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In the third of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mysteries, Phryne and her companion, Dot, are taking the night train to Ballarat when Phryne is woken from a doze by the smell of chloroform, and discovers that their first-class carriage has been filled with cholorform and that one of the passengers, an elderly lady, is missing. When the missing passenger's body is discovered, her daughter hires Phryne to find her mother's murderer, and Phryne also takes on the task of trying to find the identity of a young girl with amnesia who was found on the same train.

The identity of the murderer was glaringly obvious, but the question of evidence and alibis takes up more time, while the subplot about the amnesiac girl takes a bit more unravelling. The feminist slant of the previous novels remains strongly in evidence here, with Phryne continuing to take down exploiters and abusers of women in the course of her cases, and there are a few knowing nods to other novels; the allusion to Murder on the Orient Express is obvious, but I also spotted a reference to the Megatherium Trust which sets the series firmly in the same world as Peter Wimsey. The series continues to be entertaining feminist fluff and definitely high on my list of comfort reads.
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After reading Kindred, which is about slavery in the USA a short time after Jane Austen was writing, I decided to re-read the one Jane Austen novel which explicitly mentions slavery, Mansfield Park.

I actually first read Mansfield Park recently enough that my thoughts are on LJ, and my opinion hasn't really changed; I know a lot of people dislike Fanny Price, but I still find her sympathetic and relatable, and her quiet determination in the face of pressure to accept Henry Crawford's proposal (and, indeed, the careful observation which allows her to understand Henry's character in a way that no-one else, except perhaps Mary Crawford, does) is all the more impressive for coming from a character whose life has shaped her into a person who always puts other people's wants and needs before her own. Yes, a shy, anxious, insecure heroine isn't as fun as a sparkling, witty Lizzy Bennet, but Fanny feels very real and I found it easy to care about her predicament. I do wonder if some of the dislike for Mansfield Park comes from people expecting a fluffy romance and not getting that, because while none of Jane Austen's novels are actually fluffy romances (honestly, I can't think of one that isn't really an anti-romance when you look at it closely) Mansfield Park is one of the hardest to see that way; although Fanny does end up with the man she is in love with, he isn't in love with her and they have a marriage of best friends rather than a grand romance.

I also really enjoy the glimpses of the wider world we get in this novel; Sir Thomas's business interests (and yes, the slavery that his wealth is founded on), the Navy in the Portsmouth scenes (which feel as though a Patrick O'Brien novel could be taking place only a few yards away). Like all Austen's novels, it also has interesting things to say about the position of women in English society in the early nineteenth century; the experiences of Maria and Julia Bertram, Mary Crawford's catalogue of the woes of her friends' marriages, and the pressure exerted on Fanny herself to marry Henry, despite her conviction that he is fickle and insincere (and while I think she is probably too hard on Henry, because she is so much in love with Edmund, his attachment to her clearly isn't all he would have her believe it to be), all show how constrained women's lives were, how the crucial question of marriage, answered on the basis of very little real information or knowledge, would make or break the rest of life.

I'm not sure I can have a favourite Jane Austen novel; there were moments during this re-read when I thought maybe Mansfield Park was my new favourite, but then I remembered Persuasion and Northanger Abbey; Pride and Prejudice is justly acclaimed a classic, and I really like Emma too, so I think all I can actually say for it is that it's definitely in my top five, though they are all so close, and the only one I think I actually like less than the others is Sense and Sensibility.
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Octavia E. Butler's Kindred is a classic time-slip fantasy with a twist. The narrator, Dana, is a black woman from 1970s California, who, in the space of a month of her own life, is transported back to a Maryland plantation a number of times across a period from about 1815 to 1830; a time and a place where, without papers to prove that she is a free woman, she is automatically assumed to be a slave, and treated as one.

As you might expect from that, it's a pretty harrowing read*, but I also found it utterly compelling reading, and an interesting and thought-provoking examination of slavery in the US and how the experience of being a slave might affect a person. I felt that it helped me to understand the emotional landscape underlying the current debates on race in the US in a way that just knowing the facts doesn't, and I couldn't help reading the physical and mental scars Dana's experience leaves both as literal scars and as a metaphor for the scars the experience of slavery has left on America. I was reminded several times of Granny Weatherwax's assertion that "evil is when you treat people as things"; Butler tries, and I think succeeds, at showing us just how evil a society which treated thousands of people as possessions was.

