Monday, January 23rd, 2017
3:55 pm - Books of 2017
I will eventually get around to posting a recap of all my 2016 reading, but first I wanted to post about my new project for 2017: Mount TBR. The idea is simply to get as many books off your TBR (to-be-read) list as possible, whether that means clearing out your Kindle's harddrive or getting physical books off your shelves.

While I do have plenty of ebooks stored that I've been meaning to get around to someday, my main problem is the physical books I've picked up on sudden impulses at second-hand bookstores or been given as gifts:
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Yes, those are all unread books. Even the ones in the piles to side. Yes, the shelves are double-stacked. Clearly I've needed to start reducing their numbers for a while now.

I first heard of the Mount TBR challenge from [personal profile] just_ann_now; you can officially sign up on GoodReads or on the challenge starter's blog, and there are levels you can commit to – 12 books is Pike's Peak, 100 books is Mount Everest, etc. However, I think personally I'm going to be lazy and not join any particular group, but simply clear off as much of this bookcase as I can manage in twelve months.

We'll see if that doesn't just tempt me to acquire more.

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Wednesday, January 18th, 2017
3:08 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide by Marzio Barbagli, translated (from Italian) by Lucinda Byatt. This is an academic investigation into suicide – not into why an individual might commit suicide (eg, depression, grief, incurable illness), but into the different ways cultures have interpreted and understood suicide, and how those contexts have resulted in different suicide rates between countries, genders, classes, races, and urban areas vs rural ones.

Barbagli's speciality is the history of Europe, in particular the cultural changes from Classic Rome through Medieval Christianity up to the modern day. About half of the book covers this topic, but he also ventures outside of his usual focus with chapters on sati in India (the tradition of a widow killing herself to follow her deceased husband), female suicide in historical China (sometimes also committed to follow a husband or fiance, but also done to get revenge on someone with power over her), and modern-day suicide bombers and suicides done as political protest. Although all of these topics were very interesting, the fact that Barbagli didn't have the same depth of knowledge about them as the first half of the book was unfortunately quite clear. In the sati chapter, in particular, it was inescapably obvious that he cited only European scholars, with no (or perhaps only one) Indian voices. And while an outsider perspective can sometimes be helpful, it should never be the only take on a cultural topic.

But despite those problems, the chapters on Europe were absolutely fascinating. Barbagli sets out to explain the rise in suicides that occurred in much of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, opposing Durkheim and other contemporary scholars who saw the origins in the Industrial Revolution and subsequent breakdown of the strong social ties of family and village. Instead he argues that the rise was a result of the breakdown of Medieval Christianity, which had seen suicide as the gravest sin (even worse than homicide or the murder of a young child!), into seeing it as resulting from a melancholic personality or as an understandable response to suffering, and then into the modern day's medical understanding of it (depression as a mental illness). Despite the depressing nature of the topic, I really can't think of a better word for these chapters than fascinating; just the way Barbagli lays out his evidence, the accumulation of little historical details and their step by step change through time, gives the book the compelling power of a thriller.

I wish all of it could have been as good as those opening chapters, but nonetheless the book's well worth reading for what it does accomplish.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. A fun sci-fi book I found through a recommendation.

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Sunday, January 15th, 2017
4:49 pm - Significantly Delayed Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson. Book #12 in the Longmire series, a mystery series that I'm a big fan of. Walt Longmire, the main character, is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, one of the most rural places in the modern-day US. To outside appearances Walt is in many ways the stereotypical neo-Western hero: big and tall, physically imposing, and gruff. In reality he frequently quotes Shakespeare and Dante, is extremely self-deprecating, is life-long best friends with Henry Standing Bear (a Northern Cheyenne community leader and activist) and is intimidated by his tiny foul-mouthed ex-Philadelphian deputy, Victoria Moretti. I love him.

