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Women and Power

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. RRP $19.99 and available now.

This book consists of two lectures given by Mary Beard, Roman history professor and all-round awesome person, for the London Review of Books in 2014 and then 2017. I had seen the film of the second one, which was neat because I really (ironically) like Beard’s voice and intonation so that was an added bonus.

The first chapter is “The Public Voice of Women”. Beard presents a number of examples of how women were silenced in the Greek and Roman worlds, and then uses those instances to illuminate how women are silenced in the modern Western World, as well as how women’s voices (literally and metaphorically) are portrayed. She does not suggest that everything about the modern West is founded on classical traditions – and is at pains to point that out – but her examples make it very clear how many expectations and perceptions can be traced back that far. The examples she gives from her life (being described as whining, for instance, or told to shut up) as well as examples of other women will be all too familiar to many women – and this has happened to women in classical texts since way back. This is important because those texts are used and studied still, and have been/still are seen as… if not imprimaturs, then still worthy of examination. And so they continue to pervade modern Western society.

Beard notes in the Afterword that she avoided making big changes when it came time for publication – this lecture was given in 2014, with Obama still president of the USA and Theresa May not yet PM on the UK. The afterword was written in September 2017… thus before the current spate of #metoo and sexual harassment/abuse accusations. So perhaps even more than she could have expected, this (and the second chapter) are necessarily of their times. Beard’s points still stand, though, of course. Beard doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; she’s pointing out the issues, making sure they’re not just accepted as ‘the way things are’ – and does suggest that we need to “think more fundamentally about the rules of our rhetorical operations… go back to first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do” (40). Including women not thinking they need to deepen their voices to get more cred (guilty).

The second chapter on “Women in Power” was presented this year, which means it does deal with some of the depictions of May and Hilary Clinton… including some appalling versions of Clinton as Medusa (and Trump as Perseus??). Beard says insightful things about what power is, and how we think about it, and the language around it… and that when we talk about women ‘knocking on the door’ or ‘storming the citadel’ or ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, well: we “underline female exteriority” (57). Which horrified me when I realised its truth. Because she’s right, and while women are largely outside of power we need to write, and speak, ourselves in. But also: “if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?” (83). Yaaaasss.

This is a book I’ll be revisiting over and over, to remind myself of the reality I live in and to give myself encouragement to keep on. Things can change and it’s easier when we know where some of the problems lie.

Also, I need to read Herland and then re-read “Houston, Houston, Do You Read”?

The Silver Well

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If I tell you that reading this was like reading Angela Slatter, I think you’ll get a feel for the fact that I adored it, and for I the style of these stories.

Forsyth and Wilkins have written a set of stories that, until the last one wraps back to the first, go progressively further back in time – but always set in and around the same village in England, Cerne Abbas. In a way, it’s similar to those books of James A. Michener that I’ve read (Space, The Source) and Edward Rutherford (London, Sarum): they follow a place and a family. But these stories are generally on the more positive end, where those aren’t always; and they’re also tending towards the fantastical, which those men veer away from. Plus, neither of them ever had illustrations by Kathleen Jennings at the start of their chapters.

The book opens with Australian Rosie returning to the English childhood home of her grandparents after heartbreak, in 2017. The stories then progress back to World War 2, the 1850s, the time of the English Civil War, that of Henry VIII, the first millennial crisis of 999AD, and that of the Celts as the Romans arrive. In each case there’s some specific issue of the time that ties into the very personal experiences of the people living in Cerne Abbas, and the individual at the focus of the story. And they never stray very far from the village and its titular well.

These stories are a delight. They’re sympathetic without being cloying, sensible without being heartless; they are stories that know what it means to be human and that sometimes what’s required is hard advice, but sometimes it should be a shoulder to cry on. There’s love and loss, evil and saintly behaviour… it’s not clear exactly what each story will give you when you start reading, except that it will be sad ad mildly traumatic and possibly heart wrenching. Also, beautiful.

