The Story of Wales is an attempt to tell (some of) the history of Wales, and come to some kind of understanding about what shaped the nation as it is now. A lot of this history is familiar to me, but only vaguely and through literature, so it was nice to get it all laid out and clarified.
Well, “nice” is a very bad word for it, since the history of Wales quickly becomes a history of oppression of the language and customs. People don’t like hearing this, but what are the Welsh Not, Brad y Llyfrau Glaision, the wanton drowning of Capel Celyn to get water to Liverpool, but the oppression of a native people? And these events aren’t all hundreds of years in the past: Capel Celyn was drowned in 1965, after Liverpool put it through Parliament to avoid having to get planning permission from the local council (who would have denied it). All the Welsh protests against the drowning mattered not at all; only what the English Parliament said.
It was a little funny to see my tiny part in history mentioned there: I voted in the 2011 referendum, and voted “yes”. I wonder if one day I can go home to live in an independent Wales — I’ve never particularly wanted the end of the United Kingdom, but if an independent Scotland and an independent Wales can re-enter the EU, I’ll head home like a shot to get my rights back. It’s nice to know a little more of the history of my home, for sure, though The Story of Wales was at times a little dry or unengaging.
I didn’t read anything about Piranesi before starting it, though I was vaguely aware of some reviews and reactions from friends. I’m one of the people who found Clarke’s previous novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, really fascinating — for all that it’s 1,000+ pages long, I ate it up in great big chunks. I wondered if the magic could be repeated, especially in a novel as slim as Piranesi. I’d say it has, and even that I like the worldbuilding of Piranesi even more.
That said, if you didn’t like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, there’s a chance Piranesi will be more for you: though I said the magic is repeated, I mean the magical captivating quality that had me riveted to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Piranesi is rather different in tone and scope, at a quarter of the length. For one thing, it has a relatively cramped cast, made up essentially of four characters, one of whom only appears once, and one of whom doesn’t appear until quite late on. The other people mentioned are all dead, and only tangentially important. Well, unless you consider the House a fifth character.
The House is the most fascinating thing, and I could happily have spent at least another fifty pages visiting the Statues, travelling to far-off Vestibules, and watching the Tides. The whole idea of it, this strange house with the sea in the lower levels and thousands of rooms filled with mysterious Statues — argh, I really loved that part! Piranesi himself (it’s the name used for one of the characters, as well as the title) is rather delightful in his innocent inquiry and his love of the house.
I’m trying not to be spoilery, but this bit talks about the ending: without saying too much about what exactly happens, I found the ending rather sad, because of the change to Piranesi. There was such joy in his exploration of the House, it was really awful to think of that joy being shattered by his discovery of his past. In a way he keeps it, but in another way everything has changed. It makes sense as an ending, and the whole book comes together pretty well… but ouch.
Overall, though, I loved it — and just as with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I practically inhaled it.
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez
I was somewhat hesitant to read this book. Caroline Criado-Perez became somewhat known during her campaign to ensure that Britain’s currency honoured at least one female figure (aside from the Queen), during which she endured a torrent of abuse. However, she’s also been accused of being a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), owing partly to a really rather bizarre rant complaining that she’s not cisgender. Since being “cis” is simple the counterpart of being trans (think Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, or cis and trans fats)… it’s a weird hill to decide to die on, though a certain branch of “feminism” has decided to find “cis” offensive as a term.
Anyway, I decided that it was important I read this anyway, partly to form my own opinion and partly because I think the topic of her book is important, so I got it from the library. And I’ll be clear: she’s not wrong in many of the things she asserts, for example that drugs are tested on men and not on women, and that this results in drug dosages being calibrated to the average man… and thus often failing entirely in women, or conversely proving to be harmful. Criado-Perez has example after example in which there is a clear tendency for people to a) bucket the vast array of human variation into two sexes, and b) ignore one of those two buckets anyway.
