No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, October 08, 2021

2021/120: Strong Wine -- A J Demas

"If it would help," said Varazda, deadpan, "I'd be happy to pose as a bizarre girlfriend. I didn't bring any of my gowns with me, but I can always get something ready-made in the market." [loc. 1453]

Third in the series that started with Sword Dance and continued with Saffron Alley: the setting is reminiscent of the classical Mediterranean, though with the names changed, and the protagonists are Damiskos (military veteran) and Varazda (eunuch dancer and spy).

I think I enjoyed Strong Wine even more than the previous two instalments. Damiskos, who has been living with Varazda for a month and rather hoping that he can stay forever (but is it too early to ask?) is summoned 'home' to Pheme to encounter old enemies, his ex-fiancee, and -- worst of all -- his feckless parents. He despairs: but he should have more faith in Varazda, who is not prepared to simply let his beloved be drawn back into a life he no longer wants.

Hilarious, poignant, and triumphant, Strong Wine features a murder mystery, some splendid women (including Aradne and Nione, first encountered in Sword Dance, as well as Ino the silversmith and Dami's mother Myrto, who refuses to misgender Varazda), just deserts for the malfeasant and happy endings for the (mostly) deserving, including Dami's horse Xanthe. I was especially cheered by the ways in which the characters look after one another, and by Varazda's sheer competence: he's not just a pretty face. (I was also, perversely, cheered that neither Varazda nor Dami were prepared to tolerate misgendering, homophobia or generic insults. It's one thing to know that they originate from prejudice and ignorance, quite another to endure the constant grind.)

I received a review copy from the lovely author, in exchange for this honest review, which I'm publishing out of sequence in honour of Publication Day!

Friday, September 17, 2021

2021/111: Invisible Women -- Caroline Criado Perez

Routinely forgetting to accommodate the female body in design – whether medical, technological or architectural – has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate. [loc. 5423]

The physical differences between men's bodies and women's bodies are not the only inequalities which Perez discusses. There are three major themes in this book: the female body, women's unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. I was most interested in the 'female body' content, as it introduced me to some fascinating data that I hadn't previously encountered. I did not know, for instance, that there is a safe, effective treatment for period pain -- something that plagued me for decades despite nurofen, codeine, mefenamic acid -- already on the market. It grants 'total pain relief over 4 consecutive hours’, with ‘no observed adverse effects’. Unfortunately it is marketed to men: it's Viagra.

I also did not know that 'cells differ according to sex irrespective of their history of exposure to sex hormones': for example, muscle-stem cells transplanted from a male donor won't regenerate in the way that cells from a female donor will. (I found this fascinating and weird: my further reading is noted at the end of this review.)

A lot of the book, with its relentless onslaught of figures, covered familiar territory, even if I wasn't aware of the specific data. As a woman at the lower end of the height curve, I am all too accustomed to a world designed for people taller, stronger and with a different distribution of fat and muscle. I have experienced sexism in every area of life, and am constantly aware of my physical vulnerability and the risk I take by being in possession of a female body in public. The only reason I don't have an unpaid care burden is because I am, in sociological parlance, 'unencumbered' by care responsibilities.

But I can still be enraged by the ways in which female experience is ignored, discounted or deprioritised. I was fascinated (and furious) by Perez' account of how female farming practices are dismissed: "Hoeing can be easily started and stopped, meaning that it can be combined with childcare. The same cannot be said for a heavy tool drawn by a powerful animal....female farmers in this area didn’t see yields as the most important thing. They cared about other factors like how much land preparation and weeding these crops required, because these are female jobs. And they cared about how long, ultimately, the crops would take to cook (another female job)." [loc 2650-2735] The perils of bias in voice recognition systems: "a woman who had bought a 2012 Ford Focus, only to find that its voice-command system only listened to her husband, even though he was in the passenger seat" [2922]. I wonder about statistics like this one: "among men and women who smoke the same number of cigarettes, women are 20–70% more likely to develop lung cancer" [3450] and how different the anti-smoking campaign might have been if the propensity had been reversed.

