Wednesday, November 30th, 2016
2:49 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Court of Fives by Kate Elliott. A YA novel, the start of a trilogy, which the author describes as, and I quote, “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt”. I had some problems with the book, but come on, how can you not love something with that premise?

In the capital city of Hellenistic Egypt Saryenia, Jessamy is the mixed-race daughter of a Roman Patron general and an Egyptian Commoner woman. However, interracial marriages are illegal, and so Jessamy and her sisters exist in a strange quasi-legal status: raised as proper Patron girls, but with little actual rights or opportunities.

The sisters, by the way, consist of:
-Meg Maraya, the oldest daughter, dutiful and concerned with respectability
-Jo Jessamy herself, an impulsive tomboy who strikes up a close friendship with Laurie Kalliarkos, a handsome and wealthy Patron boy
-Beth Bettany, who doesn't actually appear much on-screen in this first book but is described as "sickly", though in this case it seems to be a way of excusing her rage at their social confinement
-Amy Amaya, pretty and flirtatious and the daughter most likely to make an upperclass marriage

Jessamy's one desire in life is to run the Fives, a complicated obstacle course-like ceremony which holds a similar place in Saryenian society as the gladiatorial games did in Roman life: competitors might die or might become revered celebrities, and everyone comes to watch. Unfortunately proper Patron women are not supposed to participate, and so Jessamy has been forbidden by her family to train – which doesn't actually stop her from doing so.

This is only the set-up for the first hundred or so pages of the book, after which one plot twist follows another so swiftly that it would take an exceedingly long review to cover everything that happens. Throughout there are themes of colonialism, class and race, gender (Commoner society operates as a matriarchy, whereas Patron women are given few rights and expected mainly to be modest and obedient), betrayal, court politics, religion, the writing of history (ie, by the victors), and of course, the inevitable YA love interest. The setting and worldbuilding are incredible, and so many of the ideas in this book were just fantastic and so appealing, the very best sort of fantasy and action fun.

Which is good, because I also had some problems. The biggest was the writing itself; the story is told in first-person present tense, and comes off as more simplistic and shallow than anything I've read by Elliott before. I'm not sure if she was trying to modify her style to appeal to the YA market or what, but when a book has more superficial writing than The Hunger Games (its obvious archetype), it's pretty bad. Related to this, the characterization and relationships, particularly with that Love Interest, tend toward the one-dimensional. Finally, the whole premise of the Court of Fives never really worked for me; I couldn't help but find it a bit silly to read so much drama and emotional weight given to America Ninja Warrior, Fantasy Egypt Style. Though an interview with the author included in the back of the book, about the importance of Title IX and women athletes to her life, was quite touching and justified the idea a bit more.

Ultimately I loved it and will absolutely be reading the sequels, but I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. The fun parts for me outweighed the bad writing, but that's simply not going to be true of everyone.

The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak. A novel set in contemporary Indonesia, but centered around the retelling of a myth from the Mahabharata (one of India's two great epics, which is also hugely important across much of southeast Asia):

Once upon a time, there were three princesses who were sisters: Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika. It was intended that they should marry King Salva, but before they could do so, they were abducted by the famous warrior Bhishma, who carried them away in his chariot (this being an accepted way of getting a wife, at least in stories). Bhishma didn't want to marry them himself, but gave the princesses to the king he served. However, Amba refused and went back to Salva. Salva wouldn't accept her, saying that she was now another man's leavings. So Amba goes back to Bhishma and says that he has to marry her, because he's the one who won her. Bhishma refuses since he'd taken a life-long vow of chastity.

Enraged, Amba becomes a hermit in the forest and devotes the rest of her life to prayers and penances, asking the gods for Bhishma's destruction, since she blames him for ruining her life. Her wish was granted, and she was reborn as Shikhandi, a girl who transformed into a man and became a warrior. Many years later, Bhishma and Shikhandi face each other on opposite sides of a huge war, and Shikhandi participates in Bhishma's death.

In The Question of Red, this is reimagined as the story of Amba, a middle-class girl from a small town on Java who becomes a college student majoring in English Literature; Salwa, the perfect fiance her parents arrange for her; and Bhisma, the doctor from East Germany she falls in love with. The book has a nonlinear structure, opening in 2006 with the image of a middle-aged Amba weeping on the grave of a long-lost Bhisma, then jumping back to her childhood in the 50s and their meeting in the 60s, and forward and backward multiple times after that. Although the focus is always on Amba's personal life, the backdrop consists of large-scale political events: an attempted coup by the Communist Party on September 30, 1965; the subsequent backlash against communists and their allies which led to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people killed; the imprisonment and forced labor of political dissidents in exile on the island of Buru throughout the 1970s; and violent sectarian clashes between Christian and Muslim groups in the late 1990s. I admit that I know practically nothing about Indonesian history, and so this was all new information to me that I frequently found more interesting than Amba's individual story. Which is not the book's fault, but my own for coming to it without the expected background of knowledge. Pamuntjak has clearly done tons of research, and in an afterword describes how she used interviews and personal stories to flesh out her depiction of the prison on Buru in particular.

Unfortunately the book is probably longer than it needs to be, and dragged for me in a few places. But overall it's lyric, romantic, and very well-done. It's not what I expected from the premise, but I'm glad that it exposed me to this history, which I really should learn more about.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells. The last one of the Books of the Raksura series! D: Well, the last one published so far. Plus I still have the short stories to look forward to.

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Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016
4:10 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Hillstation by Robin Mukherjee. In a small village in the Indian Himalayas, a young man named Rabindra prays and prays for an English bride, who he thinks will rescue him from his boring, small-scale life. Because despite being set in the modern day (presumably? I had a hard time figuring out what time period this was supposed to be in, but a character mentions CDs at one point, so I think it can't be earlier than the 90s), his village is extremely traditional. Every person is named after a deity and expected to embody that god or goddess's attributes. There are no movies, no TVs, no pop music, no cellphones, and the villagers apparently don't even know how to work a landline:
‘Where’s the nearest phone?’ asked Hendrix.
‘There are no telephones here,’ said Mr Chatterjee after a short silence. ‘Since anybody wishing to talk to anyone else has only to walk a few yards to find them. If they’re not at work or at home, they’ll be in the shops or at the bus stop. In any case, by the time you’ve found them you’ll have told any number of people on the way, so they would have most likely heard it from somebody else anyway.’
‘That’s if anyone’s listening,’ snickered someone unkindly.
‘There is such a thing,’ said Sergeant Shrinivasan, ‘in my office in the police station. It is a device of a peculiar shape with the word “Telephone” written on it.’
‘Does it work?’ said Mr Aptalchary, slightly shocked.
‘Extremely well,’ said the Sergeant, ‘in that its primary purpose is to stop piles of paper fluttering about when the window is open.’
‘But what else does it do?’ said Mike, perking up.
‘I am not sure,’ said the Sergeant. ‘But once a year or so it produces a terrible jangling noise that makes me jump out of my seat. In fact, one afternoon I accidentally knocked the top bit from the bottom thing and a ghostly voice called out.’ The Sergeant clutched his medals, a frequent symptom, for him, of remembered anxiety.
‘What did it say?’ asked Hendrix.
‘Hello, hello, is anybody there?’ recalled the Sergeant, shuddering.

To give Mukherjee the benefit of the doubt, he seems not to be attempting to be authentic in any way, but means to give the story the feel of a fairy-tale or a quirky Wes Anderson movie. Still, it put me off from the first pages, since all I could think was how incredibly un-Indian the setting was. It reminded me a bit of Life of Pi (note: I didn't like Life of Pi, so that's not a compliment).

Anyway, Rabindra's prayers are answered when a troupe of English dancers arrives in his small village due to a series of accidents and miscommunications. Convinced that at least one of them must be his fated true love, he attempts to attach himself to them; the dancers, of course, have no interest in getting married. Culture clash ensues. Over the course of the book the village is thrown into upheaval, secrets are revealed, friendships tested, and Rabindra proves to be worth more than he ever realized.

It's all told in a very light-hearted way, more interested in comedic effect than realism. That's fine and pleasant for the first hundred pages or so, but the tone clashes badly with some late plot developments, including attempted self-immolation, a depiction of casteism (a scene which, in addition to fitting badly with the humor, reads like Mukherjee once heard that caste exists in India and proceeded to learn nothing more), and some rather graphic violence.

Clearly this sort of modern myth (tinge of magic? check! moralistic ending? check! implausible setting contrived mainly to reify the reader's more industrialized/globalized/stressful home? check!) appeals to someone, because otherwise people wouldn't keep writing, filming, and selling them, but whoever the audience is, it's not me.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett. Hey, remember when I was rereading the Discworld series? I gotta get back to that. And so here we are at book #16, in which Death, unable to move past his grief for his adopted daughter and son-in-law, quits his job and goes on a world trip to learn how to forget. Unfortunately someone has to fill the job of moving souls along, and Death's sixteen-year-old granddaughter Susan gets sucked into the role despite her determination to be unsuperstitious, logical, and never silly. Meanwhile, a trio of musicians consisting of a human named Imp y Celyn (Welsh for "Bud of the Holly"), a horn-playing dwarf, and a troll dummer invent rock'n'roll Music With Rocks In, upset the order of the Discworld, and have to choose between burning out young and famous or living long but obscure lives. In yet a third plot thread, the elderly wizards of the Unseen University become huge rock fans, try to discover the origin of this new magical sound, and proceed to act like rebellious teenagers.

To be honest, Soul Music has never been my favorite of the Death books. I think I'm not familiar enough with classic rock of the 50s through the 80s to get many of the references, and the "regular human has to take over Death's job" plot is quite similar to Mort, though I like it better there. But for all that, it's still a Discworld book, which means the standard of comparison is incredibly high. Susan is a fantastic new character, there are tons of funny lines, and the image of the Dean in leather robes with 'BORN TO RUNE' studded on the back is one that has stuck with me for years. It's hard to ask for more than that.

What are you currently reading?
Court of Five by Kate Elliott. I had a two-day long migraine this week, and needed something that was A) on paper, and not a screen, and B) very comforting. Luckily I bought this last month, and it very much fits the bill!

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Wednesday, November 16th, 2016
3:27 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
A Very Pukka Murder by Arjun Gaind. A mystery novel, the first in a planned series, set in a Princely State in India in 1909. When the English Resident is found murdered by poison on New Year's Day, the Maharaja Sikander Singh decides to investigate it himself – but soon discovers that the problem is too many suspects, as nearly everyone had reason to want the Resident dead. But that's just fine with Sikander, as he likes nothing better than a really complicated puzzle.

Let me step back for a moment to explain the setting, as I'm not sure how well-known it is. In 1857, India officially became a colony of Britain, but there were exceptions: states that remained technically independent and continued to be ruled by their hereditary leaders. These became known as the Princely States; some of the best known are Kashmir, Hyderabad, and Travancore. Because they were surrounded on all sides by British India, tended to be small, and were hemmed in by increasingly restrictive treaties (such as, for example, forbidding them to maintain armies or produce weapons), their actual independence was extremely semi-.

In addition, the Princely States had to maintain a British Resident, who would live in the state's capital and was technically responsible for the alliance between British India and the state, but who was often resented and said to take on a much greater role, essentially usurping all government functions and leaving the local rulers with nothing to do. As a result of this, the cliche of the ruler of a Princely State is one of decadence and ennui, as he wastes large amounts of money pursuing affairs with European women, gambling, or in weird art projects, anything to distract himself from boredom. As you may imagine, this is not really all that accurate of a picture, but it's the stereotype Sikander is playing on, and so I mention it.

