Tag Archives: reviews

Lost in the Moment and Found (Wayward Children, #8)

Read courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in January 2023 (sorry).

It’s a Wayward Children novella. It’s always an exciting moment.

One thing I that both makes me happy and sad with some of the recent novellas is that they’re standalone. I love that they provide new entry points for readers, and also that McGuire is exploring such interesting variations on the ‘there are Doors that lead to new worlds and young kids who need them can sometimes find them’ thing.

The only reason I’m sad is that I love many of the original cast and I will always want to know more about them. But that’s definitely about me and not about the books.

So! If this is your first Wayward Children, how awesome! And if it’s your 8th, how awesome is this series??

As McGuire herself does in the Author’s Note, I will point out that the lead character deals with an adult gaslighting and grooming them. McGuire wants very much to let readers know that Antsy runs before anything actually happens, and I deeply appreciate this reassurance. I also appreciated, as the story progressed, the narrator noting that Antsy’s fear of not being believed was in fact unfounded. Which is of little use to Antsy, of course, but perhaps of enormous use to a reader.

Antsy: unhappy at home, runs away, finds a Door… which leads her to a shop with a talking bird and a very old woman, which turns out to be a shop where lost things turn up (yes, all your odd socks; kittens and my favourite frog ear cuff, too, I expect). The bird and the woman and now Antsy catalogue what turns up, help people find lost things if they can, and sometimes sell things when they know they won’t be claimed. Many Doors open from the junk shop – which is a very different premise from what happens in most of the other stories – and Antsy goes through to visit markets and to explore. It is, of course, an adventure… and things do, of course, turn out to be not quite as they appear.

I love Antsy; I thoroughly enjoyed the story; McGuire is still doing great work in this series.

Growing Up Weightless, John M Ford

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. The re-published edition, from Tor Books, is out in September 2022.

Honestly this book really shouldn’t work. It’s so full of lacunae it was like reading the second or third book in a series and not having the information to fill in the gaps. Another issue is the formatting, although I suspect that’s a matter of it being an e-ARC: there are sections where the POV suddenly changes but it’s not indicated by an extended break or anything like that. And if that’s an artistic choice rather than a formatting thing… well, I don’t particularly like it, but it did make me work harder and pay probably closer attention, so maybe that’s what Ford wanted for me. And thirdly, it’s not exactly a grand story. No explosions, no dramatic twists of fate for society, no incredible revelations.

And yet.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.

It’s not a grand story: it’s an intimate one, a growing-up story – as the title suggest, ‘growing up weightless’: it’s set on the moon, not all that far into the future but far enough that there’s a settled, indeed governmentally independent, colony. And as children have done since time immemorial, some of the children of the moon are unsettled, feeling like they don’t fit in and want more/different/other. And they’re also playing games: surprisingly substantial parts of this story are the kids playing a role-playing game, as outlaws in Sherwood Forest (do I love the idea that this milieu could continue to be attractive for coming generations? yes I do).

Matt, the main character, is born into an important luna family, and is feeling the pressure to figure out what he’ll do as an adult; he basically knows, but he’s afraid to tell anyone else. He loves his friends, and acting, and the role-playing game they’ve had going for many hours now; his relationship with his family is a bit fraught. The moon is somewhere that teens can travel around quite safely, especially within their own domes; there’s excellent train networks, so you can travel between domes too – and so they do. This is pretty much how the main action happens, such as it is. This is, on reflection, a fairly claustrophobic story, as befits one set on the moon.

Along – or perhaps slightly behind – Matt’s story is his father’s, and this is where even more lacunae exist. Albin’s relationships with various figures, the decisions that need to be made for the moon’s future, even how he feels about anyone – all of this is very shadowy. Which mirrors how Matt feels about his father, really, so again maybe that really makes sense and I’m only realising as I write this just how clever and deliberate Ford was.

It probably shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and I am once again grateful that Tor is re-publishing Ford’s work, so that people like me get to appreciate it.

The Atlas Paradox, Olivie Blake

Read courtesy of NetGalley; it’s due out in October 2022.

This review will have some spoilers for the first book, The Atlas Six. And you really need to read the first one. Do not come to this with no prior knowledge.

