The Kingdoms of the City
Recent reading, some very good, some just OK (but your mileage may vary).
Issue #7, Sunday 17 October 2021
New and upcoming releases
So many new books I’d like to read!
The Attack by Catherine Jinks
Interesting-looking new thriller from Text Publishing. I haven’t read any of this author’s work so far, but she has a large backlist to explore.
Robyn Ayres works as the camp caretaker on Finch Island, a former leper colony off the coast of Queensland. Her current clients are a group of ex-military men who run a tough-love program for troubled teens. Bruising classroom dynamics, manipulative parents and carers and horrendous small-town politics form the backdrop to a nail-biting thriller in which the tensions of ten years ago start to play themselves out, building to a violent climax in the present day.
Harrow by Joy Williams
Just out in hardback, this looks intriguing, though I’ll probably wait until I can get hold of a paperback or ebook version.
Pulitzer finalist Williams (The Quick and the Dead) returns with a dystopian saga of environmental cataclysm that is by turns triumphant, damning, and beguiling.
Sometime in the near future, Khristen is sent to a boarding school in the desert of the American West by her mother, a woman haunted by the fact that she believes Khristen briefly died as an infant and came back to life. After the school is shut down, Khristen sets off across a decimated landscape…
Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan Mcguire
Another contribution to McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas, coming on 4 January 2022. I quite like these books, but as I’ve said here before, I really wish she would write each story at greater length. I always feel rather shortchanged by them.
In Where the Drowned Girls Go, the next addition to Seanan McGuire’s beloved Wayward Children series, students at an anti-magical school rebel against the oppressive faculty.
“Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you’ve already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company.”
There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn’t as friendly as Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. And it isn’t as safe.
Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson
It's a while since I read anything by Neal Stephenson, but I like his work a good deal, though he tends to be a bit long-winded. I even worked through and enjoyed his massive Baroque Trilogy of historical fiction. So this new novel is definitely going on my wish list.
Intricately imagined and richly plotted, Termination Shock is trademark Stephenson - a gripping and propulsive epic of the modern world that shows this remarkable author at his very best.
Neal Stephenson’s sweeping, prescient new novel transports readers to a near-future world where the greenhouse effect has inexorably resulted in a whirling-dervish troposphere of superstorms, rising sea levels, global flooding, merciless heat waves, and virulent, deadly pandemics.
One man has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as “elemental.” But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?
Milk Teeth by Helene Bukowski and Jennifer Calleja
Due out on 19 November 2021, this seems well worth adding to my list of works in translation which I want to read:
Skalde writes her thoughts on pieces of paper, making new discoveries and revelations, and finding scraps with which to understand her limited world. Her mother Edith tells her little, preferring the solitude of her room. Their house is full of silence, and secrets… When a girl called Meisis arrives, from where no one knows, Skalde goes against Edith’s wishes by bringing her in. Meisis’s arrival doesn’t simply mean that Skalde has someone to care for or a friend, it means there has been a serious breach in security for the area.
Beautifully written in immersive, spare prose, Helene Bukowski’s debut novel is about what it means to be a mother at the end of the world, about living with the impacts of climate change, and the way we view “outsiders.” Jen Calleja’s translation from German is a lively rendition of this modern-day fairytale, where each moment witnessed and word uttered is weighted with importance in the quiet, sparse world of these characters living on the brink.
2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize Shortlists announced
Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA), in partnership with Australia’s leading essential building and infrastructure services provider ARA Group, is excited to announce the Shortlists for the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize.
The Shortlist for the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize, Adult Category is:
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray: River of Dreams by Anita Heiss (Simon and Schuster)
Our Shadows by Gail Jones (Text Publishing)
The Burning Island by Jock Serong (Text Publishing)
The Shortlist for the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize, Children and Young Adult (CYA) Category is:
The Grandest Bookshop in the World by Amelia Mellor (Affirm Press)
We are Wolves by Katrina Nannestad (HarperCollins Australia)
The Mummy Smugglers of Crumblin Castle by Pamela Rushby (Walker Books Australia)
The ARA Historical Novel Prize winners will be announced at the HNSA virtual conference on 22 October 2021.
Completed since last issue
I only managed to complete two books in the last two weeks, which is rather letting down my average. Still, they were both rather long books, each more than 400 pages.
