Wednesday, June 14th, 2017
12:59 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen by Basharat Peer. A really fascinating account of the recent history of these two countries and how their politics have lately turned to authoritarianism and aggressive nationalism. This is self-evidently relevant to those of us under Trump or May as well; I've been making comparisons between Modi and Trump ever since the latter became a political candidate, and Peer clearly agrees with me.

The book is divided into two sections, the first on India and its current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014; the second on Turkey and its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected Prime Minister in 2003 and then, when he could no longer extend his term there, switched to president in 2014, rewriting the laws to make that position more political, powerful, and active. Each chapter is a bit of a self-contained essay, with topics ranging from the broad (the history of the BJP, Modi's political party) to the individual (the suicide of a Dalit PhD student after being ignored and disadvantaged by his school). I'm more familiar with India's current political scene than with Turkey's, but even the stuff I already knew came with very recent updates or insightful analogies. Overall the chapters convey a well-researched, thoughtful, and thorough picture of each country's politics.

If world politics remotely interest you, I highly recommend this book – though to be honest, it is quite depressing. I put off reading it myself for months because I needed more lighthearted material, but I'm glad I finally got to it. I only wish I could have read this before the July 2016 coup in Turkey. Of course it wasn't out yet, and though given its so-recent occurrence Peer is only able to address the topic briefly in his afterword, but I feel like I now understand much more of the dynamics and players involved.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape by Jill Jonnes. A nonfiction book that describes itself as "a passionate, wide-ranging, and fascinating natural history of the tree in American cities over the course of the past two centuries". I'm about to take issue with that blurb, but I did enjoy reading it.

My main complaint about this book is that it's not particularly focused on urban forests. Out of 21 chapters, one is about the canker than killed off the American Chestnut, four are on Dutch Elm Disease, one on the Emerald Ash Borer (a bug that attacks ash trees), and two on Asian Long-Horned Beetles (which kill several types of trees, but are particularly fond of maples). These are all interesting stories, and Elms and Ash and Maples do sometimes live in cities, but cities are very much not the focus of these sagas of disease and resistance. Another chapter is on the discovery of the Dawn Redwood, a "living fossil" from the Cretaceous, whose only connection to the idea of "urban forests" seems to be that the discoverers were paid by Harvard University, which is in Boston, which is a city. There are also chapters on the (surprisingly contentious!) history of Arbor Day, Thomas Jefferson's tree collection, and the founding of America's various great arboretums (tree museums) including the New York Botanical Garden, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Morton Arboretum. All of which doesn't leave a lot of room for my poor street trees. "Historical Tree Diseases of the US" would have been a much more accurate title, but I suppose someone along the way decided that wouldn't sell as well.

I feel a bit churlish complaining so much though, because in the end the book is a fun read. Despite my proposed serious-sounding title, Jonnes is very much writing in the vibe of Mary Roach or Bill Bryson: she tells interesting stories in a familiar, entertaining way, and if they're a bit random and hang together more by virtue of their "cool to know" quality than their deep thematic connection, that's okay. The main point is to have fun. For instance, a chapter on how DC got its cherry trees is quite disconnected from the rest of the book, but is nonetheless a great story. I was most interested in the last few chapters, which finally got into the topic of actual urban forests, because that was what had attracted me in the first place, but they all were surprisingly engaging. I also have to be very grateful to Jonnes for introducing me to the NYC Street Tree Map, which actually allows you to zoom down onto any block in the city, click on a tree, and find out facts about what species it is, how big it is, how many pounds of air pollution it removes each year, and so on. I've had a lot of fun identifying the trees outside of my apartment.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: 18, still.

What are you currently reading?
Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. Non-fiction about the first woman to receive the death sentence in Chicago, for murdering her husband – which, Lucchesi argues, she probably didn't do, but being an "ugly", illiterate, Italian immigrant disposed the jury against her. Really fascinating!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(1 comment | comment on this)

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017
2:30 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia by Lisa Dickey. A sort-of travel book by an American woman who speaks Russian. In 1995 she spent several months traveling across Russia as part of one of the very first real-time updating travel blogs; she did the same journey in 2005, then for the Washington Post; and now she's done it again in 2015, this time as the basis for this book. Each time she meets the same people (well, mostly: some have died, moved away, or simply don't want to talk to her again) and tries to assess how their lives have changed over the last ten or twenty years. I call it a "sort-of" travel book because it's not meant to be a guide for tourists or to convey the physical experience of her journey. Rather it's an attempt to explain the culture and people of Russia to her audience of Westerners, since they believe – as least according to several of her encounters – that Russia is full of "bears in the streets".

Dickey visits a wide variety of people: lighthouse keepers in Vladivostok, a rabbi in Birobidzhan (capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region), farmers in Buryatia who trace their history back to Genghis Khan, scientists studying Lake Baikal, a gay man in Novosibirsk, an excessively wealthy family in Chelyabinsk near the Ural mountains, the mother of a soldier in Kazan, a rap star in Moscow, and a 98-year-old woman in St Petersburg, old enough to remember the last tsar, among others. The selection is a bit random, but they all end up having interesting stories or perspectives, and Dickey's writing is warm, funny, and friendly. A recurring theme is Dickey worrying about telling these off-and-on friends of hers about her life: back in America, she's married to another woman. However, each time she ends up coming out, she finds acceptance and nonchalance.

My one critique of the book is that I wanted more about politics. Well, look at the news any day for the last year; of course I did. I know the American perspective, but I would have liked to hear something about the "average Russian" (as much as such a thing exists) view. But she actively avoids discussing anything remotely political; the few times someone else brings it up, she changes the topic as soon as possible. And I understand wanting to avoid fights! Whether out of fear because she's alone, respect because she's a guest, or just kindness because no one likes hurt feelings, it is completely relatable to focus on what you have in common instead of on disagreements. And yet I was just so curious and over and over again Dickey refuses to go there. Besides all of that, her trip was in 2015 – it's not her fault, but in some ways that already seems so outdated in terms of American/Russian politics.

Ah, well. It's still a very enjoyable book, if a bit shallower than I wanted it to be.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

House of Names by Colm Toibin. A retelling of the Greek myth of the House of Atreus: Agamemnon, heading off to fight the Trojan War, sacrifices his daughter to gain the favor of the gods. His wife Clytemnestra is understandably not happy about this, and upon Agamemnon's (eventual) return home, she murders him with the assistance of her new lover. However their other children, Orestes and Electra, decide to get revenge for their father, and Clytemnestra is murdered in her turn.

Toibin deviates little from this traditional plot; what value his retelling does have is supposedly in the language and psychological realism of the characters. Unfortunately neither worked for me. The writing is distancing, meandering, and flatly reactive. Orestes and Electra in particular are oddly passive; they spend most of the book having no idea of the politics or history around them, and their attempts to gain power or knowledge are halfhearted at best. Orestes explicitly prefers the life of an unknown farmer to that of the son of a king. Most of the actual action is kept offstage, and we're left with endless pages of characters remembering what happened, or planning for what will happen next, but never actually doing anything. It ends up feeling fanficcy – which is not a criticism I normally apply to retellings! But this really does read like a long series of cut scenes: we already know the plot, so here's some prettily written navel-gazing to fill the inbetweens. It's hard to imagine how anyone could take a story with such powerful themes of revenge and justice and guilt and familial entanglements and turn it into something boring and apathetic, but Toibin managed it. It's Greek myth with all the characters turned into phlegmatic Hamlets – not a great idea.

I love retellings, but they need to add something to the original: perhaps give it a new twist, or simply be a very well-done version of a favorite story. House of Names doesn't qualify. Your time would be better spent with any of the ancient Greek versions.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: Still at 18. I've been focusing on getting my Netgalley percentage back up, since I suspect a book I really really want will be appearing soon. (Barbara Hambly has mentioned working on the copy edits for Ben January #14, so can't be long now.)

What are you currently reading?
A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen by Basharat Peer. Nonfiction which is sadly quite relevant to American politics as well.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(comment on this)

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017
3:44 pm - On time! Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. Dunant's second novel about the Borgias, a sequel to Blood & Beauty.

Well, at least I liked this book better than the first one. It benefits from several structural choices, the most important of which is that it only covers about two years compared to Blood & Beauty's decade-plus timeline. It's still hard to give a description of the plot, since like much of actual history, it's a bit random and episodic, without the nice arc of fiction. The Borgias continue to gather power in Renaissance Italy, before finally meeting their downfall.

Lucrezia once more is the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, and she is served well both by the fact that she's primarily seen from her own viewpoint and that she's dealing with a comparatively small-scale plot: the relationship with her new husband, her third, and finding her place within his court. Cesare, in contrast, is conquering half of Italy (including numerous city-states whose names I did not even attempt to keep track of), outmaneuvering a rebellion among his followers (in which at least one particular city-state switches hands at least four times), ingratiating himself to the French king before switching sides to ally with the Spanish, and fighting with his father; it's so much plot that the cumulative effect is deafening. Cesare doesn't get his own POV in this novel, but is seen only through outsiders: primarily one of his generals, his doctor, and the Florentine ambassador, Niccolo Machiavelli. (Machiavelli actually gets an oddly large amount of page time in this novel given his relatively small overlap with the Borgias, but I understand Dunant's impulse to include him. Who wouldn't want to include Machiavelli?) All of these outside POVs only succeed in distancing the reader from Cesare, but on the other hand, he spends at least half the book going insane from late-stage syphilis, so I'm not sure his own POV would have been an improvement. Rodrigo Borgia aka Alexander VI is relegated to the role of a side character, appearing only to react to Cesare or Lucrezia's actions. Nonetheless the book ends abruptly with his death; this is fairly historically accurate – the Borgia family pretty much crashed and burned immediately without his assistance – but it reads like Dunant forgot to finish the story.

As a minor note, I found the descriptions of Catrinella, Lucrezia's servant (or slave? I wasn't entirely clear on what category she'd fit into, though to be fair in the 1490s there probably wasn't a well-defined distinction between the two) off-putting. She's the only black character in the novel, and there are a lot of words spent dwelling on how dark her skin is and how bright her teeth are against it. On the other hand, at least Catrinella is slightly more three-dimensional than most of the hundreds of background characters, so it could be worse.

Overall the two books remain not terrible, but not nearly as wonderful as they could have been. I'd recommend Dunant's other historical fiction instead.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Murder on Black Swan Lane by Andrea Penrose. A murder mystery set in Regency London, the first in a new series. The notorious Earl of Wrexford has been engaged in a long-running, very public argument with Reverend Josiah Holworthy, mostly conducted in letters published in various newspapers, over the role of science and religion. So when Holworthy is found murdered, Wrexford is the obvious first suspect – particularly since it turns out that the murder was committed by throwing acid in Holworthy's face, and chemistry in Wrexford's particular interest. To prove his innocence, Wrexford sets out to find the real murderer, which leads him to A.J. Quill, a satirical cartoonist who seems to know every secret in London. Quill is actually Charlotte Sloane, a hard-working widow using her husband's penname to preserve the last vestiges of her respectability. When her husband's death also seems to be connected to the conspiracy surrounding Holworthy, they become equally passionately committed to solving the mystery.

This is a fun premise, and I admittedly was very interested in a book about the scientific circle of Regency London, but it didn't live up to my expectations. There's nothing wrong with it, exactly; it's just that everything here is such a cliche. We have the adorable street urchins with Cockney accents, the feisty heroine who nonetheless is impressed by the hero's power and honor, the grumpy Scottish doctor, devious French spies (even when their motivation is explicitly to support France's revolutionary society over Britain's classist aristocratic system, the French are always devious in a novel about how sexy and awesome the Regency was) and, of course, Wrexford himself: the hero who's just so smart that all of society bores him and so of course he's a jerk with a reputation for cynicism and 'biting wit'.

The writing itself isn't much better. Charlotte and Wrexford supposedly represent a clash of passion vs logic, but since Wrexford loses his temper and Charlotte hides her emotions just as often as the opposite, we're told this by the narrative rather than it arising naturally from the characters. For example:
“Mrs. Sloane?” Shadows tangled with the strands of black hair curling, making his face as shapeless as his rag market hat. “No protest? No demand to charge in where angels fear to tread?”
Charlotte wished she could see his expression. There was an undertone to his question that she couldn’t quite identify. “I know you think me ruled by impulse rather than logic—”
“Intuition, not impulse,” he corrected. “Which I’ve learned to respect. If you have an objection, I am willing to listen.”
“And I, sir, have learned to respect the way you use reason to attack a problem.”

So subtle! So natural! So not how human beings speak!