This is an example of one of those books where very quickly I am pretty sick of the bullsh!t of every single character, impatient with their childishness and arrogance and lack of ability to see beyond their own selfishness… and yet I kept reading. Partly for the characters – I like Libby (and let’s not analyse that particular sentiment), and to my amusement I like Nico, and of course I like Gideon; Reina I am intrigued by. The others I find very frustrating if occasionally intriguing. But I also keep reading because I just have no real idea where Blake is going with all of this. I don’t know whether the characters are going to actually come together, or not; whether they will work with Atlas, or not; whether the world is going to end, or not. And so despite my impatience and frustration – all, it must be said, indications that Blake is skilful at creating characters; I don’t tend to waste emotions on 2D characters – I devoured this book, and am now also impatient for the third book. This situation cannot be left where it is and I need to know how it resolves.

So the book opens with Libby gone, her colleagues initially assuming she’s dead and then realising that she’s just… gone. Using his abilities, Ezra has dropped her in the past, hoping to save her or save the world or… honestly who really knows, Ezra is so messed up. The others, back in the Library mansion, are meant to spend their year doing basically an Honours project, researching their own thing. As may be of little surprise to those who’ve read the first, mostly they just don’t bother because have you ever met another group of incredibly smart people who collectively had so little interest in actually doing the work they’re expected to do? Reina is not included in that indictment. And I guess Nico isn’t either but he’s Nico, and like all the others is definitely running to his own agenda. It will also come as no surprise that things go badly for pretty much everyone at different stages of the story. They don’t cope very well with that.

There’s an enormous depth, here: Blake hints at a lot with Atlas, and with Dalton, and with Reina and Parisa in particular. There’s also terrifying potential for what could eventually occur. Both of these novels have been very well-paced; Blake uses the multiple-narrator mode beautifully to explore the variety of characters and give hints at what’s in their brains. I think, actually, that it’s using that format which makes these novels so very compelling.

Enclave, by Claire G Coleman

I received this from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost.

If you’ve read Terra Nullius or The Old Lie, by Coleman, then I heartily recommend the same strategy as I used: just read the book. Don’t read this review, don’t read the blurb. You already have a sense of how Coleman writes, and what Coleman writes. The first two were very different, but you know how they’re similar; this is also very different, but it’s clearly a Coleman novel. If you were staggered by those first novels, then you really don’t need to anything else other than: it’s a new Coleman novel.

Still with me? Haven’t read either of the first two (but now you know you should because they’re amazing), or somehow not sure about this one? Christine lives in a walled city with no contact with the outside world. Everyone knows that the outside world is terrifying, full of violence and bad things; unlike their city, which is calm and peaceful and carefully surveilled for any trouble. Everyone who lives inside this city is white; the bussed-in servants are brown, but they’re nameless and just go about making houses liveable. Christine isn’t entirely happy – her best friend is missing and she doesn’t know what to do – and then does something unforgivable, and then everything changes.

It’s fantastic.

Bootstrap, by Georgina Young

Received from the publisher, Text, at no cost. It’s out on 19 July 2022, $32.99.

As a time travel/ romance set in Australia, this book is fine. A pretty slow start – there’s a lot of setting up of the small town and the two main characters – but the second 2/3 is pretty well paced. There are some quirky ideas, the characters are believable (and recognisable, for Australians at least), and it’s… fine.

Yes, I know that sounds like damning with faint praise. And it is fine! Truly! I didn’t mind reading it! But… it’s not outstanding. Sadly. For a YA audience that’s not read many time travel stories; or for Australians who have never seen themselves on the page before, maybe it would be different? I don’t know.

I have a couple of issues with the book. The first is with the blurb writer – note, please, NOT with the author. The book itself literally references The Time Traveller’s Wife. So when the blurb calls this a “genre-bending” novel? No, it’s not. Jonathan Strahan’s new anthology is literally Someone In Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance. So time-travel and romance isn’t new. Even making it queer doesn’t make it new.

The second issue is the language. It’s very Australian. In fact, I would go so far as to call this excruciatingly Australian. I am a big fan of stories being told in the vernacular, but this felt like the author had first written the story in more generic English and then went back and switched everything to the most ocker she possibly could. For instance: “I get a schnozz full of water” (138), “I wanna touch him” (140), “And it’s like finally, ya nong” (144) and so on. Piles of Aussie slang (logs in the toilet) and references to Australian brands (Lemon Fresh, a man eating a Barney Banana ice cream “shoulda gone a chocolate Paddle Pop, idiot” (58). It just ends up feeling like the author is trying too hard. But maybe I’ve become an elitist and I don’t appreciate what kids in small towns really want to read. So if this works for those kids, awesome! It just means I’m not the right audience, and I’m fine with that.