In this book, Walt and Henry attend the nearby Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (a real-life annual event that draws half a million attendees to a small town in South Dakota) while off-duty, so that Henry can compete in one of the races. Walt gets asked by the local police to help out with what appears to be a simple hit-and-run accident, which of course turns out to be much more. The plot involves motorcycle gangs, gun smuggling, skeet shooting, the increased militarization of police departments in the wake of 9/11, advances in ceramic technology (no, really), and the long-awaited appearance of Henry's ex, Lola.

This was a very well-done book, with humor, tension, and some extremely clever plot twists. I've been a bit disappointed by the last few books in the series (nothing wrong with them; I just didn't feel like they were Johnson's best), but this one brings Longmire back to the top.

Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly. A cursed opal necklace, if worn on the night of the autumn full moon, summons an ancient Chinese demon who will stop at nothing to pursue and kill the wearer. Unfortunately the necklace has just been given to the innocent film ingenue Chrysanda Flamade.

The title and plot are (deliberately, I assume) the stuff of trashy pulp, but the rich, three-dimensional characters and setting turn the book into something else – though it's still lots of fun! Chrysanda (who actually goes by Christine, though her birth name was Chava Blechstein) is not the narrator; rather that role is taken by Norah, Christine's sister-in-law: a British woman, Oxford-educated, formerly upper class and now in the wake of WWI an impoverished widow, continually surprised to find herself in the strange new world of Hollywood, 1923. Christine is flighty, addicted to cocaine, utterly enamoured of anything resembling Chinese fashion without the least understanding of the actual country, and has a spine of steel and a survivor's ruthlessness under all her feathers and makeup. Alec, a cameraman, draws out Norah's quiet wry humor with his own patient understanding. The Chinese mythology is deepened when Shang Ko steps into the picture, an elderly wizard who has burned out all his power but is still determined to help becauses, as he says, "To do nothing against evil is not a neutral act". And then there's Christine's three pekingese dogs, who become main characters themselves.

There's at least two scenes which are straight-up horror, but my overall impression of the book is the sheer wealth of historical detail about the day to day routine of making films in the very early silent era, as well as the lovely slow growth of friendship and trust between the main characters.

It is maybe not my favorite Hambly book ever, but only because that's an extremely high bar to clear. Highly recommended.

A Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott. This is the sequel to Court of Fives, the Little Women/American Ninja Warrior fantasy YA book that I enjoyed so much. Jes is now an official competitor in the gladiator games Fives, but she doesn't have much time to enjoy her new status since political chaos is breaking out. The Commoners of the country are increasingly speaking out against their oppression, a matter which grows more fraught when the price of bread skyrockets and riots break out. Meanwhile the country goes to war with its neighbor, and Jes overhears a plot wherein several high-ranking nobles plan to kill the sickly young prince and name themselves heir to the throne. Despite all of this, Jes deliberately chooses to stay out of politics and instead focuses on protecting and hiding her family. Unfortunately for her, one of her sisters has left the capital city and could be anywhere in the countryside. Jes manages to attach herself to a royal procession so she can search for her sister, but leaving the capital exposes her to new dangers. And that's just the first third of the book. Goddamn there's a lot of plot to recap in this series.

This book does have great moments and wonderful characters. I was particularly struck by Jes's sister Amaya, who's in love with her best friend, a Patron woman forced by circumstances into the position of a lowly concubine. Amaya disguises herself as a servant to stick close to her love. And then there's Bettany, that missing sister, who is fiercely angry and protective of her people, and proves to have made some startling choices that Jes views as betrayal, though a more complicated explanation is hinted at. Lady Menoe, a spiteful deceitful aristocrat who proves to have a secret tragic past is great, as is Jes's mother, slowly taking a role as a leader of the Commoners.

But with all of that said, I didn't enjoy this book as much as Court of Fives. Perhaps it's simply the fact that the middle book of trilogies tend to drag, or perhaps it's that the world-building I loved so much in the first book got less attention here. Court politics is one of my favorite tropes, and yet even that wasn't enough to save the book for me. But even if this one wasn't as good as I'd hoped, I'm still anxiously awaiting the release of the next book later this year. Come on, Buried Heart!

