New Review: Dr Huxley’s Bequest (2017)

huxleycoverMichelle Cooper

FitzOsborne Press (2017)

ISBN: 9780648165101

The subtitle for this upper middle-grade book is “A History of Medicine in Thirteen Objects”, which is a useful additional description, and an accurate one. The author has clearly undertaken an extraordinary amount of research into medicine through the ages, and sharing this knowledge seems to be the main purpose of the book. But this should not be construed as a negative – creative non-fiction is a very clever way of bringing attention to the field, and by association STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), for young people.

Specifically young WOMEN, as the book’s protagonists are two young girls, given the unlikely (but not, I should note, completely unrealistic, given the state of academia these days!) task of preparing Dr Huxley’s bequest for presentation in the common room of a residential college of a university. When the informational notes accompanying the objects are destroyed, the two girls, Rosy and Jasminder (Jaz), are on a race against time to figure out what each of them is, and what each represents, in order to showcase them for inspection.

There was a lot to like about this book. As a teacher and librarian, I very much appreciated the portrayal of the thirst for knowledge and interest in a topic for its own sake, accompanied by a clearly positive take on the research process via the girls’ search for information about unknown objects. While this search often hinged on coincidental observations, this was usually an inciting incident that led to further investigation. It was interesting to see some gentle digs at academia in general throughout the book, which as an adult (and someone currently working in that field) I grinned at, though I imagine the intended audience may not pick these up.

I was impressed by the ways Cooper wove in non-Eurocentric perspectives as well. The book is set in Australia, identifying real places in a real university. Through some careful character work and an eye for opportunity, Cooper ensures readers are very aware that Western medicine is not the only view of medicine through the ages, and that often, Western medicine either lagged behind or was significantly influenced by advances in other areas of the world. Again, the younger reader might not even notice this as unusual, but as an educated and experienced reader, I certainly did and value these inclusions.

Rosy and Jaz were well-realised on the page, perhaps a little adult in some ways (although it would definitely be a mistake to underestimate any intelligent 13 year old…) but the style of writing also gave them a young “voice”, which I think is of importance to the story being told. It’s not too intimidating for the young reader that way, despite the sometimes heavy medical history content being unpacked.

The adults in the book were nicely fleshed out as well – Cooper has a true gift for writing incidental characters in a way that makes the reader get to know them, even when they are only briefly present, a knack I had noticed in her Montmaray books – which also helped the book avoid a didactic tone. It was valuable to see the different situations of the parents, cultures and backgrounds, delivered with careful placement throughout the book.

Writing creative non-fiction is a challenge, and Cooper has offered an exemplar of the genre here. The book is not perfect – some sections were perhaps a little overlong, some coincidences a little stretched, and the “mystery” in Rosy’s room felt a bit shoehorned in. However, strong characters and a believable purpose combine with a deft writerly touch to produce an interesting and engaging narrative that educates and, as I mentioned, provides a positive perspective on research and the quest for knowledge, and this cannot be undervalued. I can see this being picked up by young readers for pleasure, but I would also commend it to teachers to consider as a class text, due to its quality and relevance to learning. As an added bonus, teacher resources are available.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under ActiveReviews

NEW REVIEW: “Girl Reporter” (2017)

Tansy Rayner Roberts

Book Smugglers Publishing (December 2017)

ISBN: 9781942302629

I have a few authors whose work leaps to the top of my reading queue whenever they bring out a new book or story. Lois Bujold, Martha Wells and JD Robb are some of them – Tansy Rayner Roberts is another. And the best thing about Roberts, much as I’ve always adored her novels, is that she is writing a lot of shorter work these days, both for her Patreon and self-publishing ventures and for publication in major local and international venues. “Girl Reporter” is the third in her Cookie Cutter Superhero-Verse series, which she started with “Cookie Cutter Superhero” back in 2014’s Kaleidoscope (Twelfth Planet Press) and continued in the standalone “Kid Dark Against the Machine” (2016, Book Smugglers Publishing). While clearly part of a connected universe, these three stories do work in isolation and you don’t necessarily have to have read any of the others to enjoy this new work. Well, you don’t HAVE to read them in order, but I would certainly recommend it! Each of the stories has a different protagonist and aspect of the larger world building to work in, but there are multiple crossover characters and definite character arcs in play throughout each title. I have a fond hope that at some point, Roberts will bring all the stories (those existing and the ones I hope are still to come) together into a mosaic collection, because it will be one heck of a book.

