Blood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood
In this installment, Phryne leaves behind her safe and comfortable house to do some slumming with the circus. She’s implausibly great at everything, of course, so it’s no surprise she learns how to do some trick riding. It’s also no surprise that her lovers are a clown and a carnie — and neither of them mind.
I was tempted to drop my rating from four stars to three this time when I think about how dramatic this one gets. There’s a lot of violence, with a whole gang situation. And there’s also attempted rape and personal danger for Phryne herself. For a series I normally view as relatively cosy, that felt like a bit much. But then, if you think about it, it’s not much more over the top than the anarchists of Death at Victoria Dock or some of the later stuff Phryne does for Lin Chung.
Also, there’s a bit where the clown is almost violent with Phryne, against her will — sorry, no, not having had sex for a long time is no excuse for that.
On the other hand, I enjoy Jack’s half of the story. An intersex individual is always a bit of an invitation for an author to mess up. Greenwood mostly does not, and Jack is satisfyingly brusque in ordering his subordinates to refer to the individual by their chosen name and pronouns. There’s also a fun friendship developing between unlikely characters in the form of Lizard Elsie and a former acrobat. So a tentative four stars it remains.
The Burning Page, Genevieve Cogman
Full disclosure: I did receive a review copy of this, but I also bought a copy.
I was really, really looking forward to this book, and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. It continues to be a fun romp, centring around that idea of an interdimensional library preserving all kinds of variant texts. The warmth and love of books is still a key feature, and the characters are the same group we’ve come to love. While the last book was a bit of a break from overarching plot, this one returned to it: in this one, Irene has to confront the rogue Librarian, Alberich — and he has some very big targets in mind this time.
I especially loved the visits to alternate worlds; I’d love to see more of that. The visit to a Russia ruled by an immortal Catherine the Great was pretty awesome, and there’s so much room for Cogman to play with all kinds of alternates. They aren’t the main point of the book or plot, but they’re still fascinating little microcosms of things that could be.
I’m relieved that this isn’t the last book, because there are a few more mysteries introduced here. Irene’s parentage, where the Library is going now… it feels like the beginning, rather than the end of a plot line. And if I have any disappointment about this book, it’s in that: somehow, the seeming end of the story arc didn’t feel final enough. There may be good reason for that, in which case this book would work better on a reread after reading sequels; for now, it just felt a little odd. It felt like a return to the status quo, without being knocked as far away from it as I’d expected.
There’s still plenty to wonder about, and plenty of room for more stories, thank goodness. I think I sound more critical than I really am; I enjoyed the book a lot, and read it in almost one gulp. The whole series is a lot of fun, and I definitely recommend it — especially if you need a break from reality.
Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
Despite my mother’s interest in space and all things to do with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, I never knew about the ‘computers’ who supported the US race to space. The history I knew was all about the big shots: the astronauts, the program director, even the doctors… It was a white, male history. And it was a history that was worth knowing, no denying: the astronauts and scientists it covered worked hard and achieved amazing things.
But there were women behind them, and black women at that. Reading this, it was a little unbelievable at times that none of them ever showed up in the histories I read before. And sometimes it was unbelievable to read about racism, segregation and sexism and then see such a recent date on it.
If you know someone who says women have never achieved anything, well, this book’s for them. If you know a black little girl who wants to be a scientist? This is for her, too. If you want to be more informed about women in STEM? You guessed it.
It’s not always the most focused read, covering as many women as Shetterly could get concrete details on. She didn’t just cover their lives when at NASA, but their time pre-NASA and even pre-NACA. It leaves you with a lot of names to keep track of, but it’s worth paying attention. I appreciate the way Shetterly puts the women into their social context, showing how they also had families to support, how they helped other women and black people around them, how they were involved in the wider societal change of the time. All of these women are worth reading about — and I think I’m only sorry they didn’t each have a book to themselves.
Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
This would probably have got a higher rating from me if I’d reread the first novella. As it was, I couldn’t tell what was supposed to be new to me and what was just part of me remembering the first book poorly. Things just kept happening, and I couldn’t make any guess about the next event — and then it suddenly ended. I forgot the basics. So if you were wondering about reading this as a standalone, I would say: don’t.
I really want to find the Okorafor novel/la that will work for me. Binti hasn’t been it, with either instalment. I do enjoy the worldbuilding, the mix of cultures, and the feeling of warmth I get from the story, from Binti’s courage… but I found the movement through the story a little too bewildering. I probably won’t read any more books about Binti; I just don’t seem to “get” it.
The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, David Damrosch
The Epic of Gilgamesh is some of the oldest literature we have access to, so you’d be forgiven for imagining it must have had a huge influence on subsequent mythology. The truth is, it was only rediscovered relatively recently, via archaeology, decipherment and a fair amount of politics. And of course, money. David Damrosch’s book discusses both the epic itself, its themes and context, and the archaeological and political process of bringing it back to light.
Despite the fact that it’s talking about archaeology, political manoeuvring and the long process of decipherment, The Buried Book manages to be entertaining and even gripping. I was certainly hooked, anyway. Damrosch does a great job of making it accessible and interesting, and pulling out facts that are both pertinent and interesting. You’ll learn a fair amount about Mesopotamia from this, not a little about British archaeology and the process of deciphering an ancient language, some interesting titbits about various personalities you’d never heard of before… and of course, about the epic itself — which is well worth reading.
In fact, if you’re thinking about reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, I’d recommend reading something like this first. Get some context on where it came from, where its been, and how people are still using and relating to the story told now. Then grab a translation and settle in.