"Pukka", by the way, means "good", "real", "proper"; a pukka house is one built of brick and stone instead of hastily-thrown up shack. And so a pukka murder is one that's well-done and hard to solve.

Anyway, back to the book! The whole tone is a bit melodramatic, in the style of a early 1900s adventure novel, which I didn't see as a fault. Sikander is vastly intelligent with imposing features; bad guys are craven and ugly; women are beautiful temptresses, if somewhat flighty; Sikhs and Gurkhas are huge and martial; servants are cringing and stupid. There's even the requisite scene where Sikander gathers everyone together at the end and explains how he figured out who did it! (Not the butler, alas.) It's not exactly deep, but it can be a lot of fun if you're in the mood for it. And I mostly was, though I have to confess I was left with a bad taste in my mouth regarding the treatment of women (very James-Bond-esque) and Sikander's reaction when a character was revealed to be secretly gay. I suppose it's all fairly accurate to the time period, but it wasn't the sort of thing I wanted in my light reading, at least not this week.

I found it fairly easy to predict who would turn out to be the murderer, but that didn't reduce my pleasure in following along with Sikander's investigation, which mostly consisted of a series of interviews with various people. It was a thorough depiction of how society functioned in this place and time, particularly in regards to British-Indian relations. It's a nice enough book and a great idea for a series, but unfortunately for me the problems overshadowed most of its good qualities.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Siren Depths by Martha Wells. #3 in the Books of the Raksura series, and definitely my favorite (so far!). Moon and the rest of the court of Indigo Cloud have settled down after the adventures of the previous two books, and Moon and his mate Jade are focused on finally producing children – though it seems to be taking longer than it should, long enough that Moon fears he's infertile and therefore Jade will choose a new mate. This is further complicated when word comes that Moon's long-lost biological family have finally been discovered... and they want Moon back. With no other choice, Jade and the rest of Indigo Cloud agree to send Moon to this new, distant court, where he must once again survive alone, adapt to new customs, and hope that someone wants him. Plus there's a battle with the Fell, the evil warrior race with mysterious ties to the Raksura, because of course there is.

If I'd asked for more emotion in the previous books, this one absolutely provided it. There's Moon afraid to be alone, Moon missing the relationships he built while at Indigo Cloud, and an abundance of excitement and happiness as well. I loved all the emotional H/C. The plot was also much more of a page-turner in this book than the others, and I had trouble putting it down; the final confrontation in particular was genuinely scary.

These books are fantasy, but I was struck while reading this one how much they feel like science-fiction, particularly anthropological SF by writers like Le Guin or Cherryh; there's just so much attention to building the cultures of multiple different species, with all the rules and history and exceptions that entails, and then further complicating it by having different groups interact. It's fantasy written by someone who really loves ethnography. This little scene, as Moon tells about his travels, made me laugh out loud:
So he told them about the Deshar in the hanging city of Zenna, and their elaborate social customs that made passing through the place so difficult for visitors. Predictably, everyone wanted to hear more about the Deshar’s attitudes about sex, which were as baffling to the other Raksura as they had been to Moon at the time.
“So if they have sex without this ceremony first, they can’t have it again?” Bone said, scratching the scar around his neck thoughtfully. He was clearly having trouble following this strange brand of logic.
Moon tried to explain. “Sort of. You can only have sex with your permanent mate, and you can’t have a permanent mate without the ceremony, and if you have sex before the ceremony, nobody wants to be your permanent mate.”
Bark frowned. “But do they have to have a permanent mate?” Except for queens and consorts, Raksura usually didn’t.
“If they want babies. If you have a baby with anybody but a permanent mate, it’s bad. For you and the baby.” The idea that offspring might be unwanted was hard for Raksura to understand as well. Queens and Arbora only clutched when they wanted to, and there were always teachers to take care of the babies or fledglings.
“But how do the others know if someone’s had sex?” Chime protested. “How can they tell? If they have sex without the ceremony, shouldn’t they just keep quiet about it?”
“Do they change color when they have sex?” Balm asked thoughtfully.
“No. They just seemed to know.” Moon admitted, “I never figured that part out.”

And in this book, as in the previous ones, this is further extended into some absolutely gorgeous and imaginative set-pieces: a city tunneled throughout a statue built into the side of a cliff, an enormous underwater palace, hundreds of human-sized creatures swarming inside a huge biological sac.

A great read. I am loving this series, and thank you to everyone who recommended it to me!

What are you currently reading?
Hillstation by Robin Mukherjee, which I think is trying for a charming fairy-tale feel to the writing, but which is unfortunately coming across as twee and childish instead.

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Wednesday, November 9th, 2016
5:13 pm - Reading Wednesday
Today is not a good day. I found last night's election shocking and heartbreaking, but I'm sure anyone reading this is not surprised by that. I don't have a lot to say about it, really. We can wait and see, we can prepare, we can grieve, but that's all self-evident. What is there to say?

Since it's not like I'm doing any other writing today, I suppose I might as well do this:

What did you just finish?
Restless Spirits by Jordan L. Hawk. A m/m romance combined with the story of a haunted house in the late Victorian age! Henry Strauss witnessed his family fall into debt and dismay due to the scams of fake mediums, and so has invented a machine that should replace the human element of summoning and exorcising spirits. Vincent Night is a medium haunted by the fact that, while possessed by a spirit, he murdered his mentor and father-figure. Together they are summoned to a haunted mansion in rural upstate New York for a contest of science vs Spiritualism: whoever can prove their methods more effective will win $500 and bragging rights, prizes which both men desperately need.

I really loved the idea of this, and the combination of Spiritualism and steampunk-ish gadgets worked very well. The worldbuilding was fantastic and could have held up a much longer book, the haunting was creepy and complex, and there was a good range of secondary characters. I was also impressed with the book's diversity; Vincent is Native American, Henry's cousin/assistant is a black woman, and another character is a transwoman, who is treated with a great deal of respect by the narrative.

The part I was least interested in, unfortunately, was the romance. It's not that I didn't like Henry and Vincent, or didn't think they had chemistry! It's just that while reading I felt a little like, "Wow, this crazy thing just happened with the ghost! Oh, I guess now we're pausing for a sex scene. If we must." The romance simply wasn't as compelling or as unique as the haunting storyline.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma by Ratika Kapur. The story of a middle-class wife in modern Delhi, who is absolutely determined to see herself as perfectly normal, even as her circumstances get more and more out of control. The book is told in first-person present-tense, and Mrs Sharma's voice is absolutely gripping, making it very hard to stop reading. Here she is describing herself:
Still, I know that I have to be careful not to take a wrong step. That is why I always say to Bobby, Watch your step. Watch each and every step you take. People will tell you to walk holding your head up high, but I think that you have to keep your eyes on the ground and watch where you put your foot. We hear it on the train daily, Mind the gap. When you get on to the train, Mind the gap. When you get off the train, Mind the gap.
My name is Mrs Renuka Sharma. I am thirty-seven years of age and a married lady. I am a respectable married lady who hails from a good family, and I have a child and a respectable job, and a mother-in-law and father-in-law. I am not a schoolgirl, and even when I was a schoolgirl, when I was Miss Renuka Mishra, even then I actually never did the types of things that other girls of my age did. There was no bunking school to meet a boy, or notes or love letters exchanged, or phone calls in the darkness when the grown ups were sleeping. And it was not that I could not catch the attention of the boys loitering around me. Actually, I was quite a pretty girl, quite a clever, pretty girl, and I don’t like to boast, but the truth is that I did break some hearts in the boys’ school on the opposite side of the road. Still, I think that I knew at that time, just like I know now, that such foolishness is timewaste.

Mrs Sharma's husband, like many Indians these days, is away working in Dubai, where he can earn more money than if he had remained in India. This has left her as the sole parent of their teenage son Bobby who, despite Mrs Sharma's deeply-held ambition to see him with a MBA working in an office, is more interested in drinking with his friends and learning to be a chef. Mrs Sharma strikes up a friendship with Vineet, a man her own age with whom she is at first only interested in finding platonic friendship. At first. Vineet proves to have a very different goal. As matters progress between her and Vineet, she finds more and more convoluted ways of maintaining her self-perception as a 'respectable woman', until it all finally erupts into disaster.

The ending felt too abrupt for me, and though I do think it works thematically, I still would have loved to see some of the repercussions play out. Ultimately though, this was an excellent book, and I am eager to read more by Kapur.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch. The long-awaited sixth book in the Rivers of London series, in which Peter Grant, a young mixed-race cop in London, discovers that magic, fairies, and ghosts are real, and ends up being recruited as England's only apprentice wizard. In this book, Lady Ty (the goddess of the river Tyburn) calls in a favor Peter owes her, asking him to keep her daughter's name out of the police investigation into a death by drug overdose at a party for rich teens. Peter, of course, does no such thing, and what seems like a simple accident soons turns out to involve lost manuscripts written by Isaac Newton, a secret tradition of female wizards, Reynard the fox (currently working as a low-level crook), and, of course, the Faceless Man (Peter's nemesis) and Lesley (Peter's former partner who seems to have joined the forces of evil).

This book was pretty heavily a case story, without much page time for other developments or character moments. I missed such scenes and particularly would have liked to see more Molly and Beverly (though what we do get of Bev is adorable and I really enjoyed it). On the other hand, Guleed plays a major role, which was great, and I really enjoyed some of the new characters (Dr Jennifer Vaughan and Caroline were my standouts).

In truth, I prefer the Rivers of London audiobooks to reading them, which is pretty much the only series I can say that about. But Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is just so absolutely fantastic at capturing Peter's voice that the written word loses something in comparison. This time I read the book because I wanted to be able to keep up with the fandom, but I am looking forward to eventually checking out the audio version as well.

What are you currently reading?
A Very Pukka Murder by Arjun Gaind. A light-hearted mystery novel set in 1909 India.

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Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016
3:43 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Monstrous Affections by David Nickle. A collection of short stories by one of my favorite horror authors. There are some appearances by standard horror monsters in here (vampires, ghosts, wendigo, serial killers, and a quite interesting role for the Cyclops out of Greek mythology), but this collection is mostly characterized by the unusually literary-fiction quality of the writing, where the horror or its explanation is not always self-evident and can take some reflection. Which is not to say that they're not scary! Nickle does an excellent job of establishing a creepy atmosphere, and there's some images in these stories that will linger with me for a long time.

I was also impressed by the diversity of writing styles demonstrated in these stories. "Janie and the Wind" and "The Delilah Party" both have neuroatypical narrators, and Nickle does an excellent job of capturing their voices. "Swamp Witch and the Tea-drinking Man" has a oral folklore quality that's quite distinct from the rest of the collection.

Some of my other favorite stories:
"The Sloan Men". A woman goes to visit her future in-laws, but slowly realizes that her boyfriend is not quite human and has been mind-controlling her into a relationship.
"Night of the Tar Baby". A spell that attacks anyone who expresses anger is set loose in an extremely dysfunctional family.
"The Mayor Will Make a Brief Statement and Then Take Questions". This very short story (only two pages) strongly reminded me of the best of Welcome to Night Vale, though it's darker in tone.
"The Inevitability of Earth". A man tries to follow his grandfather in learning to fly, but it requires cutting all ties to earth and human relationships.
"Polyphemus' Cave". Set in the 1930s, a gay closeted Hollywood star returns to his small hometown after his father's death, and encounters the strange circus who might have been responsible.