The writing in scenes between Charlotte and Wrexford often descends to trashy romance level (note: good romance writing also exists! But it generally avoids tired cliches like this), despite it not actually being a romance. Though I wouldn't be surprised if the series goes there in the future. More examples, from their first meeting:
A gentleman, not a ruffian from the stews.
She jerked her gaze upward.
Well-tailored wool, burnished ebony buttons. Shoulder capes that accentuated the breadth of his shoulders.
She took an involuntary step back.
He pulled off his hat and slapped it against his thigh, sending more drops of water flying through the air. Wind-whipped hair, dark as coal, tangled around his face. At first, all Charlotte could make out was a prominent nose, long and with an arrogant flare to its tip. But as he took another stride closer, the rest of his features snapped into sharper focus. A sensuous mouth, high cheekbones, green eyes, darkened with an undertone of gunmetal grey.
For a big man, he moved with feral quickness. A blur of wolf black, leaving the sensation of predatory muscle and primitive power pricking against her skin.
The earl’s face might well have been carved of granite. Not a muscle twitched. Shadows danced, dark on dark, through his long, curling hair. He appeared implacable, impervious to any appeal for mercy.
Charlotte knew she should have been repelled, but something about the hard-edged planes and sculpted contours of his features held her in thrall. There was a cold beauty to him, and she felt her fingers itch to take up her paintbrush and capture that chilling aura of a man in supreme command of his emotions.

And so on and so forth. Alas, I can't even say that I got much out of the scientific side of the book, since the mystery ultimately turns out to revolve around alchemy – also interesting, to be fair, but not what I came here for.

It's not a bad book, but with a thousand other mystery series out there, this one just isn't captivating enough to be worth more of my time.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: Still at 18

What are you currently reading?
Bears in the Street by by Lisa Dickey. A nonfiction travel book by Russia that I'm very interested in.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(comment on this)

Saturday, May 27th, 2017
5:47 pm - Slightly less late Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A novel about women boxers in late 1700s Bristol. Or so the blurb promises – in the end there was disappointingly little about boxing women, though I still really enjoyed the read.

The book alternates between three narrators. First we have Ruth, the younger, uglier daughter of a brothel madam. She's still a child when Mr Dryer, one of the gentlemen patrons of the brothel, witnesses her fighting with her sister and decides to train her up as a boxer; apparently women boxers were a relatively common thing at the time, though more often as a gimmick than as genuine fighters. One of her fans, a boy her age named Tom, eventually falls in love with her and marries her. All goes well until Mr Dryer decides that Tom has even more boxing potential than Ruth, and switches his attention to him instead, abandoning Ruth in the process.

The next narrator is George, a friend of Mr Dryer. George is extremely handsome, but shallow and fairly dumb, and is in a complicated sexual/romantic/possessive/fucked up relationship with a rich lord named Perry which began when they were childhood roommates at boarding school. Perry seems to regard the two of them as being in love; George treats it more as a handy way to relieve physical urges. However, life goes well enough for the two of them – at least until George decides that the way to solve the problem of their social status is for him to marry Perry's sister Charlotte, and Perry is consumed by jealous rage.

The last narrator is Charlotte herself, an extremely repressed, timid, and probably clinically depressed young woman who is handed off to marry Mr Dryer as a way for her brother to get rid of her. She eventually witnesses Ruth boxing and becomes friends with her, and models herself on Ruth's confidence as a way of reclaiming her life.

And then a bunch more stuff happens, but I don't want to spoil the plot too much. It's a very entertaining book, with lots of rich sensory detail to the writing and a fascinating investigation into the role of gender and class in the setting. The narrators are all complex and likeable, and I very much enjoyed spending time with each of them.

My main complaints are structural. While George was a fun character and I can't say that I wish he wasn't a narrator, I'm not really sure what his sections added to the overall book. Ruth and Charlotte's stories dovetail nicely together, and then George is just sort of over in the corner, doing his own thing. Plus, as I said above, there's not actually all that much about women boxing; most of what there is happens in backstory, while the main plot of the book is actually about Tom's boxing career.

But nonetheless it was a book that was very much right up my alley, and I totally hope Freeman goes on to write more.

City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translation by Nora Seligman Favorov. Written in Russian in the 1860s and just now translated into English for the first time, this novel is a light satire to accompany the serious philosophy of contemporaries like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy.

The plot: Nastasya Ivanovna is a member of the rural lower gentry, a widow living contentedly with her teenage daughter Olenka. Their summer is interrupted when a distant relative, Anna Ilinishna, comes to live with them, and a rich neighbor, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, decides to move into their bathhouse. Anna Ilinishna has spent most of her life living with various princesses in Moscow, and is widely renowned for her religious faith and ability to call down miracles with her prayers. She spends her time in their house sulking and trying to convince witnesses that she's being horrendously mistreated. Ovcharov is an intellectual writer who usually spends his summers travelling to various fashionable European resorts and is only in the countryside because he's decided he needs to drink fresh whey daily for his health. He's convinced that his presence is the philosophical, urbane, and enlightened light come to change everyone's lives: from his serfs to Nastasya Ivanovna to Olenka, who he is of course sure is in love with him and his cutting-edge clothes. In reality Olenka thinks he's a boring old man with weird habits, but Ovcharov is spectacularly bad at realizing this. He also tends to conveniently change his political theories to go along with whoever is flattering him at that moment.

It's a very fun book, and is a completely charming antidote to classic Russian literature (at least of the sort that gets read in the US). My one complaint is that the ending felt very abrupt, but when your only problem is that you wanted to spend more time with the characters, you know it's a good book.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: 18

What are you currently reading?
In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. Yes, I know: why am I reading the sequel to Borgia book when I didn't like the first one? Because sometimes I request things off of Netgalley before I really think it through. :(

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(comment on this)

Monday, May 22nd, 2017
4:53 pm - Another late Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke. In 1895 in rural Ireland, a young woman named Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband. She had been sick with bronchitis for the previous week, and her family had apparently become convinced that the "real" Bridget had been stolen away by fairies, leaving a sickly changeling in her wake. In fact, the night before her death, her husband was assisted by her father, her aunt, and various cousins of hers to perform a magical ritual/exorcism that verged on torture. But the question of how much any of them really believed in fairies remains open. Was her murder simply domestic violence that used the legends as a cover-up? Was it an unfortunate accident? Something in-between?

All of this gains resonance from the fact that the story of Bridget's death hit newspapers at the same time as Parliament was debating Irish Home Rule and Oscar Wilde was undergoing trial for homosexuality. The idea of Irish peasants (not that any of the people involved truly qualified as such... ) blindly following fairy legend to the point of murdering a pretty young woman provided ammunition for all sorts of political goals.

This true event makes for an absolutely fabulous story. Unfortunately Bourke is not the person to tell it. She frequently jumps around in time, making it hard to understand the chronological order of events. She positions Michael Kennedy as the protagonist, though God alone knows why – he's one of Bridget's cousins, but wasn't even there on the day she was killed, doesn't give particularly elaborate or compelling testimony in the trial afterward, and has nothing to distinguish him from the rest of the family. She makes the thesis of her book the idea that Bridget was killed out of jealousy, but doesn't even try to show that this jealousy actually existed; she simply treats it as a foregone conclusion. And, I mean, Bridget was better-educated and wealthier than the rest of her family! I am willing to believe this was an important factor in her death! I am totally the choir, and yet Bourke wouldn't preach a single piece of evidence to me.

Ugh, I have such mixed feelings about this book. There's a lot of interesting details in it, from the history of fairy legends to the contemporary Romantic tradition of writing poems and collecting folklore, to the case itself, but it's all so muddled and incompetently done. There's a kernel of good here, but it's coated by a lot of poor writing.

Marriage by Susan Ferrier. Ferrier – at least according the back of the paperback I read – is considered the "Scottish Jane Austen". And based on this book, I have to agree. We've got romance among the lower gentry, country folk coming to the city (in this case Bath), and, most prominent of all, lots of wry observations about other people's foibles. It's not exactly like Austen (among other things, there's a fairly heavy Christian tone to the narrative, though it never gets so moralizing as to ruin the fun for me), but it's close enough that if you like the one, you'll probably like the other.

So, the plot! Juliana is the daughter of an earl and is engaged to a (old, annoying, but rich) Duke. However, she is in love with a handsome soldier boy, Henry, so they elope. Henry is promptly fired from his position and Juliana disinherited by her father for such behavior, so they are forced to go live with Henry's family in rural Scotland. Since they're both shallow, spoiled, dumb young things, this is basically a fate worse than death, especially given Henry's collection of meddling spinster aunts. Juliana may have promised that she was willing to live in a desert to be with Henry, but it turns out that was because she didn't know what a desert is. Eventually Juliana gives birth to twin girls; she and Henry keep one, and the other is given to Henry's childless sister-in-law, a woman who stands out by being the only person with any sense and good-heartedness in the whole book.

All of this takes up the first third or so of the book. Afterwards we have a timeskip of sixteen years, allowing the twins to grow up. Juliana has managed to make it back into society, where she is a center of fashion. She's raised "her" twin, Adelaide, to be charming and to value marrying rich above all else – she doesn't want to see her daughter repeating her own mistake! The other twin, Mary, is well-read, charitable, humble, and has all the generic goody-two-shoes traits you might imagine, though she's a little too genuinely nice for me to ever resent her for this. The plot begins when Mary is sent off to Bath to meet her mother and sister for the first time in her life. People fall in love, marriages are made (not necessarily the same as the ones in love), and a multitude of ridiculous secondary characters march in and out of the narrative. My personal favorite was Doctor Redgill, a man so obsessed with food that he considers the only 'good marriage' to be one that comes with a French cook.

It was a fun book, but I have to complain about the edition I read (which I picked up for free from a box on the street, so I suppose I can't really grumble too much): Oxford University's "World's Classic" edition from 1986. It's stuffed full of footnotes: do you need what "backgammon" is explained to you? how about the phrase "you shouldn't game" (as in gamble)? And of course it is vitally important that a common phrase like 'it's an ill wind that blows no good' should come with a citation for its earliest appearance in print. On the other hand, an entire paragraph in French doesn't need a translation, silly! Doesn't everyone speak French? The editors are absolutely desperate to find allusions to other pieces of literature; I'm sure not every single time a character is described as "pale" it's a quote from Bryon. I literally can't imagine who these footnotes are intended for, and yet someone spent so much time assembling them, coming up with 4-5 per page. It's... funny? sad? irritating? Well, it's certainly memorable.

I enjoyed the book, though I might recommend acquiring a different edition.

Mount TBR update: Jumping up by 2 to hit 17!

What are you currently reading?
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A novel set in late 1700s Bristol about a female boxer. It's so much fun!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(4 comments | comment on this)

Thursday, May 11th, 2017
4:21 pm - Reading Wed – Thursday
After feeling sick for a while lately, I saw on doctor on Friday and discovered I have bronchitis! Which means this week has mostly been an excuse to sit still and read light-hearted things.

What did you just finish?
The Windfall by Diksha Basu. A light but charming novel about a middle-class Indian family who abruptly become fabulously wealthy when the father sells a website he developed. Mr and Mrs Jha – middle-aged, comfortable, traditional – decide to move from their old family apartment in East Delhi to a brand-new mansion in Gurgaon; the American equivalent might be a couple selling their Queens apartment to set up in a McMansion in Silicon Valley. This, of course, leads to cultural clashes both funny and sad, from broken ties with old friends to an ever-escalating game of financial one-upmanship with the new neighbors. Meanwhile, their son Rupak is attempting to acquire a MBA from an American university. "From Cornell", the elder Jhas like to say at first, when they're showing off their upward mobility; "from the nearby Ithaca College", they say later, when it becomes clear that having a failure of a son is even more of an indication of wealth – after all, only the really rich can support useless offspring! Rupak himself strives to chose between two romantic possibilities: the white Elizabeth (Rupak assumes his parents would never approve of him dating an American, while Mr Jha secretly longs for a white daughter-in-law to humblebrag about) or the Indian Serena (who, despite being the niece of a family friend and fellow Delhite, culturally comes from ivory-tower artists who are possibly even more foreign than the Americans).

