Tag Archives: reviews

Sleep it off Lady

Once upon a time I was an undergrad Arts student. I was going to study English and History. One of my first semester English classes was Modern Literature. I had no idea ‘modern’ was a critical term rather than just a temporal one; I had never done any literary theory or real critique. I discovered that I loved Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and could barely keep my eyes open for Dubliners (James Joyce); I was captivated by Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) and finally watched Apocalypse Now as a result. And I read Good Morning, Midnight and I don’t even really remember the story but I remember being absolutely bowled over by Jean Rhys. I later read Wide Sargasso Sea (because I kinda do love Jane Eyre) and was astonished all over again.

Unknown.jpegSome years later I supported The Second Shelf in their Kickstarter, and as part of my reward I got a first edition of Sleep it Off Lady, a collection of Rhys’ short stories. This was a pretty great result for me, since I had let her fall off my radar, and now I could re-discover this writer that A. Alvarez in 1974 called “quite simply the best living English novelist”.

In some ways I don’t really know how to talk about this collection. They are, by and large, realist fiction – and most are more along the vignette line, rather than having fully developed narratives. But all of them comment on some aspect of life, or relationships, or social interactions. And none of them have superfluous words and none of them are sentimental and all of them left me thinking about what life is like.

“Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers” is set on a Caribbean island, where Rhys grew up; from the perspective of a young girl we get a view on how the Europeans might view another European who doesn’t really match their idea of how a European man should act.

“Goodby Marcus, Goodbye Rose” is also set on a Caribbean island, again told from the perspective of a young girl… whose innocence and expectations of an ordinary life are basically removed when an old man grabs her breast.

Some of the vignettes are reflections on being a young woman in the pre- and inter-war years in Britain, or Paris. And several are haunting reflections on getting old, as a woman, and how people might view you, and how you might view yourself.

This is a really short collection and all of the stories are short, too. They pack an immense punch and they will definitely be re-read.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Unknown.jpegWell I’m only about six years behind on this.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that I don’t much care for Australian history. Except for the women’s suffrage bit. There are lots of reasons for this and some of them are the same ones everyone else trots out and some of them are idiosyncratic (I really like my history to be properly old, and I like the textual/ architectural etc remains, which is problematic for Indigenous history).

Anyway. I loved You Daughters of Freedom and back when we were still able to congregate with others (ah, the good old days), I went to hear Clare Wright speak about it. I took my copy of Daughters to get signed… and then while I was there I thought I should get this, and also get it signed (which meant lining up a second time which she thought was very funny). This is partly because I was feeling a bit giddy-fan-girl, and partly because she described it as her ‘democracy trilogy’ – the third to be about the Yirrkala bark petitions, I believe, which I will absolutely be buying and reading. I also figured that while I’m fairly indifferent towards the whole Eureka myth and the way it figures in Australian history, I could trust that Wright wouldn’t give me a rah-rah-tattoo-the-Southern-Cross-on-your-chest story.

Wright does a marvellous job of peopling the gold rush fields of Ballarat with real people – men and women and children, from many different places around the world. This is the real key to her work. She points out just how masculine the story has been, and the take-away myths that have grown up around it; and then she debunks those myths by not only pointing out that women were there, but by pointing up how significant the contribution of women was.

Women as publicans. Women holding gold licences. Women running shops. Women running the newspaper, and writing copy for it. Women running a theatre. Women holding together their families. Women being expected by the government to make the place more civilised. The lack of Chinese women being used as an excuse to be racist shits. Women giving birth (including in the middle of the storming of the Stockade!) and women dying. Women as reasons for men to try and make more money, to look after the families – and to stop the woman from being the one supporting the family. Lady Hotham being appealed to, to intervene with her husband, the ruler of the colony. They were there. And important. And ultimately shoved back into old gender roles, for the most part, when the gold fields got more mechanised and Ballarat organised itself as more of a regular town and when the franchise got extended to more men, but no women.

