Tag Archives: books

The Gilded Page

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I loved this book.

I already love medieval manuscripts and the stories that go along with them – about marginalia and the sheer effort that goes in to making one. What Wellesley has done here is look at manuscripts to understand the people who made them, used them, saved them, and occasionally caused their destruction. I read this in uncorrected proof, as an ebook (and there’s some twisty lineage there from hand-written sheepskin to pixels), so I’m not sure whether the published version will have images, but that’s about the only thing that would make this even more of a joy to read.

An overview of the chapters will show just why this is such a fabulous book.

Chapter 1: Discoveries. aka “near heart-attack-land at the idea that the Book of Margery Kempe was nearly not found.” She uses just a couple of manuscript discoveries to show just how contingent our 21st century knowledge of, awareness of, and possession of such manuscripts is.
Chapter 2: Near Disasters. Imagine me having heart palpitations at the fire in Ashburnham House, home of the Cotton collection and various other rather important bits of parchment. As above with the contingency, with added flames.
Chapter 3: Patrons. Who wanted stories written about themselves, and who wanted their own copies of particular books (Henry VIII annotated his Book of Psalms. I have no problem with this, other than it reveals his colossal ego, equating himself with David.)
Chapter 4: Artists. The images added to some manuscripts make them incredible works of art. Wellesley examines what is known about some of the people who did this work, their inspiration and their methods.
Chapter 5: Scribes. Who did the physical act of writing… and that some of them were women.
Chapter 6: Authors and scribes. Probably one of the hardest things for moderns to grasp is the lack of the concept of ‘author’ in the medieval period. If a student copies a quote without a reference, they’re in trouble; 700 years ago, someone could copy out a story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and stick it in their own collection of stuff with nary an acknowledgement (yes I am aware this happens today; it was less of a cause for hue and cry back in the day, for various reasons). Figuring out exactly who was the author of various things is the work of a lifetime for some historians.
Chapter 7: Hidden Authors… basically carries on a similar idea from Chapter 6, but in particular looks at works written for (and by?) anchorites – people who had decided to get themselves walled away, to devote themselves more fully to Christ.

The book’s intrigue – who wrote it? who sold it? why do we only have one copy? It’s got feminism – women wrote and read and commissioned and created. It’s suffused with a love of books and reading, it’s a celebration of books as objects, and it ends with Gutenberg and that weird interstitial period where some manuscripts were created by copying out the text from a printed book. And the author’s voice is present throughout, which I found a lovely touch: what it was like to view a manuscript at the British Library, or a discovery as an undergrad, or an experience learning about the making of parchment.

This is a wonderful book about books. Entirely accessible to the non-medievalist, in fact a great entry for those with no real conception of the medieval manuscript.

Buried Memories, Simon R Green

I received this via NetGalley.

I have not read any of the previous Ishmael Jones books; the NetGalley description doesn’t make it clear that this is part of a series. However, I am a long-time fan of Simon R Green, and as with many of his other books he provided enough background – without it being a massive info-dump – that I was able to carry on my merry way and enjoy the book regardless.

Ishmael Jones arrived on Earth in 1963; his dying spaceship turned the sole survivor into a human and wiped his memory of what had come before. Over the next few decades – covered, I assume, in the books I haven’t read – Jones has both tried to hide his identity from nefarious groups who would like to exploit aliens/their technology, and also investigated mysteries himself – because Simon R Green never missed an opportunity to do clever things with mysteries and whodunnits. In this narrative, Jones has realised he was not, in fact, the only survivor of his crash, and he’s going back to where it all started to try and get some resolution.

There’s banter, a spooky rural English village, murders, twists and turns and double-crosses, and ultimately a fairly satisfying conclusion.

Also, any book that opens with “Call me Ishmael” (except for the original) is going to get an appreciative eye-roll from me.

This was fun. Fans of Simon R Green know what they’re getting. Possibly not the place for those new to Green to begin their adventures (I would say that’s the Nightside books; the Blue Moon stories are a different kettle again).

Assassin’s Orbit

I received this via NetGalley.

It’s described as “Golden Girls meets The Expanse with a side of Babylon 5”. I admit, that certainly grabbed my attention. I’ll come back to the tagline, because I’m going to assume that it was invented by a PR person, rather than the author.

The context: many humans fled Earth generations ago, and colonised various planets. The action here is split between a station above the planet Ileri, and the planet itself – which is about to decide whether to join a conglomeration of other planets, or stay neutral. The story opens with several murders, all of which seem to have happened to enable the assassination of one government minister. Investigating that crime kickstarts everything and introduces the key characters, in particular private investigator Noo Okereke. Political manoeuvring would make for a nicely complex story by itself but of course that’s not enough – there’s an even larger issue at play, which is gradually revealed.