The book does present gender, and biological sex, as a binary. I don't think it aims to erase trans, nonbinary, intersex experience, but it certainly doesn't focus on them. Regarding 'the female body', I found it useful to mentally translate this as 'bodies assigned female at birth' (AFAB): while there are distinct differences between AFAB bodies and AMAB bodies, not all AFAB bodies belong to women, just as not all AMAB bodies belong to men.

This book made me very angry. It was refreshing, informative and infuriating. And it is extremely well referenced, for anyone wishing to read more on any of Perez' statements.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

2021/110: Out, Proud and Prejudiced -- Megan Reddaway

Darius looked him up and down and said, "Just about fuckable, I suppose, but hardly up to my standards." [p. 13]

M/M modern AU of Pride and Prejudice. Bennet Rourke is a hospitality student: Darius Lanniker is a wealthy lawyer, slumming it with his friend Tim who's just bought an art gallery in Meriton. Tim falls in love with Bennet's housemate Jamie, but Bennet and Darius -- despite a frisson of sexual attraction between them, and a shared interest in rock-climbing -- do not get along. Bennet would rather hang out with Darius's stepbrother, Wyndham, and support his friends when drama strikes. Only gradually does he revisit his prejudices and assumptions, and realise that Darius is not the villain here.

This was fun, though there were a few plot threads that seemed to be left dangling (Bennet's family, for instance), and some characters who could have been more developed. I enjoyed spotting the parallels between this and Austen, and I like the way in which Reddaway kept the essential plot while giving it a thoroughly modern setting. Perhaps the enormity of Wyndham's crimes has, after all, the impact that Wickham's behaviour would have had in Austen's time -- though Wyndham is considerably more destructive to more people.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

2021/109: The Governess Affair -- Courtney Milan

In her memory of that night, her own silence mocked her most of all. She hadn’t screamed, and because she hadn’t, she’d felt silent ever since. [p. 25]

Serena Barton lost her position as a governess after being turned off for 'immoral behaviour'. The behaviour in question involved the Duke of Clermont, who raped her: now she is pregnant, without hope of employment, and dependent on her judgemental, agoraphobic sister Freddy for a place to live. She decides to picket sit quietly outside the Duke's London residence until he compensates her, or until her presence sparks a scandal that destroys his precarious marriage.

The Duke, who is a coward as well as a sexual predator, sends his man of business, Hugo Marshall -- popularly known as the Wolf of Clermont -- to deal with Miss Barton. Hugo, who is horribly competent at making problems go away, deals with Miss Barton in an escalating series of creative attacks, and then seals the deal by falling in love with, and marrying, her.

Despite the past sexual assault, and the Duke's moral vapidity, this is a sweet and cheering novella. Serena's rape is not described in detail, and Hugo (even before he realises what has happened to Serena) is extremely careful not to appear physically threatening. I especially liked the notes they wrote to one another, Serena in the square and Hugo in his office ... and the way in which Milan wrote the sex scene, in which Hugo treats Serena with respect as well as creativity. And the ending, in which the Duke gets his come-uppance, was profoundly satisfying.

Monday, September 13, 2021

2021/108: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead -- Olga Togarcsuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

When you kill [animals], and they die in Fear and Terror – like that Boar whose body lay before me yesterday, and is still lying there, defiled, muddied and smeared with blood, reduced to carrion – you doom them to hell, and the whole world changes into hell. [p. 106]

Midwinter in a small Polish village, near the Czech border. Janina Duszejko is woken in the middle of the night by the neighbour she calls Oddball: together, they discover the corpse of another neighbour (Big Foot) who has been murdered. This is the first of several violent deaths in the village. The victims are all male, and have all hunted for sport. Could the animals be taking their revenge?