*although, having failed to get through Butler's Parable of the Sower a few years ago because it was so very dark, I found it easier to get through Kindred, possibly because it's easier to read about horrors in the past than horrors in the imagined near future.
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I posted on Facebook asking for recommendations for comforting and even fluffy reads, and someone suggested Georgette Heyer. I had mentally filed Heyer under "writers many people I know love but who I don't get on with", despite having quite enjoyed The Grand Sophy when I read it a few years ago, because I then tried reading Friday's Child and really didn't get on with it, and I'm not generally a fan of romance as a genre (I do quite like romcom films, if they're well done, and have no problem at all with romance subplots in books in other genres, but a romance on its own is generally not enough to keep me interested in a book), but I thought maybe I ought to give her another try (especially as someone else in the thread said she didn't much care for Friday's Child either) and downloaded a copy of These Old Shades and tried to approach it with an open mind.

Actually, I did rather enjoy it; the person who had recommeneded Heyer said they thought of her novels less as romance and more as comedy of manners with a love story thrown in, and that certainly seems to sum up These Old Shades, which features a girl dressed as a boy, children switched at birth, revenge, kidnapping and the flower of pre-Revolutionary Parisian high society. It is a love story, but it's also a story of family relationships and friendships, which I enjoyed much more. It's rather silly, in the way a lot of Shakespeare's comedies are silly, but it was a fun read and definitely fluffy and entertaining. I may well try more Heyer next time I'm in the mood for some fluff.
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The Star of the Sea is Una McCormack's sequel to The Baba Yaga (which I read last autumn). Both novels are set in a universe originally created by Eric Brown, though I haven't read Brown's books in the series, and take place in a far-future universe where both humanity and their traditional enemies the Vetch are threatened by the mysterious and massively deadly Weird. In this book, following the events of The Baba Yaga, the human Expansion mounts an expedition to Stella Maris, where humans, Vetch and Weird had been living in harmony, ostensibly to study the Weird but perhaps with more sinister motives. At the same time, Yale, one of the residents of Stella Maris, agrees to transport a mysterious human girl and a Vetch boy back to the Expansion for purposes that, at least initially, aren't clear to any of them, while information analyst Maxine Lee, working in the Expansion's capital, starts to suspect that some of the conspiracy theories she's meant to be monitoring may have more truth than she has been led to believe.

Like the first book, it's a plotty, compelling sf thriller with a strong cast of mostly-female characters. Also like the first book, this isn't a utopian Star Trek-type space opera; it's an examination of what it means to live in a society that's far more authoritarian than any of its citizens would care to admit, and of how an authoritarian regime can exploit the small (and not so small) differences between people to bring discord and division to a previously-harmonious society; and if I didn't enjoy this quite as much as I enjoyed The Baba Yaga, I think it's simply that the world I live in has shifted between last September, when I read that, and now, and I found it so dark that in places it was quite difficult to read, knowing what's going on in the world around me.
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Europe at Midnight is the second in Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe series; although it isn't quite a sequel to Europe in Autumn and could reasonably easily be read as a standalone novel, reading Europe in Autumn first fills in some of the background, and reading Europe at Midnight first would take away the impact of one of the major plot twists in Europe in Autumn.

Like Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight is basically a Le Carre-esque spy thriller which replaces the Cold War with the complicated politics of a fragmented near-future Europe. Its events take place on the same timeline as those of Europe in Autumn, with limited points of intersection. It's clever and plotty and interesting and I enjoyed it a great deal. I did, however, have one reservation, which was that I counted no fewer than three separate incidents where female characters who were important to the two male protagonists died violently in order to advance the men's plots (and a fourth where a woman was only seriously injured). It's true that the novel belongs to the gritty spy thriller genre and that comes with a lot of violence, death and general unpleasantness, and it gets points for having a reasonably wide range of female characters who are as likely to be dishing out the violence and general unpleasantness as on the receiving end of it, but by the third death I couldn't help feeling that this was starting to feel a bit like a pattern, especially as none of the deaths of men had the same emotional resonance for the two protagonists.

