Saturday, January 13th, 2018
3:15 pm - Reading lately
What did you just finish?
The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters. The sixth book in the Amelia Peabody series, murder mysteries set in the late 1800s and starring an incredibly blunt, overly self-confident, ironically melodramatic female Egyptian archaeologist. In this one, Amelia, her husband, and their young son are looking forward to excavating some pyramids south of Egypt, in the lesser-known ancient kingdom of Kush, when they get caught up in a mystery involving a long-lost British couple and their feckless rich nephew, a mysterious hidden kingdom that still practices the ancient Egyptian religion, court politics with two princes competing to be the next king, and a veiled woman who seems to be the secret power behind the throne. It's all a parody-slash-loving tribute to Victorian adventure novels, particularly "King Solomon's Mines" and "She".

Peters gives these old racist tropes a modern update, which works in some parts better than others. I loved the eventual reveal that the 'good' prince of the hidden kingdom speaks in a stilted English because he's deliberately modeling himself after the florid heroes of H. Rider Haggard's novels, of which he is a huge fan. Similarly, when Amelia is told to look out for a secret messenger carrying "the book", it turns out not to be the Bible or the Egyptian Book of the Dead or some such sacred text, but a copy of Wilkie Collin's "The Moonstone". On the other hand, the mystery eventually comes down to the Peabodys' desperate rescue of the one young innocent white girl out of this entire kingdom, which is... uh, less great. To say the least.

I also felt like this book frequently dragged in places. There's a loooooong section in England before they leave for Egypt. Then a loooooong section in Nubia before they find the hidden kingdom. Then a loooooong section exploring the kingdom before the plot finally arrives. I don't think The Last Camel Died at Noon actually has more pages than any other book in the series, but goddamn if it didn't feel like it took three times as long to read. So, not my favorite Amelia Peabody, but I'm still looking forward to the next one!

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. A light-hearted ensemble space opera, starring the crew of a mid-level spaceship. The main character (as much as there is one; this is an extremely team-focused book) is Rosemary, a nice young woman, just out of college and somewhat sheltered, who arrives at the Wayfarer at the opening of the book to serve as their clerk. However, she's more than she seems: working under a false name and hiding secrets that will be revealed late in the book. Also onboard is Captain Ashby, a human in a long-term relationship with Pei, an alien arms dealer whose culture is HUGELY against interspecies sex; Jenks, an engineer who's fallen in love with the ship's sentient AI and is considering downloading her into a physical body despite this being incredibly illegal; Dr Chef, the kindly doctor and cook who comes from a nearly extinct species and whose sweetness covers a backstory of war and angst; Corbin, in charge of the algae from which the ship gets most of its power, a gumpy, racist, introvert; Kizzy, an antic, cheerful engineer and the only character who doesn't get much an arc, though she's a lot of fun in the background; and Ohan, who has the ability to navigate through hyperspace due to being infected with a virus that's slowly killing him. There's also the pilot Sissix, from a lizard-like species that practices polyamory, casual sex and lots of touching, who's a bit tired of dealing with all the culture clashes this causes on a mostly-human ship. She and Rosemary eventually enter into a relationship, which I mention because you gotta love a book in which a f/f open romance can be dropped in as a subplot. On the other hand, there isn't much of a main plot; this is very much a character-driven book instead of one with a clear, driving endgoal. Instead various characters meet and overcome minor difficulties, and it's all just nice if fairly inconsequential.

The best part of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is absolutely how much *fun* it is. The worldbuilding is full of charming tossed off ideas, the scifi elements of the background are hugely inventive and clever, the characters are generally enjoyable to spend time with, and there's a ton of bits that made me laugh with pure delight. Like this section, which never ends mattering, but is too cute not to share:
The mech tech herself was perched on a work ladder, her head and hands up inside an open ceiling panel. Her hips rocked in time with the drum beats. She belted along to the throbbing music as she worked. “Punch ‘em in the face! Monkeys like it, too!”
“Hey. Kizzy,” Jenks said.
“I ate a har - monica! These socks — match — my hat!”
A tool clattered to the ground. Kizzy’s hands clenched into fists as the music swelled to a stormy crescendo. She danced atop the shuddering ladder, her head still in the ceiling. “Socks! Match — my hat! Socks! Match — my hat! Step on — some — sweet — toast! Socks! Match — my hat!”
Kizzy ducked her head down. She pressed the clicker strapped to her wrist, turning down the volume of the nearby thump box. “Sup?”
Jenks quirked an eyebrow. “Do you have any idea what this song is?”
Kizzy blinked. “Socks Match My Hat,” she said. She went back up into the ceiling, tightening something with her gloved hands.
“Soskh Matsh Mae’ha. It’s banned in the Harmagian Protectorate.”
“We’re not in the Harmagian Protectorate.”
“Do you know what this song’s about?”
“You know I don’t speak Hanto.”
“Banging the Harmagian royal family. In glorious detail.”
“Ha! Oh, I like this song so much more now.”
“It’s credited with setting off the riots on Sosh’ka last year.”
“Huh. Well, if this band hates the establishment that much, then I doubt they’ll care about me making up my own words. They can’t oppress me with their ‘correct lyrics.’ Fuck the system.”

My main problem is that, as sweet and nice as all this is, there's just not much there there. I felt like every time a potentially interesting conflict arose, the book went with the easiest possible answer; I was particularly annoyed with the resolution of Rosemary's background in this regard. It was a pleasant read, but not the sort of thing that will stick in my memory.

Still, thank you to everyone who recommend this to me! :D I did have a good time with it.

Venom: The Heroic Search for Australia's Deadliest Snake by Brendan James Murray. A nonfiction book about the taipan, the most venomous snake in the world (well, depending on how one measures such things), and the effort to capture a living snake for study and to enable the production of an antivenom. Murray is far more interested in the story of the people involved in this search than he is in the snake or its biology, which ends up producing a book that reads a lot like an action movie. Which is not a criticism! I loved how much this felt like a suspenseful thriller. There were a few scenes that were so unbelievably wild I had to read them out loud to my partner.

Murray focuses on four people in particular: George Rosendale, a young Aboriginal man (only 19 when he was bitten in 1949) who is the only person ever known to have survived a taipan bite without being treated with antivenom; Bruce Stringer, a ten-year-old who was bitten in 1955 and became the first human to receive the then brand-new antivenom; Kevin Budden, an amateaur herpetologist who in 1950 captured the first living taipan but who died in the process; and John Dwyer, a friend of Budden's who in his memory captures the second living taipan, said snake becoming both the most significant contributor to antivenom production and the first taipan to be exhibited in a zoo. Between these men and others featured more briefly, Venom is packed full of exciting stories of hunting snakes through jungles and sugarcane fields, and medical dramas in which lives are saved or lost as doctors and amateurs struggle to find the best treatments. It's not all page-turning adventures though; I appreciate how much attention Murray gave to the role of colonialism and anti-Aboriginal racism, both in Rosendale's personal life and the larger scope of Australian history.

I do have a few criticisms. Murray jumps back and forth between so many characters (are they still called characters if they're real people? whatever) and between so many time periods that I was often confused and had trouble remembering who was who. Less significantly, I longed for a epilogue or short final chapter that would have covered what we now know about taipan. A great deal of Venom is taken up with scientists arguing over what were unknowns in the 1940s and 50s – is the taipan a separate species from the Eastern Brown Snake? Is it venomous? If so, how much? how big does it get? where can it be found? how far south does its range extend? – that by the time I reached the end of the book, I was desperate for answers! Don't make me do my own research, Murray, especially since I'm too lazy to go past Wikipedia.

Overall, I'd absolutely recommend this to anyone who enjoys creepy biology or exciting history.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold. The latest in the Vorkosigan series! :D I know a lot of the fandom hated this book when it first came out, which is why I've put off reading it until now, but I'm actually quite enjoying it.

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3:07 pm - Fic: Contrasting Colors (Vantablack Feud, NC-17)
Title: Contrasting Colors
Ratings/Warnings: NC-17
Fandom: The Vantablack Feud between Stuart Semple and Anish Kapoor. If you haven't heard of this (extremely hilarious) war going on in the art world, this article explains it pretty well.
Notes: My Yuletide fic! :D

Summary: Stuart Semple and Anish Kapoor have extremely different views on the idea of sharing Vantablack with the wider artistic community. But this time, Vantablack isn't a color; it's a spell. Their rivalry, however, might just be disguised sexual tension.

4831 words. On AO3.

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Sunday, January 7th, 2018
5:24 pm - Yuletide Recs, Part 2!
Fandoms N-Z! Shorter this time, because apparently I know fewer fandoms in the second half of the alphabet.

From the beast she pulls a lover
Omar Rayyan - Works (aka this painting), gen, 3.9k, Teen.
It would be sad, of course, to see such an illustrious family fall by the wayside, but there were plenty of careers a young girl of her background could have – and there was always marriage.
Really wonderful world-building piece that's just as decadent and dangerous as the original painting.

i carry your heart with me
Persuasion - Jane Austen, Anne Elliot/Frederick Wentworth, 1.9k, G.
Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible for Anne to withstand her father’s ill will, Lady Russell’s continuous advisals, but if not for a matter of science and self-denial. Neither Anne nor Captain Wentworth bore the other’s mark.
Very good soulmates AU that works the fantasy world-building into this canon so well.

Animal Spirits
Psmith - Wodehouse, Mike/Psmith, 13.5k, Explicit.
With a match against the Eton first eleven looming, Psmith is behaving strangely, and Mike wants to get to the bottom of it.
“That’s new,” Fossington said to Psmith, indicating the monocle.
“I didn’t think it was possible for you to get more affected Smith,” Carter sneered.
“It’s Psmith,” said Mike, detecting the dropped ‘P’. “Are you hard of hearing or just stupid?”
“Always the man with the pertinent question, Comrade Jackson,” Psmith said mildly, taking a sip of his tea.


The Double Heart
A Study in Emerald - Neil Gaiman, gen, 8.1k, Teen.
My meeting with John Watson was always, I'm convinced, meant to be. I mean that not in any vulgar superstitious way, but the way true fate works - through the workings of our own souls.
A Study in Emerald - if any of you are unfamiliar with it – is a crossover between Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraft, in which Queen Victoria and most other world powers are Cthulhu-esque monsters. This fic tells the first meeting of Holmes and Watson, and is just as gritty and horrific as I could desire, with plenty of repressed emotions.

Know Where You Stand
Rivers of London, Sahra Guleed-focused, 6.6k, Teen.
Sahra Guleed is the third-most qualified Falcon officer in the Met. This is not her fault, but – somehow – it’s still her responsibility.
Excellent character study – which nonetheless features a lot of plot, and Sahra struggles with the decision of whether she should learn magic.

love & communication
Rivers of London, Peter/Bev, 2.5k, Teen.
“It’s just that we’ve got a good thing going here. I didn’t want to wreck it by getting ahead of myself.” At Christmas, Beverley and Peter have a conversation that's been a long time coming.
Utterly adorable future fic for my favorite ship in the fandom!

Ripples of Unease
Rivers of London, Sahra Guleed-focused, 1.8k, Teen.
Beverley has a tip-off, and Sahra is the best person to deal with it. Sometimes, duty just has to involve getting wet.
Excellent character study of someone we don't see enough of in canon.

warp of water, weft of stone
Rivers of London, Peter/Nightingale, 10.8k, Teen.
The demi-monde is at peace. Thomas Nightingale, however, is not.
RoL casefic about a bog body! :D I mean, the Nightingale characterization here is perfect, and the writing is particularly lovely, but let's be real, I am all about the bog body.

Assistance to British Nationals Abroad
Rivers of London/British Government Cats RPF, gen, 20.4k, G.
Three cats, three humans, a dog and a tarantula walk through a Gate -
Look at that fandom tag! :D This is the best crossover of all time. A fic in which Larry (the tabby cat who lives in 10 Downing St), who is a wizard, and Palmerston (the tuxedo cat who lives in the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office), who is not, must save the dumb humans of London from cosmic monsters trying to break through a dimensional gate. This story was the MOST fun.

Wayfarers Series - Becky Chambers, Ohan-focused, 1.6k, Teen.
Really sweet post-canon character study. I loved seeing Ohan adjust to their new state.

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Sunday, December 31st, 2017
4:24 pm - Yuletide Recs!
Yuletide recs, for fandoms A-M! I have just barely gotten this in before author reveals, and clearly still have half the alphabet to get through. Ah, well.

First off, my own gift!!
Water Lens
Benjamin January, gen, 2.4k, Teen.
“The good widow couldn't dump you in the fast section of the river, apparently,” January said. “It had to be the mud.”
“If she'd only panicked five minutes earlier,” Rose agreed with a sigh. “We were on the bridge then – although given the state of that particular river I wouldn't necessarily put money on it being that much cleaner.”

All my all favorite story tropes are here: bathing together and playing with hair and the OT3 and Rose doing science and there’s even a mystery to solve in here too! It is wonderful and I love it and everyone should give the mystery author more kudos.

And here are my other favorites:

so come home
12 Dancing Princesses fairy tale, gen, 21.5k, G.
A detective is called to a space station to solve the mystery of whether--and how--twelve astronauts are accessing the surface of a forbidden planet.
A very well-written sci-fi murder mystery, with great worldbuilding and characters.

American Gods, Mr Wednesday and Mad Sweeney, 4.2k, G.
The Norse god of battle and a mad Irish king walk into a bar. This is not a joke, my son: except in a sense, it is. They are Old Gods, it’s the New World, and the game must be kept going.
Really great backstory on the gods in WWI.

The Locust</i>
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side - James Tiptree Jr., 2.2k, Mature.
Letter of Fr. Francisco Nadal to Fr. Bartolomeo Strozzi, 1588.
The original short story is about the horrifying effects on humanity of alien sexuality; this fic translates it into Imperial Spain and makes the different cultural setting really work. Because everyone needs some terror on Christmas!

And on the seventh...
Aubrey-Maturin Series - Patrick O'Brian, Jack/Stephen, 11k, G.
This decision might be considered the luckiest, as standing near Jack meant that Stephen was not alone in his fall overboard.
Or it might be considered the unluckiest, as standing near Jack meant that Stephen was foremost in the splinters' path, when the ranging shot abruptly found its range.

Desert island fic with H/C, angst, kissing in the ocean, and new species of birds. AKA, everything good in fic.