So, what about this particular story? From the blurb:

In a world of superheroes, supervillains, and a machine that can create them all, millennial vlogger and girl reporter Friday Valentina has no shortage of material to cover. Every lottery cycle, a new superhero is created and quite literally steps into the shoes of the hero before them–displacing the previous hero. While Fri may not be super-powered herself, she understands the power of legacy: her mother is none other than the infamous reporter Tina Valentina, renowned worldwide for her legendary interviews with the True Blue Aussie Beaut Superheroes and her tendency to go to extraordinary lengths to get her story. 

This time, Tina Valentina may have ventured too far. 

Alongside Australia’s greatest superheroes–including the powerful Astra, dazzling Solar, and The Dark in his full brooding glory–Friday will go to another dimension in the hopes of finding her mother, saving the day, maybe even getting the story of a lifetime out of the adventure. (And possibly a new girlfriend, too.)

Friday is a great character, driven and passionate about her reporting, snarky and yet goodhearted, a tad cynical about media and her mother’s role in the superhero universe, and deeply loyal to those she cares about. I love pretty much everything about this book. The pacing and action is fantastic, the links that are built on from earlier works are wonderful, and the characters are all delightful, even the evil ones. As with the earlier stories, there is also an insightful critique of the genre at play, with strong commentary (beautifully incorporated, of course) on the portrayal of women in comics, among other elements. Roberts not only talks the talk, though, she walks the walk through diverse casting and depictions of her characters, making it roundly obvious that reflecting reality through diversity is not just logical, but pretty damn easy as well.

I’m not going to tell you anything more about the book itself, because it’s not all that long and I’d hate to spoil “Girl Reporter” or its predecessors for any new reader. But if you are enjoying DC’s Supergirl or Marvel’s Runaways TV shows, or thought Catherynne M Valente’s Refrigerator Monologues was brilliant, and want a glorious combination of the teen sass of the former with the dark critique in the latter, then you really need to get your hands on “Girl Reporter”.

Leave a comment

Filed under ActiveReviews

How I met the author: Anne McCaffrey

An infrequent and random series of posts musing about my introduction to some of my favourite writers.

A funny thing happened at the shop one day…

I really don’t know why I had a book in my hand when I went into my local corner store that day bay in the mid-90s, but I did – back then, I pretty much ALWAYS carried a big fat book around with me (now they mostly live on my phone, which is way more convenient!), so it wasn’t that unusual, I suppose. I was writing a thesis on representations of reality in fantasy novels, based mostly on the works of my favourite fantasy authors at the time, Raymond Feist and David (and Leigh) Eddings. I’m not sure if it was Belgarath the Sorcerer or Magician I had with me, but whatever it was, as I was chatting to the owner of the shop who was serving me, we got to talking about the book. And it turns out, he was a fan as well. From memory, we discussed our favourites for a bit, then he told me that if I loved Feist and Eddings, then I really had to try McCaffrey. And then, even though I don’t think I’d been in the store more than a couple of times previously (I had only recently moved in up the road), he popped out the back to his attached house and grabbed his personal copy of The White Dragon to loan me.

Well, I loved it. I haunted local bookstores, new and secondhand for months, finding in dribs and drabs the rest of McCaffrey’s ouvre. I don’t recall the order in which I read the rest of Pern, nor the other series, though I would always be delighted to come across one I didn’t have in the secondhand book shelves. I read and reread all those books many times over the next 20 years (I recently reread Pern again last year, and was bemused to realise I had never actually read Anne’s last solo Pern novel, Skies of Pern – somehow flew entirely under my radar (to be fair, it came out in the year I was pregnant with my first child and studying my Masters degree!), though I did read a couple of the collaborations with Todd thereafter. Skimming through Goodreads now, I see there are a few collaborative works I missed in other series, too, and while for many years my McCaffrey collection was as complete as I could make it (pre-online shopping!), even including the Atlas of Pern and The People of Pern, two hard-to-get gorgeous hardcover tie-ins, at some point I stopped reading the books I bought, and at some later point, I stopped buying altogether.

