I have very complicated feelings about museums. I love the British Museum’s eclectic wonders, but it’s a museum built on the theft of valuable and spiritual/religious artefacts, the pilfering of dead bodies, and all the other things that people have felt entitled to do and take because colonialism is a hell of a drug. I feel like I at least have a responsibility to think about it, so books like this are a great opportunity to do so.
It’s not a book all about how this and that was stolen, but a book about how we can respond to that. It discusses some of the responses people have created that reflect on colonialism, and the degrees to which they’re successful, as well as discussing some of the older art and objects and how they’re presented to people — sometimes with context, sometimes with misleading context, and sometimes without comment.
It’s a fairly easy book to dip in and out of a chapter at a time, and I found it pretty enjoyable. I did have to keep looking up images and photos to get the full context, because any images were not great on my ereader’s screen. I don’t know how good they are in a printed copy of the book.
Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack, Richard Ovenden
Burning the Books was really readable, and a bit broader than maybe I expected — it isn’t just about book burnings, but also about the importance of archives, of the kind of information people don’t necessarily expect to be useful. It mentions all kinds of historical events, more and less well-known, which help to give a broader scope of how libraries and archives have impacted people (for good and ill, but often in the end for good — Ovenden mentions the key roles of archives in the reconciliation process for torn nations, like the availability of the Stasi’s archives in East Germany).
It went a bit broader than the similar book I read recently about libraries, but it is mostly focused on books/knowledge as collected and curated by libraries and archives. It’s not super interested in other forms of knowledge, and it doesn’t really touch on modern issues of book bannings (frequent in the US, for instance, enough to spawn Banned Books Week).
Overall, quite enjoyable (insofar as learning about attacks on knowledge is enjoyable; interesting may be the better word), and as far as I can tell, it’s well-researched.
I’ve been meaning to try Tasha Suri’s books for a while, but this seemed like it might be a bit of a daunting introduction. It just looked… chunky, and my attention span is not that great. But I set it up as a book club choice, which means I was bound to at least give it a go — and in the end, though I started late, I ripped right through it. It’s deceptively more-ish, and I found myself reading it in great big chunks. I quickly grew to love Malini and Priya, and the way they’ve each been profoundly messed up (at close quarters and long-distance) by Malini’s brother Chandra.
There are a number of complexities in the book which it dances with well: mixed loyalties and the fear/risk/reward of collaboration with colonial interests, and deciding what will do the least harm and how, how, how to proceed when all the choices look bad. This is best personified by Bhumika, an Ahiranyan woman married to the Parijati regent of her home, pregnant with his child — and fiercely loyal to her Ahiranyan heritage, making bad choices because they’re the only ones she can make. Some of Priya’s confusion about whether to work with Ashok or not, because she loves him as well as fears him and what he will do, comes across extremely well.
Mostly, it all rests on the relationship between Malini and Priya — a bad idea, and one that Priya at least resists on several levels, and yet one which seems almost inevitable from the first time they meet.
There were things I thought were a bit less subtle, like Rao’s name/prophecy and some of Ashok’s behaviour, but overall it came together really well, and I’ll definitely pick up the next books (and Suri’s others).
I basically sat down and devoured Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Chianti Flask in two sittings (one before dinner, one after). It’s not very typical of the British Library Crime Classics, being deeply interested in character and motivation, and it felt rather… mournful. The main character’s despondence and depression is rather vivid, and the love affair too. It’s much less about the crime and more the aftermath of it. In some ways, it felt almost like a romance, albeit one scarred through the middle by the mystery which hangs around it.
Given the trial setting at the beginning, and the accusation of a woman of being a poisoner (and dealing with that even after having been acquitted), it has a couple of similarities to Sayers’ Strong Poison in theme, but it is not the usual comfortable, well-worn Golden Age mystery I tend to expect from the British Library Crime Classics. (That’s not a bad thing! I go to them because they’re mostly Golden Age or Golden Age-esque, and I can expect a mildly interesting mystery and the world being set to rights.)
I don’t know how much I liked it, actually: the depression of the main character is really compelling, and then the romance is rather intense (and sometimes wretched). But it almost doesn’t matter if I liked it: I rather admired it — despite not loving the writer’s style at first. I certainly don’t regret spending the time on it, which is an experience I’ve had with some of the other atypical British Library Crime Classics (The Spoilt Kill comes to mind).