***

Rivers of London: Black Mould is the third Rivers of London graphic novel. I pre-ordered this in February when the release date was, I think, May; it was eventually released this week. Like the first two, it's a short standalone casefic which doesn't add to the wider arc of the series; fairly slight, but it was nice to see more of DC Guleed in particular, and it was entertaining enough.
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Seanan McGuire's Hugo-nominated novella Every Heart a Doorway is a school story with a twist: it's set in a boarding school specifically catering to young people who have visited the kind of other worlds familiar to readers of portal fantasy novels and who are struggling to adapt to real life on their return (most of the students at the school in this book long to return to their fantasy worlds, though we are told that there is a sister institution catering for those who need help to forget their more traumatic travels). Disbelieving parents send their children to the school hoping that they will receive therapy and recover from their breakdowns, but instead the school supports its students in understanding and integrating their experiences while still allowing them to hope that they will find their doors again one day.

The story mainly follows Nancy, who has returned from a sojourn in the Halls of the Dead with a preternaturally developed ability to stand still and a penchant for dressing in gauzy black and white clothing, to the distress of her parents who want their old daughter back. Shortly after Nancy's arrival at the school the first in a series of gruesome murders occurs; suspicion falls on Nancy, as a new girl and one whose world was a underworld, and she and a small group of other students have to work together to discover who the real murderer is. The murder mystery plot is really only a Macguffin, though (and I thought it was quite obvious from very early on who the murderer was); the book is really an exploration of identity and belonging, as the students try to deal with having found and lost worlds where they felt that they belonged much more than they ever had at home (each student went to a different world, uniquely suited to that individual). It's easy to see Nancy's parents' rejection of the changes in their daughter as parallelling more conventional rejections by parents' of their children's developing tastes and views. Identity politics writ larger also feature; Nancy explicitly identifies as asexual, while one of the friends she makes is a trans boy who was expelled from the fairyland he travelled to when he was discovered to be a prince and not the princess they thought he was.

Some of the reviews I'd read online had made me worry that this was going to be preachy, or at least a bit cringily identity-politics-by-numbers, but in fact I didn't find it that way at all; it was interesting, sensitive and thoughtful. I wasn't completely convinced by the way the murder plot was resolved, which seemed to owe rather more to the conventions of the students' fantasy worlds than to the real world in which the story takes place, but generally I really enjoyed the book and can absolutely see why it has won and been nominated for so many awards.
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I picked up Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders in the Oxfam bookshop, because I'm always interested to try new-to-me 1930s detective stories, and grabbed it off the top of my to-read pile last week when I was looking for an easy read to follow To Lie With Lions.

The Saltmarsh Murders is the fourth of 66 detective novels featuring Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, psychiatrist and amateur sleuth. In this novel, she turns her attention to the death of a young woman who has recently given birth to an illegitimate baby (and the disappearance of the baby) in the South Coast village of Saltmarsh, where she was paying a visit when the murder was discovered. She is aided in this by Noel Wells, the slightly dim curate of the village. Noel also narrates the novel in a first-person style which clearly owes a lot to Wodehouse, who he mentions being a fan of.

I wasn't sure the Bertie Wooster-esque narrative was a natural choice for a detective novel, and Noel is a very sloppy narrator, with events coming out of sequence in a way that made it quite hard to follow the plot at times. The book also features a black character and contains the kind of period-typical attitudes to and language about race that are pretty hard for a modern reader to stomach, as well as some period-typical attitudes to class and a couple of incidences of painfully rendered yokel accents. Most of the characters felt very two-dimensional, with the only one who really took on any life at all being the village madwoman, Mrs Gatty, and I didn't actually find the mystery plot particularly compelling. I don't think I'll be seeking out any more of Mitchell's books (although I think I might have at least one more that I bought as a Kindle bargain years ago...).
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The sixth of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò books brings to a conclusion the phase of Nicholas's life sparked by the devastating events of the ending of Scales of Gold. In many ways it felt as though this and The Unicorn Hunt were two halves of one very long book rather than two separate instalments of the series, which I think probably partly explains why I felt that The Unicorn Hunt's plot seemed to meander rather if it was mainly setup for the next book. I feel similarly about The Disorderly Knights and Pawn in Frankincense in the Lymond series, and although the ending of To Lie With Lions isn't quite as cataclysmic as the end of Pawn in Frankincense, or indeed Scales of Gold, it leaves Nicholas in a similar place to Lymond at the end of that book; isolated, friendless and being taken to an unknown destination.