And for that riches where is my deserving?
Benjamin January mysteries, Ben/Rose/Hannibal, 1.8k, Teen.
If Ben was honest with himself, he suspected that one day Hannibal might simply vanish from their lives. He desperately hoped that this was not the day.
Delicious Hannibal whump plus the OT3! What more could anyone want out of the tiny fandom of my heart?

Family Gathering
Books of the Raksura, Moon-focused, 2.8k, G.
After some of Jade and Moon's first clutch are confirmed to be Royal Aeriat, Pearl wants the fledgelings brought to her bower. Ember thinks Moon should be there too.
Really adorable baby-fic, with some lovely Pearl characterization.

Books of the Raksura, Consolation gen, 4.1k, G.
It turned out that living like people instead of monsters required all sorts of skills and tools. Cleaning required soap, and some inkling of how to apply it. Consolation’s flight, having been raised by monsters, not people, had none of the requisite skills.
This is the post-canon fic about how Consolation learns to be a person that was my greatest wish for Christmas, and it's everything I could have hoped for.

Mordre, She Wroot
Canterbury Tales, Wife of Bath-focused, 8k, G.
At least one pilgrim will not make it to Canterbury.
Yes, you ABSOLUTELY DO need the Wife of Bath solving murders in your life. Just trust me on this.

Underworlds: The Life and Afterlife of Richard Upton Pickman
Cthulhu mythos, gen, 3.7k, G.
Explore the life, works and enduring influence of Richard Upton Pickman, a controversial artist of the early 20th century. This exhibition includes several paintings never before displayed in public, including all of Pickman's graphic, unsettling "horrors" currently remaining in North America. The Boston Globe called Underworlds "stomach-turning food for thought"— but decide for yourself! Young children may find Pickman's paintings frightening; parents are advised to consider carefully before allowing them to proceed.
This program serves as a guide to the exhibit. Audio versions for your mobile phone are available at the Parrington museum website.

Such a well-done pastiche of a museum guide to a series of horrifying paintings.

What Is Begotten
The Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus/Esca, 7.5k, Teen.
Esca learns the Latin word by accident, from Stephanos of all people. Soul-mate.
A soulmate AU with an absolutely lovely take on the canon.

Of Devils and Other Fine Things
Fallen London, The Wistful Deviless/Zee-Captain, 1.1k, G.
Wooing a devil can only end in tears.
Really fantastic interpretation of what a relationship with a devil really means.

head above water
Gattaca, Jerome-focused, 1.2k, G.
“Do you know,” Jerome’s mother asks his coach, “how Jerome first started swimming? Did he ever tell you that story?”
Absolutely wonderful backstory for Jerome.

Gattaca, Anton Freeman-focused, 1.8k, G.
Five things Anton thought upon seeing Vincent was a suspect for murder (and one thing he said).
Lovely character study on a minor part of the movie, this feel so right.

Attempt #534: The One With The Bees
The Good Place, Chidi/Eleanor, 8k, Explicit.
“Eleanor!” Chidi looks even more upset as he blurts out, “The universe doesn’t want us to have sex, okay?”
Eleanor chokes. “I’m sorry, what?”

In which Eleanor and Chidi repeatedly try – and fail – to have sex. Totally hilarious, and also hot.

Care and Feeding of Your Janet
The Good Place, Janet-focused, 1.2k, Teen.
Please read this guide carefully before activating your Janet.
So, so, so funny.

Operation: Seduce Michael
The Good Place, Michael/Everyone, 2.3k, Teen.
If at first you don't succeed, send a different cockroach.
Really hilarious fic about the plan to seduce Michael, with pitch-perfect character voices and humor just like the show's.

so slip your hand inside of my glove
The Handmaiden, Hideko/Sook-hee, 2.6k, Teen.
Hideko lets Sook-hee teach her how to distinguish sapphire from spinel and obediently bites the gold Sook-hee brings back to her. Hideko and Sook-hee, after.
A post-canon fic that is beautiful and just perfection.

Who's Got Who
The Hateful Eight, Chris Mannix/Marquis Warren, 6.7k, Explicit.
Warren makes inventive use of Mannix's sheriff star. And, for that matter, inventive use of Mannix.
He thinks that will be the end of it.

You know, as much as love Hateful Eight, I never expected to begin shipping Mannix/Warren. What can I say but that this fandom has some damn good writers? And they know their porn; good lord this one is hot.

As Ice in the Desert
Historical RPF, Richard I "The Lionheart" of England/Saladin, 2.3k, Teen.
Saladin visits Richard's sickbed with fruit, and a question in his eyes.
Gorgeously written, really some of the most beautiful descriptions I've read in quite a while. Two people on the opposite sides of the Crusades in a moment of peace.

all the nameless that keeps us rising despite
IT, Stan/Richie/Beverly, 4k, Teen.
When Stan went over to Richie’s house after dinner to tutor him for their math test tomorrow he thought he knew exactly what he was signing up for.
Beautiful depiction of loss and love and a game of spin-the-bottle.

Jane Eyre, Jane-focused, 3.4k, Mature.
Not everything, Jane learns early on, is real.
Deeply creepy alternative interpretation of the canon. I love this possibility.

How Else Would Sailing Ships Ever Have Navigated?
Jeeves, Madeline Bassett/Honoria Glossop, 2.3k, G.
“Do you think,” Madeline said to Honoria as the more impressive parts of nature gradually crept up upon them, “that all daffodils are the daughters of sunlight?”
Absolutely adorable fic for some minor characters with a pitch-perfect tone for the canon.

the worlds that spin beyond our atmosphere
Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter/Caine, 7.8k, Teen.
When Jupiter woke up, there was a small metal sphere on the pillow beside her. She blinked at it, because it certainly had not been there when she had gone to bed the night before. Then Aunt Nino began to stir and grumble as she too woke up and Jupiter snatched up the sphere, lobbing it hastily into her half-packed suitcase on her way to go and make the coffee.
In which Jupiter is propositioned by a space travel agency (but fancier!) and introduces Caine to her family.

Gorgeous worldbuilding and wonderful expansion of the canon. I love the descriptions of other planets in here.

King Arthur (2017), Arthur/The Mage, 3k, Teen.
In which there's a girl, a dragon, and a castle, and Arthur resolves not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Totally hilarious and a great fit with the canon.

Those parts, which maids keep unespy'd
Kushiel's Legacy, Phedre/Joscelin, 1.9k, Explicit.
There are few things Phedre has never done. There's one she's never done with Joscelin.
Wonderful hot and sweet fic. Het anal, which is rare to see in fanfiction, but so very well-done here.

Midwinter Queen
The Lion in Winter, Henry/Eleanor, 1.6k, G.
Christmas at Chinon, 1183. Conversation gambits keep the Christmas fires burning.
Cynical and regretful and funny and heavy, this story does a better job of capturing the voice of the canon than almost any I've read.

By Degrees
Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford/Fanny Price, 16.6k, Mature.
Her conscience had been disturbed, and she could no longer dislike Mary Crawford enough to be safe from her, if such a thing had ever been possible at all.
Really excellent slow-burn for one of my favorite Austen ships, and the Fanny characterization is just ideal.

Canada Gold
Mean Girls, Regina George/Janis Ian, 3.9k, Teen.
Regina joined the CIA to catch bad guys. Unfortunately, this time, that meant she had to work with Janis.
Yeah, so it turns out that the thing that's been missing from my life is Mean Girls f/f rival spies future-fic. I am so, so glad that this story exists because it's amazing.

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Thursday, December 21st, 2017
12:40 pm - Reading Thursday
What did you just finish?
What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. A nonfiction book attempting to explain the upswing in conservative voters in the midwest and other rural areas. It's a bit out of date; it was published only in 2004 but things change fast in the politics game. Nonetheless, this book is pretty amazingly prescient; a lot of his discussion of conservative Republicans choosing to vote for their values (pro-life and anti-gay marriage in particular) against their own economic self-interest could apply perfectly to the Trump tax bill that passed just yesterday.

Frank focuses on Kansas because it's his home state, but it also makes for a very interesting case study. Although these days it's almost a byword for conservatism (perhaps moreso in 2004, when the Kansas School Board had recently declared all students must be taught 'evolution is a theory, not a fact'), it once had an equally radical liberal history: Bloody Kansas, John Brown, the Populist movement of the 1890s. Frank blames the shift on Democrats more-or-less abandoning their economic principles of supporting unions, New Deal-esque social welfare programs, high taxes for the rich and strict regulations for corporations. With little to distinguish between Democrats and Republicans in economic terms, the Republicans were able to corral the cultural backlash against the social changes of the last few decades into votes – which they promptly used not to actually repeal abortion or make profanity on TV illegal, but to pass taxes and deregulations that made the rich richer.

It's a sound enough argument. My one criticism of the book is that Frank doesn't address race at all. Or rather, he does bring it up once: to say that it's not a factor in Kansas. Which, uh. I've never been to Kansas, and certainly I don't remember race coming up particularly frequently in the pundit discussions of GWB's first election, but I find that hard to believe. Even if it was true at the time, it's certainly no longer true after Obama. Frank, in general, discounts all social issues compared to economic ones – race, feminism, lgbt rights, etc. And it's not that I don't agree that economics are important! But I think he's incorrect to reduce everything that could possibly fit under the category of 'civil rights' to province of "the self-righteous" (YES THAT IS AN ACTUAL QUOTE, WTF). Both sides can matter.

Anyway, like I said, it's a good book overall, even if I think Frank would benefit from considering stuff other than economics. Like, anything. Anything at all.

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson. A historical nonfiction about, well, look at the title. I've had my copy of this book for a year now, but I've only just gotten around to reading it. Real life has been so full of racist and depressing politics that I couldn't handle facing more of the same in my reading.

However, it turns out that The Blood of Emmett Till is more suspenseful than depressing. I mean, it's still about the violent murder of a 14-year-old child, don't get me wrong. It's not exactly light-hearted. But Tyson doesn't describe in detail what happened to Till after he was taken from his great-uncle's house until the last chapter. Instead most of the book is focused on recreating the wider cultural setting of the lynching, the personalities of the people involved, and the drama of the trial. There are some outright exciting stories in here, particularly one where reporters, lawyers, and activists go racing about rural Mississippi in disguise, hoping to find witnesses to help the prosecution.

I found the historical details to be the most fascinating part of the book. The Brown vs Board of Education decision had been handed down only the previous year, and rage against school desegregation and the possibility of interracial marriage was being actively flamed by various white supremacist groups. Two voting rights activists had been murdered (and a third shot who survived) nearby earlier that same summer; none of the cases were even investigated, much less tried. These events likely influenced Till's killers to attack him, and their belief that they would get away with it. Tyson also shows how Till's death helped the burgeoning civil rights movement. Many of the most famous names come up in the reaction and protests during and after the trial: Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, as well as events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Greensboro Woolworth Lunch Counter Sit-ins.

It's an excellently written book with a page-turning quality nonfiction doesn't often have. I highly recommend it if you have the least interest in civil rights or America's racist history.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Nothing yet! But I want to ask for recs: I’m in the mood for sci-fi, preferably of the space opera sort, with lots of alien species and bouncing around from one cool planet to the next. I want a fun and light book though, definitely nothing that could be described as military sci-fi. The Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy movies are good examples of what I want, but in a book. Basically I want the equivalent of those fics that are like ‘it’s our fave characters, but now they’re iiiiin spaaaaaaace!’.

The closest thing I can think of to what I’m looking for is Martha Wells’s Books of the Raksura, which is not space opera, but does have all the awesome worldbuilding with many cool species and tons of fantastic imaginative settings. So, more stuff like that, please!

Things I’ve already read and so you don’t need to rec them to me: the Vorkosigan Saga, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Dune, N.K. Jeminsin’s books, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series, the Mars trilogy (all of KSR’s books, really), and The Left Hand of Darkness. Most of these are close to what I want, but way more serious than I’d like right now. I’m in the mood for fun!

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Wednesday, December 13th, 2017
5:21 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold. Another novella about Penric, a sorcerer – which in the rules of this fantasy series means he is possessed by a friendly chaos demon. Penric’s is named Desdemona and has possessed ten women – plus a lioness and a mare – before him, giving it a rather female personality. Penric’s Fox follows fairly closely after Penric and the Shaman (link to my review of it), wherein he met Inglis (the shaman of the title) and Oswyl (a sort of police detective). In this one, Penric is spending a pleasant day fishing with Inglis when Oswyl arrives to ask for their help –
another sorcerer has been murdered and her demon is missing. This sets off the murder mystery that ends up being the main plot: Who murdered her, of course, but also how on earth could anyone sneak up on a women with a demon, and where exactly has that demon has gone off to? And most importantly, who was the real intended victim: the woman or the demon?

When it seems the demon may have jumped into a passing fox, Penric and the others begin to search the forest and its hundreds of local foxes, a task much like hunting for a needle in a haystack. Their task is complicated when they find signs that the still-unknown murderer is also looking for a certain special fox.

I really enjoyed this novella. The Penric series (and the larger series it’s a subthread of, The World of the Five Gods) are all light, fun short stories, absolutely charming ways to spend an afternoon. I loved reading about Inglis and Oswyl again, as I'd liked them previously and was glad to see their friendship with Penric deepening. It’s also intriguing to see that Bujold seems to be setting up future stories to further explore the relationship between the magics of sorcerers and shamans, a topic that I’m very interested in her take on and so I will be looking forward to reading whatever comes next.

My one complaint is that, late in the novella, there's a development that seems to draw on the real-world issue of police brutality. I don’t think Bujold handled it offensively, but it’s a brief digression and that's not a great way to deal with such a sensitive topic. I wish she had either gone into it with real depth or had just not brought it up at all. As it is, it feels half-hearted, which isn’t fair to such a serious matter. But this is literally only a few pages out of two hundred, so I certainly wouldn’t un-recommend the novella for that alone. On the other hand, it did bother me, so I wanted to mention it.

Overall, a fantasy series that takes a digression into murder mystery. Certainly worth reading if you’ve enjoyed other books in the series, but not a good introduction to the world or characters.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Death Trick by Richard Stevenson. A murder mystery set in 1979 Albany, starring Donald Strachey, a private detective and gay man. The writing definitely shares some traits with the sparse, hard-boiled style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but Don has a sense of humor and tendency toward cheerful sarcasm that lightens the cliche and makes him a fun character to spend time with. He's in a fairly committed relationship (though unfortunately we don't get much background on that in this book) but struggles with monogamy; both halves of the couple sleep with other people in the course of the plot.