Wild Fell by Michael Rowe. A horror novel in three parts, centered around the gothic mansion of Wild Fell, a huge isolated house built on a small island in the northernmost section of Lake Ontario. In the first part, set in the 1960s, two teenagers on a nearby beach drown horribly. In the second, Jamie, a young boy in 1970s Ottawa, speaks to his reflection in mirrors, naming this imaginary friend Amanda. But he slowly starts to suspect that Amanda might be real, and might have terrible intentions. Finally, in the modern day the middle-aged Jamie comes into a windfall of money and spontaneously buys a house – which, of course, turns out to be Wild Fell itself. From that point on, all the typical haunted house tropes come into play.

This was a moderately well-done book. The three sections don't always fit well together, and the creepiest parts are undoubtedly in the two earlier ones; the final confrontation with the house is both fairly predictable and ends far too abruptly. There's also a long passage between parts two and three detailing Jamie's early adulthood, his failed marriage, and his father's struggles with Alzheimer's, which is all well-written but doesn't seem to have much to do with the rest of the book or have any real point. There's some interesting stuff with gender going on, but it doesn't ultimately come to any conclusion – though on the other hand, I guess it is kinda neat that the narrator's best friend can be a butch lesbian without that being a big deal. There's also an ambiguous twist ending (ambiguous in the "is it real or not?" sense) that didn't quite work for me, but at least it was an ambitious attempt.

Ah, well. It's not an awful book, by any means, but there's so many other haunted house books out there that it's easy to find a better one.

What are you currently reading?
Restless Spirits by Jordan L. Hawk. I've got a few more chapters to go before finishing this, and then that will be the end of my Halloween reads until next year. Goodbye, scary stories!

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Friday, October 28th, 2016
3:44 pm - Halloween 2016: Let Your Devils Sing
It's Halloween! My very favorite holiday. Or, well, it will be Halloween, in a few days, and why restrict the best holiday to a mere 24 hours? As is sort-of tradition (but which I mean I always intend to do this, but only actually manage it about half the time), I've put together a mix of scary music. This year's theme is the Devil, with the musical genres being folk and indie folk.

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Wednesday, October 26th, 2016
5:42 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet. A historical epistolary novel about a triple murder in rural Scotland in 1868. The vast majority (I'd guess 85%) of the novel is the 'memoirs' of the murderer, written while he was in prison, which explain his life story and the circumstances that led to him doing the deed. Another 10% are newspaper reports of the trial, with the final 5% consisting of statements from witnesses and the medical report on the bodies.

All of this is fairly straightforward and, though well-written on a sentence by sentence level, there's nothing to make it stand out from the herd. Usually when I read about historical crime, the author uses the specific incident in question to illustrate some larger point about society or history or the treatment of the victim or whatever, any reason to make it worth rehashing a terrible crime. (Most of these books have been non-fiction, but I would argue that being fictional just makes it all the more important to have a reason for the gore.) Burnet does not do that. I suppose there's vaguely an acknowledgement that it sucked balls to be a tenant farmer in the 19th century, but I'm pretty sure that's a point anyone literate already knows, and which Burnet does not expand on or add depth to in any way. Near the end of the book there's an attempt to question the nature of sanity (the trial hinges not on the question of guilt, but on if the murderer was aware of the consequences of his actions), but not in a way that's particularly compelling or unique. It's certainly not enough to justify the preceding hundreds of pages.

In short, this isn't a terrible book, but there's nothing outstanding or memorable about it, and I am absolutely astounded that it's been nominated for the 2016 Man Booker prize. I'm all for genre writing getting more literary attention, but there's so many better books than this!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Seance by John Harwood. A historical novel set in late Victorian England, which makes excellent use of all the best Victorian horror tropes: the ghosts of monks, creepy suits of armor, seances and spiritualism, hypnosis, mysterious paintings, handsome suitors of uncertain origin, secret passageways, swapped babies (or at least the terrifying possibility of unknown parentage and hidden real origins), and, of course, the biggest and best-known of them all, the haunted gothic mansion.

The plot is a bit of a story within a story: in the 1880s, we have Constance, the only surviving child of the Langton family. Her mother has been lost in grief ever since the death of Constance's younger sister twelve years ago. Constance stumbles upon the idea of helping her mother heal by taking her to seances, despite Constance's own knowledge that they're nothing more than frauds; this seems to go well at first, but ultimately has terrible consequences.

Meanwhile, Constance inherits Wraxford Hall and a bundle of papers written in the 1860s, telling the story of Eleanor, the then-mistress of the Hall, and her husband's abuse. Shortly after these papers were written, Eleanor, her husband, and their infant daughter all mysteriously disappeared in the same way as a previous owner of the hall. The popular opinion is that Eleanor murdered her husband and child before running away, but Constance is determined to clear her name – even if it means she herself must travel to Wraxford Hall and explore its grounds.

I have such mixed feelings about this book! The middle was fantastic – absolutely gripping, such a page-turner that I stayed up until 3 a.m. desperate to see what happened next and how the mystery would resolve. The writing does a fantastic job of being reminiscent of the Victorian style without losing the benefit of actually being modern. The characters are well-sketched and compelling (with surprisingly sensitive attention to the plight of women in a world where they have very few options, given that the author is male), the setting is deliciously creepy, the tension is incredibly well-done.

But here's the rub: the ultimate solution to the mystery didn't work for me. It's a frequent problem in stories – especially horror stories – for the question to be more compelling than the answer, but this was more than that. The ending felt too pat to be satisfying at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I came across traces and clues that simply didn't fit; not red herrings and not plot holes, but what I suspect are the traces of earlier drafts, when there was a different resolution. I don't know if that's actually what happened, of course, but the more time I spent puzzling over why it didn't work, the more flaws I saw, right down to the very structure of the book (the seances with Constance's mother in the beginning don't match well to the later parts of the book, characters abruptly drop out of the narrative without explanation, Constance leaps to conclusions that don't really make sense given what she knows, etc). And yet for all these problems, that middle section was some of the most compelling horror I've read in ages.

Ultimately I'd still recommend it, but oh! If only it had gone through a few more rounds of rewriting. It could have been so good.

Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters. A temporary pause in my horror read for Amelia Peabody #4! (I've been reading this series with my mom, which is why my progress through the books is so staggered and random.) Amelia, her husband Emerson, and 8-year-old son Ramses return to Egypt for an excavation, but before they can even reach their site Kalenischeff (a minor bad guy from the previous book) is murdered, with the blame falling onto Enid Debenham, his girlfriend/an heiress/a young Englishwoman Amelia is convinced could never be guilty, despite the fact that she's never even met Enid. The Emersons therefore adopt Enid as part of their party, along with a young Englishman going by the name "Nemo" who is busy pretending to be an Egyptian beggar and destroying his life through opium addiction – at least until Amelia makes reforming him her current pet project.

The mystery of Kalenischeff's murder doesn't actually get much page time, to the extent that it's hardly fair to call this a "mystery" novel, rather than whatever genre "madcap antics plus parody of crime tropes" is. The majority of the plot is taken up with the Emersons' efforts to keep Enid and Nemo hidden from the police, and Amelia's determination to investigate the bad guy from the previous book, whom she has nicknamed the M.C. (Master Criminal) since she still has no clue as to his real identity. The Master Criminal seems equally obsessed with her, sending her presents, visiting her in disguise, and doing everything he can to catch her attention – in short, he's in love with her. Amelia remains oblivious to this until they finally meet face to face, in what is absolutely the most hilarious scene in the book – though there's a lot of competition. I particularly liked this one, when Ramses realizes he's developing a crush on Enid:
A hideous premonition crept through my limbs. I had not failed to observe the tolerance with which Ramses permitted Enid to pet and caress him. It was a liberty he did not allow strangers unless he had some ulterior motive, and I had naturally assumed he had an ulterior motive with regard to Enid—that, in short, he hoped to win her confidence by pretending to be a normal eight-year-old boy. Now, hearing the earnest and anxious tone in his voice, I began to have horrible doubts. Surely it was much too soon – But if Ramses proved to be as precocious in this area as he had been in others.... The prospects were terrifying. I felt a cowardly reluctance to pursue the inquiries I knew I ought to make, but the traditional Peabody fortitude stiffened my will.
"Why did you allow Enid to embrace you today?" I asked.
"I am glad you asked me that, Mama, for it leads me into a subject I am anxious to discuss with you. I was conscious today of a most unusual sensation when Miss Debenham put her arms around me. In some ways it resembled the affectionate feelings I have for you and, to a lesser extent, for Aunt Evelyn. There was, however, an additional quality. I was at a loss to find words for it until I recalled certain verses by Mr. Keats—I refer in particular to his lyric poem 'The Eve of St. Agnes,' which aroused—"
"Good Gad," I cried in agonized tones.
Emerson, naive creature, chuckled in amusement. "My dear boy, your feelings are quite normal, I assure you. They are the first childish stirrings of sensations which will in time blossom and mature into the noblest sentiments known to mankind."
"So I surmised," said Ramses. "And that is why I wished to discuss the matter with you. Since these are normal, natural sensations, I ought to know more about them."
"But, Ramses," his father began, belatedly aware of where the conversation was leading.
"I believe I have heard Mama say on several occasions that the relationships between the sexes were badly mishandled in our prudish society, and that young persons ought to be informed of the facts."
"You did hear me say that," I acknowledged, wondering what had ever possessed me to say it in his hearing.
"I am ready to be informed," said Ramses, his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands, and his great eyes fixed on me.
"I cannot deny the justice of the request," I said. "Emerson—"
"What?" Emerson started violently. "Now, Peabody—"
"Surely this is a matter more suitable for a father than a mother."
"Yes, but—"
"I will leave you to it, then." I rose.
"Just a moment, Papa," Ramses said eagerly. "Allow me to get out paper and pencil. I would like to take a few notes."

A fantastically funny book, without much concern with realism or logic. This series continues to be one of my favorites.

What are you currently reading?
Monstrous Affections by David Nickle. A book of short stories by one of my favorite horror authors.

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Thursday, October 20th, 2016
4:50 pm - Reading Wed – Thursday
What did you just finish?
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. This is one of those books that starts out revealing nothing, forcing readers to slowly piece together what is happening through the gradual accumulation of clues. Even the main character's backstory is not revealed until near the end. Which can be a fun reading experience, but makes it extremely difficult to write about the book.

Here's what I can say without spoilers: Ricky Rice, small-time criminal and occasional heroin addict, works as a janitor for a bus station in upstate New York. One day he gets a letter in a handwriting he doesn't recognize, with a one-way ticket to Vermont and the message, You made promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it. Considering that he made that promise to a dead man and has never told anyone else about it, Ricky is understandably mystified.

The plot that follows involves cults, faith vs doubt, paranormal activity, oracles, terrorist activity, the downtrodden of modern America, the desire to belong, babies, creatures who might be monsters or might be angels, lots of elaborate descriptions of clothing, and troubled family relationships. I would not describe it as a horror novel, though I'd seen other people putting it in that category (which is why I included it in my reading this month). It's literary fiction with a slight tinge of the mystical.

The writing – in Ricky's first-person voice, aware that he's speaking to an audience – is very appealing, funny and eloquent and ironic. I do think Lavalle has interesting things to say about the anger of the oppressed, and how to deal with those who have been left out of the American Dream. Here's a passage that particularly struck me:
People like us, poor folks I mean, we're wise in some ways but in others we act like children. We can be a pretty docile bunch. I know you're not supposed to say that, but for proof just go to any hospital emergency room in a broke neighborhood, I'm talking anywhere. We slump and slouch for hours as we wait to be seen by a nurse practitioner, and a trained doctor is as rare as health benefits at our jobs. It might take five or six hours just to get some antibiotics, and the only way we're going to get seen any faster is if we've been filled with bullets. Even then it's going to take an hour.
We sit through treatment like that in hospitals and banks, at supermarkets and check cashing stores. No matter where you go, the poor have the capacity to endure. Some people even compliment us on it, as if endurance is all we can achieve.
The picture of the poor is usually of one wild, chaotic lot. Loud, combative, quick to complain, but that isn't so, not in my experience. Just dip into that emergency room and watch every tired face; we've been there for half a day and have yet to receive treatment. Most will only heave and sigh, that's the extent of our rebellion. The poor are poor and we expect to stay that way. We don't like it, but what can you do? That's our attitude. The poor aren't defeated, we're domesticated.

