Wednesday, July 27th, 2016
2:39 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly. A nonfiction book about the building of the Erie Canal and the boomtowns (a word actually invented for this time and place!) that sprang up as it came into operation.

Kelly has three main strands running through his narrative, as seen in his subtitle. First, gold, which I suppose mostly symbolizes the planning, construction, and eventually use of the Erie Canal, which was both hugely costly and hugely profitable. This was by far the least interesting of the three strands, but does provide the necessary background for the rest of the book.

Murder: William Morgan was a man living in Rochester – one of those boomtowns – in the 1820s. He decided to write a book on Freemasons which would reveal some of their secret rituals. Freemasons, unsurprisingly, were not down with this, and shortly before publication a group kidnapped Morgan, who was never seen again. Freemasons at the time were hugely influential, counting as members everyone from George Washington to the current president Andrew Jackson to, most relevantly, local sheriffs and magistrates, who refused to even investigate the case until ordered to do so by the governor. This didn't go over well, leading to a public outcry and eventually an entire political party, the Anti-Masonic Party, America's first third party and the inventor of holding conventions to nominate candidates and announce the party's platform. Very appropriate reading for this week!

And finally God, the third strand and the reason I wanted to read this book. The 1810s to 1830s, the time period Heaven's Ditch is most focused on, are the moment of the Second Great Awakening. This was a time of massive religious revivals, and upstate New York was one of the centers for the extravagant conversions and new religions. In fact the area became known as the "burned over district" for the frequency and intensity with which religious frenzies swept across the local people. Heaven's Ditch focuses on several of the most prominent figures in this movement, including: Charles Finney, celebrated and notorious (depending on who you asked) for his camp revival meetings and promotion of an evangelical style of Protestantism that is still hugely influential in American religion and politics. William Miller, who claimed to have proof that the world would end in 1843; when it (obviously) did not, his followers eventually evolved into today's Seventh-Day Adventists. And, most famous of all and given the most page time, Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of Mormonism/The Church of Latter Day Saints.

Kelly is very respectful of the beliefs he describes, in my opinion – though I may be a bit biased because personally I would have been much more sarcastic in recounting visions of angels or biblical number conspiracies. The book is written in an engaging, almost fictionalized style, similar to Erik Larson or Tom Reiss. My one complaint is that the narration jumps around in time a great deal, specifically going back and forth to the building of the canal (1817-25) and the culture after it opened (mostly late 1820s, 1830s, and some of the 1840s). That occasionally made it hard to remember when events were happening in relation to one another. I do think that it probably would have been impossible to organize the whole book with a straightforward chronology, but section headings with prominently displayed dates would have made the various narrative strands a lot easier to follow.

I am resisting the urge to just go off listing various cool facts and stories that I picked up from reading this, since you'd be better off just reading the book and not my summary of every single thing in it. And it is absolutely worth reading! If you like weird historical escapades, I cannot recommend this highly enough.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. YOU GUYS THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. READ IT, READ IT NOW.

H.P. Lovecraft invented Cthulhu and other creepy monsters, hugely influenced the horror genre, and, oh yeah, was totally a racist. Even by the standards of the 1920s (generally a low point for racism in America) he was considered over the top. And one of his most xenophobic stories is "The Horror at Red Hook", a charming tale in which "illegal immigrants" (an oddly modern phrase, to my ears, for something published in 1927!) kidnap white, "blue-eyed" babies for a ritual which almost succeeds in destroying the world. Red Hook (a neighborhood in Brooklyn not that far from where I'm currently sitting) is described as "a maze of hybrid squalor", where "the population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and Negro elements impinging upon one another" and "the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky". "Visible offences are as varied as the local dialects", and you may overhear "a swarthy squinting hag teaching a small child some whispered patois" or witness those immigrants with "their squat figures and characteristic squinting physiognomies, grotesquely combined with flashy American clothing". You get the idea. The general impression is of a horror story in which the real monster is the multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual nature of New York City, an evil greater and more insidious than any dark magic or cosmic powers.

The Ballad of Black Tom is part retelling and part twisted mirror of "The Horror at Red Hook". Instead of that mass of undifferentiated and unknowable foreigners (a ridiculously explicit vision of The Other), we have Charles Tommy Tester as our narrator, a young black man who works as a low-level hustler to care for his widowed father. His job has brought him into contact with the mystical element of 1920s New York City, which he treats with a charming nonchalance; sure, he might have been hired to transport a book of unspeakable dread, but it's just another day's work. At least until his world is torn apart by an evil far more banal than Cthulhu, but no less awful.

In Lovecraft's stories, our world is a fragile veneer of civilization over a bottomless pit of indifference and gods who don't care for humanity; in The Ballad of Black Tom the very civilization that Lovecraft prized is, in fact, the worse of the two evils. If Red Hook was a place of horror in the original because its foreign, "hybrid" nature challenged Malone, the white policeman who was the center of that story, Ballad's New York is equally horrifying for the racism that constantly threaten Tommy. It's a place where police brutality, poverty, his own inability to travel freely, and causal assumptions of white superiority conspire to drive him into the arms (or tentacles) of Cthulhu, the only possible source of agency left for a black man. As he says at the moment of making his choice:
A fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naive. Tester looked back to Malone and Mr. Howard. Beyond them he saw the police forces at the barricades as they muscled the crowd of Negroes back; he saw the decaying facade of his tenement with new eyes; he saw the patrol cars parked in the middle of the road like three great black hounds waiting to pounce on all these gathered sheep. What was indifference compared to malice?
"Indifference would be such a relief," Tommy said.

But there's not only the very smart critique of Lovecraft's racism to enjoy here. This is a genuinely scary book, particularly in the eruption of violence at the climax, with some shocking plot twists. Tommy is an incredibly engaging character, and I would have happily read an entire series of books about him (The Ballad of Black Tom is, alas, more of a novella, only 150 pages long). The writing is lovely and enthralling. I do think it works best if you read "The Horror at Red Hook" first, or at least are familiar with Lovecraft's style and usual tropes, but whatever it takes, I want you all to read this book. IT'S JUST SO GOOD.

What are you currently reading?
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman. Another NetGalley book, this one about the history of American food.

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Friday, July 22nd, 2016
3:14 pm - Benjamin January fannish news
My goodness, for such a tiny fandom, there's been a lot going on the last few weeks! Let me see if I can link everything, because I don't want anyone to miss out.

Vita Dum Superest by withinadream. 9k, gen, mature.
YES IT IS THE ZOMBIE AU THAT I HAVE BEEN WANTING EVER SINCE I FIRST READ THE BOOKS. :D But it's not just a zombie AU, or rather, it's not simply about violence and being eaten. It's actually a very effective look at the changes to New Orleans society in the wake of such an event:
January wished he could feel some sense of accomplishment. [...] How could he live in a world where the dead walked the streets and young women were forced to kill their own brothers?

The same way you lived in a world where men sold their half-brothers. And in any case, there was no way to leave. Even if he could, he wasn’t sure he would want to. Of course he would have preferred to return to the city as he’d left it, but given the choice between dying a slow death of grief in Paris and risking his life to spend the rest of his days with family and friends in New Orleans, he was beginning to think that this was the better option by far. Those you loved could be taken from you at any time—at least New Orleans was honest about its dangers. And when he thought about his sisters, and his newfound friends, and even his mother, corpse-ridden streets seemed a pleasant alternative compared to a too-empty bedroom across the Atlantic. He could learn to live here, where life and love flourished among the dead.

This is somewhat structured as an AU of A Free Man of Color, the first book in the series, but characters from throughout the series make appearances, each having adapted in one way or another to the reality of zombies. And in addition to all that, it's also a casefic! I'm always tremendously impressed by people who can write actual mystery cases into their fic; it is not at all one of my skills. Anyway, it's a fantastic fic, I've been eagerly awaiting my chance to read it for months, and everyone should check it out.

Eromenos by ophelia_interrupted. 13k, Hannibal/OMC, explicit. Backstory about Hannibal's first relationship as a teenager. This canon is so detailed and full of interesting people that I could never get tired of imagining backstory for all of them. It's especially nice to read it for Hannibal, since we know so little of his early years. Plus it's a second longfic! :D How wonderful to have two such meaty pieces to get into. A very sweet story with an angsty ending.

Who Sins Drunk (gen, 5k, teen) and its sequel A Midsummer Night's Passion (Ben/Rose/Hannibal, 3k, explicit). In an attempt to get sober (this is set roughly around the time of Dead Water), Hannibal asks Ben to cane him. And then there is a lot of hurt/comfort sex. I am not at all surprised that this particular kink has shown up in this particular fandom; I am only surprised that it took this long. And this is a wonderful take on it! I have to recommend it even if you're not particularly into canings.

On a totally different note, but still relevant to Benjamin January, over on tumblr I've been making book aesthetic posts for the series. It's a thing that I'd seen other people doing – basically you take a set of photographs of objects, landscape, people, etc and use them represent a piece of book, or sometimes a poem or play or other piece of non-visual media. Most of the creative work I do is written, but occasionally I find a lot of pleasure in stretching my visual muscles. Though the hardest part of making them, to me, is restraining the urge to write long explanations for why I chose each particular image.

Here are links to the ones I've done so far:
A Free Man of Color
Fever Season
Graveyard Dust
Sold Down the River
Die Upon a Kiss

Anything I've missed?

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Wednesday, July 20th, 2016
5:01 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, the second in The Change series. If you haven't heard of this series before, it's post-apocalyptic YA. Several generations after civilization collapsed, humanity has recovered enough to rebuild towns and some sort of economy, but separate towns tend to go to war with one another. Genetic mutations turn up frequently but unpredictably, giving some people superpowers and killing or injuring others. The world is incredibly diverse, with main characters of multiple races, sexualities, disabilities, and neurodiversity.

So on to Hostage! The people of Las Anclas are still dealing with the repercussions of the big final battle of Stranger (book #1), particularly PTSD and grief. Jennie, Ross, and Paco have been hit especially hard, causing damage their relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. This all takes a turn for the worse when, on a trip outside the town walls, Ross is kidnapped by Voske's soldiers. Having learned about Ross's Change power and wanting its benefits for himself, Voske is determined to Stockholm Syndrome, manipulate, or outright force Ross into working for him. A team of Las Anclas people attempt to come to Ross's rescue, but when that seems impossible, they resort to kidnapping Kerry, Voske's daughter and the Crown Princess of the Gold Point Empire.

OH MY GOD YOU GUYS THIS WAS SO GOOD. I loved the setup of dueling hostages, and it provided a really interesting opportunity for the characters to deal with genuine moral questions: how to treat prisoners, how to gain power, how to deal with political differences, the responsibility of choices made during combat, the ethics of execution, freedom vs constraint, and so on. There's a lot of very tense, very well-done action scenes, and the suspense ramps up excellently over the novel as a whole.

I loved this even more than the first book, which was already pretty great. But this one was even more of a page-turner, and I read it straight through, always wanting to find out what happened next. I did miss Felicite, who appears in the story but isn't a POV character this time, but on the other hand, Kerry's a wonderful introduction, and I loved her slow growth from arrogant and coddled heir to someone with responsibility and honor, as she struggles to figure out what she wants out of life.