I really enjoyed this novel. One of the key things that intrigued me were the characters: they’re overwhelming female, and many of them are “older”: they’re not just out of school, or starting in their first jobs. Instead, Noo is a seasoned investigator; you can basically hear her going all “I’m too old for this shit”. The spy is likewise an old hand, and the police chief is, well, just that – she’s worked her way up the ranks. It was fantastic to have people – and let’s be honest, women in particular – whose expertise makes sense because they’ve earned it, who can draw on experience and hard-won judgement, in order to make decisions. And who know when they’re making a probably bad decision but are willing to go do it because sometimes it’s the only choice you’ve got. And aside from affording them that expertise, their ages were largely irrelevant; it’s basically not commented on by anyone. They’re just… allowed to be competent.

The one thing that occasionally annoyed me was the pace – that it felt uneven. Sometimes it seemed to go slowly for no reason, and sometimes it sped up so that I’d (metaphorically) blink and huge things had happened. That made reading a bit of a chore sometimes.

OK. So. This tagline. Look, I can see why someone might think it was a good one – it’s catchy as heck. But it’s just not accurate. I can only assume that “Golden Girls” was the only example the person could think of that features “old” ladies actually doing stuff, which is a whole issue in and of itself. But GG was about four women living together, with some knowledge of each other, and it’s centred on that idea of sharing each other’s lives. That’s just not how this novel works. There are two women who have worked together for years – but they barely interact in the novel. Older women are the focus of the action, and many of them come together throughout the story to work together. But that’s not GG. The Expanse? Well, only insofar as humans are off Earth and hanging out on other planets. But… no other aspect of The Expanse is present. And Babylon Five? Well, it’s set on a space station, which this is also to a great extent; and there’s a threat of war, but it’s from other humans. So. Yeh. Tagline is deceptive.

This really is a fun and intriguing novel. Some clever ideas, generally fun characters, it doesn’t drag (usually), complexity of plot matched with chases and explosions. No regrets reading it.

Phoenix Extravagant, by Yoon Ha Lee

I received this to review via NetGalley.

I haven’t felt especially like reading big fantasy, or dragon fantasy, for quite a while now. Even when the author was Yoon Ha Lee, whose Machineries of Empire I love exorbitantly, I just thought… nah.

More fool me. Lucky that books don’t disappear forever, and that I have now been able to read this.

Jebi is an artist. All they want to do is make art. They apply for a position as an artist within the Ministry of Art, which will mean art but also working for the conquerors of their nation. When they fail to get that position, they must find an alternative option if they want to keep eating… and this leads to twists and turns they never expected, discovering friends and enemies and further difficulties of life in a conquered land.

This is set in a secondary world but it seems to me that Jebi’s home is analogous to Korea, with Japan as the conqueror, although it’s not a direct parallel. There’s magic, usually fairly low key and initially I wasn’t sure if it was intended to be ‘just’ superstition (later events show not). There’s also technology, sometimes working in tandem with the magic, as with the automata that seem like golems to my largely European trained eye; I don’t know if there’s a Korean or other Asian analogue. There’s tanks and guns but electricity is unevenly distributed – it’s a really interesting look at a world with unevenly distributed technology.… like our actual world. It’s also, as already implied, a deeply interesting take on the issue of colonialism and empire and collaboration and compromise and I really, really loved that aspect.

Brilliant. Hugely enjoyable.

Beyond the Blue Mountain

I received this book via NetGalley.

Interesting overall but with some frustrating gaps.

The intro to this book explains that it was begun as a memoir for children and grandchildren and later expanded for a general readership. This explanation is useful because it doesn’t read as a polished memoir. There are lacunae and years brushed over; the most egregious is what happens to his first wife. She is mentioned as having post partum depression with their first child, then the depression recurs over the next several years, and eventually she just… disappears from the story. And then he talk about holidaying with the woman who was initially his PA, and with whom he spends his retirement. In a book designed for the family this makes sense – the kids know what happened to their mum. For me this was just bewildering.

As the blurb outlines, this is partly the memoir of a rock climber, about which I’m not especially interested except that it does mean travel to interesting places, and partly the memoir of an almost accidental MI6 officer. That bit is also mostly interesting in the way it’s told here because of the travel involved. I’m not particularly up on the political intricacies of places like Benghazi in the 1960s and 70s so there were swathes of narrative where the assumed knowledge – which I don’t have – meant I didn’t have a solid grip of what was happening: names that meant nothing, dates likewise. Nonetheless, this was an overall entertaining story with some interesting insights into different places from the perspective of a intelligence officer who didn’t seem to perceive himself as a spy.

Neptune, by Ben Bova

I received this to review c/ NetGalley. Kinda glad I didn’t spend money on it… which gives you a hint of what this review will say.

Oh boy.