The centrepiece of this book is Nicholas's voyage to Iceland, culminating in a haunting, nightmarish winter journey across country in the face of an imminent volcanic eruption, and a subsequent description of the eruption itself, which are definitely up with the Sahara journey in Scales of Gold and the winter journey in Russia in The Ringed Castle among the most amazing of Dunnett's descriptive passages. The novel then gathers pace and ramps up the tension towards the dénouement, which does the typical Dunnett thing of shining a new light on so many things and radically changing the reader's understanding of both Nicholas's and other characters' natures and motivations, and even if I had guessed the identity of "Egidius", the third Vatachino partner (mostly because Pat McIntosh's Gilbert Cunningham mysteries include a character with the same first name and nickname as the "Egidius" in Dunnett's books, almost certainly as a tribute to Dunnett) there were still plenty of surprises among the revelations.

Only two more to go, although then I'm sure that both the Lymond and Niccolò books would benefit from a re-read; there's so much in them that only makes sense once you have got to the end. Also, I have just bought a secondhand copy of King Hereafter, as it isn't available for Kindle. Though right now I think I need to read something a lot less emotionally demanding for a while.
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The Other Wind is the sixth (and final) Earthsea book. Published in 2001, along with Tales from Earthsea, it picks up the themes of Tehanu and the novella 'Dragonfly' to complete the re-visioning of Earthsea begun in those two books. It mirrors The Farthest Shore in having death and the fate of the dead in Earthsea as one of its key themes, and goes much further than that book in examining the concept of the "dry land" where the souls of the dead reside (which seems to owe something to Hades in classical mythology) and arguing instead for true death and oblivion. The Farthest Shore ended with Ged fundamentally changed by his experience in the dry land, stripped of all his magical powers; The Other Wind fundmentally changes the dry land itself, and perhaps also the world of the living and the way magic works in Earthsea.

The book revisits many characters from the earlier books; I particularly liked the glimpse of Ged, fifteen years after Tehanu, at peace with who he has become and living contentedly with Tenar and Tehanu on Gont, and the Kargish Master Patterner of Roke. There are also engaging new characters, particularly Alder, the village sorceror whose dreams of the wall that divides the land of the living from the dry land are the catalyst for the events of the novel. It isn't a particularly plotty novel; mostly it's an inward exploration, as the characters use reflection and dialogue and the gradual sharing of traditional wisdom and histories across three cultures to arrive at an understanding of the nature of the problem they are facing and the way to solve it.

Interestingly, I felt that the depictions of the land of the dead and the ultimate resolution of the plot reminded me of the land of the dead sequence in Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, published a year earlier; there was also a mention of death as a "gift", and a few other things, which reminded me of the end of Season 5 and some of the themes of Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which aired in 2001 and 2002. Clearly there was something in the zeitgeist at the turn of the millenium which made people ponder the nature of life and death and life after death.
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The fourth and last* of Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie crime novels takes Jackson back to his native Yorkshire. He is house-hunting and carrying out a fairly desultory investigation on behalf of a client in New Zealand who wants to find out more about her biological parents when he somehow finds himself mixed up with a 35-year-old murder. Meanwhile, retired detective superintendent Tracy Waterhouse, who was one of the first officers on the scene at that case, finds herself becoming the primary carer for a small child in rather unusual circumstances; over the course of a few days her story and Jackson's circle around each other without ever quite intersecting, building up a story about missing children, absent parents, families, responsibility and corruption. As so often in Atkinson's books, none of the characters sees the full picture; that's reserved for the readers, and even we have to work for it. There's nothing extraneous in this book, but all too often the significance of a detail only becomes apparent a hundred pages later and I found I had to keep flipping back to check things that I hadn't really paid attention to at the time. (Atkinson is a one-woman argument against ebooks.) I liked this a lot, and if I didn't like it quite as much as When Will There Be Good News?, that's only because I found Tracy a less engaging secondary protagonist than Reggie. The only trouble is that, having started to read so much more, I have now read everything Atkinson has published and will have to wait and hope that she will have a new book out soon.