Unfortunately, she’s all on board with a). She critiques things as if those buckets are real things, rather than acknowledging that despite those fairly robust-looking buckets, within them there is still a great deal of variation, and between them there is great overlap. I was going to say that it would not shock me at all to learn that the differing causes of intersex development each have different impacts on response to drugs — but it would be more accurate to say that I’d be pretty flabbergasted if it weren’t the case. This makes her examples of the “gender data gap” overly simplistic when she discusses it as it relates to medical interventions, though a layperson might well not notice. To me, that’s a problem in itself. It’s far too easy to come away with the impression that there’s two kinds of people in the world, men (who have XY chromosomes and “male” bodies) and women (who have XX chromosomes and “female” bodies).
For someone who is reading this book without really being interested in trans issues, so much of what she says will just be taken as read. Since she’s critiquing a very binary society, it will fit very well within what people understand. I think she could’ve unpicked this a lot more, and that it’s a particular problem when she embroiders on how women would be much better at handling x or y because they are inherently more caring and drawn to compromise. There’s a lot of critique of that ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ attitude in science as well. Figuring out how best to handle all this is not served by blithely accepting sex differences as being a stark divide between male and female, either.
Part of the gap in all our data is this lack of understanding that “male” and “female” are roles, differing slightly in different societies, and sometimes admitting of other gender identities… none of which really express the sheer variety that those buckets contain. Despite, for instance, her complaints about medical interventions being calibrated for men and not women, we actually need to know not the right drug and dosage to use for a woman, but the right drug and dosage to use for a given individual.
In many places in her book, you can read in “those perceived as female” instead of “women” and “those perceived as male” instead of “men”, and it makes perfect sense. Criado-Perez does state in the preface that she discusses gender rather than sex because the problem does not reside in the female body, but in how “women are treated because they are perceived to be female”. This is a bit more nuanced than I’d expected from her based on the criticism online, but from that point on she refers solely to “women” and “men”. Throughout, Criado-Perez refers to “women” and means a sort of average woman, who she pretty much always imagines with kids (or as someone who will plan to have kids) and a husband who earns more than her.
I think her book is not a bad place to start, if you haven’t thought about the topic, but it’s likely to be disappointing to anyone with a more nuanced view. She has a simplistic view of gender: highly reductive, and prone to leaning on supposed sex differences without ever critiquing whether they’re even real (as others like Cordelia Fine and Gina Rippon have done). She is not wrong that the “typical” male body is treated as the default, and that it has resulted in massive gaps in our data. She’s not wrong about the impacts on people everywhere, either, and when she discusses the social impacts of the gap in data, she makes some good points. She’s more gender essentialist than I would ever care to be, though.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
There’s no book in this series that doesn’t have its pleasures, and there is much wittiness and cleverness and warmth in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club… but to me, it isn’t one of the more distinctive of the series. When I think about individual elements, like the way it throws Peter into confusion around potentially betraying one of his own class (a fellow sufferer of shellshock, too), it seems pretty good… but it doesn’t shine for me.
It particularly bothers me that I don’t think Sayers ever really examined her noble hero’s tendency to try and let people take their own way out (i.e. suicide) by warning them or talking them into it. Of course, Peter’s not wrong in the people he accuses, and we know he never really will be because Sayers made him a little too perfect… but if he were real, he could be wrong, and justice would not be served if that happened, and he caused someone to confess and take their own life because they felt backed into a corner.
I think that’s a big part of my unease with this one, and this time I reread it I actually stalled on it for quite a while!
Utopia for Realists set out the case for three major things which would build a better world, a utopia in which we not only have unprecedented prosperity but that prosperity is more evenly shared, and people do worthwhile work:
A shorter workweek
Universal basic income
As far as I can tell, Brenman has his facts in order, citing studies and real-world circumstances which support the suggestions he makes. Giving homeless people free cash, no strings attached, seems to have a better result than any other intervention, according to the studies he cites; shorter work weeks were almost actually implemented before they slipped off the political agenda; the numbers suggest that immigration will boost economies…
There are a lot of studies mentioned and footnoted, and a lot of sources to check; I did a little digging, but not more than that. I feel like I know so little about economics that Brenman could be saying “we should dye all ducks green” in economics-ese and I would just be nodding along. He writes very convincingly (with a few slip-ups like calling people with disabilities “cripples” — hopefully something introduced by the book’s translator rather than baked into the original text) and often aligns with my own ideas and ideals, so it’s not surprising that I feel the urge to nod along.
