Utterly Bewildered

Lots of excellent books to read, bookish news to catch up on and newsletters to ponder.

Issue 9, Sunday 14 November 2021

You know the drill by now. Lots of books, so little time…

Bookish News

New and Forthcoming Releases

As usual, I’m only taking a tiny sip from the firehose of new books coming out. But these look particularly interesting to me:

Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Not exactly a new release, since it apparently came out in April. But this has been getting a lot of good reviews and press recently. I love the cover. I’ll probably buy a copy.

A tale of three siblings and three deadly sins. A delight for fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe. King Cador’s children inherit a land abandoned by the Romans, torn by warring tribes. Riva can cure others, but can’t heal her own scars. Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, although born a daughter. And Sinne dreams of love, longing for adventure. All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold, their people’s last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. However, change comes on the day ash falls from the sky - bringing Myrdhin, meddler and magician. The siblings discover the power that lies within them and the land. But fate also brings Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear them apart.

Buy it at Readings.

The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber, David Wengrow

Subtitled “: A New History of Humanity”. Published 1 November 2021.

I’m a sucker for history and in particular the origins of humanity and human society. Looks very interesting, but I can’t afford a hardback, so I’ll probably wait for the paperback or see if the library gets it in.

A breathtakingly ambitious retelling of the earliest human societies offers a new understanding of world history For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike - either free and equal, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a reaction to indigenous critiques of European society, and why they are wrong.

Buy it at Readings.

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

This looks intriguing.

“Juju assassins, alternate history, a gritty New York crime story…in a word: awesome.” —N.K. Jemisin. The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City, where an assassin falls in love and tries to change her fate at the dawn of World War II. Amid the whir of city life, a young woman from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear among its most dangerous denizens.

More details

Other Book News

Booker Prize Winner Announced

Damon Galgut won with his novel The Promise. Nominated previously in 2003 and 2010, this is third time lucky for this South African author

The Promise is set in South Africa during the country’s transition out of apartheid, and explores the interconnected relationships between the members of a diminishing white family through the sequential lens of four funerals. The Promise is Galgut’s ninth novel and first in seven years; his debut was published when he was just seventeen.

It must be extremely good if it beat out Bewilderment by Richard Powers, which I’ve just finished reading and which is astonishingly good.

Atlantic seizes Arnott’s ‘brutal’ coming-of-age novel

I still haven’t read Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron. I have it reserved at my library, though I’m still way down the list. I might buy a copy instead (I only hesitate because my book budget is small, as I’m retired and on a fixed income). Anyway, there’s a new book from him on the way, which also sounds great.

Atlantic has landed Robbie Arnott’s “stunning” third novel Limberlost. The novel is billed as “Ursula Le Guin meets Richard Flanagan in a gorgeous, casually brutal coming-of-age about fathers and sons, the animals we kill and those we care for, and the mysterious gravity of things we don’t understand”.

More details

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

This is the debut novel for this Australian author, and it’s very good. It’s historical fiction, set in China towards the close of the Yuan dynasty in the mid 1300s when China was ruled by its Mongol conquerers.

The book begins in a poor village in the middle of a devastating drought. Many people are starving to death. One of the villagers, whose wife has died, takes his son and daughter to see the local fortune-teller. The fortune teller examines the boy, whose name is Zhu Chongba, and is astonished. “This child has greatness in him… His deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to your family name.” After her father and brother have left, the younger child, the girl, timidly asks the fortune-teller of her own fate. “Nothing,” says the old man.

Nothing. But when her father is killed by bandits and her brother grows listless, refuses to eat, and dies, the girl (whose name we never learn) is determined to seek his lost greatness for herself. Taking on his name and identity and pretending to be a boy, she sets off to walk to a monastery to which her brother had been promised entry as a noviate.

From there, we follow the fate of “Zhu Chongba” as she is trained as a monk (still concealing her gender) and then joining the Rebel Army trying to overthrow the current rulers. Her sharp intelligence and courage leads her from one unlikely step to another to seek the greatness promised to one of that name. She finds herself in continuing bitter conflict with a Yuan general, a eunuch called Ouyang, who is secretly pursuing an agenda of his own.