None of the characters are particularly three-dimensional, but then, it's not really that sort of book; it's more interested in recognizing certain real-life types of people and having a gentle laugh at them than exploring the deep personal ramifications of sudden wealth. It's also an excellent book for Westerners despite being set almost entirely in India. Basu has a subtle but deft hand at explaining various cultural allusions without exoticifying them. For example, at one point Serena sends a joking text to Rupak:
Have you seen all the places in Collegetown charging $5 or more for turmeric milk? Good old haldi doodh that our mothers make every day. Forget banking, that should be your next big business idea—something from our childhood at marked-up prices. I’m thinking Maggi Ramen. Wait, that might actually be a good idea.
Look at that! Providing a translation and context for "haldi doodh" in very naturalistic-sounding dialogue, adding "Ramen" to the brand-name "Maggi" so that it becomes something recognizable even to someone who's never been to India, and all without alienating a reader who's already familiar with both. It's such a minor thing to point out, but I noticed Basu doing this work in several places, and I'm very impressed at how she manages to speak to two audiences at once.

Anyway! It's fun, it's breezy, and it's not too serious: I recommend it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. A romance novel set during the American Civil War. Elle Burns, a black woman with photographic memory, works as a spy for the Loyal League, a (fictional? I think?) network of black men and women working to end slavery. Her first independent mission requires her to travel to Richmond in the opening days of the war, where she goes undercover as a slave in the house of a Confederate senator. She soon meets Malcolm McCall, a confederate soldier who is strangely kind to her – and who turns out to be a spy himself, employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency to gather information for Lincoln. Their immediate attraction to one another is constantly hampered by distrust, the need to maintain their cover stories (which includes Malcolm's flirting with the senator's daughter), rumors of the Confederacy developing a new superweapon, and general social stigma (even without the complications of spies and war, an interracial relationship in the 1860s isn't exactly easy or welcome). There are kidnappings and burning buildings and gunshot wounds and dramatic escapes to add adventure to the love story, but ultimately it is very much a love story.

This was a great book, but unfortunately it wasn't quite as great as I had wanted it to be. I can't quite put my finger on why – maybe I needed slightly fuller characterizations? a longer timespan for the relationship to develop? richer dialogue? maybe my expectations were just too high? – and I absolutely don't want to discourage anyone from reading it. It's great! It's just not, you know, the GREATEST. Although bonus points for including a slightly fictionalized version of the story of Robert Smalls!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt. A historical romance, set in England in the mid-1700s. Phoebe is the younger brother of a Duke (himself the star of the Regency Batman! romance I read last year) and has slowly been going blind for the last decade. In response, her brother hires a bodyguard, Captain James Trevillion, to follow her around everywhere and keep her from danger. Although since her brother hardly ever lets her leave the house and even then only to specific, sheltered events it seems a bit like overkill, but then overprotective older brothers: what are they for other than giving heroines a reason to rebel? Unfortunately for Phoebe, her brother seems to be proven correct when a gang of men attempt to kidnap her for mysterious reasons.

Phoebe's need for independence and James's need to protect her provide a nice set of conflicts for them to resolve as they slowly start to see one another as friends (and more!) rather than obstacles. Phoebe's youth, status, and cheeriness are contrasted with James's age, cynicism, and working-class-ish origins, so that even once they finally admit their feelings they can't immediately hop into marriage. They have nice chemistry, but my favorite part of the book was Phoebe herself. Here's a scene I feel captures her character very well (she and James are pretending to be married for the purpose of traveling together):
“And, just for you, I’ve ordered a mild ale instead of wine,” he said.
“Have you?”
“Much against my better judgment. It’s a common drink, my la—ahem, wife, and I cannot think it’ll be pleasing to your palate. Although,” he added under his breath, “considering where we are, the beer is probably better here than the wine.”
She brightened at the prospect of a new experience. “Then I must taste it at once.”
“It’s right here.” He took her hand and placed it on a pewter tankard.
“To your health, husband,” she said solemnly and took a sip.
Or rather tried to, for her nose seemed to be buried in foam. She inhaled in surprise—not the best thing to do—coughed, and then sneezed.
“I do beg your pardon,” Captain Trevillion said, and she couldn’t help noticing that his voice was oddly muffled.
Phoebe sneezed again—rather violently—dabbed at her eyes and nose with her handkerchief, regained her breath, and immediately demanded, “Are you laughing at me?”
“Never my… wife. Never,” he assured her, his voice shaking.
He was. He was most certainly laughing.
She sat up straight, threw her shoulders back, and brought the tankard to her mouth again. This time she kept her nose out of the way and delicately sipped through the foam. The beer was… well, sour. And oddly prickly on her tongue. She held it in her mouth for a moment, thinking, and then swallowed.
She held up a finger and took another sip. Sour. Yeast. Something earthy. And those funny little prickles. She swallowed and took another sip. Did she like the aroma? She’d smelled it all her life—most of the people of London drank beer—it was the common man’s water. That sour tang, so warm and strong.
She plunked down her tankard. “I think… I think I shall have to experience it more.”
“Why?” he asked. “If you don’t like it, then drink wine.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like it.”
“Nor did you seem overcome with your enjoyment of it,” he pointed out drily.
“It’s… different—very different—from anything I’ve ever tasted before,” she said, her finger tracing the cool metal of the tankard. “I’d like to try it again.”
“If you wish to do so, then I’ll certainly obtain you beer at our meals while we travel, but I don’t understand. Why force yourself to drink what you don’t like?”
“But I’m not forcing myself,” she returned, tracing the edge of the tankard, feeling the bubbles pop against her fingertip. “Don’t you see? I want to explore different things—food, places, people. If, after several tastings, I find I cannot stomach the beer, then I shall give it up. Often something tasted for the first time seems foreign to us—strange and off-putting. It’s only after repeated tries that one realizes that this new thing, this once-strange thing, is quite familiar now. Familiar and beloved.” Phoebe inhaled, her breath coming too quickly with the force of her argument. “To only try but once and declare a thing lacking… why, that’s quite cowardly.”

Of course I love a character who is devoted to tasting new things! The scene also shows how Phoebe's blindness is handled narratively, which I was very curious about before reading. Would Hoyt pull out some weird stylistic device to get around describing things visually? No – as here, there's usually so much dialogue that the lack of visuals hardly makes a difference. Overall I think the issue of Phoebe's disability was very well-handled; it's easy to sympathize with her desire for autonomy, and yet she's very much not defined by her blindness. One could write the exact same book starring a sighted character without needing to change one detail of the plot – overprotected younger sisters are not exactly a rare character type. The blindness feels simply like a realistically-presented detail.

The multiple kidnapping attempts and their ultimate resolution are a bit silly, but eh, it's a historical romance; I don't need the plot to be all that serious. I had fun and enjoyed the characters, which is all I ask, and this is an excellent example of the genre.

Mount TBR update: Still at 15!

What are you currently reading?
The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke. Nonfiction about a murder in 1890s Ireland.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017
7:31 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. A novel about the Borgias by one of my favorite historical fiction writers. Alas, it did not live up to my expectations.

A typical Dunant novel has a sort of overwrought, melodramatic glory: feelings (usually of women) are lovingly dwelt on, events matter less than their emotional consequences, and there's only a few important characters, so each one's subtle graduations of personality can be depicted in detail. Blood & Beauty is the opposite of that in nearly every way. It's told in third person omniscient with such an enormous cast of characters that three of them are murdered over the course of the book without any meaningful reduction in the overall numbers. The narrative attention is so widely divided that there isn't even really a protagonist to point to; Lucrezia, the daughter of the Borgia family, eventually emerges as a center of reader sympathy, but it takes nearly three hundred pages to get that point. Before then, she's only yet one more in a cast of thousands. It's hard to feel much of a connection to any of the characters when each individual gets so little time spent on them – don't get attached, because you might not see them again for ten chapters. Not to mention the vast number of people means most of them never get a particularly deep depiction, because there's just not enough page time for everyone to get an arc and a personality.

In addition to having too many characters, there's too many plot events. Which I know sounds like a weird thing to say! But when your novel involves four wars, two secret babies, six dramatic political marriages, at least two outbreaks of two different plagues, an uncounted number of murders (some of which need to be investigated and revenged), not to mention all the international alliances and political maneuvering, there's just too much going on. When you can't even bother to name all the people being illegally appointed to the College of Cardinals, it's probably a sign that the reader isn't going to care about each one either. Nothing has enough page-time to emotionally impact the reader; it's all just there and gone, immediately displaced by the next big event. Sure, stuff happens – but it all happens so briefly!

Finally, there's no arc to the book. It opens with Rodrigo Borgia becoming Pope Alexander VI and ends with Lucrezia heading off to marry Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. In between the family struggles to acquire more power and mostly succeeds. But there's no particular sense of completion – the family certainly isn't done acquiring power at the end, and though the narrative attempts to give Lucrezia's marriage the dramatic weight of a climax, this is hampered by the fact that a) Lucrezia only emerges as important in the second half of the book, and b) this is her third marriage and not self-evidently more important than the previous two. A summary would sound like "this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens, the end." There's no growth, no downfall, no change, no new lesson learned – nothing special to set apart these two points as the beginning and end. (And yes, I know there's a sequel out now, but the first book in a series still needs an arc of its own.) It reads like history textbook with slightly more flowery descriptions of the art and clothes.

But despite all of that, it's absolutely not a book that I could call boring. Dunant has an unfair advantage: all anyone needs to do is set down a basic description of the Borgias' activities and they've got a page-turner. The outline is compelling enough that things like 'craft' or 'characterization' can fall by the wayside without impacting the overall fun. Still, I couldn't help thinking about how much better the book could have been. When you've got such fantastic raw material to work with, why settle for good enough?

Mount TBR update: 15!

What are you currently reading?
The Windfall by Diksha Basu. A fairly cute novel about a middle-aged, middle-class couple from Delhi who suddenly come into millions of dollars of money, and how they adjust.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(comment on this)

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017
1:24 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Rusty Puppy by Joe Lansdale. The twelfth book in the thriller/mystery/action series Hap & Leonard, this one picks up immediately where the previous one left off – which is good, since that previous one ended on a hell of a cliffhanger, with Hap seemingly in the middle of dying. Well, he's all better now and while I didn't particularly expect the series to kill off its narrator and co-protagonist, I really could have used some more resolution to that particular plot development.

Ah, well. I don't read these books for their subtle plotting, I read them because the banter between Hap and Leonard never fails to make me laugh. For example:
"You do look cool in that fedora.” [Hap said to Leonard]
“Like I value your opinion.”
“But you do.”
“Do not.”
“So you like it?” he said.
“Stylish, brother. You found something that works for you. I know how hard that must be for you.”
“You’re still searching, though,” Leonard said. “Your daughter doing okay?”
“That’s working out?”
“Except she and Brett [Hap's girlfriend] have the colds from hell. I think it might be flu. Brett actually asked that I stay at the office tonight. They are seriously infectious. And I don’t want that shit they got.”
“But you don’t mind sharing their germs with me?”
“I don’t have a single symptom,” I said. “And I’m keeping it that way. I’m actually kind of enjoying being on my own at the office. Well, there’s Buffy [the dog]. It’s nice for a change of pace. Me and Buffy can play checkers until late at night. She hasn’t quite got chess down yet.”
“You can stay at my place, asshole.”
“I’m fine at the office. John and you might get back together, and I’d rather not hear you fucking behind the wall. I can’t enjoy that. I keep thinking something is in the wrong hole.”
“Long as I’ve known you, you are still bothered by it?”
“Not the gay, just the act. I don’t want to hear it going on.”
“That’s the same.”
“How do you feel about heterosexuality?”
“Nothing against it, but it makes me kind of go eeew.”
“Now you get it.”
“I’m going to tell Brett you referred to her equipment as a hole.”
“I was just speaking in a general way.”
“Please don’t,” I said.
“I’ll consider on it,” he said.

In this book, they investigate the murder of Jamar, a young man supposedly beaten to death in a drug deal gone wrong, but whose mother swears that something more is going on. The plot expands to include a conspiracy of crooked cops, the sexual harassment of Jamar's sister, an illegal boxing ring, an abandoned sawmill, a bunch of incompetent hitmen, Leonard's new boyfriend, a sleazy lawyer, and a deliciously creepy explanation for the phrase 'rusty puppy'. There's a slender feel to all of it, like much of it is only there to provide a setup for the fanservice-y climax wherein Hap and Leonard are forced to publically fight each other to the death. But since I quite enjoy a bit of well-done fanservice, that's not really a criticism.

