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Showing posts with the label Book reviews

Reading journal: Victory on Gallipoli and other what-ifs of Australian History edited by Peter Stanley

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Genre: Non-fiction Published: 2017 Date read: July 2018 I’m interested in alternate history. It’s a bit like studying history in reverse. In the study of history, the European approach is to examine primary sources to establish facts, and then retro-fit an interpretation onto that information. The interpretation changes as society and our current pre-occupations change. Alternate history is different. It postulates a change in “known” facts, then  tries to deduce what would have changed as a result. Of course some retro-fitted interpretation must still be present, but is usually not explicitly stated. In this volume, the authors do exactly this. I have a couple of complaints. Firstly, the events they have examined all fall into the traditional ‘famous men’ theme — military history, political events, and you guessed it, famous men. There are 24 stories, two are about women, and they are both political women (Vida Goldstein and Edith Cowan). Secondly, the interpretation. I

Reading journal: Rusted Off: Why country Australia is fed up by Gabrielle Chan

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Genre: Non-fiction Published: 2018 Date read: September 2018 Gabrielle Chan is a journalist who lives up the road from me, in Harden, New South Wales. This interesting book pulls apart the social structure of a country town and explores the point of view of people who feel unrepresented in Australia’s political system. It’s true that highly educated city dwellers find it hard to see things from a rural perspective. It’s a two-way street though. And Harden is only an hour away from Canberra. People travel between these towns all the time; in fact, many rural people are highly mobile, following work opportunities more than city people may do, and often have family all over the place. I enjoyed the book but was not totally convinced by the arguments. Governments in recent times have ignored everyone except their mates, and some of those mates were well-heeled country people. The argument is more one of connections, opportunities and funding than location, I think.

Reading journal: We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson

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Genre: Horror Published: 1962 Date read: July 2018 A scarifying story about a teenage girl, Merricat and her sister Constance. We know right from the beginning that something is off, and exactly what is revealed gradually. The girls and their uncle live apart from the town, exiled really. We learn that the rest of the family died in a horrific poisoning incident, but who was responsible? We suspect. We don’t know for sure. And then a greedy relative appears, and upsets the fragile family life that seemed so stable but really wasn’t, and everything goes straight to hell. I won’t include spoilers here, but if you want to read a perfect story about a sociopath, and how creepy haunted houses with demented old people living in them came to be, this is the one. Disturbing, unsettling and brilliant.

Reading journal: Fairy Tales of China by Peter Lum

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Genre: Children Published: 1959 Date read: 1960, and a few times since Great little book with four traditional Chinese stories. The Dragon King is about the consequences of disobedience—the Dragon King makes it rain at the wrong time and place and is punished. The Sacred Ric e is another consequences story—stolen rice turns to stones in the robbers’ stomachs. The Chess Players is a story of gods messing with human lives, and The Wandering Sta r is about estranged lovers who may only meet once a year by crossing the Magpie Bridge in the heavens. Very tragic and romantic. I loved these stories as a child. I loved the illustrations and the strong moral messages, and the cultural strangeness for a little girl in a sheltered life in Australia. Later in life, partly because of this book, I spent years trying to learn Chinese. I didn’t really succeed, but I’m glad I tried. These stories are culturally important too. The Magpie Bridge is the name given to a Chinese communicat

Reading journal: Weird plants by Chris Thorogood

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Genre: Non-fiction Published: 2018 Date read: November 2018 Awesome book published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The author has a dreadful job. He is forced to travel all over the place photographing and painting plants. Also insects and animals. What a horrendous life! You can see him doing it on Twitter https://twitter.com/thorogoodchris1 I’ve been enjoying Chris’s tweets for ages and couldn’t resist buying the book, and I was not disappointed. Absolutely beautiful images, interesting botanical information, and high quality book production, a glorious treat for myself. Highly recommended.

Reading journal: Growing Pains: the future of democracy (and work) by Gwynne Dyer

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Genre: Non-fiction Published: 2018 Date read: August 2018 A short read exploring the rise of populism, Donald Trump and Brexit, and whether democracy as a form of government can survive. Dyer’s premise is that the problem is not one of ideology but of inequality. If a person’s ability to survive and benefit from economic growth is tied to employment, then there’s a problem, because paid employment is falling and wages are stagnant. Populists take advantage of this situation to blame immigrants and create dangerous social division. Dyer makes a good case for the use of a universal basic income as the solution to ever-increasing automation in manufacturing, transport and information-based work. That’s a hard sell in a neo-liberal world.