What are you currently reading?
Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide by Marzio Barbagli, translated by Lucinda Byatt. A NetGalley book that I've been putting off reading for approximately eight months, because I requested a copy and then promptly decided that I couldn't handle the content. But now I'm happier! Or possibly burned out emotionally, given the news lately.

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Monday, January 9th, 2017
7:28 pm
I am desperately catching up on several weeks worth of LJ/DW, so if you've been getting lots of comments from me on old posts, that would be why. I am not yet all caught up, so expect more! Also, in case anyone is abandoning LJ in light of recent updates, I am on DW as "brigdh". Feel free to add me there if you prefer.

And now, a meme:
Let's start 2017 off in a positive way with a Pay It Forward meme. The first 6 people to comment (and more if I can manage it) will receive a surprise from me at some point in 2017 - anything from a book, a ticket, something home-grown or made, a postcard, absolutely any surprise! It will happen when the mood comes over me and I find something that I believe would suit you and make you happy.

If you can, post this in your own journal and pay it forward. Let's do more kind and loving things for each other in 2017, without any reason other than to make each other smile and show that we think of each other.

(Note that this will require you to give me an address. If you're uncomfortable with that, perhaps wait for another meme! :) If you're alright with that, I'll email or PM you after I've gotten 6 comments.)

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Wednesday, January 4th, 2017
10:22 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens. I ended up reading this due to random circumstances; my dad bought it (on an impulse, as far as I can tell) last week and, since I was visiting for the holidays, insisted that I read it too before going back home. I was reluctant at first, since I wasn't sure if I wanted to commit to a 400+ page academic-level text written by a dude whose political stance I didn't know (I can't think of a better way to phrase that... I didn't want to be a hundred pages in before realizing the author supported Christianizing the heathens), but I eventually gave it a chance, and I'm glad I did!

The Earth is Weeping covers the 1850s to 1890s, and pretty much every piece of land in the US west of the Missouri – with a few detours into Canada and Mexico as well. My main worry quickly and thoroughly turned out to be unjustified, as Cozzens's sympathies are clear right from the epigram:
We have heard much talk of the treachery of the Indian. In treachery, broken pledges on the part of high officials, lies, thievery, slaughter of defenseless women and children, and every crime in the catalogue of man's inhumanity to man the Indian was a mere amateur compared to the 'noble white man'. –Lieutenant Britton Davis

Throughout the book, Cozzens's focus is to complicate the simple picture of Indians vs whites. He repeatedly emphasizes the divisions and infighting on both sides: between different tribes, between the peace and war factions of a single tribe, between the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, between Western settlers and Eastern humanitarians, and frequently coming as far down as differences of opinion and action between individuals.

The subtitle of 'Indian wars' is appropriate, as Cozzens concentrates very specifically on battles and similar military actions, each of which is laid out with extreme detail, including maps and the names of individual soldiers, warriors, and noncombatants. On the other hand, even closely related topics like Indian schools, missionaries, individual murders or atrocities, Buffalo Bill, Presidents and Congress and nation-wide depressions, etc, etc, get barely a mention. That isn't really a critique, since a book that covered everything remotely related to this topic would probably actually be a dozen books. But occasionally I missed having that contextual information.

I'm not very familiar with this period of history, so the one critique I do have to make is that I would have liked more of an introduction or list of 'characters'. Given that the book covers multiple decades and a very wide territory, there's an unsurprisingly huge numbers of names, places, and alliances to keep track of. Cozzens seems to have assumed that most readers will come into this book with a level of knowledge that is higher than mine – and honestly, he's probably correct, but it was all new and confusing to me! Still, that's a minor problem, and it's not like I couldn't google where the Absaroka Mountains are, or what the connection between the Oglalas and the Lakotas is when I needed to.