Budapest: Between East and West

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.

Things I knew about Budapest before reading this: it used to be two towns, and pictures of Soviet tanks in the streets in 1956. I think that’s about it, really.

An intriguing aspect of this book is that it’s written by a man born in Budapest, whose family fled Hungary when he was a child. Sebestyen makes no secret of this, and of his connection to the country and the city. So there’s a mix of ‘objective’ history, and also the occasional mention of how things relate to him personally. I like this kind of honesty a lot.

One annoying aspect – and this might just be a personal gripe – isn’t peculiar to Sebestyen, and is at least partly a reflection of the historical record (and my personal preferences). The book begins with a very brief look at what is known of the area around Budapest from pre-history, and then moves to what the Romans did. There’s barely a discussion of Attila and the Huns. By p30 we’re up to the year 1000. p109 and we’re already at 1800 and at p272 it’s the accommodation between Hungary and Hitler’s Germany. The book is 377 pages long. While I know that there’s a lot more evidence for the alter centuries, it always makes me despair that history is given such an unbalanced presentation. As if the modern world is the only bit worth discussing. Sigh.

Despite this preponderance of modern history, Sebestyen does give a good overview of the history of Budapest – as Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in the front cover quotation., it’s really a history of Central Europe. You can hardly have a history of the city without discussing the history of (what is now) the country; and in this particular case, at least some of what was happening in Austria for a few centuries. And so I learned more about the Turkish occupation, as well as how the Habsburgs managed to create Austria-Hungary as a dual monarchy; and of course the role of Hungary in both world wars and then as part of the Soviet bloc.

The story is largely told chronologically, with occasional chapter breaks about particular themes – one in particular that stood out was about the role of the Jewish population in the city. I had no idea that Hungary had been something of a haven for European Jews, although they were still not safe from the occasional pogrom (because anti-Semitism is apparently just too easy). The way that Jews stood outside of the feudal system, basically – and the incredibly bizarre way Hungarian feudalism was structured, with a massive number of nobles who refused to get into trade or anything similar – meaning that Jewish artisans and traders filled that niche.

This book fits into a tradition of using city histories as a way of looking at changes over time, to everything from culture and tradition to language and politics and everything else. The sub-title is pointed, here: part of Sebestyen’s argument is that Hungary doesn’t really fit into the way Europe sees itself, and doesn’t particularly fit elsewhere either. (The story of Hungarian as a language, and the efforts to revive and develop it, is a particularly fascinating part of the book.)

Thoroughly enjoyable.

An Open Door: New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November 2022.

An anthology of travel and place writing published in the context of the pandemic? And one that’s not just all sentimentality about things from the before-time? And that’s starting from, sometimes going to, Wales? These are excellent things.

A sad thing is that this anthology was prompted by the death of Jan Morris, which I hadn’t heard about. I haven’t read much of Morris’ work but her little book focusing on Wales and her home there is absolutely captivating.

All of the authors here have a connection to Wales – some born there, some moving there. But not all of the essays are about Wales. Instead, there’s Brazil and Somalia, Venice and Paris and Japan, and Sapelo Island as well. Sometimes it’s because of partners from elsewhere, sometimes family who have migrated. Sometimes they offer reflections on one particular moment in a life, and sometimes reflections from a generation of experience and change. There are, of course, also essays set in Wales: like one about find green space to be calm and solitary while in a wheelchair; another about following the pilgrim way in the north on foot.

I don’t know anthologies like this very well, so it’s depressing although not surprising to learn that the range of authors – that they are not all male and able-bodied and white and young-but-mature – is something worth noting. It is, of course, the more enjoyable for this diversity of voices.

This was a delightful set of essays, and an example of how broad ‘travel writing’ can be. I hadn’t come across the idea of ‘place writing’ before reading the introduction but it occurs to me that that is, in fact, often what I enjoy reading. There are some wonderful examples of that genre here, as well as travel. And while it did make me slightly nostalgic for travel in the before times, that reality is different now – pandemic and climate change both contributing, not to mention political climate. I probably should look out for more books like this.

The Path of Thorns

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out at the end of June, 2022.

You know those authors where you know you love their work but somehow they’re not automatically at the top of your mind and then you see a new book by them and you think, oh yeah I should read that; and then you do read it (perhaps eventually) and you think WHY DO I FORGET HOW MUCH I LOVE THEM?