Anyway, everyone should read this, it's fantastic. (Also an early scene kinda made me want Ross/Indra fic? And no one's writing weird pairings unless it becomes a big fandom, so get started on that, everybody.)

Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity by Sil Lai Abrams. I should probably start off this review by saying that I'm not a huge fan of memoirs in general, and I picked up this book more because I wanted a discussion on race, and not so much for the story of someone's traumatizing childhood. Well, too bad for me, because this book is pretty much entirely the second and not the first.

Sil Lai Abrams is the daughter of a Chinese woman and a white American man, or so she believed. She discovers as a teenager that her mother actually had an affair shortly before her parents' wedding and Abrams is therefore the daughter of an unknown black man. Things are complicated further by the fact that her mother abandons the family when Abrams is only four, leaving Abrams to be raised by her (not biological) father and eventually his new wife, who is also white. There are certainly interesting things to say about mixed race families and the difficulties of white parents raising children who will experience racism, or the differences in life experience between between being mixed Chinese and white versus mixed Chinese and black. Unfortunately Abrams says none of them.

She spends significant portions of the book being furious with her father for lying to her about being her "real" dad, though honestly I can't imagine a lot of parents choosing to explain about their absentee spouse's affair to their eight-year-old child, especially back in the 1970s. Which doesn't mean it's the right choice, necessarily! Just that I have sympathy for why someone might do so, while Abrams seems to sincerely believe her father was entirely motivated by maliciousness or laziness.

And speaking of ascribing weird motives to others, there was a scene between thirteen-year-old Abrams and her step-mother that I found so indescribably bizarre that I have to share it with you all. Abrams is grounded to her room when her step-mother allows some neighborhood kids to play in their backyard pool:
The sense of betrayal was overwhelming. I felt like I was in the movie Carrie, in the scene where the pig’s blood was dumped over her head. Only I wasn’t the prom queen, but a thirteen-year-old girl stuck in her room, without any agency. And my tormentors weren’t the “cool” kids but my best friends, who were invading my territory and worse, my safe haven. Showing me through their laughing and splashing that they didn’t give a damn about our friendship or my feelings.
My indignation erupted with an emotional frenzy that bordered on pathological. Trapped in my room, I was unable to defend myself from this blatant encroachment on my personal space by my frenemies.
So I did the only thing I could at the time, which was to stew and plot my revenge. After a half hour or so, I saw Mom open the kitchen door that led to the patio. Leaning partially out the doorway, she called out, “Are you girls okay?”
“Yes, Mrs. Baber,” they happily replied in unison.
“Okay, just checking on you! Have fun!” she said.
As Mom began to close the door our eyes met, and that’s when I saw it. Emanating from her blue gray orbs like radio waves, I saw a smile crinkling the corners of her eyes that spread to her mouth as it slowly curved into the slightest grin.
In that instant, I realized that Mom had intentionally let my friends swim in our pool knowing that we were in an argument. She wasn’t naïve; she knew exactly what she was doing. Mom had let my friends play in our pool while I was on restriction to punish me for my insolence. To further drive home the fact that she was the boss, not me.
As the awareness of her power play slowly began to sink in, a new, larger thought began to drown out the gleeful sounds of my “friends” splashing in my pool. Mom could also be motivated by malice, or at the very least, the need to win. When our eyes connected I saw her smugness and triumph.
Realizing that Mom was capable of willfully inflicting emotional harm on me irreversibly changed our relationship. And the fact that she would use my friends to do it was unforgivable. On that hot summer day in 1983, Mom became my enemy. Someone to be destroyed, lest I be destroyed.

I mean, it's certainly realistic that a thirteen year old would find this an act of irredeemable betrayal! I just find an adult retelling it without any greater perspective to be unsympathetic. A great deal of the book was like this to me. Which makes me feel guilty, because I don't want to be some gatekeeper of whether or not anyone's childhood was traumatic "enough". If it hurt you, then it hurt you, regardless of what the effect might have been on someone else. And yet so many of the incidents that Abrams recounts are so minor, so unremarkable, that I couldn't help rolling my eyes. And she herself is prone, from her own account, to intense personal relationships that burn out as quickly as they start, which leads to her dumping people for tiny slights. She seems to have no awareness of this aspect to her behavior, which makes me take the rest of her account with a grain of salt.

Also the book randomly became a celebrity tell-all for several chapters. I definitely picked up a A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity because I wanted to know what it was like to go on a date with Eddie Murphy.

Abram's writing is shallow and self-pitying, with no insight beyond "and everyone was mean to me and it sucked". Here's a sample of it at its most faux-deep and glurge-y:
The unanswered prayers of a child never go away. They recede into hidden compartments in the child’s heart. Calcifying, layer by layer, with each failed intervention from a kinder, forgiving life force. Slowly the innocence begins to drain out of the child’s soul. Smiling eyes become distrustful. Warmth is replaced with coolness. Faith is transformed into fear as the optimistic child becomes a wary skeptic.
It's like a Chicken Soup for the Soul story extended to three hundred pages!

I don't know. I made a dozen bookmarks while I was reading this, because there were so many places she contradicted herself, made unbelievable claims, or treated others badly with no regard for her own actions. But I don't think I need to add them all, if only because this review would be enormous. It's a self-centered, willfully oblivious book, with nothing of interest to say.

(There are also a tremendous amount of typos in this book. I read an ARC, of course, but NetGalley's copies have almost always previously been indistinguishable from publication quality. I really hope this went through another editing pass before it was printed.)
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly. I happened to have come across two references to there being an abundance of weird cults in upstate New York in the early 1800s, from two different pieces of historical fiction I was reading. So when I saw a nonfiction book on the topic, of course I had to grab it!

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Friday, July 15th, 2016
4:24 pm - Hadestown
Last weekend, I went to see the off-Broadway production of "Hadestown", a 1920s-esque folk opera retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. That's a lot of elements for one show, but yes, really. And it works. It's based on a 2010 album by Anaïs Mitchell, which you can listen to here, but which is fairly different from the show as it exists now.

It is the best thing I have seen/heard/read in ages, and I want everyone I know to see it immediately so that I can talk about it with more people. Which I realize is a problem, because a) most of you don't live in NYC, and b) it's only running until the end of the month. So! Let me tell you about it.

The Orpheus/Eurydice plot plays out fairly close to how it does in the myth: we see them meet, fall in love through Orpheus's music, Eurydice descends to the Underworld, Orpheus chases after her, they convince Hades and Persephone to let them leave – with, of course, the caveat that they only escape if Orpheus doesn't look back – and then the tragic ending. The biggest change is in how important the Hades/Persephone relationship and myth is to this play; they become at least co-leads, if not the central figures.

The setting does a lot of work, though it's more in feel and symbolism than plot points. Orpheus is the great musician, still – but he's also a penniless romantic that is not particularly concerned with figuring out how to support himself and his new wife, which is a problem in the Depression-esque "Hard Times" of this story. His eventual look back that loses Eurydice – I don't want to spoil too much, but whew, the show has no sympathy for him. It's absolutely savage. In the first act, he's strongly paralleled to Persephone. She seems to be the same sort of feckless dreamer as Orpheus, and Amber Gray, her actress, plays Persephone as a drunken flapper girl who treats summer like an unending party with her as the star. Here's a photo.

Hades, on the other hand, is the god of work and railroads and industry and factories; "Who makes work for idle hands?" he sings at one point, and yes, he is also much more of a Devil figure here than in the original Greek myth. His underworld is a place where dead souls endlessly build a wall – there's no particular need for a wall, you see, it's work simply for the sake of work.

We build the wall to keep out of the enemy, Hades tells his followers, in a catechism-like song, and then asks, "What do we have that they should want?"

The response is:
"We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none
And our work is never done
My children, my children
And the war is never won
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free."

(YES I KNOW. But this song was written in 2010 and is not actually about the Trump campaign, despite any and all horrifying similarities.) Here's a link to the show's version of this song, which everyone should absolutely listen to.

In this version of the story, Eurydice does not so much die as sell her soul to escape hunger and cold – that's her belting out the final verse of Why We Build the Wall, zealous in her temporary seduction by the underworld's affluence. She and Persephone are both quite explicitly creatures kept in gilded cages, trading freedom for luxury. And they are both, in different ways, furious about the world that took away their choices. They both feel lied to by the men they're in a relationship with (this show really has no sympathy for men in general, it's amazing). The difference between them is that Eurydice still has hope for Orpheus, while Persephone hates Hades in the way that only comes from love that's died.

However, Persephone is after all a goddess and vastly more powerful, and when Eurydice and Orpheus's story has ended, hers still goes on, repeating its summer/winter cycle forever. It's ambiguous as to how complicit she is in the humans' fates; there's more than a tinge of A Midsummer Night's Dream here, the supernatural creatures playing out their own cold war through the proxy of hapless mortals. Persephone loudly announces her hatred for the underworld and Hades throughout the show, but her constant use and pushing of alcohol called to my mind the tempting forgetfulness of Styx. In one song she sings to a nameless soul, half-promising and half-mocking:

"Come here, brother, let me guess
It's the little things you miss
Spring flowers, autumn leaves
Ask me, brother, and you shall receive.
Or maybe these just ain't enough
Maybe you're looking for some stronger stuff
I got a sight for the sorest eye
When's the last time you saw the sky?"

After all, what stops you from escaping more than a little false relief?

The casting is diverse – both Eurydice and Persephone are mixed race black women, in another parallel – and all of the acting was amazing. Nabiyah Be (Eurydice) does so much with tiny facial expressions that felt like they shouldn't carry out to the whole theater, but she was absolutely magnetizing. And I haven't even had a chance to mention Hermes (Chris Sullivan)! He, along with the three Fates, works as narrator and storyteller and Greek (ha) chorus, and is also fantastic. The show is done as theater in the round, and all of the actors frequently wander up and through the audience, but Hermes in particular is a literally felt presence. He stomps on the boards, shaking all of the seats, to underline both the beat of the music and the thump-thump of a railroad.

Everyone was great! I desperately want more people to see this, mainly for selfish reasons including but not limited to: they will write interesting meta for me to read, they will produce a cast album, they will make this the next big theater fandom. I know it's a bit pointless for me to recommend this, since again most of you probably won't be able to see it, but I can't help but do so. It's just so good! If you have an chance, absolutely check it out.

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Thursday, July 14th, 2016
2:49 pm - Writing Prompt #5
15 minutes on "a stand-up comedy routine". I think this works better if you imagine it being spoken out loud. I mean, as much as it works at all.

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Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
3:01 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Handcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to Reform by Malcolm K. Sparrow. A nonfiction book that examines various problems with current policing theory, implementation, and practice. I was quite interested to get a more in-depth look at this topic (particularly as it regards community policing), and while this was a good book for learning some of the history and ideas behind current policing, ultimately it was mostly aimed at police managers, not lay people. For example, the chapter on how to manage interactions between public police and private security was interesting enough, in a theoretical sort of way, but I doubt I'll find much use for the suggested ways to practice such engagements. Which isn't really a critique of the book – it seems very successful at what it's doing! I'm just not the intended audience.

