London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City, by Tom Chivers
All my life I have had recurring dreams of paths, of underground tunnels and caves, of the liminal space between land and water. And so I am drawn to explorations in prose of these places, other writers’ experiences. London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City is one of these books.
But it is more than a record of author Tom Chivers’ experiences in exploring what lies beneath the ever-changing city – the layers of history and prehistory exposed by construction, reimagined from old maps, seen in the lines of minor streets. (This too attracted me to the book, landscape history and archeology, as many of you reading this will know, is an avocation of mine.) London Clay chronicles the author’s experiences in the wastegrounds of London – sometimes literally in sewers, sometimes in the abandoned expanses of what was once the industrial docklands, sometimes in the sterility of modern developments, as he searches for traces of the past.
London Clay kept me both entranced and contemplative, thinking of what lies under other cities I know – York, Seattle, my own. History both visible and invisible, traces left from names we know and names we don’t. Throughout the book, Chivers returns to holes: entrance places into the underground pushed up by geology or dug down by humans through the London Clay of the title. Like Orpheus, he goes down into the dark, returning with only shards and shadows and stories to tell – both of London and himself. In his own words:
As I embark on a modest project on the history of the city on which I live – not a book, simply a collection of articles for our community newsletter, only some of which I will write – I cannot help but think Chivers’ book will influence it. Mine is a much smaller city, and much younger, its visible history easier to find. An intended city, imagined on paper, planned. But it too has the past hidden below what is seen today, and I can’t look at it the same way as I would have before reading London Clay.
Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.
Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.
I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.
Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.
I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.
In The Place Below, Dan Fitzgerald brings his Maer Cycle to a satisfying conclusion. A generation after the first two books of the series, Sasha, daughter of human and Maer, is now an adult. Empathic, sensitive to touch, her natural skill with languages and communication enhanced as needed by magic, Sasha is searching out the tombs of the Ka-lar, the ‘forever kings’ laid to rest in a form of stasis hundreds of years earlier. Then one day, her empathetic connection to the minds of the dead encounters an awakened, living Ka-lar among a branch of the Maer who themselves are legendary: the underground-dwelling Skin Maer.
The book alternates between the viewpoints of Sasha and Kuun, the awakened Ka-lar, and they serve as counterbalances to each other: Kuun, who at first presents as confident and powerful, slowly reveals motives and doubts; Sasha, who presents as unsure and solitary by nature, grows into her own competence and agency. Familiar characters—Sinnie, Finn, Tcheen—are reintroduced, but as characters to support Sasha in her quest, not to direct and overshadow her.
Kuun, the scholar-scientist Forever King, choosing stasis in the face of unfinished research in a time of plague, is a nuanced and ambiguous character, his motives slowly revealed over the course of his narrative. Again, Fitzgerald’s themes of communication and understanding play into the development of his character and his actions.
Like Fitzgerald’s first two books, this is fantasy with few battles and heroics of a martial sort, but with questions asked and answered about the power of language; about acceptance of differences that are superficial; about what we might sacrifice for the good of the whole. Commonalities that connect, not contrasts that divide. Sasha, neither human nor Maer, embodies both the possibility and the questions that arise about differences between Maer and human, a question that will be, finally, answered through Kuun’s determination. Recommended (as is the whole series) for readers wanting character-centred fantasy that makes them think.
Find The Maer Cycle, including an omnibus edition with bonus features here.
Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.
He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.
If you don’t know this marvellous book, here’s my review from its release day in 2019.
Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and early 20th century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.
But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.
The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.
I’m pleased to be participating in theStorytellers on Tour blog tour (Aug 29th – Sept 4th) for Jonathan Nevair’s second novel in his Wind Tide series, Jati’s Wager.
A space opera heist brimming with action, twists, and turns that doubles as a story of personal growth, mentorship, and sacrifice.
Ailo is a streetwise teen surviving alone on the remote moonbase, Tarkassi 9. She wants nothing more than to flee into the wider world of the Arm. When her chance arrives, she makes it no farther than the first ship out of the system. That’s where Jati, the Patent War veteran and general fighting the Monopolies, gives her a second chance. It’s an unlikely partnership, but Ailo’s rogue status is just what Jati’s People’s Army needs to drive the final spike of victory into a weakening Garissian Council.
A team of experts assembles and hope rests on Ailo’s skill, stealth, and tenacity to pull off the impossible. It’s a wild gambit, and a moral code may need to be bent, or broken, to achieve success. When an internal shadow rises, casting doubt on their plans, Ailo and Jati are forced to weigh the cost of revenge against honor and justice.
Your own survival is paramount when you’re a street kid. You learn to be fast, to be silent, to move in and out of the shadows; to trust your instincts; to rely on your own judgement. You develop coping mechanisms, too; mental ones, to give you support, advice; a friend you can rely on. But all your experience and all your wiles aren’t foolproof.
