Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind, Richard Fortey
I enjoyed this enough that I’ve reserved the other books by Richard Fortey that my local library has. He has a somewhat rambling style, though, which might not be to your taste. I enjoyed the ride, in general; in terms of the science, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, concept-wise, but some of the animals and habitats Fortey described were new to me.
It was quite personal to him, in a way, covering stuff he’s particularly interested in and documenting his travels to find these creatures (to the extent of talking about sipping gin and tonic from a plastic cup while sat on the balcony of the inn at Yellowstone). That might be less than interesting to some, but I did quite like knowing about the wider habitats surrounding these creatures, and the human context that they’re so often really close to, maybe even endangered by.
The inserts with colour photos are nice: words generally work better for me than pictures, so I wasn’t that interested, but it does give you a glance at some of the stranger, more anciently derived creatures of our planet.
The fun thing about Saturdays: doing my Stacking the Shelves post (hosted, as usual, by Tynga’s Reviews)! This week has been quite busy, though mostly because of library books. Because I don’t have a mountain of ARCs or a TBR list longer than my entire body…
Gifted (from the lovely Lynn O’Connacht!)
So I don’t even know where to start with what I’m excited about here. It’s my typical really really random selection. I’ll probably read the graphic novels soon — I’m partway through the Oz one, though it’s making my eyes roll out of my head, and the Sif one is pretty short and Sif is pretty awesome, so. Other than that, I’m in a science type of mood, so Spillover or The Eerie Silence are probably up next. Or I might go for Knight’s Fee because it’s a Rosemary Sutcliff book I haven’t read and those’re getting pretty rare. Oh, and I already read Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song. It’s amazing.
What’s everyone else been up to? Anything you’re excited about this week?
Oh, and a few I keep forgetting to add that I was sent a month or so ago!
So one thing I was asked to write about here a while ago, and something which I think confuses publishers who look at my reviews, is the sheer spread of stuff I read. Crime, fantasy, hard SF, YA of all stripes, comic books, serious graphic novels, literature, non-fiction science, history… I’m currently reading Survivors: The Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind (Richard Fortey) alongside Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell), Tam Lin (Pamela Dean) and The Wizard’s Promise (Cassandra Rose Clarke), for example.
(A related question would be how I keep all these books I’m reading concurrently separate and fresh in my mind. I can only say, uh, practice? Necessity?)
It basically runs in my family. We’re all a bit “grass-hopper minded”, jumping to new interests all the time. We all have some unexpected hobbies and interests — my dad, who now only reads non-fiction, once shocked me profoundly by admitting he’d read all the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters and thought they were “quite good”; my grandmother did her A Levels at the same time as her daughters and has dabbled in just about every craft I can think of; my mother’s a doctor and a passionate lover of both Tolkien and the seemingly endless stream of academic stuff I had to write about topics from Sir Gawain to Tennyson (which is almost the most modern I ever got, apart from some Arthurian literature and Welsh writing, which tend to come from fairly deep roots anyway). My sister’s in medical sciences, but I’ve caught her reading about sparkly vampires.
So it might look, Dear Publisher Considering Me For An ARC, like I’m only interested in reading a ton of books about biology, and it makes no sense that I’m requesting your upcoming cheesy space opera. Or that I’m not likely to be interested in fantasy when I’m reading books about astronomy and archaeology and the latest in the field of genetics. Or one week I might be catching up on my stack of comics, and then it’ll be all Captain Marvel all the time — not the reader you’d expect to be interested in your non-fiction book about potential life outside the solar system.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a polymath, but I’m here with my MA in English Literature, pondering either a PhD in literature or a switch to genetics or medicine. (And people who know me can tell you, it’s still very much up in the air with me, no matter what you’d think with me having gone as far as completing my Master’s degree.) Trust me, if I’ve requested your book, I’m interested.
So, yeah, in summary? I’m just interested in everything. Bring it on. I want to learn, but I also want to be entertained; I read like I breathe (that’s why I’m the Bibliophibian) and I never, ever go anywhere without a book. Preferably two or three.
Now will someone please rec me a good non-fiction book on dinosaurs that isn’t an encyclopedia? Actually, fiction works too. Just, dinosaurs. Please?
What did you recently finishreading?
Fiction-wise, it was Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge, which I loved to bits. If I had to come up with an immediate comparison, I guess Franny Billingsley’s Chime comes to mind — some similar ways of dealing with human/Other interaction, plus flawed families that feel real.
Non-fiction-wise, it was How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom, which, well, I love my science so his very clear, very accessible, very basic style disappointed me a little.