I do have to gripe about the chapter in which Sparrow attacks social sciences as a general concept though. He argues that policing probably isn't a great environment in which to conduct randomized, controlled experiments – sure, that seems logical enough to me. But Sparrow has a bizarre idea of what constitutes the difference between natural and social sciences. He seems to believe that social science consists solely of statistics and highly standardized experimentation, while natural science is... well, basically everything else.
For example:
My purpose [is] to press the point that social-scientific experiments and evaluation constitute a relatively small and very particular subset of the relevant inquiry tool kit.
We should at least consider which natural science inquiry methods might turn out to be relevant or important for policing. A great many of them, I would suggest. Most of what we know about social problems and most of the knowledge already accumulated by police stems from the mindset and methods of natural science inquiry: observation, inspection, investigation, and diagnosis, leading to the development of ideas about the scope, nature, and dynamics of various dysfunctions and breakdowns in the social order.

He then goes on to cite Newton, Galileo, and the entire medical field as examples of people who have learned a lot without worrying too much about experiments. To which I say, WTF.
Perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of modern medical knowledge has accumulated without the use of this elite tool kit. [...] It would be strange, indeed, if Galileo and Newton, who have taught us so much about the way the universe works, were deemed not to have engaged in “high science” simply because their methods did not rely on randomized experiments or program evaluation techniques.
(He's using here the terms "elite" and "high" science to describe social science, which he apparently seems to think is better regarded than natural science? That, uh, seems to be the exact opposite conclusion of nearly everyone else, as explained by this XKCD strip.)

And then it gets even crazier:
There is no prima facie reason why the ratio of natural science methods to social science methods applicable to policing should differ markedly from this ratio in other areas. One can obtain a rough sense of where that ratio lies, in general, by comparing the rate at which new articles are abstracted into various academic citation indices. For the United States, the rate at which articles are being added to the general science citation indices runs at roughly five times the rate at which articles are being added to equivalent social science citation indexes. Across a range of industrialized nations, this ratio varies between 5:1 and 10:1. In other words, social science may account for no more than 10 to 20 percent of new science. Given that the elite tool box and preferred methods of EBP [Evidence Based Policing; the application of his reviled "social science" methods to policing] represent a relatively small subset of the overall social science tool kit—certainly less than half—then it might be reasonable to guess that EBP should represent no more than 5 to 10 percent of the investments the police profession could usefully make in scientific inquiry.

Anyway, if you happen to read this, you might just want to skip Chapter Four. The rest of the book is fine.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

I also spent a great deal of time this week reading The Comfortable Courtesan, which is not really a book (though it is available in ebook form here!), but rather a daily-updated blog that purports to be the memoirs/diary/personal account of Madame C– C–, an exteremly select upper-class courtesean in Regency London. Though actually she's no longer a 'working woman' since she recently married a Marquess who was dying of malaria but wanted a widow he could trust to manage his estate and send regular sums of money to his revolutionary connections in Naples. He knew he could trust Madame C–, you see, because she had spent years appearing to be the mistress of the Marquess's good friend, Lord G- R-, when in actuality she was helping Lord G- R- to disguise the fact that he's gay and in a long-term relationship with his secretary, a Scottish philosopher named Sandy.

Yes. The whole thing is like this, self-consciously melodramatic and hilarious and absolutely captivating. Madame C– is a character in the grand tradition of Flora Poste and The Grand Sophy: utterly competent to arrange the chaos and manage the escapades that are constantly going on around her. It is quite frequently laugh-out-loud funny (the mating habits of wombats! bad poets falling into lakes when attacked by swans! overly enthusiastic Italian assassins with inappropriate crushes!), and when it's not being funny, it is adorable and charming (Madame C–'s relationship with baby Flora is possibly the cutest thing I have ever read). There are occasional sad episode (there's been a few deaths, and some fairly serious misadventures), but the overall feel is warm and comforting. It's written in period style, with an abundance of allusions to contemporary events or quotes or people. There's clearly a huge amount of historical knowledge behind the writing – certainly it feels vastly more authentic than the average Regency romance –  though it's so easy and fun to read that you almost wouldn't notice.

But the benefit over Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen is that The Comfortable Courtesan is wonderfully diverse. There are a large number of GLBT characters, including both m/m and f/f relationships, an asexual character, and a transwoman character. The central relationship is a poly threesome, that has had to deal with how to set boundaries and negotiate jealousy. There's a Jewish character, and many black characters – nearly all of Madame C–'s servants are black, and they and their families are important figures in the story. I mean, I realize that it does not sound particularly appealing to go "the servants are all people of color! :D", but they have their own fully detailed characterizations and plots: romances, career aspirations, tragedies, villainous kidnapping attempts, embarrassingly fervent but temporary bouts of extreme religion, and more.

It's just wonderful and I can't recommend it highly enough. Check it out here, though you probably want to start from the beginning rather than the most recent update.

What are you currently reading?
Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith! It's so good, y'all.

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Friday, July 8th, 2016
3:43 pm - Writing Prompt #4
15 minutes on "unexpected packages".

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Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
5:41 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo. A novel set in Harlem and Paris in the 1920s. Ben is a young black man, a poet and a waiter, who lives with his wife Angeline in New York City, though they're both originally from the small-town south. He struggles with what he calls this thing – eventually revealed to be his attraction to other men – a problem which kicks into overdrive when Ben meets the handsome trumpeter Baby Back Johnston. From there on out it's a matter of Ben figuring out who he is and who he loves, and the ensuing tangled mass of complicated relationships – not just with Baby Back and Angeline, but also Glo, a singer and Ben's close friend; Clifford, a rich, sophisticated black man with his own attraction to Baby Back; and Sebastian, a white painter.

The prose attempts to mimic the rhythms of poetry (many of Ben's poems are included in the text itself) and jazz, which sometimes works well, and... well, sometimes doesn't. For example:
The students smiled through their entire argument, then closed their topic with a chummy clinking of coffee cups. The Fitzgerald-endorsing student stood out. His tie askew. Longish hair falling in front of his eyes. A dash of scruff on his ruddy face.
Something in Ben’s pants smiled.
He went downstairs to use the lavatory, the basement dark and medieval-dungeon cool. The Fitzgerald boy was at the sink when Ben came out of the stall. They studied each other through the mirror’s reflection.
“Bonjour,” Fitzgerald said.
Silence. Studying.
“I need to wash my hands,” Ben said.
“What were you doing in that stall to make them dirty?”
He stepped aside. Ben moved to the sink. As water poured over his hands, he felt a nice slap on his backside. Sharp and quick, the sound like a whip. Ben looked in the mirror, saw Fitzgerald at the stall cocking his head in its direction, renegade hair flailing. He went in, left the door ajar.
Ben finished at the sink and moved to exit. He looked back at the stall, felt the smile in his pants again. He hesitated, then hesitated some more, then walked toward the stall with purpose, then reversed course and left.


But even if the prose isn't always the greatest, I really did enjoy this book. It deals with racism and homophobia in very smart ways and in a setting that I loved, the characterizations are well-done and complex, and the ending is happy if a bit bittersweet. All around, it's a book that I'm very glad exists, and I wish there were more like it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. A modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, part of a new line where various famous authors take on different Shakespeare plays.

Tyler recasts Katherina as Kate, the daughter of an absent-minded, socially clueless research scientist. His highly valuable assistant Pyotr is in danger of being kicked out of the country when his visa shortly expires; cue the suggestion of a green card marriage between him and Kate. Great idea!, I thought. What a wonderful contemporary twist on forcing someone into a marriage.

Sadly, this is the only good idea the book had. I realize that The Taming of the Shrew was always going to be a hard sell, since pretty much no one these days can find much to agree with in the second half of the play, but Jesus did this book fail hard.

My main problem is with Kate. The original Katherina is stubborn, fierce, overly-opinionated, and refuses to bow to social pressure. Kate is... sort of snarky, sometimes? She's a college dropout who's content to keep house for her father and younger sister and work in a dead-end job. She has no idea of what she wants to do with her life and folds easily to the stronger personalities around her. She's intimidated by the elderly women she works with. She's intimidated by cute boys. She's intimidated by her well-meaning father. She has an incredibly low opinion of herself and seems unable to express desires or needs of her own. So yeah, basically the only thing she has in common with the original is her name.

She's also oddly old-fashioned. Based on the way she talks and thinks, I kept assuming the setting must the 1950s or earlier, but no: there are cell-phones, there's a mention of 9/11 being in the past. It's got to be at least relatively contemporary. But then there are passages like this:
Once, a couple of months ago, Kate had tried wearing a skirt to school herself. Not that it was swishy or anything; actually it was a denim skirt with rivets and a front zip, but she had thought it might make her seem … softer. The older teachers had turned all knowing and glinty. “Somebody’s making a big effort today!” Mrs. Bower had said, and Kate had said, “What: this? It was the only thing not in the wash, is all.” But Adam hadn’t seemed to register its existence. Anyhow, it had proved impractical—hard to climb a jungle gym in—and she couldn’t shake the image of the reflection she had glimpsed in the faculty restroom’s full-length mirror. “Mutton dressed as lamb” was the phrase that had come to mind, although she knew she wasn’t really mutton; not yet. The next day, she had gone back to Levi’s.
KATE IS SUPPOSEDLY 29. I am 32, and am only vaguely aware of the existence of the saying "mutton dressed as lamb"; it's definitely not something I would ever spontaneously think – not about someone else, and certainly not about myself. ALSO OVER A JEAN SKIRT? I have been acquainted with fundamentalist Christians of the sort that don't believe in dancing or public schools, and they wore jean skirts! (Mainly because I'm pretty sure they believed it was inappropriate for women to wear pants, but still. The point remains.)

Or here she is articulating why she goes ahead with the marriage to Pyotr:
Twenty years from now I’ll be the old-maid daughter still keeping house for her father. ‘Yes, Father; no, Father; don’t forget to take your medicine, Father.’
This is the concern of the heroine of a Regency novel, not a twenty-something in 2016.

On another topic, here is her opinions on Pyotr's accent:
When he was talking shop with her father he had sounded halfway intelligent—thoughtful, even—but on subjects less scientific his language turned stunted again. She couldn’t find any logic to his use or non-use of article adjectives, for instance, and how hard could article adjectives be?
WHOA DUDE. I mean, I suppose one way of updating Kate's "shrewishness" would have been by turning her into a total dick, but unfortunately I'm pretty sure Tyler expects us to be in agreement with Kate here, since it's later treated as a stunning revelation that Pyotr has trouble expressing his thoughts in English rather than just having an accent for funsies.

The plot also doesn't much resemble The Taming of the Shrew. There's no "taming" (which, okay, fair – I probably didn't want to read that anyway), no Latin tutor disguises, no Christopher Sly, no wagers over who has the best wife. Instead it follows the standard romantic comedy outline of opposites attracting and slowly falling in love. However, the one plot point Tyler does make a point of including is Katherina's (in)famous final speech; here Kate delivers a lecture on how it's really hard to be a man because they have to hide their emotions. Which... I do agree with! But it's still a bizarre ending note, considering that it comes out of nowhere and is no way thematically relevant to the rest of the book, and doesn't even work as part of the scene it's in. It's supposed to be a riposte to Kate's younger sister – here called Bunny – who's upset because Pyotr punched her boyfriend. I'm not really clear on how "[Men] a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it" is a response to assault charges.