Do not come for character development or realistic relationship building.

The overall narrative is interesting enough and the theory that drives the second half of the plot itself is fine. But the scientific consequence isn’t nearly developed enough; it’s a leap. I’m all for short sharp stories, no need for a trilogy, but this was just a bit silly.

Lots of spoilers follow.

Character development: there really is none. The woman, Ilona, whose obsession with finding her father’s remains somewhere on Neptune funds the first venture to the planet, and basically drives the entire narrative? So little development as to be non-existent. The old space-sailor on his last adventure? basically no development beyond that. The scientist who doesn’t actually seem to have any real knowledge of Neptune, but who is in love with Ilona after a brief meeting… is just a nothing. And even the scientist who joins the second mission, apparently as a government stooge, is just… a nothing. There are hints of the possibility of intrigue: is she deliberately seducing the other scientist? is she also just a pawn? WHO KNOWS. WHO CARES.

When Ilona and co get to Neptune they discover her father is dead – OF COURSE – but they also discover what turn out to be alien remains. And somehow, very quickly, it’s decided that these aliens were responsible for destroying life on Uranus (how did we come to that conclusion? who knows!) and also an ice age on Earth. As I said, as a premise I am SO HERE for this idea. Explore the repercussions of this for me – either on Earth or in the wider galaxy! … but that basically doesn’t happen. There’s a politician who is worried for his career and scientists who don’t like it – which again, cool! explore this angle – but no. No exploration. It just ends up being boring.

And the conclusion is simply appalling. Like, really awful. Ilona’s obsession with having lost her father leads to her bearing his clone. This is gross and nonsense and just weird.

I won’t be reading anything else by Ben Bova having read this.

The Rebel Suffragette

I received this to review via NetGalley.

The good things:

  • It’s always good to have another woman featured in a history book! And I mean that very seriously. Minor men have had tomes devoted to them. To have an individual suffragette whose name is not Pankhurst (not that I don’t love a Pankhurst) get a book is AWESOME.
  • I love suffrage history in all its guises and having a book that’s about circumstances outside of London – or Manchester – is great.

These things are big and important. The negative things are generally smaller, so although there are more they are basically balanced in my mind. But these are important things to note, I think:

The negative things

  • There are some really annoying editorial aspects. Partly this is about commas instead of semi colons, which I think must be from the editor becuase I’ve seen the same thing in other books from this publisher. It irks the editor in me.
  • There’s a chapter about “Men and the Media”, which has basically nothing to do with the suffragette in question. If the author had placed her in a wider context more often, then this might almost have made sense a chapter – but even then I’d be dubious. This chapter had no place in this biography. And nor did the chapter about the relationship between the royal family and the suffrage question – it was completely out of place.
  • The title. Almost by definition if you were a suffragette you were a rebel, and Edith did nothing that was rebelling against the WSPU general vibe. So the title is click bait at best.
  • One of the historian’s problems with writing such a biography is the dearth of resources. There’s a fine line to be walked in between theorising from thorough research, and making vague suppositions about things like, in this case, the relationship between wife and husband.
  • A couple of specific irritants: the idea that women went in hunger strike to be classed as political prisoners becuase then they’d get better perks, rather than becuase of a real political reason, is just insulting. Also, the author suggests that the whole WSPU and Pankhursts ditched campaigning in WW1, when actually Sylvia Pankhurst was disowned by her mother and sister for doing the opposite.

Finally, I found the discussion about whether 21st century can or should condone the militancy of the suffragettes quite lacking in depth. It was more a series of questions than a rigorous interrogation of the place of violence in political campaigning. And it didn’t really need to be included – there’s no need to pass judgement on the subject of your biography.

Overall I think this is a really worthwhile biography – Edith was clearly a fascinating woman and I greatly appreciated being able to learn about her place in the suffrage movement. I’ve seen the picture of her being removed from the gates of Parliament and had no idea who she was! It’s not perfect, but it’s a good addition to the suffrage library.

The Scholars of Night

Read courtesy of NetGalley.

Well that was a completely bonkers read.

When I first asked to review this, I didn’t realise it was a reprinting; I’m not enough of a Ford fan to know that he’s passed on. Then I read Charles Stross’ introduction, in which he talks about this being published in 1988 and setting out the political context for the younger audience, and I wondered what this was going to be like.

Completely bonkers, is the answer.

It’s a spy novel,
It has a possibly-undiscovered Christopher Marlowe play.
It has scholars and spies and disaffected patriots and mercenaries and… just a most remarkable cast, and a complicated narrative that eventually makes sense, and PhDs playing Diplomacy and people making Marlowe jokes and war game simulations and BONKERS.

It’s awesome. The only downside is that some bits (eg who knew who was who) got a bit complicated so reading it over a few days, I wasn’t always sure of exactly what was known to various people. But it all came good in the end. Basically.