What are you currently reading?
Many things, as usual. Two ARCs have reached the top of my not terribly orderly pile: The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke, and Natasha Mostert’s The Midnight Side. Because of the very nature of the twists I’ve been promised in the latter, I think I’ve figured out the story and I’m not desperately impressed, but will finish it. Don’t know if I’ll review the other two books I was approved for by her, though. The Wizard’s Promise is so far fun, though I think I like the protagonists of The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish better.
Next down on the pile (if you think of it in terms of archaeology, with strata, you wouldn’t be far wrong) is Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. I’m not head over heels in love with it, but I recognise Cath’s fannishness and also her social awkwardness, and I think I might end up liking it. Although one review I read pointed out the chronic boundary pushing going on around Cath, and now I can’t stop seeing it. It’s really setting my teeth on edge.
Still reading Tam Lin, The Thirteenth Tale, Retribution Falls, etc, etc.
What do you think you’ll read next? It’s been pretty well established that I don’t have a clue. But I’m looking thoughtfully at the book I got from the library on zoonotic diseases, and I’m thinking of finally getting to Maus and Persepolis, to prove that I r serious graphic novels reader, as well as a fan of superhero comics.
Although I did also get a Marvel Now Journey into Mystery: Featuring Sif TPB, so there’s plenty of the latter due to go on, too. I should finish reading Dark Reign: Young Avengers, too.
This has been in the works a while, so I’m really glad to note that today I have the Canadian writer Eva Stachniak here, doing an interview and promoting her new book, Empress of the Night, which is historical fiction based around the figure of Catherine the Great. That’s coming out in the UK on 25th March with Traverse Press. More info here! Eva is a new author to me, and I’m interested to dig into her portrayal of Catherine the Great; I hope you guys enjoy her interview here. So, here goes —
Hello, Eva. Thank you for agreeing to do a little interview with me! I’m sorry if these end up being questions you’ve been asked a dozen times before, but I’m new to your work, and so are most people who normally read my blog. Now, I think everything you’ve written is historical fiction, right? How do you choose the setting? Are these periods/places/people you’ve always wanted to write about, or have you come across them while researching and had anyone capture your imagination?
My first novel was more contemporary than historical, but, yes, I mostly write historical fiction.
How do I choose what I write about? Each book follows its own path, although there are some similarities. I’m drawn to women characters, especially strong, immigrant women, because their experience speaks to me on a personal level. It may be hard to see Catherine the Great as an immigrant, but when she arrived in Moscow at fourteen, she was a minor German princess, and it took her many years to assimilate and become as Russian as she could possibly be. Sophie Potocka, from my novel Dancing With Kings, was a Greek peasant girl who showed up in 18th century Poland, married one of richest Polish aristocrats, and never looked back. Both Catherine and Sophie are, of course, historical figures. My fictional characters are also uprooted and transplanted into new worlds. Varvara from The Winter Palace, Anna from Necessary Lies.
I know you were born in Poland, and from the summaries and interviews I have looked at, it seems like most of your work is connected to Poland. That’s a country and history I don’t know much about. Do you hope that through your novels you can interest people in and teach people about your background? Or is that just a side effect of writing about something deeply significant to you?
I was born and raised in Poland, behind what was known as the Iron Curtain. The stories I heard in my childhood and adolescence come from there. I’m drawn to them because they are deeply significant to me and—I believe—universal in their appeal. I don’t want to teach—I don’t think novels should teach anything— but I want to share stories that had sustained me, stories that are part of our wider, European heritage.
The Polish borders shifted many times in the course of history, from east of the Oder River to present day-Ukraine. I was born in Wrocław, which until the end of WWII was German Breslau. Catherine the Great was born in Stettin which is now Polish Szczecin. My paternal grandfather was drafted into Russian Imperial Army, my ancestors were subjects of Catherine the Great. Thus a Polish story becomes also Russian or German. I believe that there are no Polish stories without a significant European connection of some kind.
This is why I probe them, explore their meanings.
I’ve actually done a course or two on historical fiction, because it’s a topic that really interests me, and I don’t think my professors or fellow students would forgive me if I didn’t ask about this — what sort of sources do you use? Have you come across anything particularly interesting in the process?
I’m a lapsed academic, so I find the research part of writing addictive and very rewarding. For my 18th century novels I read memoirs and letters by all my major characters. I also read their biographies, not just the recent ones, but those penned in the previous centuries. Sometimes research done for one novel, carries on to the next. When I was writing Dancing With Kings where two of the characters are surgeons, I immersed myself in the memoirs of 18th century doctors and researched 18th century medicine—a lot of which I could use in portraying Catherine the Great’s Scottish doctor in Empress of the Night.