(By the way, I am also annoyed at how Bunny is treated in this book, constantly belittled and mocked by the narrative because she's not as smart as Kate and their father and is interested in boys. It's not a feminist retelling if you can't conceal your disdain for the "other girls".)

Anyway, it's not an entirely terrible book. The prose is fine and it's a quick, light read. I think it would make pleasant beach book if you wanted a fluffy romcom. But it has nothing to do with The Taming of the Shrew, and trying to compare the two makes Vinegar Girl suffer.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
I actually just now finished Vinegar Girl and haven't started anything else, but most probably Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith!

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Thursday, June 30th, 2016
4:13 pm - Writing Prompt #3
For this week's prompt, we wrote down various emotions on slips of paper, then drew them out of a hat. I got "happy" and "envious".

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Wednesday, June 29th, 2016
5:39 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks. The land of Shaftal has been invaded by a foreign people, who have killed Shaftal's king, scattered its leaders, taxed its farmers, and subdued most of the country. Zanja, a young woman when the invasion first occurred, has been working as a spy and trader to protect her small tribe of border people. When that fails, she joins the remnants of Shaftal's army, who have been harrying the invaders and engaging in guerilla warfare for the last fifteen years. This brings her into contact with Karis, an extremely strong Earth witch, and Emil, a fireblood like herself (the magic system is not very well-explained, but firebloods seem to have the ability to vaguely see the future, while Earth witches can heal, make things grow, and work metal).

All of this is pretty much standard High Fantasy – Good vs Evil, a hero emerging from humble origins, the lost heir to the throne, underdogs valiantly struggling against vast odds – but it turns out that's not at all the story Marks is interested in telling. Though it takes a significant percentage of the book to get there, Marks eventually overturns the trope conventions. It becomes about making peace rather than winning a war, about acceptance rather than vengeance, about healing and melding instead of holding strong. All of which is great!

Unfortunately, the tone overall is much more intellectual than emotional, which made it hard for me to engage with the characters; the book sometimes felt more like a philosophical exercise than a story. The beginning also has an exteremly high bar to getting into the story. I realize that info-dumping is bad writing, but leaving the reader with no explanation of what's happening doesn't work much better!

On another note, there are multiple important gay and lesbian relationships, and gender seems to not be an important discriminating factor in any of the cultures here: we have women soldiers, generals, scholars, smiths, and in every other role.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and though I had some problems with it, it's a great idea and I'm really looking forward to reading the other books.

What are you currently reading?
Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo. A novel about a gay black man – or rather, a man struggling not to be gay – in Harlem Renaissance NYC. I'm not very far into this yet, but I am LOVING IT.

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Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
2:53 pm - Writing Prompt #2
Another one of these writing prompts from my weekly writing group. In brief: one person picks a prompt, then we all have only 15 minutes to write something – anything.

This week's prompt was from >a NYT article about the 36 questions that, supposedly, can make any two people fall in love – by forcing them to feel intimate and close. Specifically, "If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?"

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(Yes, it is totally cheating to cut off right before I actually had to decide what question he would ask. But hey – only 15 minutes!)

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Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016
9:34 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan. In 1850, Jonah is a young man, just turned 18, and a slave at a tavern in South Carolina. His owner is comparatively kind to him – teaching him to read, letting him work in the house, buying him Christmas presents – but after being whipped for the first time, Jonah runs away. This is a spur of the moment decision, and he takes off without supplies or much knowledge of where he's headed. It doesn't take long before he meets up with Angel, another slave, who decides that if Jonah can run away she can too, and promptly follows him despite Jonah's attempts to shake her off.

That's pretty much it for a plot; the book quickly settles into an episodic travelogue which is mostly entertaining, though near the end it gets a bit predictable. The same set-back repeats several times in a row – "Oh no! Someone's captured Jonah! Will he be sent back South? Thank goodness, he's escaped just in time!" – which I suppose is realistic, but felt circular. The relationship between Jonah and Angel also doesn't make much progress; she continually tries to convince him that he needs her, while he takes any opportunity to leave her behind – a trait which honestly made me lose a lot of sympathy for Jonah. I get that you didn't ask her to come along, but Jesus, don't keep abandoning her in terrible situations!

The writing style is simplistic in a way that gives it the feel of dialogue without being entirely stream-of-consciousness; it bothered me for the first few pages, but once I settled into it I liked it. Both Jonah and Angel had distinct, charming voices.

I feel like this is coming off as a mostly negative review, but I did actually enjoy the book. It's just that it's not doing anything new, nor is it a particularly stellar example of the genre. It's a pleasant read, but honestly it'll probably fade from my memory quite quickly. And yet there's nothing really wrong with it either! Sometimes books that are perfectly adequate leave me with the least to say.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett. The 15th book in the Discworld series, and the first one I ever read. (Probably? It might possibly have been Feet of Clay instead; I know I read those two close enough to one another, and so long ago, that I'm no longer quite sure which was first.) We head back to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, which is reluctantly dealing with a brand-new affirmative action program put in place to better reflect the city. Meanwhile, the Discworld's one gun has been discovered, and is in the hands of a man determined to reinstate the monarchy.

There are so many details here that I consider to be just part of Discworld basics that it's shocking it took fifteen books for them to appear: Angua! Bloody Stupid Johnson! Leonard da Quirm! Detritus in the Watch! It's so lovely to see them here, filling out the background of the world even more.

I have to admit that I didn't like this one quite as much as I had in my memory, though I'm not sure why. I mean, it's still fantastic, with lots of humor and some exteremly sad moments; a lesser Discworld book is still better than most things I read. I also remembered the King Arthur parody taking up a much larger part of the book than it actually does; I suppose it's just that the whole "forget pulling a sword out of a stone! Who put it in the stone?" is exteremly memorable.

One thing that I found fascinating is that this is the book that really makes the transition between traditional fantasy settings – timeless, unchanging, and mostly based on medieval Europe – and something more modern. There's been little hints at such a change in earlier books: Small Gods permanently altered the nature of Omnism, and Lords and Ladies insisted that humans had changed enough to no longer need elves, but this is a whole different level. I mean: gun control! Minority outreach programs! That's not part of Ye Olde Phantasie.

This is especially noticeable because right before I read Men at Arms I read Troll Bridge, a short story published the year before. Troll Bridge is about Cohen the Barbarian and takes place far from Ankh-Morpork, but it is quite explicitly about the world changing, leaving behind Old School Fantasy (in this case Swords & Sorcery) and becoming a more direct parody of the contemporary world. I never would have noticed these parallels if I hadn't decided to do my reread of this series in publication order, and I'm really glad I did! I'm picking up on so many things that I never had before.

What are you currently reading?
Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks. This book has been on my to-read list for ages – literally years! – but since I didn't actually own a copy, I'd been putting it off. Today I forgot my current book at home and ended up in the city with time to pass and nothing to read, which is obviously a valid reason for visiting a bookstore and buying three books. One of which happened to be this, hooray! I'm not very far into it, but apparently it's been long enough since I read a fantasy book to be annoyed at made-up words (what the hell is a "G'deon" and how are you supposed to pronounce that? Call it a King!), but I am still enjoying the promise of lesbian poly H/C.

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Saturday, June 18th, 2016
5:12 pm - Fic Recs
Some things I've read recently that I enjoyed and want to pass on:

Small Kindnesses by ophelia_interrupted. Benjamin January, Hannibal/OFC, E, 1.6k. YES THERE IS A NEW BENJAMIN JANUARY FIC AND IT IS REALLY GOOD. :D Why has no one else read this? It's fantastic! EVERYONE CHECK THIS OUT AND SQUEE WITH ME BECAUSE I LOVE IT.

Singing the Lord's song in a strange land by Nary. Based on a song, but you can easily read it as original fic. M, 1.4k. An absolutely beautiful story about slavery and mermaids (or something darker!) and motherhood and just, this is so great. You should absolutely give it a chance.

Red Sky at Morning by thewalrus_said. A sequel to Shakespeare's 12th Night, written in script format. T, 14.5k. This is just excellent! I love the plot, I Iove the characterizations, and I love the romance. Really worth reading if you have any fondness for the original play at all.

Double Negative (Eliza/Jefferson, 4k) and its sequel, An Unconventional Relationship (Eliza/Jefferson/Hamilton, 10.7k), by holograms. Hamilton: a musical, E. This is not a pairing that would ever have occurred to me, but by God, this fic has converted me. It's so hot and well-characterized and sympathetic and funny and sad and did I mention hot? Because it is. Yes. Highly recommended.

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Thursday, June 16th, 2016
4:56 pm - Writing Prompt #1
I recently started going to a nearby writers' group – more in the interest of making new local friends than because I really wanted feedback on my writing, honestly. And none of the other MeetUp groups looked that appealing, so my choices were limited. But despite my original disinterest in the actual topic, it has been a lot of fun. We recently decided to add a new game to our meetings: someone picks a prompt, everyone has 15 minutes to write, and then we share whatever we managed to come up with.

Fifteen minutes isn't a very long time, so they're not spectacular pieces of writing, but it is neat to see what you can come up with without preparation. I don't know if anyone has an interest in reading these, but since I don't have anything else to do with the pieces and don't really intend to continue them, I figured I'd go ahead and post them here. For posterity, if nothing else.

This is the first one we did. The prompt was "A detective who is running out of money".

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Wednesday, June 15th, 2016
4:03 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
On A Desert Shore by S.K. Rizzolo. The fourth in a mystery series set in Regency-era London, starring John Chase, a Bow Street Runner; Mrs. Penelope Wolfe, a writer abandoned by her artist husband; and Edward Buckler, a clinically depressed melancholic lawyer. I haven't read the previous three books in the series, but a) most mystery series are designed to be dipped into without necessarily reading them in order, so I figured I'd be fine, and b) a particular element of this one's summary caught by attention.

A diversion: In Vanity Fair Becky Sharpe goes to school with "Miss Swartz", a wealthy heiress who is the mixed race child of a Caribbean planter and a slave woman. Miss Swartz isn't much of a character, one-dimensional and vaguely racist in a way unsurprising for a book written in 1847, but I've always been fascinated by the idea of her. Here we have a black woman attending elite finishing schools, going to house parties, and ultimately marrying into the nobility! Given how much we love to set stories in the Regency today, why aren't there a hundred Miss Swartzs written with modern sympathies? Especially in the romance genre! Romance loves the "she's rich but not suitable, he's noble but poor, together they have an arranged marriage and ultimately fall in love" trope, and yet I can't name a single instance in which the rich heiress is black. When books from 150 years ago are doing better than you in terms of racial representation, there's a problem. So I was very excited to see On a Desert Shore, because it finally seemed to be the new Miss Swartz I'd been waiting for.

Marina Garrod is the mixed race only child of Hugo Garrod, wealthy British merchant and owner of a Jamaican plantation. However, strange things have been happening around her, and it's unclear if Marina is having a mental breakdown or if someone is trying to put a (voodoo) curse on her or otherwise harass her. Hugo hires John Chase to be her bodyguard, but before Chase can figure out what's going on, someone poisons Hugo and the race is on to figure out who the murderer is before the will is read and all of Hugo's money is claimed.

