Tag Archives: reviews

The Nile: A New History of the World’s Greatest River

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I should start by saying that this book is not quite the book I expected. Given it’s the Nile, and given the blurb, I expected the book to be much more about the swathes of history involved in that region of the world. There is, of course, discussion about the role of the Nile in the grand sweep of ancient Egyptian history, and what might be called “medieval” history for want of a better term. There’s mention of ancient Nubia, and some commentary on “medieval” Ethiopia, as well as the Rift Valley and the Olduvai Gorge. However, the reality is that the vast majority of this book is focused on European, and in particular British, colonialism – efforts to control the various parts of the Nile for their own purposes. So I was surprised by that, and occasionally disappointed that it was so modern in focus.

This is also not “just” a history book, and in general this is a good thing. It has aspects of a travel memoir; the author has travelled to every country he mentions, I think, and to most of the parts of the Nile and its tributaries discussed. So there are sections where Tvedt is quite personal in his writing, reflecting on his own experiences and how this matches – or doesn’t – with historical or literary representations of the places. This aspect I enjoyed a lot.

As well, there are aspects of historical theorising that I found quite intriguing. The author challenges Edward Said’s theories about ‘orientalism’ and whether it’s appropriate for this challenge to apply to all aspects of European writing; and challenges most historians in their refusal to consider the very solid, material, and geographic nature of a river like the Nile. I don’t know that much about the theories he’s challenging so I can’t say with full confidence whether he makes perfect sense; but certainly many of the ideas he raises seem fair.

But overall, the book is indeed about the Nile: as something that has shaped geography, as something that has shaped the civilisations that exist along its banks and those of its tributaries, as something that has contributed hugely to political tensions over the last 150 years or so. I had no idea there was a 1929 Agreement that basically said upstream countries could do nothing with the Nile unless Egypt agreed! And of course for most of those upstream countries, this was signed by the imperialist powers then in control… so since the 1960s there’s been argument about whether those powers had the right to sign on behalf of these now-existing countries. Nor had I ever considered the notion of the Nile as a weapon (withhold water, or release too much if you’ve got a dam); or the idea that the Suez Canal crisis can also be linked to control of the Nile.

I learned a lot about the realities of European colonialism and imperialism in the Nile basin – primarily the British, but also German and Italian (I didn’t learn anything new about Belgium, and Leopold). The machinations made me sick all over again: water for Egypt so Egypt can grow cotton to supply to England for the cotton mills…

In terms of structure, the book basically flows from the Nile Delta (seriously under pressure thanks to climate change) to the various sources of the Blue and White Niles (hello, Stanley and others). So it’s not chronological; I quite liked this geographical perspective, though, and it certainly makes sense in the context. Each chapter is broken into what are basically vignettes. It means the author doesn’t have to make one solid narrative for each geographical area, but instead takes various different issues and treats them in sometimes one, sometimes five, pages.

This is a thoroughly researched, detailed, meticulous and very clever story of the Nile.

A Master of Djinn

Fatma: an Egyptian woman dressing in smart (dapper, even) Englishman’s suits; a woman in the still male-dominated world of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities; someone with the tenacity, determination, and bull-headedness that characterises the best (fictional, I suspect) investigative types. I love her madly.

Fatma lives in an alternative Cairo: it’s 1912 and thanks to a man living several decades earlier, djinn and other such ‘supernatural entities’ walk the streets not only of Egypt but elsewhere in the world. They’ve added art and craft and technology, as well as opportunities for crime and political scheming to the world. Egypt has become the sort of world player that it didn’t manage until probably the 1950s in our world (thanks to imperialism etc). And I love this, too: I love Clark’s evocative descriptions of Cairo – by which I do not mean that it’s all “exotic” or whatever; I mean that his descriptions bring the streets and palaces and people to life in the ways that the best literature does.

Everything about this novel is marvellous. I love the characters; I love the setting. I love the exploration of how humans might interact with the supernatural when it becomes basically mundane, and I love the police investigation aspect (a lot). I love that it’s set in Egypt and deals sensibly, sometimes snarkily, with the imperialism issues that would still have been present despite the magical changes (the patronising ‘exotic’ comments from the white mouths are just… so on point). I love the language and the pacing and the revealing of important clues and… Look. Everyone should read this.

