Tag Archives: books

Forces of Nature

I received this book via NetGalley.

I’m a bit conflicted by this book.

On the one hand, it’s a pretty great introduction to women in science – and the fact that women have ALWAYS been “in science”, they’ve just been obscured (deliberately or not) on a personal level or an institutional one; by which I mean, “science” has been constructed as a discipline in order to leave the ladies out (eg midwifery isn’t really medicine). Recovering the presence of women is always good.

I LOVE that Marie Curie isn’t mentioned until the last chapter. Seriously: the authors make this choice an explicit one, explaining that she gets used as the exemplar and that’s not useful (and also people ignore a whole bunch of facts about her, too).

I liked that the authors aimed to go back to ancient women, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence (because patriarchy AND because time); they make a good case for ways in which ancient women would have been involved in scientific endeavour.

On the other hand…
I wasn’t always sure whether the authors were picking women as examples, or if they thought they were being exhaustive. If the latter, then they didn’t succeed – and surely they weren’t trying for that in a book intended for the general reading public – but I would have felt more comfortable if they had been clearer about their decision-making paradigms.

There were some sweeping statements about “women” and their access to education/lack thereof. Very occasionally there were comments about how class also interacted with gender – but I felt there was a serious lack of this latter point. Class had a HUGE impact on access to time, let alone equipment; this intersection should have been made much more obvious. As well, other discussions about women’s involvement in science has pointed out that gentlemen-scientists, for instance, often had female servants assisting; that’s not discussed here.

Occasionally, the authors do not walk the line I think they intend to. For instance, when Western Europe experiences a craze for natural history and botany, the latter in particular is seen as appropriate for women to be involved in, for various reasons. The authors point out that it was thought women were closer to nature, and therefore had an affinity for botany… and then seem to suggest that women really were better at botany? I was a bit confused about what the authors thought they were doing here.

This is, too, an overwhelmingly European (and eventually American, largely still of European descent) book. Not exclusively – there is mention of women in ancient Egypt (of course; that’s basically European in the way it’s often discussed!), and women medical practitioners in ancient China. There’s a Japanese scientist in the 20th century who did awesome things regarding ocean currents and nuclear fallout, a woman of mixed Irish/Mexican ancestry who was an archaeologist, and a few others. I would have liked to see an acknowledgement that evidence is overwhelming white, because colonialism (in Europe and America) and because… lack of access, or something? for Asia. Africa, South America, Australia…

I got whiplash when the discussion leapt from Algoanice, living in probably the first century BCE, to Hildegard, who was born in 1098 CE.

As a way of enlarging your understanding of women’s place in science over time, this is a fine place to start, as long as you remember the caveats about class and race.

The Bookseller of Florence

This is one of the best history books I’ve read in years.

It’s written superbly. The language is a delight – but not so clever or lyrical that it gets hard to read. The pace is just right, and the level of detail is an absolute delight: the right balance of fascinating without getting into ridiculous minutiae.

It’s wonderfully historical: it uses primary sources and historians to make arguments and illustrate points, and they’re all woven within the story seamlessly. It uses endnotes, so you don’t have footnotes cluttering the page but you still have the reassurance that the author has done the research!

It illuminates (heh) the context magnificently. The Renaissance, Italy, and Florence are really not my scene, beyond knowing a few names (Medici, Borgia. – and Sforza for some reason?). The author sets the general scene for all three so that I felt completely comfortable going in. The book is ostensibly about Vespasiona, the “king of booksellers”, who started as a fairly uneducated boy working in a book binder’s in Florence and became the man who could either track down a manuscript or have a beautiful new one made for you – where “you” could be a wealthy-enough person in Florence or, like, the Pope (a few of whom he knew by name, hello). Beyond being a biography, though (which would have been fascinating but not that long because info about his early life is lacking) this is almost a biography of TEXTS, as objects and sources of knowledge, in this crucial moment – the 15th century. Why was it crucial? Well, a bunch of ancient Greek texts were being rediscovered and translated – especially Plato, who was being brought into the Christian fold as Aristotle was two centuries before. There were changes in the way knowledge itself was perceived, and an increase in the number of people (let’s be honest, basically men, but still) who were chatting/arguing/ getting fiery about various bits of knowledge. OH, and THEN, Gutenberg and his crazy weird moveable type (NOT first invented by him, of course, that was happening over in Asia already, and the author acknowledges that) comes along. The way the author contextualises that, and discusses the stats about book publication (mss numbers rose when print came along – probably because of increasing literacy) – it’s all just an absolute delight.