But that's really all the book has going for it. Such ideas are little nuggets of gold, scattered throughout a lot of dirt. Even the very structure of the book is terribly warped. The opening and middle sections are extremely, extremely slow-burn, almost more a depiction of a specific life than an action plot. That would be fine on its own, but the final section then explodes in twists and murders and shocking revelations and we-have-to-save-the-world type dramatics, and it just doesn't quite work. There's not enough payoff, or build-up, or something, and nothing feels balanced. Themes come and go, making it difficult to know what the point of anything is, or who to root for. There is something of good here, but it's almost lost in a book that needed several more rounds of reworking.

Oh, well. I was disappointed by this book, but I still like Lavalle enough as an author to seek out more.

The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike. Translated from Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Another horror read for October, possibly my favorite so far – or at least, while the others have had many and varied positive qualities of their own, Graveyard Apartment has by far been the scariest.

A small family (Misao, the mother; Teppei, the father; and Tamao, their five year old daughter) in Tokyo have found what seems to be the perfect apartment: cheap, large, sunny, easy commute, good school nearby, etc. Of course there's always a catch, and in this case it happens to be that the apartment building is surrounded on three sides by a graveyard, crematorium, and funeral temple. Nonetheless they move in, and creepy things slowly begin to happen, as in any good ghost story. These new problems are exacerbated by the tensions already simmering within the family: their strained relationship with Teppei's brother and his wife, and the fact that Misao and Teppei's relationship began as an affair which drove Teppei's first wife to suicide, whose ghost (metaphorically this time!) still haunts them.

The writing is a bit stilted (though I have no idea whether to blame the author or the translator), but nonetheless it manages to do an excellent job of conveying creepy tingles. There were definitely several scenes that I regretted reading on my own late at night. Unfortunately I felt the scariest parts were in the middle of the book; the ending didn't manage an equal impact. Possibly this was because the author shifts focus from the graveyard to an "underground road" (a forgotten tunnel near the apartment left behind by a long-ago construction project), which she seemed to find an inherently terrifying idea, but which left me cold. Graveyards are way scarier than empty tunnels!

Despite that, the book had an excellent sense of atmosphere and some truly scary scenes. I recommend it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Another horror novel! This one is about a murder in 1880s rural Scotland.

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Thursday, October 13th, 2016
4:55 pm - Brief Notes
* I keep forgetting to post about this, but there's a Count of Monte Cristo read-along going on! There's a whole collection of people reading it, but I've been keeping to the speed of the FFA readalong (central post here), which means I'm only up to Chapter 11. It's not too late to join! Chapter 11 represents about 10% of the way through, so you can easily catch up.

I'm very familiar with the general story of the Count of Monte Cristo, having seen several movie versions, the Wishbone episode, and Gankutsuou (the space opera AU anime, yes, this is a real thing that exists and is surprisingly faithful to the story, to the best of my knowledge), but I've never actually read it before. I've been told there are a lot of cool things in the unabridged version that usually get left out, including runaway lesbians, so I'm excited for that.

* Today I saw The Girl on the Train, which was fairly good. I found it neither as confusing nor as dumb as I'd been warned, but I can't say it's my favorite movie of the month either. I'd recommend it, but only if you have a particular interest in thrillers. Mainly I saw it because I need to do anything that involves a lot of sitting, because:

* Tuesday evening I had foot surgery, although that sounds way too dramatic for the reality of the experience – I sat in a chair for 10 minutes while a doctor cut off a mole that looked suspicious and stitched up the hole. They sent me home with the promise that I should be able to get around normally, if a bit slow and sore. Instead I woke up Wednesday with my foot swollen horribly and have since been unable to put any weight on it at all. Since I otherwise feel fine, I can get around short distances by hopping, but that limits my activities, as I'm sure you can imagine. I tried a cane! ... the cane did not help. It turns out you still need to be able to balance briefly on the injured foot to use a cane. I need a crutch, but I keep thinking that I'll be better soon, and I don't really want to buy one to use for only 6 hours before it becomes unnecessary. We'll see how I feel tomorrow.

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Wednesday, October 12th, 2016
7:41 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Deadlight Jack by Mark Onspaugh. Jimmy Kalmaku and George Watters are best friends, but neither one is the typical horror novel hero. They're both in their seventies, Jimmy is a Tlingit man from a small village in Alaska, and George is a black man from Georgia. They first met and became friends in a nursing home, in the previous book. I didn't actually realize that this was the second book in a series when I started reading it, but I had no problem following along.

Jimmy and George's quiet life is disrupted when George's grandson goes missing while hiking with his mothers in a Louisiana swamp (his parents are a lesbian couple, which was treated with such amazing nonchalance that I actually didn't notice the first few references and had to go back and check. I don't know if it was a bigger deal in the first book, but I loved how normal and unremarkable it was treated here). George is determined to save his grandchild, but he first has to deal with his estranged children and the lost memories of his own childhood. The boy turns out to have been called away by Deadlight Jack, aka Professor Foxfire, a monstrous creature who dresses like a circus ringmaster and has the face of whatever kindly man the onlooker prefers. He controls the will-o-the-wisps, the ghosts of alligators, and fire-setting salamanders. He lures away small children, leading them to wander the swamp until they fade away into ghosts hungry for blood and life. There's elements of real folklore here – bits and pieces of various urban legends – but combined into a new whole that made for a fantastic villain.

The writing reminded me a lot of Stephen King, as well as the way the supernatural horror reflected the characters' troubled relationships and internal struggles. My favorite part, however, was the friendship between George and Jimmy, which is absolutely adorable. Here they are after getting lost in the swamp:
He tried not to think about George hurt or worse, he just concentrated on looking for signs that the man had been this way. He couldn’t see anything, and wondered if he was going the wrong way. Should he rely on his intuition?
Please, if there is anyone to help me, please . . .
Jimmy cleared his mind, hoping for some revelation.
He heard something then. Something sad and yet wonderful.
George swearing.
He picked his way past a collection of cypress stumps, all ragged and looking like ancient fairy castles in the beam of his flashlight.
There was George, his pant leg snarled in a bramble.
“Goddammit,” he said.
“George,” Jimmy said, hoping not to startle him, but George jumped.
Jimmy came closer. “It’s me, it’s Jimmy.”
George squinted at the light. “Jimmy?”
Jimmy felt close to sobbing. “It’s me, old man.”
“Old? I’m not the one who sent love letters to Cleopatra,” said George, trying valiantly to put on a brave face, but Jimmy could tell he had been scared to death.
Jimmy helped George free himself. His clothes were torn and muddy and his hat was gone.
“You lost your hat,” Jimmy offered.
“Thank you, Mr. Holmes, did you bring Dr. Watson with you?”
“No, but I brought you some food and water . . . and a flashlight.”
George’s look of gratitude was so pitiful that Jimmy was sure he himself was going to start crying and embarrass George even more. Instead, he made a business of finding the sandwiches in his bag.

SO CUTE, RIGHT? Overall it wasn't the deepest or most stylistic of books, but I enjoyed its unusual characters and well-done horror. I'll be seeking out the first book in the series and looking forward to sequels in the future.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

In the Valley, Where Belladonna Grows by Tim Lebbon. A novella/short story (my copy was 65 pages) about an old woman who lives alone, entirely self-sufficient, in an isolated valley. She hasn't even seen another human being in 16 years – at least until the opening pages, when a man appears on the road from the distant city, bringing news and unwelcome changes.

The writing is lovely and subtly creepy, with an increasing sense of wrongness conveyed through small natural details: a too-strong storm, a dead bird, a feral dog gone mad. The backstory is told through scattered flashbacks, filling in how the woman originally came to live in the valley, while her knowledge of all that has gone wrong in the world outside slowly increases through the hints dropped by her visitors. There's a slight sense of unreality in how thoroughly the woman is tied to her home, and how she can sense disorder within her valley just by closing her eyes.

All of this is pretty great, and I was enjoying it and looking forward to seeing how the various plot threads would be resolved – and then came the twist ending. Granted, it's not the worst execution of this particular twist I've ever seen (it's a common ending), but it's so much less interesting than everything that came before it that I couldn't help but be disappointed. Overall, this was 62 pages of a wonderful story and 3 of a mediocre one.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. This was supposed to be part of my October horror reads, but it's not turning out to be a very scary book so far. There is some paranormal stuff going on, so it could still turn into horror!

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Wednesday, October 5th, 2016
4:34 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. Noah is the current host of The Daily Show; he is therefore someone I have seen on a daily basis for the last year (here he is hanging out with my cat), though I don't know much about him outside of that. This book is a series of essays about his childhood, structured more by theme than chronology, and doesn't get into his life as a comedian or moving to America or anything like that.

I have to admit that the writing style put me off for the first few pages. It reads almost like a transcript of a standup routine (which I suppose is unsurprising, since that's what he does), and unfortunately what sounds good out loud can sound rushed and overly simplified in writing. But once I had settled into the book it stopped bothering me, and I ended up really enjoying how strongly Noah's voice comes through.

Noah is the son of a black South African woman and a white Swiss-German man; he was born and raised in South Africa under apartheid, where his parents' relationship was, as the title says, a crime, and his existence often had to be kept secret. A great deal of the book is about the details of living under apartheid:
Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ’em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color weren’t doing the wrong thing. If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say?
“Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!”
“Excuse me. I’m Japanese.”
“Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon.”

He also writes about his difficulty fitting in. Because he is mixed race, Noah looks "colored" (a legal and social classification in South African referring to people of mixed European and African heritage, but where the interracial relationships usually took place many generations ago and which by now has its own specific traditions and community), but doesn't actually have that background or speak Afrikaans, the language associated with colored people. He identifies as black, since he was raised by his mother and her family, but differs from the typical black South African in both appearance and perspective (his mother insisted that he learn English as his first language and sent him to expensive private schools). All of this makes makes his book fascinating to read, because he's forever the outsider looking in, able to analyze and describe society in a way that's more difficult when you're wholly immersed in it.

Noah covers a lot of very bleak topics in this book: apartheid, the difficult transition to democracy, poverty, his mother's abusive relationship with his stepfather who eventually shot her. There is a scene where a stranger threatens to rape his mother, forcing her to jump out of a moving car with two small children, by page 10. And yet it's also a very funny book! It's not even dark humor, exactly, more a swift-footed jump between seriousness and comedy, quickly shifting perspective between the tragedy of the moment to the comedy of looking back on it later. There were several stories that had me dying with laughter (the demon shit! Hitler the dancer!), and others that had me near tears (the reunion with his father, oh my god).

Overall this was a really fantastic book and I highly recommend it. I just wish Noah had written more for me to read!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells. Book #2 of the Raksura series! After the adventures of the previous book, Moon and the rest of the Indigo Cloud Court need to find somewhere new to live. They move into what seems to be the perfect place – a home carved out of a giant living tree – but the magic seed that makes it work is missing, and without it the tree will inevitably rot and die within a year or two. Moon and co. set off to find a new seed or track down the thieves who took the old one; complications inevitably ensue.

