Tag Archives: reviews

Octavia E Butler: Modern Master of SF

Unknown.jpegGerry Canavan wrote a fabulous essay in Luminescent Threads about ‘disrespecting Octavia’ – about whether or not work in Butler’s archives that remains unpublished ought to be published now, against her wishes. It’s a thoughtful essay that acknowledges it’s not an easy question to consider, and makes the unpublished work sound fascinating while admitting its flaws.

I knew Canavan was writing a biography of Butler when we asked him to write for us, and I’d been meaning to get hold of it… well, all year. I finally did and I finally read it and it is exactly as wonderful as I had hoped.

To call it a biography isn’t quite accurate. It is that, to an extent; you certainly learn the outlines of Butler’s life, and Canavan is quite explicit in looking at the struggles Butler faced in finding the time to write, how much re-writing she did because she wasn’t happy with work at various points, and other aspects of her life like receiving the MacArthur fellowship and so on. But this is also an extended critique of Butler’s work – both published and unpublished, because one of the amazing things about this book is that Canavan had access to the many hundreds of boxes of papers that Butler left when she died so suddenly. They’re stored at the Huntington, and their finding guide alone is over 500 pages in length.

Makes me want to start printing out and filing emails.

Each of the chapters is based around a particular creative period in Butler’s life, which I liked because it foregrounds that the creative output is the focus of the book but/and that it happens in tandem with the actual events in Butler’s life. Canavan traces themes across her work, as well as the ways in which so much of her fiction (12 published novels and 9 short stories!) can be seen as connected to one another: through early drafts and plot ideas as well as the motivating ideas. It makes me desperately want to read some of that unpublished work when I read about what she was trying to do in them… although Doro/Jesus sounds a bit weird even for me.

This is not a long book and it’s not a dense book. It’s not a nitty-gritty, every-day-at-a-time biography, and it’s not a highly technical literary analysis – it’s far more approachable and engaging than either of those would be. This is a book for people who love Butler’s work and want to know more about her and her work. It works brilliantly.

100 Nasty Women of History

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. RRP $32.99 trade paperback; it’s available now.

This is a great idea for a book, obviously; it’s similar in concept to Cranky Ladies of History although with a more pointed political stick, given the timing.

So… look. I have a few issues with it. Some of these are particularly my issues and may not be a problem for other people. So let me start with the good things.

  1. There are women in here I’ve never heard of. And that includes in the historical section, not just in the more modern sections. That’s awesome. And is largely because…
  2. The women aren’t just European. That is also awesome. The opening section on Wonderful Ancient Weirdos includes Seondeok of Silla (Korea), Khayzoun (Yemen/ Baghdada), and Subh (Basque/Cordoba), as well as Sappho and Hatshepsut and others.
  3. It acknowledges some of the problems with sources, and that info about women can be hard to come at. Too true.

But. Hmm. I’m actually writing this review before I finish reading it, for two reasons. It’s going to take me a long time to read because each entry is only a couple of pages long, and I find that exhausting… and I’m not sure I actually will read the whole thing. But since I got it to review, I wanted to write something about it close to publication.

The above points are absolutely reasons to buy and flick through this book. It’s got a bit of swearing so it’s not quite right for ten year olds, but 15 years olds? oh yes. Do it. Have it on the shelf ready to pull out to point out just a few examples of women being awesome scientists or what have you. However… like I said. Some things rub me the wrong way.

