Tag Archives: books

The City Inside

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

This was… incredible, and devastating, and gloriously written. And I’m not sure I have the words to properly explain how and why.

Firstly: if you’re looking for an entirely straightforward, narrative-driven story, this is not for you. If you’re interested in character and world development and fabulous prose (and a narrative that still has me thinking), then you’re looking at the right book.

The first few chapters are all about setting up the world. It’s the mid 20th century, I think; and it’s Delhi; and things are both recognisable and completely unfamiliar. Joey is a Reality Controller at a Flowco; she has a smartatt on her wrist that monitors her health and suggests cat videos when she’s stressed, and she regularly has to wear a mask when she’s out and about. Confused? I was, a bit, when I started; but I was also intrigued and rapidly sucked in (and it took me a couple of seconds to understand ‘smartatt’ as ‘smart tattoo’ and then I was very impressed with Basu. Also terrified). The key thing to get your head around is the Flow, which takes the current ideas of infotainment and reality tv and influencers and life-casting and making it more massive, more pervasive, more curated and… generally just More. This is the big thing that’s both familiar and not.

As an Anglo Aussie, I’m the first to admit I don’t know all the ins and outs of current or past Indian political history, nor the concerns people might have for future directions. That’s a big part of the background here: Joey’s parents were involved in protests and suffer the consequences; things are unsettled and maybe tyrannical in Delhi and perhaps across the city. There are ongoing protests and various groups being oppressed. On the one hand, I am quite sure I missed a fair bit of political nuance that someone living in Delhi would just pick up almost without thinking (like a reference to politicians and onions for me). And that’s just fine: there are always different experiences for different readers. Because even without that political knowledge, I could understand enough about the tensions to know that this is a world I wouldn’t want to live in, with its fear of cameras everywhere and no trust of the government. And just to show how bitter things are: “her parents didn’t know whether to blame the pogrom or the pandemic, because they’d known the end times were coming but hadn’t known they’d be multiple choice” (p6).

The story follows Joey and colleagues and delves into the world of a Flowstar as well as tapping on parts of the broader world. Most people are out for what they can get for themselves and their families; some people are trying to buck the system; there is a massive gap between the haves and havenots. Much of the book is about following the characters and experiencing their lives… in much the same way that they themselves are producing a Flow for people to experience. Which makes me reflect in some horror on the explicitly voyeuristic nature of fiction and may send me into a tailspin if I get too worried about the privacy of fictional characters.

The writing is an absolute treat. It’s dense, in the descriptive and absorbing sense; it’s deeply evocative; and still entirely readable. I enjoyed every minute of the reading even while I was completely horrified by the experiences of the characters.

Persians: the Age of the Great Kings

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

I really, really wanted to love this book.

(That, children, is called ‘foreshadowing’. You can almost see the BUT looming behind those words.)

A book that’s basically the postcolonialist version of Persian history we’ve all been waiting for! A view on Persian history that’s not just repeating the Greek and Roman commentaries that were absolutely written with a very particular perspective! YES PLEASE. And even more when Llewellyn-Jones makes the acerbic comment in the introduction about how the concept of European superiority can be dated back to Herodotus etc and the way they presented the terrifying East. So yes, let’s have a version of Persian history that is largely based on Persian sources, or uses the Greek sources very carefully – to find the Persian reality behind the Greek propaganda.

And it starts so well. There’s a discussion about Persia vs Iran as a name – and I’m not sure whether his explanation of the political nuances there are accurate, so I defer to others on that, but it seemed to make sense within what I do know. There’s a discussion about the archaeological activities that give historians what they know from Persepolis etc, and a candid admission about the lack of sources. The Persian history proper starts with a discussion of the movement of different peoples into the area we know today as Iran, and some speculation about how they interacted etc. Then it moves into discussing the development of the Persian empire as empire, and interaction with the Medes. All of this section was intriguing and the use of inscriptions was well done. I did start to get a bit uncomfortable about the lack of reference to other sources – like other historians; I understand that getting the balance of what can seem to be most approachable, and what can seem too scholarly, may revolve around footnotes etc but… there’s just no way the author didn’t use other references.