One of my most favourite sources for details of the 18th century Russian life were The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot. The Wilmot sisters were protégées and house guests of Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, a close though estranged friend of Catherine the Great. Newly arrived from Ireland, curious and willing to learn as much as they could, the two adventurous ladies described what they saw and experienced at a Russian country estate. Their journals and letters offer a wealth of details, a treasure-trove for a writer.
So really you’re here to talk about your new book, Empress of the Night. It’s being promoted as a “follow-up novel” to The Winter Palace. Did you know you were going to write it when you wrote The Winter Palace? Or did you finish that book and find that you still had things you wanted to say about Catherine the Great?
It was always a two book project; I found Catherine too complex to do her justice in one novel.
The idea was to show Catherine from two distinct vantage points, external and internal. Thus The Winter Palace tells Catherine’s story through the point of view of a close confidante, while Empress of the Night lets Catherine herself take centre stage. The Winter Palace concentrates on the younger Catherine, a woman who is reaching for power, while Empress of the Night focuses on Catherine at the end of her life, reflecting on a life she had. I see the two novels as bookends, with historical Catherine the Great in the middle, works of fiction illuminating history, offering readers not just the facts of Catherine’s life but the experience of them.
Obviously Catherine the Great was an amazing woman (whether people like her or not), and under her rule Russia became very strong. But do you like her? What drew you to write about her?
I do like her, although I do not approve of many of her choices or political decisions, and I like her less at certain periods of her life.
I’m drawn to her energy, her dedication to what she considered her job, her sense of purpose, the breadth of her interests and passions. She was a very modern manager, excellent at motivating those who worked for her, using their potential to the fullest. I often say it, jokingly, that I wish she had been elected the Queen in Poland. With a monarch like her, the 18th century Poland would have fared much better.
The problem with historical fiction for some people, particularly when it involves public figures whose lives are well known, is that we know how it ends. Did you find that a problem in writing this, or didn’t it matter for what you wanted to do?
It didn’t really matter. Tension and suspense can be created in other ways.
Unless a historical novel tells a story of a fictional character, we cannot help knowing how things turned out in the end, who will live and who will die, why and how. Readers of historical fictions are like the spectators at a Greek tragedy who knew their myths very well and yet they flocked to the theatre for yet another rendering of the story of Oedipus or Antigone or the Trojan war.
For a writer, this means that how things happened must take precedence over how they ended. A historical novel must create suspense from what is still a mystery: the character’s emotions and motivations that were driving their decisions.
Where do you want to go now with your writing? Are all the stories you feel you have to tell from the same setting/time period, or are you planning to go somewhere else? Do you even know — are you just going to see what strikes you?
I’m now working on a novel set among Russian exiles before WWII. It is not exactly a continuation of my Catherine the Great novels, but it takes place during the final unravelling of Catherine’s empire. In the streets of Paris, Berlin, and London, Catherine’s descendants rub shoulders with Imperial artists, all of them exiles, cast adrift when Russia plunged into the Revolution of 1917.
Beyond that I do not think. Some story will grab my attention, turn into another novel.
I know people aren’t supposed to pick favourites among their children, but is there a book of yours that you’re particularly proud of, or which is particularly dear to you? Or perhaps a book you’d recommend new readers to begin with?
The book I’m working on is always my favourite, because it is still truly mine. But I would recommend The Winter Palace as a starting point. It is a perfect introduction to Empress of the Night, showing Catherine the Great in the first two decades of her life, a woman who reaches for what she wants, not yet aware of how much she would have to pay.
Are there any particular writers who have influenced you, who you’d recommend to people who are interested in the kind of books you write?
To many to mention, but here are a few.
Hilary Mantel is a genius of historical novel writing and I’d recommend Wolf Hall followed by Bring up the Bodies. I also admire Kate Grenville, the Australian author of The Secret River which combines family history with the history of a continent, Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence and Colm Tóibín’s The Master.
One last one: are you a bookworm like me? The name of my blog is “the Bibliophibian”, because it does feel like I’m swimming (though thankfully not drowning) in all the books I have. How’s your TBR pile?
Growing with each day, sometimes too fast for me to cope. I’m reading biographies of 20th century Russian exiles, dancers, choreographers, writers, painters, and tricksters of various shapes. I’m reading Memoirs of Bronislava Nijinska, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, and memoirs of Felix Yusupov, one of the murderers of Rasputin. Biographies of Sergiey Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova await me, and a marvellous history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels.