  1. The introduction includes this: “Where there are mistakes, forgive me. I have done the best I can, and it turns out there is a lot of history out there which I have shoved into my eye sockets. processed through the lukewarm innards of my brain, and squeezed through my fingers. It’s inevitable that some things will have gotten lost on that perilous, squidgy journey” (4). And… it really made me uncomfortable. Why is she disparaging her intelligence? Why is she blase about mistakes? By all means acknowledge there may be some, and I know she’s being humourous, but this way of presenting just irked me.
  2. The first chapter is “Wonderful ancient weirdos”. I guess she was going for alliteration but these are powerful women she’s discussing, and she’s calling them weirdos? That’s sending the wrong message, in my book.
  3. Also on this chapter: ancient? Uh, no. Hatshepsut, sure. Sappho, yes. But Margery Kempe, Hildegard von Bingen, and the others are all medieval, or at best early medieval. These terms matter, for me, because the context is important. Everything before the Industrial Revolution is not ancient.
  4. I don’t love the language. No, this isn’t a tone argument. This is definitely the most idisyncratic complaint, and your mileage may well vary. For instance, Hildegard’s regime described thus: “The strict regime of the convent demanded that each day the nuns have… eight hours of manual labour, which entailed, I dunno, putting up retaining walls and stuff” (26). That’s irksome for me.
  5. Verging on not caring about historical accuracy: “This is my book, and everyone gets laid” (10), on whether Hatshepsut and her chief advisor were lovers. Just nooo.
  6. Historical accuracy again: I skipped to the chapter on Alexandra Kollontai, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that she got a chapter! but it says that International Women’s Day was February 7th by the Russian calendar, in 1917… but it was Feb 23. That’s just careless. Also? “Sorry, New Zealand, I know you gave women [the right to vote] in 1893, but you’re just so little and far away” (376). Far away from whom? Are only Americans going to read this?
  7. The end of Seondeok’s chapter: “Ugh, men” (18).
  8. Also, they’re not arranged in chronological order, within their thematic chapters, and that drives me batty.
  9. Also not in order, this time alphabetical, is the Old People Glossary, which in itself (despite my comments on the language) is quote amusing. I’m fine with using modern slang in these sorts of biographies; I think it can make them much more approachable. But why, why would you not put the words in alphabetical order??

So… there you go. Decide for yourself how annoying these issues are vs having a handy reference to Kollontai and Rosa Luxembourg, Mergery Kempe and Sappho, Queen Nanny of the Maroons and Sojourner Truth, Hypatia and Nana Asma’u and 92 other women on the shelf.

Persepolis Rising

Unknown.jpegI received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $32.99 for the trade paperback.

I love James SA Corey and his (their) capacity to write awesome words that simultaneously lift up the heart and rip it to shreds. Previously, on this topic, see these posts. If you’re already on the Expanse train, you don’t need to read a review; you probably already have a copy or you’ve got it lined up for Christmas or something. If you haven’t read them yet… well, if you’re into space opera and deeply compelling characters and an epic, long-running saga where the books get published on time (burn), and you’re not intimidated by this being book 7, you should just go get yourself Leviathan Wakes already and START READING.

I can’t talk about this book without spoiling the rest of the series. You’re warned.

… and further, perhaps with this book more than any other of the series, I can’t even really talk about the BOOK without spoiling it, and I want to give massive kudos to the blurb writer who managed not to spoil the first page which, folks, is such a game-changer that I had to re-read it a few times to actually grasp what it was telling me. My darling has seen the TV show and it’s killing me that I can’t tell him about the first page. This never happens, because we basically don’t ever read the same stuff, so I can spill my angst about characters or authors without spoiling him for things. But this time? Oh, no. Now he’s invested in the TV version and he doesn’t even want me discussing those things what happens to Miller.

So… the non-spoiler version is that as always we follow our redoubtable Roci and her crew. Unexpected and probably bad things happen to our solar system. I continue to really like Holden while simultaneously appreciating that he continues to be complicated, both as a person and in the way people view him; Naomi and Bobbie vie for my very favourite, while Amos and Alex aren’t too far off. I continue to want to be Avasarala when I grow up. I love the way that politics are presented – messy and fraught and difficult and lived-in and having serious consequences. This is not an easy future that Corey imagines for us. It’s just so damned human. Also, w00t for the Roman history overtones. There’s battles and there’s conspiracy and there’s making the wrong decisions and just being wonderfully human. Argh, I love it and it hurts my heart and I want the next book sooner than I’ll get it…

Spoiler below in case you’ve read it or don’t care…

Continue reading →

Girl Reporter

Unknown.jpegI received a review copy of this because, well, I asked my good friend Tansy if I could read it early and she said yes… it’s coming from Book Smugglers in December and you can pre-order it right now.

