Review to come, but damn, this was a lot better than I expected it to be. Feeling a bit tragic about the months-away sequel, though, I was sure it was...moreReview to come, but damn, this was a lot better than I expected it to be. Feeling a bit tragic about the months-away sequel, though, I was sure it was already out.(less)
Fictionalised autobiographical turn-of-last-century Australian bush classic. Sybilla spends most of her youth in the soul-sapping drudgery of dairying...moreFictionalised autobiographical turn-of-last-century Australian bush classic. Sybilla spends most of her youth in the soul-sapping drudgery of dairying in a drought-stricken country. Her soul cries out for two unreachable worlds: the wild bush country of the remote ranch of her childhood, and the sophisticated world of arts, culture, literature and conversation belonging to distant cities such as Sydney. She knows, though, that be she ever so brilliant, the career she longs for will never be hers - being a woman prevents her from even seeking it, as an equally poor man might do. Then she receives an unlooked-for escape when her grandmother and aunt invite her to stay with them out on their ranch in the rugged and beautiful bushland she grew up in. But even there she feels the conflict between what she could do and what her spirit yearns for; especially when it comes to the matters of love and marriage.
I honestly can't tell whether I enjoyed this or not. There were definitely times it was a trudge and I was measuring how many pages I had to go and whether I could bear to get through them, but other times I was hooked. Sybilla is always an obnoxious, conceited, self-conscious and frustrating narrator, but she does know that she's these things, and it feels as though she's always trying to break through the prison of her own eloquence and awkwardness, to express what she really means, but never quite making it. And for all her self-pitying conceit, she's right: she does belong in a different sphere to the one she's trapped in, and the sheer misery it causes her to be cut off from what she yearns for strikes a powerful chord.
The most intriguing part of the book is her attitude to marriage. I'd heard that (view spoiler)[this was a book in which the heroine chose her career over marriage, but that's not what happens. The reasons she chooses not to marry are confused and contradictory, but almost more convincing as a result. More real? She is very young, and Miles Franklin was very young when she wrote this, and trying to work out why the idea of love and sex repel more than they attract you is pretty damned confusing. So Sybilla can talk about how her soul recoils from the very thought of marriage and her instinctive response to touch is to strike out, and then in the same breath she can talk about how the reason she doesn't want to marry this man, the one she thinks she might love, is because he's just not masterful enough, and somewhere out there is the true masterful man who would make her love him.
Seeing the way she sabotages and boxes herself in is painful, all the same. It's only knowing the success Miles Franklin achieved that makes that ending for her fictional self less crushing. (hide spoiler)]
The social politics in this book were also intriguing. Sybilla is a feminist, to some degree, and a socialist, to some degree. She cries out against many of the injustices of being a woman, while unquestionably accepting many others. Her soul burns at class injustice, while also happily consigning all of her neighbours to peasanthood, because she believes that unlike her it suits them. She sees keenly injustices that she herself has experienced - sexism, class barriers and poverty - but she's cheerfully racist, sometimes upsettingly.
The only uncomplicated reaction I had to this book is that I really enjoyed the bush setting and description. It was vivid and beautiful and made me homesick.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
YA fiction. Tom Mackee has managed to cut himself off from just about everybody important to him, since his favourite uncle got himself blown up on th...moreYA fiction. Tom Mackee has managed to cut himself off from just about everybody important to him, since his favourite uncle got himself blown up on the way to work in London. He's on the destructive bender that won't end, and his friends should have given up on him, probably; Tara Finke definitely should have. But when he winds up living with his pregnant aunt Georgie and working at the Union pub with his former best friends Francesca and Justine, Tom discovers he might not be as lost as he thought he was.
This is the sequel or companion to Saving Francesca, and I like Francesca best - it has a cathartic element that The Piper's Son, even though it's frequently more explosive, doesn't quite - but they're both about finding yourself and finding your way back home, and they both made me cry pretty happily. Justine here was instantly recognisable, but it was odd to see Francesca from the outside, and odder still to see Will, her boyfriend - odd and hilarious, as a friend told me before I read it, because everybody else recognises his complete lack of charm or charisma, whereas Francesca, of course, is in love.
Tom's own romance with Tara is ... kind of cool? I really like the dichotomy of Tara uncertain in love and Tara stomping around in combat boots as an activist; it feels real. But Tara isn't there most of the book, so it is harder to be invested in her and Tom. It did look as though Marchetta was setting herself up for another sequel about another member of the group, though, so we might get more of the Tom-and-Tara future story that way. I hope so!
Basically this book is Melina Marchetta back in her scrappy-Sydney-youth heartland, and that's the kind of story I love best from her.
Oh! This is also, I should say, Georgie's story. She actually gets half the narrative. It feels really hard to remember that; I guess Tom's voice is louder.(less)
**spoiler alert** Book 3 in the trilogy that started with The Demon's Lexicon. I loved this book, slightly scary levels of love; each new book in this...more**spoiler alert** Book 3 in the trilogy that started with The Demon's Lexicon. I loved this book, slightly scary levels of love; each new book in this trilogy has made me love the characters, and also the previous books, more.
There are things that I regret about the changes in POV-character with each book. There are things started in one book and resolved in another that simply can't be done as well from another person's perspective. The change with each book breaks the sense of continuity and drive to know what happens next, which meant that as much as I have adored all three of these books, I didn't hang out impatiently for each one the way I usually would with an unfinished series I adore. But I'm really glad the author did it this way all the same, with the price that comes with it, because I wouldn't give up Sin's book, or Mae's book for that matter.
In this one in particular, I'm fairly sure that seeing it from the inside this way is the only way I could have been sold on the Sin/Alan love story. The idea of it left me cold in The Demon's Covenant, and neither Sin (understandably given her small role in the previous book) or Alan (and I felt like more of a minority with this one) really spoke to me as characters, compared to Nick and Jamie in particular, but also compared to Mae. But seeing Sin and Alan recognise each other for what they were - the theme of both of them being liars and performers, and the other being the only one they don't have to feel bad about lying to because they can see the truth in it - being reminded of how craved but strange a thing love is to Alan - the way that Sin's pining was written - I really really loved it. This trilogy is not about romance, but Sin/Alan was my favourite romance in it.
What it's about, though, not that it's about one thing, but the thing it's most about, is siblings. For each protagonist the most important thing in the world, the thing that shapes their soul and their destiny and puts them in horrible danger and is worth it, is siblings. One of my favourite lines, which will probably sound trite out of context but I'll risk it, is Alan saying that love always costs more than you can afford to pay, and it's always worth the price. And because it's Alan and Sin talking, love has extra dimensions, but the love at the heart of the three books is the sibling bond: Nick and Alan, Mae and Jamie, Sin and Lydie and Toby. And I love the way that the sibling bond is so utterly different for all three, even though it remains the most vital thing. Sin who acts as guardian for Lydie and Toby, Mae and Jamie who have effortless closeness and a whole shared world of understanding and emotional shorthand, Nick and Alan who would kill or die for each other and need each other but for whom sibling love is the most difficult thing in the world.
That last point is one of the things that switching to Sin's POV for the end of the trilogy robbed us of, though, to a certain extent. Because it's Nick and Alan at the centre, and even more than whether Nick can be human enough to not be a scourge on the world and the worst sin Alan has ever committed, the tension at the centre is whether Nick can be human enough to love Alan - whether he can give back what Alan pours out in love and pain and selflessness. And what we get at the end, here, is Nick saying, of loving Alan, "Who knows? Maybe I did." and, raggedly, "I missed you." Which are both pretty powerful things from a boy who can't care properly and can't lie. In Nick's POV they would have been huge. In Mae's POV, with her closeness to and understanding of Nick and her lessons in being human, they would have still been a bit shattering. From Sin's POV they're just not as important as the other things that are going on: Alan being saved, the defeat of the Circle, the terrifyingly revolutionary changes in the Market, the brighter future for Lydie.
The resolution of the Mae/Nick romance didn't really work for me from Sin's POV either. Mae and Nick's love story was never especially romantic, and it did have some rather darling moments here ("We can do whatever boring thing you want"), and of course Nick not wanting to burn the world because it had Mae and Jamie in it, and actively wanting to get the pearl so that he can give it to Mae so she can have the Market, because she wants it, those things were pretty great. But their actual interactions, Mae and Nick's moments together, were robbed of most of their power from the outside; I couldn't feel the emotional stakes that were there in Demon's Covenant.