Speaking of, I also loved the new character of an eight-year-old girl who becomes involved in the mystery (warning for various language issues):
The little girl came over. “You think you’re bad, don’t you?” She said this to Leonard.
“Baby girl, I don’t think, I know I’m bad.”
“Them boys hold grudges,” she said.
“Do they now? Well, that’s going to worry me for days. Who the hell are you? ”
“Reba. I was named after a white lady that sings.”
“Yeah?” Leonard said.
“Mama liked that cracker shit. I don’t. I like me some real music. I mainly go by Little Woman.”
“You just made that up,” Leonard said.
“Startin’ now, then.”
“I like Reba,” Leonard said. “I mean the singer, if that’s who you’re talking about. You I don’t like at all, you little snot-nosed pile of rat shit.”
“Leonard,” I said. “Kid.”
“This ain’t no kid. That there is a fucking four-hundred-year-old midget vampire.”
“Fuck you,” Reba said.
“Fuck you too,” Leonard said.
“You ain’t black at all?”
“What the fuck color am I? This look like shoe polish to you?”
“Uncle Tom is your color.”
“Yeah, well, you want to stay in the goddamn projects and wear your own shower cap and house shoes and whine about the Man keeping you down, you go on and do it. Me, I spit in the Man’s fucking face, tell him it’s face wash, and he’s got to like it.”
“I hope you get et up by a tiger,” she said, walking away.
“Not likely,” Leonard said.
“Leonard, really? You’re going to pick a fight with a kid?”
“She started it. Ancient midget-ass motherfucking vampire.” He yelled out to her then. “I hope your fucking tricycle has a flat.”
She kept walking away, and without looking back, she stuck her hand up in a fist, extended her middle finger.

I suspect (and sincerely hope) that she will become a recurring character, which makes me very happy. Though really I want Leonard to adopt her so they become a mean angry kick-ass family of crime solvers.

It's not a deep book, but sometimes deep is not what I want. For funny, light-hearted entertainment, you could hardly do better.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid. A hard book to review, mainly because it doesn't really have a plot and barely has characters and it isn't even entirely clear as to which genre it belongs – memoir or novel – though the one thing it is closer to than anything else is poetry.

Let me demonstrate with the opening paragraph:
And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way so harshly bright, making even the shadows pale, making even the shadows seek shelter; that day the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, but Mr. Potter did not note this, so accustomed was he to this, the sun in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky; if the sun had not been in its usual place, that would have made a great big change in Mr. Potter's day, it would have meant rain, however briefly such a thing, rain, might fall, but it would have changed Mr. Potter's day, so used was he to the sun in its usual place, way up above and in the middle of the sky. Mr. Potter breathed in his normal way, his heart was beating in its normal way, up and down underneath the covering of his black skin, up and down underneath his white knitted cotton vest next to his very black skin, up and down underneath his plainly woven white cotton shirt that was on top of the knitted cotton vest which lay next to his skin; so his heart breathed in its normal way. And he put on his trousers and in the pocket of his trousers he placed a white handkerchief; and all this was as normal as the way his heart beat; all this, his putting on his clothes in just that way, as normal as the way his heart beat, the heart beating normally and the clothes reassuring to Mr. Potter and to things beyond Mr. Potter, things that did not know they needed such reassurance.

The entire book goes on this way, full of repetitions and a focus on oddly specific little details while the larger picture is left vague, only gestured at rather than depicted. Certain phrases occur over and over again throughout the book until they take on the feeling of a chorus or chant: a line drawn through him; Mr. Potter was my father, my father's name was Mr. Potter; Mr. Potter was born in nineteen hundred and twenty-two and he died in nineteen hundred and ninety-two; Mr. Potter could not read and Mr. Potter could not write. The story, such as it is, is about Roderick Potter, a poor chauffeur on Antigua: his parents (his father who never acknowledged him and his mother who committed suicide when he was young), the man who owns the car Mr. Potter drives (from Lebanon, with his own tragic history of exile), one of his customers (Dr. Weizenger, about whose past we never learn more than that he is fleeing Prague in the 1940s, but really, what more is there to say than that? – to say someone is fleeing Prague in the 1940s is to say exactly what they're fleeing from), Mr. Potter's own many illegitimate children, one of whom grows up to be a writer and becomes the narrator of this book. More than a story, it's a lyrical observation of colonialism, racism, poverty, sexism and broken families, tragedies carried down the generations, all the general global and individual ills of every life, and the ability – or the lack of it – to recognize and articulate such problems. And, most of all, whose voice will be heard doing so.

I think I liked it, overall, though it's a weird book to grapple with. It's a very good example of a very particular thing, but if a 150 page prose poem about the narrator's unknown harsh-but-suffering father doesn't sound appealing, I don't think the actual experience of Mr. Potter will change your mind.

Mount TBR update: 14!

What are you currently reading?
Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. A novel about the Borgias from my favorite melodramatic historical fiction author!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Friday, April 21st, 2017
5:11 pm - Reading Friday
What did you just finish?
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (I read the Tenth Anniversary edition, but didn't notice any important differences between that and the original). I've read this book before, but it's probably been a decade or more, and so reading it now was as much an experience of rediscovery as it was of straightforward narrative. There were certain scenes and images and even lines that have remained burned in my memory after all this time, some of them important to the plot and others mysteriously random (a car sitting on the ice of a lake and holding secrets within, Wednesday's con with the broken ATM, Shadow's cellmate, No man, proclaimed Donne, is an Island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies., an indentured servant's belief in brownies and redcaps, a body hung on a tree for nine days), and other things just as prominent that I'd forgotten entirely (Laura's ghost, Shadow's love of coin tricks, the Men in Black, the Buffalo man), as well as a few that I remembered but which didn't actually happen (a scene with Jesus that I suppose must have actually been part of some fanfic I read).

To be honest, I didn't expect to like this book, or at least not as much as I liked it back when I first read it. In the years since some of the shine has fallen off Gaiman for me, and I haven't liked much of his new work, and so I suppose I projected that backwards and assumed I'd outgrown him.

Such was not the case.

Or, well, there are several plot twists that work better on first acquaintance when they can be genuinely shocking, and I do think the climax doesn't quite hold up to all of the preceding tension and anticipation, but none of that matters, not really. The book sucked me from the opening page and I could barely put it down until I was done. The prose is surprisingly stark, Hemingway-esque – so few adjectives and descriptions, and that's normally not a style I even like, but here it's magically compelling, always making me want just a little more, just a few more pages.

I guess I should actually summarize the plot, huh? Though I sort of assume everyone already knows it. Shadow, a big tough-looking late-20s man with a secret nerdy thoughtful soul, has spent three years in prison for a dumb small-time robbery that went wrong. He's released three days early when news reaches him that his beloved wife has died in a car accident. Grieving, lost, not exactly suicidal but not exactly enjoying life either, Shadow has nowhere to go (it's hard to get a job with violence crime on your record) when he accepts an offer to be the bodyguard/driver to Mr Wednesday, a man who quickly turns out to a conman and then turns out to actually be Odin, as in the Norse God. He tells Shadow that every immigrant to America ever brought the literal incarnations of their beliefs along with them, but as those beliefs are forgotten the Old Gods are losing their power and then their lives. Wednesday is traveling the country trying to organize the Old Gods to declare war on the New Gods (Technology, Media, etc) who are benefitting from a current glut of belief. Shadow, inevitably, is drawn into the conflict, though the real heart of the book is more his need to start living again than all of this metaphysical drama. The modern-day plot is intercut with small asides illustrating the lives of various immigrant believers; my favorite was always and still is the story of twins taken from Africa and sold as slaves:
There was a girl, and her uncle sold her. Put like that it seems so simple.

No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived and then by some means or other, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes- forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There's not a chance you'll mistake one for another, after a minute's close inspection) but still unique.

Without individuals we see only numbers, a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people- but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child's swollen, swollen belly and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, this skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies' own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

A life that is, like any other, unlike any other.

And the simple truth is this: There was a girl, and her uncle sold her.

It's not a needlessly dark book – there are funny moments, silly moments, clever moments – but it's a book that is fundamentally shaped around the concept and power of belief, of blood, and of human sacrifice, that last one to an extent that I think I never before noticed. It's a book for winter, when the light is fading and there's only one thing that will bring it back. It's a 500-page version of "Those Who Walk Away From Omelas".

And I love it, even if I'm having trouble articulating why.

I also couldn't help but wonder what the TV adaptation will look like. Even aside from the difficulties in translating any written work into an audio-visual medium, this one has a vital plot twist that turns on two words that are spelled differently but which sound the same when spoken out-loud, as well as a main character who is resolutely, defiantly taciturn, the vast majority of his personality hidden beneath the surface like the metaphorical 9/10ths of an iceberg. It's gonna be a challenge.

Mount TBR update: 13, go me! I have to celebrate these little victories.

What are you currently reading?
Rusty Puppy by Joe Lansdale, the latest in the Hap & Leonard series, under the theory that I needed something light and amusing after this week. I'm not sure everyone regards murder-mystery thrillers as "light and amusing", but I can – in the right circumstances, at least.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017
3:10 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Color of Love by Anita Stansfield. A Victorian romance starring Amala, an Indian woman adopted by a white family and raised in England, and Henry, a white Englishman recently returned from India. I can't figure out how to talk about this book without spoilers, so if you really want to be surprised, skip the rest of the review. Otherwise I'm going to talk about everything right up until the very end.

Despite their instant attraction and obvious suitability for one another, Amala refuses to marry Henry because she's unwilling to deal with the difficulties of an interracial marriage in their stuffy country town. She vows instead to be a stylish independent single woman like her aunt the world traveler, and insists that Henry move on and forget their relationship. Which he does – by marrying her (white, adopted) sister. Amala is at first dismayed, but the years pass and she settles happily into traveling around Europe and doing good. And then her sister develops cancer and calls her home. The sister has one last wish before she dies: for Amala and Henry to promise that they'll marry one another. It turns out that despite their efforts to keep their former relationship a secret, the sister has known all along and doesn't hold it against them. She dies, and Amala and Henry go through a lengthy grieving period, their healing impeded by their resentment against the sister for forcing the promise out of them. They only are able to move out of the mourning period when they finally acknowledge how angry they are at her. Amala realizes that her exposure to the greater world, as well as the inclusion of more Indian people in her life (via the presence of Henry's servants), has changed her attitude toward interracial marriages and she's now willing to marry Henry. Henry, though, now has to get over the fact that Amala broke his heart years ago when they first courted. But, of course, he eventually comes to see that he's still in to her, and they marry and live happily ever after.


I have such mixed feelings about this book! On the one hand, Stansfield does a better job of handling the racism of the period than I honestly expected. She's fantastic at depicting how Amala's isolation from any other people of color has had lasting, detrimental effects on her self-image, confidence, and personality, even when no one is actively being mean to her. Stansfield also is sensitive to how privilege has blinded Amala's white family and Henry, leaving them unaware of much of what she deals with and prone to making mistakes despite having the very best of intentions.

On the other hand, HENRY MARRIES AMALA'S SISTER WTF. And yet again Stansfield is so careful and gentle that it never comes off as the sister being fridged for the sake of advancing their relationship! In fact, the section of the sister's illness is probably longer and written with more detail than any other part of the book. There's even a gruesomely long death-scene, with last words and tears and medicine side-effects and doctor intervention and sleeplessness and a fucking death rattle for god's sake, that was almost certainly more realism than I have ever needed for a romance novel's angst. Not to mention the year of grief that comes afterward. I can't deny that this plot point was handled as well as possible, but I also can't get over the fact that this plot point exists in the first place.

Now, all of this attention to detail and thoughtfulness might lead you to assume that at least the craft of writing is well done – pretty sentences, gorgeous descriptions, and so. Sadly this is not the case. In fact Stansfield has an odd habit of skipping entirely over things that really need to be on the page; everyone knows 'show don't tell', but this is the worst case of it I've ever seen. For example, this is the first conversation Henry and Amala ever share, immediately after meeting one another:
She was glad when he began to talk about the things he’d loved about living in India, as opposed to asking her questions about her own memories. He also talked of the things he’d hated—most specifically the heat and the bugs. She enjoyed listening to every word that came out of his mouth, until the sense of how much time had passed shocked her to her feet.
No actual lines of dialogue from the conversation that will prove pivotal to drawing them together! We don't actually get to see these characters fall in love, how they talk to one another, what attracts them! This is basic Romance Novel 101, people: show how the love happens!

For another example:
Finally, Amala found the courage to break the wax seal and unfold the letter. She had to move closer to the light in order to more clearly see what was written. At a quick glance she was able to see that the letter began with My Dearest Amala, and that it ended some pages later with, All the love my heart possesses, Henry. The problem was that in between was such a beautifully detailed expression of his devotion that Amala kept having to dab at her eyes to keep her vision from blurring so that she could continue reading. When they had spoken in the garden, she had told him plainly and clearly where she had to stand on the matter of their attraction to one another, but she was now reading a genuine and sincere rebuttal to her every argument. It became evident through his words that he knew a great deal more about the issues of prejudice behind her motives than she’d given him credit for. He declared his firm belief that no matter what governments or society might try to dictate in this world, God surely saw all of His children equally, and that in God’s eyes, surely they could find a way to be right with this.
Amala was completely taken off guard by how much her resolve had melted by the time she finished reading the letter, and after she’d read it through a second time, she was filled with doubt and confusion over matters that had previously seemed completely clear.