Salmon, by Mark Kurlansky

I received this book via NetGalley.

I’ve read a lot of Mark Kurlansky books, because I’ve really enjoyed the way he takes one thing – salt, in particular – and investigates its history and place in the human and natural world. Sometimes his work can feel a bit too general; I think this is a function of the format and his purpose, which is to present a wide-ranging view of the chosen topic. However, he does also present specifics – vignettes, effectively, to illuminate a broader point.

All of these comments stand for Salmon.

The first chapters are largely about the biology of the fish, which is way more complicated than I had realised – what even is a salmon, basically?? – and about its natural habitat and habits. Most salmon return to their natal spawning ground for their own spawning, and then die, which is just a whole thing when it comes to life cycles and how on earth they find their way back to a particular river after hanging out in the ocean for a variable number of years.

Much of the rest of the book is a litany of how humans have placed the existence of salmon in peril: through destruction of habitat in a multitude of ways, and directly through overfishing. Kurlansky touches on several ways in which indigenous peoples in what are today the USA and Canada and Japan used and managed salmon over hundred or thousands of years to demonstrate the possibility of living in balance… but all of that is against the construction of dams and other ways that ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ have led to the destruction of rivers, in particular. Honestly most of this book was pretty depressing to read. There’s so much we just don’t really understand about how to make it possible for salmon stocks to redevelop… which leads to further catastrophe in the food web. Salmon is, to an extent, just a symbol for how much the last 300-odd years of industrial development have ravaged the environment. So that’s fun.

If you can handle the story of environmental destruction, this is a readable and generally approachable book. As noted above, Kurlansky necessarily goes in for some generalisations – it’s a result of making a readable book for the general public, I think. But he does present specifics – about particular rivers, about particular indigenous groups, about particular styles of fishing, and so on – and there’s no doubt that he’s put an enormous amount of research and work into telling this story. It’s a sobering read, and it’s a worthwhile one.

Hard Reboot

I received this as a review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

It’s a far future universe where humans have spread to other planets and the Earth is basically a dump. It’s still worth visiting if you’re a historian or archaeologist, but you have to take drastic measures, like disabling your ability to access the network, and even physically covering up the jacks in your head, because otherwise they’re likely to be targets for malware.

Kas, a scholar whose background may get in the way of her achieving her goals, gets the chance to go to Earth and watch mech battles in the Drome (and it took me an embarrassing number of pages before I fully clicked that this was short for hippodrome or similar). From there, things go exceedingly not well, from accidentally laying a bet to being chased to meeting people she’s not meant to and getting on the wrong side of her boss.

Hard Reboot is fast-paced and exciting and a lot of fun to read. It flits between Kas’ perspective and that of Zhi, a mech pilot struggling to make her way as an individual in a society dominated by a corporate-or-is-it-a-gang. The narrative reveals teasing bits of what has made human society the way it is, but there’s still enough that’s not explained that it remains a bit opaque, a bit mysterious. Kas and Zhi’s interactions include an amusing level of banter, and the descriptions of the mech battles balance being precise in the mechanics with not going into the sort of boring detail that irritates me in some fight descriptions (my spatial awareness doesn’t really let imagine what you’re describing and also I don’t really care).

Definitely another good novella in a string of such from Tor.com.

Revelations: a novel about Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

I received this as a review copy from NetGalley.

A fictionalised account of the life of Margery of Kempe, generally regarded as being the author of the first autobiography in English. Mystic, wife, mother, pilgrim, accused heretic, all-round confounder of stereotypes and expectations. Margery always comes across as something quite extraordinary, beginning with the fact that we know anything about her at all – so few medieval women are known to the historical record, let alone in her own words. (Well, probably; she’s recorded as having dictated her account to a scribe. But I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that her words are her own.)

What Sharratt chooses to do in order to really bring Christianity and mysticism to the forefront is highlight Margery’s friendship with Julian of Norwich. They definitely did know each other, so that bit isn’t a problem. Julian was an anchorite – she took vows and was sealed up in a room that she never left, the better to contemplate God. She was also an author – the first named English female author, in fact. Her book was about revelations from God, concerning grace and love and the overwhelming affection that God has for creation; and she goes so far as to refer to ‘Mother God’, and call God’s love maternal. Sharratt makes her quite accessible, here, and the fate of her book is a significant part of the story – written as it was when England was terrified (and intrigued) by “Lollardy” – the idea of having the Bible in English and challenging the supremacy of priests as interpreters of God’s word, and various other things imputed to them.