One of the things I liked about Daughters is that it recognised that Indigenous women were excluded from the achievements of 1902 (although Ruby Hamad has words to say about how this is discussed and to what extent, in White Tears Brown Scars). The Wathaurung people appear occasionally in this story: reminders that they had been finding gold in the area for centuries, and that some of them engaged in commerce and relationships with Europeans, and so on; but overall not that much. It seems that Wright had to do immense digging (heh) in the archives to find the information about the white women that she uses in the book; that there would be far less archival information about Indigenous people and their interactions with each other or Europeans doesn’t surprise me at all. Sadly. Could Wright have done better? Maybe. Would it have made the project even bigger? Absolutely. Was it the point of the book? No. If someone hasn’t tried to do a really in-depth look at the Indigenous experience of the Victorian goldfields, that should absolutely happen.

I have a much greater appreciation for what life was like on the goldfields (pretty shit), the political situation with both Hotham back in Melbourne and the local authorities (also pretty shit, for a variety of reasons), and some of what led the miners to actually create what we know as “the Eureka Stockade” (pretty haphazard, not really intended to be a Great Last Stand Bastion), and of course the place of women in all of this. The entire situation really does deserve a place in discussions about the development of Australia as a democracy, as a social liberal experiment, and in how Australia developed its identity (exclusion of the Chinese, other variations on racism, how people spoke of themselves in relation to Britain, etc etc). Which is something I never thought I would say.

(My enthusiasm has one caveat. There’s this weird bit where she talks about women’s menstrual cycles synchronising, and something something hormones affecting a situation, and… it’s just odd. It doesn’t fit with the rest of her style, and the synchronising almost certainly isn’t true, and… yeh. I was a bit thrown.)

Even if you think you don’t like Australian history – if you like history, and the reclaiming of forgotten groups, this is definitely one to read.

We Wuz Pushed

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Basically if you’re interested in Joanna Russ’ work, or you’re interested in the way fiction, in particular, can be involved in radical truth-telling, you need to get this book. It’s from Aqueduct Press.

I am a big Joanna Russ fan, so I’m intrigued by everything that does any work deconstructing her work. Mandelo takes as her project the idea that Russ’ entire oeuvre is concerned with radical truth-telling – that art should bring not only pleasure but truth, and not only deconstruct myth but also present new realities. She goes through all of Russ’ science fiction novels, pointing out the truths that are present there and how Russ uses that fiction to suggest new ways of being. I especially liked how Mandelo presented her own journey to understand And Chaos Died – which I haven’t read – and how context can radically change how we understand an author’s intent. I also really, really appreciated how Mandelo addressed the very tricky subject of Russ’ transphobia in The Female Man, and stresses that being able to adjust our understanding of truth should be part of the truth-telling process. And the fact that Russ did, indeed, change her perspective (on trans women and other issues) makes me respect her the more, and gives me something to aim for.

Mandelo also addresses some of Russ’ non-fiction, particularly How to Suppress Women’s Writing and To Write Like a Woman, where the truth-telling is perhaps more obvious in some ways. Overall Mandelo presents Russ’ body of work as a series of writings deeply concerned with the multiple ways in which truth can be told or distorted and what we as a society must do about that. It kinda makes me a bit uncomfortable when I know that I do often go for escapist literature… and I’m not sure how much Russ would approve of that… but perhaps if I can do it with my eyes open she wouldn’t despair too much?

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

images.jpegThings I have not read: Sherlock Holmes stories.

Things I only read occasionally: mystery or crime novels.

Things I have read a lot in the last three months: Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series. Ten books and several short stories, in fact.

This is all because of a friend who suggested the series to me while I was travelling (also the Amelia Peabody series). I decided I needed something a bit light, and I thought it would be interested to give it a go… and all of a sudden I’d read two novels and a novella. And it went from there.