I did have a couple of criticisms that even I noticed, though. One example was his claim that immigration doesn’t harm social cohesion… only to claim that open borders couldn’t be introduced immediately because of the impact on social cohesion. Yikes, dude. You literally just said there’s no effect, two pages before. He also explicitly mentions rejecting a study because of his own opinions on the subject, and never actually discusses the results of that study and why he would rationally put it aside. There are a couple of other bits and pieces like that — inconsistencies and eyebrow-raising moments.
He also exhorts people at the end to be idealists, after setting out his case that utopia is achievable. I see what he means — it is achievable, if his data and theories are correct, but it requires people willing to commit to it and believe it, and in the face of so much opposition that does take an idealist, not a realist. It’s still a bit of a contradition, though…
Digging Up Armageddon discusses the archaeology of a fascinating site: Megiddo, better known as Armageddon. Alas, despite wanting to know more about the archaeology and that area of the world, I struggled a bit with Digging Up Armageddon. Much of the book involves the exact composition of the digging team in the Oriental Institute Megiddo expedition, what they said and did and complained about. It’s all relevant — it affected the excavation, and shaped the entire approach to the dig… but it overshadows the actual archaeology in this volume, leaving me hard-pressed to talk about the archaeology!
As a result, it took me quite a long time to read it. It’s best approached as a history of that specific expedition and their legacy, with some discussion of how things have changed (how they misinterpreted or outright messed things up) — it’s definitely not about the archaeology alone, though you could in theory read each alternate chapter and focus more on the archaeological side. Still, things are so entwined that personally I wouldn’t recommend it, and I have no idea how you’d follow all the names and why they’re involved without reading it all. The disagreements were sometimes a bit byzantine.
In the end, I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t so much the kind of non-fiction I really enjoy. If you’re looking for info on that particular expedition, it’d be a great resource.
I had really fond memories of Nine Coaches Waiting, and while I wasn’t wholly wrong that I enjoyed it a lot, it wasn’t as great as I remembered — perhaps because I found that the tension was drawn out just a little too long, and the fiendish plot of the bad guy a little too convoluted. It took a while to get to the payoff of the scenes between Linda and Raoul as they find their understanding… though the payoff is pretty fun, classically dramatic as it is.
Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. Linda is the protagonist, a half-English half-French girl orphaned quite young, and travelling to take up a post as a governess to a small boy in France. There’s something a bit weird about it all, including the suggestion that they don’t want her to be able to speak French… but she needs to escape her boring life of teaching in England. The boy she becomes governess to is shy, unhappy, orphaned himself — and his guardians don’t seem to like him, and have a rather proprietary attitude to the house and grounds he actually owns, and which they only take care of during his minority.
It takes quite a few suspicious accidents to really put Linda on the alert, though, and in the meantime she falls in love with the son of her charge’s guardians. I felt like, reading it this time, this relationship really wasn’t given room to breathe at all; that’s the case with all of Mary Stewart’s books, to be honest, and I don’t know why it struck me so much here — perhaps because, at over 400 pages, you’d expect a bit more depth.
What Mary Stewart always did well was evoke a sense of place, and she does beautifully here, from the house to the woodland to the little village; I can never “picture” anything, but she doesn’t just describe anyway. She can also make you feel a place, and it works here, from the woodlands to the house to the little villages.
Still a very enjoyable read, but not as great as I’d remembered, anyway; perhaps it’s best if you read it all in one go, which this time I didn’t. Maybe I just had too much time to quibble!
I was fully on board with the premise of this: a British policeman is sent to a mysterious area in South America, tasked with finding a way to stop the killing of duendes. Duendes have been deemed to be sentient and to be protected under the law, but local people hunt them down and kill them because of their ability to bring out people’s suppressed emotions, often rage and shame. To reach the area, you have to go through the Zona, on a boat, and everything you do inside the Zona… you’ll never remember once you leave it again. The book starts as Ben emerges from the Zona, to find that he wrote some mysterious journals… and probably left the boat, as everyone was advised not to do.