I liked this book more than the first one! It has some truly excellent worldbuilding set-pieces (the main giant tree, large enough to support an entire city within its trunk and farms and forests in its branches; another city inside a giant thornbush; a third city built on top of a giant turtle-esque sea monster, with wizards to prevent it from diving down and drowning all the inhabitants; a creepy museum of stolen artifacts and the taxidermied bodies of intelligent species), and the plot is tighter, aided by the ability to focus on a single macguffin. I continue to like Moon as a character – he's mistrustful and awkward and good-hearted – and I liked seeing how his various relationships deepened. I'm especially into his romance (possibly too strong a word for it! They're very casual) with Jade, the fierce Queen he's mated to, who chafes at her subordinate role in the Court, as well as his friendship with Chime, another awkward outcast.

On the other hand, I still really want a book where Moon just stays at a normal Raksuran Court, so that I can get a better sense of what the social structure is like when everyone's not in the midst of a life-and-death situation. I also was sort of bothered by the resolution of the Rift plot; Collapse )

Nonetheless, this is a fun series! Thank you to everyone who has recommended it to me over the years.

Vibrant India by Chitra Agrawal. I was very interested in this cookbook because a) I love Indian food, and b) the author lives in Brooklyn, as do I. Unfortunately I did not find it to be very useful. Part of this is simply personal; I'm a lazy cook, and usually am not willing to do recipes that require hours of preparation. I know dosa is basic to South Indian cuisine! But realistically, I am just never going to soak dal for hours, and then grind it and wait for the dough to rise, and then finally make the dosa. A lot of the recipes here require that sort of effort. My other problem with the book was the fusion recipes – they weren't appealing to me. "Cucumber, Sprouted Mung Bean, and Pomegranate Salad" or "Butter Lettuce “Dosa” Wrap with Curried Potato and Chutney" or "Ben’s Curry Leaf Popcorn" are interesting ideas, sure, but just not for me.

On the other hand, I did like several of the vegetable curry recipes, as well as the multitude of sambar and rasam varieties. It's also always nice to see a book that focuses on a region of Indian food that is not the Punjab, which vastly dominates Indian restaurants in the US.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
It's October! :D That means it's time for my annual read of a bunch of scary stuff. First up, we have Deadlight Jack by Mark Onspaugh, in which a monstrous circus ringleader lures children away into the swamp. It could be better written, but it's entertaining me so far.

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Thursday, September 29th, 2016
11:41 pm - Dear Yuletide Santa
It's Yuletide time! Hooray!

Hello and thank you for offering one of my fandoms! I'm looking forward to whatever you write, and if you want to completely ignore the rest of this letter, or pick and choose just a few things, that's totally fine. I've tried to write a shorter letter this year. If you want more information click here for previous years' letters. Anything I've asked for before I would still love to get.

AO3 name: Brigdh

– I love all ratings, from G to NC-17. A lot of the prompts I give below are focused on ships, but feel free to write me the characters as platonic friends instead if that's what you prefer. Gen and PWPs are both awesome!
– Feel free to include injury, illness, major character death, infidelity, racism, homophobia, classism, etc, as needed for your story. Or feel free to ignore such elements of the canons below! I'm good either way.
– A lot of my requested canons are historical fiction. I DO NOT require you to have done research to write them. Trust me, I won't care if you use a modern word or describe the wrong style of clothing. I'm not an expert either.
– For each of my requests, the characters are very much OR instead of AND. Want to write a story about Rose without Hannibal, Rosalee without Cato, etc? Go ahead! You could probably guess this from the prompts I give below, but I wanted to be clear about it.
– Weird stylistic writing choices, like second person POV, a series of linked drabbles, unreliable narrators, five times fic, etc, are all totally okay. I enjoy reading experiments!

– amnesia
– de-aging
– mpreg (I do love A/B/O fic; if you want to write that, feel free to mention mpreg in the worldbuilding. Just please don't make it the main focus of the fic)
– Groundhog Day AUs
– 24/7 lifestyle BDSM

Yes, please!
– AUs, especially: modern AU, historical AU (as in, any historical period other than the one in canon), A/B/O, pirates, Wild West, cyberpunk, postapocalypse, circuses, canon-divergence
– found families, families of choice, and loyalty kink. I especially love it when there are reasons why it's difficult or unusual for the characters to have a relationship, but they defy expectations by being devoted to one another anyway.
– I LOVE one character risking their life/sacrificing themselves to protect another. "I thought you were dead!" is also an excellent trope
– casefic would be great, especially if you could combine it with slowburn get-together of one of my ships. I realize that’s a lot to ask of a writer. But just in case you want to write long casefic: I would love to receive it!
– hurt/comfort of all kinds, especially if the comfort leads to a deepening relationship. People getting ill, people getting beat up, people choosing to be tortured to protect someone else, people hiding injuries while trying to soldier on, people enduring long-term poor conditions (especially cold! I HATE being cold, and so I deeply identify with a character barely avoiding hypothermia), last minute rescues, confessions of feelings due to thinking you're about to die, caretaking, giving the hurt character a bath (especially hair washing!), and characters learning to be loved.
– iron woobies, always and forever
– established relationships are my jam. Show me how comfortable people have gotten with each other, how they know one another well enough to know all of their jokes and triggers and erogenous zones. And established doesn't have to mean problem-free! There's all sorts of troubles that tend to come up in relationships long after the first time. For example, I'd love a story about a fight and working through it.
– arranged marriages/marriages of convenience and fake dating are some of my favorite stories. I love all of it: the awkwardness, the enforced intimacy, the pining over 'my feelings are real but yours are pretend', the trust despite the difficulty, the teaming up to put on a good show for outside observers.
– slice-of-life, domesticity, missing scenes, and curtain-fic are all wonderful. I am totally fine with a very low-stakes story, as long as I get to see my favorite characters going about a normal day, enjoying themselves with one another, making jokes, etc.
- I adore all sorts of silly fanfic tropes, but here are some of my favorites: Genderswap (particularly of the "always-a-girl/boy" type rather than "woke up one morning" type), crossdressing, roadtrips, huddling for warmth, masquerades/disguises/undercover, trapped together (snowed in cabin, handcuffs, etc), friends-to-lovers and especially FWB to more, sex pollen, and platonic bed sharing.

Porn: I love everything from PWP to fade-to-black to gen. If you want specifics, here's a link to my Yuleporn post.

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Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
2:57 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Lady of the Imperial City by Laura Kitchell. A fairly typical historical romance, but with a twist: this one's set in Heian-era Japan. I admit that alone was enough to get me to read it.

Lady Kirei is highly admired by the nobility of Kyo for her elegant taste and aristocratic accomplishments: writing poetry, making incense, singing, designing fashions, etc. However, since she was raised in exile, she's considered too lowly to become a wife to any gentleman. Her uncle wants to push her into becoming a consort to a prince for the political advantage it will bring the family, but Kirei is holding out for true love.

Lord Yukan is an extremely rich merchant whose trade has led him to travel all around Japan, as well as to China and Korea. He's more used to dealing with peasants and 'barbarians' than the nobility of Kyo. But when the Emperor takes a shine to him and demands that he settle in Kyo, Yukan needs a tutor in social rules – and who better than the stylish Lady Kirei!

The writing and characters are nothing special, but I was charmed enough by the different setting to enjoy the book nonetheless. The conceit of structuring the relationship around etiquette lessons also allows the author to explain things that might otherwise have been confusing to the audience – I think Kitchell at times went a little too far with the "as you know, Bob" dialogue, but it was a good idea. I've read Heian literature before, but sometimes it's nice to read something written by an outsider simply because they tend to elaborate more on topics an insider already knows. Prince Genji doesn't bother to describe an incense judging contest because he knows all the rules already; Lady Kirei can explain what the room looks like and how to choose a judge and what it means to say a certain smell is for winter vs spring and so on.

One thing that bothered me a little – even if it probably is absolutely to be expected for a book selling itself as a romance – is that Kitchell spent a lot of time establishing how the expectations around love are different in Heian Japan, and then proceeds to have her two main characters behave exactly like modern Westerners. She sets up that this is a culture where polygamy is expected, female virginity is not prized, and the male beauty standard is androgynous and delicate. And then we're told that Yukan is masculine and strong and Kirei finds that "confusingly attractive", Kirei is still a virgin because she's been ~saving herself~ for someone she really loves, and they've both longed to dedicate themselves monogamously to their true love. Ah, well. This is the difference between the romance genre and historical fiction.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells. A fantasy novel set on a planet with a multitude of intelligent species, all of whom are menaced by the evil, manipulative, cannibalistic Fell. Our main character is Moon, who sometimes looks like a regular human (...I guess? I had trouble picturing what anyone was supposed to look like in this book) but can also shift into a dragon-like creature, with wings and claws and black scales. Since the only other flying people around are the Fell, he's had to keep this other side of himself hidden ever since he was orphaned and abandoned at a young age.

After spending his whole life being chased from place to place and never quite fitting in anywhere, Moon finally discovers his people: the Raksura, a race of shapeshifters led by fierce queens. Unfortunately this does not lead to an immediate happy ending. On the one hand, Moon turns out to be a consort: an important, highly-prized role, as they are the only ones who can mate with queens. On the other hand, since he is from an unknown bloodline and grew up feral, no queen is immediately eager to mate with him and some of the Raksura want to kick him out entirely. These court politics are even further complicated by the fact that it turns out the Fell have been playing a long-game against the Raksura, and begin attacking and invading immediately after Moon's arrival.

Overall this is a book with a lot of iddy elements that I wish it had indulged a bit more. I would have loved more worldbuilding about Raksura society, particularly its gender politics, and more about the hints of a connection between the Raksura and the Fell, and more time spent lingering on the many H/C scenes that were brushed by too quickly. I was also surprised by how little Moon wallowed in his emotions, given the premise of 'lonely orphan finds a home but people are mean to him'. That could be a plus or minus, depending on what kind of writing you like! I wanted some more emotions, honestly.

This is just the first book of a series, though, and I can hope that all of this stuff is gone into with more detail in the sequels. I certainly liked this one enough to give the rest a chance.

What are you currently reading?
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. Trevor Noah has a book coming out! :D I am hugely fond of him – if you don't recognize the name, he's the new host of The Daily Show, having taken over last year from Jon Stewart. Noah is not, of course, the game-changing politics-defining anchor that Stewart was, but he's sweet and friendly with a dry sense of humor and I like him a lot. I also really like the perspective he's able to give, as a non-American hosting an American news show, though he doesn't delve into that as often as I would like.

Anyway. He's got a book! :D

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Friday, September 23rd, 2016
4:22 pm - Writing Prompt #7
Twenty minutes on “a taxi that takes you not where you want to go, but where you need to go.”

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Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
5:44 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Busted Flush by Brad Smith. A comedic novel (supposedly. It's more low-key amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, even if you give it the benefit of the doubt) about Dock Bass, who starts out as a real estate agent married to a woman named Terri, whom he loathes for never-explained reasons. This is clearly supposed to make us sympathetic to a strong, independant man trapped by the rules of society.

Dock and I did not get off on the right foot, as you can probably tell.

Anyway, by page 15 Dock has quit his job (it made act like a hypocrite and Dock is too straight-forward for that, you see) and left Terri (not divorced, although that's his intention, literally "left", as in, "got in his truck and drove to another state without saying goodbye or having a fight". She is almost never mentioned again, so hopefully she filed divorce papers and lived a better life without Dock around to criticize her constantly). With nowhere else to go, Dock decides to answer in person a letter he recently received, informing him that he inherited a house in the town of Gettysburg from a distant relative. Once in Gettysburg, Dock fends off more evil real estate agents, who try to convince him to sell his property for less than it's worth so they can develop the area. Instead he decides to renovate the house on his own.