The Jamie/Seb love story ... we were never going to get to see that properly. We would have needed, if not Jamie or Seb's POV, at least a POV that could get us on that boat more than twice. So we didn't get to see it properly, and that's pretty tragic, but it did give me some warm feelings all the same. I saw you two making your lunatic pact to be evil boyfriends made up in droves for the fact that the lunatic-pact-to-be-evil-boyfriends scene wasn't very fun - and I really liked that Seb could see through Jamie when nobody else could. Seb's really interesting, actually, in that he's literally the only important character in these books who's actually weak. Mae and Sin both walk taller than they are, but that's their strength, and Alan and Jamie both pretend to be harmless but are secretly made of steel, even with their emotional cracks and frailties. But Seb is weak and doesn't really find his strength, and I think maybe by the end of the series, even more than getting over the gay thing, what he's made his peace with is that he's okay with that. Being weak was turning him into a bad person, when he was in the power of the magicians, but by transferring his loyalty to Jamie he can be more or less okay. It's not really a character resolution, and it doesn't answer all sorts of things about the future dynamics of his relationship with Jamie and the world, but in the absence of the Jamie-book we were never going to get, it's not a bad open ending for him.
I did adore the bits of Nick and Jamie's friendship. I actually had to text a friend in glee when Nick told Sin that they weren't friends because he already had one. In general though Jamie wasn't a highlight of this book, which made me a little tragic given that he was my highlight for the previous two. It made sense, given that Sin didn't especially care about him, and it meant that the main characters who were most important to Sin, Alan and to a lesser extent Nick and to a lesser extent again Mae, shone in the way a narrator who's absorbed in and interested by and delighted with and hurting because of can make shine, for the reader.
The plot was ... I don't know. Mae's strategic planning was much better in this book than in the last? The weakest point was in the things the other characters didn't tell Sin, and she didn't think to ask about. It worked that Alan couldn't know any plans, because that would let Gerald know them, but if there was a reason Sin couldn't know any plans, I didn't get it. The rest of the plot was fine, not the strength of the book but not letting it down either (the external plot, not the internal plot of emotional and character development and character relationship arcs which is the strength, or one of the strengths). But the artificial plot tension produced by nobody telling Sin anything did bug me.
A friend mentioned recently that she liked the way Sarah Rees Brennan wrote fight scenes, and I thought that I didn't especially remember them, but in this book the fight scenes, and the dancing scenes, really are the best. The physicality of Sin's POV, the things it's natural for her to be able to do, works splendidly.
I was trying to work out if I had a favourite book in the trilogy, but I don't think so: as I said, each one makes me love the others more. I think Lexicon is maybe the most accomplished, and the most starkly wrenching. Covenant is definitely the funniest and most darling, Mae and Jamie at the centre make it effortlessly lovable. And Surrender has the best love story.(less)
YA fantasy; sequel to The Demon's Lexicon. When Mae discovers that her brother Jamie has been secretly meeting with a magician, one of the cold-bloode...moreYA fantasy; sequel to The Demon's Lexicon. When Mae discovers that her brother Jamie has been secretly meeting with a magician, one of the cold-blooded killers who feed humans to demons, she doesn't even think before she calls the Ryves brothers. But when Alan and Nick roll back into town, something clearly wrong between the two of them, Mae's life descends blindingly fast into a web of crossfire between rival magicians' circles, demons, the Ryves brothers and the injured and angry folk of the Market.
I was a bit dubious about the idea of Mae as the narrator, although trying to be open-minded. The truth is that she's fantastic as a protagonist. I think the reason that she was one of my less favourite characters in the first book was that I need to see someone's vulnerabilities before I care about them a whole lot. Jamie was my favourite partly because he gets all the best lines, but also because he wears his weaknesses way out in the open. Stoically dark Nick I don't think I would have cared about at all if I'd met him first from somebody else's point of view, without knowing his frustrations and fears. Mae's still an incredibly capable person - in any other company she would be the most confident person in the room - but here, as the only person who can't fight or do magic, she's facing the novel and unwelcome experience of being a bit useless. She's just, she's so human, and prickly about her parents and plagued by nightmares and worried about her brother, and you can't help but care a lot. The scenes between her and Jamie, especially the early ones, are especially darling. I loved the "How did you learn to dance?" game.
I wasn't sure about the climax. (view spoiler)[I get that it was about giving Mae her power back, and having her be awesome, but I wasn't sure how awesome it all was. Her plan was pretty basic, she didn't do all that much to get it in place, and I don't quite buy the idea that only she could have done it. Even if Sin didn't have the initiative for it, it seems as though there was one other person who could have organised it, and more easily. (hide spoiler)] Maybe I missed something.
But this book is about the characters and their relationships much more than it is about magic and plans, for me. I love all of the characters and the ways they interact with each other so very much. Mae-and-Jamie best, but also Nick-and-Alan, the other sibling pair, and Jamie-and-Nick who are hilarious and kind of darling together, Mae-and-Sin, so delighted with one another, Jamie-and-Seb, so unequally positioned, and yes, Mae-and-Nick. They're not the love story of the ages - when one participant literally doesn't understand what love means, that's going to be tricky - but they're two terribly interesting characters making themselves vulnerable with each other in ways they would do with hardly anybody else, and still failing to understand each other. I really like the way they test each other - in the hand-holding scene in particular.
The one relationship that didn't work very well for me was Mae and Alan. It made me uncomfortable - not because I felt as though either of them should be with somebody else, but just. Something in the dynamic, whenever they showed affection for each other; nothing marked, I just didn't much enjoy reading it. Maybe I was supposed to be uncomfortable, given that they were both being some degree of dishonest with each other.
Even if I wasn't won over by Mae's plan, the twists in the climax were pretty devastating, and made me cry. And they leave us in a really interesting position going into the third book; this one is much more of a cliffhanger than the first. But again, I'm not all that excited about the narrator shift. I like Sin, and I'm sure I'll like her a lot more when she's the protagonist, but there are two particular relationships that are in really interesting places at the end of this book, and neither of them involve Sin. I'm not nearly as excited about the prospect of what seems likely to be Sin's pairing.
Basically, though, I read this pretty ravenously, and loved it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
YA urban fantasy. 16-year-old Nick and his older brother Alan have been hunted by magicians - the ruthless masters of demons - all their lives, since...moreYA urban fantasy. 16-year-old Nick and his older brother Alan have been hunted by magicians - the ruthless masters of demons - all their lives, since their mother stole a powerful charm from a magician. Nick's mother, gaunt and mad, can't bear to even be in the same room as Nick, and Nick finds other people incomprehensible and generally uninteresting: Alan has always been the only true and sure point in his life. When Alan invites the irritatingly helpless sister and brother Mae and Jamie into their lives, then lets himself get marked by a demon - a mark that means death or demon-thrall if they can't remove it - and all apparently in the pursuit of a plan he won't tell Nick about, Nick's precariously steady world begins to unravel. In the beginning his only goal is saving Alan, without getting either of them killed or captured, but there's much more at stake than Nick knows about.
This is a dark-edged, tightly plotted adventure and family drama. It has heart and excitement and banter and wonderful secondary characters (Jamie the scared-secretive-witty boy who loves his fiercely protective sister a lot is my favourite by miles), and it also has a really fascinating protagonist. You don't feel close to Nick, exactly - he's impossible, disconnected from normal human emotions, and frequently frightening - but he's engaging anyway.
