Tag Archives: review

New Suns: an anthology

Unknown.jpegOctavia Butler once said, “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” And thus, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Colour, edited by Nisi Shawl. It’s a remarkable set of stories: varieties in genre and tone and settings and characters. Some of the authors are people whose work I’ve come across a bit (E. Lily Yu, Andrea Hairston) while many others I was only vaguely familiar with – and several whom I’d not heard of before. Which is generally a good sign, in an anthology, for me anyway.

I’m not going to go over every story, because that would be boring. I want to mention a few highlights to give a sense of the range of stories.

Minsoo Kang’s “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations” hit my history-teacher heart right in the middle. I love way it’s told – as an historian or archivist finding out more and more information – and I love the story that’s told through that information, and I ADORE the ‘Marginal note’ at the end for the way it cuts through and kinda sums up a lot of what historians of marginal communities have been doing for several decades.

“Burn the Ships” by Alberto Yáñez also hit me in the heart, but for different reasons. When I read in his bio that he “draws on his Mexican and Jewish roots” to inform the story, I could absolutely see the parallels; it’s not a re-telling of a story from either of those cultures, or a combining, but… using their histories, of conflict with The Other especially, to come up with perhaps the most emotional of all the stories in the anthology. It’s just incredible.

Indrapramit Das’ “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” is a non-linear narrative that looks at the consequences of human settlement on alien planets, how societies shape themselves in response to danger – and vice versa – and the connections between people. It’s gorgeous.

“Harvest,” by Rebecca Roanhorse, is horrifying. I’ve now read a couple of stories that involve deer women, and I already know enough to never tangle with one willingly.

If you’re looking for a non-themed anthology and you want to know who’s hot right now in speculative fiction, you should pick this up.

Permafrost

40048442.jpgAlastair Reynolds.

Time travel.

It’s just such a winning combination.

And the thing is, this is the author who as far as I can remember refuses to use FTL in his stories. So for him to write a time travel story means that there won’t be any Delorean zipping around. Instead, there’s a short but relatively serious discussion about WHAT, exactly, can be ‘sent back’ through time, and a very clever example of what it might mean to change things in the past – what impact that might have on the future.

The story, naturally enough, dips in and out of the time stream. It starts in the past and goes to the future and moves between them beautifully, gradually building up a picture of what has happened for the future to be as it is, and the choices that people make that have an impact ‘upstream’. The slow unfolding is horrific and brilliant.

I liked the characters, I was horrified by the world, and I was intrigued by the method of time travel. This is a fabulous novella.

Shadow Captain

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me at no cost by the publisher, Hachette. The trade paperback (which is lovely) is out now; smaller paperback in September.

I mean. HELLO. New Alastair Reynolds! I was so happy to get this to review. So hi, if you don’t know me I’m a massive fangirl, keep that in mind as you read I guess?

This is the sequel to Revengerfrom about three years ago. You probably want to read that before reading this because it sets up the sister relationship that’s at the heart of the story, between Adrana and Arafura (now Fura), as well as the horror in which Bosa Sennen is held throughout the… well, world is the wrong word, but you know what I mean. The area in which the book is set. And that’s the other thing that the first book sets up: that these books are set many, many thousands of years in our future, and they live in the Congregation – which is our solar system having been dismantled and the stuff of the planets used to construct an uncounted number of smaller worlds. Also, civilisation has not been continuous throughout that time; humanity has swelled and fallen over that time, inhabiting more or fewer world, having more or less connections between the worlds, and with technology progressing or lapsing. Which is what allows for the many ships who travel between the worlds to visit the now-uninhabited ones and find ‘treasures’ which may or may not work for them, dating back to previous civilisations.

I guess it’s like modern Britons or Libyans trying to make the Roman aqueducts work.

Anyway, if you haven’t read Revenger I highly recommend it – clearly – as a space opera with deep roots in nautical adventures (including in the language, it’s all coves and sails and broadsides), starring a defiant young woman having mad adventures.

Spoilers for Revenger below this…

Continue reading →

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water

image.pngThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be available from 21 May.

Vylar Kaftan’s novella opens with Bee scrambling through darkness, which is pretty much all she can remember doing.  The official blurb reads:

All Bee has ever known is darkness.

She doesn’t remember the crime she committed that landed her in the cold, twisting caverns of the prison planet Colel-Cab with only fellow prisoner Chela for company. Chela says that they’re telepaths and mass-murderers; that they belong here, too dangerous to ever be free. Bee has no reason to doubt her—until she hears the voice of another telepath, one who has answers, and can open her eyes to an entirely different truth.