(Dock spends the rest of the book rebuilding a house from 1841. Literally rebuilds, completely by himself, by hand. Everything from tearing out the roof all the way down to the rafters, making new rafters, installing those, then shingling the new roof. Then he installs new drywall, does the electric wires, the phone lines, the windows, the doors, the flooring – everything. This seems like an implausible amount of skills for one man to have, even if he did used to be a carpenter, especially since it's implied he also knows how to do all of this in accord with 1840s historical restoration. But I barely know how to change a lightbulb, so I could be wrong.)

In the process of taking out the old walls, Dock discovers a long-sealed root cellar, which turns out to contain a huge collection of early photographs, including seven of Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, as well as an actual sound recording of the same event. All of this, of course, immediately gets huge news attention, leading to various adventures with elderly Hungarian professors, shady antiquities dealers, millionaire collectors, competing claims to the ownership of the house, and more.

It's hard to decide what was my "favorite" part of the book. It could have been the main villain, Thaddeus St. John, who is a shockingly retrograde gay stereotype. He dresses like he's always at a costume party, wears makeup and perfume, lisps, has a barely-mentioned younger boyfriend who's clearly only there to establish the fact that Thaddeus like 'em young, is thin and weak and afraid of violence. Here's one particularly appalling line: They taped Thaddeus in front of the musket display – his suggestion. Apparently, he was going for as masculine an image as he could muster.

My favorite part also might have been that the book somehow manages not to actually take a stance on the Civil War, one of the easier moral questions out there, but rather drips with obsequious sympathy for both sides. Here's Dock raging at the corruption of modern times compared to the purity of the past at the emotional climax of the book: There’d been something gnawing at Dock ever since he’d opened up the doorway to Willy’s shop. He realized he’d been subconsciously comparing his world to that of Willy’s, and wondering why it was that 1863 kept coming out on top. And finally it came to him. Everything today had to be easy. And if you had to screw over your neighbor or your brother or your friend to make it easy, then get to it. Easy was the way to go in the modern world. Easy was the new God.
Yes, no one in 1863 ever cheated to make things easier, like, oh, say, OWNING SLAVES. What the fuck, Brad Smith. How did anyone let you publish this?

Also, for all of our sakes, I have not copy-and-pasted the scene where Dock tells a black woman she doesn't know enough about the Civil War and needs to have more sympathy for Confederate soldiers. Because they didn't have shoes. Shoes, you guys! Dock sure showed her. Somehow they end the book by hooking up despite this.

This is an unfunny, eyeroll-inducing book without a single sympathetic or enjoyable character to be found. On the other hand, it was a quick read?

....No, no, that's not enough to make up for the rest. Avoid at all costs.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander. Lady Emily is a beautiful, rich young woman in Victorian England who has a contentious relationship with her mother. She would marry anyone just to get out of her family's home. Luckily, she is quickly proposed to by Philip, who is perfectly acceptable if a bit boring. Philip dies on a hunting trip a few months after their wedding, and Emily's main problem after that is to hide the fact she's not grieving and is, instead, rather pleased by her new freedom as an even-richer widow.

However the constant repition by his mournful family and friends of what a great guy Philip was inspires Emily to learn more about him. She starts reading his journals and discovers that he was deeply interested in the Classical Greeks; this leads to her reading the Iliad, frequently visiting the British Museum's Greek wing, and even studying Ancient Greek. Slowly she begins to fall in love with Philip – who, of course, has unfortunately been dead for over a year.

OR HAS HE? Because this is a mystery novel, and so Emily sets off to Paris to investigate a conspiracy that involves several forged antiquities hidden in the British Museum, Philip's possible continued existence and/or the revelation that he did not die accidentally but was murdered, and Philip's handsome best friend Colin.

I liked the idea of this book a lot (and the entire series that follows it has gorgeous covers and compelling titles which tempt me to purchase them every time I see one), but the reality did not live up the packaging. Much of the writing, especially in the first half of the book, felt oddly rushed – scenes were summarized more than they were described and constantly needed to be a page or two longer than they actually were. It wasn't quite info-dumping, just like we only had the middle of scenes and were missing the beginning and the end. Characters would show up for one or two lines of dialogue and then suddenly be gone again. In addition, the mystery was almost offensively easy to figure out, but the characters acted like idiots for two hundred pages, ignoring obvious clues.

Ah, well. A bit of a disappointment, but you know what? I really did not need to start following another 10+ book series right now. I am just as happy to put Lady Emily aside.

What are you currently reading?
Lady of the Imperial City by Laura Kitchell, which is a bog-standard romance novel in terms of writing and characters, but distinguished by being set in Heian-era Japan rather than Regency England and/or Victorian England.

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Monday, September 19th, 2016
5:37 pm - Writing Prompt #6
I just realized that I'd been forgetting to post these! A brief explanation: I go to a weekly writing group, where we do simple, 20 minute timed writing prompts for fun.

In this one, each person came up with a title and passed it to the person on their right, who then wrote something to go with it. I got Dawn by Midnight.

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Wednesday, September 14th, 2016
5:00 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire by Shane White. An excellent nonfiction book about Jeremiah Hamilton, a historical figure who is sadly barely known these days but was a New York City celebrity in the 1830s to 50s. White is very upfront about the fact that he had little material to work with; no one preserved Hamilton's letters, diaries, business books, etc, and so White is restricted to mentions of Hamilton from newspapers and court cases. Luckily Hamilton made frequent appearances in both. And yet despite this limitation, the story White managed to write is extremely thorough and detailed. I was impressed.

Nonetheless there are unanswered questions. Hamilton, at various points in his life, claimed to be from Virginia, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, other spots in the Caribbean, and even – once! – from India. What we do know is that he made a fortune in the early stock market, not once but twice, losing the first in the Panic of 1837. He dabbled in real estate, investments, insurance, railroads, factories, and more or less all possible money-making ventures. He was certainly a shady businessman (he first appears in the historical record attempting to smuggle counterfeit money into Haiti, and was involved in so many insurance scams that the various insurance companies of NYC eventually banded together and put a lifelong ban on offering any insurance to any project that involved Hamilton), but White points out that such behavior was hardly unusual, and John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbuilt – other NYC millionaires of the time – did the same.

It's such behavior, though, that seems to have gotten him largely ignored by the black community; the one mention of him in Frederick Douglass' Paper, a black newspaper, is not exactly complimentary: "Compare Sam Ward [an antislavery activist] with the only black millionaire in New York, I mean Jerry Hamilton; and it is plain that manhood is a 'nobler ideal' than money. [...] [Hamilton] has fled from his identity like a dog with a tin kettle tied to his tail!" Hamilton certainly seems to been a con artist, but it's unfortunate that this distaste for his principles contributed to his disappearance from modern awareness. Because even if Hamilton was an asshole, his mere existence is incredible. As White points out when Hamilton demanded bribes in exchange for giving out stock tips: "It is worth pausing at this point to consider this moment in the city's history. Three years into a Civil War of almost unimaginable carnage in which the central issue was the existence of racial slavery, less than twelve months after the Draft Riots, New York's own cataclysm, in which the mutilated bodies of African Americans were hanged from lampposts, an unapologetic wealthy black man let it be known that he was willing to receive cigars and champagne – mind you, only the very best – as acknowledgement of his "kindness". In order to gain privileged access to this African American's wisdom about the market prospects of listed corporations, modern entities beyond most Americans' understanding, that were laying thousands of miles of railroad track and steaming huge iron vessels across oceans, some white New Yorkers were willing almost to grovel. [... Hamilton's] chutzpah was remarkable."

The book doesn't limit itself to Hamilton's biography. It's a fantastic history of New York City from 1820-60 in general, covering topics like early Wall Street; the Great Fire of 1835 which burned most of downtown Manhattan; the ending of slavery in New York, the Draft Riots, and early Jim Crow laws, including segregation on the commuter rails; early newspapers – Hamilton was close friends with Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun; Thomas Downing, another rich black New Yorker, the owner of an oyster restaurant on Wall Street; the Five Points slum; and more.

It's a really excellent book, chock-full of fascinating trivia and tied together by an author who is in sure control of his material. Highly recommended.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Soframiz: Vibrant Middle Eastern Recipes from Sofra Bakery and Cafe by Ana Sortun, Maura Kilpatrick. A cookbook that I was interested in because I once spent time in Syria and Oman, and I was hoping to recreate some of the things I ate there. Unfortunately this book leans heavily on the baking and is light on the cooking – nothing wrong with baking, I just find it personally less appealing.

Many of the recipes here are extremely fiddly and precise; I'd much rather visit the actual Soframiz bakery than try to replicate them myself. Unfortunately it's in Boston, so I won't actually be doing that any time soon. But there were some recipes here that looked good. I have taken particular note of "Persian-Style Carrots and Black-Eyed Peas", their version of shakshuka, and "Whipped Feta with Sweet and Hot Peppers". Yum.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mucho Mojo by Joe Lansdale. The second book in the Hap & Leonard series, which I started reading at the end and am only now going back to read the early books. Hap is an ex-hippie, liberal white trash, and Leonard is a black gay Vietnam vet Republican. Despite this, they are best friends in rural East Texas, where they alternatively solve mysteries and get caught up in thriller/suspense action scenes.

In this book, Leonard's Uncle Chester has died and left all of his belongings, including a house, to Leonard. Chester played an important part in raising Leonard, but disowned him when Leonard came out as gay, and they therefore had not spoken in decades. That complication is added to the fact that Chester died of Alzheimer's, and so the belongings he left behind are confusing and mysterious: boxes of expired coupons, a key to nothing, a painting of an old house, geometric doodles, a copy of a library book.

Leonard and Hap move into Chester's house with the intention of renovating it before trying to sell. In the process of replacing some floorboards, they discover a mysterious trunk buried beneath the house, which proves to contain the skeleton of a young boy and dozens of child porn magazines. The police, of course, assume that Chester was the murderer. Leonard becomes convinced that Chester was actually trying to catch the real killer, but was hampered by a local police department that was willing to turn a blind eye to missing children when they were all poor and black. Leonard and Hap take it upon themselves to renew Chester's investigation, figure out the clues he left behind, and catch the murderer before the next child disappears – all while hampered by continued suspicion that Chester might have been the guilty party after all.

I find that the second book in mystery series can often be weak. In the first book, the characters and setting are specifically designed to be foils to the mystery: in Savage Season, the clash of idealism vs cynicism in Hap and Leonard's contradictory outlooks is the perfect reflection of a gang of thieves doing bad for justified ends. But in the second book, you're stuck with the same characters, except now they're facing a mystery that's not quite so perfectly tuned to their own issues.

Still, that's all right. This is a good book, even if it's not as perfectly thematically relevant as the first. These early books continue to not be as funny as the more recent ones in the series, which I miss as I'm not particularly a fan of straight tough-guy noir. But there are some great scenes here, some gorgeous landscape and weather descriptions, and a quick-moving plot. Overall it's worth the read.

What are you currently reading?
Busted Flush by Brad Smith. I'm only about fifty pages in, but I am very much not enjoying it – primarily because the main character is a total asshole, while the author seems to be under the impression that he is an admirably straight-talking man. The plot has just kicked off, so I will give it a little longer to see if it improves.

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Wednesday, September 7th, 2016
2:37 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Burning Bright by Melissa McShane. A Regency fantasy set in a world where most people manifest some sort of magical power as a child or teen. At 21, Elinor is a young gentlewoman who seems to have no talent – until she suddenly discovers her Extraordinary Scorcher power, the ability to start and, more importantly, put out fires from a distance. This is such a rare and impressive skill that she's the only person in all of England to currently have it. Her emotionally abusive father is very pleased at Elinor's new power, but only because it will allow him to arrange a monetarily advantageous marriage for her. Unfortunately the man he chooses is a creepy date-rapist, and Elinor is on the brink of being forced into a terrible marriage.