Overall, it's a well-written book, packed full of information, and well worth reading. I recommend it.

What are you currently reading?
An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson. The new book in the Longmire series! :D

I also have another short story rec for you all this week! Shaina Rubin Keeps Her Head Under Circumstances Nobody Could Have Expected
by Rebecca Fraimow. It is a sequel to the wonderful Further Arguments in Support of Yudah Cohen’s Proposal to Bluma Zilberman, which you may remember when it got recced all around when it first came out. You can read the new story without having read the original, but I would not recommend it because they're both excellent and why would you want to miss out? They're both hilarious, use dialect adroitly, and feature people handling supernatural events with amusing nonchalance. I want an entire novel set in this world.

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Saturday, December 31st, 2016
4:13 pm - Yuletide Recs (part one?)
I have been very busy for the last week, and haven't gotten as far through the Yuletide archive as I wanted to. But I also wanted to make a recs post before author reveals, so here are the stories I've enjoyed so far!

First, my own gifts: I got 4 – count them, f-o-u-r – stories written for me this year! And all of them for Hadestown. I must have written a very inspiring letter. :D In no particular order:
Tastes so bitter and so sweet. 1.1k, M, Persephone/Eurydice PWP. This is hot and lyric and oh so bittersweet. Just a gorgeously written post-canon tale.
Make It Through the Wintertime. 1.5k, T. A really fantastic portrayal of Persephone as the new queen of Hadestown, still adjusting to her new life, and the creation of the river Lethe. I love the use of additional Greek mythology, adjusted to the Hadestown setting.
Philtering. 1.3k, G. A Demeter-POV look at how Persephone spends her summers, distilling her own alcohol. The food and drink porn in this is great, and I love the use of the Southern dialect.
There's a hell of a good hemisphere next door. 0.2k, G. And a happy fic after all the angst! A hopeful possibility for Persephone and Eurydice to escape Hadestown once and for all.

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Wednesday, December 28th, 2016
9:38 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. In Victorian London, a maid is poisoned while working in the house of the man currently in charge of the country's Mint. He was also hosting five guests, all of whom have their own potential motives. Lenox, a well-off bachelor, is asked to investigate by his neighbor and childhood friend, Lady Jane Grey, who formerly employed the maid. Was her death suicide... or murder?

Lenox is pretty obviously a Sherlock Holmes-analogue: he is close friends with a doctor who helps him investigate, he successfully reaches conclusions about people based on details as small as their scent or their shoes, he's investigative rivals with a Scotland Yard Inspector, his brother is an important politician (but only known to insiders), he dashes about through the fogs of Victorian London in hired cabs. And yet Lenox is friendly, open-natured, the sort of man who makes a point of kissing babies – and he's more concerned with his leaking boots and getting his toast on time than with dedicating himself to whole-hearted pursuit of the case. Seriously: the boots are a major plot thread, complete with a climatic scene to round out the story. It's a nice change from all the mystery leads with dead wives and alcoholism and death wishes! Not that I'm not a fan of a good death wish, but sometimes it's a comfort to spend time with a perfectly content and well-adjusted character.

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga. A poor man, abandoned by his wife, living in a slum on the edge of Mumbai, decides that his only available route to power and fortune is to raise his two young sons to become cricket superstars. This he does with laser focus, forcing the children to practice for hours daily, trying out weird medical trends on them, deliberately destroying their school projects so they will think about nothing but cricket, and, of course, pledging them to god:
Each summer, the family went back to their village. Taking the train from Mumbai to Mangalore, they then got on a bus that carried them over the hills and toward the shrine of the God of Cricket, their family deity, Kukke Subramanya; past trees with red leaves, and little streams that skipped a heartbeat when a schoolboy leaped into them, past waterfalls shrouded in waterfalls, until they reached a temple hidden deep inside the Western Ghats, where, leaving the bus and standing in line for hours, moving past burning camphor and sharp temple bells, past a nine-headed painted snake, the protector Vasuki, they finally came to the silver door frames, beyond which, lit by oil lamps, waited the thousand-year-old God of Cricket, Subramanya.
“Remind Him, my sons. We can’t offer Him much money. So remind Him, monkeys.”
“One of us should become the best batsman in the world, and the other the second best.”