Legend: PB = Paperback; HB = Hardback; EB = Ebook; L = Borrowed from the library (otherwise I purchased the book); HTML = Raw HTML for a Standard Ebooks production.
The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
[PBL] Very cleverly plotted time-travel story. It starts with a man getting off a train and then realising that he’s completely lost his memory, and can barely remember his name, which is Joe. What’s more, he’s puzzled by the station name being announced: “Gare du Roi, Londres”. Since when are English train stations named in French? A kindly stranger takes him to a hospital, where they tell him he’s had a kind of epileptic seizure. Eventually someone turns up to claim him and he discovers he’s a household slave, married to a woman he doesn’t recognise and who doesn’t love him.
In these miserable circumstances he’s astonished to receive a postcard addressed to himself at his master’s address. But the post office tells him it was lodged a hundred years ago! It features a lighthouse off the coast of Scotland and bears the cryptic message: “Come home if you remember—M.” Thus begins a journey for Joe which eventually takes him into the past, into the times of the Napoleonic Wars.
The twists and turns of the story are very clever, though the intermingled sections set in closely related time periods (1797 through 1805) can be very confusing if you don’t play close attention, because they largely feature the same characters.
Other than Joe, the other main character is a man called Missouri Kite (who despite the name was born in Spain) who is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered in science fiction. Joe—and you, the reader—are never quite sure whether to think of him as a villain, a hero, an enemy or a lover.
Very cleverly done. Recommended.
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
[PBL] This book, the start of a new series, has been nominated for Best Novel at this year’s Hugo Awards. N. K. Jemisin previously won the Best Novel Hugo three times running for each volume of her Broken Earth trilogy. The City We Became, is however the first of Jemisin’s novels which I’ve read.
Unfortunately I have to say that this book annoyed me in several ways and I really didn’t like it. Despite that, I think that it’s highly likely to win the Hugo Award this year, so what do I know?
I kind of want to like it. It’s certainly entertaining and kept me reading. It has some interesting characters and some good action sequences. The problem is that I just can’t swallow the basic premise of the story, which is that eventually human cities reach a point where they are “born”. It’s not clear to me what this actually means, or what it is which triggers this event, but the conceit of the book is that there is some kind of process during which a particular individual from that city is transformed into an “avatar” of the city, and the city is “born”. And now it’s the turn of New York, the first American city to reach this point.
At the start of the book, we’re introduced to the young Black artist who becomes the avatar of the city of New York. He is being advised and supported by the avatar of the Brazilian city of São Paulo. But the young man is plunged into a coma after a battle with The Enemy (some kind of alien entity from another universe which hates human cities). While he is in the coma, the avatars of the five boroughs of New York arise and do battle against The Enemy. Despite one major defection from their ranks, they triumph in the end. But their victory is not total, of course, because the author has to leave scope for the projected sequels.
I won’t detail all of my annoyances with the book here (I did that at probably far too much length on our podcast). Fundamentally, I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief and swallow the basis of the story, that cities are somehow “born” and that that is a perilous time for them. The Enemy is too much of a “paper tiger”, unconvincing as a threat that I could feel any concern about. So I’m not sure what the book says about anything in the real world. While as I’ve said, parts of it are entertaining and it’s well enough written, I just didn’t like it as a whole. I won’t be reading the subsequent books in the series.
The Library by Stuart Kells. I’m still working my way through this, which is full of fascinating little historical anecdotes about libraries, book collectors and books. It’s pretty much a “dip into” book though, rather than reading it straight through.
Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve. Finally started on this by using it as our bedtime read-aloud. Only about a quarter of the way through, definitely enjoying it so far.
Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope. Still only barely started this, doing it for Standard Ebooks.
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. Very interesting book about what we now know about fungi. Only a couple of chapters in so far.
In the queue
These are on my shelf, borrowed from the library. I hope to be able to get to them before they are due back!
Dead Wake by Erik Larson. The story of the sinking of the Lusitania, by the author of many excellent non-fiction books. Don’t miss his The Devil in the White City.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I’m not a big fan of historical fantasy, but I thought I should try this debut novel from an Australian author.
That’s it for yet another issue. Please share my posts and encourage your friends to have a look. And you can make me happy by “liking” my posts.