Janina is a delight, as a narrator and as a character. She is eccentric, opinionated, and well-educated; passionate about animal rights, an introvert with a few close relationships; a former bridge engineer and teacher who enjoys translating the poems of William Blake, and draws up horoscopes to better understand the world and the people in it; a practical woman who lives alone, despite ill health and old age ("I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night"). Her narrative offers insight into the ways that elderly women, especially single women, are treated, and into the strategems she's developed to exploit her situation. She is witty, fierce and principled. I felt as though I could hear her telling me the tale: I felt as though we could be friends.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

2021/107: To Glory Arise -- Walter Jon Williams

Privateering was not a profession for a man who held ultrafine scruples, but Malachi had hoped that the American breed would somehow be better than others, that fighting for a just cause could inspire a more upstanding brand of warfare than that inspired by tyranny. [loc. 3841]

First novel by Walter Jon Williams: not SF or fantasy, but naval, set during the American War of Independence, and written as a tie-in to the RPG Privateers and Gentlemen.

I doubt I would have stuck with this if I hadn't been reading it for book club: the opening chapters are clunky, with a lot of repetition and a sex scene that includes the phrase 'willing breasts'. It does improve a bit after that, though. The first chapters introduce the three Markham brothers -- Jehu (the one educated in England), Josiah (the religious one) and Malachi (the fun one) -- and much of the rest of the novel focusses on Malachi and his privateering adventures. There are a lot of gory naval battles (mostly against the perfidious English) but Malachi nevertheless finds time to fall in love with an English lady, Georgina, whose probing questions about his future plans can only mean that she reciprocates his feelings. Oh, wait ...

There are too many infodumps, not enough depth of character, and so much repetition that I wondered if To Glory Arise had been published in a rush, without thorough editing. I was also deeply unimpressed with the end of the novel, in which a major character is killed off in a single sentence. If I hadn't already known from his other work that Williams is an accomplished and inventive author, this novel would have convinced me not to read anything else by him.

I am, of course, spoilt by having read Patrick O'Brian at an early age: and now I want to reread some, as a palate cleanser.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

2021/106: The Only Plane in the Sky -- Garrett M Graff

I saw glass—lots of glass—in the sky. It was really bright out, and it was reflecting off the glass and the sky. Light shimmering everywhere. [loc. 711]

What I remember most about September 11, 2001, is how incredibly alone I felt. I lived alone; I couldn't get in touch with any of my friends; I didn't have TV, and this was years before Twitter, so I sat at the computer hitting refresh on the BBC website, nauseated by the photos and the reports, aware that the world was changing. As it turned out, it was several years before I saw film of the planes crashing into the towers.

I bought and read this book because I wanted to disentangle the facts, the lived experience, from my own emotional response. The Only Plane in the Sky is entirely composed of first-person accounts from hundreds of people: an astronaut on the ISS; a high-school student whose yearbook photo was taken just after she heard the news; the mayor's communications director ('I was facing what I thought would be an easy day'); a USAF pilot who was preparing to ram the hijacked planes, because she didn't have weapons; an office worker who survived in the rubble for 27 hours; many, many firefighters. I was struck by the immediacy, the subjectivity and the sheer randomness of what people focussed on. There is heroism here, and tremendous tragedy, suffering, death: but there are also surreal moments, vivid images that have stuck in memory: the aeroplane engine come to rest in a jacuzzi, the rhythmic sound of girders snapping as the plane crashed into the tower, the motion-sensor doors whooshing open and closed as debris (and worse) fell.

It was oddly cathartic to read this on the twentieth anniversary of the attacks. Now, of course, everything's there online: news footage, the 9/11 Commission Report, a number of films ... Still, I remember my own misery that night, and wish I had not endured it alone.

It felt good to be amongst friends if for no other reason than to remind me that I wasn’t the only person who had no idea what to think, feel, or do. [loc. 6353]