Tag Archives: review

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

imageDid your brain go totally Roald Dahl when you saw the title? Mine did. Anyway, this novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be available for you to read from 13 March, 2018 (which is this year!).

Somehow, don’t ask me how, I managed not to read “The Waters of Versailles,” Robson’s highly regarded short story from… last year? The year before? I don’t know how I managed not to read it, given everyone else was raving about it… I just didn’t get to it. I’m going to get to it now, because I’ve read this and it’s excellent.

Seriously, just go pre-order it. Do you like the paradoxes of time travel? Do you like cranky old women being cranky and smart? Do you like a bit of ancient Mesopotamia? GO. PRE-ORDER.

It’s well into the future, things haven’t gone so great for humanity but they’re maybe kinda improving, if people manage to focus on what’s relevant. Time travel is… probably not relevant. But it’s consuming a lot of attention. But maybe it could be used for something relevant? That’s what Minh is hoping, anyway, as she prepares a brief for an intriguing new job.

The world that Robson has developed here is suuuuper developed for such a short story; as in, I wouldn’t be surprised to read at least a novel just fleshing out the things that she hints at here in terms of economies and habitats and generational attitudes and… yeh. That bit alone is completely absorbing; reminded me a bit of Iain M Banks’ civilisations. And then you add time travel.

The opening is somewhat disconcerting, as there’s clearly two separate stories being told – one with gods and monsters, one with technology. Very quickly the links between the two become evident but exactly how things will resolve is not at all evident. I really enjoyed the way that Robson played off the two different civilisational points of view. I also really enjoyed the different characters she employs. Minh is my favourite, of course: how could she not be with her crankiness and her competence and her bloody-mindedness? But her companions are also great and offer excellent, necessary and important alternatives to Minh’s point of view.

I am well impressed with this novella.

The Conscription Conflict and the Great War

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Monash University, at no cost. This review initially appeared in the History Teachers of Victoria journal, AgoraUnknown.jpeg

The year I got back to teaching Year 9 history I happened to visit Canberra. I wasn’t that keen on the Australian War Memorial – not being a huge fan of military history – but my co-traveller wanted to, so we did. Knowing that I would be teaching something about the conscription debate as part of our history unit, I looked out for what the AWM might say about it. I found it in the 1916 room on the First World War: a single display, showing some postcards from the Yes and No campaigns, accompanied by very little explanation about the situation. When we got to the book shop, I asked whether they had any books on conscription or, failing that, any books on the home front with information about the debate. No, they didn’t.

It turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised at the lack of books on the conscription debate; there hasn’t been a “book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, developments and sources in 1935” (p6). This is amazing and, frankly, depressing, since it “was a defining feature of wartime Australia” (p2) and “unique… quite without precedent – not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world” (p3). The aims of The Conscription Debate are manifold: to offer new interpretations; to compare the Australian experience with other English-speaking countries at the time; and – most provocatively – to “intervene in current debates about how to understand the war by contributing to a more accurate and rounded picture of how it was experienced” (pp6-7). The authors do meet these aims – not always in a great deal of detail, given the length of the book, but sufficiently to give an overview of the issues.

Chapters 1 and 2 (Douglas Newton and Robin Archer) make up Part 1 and set out the philosophical and political context of the conscription. These were the two chapters I found most difficult to follow. I think they would be best read with at least some understanding of nineteenth-century British and Australian political philosophy, especially of what it meant to be ‘liberal’ at that time, as well as an understanding of the ins and outs of contemporary British politics more generally. This is not my area of expertise, so I found myself floundering through the discussion of Liberal Imperialists and New Liberals and Little Englanders. Nonetheless, these chapters are important to the overall picture this volume is putting forward: that the traditions of liberalism, and the existence of the labour movement, are fundamental to understanding the conscription debate.