This is a promising premise! Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to its potential in any way. One of the things I was most irritated by was the author's failure to describe what race any of her characters were. You can't write a book about racism and make your readers guess at who is white and who is black! That is necessary information! I'm aware that some readers dislike excessive, exoticizing description of minority characters' appearances, and I suspect Rizzolo may have been influenced by advice to avoid that. That's fine! But "She was a black woman" is not excessive or exoticizing! If I can only figure out a character is black twenty pages after her introduction by putting together context clues, you have failed. Even after finishing the book, I'm unclear if Marina was supposed to be able to pass for white (because sometimes strangers seemed unaware of her heritage) or not (because sometimes strangers seemed to know immediately), which is a basic piece of information I would have liked to better understand the plot. I mean, it's one thing to leave characters' races vague if the book is not focused on race, but when it's the central motivating factor of your plot, you need to be clear.

In addition, every one of the "good" characters is not only totally a forward-thinking abolitionist (which, again, fine! I don't want to spend two hundred pages sympathizing with racists anyway, even if it would be realistic for the period), but completely modern and "colorblind" in their attitudes. These people supposedly live in 1813 London, and yet are surprised and shocked at the existence of racism around them. ...Despite the plot centering around the prevalence of racism. I don't know, it doesn't really make any more sense while reading it. Rizzolo's lengthy afterward describes all the research she did, but it simply doesn't come through in the text itself. Including what she describes as the motivation of the villain, which wow, I apparently did not pick up on at all.

I was also disappointed by the depiction of depression. I was pretty excited once I realized this was a historical series with major character who suffered from depression – again, not a thing I think I've read before but which I totally want to – and yet it bore no resemblance to reality. Buckler is energized and happy when his romantic relationship is going well, and sad and lethargic when it takes a downturn. That's not clinic depression, that's normal moodiness. Social contact can be a treatment for depression, but love does not actually cure bad brain chemistry.

The writing and the mystery itself were adequate, I suppose (though Rizzolo's afterward, where she describes her research, suggest that she intended several things which I did not pick up in the actual text at all), but ultimately I was very disappointed with the book, because there were so many aspects I should have loved that were done poorly. Even the promise of "woman writer in a shippable OT3 in Regency London!" is not enough to get me to read the rest of the series.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Turbulence by Samit Basu. On a flight between London and Delhi, every passenger mysteriously gains superpowers based on their deepest wish or what they happened to be dreaming about at the time. This does not always lead to useful powers – there's a few "Superman" types, but there's also a teenager who can control the weather based on how his stomach feels, an actress who can make anyone fall in love with her, and an architect who can grow houses directly from the ground.

Aman, the main character, gains the ability to surf the internet with his mind, becoming a super-hacker who can bypass any security system, read anyone's email, or steal anyone's bank account. He decides that these new powers should be used to benefit the whole of humanity, and so sets out to gather a team of superheroes. He's opposed in this by Jai, who also plans to create a team of superheroes, but his goal is for India to conquer the world. Cue lots of fight scenes, double crossing agents, spying, and short-lived allies.

The real pleasure of the book isn't so much the plot (which is pretty similar to most superhero stories), but the writing style. It's full of jokes, pop-culture references, and absurd descriptions, a bit like if Douglas Adams decided to write about modern-day Mumbai. What I most enjoyed, really, was just seeing what weird powers everyone had and why – though unfortunately my very favorite one is a spoiler, since it wasn't revealed until a twist near the end. I really enjoyed reading this, even if I don't think it'll stick in my memory for long.

What are you currently reading?
Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan, another novel from NetGalley.

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Wednesday, June 8th, 2016
11:25 am - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland by Jessica Millward. Charity Folks was born into slavery around 1759. In 1811, she was set free. She spent the rest of her life working to have her children and grandchildren set free as well, and the family eventually became one of the richest and most influential black families on the East Coast. This is a nonfiction study of how exactly the complicated process of manumission worked.

One of the problems with writing history about the "subaltern" is that, by definition, they have been silenced in mainstream discourse. Trying to fill out someone's entire life when you only have three sentences to work with is going to leave a lot of empty space. Often this leaves such books feeling thin and patched over with unanswered – unanswerable – questions. Millward deals with this problem by including the stories of multiple people in similar positions, which is actually a really smart approach.

Most of the book is focused on the various approaches of enslaved women negotiating for manumission papers for themselves or relatives. I was particularly fascinated on the various stories of slaves who sued their masters, arguing that they were legally free (usually based on claims of an ancestor – sometimes as far back as 150 years previously – having been a white woman and/or free), which does not seem like a suit you can imagine succeeding, but which apparently did, if rarely.

There were a few problems with the writing style of the book, mainly that I really could have done with a family tree or list of the personages featured to help me keep track of who was who. Millward also had a tendency to introduce new people without any explanation of why they were important to the overall story, which added to my confusion.

Overall, I found it a fascinating and well-done account of this particular aspect of slavery.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Savage Season by Joe Lansdale. The first in the Hap & Leonard series. I've come around to this book in a very odd manner: first I read the two most recent books in the series (#12 and #13), then I watched the TV series based on Savage Season, and then finally made it to this book itself. So I had some preconceived notions going in, you see.

Here's the summary: It's the late 1980s, and Hap is an ex-hippie. Once upon a time he was a college student who went to jail for draft dodging, but now he's just a poor, white, sometimes-drunk East Texas guy. Leonard is his best friend and his total opposite in most ways: black, gay, a Vietnam vet and staunch conservative. But they work the rose fields together and enjoy arguing, and so have come to be the closest relationship in each other's lives.

Then Trudy, Hap's ex-wife (who encouraged him to go to jail as a statement, and then left him when she got bored of waiting for him to be released), shows up with a plan to make a million dollars by finding cash stolen and lost during a long-ago bank robbery. She has a gang of fellow "idealists" with her, who want Hap to join them in their plan to use the money to change the world. But things, as always, don't go as planned.

Hap and Leonard here are a bit more serious and less self-aware than in later books in the series (though they're still quite funny, and the book often veers closer to a parody of noir thrillers than a straight example of the genre), but less so than in the TV series (which seemed pretty determined to make the tone much grittier and harsher). It was a fast, compelling read, and I've already purchased a copy of the next book to look forward to.

What are you currently reading?
I'm hopping back and forth between two books: On A Desert Shore by S.K. Rizzolo, a mystery from NetGalley that I am having quite a few issues with, and Turbulence by Samit Basu, which [personal profile] rachelmanija recommended ages ago and that I'm really enjoying.

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Wednesday, June 1st, 2016
11:13 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian. This is an absolutely amazing journalistic account of the aftermath of Sri Lanka's Civil War. In exteremly brief summary: the majority of Sri Lanka's population speaks Sinhalese and practices Buddhism, but a significant minority speaks Tamil and practices Hinduism. In the 1950s, in response to (real? perceived?) prejudice, the Tamils began to protest, and eventually formed the Tamil Tigers, a militant/guerilla/terrorist group that agitated for a separate Tamil country. The Sri Lankan government disagreed violently with this, finally defeating the Tigers in 2009. Significant human rights violations and absolute atrocities were committed by both sides.

Because during the last, worst months of the fighting the Sri Lankan government refused to allow journalists or UN observers into disputed territory, rumors that can never be verified or entirely denied continue to circulate: did the government deliberately bomb an occupied hospital? did they extrajudicially execute the Tiger leaders and their families, including children? how many civilians died? Sri Lanka says 9,000; the UN estimates at least 40,000. And on and on. The entire history of the war is littered with mysteries like these, through Subramanian steers a middle course of raising the questions but not pretending to offer answers.

Subramanian is not himself Sri Lankan (though he is Tamil, from India), which allows him to speak to both sides. He's not particularly interested in figuring out who was right or who was wrong, or even in describing the names and dates as you might expect from a history. Instead he simply writes about what it was like for ordinary people to live through such an extended, horrifying war. He focuses on the stories of individuals: missing children, abducted by the Tigers and forced to serve on the front lines of battle; missing children, who fought with the Tigers until they surrendered to the government and disappeared into internment camps. Even now, years later, there are no answers about where thousands of people are or if they're even still alive. Car mechanics who haven't seen new parts or petrol engines in years, but simply made do with what was allowed through blockades. Bullet holes in mosques, from the Tiger's sudden turn against Tamil-speaking Muslims. Journalists kidnapped for questioning the government one too many times. Buddhist monks turned politicians, preaching a new, hard-line nationalist version of Buddhism; Buddhist monks who left the monastery and took up arms to fight. Exiles in India, Canada, and the U.K., unable or unwilling to ever return home. And more.

It's a hard book to read, obviously, but it's very much worth it. The writing is beautiful and emphatic, and Subramanian doesn't waste time trying to offer explanations for violations that can't be explained. But he bears witness to these stories, and sometimes that's all you can do. Highly recommended.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Finding Charity's Folk Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland by Jessica Millward. Another NetGalley book! But I did not order any new books from them this week; I swear to god I am going to catch up so that I can start reading other things.

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Saturday, May 28th, 2016
11:39 am - Seeing Color letter
(Everybody sign up with me! :D Go here for more details.)

Hi! Thank you so much for matching me! I'm looking forward to whatever I receive.
If you would like more information than what's below, check out some of my previous exchange letters. Anything I've asked for before is still welcome. On the other hand, I'm a big believer in "Optional Details Are Optional", so feel free to ignore all of this and do whatever you want.
My AO3 name is Brigdh.

In general, I'm a big fan of H/C, porn, casefic, missing scenes, loyalty kink and chosen families, both established relationship and first times, humor, dark fic, epistolary fic, pining, road trips, AUs, and curtainfic/slice of life. I don't have any strong DNWs.

My requests:
Benjamin January Mysteries - Barbara Hambly
Benjamin January, Rose Vitrac January, group: Benjamin January & Rose Vitrac January & Hannibal Sefton
In this fandom, I ship: Ben/Rose, Ben/Ayasha, Ben/Hannibal, Rose/Cora, Rose/Hannibal, and Ben/Rose/Hannibal. However, I'm also really into fic about any of these people as friends, or character study fic!

– Really, I'd love to read anything at all about my OT3. Domestic fluff with them cooking and playing music and making dumb Latin jokes and critiquing opera or whatever. I'm sure Hannibal would be very willing to help either of them expand their sexual repertoire. Give them a new case to solve, or an adventure that doesn't start with Ben playing detective! Are there backstories to the nicknames Hannibal uses for them, Athene and amicus meus? I would LOVE a first time fic set post-'Crimson Angel', where the events of that book leads to a change in their relationship.
– For a focus on Rose/Hannibal, how did their first meeting go? How about Hannibal teaching Rose to pick locks (and/or the two of them attempting to teach Ben)? I'd love to hear more about what Rose was thinking during 'Dead and Buried', and what she thinks about Hannibal's backstory. I also LOVE their fake-relationship in 'Crimson Angel', so more about that, please.
– For Ben/Hannibal, the world NEEDS furtive make-outs in the backroom of some opera/ball/private party. Or tell me about Ben's feelings when Hannibal moves away to Mexico. These trips to Mexico and DC are also excellent opportunities for epistolary fic.
– I'd also love something about Rose and Cora, either as children or after Cora comes to New Orleans, or about Rose and Chloe being academic women friends.
– Ben/Ayasha: I want to know everything about their relationship, from beginning to end. An AU where Ayasha gets to meet either Rose or Hannibal would also be wonderful.
– This fandom does not yet have a single modern AU! You should write one. :D
– If you want to write gen, Rose-backstory about her time at school in New York would be AMAZING. I would also LOVE fic about Ben and his family – either during his childhood or as an adult. His relationships with Livia, Dominique, and Olympe are all complex and wonderful. I'm also curious to know more about his feelings regarding St-Denis Janvier.