I knew to expect a major twist, which might have been why I guessed it early on, but the plot tension doesn't depend on that one twist, and I still had no idea what was going on. I especially had no idea what Alan was doing, and that mystery would have kept me tightly inside the story even if the characters hadn't. But basically there was no place to slip out of the story: it was almost too tight, and I was left feeling as though I'd wanted to loll around in the world and the character dynamics longer than I'd been allowed to. Which I suppose is the point of it being the first book in a trilogy: I'm supposed to want more. (Note that even though it's the first in a trilogy, there's no cliffhanger ending; this first book has a more-or-less standalone plot, and books 2 & 3 have different protagonists.)(less)
M/M historical romance (turn of the last century); isn't listed as part of a series but seems to be set up for sequels. Captain Archie Curtis is not a...moreM/M historical romance (turn of the last century); isn't listed as part of a series but seems to be set up for sequels. Captain Archie Curtis is not accustomed to subterfuge, and he is acutely uncomfortable at having accepted a country house party invitation under false pretences. But he also can't bring himself to ignore the rumour that his host bears responsibility for the devastating military accident that cost him the fingers of his right hand and the lives of most of his men. His attempts at investigation, however, are made more difficult by fellow houseguest Daniel da Silva: effeminate, witty, foreign, obviously queer, and altogether the most dislikable man Curtis has ever met.
This is pretty great: engaging and well-characterised and romantic. There's a very modern and unsavoury mystery and resolution in there, but most of the plot is drawing room chatter, late-night sneaking about, action and danger, with a really lovely extended hurt/comfort section occupying most of the climax. Also a couple of great female characters in plot-important roles - both rather familiar stock figures of the country house mystery genre but with, of course, a twist. I liked the use of recognisable country house mystery characters in general, actually, and da Silva in particular: when he's introduced he's such a familiar figure of the genre, the too-urbane, effete foreigner who will almost certainly turn out to be either the villain or secretly a deadly young blade playing a foppish part. But will never, of course, become someone you're supposed to like, never become vulnerable or warm or sympathetic.
Every time I read a K. J. Charles book (2 Magpie Lord books and this one, so far) I get unrealistically hopeful about the genre in general and spend an afternoon re-learning that most of what's out there is terrible. I understand that part of the fantasy for a lot of romance readers is that both partners be objectively and enviably desirable to everybody they've ever met, but god it's boring. All I want to know is that they want each other, in all their prickliness and individuality and fully equipped with emotional hangups, and Charles does that beautifully.
(I'm not sure the King Solomon's Mines crossover fic element added anything in particular, but it didn't especially detract anything either, so.)
Content warnings: some dubious consent that may also trip a particularly sensitive embarrassment squick (didn't for me, but hey), mentions of child sexual abuse (not of the protagonists), mentions of suicide. Specifics of the dubcon: (view spoiler)[kind of a fuck-or-die: characters have to perform sexual acts for a hidden audience to divert suspicion about their spying. (hide spoiler)]
Lol this was going to be a super-brief review. I'm so bad at brevity.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
YA fantasy. Only half of Nolan's life is his own. Every time he closes his eyes - when he sleeps and when he blinks - he falls into the head of a girl...moreYA fantasy. Only half of Nolan's life is his own. Every time he closes his eyes - when he sleeps and when he blinks - he falls into the head of a girl called Amara, living as a silent and helpless passenger to her life and thoughts. Amara is a mute servant in another world, chosen for her healing abilities to protect Cilla, the exiled and cursed princess of the Dunelands. Amara's life is frequently a bleak nightmare - she has no rights, and her body is constantly called upon to bear the brunt of the killing curse chasing Cilla - but Nolan is convinced he has it even worse, sharing Amara's thoughts and hurts without being able to move the smallest finger to act in this second life that feels like his own, or to let Amara know he's there.
I liked this so much at the beginning. Everything about the premise is my jam, the thought-sharing and the communication limitations and Nolan's overlapping double lives and the two girls, one of them bound to protect the other and possibly in love with her, and the easy diversity which this book is absolutely chock full of: everybody is a POC, Amara is bisexual in a world in which that's so much the default it's not even a word, and she and Nolan both have disabilities.
And it's not really that it doesn't deliver, because I think the book probably achieved what the author set out to do. The character arcs are complicated and realistic, and the plot is mostly pretty watertight, with reveals at the right times which explained the things that needed explaining. It's just that it kind of left me behind. The developments of the relationships between Amara & Nolan, and Amara & Cilla, were sensitively developed with a lot of care paid to teasing out and validating the bodily autonomy issues and betrayal of trust and interrogation of power inequalities, but they didn't hit any of my emotional kinks. The soulbond between Nolan and Amara felt like it got less exciting as it developed. The main plot reveal about the Ministers explained what was happening but in a way that felt like it, idk, cheapened or reduced the story, a little. And the ending (view spoiler)[ with Nolan and Amara entirely cut off from one another's lives was what it needed to be, maybe, but also felt like the least interesting possibility. (hide spoiler)]
I didn't know how to rate this fairly, given all the things it's clever and sensitive and interesting about. In the end I just went with the most honest answer, which is: I liked it, but not enough.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
YA. This book has one of the most misleading blurbs I've ever seen. Here's my version:
In 1891, two little girls called Grace and Mary live on a remote...moreYA. This book has one of the most misleading blurbs I've ever seen. Here's my version:
In 1891, two little girls called Grace and Mary live on a remote Australian property called Abyssinia. They have a dollhouse, which they love, though one of the dolls has gone missing, and the newest doll looks sad and as though she does not belong. Somewhere else, a girl called Sarah is taken away in a blanket at night, and wakes up in a strange house crowded with things that nobody puts away, where the father is blind and the mother does not speak or look at her two children, and a strange mesmerist-doctor says that they will not get better until their lost daughter is recovered. Sarah doesn't like it there and doesn't belong, but she thinks there is nothing she can do; until Dr Fleet says that perhaps there is, if she will go to the heart of Africa for him - go to Abyssinia.
This book feels very clever as you're reading it. At the end, once everything is more or less resolved (sort of?), I felt as though the cleverness was being used as a mask for how little sense the plot actually makes. There is an evil (maybe?) mesmerist doctor who runs the action, but I don't know why, or what he gets out of it. "For every child that is lost, another must be found" is not actually a motivation. Or any kind of law that makes sense. Mary dies (this is not a spoiler: we're told about it on the first page), but you can't tell whether it was her dying or her extended life that was engineered. If the events had been laid out in a plain order, with no mysteries, they would make the most ridiculous narrative. So even though it felt clever, and the atmosphere was wonderful, and the characters were pretty great, I couldn't properly respect this book.
Anyway, the blurb is so incredibly unrelated to the story that I felt the urge to annotate it (somewhat spoilerishly, but this book makes so little sense I can't see that spoilers would make a difference):
A psychological thriller, a desperately moving and ultimately uplifting (in what way is the ending at all uplifting?) tale of childhood innocence... (They're definitely children? And fairly innocent, I guess? I'm not sure what that has to do with anything in the actual story.)
As small children, growing up at their property called Abyssinia, two sisters played with their dolls house together, side by side, always. Grace loved Mary, and Mary loved Grace. (Grace and Mary do love each other, but there's nothing to suggest they were unusually close for sisters.)
But inseparable bonds in life can be unexpectedly shattered. When this happens to Grace (Grace? Grace gets none of the POV narrative, except for a tiny bit at the end. Unless we're supposed to believe all of the narrative is a story Grace is telling herself, which is possible but not at all obvious, especially since the audience is supposed to be a young one - there's nothing to suggest this story actually belongs to her), she is plunged into a dark and mesmerising world, a world full of bells and the ringing sky (there is one line about Sarah waking from dreams of bells and the ringing sky, which I assume is where the blurb writer pulled this rather good phrasing. It has nothing that I can see to do with the plot, or anything that Grace ever saw), of odd little children, strange events and frighteningly bizarre grown-ups. (Again, these are all things that Sarah, not Grace, sees. I thought for a while that maybe Sarah was actually Grace, or Mary, but the book tells us quite firmly that she's somebody else, later on.)
It's a good blurb, in and of itself. If the narrative - both Mary's and Sarah's sections - are something Grace is imagining or writing, then the blurb sort of almost fits the book. But the blurb is really the only place that this reading is suggested, so.(less)
Children's fantasy. When misfortune strikes the local settlement, 9-year-old Peat is blamed. She flees to the marshes, where she is caught by a marsh...moreChildren's fantasy. When misfortune strikes the local settlement, 9-year-old Peat is blamed. She flees to the marshes, where she is caught by a marsh auntie whose trade is telling stories that are also gateways. But gateways are dangerous, and Peat soon finds herself trapped in somebody else's life-and-death bargain.