When stowing away on a ship leaving the moonbase she’d grown up on doesn’t go the way Ailo had hoped, she becomes part of a crew under the legendary Jati, general, Legionary, idealist. Ailo has to learn to trust more than the part of her mind she calls Gerib, her ‘imaginary friend’ who guides and counsels her, and to see herself not only as an individual but as part of a team with a larger purpose. As the links between her hidden past and the cause Jati is fighting for are revealed, skills that have lain latent in Ailo’s mind: skills of tactics and strategy, of language, and the fusing of the two that make for skilled diplomacy, begin to emerge. But those are not the only reason Ailo is valuable to Jati. Is she the last piece in the puzzle that will bring them victory against the Garassian council?
Fast paced and complex, Jati’s Wager is a book that needs your full attention. Packed with action, the story moves forward rapidly, but the action invites deeper moral questions, not just for Ailo, but for the reader. There is a war to be won, but can it be done in a way that leaves the long history of violence, of conflict and retribution, behind? What is the moral path for a warrior? – not a soldier, someone who follows orders, but a warrior, making mindful, conscious choices, aware of the myriad consequences. Is vengeance – or sacrifice – ever appropriate? The questions of personal survival versus the collective good; the role and meaning and restrictions of history, and the power of language are woven throughout the story, reinforced in many ways, large and small, creating layers of meaning and contemplation in both the reader and Ailo.
Jati’s Wager is the second book in Jonathan Nevair’s Wind Tide series, but it can be read as a standalone. Links to his first book, Goodbye to the Sun, are present and important, but sufficiently explained that the reader does not need to have read it (although I strongly suggest you do!) In the background, not only do the myths of the Trojan War have a presence, but the author has quietly included references to classic science-fiction, ideas from Carl Sagan, and – in a sentence that made me bark with laughter – a nod to Apocalypse Now.
Highly recommended, both for lovers of space opera, and readers that like books that make them think.
The Unseen, as well as being a police procedural set in 10th century Baghdad, is also an investigation of the balance men and women must find between their existence in the physical world and their desire for human connection and love, and the call of the immanent god to a greater purpose, the subsumation of the life of the flesh in the life of the spirit. That Laury Silvers manages to balance the temporal story of her characters with their spiritual journeys in both a setting and faith unfamiliar to many readers (including me) speaks to her skill as a writer.
The title, as always with Laury Silvers’ books, has multiple meanings within the text, but one ‘unseen’ is the Twelfth Imam. Hidden from view; his very existence is a point of debate and division among the Shia of Baghdad. With tensions already high, when a man is killed in a way that parallels the death of a martyr two hundred years earlier, the city is ready to explode into violence. Grave Crimes investigators Ammar and Tein must find the man responsible before the caliph’s troops enforce peace. But Tein’s sister Zaytuna has a prophetic dream that points to the killer – or does it? And will Ammar and Tein listen?
As in her earlier books, The Lover and The Jealous, 10thcentury Baghdad is evoked through the senses of the characters. We see the world through their eyes, smell what they smell, taste what they taste. We know, their inner doubts and turmoil as the events of their lives, personal and public, conflict with their values.
Parallels with today’s politics abound. Difference of opinion over who should lead them causes rifts among the Shia, providing opportunity for other to infiltrate and to feed those fires. Senior police officers are all too ready to provide a scapegoat for the crime. But alongside these conflicts, Zaytuna and Tein, and Ammar too, all have a chance to find a path to a modicum of contentment in their lives, although none easily.
By this third book, readers know the main characters well, and I found myself strongly invested in their personal stories, but also intrigued by the solving of the crime. Highly recommended for readers who want a book that asks a lot, emotionally and morally, of its characters, and does not pretend there are easy solutions.
Laury Silvers is a North American Muslim, raised in the United States but finally at home in Canada. Her research and publications as a historian of religion focused on early Islam, early Sufism, and early pious and Sufi women. She taught at Skidmore College and the University of Toronto. Silvers also published work engaging Islam and Gender in North America in academic journals and popular venues, was actively involved in the woman-led prayer movement, and co-founded the Toronto Unity Mosque. She has since retired from academia and activism and hopes her novels continue her scholarship and activism in their own way. She lives in Toronto.
Dust and cool water; ascetism and the bonds of love. In 10th century Baghdad, Zaytuna is torn between the mysticism of Sufi practice and her need for connection to the world – and the reality of survival day to day. When a child dies in a fall, she must try to understand why, bringing her into conflict with both powerful people and her own brother, and challenging, too, her own understanding of herself and her faith.
The setting is carefully and slowly built, with great skill: I could imagine myself there in the markets and courtyards, among the crowds on the streets and on the flat roofs of houses. Characters are drawn precisely, with a beautiful economy of words, giving the reader just enough.