One might assume that with such a plot-important and emotional letter, we'd get to read it ourselves, right? No. Those two phrases up there are literally all the reader gets to see of the letter. Similar problems happen throughout the book, though they're more common in the early pages.

I suppose with a novel that covers as many years and has as many plot twists as this one, it's got to be forgiven for skimming over some of the details. But then again, it's the details that I most wanted to read!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual – And the Modern World Began by Joan DeJean. The premise of this book is that during a single century (1670-1765) in France, many of the things we consider basic to life were invented or came into use: cotton clothing, clothing designs with the emphasis placed on comfort as opposed to imposing court dress, sofas, armchairs, bedrooms and bathrooms as separate rooms instead of one corner of a grand hall, flush toilets and running water, large paned windows to let in light, nightstands and writing desks, hardwood floors, and more. Part of this was a reaction to the grand magnificence of Versailles – after a day in a boned bodice that wouldn't let you sit down, surrounded by strict rules of etiquette, who wouldn't want to relax in cozy privacy? Another part was simply a consequence of the historic moment: increased trade with India, a newly rich merchant class eager to commission their own architect-designed houses, increased technology in various crafts, Enlightenment philosophers coming up with new ideas for improving "the art of living". It's a fascinating argument, to show how all these disparate things are linked, and DeJean makes her case very well, though I don't know enough about it to say if she missed anything obvious.

DeJean has a entertaining, breezy style that makes the book more fun to read than you might suspect. For example:
From the start (and the stories about [the Marquise de Pompadour] started right away), her biographers agreed that she set her cap for the king, having been encouraged to believe since childhood that she was somehow destined to become his mistress. (Her will contains a curious, and curiously touching, bequest of six hundred livres to "Madame Lebon for having foretold when she was nine years old that she would one day become the king's mistress").
Describing newly curved seating:
And for "those who write" and therefore "spend long periods" leaning forward, [Roubo, a furniture designer] shows how the seat's curves could be adapted to this particular distribution of body weight and thereby help writers "resist fatigue". (I only wish someone would think like this today.)
Describing an early toilet:
Since it was not hooked up to waste piping, it's hard to imagine how well it performed its function. (In the fixtures he created for Pompadour, Migeon did at least use a wood then new to France, mahogany, because of its odor-resistant properties.)

It's a surprisingly quick, easy read, with lots of illustrations and a really intriguing central premise. I recommend it if you have the least interest in the origins of mundane things.

The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch. YES I GOT TO READ THE NEW RIVERS OF LONDON NOVELLA EARLY! :D :D :D

In this fairly short and light story, ghosts are harassing morning commuters on the Tube, and Peter has been deputized to put a stop to it. Abigail is a major character, with Jaget and Toby playing important supporting roles along with Nightingale and Molly. Pretty much no one else appears, unfortunately, though that's what happens when you only have 144 pages to fill. I was so glad to see more of Abigail, who is totally my favorite part of this novella, and I love how her role is developing: her Latin (now better than Peter's), her odd relationship with foxes, her pseudo-job as the Folly's intern, and of course the question looming ever closer: how to (or if to) teach her magic. A subplot about a new river is adorable, and I can't wait to see where it goes in the future.

The writing is, as always, funny and clever and full of odd little facts about architecture and history, with a few moments of surprising emotion. I absolutely love the way the mystery developed – which is why I'm trying not to spoil it here – but my one complaint with the book is that I wish there'd been just a little bit more resolution at the end. I wanted that last thread tied up, even if it is probably more realistic to leave a few dangling.

And again: only 144 pages.

Overall it's a charming and memorable story, even if it doesn't advance the series's overall plot arc any. Highly recommended, though I'm sure all the Rivers of London fans plan to read it already. :D I'm not sure how well it would work as an introduction to the series – on the one hand, there is that fairly small cast, but on the other there's plenty of unexplained backstory and worldbuilding. It could go either way, I suppose. But if you're not familiar with Rivers of London, get on that!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: With The Age of Comfort, 12!

What are you currently reading?
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I've read this before, though probably not in the last decade, which is why I wanted to reread it before the TV adaptation starts at the end of the month. (Although I don't have Starz, so I'll have to figure out some other way to watch it.) Also this is the "director's cut" ten-year-anniversary edition, slightly longer than the original. I'll be interested to see what's different, though honestly I'm not sure I remember it well enough to notice a new scene or two.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017
3:56 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours by Noga Arikha. A nonfiction popular history of the humors – as in blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, or sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic. (BTW, I personally am a phlegmatic and I cannot deny this clear truth, but I do wish I didn't have to be the grossest and most boring of the types.) I expected this to be an entertaining retelling of weird medical history, a bit like the Sawbones podcast, but despite being sold as a 'popular' history, it's far more academic and serious than I anticipated. It's also not particularly about medicine as an everyday practice, but rather about the abstract philosophies of the various ways history has conceived of the human body. Arikha simply assumes that the reader already knows the background of what the humors are and what they mean, and leaps deeper into arguments about the consequences of Descartes's theory of mind-body duality or NeoPlatonism's melding of Greek and Christian cosmologies. Which are interesting ideas also, of course, but not really what I expected to get out of this book. It was a read that took a lot of effort to muddle through when that wasn't particularly what I wanted to do this week. But that's on me more than on the book, which probably only needs better PR.

Mount TBR update: 11!

What are you currently reading?
Color of Love by Anita Stansfield. A Victorian romance where the Hero has just married the Heroine's sister (????), a development about which I am feeling very uncertain. But I've still got over a hundred pages left, so let's see how this turns out.

A note on whatever's going on with the new LJ TOS: I haven't had time to really look into the situation and make a decision on what my response will be, but for right now I think I will probably keep crossposting to both DW and LJ. However, I think I will be switching my reading to my DW friends' list instead of the LJ one. If you plan to only post to LJ and/or I don't already have you friended on DW, please let me know so I won't lose track of you!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(6 comments | comment on this)

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017
4:41 pm - Extremely Late Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz. I am a huge fan of Horwitz (who is primarily a journalist rather than a historian), so of course when I realized that he had a book criticizing the primacy of Plymouth Rock in the narrative of American origins I had to read it. I reliably go on rants about how the Pilgrims didn't earn their mythologized status of the "first" immigrants, and adding in a favorite author just sweetened the deal.

Horwitz starts the book by realizing that he knows very little about the history of European exploration in the New World pre-Plymouth Rock, and sets out to correct that lack with a mix of historical research and traveling around to visit modern people at once-important locations. It's a book that's really as much about how historical myths are created, sustained, and reacted to as it is about straight history, which gives it an interesting twist.

Horwitz starts out with the Viking exploration of Newfoundland, skips ahead to Columbus in the Caribbean, and then details the stories of various conquistadores: Cabeza de Vaca (abandoned in Florida, eventually walked all the way around the Gulf and south to Mexico City), Coronado (came north from Mexico, made it all the way to Kansas), Ponce de Leon (who was not searching for a Fountain of Youth!), de Soto (landed in Florida, rampaged all throughout the SouthEast). There's also chapters on the lost colony of Roanoke (not so lost), the founding of Jamestown with its famous inhabitants John Smith and Pocahontas, the French Huguenots in Florida who were shortly afterward attacked by the Spanish who subsequently founded St Augustine and, of course, the Pilgrims themselves.

Horwitz makes a great effort to speak to descendant communities or local historians where he can, but it's often difficult to include non-European perspectives due to the massive dislocation and cultural loss in Native American groups in the last few centuries. Still, the chapters on the Zuni (in New Mexico) and the Powhatan (in Virginia) were fascinating. My favorite part of the whole book may have been a hilarious section where Horwitz hangs around in the Dominican Republic, fighting against bureaucracy and disinterested locals in an attempt to get a glimpse at what are (supposedly) Christopher Columbus's bones.

Ultimately Horwitz concludes that it's not so surprising Americans have chosen the Pilgrims to focus on for our national origin myth – it's tidy, it's happy, it promotes the 'right' sort of values – and I wish he had been a little more critical of that. But overall it's a fun book, a great combination of interesting history and funny modern anecdotes.

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us by Richard O. Prum. A common problem for evolutionary theorists is explaining animal traits such as the peacock's tail: it's huge, extravagant, a target to predators, prone to getting caught in branches, and in plenty of other ways seems to be detrimental to the peacock's survival. So why did it evolve? The standard explanation is that it functions as a "costly signal" – that is, the bigger the tail, the more likely the peacock is to have good genes to survive such a handicap, and the more likely female peacocks are to choose it as a mate, since they want those good genes for their offspring.

Prum argues that this explanation doesn't work. He says instead that there's no need to bring natural selection into the picture at all. If a big tail seems "beautiful" to potential mates, that is enough for it to evolve: females will choose big-tailed males so that their sons will also have big-tails, who will then also be preferentially chosen by the next generation of females, and on and on it goes, tails forever getting bigger even if it's actually detrimental to the good of the overall species. Prum calls this "aesthetic selection" or "sexual selection" and argues that it's an important force in understanding evolution. It can function against natural selection, and recognizing the conflict between these two impulses is the only way to understand the diversity of modern biology. Prum is primarily a bird scientist, so the first half of the book consists of examples from his own research, from the amazing tails of Great Argus pheasant, to manakin courtship dances, to the elaborate and colorful structures built by bowerbirds. He even discusses the origin of feathers in dinosaurs, and what colors they might have been! In the final chapters, Prum speculates on how aesthetic selection might also have influenced human evolution regarding everything from our body shape to female orgasms to the existence of same-sex desires.

Overall it's an interesting and insightful argument, and Prum makes his case very well. The one thing I would critique is that I don't think he did a good job of proving that aesthetic preferences are themselves heritable, or how they would originally spread within a population. It's also a book that requires the reader to have a fairly well-informed background in evolutionary theory, which I'm not entirely sure matches the fact that it's being sold as popular science. But maybe I'm underestimating the average person's level of knowledge! At any rate, I'm glad I read it, even if it required more thought than I expected.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: A Voyage Long and Strange takes me up to 10!

What are you currently reading?
Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours by Nog Arikha. Non-fiction books are hard to blurb, since they have all the information right there in the title.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(comment on this)

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
3:12 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran. People have been telling me to check out Meredith Duran's writing for years, but I only just now got around to it. Apologies, everyone I ignored: she is indeed awesome.

This book is a Victorian romance starring Jane – incredibly wealthy heiress and shy wallflower – and Crispin – corrupt politician who will do anything for power, including bribe Jane to spy on her uncle. Jane may be rich, but she has no access to her own money until she marries. Her uncle, her guardian, deliberately makes that impossible by keeping her in the country and not allowing her to meet any eligible men, all so he can continue to embezzle her money. Therefore Crispin's bribe is not cash, but an introduction to a priest willing to forge marriage papers. Shortly afterward Crispin is attacked by thieves and suffers a severe head injury, sending him into a coma he is not expected to survive. Jane seizes the moment and has marriage papers forged in his name – after all, once he dies she will be an independant widow, and that's exactly what she wants.

Unfortunately Crispin recovers, but without his memories. He assumes his marriage to Jane is a love-match, and she doesn't have the courage to tell him otherwise. Particularly once it becomes clear that amnesia!Crispin is kinder, more idealistic, and more honest than the cruel man she knew. Will they fall in love?????

To tell the truth, I'm not usually a fan of the amnesia trope, but this book used it so well that I may have to start seeking out more. I loved the constant testing between Jane and Crispin as each strove to figure out what the other knew/didn't know, and an unexpected twist late in the book just heightened the tension. All the secrets and lies and confusion made for fantastic suspense. The emotional arc of the relationship started with 'well, let's just have sex without making a commitment' and turned into 'oh no I have caught the feelings', which IS my favorite trope. I also liked the vague hints of liberal politics; it's not a major theme of the book, but background mentions of women's colleges and laws to protect prisoners are just the sort of things that are changing the historical romance genre for the better, in my opinion.

Highly recommended, and I absolutely will keep an eye out for more by Duran.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown. A microhistory of the Lewis Chessman, a set of ivory carvings from the 1100s which are probably the most famous chess set in the world, appearing in everything from the Harry Potter movies to declarations of Scottish independance. The main mystery behind them is their origin: discovered on a beach in northern Scotland in the 1830s, no one is exactly sure where they came from or who made them. The two main contenders for the title are Norway (the traditional explanation, supported by most scholars) or Iceland (a newer theory, but the one championed in this book).