Which, by the way, is this: Billy Blount, a young gay man, spent the night dancing at a club with the DJ, Steven Kleckner. They were seen leaving together. The next morning Steven is found stabbed to death in his bed and Billy has gone into hiding. Don is hired by Billy’s parents to find where he’s gone and convince him to come back home – the parents have already worked out a plea deal with the judge and DA. However as Don investigates he slowly becomes convinced that Billy isn’t the killer, and his parents don’t have his best interests at heart.

The real fun of this book isn’t so much the mystery itself but the rich world of the gay community in a small city in the pre-AIDS era. No single person (including Don) gets much depth, but the setting as a whole is crowded with recognizable characters quickly sketched out with a few well-chosen details. There are hustlers and cruising in the park, poppers and bath houses, radical anarchist groups and drag queens, gay bars with lightless back rooms raided by the cops, and lots and lots of disco, music and pop culture references (which I mostly didn't recognize, to be honest; I am not familiar enough with the 70s). It’s not all fun, of course; Don also deals with homophobic cops and mental institutions using electroshock therapy to cure teenagers of their ‘poor social adjustment’ (aka gayness).

Death Trick is the first of a 15 books series. The cover is, uh, kind of appalling (unless you enjoy cheesy 90s stock photos, I suppose)(also why is there a dog? There’s no dog in the book!), but I really enjoyed reading it, and will absolutely be checking out more of the series.

What are you currently reading?
What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, given that it has a good reputation, but it also came out in 2004 and what’s still relevant in politics changes fast. On the other hand, I just saw some article citing it as still topical in the Trump Era, so I've decided to finally pull the battered copy off my to-read shelf and open it up.

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Thursday, December 7th, 2017
3:54 pm - Reading Thursday
What did you just finish?
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes by Adam Rutherford. A nonfiction book intended for a general audience about human DNA and what it tells us about our history and current existence. It's extremely up to date – I believe Rutherford even manages to cite studies from 2017 a few times – but also goes all the way back to the beginning, covering Darwin and Mendel and similar pioneers. It's nice that Rutherford doesn't spare his own field any criticism; he goes fairly thoroughly into the story of Francis Galton (the inventor of eugenics) and the problems with other scientists who have tried to use DNA to bolster their racist beliefs. He also does not have a lot of patience for 23andMe or similar 'analyze your heritage through DNA!' companies, arguing that they're too imprecise to give real answers.

The book is split in roughly half, with the first part covering human history (the evolution of Homo sapiens; how we mixed with closely related species like the Neanderthals and Denisovans; the movement of groups of people across the world, particularly Europe and Britain; and the evolution of traits like red hair and milk drinking), and the second half covering DNA in the modern world (does race exist genetically?; do genes predispose some people to becoming violent criminals?; how easy – or hard – is it to identify genetic diseases?; and the story of the Human Genome Project).

I found the writing to be dense and hard to get through, though I couldn't say exactly why; Rutherford certainly drops in plenty of jokes and references to the Simpsons or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He's at his best when he's telling a specific story rather than a general point of scientific principle. His descriptions of the attempt to use historical DNA to uncover mysteries like the identities of Richard III (successful!) or Jack the Ripper (hugely failed!) were very well-done, as was the chapter on why race doesn't work as a genetic concept. I think a lot of people are familiar with that general point, but he really digs into why with specific examples and many details and it was a fascinating read. But reading the rest, I often found my attention drifting, and had to yank it back to the page again and again. Unfortunately this problem seems to be worst in the opening chapter, making it hard to get into the book.

Overall, there's plenty of worthwhile information here, but the writing itself didn't work for me.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Death Trick by Richard Stevenson. I wanted something light and simple after A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived turned out to be a bit of a slog, so I picked this up off a rec: a murder mystery starring a gay private eye, set in 1979 in Albany (which means: rural, upstate New York). it is very much meeting my needs so far, though gay books written pre-AIDS always end up feeling a bit alien to me. I had the same reaction to Armistead Maupin's first Tales of the City.

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Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
1:55 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Everfair by Nisi Shawl. A steampunk alt-history of the Belgian Congo. (Summary of the real-world history, though trigger warning for about everything ever. When even Wikipedia is almost unreadably horrifying, you know it's a bad time. As a side note, Everfair itself is not nearly as traumatic as it could be. Atrocities are mentioned, but they happen off-screen and without detail.) Or at least that's how the book is generally described, though in fact that summary only covers the first half; Everfair goes on to follow its characters through WWI, the Spanish influenza epidemic, and a local civil war, encompassing about thirty years overall through the eyes of at least a dozen main characters.

My own summary: a group of settlers (both black and white, American and European, socialist atheists and Christian missionaries – all forced together to share resources) buys land in the Congo from the Belgian government and moves there with the specific goal of somehow helping the local people against their oppressors. They are shortly afterwards joined by a group of Chinese, escapees from forced labor under the Belgians. Together, they name their new settlement Everfair. Although they ultimately succeed in this original mission, the community is torn apart by its internal divisions as well as the difficulty of integrating the immigrants with the already-established African kingdom they have dropped into the middle of, not to mention somehow establishing a recognized modern independent country in the early part of the 20th century.

There is a lot to love about this book. If the image of nuclear-powered zeppelins staffed with African tribal warriors dropping bombs on Belgian colonizers does not get your heart pumping, you need more joy in your life. There are multiple queer (lesbian particularly) romances and poly romances. There are characters with good intentions who nonetheless fuck up spectacularly. There are disabled characters, and the awesome bronze gear-powered prosthetics invented to replace their missing limbs. There are assassination attempts and devious characters manipulating propaganda for their own ends. There are magic charms that really work, including a swarm of bees to rekindle a lost love and a school for spies that teaches girls to shapeshift into cats. There is a beautiful, worldly, shrewd queen, who makes alliances and offers advice; a French spy who writes stories about talking animals; a Chinese engineer who designs better and better airships; a greedy young black woman from small-town Florida who's determined to find fame on the stage; a Protestant reverend who finds himself chosen by the Yoruba god of lightning and metal.

It's all pretty great! And yet, and yet... if only there was more room for any of it to breathe. Which is my main complaint: there's so damn much going on here. Everfair is only about 400 pages long, but the content could easily have filled a seven-volume series of doorstoppers. As it is, wars come and go, romances are formed and broken, children are born and reach adulthood, but it all happens so quickly and ephemerally that it's hard to emotionally engage with any of it. Everfair reads more like a series of loosely-connected vignettes than a novel, and as much as I admire its ambition, I don't think Shawl quite pulled off a successful work. The ideas are wonderful, but they're missing the depth of exploration they need.

Still. They are some pretty great ideas.

What are you currently reading?
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes by Adam Rutherford. Nonfiction about ancient DNA. It's getting off to a slow start, but I have high hopes.

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Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
3:51 pm - Reading Wednesday... ON WEDNESDAY!
What did you just finish?
Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott. A retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in 1940s Harlem. There are some immediate differences from the original: it's not an epistolary novel, which I have mixed feelings about; on the one hand, I LOVE epistolary novels, but on the other hand the third-person limited POVs certainly allow Scott to dig deeper into characters' motivations and feelings. In addition, the Marquise de Merteuil (here Mae Malveaux, wealthy heir to a cosmetics fortune, the products all emblazoned with her baby photos) is less of a main character, replaced in her central role by Vicomte de Valmont (Valiant Jackson, equally wealthy club owner and number runner, though stymied in his life-long dream of owning a baseball team; as another character puts it, no one whose money comes from gambling is ever going to be allowed to buy a sports team) and Cécile de Volanges (Cecily, still an innocent young girl, though in this case her inexperience comes from being sent to live on the family farm in North Carolina rather than a convent). The relationship between Val and Madame de Tourvel (Elizabeth Townsend, a deeply religious woman married to an important civil rights lawyer who is currently away working on a case down South) probably takes up the largest page-count of any of this story's many subplots, with Scott working hard to show how two such different people could find a genuine connection, one deep and true enough to change both of their self-images.

The biggest difference, though, is one of tone; Les Liaisons Dangereuses revels in its characters' remorseless evil, and isn't particularly interested in giving them tragic backstories to account for their actions. The Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont are terrible, terrible people, but by God they're fun to watch. Unforgivable Love not only gives them those explanatory childhoods, but by making Elizabeth and Cecily equal narrators, shifts the focus from badass villains to normal people struggling with ethical choices. There's a general tone of redemption, of hopefulness, of the possibility of making good out of this tragedy. Which I can't really argue with as a philosophical standpoint, but it's not what I come to Les Liaisons Dangereuses for. It also contrasts harshly with some of the actions required by the plot; Cecily and Val's first sexual encounter in particular is incredibly uncomfortable to read, given that it's described in no uncertain terms as rape, yet Cecily gets over it immediately and happily returns to sleeping with Val.

I also think the book's page-count of 500-plus was probably unnecessary; certainly there's a lot of twists and turns in this story, not to mention a fairly large cast of characters, but Unforgivable Love felt like it dragged in parts, particularly compared to the slim swift-moving original novel.

But I feel like I'm complaining a lot here, and I didn't actually dislike Unforgivable Love. I love a good modern-AU fanfic (which is essentially what this is), and the analogies Scott has found for the characters' roles are clever and well-suited. Many of the descriptions of settings are absolutely lovely, from Harlem's jazz clubs to a rural farm to the lush grounds of an upstate mansion where much of the book takes place. Cecily's character arc of slowly coming to understand and accept her own sexuality is brilliant and well-written.

I love Les Liaisons Dangereuses and will always be interested in retellings of it. Part of my disappointment with Unforgivable Love might simply be that my expectations were far too high. But even if it's not everything I wanted, it's well worth reading, and I hope it does well.

What are you currently reading?
Still working on Everfair by Nisi Shawl. I've got some critiques, but it's a good book overall.

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Thursday, November 16th, 2017
5:53 pm - Almost-Wednesday Reading
What did you just finish?
How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore. A nonfiction book about the true story of Thomas Day, an 18th century lawyer/philosopher/poet/generally useless dude, who was repeatedly disappointed in love and came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t him, but that no woman he’d ever known met his high standards. Since his ideal married life involved living in a rural cottage with no social contacts, bathing, modern conveniences, or other distractions from “virtue”, I'm unsurprised that he had difficulty finding a woman to agree to this. Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel “Emilie” (a novel about raising the perfect child by teaching them to fend for themselves in the forest, and not really intended to be taken as a education manual), Day decided that the only way to find his perfect wife would be to create her himself. He therefore acquired two young girls from an orphanage (got to have a backup in case the first turned out less than perfect, see), spirited them over to France where they would be isolated from all help due to not speaking the language, and proceeded to subject them to a years-long experiment in schooling, frugal clothing, submissive behavior, and training in fortitude that extended to spilling hot wax on their bare skin or shooting at them with unloaded guns.

It’s a story that is so crazy it almost doesn’t matter how good of a writer Moore is – the subject matter is so compelling that provides all the tension and interest on its own. She is a very good writer, though, as well as a researcher. I was particularly impressed by her efforts to reconstruct the lives of the two girls before and after they lived with Day, a subject that had all but faded out of the historical record and often been allowed to remain in obscurity. She also does an excellent job of connecting this story to larger historical currents – the role of orphanages in 18th century London, the philosophical debate on how best to raise children, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile from France and journeys across Europe, Enlightenment philosophy, Day’s participation in the anti-slavery movement and the American Revolution (he was a prominent progressive, despite his obvious lack of interest in women’s rights), and Day’s friendships with other important historical figures such as Anna Seward (a poet and important letter-writer) and Erasmus Darwin (a natural philosopher and leader of a group of scientists and industrialists). She also points out that Day’s experiment was likely at least part of the inspiration behind ‘My Fair Lady’, as well as several other similar novels of the 19th century.

The book becomes a bit less interesting after the girls separate from Day, though that’s not Moore’s fault; what could she do when the truth simply becomes less balls-out insane? But even if every chapter isn’t quite as great as the premise makes it sound, the early parts are beyond compelling, and the background details of women’s lives in Georgian England make for a satisfying read.

Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold. Another in Bujold's series of novellas about Penric, a young man possessed by an ancient, female, mischievous demon named Desdemona. Hey, in this fantasy world, that's not so unusual – demon possession is more or less the only way to have magical powers – but most sorcerers, as they're called, are the result of careful choice and training, while Penric acquired Desdemona by accident and treats her with much more respect and affection than is generally recommended.

In this novella, a police detective (well, the fantasy equivalent) requires Penric's help to hunt down a man named Inglis, who not only murdered a young lord but stole his soul as well. How and why he did so is as much an open question as where he's fled to. The real fun of this story isn't so much the mystery but the world-building of the rules of magic; Inglis, it turns out, is a shaman, and his powers share a tantalizing similarity to Penric's own.

This is a charming, enjoyable novella, but one I wouldn't recommend if you haven't read a story with Penric before. It's a bit forgettable, but it's certainly a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Everfair by Nisi Shawl. A fantasy re-imagining of the Belgian colonization of the Congo. That's such a wonderful idea, and I've been meaning to read this for ages.

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Wednesday, November 8th, 2017
6:59 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg. A collection of “retold fairy tales” – or so says the blurb, but I think I’d describe it as a collection of short stories that, while they certainly play with fairy tale motifs and plots, aren’t quite producing new fairy tales, no more than The Bloody Chamber or Into the Woods are fairy tales. Besides, Ortberg takes her inspiration from sources beyond traditional folklore: here we have Shakespeare, the Bible, The Wind in the Willows, and Frog and Toad are friends, among others.

I’m a huge fan of Ortberg, which is the main reason I wanted to read this collection as soon as I knew it existed (though I am also a fan of fairy tale retellings, so that aspect didn’t hurt), but I mainly think of her as a comedian. Though she can be very funny, that sense of humor isn't much evident in this book. These stories are dark, casting a cynical eye over society and human relationships, with a few genuinely scary moments.

My favorite stories were 'The Daughter Cells', a take on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid from the point of view of the mermaid. I mean, I suppose the original was from the point of the view of the mermaid as well, but this is a story where the whole worldview is oriented to creatures that live in the ocean, and to breathe dry air or be unable to regenerate limbs or live behind doors are just odd cultural quirks that must be tolerated in those poor humans. Another favorite was 'The Rabbit', in which the Velveteen Rabbit does not become Real through love of a child, but through stealing the child’s life-force. It’s creepy and sociopathic and I just loved it.