You can guess from the blurb that things are not as they seem, but you can’t guess the twists and turns of the plot – well, I couldn’t anyway.

The attitudes towards telepaths are a very interesting part of the story; as someone who grew up reading McCaffrey’s Tower& the Hive series (every. single. one), I’m always fascinated by whether ESP stuff ends up being celebrated, abused, shunned, or whatever. So that was something I enjoyed here.

Overall, though, I did not love this story, and I can’t put my finger on why not – which is a deeply unsatisfying thing to say in this review, I know, and I’m sorry. I think it’s partly around the pacing. For all that I am a big fan of fast-paced stories, I think this was a bit too fast; I didn’t feel like I got to know Bee before things changed, and then they changed again, and I was left feeling a bit cold towards her fate. There was also a lack of world-building that meant I didn’t quite get some of the actions of the characters other than Bee.

For all that, though, Kaftan has written a story with heart that confronts the issue of how humans react to difference. I did like Bee, and felt that her reactions – especially when feeling lost in the world – were beautifully realistic.

Miranda in Milan

image.pngThis novel (novella?) was sent to me to review by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be out on 26 March, 2019.

Aside from King Lear, which I loathe, I probably dislike The Tempest more than any other Shakespeare play. I don’t know why; there’s nothing particular I can pinpoint. But I really, really dislike it.

It turns out, though, that stories of Miranda after the play are stories I can really get behind. So maybe this is part of the problem: in the play, I think Miranda is just a bit nothing. But For Meadows’ Coral Bones made me swoon for joy, and now Katharine Duckett’s Miranda in Milan similarly plays with the aftermath of Miranda’s return from the island – in a very different way from Meadows, but equally dealing with some of the issues that a young woman with such an upbringing might need to confront.

Here, Miranda is returned to Milan, and basically confined to the room – she’s only allowed out when wearing a veil, which she loathes. Her father is off reestablishing himself as duke, Ferdinand is in Naples, and she has no friends. Until suddenly she does develop a friendship, and she begins to discover some of what’s gone on in Milan that led to Prospero’s banishment – and, by extension, her own.

Nicola Griffith’s blurb is (unsurprisingly) apt: “Love and lust, mothers and monsters, magicians and masked balls…”. That’s about it. What is love and how do you know it, what makes a monster, and can magicians be trusted… Duckett writes about these things, and does it quite beautifully.

Sorry you have to wait til March to read it.

The Seven Culinary Wonders of the World

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost. It’s out on 1 November; RRP $35.

I was intrigued by the idea of looking at culinary traditions and histories through seven key ingredients, and those chosen here seem quite appropriate. Not comprehensive, since you could argue for others (like corn, or potato, were my first thoughts) but nonetheless widely used in a variety of cultures over the world and with interesting histories attached. Linford’s chosen seven ‘wonders’ are: rice; salt; honey; pork; tomato; chilli; and cacao.

In each chapter, Linford talks a little about the chemistry or something scientific of each ingredient, but that’s not the focus. There’s more about the history, although it’s still very much an introduction – how something like the tomato moved from the Americas to the rest of the world (I love that tomatoes are, relatively speaking, new to Italy), as well as the development and cultivation over time of different types (the ambition to create inedibly hot chilli is completely foreign to me). There’s a fairly wide-ranging look at how different cultures use different ingredients; because this is a relatively short book (about 230 ish pages), this is by no means exhaustive, which may annoy some people if she hasn’t chosen a particular culture. Still, she does talk about the use of chilli, for instance, in Mexican and Indian and Thai and Malaysian and Korean and Chinese and Portuguese and Italian and American (esp Texan) and Hungarian and Spanish cookery. And finally, there are recipes. Again, these are not comprehensive, but there’s no way it could have been. For pork, she has everything from Chinese pork potstickers (dumplings) and char siu to sautéed chorizo with red wine  to glazed ham; for honey, it’s baclava to honey-glazed shallots and grilled goat’s cheese with honey. The recipes are set out nicely on the page, and each one only takes up a page (possibly a requirement in choosing?)

My one reservation with this book is that sometimes the language got repetitive. It’s as though Linford, or her editor, assumed that people would mostly not be reading this straight through (I did), and so they thought that repeating certain key phrases would be both a good and not noticed. I noticed. And while it wasn’t enormous clumps of text that were repeated, it was obvious enough that I got a bit impatient.