Brown uses the chessmen to tell a wider story about the Viking Age, walrus hunting, art styles in everything from churches to books, women's roles in the 12th century, the place of artisans in kings' courts, the history and development of chess, power struggles between the Church and royalty, the Icelandic sagas, the size of horses, the equipment of knights, and much more. Despite the extremely broad nature of the book, there's somewhat of a focus on Bishop Pall, a rich and powerful bishop in Iceland in the late 1100s, who may have commissioned an ivory carver named Margaret the Adroit to make the chess sets.

My main criticism is that the book's organization is entirely opaque, jumping from subject to subject and time period to time period frequently and without any reason I could discern. It became particularly difficult to follow during a chapter on the frequent civil wars in Norway in the 12th and 13th centuries, where every other important figure seemed to be named either Harald or Olaf. Keeping them straight – not to mention their tangled networks of alliances, betrayals, family lines, connections in the church, ambassadors to other countries, retainers, and so on – was a task I just gave up on after a few pages.

But despite that, it's a fun book, breezily readable, full of interesting tidbits and factoids of the sort that are fun to read aloud to anyone willing to listen. And now I want a reproduction Lewis chess set of my own! :D

I read this for a project I'm working on (which it ultimately did not help much, alas). If anyone knows of any archaeology microhistories written for a popular audience, I'd love some recs!

Mount TBR update: I'm not sure if I should count Ivory Vikings or not. On the one hand, it is a physical book now off of my shelves! On the other hand, I bought it last week. I think I'll keep my count steady at 9.

What are you currently reading?
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz. A book about the colonization of America before the Pilgrims, a topic near and dear to my heart. I'm always ready to rant about the primacy of Plymouth Rock in our national origin myth despite it not reflecting history.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(12 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
9:43 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters. #5 of the Amelia Peabody books, a hilarious murder mystery series starring the stubborn, self-righteous, extremely late-Victorian British Egyptologist/amateur sleuth Amelia, her Byronic hero husband Emerson, and their annoyingly precocious son Ramses. This edition is the first to take place in London, and features the rumor of a mummy's curse in the British Museum, debauched aristocrats, a lady journalist, a lunatic disguised as an Ancient Egyptian priest, Emerson's ex-girlfriend, faked human sacrifices, people literally imprisoned in dungeons with the water levels rising rapidly, a cameo appearance by Dicken's Inspector Cuff, Ramses's scientific experiments in preventing corpses from rotting, and a visit by Amelia's niece and nephew, who turn out to be the only children worse than him. I'm generally not a fan of romance plots involving jealousy, but I have to say I loved how it developed between Amelia and Emerson, and I had to stop reading to cackle multiple times.

I felt like this book was a little scattered and not quite as well done as previous books in the series, but not so much as to make it skippable. I still had a very enjoyable time reading it, even if it was ultimately a bit forgettable. On the other hand, I did love the reporter, Miss Minton, and hope she shows up again in future books.

Mount TBR update: Up to 9 this week!

What are you currently reading?
A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran. A Victorian romance with marriage-of-convenience and amnesia that I am LOVING.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Friday, March 10th, 2017
10:24 pm - Reading – well, not wednesday
Busy busy week! But finally I am here to review things.

What did you just finish?
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. The tagline for this novel is 'Jane Eyre retold with Jane as a serial killer', but that's not quite accurate. This Jane does indeed kill multiple people, but it's always for good reason: in self-defense, to protect a child, by accident, etc. It is a more violent novel than the original, but with such a gleeful, revenge-minded attitude that the story never comes off as particularly dark.

Jane Steele hits all the main beats of Jane Eyre – an orphaned child mistreated by her aunt, spoiled cousins, a deadly school with a fragile, angelic friend, a job as a governess, a half-French illegitimate child, a gothic mansion with a mysterious locked room (though in this case it's a basement rather than an attic), dramatic meetings by the side of the road when a horse throws its rider, an angsty relationship with the master of the house, a tragic temporary separation, a mad woman – but mixed up, rearranged, and given new meaning. I particularly loved the section in the boarding school; I always felt like Helen deserved more screentime, and here she certainly gets it. But the book is not just a retelling; it's very much a modern retelling (though it's still set in 1800s England), with the feminism of the original amped up and made more similar to today's, and Mr Rochester's history moved from the Caribbean to the Punjab in order to tell a postcolonialist story about the Anglo-Sikh wars and the bloody price of Empire.

I do have to admit that I loved the beginning more whole-heartedly than the end, which just didn't seem quite as creative or enthralling. But that's a minor complaint for a book that could have been written with me in mind.

A Scot in the Dark by Sarah MacLean. A Regency romance starring Lillian, a forgotten and lonely woman who is technically ward to a Dukedom, but in reality is stuck in an awkward in-between place: not quite a servant and not quite one of society, and so ignored by everyone. Desperate for attention, she falls in love with a painter and agrees to pose nude for a portrait after he promises that no one will ever see the finished product. He, of course, is lying, and promptly unveils the painting in front of all London at an annual exhibition, simultaneously renouncing his promise to marry Lillian and ruining her chances of finding another husband. The ensuing scandal finally draws the attention of the Scottish Duke who is supposedly her guardian, and he arrives in London determined to solve the problem, get her married off, and destroy the painting. But he has his own angsty past with society's rules and being an outcast, and they begin to fall in love with one another.

I wanted to read this book because the author's said in interviews that she was inspired by modern-day phone hacking scandals, and I was fascinated to see how she translated that into the early 1800s. (Also apparently the painter is based on Kanye West, which is hilarious.) On the other hand, I just do not get the whole Scottish idealization thing that's so common in the romance genre. Nothing wrong with it, y'all, but I do not grasp the appeal. At least this book doesn't phonetically spell out the brogue in every line of dialogue. There were a lot of lurid descriptions of sexy kilts, but I'm pretty sure they were tongue-in-cheek.

Overall, it's a decent but not great book. I liked the 'women shouldn't be judged for nude images of themselves' theme, but that's not exactly a new or controversial stance. The plot hit most of the expected cliches, but the writing was very funny and the hero's backstory was unusual and intriguing. Probably not a book that's going to convert any romance-haters, but if you're a fan of the genre already, it's worth reading.

The Backyard Gardener: Simple, Easy and Beautiful Gardening with Vegetables, Herbs, and Flowers by Kelly Orzel. A quite advanced guide to organic gardening. There's a lot of useful information in these pages, but it was beyond my skills and/or needs. On the other hand, if you want to know how to adjust the pH balance of your soil, establish multi-year three-foot compost piles, build your own greenhouse, lay out landscape fabric, or set up four-year crop rotation plans, this is the book for you! Given that I live in an apartment with a few windows and a fire escape to garden on, it was less useful to me. I did enjoy the long chapter on individual plants, giving specific tips on how to grow, harvest, fertilize, and protect each kind (mostly vegetables, with herbs and flowers getting much fewer pages).

It's a well-written, informative book, but not the one I needed.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: Jane Steele puts me at 8.

What are you currently reading?
Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters. #5 in the Amelia Peabody series!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017
2:14 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. A biography focused on Cleopatra, but with plenty of detours into Roman history, Alexander the Great's afterlife, Hellenistic Egypt, King Herod of Judea, the library of Alexandria, and other such fascinating side-stories.

And it's kind of a good thing that the book is filled up with these other topics, because unfortunately there simply is not that much of a historical record about Cleopatra's life. To quote Schiff, "For a woman who was to be celebrated for her masterly manipulation of Rome, Cleopatra's story would be entrusted primarily to that city's historians; she effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room." Schiff struggles against this as much as she can, but inevitably there are many blank years which can only be filled with "presumably" and "she must have" and "other Egyptian rulers did". I hate to say it, because it's not Schiff's fault, but I finished the book feeling like I'd learned nothing new. Cleopatra remains a far more unknowable personality than Julius Caesar or Mark Antony or Octavius or any of the other familiar names from this period.

I mainly picked up this book because I loved, loved, loved Schiff's book on the Salem Witch trials, but alas, this one did not quite live up to my expectations. On the other hand, I did discover the Ptolemaic family tree, which makes the Habsburgs look reasonable. Goddamn, people. A family tree should branch!

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. A novel set in the immigrant Sikh community of London. Nikki is a college dropout, primarily because she couldn't find a major she was passionate about, and is currently wasting her time by tending bar. She answers an ad looking for a creative writer teacher on impulse, figuring that hey, she's a reader! She could probably teach writing!

Instead she discovers that a) the class is supposed to be adult literacy, not memoir-writing, b) the students are primarily widows only semi-fluent in English who mostly just want to hang out and be entertained, and c) after accidentally discovering the existence of sexy romance novels, it turns out what the widows really want to do is tell erotic stories. Stories about themselves, stories about fantasies, fanfic about their favorite soap operas, fairy tales turned into sex epics, married couples, f/f couples, threesomes, kinky – all sorts of erotic stories. Nikki is at first mostly embarrassed to have a class full of people who look like her mom loudly debating the best vegetable to compare a penis to, but eventually comes around to seeing the stories as an important creative expression and her own role as teaching the women to stand up for themselves.

This part of the novel is all huge fun, if not particularly deep, and I had a great time reading it. Unfortunately there's a B-plot involving multiple murders, a vast cover-up conspiracy, a secret affair, disguised handwriting, and general melodrama. This part did not work so well for me. It just didn't seem to fit with the relatively small story of ten women rediscovering their passions – physical or not.

Ah, well. It wasn't enough to ruin the book for me, which remains a sweet, breezy read.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: Cleopatra brings me up to 7. On the other hand, there was a church book sale in my neighborhood last weekend, and I bought 7 books. (But they were only $2!! Of course I had to!) So one might more accurately say I'm at 0.

What are you currently reading?
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. Jane Eyre retold with Jane as a serial killer!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(9 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
2:47 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams. A novel about Josephine Marcus, a Jewish girl from San Francisco who ends up becoming Wyatt Earp's common-law wife and spending most of her life with him. This is a pretty intriguing bit of historical detail to base a novel on; unfortunately it didn't quite work for me. I can't say it's bad exactly. It's just not what I wanted.

The first and most important flaw is that the book is told in first person and Adams gives Josephine a very strong, specific voice. A bold choice! But a risky one, and one that I never adjusted to. I just never felt that it was a real person speaking instead of some shallow stereotype of 'feisty Wild West lady'. Here's an example from the opening pages:
Let’s face it: aging is a bitch for everybody. It’s a dumb joke that’s replayed every day when you awaken from dreams where you’re running around in your prime, chasing after men long dead with an ache in your pants, only to find yourself as you really are: creaky and misshapen, breasts touching belly, and alone in the spare bedroom under the roof of distant relations. But for a beautiful woman like I was—and don’t just take my word for it; even our enemies said I was the most beautiful woman to ever step off a stage in Tombstone—it’s even harder. Sometime in your teens men just start turning toward you, waking up to you (and women begin to prickle, although you hardly take the time to understand why)—the rabbi, his son, the wealthier widowers eyed hungrily by the mothers of the congregation for their daughters. You discover your power in the world and you itch to exercise it, to leave your mother’s shadow and find your rightful glorious place in the new world beyond the shtetl by the sea, San Francisco, where the German Jews lorded over us Prussian immigrants. And all that time when you should have been gaining character—reading books, learning languages, growing wiser, and mastering hardships—you’ve been busy tossing your curls from one shoulder to the next and rushing headlong into a future that you assume will catch you.
I wasn’t dumb. I was just distracted by the sway of my own breasts. Beauty brings trust in the universe, and then, in that cruel joke, over time it rescinds your power. Your brow furrows, your vanity chisels your features, and the frontier wind batters your skin. That demon strand of gray weaves itself into the brown. Your chest grows and grows in a race with your thighs. One day you’re walking alone down a street and no heads turn, no eyes seek you out, and you’re not a pillar of society or a great thinker or the mother of a brood of scholars, but a little woman in shabby shoes long out of fashion, writing letters to the editors and trying to exert some control over a life that’s disappeared.

See what I mean? It's not bad, and I'm sure it's exactly to many people's taste. Just not mine. (Also, it might be unfair, but I have to quote this line, which made me howl with presumably unintentional laughter: His feelings were as real and solid as his biceps.)

Overall, the book is bit more romance novel than historical fiction in its tone and focus, though it's always a blurry line between those genres. There's a surprising amount of page time given over to Josephine's first man, Sheriff Johnny Behan, who ends up coming off as a more of a major character than Wyatt Earp, and definitely more specific and well-rounded. Earp is always a bit of a romanticized cipher.

