Tag Archives: books

The Ra Expeditions, by Thor Heyerdahl

I read Kon-Tiki a while back, because I love a travel adventure story. I discovered then that Heyerdahl’s theories about white bearded men civilising South America (a millennia or more before the Spaniards arrived) and that they could be the ones who colonised Polynesia were… um… problematic. I bought The Ra Expeditions before I knew that. I have chosen still to read it because I was interested to see exactly how he would go about tying ancient Egypt into these racial theories about just who settled and civilised where, and also because I wondered whether his ability to tell a good adventure story was a one off. Please keep in mind that I am an over-educated middle class white lady with a lot of historical knowledge and a sufficient amount of knowledge about literary theory, narrative structure, and so on that a) I wasn’t directly in the firing line of Heyerdahl’s period-appropriate (?) racism, b) I was able to read this critically in terms of history and construction. I have the same reservations about this book as I did about Kon-Tiki: it is a genuinely exciting adventure story, because getting to the point of building a reed boat to carry seven men (!) across the Atlantic (!!) is incredible; it’s also chock-full of problematic ideas about race and history. Personally, I found it fascinating to see what ideas existed in the 1950s about cultural dispersion etc, in the same way that reading about people laughing about plate tectonics or that there might be more to the universe than just our galaxy is fascinating. If you’re not in a place to read around the racist stuff – or you’re of Polynesian descent, or South American – then avoid this resolutely.

So the actual account of getting the boat ready – of finding places and people who still make reed boats, of getting everything together in one place (builders from Chad, reeds from elsewhere, and then setting up in the shadow of the Great Pyramids at Giza) is legit a fascinating story of who knows who, ambassadors helping out, meeting U Thant, and uh dodging border security at one point (not great). And as with Kon-Tiki, the story of life on board – the storms, the drama, learning how to actually sail the darn thing, the adventures of a baby monkey they were gifted (uh…) – it is all gripping stuff. I’m also impressed that in the mid-50s, they manage to have seven men from different parts of the world represented: from Chad, from Egypt, from northern Europe, southern Europe, South America, the USA, and a Russian. So that was impressive, although I do wonder whether they really did manage to be quite so idyllic in their political discussions. (Heyerdahl is open about there being occasional arguments about personal living space and so on, but is adamant that there were no religious or political arguments at all.)

What I would love to read is an expurgated version. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but the bits where he’s discussing “the diffusionist” view that somehow there was contact between Egypt and South America because all the points of cultural similarity are just too much to be coincidence, and that the (uh…) ‘savages’ who crossed the Bering Strait to the Americas couldn’t possibly have come up with pyramids etc themselves… yeh, those bits are just too old, now, and too hard to read. The adventure is still worth reading, though! Someone else should do the work to give me “the good bits version”.

I have the final Heyerdahl book to read, too, about the Tigris expedition, but I’m going to give myself a spacer before I read that.

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

IN THEORY, this book should be right up my alley. Agitating for women’s suffrage! in an alt world where witchcraft is real! but banned! and you Alexandra Pope and the Sisters Grimm! And I’d already read and loved Ten Thousand Doors of January.

… but when I started it, pretty soon after it came out, I bounced right off. It was something about the jagged relationship between the sisters, I think (I have a sister. We’re fine, and always have been). I stopped after about 50 pages. But I didn’t give it away, because I really wanted to go back to it.

This year I want to get through my physical TBR, and so I went back to this. And this time, I did not bounce off (I had also been assured that the sisters’ relationships were more complex and became slightly less jagged than they are at first). And it is, absolutely, a gem of a book. I loved it. I loved all of the relationships, and the worldbuilding, and the gradual reveal of everything that’s going on, and the slight left twist from our world. The use of children’s rhymes and the reclaiming of “old wives’ tales”, the terrible cost and value of love, and everything else, frankly.

Simply wonderful.

High Times in the Low Parliament

Me, two chapters in: does ‘stoner’ mean something other than what I think it means? I’m confused.

*Keeps reading*

NEVER MIND.

A “lesbian stoner fantasy” set around an acrimonious European Parliament – dysfunctional thanks in large part to the Anglanders – with fairies who call humans ‘leggers’ and are more likely to pinch than party with them. This novella is hilarious.