Mary Russell is 15 in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; orphaned and living with a nasty aunt in Sussex. She literally runs into an older man out looking at bees, and he turns out to be a now-retired Sherlock Holmes. She demonstrates a surprisingly keen mind, he is intrigued, she ends up being his apprentice, they have adventures, and so the series sustains itself.

Russell is an heiress, so there’s no money issues (at least once she inherits); she’s Jewish; she’s very bright, obviously – and gets a degree in theology; and she is, clearly, a match for Holmes in terms of personalities. I can’t speak to how well Holmes is portrayed, but there are amusing references to his being annoyed at Conan Doyle, and the way Watson wrote their adventures up.

To some extent I guess you could call this extended fan fiction. Especially when you have Peter Whimsy turn up briefly, and then Kim (Rudyard Kipling’s Kim), and Dashiel Hammett, and for all I know other characters that I didn’t recognise. But… who cares?

Overall the stories are well-written; they’re definitely page-turners. Sometimes the crimes are dreadful, sometimes they’re on the more intimate side; sometimes Russell and Holmes are personally involved, sometimes they get dragged in. The stories start in 1915, and I’m up to 1924 (where I’m going to pause for a long time, I think; I’ve about done my dash for now), so there’s discussion of blue-stockings and women under 30 not yet having the vote, and King keeps the misogyny and some of the racism that would have been par for the course at the time – which does get a bit uncomfortable at times, it must be said, and I’m sad she felt it necessary.

Overall these are entertaining stories that aren’t too demanding. Perfect for right now, as far as I’m concerned.

Elysium

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I bought this book ages ago, I think because it was on the Tiptree Award (now Otherwise Award) honours list. And then I didn’t read it for ages because I thought it was horror – which makes no sense because why would I have bought it in the first place if I thought it was horror? At any rate, I finally decided it was time to read it, and Wow. What an astonishing, wonderful, weird, and very clever book.

It starts relatively easily, with Adrianne and Antoine, a couple whose lives are drifting apart. Nothing particularly odd – except Adrianne sees an elk, in the city; and there’s a brief interlude of computer code that makes no sense. But then the story continues… And then all of a sudden it’s Adrian and Antoine, and Antoine is ill, and Adrian is caring for him but life is so hard.

And then it’s Antoinette and Adrianne. And you can see why the Tiptree committee thought this was a worthy book to include on their list, as the characters slip in and out of genders and relationships and sexualities and the story evolves around them.

Sometimes the pair are lovers; sometimes they are biological family. Sometimes they have a strong relationship, sometimes things are fracturing. And as the narrative develops, the world in which they live gets stranger – not as time goes on but as their story takes place in different worlds; sometimes subtly different, sometimes spectacularly so (sometimes there’s a variation on a plague, so at the moment some readers may wish to avoid). And always the relationship between the two is significant: sometimes it actively influences events in the wider world, sometimes the focus is intensely personal. And always there are the computer-code breaks that hint at restoring or losing data, or resetting systems, and it’s really not clear what’s going on but clearly all is not as it should be (in case you didn’t guess that when there was an elk in the middle of a busy city).

This novel is lyrical and intense and passionately human. I’m so glad I finally got to read it. And then I read the afterword and I was floored all over again because of course that’s where it was coming from.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler…

images.jpegI don’t often read books because I ‘should’ – unless they’re ones that I ‘should’ read before the Hugos, maybe – because I rebel against being compelled to read something when my list of to-be-read books is already one that I will never complete. (Why yes, this is somewhat ironic given my occupation.) This one, though… a number of people recommended it; at least one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels makes reference to calvinos; and then in the most recent episode of Galactic Suburbia, Tansy mentioned that it bore a passing similarity to another book I’d read, in being a book-within-a-book. So I thought it was time to get into it.