Julian and Margery together certainly challenge the structure of the medieval Catholic Church. Margery, too, claimed to have visions, and Sharratt includes them as genuine and deeply affective experiences. Through Julian and Margery, Sharratt touches on some of the issues facing the Catholic Church throughout the Middles Ages – the role of priests and of communion and the accessibility of God to laypeople. The book doesn’t get especially deep into these issues, though. There are some truly despicable friars and priests, but also some genuinely loving and holy ones. Margery and Julian are certainly shown to be faithful daughters of God.

The one thing that troubled me here was some of the historical licence taken. Various true events have been included out of time for emotional impact: Margery witnessing the burning of Jan Hus, for instance. I don’t really see that this was necessary to heighten the tension, and I don’t think Margery needed to see someone being executed in order to have the reality of the dangers she faced brought home.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It’s well written and a fast read (I read it in a single, admittedly uninterrupted, day). It’s useful for emphasising both the similarities of the Middle Ages to our own time, as well as the vast differences. I already knew a little about both Julian and Margery, so I don’t know what this would be like with no prior knowledge; I suspect it would be fine.

Forces of Nature

I received this book via NetGalley.

I’m a bit conflicted by this book.

On the one hand, it’s a pretty great introduction to women in science – and the fact that women have ALWAYS been “in science”, they’ve just been obscured (deliberately or not) on a personal level or an institutional one; by which I mean, “science” has been constructed as a discipline in order to leave the ladies out (eg midwifery isn’t really medicine). Recovering the presence of women is always good.

I LOVE that Marie Curie isn’t mentioned until the last chapter. Seriously: the authors make this choice an explicit one, explaining that she gets used as the exemplar and that’s not useful (and also people ignore a whole bunch of facts about her, too).

I liked that the authors aimed to go back to ancient women, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence (because patriarchy AND because time); they make a good case for ways in which ancient women would have been involved in scientific endeavour.

On the other hand…
I wasn’t always sure whether the authors were picking women as examples, or if they thought they were being exhaustive. If the latter, then they didn’t succeed – and surely they weren’t trying for that in a book intended for the general reading public – but I would have felt more comfortable if they had been clearer about their decision-making paradigms.

There were some sweeping statements about “women” and their access to education/lack thereof. Very occasionally there were comments about how class also interacted with gender – but I felt there was a serious lack of this latter point. Class had a HUGE impact on access to time, let alone equipment; this intersection should have been made much more obvious. As well, other discussions about women’s involvement in science has pointed out that gentlemen-scientists, for instance, often had female servants assisting; that’s not discussed here.

Occasionally, the authors do not walk the line I think they intend to. For instance, when Western Europe experiences a craze for natural history and botany, the latter in particular is seen as appropriate for women to be involved in, for various reasons. The authors point out that it was thought women were closer to nature, and therefore had an affinity for botany… and then seem to suggest that women really were better at botany? I was a bit confused about what the authors thought they were doing here.

This is, too, an overwhelmingly European (and eventually American, largely still of European descent) book. Not exclusively – there is mention of women in ancient Egypt (of course; that’s basically European in the way it’s often discussed!), and women medical practitioners in ancient China. There’s a Japanese scientist in the 20th century who did awesome things regarding ocean currents and nuclear fallout, a woman of mixed Irish/Mexican ancestry who was an archaeologist, and a few others. I would have liked to see an acknowledgement that evidence is overwhelming white, because colonialism (in Europe and America) and because… lack of access, or something? for Asia. Africa, South America, Australia…

I got whiplash when the discussion leapt from Algoanice, living in probably the first century BCE, to Hildegard, who was born in 1098 CE.

As a way of enlarging your understanding of women’s place in science over time, this is a fine place to start, as long as you remember the caveats about class and race.

The Bookseller of Florence

This is one of the best history books I’ve read in years.

It’s written superbly. The language is a delight – but not so clever or lyrical that it gets hard to read. The pace is just right, and the level of detail is an absolute delight: the right balance of fascinating without getting into ridiculous minutiae.