I also started to get a bit uncomfortable when the author claimed that Cyrus’ mother “delighted in singing Median nursery rhymes to him” (p60 of the e-version), because that seems… weirdly specific? And then I got to the description of him as “lean and good-looking in that way that Persian men are uniquely handsome” (p63 of the e-version) and I had to stop and blink and decide whether to laugh or cry. What happened to treating the Persians as real people and not exoticising them, which I thought was part of the postcolonial agenda? I also have a problem with the statement that “A society that requires such codes of respectful behaviour” (obeisance before the monarch, etc) “is very likely to have autocratic political organisation, characterised by the coercive power of a king” (pp194-5). It just seems too blanket a statement.

And then! We have Darius’ half-sister and wife described as “a Lady Macbeth-like villainess, hellbent on power and ruthless in her bloody ambition” (p288) and I really started to wonder whether it was now a different author, or if he had been to sexy the book up. Next we have “years of adoration and unnaturally demonstrative mother love meant that [Darius] was self-centred, cruel, vindictive, and brutal” (p292); and that mothers experience “that particular twang of jealousy… when their sons give their hearts to other women” (p294). In case we worried that it was about misogyny, we then have a eunuch described as “a veritable creature of the court” (uh, eunuchs who are made eunuchs to BE at court are literally that??) who was “born to corruption, whose ambitions were for the very highest office of state” (p333) and I just can’t even. The author then has the temerity to accuse the Greeks of employing the “topos of the wicked eunuch” and I need to ask some questions about self-awareness.

So. I am ambivalent about this book. It’s a super necessary idea, and the use of Persian inscriptions and the way some of the Greek sources are handled is a really good example of how to read through sources to get more than they think they’re saying. On the other hand, some of the descriptions are clearly ridiculous (robes of “chiffon-like linen, gauzy cotton, and shimmering silk” (p293) – not to mention that nursery rhyme – really need some evidence!). And the bits quoted above are enough to make me despair. Did I learn something about the Persian empire and the kings who ruled, and the way it all worked? Absolutely. Is this the last word in Persian imperial history? I sure hope not.

Would not recommend to someone who is completely new to the history of this area and time, or to someone who is naive in reading historical books. For those looking to deepen their knowledge, it’s useful – with the caveats above.

Atlas of Forgotten Places

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out now.

These are beautiful books, even in electronic copy – this Atlas of Forgotten Places, and the Atlas of Improbable Places; I’m sure they’re even more lovely in paper. That’s definitely a key thing to note. The photography of each place is generally very good, and evocative of whatever idea is being presented; and the maps are also intriguing. They show where the place is in context – near other towns or within a country or whatever is relevant – and also shows the layout of the particular area. Because with this Atlas in particular, I think, many of the places featured aren’t just individual buildings (although there are plenty of those); they’re also entire towns, or bits of towns. And the maps show what still exists, what’s crumbling, what’s changed over time. They’re really well produced.

Chapters includes Vacant Properties, Unsettled Situations (abandoned towns, largely), Dilapidated Destinations (tourist spots and hotels), Journeys Ended (airports etc), and Obsolete Institutions. Sometimes the categorising is a bit of a stretch, but I’m happy enough to go along with it. It closes with Alcatraz, which I thought both amusing and fitting; there’s a town called Santa Claus, a lighthouse, several hotels, and a Bangkok mall, as well.

I have two quibbles. One is an admittedly minor irritant: the book needed slightly better editing (ashes are interred, not interned, surely). The other is that sometimes most of the entry for a location is a digression – about Napoleon, when the entry is about something on Corsica, or about why an indigenous group where bowler hats when it’s about a railway in Bolivia, or how both cardigans and balaclavas were named for military things (a man and a place) associated with the Crimean War, when it’s a submarine base in Balaklava. If you’re going to feature a place, surely you should spend your two-ish pages talking just about that place? Expanding more on what it was like and what led to its being forgotten? It made me wonder whether Elborough was padding for the sake of making each entry about equal, and pointless words really, really annoy me.