I am quite sure there are lots of deep, thinky pieces about this novel. It’s a book deliberately and self-consciously exploring the very idea of reading, and what books mean, and what authorship means and how it functions. Something like half of it is written in the second person; the first chapter tells you you’re about to start reading If on a winter’s night a traveler and therefore you should relax, find a comfy spot, tell people to turn the tv down, and so on. Why yes, thank you, I was on the couch in a quiet room with my feet up. Also, the description of what it’s like to venture into a book shop – with those towers of books glaring at you, the Books You’ve Been Planning to Read For Ages making alliance with The Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success – was an all-too-accurate description of why I prefer buying books online.

And then you, the Actual Reader that has opened the book, watches the Fictive Reader finally open the same book, and rather than read the book with the Fictive Reader, the Actual Reader is given a description of what the book is like… at least for a couple dozen pages, and then the Fictive Reader finds that his books starts repeating itself. And then the Fictive Reader has to go back to the bookshop… and thus the book that the Actual Reader is reading continues, as the Fictive Reader tries to figure out what is going on with the book he wants to read, and things get more and more surreal.

The pronoun from the previous sentences is deliberate. Calvino very clearly situates the Reader as male. Unsurprisingly, I (as female) found this alienating. Obviously I still read the book but I’m quite sure it wasn’t nearly as immersive as it might have been for a male reader. Added to that is the consistent objectification of women throughout the book which I also found alienating. The “Other Reader” is female, and she only exists “as the Third Person necessary for the novel to be a novel, for something to happen between that male Second Person and the female Third, for something to take form, develop, or deteriorate according to the phases of human events” (p166). Which… yes, I understand, interaction between characters is generally seen as necessary in a novel. But this feels all too much like ‘the woman only exists for the benefit of the man’ – surely Calvino could have figured out a way of talking about characters that didn’t seem to suggest something about gender relationships! And the women who appear in the books that the Fictive Reader comes across also only exist as sexual objects. So all of that was disappointing, to be honest.

… despite all of that, Calvino really is doing interesting things with the ideas of narrative and reader expectations and authorial integrity and so on. The Reader (who is never named, oh the joys of being A Universal Being) quite surprisingly goes on a journey to follow the trail of books he encounters in partial form, and there’s never any real explanation for how that has come about – so motive, and cause and consequence, are (at least partly) thrown out the window. The Actual Reader never develops much of a sense of any of the characters, so characterisation: not important? (I certainly never cared for the Reader as my avatar within the pages. I’d rather imagine myself as Pratchett’s Librarian.) And with the openings of several books presented but not developed: continuity, farewell.

I don’t regret reading this. I don’t think I’ll read it again. Will I recommend it to people? … perhaps. People who are interested in novel structure, and the possibilities of fiction, would probably be intrigued.

A Memory Called Empire

39863625._SY475_.jpgI had a pretty great January of reading because I realised I had time – and it was the time – to do some reading I’d been meaning to do, in order to nominate for the Hugo Awards. And I’d heard this hyped by a few people so I figured it needed to feature.

It was probably my favourite book published in 2019.

And it’s really hard to decide what to say about it.

It’s fitting that the cover quote is from Ann Leckie, because I was immediately put in mind of her colonial/ imperial themes from the Ancillary books when reading this – although Leckie and Martine explore quite different aspects of that troubling human experience. Here, Teixcalaan is definitely imperial, but I would argue they’re just slightly more subtle than the Raadch about it. Slightly. Both are quite convinced that their way of doing things is right, and it’s reflected in their language. What’s different though is the way the protagonist deals with this. Ambassador Mahit, whose home orbital station may be in line for being imperially expanded over, has been chosen as ambassador at least partly because of her fascination with Teixcalaan culture and society. So has she already been culturally colonised or does she know the enemy well or is it a case of appreciating beauty where one finds it? I adore the complexity of this idea.

… before you get the notion that this is an entirely cerebral book, though, don’t be fooled: there are devious plots and explosions and deceitful manoeuvrings, friends who might not be friends and behind the scenes machinations, secrets that must be kept hidden until they’re not, bonkers social manipulation, a great line in snark and discovery-of-unexpected friends.