I really enjoyed this. Peat is a pretty appealing protagonist, who never loses her agency despite the many events she has no control over - she manages to keep it her story, rather than a story that happens to her. And the characters she interacts with are also great: among others the capricious little fox-like sleek who accompanies her, the secretive marsh auntie with her coat growing over with weeds, the 900-year-old boy with the strange speech and manner, and his master, the gently sinister Siltman.
The worldbuilding - in the sense of the landscapes themselves - is really rich and cool, too. All the settings are so distinct and strange, but they fit together into a believable world. The floating islands of the marsh aunties were possibly my favourite, but I also loved the Siltman's eerie land.(less)
High fantasy. Ista is the dowager royina of all Chalion, mother of the ruling royina, but she suffered under a curse of madness for years and though t...moreHigh fantasy. Ista is the dowager royina of all Chalion, mother of the ruling royina, but she suffered under a curse of madness for years and though the madness is past, those who loved her got out of the habit of allowing her her own will or space. In a ploy to escape her cossetted grey life, Ista sets out on a faux pilgrimage with a small company: the only respectable way a woman of her age and station can take to the road. But the gods who once chose her so disastrously have taken an interest in her again. Ista finds herself pulled to a castle on the tense border between Chalion and Jokona, where two brothers lie under a curse of their own. It has been given to Ista to pull this tangle free and save them, maybe, but she failed her last god-appointed task, and the years of misery, guilt and rage that followed were no kind of incentive to welcome in a god again – especially not a trickster god such as the Bastard.
I forget how much I can enjoy epic fantasy, sometimes. It's very satisfying to start something that will rollick along with high stakes at every turn, and you know will keep on going for more than 400 pages. This is the first of Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasies that I've read, and it's actually the second in the Chalion series – although the first, The Curse of Chalion, has a different protagonist. Anyway, this can certainly be read first without difficulty, although it does spoil a few things in the previous book.
This one doesn't, for me, compare to the Vorkosigan Saga, Bujold's SF series, but it did have several things that I really liked. I enjoyed very much that the protagonist was a 40-year-old dowager, which made her the authority figure in most situations but didn't mean that her story wasn't one of self-discovery and awakening. (And love, although with the exception of Ekaterin and Miles, Bujold's romantic arcs don't tend to be the talking points for her books, for me.) More than that, I liked Ista, with her graveness and her anger and her twisted regrets and her steadfastness. And the two brothers with their fates intertwined is an always appealing feature in a book. As is a man in a Briar Rose position, waiting on a woman to save him from an enchanted half-sleep: appearing in this book as Illvin "molest me while I'm unconscious it's cool" dy Arbanos.
I was interested in the quinity of gods too, especially the Bastard, trickster and part-demon, who takes as his own both those born out of wedlock and those who love their own sex. My impression is that mainstream epic fantasy has been taking small but steady steps away from heteronormativity in the last twenty years, but it's still unusual to find accomodation of queerness actually built into a social and religious system in an epic secondary world. (Even though there are no major queer characters in the book itself.)
(Found this review saved on my hard drive; apparently I never posted it anywhere.)(less)
YA. Dante thought the most important thing he would get today was his A level results. Instead he's left holding a one-year-old baby daughter. The onl...moreYA. Dante thought the most important thing he would get today was his A level results. Instead he's left holding a one-year-old baby daughter. The only thing he's sure of is that there has to be a way to give her back. Dante's younger brother Adam has always been the less charmed one, but right now his problems are looking a lot less catastrophic than Dante's. He's possibly even met a boy he likes. Although it would be nice if that boy would, you know, talk to him politely in public.
So, books about teenaged single fathers and gay kids are always something I would like to read more of, but this isn't an amazing book. Adam's story centres largely around his experiences with homophobia, which – the Inevitability of Homophobic Violence in stories about gay kids is a literary tradition I could do with seeing less of. (The protagonists are Black, but this is so not an issue that it's only mentioned in a single line about two thirds of the way through the book. So the issue-ifying of queerness really stands out.) And Dante's story of course revolves around baby Emma, who's – not terrible, but sort of generically lovable in a not very realistic way.
And then the message in general comes down to something hopeful about the importance of family, which is nice but very predictable.
But it's a very well-intentioned book, and I liked the messages about gender roles. I also liked the way that baby Emma's teenaged mother is treated; the sense of how impossible her life has been this past year, the lack of narrative blame for her actions.
(Found this review saved on my hard drive; apparently I never posted it anywhere.)(less)
Children's macabre fantasy. Nobody Owens (called Bod) was nearly assasinated as a baby. Instead he toddled into the village cemetary, where the reside...moreChildren's macabre fantasy. Nobody Owens (called Bod) was nearly assasinated as a baby. Instead he toddled into the village cemetary, where the resident ghosts adopted him. He grows up half-living, half-ghost. But the shadowy assassins who killed his parents haven't given up on looking for him.
I loved this book. It's the first time Neil Gaiman has unequivocally worked for me. There's really not that much driving plot - basically Bod gets gradually older, and has dangers and adventures at various ages, and always his tutor and protector Silas is the most important figure in his life. There's no real satisfying crash of an emotional climax, and the ending is more of a beginning after the prologue of Bod's childhood, but I didn't feel like I needed more. The only thing that left me dissatisfied, I think, was (view spoiler)[Scarlett's ending (hide spoiler)]. But as I said, this book really wasn't about the plot arc and where it ended up, it was about the incredibly charming progress throughout - somewhat like The Jungle Book, I guess, although it's been a far longer time since I read that. I loved Bod, I loved the way he interacted with each of the ghosts and the other figures he encountered. I loved them all.["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Young adult speculative fiction (zombies); audiobook read by Vane Millon.
It's been generations since the Return, when the infection spread and the dea...moreYoung adult speculative fiction (zombies); audiobook read by Vane Millon.
It's been generations since the Return, when the infection spread and the dead rose. Mary lives in a tightly warded village behind metal fences, inside the Forest of Hands and Teeth where the Unconsecrated roam. Life in the village is also tightly warded and ruled, and a girl whom no one speaks for to claim as a wife has only two other options: to be a useless burdon on her family, or to go into the mysterious Sisterhood. When Mary's mother is infected and becomes Unconsecrated, her brother rejects her, and neither Travis, the boy she wants, nor his brother Harry, the boy she thought wanted her, speaks for her, so she goes into the cathedral. Her life seems over; she loses herself in yearning for the ocean her mother told her stories of, and in her hopeless and growing love for Travis, betrothed to her best friend. But there are secrets in the cathedral, dark and awful truths kept by the sisters, and the peace of the village is not secure. When the fence is breached, Mary flees the village along with a small band including both Travis and Harry. The others want only to escape the Unconsecrated, and find another village, or a way to return to their own. Mary, though, is still dreaming that the paths in the forest might show her a way to the ocean.
This book is so droopy. Seriously, it's like an endless rainy day: sometimes it switches up and the rain is punishingly hard, hurtful and deafening, and sometimes it droops down to a drizzle of rain dripping from the leaves and trickling on the back of your neck no matter how much you turn your collar up, but it doesn't ever stop. The fact that this was an audiobook definitely worked against it. The narrator didn't sound like a professional voice actor, and her reading style was unemotive and depressing, as though she was on the edge of sobbing. Which, to be fair, Mary mostly was. She spent most of this book weeping, and the rest of it apologising. She's not a useless character at all – once she's got over the most crippling stage of her grief and abandonment, in the cathedral, she does more to drive the plot than any other character. In fact I guess really the story is about her going from being pushed around at the beginning - all her power taken away from her by her brother, the sisters, Harry and Travis, nobody telling her anything and her never getting angry - to her slowly coming into her own, getting strong, until she finally strikes out on her own. But she's so goddamned sodden.
I also didn't feel as though this was misery that had a point. Mary's experience and world didn't speak to anything in particular outside the book, for me. It was just this one awful world that had been basically constructed to be the most awful ever: If the relentless living dead and the turning of your loved ones doesn't get you down, here are some soul-crushing social restrictions and lies to keep things grey! What's the point of that exercise, of constructing that world?