Reading journal: Stranger at the Wedding by Barbara Hambly

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Genre: Fantasy Published: 1994? Date read: July 2018 Kyra, a wizard, returns home for her sister’s wedding. It’s not a happy occasion. The sister is in love with someone other than the groom, Kyra’s father isn’t pleased to see her return from exile, and Kyra is certain that her sister is cursed and will die on her wedding night. This book was deceptive. At first it feels like a standard fantasy story, with family conflict, humour and an unexpected romantic attraction. That doesn’t last. The story becomes dark and horrifying as the source of the curse is exposed and the events that surrounded Kyra’s exile are revealed. Kyra’s efforts to save her sister are accompanied by increasing desperation, and the final magical battle is scarifying. I highly recommend this book, although its availability is a bit of a challenge. I have a Kindle version which seems to have been withdrawn from sale everywhere, and in Australia there is now only an audio version. I’ve no idea what the publ

Reading journal: Embers and Echoes by Daniel De Lorne

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Genre: Rural gay romance Published: 2018 Date read: September 2018 Ben Fields, a policeman, and Toby Grimshaw, a firefighter, have a history. In a small town like Echo Springs, on the edge of the outback, they can’t avoid each other, especially when the town is threatened by escalating arson attacks. We want Ben and Toby to solve the mystery, survive the danger, and get back together, and since this is a romance, they do. An enjoyable light read.

Reading journal: City of Lies by Sam Hawke

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Genre: Fantasy Published: 2018 Series: Poison War Date read: September 2018 This action/mystery story is set in a well-constructed fantasy world where the people of the city of Silasta are disconnected from their country cousins and have forgotten their own religious and historical roots. The plot revolves around Jovan, a young man responsible for protecting the city’s Chancellor from being poisoned, Jovan’s sister, Kalina, and the new Chancellor, Jovan’s friend Tain. The city suffers disaster after disaster; unexplained deaths, an attacking army, a siege, sabotage and threats from a menacing traitor within. The young people have personal problems too. Under stress Jovan becomes anxious and obsessive-compulsive, while Kalina battles asthma-related frailty. This is a solid read for fantasy lovers, with plenty of action, high stakes, entwined coming of age stories, and a reasonable mystery to be solved. I found the descriptions of the city and the caste system particularly

Reading journal: The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers

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Genre: Crime Published: 1930 Date read: July 2018 This has been sitting on the shelf for decades, but I don’t remember ever reading it before. It’s not the kind of thing you would forget. The story is told through a series of letters and documents, apparently known as an epistolary novel. The basic set-up is this: an older man and his younger wife’s lives are upset when two young men, artists, move into their house as boarders. The wife may or may not have an affair with one of them. Portraits are painted. An older female companion is gratuitously denigrated and then vanishes from the plot for no apparent reason. There is suspicion, then angry words, and in due course the older man, an expert on fungi, nevertheless dies of what appears to be mushroom poisoning. A long-absent son returns and pursues evidence that this was no accident. The style is dreadful and there is no suspense. I could hardly care enough to read to the end, so unpleasant were all the characters. And I do

Reading journal: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

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Genre: Science Fiction Published: 2018 Date read: August 2018 Well-written and imaginative, but rather doom-laden story. In a post-plague future, humanity have survived and moved on, but underlying characteristics of duplicity and self-interest remain. A scientific project involving time travel to observe early Mesopotamian civilisation goes wrong when one of the party sabotages the mission. The story is told from two viewpoints, scientist Minh and ancient king Shulgi, and jumps around in time, so that nothing that happens is really a surprise. I would have liked it to be. I was interested in Minh’s perspective. Minh is a plague baby, and must manage a range of physical ailments as a result of early damage. She has bio-prosthetic limbs and a bad case of depression. Her greatest wish is to be a recluse, living a quiet life pruning peach trees, but financial obligations intrude and she is forced to interact with others and to participate in the time travel project. The moti

Reading journal: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

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Genre: Fantasy Published: 1968 Series: Earthsea Cycle Date read: May 2018 Wonderful fantasy series about the life of a young and powerful mage, Ged. Ged is arrogant and fool-hardy, and pushes the boundaries of magic in his home village, living with a mentor and then at the Mage’s school on Roke. He awakens something evil, and must travel the world in peril of his life until he can defeat it. A classic story, beautifully told. Ged is such a typical young man, so careless with risk. Wonderful world-building, with the islands and seas totally realistic. I’ve read this before, but not for a long time. It’s still a perfect gem, to come back to again and again.

Reading journal: The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato

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Genre: Non-fiction Published: 2018 Date read: May 2018 A solid read about a basic concept in economics, the idea of value. For the last few decades value has been interpreted as whatever a market will pay for something, that is, the price. These days price determines the value of something, rather than the other way around. One result is the rise of rent-seekers; economic actors whose sole purpose is to extract value through financial trickery, what the author calls ‘casino capitalism’. Instead of adding value to the economy, financial players remove it, enriching themselves at the expense of society generally. It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time in living memory when the evening news didn’t report on stock exchange and currency fluctuations. I’ve never understood why they do that. Obviously players in that game don’t wait to hear important information on broadcast TV, and for the rest of us, it isn’t very useful to know. The author reviews economic theory to

Reading journal: Once Burned, Twice Spy by Diane Henders

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Genre: Spies and espionage Published: 2018 Series: Never Say Spy Date read: June 2018 Aidan Kelly works for a Canadian secret agency. In this outing she must ride herd on a bunch of international scientists showing each other their secret weapons. Something goes wrong and Aidan is accused of stealing the weapon. Quite a good yarn. I particularly liked the beginning, where Aidan’s team must drive through heavy snow to a meeting in Calgary, and one of their vehicles slides off the road. There’s a lot of detail about how to survive atrocious road conditions and what not to do. As an Australian living in the inland plains this is not a hazard I have ever faced, nor am I likely to. I was reminded of Tim Taylor in the series Home Improvement , a man who received an award for safety training for showing realistic accidents and injuries on his TV handyman program. Of course, Tim was actually a total klutz. Aidan does much better. This is the thirteenth book in the series, and th

