of Sebestyen’s argument is that Hungary doesn’t really fit into the way Europe sees itself, and doesn’t particularly fit elsewhere either. (The story of Hungarian as a language, and the efforts to revive and develop it, is a particularly fascinating part of the book.)

Thoroughly enjoyable.

An Open Door: New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November 2022.

An anthology of travel and place writing published in the context of the pandemic? And one that’s not just all sentimentality about things from the before-time? And that’s starting from, sometimes going to, Wales? These are excellent things.

A sad thing is that this anthology was prompted by the death of Jan Morris, which I hadn’t heard about. I haven’t read much of Morris’ work but her little book focusing on Wales and her home there is absolutely captivating.

All of the authors here have a connection to Wales – some born there, some moving there. But not all of the essays are about Wales. Instead, there’s Brazil and Somalia, Venice and Paris and Japan, and Sapelo Island as well. Sometimes it’s because of partners from elsewhere, sometimes family who have migrated. Sometimes they offer reflections on one particular moment in a life, and sometimes reflections from a generation of experience and change. There are, of course, also essays set in Wales: like one about find green space to be calm and solitary while in a wheelchair; another about following the pilgrim way in the north on foot.

I don’t know anthologies like this very well, so it’s depressing although not surprising to learn that the range of authors – that they are not all male and able-bodied and white and young-but-mature – is something worth noting. It is, of course, the more enjoyable for this diversity of voices.

This was a delightful set of essays, and an example of how broad ‘travel writing’ can be. I hadn’t come across the idea of ‘place writing’ before reading the introduction but it occurs to me that that is, in fact, often what I enjoy reading. There are some wonderful examples of that genre here, as well as travel. And while it did make me slightly nostalgic for travel in the before times, that reality is different now – pandemic and climate change both contributing, not to mention political climate. I probably should look out for more books like this.