It works out – at least at first. As preteens, both boys score a sponsorship that will pay for equipment, personal coaches, a nice house, enrollment in a private school (because it has the best cricket team, of course) and so on, in return for their pledging to pay back a third of their eventual superstar paychecks. Unfortunately as they grow older, one boy gets the talent but the other gets the desire. This ruins the relationship between them and with their father; the cynicism of their sponsor destroys their faith in the future; and relentless pressure from everyone around them leads them to hate cricket. As though this wasn't enough drama, one of the boys fall in love with a cricket rival and struggles with his identity in a country in which homophobia is common and gay relationships are still technically illegal.

You don't need to understand the actual sport of cricket to enjoy the book – I know just enough to understand what a 'century' is or what the 'batsman' does, and I had no problem with it. Besides, Adiga includes a helpful glossary at the back!
Boring: What outsiders, especially Americans, find cricket. Groucho Marx, after watching an hour of a test match in London, is said to have asked: “But when does it begin?”
India: A country said to have two real religions—cinema and cricket.
Trash: Baseball.


The plot is absolutely a page-turner, and the characters are sympathetic and compelling, but I did have a lot of trouble with the writing style. Adiga frequently jumps from one character's POV to another's, as well as backward and forwards in time. He sometimes deliberately hides information from the reader in order to reveal it at a more dramatic moment. All of this made it sometimes hard for me to follow what was happening or who was currently narrating. That's what keeps me from giving this book a 100% recommendation, but nonetheless I really enjoyed reading it, and have found myself thinking back on it frequently.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens.
The subtitle says it all!

Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Donald E. Kroodsma. Still reading this! Well, theoretically.

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Wednesday, December 21st, 2016
8:50 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett. A fantastic satire set in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, in which a black man wakes up one morning to find himself quite literally transformed into a white man – except for that titular black ass. The parallels to Kafka and Ovid are deliberate. Furo, as our main character is known, is still jobless, single, and living with his parents at 33, due mostly to Nigeria's overwhelming unemployment rate. That white skin quickly solves all of his problems though, as he is offered one incredible job after another until he finally reaches the heights of a million-dollar government contract; strangers on the street do him spontaneous favors; the high-class mistress of a rich politician takes him on and shows him off to her even more successful friends, etc. Unfortunately Furo is not immune to the temptation to exploit his new privileges, and he is entirely willing to abandon everyone around him to embrace this new life, starting by running away from home without letting his family know what's happened to him.

And yet despite all that, it's not really a novel about race – or at least, no more about race than is required by that summary. The author is primarily interested in identity and how it changes in response to our circumstances. There's a hilarious chapter exploring how Furo's sister presents herself on Twitter (using hashtags to search for her brother, but not above acquiring several thousand new followers in the process), and the secondary narrator, a writer named A. Igoni. Why yes! You may have noticed that this is the same name as the actual author of the book, but as opposed to those irritating literary fiction writers who present semi-autobiographical versions of themselves differentiated only by having a new name, in this case A. Igoni seems to be an entirely fictional creation who shares nothing beyond the name. I gotta say, I like this second method much better. Anyway, the book-version of Igoni meets Furo, realizes what is going on, and becomes determined to get the whole story. In the process Igoni becomes a woman, this second metamorphosis not made clear until quite some time after it's already happened. I've seen a lot of reviews referring to this as a trans narrative, but it struck me as just as mystical and inexplicable as Furo's change, and not much related to real-world gender identities. Not that fiction can't speak to multiple stories, of course.