The Sirens of Mars is partly the history of science about Mars, and partly about the author’s relationship with Mars. That’s a bit of a trend in popular science, and to be honest, I’m starting to really dislike it — at least when it veers from the writer’s career and things they worked on (pretty relevant) to things which are not really relevant (giving birth to a child). It’s not supposed to be your autobiography; it’s billed as a book about Mars.
Despite finding that aspect frustrating, I mostly enjoyed this. It is a touch biographical about scientists like Sagan as well, but at least that told me things I didn’t already know (e.g. I hadn’t known about Sagan’s struggle with achalasia). There were some details of the Mars missions and the people around them which were new to me as well — I didn’t remember anything about Phoenix at all, totally overshadowed by Curiosity in my memory, I suppose!
What we know about Mars has been filled with missteps where we dreamed more than we could actually detect, like the canals and Sagan’s dream of fast-moving creatures that we wouldn’t capture with a camera. This book is an interesting, if slightly meandering, recounting of that journey and where it has brought us. It might be unsatisfying to some that there’s still a lot of science left to do on Mars, and we don’t have solid answers to some of the questions Johnson discusses. I love the idea that we always have more to learn, though.
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 17th August 2021
I’ve enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s other books, so I clicked for this one on Netgalley more or less on auto-pilot, and because the idea of reading historical fiction set in a period/place I don’t know much about sounded interesting. It’s set in Mexico in the 1970s, and follows two main characters: Maite, a lover of romance comics who gets accidentally pulled into intrigue as a result of minding her neighbour’s cat, and Elvis, a lover of rock-n-roll and part of a gang dedicated to crushing student dissent against the government.
Neither of the characters is likeable for me, which is where things fall down. This is a really personal thing, but it’s always an issue for me — I can enjoy a story without characters I love, but it’s usually got to be something more in my usual wheelhouse. The characters are interesting, in that they’re well-written. Particularly in the case of Maite, who I could imagine very well. But… without quite being able to hang my hat on either of them, at all, because they’re both pretty unpleasant as people… I just checked out.
If you’re really interested in the period and/or in historical fiction and noir-feel fiction, this will probably be more your thing than it was mine (where SF/F is still my main genre). I did find the historical context fascinating — I kept looking things up to get a bit more context. I might give it another try in future, but for now, it didn’t really work for me.
As a reminder about my ratings in this case, since it’s so much a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”: take this with a grain of salt; as always with my ratings, it’s based on my personal taste and how much I liked it. And sometimes not-so-keen reviews can still point the way for other readers who think “but that sounds like it’s right up my street”!
This could easily have felt really prurient and invasive, given its focus on the various bloody murders that fascinated Victorian society — or too bloodless and dry despite the topic, if it got too academic. I found that Flanders steered a perfect path; it might still be too dry for those who are mostly interested in the murder part of it, but I found it really fascinating, especially as someone who studied the development of crime fiction in novel-form (mostly in the following century).
Flanders does hop about in time a little bit, which gets frustrating and a little confusing. It’s partly because the chapters are grouped thematically, which mostly does work, though since it marks a progression over time then maybe it could have been managed a little better. There are lots of examples to illustrate the trends being discussed, plus images where appropriate as well.
There’s lots of referencing at the end, which is always reassuring in a non-fic work like this. All in all, I’d be happy to read more by Flanders.
The Paradise War is a book I read as a teenager, and which left a pretty deep impression on me — and honestly I couldn’t really tell you why, except that it’s a sort of portal fantasy and that has always appealed to me, and it was all about a Celtic Otherworld which is beautifully, painfully more real than our drab existence. Lawhead manages to describe both so vividly — the dreary car trip from Oxford to Scotland, punctuated by mucky service stations versus the vital sharpness of the Otherworld — that it stuck with me.
I had read another of Lawhead’s books in my late teens and found it dreadful, and also I think rather overly Christian in themes and story. So I was prepared for the Suck Fairy to have visited this and stolen away the magic, but I have to report that it didn’t, really. Much of the story was very deeply familiar to me, because I was a heck of a rereader in those days, and I must’ve read it at least times. Some of it I’d forgotten, but it all came rushing back as Lewis slowly moves through the Otherworld, learning what it means to live from the archetypical stories.