I really loved this collection.

on Joanna Russ

UnknownI’ve had this book on my shelf to read for a good few years now. I didn’t read it at first because I hadn’t read enough Russ, and then I put it off because I thought the book itself was going to be scary. The other day I finally decided it was Time, and I’m so glad that I did. Because this book is fantastic.

It’s not a book to read if you are completely unfamiliar with Russ, in my opinion. There are a few of her works that I haven’t read and when they were discussed, I was definitely a bit less engaged and a bit left out of the conversation (my fault, not that of the writers). So you really want to have read “When it Changed” and The Female Man, and The Two Of Us and We Who are About To… before coming to this. That said, that’s not exactly a hardship. Well, The Female Man might be; it’s not linear, it’s very 70s-second-wave-feminism in its attitude towards trans women (ie not very positive), and it’s playing rough with a lot of literary conventions. BUT it’s still worth reading and then you can read THIS set of essays and that’s great!

The first five essays deal with Russ in her context, and I found this deeply amazing and exciting to read. Russ as reviewer, Russ in community, Russ being all edgy and spiky and much as I wish I could have met her I think she would have intimidated me! I also loved this section for helping me get deeper into an appreciation of what it was like to be a feminist and a female SF fan in the 60s and 70s. Things are still not always great today but things have, largely, improved – at least in my experience. These essays are all beautifully written, too, and use such a fabulous array of sources from the period that it makes me want to tell everyone to keep their ephemera! Store it safely! Print your emails!

The second, bulkier section includes essays on Russ’ fiction. Some of these go deeply into literary criticism territory – like Tess Williams using Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival theory – and I haven’t read much lit crit in… quite a few years. So there were definitely a few bits where I did not get as much out of the essays as I might have when I was still studying and had practise. Nonetheless, the ideas that the essayists present are fascinating and intriguing and gave me new ways of thinking about the different stories. They also made me want to go and read Kittatinny, for instance, which I had thought I didn’t really need to. The essays use a range of devices and theory and ideas to get at the meat of Russ’ stories, to look at what they’re saying about society and gender and people and literature. It was actually really exciting to read.

The other thing this book gave me was a love of my feminist foremothers, Russ and the others that she was bouncing off/working with/ inspiring later. It made me really, really appreciative and fiercely grateful and amazed, too.

I’m so glad I got around to reading this book.

Murderbot

Murderbot1250I mean, it’s called All Systems Red, but everyone’s just calling it Murderbot.

In short:
Want. More.

Cleverly written, intriguing plot, and a narrator that I really, REALLY want to hear more from.

In length:
I had heard a lot about Murderbot before I read this. Remarkably, it actually lived up to the hype. Written almost like a diary, it allows the reader into the mind of a robot who has been tasked to look after some explorers – who don’t realise that their robotic servant has no control chip, and is therefore choosing to look after them rather than simply and blindly following instructions.

It’s a reflection on autonomy, and choice; on how we treat those in subservient positions, the uncanny valley,and identity. It is also a mighty fine story that kept me engrossed and makes me leap for joy when I know there’s at least another three in the series to come.

A Long Day in Lychford

Another novella that I received from the publisher at no cost which I have been remiss in reviewing. Also, another novella where it’s definitely better to have read the previous stories, although not as necessary as for Sarah Gailey’s work.

Returning to Lychford, once again things are amiss with the boundaries between the worlds; this should come as no surprise (poor little village). This time, there are also significant fractures in the relationships of the three witches who must hold the place together. This, of course, leads to more problems – and the most interesting part of the story, as far as I’m concerned. The problems facing the town are definitely significant and I always enjoy the different ways Cornell dreams up to imperil the place. But these stories wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing if that relationship element were missing. All three of the women are outsiders in some way; that has played some role in the previous stories but perhaps most of all here, especially for Amber. The struggle to fit in, the question of whether that’s necessary, the actions of other people in all of that… . I liked that the tensions of how different people cope with things, and that different people experience different issues, weren’t ignored. I’m being a bit vague here but the revelation of the problems to be confronted isn’t something I want to spoil. 

