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Cuisine and Empire

Was there ever a book more up my alley than this? (Well yes but allow me my extravagance.) I came across this book courtesy of Gastropod, one of my very favourite podcasts: looking at food ‘through the lens of science and history’.

images.jpegRachel Laudan takes the idea that we ‘are the animals that cook’ (p1) and looks at how cuisine – how we cook – has travelled and been shaped. She makes a very interesting point that I’d never really thought about: just adopting a particular food doesn’t mean you’ve adopted a particular cuisine, or in anyway integrated a part of a culture. Cooking is the key bit and cooking has always been hedged about with culture and taboo and expectations and so on. She also deliberately looks at the idea of ’empire’ as hegemonic political units can do a lot to spread, enforce, and encourage the adoption of cuisine through a whole range of methods. The point of the book therefore is not to consider regional differences but to look at broad similarities in the way that food is treated, and how those similarities came to be.

There are chapters on the development of grain-based cuisines, and what that meant for cooking in general. She looks at Buddhism and its spread and influence, at Islam and Christianity, and how their morals and philosophies and taboos influenced the way food worked. How shifts from Catholicism to Protestantism in parts of Europe changed things, as well as how industry and increasing globalisation changed modern cuisines.

I love that Europe is not entirely the centre here; that the Mongols and the Islamic empires have a significant impact (on Mexico, via Spain, for example). I am intrigued to think about how political and moral questions have shaped some of the ways that I, and my food culture, think and perceive food. I’m also fascinated by how early decisions, sometimes made consciously and sometimes not, have continuing impacts on the way the world acts.

Honestly, grasses have a lot of responsibility in the development of world cultures.

This book was a lot of fun – well, it was a bit of work, because it’s not always a straightforward narrative. But that was usually fun too. It has made me think about why we do things the way we do, and the cascade of consequences through history. It’s so easy to think of the way we make food as just… passive, somehow; unconnected to politics or anything else. Actually, that’s probably only possible for me because I am a part of the ruling elite, so I don’t need to think about the consequences of my food choices – and I live in a place and time where choosing to eat outside of my particular food culture is totally acceptable. So I am privileged. But I am still constrained, too, by the things I have been taught. And this book helps me think about some of those things.

The Girl with the Louding Voice

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost.

I find myself something at a loss as to how to review realist fiction, these days. Turns out it’s been quite a long time since I read something that would count as such – years, even. So what to say about this? What categories to use to assess it?

Firstly, I certainly enjoyed it, and would have no hesitation in recommending it to someone who likes realist fiction and wanted to read a new book about a young girl’s struggles in a difficult world.

I guess that’s the main thing to say about the book: the point is to explore the life of Adunni, fourteen years old, living in a rural village in Nigeria whose life goes from difficulty to difficulty. I would guess that Adunni’s story – at least aspects of it – is experienced every day by young women in Nigeria, and probably other countries with similar histories and traditions (either of domestic service or polygamy or rural poverty). She can’t keep going to school when the family has no money; she is sold as a third wife to an old man; thanks to tragedy there, she ends up in Lagos, working as a housemaid in the house of a wealthy woman, which is also a distinctly dreadful experience. Adunni herself rarely allows circumstances to quell her personality. She is determined to have a ‘louding voice’ and be heard, and be recognised, and make her life better – not just for herself but so she can help her family, and other girls like herself.

The novel is written in what I guess would be called ‘broken’ English, although I’m uncomfortable with the term. Having done a quick Google, ‘Nigerian Pidgin’ is recognised as being commonly spoken in that country, so maybe it’s that. Certainly the point is that Adunni speaks some English but isn’t proficient (there’s a funny discussion about tenses and how confusing they are late in the story), and the story is written in her voice. Not being accustomed to it, it took me a couple of pages to get into the rhythm of the language, but after a while it was very easy to read (I read the 300-ish pages in a day).  Many of the sentence constructions make a lot of sense, even if they’re not ‘correct’ English; I especially like ‘different’ as a verb.