If Parliament can’t make a decision, then the fairies are going to drown everyone involved – and as an Australian, I can tell you that the spiteful attitudes of the deputies, and their refusal to cooperate, all very much struck a chord. Enter Lana, a scribe with good penmanship and a winning way with the ladies, who gets dragooned into being the equivalent of Hansard. She spends a significant amount of time seeing bluebirds and flowers courtesy of various substances (it’s unclear whether these are illicit or not), makes some unlikely friends and, as the title suggests, has some high times in the parliamentary setting.

It’s not claiming to make big statements about the way politics or parliaments work, how to improve them, or how to get factions to stop being factions. It is a rollicking fun time with some very funny moments, some poignant ones, and a pace that left me breathless.

Fun times!

River Cottage: Great Salads

I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now.

So I’ve had this book in my kitchen for a few months now, and I just… keep not getting around to reviewing it. Obviously. And there are a few reasons for that. December and January were a hectic time for a variety of reasons, and although summer does mean salads I only used this a couple of times. Which leads into the other reason for why it’s taken me so long to review it: I haven’t been that inspired by it. That is, I like the idea of what this book is doing, but a lot of the specific recipes just… haven’t grabbed me. And I do think this is a me-thing, not the fault of the book.

Partly, I think it’s because this is a British book. There are ingredients in here that I either don’t know, that would be hard to get, or that I just don’t love. Buckwheat groats; gooseberries; chicory; kohlrabi… they’re not in everything, but I do find it off-putting when I browse through. So that’s one thing – a me-thing. I’m also not a massive fan of sweet things in salad, which is totally a me thing, and the idea of raspberries with tomato just seems appalling! Perhaps, too, I’ve just been a bit sluggish (heh) with salads lately. As I flick through, I am reminded that there really are salads in here that I would enjoy. So I should try them.

A few that I have tried, and really enjoyed:

  • Zucchini, toasted buckwheat, goat’s cheese and dill: didn’t use the buckwheat… don’t remember what I used instead, actually. Hmm. Hmm. Maybe chopped almonds? It was good, anyway. Zucchini and goat’s cheese FTW.
  • Fennel, celery and apple with creamy almond dressing. Delicious.
  • Barbecued leeks, spelt and sunflower seeds: BBQ leeks! So good. Again, didn’t use spelt; think I used barley instead.
  • Charred zucchini, broad beans, snow peas and fresh curds: the fresh curds made me impatient; I did it, but I wouldn’t do it again – didn’t think they lent anything much to the salad.

Yeh yeh, I just need to challenge myself, and actually try more of the recipes. If you’re interested in varied salad recipes, then I suspect this will be a good book for you; there’s definitely combinations I hadn’t thought of, and many of them really do intrigue me (cavolo nero with peach – hmm – and cashews and goat’s cheese… curried roots with pearled barley and parsley…).

Jewel Box: a collection from E. Lily Yu

I’m afraid this is coming from Erewhon Books in October 2023. Which is a long time to wait (I read it c/ the publisher and NetGalley) and TLDR: it’s going to be worth waiting for.

I have a bad habit: I forget the names of short story writers much more easily, and much faster, than I forget the names of novelists. I don’t think it’s because I value one more than the other, but perhaps reading things in anthologies I pay slightly less attention to the author’s name.

Whatever the reason, I always forget that E. Lily Yu is a spectacular author whose work I love very, very much. Fortunately, this collection has reminded me of that fact with all the subtlety of a shovel to the face. Pretty much every story in this collection is wonderful and thought-provoking and I am beyond happy that I got to read it and see all of this wonderful work in one place.