I should also note that the list of places mentioned in the blurb on Goodreads is wrong – three of the places mentioned there do not actually feature in the book that I read (I doublechecked the index and everything). So if you want to read about the abandoned Peter’s Ice Cream Factory, it’s not in this book.

Those quibbles aside, though, I have no trouble recommending this for the armchair traveller, or the lover of quirky facts.

Rosebud, by Paul Cornell

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

Well that was… a ride.

Cornell’s novella follows in a trend from the last few years of exploring issues of humanity through the lens of AIs. I mean, I know that authors have pretty much always been exploring what it means to be human through the medium of the robot, right back to Metropolis; but I feel like it’s somehow become more pointed, or nuanced, or something, in the last 5 or so years. Maybe I’m just being shortsighted; maybe I can blame Murderbot for this perception.

Anyway, Rosebud is a spacecraft orbiting Saturn – a spacecraft about 1mm in diameter, crewed by five AIs of varying (and really very varying) provenance. They encounter an anomaly, and they investigate. In doing so, they are confronted both by their own identities, as memories are brought to the fore, and by the consequences of the anomaly – what it’s doing to them and what it might mean for the humans back on Earth. To investigate, the AIs are forced to be embodied – and as is generally the case, bodies have consequences.

I can’t quite describe the style this is written in. It’s present tense; it’s third person, but the POV favours one character, Haunt, in particular. It also feels more spoken, I think, than written; perhaps formalised internal monologue? For instance: “That’s how this is supposed to do. Doing it on their own is above their pay grades. Not that they’re paid. This is big people stuff” (p14). It’s certainly very readable – I powered through it in a sitting, despite some of their narrative weirdness that occurs thanks to the anomaly. There’s some amusing banter between the five characters – they are very different, with wildly different expectations and desires and perspectives, and they’re not always interested in cooperating with each other.

If you’re a fan of Paul Cornell, this will probably work very well for you. It’s not my favourite Cornell (that would be the Lychford series), but I’m certainly glad I got a chance to read it.

Green with Milk and Sugar

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

This is one of my favourite types of history books.

1. It’s about a fairly niche topic – the drinking of Japanese tea in America – which is shown to have connections with all sorts of issues and events across many decades. Trade connections! Racism and how attitudes towards different ethnicities develop and are deliberately cultivated! What happens to the samurai class when they’re moved out of Japanese society! Civil war and foreign war! Marketing and world expos and food regulation. It’s all here, and it’s woven in and through the overall topic beautifully.

2. There’s intriguing and what seem like weird facts. Like the idea of a punch made from ‘very strong tea’, plus a 1.25 pounds of sugar, a pint of cream AND THEN a bottle of either claret or champagne. I feel ill even thinking about it. Also, the idea that apparently people used to add Prussian blue to green tea, to give it a stronger colour??

3. There’s a personal connection to the author, and it’s neither gratuitous (I really like tea!) nor tenuous (my next door neighbour’s grandfather lived in Taiwan!) nor overly emphasised. Instead, the Hellyer family had been involved in importing “Japan tea” to America for many years, back when that was what it was called and when – as the subtitle suggests – “Japan filled America’s tea cups”. When appropriate, the Hellyer family experience is used to illuminate particular aspects of the story – Europeans as merchants in Japan, the shipping to America, and so on.

4. It’s just really nicely written. Hellyer has clearly done a lot of research, and has been very thoughtful in the way he’s put together the material. The overall story is easy to follow – but there’s no sense of a steady march towards a definite end. I mean, in one sense there is, because the reality is that American tastes in tea did change (not least away from tea). But it’s not all ‘oh woe everything was always leading to downfall’ – instead, it follows the changes in fashion and expectations and international relations and shows how those things interrelate with the drinking of, and importing/exporting of, tea.