It’s wonderfully historical: it uses primary sources and historians to make arguments and illustrate points, and they’re all woven within the story seamlessly. It uses endnotes, so you don’t have footnotes cluttering the page but you still have the reassurance that the author has done the research!

It illuminates (heh) the context magnificently. The Renaissance, Italy, and Florence are really not my scene, beyond knowing a few names (Medici, Borgia. – and Sforza for some reason?). The author sets the general scene for all three so that I felt completely comfortable going in. The book is ostensibly about Vespasiona, the “king of booksellers”, who started as a fairly uneducated boy working in a book binder’s in Florence and became the man who could either track down a manuscript or have a beautiful new one made for you – where “you” could be a wealthy-enough person in Florence or, like, the Pope (a few of whom he knew by name, hello). Beyond being a biography, though (which would have been fascinating but not that long because info about his early life is lacking) this is almost a biography of TEXTS, as objects and sources of knowledge, in this crucial moment – the 15th century. Why was it crucial? Well, a bunch of ancient Greek texts were being rediscovered and translated – especially Plato, who was being brought into the Christian fold as Aristotle was two centuries before. There were changes in the way knowledge itself was perceived, and an increase in the number of people (let’s be honest, basically men, but still) who were chatting/arguing/ getting fiery about various bits of knowledge. OH, and THEN, Gutenberg and his crazy weird moveable type (NOT first invented by him, of course, that was happening over in Asia already, and the author acknowledges that) comes along. The way the author contextualises that, and discusses the stats about book publication (mss numbers rose when print came along – probably because of increasing literacy) – it’s all just an absolute delight.

The book balances political history, social history, and a bit of economic history to make a thoroughly well-rounded examination of the period. And it still manages to revolve around this one man, Vespasiano, who coordinated the production of beautiful books and magnificent libraries, who became an author himself in old age, and was probably a bit of a cranky old man about those new-fangled print books.

Gosh I loved this book.

Beginning French…

No, I am not learning French. I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

One of the reviews at the start of this book said “Move over, Peter Mayle” – as in the author of A Year in Provence.

To which I can only say: uh, no.

Look, this is an enjoyable enough story. I’ve just watched several episodes of a show where people buy a French chateau and renovate it, so clearly I like the genre of doing things like that. But the thing that Mayle did was very clearly situate himself within his village: while he takes part in many of the amusing adventures he recounts, he’s not necessarily the focus. Mayle makes it clear how much he loves the place and the people.

Now, Les Americains are admittedly different because they don’t live in their house; they come for maybe a couple of months a year. But the people they mostly interact with are other foreigners (a lack of French is a problem here, too), and the focus of the book is the relationship of the couple, and their own personal experience. It’s just not the same as trying to explain or explore a village to a readership who will never get to live there.

There’s also a “Lunch in Paris” vibe where the couple’s daughter, a chef, provides recipes for some of the food they eat. This is a nice aspect but the food never felt quite central enough to the story to make this feel like a compelling addition.

Did I finish the book? yes. Am I dying for more information about how this couple spends their holidays? No. And it might just be me but I find it hard to take seriously anyone who takes their pet overseas, and then acts like the pet is a human.

Star Trek Picard

What, did you think I was kidding about leaping into Picard?

So… this was awfully lumpy.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Things I loved:

I love Raffi. I love that Picard’s arrogance is shown to have terrible consequences for those around him, I love that she is broken and that she is consciously trying to put herself back together again, I love that she has enormous emotional reserves for those around her and that she’s also very angry about everything that’s happened. I love how complex she is. I love that she is so badass.

I love Elnor. An Australian accent in space!?!?!?! I love that he gets to just… say whatever is in his mind, I love his mad skillz, I love the way he makes decisions. He’s just generally awesome.

I love Rios. I love his ridiculous 5-part holograms with their ludicrous accents. I love his skills, his development from wannabe mercenary to something else, I love his general attitude and his relationship with Raffi.

I love Seven. That she is not in a catsuit and that she continues to just generally be awesome. I love that she is shown to be complex, to have had a complex life since getting back to the Alpha Quadrant, and has learned some serious skills in snark.

I love old Riker and Troi. So cute. Less convinced by the kid, but whatever. I guess including them is basically just fanservice, but even I – as a not-massive TNG fan – enjoyed seeing them.

I really liked that it was actually Hugh, as the Director! Definitely fanservice there but it made even me happy. It’s a neat call-back and despite his fate, I’m glad we saw him.