Part 2 consists of Chapters 3 (on the Antis); Chapter 4 (on the Yes campaign at the University of Melbourne); and Chapter 5 (an examination of the poll results in both 1916 and 1917). In Chapter 3 Frank Bongiorno gives a clear, if brief, overview of some of the incentives for voting no: tyranny vs freedom, women as mothers, and (embarrassingly) ‘keeping Australia white and free’. He speaks not just of the well-known names like Daniel Mannix but also those who have largely slipped off the historical radar. In Chapter 4 Joy Damousi looks at a group of Melbourne University academics such as Alexander Leeper and Jessie Webb who actively campaigned for conscription, pointing out that the yes campaign has rarely been analysed “as a set of arguments or as a movement in its own right” (p93). Such arguments included the suggestion that voting no would significantly contribute to a German victory and Australia becoming a German colony, and that it was democracy that was at stake in this war – so citizens must “show themselves worthy of these freedoms” (p101). Intriguingly, many of these academics went on to be involved in the League of Nations Union. In Chapter 5, Murray Goot undertakes a detailed examination of election results to try and understand voting patterns amongst Labor voters and not, in metro and regional areas, among women, British and German migrants, and between Catholics and Protestants. This chapter is not for those afraid of percentages, but for those interested in the history of Australian voting it is deeply fascinating.

John Connor (Chapter 6) and Ross McKibbin (Chapter 7), in Part 3, match Part 1 in a sense: they put the Australian conscription debate into international context by comparing experiences in other English-speaking countries. Connor gives a chronological overview of English-speaking countries, all of which instituted conscription in some form, while McKibbin provides a more detailed comparison of Britain and Australia. These two chapters highlight the remarkable nature of Australia’s experience at the time, since nowhere else put the question to its citizens in the same way. It also suggests that this issue of conscription and how citizens respond is one that warrants further research.

Finally, Sean Scalmer in Part 4 gives an overview of how the conscription debate – and especially the Antis – have been remembered in Australian history: from being a labour-movement legend to its eclipse thanks to conscription in World War 2 and, more recently, how it fits in with “the broader revival of Anzac commemoration and enthusiasm” (p206). Deeply interesting, this chapter too suggests that there is a lot of room for further research.

One issue I had with the book overall was the use of the word ‘referendum’. My understanding was that non-binding polls like this, which were not asking to change the constitution, were properly called plebiscites. Most of the authors in this book call it a referendum… except Frank Bongiorno in Chapter 3. I would have appreciated some discussion of the terminology, and an explanation for the words used (also consistency).

This is, to coin a phrase, the book on conscription we had to have – because it’s essentially the first. It’s not the book on conscription I wished for; that imaginary book has a lot more about the individuals (I adore Vida Goldstein) and groups that were campaigning both for and against the issue. But The Conscription Conflict does an admirable job of reminding us why 1916 and 1917 were important years for Australia outside of the fighting going on in Europe; it sets out areas that need further research; and hopefully, it will serve to inspire someone (or many someones) to dig deeper into this fascinating period in Australian history.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. This review first appeared in the History Teachers of VictoriaUnknown.jpeg journal Agora.

If you are especially keen on the history of the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire, like me you might have bought the classic John Julius Norwich trilogy. Again if you are like me, you may have got to the end of the second book and thought, “No more!” Despite that, the city at the heart of that empire (thrice-named, eat your heart out New York) has always enthralled me – and, Bettany Hughes suggests, has fascinated, enticed, and aggravated people for a good few thousand years.

Firstly: don’t be put off by the page count. Those 800 pages include an extensive timeline, detailed (and interesting but not imperative) endnotes, a thorough bibliography and an index. At 600 pages, with often quite short chapters, this is a very approachable book for such a complicated subject.