Fanart requests: Feel free to use anything above, if you see something inspiring! But I suspect a lot of my fic requests don't translate well to art, so here's some art-specific ideas.
– I would love, love, love a daemon AU. I don't like these as much in fic, since they don't seem to lend themselves to plot, but I adore them in art. I really want to see what animals you think the different characters would have as daemons! (I have my own ideas, but I don't want to stifle your creativity. But if you're curious, feel free to ask through the mods/leave an anonymous comment/whatever.)
– Being able to see a moment from canon would be wonderful. You can look back through my Benjamin January tag for some of my favorite quotes and the scenes I talk about the most, but also feel free to chose your own favorite.
– Hair kink! Both Rose and Hannibal have long hair, so I'd love to see art about other characters generally doing things with it: combing, braiding, washing, putting it up, taking it down, etc.
– Mardi Gras party! I'd love to see what costumes the characters chose.

Underground (TV)
Cato, Noah, Rosalee
In this fandom, I ship Cato/Noah/Rosalee, as well as any two out of the three. However, I'm also really into fic about any of these people as friends (or, well, tense companions), or character study fic!

– Shippy fic YES. First times, established relationships – whatever you like. I just want to see them snarking and testing one another (and possibly outright punching between Noah and Cato) and rescuing each other and slowly learning to trust. And also kiss.
– I'd really love a fic about them reuniting after the events of the finale. Unfortunately, I realize that would probably involve tens of thousands of words, and I'm not going to require that of you. Though I wouldn't say no if you want to write it! :D Feel free to timeskip ahead and/or use an AU if that works for you.
– I loved the episode where Cato and Rosalee dressed up and pretended to be married. A missing scene from there (or what if they had had to spend the night like that?) examining their feelings would be wonderful.
– Backstory about any of them would be great. We've only gotten little hints about their lives before this season, and I'd love to see more of that filled out. Noah and Rosalee seem to have never spoken before episode one, but what about Noah and Cato? Or Cato and Rosalee? Or feel free to focus on just one character, if you prefer. I'd also really love to read more about Noah's friendship with Henry.
– I'm really interested in the question of if Rosalee knows how to read. It seems like she might? A story about her teaching one or both of the others would be lovely. Or about all three of them learning!
– An AU with them in some less-awful life would make me happy. Perhaps they're still running a heist! Or perhaps they have some more straightforward problems.
– I would also be really into Rosalee/Elizabeth fic set during the finale. C'mon, there was totally sexual tension there! :D

Titus Andronicus - Shakespeare
Many of Shakespeare's villains (Iago, Lady Macbeth, Richard III) get lots of attention – meta, fic, art, actors describing what great roles they are to play – but Aaron is my very favorite, and almost no one ever talks about him. :( He is, in many ways, a stereotype, and yet he's also exteremly aware of how he is perceived by the society around him. There's several lines that suggest he's deliberately turning himself into what's expected of him. He's such a complex character! I love how dramatically, straightforwardly, wonderfully evil he is. I love his anger, I love his arrogance (that swagger! ♥ He basically drops a 'yo mamma' joke, how amazing is that?), I love his relationship with Tamora, and I love how he sacrifices everything he has to try and save his son and yet still refuses to admit wrongdoing: "If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul." AH LOVE. He is a complicated, stubborn, self-centered villain, and I adore him.

– How did he get this way? What was Aaron's childhood, his parents? How does a Moor end up among the goths anyway?
– The Tamora/Aaron relationship is pretty fascinating to me, and I'd love the backstory on how they met and their early days together. He seems pretty good at playing the game of politics – what was his role in Tamora's Queendom? He seems to not care at all when she marries Saturninus – regard it as a good thing, in fact! How exactly did such an open relationship come to be, and how does it work?
– I LOVE his relationship with his son, how he instantly gives up everything his life has been to try and rescue a baby. An AU where he actually gets away and gets to raise his son would be awesome. What would Aaron be like as a father? Does he "want his soul black", or would the act of raising a child change his perspective somewhat? What would he tell the kid about his past? Where would they go to live?
– One of the huge themes of Titus Andronicus is revenge, and yet Aaron seems to be the only character not primarily motivated by revenge. Or is he? Does he have some secret backstory we don't see in the play? Or, if not, what does he think of all this going on around him? What is his motivation?
– Apparently during the Victorian period, a rewritten version starring Aaron as the virtuous hero, friends with chaste Tamora, became popular. I feel a meta fic, where the "original" Aaron becomes aware of this, could be HILARIOUS. Or sad! Depending on how you want to write it.
– AUs: always a plus. Modern day? Elizabethan era? Crossovers with other Shakespeare plays would also be great!

Fanart requests: Feel free to use anything above, if you see something inspiring! But I suspect a lot of my fic requests don't translate well to art, so here's some art-specific ideas.
– Daemon AU, yes, always.
– Poster art advertising the play (and Aaron specifically, of course)
– Aaron and his baby: YES PLEASE. Cute, creepy, however you like, I just would love to see them together.
– A piece inspired by this line would be GREAT:
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome's Saturnine,
And see his shipwreck and his commonweal's.

Or any of the other scenes in canon.

Thanks again! I can't wait to see what you make.

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Wednesday, May 25th, 2016
3:38 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Yes, yes, I know: somehow I made it to adulthood having never actually read this before (I did see the Studio Ghibli movie? But they're different enough that I don't think that counts), or any other book by Jones. Feel free to rec one if you think there's any I should particularly read!

I hardly think I need to summarize this, but just in case: Sophie is the eldest of three children and therefore according to the rules of fairy tales, which she knows very well, nothing interesting or successful will ever happen to her. And so it seems at first: Sophie works in her family hat store, while her younger sisters are given interesting apprenticeships, one to a witch and the other to a baker. And then one day Sophie encounters the Witch of the Waste, who – for no reason Sophie can tell – puts a curse on her that turns her into an old woman and prevents her from telling anyone what happened.

Sophie takes this as an excuse to leave home, and ends up at the residence of the Wizard Howl, the titular moving castle. She has been always told that Howl is heartless and eats young women's souls, but that turns out to be an exaggeration. Sophie makes herself at home as a sort of maid/cleaning lady, and makes friends with the castle's other occupants, Calcifer the fire demon and Howl's apprentice Michael. They travel about, having assorted adventures, until Sophie realizes that Howl is also under a spell cast by the Witch of the Waste, which leads to a magical showdown and, of course, a happy ending for everyone.

(Well, not the Witch, I suppose. But everyone else!)

The real charm of the book is less the plot and more the characters and their interactions. I saw it called "fantasy slice of life" somewhere, and it is very much that; there's a great many pages spent on bacon sandwiches and cleaning supplies and tantrums over hair dying gone wrong, and yet it's all very nice to read and endlessly comfortable. I had been about to say that it was more "middle grade" than I usually read, but on thinking that over, it actually contains some fairly complex ideas. I think it's just that the writing style itself has a childlike quality. I did not see the ending romance coming until it was suddenly there, happening, but it's too sweet to dislike, so I'm on board.

Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. A novel of three women from three generations of the same family. In 1950s rural Bengal, Sabitri is a poor but intelligent student, who lucks into a scholarship for college in Kolkata. In 1970s Kolkata, Sabitri's daughter Bela falls in love with a student leader of the Communist Party, and elopes with him to America when his life is threatened. In the late 1990s/early 2000s Texas, Bela's daughter Tara drops out of college after her parents' divorce and goes through a string of years taken up with shitty boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and drugs.

The three timelines are interwoven, with events happening to one woman often reverberating down to have consequences in her daughter's life. In addition to the women themselves, secondary characters appear to occasionally take over the point of view: friends, husbands, employers, and so on. The ending, when revelations from all three generations crash together into one moment, felt a little too easy, but emotional nonetheless – like a Hallmark commercial that makes you cry even while you know it's cheesy.

I've read several other books by Divakaruni before, and I'm generally a fan of her writing, but this one seemed slighter than usual. It was pleasant enough while I was reading it, but now that it's done, I can't think of much to say about it. Ah, well. I suppose it's one of those books that has nothing exactly wrong, but doesn't do much good of note either.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. The 14th book of the Discworld series, and we're back to the witches! This time, in the tiny rural kingdom of Lancre, Magrat Garlick is engaged to the king but not quite sure if the life of queen is really for her; Granny Weatherwax is distracted by signs that she's going to die soon (witches know these things, you see); and Nanny Ogg is just generally Nanny. However, the royal wedding plans are interrupted by arrival of elves – not grand Tolkien elves, not tiny flower fairies, but the elves of changelings and Tam Lin and fairy gold: nasty and brutal and utterly untrustworthy.

What particularly stood out to me this time (though it's hardly unique to this book) is the sheer number of themes and ideas Pratchett can weave into a single narrative. Here we have: a parody of Midsummer Night's Dream, thoughts about folklore and elves (of course), beekeeping, parallel universes, crop circles, stone circles, magnetism, the problems and power of romanticism, why humans like cats, the cost of being the very best at something, and probably two or three more that I've forgotten.

I keep having to fight my first impression of Pratchett as an easy read – and he is very readable! But it's like Picasso reverting to line-drawings. You really have to know what you're doing before you can get back to basics. And on that note, words I had to look up in a book I must have already read a dozen times:
Castors: each of a set of small wheels, free to swivel in any direction, fixed to the legs or base of a heavy piece of furniture so that it can be moved easily. (So that's what those things are called!)
Chicane: an artificial narrowing or turn on a road or auto-racing course.
Ablation: the loss of surface material from a spacecraft or meteorite through evaporation or melting caused by friction with the atmosphere.

I love this book, from I ATE'NT DEAD and Only one queen in a hive! Slash! Stab! and The price for being the best is always…having to be the best and Nanny waving a bag of sweets to interrupt Granny and Diamanda's 'who's the best witch' competition, and the utterly horrifying nature of Pratchett's elves. He's the best at conveying terror through indirectness: It was still alive. Elves were skilled at leaving things alive, often for weeks.

And just so you know, I am STRONGLY RESISTING quoting the entire final confrontation with the elf Queen. But it's tempting!

Anyway, yes, amazing, if you have somehow not read it yet, do so immediately.

What are you currently reading?
Theoretically, I am reading This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian, another NetGalley book.

Practically, I am reading World Ain't Ready, a Les Mis High School AU with fake-dating. It is 185k long. You guys, that is longer than The Fellowship of the Ring. It also holds the record for being the first fic I've bothered to load onto my ereader (I usually keep the fic on my computer and the books offline, but now I've broken the barrier). It seems nice so far! But I'm only on chapter 3.

