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.
What, me, doing my weekly update in a timely fashion?! Surely you jest.
What are you currently reading?
Just two books! I know, it’s a shock — I didn’t intentionally cut down, really, I was just feeling pretty stressed and it happened by itself. So I’m halfway through Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, for a book club read. It’s a bit chunky-looking on the shelf, but I’ve been speeding through it when I sit myself down and focus.
I’m also now rereading The Fellowship of the Ring. I had a bit of an urge to read it, and I decided to just go with it — whims are good!
What have you recently finished reading?
The Hobbit, which is for me always the right place to start a Tolkien reread. It’s as cosy as ever (despite going some very un-cosy places), and I still love the narrative voice.
Before that, I DNF’ed The Bone Wars (Erin S. Evan) too soon to even review it (which I normally would) for being a bit too young-feeling and infodumpy.
What will you be reading next?
That’s a bit of a mystery, as usual, but maybe not quite so much as usual. I’m really really hoping to get started on Scoff: a History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler, from my non-fiction pile, and Slippery Creatures by K.J. Charles from the fiction pile. However, I also want to reread the fourth Kate Daniels book soon, and the next Whyborne and Griffin book, and I’ve so far had 10 new books for my birthday, and(!) I want to work on reading more of the ARCs I’ve neglected.
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.
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky
There isn’t much new in Behave if you’ve read a few different books about human behaviour, though he does have a very clear way of explaining some basic biological concepts that I initially found really engaging (despite my own familiarity with them). In general, he uses and discusses the same studies and anecdata that everyone uses to explain various aspects of human behaviour, and mostly this book pulls it all together to make some general statements about human behaviour and what causes it. The main takeaway, of course, is “it’s complicated” — but he does a good job of picking things apart, relating them to each other, and putting forward his views.
Personally, I find this kind of book (and this book specifically) challenging because I would love to believe I have free will, and not just in choosing what colour my socks are. Sometimes I get a really good example of how I don’t (PTSD and other anxiety disorders can really demonstrate that), and I don’t like it… and this book is just such an experience. As a scientist, there’s just no room left for what Sapolsky calls the ‘homunculus’ that can pilot you, unaffected by hormones and past experiences and the size of your hippocampus.
And… in the end, for me, it felt like Sapolsky was reiterating a lot of stuff I already knew, at very great length. So if it’s something you haven’t read about or looked into before, I think it’d be a good place to start. The basics are really well laid out! But if you’ve been there and read that, then maybe give it a miss.
This was a mostly unremarkable mystery, except that the focus was on characters of the lower classes, and on an area and professions that most books of the period avoid. I knew nothing about the laws for the relief of the poor before I read this book, and you get a bit of a flavour of what that was actually like, because the book is set so firmly in that world.
Otherwise, I didn’t find it too remarkable, and I found the misunderstandings between the characters a bit infuriating (Dalek voice: comm-un-i-cate! comm-un-i-cate!) — so all in all it wasn’t hugely enjoyable for me, beyond being a bit curious about how it all worked out and about the setting.
It did also include a very gruesome discovery of a body that I’d like to stop thinking about now, thanks.
Black Water Sister follows the adventures of Jess, who was brought up in the US but whose family come from Malaysia, just as she and her family return to Malaysia for good. Her parents are a little bit hopeless, very much in need of her support, and she is reluctant to come out to them — knowing their likely response, and knowing that they need her — about her relationship with her girlfriend. Oh, and she’s hearing the voice of her dead grandmother, who says she’s a medium, and demands her help.
Jess is a little bit colourless, a little bit unformed, in a way that feels entirely intentional: she has yet to take her own steps in life, and instead lets events shape her. That makes her a slightly frustrating protagonist at times, because until the last quarter or so she kind of goes with the flow, and makes very few plans of her own. However, one thing that is very vivid is her sense of only half belonging, her feelings that are weirdly both familiarity and displacement. The fact that Malaysia is partly new to her (she’s visited before, but not lived there) helps ease the unfamiliar reader into it, even as there’s a lot to take in.
Jess’ grandmother, Ah Ma, is a delightful character — reminiscent in some ways of Mak Genggang in Zen Cho’s other work, and full of character. She’s perhaps the best thing about the story, driving it on, unreasonable and yet somehow likeable because of it.
One character I did not like was Jess’ girlfriend. That’s partly because she barely had any ‘screentime’, of course, but she also seemed very impatient with Jess’ world. Of course, we don’t get to see their history, or anything of their relationship when they’re face to face… but still, it seemed like she wanted Jess to be someone she wasn’t.
Anyway, the resolution of the story, the way things work out with the Black Water Sister herself, feels a little… more conventional, I suppose? Familiar, might be a better word? I was a little surprised that this world of ghosts and spirits who don’t act as European stories expect them to was in any way predictable to me. The ending works, but I suppose it feels a little pat, a little too easy after I’d been expecting something a bit harder to guess at.
All in all, though, it worked well for me, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Greetings, folks, from the end of a busy week! I can’t promise I’ll be under less stress going forward, but my work life will be a little simpler, which is something! How’re you all doing?
Early birthday presents from Portal Bookshop! 💙 I have actually read Witchmark before and liked but didn’t love it, but something’s been itching at me lately and I’d like to try it again — and read the rest of the series. So this was lovely.
Worldwide Book Giveaway:I’ll be choosing one random person who replies to this tweet to receive one book of their choice. I’ll do the draw on the 21st.
UK Book Giveaway:I’m choosing three random people who respond to this tweet to receive a book of their choice via Portal Bookshop. Plus, some other folks are signing up to buy a random person a book, so I think so far there are five chances to win. Also drawn on the 21st!
Buy Someone A Book:If you’re interested in joining in with buying a book for a random Twitter user, you can sign up to join in by replying to this tweet. When the time comes, I’ll pick a random winner for you, and get you two connected so you can sort out the purchase. I’ll let you know who you’re buying for on the 21st, with the help of my trusty RNG.
And that’s everything!
So, any good books joined your TBR this week? Thrown any books against the wall in anger? How’s reading going in general?
Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific, Christina Thompson
Christina Thompson’s husband, Seven, is Maori — but Thompson herself is not. This book is mostly about the history of the Polynesian peoples from a Western-eye view: the “discovery” of the islands, and our questions and experiments and concerns about the Polynesian past and where everyone came from. I’d been hoping for something a little closer to the subject matter, even if not written by a person from Polynesia, but it’s very much from an outsider’s point of view, focusing on what outsiders have learned through anthropological studies, archaeology and later carbon dating, etc.
It’s very readable and pretty enjoyable for what it is, but I felt it was sorely lacking in Polynesian voices. Tupaia, a priest and navigator who chose to sail with Cook, is mentioned, along with some later scholars who were from the area or naturalised there, but… it really feels like “how the West found these islands, and what they made of it once they got there”. I was hoping for something a little more centred on the other point of view.
I was also hoping for a bit more discussion of the archaeology of the islands, but Thompson focuses more on the stories and navigational skills passed down. Still, there are some glimpses of the archaeology and in general it’s a fair introduction to the area and what we’ve figured out about the deeper history of the place. It shouldn’t be surprising for people to learn that the genealogies and stories did contain much useful information that matches what Western methods have found; we respect that when it comes to Norse sagas!