Hughes attempts to do two things in this book, and generally succeeds; she calls it “an organic examination – an archaeology of both place and culture” (6). It is a chronological examination of the development of the city now called Istanbul – the invasions and innovations and growth through successive regime changes (although “not a catch-all of Istanbul’s past” (3)). However, woven through that is a social history of the people who made the city what it is. This includes such luminaries as Theodora and Constantine and Süleyman II, but also the everyday people who made the city function. There are chapters, for instance, on the presence of eunuchs in Constantinople, and the realities of the harem (insofar as they can be known), and the Varangian Guard. Hughes includes discussion of the various peoples who threatened, worked with, and generally impacted on the city (Goths, Vandals, Vikings, Turks). In doing so she naturally expands her focus beyond the city walls, but this is unavoidable when dealing with the likes of a city such as Byzantion. Indeed, it adds greatly to the context of the book: how to understand the numerous Muslim sieges and eventual conquest of the city without an understanding of the growth of Islam? How to understand the birth of Turkey as a country and the move of the capital to Ankara without the context of the First World War and the internal Ottoman politics of the time? And so on. Hughes does a magnificent job of weaving all of these pieces together into a coherent whole.

Nominally the book’s narrative stops at 1924; there’s a chapter after that about Istanbul’s future, but it’s a fairly sweeping overview of the following ninety years. However, something that I very much enjoyed and which added to the book’s approachability is that Hughes makes occasional reference to contemporary events from when she is writing (2016). A passing reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan acting in a similar fashion to Justinian, preparing “to take his money and to fly” (219), points up similarities in situations that may provoke and intrigue the reader. Describing the city as “well designed for rioting” and using the Gezi Park/Taksim Square riots to indicate this truth in 2013 (when Hughes was herself in the city), and then proceed to discuss the AD 532 Nika riots, suggests a continuation in the city’s physical existence that is extraordinary over that span in time.

One of the most captivating aspects of Hughes’ book is her wonderful use of archaeological evidence. There are frequent references to discoveries made in Istanbul and elsewhere around the world, and how the goods and structures uncovered are continuing to change historians’ and archaeologists’ understandings of different periods. For a historian to remind her reader that the story of a place is not completely known is refreshing. She contextualises these sites, too: to find “one of the few scraps of evidence for one of the most remarkable phenomena of the medieval world” (the Varangian Guard), one passes “young men push[ing] second-hand mattresses… on wooden carts and kids sort[ing] through piles of redundant television aerials” (321). This provides a visceral feel for the city as it is today – a living city, not abandoned; a city continuing to leave behind remains for future archaeologists to sift and puzzle through. Hughes also has a lovely sense of humour that occasionally pokes through: in discussing the archaeological finds at Tintagel (which indicate trade connections between that part of England and the Byzantine world), she describes the finding of the graffito reading “Artugno” as “[u]tterly unhelpful for the historian but irresistible for the tourist guides” (292).

Another aspect of Hughes’ attitude towards the city and her people over time is the sympathy she displays. In speaking of the development of iconoclasm, for instance, which she says historians have “[o]ften described… as an irrational, typically ‘Dark Ages’ response” to the consequences of the Theran volcanic eruption in AD 726, Hughes insists “we have to pause for a moment to think of the horror of Thera’s eruption” and proceeds to describe the physical realities of such an eruption (300). This is a lovely moment of historical empathy that enables the reader to glimpse life for an eighth-century Byzantine.

As a physical object, it’s well-designed. The cover is perhaps predictable but gorgeous nonetheless. There are three sets of colour plates, covering a range of people and events, and many black and white images throughout. Each section (there are eight, each representing some important change in Istanbul’s history) has a series of maps at the start, showing changes in the city as well as context such as the reach of the Byzantine or Ottoman Empire over time (there is one section where the map, which goes over two pages, is split by the colour picture insert; that was a bit irritating).

Hughes’ passion for Istanbul – for the history of the place and for the contemporary city – come through across the volume. She delights in all aspects of its history and she wants the reader to share that with her. As an introduction to the complexity of the city’s history, as a history of a place that has impacted on European and Asian history for 2500 years (and was inhabited for many thousands of years before that), and as an example of how history writing can be made approachable, this is a fabulous book.

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

Unknown

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.