Instead she runs away and joins the Navy. The Navy, understandably, is somewhat reluctant to take on a woman, particularly an untrained gentlewoman of the sort who really should be attended by a companion and kept separate from the regular crew, but their need for an Extraordinary Scorcher to match the ones in Napoleon's employ is such that they reluctantly agree to take her on. But first Elinor is sent to the Caribbean to deal with the "Brethren of the Coast", a band of pirates. Because this is apparently also an alt-history, and Caribbean pirates are still a major threat in the 19th century – not that I mind! As far as I am concerned, pirates are an excellent addition to any book, reasonable or not. There are other changes to real-world history (the US is still a British colony; Port Royal is still a major city, although the earthquake of 1692 turned it into an island), though I wasn't always clear on how or why these changes occurred.

Anyway. Elinor fights pirates, learns to control her power, makes friends, gains confidence, falls in love, and finally renounces her abusive father.

The premise here is pretty awesome. Unfortunately the reality did not quite live up to my expectations. I certainly expected that a book set on a Navy ship for approximately 90% of the plot would have a lot more details about the actual process of sailing. (Though to be fair, having read Patrick O'Brien probably has given me an inaccurate idea of how much about ropes and sails and knots any book "should" have.) The romance between Elinor and Captain Ramsay is bog-standard, and one page of their first meeting is enough to predict every single beat of their relationship for the rest of the book.

But these problems are fairly minor. It's a fun read, with an intriguing premise, and I want more worldbuilding. I'm definitely looking forward to the next book in the series.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

A House for Happy Mothers by Amulya Malladi. Priya and Madhu are a well-off Silicon Valley couple, Americans of Indian descent, who have mostly happy lives – except that Priya is desperate to have a child and devastated to find herself infertile. Asha and Pratap are a poor Indian couple, living in a village in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh with two children. Their son, Manoj, is only five years old but already beginning to show signs of being extremely gifted intellectually; unfortunately Asha and Pratap can't afford to send him to a good school. These families come together at The House for Happy Mothers, a surrogacy clinic that connects rich foreigners to Indian women willing to rent their wombs.

The book is told through the alternating viewpoints of Priya and Asha, and is pretty much solely concerned with the surrogacy industry – its economics, the cultural attitudes toward it, and, of course, the emotional toll on both sides. The plot consists entirely of each woman having conversations with others who express their own opinions on the topic: family, friends, coworkers, spouses, Priya's message board of other infertile women, Asha's fellow surrogates at the clinic. Both women go through the whole gamut of feelings toward the other – gratitude, resentment, suspicion, hope, mistrust, anger, envy. By the end of the book, pretty much every possible attitude to the very idea of surrogacy has been expressed by at least one person (though actually, I would have liked to see some more extremes of opinion; most of the characters stayed somewhere in the middle).

It's not an entirely negative view of the surrogacy industry – Priya ends up with a baby, of course, while Asha's new-found ability to earn money grants her greater respect and independence in her relationship with her husband, as well as funding Manoj's education – but it certainly ends up falling more on the sketchy side. I did like the bittersweetness of the ending; both women benefited from the arrangement, but it's made very clear that they're not friends, and they paid for what they got.

I'm a fan of Amulya Malladi, though I've mostly read her historical fiction. It was nice to see her take on the modern day here, and it was a good book, if a bit laser-focused on one theme.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

And I've finally got my NetGalley list down to 20! I need to learn better restraint in not clicking on every book that looks vaguely interesting, or I'm never going to get it back to single digits.

What are you currently reading?
Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire by Shane White.

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Tuesday, September 6th, 2016
4:35 pm - Fic: In Our House (Benjamin January mysteries, G)
Title: In Our House
Ratings/Warnings: G
Fandom: The Benjamin January mysteries by Barbara Hambly
Pairings: Ben/Rose/Hannibal
Notes: The other fic that sucked up all my time last month! This was also written for curtana for the Seeing Color exchange.

Summary: A missing scene from Benjamin's homecoming. (Set right after the closing scene of The Shirt on His Back.)

1526 words. Also available on AO3.

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Wednesday, August 31st, 2016
2:59 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson. A novel set in Europe during the Ice Age (I'd guess France sometime in the Aurignacian, between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago, but unsurprisingly such specific labels and dates are not actually used in the book itself). There's not much of plot; Loon, the main character, is a young man unwillingly apprenticed to his tribe's shaman, though not so unwillingly as to run away, who goes about his day to day life without many upheavals. In fact, there's so few upheavals – so little plot – that I suspect that's the book's greatest flaw.

The opening section is a particularly great example of this: Loon is sent out on a sort of vision quest/adulthood ritual, in which he is left alone, naked, and without tools or weapons, and expected to survive for the next two weeks. I am fine with this as a plausible human practice in the Upper Paleolithic. It does mean, however, that the reader spends the first sixty pages with no characters other than Loon, and therefore no dialogue, no real characterization of Loon himself (since he has no one to interact with or react to, it's hard to get a sense of his personality), and no goals beyond "wait two weeks". Things thankfully pick up once Loon returns to his tribe, but that's a hell of a high barrier to get into the book.

Of course, I suspect the point of the book, for Robinson, is not plot. As always, he's focused on the small details of how people live, and particularly how they interact with their environment. This means that there's lots and lots of attention paid to how to make fire from sticks, how to hunt with spears on foot, how to store enough food for a long winter, how to build houses, how to knap stone, how to travel, etc. All of it seemed well-researched and accurate to the extent of my knowledge, though of course a fiction writer has demands that an archaeologist doesn't: if there's two competing theories, a writer has to choose one and go with it, or even make up answers to those questions for which evidence simply doesn't exist. I was happy with the choices Robinson made. At least Loon, unlike Ayla of Clan of the Cave Bear, is not responsible for every single human invention of the Upper Paleolithic; he confines himself to a single slight improvement of snowshoes.

It was a good book, though one with a slow pace, focused on the turn of the seasons and Loon's slow growth into adulthood and acceptance of his place as a shaman. I'm a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson, but unfortunately I can't say this was my favorite of his books.

Anyway. Here are some links to real stuff that is referenced in the book (at least, the real stuff that I noticed), in case anyone is interested:
Loon's lion-man carving
Thorn's painting of the lion hunt
The older bison and woman painting
Loon's painting of four horses and rhinos fighting
Loon's painting of Thorn as symbolized by a bison with red handprints
(There's a bit of discrepancy here, as all of these paintings are indeed from a single cave – Chauvet, in France – while the lion-man is between 3,000 and 10,000 years earlier, and was over in Germany, but ah well. Upper Paleolithic fiction is probably always going to have these sorts of condensed timelines.)

A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky. A novel about one year in New York City, a single year in the life of M, a magic-user. Or, as he prefers to call himself, someone who's "in good with the Management".

This is urban fantasy as told by a disaffected hipster. We learn extremely little about M – what he looks like, how old he is, how old he appears to be, what race he is, where he's from, etc; I'm not sure I'd even know that he's a "he" if the book hadn't been told in third-person. He doesn't have much of a personality either. He's aggressively not ambitious; enjoys craft beer, women, books, and drugs; and prefers to avoid doing work. In the book's vignettes he's frequently faced with what appears to be a grievous threat, and escapes with quick thinking and big talking but little actual magic. Outside of that I couldn't tell you much about him.

In addition to not really having a main character, the book doesn't really have a plot. It's structured like a series of short stories rather than a novel. At first these vignettes seem entirely disconnected from one another, which makes them hard to sink into, but gradually side-characters make repeat appearances, themes recur, and the last two chapters even manage to tie together multiple previous plots.

The real appeal of the book is its vision of a magical New York just outside of the awareness of regular people. Here we have the pirates of the Gowanus Canal, subways trains to hell, constantly multiplying coffee shops owned by a transdimensional corporation, fantastical drugs taken in Williamsburg warehouse parties, a group of people in finance bumbling through a human sacrifice during a long weekend in the Hamptons, the Park Manager – the deity who makes all the city's parks grow – on a night-long quest for Cronuts, and so on. It's mostly amusingly creative, though the story of an abandoned haunted house in Brooklyn Heights was genuinely creepy and quite dark. To be honest though, I'm not sure how amusing it would be to someone who doesn't live in NYC. I suspect jokes about the Z train or the Spiderman musical have a very short distance they can travel before they instead become pretentious and insular.

A fun book with a multitude of neat ideas, but which I wish had been hung on a stronger set of characters and plot.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Burning Bright by Melissa McShane. A Regency-set fantasy, about a young gentlewoman with the power to control fire who joins the Navy. Regency fantasy seems to be a popular subgenre lately, which I am all for.

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Monday, August 29th, 2016
5:29 pm - Fic: Light As Air (Benjamin January mysteries, NC-17)
Title: Light As Air
Ratings/Warnings: NC-17 for explicit f/m sex, breathplay
Fandom: The Benjamin January mysteries by Barbara Hambly
Pairings: Rose/Hannibal
Notes: This is the reason I've been so busy lately – managing to get this story finished before the deadline. This is a treat I wrote for curtana for the Seeing Color exchange, though it's actually based on prompts from the Smut Swap exchange a few months ago. I started it then, but didn't manage to finish it in time, and luckily had a second chance to write it.

Summary: Rose conducts an experiment on Hannibal, which leads to unexpected places. (Set during Good Man Friday.)

7216 words. Also available on AO3.

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Friday, August 26th, 2016
2:49 pm - Reading Wed – ugh, Friday
What did you just finish?
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. In the early 1940s, when there was an increasing need to respond to Jewish refugees from Germany and other parts of Europe, a proposal was made to send them to Alaska, at the time not yet a US state. This, obviously, did not happen.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in a world where it did, and thus in 2007 (the year the book is set and also was published) several million Jews are living in Sitka, Alaska, a federally administered territory which will revert to direct US control in two months, forcing most of the current population to find a new homeland. There are other hints as to how this world differs from ours – the Holocaust seems to have been smaller and to have made less of an impact on world politics, Israel as a country does not exist whereas Manchuria is an independant nation, there are veterans of a Cuba-American war floating around – though I wasn't always clear on what caused them.

Meyer Landsman is our protagonist and also the most archetypical noir detective I have ever seen. He's a policeman, divorced, alcoholic, living in a flophouse hotel, and vaguely suicidal, in such a way that his suicidal impulses seem more like ironic dark humor than an actual illness. His narration is rambling and witty and cynical, with the over-the-top metaphors and other stylistic conventions of Chandler and Hammett. There's so many great lines in this book; almost every page had some odd twist of words that leapt out and grabbed me: "houses jumbled like the last ten cans of beans on a grocery shelf before the hurricane hits", or "the winter sky of southeastern Alaska is a Talmud of gray, an inexhaustible commentary on a Torah of rain clouds and dying light".

The story starts when another resident of Landsman's hotel is found murdered; at first, the man seems to be a nameless heroin addict, indistinguishable from any other burnt-out addict on the street, or from Landsman himself. Of course there's more to the story than that. The dead man is eventually identified as the only son of the 18th Verbover Rabbi, the leader of the most influential Hasidic sect in Sitka and, oh yeah, also a powerful organized crime boss. As a child, the dead man had seemed to be a prodigy – playing chess, speaking multiple languages, even supposedly capable of miracle cures – and was believed by many to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, a potential messiah. How he got from those heights to the ones in which he died, not to mention who murdered him, is the rest of the mystery.

