Review: The Female Man by Joanna Russ

Published by: Gollancz
ISBN: 0575094990
ISBN 13: 9780575094994
Published: 1975
Pages: 207
Format reviewed: Paperback
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five
Related Reviews: Reading Challenge: Women of Speculative Fiction

This is part of my reading challenge for 2017, to expand my woeful knowledge of women in speculative fiction by reading at least 24 books by women that were and are instrumental in our genre.

Books like this stress me out a little. There’s so much build up, and there’s the expectation that I’ll get so much out of reading it – and that to appreciate it fully I need to be rested, ready and put in the effort to allow that to happen. Otherwise I’m doing the book a disservice. So then I put it off, and off, thinking I’ll feel smarter some other day and ready to tackle it.

Winner of the Nebula Award and James Tiptree Jr. Award for Retrospective (1995) – so important to Tiptree – her criticism – her essays on pornography and sexuality – she’s an intimidating writer to approach. What’s refreshing is to read this book, be a little taken back by some parts and do some research, and see how Russ came to realise her own errors in part. It’s a book from the seventies, and this is evident from her treatment of transexuals (and apologies if I use any incorrect or outdated terms in this review, please let me know and I’ll learn and update.)

This book is pretty awful. It’s short and powerful, and shows how terrible things were for females. It’s then something to check against today and see how little has changed, or how recent events have shown us to go backwards almost in response to our general advances, as if the privileged are scared or feeling threatened.

I would have loved to read and study this book in university with a decent lecturer. And I’m sure it’s been done, but guided (and intelligent) discussion on a con panel would be amazing.

Review: Ex Libris edited by Paula Guran

Byline: Stories of Librarians, Libraries, and Lore
Published by: Diamond Book Distributors
ISBN: 1607014890
ISBN 13: 9781607014898
Published: May 2017
Pages: 384
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Three out of Five

This anthology is made up of reprints, taking from other anthologies or magazines such as Uncanny and Subterranean, so some you may have come across before. Of these, I’ve already read the shorts by Elizabeth Bear, Kelly Link, Scott Lynch, and Tansy Rayner Roberts – but as these are my favourite authors I eagerly reached for the rest. After all, what better subject than libraries.

Unfortunately I struggled with this anthology. Usually I love to review each story individually, but I didn’t find myself able to have enough to discuss about each one. Please find following what I loved about a few of them. This is a steady anthology, one that has a beautiful cover and a few very excellent pieces in it, but unfortunately is not an easy collection to read through continuously (either in a week, or a few weeks).

In the House of the Seven Librarians by Ellen Klages

In a fitting start to the anthology we see a quaint proper library replaced with a new one that boasts proper fluorescent lighting and ergonomic chairs, and it’s written with the kind of tone we can appreciate – a library isn’t just a place with stacks of books, libraries that were our friends growing up are places of comfort – not sharp lines and electronics. Not all the books make it over, and for some reason the seven librarians remain in the old building also – and it’s here they receive a late return. As we all know, late books require a fee to be paid, and this payment is quite odd indeed.

This is quite a lovely short – a little bit magical and a little bit of old comfort you instantly wish you were one of the librarians in their quiet comfort, or the lucky little bundle of payment. Reading this one was an excellent start to the anthology, and is so lovely in such a gentle way that it beautifully sets the tone.

The Books by Kage Baker

I love the premise of this – just like how I loved it in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – how in a not so distant future a rabble group of people travel the world to entertain and remind others of things so they can’t be forgotten and lost to the ravages of time in a post-apocalyptic world.

This one is an excellent piece to broaden the anthology out. We start with a safe library we’ve always found comfort in as children with Klages’ story first, and then Baker takes us out into the big unknown, and shows how stories are our constant, and the one thing we can’t do without – up there with food, water and shelter.

In Libres by Elizabeth Bear

Euclavia has been instructed by her advisor that her thesis really needs another source. He recommends a full rare book, rather than a particular article, and this means she has to go to the library. To the Special Collections section in particular. And for this, she wants her oldest friend, Bucephalus, (a centaur) to come with her, as libraries are a cause for concern.

They arrive, and the librarian they meet both recommends against it, and asks whether she’s done anything to earn the ire of her advisor – slept with the tutor’s spouse, etc. ‘Any reason for him to want you dead?’ is literally asked.

This creates such a fantastic piece of work where librarians carry both sword and wand, and people like poor Eu who need to enter are instructed to bring a ball of twine, three days of food, a bedroll, no fire, no shoes on antique rugs, no pens (but pencil and notepaper are allowed)… though as a plus, there are first air and water stations wherever there are restrooms which is say, every five kilometers… however they all move around, so who knows, really.

Brilliant through each part, and Bear, I want a full novel of this, please.

Summer Reading by Ken Liu

‘After mankind had scattered to the stars like dandelion seeds, Earth was maintained as a museum overseen by robot curators.’

We have CN-344315 as our protagonist. He last saw a human over five thousand years ago, but he still goes about his routine – just like our favourite Wall-e, and like him, he cares so much about what humans have left behind.