I kinda liked Narek. I know, I KNOW, this shows terrible taste on my part. But… he’s an intriguing character! Mostly! Competing principles are compelling! Not that he deserves to be in the front of the image I’ve chosen, though: that really should be Soji.

I don’t mind Picard as a character. Look, I’ve seen a fair range of TNG; I don’t know all his complexities but I know enough. I think this does a good enough job of capturing the man – although I’m sure there are some people who are pissed that he’s shown to have epic levels of arrogance and selfishness (… I think they were obvious in the original show, personally). I quite liked that they showed him in his less than perfect humanity (ahahaha; little in-joke there). Having to deal with not everyone jumping at your beck and call – well, not immediately – made this just that bit different.

So there were good bits. I liked the idea of a captured Borg cube, I was intrigued by the idea of synthetics being banned, and there were some really great cinematic bits. But goodness the plot was just… lumpy. Also, the sound mixing was dreadful; there were lots of bits where I found the dialogue really hard to hear, and then explosions were LOUD.

Part of the problem is just how much is going on in the plot. Romulans and synthetics and Borg and secret police and people harvesting Borg and Picard having brain problems and… etc. I like a complex story, I really do, but this felt like a bunch of different plot lines that didn’t get properly woven together – like someone had LOTS OF IDEAS and they REALLY WANTED all of them to be in the show JUST IN CASE it didn’t get renewed. And yes it felt like it was happening in all-caps.

I didn’t mention Soji above. I liked her well enough? But she wasn’t my favourite character. And this made me sad. It should have been a show that was overwhelmingly, for the second half anyway, about her developing as a person when she discovers her life is a cover-up. But I don’t think she gets much character development, overall. I don’t know what could have been changed; I do know that I was left feeling like she wasn’t hugely different from when we first meet her, and that doesn’t make much sense.

When I first watched the credits, I thought it looked like Picard was being put together. And then there’s the stuff with Data, and then the vague intimation of a brain abnormality, and I had a wild assumption that Picard was himself going to turn out to be a synthetic – or had been replaced by one at some point. And then I shook my head and told myself not to be daft. And then the last ten minutes happened. Whoa.

Will I watch the next season? Of course; eventually. I don’t think I’ll be keeping Prime in anticipation, or getting it as soon as the first episode airs. But I am cautiously intrigued to see where it goes next, especially if Rios and Raffi stay on board (and what was that cutesy little hand-holding between Seven and Raffi?!).

Fugitive Telemetry

This book was provided by the publisher at no cost.

I’ll be honest – it would be hard for me to give a completely objective review of this novella, because basically Murderbot can do no wrong.

Important thing to note: I really don’t think it’s worth coming to this book as your first Murderbot experience. In the first place, reading all of Murderbot in chronological order is just such an enormously rewarding endeavour that why would you not? (I’m so embarrassed it took me until this year to tell my mother to read these stories.) Secondly, of course, this is the sixth book: there’s so much character development, and narrative, that is alluded to here – you’d be doing yourself a complete disservice.

So. Read Murderbot. Of course.

This story actually isn’t the the one I was expecting; I had thought we were getting Murderbot and ART hanging out being snarky. Not that I’m complaining! All Murderbot is good Murderbot. Instead, we’ve got Murderbot on Preservation Station, being Dr Mensah’s protection, and kinda accidentally ending up as part of a murder investigation team (which it totally didn’t do, and you know that’s true because if it had, it would have done a way better job of hiding the evidence). As usual with a Murderbot story, we get a sometimes-hilarious look at a Security Unit’s impression of human security measures (very poor), its intense dislike of human interactions, and a longing to just be left alone to (re)watch Sanctuary Moon (relatable). There’s snark, and the figuring out of whodunnit, and some grudging personal reflection that Murderbot would honestly rather do without. Also the odd fight and some relationship-building that eventually works out okay.

Murderbot continues to be one of the great AIs of modern fiction. Its deep commitment to keeping up with its preferred media, its irritation at human foibles, and its exasperated habit of looking out for hapless humans make it deeply relatable in a way that it would surely find deeply offensive. I would read Murderbot’s reviews of Sanctuary Moon, I would read Murderbot doing routine security patrols, and I would read Murderbot inter-bot snark until the cows come home.