On the other hand, I really wanted to like 'The Thankless Child', a mix of King Lear and Cinderella (and how have I never noticed those parallels before? The three daughters, the youngest one good but oppressed, the missing mother). Parts of it are wonderful, particularly the insistent demands of the godmother for the youngest child to love her and only her – that was absolutely chilling in an understated way. There’s an interesting take on gender roles here as well, with “husband” and “wife” being placements one decides on after marrying, more job titles than gender roles. On the other hand, I’m not exactly sure what happened at the end, in that way of literary fiction that is so concerned with being subtle it crosses the line into incomprehensible. It’s not the only story with a bit of that, but this was the piece that suffered the worst.

I did enjoy this collection overall, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected. For a sample of Ortberg's writing in a similar vein, check out this retelling of Donkeyskin by her. If you like that, you’re sure to like this book as well.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Portal of a Thousand Worlds by Dave Duncan. A fantasy novel being advertised as “Game of Thrones but in Ancient China”, so of course I had to read it. Did it hold up to that? Well, the politics and backstories are necessarily going to be shallower when you don’t have seven books to fill, but I think it’s a fair comparison.

Portal of a Thousand Worlds is set in what felt to me like vaguely early Qing Dynasty era (1600-1700s), but with fantasy elements such as a widespread network of assassins who have a little bit of magic, just enough to change their appearances (okay, maybe there's more than one Game of Thrones connection) and a giant door carved into a mountainside that supposedly opens once every few thousand years. No one's quite what happens when it opens, since generally no witnesses survive. Unfortunately for fantasy-China's stability, when the book begins portents suggest that it's due to open next year.

The plot mostly centers around the current emperor, a young man left severely mentally disabled after an attempted poisoning. His mother, the empress, has kept this a secret and is ruling in his stead, but the time has come for the emperor to sire an heir, and he's incapable of doing so. Horse, a member of that assassin's guild who's too nice to want to kill anyone, is smuggled into the palace to provide a look-alike sperm donor, but when he falls in love with one of his new concubines, he realizes that he's trapped in the court with no way back out. Meanwhile, a rebel army (with a bit of a Taiping Rebellion vibe) has risen in the south, firmly convinced that the real emperor is dead and determined to overthrow the "corrupt" empress.

In a separate plot thread, another member of the assassin's guild is cheerfully murdering his way to wealth and seducing the daughters of rich merchants along the way. Silky (the assassin) and Verdant Harmony (that merchant's daughter) end up married and surprisingly well-suited to one another. Seriously, Verdant might have been my favorite character in the book, and I would love a sequel watching her grow into herself.

In yet a third plot-thread, a young peasant boy named Sunlight is identified as the "Firstborn", the "Urfather", a Dalai Lama-like spiritual figure who is continually reincarnated with the full memory of his previous lives, much worshipped, feared, and respected for his wisdom. He sets out to broker peace between the emperor and the rebel army, but the hard part will be convincing anyone he is who he says he is.

I do have some complaints about the book. Many of the characters didn't feel quite three-dimensional, and Duncan seems to have a weird hatred for eunuchs. Not a single one could appear on the page without repeated descriptions of how they were smelly and devious. (Maybe this is my own bias, since I think I'm oddly predisposed to liking fictional eunuchs, but really, Duncan? Not a single sympathetic one?) The ending and the reveal of what’s up with the portal felt a bit underdeveloped/deus ex machina when they arrived. But despite these problems, I’m so goddamn glad to read an epic fantasy that manages to finish its story in one volume that I’ll forgive almost anything. Not to mention how refreshing it is to read an epic fantasy that's not set in vaguely medieval Europe! For the sake of those factors, I ended up more pleased by Portal of a Thousand Worlds than not.

What are you currently reading?
Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott. A retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in Harlem in the 1940s. What an excellent premise! :D

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Friday, November 3rd, 2017
1:51 pm - Reading for October, Part Two
In which I read a bunch horror novels because it's Halloween.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. A novel in the recent genre of "Lovecraft but with antiracism". In this one, the main character Atticus Turner is a young black man in the 1950s who has just discovered that he is the closest living descendant of a powerful wizard from early America (via Atticus's great-great-great-however many times grandmother, who escaped from slavery the same night the wizard accidentally immolated himself and everyone he was close to in an attempt to gain greater power). The wizard's surviving followers have tracked Atticus down and would like to use him for a ritual he is not intended to survive. They kidnap his father to force Atticus to follow him to their creepy small town in rural New England.

This sets off a series of events in which Atticus, his extended family, and several friends are repeatedly caught up in supernatural events: a coup within the wizard cabal, haunted houses, magic potions that grant tempting powers, visits to distant planets, devilishly evil – literally! – cops, treasure hunts for mysterious artifacts, and so on. Each chapter is relatively disconnected from the others and focuses on a different character, so the book has somewhat of the feel of a series of short stories rather than a regular novel. Since Lovecraft himself was more of a story writer than a novelist, the homage is obvious. Through it all, though, the specter of Jim Crow racism proves more dangerous and pervasive than any creature from another dimension. One of the most haunting sections is a flashback to the childhood of Atticus's father, when he escaped the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. There's nothing wrong with it, exactly; I just wanted it to go a bit deeper or explore further than it ever actually did. Most of this is down to the short story-esque format; since each one has a new narrator and plot, I never got to know any of the individuals well enough. Unfortunately, it's not a particularly scary book either, though to be fair it's not trying to be. The concept of wizards competing over ancient books of power is really the only detail it takes from Lovecraft. There's no ancient gods or mind-breaking geometry man was not meant to comprehend here, nor races of squid-people.

Lovecraft Country is apparently being produced by HBO as a series, which seems like a great idea. I suspect this is one of those cases where an adaptation (particularly a serial one, like a TV show) could do more with the material than the original did.

Bone White by Ronald Malfi. A horror novel set in contemporary rural Alaska. Paul Gallo has a contentious relationship with his drop-out druggie twin, Danny, but ever since Danny disappeared a year ago while on a trip to "find himself", Paul has been dedicated to figuring out what happened to him. Then a serial killer surrenders in the small town of Dread's Hand, Alaska – the same place Danny was last heard from. Paul, of course, heads to Alaska to start his own investigation, and discovers that something supernatural may be going on. The people of Dread's Hand tell stories of a devil who turns people "bone white" – poisons them from the inside, leaves them soulless and dangerous – and everyone, from the local cops to the hotel owner to the serial killer himself, is clearly helping to cover up whatever happened to Danny.

This was an absolutely fantastic book. Malfi is not only a master at creating creeping tension, conveying the horror of absolute isolation, coming up with straight-up uncanny images, and just generally being scary, but his prose has a beauty that's rare in this genre. A few random examples of lines that struck me:
Daylight broke like an arterial bleed.
He could feel the slight increase in his heartbeat, and despite the cold that he’d carried in with him from the outside, a film of perspiration had come over him. He felt amphibious with it.
Blink and you’d miss it: a town, or, rather, the memory of a town, secreted away at the end of a nameless, unpaved roadway that, in the deepening half light of an Alaskan dusk, looks like it might arc straight off the surface of the planet and out into the far reaches of the cosmos. A town where the scant few roads twist like veins and the little black-roofed houses, distanced from one another as if fearful of some contagion, look as if they’d been excreted into existence, pushed up through the crust of the earth from someplace deep underground. There is snow the color of concrete in the rutted streets, dirty clumps of it packed against the sides of houses or snared in the needled boughs of steel-colored spruce. No one walks the unpaved streets; no one putters around in those squalid little yards, where the soil looks like ash and the saplings all bend at curious, pained, aggrieved angles.
And even farther still, he saw what appeared to be an impromptu landfill—a conglomeration of old washing machines, truck tires, TV antennas, and even an entire discarded swing set lay in a jumbled heap in the overgrown grass, like some beast that had succumbed to the elements and left its skeleton behind.
Sure, it's not poetry, but it's a damn sight better than the workmanlike prose that I expected, and is a major part of why I loved this book.

Another thing I adored was Jill Ryerson, investigator in Major Crimes Fairbank and the book's secondary narrator. Despite Paul and Jill being relatively the same age and both single... they never hook up! They never even waste time experiencing 'sexual tension'! They just get on with their jobs, interacting like two platonic professionals! DO YOU KNOW HOW RARE THIS IS? I was ecstatic when I realized that there wasn't going to be some dumb romantic subplot. Jill even gets this wonderfully un-feminized description when she fall ill at one point: "A whip of Kleenex corkscrewing from one nostril and a steaming mug of Theraflu on the counter, she’d listened to McHale’s voice in disbelief."

There are complaints I could make about Bone White: there's a dumb recurring theme of powerful chakras, and the ending felt a little anticlimactic. But all of that is minor compared to the all-important trio of 1.) a genuinely scary book, with 2.) lovely writing, and 3.) well-written, competent female characters who are not there to be sexual foils for the male heroes.

This is the first book I've read by Malfi, but I was incredibly impressed and will definitely be reading more.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is one of those books where just figuring out what the hell is going on takes until the end; they can be fun to read, but they're damn hard to review.

So here's what we know: a significant portion of the southern US (I assumed, though now that I think about it, I believe the country is never actually specified) has been cordoned off by the government for decades and renamed "Area X". Exactly what happened to Area X – something supernatural? alien? environmental? disease-related? radioactive? – is either unknown or deliberately suppressed, but the only humans allowed into the area are small teams of explorers. Our unnamed narrator, known only as "the biologist", is a member of the twelfth expedition, along with three other women: the anthropologist, the surveyor, and their leader, the psychologist. All members of previous expeditions have died, either within Area X itself – whether of suicide or killed by other members of their team – or after returning, due to aggressive cancers. The biologist is meant to study the pristine wilderness created by humans having abandoned the area, but she slowly realizes that the act of observation is changing her as well, turning her into something that may not be quite human. Her past and her reasons for taking such a job are also slowly revealed. It's a short novel (about 130 pages), and though there's plenty of unsettling descriptions, we never do get a firm answer on what's going on with Area X or why any of this is happening.

Annihilation reminded me a lot of House of Leaves. There's that same sense of the normal being made uncanny, though in this case it's swamps, a lighthouse, and dolphins with too-human eyes rather than a four-and-a-half minute hallway. Nor are there any explanations to be had, except in the vague sense of symbolism and the main character's psychology. Unfortunately, unlike House of Leaves the cryptic nature of Annihilation didn't quite work for me. I'm all for open endings, but when the characters, the plot, the setting, and the meaning are all vague as misty streaks on a cloudy night, I'm left with nothing to hang on to.

It had some lovely descriptions of plants, I'll give it that.

Invasive by Chuck Wendig. I asked for recs for scary reads over on twitter, and [profile] call_me_ishmael provided me with a list, of which I chose this one. There's a very simple reason for that: it's a horror novel about ants.

A lot of people are creeped out by spiders. Me, I've never been able to stand ants. The shiny blackness of their surfaces, more like metal or plastic than any organic substance; the unnaturally sharp angles of their joints and segments; the flat reflectiveness of their eyes; the pointed mandibles in the base of their overly aerodynamic heads... it's wrong. Alien, robotic, monstrous – I'm not sure which, but they just don't seem like something from Earth. And so an entire book focusing on a creature that already makes me uncomfortable seemed like the perfect read for October.

In a rural cabin in upstate New York, FBI consultant Hannah Stander is called to what may or may not be a crime scene. An unidentified body is found with its skin having been eaten by ants; the ants themselves were later killed off by a cold snap. Hannah and others at first assume the guy was probably dead before the ants arrived, but as they investigate further they discover the ants are of no known species. Or rather, they're of multiple species: the ants are genetically modified organisms combining the traits of many different kinds of ants to make them uniquely and viciously deadly. They possess a venom potent enough to paralyze a human with anaphylactic shock after a single sting, and they're drawn to harvest human skin for its yeast in much the same way leaf-cutter ants collect greenery to grow fungus. An investigation of their DNA finds markers tying the ants back to the company of an eccentric billionaire of the Richard Branson/Elon Musk type; he, of course, denies all involvement, but Hannah is invited to travel to his privately-owned island where his team of scientists do cutting-edge research. And where they are all horribly isolated when the ants break out.

Hannah is a fantastic character to be the narrator of a horror novel. She suffers from panic attacks and has anxiety about everything – global warming, antibiotic resistant diseases, turbulence, etc – so her constant low-grade tension builds suspense before anything even happens. On the other hand, she was raised by off-the-grid doomsday prepper parents, so when the shit hits the fan she has the training and drive to survive the end of the world. She's complex, likable, and flawed, and I enjoyed spending time with her. Invasive is apparently a sequel to Wendig's Zer0es, but there is relatively little overlap between the two (Hannah, for example, seems to be new for this book), so I had no problem reading it as a stand-alone.

I do have a few complaints: the section of the book between the first death and before the ants are released is pretty slow-going, as Hannah just wanders around interviewing scientists and contemplating who might be lying. But once swarms of ants are covering the island, things kick up to such a high gear that all that boring stage-setting is redeemed. Secondly, the ultimate reveal of who made the ants and why wasn't satisfactory. Still, the horror genre as a whole can almost never stick their landings, so I suppose I can't hold it against Invasive too much.

Overall, this was the perfect horror techno-thriller: exciting, gross, and cheesy in just the right amounts.

The Wishing Tree by Aline Hannigan. I'm pretty certain I bought this because it was written by a fanfic author I enjoy, but of course now I can't remember whose penname it is, so maybe I was mistaken about that. Anyway.

In this novella, Theodora Miller – expert in weird supernatural shit – is called from her home in East Harlem to a small New Hampshire town suffering from a plague of mysterious murders. They seem to be connected to the 'wishing tree', an old oak in the nearby forest that local folklore has caused to be carved with the initials of every resident. Also, it turns out that there's a deadline: Theodora has only a few days to solve the case before the entire town will be destroyed.

The Wishing Tree suffers from a few minor grammar mistakes (though if the author was one of you, let me know and I'm happy to do a beta), but overall I liked the inventiveness of the mystery and its resolution. There's a twist at the end that nicely ties up the plot, the creepiness of the scenario is well-developed, and both Theodora and the local sheriff were interesting, effective characters. Fifty pages doesn't give one much room to build up the world, but I see the author plans to write the further adventures of Theodora and that could make for a very promising series.

It kept me engaged despite reading it on a turbulent flight, and what more can humanity really ask for from our greatest literature?