And then, when I need a break from this rather focused TBR pile, I’ll start reading Deborah Swift’s The Lady’s Slipper.
Wow. I wish I had that focus!
Thanks for answering all my questions, Eva. For those who’re interested in her work now, her books are available as ebooks and it looks like once Empress of the Night (link to goodreads page) is officially out on March 25th, all of them will be available in the UK — at least on Kindle, and of course, apart from Empress of the Night, as hard copies as well. Now to restrain myself from buying The Winter Palace…
How Pleasure Works is an accessibly written book which mentions some theories and interesting experiments, without really delivering on the promise of “science” that explains “why we like what we like”. Mostly, what Bloom has to offer are theories and interpretations: well presented and interesting, but judging from various reviews, not conclusive enough for people who want hard and fast answers. Luckily, I wasn’t really expecting any, although I was hoping for a bit more science. I’m still left thinking the answer to “why do we like what we like” is “because we’re bloody minded and irrational”.
I took Paul Bloom’s Coursera course, Moralities of Everyday Life, and recommend both that and this book as a relatively mild introduction to the psychology surrounding these topics.
I didn’t know Frances Hardinge had a new book out soon, so when I saw someone else talking about it in the Stacking the Shelves meme among book bloggers, I had to try. And lo and behold, I was approved for it on Netgalley. Thanks, guys!
So today I had a long train journey — four to five hours. I loaded Cuckoo Song onto my reader before I left, and had it finished before I even reached halfway. It’s a compulsive read without naked demands for attention; the tension is, for the most part, in uneasiness and anxiety, in a nagging feeling that things aren’t right. It’s done incredibly well, to my mind. Mild spoilers lie ahead!
Hardinge has chosen a really interesting perspective here in the changeling-child story. Normally the changeling would be the enemy, or nothing more than a doll. But Trista has a heart and a mind, and she makes everything work out differently — in a way that I think, actually, is better for all involved. Without being wish fulfilment: not everyone came home safe.
Really, knowing this is a changeling story doesn’t affect what Hardinge does with the story. The story itself is, in a way, a cuckoo child, a changeling.
I liked the ambivalent portrayal of the central family. The narrative upends things several times: there are no simple answers, no unequivocal good family/bad family. It’s the more real for that, even in the midst of a fantasy story. I liked the way Trista had to earn Pen’s trust, I like the big/little sister dynamic. I liked that neither version of even our heroine is unequivocally good. Flawed human beings, all — though of course, not all of these characters are human…
I think this might have been a stronger issue if I was up to date on some of the other New 52 stuff that I’m… not that interested in. Or maybe more of Barbara’s past, since this volume features the (re)introduction of her brother James, who I know nothing about. It all just about hangs together, and some parts of this felt much more satisfying in terms of Batgirl getting some decent villains to kick around, but other parts were… well, a villain called Grotesque who wears a mask and kills a man to try and get a bottle of — vintage wine?!
The art is strong, as with the first book, and I liked the cameos by Black Canary (must hunt up some of Gail Simone’s run on Birds of Prey) and Batwoman. Still not totally sure about that whole decision to bring Barbara back to being Batgirl as opposed to Oracle via a miracle cure, but overall, I’m still ready to follow more of Batgirl’s adventures.
Spider-girl: Family Values, Paul Tobin, Clayton Henry, Matthew Southworth
This was fun, a good place to jump in on Spider-girl. It seems that as this volume opens, she’s lost her powers, but she’s still doing her best to fight crime — and maintain an impressive presence on social media. I enjoyed her wise-cracking, apparently a Spider-people necessity, and the emotional side of her development in this story.
Anya’s normal life is pretty solid, with friends and eventually a roommate, contacts outside the superhero world (unlike, say, Captain America). I liked Spider-man’s parts too, and I was intrigued by Red Hulk — I haven’t read anything including him so far.
The art is pretty good — there are couple of patchier issues that I wasn’t so fond of, but it’s reasonably consistent, and I liked that they portray Anya as a lithe, athletic sixteen year old girl. She’s not sexualised or anything in her fights the way, say, Black Widow often is. I’ll probably pick up some more Spider-girl given a chance — earlier or later, I don’t mind which.
Just a quick note: I’m running the Sports Relief Mile with a friend next week. It would be great if you sponsored us, and if you do — or even if you tweet about it — you can get entries to a spontaneous giveaway I just put together.
The sponsorship page is here, and the rafflecopter is here!