It's not a perfect book. The plotline about Furo's sister never really has a resolution, and the ending was quite cruel to a character I had a lot of sympathy for. But I liked much more of it than I didn't like – including multiple lovely descriptions of daily life in Lagos – and I'll be keeping an eye out for future books by the author.

Stories of the Raksura, Volume 2: The Dead City & The Dark Earth Below by Martha Wells. Five more short stories, set in the world of the Raksura series. This was reversed from the first collection, starting out with the shortest story and building up to the novella-length one.
The Dead City. Set before The Cloud Roads, just after Moon's first encounter with the Fell, which left him near-suicidal in grief and devastation. Fleeing from the ruined city he'd been living in, he falls in with a group of groundlings and gets involved in their problems, mainly so he can throw himself into a fight without needing to care if he'll live or die. He is surprised and touched when one groundling begins to trust him, and less surprised when another betrays him. Really fascinating worldbuilding in this story, including an entire city of pyramids built underground being invaded by a species of spider-like telepaths.
Mimesis. A very short story about Jade saving one of the warriors from a predator. This was fun, and I was very excited to read a piece with Jade-POV, since that was a first for me.
Trading Lessons. Another short, this one about a trading encounter between two courts of Raksura and a merchant groundling, in which Moon attempts to explain capitalism to his allies. It doesn't really work, but Moon makes a killing.
The Almost Last Voyage of the Wind-Ship Escarpment. A short piece set in the same world as the Raksura stories, but with entirely new characters. Which, I have to admit, disappointed me at first, since I wanted more Moon & co. But once I let myself commit to this story, I really enjoyed the tale of the crew of a small merchant ship hired to deliver a ransom to pirates. As you might guess from the title, things go wrong.
The Dark Earth Below. A novella set between The Siren Depths and The Edge of Worlds. Jade is hugely pregnant with her and Moon's first clutch, which is due any day now, leaving everyone on edge. Meanwhile, several of the Kek (the little stick-people who live at the bottom of the mountain-trees) have gone missing, prompting Stone to investigate. The disappearance turns out to involve a group of merchants, an invisible species, and an attack on the colony. I think the collection of fight scenes in this story was some of the most genuinely horrifying writing I've read from Wells, and the ultimate resolution of the mystery was just so creepy. Thankfully this is balanced by the resolution, which includes a set of very cute babies!

And then I was distraught to be left with no more Raksura stories to read. However, [personal profile] curtana had told me that Martha Wells had set up a Patreon for more, and this news was finally the impetus I needed to set up a Patreon account. If anyone else is interested, there was currently 27 pieces, with two more being added a month (including one just today!), and there is no minimum limit to pledge. In other words, you could get all of them for as low as a dollar! :D Though to be honest, I gave more because I felt I owed it. I haven't read them all yet, but the stories are generally quite short, less than 1000 words, and there's a lot of Stone and Jade – though there's also one longer piece, currently 4 sections long and still going. I especially loved a piece about a conversation between Jade and Balm before their first meeting with Moon; I love their friendship/sisterhood, and getting to see an intimate moment between them was wonderful.

What are you currently reading?
Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Donald E. Kroodsma. Still working on this technically, though I don't think I've progressed a page since last Wednesday.

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. The Comfortverse! I have finally gotten around to reading this, hooray!

I also want to recommend this wonderful novella: Suradanna and the Sea by Rebecca Fraimow. Two woman accidentally become immortal, and pass one another again and again over the centuries before falling in love. Again the worldbuilding is fantastic, and I particularly loved the way fashions changed, and how small choices grew huge consequences over time. Absolutely recommended.