I love history books about food that illuminate a seemingly mundane part of ordinary life and show just how complicated such things really are.

The Library: A Fragile History

Update: and THEN Allen&Unwin sent me a hard copy!! I’m so excited to have a physical copy of this amazing book!! And it is GORGEOUS – swirly oil-colour end papers, and A RIBBON. PEOPLE, a RIBBON. It’s just swoon-worthy.

The hard cover is RRP $49.99 and is out as of 30 Nov. I’m sure there will be a paperback copy at some point. Definitely the book for the bibliophile in your life.

I initially read this book courtesy of NetGalley.

Oh. My.

What an astonishing book.

Honestly I’ve had such a good year for book-related histories: The Gilded Page (Mary Wellesley), and The Bookseller of Florence (Ross King), and now this. Interestingly, this book contains parts of those two, because understanding how libraries function requires some knowledge of books themselves function, and how the book trade functions. It’s been like a mini-course in the whole book production history of Europe.

The authors begin with a discussion of the fabled Library of Alexandria, which is appropriate given its mythical place in the history of libraries… and ALSO that there’s some attempt to do something similar in the Alexandria of today, which is, let’s say, not the Alexandria of yesteryear.

What utterly intrigued me was the way that exactly what a library is FOR has changed over the centuries. I am a huge fan of the public library, and absolutely uphold its place as a community resource. I do know that in medieval Europe, libraries were the province of monasteries and nobles – not least because that reflects the literacy of the age, and also the aspirations of such people.

It was the use of libraries as exhibitions of wealth that was one aspect explored beautifully here – collecting the ‘right’ books, and beautiful versions. And then how do you have architecture that reflects that? If you’re worried about scholars nicking off with your precious tomes, and you only have a few books, then you chain the books up (literally) and your building reflects that. But when books starting getting more accessible and you are HAPPY for them to be accessed (unlike Oxford libraries not allowing students in and having opening hours for about three hours a week), then what the rooms look like needs to change.

I deeply appreciated the exploration of libraries as both weapons within colonialism and imperialism, and victims of it too. Colonial outposts in NZ and India being sent books; translations into the languages of the colonised; and libraries being looted, or outright destroyed, across the globe – these are things that need to be remembered and dealt with as people keep thinking about the use and abuse of knowledge as power. It would have been so easy to not include those things, and to stick with somehow seeing libraries as just repositories of books – ignoring books as power – but I’m so glad the authors wanted to give a rich and full exploration of libraries as institutions.

Look, I just loved this book. It’s beautifully written and has lovely images. It covers predominantly European examples of libraries. It does so across just over two millennia, from monastery to castle to private home to public institution. And the modern arguments about what a library is for! Clearly these authors are defenders of the existence of libraries, but they’re not just stuck in mid-20th century versions. They are, if anything, ambitious for what place libraries can and should have in communities.

I love books and I love libraries and this was a wonderful history of them both.

Kundo Wakes Up

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in March 2022.

Firstly, for those who have read The Ghurka and the Lord of Tuesday, this is set in the same universe but is not a sequel; so there’s no pistachio-cracking Gurung, no Melek Ahmar getting furious about the world. One blurb describes it as a “companion”; it is still a world in which the climate crisis has reached epic proportions; in which some cities are run by an AI called Karma (a different version in each city, it seems); and humans can basically only survive when they’re in sufficient numbers that the nanites they create are at such density that they can make the climate liveable. In Karma cities, there is no money; there’s just points for good deeds, which you can ‘spend’ to get what you want. And when there’s points, there’s always going to be people who have none – who are zeroes… Oh, and also there are djinn.