The book balances political history, social history, and a bit of economic history to make a thoroughly well-rounded examination of the period. And it still manages to revolve around this one man, Vespasiano, who coordinated the production of beautiful books and magnificent libraries, who became an author himself in old age, and was probably a bit of a cranky old man about those new-fangled print books.

Gosh I loved this book.

Beginning French…

No, I am not learning French. I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

One of the reviews at the start of this book said “Move over, Peter Mayle” – as in the author of A Year in Provence.

To which I can only say: uh, no.

Look, this is an enjoyable enough story. I’ve just watched several episodes of a show where people buy a French chateau and renovate it, so clearly I like the genre of doing things like that. But the thing that Mayle did was very clearly situate himself within his village: while he takes part in many of the amusing adventures he recounts, he’s not necessarily the focus. Mayle makes it clear how much he loves the place and the people.

Now, Les Americains are admittedly different because they don’t live in their house; they come for maybe a couple of months a year. But the people they mostly interact with are other foreigners (a lack of French is a problem here, too), and the focus of the book is the relationship of the couple, and their own personal experience. It’s just not the same as trying to explain or explore a village to a readership who will never get to live there.

There’s also a “Lunch in Paris” vibe where the couple’s daughter, a chef, provides recipes for some of the food they eat. This is a nice aspect but the food never felt quite central enough to the story to make this feel like a compelling addition.

Did I finish the book? yes. Am I dying for more information about how this couple spends their holidays? No. And it might just be me but I find it hard to take seriously anyone who takes their pet overseas, and then acts like the pet is a human.

The Album of Dr Moreau

I received this as an ARC courtesy of NetGalley.

This novella has gone straight to my “Possible 2022 Hugo Awards nominees” list.

Actually the first thing I should admit is that I don’t think I’ve ever read The Island of Dr Moreau, so if Gregory is doing anything more clever than the sorts of things you can pick up with a general understanding of the story (and he probably is), then I missed it and I’m sorry about that. HOWEVER, this does mean that you don’t have to know what the author is riffing off in order to appreciate this as a deeply funny, deeply interesting, and generally wacky story.

There’s a lot going on in not many pages.

It’s a detective story: there’s been a murder, and it needs to be investigated, and it is. Despite TS Eliot’s rules of detective stories.

It’s framed as a story being told to someone who knows bits but not all of a story. The narrator occasionally intervenes.

It’s definitely science fiction: after all, the members of the band that it revolves around are human-animal hybrids. And what a band they are.

It’s about music, and I’ve had Backstreet Boys stuck in my head half the day, THANKS FOR NOTHING GREGORY.

It’s about family and love and loss and identity and humanity. Stereotypes and terrible puns and growing beyond your childhood. Also, Las Vegas and fandom.

This story is one hell of a ride. I loved every minute of it, even when it made me feel a bit confused (that got cured), or sad (that didn’t). You should definitely read it.

Scourge of Henry VIII: the Life of Marie de Guise

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I am ambivalent about this book.

The good things:

  • Reclaim the women! I am always in favour of a book that highlights a woman who has either been forgotten, or whom history has portrayed in an unfavourable-because-patriarchy light. This book largely does that, going into details about Marie’s life, highlighting the reasons for the decisions that she made as well as the importance of those actions, not just her womb. These are really important things.
  • It’s accessible. This is intended for a general readership: there are no footnotes, it opens with a list of people the reader can refer back to when the titles etc get to be too much, and it usually balances complex foreign policy decision-making with ease of reading.

The slightly uncomfortable things:

  • The lack of footnotes etc means it’s not the most detailed of historical research: there’s not that many primary sources directly used, and no other historians are referenced, which makes me a bit queasy.
  • There are some editing mistakes. Sentences that lack of a primary verb, probably because there are so many clauses that it’s easy to get lost; sentences where it’s unclear whether one person with multiple titles, or several different people, are being discussed.
  • Marie’s apparently deliberately decision to remain single after James V’s death is lamented as sad for a woman in her 30s. But… she’s a widow twice over, she has the disastrous example of her mother-in-law to show how badly things can go for a widowed queen with an infant monarch. Why couldn’t this be a sensible political choice? Why couldn’t this be a relief to a woman whose life has been tied to the idea of marriage for more than two decades, usually not at her own decision? No evidence to suggest that she regretted this, and so… attributing emotions is a fraught business. It shouldn’t be done.