Reading journal: The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Genre: Science Fiction Published: 2018 Series: Vorkosigan saga Date read: May 2018 This novella is quite a dark little tale, set on Barrayar. Ekaterin, Lady Vorkosigan, a botanist and ecologist, is working on a project to rehabilitate areas of high radiation left over from the last war. The site is the city of Vashnoi, ground zero for enemy bombing. Her team finds children living in the radiation zone, and the story explores how they got there. Ekaterin has to face down danger and find a solution for them. I don’t think any of the author’s books set on Barrayar fail to mention Vashnoi, or the after-effects of radiation and the cultural implications of a society forced to deal with high levels of mutation. Very thought-provoking.

Reading journal: The Rain Never Came by Lachlan Walter

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Genre: Science Fiction Published: 2017 Date read: June 2018 A story of a future Australia where the inland is in permanent drought and the inhabitants have been forcefully relocated or herded into camps. But there are hold-outs, people who hide from the Creeps and eke out a precarious living. The story begins with a football match against a passing First People caravan, and the return of Bill’s friend Tobe from his wanderings. Bill and Tobe are close, and share a tragic past. Bill’s loyalty is tested when Tobe insists on an exploratory trip into the badlands, but he follows Tobe faithfully, even when they must abandon their bolthole, only to be betrayed in the end. (I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler). This is an interesting book. I enjoyed it as a writer, seeing how Walter has varied the pace to create atmosphere. The structure of the book is interesting too, a classic story structure with a strong inciting incident which I didn’t identify until the very end, even tho

Reading journal: Flight 404 by Simon Petrie

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Genre: Science Fiction Published: 2018 Date read: June 2018 An engaging novella from a Canberra author. Charmain is a pilot en route to a rescue mission in the vicinity of the arid home planet she abandoned long ago. It takes a long time to get anywhere in space, and brief spurts of action are interspersed with long periods of reflection on the past. Charmain explores the relationships she abandoned when she changed gender and left home through the means of conversations with her AI, K@rine, an interesting idea. The stakes rise when she discovers that her sister’s family is on the lost ship, and the actions of the other rescuers pose threats or add to the general confusion. I enjoyed the story. It’s low key; space is filled with people with normal human issues like regret, fear and greed, rather than high adventure, although there is some of that too. It reminds me of Nathan Lowell’s Traders’ Tales . And there are some lovely ideas — the arid planet has underground habi

Reading journal: Copenhagenize by Mikael Colville-Andersen

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Genre: Non-fiction Published: 2018 Date read: June 2018 Fascinating look at how to make urban cycling work. The book is sub-titled ‘The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism’, quite a mouthful, but it’s a fair summary of what the book’s about. The author lives in Copenhagen, and works as a consultant for other cities that aspire to the same level of urban amenity. Each cycling-related design problem has two sides — human behaviour and urban engineering. The key first step is getting past the idea that, whatever you do, cars must have the greatest priority and everything else must be fitted in around them. As the author points out, until the 1920s that wasn’t the case at all. Car priority is not set in stone. We’ve made horrible places out of cities that could be pleasant and safe. Very interesting book that also points out mistakes that are made with cycling infrastructure. Canberra, my former home, has made every single one of these mistakes, and hasn’t to my knowled

Reading journal: The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross

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Genre: Fantasy Published: 2018 Date read: April 2018 A retelling of an old story, although I don’t recall ever reading Beauty and the Beast, only seeing cartoons of it. The author has created a lyrical work, choosing a language style that fits the story very well. A young man has been cursed by magic and lives alone in a forest. After a long time, he begins to return to human awareness although still in the form of a beast, and returns to his abandoned home. The beast tricks a traveller into sacrificing his daughter, sending her to the beast’s domain to live. In the best traditions of fairy tales, the story becomes a love story and the beast is redeemed. The story is beautifully told and very true to its origins, although I was never sure quite what terrible flaw the young man had shown that merited such a severe punishment. Still, fairy stories are often cruel and arbitrary. The cover is extraordinary. Another talented Canberra author.

Reading journal: Suicide Run by Nathan Lowell

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Genre: Science fiction Published: 2018 Series: Smugglers Tales Date read: April 2018 Natalya and Zoya, travelling in the Deep Dark in their old scout ship, take on a job as test pilots for a new courier vessel being developed at the Pulaski Yards. The ship as designed is a death trap, and they face many dangers in unravelling plots and exposing the criminal enterprises that lie behind its existence. The book is competent enough, and there are moments of sheer terror when an airlock comes open in space, but I do have trouble getting inside the heads of the two main characters. They don’t seem to have enough passion, somehow. A larger design is hinted at, but I don’t think I’ve learned any more about it than I did in the first book in the series. The author needs to up the stakes a little to reach the standard of his earlier Traders Tales series.