I still have them all. Multiple packing boxes filled with McCaffrey sit in my shipping container, waiting for a time when I can once again put them out on the bookshelf (no room in the current house, unfortunately). Many other books have not made it past the great book culls I’ve had over the years, but I don’t think I’ll ever part with Pern, nor McCaffrey’s other works. I don’t know if it was mentioned in one of her books but in late 2000, I discovered Anne’s Kitchen Table Bulletin Board, and became part of my first real interactive fandom, chatting in real time and on message boards with fans all over the world (one, a girl from New Zealand, I’m now Facebook friends with!). One of my fondest fannish memories is the time I was online at 3am in the morning (probably doing a university assignment) and actually got to chat to Anne herself. More than a decade and a half later, with all the wonderful writers I’ve met and worked with in the last 15 years, that is still my biggest thrill.

I wish I’d taken the chance to go visit Anne in Ireland when I was there in the late 90s – I didn’t have the nerve, I guess, though she always said she was happy to have fans visit her at Dragonhold-Underhill (with a little notice!). Maybe if I’d been a bit older, or had any other fan experiences under my belt (I didn’t come into the Australian fan scene until 2001, as a part of Andromeda Spaceways, and didn’t attend my first convention and meet my first authors until 2002!), I would have done it, but I didn’t. Maybe it is for the best – they say don’t meet your heroes – but I still regret that lost opportunity.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Retro Review: Succubus in the City (2008)

Nina Harper

Piatkus (2008)

ISBN: 978 0 7499 2922 0

With paranormal fiction all the rage, it’s no wonder that authors decide it’s a good idea to cross fandoms. Well, kind of. Succubus in the City is pretty much Sex in the City, with demons. Much of the book is given over to discussions of how wonderful it is to be young and good-looking in New York City, particularly if you’re a demon, and happen to be one of Satan’s best friends, and while this works to a certain extent, I wanted to see more story than setting, and was left wanting in the end.

Lily, our main character, is one of Satan’s favourite girls, a succubus whose only duty is to have sex with men of sin (just about anyone really) and send them to hell. However, for whatever reason, Satan’s minions also hold down day jobs – in Lily’s case, a prime position with a fashion magazine – and not only do their paranormal duties, but work in the real world as well. Sure, there’s perks to both jobs, but really? Why would several thousand year old demons want to work two jobs? I’m pretty sure it was for the shoes, but I digress. Lily’s many centuries of sex working have finally waned in their appeal, and she now yearns for the love and companionship of a human man, and a “real life” along with it. Unfortunately for her, the details of her contract with Satan mean that she can only be released from service if someone who knows her true nature truly loves her. Not likely, right?

Lily and her girlfriends find themselves embroiled in a situation where it seems their demon natures will be exposed, and Lily is set to work to find out where the situation stems from. Amongst it all, she meets private investigator Nathan Coleman, and Lily begins to fantasise about a possible true love. But Nathan may not be everything he appears, and Lily must discover the truth about his background, and about how much he really knows.

I’m not a fan of Sex in the City – I don’t think I’ve even seen one full episode of the show, and that may be why Succubus in the City really didn’t appeal to me. The endless name dropping of places and brands, and the motions associated with shopping and eating out filled up more of the book than the core of the story itself, to the point where I was left completely unsatisfied by the ending. The book is marketed as a standalone novel (no mention of series anywhere on the cover or endpapers), but the story is incomplete and thus must be part of a series, which is frustrating for the reader. However, others may enjoy the character of New York, and if you’re looking for something more chick lit than paranormal, this might suit you.

1 Comment

Filed under ActiveReviews

Retro Review: The Watergivers trilogy

The Last Stormlord 

Glenda Larke

ISBN: 978 07322 89294

HarperVoyager (2009)

Watergivers #1

The cloudmaster is failing. The stormlords are few. Rainlords don’t have the power to bring the essential rain. The land could soon perish and civilisation as it is known is under threat. But from whom? Village boy Shale could be the saviour of the Scarpen lands, but who should he trust? And how does Terelle, with her unusual powers, fit in to the battle he faces?

Glenda Larke is a skilful world builder and in this new series, she creates an remarkable desert land where water is treasured and the waterless are the outcasts of society. Born waterless, both Shale and Terelle fight to be more than they were allotted in life, and in doing so, become embroiled in a fight for the very survival of their world.

