Category: Reviews

CLOH-cover-smallAs the title suggests, Cranky Ladies of History is an anthology of short stories revisiting some of the great women of history. Those facing adversity and refusing to be bowed by it. Some of these women – Elizabeth the first, Elizabeth Bathory, Mary Wollstonecraft – are easily recognizable. Others are less well known but no less noteworthy. Penned by an array of brilliant authors, including multiple award-winning authors Garth Nix and Juliette Marillier, this is a collection to be savoured.

For several months I’ve been following the blog, Rejected Princesses. Devoted to telling the stories of girls and women who don’t fit the mould Disney would require for its princesses, it has some amazing tales of women from myth and history. These women are violent, brave, stubborn and demanding, but never dull. Therefore I was delighted to find that many of the stories I’d read on the blog have also been included in the pages of Cranky Ladies of History. Many other stories are new to me, and some are tales that most people know set in a perspective not often used.

While all of the stories in the anthology are fascinating, two in particular stand out. Sylvia Kelso’s Due Care and Attention, and Joyce Chng’s Charmed Life. Both of these stories are remarkable in that they portray women being women. Rather than trying to toughen up to fit into a man’s world, the central characters in these stories focus on improving the daily lives of those around them. Their stories are of creation rather than destruction.

In Due Care, Dr. Lilian Cooper uses her medical knowledge to serve the people in her community – particularly those who cannot afford medical attention. Like all the women in this collection, she has a temper – but her ire rises when local laws seek to keep her from offering timely medical aide.

In Charmed Life, Empress Leizu laments the idleness of her life until she realizes that she might be able to make a difference in the lives of her people and, in the process, lighten the workload of the women around her.

Both tales focus on relationships between women, reinforcing the point that women have always fought the restrictions placed on them.

The supernatural element in Cranky Ladies is the only thing that weakened an otherwise wonderful anthology. It didn’t occur in more than one or two stories, but putting in events that were so obviously mythology rather than history fuels doubt of the veracity of all of the stories. And there have been enough amazing women doing fantastic things that adding magic isn’t necessary for a good story about them.

Most of these stories are gems, some featuring well-known historical women, though many not. It was the lesser known figures that sent me on searches of the bits that the story left out. Having been introduced to so many amazing historical figures in this anthology, I only wish it had been longer.

 

Cranky Ladies of History – ed. Tehani Wessely

 FableCroft Publishing (March 2015)

 ISBN: 9780992553456

nogrady-best aussieThe Best Australian Science Writing covers a wide range of topics, from the mating habits of prehistoric fish to plans for a future Mars mission financed by reality TV; from the quintessence of dust to the complexity of the human brain; and to mapping the universe. Some of the essays are horrifying, some amusing, but all are very readable to anyone with a fairly basic level of scientific literacy. I don’t remember there being a single equation in the entire book, nor an explanation that I found tedious or redundant.

After a foreword by Adam Spencer and an introduction by editor Bianca Nogrady, the volume begins with one of the most interesting pieces: Elmo Keep’s essay on Mars One and the West Australian selected to be one of the astronauts on this one-way mission. It’s written in an entertaining style, but seems aimed at dashing the hopes of anyone dreaming of crowd-funded interplanetary travel in the foreseeable future. This is followed by Fiona McIntosh’s The Vanishing Writers, which is – to my relief – not about the death of the author (that favourite fantasy of structuralist critics), but about the search for the insect responsible for the markings on Scribbly Gums.

Next is the first of three essays on the future of robotics and AI, before Jesse Hawley explains how we feel wetness despite having no nerve endings that recognize it (this is one of the few pieces where I can vouch for the findings; while I was reading this on a plane, the child sitting next to me spilled a cup of water on my leg!). Wendy Zukerman gives a brief sketch of the evolution of genitals. Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax converts an extract from an old Dictionary of Photography into a poem, the first of two in the book. Bridie Smith’s Playing God concerns applying triage principals to endangered species to determine which we should concentrate on saving – one of many rather depressing pieces on the probability of the next Great Extinction Event occurring in your lifetime.

Many of the essays on medical matters are even more disturbing: Christine Kennedy’s The Past May Not Make You Feel Better, on Huntington’s disease, is so grim that I twice had to take a break from reading it (and I’m a horror writer!) and David Roland’s How I rescued my brain isn’t a bundle of laughs, either, though Trent Dalton’s Beating the Odds, about a new design for an artificial heart, is considerably more optimistic.

On a lighter note, Alice Gorman gives us a job description for an interplanetary archaeologist, Ian Lunt speculates on the potential for interactive apps to replace paper field guides, and Jenny Martin proposes new metrics for ranking universities and suggests implementing a “no asshole rule”. Lauren Fuge praises Pickering’s mostly forgotten “computers”, the underpaid women who did the hard work of mapping the universe with 1880s tech; Nick Haslam and Gina Perry re-examine Stanley Milgram’s experiments; John Long describes the sexual position favoured by Microbachius dicki; and Tim Dean peers into The Mind of Michio Kaku.

Whichever field of science interests you, you’ll almost certainly find something worth reading in this collection. And if science doesn’t interest you, maybe you should read this anyway.