Laury Silvers gives us a glimpse into a world unfamiliar to most of us, that of women of medieval Islam. Not women of privilege, but women whose lives are given up to labour, the women who wash rich families’ clothes, or sweep houses and cook meals. Lives that are limited by poverty, but sometimes joyous, sometimes transcendent, and sometimes cruel.
The need for relationships – with family, with friends, with God – is central to The Lover. (The title refers to one of the faces of God.) Zaytuna is driven to investigate the boy’s death for reasons that are interwoven with her own need for love, and the value she sees in each life.
The Lover is the first of a series. I hope to read the others soon; meanwhile, I recommend The Lover strongly both as an engaging mystery, and to anyone who wishes to learn more about medieval Islam and the lives of women in that time.
The Eye of Nefertiti is a worthy sequel to Maria Luisa Lang’s delightful The Pharaoh’s Cat, which I reviewed in November of 2015. Written in the same light-hearted style, the sequel follows the adventures of Wrappa-Hamen, the walking, talking cat Egyptian cat and his family…who just happen to be a High Priest of Amun-Ra transported to modern-day New York City, his 21st century wife Elena the Egyptologist, and their child, who is the reincarnation of Wrappa-Hamen’s beloved Pharaoh.
Travelling from New York to England to Ancient Egypt, and involving Tarot cards, opera, and various gods and rulers, The Eye of Nefertiti can be read as a stand-alone story, but I recommend reading the previous book for a fuller understanding of the back-story here. Like its predecessor, it’s a light novel, and again that is not a criticism: we all need amusing distractions and Lang’s novels fit that bill perfectly. It probably helps to be a cat-lover, because walking and talking or not, much of Wrappa-Hamen’s behaviour will resonate with cat owners (or those owned by cats).
I’m hoping we haven’t seen the last of Wrappa-Hamen; surely as the baby Pharaoh grows up there will be more adventures for his cat to be involved in! Four stars for a well-written, fun read.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Universities run on thought. It’s why they exist: to share thought, to foster new thought, to turn thought into something, tangible or intangible, new to the world. But what if they ran on thought in a different way, if thought could be turned into power, not of the kind wielded by politicians and heads of corporations, but the sort that turns on lights, runs motors, boots up your laptop? And what would happen to those whose thoughts were channelled into that power?
In a rust-belt town in Michigan, a businessman creates a new university on the grounds of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. First-year students Samo, Monty, Ezzie, and Dunya share a residence floor, below ground in the Calliope Cradle. None is quite sure how he or she ended up here, but the angst of first-year adjustment is more than enough to occupy them. But even in the confusion of buying overpriced and unaffordable textbooks, joining clubs, figuring out where to eat, and discovering mid-terms can be in almost any week of the semester, they come to realize something wicked this way comes…or rather, is already here.
Complex, intricate, perhaps a little self-indulgent (like its protagonists at first), Shattering Glass is neither straightforward nor stereotypical. It contains elements of steampunk, Greek tragedy, absurdist theatre, and film noir, all wrapped up in a superficially Harry Potteresque setting transported to a failing industrial city. But it also delves into some difficult questions….what does happen to a personality subsumed into a university’s -or a universe’s -power system? How do we stay ourselves? Can we? At what price?
This won’t be a book for everyone. Its non-linear narrative, metafiction techniques, and elaborate detail does not make it an easy read. But if you read Vonnegut, give Shattering Glass a chance. I’m giving it 4.5 stars here on my blog, which will translate to five on Amazon and Goodreads.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Drawing on ‘documented’ UFO sightings, Hopi cosmology, and some non-mainstream interpretations of various petroglyphs, religious practices, and experiences from around the world, A Gleam of Light pits a young Hopi woman and a reporter against the U.S. Army in a race for the secrets buried deep within a cavern on Hopi land.
The concept of using the cosmology of a people whose beliefs can be interpreted to mesh with UFO and alien sightings isn’t new – I’m old enough to remember – and to have read – Chariots of the Gods, by Erik Von Daniken (although that was marketed as non-fiction.) It’s a decent premise for a book, and in many ways A Gleam of Light reminded me of Dan Brown’s books, building a story around a race to interpret symbolic messages left by a previous generation. Throw in some action and settings reminiscent of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, and you’ve got the general idea.
But while it’s a decent premise, the Wolfs don’t quite pull it off. The book suffers from a number of structural issues: uneven pacing; exposition disguised as conversation (usually almost monologue) to give background or explanation; coincidences that stretch credulity, solutions to dilemmas that just come a little too easily. I think there is a good adventure story here, and one more rewrite under the guidance of a good developmental editor could have brought it out. As it stands, 2 ½ stars.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.