As usual, Larke creates an intriguing cast of characters and a fascinating story that evolves and develops gradually, weaving a spell that envelopes the reader and makes the book almost impossible to put down. My biggest problem is now the long wait for book two, but I have no doubt the wait will be well worth it!

Stormlord Rising

Glenda Larke

HarperVoyager (2010)

ISBN: 978 0 7322 8930 0

Watergivers #2

Stormlord Rising is possibly the best Book Two of a series I have ever read. To be fair, I have read Book One, but I believe this one even does its own justice to a newcomer to the series. Larke manages to effectively start a new storline with Stormlord Rising that is enhanced by having read The Last Stormlord, but not reliant upon it.

With the invasion of Breccia City and Qanatend by the Reduner tribes, led by Sandmaster Davim, which wiped out almost all the rainlords of the Quartern, Jasper Bloodstone – risen from lowly beginnings – is the only remaining stormlord with enough power to bring rain to the region. Supported and manipulated in his flawed powers by the traitorous Taquar Sardonyx, Jasper slowly fights to free himself from the control of others, seeking any way possible to truly command his own destiny. His journey intersects with that of the waterpainter Terelle Grey, who fights her own fate, and the lives of the last remaining rainlords. But Taquar is not the only enemy; Sandmaster Davim is rabid in his hatred of the stormlords, and his heir – the Reduner chief Ravard – has his own agenda as well. Can Jasper possibly fight a war that has so many fronts?

This brief synopsis can scarcely do justice to Larke’s complex story. Written so fluidly that the intertwining plot threads weave seamlessly together as the pages progress, Stormlord Rising is a page turner of classic magnitude. The action leaps off the page, supported by characters so well-drawn you fall in love with them, but in the hands of an author not afraid to kill off her darlings, which is a heart-pounding combination!

I read this book in the bath, in bed, feeding the baby and in the wee hours. I simply could not put it down. While it’s a huge book, it was so well put together that the pages flew by and I can only hope there’s not too long to wait for Book Three!

Stormlord’s Exile

Glenda Larke

HarperVoyager (2011)

ISBN: 978-0-7322-8931-7

Watergivers #2

Glenda Larke has to be one of the best writers of fantasy Australia has produced. With a solid backlist of two great trilogies behind her, she has really hammered home her dominance with the Watergivers trilogy. Having set up a world that seems just a little too real with its water problems, but is nonetheless entirely alien, Larke populates it with both magical and mundane characters of wonderful diversity, then throws them into intense conflict. While her books are high fantasy of the fattest “fat fantasy” tradition, they draw you in so completely that the pages simply fly by.

It is difficult to review the third novel without spoiling the first two, as such significant character development occurs throughout the series. It’s also worth saying that I highly recommend this series be read in close progression. I wish I’d had the time to reread the first two before devouring the third, as although Larke does well to recap on past events within the narrative, it is a large caste and a broad canvas, so rolling through from beginning to end helps heighten the emotional investment in the story.

In Stormlord’s Exile Jasper/Shale is declared Cloudmaster, but his talents are still imperfect and he is stretched thin, even with the help of Terelle’s waterpainting, providing water to the Quartern. He needs more Stormlords, but short of breeding them, where can they come from? Even as Jasper struggles to keep his people alive and watered, there are still plots against him, and he is about to lose Terelle’s support, perhaps forever. In the Red Quarter, in the aftermath of Davim’s death, Ravard seeks to maintain the goal of returning to a time of random rain. But ex-Rainlord Kaneth, with the very able Ryka by his side, have a different vision for the future of the Reduner people, and this leads them, too, into conflict. Can peace, and even prosperity, ever come to the Quartern?

One of the most interesting things about this trilogy is the way Larke has diverged from a traditional fantasy setting, with medieval history at its heart. Instead, she has taken us to an arid world where every drop of water is precious, and the people are ruled not by monarchs, but by those with the power to control water. Her commentary on environmental issues in the “real world” are subtle but well drawn, and add even more depth to her storytelling.

For lovers of fantasy, I cannot recommend this highly enough. Well worth adding to your “to read” lists!

Leave a comment

Filed under ActiveReviews