This time, the focus is Chittagong, Bangladesh. And things are not going particularly well – either for the city, or for Kundo, once a famous-enough artist, now a man whose wife has left and whose life is such a stretch of nothing that he easily loses track of days. The focus of the story is on Kundo looking for his wife; I have to admit that I was a bit worried about where the story would go – there are good reasons for wives to leave, and Kundo admits he was never a great husband – but I shouldn’t have been concerned; Hossain dealt with that aspect of the story skilfully. In the course of trying to find his wife, Kundo gets a team together – a struggling mum, a has-been underworld figure, and a junky coder. Together they try and figure out the world, and get enough to eat, and maybe some basic human dignity as well.

It’s another really great story from Hossain. He explores the variety of humanity: what they need – and what they want; frustrations and desires and ways of relating; what’s good for one but not for another… all in the context of quite a frightening view of the future, actually, that still manages to have some redemption and goodness in it.

I’m hoping that we get more stories from this world.

Until Proven Safe: the History and Future of Quarantine

I like to imagine Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh saying “No one would have believed…” like Richard Burton at the start of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, when asked how they feel in 2021 about this book. They started it, as far as I can tell, many years before 2020… and then finished it while large portions of the world were getting the ideas of ‘quarantine’ and ‘isolation’ mixed up. (As the pair make clear, quarantine is when there is doubt about the infection status of a person or object.)

I came across this book because I am a massive fan of Gastropod, “food through the lens of science and history”, co-hosted by Twilley. And as a fan of wide-ranging history in general, it seemed like a good bet that it would be right up my alley. The podcast did one episode using some of the ideas from the book – talking about the quarantining of cocoa plants, mostly, so as to prevent the spread of chocolate-destroying pests, which I am heartily in favour of.

As the name suggests, the book covers both the history and the future of quarantine – and, of course, the present. Many more people know, in 2021, the origins of the word – the 40 days people and cargo on ships were kept out of places like Venice, for fear of sickness. Manaugh and Twilley visit Venice and Dubrovnik and Malta, places where quarantining had a long history in architecture and laws, and occasionally in famous people getting grumpy about being stuck.

The middle section is about quarantine today. As an Australian this is a particularly real issue; we really don’t want to bring yet more pests and diseases in if we can avoid it. There’s a reason dogs don’t get to be smuggled in, JOHNNY DEPP. It was fascinating to read about measures that are used around the world to try and stop invasive stuff – and how often, this is a stop-gap measure, because with ever-increasing world trade it’s just so easy for teeny critters and seeds to travel. This section also looks at ‘quarantining’ radioactive waste – which is a bit of a stretch, since there’s no real question about the stuff being dangerous; and the authors acknowledge that it is, indeed, about isolation, rather than quarantine; but their argument is that places doing this stuff are fascinating for ‘quarantine tourists’ because they showcase ‘extreme engineering controls’. And this section also looks at the measures used around space travel: like I didn’t know the first couple of sets of Apollo astronauts were required to quarantine for fear of moon diseases.

My one grumble about the book is a minor Australian one. In discussing Australian legislation from 1884, they call Australia “the newly unified continent” (p125). Australia didn’t federate until 1901. My quick google suggests that there were, indeed, “Sanitary Conferences” at this time aiming to have a united policy across the colonies, so I guess in that sense the continent was unified?

In the section about the future, Twilley and Manaugh do look at COVID responses, comparing them to medieval responses in terms of government use of power, and even deploy Foucault as a way of examining government (over)reach. We’re discussing these questions a lot at the moment, of course, and it was interesting to see it all in this context. And what was completely terrifying was to discover that there’s a “data-aggregation and modelling firm with close ties to the US defense industry” (p328) called Palantir. Palantir. The seeing-stones of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Wikipedia notes that “beings of great power could manipulate the stones to see virtually any part of the world”. And someone at this company thought this was a good name for this company.

I think, given our situation at the moment, one of the last points made in the book is particularly pertinent: “Ironically, if quarantine does work… it will almost always be perceived as an overreaction” (p349).

Well written, well researched, broad ranging and examining difficult issues with compassion and clarity. This is a great history of quarantine and I thoroughly recommend it. Exactly WHEN you want to read it will depend on your experience of 2020 and 2021, I suspect.