The Lychford books fall into that category of stories where normal life goes on for most people while a few go to extraordinary lengths to keep it like that. Here, those few are a female priest, a wannabe Stevie Nicks, and a cranky old woman. I’m really enjoying that the location is a sleepy little village, and the way the three women interact. 

A Taste of Marrow

A belated review, as I read this at the start of a long holiday and I really didn’t feel like writing. Which isn’t fair to this novella, which is excellent, and I got from the publisher at no cost.

Firstly, it must be said that this is a direct sequel to River of Teeth. If you haven’t read that, and I highly recommend that you do, this isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense. It picks up a few months after that story ends (dramatically), and there are some spoilers for it ahead…

If you liked River of Teeth, and want more about those characters, this is what you need. Things aren’t all happy and joyful, but you proabbly didn’t expect that. It’s a story much more about the characters than the first one; that point is what the characters want and how they get it, rather than Houndstooth putting together a team as in the first. That said, there are still jobs needing to be done; they’re just secondary to and in service to the personal objectives of the various characters. 

There are still hippos. And danger. And banter, although a bit less than in the first I feel becuase things are a bit more dire. 

I’m pretty excited to see what else Sarah Gailey produces. 

Nowhere Near You

Unknown.jpegThis novel was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out in March (RRP $15.99 paperback/ $11.99 ebook).

The following contains SPOILERS for Because You’ll Never Meet Me – which you should totally just go read if you’re into slightly angsty YA epistolary novels.

At the end of Because Ollie mother has died and he and his doctor are setting out on a road trip to meet other ‘freaks’… while Ollie wears what is basically a hazmat suit, where he is the hazard. Moritz has confronted his anger and the damage he did to Lenz and is trying to figure out how to deal with Owen.

By necessity, Nowhere Near You is quite different from the first book. Ollie is meeting people, so there’s that aspect – new people to talk to, and about, and new experiences – and of course he’s also interacting with electricity, which is a whole thing in and of itself. His sheer joy at experiencing a city and all the things that ordinary humans take for granted is a crazy delight to read. While Moritz is still at home, he’s interacting with new people too as he goes to a new school and meets… some good people, and some very dodgy ones. Again, of necessity, these new experiences change the two boys, and not always for the better. Both of them have incredibly awful experiences that reinforce their tendencies towards self-blame and depression, although again they both work hard to encourage the other. As they change they also have to confront aspects of each other that don’t always fit their view of the friendship, and I deeply appreciated Thomas’ care for her characters and desire for honesty in the way their friendship develops and overcomes those problems.

Once again the locations are deeply important, as both Ollie and Moritz interact with their places and try to understand their literal and figurative places within society. Other people become more important as they reject their hermit ways; again, parents of various sorts – biological, adoptive, foster – and various levels of emotional connection. It’s the other kids who are most interesting, though. Ollie meets some of the other experimental kids, and although you could probably read their various ‘disabilities’ as metaphorical I liked Thomas’ deadpan way of dealing with them: here’s who they are, what they can/not do, and they are real in this world and deserving of respect. Moritz mostly meets people who are ‘normal’ (caveats etc) and what I realise, on reflection, is that all of these people – experimented on and not – are as equally likely to be messed up, frustrating to know, or a complete joy, as each other. They’re individuals. I liked that a lot.

Also once again, there’s a lot of secrets that rear their less than pleasant heads over the course of Ollie and Moritz’s communication. And once again they both have their anger and both eventually deal with it. I really like how Thomas shows that being angry with someone doesn’t have to mean the end of a friendship. I think that’s about the most powerful aspect of the whole thing. Oh and also that being different doesn’t have to be the worst thing ever.

This was a delightful diptych and I look forward to seeing what else Thomas produces over the next few years.

Because You’ll Never Meet Me

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It was published in 2015 and they have sent it to me now because the sequel has just been published, and they were sending that to me as well. NICE MOVE BLOOMSBURY VERY CLEVER.

I had forgotten just how much I like an epistolary novel. I mean, I adore Freedom and Necessity possibly beyond reason, but that’s a pretty special case. Turns out it works nicely here, too.