Overall this is a nicely-presented book: I love a good hardcover, although I love a cookbook with a ribbon even more! Each chapter has its own colour for the page numbers and the recipe text and the illustrations (there are some nice illustrations throughout – not photos), which is a nice touch. This is a nice book for someone like me who likes the background to ingredients as well as a variety of recipes.

Women in science history

In a theoretical feminist bingo card, there is one square for Marie Curie: The Only Female Scientist. (If you are particularly nerdy you may also have Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer.) Of course this does not reflect reality, and it doesn’t reflect historical reality either – but science history books are so often focussed on the Lone (invariably male) Genius labouring away in the lab that you could be forgiven for thinking that science does actually happen in a vacuum. This is, of course, a fallacy, as these four books demonstrate.

Unknown.jpegPatricia Fara, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment(Pimlico, 2004)

Pandora in breeches is an abomination. Pandora is already a problem: the first woman, in Greek mythology, whose existence brings all sorts of problems to the (male) world. But Pandora in breeches means that Pandora is also trying to take over the male world. In this book, Patricia Fara delves into the myth of the lone male scientific genius and exposes it as just that – a myth. While refusing the suggestion that Hypatia and Katherine Johnson could have been at all comfortable sitting next to each other at a dinner party, Fara reclaims the existence of women in scientific endeavour. She does this by taking several Lone Genius men (Descartes, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Newton…) and examining the role that women played in their scientific lives. In some cases, this is domestically: when science is being done in the home, wives and sisters and household staff get drawn into the science almost automatically. In other cases, it is through correspondence, or through a woman’s own writing that is picked up and expanded on by a man because the woman wasn’t allowed to present her ideas in a public forum. Fara has surely only scratched the surface of the ways in which women contributed to science in this period (and, as she points out, also the male labourers who constructed equipment and so on).

Unknown.jpegDava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016)

When the Harvard Observatory started taking pictures of the night sky, they did so with glass plates. In order to understand what was happening on those plates, the Observatory needed meticulous ‘calculators’ to look at each one and catalogue the tiny pin pricks of light. This job was usually perceived as tedious, and therefore perfect for women – who were also cheaper to hire. So for decades, women worked on the half a million or so plates made by Harvard and in doing so, made or contributed towards the significant discoveries that form the basis of astronomy today. What stars are made of, the idea of variable stars, classifications of stars – these things were enabled by these women. An intriguing aspect of Sobel’s narrative is that as well as exploring the contributions of the women employed by the Observatory, she explores the contribution of women who gave substantial funding to it – thereby enabling the place to conduct science that might otherwise have been impossible – and the place of the male astronomers’ wives, who also helped significantly in the running of the Observatory.

Unknown-2.jpegPatricia Far, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2018)

The blurb for this book may surprise many readers, since it proclaims 2018 to be a ‘double centenary: peace was declared in war-wracked Europe, and women won the vote after decades of struggle’. Presumably this edition of the book was never meant to be seen outside of the UK. Nonetheless, this is a generally absorbing account of the scientific contribution of women during the First World War. As with her book on the Enlightenment, Fara has dug into archives and found significant records of women in various scientific establishments, doing experimental work, as well as munitions factories and other such manual labour, generally replacing the men who have gone to fight. Women were active in museums, and as doctors (why have I never heard of the female British doctors in places like Salonika?), and in intelligence work. There are also mysteries, like the unnamed clerk awarded an MBE… war secrets taken to the grave, presumably. It must be said that sometimes the book is confused about exactly what it wants to do. There are chapters on science with little discussion of any women being involved, and sections about suffrage that have very little to do with science. Nonetheless overall this book does expand the idea of who contributed to the UK’s war effort in World War 1, and explores the many reasons that women had for wanting to be involved in those efforts.

Unknown.jpegMargot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (HarperCollins, 2016)

Thanks to the film that was made at the same time as the book was published, this story of the black female mathematicians who worked for NASA (and for NASA’s predecessor) is probably the best-known of these stories. It is a crucial one, since as far as I can tell all of the women in the other three histories were white. Black women are historically even more obscured than white women. Shetterly has done an excellent job of unearthing references to the work of these West Area ‘computers’ so that their contribution to American space exploration can be appreciated. She gives their educational and social context – which was vital for me since although I know a little about segregation I know almost nothing about historically-black colleges. Shetterly traces the connections between places, people, and influences through some specific women, like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden; she also sets the work of these women in the larger NASA context to show just how vital their work was. Shetterly also shows how these women fit into their communities, and how they encouraged the women and girls around them simply by being who they were, and working where they did.