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Wednesday, October 11th, 2017
4:48 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Girl from Rawblood by Catriona Ward. The Villarca family has lived in Rawblood, a great Gothic mansion isolated in the bogs and mists of Dartmoor, for generations untold. The Villarcas are also haunted by… something. Exactly what it is depends on which generation of the Villarcas you ask: the ghost of a murdered woman, a curse, a predisposition to madness with episodes brought on by strong emotions, an autoimmune disease, a tendency to sicken and pine if they move away from the house of Rawblood, a history of murdering those they love.

The story is told in segments from different slices of the family's history, though at every moment the characters think they are the last of the bloodline, not realizing the reader has already met their descendants. In 1910 we have Iris Villarca, a young girl living alone with her father and Tom Gilmore, the stableboy she is closer to than she should be. As she grows older a series of tragedies condemn her to an insane asylum, where she rots in the care of doctors more concerned with the larger devastation of World War I than with her. In 1881, Alonso Villarca is determined to solve his family’s problems through medical science, a goal that drives him to experiments involving vivisection, opium, blood, and a notable lack of ethics. In 1839, Mary Hopewell fades away from consumption in Italy, living on an independence that just barely keeps her above poverty. She doesn’t know, of course, that she will soon meet Don Villarca, who will marry her and buy back her long-lost childhood home of Rawblood. There are other narrators too: Meg (someday to become Iris’s mother but when we meet her enduring a childhood raised by strangers and believing herself to have the powers of a witch), Charles Danforth (Alonso’s companion in medical experiments, who sees the ghost Alonso swears isn’t there), Tom Gilmore’s letters from the trenches, and nameless Villarcas back into the dark depths of history, medieval monks and tattooed pagans. All of these stories interrupt and influence one another, circling around family secrets and unavoidable consequences and the connections across generations. The future and the past become indistinguishable, and by the end of the book time has circled back on itself.

For all the obvious horror tropes – a haunted house! a ghost! a witch! – I wouldn’t really call this a horror novel. It’s not particularly interested in scaring the reader. Instead, more than anything, it’s a tragedy. And a tragedy in quite the classical sense: you’re told right at the beginning how it’s all going to end painfully, and yet the characters keep making the choices you know they have to make, setting the plot on unbending tracks toward the inevitable crash. There’s a bit of a mystery in figuring out what exactly haunts the Villarcas, but the central pull of the book isn’t in solving those clues (though I do have to say that I absolutely love the ultimate reveal), but simply in the loss and sadness of their downfall, and Iris’s in particular. Her loneliness, her trauma, the way she is both abandoned to her fate and the creator of that same fate – ah, it’s great.

I absolutely loved this book. It has a very Victorian feel in some ways – the setting, the ruin of a noble house, the situations of the characters – but the author has set very modern eyes on these old tropes, giving them a new and powerful turn. I really recommend it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. Another in the spate of recent novels and short stories using H.P. Lovecraft's monsters and settings but with the explicit goal of subverting his racism. Can it possibly be as good as The Ballad of Black Tom? Probably not, but I'm enjoying it anyway.

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Sunday, October 8th, 2017
10:56 pm - Yuletide Letter
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
Tumblr: 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, general dark and depressing tones, etc, as needed for your story. Or feel free to ignore such elements of the canons below and write me fluff! 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, Chime without Consolation, 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, so if you choose 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 they'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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Monday, October 2nd, 2017
9:11 pm - Reading... Monday
What did you just finish?
The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. A nonfiction book not so much about Anne Boleyn herself, but about how perceptions of her have changed from her own time to today, frequently influenced by the perceiver’s own views on women, on religion, and on sexuality. One of the interesting things I learned is that the actual historical record is extremely sparse regarding Anne Boleyn; she existed, of course, but as to her personality, her goals, and her behavior, we know very little for sure. We have Henry’s letters to her during their courtship, for example, but her letters in response have been destroyed. Much of her reported dialogue and actions comes from the letters the Spanish ambassador wrote back to his king. As a politician and as a fierce loyalist of Katherine of Aragon, it’s an open question how accurate anything he said about Anne was. And yet for most of her life, there are almost no other contemporary reports to act as a counterbalance. She’s more or less an empty book, allowing subsequent generations to write whatever they wanted. We don’t even know, for sure, what she looked like – there is one painting that is maybe verifiably of her, but it’s a copy of the original and the identification could be mistaken.

Bordo’s interest is mostly in popular depictions rather than academic ones, and so we get analyses of Showtime’s The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, Victorian novels, and Restoration plays. She shows how Boleyn’s portrayals have veered from scheming temptress (possibly literally the antichrist) to martyr and victim of Henry’s cruel lusts, to feisty proto-feminist, to Mean Girl, to indistinguishable member of Henry’s six-wife harem, and on to a thousand other variations.

It’s a pretty fascinating topic. I did wish the book was a bit more of a deep dive than it quite is, but maybe my expectations were just too high for a work that was, after all, never trying to be a PhD dissertation.

Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter by Nancy Baron. The blurb for this book promised a "practical and entertaining guide to communicating science" explaining "how to engage your audience and explain why a particular finding matters". I was hoping for tips on how to write and speak when communicating scientific information to people who are not themselves experts in the field. You know, advice for public lectures, wide-appeal books, magazine articles – things like that. Unfortunately it turns out the 'explaining' was quite literal; while I was expecting a writing advice book, this is all about how one should talk to journalists or politicians.

Most of Escape from the Ivory Tower concerns how to give interviews, how to sound good on the radio, and what to do if a journalist misquotes you. I am sure this is helpful to those in the intended audience, but since I don’t see myself being called upon to testify to Congress anytime soon, I found it a bit useless. There was extremely little that was relevant to scientists who want to directly address the public themselves: about two pages on how to set up a blog and five on how to write and submit an op-ed. As for how to write books or give lectures, the main reasons I picked up the book – those topics were not addressed at all. But if you want tips for how to adapt yourself to TV interviews versus print interviews, or how to set up a meeting with a senator, this is the book for you!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Bone White by Ronald Malfi. It's October, so time for horror novels! :D

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Wednesday, September 20th, 2017
8:21 pm - Reading Wednesday
The Excursionist by J.D. Sumner. A novel about Jack, a man determined to visit 100 countries before his 35th birthday, all so he can join the Traveler’s Century Club.

Ugh, this book. It’s glaringly self-published, which I do not inherently object to – I'm all for self-publishing! But hire an editor, dude. It’s not typos or grammar mistakes that give it away (the book’s actually remarkably free of those)(which I suppose is damning with faint praise, but I am totally here to damn this book), but a constant stream of contradictions and just... well, odd choices. The one that leapt out to me most strikingly was when the narrator, in describing the Traveler’s Club, sticks the URL right in the middle of the text:
One down and two to go. Now all I had to do was to get to Kilrush and then to Fulgary and I could join the Travelers’ Century Club. See for further details.

This would maybe even have been not so weird if it had come in the introduction, the first time the reader is told about this goal, or in the endnotes. But no, none of the above. This quote instead comes from the end of chapter ten, when the Traveler’s Club has been mentioned multiple times without needing an URL.

It’s minor, I know, but similar minor annoyances pop up constantly throughout the text. Jack only needs to visit three more countries, so he heads to the (fictional) islands of Placentia, Kilrush and Fulgary. The fact that these are separate countries is the entire point of the book. And yet the flights between them are repeatedly described as "domestic". In addition, it’s implied Placentia and Fulgaryy are still considered UK territories. Granted, other people probably aren’t as fascinated by the debate over what “counts” as a country as much as I happen to be (I blame this game, on which I spend way too much of my free time), but when it’s the central premise of your story, it needs at least a little consideration.

I could forgive all of the above if Jack was a character I enjoyed spending time with. Instead he’s a complete and total asshole. He condescends and mistreats service employees, he shallowly judges fellow tourists, he rates all women by their attractiveness and sulks when they don’t want to sleep with him. Every time he interacted with any other living creature I wanted to punch him.
For example, discussing his job as a stockbroker: Getting a job in the City is like getting a girl. The less interest and enthusiasm you show, the better chance you have.
Describing his ex-wife: I was still paying for my ex-wife’s house. She had taken me for a mug, then a Merc, then a million. I did quite well out of the divorce settlement; I kept most of the back garden and some of the roof tiles. I wouldn’t have minded if I hadn’t come home to find somebody else’s kippers under the grill. I should have twigged when he helped move her stuff out when she ‘just needed some space’. […] And if I said no to her demands, I would get a call saying my daughter was ill or had been invited to a toddler’s party on the day I was supposed to visit. Her other trick was to pretend I had got the dates or the times wrong. It was easier just to give up. People only change in books or in films, not in real life. I stopped seeing my daughter as regularly when my folks told me she had started to call Graham ‘Daddy’.*
Interacting with a flight attendant: ‘Could I please have one of those bottles of fizzy mineral water?’ I said.
‘I am sorry, sir, we are not allowed to give them out.’ She bent down so close to my face I was worried she was going to kiss me.
‘I don’t want to bother you all the time, asking you for water. Can you leave me the bottle; I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.’
‘I am afraid we can’t do that, sir.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘It’s against regulations. I am sorry, sir.’
‘But your in-flight magazine says quite clearly on page twenty-eight, that passengers should make sure they remain hydrated.’
‘I know, sir. I am sorry but they are the regulations.’
‘I am only asking for a bottle of fizzy water. I have spent thousands of pounds flying Business Class with you. I’m thirsty,’ I said.
‘I am sorry, sir. It’s the rules.’
‘The rules… what airline has rules to prevent passengers from drinking water? Why advertise what a great service you provide, if you won’t give water to a thirsty passenger? What’s the point of pouring an eggcup-sized measure of water if I can jug down full glasses of wine? You do this because, as you know, the less weight you carry the less fuel you need, which means lower fuel costs and better profit.’ And with this, the hostess began to take away my empties.

I could have given you more egregious examples, but I chose these because they all occur before page 35. (And the text of the book doesn’t start until page 8!) Now you too have a sense of the density of Jack’s dickishness.

Though I've got to mention one more: at the end of the book, it’s revealed that Jack’s dead girlfriend who disappeared forever, possibly murdered, cheated on him shortly before her death. When Jack finds out this information, he explicitly decides not to go to the police with it, because, hey, it helped him get over her. Your hero, ladies and gentlemen!
I felt better about not being with her but I also wish I hadn’t wasted so much time thinking about her. I still didn’t know how Kay died but I suspect Naz may have had something to do with it. With forearms like Naz, it wouldn’t have been difficult to squeeze the life out of her. But I didn’t actually know what had happened to her. And for the first time, I wasn’t particularly bothered either. Should I go to the police? And tell them what exactly? I decided, rightly or wrongly, to move on.

Ughhhhh, this book, y’all. This book. I got it for free and that was still too much money.

* The daughter never gets a name, appears on screen, or is even mentioned beyond one more passing notice that she exists. I’m definitely convinced Jack is a worthwhile father.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Wednesday, September 13th, 2017
7:37 pm - Book-blogging: De-Extinction Edition 2.0
Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things by M.R. O’Connor. Despite the name, this book actually has very little on de-extinction – about half a chapter near the end, mostly on Revive & Restore's Passenger Pigeon project. Instead O'Connor writes about various conservation projects of extremely endangered (but not yet quite extinct!) species, including the Florida puma, the Kihansi spray toad, the Hawaiian crow, and the Northern White Rhino among others. We're talking severely endangered; the rhino was down to four living individuals at the time of this book's writing, and I believe it’s only three now.

O'Connor discusses the various methods taken to try and preserve these rare species – introducing members of a closely related subspecies to boost genetic diversity, capturing wild individuals to set up captive breeding programs, freezing DNA for future scientific endeavours – as well as how these approaches have succeeded and how they've failed. This leads into the other topic that forms the basis of the book: the philosophy and ethics of conservation. Does it matter if the Florida puma goes extinct if the Texas puma is still doing fine? How do we deal with a captive breeding program that leads a species to develop new traits that won't be useful in the wild? If evolution is constantly ongoing, and a species will change to match its environment, then even improving an environment means humans are influencing a species’s evolutionary path – is that choosing their future for them? If saving nature fundamentally requires meddling with nature, what does it mean to say wilderness is separate from humanity? And how does one define what counts as a 'species' anyway?

These are all pretty fascinating questions (to me, at least), and O'Connor really gave me some new ideas for musing on.. It's very much a book of science, but I also appreciated that for all the nitty-gritty details of cutting-edge research she never lost sight of the poetic, spiritual dimension to humanity's attitude toward nature.

It wasn't what I thought it would be when I checked this out of the library, but I'm very glad I read it.

Once & Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals by Sharon Levy. This is by far the best book I’ve found on woolly mammoths – what they looked like, what they ate, how they behaved, and so. For as much as they appear in pop culture, for as much as other books reference them, there is a surprising dearth of books just about them.

But Once & Future Giants isn’t limited to woolly mammoths. It covers multiple types of Pleistocene megafauna (the technical term for all those big species that went extinct at the end of the Ice Age – saber toothed tigers, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, mastodons, etc). There’s even a quite cool chapter on the megafauna of Australia; I’m certainly fascinated to know that there was once a ten foot tall carnivorous kangaroo and a marsupial lion. Levy also drops cool factoids about how we can still see traces of megafauna today, from the avocado (what else could eat such a giant pit?) to the plight of the California Condor, a huge bird evolved to subsist on megafauna carcasses but now trapped along the coast where it makes do with the remains of similarly-large marine mammals.

Another major focus is the ongoing debate among archaeologists and paleontologists as to why all these megafauna went extinct simultaneously. It basically boils down to two camps: humans hunted them into oblivion (the Overkill Hypothesis), or climate change did them in (the rise in temperatures at the end of the Ice Age causing steppes to transform into forests). Levy goes over the latest evidence for both sides of the debate, but never quite choses one for herself. Which I sympathize with, because there really is convincing and contradictory evidence from both sides, but also because “it was the combined effects” does seem like an obvious solution to the debate.

Late in the book, Levy applies these lessons to modern conservation issues. I was particularly fascinated by her account of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, a local environment from which they had been extinct for nearly a century. Rewilding, as it's called, was controversial with local ranchers, hunters, and even some scientists believing wolves would be dangerous and have a detrimental effect on the park. They've have been intensively studied ever since, to guard against unforeseen consequences, and the research has had some amazing finds. The wolves have not just decreased the elk population size, which anyone could have guessed, but led to growth in the songbird population, to changes in tree species, and even altered the courses of Yellowstone’s rivers. It's an incredible account of how the presence (or absence) of a single species can spiral out and out.