Basically, I adored every single word.

Martine has enormous ideas and, I’m convinced, a much larger vision of the universe than readers have any notion of yet. There’s even broader problems for Texicalaan and everyone else than are directly dealt with here, and I can’t wait to see where Martine goes with it all.

And I haven’t even mentioned the secret technology that Mahit must protect, and that her predecessor possibly died doing so.

… And then I discovered that the sequel isn’t due out until early 2021, and I had to sit quietly for a while to allow myself to recover from the devastation.

 

The Light Brigade

Unknown.jpegI’m going to make the call: this is the best Kameron Hurley book yet. And I say that as a very big fan of Nyxnissa.

This is… something else. Something outstanding as a narrative, as a commentary, as a work of art.

First let me note that this is not exactly a linear narrative, since I know that will put off some readers. It’s not exactly not linear, either… depending on what frame of reference you use. And yes, if I explain that, it will involve spoilers.

The story is set some time in the future – probably a century or so? Humans have been to Mars, and apparently we’ve also got so fed up with democracies (or been so conned) that Earth is now ruled by mega-corps, where you have to earn the right to be a citizen. And now there’s a war, and enlisting seems like a good way both to earn citizenship (Starship Troopers?) and to get back at the enemy for their atrocities. So that’s what Dietz does, and then the soldiers get broken into light in order to be transported more swiftly, and then weird things start to happen: but only to Dietz.

There’s a huge amount going on here.

There’s the relative merits of democracy, capitalist-authoritarianism, and socialism. There’s war and its impact, in sympathetic and horrific detail; the value of citizenship, the value of life, the use of propaganda and the importance of time…. For a fast-paced military SF novel, Hurley (unsurprisingly) packs a vicious amount of political (in its broadest sense) commentary in.

Plus there’s the evolving character of Dietz, as we delve deeper into back story and follow events and watch, sometimes horrified, as Dietz responds. I don’t think I necessarily like Dietz; I didn’t especially like Nyxnissa, either. But as a compelling and complex character, whose story I am compulsively drawn to understand? Dietz, and Nyxnissa, work.

On the constructed level, Hurley is playing with many “wilful homages” as she calls them in the Acknowledgements. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that this was basically a ‘Mars attacks’ novel, and that Hurley was playing with lots of the literary connections there. I suspected one or two other nods, early on, but wasn’t sure if they were deliberate until the James Tiptree Jr reference leapt out and smacked me on the nose. I knew that one was deliberate.

This novel is amazing.

Gender Identity and Sexuality…

Unknown.jpegin Current Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I picked up this little anthology at Helsinki’s WorldCon, from Luna Press. I’d not heard of them before but I was and remain intrigued by their doing these non-fiction anthologies.

Yes, Helsinki was two years ago. Yes, I just got around to reading it.

As the name suggests, the essays deal with both issues of gender and of sexuality, primarily in fiction but also – and I loved it – in an analysis by Juliet E McKenna on the place of female-identifying authors across time in the publishing world. “The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and other obstacles in Science Fiction and Fantasy” made me think of Joanna Russ (as do so many of these sorts of conversations) and is well researched, persuasively argued, and did not – surprise! – leave me feeling completely hopeless. It’s a fascinating way to open the anthology.

Some of the essays meant more to me than others because in some I am familiar with the  material, and with others less so. Kim Lakin-Smith’s “Doll Parts: Reflections of the Feminine Grotesque in France Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline,” for instance, was truly fascinating but I couldn’t feel it as deeply as I might because I’ve not read either of the works (the Hardinge exactly because it’s billed as being horror). And it turns out I am even less up to date with fantasy than I thought, because AJ Dalton’s “Gender-identity and sexuality in current sub-genres of British fantasy literature: do we have a problem?” referenced sub-genres and authors I’ve not heard of. The essay itself was very interesting, don’t get me wrong, but I was unable to reflect on it meaningfully.