The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. I believe it comes out in Australia at the start of September; RRP $14.99.

I heard about this book from Tansy, who adored it, so when I got to a chance to review it I was pretty stoked. But a thing I did not realise: this is a sequel! When I read the first chapter or so I wasn’t sure whether Burgis was doing something quite ambitious for this middle grade/ YA book (the protagonist is 13: I don’t know how to classify books for younger readers) – that is, leaping right into the story and then adding a bit of background information. Then I found out that before this is The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and it made a bit more sense. That said, I think that the narrators are different in the two books, and obviously I haven’t read the first but I still managed to read and love this book… so it does stand by itself.

Silke is 13 and determined to write her own story of her life, with herself as heroine not victim. She and her brother have been on their own since their parents were captured or killed as the family were fleeing their homeland some years ago. Most recently, Silke has been making herself useful to the chocolate makers at The Chocolate Heart, who have employed her best friend who is usually in human form but is actually a dragon (it’s complicated). She’s waitressing, and telling stories both orally and via broadsheet. But then she gets a job from the crown princess when the neighbouring fairy royalty, who have been living underground for a century, suddenly come for a visit. Silke has the chance to prove herself but of course things won’t go as smoothly as one might hope…

There’s a lot to like here. The action moves quickly, but there’s still lovely moments of character development. And the characters are great: mostly girls and women, with genuine diversity of character. The crown princess might be well loved, but/and she’s also a ruthless politician when necessary. The younger princess feels overshadowed; the chocolate apprentice is true to her dragon heritage; the adult women are sometimes compassionate, sometimes impatient, sometimes ignorant. The male characters are also diverse – Silke’s older brother is, basically, an older brother; sometimes the men are greedy, sometimes loving. Silke herself is basically creating herself as she goes along, which is probably her most intriguing characteristic: after early trauma she is determined not to have her life written for her. And so she puts on an act – which is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not, and that’s acknowledged by the text.

As for the action: it’s clear from early on that the arrival of the fairies isn’t going to be the wondrous thing that the population might hope. It takes some unexpected turns, much like Silke learning the ins and outs of the servants’ passageways within the castle. The fairies have a bit less development than some other characters, but it does all work well as a narrative.

I really enjoyed this and look forward to giving it to the younger readers in my life.

Elysium Fire

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher at no cost. It’s out now… because I’ve had it sitting here waiting for a review for a few more weeks than I feel happy admitting to… oops.

If you’ve read my blog or listened to Galactic Suburbia, you’ll know that Alastair Reynolds is one of my all-time favourites. One of those authors where I don’t even both reading the blurb, I just want the book. So I was very excited last year when I heard that there was going to be a new Prefect Dreyfus story, because I loved The Prefect (now re-released as Aurora Rising).

You know how books are advertised as “a Nancy Drew mystery”? Well, this is “A Prefect Dreyfus emergency”. I love it.

While it’s not a direct sequel to the first Dreyfus story, there are elements that continue from that first book; you could read this and pick up on those things relatively easily, but it would spoil the first book for you. And I love the first book so I suggest going with The Prefect Aurora Rising and then coming to this one. If you like police procedural/ mystery type stories in an epic space setting – ten thousand habitats in orbit around a planet, all only connected by the most direct democracy imaginable – then I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to read both.

So, all that said: Tom Dreyfus is once again acting more like a policeman than he’s meant to, following leads that don’t look like leads to most other people, and generally making a nuisance of himself in pursuit of Justice and Truth. Oh, I’ve just realised why I like him so much. Anyway, someone appears to be trying to destroy that democracy I mentioned as well doing bad things to individual citizens, and Dreyfus is having none of it. Races against the clock, persuading reluctant allies, dealing with unexpected foes, and zooming around the Glitter Band all follow ineluctably and create a delightful story.

I like Dreyfus because he’s not perfect and he’s not just banging a drum about some theoretical ideal; he knows the Glitter Band’s democracy isn’t perfect but it’s the system he’s there to protect. He knows he doesn’t always get it right, but he tries and keeps trying. He’s a good friend and an occasionally subordinate employee but only when it seems necessary – and unlike Poe Dameron, he expects to cop to the consequences.