There's a lot to think about this book, which uses the plot to consider questions of homeland and exile, failure and redemption, land disputes and colonization, identity, the possibility – or not – of messiah and a perfect world, and justice. Here Landsman describes the funeral for the murdered man: "They smell of lamentation, these yids, long underwear, tobacco smoke on wet overcoats, mud. They're praying like they're going to faint, fainting like it's a kind of observance. Weeping women cling to each other and break open their throats. They aren't mourning Mendel Shpilman, they can't be. It's something else they feel has gone out of the world, the shadow of a shadow, the hope of a hope. This half-island they have come to love as home is being taken from them. They are like goldfish in a bag, about to be dumped back into the big black lake of Diaspora. But that's too much to think about. So instead, they lament the loss of a lucky break they never got, a chance that was no chance at all, a king who was never going to come in the first place, even without a jacketed slug in the brainpan."

Unfortunately the murder eventually turns out to involve an international war-mongering conspiracy, which I was disappointed by. As much as I can see what Chabon was going for, I preferred the small scale story of a man who was a failed prodigy, and what that meant for the few who knew him. But despite that twist, it's a great book, and I loved the first 3/4ths of it.

After I finished this, I decided to look up what Chabon has written recently, and apparently he has a new book coming out later this year. But alas for me, it seems to be a return to typical literary fiction. There's a million novels out there about someone's dying grandfather, Chabon! Cater to my taste and stick with your weird genre experiments, like the origin of comic books with golems (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) or purple-prose sword & sorcery epics (Gentlemen of the Road) or hard-boiled detective alt-history novels! Ah, well.

Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh. In a fantasy version of medieval Russia, Sasha is an orphaned stableboy cursed by bad luck – or so he and the entire town believes. Anything Sasha wishes can come true, which is actually a terrifying, unpredictable power; as a young child, he wished for his father to stop beating him and his house promptly burnt down, killing both his parents. Sasha tries very hard therefore not to wish for anything, never to get angry, and to want as little as possible.

All of this changes when he meets Pyetr, a young gambler who has ingratiated himself with the rich men of town by being charming and fun. But Pyetr is unfairly accused of murder and his friends abruptly become a lot less charmed, leaving Pyetr with no one to rely on but a chance-met Sasha. The two of them flee town together and quickly find themselves lost in a forest in late winter, the worst time of year: mud and melt and dead branches and nothing new growing yet. They're taken in by a mysterious old man who could be a wizard – and thus tied to Sasha's own power of wishing – who asks in return for his help that they rescue his dead daughter, currently a rusalka (a sort of hungry ghost). And then things get complicated.

I liked the magic system in this book a lot. Magic is powerful and nearly everywhere, but it is also impossible to predict, slippery and wiley and full of unintended consequences. There are ent-like forest spirits, huge shapeshifter river things, protective and oddly cute house guardians. People give away their hearts, literally, and wizards prove to be very hard to trust.

Sasha is a great character, good-hearted and uncertain of himself and desperately wanting a friend. He reminded me a lot of Maia from The Goblin Emperor – that same sort of young man thrust into a position of power and struggling to learn how to use it without doing harm, and meanwhile being very lonely. Rusalka as a whole has a similar sweet, uplifting tone to The Goblin Emperor, in fact, though with a more adventurous plot and a bit more loss in the end. It also has a lot of people trudging through the woods at the end of their rope, injured and exhausted and under various spells or ghost influence, with all the accompanying H/C. Which I know is a plus for many of you. :D Sasha and Pyetr have an adorable friendship, and are constantly worrying about one another and putting the other first. It's a great book, though in a particularly iddy-fanfic sort of way. It's also the first of a trilogy, and I am looking forward to reading the others.

Note: I read the version available on Cherryh's website, which apparently has been slightly rewritten from the version published originally. She talks a bit about the choice to rewrite here.

Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked--and Fried, Too!: A Celebration of Potatoes in 75 Irresistible Recipes by Raghavan Iyer. I love potatoes! Who does not love potatoes? I especially love cold potato salad in overwhelming summer heat, as one of the few filling-but-cold dishes I'm good at – which may surprise anyone who knows my food habits and how much I hate mayonnaise. But there's so many excellent variations on potato salad that are not just chunks of potato drenched in mayo! This is the main reason I checked out this cookbook, and I was rewarded; Iyer has eight different recipes. I've made the "Harissa Potato Salad" and "Grandmother Ida's Russian Potato Salad", and they were both delicious. The "Mojito Potato-Pomegranate Salad" and "Roasted Potato Salad with Basil" also look great.

There's lots of non-salad recipes here too: "Potato Soto Ayam" (a pho-like noodle and chicken soup), Persian Style Potatoes and Eggs (sort like hash browns topped with baked eggs), Massaman Curry, Potato-Stuffed Chili Rellenos. Plus Iyer's own versions on many well-known ways of eating potatoes are included: baked, mashed, french fries, tater tots, latkes, perogies, patatas bravas, potatoes gratin, gnocchi. There's even a chapter of desserts, and though I am not entirely convinced of the appeal of "Chocolate Sweet Potato Pound Cake" or "Thick-Cut Potato Crisps with Dark Chocolate", they don't sound half-bad.

Anyway, potatoes! They're my favorite.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson. Another in my cold-weather-books for August, though probably the last for now, since the worst of the heat seems to have broken. A novel set in Ice Age Europe which – so far, at least – seems very well-researched.

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Monday, August 22nd, 2016
3:27 pm - Back home and Seeing Color recs
I am back from the beach! :D I am full of sun and boardwalk food and there is sand in literally everything I own, including my hair, but I am very happy. We got lucky and had wonderful weather – it didn't rain once, and then a storm broke literally as we were on the train back to New York. Which, honestly, was nice; nothing eases the heartbreak of leaving the beach like being able to see the dark clouds rolling in.

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And now I will try to catch up on everything.

But first! While I was away, the gift fics for Seeing Color were revealed. It ended being a rather small exchange, with only sixty-something people participating, but it was a lot of fun. And hey, it's only the first year! Maybe we'll see more next year.

Here are my favorites of the fic I've read:
The Day After That. Underground, 1.5k, Teen.
This one was written for me, and so of course it is MY FAVORITE. A Rosalee character-study set after the end of Season One, which somehow manages to include both Rosalee/Noah and Rosalee/Cato and makes them both so beautiful and true. I really loved this lovely little piece, and highly encourage you all to check it out.

And speaking of Underground, it's now available on Hulu! So if I've ever made it sound appealing, it is now much easier to watch.

If We Go, We Go Together. Leverage, 2.1k, Teen. A wonderful OT3 werewolf AU, complete with H/C, cuddling in a hospital bed, and Eliot expressing tender feelings through threats.

The Earth Will Reach The Sky. Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho, 1.6k, G. An absolutely excellent portrayal of the marriage between Prunella and Zacharias after the end of the book, with Zacharias being sweet and lost in his thoughts and Prunella being an unstoppable force, and also there are flower crowns. I adored this fic; the writing style is just gorgeous.

You're My Type. Psych, 4.8k, M. Shawn attempts to seduce Gus, but does a fairly terrible job of it. I'm not very familiar with Psych's canon – I've seen a few episodes but no more than that – but I still enjoyed this funny story of bad Halloween puns, pining, and stolen plants.

Dirty Jobs. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 3.2k, G. An excellent character study of Finn, pre-movie, with lots of world-building and interesting new details and, of course, foreshadowing of the changes to come. Very well-written and engaging, with just a little bit of the chill of a brainwashed soldier working for space Nazis.

I would offer to let people guess which story I wrote, but I'm afraid it's far too obvious. Are there any others you particularly enjoyed, though? I haven't had time to go through the whole collection.

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Wednesday, August 17th, 2016
12:13 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The First Unsolved Murder of the Victorian Age by Paul Thomas Murphy. In 1871, on a secluded road just outside of London, a young woman named Jane Clouson was violently murdered. Suspicion immediately turned to Edmund Pook, the young man of the house where Jane had been working as a maid, who was arrested and brought to trial but ultimately acquitted. Some of the most damning evidence (including that Jane had told multiple people that she was pregnant by Edmund, that he had promised to marry her despite the class difference, and that she was supposed to meet him the night of her murder) was ruled inadmissible "hearsay" in court, since no one had actually seen Jane and Edmund together – they only had what Jane had told them. The case became a media frenzy, with sympathy for or against Edmund dividing along class lines; the title of the book even comes from a penny dreadful written at the time.

I like to read historical true-crime not so much for the detailed accounts of the crime itself, but for the way a good author can use a single event to illustrate larger issues of social context and historical change. Murphy does a good job of that, particularly in discussing the place of "maids of all work" like Jane. They were often the only servants in a middle class household and thus were forced to interact and depend on their employers in a very different way than servants who were part of the large workforce of noble households. The account of the legal process of accusation and trial were also fascinating. At the time, England did not have an official public prosecutor's office. This forced the police into the role of both investigator and prosecutor, roles that necessarily came into conflict; you can't be both an impartial seeker out of all knowledge and engaged in proving the guilt of one specific individual. This difficulty is a large part of why Edmund eventually went free, since the police were accused of misconduct both for focusing on him and letting other potential leads go and for not prosecuting him as zealously as Jane's supporters wished. The ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don't situation!

I would have liked a bit more social context, particularly regarding what happened after the trial, but overall the book is well-written and interesting. I recommend it if you already like the genre, but it's probably not the one to convert non-believers.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Love in Exile by Ayse Kulin. Translated from Turkish by Kenneth Dakan. A (very slightly) fictionalized account of a family living in Istanbul in the 1920s and 30s – that is, immediately after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and during the early establishing years of the Turkish Republic. The focus is very much not on politics, but on the internal life of a family: marriages, pregnancies, achievements in school, parties, clothes, food, living arrangements, and so on.

It's hard to summarize this novel, because there's not much of a plot; it's a series of disconnected incidents, very much like if you tried to write down all the various stories and legends of your own family verbatim – which indeed seems to be more or less the case. So many scenes appear and disappear without any connection to what happens before or after: "oh, here's the story about the time our aunt had a bad time at a party", "here's the story of our cousin's graduation", "here's the day we discovered sister's diary behind a dresser and read it secretly". There's no particular beginning or end, and no momentum from one to the other. The closest thing to an overarching thread is the relationship between Sabahat, the youngest daughter of a rich, formerly aristocratic Muslim family, and Aram, a Christian Armenian (the Armenian genocide, despite being fairly central to Aram's backstory, is handled with the briefest of mentions, but not denied). However, they frequently drop from focus and the book ends without resolving their story – it's apparently continued in another book by Kulin – so it's hard to credit that as the central plot.

My other complaint – also probably related to this being about the author's real family – is the sheer number of characters thrown at the reader. The first five pages literally introduce sixteen named characters (I counted!), which is a hell of a hurdle to get over before one can sink into the book. And then ninety pages later Kulin does it again, switching focus to an entirely different family with its own family tree that needs to be memorized. That said, the writing is quite nice on a sentence level, and it's certainly an easy, enjoyable read. The setting and time-period is fascinating, even if I would have liked slightly more about politics and other outside events.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I've had this book sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it for literally years, and now I have finally gotten around to it. Mainly propelled by my theory that the best thing to read about during the overwhelming heat of August is people suffering in the cold.

Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh. Also theoretically part of my 'cold weather' reading, but I guessed wrong – it might be fantasy set in Russia, but it's spring, not winter.

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Saturday, August 13th, 2016
12:17 pm
FYI: I am leaving for vacation for the next week – beach, whooo! Though New Jersey beach, so not that exciting. I will have internet access, but I probably won’t be keeping up with everything as much as usual. If there’s something you post that you really want me to see, feel free to email or leave a comment with a link! Also, apologies if I owe you email; I am so far behind on email and am probably going to be even moreso while I’m away.

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