This short story is endlessly quotable, like a lot of what Liu writes. ‘Data only lives when it is constantly copied.’ ‘Books are long alive when they’re read.’ ‘For books are seeds, and they grow in minds.’

Beautiful.

The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox by Sarah Monette

As one can guess from the title, Barnabas Wilcox has passed away, and his inheritance involves a country house to his nephew. One of the stipulations being that his library catalogue of an astounding number of books be finished – only his nephew doesn’t know where to begin, so he writes to a boy he knew in school – one he was never close with, but he’s the only one he knows who to turn to. And as Booth is in awe of the now deceased antiquary Lucius Wilcox, he agrees.

Like a good horror or murder mystery, the pieces slowly fall into place. The insane ramblings of the uncle. The abundance of a certain type of tree in the garden, and the horrid scratchings on the library door. I haven’t yet read any of Monette’s work but now I really, really want to.

What Books Survive by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Like some of the oldest and best fiction, space invaders have come. Now nothing electronic works, but as long as they stay behind their walls, the invaders seem to leave them pretty much alone. The only issue is that some houses have no or very few physical books, and along with half the houses (which means everyone has to squish in together), the shops, and the school (so now the town hall acts as the school also)… they left the library on the other side of the barricade. Something that 16yo Katie Marsden can’t stand.

This is such a fun and wonderful piece – kids with gumption, and it tackles the hard questions. Such as ‘Should I pick books [to save] because of posterity and shit like that, or should I just be selfish and save the ones I wanted to read?’ Personally I reckon save the ones you want to read – life is too short if invaders have come.

Now Tansy is a fan of the kindle, as am I, but this certainly is a strong reason to be a fan of both mediums for sure.

The Green Book by Amal El-Mohtar

This is such a clever piece that the least said about it, the better. Even if you pick up this book and flick to Amal’s section first – totally worth it.

In the Stacks by Scott Lynch

An old favourite. Fifth year exams for the High University of Hazar require the aspirants to enter the library and return with a library book.

Simple, right?

Well, the motto of the librarians here is: RETRIEVE. RETURN. SURVIVE.

Dressed in armour, equipped with swords and years of training, four of them are there to take the test. As one of the thankfully longer pieces in this anthology, we get such a fun romp of a tale where you see so much of their whole world even though we mostly see their sprawling library alone. Another piece that demands a full novel or ten. The language and dialogue makes anything by Lynch such a joy to read. The descriptions, witty banter – in many awful moods I’ve picked up something by Lynch and felt better within minutes – if only it could be bottled.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

After college, a young girl returns to where she grew up to work in the library her father ran – as it’s always felt like home, and other people don’t make much sense anyway. She’s had a feeling that she’s always been looking for something, and she finally finds it in a slim volume of poetry, that’s part of a collection donated by a family clearing out their father’s estate.

This is a beautiful piece of work. ‘It was still there, a slim volume squeezed between other books like a mysterious woman hiding in the attic.’ Basically one can be assured that if Liu has translated it, then it’s always going to be worth reading.

Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Series: Book of the Ancestor #1
Published by: Harper Voyager
ISBN: 0008152292
ISBN 13: 9780008152291
Published: April 2017
Pages: 512
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five

I mean, smashing opening line. ‘It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.’

Nona is young. Assessed for powers by the child-taker she is sold from her village as no one wants to keep her there as she’s always been known to be odd and not fit in. Gifted talents exist through certain clans but they need to be caught young, and with her abilities to fight she is soon sold to another, and then sent to be hanged through a series of unfortunate events.

To go with epic opening lines, a chapter opens with ‘no child truly believes they will be hanged,’ which is true as it’s here that Nona is instead saved and taken to be a nun at Sweet Mercy’s Convent for Young Girls, where they are raised to be killers depending on their specific gift. Some, like Nona, are Red Sisters – meant for fighting. It’s here she makes friendships and learns the ache that can come with them, she’s put to trial and protected like she has never witnessed before in her short life… but probably most importantly, she gets three square meals a day, and the food is the best she’s ever had.

The first thing that stands out with this book is the world building being centred around climate change, and it would be excellent for a book study to happen between this series and that of Glenda Larke’s Watergivers trilogy – though instead of lacking for water, in this world there is ice almost everywhere, and it’s thick, leaving only a small corridor of usable land left for the inhabitants, who are now firmly packed together.

The second is that we see the adult and ‘old’ characters as a huge central focus, almost main characters of the book, and integral, in a way we don’t often see. There are various mentions of what they did or what happened when they were children. Those who are now known under titles are referred to by names they used to be known by – either as a sign of friendship, or as a nasty dig that the speakers holds no respect for their current position. And it’s refreshing to see them humanised where they’re not just there to be plot points and elements of power or control – we get such a feel for who they are personally, and what they’ve been through growing up.