A few highlights:
“The View from the Top of the Stair” – a woman (I think) whose great passion in life is staircases, who gets an inheritance that allows her to indulge her passion, and what life can be like when you get to be at least somewhat fulfilled. The passion is never mocked, it’s not a tragic story of ‘never what you wish for’, and it’s also not at all what you expect.
“The Time Invariance of Snow” – one of the stories I remembered that I had already read, as I was reading. A truly remarkable spin on the Snow Queen: it opens with the heading “The Devil and The Physicist”, which gives a small indication of how Yu is approaching the ideas.
“Courtship Displays of the American Birder” – heartbreaking and beautiful and lyrical.
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” – witches and knights and dragons, but not at all as you think you know them.
“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” – after reading this one, I had to go stare at a wall for a while. Friendship and cancer and unicorns, going on when everything is awful and finding magic in the mundane.
“Ilse, who saw clearly” – is not the story I was expecting from the opening; stolen eyes and a girl who doesn’t fit in, learning a craft and then still not fitting in… another one that left me unable to just blithely go on to the next story.
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” – almost certainly my introduction to Yu’s work. Wasps who are conquerors and map-makers, bees who get conquered and some of them become anarchists… it doesn’t tell you everything about Yu’s work but I suspect if this one doesn’t work for you, then I suspect her work in general won’t.

This collection is magnificent. “Jewel Box” indeed.

Dead Country: a new Craft novel by Max Gladstone

I read this courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom. It’s out in March 2023.

I love the Craft series, and this is a really, really good Craft story.

It’s also quite unlike any of the other Craft books… although I should add that it’s been long enough since I actually read the first books that I had to go double-check that “Tara Abernathy” was actually a name I recognised. Which tells us two things:
a) sometimes I have a bad memory, but actually that can be good with things like this because it means I get to enjoy them in a different way, and
b) it means that you can definitely read this without having read the other books. The facts around what the Craft is (a variation on magic) and what the world is like (frankly a bit screwy) are all obvious enough from the get-go, as is Tara’s personality and general background.

Having said that it’s a really good Craft story, it’s actually quite different from the other books (ok, maybe from what I remember…). They are set in cities, and with high stakes in play, and quite an assortment of characters, as well as a fair bit of politics/ legal wrangling. This, though… the setting here is super compressed. Tara has come home, to the small and suspicious town she got away from on the edge of the Badlands. And pretty much the entire story is set right there, in that town: there’s Tara’s arrival on foot, and then an excursion into the Badlands, and that’s it. No bright lights. No ‘I’m the ruler and I say so’. There’s a threat to her town, and even though most of them don’t really know what to think of her and some have treated her badly, that’s not something Tara is going to put up with.

Gladstone’s sense of place is wonderful, and makes me wonder whether he’s spent some time in a small town himself. There’s all the cliches, of course, about small towns and the lack of privacy, the suspicion of difference and outsiders – my Nan moved to her husband’s small town when they married, at about age 19, and 60 years later there were still some people who regarded her as an incomer. And Gladstone uses some of those tropes, but not at all in a mean way. He shows it as the reality it is: that those aspects can be both damaging and comforting. That secrets can still exist, for good or ill, and that outsiders can still find a place – but it might have a cost. So yeah, I loved that aspect of the story a lot.

In fact, I really liked this whole novel. Tara is complex and conflicted and also highly competent. The other characters are distinct and generally interesting – I’m intrigued to see what happens next with Dawn, Tara’s maybe-protege, in particular. For all that it’s set in a small town, and there’s no suggestion that the events here will have a significant impact on the major centres of power (well… mostly…), there’s also no suggestion that it’s not important to deal with the raiders and secure the town’s safety. Too often big stories ignore towns like this one.

Think I’m going to go back and read the Craft again now.

Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander, and Adultery

I read this courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. It’s out in May 2023.

It’s incredibly hard to write modern biographies of ancient women. Not least because most ancient historians didn’t care that much about women as individuals; they only mattered when they intersected with men (… not too different from many wikipedia entries today, actually), and also for Roman historians they were often used as literary devices – history writing being quite different in the first few centuries AD in Rome from what it is generally accepted to be in the West today. SO that leaves a serious paucity of information for the person who wants to write a serious biography of, say, Messalina. I have a fantastic biography of Agrippina the Younger on my shelf, which does a good job of trying to consider Agrippina as a person, rather than just a mother and/or power-mad; one of Theodora that is slightly less successful but made a valiant attempt. And now, at least, Messalina: a woman whose name has become a byword (and at one point medicalised) for the over-sexed and never-satisfied woman, whose sexual depravity was the source of her power, and whose only use of that power was evil.

I loved this biography a lot. Messalina was human! Who knew?