The Best Australian Science Writing 2015

Edited by Bianca Nogrady

Newsouth. 298 pp.

 

fink-nightvaleWelcome to Night Vale is a novel based on the incredibly popular podcast of the same name. The podcast is a way for non-residents of the fictional desert community to listen to broadcasts from the Night Vale Community Radio station—a staple in Night Vale households whether they like it or not—as Cecil tells us about the many mysteries that plague the peculiar town.

The novel adaptation of the podcast primarily follows two specific mysteries (while often deviating onto other strange, tangential narrative paths) and contains all of the bizarre absurdities that lovers of the podcast have come to expect. But that’s not to say you need to be a long-time listener of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast to enjoy this book. While those already familiar with the Night Vale community may notice the occasional reference before somebody who is new to this universe, every peculiarity is introduced in a way that provides enough context for all readers to interpret—if not understand—what is going on.

 And not quite understanding is part of the joy of Night Vale.

In this way, I’m sure Welcome to Night Vale is a ‘love it or hate it’ experience. Some people will dislike the unusual narrative style, with a narrator who insists that you imagine something—a teenage boy, for instance—and then tells you that you’re imagining it wrong. The narrative is often derailed by seemingly-irrelevant transcripts of Cecil discussing the traffic or reminding us that librarians are dangerous. Anybody who prefers a narrator who tells a nice, linear story while minding their own business and staying inside their book likely won’t enjoy their adventure through Night Vale.

I only needed to read the foreword of Welcome to Night Vale to know that this novel would quickly become one of my favourites. The book is incredibly clever. Details are revealed and withheld with deliberation and care, leaving the reader with a haunting, lingering mental image of a town that is dissonant when compared to their own, but that is also terrifyingly similar.

I remember being introduced to the principle of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ in a first year creative writing subject at university, and Welcome to Night Vale is the embodiment of that idea. If you’re unfamiliar, this principle suggests that everything included in a story must be relevant to that story, or else should be removed. Even the smallest reference to the strangest thing in Welcome to Night Vale comes up again at one time or another, and the most surprising characters and objects become integral to the overall story. In this way, everything that happens in Night Vale is linked to everything else that happens in Night Vale. Time and space are weird, dude.

As I worked my way through the novel, I encountered innumerable sentences that were so interesting or bizarre that I just wanted to read them aloud to someone. I involuntarily became the annoying person who sits next to you at a movie and points out all the clever parts, but without the benefit of you having any knowledge of the surrounding story. I was so excited by this ridiculous adventure that I just had to share it with the people around me.

I enjoyed being told to imagine things. I even enjoyed being told that the things I was imagining were wrong and that I should try again. I liked being given incredible detail about some of the characters, objects, or settings, but almost none about others. Welcome to Night Vale made me think, made me ask questions, and made me marvel and wonder at the world I was travelling through as well as my own.

At first glance, Welcome to Night Vale seems to be completely distant from the places we inhabit. After all, we don’t have teenage boys who can morph into whatever physical form they want, or a pawn shop where we have to perform strange hand-washing rituals before we can pawn our items, or doors that need to be shouted at before they will open. And yet the residents of Night Vale consider these goings-on entirely normal—or, at least, mostly acceptable.

However, on closer inspection, perhaps there are aspects of our lives that we accept, but that would seem just as unusual to an outsider, looking in. Our teenagers may not be able to transform themselves from human form into that of a wolf-spider or a sentient haze at will, but they are asking similar questions about who they are, how they should look, and how to fit in. We may not need to wash our hands while chanting in order to pawn our possessions, but we have many strange rituals and routines of our own. Often Welcome to Night Vale touches on realities that are a little too relatable, like the strange thoughts many of us seem to miraculously have while in the shower, or the distress that sometimes comes when inhabiting the space between waking and dreaming.

Welcome to Night Vale spends a lot of time exploring the lives of the community’s many and varied characters. Some have flaws, most have peculiarities, and all are relatable in one way or another. While the development of the two female protagonists is evident, many of the side-characters seem to progress very little, acting as symbols for greater issues or signposts for the narrative while lacking their own fully-fledged personalities. But in a lot of ways, that’s the point. Characters struggle to understand the routines they find themselves trapped in, to decide whether they enjoy what they do every day, and to remember how they even came to be where they are. In doing so, these side-characters cause the protagonists—and the reader—to ask themselves: am I a fully-fledged character? Do I know how I came to be where I am? Do I like it here?

Welcome to Night Vale is a wonderful journey into absurdity that will make you ask a lot of questions. At first, you will be wondering ‘What are those strange lights in the desert?’ and ‘How can a house be sentient?’ but before long—before you even notice the questions have changed—you will be asking different things, like ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I doing with my life?’

All hail the Glow Cloud.

Awards

davitt-award  aurealis-award   logo-curtin-university

Peacemaker - Aurealis Award
Best Science Fiction Novel 2014

Curtin University Distinguished Alumni Award 2014

Transformation Space - Aurealis Award
 Best Science Fiction Novel 2010

Sharp Shooter - Davitt Award
Best Crime Novel 2009 (Sisters in Crime Australia) 

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