*at least for now
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I tend to buy books in the Women's Press SF imprint when I see them in second-hand shops, and picked up this collection of short stories (or really, one novella and some short stories) in a bookshop we passed while walking at Easter. It dates from 1986, although only one of the stories was published for the first time in this collection; the others, including the title novella, had been previously published at various points between 1971 and 1980.

The title novella tells of the adventures of revolutionary leader Jane Saint as she travels through an alternate dimension or astral plane, seeking to find a way to make a fundamental change to the natures of men and women which will allow humanity to move towards a more equal society. She moves through a shifting and often symbolic landscape, helped variously by an alchemist and his wife, a philosophical talking dog, a griffin-demon hybrid creature, Joan of Arc, and her own daughters; her adventures are absurdist and surreal and told with a great deal of subtle wit and humour.

The other stories are much shorter. 'Woe, Blight and, in Heaven, Laughs' is a rather grim postapocalyptic reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; 'Gordon's Women' is a more cheerful variant on the total-male-domination-secret-female-underground setup of Suzy McKee Charnas's Holdfast novels; 'The Message', which was probably my favourite story in the book, is an almost-realist story of lonely, repressed fiftysomething Edna, whose attempts to deliver a message handed to her by a dying person in hospital take her on a quest around her neighbourhood; 'Heads Africa Tails America' was very surreal and really left me cold; and 'The Pollyanna Enzyme' posits a situation where it turns out that the one thing that really does drive humanity to live in peace and harmony is its imminent extinction.

Definitely worth a read if you happen across a copy.
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If the Miles Vorkosigan of The Warrior's Apprentice is Francis Crawford of Lymond In Space, in the novella The Mountains of Mourning he's basically Lord Peter Wimsey In An Isolated Rural District On An Alien Planet*, as he's sent as his father's representative to investigate an alleged case of infanticide in a small village in a remote corner of Vorkosigan District.

For a short book, this packs a lot in. As well as a competent whodunnit plot, the story explores the backstory of Barrayaran culture and social attitudes, particularly attitudes to disability, and more universal themes of generational differences in social attitudes. It's the sort of science fiction that doesn't really feel like science fiction; with the exception of the interrogation drug fast-penta there's no futuristic techology and it's hard to believe it's set in the far future instead of, say, the 1930s. It's an interesting and thoughtful read, and I liked it a lot (though I was a bit taken aback at "Ma" apparently being a formal honorific for older women, but maybe that's just Barrayar).

*The presence of a minor character called Pym, on a planet where most names appear to be Russian or Slavic in origin, did nothing whatsoever to dispel the Wimsey associations my brain kept making, either.
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Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock, which is a modern reworking of the Scottish ballad 'Tam Lin' as a suburban English adolescence, is one of my favourite books ever, so ever since someone mentioned Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, a reworking of the same ballad as the student experience at a Midwestern US liberal arts college, I've wanted to read it, and I finally got to the point where I wanted to read it enough that I actually ordered a copy a couple of months ago. (It isn't published in the UK, so there's no ebook version available, and I do tend to give more thought to purchases of paper books than ebooks.)

Dean's retelling covers three years and a couple of months of Janet Carter's life as a student at Blackstock College, pursuing a liberal arts degree with a major in English literature, building friendships, learning how to get along with a wide range of people and exploring romantic relationships, and at the same time investigating a book-throwing ghost and trying to work out why it is that everyone in the Classics department seems rather strange. Translating the plot of a ballad into a 450-page book leaves a lot of space around the plot for Dean to paint a picture of the college atmosphere, the pressures of studying and the delights and unreality of spending four years isolated from the world, surrounded by learning and other people who want to learn and share your interests. I found the liberal-arts college background familiar enough to make me rather nostalgic for my own student days, but different enough to be fascinating, and I liked the characters and their interactions a lot. I particularly enjoyed the way the friendship between Janet and her two roommates develops, from a very prickly relationship at the start (they have very little in common) to a real friendship and mutual support network, and the way that the college environment masks the very real peculiarities of some of the Classics students.