Of course, some essays I had little problem accessing. Both Jyrki Korea’s “What about Tauriel? From divine mothers to active heroines – the female roles in JRR Tolkien’s Legendarium and Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations” and Alina Hadîmbu’s “Newly added female chapters to blockbuster franchises: gender balancing in otherwise male-dominated fictional worlds or a greater purpose?” hit on issues and franchises very dear to my heart, and I greatly enjoyed reading the explorations of Tauriel and Arwen and Rey.

Let us not forget that this anthology includes an essay about Magic: The Gathering! Which is not something I would have thought was very interesting a year ago, but now I do! Rostislav Kurka (their name is meant to have a circle above the ‘u’ but my symbols don’t seem to include that one…) has helped me realise just how much more is going on in the fiction about M:TG than I realised, and how the cards’ art reflects and helps that too. So I also love that Luna Press saw M:TG as a legitimate topic for inclusion here; the essay absolutely fits the theme, and of course both the game and the fiction are a part of the speculative fiction world.

Other essays, I should point out, are more interested in a broad summary, rather than focusing on one genre or set of texts. Cheryl Morgan’s “Tipping the Fantastic: How the Transgender Tipping Point has influenced Science Fiction” was (as expected) a throughout examination of how trans characters have been presented in various stories, and what that means both for trans and cis readers and general diversity/understanding. Anna Milon’s “Bikini armour: women characters, readers and writers in male narratives” also made me think of Joanna Russ, and made me cranky, as you may imagine some of what is discussed from the title (it’s a good essay; it’s a frustrating topic).

Overall I think this is a great little anthology – and it is little, at 236 pages in about an A5 package. Obviously there is plenty more to be said, and part of me hopes that Luna does another one… although of course there are lots of other topics to cover, and they’ve got one on Evil and one on African fantasy and science fiction, so those are both excellent topics, too.

Authorized Pasts

This is so utterly Peak History Nerd it makes even me laugh.

Unknown.jpegMany, many years ago – back in undergrad – I was walking through the building I spent way too much time in and there, on a shelf, was a pile of books that were free to good homes.

Reader, I have rarely been able to walk past a free book. I know, it’s adorable.

So I looked through the books, and I grabbed a couple. Just a couple, honest. And they’ve sat on my bookshelf, unread, ever since.

Authorized Pasts is one of those books, and the other day I decided it was finally time to read it. And… it was better than I expected!

The idea behind the essays is the idea of ‘official history’: what does official history look like, function as, in different times and in different places? It’s not something I’ve had much to do with in my own studies, but I am intrigued by official remembering and the uses history gets put to, so I was already coming from a place of interest.

Probably the best thing overall about this anthology is its breadth. It’s not broad spatially; it’s basically all European with a couple of diversions to the USA (I assume this reflects the fact that most contributors were from the same university, which when this was published – 1995 – leaned strongly in those directions). But it’s broad temporally, with the first essay being Ronald Ridley writing about ‘official history in the ancient Western world from he third millennium BC to the third century AD’, and the last being Alison Patrick reflecting on French Revolution history on its bicentennial. In between, there’s discussion about Carolingian history and celebrating the Reformation and how the remembrance of Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus are similar and different.

As a complete book one intriguing aspect is that almost every essay begins with a discussion of what makes something official history, or not. This was fascinating partly because the definitions seem to be different depending on what era is being discussed, as well as the personal definitions of the historians writing the essay. It also included some discussion of what even ‘history’ is, in the context of the time and place being discussed. And I love that stuff.

It must be said that the line-editing of some of these essays is somewhat poor; there are some grammar and punctuation issues that annoyed me, although they didn’t get in the way of understanding.

I don’t think this book is easy to get hold of, and let’s be honest it’s very niche. But I don’t regret picking it up that fine day lo these many years ago.