The author gives what I think is an excellent overview of the social and cultural and immediate historical situation in Rome in the early Julio-Claudian period, in particular looking at the ways in which expressions of and usage of power had been altered with the change (albeit begrudgingly accepted) from republic to empire. And the point is to situate Messalina within that. (Had I completely forgotten just how illustrious her lineage was? Oh yes. Perhaps I never really knew – descended from Mark Antony! And from Octavian/Augustus’ sister! Very impressive.)

There’s a good attempt at reconstructing just what sort of thing Messalina was doing after Claudius became emperor, as well as logical (rather than misogynistic) rationale for it: like she’s shoring up her own power base, and that of Claudius, and that of her son. The arguments here are persuasive, although of course we’ll never know. I particularly liked that Cargill-Martin never tries to completely purify Messalina: did she have affairs? Possibly; maybe even probably! Were other women doing so? yes. Could there actually be political as well as passionate reasons for doing so? Absolutely. Was it possible for Messalina to both want to have sex AND be a political actor? WHY YES, IT WAS.

Basically I think this is the sort of (properly) revisionist history that a nuanced understanding of women in history enables. Messalina can be treated as a human, as a worthy subject for serious history: she made mistakes, she made what we would think of today as some poor choices, she was constrained by her historical context, and she really didn’t deserve the way that last 2000 years have treated her. Especially Juvenal’s poetry; he can go jump.

Highly recommended particularly to anyone interested in early Roman empire history, or women’s history.

The Archive Undying, Emma Mieko Candon

I read this book courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom, via NetGalley. It’s out in June 2023.

I read really weird books. That goes without saying. This book is one of the weirdest I’ve read in a long, long time.

Think Jeff Vandermeer Annihilation weird.

I loved it, don’t get me wrong. There were moments where I had almost no sense of what was going on, but I did enjoy reading it. I think the problem was usually in not being clear who the narrator was – there are (I think!) a couple of first-person POVs, and (just to confuse things), a few bits where the narrator is actually telling the story in the second person… and I wasn’t always sure who that person was, either. I’ll be interested to know whether the official copy will have different fonts to make that clearer, or whether the ambiguity is part of the narrative.

Honestly, given the story itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if that confusion is part of the whole deal. There’s a lot of confusion here – bodily and relationally and politically.

So there are mechas, and there used to be AIs but they’ve been corrupted; there’s a human polity which seems to want to be in charge, but quite how or why is unclear. (At times I wondered whether I had missed the first book in the series, because there were what seemed like significant ellipses that would make sense if there was presumed knowledge I didn’t have… but no, this is the first book in what might be a series.) There are humans who used to be connected in some way to the AIs, and who are either to be avoided or to followed, depending on your attitude towards the AIs. Most importantly, there’s Sunai, who could not be self-destructive if he tried. He’s a salvage-rat, who gets a job to go with a rig to do… something he can’t remember, actually, because he was very, very drunk when he agreed to it. And when he does remember, it turns out to be yet another bad idea, but he goes along with it mostly because of Veyadi Lut, whom he likes a lot more than he thinks he should. Things go from there. Often badly, generally surprisingly, and with consequences for more than just Sunai.

This is a hefty novel – 416 pages in ebook, according to Goodreads. So as you can imagine, there’s a lot that goes on; at the halfway point I thought we must have been coming up on the conclusion, and then everything went sideways again, and something had to be done – note I don’t say “things had to be made right”. It’s not bereft of hope, but it’s one of those stories where what you thought would be the best outcome isn’t what happens, and where a lot of the things that seem like the very opposite of the best outcome do happen. And yet… I wasn’t miserable at the end.

I’ll be cautious who I recommend this to, and in what situation – do not read this if you want a perfectly comprehensible novel that demands nothing from you as the reader. Do read it if you want a novel take on giant mecha, the place of AIs, and an intriguing narrative structure that requires you to actually pay attention. I will be paying attention to Candon’s work from now on.

Hopeland, by Ian McDonald

I was sent this by the publisher, Tor, at no cost. It’s out in late Feb, 2023.

My first reaction was and is: What. On. Earth.

What did I just read?

I mean, aside from “something wonderful”, which is easy and true, but gives no information.