It doesn’t really go anywhere from there, unfortunately. There’s plenty of weirdness, some great little thumbnail sketches of people with all their insecurities bared, and it feels like there’s a plot leading toward some kind of climax, a confrontation between Ben and the weirdness. I didn’t necessarily expect answers to the weirdness, or at least not all of it, but it felt for a while like it had a fairly traditional plot trajectory — and then just at the point where you’d expect action to be taken, Ben decides to run away. He just runs away. That’s it. That’s the story.
Sure, he’s learned stuff about himself that he never knew and didn’t want to know; the Zona and the world within its circle have scared him and changed him… but essentially, he just decides to run away, and there’s no real feeling that there’s any kind of resolution.
Now maybe there isn’t intended to be, but it felt weak to me, especially after the inklings that there was more to come. It’s not that it was a bad reading experience, but despite the promise of the setting… I was left cold by this. I don’t mind weird, and I don’t mind non-traditional stories, but the sense that this was going somewhere and didn’t really made the ending limp for me.
Orfeia is a fairy tale, drawing the main character Fay from a world of late-night runs (recorded diligently on a Fitbit) to the world of Faerie, pulled on a line of Childe’s ballads and longing. Fay’s husband died when their daughter was young, and now her daughter is gone too — unexpectedly, through suicide. The runs are less a method of coping or escaping than just dulling herself to non-existence… and then one night as she runs she sees light through a crack in the pavement, and sees her daughter, alive but sleeping.
So begins Fay’s quest, driven by her love as a mother even as Faerie slowly steals away her memories and her shadow — and that love really drives the whole story. Her clues are fragments of ballads and riddles, and her weapons are her wits and her voice. She doesn’t remember or understand the world she’s drawn into, even as the other characters insist she’s a queen.
Some of the songs I was familiar with, and others less so, but I enjoyed the way they were used. It can be hard to do something new with something that retells or uses or references old ballads, because you may need to hew pretty close to the original story for anyone to recognise it… but you also want to bring your own twist to it. Harris is well-used to retellings, and doesn’t let source material hamper her one bit.
And alright, it’s a quest story: I was pretty sure of the answers of some of the big questions, but the ride was the important part, along with some of the details along the way. Some of the scenes are so vivid to me — I’m not blessed with a visual imagination at all, but the illustrations help there, and there are other senses to imagine…
Speaking of which, the illustrations are gorgeous, and worth lingering over for the little details.
Overall, I really enjoyed it. I always find Harris’ prose gripping — she has a way with words, or at least her words have a way with me. I ended up reading it in three sittings, and regretting each time I had to put it down.
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 29th September 2020
Burning Roses combines a mixture of different fairytales/folklore: Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Goldilocks… and Hou Yi, an archer from Chinese mythology. It blends all these disparate-sounding elements together with aplomb, remixing Hou Yi’s story in the meantime to make Hou Yi a trans woman, and winding in what reads as a racism metaphor in the grundwirgen (magical beings with animal qualities or animal forms, all of whom Rosa rather virulently hates in a way inherited from her mother and compounded by a ghastly experience as a child — you can guess what that experience was when you consider the Red Riding Hood story).
I didn’t think that all these stories could be combined like this so comfortably; for me, they’re all on quite different formal registers. I don’t know much about Hou Yi and how that story is usually told, of course, but the version I heard was rather formal and in the context of an anthology of mythological stories. On that basis, it initially seemed oddly placed next to a nursery story like Goldilocks. Just settle in and trust the author: in my opinion, it works out. I especially enjoyed the way that the story used both versions of the Hou Yi story that I knew of, showing they’re essentially the same story from different angles, depending on who is telling the story.
The grundwirgen (which I read as a metaphor for racism) theme feels a little heavy-handed at first, but when I think about the story now that doesn’t really register. The image that sticks in my head is that of both Rosa and Hou Yi working to be worthy of their families, failing and being human, and finding their way through it. It’s not a story of young and giddy fairytale love, but of love that endures through pain, love that forges a true family which you can’t walk away from.
I haven’t read the short stories in this world, but I don’t think it’s necessary to appreciate and enjoy this novella.