I have described this as a distillation of Tansy, and I stand by that. If you listen to Galactic Suburbia, or probably Verity! as well, you’ll find as you read this book that you recognise a lot of things. Not the characters, as such, nor the plot beats, but the themes. It’s superheroes and feminism, yes, which Tansy is definitely obsessed with. But more than that, it’s got romance (she’s been reading a lot of them), motherhood (there’s been a few essays on the topic in the last few years), queer representation and ethnic diversity (she’s a champion for those things). It’s got people discussing ‘old’ media vs ‘new’ media, and speculation about new new media; millennials doing excellent things and not taking crap from their elders; and a whole bucketload of snark and banter. And given her obsession with Press Gang and Lynda Day, it was only a matter of time before that came out in her fiction. Also, it’s sooo Australian.

So yeh. This is a very Tansy book.

But wait! You don’t know who Tansy is? That’s ok! You’ll still enjoy this novella if you’re interested in superheroes, and especially if you’re interested in superheroes beyond them just punching villains and swooshing in capes. This is set in the universe of “Cookie Cutter Superhero” from Kaleidoscope and “Kid Dark Against the Machine” – and if you liked those, you’ll be super excited to know that some of the characters recur here (you can definitely enjoy this cold but it’s so worth reading those other two stories anyway). It’s a world where machines mysteriously appeared, many years ago all over the world, which turn ordinary people into superheroes with different powers (and outfits) – and return them to normal again too. The stories are set in Australia, and while the first two deal with superheroes themselves this one is specifically focussed on Friday Valentina, a vlogger with a famous mother and a variety of baggage. Her vlogging focus is superheroes and they do end up being very… involved… in the story.

It’s a hugely enjoyable story that also says some sharp things about a variety of relationships, and about Australian politics in passing too. I’m rather hoping there might be more stories in this world to come…

Lotus Blue

Unknown While this may not be a uniquely Australian perspective on the future – other places have deserts – there’s still definitely a strong Australian flavour running through this world. The Dead Red Heart, the dust and sand, the mad tankers (Sparks acknowledges a debt to Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong), the caravans, the grim survival in the face of crappy odds. Also the place names that occasionally gave me a giggle, to see them cropping up in this devastated future.

Cat Sparks is a friend… but she’d never expect anything but the truth from me, so don’t worry; this is definitely a fair review.

So it must be pointed out that you shouldn’t come to this book hoping for a happy post-apocalypse world, or a happy post-apocalyptic story. That is not how Sparks rolls. There is unpleasantness and violence and maiming and death and loss and lots and lots of hideous sand. This is a world where human survival relies on following rules that enable communities to survive even if you don’t understand them; where groups have to be wary of other groups because even though helping each other is a good idea, sometimes my group against yours might mean we survive at your cost. Did I mention the sand? There’s a lot of sand. Life is hard and for most people, requires hard work and sacrifice. Well, for most people… and that (naturally) is one of the tensions that Sparks works through here.

This is a world after global conflict, some indeterminate period in the world’s past, that involved soldiers created by humans – robots, cyborgs, and all manner of variations on the theme. Exactly what happened in the past is never spelled out; I got the feeling that a whole bunch of conflicts got conflated and thus, a thoroughly mangled world – which isn’t unimaginable. But the history itself doesn’t matter so much, except insofar as the remnants can be either helpful or harmful to the humans still making their way. Coming off Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series, this is refreshing, and I liked it: for most of the population survival is more important than history, and that makes sense.

The novel is made up of a large and varied cast, whose stories eventually intertwine. There’s an adolescent on a caravan in the desert fed up with her life; a supersoldier reawakened; an old, old woman eking out the end of her life; a grifter; and representatives of those doing better than everyone else, come to see what the rest of the world is like. It was good to read the variety of perspectives and remember that human survival will mean a diverse range of experiences.

The story at its most basic is a straightforward one. But the thing that really made this stand out was the world building. It helped that I happened to be reading this in a blast of hot days, but even if it had been the middle of winter I would have felt hot, felt parched, felt distressed by the unrelenting nature of the world – this is a world that really can’t support humans very well anymore. But humans are determined and bloody-minded, and that comes through too.