Seriously though I was a third of the way through this book and still had no idea what sort of book I was reading. I was barely even sure of the genre.

Fantasy? – maybe?

Science fiction? – basically yes, but only once I was about halfway through?

Maybe just… fiction? But there were definitely some bits that were too weird to entirely count as mainstream, not-speculative, fiction. Also, it’s Ian McDonald.

I’ll admit I hadn’t read the blurb. It’s Ian McDonald, and it’s called Hopeland… why would I read the blurb? So part of my confusion is my own fault. But having now looked at the blurb it’s actually of little to no use in explaining what on earth this is about, so I don’t feel too bad.

So… the story starts in London, in 2011, during the riots. It’s not about the riots, but they certainly set a scene. Raisa meets Amon entirely accidentally – she’s racing across roof tops, he’s looking for a micro-gig he’s meant to be playing at. He helps her win, she invites him to a party with her family, and… it basically goes from there. Occasionally together, often apart, Raisa and Amon live through the next several decades. And see, it’s not like they become hugely important politicians or scientists or celebrities – this isn’t the story of hugely significant people. It’s a story of two people – and their families – living through the consequences of climate change and everything else in the world right now. They have their impact, it’s true, and sometimes on a large scale, but more often in the pebble-and-avalanche way.

It’s utterly, utterly compelling.

Raisa’s family are the Hopelands – more than a family, really; not a nation, certainly not an ethnicity or religion although with aspects of the latter. It takes the notion of ‘found family’ to extraordinary and glorious places and challenged a lot of how I think about family, how it’s constructed and what it’s for. Amon is a Brightbourne, a very different family but with its own legacy to contribute (and his family is where I started wondering if this was a fantasy of some sort).

I want more stories like this. It’s about the very near future so it deals with climate change – and manages to come out hopeful, ultimately, but not saccharine in any way. It’s about people and their failures and their determination to do better, to make themselves and the world better and leave it better for their kids. England, Ireland, Iceland, Polynesia; young people, old people, challenging gender binaries, and playing with Tesla coils. This book is just amazing.

Grave, by Allison C. Meier

I read this book via NetGalley. It’s out on Feb 9, 2023.

As long as these are being published by Bloomsbury Academic, I will keep reading these. (… there’s a joke here relating to the subject matter of this book, but I won’t go there.)

For a book about graves, this book isn’t morbid at all. Which is exactly the tone that I would expect from this series. It takes graves, and the reason for graves, seriously; but it doesn’t dwell morosely on the idea of death. Nor does it romanticise it. Instead, this is a thoughtful and engaging examination of burial practises – particularly in post-colonisation North America – and how and why they’ve changed. That time and place is important to note; while various global practises are mentioned, like the very earliest burials known and Tibetan sky burials and others, this is focused on one specific place and time. And that’s fair: this is a short book! It’s not meant to be an all-encompassing tome. I guess this could be seen as a snapshot of a place that has changed a lot in terms of its ethnic makeup over the last few centuries, that has (for better or worse) often been seen as leading the way in innovation, as well as sometimes dragging its heels on change (hello metric system). So it’s a useful way of getting a glimpse at one history of grave practises.

The author is someone who has led cemetery tours and has done a lot of thinking about what graves and burial practises mean. I learnt surprising things: like, in the USA, it’s quite standard for a body to be embalmed before burial in a coffin. I’m pretty sure that’s not standard in Australia (I just looked up one undertaker group; embalming is an optional extra). A sobering aspect was the history of unmarked graves, and segregation within cemeteries (a relatively new word, apparently!) – I know at least some old general cemeteries in Victoria are, or were, Catholic/Protestant separated (and different areas for Chinese dead, especially in goldrush areas and I guess there must be a few towns with small, historical, Jewish sections?). I most enjoyed the fact that there are new practises being developed. I had already learnt of ‘water cremation’ (yes, it’s a nonsensical term), which is far more eco friendly than the standard creation; but ‘natural burial’ – like a pine coffin that degrades quickly – and other more environmental options are just going to be increasingly necessary. We already have issues with perpetual leases on graves…

Anyway, this is yet another excellent entry into this series. I loved it and continue to look forward to more.