Now, I do find that Lawhead lays it on a bit thick, these days. He’s trying to describe awe and wonder, but I feel like sometimes a whole paragraph or even a page could be cut in service to the story. Which is pretty cool, to my mind: Lewis’ friend Simon stumbles through into the Otherworld, leaving Lewis behind, and eventually Lewis discovers (with the help of a nutty professor) that he must follow and persuade Simon to come back to the ‘real’ world. Naturally, Simon doesn’t want to come, and sets Lewis up to get carted off to a warrior’s school, where he finally loses some of his (deeply irritating) tendencies to complain, act cynical, and generally be a rather meh protagonist. Lewis begins to learn greatness and become something close to a hero — just as horrors are released upon the Otherworld.
Lawhead’s Celtic Otherworld is a bit of a mishmash, I think; I don’t actually know my Celtic sources super well beyond the Arthurian ones, but I’m pretty sure Ludd and Nudd are actually considered to be the same character, not quarreling brothers? But if you accept it as a Celtic-inspired story, it rolls along pretty well, at least one Lewis stops bloody complaining.
I’m actually looking forward to reading The Silver Hand; I remember loving it less, which leaves me curious as to whether it’ll have aged more or less well for me!
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 20th July 2021
Bréone Hemmerli is a diplomat, working for the UN, in a world that rapidly has no need for her as it tears itself apart under the influence of climate change and isolationist policies. She’s also struggling with the encroaching loss of her memories, which bends reality and leaves her sometimes incapable of remembering how to open a door, while sometimes still clear enough to understand international politics.
And there’s an alien in her back garden; it looks like a tree, it’s eaten the fish in her pond, and it needs to communicate with humanity. It needs to communicate, for a start, with Bréone.
The description of the dementia is vivid, and frankly, something that I personally could have done without right now. I can’t blame the book for being vivid, but for personal reasons this aspect of the plot was just… it just wasn’t the right time for me. It did leave me wondering how the narrator could possibly be so clear, given the state of her memories and general cognition; I promise to the sticklers like me that there is a reason for that, and it does get revealed.
I think I enjoyed this less than I would’ve sometimes because of the aforementioned personal reasons, but as a novella (or maybe a long short story?) it works quite well, offering us a glimpse of a moment in time and a critical choice, an opportunity to change things for the better. It’s not super-conclusive — the world isn’t saved all in a second — and instead it feels personal, giving us that moment in Bréone’s skin, in her failing mind. It works beautifully.
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 16th November 2021
Elder Race is pretty classic in the way it plays with the whole idea that “any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic”, but it mixes in some new ingredients (at least, so far as I know) through the fact that the main character is clinically depressed. The character uses a sort of brain-interface to push his emotions back, and the way this helps and hinders his functioning helps give the plot a bit more breathing room.
The two main characters are Nyr, an anthropologist from Earth, and Lynesse, the fourth daughter of a local ruler in a population originally seeded from Earth and long settled down. Nyr’s people came to the planet to observe the way these old colonies, born from generation ships, developed and persisted — but now Nyr’s own people have gone silent, and he’s the only one left. He’s a bad anthropologist, tempted too easily to meddle in local affairs, and a few generations ago he had a brief love affair with one of Lynesse’s ancestors. Even when he returned to the outpost to go into stasis awaiting responses from Earth, he told her she or her descendants could call on him for help. Lynesse’s love of old stories means she knows exactly what to do when a strange demonic pestilence troubles nearby lands — she climbs up to the outpost and calls on the old agreement.
The chapters alternate point of view between the two of them in a way that mostly works, highlighting the difficulties in translation and mindset between Nyr and Lynesse; each chapter sheds more light on interactions in the chapter before, painting a full picture. Nyr’s clinical depression is kind of hard to read about, to be honest, but the fact that he has the brain interface that can just turn off those feelings makes for some interesting dilemmas and misunderstandings.
In the end, it was a bit of a downer, but there’s a touch of hope at the end, and I thought it executed the central ideas really well.