For me, this felt like the book I wanted Jo Walton's Among Others to be; a literate and literary study of growing up bookish, with a liminal fantastic element. Among Others simply didn't do it for me, but this did, and while I will never love it as much as Fire and Hemlock (which, interestingly, is also a very literary book - I read a lot of things for the first time because they were mentioned in it) I did like it a great deal.
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At the opening of The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey has married his Sophie and is living in a damp cottage with her, their twin daughters and her mother; a situation from which he is rescued by Stephen Maturin, arriving to offer him not only a ship but the opportunity to act as commodore of a small squadron, waging a campaign to capture the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion from the French. Like all the Aubrey/Maturin novels this mixes careful naval detail (in his author's note, O'Brien explains that the whole campaign is based on real naval actions) with social comedy and carefully observed human drama. Stephen's political influence has clearly continued to develop since HMS Surprise, as we now find him assigned as a political adviser to the whole mission; meanwhile, Jack has to learn how to command a squadron and not just a ship.

This was a more sombre book than I had expected; despite his famous luck, Jack doesn't take naturally to a more strategic level of command and the campaign involves significant losses, while one of the main supporting characters is the rather sad Lord Clonfert, who is clearly haunted by his failure to match up to Jack's achievements in what looks very like a form of Imposter Syndrome. (Mental illness is very much a theme of the novel, with the introduction of the surgeon McAdam whose interest is far more in diseases of the mind than those of the body, and as well as Clonfert's Imposter Syndrome we see Stephen's growing depression.) It also didn't seem to have quite as much of the interaction between Jack and Stephen that I loved in the first three books, as for much of the time the two are separated and going about their own business in the campaign. Still, I enjoyed reading it, and thanks to a lucky find in the Oxfam bookshop the other week I have the next four waiting to be read at some convenient point.
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I'd been meaning to try Frances Hardinge's books for ages*, having heard many good things about them from friends. Having now read one, I'm sorry I put it off for so long, as I thought Fly By Night (her first novel) was terrific fun, reminiscent of Joan Aiken, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman but also very much its own unique, original self.

In terms of genre, I'd describe Fly By Night as historical fantasy (Hardinge herself describes it as "a yarn" in her afterword), by which I mean that it's set in a completely imagined world whose geography, history and belief systems bear no relation to ours, but whose setting nevertheless bears more than a passing resemblence to an actual period of Earth history; in this case, England in around the turn of the eighteenth century, complete with frills and wigs and a difficult period of repression in the not-too-distant past. It's the story of twelve-year-old orphan Mosca Mye, who runs away from home in the company of a con-man (the wonderfully named Eponymous Clent - the naming of characters is a particular joy) and a homicidal goose and finds herself caught up in a complex web of murder, treachery and intrigue. The plot twists and turns so much that I found it absolutely impossible to even guess at what was coming next or whether characters would turn out to be good, bad or neutral, and there were a whole host of colourful and entertaining supporting characters. In lesser hands, I think it could easily have ended up being annoyingly whimsical or too over-the-top to take seriously, and it's a sign of Hardinge's skill as a writer that it avoids this.

It's the story of Mosca's first independent steps in the world (and I love that, unlike the protagonists of a lot of YA novels, she's allowed to make some pretty serious mistakes and atone for them, but without it ever feeling as if the mistake could be forgotten). It's a critique of religious fundamentalism that feels very relevant now, though it's obviously based on Puritanism and the aftermath of the English Civil War. And it's also a book about truth and lies and the power of words: Mosca is driven by a love of words and a desire for books, in a world where publications are tightly controlled, and this love of words is also reflected in the wonderfully wordy and playful style of the writing. I liked this a lot, and will definitely be seeking out more of Hardinge's work.

*I was surprised to notice that Fly By Night was first published in 2005, which means it's even longer than I thought.
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As I've probably mentioned already, I've been making a conscious effort to read more SFF by women writers recently, and Justina Robson was someone I'd seen mentioned as being worth trying, so when I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop last summer I thought I'd give it a try*.