The negative things:

  • At one point, Clegg describes Marie’s daughter Mary as having various ailments, and suggests they may be dismissed as nothing more than an anxiety related disorder. Uh. That’s… not good.
  • The way Marie’s whole life is framed around men. Now I understand that to some extent, with the biography of a powerful woman in the sixteenth century this is unavoidable; her male relations were always going to play a huge part, especially early on, and any husband likewise. However, it felt like a lot of space was spent on men and their doings, sometimes only tangentially connected to Marie’s life. Perhaps this was for added context, but it just served to detract from making Marie the focus. The greatest example of this is the title. In a book of nearly 220 pages, Henry VIII dies on p140. Marie was on a list of possible wives but got away; she got in his way to some extent around the issue of young Mary marrying Prince Edward… but to call her the Scourge of Henry VIII is ridiculous. I guess it made a good title? But I was expecting to discover that she had actively, and over a long period, skewered Henry’s ambitions in the north. Yeh not so much.

Look, overall, for people wanting to find out more about Marie of Guise, this isn’t a bad option – not bad at all, in fact. Just beware that it’s by no means perfect.

Peel Me a Lotus

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

You don’t HAVE to read Mermaid Singing, the first of Clift’s memoirs about living on a Greek island in the 1950s, in order to understand what’s going on here; not least because they’ve moved islands, so it’s a whole new crowd of people. But I think it helps, because you come with a sense of what Clift and her husband George Johnston have already experienced, why they left London, and thus can better appreciate their experiences.

Like Mermaid Singing, this is a “domesticity in the exotic” story – Clift and her family living now on Hydra, a small, largely poor Greek island, on the cusp on becoming A Destination for the Artistic, the Beautiful, and the Hangers-On. Clift and her husband/collaborator have bought a house, which brings with it large dollops of angst: partly because of the never-ending requirement for repairs, on a budget that’s basically nonexistent; and partly because now they are settled, they are halfway back to being bourgeois, and many of their fellow Artistic Types can’t figure out if they’re jealous or derisive. Both, it seems.

Unlike Mermaid Singing, Clift is much more ambivalent here about the whole experience: both her own experience, and what island life is like. While in the first she and George are actively writing a novel together about the sponge divers, here she seems to be entirely consumed with looking after the house and the children – indeed, she is hugely pregnant as the book opens, an experience which understandably consumes a significant part of her mind and time. George gets to clatter away at the typewriters, but Clift is busy buying food, making dinner, caring for the baby and the other two children, and so on. Sometimes she seems content with this, and at other times deeply frustrated, worried she is merging into that always-has-been, always-will-be experience of motherhood that she sees all around her. So… a fairly familiar experience, no doubt, for many women who find motherhood a time of personal conflict.

Island life bounces between the seeming idyllic – the beach swim every afternoon, cheap and bountiful food, glorious landscape, interesting if infuriating neighbours (usually it’s the foreigners who are infuriating) – and its opposite. There’s hardly any water to be had in summer. Many people’s health is poor, there are huge prowling alley cats, rubbish is dumped directly into the harbour and no one knows where the sewers drain. Clift doesn’t shy away from the negatives, and also makes little effort to reconcile the two extremes; it’s the reality of life, after all.

A lot of time is spent talking about the other foreigners, for whom she uses pseudonyms, and it’s probably a good thing she did. Having read the introduction, though, it seems their identities are – were? – no secret; Henry and Ursula are Sidney Nolan and his wife Cynthia. Clift presents the various non-Greeks as looking for inspiration or pretending to do so, living dissolutely because they can afford to; some of them are getting allowances from parents, for instance, so they barely even need to dabble in their art. Not so for Clift and Johnston, who are trying to eke out a living on royalties. I don’t even want to look up Hydra today, for fear it’s exactly as Clift prophesied – fancy tourist hotels for the Beautiful People – which may or may not have had positive benefits for the people whose ancestors initially colonised the place.

In some ways I can’t believe this book is more than 60 years old. Parts of it show what feels like a very modern sensibility, while other bits are clearly products of the 1950s. It’s gorgeously, evocatively, provocatively written and I hope lots of people get to read it.

The Dictionary of Lost Words

It really annoys me when people say ‘this book isn’t what I expected’ and then write a negative review as if it’s the books fault that the reader had the wrong impression.

This book isn’t what I expected.