The story is mostly straight historical fiction, but it does have elements of fantasy. “Zhu Chongba” can see ghosts, for example, and the rebel army locates the Prince of Radiance, a child imbued with a visible spiritual glow—“The Mandate of Heaven”—and who remembers all of his past incarnations.

I liked it a lot, though some of Zhu Chongba’s actions, particularly at the end, are disturbing. Her ruthlessness in pursuit of her stolen fate is rather unsettling.

This, though, is just the first book in a projected trilogy, which I’ll certainly be following up on.

Buy it at Readings.

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

If I haven’t said so before in this newsletter (though I probably have), I really enjoy reading books supposedly for younger readers. As W. H. Auden said:

‘There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children.’

It takes a moment to digest what he’s saying, but ‘there are no good books which are only for children’ is exactly right. A good children’s book is for all ages.

And this is a good book by the author of Mortal Engines.

The island of Wildsea is the most western-most of British islands and its inhabitants are terrified of the open sea, telling frightening tales of a monster called the Gorm who emerges periodically to create devastation. There must always be a Watcher on Wildsea who looks out each evening to spot whether the Hidden Lands—and the Gorm—have arisen again.

Utterly is the adopted child of Andrew Dark, the Watcher of Wildsea, who found her as a baby, he says, washed up on the shore in a wicker basket or coracle. But when Utterly is 11 years old, the body of Andrew Dark is found on the beach, drowned. Andrew’s younger brother, Will, who has been living a loose life in Regency England, is forced to return to Wildsea to take on the role of Watcher. While they wait for his return, young Utterly stands in as Watcher. One night she does indeed see the Hidden Lands. Is the Gorm about to return?

But who is Utterly, really? Where did she come from? And what does the Gorm want? The tale leads in some unexpected directions.

Buy it at Readings.

The Last Castle by Jack Vance

This is a novella rather than a full-length novel, read for an episode of our podcast. We have a semi-regular segment called “The Hugo Time Machine” in which we revisit the Hugo winners and nominees for a particular year. In this case we went back to 1967, when The Last Castle won for Best Novelette (a catch-all category introduced to the Hugos that year, which was for anything longer than a short story but shorter than a novel). It also won the Nebula that year for Best Short Novel.

Set in a far future time when mankind has spread through the Galaxy and the Earth was desolate and abandoned. But seven hundred years ago a small group of humans returned to Earth, bringing with them a number of alien species which have been, you might say domesticated to act as slaves or living machines. These include the Birds, powerful flying creatures of limited intelligence who grumble about being asked to lift humans or freight around; the Peasants, farm workers, the Phanes who are gorgeous creatures reminiscent of female humans; and the Meks, technicians and couriers.

As the story opens, the “Meks” have unexpectedly revolted against the pampered last humans on the planet, and are laying seige to a castle called Janeil, which they break into and destroy, killing all the human inhabitants. Most of the humans are however, too superior and refined to pay much attention to what is happening, right up to the point where they are killed. According to Vance himself, the idea came to him when he read about the history of Japan and the social interactions of a highly formalised society. Superior individuals wouldn’t deign to consider the activities of the common people, the workers; they literally couldn’t conceive of doing so. That’s the case here.

Jack Vance excelled at world-building; or rather, society-building, and this is a great example of that. Very thought-provoking.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

I've literally just finished reading this. So, so good, almost certainly the best book I’m likely to read this year. It was deservedly on the Booker Prize Shortlist and is on this year’s U.S. National Book Awards shortlist. If there was any justice it ought to win the Best Novel Hugo Award next year hands down, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar it doesn’t even get nominated.

Next issue, I promise I’ll do a full review. But the book is so moving and emotionally harrowing, and I’ve finished it so recently, that it’s too soon for me to talk about it at any length. It’s still running around in my head, and will be for days. So moving, so passionate, so relevant to our current situation…

Currently Reading


This is an extremely unusual situation for me, but right at this minute I’m between books. When I read a book as powerful as Bewilderment, I sometimes need a day or two of contemplation before I can consider picking up a different book.

Other Stuff

Presentation on the Standard Ebooks Project

Here’s a link to the YouTube version of a presentation I gave recently at Open Publishing Fest about the Standard Ebooks Project. It runs for just under 20 minutes.

And that’s it for this issue of Through the Biblioscope. Please don’t forget to share it with any of your friends who might be interested.

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