Last Woman Standing unsurprisingly puts its climax on the gunfight at the OK Corral, though it left me with more questions than answers. Why are these people even fighting? Why has a single fight involving less than ten people come to be the most famous of the whole 'Wild West', a period of time that surely included more interesting events? Why was Tombstone itself such a big deal anyway, given the number of boomtowns in the late 1800s? (Wikipedia proved more revealing on these topics than the novel: never a good sign.)

In the end, I wouldn't call Last Woman Standing a waste of my time, but I wouldn't recommend it either.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: Nothing new this week, leaving me at 4.

What are you currently reading?
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. Now this one is a TBR book!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(3 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017
5:20 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold. A fascinating piece of microhistory focused on a single family farm in Eastern Long Island. The Sylvester Manor, as it's now called, was first settled by an English-Dutch family in 1652, and the current house dates to the 1730s. And yet was still being lived in as a normal family home! Griswold, the author, literally stumbled over the house while rowing around Long Island and made friends with the current owners, eventually even convincing them to allow multiple seasons of archaeological excavation in their front yard. The book is based on those excavations, as well as historical research, family legends, and Griswold's own speciality as a landscape historian (she was particularly interested in how the various trees and shrubs came to the plantation). Although there's three centuries of history to cover, the focus is very much on the first generation of the family, with everyone later than 1801 getting short shrift. Which was fine by me, since that's the period I was most interested in. Griswold makes a valiant effort to put the focus on the enslaved Africans and Native Americans of the plantation, but inevitably there's simply many more documents and details available about the white masters. I think she does a good job with what she has to work with, and does produce some fascinating finds, but it's just not much in comparison to the European history. As is, sadly, so often the case.

Sylvester Manor was a northern provisioning plantation, which means that it grew the food, bred the horses, and crafted the barrels necessary for the running of their partnered sugar plantation down on Barbados. The history of Northern slavery has been mostly forgotten (or erased, depending on your perspective), and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating how closely tied together North and South were economically, rather than the antagonist perspective you get from many simplistic histories of the Civil War.

A good book, though I'm still searching for my one ideal history of NYC slavery.

(For a comparison, if you want to read just one book about slavery in the NYC area, I'd highly recommend this one over last week's New York Burning.)

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker. Despite loving my two cats very much, and enjoying watching YouTube cat videos as much as any person on the internet, I am not actually one to read many books about cats. Everything from cozy cat mysteries to true-life inspirational cats turns me off. In fact, a cat on the cover is more likely to make me turn a book down than to pick it up. (I might make an exception for I Could Pee on This, and Other Poems by Cats.) And yet here I am, reading a book about cats!

The Lion in the Living Room is a pop-science book (very much in the style of Mary Roach or Sarah Vowell) about the history of cats. Her main topic is how they became domesticated – or if they even are domesticated – looking at the archaeology, biology, and history of humans' relationship with cats. She also covers topics from how good cats actually are at controlling rats and mice (spoiler: not very), Victorian cat shows, newly developed breeds, the impact of cats on the environment, the rise of the NTR (Neuter-Trap-Release) approach to controlling street cat populations, the history of the LolCat meme, toxoplasmosis (the parasite in cat's urine that might attract sufferers to cats), Egyptian religion, and interviews internet star Lil Bub. There's a ton of fun and fascinating facts sprinkled throughout the book. I particularly liked it for its straightforward scientific approach to cats, without much fluffiness, which unfortunately seems to be causing many negative reviews (I guess if being told that housecats are massively contributing to the extinction of birds and small mammals hurts your feelings, this may not be the book for you. Though I don't know how any reasonably well-informed adult doesn't already know that).

Highly recommended for a breezy look at the history and science of cats.

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn. A novel I'd been stumbling across in different bookstores for the last several months, always being intrigued by the cover but never quite enough to buy it. And then I found it for $2 in a second-hand store and finally brought it home.

Well, I'm glad I only paid $2.

In 1999, Jacob Thacker is a doctor with the South Carolina Medical College, currently stuck on administrative duty as he recovers from a Xanax addiction. This past makes it easy for the Dean to blackmail him when a construction team uncovers dozens of human skeletons in the college's basement. Jacob is ordered to cover it up without the press finding out, even if that means reburying the bodies somewhere secret.

In alternating chapters the book jumps back to the 1850s and 60s to tell the story of Nemo Johnston, first enslaved and then free, who is also employed by the South Carolina Medical College. The school's very first Dean used Nemo as 'resurrectionist', a grave robber with the task of procuring dead bodies, mostly of other black men and women, for the school's students to practice on. Nemo is, of course, the source of the skeletons Jacob is being forced to deal with.

Jacob is kind of a terrible human being. He refers to his partner as a "woman in a man's world" because she's a lawyer; describes an ethnically Japanese coworker in this way: "Janice is as American as he is, but he can never help feeling that there is some reserve of samurai in her, some native allegiance passed down in the genes, that views him as the foreigner every time they meet"; and, when he first learns about the existence of Nemo, calls him "the poor, dumb bastard". It was around that last line when I decided that the author was deliberately writing Jacob as a dick, and perhaps that is the case since Jacob's entire plotline revolves around gaining enough courage and empathy to not accede to the cover-up. But since it takes being fired, blackballed, and rescued from his ensuing suicidal despair to consider that, hey, maybe the current African-American community has a right to their ancestors' remains!, I think the author drastically underestimated how incredibly horrible Jacob comes off as.

Even if that wasn't the case, Nemo's story is simply vastly more interesting than Jacob's. Unfortunately he gets much less page time and not really a plot arc so much as a series of random vignettes at different times of his life. At one point he gets elevated to the role of teacher – a black professor of a medical college! in the South! before the Civil War! – but how this came about or his feelings regarding it are never explained. And some of what little page time he gets is taken up by the story of white nurse Sara Thacker, who (spoiler, I suppose, but it's super obvious from page one) turns out to be Jacob's great-great-grandmother. I think Guinn was trying to do something about class or women's rights with this idea, but the plotline honestly is so thin that it feels like a last-minute addition which never got fleshed out enough to be worthwhile. At least Nemo doesn't turn out to be Jacob's great-great-grandfather, because I honestly spent at least fifty pages terrified that a tragic mulatto novel had somehow been published in 2014.

Overall: interesting premise, terrible execution.

Mount TBR update: 1 added this week (The Resurrectionist) bringing me up to 4! Oh, man, I am not making a dent in my massive mountain.

What are you currently reading?
The Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams. A Netgalley novel about the wife of Wyatt Earp.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(11 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017
2:58 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The Enthusiast by Josh Fruhlinger. A comedy novel about, basically, astroturfing – a method of creating enthusiasm for a product by having marketers join social media and pretend to be genuine fans, starting conversations and dropping names to make it look like there's a groundswell of support. Kate, the main character, belongs to a company that goes even further than usual, encouraging the employees to actually become fans and embed themselves long-term in message boards, facebook groups, fan clubs, and even in-person meetings. Kate is currently balancing two projects: one with die-hard railfans, paid for by a German company trying to sell their trains to the DC Metro, and one with hipsters who have an ironic love for an ancient newspaper soap opera comicstrip (clearly largely based on Apartment 3-G), paid for by a celebrity who really wants to star in the possible movie adaptation. The book is breezy and funny and clearly written by someone who genuinely gets fan-culture (there's one reference to a Captain America tumblr that made me howl with laughter), which resolves in the end with a surprisingly philosophical turn into the ethics of Kate's job.

Fruhlinger writes The Comics Curmudgeon, a comedy blog about newspaper comics, which I've been a fan of for literally years. Even so, I was surprised by how well-written and constructed The Enthusiast is; you would absolutely never guess it's a first novel. As a side note, I was also very pleased by the racial diversity of the characters and the nonchalant handling of Kate's sex life. There's just so much to enjoy in this book! Seriously, check it out – I want more people to read it.

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey. EVERYONE READ THIS BOOK IT IS AMAZING.

This is a YA retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, though the events of the play make up only a small section of the book near the end. Instead the focus is on Miranda and Caliban's childhood, and how it was to grow up so isolated from all other humanity, controlled and aided only by a distant, imperious father-figure, taking turns as teacher and student of what little knowledge they manage to glean under such circumstances. And then Prospero's plot comes to fruition, and I don't want to spoil the ending, but oh God my heart. Nothing is changed from the original play, but told from this new perspective everything is changed.

The writing style is very different from Carey's Kushiel books – still a bit florid (though I suppose that's only appropriate for a Shakespeare retelling), but more delicate. The chapters alternate between Miranda and Caliban's POVs, with Caliban's narration slowly growing in vocabulary and complexity throughout the book.

I've always had sympathy for Caliban, maybe more sympathy than really fits the play. He apparently attempted to rape Miranda, he tries to murder Prospero, he's frequently ingratiatingly servile and just kinda dumb – and yet, and yet, and yet. "You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse". Somehow all the centuries of racism and slavery and empire that were still to come are entirely summed up in one phrase from 1610. What modern person wouldn't – can't help but – feel sympathy? Carey's interpretation is clearly influenced by such postcolonial critiques, as well as feminist ones regarding Miranda, who is treated like a passive object in the play, manipulated and traded and unconsulted on her future, but here given a voice and desires. Her and Caliban's experiences under the (patriarchal, white supremacist) control of Prospero – very different but both objectifying and dehumanizing – are a major theme of the book.

But don't let me overstate it! This is still basically a YA romance, and it's very much not a polemic. It's simply an excellent retelling, emphasizing certain elements of the original text, expanding upon the background and inner experience of some characters. I absolutely loved it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore. A nonfiction book about the 1741 slave rebellion in NYC. Or, well, the supposed 1741 slave rebellion in NYC; as Lepore repeatedly points out, there's not good proof that any sort of rebellion actually existed, and the over 200 people charged (91 ended up either exiled or sold, 21 were hanged, and 13 burned at the stake) were probably guilty of nothing more than muttering about their owners and the rich men of the city.

To start at the beginning: in the spring of 1741, about ten fires sprang up in the then small town of New York City. This was not particularly unusual in wooden cities of the 18th century, particularly at that time of year, when most buildings would have been dried out by winter. However, various events (the contemporary War of Jenkins' Ear, which was on the verge of evolving into the War of the Austrian Succession; recent slave rebellions in Antigua and South Carolina; a particularly brutal winter; political discontent in the city, with rival parties vying for control of the governorship) set off a panic. People became convinced that the fires had been arson and there was a conspiracy on to destroy the city. A young Irish woman, an indentured servant, stepped into the center of attention and accused her master (with whom she seems to have had other reasons to be discontented), his family, and several slaves of fomenting rebellion. This set off a firestorm of accusation and counter-accusation, added by the fact that those who confessed and named names were either freed or received reductions in their sentences, while anyone not already in jail was promised a monetary reward for accusations. Both contemporary and modern observers have compared it to the Salem Witch trials, when a similar panic seems to have led people to declare themselves guilty of obviously impossible feats.

This is a pretty interesting topic; unfortunately I don't think Lepore's book is the best treatment it could have. She's hampered by the usual problems of early history (most of the records of the time have been lost or destroyed, leaving her with only one main source to work from), but other people have succeeded where she fails. In particular she tries to make a comparison between the alleged conspiracy and the contemporary emergence of political parties, but I never agreed with – or even quite understood – what her point was with that. She draws in related histories of the time and place, but never on what I most wanted to know; she spends a lot of time with the biography of the main judge and his presumable motivations for taking the trials so far, when I would have much rather have read about the black population or daily life in NYC in the 1740s. But overall it's not a terrible book, and there's certainly an abundance of interesting facts that pop out here and there. It's just that it could have been so much better.

Mount TBR update: 1 added this week (The Enthusiast) for a total of 3!