My review isn’t a negative one, but I do want to explain what I expected, in case others are similarly misled.

I thought this book was predominantly about words, and lost words, and gendered language. I expected the narrative to be driven by words and for them to be centre stage, or that they would somehow frame the narrative.

Books, and the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, are indeed important to the story. But words do not drive or frame the narrative. Esme, the main character, grows up around the men compiling the OED and herself becomes involved in that; she does find and compile ‘lost words’, in the varied senses of that phrase. The story, though, is the story of Esme as a young white English woman at the turn of the 20th century, and her experiences: with the OED, of sexism, of the women’s suffrage movement, of loss and love and friendship. She uses the words she finds to help navigate the world; she learns words from people of different classes in an effort to validate the existence of all words; and sometimes, of course, words are useless. Contrary to my expectations, words are secondary to the biography of Esme.

Having said all of that, this is a lovely novel. Williams writes beautifully, she does use the idea of words as gendered in interesting and meaningful ways, and Esme is of course living in a fascinating era. I wasn’t expecting the suffrage issue to be as significant as it turned out to be: I already know a lot about this as an issue, but for someone coming to it with little knowledge, this is a pretty great introduction to the actions (and words) of the suffragettes, and those who were opposed to their means.

You might notice that I don’t read a whole lot of realist fiction. When I do, I want it to do something interesting and clever and make me think. I have thought about gendered language, and about the gatekeepers of knowledge and language, so for me the ideas weren’t brand new. They are, though, presented in a deeply engaging manner, with neat intersections between ideas and with sympathy for different perspectives. I really enjoyed it.

Mermaid Singing

I had thought that I liked travel memoirs. And I do – I can enjoy a good ‘and then we went here and experienced that’ story. But I’ve eventually realised that what I really enjoy is what I choose to call ‘domesticity in the exotic’. Exotic is a loaded word, but I use it here to evoke a sense of difference that I don’t think ‘foreign’ really captures; and I’m just as including a Brazilian or Nigerian writing about moving to Melbourne as I am a Londoner moving to Provence (I think Romulus, My Father arguably fits neatly into my category).

Before A Year in Provence or Under a Tuscan Sun came Mermaid Singing, by Australian Charmian Clift.

I read this book thanks to NetGalley. I’m incredibly pleased that it’s been republished.

Its most obvious parallel is My Family and Other Animals, and the rest of the Corfu Trilogy. Indeed, they were originally published in the same year, 1956. But ‘parallel’ is right: they seem to start similarly and go in the same direction – family moves impetuously to Greek island, experiences with Greek locals don’t always go as expected, genteel poverty etc – but they are fundamentally separated stories. Where My Family is written two decades after the events, Mermaid is contemporaneous. Where Durrell was the spoilt youngest son of the family and was off having adventures and occasionally going to school, Clift is a writer and a mother and a wife; while she has adventures, they’re not the focus, because she has the cares and concerns of an adult: both for her own family and the way she views the people around them.

My Family is a fond recollection of a childhood dream, /something something the world before World War 2 blah blah. Mermaid Singing is part ‘domesticity in the exotic’, but also a rumination on the hardship of Kalymnos life, and the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950s trying to forge and continue a career alongside motherhood.

Clift writes beautifully, and evocatively. Kalymnos is an island that largely relies on about 10% of its population going out on sponge-diving expeditions for 7 months of the year – a dangerous occupation and one that’s bringing back less revenue as, in the 50s, artificial sponges are taking over the market. It’s also an island still, in Clift’s experience, in the grip of patriarchal attitudes (and Clift herself is part of this as she notes she has no right to comment on whether someone has beaten his wife at the end of a drunken week). The whole reason for moving here is for Clift and her husband to collaborate on their third novel, this one to be about the sponge-divers. And they do manage to do this, in between drinking a lot of retzina and being closely observed by all their neighbours and seemingly endless rounds of engagements and baptisms.

This is no day-by-day account of life. Like A Year in Provence it follows a year, observing the changes to life as the seasons come and go. Clift observes moments: a friend giving birth, experiences in the taverna, the experiences of her two children during Carnival…. As a gifted writer, she uses these moments to reflect on life itself – and death; and she conjures a wondrous view of Kalymnos. Is this likely to reflect the lives of the people who lived there their whole lives? Perhaps not. Perhaps they would recognise some aspect of their lives but be confused by an emphasis or examination. It does seem like a genuine reflection of Clift’s experience – an an ex-pat Australian, a writer, a woman who didn’t quite fit the expected mould of womanhood on the island.