This is supposed to be a beautiful story, in amongst the horror and the death. It would have been more beautiful if I'd been able to give it my own internal voice, probably, instead of the reader's voice, but I think I still would have been annoyed by the present tense narrative, the constant repetition of favourite evocative phrases, the religious themes and relentlessly traditional gender role/power policing, and just the dragging grey sadness of everything. The love story, too, was just ... what? Seriously, I'd seen this reviewed as a zombie romance, but Travis is the least interesting love interest ever to walk a zombie-infested forest, and when Mary falls in love with him, the narrative has absolutely no interest in telling us why. He's injured and unconscious for most of the period of time when she's doing the falling in love, and when they do talk, the author apparently didn't feel it was important to tell us what they say, for the most part. But apparently Travis's skin smells nice? Mary is in love, for sure, but it's not a love story. A love story needs two people, and Travis isn't even there; he doesn't even leave a ripple on the text.
My favourite part of the book was defininitely the last eighth or so, when it gets dangerous and desperate without taking breaks for Harry and Travis to be creepily possessive and boring, or Mary to be in love or grieving, which tended to mar all the other exciting passages.
In case it's not clear, I did not like this book.(less)
Children's (time travel) fiction. A nice, quietly clever little story set in the 1970s about twelve-year-old Miranda, who carries a copy of A Wrinkle...moreChildren's (time travel) fiction. A nice, quietly clever little story set in the 1970s about twelve-year-old Miranda, who carries a copy of A Wrinkle in Time about with her, and the things that happen after her best friend stops talking to her and notes begin to appear in strange places.
This is mostly a story about working out family and friendships, but the time travel element is neatly done: every clue accounted for and every end tucked in.(less)
This is a 77-year correspondence, which naturally becomes both a portrait of the personalities of and relationships between the six Mitford sisters, a...moreThis is a 77-year correspondence, which naturally becomes both a portrait of the personalities of and relationships between the six Mitford sisters, and a fascinating view on the times they lived through, and threw themselves into. It's huge, and thought-provoking, and delightful, and sometimes greyly disheartening and sometimes desperately sad and sometimes just so charming you could live in it.
The key points of the Mitford story are that they were peers' daughters who came of age in the twenties, thirties and forties, and were almost never out of the papers. One eloped and ran away to be a communist in the Spanish Civil War, one became enamoured of and very close to Hitler and attempted to kill herself when England and Germany declared war, one became a fascist and was imprisoned during WWII on suspicion of being a threat to national security, one traipsed around Europe with her dogs and female companions, memorising every meal she ate, one became a bestselling novelist who immortalised the sisters' childhood, and one, the youngest and only surviving Mitford, is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. That soundbite version of each of them is to a certain extent encouraged by one stylistic conceit (a helpful one when you're reading) in this book, whereby the author of each letter is signaled not just by their name but by an icon: a quill for Nancy the writer, crossed cutlery for Pamela, a half-moon which I assume is some kind of symbol of fascism (?) for Diana, a swastika for Unity (really), the communist hammer and sickle for Jessica, and a coronet for Deborah.
All six sisters shared a sort of linguistic quickness and fluidity that expressed itself in the letters in made-up or idiosyncratically stretched words like extraorder and nevair and wondair and shared phrases like I die for it and Do admit and endless nicknaming and just this ease of picking up and dropping jokes and keeping references running for a few letters and teasing one another. They also all shared a stiff-upper-lip flipness in the face of their own heartbreak and tragedy, and a greater or lesser tendency to tease and laugh in the face of other people's misfortunes and other people's or their own self-importance. And obviously they all shared a particular yen for extraordinary doings and convention-flouting. Even Deborah, who lived the most exemplary life of the six, started her grown-up life by suing a newspaper for damaging her marriage prospects by wrongly printing that it was Debo, rather than Jessica, who had eloped. (Then she went on to marry the future Duke of Devonshire, although he was a younger son at the time.)
Debo's is the voice that emerges as the most engaging, at least to me. She has this amazing strain of irreverence to her, which is especially heightened by the way she spent most of her life negotiating terribly exalted company. She was the most conflict-avoidant of the six of them - there's one angry passive-aggressive letter she writes to Nancy at one point, followed the next morning by a really darling apology letter - and she seems to have negotiated all those state dinners and Buckingham garden parties without any sensationalist scandals or shocking turns, but with the most amazing unhurtful delighted mockery. She was also the most prone to nicknaming of them all, possibly. A couple of high-profile examples: JFK, who was a close friend of Debo's, once called her up on Thanksgiving to ask if she had all her loved ones around her, which she found so charming and hilarious as a phrase that she referred to him as The Loved One from then on. And she referred to the Queen Mother all her life as Cake, after a wedding at which on being told the bride and groom were about to cut the cake, she had exclaimed "Oh, the cake!", delighting Debo forever.
Diana's letters were my least favourite. She felt, somehow, much more conventional than Debo, even though she was actually massively more shocking. She left her husband to be closer to her married lover, became an avid fascist and fervent supporter of Hitler, was imprisoned during the war, and was also a rather spikily opinionated atheist all her life. But she was the most sentimental of them, the least likely to bury her emotions behind walls of humour and staunchness (and the least funny), and certainly the most tenderhearted - and that tenderheartedness manifested itself in a slightly hypocritical sweetness. A constant refrain from her throughout the letters is to bring up some past hurtful thing another of her sisters did, and assert that she's over it and she doesn't mind anymore, but it really was awfully hurtful, and isn't she large-minded to not mind it anymore? She seems to have built her character around being the forgiving and sweet one, which meant that when she was actually desperately angry at somebody, she could only express it in sly digs to third parties.
Jessica (Decca) went straight from the Spanish Civil War to America, and only ever returned to England for visits. Where Debo avoided conflict, Decca seems to have run at it full-tilt. She was definitely the most bullish of the six, and in America, especially in the early years, she desperately and deliberately rejected everything about her class and background that she could. She cultivated a sort of deliberate brashness of vocabulary and manner, shaving off the refinements, and dotted her letters with abbreviations and forthright Americanisms.
Nancy, on the other hand, took a sort of perverse delight in conflict that she could observe from an observer's perspective. She took the Mitford laughing-at-serious-topics habit to the greatest extreme - her callousness frequently horrified Diana - and she was also the sharpest wit of the six of them. Her letters are always amusing, but usually not very safe.
Unity is the most infamous of them. Unity is the one your mother knows about, the one who crops up as references to the crazy British girl who was in love with Hitler. She died young (several years after the suicide attempt that gave her brain damage, of complications related to the bullet wound), so you never get to see what kind of personality she would have developed into. But even though her letters stop 200 pages into this 800 page book, she makes a decided impression. She writes with expression and force, a sort of mixture of poeticism and a bulldog attention to real-world events and details. She seems as though she must have had so much presence, it's hard to imagine her attaching herself as a satellite to somebody with, reportedly, so much more of it. But clearly she did, because what her letters are, overwhelmingly, is fannish. The way she writes about Hitler, about dinners and conversations with him and about him, all He put his hand on my shoulder twice & on my arm once and There was a choice of two soups & he tossed a coin to see which one he would have, & he was *so* sweet doing it and of her mother meeting Hitler, Having so little feeling she doesn't feel his goodness & wonderfulness radiating out like we do; it's not a girl in love, not really, it's a girl in the grips of fannish adoration. And not in an ignorant way - she swallowed all the propaganda about so-and-so "committing suicide" and such, but she knew very well what antisemitism meant and that people were getting hurt. She has Nancy's callousness combined with a fierce idealism, and it's ... fascinating and attractive and awful and really really sad. She was this little girl who used to hide under the table when she was upset, and was expelled from half a dozen schools for wildness, and her sisters called her Birdie, and she grew up to be a Nazi and she never became anything else, because she shot herself.