Natual History is an exploration of ideas of transhumanism. It's set in a future where "the human race" has expanded to include the Forged, human minds in biological-mechanical hybrid bodies, some mimicking animals, others machines (two of the central characters are basically spaceships, one a solo exploration vessel and the other a cargo carrier). Even among the "Unevolved", many people have technological augmentations. There are longstanding tensions between the Forged and the Unevolved around the Forged's place in society, particularly those who may have outlived their original purpose (such as the vast terraformers who made the Moon and Mars habitable).

On top of this background, Robson adds a classic first contact story. Isol, a deep-space explorer, encounters a strange lump of "Stuff", apparently inert at first but which allows her to create an instantaneous travel engine, and then discovers a mysterious Earth-like planet which appears to be its origin, and the novel follows several characters as the human race attempts to understand the nature of the Stuff and deal with the consequences of its discovery.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. Partly this is because I really struggled with the worldbuilding; unlike when I read Too Like the Lightning and found it exhilarating to try to understand the strange new world Ada Palmer had created, reading Natural History felt like hard work. There was a lot of invented jargon, different types of Forged humans and institutions and processes and I really struggled to take it all in and make any sense of it at all. I also felt that the pacing wasn't quite right; it's quite a short book, at just under 400 pages, and there was a lot of setup to create a number of plot threads which all then seemed to be resolved very quickly, so I couldn't help feeling that it might have been better with more space to develop the story (or perhaps less setup; I definitely enjoyed the last hundred pages or so, once the plot really started moving, more than the start). Most of the characters feel very underdeveloped, and even the two who are given more time don't quite seem fully realised. This is a novel that's full of interesting ideas, but I didn't think the execution quite lived up to the concept.


*How many of my book reviews start "when I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop"? Probably most of the ones that aren't reviews of Kindle books...
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I read several of Rumer Godden's novels in my teens, and loved her delicate capturing of the transition between childhood and adulthood, so when I found a couple of her books in the Oxfam bookshop recently I couldn't resist buying them. The River is a very short book, the story of Harriet, the second child in a European family living on the banks of a river in East Bengal (based, as the introduction makes clear, on Godden's own childhood home), during the course of an Indian winter which is the start of growing up for her, bringing her first real experiences of birth, death, love and loss, as well as her discovery of a talent for writing. It's quite insubstantial, and I didn't love it as much as I loved some of Godden's longer novels when I read them, but it's beautifully written and perfectly captures the confusion and isolation of suddenly not being a child any more, but still not being a grown-up.
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Flying Too High is the second of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mysteries. Like the first, I thought it was entertaining fluff with a strong feminist slant. I felt the plotting was a bit tighter in this one than in the first, perhaps because Greenwood had already introduced most of the major characters and didn't have to devote time to setting up their relationships this time round, and overall I enjoyed it a lot. (I note that my review of the first book said that I didn't feel compelled to rush out and buy all the subsequent books, but I did just that last night. There are quite a lot, so that'll keep me going for a while!)
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As I recall, I borrowed Ellen Galford's The Fires of Bride from the local library more than once when I was a teenager. I borrowed it the first time because teenage feminist me would borrow anything with the Women's Press's black and white striped spine, and then I borrowed it again (and again) because I loved it; it was funny and feminist and fuelled a burning ambition to live in artistic solitude somewhere remote and spectacularly beautiful when I grew up. (Alas, I turned out not really to be the artistic type, and I don't think solitude would be good for my mental health, so it's probably better that I ended up living in suburbia and having a prosaic career in finance and administration, but at fourteen the prospect would definitely have horrified me.)

I was a bit apprehensive about re-reading it, but I needn't have worried; it's still very funny, and very feminist. It's the story of an artist, Maria, who accepts an invitation to visit lady of the manor, local doctor and probable witch Catriona on the remote Hebridean island of Cailleach, and ends up staying. On the one hand, it's the story of a woman finding her confidence and her identity as an artist and a person, fairly typical of feminist novels of the 80s; on another, it's a humorous portrait of a rural community which owes something to Ealing comedies (it's a bit like Local Hero, which I think I discovered shortly after reading the book, and which is one of my favourite films, though it would have been even better with more lesbians); on a third, it's a quasi-fantasy about communities of women facing up to the patriarchy throughout history, and about the survival of pagan goddess-worship throughout centuries of Christianity. I still liked it a lot; maybe I'll see if I can track down copies of Ellen Galford's other novels as well.

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