Where the Drowned Girls Go

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in January 2022.

The first thing to note is that I love this entire series enormously. I love the very idea of asking what happens to children if they come back from their fantasy land but they didn’t want to, and then have to confront parents who want them to be ‘normal’.

Pretty early on in the series we learned that there was an alternative school: that Eleanor West’s school was for those biding their time, waiting to go back to their real home; the other place was for those who wanted to forget their adventures. It was obvious that eventually a story would be set there – but I didn’t expect it to be Cora who went. And for this reason, I do think that the previous books need to be read first; you need to understand what Cora has gone through, the trauma she has experienced in helping her friends, before you can understand why she wants to do something to try and forget. So if you haven’t read the others, you should go and do that first… don’t worry, it’s totally worth it, I promise.

So Cora goes the Whitethorn, and things are as opposite to Eleanor’s school as it’s possible to be, and completely dreadful. Unsurprisingly, it’s all even more dreadful than it initially appears, and events unfold as Cora confronts both her own trauma and the school-wide problems. It’s beautifully and devastatingly set up, and – as with all the Wayward Children stories – unfolds in complex, complicated, bittersweet ways.

McGuire continues to do wonderful things with her characters. Across the novellas she’s presented humanity in all of its myriad shapes and colours. Cora being fat has always been a part of her character because it had such an influence on how people saw her, and therefore how she saw herself, and therefore all the choices and consequences from there. In some ways I feel that the deliberate and blunt way in which Cora’s size is presented – and her implacable insistence that, of course, there is nothing WRONG with her – is perhaps more transgressive these days than discussing queer and trans folk. The world is coming to accept a gender and sexuality spectrum… but we’ve still got a lot of hang-ups about appearance. So I love that we have a fat hero, who hears and acknowledges the snark from her peers and it DOES get her down but also it doesn’t destroy her. Cora is so very, very human (and a mermaid).

This is a marvellous addition to the series and my only regret is that I read it too quickly and now I’ve got too long to wait til the next one.

Kaiju Preservation Society

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in March 2022.

This is my first written-in-COVID, mentioning-COVID, novel. If you’re not ready for that yet, maybe skip this for now.

Having said that, it’s not like it’s ABOUT COVID (you should avoid Station Eleven more than this book if it’s the ABOUT COVID aspect you’re worried about). Instead, the realities of businesses being shut down and people being frustrated is a catalyst for our narrator to take an… unusual job. He doesn’t realise the full weirdness of the job when he signs on, of course.

Look, you can see the title. Kaiju Preservation Society. You’re already ahead, since Jamie just knows he’s signing on to lift things for KPS, a group who help look after ‘large animals’. What sort of large animals? He doesn’t know until after he gets on a plane with other newbies, and then through a door, and then… ta dah.

This is what I take to be classic Scalzi. Super fast-paced – not TOO fast, so I never felt lost, but also nothing extraneous and very few lulls and I read it in a single afternoon. Effortless diversity, delightful banter, and persuasive enough that I was content to read about ludicrous kaiju biology and just go along with it.

It’s pretty obvious from the set-up – newbie gets involved with group who are looking after kaiju, which are secret from most people in the world – that eventually something is going to go wrong. That’s no spoiler, but I’m also not going to reveal WHAT goes wrong, because I am not a monster (heh). I was fascinated, though, by some of the commentary Scalzi gets into what could just have been a romp (this is not unexpected, of course). The idea that private corporations AND governments might work together on something as expensive as this is… kinda weird from an Australian point of view. I mean it happens, sure, but I feel like we’re less at ease with it than the American standard. (Maybe I’m just naive.) The discussions about how start-ups sometimes work, and how the American system let people down during COVID, were also particularly sharp – while completely fitting into the narrative.

This book is bonkers, and was an absolutely delightfully madcap ride. An excellent read when you when you want to immerse yourself into something delightfully ridiculous.