So: plot? It’s a bildungsroman, the formation of a young adult. It takes place over less than a year and while in some ways not that much happens, for Adunni herself things are radically different at the end compared to the start. She faces appalling circumstances and made difficult choices, and lives with the consequences.

Characters? Adunni is a delight, clearly. She is determined to be and do what she wants but not such that she is oblivious to the people around her; she is a true friend and wants to love and help her family. The cast around her is varied, and they seem like believable characters: the man who wants a son and marries a young woman to achieve it; a bitter first wife; a father who doesn’t much care for his daughter; a scheming and ambitious young man; a pragmatic and soft-hearted chef; a woman born in England to Nigerian parents, now living in Nigeria; a wealthy Nigerian couple where the husband is a deadbeat and the wife is… difficult, although sometimes understandably so (what’s not understandable is her violence towards Adunni, which is shocking).

One thing to note is the blurb is misleading; it makes it sound like “the strange disappearance of her predecessor” is one of the key turning points of the novel. While it does worry Adunni, and does have an impact on the plot to a small degree, it’s not a focal point; it’s indicative of the entire situation, not a key hinge of the narrative.

Overall this is an enchanting and enjoyable novel. Not one I would have picked up for myself (see: realist novel), but one I’m very pleased to have received to review.

Gideon the Ninth

OMG this book aaaahhhhhh how did I liiiiiive before I read it.

42036589._SY475_.jpgSo this book, right. It’s ok.

Where to even start. How about this: Gideon hates where she lives, everyone she lives with, and her life in general. But she has plans for getting away, and it’s aaaallll going to work out… except of course it doesn’t and she ends up compelled to work with one of the people she hates the most for a chance at actually making her life better. She lives on a nothing rock a long way away from the bright centre of the universe (or solar system), which she hates.

Gideon is a fighter, and she’s cranky, and she has a great stock of lesbian porn, and a magnificent line in snark, and a heart that she tries to bluff her way out of showing anyone. I love her to pieces.

Someone mentioned the Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee in connection with Gideon, and it made me realise all sorts of correspondences. Both have space-faring civilisations that seem to be powered by arcane things: Lee’s universe by calendar mechanics (which is still a seriously ??? moment); Muir’s is driven, in the upper echelons at least, by necromancy. Yeh, if the bones didn’t give it away: this book has, at its core, death magic. Some people die. I do not like horror and I did not find this to be horror: for me, I tend to characterise horror as when I actively feel afraid while reading, and while I was afraid for characters in this novel, I did not get that ‘oh God is there something under my couch reaching for my legs’ feeling that, say, the Doctor Who ep ‘Blink’ encouraged.

Then there’s the characters and their interactions. Frankly, they’re screwed up, in both Machineries and here. Neither main character is exactly someone you’d say was emotionally on an even keel; and neither of them have open, trusting, and healthy relationships with their closest companions. There are aspects of the key relationship here that could perhaps be seen as abuse; I have been fortunate not to experience it so certainly I’m coming from a privileged position, but somehow it didn’t read like abuse. Harrow, Gideon’s opponent/companion, definitely does some actively horrible things… perhaps part of the difference for me was in her motivation. Or maybe I’m just making excuses. The relationship really is quite destructive; and Muir never tries to paint it as anything but.

Finally, I seem to remember being a good halfway through the first Machineries book before having any real notion of what the heck was going on – and the subsequent books revealed more and more until it made that first book like one square on a chess board (maybe a 2×2 square at best). When I got to the end of Gideon, I still wasn’t entirely sure why things were happening or where the story might go next. But in both cases, I was so utterly enthralled by the writing, and so captivated by the characters and the world building, that I actually didn’t care and just threw myself along for the ride. That’s a fairly uncommon experience for me – I tend to be impatient – and it’s a giddy and joyful one when you trust an author that much.

And then I discovered that the sequel isn’t due out until June this year, and I wept.

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.