Pamela, called Woman by everybody, including her mother, is the hardest sister to get a handle on. She wrote far fewer letters than the others, and those she did were apparently largely filled with detailed accounts of the meals she'd cooked or eaten, so even fewer of them appear in this collection. She apparently suffered from polio in childhood, which affected her intellectual growth, enough to be noticible in this very quick family, and she was the most teased of them, especially by Nancy. But they agreed that she liked to be ragged on, enjoyed the attention, and certainly she always seemed to take it in stride. They definitely took delight in her eccentricities, and related stories to each other of "Woman's sagas", and Woman's conquests and social arrangements. They used the word "wondair" for her more than for anything else, and it didn't exactly mean wonderful but it did, too, wondering and fond and amused and perhaps a little appalled. She doesn't seem to have been shy or retiring - the stories her sisters relate to each other about her are always full of her browbeating somebody or other into arranging things to her benefit, or matter-of-factly ignoring important people - but she almost never waded into the family conflicts. She was quite self-sacrificing - she was the one who took on the care of Diana's children when Diana was in prison, and she cared for Nancy for long stretches while she was dying slowly of cancer - but she doesn't seem to have romanticised or derived any enjoyment from martyred devotion to others in the way that Diana, for example, sometimes did. (And she wasn't good at taking care of Diana's children; she was terribly unmaternal.) Really she seems to have just wanted to be able to tramp around doing her own thing.
Nancy's most complicated relationship was with Diana, whom she was always a little jealous of - for her beauty and popularity and children (which Nancy couldn't have) and for being loved. She actually denounced Diana to the government as a dangerous personage, when approached about it, before Diana's incarceration (which Diana didn't know till after Nancy's death). She was also closest to Diana, though; at one point they both lived for an extended time in Paris, and they spoke on the phone every morning and spent large portions of their time together. She had a freer and easier relationship with Jessica, once Jessica mellowed enough to not write Nancy off entirely as a Gaul supporter, than any of the others did. Partly because they saw eye to eye on their upbringing (desperately unfair they hadn't got a proper school education) and the shortcomings of their mother (vehemently denied by their other sisters), and partly because, I think, both of them were thicker skinned than the others, and the stakes in their relationship weren't so high as Nancy's with Diana, or Decca's with Debo and Unity, and there was no need for eggshell-walking around each other. And it was also partly because Nancy rather enjoyed it when Jessica stirred up conflict, I think, because Nancy's sense of humour swung that way. But her relationship with Debo was the one that was the most charming to read in letters. She addressed Debo as "9" (her mental age according to Nancy), and Debo addressed her as "Get on". Deborah was witty enough to be a worthy opponent for Nancy's wit, keenly appreciative of the ridiculous and ironically self-aware enough not to get hurt, but also sweet-nature enough that their exchanges could never turn mean, despite Nancy being Nancy.
Deborah and Diana had the closest relationship for the longest time - decades long. They agreed on all important matters, although whenever you read a letter in which Diana brings up politics or fascism or Hitler, Deborah entirely ignores it in her response. Diana and Unity, on the other hand, had the closest relationship when it made the most difference. They were the only two who could share their ardent devotion to Hitler and fascism, and they wrote and wrote to each other in those couple of years leading up to WWII, long letters full of painstakingly detailed accounts and encounters, and overflowing with ardent declarations.
Diana and Jessica are estranged from the moment they each discover politics, and there are little hurty references to how much Jessica had loved Diana but considers her the enemy now, and how much baby Decca and Debo had been Diana's absorbing interest and joy when she was a girl herself.
But it's Debo and Decca's relationship that is the most heartbreaking. As children they were the two youngest, and they had an invented language called Honnish, whose terms creep into the adult vocabulary of all the Mitfords. Deborah was devastated when Jessica ran away without saying anything, leaving her desperately lonely and increasingly unhappy, living with her parents and then with her mother and brain-damaged sister (Unity after the suicide attempt). Her letters to Jessica are full of brave cheer and pleas for her closest sister to write back. Jessica, meanwhile, was full to the brim of her new life and her new cause and her new love, with more to do than any day could hold, and her letters in the period after her elopement are brief and rather careless. They don't meet again for years, gradually growing further and further apart as Debo develops her own life and absorbing interests and Jessica's own interests pull further and further from her sisters'. When they finally do - Deborah goes to visit her, despite lukewarm encouragement from Jessica, who seems to have been deeply conflicted at the time about her sisters in general and her peeress sister coming to look at her life in particular - it's even more discouraging to read. Deborah is crushed by the changes in Jessica, the brashness and the aggressive speechifying, and they have almost nothing to talk to each other about. Later things get better, Decca mellows and Debo gets over some of her disillusioned little-sister worship, and they have several visits where they're good friends. But Deborah continues to nurse the memory of Jessica's abandonment as the worst moment of her life, which Jessica never seems to have been able to understand or believe - at one point they have a heart-to-heart conversation about it, blowing Jessica's mind, and she writes later that she thinks Debo must be misremembering: that they were close but not that close, despite their shared language, and it was more Decca and Unity who were inseparable, at that stage. (Jessica represents this even more strongly in her memoir Hons and Rebels, which is full to the brim with her difficult and heartbreaking love for Unity but barely mentions a relationship with Debo at all.)
Jessica and Unity's relationship is remarkable. Diana, the idealised older sister, Jessica repudiated forever for her fascism. But Unity, the next youngest after Jessica, with whom Jessica also had a made-up language (Bowdledidge), she continued to write to and profess her love for as long as they were both alive. Their violently conflicting politics shook them, definitely, and there's one exchange of letters which I can't find to quote, but in which they agree that if they ever meet on the field of conflict, they will of course have to kill each other. But they seem to have been able to carve out this space of love and respect that was separate to that.
There are all these other thoughts this book made me have, but we are already well past the point where this review is actually serving a useful purpose for people who aren't me, and I'm pretty sure nobody is reading by this point anyway. So I'll just say I AM SO IN LOVE WITH THIS BOOK. There.(less)
Popular history. The story of the women of the ATA: the Air Transport Auxilliary in England during WWII. By the end of the war there were 164 of them...morePopular history. The story of the women of the ATA: the Air Transport Auxilliary in England during WWII. By the end of the war there were 164 of them in the originally all-male ferry pilot service. They were the only women on the Western Allies side who flew in the war, anywhere near a warzone. They didn't fly in combat, or on the frontline, but they flew warplanes from factories to aerodromes for RAF pilots to take into battle, or to scrapyards, or to pick up other ATA pilots who had finished a drop, and bring them back to base. Most of them had learned to fly before the war, which made the ATA a fairly elite body: flying wasn't a convention-bound or timid woman's hobby - you had to be adventurous, obsessive and fairly impervious to social criticism to become a pilot with enough hours in your logbook to quallify for the ATA - but maybe more to the point, it was definitely not a poor woman's hobby. You needed the kind of liberty that required money as well as character.
This book's strength is the wide range of personal stories it offers. The author interviewed as many ATA women as were still alive and would talk to him, and he tried to include every one of their stories. Sometimes you get almost a whole chapter for one woman - the pre-war celebrity aviatrix Amy Johnson who was killed when she got caught in unrelenting cloud; the genteel mover and shaker Pauline Gower who was responsible for there being women in the ATA at all; the less genteel and hugely narcissistic but rather awesome mover and shaker Jackie Cochran who was responsible for American women joining the ATA; Anna Leska who escaped Poland in a plane after the invasion; the Chilean grandaughter of a Frenchman Margot Duhalde who, knowing no French or English, answered de Gaulle's call to the Free French and found herself sent to work as a maid when she got to England, until she made it to the ATA - and sometimes you only get a paragraph of backstory in passing. All together they make up a marvellous picture of the diversity of the origin stories of the female pilots who ended up in the ATA, and a good cumulative sense of what it took, in that age, to be a female pilot, and how much you had to believe in your own abilities to put yourself forward as a pilot in the war.
But the diversity of stories is also the book's biggest limitation. The constant introduction of new characters makes it almost impossible to keep track of who everyone is, and all of the stories interrupt and curtail one another. They also get in the way of the broader narrative of the ATA itself, and the politicking they went into its development. It was a sustained political compaign by Pauline Gower to get women into the air in wartime, and then to get them flying bombers. (This is a key narrative in the story, the progression from dinky planes to Hurricanes and Spitfires, but the author never makes very clear exactly what the planes the women were flying before the Spitfires were. It's not the only time he seems to assume a much greater knowledge of military history in his readers than I personally have, either. Anyway, imperfectly explained or not, the politicking is fascinating, but I wish it had been provided less spartanly. We seemed to only scratch the surface of what was going on.