Maybe that’s just me.

Sorry, AG Slatter. I really do love your work.

This novel is set in the world of Slatter’s mosaic novels – Sourdough and Other Stories, and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. You don’t have to know those stories to love and appreciate this one; they’re not about the same characters, or even necessarily the same places in the world. This is a world where magic is real, at least some of the time, but not everyone approves. Magic is mostly done (at least in these stories) by women, which feeds into the disapproval of that ‘not everyone’. It’s used for good and for ill and sometimes doing it for one reason ends up having the opposite consequences. In her Author’s Note, Slatter points that the world is a mishmash of the Victorian, Renaissance and Medieval – and asks readers not to go looking for historical accuracy. So there are moments that maybe kind of feel familiar from history, but they’re set with moments that really don’t.

What I particularly love about this and the other Sourdough stories is that they feel like fairytales, even though they’re definitely not tales that I know. There’s something about the ideas and themes – as Slatter suggests, “weird family dynamics, manipulation and lies, false faces, lost families and found, terrible acts and the potential for redemption”. There’s also something about the way Slatter writes, and here I am completely lost for words. I can’t tell you what words or phrases she uses to evoke a slightly eerie world, the sense that this is a world just slightly off from ours; that makes me a bit amazed that this is NEW work, rather than something that was told ages ago and has that patina of tradition, of being a well-worn and beloved story – of familiarity. And that last is particularly odd, frankly, because I really didn’t know what on earth was going to happen from page to page. She uses phrases and stories-within-stories that read like they SHOULD be as old and familiar as the wine-dark sea and Achilles’ rage, but … they’re not.

So: Asher goes to Morwood Grange, to be governess to three young children. She has a frightening experience on arrival, and brings with her some things that she immediately puts under a floorboard. And see, right from that, you just know things aren’t going to be straightforward. And so the story proceeds – making friends and enemies and figuring out how to do what she’s come to do; you already guessed that Asher didn’t come to Morwood accidentally, right? In some ways a bit claustrophobic – Asher mostly interacts with the family and few servants at Morwood – it’s saved from being TOO gothic the-house-is-trying-to-eat-me by occasional visits to the village and out into the grounds of the estate, and also through Asher’s occasional reminiscences, It’s an intense story, intensely inwards-focussed – and look, I read it in a day.

I loved it. A lot. It’s not always easy to read; the family is a deeply broken one, Asher’s not exactly perfect, and there are definitely actions that people regret (or should, but don’t). And yet, I loved it.

Aspects, by John M. Ford

I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in April 2022.

Glorious. Frustrating. Confusing. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking…

It’s hard to know how to talk about this book.

The first thing that needs to be said is that it’s unfinished. The author, John M Ford, died in 2006. He had been working on this novel, it seems, for many years – at least that’s what I get from the introduction, written by a friend of Ford’s, Neil Gaiman. And so… the book is incomplete. That is, there’s no conclusion; and I suspect there are bits that might have been edited for clarity if the author had, indeed finished.

And I nearly cried when I got to the end, because this book is just so amazing. Like, this could have been the start of one of The Great Series. I’ve read only one other Ford novel, and I think a few short stories; this makes me want to go back and read absolutely everything. Because if this is the standard, well – I’ve been missing out.

Aspects is set in an alternate world. It’s kind of Britain, I think, although it doesn’t seem to be an island. It’s kind of analogous to the nineteenth century – there are trains (the Ironways), for instance, and there’s a form of electricity but some people are suspicious. But chemistry doesn’t quite seem to work the way it does here. Religion is important, but it’s not a Christianity-analogue; there’s a goddess with several faces, and matching consorts. And there’s a Parliament, with Commons and Lords, but here’s the final difference to our world: the lords are lords of the land, of religion – and of sorcery, or Craft.

So it’s kind of steampunk, but it doesn’t really fit into what I know of that category, and it’s fantasy set in an industrial context. Honestly though it just defies categorisation. It’s a deeply political work – three of the main characters are in Parliament, and at least part of the narrative revolves around machinations there, like writing a new constitution. It’s a country struggling to figure itself out several decades after becoming a republic – and it seems that the previous monarchy had been imposed by a conquering race, although that’s one aspect (heh) that I never quite got my head around. Some of the characters have the ability to use magic, which is not without its difficulties, and it’s clear that was going to a significant thread if the book had continued. There’s a romance, with its own difficulties; and such a large array of characters, all with their quirks (and bringing diversity, too) that this should have – could have – provided many, many pages of just mesmerising story. And now I’m making myself sad all over again that I’ll never read them.