I also liked this book because, like The Prefect before it, it’s not just about Dreyfus; a couple of the other characters also get some space – Jane Aumonier more so in this book than the first, which I also really enjoyed because I love her a lot.

This is a fun read, and a fast one (for me anyway) – the pacing is tight and definitely rolls your through events as consequences start piling up. I’m kinda hoping there might be another Prefect Dreyfus emergency somewhere in Reynolds’ brain…

The Written World: review

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. It’s available now; RRP $32.99.

The premise of this book is to examine how literature has shaped history – in fact, not just literature itself, but also the inventions that have facilitated the dissemination of literature around the world throughout history. It “offers a new and enticing perspective on human history,” according to the blurb.

Some of the ideas in the book are really interesting (can you tell where this review is going?). The first chapter, about Alexander and his obsession with the stories of Troy, offer quite an intriguing (although I don’t think new) insight into one of the things driving that man to go and conquer so much land. However, even if all the chapters were individually interesting, it doesn’t feel like there’s an overarching connection between them. Yes there’s the idea of literature (more on that in a bit), but the ways in which literature has impacted on people is vastly different, and Puchner doesn’t seem to try to find commonalities – or draw out the differences in any way. And then it jumps to chapters about technology, which I’m certainly interested in but they seem even more disconnected. Additionally, there’s way more emphasis on retelling stories, like that of Troy or Gilgamesh, than I had expected; it feels quite unnecessary when the specifics of a story aren’t important to the history that the book should be focusing on.

There are other issues, too. For instance, there are grand generalisations for instance about “scribes” and their roles and attitudes; and then there’s the bit where Puchner presents a short biography of the biblical figure Ezra… and then admits that it’s just one possible version of his life. But probably the most egregious is the fact that there is no effort to define literature. And that’s a serious problem. For me, ‘literature’ is fiction, and it’s a value judgement; you can’t consciously set out to write literature (we can have a fight about this if you like). Anyway: Iliad? Sure. Epic of Gilgamesh? No problem. The Tale of Genji? Haven’t read it but given its status, happy to accept it. The Bible? well… ok, I can see how that works. Anything written by Martin Luther? The Mayan codices? Ben Franklin’s newspapers and letters, The Communist Manifesto? Uh, I think not. And does it have to be written? Play scripts aren’t really intended to be read, for example; so there’s a whole issue with the chapter on enscribing oral traditions. So… what ties these together? Puchner doesn’t bother to tell us.

Yet more problems: there’s a chapter on Goethe that alleges to be about world literature as an idea, but it doesn’t develop that concept in the slightest, just talks about Goethe. The last chapter has an incredibly snobby attitude towards Harry Potter that’s remarkable for not being that remarkable. Apparently HP merchandising is “out-of-control” (p332) and… somehow that takes away from it being literature? Or something?

Apparently at some point Puchner’s editor said that he should add more of himself to the text, and I have to disagree with that decision here. Sometimes it works – Bethany Hughes’ reminiscences about being in Istanbul were charming – but here they just come across as indulgent; not helped by sometimes being irrelevant.

Some choice quotes that bugged me: “Nothing is more familiar to us than a rabbi holding a scroll…” (p56). You what? Also, on that same page: he calls it the Hebrew Bible. Dude.

Here’s a minor one: people using framing narratives as in One Thousand and One Nights: lots of people have used this idea, “from Chaucer to Boccaccio” (p134). Mate. Boccaccio died first, but also, they lived in the same century. That’s like saying “there’s been some good Australian musicians, from John Farnham to Jimmy Barnes!”

In the chapter about the Popol Vuh and writing in the Mayan culture, Puchner refers to the people being invaded by Pizarro, Cortes and their cohorts as “Indians” (chapter 8).

Hey authors, your job’s really easy right? “It’s not such a terrible job, being an author. You do some research, come up with characters, shape a plot that unfolds central themes and ideas. Once you’re done, you find a publisher, who in turn finds a printer…” (p193). Oh my. And apparently the American Declaration of Independence influenced the proclamation of independence in Haiti… by way of the French Revolution, which Puchner neglects to mention. Goethe talking to his friend about how excellent Chinese novels were, and the latter is amazed: Puchner comments: “One sympathises: Who wants to read thousands of Chinese novels?” (p235). OH MY WORD. DUDE.

The take away here is: great idea, average to occasionally poor execution. I was sad.