There's also, and maybe most importantly, almost a complete lack of actual social history. Whittell makes almost no attempt to contextualise his subject with any exploration of the social pressures and movements it arose out of, beyond some very basic description of the deb balls many of the pilots took to flying to escape from, and a few contemporary reactions from the media and the top brass. It's just a story, or a tangled handful of stories. Occasionally it's an adventure story: the narrations of exceedingly near misses or non-misses (approximately ten percent of the ATA women were killed in the air during the war, usually because of the unofficial pressure to fly in all weathers, even when visibility was atrocious) do make for occasionally nail-biting and sometimes tragically affecting reading. The stories that caught me most were those of Amy Johnson, who flew over the top when she hit cloud and never found a way down, and was crushed in a harbour when she bailed out with a parachute, and Diana Barnato who flew a plane that literally fell apart in the air, and was forced to land, with no floor between her feet and the runway, at over 200 miles per hour because whenever she tried to slow down her plane stalled out in the air. Even the adventure stories and biographies are only competently written, though - the most vibrant and momorable voices usually come from quotes from the women themselves.
The adventure stories and the focus on physical bravery might also rob the book of what could have been a stronger message. These women were doing dangerous work - which was also incredibly exciting and fulfilling work that most of them would never come close to matching in the conservative post-war era - but a lot of people on the homefront were doing dangerous work. The manner in which they managed to do this work, to break into the ultra-masculinised ideal of the clear-eyed and square-jawed officer in the warplane cockpit, is far more extraordinary than the fact that they, like countless nurses serving on ships or ambulance drivers in London, diced with death some. And it's not that Whittell ignores that, but he never gets much deeper than repeatedly telling us how amazing they all were.
(One of the things I did really enjoy about the book was how biased Whittell is towards all of the female pilots. Jackie Cochran's chapter is literally called 'Team Cochran', and in between telling us about the tradition among aviation historians to rubbish her and showing us why many of her contemporaries disliked her, he basically draws hearts around her name. And when he gets to the senior general responsible for trying to deny female ATA pilots the chance to fly to Europe towards the end of the war, while allowing male pilots to go, Whittell feels it necessary not only to describe his many failures as a tactician and a general, but to tell us that he had a mustache rather like Hitler's.)
BASICALLY, despite the book's various limitations, I'm very glad to have these stories and this particular chapter of the war in my head.(less)
Time travel historical fiction. In a future Oxford in which historians conduct their research by carefully regulated time travel, Polly, Merope and Mi...moreTime travel historical fiction. In a future Oxford in which historians conduct their research by carefully regulated time travel, Polly, Merope and Michael are among a handful of young historians with assignments to WWII. Polly is going to the Blitz to be a shopgirl, Merope is going to observe the evacuation of children to the country as a maid (under the name Eileen), and Mike was supposed to be going to Pearl Harbour, but has had his assignments switched around and is now stuck with an artificially implanted American accent at the evacuation of Dunkirk. The switching around of assignments isn't the only thing that isn't going to plan, though. Disasters conspire to keep them from checking back in to Oxford, and as time passes, the chilling suspician begins to dawn that they may not be able to get back at all; and this war might become their own.
It took me three goes to get into this book. I started reading it as an ebook, then decided the format must be wrong and I needed the full C-format trade paperback, and that was why it was feeling so fiddly and frustrating even though it was clearly excellently written and charming as hell. I got a bit further with the paperback, then put it down and didn't pick it up again for about eight months. When I did pick it up again, though, it only took me a few chapters to become absolutely hooked.
It is frustrating; the constant small obstructions the characters face never let up. Which I didn't mind in To Say Nothing of the Dog, the only other Connie Willis book I've read, because that was a comedy of errors and so the errors felt right. But it took me longer to come around to them in Blackout, and to see the style as essential not just to the plot but to the mood of an England in which all the signs have been taken down, the buses and trains don't run properly, you can turn any corner and find the street ahead a mass of rubble when they were fine yesterday, you can't get stockings or nice things anymore, and frustration is as much a part of daily life as dread is. What I'm saying is that it works, and in time the stakes get high and you really care.
The biggest defining feature of these books for me, and of To Say Nothing of the Dog too, is how very un-modern they feel. The Oxford of 2060 is one in which people say "an historian" and are called things like Polly, and basically feels as though it could be substituted without too much fuss for the Oxford of 1900. So Polly, Eileen and Mike don't have substantially different worldviews or ways of thinking or vocabularies to any of the contemporaries they interact with. There's no tension between the future and the past, no modern sensibilities to jar the characters or the reader: it feels more like authentic historical fiction than a lot of historicals I've read, and not at all like science fiction.
But what Polly and the others do have is contextual and future knowledge. They don't feel like aliens or foreigners, but they are outsiders, observers. So what you get is authentic historical fiction with this whole meta level of wider historical vision. Once I'd stopped feeling odd about the lack of modernity, I decided that I really liked this, much more than I would have liked the regular time travel aesthetic. (Or even historians who felt as though they were actually studying and considering historical frameworks and movements and forming theses, because these historians: not so much.) And this is a really, really affecting, human, entertaining, tragic, matter-of-fact, and nostalgically idealised but in a way that felt a lot like realism, version of wartime Britain, which I loved really a lot. (Although having just read Spitfire Women Of World War II proved to be really useful in terms of knowing what V1s and V2s were and what happened in the Battle of Britain and such.)
I loved the characters, but there was an oddly distant note to their POVs. It was sometimes important to the plot that you not actually know what the character whose POV you're in is actually thinking, and that sometimes worked against the characters having really distinctive personalities. There was one stretch of time in particular where I really wanted to know how Polly felt about what she was doing (view spoiler)[(when she was doing the stage show stuff) (hide spoiler)], but the book chose to back right off and give me almost nothing. It also had the effect of making Eileen, especially, feel really different when you saw her from somebody else's POV than she had when you were in hers. And it sometimes meant that you weren't really aware of the development of really important relationships until somebody announced how they felt out loud, which did make some of the relationships feel less real and important than they could have.
I think that really, what it came down to was that the narrative style was so appealing that it almost didn't matter who the POV character was, you were going to like them. Which you can't exactly call a fault? I really did love this book, and All Clear too (which was definitely less of a sequel and more the second half of one complete book). I would have happily lived in these books for a good bit longer.
(Also, the little reveals that build up to that one particular bigger reveal: so cool.)["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I never wrote a real review when I read this (if that's even possible for a text with this kind of cultural weight), but I do kind of want to keep a r...moreI never wrote a real review when I read this (if that's even possible for a text with this kind of cultural weight), but I do kind of want to keep a record of my thoughts somewhere, so I'm just pasting in the updates I posted to Tumblr as I read.
23 April: So far Achilles has called Agamemnon dog-face and settled in for the sulk of the ages, Agamemnon has told his army they can all go home just so that he can turn around and say lol jk, and then we had to pause for roll call.
30 April: I'm not quite a third of the way through. The first battle has just finished with Hector and Ajax not killing each other. Approximately eight million other people have died, by name, in unnecessarily gory ways, and I am so confused by the two Ajaxes. Why are there two Ajaxes. Do I need to remember which is which, or does it not matter? Which one was that Georgette Heyer book referring to? All of the questions.
It’s not a difficult read – so far it’s really just a romp of boastful speeches and dying and stealing armour from corpses – but it is a conscious read. I’ve never got so sucked into the story that I’ve forgotten I’m reading epic verse, or that the text is three thousand years old (even though Rodney Merrill's translation is very straightforward). Which I think is making me approach it less as literature than as a historical text? The oral tradition is so present in the repetition and the little flourishes where the author addresses the characters or the muses, or dives sideways into descriptive metaphors that feel so very old man-ish (though quite visually evocative). I keep trying to guess how the text would have changed as the teller adapted to the mood of the audience, which parts would have been played up, voice soft or loud, where to hold the audience’s eyes, and especially how it was changed and reworked in the transcription. And of course, what the contemporary references are, and how much actual history is in it, and how things like the endless roll call of names and lineages and geographical regions are used by historians.