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Wednesday, December 14th, 2016
4:47 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Stories of the Raksura, Volume 1: The Falling World & The Tale of Indigo and Cloud by Martha Wells. Four short stories, set in the world of the Raksura series.
The Falling World. Set between The Siren Depths and The Edge of Worlds, this was by far the longest of the stories, really more of a novella than a short story at around 90 pages. Jade, Chime, and a handful of others go on a short visit to a neighboring colony and never arrive. There's no hint of what might have happened to them, so Moon is forced to lead a search team to look for clues. This was a really fantastic story with a lot of Moon/Chime development in particular. Chime is another of my favorite characters – a bookish guy forced by circumstances to take on a more physically aggressive role – and I loved it.
The Tale of Indigo and Cloud. Another long story, this one set several generations before the rest of the series, dropping back in time to flesh out a briefly-mentioned historical detail. Indigo is a young queen, brave but a bit headstrong; Cloud is a consort who belongs to a queen he doesn't want. Indigo steals Cloud from his unfortunate circumstances, and then everything gets more complicated. I especially loved that the story was told from the POV of Cerise, Indigo's mother, a pragmatic ruler who's mostly concerned with avoiding war with Cloud's previous queen. This story was absolutely great, and I always adore it when we get more world-building and cultural background on the Raksura. Plus, bonus cameo by baby Stone! :D
The Forest Boy. A shorter story set before The Cloud Roads, when Moon was a child still trying to find a place where he could fit in. Another really well-done story, but inherently depressing, given the topic. Lonely children are the saddest thing.
Adaptation. A very very short story (only about 15 pages), another Cloud Roads prequel. This was told from Chime's POV, and is about the day when he changed from a mentor to a warrior. I would have loved for this to be much longer, but even at this length it's a very nice slice of life, with an uplifting ending.

Overall a fun, engaging book, and I can't believe I only have one left to read! D:

What are you currently reading?
Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Donald E. Kroodsma. A nonfiction book off NetGalley about a professor specializing in birdsongs, who decides to bike across all of the United States with his son in tow. It's a pleasant enough read so far, but very slow going because each page of text has two or three audio excerpts of several minutes of birdsong. Since my Nook doesn't have speakers, I am limited to reading this one only when I have my laptop with me (the audio files are reproduced on the author's website) which means no reading on the subway or in bed or while eating lunch. So it may be a while before I finish this.

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett. An absolutely fantastic satire about a Nigerian man who wakes up one morning to discover he's turned white. (Yes, the Kafka reference is deliberate.)

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Wednesday, December 7th, 2016
4:18 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells. WHY THAT CLIFFHANGER, THO? Okay, I lie – it's not quite a cliffhanger, in that many of the plots are tied up by the end, but there are several characters' fates left hanging and I desperately need to know what happens next. Of course the sequel's not due out until July 2017. :(

So, what actually happens in this book before the dramatic ending? Moon and the rest of the court of Indigo Cloud share a vivid nightmare – something more than a dream but less than a vision – of the entire land of the Raksura being overrun by huge numbers of unusually powerful Fell, their evil, cannibalistic nemeses. This potential future seems to be linked to the exploration of a newly discovered ancient city, though what that means for the Raksura is confusing: should they force a halt to the exploration entirely? Or get inside the city before the Fell do and claim whatever's there for themselves? They decide that it's always best to gather as much information as possible, and so Moon, Jade, Stone, Chime, and several other Raksura tag along with the multi-species crew of explorers and scholars without actually making the decision of what to do when they get there. This leads to several intense fights, bonds between unexpected characters (I now ship Stone/Rorra you guys), and a dramatic betrayal.

And, of course, there's always time to pause and have some lovely character interactions. This one made me laugh out loud:
Moon crouched on the branch, his foot claws caught in the rough bark. “If you let me go down there and be the bait, we could get this over with.” [...]
Chime, perched on the branch collar a little further down, said, “Uh, the hunt would be over with, all right. We’d have to spend the rest of the day recovering your body.”
[...] Moon hissed in frustration. He had been hunting for survival since he was a fledgling, while most of these warriors had still been playing in the nurseries. It had taken them three days to follow the signs and traces from the platform where the Arbora hunters had been attacked to here, and now they weren’t even sure where the thing had gone to ground. He told Chime, “I’ve been bait before—”
Chime nodded. “I know, and I find that terrifying.”
“—and I wasn’t talking to you.” He looked up at the smaller branch arching above them.
Jade perched up there, partially concealed from this angle by the drooping fronds of a fern tree that had taken root on the broad branch. She said, “Not every problem can be solved by you trying to get yourself killed.”