Overall a great book that covers an impressive array of research.

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Saturday, September 9th, 2017
7:32 pm - Some brief NetGalley reviews
Niki Jabbour's Veggie Garden Remix by Niki Jabbour. A how-to book for gardeners that encourages people to chose a more diverse range of vegetables. Jabbour opens with a sweet story describing how she herself began to explore beyond 'traditional' veggies: she planted a snake gourd, believing it to be inedible but useful for decorating once dried. Instead her mother-in-law recognized the small, young version of the gourd as a vegetable she hadn't eaten since her childhood in Lebanon, and promptly cooked a long-lost stew.

The book is organized by chapters comparing each exotic to a more standard example. Enjoy growing tomatoes? Why not try a Cape gooseberry! Tired of snap beans? What about growing your own chickpeas or edamame! A fan of cucumbers? What about the cucamelon! Each plant or varietal gets its own section with lots of photos and Jabbour's tips from her own experience growing them.

My one complaint about the book is that Jabbour doesn't list preferred Garden Zones for any of the featured plants. She does give 'days to maturity', which is helpful, but I've got to assume climate also make a difference when choosing what to grow. But other than that it's a fun, useful book for anyone who likes trying new things.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Slow Cook Modern: 200 Recipes for the Way We Eat Today by Liana Krissoff. I love using my slow-cooker and am therefore always looking for new recipes to try out, but most slow-cooker cookbooks repeat the same relatively small set of dishes. There's only so many pot roast or barbeque chicken recipes any one person needs.

But Slow Cooker Modern is here to the rescue! It has a diverse range of new recipes! It even has a whole chapter of vegetarian recipes! I am so happy. I get that slow-cooking lends itself to breaking down tough cuts of meat, but it's great to have a cookbook with vegetarian recipes beyond the standard chili. Here we have: eggplant tian (a ratatouille type dish), hearty sweet potato and chickpea stew with sweet spices, smoky collards and black-eyed peas, three variations of dal (though one has quinoa in it which, come on, at that point it's not dal), and creamy giant limas with sun-dried tomatoes, to name just a few.

And then, of course, there's all the other chapters. A brief selection of some of the recipes I'm most excited to try: chicken saag, whole grain congee with crisp panko chicken, romanian-style chicken and noodles, feta moussaka, Scotch broth (a lamb and barley stew), and braised pork belly sandwiches. There are also recipes for accompaniments to the main dishes, everything from corn muffins to collard slaw.

I like the layout of the book too. Krissoff is writing for people who spend most of the day out of the house at work, so each recipe takes 8 hours in the slow-cooker. She divides each recipe into steps for "morning" and "evening", and is clearly working to make each one as simple as possible while still delivering big flavor. As a lazy, lazy cook, I approve.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Friday, September 8th, 2017
4:36 pm - Book-blogging
A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows. The sequel to the portal fantasy I read last month. Most of the plot here is fallout from the climax of that book: Saffron has returned back to Earth from the fantasy world of Kena, but can she re-adjust to a 'normal' life? And if not, what choices will she make? Yena's adopted sister died in the final battle, but can Yena reclaim religious rights for her sister's funeral and learn more about her mysterious heritage? The evil king has been overthrown, but escaped – where is he and what caused his actions? What's up with the mysterious magic artifact he left behind in the castle?

Sadly, I didn't like this book nearly as much as its predecessor. The biggest problem is simply a shift in the use of characters; whereas the first book divided its pages fairly evenly among a vast cast, A Tyranny of Queens is hugely dominated by Saffron and Yena. And I'm sorry to say it, but they're the most boring characters in this series. Both are an example of the 'normal teen girl dealing with events outside her experience' archetype, which is a fine enough archetype as far as it goes, but not one that's particularly exciting unless you give her some sort of distinctive personality trait, anything other than 'determined', 'hard-working', 'smart'. Buffy wanted to date boys and wear cute clothes; Katniss wanted to be left alone and was unexpectedly ruthless; Saffron wants... ?

The characters who did grab my attention in An Accident of Stars are pushed mostly off-screen here. Yasha, the grumpy, staff-wielding elderly matriarch who was revealed late in the first book to be an exiled queen, gets something like ten lines of dialogue in this entire book. Viya, the young, spoiled but trying hard to improve noblewoman who is named co-ruler of Kena at the end of the first book, and thus should be navigating the delicate balance of maintaining equality of power while still learning to handle so much responsibility, gets literally two scenes out of three hundred pages. And so on through a whole list of really cool characters. Instead we get multiple chapters of Saffron arguing with her guidance counselor, then her parents, then her social worker over whether she should apologize to one of her high school teachers over a minor incident caused by a bully. Exciting fantasy!

My second problem with the book, unfortunately, is much more fundamental. The plot revolves around discovering that the evil king wasn't really evil after all, but was brainwashed. I'm sure this is an attempt to do an interesting redemption arc, or to look at how even the worst-seeming villains have their reasons, but it didn't work for me at all. It felt like a cop-out to remove blame from the king by passing it on to a historic figure from centuries ago (who never gets an explanation for his evil actions, so Meadows hasn't really complicated the role of villains so much as pushed the question a few steps outside the main narrative). None of the many people who died in the wars he started or were tortured in his pursuit of knowledge get a voice in this second book, so I kept feeling as though the suffering he caused was conveniently being swept under the rug to get readers to feel sorry for him. In addition, for a book that tries so hard to be progressive, ending with 'it's not the king's fault! He was manipulated by a foreign woman who made him fall in love with her!' is, uh... not a great look.

All in all, a disappointing book. But there was enough good about the series that I'll give the author another chance.

The Written World: How Literature Shaped Civilization by Martin Puchner. A nonfiction book that makes its way through human history via the medium of literature. Each of sixteen chapters focuses on a particular classic and shows how it both influenced and was influenced by contemporary events, from Homer's Odyssey giving Alexander the Great a hero to model himself after to The Communist Manifesto inspiring revolutions across the world. A subthread is the development of the technologies of literature itself – the inventions of the alphabet, paper, the printing press, ebooks, etc.

It's a pretty neat idea for a book! Unfortunately the execution is terrible. I started off being annoyed that Puchner never seems quite clear on what he means by the term 'literature'. He implies it only includes written works (in the Introduction he says, "It was only when storytelling intersected with writing that literature was born."), and yet many of the pieces he choses to focus on were primarily composed orally (The Odyssey and the Iliad, The Epic of Sunjata, the Popul Vuh, probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, certainly at least parts of One Thousand and One Nights). And yet there's never any discussion of what it means to go from an oral mode to a written one, a topic I was eagerly awaiting to see analyzed. It's just... never addressed beyond a passing mention here and there.

Okay, fine, I thought to myself, Puchner means 'literature' as in 'stories'. But that doesn't work either, since once again many of his choices don't tell any sort of narrative (Saint Paul's letters, Martin Luther's theses, Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard's Almanac', Confucius's Analects, Mao's 'Little Red Book'). So what does Puchner mean by literature, the central organizing principle of his whole book? God alone knows.

My irritation with the book deepened when I got to Chapter Four, where Puchner claims credit for inventing the concept of the Axial Age: "It was only in the course of trying to understand the story of literature that I noticed a striking pattern in the teaching of the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus. Living within a span of a few hundred years but without knowing of one another, these teachers revolutionized the world of ideas. Many of today’s philosophical and religious schools—Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Western philosophy, and Christianity—were shaped by these charismatic teachers. It was almost as if in the five centuries before the Common Era, the world was waiting to be instructed, eager to learn new ways of thinking and being. But why? And what explained the emergence of these teachers?" Sure, dude, sure. You came up with this vastly original idea all on your own. (To be fair, if one choses to read through the endnotes, Puchner does cite Karl Jaspers, though he still insists his own version is ~so different~.)

He then proceeds to get basic information about the Buddha completely wrong. For example:
Some form of writing may have existed in India during the Buddha’s time (the so-called Indus Valley script may not have been a full writing system and remains undeciphered).
This sentence. I can't even. I almost stopped reading the book right here, it's so incredibly incorrect. It's like saying, "Thomas Jefferson may have been literate, but since we find no Latin engravings in his house, we can't be sure." Let me lay out the problems. The Buddha lived around 500BCE; the last known well-accepted use of the Indus script was in 1900BCE. That's a gap of nearly two millennia. The Indus script was used on the western edge of South Asia, in Pakistan and the Indian states of Gujarat and Haryana; the Buddha lived on the eastern edge, in Nepal. At minimum, they're 500 miles apart. There is no chance in hell the Indus script was remotely relevant to writing about the Buddha. And in fact, we don't need to guess at the script of the Buddha's time and place. It's called Brahmi and it's quite well attested – though Puchner doesn't once mention it. He does include a photo of an Indus seal, because why not waste more space on utterly irrelevant information.

Let's quickly go through the problems on the rest of this single page:
What mattered above all were the age-old hymns and stories of the Vedas, which were transmitted orally by specially appointed Brahmans for whom remembering the Vedas was an obligation and a privilege.
Though the Vedas do have an important oral history, they were certainly written down by the time of the Buddha, and possibly as early as 1000BCE.
The oldest Indian epic, the Ramayana, was also orally composed and only later written down, much like Homeric epics.
The Mahabharata is generally considered to be the older of the two epics.

Despite my disillusionment at this point, I continued on with the book. And to be fair, I noticed many fewer mistakes! Though possibly because I know much less about Renaissance Germany or Soviet Russia than I do about Indian history. I did hit several problems again in the chapter on the Popul Vuh, the Mayan epic. To begin with, the chapter opens with a long dramatic scene recreating the Spanish conquistadores' capture of Atahualpa, the Incan emperor. Incan. Who lived in Peru, in South America. The Classic Mayan culture was based in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize – North America and a bit of Central America. This time Puchner is literally on the wrong continent.

Once he finally makes his way up to the Mayan homeland, he focuses his narration on Diego de Landa, a Spanish priest who did indeed write an important ethnography of the Mayans of the 1500s. The Classic Mayan Era was over by 950CE, introducing a discrepancy Puchner does not deign to acknowledge. Even aside from that small problem, Puchner describes Landa's writings multiple times as "an account [...] that has remained the primary source of information on Maya culture." This entirely ignores not only the Popul Vuh itself; but the multiple other Mayan codices that survived Spanish colonialism; the many Mayan writings carved on their pyramids, palaces, and stele, and painted on their pottery; their murals of war, sport, and history; the enormous archaeological record of their cities, technology, and diet; and, oh yeah, the fact that Mayan people are still around today.

Oh, my bad – Puchner does remember the Mayans still exist. Here's what he has to say about them:
"My journey began in the Lacandon jungle. A bus dropped me at the border of the Maya territory, where a beat-up truck picked me up at the side of the road. The village of several dozen huts was located in a clearing in the jungle. Everyone but me was dressed in what looked like long white nightgowns. Men and women both wore their black hair shoulder length (I thought of the shipwrecked sailor who had gone native), and most of them walked around barefoot, sometimes donning rubber boots."
That's it. That's literally the only mention of the modern Mayan people. (Puchner's in the area to learn about the Zapatista uprising, to which he devotes the rest of the chapter.) I'm so glad he spent ages detailing that and de Landa's biography instead of devoting any space at all to the contemporary persistence of Mayan beliefs, language, or rituals.

When I first read its blurb, I looked forward to the rest of The Written World. Unfortunately it's the closest I've come to hurling a book at the wall in a long, long time.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Friday, September 1st, 2017
4:16 pm - Countdown: three reviews left to write
The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I didn't get it. I'm embarrassed to admit that, but it's honestly my main reaction to this book. I want to say that it's a tired retread of better jokes, an attempt at satire that has no idea of what it's trying to say, but hell, it won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, so there must be something here. But whatever it is, I didn't get it.

The plot is generally described this way: in Dickens, a neighborhood in modern-day LA, an unnamed black man (we only ever learn his nicknames, Sellout and/or Bonbon) enslaves his neighbor, an elderly black man named Hominy, and re-institutes segregation in the local buses and school. The rest of Dickens alternatively ignores or supports him, but he is eventually caught by an outsider and the ensuing civil rights case makes it all the way to the Supreme Court.

That's what everyone is talking about, but it's a summary that doesn't remotely capture the experience of reading the book. The issue of slavery doesn't even come up until well after the first hundred pages, and segregation until significantly after that. Even once these issues make it onto the page, our narrator doesn't have much motivation or reason for them; Hominy insists that he wants to be a slave and browbeats the narrator into accepting it, although they both continue to live normal lives barely different from before. What does happen instead of pointed racial satire is the narrator's fairly mundane life: he pines for his childhood crush, now married to a famous rapper/actor; he remembers his childhood, home-schooled by a strict and eccentric father; he surfs; he works as a farmer, investing too much in organic fertilizer and giving away satsuma oranges to neighborhood kids; he tries to take his psychologist father's place in talking would-be suicides down off of ledges. It's not a driving plot by any means, but rather meanders from one tangent to another. Each slightly disjointed scene feels like one piece of the kaleidoscope of our narrator's identity, so that by the end you have a whole picture but the process of getting there was chaotic and confusing.

Which is not to say there's no humor. My favorite scene was when a black intellectual rewrites Huckleberry Finn:
‘One night, not long ago,’ Foy said, ‘I tried to read this book, Huckleberry Finn, to my grandchildren, but I couldn’t get past page six because the book is fraught with the “n-word”. And although they are the deepest-thinking, combat-ready eight- and ten-year-olds I know, I knew my babies weren’t ready to comprehend Huckleberry Finn on its own merits. That’s why I took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Where the repugnant “n-word” occurs, I replaced it with “warrior ” and the word “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer”.’
‘That’s right!’ shouted the crowd.
‘I also improved Jim’s diction, rejiggered the plotline a bit, and retitled the book
The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.’ Then Foy held up the copy of his revamped volume for examination. My eyesight isn't the best, but I could've sworn the cover featured Huckleberry Finn piloting the raft down the mighty Mississippi, while Captain African-American Jim stood at the helm, hands on narrow hips, sporting a cheesy goatee and a tartan Burberry sport coat exactly like the one Foy happened to be wearing.

Now that's pretty great. But very little of the novel is this funny; not because it fails at it but because it simply isn't trying to be. There are scenes that burst over into outright tragedy, like the death of the narrator's father, but those too are rare. Mostly the tone is one of elegy: Hominy mourning the loss of his career as a child star, Dickens itself no longer legally recognized and without a clear identity, the narrator uncertain of who he is and who he wants to be.