Ford’s writing can be profound: “Play keeps us happy and agile, in mind and muscle; sleep and good meals keep us alive. We can misspend time – hurting people, ourselves included, making the world worse – but to ‘waste’ time – to get no motion at all, good or bad – to do that one would have to be not at alive at all” (p172 of the e-version). While I was sometimes a bit confused about what was going on, I was always captivated by the writing itself and somehow convinced – even though I don’t know Ford’s work that well – that everything would eventually make sense. And I was largely right.

Persians: the Age of the Great Kings

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2022.

I really, really wanted to love this book.

(That, children, is called ‘foreshadowing’. You can almost see the BUT looming behind those words.)

A book that’s basically the postcolonialist version of Persian history we’ve all been waiting for! A view on Persian history that’s not just repeating the Greek and Roman commentaries that were absolutely written with a very particular perspective! YES PLEASE. And even more when Llewellyn-Jones makes the acerbic comment in the introduction about how the concept of European superiority can be dated back to Herodotus etc and the way they presented the terrifying East. So yes, let’s have a version of Persian history that is largely based on Persian sources, or uses the Greek sources very carefully – to find the Persian reality behind the Greek propaganda.

And it starts so well. There’s a discussion about Persia vs Iran as a name – and I’m not sure whether his explanation of the political nuances there are accurate, so I defer to others on that, but it seemed to make sense within what I do know. There’s a discussion about the archaeological activities that give historians what they know from Persepolis etc, and a candid admission about the lack of sources. The Persian history proper starts with a discussion of the movement of different peoples into the area we know today as Iran, and some speculation about how they interacted etc. Then it moves into discussing the development of the Persian empire as empire, and interaction with the Medes. All of this section was intriguing and the use of inscriptions was well done. I did start to get a bit uncomfortable about the lack of reference to other sources – like other historians; I understand that getting the balance of what can seem to be most approachable, and what can seem too scholarly, may revolve around footnotes etc but… there’s just no way the author didn’t use other references.

I also started to get a bit uncomfortable when the author claimed that Cyrus’ mother “delighted in singing Median nursery rhymes to him” (p60 of the e-version), because that seems… weirdly specific? And then I got to the description of him as “lean and good-looking in that way that Persian men are uniquely handsome” (p63 of the e-version) and I had to stop and blink and decide whether to laugh or cry. What happened to treating the Persians as real people and not exoticising them, which I thought was part of the postcolonial agenda? I also have a problem with the statement that “A society that requires such codes of respectful behaviour” (obeisance before the monarch, etc) “is very likely to have autocratic political organisation, characterised by the coercive power of a king” (pp194-5). It just seems too blanket a statement.

And then! We have Darius’ half-sister and wife described as “a Lady Macbeth-like villainess, hellbent on power and ruthless in her bloody ambition” (p288) and I really started to wonder whether it was now a different author, or if he had been to sexy the book up. Next we have “years of adoration and unnaturally demonstrative mother love meant that [Darius] was self-centred, cruel, vindictive, and brutal” (p292); and that mothers experience “that particular twang of jealousy… when their sons give their hearts to other women” (p294). In case we worried that it was about misogyny, we then have a eunuch described as “a veritable creature of the court” (uh, eunuchs who are made eunuchs to BE at court are literally that??) who was “born to corruption, whose ambitions were for the very highest office of state” (p333) and I just can’t even. The author then has the temerity to accuse the Greeks of employing the “topos of the wicked eunuch” and I need to ask some questions about self-awareness.

So. I am ambivalent about this book. It’s a super necessary idea, and the use of Persian inscriptions and the way some of the Greek sources are handled is a really good example of how to read through sources to get more than they think they’re saying. On the other hand, some of the descriptions are clearly ridiculous (robes of “chiffon-like linen, gauzy cotton, and shimmering silk” (p293) – not to mention that nursery rhyme – really need some evidence!). And the bits quoted above are enough to make me despair. Did I learn something about the Persian empire and the kings who ruled, and the way it all worked? Absolutely. Is this the last word in Persian imperial history? I sure hope not.

Would not recommend to someone who is completely new to the history of this area and time, or to someone who is naive in reading historical books. For those looking to deepen their knowledge, it’s useful – with the caveats above.