Standard Hollywood Depravity, Adam Christopher
Received to review via Netgalley, publication date 7th March 2017
Just like Made to Kill and Brisk Money, this is an entertaining story — imagine Chandler’s noir detectives, that kind of world, but add in one robot detective-become-assassin and his profit-orientated handler (actually a computer). It’s full of references and hat-tips to Chandler’s era, and though it doesn’t have Chandler’s flair with words (few people do), it’s well written and goes down easy. It’s also reasonably clear of sexism, racism, and Chandler’s other such vices.
This story in particular involves Raymond getting tangled up in the antics of various criminal cartels, and all that sort of thing implies. Bullets and assumptions fly, garnering a possibility of some grudges being held against Raymond and Ada, his handler — and we end the story with Ada and Raymond in a pretty good position. All ready for the next novel, since this is marked as 1.5 in the series on Goodreads?
In any case, this is readable whether or not you’ve read Made to Kill and the short story Brisk Money, but it is worth reading those for extra background and a better understanding of Raymond, his capabilities, and his limitations. The ARC version I read bundled in Brisk Money, so you could comfortable skip to that and read it first before going back to read Standard Hollywood Depravity.
Meanwhile, I never seem to have reviewed Brisk Money itself, and the release of this novella seems like a prime opportunity to do so — so watch out for that review coming sometime soon as well.
Brother’s Ruin, Emma Newman
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th March 2017
Brother’s Ruin is another of the Tor.com novella series, though this one is very obviously just the beginning of a series of novellas, rather than standing alone (as, for example, Passing Strange does). So it mostly seems to function as a way of setting up the world: there is a story here as well, but more important is the alternate reality being created. It’s sort of vaguely Victorian, but with magic as a relatively commonplace event, and some steampunky elements. There’s some politics around magic and its practitioners that is obviously going to become more important as the novellas go on.
The main character, Charlotte, is pretty cool. She’s part of a family and has a fiancé, but she also earns her own money through illustration work and hides her own strong magic. She’s prepared to take risks to take care of her family, and she’s fine with supporting them from her own funds. She has her weaknesses — a pretty face, apparently, as well as her strong and almost uncontrollable magic — but she also has great strengths.
The reason I’m not rating this more highly is that it does feel very much like an introduction, and it only grazes the surface of the male character who is presumably going to become a much bigger part of Charlotte’s life. I don’t know what motivates him and why he’s interested, and nor do I understand why Charlotte finds him so fascinating. The scenes where she’s suddenly finding him amazingly attractive don’t quite ring true to me, given her otherwise practical nature.
There’s a lot of potential here, but I’m not 100% sold — yet.
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, David Hone
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is a pretty entertaining survey of everything we currently know about tyrannosaurs — not just T. rex, but the related tyrannosaurs. That means it includes dinosaurs we don’t always think of as tyrannosaurs, but which are classified as types of tyrannosaur because of their close relationship to T. rex. The book is upfront about the fact that the information in it is going to be out of date before long — though not, I think, from the perspective of a layperson.
A lot of the info is stuff you may well already know, like the fact that T. rex was most likely feathered. But this book discusses it in detail, going into parts that were likely to be feathered, where the tyrannosaurs might have been scaled as traditionally depicted, etc. There are various different cases where there are theories about the tyrannosaurs that can’t be proven one way or another, and this book goes into them in detail. It discusses the evidence and findings, bringing them together into an entertaining and informative package of pure tyrannosaur-related awesomeness. It never got too dry or anything; I found all of it interesting and relevant.
Like all the best dinosaur books, it made me want to run out and become a palaeontologist, somehow. And it also made me crave overviews of other dinosaurs — can I have a book like this about the sauropods, now? Please?
The Green Mill Murder, Kerry Greenwood
This book wins for the wombat ex machina alone.
Other than that, on a reread this felt a bit all over the place. There are two overlapping mysteries: one a murder, and one a disappearance. There’s two romances, one of which actually makes me feel kind of squicky inside now I think about it — it’s not often Phryne makes a judgement about who to sleep with that I really disagree with (heck, that’s the point of Phryne; she makes her own decisions)… but one of the two is certainly twisted in his morality, and Phryne does suspect that from the start. I don’t really get the appeal of him, either.
All the same, the book features Phryne being the delight she always is. She protects a queer friend-of-a-friend from the attentions of the vice squad, flies a plane solo to find someone, makes her own decisions and puts her foot down when she has to. The found family are more in the background in this one, given that the high point (ha) of the book is Phryne’s solo flight and her time with a man who has made himself almost a hermit — but of course, they do feature.
I’m left a bit befuddled by the way that the nastiness of people and their squiggly morality seems to be somewhat justified by the fact that it gives Nerine, a blues singer, some real blues to sing about. But I would like to hear her singing, from the descriptions…
Agents of Dreamland, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 28th February 2017
Once again, not knowing my Lovecraft tripped me up. Yep, this is yet another Lovecraft-based story, although in this case it’s a rather less well-known one: the Fungi from Yuggoth. Not one I’d have known anything about even if I’d known in advance, but perhaps I might have been better prepared for the sheer bleakness and darkness of this story had I known it was based on Lovecraft’s mythos in any way.
It’s an intriguing little novella; self-contained, though it hints at a world before and after it through one character who is, to some extent, ‘unstuck in time’. The flesh-crawling horror of the fungi, a kind of invasion we’re helpless to fight, is done really well. There’s one phrase which just made me shudder, because of all the different implications stacked together: “the fruiting corpse”. Gah. Gaaah.
It’s very effective writing, and because I don’t know to what extent it takes any of the detail from Lovecraft, I can say that it’s definitely something that can stand on its own. It doesn’t rely on me realising exactly what’s going on through familiarity with Lovecraft; the creeping unease works as well or better if you’re ignorant of where things are going.