I think writing this review has convinced that the book is better than I thought when I first finished it. Possibly because I was trying so hard to get the joke, to understand the satire, and now I think satire just isn't the right mode to approach it. A reread thinking about questions of identity and loneliness would probably make me like it much more.

The Harbors of the Sun by Martha Wells. The last (sob!) of the Books of the Raksura. This one picks up directly from the end of the previous book, meaning we're well-supplied with a large cast of characters, multiple plot threads already in motion, lots of adventure culminating in pretty much saving the whole world, and plenty of battles, rescues, sacrifices, new alliances, separations, and reunions.

It's a bit hard to summarize the plot, since so much of it is about resolving situations set up in previous books. And not just in the first half of this duology, but all the way back to the first book of the series: here we get to finally see Pearl take a more active and less fraught role in leading Indigo Court, Jade once again reassess how to treat Moon not as an ideal consort but as an individual with a specific history, Frost takes the first steps in learning how to be a sister queen.

Ultimately the series is old-school pulp fantasy – and I absolutely mean that as a compliment – given a modern twist by Wells's take on gender roles, sexuality, and ethics. Fun tropes, well-executed, with relatable characters who provide sparkling dialogue – what more could anyone want?

An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows. A portal fantasy! I haven't read one of these in ages.

Saffron, a modern-day Australian teen girl, accidentally falls through a portal into the land of Kena, where she is almost immediately caught up in coup to overthrow the current ruler. This turns out to involve a potentially costly alliance with the neighboring but very different country of Veksh. Unfortunately, Saffron hasn't spent more than a few hours in Kena before she has her head shaved and two fingers cut off, which complicates her ability to return to Earth with a plausible story of where she's been. Other important characters include Gwen, another woman from Earth who long ago made the choice to stay in Kena; Zech, a spunky orphan girl with a secret heritage; and my personal favorite, Viya, a spoiled noble girl who escapes a political marriage to Kena's ruler and slowly comes to realize that the power she wants means she has to take responsibility as well.

Honestly, all of this is fairly standard stuff for a doorstopper fantasy novel, but at least it populates its pages with a refreshing diversity. Gwen, for example, is a middle-aged black explicitly aromantic woman; not exactly your typical hero. Saffron's eventual love interest is a transwoman. The characterizations are engaging and, if not particularly original, lots of fun (honestly, Saffron proves to be the least interesting of the lot, but 'normal teen' just doesn't hold a candle to 'disabled and depressed former queen' or 'elderly matriarch with a sharp tongue who wields a fighting staff') and the worldbuilding is entertaining. I particularly liked Kena's system of complicated polygamous marriages, with the ruler obliged to have at least four spouses, some of whom have their own spouses.

It's not a book that I would recommend to someone who's not already a fan of the genre, but I enjoyed it enough that I'll definitely be reading the sequel.

The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe Lansdale. #3 in the Hap & Leonard series, mystery/thriller books about mismatched best friends (Hap is a white ex-hippie ladies man; Leonard a black gay conservative) in impoverished East Texas. (By the way, these reviews must be confusing given that I am simultaneously reading the new books in this series as they come out and going back to read the early ones that I never got around to before. Sorry about that!) In this book, they go in search of Florida Grange, Hap's ex, a lawyer and wannabe journalist. The last anyone heard of her, she was staying in nearby Grovetown to investigate the mysterious death of a black man in the county jail. Hap and Leonard head over to try and pick up her trail – was she murdered? is she even missing, or has she just decided to move on? (You can really tell that this story is set in the days before cellphones and email addresses became so ubiquitous.)

They don't find Florida, but they do discover that Grovetown is in a “time warp”: ruled by the KKK
with 'No Colored' signs still up on the laundromat and a diner that refuses to serve Leonard, not to mention a history of racially motivated rapes and murders, though of course no one has ever been charged with the crimes. After Hap and Leonard barely escape one visit to Grovetown with their lives, they have to face the decision of continuing to search for Florida versus staying safe. Or, to put it another way, facing up to their own morality and (metaphorical) impotence versus doing the right thing, even if it seems likely that whatever happened to Florida, she's long past helping.

And all of that is before the hurricane hits, flooding Grovetown. (I should note I actually read the book a week or two ago; this plot point has developed unfortunate bad timing since.)

I really enjoyed this book; I think it might even be my favorite of the series. The focus on confronting such overt, virulent racism gives it a darkness and weight greater than the previous books. There's still funny moments and the usual fast-paced, crackling dialogue, but overall it's a far more serious story. Seeing Hap and Leonard admit their own vulnerabilities makes them more than improbably-effective action heroes; they're characters I can love.

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Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017
3:46 pm - Catching up with the book-blogging, part infinity argh
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal. A literary fiction novel alternating between the viewpoints of Harit, a shy Indian immigrant who is isolated from everyone around him, making do by working in a department store and going home to his mother, who is in such a pit of grief that she hasn't spoken a word in years; Ranjana, a much more successful Indian immigrant, both financially and socially, who nonetheless feels a bit unfulfilled and so has begun to secretly write vampire romances; and Prashant, Ranjana's son who is enjoying his first semester at Yale by chasing after various girls. Minor characters occasionally step in to take over the narration for a chapter or two, such as Teddy, Harit's flamboyantly gay middle-aged co-worker, or Harit's mother, but the main focus is on the three above.

In many ways, this is a very typical novel for its genre: lonely people bumbling through their lives, trying to understand who they are and how to interact with the culture around them. It's improved by its touches of levity and brightness, including an almost unrealistically happy ending, but it's hard not to be pleased to see these characters succeed. I absolutely adore Ranjana's vampire obsession, which feels so bizarre surrounded by the very serious-minded literary quality of the rest of the book. Though I do have to protest that Satyal does not seem to have done his research. He says, Anne Rice had as many orgasms in her books as commas, but come on, Anne Rice almost never writes explicit sex scenes. Clearly it should be Laurell K. Hamilton had as many orgasms in her books as commas, and I know he's heard of Hamilton since he name-dropped her in an earlier scene. We also get an excerpt of Ranjana's novel-in-progress at one point, and it's much more Dracula or even Nosferatu than anything from the modern paranormal romance genre. But I forgive these mistakes because awkward moms writing vampire romance is beautiful and should be in more novels about the Immigrant Experience.

Overall it's not a particularly outstanding or memorable example of what it's doing, but it's just odd enough to be worth reading, and your time will be pleasantly spent.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Hoodoo Harry by Joe Lansdale. A novella in the long-running Hap & Leonard series, mystery/thriller books about a pair of mismatched best friends (one a white straight ex-hippie, one a black gay conservative) in rural East Texas. In this adventure, Hap and Leonard are driving home from a fishing trip when their truck is rammed by a bookmobile driven by a terrified 12-year-old boy. Unfortunately the kid does not survive the crash, and an investigation turns up signs of torture on his body as well as the fact that he'd been missing for a week. Even stranger, the bookmobile itself had disappeared more than 15 years ago, along with the woman who drove it. From that point the adventure takes off, with an investigation, more bodies, fistfights, secret hidden rooms, and an all-out gun battle.

This is a quick read (only 76 pages) and could easily be enjoyed without knowledge of the rest of the series, though it's dark enough (as you could probably guess, when a young child dies on page one) that I'm not sure many would want to. It's funny, it's exciting, it's tense, it's basically everything Joe Lansdale always does well, just in a smaller package than usual.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History by Eric Foner. A collection of essays previously published in The Nation about the connection between American history and contemporary issues. Foner is a well-regarded historian; though I know him best for Gateway to Freedom, his book on the Underground Railroad, he's studied and written on multiple periods and topics.

The oldest in this collection is from 1977, written for the 50th anniversary of the case and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Foner describes the ways the men have been used as a symbol and example for multiple agendas, and how most such portrayals ignore the reality of them as individuals. It's still an interesting and useful article today. The most recent is from January of this year, 2017, and recounts Foner's experiences teaching a college course called “The Radical Tradition in America". He's taught it since the 70s, and students have understandably changed over time, from those who were trying to maintain hope during the Reagan 80s, to those energized by Obama's 2008 victory, to the last batch, influenced by Bernie Sanders's campaign. Some of the essays do feel a bit dated, such as the one from 2001 on the Patriot Act. It's still an awful law, don't get me wrong! It's just that nothing Foner says here is likely to be news to the reader.

My favorite essay was the one on Lincoln's changing views on slavery and racial equality ("Our Lincoln", 2009). Foner portrays him as ultimately a centrist, slow to change his opinion but equally capable of correcting past mistakes. It's a nice change from the black-and-white view of history (and modern people) that can sometimes take over our thinking.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. Ah, this book is fantastic! :D I mean, it's Rushdie, who's surprised, but I do think this is by far the book of his I've loved the most.

The Golden family – Nero, the patriarch, and his three adult sons, Petronius (aka Petya), Lucius Apuleius (aka Apu), and Dionysus (aka D) – are newcomers to The Gardens, a small self-contained neighborhood in New York City, like a child's dreamy ideal of pre-hipster Greenwich Village. Their names, by the way, are all fake; the family is fleeing undisclosed trauma in an unnamed country (it's obviously India, but you have to get fairly deep into the book for that to be made explicit). Each adjusts, or doesn't, to their new life in America with varying degrees of success. Petya attempts to move past his severe autism and alcoholism, Apu makes a name as a celebrity artist, and D struggles to figure out his (or her) gender identity. Nero joins the construction industry, blasts his name across buildings, and acquires a Slavic trophy wife, but it's not quite fair to call him a Trump analogue; for one thing, Nero's far too smart and self-aware, not to mention capable of regret. In fact Trump himself is occasionally mentioned in the background, though he's always referred to as 'The Joker':
To step outside that enchanted—and now tragic—cocoon was to discover that America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe; D.C., Suchitra said, was under attack by DC. It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen—it was not an age of heroes—but his archrival in the purple frock coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and hogging the limelight with evident delight. He had seen off the Suicide Squad, his feeble competition, but he permitted a few of his inferiors to think of themselves as future members of a Joker administration. The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha!

All of this is narrated by René, a young man also living in the safety of The Gardens, a filmmaker with dreams of making a documentary about the Goldens, or perhaps just a movie starring a fictionalized version of them. René openly admits that he will combine characters or change backstories to fit his idea of how the story should go, which means it's always open to interpretation how much of what he's telling us is the truth.

It's a book that is bursting at the seams with stuff of all sorts: Greek myth, Roman history, Russian folklore, American politics, philosophy and melodrama, an enormous number of characters each of whom gets their own backstory, motivation, and secret thoughts, subplots and sub-subplots, dramatic revelations from the past that reappear unexpectedly, murders and fires, equal allusions Kipling and to mafia movies and the I ching, and even a secret baby. The writing is gorgeous, of course, and there's plenty to make you think, but what I was most surprised about was simply how compelling it was. I never wanted to put this book down, because I was so thrillingly engaged to find out what happened next. Just a really, really amazing book. I already want to reread it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Okay, I'm all caught up with my Netgalley reviewing at least. Now I just need to write about the nine other books I've finished...

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Monday, August 7th, 2017
8:20 pm - Catching up with the book-blogging, part two
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. A murder mystery with a noir-ish feel, set in 1919 Calcutta. Our main character and narrator is Sam Wyndham, ex-Scotland Yard detective and WWI veteran, newly recruited to boost the investigative skills of the police in Calcutta. On Sam's arrival, he is greeted with the body of a white man dressed in black tie, found in an alley in a "native" neighborhood behind a brothel. This at first seems to be a simple case of robbery or scandalous sex gone wrong, but expands to become a conspiracy involving the highest political and economic levels of the British Raj.

The depiction of historical Calcutta is detailed and fascinating, but Sam himself is, alas, less interesting. He's a mystery hero cliche in several ways: the dead wife, the addiction (morphine this time instead of the usual alcoholism, at least), the attempt at hard-boiled writing:
I coughed as the stench clawed at my throat. In a few hours the smell would be unbearable; strong enough to turn the stomach of a Calcutta fishmonger. I pulled out a packet of Capstans, tapped out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled, letting the sweet smoke purge my lungs. Death smells worse in the tropics. Most things do.
Still, I’d seen worse.
Finally there was the note. A bloodstained scrap of paper, balled up and forced into his mouth like a cork in a bottle. That was an interesting touch, and a new one to me. When you think you’ve seen it all, it’s nice to find that a killer can still surprise you.

It's not bad, it's just a pallid imitation of much better writers. Though to be fair to Mukherjee, there were occasional passages that made me laugh:
Four storeys high and about two hundred yards long, with massive plinths and huge columns topped off with statues of the gods. Not Indian gods, of course. These ones were Greek, or possibly Roman. I never could tell the difference.
That was the thing about Calcutta. Everything we’d built here was in the classical style. And everything was larger than necessary. Our offices, mansions and monuments all shouted, Look at our works! Truly we are the inheritors of Rome.
It was the architecture of domination.
It all seemed faintly absurd. The Palladian buildings with their columns and pediments, the toga-clad statues of Englishmen long deceased, and the Latin inscriptions on everything from palaces to public lavatories. Looking at it all, a stranger could be forgiven for thinking that Calcutta had been colonised by Italians rather than Englishmen.

Sam's character is thin and inconsistent. He's sometimes on the side of the Indians, sometimes on the side of the British. Such flip-flopping could be an astute characterization of a basically decent man reluctant to lose his own privilege, but that's not the case here; it's just messy. He knows way too much about Indian culture, languages, and history for a dude who supposedly arrived in the country days ago. His treatment of the one important female character is sexist and leering (though I am fairly certain that's from Sam's view and not Mukherjee's, but either way it makes me reluctant to spend more time with the character).

The mystery is well-done and several secondary characters are appealing, but ultimately I didn't enjoy it enough to continue with the series.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

I Love My Bread Machine: More Than 100 Recipes for Delicious Home Baking by Anne Sheasby. When I was growing up, my mom went through a phase of obsessing over her bread machine, making all kinds of standard and unusual breads in those funny rectangular loaves. They might look a little weird, but there's nothing like the smell of baking bread. I've fallen out of the habit in recent years and haven't used a bread machine in ages, but when I saw this book, I figured it would be a good way to start again.