One thing that annoyed me was in the proofreading. There were a number of instances where commas were in weird places. And of course I can’t now find an example because I forgot to mark them, so it looks like I’m complaining out of turn. But they were definitely there: commas as though there were three adjectives but there was only two, for instance. Not a problem with the story, but something that threw me a few times.

Overall this is (I can’t believe) a great debut novel from Sparks. I hope she has more vices stories in her after she finishes her PhD…

Muriel Matters

UnknownThe short version is that Muriel Matters was an Australian actress and acclaimed elocutionist who went to Britain and ended up participating in the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, and went on to work with underprivileged children, among other things. She was also one of the first women in a flying machine, and was – as far as we can tell – the first person to engage in aerial leafletting: she tossed Votes for Women pamphlets over the side of the airship basket. She was amazing and this biography captures her wonderfully.

The longer version… is basically going on about some of the other, remarkable parts of Matters’ life. Like chaining herself to the Grille, part of the screen that stopped MPs from seeing the women who were in the tiny little room where they could watch parliament. Or the things that she endured while on her endless speaking tours, such as constant heckling and having eggs – and other things – thrown at her. The stays in prison. And her magnificent speeches about suffrage – which was not an end in itself, for Matters, but merely the beginning of women coming to full participation in social life and the fabulous consequences that would have for society. At the moment, it’s all too tragic to read some of Matters’ hopes and dreams for how women would be able to participate once they had the vote. Because yes, there were some positive changes made in SA, for example, once women were voting, around labour laws and the like. But we still see the ways in which women are hampered from full participation and the consequences of women’s voices not being taken seriously.

Wainwright, who also wrote Sheila, has done a remarkable amount of research here. Matters has never had a biography written before – and I’ve read quite a few books about English women’s fight for suffrage and she has never featured significantly in any of them. Matters died a widow, and with no children, and most of her family gone and overseas, so most of her own papers have been lost. So there’s a huge amount of reconstruction from newspapers, from early accounts of the suffrage movement, and other such sources to find out what can be found out. There are gaps, of course – in particular around Matters’ personal relationships – and Wainwright offers speculation but is clear that that’s what it is.

As to her politics and passions, those seem quite clear from her speeches and from where she devoted her energies. After becoming disillusioned with parts of the suffrage movement, Matters works with striking workers and then eventually becomes one of the first Montessori-trained teachers in Britain, working with children in slum areas. Knowledge of her later life is sketchy because she disappears from public view, which is such a shame because surely this woman didn’t sit at home fuming, after her actions earlier on? It makes me want to encourage everyone to print their emails and keep them in secure vaults so that historians can find them later.

This is an engaging, thoughtful, and generally lovely look at a fascinating and important woman who was part of a historical struggle that most people know far too little about.

The Tallow-Wife

36147725I can always rely on Angela Slatter to shatter my heart.

This wee volume was put together by Fablecroft for Conflux, the Canberra SF convention, this year. It’s a teaser for Slatter’s next volume of stories set in the world of Sourdough and Bitterworld Bible, basically. The main feature is the title story, with a couple other short bits included, and – to make it extra special – illustrations from Kathleen Jennings.

“The Tallow-Wife” is exactly the sort of story I have come to expect from Slatter, especially when it’s a story from this world. It’s a family story, it’s a gentle story, it’s a nasty story as only family stories can be. There’s hints and suggestions of machinations that aren’t spelled out, there’s layers of heartbreak and confusion, and it’s all presented in beautiful prose that sometimes bewilders me: how can such lovely words be telling a story that tears me up? It took me a good couple of weeks to read this – I read it in two sittings but after I put it down the first time I was super reluctant to pick it back up because I knew it would just hurt. And it did, but it was worth it, and I loved it for all the pain.

It must be noted that this is a lovely <i>object</i>, too. Hard cover, Jennings pictures; it’s a delight.

 

Nexus

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. It’s out today; RRP $19.99.