Overall this is an excellent book – it’s rough and their world is a hard place to be part of – the powerful still control what they want by money, and Nona almost loses her life for that countless times, all over a little man’s pride. The magic system, the world building – it has the detail of Sanderson’s series such as Mistborn  and yet somehow easier to flow into. I’m writing this review halfway through the book so I don’t give too much away, and I can basically say read it! And that I’m going to go do the same right now.

Review: The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold

Series: Vorkosigan Saga
Published by: Phoenix Pick
ISBN: 1612421857
ISBN 13: 9781612421858
Published: 1989
Pages: 102
Format reviewed: ePub
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Related Reviews: Reading Challenge: Vorkosigan Saga Project

The next in our Vorkosigan read-through is a novella, a weighty one that won the Hugo Award for Best Novella (1990), Nebula Award for Best Novella (1989), and the SF Chronicle Award for Best Novella (1990) – so even though it’s short, hopefully I’ll have a few paragraphs of discussion handy!

We meet Miles again, now newly graduated from the Academy and having earned the rank of Ensign Vorkosigan – however at times as we see in this novella, still far out-ranking even though who’ve reached the 20-year mark of the militia because of who his father is, and the duties that come with the title. It’s one of these duties which suddenly eats up the remaining ten days of his home leave before he’s granted his first assignment, which means a quick trip to Vorbarr Sultana with his cousin, Ivan, and the purchase of a new lightflyer are thrown by the wayside.

The duties require Miles to act as Voice for his father, travelling back with a woman, Harra, who has come to them for justice for infanticide, to the mountain district (hence the title). Her baby was born with a harelip and a cleft palate, and being from a more old-fashioned part of the once quite savage Barrayar, the baby is killed for being born less. There was a new clinic Harra wanted to travel to with the baby for an operation – when she had recovered from the birth – but that option was taken from her. And now it’s up to Miles to investigate the old-fashioned way (ish, he has a few technical advances) to find out who the criminal is, and what the punishment should be. Harra swears it was her husband, Lem, and though the community lacks for communication technology Miles is used to taking for granted, Lem has gone into hiding by the time Miles arrives, and almost every person there expects Miles has come to kill him – fairly or no.

This is an interesting novella, and packs the punches you may expect from Bujold, especially when it’s backed up with three of the biggest awards our genre has to offer. What’s good about this is that things are never simple, and Miles (poor Miles) never has an easy go of things. The ignorance, prejudice, and downright insulting nature of the community are put on for show at both a shindig that kicks off one night basically in his honour, and then also when he gives his Speaking (verdict). There’s an attack on Miles’ life, on his horse (the only one remaining from General Count Piotr Pierre Vorkosigan’s personally trained stock), and disrespect shown for the elite in general. And yet, Miles takes things slowly (even when he doubts himself), and goes to extra lengths to instruct, inspire, and lead people to seeing himself and his family, their cause, justice, and the truth in a better light. He doesn’t always succeed which is always good – some minds will never be changed after all, but Miles is truly an inspiration for his ability to interact with people, and his determination to be and do the best he possible can.

A highly enjoyable novella I didn’t put down for a second, and I can’t wait to read the next in our reading challenge, The Vor Game.

Review: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

Published by: Tachyon Publications
ISBN 13: 1892391201
Published: 9781892391209
Pages: 508
Format reviewed: Paperback
Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Lists: Recommended
Related Reviews: Reading Challenge: Women of Speculative Fiction

This is part of my reading challenge for 2017, to expand my woeful knowledge of women in speculative fiction by reading at least 24 books by women that were and are instrumental in our genre.

For some reason I kept putting off reading this. I’m blown away by Tiptree’s work, so why the delay? When I started it finally, and loved each reveal… I also realised that until then I’d known I just didn’t have the emotional space for Tiptree just then. It’s heavy work, and needs time to consider each piece. Tiptree really is absolutely amazing.

Of this collection of eighteen stories there were four award winners (of what I could see), and one that was shortlisted by she requested that it be left off the ballot, and many many others shortlisted besides. We start off with a story of a spreading sickness. Doctor Ain is travelling to a conference, and on his way his sickness is spreading. It’s at the conference he talks of an ‘improved’ (weaponised) leukaemia strain and we now know what sickness Ain is carrying. We see his movements mostly through the later recollections of others, as if Ain has later been investigated for his heinous crime.

The pattern of the idea of the disease continues – whether it’s used to control the population, or how our bodies would work compatibly with aliens – mixing with the ideas in old fables of how the fae could bewitch the unsuspecting – much as has been in our past, could be in our future.

Because it’s Tiptree we see a lot of anger, a lot of morose inevitability, ideas that investigate gender roles, enslavement, sexuality, and many ideas which don’t just cross the line into the disturbing – it surrounds you completely. Tiptree is abundantly clever with her words, going as far as the narrator telling the reader you can skip this part – when it’s the opposite of true.

I can’t recommend this book enough, and we are so lucky to have had Tiptree in our genre. And to hell with those who outed her, and rejected her work when her alias was uncovered.

(Slight warning that the collection may make you angry (as it has me) for her genius, and what she went through.)