I’m inspired to buy this in hard copy if I come across it.

The Best Thing you can steal

I received this book from the publisher at no cost, via NetGalley.

If you have read any of Simon R Green’s Nightsider books, or his Hawk and Fisher, then you already have a sense of what this book is like. Whether you enjoy that or not is a different matter – Green has a definite style, and it’s on display here. (There’s a level to which it’s true of the Deathstalker books, too, although they have a whole other thing going on as well.)

Green’s style happens to work very well for me, as a rule, now that I know what to expect. Witty banter, cheerful playing with tropes, a courteous if shallow nod to the notion of substance, with a narrative that’s mostly flash and style in a “I’m fabulous and loving it” way. It’s not quite textual candy floss – there’s a bit more substance than that – but maybe it’s… candied peanuts. Tasty, some nutrition, pretty sweet, and even I can’t eat toooo many of them at a time. But I love it when I do have them. (And some people hate them.)

This book is a heist story and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Characters literally call it a heist and the section headings do too. So you know what you’re getting, and it delivers. The first part, therefore, is getting the team together, which is often my favourite part of such stories. Our narrator is now called Gideon Sable – we don’t know who he used to be. His first recruit is Annie Anybody, master of disguise (who, I now realise, is therefore much like Face in the A-Team) who is also Sable’s ex, which of course is going to lead to some tension. Then there’s a Ghost – who is actually a ghost; the Damned (… who, I now realise, is something like BA… in the A-Team…), who is damned for a dreadful misdeed but is spending his remaining time on earth killing bad people just to stick it to Hell; and Johnny Wilde (…who is… a lot… like Murdoch…), aka the Wild Card, who does terrifying things to reality.

(I’ll just stop here and think about the A-Team similarity. Sable doesn’t smoke a cigar and there’s no tanks; I don’t think this is actually deliberate. It’s just that those tropes – disguise, muscle, the spanner in the works – are exactly that; tropes, and useful ones at that.)

Team gets together, team plans heist, team attempts heist, hijinks ensue. The fun thing with a relatively standard narrative is knowing what to expect, AND the ways the author gets to spin expectations – and with Green, have fun and do ridiculous things along the way. Because, as this is Green, it is of course no ordinary setting: this is the magical side of London (a well-traveled path, I know), which means objects that defy reality and people with terrifying abilities and a ball point pen that can stop time (only briefly though).

This is a fun book. At times silly, always fast-paced, it’s also short at about 160 pages in my e-copy – so there’s no mucking around.

Fugitive Telemetry

This book was provided by the publisher at no cost.

I’ll be honest – it would be hard for me to give a completely objective review of this novella, because basically Murderbot can do no wrong.

Important thing to note: I really don’t think it’s worth coming to this book as your first Murderbot experience. In the first place, reading all of Murderbot in chronological order is just such an enormously rewarding endeavour that why would you not? (I’m so embarrassed it took me until this year to tell my mother to read these stories.) Secondly, of course, this is the sixth book: there’s so much character development, and narrative, that is alluded to here – you’d be doing yourself a complete disservice.

So. Read Murderbot. Of course.

This story actually isn’t the the one I was expecting; I had thought we were getting Murderbot and ART hanging out being snarky. Not that I’m complaining! All Murderbot is good Murderbot. Instead, we’ve got Murderbot on Preservation Station, being Dr Mensah’s protection, and kinda accidentally ending up as part of a murder investigation team (which it totally didn’t do, and you know that’s true because if it had, it would have done a way better job of hiding the evidence). As usual with a Murderbot story, we get a sometimes-hilarious look at a Security Unit’s impression of human security measures (very poor), its intense dislike of human interactions, and a longing to just be left alone to (re)watch Sanctuary Moon (relatable). There’s snark, and the figuring out of whodunnit, and some grudging personal reflection that Murderbot would honestly rather do without. Also the odd fight and some relationship-building that eventually works out okay.

Murderbot continues to be one of the great AIs of modern fiction. Its deep commitment to keeping up with its preferred media, its irritation at human foibles, and its exasperated habit of looking out for hapless humans make it deeply relatable in a way that it would surely find deeply offensive. I would read Murderbot’s reviews of Sanctuary Moon, I would read Murderbot doing routine security patrols, and I would read Murderbot inter-bot snark until the cows come home.