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Wednesday, May 18th, 2016
5:49 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This book's focus is Cora, a tough, determined young woman who starts out as a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Caesar, a newly bought field-hand, tells her that he has a connection to the Underground Railroad and wants her to run away with him. Cora thinks this is because her mother (who ran away years ago, abandoning Cora as a child, who still resents her for it) is the only slave from this particular plantation to never be caught, and Cora therefore might be good luck. Scorning such superstition, she tells him no, only to change her mind when the plantation comes into the hands of new, unusually sadistic owner.

However, this book is more magic realism than history, and it turns out that the Underground Railroad is literally an underground railroad: stations buried beneath houses or barns, tracks in tunnels running beneath mountains, steam engines manned by conductors. And it takes its passengers to places that never existed. At one point, Cora reads Gulliver's Travels, and that's the clear inspiration for this book: it's a travelogue of fantasy lands that are not nearly as fantastic as one might wish. The Underground Railroad alludes to real moments in American history: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, eugenic sterilization laws, lynching, Harriet Ann Jacobs's time hidden in an attic, Harriet Tubman's head injury, the Back to Africa movement (the 18th and 19th century idea concerned with expelling all blacks, not the more recent one about discovering your roots), and probably a lot more that I don't know enough to recognize. Ultimately Cora is caught up in the debate of how to make progress, the same in her America as it is now: respectable, incremental progress, focusing on 'the talented tenth'? Or aggressive, risky radicalism? Whitehead provides no clear answer (how could he?), but manages to make the problem feel fresh and new.

This is a brutal, brutal book – violent and terrifying without the least speck of hope. CCora survives her travels, but many others don't, and even for her it's an arduous, grinding endurance, not a joyous victory. One might say all books about slavery, by their very nature, are brutal, but let me tell you: I have read a lot of books on this topic, and very few managed to hit murder, child rape, and attempted suicide by page two, only to proceed downward from there.

Which is not to say that I didn't like it! I did, very much; I just want people to know what they're getting into if they chose to read this. But if that doesn't put you off, it's an amazing book: beautifully written, with wonderful, engaging characters, fascinating worldbuilding, and a compelling quality that makes it hard to put down. Absolutely recommended.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Duke of Midnight by Elizabeth Hoyt. Okay, you guys, there is one reason and one reason only why I needed to read this book: Regency Batman. (Okay, technically it's Georgian, not Regency, but the only effect that seems to have on the plot is it gives the author more interesting fashion to describe.)

Maximus Batten, Duke of Wakefield, witnessed the brutal murder of his parents as a young child. After years of training in secret, he now spends every night hunting the streets of London's slums in disguise, fighting against the gin trade that he blames for his parents' deaths and hunting for the specific highwayman that killed them. He has a butler who's in on his secret and helps him train and do research. He has a Commissioner Gordon, in the form of the guy officially in charge of cleaning up the illegal gin trade. He even has a Batcave! (It's an old wine cellar that he uses to keep up on his exercising and to sneak in and out of his house, but come on, it's a Batcave.)

So clearly this is amazing. But is the book actually worth reading? Yes! It's not the best historical romance I've ever read – Maximus is way too close to an alphahole for my personal taste – but I very much enjoyed myself.

The heroine is Artemis, the poor cousin and current lady's companion to Penelope, a beautiful heiress who is determined to marry Maximus herself. Artemis, though forced by her position to maintain a demure facade, is a snarky tomboy who is mostly concerned with her twin brother Apollo (I KNOW ARTEMIS AND APOLLO WTF), who was accused of murder years ago and has been forcibly imprisoned in Bedlam ever since. When Artemis accidentally figures out that Maximus is the Ghost of St Giles Batman, she blackmails him into helping Apollo.

I did not approve of their first kiss including Maximus calling her a "little bitch", but once you get past that, the sex scenes were very hot and well-written. I particularly enjoyed that they carried out an affair for quite a while despite believing that they would never be able to marry, since Maximus was still officially courting Penelope. Characters sleeping together while trying to hide their true love? A+++ I LOVE THIS TROPE. I also really liked that a major part of the plot involved the triangle between Penelope, Maximus, and Artemis, but "the other woman" wasn't demonized or blamed. In fact, the book had a nice diversity of female friendships. On the other hand, the ending is a bit too clearly part of a series, as it just drops several plot lines without resolution: what happens to Penelope and the Duke of Scarborough? Who did murder Apollo's friends? How will he stay out of Bedlam? I need to know.

Overall, I had a few problems and it's a bit cheesy, but it was fun, entertaining book. Definitely a nice way to spend a rainy afternoon.

What are you currently reading?
Well, I started Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a novel off of NetGalley, but then I decided that I needed something cheerier to read and have temporarily detoured into Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, which I've somehow never read before. They're both great so far!

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Tuesday, May 17th, 2016
4:37 pm - Television I've Been Watching
For the last few months, I've actually had a crowded schedule of TV watching! This is remarkable for me, since I almost never watch shows as they air, much less watch multiple ones with conflicting schedules. They've now dropped off one by one, as their seasons ended, and so now I am late to the party with recommendations (well, mostly).

Sleepy Hollow
See, the tragic thing is that I was mostly enjoying Season 3. There were multiple new characters of color introduced, many of whom I liked a lot! Daniel Reynolds: yes, Abbie totally SHOULD have a sexy sexy boss with whom she has past sexual tension! Sophie Foster: yes, more kick-ass fighter women, I am into this! I ship Jenny/Joe, and the way they handled Jenny's commitment issues was mostly well-done and I was excited to see where they would go with it! Ichabod's tragic grieving while separated from Abbie for a few episodes was fantastic angst – as long as I presumed it would have an eventual happy ending. The new villains were boring, but eh, they were perfectly adequate at setting up Monster of the Week type plots, and I don't need my villains to do anything more than that.

And then there was that season finale which, in addition to all the other REALLY OBVIOUS ISSUES, didn't even make sense on a story-telling level. It was exact repeat of what had happened in the season break! Except now Ichabod was just cool with Abbie dying?

Anyway, I'm sure you've all seen the millions of meta posts on this topic so I don't feel like hashing it out all over again, but it is absolutely one of the most inexplicable and dumb (and, you know, racist) choices I've seen a TV show make.

But on a happier note, I continue to adore this show. It needs more of a fandom! It's not at all full of graphic violence or grimdark like you might expect from a show about zombies; it's an adorable procedural with a very cute premise (Liv, the main zombie, solves murders by eating the brains of the victims – this also causes her to take on some of their personality traits) and wonderful characters. My particular favorite is Ravi, Liv's boss/friend, who is a funny, nerdy doctor who handles Liv's personality-of-the-week with admirable nonchalance.

Anyway, this season was great, I'm so glad Clive finally knows about zombies, and I'm very excited at how they've set up a Blackwater-esque military contractor to be next season's Big Bad.

Hap & Leonard
A six episode miniseries based on a book series that I've read a few of. Hap is an ex-hippie, straight white liberal; Hap is a black, gay Republican; together they fight crime get into trouble, call one another "brother", and are generally adorable.

I haven't read the particular book this miniseries was based on, but it did have a different feel than the ones I've read: less humor and irony, more taking the guys seriously as action stars. Possibly that's just the difference from the first book in a series to the later ones, though.

I feel like I should issue a warning for the fifth episode, which has a torture and gunbattle sequence that is absolutely some of the most brutal stuff I've ever seen. And I watch a lot of horror movies, including during the 00's awful tortureporn phase! I've seen some brutal stuff. I was still shocked by this.

They haven't confirmed a second season yet, but I do hope it gets one. It might not have been everything I hoped for, but I'd definitely watch more.

Okay, now we're to my favorite, absolutely the best thing I've seen this year! Underground is set in Georgia in 1857, and is about the Underground Railroad, but it is very much not eat-your-vegetables TV. It's shot like a heist movie. There are action sequences, huge twists in practically every episode, modern music used in the score, and no clear lines between "good" characters and "bad" characters. There are fandom-favorite actors involved, particularly Aldis Hodge (Hardison from Leverage) and Marc Blucas (Riley from BtVS). Over on tumblr, I am co-running "dailyunderground", so follow for gifsets and such.

Also yes, I am shipping Noah/Rosalee/Cato, someone write me a fanfic.

Game of Thrones
Eh, apparently I am still watching this show. I'm kind of grumpy because I haven't liked the first five episodes, but they seem to have been popular in fandom, so I have no one to share my snark with. It... could be worse, I guess? I just want to read the books, to be honest.

And now I have to decide what to start watching next. I've been meaning to watch Black Sails for ages (Pirates! :D ) but it doesn't seem to be easily accessible anywhere – it's not on either Hulu or Netflix, and I don't have Starz. I've also heard good things about Wynonna Earp, which just started this season and thus should be easy to catch up with: a big plus! And I guess I should watch the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, since I enjoyed the first so much. Also everyone keeps telling me to watch Jessica Jones? So, uh, I guess I should do that too. Anyway! Tell me which one I should watch first, if you have opinions.

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Wednesday, May 11th, 2016
3:46 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip. This is marketed as a romance novel set in 1930s China, but I'd argue that it's actually just straight historical fiction. What "counts" as a romance is a bit of a fraught topic, but I'd say that the plot has to focus on a single romantic relationship; in this case, the main character gets married to four different people and spends more time thinking about her friends and rivals than any of her husbands. So, yeah. Historical fiction.

Spring Swallow is a seventeen-year-old orphan in rural China who is engaged to a dead man. There's a tradition that even ghosts need wives, lest they come back to haunt their families from loneliness. Such a woman will actually go through a wedding ceremony and afterward live with her in-laws; she may even adopt children who bear her husband's name. It's not such a bad deal, particularly if your new in-laws are the richest family in the village, but Spring Swallow resents her lack of choices and runs away on her wedding day to the nearby city of Soochow. There she luckily falls in with a household of other young women, all training to become embroiderers under the guidance of an older woman named Aunt Peony. From the style of embroidery she teaches and other hints about her past, Peony clearly had some connection to the now-gone Imperial Court of the Qing dynasty, but she refuses to answer questions about her background.

This relatively happy arrangement is short-lived. Spring Swallow meets a young man involved in the revolutionary movement and falls in love, despite her vow to remain celibate while in Peony's household. Meanwhile, the rest of the household is also falling apart due to theft, disease, broken promises, and spies from a group dedicated to restoring the Qing dynasty. After everyone else has literally abandoned the house, leaving her all alone, Spring Swallow ends up as a servant in a nearby store. And then there's a lot more plot twists and adventures before the eventual happy ending, but I won't spoil them all.

The setting was interesting, but the writing is exteremly simplistic, almost childish. For example:
"The white bird symbolizes the purity of your and Wang Xing's union. The red symbolizes the virginal blood on your marital bed."
Right now my virginal blood was boiling inside all my arteries. What I'd like to do now was slit that bird's neck so he'd bleed to death and end my bloody nightmare. But unfortunately my nightmare was just about to begin!

Seriously? That's not the quality I expect from an adult novel with mostly strong reviews. And so many exclamation points! There's also quite a few unlikely coincidences whenever Spring Swallow needs help or information, while on the other hand she repeatedly forgets things she's already learned just so there can be another dramatic reveal.