I’m fascinated by the role of women so far. It gets off to such an awful start, which Achilles and Agamemnon falling out over who gets to rape the slave girl, and you’re just, sure, I have an opinion over which of you is in the right in this dispute, your feelings on this are important to me. But that is, clearly, something that you’re expected to just accept, war means women are carried off as prizes, women’s wills don’t matter. When the city falls, the women will suffer as punishment on the men; Agamemnon makes a whole speech about it at one point. But then the goddesses are so active, and so powerful, and as well characterised and convincingly motivated as any of the male characters, and there’s never any kind of double-think or qualifier in it? And Helen, too, is pretty cool so far, and very human, if a bit heavy on the self-hatred. (And as a friend pointed out to me, nobody else hates her, she gets some blame but not as much as Paris. The only one calling her horrible names is her.) So far we’ve seen her stand up to a goddess, simply because she was sick of being messed around, even if Aphrodite did turn around and terrify her back into obedience. The only other person who’s done that is Diomedes in battle, and he knew he had Athena on his side.
All of the characters are such jerks that it’s hard to think about favourites. Achilles is still sulking out of the way, so I don’t have any strong feelings on him, and Patroclus has barely been mentioned. Helen, as I said, I rather like. Athena I like, but also she’s an asshole, and I’ve realised that, inconveniently, I’m on the Trojans’ side, which is obviously going to turn out great for me, but in the meantime makes it harder to back her when she does cool things or gets one over on Aphrodite or Ares or Apollo. I’m enjoying her alliance with Hera, though. Odysseus I’m inclined to like, but I don’t know how long that will last. Paris I rather like, for his mixture of good intentions and impetuous bravery and weakness and charismatic slither-outing, and the way he baffles Hector.
In conclusion: Nestor, you need to sit down, nobody wants to hear about your glory days again.
3 May: It’s awful, but I’m getting kind of fond of Menelaus. He wants to fight so badly, and Agamemnon is constantly pulling him back by the collar, it keeps getting funnier. This bit in particular, where Menelaus and a bunch of other guys have all volunteered to accompany Diomedes on a dangerous mission, and Agamemnon hurriedly says:
"Not for respect you feel in your heart do you leave here the better man and the worse as your comrade take, giving way to respect and looking to birth, even if some other should be the more kingly.”
So he spoke; he was fearful about light-haired Menelaus.
(You brother is right there, A. He can hear you.)
In conclusion: Seriously Nestor, nobody cares.
6 May: I’m not quite two thirds of the way through. Apollo is back in the battle, and they’re fighting right up against the ships. I’m still waiting for Patroclus to do anything, but he’s just gone looking for Achilles, so that arc could be about to start. I’m hoping that they will also talk a bit more, too? I was promised an epic tragic love story, I hope I get some of it while Patroclus is still alive.
I don’t think I expected so many scenes to go to the gods, and I’m kind of delighted. The battle scenes have their own appeal, with all the speechifying trash talking and people constantly being killed trying to steal somebody’s armour (seriously, every third death, sometimes maybe the armour is not worth it, people), but being able to cut away to Hera and Athena fuming about Zeus and such is really necessary for breathing space. They’re so much fun, and the lack of stakes is really soothing. Like, yes, Zeus can rain down immoderate punishment on any one of them, as he is constantly threatening, but nothing’s really going to be permanent, it’s ok if they get a bit carried away. As they are constantly doing. (Ares in particular is hilarious.)
I wish I had a better handle on humour in the text. Sometimes I just can’t tell whether people are being sarcastic or not, or if Homer’s being sarcastic or not. So, e.g., when he describes Helen’s speech to Hector as “honey-sweet words of persuasion”, but her opening words are “Brother-in-law of the bitch I am”, would that have made people laugh, or is violent self-deprecation really honey-sweet? Or when Zeus says that he’s furious with Athena for her defiance towards him but not with Hera, because he expects Hera to attempt to thwart him at every turn, is he actually not angry with Hera or is that a burn? And so on.
In conclusion: How many children does Priam have, goddamn. I feel like his sons and sons in law have accounted for about a quarter of the Trojan casualties so far.
16 May: I’m heading into the endgame (currently up to: Achilles has feelings and wants you to know, part eleventy hundred), and I keep thinking about the way the ideas of shame and dishonour work in this story.
Like, there is so much trash talking, but the thing is, there’s just as much between allies and friends as there is between enemies. Almost without exception, the speeches designed to fire people up to fight – and there are a lot of them – explicitly call on shame as the motivating force. Nobody stands up and says “The Trojans rock and we are going to crush these Acheans like bugs!” or “Hector you can totally take this guy, I believe in you!” They say:
This is a shame, to be driven by Ares-beloved Acheans back into Illion now, by our own weak cowardice vanquished!
Hector, the noblest in beauty, in warfare much are you lacking. Vainly an excellent fame holds you who flee like a woman.
or even more explicitly:
Yet of himself let each man move, feel shame in his heart lest noble Patroclus become a plaything for the dogs of the Trojans.
(Patroclus /o\) (These are all random examples within a couple of pages of each other, btw, like, this happens a lot.)
It’s so different to what I’m used to in martial stories. In modern western narratives shame is a paralysing force, almost never a source of strength.
And the way this story talks about fighting and dying with honour and dishonour has similarly been baffling me, until I realised which of my expectations it was actually subverting. In the christian tradition of martial narratives, you can gain honour and glory by winning or losing. If you die well, then you can die with even greater honour than you would have had by living. In the Iliad there doesn’t seem be such a thing as an honourable or glorious death. If one man kills another, he seems to literally take all of the honour and glory available in the encounter.
This is why all the armour stealing and stabbing people in the back has been confusing me. There’s dishonour in being stabbed in the back because it shows you were running away, and there’s dishonour in your armour being stolen, and there’s dishonour in being slaughtered and your corpse mutilated and thrown to the dogs, but I’m used to there being at least as much dishonour in doing those things. You don’t stab someone in the back, you don’t rob their corpse, jolly bad show what, etc.
But in the Iliad, that’s all glory.
I’m sure none of this is remotely novel, but I’ve read so little classical literature that it’s really startling to me.
In other news, I was really affected by Patroclus' death, and I'm still not sure how much of that came from the text and how much was just the cultural weight of the event. Maybe it was just the way everybody in a fifty mile radius who wasn't a Trojan burst into heartrending wails. (Guys, none of you had even talked to him in the past sixteen books. Are you sure you knew who he was. Is speechless depthless grief totally appropriate here I'm just asking.)
In conclusion: Oh my god how are they finding all these rocks they keep hitting each other with, was the battle of Troy secretly fought in a quarry. How did the horses not break their ankles on all these rocks.
17 May: So, turns out that nothing that’s happened is Achilles’ fault.
By the hugest coincidence, nothing is Agamemnon’s fault either.
Also Achilles wishes the slave girl could have died before this conflict between him and Agamemnon could come about. That would clearly have been the best preventative measure.
When twelve-year-old September is invited away by the Green Wind, she barely hesitates before letting herself be swept off to Fairyland and adventure....moreWhen twelve-year-old September is invited away by the Green Wind, she barely hesitates before letting herself be swept off to Fairyland and adventure. When she meets three witches who ask her to complete a quest for them - stealing a magical spoon from the cruel tyrant of Fairyland, the Marquess - she accepts with equal alacrity. But the Marquess has plans of her own for September.
I've seen this book mentioned in the same breath as a host of classic children's books, but the most obvious and deliberate connection has to be the Oz books. Not only is September, like Dorothy, swept away from home by a wind; not only does her quest require her to travel to the city at the centre of the land to see the ruler there; not only is she given a pair of shoes by a witch - but the style is so Baum. To the extent that it felt like pastiche, to me. Especially as I'd so recently read the first Oz sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and the Marquess is so terribly reminiscent of General Jinjur and her army of little girls in their dresses and ribbons.
Anyway the self-conscious narrative style, with all its knowing metatextual asides and ruminations, was charming and ingenious but too intrusive for me to truly get swept up in the story. But I did dearly love a lot of the elements, especially the relationship between September and Saturday, the young marid boy. And I definitely also gloried in the gender politics, as Valente intended me to.(less)