Huge fun.

You Sexy Thing, by Cat Rambo

I received this to review via NetGalley.

This is right on the edge of “too silly” for me. It mostly doesn’t fall over, but skirts precipitously close. There’s mention of magic to do various things (although it all happens off-stage) at the same time that this is a galaxy-spanning society with a multitude of species and, it seems, a variety of FTL options for travelling around. There’s a bit of prophesying going on, too, just to add to the mix.

The blurb suggests this is Farscape meets Great British Bake Off. Yes to the Farscape: improbably different alien species interacting, living and working together; up to and including a biological ship, now I think about it. There’s also a bit of Firefly. These comparisons are good for me; if you’re able to suspend your disbelief about humans and squid-like and bird-like and vegetative species all being in the same place, then you’ll be fine with this. The GBBO comparison is a bit thinner and honestly that’s where I was a little disappointed. Cooking is definitely a factor here – the protagonists are running a restaurant when everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and features sporadically throughout. It’s not a competition and there’s not much baking, and really there could have been more food in general. So if what you’re really craving is a pretty food-based narrative, I don’t think this will meet your needs.

The story is a fairly straightforward one – which isn’t a negative: Niko and her companions were soldiers, now run a restaurant, things go boom (not their fault, swear), and then adventures ensue. Including hijacking and piracy and identity trouble and pasts coming back to haunt, etc. It’s fast paced, there’s a good amount of banter, there’s engaging characters, and no desire to make this any sort of morality tale or a solemn exposition of galactic society. It’s a romp, and for that it was well worth it.

(It should be said that there’s some rather surprising violence about halfway through – surprising because up to that point it hadn’t been graphic at all – which I found disquieting because it seemed so out of place.)

All up, a fun read, and honestly isn’t that something we need right now?

The Nile: A New History of the World’s Greatest River

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I should start by saying that this book is not quite the book I expected. Given it’s the Nile, and given the blurb, I expected the book to be much more about the swathes of history involved in that region of the world. There is, of course, discussion about the role of the Nile in the grand sweep of ancient Egyptian history, and what might be called “medieval” history for want of a better term. There’s mention of ancient Nubia, and some commentary on “medieval” Ethiopia, as well as the Rift Valley and the Olduvai Gorge. However, the reality is that the vast majority of this book is focused on European, and in particular British, colonialism – efforts to control the various parts of the Nile for their own purposes. So I was surprised by that, and occasionally disappointed that it was so modern in focus.

This is also not “just” a history book, and in general this is a good thing. It has aspects of a travel memoir; the author has travelled to every country he mentions, I think, and to most of the parts of the Nile and its tributaries discussed. So there are sections where Tvedt is quite personal in his writing, reflecting on his own experiences and how this matches – or doesn’t – with historical or literary representations of the places. This aspect I enjoyed a lot.

As well, there are aspects of historical theorising that I found quite intriguing. The author challenges Edward Said’s theories about ‘orientalism’ and whether it’s appropriate for this challenge to apply to all aspects of European writing; and challenges most historians in their refusal to consider the very solid, material, and geographic nature of a river like the Nile. I don’t know that much about the theories he’s challenging so I can’t say with full confidence whether he makes perfect sense; but certainly many of the ideas he raises seem fair.

But overall, the book is indeed about the Nile: as something that has shaped geography, as something that has shaped the civilisations that exist along its banks and those of its tributaries, as something that has contributed hugely to political tensions over the last 150 years or so. I had no idea there was a 1929 Agreement that basically said upstream countries could do nothing with the Nile unless Egypt agreed! And of course for most of those upstream countries, this was signed by the imperialist powers then in control… so since the 1960s there’s been argument about whether those powers had the right to sign on behalf of these now-existing countries. Nor had I ever considered the notion of the Nile as a weapon (withhold water, or release too much if you’ve got a dam); or the idea that the Suez Canal crisis can also be linked to control of the Nile.

I learned a lot about the realities of European colonialism and imperialism in the Nile basin – primarily the British, but also German and Italian (I didn’t learn anything new about Belgium, and Leopold). The machinations made me sick all over again: water for Egypt so Egypt can grow cotton to supply to England for the cotton mills…

In terms of structure, the book basically flows from the Nile Delta (seriously under pressure thanks to climate change) to the various sources of the Blue and White Niles (hello, Stanley and others). So it’s not chronological; I quite liked this geographical perspective, though, and it certainly makes sense in the context. Each chapter is broken into what are basically vignettes. It means the author doesn’t have to make one solid narrative for each geographical area, but instead takes various different issues and treats them in sometimes one, sometimes five, pages.

This is a thoroughly researched, detailed, meticulous and very clever story of the Nile.