However, I did genuinely enjoy the descriptions of the work and art of embroidery. Yip clearly did a ton of research for that part of the book, and I only wish it had lasted longer. Ultimately you have about one-fourth of a really interesting story, and three-fourths of a poorly written standard "woman survives numerous difficulties" book. Alas.

What are you currently reading?
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I'm almost done with this, and really enjoying it, but godDAMN it is brutal. And I feel that I have a high tolerance for fictional pain.

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Tuesday, May 10th, 2016
4:09 pm - Seeing Color
So, as you may or may not be aware, fandom is in the midst of an enormous wank about fanfiction starring characters of color, if there is too little of it, and why that is. (I will spare you my own thoughts on the topic, mainly because I am annoyed with the whole debate.)

But! Much more productive than endless circles of wank is actually producing new fanworks! And so I present to you Seeing Color, a brand-new exchange focused on characters of color. It is operating, basically, on the Yuletide format: sign-up, get matched to someone, turn in a 1000 word fic to receive the same. Except in this case there is art, too! :D

Currently nominations are going on (until May 20th), so get your favorites in there, even if you're not sure you're going to sign up. I of course have totally already nominated Ben January and Underground, but I'm sure the tagset could use more characters in those fandoms. Plus, you know, other fandoms. That's good too.

Useful links!
The main DW comm through which Seeing Color is being run
The exchange FAQ
The tagset
The nomination form

And even if you're not interested in participating, I'd really appreciate it if you could signal boost this information, either on LJ or tumblr or wherever else. It's hard to get out the word about a new exchange, and I really want to see this one get enough participants to take off.

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Sunday, May 8th, 2016
5:27 pm - Smut Swap Recs, Part 2
A few more stories that I didn't manage to finish before reveals, but which are still very excellent and worth reading:

Split-tongued, Venom-survived (4646 words) by Ias
Fandom: Original Work
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Female Vampire/Female Vampire Hunter
Additional Tags: Blood Drinking, Enemies to Lovers, Tribadism, Banter
Summary: The time comes when Aida makes the journey again, to the house in the woods where hunger lives.
This is quite dark, but really lovely. I adore all the worldbuilding and complex relationships that have gone into this piece; it really feels more like a section from a novel than a short story. But in a good way!

In Dreams (4646 words) by thedevilchicken
Fandom: Labyrinth
Rating: Explicit
Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Relationships: Jareth/Sarah Williams
Additional Tags: Explicit Sexual Content, Power Dynamics, Post-Canon, Aged-Up Character(s), Age Difference, Bondage, Masturbation, Frottage, Femdom, Riding, Woman on Top, Semi-Public Sex, Identity Issues, Porn With Plot
Summary: Sarah thinks she's moved on with her life. Jareth wants to prove she hasn't.
This is the Labyrinth sequel that I never knew I needed, but I really REALLY DID. Seriously, you guys, this fic is AMAZING. Jareth comes back to Sarah's dreams years later, when she's an adult, and this time she has all the power. (I guess she did the first time too, but now even MORE so.) It's incredibly well-written, exteremly hot, and even if you have never seen Labyrinth, you should totally read this. Fantastic story.

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Wednesday, May 4th, 2016
2:49 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. The 13th book of the Discworld series, and I can't imagine how to review this. It is my very favorite book by Pratchett (okay, maybe tied for first with Hogfather) and the temptation is to just quote the whole thing.

Okay. Plot summary: Brutha is a young, mostly ignored, fairly dumb (at least in the book-smarts sense) novice, the very bottom of a pyramid that stretches all the way up through the grand edifice of Omnism, a religion with an army, an empire, and millions of followers. But fearing the outer organization of a religion and actually believing in its god are two very different things, and Brutha is the only one out of all these people who has any real faith in Om. Since a god's power is entirely dependant on the number of its followers, Om is therefore currently stuck in the shape of a tortoise, and summoning a shock of static electricity is the biggest miracle he (He?) can manage.

Om's goal is to acquire new followers, or at least make sure that Brutha doesn't die and leave him entirely bereft. Vorbis – an important power in the Church – wants to conquer their neighbors and give the practice of Omnism a new purity and stringency. And Brutha just wants to do the right thing, even if first he has to figure out what that is. Omnism itself bears more than a little resemblance to medieval Catholicism, with a heavy emphasis on the Spanish Inquisition, though really it could be any authoritarian religion.

It's a funny book! But it's also a desperately serious one, and one that has a whole new resonance when read after Pratchett's death. This is a book where God, not the human characters, is terrified of his own mortality and the endless dark outside the brief bright span of life.
I know, said the small god. It knew speech, real god speech, although it talked as though every word had been winched from the pit of memory.
Who are you? said Om.
The small god stirred.
There was a city once, said the small god. Not just a city. An empire of cities. I, I, I remember there were canals, and gardens. There was a lake. They had floating gardens on the lake, I recall. I, I. And there were temples. Such temples as you may dream of. Great pyramid temples that reached to the sky. Thousands were sacrificed. To the greater glory.
Om felt sick. This wasn’t just a small god. This was a small god who hadn’t always been small…
Who were you?
And there were temples. I, I, me. Such temples as you may dream of. Great pyramid temples that reached to the sky. The glory of. Thousands were sacrificed. Me. To the greater glory.
And there were temples. Me, me, me. Greater glory. Such glory temples as you may dream of. Great pyramid dream temples that reached to the sky. Me, me. Sacrificed. Dream. Thousands were sacrificed. To me the greater sky glory.
You were their God? Om managed.
Thousands were sacrificed. To the greater glory.
Can you hear me?
Thousands sacrificed greater glory. Me, me, me.
What was your name? shouted Om.
A hot wind blew over the desert, shifting a few grains of sand. The echo of a lost god blew away, tumbling over and over, until it vanished among the rocks.
Who were you?
There was no answer.

It's a book that sets up a rebellion against the obvious villains – and then, rather than having the reader cheer for them, heavily emphasizes how easy it is for the overthrowers to become the same thing they'd overthrown.
“You know,” he said, turning to Simony. “Now I know Vorbis is evil. He burned my city. Well, the Tsorteans do it sometimes, and we burn theirs. It’s just war. It’s all part of history. And he lies and cheats and claws power for himself, and lots of people do that, too. But do you know what’s special? Do you know what it is?”
“Of course,” said Simony. “It’s what he’s doing to—”
“It’s what he’s done to you.”
“He turns other people into copies of himself.”
Simony’s grip was like a vice. “You’re saying I’m like him?”
“Once you said you’d cut him down,” said Urn. “Now you’re thinking like him…”

It's a book that can boil all of Paradise Lost down to a mere clause, half of a sentence, and then stick it in a humorous scene like a needle in blanket, all the sharper for being unsuspected:
But there were things to suggest to a thinking man that the Creator of mankind had a very oblique sense of fun indeed, and to breed in his heart a rage to storm the gates of heaven.

That description right there, that’s Pratchett, his personal beliefs slipping out from between the jokes. As Neil Gaiman titled an early obituary of Pratchett, with whom he was friends: “He isn’t jolly. He’s angry”.

It is not, however, a book against religion or belief, for all that it might be superficially easy to read it that way. Against the excesses of religions, or some of their worst moments, sure, but that would be like saying that a historian who points out that we've had bad presidents wants to get rid of democracy. It's a book that is probably the purest encapsulation of Pratchett's own personal belief in humanism. His is a humanism that is fully aware of the worst sides of humanity – that sees them being stupid and hateful and short-sighted and bigoted and everything else – and still loves them, fiercely, still wants to do the endless petty work of changing the world for the better, still simply believes in them:
"That’s why gods die. They never believe in people. But you have a chance. All you need to do is…believe.”
XIII. What? Listen To Stupid Prayers? Watch Over Small Children? Make It Rain?
“Sometimes. Not always. It could be a bargain.”
XIV. BARGAIN! I Don’t Bargain! Not With Humans!
“Bargain now,” said Brutha. “While you have the chance. Or one day you’ll have to bargain with Simony, or someone like him. Or Urn, or someone like him.”
XV. I Could Destroy You Utterly.
“Yes. I am entirely in your power.”
XVI. I Could Crush You Like An Egg!
Om paused.
Then he said: XVII. You Can’t Use Weakness As A Weapon.
“It’s the only one I’ve got.”
XVIII. Why Should I Yield, Then?
“Not yield. Bargain. Deal with me in weakness. Or one day you’ll have to bargain with someone in a position of strength. The world changes.”
XIX. Hah! You Want A Constitutional Religion?
“Why not? The other sort didn’t work.”

I first read this book when I was 13 or 14, and I literally don't know who I would be if I hadn't. How can I comment objectively on it? All I can do is point at it and go, "this! this!"

Anyway. If you haven't read it, do! And if you have, tell me all about it!

On Loving a Saudi Girl by Carina Yun. A short book of poetry that I picked up at a GLBT book-sale recently. Much of the writing and turns of phrase are quite lovely, but ultimately I had hoped for more. You can write poetry that's meant to be universal, or you can write poetry that's quite specific to your individual life, but you do need to pick a focus. In trying to do both simultaneously this book came off as muddled. I felt like I needed to have read a biography of the author to understand what was happening and why.

I posted some of my favorites here and here, if you're interested in reading a sample.

Sugarland by Martha Conway. Eve is a black woman, a jazz pianist of the 1920s, who witnesses a murder. This results in her quickly being caught up in an escalating tangle of bootlegging, gun running, gang violence, stolen money, and lies, when all poor Eve wants to do is survive. As if that isn't enough, she then discovers that her beloved younger sister, a nightclub singer, is pregnant and the father is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile Lena, a white nurse, is faced with the realization that her fragile younger brother is not as innocent as she'd assumed.

I was really impressed by the depth of research that went into this book. It's easy enough for an author to become an expert on her main subject (in this case, jazz and musicians), but Conway constantly drops in background details and allusions to other topics and events that give her depiction of 1921 Chicago a depth and complexity that is often lacking in historical fiction. I also really liked her descriptions of music: playing it, hearing it, writing it. She gives it a power and an attraction that felt very true to me. And, of course, to be able to do so is pretty important when all your main characters are musicians of one sort or another! We have people here who are working musicians, others who have given up on their dreams, and still others who are just now learning how to play. I liked that diversity of experience.

My favorite part of the book was the slowly growing friendship between Eva and Lena. Though at first they have nothing in common, they're thrown together by circumstances and gradually learn to trust and care for one another. (YES OF COURSE I AM SHIPPING IT SOMEONE WRITE ME THIS FIC PLEASE) The racial disparity between them is handled very well, in my opinion; it's a constant tension and problem, but they also manage to come together despite social and legal barriers.

On the other hand, the mystery aspect could have been better written; it was a bit confusing and seemed to include some jumps in logic. But you know what? I don't read mysteries for the mystery. I know that sounds odd, but I've discovered that the genre is a great place to find fantastic settings and characters, and as far as I'm concerned, the plots are just window dressing. Sugarland definitely succeeds at the former. I'll be checking out other books by the author.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip. Attempting to clear out some of the stacks of books I have bought but not read!

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