Ollie and Moritz start sending letters – yes, actual letters, because Reasons – when Ollie is given Moritz’s address by his doctor. Ollie is a hermit for medical reasons and Moritz has a number of issues of his own such that while he’s not quite a hermit he’s definitely anti-social. Over the letters, the two develop a tight bond that’s mostly based on honesty, although their trust is tested at several points. They both keep secrets for a number of reasons – some good, some dubious. They take it in turns to be utterly depressed, often with good reason, and attempt to encourage one another. With varying degrees of success.

Look, yes, this book presumes that 14 and 16 year old boys are capable of and willing to write letters to strangers. It also presumes that said boys are willing to occasionally be emotionally open. These things can indeed be true. These things are not the least probable aspects of the book.

Ollie and Moritz’s letters are neatly separated by different fonts, which is a technique I have to admit to loving, as well as by tone. There is little fear of mistaking one for the other: Ollie is exuberant (usually) while Moritz is more formal. Their personalities are very different, due to their childhoods and their homes and their experiences. They make a lovely contrast. There are other characters: parents – biological and adoptive, loving and uncaring (those two sets do not always match); love interests; visitors; casual bystanders. The locations form a key part of the stories, as Ollie and Moritz (literally) navigate their worlds. But really it all comes back to the two boys.

This was an excellent novel. It’s YA… and I guess it has other genre elements but explaining those would be spoilers, so… just find out for yourself.

Bright Air Black

This book was sent to me by the Australian publisher, Text Publishing, at no cost. It’s out on 20 March 2017; RRP $29.99 (C-format paperback).

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This is a tale about Medea, which makes me happy she is definitely one of the more intriguing of ancient mythical women. Kerry Greenwood wrote a take on her ages ago, which I remember enjoying, and she featured in Robert Holdstock’s remarkable Merlin-and-Jason series (hmm… did I ever finish that? Must check). For the modern writer there must be a challenge in trying to understand what could compel this woman to leave her homeland, kill her brother, and eventually kill her children, and a tension is deciding whether to stay true to the “original” (HA) story, or to put a different spin on it – keep the children alive, for instance. Do you play Jason as a helpless fool or an arrogant one, Medea as loving and  betrayed or as cunning herself, and perhaps still betrayed – or the witch that she’s sometimes regarded as? Lots of interesting possibilities.

… and I guess those are some spoilers if you don’t know the Medea story.

Vann chooses to set his version properly far back in time, the 1300s BC; there is reference to Hittites, and Ilium, and Egypt. There are no Greeks; Jason and his Argonauts are the Mynae. Intriguingly, his descriptions of the voyage of the Argo back to Iolcus – which is more than a third of the book – is based on Vann’s own experience of traveling on a recreated ship of Hatshepsut’s time, with archaeologist Cheryl Ward, for a French documentary Building Pharaoh’s Ship.

First, let me mention the language. The copy describes it as ‘poetic prose’, which is apt. Bluntly it means there are lots of incomplete sentences and a few extended ones, and lots of adjectives and time spent on description. The gorgeous reality, of course, is not captured in that summation. For example:

Her father a golden face in darkness. Appearing in torchlight over the water and vanishing again. Face of the sun, descendant of the sun. Betrayal and rage. (p1)

and

The sail not a god itself but only the tracing of a god, a more responsive form of temple. Like fire to reveal Hekate. How can we know when we’re worshipping a god and when we’re worshipping only the sign of a god? Wind itself a sign of something else, and even fire, and white hides behind them? (115).

I’m not accustomed to reading quite such flowery language (which I mean positively), so it did take me longer than expected to read the book. It is wonderfully evocative and enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. And the other thing that I appreciated you can see in that last quote – Hekate. Korinth. Kreon. It’s also Iolcus and Colchis so I’m not sure if that’s annoying inconsistency; some Green scholar will have to let me know.