There are indeed all sorts of tempting recipes in this book, from the sweet (Golden Gingerbread, Lemon Blueberry Loaf) to the savory (Pesto Whirl Bread, Greek Black Olive Bread), traditional (English Muffins, Sesame Bagels) to new (Garlic Bubble Ring, Orange and Cinnamon Brioche). There's even a whole chapter on gluten-free breads!

Unfortunately I have a major complaint. A large number of the recipes (I'd guess over 50%) use the bread machine to knead the dough, but then require you to do the actual baking in a normal oven. They sometimes ask you to do additional steps as well: mixing, shaping, coating, drizzling, brushing with egg, and even more kneading. What's the point of using a bread machine at all if you're still doing three-fourths of the work the old-fashioned way? You may as well just skip the machine step and use a traditional bread cookbook.

On the other hand, Garlic and Coriander Naan does sound delicious. Maybe this book will tempt me out of my laziness over baking after all.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Monday, July 31st, 2017
5:13 pm - Catching up with book-blogging, part one
Florida Roadkill by Tim Dorsey. The first in the long-running Serge Storms series, which has such neon-bright covers and memorable titles ("Nuclear Jellyfish", "Gator A-Go-Go", and "Atomic Lobster", for a few examples) that I've been meaning to check them out for ages. I was stymied by wanting – reasonably! – to start with the first book, but had some difficult finding it; it was published in 1999, which is practically historic by now.

But I have finally managed to find and read it and so I can say: it's pretty much the same as Carl Hiaasen. Which isn't a criticism – I like Hiaasen! Sure, there are some differences: Dorsey's cast is a motley crew of amusing sociopaths, while Hiaasen usually throws in at least one good guy who vaguely resembles a real human to root for; Dorsey's plotting is somehow even looser and more of a string of random scenes than Hiaasen's; the violence is even more over-the-top, cartoonish, and slapsticky. But honestly, if someone had switched the authors' names on the cover, I wouldn't have noticed.

The plot is hard to summarize, since it's a collection of disjointed threads that only come together at the end in surprising ways. We have: Sean and Dave, two normal guys on a fishing trip; George Veale, sleazy dentist who has just embezzled $5 million; Mo Grenadine, a radio talk show host propelled into politics by appealing to the lowest, most racist, homophobic denominator; the most incompetent cocaine cartel in the world; a trio of wannabe Hell's Angels who, after getting kicked out of every motorcycle gang, become the resident guardians of a trailer park retirement home; a deadly pesticide; a fetishest obsessed with Barbie dolls; and an insurance company that manages to be evil even by the low, low standards of insurance companies. But the main characters, such as they are, are the trio of Serge, Coleman, and Sharon. Serge, who gives his name to the whole series, is a sociopath with an obsession with Florida history and trivia. His sidekick Coleman is dumb, good-natured, and usually too drunk or high to object to anything, and Sharon, the beautiful violent coke-fiend, joins the others for the sake of the money and drugs they accidentally accumulate on their way across Florida.

I enjoyed the book, but it's not exactly something I'd recommend to others unless you have a very particular taste. If jokes about the crazy exploits of 'Florida man', the weirder and more explicit the better, tickle your sense of humor, than this may be the book for you. Otherwise look for your mindless beach read elsewhere.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley. A new biography of Jane Austen, structured around the various houses she lived in. It's a neat approach to organizing a life-story, though ultimately I don't think it influenced the text as much as I'd expected it to.

This is the first Austen biography I've read, so I can't say how it compares to others. It didn't include anything I was particularly shocked to learn, but then she didn't really have a life full of surprises, did she? Worsley describes herself as writing against the Austen family's early portrayal of Jane as a modest, virtuous aunt; she heavily emphasizes Jane's anger and sarcasm in her surviving letters, her ambition in seeing her books published and being paid for them, and the existence of her brother George, who was sent away to live with caregivers due to his epilepsy and whose existence was hidden by the family. It's an easy, enjoyable read, even if there doesn't seem to be much new or different here. Worsley does expect her audience to be very familiar with Austen's books, frequently dropping in allusions to characters or plots, but on the other hand, that's probably a fair assumption of the self-selecting audience of an Austen biography.

I liked it, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's a biography out there that does the job better.

I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

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Friday, July 28th, 2017
4:16 pm - Book-blogging: De-Extinction Edition
(Three guesses what I've been preparing to teach a class on)

So, yes, there is indeed an effort on to bring the Woolly Mammoth back from extinction, either through cloning (led by teams from Japan and South Korea) or through editing the genomes of modern-day Asian Elephants (led by a team from Harvard, with celeb-scientist George Church at the helm). Working on another aspect of the project, Sergey Zimov, assisted by his son Nikita, have already established a nature reserve in remote northeastern Siberia to provide a habitat for the potential mammoths – and of course they have named it Pleistocene Park, because there is no way to talk about this topic without a million references to Jurassic Park. The Zimovs have also provided the impetus for this project by arguing that mammoths would churn the soil and trample the snow as they grazed, thus exposing the permafrost to the freezing temperatures of the air in a Siberian winter, and thereby slowing down global warming.

Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich. Mezrich's book gives the bare basics of the science and ethics of de-extinction, but he is way, way more interested in the personalities surrounding the technology. Did you need two chapters on George Church's troubled childhood relationship with a stepbrother? Now you have them! How about one where his mom takes him to the 1964 World's Fair and he's inspired to become a scientist? There's that too! In addition to chapters on Nikita Zimov's romantic relationship with his wife, and what Stewart Brand's (one of the founders of Revive & Restore, a non-profit funding de-extinction research) vacation house looks like, and so on. Even when Mezrich does deign to write about actual science, he's focused on the drama and setbacks (a car crash while transporting elk cross-country!) and not so much on explaining what's happening (we never do learn how those elk adapt once they reach their destination).

I was particularly annoyed by two speculative chapters set "Four years from today..." when Mezrich just goes off into flights of fancy, describing what it might be like to have woolly mammoths in what is supposedly a non-fiction book. These chapters are not set apart from the rest of the text, and so I spent several pages really confused by what was happening and how it could be possible. (And by the way, four years is a crazy timetable that is in no way realistic for what he describes.) There's also at least one chapter that I'm pretty sure was supposed to be set today (or, well, in 2016 or whenever Mezrich did his research), but that I've been able to find no confirmation of anywhere outside this book itself. So was it just more speculation? Or an important advance that has been covered by no newspaper anywhere? I don't know, and this is why I'm annoyed.

This book only came out this month (July 2017), and so while I was grateful for the up-to-date developments it included, it could have been much better written.

How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction by Beth Shapiro. (2015) Shapiro is herself a scientist, one who specializes in recovering and reading Ancient DNA, and it really shows in this book. She understands the science of cloning, sequencing genomes, editing DNA, epigenetic influence on gene expression, and more, and explains it all in a clear and comprehensible way.

She's also the most cynical by far of any of the de-extinction authors I've read; she's skeptical not just of if it's really possible to bring back woolly mammoths, but also if it's a good idea in the first place. She goes deep into many of the arguments against de-extinction and admits that she agrees with many of them. She takes the stance that de-extinction doesn't really "count" unless we can progress all the way to releasing a viable population of the species into the wild, and therefore attention deserves to go to species that will most have a beneficial effect of their ecosystems.

Despite this somewhat negative view, Shapiro is actually involved in a de-extinction project herself (Revive & Restore's effort to de-extinct the passenger pigeon), and I feel like the practicality this gives her infuses the whole book. She's spent years grappling with the questions of how to do this and why, and there's a solidness, a down-to-earthness, to her answers that other authors just don't have. Highly recommended if you really want to know the ins and outs of the science behind de-extinction.

Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction by Helen Pilcher. (2016) The easiest read of the recent de-extinction books, and probably the one I'd recommend for someone with only a casual interest in the topic. Each chapter covers a specific de-extinction project, from the likely to the implausible: dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, passenger pigeons, dodos, tasmanian tigers, Neanderthals, and, of course, Elvis. This organization means that she doesn't get particularly deep into any one project, but on the other hand, breadth can be equally impressive. Pilcher doesn't skimp on explaining the science and ethical quandaries of de-extinction, but the overall tone of the book is definitely "OMG, listen to this neat fact I just found!" Which isn't a criticism; I have very much enjoyed my share of neat fact collections. (Such as: the origin of the word "Dodo" is possibly from the Dutch for "Fat-Ass". There, isn't your life improved by knowing that?)

I particularly enjoyed how Pilcher emphasizes that the technology used for de-extinction isn't limited to incredible feats of seeing Ice Age megafauna roam the earth once more. Current conservation projects, such as those for black-footed ferrets and the Northern white rhino (two species that are technically not yet extinct, but it's probably only a matter of time) could and are using the same methods to protect their dwindling populations. It's a way of bringing all the speculation and scientific advances back down to earth and showing their real, current effects.

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Saturday, June 24th, 2017
4:37 pm - Reading Not-Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. A nonfiction book about Sabella Nitti, a woman who was found guilty of murdering her husband in 1923 Chicago – making her the first woman to be given a death sentence by an American court. (Note: not really. Plenty of women had hung or burned or otherwise received capital punishment before Nitti, but a lack of historical awareness meant that the lawyers, judges, and general public at the time reacted as though this was a new development, and chose to be proud of it or appalled by it as their personal politics dictated.) She is probably best-remembered these days as the inspiration for the Hungarian-speaking woman in the musical Chicago; here she is protesting her innocence during the Cell Block Tango.

Nitti was an Italian immigrant, illiterate, a farm wife, ugly (at least according to the reporters covering the case), and spoke no English or mainstream Italian, but only a fairly rare dialect called Barese. In addition, she was saddled with a defense lawyer who seemed to be actively losing the ability to maintain a train of thought – his behavior during the trial was remarkably unhelpful to her cause, and he would later spend years in a mental asylum. These factors almost guaranteed she would receive a guilty verdict despite the fact that it was never even clear if her husband was actually dead (it seems likelier he just decided to abandon the family), much less that she was the one who killed him. The local sheriff and one of Nitti's own sons seem to have been the prime movers in pinning the crime on her, despite the lack of evidence.

The depiction of the prejudices and passions of 1920s Chicago was where the book really shone. Women had newly gained the vote, and many saw the potential death sentence of a woman as connected to that – with power comes responsibility. Others argued that women were inherently deserving of mercy: "She is a mother and a mother has never been hanged in the history of this country. I do not believe the honorable court here will permit a mother to hang.” And then, of course, there was the issue of looks, of proper decorum – the pretty, fashionable yet obviously guilty women judged innocent by their all-male juries, and Nitti condemned to hang.

The first 2/3rds or so of the book, when Lucchesi is guiding the reader through Nitti's life before her husband's disappearance and the subsequent trial, are pretty great. Unfortunately the last third loses the thread. Lucchesi detours into describing the backstories of various prisoners Nitti would have met or other contemporary court cases in Chicago; none of it seems to have much to do with Nitti, who disappears from the page for chapters at a time. Some of these would become the inspiration for other characters in Chicago, but since Lucchesi won't mention the musical until the epilogue, the reader is left to make the connection on their own or be confused. (Overall I found the book's lack of direct acknowledgement of Chicago odd – it's so obviously hanging there, waiting for the reader to notice it, and yet Lucchesi treats it like a devil who will bring bad luck if its name is invoked. Not to mention the missed marketing opportunity.) Others, like the two chapters spent on the Leopold and Loeb case, just seem to have interested Lucchesi and were vaguely connected, so she threw them in as a afterthought.

It's a good example of historical crime writing, even if it needed a better structural editor.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD EVERYONE READ IT IMMEDIATELY. A novel set in 1746 New York City, the book opens with the arrival in town of Richard Smith, fresh from London and bearing a bill for a thousand pounds. All of the novel's action is compacted within the next 60 days, as various New Yorkers wait to receive word from England proving Smith is who he says he is and if he really is owed such a fabulous sum; in the meantime they (and the reader) are left to figure out the mysterious Smith: a conman who should be thrown in the city's freezing jail? a wealthy aristocrat who your daughters should be encouraged to woo? a French spy, come to exploit the division between the city's new-born political parties? an actor, a Catholic, a gay man, a libertine, or possibly even a Turkish magician? Through it all Smith delights in giving no answers, reveling in the New World as a place to remake himself. I generally am suspicious of books that deliberately hide information from the reader, but it's done so well here and leads to such a delightful revelation that I think it was the perfect choice.

Spufford's style is a moderate pastiche of 18th century novels; here are the opening lines as an example:
The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour—and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock—and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New York—until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno—and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water—and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap:—all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning. (He meaning by the offer to signal his esteem, having found Mr. Smith a pleasant companion during the slow weeks of the crossing.) But Smith would not have it. Smith, bowing and smiling, desired nothing but to be rowed to the dock. Smith, indeed, when once he had his shoes flat on the cobbles, took off at such speed despite the gambolling of his land-legs that he far out-paced the sailor dispatched to carry his trunk—and must double back for it, and seizing it hoist it instanter on his own shoulder—and gallop on, skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port—asking for direction here, asking again there—so that he appeared most nearly as a type of smiling whirlwind when he shouldered open the door—just as it was about to be bolted for the evening—of the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, and laid down his burden while the prentices were lighting the lamps, and the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, and demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr. Lovell himself.

However, it's 18th century language hiding a 21st century attitude; this is a novel deeply aware of gender and racial divisions, for all that they're mostly hidden behind humor and a page-turning sense of suspense. It's a New York City shaped and haunted by the ghosts of the slave revolt of 1741, and its shadow lies over every page, thought it's only ever directly addressed in one on-page conversation (though goddamn, it's a conversation with resonance). Smith meets and begins to court Tabitha Lovell, who is described as a "shrew" by her family and the rest of this small-town New York. Her portrayal though, is much more complex than that stereotype, and it's never quite clear how much she is an intelligent woman brutally confined by social strictures or how much she suffers from an unnamed mental illness.

And yet it's fun book, an exciting book! There are glorious set-pieces here: Smith racing over the rooftops of winter New York, outpacing a mob howling for his blood; a duel fought outside the walls of the city that turns in a split second from humor to horror; a play acted on the closest thing New York has to a stage; a card game with too much money invested. The writing is alternatively beautiful and hilarious, and I'm just completely in love with all of it.

I really can't recommend this book enough. I came into it not expecting much, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: No change: 18

What are you currently reading?
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. A new book by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a book which approximately one million people have recommended to me and yet I still haven't gotten around to reading. But, uh... I've got this one! :D

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