I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away by Zeroes; I was immensely more impressed by Swarm. With a few niggles about the haste with which this third book ended, I am basically very satisfied with how the trilogy concluded. It levelled up nicely, ramped up the consequences and problems being faced, complex-ified the characters… and it’s a very fast-paced read. Hugely enjoyable.

The basic premise, in case you’ve missed it: six kids in a little town in America, all born in 2000, have powers, of a sort. They’re all different powers and take varying degrees of control. None of the kids is really all that happy to have their powers. They end up working together basically because of Nate, or Bellwether, whose power is a persuasive one. So if you’re into superpowers and their consequences for individuals and families and communities, this should definitely be on your radar. Continue reading →

Terra Nullius

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now, RRP $29.99.

Terra nullius has a specific resonance for Australians who know anything about their history. It’s the legal fiction under which Britain decided they could colonise the land that’s now Australia, because it was ‘nobody’s land’ – that is, no one that the British recognised owned it. Because the British didn’t recognise the traditional owners as ‘owning’ the land, for a whole bunch of reasons. So for Claire G Coleman to use that as the name and premise of her book is brilliant, and pointed, and tells you a lot about what the book is on about before you even open it.

Coleman, who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, won the black&write! writing fellowship in 2016 with this manuscript. The main reason why I think that’s awesome – aside from the obvious one that it’s a great book – is a bit spoiler-y, and that’s a bit of a problem with discussing this book at all…

The blurb talks about Natives, the Colony, and Settlers. It says “This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.” Along with the fact that this is a didactic book (in no way a criticism) that does its message-work with clear prose, understandable characters, compassion and a lot of toughness… I can’t really say much more about the book without revealing what makes it something other than a book about Australian history. There’s runaways and enforced schooling and hiding from Settlers and Settlers complaining about the environment… and… other things.

I want to throw this book at all white Australians. And I would be fascinated to hear what non-Australians think, especially people living in other colonised lands. I don’t know enough about how that’s spoken of elsewhere to know whether the resonance would work in a non-Australian context… but I think there’s enough commonality for it not to be a completely foreign experience.

And now, for those of you who don’t mind spoilers:

Continue reading →

Beneath the Sugar Sky

BeneathSugarSky_hiThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost.

And I’m really sorry but it’s not available until 9 January, 2018. I’m sorry about that because it’s really really good.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel to Every Heart A Doorway ; this is Every Heart’s sequel, chronologically speaking. You could absolutely read this without reading the other two (although seriously, why would you not read Every Heart? It’s one of the best novellas I’ve read in… years); there are some spoilers for Every Heart in Beneath the Sugar Sky, because there’s passing reference to the events that occur, but they’re not enough to make this novella opaque.

For those just joining us: the premise is a question that’s obvious once it’s asked. What happens to those children who fall through doors into other lands when they come back to the mundane world? Some long to go back, some are traumatised terribly. Enter two schools to help out, one for each experience. Every Heart and now Beneath the Sugar Sky are focussed on the school for those children who want desperately to leave this world, because they just don’t fit; they crave a return to the world that wants them, that invited them. And so they attend Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children… and wait. And hope.

Cora is new to the school, and quickly gets accidentally sucked into a quest. There’s travel to other worlds, battling usurpers, making friends, and trying to cope in worlds that really don’t suit you (how does someone driven by Logic survive in a world driven by Nonsense?). The story itself is charming and fast-paced and a lot of fun; unexpected and upbeat and delightful.

But it’s the characters that are really wonderful, and Cora in particular. She is described as fat fairly early on – descriptively, not pejoratively – and the rest of the story has moments where she deals with (expected) responses to her size based on past experience, with her own attitudes towards her size, and most importantly pointed reminders that size in no way correlates to personality or worth or any other marker of value. She has moments of triumph and moments of failure; she is a valuable member of the group; and the other people in the group, sensible humans that they are, never make her feel like anything but.

I just love this world so much. I love the idea that the other worlds can be mapped against different ‘directions’ (Logic and Nonsense and so on), that there is a system to their connections. But mostly I love the characters that McGuire is creating here, and the way these adolescents grapple with not belonging. I am hoping for many more such stories.