There are lots of threads that Vann is tracing through Bright Air Black (words from a translation of Euripides – the gods “turn the bright air black” in frustrating mortals). One is the role of gods, or lack thereof. Medea frequently calls on Hekate, who sometimes appears to answer in the form of fortuitous weather; but at other times Medea despairs of her goddess and appears to be at best agnostic. There is no magic here (probably); there is luck and poison and human trickery and the use of power. There’s some commentary on the role of those things in developing human society and how men (as a  rule) keep power.

This being Medea there is also commentary on the nature of feminine power. Medea has always been a weird girl, going off into the forest and not being afraid of the night; she plays on that and develops her reputation for fearlessness through her familiarity with the  unfamiliar and inhuman – forests, the sea, the night. And then she leaves her family for a foreigner. Medea herself ruminates on the power of women versus the power of men; this includes thinking about her own family, and the complicated genealogy whereby it’s unclear exactly who her mother and grandmother are – are they the same person? No one much cares; it’s the men that matter.

This is a pretty straight retelling of Medea’s story – if you know Medea, you know what’s going to happen. Vann has added motive and explanation, an investigation and justification of some events and a whole lot of description. It’s a great addition to the oeuvre of Greek mythological retellings.

The Edge of Everything

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s being published in February 2017; RRP $16.99.

Unknown.jpegI have to say first off that I think the title is naff. It doesn’t tell you anything and it also doesn’t relate to anything in the story. So that’s my whinge.

The promo material for this book suggests 12+. I would say 14+, personally; I can’t think of a 12 year old I would deliberately give this. Some 12 year olds would take it for themselves and cope quite nicely, I suspect, but that’s a different issue.

Zoe’s father died a few months ago; her brother goes out in a snowstorm and she has to rescue him; she meets a stranger with tattoos and apparently some sort of extraordinary power. He has no name; she calls him X. He’s a bounty hunter; things of course do not go well for him or for Zoe and her family.

It’s not the most original-sounding narrative, but there are some remarkable aspects to the book. Slight spoiler: X is from what would be best described as hell, but the Lowlands are quite different from any other incarnation of hell that I’ve come across in fiction. It’s an intriguing vision of the place and of how it might be used. There’s no explanation of the Lowlands and how it operates; instead the focus of the narrative is on relationships, and the work of bounty hunters… it’s all about the vibe of the thing. And overall that worked. Certainly there are a myriad of unanswered questions about the mechanics, but they don’t really matter for the story itself.

The human world and especially Zoe’s family are beautifully realised. The different expressions of grief are portrayed sensitively and realistically. Jonah, Zoe’s brother, has ADHD; it’s just a fact of life and oh my goodness he’s a cute terror, as little brothers usually are. Mum is vegan and a bit nuts and fierce and has always struggled to hold the family together: I adored her so much. Zoe’s friends Val and Dallas are a delight (Val made a Tumblr of her girlfriend’s feet) and although I thought it was going to veer into dodgy love triangle territory Giles avoids that neatly. Dad… well, he was a struggler, and the way mum slowly revealed a bit more about what he was like to Zoe over the course of the book was heart-breaking and, again, intensely realistic.

Into this human world comes X, quite accidentally, and in some ways – although a third or more of the book is from his perspective – he’s the most opaque of all of them I think. Partly this is because he almost has no personality, thanks to how he has grown up; he really only starts to live after meeting Zoe. I was reminded of those suggestions of how Matt Smith’s Doctor ‘imprinted’ on young Amelia Pond, as I watched X and Zoe together. I was initially a bit squeaked by their budding romance because I thought he was much older than her; turns out he’s maybe 20 to her 16 (which is still a bit squick for me). The intensity of their attitude towards one another, especially his for her, was the main eye-rolly bit for me. It all seemed a bit too intense too fast.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that this is the start of a series. It felt to me like the sort of intense story and relationship that ought to be encapsulated in just one, say 450-page, book. I don’t know how it could have been resolved but I definitely would have preferred that.

Overall this is a well-paced and intense book that I read in the course of one day. I enjoyed most of the relationships and I was genuinely surprised by a couple of the revelations. I’m not sure whether I want the sequel because I’m afraid it will lose the intensity, but that’s a problem I’ll just have to deal with.