What are you currently reading?
The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold. As may be obvious, I've got a project about slavery in early NYC going on. At least this book is proving to be much more readable and informative than Lepore's!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(6 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017
3:27 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger. A non-fiction but breezily readable book about cave paintings. Many people are aware of the famous Ice Age paintings of animals – the horses and bison of Lascaux, the lions and bears at Chauvet – but less well-known are the abstract, geometric signs which pop up in this art just as often: dots, lines, X's, empty squares, etc. Mostly this is because the geometeric signs have been largely ignored by archaeologists themselves, who have a tradition of assuming that they're meaningless doodles, patches where the artists were testing their paints, or otherwise unimportant. Fortunately those assumptions are beginning to change.

von Petzinger is an archaeologist herself, one whose research has focused on documenting and analyzing the geometric signs, but this book is very much aimed at a non-specialist audience. She does a great job at providing the background to understand why this is such a fascinating topic (short version: it's the beginning of humans' making art, and may well be evidence of the oldest human language and capacity for symbolism as well). She is also great at mixing her theories with more tactile, personal experiences of crawling around in dark caves or visiting obscure museums, keeping the book from spending too much time in the realm of the abstract. She covers various theories for what the art might "mean" (were they painting animals they wanted to hunt? painting their religious experiences? representing a battle between maleness and femaleness?), and though von Petzinger makes her own personal favorite explanation clear, she keeps from ultimately declaring any single one to be THE answer. Which I appreciate. I've seen some reviewers annoyed that the signs remain mysterious, but honestly, any book claiming to definitively solve a centuries-old scientific mystery is probably a book you should be suspicious of.

Overall, a really great introduction to the topic, and one that I think could be interesting to a lot of people, especially if you like worldbuilding in fantasy or sci-fi. I always think that the Upper Paleolithic art is a great example of how utterly alien other humans can be while still being recognizable as ourselves, and it's endlessly fun to speculate on what they were like.

Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade by Joe Lansdale. Hap & Leonard is a mystery/thriller series that I discovered a year or two ago and have been slowly making my way through. The basic premise is that Hap is a liberal white straight ex-hippie, Leonard is a black gay conservative Vietnam vet, and together they fight crime! And also are best friends in rural East Texas, despite the problems that caused in the 60s and 70s and sometimes still today. Lansdale writes with an ironic, self-deprecating tone that makes the series appeal to me much more than a more straightforward 'tough guys beat up bad guys' take on the same idea would.

This book is collection of short stories, though Lansdale himself describes it as a "mosaic novel". In summary: Hap and Leonard spend a night driving around town, shooting the shit and doing nothing much in particular. As their conservation drifts along and they pass by places they used to know, memories spark off flashbacks which lead into short stories, mostly about Hap's childhood, his parents, and particularly his relationship to racism, but also covering the first time Hap and Leonard met and the first time they got into trouble together. (Two of the stories were published previously in another context, but they're integrated so well into the rest that I wouldn't have known if I hadn't already read them: "The Boy Who Became Invisible" and "Not Our Kind".) But despite mostly taking place in the past, I don't think this would make for a good introduction to the series; a lot of the power of the stories depends on already knowing these characters and having an emotional connection to them and their relationship. On the other hand, if you do know them, this is a wonderful expansion of their history.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: No new additions this week! My yearly total is still at 2.

What are you currently reading?
The Enthusiast by Josh Fruhlinger. A comedy novel. I've been in desperate need of light, escapist reading material for the last week, and this is fulfilling that desire.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(3 comments | comment on this)

Saturday, January 28th, 2017
11:20 pm - Tonight's politics
I was in the courtroom tonight at the Federal Court of Brooklyn. I am not a lawyer or anything, but I took notes, and here’s what it was like.

We happened to see the call on twitter asking for people to arrive at the Cadman Plaza out front of the courthouse by 7:30 pm. We were near enough to make it, so we hopped on a subway and rode a few stops to arrive by 7:20 or so. There were about 100 people already in the plaza, chanting, making signs, and singing. Around 8 they started to let people into the building in small groups of 10 to go through security and make sure they didn’t overflow the courtroom. I didn’t think we’d make it in, but after the first few groups of ten they opened a second door right next to us. I’d estimate 60-70 people actually got into the audience of the courtroom, which was as much as it could hold. We were pretty squished on the bench trying to make more room.

In the courtroom itself, there was one lawyer for the ACLU and two present for the government: a black woman from the Attorney General and a Jewish man from the Department of Immigration (I have no idea what their personal views were on the situation). There was an additional government lawyer on the phone.

The ACLU had filed on behalf of two named people, both of whom had arrived in JFK and been detained, and the larger class of all people affected by the Executive Order. The government pointed out that both of the named people had in fact already been released and so the case was moot, but the ACLU insisted that they had only named two people because the government was refusing to release the names of any others. The ACLU and the judge (Ann M. Donnelly) insisted that they needed to deal with the larger class, even if these two specific people were no longer being detained.

The ACLU asked for an assurance that “future plaintives” wouldn’t be removed from the country. The government said they couldn’t make those assurances without knowing specifics about the “arriving aliens”.

The judge said that she was following Supreme Court precedent, which depended on the “four factor test”, the most important of which in this situation was the potential for irreparable harm to the people being detained. (The others were the likelihood of injury to the petitioner, the public good, and a fourth I didn’t catch.) She asked the government specifically, “What is your argument that there won’t be irreparable injury?”

The government replied that they couldn’t say without named petitioners.

The judge pointed out that all the people being detained have been through an extensive vetting process already, some for years. Again she said, “Explain to me how it is that members of this class will not suffer irreparable injury.”

The government lawyers said that was an “overly broad request”.

The judge said that she saw no likelihood of injury to the opposing party (ie, the government), because all of these people would have been allowed in the country two days ago without problem. She said given that, and the “likelihood of success on the merits of the case” that she granted the stay (that is, no people currently being detained under the executive order could be sent out of the US). She also said, “I think the government hasn’t had a full chance to think about this.” And that was very obviously true, as the government’s lawyers repeatedly weren’t able to answer questions or predict what would happen next.

They began to set a date for the next hearing, and the government lawyers said they would need at least two weeks to prepare. The ACLU lawyer said that two weeks was a long time to keep people in detention without knowing what would happen to them. The government lawyers agreed, but couldn’t say if it was likely they would continue to keep people in detention or not.

The ACLU lawyer asked for a list of everyone currently being detained, since they didn’t even have accurate numbers of how many people it was (though he guessed 100-200 people).

The government lawyers replied that was “more difficult that it sounds”. !!!!

The judge said, “Why don’t you work it out.” You could hear her trying hard to suppress her eye roll. She then said that the whole point of this stay was to maintain the status quo, and that “it was not unduly burdensome to identify the people in the stated class”.

The eventual dates they settled on for the future was: Feb 10 for the government to file papers. The ACLU said they could respond within 48 hours. The government asked for a further seven days to prepare a respond to that, with the next hearing to take place on Feb 21.

(And what we saw when we came out of the courthouse)

TL;DR – the stay was granted! No one is being kicked out of the US right now! It applies nationwide! :D

Unfortunately only temporary and the ultimate fate of this people is yet to be decided. It also only covers people already in the US or who were in transit at the time of the ruling. :(

(This is reposted from tumblr, just fyi, but indeed written by me.)

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(4 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017
3:53 pm - Reading Wednesday
What did you just finish?
Bonecrack by Dick Francis. [personal profile] rachelmanija and [personal profile] egelantier have been urging me to read Dick Francis for literally years, but I have been foolish and never listened to their advice. Until now, though I can't claim to have suddenly increased in wisdom. Instead Bonecrack was the only book I had small enough to wedge into my vest pocket when I went to the Women's March Saturday – I couldn't face having no access to a book all day long, but also didn't want to carry a bag on such a long walk. And for such silly reasons I have finally discovered a great author.

In Bonecrack, Neil has taken over managing an elite stable of racehorses from his father, who was severely injured in a car accident and thus is temporarily out of commission. Not much time goes by before Neil is kidnapped by a Mafia-esque killer with an unusual demand: he wants his son to become Neil's head jockey and to be allowed to ride the horse everyone expects to win the Kentucky Derby. Since he doesn't have much choice about the matter, Neil agrees and thus Alessandro – touchy, spoiled, and only seventeen – shows up to brood in Neil's down-to-Earth English stables.

Neil, who is the epitome of calm, rational, and self-possessed, is determined to think of some way out of his predicament without asking anyone for help, but he slowly grows to like Alessandro, at least if the kid can get out from under the control of his father. Neil's own father is pretty much a dick (if not quite an insane megalomaniac), and the two sons have much in common. I really loved the slow growth of their friendship.

This is a thriller, though, so there is also plenty of exciting action, including a fantastic climax. I loved the many supporting characters and detailed world of the stables. I know pretty much zero about horses or racing them, but Francis's descriptions of their elegant appearances and the experience of riding them were lovely to read. A great book all around.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. Goddamn. How does one even begin to review this book?

Okay. Set in the 25th century, the world has become, in many ways, a utopia. War and murder have been all but erased. One way this has been accomplished is by removing religion entirely from public discourse – people can still believe whatever they want to believe, but all proselytizing is illegal, and even discussing theology in groups of three people or more is strictly controlled. Gender is considered an inappropriate topic to discuss in public; everyone is referred to as "they", and most clothing is gender-neutral. Nation-states have also disappeared, as a consequence of those flying cars sci-fi is always promising us:
Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than [a politician], an inevitable change ever since 2073 when [the first flying car] circled the globe in four-point-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.

Instead people belong to one of seven "Hives", each of which has slightly different goals, politics, and lifestyle than the others. An individual chooses which one to belong to upon reaching adulthood. People also no longer live in nuclear families, but instead in a bash', a small group of adults who may be relatives, friends, spouses, or work colleagues, but all of whom have explicitly chosen to form an extended family, raising any children communally. Again, you choose this upon becoming an adult, with your options being continuing in the bash' of your parents, joining another established bash', or getting a group together to form an entirely new bash'. One of my favorite parts of this book is how plausible this all feels, the way it's easy to see how such a future might have evolved from our own modern day. But though this might be the future, history is important too: the 25th century turns out to obsessed with the Enlightenment, seeing it as the origin of their age. They continually reference Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, de Sade, and contemporaries, discussing them and their ideas so frequently that they're referred to with nicknames rather than formal titles. And then there's the tracker system, and the set-sets, and the Mars terraforming, and so many other details that I could go on and on and on about! I love Palmer's endless imagination.

All of this worldbuilding is fascinating and completely delightful, but there is also an actual plot. An important editorial is stolen from a newspaper office shortly before publication and left in the bash' that controls the computer system for those flying cars, planning the course routes to prevent crashes. Solving this bizarre crime – primarily why on earth anyone would bother committing it – forms the central mystery of the book. A second plot involves Bridger, a 13-year-old child with the unexplained ability to create miracles, bringing toys, drawings, and imaginary friends to life. Bridger and his talents are currently unknown to any world powers, and his guardians are determined to keep it that way, at least until Bridger is mature enough to make his own decisions.

Our main character and narrator is Mycroft Canner, a criminal who only escaped the death sentence (the exact details of what crime he committed aren't revealed until over halfway through the book, but trust me, it's worth the wait) by serving a life-long penance indentured to the public good, which means he spends his time picking up trash, clearing away flood debris, and being in curiously close contact with the heads of at least four Hives. Mycroft is fluent in many of the world's languages, and the constant switching between English, Spanish, Japanese, French, Latin, Greek, and probably at least one more that I've forgotten (distinguished in the text by subtle typographic marks) added to sense of the book's complexity and depth. Mycroft also uses gendered pronouns despite how archaic and intimate it sounds to his contemporaries, though it quickly becomes obvious that he's also not using them the way we would. A character becomes "he" or "she" not by their biology, but by their presentation, personality, job, or to parallel them with another character.

What I really want to talk about with this book isn't the plot, the characters, or the worldbuilding (even though those are all excellent), it's the philosophical questions it raises. Is this a utopia after all? Is clearing away gender and religion from the public sphere a good thing? If you can create a better world, what price would you be willing to pay to do so? When and how do the ends justify the means? None of these questions are answered in Too Like the Lightning (unsurprisingly, as it's the first of four books, and I can't wait for the next one to be out in March), but I adore all the discussion it's opened up.

Mount TBR update: both of these! So that brings me up to a grand total of... 2. Well, it's a start.

What are you currently reading?
The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger. I'm teaching a class (well, probably more accurate to say 'giving a lecture', but the group calls them classes, so whatevs) on cave paintings next week, and in putting together a list of 'further resources' for people, I came across this interesting new book. We'll have to see what I think about it!

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(16 comments | comment on this)

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:
Collapse )
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.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(26 comments | comment on this)

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.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(9 comments | comment on this)

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.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

(16 comments | comment on this)

turning a shade of an angel

recent entries
go back 25

born in a bramble ditch

Boxjam's Doodles
Camp fuckudie
Fandom Wank
Friendly Hostility
Ghastly's Ghastly Comic
Giga Quotes
The Onion
Overheard in New York
Penny Arcade
Post Secret
Ready Rock Moe Rex
Said the Gramaphone
Swordspoint Fanfiction
Television Without Pity Tomato Nation

when the doors of heaven closed

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.
Email brigdh.

> previous 25 entries
top of page