Delin is also along for the trip, and I was so excited to see him. Back when he appeared in the first book, I assumed he would be a one-off character, and so each one of his subsequent appearances has been unexpected and delightful. He is a Golden Islander, a human-like species that, unlike most of the non-shapeshifter non-flying species on this world, does not hold the Raksura in absolute terror but instead treats them as equals. Delin himself in an elderly scholar particularly interested in natural and cultural diversity, who considers adventuring with the Raksura a wonderful opportunity to see more of the world he's spent so long studying. His frustrated grandchildren, on the other hand, are constantly running after him to make sure he doesn't get himself killed in the pursuit of knowledge.

This book, like all of the books in the Raksura series, has some fantastic bits of worldbuilding and scene-setting. I was particularly struck by the long sequence where the Raksura and explorers are trapped in a city carved within a mountain: no windows, no doors, just absolute darkness and shifting shadows outside the range of the lights they carry; a complex maze of chambers and hallways and staircases that might lead anywhere; everything silent except for the distant drip of water and what might be the echo of movement. It's excellently creepy and so well-written, capturing every bit of dread and anticipation and paranoia. There's also a few more clues as to what's up with the Fell, why they're so evil, but I'll need to read the next book to see how it all plays out. Why isn't it out yet again?

The Living by Anjali Joseph. A novel consisting of two parallel but unconnected stories: Claire, a single mother living in England and working in a shoe factory, and Arun, a grandfather in India who makes traditional, handcrafted sandals. There's a great deal of attention to the craft and meaning of shoes from both of them, but other than that, no obvious similarities between their stories.

Claire is lonely and emotionally closed off, struck in an antagonistic relationship with both her teenage son and her elderly parents, who threw her out of their home when she became pregnant as a teenager. Over the course of the story she slowly begins to reconnect with life, building bridges with her son and engaging in several romantic relationships (though one of these was incredibly ill-conceived and I found it quite off-putting). She seems to be severely clinically depressed – at multiple points in the book she reacts to a stressful situation by literally lying down on the floor and zoning out for hours – and as sympathetic as I am to that, it unfortunately doesn't make for compelling reading. By its nature, depression seems to be extremely hard to turn into narrative; I always think of Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which suffered from the same problem.

For that reason I preferred Arun's sections of the book, though I can't say they had much more plot – he was simply a more engaging character. Arun is a sixty year old man dealing with mild illnesses, negotiating daily life with his (presumably arranged) wife, regretting his past as an alcoholic with a mistress, meeting up with his grown sons and grandchildren. His pet cat disappears and reappears, he dreams of places he explored as a child, he refuses and then agrees to see a doctor. It's all mild, banal stuff, but the writing is lovely. I liked this passage, when Arun sees a childhood friend for the first time after years apart:
I would have looked at another man his age, crumpled, his remaining hair wispy and mad, and his little face wrinkled, and found him absurd, pathetic, and he was, but nothing had changed. Certain loves slip into us before we are able to weigh things up.

Overall nothing really happens and it will probably slip from my memory very soon, but it's a surprisingly quick, easy read, despite the poetic style of the writing. Even if it has nothing more to offer than this, the writing is excellent.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
Nothing yet! I just finished The Living a few minutes ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AO3 name: Brigdh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway. He's got a book! :D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quote from An Angry Blade, by Iron & Wine. Image from Sayuki Gaiden, copyright Kazuya Minekura, Zero Sum and other corporations. Image edited by Brigdh with Photoshop. Layout designed by Brigdh.
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